by R.A. Keenan
Outside was forbidden to NeckBreaker–more so during daylight hours. It ignored the prohibition, and scrambled, slunk low to the ground to dart among the overgrown, ornamental shrubs planted decades earlier within the grounds. The three story structure, once a grand Victorian home for humans, was now a goblin family enclave: two adult procreators and NeckBreaker, still immature and unsexed.
It tracked two females, human teens, the almost-adults. Get, like me.
At three years of age, if it balanced on hind limbs, it stood chin-high to the teens. They strolled along the sidewalk on their skinny hind limbs, less wobbly than its two-legged efforts. Their destination was school, the weekday gathering place for human get.
Ears bent forward, NeckBreaker gathered in their voices. Annoying. It preferred the female screeches, high pitched shrills, unlike the calls of the song birds once so numerous on the property.
Horrible sounding snacks–but delicious.
The dark skinned human, its favorite, shrieked. “You’re kidding, stop it! Jeremy’s party? A sophomore, mon dieu, and he’s so hot.”
“Sizzling!” said the worm pale one. “And he told me to bring a girlfriend. All those older guys, and Jeremy’s soccer teammates. Too bad his parents will be there.”
“You want me to go? Really? Me?”
“No, Ettie–your brother. Who else? You’re my newest best friend.”
“Merde. I don’t know. “Ma mère….”
“Huh, what? Who?”
“My mother, my mother!”
“Yeah, so? You’re fourteen; this is America, not Haiti. Besides, Jeremy’s parents will be there. And how’s she goin’ to know anything, if you just leave the dance a little early? My parents are driving us there. They’ll take you home, too. Don’t worry.”
Ettie stopped biting her lower lip. “Okay. But what will I wear?”
“Uh, hello. Your costume? The same one you’ll be wearing to the Halloween dance.”
Halloween dance? Costume? Party? My procreators would know. It calculated some way to ask without arousing their suspicion.
The nearby branches parted. A claw reached through, hooked beneath a group of NeckBreaker’s scales: the discipline zone, a vulnerable area between its shoulder blades. The scales had not yet thickened into an adult goblin’s living chainmail, much more difficult to breach. A talon gouged NeckBreaker’s unprotected flesh. It trilled in pain. A choke-chain slipped over its head and tightened around its throat to cut off the howl.
Despite the distress, its attention remained fixed on the teens who clutched one another’s arms. Goblin male procreators were skilled at veiling; the human get saw only what the adult male wanted them to see: a very human Mr. Breaker dressed in a business suit ready for work, a dog leash in his hand. The image would calm any instinct to flee nibbling at the edges of the humans’ mind.
The pale get said, “God! What was that, that scream? Some kind of animal, like it’s dying. I hope an animal.”
The procreator yanked on the leash, dragged NeckBreaker out from the bushes beneath the bay window.
The pale get pulled at her friend. “Ugh, my god, that’s one ugly–uh, one ugly–dog. Come on, let’s go, Ettie. They’re a weird family; no one even goes there for Halloween. Not me, anyway. Jeremy said he saw a kid once. I don’t know. Nobody else ever did.”
NeckBreaker strained against the chain as the adult towed it up the steps and across the porch. It scrabbled, claws slipping on the wood, but its stare remained glued to the females. A final yank on the leash spun it over the threshold, into the gloom of the interior.
The door slammed shut.
TalonSlash-breaker, NeckBreaker’s male procreator, sat at the feeding table. He hissed, a sibilance impossible for a human to duplicate, a product of his bifurcated tongue. “NeckBreaker’s behavior troubles me. A defective, possibly? He is skilled at escape but his development outstrips his maturity. We must ….” He interrupted himself to adopt a more respectful tone. “I fear its capture. Its disobedience places us at risk. It is yet too ignorant of the human world to stalk safely, or hunt any creature, let alone cull humans. Perhaps, we may need to abort it.”
The only abortion performed during TalonSlash’s three breeding cycles with any of his previous partners had proved a tasty treat, a hatchling from his coupling with an Asian she-goblin. Strange, how his hunger returned a mere two hours later.
From across the table, his current breeding partner, ShankBreaker, was bent over her meal. Her eyes glanced upward; her maw followed, soaked with blood. The last two sewer rats on the feeding mat writhed and squirmed in an escape attempt despite their broken legs.
She elongated a talon, her gaze still fixed on the he-goblin, and speared a rat through the head, The remaining rodent, she trapped behind five talon bars. Show your hunter’s cunning! You judge too soon. Its development is a wonder, far beyond its years. A gift, perhaps. I agree, it’s difficult to control. But my instinct anticipates–something. No more talk of abortion. Enough.”
When a she-goblin issued a command, no male breeding partner in his right mind dared to differ. Most she-goblins could best two males at once.
Winners ate losers.
TalonSlash feared no retaliation as long as he maintained his utility. He-goblins integrated more successfully than she-goblins into the workaday world of humans. The males sustained the veil far longer, and the ultraviolet wavelengths of daylight harmed their vision less. Many he-goblins excelled at human, monetary pursuits, assuring the survival of their race among humans who outnumbered goblins a hundred-thousand to one.
TalonSlash worked as a financial adviser in an investment bank on Wall Street. Two colleagues in his department also veiled themselves; each kept their distance one from the other, a standard goblin precaution. The remaining advisers in essence were human versions of goblins and, he reluctantly admitted, a credit to their race.
NeckBreaker stopped turning the solid glass doorknob of the entrance to its false-death room, once a bedroom for a human get, the entire family long-ago consumed by its procreators.
Locked from the outside. Why? So stupid. Escape is so easy.
The procreators often imprisoned it at night, or attempted to–no surprise, especially this night. It loped toward the tall window of the third floor room, and leaned its claws on the windowsill, scarred with scores of scratches. The furrows confirmed its intense determination to master upright walking, though it was only three-years of age.
Four-and-a-half to five years was the norm for a goblin to mature, when the hind limbs straightened, the talons fully retracted, and its head shifted upright on shoulders in a passable mimic of a human stance–an easier to “veil” human stance.
The unlit interior of the century-old house concealed NeckBreaker’s surveillance of the grounds and street. Silhouetting the treetops, the moon swelled as round as a belly stuffed with prey. Behind Neckbreaker, its shadow blackened the center of a pale, moonlit glow, cast in an elongated window shape across the floor.
On the street below, human get hurried from house to house, their faces concealed, their bodies clothed in stranger than normal material. None of the get approached the darkened Victorian. All carried bags of some sort. Doors opened at the houses. The offspring shouted, crowded the adults who emerged to toss objects into the raised bags. Curiosity gripped NeckBreaker.
Was the dark female, the Ettie, completing the same ritual, too? Approaching her without arousing fear may be possible. Risky, but possible. But why make the attempt?
No hunger or overwhelming predator’s desire drove NeckBreaker. What else did? Its instinct insisted the answer lay outside.
Hunched low, NeckBreaker scrambled across the street, a bag clutched in its claw, the better to pass as human. Instinct compelled it to seek out shadows and hiding places within the bushes to observe the human ritual.
An eager group without an adult guardian pounded the entranceway of a house. NeckBreaker scampered unnoticed to the edge of the distracted crowd. The door opened. Light from the interior doused them and their upheld bags. “Trick or treat!”
“Oh, my,” said a human female in the doorway. “Here are some treats, so keep away those tricky tricks.” She held out a large, pumpkin shaped container. The human get crowded against one another to grab clawfuls. “Hey, hey. Now, listen up, everyone! One dip, that’s all. You’ll have plenty to gobble down later.”
Food? It looked at the bag in its claw, raised the empty sack, and stood on its hind limbs.
“My, what wonderful costumes,” said the adult. “A pirate, a witch. Hey, you, Spiderman, I said one dip. One! Put it back. And a princess, and ….” Her eyes widened. “A, a, uhh …”
The offspring quieted, turned around; their instantaneous shriek was music to NeckBreaker’s ears. In a blur of limbs, they fled screeching down the block, their bags clutched against their costumes as they disappeared from sight.
“Good gravy, kid. You scared the bejeeezus out of those other Halloweeners, poor kids. Hey, Harry. Harry! Forget the TV! You have to get out here to see this.”
“What? What, for god’s sake. Halloween’s your thing. I told you I wasn’t gonna answer ….”
“Harry, will you just move your ass out here? You’ve got to see this kid’s costume. And bring my drink. Yours too. You’re gonna need it.”
NeckBreaker followed the ritual, held the bag up. Somewhat hesitant, the female stretched her arm, the not-real pumpkin in her paw, toward its direction. It reached in, scooped a clawful and dumped the objects in the bag.
The Harry male arrived. “Look, we had a deal. You agreed–” He glanced at NeckBreaker. “You, uh, uh–Holy Shit!”
“What’d I tell you. Amazing, right? Kid, your mom or dad’s good, real good. They in Hollywood special effects or something? Right? Am I right?”
NeckBreaker nodded its head up and down, uncertain of what they meant.
The Harry said, “Don’t move, kid. Don’t move. I got to get a camera. Stay right there, don’t go away.”
It had no idea what a camera was.
The female pushed the container of treats closer. “Here, take some more. Whatever you want. That costume of yours earns a double-dip.” She bared her fangs. NeckBreaker stepped back. “Don’t be afraid, I’m not goin’ to hurt you; a little late to be alone. Your mom know?”
“Got it,” said Harry. “Move, move. Give me a clear shot. Okay kid, hold the bag up. More to the side, so I can fit the whole costume.” It followed the human’s directions. “Great. Ready? Say cheese.”
Not wanting to provoke them, NeckBreaker struggled to pronounce “Cheese.” A flash of lightning. Blindness. Its howl shredded the air.
Both humans grimaced, eyes closed, paws over their ears. When their eyes reopened, it stared at them from the highest branches of a front yard tree. They inspected the nearby bushes and peered around the corners of the house before abandoning their search.
NeckBreaker retrieved a rectangle from the bag of the things called treats. Mouth wide open, it plopped in the treat and chewed. A gag reflex almost tumbled it out of the tree. While spitting bits of paper and foil, it spied bright lights in the distance across the rooftops, toward the center of town.
A human gathering place? The school?
Kanye West’s “Runaway” blared, echoing across the gym. Clara spotted Ettie talking with a boy. Above them, a basketball backstop was folded toward the ceiling.
Looks like a Freshman. She ploughed across the wooden courts crowded with dancers beneath tentacles of black and orange crepe paper.
Clara reached Ettie, tapped her shoulder. “Hello! Where were you? I’ve been waiting forever, you know. We gotta go.”
Ettie held her wristwatch up. “Excusez-moi, ma petite amie. Le temps?”
“Oh, right, hide behind the Haitian stuff.”
“French, French, not creole. And five minutes is not forever!” She turned to the boy. “I’ve gotta go now. Really nice meeting you. Maybe we’ll see each other in the cafeteria tomorrow?”
“Sure. Okay, in the cafeteria tomorrow. Great, I’ll look for you.”
“Bye, bye. We’re goin’ now.” Clara dragged her friend away.
“You’re a pain,” said Ettie. “He was cute. Sweet, too.”
“Uh, huh, and he’s a freshman! We have older, more mature men waiting at Jeremy’s.”
“Ha! You’re funny.”
In the parking lot, Ettie glanced left and right. “Where are they? Aren’t your parents driving us? You said–“
“Changed. Two juniors with licenses. And here they come. Look.”
“Clara! If my mother–I don’t know.”
Concealed among evergreen bushes, NeckBreaker spied the gathering place, a too bright place, from a park across the street. Such a large number of humans, so many of their metal movers. Humans came and went, mostly the almost-adults, some fully grown adults. A school.
Muffled sounds rumbled through the walls of the structure. Ears bent forward, it strained to distinguish any human words. All nonsense. Ears bent forward, it concentrated on the humans outside the structure.
The Ettie’s voice! It spotted her and the worm pale one, dressed for the human ritual. A metal mover stopped before them. Two almost-adult males emerged to gather the females with them into the mover. She delayed.
NeckBreaker tensed. A conflict?
No bloodshed erupted; the females entered the mover, which exited the field of stilled-movers, turned onto the street, and drove past the park. The scent trail of the mover, a unique odor, not in the least tasty, would be easy to track.
It followed them.
Stilled-movers lined the block on either side of the street. Was this the place the Ettie had called “Jeremy’s party” before my procreator captured me?
A rhythmic boom, the squeals of females, the bellows of males revealed the mover’s destination at mid-block. Odd glowing figures and creatures tilted at different angles across the front yard. The mover stopped, and the passengers exited.
NeckBreaker pressed its back against the side of a house and peered around the corner. The Ettie was climbing the short flight of steps to the house of noises.
Threatening figures, bare legged, their mouths smeared with blood, regrouped in the street after the metal mover departed. Torn and ragged material draped their red-stained torsos. NeckBreaker first assumed the round object they kicked was a head but recalled humans entertained themselves with objects called balls. A large one sailed back and forth among them in the street. Glare-lights attached to the house transformed the ball into an orange and black spinning orb.
Keeping close to whatever cover existed, NeckBreaker advanced toward the noise and chaos, toward the Ettie, until no more cover remained. The bag had worked well with the male and female adults. It slipped from the shadows, bag upraised, and crossed the lawn.
A voice shouted, “heads up!” the ball shot straight toward NeckBreaker. It kicked at the threat. Talons pierced the leathery hide; air hissed, rushed out the slashes. The ball deflated, clung to the micro-barbs along the edges of its talons.
An almost-adult ran up. “Oh, man.” He examined NeckBreaker more closely. “Whoa, little dude! That’s one awesome costume.” The human stared at the deflated ball, more a rumpled pancake. “And that’s sure done for. Good thing it was a raggedy-ass practice ball. Went with our costumes.” He indicated the words across his chest. “Team Zombie!”
Team Zombie? Awesome costume? It crouched, poised either for flight or fight, but kept the shield, the bag raised.
The rest of the zombies advanced, their dull fangs exposed–like the adults, not a display of hostility. They stopped, scrutinized NeckBreaker. It turned to follow whenever one of the four attempted to step behind it.
“Is there a zipper or something?”
“No, stupid,” said another zombie. “It’s makeup. Heavy duty, prosthetic stuff, like I saw on a special effects documentary. Takes hours to put on. More, even. Right, little dude?” NeckBreaker nodded. The zombie smirked. “See, man. Told ya. Pros. Wow, man. Very cool.”
The third zombie said, “Jeremy’s gotta see this. Hey, little dude, wanna come inside? Lotsa good stuff to munch on, way better than the junk most people give away. Pretty girls, too. I’m Brad. What’s your name?” He pointed to the zombie on his right. “This here is Tom. Those two are Stevie, ‘The Basher,’ on account of he can kick a ball a zillion miles an hour. And Roll-E, nobody can stop ‘im when he’s rollin’ down the field.”
It strove to answer in as human a voice as possible, the trill of the bifurcated tongue impossible to subdue. “NeckBreaker.”
“Huh?” said the Brad. “Man, that costume makes you sound real weird. Great Halloween effect. Nick Breaker, huh? Put it there, Nick.” he stretched his paw out for a low-five.
It hesitated, reached slowly toward the soft flesh, pink and vulnerable, the talons useless for defense. Or killing.
“Whoa, whoa,” said the Brad. “Hold up, a sec. Those claws look like they could do some real damage. Like with the ball. I’ll settle for air.”
On a hunt, a veiled she-goblin stared from across the street at a place of human festivity. Most humans remained out-of-season nowadays, unless for harvesting, or immediate defense or protection against discovery. She was hunting for non-human game in territory prominently marked by other goblins, a partnered couple; a dangerous gambit for a lone hunter if they discovered her lack of discretion. Transgressors were fair game.
What she saw shocked her. A goblin get, unsexed, on its hind limbs, standing in the open among humans. And unveiled by any adult! Its procreators were fools who endangered the race locally. Or worse, the world if the humans streamed cell phone videos on YouTube. Her talons extended, retracted, extended, while she plotted her killing strategy. She salivated in anticipation of her next meal, the goblin get.
The zombies encouraged and guided NeckBreaker up the steps of the porch. They passed teens with glow twigs in their paws and blowing smoke from their mouths, a dangerous ritual. Easier to track them.
Red and orange lit the interior. Boxes blared human wails at painful volumes; it winced. Death wails? Internal membranes expanded in its ears to prevent damage.
The humans quivered, jumped and twisted in apparent pain. None of the almost-adults closest to the earsplitting boxes tumbled to the floor. Remarkable. Their shouts reverberated throughout the house and mingled with the strangest of all human sounds, laughter.
Unable to locate the Ettie visually, it sniffed and tasted the air with its tongue. Nothing of interest, excluding unfamiliar odors, most far from enticing.
The majority of the teens took little notice of it and Team Zombie parading through the darkened interior. The stares of a few, those closest, did fix onto the group and track them. Wary, NeckBreaker kept its chest and side toward the trackers as it followed the escort. They passed a staircase to the second story; it rushed to the stairwell and sniffed. Two fresh odors, adults, a male and female.
It and Team Zombie squirmed their way through the crowded kitchen, familiar, like the one in the enclave: wall and floor-storage keepers, a cold-keeper, and the water-giver and flamer the humans called sink and stove.
“Hey, Jeremy,” the Brad called. “Get a load of this costume. Nick meet Jeremy.”
The group by a floor-keeper parted. NeckBreaker tensed, rocked back and forth on its hind limbs. The worm pale one! She clutched an almost-adult male’s arm and frowned. The Jeremy, sunken-eyed, paler than the worm pale one, broke away from her and approached.
NeckBreaker drew back. Hunter’s fangs. Some humans bore real fangs!
“Hi, Nick. Whoa! Hey relax, I don’t bite. Wow, that’s got to be the best Halloween costume ever. Way cool, little guy. Where’d you get the outfit? Really great makeup. Man, my parents have got to see this.”
It circled away at the mention of human procreators, their lightning-blinders, and rushed over to the worm pale one. So close to its goal, NeckBreaker risked speech. “Essttie.”
“What? Ettie? You said ‘Ettie,’ right? You know her?”
“Huh, can’t you talk?” She looked at Jeremy and Team Zombie. I think he’s kinda slow. You know, takes the really short bus to school.”
The males displayed their fangs, growled the laughter sound. The Roll-E said, “Watch out, Clara. You should’ve seen what his feet did to the soccer ball.”
She bent over, paws clutching forelimbs. “You want to see Ettie?”
“Okay, let’s go. She’s on the patio. Follow me.”
“Come on, nobody’s gonna eat you. Come on.” She reached out, stopped. “Yow, your costume means business. Don’t worry, I won’t touch. Kinda dangerous for a kid, no? Anyway, let’s go.”
It followed. Outside, the human crowd thinned. Its ears cupped and twisted independently of each other. A familiar voice: the Ettie, speaking with two males at the edge of the backyard, well beyond the flagstone patio. They shared a glow twig among themselves.
It disappeared from the patio to intercept its male competitors.
Clara glanced around the yard and spotted Ettie, or rather the reflected glow of a white dress, and possibly the two juniors who drove them to the party.
Her friend claimed the gorgeous costume was for a Mambo, a Haitian priestess in the Voodoo religion. The outfit floated ghostlike against the darkness at the base of a shallow hill. Deep evergreen woods bordered the property, the remnant of an old growth forest before the days of suburban hyper-development.
She turned to speak with NeckBreaker. “Ettie’s down–what the? Nick? Where’d you go?”
Screams and yells erupted at the bottom of the hill. Worse followed; shrieks and high-pitched hisses, deeper howls. Growls slashed like talons through the cold air, each outburst more ear-piercing, more hair-raising, as if Tom cats, giant, ferocious ones, slaughtered one another.
Her dress raised thigh high, Ettie charged in her high heels up the slope. She trailed yards behind her non-chivalrous male companions. The teens on the patio stopped their partying, eyes fixed on the shadows at the edge of the property. Some of the students grinned as if in the know, as if enjoying a Halloween prank.
From the unseen commotion in the forest, debris erupted in every direction: dirt and dead leaves, the limbs of shredded evergreens. Tree branches swayed. A rustle in the lower branches stirred and rippled its way to the tops of the tallest trees. Crashing sounds. Small limbs and twigs bent, broke, and hit the ground. Something much heavier landed with a thud, final, unforgiving. The woods quieted, nothing else moved in the hush.
No one on the patio spoke. Muffled music and conversation from the house tumbled back into Clara’s awareness. From the branch strewn forest floor, a stirring broke the stillness, as if some burden was being dragged deeper into the darkness.
The high schoolers unconsciously huddled closer on the patio, scoffers included. Neither Clara or any of her companions dared to venture into the nocturnal woods–not until the day brightened the shadows to wash away the memory of their dread.
Clara never saw Nick again.
NeckBreaker’s male procreator, TalonSlash-breaker, conferred with his partner in the main hall of their enclave. A single source of light, a table lamp, glowed in the extensive room. To his goblin eyes, light flooded every nook and cranny; his human co-workers, a race of puny hunters, would distinguish little details, other than the lamp.
“Where did you find it?” he asked. “Are we safe, undiscovered? Did you need to cull?” Both goblins had tracked after NeckBreaker once they realized it escaped again. They split up to double the search area. TalonSlash was not surprised his breeding partner found their get first.
“He,” she said.
“NeckBreaker is male.”
ShankBreaker looked as close to human-amused as a goblin ever managed. Her expression surprised TalonSlash; surprises from her could sometimes prove hazardous. “What?” he blurted. “He sexed? At three and a half years? I harvested human eggs at six, considered early, though knowledgeable enough to gather the human eggs without damaging them. We must have ‘The Talk’ with NeckBreaker. Does he understand a goblin breeding partner is necessary to implant the eggs, to absorb them and trigger her fertility? Perhaps, it’s best if you…?”
“Quiet. More amazing still.”
“What else could–?”
“He moves at will from place to place.”
“We all move…”
“Instantaneously? First here, next there. No movement in between! He appeared at the edge of the property. The transgressor who stalked him from the forest should have slaughtered him before I intervened. He vanished and reappeared behind her. Then in the trees. One branch, then the next. No wonder we could not confine him! He thought every goblin moved in such a way.”
“His early maturity is problematical, but–but this last revelation–it’s incomprehensible.” TalonSlash’s more pragmatic nature reasserted itself. “And the transgressor? Her body?”
“In the largest cold-keeper, the subterranean level.”
“Hmmm–an old one, beyond breeding age. Tasteless. I prefer Chicken McNuggets.”
“Forget your appetite. Open your mind! NeckBreaker’s future get may keep the humans in check. Turn the tide, save our race–the entire world.”
“Yes, giant enough for a Race Council’s consideration. NeckBreaker has the rights of the sexed, now. And we must ready him for an eventual Council meeting. Indeed, ready him for his destiny.”
The newly sexed goblin stood before a full length mirror in his upstairs false-death room. He pinched a twig in one claw, and examined his reflection, the talons partially retracted.
His veil skills had improved after sexing. Significantly improved. If the Ettie was beside him, she would have seen the image of the high-school junior who attracted her, a glow twig in his paw.
NeckBreaker bared his fangs. The Ettie’s high-school junior smiled.
R. A. KEENAN – Ich bin ein Brooklyner who managed to survive the Age of Aquarius despite best efforts to the contrary. Yes, Guardian Angels do exist.
I’ve a dozen or so short stories published here and there. Tantalizing excerpts or full versions of the stories may be read at: R.A. Keenan.
When not telling tall tales, teaching, or enjoying the companionship of my wife – still a bride in my eyes – I may be found hiking the forest-covered hills along New York’s Hudson River Valley, a beautiful place, indeed. Or look for me at a favorite pub, a pint in one hand, my darts in the other. Someone has to show the pups how the workingman’s game is played.
© 2011 All rights reserved R.A. Keenan.