When you want to unload a problem, hire a hobgoblin. Under the table is best.
That’s what Mark says at recess after we beat the fourth graders to the roundabout and call dibs. We grab opposite handlebars and start running. The roundabout’s so old and rusty, it takes awhile to get it going, especially when the ground’s muddy. It’s been raining a lot lately. So much that Mom keeps saying, “When it rains, it pours.” She’s always saying stupid stuff like that around Foster. They laugh like it’s actually funny.
Mark and I jump onto the roundabout. Holding onto a bar, I look at the sky. I’m moving fast, round and round, and I pretend I’m a moth in a jar. Don’t ask me why I think stuff like that. I just do. That’s what I’m thinking. That I’m a moth in a jar.
Mark asks, “So how come you’re not doing soccer league? Coach says we could really use you back as goalie.”
I blink hard like there’s something in my eye. Suddenly I’m thinking of Dad and me on the soccer field. How the hours just flew by—neither of us even knowing it. After a while, I say, “I can’t get to the games. Mom and Foster have counseling on Saturdays. They say they wanna start off right. It’s pretty stupid.”
“How long they been married?”
“I dunno. Ten months, maybe.” In two days, it’ll be a year.
“Do you guys get along?”
“You and Foster.”
I open my eyes. Mark’s head is thrown back. He’s grinning at the sky.
“You and Foster,” he said again. “Do you get along?”
“I dunno. He’s nice enough. More of a jerk, though. Doesn’t like me talking about Dad.”
While the roundabout slows down, we try to balance in the center. We sorta push at each other, too, and that feels good ’cause I’m bigger than Mark.
And that’s when he says it. That he’d found an old book about what to do with problems. Recess ends in five minutes, but that’s all we need, Mark and me, to decide that Foster qualifies as a problem.
By the time I get home, my shoulders can hardly take the weight anymore. All I have to do is get upstairs, but Foster calls from the kitchen.
“Ben, is that you?” His tired face appears at the door. “Why are you late? Was today Robotics?”
That’s one of his problems: Foster’s always asking questions, always butting in. Last week, I heard him tell Mom, Let me try with Ben. Give yourself a break.
Sometimes, I really hate him.
“Yeah, we had Robotics.” I run upstairs before he can ask anything else. In my room, I let my backpack hit the floor with a thump. The book inside is called Advanced Logomantics: Rituals and Incantations. It’s moldy from being in Mark’s basement for ages. His parents don’t know where it came from.
I turn to page 303, where the chapter title, “Purgative Procedures,” has been crossed out and replaced with spidery handwriting: “How to get rid of problem people.”
I read the first paragraph for the tenth time:
When the expulsion of an individual is needed to restore community harmony, a hobgoblin can be hired. Payment requires a tidbit and a trinket. However, conjurers should specify contract terms, for hobgoblins are notoriously unpredictable.
About a hundred bullet points called “caveats” follow, but I skip to the end where the handwriting gives instructions I can understand: “Wait for a new moon.”
I have two days. And I have a lot to get ready.
I’m down in the basement, and my stomach feels funny, like it does when I’m on the roundabout. Maybe it’s ’cause I’m wearing my underwear inside-out and backwards—for good luck. I’m glad no one can see what else I’m wearing: a black T-shirt and a pillowcase I’ve magic-markered black. It’s supposed to be a black robe.
With my flashlight, I double-check the diagram. Everything seems right. I’ve laid alternating black and white stones in a big circle under the pool table. In the center are the mouse in a lidded shoebox and my old Transformer Bot (with its head missing, but the instructions didn’t say the trinket had to be in great shape). Foster’s wedding picture is taped to the candle, but I made sure to cut me and Mom out of it first. There’s a weird hole in Foster’s chest where my head would have been. Maybe the goblin won’t notice.
Somewhere upstairs, a floorboard creaks, and I peer out to check the spiral staircase in the corner. Mom gushed about the spiral staircase when she’d first told me about Foster. The stairs connect the “lower level” (what Foster calls the basement) to the kitchen pantry, and for days, Mom made a big deal about playing video games and grabbing snacks all I wanted. Just to annoy her, I didn’t check out the basement for a whole month after we moved in.
I wait, listening for more sounds, but the house has gone quiet. It’s hot under the pool table, and I’m sweating. I look down at my clothes. White streaks show where I was sloppy with the magic marker. The patterns remind me of the moth I drew, that time we were at the hospital for Mom’s arm cast. Dad was staring tight-lipped at the floor, so I knew to keep quiet. I found a pen and drew a black-and-white moth on the back of a magazine. I drew it over and over until it was finally time to leave.
I’ve got my flashlight trained on the figure in the ring of stones. It took me two trips to the art room to steal enough clay to make it: a thickish, humanlike creature about two feet high. Following the instructions, I’d pulled some of my hair out and squashed the strands onto its head. I made a paper-towel toga for it, too, ’cause I didn’t like seeing its bare body. I messed up a little, though. One leg is longer than the other, so it’s standing lopsided.
Now it’s time for me to light the candle. I take a deep breath and unfold the paper with the incantation on it. The words are in a language I don’t know, and it takes a long time to finish reading. My eyes sorta start watering ’cause my voice sounds crazy and ugly, like I’m saying things backwards.
Then the candle flickers out, and the room gets cold. I set my flashlight down to relight the candle, but my hands start shaking pretty bad. In the beam of the flashlight, the legs of the clay figure rise up into darkness. I keep having to wipe my eyes to see. Finally, I light a match, and the wick flares to life. That’s when it happens.
Its legs bend.
I gasp and snatch up the flashlight. Again, the legs bend, one hip dipping lower ’cause the knees aren’t even. One hand lifts and gestures toward Foster’s picture.
It’s asking me a question.
Before I know what I’m doing, I nod my head.
The hand swings toward me, palm up, and I cringe. I know what it wants, but I can barely breathe, much less move. The thing must be able to hear ’cause it tips its head at a scrabbling sound below it. In one move, it hinges at the hip and lifts the lid off the shoebox. It scoops up the mouse and brings the struggling creature to its faceless head. A gaping hole appears, and the mouse is gone.
When the thing straightens, it’s right next to my Transformer Bot. The two are nearly the same height, except the robot has no head. That’s ’cause one night, Dad came home with that smell on his breath and tripped over it. In a rage, he’d ripped off the Bot’s cheap plastic head. That night, he broke a lot of other things, too.
In the quivering circle of my flashlight, the thing puts its arms around the Bot and rests its head on the empty space between its shoulders.
I’ll admit it. I’m full-out sobbing now. I wish I hadn’t called it. I wish I hadn’t made it. It’s monstrous, embracing the gift my father had given me.
Slowly, the thing swivels its head in my direction.
And then I really can’t breathe. ‘Cause I see that nose, crooked at the bridge, from when our neighbor on Deming Street had punched it. And I see that mouth, twisted in a sneer, spitting out words that sting worse than wasps. And I see those eyes, that always went cold just before he’d go after—
The hobgoblin rips Foster’s picture off the candle and races away. The movement is so sudden it extinguishes the flame and swings the flashlight’s beam toward the corner of the room. For a hopeful moment, I think it’s actually leaving.
Then I see it’s heading for the spiral staircase. I can’t tear my eyes from its stumping gait, its mad glee. Instead of using the stair treads, the thing grabs the iron railing and swings itself upward, hand over hand. It looks back at me with my father’s eyes and winks.
Swing and wink, swing and wink.
Only when it heaves itself through the opening in the ceiling does my brain start working again. I lurch up and bang my head hard on the underside of the pool table. It hurts like a monkey-mother, but I crawl out, toward the staircase. It seems a million miles away.
When I finally reach the bottom step, my head’s throbbing. The staircase winds upward in a tight spiral, and the darkness presses down on me. I left the flashlight under the pool table, but I don’t have time to go back for it. I crawl up the first few steps, gripping the stair treads tight and bracing my shoulder against the center pole. I feel dizzy and sick. My father’s face swims before me. He’d looked at me that time, three years ago. He’d looked at me and said, “Get over here.” But I didn’t want to, and he knew it. I cried when his hand clenched into a fist.
Foster had found me crying on their wedding day. He’d put his arm around me and said, “It’s okay. I understand.” Shut up, I’d yelled, shut up. I threw off his arm, but I don’t remember what he said after. I’ve thought about it a bunch of times, but I just don’t remember.
Above me, the pantry is glowing green. I’m suddenly afraid to know what the thing’s doing. I read that hobgoblins like to crush and mangle. They especially like problems that can be crushed and mangled. And I’d sent the hobgoblin after a problem.
I peer cautiously over the edge of the stair opening. To my right is the threshold to the kitchen. To my left is the hobgoblin, crouching over something, its back toward me. Strewn about the floor are cereal boxes, flour bags, spice jars, and marinara bottles—their contents dumped into random piles of goop. In the green light, the place looks radioactive. Mom’s going to kill me.
As though reading my mind, the hobgoblin turns and stares, sly-like, at me. It’s holding a dagger with nasty toothed edges. It’s the source of the green light.
Raising its other hand, the hobgoblin flickers a piece of paper at me. He slashes it with the blade and lets the pieces flutter down. It’s Foster’s picture.
I should be scared out of my mind, and I am, ’cause I’m trembling all over. But I’m also mad—crazy mad. The kind of mad that takes me up the last two stairs to block the way to the kitchen.
The thing with my father’s face giggles, and that’s when I know. It’s either him or me. A hobgoblin, once hired, can’t be unhired. But I don’t have a weapon. I’m the stupidest person in the world, and I’m going to die that way.
The hobgoblin studies me with bright, catty eyes. I step back and almost lose my footing on something long and thin. Right away, I know it’s the broom we keep in the pantry. It must have gotten knocked over when the thing was ransacking the place. Warily, I reach down and take up the broom. It’s well made, with a hefty wood handle. Foster says it beats the dickens out of cheap plastic ones. He often hums while he sweeps.
The hobgoblin stops giggling. He stares hard at me, then dodges to the left, dipping a bit because of his gimpy leg. He’s trying to get past me.
But I’m not a star soccer goalie for no reason. I know it’s a juke. Just as he switches directions, I bring the broomstick down on his arm, as hard as I can. He shrieks, and the dagger clatters to the floor. We both dive for it.
Even when hurt, hobgoblins are fierce, ’cause they’re part stone and part fire. And they fight dirty. The hobgoblin kicks me viciously, catching me in the ribs and taking my breath away. If it weren’t for the broom, which lay across its path, it would have gotten to the dagger, and that would’ve been the end of me.
Strangely, the hobgoblin is afraid of the broom. He scurries around the handle, which gives me the chance to lunge for the dagger. My hand closes on the hilt just as the hobgoblin throws a punch across my temple. My head busts open in pain. But I have the dagger and somehow, too, the broomstick. Holding both, I stagger to my feet.
The dagger feels alive in my hand. Tiny electric shocks run up my arm and into my chest. The dagger’s twitching, restless. In the cast of its ghoulish light, I see him again. My dad. That look in his eyes that was love, but also a lie. I hold tight to the broomstick, leaning on it like a staff.
“Why’d you hurt us?” The voice doesn’t sound like me. Because I’ve never ever asked that question before.
He doesn’t answer. For a moment, he looks lost—terribly, desperately lost.
When he turns and runs for the door, the dagger, as though tracking him, shoots from my hand and into his back. I cry out, like the wound is mine, too. And then a powerful ache wells up from deep inside me and washes me down, down to a place where all is silent and blue and still.
It takes me awhile to figure out what I’m seeing: a pair of long, bent legs in faded blue pajamas. My eyes are puffy, and I’m lying on the pantry floor. The heaps of foodstuff are gone, but I can still see traces of swept flour and strange rust-colored streaks. I start up, looking for the hobgoblin.
“Hey, it’s okay. I’m here.” Foster leans over and grasps my shoulder.
My eyes dart about. “Where is it?”
“Where’s what? You mean the mess?” Foster slides next to me, smiles in his tired way, rubs the back of his neck. “Yeah, that sure was something. I just finished cleaning up.”
“Upstairs, getting ready to take you to the hospital. Want me to call her?”
“No.” I sit up, my head pounding. “Why’s she wanna do that?”
“Well, for one, you don’t look so good. You’ve got a black eye. Did you know that? And a bunch of bruises. And we haven’t been able to wake you, even though you’ve been talking in your sleep.”
I look around the pantry, slow ’cause it really hurts to move my head. Not one sign of the hobgoblin.
My stepfather hesitates, then holds something up. “You were clutching this.”
I stare. It’s the wedding picture of Foster, Mom, and me. It’s crumpled up bad, but it’s whole, like it’d never been cut or slashed.
“Wanna tell me what happened here?” he says.
I don’t . . . can’t speak. His voice is so sad and gentle that I can’t seem to find my own.
Then he says it. The thing he said at the wedding that I couldn’t remember. He says it as Mom’s footsteps sound on the stairs.
“Things get better, Ben. In a roundabout way, things do get better.”