PART I: ERASMUS
The autumn breeze quivers my tiny, cotton collar. I survey the pumpkins lying haphazardly on Stuart’s Farm. Then I call out in the high-pitched voice of a three-year-old: “Pun’kin! Pun’kin!”
Susan’s red hair cascades into my stroller, shrouding my view. “Which pumpkin do you want, sweetie?”
I have never felt a propensity toward gourd shopping, especially not in Granite Springs, though now that she insists that I voice my opinion, I have no choice but to share it. I pull her hair aside.
“That one!” I point to the farthest and largest pumpkin in the patch, which takes us five minutes to approach.
Upon closer inspection of the plant, I reject it by stomping my feet against the stroller. I never tire of this performance, not in all my twenty-eight years of experience. Truly, the acting is unnecessary. This performance is something I add for pleasure. I am the epitome of toddlerhood. I have a small, button nose, large eyes, and peach-colored cheeks. Besides, with the right words and a little peas-blossom, I take on the exact appearance of the child I replace. When looking at me, you would never guess that I am middle- aged. Hardly! My skin has the sour and sweet perfume of diapers and baby powder. The fact that Susan has dressed me up for this inane holiday seems superfluous, and frankly, ridiculous. I do not want to be dressed as a stegosaurus. I am already pretending, why should I put on another mask?
Only last night, Nimbus and Donna, my troll parents, waddled down the stairs to my apartment in the basement of their Staten Island home. My mother’s fanny pack, filled with peas-blossom, flapped across her abdomen with each downward step. Guitar riffs at three in the morning had once more proven too much for them. Covering their ears, their heads barely reached the height of the staircase railing. They had come to confront me. My father turned off my amplifier and stubbed my joint in the ashtray beside the futon. Then he stood up straight, his stomach bulging as he held the straps of his dungarees.
“Erasmus, enough,” he said, staring out the window.
Though it had only begun to drizzle outside, I knew that with the impending storm, they wanted to move swiftly. The cover of nighttime proved advantageous for their schemes. And in a tempest, not even the moon could peek through the clouds to catch them.
“It’s time,” my mother said.
“Time for what?” I played coy.
She frowned. “Time to move out.”
“Time,” my father corrected her, “For you to earn your keep.”
Without another word, my mother grabbed a handful of minced peas-blossom from her fanny pack. Before I could run, she threw it on my face. She commenced her incantation, full of tongue-twisters, giving me no choice. I could feel my body changing form: my back straightened, my arms tightened and shrunk into my shoulders, my eyes widened. The hair on my chest felt limp, and when I took off my black shirt, the strands trickled to the floor.
An hour later, we took the ferry into Manhattan. Amidst thunder and lightning, my parents snuck up the fire escape to a fifth-floor apartment and stole Susan’s son, Freddy, from his sky-blue nursery, replacing him with me. This is a family-run business, and I have perfected my role as a Wechselbalg. My troll parents have successfully kidnapped dozens of toddlers in the last decade and sold them to witches on the black market. Apparently, they are a necessary ingredient for a popular, anti-aging spell. While my parents negotiate a good price, I stay with the unsuspecting human family as a type of doppelgänger to their child. After the sale has gone through, the spell wears off, and I return to my parents’ basement.
Something feels different about this trade, however. My parents seem eager to keep me out of the house. I suspect they are delaying the sale of the human child so that I cannot spend as much time practicing with my Goth band, The Gonks.
Luckily, I scored the mother lode with Susan McCutcheon and her husband, Roderick. They drive a BMW from Manhattan to the Hudson River Valley each year just to select pumpkins for Halloween. Parking their car in a Lower Manhattan garage costs more than my parents’ rent for a house in Staten Island. This morning, they served me organic cereal in an apartment that stretches across a full city block. They own the floor of a former warehouse in Tribeca. They are nothing like the last family whose child my troll parents abducted and replaced with me. The Emersons had five other children, so I had no trouble getting lost in the crowd. After the Emersons repeatedly took me to Yonkers to visit their relatives, I repeatedly drew on their walls with forbidden “big-kid” markers.
Earlier today, the McCutcheons strapped me into a stroller made by Ferrari. Even now, Roderick wraps me in a miniature North Face jacket that matches his. He is a thin, balding, forty-something psychiatrist, distracted and inattentive to the task at hand. He waves Susan over to finish dressing me and clutches the Bluetooth in his ear, listening to his patient. In my few hours with the McCutcheons, I have learned that he is always on his Bluetooth with a patient. Susan zips up the jacket, which shields me from the slightest discomfort, the briskest wind.
Susan picks up a pumpkin covered in green pimple-like growths. “How about this one?”
I grin, wondering how long I can make this game last. I fervently shake my head back and forth to indicate this shall not do.
“All right then, how about another?” Susan wheels the red stroller around the pumpkin patch. Pieces of hay, grass, and vines catch the wheels, yet she trudges on as a soldier in the trenches.
“This one?” or “That one?” or “How about that one?” With each question, she leans into the stroller to touch my hands or tickle my stomach. She can’t get her hands off of me, so I give her the hardest time I can imagine.
I shout, “No! No! No!” until finally I see a somewhat cylindrical pumpkin, the most difficult to carve. I come to an empirical decision and reach out both arms toward the new gourd.
“Wunderbar!” I let slip without thinking.
Susan pauses before picking up the yellow pumpkin. When she stares back at the stroller, she conveys less awe than horror. Most women would be proud of their sons for gaining a wide vocabulary. Not this mother. She wrinkles her nose, stretching the freckles on either side, which appear as the Milky Way across her face. As she resumes her position behind the stroller, I get the feeling that she doesn’t want to touch me anymore.
By the time we reach the tent to pay for our pumpkins, Roderick gets off the phone. He nods his head to Susan and walks over. As he slips his Bluetooth into the pocket of his Michael Kors pants, he raises his eyebrows and sighs.
She mutters, “Confidential?” like hearing the diagnosis of a terminal illness.
He ignores her and leans into the stroller. “So which ones did you pick, Freddy?”
In total, Susan and I picked three pumpkins from the patch: a bulbous one for Mommy; a slender one for Daddy; and a miniature, warped one for me. My pumpkin looks like two fists smashing together. Green stripes dribble down the sides. I chose a pumpkin so tiny that it fits in my lap.
The following morning, as part of our daily routine, we sit down for a family breakfast. Susan has arranged the three pumpkins in a row on the windowsill overlooking the Hudson River. At the dining room table, she picks at a concoction with yogurt, fruit, and granola. Roderick taps the screen of his cellphone. In a plastic bowl, I am served cereal that resembles miniature life rafts floating on milk.
“Do you think Freddy has been acting…differently?” Susan asks Roderick.
Roderick does not look up from his toy. “What do you mean, Sooz?”
“He seems more, um, thoughtful for some reason.”
“He’s just a curious boy!” Roderick glances at me, then back at his phone. “Nothing wrong with that!”
“Of course not.” Susan hesitates. “It’s just—”
Roderick’s cell buzzes, and before she can utter another word, he is yelling about malpractice insurance. Susan straps me into my stroller. We wander out the door without so much as a “goodbye.” Under the cover of yellow leaves, we venture to Sunshine Nursery School, where I am dropped off at a quarter to nine.
Even the daycare is deluxe. The premises feature a music room, an indoor jungle gym, dozens of classrooms, and a carpeted nap room filled with miniature mattresses, not squares of drool-slathered foam on a linoleum floor. This is why my troll parents trade me for the offspring of the elite rather than steal toddlers from orphanages, so that I may reap some benefit.
While walking past said nap room, my ears perk up. I sense another Wechselbalg. I scan the room and lock eyes with Deszo in the form of another little boy. I nod, and he smirks. He looks well-fed. We’ll have to swap stories. For now, I am off to the jungle gym.
As a worker in the changeling industry, I have become adept at managing children. They are savages, no doubt about it. If one plays them against each other in a group setting, however, one may achieve control. I steal a block from a brunette with a lisp and blame it on a girl with braids nearby. While they bicker, I bite the ankle of a boy missing some lower teeth. He cries, distracting the children on the jungle gym, many of whom crawl down to observe the commotion. After they descend, I spit and throw sand in their faces. Stunned and crying, they cannot locate the perpetrator or their way back to the safety of the jungle gym.
After an hour of tricks, I possess the entirety of the jungle gym’s upper lookout tower, a plastic imitation of a pirate ship masthead. With a 360-degree view of the playground, I patrol the surroundings and keep the miniature humans in-line. I play shepherd to their sheep. I rule the green turf and sandbox as a benevolent tyrant; I am generous with my allowance of space, however, if they attempt to urinate in my territory, I will renege on my graciousness. From my heightened position, they always know I am watching.
Deszo joins me in my fortress, and we whisper in troll-speak. He is two weeks into his service. He points to an obese playroom monitor in her sixties with a hawk-like nose.
“Mrs. Lincoln,” he warns me, though I do not know what grievances he has against her. “I’ve run into her too many times for one career.”
She shuffles out of the room, and he sighs.
I ask him, “She suspects—?”
“Always. Watch out.”
I shudder and shield my face in my hands.
“What is it?” he asks.
I lament my recent incident with Susan: my outburst and her observation, her growing distrust, her speculation that something might be awry. “What should I do?”
“Don’t panic. You’re one of the best in this business. Play it cool. Keep babbling and maybe she’ll think you were just babbling before.”
“Thanks. Anyway, happy belated birthday,” I tell him. He recently turned thirty-four.
“Cheers,” he hands me a tiny flask.
Hiding it in my lap, I open it and smell sour beetle liqueur. When no one is looking, I take a swig. It is as strong as it is pungent. I pass it back.
“How is your wife?” I ask.
He sneers. “Lonely.”
Just then, I see Susan enter the playroom with Mrs. Lincoln. How strange. Susan is several hours early. Deszo and I plan to arrange a playdate in the coming weeks. Then we revert back to human blabbering.
“Goo-goo,” I exclaim.
“Mine!” he retorts.
Susan lifts me from the jungle gym and holds me in her arms. “Freddy! What’s this I hear about you hogging the jungle gym?” Susan looks toward Mrs. Lincoln, pleading innocence.
“You should have seen the way he treated the other children.”
Susan shrugs. “It seems like he’s made a friend.”
Mrs. Lincoln replies, “Well, he didn’t have any friends a minute ago. He’s been delinquent all morning and undisciplined. You better take him home. Bring him back when he can behave properly.”
As Susan and I head toward the door, I wave goodbye to Deszo. Within moments, I am firmly strapped and restrained to my stroller. She gives me a hard, quizzical look, attempting to see what lies under my peach-colored skin. I am caught off guard by her stare.
“Goo-goo,” I say, my voice coming out too low.
She promptly gets behind the stroller and wheels me home, a little faster than usual.
Typically, it is impossible for human parents to realize their child has been switched with a Wechselbalg, especially the absentee parents of the upper class, whose children are often cared for by a rotating series of au pairs. Roderick is certainly not present enough to notice. The spell of concealment is strong. Susan is astute, however, and her desire seems to counter my enchantment. In the past, when a live-in nanny suspected this much, she ended up in a straitjacket.
When we arrive home, Susan decides to quiz me. She takes out a large photo album, and we sit on the couch. She points to an older man with white hair in one of the pictures.
“Who’s this?” she asks me.
Based on his gender, age, and resemblance to Susan, I make a deductive estimate. “Grandpa!” I cheer.
“And who’s this?” She points to a gray-haired woman next to him.
“Grandma!” I giggle and tug at her shirt.
She flips the page. We examine Roderick’s family, another snow-haired pair. She points to the man.
She looks at me in shock. I have made a fatal error. In some families, in some rare instances, when it is the family custom or when there are two sets of grandparents, one set will be called by a different name.
“No,” she mutters and shuts the book. “That’s Papa Max. Remember? You love Papa…” She stands up from the couch and walks to the hall, watching me. While she puts the photo album on a bookshelf, I pretend to fall asleep.
She leaves me on the couch and calls Roderick. Humans speak so loudly on the phone. They have no discretion. I hear every word.
“You should’ve heard him,” she whispers. “Yesterday, I heard him say ‘Wunderbar!’”
I hear Roderick tell her, “Maybe he’s just a wunderkind. Look, I gotta go, Suz. I need to call back—”
Susan abruptly hangs up the phone. Little does she know that my parents are off selling her child for gold and mushrooms.
Usually after a month of this charade, when the sale has been made and the magic starts to wear off, I find a way to disappear. While a babysitter is not looking, I climb into a worm-infested storm drain. If I am living in a brownstone, I wait until the parents leave the room, then I merely slip out the window and climb down the fire escape. This business is lugubrious, and I derive no satisfaction from it. There are many tears, search campaigns, and “MISSING PERSON” posters, though they never find me. I have a perfect record. My body was made for it, my parents trained me well, and once a sale is completed, I am called home. By the next sunset, I have transformed back into myself: a tattooed troll with pointy toes.
Susan’s increasing suspicion makes me want to leave after a week. Her actions are unmonitored. A few days after the photo album incident, she takes away a pair of safety scissors left in my room. I do not presume to know what she is capable of, and I plan my escape. I build up a bank of safety pins at each diaper changing session. What a first-timer! Using all-cotton diapers instead of disposables; what was she thinking?
I will tear open the parchment covering the old doggy-door, crawl through it and down the hall, climb into the building’s defunct dumbwaiter, ride it down and to the back of the building, and then run for the sewers. During play time, I draw my escape route on construction paper using crayons and hide it in the mouth of one of my numerous stuffed animals. My bandmates will be thrilled to have an extra rehearsal before our performance. Maybe we will record our demo this weekend. My parents will be terribly disappointed.
The night of the great escape, I wait until I hear Roderick snoring, then I climb up the side of the crib and crawl to my toy chest, where I have hidden the illicit safety pins. I pray that the pins will be strong enough to puncture and tear the film on the doggy-door. Tools in hand, I toddle into the living room.
Alas, I see a light! Susan sits in an armchair with my drawing on her lap. Her face is pale. Dark bags rest under her eyes. She is waiting for me.
“I found your diagram.” Susan holds up the construction paper I had hidden in the mouth of my stuffed tyrannosaurus rex.
I attempt to run back toward my room, but she is already standing up from her chair, approaching me. I run toward Roderick’s room, surely if I wake him, and he witnesses this scene, he will consider his wife absolutely insane. I run toward the master bedroom and scream out as loudly as I can. Roderick’s snoring stops. My speech is limited. I can only use a toddler’s pitch, a child’s screams. I try to think of the most haunting thing to say, and then it hits me.
Though she is still standing a few feet away from me, I cry, “Daddy! Daddy! Mommy’s hurting me!”
I have no ammunition left. If I shout anything else, he will know my cover is a ruse.
I hear Roderick’s voice escape the bedroom, a low, muffled tone. “You got that, Sooz?”
Susan, frowning, looks even more miffed and tired than before. She replies, “Yeah, I’ll take care of it.”
Damnation! My plan has been nullified. There is no escape. But I am the master of this game! I have never been caught in the act. This moment is humiliating, shameful. I start to tear up and sniffle. What a disgrace.
“Where’s Freddy?” Susan picks me up, rocking me back and forth in her arms as I weep. “Will you take me to him?” Her eyes are as glassy as mine. “Is there still time?”
I nod my head and cry. Complete failure that I am, I know the terrible consequences for making a mistake. My troll parents may cut off my toes! My perfect, pointy toes!
“Oh come here,” she puts her hands around me, rocking me back and forth. I allow myself to cry harder. “Whoever you are”—she holds me tighter—“it’s all right now, I’m here.”
PART II: SUSAN
A mom should know. Whether it’s a smell, a false smile, or a change in pressure from the blunt force of a kiss, a mom should notice. A dad might, but Roderick wouldn’t. Before our wedding, if I’d mentioned kids, he would shrug and look away. He just remained unsure until the time came. When I hit thirty-five, I gave him two options: breed or leave. He humored me, but I’m not sure why. These days, he feels absent or craves to be absent. He’ll do anything to get out of the apartment, away from us. A phone call from a patient, a text from his secretary: nothing is too minor to get him on the move. Sure, he takes care of us financially. He gives me the security I always wanted. But when it comes to parenting, I’m in this alone. I always suspected this. I just hadn’t realized the true consequences of it, especially if something went wrong.
The danger always lied in my uncertainty. Something wasn’t right the night of the storm. When I woke up in the middle of the night, I heard an object pounding against the nursery window. I sat up and threw the sheets off my legs.
Lying on his stomach, Roderick reached his arm around my hip and moaned, “It’s just a bird—” The thud grew louder. “Or a tree branch…in the wind.”
But there were hardly any trees on our street. I tried flicking on my end table light, but the power had gone out. I shook Roderick awake. Luckily, the baby monitor was battery powered. I could hear static, rustling sheets, and the faint sound of whispers. High pitched voices murmured to one another and snickered. Roderick didn’t hear it, or he chose not to. He was too busy determining the battery life of his tablet.
When I went into the nursery, the window by the fire escape was open. I hadn’t left it that way, why would I on a stormy night? I shut the window. Water had dripped onto the carpet all the way to the crib. Even Freddy’s baby blanket was damp. I saw his shape under the blanket, his rhythmic breathing pushing his torso up and down. Silently, I leaned down toward the crib to check on him, and that’s when I smelled it: pot, thick in the air. The scent was as heavy as the aura surrounding the stoner I dated in college. The closer I leaned toward him, the stronger the smell.
I pulled off the blanket as quickly as I could, but this toddler looked just like Freddy. His mouth was half open with drool. His long eyelashes caressed his cheeks.
“Sooz,” Roderick called to me from the doorway. “I’ve had enough paranoia for one night. He’s fine. Come to bed.”
Roderick has always been the “sane” one in our marriage. He’s a psychiatrist after all. And he didn’t believe anything was wrong, so why should I?
Before my maternity leave extended to a permanent position as a stay-at-home mom, I was a Senior Analyst for a digital securities firm. Surrounded by former computer hackers, we created reports on viruses, spy software, mutations, and anomalies within a pattern, anything and anyone that could be dangerous. My job was to identify potential threats, observe them in a controlled setting, analyze their tactics, and ultimately, eradicate them. Who knew that I would use my skills at home?
The morning after the storm, I decided to run a test to get rid of my worries and vindicate Freddy: I served Freddy dry cereal. He hates cereal, especially without milk. He throws a fit every time I serve it, stomping his feet against his highchair, screaming, and throwing the bowl. But that morning, there wasn’t a stir, not even a mild temper tantrum. My Freddy prefers yogurt or fruit, something wet and squishy that he can make a mess with. Breakfast is always a disaster that ends with me wiping the wall. But this child, this thing sat well behaved in his highchair, quietly playing with the little flakes on his tray.
Perhaps Freddy just changed his mind. Every early development book that Roderick gives me explains how kids grow and develop new tastes. Their favorite food might change as many times as their shoe size. And Freddy’s bad behavior, Roderick assures me, is a temporary phase. I’m not so sure. Freddy grew out of the terrible twos into the terrible threes. At some point, I came to acknowledge my kid’s personality and admit to my own failures at disciplining him. So how could a kid change so quickly? That afternoon in Granite Springs, Freddy didn’t say his favorite words, “pee pee” and “poop” once. Instead, he said “Wunderbar!” The trip was a vacation away from my rowdy son.
I began to panic. While Freddy was at nursery school, I combed through online forums, searching for parents with similar issues, looking for a trend. I found nothing except for a blog written by a nanny living in an insane asylum. When I received a call from Mrs. Lincoln that Freddy had been acting out, I calmed down. Finally, he was behaving normally again. I once thought that a nursery school might help him socialize, learn to share. Freddy had been through three different schools in the past year alone. I laughed at myself, my paranoia. I rushed to pick him up, to take him home. But then as we were leaving the school, I heard his voice drop too low for a little boy. I decided to give him one last test. When I showed him the family photo album, he didn’t recognize his favorite person in the world, the man who taught him his favorite words: Papa Max.
In that moment, all my fears were confirmed. But I realized that if I called the police, right there and then, they’d never believe me. This child looks just like Freddy, and he’s better behaved. If they asked Roderick to support my claims, he’d just dismiss me. According to Roderick, I was the one who was acting strange. And if I was taken away, I’d never see Freddy again. Our kid would never be safe left alone under the distracted gaze of his dad. The police wouldn’t heed my warnings when I worked in digital security, why would they heed them now? Often, my company acted on its own.
I needed to isolate the threat and remove any tools that might give him the upper hand. I cleared the room of any sharp objects. Roderick thought I was concerned about our son’s safety. Indeed, I was. I withdrew Freddy from nursery school for the week. Roderick didn’t care. He hated the expense anyway. When I discovered the crayon diagram in Freddy’s stuffed dinosaur, I knew I was getting closer to his plan. I could predict his movements. He wanted to hightail it out of the apartment, I wanted to bring him to his knees and make him return my son.
As Roderick’s snores reverberated down the hall tonight, I sat, waiting, until the kid approached. Still wearing Freddy’s green pajamas, he walked too tall, too confidently to be my son. This kid knew how to operate his socked feet over hardwood floors. And he thought I wouldn’t put up a fight. I watched the smirk and color wash from his face. He became as pale as the construction paper I held in my fingertips. Shocked and embarrassed at my discovery, he crumbled before me.
His name, he tells me, is Erasmus. And he has done this many times before. But there is still hope to recover my son if we drive to Staten Island tonight. He gives me an address.
In the parking garage, I make sure to firmly buckle him into the car seat and lock the doors in the backseat. He won’t look me in the eye. He just folds his arms over his chest and sighs. I put the address into my GPS.
On the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge, he explains the rules. He’s a “Wechselbalg,” a changeling, he claims, and his parents are “trolls.” I pinch my wrist just to convince myself that I’m awake. When Freddy was stolen by his parents, he took on Freddy’s appearance. But, most importantly, my son is safe.
“Changelings always stay with the family until the transaction has been processed.”
“And by transaction you mean—?”
“The sale of your son… to a witch.”
I glare at him in the rearview mirror, but he does not acknowledge me. He watches the few cars whizzing beside us on the bridge. “How do you know Freddy’s safe?”
“Once the child is sold, I change back, and I have to return to my home.” He snickers. “You would never recognize me.”
Because he still looks like Freddy, we assume that the sale hasn’t gone through, that it’s been delayed for some reason. I ask him why. “Isn’t my son desirable enough for witches?”
“My parents want me out of the house.” He shrugs as if this explains anything.
I want to berate him. I want to snap at him, “Of course they don’t want you!” He is just a kidnapper, a disgusting impersonator. He belongs in a dive bar, reciting jokes over a crackling mic with a doll on his lap. I imagine him being taunted by the crowd, rotten vegetables tossed at his feet. But I can’t bring myself to say anything, because he still looks like my son. To say anything cruel would hurt me as much as him.
I mumble, “Your parents don’t want you?”
He shifts awkwardly in his car seat. “I am older than I look.”
I look in the rearview mirror and make a joke to break the silence. “Too many late-night jam sessions?”
He meets my eyes. “Precisely.” He opens his mouth, attempting a smile, and exposes two tiny rows of teeth.
I look back toward the road and shiver. Illuminated cables on either side of the bridge glide downward. We’re nearing the end.
“What happens when we get there?” I ask him.
He grumbles. “As this has never happened before, Susan, we will be forced to improvise.”
“Don’t lie to me,” I snap. “Did you contact your parents? Do they have any way of knowing—?”
“No,” he says, color returning to his face. “And frankly, we all prefer it that way.”
We exit from the bridge, and I keep wondering, what kind of parents are these? What the hell have they done to Freddy? And even if they are trolls, wouldn’t they want to know that their son is safe?
At the first intersection, I hit a stoplight. I turn around in my seat and look back at him. “They don’t even miss you? They don’t worry?”
He sighs. “Make a right turn here.”
The house, a one-story colonial, looks normal. Weeds and dirt clods hog the front lawn. Windows with lace curtains line the front of the house. Inside, dim blue lights flicker on and off. Perhaps they are watching TV. Erasmus takes my hand and leads me toward the front door of the house. I peer through the glass on the front door but a curtain on the inside blocks my view. Their doormat says: exspectata salutem. Before I can ask him what it means, he rings the doorbell: two chimes.
No one answers. Erasmus rings the doorbell again. He stomps his little feet on the mat. I knock on the cool glass of the window. “Hello?”
An old woman screams inside.
I bang my hand against the window. “Open this door!”
I hear pots and pans clanging inside. Someone is yelling. Suddenly, the door opens. A svelte, middle-aged woman towers over me in a coat. She puts on a large hat that covers her face. She holds a heavy broom.
“Wait! Wait!” I hear an old man call out behind her. “I’ll give you fifty percent off!”
“Never!” The woman brushes past me, and I notice oatmeal stuck to the back of her coal-colored coat.
“Humf.” The woman grunts, stomping away from the house.
I turn back toward the house. I see an elderly couple running back and forth from the entryway to a kitchen deeper inside. Erasmus leads me over the threshold. I turn back, wishing I could escape as well, but the woman with the broom is gone. Erasmus closes the door behind us, and we walk further in.
In the kitchen, a small plate smashes against a wall. Bits of porcelain scatter across the floor beside crayons and torn paper. Milk and oatmeal have been sprayed over every counter top. Sparks and smoke erupt from a toaster. Something rancid is boiling over on the stove. I hear a giggle, and I recognize my Freddy’s voice. Despite my dread, I let go of Erasmus’s hand and rush into the room. Freddy is perched up in an old highchair, happy as can be.
“Poopy!” he cries my nickname. “Uppy!”
I put my arms around him and lift him up and out of the chair. He pulls my hair and sticks it in his mouth. Holding him in my arms again, I feel both relieved and terrified.
When I spin around, I see Erasmus’s elderly troll parents. They are four feet tall, two hundred pounds each. They wear matching floral-print muumuus. Panting, the woman blows her matted silver hair away from her face. Their noses are enormous.
“Oh Nimbus, Donna, the prodigal son returneth,” Erasmus says behind me, and I turn around.
Standing four feet tall, one hundred fifty pounds, he has torn through Freddy’s pajamas. His stomach bulges out. His skin is a sickly gray-green. Stubble lines his chin. Toes, as pointy as knives, jut out from Freddy’s tiny socks. This must be his true appearance.
“Unfortunately,” Erasmus continues, “This transaction has been canceled.”
“We couldn’t sell him if we tried!” his father shouts, exposing his missing teeth. Sweat beads down the man’s neck. He grabs at Freddy’s torn pajama top and brings his son closer.
His mother lunges forward, glaring at Freddy in my arms. “Get him out!”
She puts both hands on my arm. They feel rough and callused against my skin. She pushes us toward the front door. Without looking back, I run as fast as I can until I reach the lawn. The door slams behind me.
All I can hear are the crickets around me. I find my car keys in my pocket and unlock the doors. Freddy puts his arms around my shoulders and sinks his head into the crook of my neck. He closes his eyes and blows bubbles onto my shirt. I smell the grass and shiver in the night air.