Phoebe came through the back door into the kitchen. The small figure at the table looked up at her with all the sadness in the world reflected in his hazel eyes, and the weight of a ten-ton boulder on his back. His small face was wet, a rivulet of snot glistened over his lips like clear, sticky, slug slime. Phoebe rushed to her brother’s side and took the little boy in her arms, wishing she could shield his trembling body like an umbrella protects from a downpour.
“Is he doing it again?” She asked softly.
Trevor damply nodded against her collarbone.
Phoebe got up, grabbed a handful of Puffs from the counter, and gently wiped his face.
“Blow.” She tenderly commanded.
Trevor did. He let out a long wavering sigh.
“Wait here sweetie. I’ll be right back. Then you can help me make some mac’n’cheese. Ok?”
“Can we put wieners in it?”
She stood up, pulled her messy coppery hair into a fresh ponytail, and pushed her glasses up her freckled pug nose. She gathered her strength, finding the inner warrior inside the frightened teenaged girl.
Since the passing, she’d had to do this daily, putting aside her own grief, to be a pillar for her innocent little brother. And little he was. Trevor was small for his age. He got called a nerd in school. Phoebe couldn’t believe other children his age could classify others so cruelly and so soon. She recalled that it wasn’t until sixth grade when she’d started being the target of a bully’s attention.
She was so proud of Trevor because he didn’t care. He loved reading. He’d read anything he was allowed to. At only six, his favorites were Tolkien, Dahl, Poe, and Burroughs. Regardless of his nerd stature, he made friends easily because he was a good, caring, little person. He’d strive to do great things, while the dumb bullies would end up “…stinky ole bums.”
Phoebe couldn’t imagine life without Trevor in it.
The other member of her immediate family was stressing her out big time. Day by day she felt angrier and more frustrated with her father, he’d become like an old rusty beater that’s falling apart but keeps on running…untrustworthy.
She found him in his usual spot. Slumped in the Lay-Z-boy in front of the tv.
‘Oh crap.’ She thought, ‘This is new. The tv isn’t even on but he’s staring at it with that lopsided grimmacey face.’
He took a sip from his glass. No ice. Another new. He didn’t look up but continued his unblinking stare at the fantasy program before him.
The living room was gloomy in the light of the waning late afternoon sun. It reeked of unwashed body, Jack Daniels, and deep, profound misery.
Phoebe saw red and blew steam from her flared nostrils. She stood directly in front of her father and screamed, “Dad!” In his face. She grabbed at the glass, but his grip was strong as a starfish clinging to a tidal rock. The fumy bourbon slopped across his lap and at last he reanimated into a man.
“What the---” he started.
“I told you!” Screamed Phoebe in his face, “You are NOT allowed to wallow in grief any longer! You are traumatizing your son!” As an afterthought, she said, less loud, “And me too.”
Arty pulled himself together like a giant inhaling a storm cloud. He shook his head and looked in disbelief at the blank tv screen. He thought he’d been watching a movie. A horror movie about an evil goblin named Covid.
“Oh sweetheart…” Arty said, “I lost my job today.”
Phoebe clenched her small fists. Inside, she raged. Outside, she calmly said, “Let’s look online. We’ll find you an even better one.”
“Oh darling, can we do it tomorrow?”
“Yes dad, I’ve got to take care of Trevor now anyways.”
“I just…” he started, “I could have done something…dragged her to the CVS.”
Phoebe knew what was coming. She’d herd the lamentations over and over…and over. “Dad. Not your fault. We are so lucky we didn’t get it too.”
“They wouldn’t even let me hold her as she died…her last breath I saw through a window. A window for chrissakes! I saw the monitor flat line green.” He sobbed then. “It’s my fault. I should have forced her to get vaccinated. Tied her up, if necessary, and dragged her…”
Phoebe said, for the hundredth time, “Dad, mom is gone. We need you. We need you working. You need to snap out of this…this funk.”
Arty studied his fifteen-year-old daughter’s stricken face and the fog seemed to clear from his eyes like clouds parting for rays of sunshine. “Okay. Right…You’re right.”
His first attempt off the chair ended badly. “Heh heh” he laughed, unaware of Phoebe shaking her head and groaning. On his second attempt, he made it to his feet. He shuffled towards the stairs.
Phoebe picked up the warm, fingerprint-smudgy glass and took it with her to the kitchen.
“Hey little man! How ya doin?”
Trevor’s face was dry. The monster was gone from the living room. He said, “Can I watch one of my shows?”
Phoebe said, “Sure. I’ll call you when I need your help with the macaroni.”
After a minute she heard Hulu start up. After another minute ‘Elementary’ was starting.
Upstairs, Arty sat on his bed. He rubbed his itchy, sleep starved eyes.
He feared sleep. When he closed his eyes, he heard wheezy, labored breathing. And the sci-fi sound of the respirator. He saw Elizabeth. Ashen grey and so pale, she looked almost blue. Her angry eyes would open. Across a hospital room, through a window fifteen feet away, they bore into his own accusingly. They glared from deep charcoal pits. His beautiful, rosy-cheeked wife had become an alien from a horror flick, complete with tubes in her nose and mouth.
He smelled himself. ‘Whew. Ripe.’
He started undressing. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flicker of movement. ‘The goblin! There! The closet!’ His puffy red eyes followed the shadow. From the closet, to under the bed. Horrified, he lifted his legs, a mewling escaped his lips like a kitten crying for milk. When he leaned over to peek under the bed, he tumbled off it.
On the dirty carpet, he shook his head. ‘Gone. Never there at all. Arty, get it together.’
He pulled stained, week-old clothes off his emaciated frame. He flinched when he caught sight of himself in the mirror. Unrecognizable.
After showering, he walked nude into the bedroom. The nasty little thing he called The Covid Goblin scuttled at the corners of his vision. A two-foot shadow flickered across the bottom of the wall and into the open closet. He grabbed a pair of jockeys from a drawer, his eyes glued to the shadowy space.
The smell of cheese and the chatter of his children drew him downstairs.
Warily, the kids looked up from the show on the tv. They smiled at the sight of him clean and in fresh clothes, although they hung off his scarecrow-like frame. The bruising under his eyes was now as black as the underside of storm clouds.
“Smells great guys.” Arty said amiably.
Phoebe answered back, “Plenty in the kitchen Dad!”
He came into the living room with a bowl of mac’n’cheese studded with fried wieners…his son’s favorite. He smiled for the first time in a long while, it stretched his lips in an unfamiliar way.
Trevor said, “Dad, we’re watching the latest America Horror Story. I’m allowed. Phoebe said so. Tomorrow’s Halloween.”
Arty said, “That’s great son.” He sipped surreptitiously from a glass on the end table.
Phoebe, grown paranoid, saw all. She braced herself for another confrontation with her dad and his demons.
Arty watched a half episode with his children then made his way upstairs, apologizing when he stumbled, and mumbled, “Sorry. Really tired.”
Phoebe thought, ‘Really drunk.’
Upstairs, Art flopped onto the bed. He hugged his dead wife’s pillow and inhaled the mingled scent of her flowery perfume and her natural musk. He was surprised he still had tears left to shed.
‘There! What was that?’ From the edge of his vision- The Covid Gremlin. “You won’t take any more of my family!” he shouted. He raved on about gremlins.
Downstairs, cuddled on the couch, the children heard the muffled shouts.
“Phoebes, he’s ranting about the gremlin again.”
“I know. That one he calls The Covid Gremlin.”
“Is there really a Covid Gremlin?” Trevor spooned back into his sister as close as he could. His little bird’s voice broke her heart.
She said, “No honey, there’s not. Dad is schizophrenic. I Googled it. I think it’s from sleep deprivation and booze. On Monday, I’m going to talk to the school counselor for advice.”
“Cool.” Then he added, “Phoebes, was mom crazy too?”
“Hmmm. In a different way I suppose---”
“---it was crazy she didn’t get vaccinated!”
“Yes, I agree. Mom was raised in a strict Catholic home. Remember how bonkers Granny-Pearl and Grampy-Neil got sometimes?”
“Yeah, waaay disturbing.”
“Well, mom was infected with that lunacy, she said getting the vaccine was against her religion. We are so lucky we didn’t get it too.”
Trevor said, “You mean me.” Both their father and Phoebe were vaccinated. There wasn’t one available yet for little kids.
Phoebe hugged him tighter. The bright light of a commercial reflected in her eyeglasses, a tear escaped from under them. She said, “Time for bed kiddo, big day tomorrow!”
Trevor bounced back to a happy place the way only young children can. “Halloween! Oh boy!”
Phoebe finished putting the clean dishes away, giving Trevor time to brush his teeth and ready for bed. Then she went upstairs to tuck him in. She sighed, ‘Dad should be doing this.’ She wanted to scream when she saw the light coming out from under her father’s door. ‘He’s still awake. Bet he’ll be up all night again.’
In his bed, Arty stared into the closet. Both nightstand lamps were on. The closet was a dark maw, hanging clothes the teeth. It was where the gremlin came from. ‘He must have a magic doorway in there somewhere. Damned if I could find it.’
The second his gaze wandered to the window the closet door wafted an inch.
Eyes back to the closet. ‘I saw that you little shit.’ Arty took a swig from a pint bottle, a dribble of liquid courage burned down his chin. When he felt a coal glow deep in his belly, he rolled off the rumpled sheets and staggered to the closet. He tore the clothing from the rod, plastic hangers too. A couple of broken ones fell to the floor. He scooped up the shoes, broken plastic bits, and fallen garments from the floor. All went into a pile in the corner by the door.
Arty sat down on the bed. He took another swig without taking his eyes from the empty closet.
The pile on the floor shuddered. “Aaaaaaa!” He swung his legs onto the bed to save his vulnerable feet.
A shadow flitted along the window wall like a smudge of smoke.
At 5:30 am he found himself entering the kitchen downstairs. The fridge door was open, the only light in the cool, inky room. The light was an odd phosphorescent yellow-green, like radioactive seaweed. The two-foot figure propping the door open was stooped and bent, rifling through the vegetable drawers. It grunted and pulled something long, knobby, and glistening red, from the bin. An arm! A gory child’s arm. It stood and turned around, a silhouette against the soupy light. It grinned and a hundred needle-like teeth glinted with thick, mucussy saliva. He heard sizzling as the droplets hit the floor. The gremlin’s eyes glowed yellow like a feral animal’s in a feeding frenzy.
Arty screamed. He opened his eyes. His lamplit bedroom. Around the curtains in the window, the watery grey light of an overcast day struggled to enter the fetid, rank-smelling room. ‘A dream, just a dream.’
The front door slammed. His kids, leaving for school. His teeth felt fuzzy, his face rough as sandpaper, and he stank of fear-sweat. He went downstairs to the kitchen. His hand stopped an inch short of opening the fridge door. ‘Nothing I want in there anyways.’ He turned to the cupboard instead and opened it. After rummaging around the far back corner, he came up empty. She’d found it. ‘Nice try kiddo.’ He thought. He opened the cupboard under the sink and lifted the plastic bag out of the can. He pulled a full bottle from the receptacle. Taking out the trash was the only household chore he insisted on doing himself.
In front of the tv, he slumped into the mushy indent of his armchair. The squishy, well-worn seat enfolded his lower body like a lover. He turned on the tv and watched the soaps that Elizabeth used to love.
At two pm he lifted his empty glass and frowned at it. He looked over at the end table and saw the Jack was half gone. His head wobbled as he focused on the clock above the tv. ‘Ugh. Can’t let them see me like this.’ When he finally broke free of the chair, he catapulted across the room. He wrestled with vertigo like Don Quixote attacking a windmill. He considered brushing his teeth and maybe shaving…’Later. Nap first.’
He lay on the bed and realized he still had the bottle in his hand. ‘No glass. Oh well.’ He uncapped it and swigged. He looked at the pile of clothes, shoes, hangers and other detritus from the closet and frowned. Dim memories trickled in like molasses oozing through a sieve. He investigated the empty closet. No little secret door. He stared. His eyes burned and his over-sensitized skin tingled all over.
He registered the front door shutting. Trevor home. Phoebe would be home soon. This was a big night for Trevor. ‘I should be helping him with his costume and taking him around the neighborhood.’ His eyes burned but the tears felt good, like Visine. ‘They can’t see me like this.’ He lay back down.
The light sneaking in around the curtain turned from ash grey, to purple, to black.
‘Crackle-pong!’ the lightbulb on his side just burned out. Shadows sprung up around the room like black evil mushrooms.
In the sudden gloominess, a two-foot shadow scuttled spider-quick along the wall. It dove into the clothes pile. He sat up. Inside his head, Thor’s hammer pounded a heavy iron anvil; he nearly fainted. The messy pile shifted, a Skecher toppled from the top, and softly thumped to the carpet. The carpet rippled as if a giant burrowing worm slithered under it, the worm wove its way under the bed. Arty grabbed the ax from beside the nightstand. He’d put it there three days previously. He hefted it in his hand, enjoying the silvery glint of the sharpened blade and its solid, heavy weight. He sat like a vulture on a cliff- frozen, waiting.
The Covid Gremlin darted from under the bed and slipped like black smoke under the door to the hallway.
Arty leapt off the bed and flew into an ultra-time-warp dimension. He felt more alert and awake…and alive, than he had since Elizabeth’s ghastly death. On feet armed with Hermes’ wings, he flew into the hallway. He glimpsed the gremlin’s shadow popping down the stairs and raced after it.
At the bottom he froze, and, holding his breath, looked around the shadowy living room using only his scratchy eyeballs.
A light came on in the kitchen. Yellow, and from the left of the entryway. ‘The Fridge.’
He tip-toed to the doorframe like a cartoon being stealthy. He peeked around the frame. A short, dark silhouette rummaged around the bottom shelf. Sharp, curved horns sprouted from a shaggy head. It appeared squat and hunchbacked. The arm in the fridge was hairy and black and ended with a clawed and gnarled hand. It closed on a red Tupperware bowl.
Arty bumped a chair, it scraped on the linoleum.
The gremlin turned in surprise. A hundred needle-like teeth spread in a face-breaking grin. Its eyes glittered deep within folds of warty skin.
“Ha!” Arty screamed, “At last!” He brought the axe down. It thunked into the gremlin’s skull with a sickening whomp.
Outside, by the light from the back porch, Arty finished tamping down the earth. He’d dug the grave quickly, wanting to be done before his kids came home, they’d been through enough and didn’t need more fodder for their nightmares. He’d even left the axe wedged in the evil little thing’s head. Just as he entered the kitchen, he heard the front door shut.
“Trevor! I’m back! C’mon, you ready to hit the streets Little Man?”
Phoebe entered the kitchen. Her dad was standing by the sink, drinking…a glass of water. His tee-shirt was plastered to his back as if he’d been running. ‘Impossible. He hasn’t gone running since Mom died. Probably hasn’t drunk anything besides Jack Daniels either.’
He put the empty glass down and turned around. “Hi honey. Where’s your brother?”
Phoebe said, “I had to run to the CVS for some candy. I forgot all about it.” She held her tongue before she could add, ‘Mom always took care of that.’ Out loud, she said, “I figured you could answer the door for the trick-or-treaters.”
Arty said, “Sure sweetheart, sounds good. You two heading out now?”
“Yeah. You seen Trevor? We did really great with his costume this year.”
“No, I guess he’s upstairs.” Arty turned towards the stairs and shouted, “Trevor!”
Phoebe said, “I’m really surprised you haven’t seen him yet. He was so excited to show you his troll costume. He looks just like one from his favorite Tolkien story.”