Malt Anderson stopped vacuuming when a Brussels sprout rolled out of the hallway and bumped into his foot. He scratched his head and picked it up to make sure, and yes, it was indeed a Brussels sprout, out for a stroll in the living room.
He looked down the hall and saw another sprout roll out of the kitchen. It bumped off the wall and also wobbled towards the living room. Mom always said the apartment was tilted to one side, so he supposed it was true.
Then he heard a noise from the kitchen, and frowned. It was a grunt, a thud, a rip. A wet munch. It might have sounded like a dog, except they didn’t have a dog other than the imaginary one Malt used to imagine a year ago, when he was nine years old. He was too old for imagination now, and the apartment didn’t allow real pets. And they couldn’t afford a dog anyway.
The noise definitely didn’t sound like Mom or Dad, since neither were home. Malt set the vacuum down and approached the kitchen.
Their fridge was a brown war-era thing, heavy and dented. Its door was open and someone was rummaging in it. Malt’s frown deepened. He saw the back of a tiny, wide man, wearing a potato sack wrapped with a bungee cord, and tin cans for shoes. His legs were too short and his arms were too long, and his skin was a bumpy green. The little man was buried face first in their vegetable drawer, digging for gold.
“Hello?” said Malt.
The little man screamed. He fell over backwards and landed on his butt, and a torrent of cherry tomatoes showered him. Malt grimaced as they pelted the floor he had cleaned that morning, and when the last of them landed, the little man got up, retrieved a yogurt cup which he put on as a hat, and turned around.
His face was wide and flat with a bulbous nose and huge ping-pong ball eyes. He reminded Malt of a toad.
The toad man froze when he spotted Malt. Then, he said with a rumbling croak, “Oh craaaaaap!” Malt saw his mouth was filled with dozens of rows of jagged teeth, and numerous half-eaten vegetables.
“That’s rude,” Malt said.
The toad man hopped from foot to foot and licked his lips with a blue tongue. “Uh,” he said, his eyes darting around. “Hey, kid! Listen!” He held his hands out towards Malt and wiggled his fingers. “This is all a dream! You’re dreaming!”
“I am not,” Malt said.
The toad man made woo sounds.
“Stop that. Who are you?” Malt leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms. “What are you?”
The toad man stopped woo-ing and lowered his arms. He let out a sad grunt. “I’m a groblin.”
“NOT,” the toad man said, “a goblin. A groblin.” Then he rolled his r. “Goblins aren’t real.”
“A groblin,” Malt repeated. “So… what’s a groblin?”
“I’m kind of, uh, like a guardian angel.”
“Really?” Malt’s eyes lit up.
“Yeah, only instead of guarding I’m more here to scare the crap out of you.”
“Oh.” Malt’s eyes lit down.
“It’s called grumpleflagritherning, and it’s kind of like haunting. Only we’re not ghosts. We’re groblins.”
“Grumpleflagritherning,” the groblin said, and then he crossed his arms. “And let me tell you, kid, you don’t make it easy. Under the bed, in the closet, weird night noises – I give you my best material and I get nothing from you. Nothing! Not so much as an eep. Even now, you’re just standing there, not even trembling, even though you clearly see my terrifying, horrid, monstrous form. Aren’t you the least bit scared?”
“No,” Malt said. “I like toads.”
The groblin choked on his breath. “T-toad? I do not look like a toad!”
The groblin glared at him but then waved it away. “Ah, forget it. What’s the point. Look at me, I’m reduced to stealing vegetables here. I’m going to lose my job.”
“Oh,” said Malt, looking at the floor. “Is it because you can’t scare me?”
“Yeah. See, scaring, that’s kind of like money where I come from. How come you don’t scare, anyway?”
Malt shrugged. “I’m a deep sleeper, I guess. I’m dead tired after cleaning all day.”
“Great,” the groblin said, kicking a radish.
Malt walked up to him and held out his hand. “My name’s Malt, by the way.”
The groblin hesitated, and then grabbed Malt’s hand. “Kramblitt.”
“That’s a weird name.”
“Don’t start, Malt.”
“Fair enough.” Malt looked around the kitchen, at the perfect mess Kramblitt had made of the place, and sighed. “Say, how about this. You help me clean this up, and I’ll give you some vegetables. That way it’s not stealing.”
They got to cleaning and it went much faster with two of them. They even turned it into a game, with Kramblitt running around with the waste basket and Malt throwing garbage into it, and by the time they were done they were both laughing and out of breath.
“That was fun,” said Kramblitt.
“Yeah,” said Malt.
“Say… I’m not normally up during the day. Is this what you do all day? Just clean stuff?”
“When I’m not at school,” Malt said, nodding. “I do the cooking too.”
“Don’t you have parents, kid?”
“Mom works late,” Malt said, looking into the distance. “Dad travels.”
“What about friends?”
Malt took a while replying. “Nah. I’m not really that popular.”
“Oh,” Kramblitt said. The joy of cleaning was wearing off. “Sorry.” Malt shrugged.
They sat like that for a while, just resting on the kitchen floor, Malt deep in thought and Kramblitt drinking a can of beans. Then suddenly Kramblitt slapped the floor with his sticky paw, swack!
“I’ve got it!”
Malt startled at the noise. “Got what?”
“I’m not scary and you’re boring, right?”
“Unpopular,” Malt said, glaring.
“Right, whatever. What if we could solve both problems at the same time?”
“What do you mean?”
Kramblitt giggled, displaying a jungle of jagged teeth. “It’s easy, pal. You just tell the other kids you got a real monster in your house. Then invite them over, and I’ll scare the crap out of them. I make my fright quota, and you get a reputation – the kid with the monster house. Oh, the fearless kid with the monster house.”
“I don’t know,” Malt said, but a smile was tugging at his lips. “How do I get them to come over?”
“Just tell them you got a, a, a… oh! How about this. A haunted bathroom. I got a great evil toilet routine, they’ll hate it.”
“But what if they don’t want to see it?”
“Easy. Just dare them. Pick the biggest, toughest, dumbest kid you know, and dare him right where everyone else can see. And the next day when he’s crying and terrified, everyone will know you’re telling the truth. And everyone will want to hang out with you.” Kramblitt let his words sink in. “So, Malt, what do you say? Partners?”
He held his hand out. Malt grabbed it. “Partners!”
Dino Forlani and his gang almost beat the bones out of Malt the next day at lunch, but when he shouted “I dare you!” loud enough for everyone to hear, the bully had no choice but to agree.
“But if you’re lying,” said Dino, “I’m gonna end you.”
They came over after school and Malt showed them the bathroom. Dino didn’t even get a foot in before the lid flew off the toilet and water started spraying everywhere, and the pipes roared like a tiger. He and his gang ran out of there, covered in toilet paper and tears.
The next day all of fourth grade was whispering about what might have happened, and suddenly Malt had volunteers eager to see the haunted toilet for themselves. By the end of the week, kids were talking about nothing else, with some recounting how cool it was, and others how terrified they were. Even some fifth graders showed an interest in seeing it.
And Kramblitt had saved up enough fright to buy a new pair of red boots and a feather cape. After they’d scare someone they’d roll around on the floor laughing.
“Told ya it would work!” Kramblitt said.
“This was a great idea!” Malt said.
Then they’d both clean up together, laughing all the way.
A week turned into a month. Most of the school had gone to see the haunted bathroom by now, and some had even gone twice. And the toilet was getting kind of boring. Everyone knew what to expect and the frights just weren’t there, so Malt and Kramblitt expanded their operations. Suddenly Malt had an evil toy chest, a possessed TV, a malicious deck of cards, a demonic bicycle. Even a haunted toaster.
The insatiable kids always wanted more and newer frights. Huge crowds formed around Malt as soon as he got to school, kids fighting for his attention, fighting for the right to get picked that night. Everyone loved him.
One day it was Stevie Doncaster’s turn. Malt knew Stevie was big into soccer, so he asked, “Hey, what if instead of seeing the devious coffee table, we just play some soccer after school?”
Stevie’s eyes lit up. “Oh? Do you have a haunted soccer ball!?”
“Then nah. Let’s see the coffee table!”
“Okay,” Malt agreed, frowning at the ground. He felt sad, but he wasn’t sure why. He had friends now, didn’t he? What was there to be sad about?
A few weeks later, when Melissa Simon had come over to see the vaguely irate duvet for the seventh time – she liked getting frightened, but not very frightened – things kind of flopped.
“Um,” she said, poking at the duvet. “It’s just sitting there. Is it broken?”
“No!” Malt said, putting on a fake smile. “I’m sure it’s just, ah, resting. It’ll get spooky right away.” He swallowed hard. “Um, just a sec, I just remembered I need to check on something.”
He hustled down the hall to his own room, and crawled halfway under his bed.
“Kramblitt!” he called out. Kramblitt lived under his bed, somewhere, in that one super dark corner at the far back.
He heard the distant sounds of Kramblitt laughing, crunching popcorn, and then some video game noises.
“Kramblitt! Where are you? We have a customer!”
The noises stopped, and were followed by a grunt, a thud, and then footsteps shuffling across the floor. Lots of footsteps, gradually growing louder. Kramblitt had explained the dark corner was much bigger than it appeared to be.
After a minute or so, Kramblitt stepped out of the darkness. He was wearing seal-skin slippers and a furry orange bathrobe, along with designer shades and a tiara. His fingers were covered with rings and he munched on a carrot.
“Oh, hey Malt,” he said, spraying carrot everywhere. “Didn’t see you there. What’s up?”
“What are you doing!? We have a client!”
Elsewhere in the apartment, Melissa called out, “This is lame! I’m going home!” Then a door slammed.
“Never mind,” Malt said.
“Oops,” Kramblitt said. “Oh well. Nothing wrong with taking a day off though, eh? Listen, I got enough fright saved up to last a while. I’m thinking I’m gonna take a vacation from the whole grumpleflagritherning thing.”
“Oh,” said Malt, frowning.
“Yeah, I want some time to play with new boat.”
“You bought a boat? Where do you even keep it?”
“Well, as you know,” Kramblitt said, “us groblins live in the places between spaces.”
“You know, where walls meet rooms, grass meets road, indoors meets outdoors, and left meets right. And as everyone knows, these places are mostly filled with water.”
“Wait, there’s water in the walls?”
“No, not in the walls. Between them and the floor. Pay attention, Malt.”
Malt frowned more.
“Anyway,” said Kramblitt, “I really want to get to know my new boat. I even put my Xbox on it! It’s awesome!”
“Oh cool! Can I see it?”
“Eh,” Kramblitt said, drawing it out. “You wouldn’t really fit. It’s kind of cramped in there for a human.”
“I’ll tell you all about it though!”
“Okay,” Malt said, and Kramblitt disappeared back into the darkness.
Kramblitt spent a month motoring up and down the apartment and its neighbourhood in his new boat.
He blasted his music and played video games, gorging himself on junk vegetables all day. He bought three houses and six cars, and slept in a different nest each night. He had sixty four suits and nineteen-and-a-half pairs of shoes, and a mountain of hats.
One day he bought a novelty toilet and fell to the floor laughing, remembering the time he and Malt scared the crap out of that Dino kid.
He wiped a tear from his eye. “Hey, remember that time…” he started, but then he realized he was alone, and Malt wasn’t there.
His games became boring after that. His food tasted bitter. He still blasted his music, but for some reason he only wanted to play sad songs, and even then only at a moderate volume. And then one day the Groblin Repossession Agency came around and took back all his houses, clothes, and the boat, because he had bought it all on credit.
Kramblitt sighed. He couldn’t fight them, and he didn’t really feel like it anyway. He left his dark corner for the first time in weeks.
At the apartment, he saw Malt in the living room, standing on a stool and cleaning the windows with some spray and a rag. Kramblitt cleared his throat but Malt must not have heard him. So he sidled up to a potted plant and tipped it over.
The pot shattered on the floor and dirt and leaves spilled everywhere. Malt screamed and nearly fell off his stool. Kramblitt felt that familiar warmth that came with every good scare coursing through his veins.
“Kramblitt!” Malt said. “What the heck!? Did you knock over that plant?”
“Oops,” Kramblitt said. “Clumsy me. Hey, what say you I help you clean it up?”
Malt nodded and they got cleaning.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” Malt said, scooping dirt up with a dust pan. “I thought maybe you moved.”
“Nah. I was just busy. You know, doing, uh, things.”
“Oh,” said Malt. “I see you’re wearing your potato sack again?”
“Yeah. I like how it flows, very comfortable on a hot day.”
“Um,” Malt said. “People don’t really come ’round any more, if you were, you know, looking to scare someone.”
“Oh, no, that’s cool,” said Kramblitt. “Actually, I was wondering if you wanted to hang out.”
“You know, like break stuff and then clean it up afterwards, or whatever it is human children do for fun.”
“We could play soccer?”
“Yeah, or that.”
Malt grinned and they high fived, and the day was filled with laughter and fun for them, and with terrified screams for everyone else who witnessed the boy with the haunted soccer ball.