“Time for bed,” announced Mrs. Castro. “Get your PJs on, Julian, and brush your teeth.”
Julian Castro had experienced a bit of a growth spurt before his fifth birthday, so he could reach the sink without a step. After rebuttoning his pajama shirt, he set his teddy bear on the toilet seat and made careful swirls across his teeth with the toothbrush. He always tried to be a good boy, though his parents didn’t seem to notice much. They had their jobs and their friends. Julian was expected to keep out of the way and let them live their lives, so he made himself as invisible as possible.
Clicking off his bedroom light, he rushed to the bed, clutching Teddy tightly. His parents refused to get him a nightlight, so he left the door ajar a bit so some weak illumination would filter in.
He prayed that tonight he wouldn’t hear the sounds. Laughter from the living room comforted him somewhat, though it had nothing to do with him. At the very least, it was loud enough to drown out any noise from the walls.
In the middle of the night, though, when the house was still, Julian jerked awake with a start. For a moment he lay still, listening to the frightened flutter of his own pulse. Then the scratching began, soft but persistent, first from the vicinity of his closet, then spreading through all four walls of his room.
After a while the whispering started, too. Julian couldn’t quite make out the frightening words, but there were dozens of different voicesall around him, even in the ceiling and, he realized with a whimper, under his bed.
From time to time they seemed to rasp his name.
In the morning, bleary eyed and terrified, Julian fumbled to get ready for daycare. His mom chatted on her cell phone the whole way, thenpatted his head before he stumbled out of the car. By naptime he was ready to collapse, and he slept through the entire afternoon.
At the dinner table that evening, his father looked at him unhappily. “Julian, your daycare teachers tell us that you have been taking ridiculously long naps this week. ¿Qué te pasa? Are you getting up when we’re asleep and watching TV or something? You know that’s against the rules.”
“No, Daddy. I’m just…” He took a deep breath. “I can’t sleep.”
“Tonterías,” his mother said. “Of course you can sleep. You just don’t want to. You’re trying to ruin things for me.” She turned to Mr. Castro. “Do something with the kid. I don’t have time for this.”
His father gave him a stern lecture and threatened punishment. Julian kept quiet. Just before bedtime, he drank a glass of milk and sneaked a sip of the medicine that always made him drowsy. Not tonight, he thought as he pulled the covers up around Teddy and himself. No whispers tonight.
But the scratching and voices returned that night and every other night for weeks.
“It’s los duendes,” his friend Roberto told him at daycare. “Little monsters que viven en las walls y se roban a los kids.”
Terrified of being stolen while dreaming, Julian snatched what sleep he could after school. As long as sunlight poured in through the windows, his walls were silent. But once twilight deepened across his neighborhood, the skittering sounds began afresh.
His daycare called his father again, concerned. Julian broke down when his parents confronted him.
“There’s something in the walls,” he moaned softly between sniffles. “Scratching.Whispers. I can’t sleep! Son duendes.”
“Oh, great,” his mother sighed. “The kid’s going nuts. We can’t afford a freaking psychiatrist!”
“Now Julian,” his father said, unbuckling his belt, “that’s enough of this foolishness. Do you want a spanking?”
“No, Daddy. Please. I’m sorry.”
That night he stole cotton balls from his mother’s make-up desk and stuffed them in his ears. Then he put his pillow over his head, hugging Teddy close. Sleep came, uninterrupted and lovely. There were no dreams.
In the morning, however, he was awakened by his mother’s angry shouts.
“Julián Javier Castro! Get your little butt in here!”
He hurried into the living room, where his mother was standing over a lamp that lay broken on the tile. “Why did you do this?”
“I didn’t, Mommy?”
“Well, I sure as heck didn’t,huerco chiflado. Your father didn’t either. There’s no one else but you.”
Julian ducked his head. “Maybe it was…los duendes.”
She grabbed his pajama top and pulled him closer. “You’re not fooling anybody with that nonsense. You’re sneaking in here late at night. I know you are.”
“¿Amor?” Julian’s father called. “Have you been in the kitchen? It’s a mess! Pots and pans everywhere.”
Mrs. Castro’s face twisted in anger. “That’s it. Tonight I’m locking you in.”
Julian spent the entire day dreading the night. His parents sent him to bed right after dinner, and true to her word, his mother had Mr. Castro switch the doorknob around so they could lock it from the outside.
There was no chance of grabbing cotton balls. There was no protection. Julian lay in the gloaming and waited, trembling.
The scratching came, fiercer than ever before. The whispers got louder and louder. Finally he could hear them speaking to him.
“Julian, come with us. Leave your vile, selfish parents. We love you. They don’t. Why fight? Why stay? You’ll have such fun in Centlani,the Goblin Realm.”
The shadows of his room seemed to roil and writhe, and then they appeared. Green-skinned, red-eyed, each unique, some with suckered tentacles, others with clicking claws. About his height, the grotesque creatures crept closer and closer to his bed.
“Los duendes,” Julian whispered.
“Yes,” one of them snarled, pulling back the covers. “And we’re here to take you away, to make you one of us, Julian. We like you. We need you.”
Their creepy kindness surprised the boy, touched his heart. When they seized him, he did not struggle. It was for the best. His parents would have some peace at last.
“Okay,” he breathed. “But can I take Teddy with me?”
The goblins nodded, giggling hideously as their tentacles pulled him into the shadows.
About the illustrator: Bianca Rios is a freelance illustrator and artist. Learn more at www.rios-art.tumblr.com
About the author: David Bowles is the author of Flower, Song, Dance: Aztec and Mayan Poetry, Mexican Bestiary and The Seed. Learn more at www.davidbowles.us
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