Unearth

Fiction by Christina Tuttle

 

Grant began the story like this:

When the icy snow sunk into the earth under the late March sun, he went out into the woods, straying from the hiking trails in the undead of night, slogging through cold mud and descending into a shallow gulley cut between dense trees.

This was how he found her, after his heel had caught in a thicket of ferns. It seemed unusual, and he had taken pause. He crouched down and there she was, barely visible with the new moon, half-dissolved under a thick knitting of moss. Oh, he had thought, pausing, a hand centimeters above her head. He carefully pulled the curls of foliage from her body, until her eyes split open—golden, snakelike, massive glowing full-moons. She grinned at him, shark teeth, and leapt from her shallow grave, scattering dirt and leaf litter, and danced circles around him before springing away into the shadows.

“I followed her through the trees and corralled her back to my car eventually,” Grant concluded, smiling. “And, well, here we are.”

Kevin, a housemate found online, had woken to the sound of living room commotion, and now sat beside Grant on the couch. He’d listened to the tale in groggy silence, and now, together, they watched the creature from Grant’s story skulk the perimeter of the room—large, four-fingered hands feeling up the walls, the front door handle, dipping into pockets of hanging coats, all while it wore nothing but an oversized letterman jacket and sagging superhero-print boxers. It stopped at the television set and began toying with the wires on the back.

“How do you know it’s a she?” Kevin asked.

“She wasn’t wearing anything when I dug her up.”

“Oh.” Kevin shifted, cleared his throat. Grant’s curious smile widened as the creature bit through the cluster of wires and tore them in two. Kevin, seeing the flash of needle-point teeth for the first time, leapt up. “Holy shit!”

Grant stood and went over to her; the creature jumped back as he approached, posture hunched and taut and untrusting. But he knelt to her level and maintained an easy distance until she relaxed, tilted her head and blinked owlishly, then pattered past him to the living room’s picture window and peered out at the front lawn while chewing absently on her mouthful of copper and silicon.

“What the hell?” said Kevin. “What is it—she?”

“A goblin, I think.” Grant stood.

“What—how—why would you think that? At all?”

“Just looks it, don’t you think?”

Grant cast his gaze back to her fondly, and Kevin’s followed. She was squatted at the window, which had been opened just a crack the night before to let in the spring air. Her eyes, bulbous and yellow, squinted peacefully against a slight breeze. Morning sunlight danced through the hair tumbling over her face and shoulders—dark, coarse, and greasy, adorned with rotting twigs and grass. At full height, she was perhaps to Grant’s waist, but her shoulders rolled so far forward that she appeared even lesser than that. Her skin was gray-white with silver hues, like mold under moonlight, with a minty tinge to the tips of her fingers, elbows, knees, cheeks, and large, pointed ears—and a flat, batlike nose splashed with holly berry red.

“She must’ve been in some kind of accident,” Kevin said, “or born disfigured or—or special. But she can’t just not be human.”

“Why not?” Grant asked.

Kevin looked at him, astonished. “What, have you found a thing like this before?”

“No. I just think it’s obvious.”

The creature had finished the wires and began tugging on the sheer, decorative drapes that had come with the house. Kevin shot forward, grabbing her wrist—thin, chilled, boney—and yanked her away, then held up her hand to observe. There were, certainly, four fingers, just a bit too long to sit well in the eyes. They had cracked and clawlike nails the shade of coal. One was a thumb. There was no empty space, no scarring, no indication of—

“Ow!” Kevin let go and jumped back a step. He looked down at the new tear in the leg of his sweats, as the creature—the goblin—returned to the drapes. “She bit me!”

“If she doesn’t want to be touched, don’t touch her,” Grant suggested.

“How was I supposed to know?” Kevin sat back on the couch, thumbed at the rip, sulking.

With the loud, elongated sound of metal against drywall and a resounding crash, the window drapes and their hanger tumbled to the floor. The creature tore into them viciously with her four-fingered hands until a large tattered portion of the fabric was freed. Then she wrapped it around herself, a silken cocoon with floral trim, and log rolled out of the living room and down the hall in the direction of the bedrooms.

“I’ll keep an eye on her,” Grant promised.

“Absolutely not,” said Kevin. “The lease is for two—there’s a no pet policy—we both have classes, you have practice—”

Grant placed a reassuring hand on his housemate’s shoulder.

“Grant, I’m serious. She could be diseased—”

Wholly ineffective.

“We don’t even know what she is—man, listen to me! Grant!”

“She’s a goblin, bro. I already told you.”

Grant followed her down the hall.

Immediately, Kevin went to the campus library and skimmed every book of folklore he could find. By 10, he was googling every cinematic instance of goblin, gremlin, troll. Skipped lunch to scour medical records of burn victims, albinism, crack babies. By sunset he collapsed onto a table at the corner coffee shop exhausted—defeated.

The thing was a goblin. Literally a goblin. Or something similar—it wasn’t an exact match to anything he had found in his search, natural or supernatural. But he returned to the house to find that Grant was already calling her the goblin, and Kevin didn’t see much point in arguing semantics. Grant was on a sports scholarship, anyway, so the finer details would most likely be lost on him.

And anyway, he reasoned somewhat desperately, the thing was still in his junior year rented home, regardless of what he believed or rejected.

Fine. But why?

When he posed this question to Grant in the kitchen the next day, Grant only shrugged and said around a mouthful of protein shake, “There’s probably no reason.”

“There has to be,” Kevin said. He leaned against a counter space and irritably stirred a bowl of corn flakes. “Goblins don’t just appear.”

Grant motioned to the table where she sat, knees to chin, still in the same jacket and drooping boxers, as though that single hand-sweep answered everything. He took another swig of his drink, grabbed a plate from the sink, rinsed it off, and filled it with scrambled eggs from a pan on the stove.

Kevin frowned. “Those were mine.”

“Even if there were a reason,” Grant said, setting the plate on the table, “why would it matter?”

“Because it does,” Kevin said. “Because things mean things.”

“They don’t have to.” Grant slid the plate to the goblin. She blinked at it, picked it up, dumped the contents onto the table, and bit into the plate. The faded pastoral print splintered into the pile of eggs, and as she chewed, she picked through the remains carefully, like searching for shell bits. Kevin stared in disbelief—first at the goblin, then at Grant. Grant met his gaze, moved to another cabinet. He pulled out a can of Spam and placed it carefully on top of the egg heap. The goblin set down her ruined plate in favor of the can; she tipped it upside down—“Good god,” Kevin groaned—and shook until the Spam fell into the eggs with a wet thud. Then she crumpled the metal best she could and popped it in her mouth with a happy, raccoonish trill.

“Grant,” Kevin pleaded.

Grant swallowed the end of his shake. “What do you want me to do? I found her. She’s my responsibility.”

Says who? Kevin wanted to demand, but instead he asked, “What were you even doing in the woods last night?” Grant moved to sit beside the goblin at the table, saying nothing. “Grant, why were you out there?”

Grant glanced back over his shoulder. The goblin spat out the metal tab of the can and buried it in the center of the Spam block. He turned back to her, and kept picking out shards of chinaware, one after the other, one after the other.

It had just been Kevin and Grant in the house, up until that point. The upper level belonged to someone else, supposedly, though the first-floor dwellers hardly heard more than the occasional creaking floorboard from overhead. Grant had been half-convinced since day one that the other tenant was a ghost—Kevin, for whom this had been the first topic of conversation beyond roommate negotiations, assumed hockey had knocked Grant into a bit of a dumbass.

Still, he seemed well-liked—by his teammates, at least, who were always coming around the house asking for him. A whole truckload of them arrived that afternoon, long after Kevin had given up trying to get information out of Grant. They pulled into the driveway, nearly tapping the bumper of Kevin’s four-door with their own. There was a shout, a counter-shout, a door slam. Kevin was on the front stoop—Grant and the goblin had continued desecrating the living room and kitchen with aftershocks of breakfast, and even Kevin’s bedroom wasn’t distance enough. He looked up from the atlas open in his lap, frayed page corner between two fingers.

One of Grant’s teammates approached, swinging his car keys like a morning star. “Grant in?”

“Think so.” Kevin pretended to still be looking at the map. “He’s busy though.”

“With what?”

“Hell if I know.”

Clink. The lanyard fell still. “Well, he’s not answering his phone.”

Kevin reached into his jacket for a cigarette and lighter. “He’s got somebody over.”

“Oh?”

Kevin lit up and glanced back to find the teammate reappraising, nodding sagely.

“Got it. Well, tell him to check his phone. We got the big game on Saturday.”

Kevin hummed, took a drag. The teammate retreated, and the truck pulled away. A few moments later, Grant emerged on the porch in a winter coat and basketball shorts.

Kevin held up the atlas. “At least tell me which forest. There’s a couple around this area.”

Grant ignored him, swinging a half-empty quart of milk in one hand like a great club as he descended three stairs in two steps. In the yard, he uncapped it. “Sorry, I know it’s still half-full, but—” He knelt down and using a trowel Kevin only just noticed in his other hand, uprooted clumps of grass in the half-frozen earth and siphoned it all into the container. Kevin watched as the milk quivered, struggled, then blended into a chocolatey grit.

“She refuses to drink anything in the fridge.” Grant recapped it, standing, shaking it well. “I think this’ll help.”

“Which forest?” Kevin asked. Grant hopped up the porch, passed him, and let the screen door slam in his wake.

Half an hour later, Kevin hiked into the living room. “Look, goblins are magic, or whatever. Magic doesn’t just happen. It must be the manifestation of something.”

“What do you know about magic?” Grant sounded amused. He sat cross-legged at the living room coffee table and was sorting a collection of couch-cushion trash into piles. The goblin skittered in and out, kitchen to bathroom to living room, stopping only to dump four-fingered handfuls of debris onto the coffee table—coins, rubber bands, bottle caps, uncooked pasta, a hoop earring that definitely belonged to none of them, a shoelace, an acorn. Grant pointed out the three separate piles—shinies, non-shinies, and rottables.

“Rottables,” Kevin echoed.

“Things that could go bad,” Grant clarified. The goblin paused to take the carton of dirt-milk at Grant’s side and pour a splash—half into a ceramic bowl, half onto the floor. She lifted the bowl with both hands and drank ravenously, then nibbled a small portion of the edge and ran off again.

Kevin exhaled—but, stubbornly, took a seat at the coffee table anyway. “Have you ever lost someone?”

“Uh?”

“A younger sibling, maybe?”

Grant stopped sorting, a propeller seed between his thumb and forefinger. He spun it, thoughtful. “Nope.”

“What about a pet?”

“Nah. My parents are allergic.”

“Maybe—”

“What’re you talking about, anyway?” Grant resumed sorting, leaning back on one hand.

“This thing came to you for a reason, man.” The goblin returned, this time with some things that definitely belonged in Kevin’s room. Irritated, he began sorting his things into a fourth pile. “How can you not care?”

“It’s not that I don’t care.” Grant rolled the acorn back and forth under his palm. “Just sounds like you’re thinking too hard about it.”

Kevin stood, gathering his possessions in his arms. “Your problem, Grant, is that you’re not thinking hard enough.” Grant watched Kevin turn down the hall with an undefinable glint in his eye. “Don’t forget about the big game this weekend.”

He had class at noon, and when he returned, Kevin found his house nearly unrecognizable. First, he noticed that one of his slippers was missing at the front door, then that the zippers of the couch cushions had been peeled off and strewn across the floor. A knot of surreality twisted in his gut as he followed a chaotic string of permanent marker scribblings on the wall—some at waist height, some stretching above him—down the hall and into the kitchen, where a pot of tree branches, pillow stuffing, and shredded cheese smoldered on the stove. He dropped his backpack and rushed to lift the pot, carried it with both hands toward muted laughter coming from the backyard.

“What the hell, Grant?”

Grant was doubled over in the soggy, gray-brown grass, cackling like a damn witch. His hands were caked in dirt to the wrists, smudges of city soil under his chin, across his brow. Holes the size of basketballs pocked the yard. The goblin was running up and down the towering wooden fence, Kevin’s second house slipper hanging off one ear. Grant looked up, eyed the smoke billowing from the pot Kevin held expectantly over the railing of the porch.

“Lunch,” he explained.

“We have a deposit!” Kevin shouted. He tipped the pot. The goblin shrieked, pointed. Kevin threw the pot at the fence above her head. She ducked.

“Hey!” Grant rose to full height before the metal even hit the ground. “Chill, man.”

For the first time, Kevin realized Grant wasn’t wearing shoes.

“You’re a fucking freak, Grant.” As soon as he put the words into the frigid air, Kevin realized he was kind of afraid. Grant canted his head to one side.

“Hey, don’t tell anybody about her, alright?” he said.

“Put my slipper back where you found it and maybe I won’t,” Kevin answered, to save face. Then he backed into the house and closed the door.

She had collected every pen in the house by the next day, cracking them open like crab legs and sucking out the ink like marrow.

It was early evening; the sun was almost gone. Grant had practice. Kevin was skipping class. He sat on the couch, a notebook on one knee, line after line of questions, observations, hypotheses. His eyes had been trained on her for the past half hour—her fiendish profile, her ink-stained mouth.

Her tongue darted out to sweep up a stray smudge, forked and ashen gray-purple. Kevin tapped his pencil a few times, irritated, before taking note.

Headlights reflected in her lemon sclera, amber pupil, slit irises. She leapt up, pens scattering across the wood floor. When Grant stepped in, hockey bag over one shoulder, helmet under the other, the goblin jumped excitedly around him, squawking, gangly limbs waving. Grant laughed, then dug a puck out of his bag and handed it to her. When she bit it in half, he ruffled her hair—like it was normal, like it was nothing.

“The big game this weekend,” said Grant. “You coming?”

“I don’t know.” Kevin flipped back to the first page.

“The team wanted to come back here for the after-party.” The goblin squatted and began undoing the laces of his Timberlands. “You cool with that?”

The goblin choked down his laces like worms, then tugged at his boot insistently until Grant lifted his foot just enough for her to yank it off. She somersaulted backward with it clutched to her chest, then tore into it like a carcass, gutting it insole-first.

Kevin curled his lip. “Are you cool with having people here?”

Grant shrugged.

“Fine. Whatever.”

Grant, looking pleased, made his way toward his room. The goblin was soon at his heels, and Kevin followed. “Hey. I was thinking. Maybe it’s your stress. Maybe the universe could sense you were worried about the big game and sent her here to keep your mind off it.”

“I’m not worried about the big game,” Grant replied.

“Latent sexuality, then.” Kevin checked his list. “Are you gay?”

Grant paused, tilted his head thoughtfully. “I don’t think so.”

“An ex-girlfriend, maybe? A manifestation of her cheating, or your cheating, or something equally terrible that you’ve yet to recover from.”

Grant side-eyed him, and Kevin found himself faltering. “She is not terrible.”

“Not what I meant,” Kevin amended—they were nearing the end of the hall, Grant’s bedroom door, the goblin weaving between their legs, tripping Kevin up. “Childhood abuse? An addiction? Depression?”

“Kevin,” Grant turned abruptly at his door, looking him straight in the eye, “sometimes you just dig up a goblin in the woods, you know?”

Kevin frowned. Grant held his gaze a moment longer, emphatically, before disappearing into his room. The goblin slipped in after him just before the door clicked shut.

The after-party manifested as cacophony beyond Kevin’s bedroom door the following night. Kevin had hardly slept the night before, writing, pacing—listening to the sound of the goblin rummaging around Grant’s room on the other side of the wall.

And now he was locked in his room babysitting her.

She can’t be out there, Grant had insisted. By this point, Kevin had been too exhausted to protest. If they see her, they’ll—he’d paused, like he hadn’t really thought about it before. Then, to the goblin, I’m sorry. It’s for your own good, alright?

For the first time, Kevin saw her claw at Grant, tearing the hem of his shirt, either ignorant or uncaring of the fact that he seemed genuinely sorry to put the door between them. For a while, she paced its frame, like some caged and disoriented animal. She scratched at it, tried unsuccessfully to run her teeth into it. Finally, she took the little container Grant had left on the carpet and scurried to the furthest corner of the room. It was a Tupperware of dead batteries, which she ate like tootsie rolls. In a similar vein, Grant had given Kevin a six pack of an uncommonly decent beer brand. Kevin wondered if he should be annoyed that Grant had used the same method to try and appease both of them.

“Why was he digging?” Kevin asked her. He slouched in his desk chair, swiveling back and forth, watching her where she crouched against the opposite wall. Though it could not possibly be directed at anyone else, the goblin didn’t even acknowledge that Kevin had spoken.

“I’m not exactly thrilled to be here either, you know.” He twirled around for a page of his physics homework—the top made up of equations in immaculate handwriting, the bottom half devolved into scrawlings of half-ideas. Vengeful spirit? Past lives? Ancient curse?

He balled up the paper and tossed it at her. She caught it in her mouth and swallowed it whole. He took another one—in the margins, extraterrestrial? Underworld? Environmental symbolism?—and she snatched it from the air again like it was a wounded bird, tongue laving over grisly teeth when she was done with it.

Briefly, he fantasized of grabbing her by the scruff of the letterman, dragging her out into the center of the party, and asking everyone present what they thought.

This thing is Grant’s, he’d shout. What do you all make of that?

In the end, the memory of Grant standing in the backyard, hands covered in dirt like dried blood, kept Kevin behind the door.

The goblin didn’t seem to care when he ran out of papers to throw—went right back to her batteries. He crushed his third beer can and tossed it instead. The sound it made when she broke it down in the recesses of her sunken cheeks was like fork against glass.

Something in Kevin snapped. He stood too quickly, and the goblin startled, a triple A halfway to her lips.

“You’re waiting for Grant, right?” he asked. She didn’t answer. “Let’s go see Grant.” He moved to the window overlooking the front lawn and the cars of teammates parked along the street, tires over the curb. He pushed open the window, hoisted himself up, looked back at her. She stayed in the corner, unblinking reptilian eyes. With one knee on the windowsill he stopped, frustration boiling. “Grant.

Slowly, uncertainly, she stood. Once he was confident she was following, he jumped, landing with one foot in a juniper bush. The light from his room spilled into the front lawn. When her arms hooked over the edge of the sill, he hesitated only briefly before taking her by the elbows and helping her over, setting her feet on the ground clumsily. She didn’t seem to notice or mind his awkward handling. As she followed him to his car, she glanced back at the house— “No,” he ordered. “Here.”

Like a gentleman, he opened the passenger door and ushered her in. When she didn’t move, he grabbed her by the roots of her hair and pulled until she did, squeaking and battering at him indignantly.

He drove to the edges of the city, where the forests lined trails and back roads, checking every so often to see if she reacted to her surroundings. The goblin, however, was barely interested in the window, instead poking through the glove box, the ash tray, the cup holders stuffed with fast food napkins and a freshly opened pack of cigarettes.

“What are you?” he asked. “What do you mean?

He pulled onto a dirt road at the mouth of a woodland, headlight reflecting off the NO TRESPASSING sign. He killed the engine, turned to face her. She shoveled the contents of the ash tray into her mouth, then, smacking her lips, reached for the box of cigarettes. Kevin slapped her hand. “No. Stop. Bad.”

She hissed at him—hissed. Kevin sighed and held the box over her head, snapped his fingers in front of her face, and pointed to the window; when she snapped her teeth back, he cuffed her over the head with the cigarettes. She tried to grab them; he dropped the box onto the floor, held her back by both her alien hands, and pushed her backward into her seat.

Using the momentum, the contact, the slow-rolling antipathy, Kevin leaned over the cup holders, reached out, and popped the buttons of the letterman. He held it open, even as she snapped at his hands. He stared a moment at her bare chest—flat, childlike—before realizing himself and letting go. He leaned an elbow against the window, rested his temple on splayed fingers. He laughed, ran a hand across his face. “What the hell am I doing?”

She made another dive for the cigarettes. This time, when he grabbed her by the lapels of the jacket, she lashed out viciously, clawing at his wrists and neck until he let go, shouting and shoving her with his foot. She crowded back against the door, snarling, and Kevin started working a key between each finger—then her elbow pressed into the automatic window, and it rolled down, and they both froze. The goblin slowly turned in her seat, pressed the button again, and the window rolled up. Cautiously, Kevin put his key back in the ignition.

The window kept her occupied for the entirety of the ride home—up and down, up and down, everything forgotten.

The house was dark when Kevin pulled into the driveway, the street bare in a way that made his skin crawl with unease. Grant was sitting on the front porch, and as Kevin’s headlights flooded his expression, the unease turned to dread. The goblin rolled down the window, crawled through it, and ran to greet him at the stoop. Grant looked her over, glanced back at the car, then pulled her a step closer and carefully buttoned the letterman jacket. Each sealed button stung somewhere deep in Kevin’s gut, a warning, but something held him in place.

When Grant tapped on the driver side window, he opened the door without hesitation.

“What did you do?” Grant asked, calmly.

Grant only dug until he found her, Kevin thought. Kevin wanted to keep digging.

Grant eyed the scratches that covered Kevin’s neck and hands, reddened and swollen, some bleeding. Then he looked back at the goblin, who still stood at the stoop, unbuttoning and re-buttoning her jacket. First, his expression was dark. Then it was uncharacteristically troubled. Then it settled—a decision made, or something. Kevin never knew what the hell was going on in Grant’s head, and he certainly didn’t know now.

“Get out,” said Grant.

“This is my car.” Kevin’s protest was weak.

“Then get in the back.”

By this time of night, the road was near dead. Kevin drummed his fingers against his knees, watched the shadow-puppet scenery pass by. Beside him in the back seat lay a dirt-crusted shovel, a metal detector, and a trowel with a green handle. Grant was at the wheel, the goblin in the passenger side, munching contentedly on Kevin’s favorite mug.

“Where are we going?” he asked, bravely. He had asked several times already, and each time silence followed. This time, however—

“You want to know why I was digging in the forest in the middle of the night?”

Yes,” Kevin said—he meant to sound exasperated, but instead it sounded like a plea.

The road began to bend, and Grant leaned into the movement. “I just like to.”

“Oh. What?”

“Rolling over logs, checking under rocks, that kind of thing. Sometimes I take my metal detector. It’s relaxing.”

“I—” Kevin’s heart thudded unpleasantly under his ribs. “Do you find stuff?”

“It depends.” Kevin saw Grant’s profile turn ever so briefly toward the goblin—a fleeting, adoring glance. “Usually it’s nothing.”

Kevin leaned back, looked out the window.

“That’s weird.”

“Yeah. It is.”

“Like, the whole thing. Not just… her.”

“I know.” They pulled into the dirt parking lot of a campsite. “Get out.”

They ignored the trails and hiked straight up a hill into the woods. Grant led the way with his metal detector, following an unseen path like it was a vein on the back of his hand. The goblin darted in and out of the underbrush. Kevin lagged behind.

They reached a clearing ringed by moonlight. Kevin had no idea if this was where Grant found her or not—maybe it was a place that held no significance at all—but Grant seemed satisfied with it. He lifted the shovel, used his heel to break the earth. Then he crouched and started digging with the trowel, and the goblin, eventually seeing what he was doing, stopped beside him to watch.

The grave was shallow, not very wide nor long. It seemed to be mostly moss and decaying plant matter that had been moved away. When he stood, Grant swung the pointed end of the trowel toward Kevin’s face. Kevin froze, and Grant held it there, centimeters from his head. “Maybe I should bury you instead.”

But he didn’t. He directed the goblin toward it, and she, after purring unhappily for a moment, curled up in the earthen cradle. Grant knelt beside her and began filling it back in.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He hesitated over her; his back was to Kevin, but Kevin saw him hang his head a moment and rub at his eyes with the back of his hand. “Ah. I’m really fuckin’ sad right now.”

She bared her teeth at him, the semblance of a smile. Then her eyes fluttered shut.

 

About the Author:

Christina Tuttle is a senior English major at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She likes dirt and thinks millipedes are kind of cute, actually. 

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