obby was in a bedroom. The carpet was threadbare and the walls were too dark with dirt to tell what color they had been painted. There was a bed – frame rotted, mattress sagging under heavily stained sheets – and a dresser with half the drawers missing. Rags that may have been clothes were strewn across the floor. And there, in the middle of it all, sitting on the bed, rocking a dilapidated wooden cradle with one slippered foot, sat Cookie’s Ma.
Ma was looking quizzically at Bobby. “You look shook up, little boy.” She scratched herself through a dingy nightgown. “You alright?”
“There’s’a wuff out there,” Bobby kept his back against the door.
“Oh, that must be the Bandersnatch.” Ma stood and leaned over the cradle. She made cootchy-coo sounds for a bit and then, “You should steer clear of that, little boy, it won’t do you no good.”
“What’s ‘steel-clear’?” Bobby asked. He took a step into the room. This odd old lady was going to help him find Mommy. Though she was a stranger, if Bobby knew anything about strangers, and he hoped he did, it was that Mothers always helped Children.
“Steer clear means, ‘stay away from’, dear,” Ma explained kindly. She sat down on the bed once more and rocked the baby, shushing it, though it made no sound.
“But I can’t steel-clear,” Bobby liked using new words. Like a big boy. “He’s chasing me. He said so.”
Ma looked pensive. “Hmm, that is a problem.” And then, under her breath, ‘such a fussy baby.’ Still the infant was silent. So Bobby asked:
“Kin’you help me fin’ Mommy?”
“You’ve lost your mother, have you, dear?” she asked, turning her attention from the infant back to Bobby. “What’s she look like, then?”
Bobby described: Curly hair that bounces. She smells like flowers. Pretty flowers. She makes good cookies. Especially the chocolate chip kind. She does all the voices when she reads stories. And she said she’d never leave.
“Well, little boy, I don’t know so many people, and none that look like that.” Bobby frowned. Perhaps she couldn’t help? “But…”
“… There is one person I know who can help you.” Ma fussed with the baby a bit. “She knows everyone.” More she fussed.
“Who?” Bobby was growing impatient. He wanted to find Mommy and wake up.
“Edith. My Auntie Edith. Knowing her (and I do), she’s at the library.” Cootchy-coo, such a pretty little baby. “You should go to the library.”
“Which way’s the libary?” Bobby asked.
“It doesn’t matter. This is all a dream anyhow,” Ma explained. “Just go through the forest, you’ll find it if you want to.” And Bobby did want to.
Ma leaned into the cradle and gingerly lifted out her baby. The infant hung limp in its mother’s arms. Not moving. Not making a sound. Dead. Its skin was ashen, its eyes were empty. Ma cradled the baby in one arm and showed it to Bobby. “Isn’t she just the cutest thing?” Bobby stepped back, hit the wall and stayed there. The infant had probably been dead for days. Its mouth hung open, propped wide by an engorged, purple tongue. Ma offered the baby to Bobby. “You can pinch her cheek if you want to.” Bobby didn’t want to. He turned and ran from the bedroom, back to the kitchen.
And screamed. The Bandersnatch was gone and Cookie was back. But Cookie was dead, laying face up in a pool of lazily spreading blood. Bobby’s legs collapsed and he sat down hard. The cook’s thick throat had been ripped apart. A look of supreme horror was stamped upon her face: eyes wide, mouth wider. Bobby stared. Terrified. He’d never seen a killed-thing before. Especially not a killed-thing to which he had so recently spoken. Bobby was too frightened even to cry. He just sat and held himself, repeating in his head the soothing words of his mother: it’s just a dream, my darling angel. Just a dream.
But where was Mommy? Lost. Maybe lost forever.
No! Bobby stood with new resolve. He would find Mommy. He wouldn’t lose her, not like he lost Daddy, and not here.
Bobby took a step toward the corpulent corpse. I’m a big boy: big boys don’t get scared. But Bobby was scared. He couldn’t tear his eyes from the gored body. One of Cookie’s hands clutched at her wounds, trying to stem the flow of blood. No use. Beside the other hand, a fallen cigar was slowly burning a black hole through the linoleum flooring. Bobby closed his eyes tightly and hurriedly ran past the body, into the forest once more.
By the light of the fireflies, Bobby picked his way carefully between bent trunks. Bark scratched, roots threatened to trip, mud sucked greedily at stockinged feet, and Bobby wandered. He would find the library. He would find Mommy. If he wanted to. And he did. On and on he went, hugging himself tightly against the cold and damp. This is forever, thought Bobby. On and on. No library. No Mommy. Just the trees.
With each step, the threat of tears loomed larger and larger over the small boy. With each step Bobby told himself, big boys don’t cry. And with each step Bobby realized that he wasn’t a big boy. Not yet.
Bobby sat down in the mud. Tears obscured his vision: he could not go on. All he could do was sob to himself. The tears came quickly now, clearing salty trails in the dirt and grime that covered the boy’s face; dripping torrentially into the swampy muck that was beginning to seep through Bobby’s pajama bottoms. It was all too much. This was the worst birthday Bobby had ever had.
Eventually, the tears ran dry. Bobby wiped his eyes, now puffy and red, with a muddied sleeve. Crying doesn’t help. He had to think. Bobby stood and looked around: Trees. Trees. Trees in every direction.
Somewhere in all these trees was the library. Bobby had to find the library in order to find Momm…
What was that? Nothing, just breathing. Bobby’s breathing. No, there it was again. Bobby held his breath and listened, straining to capture every last sound: the trees creaking lazily, a small cloud of gnats buzzing insistently and… Yes, there it is: slow, ragged breaths.
ONLY ME, BOBBY. It’s back, the whispering voice inside Bobby’s head. WHERE’S MOMMY? The boy began to run on his stubby, five-year-old legs. He did not want to end up like the cook. Or the clown. NO, BOBBY, DON’T RUN. Outstretched branches tore at Bobby’s pajamas and scratched the skin underneath. SUIT YOURSELF, BOBBY. RUN. Malicious mounds of roots snagged at Bobby’s feet. RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN. YOU CAN’T ESCAPE ME.
Bobby saw a dark shape slinking through the trees directly ahead. Eyes wide, Bobby turned the other way. I’M THERE, TOO, BOBBY. And it was, prowling in the darkness. Bobby froze, looking frantically through the trees.
The frightened boy could smell the beast’s animal stench. Like blood and musk. Could hear it breathing raggedly; saw it move through the trees from the corner of his eye, slowly circling, always just out of sight, but stalking closer.
DO YOU LIKE THIS DREAM, BOBBY? There: the flashing gleam of fangs.
I jus’wanna wake up!” Bobby shouted into the darkness.
BUT YOU CAN’T WAKE UP, BOBBY. REMEMBER YOUR WISH? Over there now: the glint of crimson eyes glaring from the mass of twisted trunks.
“I take’it back.” And once more for good measure: “I take it back!”
YOU CAN’T, BOBBY. THAT’S WHY BIG BOYS NEVER WISH ON SILLY THINGS LIKE SHOOTING STARS AND BIRTHDAY CAKES.
“I jus’ wan’ed to be a good boy.” To be a big boy. Bobby tried to explain himself, turning to face the encircling creature but catching only glimpses. “For Mommy.”
The voice laughed. Bobby cringed. Such a horrible sound. YOU WILL NEVER BE A BIG BOY, BOBBY. The tears were back, sliding down Bobby’s face and proving the Bandersnatch right: Bobby was just a little boy.
You’re wrong, Bobby thought defiantly, but by now, he had doubts. How could he be a big boy if he couldn’t even find the library? If he couldn’t even find Mommy? If he couldn’t even shun the frumious Bandersnatch?
Bobby was scared. In fact, he was terrified. Not at all like a big boy. Like a little boy. A little boy who wanted his Mommy. All he could think to do was run. So he ran. Away from the nightmare. Away from whatever followed.
YES, BOBBY, GO FIND MOMMY, the voice chased him. AND WHEN YOU DO – slowly, the taunting words faded away – I WILL BE RIGHT BEHIND YOU…
Copyright © 2003