s the boy left the snooty girl further and further behind the scenery began to change. The ever-present pools of murky water slowly receded and the ground dried out. The tangled roots that had caused Bobby to stumble so often sunk into the soil, in their place sprouted pitiful shrubs full of thorns.
The trees began to change as well. Their gnarled and crooked trunks straightened and grew taller. Looking up, Bobby traced the woody columns with his eyes until they swayingly tapered off into the darkness. He could hear wind whispering through the unseen boughs above. Sounds like voices.
“What’s this?” the breeze breathed slowly.
“Just a boy…” came the answer. The wind picked up a bit as many murmuring voices considered this information.
“A boy?” they mused. “He’s so small. Is he lost?”
“Who’s there?” Bobby looked around for the source of the comments. A fog had begun to roll in. Wispy runners of mist peeked out from the darkness between the trees, roiling and coiling restlessly.
The intoning trees continued their gossip, ignoring Bobby’s question. “Why’s he so scared?”
“Yes,” the others wondered, “why?”
“Lost his mother.” There were many voices now. Bobby could understand only bits and pieces of their conversation through the jumble of whistling words.
“Poor thing,” the wind sympathized. “That’s just terrible.”
“Where are you?” Bobby asked louder now, desperate to be heard as the noise increased. Fingers of fog crawled slowly from behind the trees, clutching at the ground, closing in on the boy, carpeting all in fuzzy mist.
The fog and rising wind made Bobby realize just how very cold he was. Soaked and muddied, his Superman pajamas clung to his skin. Bobby hugged his chest to stop his shoulders shivering and clenched his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering excitedly.
“Kin you help me?” Bobby asked shakily, but the trees would not respond. “Why won’chu talk t’me?” Wind coursed through the treetops as more voices joined in:
“Where’s his mother?” "…doesn't know…" "…just dreadful…" "…must be so scared…" "…must be so lonely…" "…should go to the library…"
“Yes, the library!” A chorus of windy voices approved of this idea. There were so many now that Bobby couldn’t understand a single word of it.
“Shut up!” The boy shouted, but the sound only increased. The fog was thick now, Bobby saw as he turned, trying to find someone, something, at which to direct his frustration. All he could see was a grove of silhouettes through the mist.
The trees said Bobby should find the library. Cookie’s Ma said Bobby should find the library. Even the Bandersnatch said Bobby should find the library. But: “I can’t find’it,” he admitted to the trees, sobbing.
Suddenly, the whistling wind quieted.
“He doesn’t know where it is,” a single moaning voice breathed.
“Can’t find it?” The wind rose to a roar as the trees hollowly howled their surprise. Bobby saw the trunks swaying and heard them creaking through the thick fog. Far above, unseen branches knocked against one another.
Bobby covered his ears but the din was only dampened. He shut his eyes and screamed. Still no use. For several minutes it sounded to Bobby as though he stood in the middle of a terrible storm.
Slowly the winds died down. The clacking sound of banging branches ceased. The trees stopped their swaying. Through his plugged ears Bobby heard a single arboreal voice:
“But it’s right in front of his nose,” and then nothing. No more wind. No more whispering trees.
Slowly, carefully, Bobby removed the hands from over his ears. It was absolutely silent. Just as carefully, the boy opened his eyes.
The trees were gone. Bobby stood in the midst of a deep fog. Before him, right in front of his nose, loomed an enormous shape. The mist receded as Bobby approached and the shape’s features faded into view.
There, in the middle of the fog, a concrete building was revealed, its face a row of featureless, stone columns bracketing twin wooden doors. A set of jagged and crumbling stairs led up to those doors and above them, chiseled neatly into the concrete, were the letters Bobby knew meant ‘library’. Along the stairs and on either side of the doors hundreds of books were stacked, rotting away, soaked with mildew, their spines lolling like slobbery tongues.
Almost there. Tendrils of fog retreated as Bobby hurried excitedly up the stairs and to the doors. Bobby pushed; the doors swung wide. Light seeped cautiously through the open doorway revealing a mostly empty hall. Here a tattered and torn book, there a splintered reading desk. The broken-tile floor was haphazardly strewn with lonely pages torn from children’s stories. There lay Clifford the Big Red Dog, alone without once-upon-a beginning or happily-ever ending. And over there, Curious George fluttered about on a breeze from the library’s open doors, the Man With the Yellow Hat no where to be seen.
“Hullo?” Bobby inquired of the dim hall. No answer, not even an echo. Only silence. The boy stepped into the library, peering through the darkness in search of Auntie Edith – she’ll help find Mommy.
Bobby’s filthy socks no longer made the wet schloping sound to which he had become so accustomed. They were still wet, and they still schloped, but they no longer made the sound in the silent hall. So quiet.
Slowly the boy’s eyes adjusted to the dim library. The hall was lined with columns just like those outside. They towered upwards into the darkness to hold up the ceiling Bobby could not see. Amongst the scattered pages on the floor were a number of books. Bobby recognized most of those he passed as he walked through the hall. There was the story of four-eyed Arthur and his pesky little sister, and over there a Very Hungry Caterpillar ate through the pages on which he was portrayed.
Ah! There was Bobby’s favorite. He knew it by heart but only Mommy could tell it right. He bent to pick the dog-eared book up. Where the Wild Things Are, Bobby mouthed, tracing the title with one finger. He opened the book and flipped through its faded pages. In the dim light he could just barely make out the story. Max, sent to bed for naughtiness, escapes his room to find a changed world. There, the pajama’ed boy conquers the wild things and makes them his subjects.
The boy smiled, remembering the story the pictures told. A movement on the page caught Bobby’s eye. Beyond the dancing wild things, a wilder thing prowled the illustrated trees. A shadow, a dark shape, slinking from tree to tree. Closer and closer it came to the monsters dancing around their dreaming child-king until Bobby could make out those horrible red eyes. Suddenly, it leapt from the trees at the boy in the book…
Startled, Bobby tossed the book away. It scattered broken tiles and kicked up dust as it hit the floor, but made no sound. In fact, there was no sound at all. Not even the gasp that Bobby was sure he had uttered.
“Hullo?” Bobby asked the silent hall. Though his mouth and tongue moved, they made no sound. “Hey!” Bobby shouted. Not a whisper. Not a hum or moan or groan. The library had been put-on-mute – that’s when Bert still sings and Ernie still dances, but no sound comes out.
Bobby had never been put-on-mute before. It made him uncomfortable, but he still had a nightmare to wake from. He looked into the gloomy corners of the hall to make sure the Bandersnatch hadn’t followed him out of the book. The coast was clear but at the far end of the library the boy noticed light dimly emanating from beneath a small door. Bobby walked quickly to the door and knocked. It opened, swinging silently on its nearly rusted-out hinges.
The room beyond was lined with bookcases, but no books. Instead, mushrooms and fungi grew in tiers up the shelves, accompanied by half-melted candles drip-dripping wax as their flames danced. An antique coat rack sagged under the weight of a dozen ragged jackets in one corner. There, in the middle of it all, sat a desk. Almost like the one in the livingroom – that’s where the TV lives - but this one was old and scratched. Splotches of wood showed clearly through the flaking enamel. Papers littered its top. One of its legs was missing; three threadbare books did the job instead. Behind the desk Auntie Edith sat wreathed in smoke, sucking thirstily at a spent cigarette.
“Hello, child.” She flicked the butt away and adjusted her thick horn-rimmed glasses. One lens was broken, the other missing. Her graying hair was pulled back severely into a bun, stretching her pasty, liver-spotted face taut. The high-collared dress she wore was navy blue with little white dots. She looked like a lybarian – that’s the lady who helps you find books.
“I’m Bobby. Kin’you help me?” Straight to business.
“Probably, child,” she answered absently as she began searching for something. She opened the desk drawers one by one, digging through the papers and odds and ends that filled them.
Bobby explained as she searched, “I los’ Mommy.”
“Oh, that is dreadful.” Consumed by her search, Edith forgot to add the suitable amount of sympathy to her words. When she said nothing more, Bobby waited. Until: “Ah-ha!” Edith snapped the last desk drawer shut and held up a broken cigarette triumphantly. It was bent in two places and bits of cured tobacco stuck out where the paper was torn. The filter was burnt as though someone had attempted to light the wrong end. Edith put the cigarette to her lips and lit it with a match from her pocket. She sucked in deeply and sighed, letting the smoke out. Bobby hated the smell. Mommy says it causes emfazemia – that’s why Daddy left. “Now, child, what were you saying?” She took another puff.
“I los’ Mommy,” Bobby repeated, adding: “and there’s a Bandulsnach.”
“Not Ban-dul-snach, child.” Puff. “It’s pronounced Band-Er-Sna-Tch. Now you try.” Edith absently ashed her cigarette with a flick of the thumb. The stress must have been too much for the tattered thing. The torn paper split and ground tobacco escaped onto the desktop. It wasn’t until Edith lifted the cigarette to her lips again that she noticed it had fallen apart. She tossed it aside and resumed the search, growing more frantic by the moment.
“Bandul-snatch,” Bobby practiced.
“Good,” Edith encouraged distractedly, “try again.” She dug through the files and books and flotsam that littered her desktop. No such luck. “Again, child. You must get this sort of thing right if you wish to wake up properly.” She turned to the desk chair, ripping through its ragged upholstery with a rusty letter opener from the desk. She tore out the chair’s stuffing with fervor. Bobby repeated. He had trouble with his R’s. Mommy said so, though Bobby felt it was other people’s R’s that were the problem. Nonetheless, Bobby repeated as best he could while this strange old lady moved on from the now eviscerated chair to the pockets of the coats on the rack. Her eyes lit up as she reached into the second pocket and pulled out a crumpled pack of smokes. Three left. Sitting heavily in what remained of the desk chair, Edith lifted a fresh cigarette from the pack to her lips, hands shaking in anticipation.
“The lady says you’kin help me.”
“The lady is it, child?” Edith replied. “Well, first things first.” The old lady lit the cigarette with another match from her pocket. She inhaled deeply, medicating away her cares, and blew the smoke out through her nose, thickening the haze that was beginning to fill the room. Bobby wrinkled his nose. Then he sneezed. So much smoke.
“Do you have a cold?” Edith asked with detached concern. As she spoke tentative tentacles of smoke snaked from her nose and mouth: “Figures with those clothes. You should have put on something more appropriate, child.”
“I din’t kno…”
“Nonsense, child,” Puff. Puff. “You should always be prepared.” Thick gray smoke billowed from her mouth with each word, rising in spiraling clouds, sliding along the ceiling and taking the room’s corners out of focus.
The librarian sucked in the rest of her cigarette, savoring the last breath before exhaling slowly with closed eyes. “You should find your mother, child,” Edith advised with eyes still closed. She seemed to be in deep reverie, a slight smile on her face. With a shudder, she snapped out of it and flicked her spent butt away before drawing a fresh cigarette from the pack. Bit it. Lit it.
“I’dunno where she is.”
“Hmm…” Puff-puffing thoughtfully. The ragged old woman sat and smoked while Bobby stood and watched. Watched and coughed. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have lost her then.” Bobby was getting no where. “When did you notice that your mother was lost?”
“When I wokt’up.”
“Woke up?” Edith raised an eyebrow. Interested at last. “But, child, you aren’t awake now.”
“When I wok’up here,” Bobby elaborated.
Edith relaxed. Another long drag, “Ahh, I see. And what happened when you woke up here?”
“No Mommy. I lookt fer her. But she wasn’t there.”
“Not there, you say?” The old woman sat for a moment, considering the boy’s plight, cigarette held delicately between the first and second fingers of her left hand, drooling smoke into the air. At last she put the butt to her lips and inhaled. In a matter of seconds the cigarette had been turned to ash, its herb spent, its purpose fulfilled. Edith tossed the butt aside and brushed ash from her faded dress before reaching into the pack for another. She withdrew the last cigarette and looked at the package disappointedly. Empty. Edith crumpled it and tossed it aside.
“You should never have left your room,” she went on. “It was then that you lost your…” She patted down her pockets. No more matches. “Lost your…” she stumbled over her words. No, no matches on the desk, either. “Lost your…” then she noticed the candles that illuminated the now hazy room, lit her cigarette and continued, “…What was I saying?”
“Ah, yes, you should not have lost your mother.”
“But I did,” Bobby insisted.
“Then, perhaps you shouldn’t have left your room,” Edith smoked. Bobby coughed. “When you are lost, you should stay in one place, child.”
“But the Bandulsnach will chase me.”
“If you wouldn’t run, he couldn’t chase you,” Edith explained as though it were the simplest idea in the world.
“But it’d git me!” Ah, there’s the rub.
Edith began the search for her next cigarette, rummaging through each of the coats in turn and then dropping them to the floor. When the rack was empty she turned to the bookcases. With both hands she brushed aside the colorful mushrooms that littered the shelves, searching for some misplaced fag.
“If you had just taken my advice in the first place, you would never have been in this mess, child.” As the librarian spoke, her search took her further down the row of bookcases. It became increasingly difficult for Bobby to see her until she was no more than a smear in the ever-thickening smoke.
Edith’s voice came lazily through the haze: “You should probably find your mother, child. It’s getting late.”
“How t’find Mommy!”
“Well, you shouldn’t have lost her in the first place.”
“I din’t!” All this shouldn’t’ve and wouldn’t’ve was helping no one.
“Then how’d she become lost?” Edith stepped through the smoke back into Bobby’s sight, an unlit cigarette resting between her lips once more. “Mothers don’t just lose themselves.” She absently wiped bits of mutilated fungus from her hands and onto her dress.
“Wish, child? What wish?”
“My birfday wish,” Bobby explained. “No more nightmares.”
“Well, it’s simple then: you shouldn’t have made that wish. It was a foolish wish to begin with. You should have wished for something more useful…” Edith drew on her cigarette, realized it was still unlit and began again the survey of her pockets for a light: “…like a match, perhaps.”
“But Mommy said no more nightmares.” Like a big boy, though, by now Bobby had all but given up on being a big boy. Big or small, he just wanted to wake up.
“And you should always listen to your mother.” She lit the cigarette on a nearby candle and sat down once more, sucking in smoke greedily. “That’s sound advice for anyone.”
“But it’s’a dream.”
“You should have just woken up then, child.” Puff. “You could have avoided all this mess.”
“I can’t. I dunno how.”
Edith sighed, growing tired of Bobby’s childishness. “You should have thought of that before going to sleep, now, shouldn’t you?” Edith stood and wandered into the haze. Slowly her features disappeared until she was only a vaguely human shape. A shadow searching for another nicotine fix. Then, all that was left was her voice: “But it’s no use crying over spilt milk.”
“You should have done what you did last time,” her voice came wafting back to Bobby, fainter now, further away.
“Last time you were lost.” And further still.
In the Target parking lot. The Salation Armyman.
YES, BOBBY. HE’LL TAKE US TO MOMMY. The voice was back, somewhere, in all this smoke, the Bandersnatch lurked. Bobby searched the swirling vapors frantically with his eyes, but saw nothing. The boy turned to leave but the door was gone. The room was gone. Just haze. Just smoke. Just empty.
Bobby ran anyway. He ran and ran until his breath was scarce and he thought the voice was furthest away. It was only then that he stopped and turned to see that he hadn’t been followed. Bobby saw nothing but fog – like when you close your eyes but gray instead. He turned this way and that searching for some sign, some landmark, some something. But in every direction there was nothing. With all the turning, Bobby forgot which way was forward and which was back. If it weren’t for the soggy ground beneath his feet, he soon would have forgotten which way was up and which was down. They all looked the same.
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