The moonlight glowed off of Nana’s white hair as she hunched in a patch of leafy greens. Her long, knobby fingers wrapped around a bundle of leaves. With a tug, the plant ripped out of the earth leaving a deep pockmark.
“Macauley,” she said as she peeled back the cold, damp earth enclosing the rutabaga. “Have I told you about the trolls of old?”
“Yes, Nana.” Macauley twisted off the greens off his own rutabaga before dropping it in a warped ceramic bowl. He wiped his blue hands on his overalls, sat on the dark dirt and crossed his legs. Even if he’d heard it, she would tell it anyway. Once Nana had a story on her mind, there was no going back.
“Trolls are the best singers. The low roaring through the mountain side? That’s them, alright. They’re telling stories to each other. And they made food like you wouldn’t believe. All the bounty of the earth, the trolls knew where to look. They knew how to cook it right, too, ‘cause the food would tell them exactly how it wanted to be made.”
Macauley smiled and leaned his chin on his fist. “What did they look like?”
“They had moss in their beards and nests in their hair. Rivers ran from their eyes and their skin was made of bark and rocks.”
“The girls had beards, too?”
“They weren’t boys or girls, Macauley. The trees and rocks and streams weren’t so why should they be?”
“Well, they sound funny looking, Nana.”
“Oh, they were beautiful.” The grooves in her skin were deep enough to look carved. Her fingernails, yellowed and claw-like, scraped at a rock tangled in the rutabaga’s roots. “Have you seen anything more beautiful than a tree? What about the mountains when the mists are caught in their peaks? The trolls are the most beautiful people. Nothing is as beautiful as the earth, my child, and the trolls of old were children of the earth itself. It decided when another troll was needed and the hills would wake at its call. And like the earth, the trolls changed. They rose and crumbled, shed leaves and sprouted branches. They moved with the earth and they moved themselves to fit the earth. That magic is in your blood, you know.”
Her knuckles bulged like tree knots as she twisted the greens off. “They were the size of evergreens, hills, even mountains, some of them. Have you ever looked at the face of a mountain, really looked, and seen it look back at you?” Nana stared into Macauley’s eyes and brought her wrinkled face close to his soft one until he broke into a giggle.
She stretched a knotted finger upward. “Look at the sky, my child. See the face in the moon? That’s a troll. That’s a child of the earth. The earth still rocks the moon to sleep. Takes it all night before the moon can be put to bed during the day.”
She sighed softly through her beak of a nose before she spoke up again. Her voice was quiet this time. “How brave, the trolls of old. When the earth called them back, they faced the wicked light head on. They made monuments from their bodies. The humans built cottages on their backs and dug wells into their ears and the children of the trolls forsake the dirt in their veins. The great ones are still there, you know, sleeping under the cover of the trees, secrets clutched tightly to their chests. But nothing seems big enough to wake them anymore. It’s you and me out here, my child.”
“There’s trolls in the city,”
The old troll continued to continued to work as if she hadn’t heard him. After putting her rutabaga in the bowl, she turned to Macauley and said, “My child, the trolls in the city aren’t like us. They are children of concrete and steel, of fire hydrants and flowerbeds, and they don’t know what it means to fear the daylight. Stick with what you know.”
“Mac?” Barbie’s hand gripped Mac’s shoulder. “What’s the plan?”
What was the plan? The situation was bad enough: train crash, Rhodey the culprit, cops on their tails. The trolls were hunched together, knees touching, in a mostly empty dumpster. Stick with what you know. That was all they could do right now. Mac touched Barbie’s hand. “Here’s where we’re at right now: Fremont told us a train went off the tracks and a spray can was jammed in it’s wheels. We don’t know if it was Rhodey’s.”
“Then who else’s?” Rhodey squawked. He was met with immediate shushing. They hadn’t heard the clinking gear of the cops approaching, but that didn’t mean they weren’t nearby. He huffed and whispered, “That train was clean when we got there and we watched it roll out.”
“Think about it,” said Mac. “Would you ever leave your can on the tracks or just on the ground by the train?”
“Well…” The uncertainty in his voice was even more obvious in the dark.
“Either someone else jammed your can in the train or Fremont was messin’ with us.”
Barbie’s hand tightened on Mac’s shoulder. “He made it up?”
“He could’ve. He knows we hit the trains every night. That whole thing about it bein’ a government conspiracy? C’mon, that was nuts. You know his brain jumbles everything up.”
Rhodey’s elbow jammed into Mac’s ribs as he squirmed. “But why?”
“I don’t think he did it to freak us out. He’s just not all there anymore. He’s been in one spot for too long and the sidewalk’s startin’ to mess with his head. We’ve only heard it from him so far. There’s a chance a train never crashed to begin with.”
Bowie scoffed. “What about the cops?”
Mac sucked in their lips. “I know it sounds nuts but I think it was just a coincidence. There’s no way they could’ve pulled a fingerprint from a mashed up can in a few hours. They’re not even that fast at it with murder cases. We’d been squattin’ there a couple weeks. Maybe the owner finally noticed the back window was unlocked.”
“Geez, I don’t know Mac.” Rhodey sniffed. “I mean, it makes sense but I just… I don’t know.”
Something crawled across Mac’s ankle and they swatted at it a second too late. “Look, I’m just sayin’ we can’t jump the gun. We gotta think about this. We gotta lay low right now but we need to figure out if Fremont was tellin’ the truth. The only way we can do that is by goin’ out tomorrow morning.”
“In the sun?” squeaked Barbie, who was immediately shushed.
“We can’t go out tonight and unless you want to spend the entire day in here too, we gotta go out and investigate. If this is real, then they’d never expect us to be out in daylight. It gives us an edge.”
The trolls were quiet as they weighed their options. Finally, Bowie spoke up. “Short of us all doin’ a major switch, I can’t think of anything better. Might as well sleep until then.”
Hemlock wore a different face today. The downtown shops were all dolled up with stringed banners, bright storefront displays and bundles of flowers sliding into different colors. Every bakery boasted blackberry pies and scones, every coffee shop and apothecary bragged about its blackberry tea, and every block had a stand stationed on its corner with cartons of local berries piled high. The annual Blackberry Festival was in full swing.
The main street was bursting at the seams. Dozens of bodies bustled between rows of canopied vendors. There were young fauns with bright thread wrapped around their antlers, harpies with woven-basket backpacks, and elves with bangles on their ankles that jingled brightly as they walked. Packing the canopies were racks of crystal necklace, custom-printed graphic tees, and beeswax candles that lit themselves on command. A woodworker carved a bigfoot out of a cedar stump as onlookers watched from a safe distance. Mac walked casually and kept their eyes forward attempting to blend in while eavesdropping on nearby conversations. A passing mother stared through Mac and pulled her child closer. It was a small tug, unconscious like a Babinski knee tap, and she probably didn’t even realize she had done it, but Mac noticed. Mac always noticed. While the child moved closer to his mother, his head followed Mac until he couldn’t turn it any further. The staring, Mac didn’t mind. The indifference, they did.
Towards the end of the street was a herd of food trucks. Collectively, they provided a snapshot of the entire city’s convenience cuisine: panko breaded rats on a stick, mutton sliders with pickled okra, stir-fried noodles with chili tentacles, and meatball subs (eyeball upgrade available). The savory hit of garlic hung in the air. Mac felt hollow inside, all light and detached like the wind would carry them away, but they ignored the gnawing sensation in their stomach. There were more important issues at hand than hunger.
The sidewalks were warm through the thin soles of Mac’s shoes. The heat was as heavy as a straight jacket, crawling under the skin even. Though, that particular itching discomfort was likely attributed to the sun. Even with extra layers, that wicked ball in the sky refused to let up. They tugged at the ends of their hoodie sleeves, suddenly conscious about their graying skin. That was the worst part about the daylight; the bleaching color. Mac could deal with discomfort -their entire existence was discomfort- but blending into the pavement? That felt wrong. An easy way out. Mac cinched their hoodie around their face even tighter and kept their head down.
The shadow of the water tower provided temporary relief as Mac stepped onto the lush grass of Lemming park. The picnic table the trolls had laid on while stargazing on last night was now occupied by a family of minotaurs enjoying roasted corn. They glanced at Mac a second too long before snapping their eyes away. Directly under the water tower were the trolls. If they had changed clothes, Mac almost wouldn’t have recognized them. Gone was the bubble gum pink, the banana yellow and fire-hydrant red and to replace it? Sidewalk gray, at least for now. Their ashy complexion didn’t fit them. Leaning up against one of the tower’s legs was Bowie flicking his lighter open and closed. His lower jaw jut out pointing his cigarette upwards, unintentionally, at a “No Smoking” sign above his head. Barbie laid belly-flat pulling at the dandelions and running her fingers through the grass while Rhodey sat criss-crossed biting his nails. The last time he’d chewed his nails was when he’d almost been taken in for hot-wiring a car. He’d practically chewed his thumb into a nub that time, and by the looks of it, this was round two.
Mac shoved their hands in their pockets. “You guys find out anything?”
They shook their heads. Rhodey stopped biting his thumbnail long enough to say, “just a bunch of people complaining about prices and how good the food smelled. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.” His thumb went straight into his mouth after.
Barbie winked. “Well, it’s a good thing I got us dinner.” She pulled a wallet out of her back pocket. “Rhodey, you wanna get some fried toadstools? I saw a truck that had the red kind with white spots you like so much.”
Rhodey paused and dug his teeth into his nail bed.
“C’mon,” said Bowie as he grabbed Rhodey’s shoulders from behind and lightly shook him.
“Yeah, c’mon Rhodey.” Barbie scrambled to her knees and drummed on his legs. A faint smile tugged at his mouth before he could compose himself. The smile came back when Mac roughed up his hair and once Barbie tickled his sides, he doubled over laughing.
“Okay, okay,” he wheezed out as tears streaked down his cheeks, “Let’s get some food.”
Barbie gave every bill in the wallet to the food truck vendor and with three trays of fried toadstools, the trolls funneled into the alleys. This lit-up side of the city wasn’t theirs. They knew Hemlock deeply, had their own secret glances and inside jokes with the city, and it felt wrong to see her dressed this way. Instead, they went to a nearby skate-park where people dressed like them and walked like them and looked the trolls in the eyes instead of pretending they didn’t exist. Sitting on the shaded steps, grubby hands snatching the greasy dough balls, they watched the skaters glide across the concrete with their snapbacks and hoodies, loose earbuds and windblown hair. Skateboards hung loosely from their straight arms as they stood at the edge of the embankment waiting to jump. Not a helmet in sight. And with each clatter, jump, or landing, there was applause, one arm hugs, back pats, high fives, and fist-bumps from the other skaters. Hearty congratulations. You did it. We saw it. We are here with you.
Rhodey rubbed his gray, greasy palms on his jeans and squinted at the skaters. “Wish I still had my board.”
Taking a box of cigarettes out of his studded denim jacket, Bowie said, “How’d you break it again?” He put a new one in his recently unoccupied mouth before holding the box out to Rhodey.
Without looking at the offer, Rhodey shook his head and started bouncing a knee. “I tried to feeble grind down the rail on the library’s stairs. Board snapped in half and I went flyin’ onto those stone lions.”
Mac smirked. “The ones at the base of the stairs?”
“Yeah. Hurt like a mother.” Rhodey grinned, not one of his bright, toothy grins, but he looked more himself than he had since the conversation with Fremont.
“You know, I used to skate.” Barbie rested her chin on her palm and stared forward at the skaters like she was cloud-watching on a breezy afternoon.
Rhodey bumped her shoe with his own. “No kiddin’?”
“Yeah, one of the first families I was with lived right by a skatepark and their kid taught me a couple things. Let me have one of his old boards and said it was nice to have a brother. I took it with when they placed me in my next home, but the lady there thought it wasn’t right for girls to be ridin’ late at night. Nevermind I’m a troll, you know? She burned it in her backyard.” Barbie brought her legs to her chest and sighed into her knees. “You guys ever switch just mess with someone?”
Bowie lit his cigarette, took a puff and said, “My mom dated this guy who didn’t like it when I was too bright. He thought it wasn’t “professional.” After a while, I started noticin’ things. He’d asked me to get him a green apple and I’d grab him a red one to tick him off. Wouldn’t say anything until he bit into it. Guy was colorblind and didn’t know it. I figured out what colors he couldn’t see and I’d switch between ‘em. He’d think I was toned down but really I’d be like candy-apple red or lime green or somethin’.”
“My Nana and I used to live out past Kelpie Marsh.” Mac pulled their hands out of their pockets and picked at their nails. “We’d do everything ourselves but every now and then, she’d have to send me into town to get clothes and stuff. She was real old school, like moss-in-her-hair old school. Guess she didn’t like what I looked like when I’d come back from town. I didn’t really know how I was doin’ it then but I don’t think I would’ve stopped even if I did. We’d fight about it a lot.”
Barbie laid her head on her knees and looked up at Mac through her eyelashes. “You run away?”
“Nah.” Mac shoved their hands in their pockets. “She died, so…”
Sensing the moment was getting deeper than they could handle, the trolls turned their attention to the skaters. Some of them looked familiar. On the opposite end of the embankment was the chartreuse goblin with a Mohawk. His limp hair had peeked out of the sleeping bag over by a boutique storefront the last few nights. A clatter came from a huldra with hot pink streak in her hair as she landed a kick-flip. Yesterday, she’d held a cardboard sign on the corner of 2nd and Pine. Walking by the steps was a red nymph. She had more color in the sun. The fluorescent shelter lights had washed out her burgundy complexion last they’d seen her.
“Hey, Rosemary,” Bowie nodded in the nymph’s direction. “How goes it?”
“Oh, hey! Didn’t recognize you guys like that. It goes, it goes. What are you up to so early?”
“You know. Causin’ trouble. You check out the festival yet?”
Barbie leaned back on her elbows and smiled. Her yellow teeth gleamed like daggers. “You should. I picked up a wallet in less than a minute. Streets full of victims today.”
“Thanks for the tip. Say, you guys hear about the train?”
The smile on Barbie’s face faltered. It was just a twitch; imperceptible to an acquaintance. Then she recovered and turned her thousand-watt smile up even brighter. “What train?” she said, cocking her head to the side in feigned innocence.
Rosemary tucked her hair behind her ears. “Guess last night a train went off the tracks. I was heading south to the Ash Creek bridge and I swore I heard it. Anyways, like eight cops flew by me right after. They took care of it quick. The road isn’t even blocked off anymore.”
Bowie took a long drag of his cigarette. He squinted at the nymph, Dirty Harry style and blew an opaque stream of smoke. “So it just popped off the tracks? Wasn’t damaged or nothin’?”
“I don’t think so but I don’t really know. It’s just a bunch of cows and corn fields out there anyways,” said Rosemary.
“You know why it went off the rails?”
“Nah. I heard it from Mookie but I don’t think he knows any more than that.”
“Hey, well, thanks for the update.”
“Yeah. See you later.” Rosemary kicked off and glided across the pavement gently.
When she was out of earshot, Bowie took a long puff. The smoke seeped out like crawling mists as he spoke slow and low. “Looks like Fremont wasn’t completely full of it after all.” He flicked his cigarette and let the ash land on his boots. “Least the train wasn’t banged up. If it is your fault, you’ll only be gettin’ a few years.”
Barbie elbowed Bowie and turned a sympathetic face towards Rhodey. “Let’s lay low awhile. Head to another town for a few weeks.”
“That’s not goin’ to be enough,” said Mac. “We gotta get as far away as possible and stay there a real long time. Maybe even leave the state. We could take the bus.”
“No.” Rhodey stood up and faced the trolls. His gray fists were balled up. “I’ll go. This is my mistake and you guys shouldn’t have to leave because of me.”
“No, Barb. There’s no other way.” Far away, a kid hardly bigger than his board stuck his first jump and the skaters by him hollered and whistled. Rhodey squeezed his eyes shut like they were Pandora’s box. “I’m sorry,” he squeaked out. “I’m so sorry.”
Mac sat still. Splitting up made the most sense. Moving in a group was expensive. It drew attention and took extra time. Rhodey might stand a better chance if he went alone. And even though Mac could fortify the decision with a billion other support beams of logic, they felt sick and they stared at the ground unable to look at the others. In the corner of their eye, Mac saw Barbie cover her mouth. She let out a squeak as she started rocking herself.
The trolls were silent, taking in the weight of their new reality. Finally, Bowie dropped his cigarette on the concrete steps and snuffed it out with his crusty boot. His expression was smooth and stony, like his troubles had hopped a train, and his narrow eyes were relaxed. “You’re an even bigger idiot than I thought.”
Rhodey wiped his nose with his wrist. “What?”
“You’re an idiot.”
“No, you don’t,” Bowie growled. He stood up, closed in on Rhodey and stared down at the sniffling troll using the full advantage of the height difference. “Whatever you’re about to say, I don’t care.” He jammed a finger into Rhodey’s chest. His voice deepened. The edges of the words were sharp enough to cut the air between them. “We chose you and you don’t get to just drop us to the side. Wherever you go, we go.” He was practically yelling now and a few of the skaters had stopped to watch. “And don’t even think about sneakin’ off unless you want me to beat your sorry corpse into submission. I’m takin’ you with us, even if it’s in pieces.” Bowie stomped off while Rhodey remained in place, tears streaming down his gray cheeks. The other trolls scrambled to their feet. With a small smile, Barbie grabbed Rhodey’s hand and wove her fingers between his. He didn’t fight her as she pulled him along.
Mac jogged to catch up with Bowie. He shot Mac a glare and continued barreling down the streets. “Idiot. Thinks he can drop us like we’re nothin’.” Smiling crookedly, Mac shoved their hands in their pockets.
The sun had set behind the brick buildings. Only those standing on the rooftops were privy to its golden face. Night nested into the grooves of the city and the creeps and the strangers and all the wild things were just beginning to walk the pavement. The main street was clear now, and save for flower petals in the gutter, it was like the festival had never happened. The trolls moved silently this time, taking in the cracks in the sidewalks and the scrawling graffiti on the benches. They let the city speak to them one last time. With her free hand, Barbie pointed out a crow with a french fry in its beak to Rhodey. His eyes were still puffy, but he grinned. He was going to be alright. Mac let their eyes wander over the storefronts. White dresses in a bridal boutique, claw-foot chairs in an antique store, television screens in a pawn shop window. The local news was playing. A blonde newscaster with pristine antlers folded her hands over a stack of papers and in the corner of the screen was a picture of a train. Wait.
“Hey,” said Mac, snapping to get the attention of the others. “Check it.”
The bold yellow captions scrolled across the bottom of the screen. “THE ACCIDENT IS STILL UNDER INVESTIGATION BUT IT APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN CAUSED BY A BROKEN WELD IN THE TRACK. WE’LL KEEP YOU UPDATED AS THE STORY DEVELOPS.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” said Mac, hands pressed against the window. “It wasn’t your fault!” Barbie screamed and squeezed Rhodey and Mac wrapped their arms around the two. Bowie waited a second before stepping forward and letting the other trolls drag him into their hug. They stayed like that letting Rhodey’s tears baptize the cracks in the sidewalk. And after a while, Rhodey’s tears weren’t the only ones soaking the dry, cracked earth.
They went to the the rail yard that night. No need to work fast; this was where the trains went to sleep. The long, black oil tanker was bare. It could have been a different train, or it could’ve been the same one already washed clean. The blank slate was welcoming to Mac. This was a new opportunity. All the trolls gathered around a single car and together, they covered its matte surface top-to-bottom. They painted astronauts and french fries, flowers and fire hydrants. They used every color they owned, passing cans back and forth between eager red, pink, yellow and blue hands. And when they finished, they stepped back and watched their art wrestle into a hodge-podge of nonsense, and they all agreed it was the best work they’d ever done.
Yet, that is.