Sammy told us that it stayed in the old playhouse behind his stepdad’s deer stand. His Skeletor action figure went missing because of it, and it was responsible for another kid’s stolen bike.
No one had ever seen it, but its presence was carried through passing voices in the hallways of the Northland community schools. Most of the kids said it was some type of troll or goblin. At the high school, the theories had evolved from mischievous fantasy creatures into depressed meth addicts. Supposedly, someone had found a dog outside of the tiny blue house a few months before we arrived in town. The contrast between its delicate face and the grotesque, bite-sized chunk taken out of its torso cemented the incident in the minds of the youth of Longville for that entire summer.
We had just moved back into the neighborhood after our dad got his old job back, me and Carrie. The other kids accepted her as if she had never left, but I still had dues to pay if I wanted to be included in whatever mayhem they got up to on the weekends.
That Saturday, I sat on the floor of my sister’s bedroom and begged her to let me accompany her to Janet Schezzworth’s treehouse.
“But they’re my friends too,” I screamed as Carrie shoved various juice boxes and small bags of chips into her neon-green backpack.
“No, you’re too little. Besides, they’re only your friends when the moms yell at us for leaving you out. No one really wants you there.” She grabbed her Nikon Coolpix from its box under her bed, the focal point of most conversations since her 10th birthday, snapped a picture of me sulking on the ground, and carefully placed it in her pack as I tried to wrestle back tears. My attempts failed though, and, after a four-minute-meltdown that ended with a guest appearance from our mother, my sister relented, and we went hand-in-hand to the treehouse.
We arrived to find that a meeting between the children had already been in session for some time. We were met with shouts being exchanged between Sammy and one of his cousins, the twinless twin, over the best course of action when it came to cornering the unseen force in the playhouse.
“It’s not going to come out for us,” said the twin. “It doesn’t matter how much crap we leave it. We’re too big. It probably gets scared as soon as we open the door.”
“Then we’ll just send someone smaller in,” yelled Sammy through gritted teeth. By that time, a few of the other children in the wooden room began to look my way. I stared back as Carrie tried to covertly position herself in front of me. Sammy and the twin noticed her movement and then everyone was looking at me. Carrie looked horrified. I was elated. “Whatchu got there, Figteeth?”
“It’s just Lizbeth. Mom said that I had to bring her with me or she’d take away my camera,” replied Carrie.
“How tall are you, Lizbeth,” asked the singular twin.
“Thirty-nine inches,” I proudly stated. From the corner of my eye, I could see Carrie shifting her weight back and forth as I spoke, but I was just happy to be acknowledged by someone who wasn’t being forced to speak to me. “I’m very small for my age. In fact, I’m the smallest in my class. Most people who see me think I should be in pre-school. I’m also very good at running, following directions, hide and seek, counting backwards, and making owl noises.”
“Perfect. Absolutely perfect. You wanna do something important, Liz,” inquired Sammy.
“It’s Lizbeth, and absolutely. I’m very good at doing important things because I’m very trustworthy. I’m also very good at spelling things and remembering big words.”
“I believe it. I bet you’re also really brave.”
“She’s not actually brave,” interjected Carrie. “She can’t watch The Never-Ending Story without crying and she hates Scooby Doo.”
Sammy and I both glared at her.
“Are you brave enough to go in the playhouse,” asked the twin. “The one behind Sammy’s—”
“Oh, I know which one it is,” I said. “I’ve been there before. In fact, I go there all the time.”
“You’re lying,” Carrie hissed.
“I’m not,” I hissed back. I was.
“It doesn’t matter if she’s lying or not. If she’ll go in the playhouse then she’ll go in the playhouse,” said Sammy. He had seemingly managed to make a backpack appear out of thin air and was now filling it with a box of crayolas and a bumblebee notebook. “Hand me your camera, Figteeth.”
“Sammy, I’m not about to—”
“Camera. Now.” My sister reluctantly handed over her most prized possession before moving to sulk in a corner.
“Listen, Lizbeth,” said the boy as he turned to face me. “We’re going to drop you off by the playhouse, alright. You’re gonna go in there, camp out for a few minutes, and try to see if you can see the thing that’s been taking our stuff. We’re giving you a camera and a notebook. If you can, take a picture of it. If you can’t, draw it. Simple stuff. Got it?” I nodded. “Good. Let’s go.”
By the time they took me to the playhouse, it was already well past noon. Sammy and Carrie were the only two that accompanied me the entire way. The other children had formed an informal funeral procession for me that steadily diminished the further we walked into the woods. When we arrived at the playhouse, the two older children informed me that this was as far as they were going. I was to stay in the playhouse until the sun started going down. After that, I would go back to the treehouse to give them a progress report. They left and I entered the structure.
The playhouse had seen better days. Its wooden floors were rotted, its pastel paint faded. The entrance that led to the kitchen was adorned with various weeds and vines while the gingham curtains that hung from the four visible windows were spotted with holes and discoloration. A doorway that led to a bedroom was partially blocked by a once-purple cabinet that had fallen to the ground and various plastic cutlery was strewn across the floor.
I began to walk deeper into the building when I stubbed my foot on something sharp and plastic. At my feet was the infamous model of He-Man’s greatest adversary. Waterlogged and covered in leaves and bitemarks, Skeletor had seen better days. I had picked him up and was examining the damages when something caught my attention from the corner of my eye. Standing to the right of me, right in front of the fallen cupboard was a large, gray, furry creature that nearly tripled me in size. Its white head tilted to both sides as it stared at me and twitched its long pink nose. My fingers loosened around the figure as the creature’s gray and pink tail hovered above the fallen furniture.
“Hello,” I said. Large, glassy, black eyes gawked at me as I slowly put the action figure down onto the ground and tried to rebury it with my foot.
“Hello,” the creature responded. It slowly shuffled towards me as I tried to speed up the burial process.
“My name’s Lizbeth,” I squeaked. “I’m just here to drop some stuff off. I don’t want to bother you or anything.”
“You’re very small,” it said.
“That’s very rude.”
“I’m sorry,” said the creature. It was about two feet away from me at that point. I halted my attempt at concealing the action figure and tried to stand my ground. The creature’s matted fur resembled the carpet that my grandmother purchased for my dad’s den and smelled like sewage infused with spoiled leftovers from a creole restaurant.
“It’s okay. I forgive you. My name is Lizbeth.”
“Yes, I heard you the first time.”
“Oh.” We stared at each other in silence for a while before I spoke again. “Do you have a name?”
“Oh.” More silence. “Do you live here?” I inquired.
“Are you the one that’s been taking all of the stuff around town?”
“I could be.”
“Oh. Did you eat the dog?” I asked.
The creature just shrugged. “I don’t know what that is.”
I nodded and took the bumblebee notebook and a brown crayon from my backpack. The creature watched attentively as I drew nine circles and a face. When I was done, I passed the finished product to my conversation partner. I stared as its vacant, beady eyes scanned the blue-lined piece of paper for any trace of recognition. One set of fleshy fingers nervously traced the wax-based shapes as the other curled tightly around the parchment.
“So, did you do it?”
“Maybe. I do a lot of things.” The creature handed me the notebook and walked over to the window. “Do you like living here?” Its long, fleshy fingers caressed the frayed gingham drapes before drawing them back to peek outside
“In the playhouse?”
“Do you live in the playhouse?” The creature looked alarmed.
“Oh. I didn’t think that you did.” Overgrown yellow toenails lightly scratched against the rotted floors as the creature nervously shuffled its feet. “I don’t remember ever seeing you before, so I would have felt bad if you had lived here the whole time and I hadn’t noticed.” I nodded and started sketching. “But do you like living here? In the woods? Or do you live somewhere else?”
“I live somewhere else. Near the woods. In a real house.” I said as I tried to compose an abridged blueprint of my home in crayola. “We have lights… and a refrigerator… and a bathtub.”
“It is. Do you like living here?” I was met with a shrug.
“Sometimes. I like when I find tiny things in the rooms under there,” it said as it motioned to the cupboard under a miniature, yellow rotted sink. It shuffled to the blue-lined doorway and ducked inside. I continued my masterpiece.
“I have some here,” said the creature as it reappeared from the doorway, cradling a plethora of shiny baubles, single earrings, miniature cars, and sticky candies in its arms. It brought them over and laid them out on the floor before me. We quietly picked through and examined each trinket, unwrapped and tasted every candy before it spoke again. “A lot of people like you come through here just to leave these. I always mean to thank them, but they usually leave before I can get to it… I’m also very shy.”
“That’s okay. I’m shy too,” I replied through a mouth full of tootsie rolls. “I mean, I might be. I like to talk to people, but my sister says that I’m shy. I don’t know if that’s really true though. Sometimes I think that she says it so our friends won’t try to talk to me.”
“Are you lonely?”
“Sometimes. Not right now, but sometimes.”
“Then you should go to Mr. Leeroy’s.” I began to gently nudge at the leaf-covered Skeletor.
“Is that one of your friends?”
“No. Well, yes. But no. It’s the toy store in town. The guy that owns it, Mr. Leeroy, he’s really nice. He always talks to you and gives you suckers when you buy stuff. And all of my friends go there, so you could go and see them and then you probably wouldn’t be lonely anymore.”
“Oh,” said the creature. “That sounds nice.”
“Yeah. You can get one of these,” I said, motioning to the half-buried action figure. “Not this one, because it’s Sammy’s, and I need to bring it back, but maybe you can find one like it.”
“I like that one,” replied the creature. It reached out towards the toy and pulled it from its hiding spot. I winced as I imagined Sammy’s reaction to my new acquaintance claiming his beloved Skeletor as its own but quickly whooshed the mental image away once I saw my conversation partner caress the piece of plastic in its hands.
“I mean, you could probably keep this one. Carrie told me that Sammy’s dad got him a go-kart for Christmas, so he’s probably rich. I heard that we’re going to try to buy him a Beast Man toy for his birthday anyway.”
“Do you think they would like me?”
“Then Mr. Leroy’s sounds very nice. I suppose I could come out for that.”
“I think you should,” I said. Our shadows grew bigger along the wall as we spoke for a little while longer. The conversation wasn’t particularly good, but I grew rather fond of the creature’s presence. When I noticed that it was growing dark, I informed the creature that I had to be going.
“Will you come back,” it asked.
“I will. We’re friends now, you and me. Buddies forever, pals until we die. That sorta thing.”
“That’s nice. I’ll wait to eat the rest of the stuff until you get back then. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” I repeated as I waved and left. When I met the others back at the treehouse, they asked me if I had seen anything. I told them that all I found was a bunch of unopened candy, but that I was sure that we would find something eventually. Sammy looked unimpressed, but Carrie was relieved to get her camera back.
Two days later, a giant mound of gray and crimson fur was found splayed out on the road between the Shipley’s and Leeroy’s Toy Store. People would drive out of their way gawk and theorize about what it was. The adults said it was a bear. The kids said it was a werewolf. After a few weeks of rumors and speculations, the city closed the road off so that some guys in long cars could gather what was left of the carcass and take it off for examination.
Before they took it away, Sammy held a meeting in the treehouse to plan a pilgrimage to the scene of the crime. Carrie said she would bring her camera to take pictures. I didn’t go because I didn’t want anyone to see me cry, but I still have the mangled Skeletor that Carrie brought me back as a souvenir.
Hannah Rovska-Strider (she/her/hers) is a queer fiction writer and MFA candidate at Stony Brook University. When she’s not writing about giant talking animals, she can often be seen walking the beaches of Long Island at 11pm, looking for sea glass and ruining the nights of young couples who just want to snog on the beach uninterrupted. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter at @Toadsoup_ and @Toad_soup, respectively.
photo by Chris Cooper (via unsplash)