I know something’s wrong, the way we’re both hunched over your tiny table in your tiny kitchen, and you keep looking at the tea you’re not drinking. My head grazes your ceiling as I snatch another scone off your plate and pop it into my mouth. Crumbs scatter across my shirt, already stained with moss and sap. Nothing like your own unblemished cream-colored cashmere vest, a complement to your shaggy brown goat legs. You keep stirring your tea, but not once do you bring it to your lips.
I glance at my own tea before breaking the silence.
“What’s wrong, Mr. Wen-Wen?”
You flinch, as if your name in my mouth burns you. Then you sag: your floppy goat ears, your shoulders—even your horns seem to wilt.
“Kevin.” You put your teaspoon aside with a clink and fix the dark slots of your yellow eyes upon me. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Tell me about it.” I chuckle, eyeing the last scone. “I’m supposed to be finishing up my inventory of Mom’s stuff for her probate lawyer.”
I’d rediscovered Mom’s old wardrobe, its edges furred with dust, still in the old guest room where she would send me when I was underfoot. I blinked at the scowling lion’s head carved into the cornice, but it didn’t stop me from opening the mahogany doors. I set my clipboard aside to squeeze past the threshold, twisting my shoulders to fit inside.
As I half-crawled, the space stretched in the old familiar way. A cool breeze tickled my nose, full of the smells of the Tick-Tock Forest on the far side. Pushing through Mom’s old coats, the heartache of my middle years fell away: the divorce, losing custody of the kids, Mom succumbing to lingering illness. I kept moving until scratchy wool and fur surrendered to pine needles pricking my cheeks, my arms, to the low ticking of the clock trees all around me.
“You aren’t supposed to be here,” you mutter, and stare at your tea again. “Aram said—”
“Didn’t he leave?” I know you’re going to recite Aram’s Law back to me. Something about being too old, with too many earthly things tying me to my world. I give in and take the last scone. If you’re not going to eat it, might as well—right? “There was a lot going on in that last battle, but I seem to remember him going to the Lands Beyond or something.”
“B-u-u-u-t,” you bleat and clap a hand to your mouth. You only do that when you’re upset. I duck my head and raise a hand in way of apology. You tug at your vest and try again. “But we must honor Aram’s Law even more in his absence, Kevin of Gómez.”
Time’s always funny here, on the other side of the wardrobe’s doors, so I don’t even know how old I was during that last battle. I tried working out the math once and came away with nothing but a headache. Young enough that my helm still danced atop my head, but a silence rippled across the battlefield, and we saw him, atop the green hilltop, framed by a shining portal. His chestnut mane tossed in the sweet wind coming from that otherwhere before he padded through the portal and left us all.
“Everyone leaves.” I shrug, running a finger around the lip of my teacup. I gaze into your eyes, trying to find something in them. “Charity left and took the kids with her. Now, Mom’s gone, and I don’t even know—I mean, I thought I could come back, embark upon an adventure, maybe even a quest instead of waiting for whatever comes next.”
“You’re not supposed to—” you begin to say again.
“—be here. Yes,” I interrupt you, nodding my head. “I heard you.”
Your front door swings open and the Beaver brothers, Chatter and Chuffer, waddle into your foyer. Their flat caps would be adorable if I didn’t remember how they tore through the ranks of the Apostates, blood matting on their muzzles. The brothers stand, taking their caps into their forepaws, their beady eyes on me.
“Hallo, Master Wenceslaus,” Chatter says to you. All I see is his long orange teeth. “Old King Kev here—”
“—havin’ need of our welcome wagon,” Chuffer finishes.
“So to speak,” both of them say, nodding.
A pause settles between us before you speak.
“No-o-o-o-o, not at all,” you say. “In fact, Kevin was just leaving. Isn’t that right?”
“I just thought—” I start to say, glance at the Beaver brothers, and pinch off the rest. Instead, I slip off my chair and let you lead me out your kitchen door and into the back garden. I pass under chard leaves bigger than I am as you lead me back to the Clock Post. Its far-side lights the way back through the forest. Your lips twitch, as if you’re rehearsing whether you want to apologize, impart some bland wisdom, or attempt a cheerful farewell.
“I know the way back from here,” I say before you can soften the blow. I follow the light of the Clock Post, trudging through the darkest part of the Tick-Tock Forest until the world narrows around me, and I’m on hands and knees, panting as I push myself out into Mom’s old guestroom.
My shoulder jostles the doorframe as I collapse, sprawling onto the floor. The wardrobe teeters and looms over me. For a moment, I see it fall, crushing me under it. I sigh with relief or perhaps disappointment as it settles instead, one door knocked ajar.
I leave it.
I can’t bear to think about it a moment more.
Time’s gone funny again.
I flip past my to-do list, tempted to continue the inventory of Mom’s things by adding “Wardrobe, antique” to it, but I waver. Finishing would put what remains of Mom into a tidy pile, ready to be put into a box, too, and then—
No. I drop my pen first, and the clipboard follows, its pages fanning across the table as I walk away from it. My phone thumps at my feet seconds before I flop onto the living room couch.
After coming back through the wardrobe, all my failures pile onto my shoulders and I can’t move, can’t breathe. Even when sunlight fills the rooms of Mom’s empty house, none of it reaches me.
Days bleed into each other, interrupted by sporadic chirps from my phone. I know I should finish the inventory, but that would mean I have to get off Mom’s old couch. Whenever I ran a fever this is where she’d lay me down, TV turned low, and bring me Cup-a-Soup in a mug, saltines balanced across its mouth. I’m not running a temperature, but feel feverish—floating, numb, while also trapped under too much weight to move, and why should I bother, after all?
My phone rings, and I paw around until my hand finds it. GORSE, STEVE (HR) shows on the screen, below a circle where his picture should be. Instead of Steve’s face, a blank oval of a face balances on a little hump of shoulders.
Exactly how I feel: blank.
I’m sure he’s calling to find out when I’ll be back in the office, and I have nothing for him, no answers, so I just let it go to voicemail. I scroll through the missed calls, see a couple from Charity. I feel a pang, but she and the kids also will want to know when I’m back, and I don’t have answers for them, either.
Floating, but trapped, unable to do anything.
When it happens, I wonder if it’s real. I grunt, turning, and one hand grazes a still-warm mug. I peer over the edge of the sofa to find a mug on the floor, a round biscuit balanced atop it. I have no memory of making myself food but sit up and take the mug in both hands. I take a moment to enjoy the last of its warmth soaking into my palms, my fingers. I balance the biscuit on my knee, sniff at the broth inside—not Cup-a-Soup—before bringing it to my lips.
Did Mom make this?
I freeze, the mug’s lip touching mine, wondering if Mom’s haunting the house. Is the soup a sign of her approval?
My stomach moans with hunger, interrupting my thoughts.
I slurp at the broth and it’s gone. The biscuit, too. Once my stomach settles, I get off the couch and shuffle to the kitchen.
“Mom?” I call to her, and then stop.
What would I do if she answered?
Stacks of dishes crusted with old food I made—days, weeks ago, now?—some time ago fill the sink, and I turn away from their accusation. I wander through Mom’s house, empty but for what’s left behind, mere echoes of her, and end up in the guest room again. The wardrobe is still there, one door still cracked open, showing nothing but darkness.
I startle awake.
Someone or something is running water in the kitchen. A chill pours through me, but I slip off the couch and cock an ear to see if the intruder heard me.
What can I use to defend myself?
I cast about and end up stalking ahead towards the kitchen, brandishing the flat of my clipboard like a weapon. When I enter the dark kitchen, a shadow stands over the sink. As the figure stretches a hand to turn off the water, I speak, voice cracking.
“Mom?” I reach behind me and flick on the light—
—And it’s you who turn to face me, slotted eyes wide and your dish-gloved hands held up as if to ward off a blow. I realize I’m still holding the clipboard as if ready to swat at the world’s largest fly and lower it.
“Hello, Kevin.” Your hooves clop as you shift from one foot to another. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It was you,” I blurt at last, making your ears twitch up into a question. “Who made me the soup! I thought my mom—her ghost—you know what? Never mind.”
You turn off the water and peel the gloves from your hands.
“What—how—” I don’t know which question to make first, so instead shrug. “I thought you didn’t want to see me again.”
“Kevin.” You put your hand on my shoulder until I meet your gaze. “I’m sorry I let you think that. After you left the last time, I thought about what you said about Aram and his Law.”
“You’ll let me go back?”
“I did not say that, Kevin.” Your hand slips off my shoulder. “I cannot break my oath to Aram.”
“But you’re here.”
“Aram never forbade us from visiting your world.”
I glance at the dishes you left soaking, the pots and pans set to dry on the kitchen counter before I understand what you said.
“The Beaver brothers are upstairs, fixing the bathroom plumbing, and the Dormice are packing the china and silverware into boxes in the dining room.”
How did they know what was on my to-do list?
“We read your slate,” you say, pointing at the clipboard dangling from my hand. “On it, we saw the challenges we must face to complete our quest.”
“Your quest?” Unable to keep up, I can only echo you.
“To help you through dark times.”
I almost blurt that it would be silly to see my to-do list as a quest but stop myself. Going back through the wardrobe had been a way to escape something only I could face.
“Will you let us help, Kevin?” Your hooves tap as you search my face for an answer and I’m flushing with relief I don’t have to do any of this alone.
“Yes,” I say, voice trembling. “Please.”
With that, all of you come, tumbling out of wardrobes and books and mirrors and countless other places besides, into my world, and I realize.
This is not my adventure anymore.
(Editors’ Note: Karlo Yeager Rodríguez is interviewed by Sandra Odell in this issue.)
© 2019 Karlo Yeager Rodríguez