By Christopher DeWan

 

They pulled off the highway and onto the winding country road that led to his parents' house.

"When's the last time you saw them?" Staci asked.

"It's been a while."

The corn was at the end of its season, row after row after row, and its tall stalks blotted out the setting sun so it flickered as the car sped by, like a strobe. If there'd been traffic on the road, Nils might have crashed straight into it from blindness. He focused on the gravel of the shoulder.

"So weird that you're estranged from your family."

"We're not estranged. We just don't talk."

"That's what 'estranged' means, stupid. From the Latin, extraneus." She lifted the foot she'd been dangling out the window and pulled it inside. "Brrrr." She reached to forage in the backseat for a sweater, buried now under food wrappers, gas station receipts, and other detritus of the long day. It smelled like bacon.

"We're almost there."

He slowed, alarmed at how little he remembered of this road, and not sure he'd recognize the turnoff when it came. They cruised by a sign, graffitied into CHILDREN AT PRAY, and then he saw it: an almost-hidden drive, overgrown with shrubs that tendrilled across its whole unpaved width, each branch like one half of a set of clasped hands, and the car pushed through them, penetrating to arrive at the old farmhouse where his parents lived.

The night was so quiet it hurt their ears.

"You grew up here?"

"I grew up in the suburbs. My parents moved out here later, after they retired."

The house was dilapidated but in the best ways, cedar shingles leaning off the walls and sheltering whole communities of bats and spiders. The porch roof sagged into a sad smile, the upstairs windows like drooping eyes. Next to the driveway, there was a tattered rope dangling from an old oak, maybe a vestige of an old swing, and for a moment, Nils envied the childhood here that he never had: pastoral summers of tree forts and crawdads and hide-and-seek in the corn rows, in place of the strip malls, swim clubs, and soccer matches that he actually remembered.

He pressed the dusty doorbell but it didn't make a sound. Then he banged gently on the wooden door. Nothing.

"I bet right now you're thinking, 'I wish I'd listened to my girlfriend. I wish I'd called ahead.'"

"Right now I'm thinking I wish my parents didn't turn the TV up so loud. Let's go around back."

The shadows tricked his eyes, and he imagined a backyard filled with every horror-movie cliché: bear traps and meat hooks and rusty hacksaws, old mattresses soaked with old blood, an old slipper inexplicably abandoned. He got a terrible sense that whatever was about to happen was something he didn't want to happen. And walked into the darkness anyway.

But as soon as they rounded toward the back of the house, they saw warm light pouring from the rear windows. No need to fear. Everything's going to be alright. Through the glass of the gliding patio door, Nils could make out his father's puffy tracksuit pants: it looked like the old man must have dozed off in his easy chair.

"Staci, meet my father."

But as he slid open the door, he knew something was wrong. It was the smell that hit him first, like a hound dog's breath after it's chewed all day on a beef hock: a low-lying cloud of meat.

The thing sitting in the chair was grotesque, a mound of fat and earth rolled somehow into a human shape, or almost: a nose like an eggplant, tumors for ears, a thatch work of hair and beard and eyebrow all indistinguishable from one other, fat roiling down, spilling from the chair and pooling on the floor, hands and toes poking out like fungusy logs, a man-mountain, with two teeny blue eyes, and yes, wearing his father's puffy tracksuit, but no, definitely not his father.

This troll-thing stirred as they entered and, leaning to one side, bleated from its ass like a deformed pygmy goat.

Staci put on her best girlfriend-smile. "Glad to meet you."

There was a second troll in the house, smaller than the first but still bigger than most bison, wearing purple polyester pants and a matching muumuu, and propped in front of an old desktop computer, playing solitaire. It waddled to greet them. It seemed delighted to have guests.

The big one pointed at itself: "Gregg." The smaller one followed, bouncing excitedly on its two clubfeet: "Me Hilda!"

Staci looked at Nils. "Gregg and Hilda—those are your parents' names, right?"

Nils nodded numbly.

"You've got your father's eyes."

Hilda made them a sleeping pallet on a pile of old bones in the guest room. "Fresh and clean as a vissla!" She spoke in a gibberish that borrowed from Nordic and the jingles of old television commercials. Gregg didn't speak much, though there was always a grunt or fart coming off him, and it was hard to tell which were aimed at communication and which were just digestive grumbling.

As they lay on the makeshift bed, Staci asked, "Have you ever brought a girlfriend home before?"

Nils shifted away from the rib bone that poked up into his shoulder. "This isn't my home."

* *

The next morning, Nils woke to an empty room and stumbled into the kitchen. An old Mr. Coffee held a pot of what looked like gravy, with a handwritten note beside it: "The best part of waking up is isterflott in your cup."

Nils stretched his sore back. He'd slept crooked and now he felt stuck that way.

Where was everyone? Where was Staci? Where were his parents? Where were his parents?

His car was missing from the driveway. Staci must have taken it on some errand.

Nils decided to go for a walk. He'd visited this farm only a few times since his parents had moved. He liked the place, but it was too far off the path of the rest of his life, and he never managed to visit as often as he thought he might. Each time he arrived, he started wondering immediately why he'd come, started trying to scheme through the various work projects he'd left behind, so he'd have a familiar place to put his mind—started trying to span the distance from this place back to his real life. But he could never do it. It was too far, and it clouded his brain like mist.

Where were his parents?

He missed his parents, the idea of them, anyway. Or maybe it was just childhood he missed.

He walked through the woods in the washed-out light of winter afternoon, over fallen branches that cracked like brittle bones. There were no paths, but it was easy to pick his way through the trees and aim himself at nowhere in particular, taking in the quiet countryside. There was a peace to it that was almost uncomfortable.

After the crest of a hill, he came to a road where, tacked to trees at desperate intervals, he found the same pleading flyer: "LOST DOG. ANSWERS TO MATILDA." Then: "WILL BE SCARED. " The paper was too worn and faded for optimism.

He followed the trail of flyers toward the main road, and then, from there, back to the farm. The sun was already setting. The winter afternoons were so short, just a flicker of almost-day that ran quickly into vesper hour. The big troll was in the driveway, splitting firewood, and it watched Nils through its pinhole eyes as he approached.

"How are you?" Nils said to it.

The big troll farted and returned to work.

Inside, Staci and the little troll were wearing aprons and putting a roast pan into the oven. "Welcome back! Hilda and I had the best day going through family albums. I'd never have guessed you were such a cute kid!"

The little troll opened up her arms for a hug. "Please don't squeeze the skinkan!

But Nils ducked away.

"I have a bit of a headache. I'm going to lie down. "

This house was like a drug. He sagged into the bed of bones and stared at the old rafters. He couldn't remember what his parents looked like. They were small, sweet people, pouring out with kindness till it shrunk them, giving and giving until there was no trace of them. What was the last conversation he'd had with them? He never got a chance to say goodbye.

He stumbled wearily into the dining room as Staci and the little troll brought supper to the table. The big troll was already seated with a napkin on his lap.

"Welcome back, sleepyhead. Want a glögg?" Staci handed him a murky glass.

"Thank you. Thanks, all of you, for your hospitality." He slumped into a chair. He felt stupid and soporific.

Staci lifted the lid from the roast pan. "Tada! Mutton!"

The big troll licked his chops. The little troll rubbed her hands together. "It's what's for bankett."

The still-red animal sat in a bath of blood and potatoes.

"I'm sorry, I don't feel well." Nils pushed away from the table but didn't quite trust himself to stand. Staci leaned to the little troll. "He usually likes his meat well done. You can tell a lot about a person by how they like their meat, don't you think?"

The big troll ripped into the roast with its claws and slathered the food into its mouth, drizzling blood over the front of its tracksuit. It mawed at a gristly piece of unchewable, and finally spit it from his mouth:

A leather collar that read "MATILDA."

Nils threw up.

The little troll shook her head. "How do you spell lättnad? L, A-umlaut, T, T, N, A, D."

* *

Outside, the night was so thick the stars were screaming. The full moon was crashing down on top of them. "You just need some air," Staci counseled.

"I think I need to get out of here."

"We just got here. I'm getting to know your family."

"They're not my family. I want to leave, now. Get your bag."

The country quiet was fantastic: it hummed. The blaring moon was deafening. The stillness was teeming.

"I don't want to leave," Staci said.

He didn't understand. He shook his head in the brittle air. "There's nothing here for us. Let's get back to our life. This place is extraneous."

"It's warm here. I want warmth. I want a home."

He looked at Staci, strange-shaped in a new shapeless dress, and barely recognized her. "We have a home."

"No," she said. "Home is where the härd is."

Then she went inside and closed the door. He felt better, slightly, once he'd sunk into the driver's seat of his car, coddled by the rumble of its engine. He took a long breath and checked himself in the rearview mirror, his keen blue eyes hungry to return to the rigors of his real life. He put the car in gear and drove.

* *

Christopher DeWan has published more than forty short stories in journals including A cappella Zoo, Bartleby Snopes, Necessary Fiction, Passages North, and wigleaf, and has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. His collection of domestic fabulism, Hoopty Time Machines, is forthcoming from Atticus Books in September 2016. Learn more at http://christopherdewan.com.