The car moved slowly along the widening lane. On either side of the road lay acres of farm land and bright green fields. Cows grazed across numerous paddocks, moo-ing at each other as little calf’s tried to learn how to walk. Occasionally an old tin bush house would come into view. Tall, spindly native trees created a dense canopy of leaves and branches overhead, sheltering the lane from the fierce sun. It had been the hottest spring in years, and it was only September.
In the back seat of the car, Tommy glared at the back of his father’s head. He had been forced in the middle, squeezed in between Vivvy and Peri. His father drove and his mother sat in the passenger seat. The twins were in the second row.
He wished that he had sat with Don in the other car. His brother shouldn’t be allowed to drive a moving vehicle of any description, but it still would have been better than this.
“I still don’t know why I have to go,” Tommy said, crossing his arms tightly against his chest as they rounded a sharp corner. Vivvy giggled happily, trying to start up a game of Corners.
He heard his mother sigh. “Tommy…”
“I thought I explained it to you already?” his father snapped.
“No, Thea! He’s done nothing but complain since we told him. It’s his grandmother – my mother – and he needs to see her. That’s the end of the story. One more word, Tommy,” his father continued, directing the conversation back on to him, “and you’ll be grounded.”
The journey continued in silence, broken only by one of the twin’s very off-key singing. In the front of the car, his father glared stonily out at the road and Tommy continued to scowl at the back of his head with all his might. He rubbed at the strange birthmark over his heart and wished, not for the first time, that he had magic.
“Here we are.”
Tommy looked in the direction his mother pointed, but couldn’t see anything but trees and shrubbery.
“It’s a bit more overgrown than normal, isn’t it?” his father said worriedly.
Tommy rolled his eyes as he unbuckled his seat belt and leant over Vivvy to get a better view, ignoring his mother’s scolding. Vivvy whacked him in the back of the neck with her stuffed unicorn viciously.
“It’s always overgrown,” muttered Tommy darkly.
“Any more over grown and we would have missed the place all together,” Peri added.
There were so many trees on either side of the driveway that it was impossible to see where it actually ended. Branches twisted and scraped against the side of the car, dragging against the window and making Tommy’s hair stand on end. Through the half-open window, he heard the song of the cicadas and the laugh of a kookaburra.
Vivvy was bouncing up and down in her seat, trying to mimic the kookaburra and start a conversation, when the top of her head connected with Tommy’s jaw. He pulled back, biting his tongue and hissing through his clenched teeth. His sister gave him a bashful look.
Tommy narrowed his eyes and took a deep breath. His mum always joked about the family having hard heads, but seriously? Even his teeth were throbbing.
“You okay?” asked Peri as he watched Tommy.
Tommy rubbed his jaw and glared at Vivvy, who had gone back to staring out of the car window. A particularly large branched smashed into the glass. Vivvy shrieked, ducking down and cowering beneath her unicorn. Tommy grinned, his pain dulling, and glanced out the window cheerfully.
A creature was holding on to the edge of the glass, crouched low and baring its teeth as filmy wings buzzed. It was hideous. Its body was very thin and its face was drawn, like Tommy expected a Grim Reaper’s to look. Its eyes had sunk into its face, and it didn’t have a nose, just two gaping holes. Tommy’s heartbeat quickened and the thing watched him inquisitively, titling its head to the side just like Lily did whenever she saw a cat.
Tommy sat still, not daring to move as it rummaged a long, twig-like finger in its nostril hole.
“Tommy?” said Peri, grabbing his shoulder and giving him a shake.
The creature sneezed once before letting go of the window and flying away.
“Tommy what is it? What’s wrong?”
Tommy’s heart was racing. The palms of his hands felt sweaty and he wiped them against his shorts. His birthmark tingled. “I’m fine.” He really wasn’t though.
It always happened. Whenever he came to that place – Misselthwaite House – he saw things. Things that had no name, Things he had read about in books and fairy tales. Even the trees were different. They had eyes and sometimes they reached out for him with arms made of spindly branches. He had tried telling his dad once and it hadn’t gone well. It had been the first time they had been back at Misselthwaite after Tommy’s disappearance.
He didn’t have any idea if his brothers could see the Things. He knew for certain that Peri and Vivvy couldn’t, because they had never reacted to their presence before. And Vivvy would have gone absolutely nuts if she had. She was always searching for fairies in the garden and trying to find trolls in the caves near Misselthwaite House.
Somehow the creatures always knew he could see them. They were drawn to him – like magnets – even when he acted like they weren’t there, like they didn’t exist. Tommy had just decided that it was another reason he was different from his family.
The driveway continued, twisting and turning as though it was a part of a big maze that didn’t have an end. Eventually the trees stopped and they were in front of the great wrought iron gates. Two stone pillars sat on either side of the front gate. The left had a plate attached that read:
His dad stopped the car just short of the gates and honked the horn three times. When nothing happened, he tried again, hitting harder and for longer. Tommy smirked. His dad didn’t like to be kept waiting.
It served him right though; forcing Tommy to visit the old bat even though she hated him and lived to make his life miserable.
“Why hasn’t Barney opened the gates yet?” his dad asked no-one in particular. “He knew we would be here.”
Several minutes passed with no sign of any life outside the cicadas and his family. It was muggy and Tommy was sweating, cramped in between his sister and twin. He squirmed; digging his elbows in to the ribs either side of him.
When Vivvy started whining about the heat, his dad finally snapped, “Come on. We might as well get out and stretch our legs.”
He opened the door and climbed out, slamming it behind him. Tommy was grinning as he unbuckled his belt and slid out between the seats in front of him.
Misha had fallen asleep and Lochie had made short work of his face. He had drawn a very elaborate beard, styled to look like flames, and added a thin, curly moustache. He was just adding the finishing touches to a monocle when he caught Tommy watching and grinned.
“Take a picture for me,” he said, shoving his phone into Tommy’s hand and moving to pose beside Misha.
He slung an arm around his brothers back and gave Tommy a proud thumbs-up. Snickering, Tommy took the picture and tossed his brother back the phone.
Tommy nodded, getting out and shoving his hands into his pockets. It was hot. The air felt heavy and sticky, even though it was only September. Flies buzzed around him like blood-thirsty beasts and Tommy slapped at his arms and face.
Peri climbed out while holding Vivvy in his arms. Their sister still hugged the unicorn tightly to her chest. She was attached to the thing. For a while, Lochie and Misha had stolen it whenever she wasn’t looking and hidden it in Tommy’s stuff. Whenever Vivvy found it,he’d be the one in trouble.
Crunching gravel announced Don as he drove his car up. Don stopped just behind the people-mover and shut the engine off. Ria and Neddy climbed out and joined them in front of the gates.
“What’s going on?” Don asked, slamming his door shut and jogging over in his thongs.
“Somebody forgot to let us in,” Lochie supplied helpfully, twirling his lighter in his hand.
“What? Didn’t Mum call ahead and let Grandi know we were coming?”
“Yes, I did,” his mother said. “Your Uncle Barney obviously forgot about it.”
“Ah,” Lochie sighed, shaking his head and letting his shaggy hair fall into his eyes. “Uncle Barney: a man after my own heart.”
“And brain,” Neddy scoffed.
“It wasn’t a compliment. By brain, I meant that neither of you have one.”
“Boys!” his dad snapped, stopping the argument before it could begin. “That’s enough. We haven’t even been here five minutes and you two are already fighting. This is supposed to be a nice, fun family holiday. If I wanted you to fight, I would have left you at home or entered you in the free Boxing classes at Centrelink.”
“I wish you had,” muttered Tommy under his breath, kicking at a clump of clay. Peri frowned at him, setting Vivvy down and holding her hand.
“She isn’t so bad Tommy,” Peri murmured.
“Maybe to you.”
Peri gave him a serious look and frowned. Tommy sighed. His brother was exactly like him in looks, but completely different from him in everything else. Peri was calm and quiet, and he was always thinking about other people and their feelings. Tommy was loud and slightly attention-deficit. He loved being outside – except at Misselthwaite – and was in every sports team possible. He swam, he ran, he played basketball and cricket and football. Peri couldn’t, his asthma making it too hard, his strange illness making it dangerous.
“Come on Tommy. Give her a try. Maybe she’s changed.”
Tommy looked at Peri from underneath his lashes. His brother looked so wishful. He had always adored their grandmother and it always put a strain on him when they visited, because Peri was always trying to get them to get along.
He groaned quietly. “Fine.”
Peri smiled with all his teeth, reaching out to mess up Tommy’s hair. Tommy ducked and ran to the fence.
He jumped, landing on the bottom rung of stones. His mum was still telling off Lochie (she had finally noticed Misha’s face) and Ria was trying to stop Vivvy from crying over her unicorn, which had fallen into the nearby dirt.
“Lochie you are so dead!” Tommy heard Misha yell as he climbed out of the car.
Lochie smiled at their mother before turning around and sprinting away from Misha. Snorting, he turned around to face the fence and looked up, eyeing off the mean looking spikes at the top. He grabbed the bars and gave them a testing shake. They didn’t budge. Tommy bit his lip and looked over his shoulder. No one was paying him the least bit of attention.
Shrugging once, he reached up and started climbing. It was ridiculously easy and Tommy was soon perched on top of one tall stone pillar. He grinned, looked down at the ground and jumped impulsively. It was a ten foot drop, but he landed in a crouch without injuring himself.
Tommy grinned madly, dusting off his jeans as he stood. It was just as overgrown on this side of the fence. The grass grew everywhere; the weeds had taken complete control and flourished, sprouting white dandelions and yellow buds. A rusted old bike lay on its side, ivy growing through its front wheel and twisted around its handlebars. It looked familiar, and was the colour of his old bike. Then he realised that it was his old bike.
The gum tree Tommy remembered climbing when he was young had fallen since his last visit and lay across the dusty ground. It looked like a graveyard. Maybe even a dump. Either way, it didn’t look as imposing or as important as he remembered.
He started walking, picking his way through the underbrush and heading towards the massive shadow on top of the hill. The Manor stood tall and proud, its grey stone walls darkened with age and what was probably some sort of poisonous moss. Ivy twined up the columns that held the second storey balcony and guarded the front door.
Tommy found a big stick and picked it up, using it like a machete to cut through the tall, prickly grass. Bugs flew everywhere, buzzing and chattering like electricity, and every now and again one very stupid creature would take a kamikaze dive and try to bite him. Or suck his blood. With his sharp reflexes, Tommy managed to slap and karate-chop them all away.
The grass finally disappeared about fifteen metres from the front door; the gravel driveway cutting a path like a snake did through water. The house looked exactly the same. Slightly scary carvings on every pillar; wrought iron balconies with a matching table and chairs set.
It hadn’t aged a day and he wondered how it was even possible. It looked exactly the same to the pictures his dad kept from when he was a kid, growing up in the cavernous halls with his brothers and sisters. Except the gardens were dingy and overgrown were they had once been manicured and perfect.
Tommy decided to ignore the steps and jump straight up to the veranda, swinging his legs over the railing and landing on the wooden slats. They creaked beneath his feet as he stepped forward, pressing his face against the dirty glass and staring inside. The lounge room was dark and abandoned. The flower print couches sat in the exact same places, and the flat screen TV was hanging on the same wall.
Sniffing, Tommy moved to the next window, which looked into the front hall. The pegs all had coats and hats hanging off them, and a muddy pair of work-men boots were thrown hap hazardously into the corner. A shadow moved across the wall and Tommy frowned. He pressed closer and squinted, trying to get a better view.
The face appeared from nowhere, making him shout out in surprise and fall backwards on to his butt. Tommy stared up, his eyes wide as the ugly, mashed up face grinned, showing three rows of razor sharp teeth. Its ears were long and pointed, and its skin was like dry, very old leather. The creature’s sunken eyes dominated its face. They were a glowing red like Darth Vadar’s lightsabre, wide and large.
The goblin was pressed up against the glass and banging with flabby hands, glaring at Tommy as white foam leaked out of its mouth. Tommy scrambled back when he saw the first crack appear. The creature stopped what it was doing, titling its head to the side like a curious cat, before its mouth slowly curled into a sickening smile.
Tommy felt something scaly press against the back of his neck and spun around, coming face to face with another one. It hissed at him, spittle flying across Tommy’s face.
“Human. Boy-human,” it hissed. “It sssees Grindel. Yummy, crunchy human! Sssmell its fear, Grindel can! Tasty, tasty!”
“Leave me alone!” Tommy shouted, shoving its grabby hands away and scrambling to his feet.
“S-s-s,” laughed Grindel, the sound like two snakes hissing. “Thinksss itsss brave! Grindel will grind its bones and suck itsss marrow out before Grindel boils it!”
Grindel the goblin lunged. Its nails were as sharp as knives as they ripped Tommy’s arm. He cried out, kicking out and hitting its leathery chest. Grindel flew, slamming into the stone column opposite Tommy with a sickening sound. It glared at him as it stood.
“Boy-human dies now.”
Tommy flung a hand out. “I said don’t touch me!”
The goblin hit an invisible force a foot away from Tommy’s outstretched hand and went flying. It left a trail of smoke in its wake as it flew through the air.
Tommy stared at his hand, feeling a burning tingle across his palm. He was beyond confused. The things had never tried to approach him before, let alone eat him. And usually they were alone. But if the banging on the window was any indication, the other goblin was very much there.
And he had kicked its friends butt.
Tommy grinned, standing upright and saying something that would have caused his Nanna to faint. Or disown him. The thing looked furious as it clawed at the glass, its long yellow finger nails making scratching noises that made his skin prickle. He hit the window, surprising the goblin enough to make it topple back on his head, its legs kicking in the air.
“That’s right,” Tommy gloated, smiling at the goblin in the hall. “I just beat your friend! What are you going to do now, huh?”
Behind him, Grindel hissed in pain as he (Tommy was pretty sure Grindel was a he, considering the old tea-towel that was wrapped around his waist) tried to pull himself up. Tommy felt grim satisfaction as Grindel moaned, clutching his arm to his chest. His satisfaction was short lived.
A blast of icy energy surged in Tommy’s hand and raced up his arm, burning in his veins like liquid fire as his skin prickled with the most painful pins and needles ever. Tommy stumbled backward with a wild cry. The taste of iron filled his mouth and Tommy spat out a mouthful of blood. Every part of his body seared with pain. He used the pillar as support, leaning against it as the hot-and-cold pain took over his whole body. His left hand was worst of all. Tommy lifted it up to eye level, feeling his muscles contracting as his vision swum. The middle of the palm tore in two before his eyes, blood running out faster than he had ever seen. The cut was shaped like an eye. In the next instant it started to heal, scabbing over and then turning into a scar, an upraised mark on his palm. The skin itched and burned like a spider bite, or poison ivy rash.
Then it stopped.
Tommy blinked, trying to figure out just what had happened. He felt dizzy and his head ached like it had after Don had accidently given him a concussion playing backyard cricket. His left arm felt heavy and his brain was inflated like a balloon.
Had Grindel done something to him? That sneaky little…Grindel.
Tommy jerked forward, pushing off the carved pillar and taking two shaky steps before he started falling forwards. At the last moment he caught himself on the railing. He was breathing heavily and his head still spun, but the feeling was slowly fading to a dull aching. He looked up.
Grindel was gone.
But his friend inside wasn’t it and it obviously didn’t like being ignored.
The glass shattered and the other goblin rolled out, its own dish cloth as grubby and dirty as Grindel’s. Its left pointed bat ear was pierced with numerous rings, and its skinny chest only had one shallow cut from the glass.
It looked at Tommy, then to the spot where Grindel had been. “Grenden doesn’t forget a face, Boy-man,” it hissed before running to the scraggly bushes beside the house.
Tommy lost all the strength in his legs and he landed on the front step in a mess. He wasn’t entirely certain, but he was pretty sure that he shouldn’t be that flexible. Tommy struggled, trying to detangle out of pretzel form, and then heard something heavy hit the ground.
Looking up, Tommy felt his blood run cold. “Hi Grandi.”