The baby boy, exhausted with the exertions and impressions of the day, slept through it all. Through the rough shunting of the parking platform in the automated car park, and the metallic clang of the platform being locked down, he snored peacefully, his little head leaning obliviously against the car seat headrest. When the car door clicked open, he only made a tiny dissatisfied sound. The guttural muttering of the two that slid into the car and temporarily shared the back seat with him didn’t penetrate his dreams. He never felt their small hands opening the clasps of his security harness, nor did he wake as they lifted him out of his seat, with a gentleness that belied their fierce appearance.

They maneuvered their tiny, sleeping burden out onto the platform and towards their exit, leaving the car empty and silent, as if no child had ever been in it at all.

“Hey, where’s the kid?”

Marjorie froze with her back against the front door, balancing four grocery bags on her arms. She was torn between blind panic, and annoyance bordering on anger. Her rapid understanding of what had happened enabled her to quell the panic. It did nothing, however, to stop her other reaction from blossoming into fury at her useless sack-of-shit excuse for a husband.

The worst of it wasn’t that Don had shown no inclination to help carry the groceries, concentrating instead on sorting the mail as Marjorie struggled with the bags. Nor was it his trance-like preoccupation with the upcoming game.

At the moment, even leaving their child in the car came in second to calling him ‘the kid’. This was taking his lackluster approach to fatherhood to new depths.

“His name,” she hissed, “is Donny!

To her satisfaction, the inane expression on his face was replaced by guilt; for an entire second, there was more than just the prospect of home runs and no-hitters on his mind. Unfortunately, it was still not enough for him to draw the obvious conclusion.

“Yeah, Donny. Where is he?”

“You left him in the car, you idiot!”

He smiled sheepishly.

“Oops,” he said.

Marjorie kept her cool. Donny had been tired enough to sleep for at least another hour, so there was plenty of time to get him before he noticed anything wrong.

Still, she had every reason to be concerned about him. He was still lying buckled into his car seat, which was on the back seat of their MPV. Which had been shuffled into the dark robotic bowels of the autopark.

Marjorie hated the autopark. She hated waiting her turn at the entrance. She hated operating the control panel. But most of all, she hated waiting minutes for the car to appear. She knew too well how long it took the system to retrieve their Buick; she’d left enough house keys, handbags, or sunglasses in it.

But never Donny. Never her own flesh and blood.

Don made no move to go back down for his son, instead looking pointedly at his watch. She considered standing her ground and making him choose between the first inning and the safety of their child. But that was a choice their marriage might not survive, and a confrontation she wasn’t ready for. Yet.

“For God’s sake!” she said. Shoving the groceries into his chest, she made her way around him and pressed the call button.

Behind her, she heard paper tearing and heavy objects thumping and crashing to the floor. A cloud of flour billowed around her as she stepped into the elevator.

Of course, it was only her imagination that the autopark took twice as long to produce the Buick. Or so she told herself.

Down in what she refused to call the control room, she’d operated the control panel with an efficiency born of concern for her baby. Instead of her usual fumble around the different buttons and switches, she went rapid-fire through the entire sequence, pausing only, in irritation, when she had to enter their four-digit PIN number.

Of course, Don had selected the PIN digits, and every time she had to operate the autopark, she squirmed at the memory of his almost religious rant about the mind-numbing statistics of long-dead athletes. Who cared about the difference between batting average and slugging percentage, or whatever they were called? If he would spend half the brain power he wasted on Lou Gehrig’s statistics on remembering her birthday, their marriage would be in half the trouble it was.

3-4-0-4, she punched in, and through the large window into the autopark she could see and hear the device come alive with metallic grumbling noises. An interminable period of squeaking, clanging and grinding later, the garage door rumbled up that separated the parking bay from the autopark. Any moment now, the robotic parking platform carrying their car would grumble gracelessly into the bay. Marjorie made her way around the control panel to the door leading down into the bay. She didn’t want to waste a single minute rescuing Donny from the car seat.

When the platform slid into the bay and the garage door closed, it took a moment for Marjorie to understand what was wrong.

The car wasn’t there.

Marjorie fired off a string of curses that would have impressed her husband. This was the third time this had happened since they’d moved into the building. She toyed with the idea of calling Don down and have him deal with the problem. But she still didn’t feel up to wrestling with his precious baseball fetish. Calling Maintenance wasn’t a real option, either. Their dim-witted handyman Jake needed three weeks to replace a busted light bulb, and two months to deal with boiler problems. And the last time the autopark had malfunctioned, all Jake had done was hand-crank the inner garage door and retrieve the purse she’d left on the passenger seat.

Marjorie could do that much herself.

As she edged past the empty parking platform, a little voice whispered that she wouldn’t be acting this rashly if Don hadn’t been so useless. She knew a part of her was doing this to prove she didn’t need him. Let him cheer his slugging heroes, slump in his favorite chair and drink his Bud, while she saved Donny, presented him to his father in triumph, and then…Yes, that was the question, wasn’t it? What then?

The inner garage slid up as she worked the manual crank. With apprehension, she looked into the widening hole. When it was high enough to pass through, she took the small stainless steel flashlight from her purse and stepped onto the platform. She hesitated for a moment, wondering if she was really doing this. A fleeting thought made her take out her cell phone and quick-dial 1. Don answered after six rings.


“Don, the car won’t come out. I’m going into…”


It was a measure of her faith in her husband that she didn’t think for a moment he was referring to his son.

“Yeah, what was that, hon?” Don added.

“I’m going…”


“He’s taking a pretty big lead down there,” Marjorie added automatically, and that seemingly innocuous quote gave her a disturbing sense of urgency, making her shiver.

“Enjoy the game,” she said, and snapped her phone shut. Then, flicking on the flashlight, she stepped into the autopark.

Finding their car in the autopark was easier than she’d expected. There were rows of parking platforms packed closely together, the tracks that carried them to the entrance crisscrossing between them. Metal walkways paralleled the tracks, with a set of rungs against a pillar near the elevator mechanism in the center. There were naked light bulbs everywhere, but Marjorie hadn’t found a switch, so her flashlight was her only illumination. It flickered occasionally, but that was the least of her worries.

She climbed to the top and walked a complete circuit of every level, turning around only when the beam of her flashlight hit the concrete walls of the cavern.

She frowned. A cavern? What kind of word was that for a man-made, concrete structure? But it felt appropriate. Maybe it was the darkness and silence. Maybe it was the way her footsteps echoed. But there was something else, a faint, earthy smell, and the air felt moist.

She found their car on level 5. Only in the relief flooding her did she realize how much she’d tensed up. It was difficult to see into the car, and with the beam bouncing off the rear window, it might be just a trick of the light. But something seemed wrong.

When she stepped onto the platform and edged to the back door, she saw the door was open. Shining her weakening light into the car, she saw the car seat was empty. And when she leaned into the car, she found dirt on the back seat.

At first, the narrow beam made it impossible to see any pattern. But after adjusting the beam’s spread, she saw a trail from the car door to Donny’s seat. Climbing out of the car, it was unmistakable: there was a trail of dirt leading along the edge of the platform, back to the walkway. And where it reached the walkway it resolved into clearly separate tracks.

“An animal,” she thought with a tightening stomach. But that was almost impossible to believe. It didn’t even matter what it was. A fierce sense of protectiveness occluded all other considerations. Driven by huge, bright fear, fear for herself and for Donny, she stepped onto the walkway and followed the tracks.

Which dead-ended twenty feet further on against the concrete wall.

There were two columns of rough indentations in the wall to her left, forming another kind of trail leading down into the darkness. For someone with her indoor climbing experience, the handholds were a freeway down.

She gave no thought to who or what would kidnap a child, leave a trail of dirt, and carve out a ladder in concrete. She didn’t dare.

Twelve feet down, she found out what caused the moist and earthy smell.

Moist earth.

Suddenly, she also understood that the term ‘cavern’ wasn’t as misplaced as she’d thought. She stood at the edge of a forest of metal supports. As she’d climbed down, the smoothness of concrete had given way to rough bedrock. And when she stepped down onto the floor, it gave slightly, and a musty smell rose. Her flashlight confirmed what her feet felt: the bottom of the cavern was bare earth.

Marjorie set off to her right, following the cave wall, dodging around metal supports flecked with rust, until the rock suddenly opened up into a passageway to her right. She shone her light into it, but the diminishing beam failed to illuminate anything beyond the first fifteen feet. The tunnel looked wide and high enough for two people to walk abreast.

Marjorie didn’t hesitate. Part of her knew that she was riding the momentum of her first impulse, driven by her anger with Don, and wondered at the wisdom of what she was doing. But stopping to think now would confront her with everything that was weird and terrifying about it all. Being rational and sensible, as Don always admonished her, would freeze her in place, or worse, scare her into going back home. And her son was down there.

The air in the tunnel was cold and damp. The only light was the beam of her flashlight. Here and there, mushrooms grew, and several times she thought she saw something scuttle from her peripheral vision. The corridor seemed to be sloping slightly down. Marjorie realized she was more scared than she had ever been in her life.

There were cables and pipes and ducts running along the ceiling, and she spotted an unlit neon light high on the corridor wall. A bit further, an extinguished torch leaned from the wall. Still further down the tunnel sat another neon tube, and when she felt the little box she thought of as its motor, it was still warm. The strangest assortment of lighting fixtures sat at regular intervals along the tunnel wall. A huge light bulb here; more neon there; a candlestick, a caged security light, and even, connected to a bit of copper tubing, what could only be an old-fashioned gas lantern. And each light was still warm to the touch.

Only people used artificial lights. There was a person ahead of her, and he had Donny, and he was leaving the tunnel in darkness. But she would still catch up with him. She had her own light.

Which flickered and went out.

A yelp escaped her lips. She pressed the switch a few times, but got only a weak glare that died as soon as it appeared. She switched the batteries around like she’d seen Don do. The flashlight didn’t even flicker any more.

“BASTARD!” she screamed, not sure if she meant her quarry, or Don. He’d promised to buy fresh batteries at a gas station last week.

When she lifted her hands to her face in despair, Marjorie realized she could see her fingers.

She reached for the wall to orient herself, and peered down the corridor. It was faint, but there definitely was an orange glow in the distance. It wasn’t enough to make out details, but it gave her an idea of where the walls were, and to see the direction she was heading. With her determination renewed, she set off towards the flickering light.

After about half an hour, she was close enough to see that the tunnel turned sharply further ahead, and the light was sufficient to make out details. When she was close enough to clearly make out the corner in the tunnel, she started to run.

Seeing what lay around the corner, the sheer force of incomprehension brought her to her knees.

She’d sprinted headlong into a huge space. The wall behind her curved round to form a dome at least sixty feet high. The cavern was roughly elliptical, and she thought the mall parking lot would have fitted comfortably. The cavern was lit by countless campfires sprinkled around the floor. By their light, Marjorie saw other tunnels open into the cavern at regular intervals.

But it wasn’t the cavern itself, or even its occupants, that blanked her mind with incomprehension.

There were piles against the wall, between the tunnels. To her right, a pile of sunglasses rose. The next pile seemed to be of thousands of pens. There was a pile of grease-stained McDonald’s takeout bags. Cell phones, notebooks, soda bottles, paperback novels, coats, purses, CDs. One section of wall was covered with at least two dozen back seat LCD screens, most of them, she noticed with renewed fury, tuned to sports channels. To her left was a pile of keys; next to that, what must have been a fortune in small change.

Scuttling from pile to pile, emerging from tunnels or disappearing into them, sitting around the campfires, running around, were countless…creatures. They were the general size and shape of children, though brown, and furry. They had small, bright eyes in pointed faces; knobby limbs, clawed hands; a stoop to their walk and a jitter to their movement.

It took Marjorie mere seconds to take it all in. Then she spotted Donny and spurred herself into action.

Donny was on the floor near the fast food pile, wrapped in some kind of blanket, between two of the…Goblins, she admitted to herself. They had to be Goblins. They were facing away from her, and seemed to be in a heated discussion with another Goblin, larger than the rest, wearing more and better clothing, as well as a weird kind of crown.

A faint childhood memory surfaced, of a teenage girl in some movie mumbling, “You’re him, aren’t you? The Goblin King.” Fury rose in her. Ignoring everything else, she strode towards the three Goblins surrounding her baby.

She’d crossed half the distance when the creature she’d dubbed the Goblin King noticed her. He silenced the two others with a gesture. They turned around and watched her approach.

A few feet away, she stopped. Ignoring the other two, she faced the King. Half-remembered ritual words bubbled from her lips.

“Give me the child! Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered…”

Startling her, the King spoke. His voice rattled and squeaked.

“Oh, rubbish! Don’t come to me with your movie nonsense!”

“Don’t tell me what I can’t do!” she burst out. “You stole my baby, and I’m taking him back now!”

Squatting, she gathered Donny and his rough blanket into her arms.

“Of course you are,” the King said. “It’s all a terrible mistake.”


“These two,” he bit, gesturing at the embarrassed youths, “have a lot to learn.”

They hung their heads and shuffled their feet with eerie semblance to abashed children. Marjorie felt the wind dropping from her sails.

“What do you mean? What were you doing with my baby?”

“These…idiots stole him.”

Explaining took a while. Apparently, what the Goblins did was steal stuff. Where humans advanced by discovering, inventing, developing, the Goblins stole. The King made it sound like two equivalent and equally honorable paths, and Marjorie held her thoughts about that to herself.

Originally, they stole whatever they could get their hands on, including treasure, livestock and even children.

“Changelings!” Marjorie exclaimed.

The crowd gathering around them snickered as one.

“So easy to blame us, isn’t it? No, changelings were just an easy excuse whenever a really ugly child was born. I don’t know how you define stealing, but we never replace what we take.”

Centuries back, somewhere in the Middle Ages, humans had had enough. They had tried to hunt down and kill every last one of the thieving creatures. They would have succeeded too, but a particularly diplomatic Goblin had intervened.

“We made a truce,” the king said. “We agreed to take ‘only that which is lifeless, and has been lost or abandoned through carelessness or purposeful action’. In exchange, humans promised to leave us in peace.”

Lifeless? You think my Donny is lifeless?

The two young ones squirmed, and the King said:

“Clearly not. These two will be on fast food sorting detail for two months. They thought they could cross the line, but they were wrong!” The last word was shouted at the two offenders, who looked like they wanted to disappear into the ground. “I apologize. Please take your child back.”

“There is one small problem,” a voice sounded from the gathered crowd. One of the Goblins was making its way through the audience. It was grey and bowed and moved with slow care.

“What’s that, counselor?” the king asked.

“The terms of the truce are clear,” the counselor said. “What we steal is ours, no matter what the circumstances. Nothing can be given back; it can only be exchanged.”

From the crowd came a murmur of agreement. The King frowned.

“I’m afraid my counselor is right,” he said. “Even under these circumstances, we are bound to the terms of the truce. Giving back your child would be as grave an offence against those terms as the theft itself. It must be exchanged.”

Marjorie was only half-listening. She had an idea that made her chuckle as it blossomed.

“Tell me, king: I saw the cables and ducts and tubes in the tunnel. Do you steal utilities as well as forgotten items in cars?”

“Yes, we have gas, water, electricity…everything. Why do you ask?”

“Do you have cable, too?”

Hours later, Marjorie was having a luxurious soak, lavender bath oil spreading its calming scent. Donny was splashing and spluttering in his own little bath, gurgling happily as he pounded the water with a rubber duck.

“Dada?” he muttered.

Marjorie pictured the wall of LCD screens. The king had assured her they regularly stole crates of beer and bags of chips, and the fast food pile yielded plenty of leftovers.

“Daddy’s downstairs, sweetie, watching the game.”


# # #

What Happened While Don Was Watching The Game by Floris M. Kleijne
originally published in the Fall 2011 print edition



Floris M. Kleijne was born in Amsterdam in 1970, and then nothing of consequence happened to him until 2001, when he traded his mother tongue for the English language. (His mother still resents the trade; she's not spoken to him since.) Since 2001, he's published stories—some of them award-winning—about space travel, time travel, an axe murderess, people with gills, and—even though he's happily married—a naked man in a cage. His first novel, a road movie with werewolves cast as the good guys, is only two rewrites, an agent, and a publisher away from becoming a best-seller. Floris likes to claim he prefers writing to Real Life™ , but the truth is he loves both with equal passion.

For more of Floris' work,
visit his Big Pulp author page


This feature and more great
fiction & poetry are available in
Big Pulp Fall 2011:
On the Road from Galilee

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