The night was clear, so the skylights provided somewhat adequate illumination as I crept down the second floor hallway.
The sounds were coming from The Promenade.
I stopped in front of the dark, narrow hallway that lead to The Promenade. The little bit of light seeping in from around the corner didn’t illuminate any lurking foes. I pulled out my phone and turned on the flashlight.
“Uh, who’s there?”
Footsteps. Something vaguely humanoid leaned into and out of my light. Then a booming, gravelly voice.
“WHO BE TRIPPING OVER MY BRIDGE?”
Um. Okay? Not technically a bridge. But I didn’t think my third challenge cared much for technicalities.
“I am The Man The Old One has Chosen."
At that, my challenger stepped into full view.
It was a troll.
Having since read the book that Axel had been studying, I know that there is no one, consistent description of what a “troll” looks like. “Troll” can refer to the Icelandic Alfar - small, misshapen creatures; or to Swedish Vitterfolk, which are tall and good looking, albeit with a tail. Some trolls are portrayed as shapeshifters; others, primitive brutes. But that is neither here nor there.
Because this troll looked exactly like a life-sized troll doll.
Big glassy eyes, wrinkled face, four fingers, pointy tuft of purple hair, naked and devoid of genitalia. A specimen of my mom’s unfortunate collection, but six feet tall.
Saskia was wrong. I wasn’t disappointed. I was thoroughly disturbed.
Its plastic features folded into a sneer.
“I’M GOING TO GOBBLE YOU UP!”
I thought about The Big Book of World Fairy Tales; I vaguely recalled the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff. I didn’t have an older brother with hooves and horns. But I did have something.
I ran for the stairs. With its oversized head and tiny, four-toed feet, I assumed the troll wouldn’t be able to keep up. In the process, I radioed Noor.
“Go to Spencer’s,” I demanded. “Find those lightning-sphere toys they have. Turn on as many of them as you can. It’s a troll.”
Loud footsteps echoed behind me. Too scared to turn around, I radioed Kevin.
“Kev, it’s a troll!” I breathed desperately. “If you’re there, go to Spencer’s and find Noor.”
I took the stairs two at a time. I ran across the atrium, past Grandma’s and Abercrombie and Forever 21. The doors to Spencer’s Gifts were wide open, and a light was on. But I didn’t see any lighting.
I navigated through shelves and tables of tacky t-shirts, beer bongs, and bumper stickers and found Noor on the ground near the back of the store, surrounded by torn-open boxes and lightning balls. She was frantically wrapping scotch tape around one of the electrical cords.
“They’re all broken!” she cried. “Something chewed through the cables!”
I surveyed the scene, and saw she was right. Every single cord had been mangled, gnawed on with tiny teeth.
There was a crash. Something had knocked over a rack of crotch-less panties. I looked up in time to see a fox-sized creature land on top of a display of t-shirts. It had thick black fur, oversized pointed ears, jaundiced eyes, and no tail. I could swear the little fucker was laughing.
“Goddamit, Tailypo!” I screamed.
Tailypo took a flying leap and disappeared out the door. Fuck. The troll had proxies.
Noor jumped to her feet. I threw myself on the ground by the nearest lightning ball.
“There! Give me a pocket knife!” I pointed to a display by the register.
Noor handed me one in the shape of a naked woman. I cut off the mangled ends of the cord and, carefully as I could with my shaking hands, slit the rubber casing.
“Get me a battery,” I said. “Preferably a nine volt. A square one.”
I peeled back the casing, exposing naked wire, then started on the other side. Noor, scowling, grabbed a pink rabbit vibrator off a shelf and dislodged a 9V battery.
“It doesn’t take batteries,” she said pointedly. “I already checked.”
I stripped the other half of the cable, then twisted the wires together.
“I need fire. And rubber. Find me a blow-up doll.”
I grabbed another broken lightning ball and indelicately extracted a piece of wire from the ruined cord.
THUD! THUD! THUD!
Loud, heavy footsteps. I placed the ends of the wire on either side of the battery. A small flame ignited.
“Noor!” I shouted. “Get over here and help me!”
THUD! THUD! COME OUT, COME OUT, WHEREVER YOU ARE!
Noor reappeared, holding a rolled-up Suicide Squad poster.
“We don’t have time!” she hissed. “Set this on fire!”
The thing was in the store.
With no other options, I held out my DIY lighter. In one movement, Noor had the rolled-up poster ablaze.
CRASH! A floor-to-ceiling shelf of cheesy mugs fell onto the register.
The troll was there. It might’ve been my imagination, but I could swear the thing had gotten bigger. A large burlap sack dangled from its fist. Its mouth twisted into an evil smile.
Noor, holding her makeshift torch, stepped towards it.
The troll took a deep breath, pinched its plastic lips, and blew. I felt its hot breath on my cheeks, gagged at the rancid smell. Noor’s torch went out like a birthday candle.
The troll laughed a rumbling, throaty laugh.
"I’M GONNA GOBBLE YOU UP!"
I clambered to my feet, clutching my only weapon - the flimsy pocket knife shaped like a naked lady. Noor was one step ahead of me. She’d dropped the charred poster and brandished a box cutter she must’ve been hiding somewhere.
With a plate-sized, four-fingered hand, the troll reached for her.
In that moment, I truly thought I was going to die. Childhood memories played back in front of my eyes, spliced together with grotesque images of the various horrifying outcomes The Old One could inflict on the Baldwin Mall.
Then, there was the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.
DING! DING! DING! DING! DING! DING!
The troll froze. With a jingle, its burlap sack hit the ground. It raised its slab-like hands to its ears, its face screwed in an expression of physical pain.
The ringing continued: DING! DING! DING! DING! DING!
It was the scourge of my daily trek to Jackie’s Dogs, the Lady Grace Candles bell. The troll turned on a fleshy foot and lumbered away. Too big for the door, it rammed into the door frame, stumbled, and, with a clay-like thud, fell over, its hole-less ass in the air.
Pitch black. The lights had all gone off. Then, they came back on.
The elves were back. They were everywhere. Again, each plastic, lumpy face was turned towards Noor and me. This time, though, their crude painted features looked pleasant. Welcoming. And, as the lights flickered off again, I knew we had won this round. Somehow, through some miracle, we’d won.
The lights came back on. The troll was gone. And, if we’d won, that meant… I didn’t dare hope…
Footfall, then Kevin burst through the damaged door frame. His white shirt was splattered red. I’d have worried, if he didn’t look so happy.
“Got your call, man,” he said. “Sorry I didn’t respond, the Claire’s twins made blood run down the walls.”
Noor looked him over. “The bell,” she said, “was that you?”
Kevin nodded proudly. “Trolls are scared of bells. What’s that?”
I followed his gaze. The burlap sack, discarded by the troll in its graceless flight, was still on the floor. Beside it, spilled from it, something glittered.
“Guys,” Kevin said excitedly, “this is worth fifty grand. At least.”
We sat in the food court, the contents of the troll’s bag in front of us. It was a golden chain with a large, pear-shaped pendant - a yellow diamond, surrounded by pearls.
“I’ve got a buddy who deals in antique jewelry,” Kevin continued. “It’s a Tiffany necklace from the late 19th century.”
“So, close to seventeen thousand each?” Noor said hopefully.
“Don’t get too excited yet,” I told them seriously. “If you’d paid attention to anything I’ve said, you’d know we’ve got to win two more of these.”
Noor’s eyes widened. “Maybe The Old One rewards us every time we win.”
I left them, and went outside. I sat on a bench next to Best Buy. It wasn’t that I was disinterested in money; it was that I’d hoped, if we won a challenge, The Old One would give us back a hostage. But I’d ran to the Mural Entrance as soon as our ordeal was over. The picture was just as it had been. Creepy old dude. Silhouetted crowd. Redhead girl, dark-skinned girl, big security guard. They were still his.
The bench buckled. I looked up. Noor sat next to me.
“You did good, you know,” she said. “The lightning was a good idea. Kevin said it would have worked, if that furry black thing hadn’t ruined it.”
She raised an eyebrow. I guessed Short and Shivery hadn’t made it to wherever she was from.
“It was Axel’s,” I said. “The guy stuck in the wall.”
Noor frowned sympathetically. “Was he your friend?”
I nodded. “Well, sort of. Him, and Evie, and Saskia. They all helped me, and now they’re trapped… or, fuck, dead as far as I know. And it’s all my fault. I’m the one The Old One wanted. Not them. Me.”
“It’s not your fault,” she said. “You didn’t ask for this, you were chosen.”
I nodded and forced a smile. We sat in silence, staring into the cloudless night.
“You don’t wear your cross necklace anymore.”
“I don’t,” I said. “I told you about the Bagienniks… the salamanders.”
She fished for something at the neckline of her grey sweater, and pulled out a coppery chain with a single pendant. She held the pendant up for me to see. It looked like a little hand with two hearts.
“I have a protection charm, too.”
“Yeah, well,” I said, “maybe it’ll do you more good than my cross did me. To be honest, I don’t know why I even took the thing in the first place. I’m not really into religion. No offense.”
She shrugged. “Is your family Catholic?”
I shook my head. “Everyone thinks so, because I’m Latin. But no. My grandparents defected to Evangelism in the sixties, and that’s how I was raised. I think my mom’s family’s still technically Catholic, but they never go to church.”
“Do you live with your mother?” Noor asked.
Noor’s empathetic countenance broke, and she looked at me with honest, deeply-felt sympathy.
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “She died when I was seven. Brain cancer. She was twenty-eight years old. And since then… I don’t know. I’m not surprised the cross necklace didn’t keep me safe. It’s never meant anything to me. It’s just a prop that we break out to trick ourselves into believing that God, or Allah, or whoever will answer our prayers, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.”
“I’m sorry,” Noor repeated.
We sat in silence for another moment. Noor stared straight ahead, avoiding my eyes, like a lost kitten hiding in a corner. Which was curious. Because this was a girl who’d seen a spider-legged mutant clown freak crawling on the ceiling and, without batting an eye, beat the thing like it owed her money. Of all the words I could use to describe her, ‘kittenish’ wasn’t one I’d expected.
“You asked me if I was Greek,” I said. “Why?”
She turned to me with a weird expression, as though unsure I was worthy of the explanation.
“My little cousins are there,” she said, deciding I was. “In a refugee camp. I… I haven’t heard from them in a couple weeks, and I’m scared. I thought you might’ve had family in the country… and that maybe they could help.”
“You’re a Syrian refugee?” I blurted out.
“I’m an American citizen,” she said defensively. “I dropped out of the womb here, just like you. But my family’s Syrian, and I was raised in the country.”
Her father was a doctor, she explained to me, and her mother was a nurse. Her parents had temporarily resided in Orange County while her father completed a fellowship, and she’d been born on American soil during that time.
The family had returned to Syria two years later, to a life of luxury. Noor’s parents had owned a beautiful mansion outside Madaya and an upscale apartment building in Aleppo, near the hospital where her father worked. She’d attended high school at an elite boarding academy in Massachusetts, then was accepted into Harvard.
The war had begun her final year of high school. It wouldn’t last long, her father had said. The vindictive, totalitarian government had put down rebellions before. So, as the bombs fell, the death toll rose, and the fundamentalist militias crawled out of the woodwork, Noor had happily chugged through life in her college bubble, struggling over organic chemistry homework and Skype-ing with her childhood friend, Abdullah, who attended a university in Aleppo.
The years passed. Noor realized she was in love with Abdullah, and him with her. Both were accepted into USC’s Keck School of Medicine. They planned to finish their university studies, marry in Syria during the summer, then relocate to California that August.
Noor returned to Aleppo in early May. By July, she and her family were trapped.
While Noor was safe in Boston, the violent skirmishes in Syria had spiraled into constant, total war. Noor’s parents had stayed, out of both a sense of pragmatism and a sense of duty. Running was dangerous and money no longer plentiful, and the thought of abandoning their lives, their friends, and their patients was beyond painful. But, with government bombs exploding day and night, food increasingly scarce, and the streets increasingly lawless, fleeing was soon their only option.
Her father, Noor told me, had had a plan. A medical school friend in New Zealand had claimed that, if he and his family got themselves to the country, they’d be given priority immigration status, as doctors were needed. Noor’s older brother had purchased a van and fuel, then hidden the vehicle in an abandoned garage a block over.
The whole family - Noor and Abdullah; her parents, brother, sisters, two aunts, and five cousins - would drive to the outskirts of the city, pay smugglers to take them to Turkey, then contact the doctor friend in New Zealand from there.
The day they planned to escape, the family holed up in the abandoned first-floor apartment where they’d squatted for months. Their penthouse had long since collapsed. Noor had cuddled with Abdullah, his arm around her shoulders. His family lived in the government-controlled portion of Aleppo. He hadn’t known whether they were dead or alive.
A loud, constant buzzing cut through the air. It was a scouting plane, and it was close. The family immediately sprung into action - out the door, down the stairs to the basement, where Noor’s parents had set up a shanty medical clinic that doubled as an air raid shelter. Noor and Abdullah were at the stairs when her aunt screamed. Her two young sons were missing.
She said they had been across the street, playing soccer with some neighborhood kids. Without a word, Abdullah ran out to find them. Noor, clutching his hand, followed behind. Her mother screamed for her. She didn’t look back.
The last thing she remembered was the neighbor girl’s dress. A small crowd of children ran for shelter, including a little girl in a blue dress with yellow flowers. Then, there was the loudest sound she ever heard, then a violent force against her body, tearing Abdullah's hand from hers. Then a flash of red, then silence.
She awoke in a pile of destroyed concrete. Through the thick, smoky air, Noor could see her building had caved in - though not yet comprehend the implications. Her head hurt; something warm and wet dripped down her cheek. There was sobbing coming from somewhere.
She forced herself up, and saw her two young cousins cowering behind an overturned cart. Then she looked closer at the pile of debris she’d rested against. A mess of concrete chunks, discarded roof tiles, and dislodged stucco. And a bloodied human hand.
Abdullah lay still, crumpled and half-buried in garbage, soaked in his own blood. A large piece of shrapnel stuck out from his forehead. His lifeless eyes stared up at her, thoughtless and unknowing.
She didn’t know how long she knelt there, blood seeping from the cut in her forehead, crying over the ruined body of the man she’d intended to marry. Then she turned her blood and tear-stained face to her leveled home.
Fifteen people had gathered that day. Three survived the bombing.
Noor told me, briefly, about her journey, through Turkey to Greece, with her two cousins. They’d been gouged and half-starved by smugglers, then forced onto an overcrowded dinghy that capsized off the coast of Kalymnos. She told me about the impossible decision she’d been forced to make - stay with her cousins and starve, or cash out her American citizenship.
She chose the latter. She had her birth certificate and American passport - which she’d left with a college friend - express-mailed to the American embassy. She pawned her engagement ring to buy a plane ticket, flew to LAX, moved in with a friend in Rosemead, and got to work saving money to save her cousins.
“They’re only twelve and fourteen,” she said. “An aunt of theirs in France says she’ll take them in if I can get them there, and to do that, I’ve got to come up with thirty grand. And in the meantime, I’m terrified that they’ll get beaten, or raped, or killed, or worse.”
Or worse. No explanation needed.
Noor ran her fingers over the little charm on her necklace.
“I don’t think mine has done me a lot of good, either.”*****
Written by NickyXX