by Charlie Cole.
Let’s be honest, when it comes to fantastic bi-ped hierarchy, trolls rank somewhere below garden gnomes. While dwarves are reputed industrious smelters, gnomes keep your gardens blooming. Goblins, though less practical, have an almost celebrity scare-factor.
Then there are trolls.
Gray-skinned trolls were used as gatekeepers by emperors of old, being comfortable sitting still for long hours and rarely backing down in a confrontation, like feral cats. With an uncanny ability to mimic voices, which people confuse for echoes, they are grim-faced, big-handed, and mostly keep to themselves. And, like cats, they sleep a lot.
Some think they turn into stone when exposed to direct sunshine, but that’s just an excuse a troll invented to justify sleeping under the bridge he was guarding, and other trolls quickly adopted as canon.
The Pinepoint Troll, Leonid, lived under a one-lane, stone bridge that led into a former estate which, following a turn-of-the-century fire, had been repurposed as a peninsular state park. He ate salamanders and mushrooms and occasionally indulged in processed snack food tossed over the side of the bridge by mischievous children. He especially loved bright and cheesy Orange Crisps.
One early-evening Tara Brightly and her twin brother, Tanner, restless teen-agers on a late summer camping trip with their mom, were riding their bikes overhead. They’d just returned from a trip to the convenience store to restock on munchies. Tanner had been aggressively leading on the return trip; enough that Tara was tired and annoyed from the struggle to keep up.
As Tanner paused to admire the haunting brook beneath the bridge, Tara rushed up behind him, grabbed his khaki ball cap and tossed it into the abyss.
“I’m telling!” shouted Tanner.
“Meet you at camp,” said Tara, “that is if you can find your way in the dark.”
Tanner leaned his bike against the stonework. Ignoring posted warnings, he slid down loose gravel to the steep bank of the brook. The air was cool and damp. He stopped below the bridge where each end was like a cave, dark and uninviting. His hat was gone.
“Anyone seen a hat?” he asked whimsically. “It’s real important to me. I don’t have money for a reward, but I have,” he thought a moment, “a bag of Orange Crisps.”
His voice echoed, “Orange Crisps.”
“Brand new. Unopened.”
Tanner yelled, “I hate this place!”
As he turned away, his hat soared over his shoulder and landed just ahead of him. Tanner spun around. He scooped up his hat, putting it back on, and stared about. He could see nothing.
“I owe you,” he said, a little nervous. “I’m leaving now.”
He turned and took a few quick steps. Leonid grabbed his ankle and
pulled him into the shadows. “Hey! Let go!” Leonid lifted Tanner by one foot, hanging him upside-down. The hat dropped. Leonid retrieved it.
“Reward,” said Leonid, sounding remarkably Tanner-like.
“How are you doing that? What are you anyway?”
“A promise,” said Leonid, pivoting Tanner over the cold water.
“I was joking,” said Tanner. “I didn’t think anyone was listening. You were camouflaged. You were practically invisible, so I clearly wasn’t talking to you. But I do have a bag of Orange Crisps, which is yours if you put me down. Will that do?”
“Orange Crisps,” echoed Leonid. He righted Tanner, setting him back on the ground.
Tanner scrambled up to his bike. He tossed the unopened big of Orange Crisps over the bridge. “I hope you’re allergic.” He raced back to the campsite.
“Where’s Mom? We gotta leave.”
“There’s a thing under the bridge. It had my hat. It’s huge. I don’t think we’re safe.”
“That would be the troll,” said Mrs. Welliver, coming out of the tent shaking a can of bug spray. “I didn’t think he was still around.”
“I saw him briefly once, when I was a kid. I thought I’d made it up. He won’t leave the bridge.”
“He’s huge! Something that big has got to have a big appetite.”
“Obviously, he didn’t eat you,” she said.
“Only because I gave him Orange Crisps.”
“A whole bag?”
“I didn’t think he’d be satisfied with a handful.”
“He’s got a slow metabolism. Probably how he’s lived so long. I bet it lasts him all summer. What were you doing under the bridge? Aren’t there warnings?”
“Not about him.”
“Nothing says, ‘Stay on the bridge?’”
“Sure, but it doesn’t say why. Can we go home now?”
“He likes the darkness. He’s won’t come after you.”
“Ever hear of night? That’s pretty dark, too.”
“Who ate the three Billy Goats Gruff,” asked Tara, suddenly, “in the story where they want to cross a bridge? Wasn’t that a troll?”
“You’ve got it backwards, honey,” said Mrs. Welliver. “A troll tried to keep those good-for-nothings off the bridge, then they tricked him. And the biggest goat crushed the poor troll to bits.”
“I’m sorry for the troll and all,” Tanner said, “but I don’t see what this has to do with me. Wait! Did you really take your two precious kids to a campground you knew was infested with trolls?”
“It’s not infested, and nobody ever talks about him, so I didn’t know if he was still here.”
“I swear I won’t ask for anything for Christmas if we pack right now.”
“I was going to get you driving lessons.”
“Please,” said Tanner.
“He’ll probably curl up and snooze for a week.”
“Did he give you anything?” she asked.
“My hat. Then he took it back, then he gave it to me again.”
“That’s good luck. If he touched it, you’ll outlive us all.”
When they drove home over the bridge, Tanner slouched low in his seat and begged his mother to gun the car.
“Bye, troll who I never saw,” said Tara.
Tanner lived until just over ninety. In his long life, he never returned to that park, but he always kept his hat close, often wearing it to bed.
Charlie Cole lives with his family in Maine on land once owned by his great-great grandfather. He has been previously published in A Long Story Short, Bewildering Stories, Black Petals, Everyday Fiction, The Blue Crow, The Sandy River Review, and The Café Review.