He huddled under the bridge and hid from the world outside, as he had done for as long as he could remember . . . No, he could remember a time before that, but he didn’t like those thoughts, and he buried them away whenever they appeared.
The bridge was old and unimpressive, long ago marred by spray-painted graffiti, mostly faded now. The county road extended from an Alabama state highway and crossed over a creek that was more of a drainage ditch, overrun with weeds and populated with garbage tossed out from the occasional passing car. Brambles, dogwoods, and milk¬weed grew tall enough to provide some shelter for his lair.
Skari lurked in the shadows next to piled cans, mud-encrusted debris he had hauled out of the noisome drainage ditch, a bent and discarded child’s bicycle (struck by a car). A stained blanket provided very little warmth and no softness, but he clung to it nevertheless. It was his. All the comforts of home.
He had a shopping cart with a broken wheel, piled high with the few possessions he had bothered to keep over . . . over a long time. He hunched his back against the rough concrete abutment, shifting posi¬tion. The dirt and gravel beneath him was a far cry from the grassy, flower-strewn meadow he sometimes saw in his dreams. He didn’t belong in meadows anymore—just here in the shadows, standing watch at the nightmare gate. He had to guard it. Skari wouldn’t leave his post.
The tall milkweed rustled aside, and he looked up at the freckled face of a skinny little girl. “I see you there,” she said. “Are you a troll?”
Skari tensed, half rose from his crouch. Many layers of tattered and filthy clothing covered his skin, masked his monstrous features. The girl just blinked at him.
“What are you doing here?” When he inhaled a quick breath, through the humidity and the odors of the drainage ditch, he could smell the little girl. The tender little girl.
“My brother says you’re a troll, ’cause trolls live under bridges. You’re living under a bridge,” the girl said. “So, are you a troll?”
Yes, he was, but she didn’t know that. In fact, no one was allowed to know that. “No. Not a troll,” he lied.
She smelled tender, savory, juicy.
The girl was intrigued by him, but she hesitated. She was smart enough for that at least.
Skari squeezed his eyes shut and drove his head back against the concrete abutment of the bridge. Again. The pain was like a gunshot through his skull, but at least it drove away the dark thoughts. Some¬times it just got so lonely, and he got so hungry here. He’d been thinking about eating children, tasty children . . . thinking about it altogether too much.
With a crash through the underbrush, a boy came down the embankment. Her brother. He looked about nine, a year or two older than the girl. Both were scrawny, their clothes hand-me-downs but still in much better condition than Skari’s. The children did have a ragged¬ness about them, though, a touch of loss that had not yet grown into desperation. That would come in time, Skari knew, unless he ate them first.
Next to his sister, the boy made a grimace and said with a taunting bravery that only fools and children could manage, “I think you’re a troll. You smell like a troll!”
Skari leaned forward, lurched closer to the edge of the shadow, and the children drew back, but remained close, staring. “Methinks you smell yourself, boy.”
Rather than hearing the threat, the boy giggled. “Methinks? What kind of word is methinks?” He added in a singsong voice, “Methinks ‘methinks’ is a stupid word.”
Skari grumbled, ground his teeth together. His gums were sore. He picked at them with a yellowed fingernail. No wonder witches ate children. It was sounding like a better and better idea to him. His stomach rumbled.
He wanted to lunge out from the gloom, but he knew the nightmare gate was there somewhere behind him, just waiting for him to let down his guard. Skari had been assigned here to stand watch, sentenced to stay here.
For many centuries, evil had bubbled up from the depths of the world, and the nightmare gates through which demons traveled always appeared underneath bridges. Skari couldn’t leave his post, had to stay here and protect against anything that might come out. It made no sense to him why a vulnerable spot might appear under this small county-road bridge in northern Alabama, but it was not for Skari to understand. He hadn’t felt the evil gate in some time, although there was plenty of evil in him.
“How long have you been there, mister?” asked the girl.
“Longer than you’ve been alive.”
A car peeled off the highway and drove along the county road. Its engine was loud and dyspeptic, one tire mostly flat so that as the car crossed the bridge overhead, it made a staccato trip-trap-trip-trap-trip-¬trap.
“What’s your name?” the boy asked, as if it were his turn to dare.
His name. Yes, he had a name. Other people had called him by name, laughed with him, even a beautiful maiden who had once whis¬pered it in his ear. But not anymore. He had no friends, no home, just what he clung to under this bridge where he stood guard.
But he did have a name. “Skari.”
“Scary Skari!” the boy shouted, and the girl laughed with him.
“Come closer!” He was so hungry for those children, so anxious to emerge into the sunlight again, even though it would cause him pain, make him twist and writhe. Skari grew ill from the very thought. It might be worth the pain, though, just for a bit of freedom . . . or maybe just for a taste of fresh meat.
“Billy! Kenna! Leave the poor man alone.”
The two children whirled, startled. They looked as if they’d been caught at something.
Their mother came up, a woman on the edge of thirty, her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail. She wore no makeup, but her face was washed clean. Her clothes also had that worn look to them.
“He’s a troll, Ma—he lives under a bridge,” said the girl, Kenna.
“He smells,” said Billy.
The mother looked mortally embarrassed, rounded up the two as she peered under the bridge where Skari huddled with all his posses¬sions. “I am so incredibly sorry they disturbed you. What can I say?” She hauled the children out of the weeds, maybe to keep them safe from him. “They both flunked home training, but it wasn’t from lack of effort on my part.”
She sounded conversational, a forced friendliness, as if she felt they had something in common.
“Why does he live under a bridge, Ma?” Kenna asked.
Skari was startled to see the woman hesitate. A bright sheen of tears suddenly appeared in her eyes. “Just be thankful we don’t live there.” He heard the unspoken yet in her voice.
“It’s all right,” Skari said. “They weren’t bothering me.” His stomach growled, but not loudly enough for anyone else to hear. “I’ve been called worse than smelly . . . and that by my own family.”
“Well, I appreciate your understanding. I’m Johanna. It was nice meeting you.”
She seemed uncomfortable, backing down the embankment, protecting her children—and good thing. She didn’t want them talking to strangers, especially ones who hid under bridges. Especially trolls.
The air was full of the whine of insects, laden with ozone. Overhead, dark thunderheads clotted. If a downpour came, it would make the humidity more tolerable for a while.
“We need to get back to the car, kids,” Johanna said. “It’s the only shelter we’ve got.”
“I don’t want to go back and sit in the car, Ma! It’s hot.”
“Been there for days. There’s nothing to do,” Billy added. “When are we gonna keep driving?”
“As soon as we get gas money. Somebody’ll come by.”
Whenever Skari saw people, they were from the cars that stopped at the rest area on the highway next to the bridge. It had beige metal picnic tables, trash cans, running water, restrooms, and not much else. Not even traffic. Skari had seen vehicles come and go, and most of them didn’t stay long, but now he remembered a rusted station wagon piled with belongings. It had been there a while. He thought he’d heard a loud muffler, a struggling engine, tires crunching gravel, doors slam¬ming—two nights ago? Johanna and her children probably had a hand¬written sign on a scrap of cardboard asking for help with gas money or food.
Skari tried to remember how to make conversation. Some part of him didn’t want the family to go away not yet. “Are you having trouble, ma’am?”
“No . . . yes . . . maybe.”
“Which is it?”
“All of the above. But it’s my problem. Don’t trouble yourself.”
Skari glanced behind him, sensed the nightmare gate. But the barrier was strong, stable—as it had been for many years. Nothing was trying to get through right now. He ambled closer to her, taking comfort in the thunderclouds that muted the afternoon sunlight.
“We don’t got a home no more,” Kenna said. “The mean man made us leave.”
“What mean man?”
Their mother let out a heavy sigh. “We were evicted. I lost my job a year ago and haven’t been able to find another one. I used up my savings, and we’re trying to make it to Michigan where my cousin lives.”
“Michigan?” He didn’t have much familiarity with maps anymore, but he did understand that Michigan was a long way from northern Alabama.
“We’ll manage somehow,” the mother said. Fat raindrops started to strike the ground. “We just need a little to get by, step by step. If we make it to Michigan, we can have a fresh start.” Her expression tight¬ened, as if she had forgotten about him entirely. “We’ll find a way to survive.”
Before he could stop himself, Skari blurted out, “It’s not so bad. You and the girl could live off the fat of the boy for at least three days.”
Johanna’s eyes widened and she drew back, startled. Billy thought it was a joke and he nudged his sister. “They wouldn’t want me anyway. Girls are the ones made out of sugar and spice and everything nice.”
Skari’s stomach rumbled. “Don’t believe too many fairy tales.”
The rain began falling in earnest, thick drops pattering and hissing all around them like whispered laughter. Johanna grabbed the two children. “Come on, back to the car.” She flashed a glance over her shoulder, then ran with a squealing Kenna and Billy off to the rest area.
Skari went back under his bridge, took up his post at the long-sealed nightmare gate, and watched the world as the rain washed the scent of children from the air.
• • • •
Water ran down the side of the bridge, trickles turning his dank and gloomy lair into a soupy mess. Skari just huddled there. The bugs seemed to enjoy it, though. Even after the storm stopped, leaving only leftover droplets wrung out from the sky, he heard frogs wake up in the creek. Something splashed in a puddle farther downstream. It wasn’t yet full dark, but the clouds hadn’t cleared.
All the burbling background noise masked the sound of stealthy footsteps, and the fresh rain covered the girl’s scent until she appeared. “Mister Skari, are you hungry?”
He was startled. The appetite became ravenous within him. Was she taunting him? He could lunge out right now, grab her before she could run, use his dagger to break her up into delectable pieces, roast her meat over a fire and have a feast. But after the rain, he’d never be able to build a fire. No matter, he was hungry enough to eat her raw.
Skari slammed his head against the abutment again to drive away the thoughts. No, no! The hungers, the dark desires had always been gnawing in him, but he could fight them back. He could . . . he could!
Kenna extended a rumpled white paper sack. “I brought hamburgers. Do you like fast food?”
No, I don’t like fast food. I want something slow enough I can catch! “Hamburgers?” he asked, his voice a croak.
“Somebody gave them to us at the rest area. They’re leftovers. Mostly good, but the fries are cold and soggy. I wanted to offer you the last one. Ma doesn’t know I’m here.” She extended the sack closer, and with a quick movement he might have been able to snatch her wrist. “It’s still fine. Only a bite taken out of it.”
With a sense of wonder, Skari took the sack and pulled it open. An explosion of wondrous smells struck him in the face. His mouth wa¬tered. He was so hungry!
He stuffed the burger into his mouth, fished around with his paws in the bottom of the bag to grab every small, withered French fry. “Thank you,” he said, his words muffled around the food. Tears stung his eyes.
He remembered feasting with some of the other warriors, a delicious banquet thrown by the victorious lord after a particularly long and bloody battle. They had slain countless scaly demons that day, driven them back through the nightmare gate and barricaded it under a stone bridge. Skari remembered how much blood there was in the air on the battlefield, how the smoking black demon blood had a sour acid smell, unlike the vibrant freshness of the roasted boar in the lord’s fire pit, unseasoned meat shimmering with grease. He and his fellow foot soldiers had eaten the celebratory feast, drinking the lord’s best wine and his cheapest ale. It was all so delicious!
That was before Skari had failed, before he had been cursed . . . before he’d been given this sacred duty.
He finished the food now, licked his crusted lips, and straightened, searching for his scraps of pride and memory as desperately as he looked for more fries.
“Is this your stuff?” Kenna was rummaging in his shopping cart, moving aside the piled possessions he had gathered over the years, decades . . . centuries.
He sucked in his breath. He didn’t dare let her find his weapons, the spell-sealed dagger. “Get away from there!” The girl jerked back. “You shouldn’t be here. Go back to your mother, your family.” He raised himself up, and Kenna looked awed and terrified as Skari grew and swelled, an ominous lurching shape under the bridge. She backed away, stumbling in the weeds. Skari lowered his voice, speaking more to himself than to her. “You have a family. Don’t forget that.”
She ran back to their forlorn station wagon, and he heard her crying, which made his heart heavy. Another stone of guilt, another failure, another thing to atone for. But Kenna had her brother, her mother . . . a mother who actually cared for her children.
Skari’s mother hadn’t been like that. When he’d run away to fight in the demon wars, he’d been cocky, full of false bravado, sure that no nightmare monster breaking out of hell could be worse than the shrew¬ish woman who had beaten him, starved him at home.
He’d been so wrong about that.
For a while, his comrades had become his family. The clerics had blessed them all, the noblemen had armed them, the wizards provided magical talismans with blades dipped in bloodsilver that could strike down demons.
In the first two engagements, Skari had been out of the fray, far from where the monsters boiled out from beneath the bridge. Warlords and armed warriors had fought the slavering demons, while clerics and wizards struggled to seal and barricade the nightmare gate. Skari was terrified, but uninjured—and the war went on.
In the third battle, though, when the fanged and clawed monsters turned, charging into the pathetic group of Skari and his friends, he watched his best comrade, Torin, die. Torin was a baker’s boy from the same village—they’d run off together—and Skari saw the demons tear him apart, twisting Torin’s arms and legs from his torso like the bones from a well-roasted quail carcass. Another demon had bitten off Hurn’s head. The long-haired tanner’s apprentice had feminine features and a cocky smile, and the fanged monster had opened its hinged jaws, engulfed the boy’s entire head, bit down, then spat it out amid a gout of foul breath. Hurn’s head had struck Skari right in the chest.
He didn’t remember dropping his sword or running screaming past all the other soldiers. Many hundreds of human soldiers had died that day, but the demons were driven back at an incredible cost of brave blood. Skari, though, was captured by the lord’s men, found to be a coward, sentenced to be executed by a headsman’s ax. But he was given a choice—a choice that he hadn’t known was so terrible. The wizards offered him the opportunity to become the guardian of a sealed gate, to be made immortal, to stand watch in case the nightmare hordes ever tried to break free again.
Babbling, Skari had agreed. He dropped to his knees weeping, begging them to make him a guardian. He had not known that choice would be worse than simply dying.
Skari had lost his family, his friends, everyone and everything. He had been alone for centuries, moved from bridge to bridge when it was deemed necessary, when a new vulnerable spot appeared anywhere in the world.
“Your job is to protect mankind,” the wizard had said.
The lord who stood before him had a grim, heartless face. He had lost a hand in the last battle. He had seen Skari run in terror from the monsters, and Skari knew he had earned his isolated eternity. His crime was not so great that he deserved hell itself, but bad enough for him to be sentenced to this purgatory. His fate, his job, was to protect humans against evil . . . even though his close proximity to the nightmare gates had twisted him, too.
He could never let the evil escape again. He couldn’t let it get to Johanna and her two children.
He turned to the bridge wall behind him, where he could sense the simmering gate. It had been quiet, silent, but he dare not let his guard down. Dare not leave, dare not have hope. He clenched his filthy, scabbed fist and hammered against the hard wall. “I hate you!” Nothing was worse than to be trapped alone where you didn’t want to be.
While he kept the nightmare gate guarded, he thought of Kenna and Billy, homeless, penniless, cast out by a “mean man,” vulnerable to human predators and unkind fate. Even if the demon wars were over, the darkness of human society was heartless, too. At least the demons were obvious enemies, and they could be defeated.
His thoughts kept going to the woman and her children. How could he defend against the troubles Johanna faced? The family was like the one he’d never had. Maybe that was another part of his punishment: to feel such helplessness after he’d begun to sense a connection. But what could he do?
We just need a little to get by, step by step, Johanna had said. If we make it to Michigan, we can have a fresh start.
As he thought of them, he sighed. They were the ones he fought for. But if he simply ignored their very real, though not supernatural, plight, he might as well let the evil behind the nightmare gate eat them. It would be like running away from the battlefield, a coward again.
He went to his cart and dug through his cluttered possessions, the detritus and treasures piled and packed there . . . until he found the last few things he had from his original life in another time, another world: a thick gold medallion, one small ring, and a handful of silver coins, spoils from his first battlefields. The trinkets had amounted to a fortune even then, an even greater one today.
For centuries, he’d kept them safe. Now, they would help a young mother and her children reach safety.
It was full night, and the nightmare gate seemed strong, stable. He sensed no whispers of evil back there, only emptiness. But he did feel the pain and the need of Johanna and her children.
Halfhearted rain began to fall as he trudged to the parking lot of the rest area. The station wagon was dark, closed up for the night as the family huddled there for shelter, safer and warmer than under a bridge. It was the only vehicle there. A single white mercury light shed a pool of illumination over the picnic tables. A metal sign peppered with divots from shotgun pellets said NO OVERNIGHT PARKING-STRICTLY ENFORCED. But no one had bothered to enforce it for days.
Shambling forward, a looming shadow surrounded by deeper shadows, Skari approached the driver’s-side window and thumped on it. He heard a startled gasp from behind the glass, the children stirring. He saw the glint of the mother’s eyes; she was concerned, ready to fight. In the darkness, they would be able to discern his gargantuan size, but unable to see his ugly twisted features, his scabrous skin.
He held up the pouch. “Didn’t mean to scare you, ma’am. I just thought this would help you get on your way.”
Johanna rolled down the window just enough for him to push the pouch through. She took it, and he turned, not wanting to speak with her, not waiting for her to see what he had given them.
Skari ambled back into the night, hurrying before any demons could discover the unguarded nightmare gate, before he would have to endure the mother telling him thank you.
• • • •
No more than an hour later, as he sat in the damp gloom of his lair, Johanna, Billy, and Kenna appeared under the bridge, walking closer. They weren’t afraid of him. The mother held the sack with the medal¬lion, the ring, the old coins. “I can’t take this.”
“Yes, you can. Those things do me no good, but for you they can make the difference. Buy yourself a new chance.” He tried to remember how to soften his words with humor. “It should keep you from having to eat the boy for at least a week”
She laughed, and her brow furrowed. “It’ll keep us from living under a bridge.” The boy and girl gathered closer, and they all looked at Skari. Johanna’s face was tight, and he saw tears in her eyes. “This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for us. Thank you.”
The little girl burst forward, threw herself against him, and hugged him tight. “You’re not a monster.”
Billy nodded and said strangely, “You’re saved. I’m glad we didn’t have to kill you.”
No sooner had the boy spoken than pain shot into Skari’s body. He hissed as it burned through him, screaming through his muscle fibers. His skin began to boil and discolor. Underneath his layers of old, crusted clothing, his body twisted in a spasm. He bent over and threw himself against the bridge abutment, his mind ringing with terror.
Were these people escaped demons? Had they come here to attack him? He staggered to his shopping cart, grabbed it. He had to get the bloodsilver dagger, defend himself, defend the world—but the cart crashed to one side.
Unable to stand the pain, Skari doubled over, dropped to the muddy, garbage-strewn ground
And shrank. Confused, Skari looked at hands that were no longer gnarled ugly paws. They were hands again. Human hands. He flexed his arms, pushed himself to his feet.
The mother and children stood before him, watching, but their eyes didn’t look evil. In fact, they seemed glad . . . relieved.
“The demon wars were over long ago,” said Johanna. “The nightmare gates are permanently sealed, but after all this time, the guardians themselves have become dangerous.”
Billy added, “Not only were you immortal, you became inhuman, too—so close to the darkness that it found a home in you.”
“We’ve been sent to find the last few remaining trolls, to test them,” Kenna said in a voice that did not belong to a little girl. “To see if they need to be destroyed, or if they have remembered human decency and compassion. You, Skari, are one of the last. We were afraid for you.”
Instead of the eyes of a little boy, Billy’s eyes were hard and ancient. “But you convinced even me.”
“You are free now,” Johanna said. “The world is safe from demons . . . and it is safe from you.”
Kenna grinned, and her eyes sparkled. “We release you from your post.”