Mary Alice Johnson stopped in mid-transit between the kitchen and the living room. Crouching at the end of the hallway was her five-year-old son, Stewie. He was sitting back on his heels, knees up under his chin with his arms wrapped around his legs. It was an unusual position to find the boy. What caught her attention was that he wasn’t looking down the hall. He sat just past the edge of the wall, his shoulder at the corner, but he was staring across the opening. A locked in stare at … nothing. The dining room straight ahead, the hall to his right, the door to the kitchen to his left. Both the hall and dining room were dark, the light of the kitchen just dim from this angle. She could see the nervous tension in the boy’s body. She stood there for a moment, but he took no apparent notice of her. That was odd as well. His constant greetings, a day filled with “Hi Mommy!” every time they crossed paths was background noise to her now. All the more obvious by its absence.
“Honey, are you okay?”
Stewie’s gaze never wandered. A quick nod of head and a grim set to his mouth was his only response. He remained unnaturally still. This was the boy who wore her out on a daily basis with a supply of energy that seemed endless. Now he just sat and stared. Mary Alice watched him for a moment more. He didn’t seem distressed, just…focused.
Her tone showed her doubt on that point. Mary Alice continued into the living room but didn’t take her usual chair. Shifting to another (less comfortable) one put her son in her eye line. Sometimes it was best just to let a child alone to do their thing. All the experts seemed to agree. At least the ones she liked. She tried to read but the boy’s stillness nagged at her.
An hour later, Stewie had shifted twice, seeming to ease the pressure on his legs but remained in place. When Peter Johnson walked through the door, she waved him urgently over.
“Hey, beautiful. What’s…” She shushed him and motioned for him to come closer.
“Stewie has been sitting there”, she motioned to their son, “for an hour now. He hasn’t moved. I asked him if he was OK and he said he was, but he hasn’t moved. I’m starting to worry.”
As she spoke, Peter considered the boy. A normal day ended with Stewie rushing him as soon as he walked through the door, tales of the boy’s adventures pouring out. He noted the look of tension there as well. Almost as if the boy were waiting for something.
“Was he OK the rest of the day?”
His wife nodded.
“Just a regular day, till I found him there an hour ago.”
He walked over and knelt next to the boy.
“Hey, Stewie-Be-Doo. What’s up? You got Mom worried.”
The childhood nickname, now much despised, got him a sideways look of reproach. That’s good, Peter thought, he’s not off in never-never land.
“I’m watching. For Grampy.”
Grampy was Peter’s father Robert. A year ago his health had started to fail. After much negotiation with both his father and his wife, Peter had moved the old man into the spare bedroom. It made the house a little cramped, but Robert worked to be useful to the limits of his ability. Mary Alice came to appreciated having some help with her son in the following months. While the older man couldn’t run an play, he served as a perfect audience for the youngster. Always willing to “Watch this!”, and with the patience to endure endless stories, “Grampy” gave her free time in her schedule almost every day now. Grandfather and grandson had formed a bond that touched Peter. He and his father had spent years banging heads and the boy had strengthened their relationship, too. It had been a wonderful change for them all.
“You know Grampy is always glad to see you. You don’t have to wait here. Go check if he’s awake and go see him.”
Stewie shook his head emphatically.
“I’m not lookin’ to see Grampy. He don’t feel good. So he’s sleepin’. He told me to keep my eyes open. To watch.”
Peter Johnson frowned, looking towards the door at the end of the hall. The boy tired the old man most days. It wasn’t unusual for Peter to find him taking a nap just before dinner. This watching game was new, however. His father liked to tease the boy, but it was always in fun. This felt mean and that was worrisome in a completely different way. Peter kept an eye out for any further changes in his father’s health, especially mentally. Since the move, and the interaction with the boy, Robert had seemed to improve mentally. During a discussion with the older man’s doctor, Peter had been told that these changes can happen suddenly. He turned his attention to the boy again.
“Watching for what, big guy?”
The boy’s eyes flicked to the side to look at him for a second or two. Then back.
Peter was back to his own childhood in an instant. Gremlins. He was roughly Stewie’s age when the old man had told him that story. When Peter walked past the end of the hallway, or through any dimly lit place, he thought he saw things. Just in the corner of his eye were faces. They grinned and made faces at him from corners and doorways. If he looked toward them, they disappeared. Finally, he asked his father about the little faces he could see out of the corner of his eye. He expected to be told it was nothing, but to his surprise, his father took him seriously.
“You can only see them in the corner of your eye, right. If you turn to look they’re gone.”
He remembered, nodding solemnly. Exactly. Robert Johnson told his son they were gremlins, small spirits that lived where people did. They were mostly harmless, just playing tricks like moving things around so you couldn’t find them when you need them. A gremlin would try to distract you so you might stumble or forget what you were doing. It became a family joke when things went wrong. “Damn gremlins!” He still caught himself saying it sometimes. He nodded to his son.
“Little guys, in the corners of your eyes, right?”
Stewie’s eyes grew larger and he nodded vigorously. “Grampy told me about ‘em. He says I need to watch.”
Peter smiled. Thank God, nothing worse than that. “Yeah, he taught me about them, too. I was just about your age.” He ruffled his son’s hair. “But they’re just silly little troublemakers. You don’t need to stand guard.”
Stewie’s face grew determined. He shook his head firmly as he settled back into position. “Grampy says they’re starting to gather. I have to watch for that.”
When gremlins gather. He hadn’t thought about that part of the story in years. One day when Peter was a few years older, his father had sat him down. There was a serious look on his face.
There was something he hadn’t told Peter about gremlins. He was too little then, but it was time for him to know. How many gremlins had Peter ever seen at once? The boy thought for a moment. Three. The most he had ever seen was three. His father nodded. That was good. He needed to notice; if he ever saw them start to gather in larger numbers, Peter should tell his father. Peter nodded solemnly again. What did it mean when they gather? Robert crouched in front of the boy, putting a hand on each shoulder. That moment, which he hadn’t thought about in years, was suddenly vivid again. His father looked him straight in the eyes.
“When gremlins gather, someone is about to die.”
A chill ran down Peter’s spine. “Tell me what happened today, Stewie.” The boy turned and looked at him.
“I walked by and saw about six of them. So I ran down to tell Grampy.”
Peter could see his son was upset.
“That’s when Grampy told me to watch.”
Peter stood up, staring down the hall.
The dark and empty hall that led to his father’s room.
“Tell me what you see now, Stewie.”
Please say nothing, please say nothing, the thought repeated in his mind as he stepped into the hallway.
“There are lots of them, Daddy. Dozens and dozens…”
Peter Johnson took a step into the hallway.
“Not that way, Daddy.”
He looked down at Stewie who was looking back at him now, tears streaming down his face. The boy’s arm was pointing toward the kitchen. Peter was confused for a second, then turned toward the living room. Mary Alice was gone. She must have moved while he was talking to the boy.
There was a crash in the kitchen.
Peter Johnson turned and ran.