By Ed Staskus
When Emma looked at her brother Oliver, she saw a towheaded boy about four feet tall and not even fifty pounds. He wore his hair short, ran up and down the stairs, was a slow eater, could be shy but always spoke up, and was learning how to play the piano, although he wasn’t nearly as good as she was. He was an all-American boy, half German and half Lithuanian, like her. He was also the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County. How did a first grader become that? She was in third grade, taller, bigger, and smarter. She had mastered division and multiplication. Oliver was just learning how to read and write, for goodness’ sake.
Sometimes she thought she should be the monster hunter, not her brother’s right-hand man. She was even more unofficial than him. She wasn’t sure she liked that, although she had to live with it.
She had to admit, though, that Oliver had nerves of steel, while she still got spooked by some of the monsters he went head-to-head with. He had taken care of Goo Goo Godzilla in less than five minutes when he was threatening the nuclear power plant in North Perry, not far from where they lived. He did it as easily as brushing a bug away.
He got started in kindergarten chasing shadows, noises in the night, and wrestling with nightmares. Phantoms learned to beware of his reach, though. He flattened them like pancakes and tossed them out of the house like frisbees. He made his reputation the summer before first grade. There was a troll in the woods behind their house. Not behaving himself was the last mistake he made in Lake County.
Trolls came to the USA from Scandinavia in the 18th century on sailing ships. They can be big or small, ugly and slow-witted or sneaky charming, harmless or menacing, fast-talking liars or almost like the folks next door. They live apart from others, even other trolls, preferring their own company. They are ungodly, kidnapping cats and dogs. When crossed they can be dangerous. They are afraid of lightning and church bells. Sunlight turns them to stone.
When the neighbor’s terrier disappeared, Oliver knew he had to step up. He saw the dog every day, fed him doggie treats, and treated him like a friend. A good neighbor is somebody who can play the bagpipes but doesn’t. The troll wasn’t being a good neighbor. Oliver didn’t like it when anything messed with his friends.
He set his clock for an hour before dawn. It was cloudy and dark when he woke up. He threw his old camera and some bungee cords in his backpack and snuck out of the house, but not before Emma spotted him, threw on sweatpants and a pullover, and joined him. Their parents were still asleep, his father softly snoring.
Oliver’s father had bought an old Polaroid and a dozen boxes of film for peanuts at a flea market in Grand River. He already had a fancy Minolta digital camera, so he gave the Polaroid to Oliver, who took pictures of spiders and praying mantises with it.
“Are you going to try to get Chester back from that awful troll?”
“What are you going to do?” Emma asked ready for action, but with no idea how her brother was going to deal with the varmint. She had never seen a real troll before. She had only ever seen the garden variety kind.
“We are going to find him and keep him from crawling under a rock until the sun comes up. We can use the camera’s flashbulb to herd him. If we can get him to step into sunlight he’ll turn to stone, and we can save Chester.”
“I brought my flashlight and pocketknife,” Emma said.
“Good,” Oliver said, nodding grimly.
They walked into the forest, Emma leading the way with her flashlight. They saw the troll’s campfire and smelled him at the same time. He smelled like an old rat. He was a pint-sized Tusseladd troll with three heads and three noses as long as carrots. He had a round stomach and short stubby arms and legs. He was boiling water to make porridge. Chester was tied up next to the fire. It looked like the troll meant to eat him with his porridge.
“We’re in luck,” Oliver said. “That kind of troll is usually gigantic. I think we can handle this runt.”
When they stepped out of the dark into the light of the campfire the troll jumped up and his three mouths started jibber-jabberring. Chester whined and kicked his legs. Oliver held up his hands, palms out and made a peace sign. He pointed to his stomach and said he and his sister had come a long way and were hungry.
The troll calmed down and started dreaming scheming right away. Maybe he could grab and cook these two children, too. He would have more grub than he knew what to do with. He showed Oliver and Emma where to sit and went back to his pot. When the water started boiling, he started making his porridge.
“Are you a betting man?” Oliver asked him.
“Of course,” the troll said.
“I bet I can eat more porridge than you.”
The troll laughed a mean-spirited laugh like he was the living soul of a funeral. That was fool’s gold. Nobody could eat more porridge than a troll.
“If you can eat more porridge than me then I won’t eat you,” the troll said.
“I’m on for that,” Oliver said.
I don’t know about this, Emma thought. She started thinking of all the things that could go wrong. There were too many to count.
They tended the fire while the troll went to get more water to make even more porridge. Once it was ready, they both ate as much as they could. What the troll didn’t know was that Oliver had shoved his backpack under his shirt and was filling it with the porridge, without the troll noticing. When the troll was full and couldn’t eat anymore, looking like he was on the losing end of the bet, Oliver suggested he cut a hole in his stomach so he could have as much as he wanted. He did and stuffed handfuls of porridge inside of himself. By the time he got to the bottom of the pot he was so heavy with the pasty goo he fell over groaning.
Oliver and Emma rushed him, bound him up with their bungee cords, and dragged him by his feet to a small clearing. His three heads bounced on the ground all the way there. The sun was already up and when its light washed over the troll he turned to stone instantly. They stood him up and took Polaroid snapshots of him. Chester was barking up a storm, so they ran back to the campfire, untied him, threw dirt on the fire and went home.
The troll who turned to stone became a landmark.
“If you want to go to the valley, take a left at the troll. If you want to go to the pond, take a right,” everybody said.
When show and tell day was announced at school, Oliver took his Polaroid pictures. Emma took the muffins she baked all by herself. They would have been a hit any other day, but on that day the spotlight belonged to Oliver. He had matched wits with a troll, ridding the neighborhood of a vile nuisance, and lived to tell the tale. From that day on he was known as the Monster Hunter.
On the Perry Local School District bus going home Emma pulled two muffins nobody had been interested in out of her book bag. She offered one to Oliver. They sat side by side eating them.
“These are delicious,” Oliver said.
“Better than the porridge?”
“Better than anything that rotten troll could ever have made,” Oliver said.
When they got home, Chester dashed up to them, working up an appetite. They gave him a muffin and he forgot all about them. They walked into the house.
“How was school?” their mother asked.
“I learned that nobody knows what a Polaroid camera is,” Oliver said.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”