“‘In his arms, the child was dead.’ Isn’t that something?”
Grant Jennings beamed down at his son. The boy looked up, his dark eyes wide.
“You mean the monster killed the child? What was the monster called again?”
“The Erlking. He’s a demonic elf.”
“I thought elves were skinny, smiling dolls with funny hats that you hang on the Christmas tree.”
“Most of them are, Parker. But not the Erlking. He’s a creepy killer elf.”
The boy nodded, his eyes now sharp. He loved scary stories. He might be only eight years old, but he knew all the monsters. Frankenstein. Dracula. Werewolves. Now he could add the Erlking to his morbid collection.
“Play it again,” said Parker. “That was a good song. Play it again.”
Grant smiled even more widely. “You bet. This is one of my favorite recordings, even though it was made a long time ago. No one sings ‘Erlking’ like Alexander Kipnis.”
He carefully lowered the arm of the record player onto the old 78. A gentle hiss crackled from the speakers. Through the sibilant fog came the sound of a piano, a bare octave pounding rapidly in a steady rhythm.
“That’s the horse galloping,” Grant said.
“You already explained that the first time,” said Parker. “Just tell me what the words mean as it goes along.”
Kipnis’s dark bass voice rose over the piano. “Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?”
“Who rides so late through night and wind?” Grant translated.
“Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind.”
“It is the father with his child.”
Parker was spellbound. He was sitting astride the horse with the man and his child, galloping through the dark night while a murderous elf peered out from among the trees.
The poor boy is scared out of his mind, thought Parker. The Erlking keeps talking to him but he can’t get his idiotic dad to believe him. No wonder the kid ends up dead. Parker felt his heart thumping with the same pleasurable excitement he got from his favorite monster movies. He was sorry when the piece was over.
“Who wrote that song?” Parker asked his father.
“Franz Schubert. He was a great composer, but he died when he was only 31.”
“Did the Erlking get him?”
Grant laughed. “No, he was too old for the Erlking. And besides, the Erlking isn’t real. He’s a made-up monster, like all the other ones you enjoy.”
“I know that, Dad. I was just joking. Do you think they might have a model of the Erlking at the hobby shop, to go with my other monster models?”
“I’m afraid not, Parker. He’s not popular enough to make it into Hollywood movies. But I did promise to take you to the hobby shop this afternoon, so let’s head on out.”
Grant patted his son’s back as they left the room. He abruptly shifted his hand to the nape of Parker’s neck, grabbing it in mock-strangulation while making choking noises. Father and son laughed together.
* * *
The traffic was light on a Saturday afternoon. The station wagon was sailing easily down Roswell Road when Grant eyed the gas gauge and frowned.
“Ah, I forgot how low we were on gas. We’ve got to make a stop at Fowler’s before we run dry. Your models will still be waiting for us at the hobby shop.”
Parker tried not to complain. Maybe his beloved models could wait patiently for him, but he had trouble waiting for them.
Grant turned in at the dull orange sign proclaiming FOW ER’S. Rust and scratches had long ago obliterated the L. A cheerful ding-ding sounded as the car rolled over a black rubber hose on the stained pavement.
Nahum Fowler wandered out of his service station. His hair was tousled and greasy, and his face bore an unmistakable expression of irritation. Parker wondered why Mr. Fowler always seemed to be annoyed by his customers.
The station owner screwed on a smile as he approached Grant’s window.
“Afternoon, Mr. Jennings,” he said, a layer of phlegm spread generously across his words.
“Afternoon, Nahum. Fill ’er up, please. And I’d like to use your restroom, if I may.”
Parker drew in his breath. He hated being left alone in the car, even in the daytime.
Grant sensed his son’s discomfort. “Sorry, Parker. I forgot to go before we left.” He eased his way out of the car as Nahum drew back from the door.
“You know where it is,” Fowler said as Grant trotted away. “I’ll have my man get your gas while you’re gone.” He tromped back to the service station without giving Parker a glance.
All alone, thought Parker. This is when the kidnappers come.
Don’t be ridiculous, thought rational-Parker. Your family isn’t rich. Kidnappers don’t want you.
Maybe Dad knows something he shouldn’t, argued scaredy-Parker. Like in that movie where …
“Hey, how you doin’?” said a raspy voice outside his window.
With an effort, the boy turned his head to face the man standing next to the car.
Sagging cheeks, like an old dog. Eyes that stared without focusing. A deep scar that pulled down the corner of one eye as if it were being tugged by an invisible fishhook. Zombie, thought Parker. He wanted to scream but found he was too scared.
“Hey, how you doin’?” the man asked again. Receiving no answer, he turned to the gas pump. He unhitched the nozzle and slowly inserted it into the car’s gas tank.
Parker stared straight ahead. He thought he might pee by mistake and was glad the car seats were vinyl.
With the gas pumping, the man ambled to the front of the car. He yanked a couple of pinkish-brown paper towels from a dispenser, then grabbed a small squeeze bottle of glass cleaner. He squirted a generous amount of the liquid onto the windshield in front of Parker.
He just works here, he just works here, the boy repeated frantically to himself.
As the man wiped off the now-filthy fluid, the glass’s transparency was restored and Parker could read the man’s nametag. Four cursive letters were sewn into a white oval background, in thread the color of blood.
It’s Earl King, thought Parker. I’m gonna die. I can’t even call to my daddy for help because my daddy’s not here.
The driver’s door opened with a sharp click.
“Doing okay, son? You look like you’ve been watching one of your scary movies.” Grant squeezed himself behind the steering wheel and pulled his door shut.
“It’s Earl King!” Parker said in a hoarse croak. “He came out and talked to me in a weird voice, just like the story said! And his name is Earl!”
Grant’s rueful half-smile was tinged with embarrassment.
“Oh, Parker. That’s Earl Pettigrew. I’ve known him for years and he’s a real nice fellow. He tries to be friendly but sometimes it doesn’t come out quite right because he’s slow.”
“So he can’t chase you if you run away? That doesn’t sound like the Erlking in the song.”
Grant’s eyes were sad as he spoke quietly.
“Son, your imagination is a wonder and a curse. Earl is not a monster. He’s mentally slow. That’s all. Please be nice to him; he’s only trying to earn his way. I hadn’t realized Nahum had given him a job here.”
Parker looked at his father uncertainly. “Maybe King is his middle name. Earl King Pettigrew.”
Grant shook his head. “I’m only going to do this once,” he said. He got out of the car. Earl was carefully wiping away the last drops of cleaning fluid from the windshield.
“Hey, how you doin’?”
“I’m fine. How are you?”
“I’m good, real good.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Earl, I have a funny question for you, and you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. What’s your middle name? My son was wondering.”
“Ain’t got one. My daddy said that two names were more’n enough for anyone.”
“Thank you. And thanks for the fine job on the windshield. It’s sparkling like a rich lady’s diamonds.”
Earl’s face grew more animated as he smiled.
Grant scrawled his name on the charge-card slip and got back into the station wagon. Father and son resumed their journey to the hobby shop in silence.
* * *
Sleep proved elusive for Parker that night. He was filled with strange joy over the model guillotine his father had bought for him at the hobby shop, but the assembly was turning out to be more difficult than he had expected. From his bed, he could see the unfinished model on his desk, bathed in pale moonlight from the window. The two main supports of the guillotine rose from the base like pillars in some fantastic temple. The unassembled pieces of the condemned man’s body lay scattered nearby, next to the device that was designed to separate that body into pieces in a more gruesome manner.
Parker told himself it was his failure to complete the model before bedtime that was keeping him awake, but he wasn’t taken in by his own lie. He knew the real reason.
He was scared.
It wasn’t his monster models that were scaring him. They were in a different part of the room so he couldn’t see them from his bed. And the guillotine wasn’t far enough along to be disturbing.
The problem was the Erlking.
Parker had loved the story and the song. They were shivery in exactly the right way when he was listening with his father in a sun-drenched room in the middle of the day. But once the lights were out, or he was alone, the scary tale acquired an unwelcome postscript: Maybe it’s true.
No. He knew better than that. It wasn’t true. Was it? And Earl not-King at the filling station was just a harmless man with a strange face and an odd way of talking. Right? A nightlight might have been able to drive away these dark thoughts, but Parker’s parents had told him he was too old for such babyish comfort. He had to make do with the shadowy moonlight.
There was a rustling noise in the closet.
Not the Erlking, not the Erlking, no such thing, just my imagination.
The rustle grew louder.
Okay, it’s not my imagination but it’s not the Erlking, it can’t be, Earl must be at home in bed by now, unless he’s in my closet because he knows I know his secret and he’s going to …
From the closet came a thud and a protracted cascading rustle.
Parker screamed. Then he screamed again.
To the boy, it seemed as if several centuries passed, but it was less than a minute before Grant and Barbara Jennings entered their son’s bedroom and flicked on the overhead light.
“What in the name of our sweet Lord is going on?” Barbara asked.
Parker pointed to the closet door with a shaking hand. “Erlking,” he whispered.
Grant opened the door. Scattered across the floorboards was a collection of scratchy plastic Halloween masks.
“Your bag of masks fell over,” Grant announced. He picked up a metal object that had fallen to one side.
“Parker, I’ve told you to be careful how you stack things. Looks like you put your old fire engine on top of the masks, and the whole bag toppled over. No Erlking here.”
“How does he know about the Erlking?” asked Barbara.
Grant shot her a pleading look. “Let’s talk later. Parker needs to sleep.”
The boy hugged his parents tightly. Barbara flicked off the light and left the room with her husband, pulling the door shut with a click.
Parker heard his parents talking in the hall. They were trying to speak quietly, but his mother’s anger drove up the volume more than she intended.
“You played ‘Erlking’ for our son?”
“Yes. It’s a great song and he loved it. It’s also a terrific introduction to classical music.”
“You think a story about a child-murdering fiend is right for an eight-year-old?”
“He loves monsters, and it’s Schubert. It seemed perfect.”
“Apparently, Schubert is scarier than you make him out to be.”
“Oh, you’re so right. Just the other day, I was in a record store and saw an album called Franz Schubert, Master of Horror.”
Silence. Then a giggle. The tension was broken.
“Okay, Grant, that was funny. But it’s not so simple. Parker loves his monsters, and up to a point, I’m all right with that.”
“Good. I am, too.”
“Well, obviously you are. Just remember that Parker is like a kid at a restaurant who orders a huge meal because it appeals to him. He loves it while he’s eating, but then he’s sick to his stomach afterwards. Parker’s okay with feasting on monsters during the day, but when night rolls around, the meal starts to disagree with him. We have to find a balance.”
There was silence for a moment.
“You’re not wrong,” Grant said. “Let’s see what we can do.”
Parker heard his parents kiss. Yuck, he thought.
* * *
The next day, Parker was flipping through his parents’ voluminous record collection. His mother was out grocery shopping and his father was upstairs taking a nap, so he had the family room to himself. Most of the records looked about as interesting as the sounds of a washing machine.
He stopped abruptly. On the cover of the album he was holding, a grinning skeleton and a semi-nude young woman were pressed together in an uncomfortable embrace. He glanced at the title.
Franz Schubert: “Death and the Maiden” and Other Songs.
Parker carefully removed the record from its jacket and placed it on the turntable. His father had shown him how to operate the stereo system and didn’t mind if he used it. His hand shook a little as he lowered the needle to the first band.
The solemn piano introduction gave him time to find the translation on the back of the album. He followed along with fascination, enjoying the two different voices the singer used. When the song was finished, he lifted the needle and mulled over the story.
The girl is scared of dying, just like anyone would be, thought Parker. Then Death says, “Hey, lady, I’m not here to punish you. Give me your hand and you’ll have a nice long sleep.”
Something didn’t fit. The epiphany followed.
It’s a trick! I hope she didn’t fall for it. I bet the skeleton is really the Erlking and that’s his latest disguise. Parker nodded with satisfaction.
The door of the den opened. Grant stood in the doorway, his hair disheveled.
“Were you playing ‘Death and the Maiden’? If not, I just had a particularly strange dream.”
“I was playing it. I liked it, but not as much as ‘Erlking.’”
Grant paused to compose his next sentence with care.
“Son, I’m glad you’re getting interested in Schubert, but ‘Erlking’ really seemed to upset you last night. Maybe you shouldn’t listen to any more songs about death right now.”
Parker frowned. “What other songs did Schubert write?”
Grant took the album and latched onto one title with relief.
“How about ‘Night and Dreams’? That’s a great piece.”
“Is it about nightmares?” asked Parker excitedly. “I love this Schubert guy.”
Father and son heard the kitchen door being unlocked and opened.
“Grant!” called Barbara from the kitchen. “Something’s wrong with the station wagon. It drives okay, but the engine is making noises like one of Parker’s monsters. Could you take it over to Fowler’s and get it checked out?”
“Okay,” Grant called back. He quickly reshelved the Schubert record, ensuring that the skeleton on the cover was well hidden.
“Why do you always go to Fowler’s?” Parker asked. “He doesn’t seem like a very nice man.”
Grant shrugged. “It’s convenient and it’s where we’ve always gone. No surprises. When you get older, you’ll understand the appeal of boring consistency.”
Barbara poked her head into the family room. “Could the two of you give me a hand unloading the groceries so you can get started on your boring adventure?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Grant.
* * *
Nahum Fowler listened to the strange chattering noise of the engine.
“I’m going to have to pull it into the garage,” he said. “I need to take a closer look.”
“Okay,” said Grant. “While you’re looking things over, I’m going to grab some peanut-butter crackers from inside the station. Parker, would you like some?”
“You know I hate those weird orange crackers.”
“Well, you might change your mind, so I keep asking. Why don’t you go talk to Earl while I’m getting my treat? It’ll be good for both of you.” He gestured toward the far end of the gas pumps, where Earl was standing.
Grant turned and walked inside the station. Nahum fitted himself into the driver’s seat of the station wagon and twisted the steering wheel with a grimace. He drove the car into one of the service bays.
Nahum was having engine problems of his own. He had made the mistake of adding a liberal dose of Devilish Demon hot sauce to his lunch tacos from Betty Sue’s Cantina. His stomach was growling almost as loudly as the car’s engine and his need for the rest room was urgent.
He pushed the gear shift into park, or thought he did. A more careful observer would have noted that the stick ended up in the neutral position.
Nahum bolted from the car, slamming the door behind him and racing for the rest room. The station wagon shuddered and began to drift slowly backward.
Parker had finally managed to overcome his fear and was walking toward Earl. Dad says he’s a nice man. I’m scared but I know I shouldn’t be. Don’t judge a book by its cover. A stitch in time saves nine. The squeaky guillotine gets the grease.
Behind Parker, the station wagon had now silently drifted out of the garage and was gaining speed on the downward slope of the pavement.
The boy was directly in its path.
Inside the station, Grant looked up from his peanut-butter crackers and saw his son’s imminent death unfolding through the smeary glass of the store’s front window. He dropped his crackers onto the grimy counter and ran for the door, already realizing he could not reach Parker in time, or even warn him.
Earl surveyed the situation with eerie calm. He walked quickly to the boy, scooping him up as the car swooshed past harmlessly, smashing into the lamppost at the end of the lot.
In his arms, the child was alive.
Earl set down Parker with care as Grant ran up, his face shining with tears.
“Parker! Parker!” Grant enfolded his son in a crushing hug. He turned to Earl.
“You saved my son, Earl.”
“Didn’t you want me to?”
Grant laughed and shook Earl’s hand with a force that threatened to detach it from his arm.
“I guess you’re really not Earl King,” said Parker.
“What made you think I was?” asked Earl.
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