The little girl poked her head underneath the bridge and scanned over the slimy growth of mold and algae. Something unseen stirred in the shadows; a dark thing that pretended to be nothing more than a shadow among shadows, a swirl in the current of the stream. The girl noticed it…and smiled.
"Troll," she called. "I know you’re there Troll, I saw you move."
Her head disappeared as she righted herself and began climbing down the embankment, all the while calling, "Troll…" She stood at the boundary between the sunlight and the shade under the bridge. The light reflected on the frames of her thick glasses and shone in the strands of her dark hair.
"Troll," she said, "I know you’re down here. First of all, I saw you move. Second, everyone in the town knows you’re here. They all talk about you. You might as well just come out and show yourself."
"All right then," said the girl. "I’ll introduce myself first. My name is Kendra Nuemer; I’m thirteen years old; and I’ve come all the way down here just to meet you, Troll. The least you could do is come out and say hello."
There was a troll that lived beneath that particular bridge. He was tucked away in a dark corner, staring angrily at Kendra and remembering the good old days when little girls had better sense than to come poking their heads into his summer home wanting to make friends. Alas, he supposed, that in the 21st Century little girls were no longer afraid of being eaten by trolls.
Slender, but delicious.
But these days a troll had to be more cautious than ever. With everyone carrying guns on their hips and photo surveillance satellites mapping every square inch of earth and forensic technologies being whatever they are, well, eating a little girl was a fine way to get a simple, old troll into a whole world of trouble. Trolls are elusive, but not especially intelligent; at least, not intelligent enough to evade a throng of investigators equipped to the hilt with bullet-proof body armor and infrared tracking devices.
"Troooooooooooll?" Kendra was singing.
"Oh shut up!" said Troll. His voice sounded tired and old and clogged with a decade of morning phlegm.
"Ha!" said little Kendra. "I knew it! I knew you were there."
"Go away, brat!" said Troll. "I have a good mind to tear your head off!"
"Tough troll-talk," said Kendra. "But I’m not afraid of you."
That was a hurtful thing for a troll to hear. It’s like a woman hearing that she has put on weight, or a man hearing that he is losing his hair.
Troll growled, and Kendra saw two flaming red eyes in the darkness.
"Now Mr. Troll," she said. "I came all the way down here and introduced myself. Won’t you at least introduce yourself and invite me in for a refreshment?"
"Introduce myself?" chuckled Troll. "Well of course I will introduce myself, young lady. For the benefit of your ignorant curiosity and whatever asinine parent that allowed you to wander down here by yourself, I am Troll; Mr. Troll to some, Mean Old Troll to others, but to most just Troll. I live here, beneath the bridge in a comfortable pad of moldy leaves and moss covered stones, where I dine on rotten fish and sip raw sewage like tea, where I bring the bodies of curious little girls…."
Now Troll began creeping closer, his blazing eyes growing more furious as they neared, his voice bubbling louder and louder.
"…curious little girls, you know they have the sweetest blood, and the softest hearts, and the crunchiest bones, and…."
Kendra was giggling. She started off giggling, then laughing, and there, with Troll but a few feet away and blowing his foul, garbage breath at her, she laughed harder and harder.
"Troll," she said, "I had a second grade teacher more scary than you."
Troll felt his flaring rage collapse. He shut his eyes and retreated into the darkness, nestling into a dark corner, drawing some little comfort from the fetid reek of thick vapors.
Kendra climbed into the darkness, following. With her she brought light. Not the harsh light of the sun that burned and glared, but a soft light of joy that only young girls have. She found a smooth rock to sit on, crossed her legs, clasped her hands, and said, "So, what is your name?"
Troll was aghast that a little girl would be so assertive, but despite his irritation he found himself telling her, "Troll is my name."
"And how old are you, Troll?"
"Ages and ages…." he mused.
She giggled again. "Yeah, but how many years?"
Why was he speaking to her? Why hadn’t he grabbed her, ripped her open, feasted on her muscles and healthy tissues, drank to satisfaction of her warm blood?
"Okay, so I guess I’m not supposed to ask how old somebody is. Sorry. But how come you live here, under the bridge? Why don’t you build a house or rent an apartment?"
"Trolls don’t live like humans," Troll growled. "We don’t have anything to do with humans. Except to eat them."
"I like to eat Pop Tarts," Kendra said. "Do you like Pop Tarts, Troll? Never tried them, I bet. I’ll bring you some Pop Tarts when I come back tomorrow, how about that?"
"But I don’t know if you’ll like them. If you like eating people and rotten fish and sewage, then you might not like Pop Tarts as much as I do. But I’ll bring some anyway. Do you like TV, Troll? I saw this TV show last night about a mouse that could talk and stuff. And you know what? This boy found the mouse and they became friends. So the boy took the mouse to school one day…."
Kendra rambled on talking as if she were sitting in a classroom having a conversation with a friend, not perched on a cold rock beneath a bridge talking to a hideous creature that moments before had threatened to eat her flesh and drink her blood. She talked about her favorite TV shows, what she did at school (do trolls ever have to go to school? No? Well, then, trolls have it better than human children), what her mother and father did, what her friends did, what her grandparents did….
"Do you have a mother and father and brothers and sisters and grandparents, Troll?"
"Are there a bunch of other trolls around here that you’re friends with?"
He hadn’t seen another troll for almost a hundred years. And what would they think of him, sitting in the rot of his hole and talking to a young girl instead of dining on her. The thought refueled his rage.
"Don’t you get lonely, Troll? I get lonely when I don’t see my friends for a while."
What did she know of loneliness? She, who had never gone a day without her parents or her friends; she who was saturated with her own kind, to tell her how pretty she was, to speak to her and give her attention and affection and acknowledgement. Could she go a hundred years without someone to talk to? Could she go a hundred years in the slimy darkness beneath bridges, in caves, in holes burrowed underground?
"Are you ever going to get married, Troll?"
Why did it anger him so? Trolls never cared for company, for affection, for marriage. Trolls loved the smooth caress of oily, stagnant water swirling around their bodies. Trolls loved their food oozing from rot and decay, breaded with crunchy insects. Trolls loved the never-ending lonely hours of quiet and stillness. Why did it anger him that this girl had all the things he never desired?
She sat self-assuredly on the rock, looking at him like he was a thing to be pitied, unaware of the fire that grew inside him. She asked if he had a girlfriend, unaware of the violent rage that focused itself on her.
"I’ll be your girlfriend, Troll," she said. "Then we’ll get married someday and have kids."
"And what?!" his voice erupted like a gunshot, startling her. "You’ll live with me in the hot slime of my home? You’ll chew the fish entrails I bring home for dinner and drink the rotten water you bathe in?"
His eyes blazed red again, but this time from more than the intent to frighten—the pulsing glow was from sheer hatred and violence. The stench boiling from his mouth was a stench of death and decay that filled the shadowy refuge and struck Kendra with nausea and weakness.
Troll pulled his filthy body closer, like a snake stalking prey.
Kendra coughed from the stench and blinked her watering eyes. She was feeling a sense of danger, an instinct telling her to run, but she insisted to herself that she was not afraid. The Troll will not hurt me, she thought even as her gut twisted in a spasm of revulsion.
"I am a Troll," he said softly, now only a foot away from her. "And in case you don’t understand—" his face came within inches of hers, close enough for her to see the holes rotted out of his teeth and the black scum that dripped from his tongue as he licked his lips "—Trolls don’t marry little human girls.... THEY EAT THEM!"
Kendra screamed the second she felt the cold, slick hand fasten on her arm. The scream stirred an ancient lust in Troll, a visceral excitement that quickened his heart in anticipation of the taste of hot blood pouring from a victim...a sweet, young victim.
She screamed again when Troll’s mouth open wide and she saw the nest of worms that lived within; screamed again when she felt that diseased mouth close over the biceps of her left arm; screamed again when she felt Troll’s teeth digging and gnashing into her, tearing away skin, pulverizing muscle and tissue, grinding and splintering bone.
Kendra was up and running out from under the bridge, up the embankment, on the road and toward town, a raw and ragged fly-covered stump where her left arm used to be.
Troll sank down into the muck beneath the bridge, savoring every bite of fresh meat.
Troll knew that humans would be coming soon, combing the area in search of a deviant that mutilated a young girl’s arm. To stay would be complicated.
When the moon rose that night, Troll let go his long loved stagnant pool under the bridge and moved into the slow current of the stream, floating limply on his back, gazing up at the stars. There would be other towns and other bridges and other little girls.
The stream carried Troll into a forest. For many miles he twisted and turned and bumped against rocks, tree roots, shallows, and sandy embankments. When the sun came up he drifted under the cover of moss and weeds.
His mouth still tingled from the taste of Kendra’s squirting blood; his belly still churned in an ecstasy of digestion. Even after many days—when Troll drifted to stillness in the murky dark of another pool beneath another bridge just outside of another small town—the taste lingered on, kindling the thirst for blood.
Troll sank into a warm thick ooze of stagnation and rot. He sank up to his eyes, until he was just another phantom in the shadows or another swirl of moss and mold floating in silence. He sank into a wonderful—and hungry—loneliness.
Jeremy Kuban lives in Denver, Colorado.
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