Emma Jenkins found the troll huddled beneath the underpass while she was on her way home from school. It was a Tuesday, and she hadn’t really been paying attention to anything apart from the heavy thrum of the traffic on the road beside her. When she caught sight of the figure, she was confused. It appeared to be huddled there, keeping its body small and wrapped up beneath the concrete underpass, laying on the dusty ground. But when she caught sight of its soft black fur, Emma wasn’t sure if it was a large dog, or a very peculiar looking homeless man.
It had been raining all day, and Emma’s coat was slick and wet, but it was dry under the overpass even if it did smell of the dirty smoke of traffic. The troll had huddled a pile of newspaper and discarded rubbish around itself, forming a small makeshift nest. When Emma stepped closer, she realised that the creature was shaking.
She had hurried home for fear of being late for her own dinner, and it wasn’t until twilight that Emma returned to the overpass to find that the troll was still there. The rain had eased but the air still tasted damp, and she managed to lure the creature out from its nest by offering it a half-finished chocolate bar. The troll sniffed at the chocolate, scrunching its small nose at it uncertainly, but followed along behind her. As they drew closer to Emma’s house, she noticed that the troll had a pronounced limp, and had to lean against the fencepost and walls for support as it travelled.
When her parents seen the troll, they were concerned. Her mother went to the fridge and found a small plate of leftover mincemeat, which she fried up. The troll nibbled at the meat, all the while Emma’s father complained that it was a bad idea to bring a wild animal into the house. What if, he said, it had diseases? Emma’s mother refused to entertain such ideas when she noticed that the creature was injured, and although it took her a few hours to gain the troll’s trust, she eventually spent several hours bandaging the troll’s leg to a makeshift splint.
As the days passed, the troll became more comfortable with Emma and her family. Her father bought a book on exotic and unusual wildlife, and attempted to identify what manner of creature the troll was, but with no success. In structure, the troll could almost pass for a short human, being about the same height as Emma herself, but for a few distinguishing features that set it squarely in another part of the animal kingdom. The troll was a slender, long-limbed creature, a little gangly and walked with a slight stoop. Its hands and feet were large, each of which ended in four flexible digits. Its eyes were a sharp yellow and resembled those of a cat, whilst its nose had an upturned end that was more akin to a small boar. Although its head had an ape-like shape to it, the troll’s ears were sizable and formed two large flaps, not unlike those of a dog. Most distinguishing of all was the troll’s coat of fur, which was short and off-black. This fur covered almost all of the creature’s body, save for its stomach, the palms and soles of its hands and feet, and the inside of its ears, of which were a shade of dull blue.
“I think,” said Emma’s father as the family sat in their garden one day, “It is some form of chimpanzee.” Upon hearing this, the troll looked up from the sandpit that it was playing in. Its ears flicked upwards, flopping uncertainly. Then the troll snatched a tiny sparrow out of the air and devoured the thing in one swift bite. Emma’s father looked back at his notes. “Or maybe it’s a cat of some sort” he announced.
Several weeks passed, and the troll’s leg slowly healed. Soon it was able to move around the house and garden without needing to lean on anything for support. But still it showed no interest in leaving its new home. It took to sleeping in the garden, curling itself in the overgrown plants and roots of an old gnarled oak tree. “It was probably displaced from its natural habitat” explained Emma’s mother. “They have been cutting down the forests to make way for that new housing estate. Poor thing.”
The following months passed steadily, and soon summer was at its height. The troll was becoming far stronger, eating a healthy amount now that it was no longer needing to scavenge for its survival. Emma’s mother had discovered that it favoured chicken and poultry, although Emma’s father had a suspicion that the troll was not entirely innocent when their next door neighbour’s cat had mysteriously vanished.
The absence of the cat notwithstanding, the troll was the paragon of gentle good-naturedness. It was often playful, and would spend hours chasing after any piece of string that Emma would dangle for him. When fed, it would rub up against Emma’s mother’s legs affectionately. Soon, even Emma’s father’s hesitation began to melt, and he started to look at the troll less as a curiously unusual wild animal, and more like a family pet.
“I think” said Emma’s mother one day, nearing the end of summer, “that it isn’t fully grown yet. I think it’s still a child.” The family were still uncertain as to what the creature was, but it was agreed that it definitely seemed to have grown a little over the last couple of months. “Do you suppose we should send it to school?”
When Mrs Appleby introduced the new student to the rest of the class, she was worried. The information that the boy’s family had told her explained that the child suffered from a rare and very peculiar medical condition, resulting in his rather unusual growth of black fur across his skin. She thought perhaps that a child such as he would benefit better from education in a private establishment. But as it transpired, much to her relief, the child was accepted eagerly.
The boy, as it transpired, was called Maxwell.
The biggest concerns seemed to spread among the parents of several children, many of who forbid their offspring from playing with this new, bizarrely unusual child. But in the playground, such instructions were forgotten, and many of the kids felt that the troll’s unique features were a certain badge of coolness.
Maxwell was not, though, particularly popular. He spoke only rarely, and when he did he used only short words which gave little away about himself, leaving other children feeling as if they had been somehow short-changed in their attempts at opening up to the newcomer. It often transpired that Maxwell simply kept to himself. He sat at the back of the class, often daydreaming.
When Mrs Appleby examined Maxwell’s progress in work, she had the suspicion that the child may have some slight educational problems as well. His work was often difficult to assess. Maxwell had little grasp of reading, and his handwriting was one of the poorest examples in class. When it came to mathematics, he showed more progress, but only when he had the chance to express numbers physically. Given a set of painted wooden blocks, Maxwell could demonstrate addition and subtraction without any significant difficulty, but he seemed to struggle with showing this work either on paper or expressing it verbally.
In the weeks that followed, the novelty of the newcomer began to wear off for the schoolchildren. Their new colleague was simply too quiet, too distant, for their tastes. That, compounded by his innate unusualness, set several of the children to look at him with growing suspicion. Although their parents warned them to stay away from ‘that wild boy’, they wanted to look just a little bit closer. But the only one who made any real connection with the boy was Emma. Emma was in her third year of school now, already too old to play with a child in a younger year group, but she spent the majority of her lunchbreak with the peculiar black-furred boy.
“Why are you always hanging around with that freak?” It was seven months into the school year, and the snow was starting to turn to a muddy slush underfoot.
“He isn’t a freak!” snapped Emma. She should have been afraid. Scott was far bigger than her, and he was almost two full years ahead. The line of her eyes only came up to the middle of Scott’s chest, and although his age was barely into two digits, he was nonetheless intimidating. She should have been afraid of him. She was not.
“He is a freak” declared Scott, and shoved her, “and you’re a freak’s girlfriend!” The shove caused Emma to fall, her foot sliding on the wet ground, her arm crunching down beneath her. She cried out, pain shooting through her arm, her ears blurring with new-born tears.
It was only a few seconds before Maxwell was upon him. Springing forward on all fours, the troll barrelled into Scott, releasing an angered hiss not unlike that of a cat. He scratched at the boy frantically, batting him clumsily with his ragged little claws. By the time that the boy had stumbled away, his face was scuffled and ruffled, small flecks of blood and little pin-prick cuts criss-crossing his cheeks.
It was following this that Emma spent far more of her time after school helping Maxwell along with his studies. She patiently helped him, guiding him on how to grip his pencil, guiding him through his clumsy pronunciation of words. Time passed slowly, and Maxwell was a slow student, and somewhere along the line Emma forgot to think of the troll as a pet, and began to think of him as something far more like herself.
Emma looked down at her exam results. “I think,” she said, with some considerable thought, “I want to study either civil engineering or marine biology?”
Maxwell didn’t look up from his book. “Still not decided?” he asked. His voice was as soft as always. He sat on the sofa in the living room, reading a book, which was where he could usually be found.
Emma put her letter down. In the days before the results had arrived, she had been anxious. “It’s a difficult decision” she said. “I want to really make something of my life, not just sit there and read fantasy novels all the time. I mean that’s what, the tenth in that series?”
Maxwell gave a nonchalant shrug, “The fifteenth. They split this one up into four different books.”
“What’s the point of that?” asked Emma.
“Dunno,” he replied, “But you’ve got the grades you need to do either. What do you want to do?”
Emma sighed, and let herself sink back into the chair. The last decade seemed to have crawled by for her, and at sixteen years old it had dominated much of her life. Now the future possibilities seemed nebulous, cloudy and ethereal. “Maybe I could do psychology.”
“Why don’t you do music?” asked Maxwell.
“Oh no,” said Emma, “You can waste your time on strumming guitars, but not me.”
Maxwell brushed his left ear back away from his face. “I think I’ll study music at college” he said softly.
Emma snorted. “That’d be a waste of time. You should do something more constructive, something you can make a career out of.”
Maxwell seemed to sink deeper behind his book, as if to block out Emma’s words. Quietly, more to himself than to anyone else, he said “I can make a career out of it.”
“How?” challenged Emma.
With a small cant of his head, Maxwell motioned towards the corner of the room. Emma turned to glance, observing a worn, dog-eared poster of David Bowie.
The back rooms of the club left a taste of beer and tobacco smoke on the tongue, and the floors seemed to stick to Maxwell’s shoes. His arms strained under the weight of the speakers.
“Back a bit” groaned Trevor, as he struggled to manoeuvre the opposite side of the bulky audio equipment. The two shuffled back a foot or so, before carefully easing the speaker down onto the floor.
Both of them struggled to catch their breath. “Just two more boxes” said Maxwell.
Between the group, Maxwell and Trevor helped Ben and John to carry the remaining gear from their small rental van, through the back exit of the club and into the stage area. Although now well into his early twenties and the tallest of his friends, Maxwell was still scrawny and slender and was soon catching his breath. He checked his ears, making sure that they were still tied back, resembling a makeshift ponytail. “I’ll need to shave” he said, “I’ll be back in a bit, guys.”
Shaving drew down the fur that covered most of his body, leaving his face a dim blue shade. The shade, he knew, was part of the act. As he moved with the band onto the stage, he knew as well as anyone else that he was playing a role. He took a swig from the bottle that sat on the side of the sink. The beer tasted flat and too warm, but it would give him the confidence he needed to brave the stage.
The club was busy. It was late and the band was playing last. The entire room tasted of sweat and the students who had remained were visibly starting to flag. When the music began, they expended the last of their energy. Trevor took the lead, hammering out his lyrics, but the eyes of the crowd were not on him. They were on Maxwell, playing the role. He strummed his guitar, the alien, the mystery thing, blue and unknown. The notes were strong, well-rehearsed, but still terribly raw.
The crowd cheered.
“And they kept cheering, didn’t they?”
“They sure did, Chris.”
“Through seven years, four albums and – this is your third world tour, isn’t it?”
“It is, Chris. We’re all very excited about it this time; we’re getting to play in places we hadn’t even dreamed about all those years ago. We’re very excited about China. That’s going to be a big one.”
“China has had a ban in place for a lot of your music until recently, hasn’t it?”
“It has, yes. It’s only been lifted a few months ago.”
“Why do you think that is?”
“Well, I think it was because of Qortar, if I’m honest. Being an alien, I don’t think that the Chinese government were too keen on the character, what with him representing the possibility of life on other planets and all that.”
“That’s a good point, Maxwell. You retired the character of Qortar last month, in a move that’s been all over the newspapers. Speculation is rife, but people are still confused – why did you kill off the character?”
“Well to be fair Chris, I haven’t killed him off. He’s not dead or anything, he’s just retired. Will he be back at some point in the future? Who can say? But as for why I decided to retire him? Frankly, when we were starting out, we needed the alien. It was a way for us to reach out and touch our fans – and the fans loved us. They love the alien. But I guess he also did something else for me, for me personally. Gave me something to hide behind, and a way to explain my medical condition.”
“Yes, Maxwell, you have done a lot to advance awareness of your condition in the last few months. How has it felt to come out to people after all this time?”
“Well, it stops all the rumours about it being makeup, that’s for sure. But yes, the condition is extremely rare, there are no recognised charities set up for it, and I’ve been amazed at how well it’s been received. People have been so accepting. I feel… I feel at home; you know?”
“It’s certainly very inspirational. So, we have a few questions from the studio audience for you, but first you’re going to be playing us a track from your upcoming album, is that correct?”
“That’s right Chris.”
“Max, its Emma. Pick up the phone. Maxwell? I know that you’re there. Pick up the phone. Okay, so if you won’t pick up, then at least listen to me. Just, will you give us a call? Just to let us know that you’re okay? Mom is really worried about you. Max, please pick up. We’re really scared. The newspapers were around again today. They’ve been calling us all week, knocking on the door. It’s starting to really scare us. Dad can’t take it, it gets his temper doing, and you know what he’s like with his heart. They keep asking about you, the reporters. They’re wanted to know where you are. If you’re having some kind of nervous breakdown or something. I can’t tell them. I don’t know, because you won’t call and you won’t talk to us. The last time I seen you, you were just sitting in that hotel room and staring out of the window. Max, look, this is stupid. Just pick up the phone, okay? Stop blocking us out. At least let us know what you want us to tell the reporters. Do you want us to tell them that you’re okay? Max, people are scared. You’re scaring them. The last thing they seen was during your last concert. People want to know why you just walked off the stage like that. Is it the drugs? Look, if it is, we can get some help for you with that. But at least let us know. At least call us. Nobody’s heard from you in over a week. You weren’t at your studio flat. Fuck, Max. Your family is worried about you. Max? Max? Fine. I’ll call again later.”
He took a gulp from the bottle that he held limply in his right hand. It tasted like fire. Maxwell knew he wasn’t drunk. Not yet. He’d known that sensation very well in the last few months, as tightly and as intimately as one of the lovers he often shared the evenings with.
He almost stumbled. His steps seemed sluggish and slow, and dragged numbly against the ground. For a moment, he thought he missed the party. The party that had grown to encompass months – no, years. But he pushed the thought from his mind. That party had ended a week ago. It had deflated slowly and steadily, burning its way out until there was only simmering regret. The party had ended during their set list, during one of the songs. It had ended in a second, when he had let his guitar go limp and said in a dull, heartbroken mutter, “I’m sorry. I can’t go on.” And with that, he had walked off the stage.
A root from a tree snagged against his foot, and Maxwell grabbed onto a branch to keep from falling. It was dark, too dark and too late at night for him to see clearly. Somewhere in the back of his mind he thought, I should be able to see in this dark, why can’t I?
He knew why.
He sat on the ground, the crisp tree leaves crackling under him, and looked up at the sky. The light filtered through the treetops, dying the forest a shade of blue that was not unlike his own fur, which Maxwell had kept shaved for almost a decade.
Reaching back behind his head, Max unclipped his ears, letting them hang naturally. His eyes shimmered yellow in the night, as did the eyes of those who cautiously approached. They furrowed beneath the leaves and scurried along the trees. They peered from behind the branches, from under the leaves, from above the roots.
He let the bottle fall from his hand. It rolled to one side, and remained still. Maxwell tried to remember how to call to them. It wasn’t with words, he remembered. If he wanted to communicate, it wouldn’t be with noises from his throat, but in the linguistics of the animal kingdom. The primal bearing, he projected, the cant of his head, the arch of his ears, the scent on the wind, the glint of his eyes. If only he could remember how to do so. The memory of it seemed as distant as his memory of French classes in his high school.
From the shadows, a single troll peeled itself into the moonlight. It was sleek, strong, predatory. Its fingers were claws and its scent was the night. Two more emerged from the shade as if they were birthed from it. Their eyes were of fire, they inhaled the air. They moved unlike Maxwell, with his loping strides that he had learned and perfected over the decades – the movements of the creatures were as water. His breath caught in his chest. He had wanted to feel at home, he had wanted to feel at one with his family. So why, asked his mind as it struggled to retain his panic, did he feel so afraid?
The large one came closer. It tasted at the air around Maxwell. It sniffed at his scent, his whiskers barely an inch from Maxwell’s own face. It stared into Maxwell’s eyes, eyes so similar to his own, with confusion and uncertainty. Maxwell held his breath. The wild one’s gaze, gradually, turned to one that Maxwell could almost recognise; condemnation.
The other troll turned away. It melded into the darkness, first himself, and then the others of his kind. Soon, as quickly as they had appeared, the trolls in the clearing had all vanished into the night. Every one.
Except for the one who was no longer one of them.
When she heard the knock on the door, Emma Jenkins was in the middle of finishing cooking dinner. She knew immediately that it would be her parents, who had already called to let her know that they were running an hour late. The traffic must have cleared up, she decided. Always at the worst possible time – the beef would take another twenty minutes to finish, and the gravy hadn’t even been mixed yet.
She found a small place on the kitchen unit to place the bowl of roast potatoes, and hurried towards the front door. She would complain at them arriving early after telling her that they would be late, she decided. Her dad would find that funny, with his dry sense of humour. Her mother would feign offense, but would be secretly glad to get the chance to see Emma at all. With the new job, Emma barely had enough time to come home before sundown, much less spend evenings with her family. This was perhaps the fourth time she had played host to them since New Year’s, she thought.
She opened the door.
“Hello Emma” said Maxwell.
She didn’t have to invite him in. She simply stood back to let him enter and join the family dinner.