Mom made peas with dinner. Ian hated peas. She also made a casserole, better known as a mad scientist’s experiment, or “yuck” according to Megan. In this, Megan was right, but Ian had heard his father say “a broken clock is right two times a day,” and Ian felt that fit for his little sister. Her foot kicked the side of his chair every three seconds. He was supposed to “just ignore it.”
The bowl of peas was set on the table, reeking of pea-stink, and then the casserole joined it, also reeking of pea-stink. There were peas in it, like a bowl of them wasn’t enough green dirt to feed the four of them. Mom and Dad sat down and held hands to say grace.
Ian tried to focus on the words Dad said every night, tried to imagine God in a giant chef’s hat telling them, “Bon appetite” from outer space, but a dull throb filled his head, beating every three seconds.
He tried to eat. Green dirt filled his mouth with pea-stink and he hurried for his glass of water between each bite. Every three seconds, a kick. The water in his glass trembled like it expected a Tyrannosaurus Rex to visit the house. Ian would’ve preferred that to his sister.
His portion of casserole was almost eaten enough that he could smear the rest across his plate and be done with dinner, but he couldn’t ignore the kicking anymore. He curled back one leg and rammed his foot against Megan’s chair. It swiveled on its wooden legs, and slammed the side of the back into the table. It didn’t teeter. Megan didn’t get hurt. But she started crying anyway, and not the high-pitched shrieking that Mom and Dad hated. She sobbed quietly, like she didn’t want anyone to notice, even though she did.
“Leave your sister alone,” Dad said.
“She was kicking my chair,” Ian told them.
“Then ignore her,” Mom said.
“You ignore her. I’ve been ignoring the whole I was eating stinky peas and getting a headache.”
“Calm down,” Dad said.
Ian stamped his foot. “May I be excused?”
“No,” Mom said. “You’re going to sit here with the family.”
That he would not do. Ian crossed his arms over his chest, folded his legs under him, and shut his eyes.
“Now what are you doing?” Mom asked, her voice growing faint.
“Excusing myself,” Ian said, and he could’ve imagined Mom and Dad rolling their eyes.
He didn’t. That would’ve been a waste of good imagining. Instead he imagined a great darkness, broken only by faint light in the distance. He walked toward it. The darkness had shapes and forms, but he brushed them aside, quickly approaching the light. Soon there was less darkness, the light growing stronger. He saw he was brushing aside tree limbs, fallen twigs, piles of orange and golden leaves higher than his head. Then the darkness was gone and he was walking to the top of a grassy hill. A great plain spread all around him. The borders showed castles, forests, a tower made of chocolate, and other visions Ian’s mind hadn’t filled in yet.
Chocolate—now that was worth eating. Maybe if he imagined eating chocolate hard enough, he could get rid of the pea-stink outside his head. He started that way.
“Diddly evening, fellow,” said a soft voice. “I wouldn’t go that way if I was you.”
Ian turned to the voice and smiled. It came from the mouth of a tall, thin man, nearly skin and bones, who wore colorful drapes, scarves, towels, and a giant, wide-brimmed hat, all too big for him. “Who are you?” Ian asked.
“The name’s Brimley, but I’m sure you already knew that.”
Ian felt he did. He’d have to. He had imagined this silly-looking man.
“Anyway, that tower is ruled by a wretched vampire lord whose names I’ll not utter in decent places, but you surely know him.”
Ian felt he had to. He would figure out a name for it if he went that far before dinner ended.
“It’s not safe,” Brimley went on. “I know a house with some chocolate made of furniture and where the walls’ marble is candy. And there is no witch to anger for eating any of it.”
“I know there’s no witch to piss off,” Ian said. In his head, he liked to curse the way Mom and Dad did. “Fairy tales are for little kids, like Megan.”
“How wise you are.” Brimley bowed and swayed his long arms toward the nearest patch of trees. “Then you’ll come? Fair folk tales may be for wee ones, but I promise that a vampire is far less picky.”
“I know that too. I’ll come.” Ian was having chocolate tonight, one way or another. He decided Brimley wouldn’t know what a pea or pea-stink was. The tall man would be happier that way.
They walked across the grass to Brimley’s forest, where the trees were barren and wore spooky faces on their trunks. It was a Halloween kind of forest, crisp and cool and too scary for Megan. At a clearing between the trees, Brimley led Ian to an ordinary-looking little house, with white walls and a red shingled roof.
Ian ran for it and licked a corner of the house. Then he spit. “The hell? It’s not candy.”
“Of course not,” Brimley said. “The house you want is on its way. Come inside. We can watch for it through the window.”
Ian decided it would come quickly. He didn’t know how long dinner would last.
Brimley opened the front door, made of wood. “It won’t be long.”
“I know,” Ian said, stepping inside. The furniture wasn’t made of chocolate, but old wood, and the walls inside were as much candy as on the outside. On a coffee table, Ian found something better—a bowl of white candies and bars of store bought chocolate. He picked up one candy and popped it in his mouth to help get rid of the wall’s taste. Then he spit it out.
The candy tasted like the wall.
“They’re rocks,” Ian said.
Brimley tipped his hat upward and peered out a wide window. “Marble. As promised.”
Ian dove for a Malts bar. The wrapper peeled away from a corner of milk chocolate and Ian chomped down. No more rocks. No more peas. Only sweet, soft … wood. Ian spit a third time.
“Diddly, I thought that was rude where you come from,” Brimley said.
“What do you call this crap?” Ian asked, dropping the wooden Malts bar. He grabbed a Hershey’s—wood. Snickers—wood.
“Chocolate made of furniture,” Brimley said. He picked up an unwrapped block of wood and unfolded legs from its underside, making a tiny table. “As promised.” His fingers lifted another bar and made a tiny chair.
“Where’s the real chocolate?” Ian asked.
“That house is almost here.” Brimley unwrapped another bar.
Ian looked out the window. A house on narrow legs ran through the forest, closer and closer, clumsily sliding around spooky trees. “Why would I do this?” he muttered.
“What did you do?” Brimley asked.
“Did this to myself. Dinner sucked and then I imagined eating rocks and wood.”
“Marble.” Brimley finished unwrapping the wooden bars and assembling an array of tiny chairs and tables. “Diddly, you didn’t imagine anything. You tasted rocks and wood as sure as you tasted green beans or broccoli or peas.”
“How do you know about peas?” Ian asked. “I didn’t want you to.”
“It wasn’t your decision.”
“Yeah, it is. I made you up. I made all of this.”
Brimley frowned. “Where do you think you are?”
“In my head!” Ian snapped. “Where else would I be?”
“You’d be here.” Brimley pursed his lips and straightened his furniture.
“Not in your head.” The tall, thin man hadn’t changed his clothes, or shrunk or grown, but at that moment he stopped being a friend from Ian’s mind and became a stranger whose thoughts and intentions were just as strange. Ian couldn’t trust him. He couldn’t trust anything. It was time to leave. He tried opening his eyes, but they already felt open, as if he hadn’t imagined anything. As if he was here.
The traveling house thudded to a stop outside and Ian rushed for the door. As Brimley had promised, there were no witches sitting on the high chocolate chairs of that candy house. There were little men, short as Ian’s knees, each with a bulging gut, a mouth full of needle teeth, and a curving steel fork clutched in his hands. They saw Ian and began to shriek. Ian thought they could have sounded like hungry chicks in a nest. They didn’t seem interested in candy or chocolate.
“Wait, child!” Brimley cried, chasing Ian out the door. “You haven’t had any chocolate!”
Ian took off into the woods and hoped he remembered the way. The little men shrieked louder.
“Diddly, he’s leaving and he hasn’t had any chocolate!” Brimley shouted, and the men hooted and screeched.
Branches scratched Ian’s arms and face, and some of them howled like the little men, but their snagging arms didn’t stop him. The forest seemed to stretch on forever and the little men’s shrieking chased him every step. He ran for as long as he could ever remember running and then reached the grassy plain. The way home was out there somewhere. He took a moment to breathe, but the shrieking told him that was one moment too long. The little men had mounted Brimley and he was like a snake through the trees, much faster and more agile than the candy and chocolate house.
Ian started running again, but his legs ached. He saw the darkness where he’d come from in the distance, but he didn’t know where it would lead. He hoped he could go home. There was nowhere else to go. Fantastic sites waited at the edges of the grass, but he couldn’t trust them. They weren’t parts of his imagination. They were something else. They were strangers, like Brimley and his hungry little fat men.
The shrieking drew closer. Out of the forest, there were no tree limbs to stall Brimley. He strode as far as he could, his legs making three steps for every one of Ian’s. They would catch him soon and make him eat chocolate, make him get fat. He couldn’t imagine himself fat.
“It’s not real!” he shouted. “It’s just what I thought up!”
Brimley and the little ones didn’t care.
Ian cut into the hills made of leaves and fallen twigs. The sky blackened and the air grew shadowy around him. Soon he was deep in the darkness, and when he looked back at the light, he found Brimley’s silhouette, his shoulders turned pointy by dozens of evil-looking forks. Ian kept running. He bumped into leaf piles and stumbled over sticks. He couldn’t see Brimley anymore, but the shrieking was close.
The light had guided him out of the blackness, but there was no light telling him how to get back in. He started sobbing. He knew that would tell Brimley exactly where to find him, but he couldn’t stop it. “I’m a baby,” he whispered. “Just like Megan. But I’m gonna die. I don’t want chocolate anymore if I gotta die.”
The darkness shook. A tremor slid past Ian’s feet, booming from one direction. He ran that way. Three seconds later came another. He turned toward where it had come from. Another three seconds and the quake was bigger, louder. He leaped. Leaves tumbled over his shoulders, pressing close to him. Another tremor. His skull rattled and he felt Brimley’s sleeves on his arm, spindly fingers on his neck. The darkness shook again. Ian jumped. Ian screamed.
“Ian, for God’s sakes!”
The darkness snapped away and Ian was sitting at the kitchen table. His sister kicked his chair again. He wasn’t scratched. He wasn’t poked open by forks. Pea-stink clouded his head. He took a big breath and sucked it in.
Mom closed her mouth and shook her head.
Dad scowled. “Do you really need to be excused that bad?”
Ian uncurled his legs and sat still. “No. I’m okay.”