The strange little man came to the door again today. He stood there at the threshold, his rumpled little hat on his rumpled little head, with his wizened face and his beady eyes and his tweed vest buttoned tight over his fat little belly.
Brynn watched from the top of the staircase and refused to move, no matter how many times her mother tried to shoo her back to her room. She watched the strange little man pull a crisp manila envelope out of his briefcase. She saw her father take the envelope, open it, and lift out the black-and-white pictures that nestled within. She couldn’t see what was on the pictures, but whatever it was, her father didn’t like it. He grimaced and shook his head.
“Please,” he said, “I told you. I don’t want to do this anymore. Can’t you find someone else?”
The man at the door just shook his head, grinned, and tapped a long, knobby finger on the outside of the envelope.
“You can’t run from who you are,” he wheezed. “Good neighbors we are, good neighbors we were, and good neighbors we shall always be.”
Then Brynn blinked, and somehow the stranger was gone. Her father closed the door and retreated to his office. He didn’t come out again for the rest of the night.
“Who is that man?” she asked her mother, who stood with hands clutched protectively over her swollen belly. “And why does he always call us his good neighbors? He doesn’t live nearby, does he?”
“No,” her mother answered, “nowhere nearby. And who he is doesn’t matter. Now come downstairs and get ready for bed.”
The first time Brynn saw the strange little man, he came to their old house, out in California, where the sun was bright, and it never snowed, and the nearest neighbor was five miles away. When her father opened the door that night and found the man standing there, she saw him crumble inside. He stood there for minutes, silently, while the man at the door did nothing but stare at him. When her father finally invited him in, they retreated to the kitchen for what seemed like hours. After they emerged, the strange little man bid them good day with a twinkle in his eye, and her father said that they were moving.
“But why was he here again?” Brynn asked. “Papa said he wasn’t coming back.”
“Your father hoped he wouldn’t. So did I. Apparently, our luck ran out.”
The second time she saw the strange little man, he came here, to their new house, and afterwards, her father packed a bag and was gone for a month. They hadn’t seen the strange little man after that for almost a year. They hadn’t seen him again until now.
“What does he want Papa to do? Will Papa have to leave like he did last time?”
“Never you mind. Papa will be fine. I’m sure it’s just…I am sure it’s just another job. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“But what if—”
“No more. I told you. There’s nothing to worry about.”
One thing Brynn knew about her mother: she was a terrible liar.
“Now come on, both of you. It’s time for bed.”
Once teeth were brushed, and clothes were changed, and her brother Conn was settled, and Brynn was snuggled deep in the blankets, her mother waddled in, on feet she said were already intolerably sore after five months of pregnancy. She brought in a bowl of thick, tarnished metal and set it down on Brynn’s nightstand.
“Do we have to tonight?” Brynn asked.
“Of course we do. I don’t want the goblins to steal you away from me.”
“Mama. Still with the goblins? I’m fourteen now.”
“I know you are. Indulge your poor mother in her irrational, antiquated fears about goblins who will steal my darling girl away and leave a changeling in her place.”
“Oh, Mama, come on—”
“I love you,” the older woman said, effortlessly ignoring her daughter. “No changeling children for me. I want this Brynn, and no other Brynn at all. You don’t have to believe. I believe enough for both of us, I promise. Here we go. Are you ready?”
Brynn rolled her eyes and nodded. Her mother lifted a small brown egg from the pocket of her robe and cracked it into the metal bowl, then set the fragments of the shell carefully atop the liquid within. She picked up a long, stiff ribbon that had once been white, but was now frayed at the edges and yellowed with age. An unbroken string of writing, in characters that Brynn had never been able to decipher, ran the entire length on both sides. Her mother wound the ribbon around Brynn’s wrist three times, and tied a delicate, looping knot to hold it in place. Then she placed her hand on Brynn’s chest, just over her heart, while she chanted these words:
Egg and Iron encircle this heart,
Fire and Clay crumble apart,
We need no gold,
We need no luck,
There is no child here, nothing but dust.
“There we go. All done. Good night, Brynn.”
“Good night, Mama. I love you.”
Her mother kissed her on the forehead, flipped the light off, and closed the door. It was the same thing her parents had done every night, for as long as Brynn could remember. Only that night was different. That was the first night she disappeared.