Lemons as Sour as Luck

First published in Slink Chunk Press

A short fiction piece about the the troll who lives behind house 11 and the girl with daddy issues who lives inside.

There’s a troll that lives in my garden.

The first time I saw him creeping through the soil beneath the flowers, I mistook the red blur of his pointy, little hat for a cardinal. I’d once heard that seeing a cardinal was good luck, so I began a stake out from the kitchen window. Sipping lemon juice from a sugar-rimmed glass like my Papa taught me to do—he said lemonade was just watering down the good stuff—I stood right over the AC vent so that it blew my skirt in a bubble around me. It was the hottest part of the day, late afternoon, and my Mumsie wouldn’t be home for another hour so I had the air cranked up.

She might never have known how I blasted the cool air if I hadn’t seen that bur of red again.

It almost seemed to come right up from the ground at the back of the garden, soil making way for a splash of red. But cardinals didn’t burrow in the dirt, so I must have blinked and missed its descent. I wanted to be slow—I didn’t want to startle it. But the red was moving so quickly through the flowers that I couldn’t help throwing the sliding glass door open and bounding down the patio stairs. We met each other at the edge of the garden, a perfectly manicured border of green, green grass and soft, soft soil.

He barely came halfway up my calf, but the top of his pointy, red hat reached all the way up to my knee, higher than some of the flowers.

He stared up at me, eyes wide and goatee slick with sweat. “Oh, nuts.”

He moved so fast and so quiet he could have been flying. I felt like a bumbling giant, bones too big for my skin, as I raced after him into the garden, tromping a fledgling tomato vine beneath my bare feet.

When he began to corkscrew his body into the earth, I reached out without thinking and grabbed his hat in my fist. He disappeared beneath the dirt and I stared at the triangle of red in my hands, as soft as the fur of a bunny rabbit. Pulling up my skirt, I tucked it into the waist of my lollipop undies because I didn’t have any pockets.

I didn’t think to be shocked by this discovery and I didn’t think to dig into the earth to look for him between bulbs and worms. My Mumsie was too furious at her discovery that the AC was too high and the sliding glass door was too open.

I was shocked when the soft, soft hat began to scratch at the skin of my hip. When I hurried up to my room and pulled my skirt up to retrieve it, I was shocked to discover that it was no longer soft like a rabbit’s pelt nor bendable like a patch of felt. It was as hard and solid as glass, molded to the way it had been folded over the hem of my undies.

He came back for his hat even though he knew what would happen to it, even though he was wearing a new one, this one dark, dark blue. It was the very next day at the very same time and I’d brought the bent hat with me as I waited at the kitchen window with my lemon juice. I almost didn’t see him weaving through the flowers what with his new hat, but when I did I made sure to approach slow and careful this time.

The tip of his tall, tall hat paused in the middle of the lilies and I set the deformed hat on the grass before backing away. I watched the blue of his hat in the white of the lilies, but still he did not move. I turned my back and was almost to the door when I heard it.

“That’s what happens to us,” he squeaked, his voice barely distinguishable from birdsong. I turned to see him holding the red hat in his tiny, dark hands. He scurried away when he saw me looking, corkscrewing into the dirt, a flurry of red and navy. Every afternoon I started preparing two sugar-rimmed glasses of lemon juice but quickly switched to one glass and one shot glass.

It was weeks before we were able to get within ten feet of each other without him diving back into the earth. But ten feet soon became five and then three and then one. Soon I would sit cross-legged in my backyard and he would use my knee as a table for his shot glass.

Soon we began to trade. He told me stories in exchange for lemon juice. Trolls are not big and rude guardians of bridges, they are small and quiet dwellers of gardens. Trolls communicate in the mornings when the birds are singing and people are too cranky to tell the difference between song and messages. Trolls live in the deep beneath the dark and wet soil and if they’re away for too long they dry up like starfish, clothes and all. Trolls value earwax as currency and dumpster dive in search of cotton swabs coated in sticky yellow to build their underground homes with.

I began bringing him used cotton swabs instead of lemon juice. He brought back the bent, red hat and let me keep it.

He flinched after each story he told me, waiting for me to gawk in awe or snatch him up to show off even though I would only be able to show off a garden gnome after long. But all I thought was that it explained finding what I’d thought was a gnome trapped beneath the lid of our garbage bin at the curb. All I thought was that it explained the raccoon problem our neighborhood had when we kept waking up to rubbish littering our front lawns.

I didn’t tell any of the kids in our neighborhood about my Troll, not even Annabeth Freeburg who decided we were best friends last year and stopped knocking when she came over to my house. I didn’t tell anyone because then everyone would know. Every house in our neighborhood looked exactly the same except for the color of the front door and the wreath hanging on it. The houses were all white and two stories with green, green grass all around them and the people that lived inside them loved everything that was different.

Did you hear, they said, House 79 put red lace curtains in their windows?

Did you hear that the boy in 116 is going to Yale?

Did you hear how many takeout boxes were in the lawn at the house on the corner after the raccoons came last night?

I didn’t want to hear about the girl in house 11 talking to a troll beneath the lilac bush.

By the end of the summer my bookcase had more frozen troll apparel than books and my hearing had never been clearer. I woke up early even though I didn’t have school and I smiled when I heard the squeak of the trolls beneath the songs of the birds. I became an expert at hiding tiny hats and shoes and flower petal dolls behind my body without letting them become misshapen while slipping through the sliding glass door. My Mumsie began buying me blown glass orbs when she noted my eclectic paperweight collection. She saw me lying in the garden and said she should have named me Rose or Poppy or Lavender. I said she should have named me Birdy.

By the end of the summer my troll stopped telling me troll stories and starting telling me his secrets. He told me that people only thought cardinals were lucky because they mistook trolls for birds. He told me that people only put gnomes in their gardens because they mistook them for trolls. He told me that gnomes are made of glass or plastic and trolls are made from the soil and away from the soil the air dries them out, hardens their skin, strips them of their life.

I told him I hadn’t had much luck since my Papa left in February. I picked up every penny and took pictures of every cardinal and wished on every starry lollipop wrapper and still he didn’t come home. I didn’t talk to my troll when the kids in houses 9 or 13 were running through their lawns and I didn’t change the curtains in my windows and I told Annabeth to go home when my Mumsie came home with puffy eyes and still the neighborhood talked about the widow in house 11.

So I asked if he would stand watch over my house at night when all the neighborhood’s lights were out to bring us good luck. Only long enough that he still had time to make it back to the garden before he got stuck.

I made sure to look out my window every night even though his dark, dark blue hat blended into the night like the white houses blended into each other. I waited until I heard a song that wasn’t quite from a bird before I went to bed.

School started without a sign of homework in any class for two weeks. When we did get work, I got all As. When I came home, there was always fresh lemon juice in the fridge that my Mumsie had squeezed for me the night before. It only rained at night when it wouldn’t get me wet. My Mumsie spent her evenings humming instead of drying her own tears.

But Annabeth was still my only friend, though she started knocking again before entering our house. And still there was no Papa.

I wondered if my troll brought his friends to watch house 11 if it would bring me more luck. He said he wouldn’t ask his friends to do such a thing even if it would mean more luck because he wouldn’t dare endanger his friends. I thought of my neighbors should they wake in the rainy nights and see a troupe of pointy-hatted trolls lined up in front of my house.

Did you hear that house 11 puts out dozens of gnomes at night and stores them away come morning?

I had a collection of starry lollipop wrappers as big as my collection of troll souvenirs and my tongue was nearly always stained red and sore with sugar. Every night I heard the squeak of almost-birdsong and every afternoon before I gathered the wax in my ears, Annabeth knocked on my door to compare her B- answers to my A+ ones. I had never been luckier and my Mumsie had never spoken of my Papa less.

Beneath the lilac bush that no longer held lilacs, my troll told me that his village was suffering a housing crisis because my neighborhood had begun to only leave their garbage bins out during the day after too many mornings of greasy, balled-up wrappers and empty, clinking bottles rolling through their lawns. The ground was beginning to frost at night and the wax from my ears would not be enough to get them through the winter. If they were away from the soil too long they dried up and hardened, but if the soil hardened around them they stayed soft as they froze.

I began rummaging in the trashcan in my Mumsie’s bathroom for her waxy cotton swabs and found her diamond ring on the ledge of her porcelain sink. Did it leave a tan line around her finger or did she put fake tanner on it to erase even the ghost of him?

I began putting extra sugar on the rims of my lemon juice glasses.

The air turned chilly and I stopped wearing dresses. I saw my troll less often because I spent more days inside with Annabeth who no longer needed to knock when she came over. My Mumsie brought home a man.

He came on a Friday afternoon and he was the opposite of my Papa. He was short and he was blond and he didn’t grow a beard even though the air had turned chilly weeks ago. He looked at me like I was the lemon juice and at my Mumsie like she was the sugar on the rim of the glass.

I started spending more time with my troll in the hopes that it would bring me more luck, but he started spending less time with me because he had to spend most of his time searching for earwax.

The night the snow fell I shivered for hours beside my open window and went to sleep without hearing even the birds sing.

By the time morning fell, it brought with it feet and feet of snow that closed down the roads, and therefore my school, and covered the SUV parked on the road across the street. I ran down the stairs, my nightgown riding up to my thighs and my bare feet smacking the wood of the stairs, to ask my Mumsie if it was true, if I didn’t have to go to school. Maybe I had only missed the call of my troll. Instead I found two cups of coffee and one glass of lemon juice on the table and only one of the seats was empty. There was no sugar on the rim of my glass but I drank it anyway.

Annabeth made a path through the waist-high snow on the road from house 12 to house 11 and threw her mittens on the floor when she burst into my house.

“Did you hear,” she whispered, glancing past me toward the kitchen doorway where hushed voices carried smiles from wall to wall. “Your mom has a secret lover.”

Only it was no longer a secret because the whole neighborhood was talking about it through phone receivers, had been since the first light of morning revealed the snow and the SUV. She dropped her puffy, green jacket that was damp at the waist on the floor and I grabbed her wrists. I told her about my idea and she didn’t think to call me weird because she had only ever called me her best friend.

That afternoon when the snow plows had cleared the roads and the neighborhood had snow-blown their driveways and my Mumsie’s lover had driven home, Annabeth and I put on our snowsuits and went door to door. I was armed with a half-full container of cotton swabs and she carried a plastic shopping bag open with both hands.

Did you hear the girls from 11 and 12 are collecting used cotton swabs?

Did you hear the girls from 11 and 12 are doing a science project on earwax production?

Did you hear the widow in house 11 might not be a widow much longer?

“Oh, nuts.” My troll shivered, tiny hands wrapped around his tiny body as he gazed at the small mountain of cotton swabs I had brought for him. He didn’t have a winter jacket like I did. Trolls burrowed deeper in the winter and didn’t come back up until summer. My troll came up special for me because they still didn’t have enough housing and I always brought him earwax. I tried not to notice the way his eyes were puffy like my Mumsie’s used to be.

“Oh, nuts,” he said and turned his wide, black eyes to me. His goatee was a beard now, grown out for the winter like my Papa used to do. “I have nothing to offer you in return. I can’t even look after your house at night anymore or I might get caught in the snow and stay out of the soil too long.”

I couldn’t help but cry and I gave him my own secrets. Secrets of disappearing pill bottles and dead Papas and talking neighbors and unworn diamond rings and tongues sore from the sugar of lollipops but not from the rim of lemon juice glasses. I gave him my earwax and my Mumsie’s and the neighborhood’s and I gave him my secrets. All he gave me was the hat on his head and the promise of spring.

I didn’t want promises, I wanted luck. I wanted my Papa.

This isn’t the story I want to tell, this story of anger and frantic squeaking that doesn’t sound like birdsong at all, this story of burying my troll in the snow in front of my house and falling asleep to the squeak of a dying bird that said, “Luck won’t bring your Papa back!” By the time my eyes closed my troll had gone silent.

That isn’t the story I want to tell so I will not tell it. Besides, my neighborhood tells it all for me.

Did you hear that house 11 has a new gnome for their lawn?

Did you hear that gnomes in winter are better luck than in summer?

Did you hear that the widow in house 11 is a widow no longer?

Did you hear that the girl in house 11 has a new Papa?

Did you hear that the girl in house 11 tore up their garden?