"It was then that the feelings of doom first began to gnaw at his young heart"
“Where are we going?” Freddy asked, innocence shining on his face like a beacon.
“On an adventure, you know that.” His father, Jerry, replied warmly. His crinkled, sea-blue eyes twinkled down at him.
“I know…” he began, his small hand held tightly in the large calloused one, “I just wondered what we are really doing.”
“Why don’t you think it’s an adventure?” Was his father’s reply. They stopped walking, the hustle and bustle around them unending as people went about their day. While it was lost upon Freddy, Jerry noticed how the others walked and talked as if they didn’t exist. He ignored this and focused on his son who peered up at him with sapphire eyes.
“I don’t know. A kid at school said I just liked make-believe and all that was only in books,” came the simple answer.
“You’re right, this isn’t a book. However, adventures happen all the time. Right now, even. You see, we’re on a quest.” Jerry said as he knelt at his son’s level.
“What kind of quest?” Freddy asked, his full attention now given.
“Well, while you were getting ready, a troll came to the door.” His father began, voice quiet and floating in a whisper.
“A troll?” the young child interrupted with wide eyes and a lip that trembled.
“Yup, a troll. He said you’d been good, so he hasn’t taken you.” Freddy tried to take a step back at this, but Jerry held tight. “However, that troll sure was hungry.”
“Will he eat me?” Jerry smiled grimly at this question.
“No, but he does like bread and rolls. Now, could be real, could be make-believe. Question is, are you willing to chance it?” Jerry whispered. He turned his son around to face the cafe.
Freddy nodded and began to weave his way through the crowded sidewalk. As he moved, he never took his eyes off the waiter who found himself busy with a young couple who had been waiting within a crowd of others.
He groaned internally as they began to make their way towards the table which was still a good few feet away and in their direct eyesight. He felt his heart hammer as he waited, unsure of what he expected to occur.
The couple made it to the table, in front of which Freddy leaned on a lamp post and hummed a song. Right as the waiter pulled the chair out for a pretty lady with hair that cascaded down her shoulders, there was the clatter of porcelain as it hit the floor and the piercing shatter of glass on the pavement. Everyone, including the couple and their waiter, looked over with interest.
Freddy smiled as he spotted a head with thin, sandy blonde hair ducking out of a doorway in the back. Just as his father had taught him (during his knight training, of course) he got off the lamp post and strode past the table. As he did so, he brought a hand up, grabbed the breadbasket, and in a fluid motion brought it to his side like he was the health inspector nonchalantly grabbing some product to test. As always, nobody questioned the confident young boy as they went about their daily lives.
He continued to walk and proceeded to wait on a corner about a block up, the basket clutched in his hands. He nearly jumped when a warm voice whispered in his ear and a heavy hand gripped his shoulder.
“Good job buddy. You’re becoming a regular old Robin Hood.” He beamed at the man behind him with pride. Though while Jerry returned Freddy’s smile, he couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact. A fact that was lost upon the innocence of the young child before him.
Several weeks later Freddy poked his head out from his room. He knew he shouldn’t be up, after all, it was a school night. Adventures were a thing for the weekends and breaks, now was the time for sleep. However, there was something about the tone of his father’s voice that he couldn’t ignore. So, here he was having an adventure of his own. While he should feel guilty, he didn’t. After all, he was a knight, and isn’t this how they always found adventure?
A good tale was not what he discovered, however. His father’s heavy voice drifted from the living room down the hall.
“…ya, this time we were going to take back our treasure.”
“From who, Jerry?” Came Otto’s deep baritone one.
“I don’t know, some random guy waiting for the bus.” Jerry’s voice grumbled back.
“Yup…Freddy’s a knight after all,” came the dry reply.
“Damn Jerry. This needs to stop you know that?” Otto replied after a short pause.
“I know, but what else am I supposed to do? You know how tight money is,” came an aggravated rebuttal.
“Well…” Otto trailed off.
“I mean…I can’t solve your problems…but I can make you forget them a bit.” Otto said, and Freddy thought it sounded almost hesitant.
“Really now, how are you going to do that?” Came the rather sarcastic response of his father.
“Well…I just got…” Freddy had to strain to hear the last part as his father’s friend had lowered his voice to just above a murmur. Though the last part was lost amongst the quiet shadows of the night.
That was the last that Freddy was able to make out. As he lay in bed that night, he went over all he heard. While he wasn’t sure what it all meant, he found sleep difficult to find due to the rock in his stomach.
The next morning, he woke up early and slowly cracked the door of his father’s room open. There he lay, his breath heavy, with what appeared to be an orange bottle lying next to him. Round tablets were laid on the bedside table. Freddy was just barely able to make them out in the early morning light. Jerry moved slightly and Freddy quickly fled back to his room.
He jumped back into bed and threw the covers over his head. He waited with a heart that pounded and a stomach in his throat. A few moments later the bedroom door opened, and he felt, rather than heard, someone look in through the crack. After a few moments he heard a soft click and there he lay until his father knocked on his door some hours later. He never mentioned what he saw to his father, and his father never brought it up. Though, from that point on he noticed his dad started to take a lot more naps. Often, he’d find him on the couch, out like a corpse on Halloween. It was then that the feelings of doom first began to gnaw at his young heart.
As the next several weeks wore on the changes Freddy saw in his father were striking. They were never able to afford to do much in the way of fun, but Freddy always looked forward to their games and adventures. Now though, his father wanted to merely sit around and watch videos on his phone. That or take what seemed like endless naps. It also appeared the basics of household upkeep had begun to pass over his father’s priority list.
One day, while he was on his way to the kitchen to make a sandwich, Freddy was mid-step over a trash bag, its contents exploded over the kitchen floor like a fallen soldier on a battlefield, when he had sudden enlightenment. That weekend he didn’t go on any adventures to find food and money. Instead, he cleaned up all the empty pizza boxes, napkins, soda cans, chip bags, and whatever other trash could be found.
The entire time he cleaned he would look back at his father with wide eyes. Yet, as the weekend wore on it seemed the suddenly clean house was lost as his father saw only through Vicodin eyes.
Finally, Freddy couldn’t take it anymore and walked over to Jerry, who was on the tattered couch. His eyes were blank, and his mouth drooped slightly as his chest rose and fell deeply, phone in hand, a deep red bottle with a prescription label sat next to him.
“Ya buddy?” Came the slow and tired reply.
“Doesn’t…doesn’t the house look clean?” Freddy mumbled.
“Ya, I saw you cleaned. Great job my man.” With that, his father’s head began to nod, and his eyes hooded over. While it had only been a few weeks, Freddy knew what this meant. So, he bowed his head, droplets already having collected in the corners of his eyes, and walked away, headed to his room. He knew this was just another adventure. So, while he never bothered to clean again, he did sit in his room. In his mind, he was in his workshop with scrolls and magical items strewn across his desk. There he began to work and plan on how he’d win back his father’s love.
As time continued its endless march, Jerry went further down the rabbit hole. Eventually what started as the occasional need to step over trash bags, became wading through a sea of filth. Freddy began a nightly quest of seeking a clean dish to make his nightly sandwich. Jerry, meanwhile, eventually abandoned his phone and instead took to a seemingly never-ending nap. At least that’s how it seemed to Freddy for this was the case whenever he braved the living room.
The night came when Freddy started his nightly ritual. After several minutes of pushing aside bags and boxes, he finally found a plate hidden in the corner of the living room. He hopped and skipped his way into the kitchen as he pretended the trash was lava. However, when he finally made it to the fridge, he found it empty.
“Dad?” he called, though there was no answer. He went to the living room and stared down at the man before him. He had always been cleanly shaven, but now Jerry lay there with a thick and bushy beard. Which could be found with several flecks of food and grime lodged in the scruffy forest. Despite his shouting, his father barely reacted. He shook Jerry’s shoulder, a task which took both hands, yet despite the soft rolling of his body, he failed to stir.
With a sigh, Freddy turned and returned to the kitchen in search of food. In the corner of a cabinet in a tattered and torn box, he finally found a cracker. With empty eyes, he returned to his plate where he placed his hard-earned dinner. He then went to his room where he soon returned to the realm of adventure and make-believe once again.
Over the next several weeks what had started as a one-off quirk became a regular occurrence. Luckily though, Freddy was prepared and knew how to get food. So, he didn’t starve but he had to admit he did miss clean clothes as these had started to itch. He tried to figure out the washing machine. However, after casting his gaze across the various buttons and knobs, he found himself overwhelmed. So, with a sigh, he had taken his laundry basket back to his room, bits of clothes hung over the side in cascades like some dirty waterfall.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if the teachers would stop looking at him with that weird expression they had started to wear. He also was tired of seeing Mrs. Katherine, the school counselor. She was nice enough, but not as nice as his normal teacher.
One day he was brought in to see her, clothes torn and ragged with a distinct odor hanging above them.
“Hello, Freddy.” She said kindly.
“Hello, Mrs. Katherine.” He said and stared at his fingers as he picked at the dirt under the nails.
“You know, those clothes are getting awfully dirty. Does your dad clean them?” Freddy didn’t reply, instead, he avoided eye contact and continued to fiddle with his hands.
“I see…Freddy, your teachers are concerned. You’ve lost weight. Are you hungry?”
“Yes.” He muttered as he thought about the empty fridge and cupboards back home.
“Does your dad cook for you?”
“Sometimes…” Freddy lied, unable to look her in the eye. In his mind, he tried to calm down by pretending he was speaking to a dragon, invisible but having to speak in riddles.
“I see…I think…yes…Freddy, some people will be coming over this evening. They just want to help, okay? If you ask nicely, they might be able to take you to get some fast food. You’d like that wouldn’t you?” Mrs. Katherine said slowly, yet with that distinct trill that clung to each word.
“I guess…” was his reply. He didn’t quite know who the guests were or what was going on. Either way, he didn’t like how his stomach suddenly twisted into knots,
“Dad.” He whispered as he shook his father. He prayed that it had been long enough since the last time he took the little white pills.
“Huh?” Came the mumbled reply from the husk on the couch beneath him.
“Dad, I need to tell you something.” He had barely walked in from school. He didn’t know why but he felt like he should tell him what happened with the counselor. As he spoke, he felt hope envelop him. For the first time in he didn’t know how long he saw lucidity come back to his father’s eyes.
“Come on, we’re going on an adventure.” His father said. Though he noticed an orange bottle disappearing into his dad’s pocket as he wearily stood.
“Should I pa-“
“No.” His father interrupted. Jerry’s eyes were bloodshot, and his voice had a deep gruffness to it. Further, Freddy noticed there was the slightest tremble in his hands.
Without another word his father practically dragged them out of the house and down the street. Just as they were rounding the corner he looked back and felt his heart drop. For a group of police officers approached the door, and each looked surlier than the last.
He tugged on his father’s coat tail, which caused him to glance back. Freddy felt the hand that held him tighten.
“Come on, don’t look back.” His father said. Though there was a certain tremble to the words and his eyes had a wild look that scared Freddy.
“Look,” His father began, “back there are goblins. They want to take you to their goblin lair. You don’t want that right?” Freddy shook his head, and Jerry continued as they walked. “So, we have to hide you.” He glanced at the sinking sun and cursed aloud, something that took his son by surprise.
Freddy felt as if he were in the parking lot of the Clarence Wal-Mart for hours. The sun had long since fallen and left him in the cold dark. His father had told him to wait here while he did a special quest. So, the young knight had stayed where he was instructed.
His heart leaped when he finally saw his father lumber back from the store, a pair of sunglasses on his face. “What did you get?”
His father knelt, hand in his pocket. “Freddy, I want you to be brave. You’re a brave knight, right?” Freddy nodded eagerly. He didn’t know what he had done wrong, but he was excited for a chance to fix it.
“Okay, good. I…I want you to turn around Freddy. I’m not going to let the goblins take you. We’re going to leave for a long time, but we’ll be going somewhere they can’t…they can’t take you.” Freddy started to turn back around to ask his father what was wrong but stopped when he saw the cold steel in his father’s hands.
“Don’t look, Freddy! Be the brave little man I know you can be. Remember I love you.” The sunglasses fell off his father’s face with the force of his words. He saw dark red, panicked eyes, and a mouth set in a grim expression. In front of him was not his father, but rather a cornered animal. However, before he could think or do anything, there was a loud crack. There was silence for a moment and then a second loud sound disturbed the quiet evening air. With that, the brave knight and his mentor knew no more and left together.
Ryan Nightingale has previously had two short stories and one digital painting published. He has also written multiple novels but is still seeking representation. Once upon a time, he worked as a neuroscientist where he co-authored a textbook chapter on the neuroscience of self-compassion. He currently works as a freelance writer. In his spare time, he writes both short stories and novels. As well, he enjoys painting, digital art, and other creative endeavors.