I lost my son in a freak accident twenty years ago. He was only seven. I was devastated. My life never returned to normal. Not only was I burden with grief, but shame as well. Back when it happened, I was so focused on my career that I didn’t spend any quality time with my boy, so little – in fact – that I didn’t really got to know him. I always told myself I worked so hard for his sake, to ensure him a bright future. But what he really needed at that time was a father.
Close to what would have been his twenty-seventh birthday, one of his old teachers reached out to me and said she had found some of my son’s drawings hidden away in some old storage at his school. I knew he liked to draw, but I couldn’t remember ever having seen one of his drawings. I felt my shame bubble up from the bottom of my chest. The teacher spoke in a soft, understanding voice. She knew what had happened to my son, she had been there that faithful day when I hadn’t. I hadn’t been there for him
. The thought intruded into my mind. I wanted to cry.
“Do you wish to come and get them?” the teacher asked.
I did. It was a chance to get to know my son at least a little bit more. The next day, I drove down to the school and met the teacher – now close to retirement age – at the front doors. I usually avoided this part of town. Just seeing the school made it all come back to me, all the memories from that day; the phone call about the accident, the commotion at the school where the parents were first informed of what had happened in more detail, my sons pale face as I held his dead body in my arms against the will of the police officers and with the tears running down my face. Tears that were back now. The teacher hugged me out of sympathy.
I followed her inside. The kids played outside at the schoolyard and in the corridors, unaware of the terrible incident that had happened at this place twenty years earlier. Some of them looked at me with curious eyes, wondering how a tall, well-built man such as myself could have trouble holding my tears back. A part of me kept looking for my son among them, almost expecting his face to peek out from a corner. The room where it had happened was torn down for safety reasons and was now a part of the dining room, but the absence of it was just as palpable to me. I stopped and watched the area where it had been, the activity room where my son had taken his last breath. He died doing what he loved: drawing with his friends. Three other kids had lost their lives together with him that day. They were never able to find sufficient evidence for it, but in the absence of a better explanation, the investigation settled with carbon-monoxide poisoning.
“This way,” the teacher said with concern in her eyes.
She brought me to the school’s musty attic and gave me a box filled with standard A4 papers that my son had drawn his creations on. I thanked her.
“You know,” the teacher said, “he really put his soul into these. I’ve never seen a kid being so happy to draw.”
I thanked her again but didn’t say much else while leaving the school in a hurry. She didn’t mind, she understood my inner turmoil.
I didn’t look at the drawings until I came home later that evening. It was already dark outside. I poured myself a glass of brandy, something strong to cool my nerves. I sipped on it while I looked at the box laying on the coffee table in front of me. Carefully, after I had gathered enough mental strength, I opened the box and placed the drawings in my lap. They were cheerful, filled with figures he had painted with either colorful sharpies or crayons. He had talent, and not just the kind of talent that only a parent can see. I went through the drawings one by one. They all contained the same kind of characters: geometrical shapes with tiny arms and legs and cute smiling faces in different exotic environments. On some of the drawings, he had written short texts. His writing wasn’t as neat as his drawings, but still readable. “Welcome to Snorbatron, the world of the Snorbees” it said on one of the drawings. He never told me about this, I thought. He had an entire fantasy world in his head that I never knew about. It was amazing to see these images, these remains of the content of his mind.
I had been afraid that the drawings would reveal some inner struggle because of my absence as a father, and it made me glad to see how happy he seemed to have been given how joyful the drawings were. But then I reached the last drawing. The hair in my neck stood up when I saw it. It also depicted the Snorbees – in this case jumping around inside a jungle – but they were all screaming out of terror and running away from something. A few of the characters – some of the red circles that looked like humanoid apples – were lying dead on the ground with their insides ripped out of them. And in the middle of it all, there was a tiny, anonymous door standing on a grassy platform that floated in the air.
Could this have been what he drew that day, his very last drawing before he lost his life? Perhaps the carbon-monoxide poisoning made him confused before… I shook my head to escape these thoughts. My eyes fixated on the little door. There was something about it that felt a bit off, almost menacing, although I couldn’t say why. I moved my hand over the drawing, felt the old paper under my fingertips and moved them toward the door.
It was cold, somehow. I wanted to remove my finger from it, but my arm refused to move. Something wasn’t right. I felt immensely tired. It became difficult for me to keep my eyes open. I tried to fight it, but to no avail, and just a few seconds later I nodded off to sleep.
I woke up to the smell of rotten flesh. Right in front of me, laying in some unnaturally light green grass, was the cadaver of… I couldn’t believe it! It was one of the Snorbees, a blue, spherical being the size and shape of an orange. I stood up. I was in shock, unable to think clearly, but I still managed to realize that something impossible had happened… I had been sucked into the drawing!
The jungle around me was dense, but I never got the sense that it was large, and the sky seemed to hang only ten or so meters above my head. The door – now normal-sized – stood in front of me. I was just about to open it in an attempt to escape back to reality when I heard crying. It came from a child. Could it be?
I jumped off the platform that was floating a meter above the ground and slowly walked in the direction of the crying. The humidity was suffocating, and it smelled awful; a mixture of decay and feces. It was eerily windless. The thick, white clouds in the sky didn’t even move. A group of small red and furry balls with large doe-like eyes ran out of the bushes – screaming with squeaky voices – and stopped in front of me. I stared down at them in shock and in turn, they stared back up at me equally frightened. Then they took off into the bushes, screaming even louder.
I kept moving forward a few meters until I saw an opening a short distance away from me. That was where the child was. I hid behind the trunk of a palm tree, carefully watching with my heart beating rapidly in my chest. I hadn’t dared to express the thought to myself, but after entering this strange place and after hearing the crying child I only felt one thing: the intense hope to see my son again. But I didn’t recognize the child. It was a young girl – the same age as my son had been at the time of the accident – and she wasn’t wearing any clothes, although the dirt that covered her body made it difficult to tell.
“But I don’t want to eat more!” the girl said.
“Cry-baby, cry-baby!” the voice came from a grown man out of view. “You have
to eat them! Don’t be like the fools, you hear me? I’ve told you what happened to them!”
There was something childish about the man, in the way he expressed himself. What is going on?
I couldn’t hide forever, I thought and stepped into the opening. The man stopped in his tracks, obviously shocked to see me. He had a long, messy, and blood-soaked beard. He was naked, exposing his emaciated body under a layer of mud. There was blood dripping down on his thin chest from the beard. The limp body of one of the strange, furry beings hung lifeless from his hand, with a large bite taken out of its side. I let my eyes climb from his thin hand to his tired, fatigued face. There were dark circles underneath the eyes, and on top of his head, there was a shiny golden crown. He spoke first:
Of course… I could see it in his eyes.
“How–” I approached him, tears running down my cheeks, trying to embrace him. “You’re alive… here
He took a step back, hiding behind the little girl. The girl looked at me, her lips trembling out of fear. I stopped.
“Son,” I said. “You don’t know how much I’ve missed you. My boy… my boy… my boy…”
I cried so hard I couldn’t talk.
“Where have you been, Daddy?”
I could see tears forming in my son’s eyes as well.
“I didn’t know,” I said. “I held your body in my arms. You were dead. We buried you!”
“Oh,” my son said, “um…”
“What,” I said, “what is–”
“Maybe that’s why we couldn’t return,” he said. “You moved us away from the door. We used to play here when the teachers didn’t look, but one day we couldn’t go back.”
“But this isn’t real,” I said. “This is… this is magic, this is–”
“I made this place,” he said and stepped forward.
“You made it?” I asked.
“Yes, I just wish I could remember how I did it…” An expression of sadness overtook his face for a moment, but then he smiled almost manically and exclaimed: “I’m the king of Snorbatron!”
“Where are the others,” I asked, “and who is this little girl?”
“I don’t know,” he said, blushing heavily, and continued in a regretful whisper: “She came out of Linda’s foo foo.”
I looked at the little girl, speechless.
“Dad?” my son asked, afraid of my reaction.
“Where’s Linda now,” I continued. “Where are the others?”
“I’ll show you!” he said and then he looked down at the little girl with an angry frown and said: “Go away now! I don’t want to play with you anymore. My dad is here!”
The girl quickly skittered away and disappeared among the trees. I wanted to stop her and tell her she didn’t need to be scared, that I wasn’t going to hurt her, but I was distracted by all the thoughts spinning around in my head. My son adjusted the crown, smiled, and wiped some of the blood from his beard with his arm. And then he began walking, taking childishly large steps.
“I grew out of my clothes a long time ago,” he said. “But my friends didn’t. You’ll see. They were such fools.” He laughed and yelled: “Watch out, the king is coming!”
The creatures hiding in the bushes screamed in their falsetto voices, utterly terrified. After a short walk, pushing through more and more bushes, we came to what turned out to be the edge of the jungle. At first glance it, looked like the jungle continued, albeit much denser, but in actuality it was an impenetrable wall made out of trees and thorny bushes. I could see all the way to the other side.
“This place can’t be much larger than a football field,” I said.
“It seemed so much bigger before,” my son said. He stood close enough for me to smell his breath. It was foul. “It’s almost as if it has shrunk.” He smiled at me, revealing half-rotten teeth.
“No, son,” I said. “You grew up.”
“I-I guess so.”
I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder, to show my sympathy, but there was something in his small, sunken eyes that made me hesitate. Something was wrong, not just with this place but also with him. I thought about the little girl, tried to understand how she fitted into all of this.
“Well, here’s Daniel,” my son said and pointed at something sticking out of the wall. “He tried to escape from me while we were playing royal tag.”
My heart sank. It was a sneaker, attached to the bones of a leg. He must have tried to push his way through the thorny bushes, desperate to get out of this place, and gotten stuck in the wall.
“For the love of God,” I said in disbelief. “He’s dead.”
“He was a fool, they both were,” my son said. “Except for Linda… she was okay, I guess.”
“Why were they fools?” I asked. “What happened here?!”
“They didn’t want to play with me, said I was stupid and that my world was boring. Trust me, Dad, they were real cry-babies.”
A look of contempt appeared on his shabby face.
“Y-you didn’t hurt them, did you?” I asked.
My son didn’t say anything, he just stared down at his dirty feet and blushed, just like the school-boy he had been back when… when he vanished.
“And your other two friends?” I asked. “Where are they.”
“Jonas is over here,” my son said. “He tried to take Linda away from me, so I pushed this boulder right on top of him!”
The skeleton of a boy, dressed in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, lay on the ground. A large rock had been tipped over the head.
“You murdered him!” I yelled, out of anger as much as out of shame as a father to what was clearly a deranged man.
Linda!” he said.
“Where is Linda now?”
He blushed again, unwilling to speak.
“Well?!” I said. “Where the hell is she?!”
He teared up. “I-I didn’t know what to do, Daddy…”
Her mummified body leaned against a tree in the middle of the jungle. She was naked, and her legs spread apart. By the looks of it, she couldn’t have been older than fifteen years old.
“She just kept bleeding from her foo foo,” my son said, now crying softly. “We were supposed to be king and queen.”
“I’m so sorry all of this happened to you,” I said. “I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you, that I–”
“It’s okay Dad,” my son said. “You’re here now, aren’t you? Now we can finally play together… Forever!”
He smiled again, switching from one emotion to its opposite in less than a second, almost as if his sadness had been nothing more than a mask that he could replace with another in an instance. Was this who he had become after spending his entire life in this confined jungle, or was this who he had been when he arrived here all those years ago? I was still in shock, especially after seeing Linda’s body, but I was finally able to connect the dots. The little girl, I understood who she was now: my granddaughter.
“We need to get you and that little girl out of here,” I said. “This isn’t… This isn’t real, son. We need to get back to the real world.”
“I don’t want to go back to your stupid world with all the boring rules and mean teachers who tell me what to do!”
I looked at him emphatically, but also with concern in my eyes.
“You’re an adult now,” I said. “It will be different for–”
“Here I make all the rules!” my son shouted. “Here I am the king!” He laughed manically. “Let me show you my castle, Dad.”
There was genuine pride in his eyes when he talked about it. He truly believed his own megalomaniac words. The castle, hidden away in a glade of palm trees, stood on a small island in a pool of gleaming water. It was made out of light blue rocks, just like from a fairy tale, but it was the size of a play castle. Two fluffy, potato-sized figures stood guard at both sides of the gate. They held tiny spears in their little hands and both of them were cross-eyed.
“That’s Florb and Plorb,” my son said. “They work for me, so I don’t eat them…” He looked at them with a threatening stare and added: “…unless they disobey me!”
He laughed, and the creatures said something incomprehensive in a language that sounded like pretend-english on helium. Even though I couldn’t understand them, I could still see that they were trying to sound cheerful while hiding an absolute terror.
“Wait here,” my son said and crawled inside the castle.
“Listen, son…” I said, but he was gone before I could finish the sentence.
“This is going to be so fun,” I heard my son giggle from inside the castle. He came out of it with a longsword.
“Woah,” I said and took a step back. “What are you planning on doing with that?!”
“Relax, Dad,” my son said and fixed the crown on his head, “It’s a game, I used to play it with the cry-baby all the time, but she’s always whining and well, crying
. It’s so annoying.”
“She’s your daughter, doesn’t she have a name?”
“Daughter?” He looked like a living question mark. “What are you talking about? She came out of–”
“I-I know, Linda’s foo foo…” I closed my eyes out of frustration and embarrassment. “Didn’t the teachers tell you about… you know… the birds and the bees and all that?”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” he insisted. “Do you know what he’s talking about, Florb?”
The creature known as Florb looked up at my son like a shameful puppy and uttered some nonsensical sounds.
“Me neither,” my son said. “But her name is cry-baby
, because she’s crying all the freaking time.”
“Who raised her?” I asked. “How did she survive?”
“The Snorbees took care of her underground,” my son said.
“My god,” I said. “And now you’re forcing her to eat them…”
“Enough about the cry-baby!” my son said in sudden anger. “I want to play royal tag now, and since I’m the king you’re it!”
He raised his sword.
“I don’t want to play any games!” I said. “I’m your father, you have to listen to me! You can’t just order people around like–”
“But that’s what you
did, Dad,” my son said, now smiling. “You told me what to do all the time and never let me do anything fun!”
“I-I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you when you truly needed me,” I said. “I mean… I’m sorry I wasn’t a better father to you. But this… this isn’t right. If you don’t want people to hurt you, you should understand that they don’t want to be hurt either.”
My son pretended to yawn. “I didn’t understand any of your boring words. I’ll count down from ten – even though I can actually count down from a hundred! – and then I’ll come after you. Okay?”
“No,” I said. “Let’s try to get back, there must be a way–”
“Ten!” my son yelled.
“Why aren’t you listening to–”
“Hey!” I tried, but it was useless.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” I said and walked backward.
“That’s it, run! Six! Five!”
There was no way to get through to him. I turned around and ran into the jungle, hearing my son counting down to zero and then charging after me screaming like a maniac. I was panting. My first thought was to find the door again. I wanted to get out of this nightmare. My son had lost his humanity or never gained it in the first place. However much it hurt me to admit it, there was no hope for him – even if there was a way to get him out. I kept frantically searching for the door, thinking about this, when I accidentally stepped on one of those creatures. It squeaked like a dog toy under my foot. I looked down at it. It crawled half a meter before it died. I thought about how they had taken care of my son’s daughter, my granddaughter. I couldn’t just leave her here…
“I’ll find you!”
He was close. I tried to remember in what direction the girl had run as I pushed through the mysterious, make-believe jungle. The miniature creatures, the so-called Snorbees, were running crisscross in front of my feet and some of them were even flying around with the help of tiny propellers on their heads. The reflection of my son’s crown glistered in the corner of my eye. I turned around. He leaped forward, swinging his sword in front of him and in doing so cutting some of the flying creatures in half, which made him laugh uncontrollably.
“Oh, this is fun!” he yelled. “You won’t be able to get away!”
“Why can’t we play later?!” I yelled while running toward the corner of the jungle where I thought the girl might have hidden from her lunatic father. “We can try and get out of–“
“But I’ve already waited years for this, Daddy!”
I found the girl on a floating platform. She sat under a palm tree with blue leaves, petting one of the apple-like creatures. She froze with fear when she saw me. My son was approaching fast. I couldn’t afford to lose a single second.
“D-don’t be afraid,” I said as calmly as I could, which wasn’t very calm at all. “Is that your apple friend?”
The red creature nestling in her bosom turned around and looked at me with its uncanny large eyes, and then it cooed and gurgled and giggled. But as soon as it heard my son's cries of manic enthusiasm it covered its face in the girl’s chest.
“It’s not an apple,” the girl said. “It’s a Hoppitoss.”
“Listen,” I said. “We need to get out of here.”
“The King says it’s impossible to leave,” the girl said. “That we are trapped here forever.”
“There’s a door on a platform just like this one, but a bit higher up in the air,” I said. “But you know what? I can lift you up there, and we can exit that door together. It leads to the real
“The real world?”
“Just trust me,” I said and gave her my hand. “Let’s go before he finds us, shall we?”
She took my hand and got down from the platform, still holding her little friend against her chest. I was ready to run to the door, but as soon as I turned around my son appeared through the bushes, his sword dripping with blood.
“Found you!” he said and joyfully attacked me with his sword, not to hurt me but still too close and too intense. “What are you doing with the cry-baby?”
“We are leaving,” I said. “She deserves a normal life!”
His smile vanished in an instant.
“You aren’t leaving,” he said. “It’s against… It’s against the law. That’s right. It’s against the law!”
I picked up the girl in my arms. I had to be smart, I thought. My poor son might have looked like a grown man, but inside he was still seven years old.
“If you let us go,” I said, “I’ll come back and play with you forever. Daddy just needs some time to rest. And you know what, I can even bring you some new friends, how does that sound?”
He thought about it, giving me some hope, but then he said:
“You’re just trying to fool me. I’m not a fool like the others!”
“Please,” I begged. “If you hurt us, you’ll be all alone, you don’t want that
, do you?”
“I’m not gonna hurt you, Daddy,” he said and laughed. “It’s just a game, I wasn’t gonna–“
“He’s lying,” the girl said. “He always hurts–“
“Shut up!” my son yelled furiously. “You little bitch
The girl started to cry.
“Boohoo!” my son said. “Cry-baby! Cry-baby! Cry-baby!”
“That’s it,” I said, “we’re leaving!”
He blocked our way, holding the sword in a tightened grip and breathing his disgusting breath in our faces.
“I decide who comes and goes,” he said. “I’m the king!”
I pushed him aside and walked past him. His eyes teared up as he frowned in rage, just like a schoolboy with a hurt ego.
“Who’s a cry-baby now!” the girl said and stuck her tongue out.
“Don’t provoke him,” I said, but it was too late.
He stomped his foot in the ground, and then he screamed out of mindless fury with the sword held in front of him. And then he charged at us, still screaming as much as he was crying. Just like that, he had forgotten everything he had said about not hurting us. I held the girl tighter and ran as fast as I could. My son was right behind me. I could hear the swooshing from the sword being swung from left to right. His childish tantrum had made him lose control of himself completely. The girl held her friend, the Hoppitoss, by the arm. It looked back at my son, sticking it’s little tongue out just as it had seen my granddaughter do.
“I’ll kill you!” I heard my son yell. “I’ll freakin' kill you!”
Just before we reached the platform with the door, I tripped on an exposed root on the ground. We all fell into the stinking mud. My son raised his sword above his head and looked down on us with a sadistic smile growing on his face. He let the sword fall. I was sure there was no hope for us, but just as he was about to strike us several creatures jumped out of the trees and landed on his head. He fought them off – bit one of their stomachs opened and tramped one of them to death – but the distraction gave us enough time to stand up. I threw the girl up on the platform and climbed up on it myself. The girl opened the door, exposing only darkness on the other side.
“No!” my son yelled. “Don’t leave me here!”
He grabbed my leg as I was crawling toward the door.
“Go inside,” I said to the girl. “I’m right behind you!”
She stood there for a couple of seconds, hesitating, but then she took a step forward. Her body fell to the ground, lifeless. Just like I had found my son back when I thought he had died.
My son was heaving himself up on the platform. I crawled to the girl, fearing she was dead. She didn’t have any pulse. No, no, no.
Maybe my son had been right, I thought, maybe it wasn’t possible to ever leave this place. My son was just about to stand up. I put myself on my back and said:
“I’m so sorry.”
After that, I kicked him in the face as hard as I could. He fell off the platform. I could hear him bawling his eyes out on the ground. I stood up and was just about to pick up the body of the girl when the door, somehow, sucked me out just as it had sucked me inside earlier.
I woke up with my face on the table. For a split second, I thought everything had been some kind of fever dream. But then I saw her, standing in the middle of my living room, curiously looking around. I took a deep breath of relief. Her body had stayed in that world just as my son's body had stayed in this.
I mourned my son again because it felt like I had lost him a second time – even though I knew he was still alive in that enchanted drawing – but at the same time, I rejoiced with a happiness I hadn’t felt in a long, long time. Because I had saved her, I had brought her back, the granddaughter I never knew I had.
I contemplated throwing the drawing in the fire, ending my son’s misery once and for all. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Partly because I didn’t know what type of connection might have remained between the drawing and my granddaughter – maybe she would vanish if I destroyed it – but also because I didn’t want to kill all those noble creatures, the Snorbees.
So instead I framed the drawing and hung it up on the wall. The glass covers the little door, making it impossible to enter it without taking the drawing out of the frame. I do think about going back inside someday, trying once again to talk some sense into my boy. But I don’t want to risk getting separated from my granddaughter. I wasn’t there for my son, but I’ll be damned if I fail to be there for her.
Her fun-sized, goofball friend – the Hoppitoss
– can be a real nuisance sometimes, but it’s growing on me.