He got to the slough and shoved his hands in his pockets. There was very little water--it was October and the summer rains had gone home to the sea. But there was still a little water, and he didn’t feel like getting his feet wet. “Oh, well,” he told himself crossly. “You’re the one who had the bright idea to come this way.”
He trudged on.
Then he came to the swamp, and he had to stop completely. He had never come this way by himself before. Was the water shallow enough he could wade? Or was a dark, unseen river cutting through, deep enough he would lose his foothold and drop down into the black water? Brent could swim, of course, but he didn’t feel like swimming. He had already gotten his feet wet.
“Why am I even going to King Dehn’s?” Brent grumped to himself. “No one is expecting me. No one is wanting me to be there.”
“You’re quite right,” said a voice, seeming to come from nowhere.
“Who--who’s there?” gasped Brent.
“You are,” said the voice. “And you’re ruining the view.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Brent. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Of course you didn’t mean to,” said the voice. It was now low and soothing, the sort of voice that has switched to a forced kind of gentleness. “You never mean it when you hurt people’s feelings, now, do you?”
“I hurt people’s feelings?” asked Brent.
“Certainly. Why else would Linda have stopped talking to you. Hmmm?”
Brent shuddered. “How did you know about that?”
A stump, a clump of grass, a shadow in the water stirred. Two great greenish yellowish eyes opened, exactly like a toad’s eyes peering at you above the water while the rest of its face stays hidden underneath. The eyes looked at Brent, and Brent looked at the eyes, and there was a long silence.
“I said,” said Brent, “how did you know?”
“Oh dear,” said the voice that belonged to the eyes. “You said that, did you? But ‘said’ implies a statement, and you very clearly used an interrogative sentence. Mavis would never have made such an awful mistake.”
“Mavis is very clever,” admitted Brent, his cheeks flushing. He felt terribly, horribly embarrassed, even though he didn’t know why. Being embarrassed made him feel even more miserable than he had felt before.
And his feet were still wet.
“Well,” and the eyes blinked. “If you dislike getting your feet wet so much, why in the worlds did you come this way? You could have been sitting on a nice, dry train, letting it carry you where you wanted to go, but instead, here you are. Walking. With muddy socks. I really am worried about you, Brent. You don’t seem to be making very good choices.”
“I wanted to be alone,” explained Brent. Saying it out loud, it suddenly seemed very foolish. What a stupid reason to walk three or four miles in the heat and the damp, just to get to a place where no one was even expecting him. Now Brent felt stupid and feeling stupid made him feel defensive. “Why should you care if I decided to walk, anyway?”
One of Brent’s friends--his real friends--would have known it was very unlike Brent to snap at anyone. It was very unlike Brent to even be cross in the first place.
But the owner of the eyes sighed a deep, deep sigh. “Why do I care? Why? Oh, Brent. Because I care about you; I’m worried about you.”
Brent didn’t have any argument against that. How could you argue against someone caring about you? He sat on a stump. “I didn’t even know you knew me,” he confessed. “I think I really ought to at least know your name.”
“Oh,” sighed the voice, and the eyes blinked. “No one ever remembers me. No one ever stays. They always come. They always go.” The eyes blinked back the first of their tears. “I’m the Whumtroll. No one ever listens to me.”
“I’m listening, Mr Whumtroll,” said Brent gently.
It was still crying, great, green tears plopping thickly into the water. There was a little hiss of steam, as the good brown swamp shrunk away.
“Please, please stop crying,” gasped Brent.
The Whumtroll sniffered and swallered, using one strange, leathery finger to swipe away the last of its tears. “I can’t help it. My life is full of woe. Of pain. Of--” It shook its head. Some things were just too awful to speak of.
Brent shook his own head worriedly. “I am so sorry. You seem so--”
“Depressed,” whispered the Whumtroll. “I’m depressed.”
“Oh,” said Brent. He had read about depression in the newspaper. It was different than sadness, somehow. More horrible and hard to bear. People who suffered from depression needed extra love and care. At least, that is what the article had said.
“You know what makes it even harder?” asked the Whumtroll, rolling its eyes up to the heavens.
“Oh, oh dear,” said Brent. He hadn’t known depression could be even harder.
“When you are depressed, no one wants to be friends with you. You end up all alone. It’s a fact.”
Maybe that was it, thought Brent. He was selfish and sad. No wonder Linda hadn’t returned his texts yesterday, when he had been thinking about his dad. He’d probably ruined her night. Why was he being so needy?
“You know,” said the Whumtroll softly. “I don’t mind that you’re selfish and sad. I care about you anyway. I think--I think you’re cool.”
“Really?” asked Brent, feeling as if he had last found a light at the end of a very long tunnel.
“Yes,” said the Whumtroll. “You stopped to talk to me, didn’t you? Everyone else is too busy running around, having lives. Being happy. None of those people have any time for poor old me.”
“I have time for you,” said Brent. And then, because he felt like he had to, he added: “I’ll always have time for you.”
“You’re...you’re getting more sensitive, aren’t you? You were such a jerk, but now you are almost nice. I’m such a good influence on you.”
Goodness, thought Brent to himself. I was a jerk. It’s such a good thing I stopped to talk to the Whumtroll.
Underneath the water, the Whumtroll’s belly was rolling with laughter. On top of the water, his eyes started to water. “Do you know why I’m so, so very lonely? Because people are so cruel. They never want to listen.”
“Yeah,” said Brent, miserable from his sweaty forehead to his wet feet. “Yeah, like the other night, when I tried to explain to Linda that I’m not trying to be a wet blanket. It’s just--well, it’s just--”
“But you were being a wet blanket,” interrupted the Whumtroll.
Brent sucked in his breath. “Really?”
“Yes,” said the Whumtroll. “I hate to have to tell you, I really do. I’m only saying it because I’m your friend. I won’t talk about it behind your back, like those people do.”
“People say that behind my back?”
“Oh,” said the Whumtroll, almost slyly. “No, no, they don’t say that exactly, they say--well, I shouldn’t tell you what they say. You could get depressed.”
“What? What did they say?!”
“They said…” the Whumtroll took a deep breath. “They said you were never supposed to come to Otherworld in the first place, it was all a horrible mistake. They just don’t want you around here.”
Brent couldn’t say anything. He was numb.
“I stood up for you,” continued the Whumtroll. “I said, aren’t we supposed to give people a chance? Isn’t it what nice people do for… people who aren’t as nice?”
Brent rubbed his finger up the bridge of his nose. He wasn’t angry. He was just…sad. He felt like he had known it, deep down, the whole time. He couldn’t blame them for saying it behind his back. They were right.
“Who--who was it that said it?” asked Brent, so quietly the minnows swimming by shook their heads, filled with pity.
“There you go again,” said the Whumtroll. “Making everything about you. You haven’t even asked me about my day.”
“Oh,” said Brent. “Oh, I’m so sorry. How was your day?”
“Miserable,” snapped the Whumtroll, even though he was beginning to smile under the water. “People are never around when you need them. When you--when you really--really need a friend!” The Whumtroll’s voice rose higher and higher until it squeaked. Then it burst into tears again.
“Oh, oh, please!” Brent thought he was going to cry, too. He didn’t want to stay there talking endlessly, but then he remembered the Whumtroll was depressed. He needed to be patient. He needed to give the Whumtroll extra love and care. He needed to stop being so selfish and insensitive. Why did he keep making this about him? Brent shook himself. “Here, okay, here, why don’t you tell me all about it? See? I’ll sit right here.”
The Whumtroll took care to keep its hungry, toothy grin under the water. “You won’t understand. No one does. Not a single soul in all the worlds.”
“I’ll--I’ll try to understand,” offered Brent.
“You’ll try,” mocked the Whumtroll.
“It’s the best I can do,” said Brent, putting his head down. He cried, just a tiny bit, hoping the Whumtroll wouldn’t see it.
The Whumtroll did.
“It’s because no one is ever there for me,” said the Whumtroll. “They say they’re your friends, but then--do they show up when you need them? Do they look out for you? No. They always leave. Always. Always. Always. There isn’t a single person anywhere who is actually a good friend!”
“No one can be a good friend all of the time,” said Brent. “We all make mistakes.”
“You’re just saying that because you make bigger mistakes than anyone,” sneered the Whumtroll.
Brent didn’t have anything left to say. He felt completely empty and used up. He felt like he had been punched and pinched and tossed around in a circle, and he felt guilty for thinking about how he felt at all.
The Whumtroll was watching the tears roll down Brent’s cheeks and rubbing his hands together under the water, his long, thin, angry fingers cracking with anticipation.
“You know,” said the Whumtroll despondently, “there is only one thing that can make me better-it’s just one, simple, little thing-- but no one will ever--”
“I’ll do it!” cried Brent, if only to get the Whumtroll to stop talking. Brent was getting a headache, and the more the Whumtroll talked, the more his head hurt.
“Really?” The Whumtroll’s eyes blinked and widened, as if completely and utterly surprised. But, safely underneath the water, it was licking its lips with its thin forked tongue. “Maybe I’ve misjudged you, Brent, maybe—no, no, you’d never go through with it.”
“I’ll do it,” said Brent again, standing up and shoving his hands in his pockets. “Just tell me what it is.”
“You are a real friend,” wailed the Whumtroll. “And to think I almost didn’t ask you! I could have spent my whole life in misery and woe!”
“Just tell me what it is!” snapped Brent, and his face got even redder. He was really, truly angry now. At everyone else, for not helping the Whumtroll ages ago, at the Whumtroll, for going on and on and on and on, and at himself, for just wanting to be done and get away. Because something, deep down under his sadness, was still thinking, even if the top part of him wasn’t. And it was saying, leave, Brent! Don’t stay!
“I have a hook stuck in my mouth,” said the Whumtroll quickly. “See?”
The Whumtroll’s mouth came up out of the water. It didn’t look like a very big mouth, but it certainly had very big teeth. The deep, deep part of Brent started shoutings. RUN AWAY, BRENT!!
But Brent just laughed nervously. “I don’t--I don’t see it.”
The Whumtroll turned its head, and even more teeth swayed past Brent’s wide eyes. There was a hook, an ancient fishing lure still attached to it. The ragged skin all around was even yellower than the rest of the Whumtroll, and it was swollen and had red blotches, and looked like if you bumped it puss would come out. In short, it was the most disgusting thing Brent had ever seen.
He did not want to go near those giant teeth and touch that nasty hook.
“We will be friends forever,” cooed the Whumtroll.
Brent did not want to be friends forever. He didn’t even want to be friends for a day.
“The water’s not deep,” added the Whumtroll. “And you’re so very brave.”
TEETH! Screamed Brent’s brain to itself.
The Whumtroll began to simper and swiver, working himself up all over again.
Brent couldn’t stand the Whumtroll crying. Not because he felt sorry for it when it cried, exactly, but because he felt overwhelmed by it.
He hopped down into the water, and the Whumtroll was right. It barely came up to his knees. He bent over the Whumtroll’s mouth.
And, suddenly, the Whumtroll’s mouth grew. It grew, and grew, and grew. The Whumtroll was smiling. Maybe, thought the weary and sad part of Brent, maybe I have finally done something that will make the Whumtroll happy.
The rest of his brain, which was now listening to the deeper part of him, screamed THIS THING COULD SWALLOW YOU WHOLE!
Nah, thought sad Brent. It wouldn’t do that.
And then the Whumtroll did.
It swallowed Brent whole and ducked down under the water, leaving nothing but the faintest of ripples.
Brent Meets the Whumtroll Part 2 will release March 24, 2020