It had to be the jacket.
She adjusted it casually and flicked her hair back behind her ear as another guy walked past her, and sure enough, his eyes kind of bugged when he saw her and a deep appreciative grin spread over his features.
Yep, it was definitely the jacket.
Enjoying the unusual surge of confidence granted her by the outright ogling of pretty much every male she’d passed on the pavement, Sarah turned up her iPod and walked a little faster, swinging her hips just a little more than she usually did while Elvis’ chocolate voice assured her that he needed her, he wanted her, he loved her!
It had been one of those days when everything went right and that was, frankly, astonishing because Sarah never had those days. She had become accustomed to the fact that she was a girl who always woke up with crazy hair, whose keys and phone and iPod and purse were always missing, who tripped over absolutely anything (including stairs, or occasionally a flat surface), who gained a new bruise on average once a day, and who had an irritating tendency to knock drinks over. Sarah’s bad luck and crippling clumsiness drove her crazy, but she didn’t like to think about it too much for various reasons.
Sometimes there was a little voice in the back of her head that piped up to say that it could tell her perfectly well why she had been a major klutz since the age of fifteen, and that there was a very easy way to fix that. Also that it could explain the reasons behind her strange aversion to crossword puzzles – particularly those with mazes in them – and peaches, or anything glittery. Usually she was able to silence the little voice, but of late it had been getting all too loud.
But right now that was the last thing on her mind. Today was a good day, and Sarah was feeling confident. Again, this was unusual. She herself wasn’t particularly enamoured with her looks – the heavy dark hair was a pain to take care of, and the pale, lightly freckled skin did contrast nicely with the green eyes but showed up spots horrifically – but she’d always been conscious of a vague feeling of surprise that neither were any boys. They always seemed to be a little put off by her, or perhaps afraid. This bothered her when she thought about it in case it was a character flaw on her part, but most of the time she was too busy tripping over something or apologising to whomever it was she’d last walked into to worry about it too much. In any case, she was not the sort of person who measured her own personal worth by male attention. She’d had enough of that to last her the rest of her life, thank-you-very-much-goodbye.
Today, however, she’d passed at least ten boys who’d eyed her up, and it was the cherry on the icing of an extremely nice cake. She had no doubt at all that it was all down to the fetching little jacket she’d found tucked away on a charity shop rail for three pounds and forty-nine pence. It fitted her like a glove (one of her least favourite phrases but apt in this case), and showcased the curves of her figure rather nicely. Plus, the jacket reminded her of something – for the life of her, she couldn’t figure out what, but it had given her a not unpleasant shiver of half-recollection when she’d first seen her reflection wearing it. It was made of an odd material; one would assume, as Sarah had at first, that it was leather, but on closer scrutiny it turned out to be something far softer and more pliant than leather – it clung, yet did not stretch. She was very pleased with it. And also with the fact that since she’d put it on, her hair had unaccountably decided to behave itself and actually look nice.
She hummed along to Elvis as she made her way up the street to the little house she shared with a couple of other third-years. While she’d had close friends at university, her language course was a year longer than most of the people’s she’d started out with, so in her final year she was living with people she didn’t know that well: Rowan was possibly the most antisocial guy she’d ever met – she could probably have counted the sentences he’d spoken to her on one hand – and Beth seemed sweet but was too occupied with her boyfriend to have time for anyone else. Fortunately this just gave Sarah more time alone in the house, which she rather enjoyed.
Today – miracle of miracles – her key opened the front door at first try, and she didn’t trip over the doorstep on the way in. Today, nobody had left textbooks on the stairs for her to slip on, and she didn’t catch her jeans on a nail and rip them on her way to her room. Sarah grinned to herself and, totally unsuspecting, unlocked the door to her room. Today –
She stopped her mental litany of success and stared.
The first word that came to mind was chaos, and the second one was OHMYGOD.
Her room was an absolute tip, and it was not empty. There were creatures everywhere: small, wizened, almost grotesque-looking creatures with misshapen features and bright beady eyes. They were all busy going through her belongings: papers were scattered over the floor; books were strewn everywhere, open at random pages; pens were liberally sprinkled over her bed and one of her posters was hanging crazily off the wall. In addition, her wardrobe was open and a pile of clothes was being enthusiastically examined by a group of goblins, who appeared to be more interested in the taste of the clothes than anything else.
For they were goblins – Sarah didn’t dare deny that she knew it, even to herself. For one split second, she stood there frozen in the doorway, unnoticed by her unwelcome visitors who were all muttering to themselves (“Nope… nothing here,” “Ooh, new diary entry!” “Photo!” “Mmm, smells good!”). Then she started screaming.
“WHAT IS GOING ON?!?!?!”
Like magic, a hush fell over the room and as one, fourteen goblins turned to look (with, she noticed with a panicky internal laugh, identical looks of terror) at their unsuspecting host.
“She’s back,” stated one of them, unnecessarily, after a few seconds of silence.
“We know,” hissed one of the smarter ones, slowly and carefully lowering the sock he held to the ground and dropping it.
“What do we do now?”
“He said she couldn’t see us.”
“She’s never seen us before.”
They all started clamouring at once. “Why can she see us?” “This is all your fault!” “MY fault? It’s YOUR fault!” “He promised us she wouldn’t know!” “Can she hear us?”
“SHUT UP!!” yelled Sarah over the hubbub, as her last thread of patience (and possibly sanity) snapped. “I WANT AN EXPLANATION OF THIS RIGHT NOW! WHY ARE THERE GOBLINS IN MY ROOM? AND IS THAT A CHICKEN OVER THERE??”
Five of the longest and weirdest moments of her life later (and yes, she was including all time spent in the Labyrinth), Sarah found herself sitting on her bed, surrounded by eager goblins. Four of them had tucked themselves under her duvet and one was thoughtfully chewing on Sir Lancelot’s leg. She made a mental note to have the teddy bear cleaned.
“Let me get this straight,” she said, her voice strangely calm and not at all reflecting her inner turmoil. “You lot have been… spying on me?”
“Yes, Miss Lady Girl.”
“Call me Sarah,” she said out of habit. “And you have been spying on me for four years?”
“Yes, Miss Lady Sarah.”
“…Because Jar – the King told you to?” It was strangely difficult to say his name. Perhaps it was because to do so would be to actually admit that he existed.
“We wasn’t supposed to say that,” muttered one of the goblins guiltily.
“He’ll Bog us when he finds out,” added another one sadly.
“But why can I see you now?” persisted Sarah, who was still not entirely sure whether she was awake. That would explain the whole looking good thing, not to mention the goblins. But then again most of her dreams were about labyrinths and mazes; she’d managed to block out the goblins years ago. (The black chicken that had decided to make itself at home on her beanbag clucked in a satisfied sort of way, and she was forced to re-evaluate her assessment of the situation. Surely reality couldn’t possibly get this bizarre.)
“Don’t know,” was all the answer she got.
“We’re always here,” offered the smallest goblin, who in spite of enormous ears and a singularly unattractive appearance managed to radiate levels of innocence and sweetness that Sarah found hard to cope with. He had somehow managed to install himself pretty much on her lap. “We do fun things. Like play with your nice hair.” He looked up at her, adoringly. “And jump on your bed.”
A sudden vision of herself surrounded by invisible goblins all intent on making mischief – whether innocent or otherwise – made Sarah almost choke. “So you’re the reason I’m so clumsy and everything goes wrong and nothing stays tidy? Because you’re always around me?”
There was a moment of silence as everybody processed that, and then a chorus of “yes, Miss Lady!” The littlest goblin piped up with “It’s funny when you bump into us,” and the others giggled.
“Oh bother,” said one of them in a startlingly good imitation of her voice. “Bloody-hell-that-hurts!” More giggling and noises of agreement.
Sarah groaned and rested her head in her hands. This was definitely not happening.
“C’mon, Sarah,” she muttered to herself. “You’re just hallucinating a little bit. Remember what the doctors said? Your blood sugar levels were super low and your hormones were running wild and you just dreamt the whole thing up… it was all a big fantasy… for heaven’s sake, it was all based on your toys. Nothing was real. You’ve put it all behind you.” She screwed her eyes shut very tightly on the off chance that by the time she opened them the goblins would have disappeared. To her astonishment, silence immediately fell. She counted to ten and then opened her eyes in cautious hope.
Fourteen pairs of eyes were watching her with intense interest. Obviously her behaviour was considered immensely entertaining.
“I need a drink,” she said firmly and got off the bed, scattering goblins indiscriminately. It took fifteen minutes to make herself a cup of tea because they were all so excited that they knocked everything over, twice. By the time she’d reinstalled herself on the bed and was sipping at the sweet liquid – she didn’t usually take sugar but this time she would definitely need it – the goblins had all armed themselves with something to eat as well and were happily dropping crumbs all over her duvet. She glanced around in wonder, too astonished at their daring to even be angry. “Wait – you’re the ones who have been eating all my biscuits? No wonder Rowan got annoyed when I accused him of that…” She was met by a row of blank expressions and decided that she wasn’t going to get anywhere on that subject. “Right, forget that. So tell me – why exactly are you spying on me?”
“Because – ” began three or four eager voices. Then they all stopped and looked at each other with confusion.
“Actually…” said a goblin who was wearing – Sarah suddenly noticed with astonished fury – a pair of her knickers on his head as a rather jaunty little cap. “I don’t know. Do you?”
“No,” said the one sitting next to him, who had apparently had a run-in with a bag of flour in the recent past.
“Me neither,” piped up a second.
“Do any of you know?” asked Sarah with mounting despair. It was like talking to a bunch of five-year-olds. And she should know – she’d met Toby’s little school friends.
They all conferred loudly for a moment before giving her an unequivocal “No.”
“All right,” she said desperately. “What do you tell Jar – the King?”
“He asks us where you go,” said the knicker thief, happier to be on more certain ground.
“And who you see,” commented one of the goblins who was tucked into her bed. His head was almost lost among the feather pillows, but what Sarah could make out of his expression was blissful. “Specially boys.”
“He doesn’t like scary tall dark one,” was another response, from which Sarah gathered that Rowan was not popular.
“He just wants to know about you.”
“What you eat.”
“How you talk.”
There was silence while Sarah processed this, and then the littlest goblin – who by now was snuggling into her lap – piped up again: “And how you look in the shower.”
“ALL RIGHT, THAT’S ENOUGH!” Sarah jumped up so quickly that he didn’t have time to move, and was unceremoniously bounced onto the floor. Fortunately he seemed unharmed. She turned to face the row of goblins. “I don’t care what J – the Goblin King tells you to do. From now on, there will be no more spying. Do you understand?”
Nervous glances were exchanged, but she persisted. “No more! No eating my biscuits! No tripping me up! No hiding my keys! No more rooting through my underwear drawer!” (Several goblins looked guilty.) “No more… watching me! That’s it! Got it?”
“Gottit,” they chorused.
“What if he Bogs us?” asked a brave goblin.
“I don’t care if he turns you inside out – you don’t tell him anything.”
She had half-expected them to vanish immediately in the face of her wrath but none of them showed signs of wanting to leave – in fact to all appearances they intended to stay where they were for as long as possible. They didn’t seem too worried at all, which was good because in spite of her angry words they were actually kind of cute and her heart misgave her at the thought of them being treated too badly.
“So… Can I get some peace and quiet?” she asked half-heartedly, knowing already that it would be futile.
“Oh, sure, yes, of course Miss Lady Sarah,” they all shouted, and they proceeded to clamber under her duvet and converse in whispers so loud that she thought her head might explode. Oh well, she thought, looking round at the chaos in her room. I guess they can stay for a bit.
The chicken squawked loudly.