It was only when Steven turned five years old did I hear anything about Gnarl. My wife and I were sitting together on the bed after we tucked Steven into bed. We were watching TV, and I remember a really gruesome wildlife show airing that night, something about a baby deer being stalked by a leopard. I looked over to my right where my wife was sitting up in bed. She had a blank look on her face, almost as if she was thinking really hard about something she wanted to tell me. We sat together like that for the next thirty minutes, not talking to each other, and just watched this leopard eyeball this helpless gazelle while perched atop a tree. Finally, my wife spoke.
“Honey, have you heard about Gnarl?”, my wife whispered with her eyes fixated on the TV.
“What?” I asked, puzzled.
“N-not a what, a who. Steven was telling me about him earlier,” she replied, eyes reflecting a bluish glow that the TV cast across the room.
I assumed my wife was referring to one of Steven’s friends who he had just met knowing that we had just moved into a new town to accommodate the new space we needed for our child. And though I thought the name “Gnarl” was pretty strange, I just assumed it was a nickname that the other kids created for him. I was surprised to hear that Steven had made a new friend because we hadn’t enrolled him into his new school which is where I expected him to meet the large majority
“Gnarl’s a pretty weird name,” I chuckled, not thinking much of it. “Maybe we can meet his parents and ask about it.”
“That’s the problem. Gnarl doesn’t have any parents,” my wife said, eyes glued to the TV. The leopard suddenly sprung up and slinked its way down the tree, landing on the ground below without a sound. The leopard started to crawl its way towards the baby gazelle that was completely oblivious to the death that waited a mere few meters away.
“I don’t quite catch your drift,” I said, now shifting my weight to look towards my wife. She looked like she was about to cry. I began to feel more concerned. A cool wind blew through the room, though all the windows were closed. I picked up the remote to the TV so I could lower the volume and hear my wife better.
As I raised the remote to lower the volume, I felt a hand shoot out from the darkness to grab my wrist. My wife was clenching her hand around my arm. Her hand was ice cold.
“Jesus! The hell has gotten into you, Rachel?” I shouted, skittish from the sudden shock. I looked at her face, and she had tears streaming down her face. Her breathing was labored and the paleness in her face resembled that of a corpse. I quickly wrapped my arms around Rachel to comfort her. As I embraced her, her breathing slowed down and her sniffles subsided.
“Rachel, tell me what’s wrong,” I soothed. I was visibly worried but I did my best to hide it from her. It took a long time for her to let go of me. When she finally spoke, I couldn’t help but be somewhat skeptical.
“When I lived in Norway, my family always told the children about an old man who lived in hollow trees and stalked the forest at night. They told that story to us to keep us in the house at night of course, but even as I grew up I never dared enter the forest at night,” Rachel explained, still visibly shaken.
“And this is the Gnarl that you’re referring to?”, I exhaled, relieved that this situation wasn’t as terrible as I had first imagined.
“Yes, yes. My parents always said that once he found you trespassing in his area, he would follow you until midnight, then he would steal you away and-”
“Rachel, you’re overthinking it. That doesn’t sound like anything but an ancient local legend. And besides, you said it yourself- it was told to you simply to keep you inside at night,” I sighed, rolling my eyes. I always loved stories and tall tales, but I never took them seriously. I laughed at the idea of ghosts or monsters. But as I was thinking about fairy tales, I came to a sudden realization.
“Rachel, have you ever told me this story before?”, I asked, feeling the hairs on the back of my neck raise. She shook her head, no.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this. I was perplexed at the idea of Gnarl, a fairytale character, appearing in our world to endanger the lives of America’s children. What were the odds? It was almost laughable. But on the other hand, was it not at least somewhat unsettling to think about? My mind tried to shut out the hail of thoughts that came with this new revelation, but to little success. How would Steven ever have known about Gnarl without my wife telling him about it? This whole thing must have been nothing more than a coincidence. Right?
“Have you ever told Steven this story before?”, I asked again, almost begging my wife to tell me that this was all just a stupid joke. Rachel shook her head again, no. I looked around the room. I started to feel eyes peering at every inch of my body from every corner of the room. Despite my better judgment, I began to believe it. I began to believe that there existed a possibility that an old man from Norway found himself living in the mountainous regions of the United States of America and had befriended my five-year-old son only to steal him away forever. I tried to stay calm.
“Rachel, get Steven from his room,” I ordered as sternly as I could muster. She shook her head again, whispering something under her breath. “What?!” I shouted, grabbing her by the shoulders, and shaking her.
“He’s already gone,” murmured Rachel, tears dropping onto the duvet.
Now, I wasn’t one to be superstitious but I was in no rush to get out of bed to turn on the lights, let alone run across the second-floor hallway of our house to grab Steven and carry him into our room. But the thought of our son being swooped up by a mangy old man finally mustered the courage in me to hop out of bed. I started to speed towards the door to our room. As I turned the knob, I prepared myself for whatever was waiting on the other side. I looked to my wife, and she was rocking back and forth, still whispering to herself.
I turned towards the TV. I had missed the chase. The gazelle was dead, being eaten from the bottom up by a giant cat. The leopard seemed to look straight into the camera as it enjoyed its meal. I shivered.
I turned back towards the door and twisted the knob. I pushed open the door, making a loud creak as wood scraped against the rusted hinges on the wall. I peered across the dark hallway, my eyes still adjusting from the blinding light of the television. Staring into the darkness, I saw the door to Steven’s room. It was hanging wide open. My stomach filled with dread, and I felt heavy the closer I got to the door, almost as if I had weights chained onto my ankles. As I finally reached the door, I heard absolutely nothing but my own breathing. I was panting like a dog after only a few meters of walking. I flicked the lights on. I braced myself for the worst. Completely empty, the room devoid of any life. But then I spotted the broken window. My heart sank.
As I began to step into the room, I heard a clatter downstairs. I whipped around and thought about venturing further into the abyss. It was only logical that Steven had found himself in the kitchen. I reassured myself that Steven was fine, and had just destroyed his window to get food at one in the morning, and was just acting his age. But something at the back of my mind bothered me as I wandered blindly through the dark passageways of our house; the possibility that down these stairs was an old man who wanted nothing more than to run away with my child forever.
Down the stairs, make a right, turn left, and Steven will be standing right there, I thought to myself. As I crept my way down the stairs, I noticed the faint glow of light turned on in the dining room. I was too shaken to have any expectations in mind when I arrived downstairs.
Another clatter. I waited around the corner taking heavy breaths. I could see shadows moving across the floor, the dining room illuminated by a single light overhead. More clattering. It sounded as if a raccoon had made its way into our kitchen and was intent on destroying everything within it. I closed my eyes and thought about Steven. I rounded the corner. And there he was. Steven, climbing the drawers, trying to grab a can of tuna from the top shelf. I sprinted over and grabbed Steven, pressing him against my chest. I was too relieved to even think about scolding him.
I looked down at Steven in my arms and asked him, “What are you doing this late at night, young man?”
“I was trying to get food for my friend,” replied Steven, calm as always. I was clearly confused by his statement. Steven saw the puzzled expression on my face and pointed towards the window overlooking the sink.
There it was. A lanky, stick armed creature, its face twisted and mangled like the roots of the trees it lived in. It was tall enough to look down into our window as it stared straight back at me. I froze. It remained there, waiting, watching. Its eyes pierced through the glass, two rays of piercing yellow light that seemed even brighter than the lamp that hung above. And as sudden as I had seen it, it vanished. I was left standing in the dimly lit kitchen with Steven in my arms, sucking his thumb.
To this day, I don’t know what I had seen that night. We made a call to the police to investigate the possibility of a break-in, but I didn’t have any tangible evidence besides the broken window. I didn’t know how to explain the events that night. Nothing unusual was found inside or outside the house. I never told my wife about what lurked outside the walls of our home. In fact, I still remain unsure that I really saw anything outside that window at all. I still think Gnarl is but a tall tale, and my mind was too muddied by stress to process anything completely. But sometimes when I come downstairs to make myself food at midnight, I catch a glimpse of what seems to be a lanky, stick armed creature peering through the window as I make my tea.