Some of life’s moments should come attached to a warning label. Mine — well, one of mine — began when a flash of red under my rhododendron caught my eye.
Red? Frowning, I set down my duffel bag. My rhododendrons were purple. I wiped my hands on my pants then crept towards the bush on the balls of my feet, like I was expecting it to erupt. Exaggerated caution, you think? Ha, when you’re the world’s only hitman of the supernatural, caution is the only sensible option. I got a boogeyman for a roommate. Paranormals wander into my kitchen any old hour of the day and fix themselves a peanut butter and ectoplasm sandwich. Hell, part of me had been just waiting for the day one of my bushes decided to lure me close and eat me. That’s the kind of life I lead.
But this time my vigilance proved unnecessary. The thing standing under my rhododendron was a gnome. You know; fat, puggy-nosed, white-bearded, pointed cap — that was the flash of red I’d seen. This one was smoking a pipe and wearing an expression of benign contentment you might associate with a hearty German dinner before the flatulence sets in.
“What the hell?” I studied it, chewing on a thumbnail, then laughed.
Of course. One of my neighbors must’ve put it there as a prank. Several of them like to rib me about my gardening anyway. I mean, at nearly six feet tall with a big scar on my left cheek, I’m not the kind of guy you’d expect to find weeding the vegetable patch or planting tulip bulbs.
Still chuckling, I picked up the gnome. Surprisingly heavy. Warm from the sun. “You’re a stupid looking little bastard, aren’t you?” I said, tapping the tiny buttons on its blue coat. I checked the grass under the bush for a note or some other indication of who was responsible, but found nothing. Maybe they’d send me a postcard; I hear people with too much time on their hands do that kind of thing.
I weighed the gnome in my hand, considering, then set it down again. “What the hell,” I told him. “I suppose you can stay.”
Scooping up my duffel bag, I got into my Prius. Under the rhododendron, the gnome’s red cap shone like a beacon. “Think I’ll call him Petey,” I said. Giving him a wave through the window, I drove off to my boring old day job at the firing range.
I forgot all about Petey until the next morning, when I stepped out for a jog. Even New Jersey puts on a decent show in late spring: blue skies, sweet-smelling air, the earth a carpet of green. Half-drunk on harmony and goodwill and all that shit, I decided to stop by the rhododendron and say good morning to Petey.
My mood was brought up short by the sight of a second gnome under the rhododendron. The new one, every bit as ugly as Petey, wore a bright yellow rain jacket in addition to its pointed red hat. Both its hands were clasped to its fat belly; it was either enjoying a hearty laugh or preparing to flash an unsuspecting schoolgirl.
I frowned. “Who told you you could invite a friend?” I asked Petey, but he just stared smilingly out across the yard. I picked up the newcomer. One gnome in my yard I could tolerate; you know, kind of ironically. But two suggested I actually liked the things, and that was a boundary I wasn’t prepared to cross.
“Sorry, fella,” I said to the second gnome. “You’ll have to find another home.” I dropped him off among the Oldham’s daffodils a few yards down then continued on to jog in the park.
Flasher gnome was back next to Petey the next day. And, he’d brought along a new pair of gnome buddies.
“Damn it, Ricotta, would you just calm down?” demanded Murt.
I paced another half-circle across the living room floor then went to peer out the window again. My fingernails were all bitten down to the quick.
“Where are they coming from?” I muttered, parting the curtains a crack. “Goddammit, where?”
Five days had passed. The gnome population in my front yard had increased exponentially. I’m told that’s mathematician-speak for “a crapload and a half more.”
Murt laid a huge, scaly green hand on my shoulder, completely engulfing it. “It’s past midnight,” he said. “You should try to get some sleep. Of course, if you’re going to stay up, you could make coffee,” he added hopefully.
No one can swill coffee like a bogeyman. Good thing I made him pay rent on my closet, because my java budget had gone up by about five hundred and twelve percent since he moved in.
I tried to shrug off his hand, but I might as well have attempted to shift the Titanic. “Who’s putting them in my yard, Murt? And why?”
“Your neighbors? For a joke? Isn’t that what you thought?”
A glimpse of motion outside, in the shadows beyond the sidewalk edging my property. Every muscle in my body clenched. I craned my neck, hoping to catch sight of Mr. Oldham or perhaps Jeff Chapman tip-toeing towards my yard, a red-capped tchotchke tucked under an arm. Two seconds passed, then an opossum wandered into the wash of dim light cast by a nearby streetlamp. It stopped halfway across Sibley Street and looked both ways, to all appearances waiting for a car to come and squash it flat.
I let my breath trickle out of my chest. “Damn,” I said. Well, I’d just keep watching. If my neighbors thought I’d suffer the Great Gnome Onslaught without retaliating, they had another—
“Hey.” Murt gave me a shake, gentle for him but still rattling my teeth. “I’m not kidding. You should go to bed. How much sleep did you get last night?”
Last night? I scrubbed my hand across my eyes, trying to recall. “A couple hours. Maybe.”
“You kept watch all night? Fuck, Chris.” Murt finally released my shoulder and sat in the squashy blue chair next to the window. Crossing one leg over the other, he regarded me as sympathetically as a yellow-eyed, snaggle-toothed, seven-plus-foot boogeyman was able. “Look, I don’t think it’s your neighbors.”
“Oh? Why not?” I pressed my forehead against the window glass. Nothing moving. The opossum still waited patiently in the middle of Sibley; I wouldn’t have been surprised to see it check a tiny wristwatch. Then again, after two nights without sleep, I probably wouldn’t have been surprised if a UFO landed on my roof and presented the world with a resurrected Elvis.
Murt let out a big gusty sigh, smelling of swamp gas and old tennis shoes. “How many gnomes would you guess are out there by now?” he asked.
“A fuck-ton, at least.”
He rolled his eyes. “Let’s say that’s a couple hundred in Ricotta-talk. How much do those things cost? You know, at a gardening store?”
“Cost? How the hell would I know, Murt? I would never buy one of those things. Never. They’re tacky and stupid and—”
My voice rose on a high, shrill note. My lids rubbed burning grit across my eyes when I blinked. Murt stood in one swift motion. The traditional thing to do when someone’s having hysterics is to slap them across the cheek, but if Murt had done that my head would’ve flown into the corner. Instead he leaned down, right down, so close the tip of his nose grazed mine.
“Make. Coffee. Now.”
I went to the kitchen.
“All right,” Murt said sometime later, sitting at the table, both hands wrapped around the mug that read “Give me coffee or give me death” across the side. “As I was attempting to point out, garden gnomes probably cost at least ten bucks each, don’t you think?”
I frowned into my own mug. The bitter brew was slowly clearing some of the fog from my brain. “Probably more.”
“So if there are two hundred gnomes out there, that means someone’s spent—”
I held up a hand. “All right, I’m not that out of it.” I lifted a finger to my mouth, noticed I had no nail left to chew, and gnawed a knuckle instead. “Yeah. No one I know has got two thousand dollars to spend on a lame prank like this,” I said. “Maybe — nah.”
It had been on my lips to say maybe someone inherited them from a dotty aunt or something, but — unfortunately for the human race — you just know there’s gotta be a group of gnome enthusiasts online. You inherit a bunch of gnomes, you sell ‘em on eBay, not antagonize your neighbors.
“So where are they coming from, then?” I drummed my fingers against the table. “It’s not like the little bastards got bored of living in the garden shop and walked—”
My lips kept moving a few seconds, but no words came out. Slowly, deliberately, I shut my mouth then stood and crossed to the wall. Bracing both palms against its smooth, cool surface, I banged my head several times in succession.
“Hey!” Murt said behind me.
I banged a couple times more then turned, the blood pounding pleasantly beneath my forehead. Yeah. They couldn’t have walked into my yard. Right.
Was ever a man so stupid? Here I was, sitting at my kitchen table and drinking coffee with a boogeyman. Just last week I’d shot a goblin, and I had an appointment to decapitate a banshee next Thursday.
Yeah, I could thoroughly accept gnomes existed. No problem. I just hadn’t expected real, actual, breathing-type gnomes to so closely resemble the ugly plaster lawn ornaments you could buy at your local Walmart.
“I’m all right, Murt,” I said, walking out of the kitchen. I paused to pick up the poker in the living room. “Just going out for a little fresh air.”
I opened the front door just in time to see a Buick bearing down on the opossum. Collision seemed imminent, but the car swerved at the last minute. Tires squealed, missing the opossum by inches. The opossum shook itself, then, with an air of great satisfaction, finished crossing Sibley at a leisurely pace. The car drove off, leaving the scent of scorched rubber behind.
I closed the door behind me. Moonlight turned the street silver. Cool air soothed the growing lump on my forehead. Velvety damp grass tickled the soles of my bare feet as I walked to the rhododendron bush and knelt down. Petey’s blank gaze stared past me.
“You can stop the pretense, bub,” I told him. “I’m on to you.”
A little flicker of animation briefly lit up his eyes. I only saw it because I was watching for it.
“Yeah, you,” I said. I picked him up. Surprisingly heavy. Still warm, despite the lack of sunlight. “I kill things like you for a living, you know.”
In truth, I’d probably saw my own head off with a zucchini before I’d accept a commission to kill a garden gnome. But that flicker of life returned to Petey’s eyes and spread across his face. A cherry redness bloomed in his cheeks and his chest began to move as he breathed.
“We’ve done you no harm.”
I nearly dropped him. I’d expected a squeaky cartoon voice. Instead, a gravelly basso profundo came echoing out of his small mouth.
“No harm?” Recovering, I gave him a shake. “My neighbors snigger when I walk past. Cars stop in the street to gawk at my yard.”
“That does not meet the definition of harm,” replied Petey. Putting his little hands to my fingers, he wriggled out of my grip, did a neat backflip, and landed on his feet. All around, under bushes, perched on stones, ranged along my front path, the other gnomes began to stir.
Ignoring them, I pointed the poker at Petey. “Maybe it doesn’t meet your definition of harm, but I got a reputation, not only around this neighborhood, but in the paranormal community.”
Petey stroked his beard.
“That reputation,” I added, since he clearly wasn’t getting the point, “is not enhanced by the presence of a bunch of plump, primary color-wearing midgets cluttering up my front lawn.”
Petey stroked his beard a bit longer. Then he let me have it. “You invited us.”
“I—” I stared unseeing across my lawn as I struggled to recall my first encounter with Petey. Tuesday? That was years ago, man. I couldn’t be expected to remember—
My treacherous brain popped up the exact words I’d spoken that fatal morning: “I suppose you can stay.”
“I meant you,” I said. My knees buckled under me and I sank to the dewy ground. “You know, just you. One.”
Petey took his pipe out of his mouth. “We are a clan,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. His beard fluttered in the breeze. “To invite one is to invite all.” A murmur of agreement rippled through the watching crowd of gnomes; it sounded like a collection of gravel being poured down a chute.
See, this is the trouble with paranormals. They got their own set of rules and they never exactly post ‘em, but it’s your hard cheese if you break ‘em. Arguing that I didn’t mean what I said when I made the invitation would only waste my breath.
Aching down to the bones, I heaved myself to my feet, using the poker to brace myself. My shorts clung to my ass, dew-soaked. “Consider the invitation rescinded as of this moment,” I said.
Two hundred pairs of knee-high eyes stared up at me. The silence tolled louder than a crack of thunder.
“I mean it,” I said. “Leave now, this instant, or I’m going to have to get nasty.”
The gnomes whispered among themselves. Not a happy sound. A shallow sea of pointed caps dipped and nodded, gleaming a sinister red-black in the dim light. My brain, which was really being an asshole this night, chose this moment to point out how vastly outnumbered I was.
Don’t be ridiculous, I told it. They’re gnomes and I’m not the world’s only hit man of the supernatural for nothing. I’ll just pick ‘em up and drop-kick ‘em if they rush me.
In reply, my brain brought up the sensation of Petey’s callused hands scraping against my fingers as he slid free of my grip. Thick as leather, that skin.
Sure were a lot of gnomes.
I returned my gaze to knee-height. The gnome brigade gave a general nod and started lumbering forward, with purpose. It should have looked about as formidable as the charge of an army of shaved hamsters.
But it didn’t.
“Go on, now,” I said, backing along the front path and trying to look fierce at the same time.
They kept coming, Petey leading the assault. A large number carried shovels or picks. “This is your last warning,” I said, waving the poker.
Their footsteps pounded along the path like the steady fall of heavy rain. Determination hardened their eyes, set their jaws. I raised the poker. A twinge of conscience stabbed me — they were such dumpy, helpless-looking things — but I pushed it aside. Using all my strength, I brought the poker down squarely on top of Petey’s pointy hat.
Croimpt. Metal crumpled. The poker’s tip parted company with the shaft and landed in the grass with a defeated thud.
The gnomes didn’t so much as break stride.
“Consider that your final warning,” I said, tossing the shaft aside. Bolting into the house, I slammed the door behind me.
Murt was waiting in the hall, mug in hand. “What’s going on out there?” he asked.
“They didn’t take the eviction notice well,” I panted, dashing into the den. Kneeling, I snapped open the case containing my Glock 17. I also inadvertently revealed the wet patch on my ass.
“Did you piss yourself?” asked Murt, far too amused.
“It’s dew,” I said, and he sniggered. “Condensation. Not doo. Christ, grow up. This is serious.” I slapped a clip into the Glock.
“You’re going to use a gun? Against gnomes?”
Murt’s disapproval sent a wave of guilt through me. Shooting gnomes; yeah that was pretty low. “Just to scare them off,” I said.
A scraping sound shivered through the front door. Then another. And I’d forgotten to lock it. But surely they were too short to reach the knob—
Not if they stand on each other’s shoulders, I thought. Shit, thus far the little bastards were doing a better job of scaring me.
The door rattled again, shaking in its frame. Murt jumped. The grin slid off his face. “They’re trying to break in? What exactly did you say to them?”
“I hit their leader with a poker.”
“I didn’t exactly have time to read up on gnome extermination techniques,” I said, nettled.
“You could’ve taken the time to look it up instead of flying out there like Rambo, genius.”
He’s right, you know, said my fucking jerk-ass brain. Goddamn, I hate being out-thought by a creature whose main purpose in existence is making scary noises inside kids’ closets.
More scratches at the door. The knob squeaked, twisting from side to side.
They’ll be through in half a minute, I judged. Taking a breath, I settled into a modified isosceles stance in the center of the hall. Hopefully they’d back off when they saw me ready to fire. Then we could solve this yard issue peacefully.
Something bounced off the door. It buckled slightly.
Then again, if it was a choice between getting arrested or being mauled by gnomes…
Would bullets even work on gnomes if it came to that? How many creatures could take a poker-smash between the eyes so complacently? Hell, even werewolves blinked — trust me; I know.
The doorknob twisted forty-five degrees to the right. Rhythmic thumps pounded the door. It nudged inward a quarter inch. Half an inch.
“Never should’ve invited them in in the first place, Ricotta.” Murt gulped the last of his coffee, set the mug aside, and cracked his knuckles.
An inch. I hesitated. I hadn’t invited Petey here in the first place. So why—
Thump. Humidity stuck the door to the frame momentarily. Then, with a whine of hinges, it flung opened so hard it crashed against the wall. An avalanche of gnomes cascaded inside, red hats cocked aggressively. Petey rode the wave like a pro surfer, sliding neatly to a stop at my feet. Glaring up at me, he raised a pick he must’ve gotten from one of his underlings.
“Now. About the invitation—” he began.
“Why’d you come to my yard in the first place?” I asked.
The question set him back. He didn’t lower the pick, but his aggressive stance subtly shifted to something more defensive. “I was searching for a new home for the clan.”
“What happened to the old one?”
A pause. Murt looked from me to the gnomes, shrugged, and shuffled off to the kitchen, presumably for a fresh cup of coffee.
Now Petey lowered the pick. “The old couple who took care of our yard had to go to something called—” His forehead wrinkled. Flasher gnome stepped forward and whispered in his ear. “—a retirement home. The new owners—”
A collective shudder passed through the gnomes. Petey finished in a whisper. “—the new owners dug up the live flowers and put plastic ones in their place.”
I shuddered too. I’d heard rumors of people who did crazy stuff like that, but could hardly believe they actually existed. “Plastic flowers? No shit?”
Flasher-gnome nodded solemnly. “No, when flowers are made of plastic they do not require manure to grow, apparently.”
I felt their pain. If Mrs. Hunter next door planted fake begonias around her mailbox, I’d be obliged to take a blowtorch both to them and possibly to the store she got them from to prevent her buying more. “That’s terrible, guys.”
“So you see, we had to move,” said Petey. “Yours was easily the best-kept garden for miles.”
Oh, shit, now they were trying flattery. Trouble was, it was working. “Well, honestly, I put more effort into my vegetable garden than the flowers,” I heard myself saying. I bit my tongue before I launched into a monologue on heirloom tomatoes. I know myself.
“Vegetables are important too,” said a third gnome, one clutching a fishing rod. General agreement all around.
“Looks like you guys are getting on just fine,” said Murt, back from the kitchen and lounging against the wall, a fresh cup of coffee in hand.
I tried to muster up a glare as my overtired brain threatened to shut down again. “Yeah, I’m very sorry about what happened to their last place, but they’re still going to have to go elsewhere.”
“You invited us,” said Petey, and all the gnomes growled. For an instant it seemed we were back to square one, but Murt held up a hand.
“Calm down, everyone. Ricotta, why can’t they stay? They’re not exactly in the way, are they?”
“Not in the way so much as everywhere,” I said. “Out in the public eye, I mean. In those stupid hats—”
“They’re traditional!” barked Petey.
“They look like unsuccessful condoms!” I shouted back. Murt smacked the wall for order.
“So, aside from the way they look, you have no objections?” he asked, turning to me.
I scratched the back of my neck. “Well… so long as they don’t muck with my tomatoes.”
Petey drew himself up. “Muck with them? It is every gnome’s duty to make certain neither weed nor weevil disturbs the harmony of the garden.” All around him gnomes nodded, proudly thumping their shovels against the floor.
Free gardening services? I chewed a knuckle. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, having the little bastards around.
Then I took another good look at them. Jolly red caps. Lumpy coats in bright colors. Pointy-toed shoes. Fuckin’… cuteness. I winced. No. I just couldn’t allow it. I rubbed my thumb against the Glock’s grip.
“Chris…” said Murt, reading my face. Petey watched too, closely. The gang of gnomes waited, silence and tense.
Gang. A thought struck me. Maybe there was a way out of this after all. Slowly, my lips stretched in a grin. I stuck the Glock into the waistband of my shorts.
“Okay,” I said. “You guys can stay on one condition.”
Petey raised his brows. “And what might that be?”
Finding what I wanted online took some time. I didn’t get to bed until 4 a.m. But the express delivery package arrived late in the afternoon. Petey watched me open it.
“Black?” he asked as I took the first of the tiny jackets out of the box from Lady Lu’s Funky Doll Costumes.
“Try it on for size,” I said, tossing over the miniature fedora and dark sunglasses as well.
He was dubious at first, but I could see his mind changing when I set down a mirror. Just to cinch the deal, I invited the whole gnome troop in to watch The Untouchables and Public Enemies that evening. After that, they were practically clamoring for their pinstriped pants and sleek white ties. A few even asked for violin cases and tommy guns — toy ones, of course — and I was happy to oblige. The next day dawned on a gang of tiny, bearded John Dillingers striking cool poses about my yard.
They still put on their traditional garb to work in the garden, but since that always takes place at night, I don’t complain. My garden’s never looked better. People still stop to gawk at my lawn, but at least now there’s a trace of admiration to their gaping. Hey, if I gotta be the guy with the gnomes, at least they’re the coolest gnomes around.