“Something's been getting into the garbage at night,” Maggie says, right over the first bites of Wednesday’s dinner. “Something strong.”

       The girls are all whispery and wide-eyed at the news. “What is it?” they want to know. Their faces get big, full of everything they believe the beast could be. They check each other warily—little Olivia first, hopeful, and then Emily from just the corners of her eyes, a look of perfectly uncertain scorn, perfectly nine. Whatever the garbage beast is, it's getting the garbage tote open, dragging out entire bags, spreading trash across the drive. Maggie has already tried weighing down the lid with bricks. 

       After dinner, Maggie takes us out to show us. Little star shreds of last night's torn-open bag dot the back drive between the house and garage, just a handful, like big paralyzed snow. A soggy drift of coffee grounds curves like a sickle. Four bricks lie there on the drive too, one of them broken open, its pale powdery guts exposed.

       I do a detective kneel, grimacing. “You had all four of those up there?” I ask. “It knocked all four off?”

       Maggie nods. “All four,” she says solemnly.

       I whistle big. Olivia kneels beside me, hefts a brick with both little hands, grunting and bearing her teeth. “Omigosh Steve,” she says. “I can’t almost lift this.”

       Emily comes to my side. She hooks one foot around the back of the other knee and leans against me lightly, a hipless summer-brown flamingo. She corrects Olivia’s grammar. Olivia goes on wobbling beneath the brick, making googly eyes of effort at us both, her tongue poking. “And this is just one,” she whispers.

       “What do you think did it, Dad?” Emily says. She works the word you like there’s already a difference of opinion.

       “Well,” I say, “ordinarily I would guess a raccoon, but if Maggie put all four bricks up there, then I don’t know.”

       “I don’t know either,” says Maggie. “Not yet.”

       The girls are quiet as I drag two big rotting logs from the woodpile along the garage, dark and damp and heavy. I heave them up onto top of the tote lid, and the bricks go on top of those.

       “That’s should do it, right, Steve?” Olivia says.

       “We’ll see,” says Maggie.

After we go in, the kids devise traps for whatever got into the trash. I’m not sure who starts it. They get scratch paper from my desk—one-sided printouts of old story drafts—and they lay out their schematics in marker. Emily sits on the floor at the coffee table, her legs curled Indian-style underneath. Her traps are complicated, cause and effect, involving counterweights, nets, and ropes. With a practicality she didn’t get from me, she only incorporates objects we actually possess: laundry baskets, blankets, and—in a stroke of inspiration that chills me—the plastic coffin of our cartop carrier.

       Olivia lies belly-down on the carpet, working atop a Land’s End catalog. Her traps lack moving parts of any kind, obsessively devoted to containment. She brings one of her traps over to Maggie and me, squirreling between her mother’s legs. It’s just a picture of the garbage tote alone atop a long solemn line that is the surface of the earth, but Maggie says: “Oh, Livvy, a glass cage; that’s very clever. Is that to keep it out or in?”

       Olivia squirms with pleasure. “Both.”

       At bedtime, we look at Emily’s designs. I sit on the bed and Maggie stands at my shoulder, polite and stepmotherly. I tap the black slab of the cartop carrier Emily’s drawn, which in real life is a surprisingly flimsy thing, a wobbly shell made of plastic no thicker than cardstock. “Are you sure this will hold him?” I ask.

       Maggie tsks at me. “Who says it’s a him?”

       Emily’s expression doesn’t change, but her eyes wander off into a dark corner of the room.

The next morning we all four stand in the driveway, beside the overturned tote and new garbage strewn across the concrete. Amidst the debris, there are seven empty cans of foodstuffs—tomato sauce, corn, peach slices, noodle soup—all sitting upright in a neat row.

       “We have a problem,” says Maggie.

       “Yes,” I say.

       The girls want to know what, they say what mommy?what dad?

       Maggie takes a long, slow breath. “It’s a slopgoblin.”

       Olivia slaps both her hands across her mouth. Emily irons her lips down into a cartoon of skepticism, a look I know well. “A what?”

       “A slopgoblin. It comes at night. It looks through your trash. It does stuff like this.” She points at the line of cans. I nod gravely through it all.

       “I never heard of a slopgoblin,” Emily says.

       Maggie holds up a finger. “That’s just what you don’t want to say. It wants you to believe in it. It will make you believe.”

       “Make me how?”

       “Well,” Maggie says, “I guess we’ll find that out. Unless we can find a way to stop it.” 

       Once the mess is all cleaned up, gathered in fresh new bags, I put two bungees across the lid of the tote. The girls want us to put the wood and the bricks back on too, so we do that too. No one says that should do it, not even Olivia.

That evening’s traps are designed not to capture but to kill. I get the sense that the girls have crossed this boundary unknowingly, that they are blind to the escalation. They are solemnly devoted to fixing the problem of the slopgoblin. Emily has three new designs, variations on a theme—she has somehow, in some thread of her life I've missed, tumbled across the idea of tripwires.  Or maybe she has invented them anew; that seems possible. In one of her traps, a tripwire runs to a meticulous triangulation of guns, including what looks like a blunderbuss. In another version, the tripwire suspends the ominous swing of a refrigerator-sized mallet; in another, a massive flaming ball hangs from the wire, directly above the tote.

       She cocks her head at the diagrams as I leaf through. I think I must make a noise at the one with the guns, because she says, “That one was just an idea.” About the giant hammer she confidently declares, “That would work.” When we get to the one with the giant fireball, she doesn’t comment, just tips her head back and forth. She says quietly, “Anyway, I’m not even sure I believe in the slopgoblin.”

       In Olivia’s only Thursday design, a deep square pit yawns in front of the garbage tote, right where the driveway would be. This is rendered in cross-section.  The pit is as deep as the page is high. A colonnade of man-sized spikes fills the floor of the pit, and a shapeless figure made of dark scribbles lies there impaled, sprawling and bleeding. High above, at the pit’s lip in the upper margin, the four of us stand: Maggie, Olivia, me, Emily. We are all holding hands. She’s rendered everything in forest green except for the blood. I am wearing dark green pants but no shirt. She’s drawn my nipples. I am half the size of the dead thing at the bottom of the pit.

       I point at the thing. “Is this the slopgoblin?”

       Olivia makes her most serious nod. “Mm-hmm.”

       “What kind of a thing is it?”

       Her eyes get round. She snaps the paper from my hand and puts it behind her back, bending into me at the waist, lecturing. “That’s what nobody knows, Steve,” she says.

On Friday morning, the girls discover three torn open bags and a line of trash that leads around the front of the house. They run to see where it leads, and we follow to find them bending cautiously over the sewer grate at the curb, where the trail of trash abruptly ends. They point and peer and call us close. A long conversation follows in which Maggie hints at the subterranean living conditions of the slopgoblin, its nocturnal habits. Emily doesn’t say anything at all, just listens close to Maggie’s every word, her face a fist of worry.

       After school, before Maggie gets home, Olivia designs seven new traps. They range from the lethal to the merely inconvenient: a bomb inside the garbage tote, a lion inside the garbage tote, a yellow cloud that could (Olivia explains) either be poison gas or a fog you get lost in, a dimensionally-challenged trap in which the slopgoblin is helplessly boxed in on either side by our two cars, another one in which a car is simply parked over the sewer grate, and a trap whose triggering mechanism hasn’t been thought through but that—when triggered—produces a furiously black and precise tornado. The slopgoblin appears in almost every picture, bipedal and huge, faceless. In a couple of pictures, he is holding a bag of garbage. In the picture with the cars, a garbage bag is inside him. He clutches his head. He also clutches his head in the picture with the cloud, thick in it and lost or dying. The only Friday design that doesn’t feature the slopgoblin is a picture of a loosely coiled, barrel-sized spring sitting on the curb beside the sewer grate. I ask Olivia where the slopgoblin is and she thrusts a pointed finger up off the top edge of the paper, out into an imagined sky from which—I am led to believe—sent things don’t return.

       Emily has two new drawings. Neither one shows the slopgoblin. The first features a giant bristling cactus into which a chamber has been excavated for the garbage tote. The second picture chills me—all it is a picture of the garage with the garbage tote sitting inside. This, I realize, is the sadly logical evolution of the cactus plan.

       “We could do that, you know,” Emily says.

       “Yes, we sure could.”

       “Why don’t we? Does Maggie not want garbage in her garage?”

       “Our garage,” I correct her.

       “Or is it because it would be like giving up?”

       Down on the floor, Olivia pounds her drawing with her left hand. “Never give up! Never give up!” she says.

The next morning the old window air conditioner I put on the tote the night before—the heaviest thing we thought the tote could hold—has been set aside. The trash from the tote has all been sorted: plastic containers and cans neatly queued, junk mail opened and stacked. While we’re standing there looking, Maggie says we need to try something different. She tells the girls it’s time to get in touch with the slopgoblin.

       “What do you mean?” Olivia asks, wide-eyed.

       “I mean we contact it. We ask it to stop.”

       Olivia covers her mouth.

       Maggie says, “We leave it a note, right here in the garbage.”

       Emily clears her throat. “But a note would be easy to miss,” she says.

       “That’s a good point.”

       “That is a good point,” I say.

        “We could leave it lots of notes,” says Emily. She chews her lip. “A whole garbage bag of notes.”

       “Two bags,” Olivia says, the words popping out of her, and the momentum of the conversation takes us right inside to make it happen just so. We get them each a small white trash bag, and a ream of scratch paper from my desk. They sit at the kitchen table writing notes to the slopgoblin and crumpling them into balls, filling the bags. Emily’s notes come slowly, each one different: NO TRESPASSING. PLEASE STAY AWAY. DO NOT EAT OR SORT OUR TRASH. At first Olivia writes simple things like STOP! and NO. The most ambitious one I witness says KEEP OUT MISTER/MRS. Sometimes she copies whatever Emily writes. But after a while she just starts marking each sheet with a big red X. She tears through them, filling her bag fast.

       Emily watches her a while, side-eyed, then pauses at last. “What does X stand for?”

       Olivia makes a fierce face, showing her square teeth. She hisses slow: “X!

       Emily bends back over her sheet. She writes: ROAR. She puts a period at the end. She crumples the sheet, drops it in her bag, and starts on another. After a bit she says, “Well, I think we should mix the bags.”


       “What if it doesn’t know what X means?”

       Olivia shrugs. “Well, what if it can’t read?”

       Emily finishes the sheet she’s working on. It says STOP IN THE NAME OF something. I can’t make out the last word; it doesn’t look like LOVE. She crumples it and makes a shrug of her own. “Okay, so we mix them.”

We plant the bags in the tote that afternoon. Maggie suggests a stakeout, to help put an end to things at last. The girls are more worried about the slopgoblin than I knew—we have to bribe them into it. We make s’mores in the firepit, bring out battery lanterns, play the memory game. The weird cocktail of the adventure has them giddy and spastic: the prospect of actually witnessing the beast, with dense squirts of fear and doubt. Olivia fades first, long after bedtime, rolling noisily into the back edge of the tent. Talk gets low and lazy. At last, an hour after Maggie and I are the only two left awake, I nudge Emily from a sullen and sweaty sleep.

       “What?” she says. “Dad?”

       “Look,” I say, pointing.

       Through the fog of the tent screen we can see out over the scribbled moongray grass to the driveway. Maggie stands there, bright in her long white nightgown, tilting like a petal, her arms the willowed necks of birds. She leans into the gaping throat of the garbage bin, reaching deep, and pulls out two rustling, pointy-toed bags. I hear the wet rounded crackle of Emily’s mouth coming open, listen to the wordless talk of her breath.  She rocks rhythmically, kicking herself in the ass with her own swinging heels, the way girls on their bellies still can. Out in the drive, Maggie squats with the bags, her knees going wide, her nightgown dangling. She tears open one of the bags, a soundless gesture, but we can both hear the patter of paper balls falling. Maggie scoops up a double armful and tosses them into the air. They fall all around her, atop her.

       “I don’t know why she’s doing that,” Emily says. I don’t say anything. Maggie tears open the other bag and upends them both, shaking them empty, letting the paper balls—hundreds, it must be—spill all around her feet. They cover her ankles.  She is laughing softly. Maggie kicks at the pile like she’s kicking into a puddle, her foot soaring, sending a barrage of the balls arcing into the yard. They bounce and settle high on the dark grass. “What is she doing?” Emily asks. Maggie turns and kicks, kicks again, spraying paper balls in all directions across the lawn. Once they’re scattered, she goes after them, hunting. She gets down on her elbows and knees and starts to unrumple the balls, one by one, smoothing them in the grass. It makes a sound I haven’t heard before, somewhere between sweeping and raining. She crawls from one to the next, leaving them lying open to the sky, papering the yard.

       Emily is motionless now, her eyes as white as paper, as cotton. “Should we wake up Livvy?” she asks.

       “We could,” I say, but Emily doesn’t mention it again. Maggie weaves across the lawn, coming slowly closer. She is whispering, I realize now, reading the notes barely aloud: Keep out, No trash for you, Please leave us alone, X, X... Her hair swings. She goes on laughing, glowing and kind. She looks beautiful.

       Emily leans toward the screen door of the tent, pressing her nose into it. She whispers, too: “Is she doing this for us? I don’t know what to do.” Behind us, back in the dark tent, Olivia rolls in her sleep and kicks my foot.

       “You don’t have to do anything,” I say.

       “Is this a surprise?” Emily asks me, but she can’t take her eyes off Maggie coming sweetly closer. I tell her it’s all a surprise. I tell her to keep watching. I tell her to trust me.

Ted Sanders is the author of the short story collection No Animals We Could Name, winner of the 2011 Bakeless Prize for Fiction and published by Graywolf Press. His stories and essays have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Confrontation, The Georgia Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Southern Review, Indiana Review, and The O. Henry Prize Stories. A recipient of a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship, he lives with his family in Urbana, Illinois, where he teaches at the University of Illinois.

Back to Freight Stories No. 8


Ted Sanders

Staking Out the Slopgoblin