“I didn’t get fired for having my niece’s stickers on my laptop,” Meena said. She muttered an afterthought. “But if I did, I should be plotting to take the whole company down.”
She was in no position to take anything down. Meena was standing in her sister’s kitchen that Saturday morning, helping to cook some oatmeal for her brother-in-law. She’d had been staying at their house for almost a week now, and still wasn’t ready to explain what had happened. In a single twenty-four-hour period, she had gotten fired and lost her new apartment, which she had just moved into a month prior, after accounting for the raise she had expected to get.
“Thanks for letting me stay here a while,” she said, feeling a surge of dread when her sister took a breath to speak.
“You don’t have to thank me every day.”
“I recognize what a big disruption my being here is.” It was the reason that Meena had agreed to a favor she’d never been close enough to do before.
“What are big sisters for?”
Meena offered a wry smile. “Achieving everything, and making little sisters look disappointing in the eyes of their parents?”
Her sister winced, and the wince had both a denial and an apology in it. For once in her life, she seemed to be understanding what a shadow she had cast over Meena’s life, even as she cast the warmth of her love and her solidarity with her only sister.
Speaking of older siblings, Meena’s tween-age nephew entered the kitchen in a teetering shuffle.
She watched as her sister reviewed the weekend protocol for her sleepy son, specific instructions about phone numbers and medications and homework, followed by general guidance to take care of his sister and mind his masi.
Devin was apparently awake enough to receive that instruction, as he turned to Meena and nodded, as if to acknowledge that he would respect her authority while his parents were on their romantic getaway.
A commotion on the stairs directed Meena’s attention to her niece, who was six-going-on-seven, and far too excited for that early in the morning.
With some kind of eerie kid grace, she zoomed into the kitchen and leapt onto a chair as she slapped a book down onto an empty spot on the dining table.
Rakhi turned to her mom and aunt. “I brought it to life!” she said. “I said the word, and it worked, and he just hopped out. Look!” She jabbed her finger at the cover of her book. There was a large sticker on the cover, half the size of her hand.
Meena walked over and frowned down at the sticker. It was a weirdly shaped white cloud with curved and jagged edges. “I don’t get it.”
Rakhi jabbed the cover again. “There was a dinosaur here. A green one. Uh…Dev knows the name. But Masi, I said the word, and he climbed out and…” She shook her head. “I don’t know where he is now.”
Meena raised her brow. “Uh oh, I’ll help you find him after breakfast.”
Rakhi looked up at her, brown eyes shining and wide. “You believe me?”
Meena smiled. “For now.”
It only took an hour after their parents left for tensions to break out between the siblings.
Meena had just started thinking she might be able to make it through the movie she was watching.
She heard cries from above and started to get up. Then, she heard a thud that made her heart go cold. She clambered up the stairs, and checked Devin’s room first, then kids’ play room. The door was open.
She heard crashes.
“Make them stop!” Devin said.
At that same moment, Meena stepped into the room, saw what the commotion was about, froze in her tracks, and gaped.
She blinked. But the scene did not change. She squeezed her eyes, then rubbed them.
The scene did not change.
Her niece was standing across from her, arms crossed, expression even more crossed, glaring down at her brother, who was lying on the ground, squirming and struggling.
Swarming all over Devin were tiny…creatures. They weren’t all one thing. He wasn’t covered in ants or spiders or bees.
Well, there was something that appeared to be a bee crawling along his shoulder. Then there was a neon pink ball of slime stretched around his legs. Multi-colored stars were bouncing up and down on his forehead. And various marble-sized happy faces rolled along his arm.
Meena heard a distant hollow roar, and saw something climb onto her nephew’s head, a tiny tyrannosaur. It roared again and made the rainbow of stars scatter.
She pointed to the dinosaur that was half the size of her niece’s hand. “Is that your lost sticker?”
Devin was just now made aware that there was an adult in the room. “Masi, make her stop!”
Meena glanced up at her niece, as she knelt beside Devin and reached for the tyrannosaur. “What’s going on?”
“He said I was lying,” Rakhi said, her anger already fading into a sulk. “He said to prove it.”
“Okay, I believe you now, of course,” Devin said. “Make them let me go.”
The tyrannosaur snapped at Meena’s hand. She recoiled. She reached for the pink slime and pulled at it to free Devin’s legs.
“Watch,” Rakhi said. “I’ll prove it to you too.”
She picked up one of the many sticker books lying around the room and turned to a random page. It was a book full of dinosaur stickers and prehistoric reptile stickers. This page was full of pterosaurs.
Meena opened her mouth, took a breath, and snapped her lips shut. She should have stopped Rakhi. She knew she should. But she was still half-wondering if she’d fallen asleep on the couch, and all of this was a dream she was having as she hovered near wakefulness, her ears maybe hearing the siblings arguing upstairs.
Rakhi inhaled deeply raising her head but keeping her gaze on the page. She opened her mouth and uttered a sound. Maybe it was a word, but to Meena it sounded like gibberish. And more, there was something uncanny about the way Rakhi’s lips and cheeks were moving when she made the sounds.
Suddenly, the three pterosaur stickers leapt out of the page, in three dimensions, but the same size, the size of monarch butterflies. They swooped around the room before perching on one of the high shelves.
“I need to sit down,” Meena said.
She felt a finger poking her upper arm and turned to Devin, who pointed to the ground.
“You’re already sitting down,” he said.
Meena then realized that he was right. After freeing him from the…living stickers that were swarming him, she had plopped down on the ground.
She spotted the tyrannosaur swiping his tail against the side of the glass that he was trapped under. She hadn’t even remembered doing that. Or maybe Devin had done it.
Meena shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut again. If she was asleep, this would be a fun dream to tell the kids about later.
But if she was awake, and if her niece was really bringing stickers to life, she had to stand up, take charge, and figure out what to do.
Step one, she thought. And she got her feet.
Glass crashed in the kitchen downstairs. Following by another, and another, and a whole cascade.
Meena told the kids to stay upstairs, but didn’t stop them when they followed. She just made them stay behind her. Her heart was beating. She was praying it was a runaway sticker, because if there was a human intruder in the house, she had no plan for defending the kids or herself. When they got to the foot of the stairs, she made the kids stay there and made sure they didn’t follow her.
As she crept toward the entryway to the kitchen, she saw the floor first, covered in broken glass. She inhaled and stepped as quietly as she could, ducking low, and leaning further toward the entryway.
Another crash. Meena flinched.
Her hands were shaking.
She stepped closer to the kitchen. She heard a murmuring, and a cry that sounded like a cross between a cat’s yowl and a pigeon’s cooing.
She saw the island in the kitchen. Something was moving there. Three somethings. Three things that looked like furry eggplants with stubby arms and legs. One of them was holding a mug between its hands. It scampered to the edge of the island and dropped the mug.
Meena felt herself calm. She felt the flood of relief washing through her, steadying her limbs.
The eggplant things looked familiar. She peered at them for a few seconds and remembered.
“Goblins,” she said aloud. Loud enough for them to hear. They turned to her.
For a moment, Meena thought they would hop off the island and charge her. But they took one look at her and scampered away.
“Hey!” she cried, and without thinking, she dashed into the kitchen, right onto the broken glass.
She winced, not from pain. She was wearing thick-soled shoes, but because she didn’t want to track glass bits into the rest of the house.
She glanced around the kitchen, but didn’t see the goblins.
She didn’t know where her sister kept the broom. But maybe Devin would know.
She carefully stepped toward the entryway again, taking her shoes off at the threshold between tile and carpet.
The kids were still waiting at the foot of the stairs. She explained what she’d seen.
“Why did you bring those goblins to life?” she asked Rakhi. “At least the t-rex isn’t trying to make mischief on purpose.” Those particular goblins were characters in one of Rakhi’s favorite books. Their whole purpose was to make messes and make mischief just to annoy people.
Rakhi looked confused at the question. “But I didn’t. I swear!”
“It’s spreading,” Devin said. “Like an infection.”
Meena would have laughed at the bleak expression on her nephew’s face in response to what was—all things considered—a ridiculous and manageable problem. But it was still an active problem. She’d save the laughs for when she had solved it.
She remembered breakfast then, when Rakhi first came down the stairs with news of her newfound ability to bring stickers to life. But she had pointed to a sticker. The sticker was still there. The white backing that was normally only visible as an outline around the character or object or scene. It was the characters inside that had come to life.
“Okay,” she said, speaking slowly so that Rakhi would not think she was in trouble (or that her masi didn’t have a handle on the situation). “You brought them to life, out of the sticker or the book or whatever. How did you learn to do that? How did you learn that word?”
“It was in the book Devin ordered for me.”
Devin shook his head. “I ordered books for us, but not that one. It came by mistake or something.”
Meena glanced between them. “Can you show me?”
It stood to reason that if her niece really had learned the incredible trick of bringing her stickers to life from a book, then that book would also contain a word to restore the stickers, flatten them again. After they figured that out, they would corral and flatten all the stickers, clean up the glass in the kitchen, patrol the house for any straggler stickers, and then figure out the larger existential questions after.
On their way up the stairs, they passed by several tiny frogs who were jumping up and then down each stair, emitting high-pitched croaks of triumph. In the hallway, Meena ducked under a cloud of blue and green sparkles that were being conjured by two little fairies, who were either battling or just frolicking. Meena couldn’t tell.
They returned to the play room (or as Devin now insisted they call it, the recreation room), where Meena first saw the living stickers. Rakhi pulled out the book where she’d learned the “magic word.” She was an advanced reader. But this book was mostly a picture book. There were characters drawn in it, but as Meena flipped through, she didn’t recognize the language. She couldn’t even tell if it was a language, or just symbols arrayed on the page. They weren’t aligned, either horizontally or vertically, or along any kind of axis or pattern that she could make out.
Rakhi reached out and stopped Meena as she passed a specific page. She flipped back one page.
“See?” she said, with her signature jab on the left-hand page.
“What am I looking at?”
“Nothing,” Devin said. He too was leaning over the page. “It’s just a bunch of cool-looking symbols.”
“No, look!” Rakhi grabbed the book and turned it around. She peered down and started talking, reading the book, Meena presumed. “Here is the word to use on flat pick—on flat pictures—to fill them with air, water, fire, and earth. To give them life and movement.”
Rakhi looked up at them. “I’m not going to say the word, just in case.”
Meena looked at her nephew. “You can’t see the words she’s reading?”
He shook his head.
“Okay, that’s another question for later,” Meena said, turning to Rakhi. “For now, I need you go through the whole book, start to finish, and find the word that will do the opposite.”
She told Rakhi to go back to the beginning of the book and read it aloud. The book only looked to be about twenty pages long, with most of the page filled with pictures. But Rakhi started reading some kind of fairy tale about a kingdom full of people who lived flat lives until a mage cast a spell that made them all full of life. Half an hour went by and Rakhi was still on the first few pages.
“I’m hungry,” Devin said.
In the time they’d been sitting there, they’d seen three or four sticker books drop to the floor on their own, bursting with characters. A team of tiny superheroes. A miniature forest now clinging to one side of a bookshelf. A horde of mewling kittens, each the size of Meena’s pinky finger.
It seemed Devin was right in a sense. The stickers were now coming alive without Rakhi having to say her magic word again.
Rakhi didn’t seem to be getting tired reading. And Meena wanted to get through the book and figure out a solution. But she couldn’t make her nephew starve.
“Don’t go in the kitchen,” Meena said. “It’s full of glass. But there’s a granola bar in my bag, in the guest room.”
“Can I order a pizza?” he asked.
Meena sighed. “Sure, but let me do it. You two just tell me what toppings you want.”
In another half hour, Rakhi finished the book. But she found no other magic word, much less the one they needed to get the stickers back to their normal flattened form. Thinking maybe they missed a page, Meena had Rakhi flip through them again. She hadn’t missed any, but Rakhi frowned down at the last page and said something was “funny” about it. But she didn’t know what. Meena examined the page. She flipped through the book herself, and she noticed something.
There was a page missing.
The last page.
Luckily, the kids had just received the books within that week. They’d kept the box in case they wanted to return anything. So they went to go search the box, and look at the other books in the same shipment, and search the rest of the play—the recreation room.
When they heard a doorbell, Devin released a growling sigh and rushed out of the room.
“Wait for us!” Meena called.
She told Rakhi to bring the book, and they both followed down the stairs. She was hungry too now. They might think better and search better on full stomachs.
The man at the door, who stepped past the threshold of the door, was not holding a pizza.
Meena didn’t recognize him, but Devin didn’t seem alarmed as he leaned against the open door, gazing out, probably hoping the actual pizza delivery guy wasn’t far behind.
“Mister Reeve,” Devin said to the man. “This is Meena Masi—my aunt. Masi, this is Mister Reeve. He lives on the next street over.”
The man, Reeve, smiled and bowed his head to Meena. His gaze dropped down to Rakhi, and his smile grew wider. “Hello, ladies.” He was dressed in a dark suit and shiny shoes, as if he’d come from an office job at a law firm. “Sorry to just barge in, but I think—” He stopped for a breath and narrowed his eyes at Rakhi. “—yes, you got one of my packages.”
Meena frowned. She stepped in front of her niece, as she turned her head to her right and looked down at the girl. She spotted what must have caught Reeve’s attention. Perched on Rakhi’s shoulder, so light that she didn’t seem to notice, was a tiny pterosaur, no bigger than a butterfly. It stretched it wings.
The man reached back, grasping the edge of the front door and swinging it closed.
“Hey!” Devin cried.
Reeve swept off his blazer and tossed it onto the coat rack. He grasped one of his cuffs and removed the link. “No need for pretense then. We’ll get right to it.” His eyes were still on Rakhi.
Meena stepped toward him. “Mister Reeve, the kids and I were about to clean up a huge mess we made in the kitchen, and our lunch is just about to be delivered. I wonder if you wouldn’t mind stepping outside. I’ll get the kids started, and I’ll be right out to help you.” She noted that Devin was backing away from the man.
“Much appreciated, ma’am,” Reeve said. “But it’s not your help I need.” He started pulling back the sleeve of his shirt, revealing a large tattoo that wrapped around his forearm.
Glass crashed behind her. Meena flinched.
Reeve grinned. “Just how many times have you said the word?” he asked. He was still staring at Rakhi, or trying to. She was now standing directly behind Meena. He took a step toward Meena. “Could I possibly trouble you to say it one more time?”
He turned his arm, palm up, so that Meena could see the tattoo, or rather the face of the tattoo. The whole of it seemed to extend up past his elbow. But the face was on the inside of his forearm. He took another step forward, and Meena stepped back.
The rest of the tattoo was in black, but the face on his forearm was red, with bulging white eyes and sharp white teeth, and a tapered chin, and long ears.
It was the face of a demon.
“There’s a curse,” Reeve said. “On all of us, the entire human race. It blocks us from doing all the wondrous things we would be capable of doing, even if we learn for all our lives.” He tilted his head, as if he would peae around Meena and see Rakhi.
“The wise knows the spells,” he said, “but only the innocent can cast them.”
“If you’d just step outside,” Meena said. Her heart was racing. She couldn’t see where Devin was. He’d hidden somewhere, she hoped. Maybe he’d even called for help. But she had to keep her eyes on Reeve.
“I will,” the man said. He even stopped advancing, and held out both his hands. “I will, once Rakhi says the word. That’s all I need.”
Meena nodded. “Okay, but it’s already chaos in here.” She briefly dropped her gaze to the demon face. “I’d prefer that the house not be damaged when she does her thing.”
If she’d been in a movie, there would have been something nearby. A convenient fire poker. A baseball bat. A thumb tack.
But all she could throw at him was her own body. She had to make sure he didn’t just toss her aside before Rakhi had a chance to run to safety.
She heard another crash from the kitchen.
And then something struck the man. It hit his shoulder and fell to the ground.
Another book came sailing out of the air. It would have hit Reeve in the head, but he ducked.
Yowling laughter came from behind Meena. She recognized the sound of the goblins.
More books rained down on Reeve. Meena looked up and saw Devin. He had stacks of books at his feet.
“Go!” Meena cried to Rakhi, and Rakhi ran up the stairs.
Reeve surged forward to follow. Meena blocked him, ducking low and ramming into his middle, wrapping her arms around him. She didn’t know how to fight. But if she was going to be dead weight, she would be the dead weight he’d have to carry as he dragged himself up the stairs.
The man growled in frustration. Meena swung herself around, so he couldn’t drive his knee up into her stomach. And he couldn’t do that. But he did grab her hands and yank them apart. He pushed her away and she fell on her back. She took a gasping breath and coughed. She had to get back up.
“Now Rakhi!” Devin cried.
Meena looked up to where the kids were standing, gazing down at her. Reeve was halfway up the stairs.
Rakhi gave him what he wanted.
She said the magic word.
No, she yelled the word at the top of her lungs.
All around Meena, books burst to life. Devin had been tossing down all of his sister’s sticker books.
Now Rakhi was roaring. She raised her fists in the air. She wasn’t screaming in fear. She was roaring.
Meena felt rage all around her too, in the things that were coming to life. One book burst open with slithering serpents that surged toward the stairs. Another with eels that rose into the air and crackled with lightning. Still another with a miniature murder of crows cawing and flapping straight up the stairs. And another bursting with fuzzy multi-colored spiders bearing cartoon smiles, who all skittered over the snakes, racing each other to the stairs.
From the kitchen, rolling through broken glass, there came a dozen furry eggplants. They started hopping up the steps. From the books that were still at the kids’ feet, there surged a vine studded with thorns, and a swarm of glowing orange insects, or maybe they were dragons. Meena couldn’t quite see.
They all converged on Reeve.
The serpents joined together, end to end, coiling around him. Patches of bright blue slime dripped down the stairs, and stuck to him. The lightning eels wrapping around his hands and erupted with electricity. The dragons swarmed around his head. Meena caught tiny bursts of flame singeing his face and hair. He couldn’t advance. But somehow, he kept his balance.
Meena got to her feet, a hopeful smile hovering on her lips.
But then she saw a terrible thing.
Rising from Reeve’s forearm was the bright red face of a demon. Its long tapered tongue flicked out, knocking the dragons back. The tongue snapped again, flinging the eels away. Reeve took a step up.
Meena balled her fists. She stepped forward. Something flicked in front of her face.
A tiny human-like figure with fluttering dragonfly wings. A fairy.
The fairy pointed to the ground. Meena looked down. A few feet away from her was the book. Rakhi must have dropped it when she ran up the stairs.
The fairy hung her head and then shook her head. She hovered over the book.
Meena didn’t know what the fairy wanted her to do. She only knew that all of Rakhi’s stickers were trying to help.
The fairy raised her tiny hand and made a throwing gesture at the book. A cloud of sparkling blue dust burst from her hand and struck the book’s cover.
And to Meena’s shock, the fairy vanished, and a scrap of paper fluttered to the ground. The paper was a sticker depicting the very fairy who’d just been hovering in the air, in three living dimensions.
Meena grabbed the book. She flipped through it counting the pages. There was an extra.
The missing page. Someone, maybe the fairy herself, must have removed it. And the fairy had just restored it.
Meena gazed up at the stairs. A dozen goblins were clinging to Reeve, biting him and scratching him. But tearing through the man’s shirt, along his left shoulder, was the tip of a giant, membranous wing, dark red and glowing. The demon’s wing. Even from where she stood, Meena could feel heat pulsing off the wing.
The spiders clinging to the man’s back disintegrated into ash that burned into nothing.
Meena clambered up the stairs. She tried to avoid the slime that made the stairs slippery, the slime that was trying to trip Reeve, send him tumbling down the stairs, but she didn’t have to. The slime retreated from her, cleared away wherever she needed to step.
The air was smoky around Reeve. She coughed, and he heard and turned around. She tried to dodge him, get past him, but he grabbed her. The goblins scrambled to that arm, biting and scratching until he let go. Meena squeezed past him.
“Rakhi!” she called. “The last page!”
She tossed the book to the kids just as Reeve grabbed her again. Devin caught it and gave it to Rakhi, who turned to the last page.
“No!” Reeve cried. And his demon’s tongue flicked out and touched the book.
The book burst into flame. Rakhi screamed and dropped it.
When she looked at Reeve now, her eyes were wide and her lips were quivering.
Meena threw back her body. Reeve was holding her close. Too close.
He fell with her.
They tumbled down the stairs.
Meena was at the bottom before she knew it. She hoped she hadn’t cracked her neck. Or broken her back. She was afraid to move. But if Reeve was still moving, she had to move too.
She tested her neck first. Her neck moved easily. That was a good sign. She noticed she was lying on something soft.
Meena’s eyes went wide and she quickly rolled to her side.
She wasn’t hurt. She didn’t even feel any bruises on her arms or legs. But underneath her were a dozen flattened goblins, not flattened like stickers, but flattened from her weight.
She was afraid she’d killed them. But they started popping back up one by one.
She turned and saw Reeve getting up. He’d been caught too, by the demon that was emerging from his body.
He ignored Meena and glared up at the second floor, where Rakhi and Devin still stood.
Meena had hoped they’d run. She thought they must have been frozen with fear.
Rakhi did still look scared, but she wasn’t looking at Reeve. She was looking at Meena.
Meena raised one of her hands in a thumbs up.
Rakhi looked away from her, back to Reeve. She inhaled, opened her mouth, and yelled out a magic word.
In that same moment, the demon’s tongue started reaching up. But it froze when Rakhi spoke the word.
The word sounded the same to Meena’s ears. But it must have been different.
Because when Meena blinked her eyes, Reeve vanished.
Two dozen goblins vanished. The swarm of dragons vanished. The serpents and the eels and the slime and the fairies.
They all vanished.
All around the house, scraps of paper fluttered to the ground.
Meena didn’t have to search the scraps to find the sticker of Reeve. It was the biggest sticker on the ground, even though it wasn’t life-size. A man with a demon tearing out of half his body.
The kids scrambled down the stairs.
“Are you hurt?” Meena asked them. And they asked her at the same time.
Meena felt a bruise forming just under her chest, but she didn’t have any other injuries. The kids were alright too.
“No paper cuts?” Devin asked with a nervous grin.
Meena returned his grin and chuckled. She wrapped an arm around him and dropped a kiss on his head.
And she knelt to her knees and hugged Rakhi.
“I guess this means I’m never messing with you again,” Devin joked. “Demon slayer.”
But tears formed in Rakhi’s eyes at that moment. She wrapped her arms around her brother’s waist and cried, “You saved me!” She started crying, and Devin appeared more terrified than he had at any time that day.
“Hey!” he said suddenly. “Whatever happened to our pizza?”
Meena didn’t want to touch the sticker of Reeve, but she didn’t want to keep it in the house either. She plucked it off the ground.
“Who do I call to pick up and contain a demon-man?” she wondered aloud.
“I know who to call, Masi,” Rakhi said. She wiped her tears and held up a book.
That book again.
But Meena had seen it burst into flames.
The book was covered in stickers of slime blobs, which meant the book must have previously been covered in slime. The slime had put out the fire.
Rakhi opened it to the last page, singed at the edges, but otherwise intact. She pointed to the bottom of that page.
Meena exhaled a sigh. She offered a tired but relieved smile to her niece. “You’re going to have to read that to me.”
The doorbell rang. Meena commanded the kids to stay where they were while she checked. No one objected. It was the pizza this time. And a few other treats she’d forgotten she ordered.
Meena made one more phone call, surprised at how little explanation she had to give to the woman who answered.
She didn’t think she’d be able to eat until Reeve and his demon were out of the house, even if they seemed to be harmless stickers now. But it was going to take a while for someone to come and get him.
And when they settled in the living room, the floor covered in Rakhi’s stickers, the stickers who’d defended the house, and the people in it, Meena felt her strength returning. And her appetite. She raised her soda bottle in a toast. And they all drank to the stickers, Rakhi’s eyes growing wet again.
The existential questions remained. But they would have to wait, until after pizza, and the cleaning up the house, and making sure her niece and nephew slept soundly that night, dreaming not of demons, but of dragons, and fairies, and goblins…and slime.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel