The old man coughed and wheezed. His bones ached as he slowly climbed out of the flea-ridden, tattered bed. He hobbled into the living room, while holding his aching back. He moaned aloud, causing his dog, a shepherd-collie mix, to tweak his ears, but nothing more. “Ya lazy mutt.” The old man griped as he made his way to the beer and cigarette stained lazy boy. The wooden skeleton of the chair bulged through the trodden cotton, allowing the old man sturdy support as he eased down. He still couldn’t believe someone would throw out a good chair like this. Sure, it had its share of burns and a few stains, and if he wasn’t careful, he’d snag his pants or scratch himself on a few unruly wires or splinters snaking out, but other than that the chair was in great condition.
“Pansy wansys wantin’ somethin’ new every time they turn around,” he grumbled to no one in particular. “That’s why everyones’ in debt up to their frigholes,” he said, while glaring at the mutt. Besides food, utility bills, cigarettes, beer and soap, the old man hadn’t paid a cent for anything going on twenty years. That’s why he had a decent amount of cash hidden safely away underneath a particular floorboard in his bedroom. He had never entertained the idea of a bank account, for there was a price to pay when someone else counted your money. The old man lit a Boral cigarette and looked around admirably upon his second-hand furnished living room.
Everything that furnished his modest shack he’d found on the side of roads and at the city dump. And he prided himself at his ability to sniff out the best. He looked over at the newest couch. Loading that couch up in his truck had caused his back to sing soprano, but it was worth every note. It was the nicest piece he’d ever come across. No stains, no smells, no tears or cigarette burns: not even sagging cushions or upholstery. He couldn’t fathom why someone would just set it out at a Hannah home charity site. It was in the same condition as the couches down at Flannery’s Furniture, not that he’d ever bought one from that turd. But one day, he’d gone out for a stroll on the town’s square to look for dropped coins, and he stopped at the window and peered in at all the new couches. And he knew that sooner or later some of those couches would end up in his living room. And by the time they made their grand appearance in his home, the couches would be worth much more than what they were sitting in the swanky furniture store.
The old man stubbed out his cigarette and sat back in the groaning chair. He glanced at the couch again and chuckled, causing phlegm to lurch up his throat. He swallowed it down and chuckled harder. He has had his fair share of roadside couches, and half of his wealth he’d found inside them. Oh, the quarters, nickels and dimes lost by fools and more fools. He’d found dollar bills, five-dollar bills and one hundred dollars bills numerous times. He had even lucked up and found three diamond rings, a gold Rolex and a strand of genuine mother of pearls. Yes, over the years he’d found many riches inside the dark bowels of couches. He’d found pictures, and he kept those, too. He leaned up, reached under the coffee table and pulled out a 30 cal. ammo box he’d had since his stint in Vietnam, and positioned it between his legs. He gently unlatched the lock and looked inside. Smiling back at him was a snaggletooth grin from a child with a gapped up haircut, an elderly couple celebrating their 54th wedding anniversary, a wild punk-eyed teenager with blue hair and black nails, and there was even a lady with no legs, smoking a cigarette, perched on a bed. The old man wasn’t a thinker, wasn’t a philosopher, but he did, at times, question his motive for keeping the pictures of people he never knew, nor will. But when those complicated thoughts crossed his mind, he waved them away, just like a pesky fly.
He closed the steel box and pushed it back under the coffee table. The couch was beautiful, he thought and looked a little closer at the designs in the upholstery. With his head cocked in one direction, he saw Asian dragons blowing fire from their mouths, but when he looked from a different angle, all he saw were gold squiggly designs with a deep orange underlay. He didn’t know what fabric made up the upholstery. He’d never owned a couch so new, so expensive, but it felt like silk to the old man. And the couch had a smell, too. Not a bad one, rather musky and piney. Yes, he was lucky. The old man sat back, closed his eyes and laughed, because he knew, better than any moron, that he’d be a few coins richer in the morning…
The sun was up, but jaded by dark rain clouds. The old man sweated profusely after turning the couch, so the bottom faced outward. “Just like a woman positionin’ to give me her goods,” he said to the dog that snoozed on the floor and flicked an ear at the occasional flea. “Lazy mutt,” he said. “I don’t even know why I let your bag of bones stay around here.” The old man got onto his knees; they popped from the weight of his beer belly. He clicked his box cutter out as far as it would go. The old man had a set routine for this, having done this many times. He had learned that not all treasure was lost between and under the cushions. The good stuff fell deep down inside the dark bowels, because when people sat down, it widened the gap between the side and back walls of couches. He began to cut at one end and made a straight line to the other side of the under fabric. He dropped the box cutter on the floor and reached into the dark slit. He felt over thick metal coils and roughened pieces of wood, fingered the small nooks and crannies. As he neared the end, his heart sank. Nothing, nothing at all. “Sure as a dog’s got fleas, there’s gotta be somethin’ in here,” he said aloud. He frantically groped over every inch of the metal and wooden guts of the couch and finally struck pay dirt. It was round, a tad larger than a softball and smooth, but his fingers didn’t recognize its dynamics. He felt a hollow spot, and he prodded a finger into the round mystery, and slowly pulled it out into the clouded light of day.
It was a skull. A baby’s skull. He was sure of it. While in Vietnam, he’d seen many skulls, skulls from adults and babies, alike. It was toothless, with large round eye sockets. On top of the skull was a V-shape jagged slit where the baby’s skull had not fused together, yet. It didn’t have time. It looked alien to the old man. He dropped the skull on the hardwood floor, and it clanked, like porcelain smacking wood. He shook, while the hairs on his back and neck stood up. Its hollowed eyes gaped up at him. Fear surfed in his stomach. What should I do? The old man’s thoughts ran like a hamster on a wheel. If he called the police, they’d not only take the skull, but also the couch. They were a package deal. But he wanted the couch more than any other piece he’d found. It was a gem. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “No, uh huh, there’s no way on god’s green earth I’m giving this couch to a bunch of badge-totin’ Barney Fifes’,” the old man confirmed aloud. He picked up the baby’s skull and pushed up from the couch. He retrieved his box and locked the skull inside with the pictures. Not a picture box anymore, now it’s a steel coffin. The old man shivered at the unwanted thought. He maneuvered the couch right side up again and went to his chair, reclined back and thought about the skull. He wondered who the babe was and why someone would murder a newborn. He wasn’t a bleedin’ heart for no one, but hurting a baby crawled under his skin. It gave him the willies. He also felt a little guilty for not doing what he knew was right and moral; feelings he wasn’t accustomed to feeling. But the old man waved the complicated thoughts away, just like a pesky fly…
He had drifted off to sleep, but something roused him from a forgotten dream. He opened his eyes. Night had fallen, and the living room was dark. As he reached for the lamp switch, a voice sounded from the new couch.
“Don’t do that.” The voice was deep and melodic. The old man gasped and looked in the direction of the couch. The moonlight spilled in through a gap in the curtains, and he saw a silhouette sat on the couch. Panic seized the old man. “I’ll make this quick for the both of us. You’ve got something that belongs to me and I want it back – now.”
The old man reached further for the lamp switch but thought better of it, so he strained his eyes to see the stranger that rattled off a demand. “Who are you?”
“My name is Emos, and I want my skull back.”
The old man grabbed his chest and stuttered, “You’re -- you’re crazy, I don’t know what you’re talkin’ bout’.
“Sure you do, I watched you take it.” The old man was speechless. Fear shadowed his heart.
“Get outta my house,” the old man demanded. Emos laughed a husky laugh and said, “Give me the skull, and I’ll be more than willing to depart for my humble abode.”
“I ain’t got no skull, now get out of here.”
“The skull is mine, and you took it from my home,” the stranger hissed.
“I’ve never taken nothin’ from anybody’s house – I might be a lot of things, but one thing I ain’t is no thief. Everything I get, I get fair and square.” Though his vision had adjusted to the moonlight, darkness still swallowed the living room, and the old man couldn’t distinguish the features on the stranger’s face.
“The skull is in that steel box under your coffee table, is it not?” Emos asked. The old man’s heart beat harder, like eager hands on a bongo drum; he had been caught.
“What if it is? I didn’t steal it from your home. I found it in that there couch your sitting on.”
“Yes, I know, this couch is my home,” Emos explained.
The old man couldn’t believe his ears. “That couch is your home?”
“Yes, I live down inside the couch. I’m a couch troll.” It started deep down inside the old man’s stomach and slowly inched its way up into his chest and then into his throat. He couldn’t contain it any longer. He burst out laughing so hard he choked on his own phlegm. “That’s the craziest gobbledygook I’ve heard in my whole life. You need help, boy.” The old man laughed, wheezed, and then coughed again, until he thought he would croak. Relief swept over him. Somebody who thought of his self as a couch troll was nuttier than a tin-house rat. “Go on, boy, get outta here, I won’t tell a soul,” the old man chuckled. He grasped the lamp switch between his thumb and index finger, but let go when the stranger said, “There are couch trolls in many couches, and this is my couch.”
The old man rolled his eyes in the darkness and said, “Uh huh, if you live down in that couch, then I piss silver and shit gold. I mean, how could you fit? A human can’t survive inside a couch, for Christ sake,” the old man said and snickered.
“I’m not human. And when we trolls burrow down in a couch, the couch expands inside, and it expands for everything we snatch. And there is plenty of room. You humans think you lose your precious possessions down in couches, but you never lose them. We reach up and snatch them,” Emos explained. “In fact, the lady who had the couch before you always folded her laundry sitting right where I am now. She would leave it stacked up nice and neat, while she pulled lint from socks and went about putting it in the trash. And when she’d walk out of the room, I’d reach up and snatch what I wanted – a sock, underwear, tee-shirts. After a while, she realized she was losing her clothes in the couch, so she stopped laying her laundry here. In fact, she stopped laying everything on this couch after her baby went missing. Oh, I’ve snatched some wonderful things – you name it, I’ve snatched it. You know, when you ponder on it, you and me are a lot alike. We both troll for possessions that aren’t quite ours.”
The old man’s smile completely vanished, along with his relief, and fear replaced his amusement. This guy is nuts, a grade-A, number one fruit-friggin’ loop. “Listen to me,” the old man pleaded, “I have found a lot of couches in my day and have found some really nice stuff down inside – even money, but I have never seen hide nor hair of a couch troll. Why now, after all these years?” the old man asked, although he didn’t know why. He learned a long time ago that you couldn’t reason with insanity.
“Perhaps you’ve only acquired abandoned couches. We move, too. A couch doesn’t last forever, so we move on to another couch when ours start falling apart. Sometimes, we move for the simple fact we’re bored. And when we move we leave everything we’ve snatched behind. We don’t take anything with us. Good for you, huh?” Emos grinned. “When I do move on, I’ll be sure to leave the skull behind, and it’s yours for the snatching. But as you can see, I still reside inside, and the skull is mine. I consider myself a patient troll, but even I have my limit.”
Emos clasped his hands together and said through clenched teeth, “If you don’t give the skull back, I’ll snatch your skull.” Sweat popped out on the old man’s forehead and armpits. He’d seen many basket cases in Nam, but this guy took the cake and crammed it down his throat. He shouted the first thing that came to mind. “I’m gonna blow a hole between your friggin’ eyes! You got five seconds to get the hell outta my house, an--.” The old man felt a swarm of fluttering moths in his chest. Blood coursed hotly through his veins, and his heartbeat pounded in his ears. He closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair. The old man had never felt this way before; it terrified him. Was it a heart attack or a stroke? No, it wasn’t, he realized, after a few moments. It was panic. Minutes passed, while he desperately tried to calm himself. After his heartbeat slowed and his eardrums stopped banging, finally, he opened his eyes. He looked towards the couch and switched on the lamp. The stranger was gone. The old man looked at the front door; it was ajar. He clutched his chest, cautiously got up, and stumbled to the door. He walked out onto his front porch; his eyes scanned his front yard. He saw nothing, except a dense patch of fog draped lazily on the trees. All was quiet and still, except for a band of frogs crooning to the night. He closed and locked the door and looked at the mutt on the floor, who flicked its ear at the occasional flea. “A lot of good you do, ya son of bitch.” He retrieved the ammo box, slowly unlatched the lock and looked inside. The skull stared back at him with hollow eyes. “Couch troll, my ass,” the old man scoffed. But as much as the he hated to admit it, he was scared. How did that loon know the skull was in the box? He had to have been looking through the window, the old man reasoned with himself. Adrenaline conquered his panic, and he paced back and forth in the living room, staring at the steel box. He couldn’t keep the skull now, since that fruitcake had been spying on him. He’d take the skull to the police station and tell them he found it on the side of the road, because he still wanted the couch. He just didn’t want the skull in his possession now that he’d met Mr. Mentally Insane. So if he did come back, the old man could tell him the police had it, to go harass them. He lifted the skull from the ammo box, put it in a plastic bag and walked out into the quiet night towards his pick-up truck.
He was relieved to be back home; his eyes burned from exhaustion. After five hours of questioning, answering and lying, the old man wanted nothing more than to fall into a deep sleep. He looked around the living room, but didn’t see his dog. He whistled through his horse-sized false teeth, but the dog didn’t come. “Lazy mutt,” the old man grumbled. He glanced at the clock. 3:48 a.m. What a night. He’d never thought in all his seventy-two years of living that he would’ve experienced madness like this. Crazier than the Vietnam War. The old man thought and yawned. He sat down on the new couch and rubbed his callused hand over its silky upholstery. He decided to sleep there. But first, he retrieved his 45. from his bedroom, and then he reached behind the couch to close the curtains up tight, if by some chance the couch troll, no, window troll, more like it, decided to come back and peek in at him. Laughing, the old man stripped down to his underwear, lay down on the couch, and placed the gun on his chest. The soft fabric was cool against his weathered skin. It was more than comfortable: it was heaven. He felt like he was lying on a silken cloud. Man, what a find. Damn, if he wasn’t the luckiest son of a bitch, he didn’t know who was. As he rubbed his heavy eyes, a six-fingered claw with sharpened yellowed talons snaked up between the cushions of the couch and snatched the old man, twisting and screaming, down inside the darkness.
The workers loaded the couch onto the flatbed truck and climbed inside the cab. “That’s a nice couch.” “Yeah, it is. Ya want it? It’ll just sit at the dump if you don’t.” “Sure. Me and the ole’ lady’s been wanting a newer couch since the baby came along.” The workers stopped at the man’s house and hauled the couch into the living room. “Oh wow,” a lady, carrying a newborn baby, cried. “It’s the prettiest couch I’ve ever laid my eyes on.” “Glad you like it, sweetie, but I have to get back to work – got to finish cleaning out that ole’ man’s house.” They kissed goodbye, and the lady sat down on the new couch. She rubbed her hand over its soft upholstery. Was it dragon patterns, or just squiggly designs? She wasn’t sure. The microwave beeped from the kitchen, so she got up, and gently laid the baby on the couch. And the old man down inside looked at his lazy mutt, while rubbing his yellowed talon claws together, waiting for the perfect moment…