It was a well-known fact that Oscar did not like children. So when he agreed to watch his niece Natalie for an entire week, he spent the two days leading up to it wondering how on earth his sister Jordan had convinced him to do so.

The doorbell rang promptly at eight p.m. There was Jordan, mostly as he remembered but with more unkempt hair, and Natalie.

Natalie gaped up at Oscar, then at her mom. “He looks like Grandpa,” she declared.

Oscar tried not to take offense from the ten-year-old.

Jordan handed off a suitcase to Oscar. “Thanks again for watching her, Ozzie. All her stuff is in here and her backpack. She’s already had supper, so she’ll want to play for a bit, then she can pretty much put herself to bed. Oh, just make sure she gets intobed.”

“Hmm . . .” Oscar eyed the little girl as she went into his house and stared up at the ceiling. “Once again, I wonder how you talk me into these things,” he said to Jordan.

Jordan leaned forward and hugged him. “Little sister powers. Always been your weakness. You keep my kid safe, okay?”

“I will, I will.”

Jordan leaned around him and called to Natalie. “Sweetie? You be good for Uncle Ozzie, okay?”

Natalie turned and pointed. “He’s got twostaircases, Mom!”

Jordan chuckled. “Yeah, she’ll be fine.” She backed away from the door, aiming for her van. “Have fun, you two! Oh, and Ozzie? At least try to play with her. I think you’d be surprised.”

“I make no promises,” Oscar deadpanned.

In a few moments, she was gone, and Oscar had a ten-year-old in his house.

At least . . . he should have a ten-year-old in his house. “Natalie?”

Hasty footsteps emerged from the hallway at the top of the stairs. “Which one’s my room?” she asked, eyes glowing.

After being shown the room, Natalie explored every inch of the house. As soon as she opened one door and drank in the room with those saucer-sized eyeballs of hers, she’d be right back out and into another room.

She didn’t ask many questions, content to simply observe and touch things. Anything not nailed down or heavier than her got picked up, perceived, then put back.

Finally, she found the door to the basement. Oscar stayed within earshot of the door with a cup of tea and a book.

Down in the basement, Natalie started talking to no one. Must be that imagination of hers finally doing its work. He half-listened to what she said, catching the occasional accent and self-narration.

He heard some boxes shuffling around, then some small things clattering to the floor. Odd, he didn’t remember having much in storage down there.

“What can we do with you?” Natalie asked whatever she found. “Grrr, I’m the Goblin King, and this is my castle!” She continued in a different voice. “Help us, Goblin King, there’s a runaway metal monster on the loose!”

Oscar set down his book. Goblin? Animals? What on earth had she found down there?

“Hey, what do we do while the Goblin King is fighting?”

“Let’s go play on the playground!”


“Get on the swing, I’ll push you!”

“Yippee—oh, oops, too much push.”

Oscar got up and made his way down to the basement. He froze on the stairs and stared at the girl surrounded by a plastic prop castle, a model car, pieces of a playground set, and some forest animal figures. An ugly green monster with a crown and tattered cape stood on top of the car. It seemed to be staring right at Natalie.

“No, no, no!” Oscar ran down the stairs and grabbed Natalie away from the toys. “Those aren’t for playing with!”

“But they’re toys!”

“No, they’re—” Oscar interrupted himself and started pulling Natalie toward the stairs. “That’s it. Time for bed.”

Natalie pulled back. “No, I’m not tired! I wanna play with them—let go!”

“All right, bedtime story, then.” Oscar dragged her in front of him and stood over her. “Once upon a time there was a little girl who didn’t listen to her uncle. She got taken away by the Goblin King to his castle, where she was forced to do chores forever and never allowed to play again. Moral of the story, go to your room!”

Natalie glared up at him, lip trembling. Then she kicked him in the shin. “You’re the goblin king!” She ran before Oscar had a chance to react. Her footsteps got farther away until an upstairs door slammed, and there was silence.

Oscar rubbed his shin. He scooped up the toys on the floor and dumped them back into their box. The goblin figure sneered at him as he tossed it in. “Don’t look at me like that,” he grumbled.

He made sure to fold the box’s flaps together, then put it on a high shelf. As he left, he could swear that goblin’s eyes were still staring at him through the box.


Well past midnight, Natalie poked her head out of her door. The hall was empty, and the lights were off. Uncle Ozzie must’ve gone to bed. She tiptoed down to the basement.

She flicked a light switch that turned on a single bare bulb. It put the rest of the basement into stark shadows but illuminated the shelf she was looking for.

She found the box and, after dragging over a nearby chair, lifted it off the shelf and set it on the floor. The top flaps lifted easily.

Natalie lowered her brow. Did she get the wrong box? There was an intact and very detailed castle set in this one. It looked like real stone too. She reached in to pull it out.

“Shame on you, little girl,” came her uncle’s voice from the shadows.

Natalie leapt to her feet and turned around. “I’m sorry, I—”

“Shh . . . you did not listen to your uncle.” Uncle Ozzie’s voice got lower and more growly, like he had a bad sore throat. The shape in the shadows emerged, revealing green skin, beady, wet eyes, and a toothy grin. A dirty gold crown sat atop a head of spiky black hair. “Now the Goblin King has come to take you away!”


Oscar’s heart catapulted into his throat at the sound of a girlish scream. He left his room in a rush, slippered feet padding down the bare wooden basement stairs. “Natalie, I said to—”

For the second time that night, he froze at the bottom of the stairs. The goblin toy, life-sized and grinning at him, was halfway through a wooden door with Natalie in its grasp.

Natalie reached out to him. “Uncle Ozzie!”

The Goblin King laughed and went through the door as Oscar rushed forward. The door shut. He twisted the ring handle and pulled it open again, immediately stepping through.

He landed face down on dead yellow grass. He looked back, but the door was nowhere to be seen. He stood and dusted himself off, noticing he was in a wide field of dead grass. Far to the north was a castle.

“You want the child back?” asked a voice behind him. Oscar wheeled around and came face to green face with the Goblin King.

“W-where is she? What have you done with her?"

The Goblin King clicked his tongue. “Too many questions. I think you know where the girl is. If you want her back, come get her. That is, if you think she’s worth all that effort.”

“Worth? She’s my sister’s daughter, I’m not going to let—”

“Is that all?” the Goblin King interrupted with a tilt of his head. “Well, then. You can see my castle. If you think you can reach it, go ahead. Don’t get lost, though! This place enjoys changing shape.”


“Be seeing you, Ozzie.” The Goblin King snickered and flipped his dirty cape, disappearing in a puff of smoke.

Oscar gazed at the castle and was ready to start walking when the ground suddenly lurched, and he fell backward.

He landed on a leather seat. He sat up and found himself in the back of a familiar car. It was his family’s old station wagon from when he was a kid. They went on a drive across America in this car. Why was it here? Why was he in it? And how was it driving with no one in the front seat? He peered out the windshield and spotted the castle in the distance.

“I said, ‘I spy something blue.’”

Jordan was in the seat next to him, but it wasn’t quite Jordan. She looked like a child, and her face wouldn’t come into focus. “Are you gonna play or not?”

Play? No, he didn’t have time to play. He had to find Natalie. Oscar started to climb into the front, but the car accelerated and flung him back into the seat.

“I spy something blue.”

Oscar prodded at the door. The more he looked, the more off everything seemed. The handle and window lock were there, along with an arm rest, but it looked as if someone who’d never seen the objects was told to sculpt them from melting wax.

Oscar curled his hands back and tried not to touch this uncanny impersonation of a car.

“I spy something blue.”

“I’m not playing with you,” Oscar said, avoiding eye contact with whatever was sitting next to him.

“It’ll only go slower if you don’t play.”

“I can wait.”

“Natalie can’t.”

Oscar turned. The murky version of his sister stared. “I spy. Something. Blue.”

Oscar glanced around the car, then out the window. “Uh . . . the sky?”

“Yep! Your turn!”

“I . . .” He noticed the ground pass by a little faster than before. Was this how he would get to the castle? By playing car games? “I spy . . . something that starts with r.”



Oscar and his not-sister went back and forth a few times with I Spy; then she held her hands out, with one facing down and the other up. “Concentration.”


“You can pick the subject if you’re gonna be a grump about it, Ozzie.”

Oscar scoffed. “I’m not going to touch . . . whatever you are.”

The car slammed on its brakes and slowed to a crawl.

“Play with me!” said the not-Jordan. The voice sounded like Natalie’s.

Slowly, Oscar put his hands up. “I don’t . . . remember how it went.”

The not-Jordan that sounded like Natalie walked him through it. He picked the category “Names,” and they started listing back and forth.

The vague memories of playing this game with his friends in the recess yard of his elementary school dropped name after name of old classmates into his head. They were so carefree and chaotic back then, no worries aside from finding a bug to freak out the girls with. He and his friend once caught a toad and were the center of attention for the entire recess time. The teacher even let them bring it inside and put it in a plastic tub for the day.

Oscar snapped back to the present when he got punched in the arm.

“Blue punch buggy!”

“Ow!” Oscar rubbed his arm and noticed another round vehicle his playmate hadn’t spotted yet. He shot his finger out at it. “Red slug bug!” He returned the arm punch, which then dissolved into a slap fight as he and his playmate aimlessly waved their arms at each other.

Oscar didn’t realize he was laughing until it turned into a gasp as the car spun around and dumped Oscar onto a bed of round pebbles.

“Race you to the bridge!”

Oscar blinked and sat up. “No way.” It was the playground across the street from the library! But the place had been torn down decades ago!

The murky child figure waved at him. “Come on! I’m gonna beat you!” Now it really did sound like Natalie. Oscar followed it across the playground, which didn’t feel cramped despite him being nearly triple the size he was when he last climbed into it.

The spiral ladder and slides were still there, along with the stepping-stone poles and monkey bars. He tried not to stare too closely at the actual structures, but noticed how, like the car, there were parts of it that didn’t look right and were twisted like an optical illusion.

His small playmate hopped onto a swing and bounced her legs. “Push me, push me!”

Oscar went down a slide, that familiar plastic static crackle making his hair stand on end. He grabbed the swing’s ropes and recalled how his dad used to push him. He lowered his grip to both sides of the seat and pulled the swing back.


His playmate nodded. Oscar pulled the swing all the way back, then ran under it and tossed it over his shoulder, sending it high and making its occupant squeal with delight.

Oscar smiled and sat in the other swing. He kicked his feet to get himself going and started swinging in tandem with the other. “Hey, kid. Watch this.” He swung back, then kicked his feet up and backflipped off the swing, landing awkwardly but recovering and giving a bow.

“I wanna try!”

Oscar tried to stop his playmate from attempting it. She flipped around well enough but didn’t quite get her feet under her and did a half faceplant into the gravel.

Oscar winced. “You okay?”

She stood up with a stiff snap, like letting go of a spring. “Race you to the end!” She ran past Oscar and dove into an inflatable bouncy house obstacle course.

Oscar blinked at the giant thing that wasn’t there a few seconds ago. Just beyond it he could see the castle’s spires. “Wait up!” He got a running start and dove in.

Suddenly, he was twelve years old again, racing whichever other kid went in with him. They never declared a race or even exchanged names, but both wanted to get to the end first. They hopped over some bumps, dove through a tunnel, wiggled around sideways pillars, and shimmied up a wall before finally tossing themselves over the top and slide-rolling down to the bottom.

Oscar let out a whoop as he bounced off the structure, and his feet hit packed dirt.

The sharp smell of wood and animals made his nose wrinkle. The castle spires loomed large between the trees.

He started walking down the dirt path. Trees disappeared and reappeared. Rocks seemed to move like jelly as he walked by. Chain link fences on the sides of the path didn’t fit together but didn’t fall apart.

He approached one of the fences and peered through. The foliage was all a brown mass of dirt and shrubbery.

His eyes focused on two dark spots in the shrubs. The dots moved, and a shape peeled out of the background into a body and four legs. Oscar’s heart skipped a beat, but then he realized it was just a deer.

He sighed and rubbed his face. “This place is messing with me,” he muttered. He looked up again and flinched back from the fence, inhaling a rude word.

There were more deer. Some of them looked too big. Some didn’t have enough legs. Others had too many antlers. They all stared at him straight on, their beady black eyes never leaving his.

“They like acorns.”

Oscar jumped again at his companion’s sudden reappearance. She was holding out a fistful of acorns. Oscar cupped his hands under her fist, and acorns poured out by the score, more than he could hold onto.

Once he had a heaping pile of acorns in his hands, his companion pointed at a PVC pipe poking through the fence. He tipped the acorns into the pipe, and they emptied onto the ground inside the deer pen.

The deer . . . moved . . . and bent down to nibble at the acorns. Their eyes stayed locked on Oscar.

“You dropped these.”

The murky girl pulled open the pocket on Oscar’s sweatpants and dumped more acorns inside. “I don’t want them," he said.

“I do.” The girl looked up at him. She looked like Natalie, then Jordan, then a mix of both.


The girl perked up and ran down the path. “Come on! Bunnies are this way!”

Oscar started to follow. The deer kept staring. Of all the memories this place brought up, those awful hunting trips and empty stuffed eyes were the last things he wanted to recall.

One of the deer followed him along the fence. The Goblin King’s voice grumbled through its open jaws. “Deer in headlights, Uncle Ozzie?”

“Shut up.” Oscar refused to look at the thing beside him.

“Of all things to get under your skin, this stupid animal? And you expect to save the girl when you can’t even look at a deer without getting goosebumps?”

“Why are you even here?”

“Because you’ve been disruptive. The deer thing notwithstanding, you’ve been . . .  playing your way through my kingdom. Rude, I say.”

Oscar scoffed. “Rude?”

“Yes, rude! You saw the imperfections and oddities; you can’t even look at this recreation of your own relatives and see her face properly. Yet you’re playing. You’re having fun.

“Last I checked, that wasn’t a crime.”

The deer-goblin lurched up and slammed against the fence. “Go to your room!” it roared with Oscar’s voice. Oscar startled and tripped over himself, arms flailing. The Goblin King, now in his true form, laughed. “See! A punishable offense!”

“I didn’t mean to . . .”

“Bah!” The Goblin King let go of the fence and waved his hand. “We’ll talk again if you get to my castle. Might want to hurry, though. Little Natalie is getting awfully sad.”

Oscar's hands folded into fists as his shoulders rose. “If you hurt her, I’ll—”

The Goblin King vanished. Oscar grumbled and kicked the fence.

He found the murky girl standing at the gate to a bunny pen. “Hey, kiddo.”

She was practically vibrating with excitement. “Can we go in, pleeeeeease?”

Oscar chuckled. “Yeah, go ahead.”

The rabbits, thankfully, were more normal than the deer. One came right up to Oscar and put its front paws on his leg, nose twitching. He crouched down and pet it, then picked it up.

His mother used to take him here. He and Jordan would spend hours in this exact pen, running around with the rabbits, petting as many as they could and seeing how many they could get to eat from one carrot. His record was four.

Then, one day, a rainstorm washed out the fence. No one knew if the rabbits there were ever found.

The rabbit in his arms squirmed. Oscar set it down, and it hopped away. The girl ran up to him and grabbed his hand. “Come on, I wanna see the parrots!”

She dragged him out of the bunny pen and toward some large cages with brightly colored birds. She squawked at one. It squawked back. They went back and forth like that, yelling at each other.

Meanwhile, Oscar looked at the white cockatiel clinging to the fence beside him.

“Hi!” it said.

“Hi,” Oscar replied with a smile.

“Whatcha doin’?”

Oscar sighed at them, then looked at the blurred figure beside him. “What am I doing?” he asked himself.

“Whatcha doin’?” the bird said again.

“Trying to find a little girl,” Oscar answered. “She’s my sister’s daughter, and I was trusted to watch her for the week. Can’t exactly be watching her when she’s in some freak’s castle, now can I? Now I’m trying to get her back.”

The bird blinked at him. “Hi!”

“Yeah, okay.” Oscar stepped away from the cages and turned to leave, then turned back. “Actually, there is something I’ve always wanted to do.” He undid the cage latch and pulled the doors open.

Feathers, wings, and beaks flapped past him in a flurry. Oscar was blinded for a moment in the blur of moving color. When he looked up, he was in front of the castle’s gate.

Oscar pushed one door, and it creaked open.

The path to the central tower was perfectly straight. Not even stairs broke the smooth stone. As he walked, the towers warped and melted into each other. Stones overlapped or switched places. Entire wall faces didn’t change perspective like they should.

Finally, or maybe in no time at all, he got to the central doors. They swung open on their own.

A grand hall met him. Ornate gold and polished stone and stained glass made the space a feast for the eyes. He passed a frame standing beside the center aisle. The Goblin King walked by as he did. He turned and backed up, and so did the Goblin King. Oscar straightened and peered at the green thing as it mirrored his movements perfectly.

He got closer to the mirror, the Goblin King reflection approaching at the same time. When he got within arm’s reach, he stopped and stared at the ugly green face and its cheap gold crown. The disappointed expression stared back.

Oscar turned his face away and sighed inwardly. He looked back. The face was grinning at him. Huge hands shoved him, and the Goblin King walked out of the frame, laughing. “So gullible!”

Oscar regained his feet and stood his ground. “Where is Natalie?”

“Oh, she’s around here somewhere."

“Uncle Ozzie?”

Oscar looked around. “Natalie? Where are you?”

“I’m behind the throne!”

“Throne . . .” Oscar spotted the dark stone seat on the far end of the hall. He started running for it, but the Goblin King cut him off.

“Don’t think you’re getting away so easily! You still have crimes to answer for!”

“I haven’t done anything wrong! You broke into my house and kidnapped my niece!”

“At your invitation, Ozzie,” the Goblin King said with a wide grin. “You told such a nice story, I couldn’t help but follow along!” He picked at his teeth. “But now you’ve done the same thing she did. Played around, made a mess of things.”

“You kidnapped my niece, and I’m going to take her home! Now, get out of my way."

The Goblin King crossed his arms. “Make me.”

Oscar stared him down, then got close. He glanced behind the Goblin King and pointed. “Blue punch buggy!”

“What?” The Goblin King turned to look, putting the side of his jaw in Oscar’s punching range.

With the Goblin King stunned, Oscar ran around him. The Goblin King growled and reached for him. Oscar turned and smacked the hand away. The Goblin King yelped and shook his hand, looking both confused and offended. Oscar looked at him like he was a misbehaving dog.

The Goblin King tried again with the same result. Every time he grabbed, Oscar slapped his hand away like a game of whack-a-mole. Oscar managed to get into a rhythm of sorts and fumbled the increasingly confused Goblin King into an impromptu handshake.

Eventually the Goblin King pulled his hands away and stuck his snout closer to Oscar. “Take this seriously!”

Oscar poked him in the eye. “You’re a toy goblin living in a toy castle. What's there to be serious about?”

“You’re just like the girl!”

Oscar shrugged. “I’ll take that over being compared to you again any day.” He turned to run again, but the floor shifted, and an obstacle course appeared.

“Let’s see how quick you can get to her now!”

Oscar shrugged and started worming his way through with relative ease.

“Wait! Come back here!”

Oscar kept going, wiggling around pillars and over walls until he was in front of the throne. He skirted around it and found a large birdcage with Natalie locked inside. “Uncle Ozzie!”

Oscar made short work of the latch and yanked the door open. Natalie threw herself against him, and he hugged her. “Hey, you’re okay, it’s going to be okay.” Oscar held the sides of her face and got her to look at him. “Listen, I’m sorry about before. I was wrong about these toys and about you. I promise I’ll get you home, okay?”

Natalie nodded. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I called you the Goblin King.”

Oscar shrugged. “Eh, might’ve been right about that, honestly.”

“Oh, Ozzie,” sang a growly voice behind them.

Oscar pulled Natalie behind him and turned to face the Goblin King. He prowled around the throne and glared at Oscar. “You can’t get out of here that easy. You didn’t want the girl in the first place. You know she’s going to defy you again and play with your treasures.”

“I was wrong,” Oscar said. “They are just toys. They’re meant to be played with, and I kept them in a box with the memories they held. I thought her playing with them might ruin them, but that's not true. I made memories with them, and my niece is going to make memories with them as well.”

The Goblin King stalked forward on all fours, face twitching with anger. “No more games, Ozzie. That kid is staying here until she becomes like me. Like you. Until she can put her play in a box and pack it away.”

As he spoke, the castle crumbled. The ornate gold and colorful glass melted, and the stone fell away. Only the center aisle and the wooden doors remained.

“Maybe,” the Goblin King continued, “I should keep both of you. Since you think you remember how to play again, Ozzie.”

Oscar backed away, keeping Natalie behind him. The Goblin King crouched where his throne used to be, while Oscar and Natalie were between him and the door.

Oscar glanced at the door, then put his hand on Natalie’s shoulder. “All right, kiddo. This is going to be the most important game of tag you’ve ever played. He’s it.”

Natalie ran toward the door. Oscar followed. The Goblin King chased them.

Oscar stuck a hand in his pocket. “Slapstick, don’t fail me now,” he said as he turned the pocket inside out and spilled all the acorns onto the floor.

The Goblin King slipped and faceplanted. Oscar pointed and laughed at him. His longer stride pushed him ahead of Natalie, and he shoved his weight against the door.

He hit the thinly carpeted floor of an unfinished basement. A little girl fell on top of him.

Oscar sat up, breathing heavily. He looked at the scattered toys around them. The castle was in pieces, and so was the goblin figure.

“That. Was. Amazing!” Natalie cheered from the floor.

Oscar exhaled a thin laugh. “If you say so, kiddo.” He stared at the toys for a while longer, then picked up a figure near his foot and held it up. “We could stay and play for a bit, if you want.”

Natalie brightened, then changed her mind. “Actually, I think I’m ready for bed now.”

Oscar laughed. “On that, we can agree.”

They left the toys as they were. Tomorrow, they’d have a proper playdate, goblins not included.