(With the usual thanks to H.L. Mencken)
He brushed aside the brush and peered into the clearing, not sure he could trust his eyes. Oh, nothing was wrong with his eyes, it’s just that they presented him with a sight that would be unbelievable except for the fact that, undeniably, the sight was there and his eyes were delivering an accurate picture of the clearing.
Plainly, he could see – well, the plain fact was that hobgoblins were swarming.
He couldn’t tell how many there were – after a certain quantity the actual number became irrelevant. It was enough to constitute a swarm, and perhaps five hobgoblins would be enough to subdue the average person. When five is enough, then it didn’t matter whether the clearing contained a platoon, a brigade or a regiment: It was simply more than enough to overcome his solitary soul. He was toast if he entered the clearing. He was toast if they saw him in the underbrush. He was, quite simply, toast.
The hobgoblins would swarm through his life, colonize every nook and overpopulate every cranny, and every corner of his life would be occupied by a hobgoblin. They had won. He was not defeated only because the hobgoblins hadn’t bothered to defeat him yet. He may as well surrender and save the trouble of losing with a fight. Why go down with the ship when he could clearly see the vessel at the bottom of the lake already?
Unless — wait a minute —
The ancient dictionary was infuriating. Page after page of words that he didn’t need to know just now, just to find the one word he did want. Far more efficient to enter the word and have it pop up on your screen and there’s the definition. But he didn’t have a screen, or rather his screen was out of power and who knows if it would ever charge again and all he had was the fat old book with its delicate sheaves of paper that rustled as he paged through the pages.
Hobgoblin. Hahb’-gahb-lin. n. Old English (or whatever the entymology was.) An imaginary creature that … Hang on.
He blinked. He read the entry again. Imaginary? He looked up at the hobgoblin mob, and then he looked down at the book. He looked up and saw the swarm of hobgoblins, jumping and playing and hanging from the branches of trees – wait, trees? Wasn’t it an open clearing a moment ago?
Then he saw the hobgoblins were shifting and changing shape, one moment tall and lanky, the next a shapeless blob, the next solid and strong, the next short and squat and rolypoly and what the heck anyway.
“It’s not real,” he muttered. But they were right before him, alarming the hell out of his senses. “I’m not seeing this.” But he could swear he was. “They’re not there.” But they sure looked real. He blinked and rubbed his eyes and adjusted his glasses and stared and looked askance and every which way he could see, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were real.
Only one act would confirm that they were not, in fact, real: Walk into the clearing. The thing is, if he walked out there and they were real, he would be swarmed. He wouldn’t just bump into a hobgoblin who would say, “Oh, so sorry, excuse me,” no no no, he would be buried under a mob of hobgoblins – a hobgoblin mob, as it were, a throbbing, bobbing, mob of hobgoblins. He sobbed.
He walked into the clearing and it was empty. The convention was over, or rather, it had never been there. I know, I know, a moment ago he saw so many hobgoblins that he was suffocated with fear – well, not fear so much as alarm. A clearing packed with hobgoblins is a daunting sight, unless you can convince yourself that they’re all imaginary, which is impossible except for the fact that the dictionary said: “an imaginary creature.”
And this had been an endless series of hobgoblins – all of them imaginary? All of them? All? His mind boggled, and let me tell you, a boggled mind is a confused one indeed. The monsters under his bed, in the closet, in the neighbor’s yard, coming to get him, coming to take his job, hating his freedom and coming to enslave his family – he had seen them, how could they not be there?
He stepped into the middle of the clearing and looked up. For the first time, he noticed the sun shining. He took a breath and noticed the air was clean and pure. He listened and noticed a breeze tickling the underbrush. He looked around and noticed others walking about, going about their lives, laughing with their children and smiling on their brothers.
It would be a fairy tale to say he lived happily ever after. But he did pause whenever someone pointed and shouted, “Look! A hobgoblin!” smile patiently and reply, “Ah yes, an imaginary creature.”