Arnold Desadario was nine years old. He knew that because his birthday was in only three days and he would be ten, two whole numbers! He remembered his last birthday because Billy Apple had thrown up after cake and ice cream when they were playing kickball in the backyard and ever since then everyone called him Billy Barfbag, and because he got a really cool Spiderman Web-Shooter that shot a sticky dart on a string when he did the Web-Slinging-Action with his wrist. His mom said that she looked all over the city for it and he wore it everywhere, except to school cause Mrs Marsh said he couldn’t and at church cause his mom said God wanted him to listen to him and not pretend to be Spiderman, which was stupid cause he could do both.
He waved to Muglee, under his dad’s red Firebird and said, “Hi Muglee! I have to go to school but I’ll see you later, ok?” and Muglee waved back and grinned and said, “Ok Champ! See you then!”
Muglee always called him Champ. Or Sport. They were best friends.
Mom was holding his hand as they walked down the driveway to the schoolbus. She was wearing her green dress, and she was so beautiful, and he smiled up at her as she looked down at him and said, “Who’s Muglee?”
Arnold laughed. “He’s my best friend, mom, duh.”
His mom laughed too. “He is huh? But I thought Mike Zigarovich was your best friend? What happened to him?”
Arnold rolled his eyes and said, “He is mom, but he’s my school best friend. Muglee is my real best friend.”
The schoolbus was waiting at the end of the drive. The door was open and the blaring voices of his classmates drifted out to them as his mom stopped walking and knelt down in front of him, handing him his bagged lunch and straightening his hat and coat. She was always tugging at him. He squirmed, “Mom, people are watching.”
She stopped fussing and smiled at him. Hugged him and said, “Ok, Peanut. Off you go. Before anyone sees you with your old Mom.”
He hugged her back, not yet old enough to want to turn that down just yet. Turned and ran for the schoolbus. Halfway up the steps he turned to wave. His mother smiled and waved back, but Arnold was looking over his shoulder, at Muglee, who was still waving at him, from under his dad’s car. He shouted, “Bye Muglee! Have a good day!” He turned and disappeared into the shouting interior as the bus doors wheezed shut and the bus lurched away with a coughing growl. His mother frowned.
School was boring. He liked Gym where he could run around but he hated Math and English. So boring. Who cared about all that stuff? History was worse. He would almost fall asleep every day.
But all that was over, and the day was over and tomorrow there was only two whole days until his birthday! He talked about it all day with his friends and they all said he was going to get some “really cool stuff” and he thought about all the toys he had seen with his mom last week when they were at Children’s Palace, and his mind conjured a mountain of presents with him atop it, cake in one hand, his Spiderman Web-Shooter on the other.
The bus lurched and the kids screamed. The door wheezed open and Arnold walked up the aisle, saying goodbye to his friends and Muglee was waiting for him, waving and smiling. “How ya doing, Sport? Almost your birthday huh? Pretty cool!”
Arnold ran up the driveway, dropping his bookbag and fell to his knees behind the shiny red sports car.
“Yeah, its gonna be so cool! I wanna get a Shogun Warrior! And a Planet of the Apes lunchbox! And mom said I could have a banana cake this year!”
Muglee grinned and said, “Sounds great, Tiger! I have a present for you, too!”
Arnold got wide-eyed and said, “No way! Really? Wow! Thanks Muglee! Where is it?”
Muglee stopped smiling now. Looked Arnold right in the eye and said, “You gotta wait for your birthday, Champ. Those are the rules, right?”
Arnold looked sad. “Yeah. Those are the rules.”’ He brightened. “Hey! Maybe you could come to the party! Mom won’t care! You gotta meet Mike and Gary and them guys!”
Muglee’s grin reappeared, and said, “Sounds great, Sport, but I can’t come. I have to get your present ready, and I won’t be back in time.”
Arnold frowned. “You’re leaving? Why? Where are you going?”
Muglee smiled again. A real big grin this time. “Not far, Champ, not far. Don’t worry. I’m not leaving forever, butthead.”
Arnold grinned again. “You better not! I wonde—”
Mom stuck her head out the front door, yelling up the driveway, “Arnol—”, noticed him kneeling by the bumper, “There you are. What are you doing?”
Arnold got up, knees grimy, “Nothing, Mom. Talking to Muglee.”
Mom frowned, her forehead all wrinkly. “Well. Its time for homework, mister. Get your bag and come inside. I was wondering where you were.”
Arnold ran for his bag, grabbed it up by one strap and when he turned for the door, he saw Muglee was gone. He frowned. “Muglee?”
“Arnold Desadario! Get inside, now! Stop this foolishness!”
His mom looked mad. He looked again at the empty space beneath his dad’s red Firebird.
Frowned. “Coming, Mom.”
As Arnold brushed past her in the open doorway, she looked where her son had looked. Under the damn car. There was nothing. She sighed and wondered why her kid couldn’t have a normal imaginary friend like all the other kids. What kind of name was Muglee anyway? A mother’s endless list of chores swept this away as she turned back inside.
From the shadows near the tires, two narrowing eyes peered at her turning away. A low growl purred.
The police were called, of course. They took statements from nearly everyone in the neighborhood. The Desadario’s were not the most popular family, but they were friendly enough, and no one held them any malice. Half the neighborhood’s kids were at his birthday party, and all of them said the same thing, in many different ways, but the same story emerged. Arnold disappeared right after cake and ice cream.
His purported best friends, Mike Zigarovich and Gary Miller, both nine years old, mentioned that Arnold said he was getting a secret present from someone named Muglee. This casual fact was passed along to his mother months after the initial investigation had died down by a friend of the family who’s brother-in-law was on the Force and had access to the case files. Desperate for any kind of lead to alleviate the family’s suffering, he only mentioned it as a matter of crossing off all the possibilities, no matter how ridiculous.
Mrs. Desadario went off like a crazy person when Chuck told her. “Muglee? They said that? Muglee? Are you sure?”
Chuck Smith was a good man, with a good heart, and he was trying to do the right thing. But seeing the crazed light in his neighbor’s eyes made him doubt himself, and he wavered, saying “Well…as sure as a nine-year old can be, Becky. It’s probably nothing. Forget it.”
She was pacing now, and smoke chased her as the forgotten cigarette dropped ash on her aging linoleum floor. “No. I can’t forget it. Arny said that name to me. Muglee. How could I have forgotten? He said it was his best friend, and I found him sitting on the ground by Dave’s car, and he said he had been talking to Muglee! There was no one there! I thought it was just stupid kids stuff – an imaginary friend! But what if…” Her hand flew to her mouth, as horror widened her eyes.
Chuck frowned. “What if what, Becky? What if his imaginary friend dragged him off?”
She looked at him. A laugh barked out of her. “You’re right. Its stupid. I just….oh god.” Tears filled her eyes. “I just want him back!” The sorrow broke her.
Chuck held her and patted her back. He had no words for her.
His prison was pitch black and freezing cold. It was curved, like the inside of a ball. Or a tube. Like the ones inside the paper towels his mom kept on the kitchen counter on the wooden thing.
He had no clothes on and he was shivering. Always shivering. He cried pretty often. The darkness robbed him of time. He laid on the cold metal and shivered, the chill racking his body and he wailed for his Mama, for his Daddy, but they never came.
Once, Muglee let the light in. It was blinding. He never saw him, but he knew his voice. Only it wasn’t happy any more. It was mean. He begged and begged to go home. Muglee told him to shut up and he cried and cried, and then the light was gone and Muglee was gone and he sobbed and sobbed and just kept saying over and over, blubbery and thick, “I wanna go home, I wanna go home, I wanna go home”.