The sound came from under the floor. A dull, persistent sound. Monotonous, like the ticktock of a wall clock, with no beginning or end.
Pong! Pong! Pong!
Robert lay in his bed and listened to the mysterious pounding, counting the muffled beats.
Pong! Pong! Pong!
When the count passed forty, Robert sat up and looked around.
Morning light flooded his room. A breeze slipped through the half-open window and rustled the beige linen curtains. Sunbeams hopped all over the walls, bouncing off a sequined pillow that had fallen to the floor. A painting of fish Robert had made and a poster of a polar bear—a gift from his mother—hung on the wall. Wooden bird figurines, a massive crystal, and other knickknacks lay scattered across his dresser. Nearby stood a wicker basket holding a collection of stones of various sizes, shapes, and colors that Robert had found on trips with his parents and brought back home.
Everything was in its place. Everything was familiar and ordinary. Everything but the insistent sound coming from somewhere below.
Pong! Pong! Pong!
Robert got up. He paced around the room, then lowered himself and put his ear to the floorboards. What if a pipe had broken under the house? What if some strange beast had taken up residence down below? Should he wake up his parents?
According to the alarm clock by his bed, it was 7:18 a.m. Robert decided to investigate. He went into the hall. The sound got quieter, but he could still hear it. He stopped in the living room, peered into the kitchen, and checked the bathroom. The muffled blows were audible everywhere.
Walking past his parents’ room, Robert turned and headed toward the front door to investigate outside.
As soon as Robert opened the door, the persistent knocking sound stopped.
It wasn’t quiet outside, but the sounds were different: leaves rustling in the trees, birds singing, cars occasionally driving past in the distance.
Robert stood on the doorstep and watched the sun’s eager rays chase the remnants of night away, promising a long, hot day. The morning dew beaded the freshly mown grass.
“I should have woken up Fartie,” Robert muttered. He poked his head back inside and looked down the hall. All was quiet. Then he swept his hair from his eyes and stepped out onto the pale paving stones by the front door.
The lilac bush between the front door and porch was in full bloom, attracting bees. Robert nestled his face in the flowers and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes as he greedily inhaled his favorite plush, purple scent. Then he opened his eyes. A few yards from the lilac grew the deutzia bush—his mother’s favorite—with creamy pink flowers. Once every few days Mom would cut off a little branch and put it in a vase in the living room.
Or at least, that’s where it normally grew. Robert froze in surprise.
Instead of the deutzia there now stood a strange, sprawling, clumsy-looking bush blazing with big bright turquoise flowers.
Squinting, Robert walked up to the bush and felt the leaves, shook the branches, and studied the trunk. The bush was definitely real.
Robert ran into the house. He heard sounds coming from the kitchen, took a sharp turn toward it, and nearly knocked his mother off her feet.
“Is everything all right?” she asked.
“Did you see that?” Robert panted.
Mom reached for a mug from the cupboard. “What are you talking about?”
“Your bush! The deutzia!” He waved his arms. “It looks weird. It has turquoise flowers!”
Mom approached him and gave him a peck on the cheek. “Are you sure?” she asked with a smile.
“Mom!” Robert rolled his eyes.
“All right, all right. I’ll go look. Can you stay here and turn it off when it boils?” she asked, pointing at the espresso maker.
Robert nodded. He climbed onto a tall stool and waited while his mom went outside.
“The bush is fine,” Mom said, reentering the kitchen. “It’s just like it was yesterday, and the day before that, and a week ago. Maybe you dreamed it?”
Robert shook his head. He jumped off the stool and ran to the garden. The elegant deutzia was back in its place. The mysterious bright turquoise bush was gone.
“Breakfast time,” Mom called.
Robert scratched the back of his head. Something wasn’t right.
“What about Dad?” Robert asked, getting utensils and napkins. Then he remembered and frowned.
“Still sleeping,” she said. “Let’s not wake him.” Mom dished out jam into a saucer, watching Robert from the corner of her eye. “Are you still upset?”
Robert nodded and bit his lower lip. Mom came over and hugged him.
“Dad just needs time. I’m sure we can convince him.”
Robert freed himself from her embrace and turned around.
“All right, go get dressed. We can talk about it when you’re ready, OK?”
“Uh-huh,” Robert said through his clenched teeth.
* * *
“Where were you? I woke up and you were gone! When can we have breakfast?” Fartie somersaulted onto the bed, singing his version of a Puccini opera.
Robert’s mood improved immediately. It always did as soon as he was with his jolly, chubby friend. Fartie had black fur, a tail, and a white spot around his left eye. He had four legs but always walked upright. He was kind of a dog and kind of a human—no one knew for sure. Fartie considered himself to be a unique specimen and was very proud of his disproportionately large head. “There’s a lot of intellectuality there,” he liked to announce.
For as long as Robert could remember, Fartie had lived with them. Which meant Fartie was no younger than twelve. But Fartie didn’t like to speak about his age. The only thing Robert could get out of him on the topic was “Age doesn’t matter unless you’re a cheese” and a raised eyebrow.
Fartie ignored good manners and passed gas often and without hesitation. Attempts to convince him to stop doing it were not successful. That was how he got his nickname: Fartie. As for his real name, no one knew it.
Robert’s parents had found Fartie behind the garage at their lake house, before Robert was born. They mistook him for a lost dog until they heard him talk. And that talk was not of a pleasant sort.
“He was furious, spouting gibberish curses. We didn’t understand a word,” they told Robert.
“So you didn’t know where he came from?” Robert asked.
“No. And by the time he learned human language, he couldn’t remember his old one.” Dad paused, then added, “Or maybe he decided to forget.”
Fartie soon became fluent in human language and won over Robert’s parents. He became a family member, but Robert’s parents kept Fartie’s ability to talk a secret. He was just a strange-looking dog to others but a stubborn yet beloved creature to them. And a little bit later to Robert too.
“So? Where were you?” Fartie asked again.
Robert slumped onto the bed. “I was in the garden. There was a weird bush where the deutzia is.”
Fartie shrugged and jumped high in the air.
“Did you hear anything this morning?” Robert asked.
“Nope.” Fartie jumped again and landed on his head. The bed creaked.
“A sort of knocking, for example?”
“That’s what woke me up. I checked the whole house.
I could hear it everywhere. And when I stepped outside, the sound just stopped. And then I saw that strange bush.”
“You’re imagining things.” Fartie chuckled and hopped off the bed. “And I’m hungry. When’s breakfast? Ooh!” He closed his eyes. “Nuteeella. Toast with Nuteeella. Or better yet, a croissant. Then another croissant.” He opened his eyes. “And then we’ll go for a ride on the paddleboat, yes? Yes, yes! Exactly! Where’s my life jacket? Ooh, there it is. I’m so happy our parents finally bought us a paddleboat. We’re going to cruise all day long!”
Fartie jumped up, clapped his paws, and headed toward the door.
“Come on already, get dressed. Or else I’ll die of starvation.”
Robert smiled and started changing out of his pajamas. But deep inside he felt something menacing about the knocking, something bizarre that had found its way into his world.