Short Story Middle Grade

SHORT STORY: Mushephant by Nigel Quinlan

Mum and Dad hated baby’s favourite toy. They hated it so much. Whenever they made each other cups of hot tea and sat close together at the kitchen table, all they talked about was how much they hated baby’s favourite toy.

‘It’s so loud!’ Dad said.

‘That song it plays!’ said Mum.

‘Over and over again!’ said Dad.

‘So annoying!’ said Mum.

‘And so loud’ said Dad!

‘Annoying!’ said Mum.

‘Loud!’ said Dad.

‘ANNOYING!’ said Mum.

‘LOUD!’ said Dad.

Baby’s favourite toy was a big lump of green plastic. It may have been a sort of mushroom, or it may have been a sort of elephant, or some sort of mushephant. A mushephant is what you get if you take a plastic green mushroom and a plastic green elephant and melt the two of them together. Then you stick in loads of different coloured buttons with lights on them that flash on and off when you press them. From somewhere deep inside comes a loud, annoying tune that repeats itself over and over again until it stops. Then baby presses another brightly coloured button and it starts all over again. Or sometimes he keeps pressing the same button so the first bit of the tune plays again and again and again until Mum or Dad grabs it from him and, with horrible expressions of madness and pain on their faces, run to throw it in the bin. Then baby screams and screams and screams until Mum or Dad, close to tears, goes to the bin and brings it back to him.

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Because baby loved that toy. Baby never stopped playing with that toy. He insisted on having it up on the baby chair when he was eating. It was covered in dried bits of food that he pick off and ate when he was peckish. He slept with it beside him in his cot. In the middle of the night when he twisted and turned his foot or his hand would hit a button and the toy would light up and start playing the tune. He would giggle and sit up to play with it for a few hours, while Mum and Dad in their bed beside the cot flipped a coin to see who would get to go sleep on the couch.

Big brother didn’t mind the toy. Big brother had his own favourite toy, and that was his Lego. He had a huge collection of Lego blocks in his bedroom, and he spent most of his time building things like cars or bridges or houses or space stations or the Great Wall Of China. When he went to his friend’s houses he played with their Lego, but he had more Lego than any of his friends and he was the best at building stuff. He was the Lego King.

So, if Mum and Dad were wandering around the house, too tired and frazzled to even see straight, it meant they weren’t constantly on at big brother to tidy his room and pick up all the Lego pieces from the floor. If baby played with his mushephant all the time, it meant he wasn’t interfering with big brother’s building projects. If the mushephant woke him in the middle of the night, well then big brother simply got out of bed and started building until baby went to sleep and the noise stopped. As far as big brother was concerned, baby could play with the mushephant all baby wanted.

Mum and Dad, however, had had enough.

One day, instead of putting the mushephant in the bin, Dad, who had just discovered that they were completely out of Aspirin, took it outside into the yard and put it on the ground. Then he went to the shed and came out with a hammer nearly as long as big brother, and he proceeded to smash the mushephant with the hammer until it was nothing but a pile of plastic bits and pieces. Then Mum went out and jumped up and down on all the little bits and pieces, just to be sure.

Baby started to cry. He cried without stop for three days.

‘He’ll get over it’ Dad said.

‘Yes, he will’ said Mum.

Nobody in the house slept for three days running. At the end of the three days big brother had built an entire city on the floor of his room.

After three days baby stopped crying and everyone, even big brother, who was finding it hard to concentrate and building his houses crooked and putting the wrong numbers of wheels on his cars, breathed a sigh of relief.

‘He’s over it’ said Mum.

‘Yes he is’ said Dad.

‘Now we can get some sleep’ said Mum.

‘Yes we can’ said Dad.

No, they couldn’t.

A funny thing happened, and only big brother seemed to notice.

First of all, baby seemed taller now. Babies grew, of course, they were doing it all the time, only it seemed to big brother that baby shouldn’t go from coming up to his hip to being a foot taller than him in only three days. When baby stood up, he now towered over big brother, though he never did it when when Mum and Dad were around.

Also, baby was a lot hairier than he used to be. Again, babies grew hair, but usually on their heads, and not all over their bodies. Baby was now covered in a coat of long, dark, smooth, shiny hair.

Baby was doing a lot things that he didn’t used to be able to do. He could walk better now, without wobbling or toddling or falling over, and he could reach things he hadn’t been able to reach before. So, for example, he was able to get past the child safety locks on the presses in the kitchen and take everything out of the presses, all the food and the crockery and the saucepans, and then throw them out the kitchen window.

Mum and Dad were not happy with that. For some reason they thought big brother was responsible, and they made him clean it up, which took all day. When he came back into the kitchen he saw that there was smoke coming from the oven. He switched it off and opened it up, and found that it was full of all the stuff that used to be in the fridge: the frozen meat and vegetables and the ice cream and the milk and the jar of mayonnaise and the bottle of fizzy orange. They were all now on fire. He had to get the sweeping brush and poke them all with the handle until they fell out onto the floor, melting the linoleum, and push them out the door. Mum and Dad came in as he was doing this, and they hit the roof.

‘It wasn’t me!’ said big brother.

They didn’t believe him.

Big brother was sent to the living room to await punishment while Mum and Dad tidied up. Baby was in the living room, sitting in one of the armchairs. He had his legs crossed as he swigged from a bottle of Dad’s beer and smoked Dad’s pipe.

‘Baby?’ said big brother, and baby looked up at him and laughed. He threw down the beer and the pipe and pulled out a tin whistle and began to play a wild, swirling tune, dancing around the room, knocking into the lamps and ornaments and the pictures, sending them all crashing to the ground, dancing sideways up the wall, kicking the paintings hanging there, knocking them off their hooks, dancing upside down along the ceiling. Big brother tilted his head back to watch, mouth wide open. Baby danced down the wire holding up the light, danced on the lightshade and the bulbs, then threw away the whistle, howled with laughter, grabbed the light and pulled it down, falling to the floor, dragging the light with him. The cable ripped through the plaster of the ceiling and down the wall. The bulbs crashed, the lightshade smashed, and baby danced and capered and laughed in the wreckage.

Big brother looked closely at the mad, hairy creature, at the wicked smile, the sharp teeth, the flashing eyes.

‘You’re not baby’ he said.

The creature sat down and put his thumb in his mouth, looking up at big brother with big wide innocent eyes. Mum and Dad walked in and Mum screamed and fainted and Dad roared and caught her and fell over, and big brother knew that things were only going to get worse.

Mum and Dad were reeling with tiredness, too tired to see that it wasn’t baby, too tired to think of a proper punishment for big brother other than to send him to his room. They took the thing they thought was baby and put it in baby’s cot and they all went to bed. The thing they thought was baby began jumping up and down in the cot, up and down, up and down, nearly as far as the ceiling. He went on jumping up and down all night long until the cot broke beneath him and he started jumping up and down on Mum and Dad’s bed while Mum and Dad sat and stared in horror and exhaustion.

Big brother sat awake all night, too, thinking. He was remembering something his teacher had told his class last year or the year before, about fairies and how they used to steal human children and take them away somewhere and leave another fairy in its place pretending to be the child, causing mischief. A changeling, it was called. That’s what the creature was, he was sure of it: a changeling. Somehow the fairies had come and kidnapped baby! Oh no! This was terrible! How had it happened?

Between one heartbeat and the next, between one breath and another, in the blink of an eye, baby had been stolen away and this monster left behind!

Big brother was absolutely certain that it was all because of the mushephant.

You never heard of fairies stealing children anymore, that all stopped happening long ago. And why? Because of loud, annoying toys like the mushephant. Fairies couldn’t stand them. They kept the fairies away and protected the babies. That must be it.

And Dad had smashed the mushephant.

Big brother was angry and upset. Big brothers were supposed to protect baby brothers, stand up for them, keep them safe from stupid, evil changelings.

Big brother knew what he had to do.

In the morning he emptied his piggy bank. After breakfast went to his uncle’s house and got a lift to Nenagh. In Nenagh he went to the toy shop and wandered the aisles until he found what he was looking for. It was smaller than the mushephant and it had a dial that spun around in the front with pictures of animals on it. Whenever it came to a stop a voice would sing a song about the animal it had stopped at, and about the letter the animal began with, and about the sounds the animal made and about how much the farmer loved this particular animal, and how this animal was the best animal in the whole wide world, and after listening to one song for about five seconds big brother wanted to throw the whole thing out the door of the shop and into the traffic. So he figured it was just the thing he was looking for.

He paid for it with his piggy bank money, waited for his uncle to drive him back, and went home.

Outside the house he made the mistake of trying to get it out of the box. The box was open at the front so you could press the buttons and hear the songs about the animals and their letters and noises, but big brother opened the top and began undoing the plastic ties. The cardboard was stiff and the ties were tight and there were so many of them! It was as if the toy was some sort of dangerous animal that had to be held down in case it broke free and went on a rampage of incredibly loud annoyingness.

Big brother struggled to undo the ties, pulling and poking and twisting and tearing and cutting his fingers. Finally it came free. He pulled it triumphantly out of the box and lifted it into the air. It flew from his hands and flew and flew and kept on flying up and up over the trees and into the blue sky. A cloud of flies swarmed around it. One of the flies swooped away and down and hovered in front of big brother’s nose. The fly was not a fly but a tiny woman with wings, who wagged a finger at big brother, stuck her tongue out and zipped away. He watched the toy as it shrank into the sky until it was a tiny, tiny dot. He watched as the dot grew and grew again, and the toy fell out of the sky, hit the ground and smashed into a thousand pieces.

Up at one of the windows the changeling waved and danced and grinned. Big brother scowled and went inside, where he discovered that the changeling had filled the bath with water, Dad’s suit, Mum’s dress, Dad’s laptop computer, Mum’s laptop computer, big brother’s Nintendo DS, all his games and his favourite books and comics, all the DVDs, all the CDs, Mum’s cookery books and the Monopoly board. Despite having been out of the house all day, big brother got the blame.

That night the changeling kept getting out of bed and going around the house and switching on the television and the radio and the stereo at full volume. Mum and Dad had to go and turn them off, and the changeling would follow them around and turn them on again. All night long.

So the next morning, with eyes that felt as big as footballs and a head that seemed to trail behind the rest of him like a balloon on a string, big brother went to his uncle again and got a lift into Nenagh again. He went to the bank and took out all his Communion money and all his Confirmation money, which he had sworn to his Mum and Dad that he would never touch except to go to college or buy a house, all fifty three euros and seventy six cents of it. Then he returned to the toy shop and wandered up and down the aisles again until he saw what he was looking for.

This time he took it out of the box there and then in the toy shop and put all fifteen batteries into it and switched it on to make sure it was working. Then he went home, and as he walked up to the house, he turned it on.

Lights flashed like fireworks. Music swelled, an entire orchestra playing the sweetest music ever heard, and a choir of six hundred men and women all singing the most beautiful song. Big brother held it out before him and grinned as he walked up to the house, filling the air with music and light.

There was the changeling at the window, looking startled and wide-eyed. Big brother began to run. And so did the toy. The toy sprouted four, five, six legs, long and thin. They pulled the toy out of big brother’s hands and began to run circles around big brother who was too startled to do anything other than go: what the heck?

The toy leapt across the yard, into the hedge, out into the neighbouring field and galloped across the grass, scattering sheep and goats and chickens as it went. The toy vaulted a wall and vanished from sight, the music and the choir and the lights fading away into the distance.

‘Hey!’ yelled big brother. ‘Come back!’

But it wasn’t listening or it couldn’t hear or it didn’t care. In the house, the changeling was rolling around on the floor roaring with laughter. Utterly furious, more furious with anything or about anything than he’d ever been before in his life, big brother stomped up to the changeling, reached into his pocket, took out a handful of Lego and flung it at the changeling.

Which was when something very interesting happened.

The bricks of Lego, yellow and blue and red and white and one tree and a smiling yellow head with a beard on it, flew at the changeling, bounced of him, and fell in a clatter to the floor. The changeling swept around and swooped down over the Lego and pointed at the Lego and said:

A haon, a do, a tri, a cheathair, a chuig’ and so on until he had counted all the Lego. Then he glared at big brother with poison and hate and a promise of revenge. Big brother threw another handful of Lego at him.

Big brother’s pockets were always full of Lego so that if he was ever left waiting anywhere, such as on a bus or in the car or in the doctor’s office, he could pull out a few pieces and build something like a dragon or a car or a space ship or the Eiffel Tower. This is also why the washing machine rattled so much, because sometimes his trousers went into the wash without being properly emptied. Three or four blocks of Lego had been lost somewhere deep within the mechanisms and moving parts of the washing machine.

Every handful big brother threw, the changeling counted. It didn’t want to count them. Counting them made him angrier and angrier, but for some reason he HAD to count all the pieces of Lego on the floor. By the time big brother had thrown every piece of Lego from every pocket the changeling was grinding his teeth and his eyes were full of pure murder. Big brother threw one final handful and dashed past the changeling and up the stairs for the safety of his room.

Which was full of Lego. The changeling was fast, but if he ever came in here, he’d be at least a half an hour counting all the Lego. That must be why the changeling had never come into his room, stealing only his stuff that had been left out in the living room.

If only, thought big brother. If only…

While the changeling was attempting to stuff the family tax returns down the toilet, big brother snuck out of the house, went to his friend’s houses and borrowed their Lego. He had two big bags of Lego blocks, one over either shoulder when he went to his uncle’s house and into his uncle’s garage where his aunt and his uncle kept two big boxes of his cousin’s old toys that his aunt and uncle were going to get around to getting rid of any day now and began fishing through them looking for Lego. Suddenly the box was filled with light and sound.

Dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee.’

Pushing aside tiny cars and soldiers and train tracks and bouncy balls, big brother pulled from the box… a mushephant!

It wasn’t quite a mushephant, though. It didn’t look like a mushroom and en elephant all melted together. It looked like a mushroom, an elephant and a camel all melted together. A mushelamel. It was perfect! It was just what he needed! He put the mushelamel back in the box, hoisted up his bags of Lego and ran home.

The changeling was up in the roof, dancing along the ridge, doing handstands and cartwheels and ballet twirls on his tippy-toes, flapping his arms as though they were wings. Mum and Dad were on the top of the ladder weeping tears of purest terror, arms outstretched, begging baby to come down from there and go to bed, grabbing at him whenever he came near only for him to dance out of reach again.

This was going on long into the night while big brother sat in his room and built and built and built with all the thousands of Lego pieces. He wasn’t building anything fancy, just a big solid cube of Lego, so big it filled his room. So big he had to push his bed out into the hallway. So big he barely had room to move around it, adding in all the final blocks, covering the top with all the odd pieces like trees and little men and car windows and wheels and other round bits.

When morning finally came, he was exhausted, and longed to curl up in bed for the rest of the day, but he knew he was only getting started.

He left his room, with the door slightly ajar, and, walking backwards, laid a trail of Lego blocks down the hall and into the living room where the changeling was eating one of the armchairs. When big brother came in, the changeling looked up, spat out a mouthful of armchair and growled like a big, mad dog. Big brother turned quickly and scattered his last handful of Lego across the floor. The changeling wailed and swiftly began to count.

A haon, a do, a tri, a cheathair, a chuig…

He counted and counted, all the Lego on the floor of the living room, and down the hall, still counting, and big brother leapt ahead and opened his bedroom door. The changeling went through the door and big brother slammed it shut and he ran and ran, the changeling’s howls of rage ringing in his ears. He jumped on his bike and he pedalled furiously until he reached his uncle’s house and ran into the garage to get the mushamel, heart pounding, time counting down, imagining the changeling buzzing around his room, taking the cube apart one block at a time at incredible speed, counting and counting and counting.

There was nothing there. The mushelamel was gone. The boxes of toys were gone.

‘Those old toys?’ said his aunt when he ran into her kitchen and demanded to know what had happened to the mushelamel. ‘I saw you going through them yesterday and that reminded me I’d been meaning to get rid of them for years. So I got rid of them!’

‘Where are they?’ begged big brother, close to tears.

‘Oh, I dropped them up to the Parent and Toddler Group at the hall.’

‘The hall?’

‘Yes, the hall. They’re probably there right now if you… oh… bye!’

Before she had even finished speaking big brother was out of the house and on his bike and racing down the street to the hall. Letting his bike fall to the ground he ran through the door and the little kitchenette and into the main hall, which was full of parents and toddlers. The parents were sitting in chairs and drinking tea and eating biscuits and talking about grown-up stuff. The toddlers were scattered around, playing on their own or in small groups.

‘Hello?’ said one of the mothers. ‘Are you looking for someone?’

Big brother ignored her. There in a corner were four babies finding something hilarious. He saw lights flash and heard the music play:

Dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee.’

He leapt across the hall, reached down amongst the chubby arms and tiny fingers and took hold of the mushelamel. Four toddlers opened their little mouths and screamed blue murder, and eight tiny little hands clung to the mushelamel like little limpets. Big brother tried to shake them off as he dragged them across the hall, but they refused to let go. Parents stopped sipping tea and eating biscuits and stared in shock. A mother stood up and blocked his way.

‘What do you think you’re doing? Put those babies down this instant!’

‘I don’t want the babies! I want the toy!’

‘You want the toy? At your age? Get out of here!’

‘But -’

‘Now!’

Between babies and parents, he knew he was defeated. He dropped the mushelamel and the toddlers and stomped angrily past the mother. Then he stopped. Near the door was a little boy playing with a little toy, a tiny red plastic phone with yellow buttons. Whenever the boy pressed a button, music would play and a voice would sing:

We’re on the phone!

        We’re on the phone!

        Isn’t it awfully nice!

        To be on the phone?

Big brother looked at the toddler. Looked at the phone. Looked back at the mother. The mother was watching him, and the baby, and the phone, and the mushelamel and the toddlers playing with it. How she was managing this with only two eyes, big brother wasn’t sure, but parents can do that sort of thing.

Dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee dee,’ went the mushelamel. The baby’s head perked up and he dropped the phone and got to his feet and wobbled off in the direction of this wonderful new sound, leaving the phone behind. Big brother glanced at the mother who was glaring at him with the heat of a million suns. What the heck. He grabbed the phone and ran for it.

‘Come back here!’

We’re on the phone!

        We’re on the phone!

Out the door and onto his bike.

Isn’t it awfully nice!

        To be on the phone?

Pedalling furiously down the street.

We’re on the phone!

Up to his house.

We’re on the phone!

Through the front door.

Isn’t it awfully nice!

Up the stairs.

To be on the phone?

He flung open his bedroom door holding the phone up, ready to press the button, and a wave of Lego flooded out of his room, swamped the hallway, knocked him over and carried him backwards. A torrent of  Lego washed over him, knocking the phone from his hand.

Caoga ceathar mile, dha chead, triocha do! Finished!’ howled the changeling, surfing along on top of the flood.

Big brother’s mouth was full of Lego, and so was his nose and his ears and his trousers and his shoes. He twisted and turned and swung his arms, swimming to the surface of the Lego, spitting Lego bricks and gasping for air.

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‘Ha ha!’ crowed the changeling, doing a handstand. ‘You think you’re so clever! I’ll make you pay for that! I’ll turn YOU into Lego, oh Lego King, and take you apart and mix you up and build you into a Lego worm and you’ll be my slave for the rest of time!’

Big brother splashed and kicked, trying to stay afloat on the sea of blocks, then saw the phone floating just out of reach. He lunged desperately with outstretched arms, but the changeling saw it too and leapt into the air and fell down with a Lego splash on top of it. But big brother’s hand got there first, and pressed a yellow button.

We’re on the phone!

‘Nooooooooo!’ howled the changeling, clutching his ears.

We’re on the phone!

‘Make it stop! Please!’

Isn’t it awfully nice!

‘You monster! Monster!’

To be on the phone?

With a final shriek, the changeling bounced into the air, ricocheted off the walls, out the hall door and through the living room window, his wails and screams vanishing with him.

Clutching the phone, big brother lay back on the Lego, and breathed a sigh of relief. Something shifted in the Lego beside him, and a smiling, drooling, familiar little person came climbing out of the Lego and up onto his stomach. Grinning, big brother gave baby the phone, who looked at it, then threw it away, and began putting pieces of Lego together, giggling and gurgling happily.

From their parent’s bedroom came the soft snores of two people who would not wake even if world war three broke out at the bottom of the bed, so big brother sat up and began showing baby how to build things with the Lego and also, and more importantly, how not to put the Lego into his mouth or his nose or his nappy. And every now and then he pressed a yellow button on the little red phone. Just to be on the safe side.

– Illustrations by Katie Squires –

Nigel Quinlan

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Nigel Quinlan is an Irish writer born in Limerick in 1970. He has worked in libraries and bookshops all over Ireland before washing up in the midlands village of Cloughjordan with his wife and his two children. He writes stories for local festivals and acts with the local drama group. His first novel, THE MALONEYS’ MAGICAL WEATHERBOX is a middle grade fantasy based on a short story he wrote as a teenager while minding his parents’ petrol pumps.

Find Nigel’s website here

You can also read our review of The Cloak of Feathers here.

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