The idea came to her out of pure desperation.
Allison got home late one night (as she did nearly every night) from a long day at work to find her home a disaster. As if the police had executed a search warrant. Or someone in the mob had become convinced she had video evidence hidden away. Except this state of cleanliness was what she came home to every night. Ever since she’d started her residency. Every available surface covered in take-out containers, dishes, mail that really needed to be gone through, dirty clothes, dirty everything. She felt a weight drop on her the second she entered the door.
If she had any reserves of energy left, she thought, she would do something about the mess. She would load the dishwasher, after first emptying it of the few clean dishes and putting those away. Laundry would be spinning in the washer, and the dryer. Mail would be sorted; the bulk of going to the recycling bin, which would also not be a towering heap of recyclables that would eventually end up dumped in the trash can instead of being taken to the recycling center.
The weight that had fallen on her shoulders upon entering the house doubled as she considered taking a day off from working to clean the house, top to bottom; Such a task would kill her, she was sure. And she couldn’t take time off from her residency. She had to build her reputation at the hospital. She had to focus on what was important.
She shoved the morning newspaper off of the couch, sat among the books and magazines and yesterday’s takeout boxes, and ate her chicken lo mein out of the carton with the wooden chopsticks that came with it. Allison wondered how much it would cost to pay someone, a cleaning service, bonded of course, to come in and make her house a place that did not crush her soul to come home to. She could imagine the look of horror and sorrow that would cross whatever-nice-person-the-agency-had-available’s face as he or she crossed the threshold and stepped into her home for the first time. How could you live like this? How long has it been like this? How did you let it get this bad? She would see the questions in the person’s eyes. He or she would be too polite to ask, of course, but would later talk about the house-from-hell that had been seen. And what if the person had ties to someone she knew? Were there confidentiality agreements for cleaning services?
Still, she knew she could not face the judgment of this imagined cleaning service person, who would charge her triple the normal rate upon seeing both the house and her desperation. As she put the half-eaten container of lo mein in her refrigerator she spotted a mostly empty gallon of milk, two days past the expiration date. Allison remembered a fairy tale, the one about a shoemaker who needed help. Elves had come and made shoes for him. But how did he call them? Did he write a note to the elves on a slip of paper that he chucked down a well? Did he put a shoe in a tree? Or, wait, wasn’t there something about milk? Putting out a bowl of milk? That sounded familiar. She got a bowl out of the dishwasher, poured a small amount of milk into it, and set the bowl on the floor by her front door before going to sleep.
She woke up to realize she had forgotten to turn on the alarm and had fifteen minutes to get ready and leave before she would inevitably be late. She scrambled to find her purse and keys and, finding those, threw open the front door. Something hit the wall and shattered.
That damn bowl.
She glanced at the havoc. Shards everywhere, milk dripping down the wall. Why the hell had she left the bowl by the door?
Then she saw the note.
It was a tiny piece of paper, stuck to the bottom of the door with a pin. She pulled it off of the pin and held the note to the light; she had to squint to make out the tiny handwriting. When she did she felt both elated and hurt.
“You’ll have to do better than that. –B”
Better than what? She ran to the fridge and sniffed the milk, then sipped it, then spat it out into the sink. “Shit.”
The milk had gone sour.
But it had worked! She had made contact with an elf!
That night she came home with a fresh gallon of milk. She got a fork and another bowl out of the dishwasher. She poured some milk into the bowl and set it by the door, then ate the pasta salad she’d gotten from the store deli counter and hurried to bed, feeling like a kid on Christmas morning.
When she woke up to the alarm she sighed upon seeing the piles of dirty laundry still strewn on the floor. Had she imagined the note? She switched the alarm off and stumbled into the kitchen. It was just as messy as when she had gone to bed, but there was a small man standing on the counter. Her body felt numb.
The tiny man stared at her. He had a squat figure, even for such a short creature, large brown eyes, and a bulbous nose. He wore tight black jeans, a fitted, faded t-shirt, and a scarf. His blond hair spiked into a hundred little points. She didn’t know what she had pictured. No, never mind, she did know what she had pictured– one of those smiling guys from the cookie commercials. Definitely something lankier, with pointier ears. This man was not that.
“’Hello’ usually works,” he said.
“Hello. Good morning. Who are you?”
“You know who I am, or you wouldn’t have set the milk out for me and my friends.”
“I thought an elf would look different–
He held up a hand. “You must be joking, I’m a brownie—not an elf. “
“What’s the difference?”
The little man stared at her for a moment, then said, as if he hadn’t heard the question, “We have a problem.”
“A problem? Is that why you didn’t clean?”
She stared at him. She tried not to stare at him. She couldn’t. “What was the problem?”
“You set milk out for us. Cow milk.”
“What other kind is there?”
He rolled his eyes. She pulled a chair up to the counter and sat in front of him. “You wouldn’t be so slow on the uptake if you weren’t all bogged down by the crap you’re eating.”
“Yes. Crap. I didn’t clean your house but I looked in your fridge. When’s the last time you cleaned that thing out?”
“I was hoping you would.”
“You have to set out exactly what a brownie wants before said brownie will make your shoes or do your taxes or clean your house. Exactly.”
“So what ‘exactly’ do you want?” she worried she had sounded sarcastic.
“I can’t tell you. That’s not how it works.”
“I don’t understand. What was wrong with the milk I set out? Oh shit, or was it supposed to be cream?”
“Do you want to clog my arteries? Look– no. A brownie needs a lot of energy, right? And we did the cream thing for years, but we were dragging. Just dragging. So we did a little research on the internet. Did you know brownies didn’t always eat like that?”
“I didn’t really know anything about brownies.”
“Apparently. So, anyway, we went back to eating like our ancestors ate. You would not be-lieve how much more energy we have now!”
Allison paused, then said, “You went paleo?!”
She wracked her brain to remember what she’d heard about the paleo diet. “So I put some almond milk or something out and you and your friends will clean the house?”
The brownie put a finger to his lips and winked out of existence.
When Allison came home that night she brought in a carton of almond milk. She grabbed the last clean bowl in the dishwasher. She thought about putting the remaining dishes away and starting a new load in the dishwasher, then laughed at herself. The brownies would take care of that for her! Instead, she poured the milk into the bowl and set it by the door, then hurried to bed.
She woke up when the alarm went off, and nearly cried when she saw the piles of dirty laundry on the floor. What had happened with the brownies?
He stood on the counter in the kitchen again, wearing a button-up shirt and skinny jeans.
“Didn’t you see? I put out the almond milk!”
She heard him sigh. “You are not making this easy. Why did you buy that almond milk?”
“Because it was on sale…”
“Don’t you care about the Earth at all?”
“What does that even mean?”
The brownie said nothing, but stared at her.
Allison rushed to the refrigerator and grabbed the carton of almond milk she had bought. The label confirmed that yes, this was almond milk. What did that have to do with the Earth? Oh crap.
“It has to be organic, doesn’t it?”
The brownie appeared to be extremely interested in a cobweb in the corner of the ceiling. Her face felt hot and she clenched her fists, then closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Would you like some organic almond milk, Mr. Brownie?”
“It’s not a matter of ‘like.’ Would you like to flood your body with pesticides? Would you like to contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder? Would you like to pollute the Earth? If you’d take a moment to educate yourself–”
“I–” Allison paused, breathed. “I’m sorry, Mr. Brownie. I’ve been very busy and I haven’t had time to learn what I should regarding—these things.”
“I’ll say.” He smoothed his shirt. “You know, back in the fifteenth century brownies weren’t this patient.”
“Of course. I’m sorry, Mr. Brownie.”
“Don’t call me ‘Mr. Brownie,’” he said, and disappeared.
She stormed into the living room, snatched a pillow from the couch, and screamed into it as hard as she could.
That evening she went back to the store. She bought a carton of organic almond milk, the most expensive she could find. At home she looked in the dishwasher for another bowl, knowing she’d used the last. She had to hope though. No bowls in the cupboards either. If they want this damn milk so bad, she thought, they could at least wash a stinking bowl. She grabbed a coffee mug and filled it to the brim with the new almond milk, and set it on the counter.
And she had tomorrow off! She would get to enjoy her clean house, maybe read. Stay in her pajamas till dinner, shower and put on clean pajamas.
Allison lay on her bed, wondering how the brownies would change the sheets under her while she slept. She’d let them figure that out.
When she opened her eyes she could not hold back a sob. The piles of dirty clothes. The wrinkled, smelly sheets. What could have gone wrong?
The brownie waited in the kitchen, wearing a pair of thick-rimmed glasses and a tight knit shirt, paired with slacks. He walked up to the stack of dirty dishes in the sink and ran a finger across the edge of a plate before grimacing and rubbing his hands on a towel curled on the counter.
“What do you want?” Allison cried.
“Look, I can see you’re trying. And I appreciate it, the others appreciate it. But you need to give us what we want first, right? That’s just how contracts work. Brownies and humans have had contracts for centuries, and the human have always figured it out before.”
“But there wasn’t almond milk in the fifteenth-or-whatever century,” she wailed.
“I never said it had to be almond milk.”
Allison grabbed the nearest thing to her, a glass, and hurled it across the room. Until she threw it, she was certain she was aiming for the brownie. He adjusted his glasses. “You know, my people have a reputation for mischievousness.”
“What? What would you do? Mess the place up?”
He smirked. “Good one. But we’re not confined to this house, you know. You work in a nice hospital, don’t you?”
“I don’t want to get all mobbish on you, but we could.”
“Please, no, I’m sorry! I’m doing so well!”
“Are you? If your home looks like this?”
“That’s different. I can’t keep my house spotless and keep up on my rounds.”
“Just please, please, tell me what you want.”
He shook his head. “If this is too much for you, you can quit. No hard feelings. The other brownies and I will move on, find someone who can fulfill our needs–”
“No! Are you kidding me? All I have time to do is work or study for my licensing exam! I haven’t gotten more than six hours sleep in a night in four years.” She looked at the floor for a moment. An ant crawled across her foot. “I’m so tired.”
He gave her a look she couldn’t read; she wanted to see sympathy there. Then he vanished.
Okay, she had to make decisions. That was what being a doctor was– making decision after decision. And she was good at that. She was. So now what? Do what the brownie had said? Give up? Spend her whole day off cleaning the house, enjoy it for a couple of days, a week, and then what? What would she do when it got messy again?
Decision made. She went to the food co-op.
“Hi, I’m sorry, but I’m shopping for a friend. I think he’s paleo, or something. He’s very concerned about the environment. I need to find him a milk.”
“A milk?” The girl asked. She had long tangled hair with two braids framing her face, studded with flowers. “Why don’t you ask him?”
“I don’t want him to think he put me through any trouble,” Allison said carefully. “But I want to find him the most paleo-friendly, Earth friendly, no-possible-reason-to-reject-it milk that could possibly be purchased.”
“Sure,” the girl said slowly. She regarded the shelves of milks, found a glass jug filled with a pearly white liquid. “This is hazelnut milk from a local organic farmer in a reusable jug. Just bring it back clean and we can refund the deposit on the bottle.”
“That’ll do the trick?”
“Sure,” she said, smiling. “I’ve met the farmer- he’s very active in preserving heirloom seeds and fighting GMOs.”
The girl led Allison to the checkout counter, where a collection of fairy figurines beamed at her. She scowled. “Don’t you like fairies?” the girl asked, sounding scandalized.
“Not fairies in particular. Some of the fairy folk are real jerks, though.”
The girl tilted her head; a flower tumbled out of her hair. “I suppose you’re right. I mean, fairies and elves are good. But then you get those others, like hobgoblins and brownies. Those aren’t very nice.”
“You know about brownies?”
Allison wanted to grab the girl by her tunic and shake everything she knew out of her. Instead, she said as calmly as she could manage, “I never heard much about brownies. Are those the ones that drink milk?”
“Yes! They do chores if you give them milk.” Ha. “But they are very particular, and easily offended. Then they get nasty.”
“Well, they started out as these things called boggarts. Those were really mean. Played pranks, ruined crops, stole children. That sort of thing.”
“What did they do with the children?”
The girl shrugged. “Who knows? Probably ate them.”
She handed the girl money for the jug of hazelnut milk and carried it to her car.
But the brownie in her kitchen had said they wanted milk, hadn’t he? No, he never had. Just that they’d gone paleo. But he meant this, right? Plain old human paleo diet. What the cavemen would have eaten. If they’d had nuts and blenders.
But what if he’d meant what paleo brownies would have eaten?
On the drive home she pulled in to the park. A trio of children hanging from the monkey bars. Two boys taking turns down a slide. A lone girl on the swings, kicking her feet.
Did she really want to do this? Shouldn’t she try the hazelnut milk? That must have been what the brownie meant, right? It was perfect, everything the most paleo paleo person could ask for. But person. Not brownie. She looked across the park, and saw a small boy kicking a ball by himself.
But if the hazelnut milk didn’t work she would have no clean clothes to wear to the hospital tomorrow.
And she was tired. So very tired.