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Toilet Gnomes at War

Beth Cato

Within an hour of arriving at Grandma’s house, it was clear to me that her toilet gnomes were really, seriously pissed off.

They were super-quiet when I first arrived. That’s the norm for them. As the saying goes, “A happy gnome is a quiet gnome.” But they must have heard that someone was in the house, because soon enough it sounded like a Black Sabbath jam session inside the walls. The reverberations were so bad that the empty mug on the bathroom sink almost vibrated itself onto the floor. I had to drop my purse and make a quick dive to catch the cup in time. It was one of Grandma’s old favorite coffee mugs, too, the interior perfectly stained brown.

Coffee. Oh God, coffee sounded really good about now.

“What is wrong with you?” I yelled at the wall. The sound didn’t let up.

The din was weird. Grandma took awesome care of her gnomes. Better than most people, but Grandma was the hyper-attentive goody-two-shoes-from-hell type. Like, ask her to pick up a can of chicken soup for you when you’re sick, and she shows up with a hot stock pot full, freezer bags for the leftovers, and probably a set of new soup bowls and spoons, too.

But now Grandma was the one who was sick. Well, I wished she was only sick. She was run down in a crosswalk. She’d been in a coma for the past week.

And now it sounded like her gnomes were going to shred her house from the pipes on out. Grandma’s cozy, perfect house, crammed with two long lifetimes of love, where she and Grandpa’d raised three kids, where I spent most every Christmas growing up. I could navigate the place blindfolded in six-inch heels. And now, I swear to God, her gnomes chanted like a Māori Haka.

Maybe they were hungry for some reason, which was weird. Grandma had to have the fattest gnomes in the county. Nothing in that house would be allowed to starve. It wasn’t anywhere near a solstice or equinox, so their seasonal offering hadn’t been skipped. I headed to the kitchen to check things out.

As usual, Grandma had stockpiled for Armageddon, or enough to get her through till the next big sale at Costco. There was a whole shelf of chicken and beef broth. I checked the topmost cupboard on a whim and was surprised to see it was empty. No coffee. Sure enough, the magnetic notepad on the fridge listed milk, coffee, and denture cream.

The china in the cabinets dinged as the vibrations increased. The gnomes were stalking me from within the walls. The obnoxious racket pulsed through my frontal lobe like a jackhammer and reminded me I’d just driven twelve hours, straight through.

Coffee. The one thing I desperately needed and craved had to be the big thing Grandma was out of. And here I was with only a few bucks to my name and a credit card payment that was starting to mimic the national debt, minus some zeroes.

See, my mom thought I had taken time off from work to come and check on Grandma and her place. She didn’t know—well, no one in my family knew—that I’d been laid off six months before. That my boyfriend ran off with some skank freshman. That my shiny new bachelor’s degree would be more useful as mulch than as a job-getter. That I’d lost my apartment a few weeks back and had spent the intervening time playing couch roulette at friends’ houses.

If Mom or Grandma knew the truth, I’d get that I-told-you-so lecture about staying in the big city, and then they’d want to help. Grandma-style help. I was twenty-three. I didn’t want that kind of help, damn it. I wanted to prove I could make it on my own. If that meant some starvation and permanent neck strain from flat couch pillows, so be it.

But coffee would have been a nice perk.

The wailing within the walls worsened, like someone packed a hive of banshees inside and told them to sing Michael Bolton.

I glanced at the clock, the pendulum swaying drunkenly. I had a little time to spare before visiting hours were up at the hospital, and honest to God, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to see Grandma hooked up to machines to keep her alive. Procrastination time.

I had my belongings pared down to one large suitcase, and everything in there had a permanent musty smell because of long stretches between clothes washings. I was so pathetically poor, I couldn’t even afford laundromats. Grandma had plenty of detergent though, so I started up a load.

Then I went to my backpack, and pulled out my laptop.

The neighbor’s Wi-Fi was still as pleasantly vulnerable as it’d been last Christmas, so I took full advantage. Wikipedia didn’t offer anything new on the subject of toilet gnomes.

I poked around in toilet gnome troubleshooting forums and was still stumped. Anything that wasn’t common sense led to references to toilet gnome interventionists, who seemed to cost hundreds of bucks an hour. The very thought of that expense made my head throb more. It didn’t help that the drumming in the walls kept getting more frenzied, compounding the pre-existing headache from the drive. Procrastination just wasn’t cutting it anymore. I had to get out of there.

Since I had rolled into town on fuel vapors, walking was my only option. Being that it was summer, most people were smart enough to sequester themselves in air conditioning. Therefore, I earned some funny looks when I got to the hospital with my clothes soaked in sweat. I didn’t much care at that point. I needed to see Grandma.

The place had that funny antiseptic smell that reminded me of taking my old cat to the vet. Grandma looked… weird. Pale. Like she was sleeping, but not. She always prided herself on her appearance. You know, standing appointments for a perm and manicure every Saturday at one o’clock, with the same beauticians she had been visiting longer than my lifetime. Now her hair was a flattened mess. Her hands still wore scrapes from the accident, like red scaled gloves, with several nails missing.

Mom had tried to warn me over the phone, after she had flown out to see Grandma, but nothing, nothing could have prepared me for that.

The legs of the metal chair squealed as I dragged it next to the bed. Grandma’s hand was cold, like a piece of chicken in the fridge.

“Hey, Grandma,” I said, my voice cracking. “It’s P.J. I drove out here to see you. Mom wishes she could be here.” That was tearing Mom apart, I knew it was, but my stepdad was in the middle of chemo, and there was no one else to take care of him either.

I sat there and I talked. I told her everything I hadn’t told her or Mom. About being fired. About waiting in line for three hours for a two-minute job interview. About Carl leaving me—she didn’t like him when we came over for Christmas anyway. “He doesn’t listen when you talk,” she kept insisting. Told her no, of course he listens, he’s a good guy.

A nurse finally came in to boot me out. “I’ve got to go, Grandma,” I said and kissed her cool cheek. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Maybe I’ll have a happier story for you then.” She always loved happy, silly stories—Pollyanna tales, she called them. All rainbows and kittens and happily-ever-afters.

The total opposite of my life. Maybe I could bring some fiction to read to her.

I walked out the door feeling ragged and limp. Grandma hadn’t squeezed my hand. Her eyelashes hadn’t even fluttered. There was no sign that she was there at all.

There was one thing I hadn’t mentioned to her—the gnomes.

Everything I confessed was about me, my screw-ups. Her house, that was sacred ground. That was the place she and Grandpa scrimped and saved for twenty years to buy. If there had been a way to ask her about what might have set off the gnomes, that would’ve been different. But as it was now, telling her, “Hey Grandma, your toilet gnomes are on the warpath and sound like they’re tearing your house apart,” no, I couldn’t say that to her. Not when she might be in there, helpless and listening.

I was halfway home when I saw smoke.

It was a slow, sinuous line of gray. I stared at it a moment before I registered that it was in the right direction, the right distance away.

“Oh, God,” I said. Then I ran.

The fact it was a hundred degrees didn’t matter. I had to get there. I had to save the house. Toilet gnomes had done that sort of thing before, in cases of terrible abuse. Their tribes were bound to a house at the time of construction. If the home was in bad enough shape, the only way for them to break that bond was immolation, the purification of fire.

Why? Why would they be that angry? Grandma hadn’t been home for a week! If she had started blaring elevator music and subsisting on Limburger cheese, sure I could see them getting pissed, but this didn’t make sense.

I was there to take care of the house. I failed in everything else. I couldn’t fail Grandma, too.

Oh, God. When Grandma woke up, she’d kill me. I’d deserve it. I’d stand there and take it, just like when she whupped me for taking the Lord’s name in vain when I was six.

Smoke rose from the back of the house. I staggered up the front walkway just as a man burst through the side gate. We both stopped in our tracks, staring. It took me a second to recognize him as Grandma’s next-door neighbor, his hair having thinned considerably in recent years.

“You, you’re—” he started.

“What happened?” I said between gasps.

“A fire in the backyard. I couldn’t believe it. It was the gnomes, the damned gnomes.” He shook his head, dazed. “But they ain’t too bright, since they were trying to set fire to wet clothes—”

That’s all I needed to hear. “Oh, no,” I whimpered, dragging myself to the backyard. My sweat-soaked clothing clung to me, like I was competing to win some foul-smelling wet t-shirt contest.

The toilet gnomes had tried to dry my clothes. With fire. They hadn’t burned much—the smoke had come from a row of wooden planters lighting up—but I doubted the smell of the smoke would wash out. Clothes. Hey, who needs clothes? I almost laughed, and instead managed to swallow down the need to hysterically sob.

“I put the fire out right away. I could call the fire department—”

I didn’t hear any sirens yet, and I didn’t want to. “No, no, this is fine. Thanks for putting it out.”

His thick brows lowered as he scrutinized me. “So what the hell is up with your gnomes?”

My gnomes. Not Grandma’s. I couldn’t help but flinch as I mumbled some sort of reply and backed away.

The house was quiet as I entered. Too quiet. I breathed in the cool air and faint scent of dusty potpourri, tears stinging my eyes. The house never changed, no matter how old I was. That was one of the most comforting things about it. The living room had wood paneling leftover from the 1970s. The garish green carpet still had a dark splotch from when I spilled grape Kool-Aid when I was five. I loved the place. Grandma loved the place.

Very, very faintly, I heard the sound of running water. A strangled whimper escaped from my throat.

I could see the overflowing toilet from ten feet away. I also saw a small, pudgy blur make a dash for the hallway.

“Hey!” I yelled. “Stop!”

Yeah, like it did any good. The toilet gnome moved as fast as a cat to a can opener, right to their little access niche in the hallway. It threw open the door and was swallowed up by the darkness of the interior walls. I was left staring after the little bastard, panting (again), sweating (again), with my head pulsing to some insane mariachi beat.

Why were they doing all this? I didn’t have the money for some gnomish linguist to come and whisper at the walls. I could ask Mom for help but… well, if I had to swallow my pride, I would. For Grandma, not for me.

I stood in the overflow of the toilet and plungered the thing. The water drained away, for the moment. A gnome could magic it clogged again the second I turned my back though. Kicking off my shoes, I went to the garage to get the mop.

It looked like someone had shaved a sheep dog. Those gnomes had hacked off every strand of fiber from that mop, leaving them all in a tidy pile right on the mat.

It was war. Those suckers knew what they were doing.

I used up Grandma’s whole stockpile of old white t-shirts cut into rags, and a paper towel roll besides. Every time I leaned over, that pain in my head pulsed again, like a shifting metal weight inside my skull. At least the noise in the walls had stopped.

Moving stiffly, I went to the medicine cabinet and swallowed some generic pain pills. My knees didn’t want to work well after kneeling on the tile for so long, but I hobbled through the house to the kitchen, where I found out why the gnomes had been so quiet.

Every cupboard was open, gaping, empty. The contents covered every inch of cabinet space and much of the floor as well. I stared, jaw gaping. As well as I knew that house, there was no way I could put everything back where it belonged. No way. Not a full seventy year’s collection of china and plastic and carnival glass.

So, I did the only think I could do at that moment. I sat down and cried.

Grandma was in the hospital. She might die. She might be as good as dead already. Her house was being poked and prodded by insane gnomes who just might blow the place up if I didn’t figure out why they were pulling their crap. And there I was, the class valedictorian who was flopping at Real Life in every possible way with a headache from hell, and if Grandma lost her house, it would be all my fault.

Yeah, I had my own pity party right there on the floor.

When I couldn’t cry anymore, I wiped my face with my stiff shirt, washed my hands, then started reassembling the kitchen. And tried not to think of what the gnomes might be doing in the other rooms.

Three hours later, I could walk through the kitchen again. I still had one stretch of counter covered with old, dusty stuff that looked like it’d emerged from a time capsule. Seriously, 32-ounce cups from McDonald’s commemorating the 1988 Olympics?

Then there was the upside: money.

Until I started opening those old lids, I had forgotten about Grandpa’s habit of stashing extra cash like that. It used to be something of a game when Grandpa would come visit us, as he’d hide a few bucks around the house and I might not find them till months later. I guess Grandma was just as bad at that game. I had a pile of $64, none of the bills dated after Grandpa’s death in 1997.

Really, it wasn’t my money. It wasn’t like Grandpa had hidden it in my house. And it wasn’t enough to hire a gnome whisperer or interventionist or whatever. But that pain medicine hadn’t put the slightest dent in my headache, and there was only one thing on my mind worth spending it on.


I wasn’t going to go crazy and spend all the money. Heck, I knew I might be living on that for a week. But coffee would cleanse my nose of that lingering wet bathroom stink and might provide the mental jolt I needed to stop the gnomes. Besides, Grandma’s the one who got me hooked on coffee back when I was ten. I could raise a cup to her in tribute—maybe even use her favorite mug, the one I’d salvaged from the bathroom.

Honest to God, I was afraid to run the shower or take off one of my few remaining sets of clothes, so I dragged my stinky self to the grocery store a few blocks away. The smell of the in-store coffee stand lured me first thing. I took tiny sips from my cup, making it last, making it linger. The hot manna seemed to whirl in my brain, all cozy and hallucinogenic. Maybe it was the placebo effect, but my head felt better after that first sip.

I could imagine Grandma shaking her head and smiling at that. “It’s called addiction, honey,” she’d say, that gentle smile curving her cheeks. “You’re just like me.”

Dear God, I wanted to see that smile again. I wanted to be just like her. If I could make that claim, I’d have a good life.

At least I would have a nice story to tell her at the hospital. She’d love to know that Grandpa had left her surprise money like that.

With caffeine thrumming through my veins, I floated through the aisles and check-out. My only purchases were coffee—Grandma’s brand, nothing fancy—and a half gallon of milk.

I still had half a cup left when I walked in the door at Grandma’s house. Just as I reset the deadbolt, the walls screamed. Pictures rattled, and the floor heaved beneath my feet. I dropped my bag and purse, but held onto the cup for dear life.

That was it. The gnomes were intent on taking down the house.

I felt their footsteps, mobs of them coming down the hall, winding through the living room. Then I saw them, marching in their perfect rows, three abreast and some dozen strong. Their peaked brown hats bobbed with each step but otherwise they were naked. Not a stitch of clothing covered their skin, not even boots. Itty bitty man parts swayed in unison. Blue war paint marred their faces and chests—it looked a lot like toothpaste, actually. The leaders held Grandma’s Oneida forks like tridents, and I didn’t doubt that they were willing to use them.

Some five feet away from me, they stopped. The middle gnome held aloft his fork. “Off of fee!” he shouted. The others repeated the phrase in a chorus.

I stared at them, my back against the door, wondering what my mom would print in my obituary if I was forked to death by a dozen naked toilet gnomes.

“Off of fee!” He pointed the fork at me. His teeth shone as he grimaced behind his filthy beard.

Enough already. They were pissed off about something? Fine. I was pissed off, too, and I wasn’t going to go down without a struggle. I wasn’t going to give up Grandma’s house without a fight. “What do you want?” I yelled at them, feet braced, cup contents warm in my hand.

The toilet gnomes howled. One of them from the back said something that sounded faintly Germanic, and the back row broke off from the rest, heading towards my grocery bag on the floor.

“What the…” I advanced, intending to kick them. They brandished their forks, but that’s not what stopped me—it was curiosity. What did they want? They tore through the bag. The red canister of coffee emerged, and they cried out like Inuits snaring a whale.

“Off of fee! Off of fee!” The gnomes worked as a team to twist off the lid. One of the fork-wielders joined them and stabbed the plastic sealing open. The canister tilted, spilling some grounds onto the floor. They fell into it, weeping. Warfare forgotten, they all threw themselves into the dumped grounds, rolling, snorting, sobbing. Some of their gestures seemed weirdly like prayers.

Off of fee. Coffee. They had picked up some English, after all.

“Oh my God,” I whispered, then cast a sideways glance at Grandma’s portrait on the wall. “Sorry.”

Grandma had taken such good care of her gnomes that she’d created a mob of caffeine addicts, then was gone for a week. No wonder they were on the warpath.

“I can make you coffee,” I said loud enough to be heard. I bent to take the canister, eyeing the discarded forks all the while. The naked, teary gnomes looked up at me and smiled through their brown-smeared beards.

I bet Grandma felt just as desperate as her gnomes, locked away in her body like that, wanting to be understood. Wanting her coffee, too. Whenever she woke up—and she would wake up—I’d be right there to lift that coffee cup to her lips.

I smiled back at the toilet gnomes. Tomorrow I would have a happy story for Grandma, and a promise for her, too. I’d take good care of her house and her gnomes, in her own grand tradition. They were my gnomes now, too, and I was going to spoil them rotten.

I could do this.

Author Notes:

One day when my household plumbing misbehaved for some inexplicable reason, I uttered those fateful words:“I have somehow angered the toilet gnomes.” Being a writer, my next thought was, “Huh, that’d make a fun story.” The rest is history.

Author Bio:

Beth Cato’s debut steampunk novel will be released by HarperCollins Voyager in late 2014. She’s originally from Hanford, California, but now resides in Arizona with her husband and son. Her short fiction, poetry, and tasty cookie recipes can be found at

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