FICTION

Self-Centered Demons

Evan Hartline

“Tell the men I'm coming, tell them to count the days.”

 

This was the general. He was a bit narcissistic, but he was good at his job. “They will revel in my return,” he muttered. He was currently on a job with a foreign group of soldiers; he was meant to train them. All he seemed to train them how to do was to appreciate how amazing he, General Fars, was. I suppose they learned to fight and defend their kingdom, but that's not important.

“Give me ten!” He yelled at a nearby soldier. The soldier immediately dropped everything, bowed, and brought forth ten faithful soldiers. Fars smiled to himself. They would be allowed to be sacrificed in his name. Fars was a legend. He was so kindhearted, he even allowed the other soldiers one wish before they were killed. Fars! The unfoolable, the wise, the noble! “You know what, I’m starving! Bring all of my soldiers, not just ten, and I will feast upon your souls!” 

 

“What is your wish?” Fars asked, regarding the first soldier.

 

“Just one last look at your beautiful face,” he responded with awe.

The next one stepped up. “I would like to leave to tell everyone of your excellence!” This was a problem, because the effect that General Fars had on his soldiers faded with distance. But you see, Fars was not so unfoolable, wise, or noble. He didn’t even see the issue with this.

The army marched in a week later, all carrying longbows to counter the effect of his greatness. They came with catapults, trebuchets, and even some ballistae. This was because this one soldier may have exaggerated, just a bit…

“There is a giant in the forest! He enchants all with his beautiful voice, but then kills his followers for their souls! He looks like a huge bear, but with a massive tail of a snake! Over 100 feet tall! Come and help me defeat him, it will be glorious!”

 

…You get the idea.

Anyway, General Fars quickly countered the fast approaching force with an extremely advanced and refined tactic.

The branches whipped by, leaving bloodied marks on his perfect face. After his dignified exit, he climbed onto an overhang, and watched the battle below him. His new soldiers he “recruited” a few days ago were no longer his, but they were confused and attacked the enemy force anyway. The battle ended with the people of the nearby town victorious. But General Fars was smarter than they thought, and swooped in and finished them all.

 

It’s only a shame that he couldn’t keep any of them. Foolish mortals.

cry wolf place

Archie Wagner

“When do I get to go back to the farm?” 

I lean against the white countertop, staring at Mom in the kitchen. Her head keeps darting back and forth as her hands busily prepare her coffee. There’s the quiet hum of both the sets of snakes on our heads. Hers are slightly louder due to all the movement.  After a sharp turn, I can see a head peeking out of the orange scarf. The scales of her snakes are a silverish tint. They remind me of a nickel or dime; mine remind me of a sand dune. She drops the coffee mix into the filter cup, sending excess brown mixture into the air. Her silver snakes, dangling just above her forehead, hiss at the mixture. It spreads towards them, and the heads recede into the safety of the scarf. With soft pats to her head, Mom tries to assure them that it wasn’t on purpose. It’s a motion that’s all too familiar: both of us are still getting used to the snakes, so these accidents happen more than they should. The snakes attached to my scalp slither towards my forehead as well, wanting to get a better look at what’s going on. However, movement stills when they realize they won’t get it; so, they retreat to their previous position instead.

Once she hits the button needed for the coffee--the largest option possible--Mom turns to me. She blinks, rubs her eyes, and then just stares back. 

“Can this wait until after I’ve had my coffee?” 

 

I shift my posture. All I’ve done is wait. I pull out the black stool and sit down. But okay, Mom. Both of us turn our attention to the coffee machine. We listen to its whirring. After a few seconds, hot liquid starts piping out. Mom keeps rubbing her eyes, and I don’t know how late she stayed up. I wanted to watch tv with her but she sent me off to bed at nine. 

 

I heard angry voices for another two solid hours, but I don’t know whether they came from the tv, her, or what my older sister Darcy dubbed my cry wolf place. Initially an unfiltered comment from her, cry wolf place is how I refer to the visions in my head. Darcy had muttered it--her eyelids drooping, Mountain Dew on her breath, her face illuminated by a tablet, in an attempt to get me to stop bothering her. With a term for my mind, I had left the room. So, good for her, I guess. The term is even accurate to some extent. Sometimes the voices are true. What they say did actually happen, just not to me. But the other times, the voices aren’t true. Those times Darcy only glares. One time, she muttered the words, “You really should be a better liar by now”. 

I don’t know what age good lying comes-I’m 11 now-but it doesn’t appear to be anytime soon. Maybe when I turn thirteen I’ll be good at lying. Maybe. 

 

After Mom takes a sip of the coffee, she resumes the conversation. 

 

“Mirabella, there is no farm.” 

 

The snakes on the top of my head hiss. I clench my knuckles. Maybe she just needs more coffee, one of the voices said to me. I agree with it. Mom probably just needs more coffee. So I wait for her to take another sip. She does. 

 

“Yeah, there is. My cow-Daisy-I haven’t seen her in forever. What if they’re feeding her the wrong feed? I need-I need to make sure she’s okay!” 

 

Mom shakes her head. Her eyes dart down. She doesn’t look at me. She won’t look at me. Another sip of coffee. A brown lip-shaped stain starts to form on the rim of the mug. 

“Daisy is a stuffed animal, and we got rid of her years ago. Darcy said-she gave the impression-that this had stopped. That you didn’t think about the farm anymore.” 

 

Did Mom and Darcy even speak enough for Darcy to give Mom that impression? I shake my head. Then I shake it again. No, no. The farm is real. I shoot up to my feet,  my ankles brush against the legs of the stool. The stool wobbles for a second. I step to the side and move closer to the counter. 

 

“No, Daisy was my cow. An actual cow. You showed me how to milk her.” 

 

Mom placed the coffee cup on the counter. She left her side of the kitchen and turned the corner in order to get over to my side. All the way, she kept shaking her head and muttering something about Darcy. When she gets over to me, she places her hands on my shoulder. I feel her hands pressing down. 

 

“Can you feel that?” she asks. 

 

Yes, of course, I feel that. I nod. 

 

She moves her hands upwards towards my snakes. They let out a hiss of warning. Mom’s hands stop. 

 

“You hear the hiss?” 

 

I’m not stupid. Of course, I can hear the snakes on the top of my head. Again, I nod. 

“Right now, do you hear anything else?” 

 

Her hands are on my cheeks. I blink. At the back of mind, sound begins to stir. Lighting shifts. I feel my body begin to drift. 

 

Mom squeezes, trying to anchor me back to the present moment. 

 

“Whatever you’re thinking about right now isn’t real,” she reminds me. 

I shake my head. Step back. I pull my head out of her grasp. Her cool hands uncurl easily. They hang in mid air and I stop looking at them. I turn around. 

I dash towards the living room. My balance is shaky, my center of gravity drops. Once stable legs remind me more of jelly. I look at the  array of red cushions on the floor. Safe place, safe place, my mind sings. I try my best to focus. There’s indents in the material, proof of Mom’s tv watching last night. I let out a breath and collapse onto one of the corner pieces. 

 

“No, it’s real.” 

 

Images continue to form in my mind. I let my muscles relax. I will stop fighting it. The volume of Mom’s voice in my ears dwindles. 

 

“Daisy isn’t real. The farm isn’t real. I never took you there. It doesn’t-” 

 

“I wasn’t thinking about the farm, Mom,” I managed. 

 

I’m still listening to her somewhat as my eyelids start drooping. Her voice gets quieter and quieter. It gets replaced with unfamiliar pop music. 

 

“Then, what were you possibly-,” she starts, barely louder than a cricket. 

I close my eyes. Let it take full hold. I can’t hear Mom at all. 

Like every time it happens, the first thing I do is touch my head. When my fingers brush against matted curls, I know I’m having a vision. Then, I look around me. Of course I know I’m still on the cushion-but in the vision I am on a bed, looking at a woman doing makeup in a boudoir. When I pay attention to the glass, I recognize it as a younger version of my mom. She holds a brush to her face. She makes upward strokes against her cheeks. They shimmer golden. She’s already applied gold eyeshadow and a strong wing to make her eyes pop. She’s maybe sixteen or seventeen. She’s clear in her intent to relax the rest of her face as she applies the blush. After a minute of this, she stops. Looks right at me. 

 

“My mom never let me leave the house like that. You need-I’ll get to you once I finish.” 

 

“You really don’t need to,” I say quietly. 

 

I swing my legs a little against the edge of the bed. The younger version of my mom goes back to applying blush. 

 

“I do, I do. I wouldn’t be a good friend if I didn’t,” she says, briefly looking back over her shoulder even though there’s no need to. She could just look in the mirror but she doesn’t. 

 

“You’re not my friend, though.” 

 

“Of course I am. I’m your best friend.” 

 

The young woman smiles wider than I’ve seen previously; She smiles wider than I’ve ever seen the real version of my mom smile. Her teeth practically shine white. There’s a small piercing on her tongue, and I don’t want to think about whether that hurts. The words best friend echo when she puts the brush to my face. I try to make my face still. I struggle. The woman doesn’t mention it. Instead, she keeps working. The woman progressively gets closer and closer to my face until I can’t see her anymore. Eventually I can’t feel her.  

The bed gives way to the cushions. There’s an ache in my legs. 

When I open my eyes, there’s only the current version of my mother. When I touch my head, there’s only snakes. 

 

“So you are still doing that. Why did your sister say you weren’t?” 

 

I blink. What is Mom even talking about? I turn onto my side and look up at her. 

 

“What?” 

“Right, you’re always spacey when you come out of that. Mirabella, you-you were somewhere else. And Darcy, your sister, had said that you hadn’t done that since I left.” 

 

“Darcy must’ve lied. She’s good at it.” 

 

“I know,” Mom said quiet. Then she raised her voice so that I didn’t have to guess at the words: “You said something about someone not being your friend. What was that about?” 

 

I fidgeted with my fingers. If I tell you, you probably won’t believe me. No one does. 

 

“Please, I need to know if I'm going to stay here. You’re going to need to trust me.” 

 

She must be joking. She’s barely been back for a few days, and she expects me to explain this. Yet, I still look at her, staring into her brown eyes. I use my elbow to prop myself up instead of relying on the width of the cushion. 

 

“What do you mean stay here? I didn’t think you were allowed to go back to-well, you never really told me where you went. But I-I can’t be alone here. I’m just a kid.” 

 

“You wouldn’t be alone. You could get help, and if you don’t want it from me, we can find someone else.” 

 

I gulp. Help. I’m someone who needs help. Wow, Darcy was never that blunt. 

Mom kneels in front of me. Her hands slid up to my cheeks again. I suppose it’s supposed to be a gesture of affection, but it doesn’t feel like it. But then again, I haven’t seen Mom since I was seven. I’m not quite sure I remember what motherly affection even feels like. 

 

“You can tell me anything,” she says next. 

 

And then it comes out of me. The words, some tears. 

 

Mom shakes her head. A laugh spills out of her mouth. 

 

“You gotta be making that up. There’s no way-that-you can’t possibly have seen that.” 

 

“Why not? I know what I saw.” 

 

“I had that conversation with your Auntie Tala right before sophomore homecoming.” 

Her hands are still on my cheeks. I’m still crying-I think. I’m not really sure. Mom’s hands are cold. I shiver a little. 

 

“Oh,” I say. 

 

Mom furrows her eyebrows. “Did Darcy have a way of telling what was real and what wasn’t with you? In regards to what you see?” 

 

I shake my head. That would require Darcy caring. But I don’t say that. That’s mean, and Darcy isn’t even here to hear it. Besides, Mom doesn’t need to know the specifics of the past few years-not yet. Maybe not ever. 

 

I stare at her. Would Mom possibly have a way to tell? 

 

“Well then, we will have to figure that out.” 

 

I smile. “Really?” 

 

Mom lets go of my cheeks and pulls me in for a hug. She’s still cold even as I press my head against her chest. 

 

Part of my brain wonders what it would feel like to do this with Daisy, even if Mom says she isn’t real. The dreams about Daisy-having a big strong cow to protect me- provided warmth when nothing else did, so I can’t let her go. I can’t. There’s no guarantee that Mom’s going to be back for longer than a week, and even then, her body is cold. 

The Rumble of the Truck

Caelum Broderick

The street was barren, silent, dead. The only sounds were my shallow uneven footsteps, the quickening of my breath, and the low rumble of the truck. It wouldn’t have been anything suspicious on its own, just a rented moving truck making its way down the street. It was suspicious though, because I was alone. A skinny 14 year old. On a walk. Alone. I didn’t notice it at first, I was just taking in the dewy fall air and watching house after house move behind me. The strange part was, the truck didn’t seem to move with the houses. No matter how much I walked, it was always the same distance behind me. My head was starting to spin. Why didn’t it disappear, drive by, leave me far behind? I was slowly losing control of my breaths.

My knife. Where was my knife? Where did I put it? I always bring it. Where was it? Why did I leave it? What was wrong with me? No. Stay calm. How could I stay calm? It seemed to him that leaving me alone wasn’t an option. My steps started to become confused, erratic. My heartbeat was lodged in my ears, my throat closed up, my eyes brimmed with freezing panicked tears. Stay. Calm. My gaze darted everywhere, looking for what? I still don’t know.

I took a sudden turn down a new street, testing what was actually happening. For a moment relief took the tension out of my chest as the truck passed the street, that is before I heard the tires screech to a halt. After a few moments, I was back in the same place I was before. My calm facade shattered, leaving me a sobbing, terrified, mess. Yet I kept making my way forward. Out of fear. Fear for my life, my body, my whole being. What would he do if I stopped? What would happen? Would anyone hear my cries for help, would those be my last words? The thoughts sent me into further panic, and a faster pace. Home. I had to get home. How long could I keep this up? Home was a half hour away. The streets seemed to lengthen the more I thought of the distance.

I had to make a decision. A driveway. Just a  block’s distance away I saw a beautiful driveway. I just had to take it step by step. Step. By. Step. The truck was.. Louder? I kept my gaze forward. Step by step. Step. Step. Louder. It was louder. It was... No! It was closer! Step by step. Step. Step. Step by step.. Screw it. I ran. I ran as fast as I could possibly go, my feet pounding the sidewalk under me. A dull ache started moving from my soles up my legs, but I couldn’t care. The disgusting taste of blood filled my mouth, as my anxious habit ruined the inside of my cheek. I gasped for air as my panic made its way to my lungs, and simply breathing was a feat. I wanted to curl up, cry, stop putting myself through this pain and just let it happen. The driveway was closer, but so was the noise. The loud, disgusting, horrifyingly deathly noise, just here to mock me for not being fast enough. The rumble turned to a growl, to a groan, to a roar. My energy was draining, my lungs were aching, every step was agonizing. I could feel myself moving forward, but nothing seemed to be getting any closer. I was tiring but the machine wouldn’t, it would groan on until my legs gave out. Despite the cold temperature, sweat pooled at the back of my neck. I was disgusting, my clothes covered in sweat, tears, and blood. The sidewalk would never end, I was giving up, it would never end it would never- 

I collapsed onto the driveway, getting just enough strength back to scramble all the way to the house. At last, the truck was gone.

Gone, but I wasn’t safe. I couldn't be safe. It was there, collapsed on someone else's steps, blood running down my chin, that I realized I’d never be safe again. I’d never have the childlike innocence of feeling fully okay. I’d never see a man without wondering “was it you?” I’d never be safe again. My cheeks were soaked, my eyes were swollen, my entire body was trembling. I was broken.

The trek back home was the longest I'd ever taken.

Woodworker's Lament

Dane Metzger

I’m gonna tell a lie. I made a desk. There, I said it. 

The 25th annual Putnam County Woodworking awards are no laughing matter. I understood that clearly. However, I entered thinking I had plenty of time--six months--to make art. 

The desk category drew me in… I’ve always been fond of worktops and tabletops. I wasn’t much of a wood maker. However, no one I knew participated in the competition, so I wouldn’t be mocked or ridiculed by more experienced artisans for trying to dethrone their reign of the contest.

Six months became five, five became four… eventually months became days. Reminder emails started rolling into my inbox, dread started to fill my brain. It was too late to back out now, the $500 entry and supply fee was already paid. I couldn’t get out.

And finally, it was the day before. 

Something deep within me knew it was wrong; I knew that it would be disappointing to the other artisans when they found out, but I had no choice. 

That morning I went to IKEA. I was ashamed walking into the first Swedish showroom. The children’s playrooms reminded me of the former state of purity I left behind. Cheating on something that meant so much to so many was anguishing… oh the pain. I bought the nicest-looking wood desk I could find. It was sturdy, it could function as a desk. Swedish minimalism oddly helped me in this situation. 

The day arrived. A buddy helped me move the desk to the judge’s room. Finally, they called me in, instructed me to leave the desk there, and off I went, like a wounded puppy. 

The night of the Putnam County Woodworking Competition Awards arrived. The dread was ineffable. I could not overcome it – I ended up going in the most inconspicuous lumberjack clothing I could muster. A fair amount of people were in the hall and I could not help to notice that most of them were rugged older men in their fifties and sixties. 

First, the rocking chair category, then the Spoon Carving, Knife, Shelf, Dresser, Vanity, and tasteful woodburning artist category came. Everyone politely clapped firmly, as if no tears could come from the unexpected nature. The most surprising part about the night was a five-year-old who won the wood-burning category with a nice piece, a squid burned onto a log. 

The moment arrived. Runner up for the desk category was announced, not me. A bead of stressful sweat drooped down my face. 2nd place, and finally my IKEA Jormborg desk was called. I won. 

There was only dead silence… followed by a sniffle, a whimper, and finally, a whole orchestra of middle-aged artisans began bellowing out their sorrow. They knew not that a lazy man who bought an IKEA desk at the last minute won. Oh god, the crying, it was unbearable… finally, I left in shame. I didn’t even claim the medal. This night was unforgettable.

Open the Door

Tyler Grosenick

Trevor lay on his bed exhausted from soccer practice, as well as the
move. His dad was still at work and his mom was asleep, also exhausted
from the long week. Trevor just thought. It was his favorite pastime
for when he was tired after a long day. He thought so often that this
time he heard a voice coming from the cabinet that was locked and
bolted to the wall when they first moved in.

Trevor knew that that wasn’t normal. He never had this happen before,
and it was a real voice because it was clearly coming from the
cabinet.

“Hello?” the voice said in a friendly tone despite its inhuman nature.
“I’m a person who’s been in here for 2 weeks.” The voice sounded like
a kid around Trevor’s age, around 7, but was out of pitch and was very
high and squeaky.

Trevor felt sad for the boy. He asked, “How did you get locked in there?”

“My parents locked me up for playing too rough with my sister,” the
voice said. “Then they moved away and left me to die with only water
to last 6 weeks and food to last 3 weeks. I’ve been in so much pain,
as well as being extremely lonely. I’ve never had a friend before.”

“Neither have I,” Trevor said. “Wanna be friends?” Trevor heard both
maniacal peals of laughter and sobbing from inside the cabinet.

“I’d like that,” the voice said. “My name is Clay. What’s yours?”

“Trevor,” Trevor responded.

“Nice name,” Clay said through tears. “Trevor, can you find a key for me?”

“Sure,” Trevor agreed. “Will it let you out?”

“Yes,” Clay confirmed with a more serious tone. “Then we can play together.”

“Where would it be?” Trevor asked, a bit more eager.

“In a drawer in the kitchen,” Clay said. “Probably in the knife drawer.”

“Okay!” Trevor said. “Be right back!”

“See you soon, friend,” Clay said in a more sinister manner. Trevor
saw a vision of an elongated, mangled version of a 7-year-old boy. He ran back to the
room.

“You’re back,” Clay said with his voice slowly deforming and getting
more and more demonic. “Come on, open the door.”

“Not after what I just saw!” Trevor hollered.

“I was just checking on you, uh, I mean ‘what did you see?’” Clay said
ominously. “I’ll always be here for you if you open the door.”

“No.”

“Open the door.”

“I said no.”

“Open it.”

“No.”

“Open it. Open it. OPEN THE DOOR, TREVOR!!”

The door swung open. Elongated, mangled hands wrapped
their fingers around the doorway of the cabinet as a low growl came
from the darkness.

Trevor’s mom woke up to the sound of constant banging on a
chain-locked wooden door. She went into her son’s room and heard the
banging coming from the cabinet that was in his room.

“Mom,” she heard him say. "Please open the door.” She looked up and saw
her reflection in the mirrored door as an elongated, mangled version of her son.