Twenty local writers responded to Flagpole’s 2014 Scary Story Contest. The first, second and third-place winners are listed here in that order, and then the rest of the stories in no particular order. Judging a story is a purely subjective endeavor, and as you read these stories, you will realize that several of them could have been winners. They are that good. So, congratulations to the winners and to those whose stories could easily have been picked by a different panel of judges. And thanks to all these writers who took the time to share their talents with us. We appreciate your efforts and your help in producing another section of scary stories.
1st Place Winner: FAMILY SIZE
By Ben Credle
“Twenty minutes ’til closing, fellas,” Clint calls out, as he empties the trash can in the men’s weight room. The YMCA is almost empty, just me and Rick on the treadmills and Mitch over at the free weights, admiring his arms in the mirrors. I reduce the speed on my treadmill down to 2 mph to cool down. Mitch walks into the cardio room and asks loudly, for Rick’s benefit, if I checked the weight limit of the treadmill before I got on it. He laughs his stupid laugh and goes over to Rick for a high-five. Rick casts his eyes at me for an instant and then half-heartedly fives him. In fact, I had checked the weight limit on the treadmill two days ago when I had first started using it, awkwardly wedging my bulk between two machines to read the label at the bottom, but I thought I’d been alone. Had Mitch been watching me? Does he think I want to weigh 327 pounds? That’s why I’m here sweating at the gym at 4:40 p.m. on a Saturday.
I go to the locker room to change. I glance up and see Mitch watching me in the mirror as he shaves around his ridiculous Fu-Manchu mustache with a straight razor. I don’t shower here, because I don’t like people judging my naked body. But I think Mitch wants people to see him naked. He does a little Zorro Z in the air with his straight razor as he walks back to his locker.
Two weeks ago, when old Mr. Simmons went missing, the police interviewed all of us gym-goers. The last place anyone had seen him was on the racquetball court across from the weight room. They found his clothes still in his locker. I told the police how Mitch made fun of Mr. Simmons for the Obama sticker on his car, and how he called him a socialist. I told them about Mitch’s straight razor. I told them about the huge hunting knife he straps to the outside of his pants like he’s on “Sons of Anarchy.” Does he think I’m going to lie to the police for him? I can’t lie to the police.
I hear Mitch loudly tell Rick that he saw me at the KFC across from St. Mary’s and saw me order the family-size meal, “and we know he ain’t got no wife and kids! Am I right? I think we need to start calling him ‘Family Size!'”
It’s true. I “ain’t got no” wife and kids. Does he think I want to eat the entire KFC Family Feast? Sometimes I can’t help myself.
Has Mitch been following me? Watching me order food? Watching me return to my empty apartment? I used to exercise in the morning, but I changed over to afternoons just to get away from Mitch. And now Mitch has switched, too. Come to think of it, why was he shaving at night? Why was he even here on a game day? Mitch loves the Bulldogs more than he loves his biceps. I remind myself that this is just paranoia. I’ve definitely gotten hyper-vigilant since Mr. Simmons. I look up and see Mitch standing at the end of my alley of lockers. He is watching me with the straight razor still in his hand. I can’t leave without going past him. Does he want me to confront him? I can’t do confrontation.
I hear the door slam shut; probably Rick leaving. Now I’m alone in the locker room with Mitch. The noise seems to bring him out of a reverie. I refuse to turn toward him, but in my peripheral vision I see him shake his head and turn away. I think I hear him mutter, “Family Size.” He punches a locker as he leaves, and I jump.
I finish getting dressed, gather my things and close my locker. My breathing is rapid and shallow. Mitch is still at his locker at the end of the next row when the lights suddenly go out. The taser becomes the only light in the room. Mitch hits the floor. I think if I can drag him into the sauna, he’ll at least stay warm longer. Mr. Simmons got cold within two hours. I see Mitch look up at me in terror, unable to move his limbs. I feel sorry for him. Does he think I want to eat him? Sometimes I can’t help myself.
2nd Place Winner: DAMN FINE DOG
By Violet Tern
[Athens, GA 2024 AD] Eddie Seiler waved as he made his way through the crowd of hot, cheering bodies that packed the stadium. In his other hand he held tight to a leather leash. Uga XXII, the English bulldog that served as UGA’s living mascot, tugged hard at the other end. His eyes were bloodshot, his breathing a heavy rasp, his short fur as white as pure Appalachian snow. Uga XXII, or “Pepper,” as he was known at home, was largely considered UGA’s finest mascot to date. A massive bulk of muscle and fur, Pepper was, in fact, the largest English bulldog in recorded history.
“Sick ’em, Uga!” a student yelled as they passed. As if on cue, Pepper let three bellowing yawps. The crowd went wild, bursting into echoing barks in return.
“Damn fine dog,” one of the coaches growled, holding out a sausage-like hand for Eddie to shake. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw Pepper twitch uneasily. The coach smiled down at him. “Thanks for another win, Uga.” A thin line of drool fell from Pepper’s panting smile as he stared up at him, his black eyes darting wildly. Eddie tugged his leash, guiding him out of the stadium.
He walked Pepper back to their car, watching the dog’s weight jostle back and forth. He was like a living gargoyle—the kind of dog a warlord would have at his feet. This was no pathetic inbred but a beast—a behemoth worthy of representing the massive industry that was Georgia’s football program. The administration saw dollar signs in this happy genetic accident, and Eddie graciously accepted their checks.
Of course, breeding bulldogs was in his blood. His grandfather Sonny had been the first to breed bulldogs that would serve as the university mascot, but his career as a breeder had been marred with difficulties. The dogs had shorter and shorter lifespans. They were pathetic. Eddie watched his own father follow in Sonny’s footsteps, breeding sicker and sicker bulldogs, their bodies misshapen like swollen tumors with legs. They were mean, dumb creatures. In their frailty they lashed out, helpless and confused. Eddie grew up in a household full of groaning monsters, caged experiments that his father finally gave up on. He had gone through no less than 10 “Ugas,” each dying younger than the last. The university was on the verge of severing ties with the family when Eddie appeared, an 18-year-old hick with a snow-white bulldog, big as a Shetland pony, trotting around like he just won the Mayflower.
That was almost two years ago, now. Eddie patted Pepper’s wide head as he took the dog off his leash and watched him waddle inside the house, his massive paws shaking the old floorboards. It hadn’t been easy, of course. Pepper wasn’t like any dog Eddie had ever known. He wasn’t natural; he was the product of generation after generation of bad selection. At first, he wouldn’t even eat. Eddie tried everything, but nothing seemed good enough. In interviews he said bashfully in his soft Georgia accent, “I guess you could say he’s got sophisticated taste. Nothing but gourmet for my Pepper.”
“Does he eat caviar?” the reporters would ask jokingly.
“Even better,” Eddie would answer with a wink.
Now, after a long day between the hedges, Pepper was whining with hunger. He scratched at the door leading off from the kitchen, where he knew his food was kept.
“You really are a damn fine dog,” Eddie said with a smile. He pulled a ring of keys from his pocket and opened the door. Behind it, wooden stairs led to a cool, dirt-floored cellar.
“All right, you ready, boy?” Eddie called down into the cellar.
“No!” came a trembling voice from below. But it was too late. Eddie was already in the cellar, dragging the filthy and malnourished body of a young boy. Pepper’s rump wagged with excitement as he saw the feast wriggling before him. The boy cried out, but it was already too late. Pepper leapt up and tore straight from the throat, pulling away meat from bone with the efficiency of a spoiled child unwrapping a gift.
Eddie closed the cellar door and retired to the living room. In the corner, piled together cozily in a large crate, 10 snow-white puppies slept. Their fat legs twitched as they dreamt of supper. Their little ears perked up, as supper screamed for its life…
3rd Place Winner: BEING ONE WITH NATURE
By John Gaither
Richard touched his computer and read the story again, about the skeleton found on the beach in South Carolina. Picked clean by crabs, witnesses said, so many crabs you couldn’t get within 50 feet without stepping on them. He wondered if the FBI would put two-and-two together. Probably not.
Richard was sad when someone fell away from the cause. Jack had been his closest friend, but he had begun to stumble on the sacred path. Richard had prepared him and sent him to the coast but didn’t tell him he was going to be made into a martyr despite himself. Now Jack was a box of bones on a shelf, but he had made the front page. It was better that way. Jack had always loved the beach.
He touched the computer again and watched the video he’d made of fire ants swarming over Jack’s dog. He had seen a mass of fire ants floating in a pond once, after a heavy rain—inches thick but holding together, like a carpet. That’s how they made the dog look, brown and shaggy like a kid’s clutch toy, except you could see the eyes inside, looking out at you.
Richard had been a great student and colleague before he got kicked out, pulling down grants and letting others publish his original research. He didn’t care, as long as he had free access to the labs. His best work had been at night, with nobody to bother him. And he hadn’t shared his discovery, his breakthrough, what he called the first step in communicating with the arthropods—he had kept that a secret, except for Jack and Julie.
He remembered the attention-getting stunts they had pulled—pranks, really, except that some of them turned out to be federal crimes. He grimaced. They called it “criminal;” he called it “aggressive environmental activism.” What was wrong with releasing swarms of bees in the corporate offices of pesticide manufacturers? Or a few thousand cockroaches in the dining hall? Or boxes of fleas sent to certain elected officials, along with a note about bubonic plague? Richard knew how to get attention.
He looked down at the steady stream of roaches moving back and forth on the little highways he had painted on the floor. Traffic was fairly smooth. He had tried adding passing lanes, but they never seemed to get the hang of it.
Julie had wanted to be Butterfly Girl, her body draped with thousands of fluttering butterflies. She would walk down the middle of Broad Street in downtown Athens, living proof of a love strong enough to cross phylum boundaries. People would be amazed. Richard agreed but decided it would be more amazing to attract yellow jackets and hornets to her at home, instead. He didn’t want to tell her and dampen her enthusiasm.
He looked at the computer again, local news. She had made the front page. Lots of quotes from UGA entomologists, police, neighbors: “Unprecedented!” “Possibly more than a million insects.” “Doors and windows covered with yellow jackets.” “She looked like a golden statue.”
He checked to see what the webcam on her front porch had recorded and saw her walk out, a human form encased in shining, shimmering armor, with a dancing cloud of Georgia Tech mascots in her wake. Strands of her hair were visible outside the crawling mass that covered her head.
Richard punched the button that sent the emails and pre-recorded phone calls. The police would be there in a few minutes. He stood up with an effort and moved toward the front door. It was difficult to walk.
As a child he had been fascinated by the arthropods, his joint-legged little friends, their shiny bodies and stick-figure legs, the clear-cut stages of egg, larva, nymph and adult. They used to call him “Bug Boy.” Now, it was time to grow up.
He laughed, and his tongue and lips were dry and scaly and his eyelids so stiff he could hardly raise them. The setting sun colored the rough brown surface of his body. He was full of love for every one of the hundreds of thousands of friends that were with him.
The police vehicles arriving met a carpet of brown that covered the driveway, the yard and the walls of the house—a brown film that was always moving.
Richard passed through the door and stepped outside.
It was his time now.
He was Tick Man.
By Adam Rainville
“The Rumpus sounds cool. I might go as a schoolgirl.”
“I heard the Rumpus is crazy.”
A stranger dragged off her cigarette and blew smoke at the two. “The Rumpus might be crazy now, but it wasn’t always. Six years ago it was just an idea. I don’t think 100 people showed.”
“Who are you?”
“Someone who’s telling you to be careful what you wear on Halloween.”
“Why should we listen to you?”
“Because I have a story.
“There was this girl who went to that first Rumpus. She dressed like a sexy kitten. Whiskers, scoop neck leotard, heels, the whole deal.”
“It was. But she realized it was a terrible mistake. First, because the weather was horrible. Cold and rainy.”
“Yeah. But worse was the second reason. It attracted the wrong kind of attention. As the girl rubbed her hands together in the drizzle, the Beast came over and asked if she was alright.”
“Guy in a mask. A hairy, toothy, wrinkled thing.”
“The girl said she was freezing. He told her he could tell. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she knew he was staring at her chest.”
“What a creep.”
“Indeed. He looked her up and down, the whole time flipping open and closed the lid of his orange Zippo.
“‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to bite,’ he said as he leaned closer, ‘but I would like to lick your…kitten.’ The girl smelled whiskey. As she was telling him to screw off, a whistle blew, and the parade started.
“The Beast lifted his mask just enough to sip from a flask. He yelled over the ruckus, ‘I’m walking with you.’
“She tried to enjoy herself, but he kept making moves. Each block he’d snap his lighter open and closed. Each intersection he’d pull from his flask. Soon, he got bolder. Groping became clawing. Slurring became growling.
“The girl deflected his advances, wishing he’d act like everyone else: jovial, peaceful, merry. She slowed until she was at the back of the line. As they crossed Lumpkin, she attempted her escape.
“The Beast had other ideas.
“He grabbed her and dragged her towards the Theatre. She screamed but wasn’t heard. The two went unnoticed.”
“No way. The street would have been packed.”
“Normally. But the weather kept most everyone indoors. Also, the Theatre had burned that summer. On Halloween, only its shell remained. No roof, no insides, dark marquee. The two were alone in shadows.
“When she hit him, he turned and snarled. Foam dripped from his snout, his eyes no longer human.
“He pushed her through the chain-link barrier that blocked the entrance. Inside was chaos. Loose bricks lay scattered under blackened walls, tools and building materials scattered about. Clouds blocked the moon, making the inside even darker.
“The Beast pushed her to the ground and crawled onto her. He was rabid with drunken lust, too preoccupied to notice her grab a brick and swing.”
“Thank god,” the girls gasped.
“When the Beast awoke, he found himself duct-taped to a fallen beam. The girl stood holding bolt cutters. ‘It seems you have a problem,’ she said as she opened and closed the cutters. ‘I’m going to help you get rid of it.’
“She pulled down his pants and smiled. ‘You look cold,’ she whispered in his ear. ‘I can tell.'”
The woman stubbed her cigarette. “The girl never regretted a thing she did that night. Except for when she tried to remove the Beast’s mask. She lifted his head and pulled at the fur, but it wouldn’t budge. Eventually, she gave up and buried his pieces.”
“That. Is. Crazy. Did she get arrested?”
“No one ever found out.”
“Wait. If no one found out, how do you know?”
“The girl told other women as a warning. You can wear what you want, act how you want, drink what you want. It’s your right, and you should be respected. But be careful. There are monsters out there. Masks are only disguises for the Beasts inside.”
“So you heard this story from a friend of a friend. Sounds like an urban legend.”
“Maybe. But do me a favor.” The woman stuck a fresh cigarette in her mouth. “Next time you go to the Theatre, make sure to dance. That’s what you do on the graves of those who deserve it.”
The woman stood, took an orange Zippo from her pocket, and touched the flame to her cigarette.
“Take care, ladies.”
BULLDOG RESEARCH CENTER
By Butterscotch Mochi
ATHENS—What a great place to work! Bulldogs are such wonderful creatures, aren’t they? Well, when I first started they were. I had been very excited to get myself a job there; it was a bit hard, as I was not allowed really anywhere until I was promoted. We were supposed to keep things secret. At first I didn’t understand why,but they told me it was a big surprise, and they didn’t want to ruin it. Now, I know why they were keeping it a secret.
The giant bulldog at Kroger had always terrified me before I got the job; its huge, sharp teeth, horrifying expression and, of course, how huge the damn thing was, looked like it would come to life and tear my head off at any moment.
I drove into work one morning to see that a burnt hole the size of a car had been smashed out of the side of the lab. I immediately went into a panic. I got out and slammed the door of my car shut and saw the ginormous paw prints as soon as I stepped out. I looked up as I heard the sound of barking, if you could call it that, heading towards the downtown area of Athens. I got back in the car and sped to downtown, calling the police and asking them to tell the city to evacuate. It was hard to explain, as what we were doing might as well have been illegal, making mutated dogs?
“Ow!” I yelled. as I felt something bite my back. It felt like a bug, but there it was, one of the micro-bulldogs, staring at me with their angry, beady eyes and growling the tiniest of growls. I smacked the thing off my back and continued to speed, swerving as I noticed the trail of fire crossing into Ben Burton Park. I knew that was a bad idea; whose brilliant idea was that? A bulldog literally made out of molten rock and fire? I looked up in horror as the trees began to blaze and the people evacuated their apartments, screaming.
The barking was loud, and I could hear the sound of humans shrieking and buildings being attacked by huge paws. I told them that they should have built it better, kept it stronger and safer.
I finally get to downtown and see that it is mostly destroyed, and the mutated bulldogs are still destroying it. One of them looks at me; it is the size of a car and has a limp person hanging from the razor-sharp teeth in its jaws what can I do? I panic for a few moments and suddenly get an idea: They are just dogs right? Wrong. They literally aren’t real at all; they may have been once but not now. One steps closer to me, dropping the person and I smack the dog. Bad idea. It grabs my hand and tears it off. While I am distracted from the pain, it grabs me in its jaws and crunches down. This is the end of me and the end of Athens. The bulldogs have taken over.
By Cyndyl McCutcheon
It’s fall break at the University, which means even the few who are still in Athens are spending their Halloween downtown in a drunken stupor. All except for me, of course. I enjoy the silence, the empty dorm room and most importantly, the community laundry room that’s mine for the taking.Carrying two bags full of dirty clothes, I make my way down to the basement of good ol’ O’House. I set my phone and wallet on a table and drag my laundry bag over to the washer, throwing in unsorted clothes by the handful. My eye catches the white blouse, ripped, dirtied, blood-stained. I thought I’d erased all evidence of him. Of that night. The night my best friend became my worst enemy. It seems like every force in this world won’t let me forget.
A strange noise suddenly steals my attention. Faint but steady, echoing down the long, dim-lit hallway. A baby’s cry.
“Hello?” I call, but there’s no response, just the constant, faint cry. I drop the blouse and follow the sound down the all too familiar hall with cement walls and flickering lights towards the women’s restroom.”Is someone in here?” I shout again, but silence responds. I ease open the door. Nothing. Though I’m wary, I step farther into the bathroom, checking each stall, but seeing no sign of a person or child.Without warning, a crippling pain shoots through my stomach. I think I’ve been stabbed, but no one’s around. Another pain, harsher than the first, pierces through my abdomen like a cramp, but far more intense than anything I’ve ever felt. I crawl into the nearest stall and onto the toilet, only to lift my skirt and discover my underwear is soaked through with blood that runs down each leg.
Am I having a baby? No. Impossible. I’m still a virgin… or at least I was until him, but that was six months ago. I’m not pregnant. The tests were negative. Am I dying?
I cry out for help, but only silence answers. More pain. More screams. No rescue.
I finally hear the bathroom door open and close. Footsteps approach calmly. I scream for help and bang against the stall’s wall to my left. I can see a girl’s bare feet stop beside the stall facing the sinks, unresponsive to my cries. I peer desperately through the crack between the stall and the cement wall, but all I can see is her bloodied sleeves and a knife stabbing at something in the sink. Horrified, I look down and see blood, lots of it, dripping down her legs and pooling onto the floor.
A final agonizing pain takes even my breath as something passes between my legs and into the toilet, taking all the pain with it. Exasperated, I search between my legs and see a tiny thing wriggling in the bloody water. I don’t believe what I’m seeing, but I instinctively lift it out and wipe the blood from its face, denying, yet knowing the reality. I’d just given birth.
The child lets out an all too familiar, faint cry. The girl wails loudly and begins throwing things. Her voice is raspy and strained and she beats mercilessly on the stall’s frame. She makes for the door of the stall, but I reflexively kick it closed, using all of my strength to hold it there as she throws herself against it. The lights are flickering on and off. The baby cries. My strength fades. Then it all stops. The banging, the flickering, the crying.
I stay there, still and silent as possible for several moments before finally gathering the courage to move. The baby is quiet, but still breathing. Asleep. I take off my sweater and gently wrap him in it. I peek around the corner in the dim lighting, but there’s nothing on the sinks or floor anymore. Half crawling with one hand and holding my baby with the other, I inch across the floor towards the door; then I see it, written in blood above the trashcan. “Jonathan Foundling.”
He begins to cry again, and I hear her wailing in the hall, her footsteps rushing towards the door. I push my way back against the farthest wall, and I hold my child close to me. The door opens, and I see her, blood-stained, hair matted, face sunken. Eyeless. She slowly raises a bloodied knife toward me, then she speaks.
“Give me Jonathan. Give me my child.”
By Gary Ashcroft
A deep red blood moon peeked out from behind the monolithic new student housing development, an ominous portent of things to come. As its crimson light bathed the urban planning-devoid streets of Athens, Jody Hice stepped out of his favorite haunt, Toppers, a zealous, yet lustful gleam in his eyes. As he surveyed the drunken revelry of downtown, he spoke softly to himself.
“Soon, soon, the end will come. There’s a blood moon in the sky—the Apocalypse is nigh.”
As he whispered those words, his campaign press officer, a recent graduate of Bob Jones University who aspired to one-up the Duggars when it came to childbearing, deftly tweeted Hice’s comment from his iPhone and attributed it to Thomas Jefferson.
Hice began to strut down Jackson Street, proudly displaying his shirt which read, “Keep Calm and Ask Your Husband Before Entering Politics.” When he reached Broad Street, he was met with a terrible sight.
“The horror, the horror!” Nathan Deal shouted, flying down the road like a car through a Prince Avenue intersection. Close behind him stalked a figure robed in black and carrying a blood-splattered scythe labeled “ethics investigations.”
Ever the evangelist, Hice rose to the occasion.
“Ma’am, I can tell by your burqa that you must be a Muslim. Did you know that your religion is undeserving of First Amendment protections? Come, let me tell you about my plans for a wonderful American theocracy!”
The would-be theocrat’s entreaties did little to slow the advance of the hooded figure. As it entered the glow from a streetlight, it cast back its hood to reveal none other than—”Law Hawk!?” Hice gasped, “The Apocalypse really is nigh!”
The law-school-based falcon had somehow grown to 10 times his normal size. His eyes gleamed murderously, his talons scraped menacingly along the pavement, and his beak clamped open and shut, its pointed shadow casting a pall over Hice’s terror-stricken face.
Suddenly, a figure bedecked in a white doctor’s coat and a mounted deer head burst out of Jittery Joe’s, jumping in between Hice and Law Hawk.
“Paul Broun, my hero!” Hice crooned, blushing and batting his eyelashes as his fellow politico gave him a knowing wink.
“Listen here, bird,” Broun began, swinging the taxidermied deer’s antlers threateningly towards the animal, “I’m not sure what you think you’re doing, but around here we believe that evolution is a lie straight from the pit of hell. And you’ve obviously evolved. So you better devolve real quick or start packing your bags for Hades!”
Law Hawk responded by casually biting off Broun’s head and letting out an enormous belch.
“Fiddlesticks!” Hice exclaimed, “Now who will I have to out-crazy?”
“Don’t sweat it, Jody,” said David Perdue, as he stepped out of Pita Pit, munching on what passed for a falafel sandwich, “Law Hawk just helped lower the unemployment rate. I mean, not that I care that Georgia’s unemployment is the highest in the nation, but at least his job wasn’t outsourced, right?”
Apparently Law Hawk had a hankering for sub-par falafel, for he deftly cut Perdue in half with a swipe from his talons and proceeded to eat his sandwich.
As he stared at the puddle of blood staining the street around the two slaughtered politicians, an idea came to Hice.
“This is clearly a punishment from God for America’s abandonment of school prayer. He is allowing this demon bird to vex us. I must simply combine the knowledge I gained from watching The Exorcist and Little Nicky with my divinity degree to banish this creature to the infernal pit!”
Hice began making the sign of the cross, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Gh –”
“The horror, the horror!” Nathan Deal came running back towards Hice and Law Hawk, gasping for air as he sprinted past The Taco Stand.
“Yes, I know, those poor men,” Hice responded, nodding towards the murdered politicians.
“No, you idiot, I mean them!” said Deal, gesturing behind him at a crowd of Latino millenials, “They’re undocumented, and they want to attend UGA! And they even asked me unscreened questions at a public forum!”
Law Hawk must have grown tired of Deal quoting Heart of Darkness, for he opened his massive beak and swallowed him.
Hice now cowered before the gigantic fowl, shuddering at the putrid stench of death that emanated from him. As Law Hawk reared back, preparing to deliver his coup de grace, Hice heard three words: “Viva la Raza!”
By Jerry Rogers
At first, the autumnal beauty of the Georgia Botanical Gardens spreading out before Russell Higgins made him angry at himself for never having jogged here before. And worse, he was here now only because his ex-wife, who would rather die than exercise herself, had suggested it just a half hour earlier. Russell shook his head as he jogged on the fallen, tawny leaves, marveling at how misnamed the five-mile White Trail appeared. Fall had robed the trees and shrubs in bright red and only slightly less resplendent oranges and yellows. Though the many fallen leaves revealed the demise of his favorite season, Russell focused on how much he felt alive—and healthy.
He chuckled as he thought about how often his lazy, obese wife had ridiculed his efforts to lose weight with her usual cliché. He smiled. “Well, even though I’m older and male, we’ll see who dies first.”
His smile turned to a sneer as he thought about her and their kids arriving for the traditional family trick or treating they still kept at their house—his house now, thanks to his lawyer. He couldn’t contain his sarcasm when he saw the McDonald’s heart-attack-in-a-sack sitting next to her in the front seat and the large milkshake in the console. “Sure you don’t want to join me, Marie?”
She scowled at him. “Like I say, ‘Eat right, exercise, die anyway—sooner or later.”‘
“You’re right.” Russell turned and sauntered to his car, muttering to himself, “Sooner, not later, for you, you fat bitch–and much later for me.”
Russell smiled while thinking of the new body he had built since July. Thirty-eight pounds lost, three over his goal, and a waist shrunk from a size 42 to 36. “What luck to find out about a life insurance policy that consideres weight as well as age and gender. I can drop my old policy covering my ex- and get twice as much insurance for half the premium for the kids—with the added benefit for myself of living longer. Everybody’ll be happy—except Marie, of course. And even she knows how I’ve suffered to get it. Like she always said, ‘Diet is die spelled with a t.'”
When he had covered nearly half the trail, Russell wished he had eaten something more than a granola bar all day but was glad he had eaten the mushrooms he saw before jogging. Quite a few of them, in fact. He wondered how hungry he would have been if Marie hadn’t told him about them. “At least being a botanist, she knows what’s healthy and what’s harmful, shouldn’t she?”
As twilight fell, Russell knew the kids would begin trick or treating without him, but he could find them easily in the neighborhood. When they got home with their bulging bags of candy, Marie would spread a sheet on the family room floor, and Tommy and Susie would put their loot into piles of each person’s favorites, just like every Halloween. Except that this year Russell would dive into his daddy pile without the slightest guilt in a veritable candy orgy, even if he got so sick he threw up. He could eat everything in the daddy pile until he got as sick as he once got as a kid and threw up all night.
Suddenly, Russell felt queasiness in his stomach. His throat tightened as he swallowed rapidly. Triggered by the memory he had just recalled, Russell thought, briefly. Then, sharp pains coursed all through his stomach. his chest, his throat, now his brain. After he vomited the first time, spattering himself as well as the path, Russell hoped that he had purged himself. But the hope and the clarity of mind that produced it were short lived. He staggered along the trail, stopping to vomit every few minutes until he sensed his lower body tighten into paralysis, and he could only inch ahead. As the darkness fell and Russell grew delirious, he still knew where he was on the trail, the greatest distance from his car and his cell phone he had stupidly left under the seat. Through force of will, he tried to run, but the poison ran faster through his bloodstream. His will power now mocked him as his brain screamed at him to push on, push on before the heart races out of control, before it stops, before he, like the children’s candy, would be spread out on a sheet.
By Jim Baird
Bo Bob crouched under the half-dome of a concrete culvert just high enough to frog-march through, listening to a light drizzle’s drip and trickle as it seeped its way through soil, weeds, and fast food trash from the crown of Nowhere Road’s asphalt cap. His teeth chattered from fear much as from chill as he waited for day’s first rays. He felt the sledge-hammer irony of his costume and his situation, and felt a hammer head’s weight in his chest from leaving his buddy behind, while a hangover headache hammered in his skull.
He’d spent the evening with his boyhood buddy Bubba, who’d come with him to celebrate the dark season at Athens’ Wild Rumpus. They’d dressed as cavemen with faux fur one-shouldered smocks over full long-johns, carrying foam rubber clubs, recalling the dim days of man’s forgotten past, when he hunkered in caves around crude fires and lapped cold brains from the cracked open skulls of his neighbors.
Both were vets of duty in the murky quagmire of Afghanistan’s wars. Both had made some measure of adjustment, but Bo Bob had been far luckier than Bubba, whose right ankle was destroyed by an IED. The ankle had been “replaced” by a new-age wonder of medical engineering, an artificial assembly of stainless steel, neoprene, and silicone that let him walk with a just-noticeable lurch, which gait went well in costume as a hunter who might drag a bloody carcass back to the cave for devouring. He might not be a sprinter, but he could sure walk like a man again. The new ankle’s market value was in the low six figures, and the device was said to have made its inventor a rich man overnight.
The parade and bar crawl left them barely sober enough to call for a taxi to their lodgings on the north side of town. Local taxis being overtaxed as expected, they’d dialed up Uber, and quickly hooked a ride in an odd-looking van like a panel truck with solid rear sides and a curtained compartment in the back.
The driver dressed like a doctor in scrubs, all the way to the surgical cap and mask and purple gloves. At shotgun sat a big guy dressed as the Lebowski character named Walter. True to his character, the Walter clone was garrulous, volatile, and aggressive in speech, and in fact would not shut up as they rode.
“You know what my favorite line from the movie is?” said Walter. You want a toe? I can get you a toe!'” He told them the driver was in fact a de-frocked doc, who’d lost his license for moral turpitude. He went on to say that he and the doc, as partners, found Uber to be a stingy and oppressive provider of employment.
“Fact is, said Walter, Uber’s trickle of income has forced me and Doc to seek other income streams.” Their second enterprise, in fact, operated in a similar way to Uber’s model. As Walter went on nonstop, Doc had taken turn after turn that left Bo Bob befuddled as to their actual location. They appeared to be in an area north of town, but it was so dark, it might as well be nowhere.
The big van lurched to a stop on a lonely pig path of a road through tall pines and scrub. Doc pulled a pistol and pointed it straight into Bo Bob’s face, while Walter hopped suddenly out and opened the big side door, without letting up on his verbal tirade. At the same time he put a big thick square of gauze over Bubba’s face and said, “Our second enterprise is called Organs-Oh-La, and we take immediate requests from the big black market in body parts. We just got a call, and it’s time to pay your fare.”
Bo Bob bolted right past Walter and Bubba whose legs turned to rubber under the inhaled drug effect. He raced through the darkness toward Nowhere Road as Doc and Walter heaved Bubba into the back of the van and went to work.
By Joe Dunlop
This is a big ride. 110 miles in a big lollipop loop out Nowhere Road, up into Habersham County, where it’s not flat, all the while averaging 20 m.p.h. Telling myself I like big rides helps a little, and I try not to ignore the pros in the bunch as we leave town. Just be smart about it, I tell myself.
Four hours later, I’m trying to ignore the obvious signs. No gas, and I’m sliding back along the string of riders. And then the inevitable—I’m dropped. Crap. Another solo ride, compounded by weather and poor sense of direction. Rain replaces drizzle and I’m alone with my misery, the cross winds and an occasional car. I eat my final morsels and dream of convenience stores as the miles grind past.
Speeding down to a river crossing, I haven’t looked behind for miles, and now I’m squinting to avoid the spray of gritty pavement water. A thick fog obscures the bridge, and I’ve got my head down to hold precious speed for the climb.
I guess he was drafting me coming down the hill into the bridge. The rider pulled alongside and slotted in easily, 10 inches from my front wheel. Kinda big guy, broad shoulders, a draft straight from heaven. We popped over the climb coming off the bridge and settled onto a long, steady grade.
“Thanks, I need this,” I say, as brightly as possible. And, really, my spirits are much improved. No response, just that rock-steady tempo. The terrain eased from hilly to rolling as the miles passed. I took the lead a couple of times, mostly to be polite, but he was either content in his savior role or didn’t care for the way our speed dropped when I took over. It was an impressive pull—never too fast, never more than two feet in front of me, never even checking my position. I did my best to respect his effort and obvious experience. No sudden movements and try to look straight through his back and up the road. Which was easier than normal; there didn’t seem to be any distractions. I couldn’t even recall a car passing us since he took over.
Finally, I started recognizing landmarks, and then a street sign: Nowhere Road. Even better, riders ahead! I took another turn at the front, determined to maintain his pace. We caught the second-slowest riders on the day just as they were about to start rolling after a brief pause.
“Just you?” one asks.
“Well us two,” I say, looking behind me, then back up the very straight, very empty road. “I guess he turned off while I was on the front for a little just now. Dude gave me a mighty pull for the last two hours, at least. But that’s weird; I swear he was right there.”
I notice three of the guys are very much not ready to roll again. Each has both feet flat on the ground, staring at me
“This guy, what did he look like?” the oldest-looking asks.
“Uh, you know I never really got a good look,” I respond, hastily adding “I was beat. He came up behind me, and, honestly, did all of the work. I was dead.”
Another guy, also looking at me hard, blanched, muttered and began studying something on the ground.
“This guy, kinda gray colored outfit, bike?” old guy asks.
“Yeah. Well, you know, I think so,” I say, feeling pretty weird by now. “Never said anything, either. You know him? I really oughta thank him. I said thanks, of course, but he never said boo.”
“You’ll get your chance just ahead,” maybe a bit of a smile coming into old guy’s eyes. “Just don’t skimp.”
I had a mile to consider what that could possibly mean; then the stragglers pull over, digging in their pockets for energy bars, fruit and bottles. They gingerly walk on slippery soles across the ditch, up to a small, gray stone. They place their nutrition beside the marker. Now, every bit of hair I own is straight on end.
I have nothing edible, and both bottles are caps-off empty. Slowly I unhook my saddle bag. I wasn’t sure what currency a tube, pump, multi-tool and $10 was worth right now, but I set it all in the grass directly in front of the marker.
“Good,” old guy says. “Very good. Ready?”
“Yeah,” I say, hearing myself from the other end of a tunnel. “Sure.”
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