Arts & CultureArts & Culture Features

Flagpole‘s Scary Story Contest Winners

First Place

In Fest Nation
By Lucy Ralston

I am no curmudgeon. I am at the festival. The festival is in my street, spilling over into my yard and house, but I am at it. Even if the roads were clear and I could move freely without being swallowed by a sweltering crowd, I would probably be at this festival. I have heard that Michael Stipe is here. Somewhere. Michael Stipe is always here.

The archway of balloons is not alone. Each festival overlays another bulbous and floating clump of color, bent and twisting over itself. They bob together in the wind, ever expanding, as another EcoFest springs up from underground to protest the proliferation of balloons.

There is no rest. There is only the thrumming distant bass line, echoing outward and onward from Washington Street. It burrowed itself into the workers of Clocked. Of Teds, Epiphany, the 40 Watt. The artists in Pain and Wonder unknowingly etched it in flesh, day after day. And the festivals spread.

I am having fun. I am at the festival, and on purpose. I promise. It’s only, the festival is inside my house now. All of the laundry I intended to fold is tie-dyed. It was not before. There is someone offering me a petition to sign. There is someone offering to sell me a beer. There is the Holy Crepe van where my kitchen should be. I do not mind this last part as much.

There is no escape.

Streetfest has begun, and the streets are closed. There is a parade coming. There is another parade coming. It will end in tears and panicked camels. Children are scraping aside the melting candy. They are holding chalk. Searching for an inch of pavement still unmarked for them to draw a spiral on.

We cannot get out.

Someone is ringing the chapel bell. The chapel bell is so far away. It rings, and rings, and rings. It will never stop. There is always something to celebrate. Always another— 

There is a ceramics vendor in our driveway. There has always been a ceramics vendor in our driveway. Perhaps I am the ceramics vendor.

I see the CDC arrive. Their procedures are not enough to stop it. The thrumming. The Fest. They are overcome. They become Epidemic-fest. The streets are already closed. They close down the sky. Those who were taking shelter at the Rooftop are lost in vast displays of hand-washing procedure.

A band starts up. Another band starts up. The ceramics vendor is in a band. We are all in a band, except Michael Stipe. But we are sure that he is here. Everyone is here. It is a festival, after all. It is always a festival.

This is Athens. There must always be a festival. We are told by the thrumming of our hearts, our tattoos, the thrumming of our service industry—there must always be a festival.

Second Place

Town Council
By Jay Barnes

“We will begin by reviewing the minutes of the last session. City Clerk?” intoned the mayor.

Oh, great. I was already tired from a lack of sleep last night—dang coyotes or something howling—and now I have to listen to 15 minutes of minutes from last week. Reporting on local government is important and all, but it can be boring! I sure hoped I could get a good article out of this session.

To keep myself from nodding off, but not willing to give up the fact that I’m a Candy Crush addict, I instead scrolled the local news feed. Football. High school football. Another chicken coop ravaged in Normaltown. The university is broke. The university is constructing 10 new buildings. Nothing major happening around Athens lately, which is good, but it’s nice to have something juicy to report.

“And now for the main session. The commissioner from the sixth district wishes to comment on the latest SPLOST?”

“Yes, thank you, Mayor. We have a proposal to move 90% of the funds gathered from the most recent SPLOST away from a new library and green spaces, and instead plan to build 20 new canine parks on existing county land.”

Now that was… odd. Still, there are a lot of dog owners here. Maybe we can be “Dawg City USA.”

The mayor nodded in approval. “An excellent plan. Clerk, please schedule a vote at our next gathering. Commissioner from the third district, you had something?”

“Yes, sir, a proposal for 17,000 new fire hydrants, as well as 100 new fiberglass bulldogs.”

I sat up, not comprehending what I was hearing. Was there a gas leak in here or something? But the meeting continued.

As the night dragged on, people began to file out, but it was my task to stay behind and get comments from our elected officials. So, as the last of the citizens left and the meeting adjourned, I waved down the mayor to ask him about the odd proposals. From behind me, I could hear the doors of the courtroom being shut… and locked.

“Mr. Mayor, I couldn’t help but wonder about some of the commissioners’ ideas from tonight’s meeting. Moving millions of dollars in SPLOST funds for Bark Parks?”

He chuckled. “Ah, I forgot. You don’t know. There have been some changes recently to the way we’re operating city government.”

“Like what?”

Before he could answer, one of the commissioners raised their voice and said, “Just a reminder, everyone, tonight is a full moon, and it’s currently high in the sky!”

The mayor and commissioners began to moan and shake violently. Suddenly, clothes were torn as their limbs, now furry, began to expand and bulk out. Their faces elongated into snouts, with slavering fangs and malevolent red eyes.

The creature that a moment ago was the mayor picked me up by my shirt and held me before him, his hot breath rancid in my nose. “You have a problem with more dog parks?”

Third Place

Running in the Dark
By Erin Lovett

I never minded running in the dark. With the brutal heat of Georgia summers, early-morning runs were the only way I could train for the AthHalf without dying of heat stroke. I found it peaceful—my steady breathing, my sneakers tapping a rhythmic beat, my watch pinging at each mile. 

Heart Rate: 180. Pace: 7:32/mile. 

I was going too fast to hold this pace for much longer, but I had to try.

As my training progressed, I watched pumpkins and cobwebs appear on porches along my usual route. Temperatures cooled and the air smelled pleasantly of decay as leaves turned yellow and dappled the green lawns. But this wasn’t my usual route. The dark forest around me felt impermeable despite the little headlamp I wore, illuminating the path ahead in fitful, blurred strokes. I never liked trail running. I was always tripping over roots or getting a faceful of spider web. My wrist chimed. 

Heart Rate: 192. Pace: 7:36/mile. 

Slower. I was running out of fuel.

I had only stepped into the woods to pee. (Distance runners, you know the struggle.) Crouched in the dark, I heard the crunch of leaves and saw him silhouetted at the tree line, the glint of a metal object in his hand. He charged. 

I ran.

These woods were not my preferred training ground, but I had run them before. I knew there was a bridge, some Eagle Scout project crossing over a creek. If I could just figure out where the fuck I was, I could— 

Heart Rate: 196. Pace: 7:45/mile. 

Slower. I could hardly hear a thing over my own wheezing inhalations, but I’m almost certain I did: trickling water, barely audible. Now or never. I cast one glance over my shoulder. Only a few yards remained between us. I cut a hard left. He followed. The trembling focus of my headlamp bounced from tree to tree, caught a flash of something in the distance: the bridge. I picked up speed with all I had left, heard the imagined cheers of finish line spectators.

I reached the bridge at a full sprint, my sneakers thundering against the planks. He was coming fast now. I grabbed the railing and hurled myself over, landing on hands and knees in the creek below, frantically running my hands through the water. I heard the loud splash of his body landing near me just as my hand found purchase on the creek bed.

I slammed the rock as hard as I could against the back of his head before he had a chance to right himself in the water. I slammed it again. Again. Again. A guttural, horrific scream echoed around us. I’m sure it was my own voice, though I did not recognize the sound. My watch chimed.

Heart Rate: 203. Pace: 7:26/mile. Distance: 13.1 miles. New record!

When the AthHalf arrived, I set a new personal best. 

All I had to do was think of that night, of running in the dark…

Read more of this year’s story submissions here. Check out two comic submissions (PDF format), by Lil Root and M. Anteau, respectively, here and here.