It’s October, my favorite month. We’re only a couple of days in, but already the season looks promising. I have a new home to decorate, so my favorite old frightful friends have come out to play on our porches. The weather has turned cool enough to open the windows in the mornings and cook chicken stew in the crockpot. (Can you smell it? Mmmm…) Oh, and that empty lot by our house where hubby and I like to walk our dog in the evenings? Yeah, we’ve started experiencing random (or not so random?) cold spots as we meander through. So… my spooky specters might not be the only ones hanging around this Halloween. It’s fine, I’m keeping an eye on things (and making my husband walk in front of me).
This October marks the anniversary of one of my horror publications. Nine years ago, I entered the 24-Hour Short Story Contest on WritersWeekly.com, and my piece, “The Devil’s Plaything,” won the first place prize. The email announcing the good news arrived the day before my birthday, and I was thrilled with the acceptance and prize money. However, the part that made me smile the most was the editor’s comment about my story. She wrote, “Your story FREAKED US OUT!!! Made us want to go to church and get right with the Lord to avoid Hell. Ha ha!!” I thought that was a pretty cool endorsement of my horror writing.
What’s strange is that the story I wrote didn’t really freak me out at the time, but it does now.
The 24-Hour Contest works like this: You sign up to participate. At noon on the contest date, WritersWeekly sends all participants the prompt and word count. Entries must be submitted by noon the following day. Stories have to touch on the prompt in some way, but details can be changed, and entries cannot exceed the word count, or they won’t be considered. For the Fall 2013 contest, the word limit was 900 words, not including the title (mine was 898), and the prompt was the following:
When I read this prompt, my mind immediately leapt to a setting and characters and an idea, and I got to work. I didn’t submit my story until 10:56 A.M. the following day, just over an hour until the deadline, but I spent the majority of that time revising the story down to 900 words and editing it. (I also slept and ate, etc.) But the big idea, the vision for the piece, never faltered. While my story grew and became flesh and then whittled away beneath each stroke of my delete button, its essence remained. And it didn’t creep me out, not really. It was just a story that came to my mind that I was giving life to. That’s all.
I re-read this story a couple of weeks ago and thought, Yikes! How disturbing! Then I remembered those disturbing images were my own creations and felt a bit chagrined. Is this the plight of horror writers? We’re too close to the writing while creating it to see what others see, so our work only scares us after the fact? Does Stephen King shiver when he re-reads The Shining today? Or did that terrifying tale always make him shiver? And, more importantly, did I just compare myself to Stephen King? Because I definitely did not mean to do that. *more chagrin*
Anyway, today I’m sharing my 1st Place story, “The Devil’s Plaything,” here on my blog. Be warned: This story made the editors of WritersWeekly.com feel the need to go to church, and they published the following disclaimer with it: READER DISCRETION ADVISED! Some readers may find this story offensive. If you are sensitive, or easily offended, click back now…before it’s too late!
So, if you feel like reading a little horror story, enjoy! If not, that’s fine. Go open a window and bask in front of a cool fall breeze instead. October is yours to appreciate however you like.
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The Devil’s Plaything
by Carie Juettner
Charlotte peered through the gash in the wall of the shed. Sparks leapt from the ditch outside where lava glowed red and orange in the always-dusk. She squinted her eyes through the gray smoke, wondering where Delilah was.
At that moment, Charlotte saw the fiery red ponytail, bouncing like a flame of lava that had broken free of the creek bed. Watching the girl emerge from the semi-darkness, Charlotte wiped a scaly arm across her brow. Then, tentatively, she rubbed her palm over her entire head, wincing at the sparse strands and flaking scalp. Most of her hair was gone, singed off from the heat of this place, the searing winds and suffocating dryness. But Delilah’s flame-colored ponytail seemed immune to the environment. Delilah herself seemed immune to it. From the movement of her hair, Charlotte could tell her daughter was skipping again. What kind of person skips through Hell? she thought, and stepped away from the wall.
She was poking at the fire in the stove when Delilah burst through the doorway. Charlotte looked up, determined to meet her daughter’s eye, but her glance landed, as usual, on her right cheek instead. On the Devil’s mark.
“Where’ve you been, Deli?” she asked, tearing her gaze from the crescent-moon scar to her daughter’s hazel eyes.
“Mom, I want to show you something!”
“Delilah, I asked you a question.” Charlotte placed her hands in the spot on her emaciated frame where her hips used to be and tried to put on a serious face. It was difficult without eyebrows. “Where’ve you been?”
The little girl twisted her finger through her ponytail and looked around the dilapidated shack before fixing her eyes on her mother’s mangy scalp. Then a tiny smile grew out of the left side of her mouth. “He said I didn’t have to tell you.”
“But I will.” The smile expanded, and Delilah looked down at her hands. That’s when Charlotte noticed they weren’t empty. “We walked down by the cliff,” she said, turning the thing over and over, letting it slip between her fingers and curl up in her palm. “You know, where the chained ones are? By the pit?”
“We walked along there and He showed me how He does it, how He rakes them across the coals until…” She paused, inspecting her new toy. “Until it just pops out!” She held her cupped palms aloft. The thing in her hands was part solid, part smoke. It writhed and squirmed and seemed to reach for something.
Charlotte stared at it in horror.
“He said I could keep it.” Delilah grinned devilishly. “He said I need to learn.”
Charlotte sewed a smile onto her face, stitch by painful stitch. “That’s great, Deli. I’m really proud of you.”
Delilah kept her eyes on the grasping, groping figure. “He said you wouldn’t like it.”
“No, I do, I do!” Charlotte swallowed. “Can I… can I hold it?” She reached out her raw, cracked, shaking hands.
The little girl seemed to consider the gesture, consider her mother. Then she pulled her prize close to her chest. “No. I don’t trust you.”
Charlotte dropped her hands and breathed a long sigh. “Well, why don’t you go… play with it while I make dinner. I’ll call you when it’s ready. Don’t go far,” her voice cracked. “Please.”
Delilah said nothing, but she turned and went outside.
Charlotte stared into the coals. I don’t belong here, she thought. I don’t belong in Hell. She remembered the “accident”, remembered the pain and then the absence of pain. She remembered the verdict placed upon them both, though only one of them deserved it. It’s her fault I’m here. Charlotte remembered the way the Devil had looked at Delilah, the way He had run His thorn-like fingers through her fiery red ponytail, smiling.
She peeked through the space in the wall. Her daughter kneeled in the always-dusk, holding the writhing soul against a large rock and pounding away at it with a smaller, sharper stone. Smash, smash, again and again, her ponytail bouncing with each thrust, her lips curled into a smirk.
Later, when Delilah returned, she was alone. No sign of the soul. “I’m hungry,” she whined.
“Where’s your… toy?” Charlotte asked.
“The food’s ready. Be a good girl and get it out of the oven?”
Delilah sighed dramatically, then opened the metal door with her bare hand and peered inside. “There’s nothing in here! Where’s–“
Charlotte pushed against the little girl’s body with all her weight, shoving her inside the empty oven, raking her across the burning coals. She slammed the door and held it. Blood-curdling shrieks erupted from within, drowning out the lava’s hiss, muffling the sizzle of the earthly flesh of Charlotte’s hands cooking against the scorching metal. The girl twisted and writhed, cursed and kicked. Still her mother did not budge.
Finally, stillness. Silence. Charlotte stayed where she was, pushing her charred, skeletal fingers against the door, waiting. What happens now? she thought. When does it ‘pop out’?
And then, laughter. From inside the oven, atop the white-hot coals, a little girl’s giggles. “He said you’d try something stupid like this,” came Delilah’s voice from behind the oven door. “He’s on his way, you know.” Her giggles grew louder. Charlotte’s body shook.
“Thanks, Mom. Now I’ll have a new toy to play with.”