Fiction: A Double Bind in Rhinelander
Originally published in Perceptions Magazine’s June 2021 issue
“Nothin’ you can do but wait. I’ll come out of this, or I won’t.” Momma says it, and the wooden door scrapes shut behind her like she means it.
A corset of rope binds me to the kitchen chair around my middle. Tied too tight for me to work on with my free hands, Momma made sure of that.
“Gotta truss you up,” she had muttered when she heard the Hodag’s spiked tail raking the side of the cabin, taunting her. Luring her outside. She knew if she didn’t tie me up snug, I’d follow her.
Hunger corkscrews in my belly, turned by knowing that next time the cabin door opens, it will either be Momma or the Hodag. Until then, it’s just me and the giant can of chocolate pudding Momma left behind. Cafeteria pudding. Not her homemade pudding, which lines the counter, freshly canned in neat rows of jars, ready to sell in the town gift shops.
“Let people taste what the factory spits out, then try the real thing from my kitchen. Wisconsin chocolate, Wisconsin dairy,” she always says. If they only knew.
Momma thought the Hodag didn’t exist, told me it was just some hoax designed to lure tourists into Rhinelander. “Fine by me, sugar. More people come to see that nonsense, the more buyers for my pudding.”
I told her the Hodag does exist. That, by All Hallows Eve, it would come for me. I knew because the Hodag shrieked this promise into the air, willing the wind to deliver it to me on summer’s last breath through the crevices in the bedroom shutters Momma always keeps shut.
The wind obeyed, and the season sharpened its crisp edges while it waited. Now Momma’s battle cries echo outside while a familiar shriek drifts through the timbers like a specter. The Hodag does not lie.
Each gasp for air brings agony, my ribs rubbing against the ropes. Each swallow too, but still I scoop gelatinous sludge from the can’s gaping mouth. Moonlight coats the worn wood floors as the slurry paves over the hole in my gut. Times like this, you eat whatever you can reach.
A ragged metal burr on the lid snags the husk of my knuckle. Lets the blood flow, and with it an idea. Snapping the lid free is easy.
I worry the sharp edges against the ropes. Sawing back and forth, fiber by frayed fiber, getting closer to going after Momma. Outside, the uproar only gets louder and closer. The wall shivers on impact, maybe one of them, maybe the wheelbarrow or watering can, hurled in defense or distraction.
“I’m coming, Momma,” I bleat as loud as I can into the empty cabin, hoping she can hear me outside while she fights. Hoping the Hodag hears me too.
Half a rope-width away from freedom, the Hodag crashes through the door followed by Momma, bloodied and righteous, gored in the shoulder and screaming like a pole cat. They hit the table so hard it topples, the mammoth can heaving store-brand pudding onto the cabinet doors as it clanks its way to the floor. Smells of sweat and earth flood the air, mixed with the richer, darker smells of the Hodag’s den.
Full-grown, the Hodag barely fits in the cabin, the erupted ivory spines along its backbone threatening to gouge the walls whenever it rears up to show its armored belly, protecting its softer, furry sides as best it can. Its spiked tail shoos Momma into the corner, bringing me eye-level with the fangs ringed around its red maw.
The beast lunges toward me, claws pointed at my ropes. But Momma slithers out, swings her ax into the Hodag’s head, and the creature crashes to my feet. It groans, its good eye catching mine before dilating. Nostrils flaring, its dying lips form two words: “I’m sorry.” My throat clenches up, choking on despair.
Momma twists her chin upward, her backbone crackling like popcorn. She leans in, a woman more monstrous than the Hodag, her garbage breath scalding my cheek.
“Sugar, did you really think your friend could stop me?”
My only friend. No one else will come for me. Not for all the candy in the chocolate belt between Milwaukee and Green Bay.
Momma steps on the lifeless Hodag’s shoulder and grips the ax handle with sticky hands, prying the weapon back into service. My fingers curl around the barbed edge of the can’s lid, hidden by the ruined table. The saw-toothed disc warns me of its bite.
She should have tied up my arms.
P.J. Powell co-hosts the podcast “Write Away with Nat and P.J.” Her short fiction has been published in Across the Margin, Manawaker Studio’s Flash Fiction Podcast, Perceptions Magazine, Voices de la Luna, and Youth Imagination Magazine. A strategic communications consultant and writer, P.J. is also a staunch defender of the productivity-boosting benefits of short naps, long walks, and dance breaks. Follow her on Twitter @2PSays, and visit her blog at Creatorology.com.