#1: Read “Downright Devilish” on Fourth and Sycamore’s online literary journal.
#2: “Diabolical” is below…just scroll.
#3: “Fiendish” is now available on Coffin Bell’s online literary journal.
#4: “Anomalies” appears in Black Works’ inaugural issue!
#5: “Ashes to Ashes” coming soon!
“Diabolical” by J.J. Fletcher
“Henry, I need you to occupy little George for a few minutes. I must finish these pies, and he is into everything.”
Henry was in the next room, reading the latest articles about the Great Chicago Fire. He had been mesmerized by it since it had taken down one of America’s biggest city. Or, rather, he had been mesmerized a week after it happened, since that was how long it took them to get city papers in Gilmanton.
“Henry! Now!” Theodora Webster called impatiently for her son within seconds of his lack of response.
Henry appeared, half-hidden by the dry sink, flicking a wooden spoon that sat in a dough bowl.
“Yes, mother. What shall I do with him?”
“I don’t care. Just take him out of the kitchen. His mother won’t be here for another hour, and the boy acts as if he wants to mix and stir and pour but doesn’t realize this wood stove will burn his little hands off!”
Henry led a shrieking-with-glee George out of the kitchen by his tiny hand.
“Shall we get into mischief, Georgie?” Henry asked, squinting one eye and grinning.
“Mithtif!” little George cheered.
“Let’s go outside. It’s such a nice day.”
Henry held George’s hand as they walked into the sunshine. It was on a day much like this that Henry’s friend Austin had died eight months ago, falling from the second story of a burned-out, abandoned house in the woods. He had kept to himself more than usual in the first few months after, but even his father had noticed he was different as of late.
“That boy may turn out all right yet, Theodora,” he had said one night, when Henry was sitting at the top of the stairs, eavesdropping when he should have been sleeping. He held a small wooden box in his hand, and absentmindedly lifted and closed the hinged lid. He could hear the sound of a tea cup clink against its saucer.
“He actually engaged Ephraim Pillbrook in conversation while he was in today.”
“That’s lovely, dear,” his mother answered. Another clink followed. “I do hope he overcomes this loss.”
Henry quietly stood, and skipped the one squeaky step to his attic bedroom. After carefully placing his wooden box under his bed, he fell asleep smiling.
“Henwy!” George’s cry stirred Henry from his thoughts. He was pointing toward the weathered garden shed behind the giant oak tree.
George and Henry were happily digging in the dirt near his mother’s turned-up vegetable garden. It had been exceptionally cool that spring, and no seeds had been planted yet.
“Georgie, how old are you?”
“Fwee,” he said, holding up three fingers.
“Three? Are you sure?” Henry asked. Georgie nodded solemnly.
“Do you know what boys your age get to do?”
Henry stood up and wiped the dirt on his pants. He put his hands on his hips and smiled and George.
“You get to bake too!”
“Me?” George asked, wide-eyed.
“Yes, sir! Follow me.” Henry turned on his heel and headed to the garden shed. The door creaked as he opened it. George followed.
“Let’s see, what do we need to bake a pie?” Henry looked around. The old shed had three windows in it, but they were small and it was cramped and rather dark.
“Fwuit!” George said happily.
“That’s right! I bet we have some apples in that big crate over there. Do you see it?” Henry pointed to a crate dug partially into the ground for cold storage.
“Yeth!” George headed to the crate.
“I’ll find us a tin to put it in.” Henry rustled around and found a rusty enamelware bowl. He set it on the floor. George placed two apples in it.
“What else do we need, Georgie?”
“That’s right. We need sugar.” Henry pulled a box down from a shelf and handed it to George. “Here you go.”
“Need to cut up appleth,” George said, taking their endeavor very seriously.
“You’re right! But let me do that part.” Henry took out his pocket knife and carved up both apples in the bowl. George watched in awe. He started to reach for the knife.
“Ah-ah! You must be careful with knives. You could get hurt.” Henry wiped the blade on his pants, then folded the knife and put it away.
George reached instead for the box and poured its granular contents generously over the apples. He carefully set the box back down and began mixing his ingredients together with his hands. His brow furrowed as he worked diligently.
Henry leaned against the wall, eyes flicking from the family cemetery to the stream moving at the far end of their property. He took his knife out and started picking at a wall board. A tin cup hanging from the well pump just outside the shed glinted in the sun.
“All done!” George proclaimed.
“Good boy. Time to eat!”
“No thpoon.” George frowned. Henry looked out all three windows.
“I don’t see anyone.” He put one finger to his lips. “It can be our secret: use your fingers!”
George’s face lit up with a smile. He licked a few of his fingers before wrinkling up his nose and mouth.
“Henwy, bad thugar.” He started sticking his tongue out, rubbing it against his little teeth.
“You just need to take a bite of apple to make it taste right.” Henry surveyed the bowl. “Here.”
He handed George a piece of apple coated with the granules. George took it willingly, but kept making faces as he chewed. He swallowed it.
“Water, Henwy. That’th not good.”
“You stay here. I’ll get you some water.” Henry went out to the well pump and filled the tin cup with water. He sprinkled some granules in and returned to the garden shed.
“Thank you, Henwy.” George coughed, reaching for the cup.
“Do you want some more?” Henry asked.
George shook his head side to side. He took another drink. A voice came from the house.
“Henry! Georgie’s mom is here.” Another infinitesimal pause. “Henry!”
Henry stuck his head out of the garden shed. “Yes’m!” He turned to George.
“Now, Georgie, let’s not tell our mothers about this pie. I wouldn’t want them to get mad that we made it out here instead of the kitchen.” Henry put on his most serious face.
George nodded, grimacing as he scratched his tongue against his teeth.
“That’s right. It will be our secret. Just like not using a spoon.” Henry walked out of the garden shed. George followed.
Henry sat at the top of the stairs, pretending to be in bed, while he eavesdropped on his parents and older sister, Ellen, who had come to deliver the news. His wooden box was in his lap.
“This is most distressing. Just awful.” Henry could hear the emotion in his mother’s voice, and imagined her wringing her apron in front of her. “He was just here!”
“It was distressing to see, believe me, and I’m sure even more so for his mother,” Ellen said. “He was writhing with stomach pain, vomiting for hours on end until blood came up. Doctor White said he hadn’t seen anything like it in–“
“A terrible tragedy, yes,” his father interrupted. “And you say he was his usual self here? Not feeling unwell?” A clink of a tea cup on its saucer.
“He was just fine. Overly exuberant while I was trying to make my pies, so I sent him and Henry out to play.”
“Henry was with him?” Ellen asked.
“Yes. Georgie was underfoot and getting perilously close to the stove. I had Henry keep him busy. They were playing in the garden,” his mother said.
“You saw them?” Ellen’s voice had an edge to it.
“Yes, I could see them through the window.”
“The whole time?”
“Why, Ellen, it wasn’t even an hour until Mrs. Foss came to get him.” Henry usually felt nothing but hatred for his mother–for both his parents, but at this moment he appreciated her mother’s instinct to protect her young.
“Mother, Father, I think you need to keep watch–”
“Ellen.” Their father was curt. “I know your brother has shown some–peculiarities–but he has been improving in these last few months. Even I have seen a change in him.”
A corner of Henry’s mouth turned up.
“Please, just be careful,” Ellen pleaded.
It had been two weeks since George Foss had died from severe stomach distress, presumably food poisoning. Henry had mourned properly along with his family for the small boy, attending the funeral service, wearing black, and even placing an evergreen bough on his tiny grave. As life returned to normal, Henry returned to his new normal as well, again prompting his father’s notice.
“Our Henry, Theodora, might just turn out in spite of it all,” he said again one night, when Henry was again sitting at the top of the stairs, eavesdropping when he should have been sleeping, wooden box on his lap. The lid was propped open and his hand was resting inside it. He could hear the sound of a tea cup clink against its saucer.
“He was able to get old Mr. Gilman to laugh today.”
“That’s lovely, dear,” his mother answered. Clink.
Henry quietly stood and skipped the one squeaky step to his attic bedroom. As he prepared to push the wooden box under his bed, he lifted the lid once more to touch the small button that had been on little Georgie’s jacket. He fell asleep smiling that night.