“Stuffy” by Jan Flynn is the First Place winning story in the young adult category for the Eleventh Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Twelfth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Flynn’s winning entry.
by Jan Flynn
“Give it up, “ sneers Penguin. “She can’t hear you, and you’re driving the rest of us nuts.” I ignore her and continue to practice my growls and roars; night is coming. Only one of Penguin’s dull plastic eyes is visible in the tangle of clothes tossed over her and everything else on the window seat. None of us is in a great mood these days, but Penguin has always had a lousy disposition. She’s a cheap souvenir, won by some admiring boy at a carnival booth a couple of summers ago, and already kapok stuffing oozes out of her butt.
The quality creatures, the Steiff bear and the pony from F.A.O. Schwarz and the hand-woven, made-in-Kenya giraffe, peer down at me in dignified silence. Their disapproval wavers through the air like radio signals.
I don’t care. They’re just mementos of Stacey’s early years, gathering dust up on the shelf. Me, I’m the real deal. I stand guard, and one of these days I’ll make myself heard again.
Stacey still talks to me, even though she can’t hear me anymore. After all, I’m the one with the special eyes that glow in the dark, and I’ve been with her since she was three. Now there are late nights, when she creeps in through her door or sometimes her bedroom window, trailing unfamiliar scents and the chill of night air, and once she’s climbed out of her boots and leggings and skull-patterned ladder- back sweatshirt or whatever she’s decked herself out in, once she’s checked her glowing devices one last time, she flops back on her bed and closes her eyes. Then her lids fly open again and her gaze darts around the room like a trapped bird, until it meets the steady light of my eyes. She never covers me up with laundry; I’m either perched next to her laptop or already on her bed. She reaches for me, cradles me to her, whispers in my soft ears. “Oh, Tom-Tom,” she murmurs, “Tommy Tiger, what to do?”
I purr for her, even though she can’t hear. I measure my tempo to her breaths, waiting and watching until they even out and grow slow and long and deep. Then I watch over her. When the door edges open again and the sour breath floats over us as heavy, weaving steps approach, I growl and rumble for all I’m worth, unheard. The bed sinks under unwelcome weight; Stacey slaps at the big hammy hands creeping up the bedclothes: the deep, slurred voice whispers promises and threats into her face. She whispers back, fierce terrible words, and he laughs. After a silence, just long enough to let her know he can take it further whenever he feels like it, he leaves. It gets a little worse each time. All I can do is witness.
She never talks to me in the morning, or anytime during the day, not anymore. Once there were wonderful, safe days, years ago, when I growled out cheery nonsense songs for Stacey hour after hour while she sang along or chattered happily all about her day or her dreams. But we’re long past all that now. Things have changed, with the divorce, and her dad moving away with his new family, and Stacey growing up, and her mom’s new boyfriend. The other stuffies refuse to see what’s going on: they’re desperate to pretend nothing’s changed. Not me. I’ve got a job to do.
I keep up with the times. When Stacey’s on Tumblr or Snapchat, I’m paying attention. I learn a lot listening to music with her, or by watching YouTube, which by the way has some awesome tiger vids. I’m not like the Steiff bear, who actually expects that any minute now Stacey’s going to pack him away in an old-fashioned hope chest to one day be passed on to her firstborn child.
Good luck with that, Bear. He’s one of those very traditional types, stuck in an idealized past. Calls Stacey’s room “the nursery”. Presented to Miss Stacey on the occasion of her sixth birthday by her paternal grandmother, Bear has told us a million times, “and Mummy was very strict about not allowing the young miss to take me into the bathtub, ha ha ha.” Seriously, Bear talks like that. No matter that Stacey has never once in her life called her mom “Mummy”. These days, she and her mom mostly scream at each other.
Which makes me sad, because Stacey and her mom used to be great friends. They look so much alike, and just last year I heard them giggling together about somebody at the mall who thought they were sisters. They used to borrow each other’s clothes and share secrets and midnight snacks of vanilla ice cream on saltine crackers. I know this because Stacey used to carry me around a lot with her, kind of as a joke, years after she was over her other stuffies. But not for a long time now. Not since her mom’s new boyfriend. The Creep, as Stacey calls him.
I work on my long, low, threat-growl, willing it to vibrate up through my cottony chest until it builds so much energy that it kicks over into sound, sound audible to humans. “Shut up,” complains Penguin.
“You shut up, Fluff Butt,” I snarl back. She hates that name. But I stop to rest. The effort of trying to make myself heard takes all my strength: if I could pant, my tongue would be hanging out of my open mouth.
Of course, if I could open my mouth, I could use my teeth. I’m sure there are teeth in there, big sharp ones. I hope so.
Voices rise on the other side of Stacey’s door, which flies open and shouted words swoop in on a gust of angry air. “We’ve had enough of your disrespect! You can’t talk to him or me like that, do you understand? How am I supposed to listen to you when you act like that?” shrills her mom.
“Oh my God, you can’t even be serious!” yells Stacey in reply, “Like you have any idea what’s going on!”
“What’s that supposed to mean? Come back here RIGHT NOW, young —“
But Stacey has already slammed the door shut on her mother’s words. Furious tears roll down her face as she flops on her bed. She grabs me. “I can’t take it anymore. I can’t,” she says to me or to herself, it’s hard to tell. “I’m supposed to respect the Creep? My God, how can she be so stupid?” She stuffs me under one arm and whips out her phone.
I feel a thrill. She’s calling for help, at last. I hear the phone ring and ring. “Pick up, Dad, for once,” she whispers, and I’m thinking the exact same thing.
His outgoing message kicks in: “You’ve reached Dr. Erik Garrett. If this is an emergency, please hang up and dial . . .”
Stacey hangs up. She punches in another number. It goes right to voice mail, a cheery woman’s voice: “Hi! Gillian, Erik, Charlie and Megan are unavailable right now! But please leave a message and we’ll call you right back!” There’s the beep, and low static as Stacey hesitates. Say something, I growl at her as hard as I can. Tell them.
“Um, it’s Stacey?” she begins, her voice wavering. “I’d just like to . . . if you could let my dad know that I’m . . .”
Stacey’s door swings open. There, filling up the doorway, is the Creep. He’s got on his nice guy smile. Stacey thumbs her phone off, tucks it under her hip, and stares at the far wall, her mouth tight.
“Who you talking to, Stace?” he asks.
He snorts a little laugh. “Listen, sweetie, you got your mom pretty riled up down there, and you know how she gets, right? She’s a little freaked out about us going away and leaving you all by yourself in the house this weekend. I keep telling her you can handle it. But let’s not cause any more trouble right now, okay? We talked about this, right? Stacey? You understand what I’m saying?”
Stacey shoots him a look that would shrivel his soul, if he had one. He chuckles again. “Just so we’re clear,” he says. “And don’t you worry: I can always take care of your mom.” He taps his big hand on the doorframe, gives Stacey a wink, and turns away. He leaves the door open.
Stacey stays frozen on the bed until he goes down the hall and back downstairs, but her heart beats rapid-fire right through my stuffing. All the Creep has to do is give a tickle of a hint of a threat to her mom, and dread seeps from Stacey’s pores: I pick it up through my life-like nylon whiskers. She won’t call her dad back now; if he ever does remember he has a daughter who needs him, if he finally picks up the phone to call her, she won’t tell him anything. The Creep knows this very well. My chest is burning.
Stacey explodes from the bed and slams her door shut. She paces from the door to her window, banging me absentmindedly against her thigh. After the third trip she tosses me back on the bed, whips out her phone, and rat-a-tats a text. It enters the ether with a hiss, and Stacey heads to her closet and starts digging through her clothes. Out come her low-rise leather jeans, her skinny ribbed white tank, her pinstripe menswear vest she brought home in a Goodwill bag and customized with Day of the Dead appliqués. All the stuff her mom hates the most. She rips off her school uniform and throws it on the closet floor, dresses in her chosen outfit, pulls on Doc Martins. In the middle of this operation, her phone trills at her, an answer text, and she thumbs back a reply, a grim smile on her face.
There’s a soft knock on her door, and her mom’s voice floats through a tiny gap. “Stacey, hon? Listen, it turns out we have to leave earlier than I thought. Brad doesn’t want to get stuck in Friday traffic. There’s fifty bucks on the kitchen table, you can call for pizza, there’s extra for emergencies, but remember no friends over, and I told the Motts across the street that we’re going out of town, we’ll be back Sunday afternoon like I said . . .”
“I know, Mom.” Stacey’s voice sounds tired. There’s a heavy silence.
“Stacey? Sweetheart? Listen, I know things have been difficult lately, and I’d really like to clear the air between . . .”
“Clara! What’s the holdup?” booms the Creep from downstairs. “I told you, it’s not gonna look good if we’re late to this thing. Don’t make me leave without you, ha ha ha,” he calls, his syrupy chuckle making my hackles rise.
“Gotta go, Stace,” says her mom, in a voice staccato with tension. “We’ll talk when I get back, okay? You just have to understand Brad, he’s only trying . . .”
“Clara! You comin’ or not?” The Creep’s voice has lost all pretense of mirth.
“Mom, go, it’s okay,” urges Stacey. The tears in her eyes don’t show up in her voice. Footsteps patter away down the hall. The front door opens and closes, headlights recede down the driveway.
Stacey’s putting on makeup when her phone goes off, some techno-rock ring tone, and she picks up with one hand while she’s applying thick black eyeliner with the other. Her voice morphs into the tone she uses with her new friends, the ones she sneaks out to see. “Toootally,” she says, “love it. No prob. See you there.”
Be careful, I growl at her, as though it will do any good.
Her room is desolate once she’s gone.
Long after dark, I hear the front door open and laughter bubbles in. Several pairs of footsteps clatter into the entrance, high breathless voices talking at the same time, Stacey’s among them. Look out, I think. The Creep will go off like a bomb if he finds out you had friends over. I worry there might be a party, but nobody else shows up. The footsteps trail into the kitchen and family room. Music filters up through the floorboards.
The voices come bouncing upstairs. Stacey and two other girls sweep into her room. They’re gasping with laughter, taking swigs from a bottle they pass back and forth. My whiskers vibrate with their excitement, and also with the vinegar-like taint on their breath, something like what I detect during the Creep’s late-night incursions.
“The pizza guy said he’d be here in half an hour. But they’re always slow. C’mon, Angela, show us the thing,” urges Stacey.
One of the other girls, tall and pale with purple-tipped black hair, makes a big production of reaching into her tote and pulling out an oblong velvet bag. “My mom would kill me if she knew I’d taken this,” she laughs. “She says it’s too valuable to be played with. Isn’t it great?” She shoves aside everything on Stacey’s bed, me included, and loosens the drawstring on the bag, uncovering what looks like an antique game board. Splayed across its center in old-fashioned script are the letters of the alphabet and below that the numerals one through nine, ending in a zero. Strange symbols curlicue around its border: a grinning sun perches in one top corner, next to the word “yes”; a man-in-the-moon face points to “no” in the other. At the bottom, in Gothic script, is the word “GOODBYE”.
I feel my awareness pulled toward it, like a magnet. The sensation is dizzying.
“It’s just a Ouija board,” says the third girl around a mouthful of whatever’s in the bottle. “I mean, I’ve seen ‘em before.”
“This one’s hand-painted, really old. It came from my great-aunt who got it in New Orleans. It’s very powerful, Delia,” explains Angela, sounding defensive.
“Ooo-oooh,” laughs Delia, and goggles her eyes, mock-impressed.
“Where’s the thingie, that you use to make it work?” asks Stacey, and Angela digs further into the velvet bag to produce a thin piece of polished wood the shape of a spearhead, with a clear glass ball in its center. Now I feel a tingling sensation.
“This is the planchette,” Angela explains, “that connects you to the spirits.” Delia rolls her eyes, but Stacey and Angela sit down with the board between them, their fingers poised lightly on the planchette’s opposite edges. “Who is Delia’s next BF?” asks Angela.
I laugh to myself. I’ve heard Stacey and Angela on the phone, gossiping. A trickle of power, like a weak electrical current, passes through me. I know the answer to this one.
“Angelaaaa!” whoops Delia. Angela shushes her. All three girls go quiet. I feel like there are wires connecting my head to that board. The planchette moves, slowly at first, then darting from letter to letter: G – R – E – G.
Squeals of excitement. “I knew it!” crows Angela. “You are so crushed out on Greg! I told you he likes you too.”
“You guys were totally pushing that thing!” says Delia, obviously hoping to be refuted.
“We were not, I swear! Let’s keep going. Let me have another swig first,” laughs Stacey, reaching for the bottle.
Their focus fuels my excitement. The girls ask more questions, silly ones, and get answers that make them giggle or gasp. Even Delia never takes her eyes off the planchette. Eventually, Stacey asks, “Are we talking to a spirit?”
The planchette wavers, then moves to Yes.
“What’s your name?” asks Angela. The planchette moves smoothly from letter to letter.
T – H – O – M – A – S.
That’s me, I want to add, but this is hard work. It feels like all my stuffing is vibrating.
With a nervous laugh, Delia asks, “Are you a friendly spirit?” She’s not supposed to ask the questions as her fingers aren’t on the planchette, but it moves around the board nonetheless, taking Stacey’s and Angela’s hands along for the ride.
The three girls look at one another, wide-eyed. Emboldened, Delia continues: “Can you, like, do magic or grant wishes?”
“Delia, that’s not how . . .” begins Angela, but the planchette moves again. The girls all watch as it drives around the board under Stacey’s and Angela’s fingers.
I will try. 1 wish. If I could breathe, my chest would be heaving.
“Whoa,” breathes Angela, sounding a little shaky. They’ve all had a few more sips off the bottle. She takes her hands off the planchette and rubs her neck. “So, what should we wish for?”
The doorbell sounds.
“Pizza’s here!” announces Stacey, and all three troop downstairs. I rest there, upended, next to the Ouija board, feeling its pull on me.
Music and laughter, clinking glasses downstairs. They’re down there for another hour: it’s close to midnight when they finally return to the room.
“I know I left my sweater up here,” murmurs Delia, looking around vacantly. They’ve all slowed down quite a bit.
“I wish you guys would stay here,” pleads Stacey. Her hand goes to her abdomen. “Ugh. Maybe wine doesn’t agree with me.”
“We only killed a bottle. It’s more like that plus all the pizza and other crap we ate,” replies Angela. “I feel so fat. I’m going on a diet tomorrow, for real.”
“Shut up, you’re already too skinny,” remarks Delia. A car horn beeps outside Stacey’s window. “Hey, that’s my brother’s car. Hurry up Angie, we gotta go.”
They grab their stuff and are down the stairs and out the door just like that. Stacey sees them off, turns out the lights, then trails back into her room. “Nice going, Angela,” she mutters, surveying the forgotten Ouija board. In the light of her bedside lamp, there are dark circles under her eyes. She drops onto the bed, shoving the board out of the way with her leg. Curling up, she grabs me. My whiskers twitch with her loneliness. If only I could talk to her now, when she needs me. I exert every ounce of my will, rumbling with effort, trying to make myself heard.
He hand goes to her stomach again. “God, I ate so much, why is my stomach growling?” she murmurs. She shifts her weight and bumps her leg into the Ouija board. I feel a surge of energy roll through me. “Here’s my wish, spirit of Thomas, whoever you are,” she says sleepily. “I wish I could just burn all this down and start over. I wish Tommy Tiger here would eat the Creep.” She laughs quietly. “Can you grant me that wish, Thomas?” Her words are softened with fatigue.
Something unseen jostles the board: the planchette slides to the word Yes. Stacey doesn’t see: her eyes have drifted shut. My stuffing pulses. I purr to Stacey, willing that her sleep is deep and peaceful like it used to be. The Creep is gone for the night: she’s safe. After a time, I relax my guard. A new moon peeks in through her window, its light dimmer than the glow from my eyes. It has been so long since I’ve allowed myself to sleep when she sleeps, so long since we dreamed together.
“Hey, Tiger,” Penguin’s voice squawks me out of my slumber. “What?” I growl.
“He’s home. Thought I should tell you,” reports Penguin, and clams up.
It’s true. The air in the house carries his scent, and I hear his footfall on the stairs. I growl a warning: Stacey moves in her sleep. Urgency shoots through me like lightening.
The bedroom door opens. In the dark hallway looms a darker shape. “Must have been a good party. That was a hundred dollar bottle of wine you sucked down.” The Creep’s voice is leaden with menace.
Something zips along my whiskers like a current and touches Stacey’s cheek. She sits bolt upright, sees the Creep, stifles a scream.
In a choked voice, she asks, “What are you doing here, Brad?”
“This is my house,” he snarls. “I don’t answer to you. You’ve been a very bad girl. And here I came all the way back tonight just because I missed you and our little talks.” His tone changes from hostile to teasing in the space of a breath. He moves toward the bed.
I stare at the Creep, focusing my glowing eyes straight ahead, at his belt buckle. “Where’s Mom?” demands Stacey.
“Your mom’s out cold, back at the hotel. Had a little too much fun. It’s just you and me,” says the Brad, with one of his greasy chuckles. He’s sitting on the bed now, his hands rubbing at Stacey’s calves.
She kicks at him. “Mom doesn’t drink!”
“You don’t want to be like that,” he warns, gripping her knees. “I told you, I took care of your mom.” One hand releases her knee and travels up toward her face; Stacey presses her back against the headboard, gripping me in front of her like she did when she was little. I feel Stacey’s fear spread through me, along with another force: the Ouija board next to us practically hums with power.
“Don’t worry about her, I’ll be back there before she comes to. You and me, we’re gonna have our own little party. And Moms won’t ever know. Right, little girl?” The energy building in me intensifies the light from my eyes: it reflects back and forth between them and his big, shiny belt buckle, picking up heat.
“Stop it, leave me alone!” cries Stacey, as his hand travels up her torso, glides along her neck, seizes her face. He laughs. He moves his face close to hers, nearly on top of her. I’m still between them, my eye light growing hotter and hotter. Rage smolders inside me like a coal.
“I told you, don’t be like that. Better not be like that,” he threatens, and his hand goes to his belt buckle. Then he roars as his fingers connect with the heated metal. “You think you’re tricky, you think you’re smart, you little snot?” he bellows at Stacey as he wrenches me out of her grip to throw me across the room.
At his touch my rage ignites, my plush fur licking with orange flame, my combusted stuffing enveloping his hand. He jumps up, staggers back, screaming, trying to fling me off. The smell of burning flesh thickens the air. He moans and staggers: his gyrations knock me against Stacey’s curtains, the discarded school uniform, the stuffies on the display shelf. The curtains and clothes and poor stuffed creatures flicker with transferred flame. Stacey huddles against her headboard, rigid with horror.
The board shines in the flames’ reflection. I link with it, I connect completely and at last I open my mouth, my fiery mouth with real sharp teeth.
“RUN!” I roar.
And Stacey hears me. She leaps out of bed and darts out her door, past the madly dancing Creep. In the heartbeats before fire engulfs her room, I hear her run downstairs and out the front door, calling for help.
The fire rages, blowing out windows into the night sky. Sirens shriek down the street. Most of the house and its contents — including me, the Ouija board, the other stuffies — are consumed before the crews can knock the fire down. But in the soggy ruins, they find almost nothing of the Creep.
I am satisfied. For a creep, he tasted pretty good.