This story is by Zane Andrew and won an Honorable Mention in our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Zane Andrew is a beginning writer, freshly graduated with a Creative Writing degree from Colorado State University. His writing has brought him a few accolades and has appeared in various publications. Links to those and plenty other entertaining and/or disturbing stories can be found on his blog, ZaneAndrew.com.
As the reader is most definitely aware, small rural towns love their monster stories. In the town of Hogan, there had only ever been one.
The monster, which came to be known as the Hogan Pine, was a tree. The story, as most people tell it, goes that in centuries past the tree would lure travelers into its forest (by night, naturally). They would catch a sudden, deep aroma of pine and become absolutely helpless in resisting its pull — everyone loves the smell of pine. Then, if they hadn’t been alone, they’d be found the next morning — or on a different, more distant morning — lying dead at the base of the tree, body covered in its needles.
Stories differed, of course. Some said the tree took the blood of humans as revenge for the gallons upon gallons of sap they’d extracted over the years, and some said that the spirit of an ancient hunter had inhabited the tree and was blindly attempting to bring his lover into the realm of the dead. One of the more popular opinions was that the tree grew in the exact spot that Satan landed when he was cast from Heaven.
Regardless of the truth, it was inevitable that some day a man with an axe would decide to play hero. His name was Bart Hogan, and the year was 1906. Bart was already famous for chopping. Trees, houses, boats. He would put on shows, and legend claimed that he could use his trusty blade to split rocks. He was a much more boastful, and much less inspiring John Henry.
He brought a small crowd (mostly family, truth be told) with him when he came for the Hogan Pine which, as the reader might’ve guessed, was not yet named the Hogan Pine. They say, and here they do not disagree, that he smirked, plucked a needle from the tree for posterity, then marched headlong into the spiked branches and began furiously chopping away. Minutes later, the Pine was toppled and he turned his back, axe on his shoulder and needle in his pocket.
It was not long after that they began building houses and a few shops near the forest. The needle would stay in the Hogan family for generations, as would the Hogan family stay in the town of Hogan.
Dianna Hogan, mother of one, loved this story. Her son Horace did not. Not everyone appreciates a birthright to stardom, you see. Or, more accurately, not everyone appreciates a mother who’s decided that stardom is her family’s birthright.
Dianna expected greatness from her son, which is why she gave him a ridiculous name like Horace Hogan. His friend Danielle said it sounded like a comic book character from the 60’s, and he had to agree. His mother would give sidelong looks to people that didn’t “respect” him accordingly at the grocery store, and constantly came home having made a detour to purchase him something that was worthy of his natural prowess. She’d once driven an hour out of her way to pick him up a belt because none of his were “eye-catchers.” The buckle said Superstar.
And worst of all she kept the needle, the last remaining piece of the great and evil Hogan Pine, in a glass case on the middle of their dining room table.
He was sitting at that table, taking notes for a class, when his father walked in. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon and his father was wearing shoes, which he only did when he left the house.
“Going somewhere?” said Horace, looking back down at his notebook.
His father was filling a water bottle in the kitchen sink. “Yup. Mom’s having work friends over.” He turned the water off and capped the bottle. “For dinner.”
Horace rolled his eyes. “What?”
He rubbed his forehead. “Can I leave too?” He knew the answer.
He’d have to be there so his mother could show off her little legend born. His father was out the door.
In a little under an hour he heard from his bedroom the front door squawk open, then his mother squawk louder as a smattering of footsteps followed. He contemplated hiding or ditching, but knew neither would work. His mother had the skills of a professional bounty hunter. He took a deep breath, put on the cashmere slippers she had bought him, and walked out into the spotlight.
Dianna halted mid-squawk when he appeared, and put her hand on her chest.
“My boy,” she said with genuine pride. “This, is my boy.” She smiled wide as Horace shook hands and nodded how-do-you-do’s. Once that was finished, she spread her hands and barked, “Everyone take a seat.” She pulled a chair at the head of the table out for her golden son. And there they were. Horace, his mother, and an assortment of strangers at the table.
Then she said “Oh!” and popped up. “Almost forgot the food. Horace, honey, entertain while I rustle it up.” “Rustle it up” meant order Chinese, because Dianna did not cook. As she dialed up a number and began yammering in the living room, Horace fought the urge to smash his head into the table like his great-grandfather once smashed his axe into a cinder block.
“So, Marcus,” said a man with large eyebrows. “You’re in school?”
It took a moment for Horace to realize he was being spoken to. He swallowed. “Mhm. High school. Junior.”
The man nodded, and the lady across from him cleared her throat. Another lady smiled at him, and he looked away. “So,” said eyebrows, but he was cut off when Dianna reentered.
“Oh,” she said, “are we talking about the pine needle?”
Horace did not hide his eyeroll, but mercifully he wasn’t the only one. The woman who’d smiled chuckled wryly and said, “Dianna, we all know the story.”
“Not true!” said his mother, pointing at a man at the other end of the table. “Michael’s from Seattle.” Michael looked at the others with a weak smile as he sunk an inch into his chair. She nudged Horace in the shoulder. “Tell them, baby. His great-grandpa was a demon killer.”
She stood there behind him while everyone politely waited for him to begin. “C’mon now,” said his mother, and the bottom of her stomach hung out of her shirt as she reached across the table to slide the glass case in front of her son. “Tell it, baby.”
He looked at the needle. It was brown with age, just sitting there inside the gawdy ornate case. He sighed. “Honestly, the best character is the tree.”
The smiling woman laughed. His mother thwapped his shoulder with the back of her hand and said “Oh!”
And then Horace felt a prick in his right hand. He jumped slightly at the surprise and looked at his palm. There was a small hole, and blood beginning to drip from it. He looked up. The needle was no longer in the case.
“Quit being funny!” said his mother. She attempted a laugh but could never hide when she was upset.
“I’m …” said Horace, rubbing his hand with his left thumb and looking up to the others at the table. They had slowed down, or he had. His vision was funny, like he was drunk, or at least somewhat like that. He’d only been drunk once. Everything seemed a mite darker than it should have.
And then he felt it. On his wrist, under his skin. The needle. He traced it with his thumb, pressed down on it and it shifted a bit. He heard Dianna’s voice, but she sounded like she was encased in gelatin and he couldn’t tell what she was saying. There was another slap to his shoulder. A dull thud.
Then, his vision was gone entirely. For a moment there was nothing but blue dark, and he heard another voice.
It sounded grainy, like the rain stick Dianna had bought when she decided he’d be a musician. When his vision returned, the dining room scene was distinctly different. Instead of sitting in their chairs around the table, the party was very, very dead. They were strewn across the table, pinned to the walls. Covered in pines.
And apparently, Horace had stood. He turned to his mother, who was still yammering away, hands on her hips. He watched her lips slap together again and again, as her voice came at him in waves and bursts. He lifted his hand.
And there it was. As his hand came up, the needle appeared in the air, floating next to Dianna’s vibrating mouth. Though he couldn’t make out the words, he knew what she was saying.
The Pine knew. And he knew what he wanted.
This would be the legend revitalized, as two hours later Mr. Hogan returned to find six strangers’ bodies in his dining room, his son missing, and his wife at the head of the table, mouth sewn properly shut.