Writing fiction is all about taking advantage of small moments of inspiration in your life – and a slightly different way of looking at people and events. Case in point – diet plans. From everything I’ve read, such plans are not that effective over the long haul of your life. And the fact that they’re not effective drives an industry that generates billions of dollars of sales every year. I mean, after all, if diet plans really worked and everyone lost the weight they wanted, Weight Watchers, etc. would go out of business, right? That led to me wondering what it would take to make a diet plan truly successful and resulted in the following short story. Believe me, put my plan into action, and you’ll never have to worry about being overweight again!
The house was empty, except for the two dogs and Sally’s scornful note on the refrigerator that read:
Stan, I know you said the obesity program worked, but the girls and I still need to think things over. We’re sick of worrying about you and your health. The firemen and the forklift to take you out to the hospital, that was the last straw. (The estimates for repair of the hole in the bedroom are in the middle desk drawer in the office.) When we’re ready, we’ll contact you. We moved into The Willows across the river today. They don’t allow dogs, so we left them to keep you company. Walk them to get some exercise, don’t eat them.
“Very funny,” Stan said.
He scowled down at the two Yorkies, already whining for a walk by the door. “Shut up, or I just might eat you!”
A tear rolled down his cheek.
“Two hundred and fifty pounds, I lost 250 pounds, and it still wasn’t enough,” he lamented into the silence. Normally, Patty and Laura would be shattering the quiet with their shrieks and screams of delight at some secret childhood game. He missed them as much as he missed food.
More than food, he corrected himself immediately.
“And I have another 250 to go, the doctor says,” he added. “It’s like scaling a mountain.”
Wiping the tear away, he stuck the finger in his mouth, enjoying the salty taste, then jerked it out as if it had burned his tongue.
He was already hungry. He couldn’t help himself.
He searched the kitchen and found nothing.
Sally had cleaned out the cupboards, leaving only five boxes of Lean Cuisine in the freezer, a pointed reminder that he now had to fend for himself.
Five dinners later, he was still hungry, and the Yorkies’ whining was getting on his nerves.
He considered walking the dogs. It was half a mile to the High Street Bridge.
I hate walking, he thought, but maybe I could make it across to Sally’s apartment. She loves walking by the river with the girls. Maybe I can coax her into coming back.
Stan was pretty sure it wouldn’t work, but decided it was worth a try. He got up, found the leashes and called the dogs over.
Thirty minutes later, his hunch proved right.
“I don’t want to go for a walk,” Sally said through a partially opened door. A headband tied about her blonde curls told him that she was busy cleaning–she attacked dirt with the zeal of a martial artist. “I’m not ready to deal with you yet, Stan.”
Stan appealed with his eyes to his two daughters–blonde as their mother–standing behind her. They shook their heads at him. For a moment, he considered throwing his bulk against the door, but Sally knew his intent immediately–they’d been married too long.
“Don’t even think about it,” she warned him. “The manager wrestles super heavyweight at the university and is nearly as big as you–only with muscles.”
Despondent, Stan took the dogs and walked back toward the bridge.
He stopped at a crosswalk and looked down High Street. Neon lights spelled out the answer to his seething hunger. Dairy Queen. The Embers. Denny’s. And, temptingly within range, a McDonalds. He licked his lips, headed toward the golden arches, then halted.
“No!” he shouted at himself. The Yorkies jumped, then skittered away to the end of their leashes. He wanted his family back in the worst way, and there was only one way to do that – go home and not eat.
The smell of hamburgers and french fries floated its seduction to his nose on a sudden gust of wind. Stan checked the sky. Lightning flickered over the tree line. Thunderstorms can arrive quickly, and probably the best thing to do is head for the shelter of McDonalds before I get soaked, he reasoned.
“No!” he shouted again, and set out onto the bridge toward home, but the wind seemed as determined as he was. It chased him with smell of heated vegetable oil, then followed it up with the sharp tang of barbecued beef. Stan hesitated, then stopped. The dogs milled about, confused by his indecision. He was turning back when the Yorkies broke into a frantic yapping. Stan scanned his surroundings carefully. It wasn’t always safe around the river at night, and the toy breeds, though meager protection, were alert to strangers.
The bridge was deserted.
Stan jerked on the dogs’ leashes, annoyed at the false alarm. The dogs quit their barking, but settled into a non-stop whining that grated on his nerves. He dragged the animals to the bridge overlook and tried to get them to settle down. Instead, the male charged at the railing and tried to squeeze underneath, snarling and yapping at unseen quarry.
“Doc, you idiot! Shut up or I’ll throw you over the edge!” he shouted, yanking on the leash again, but the little male kept throwing his seven pounds forward.
A long hairy arm saved him the trouble.
Snaking over the railing, it snatched the dog out of sight so fast there was a loud boom from the displaced air.
A wicked laugh came from under the bridge, like someone was gargling mouthwash and snickering at the same time, then Stan heard the crunching of small bones and the smacking and licking of very large lips.
“Gooood!” a voice said, sounding like a wood chipper full of splinters and twigs and branches being ground into sawdust. “Mooore?”
It wasn’t a request.
It was a demand.
Somehow, Stan knew he was next on the menu unless he thought of something fast. He looked down at Missy, Sally’s favorite. He stooped and tossed her over the railing. The arm struck again, quicker than a lizard’s tongue. A second later, the dog’s leash was spit up onto the sidewalk, and the owner of the voice oozed up onto the bridge.
How do you describe a troll? Stan thought as his brain scrambled to perform a lobotomy upon itself.
You can’t, he knew instantly. Forget what you read in books. It can only give you a hint. Instead, imagine. Imagine pus. Think slime. And the stench!
The troll reeked like a maggot-ridden carp.
Then it smelled like a gallon of cheap perfume.
Then the odor spilled into the air like pizza and beer vomit.
It was endless. Stan couldn’t handle the assault on his senses and was ready to run when the troll slobbered its way downwind and squatted on the pavement, blocking his path. Its upper lip peeled away from the lower and after a second Stan realized that it was smiling. A cobweb of saliva shrouded sharp fangs and yellowed molars, designed to grind into submission anything that entered the mouth. To be eaten by a troll, he understood immediately, would not be a painless affair.
“Good. Little doggie good,” it said. “Mooore?”
“No.” For the first time in his life, Stan was unashamed of the quaver in his voice. “I-I only had the two.”
Mossy green eyebrows arched over saucer-like, reptilian eyes.
“You don’t believe me,” Stan said.
“Don’t care,” the creature answered. “Want more doggie. Appetizers.”
A finger jabbed at Stan, doubling him over. His sweatshirt smoked where the blow had struck.
“Burn, yes?” the troll asked.
Gasping for air, Stan nodded.
“More doggies, no more burn,” it said
“I can’t do that.”
The troll blinked its yellow eyes, then shrugged bony shoulders and rose from its squat into an attack posture. “Eat you then. Like fat people.”
“I didn’t mean I couldn’t do it,” Stan said desperately. “I meant that I don’t have any more dogs with me here, but there are lots of them in the neighborhood. I can get you one or two, or you can come along with me and pick out your own.”
“Troll don’t like go off bridge,” the beast said with a frown. “Bridge is life for troll.” The creature eyed Stan, then added, “But can go off bridge. Find you. Chomp. Fast food.”
Stan swallowed hard.
The troll jerked a horned thumb over its shoulder. “Men tear down troll’s old bridge. Wake it up, make it mad. And hungry.”
They’d demolished the old bridge in the spring as soon as the new one was ready for traffic. Stan had been a big supporter of the new structure, a fact he now very much regretted.
“That bridge was close to a hundred years old. How long have you been there?” Stan asked, thinking, If the troll is talking, it isn’t eating.
“Since built. Troll came from Sweden.” It stood and swelled its chest, saying proudly, “Immigrant.”
Stan looked up at it. The beast had to be ten feet tall.
“How in the world did you manage to stow away aboard the ship and make it all the way here without being seen?”
It shrugged. “Troll good hider. Fast. Eat those who find me. Only one man, though. Otherwise, they find troll, troll kill all, and no one get to America.”
“And you’ve been eating people here ever since,” Stan said. “You just snatch them off the bridge like you did with the dogs.”
“Have you eaten many?”
“Many,” the troll said.
“But you don’t look, well, fat.”
“Troll skinnly forever.”
“Skinny, you mean? Forever?” Stan asked, interested in spite of himself.
The beast settled back on its haunches and, with a shrewd look, asked, “You want being skinnly forever?”
“What do you think?” Stan said. “How can I do it?”
Stan dismissed the idea with a derisive shake of his head. “I’ve been on special diets for years. None of them ever worked for me.”
“None troll diet,” the creature pointed out.
“True enough. How many calories will I be limited to?”
“Not worry. No calorie limit.”
“What about fat? And cholesterol?”
Not problem,” the troll said. “Eat what you want.”
A horrible thought forced entry into Stan’s mind. “Wait a minute. I don’t have to eat – people, do I?”
The troll’s laugh gurgled in a scaly throat. “Troll’s job.”
“Then what do I have to do?”
“Simple,” the beast said. “Feed troll.”
“You mean I have to find people for you?”
“Troll not human,” it responded. “Troll’s nature to eat people. Prey.” The beast scratched its head. “Have correct words? Place in food chain?”
“My God! You mean, we’re not at the top?”
“Almost,” the monster said in an attempt at a soothing voice. “Troll first.”
“That’s impossible!” Stan said.
The troll shrugged. “Not make rules. Only know truth.” It rose from its squat and stretched its arms above its head, then yawned and blew out the staggering odor of digesting meat. “Enough talk. Philosophy the same, always. Produce hot air, but not fill stomach.”
“But, my God, I can’t feed people to you!”
“Not think right way,” the beast said. “Troll only recycle people, and you get skinnly at same time.” It paused, then added, “Get your family back, too. They like skinnly person, yes?”
“How do you know about them?” Stan demanded.
“Troll good listener. Listen at doors, windows, peep in. Troll see you at hospital, at Guaranteed Weight Loss Clinic, and all others. Poof, no guarantee at all. Guaranteed to lose money, not lose weight. Troll’s program honest. Not cost you penny. Work good.”
Stan shuddered at the thought of the troll creeping about the neighborhood, but he badly wanted his family back. He asked, “You promise I’ll be skinny forever?”
The beast nodded its head vigorously. Large drops of saliva splattered onto the pavement. Raking talons across the rough hide of its chest, it added, “Cross heart.”
“But you might make me thin, then eat me anyway.”
The troll pulled at an ear shaped like an exposed intestine, then bared its fangs. “One quick way not to find out.”
Stan took a step back, shoved his hands in his pockets, and tried to think of a way out. The beast squatted, impatiently, etching marks in the sidewalk as if it were made of sand and not concrete.
“All right, I haven’t got any choice,” Stan said finally, “But where am I going to find people?”
“Find ones you not like,” the troll suggested. “Easy for humans.”
“Food soon,” the troll interrupted. “Or I eat you slow, not fast.” The beast waggled its taloned fingers. “Start with little finger bone munching, then eat rest of you slow and savory like gourmet.”
“I’ll find them! I’ll find them!” Stan said. “But I still don’t understand how this will help me lose weight.”
“Hard to explain,” the creature said. “Slow weight loss. Forever weight loss. Good program. Wait and see. Have faith.”
Then it was gone, leaving behind the stench of half-digested blood and bone. Shaky, Stan wondered if his sanity had left him completely, then he spotted the dog leash lying on the ground and knew the troll was real, and that meant he had to find it food. The question was, who? He ransacked his memory for answers, then, just when he was about to give up in despair, the solution came.
It was delicious.
All the weight loss organizations would be eager to see him again. He’d lined their pockets with cash for ten years and gotten no results.
“It’s time to get back a little of my own,” Stan said into the night air, then walked off the bridge, relieved that he could feed the troll and keep his conscience clear.
Amy Henderson of Weight Watchers was easy.
So was Bob Soland of the Guaranteed Weight Loss Clinic.
And Lily Bates from Jenny Craig.
In fact, all of the diet counselors were easy because they had long memories of the money he’d spent with them. They re-introduced him to all his old friends – like Dickie Ammons, nearly as rotund as he’d been – not because they would give him support, but because they knew misery loved company, and fat people–made miserable by a weight-obsessed society–fueled their bank accounts. Stan simply told them all that he’d come into an unexpected inheritance and was looking to sign up for a lifetime plan. They’d been pathetically eager to swallow his story and join him for a walk on the bridge to discuss such an important commitment. There was only one thing wrong. He’d just watched Paul Johnson of Optifast disappear down the troll’s gullet, and Paul was the last diet counselor Stan knew.
“That’s it,” he said to the troll, shivering despite the August heat. “I can’t find any more counselors.”
“Then find people you like,” the beast suggested. “Easier. Trust you.”
“I can’t do that!”
“Eat you, then.”
Sagging back against the railing, Stan said, “Go ahead. I can’t think straight anymore, so you might as well go ahead and eat me.”
The creature blinked at him, then squatted on the sidewalk rather than attacking. “Troll help you,” it said, a sly edge to its voice.
“What do you mean?”
“Troll like fat people. Where find fat people? Same place find counselors.”
“Bring fat friends here from clinics,” the beast continued. “Fats taste better than skinnly counselors.”
The troll licked its lips as it scratched its head, a gesture Stan had come to hate. It meant the creature was searching for words that he didn’t want to hear.
“Well-marbled?” it said finally.
Stan stared in horror, not because the troll would eat his fellow dieters, not because he was relieved that he had another chance to live; he was horrified for one reason only–the troll’s words had stirred his appetite.
“I’m hungry,” he said.
The troll grinned at the admission. “Program working. You not fat anymore. Getting skinnly.” Maggot-ridden eyebrows waggled an obscene invitation.
Stan gagged and ran off the bridge.
Dickie Ammons didn’t suspect a thing when Stan called him the next night. In fact, he sounded delighted when Stan told him that he wanted to stretch his legs and talk about having a light dinner and maybe sharing a little Belgian chocolate as a reward for their dedication to their diets. Stan met him at the middle of the bridge.
“I appreciate you helping me keep on the diet,” he told Dickie.
A great whale of a Minnesotan with skin the color of lutefisk, Ammons replied,
They leaned on the railing and talked idly for a moment. An Alberta clipper had ended the hot weather, and a north wind roiled the water below. To Stan’s mind, the river surface looked like one of the greasy stews he’d somehow developed a fascination for A cold gust struck at the bridge and Dickie shivered, his jowls quivering like aspic.
“I’m chilly,” he said. “And hungry. Where shall we go?”
Stan watched a taloned finger slide out from under the bridge. “How about Perkins?”
“Good choice,” Dickie agreed. “They’ve got good heart-smart meals, and then we can have that chocolate. Say, you did bring it, didn’t–”
Four hundred pounds of man jerked over the railing like a hooked fish. Bones splintered under the impact of grinding molars. Minutes later, a scaly head poked out from under the bridge. Yellow eyes blinked up at him.
“Goood,” the troll said. “Best. Mooore.”
Stan stared dully down at the beast. “Five people. I’ve given you five. Don’t you ever take a rest?”
“Well, I need one,” Stan said. “I can’t go on like this. I’m so tired. And so . . .”
“Hungry?” the troll suggested.
When Stan refused to acknowledge him, the beast grinned at him, showing bloody fangs. “Mooore.”
The tone chilled Stan. This time it was not a demand.
It was an invitation.
He closed his eyes and fought off the nausea. When he opened them, the troll waved two of Dickie’s body parts in the air.
“Leg?” it offered. “Or thigh?”
Stan heaved the contents of his stomach into the river, then stood panting at the railing while fever racked his body. His mind was as empty as his gut except for two thoughts.
He was hungrier than he’d ever been before.
And the change he’d been denying had finally come.
Shutting his eyes again, he convulsed a final time, then fearfully checked out his body. His arms had become green and mossy and impossibly long. Talons, hard as tempered steel and sharp as razors, now tipped his fingers. He touched a deadly hand to his lips and felt his teeth. A bear trap lined his mouth. Once he had his fangs into any prey, it would not survive.
It makes sense, he realized. If you’re forever hungry you can’t afford a mistake.
Clambering over the guardrail, he joined the troll under the bridge in a split second. They hung upsidedown over the river, side by side. The troll leered at him.
“Easy to be skinnly,” it said. “You just have to be hungry enough.”
“But I don’t want to be a troll,” Stan insisted.
“Yes, you do,” the beast said, then shrugged. “No choice. Already inside you.”
It scratched its head in its familiar gesture of searching for words. “How troll survive? Go on?”
“Ensure perpetuation of the species, you mean?” Stan asked.
“Yes, yes!” the troll said, waving Dickie’s leg about enthusiastically.
Stan watched blood spray into the wind and drop into the water, then said, “You mean all trolls were people once?”
“Yes!” the troll said, laughing. It had the sound of bowels rumbling after a heavy meal. “You understand!”
Stan examined his hideous body. “At least you kept your promise. I’m skinny, even for a troll.”
“Always skinnly,” the beast said with a nod. “One bad thing, though. Always hungry too.” Then it added, “Another good thing. Now me not lonely for a while.”
“What do you mean, for a while?”
“Troll need space. Lots.”
“You’re – we’re – territorial?”
The troll nodded. “Bridge mine. After a while, you find own.”
“But why couldn’t we share?” Stan asked. “Be friends?”
The troll giggled. “You know when become complete troll. Trolls not share.”
“What if I stay?” Stan asked, though he already knew the answer.
“Then eat you,” the troll said simply. “Appetite never end. Troll’s nature.”
“Unless I eat you first.”
The troll laughed. “Now you have idea! What fun, joy, troll happiness!”
“That’s disgusting!” Stan said, not agreeing with the statement.
“Trolls human first,” the beast reminded him. “Without humans, no trolls.”
“It has a certain symmetry,” Stan admitted, then made one last effort to keep the human part of him that remained. “But I’ll eat men only. No women, no children.”
The troll snickered. “Change mind fast.”
Horror filled Stan’s mind at the implication of that remark, then suddenly it vanished as his mouth began salivating. His stomach cramped violently with hunger and he nearly lost his grip on the bridge. The troll hooted merrily and offered the body parts again. Stan grabbed Dickie’s leg from the creature’s hand, then clambered to the top of the railing so he would have the morsel to himself. He swallowed it so fast there was no time to enjoy the taste.
And he was still hungry.
“Mooore,” he demanded, then looked up eagerly at the sound of female voices.
At the end of the bridge, three blonde heads bobbed into sight. Patty and Laura ran far ahead of Sally, girlish laughter floating on the air like an invitation. A single, consuming thought filled Stan’s head.