As I was walking back from the tax office the other day, having been shouted at on my first visit that obviously the tax office in the town I live in was not the correct tax office, and having had a better experience the second time, but still knowing I was going to have to go back a third time, I thought: it’s almost short story time. What shall I write about?
Not that this particular experience had any bearing on the following story at all, obviously…
Zod, the Visitor of Small Frustrations
Zod, the perpetual irritant, the constant frustration, the leaker of pens and loosener of bottle caps, eyed up their latest victim. The human morsel was flopping around in that discomfiting way they had, with their four weird appendages and white-rimmed eyes.
“Ugh,” the human said, to no one in particular. “I’m going to be late. I’m going to bloody well be late again, and where is my damn phone?”
Zod snickered, and pushed the phone a little further behind the breadboard.
“I just – dammit!” the human jumped back as the piece of toast they’d been holding snapped in two. Zod gave the falling piece a little flick with one of their tentacles, making sure it landed butter-side-down. “Today sucks,” the human said. “Today totally, totally sucks.” It bent down – Zod was always fascinated by how they bent, all at funny angles, instead of concertinaing or oozing – and picked up the toast. It inspected it, sighed, and threw it in the bin. Zod gave the bin a tiny push, so the toast hit the edge, flipped, and landed on the floor again. The human gave a shriek and waved its funny arms about, then sat down on the floor and covered its face with its hands. Zod took the opportunity to take its keys from the cloth receptacle on the table. It appeared humans didn’t have proper, practical pouches, and instead carried all their various accoutrements around in external ones. It made them very easy to visit frustration upon.
Zod wrapped a couple of tentacles around the keys and was turning to stash them behind the fridge when the human said, “What the hell?”
Zod froze. The problem with using physical things to cause mischief is that one needs a physical body to move them. While Zod could slip between the atoms of a wall and step from one continent to the other in their thought form, if they wanted to start a tap dripping they had to take their corporeal one. Which was painfully visible.
They met the human’s eyes with half a dozen of their own, the rest roving about wildly trying to see if there was a supervisor in the vicinity or if their slip-up had gone unnoticed so far. The human’s eyes were even wider and more stare-y than usual.
“Are those my keys?” it said after a moment.
“I am Zod, Queen of triplicate forms and Lord of pointless delays!” Zod roared, flinging their longest tentacles wide and raising the ruff around their legs. “Bow before me, worthless meat-monster!”
Or, rather, they tried to roar that. The air of Earth and the aether of the Not-Quite are different, so what came out was a purring squall that made the human bare its teeth to show its amusement.
“Aw, look at you! Where did you come from?” it said, getting off the floor and crossing to the table. There was water on its face, and it smelt of hideous things like soap and toothpaste. Zod tried to will themself back into their thought-form, even though they knew it was impossible now that the thing had seen them. They had to wait until it looked away again.
“I am of the Other! The Daemon realm! I am the caster of stubbed toes and the conjurer of slightly-off-even-though-you-only-bought-it-yesterday milk! Tremble before me!” Prrrrrah-squeee! Prrrr! Grr-maow.
“Okay, seriously, you are adorable.” The human crouched in front of the table, and Zod twisted themself into a taller and more terrifying shape, really putting the writhe into their tentacles. The human made a little squeaking sound and held a hand out toward them. “Where did you come from, little guy?”
Zod abandoned their efforts at communication, as the horrid thing was obviously clueless, and wrapped half their tentacles around its hand instead, putting vigorous effort into melting the flesh from the bone, even though that was a talent for the so-called lower demons. Zod wasn’t sure how only being able to exercise your powers when summoned by a human (even if accidentally), then suffering through the inevitable exorcism that followed, made you a lower demon. It didn’t seem that special to them. Not when compared with inflicting splinters under nails and unexpected items in bagging areas.
The human giggled, a noisome sound. “Aw, are you hungry?” To Zod’s horror, the thing picked them up. Them, Zod, King of snagged tights and Empress of broken fingernails! The revoltingly clean creature pressed them against its soap-stinking chest and carried them in an undignified bundle to the kitchen counter. They squawked in horror, eyeballs watering with the shock, and the human laughed again. “Okay, I’m doing it. I just bet you’re hungry. I wonder what you eat?”
“Your Tuesday gloom and Sunday boredom!” Zod screamed. “Your Saturday terror of not finding a parking space and Monday morning elevated anxiety!” Prrah-prrah-prrrrrrah!
The human took a jar from the cupboard, still prattling on in its horrible mouth-voice, and opened the lid. “I don’t know what to give you,” it said, sticking a finger in the jar. “Maybe– whoa!” Because Zod had flung themself at the jar, thinking that if they could throw it across the room the human’s attention would be diverted, and they’d be able to make good their escape. They’d have to report the incident, of course – the human would need to have its mind scrubbed by lower demons, and Zod would be disciplined – probably relegated to the Mildly Troublesome But Expected Department, where they’d have to do things like put blisters in new shoes, or make sure people forgot their umbrellas on rainy days. Ugh. Or – oh, devils, no – maybe they’d have to bruise new bananas and stick chewing gum on shoes in the Everyday Issues Department. Oh, what a devastating promotion that would be! That would be the worst. Surely it couldn’t come to that. Maybe they could put a spin on this somehow. Maybe— they stopped, some of their tentacles still wrapped around the human’s hand.
“Dude, I’m not at all sure you should be eating that,” the human said, and Zod moved some more of their taste organs to where there was … something. What was that? They made a little inquisitive noise, and when the human used its other hand to take the jar away they didn’t resist. They were focused on the taste of … of …
“Well, you sure like it.” The meat-monster shook the jar at them. “I’m getting a spoon, alright? Stop … whatever you’re doing to my finger. It’s gross.”
“You’re gross,” Zod retorted, but without much heat. Not that the human noticed – the word still came out as a little squawk, and Zod went back to slurping the magic jar content off the human’s finger. It tasted like reducing a human to tears with a torn fingernail. It tasted like takeaway coffee cup lids that don’t seal. It tasted like a small scrap of soul, less stolen than worn away.
“Here,” the human said, and offered Zod a spoon piled high with the brown goop from the jar. “You weird little thing.” Zod detached themself from the human’s hand and wrapped themself around the spoon instead, humming with high-pitched pleasure. The human watched them for a moment then said, “I have to go. I can’t be late.” It sighed, took its keys from the table, and left. Zod barely noticed. They were lost in an ecstasy of taste.
When Zod came back to themself, the apartment was empty, as was the jar. They sat up, shaking themself off and rearranging their tentacles, shifting from an amorphous blob to their normal multi-limbed self. They felt a bit shaky, and their eating tubes had been drooling on the counter top. The jar lay on its side next to them, glass polished clean. They burped, loud enough to penetrate the layers of reality, and set about cleaning their tentacles.
They had a problem. Daemons fell for earthly delights all the time, which is how they so often ended up exorcised, returned to the Not-Quite in bouncing glass balls that sang with on-hold music. Even for daemons, that’s unpleasant. And if they didn’t get exorcised, but started getting too humanised instead, the real lower-downs dragged them back. Usually in pieces. Neither of those options sounded like something Zod wanted to experience. True, said earthly delights usually seemed to involve flesh of some sort, not – they checked the jar – chocolate hazelnut spread, but they trusted the lower-downs no more than they did any other demon. Which was to say, not at all.
They investigated the lid of the jar, slurping a lingering smear of spread up just to check it really was as dangerous as they thought, and wondered how to play this. The supervisors wouldn’t be aware of the incident until Zod resumed thought form, not unless one decided to pop in and see how they were going. So they needed a plan before they slipped back to the Not Quite. A way to mitigate the fact that a human had not only seen them, but had engaged with them. Touched them. They shuddered. Just the thought was hideous. Humans were so … dry. And skin-clad. And, of course, there was the problem that the creatures weren’t meant to know about daemons because reality tears and cross-over catastrophes and so on and so on. So what to do? If they could get the human’s soul, of course, all would be forgiven, but soul-taking was really for much lower-level daemons than them. Zod knew the theory, of course, but how were they meant to strike a deal when the human only heard squawks and purrs? It would have to be a written contract.
They rolled off the counter and slithered to the table, where there was any amount of paper piled up, as well as some pens stuck in a chipped mug. Zod resisted the urge to stop two of the pens working and make the other leak all over the table, and instead grasped one in a few of their tentacles and began to write laboriously on the back of a delivery note. Human writing was so unpleasant. All curls and swirls, no nice stabs and brutal slashes. But they could do a passable job.
And then all they had to do was get the human to bleed on it.
Zod was halfway through clause twenty-three and, having run through all the paper, was writing directly on the table, when a key in the lock made them freeze. They almost took on their thought form, and stuttered on the edge of dimensions for a moment, hoping no supervisor was nearby. They settled back on the table as the human let itself in with a bag in one hand, filling the room with the smell of grease and vinegar.
“Hey!” the human said. “You’re still here. Jeez, I almost thought I’d imagined you, you know?”
Zod wondered if they really needed all ninety-six clauses written out in full. Even using the floor, they were going to run out of room.
“I went to the shop and got bananas.” The human inspected Zod with its funny round eyes. It had dark hair that looked soft, but only on its head, the rest of it covered with cloth except for its skin-clad face. Zod wondered if it got cold. “Then I thought maybe you ate nuts, so I got some of those too, but then I just got fish’n’chips, because I wanted them.”
Zod shrugged. They didn’t know. They were mostly hoping for more of the chocolate-hazelnut spread.
The human opened a cupboard and got a plate down, and Zod barely managed to resist the urge to knock the creature’s head against the open door, just enough to sting.
“I hate my job,” the human said. “I had to call a woman and tell her we were repossessing her car today. She’s sick. Really sick. It’s not her fault, but I can’t help. It’s the worst.” It unwrapped the fish’n’chips and tipped them onto the plate. “Then I had to tell someone that I couldn’t give him finance for a car, even though he can’t afford to fix his, and he’s going to lose his job without it.” The human sighed, and ate a chip. “I wish I could do anything but this.”
Zod leaned on their pen, considering the idea of hating what they did. It didn’t make sense. Zod loved what they did.
“But it’s like, leave and be broke and miserable, or stay and be able to live and be miserable.” It took a can of something from the fridge and crossed to the sofa, where it did that weird folding thing again and sat down. “You’re lucky you’re a – whatever you are. Being a human really sucks.”
The daemon watched the human push a chip around on its plate. There was water on its face again. It looked like every frustration Zod could conjure, every broken pen and red light and petty, power-hungry official, had been visited on it in one day, and that it expected to wake up tomorrow to more of the same. And the day after that. And the one after that, too, for all eternity. It should have been beautiful.
Zod looked at the contract, dotted an i, and put the pen down. They oozed off the table, scuffling across to the sofa on the tips of their tentacles.
The human looked down at them. “Hey.”
“And the worst of it is, I know I should leave. That it’s better to be broke than be this unhappy. But what if it’s not the job that’s the problem? Not really?”
“Dude, I think it’s me. I think I’m the problem. It’s all me, but I don’t know how to fix it. How do you fix unhappy? Can you fix it? Is that even possible?”
The human was leaking from its eyes at an even greater rate, which was alarming. Zod didn’t want it to dessicate before they could get the contract done. They clambered onto the sofa and sat next to the thing, waving their tentacles in a conciliatory manner. Prrrah-oop, they advised it. Prrrap-aow. Which was as close as they could seem to get to, “The limitless void awaits your death, but if you sign with me on this limited time offer I can guarantee you an eternity of those annoying little bits of skin that come loose by your nails and hurt a completely disproportionate amount, tempered by the occasional bout of out-of-season mosquito bites.” That should make the futility of mortal existence a little easier to bear.
“Yeah,” the human said. “Prrrah to you, too.” It bared its teeth in that alarming way again. “You’re a good listener.”
Prrah-nah-nrra. “I can throw in a few aeons of being passed around marketing departments on hold, if you want.”
The human shuffled itself around so it could get its whole awkward body and angle-y legs on the sofa, taking care not to knock Zod off, then it offered them a chip. “Dinner?”
Zod doubted anything could come close to the glory that was chocolate-hazelnut spread, but they wrapped a tentacle around the chip and moved some mouth organs into place. Grease, yes. And heat and earth and, oh, devil, vinegar, cutting through it all and sinking the whole thing into a glorious euphoria of taste! They squawked, rolling half a dozen eye stalks, and entirely forgot their distaste of all things human. They scrambled onto the creature’s lap and curled themself around the plate.
“Hey! Don’t get greedy.” The human bopped them between a few eye stalks, making them squeak in alarm and pull back. “Share, okay?”
Zod was not at all sure what this share was, but the human was offering them another chip. They took it, and let the human push them around gently so they were only leaning on half the plate, quite ignoring the natural revulsion the thing raised in him.
“There we go,” the human said, and tore off a piece of battered fish. “Eat up, little dude.”
Zod purred, gobbling the fish and the chip at the same time, their whole body trembling with delight. The human chuckled and turned the TV on, and Zod wondered if one could have chocolate-hazelnut spread with fish’n’chips. They’d have to try.
The human had slid further down on the sofa, and Zod, full of glorious, greasy food, was on its chest, slowly becoming a blob.
“I need to give you a name,” the human said.
“Zod, Empress of small torments,” Zod said, feeling horribly tired. They’d heard of this, that sometimes if one stayed in the physical form too long one periodically lost consciousness. It had sounded implausible, but now it made a strange sort of sense.
The human chuckled. “That almost sounded like you said ‘Zod’. Okay, Zod. It’s bedtime.”
“Zod,” Zod agreed, eyes half-closed. They didn’t even flinch when the human put its horrible clean fingers in among their tentacles and scratched them in a gentle sort of circle, the way succubi sometimes did with daemonlings. It made their locomotor tentacles go all limp and exhausted.
“Zod,” they mumbled again, aware that they were starting to drool and managing to hold onto themself enough to hope it gave the human a nasty rash. Then they were gone.
Zod, father of tiny crises and mother of niggling annoyances, snored musically, smelling of fish’n’chips and a lingering whiff of chocolate. The human watched them for a while, a smile creasing its lips. It was still smiling when its eyes closed and it drifted off, the daemon curled in the curve of one arm.
Somewhere, reality shivered. Flowers bloomed on wasteland, and missing socks found their match. A cat vomited on the tiles instead of the rug, and someone caught a mug before it smashed.
On such small foundations are good days built.
Sometimes even the best.
What are your small frustrations and irritations, lovely people? What niggles you? Let me know below!
And if you would like to get your tentacles on a copy of Zod for your very own, you can find this story and 23 others in Oddly Enough in ebook or paperback right now!
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