Most people don’t bother Hunter while he’s slouched over his notebook, drawing in the back of class. But today’s guest speaker—a military recruiter—hones in on the boy, perhaps captivated by his camo jacket. Hunter looks up from the wolf-headed beast he’s spent three days drawing and accidentally makes eye contact with the man. He drops his gaze, hoping he’s escaped attention, but the icy-eyed recruiter stalks down the desk row, boots thudding against the vinyl floor. Hunter slaps his notebook shut.
“Son,” the recruiter says in a deep cigar smoker’s voice. He rests his giant calloused hand atop the notebook, as if taking its pulse.
Six months’ worth of portfolio work in there, and nothing that Hunter wants to share with this asshole. He imagines swatting the recruiter’s hand and warning him to not touch his shit—or else. But no, this is a six-foot-four, Purple-Hearted military man. Hunter looks down and picks at a ketchup stain on his jacket. Sticky red gunk accumulates under his thumbnail.
The recruiter continues: “Got any family who served? Dad, uncle, grandfather?”
If Hunter says nothing, maybe the man will leave him alone. Or maybe he’ll only get more persistent, convinced the camo jacket is proof of his enlistment potential. Truth is, Hunter’s mom bought it at Goodwill for cheap—proof of poverty and nothing else. If he had any control over his wardrobe, he’d have bought a Beastars hoodie instead.
This silent standoff breaks when that asshole Callen near the front of the room snickers. Mrs. Wagner shushes him from her desk, then returns to grading her stack of papers.
The recruiter lifts Hunter’s notebook like he’s taking a hostage. “What’s your name?”
Hunter curls in on himself, certain the man will expose his art to the class like a teacher reading a confiscated love note. He hates that his first impulse is to shrink, but maybe it’ll work to his advantage and prove he’s not military material. Still, it’s time to speak if he wants his notebook back.
“I, uh … I’m Hunter.”
“Hunter, huh?” The recruiter smiles. Perfect name for a recruit, he’s probably thinking, confident he can get Hunter’s signature on a contract before the bell rings. “Listen. My gut tells me you’d make a good soldier.”
“It’s that school shooter energy,” Callen whispers, but it’s loud enough for everyone to hear. Almost every student in the class laughs or at least snorts.
Heat floods Hunter’s cheeks. He imagines walking over to Callen and slamming his head into his desk. One crack and he’d crumble, limp and drooling.
Slapping her pen down, Mrs. Wagner turns toward Callen. “Enough,” she says. “Have some respect for our guest.”
Callen mutters a half-assed apology, shakes his head, and looks down at his phone.
Hunter’s eyes burn like acid, but he tries to keep his head high and voice steady when he addresses the recruiter. “Can I have my notebook back?”
“Sure thing, son,” the man says, slipping something between its pages. “So long as you take this with it.”
Hunter gives the subtlest nod, not wanting to shake loose his pooling tears. The recruiter hands over the notebook, then gestures for Hunter to open it.
Inside is a business card as black as the witching hour. Its gold print reads, Corporal Randy Mills, followed by contact information and a recruitment office address. When Hunter drops the card, ink peels away, a circular black dot sticking to his index finger. He licks his thumb and rubs the stain, but it’s as stubborn as a tattoo.
“Did I mention the enlistment bonus?” Mills asks.
Hunter scrubs at the ink, ignoring the man.
Hunter stops, looks up. Mills offers a smile so warped and crooked, it looks like it’s made of a dozen other people’s teeth.
The bell rings. Hunter grabs his notebook and backpack but leaves the business card behind. He can’t get out the door fast enough.
The number haunts Hunter as he lathers his hands with soap and tries for what feels like the thousandth time to wash away the black mark. His drawing hand is red and raw and pulsing, as if he’s stripped away all skin and exposed his screaming nerves. He has to stop before he scrubs down to the bone. He turns off the kitchen sink, then dries his hands with a ratty dishrag. The rough cloth makes him wince. When he pulls it away, the mark is still there, surrounded by hills of puffy crimson.
Whatever, he thinks. And he tries to actually mean it. He has better things to worry about, like his portfolio. This art school scholarship won’t win itself.
In the living room, he sits on the sagging loveseat and pulls drawing supplies out of his backpack. His mom is working a double tonight, so he can focus on his wolf drawing without interruption. He flips through his notebook. The early sketches are poorly proportioned, but the recent ones are on par with character commissions he’s seen on big Tumblr art blogs. His portfolio is solid—hopefully solid enough to get him that scholarship. All he needs is to finish the wolf by the deadline two days from now, then submit it with four other favorite pieces.
Pencil in hand, he details the beast’s toothy grin, trying to make the expression realistic enough that it looks sinister, but cartoony enough that it looks playful—a delicate balance.
His eyes keep straying to that black mark.
The mark winks like an eye.
Hunter lurches backward and presses himself deeper into the loveseat, as if it can protect him from his own hand. When the “eye” opens again, it’s different. It’s moving.
Barely breathing, Hunter brings his index finger to his face, careful not to get too close. The rubbed-raw burn in his hand grows hotter as he stares into the pupil, unsure if it’s watching him.
Teeth, sharp and gnashing. Tearing stretchy, stringy flesh from someone’s throat. Spurts of blood splashing the wolf’s furry snout, Hunter’s patchy chin.
Callen with his douchey snakebite piercing and stupid high fade. He’s choking, begging for mercy. No, it’s someone else. A body-armored combatant in some far-off desert, gargling out one final prayer through his ruined throat.
His blood tastes like gasoline.
Hunter screams, tosses his notebook, and shoves his hand in his pocket. No more. But his heart pumps double time, brimming with adrenaline. He feels it—an undeniable rush.
In the school restroom, Hunter scrubs the mark with renewed vigor, but by the time the first period bell rings, he’s left with a bloody hand and a mark no less black than before.
He’s grimacing at the blood when Callen opens the door. That asshole smirks at him in the mirror, then clicks a button on his bright green vape pen.
“Get your period all over your hand?” Callen asks. “Gotta get that boy pussy under control.”
Hunter knows he should ignore him, but his hand is throbbing, and he wants to spread the pain to someone else.
“Shut up, you fucking dick.” It comes out as a mutter instead of a shout, and he hates himself for it.
Callen closes the gap between them, breath hot on Hunter’s neck.
“I’ll speak when I want to, faggot,” he says, sucking his vape and blowing a cloud into the hole of Hunter’s ear.
Hunter shrinks and shudders. His ear canal tickles, as if spiders have hatched inside. Scared to look up, he stares at the mark on his finger instead. It births another vision.
Smashing Callen’s skull through the sink, ceramic shards puncturing his flesh like those snakebite piercings, but deeper, gorier.
Callen howling. No, someone else. A chained-up insurgent in soiled pants. Hunter shoving his face into a splintered concrete wall, again and again, demanding intel of national importance.
The sharp stink of blood and shit.
That rush again. A moan escapes Hunter’s lips.
A very-much-alive Callen puffs up his chest and towers over Hunter, smothering him with his shadow. Hunter cowers.
“See you in class, bitch,” Callen says.
When the door thuds shut, Hunter straightens his posture, squeezes the intact sink, and breathes deep. Gradually, the vision seems less real, and his nerves settle.
He wraps paper towels around his bleeding hand, then heads to his locker. The stop will make him even later to class, but he needs to grab his resume assignment, half-finished and buried in the junk pile of similarly incomplete homework. The hallway is empty and quiet, save for the faint drone of teachers’ lectures and students’ chatter behind closed doors.
When he reaches his locker and opens it, he freezes. Corporal Mills’s business card is taped to the inside of the door. Hunter stares at it, blinks hard, as if doing so might make it disappear. But no, it’s really there. How the hell did Mills find his locker and know the combination? Hunter scans his surroundings for the man. He’s nowhere to be found, but something tells Hunter he’s close. His neck prickles at the thought. Maybe he can leave a message—a NO so definitive that Mills will give up the chase.
Pulling his flannel sleeves over his raw hands, he peels the business card off the locker door, careful not to let the ink touch his skin again. He tears the card into a hundred pieces, then drops them into a tidy pile on the floor. Taking out a Sharpie and tearing an empty page from his notebook, he writes, Keep your signing bonus and leave me alone, you fucking creep. He places the message beside the pile.
That bonus would be a surer bet than—
He snatches his resume assignment, slams his locker, and walks toward Mrs. Wagner’s room.
A few steps in, his marked finger starts twitching. He wraps the bloodied paper towels around it tighter, but the twitch only gets stronger, faster, a seizure confined to one part of his body. Nausea overtakes him, his gut churning like a concrete mixer. A wave of pain sends him tumbling to the floor. Vomit rising hot in his throat, he crawls toward the trash can but doesn’t make it. No breakfast today, just like most mornings, but he spews a viscous black liquid that smells metallic, sulfuric. Gunpowder, he thinks, though he’s never shot a gun.
Soon, someone will walk into the hallway and notice him if he doesn’t get up. They’ll call the nurse and make this a big deal. It is a big deal, but no one else needs to know that.
Dizzy, he forces himself onto wobbly feet. He checks both directions to see if anyone has seen him. No one is there.
But down the hallway, the business card scraps and note are gone.
Hunter scrambles to his feet and runs, dry heaving the whole way to class.
In Drawing, Hunter is still shaky from what happened in the hallway, but he tries to steady himself and finish the wolf. With enough effort, this drawing will be the cherry on top of his portfolio and win him that damn scholarship. No need for Mills’s stupid signing bonus after that.
“What are you working on, bitch?”
Callen hovers over Hunter’s shoulder, sipping an energy drink. Hunter imagines the asshole spilling on his notebook, the whole portfolio soaked in a matter of seconds. He leans over the notebook like an animal protecting its young. Callen’s size makes Hunter feel like a wobbly-legged deer when he wishes he were a wolf. Maybe there’s a reason he draws beasts with sharp teeth and claws.
“None of your business,” Hunter says. “Leave me alone.”
“You’re being pretty fucking rude right now.” Callen smirks, then reaches around Hunter’s guard, pinching the paper between his thumb and forefinger. “I just want to see it.”
“No. Fuck off.” Hunter grips the edges of his notebook tight but doesn’t pull away.
Rip. The tear is only an inch, but Callen tugs at it with playful malice. His free hand flies to his shit-eating grin in a mock Oops.
Without another thought, Hunter’s knuckles collide with Callen’s snakebite piercings. One of the metal rings tears through Callen’s lip like butter and clinks to the ground, but the assault doesn’t end there. Callen drops his energy drink and collapses. Hunter follows him to the floor, hammering his teeth into bloody shards.
Mr. Alves rushes to stop the fight, but Hunter barely registers the man’s grip on his shoulders. All he cares about is ruining Callen’s face permanently.
Combatant screaming in his native language through a mouth pounded halfway to ruin. He’s pleading.
The wolf doesn’t care. His fists descend like bombs. It’s no longer about getting answers.
One of Callen’s teeth pops out. Hunter’s black mark—no longer a pupil, but a mouth—catches the molar and swallows it from crown to root, absorbing its essence like a hearty meal. No, a trophy. A trophy lasts much longer than a meal; it will stay with Hunter forever.
“He went off on me for no reason,” Callen lisps through shattered teeth while paramedics wheel him out of the art room. “I just asked to see his drawing, that’s all.”
He gets a trip to the hospital and the whole class’s sympathy.
When Hunter shares his side of the story, no one seems to care. Not his peers, not Mr. Alves, and certainly not Principal Bowens.
After taking Hunter to his office, Bowens reminds him that violence is never the solution. The school resource officer stands behind the man, nodding in agreement, as if he doesn’t have a gun on his belt.
“I’m suspending you for a week,” Bowens says. “Officer Keller will be in contact with your mother in case Callen’s parents decide to press charges.”
A thousand thoughts fly through Hunter’s head. What if the art school doesn’t admit violent criminals? And what if Callen’s family really does sue him? Will his debt put college out of the question, even if he gets the scholarship?
Hunter’s mom picks him up from school early and yells at him in the car. Not about him beating up Callen, but about her having to leave work in the middle of a busy lunch.
“You know Alan is already on my ass!” she says, still wearing her green apron. “I’m this close to getting fired, so use your goddamn brain next time you’re thinking of doing something stupid at school. I should be the one beating you.”
After she dumps him at home and peels away, Hunter sobs into the couch. He’s a blubbering heap for five whole minutes before the exhaustion of fighting and feeling catch up with him. No energy left. He puts on an episode of Beastars and sinks into the tear-stained cushion. Just one episode, then he’ll finish the wolf and get his portfolio ready to submit, all legal and financial worries aside.
His phone vibrates: unknown number. He can’t just hit decline; it could be Callen’s parents, ready to bring down their wrath. Hunter pauses the TV show, takes a breath, and then answers.
“Ah, Hunter.” The voice is familiar—deep, gravelly, churning. It sounds delighted, not angry. “Son, how would you like to do more of what you did today, but completely legal—patriotic even?”
Corporal Mills. How did he get Hunter’s number?
“I—” Hunter starts, but he chokes on his words, trying to swallow his vocal tremor. “I’m not like you.”
“Are you sure about that, son?”
Hunter’s black mark pulses with pain. Three peaks of flesh stretch upward as the roots of Callen’s tooth rise, threatening to pierce the surface. They’re fire against Hunter’s nerves.
“Why are you doing this?” Hunter asks through gritted teeth. The agony is intense enough that he drops his phone on the floor. “Why can’t you just fuck—” He lifts his foot. “—off!” He brings it down on the phone hard. The screen crunches and goes dark.
All at once, the pain subsides and the tooth sinks back into the black mark. There’s no telling how long this relief will last. Mills will undoubtedly find another way to intrude on Hunter’s life.
Hunter takes several deep breaths. Calm doesn’t come, but his shakiness subsides enough for him to function.
It’s time to finish the wolf for tomorrow’s deadline. Lucky him, he’s got the day free. At least his suspension is good for something.
When Hunter wakes up, his portfolio is gone. He’s sure he left it on his nightstand when he rolled into bed around three a.m., but it isn’t there now. He checks the mess of his backpack, the dust under his slumping mattress, even the bottom of his dirty laundry basket. It’s nowhere to be found.
Before he can punch the wall, he notices the corner of something black peeking out under his pillow. It’s too small to be his notebook. Nausea bubbles up inside him, and the taste of gunpowder creeps into his throat. Hesitating, he steps toward the bed, then lifts the pillow. Underneath is Corporal Mills’s business card—a hundred shreds meticulously taped back together.
Hunter’s marked finger twitches, as if it wants him to pick up the card and stain himself with more malevolent ink. Fighting the urge, he closes his eyes and thinks.
How can he get rid of Mills for good? How can he get his life back?
The answer is right there on the card: the military recruitment office address. It’s time to stop hiding. He’ll pay the man a visit and end this, one way or another.
Hunter clutches the pocketknife in his sweaty palm. The blade is tucked away safely, but his marked finger acts of its own accord, tugging at the steel edge and trying to draw it out. He has to focus to make it stop.
Why did he bring a knife in the first place? Chucking it down a sewer grate might be a better idea than bringing it into the recruiting office, but Corporal Mills has proven himself a threat. Anything could happen during this confrontation. Hunter’s attention strays from his finger for only a moment and, suddenly, the blade is extended.
In the black mark, another vision bubbles up like boiling tar.
Explosions and gunfire all around him. Dashing across a stretch of red sand littered with shrapnel. Closing the distance on an enemy who doesn’t see him coming. A scream as he plunges metal into the soft curve of a throat, over and over.
Laughing. Where’s that laughter coming from?
The wolf, of course.
Hunter shakes his head, clears the film of violence from his eyes, and stuffs the knife in his jacket pocket. As much as it scares him, he’ll keep the weapon on him.
He’s here now, outside the recruitment office. Steadying his nerves, he opens the door and walks inside.
The building doesn’t look like a den of evil with rough stone walls and menacing sconces. Instead, it’s like any standard office building with a few extra American flags. Despite it being ten in the morning, no one appears to be working here. The overhead fluorescents are off, and daylight filters in through cracks in the blinds. The only artificial light comes from an open door far in the back on the right side. Hunter knows it’s Mills’s office without even having to check.
His marked finger spasms. He wraps his other hand around it like a straitjacket and squeezes. When the finger calms, he walks toward the lit doorway.
Mills’s voice greets him before Hunter can even see the man: “I knew you’d eventually come here, son. I’d ask if you had a change of heart about enlisting, but I know this is what you’ve always wanted. You’ve just denied the call until now.”
Turning into the doorway, Hunter finds Mills sitting at a dark wood desk. A contract rests atop it—Hunter’s finger twitches against his will, eager to sign—but there’s no stolen portfolio anywhere. A hundred framed photos of fresh-out-of-high-school soldiers in uniform decorate the walls, all of them with an expression that appears stoic one moment, then agonized the next. The filled frames blend into a line of empty ones.
“What’d you do with my notebook?” Hunter asks.
“What notebook?” Mills grins. “Help me with your signature and I might be able to help you, son.”
He pushes the contract across the desk, clicks a pen, and offers it to Hunter.
Hunter’s finger spasms, stronger this time. He squeezes it but can’t get it to stop.
“Go fuck yourself,” he says. “I just want my—”
Plunging a blade into someone’s eye socket. It doesn’t matter whose. A blind, gushing chasm.
Bathing in their spilled life force. Cackling.
Hunter closes his eyes, but the vision follows him into the dark.
Sucking the blood from his fingers, that hot, nourishing iron!
“Doing okay, son?” Mills says. He’s not physically laughing, but he’s laughing on the inside; Hunter can tell.
God, how satisfying would it be to gut Mills like a pig?
“I promise everything will be better when you sign.”
Hunter opens his eyes, sees the bulge of the knife in his jacket pocket, sees Mills’s hand with the proffered pen. The man is just a foot away. He could do it. He could kill him right now.
He loosens his grip around his marked finger. It twitches with the intensity of a seismograph in a 9.0 earthquake. This is it. There’s no resisting its call to violence.
There’s only one way to end this nightmare and protect his future.
He reaches for the knife.
“Is it hard drawing with only four fingers?”
Hunter doesn’t yet know the name of the guy sitting next to him in Drawing I Studio, but he smiles at the question. None of his other classmates have been bold enough to ask. Some look up silently or tilt their ears toward the conversation, pretending they’re still working on their drawings.
“It was hard at first,” Hunter says, “but I got used to it.”
The guy opens his mouth as if to ask a follow-up but stops himself.
“If you want to know how it happened,” Hunter says, preparing what he’s rehearsed so many times before, “I was home alone, cooking dinner. Spaced out while cutting some chicken and SHHNK! I got to the ER too late, and the doctor couldn’t save the finger.”
“Damn, that sucks.” His classmate is silent for a moment before changing subjects. “Well, what are you drawing?”
Hunter tilts his brand-new notebook so the guy can see. The drawing still has a ways to go—only the head is finished—but he’s proud of his progress.
“It’s a wolf,” he says. “Had an old piece like this one that I wanted to go back to, but I lost it. Decided to take a different approach this time.”
“Looks dope. The tongue hanging out and the sparkles in its eyes are cute.”
Hunter’s face flushes. He’s not used to compliments.
“What about yours?” he asks.
His classmate’s piece is an intricate and epic cityscape of the future, its technical prowess exceeded only by its imagination. It’s hard to look away from.
Now Hunter knows who won that scholarship—who would’ve beat him even if he’d had the chance to submit his portfolio. He thinks about how many years Beginning Drawing alone will take to pay off, his loans gathering interest faster than he can keep up with. He’ll never own a house or go on vacation. He’ll live as just another starving artist.
He can’t help but wonder what life would look like if he’d signed that contract, exchanging a few years of violence for a financially stable future. At least that’s what was promised.
Bitter jealousy floods his mouth, but at least it’s not the tang of gunpowder, the sweetness of blood.
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Eric Raglin (he/him) is a Nebraskan horror/Weird fiction writer. His short story collections include Nightmare Yearnings, Extinction Hymns (published by Brigids Gate Press), and Lonesome Pyres (forthcoming in 2024 through Off Limits Pulp). He owns Cursed Morsels Press and has edited Bitter Apples, Shredded: A Sports and Fitness Body Horror Anthology, and Antifa Splatterpunk.
Copyright ©2023 by Eric Raglin.
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