February 22nd, 2023 | Jason D. Janicki14 mins read
Sue got off the train just before midnight, shivering in the cold Helsinki air. She pulled on her hat and gloves, then buttoned her coat. Only a few people loitered by the big schedule board on the wall of the main building, their breath tiny white clouds. Making her way around the tracks, she took the south exit to the street. In front of her rose the graceful lines of Oodi, the largest of the Helsinki Public Libraries, a hundred meters away.
She paused at the street despite the lack of traffic, looked for cars, and then crossed. The glass doors of Oodi stood closed, just a few lights on inside, and a pull of a handle proved them locked as well. As she dug into her purse, someone knocked on the glass.
Sue started, almost dropping her phone. “Oh, hi!” she said through the glass. A security guard, a squat man in a thick jacket with a cap pulled low over his face waited on the other side. “I’m here for the Midnight Writing Club.” She raised her phone and pointed at the Facebook page.
The guard nodded and stepped to one side. A moment later, the automatic doors hummed open. “Kiitos!” she waved at the security guard, who kept his head down, a black medical mask obscuring the lower portion of his face. He waved back.
Stuffing her gloves into her backpack, Sue climbed the escalator. She unbuttoned her heavy coat as she climbed. The library lay in semi-darkness, the few lights throwing long shadows across the stacks. Her boots made a dull thud on the metal steps as she trudged up, her footfalls the only sound in the empty venue. “Let’s see, Room 13…” she said as she glanced down at her phone.
Reaching the second floor, she made her way past the self-service printers and computers, the squeak of her boots echoing in the empty hall. She found Room 13 and after a moment to straighten her coat, knocked, then opened the door. “Hi, I’m here for the Writing Club.”
A gorgeous woman in a tiny black dress rose and sashayed over, her hand out as her heels clicked on the floor. “You must be Sue! I’m Francesca. We talked on Facebook.”
Sue’s mouth fell open as Francesca filled her vision. The raven-haired woman’s dress covered little and seemed to be held on with nothing but hope. She stared, her eyes tracing every curve.
Francesca said something, but Sue couldn’t tear her eyes away. Then with a blink, she found Francesca smiling in front of her. “Sorry,” said the woman. “I forgot I had my glamour on.”
“Nothing.” Francesca offered her hand again and Sue shook.
“Yeah. I’m Sue.”
“Of course you are.” Francesca pulled her towards the far end of the table. “Come, sit by me.”
“Right.” Sue followed the other woman over, noticing another figure at the opposite end of the table as she pulled out a chair. “Oh, sorry, didn’t see you. Hi, I’m Sue.”
The second figure, clad in a black robe with a long hood covering their face, nodded. Using a black sharpie held in a robe-covered hand, it wrote something on a small whiteboard. It held it up, “HELLO” written in large, neat print letters.
“That’s Steve,” Francesca said as she sat. “It doesn’t talk.”
“Okay.” Sue settled onto a chair, pulling her laptop out of her backpack. Room 13 held a small table and a half-dozen chairs, with a projector above the door and a pull-down screen on the opposite side. A laminated poster on the table on how to operate the equipment added a splash of color against the off-white walls. “Is this it?”
“Fury and Blood should be here soon.” Francesca scooted closer, the smell of roses following. “Nice laptop. Is it new?”
“Yeah, a Christmas present for myself.” Sue pulled off her knitted bobble hat and ran a hand through her hair.
“Lovely.” Francesca leaned in to watch the startup screen, her chest pressing against Sue’s arm.
Sue shrugged away. “Um…aren’t you cold?”
“No,” Francesca smiled. “I’m actually rather…hot.”
The door burst open and a red man filled the doorway, literal fire in place of eyes. “I, the Hellfire Fury, have arrived!” The smell of sulfur filled Sue’s nose, chasing away Francesca’s perfume.
With a yelp, Sue pushed herself backwards, her chair toppling as she scrambled away. She pointed a shaking finger at the red man. “He’s got fire eyes!”
“Well, of course he does.” Francesca shrugged.
“People don’t have fire eyes!”
“Do you mock me!” Over two meters tall, the red man raised massive arms, his muscles threatening to shred his button-down shirt. “Do you wish to test the might of the Hellfire Fury?”
“Fury!” Francesca righted Sue’s chair, then rose. “What did we talk about?”
The huge red man hesitated. “No yelling in the Club.”
Francesca folded her arms. “And?”
“No challenging others to gladiatorial contests.”
“That’s right.” The raven-haired woman put her hand on Sue’s shoulder. “This is Sue. She’s new.”
“Oh, right.” Fury shook himself. “Sorry.” He leaned across the table and held out his hand. “Hello, I am the Hellfire Fury.” Fury wore business casual, everything a bit too tight, with a blue and yellow nametag that read ‘Hellfire Fury – Assistant Manager’. Thick, coarse black hair cut short lay parted on his head and aside from the red skin and fire eyes, he looked like middle management.
Unable to retreat any further, Sue slid along the wall into the corner, holding her bobble hat out in a feeble defense.
Fury waited, his hand still out. “Um?” He glanced at Francesca.
The raven-haired woman stepped in front of Sue, blocking Fury from her view. “It’s okay,” Francesca said. “It’s fine. You’re fine. Everything’s fine. Really.”
Sue leaned over to see the huge red man still waiting with his hand out. “I’m sorry, I think I’m in the wrong room!”
“No, you’re in the right place.” Francesca patted Sue’s shoulder. “This is the Midnight Writing Club.”
“But—” Sue swallowed. “What are you people?”
“We’re para-dimensional entities,” Francesca said. “In the old days, we would have been called demons.”
“The HR manual says such language is improper and encourages a false narrative,” Fury said from behind Francesca.
“What he said,” Francesca smiled. “If you didn’t know what we were, then why did you join the group?”
“I thought you were insomniacs or goths or something!” Sue clutched her hat with both hands. “I really should be going!”
“Please,” Francesca ran her hand down Sue’s arm. “It’s perfectly safe and we have a terrible time getting new members.”
“Pretty please,” Francesca added.
“The Hellfire Fury would be most grateful if you would stay!”
“I…uh…I guess. Just…just to…um…get a feel for the group. See if I like it.”
“Perfect,” Francesca stepped out of the way and nodded at Fury, who still had his hand out.
After a glance at Francesca, Sue shook, Fury’s warm hand engulfing hers. “Hi, I’m Sue.”
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” He smiled, showing prominent fangs. “Welcome to the Midnight Writing Club.” With that, he took a seat on the opposite side of the table.
Francesca tugged her towards her chair and Sue sat back down. “So…um…you’re something entities?” she asked as she entered her password with trembling fingers.
“Para-dimensional entities,” Fury said. “I was once a Calamity Demon.” The fire in his eyes flared and he rose, a hand on the table. “I once fought in the endless wars of Hell and fear followed my name!” The fire faded and he sat back down. “I am now an Assistant Manager at the Hell branch of Gigantti. I manage the Appliance department and do battle with paperwork.” He paused. “I have a cat.”
“A…uh…hell-cat?” Sue’s laptop beeped as it asked for the password again.
“No, a regular human cat. His name is Mr. Fribbles. He is a mighty warrior without peer and all cower before him!”
“He’s a regular orange cat,” Francesca said. Fury half-rose and she rolled her eyes. “A mighty orange cat. Quite fearsome.”
“How…nice.” Sue retried her password, but couldn’t get it right. She tried again and still couldn’t enter it correctly. “My fingers won’t—dang it!”
“Can I help?” Francesca asked.
“No, it’s okay.” Sue shut her laptop. “I’ll manage without it tonight.” She glanced around. “So…um…what are you?”
The door clicked, swinging open with a low creak. A slim woman hung in the doorway, her toes centimeters off the tiled floor. Clad in a simple white dress, her black hair hung down over her face.
“Oh, hell no!” Sue jerked to her feet again. “It’s fine, that’s just Blood.” Francesca waved with one hand as she pulled Sue back down with the other. “Hi, Blood.” Blood raised a hand. “…hello…” she said in a voice like a low gurgle. She floated to the end of the table and hovered there, rather than taking a chair. “It’s fine.” Francesca patted Sue’s thigh. “No one will hurt you.” Sue managed a nod. “…who?…” Blood asked. “This is Sue,” Francesca said. “She’s new.” Blood gave a small wave as she continued to hover. “You okay?” Francesca slid closer, her leg pressing against Sue’s. “I could give you a shoulder rub?” “Thanks, but…I think I’m okay.” Sue glanced down. “Could you…um…take your hand off my thigh?” “Sorry, habit.” Francesca straightened. “Well, now that everyone’s here, let’s do proper introductions.” She put a hand on her chest. “I’m Francesca Uma Candace Kincaid, but you can call me Francesca. I’m a succubus.” Sue blinked. “Do you realize that your initials spell…” she shook her head at Francesca’s smile. “And yes, you do.” “On my right is Steve,” Francesca continued. “Its real name is The Scream at the End of All Things to Herald the Coming of the Devourer, but we call it Steve.” Steve nodded, its hood bobbing. Something writhed beneath its robe, sending an undulating wave across the fabric. Sharpie in hand, it bent to its whiteboard. “HELLO AGAIN” “Hi. You don’t talk?” Steve wiped the whiteboard with its sleeve. “NO ONLY SCREAM ONCE” “The universe ends if it makes a sound.” Francesca explained. “We have been introduced, but I am Fury!” The huge red man nodded. “I can get you a discount on home appliances. A true warrior’s discount!” “Great.” Francesca indicated the floating woman. “And that’s Blood. Technically Chimamire no Otome or the Bloody Maiden. She’s an Onryō from Japan.” “Oh, like the Ring?” Blood nodded. “But why Blood? You’re not bloody at all?” Blood groaned, her shoulders twitching. Red dribbled down from beneath her hair, a few drops that left scarlet streaks down her white dress. “Stop!” Francesca jumped up, the top of her dress threatening to come off. “I don’t want to clean up again!” She sat back down, smoothing her dress. “And that’s us.” Sue cleared her throat. “Uh…I’m Sue. Susan. I moved to Finland from the US just a month ago. I teach English at a night school and have insomnia, so…” She gestured at the group. “Yeah. I used to write a lot. I want to get back into it, so here I am.” “Lovely! Does anyone have anything to share?” Both Blood and Steve raised hands or appendages. “Fury has brought something. A mighty short-story!” “Oh, me too!” Francesca clapped her hands together. “It looks like you came on a good night!” She glanced around. “Who wants to go first?” “The Hellfire Fury will do so!” The red demon pulled out a sheet of paper from his briefcase. After donning a pair of reading glasses, he cleared his throat. “The Small Human Female and Her Small Canine.” “There was a small human female and she had a canine. She loved it very much. One day, she could not find it. She looked everywhere and became very sad.” Fury sniffed, then cleared this throat again. “Then she found it. She was very happy. The end.” “I liked the part where the human female found her canine again,” Francesca said. “…happy ending…” “VERY MOVING.” “Um…” Sue raised her hand. “Proceed,” Fury said with a nod. “That was very…evocative. But I have a question: what’s the small human female’s name?” “Uh…” Fury rubbed his chin. “I…did not think of that.” “I think it would be a nice to know. And a name for her canine, too. You’ve got all the pieces there,” Sue continued. “But some detail, like the names and what they look like and a few other things would make it so much better.” No one said anything. Sue glanced around. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to overstep my bounds. I’m new, so—” Fury erupted from the table, the fire in his eyes flaring, and tore his story in half. “I have failed! The small human female does not have a name! I have brought shame to the appliances department!” “No!” Sue rose as well, her hands out. “It’s a good start! Next time,” she glanced around at the others. “Next time, add a name. It’s a learning process! We’re all learning!” Fury peered down at her. “Learning?” “Yes!” Sue smiled. “It’s okay. You’ll do better the next time!” The massive demon glared at her, then sat back down, the chair creaking beneath him. “Yes,” he said as the fire dimmed. “I will do better next time! On my honor as an assistant manager!” Sue sank back into her chair as Francesca leaned over. Francesca gave her a wink. “Okay, then! Good feedback!” “Uh, hand?” “Sorry!” The succubus looked around. “Who wants to go next?” Blood raised her hand. “Go ahead.” “…haiku…” The Onryō paused, then started. “…blood, blood, blood, blood, blood… …blood, blood, blood, blood, blood, blood, blood… …blood, blood, blood, blood, blood…” “Lovely!” “MOST EVOCATIVE” “Truly, a warrior’s haiku.” Everyone turned to look at Sue. “I’m not a poet, but maybe…use a few different words?” Blood cocked her head, then raising bone-white hands, parted her hair. A scarlet slash shone against a pale throat and solid black eyes met Sue’s. “…different words?…” “Uh…yes. Like, um, bloody or scarlet or just more descriptive phrases in general. Maybe,” Sue thought for a moment. “A sky of scarlet” she said as she counted out the syllables on her fingers. “The moonlight cannot be…uh…seen. Blood against the night…or something.” The onryō’s eyes went wide. “…perfect haiku…” “It’s just an example, nothing special.” Blood let her hair drop back. “…will try…” “Well,” Francesca said. “It looks like you know your writing!” “Thanks!” Sue glanced down. “Hand.” “Sorry!” Francesca rose and scooted her chair away. “I guess I can go next, if no one objects?” “PLEASE DO” The succubus rummaged in her bag, pulling out a pink folder, then a small sheaf of paper from that. “Here’s a short piece I’ve been working on…” Francesca cleared her throat. “Her long, slim fingers, delicate nails glistening in lavish tones of pink and red, slid across his firm, taut flesh…” Ten pages later, Francesca looked up. “The end. What did you think?” Everyone turned to look at Sue. “Uh…” She glanced around at the variety of eyes on her, then shook her head. “It was a very…descriptive…orgy. Lovely language, really. I honestly don’t think I’ve heard that many synonyms for erect before. That being said, I did get confused on who was doing what to whom. I think there were ten or so people—” “And a donkey,” Francesca added. “A donkey?” Sue thought for a moment. “Oh.” Her eyes went wide. “Ooh. That part makes sense now. So, yeah. I was a bit confused. Also, there wasn’t really a plot. It was all description —lovely descriptions by the way— but I didn’t know why any of the characters were there or what they wanted. Does that make sense?” “You go to an orgy to have sex,” Francesca frowned. “Lots and lots of sex.” “Sure, but why? Your character needs to have a life other than just that. I mean, what are your characters doing when they’re not at an orgy?” “They’re…” The succubus thought for a moment. “Getting ready for an orgy?” “Exactly!” Sue sat up straight. “Someone has to buy the wine and put down the plastic and…um…” “Wash the donkey?’” “Not quite what I was looking for but, sure. And if they have problems, then that’s part of the story.” Fury raised his hand. “Perhaps the donkey is recalcitrant?” “…or sick…” Steve wrote on its whiteboard. “OR SHY” “Yes, these are all donkey-related problems.” Sue nodded. “Do you get the idea?” “I think so.” Francesca made a note. “Steve, did you want to go next?” “YES” Steve placed a large stack of paper in front of itself, a quiver rippling across its robe. “WHO CAN READ?” “Why…oh, right. End of all things.” Sue raised her hand. “I can, if no one else wants to.” Francesca rose and passed the stack over. Sue rifled through the pages, finding two or three words in thick, black Sharpie on each piece. Steve set a large notepad in front of itself, a black Sharpie on top. “Okay, here I go.” “The cold…November air…brought no hint…that today a…city would die.” Twenty minutes later, Sue turned over the last page. “The end.” The room fell silent, the ticking of the clock loud in the quiet. No one said anything, then Sue shifted in her chair. “Honestly, that was amazing. I would love a bit more detail on Ivan’s trip through the metro and maybe some additional backstory about the bakery, but overall…just wow.” “THANK YOU” “…long…” Blood twitched. “…sad…no donkey…” “The Hellfire Fury agrees,” the massive red man nodded. “I was upset when the chimney fell. But there was no donkey.” “Guys…” Sue said. “Yes!” Francesca leaned on the table. “A very nice story, but there was no donkey. Or horse either. Not even a goat.” Steve took notes. “Guys,” Sue held up her hands. “Not every work needs a donkey.” “But,” Fury pointed at Francesca. “The donkey was most important in her story.” “Yes, in her story. Not every story is the same. There was no dog —small canine, rather— in Francesca’s story either.” “Ohh, good idea!” The succubus made a note. “Anyway,” Sue turned back to Steve. “I loved it. It needs a little tweaking, but it’s really good.” “THANK YOU” Someone rapped on the window and Sue turned to see the security guard, his hat still pulled low over his face. He pointed at his watch and then moved on. “And we’re out of time,” Francesca said. “We only get an hour,” she explained. “Why’s that?” Sue asked as she reached for her laptop. “There’s a group that comes in at one-fifteen and they don’t get along with Fury.” “Oh?” Sue glanced over as the massive red demon closed his briefcase. “They are dogs from Verkkokauppa!” Fury’s eyes flared. “Their appliance department is weak and insignificant!” “I get the idea.” Within a few moments, the group left the room and headed down the escalator. Fury carried his briefcase and Francesca a backpack, while Steve carried a large satchel. “You don’t bring anything?” Sue asked Blood. “…no…” the Onryō shrugged. “…haiku…” she tapped her head. “…in here…” They reached the ground floor and the security guard from earlier opened the doors for them as they neared. A strong wind gusted across them as they exited, yanking at Sue’s coat and hat. “So,” she asked as the group paused. “Do you normally do anything afterwards?” “There’s a pub we go to sometimes, but…” Francesca glanced at the others. “I must depart,” Fury shook his head. “There is an early shipment tomorrow and Mr. Fribbles needs to be fed.” “…work tomorrow…” Blood said as she hovered over the sidewalk. “Oh, what do you do?” Sue asked as she pulled on her gloves. “…Cashier at Hesburger…” “Lovely.” “I suppose we’ll have to wait until next time, then.” Francesca said. “It was wonderful meeting you. I hope to see you next week.” Both Fury and Blood held their hands out and Sue shook. “Thanks. It was…interesting.” Fury started off with a wave, striding down Töölönlahdenkatu at a pace Sue would need to run to match. Blood vanished with a shimmer. Francesca held out her arms and Sue obliged her with a quick hug. “Please come next week,” the succubus said in her ear. “You were a great help.” “Thanks. I’ll think about it.” Francesca traced a pattern in the air, the line glowing red. She finished and with a smile and a wave, tapped the center of the pattern. She and the pattern vanished, leaving Sue and Steve alone in front of Oodi. Steve scribbled on its whiteboard. “PLEASE COME AGAIN” “We’ll see.” “SERIOUSLY WE” Steve wiped the board with a sleeve. “SUCK” “You’re not…” Sue paused. “Yeah, you kinda do. But your piece was really good! I bet you could give great feedback.” “THANKS I TRY” It wiped his board. “HARD TO COMMENT…ON WHITEBOARD” Steve looked to the side. “MUST GO.” It held out a sleeve. Sue reached out to shake, only for a mass of tentacles to erupt from the sleeve and engulf her hand and forearm. Steve gave a solid shake, withdrawing its tentacles as Sue stared with an open mouth. With a last wave, Steve scuttled off, the tips of tentacles visible beneath the robe. Sue watched it go, then glanced around. “Well,” she said to herself. “It wasn’t the worst group I’ve ever attended.”