Mid-American Review is thrilled to congratulate Gretchen Troxell as the winner of the 2023 Flash Fiction Battle to the Death! Contest participants were given the prompt “ominous” and only forty minutes to write 750 words or less. Three finalists were chosen to read their flash aloud at the final open mic event of the Winter Wheat Festival of Writing, where the audience chose “Toby” as the winner by overwhelming applause.

“Toby” by Gretchen Troxell

     Toby didn’t believe in spiders. He had never seen one. Never heard one scurrying across the walls. Never felt the satisfying pluck of a daddy long leg’s limp snapping off.

     His therapist wanted to stop wasting their sessions on this. 

     “Does it really matter?” She would ask, unprofessionally.

     “It matters to me,” he would respond, and she would say: “okay, Toby” or “fine, Toby” or “you’re paying for this session, Toby.”

       But Toby could tell even she didn’t believe him. No one did. Or, worse, if they did, they’d call him lucky.

      “It’s like a superpower,” his best friend, Adam said. 

      “Yeah, I’d give anything to never see a spider again,” his former girlfriend, Juliet said. They had broken up from a spider-based argument. Juliet, like his therapist, had grown old and tired of hearing the same old story. “You know what, Toby,” she finally said, “why don’t you just try a little fucking harder to find one then.”

       So, he did. He tried harder.

       Toby went out to his mother’s garden at night and scraped through the soil, burying hard rocks into his rotting nail beds. He slurped through worms and maggots, ants and beetles. His knees became hard-pressed and misshapen. His face darkened by the time the morning sun came up, and still no spiders.

      Toby had taken up five one-hour sessions up with his therapist with this spider talk. On the sixth session, she outlawed the discussion.

       Toby broke into the vents at his old church. He had heard rumors of spiders existing in attics and other dark spaces. He broke his left index finger from pounding the metal too hard, and he put a permanent crick in his back from bending over inside them. Rusty nails scraped across his jeans, creating new gashes of venomous blood. Some bugs came to it. Some reveled in it, cleaning his wounds with microscopic tongues. 

       He tried the cemetery. He cut himself open across the tongue with an old razor he found in the medicine cabinet. A grown man disguised as a vampire came along and called the police, but they didn’t bring any spiders with them. 

      “Why do you want to hurt yourself, Toby?” His therapist asked.

      “I thought the spiders would come.” His therapist shushed him and pointed at a sign over her right shoulder. It said no spider talk allowed. 

       The next night his dad printed out pictures of spiders from Google. “See, they’re real. Now stop this nonsense, now,” he commanded. 

      This pattern will continue until twenty years from now when Toby will get a girlfriend named Sarah. Sarah will be a nice girl whose seen spiders herself and has never known anyone to not believe in them, so Toby will never bring up his problem until Sarah finds him digging once again in the yard. His mouth will be covered in maggots, and ants will rest on his upper eyelids, and Sarah will scream so loudly, the neighbors wake up, but Toby will take her inside and try to explain. 

      “Why didn’t you say anything before?” Sarah will ask, and Toby will not answer.

       But they will talk about the problem for a few hours that night and the next and the next.

       Something very strange will happen with Sarah. She will listen, and she will follow Toby out to the garden and watch him slit his tongue and cry to the ground, and she will not leave, and one day, they will get married.

       Toby will never wake up and see a spider.

       Sarah believes this to be true.

       And weirdly, one day, it just won’t matter anymore. 

About the author: Gretchen Troxell is a third-year undergraduate student studying creative writing at Bowling Green State University. She is the fiction editor and treasurer for their undergraduate literary journal, Prairie Margins, and an intern at their graduate journal, Mid-American Review. She has been published in Fleas on the Dog and Quirk and is forthcoming in The Bookends Review, Allegheny Review, and Euphony Journal.