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art by Jonathan Westbrook

This Is Your Problem, Right Here

David lives in a strange place where the dogs outnumber the people, pigs sleep in the bathtub, and vicious attack penguins guard the front door. More than a dozen of his stories have been sold to more than a dozen venues, including Escape Pod, Pseudopod, AE, Bull Spec, One Buck Horror, and once previously in Daily Science Fiction. He is also the founder and editor of the zine Diabolical Plots, which reviews all of Daily Science Fiction's stories.

"This is your problem, right here." The plumber's deep voice resounded from beneath the maintenance hatch by the main pool at Cascade Reef waterpark. "You've only got one troll left. For a pool this big, you need fifty minimum, seventy-five if you want everything to run smoothly."
"Pardon?" shouted Anita Westegard, the owner. "I only have one of what left?"
The plumber appeared beneath her. His arms were covered to the elbows with green slime. "Trolls. See?" He held one grimy hand up toward her holding a tiny skull. It was almost human in shape, with two thick tusks and curved ram's horns. "Poor things must have been starved to turn on each other like that."
"Trolls?" Anita said. "As in monsters that live under bridges and eat goats?"
The plumber tossed the skull aside onto the concrete where it landed with a clatter. "You're going to have trouble finding new trolls the way it is. If the Troll Council hears that you've been making racist comments, you'll have no chance at all. You'd have to shut this place down."
"I've done nothing wrong!"
"Did you leave them down there all winter without any food after you shut down last year? I thought so. Trolls are tough, but that's too much even for them. You're lucky even one of them survived. How long have you owned the place?"
"Less than a year. I purchased it last July."
"And the previous owner didn't tell you anything about this?"
Anita took several deep breaths before speaking as calmly as she could. "I am not stupid, Mr...."
"Wilson, but you can call me Reggie."
"I am not stupid, Mr. Wilson." She pointed at the skull. "You can take your prop and your tools and find someone else to pull your shenanigans on. I have several other contractors coming today."
"All right," he said. "Let me just get that last troll out for you." He disappeared into the darkness before she could respond, and moments later he lifted a tiny figure and set it by the hatch.
The thing looked like a tiny man, anatomically correct except for the tusks and horns, and the tough green skin. Anita jumped when the little thing twitched an arm weakly. "Oh," Anita said without meaning to. She felt torn between revulsion for the grotesque little creature and sympathy for its emaciated state, both distant feelings, as though she were in shock. "This is really a troll?"
"Yep, a troll." The plumber pulled a nail clipper from his pocket and trimmed off a thumbnail, black with slime. "You really didn't know about trolls?"
She shook her head vehemently.
The plumber opened the little troll's mouth with one hand and dropped in the thumbnail. "If he keeps that down, make sure he gets more food. A lot more."
The troll rose unsteadily to a sitting position. "I am alive?" it asked in a gravelly voice, surprisingly deep for its size.
"You'll be fine," said the plumber. "I'm sorry about your family."
"Do not be. It is only a pity they tasted as unpleasant as they acted."
"If you don't need me for anything further," the plumber said, "I'm going to head to my next appointment. It's not my job to clean up dead trolls. I'll send the bill for the visit with the number for the Troll Council."
She nodded, and the plumber packed up his things and left.
"So," said the troll, eyeing her up and down. "You have food for me? I am quite famished."
"What do you like to eat?"
"Bathwater or toenail clippings, skin shavings or hair."
She couldn't help but shudder. "You actually eat those things?"
The troll shook his head. "How far we have fallen in just a few hundred years. Once I owned a wagon bridge over a major river. Succulent fresh meat whenever I wanted, and tribute."
"You want meat? I could bring you meat. What do you like? Hamburger? Chicken?"
The troll made retching noises deep in its throat. "Excrement! The meat I crave is not from cow or fowl. Such things are poison to my kind." He eyed her shrewdly. "You wish to make amends?"
"Yes, I do."
"Give me a finger."
"A toe? The smallest are of little use to you."
He sighed. "We cannot afford to break the Pact in any case. I should never have suggested it."
"What pact?"
"Trolls ruled the world once, and humans were like cattle to us. We protected you too well and your population overtook ours, and so you became the hunters. The great Council of Trolls spoke to human rulers of that age and made the Pact. Trolls will live if we never harm humans or eat human meat."
"So what are you doing here?"
"I am employed as a pool filter. Humans soak in the water, and make a weak soup of skin and sweat. This is enough to sustain me without breaking the Pact, and I return clean water to the pool."
"So what can I do? Is there any way you can put in a good word for me with the Troll Council?"
"Hire fertile females, and I will start my own brood. Buy Wiccan Soup for the Troll. This will help me attract mates. Serve only greasy food at your concession stand. The grease comes out in sweat, makes everything taste better. Can you do that?"
"I'm afraid the fryers aren't working at the moment but I have another contractor coming to look into that. Thank you for all your hard work. Oh, speak of the devil."
A man approached from the direction of the entrance. He was slender and young, with blue coveralls. "Anita Westegard?" he asked.
She nodded.
"I'm here to help you with your broken fryers? First, an easy question. I know it's a dumb one, but I've gotta ask everybody. You did let your phoenix loose for the winter so he could migrate, right?"
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Author Comments

The credit for this story idea belongs to my wife, Heather. It was a blazing hot summer day and we were floating in inner tubes along the lazy river at the local water park. She noted how the water must be like a weak human soup by the end of the day, with all these humans paying for the privilege to soak in this hot weather, and how a troll might enjoy drinking the soup. I thought the idea was hilarious, and in short order I worked out a way to make this awesome idea into a story. Thanks, Heather!

- David Steffen
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