Mally (Horror)

Mally (Horror)

The house needed work, but it came cheap and had a grassy back yard for Sara to play in. I’d signed the mortgage contract two days before, and as my daughter and I walked on the cracked sidewalk to the dilapidated front door, I knew this would have to do until I could pay off the medical bills that had almost wiped us out financially. All the money in the world wouldn’t have saved my wife, though. Watching her waste away from cancer almost did me in. Only the thought of my four-year-old daughter stopped me from going into a dark hole of depression. Sara needed me.

She clutched my pinky with one hand and her favorite doll with the other. Behind us was a small rental truck with our belongings. Since this house came furnished and we’d had to sell just about everything we owned to pay bills, there wasn’t much to bring in. Inexplicably, the realtor had told me, the previous owners dashed off one night without any of their things.

“Let’s go see your new bedroom,” I said, trying to smile.

The two-story house had been built during the seventies. The furniture was well-used but functional, and the appliances worked. It would be enough.

I let Sara pick her bedroom, and as I thought, she selected the room with yellow paint on the walls and a wooden toy box by the door. “I have to bring in your sheets and clothes and things,” I said. “We’ll make it look just like your room in our other house, okay?”

“Okay.”

She didn’t look upset, which was good. As she opened the toy box, I trotted out to the truck to grab boxes. A few minutes later, I lugged a big box of linens and towels up the steps. Sara sat in front of the open toy box, holding a matted, dark brown lump.

I set down my box. “What have you got there, sweetie?”

She held it up. It had four legs and a long neck. “It’s a horsey.”

I looked closer. The thing was filthy and half flat, like it had been dragged through the mud and run over by a car a few times. “I think it’s a giraffe.”

“He’s mine.” Sara smiled and hugged it.

It was all I could do not to snatch it away. I didn’t know what was on it, and I didn’t want her getting sick. “Why don’t we give it a bath,” I said. “It looks a little dirty.”

“No. He doesn’t want a bath,” she said, and buried her face in its matted, grimy chest.

I gritted my teeth. As soon as I could, I’d throw it in the washing machine. “Look,” I said with forced cheer, pointing into the toy box. “There are more toys in here. There’s a doll like yours, and a teddy bear, and…um….” A smashed train car, some scattered puzzle pieces, and two Barbies with no clothes and no heads. “I’ll bring up your toys.” I turned toward the door.

“I love you.”

I swung back to tell her I loved her too, but she wasn’t looking at me.

She held the giraffe out in front her, nodding. “Hi Mally, my name is Sara.”

Sara carried Mally with her the rest of the day, but I got my chance to wash it at bedtime. She fell asleep as I finished up her favorite story. I began to gently pull the giraffe from under her arm. Then, I paused. Its black plastic eyes gleamed, smooth and shiny and not at all scratched and scuffed like they’d been earlier. The moonlight from the window made them look alive, and they stared right into mine with a malevolent coldness. Like the thing dared me to touch it. My breath hitched. I pulled back my hand.

At that moment, Sara brought it up to her face.

No, this would not do. I didn’t want my daughter breathing against the dirty thing all night. Ignoring its eyes, I lifted it and carried it from the room, then made my way down to the basement. As I started to toss it into the washing machine, it seemed to… no, I refused to believe that. It didn’t wriggle. It didn’t move at all.

Into the washer it went, with double the amount of soap.

Sara asked about it first thing when she awoke. I had just made coffee and was still groggy, and now realized I hadn’t put it in the dryer. “I washed it last night, honey,” I said, trying for an excited tone. “Let’s go see how clean it got.”

Sara’s eyes filled with tears. “He didn’t want a bath!”

“Sure he did. Every giraffe wants to be clean. Let’s go check.”

Downstairs, I opened the washing machine, and my smile faded. I reached in and pulled out pieces of the giraffe. White fluff lined the barrel of the washer. From limp brown and tan fur dangled legs, a body, a neck, and a flat head. It had certainly gotten clean, but had ripped apart in the process.

Sara sobbed and ran upstairs. I felt bad and made plans to buy her a new toy giraffe and name it Mally the Second.

In the kitchen, I glanced at its eyes, still intact. They stared at me, hard and livid. Dangerous. I flung the pieces into the trash can. Good riddance.

I made breakfast for Sara and called her down to eat. She danced into the room carrying the giraffe.

“You fixed it, Daddy. You fixed it!” She held it out.

My body went rigid. The thing had been re-stuffed and crudely sewed up. Its evil gaze locked with mine. I lifted the lid to the trash can. It was empty.

“Mally doesn’t like you, Daddy, but he loves me. Forever and ever.” She kissed it.

My lips stretched in a grimace. “Sure, honey.”

Mally would like me even less when I cut out his eyes.

A Haunting Tryst (Horror with romantic elements)

A Haunting Tryst (Horror with romantic elements)

The old streetlamp cast a dim yellow glow over the front of the aged funeral home. Along the lower side of the stone building where it was darkest, Mia Langston stood holding hands with her boyfriend, Lucas Forester. Lightning seared the sky, and they cringed at the immediate thunderclap that followed. The wind had kicked up, and the first rush of raindrops washed over them.

“Come on,” Lucas said, laughing, and pulled Mia into the dark recess of the side entrance. “Can’t change our minds now, anyway. We’ll get soaked.”

“Nope.” Mia giggled into Lucas’s broad chest, then raised her face for a kiss. Having sex in the funeral home had been her idea, just like most of the places they’d broken in to do it. They needed some kind of fun in this boring town, where all they did was work in the lumber mill during the week and drink on the weekends. Three months ago, breaking into a car at the local used car lot at midnight and steaming up the windows had been Lucas’s idea, but Mia had loved it, and from then on they’d found various businesses that seemed easy to enter after dark. They’d even hidden under the stairs in the lumber mill until closing time last month, and then had sex three times on the plant manager’s desk.

The basement entrance to the funeral home would be good, if the lightning would let up. The darker, the better. Mia hoped Lucas’s lock picks would work. This door had no bolt, just a doorknob that looked ancient.

As if reading her mind, Lucas bent down and studied the knob, then said, “Just an old fashioned lock on this one.”

A familiar thrill ran through Mia’s body, but she wondered at the strange undercurrent of fear. She’d never done it in a place that held dead people. Even thinking about death was scary, but that was why they were here — because doing this type of thing made them both feel alive. Plus, they’d started to run out of places to break into. The town was only so big.

Mia heard the lock click, and Lucas straightened. “You ready for this?” he asked.

“Hell, yeah.”

Lucas nodded and then put on gloves before grasping the door knob. He turned it slowly and pushed open an inch, and they listened for any sounds of an alarm. If there was an alarm, it would be hard to hear over the crazy thunder and pounding rain. Lucas opened the door wider.

“Nothing,” he said.

They crept inside. Mia’s heart raced. Sneaking into a building was her favorite part — besides the sex, of course.

Lucas eased the door shut and turned the simple doorknob lock. Mia jumped at a blast of thunder that seemed to shake the building. She usually didn’t let storms bother her, but they were in a funeral home, and this added a whole new level of scary thrill.

Mia pulled her cell phone from her pocket and turned on the cell’s flashlight, shining it around the upper walls. “Cameras?”

“Don’t see any. Not in this little room, anyway.”

They stood in a room barely bigger than a closet, with a door directly in front of them and another on their left. Still wearing the gloves to avoid fingerprints, Lucas opened the door on the left. They peered inside and saw a small storage room that held trash cans, cleaning supplies, and gardening tools. Boring. They backed out and Lucas closed the door.

The other door opened to a huge room with a cement floor, almost like a garage. They did a quick check to be sure no security cameras were present that they could see, and then Mia drew in a quick breath as her cell light shown on a row of five caskets along one wall. “Ooh, doing it in one of these would be weird, and so fun! As long as the lid stays open.” She hesitated then added, “And as long as there are no people in them.”

She heard Lucas’s low laugh. “I doubt it, but we’ll check.” They looked around the room and saw a garage door that stood to their left, probably there to let in a hearse. That made sense since the driveway sloped down alongside the building and around to the back.

To the right were two doors, one of them wide and made of metal. This door reminded Mia of the refrigeration unit in the fast food restaurant she’d worked at during high school. The other door was nondescript but had a sign on it, too dim to see from where they stood.

Beside the row of caskets was what looked like an elevator door, and beside that one, another door with a sign. Lots of doorways, but no windows.

Mia moved toward the caskets. “Do you think there’s dead people in these?”

“That’s a lot of dead people.”

Mia held her breath until Lucas had lifted the lid of one at the end of the row, then she sighed in relief. “Empty. Good. She climbed in, folded her hands on her stomach, and closed her eyes. “Let’s do it in this one. I’ll pretend I’m dead.”

Lucas leaned down and kissed her. “I prefer you alive and moving. And maybe we should check the other rooms first, make sure no one’s here.”

Another blast of thunder, this time sounding like it was right on top of the building, made Mia sit up and hop out of the coffin in alarm. The thunder was followed by a crackling and buzzing sound from outside. Lucas went to check outside. He was only gone half a minute, but Mia imagined someone was near her at the coffin. Then, she swore she heard a voice, sounding tinny and far away, but definitely there in the room with her. She trotted to the door that would lead to the little room where they’d come in and opened it, sure she was imagining things but wanting Lucas to hurry up.

He was just shutting the outside door and locking it. “Lights are out,” he said. “There’s a transformer down the street that looks like it exploded.”

“All the more darker for us,” Mia said, her breath in a slight pant. “I got a little spooked in there.”

“Spooky sex will be good,” Lucas said, and grinned.

In the distance, a siren sounded and grew louder. There were no windows, but Mia and Lucas turned off their cell lights anyway and stood silent in the dark, holding hands, listening. The siren peaked and then weakened as the vehicle passed the funeral home and went on its way.

Both turned on their cell lights. “Okay. Let’s see what’s in here,” Lucas said, and led Mia to the metal door. He grabbed the latch and pulled the door open. Cold air swept out at them. They directed their lights onto long metal shelves, where two cardboard boxes, each in length about six feet or so, lay on opposite each other. At the end of each box was a nameplate and a short series of numbers.

Mia held the door open. “Oh, wow. So this is where they keep the bodies.” She grinned and mimicked holding a telephone to her ear. “Thank you for calling Mia’s mortuary. You stab ‘em, we slab ‘em.”

Lucas laughed. “That’s the trouble with this town. There haven’t been any stabbings in years. Just old farts kicking the bucket.” He lifted each of the cardboard lids. “I don’t recognize these old farts.“

“Betty Dickens,” Mia read, then looked at the nameplate on the other box. “Michael Bransley. Hey, I heard about him on the news. He’s not old at all. He’s that teenager who drowned when he fell out of his boat. They couldn’t find him for a few days.”

“Yeah, seventeen I think. He’s all puffy and gray.” Lucas held the lid open. “Want to see?”

”Nah.” For some reason, Mia’s palms had gotten clammy. She backed out of the refrigerated room. Another waft of air, this one seeming to ride on a soft sigh, chilled her face in a cold caress. She touched her cheek. “I don’t want to do anything in here.”

“Me neither. And the power’s off, so these guys won’t stay cold for long.” They shut the door, then approached the old wooden door next to the refrigerated room. Lucas tried the handle. “Locked.”

The sign on the door read, “Preparation”. Mia pointed her light at the doorknob so Lucas could see as he picked the lock. She glanced over her shoulder into the darkness. Sure, she’d figured there might be dead bodies in the funeral home, but seeing them stored in a fridge in long cardboard boxes was kind of weird.

A soft click sounded, and Lucas opened the door. There were no windows in this room either, so after entering, Mia closed the door and found the light switch. She flicked it a couple of times, but the room remained dark. “Yup, power’s out,” she said.

A stainless steal exam table stood in the center of the room. Against one wall was a stained white porcelain sink with a spotted faucet. A table against another wall held a toolbox, and beside this, in a neat row, lay brushes and combs. An empty garment rack stood beside the table.

The room smelled like lavender and roses, and something else that made Mia’s nose tingle. She rubbed it and said, “Pickles.”

Lucas sniffed. “That’s the shit they use to embalm people. It’s called formerhide.”

Mia decided she wouldn’t correct her boyfriend’s usage of formaldehyde. Lucas had barely passed his classes in high school, and he’d always felt like he was stupid. He wasn’t — he was a good machine mechanic and kept most of the mill saws and belts running — but there weren’t too many opportunities in the area to gain advanced certification or a journeyman’s card.

She strode to the toolbox and opened it. “Just as I thought. It’s makeup and hairspray. This must be where they fix them up for a viewing.”

Lucas tapped the stainless steel table. “Hop on up, lady. I’ll fix you up good.” He loosened his belt.

“Wait.” Mia had spotted another door at the far end of the room. This one had two signs on it. She approached the door. “Embalming Room,” she read. “Danger, flammable liquids.” She tried the handle. To her surprise, the door was unlocked. They entered.

This room was a truly creepy part of the funeral home. She didn’t know much about embalming, just that it involved pumping chemicals into someone’s body to keep them fresh-looking for days, maybe weeks. The smell in here was pungent, and Mia rubbed her nose again as she looked around.

A stainless steel gurney, angled with one end sloping slightly lower than the other, was bolted to the floor. Two metal buckets hung at the end of the gurney. On a chipped countertop nearby sat a machine, a little taller and wider than a restaurant coffeemaker, with dials and thin orange hoses. Near this was a double sink. The countertop also held a metal tray with hooks, scalpels, scissors, tweezers, long, thick needles, and small rounded things that looked like spiky oversized contact lenses. On the wall next to the door hung lab coats.

“So this is what it looks like,” Mia said.

Lucas sneezed, then picked up one of the domed, spiky pieces. “What are these for?” He tossed it back onto the counter, where it rolled into the sink. “Wait.” He lifted it and put it over his eye. “Whatcha think?”

Mia laughed, but it sounded forced. Being in here made her perspire. If they’d broken into the funeral home to have sex in an unusual place, the embalming room would be perfect. But the idea of doing it in here, with needles and knives and scissors nearby, would make her feel like she was in a slasher horror movie, where the set was a gurney in an embalming room instead of a cot in a cabin at Camp Crystal Lake. She opened the door and said, “I don’t really like it in here, baby.”

Lucas placed the piece back onto the tray with the others, and they left the room. Lucas wiped any fingerprints Mia had left on the door knobs since she wore no gloves. “Where to next?” He asked. “Upstairs?”

“Sure. Let’s explore up there. Might be more comfortable than the prep table, but that coffin was comfy if we don’t find anything else.”

As they left the preparation room, they listened for any sounds. Outside, the storm raged on, and another emergency vehicle passed, siren blaring. Ignoring it this time, they moved to the elevator. Mia almost pushed the button, then stopped. “Maybe we should take the stairs? In case somebody is up there.”

“Yeah,” Lucas agreed. They found the staircase at the far end of the wall. The heavy door’s hinges creaked, sounding far too loud. Lucas opened it just enough for them to slip in. Quietly they crept up the concrete steps, which led them to a landing and then another short set of steps that ended at another door. This one, also made of metal, had no lock.

Standing behind Lucas, Mia looked over the rail, and pointed her cell light to the downstairs door. “I hear a sound,” she whispered. “Like someone’s down there…breathing.”

Lucas froze with his hand on the doorknob. Both turned off their lights. Heads cocked, they listened. After a moment Lucas murmured, “Maybe it was our steps, just echoing or something.”

“Maybe.” Mia took his hand nonetheless and looked down again into the blackness below. She felt watched, somehow. It was much worse without any light. “Hurry and open the door.”

This door’s hinges had been well-oiled and made no sound as Lucas opened it. A quick flash of light made them both stiffen, and then they each let out a sigh of relief. Up here, there were windows along the walls that showcased the storm outside. Lightning lit the sky and rain pounded down.

Feeling better now that they were away from the preparation room, the refrigerator, and the embalming room, they explored this upstairs area. It was a chapel of sorts. Rows of chairs faced an empty space in the front. A podium stood to one side. Mia’s mind went to the reason they’d broken in here in the first place. She smiled as she opened a door along the side near the podium and looked into a closet with white cloths folded neatly on shelves. She jumped at Lucas’s hand on her arm.

“Easy,” he said. “Let me do it. We don’t want fingerprints.”

“Right,” Mia said. She rubbed the doorknob with her shirt. “How about in here?”

“I want to check the rest of the place, make sure no one’s here,” Lucas said. “Probably just offices and storage. I’ll be quick.”

She should go with him, but she didn’t feel nearly as spooked up here as she had downstairs. Besides, he probably wouldn’t be long, and he was quick and light on his feet. Mia figured the rooms up here were just what Lucas suggested: boring offices, bathrooms, and closets. “Okay, but hurry,” she said.

Lucas disappeared through a door behind the podium. Mia looked around. Right in the center, in the empty space where the coffins currently sat for services, would be a good place to fool around. It wouldn’t be completely dark up here, and there’d be enough time for them to escape if anyone came in. She walked to the front door of the chapel, looking again for cameras and finding none. Narrow windows on either side of this door faced the street. The streets were empty, and a little ways down, she could barely make out where the transformer had fallen. Surprisingly, no firetrucks had come yet. But they might.

The chapel was a good a place to do it as anywhere. She returned to the front and removed her clothing, and tossed them within easy reach. She stood facing the front door, bathed in flashes of lightning. After a moment, she moved to stand behind the podium in case anyone happened to look through the windows flanking the front door. Her back was to the door Lucas had gone through, so that he’d see her naked butt first thing. Lucas loved her butt.

She could bet that no one had ever stood here completely naked before. Not even the dead, who were always dressed up in their coffins. The thought made her excited, and she reached down and touched herself. After a moment she emitted a soft moan as she worked her fingers. “We are gathered here today,” she panted to the empty chairs, “to fuck.” Lucas needed to hurry. She wanted him.

As if he’d read her mind, she felt him behind her. “Ready?” he whispered, his voice lighter in pitch but no less sexy.

“Yes,” she breathed, closing her eyes. “Wet and ready.”

His hands — he’d removed his gloves and his hands were cold, she vaguely noted — squeezed her breasts and then slid down her waist and hips as she continued to arouse herself. Lucas liked to watch her do that, too. His erection pressed against her. She shivered with a sudden, strange chill.

“Damn, you’re sexy,” Lucas said. “Can I join you, or are you good with getting off by yourself?”

“What?” Mia whirled. No one stood stood behind her. Nothing pressed against her.

Lucas stood leaning in the doorway where he’d disappeared a few minutes before. He was grinning in satisfaction, his gaze roving down her naked form, taking her in. Mia gasped and crossed her arms over her breasts in a protective gesture, and darted her gaze around the chapel. Who had touched her? Who had whispered?

Lucas approached her. “Sorry to keep you waiting. No one’s here. I had to check, sorry.”

Yes, something else was here, and it had caressed her like a lover. “I…I thought you were behind me.”

“Nope.” he undid his belt. “But I want to be behind you. Keep touching yourself.”

Were they really doing this? After what she’d just experienced? Mia nibbled at her lip with equal parts anxiety and arousal. When Lucas pressed himself against her back and his warm hand turned her face toward his for a deep kiss, she gave in to the intoxication of passion even through underlying fear that simmered beneath.

Frightened yet aroused, Mia’s senses were heightened by what someone or something had done to her a moment ago and what Lucas was doing to her now. This juxtaposition of emotions only made her skin more sensitive to his touch. Her body clenched with desire. Lucas ended the kiss and moved down her body, sliding his tongue down the groove of her back, her thighs, and finally turning her toward him to pleasure her with his mouth.

Someone watched them. The awareness pierced her increasing ecstasy. Even as she climaxed, Mia opened her eyes and looked for the interloper who dared to stare at her during her most intimate moment.

“Who’s there?” she panted as waves of her climax engulfed her and threatened to make her legs buckle.

“Just me,” Lucas said as he straightened and kissed her. He turned her toward the podium and put a hand on her stomach. With his other hand, he gently pushed her upper back forward so that she rested her forehead on the podium. He gripped her hips and entered her with a moan, and began to move with rhythmic thrusts.

Mia tried to focus on her body’s enjoyment and was successful for only a moment. Everything had become deadly silent. The lightning storm had ceased. An impenetrable blackness, so intense it felt palpable, filled the chapel. Her senses filled with foreboding. The air seemed to grow more oppressive. Suffocating. She closed her eyes but immediately opened them again, and lifted her head to look around the chapel and at the twin narrow windows flanking the front door. No one stood there looking in that she could see, but what was watching them didn’t seem to be human anyway.

Mia’s body chilled; she could see the goosebumps on her arms. Lucas, busy behind her, apparently had no inkling of what was happening.

Then, she heard something.

A creak of the old wooden floor. A sound of footsteps approaching. Mia strained to see who it was, but the chapel was empty.

Then came a grunting moan. It wasn’t the sorrowful, horror-story type moan Mia had heard in the movies. This moan sounded like whoever made it was in the midst of a superb orgasm.

Mia jerked backwards. Lucas gave a surprised shout. “Ouch! What the hell?”

“Lucas!” Mia’s voice cracked with terror. “Someone’s here.”

They became quiet, trying to listen through the sound of the rain on the roof. “I don’t hear anything,” he whispered after a moment.

The scrape of a chair on the old wood floor made them both jump. In the blackness of the chapel, Mia felt Lucas pull up his pants, then heard the click of his cell phone as he turned on the light and pointed it toward the chairs. Mia cried out.

A teenaged boy sat in the front row near the podium. His eyes were milky, his face bloated and gray, clothing torn. As the couple stared, he stood. His tongue pushed out and roved his fleshy lips. He shuffled toward them. He didn’t quite seem solid.

Lucas grabbed Mia’s arm. “Fuck!” he cried out. “We need to get out of here. Now!”

As Mia, sobbing in terror, snatched up her clothing, the boy reached them. His oppressive presence seemed to close in around them, trapping them.

“Stop.”

The voice was feminine and thin, and came from directly behind the boy. A woman came into view and stood beside him.

Clutching each other, Lucas and Mia stared at the ethereal forms.

“Betty Dickens,” Mia said, her voice trembling.

“And Michael Bransley,” Lucas added in a half whisper. “Are you…ghosts?”

They ignored Lucas. “You were young,” Betty said to Michael.

“I just wanted to fish,” Michael said, his voice sounding far away. He indicated Lucas and Mia. “And to watch them.”

“And I wanted to wait for my children so I could say goodbye.”

As they spoke to each other, Mia pulled on her shirt and pants.

“You are done fishing,” Betty said to Michael. “And my children arrived too late. They have their own lives, you know. They live far away.”

Mia looked at the front door. Her intent was to make a wide swath around the ghosts and head out through the front entrance. “Come on,” she whispered. “This way.”

“No,” Lucas said. “Someone will see us. We should go back the way we came in.”

They began to creep toward the door leading to the stairway, trying to be quiet so that they ghosts wouldn’t notice them.

“I have not seen my newest great grandchild,” Betty continued. “He is very sick and may die.”

“The boat capsized. My father is sad,” Michael said.

Lucas and Mia had almost reached the door. “She sounds so nice,” Mia whispered to Lucas. “But he’s a creep. He stood behind me and pressed up against me. It seemed so real. I thought it was you.”

“What?” Lucas stopped and spoke to Michael, his voice sharp. “You messed with my girlfriend, punk?”

Michael ignored him and focused on Betty. They continued their conversation while Lucas and Mia stood in indecision, torn between wanting to bolt and the surreal experience of watching two dead people talk to each other. She could see them in the light of Lucas’s cell phone, ethereal shapes that seemed to shimmer and fade, and then return in almost solid form. Michael and Betty should both be lying in the refrigerator downstairs, yet here they stood as spirits.

“I went out to the lake by myself after my dad told me not to. There was a storm coming,” Michael said to Betty. “Am I really dead?”

“You’re both dead,” Lucas said. “You should go into the light, or whatever.”

Both ghosts turned to them, their expressions disapproving.

“You should not be here,” Betty said.

“You shouldn’t either,” Lucas said. Mia nudged him to be quiet. Lucas always did like to run his mouth when he was agitated, and sometimes it got him into trouble. He continued, “Ya’ll are rotting in the fridge downstairs with the power being out. I guess they haven’t put that formerhide in you yet.”

Michael turned his head slowly toward Lucas, and his opaque eyes somehow became darker. “I’m not dead. I can still feel. And I want her.” One hand rose and pointed at Mia.

Mia gasped, and her throat burned with the icy chill that permeated the chapel. She grabbed Lucas’s arm and they bolted to the door that led downstairs. Within a few seconds they were racing down the stairs, footsteps echoing loudly. Lucas’s cell light moved crazily along the walls as he ran. Mia’s heart pounded in her ears.

Reaching the bottom, Lucas’s fingers fumbled at the latch of the door. Mia stood beside him, her cell phone clutched tightly in her hand. The latch refused to budge.

“It’s stuck!” Mia cried out, her voice trembling with terror.

“Locked.” Lucas worked the latch, but the door remained firmly shut. Panic washed over them as they realized they were trapped.

“What do we do now?” Lucas whispered, his breath coming in shallow gasps.

Mia’s mind raced. “We go back up. We find another entrance in the back. Or we try to make it to the front door.”

They retraced their steps up the the concrete stairs, slower this time, hushed and listening, trying be keep their footsteps quiet. They reached the upstairs door and stopped. Slowly Lucas turned the doorknob and opened the door a crack. He peeked into the chapel.

“I don’t see them,” he whispered.

Mia looked. “I don’t either.”

“On the count of three, we run to the front door. If you see them, ignore them.”

“You too,” Mia said. “Don’t get into a squabble with Michael.”

Lucas counted in a low voice, and then they bolted through the chapel, past the podium and down the aisle. Mia’s gaze was riveted on the front door. No sound came to her but their pounding footsteps.

They reached the door and stopped, then looked through the window beside the door. A car drove past the building but then slowed and turned into the parking lot on the side of the building, the same side that had the door Mia and Lucas had entered.

“Someone’s here,” Lucas said.

“Open the door. They won’t see us from here.”

Lucas reached for the bolt, and for a second Mia was sure that the door would be stuck, or there would be a hidden lock, or the ghosts would come at them, or whoever had come to the building would find them and have them arrested.

The bolt turned, and Lucas opened the door.

Rain and wind greeted them as they stumbled out into the storm. Their clothes clung to their bodies, drenched within seconds, but Mia didn’t care. Being outside, away from the dead teen Michael’s resentful presence, was a welcome relief.

They ran through the rain, their feet splashing in puddles, until they reached the safety of Lucas’s truck parked down the block. With trembling hands, he fumbled for his keys and unlocked the door.

“Drive,” Mia urged as she got in, her voice trembling. “Just drive far away from here.”

Lucas started the truck and they sped away from the building, leaving behind the ghosts of Betty and Michael, and whoever had come by.

Two days later, they attended the memorial services of Betty and Michael. Call it morbid curiosity or wanting to return to the scene of their break in, but they each had their reasons. Mia wanted to see Betty in her open casket. The old woman, although sort of waxy looking, appeared as if she could open her eyes at any moment and get up to fix a batch of breakfast biscuits. Mia was glad to see that the power outage, which had lasted through the night, didn’t seem to have done any damage. The memorial service was warm and celebratory, and Mia was glad to hear stories from her children, grandchildren, and friends.

Lucas wanted to attend Michael’s service. The photo on the display table showed a dark-haired teen with laughing brown eyes. There were photos of him and his father holding up fish they’d caught, and photos of him camping and playing baseball. This service was much more somber and sad. Family, school friends, teachers, and others wept. Stories were told of his dry sense of humor, his willingness to volunteer in his community, and his love of nature. His father looked inconsolable.

“I like him more, now,” Lucas said to Mia when they left the service. “I needed to see that.”

Mia squeezed his hand and kissed him. “Babe, let’s take a break from finding places to do it, okay?”

“Yeah,” Lucas agreed. “Especially a funeral home. I’ve had enough. For now.”

Mia smiled. “For a little while. Right now, our bed will do just fine.”


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, dialogue, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to a person, living or deceased, events, or locations is purely coincidental.

The idea for this story came from the notion that some couples, like these two darlings, are bored with the same old routine.

A Mutt Named Jackson (Suspense)

A Mutt Named Jackson (Suspense)

“Come here.”

Randy’s deep, rough voice demanded immediate submission. The dish Lilly had been washing slipped out of her hand and floated down into the soapy water. Turning, she faced her husband and pressed her wet hands onto her belly.

She knew what was coming. When she’d married him two years ago, he’d been a little rough around the edges, but promised he’d never hurt her. She’d thought she could change him, make him gentler, make him into a good man through her love and attention.

What a fool she’d been.

“You’ve been feeding a stray, haven’t you. Feeding him behind my back. I saw the bowl outside.”

Lilly tried to swallow her fear. She’d forgotten to pick up the bowl. “He’s a nice dog. Has the name Jackson on his collar. I’m trying to find the owner–”

The back of his hand struck her face with hard and swift authority. Her body hit the counter and then the floor. Her cheek throbbed, but it was the sharp pain shooting through her womb that made her cry out.

He’d promised to never hurt the baby and hadn’t hit her there in the seven months she’d been pregnant. Lilly stared up at him through pained tears. “I’m sorry. I’ll stop feeding him.”

Randy stuck his chin out toward her stomach. “The kid’s fine. Get up.” He headed toward the front door, then stopped. “I ever catch you spending my money on a stray, you’ll find out what sorry really means.” The door slammed behind him.

With soft sobs, Lilly reached up to grasp the counter and got to her feet. The pain was dissipating. Maybe she’d strained a muscle. Even so, she should see a doctor. But Randy might not allow that. He was the king of tightwads, a hoarder of cash. He’d just said the baby was fine, and Randy believed every word he said as soon as the words left his lips.

“Your money,” she murmured, looking out the window at him driving his battered pickup down the dirt driveway. The man thousands of dollars tucked in cans and plastic bags, all buried around within fifty yards of the trailer. She’d secretly watched him dig holes at night and bury the cash, and pretended she believed him when he said they had no money to spare. She had no idea where the money came from and didn’t dare ask him.

One day she’d dig it all up and run away, and then divorce him. But she knew he’d make good on his promise to come after her and kill her for leaving him.

A soft whine sounded at the door. Lilly gave a rare smile. They had no cell service, only a landline. Randy didn’t want her to have friends, and he never let her be alone with her two siblings on their rare visits lest she give a hint of the abuse she suffered. They thought that despite living in a dilapidated trailer on an remote lot surrounded by woods, she was happy and loved.

She hadn’t seen her family in months. They didn’t even know she was pregnant. Randy had successfully isolated her to the point where he could have her under his complete control.

But Lilly had Jackson. She went out onto the cracked cement porch and lowered herself to her knees, and the mutt moved into her open arms and licked her bruised cheek. She hugged him, then reached into her pocket for the small plastic bag of leftover hamburger. The dog ate out of her hand with polite delicacy although his ribs showed against his filthy black and brown fur.

She’d first seen the dog sniffing around the yard, and Randy had thrown rocks at him. But the dog had come back several times, looking more emaciated as the weeks passed, and Lily had snuck food and water to him. One day, he got close enough that she could pet him, and she found his tag. Jackson. No owner information. She’d taken a risk and called the local animal shelter, and was informed that no one had reported a missing dog with that name.

To Lilly, the dog was hers.

“Jackson,” she said, scratching him behind his ears. “You are a good boy, aren’t you.”

Jackson wagged his tail and looked at her with intelligent amber eyes.

The roar of a motor up the driveway had Lilly on her feet, heart racing. Randy should not be back from his road crew job so soon. Maybe he’d been fired. “Go,” she said to Jackson. “Don’t let him see you here.”

Jackson stayed put. His ears flicked toward her and then to the sound of Randy’s truck.

“Go!” Lilly pushed him away.

The dog trotted out to the corner of the trailer, pressed his ears to his head, and stared toward the driveway. A low growl emitted from his chest.

“Oh God.” Lilly peeked around the corner and saw fury darken Randy’s face as he left the truck, his gaze going from the dog to her.

“I’m gone for five minutes and look what you do.”

Lilly raced back onto the porch and fumbled for the door handle. There was nowhere she could hide, but maybe Randy would follow her inside and leave the dog alone. She made it to the kitchen. The sound of Randy’s boots pounded the dirt. Then came a dog’s savage snarl and her husband’s yell of pain.

Randy escaped inside, his eyes wide and crazy, lips in a pained grimace. Blood soaked through his gray shirt sleeve. Lilly backed toward the stove.

“I’m going to kill that dog.” He reached above the refrigerator for his shotgun.

“No!” Lilly tried to grab his arm and he shook her off. With a sob, she followed him outside.

Jackson stood panting and growling. Randy cocked the gun, lifted it to his shoulder, and aimed.

“No, Randy, please,” Lilly begged. “Don’t.”

Randy paused, eyes narrowed. He lowered the gun. “I’m not going to waste a bullet on him. He’ll die too fast.”

He swung the shotgun around and grasped the barrel, then brought the stock down onto the dog’s back. Jackson yelped and whimpered but stood his ground. Lilly tried again to grab Randy’s arm and he pushed her down onto the concrete. Jackson made a snarling leap toward Randy, but Randy brought the gun down again, and again. The barrel glistened with sweat from his hands. The dog’s legs collapsed. Lilly lay on her side, reaching toward Jackson. Fresh pain speared her womb.

“Fucking dog! I’ll teach you to come onto my property.” Randy fumbled with the barrel and lifted the butt of the gun to strike the dog again.

A shot rang out. Randy jerked backwards against the side of the trailer and then slumped down onto his face. The spent shotgun clattered to the ground beside him. Lilly screamed as blood spread beneath him and into the cracks in the old concrete.

Whining, Jackson crawled to Lilly and lay his head on her belly.

Four months later

Lilly carried her baby girl to the car and carefully tucked her into the car seat. Born seven weeks premature, little Sara was healthy enough now to travel. They would spend some time with Lilly’s siblings and then buy a place in a nice neighborhood, a place with a big yard and a white picket fence.

Lilly opened the hatch and turned back toward the trailer. “Time to go, Jackson!” Smiling, she watched the dog do a hop-limp to the car, his best attempt at a run since his back and hip still gave him trouble from his injuries despite the veterinarian’s best efforts. Lilly helped him into the car and gave him a hug.

She spared a final glance at the trailer, the dirt driveway, and the dozens of holes she’d dug all over the yard. She had her family, freedom, and money, all because of a mutt named Jackson.

Lilly started the car and drove away without looking back.


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, dialogue, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to a person, living or deceased, events, or locations is purely coincidental.

The idea for this story came from a writing contest I entered that had to involve a mutt and a house on an isolated property. I’d recently read news about a man who shot himself while hitting his dog with a rifle, and put the story together. Nothing like a little retribution, eh?

The Agreement (Horror)

The Agreement (Horror)

Another dreaded Thanksgiving.

Mr. Thomas has already taken his seat, and he strokes his beard with gnarled fingers as I set a bowl of mashed potatoes on the table. I’ve heard his hands are quite strong.

“Smells good,” he says, watching me. “I always eat too much.”

I give him a polite smile.

“And afterwards I always swear I’m going to get on my old ten-speed and ride it for five miles every day,” he said. His low, untroubled chuckle brought bile to my throat. “And then I think, how silly would that look? An old man on a bike. Old men don’t ride bikes. They swim laps in the pool or play golf. Bikes are for you teenagers.”

The strain of my smile hurts my face. “I guess.”

I hear sobs coming from the kitchen. They bring no reaction from Mr. Thomas. Perhaps he’s used to it. Ten years ago, he’d brought the town out of financial debt with his millions. All he demanded in return was an annual payment to keep the population manageable. The whole town had signed the agreement.

I escape to the kitchen to see Mom holding the basket of warmed rolls at arm’s length. They smell far too good. Mr. Thomas always brings the rolls and asks that they be warmed up. Mom’s face is turned away. “Take it. Just take it,” she says to my twin brother.

Jake takes the basket. “I’m sure we’ll be fine.”

“We weren’t fine three years ago,” my aunt reminds him. The plunk of ice cubes she drops into glasses punctuates her words. “Three years ago, your father–”

“I know what happened to Dad,” Jake says, and the strain on his face as he walks past me surely matches my own.

I point to the turkey cooling on the counter. “Do you want me to take that to the dining room?”

Mom’s eyes look old, haunted. “No. I’ll do it.” Her gaze darts to the broken clock on the wall. It had given up recently after years of use but hasn’t yet been replaced. We still check it out of habit. “What time is it?”

Aunt Grace glances at her watch. “Almost six.”

“We need to hurry,” Mom says. “Terri, get your little brother in here.”

If only he could stay outside. My eyes sting, and I blink away tears.

Eleven-year-old Alex has been raking leaves for over an hour so he won’t have to be near Mr. Thomas. I breathe in crisp fall air and approach him. “It’s time.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“You have to eat. You know the rules.”

“Screw the rules!” Alex throws down the rake and rushes past me to the back steps where three rotting pumpkins sit, their shriveled carved faces collapsing inward, remnants of happier times just weeks before. We’d each had our own pumpkin to carve this year.

Alex stomps on each one. His furious, frustrated grunts at the effort break my heart.

The pumpkins flattened, Alex stands, panting. Tears roll down his cheeks. “Screw the rules,” he repeats, softer this time. He yanks open the door and enters the house.

Moments later we sit at the table. Alex is across the table next to Jake. Aunt Grace sits beside me, putting herself between Mr. Thomas and me. Mom brings out the turkey, a trace of old pride still in her step. We compliment her cooking, as is tradition.

On each of the holidays throughout the year, Mr. Thomas takes turns dining with the families left in the town. Our turn is every Thanksgiving at six o’clock. If a family has to make a payment during his visit, he will stop dining with families for the remainder of the year. Sometimes, the town gets lucky on New Year’s Day, and we can all relax.

He stands and carves the turkey, setting the juicy pieces onto the dinner plates stacked before him, and we pass the plates down the table. Bowls of vegetables and mashed potatoes go around. We pile our plates, then sit in silence. No one moves.

Mr. Thomas lifts the one item that hasn’t been passed. “Bread, anyone?”

At the foot of the table, Mom puts her hand over her mouth, closes her eyes, and gives a soft moan. Mr. Thomas hands the basket of dinner rolls to Aunt Grace without taking one for himself. Grace takes a roll and sets it on her plate, then passes the basket to me.

I stare at the five remaining rolls, willing myself to see through them.

Mr. Thomas’s voice holds a gentle, coaxing threat. “Terri.”

I take a roll and pass the basket to Mom. It makes its way around the table back to Mr. Thomas, who sets it in front of him. One roll remains in the basket.

“Eat now,” Mr. Thomas says.

First Aunt Grace, then Jake, bite into their rolls, eyes downcast. Mom is next. Alex stuffs his into his mouth and swallows it whole.

Mr. Thomas sends a piercing gaze to Alex. “We’ll find it, if it was in there. What goes in must come out.”

I bite into my roll and my teeth hit something warm and hard. Cold terror makes my heart slam my chest. With trembling fingers I pull the coin from the bread.

“Ah,” Mr. Thomas says, smiling at me in delight. “You got the lucky penny. I wondered if we would go the entire year without a payment.” He stands, looking satisfied. “Your family and I will eat this wonderful meal afterwards.”

My family’s faces hold sheer misery. It has happened to us again. First my father, and now me.

I gulp in shallow breaths and try to speak. My desperate gaze meets Jake’s, then my mother’s. I am alone in my terror. No one can help me. Fighting is useless. If I resist, all of us will die.

Mr. Thomas takes my hand and leads me to the front room. My family follows. Alex begins to cry, and Jake puts his arm around him. Aunt Grace and Mom cling to each other.

Mr. Thomas pulls a small rock from his pocket and hits the window. The glass shatters in the middle and leaves long shards stuck in the sash.

He turns back and faces me. “You’d think a broken window means failure to those who see it from the street. But your payment is an honorable symbol of the agreement. The population stays as it should and the town is better off financially.”

Payment. I keep the word in my mind as I move my feet to the window. Mr. Thomas dons a thick leather glove in his right hand, grasps the back of my neck, and pushes my head out the window. My throat is inches above the shards.

Sobs and wails emit behind me. “Let me hug her, please,” Mom cries out. “Let me say goodbye.”

“You know the rules. The agreement has no room for emotion.” His warm breath wafts over my neck. “It’s all about payment owed.”

Payment. For them. For my family. They’ll be safe. For now.

I close my eyes. His hand tightens on my neck and shoves it down.


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, dialogue, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to a person, living or deceased, events, or locations is purely coincidental.

The idea for this story came from a “what if” scenario involving a millionaire who owned a town and everyone in it as the result of a signed agreement to keep everyone financially secure. What would happen if one person per year was killed by the millionaire so that there would be one less mouth to feed? This story might remind you of “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, which is about an annual tradition in a small community where one person is selected via lottery and killed in order to ensure the harvest will be good that year.

Brain Fruit (Light horror)

Brain Fruit (Light horror)

“It’s called what?” I leaned in and peered at the seed packet in Cara’s hand. We’d just eaten and were settling onto the couch in our apartment when Cara pulled the packet from her purse.

“Brain Fruit,” she said, tapping on the packet instructions with one manicured nail. “See, it grows best in sunlight or strong natural window light. So a person just needs to be in a room with lots of windows.”

“Huh.” I set down my wine on the coffee table. I was on my third glass and having a hard time processing what I was reading on the seed packet. “Needs no direct watering, but be sure to drink lots of fluids. Plant three seeds per brain.” I leaned back on the couch. “Wait. Per brain?”

“Because then you thin the seedlings to the strongest plant, see. Just like regular seedlings.” Cara turned the packet over to show me a drawing of a person’s head with what looked like broccoli growing from the top. From the stem’s crown hung half a dozen grayish-red orbs on green tendrils. The illustration would have been funny if not for the slack, stoned expression on the man’s face, his eyes half closed.

“Wait,” I said, pointing to the label. “This is self-hypnosis. It says, ‘Plant powerful seeds of suggestion in your mind.’ Maybe it’s about positive affirmations. Must be a marketing thing. Did you pick it up from one of the tables at the job fair you went to today?”

“Yes.” Cara looked inside the packet, then folded down the top. “Sure looks like real seeds. It even says the brains take about 62 days to ripen.” She tossed it onto the coffee table and refilled both our wine glasses, emptying the bottle. “I wouldn’t mind trying it, though, Jess. I could use more brains.”

I laughed, but Cara’s expression held no mirth. She’d been laid off her job a month ago due to budget cuts and was feeling useless at the moment, especially since she’d been finishing up their five-day company retreat in the deep woods where she’d slept in a tent and participated in daily team building activities. On the last day of the retreat, most of the employees had been informed that the company was downsizing and they’d be let go.

“Look, you have all the brains you need, lady,” I said, and clinked my glass with hers in a toast. “It was about budget, not intelligence.”

“Yeah, but they kept certain people for a special fast track to promotion,” she said. “I wasn’t selected for it. Maybe I didn’t do fly fishing well enough, or it could be because I screamed all the way down the zipline.”

I had no insight into this since I didn’t work for the same company she did. We’d been apartment roomies for six months and found we both liked cooking gourmet food, watching old movies, and drinking good wine. I patted her arm. “You’ll find something. It’s all about politics and who you know.”

“I guess.” She didn’t look convinced.

When Cara went off to bed a little later, I opened the packet to see about a dozen of what must be the tiniest seeds on the planet. If they were even seeds. They looked like specks of black dust that could float away on the slightest breeze.

I read over the rest of the instructions although the wine I’d consumed made the words somewhat blurry. Dig a hole in top of head approximately 7 mm deep. Plant three seeds and thin to 1 strong seedling when 2 inches tall. Stalk grows up to 1 ft and produces juicy, round fruit approx. 2.5 inch in diameter. Eat right off the stalk for an instant pick-me-up, slice over cereal, or process into juice, jam, or jelly. Makes a smart snack for work or school. For recipes, check our website!

I scoffed and shook my head. The whole idea of a fruit plant growing out of a person’s brain was clever but disgusting. It had to be a marketing ploy by the self-hypnosis company to play off the idea of planting the seeds of suggestion. The website address was at the bottom of the seed packet, but I was too tired to check it now. I’d do it in the morning after I’d had my coffee, if I had time before leaving for work. I set the packet on the coffee table and crawled into bed.

The next morning, I’d gotten off the train and had almost reached my workplace before I remembered to check the website on the seed packet. What was it? Something with the word ‘mindfulness’ in it. At my desk, I searched for sites that had anything to do with mindfulness and planting seeds of suggestion. I found the one I thought might be from the packet, and glanced over it. As expected, the company sold audios for self-hypnosis as well as items for meditation: crystals, music, mats and cushions, oils, singing bowls, and candles, among other items meant to help send a person into deep meditation. The seed packets were a promotional item to give to gardener friends who might need some meditation in their lives. Clever idea. I’d have to show Cara the site when I got home today. Maybe she could get into some meditation to help her relax while she looked for another job.

After an afternoon of web development planning meetings, I left the building at around six pm and headed to the grocery store to pick up ingredients to make chocolate ganache truffles for dessert tonight. Cara would be putting together dinner, and I was in charge of dessert. Of course, if she needed to budget her expenses, I’d pay her back. I needed to remember to tell her that. She’d seemed so down last night.

I opened the apartment door and stood in the entryway.

Cara had apparently done some research on relaxation or meditation. Candles sat on the side tables, coffee table, and along the floor of the hall leading to our bedrooms. Soft, ambient music floated from Cara’s bedroom. A scent in the air — had to be sage — wafted throughout the apartment.

I smiled and took the bag of groceries into the kitchen and set it on the counter. Cara apparently hadn’t started preparations for dinner. “Hey, Cara,“ I called out. “I got stuff for dessert.”

She didn’t reply, which made me think she was sleeping. Or maybe meditating. All the time she’d lived in the apartment with me, I’ve never seen her meditate or heard her talk about it. The candles, the sage scent, and the relaxing music coming from her bedroom were new to me.

I left the kitchen to go to her bedroom. The door was open a crack, so I opened it another inch and peered in. “Cara?”

My view was of her dresser right inside the door. Beyond that was a closet. I couldn’t see Cara, so I opened the door wider and poked in my head. The music was playing, the incense was burning, but Cara was not in her room.

Where was she? I turned away from the door. It could be that she’d left the apartment, maybe to go grocery shopping or job-hunting, or to an interview. But why would he leave incense and candles burning? Talk about a fire hazard.

A few feet further down the hallway was the bathroom, situated an equal distance between our bedrooms. I decided I would check in there, and my bedroom as well, to rule out any possibility of her still being in here.

No Cara.

Growing irritated and alarmed — it wasn’t like her to be so irresponsible — I went around blowing out candles. The incense was too strong, so I put that out too, and then opened a window in the kitchen and another in the living room. Only then did I see two red droplets on the top of one of the light gray armchairs. Blood-red. Fresh.

Heart pounding, my gaze went to the sliding glass door behind the chairs. The drapes were closed. To the right of the drapes was the drawstring to pull them open, and I grasped the string with growing trepidation. Cara was out of a job. She’d been down last night, her hands lying in her lap, her gaze downcast. I glanced at the couch where she’d sat last night, then at the coffee table where we’d looked at the strange seed packet. She thought they really were for a person’s brain.

The seed packet was gone.

I jerked the drapes open, hand over hand, and looked through the glass onto the tiny balcony. Cara sat on one of the blue plastic chairs, scrolling through her phone. My lungs emptied in a sigh of relief. I slid open the door. “You okay?”

She looked up from her phone. She wore sunglasses. “Yeah, fine. Why?”

“There’s blood on the chair.”

“Oh, that.” Cara held up an index finger, the tip wrapped in a bandaid. “I got a little cut when I started on dinner.”

I nodded although the kitchen counters held no signs of food preparation. A waft of incense floated out the door. “What about the candles and stuff? What’s up with all that? Are you into meditation now?”

The corners of her mouth turned down, and I adjusted my tone. “I mean, it’s okay, I don’t care. Just curious.”

“It’s my way of relaxing.” She stood, stumbled. One hand grabbed the balcony rail, and she lowered her head. Her chest rose in a deep breath. “I was feeling kind of depressed, so I got things to help me, okay?”

“No problem.” I stepped out onto the balcony. “Here, take my arm. You look pale.”

She waved me off. “I’m fine. Just got up too fast.”

I stepped aside and watched her trudge through the doorway. She didn’t look fine. She still wore the sunglasses, but what I could see of her face was pinched in a grimace. “Must’ve been a bad cut,” I said. “Mind if I take a look?”

Cara took off her sunglasses and peered at her bandaged finger. “It’s not bad. I’ll get the armchair cleaned, don’t worry. I need to go lie down. Headache.” She turned to go to her bedroom, but not before I saw her bloodshot eyes.

The next few days were strange. Cara rarely left her room. She hadn’t lit the candles or sage again, or played the meditation music. She spoke very little. I couldn’t get her to tell me what was wrong, but figured she was down because she hadn’t been able to find another job. I fixed several meals, but she hardly ate.

We had a long weekend due to a holiday. On Monday I suggested we go to the lake nearby and relax on what they called a beach: a stretch of sand along part of the lakefront that had been modified from its original grassy area, and had beach chairs and grills for cooking out. The ocean was several hours from us, so Todd Lake Beach was as close to a substitute as we could get. Poor man’s beach, people called it, but it was kept clean and family-oriented. I’d half expected Cara to refuse, but she raised her head from her pillow and said yes.

Her eyes. In the sunlight their redness was pronounced, and her brown irises seemed to have darkened almost to black. She put on her sunglasses as soon as we got into the car and left them on all afternoon.

We’d found two empty lounge chairs over on the far side of the beach, and had settled in to bask in the sun. After twenty minutes or so, I looked over at Cara’s slack face and wondered if she’d gone to sleep.

“Cara? Want to go into the water?” I asked.

She didn’t answer. Her mouth opened a bit, and she sighed and turned her head away from me. Yes, she was asleep. I decided not to bother her. Maybe she hadn’t been sleeping well.

I began to stand, but then paused, looking at the back of Cara’s head. Her ash-blond roots had started to show through the burgundy dye she’d kept up on her hair. A scab, small and rust-colored, showed through right behind the crown. It was about the size of a pencil eraser, easy to miss in her thick curls.

I leaned in closer, trying to get a better look, but Cara shifted in her sleep and the scab was hidden from view again. A shiver ran down my spine as I sat back down. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off with Cara. Her behavior had been strange since Friday, and now this scab on her head. Was it related to the seed packet? Had she actually tried to hurt herself? I had to find out what was going on.

When Cara woke up, we went for a walk along the beach. I waited for the right moment to bring up my concerns. “Cara, can we talk?”

“Sure,” she said.

“I’m worried about you. You’ve been acting strange lately, and now I noticed a scab on your head. Is everything okay?”

Cara’s face darkened, and she looked away. “It’s nothing, really. Just a cut from my scissors. I was giving myself a trim.”

“Does this have anything to do with that seed packet you picked up at the job fair?”

“What seed packet?”

“The one that has that weird drawing of a guy on the front with a plant growing out of his head. I haven’t seen it since Friday night. Did you do something with it?”

Cara let out a sigh and pushed back her bags with her fingers. “Okay, fine. I did try the seeds. I didn’t think they would do anything, but it was worth a try. I passed out for a couple of minutes, but it’s healing fast.”

My steps faltered. “What do you mean, you tried them? And passed out? What did you do?”

“I followed the instructions.” She shrugged. “It was easy enough.”

I had stopped completely by then. Two kids trotted by kicking a red and blue beach ball. The sun blazed down on my head and shoulders. But I shivered. “You drilled a hole in your head…”

“More like poked the top of my head with a hammer and a nail. A little nail. Just a tiny hole. No big deal.”

She looked so tired, so nonchalant. I trembled as I reached for her arm. “You put those seeds into your brain, didn’t you. It wasn’t real. The seed packet was a joke. Oh God. Cara.”

Now she laughed a little. “I don’t think the nail reached my brain. After the first hit with the hammer, everything went black. And I didn’t even hit that hard. I would never intentionally hurt myself.”

“But you did hurt yourself, Cara.”

She took off her sunglasses and looked into my eyes. “I’m fine, Jess. Really. After I woke up with a headache and saw the blood in the tub, I decided to sprinkle the seeds into the hole I’d made as best I could. Most of them disappeared into my hair and the tub, but maybe some went in there. My head still hurts, but I’ll be okay.”

“Let’s at least go see a doctor. You may have cracked your skull. The wound might be getting infected.”

Cara shrugged off my arm. “Maybe. I’ll see how I feel in a few days. I can’t exactly afford any medical expenses right now.”

I was about to protest, but Cara’s bloodshot eyes had grown distant, as if she was lost in thought. Or about to faint. “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Everything just feels… off. Like something’s watching me, or following me. I keep hearing whispers, but no one’s there.” She shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. “I’m probably just paranoid, but I can’t help feeling like something’s not right.”

I put a comforting arm around her shoulder. “It’s the wind in the trees. And kids are yelling. And don’t forget you have a head injury. Think about getting it checked, okay?”

I didn’t show it, but my own paranoia of Cara’s actions made me want to move out of the apartment. I knew I wouldn’t, though, not right now. I’d see this through and make sure she was okay. I just didn’t know how she could have done this to herself. She was a bright, intelligent woman. She must be depressed. And desperate.

That night, as I lay in bed, I heard Cara in her bedroom, muttering in her sleep.

This wasn’t unusual — she often talked in her sleep — but this time, she sounded agitated. Scared. I got up and turned on the hall light, then went to her room and gently pushed open the door.

Cara lay on her back, her head hanging off the side of the bed and facing me. Her face was pinched, her lips tight as she murmured the same phrase over and over.

“Feed it, feed it, feed it.”

I opened the door wider to let in more light, then stepped into the room, intending to make her more comfortable, to try to move her so that her head was on the pillow.

When I touched her shoulder, she sat straight up. Her back was to me now, and her head hung back, eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling. “Feed feed feed feed feed,” she repeated, voice high, urgent.

“Cara. What the hell. Wake up.” I took her shoulders and tried to turn her. Abruptly her mouth opened wide, and then she screamed.

I pulled away in shock. My foot hit the corner of her nightstand and I lost my balance. I crashed onto the floor, landing on my wrist, and cried out as hot pain shot up my arm.

Cara had now turned her body so that her legs dangled off the bed, and she stared at me, looking wide awake. “Jess? What are you doing?”

“My wrist,” I said on a moan. “I fell on it. You were having a nightmare.”

“Oh, no.” Cara stood, then fell back onto the bed and put her hands over the sides of her head. “I’m feeling really dizzy.”

I tentatively moved my wrist. No bones broken, I thought, but I’d definitely sprained it. “I need ice.”

Holding my wrist with my other hand, I went into the kitchen and got an ice pack from the freezer. I wrapped the pack in a towel, then rummaged through the linen closet where we kept first aid supplies. I found a bandage and wrapped my wrist as best as I could. Cara had remained quiet, and I wondered if she’d gone back to sleep. However, when I returned to look in on her, she had turned on the lamp and sat up against her pillows.

I held the icepack to my throbbing wrist. I had difficulty keeping the distress from my voice as I told her how I’d found her hanging off the bed and muttering something about feeding. “Something’s not right, Cara. You need to get help.”

Cara looked down at her lap and shook her head. “No, I can’t tell anyone. They’ll think I’m crazy.”

“But you need to do something. You can’t just ignore this. Go to an urgent care facility now. Have someone look at your wound. It’s probably getting infected.”

She looked up at me then, and her eyes had narrowed. “I can handle this on my own.”

“Let me at least check the wound. And take your temperature. You could have a fever.”

“I said no,” she said, her tone adamant. “Leave me alone. I’m fine.”

She was a grown woman, so I didn’t argue. “Just let me know what you want to do,” I said, and she nodded.

I stayed with her for a few more minutes, and then took a pain reliever and went back to bed. In the morning, she remained asleep as I made coffee one-handed and then fumbled with a bowl of cereal before leaving for work. I’d unwrapped the bandage around my wrist before my shower and was alarmed at the swelling and angry purple color. I could still bend it a little, so it must be a bad sprain. I thought I’d better go to the doctor after my morning meeting.

Cara was in the kitchen cooking when I returned from work. She’d put together a meal, and seemed more upbeat than I’d seen her in days. She smiled at me, then frowned at my wrist.

“It’s just a sprain,” I said. “The doctor put a brace on it.”

“I caused that,” Cara said. “I’m so sorry, Jess. Are you in any pain?”

I waved away her apology with my good arm. “No. The doctor gave me some pain meds. It’s all good.” Cara’s hair was greasy, and I was sure those wrinkled clothes she was wearing were the same she’d worn yesterday and maybe slept in last night. But she was smiling, and I hadn’t seen her do that in over a week. “Hey, looks like you’re feeling better,” I said.

“Yes, better than I was.” She touched her mouth, then tapped her chin with one finger. “Although I feel so nervous for some reason. Like, on edge. I don’t know why. And I still have a headache, but the spot is healing where I put the nail. That was stupid, I know.”

I shrugged. “You’re between jobs, maybe feeling lost. I’ve been there, believe me. As soon as you get settled into a new job, you’ll be fine.”

She might be even better if she got her head examined. It was rude of me to think that way, but something was definitely off about the person I’d lived with and gotten to know over the last six months. I hoped she’d get it together soon, maybe get some therapy. I sure didn’t want a repeat of what had happened last night.

I fixed the chocolate ganache truffles for dessert that I’d planned for last Friday and never got around to doing, and we enjoyed a normal meal. Well, almost normal, since Cara didn’t want any wine and didn’t talk much. This was unusual, but understandable since she wasn’t feeling good. In fact, since I’d come home, she’d grown more pale except for bright spots of color on her cheeks, and her eyes were even more bloodshot. She also kept glancing over her shoulder, then up to the ceiling and to the far wall.

“Something’s watching me,” she finally said. “I know it.”

The curtains were closed against the evening. “No one is here. Just me.” I stood. “I’ll put everything away. Why don’t you go relax on the couch, and we’ll watch a movie.” I would have suggested she take her temperature, but reminded myself again that she was an adult who could make her own decisions.

“Okay. Yeah.”

Cara got up and turned toward the living room as I reached across the table to pick up her plate. I froze.

“Wait. What is that?” I stared at the back of her head. “Cara,” I said on a breath. “There’s something…”

She turned back to me. “What?”

“Your head. Something is moving.”

Cara touched the top of her head.

“No,” I said. “The back. Where the scab is.”

“There’s another scab?” She put her fingers behind her head, and flinched. “What the hell?”

I rushed around the table to get a better look. Cara was breathing in harsh, shallow pants as I parted her hair.

A small, wriggling black lump poked out of the scab on her head. It pulsed as if trying to get out.

I put my hand over my mouth. “It’s…it’s a worm. Coming out of your head.”

Cara whimpered and ran to the bathroom. I followed. She clenched a hand mirror and looked at the back of her head in the medicine cabinet mirror. She gasped. “Get it out. Get it out, get it out!”

“Hold on.” I unwound a wad of toilet paper from the roll and gently tried to tug the thing out, but it wouldn’t budge. “Hold still,” I said, horrified. “This might hurt.”

She winced as I tugged again. The worm slid from the wound with a small sucking sound. About an inch long, it was moving frantically in the tissue.

“What the fuck is that?” Cara cried out, her voice shaking.

“I don’t know,” I said, trying to keep my composure. Bile rose to my throat. “But we need to get you to a doctor. Now.”

Cara nodded. Her face had lost all color. I drove her to the emergency room, where they admitted her immediately.

As we waited for the doctor to examine her, Cara held my hand tightly, her eyes wide with fear. I tried to comfort her, but I was just as terrified as she was. What had really been in that seed packet?

After the doctor finally came in and looked at the worm I’d brought along in a zip-lock bag, he then examined Cara’s head and gave her a grim look. “You’ve been infected with a parasitic worm known as a botfly,” he said. “But that’s not the biggest issue here. Your skull is injured, right on top of your head. I’m ordering a CT scan of your brain so we can see the extent of the damage.” He left and came back a moment later. “You’ll be taken up to imaging shortly. Can you tell me what happened? How you injured your head?”

“I hit my head on a sharp object,” Cara said. “I thought it would be okay.”

It was the truth, although she didn’t add that the sharp object had actually been a nail she’d driven into her scalp with a hammer.

“How did the worm get in there?” I asked.

“It can happen when the botfly lays its eggs on mosquitoes or other insects that then bite humans. The eggs hatch under the skin and develop into larvae. They feed off the host’s flesh until they’re fully grown and ready to emerge, usually after about thirty days.”

“Thirty days? But I hurt my head just a week ago.” Cara looked at me, eyes wide. “Wait a minute. The company retreat last month. We were in the woods and on a lake. Tons of insects everywhere.”

The doctor nodded. “It happens, but usually to animals more than people.” He examined the rest of Cara’s scalp carefully. “We’ll see if there are any more surprises, but I want to see what’s going on with this injury.”

What about the seeds from the packet? Were there any still in her wound? I wanted to ask, to tell the doctor everything. But one look from Cara made me keep my mouth shut.

Cara was taken up to get the CT scan, and I returned to the waiting room. Later, I was called to a room where Cara sat on the hospital bed wringing her hands. “More doctors were called in,” she said. “They found something weird.”

“More worms?”

“No. Something at the spot where I hit myself with the nail.”

“Cara,” I said, and took her hand. “What did you do with the seed packet after you emptied it?”

“Threw it away,” she said.

“We should let the company that put out that packet know what happened,” I said. “Maybe other people really think those are seeds for the brain.”

“That’s just it,” she said, and looked toward the curtain that had been drawn across the tiny recovery room space where we sat. “They saw the seeds in the CT scan. Two of them. And they’ve sprouted. I have roots growing in my head.”

I sat back. This was serious. But then I pictured stalks growing out of Cara’s head along with some buzzing botflies. “Do you still feel like you could use more brains? Looks like you may have the chance of growing some.”

Cara smiled through her worried expression. “If they can clean me up, I’ll never do anything stupid like this again.”

The curtain opened, and Cara was wheeled to the operating room.

One month later

I got home from work carrying two bags of groceries. Cara was in the kitchen making a tossed salad, and offered me a glass of Chardonnay. Her head was healing from the operation to remove all traces of the sprouting seeds. The shaved area around her scalp now showed a fuzz of fine, ash-blond hair.

“How did the interview with the Mindfulness Company go?” I asked, putting away the groceries.

“It went well. I told them about the surgery, was upfront about the reason for it and how I’d be out of commission for another two weeks. They said they can work with my timeframe. I’m expecting to hear something tomorrow.”

“Fantastic!” I said. “And what about the reports on the news? Does that bother the CEO?”

“Well, being as the CEO is the one who pushed for the marketing of those stupid seed packets, I got the impression that she’s happy with the publicity, but she took them off the market. I guess we’ll never know how the media got hold of the story. It will fade out, though. People will forget I was Cara the Human Greenhouse.”

Someone at the hospital had let slip that a woman had inserted seeds into her scalp, misconstruing a marketing campaign about planting seeds of suggestion in one’s mind through self-hypnosis. Cara’s brief interview with the local media as she left the hospital after surgery had made the national news.

I sipped my wine. “And the book offer?”

“Turned it down,” she said. “Mindfulness offered a salary that doubles what I was making at the other tech company. A tell-all book would reflect negatively on my new workplace, I think. Oh, and they promised there would be no deep-woods company retreats, only those held in a convention hotel.”

She picked up her glass of wine and we toasted to her successful operation, her new job, and our deepening friendship.

And any seed packet brought home would definitely be sprinkled into soil.

 


This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, dialogue, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to a person, living or deceased, events, or locations is purely coincidental.

The idea for this story came from an email I received about self-hypnosis. The title had to do with planting powerful seeds of suggestions into one’s mind. It made me wonder if an actual seed would take root in someone’s nutrient-rich brain if planted in the top of the head with a drilled hole in the skull, much like poking a hole in the dirt and dropping in the seed. The rest was my version of what happened.