Where Nothing Good Will Grow

Still dark as she makes her way up the dirt road, grav­el crunch­ing under­foot, each child’s hand in her own as she steers them around mud pud­dles, keeps them clear of the under­brush along its sides, the bri­ars and pos­si­ble snakes, to wait with them where the dirt road inter­sects with Coun­ty Road 10.

Soon enough the school bus appears around a bend in the road, blink­ing amber lights becom­ing blink­ing red lights, and a sign extends out from the side of the bus, STOP, even though there are no oth­er vehi­cles on the road this ear­ly, no oth­er hous­es with­in a half-mile. The doors fold open, and the inte­ri­or of the bus is dark, dark­er than the pre-dawn night out­side, all except for the area around the bus’s dri­ver, old Ms. Thomp­son, her face witch-lit by the green glow of the dash­board lights.

“Good morn­ing, Ms. Tasha,” the old woman says.

“Morn­ing, Ms. Thomp­son,” she answers back reflex­ive­ly, the same as she did back when she used to board the bus, back when the not-quite-so-old lady used to dri­ve her to school.

The bus dri­ver says her good morn­ings to the chil­dren as well and Kendra speaks right up, answers the lady right back, just like she has been taught, but she has to pop Jay-Bird on the back of his head, remind him of his man­ners. He is a shy boy, she knows, and she instant­ly regrets her harsh­ness, but she has no time for fool­ery. Not this morning.

She gives them each a kiss, and to make up for things, to say that she is sor­ry, she gives Jay-Bird a brief hug. “You are a good boy,” she says and push­es him onboard, up the bus steps, after his sis­ter. She feels exhaust­ed already and the day only just begun. Lov­ing her chil­dren is the hard­est thing she has ever known.

They wave to her as the bus pulls away and she makes her­self stand there and wave back, a smile on her face the same as any oth­er morn­ing, like she has noth­ing to do but go back to the house, clean up the break­fast dish­es, do laun­dry, and try and see to the rest of the chores before her shift starts at the din­er down by the inter­state, but it is hard. The moment the bus is out of sight, once it dis­ap­pears around a bend in the road, she turns on her heels and hur­ries back the way she came.

She does not quite run, but walks fast, walks hard. She wants to run. She strug­gles to reign her­self in, to not give her­self over to aban­don. She’s afraid of what would hap­pen if she did. She has to think of the life she has built, is try­ing to hold onto now that James has run off, left them with­out so much as a word. The house that is hers, the car. And, she has to think of the chil­dren. Always, and for­ev­er it seems, she must con­sid­er the children.

She loves them. God knows she does. But, some­times it is hard not to feel… bur­dened by them. Hard not to think, to her shame, how it would feel to not be bur­dened by them, about how things might be dif­fer­ent with­out them. How then she might be free.

Sil­ly thoughts and no time for them. She shakes her head to clear them away. She has to find a way to care for her fam­i­ly and to have what she desires.

And, maybe, just maybe, she has.

The yard in front of the house no more than churned up Flori­da dirt, and she can’t help but frown as she cross­es it in long, quick strides. She always want­ed a green, grassy lawn. Lord knows, she tried to grow one, every spring buy­ing a new mix of grass seed. None of them ever took, though, or not for long.

She gave up this year, think­ing the place, in its own way, cursed. Noth­ing can flour­ish here, she had thought, not a mar­riage, not a soul. The only thing to do, she had decid­ed, was to be like the stunt­ed weeds that sprang up in place of the grass. Best to let grow what would grow and let that be enough. To be con­tent with what she had. No point in dreams of lush, green lawns.

Noth­ing beau­ti­ful, she thought, will grow here, noth­ing good.

Now, she knows better.

The front screen door has bare­ly slapped shut behind her before she is through the house and out the back­door. Nev­er mind any of the hun­dreds of chores she nev­er seems to have time enough to do. She has no inten­tion of see­ing to any of them. She bare­ly gives the eggy plates on the din­ing table or the greasy skil­let on the stove so much as a pass­ing glance.

There is a card­board box to the left of the back­door, snugged up against the out­side of the house. The box does catch her eye, does cause her to pause, to con­sid­er. She puts her hands on her hips and stares at it. She stares hard. Emo­tions skit­ter across her face like the anoles that skit­ter across the back porch. Fear, hope, revul­sion, joy. Sad­ness. All there and gone in an instant. Final­ly, her expres­sion set­tles into one of firm resolve.

She bends down and scoops the box up, tucks it firm­ly under one arm, and recom­mences her march, down the back steps, across the back­yard, and to the tree line. The ris­ing sun shines through the trees and seems to beck­on her onward.

There is a trail there, there has always been a trail there, but over the last few days, her feet have defined it, the pas­sage of her body, walk­ing back and forth along it, has pushed the veg­e­ta­tion back, opened the trail up. It snakes its way into the pine flat­woods, weaves through the pal­met­tos, con­stant­ly dis­ap­pears and reap­pears beneath her feet. At first, it had been hard to fol­low, she’d had to pay close atten­tion or risk los­ing it, but now the way is as clear to her as a city sidewalk.

About a half a mile from the house there is a sink­hole and the trail goes around it, skirts its crum­bling, lime­stone edges, and she stays well to the far side of the trail, away from the sink­hole because she has on inten­tion of falling down into it. She’s seen pic­tures of oth­er kinds of sink­holes in Flori­da. Ones filled with clear, blue water, icy pale on the sur­face, deep as cobalt below, but that’s not how this one is. This one is marshy, full of thick, mud­dy water and choked with cat­tails and vines.

She used to imag­ine what might be down there at the bot­tom of the sink­hole, what could be there. No telling, she had thought, it could be some­thing new, some­thing nev­er before seen by mankind. She had seen news reports about new species being dis­cov­ered in places just like the sink­hole. It hap­pened all the time.

Some­times, in the evenings, she had come out, sat by the the sink­hole, and hoped to see… some­thing. Had hoped, peri­od. For some­thing, any­thing, new to come into her life. Even if it was not beau­ti­ful, even if it was just some sort of foul spi­der or lizard, blind and pale, crawled up from beneath the waters of that can­cer­ous, rot­ten hole in the earth, she would not have cared. Not as long as it was new to the world, her world.

Noth­ing ever did crawl out of the sink­hole. Even­tu­al­ly, she had chid­ed her­self for indulging in such child­ish fan­tasies. For think­ing any­thing could or would ever change in her life. She had felt a fool for think­ing there was even any point to look­ing for any change in her life, for any­thing new, and had giv­en up.

Now, as she pass­es by where she used to sit, she smiles. I was right, she thinks. I was right to look. I was! If I’d only known… I was only look­ing in the wrong place!

On the far side of the sink­hole, the woods close in, become more jun­gle-like. The rel­a­tive­ly open envi­ron­ment of the flat­woods, with its pines and pal­met­tos, is replaced by one dom­i­nat­ed by scrub oak and ty-ty, waxed myr­tle and sweet bay. There is a swamp not far off, she knows, what the local crack­ers call a “bay.” She does not know how big it is, only that it stretch­es on and on into the depths of the for­est, for miles and miles.

She has nev­er entered the swamp and she is not about to. Where she is going lies at the swamp’s soft, putres­cent edge, and even if she did not know ever twist and turn in the trail like the back of her own hand by now, she would know that she was close to her destination.

She can tell by the smell. Not of the swamp. But, of it.

Even from a fair dis­tance, she can smell its aro­ma. There is a cer­tain musk­i­ness in the air, as if a skunk had recent­ly passed that way, but with a rich­er, more com­plex scent. The smell grows stronger as it leads her to its source, just as it first led her from the edge of the sink­hole, days ago now. It is heady and sweet. Rot­ten but aro­mat­ic. The smell makes her drool with hunger. She wants to feast. She wants to vomit.

The smell effects oth­er parts of her body than her stom­ach. She grows dizzy from the pow­er­ful­ness of the scent. She feels parts of her body loosen, moist­en. Good, God, she wants to fuck.

Her heart pounds in her chest. She can­not reign her­self in any longer. She begins to walk fast, faster, to almost run. Limbs and low-hang­ing vines scratch her face, grab at her shirt. She bat­tens them away with her free hand, the one not clutch­ing the box, but does not real­ly care about a few scratch­es, does not feel the sting of a few scrapes. She is focused, intent on her destination.

Final­ly, she stum­bles into a clear­ing at the edge of the swamp and col­laps­es to her knees, head hung low, her eyes closed. She has arrived.

This close, the smell is so thick the air almost has a phys­i­cal­i­ty to it. It feels like a wet, woolen blan­ket wrapped around her. The smell is so strong that it makes it hard to focus, to think.

She remem­bers the one time she smoked pot in high school. She feels like she did then, like she is some­how behind her­self. Like she is watch­ing her­self think, feel, react to every­thing that hap­pens, only a few sec­onds after it has already hap­pened. Like she is catch­ing up, get­ting clos­er to now, but nev­er quite. Like she has lost all con­trol of her actions. Like she can only watch and wait to see what happens.

She opens her eyes, slow­ly rais­es her head. It is right before her, the source of the hor­rid, won­der­ful smell. She smiles a slop­py grin and rais­es her arms in exaltation.

It reminds her of a mas­sive aloe plant, only dif­fer­ent. Thick, fleshy leaves are mound­ed up around the open, cen­tral core of the plant. Spiky pro­tru­sions line the edges of the leaves, but they seem soft and not thorn-like at all. The leaves them­selves also look soft, flac­cid even, and not rigid like those of an aloe or any oth­er suc­cu­lent plant she knows of.

She could touch the leaves, find out for her­self how they feel, she is close enough now. She wants to. She wants to stroke the plant, maybe even lick the plant, but does not. Even in her present, altered state, she knows that might be dangerous.

She can sense that the plant wants to be touched. It prac­ti­cal­ly oozes sen­su­al­i­ty, the likes of which she has nev­er before felt, not alone nor with anoth­er per­son. Cer­tain­ly not with James. The plant hungers for affec­tion. Hungers for her. Still, she must be care­ful. Who knows what the cost of such a love might be?

As she watch­es, a stalk ris­es from the inner folds of the plant, grows from out of its hol­low core. The leaves begin to quiver and sub­tly writhe like ten­ta­cles as the stalk inch­es up, up, up like a periscope, until it looms above her. The growth slows, stops, and the stalk becomes rigid. Pur­ple veins that mot­tle the green skin of the stalk begin to pulse. The bul­bous tip at the end of the stalk twitch­es, enlarges, opens up and spreads out like wings. A flower begins to bloom.

She gasps at the showy dis­play. Her grin becomes an open-mouthed expres­sion of pure delight, of awe. Magen­ta-col­ored nod­ules begin to form beneath the flower. Is the plant fruit­ing? She believes so. What would such fruit taste like, she won­ders? She has to know. The antic­i­pa­tion she feels is tan­ta­liz­ing. Her nip­ples throb, painful­ly, won­der­ful­ly. With­out real­iz­ing it, she begins to grind her hips in time with the puls­ing veins on the stalk of the plant.

The petals of the flower fan out like the tale of a pea­cock. The nod­ules become larg­er, but also dark­er, more ripe. She is lost in the thick­en­ing mias­ma, the rare, sweet, stink­ing atmos­phere sur­round­ing the plant. She can feel the aura of the plant, a field of ener­gy that extends beyond its phys­i­cal form, weak, but, she is cer­tain, very much there, pen­e­trate her, touch her guts, her heart, her womb. There is a feel­ing of ris­ing with­in her, of quick­en­ing. She…

It is gone. The feel­ings with­in her. The antic­i­pa­tion. The stalk above her droops. The flower petals, only moments ago a snowy, vir­ginal white, devel­op a dingy, yel­low tinge. The vis­i­ble puls­ing of the thick, knot­ted veins lin­ing the stalk slow, stop.

Pan­icked, she tries des­per­ate­ly to think of what to do. The same thing hap­pened the day before. At first, she had thought the plant was no longer aroused by her, that it found her unat­trac­tive, unsa­vory. That it had reject­ed her.

She had felt crushed emo­tion­al­ly, deject­ed. Then she had seen how wilt­ed the plant looked, how… tired.

Clear­ly, the plant was attempt­ing to bond with her, but, just as clear­ly now, it does not have the ener­gy to com­plete its alien inter­course. She does not think it has to do with the envi­ron­ment in which it grows. The plant gets plen­ty of sun. It rains in Flori­da almost every day this time of year. And, the soil along the edge of the swamp is black and rich. What then?

She looks at the box beside her, the one she brought from the house. She dropped it in her haste, for­got it. Nois­es come from inside. The plant obvi­ous­ly has needs unlike those of nor­mal plants. Maybe it hungers for more than light, water, and soil. For more than affec­tion. She has heard of car­niv­o­rous plants. Maybe that is it. Maybe it is hun­gry. Maybe it is starv­ing.

She pulls the box over to her, pries open the flaps she criss­crossed to keep it sealed.

The kit­tens inside look up at her expec­tant­ly. She found them in the ditch up by Coun­ty Road 10, their moth­er run over, her eyes wide in final sur­prise, her innards a long, pink, ropey smear on the asphalt. She thought to keep them as pets for the chil­dren, pest con­trol for the house. They mew soft­ly to her. They are hun­gry, weak. They have come to think of her as their moth­er. They expect her to feed them.

She lifts them from the box by the napes of their peach-fuzzed necks, one to each hand. Their eyes are still the grey-blue, soft flan­nel col­or of eyes only recent­ly opened to the world, not yet dark­ened by expe­ri­ence. She stands and care­ful­ly, war­i­ly, walks up to the plant.

She keeps a cau­tious eye on the stalks that sag above her head, on the meaty, twitch­ing leaves, as she holds the kit­tens out at arms length. With­out think­ing, with­out giv­ing her­self time to feel, she drops them into the basin-like ori­fice at the cen­ter of the plant.

She hears a splash as one of the kit­tens hits the bot­tom, fol­lowed the oth­er. Then noth­ing. No sounds from the kit­tens. No reac­tion from the plant. She nar­rows her eyes, fur­rows her brows. She frowns. She lean close to the plant, peers over the humped, sag­ging ten­ta­cle-like leaves, into the plant’s secret core. Only dark­ness. Maybe she was wrong, maybe…

The kit­tens scream out in pierc­ing, tor­tured agony. She gasps, draws back, but before she can do more than that, before she can even think to step back or turn away, the plant comes alive. It lives.

She is blown back, hurled from her feet by an explo­sive, wind-like release of unchecked pow­er. She lands heav­i­ly on her back and the breath is knocked from her lungs. Her eyes close. Every­thing goes black for a moment. When she opens her eyes, the world is dark­er than it should be, dark­er than it was only moments before. The clear blue sky that had come with the wak­ing day is gone.

She groans and lifts her head. The plant is there, mas­sive­ly erect. Every bit of it quiv­ers and writhes, an undu­lat­ing mass of move­ment. It is filled with light. Neon col­ors surge through glow­ing leaves and up the throb­bing stalk like pink, green, blue, and red arcs of elec­tri­cal cur­rent. Above, the flower is in full bloom and lit like the sun, cast­ing a daz­zling spray of the purest, whitest light.

Ecsta­t­ic ener­gy, almost vis­i­ble in its inten­si­ty, flows out of the plant in waves and wash­es over her. She throws back her head and moans. She spreads her legs wide as she lies prone before the plant. The ener­gy enters her, fills her. More desire than she has ever known builds with­in her body.

Enrap­tured, she still has enough pres­ence of mind to notice that the world around her has grown dark­er still. She glances to her left and no longer sees a famil­iar landscape.

There are plants there, out in the shad­ows cast by her plant’s radi­ance, but they do not belong in the pine flat­woods or swampy scrub­land of Florida.

It seems like there is some­thing wrong with them, these plants. They seem unfin­ished, not ful­ly real­ized. It also seems to her, and she does not know why, that they, these plants that look like an artist’s sketch, or like they were drawn by a child, have all turned her way, noticed her. That they want her to notice them.

It seems like they need her to make them real.

Before she can explore the thought any fur­ther, her plant demands her atten­tion. The snaps of col­ored light now move through the plant more quick­ly. She moves her hips in time. She watch­es as the fruit below the flower ripen into heavy, hang­ing berries. They swell and swell. They are going to burst, spat­ter her with their juice. She can­not con­tain her desire. She wails and pleads for what is to come. She and the plant are about to be rap­tur­ous­ly trans­port­ed to anoth­er world, she knows this now, to its world, a new world. She is almost there, she is about to…

The lights go out. She finds her­self  lying in the dirt, buck­ing her hips before a wilt­ed, sick­ly thing. She blinks.

Above her, there is only blue sky. The morn­ing is qui­et, most­ly. Birds twit­ter in the brush. Emo­tions coarse through her. Dis­ap­point­ment. Anger. Sad­ness. She wants to scream, but she does not. She smiles. It is okay. It will be okay. She is calm. She picks her­self up, dusts off her sweat-slicked skin.

She looks at the plant, and then back the way from which she came. Towards the house, towards her life. The life she has scraped togeth­er and fought for, has des­per­ate­ly tried to hold onto. It does not seem to mean much to her right now, after what she has expe­ri­enced. For so long, she has want­ed some­thing, any­thing new in her life. Any­thing to make her feel again, care again. The plant has giv­en her that, and more. Not only has it brought some­thing new to her world, it has brought a whole new world to her. A world just for her.

She wants to go to that world. She will go to that world. The plant only needs to be fed some­thing big­ger, offered a more sub­stan­tial… Sac­ri­fice. It needs the ener­gy of more than two flea-bit­ten kit­tens to pow­er it, to allow it to cli­max and open the way to the world she glimpsed. She knows this to be true.

And, what is to stop her? Who is to care if she up and disappears?

The chil­dren. In her excite­ment, she for­got her own chil­dren. She has always want­ed the best for them, the best she could man­age, any­way. Her head hangs down. She can feel tears burn­ing her eyes. She wants, no, needs to expe­ri­ence all of the delights the plant has to offer, all that it promis­es, but she has to think of the children.

She loves them, God knows she does, but some­times it is hard to not feel bur­dened by them. And, real­ly, what does she have to offer them? What will become of their lives but more of the same mis­ery she has known? She has done all that she can for them. Maybe they would be bet­ter off with­out her.

And, any­way, what have they every done for her? When has any­one of any­thing ever done any­thing for her? Only one time. Only just now.

She looks at the plant. It looks more unhealthy than ever, but she knows that it can be healed. It just needs to be fed. It just needs to mate. She is decid­ed. She will be the plants provider, its lover. She will go to her new world. This time, though, she has to make sure she pro­vides the plant with enough nour­ish­ment. She does not know if it will sur­vive anoth­er anti­cli­mac­tic exchange. She does not know if she will.

Her thoughts are a jum­ble. She must hur­ry. First, she has to make sure the chil­dren are cared for. She does not want them to suf­fer. She does not want to leave them to fend for them­selves. It would be best, she thinks, if she had nev­er had them. If they did not exist. Then, she would only have to wor­ry about find­ing a sac­ri­fice large enough to sate the plant’s hunger. But what?

The thought fills her mind. It is awful. It is perfect.

Always, and for­ev­er it seems, she must con­sid­er the children.

What’s scarier than short horror fiction?

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Boyd Logan (he/him) is a career forest/park ranger and out­door adven­tur­er by day and a hor­ror-lov­ing nerd by night. He has trav­eled and lived in most areas of the US but has now set­tled per­ma­nent­ly in the South­ern Appalachians.

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