Elin was supposed to be writing. That was the idea behind her continuing to stay at home even though Henry was in Kindergarten now. With the little guy at school and her schedule clear of other commitments, she should be able to focus and write that novel she’d been talking about so long. Her husband was very supportive of the idea, she had bragged to all her friends. Her friends had all been pleased for her, joking that she’d be the next Stephen King in no time.
But Elin found this was harder than it might seem. All this open time and quiet was hard to concentrate in. Now that she could hear herself think, all she heard was off-channel fuzz. While she’d felt bombarded by ideas she didn’t have time to develop just a month earlier, now all those glowing ideas seemed to evaporate in the open air in her hours of time alone.
She kept handling small errands and taking long neighborhood walks, telling herself she was just cogitating on her ideas, but the truth was that the blank computer screen was just as blank after a solid month of staying home to write. She was frozen. Maybe time hadn’t been the real obstacle all these years. What if she just didn’t have what it took to take an idea and turn it into an actual book?
Staring out the window again, with yet another cup of tea in her hand, Elin saw the across-the-street neighbor, Jeffrey, pull out his riding lawn mower from the garage. She looked at his yard and couldn’t figure out why the man thought he needed to mow. The grass was barely tall enough to even see from her vantage point in the upstairs bedroom window. In fact, she was pretty sure it was less than a week since the man had last mowed.
Maybe retirement wasn’t proving as much fun as he had hoped. Elin remembered standing at the mailbox with Jeffrey last spring, talking about their new endeavors. She and Jeffrey had been friendly, if not actually friends, for all the years Elin and her family had lived in the neighborhood. They talked easily in a surfacey sort of way. Elin was friendly with his wife Barbara too, though she didn’t feel she knew her as well. Barbara was a lawyer or something. She wasn’t home much and she and Elin didn’t have much in common. Elin had always had the feeling that Barbara didn’t approve of her for staying at home and not burning the midnight oil at some high powered job that furthered the cause of women everywhere.
Jeffrey was retiring from his work at the wreckers. He said he was looking forward to sleeping late and taking it easy. “No more middle of the night emergency calls for me!” Barbara still had three more years until she could retire, so Jeffrey would have the house to himself for the first time in more than twenty years. He was understandably excited.
It had been a giddy conversation, both of them excited about the bends in the paths of their lives. She’d told him that she was going to finally write her book, now that Henry was going to school. He’d promised to read it when she finished, now that he’d have time. She’d promised him a preview copy.
Turning back to her computer, Elin sighed. If Jeffrey’s retirement was going as well as her novel, they’d both be crazy by October. Rubbing her temples, Elin tried again to write. She pulled up a planning sheet. She’d been avoiding tools like that, feeling that she should be beyond them, but maybe just answering character and setting questions on a worksheet wasn’t such a bad way to start. At least the page wouldn’t be blank anymore.
As Elin dutifully filled out the information the form asked her for, the sound of Jeffrey’s lawn mower droned in the background. She was surprised to find that she liked the sound. It made a kind of white noise that distracted the panicked part of her brain and let her put words to screen. In fact, she had fallen into a very promising flow when she was jarred out the spell by the sudden silence an hour or so later.
Frowning, she stood and looked out the window. She didn’t see Jeffrey or his lawnmower anywhere. She guessed he must be working on the backyard, hidden from her view by the house itself. She had just turned to try and work on the story again, when she heard something that pulled her attention back out the window. It wasn’t a loud sound, just an unusual one. Sort of a thwacking sound. Hard to describe. It put Elin in the mind of sugar cane harvesting or maybe exploration of the jungle, a hard and somehow wet cutting sound.
She could hear Jeffrey’s voice as well, she thought, though she couldn’t make out any words. The tone wasn’t happy though. Elin wondered if his mower had broken down or he’d become tangled or something. She wondered if she should take a walk and check on him. She was just beginning to look for her shoes, when Jeffrey walked around the side of the house.
He was a mess. His pants were muddy and streaked with something red. If she didn’t know better, she would have said it was blood. He moved awkwardly, pulling one leg behind him. Maybe he’d been injured. Although, he’d already been on the mower when she saw him earlier, so maybe the injury wasn’t new. Just as he mounted the stairs to the porch, he called out in wordless pain, startling Elin. As she watched, Jeffrey reached into the collar of his shirt and pulled out a piece of greenery, something vine-like, but thick. He untangled it from his body and flung it onto the driveway. It was probably just the way the plant had been coiled, but Elin could have sworn that it moved on the ground, just like a snake.
Elin was trying to get a better look at the vine, and had stopped paying attention to Jeffrey, so she was startled when he suddenly attacked the vine piece with a sharp garden hoe, slicing the plant into tiny pieces. She was more startled yet when the liquid from inside the plant flowed onto the driveway. It was red. Just like blood. What kind of plant was that thing? It had to be something really exotic.
Over the next three days, Elin kept trying to run into Jeffrey or Barbara, but she seemed to always miss them. Just when she’d walk outside to check the mail, Jeffrey would pull away in his little blue pick-up truck, waving. She’d see him sitting on the stairs to his porch, but she’d be on her way to pick up Henry from school and wouldn’t have time to stop and chat. Barbara she didn’t see at all. She wondered if Jeffrey’s wife might be out of town or something.
Elin’s husband told her it was none of her business and he was right – it wasn’t. But her curiosity was piqued by what she had seen. She’d been googling unusual plant life whenever she hit a lull in her word count, but she hadn’t yet run across any viney plants with red liquid inside. She told herself that it was just because she was a writer, so, of course, she was naturally curious about things. She wasn’t being nosy. She was looking to expand her horizons.
When the weekend came, Elin still hadn’t been able to talk to Jeffrey. She was in the yard playing with Henry while her husband watched the game with his brother. Henry had watched for a while, but he was still a little young to get pleasure from watching sports on television, or maybe he just wasn’t going to be a fan. His dad had given the eyebrow signals that meant it might be time to go outside and get some fresh air. Elin had taken him willingly enough. She wasn’t interested in football either.
It was windy out, and the big red ball they were playing with blew out into the street and over into Jeffrey and Barbara’s yard, rolling around the side. Looking away from the missing cat flyer someone had attached to the mailbox, Elin told Henry not to worry. They’d go ask Mr. Jeffrey to let them get it back.
Taking Henry’s hand, she led him across the street. Not wishing to startle her neighbor, she led Henry to the porch. They knocked on the door. Both cars were home, so she figured someone had to be there.
There was a long pause, long enough that Henry got fidgety and Elin was just getting ready to knock again, when the living room blinds parted slightly and Elin saw someone peeking out at her. She smiled brightly and waved, then waited for the door to be answered.
It was Jeffrey who came to the door. He didn’t look as pleased to see them as he usually would and Elin wondered if he’d been napping. “Sorry to bug you, Jeffrey. Henry’s ball rolled into your side yard and I didn’t want to startle you by walking in without letting you know. We can just get it ourselves.” She turned and started to walk off the porch. Maybe she could get a look at the strange vine while she was back there.
“Wait!” Jeffrey’s voice stopped her in his tracks. He sounded tense, almost scared. She turned to look at him. His face seemed pale. She wondered if he were ill. Gesturing for her to come back, he stepped out onto the porch, his boots in his hands. “I’d better get it for you. There’s a bramble back there I’ve been fighting and I’d hate for Henry to get snagged in it.” He sat down and began lacing the work boots.
The story sounded innocuous enough, but Elin still felt suspicious. It seemed weird that he didn’t want them to go into his backyard and retrieve their own ball. They’d been in his backyard many times before. Was there suddenly something to hide back there? Still, it was his yard, after all, and she and Henry would respect his wishes.
She decided this was a good time to ask about the weird plant Jeffrey had cut to pieces in the driveway the other day. “I think I saw you working on it the other day,” she began. Jeffrey’s chin snapped up and he paused in the lacing of his boots. “You did?” Again, there was something just this side of hysteria in his tone and she wondered if he were really all right.
She nodded. “Yeah. It looked like one of the vines had you really frustrated. You cut it up with a hoe like it was a garden snake that had attacked you!” She laughed, but let the sound die when Jeffrey didn’t laugh with her. His face had gone all thoughtful and weary and she wondered if she had somehow referenced something that was painful to him.
Too late, he seemed to realize that she was joking and laughed: a harsh, barking sound. “Yeah. I was pretty mad.” Boots laced, he stood, staring in the direction the ball had gone. He seemed to hesitate. He stood facing the turn to the side and back yard as if there were a mighty battle waiting just beyond and he had to build up his nerve first.
“You sure you don’t want us just to fetch it ourselves? It’s no big deal.”
“No!” his refusal was vehement, and Elin and Henry both jumped. He continued in a softer tone. “No. Like I said, it’s a mess back there. You’d best wait here.”
Elin and Henry obediently sat down on the porch bench where their neighbor had gestured. Jeffrey stalked down the steps and to the garage. He opened the door and ducked in, coming back out with an impressive looking machete in his hand. Henry gripped Elin’s hand and she squeezed his fingers reassuringly. “It’s just in case he has to cut it free, Sweet Pea. No worries.” Henry nodded, but kept his hold on her fingers. Elin was glad he did. Something about this whole situation felt strange to her, too. Henry’s small, warm fingers resting in her own were comforting.
There were a couple of thwacking sounds, then Jeffrey reappeared, holding the ball under one arm. Henry hopped up and ran to take it from Mr. Jeffrey, thanking him. Jeffrey seemed winded and simply nodded his acceptance of the thanks. As Elin crossed the street again with her son, she looked back over her shoulder at her neighbor. He stood in the driveway, looking up at the sky, the machete still held low in his right hand, blade tilted upward and glinting in the fading sun. A thick, reddish liquid dripped from the blade onto the driveway. Without knowing why, exactly, Elin told her son that it was time to go inside. Henry didn’t argue. Maybe he felt the strangeness, too.
The next Tuesday, Elin was suited up for a walk, hoping she might be able to finish the scene where the two lovers meet for the first time after a head-clearing bit of exercise. She looked at Jeffrey’s house as she walked by. The riding mower was out again and she realized it must have been him she had heard working earlier that morning. She shook her head, thinking he was going to kill the grass if he didn’t let it grow at least a little between mowings. As it was, his yard was the closest clipped one on the entire block. Any closer and you’d see bare earth.
Her mind wandered as she made the loop down to the neighborhood park and back again. When she paused to catch her breath, she noticed another missing pet flyer, this time taped to the back of a stop sign. There were always a few flyers of this sort around the neighborhood, mostly of cats who failed to return home after a night’s wanderings. This one was a white, fluffy looking white cat named, predictably enough, Fluffy.
Something tugged at Elin’s mind and she looked back down the hill at where she had been. Every sign post seemed to have a flyer fluttering from it. She retraced her steps to read a few. A small dog called Lucky, a pair of cats called Eliot and Ezra. Some of the posters were water damaged and faded, but most of them seemed newly hung. What was going on with pets in this neighborhood? Elin was glad that Henry hadn’t talked her into an animal so far. There was a lot of potential heartbreak in a pet.
When she returned from her walk, she glanced over at Jeffrey’s yard again. The lawnmower hadn’t moved, but she could hear another sound, maybe some kind of chipper machine, humming in the backyard. She hoped he wasn’t cutting down that old oak tree back there. Their family had enjoyed its shade with Jeffrey and Barbara on many summer evenings. It was a beautiful tree, one of the oldest in the neighborhood. It would be a shame if Jeffrey’s new retirement hobby of obsessive lawn care resulted in its loss.
She stepped into Jeffrey’s driveway, thinking she would just step around back and start a chat, using her curiosity about the sound as an excuse. But she stopped short, assaulted by a horrible smell. She covered her mouth and stepped back, gagging. Had something died back there? The smell was fetid. There was a definite rot-type odor, combined with something chemical in nature. Underneath it all was a smell that filled her mouth with a taste of blood or rust, something iron-rich and pungent.
“Jeffrey?” she called out. The street was quiet at this time of day. She and Jeffrey were the only ones usually at home in late morning, the other adults on the street all in their offices or at their posts by now and the children all at school. Her voice seemed loud in the silent street, but Jeffrey didn’t respond. She called out again. “It’s me, Elin. Is everything okay back there?”
She heard something that time, a muffled sound, like a person trying to talk with a full mouth, or through a gag. Elin’s imagination began to run wild, flashing images involving kidnappers and terrorists. She took a step or two nearer the garage, holding a hand over her mouth and nose as if it could mitigate the smell. “It really smells awful, Jeffrey. Did you hit a sewer main or something? Should I call someone for you?”
The sound was louder this time. It was sort of a moan, but it didn’t sound like Jeffrey’s voice. It was more like an animal sound, or something off a haunted house sound effects collection. Elin felt suddenly cold and wished she were there with someone else. She looked up and down the street, but no one was out. The houses were shut up and quiet. Even the yap dog in the house on the corner seemed to be silent. Or maybe it had gone missing, too.
Elin edged up to the corner of the garage, forcing herself to investigate more closely even as part of her wanted to run away. She chided herself for being silly, knowing that she would feel awful if it turned out that Jeffrey was hurt back there and that she could have helped if she hadn’t been a frightened little ninny. The nearer she got the more overpowering the stench became. Her eyes watered and her nose burned even though she was still covering her nose and mouth with one hand.
Leaning out, she peeked around the corner of the garage and saw nothing out of the ordinary. The hose was rolled up on its reel. A garden wheelbarrow was leaning against the side of the house. Nothing looked suspicious. She stood staring for a long moment, trying to work up the gumption to walk the few steps to the back of the house. She heard a scritching sound, like something metal scraping on concrete. She turned around, half expecting to find Jeffrey in the driveway, making the sound with a garden tool. But no one was there. Just the two cars, both covered in a fine coating of spring pollen, making it obvious that no one had left this house today.
She heard the scritch-scratching sound again and whirled back around to the side yard. Everything was still where it had been, though she noticed now a vine on the side of the house. A lump rose in her throat. She was sure that vine had not been there when she looked before. She stared, confused. She was sure she saw the tendril move, even though there was no breeze to speak of. It was like a hand beckoning to her. She took a step back, onto the pavement. All pretence of bravery gone, she scooted back toward the road, backing away because she felt afraid to turn her back on the strange vine.
Right as she got to the road, she stepped onto the grass. Instantly, her foot became affixed to the ground. She looked down and was horrified to see grass grown over the top of her shoe, binding her foot to the ground. She tugged, but couldn’t budge the foot. As she watched, more grass seemed to sprout before her eyes, burying her foot and beginning to wrap up her ankle and onto her calf. Elin leaned as far as she could to the other side. Her foot popped out of her shoe and she landed on her hip and behind. She scooted into the center of the driveway crab style.
“Run,” she heard a rasping voice say. She jumped to her feet and ran across the street, then turned from the comparative safety of her own driveway to look back at Jeffrey and Barbara’s house.
A shape was standing in the middle of the front yard. It was man-shaped – Jeffrey-shaped – but it was all wrong. It seemed to be made of plant, it was so covered in vines and grass. But it was holding a gasoline can and was spilling the remainder of the contents at its own feet. From somewhere, it took out a lighter, a big square silver lighter. The Jeffrey-shaped plant-man turned and looked directly at Elin, raising one arm in a gesture of farewell or supplication, then lit the flame.
Within moments, the plant-man was aflame, and screaming. The sound was high and loud and endless, full of anger as well as of pain. Fire spread across the yard, following a path of gasoline the plant-man had laid for that purpose. Transfixed, Elin watched as the fire spread and grew larger, beginning to engulf the house as well as the yard. She could swear she saw vines rising around the house, waving in the smoke and flames like slender arms. The screaming continued, and Elin realized that she was screaming, too. She was still standing there when the firetruck pulled up. She never knew who had called them.
She never told anyone about the vine or the plant-man. Jeffrey’s remains were found in the front yard, his wife’s in the back yard, plastered to the side of the house and held there by charred vines. It was ruled a murder-suicide. Elin guessed that, in a way, that was true, at least the suicide part. Jeffrey had fought something evil in the yard that day, something that would have tried to consume them all. She only hoped he had won.
by Samantha Dunaway Bryant