Not raising money this time, just putting a story into the world. Hope you enjoy. Part One is here.
After that, I was ready to sell my car to clear out the jungle in the back corner of the yard. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy because the plants themselves weren’t on our side of the fence; they were just invading our space. If I really wanted to clear all that junk out, I’d have to talk to whoever owned the house behind us.
So the next day, after I got dinner for Morgan and me and helped him with his homework (thank god no math facts tonight, because I didn’t think I could cope with lack of sleep, talking to the neighbor about her haunted yard, and Morgan’s patented foot-dragging through the times tables), I left the kid reading his AR book under the watchful eye of our resident ghost and walked around the block to the blue house with brown trim.
The lady who opened the door was elderly, dressed in a pair of denim cutoffs and a camisole tank top over an industrial-strength beige bra. The air that fled through the doorway smelled of lavender and the slightest hint of cigarette smoke, as though she’d stopped smoking years ago but never really scrubbed the place down after. She had short-cropped white hair and a faded tattoo on her forearm, maybe a rose? Her knuckles were swollen, her back was stooped, and her eyes had a look like she would poison me if I asked her to talk about Jesus. I immediately revised my personal old-lady goals from being Carrie Fisher to being this lady when I hit 70.
“Hi,” I said, going a lot less chirpy than I’d planned. “I’m Mallory. I live behind you, with my son. I was wondering if I could talk to you about the plants in the corner of your yard, by the shed.”
“What about ‘em?” Man, she sounded like that old lady on the Shoebox cards looked.
“Well, they’re overgrowing the fence, and it looks like there’s poison oak in there–”
She shook her head. “Look, hon, I’m on a fixed income–”
“I’m willing to pay,” I said quickly.
That got a look. She managed to knowingly side-eye me while facing me straight on. “There have been a lot of people in and out of that house back there, and none of them ever offered to pay to clear out my back corner.”
“It’s full of poison oak and some kind of demon mist,” I replied.
She blinked at me. “You got a lawn guy will take care of demon mist?”
“One step at a time,” I said. “We get rid of the poison oak and the other crap, see where the demon mist is coming from. Maybe we call the EPA, maybe we call the church.”
She screwed her mouth up to one side as she leaned in the door frame. “About ten, fifteen years ago, they rented that place out to a woman and three guys. Young fellas, all very built–I’m not gonna judge, more power to you, sweetheart. They played music all night, but it wasn’t terrible–you remember when Gregorian chants were a thing at the clubs? Stuff like that. Anyway, I saw two of the boys leave early one morning. Didn’t think anything of it, but I didn’t see the other two again, and they bounced without paying their rent. Right after they left, all that crap grew up in the corner. Took it maybe a month to get just like it is, now. A goddamned month for a punk tree to grow and just about die.” She emphasized this last point with one twisty finger aimed at my face. “So you want to pay to clear it out, be my guest. I hope it cleanses your devil mist, hon.”
After I spoke to the old lady, I came home and did the rest of the evening routine: an episode of Leverage, teeth brushing, “Use the bathroom even though you claim you don’t need to, holy cow, kid, how far can a seven-year-old bladder stretch?” and a chapter of Castle Hangnail before smooching Morgan on the head and making sure he had Parker, who also got his smooch.
Then I got my pillow and a blanket to bed down on the couch. I’d hear anything weird better out here than in my room.
It took forever to fall asleep, but I must have because the next thing I knew Morgan was screaming and the lights were flipping on and off like a disco. I don’t remember the trip from the couch to Morgan’s room, just that I was there, hands on either side of his sweaty face, saying in the firmest Mom-voice I could manage, “Morgan. Morgan, you’re dreaming. Wake up, baby.”
He jerked awake, gasped, and bolted upright, throwing his arms around me. “Mom!”
He shook in my arms, breaths shuddering in and out. “It’s okay, I’ve got you. It’s okay, baby. Just a nightmare.”
“I don’t like that lady,” he said, finally.
“I bet she was a real bitch,” I said. I pulled back from him a little and asked, “You want to tell me about it?”
Morgan frowned. “There was the mean lady. And it was foggy. And …” He thought for a minute, then said, “And that’s all I remember. Just she was mean. A … you know what.”
I smiled at him, brushed his hair back from his forehead. “If you dream about her again, you can go ahead and call her a bitch, okay?”
He opened his mouth, then shut it again. I asked, “You wanna sleep in my bed, kiddo?”
He drooped with relief. “Yeah, can I?”
“Gather the guys. I gotta straighten up the living room.”
Back went the pillow and blanket, joined by Parker, Mr. Magee, Old Mrs Bones (a hedgehog), Torque Jamiroquai, Sadie Cat, and Morgan, who curled into my side and fell asleep. I, of course, did not sleep much at all–but where usually sharing a bed with Morgan was like sharing a bed with a small space heater, tonight my room was cold enough that it was comfortable. Thanks, Woulou.
The soonest I could get a lawn guy to come out to give me an estimate was a week.
“What if I told you it was haunted?” I asked. I was calling from work; my office-mate raised his eyebrows at me but said nothing.
“Baby girl, it could be a clutch of Satan’s own nose hair and I ain’t got a time slot sooner’n next week.”
Baby fucking girl–maybe the demon mist would like to eat the shriveled soul of Joe from O’Reilly’s Discount Lawn Care? But they were definitely the least expensive–I would not go so far as to call that amount cheap–so I went ahead and made the appointment, resigning myself to a week of Morgan sleeping in my room.
We got pizza for dinner that night, as I was too tired to deal with cooking. Maybe, I hoped, I might be tired enough to sleep even with seven-year-old feet in my ribcage. Morgan seemed tired, too–he was fussy but didn’t put up much of a fight over running his times tables or his other homework. I got him settled on the couch with his book for school and went to take a shower. I ran the water a little hotter than I generally like in hopes of staying awake.
The master bath is the reason I fell in love with the house. The landlord had just remodeled it: a huge walk-in shower with a damn bench seat, all new tile, gorgeous light fixtures.
I had just rinsed the shampoo out of my hair when those gorgeous light fixtures went insane. Desperate frantic strobing as I jerked the water off and stumbled out the shower door into the simultaneously hot and cold air; I yanked shorts and a t-shirt on as letters appeared in the mirror’s steam:
M O R G A N
Fuck fuck fuck fuck–
I slipped on the all-new tile, landing hard on my hip. I bit my tongue and wrenched my ankle, but I hauled myself up and limp-ran through the connecting door to my room into the living room.
The blanket on the couch had been shoved into a lump at one end. Morgan’s book lay face-down on the floor. The lights in his bedroom started to flash like I didn’t know where to go next.
Open window. Screen on the ground outside. In the blue twilight I saw a small gray lump on the ground. And mist. Seeping across the yard from the overgrown corner.
I’m not small enough, really, to climb through Morgan’s window, but blind panic tinged with rage creates miracles. My wrenched ankle wobbled when I landed on it but held me up. The mist coiled around my shins, touching and drawing back like it was testing my skin.
Where the fuck was Morgan–
A cold, cold breeze picked up behind me. As it blew around my hips, the mist retreated, clearing a path. Right toward the jungle.
On the ground at my feet lay Old Mrs. Bones, stuffing spilling out of her ripped seams.
I picked her up, shoved her into the pocket of my shorts, and ran to the overgrown mess in the corner of the yard. A small hole–tunnel?–opened up the middle of the thicket, just big enough for a skinny seven-year-old boy to crawl into.
Out of the hole, muffled, Morgan’s voice: “Mom? I can’t find you!”
I dropped to my knees like a rock and crawled partway into the hole. “Morgan, baby, I’m here–can you hear me?”
“Mom?” The inside of the thicket was dark, clearly not meant for me to crawl into, but my blind panic had turned into laser focus on my kid, my boy, so I shoved my way through the holly thorns and poison oak.
“Morgan, tell me if you can hear me,” I called.
“I hear you, Mom!”
The fuck kind of Doctor Who bullshit was going on in here? There was no way this mess was big enough that I shouldn’t be right on top of him. Fucking magic ghost monster fuckery. Probably magick spelled with a ‘k.’
“Morgan, baby, follow my voice, sweetheart.” And who the fuck was that, because it was for sure not me.
“Mom?” Morgan sounded uncertain. Probably because I’d never called him sweetheart.
“That wasn’t me, Morgan. Follow my voice.” Even as I said it, I knew it wasn’t helpful.
Then I saw the light. Far away, but light. A figure silhouetted in front of it that could be me. Or not.
“Mom!” Morgan shouted–I still couldn’t see him, but I knew. Light is “good;” dark is “bad;” we instinctively head to where we can see. I heard him moving.
“Morgan, no, not the light, Mommy’s not in there–I’m in the dark, boyo, can you come to me?” He didn’t respond. I could hear … my voice, but not my voice–and no words, just the sound, so if I couldn’t make out what it was saying but Morgan could, it meant he was closer to her than to me; I cracked open like an egg and started babbling:
“Morgan. Morgan Harwood Banks–I named you after my grandfather; you didn’t get to meet him but you smile like him! You like yogurt raisins, but not yogurt or plain raisins or raisins dumped in yogurt! You haven’t finished Castle Hangnail, but Pins is your favorite character and you want Ursula Vernon to make a stuffed version.” Brush rustled, coming closer maybe? Not my voice–less like my voice–raised, angry, but I didn’t dare stop talking to listen better, even as I crossed all my fingers and toes. “You have, like, a gazillion stuffed guys! There’s Mike and Maggie, who are best friends even though he’s a dinosaur and she’s a rabbit. Pancake Man is always in charge when you go to Dad’s–he’s a giant pancake with a face and legs and arms. You have a cheetah you named Spot Clean because you got food on him right after Granny bought him for you and I said we could spot clean him. Dad got you an iguana named Torque Jamiroquai and he’s part of an acid jazz band. He’s been smooching on Sadie Cat!”
“Mom!” I heard him. Not shouting. This was Morgan’s “trying not to freak out” voice, usually reserved for alerting me to wasps or spiders in his room. “Mom. Keep. Talking.” Closer. Still could not see jack. “Please.”
Please almost broke me again. But. Fuck, and I cannot emphasize this enough, that shit.
“Your most special guy is Parker. He’s a raccoon. Everybody thinks you named him after Peter Parker, but he’s actually named after your favorite character on Leverage. I still don’t know how you found Leverage, kid, but Parker the raccoon is basically Leverage Parker in a raccoon suit, he gets into so much mischief, he hotwired a school bus once to go visit you at school–”
A small hand smacked blindly onto my knee.
I reached out, grabbed a pair of skinny, delicate shoulders, and heaved Morgan into my lap.
“Mommy,” he sighed, hard and shuddering, wrapping his arms and legs around me.
“I got you, baby. I got you.”
Something screamed. Like an eagle, a banshee, a tornado. I tightened my grip on Morgan. “Baby koala it, okay?” I murmured to him.
It was hard to move backward, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to move forward toward that sound. I shoved, pushed, and crawled backward until my back hit brush like a wall behind me. I could still barely see anything. Morgan whimpered into my neck. I tried to stand up, but the brush over me was as unyielding as what was behind me. Like a jungle of concrete.
The tunnel contracted with a whispery creaking under the screaming; thorns, branches, leaves slid over my shoulders, my scalp. I felt them along my thighs and wrists. One branch brushed my neck and curved around my throat.
I sat, frozen. What the fuck did I do, now? I had to think of something; I’d been thinking of somethings all night, so any second now, I would think of another something …
The cold crashed over us like–I dunno, like a transformer blowing after dark, a bang and then you’re blinking in the darkness; just —cold–and a muffled cut-off shriek, and then me blinking ice off my lashes. Me shifting my weight–our weight–and the broken glass chiming of flash-frozen vegetation crumbling around us.
“Woulou?” Morgan whispered as I stood up, shattering ice-branches. I backed away from the pile of scrub, kicking at it it as I went, Morgan hanging onto me and calling “Woulou?” as the air warmed.
I put Morgan down right inside his window.
“Mom?” he asked when I didn’t immediately climb inside.
“I need you to go get the big container of salt,” I told him. “Bring it to the window. Don’t come back into the yard, just yell to me.”
“Okay,” he said, and disappeared into the house. I heard him calling for Woulou as he went.
I turned back to the yard. Ice fell out of my hair when I ran my hand through it.
When Morgan returned with the salt, I took it to the corner. I kicked and stomped all the frozen plants to splinters. I climbed the fence and crushed the punk tree and the Florida holly.
I dumped salt all over everything.
I found a hole just inside the fence. I poured the remaining salt into it. The next day I’d buy the salt pellets you use in a water softener, the big 10lb bags, and fill it in with them.
But first, after I’d done what I could, I went back to my baby, who watched me from the window. I climbed inside and shut it tight. I got Old Mrs. Bones out of my pocket and put her in the mending basket, tracked Parker down in my room, and the three of us piled onto the couch to watch Leverage until Morgan fell asleep.
It was too hot–Morgan was his usual heater self–and I didn’t sleep at all. Both Parkers were decent company, but I wondered about Woulou.
I forgot the lawn guy.
He had a cancellation. Showed up two days later–in a truck that had an “eat the rich” bumper sticker, which almost made up for “baby girl”–and poked around with his shovel in the remains of the jungle. The rest of the yard was completely untouched. Even the fence remained unscathed.
“Haunted, huh?” he asked, eyebrows up into the brim of his trucker cap.
“Ayup.” I tried not to scratch at the poison oak rash all over my arms and neck. The swelling in my face had gone down a lot. Morgan had been spared the worst of it, thankfully.
Joe from O’Reilly’s Discount Lawn Care didn’t even charge me for coming out. Just raked up what was left of the plant life and told me he’d have it all burned.
“Woulou can’t be dead,” Morgan reasoned that night over dinner. “He’s a ghost. He already died once, so he can’t die again.”
“Maybe he moved on,” I said. “That’s what ghosts are supposed to do.”
Morgan sighed. “I miss him.”
“Me too, buddy.”
I kept Morgan home from school for a couple of days to recover and stayed home a couple more myself because of my face. The house remained warm, cooled by nothing more than the AC.
Morgan wasn’t sure what he wanted to tell Paul. He didn’t want to tell me everything, either–he said he noticed his window was open. He went to shut it so “we wouldn’t have a giant electric bill and have to pawn all my guys” and saw Old Mrs. Bones outside. When he climbed out, he heard a voice that sounded like mine calling his name, but it sounded weird. “I thought you were hurt and that was why you sounded funny.”
He wouldn’t talk about what happened in the thicket. Nothing past, “She never touched me. She just … talked.”
He dreamed about it, though. The first couple of nights after he stayed in my room, but even after he decided it was okay to sleep in his pwn bed again I was up at least once a night to soothe him out of nightmares. I was trying not to push him too hard to talk, but I was still pushing a little. It was hard to tell what he didn’t want to talk about versus what he might not have vocabulary for yet. Hell, I wasn’t sure I had the vocabulary for it.
But it was Paul’s weekend, and we were in the car on the way to school, so decisions had to be made. “Maybe just that I got stuck in the brush,” Morgan said. “And you got me out. And I was scared. But not about her. Or Woulou.”
I pulled to a stop at the red light just before the school entrance. “You can tell Dad whatever you want to. All of it, some of it, whatever. Same as me and Gran and Grandad and Grammie and Papa. You can talk to any of us as much as you need to, baby.”
He didn’t reply as the light changed. Then, as we waited to pull up to the drop-off circle, he asked, “Mom?”
“Thanks. For coming to get me. And knowing … everything. You know?”
I couldn’t pull over or park–it was parent drop-off; there were kids everywhere. So I reached over and grabbed his hand, squeezing hard. “You don’t have to thank me for that. You get lost, I come find you. That’s the deal. But … you are welcome, Morgan. Thank you for trusting me and coming back to me.” I pulled up to the curb.
He squeezed my hand back. “Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll always come back. Even when I go to college. For Christmas and laundry and when you make mac and cheese, and sometimes just to visit.”
The little brat then got out of the car and left me there, teary-eyed, watching his backpack bounce up and down as he walked off to his classroom.
So I of course stopped at the grocery store after work to get sharp cheese and elbow noodles. I’d make mac and cheese for Sunday night when Morgan got home. I put the box and the cheese away as I pondered what I’d have for dinner tonight. Scrambled eggs? Microwave pizza?
Something flickered at the corner of my eye.
The lights in Morgan’s room flashed once. Twice. Then the TV turned on.
The living room lights flicked on, then off. And the entire house got cooler by about five degrees.
I grabbed my phone from the counter and pulled up Paul’s number. “So, Spider-Man 3 tonight?” I shouted into the living room, hitting “make call” on my screen. The lights flickered again as I waited for Paul to pick up and put Morgan on the phone.
copyright 2020 by Laura E. Price. Feel free to link to this story–signal boosting is welcome!–but please don’t reproduce it without permission.