by Dev Jarrett
In the golden afternoon sun, while she was fertilizing her garden, she saw him. He was not a neighbor of hers, or she’d know him. He was probably going from the community college to downtown, the quickest way being to cut through the neighborhood. He wouldn’t come back this way after dark. No, that wouldn’t be wise, but it was a safe enough daytime shortcut. A young man, with a bright, distracted smile, dressed nicely, and walking with a certain flowing bounce in his step. Everything about him said that he was going courting, or whatever they called it these days. His grin reflected all his hopes, be they pure or impure. He was happy.
Mrs. Pomeroy bent over in her garden, and whispered to her flowers, “Maybe we can help him get some kisses tonight, if it’s all right with y’all.” Gently bouncing in the warm October breeze, the flowers seemed to confer on the matter, then nod their approval. She giggled conspiratorially a their acquiescence, and stepped forward, toward her front gate. As she did, she took off her manure-coated yellow rubber gloves. It didn’t smell very good, but the fertilizer made all the difference.
It was a short walk, for the yard wasn’t much more than five paces from porch to fence. Mrs. Pomeroy lived in one of a long row of old millhouses whose best days weren’t that good, and those days were long gone. Years ago, before they built the community college, all that land was taken up by a huge textile mill, powered by the river, just beyond. To house their employees, the owners had several tiny streets of tiny houses built, connecting their textile plant with downtown Caledonia. Their employees, housed in the tiny cottages, were often referred to derisively by the rest of the town as “lintheads.” By and large the “lintheads” didn’t take very good care of these houses.
When the new dam went in further upriver, the textile mill cut down production, then cut production again, and finally just had to call it quits. All the grounds of the mill and the housing went up for auction, and a young Sadie Pomeroy, already the widow of a horrible mill accident, was able to buy her house with the savings she’d kept over the years. She’d never leave, she said, since her James was buried so near. The company cemetery was just on the other side of the fence alongside the house, and James was buried within arm’s reach of the fence.
Their one son Robert moved out a few years later, but he came down from Atlanta every few weeks to help her keep up the house, and to take her to dinner. Just two weeks ago he’d come, with a brand new porch swing in the back of his truck. “You work so hard on that garden, Momma. Now you can sit out here in the evenings and enjoy just looking at it. It looks so nice.”
“The fertilizer makes all the difference,” she’d answered dismissively. “I just water them and show them a little attention.” She’d made lemonade, and they’d sat on the swing, he updating her on his job, and she updating him on the neighborhood.
“Young man!” she now called. “Come over here a minute.” She stood under the massive gateway trellis James had built for her so many years ago. The laths were thickly covered with dark green leaves and pale, peach-colored roses. James’s favorite. That very rosebush had been growing for nearly twenty years.
Around her the garden was a pure riot of color. Mrs. Pomeroy had the greenest thumb in the neighborhood, and she loved to work in her garden more than anything. She had a confederate rosebush, a big gardenia bush, zinnias, daffodils, petunias, and snapdragons, mixing beautifully with dahlias, lilies, sporaxis, philodendrons, goblin flowers, and butterfly bushes. In the backyard, she had even more, and her garden was timed so that anytime during the year, something was in bloom. The showpiece, however, was the rose trellis. James had built it, and planted the rosebush, and it flourished. The blossoms, a delicate color found where white, orange, and pink meet, were large and heavy. The young man came to Mrs. Pomeroy, standing just the other side of the gate, his careless smile still shining like the sun.
“I saw you walking down the street, and I thought, ‘Sadie, that there is a young man in love!’” He blushed and grinned even wider; she knew she’d struck the mark. “A young man in love, and going courting. Then I looked again, and I saw what you’re missing.” He looked briefly puzzled, and she could see him mentally inventorying his pockets: wallet, keys, change, breath mints… “You can’t go calling on your girl like that! Wait right here; I won’t be a minute.” He seemed about to speak, but didn’t.
Mrs. Pomeroy plucked her garden shears from her apron pocket, and walked all around the garden, snipping flowers and whispering her thanks to each plant: three shades of carnations, two bleeding hearts, a morning glory, and a big pink Gerber daisy. She added a sprig of Queen Anne’s lace from the back fence to make it look fancy, and wrapped the stems at the bottom with a small creeper of english ivy, then returned to the gate. She presented the young man the bouquet.
“Nothing’ll put a smile on your girl’s face faster than flowers. Never forget that.”
“Oh, thank you, ma’am! Charles will adore these!”
Charles? Oh, dear.
“I’m sorry I misunderstood, young man…” she began.
“No, no, they’re perfect! Just right! He’ll love them! I’m a little nervous, it being our first date. This will do just the trick! Oh, thank you so much!” He turned away, going into town, holding the flowers close to his chest as he strode into town, excitement speeding his steps.
Mrs. Pomeroy watched him with a disbelieving, secret smile, then whispered to herself, shaking her head, “Oh, well. Judge not lest ye be judged.”
As long as she was here at the gate, she might as well check the mail. Bills, bills, bills, and junk, and at the bottom, her Social Security check. Always the same. No love letters for her, not in a long time. She paused, and thought again of her James, gone all these many years. A fine man, a good father, and someone she missed every day. He always did right by her. She sighed heavily.
From the corner of her eye, she saw some of the local hoodlums coming her way, so she went in the gate, shut it, and got to the porch swing just in time to see them sidling up to her fence. The leader of this trio of delinquents stared brazenly at her.
“E’ning, Miz Pomeroy,” he drawled.
“Get on out of here. Ain’t got nothing you want, boy.”
“You got some money,” he said. “I know all about it. It’s the end of the month. How ‘bout givin’ it to me? Trick er treeeeet.” One of the others reached over the fence and yanked on the morning glory vine, scattering torn leaves and petals everywhere.
“You leave my garden alone! Git!”
The third one hit the second one in the shoulder. “Stop, dude! She’s got that dog that tore Earl’s hand off, remember? She’ll sic him on you!”
The second one backed away from the fence, remembering Earl. The leader, though, was unconvinced.
“I don’t know ‘bout all that. I ain’t never seen a dog here. Never heard one, neither. We’ll just come on back by later on tonight, and pick up that check. And if you sic a dog on me, I might just have to plug him!” He lifted his dirty T-shirt and partly exposed a small handgun stuffed into the waistband of his pants. At the sight of it, Mrs. Pomeroy’s blood ran cold. She tried hard to keep her voice from shaking when she spoke.
“I told you to git! Go on home, and see about growin’ a brain between the three of you! Git!”
They backed away, the leader smiling evilly at her. “Okay, Miz Pomeroy. We’ll just see you later.” They turned back down the street, giggling together as they walked. She looked up at the evening sun, and dreaded the coming of night. Something was going to happen again.
After she was sure they were gone, she rushed as quickly as she could to her morning glory, inspecting the damage.
“I’m so sorry, Gloria,” she said to the plant. Tears fell from her eyes and landed in the rich black topsoil as she cut the damaged part off the plant. It would still survive, but that didn’t make it hurt any less. Those boys were just so mean! With any luck, they’d just get drunk early tonight and pass out. Maybe they’d forget all about ol’ Miz Pomeroy.
A tap landed on her shoulder, and again. She turned, and saw that it was the hibiscus she’d planted in spring. A large bloom, red with a bright yellow throat was nodding in the wind, and brushing her shoulder.
“Do you need some attention too, Mr. Hot-Biscuits?” She dried the tears from her eyes, and spoke as if in answer to the plant, “Well, I’ve been better, I guess. And how are you? You’re looking mighty fine.” She petted his thick leaves, and then went back up to the porch. The mail she stuffed into her apron pocket, along with the shears.
It was a warm night. The trick or treaters didn’t need to wear jackets over their costumes, and she was sure that made them happy. She remembered Robert’s disappointment on those Halloweens whose weather dictated an overcoat. The child seemed to think the magic was lost if he had to cover up any part of his costume. Mrs. Pomeroy left the front door open so stray breezes could find their way in through the screen, and she listened to distant laughs and excited choruses of “Trick or treat!” Not as many goblins and ghosts came around looking for treats this year. Sadie knew she’d be snacking on butterscotch buttons for weeks. After an hour or so, the trickle of treaters dried up until next year.
She sat at her small kitchen table eating leftovers from yesterday’s tuna casserole, and trying not to think about those troublemakers from earlier. She washed her dishes, and sat down at the table again, this time dealing out a hand of Solitaire.
She’d lost three times, and was well on her way to losing a fourth, when she heard a gravelly, liquor-sodden voice.
“Oh, Miz Pom-a-royy!”
Stifled cackles drifted into the house from the street outside.
She went to the screen door and turned off the lights indoors, so she could see the yard. There they were, staggering around, passing a bottle under the glow of the streetlamp. They whispered together, and snickered.
“Now Miz Pomeroy, I don’t think you got no dog. Earl always was kind of a dipstick; he probably hurt his hand some other way. So I’m coming in.”
“You get out of here before I call the Po-lice!” she cried into the night.
He looked like he was trying to wrestle his pistol from his pants pocket and encouraged his buddies to go ahead. The one that shredded Gloria moved forward, to the gate. He reached inside, to unlatch it, then jerked back with a yell.
His wrist was laid open. Deeply. In the dim glow of the streetlights, the blood was black, and appeared to be running freely.
“You idiot! How the hell did you do that!?”
“Them flowers…” he said, growing a sickly pale and backing to the far side of the street. The hand holding his wounded wrist was washed in blood.
The one who earlier had warned them about the dog backed away, to the other side of the road. His instinct for survival had just cut through the liquor, and he saw that this had the potential to go bad, real quick.
The leader turned on them.
“You two are just a couple of wusses! I’ll do it m’self!”
He walked toward the gate, the pistol held in front of him. He reached over the gate and easily unlatched it. It swung wide, and he turned to sneer at his buddies before facing the house again.
“Here I am, Miz Pomeroy,” he sang drunkenly. “Coming to get youuuu.”
“You git, now! You can’t have my money!”
“Oh, I think I can. Yep, I b’lieve I can.”
He stepped across the threshold of the gate, and got snagged in the rosebush. Each time he disengaged one vine, he found another clinging to him. And another. And another.
“Hey, y’all, help me out here!” he called behind him, but his buddies were nowhere to be seen. He felt a scrape under his chin, and before he could get his hand up to ward it off, a thick vine, heavy with thorns, coiled around his throat, and lifted him off the ground. He tried to yell, but all that came out was a wheeze. The vine pulled him to one side of the deep trellis, and vines on that side reached out, wrapping around his arms, his legs. The pistol dropped from his grip, forgotten. A vine pulled inexorably across his open mouth, making his lips a bloody ruin.
Bleeding from a million tiny holes, and being strangled on this living barbed wire, he struggled. Like a spiderweb fly, struggling did him no good. The rosebush was pulling him tighter and tighter against the trellis, covering him over with vines and thorns. The blood on the leaves and stems of the rosebush immediately disappeared into the flesh of the plant. The hoodlum’s scream was muffled, unheard by all except Mrs. Pomeroy, who just stood in the doorway and watched. She didn’t see much by the light of the streetlamp, but she didn’t need to. She knew what was happening. James was protecting her, just like he always had. Just like he always would.
The vines continued to tighten.
His ribs snapped wetly as he was crushed. The last thing he saw in front of him was a skeletal hand woven into the trellis. Earl’s hand!!! The rosebush’s stalks curled over, around, and eventually, through him, consuming him.
The next day, Mrs. Pomeroy was out in the garden, as usual. Weeding today. Her young neighbor from across the street, June Taylor, came over and remarked on the healthy, robust garden. The rosebush looked extra full.
June cupped a dark red rose bloom in her palm. It was heavy, and truthfully, it didn’t smell very good.
“But yesterday weren’t your roses peach-colored?” she asked.
Without looking up, Mrs. Pomeroy said, “Yep.”
She smiled. “The fertilizer makes all the difference.”
Dev Jarrett is a soldier who has lived pretty much all over. He is currently stationed in Hawaii. He is married, with three hilarious kids, and a Rottweiler that thinks she's a lapdog. When not doing his day job or writing, he is outside. He especially loves to swim, snorkel, hike, run, and fish. His story, "Bottomfeeder" is featured in Southern Fried Weirdness 2007: An Annual Anthology of Southern Speculative Fiction. A stand-alone trade paperback, Family Tradition, is due out in March of 2008 through Sam's Dot Publishing. This particular story was previously published in 2004 through Saugus.net where it was awarded 1st place in the adult division of their annual Halloween story contest.
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