The Seedling

by

Ronald Kelly

Author’s Note

After all these years, the darkness of Fear County continues…

The Seedling is a tale not so much about the evil and depravity present within the heart of that black region, but of its influence on those outside its borders… or those unfortunate enough to live smack-dab on the cancerous edge of its county line. In the mid-forties, the threat was the dreaded snake-critter and its riverside cave of horrors. In present-day Tennessee, the atrocity is one born of both Fear County’s warped nature and an innocent man’s simple, self-indulgent act. In any event, when Fear County gives birth to macabre offspring, it is the kind that would best be cinched up in a tow sack and drowned in the nearest river, rather than the kind to be nurtured and loved.

There is one interesting point about the story you about to read; it introduces a new character to the Fear County legend. Hot Pappy aka Jeremiah Spangler is an elderly black man who has fallen on hard times, doing odd jobs around town and collecting aluminum cans by the side of the road for a little spare change. He also happens to be the grandson of the good witch known as the Granny Woman, and he possesses the knowledge and the magic necessary to combat the evil of Fear County, if it should ever spill over into the normal world.

This story of horrors from the great outdoors might be a good one to read while sitting on the front porch or relaxing on the back deck. But if the long shadows of evening fall and you hear something rustling in the branches of the trees overhead, I suggest you head on into the house and lock the door behind you… just to be on the safe side.

—RK

 

Something had nagged at Roger Perry the entire week they had been in Florida; something that he had forgotten before they left. An unplugged iron, an oven left on in haste, or maybe an unlocked door? Whatever it was, it remained a mental burr in the back of Roger’s mind the whole time.

It wasn’t until they rolled into the driveway late Saturday night, that it suddenly dawned on him. The trash. He had left the lid off the can out back.

Roger helped his wife, Trish, tote two sleepy kids into the house, then crossed the kitchen and stepped out onto the back deck. The night was dark and moonless and more than little humid, which was to be expected in mid-July. The second his foot hit the boards of the deck, the security light winked on, bathing the rear of the house in halogen brilliance.

He had been correct. He had left the lid off the trash can. Roger remembered that the last chore he had performed before hopping into the van and heading for Florida had been tossing the kitchen and bathroom trash into the big galvanized can at the far end of the deck. Trish had honked at him, impatient to get going—she was six months pregnant, so her patience was about as thin as a piece of toilet tissue—and he had completely forgotten to fasten the lid securely on top. They’d had trouble with raccoons and squirrels since buying the house in the rural subdivision near New Middleton, and if they didn’t keep the trash locked up tighter than a drum, it ended up being rummaged through and scattered halfway across the back yard.

Strangely enough, his forgetfulness hadn’t brought about any such disaster this time. The lid was off, but the garbage hadn’t seemed to have been disturbed at all. Considering they had dined on lasagna and garlic bread the night before their trip and the scraps of their meal were buried at the bottom of the can, beneath the trash from the full and half bathrooms, it was a wonder some hungry raccoon or possum hadn’t dug every bit of trash from the can to get to the food underneath.

But, no… the trash was right where it had been when they had left. Puzzled, Roger grabbed the lid from where it leaned against the back wall of the house and prepared to clamp it down on the mouth of the can.

Something lying in the center of the trash can’s contents stopped him, however.

What the hell is that? he wondered, examining the thing in the glare of the security light overhead.

It was a dark pod or egg of some sort, lying there amid scraps of wadded tissue, an empty toothpaste tube, and a couple of cardboard toilet paper rolls. It was about the size of Roger’s fist and, from the textured surface of its leathery brown skin, sprouted several long hairs.

He didn’t know exactly what possessed him to do so, but he reached out and touched the unidentifiable object. It was strangely warm to the touch… like the skin of a child in the throes of a high fever.

Roger was about to withdraw his fingers, when something inside the pod twitched.

“Damn!” he said, jumping back a couple of feet. He stood there and stared at the thing in the trash can for a moment longer, then hurriedly clamped the lid back on the can.

 

When he left the deck and entered the kitchen, Trish was there at the table in the breakfast nook, preparing herself a peanut butter and raisin sandwich; a peculiar snack she had acquired a craving for during her fourth—and she claimed, last—pregnancy.

“Come here, sweetheart,” she called to him. “Butter Bean’s awfully active tonight. Feels like the Rockettes are doing a chorus line in my tummy.”

“Let me wash up first.” Roger walked over to the kitchen sink and scrubbed his hands with some anti-bacterial soap Trish had bought at Bath & Body Works—Country Spice or something like that. It took a moment of washing before the oily residue left by his handling of the mysterious trash can pod was neutralized. He dried his hands with a paper towel and then walked over to the table.

He leaned over and snaked his hand beneath her nightgown, which read DANGER! PREGNANT LADY! LOADED & DANGEROUS! His palm ran along the curve of her belly, nearly straying downward to the waistband of her panties.

“Don’t get yourself all worked up, honey,” she said softly, reaching down and guiding his hand back to the bulge of her stomach, just above her belly button. “You know what the doctor said.”

Roger nodded. An awkward look passed between husband and wife. Trish had been pregnant eleven months ago and had lost the baby. Although she had never blamed him, Roger felt like the miscarriage had been his fault. It had taken place after a particularly vigorous session of lovemaking. With this new pregnancy, Trish’s OB-GYN had suggested that they refrain from sexual activity, just to be on the safe side. And, so far, they had followed that advice to the letter.

Trish smiled shyly and guided his palm to a particular spot. “Here. Wait… there it is.”

Roger felt the bump and flutter of the baby inside his wife, pushing for a second against the wall of Trish’s womb, then retreating almost as quickly.

“What’s the matter?”

“Huh? What do you mean?”

Trish frowned. “You usually grin like the Cheshire Cat. This time you looked a little… disturbed. Or scared.”

“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I guess I’m just tired… you know, from the long drive home.”

Trish patted his hand lovingly and then went back to constructing her sandwich.

Standing there, Roger Perry felt like a bald-faced liar. His reaction hadn’t been caused by fatigue, but rather by an inexplicable revulsion.

The sensation of the baby kicking had reminded him, for an uncomfortable instant, of the twitching of that strange pod-like thing that was nestled amid toilet paper and refuse in the trash can outside.

~*~

Later that night, Roger stood in the bathroom, regarding himself in the mirror.

Crap… I’m getting old! he thought to himself. Roger was forty-six, still four years away from the big 5-0, but lately he had felt tired, run-down, and painfully aware of his mortality. He wondered if he was suffering from some sort of mid-life crisis, but dismissed it as too much stress in his life lately; his recent promotion at work, planning for their trip to Florida, and, of course, his wife’s new pregnancy.

He sighed and brought his face closer to the mirror. Yes, he was definitely losing his boyish complexion. Enlarged pores and wrinkles showed clearly around his eyes and nose, and he spotted a few gray hairs mixed with the dark brown ones. Absently, he ran his hand through his hair and a strand came loose, clinging between his thumb and forefinger. Looking at it, he was reminded of the few strands of hair that protruded from that strange object in the trash can. As a matter of fact, those hairs had been the same color as Roger’s hair. The thought made him shudder.

Exactly what is that thing out there?

He nearly jumped out of his skin when two hands, pale and slender, snaked across the top of his shoulders. His alarm faded when he felt the bulge of Trish’s belly against the small of his back and saw her pretty, pixie face with its wreath of curly blonde hair peeking past his right ear.

“I’m sorry. Did I startle you?” she asked.

“No. I was just engrossed in thought. Taking inventory of my rapid physical deterioration.”

Trish’s hands linked and she gave him a hug. “Nonsense. You’re just as virile and manly as the day we married. Except for maybe a few gray hairs. And some crow’s feet. And maybe those adorable little love handles of yours…”

Roger laughed. “Okay, I get idea.”

Trish studied his eyes in the mirror. “Are you going to tell me why you’ve been on edge lately? Even on vacation, you just didn’t… well, seem yourself. I know it can’t be the dry spell the doctor put us on.” She grinned slyly. “I know what you’ve been doing in the bathroom, behind locked doors. Ogling those scantily-clad ladies in the underwear section of the Sears catalog.”

“Not since I was twelve!” protested Roger with a grin. His ears blazed red with sudden embarrassment. “I’ll just be glad when we can, you know… be together again.”

One of Trish’s hands snaked down the front of Roger’s white t-shirt to the fly of his pajama bottoms. “Well, we don’t have to wait for that. I can make you feel good right now.”

Roger shifted uncomfortably from one bare foot to another. “Trish… please.”

His wife looked a bit puzzled. Her husband’s “please” had not been the sexually pleading kind, but a definite “leave me alone” please. “Well, imagine that. Roger Perry turning down a free hand-job. What’s going on, sweetheart?”

“Like I said before… just tired, that’s all. Twelve hours cooped up in a van with two kids shrilling ‘Are we there yet?’ or ‘He’s touching me, Dad!’ can fray your nerves to a frazzle.”

“Yes, it was exhausting. My back’s absolutely killing me.”

He turned and gave her a kiss. “I’ll give you a nice back rub. Then we’ll get us a good night’s sleep… in our own bed.”

“Sounds good to me.” She turned back toward the bedroom. “Don’t be too long.”

“Just gotta pee and brush my teeth.”

When Trish was out of sight, he looked at himself again in the mirror and saw an uncomfortable expression on his lean face. Again, he had been lying, both to his wife and himself. His lack of desire in the face of Trish’s loving gesture wasn’t due to exhaustion at all.

For some odd reason he couldn’t put his finger on, he had felt strangely guilty when she had made the teasing remark concerning his extra-curricular activities in the face of their medically-imposed abstinence. He had suddenly felt like an adolescent boy who had forgotten to lock the bathroom door and was caught whacking off to a Playboy he had sneaked out of his father’s underwear drawer.

To tell the truth, he had felt that way during the entire week of their vacation… like his self-indulgence had been akin to cheating on his wife. He knew it was silly to think that way—Trish certainly wouldn’t have—but, still, that vague sense of unfaithfulness remained to nag at him.

He looked down at his right hand. “It’s not like that at all, is it? We’re just old pals, aren’t we? I’m not going to buy you candy and roses and suggest a weekend trip to the mountains or anything like that.”

“What did you say?” Trish called from the bedroom.

“Nothing, honey. Just thinking out loud.”

“Well, stop thinking and come on. I’m ready for that back rub you promised.”

“On my way, sweetheart.” Roger turned off the bathroom light and went to attend to his husbandly duties.

 

The next morning, they skipped church services.

Normally, Trish would take Tyler and Cindy to Sunday school, and Roger would tag along later for the regular service. Yesterday’s grueling drive from Florida to Tennessee had taken its toll on them all, however. It was already eight-thirty and Trish and the kids were still sound asleep.

Roger decided to let them rest. Besides, he had some chores to take care of that morning; cleaning out the van, putting away some folding chairs and sand toys they had taken to Pensacola Beach with them, and making an appointment with his pal, Jack McCall, for a round or two of golf later that afternoon. He hoped his consideration would be rewarded rather than condemned. His wife would either be grateful or seriously pissed-off over missing church. He never knew how she would react, what with her recent mood swings.

He tidied up the Grand Caravan first; picking up snack wrappers and sweeping stray crumbs into a Wal-Mart bag he had liberated from Trish’s stash of neatly-folded grocery bags in the kitchen pantry. Then he went out back to stick the makeshift trash bag in the garbage can.

He was a little aggravated to find the lid off the can again, laying a couple of feet away on the floorboards of the deck. “Dadblamed raccoons!” he muttered.

But when he reached the can, he wasn’t sure that raccoons had anything to do with it. Lying atop the garbage was the strange, leathery pod… except that it wasn’t the same as before. Its oval body was split open, from end to end, revealing a dark, empty pouch inside. If anything had occupied the ugly thing, it was gone now.

How completely weird is this? he thought to himself as he crouched and examined the ruined pod. He grimaced at the stench that hit him as he came closer. It was like a combination of animal and vegetation decay; a cross between fresh roadkill and a ripe compost heap.

Again, that inexplicable urge to touch the thing overcame him. Roger reached out and pushed open the raw edges of the pod’s opening. Strangely, they were soft and pliant, like the lips of a woman’s vagina. The thought repulsed him, but he continued to examine the object anyway. He dipped his index finger into the hollow and withdrew it just as swiftly. A thick mixture of liquids—or was it secretions? —dripped sluggishly from his fingertip. It was like a combination of human blood and tree sap.

A breeze rustled through leafy branches directly behind and above him. He turned and regarded the big tree that grew at the edge of the rear deck. It was a strange tree; one that he had never been able to identify, despite several books he had checked out of the New Middleton Library on Dendrology. It was tall and full. The bark of the trunk was coarse and uniformly textured, bearing an almost reptilian pattern in its configuration. But it was the leaves that were the strangest point of interest. They were broad and jagged, like a maple leaf with multiple points, and the network of veins was complicated and almost black in color. One side was traditional green, while the underside was crimson in hue. The leaves remained that color from spring through fall and, while the other trees in the backyard shed their leaves in autumn, this one held a mystery that Roger had been unable to solve in three years of living in the Rolling Meadows subdivision west of town. One day in late fall the tree would be full of green and crimson leaves and then, the next, it would be as bare as could be… with no evidence of exactly where the missing leaves had gone.

Suddenly, Roger felt the tip of his finger grow numb. He hurriedly wiped the nasty mess off and looked down at his hand. His fingertip was red and blistered, as though he had pressed it to the eye of a stove.

Roger felt like concealing the strange pod from sight with the lid of the trash can, but he simply couldn’t. Instead, he went inside, got a Ziploc bag from a kitchen drawer, and, going back to the can, scooped the deflated object into the plastic sleeve. As he drew the edges of the bag together, he caught a whiff of that odor again and, this time, it was vaguely familiar.

At first, it eluded him. Then he recognized it.

It was the rich, visceral scent of new birth. One he had experienced twice before in the delivery room, when Tyler and Cindy were born.

 

~*~

Later that afternoon, after lunch with Jack McCall at the country club, both men prepared for their Sunday round of golf. They had rented a cart and were about to head across the green to the first hole, when Roger decided to ask his friend’s opinion about the thing in the bag.

“Hold up, Jack. I’ve got something I want to show you before we get started.”

Roger took the Ziploc bag out of a pocket of his golf bag and laid it on a rear fender of the cart. Jack McCall stared at it with interest through the plastic.

“What is it?”

“That’s what I was hoping you could tell me. After all, you’re the doctor.”

“Sure,” said the physician. “But I’ve never seen anything like this. Where did you find it?”

“In the trash can out back of my house,” Roger told him. “We went to Florida last week and, when I got back, this was waiting for me.”

“Mind if I take a closer look?” asked Jack. His curiosity was definitely piqued.

“Go ahead. That’s what I brought it for.”

Carefully, the doctor opened the zipper edges of the bag’s mouth. His nostrils flared slightly at the stench that escaped. “I’ve smelled that odor before, but not from anything like this. It looks like an egg of some sort… leathery like a reptile’s egg, but it has characteristics that totally baffle me.” He pulled the bag open enough to expose the split pod further. “Part of it has an almost reproductive quality to it.” Meticulously, he pulled the edges of the pod’s opening apart.

“Don’t get that residue on your hands,” Roger suggested.

“How come?” When his friend showed him his scarred fingertip, Jack smiled and shook his head. “Amazing.”

“Painful was more like it. So, what is it?”

Jack McCall took an ink pen from his shirt pocket and poked and prodded at the inner depths of the oval object for nearly a minute. “Its inner tissues… well, this is really impossible… but they have the texture and capillary patterns of the inner lining of a human placenta.”

“You mean, this thing is some sort of… womb?”

Jack frowned and shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Incredibly, it appears to be. The question is, where or what did it originate from, and if this egg produced an organic life form…then what kind was it?”

The two men stood there for a long moment. Then Jack turned excited eyes toward this golfing buddy. “Do you mind if I take this back to my office? Run a few tests on it?”

“No, go right ahead. I was just curious as to what it was.”

Jack regarded his friend for a moment, then reached out and plucked a couple of hairs from the crown of his head.

“Damn! What did you do that for?” snapped Roger.

“There seem to be human-like hairs growing from the outer tissue. Hair the same color as yours.” The doctor found a gas station receipt in his wallet, then wrapped the procured hairs in the scrap of paper and spirited it away. “It doesn’t hurt to double check everything in this sort of case.”

“Well, it doesn’t have anything to do with me,” Roger told him. “I just brought it because I thought you might be interested.”

“And I am.” Jack refastened the plastic bag and stuck it an outer pocket of his own golf bag. “I’ll let you know what I find out.”

“Come on,” suggested Roger. “It’s starting to cloud up. I want to at least get in a few decent holes before it starts raining.”

“Lead the way, Rog,” Jack said, setting his clubs in the back of the golf cart. “But you know I’m gonna beat your ass.”

“You always do.”

Laughing, the two jumped into the cart and headed for their first tee.

 

Several days passed. The matter of the strange pod in the trash can grew less disturbing and was nearly forgotten by the following Wednesday. Then on Thursday night, around eight-thirty, something overturned the trash can on the back deck.

“There go those stupid raccoons again!” said Tyler. The eight-year-old and his little sister were lying in the living room floor, working on opposite pages of a SpongeBob SquarePants coloring book.

“Honey,” said Trish, glancing up from the Debbie Macomber romance she was engrossed in.

“Okay,” said Roger with a sigh. He laid the Ron Malfi novel he was reading on the coffee table and stood up. “I’m on it.”

“The Critter Police is on the move,” Cindy said from the floor. The six-year-old beamed a picket-fence grin at her daddy.

Roger winked at her. “You got it, Princess.”

Reaching the utility room that separated the kitchen from the rear deck, Roger took a broom from a narrow closet beside the washer and dryer, and then stepped out the back door.

The floodlight was already on. The trash can was over on its side, its contents scattered all over the boards of the deck.

“Damned scavengers!” Roger grumbled beneath his breath. He started toward the far end of the deck and the overturned garbage can. “Get out of here you freeloaders! Come back and I’ll knock you to Nashville with this broom!”

The branches of the strange tree near the end of the deck rustled overhead.

But there was no breeze that night. The air was humid and still.

A feeling of unease gripped Roger Perry; one so intense that goose bumps prickled the flesh of his arm, despite the heat of the evening. It was at that moment that he realized that the night was silent. Completely silent. No crickets singing in the grass, no frogs belching from the creek in the woods that bordered their back yard. No sound at all… except for the thing in the tree.

The rustling of leaves stopped, and a low, hissing laugh echoed from the dark network of branches above. It sounded like coarse sandpaper rubbing against hard wood.

“Broom,” someone said in a thin, reedy voice that was no more than a whisper.

Roger took a quick step backward and swallowed dryly. “Who… who the hell’s out there?” he demanded.

Again, the gritty laughter.

“BROOOOOOOOOM!”

Roger’s heart pounded in his chest. What are you? he almost blurted out loud but didn’t. He looked down at the trash can and immediately thought of the leathery pod. Empty… void of the squirming thing within.

Stop thinking that way, he told himself. It’s crazy!

So unnerved was he, that he took a couple of retreating steps backward and tripped over Cindy’s tricycle. He dropped the broom going down and landed hard on his butt.

“Uh-oh,” said the voice, tiny and sad. “Daddy fall down.”

Frightened, Roger scrambled to his feet, ran across the deck, and grabbed the knob of the back door, ready to wrench it open and dart inside.

Again, that low, hissing laugh. Then a peculiar sound… a sound like the fluttering of flimsy, paper-thin wings.

Without further hesitation, Roger entered the back door and slammed it shut. Nervously, he fumbled with the lock on the knob and then the deadbolt just above it.

“Daddy?” came a thin, whistling voice from behind him.

Startled, Roger turned, his heart thundering in his chest.

His daughter Cindy stood in the kitchen doorway.

“Did you chase those pesky raccoons away?” she asked, her words lisping almost comically through the gap of her missing front teeth.

“Yes, baby. The raccoons are all gone.” And probably scared to come back.

From outside, echoed a loud, brittle CRACK!

Cindy took a step forward. “What was that, Daddy?”

Roger stepped to the small, narrow window that looked out onto the darkness of the back yard. He quickly pulled the blinds closed. “Nothing, sweetheart. You and your brother better put the crayons up and get ready for bed.”

“Aw, can’t I have a snack first?” whined the six-year-old.

“Okay. Just a little one. Some milk and a piece of that chocolate cake your mom made today.”

“Deal!” smiled Cindy.

That night, lying in bed, Roger found it hard to fall asleep. He kept listening in the darkness, for the sandpapery laughter and the sound of fluttering wings, but they never came. All he heard was the hum of the AC and the noise of Trish’s sound machine on the dresser, turned to the “gentle rain” setting.

The next morning, before heading to work, Roger checked the rear deck.

He found the broom lying in two pieces near the trash can, the inch-thick handle snapped cleanly in half at the middle.

 

A week passed.

Roger was rarely at home for the next seven days. First a training seminar at his company’s main office in Lima, Ohio for four days, then in-the-field experience with the fellow he was replacing as regional sales manager throughout the Middle Tennessee area.

While attempting to keep his mind focused on his work and the responsibilities that the new position demanded, Roger still couldn’t shake a sensation of unease and dread that stayed with him constantly. He was on his cell phone every other hour, checking on Trish and the kids.

“We’re fine,” his wife told him after his twentieth call. “Now keep your mind on your work or they’ll bust you down to company janitor. You’re going to have another mouth to feed before long, you know.”

Roger knew she was right. But he simply couldn’t get the thoughts of that night on the back deck out of his mind. Late at night, in the strange darkness of his hotel room, he would lurch awake, listening for the coarse hiss of laughter in the tree, as well as the fluttering of wings. He would think of his wife and children alone at home and that broom handle broken in half, a mean feat for a strong man, let alone a… a what? He still didn’t know what he had encountered on the deck that night and what it had to do with the mysterious pod he had discovered in the garbage can.

The following Monday he was fortunate enough to be given the day off. He stayed at home with his family, glad to be among them again. Even then, in the middle of their various activities, Roger’s thoughts continued to gravitate to the deck and the back yard beyond. The kids had never taken to the yard behind the Perry home for some reason. It had everything a kid could dream of: tall shade trees, grass as soft and devoid of weeds as possible, and a swing set with a playhouse tower on the end with a curved slide. But for some reason, both Tyler and Cindy preferred to play in the front yard… or stay in the house, playing in their rooms.

He had always had a feeling that maybe something was wrong with his kids. It had never dawned at him that something might be wrong with the yard itself.

That suspicion was verified later that afternoon, when Trish and Cindy laid down for a nap. Roger and Tyler were in the living room, playing Super Mario Galaxy on the Wii, when Tyler suddenly tired of the game. “Dad… can I talk to you?” he asked quietly.

Roger turned off the game console. “Sure, sport. What’s up?”

Tyler fidgeted on the couch for a moment, then looked his father straight in the eyes. “Dad… I’m scared.”

“Scared? Of what?”

“Of something in the back yard.”

Roger’s heart skipped a beat. He moved closer to his son on the couch. “What did you see, Tyler?”

“I didn’t see anything,” the boy admitted. “It’s just a feeling I get when me and Cindy are out playing. Like someone’s watching us.”

A sinking sensation settled in the pit of Roger’s stomach. “And what about Cindy? Does she feel like that, too?”

Tyler rolled his eyes. “Dad, you know how weird Cindy is… all her make-believe friends and all. She says she’s heard someone out there… talking to her. From the tree at the end of the deck.”

Roger’s mouth dried to the point that he had to swallow twice to even answer. “What did this… imaginary friend… say to your sister?”

“She claims that it said ‘Sister. Pretty, little sister.’”

Roger’s blood ran cold. “What do you think? Is she just play-acting, like usual?”

The eight-year-old looked out the side window, toward the back yard. “It’s hard to tell with her… but I think she’s scared, too.” Tyler moved a little closer to his father, until they almost touched. When the boy spoke again, his voice was barely a whisper. “I think something out there doesn’t like us, Dad. I think something in the back yard wants to hurt us.”

“Why do you say that?”

Tyler’s eyes began to tear up. “I just feel it. Feel it strong.”

Although Tyler had shied away from showing his dad affection lately—the way growing boys do when they think they’re too old for hugs and kisses—he did not refrain from going to his father at that moment. Before Roger knew it, Tyler was in his arms, sobbing against his shoulder. Roger embraced his son firmly, stroking his back.

“Hey there, sport,” Roger said softly. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I won’t let anything happen to you or your sister.”

“You promise?” asked Tyler, between sniffles.

“You bet.” Even as he said it, Roger wasn’t a hundred percent sure that what he was saying was true. How could he protect his family when his new job put him on the road five days out of the week? At that moment, he loathed the sales manager position and found himself wishing that he had never accepted it.

“Just promise me something, will you?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Tyler. “What?”

“I want you and Cindy to stay away from the back yard and that tree next to the deck, until I tell you everything is okay again. Alright?”

“I’m not setting foot out there, Dad. And I promise to keep Cindy away from there, too.”

“I know you will, sport. You know your old dad loves you.”

“I do, too,” the boy simply replied, feeling a little embarrassed and awkward.

“Let’s not tell Mom about our little talk, okay?” Roger added. “She doesn’t need to worry… what with the new baby coming and all.”

“I understand.” Abruptly, a look of fresh terror blossomed in the boy’s eyes. “Dad, you don’t think that thing out there… you don’t think it would hurt the baby, do you?”

Roger’s dread doubled in intensity. “Tyler… nothing’s going to hurt any of you. Not mom or the baby. Not you or your little sister. I swear to God.”

Tyler looked surprised. “Dad! You know you’re not supposed to swear, especially not in front of Him!”

Roger couldn’t help but laugh. He ruffled Tyler’s blond hair. “You’ve got way too much of your mother in you, buddy. Okay… I promise not to swear. Now, do you want to play more Mario?”

“No,” said Tyler, looking exhausted. “I think I’ll go to my room and take a nap. Like Mom and Cindy.”

Roger nodded. “You do that. And, remember… everything’s going to be just fine.”

Tyler offered a pitiful attempt at a smile. “Thanks, Dad.” Then he disappeared upstairs.

Left alone in the living room, Roger Perry felt an unsettling sensation like none he had ever felt before. Had he just lied to his son? Would it be alright? Would he be able to keep his family safe from… what? God help him, exactly what was he dealing with here?

He got up and went to the window that looked out onto the back yard. It was a bright, summer day. But nothing in that picturesque half-acre looked the least bit inviting. The shadows beneath the trees and around the swing set seemed ominously dark and the leaves of the peculiar tree at the end of the deck fluttered in a warm afternoon breeze, changing from green to blood red, over and over again.

 

Roger’s fears came to a terrifying head the following Saturday.

Trish wasn’t at home that afternoon. She was attending a baby shower in her honor, held by the ladies of their church. Roger and the kids had stayed home. Trish had tried to get Cindy to tag along, but the six-year-old got antsy when she was at all-adult functions. If there were no kids around to play with, she got bored and testy.

Roger was in his study, catching up on some overdue office work, while the kids played Connect Four in the living room. Halfway through the game, Cindy looked out the side window.

“I’ve got to go out to the playhouse,” she told her brother. “I left one of my Barbies out there.”

“Cindy, you know we can’t,” Tyler told her. “Dad told us not to.”

“But something bad could happen to it!” Cindy whined. “Bugs could get in its hair or some old cat could chew it up. Come on… it’ll only take a second. Then we’ll come right back in.”

Her brother looked toward the window and sighed. “Okay, just a second. We’ll go out and get your ol’ doll and then back inside. Understand?”

Cindy nodded. Together, they went through the kitchen and utility and stepped out onto the back deck. They left the house quietly, so as not to alert their father.

They hopped off the deck into the yard. Tyler stood beneath the tree, while Cindy ran across the grass to the swing set and its playhouse tower.

“Hurry up, will you?” called Tyler. He watched as she reached the wooden ladder and began to climb up to the one-room playhouse with its two windows and single exit with the curved slide spiraling downward.

“I’m going as fast I can!” she snapped. Cindy pulled herself up, one rung at a time, until she disappeared through the trapdoor in the bottom.

A breeze blew across the back yard, causing the leaves of the trees to rustle. Uncomfortably, Tyler looked up into the foliage over his head. Thankfully, he saw nothing. Nothing but leaves.

A second later, Cindy appeared in the doorway at the top of the slide. “Look!” she called, holding up her Barbie. “I found…” Then, suddenly, his sister’s words faded and her mouth hung open, her lips trembling. Her eyes watched horrified… focused several feet above her brother’s head.

“What’s the matter, Cindy?” Tyler demanded. “What…?”

Then he looked up, just as something descended out of the tree. Something unthinkable and full of malice.

“Tyler!” screamed Cindy. She flung her doll aside then raced down the channel of the slide toward the ground below…

 

“Thanks for meeting us here so quickly,” Roger said. He felt strangely lightheaded, as if in a daze, as he carried the bloody body of his son into the doctor’s examination room.

“Let’s just take a look at Tyler and see what’s going on,” Jack McCall said as his golfing buddy laid the boy on the table at the far side of the room. Tyler was in shock, his eyes wide, and his face pale and ashen.

Dr. McCall began to examine the eight-year-old. Tyler’s clothes were ripped in several places, especially around his shoulders and chest, and beneath the tears were jagged lacerations. His face was swollen and bleeding, especially around his right eye. “What the hell happened to him?”

“He… he went into the back yard,” Roger told him, his voice cracking with emotion. “Something attacked him.”

“What about Cindy? Is she okay?”

“Yes. It didn’t hurt her at all.”

Jack looked up at him. “It? What is it?”

“I don’t know,” mumbled his friend. “God help me, I don’t know.”

The doctor reached out and grabbed Roger by the shoulder. “Don’t you go AWOL on me too. I need you here with me… for your son.”

Roger bent over, hands braced on knees, breathing deeply. After a moment, he stood back up, his eyes clearer, less distant. “I’m here, Jack.”

“Good. So, Cindy is okay. Where is she now?”

“I left her at that little children’s table in your waiting room. Said she was going to draw us a picture… of the thing that did this to her brother. Cindy claims that she found a plastic ball bat lying in the yard and knocked it off of him, before it could do more damage.”

McCall turned his attention back to the boy. “The cuts and abrasions seem superficial. Looks like a cat or something lit into him. It’s this eye I’m concerned about. Can you swing that magnifying glass around here for me?”

Roger took a magnifier mounted on a metal arm and pivoted it toward the doctor. Jack turned on the built-in light and brought the lens close to the boy’s face. “Yeah… yeah, I see something there… right in the corner toward his nose. There’s a pair of tweezers in the drawer beside the sink. Fetch them, will you?”

Again, Roger did as he asked. “What is it?”

“It looks like a twig of some kind.” Carefully, he probed with the tines of the tweezers and finally caught hold of the foreign object at the corner of Tyler’s right eye. When he withdrew it, the doctor held it closer to the magnifying glass.

Roger shook his head. “What is that, Jack? That can’t be…”

“That’s what it looks like,” he said solemnly. “A finger. A tiny, little wooden finger.”

Roger moved closer and examined it. The magnifying lens enlarged the object tenfold. It was a finger, scarcely an inch and a half in length. Slender, dark brown in color, and hinged in the middle with a knotty knuckle. At the tip was a curved barb that both men could only describe as a wicked claw.

“Oh God!” moaned Roger. “Oh God!”

Jack deposited the wooden finger into a metal tray and turned to Roger. “Snap out of it, buddy! Come on… I need you to focus and help me with this thing. I’m a helluva good doctor, but what we’re dealing with here goes way beyond my medical knowledge.”

Roger nodded. “I’m here. I’m here.”

“Okay… now tell me… exactly what attacked your son?”

“This,” said a tiny voice from the open doorway.

They turned to see Cindy standing there, extending a piece of construction paper toward them.

Roger walked over to her. His hand trembled as he took the picture from her. Together, he and the physician stared at the image scrawled there in brown and red crayon.

The doctor took the drawing and studied it. “Cindy, honey, this can’t be…”

The girl’s eyes were dead serious. “I saw it. I drew it. That’s what hurt Tyler.”

Roger dropped to his knees in front of his little girl. “Baby, are you sure this isn’t just one of your imaginary…”

“This isn’t make-believe!” the six-year-old screamed at him. “I saw it with my own eyes! It jumped on Tyler… tried to kill him! It spoke to him!”

“Spoke to him?” asked Jack. “What did it say?”

Tears formed in the girl’s eyes. “It said ‘Hate brother! Kill brother!’”

The doctor stood there for a long moment, as though in deep thought. Then he smiled gently at the little girl with the long brown hair. “Cindy, sweetheart, would you stay with your brother? I need to talk to your dad for a minute.”

Cindy nodded. “Sure.” She crossed the room and sat on the doctor’s rolling stool, holding her big brother’s pale hand.

“Come with me, Rog!” the doctor said. He pulled his friend to his feet and marched him down the hall to another examination room on the opposite side of the corridor. Once inside, he closed the door behind them.

“What are you…?” Roger began to stammer.

“Do you have any earthly idea what’s taking place here?” Jack asked him.

“No,” he admitted, his voice full of defeat. “Do you?”

“Lord God help me, but, yes, I believe I do.” The doctor leaned heavily against the door, looking bewildered. “Roger… what have you done?”

“Me? I swear, Jack, I haven’t done anything to harm my children…”

“Haven’t you? Maybe not directly, but… Rog, this thing that attacked Tyler… I think you had something to do with bringing it about.”

“What do you mean ‘bringing it about’?”

“Hell, I don’t know… conjuring it, creating it maybe.”

Roger looked at his friend as if he were a stranger. “What are you getting at?”

Jack McCall swallowed and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes for a moment and then stared his friend fully in the face. “Roger, I sent that pod-thing and those hairs I took from your head to the state forensic lab. Their DNA matched. That thing, whatever it was… was a part of you.”

“That’s crazy talk, Jack. Exactly what do you mean by that?”

The doctor shook his head. “I can’t say for sure. It’s totally beyond my knowledge. But I know someone may know what’s going on. Someone who may be able to help you.”

“Help me? Who?”

“Hot Pappy.”

Roger couldn’t help but laugh. “Hot Pappy? You mean Jeremiah Spangler? That old black man I’ve seen sweeping the church sidewalk and picking up aluminum cans by the side of the road?”

“Yes, that’s him.”

“What could he possibly know about this thing that attacked Tyler?”

Jack shrugged his lean shoulders. “Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Anyway, I think it would be in your best interest… and that of your family… if you would go and talk to him.”

“You’re off your rocker, Jack,” Roger protested. “I’m not going to bare my soul to an old drunkard who doesn’t have two nickels to rub together. Why, he doesn’t look like he has a lick of sense in his head. Looks like he’s stoned out of his gourd half of the time!”

“Yes, you’re right. Hot Pappy has his problems. But he has knowledge, too. Knowledge of things you and I don’t have an inkling about. Otherworldly things.”

“Otherworldly things? What the devil are you talking about?”

The doctor held up Cindy’s drawing. “This is what I’m talking about! Look at it! Look at its eyes, dammit!”

Roger felt a cold stone of dread form in the pit of his gut as he stared at the eyes of the creature in the picture. The depiction was crude, but undeniable. They were hazel green eyes… hauntingly familiar eyes. “Shit. Jack, how could this…?”

“Go to Hot Pappy,” he urged. “Talk to him.”

“But…”

“If you do, you have nothing to lose, Roger,” Jack McCall told him firmly. “But if you don’t… then maybe you’ll end up having everything to lose.”

 

~*~

Trish Perry slept lightly that night.

Butter Bean was kicking up a storm, just as restless as she was. It was almost as though her unborn baby was agitated for some reason.

The baby’s nocturnal activity wasn’t the only thing that occupied the woman’s thoughts. There was Tyler and the frightening incident that had occurred that afternoon. She only knew what her husband had told her—that Tyler and Cindy had been playing in the back yard when a stray cat had jumped from a tree and attacked the boy. Considering the amount of scratches and cuts her son possessed, as well as his debilitating state of shock, she found the story difficult to believe. Tyler was still partially sedated and couldn’t tell her the details of what had happened. And Cindy was oddly tight-lipped about the whole thing. When Trish questioned her daughter and asked if the animal had been a cat, the six-year-old had nodded, but only after a second of hesitation.

She found herself laying in the darkness of the bedroom, drifting in and out of sleep. The sound machine, which had been a comfort to her during her most recent pregnancy, seemed like a hindrance to her that night. Trish kept imagining that she heard noises echoing from somewhere in the house. Roger was dead to the world, apparently exhausted by that day’s events. She recalled how strangely her husband had acted all evening; quiet and introspective, as though he were wrestling with a particularly vexing decision. When she asked him about his behavior, he had been evasive about the subject. That, in itself, bothered her. She and Roger had shared everything during their twelve-year marriage. But she was certain he was keeping something important from her; something concerning the attack on Tyler and what had actually happened to him in the back yard.

Trish sighed and tried her best to relax. She felt alone and scared in the darkness. She considered getting up and investigating the phantom noises, but figured it was simply her imagination playing tricks on her.

Around two in the morning, Trish was awakened by pangs of discomfort. At first, she feared that she was suffering contractions, but that wasn’t the case. The baby was twisting and turning frantically. If she hadn’t known any better, she would have swore that it was frightened of something.

Trish attempted to sit up, but the violent motion in her abdomen caused her to lay flat again. What’s wrong with it? she wondered, terrified. Oh God, what’s happening? Am I losing it? Is it dying?

It was at that moment that she realized that there something in the bedroom. A stench filled in the air—a wet, woodsy smell. The bed shuddered slightly and Trish felt the bedclothes beneath her grow suddenly taut as something pulled itself upward onto the bed.

A low, grating chuckle sounded above the noise of artificial rain.

“Baby,” someone whispered.

Trish craned her neck and peered over the swell of her belly. Something sat perched at the foot of the bed. Something thin and gangly and dark.

Oh, dear God… what is it? But, then again, she didn’t even need to ask. She knew. It was the thing that had attacked Tyler. And it wasn’t a silly old cat.

“Roger,” she hissed in a whisper. Her husband was sound asleep. She could hear him snoring in that nasally staccato way of his. Desperately, she felt to the side with her left hand, but he was too far away. She couldn’t locate him.

Trish whimpered as the thing left its place and began to crawl slowly toward her. She felt it scramble across her swollen feet and legs, coldly dank and oily, as thin and hard as stick kindling. She felt the baby within her womb flinch violently… retreating, moving backward, toward her lower spine. It knows that it’s there! she thought to herself.

Then the thing was upon her, straddling her upper thighs. Dark, spidery hands raked across the dome of Trish’s abdomen. At first, tenderly, almost lovingly.

“Roger!” Trish hissed beneath her breath.

“Baby,” the thing cooed softly. “Brother? Sister?”

Oh God! Oh dear God, oh God!

The creature’s touch began to grow coarser and less gentle. Soon the pressure of its caress grew uncomfortable, almost painful.

“Come out, baby,” the thing in the dark beckoned. “Come out and play.”

Trish felt the nail of a slender, twig-like finger bare downward. Her flesh resisted at first, then gave way. The tip of the claw punched through the tight skin of her belly and began to draw slowly to the side.

She screamed in pain and terror. “ROGER!!”

Her husband lurched out of his sleep, shocked out of his grogginess by Trish’s cry. He spotted the dark thing on top of his wife and kicked out. The sole of his foot collided with the invader, knocking it off the bed and onto the floor.

“What is it, Roger?” Trish shrieked. “WHAT IS IT?!”

Roger jumped out of bed and headed around the footboard, his bare feet skidding on the hardwood floor. The thing crouched there, etched in the pale red glow of the digital alarm clock display. It snickered at him, then slowly lifted into the air with a insectile buzz that ruffled the hair of his head. As Roger lunged at it, the creature shot through the bedroom doorway and disappeared into the hallway.

The kids! his mind screamed. It’s going for the kids!

But once he entered the hallway, he discovered that that was not the case… at least, not at the moment. The dark silhouette of the thing shown against the moonlit window at the far end of the hallway. It was precisely as Cindy had rendered it in crayon—dark, angular, almost mosquito-like, with tattered, transparent wings. Then the glass of the window shattered and the invader had escaped.

Roger rushed to the opening of the ruptured window. He felt shards of broken glass lacerate the soles of his feet, but that was the least of his worries. “Stay away from us!” he bellowed into the night. “Leave us alone!”

Jack McCall’s words echoed in his mind… the urgent request that he visit Hot Pappy Spangler. “If you don’t… then maybe you’ll end up having everything to lose.”

Somewhere in the darkness, the thing giggled. The laughter sounded hostile and mischievous, like the mirth of a spiteful child.

Then it was gone.

 

Roger Perry sat parked at the side of a rutted, dirt road, beyond the outskirts of New Middleton. He stared out the side window at a small, gray wood shack surrounded by hulks of rusty junk and a sea of empty beer and Crown Royal bottles.

It was nine-thirty the following morning and he should have been utterly exhausted and on his last legs. His nerves were too wired to allow that to happen though.

The past seven and a half hours had been a frantic procession of hasty plans and precautions. First, he had rushed his wife to the emergency room of Williamson Medical Center in nearby Franklin. Trish had been hysterical following the invasion of the thing from the backyard and he had been afraid that her anxiety would either throw her into contractions or cause her to miscarry. Thankfully, the wound in her belly was superficial. She was in a private room at that moment, sedated enough to calm her down, but not to harm the baby. Tyler and Cindy were staying with Jack McCall and his wife across town… a safe distance from Rolling Meadows and danger.

To say that he didn’t have much confidence in Hot Pappy’s ability to help him was an understatement. The old man was something of a sad joke in the community. He had been arrested for public drunkenness dozens of times and seemed to spend more time in the county jail than out. When he was sober, Hot Pappy was making a dollar here and there, doing odd jobs around town and collecting aluminum cans along Highway 100. Looking at the rundown shack and its surroundings was like looking at a residential version of the man himself.

Roger sighed and left the Dodge Caravan. Considering the events of the previous day, he didn’t really have much of a choice. He respected Jack McCall’s advice on all levels, both medical and personal, and if he said the old black man could help him, then he was probably right. Or at least, Roger hoped so.

He picked his way through the rusty junk and garbage of the front yard and climbed the steps of the rickety porch. Roger was raising his fist to knock on the door, when it suddenly opened.

“Morning,” said Hot Pappy from the opposite side of the threshold.

The man was short and wiry, with close-cropped, curly white hair and a beard to match. His bloodshot eyes—one lazy and canted to the left—were a peculiar shade of slate gray. His teeth were crooked and stained a yellowish-brown with tobacco juice. He wore a dingy wife-beater undershirt and a pair of jeans that had been patched so many times that the denim could scarcely be seen. On his feet was a pair of scuffed Nikes that looked like they had been in and out of Goodwill stores a dozen times.

“Good morning,” Roger replied.

Hot Pappy smiled crookedly. “Didn’t say it was good, now did I? Looks like an awful low and cloudy one for you… or am I mistaken?”

“No, sir. You’re right on the money.”

The old man stepped aside. “Then come on in. Misery loves company.”

Roger entered the little shack. The interior was dark and cluttered, and stank of unwashed clothing, unwashed dishes, and stale beer. He was surprised to find that there were only two rooms in the structure. The first boasted a little potbelly stove, a ratty armchair, a table with two chairs, a kitchen sink, and an olive-colored refrigerator that looked like a throwback to the 70’s. A door lead to another room—probably a small bedroom—but it was closed.

“Have yourself a seat, Mr. Perry,” Hot Pappy invited, waving to one of the two kitchen chairs.

Roger sat down. “You know who I am?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Did Dr. McCall tell you I was coming?”

The old man shook his wooly head. “Uh-uh. There ain’t much goes on in New Middleton that I don’t know about. Especially the bad stuff.” He ambled over to the fridge. “Mind if I have my breakfast whilst we talk?”

“No… go right ahead.”

Hot Pappy took a tall boy of Budweiser from the refrigerator and had himself a seat in the opposite chair. The two men regarded each other across the table while the old man popped the top and took a long draw on the beer.

A scratching from the closed door caught Roger’s attention. “What was that?”

“Just my ol’ dog. Don’t pay it no mind.” The elderly man rested his knobby elbows on the table top, interlaced his fingers, and stared at Roger over the knuckles. “If you had to resort to coming to me, then you must be hurting for help,” Hot Pappy told him. “Now tell me exactly what’s going on and don’t leave a speck of information out. It’s the specks that are the most important.”

Roger gathered his thoughts, trying to figure out where to start. “Well, this might sound crazy…”

“Mr. Perry, I’ve heard and seen a thousand kinds of crazy. Give me what you got, and we’ll see if it measures up to all the others.”

Roger nodded and then told him everything—the lidless garbage can with the mysterious pod in its nest of refuse, the fears of his children afterward, the attack on Tyler in the back yard, and the near evisceration of his wife the night before. When he finished he felt totally drained. “See, I told you it was crazy.”

Hot Pappy took another swing on the tall boy. “A grim situation, but not crazy.” He leaned back in his chair and thought on the subject for a long moment. “I reckon I can help you with it, though.”

Roger studied him suspiciously. “How much?”

The old man laughed. “This ain’t no business transaction, Mr. Perry. If’n you wants me to clean out your garage or whitewash your porch posts, then, yeah, I’d want a greenback or two for that. But this sort of thing I don’t charge for. It’d be a downright sin. Of course, if you want to stop by the liquor store and bring me back a bottle of Johnny Walker Black, then I ain’t adverse to—what do you church-going folks call it?—a ‘love offering’.”

“I suppose I could do that.”

“Fine. Now let’s get down to brass tacks.” Hot Pappy took a long pull on the Bud and set it back on the table. “Do you masturbate, Mr. Perry?”

At first Roger was certain that he had misunderstood him. “I beg your pardon?”

“You know… jack off, jerk off, bop the boloney, throttle the ol’ pink snake…”

“I know what you mean.” Roger’s ears blazed blood red. “I don’t think that’s any of your business.”

Hot Pappy leaned forward in his chair until his face was only a foot from Roger Perry’s. “If you don’t wanna see your son and daughter, maybe your wife and that little baby she’s carrying inside, laid out at Johnson’s Funeral Home, then you better make it my business.” He sat back in his chair again and took another sip of beer. “Now answer my question.”

Roger shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Yeah, sometimes. My wife and I can’t…you know… have relations. Because of her pregnancy. And a man has his, uh, needs.”

A sad smile creased the old man’s face. “Oh, he does indeed. South of the belt buckle a man’s needs are urgent and plenty. So, tell me, when was the last time you… indulged yourself… before leaving on your trip to Florida?”

Roger’s face took on the same crimson flush as his ears. “That morning, I suppose… after I took a shower.”

“And the drippings from your pleasure? Where’d it go?”

“Really! This is getting…”

Hot Pappy raised a wrinkled hand. “Didn’t wanna ask… just needed to know. Believe me, I get no pleasure from delving into your right-handed shenanigans.”

“In the bathroom trash can.”

“And that would be the last one you emptied into the big can out back?”

Roger considered it. “Come to think of it, it was.”

“And where you shot off was where you found that ugly ol’ egg, ain’t that right?”

Roger’s embarrassment was gradually turning into a dark dread that he couldn’t quite comprehend. “Yes. But what are you….”

“Mr. Perry, is there a tree growing near your back porch? A peculiar tree with jagged leaves? Green on one side and blood red on the other?”

“How did you know that?”

“I didn’t, but I do now.” Hot Pappy rubbed the palms of his hands over his eyes and sighed. “Mr. Perry, are you aware that your property shares two counties?”

“Yes, I’m aware of that. The front yard and house is in Williamson County and the back yard is in…”

“Fear County.” A grim expression shown in Hot Pappy’s gaunt face. “I know you ain’t originally from Tennessee, so maybe you’re a mite ignorant about our neighboring county and its dark reputation. Just let me tell you that it ain’t a place folks around here talk about much. Why those fools built the back half of a damn subdivision on its cursed earth is beyond me!”

“What’s so bad about it?” Roger asked.

“It’s what soot black is to snow white… what Purgatory is to Paradise. Those who live within its borders are rotten to the core, possessing no conscience or decency. And what grows there—be it plant or animal, bird of the air or fish in the creek—are just as warped and full of venom.”

“And this tree at the edge of my deck… it’s one of those things?”

“Hell yeah, it is! Don’t have a name, not that I know of, but they grow only in Fear County. And if one of its leaves should happen to fall upon the seed of man… well, what comes about is a pure and simple abomination.”

Roger felt a coldness run through his veins. “Mr. Spangler… what is this thing?”

“It’s a Seedling.” The old man grinned humorlessly. “My old granny used to say it was God’s judgment for a man’s misguided passion. I reckon she wasn’t wrong about it either.”

“Your grandmother knew of these things?”

Hot Pappy chuckled. “Damn, she lived smack dab in the middle of it all… in the heart of Fear County. Folks called her the Granny Woman. Said she was a witch… but a good ’un. That’s how I come to know about these sordid matters. I’m the seventh son of a seventh son, Mr. Perry, bound by tradition to learn the old ways. When I was twelve, I was sent to Paradise Hollow to learn potions, conjuring, and such from Granny. The journey there was a terrifying one for a boy my age, but the trip back wasn’t nearly as stressful. I had the tools necessary to deal with all the evil Fear County had to dish out. And I haven’t forgotten a thing ol’ Granny taught me sixty long years ago.”

“This thing… this Seedling? Why is it terrorizing my family?”

“A Seedling isn’t all evil. It possesses love… but only for one person… its creator. It’s damn selfish, too. Doesn’t want to share its papa with anyone else and it’ll do whatever’s necessary to see that it has you all to itself. Even if it has to kill to do it.”

The thought made Roger sick to his stomach. “Can… can you help me, Mr. Spangler? Get rid of this thing?”

The scratching at the bedroom door came again. “You hush up in there!” Hot Pappy hollered. He turned his gray eyes back to the man across the table. “I’ll help you, Mr. Perry, but it ain’t going to be an easy task. I’ll do what I can to bring it out into the open, maybe even stun it enough to weaken it… but when it all comes down to the final moment, it’s you who are going to have to do away with it.”

“You want me to kill it?”

“That’s how it has to be,” Hot Pappy told him. “A Seedling can only be destroyed by the man whose loins it sprang from. And it must be done in a particular way.”

“What do you mean?”

The old man’s bones popped as he pulled himself out of his chair and went to an old trunk in the far corner. He opened it and brought out a metal box about eighteen inches long. Hot Pappy set it on the table and produced its contents. It was a strange-looking hatchet with a handle wrapped in dark leather bound with rawhide. He handed it to the man across from him.

“It’s made entirely of wood,” said Roger.

“Yes, from the same sort of tree that was this Seedling’s mother. That’s the only thing that can kill a Seedling—an axe carved from the wood of the red-leaved tree, wielded by the one whose lust created it.”

Roger handed the weapon back to the old man for safe-keeping. “When will we do it?”

“Tonight… when it gets dark. It’s downright treacherous, dealing with one of those nasty things at night, but I think it’s necessary that we dispatch it as soon as possible. You and your loved ones ain’t gonna have a moment’s peace on God’s green earth until we do.”

“Alright then,” Roger said with a nod. Although he felt better about the situation, he knew that relief would never truly come until the creature in the back yard was gone for good. “I’m going to the hospital to be with my wife for a while. I’ll be back around eight o’clock to pick you up.”

“Good deal,” agreed Hot Pappy. “I’ve got a potion I need to work up… something that’ll knock the wind out of that little bastard. And don’t forget that bottle of Walker Black.”

The two men looked at one another—men from entirely different upbringings and walks of life—and then they shook hands. After that, Roger left the shack and Hot Pappy went to work, humming a gospel hymn while measuring powders and liquids from bottles and flasks stored in the ancient trunk. When he was done, he took the finished product, cinched it up in a muslin bag, and then went to fridge for another Budweiser.

 

It was a little after eight that night, when Roger returned.

Hot Pappy hopped into the passenger seat. He was dressed in a checked flannel shirt, despite the heat of the evening, and a filthy UT ball cap. He toted the long metal box under one skinny arm.

The old man grinned when Roger handed him a brown paper bag. “Ah… my love offering.”

“I’d prefer that you don’t drink it until we get this business taken care of,” Roger told him.

“Just need one sip to fortify and strengthen me.” Hot Pappy broke the seal, removed the cap, and took a long swallow of the amber liquor. “Nectar of the Drunken Gods! But that’s enough for now. I’ll savor it later, after the dirty deed is done.”

They drove in silence as they left the dirt road and hit the level stretch of Highway 100, heading in the direction of New Middleton and the Rolling Meadows subdivision. Then Roger couldn’t help but ask. “Tell me something… why do they call you ‘Hot Pappy’?”

The old man smiled broadly. “I was once considered quite the lady’s man. Had a woman in my bed every night of the week… both black and white. Probably have twenty or thirty grown young’uns here in New Middleton alone. If they’re pitch black or have a little coffee in their cream, I probably had a hand in it somewheres along the line.”

Another half mile down the road, Roger asked another question. “What’s that awful smell? You?”

Hot Pappy laughed. “Maybe part of it. Mostly it’s this.” He held up the bundle of powder he’d concocted earlier that day.

“What is it?”

“A big ol’ bug bomb of sorts, but it sure ain’t Black Flag. Some of the ingredients in this bag don’t grow nowhere but in the cancer pit of Fear County. Some of it was hand-picked by the Granny Woman herself.” The old man thought for a second. “I dare say, some of it might very well be found in your own back yard.”

Roger shook his head. “After this is over with, I don’t think I’ll be able to live there anymore. We’ll probably sell the place and move.”

“You can live in the shadow of Fear County, if you learn to respect its twisted nature. I’ll be glad to teach you what you need to know.”

A minute later, they entered the subdivision of Rolling Meadows with its upscale homes and manicured lawns. Hot Pappy frowned in disgust, “Such a place seems… well, unnatural… out here in the sticks. You city folks with your lofty ways barging in, bending our customs and such to suit your needs. Well, you ain’t gonna bend Fear County. It’ll smother you like a cold, wet blanket until this turns into a ghost town with fancy brick mailboxes. You may have been different from the others… or maybe not, until this thing with the Seedling came up outta nowheres and bit you in the ass.”

“I hate to admit it, but you’re probably right.” Roger turned the van into a pea-gravel driveway with low shrubs bordering it. “Here we are.”

“Nice. What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a regional sales manager for a computer company,” Roger told him.

“Sure beats cleaning the toilets down at the Dairy Queen, I reckon.”

Roger pulled the van next to the doors of the double garage and cut the headlights. They sat in darkness for a long moment. “You wanna pray or something before we go?” asked Hot Pappy.

“I’ve prayed enough in the past eighteen hours to fill up God’s voice mail for the next couple of years,” Roger said. “Let’s get this over with.”

Hot Pappy opened the box and handed him the wooden hatchet. “I’ll subdue it and then you end it. Just like we discussed before.”

Roger held the weapon in his hand, testing its weight and balance. “I… I’m scared.”

“Good. So am I. Now let’s go find that hellish little pest.”

The two men left the van and walked around the end of the house to the back yard. Roger led the way around the deck, heading cautiously toward the strange tree at the far end. Halfway there, he stopped.

“What’s wrong?” asked Hot Pappy.

“The security light didn’t come on. It’s broken it.”

“I’d expect as much from a Seedling. Conniving and sneaky, they are.”

A full moon graced the sky that night, casting pale silver light upon the yard. Islands of black shadow stretched here and there, around the swing set, at the west side of the storage building, and beneath the red-leaved tree. As they approached the tree, something in its foliage giggled.

“Daddy,” the Seedling said. “My Daddy.”

Roger Perry stopped dead in his tracks. “Oh dear God…”

“Stay put and I’ll flush it out,” whispered Hot Pappy. “But be ready. Once it’s on the ground, make your move. And no hesitation.”

“Okay,” rasped Roger. His mouth was cotton dry and his arms were peppered with goose bumps. He clutched the handle of the hatchet until his knuckles hurt.

Hot Pappy came within eight feet of the tree. Then he took the muslin bag, lit its top, and tossed it on the ground where the tree’s roots protruded from the earth.

The bag hissed, then exploded with a blue flash. Noxious black smoke drifted upward, snaking its way between the tree’s branches and limbs. “Don’t breathe too deeply,” the old man warned Roger. “It’ll make the thing dizzy, but it’ll way-lay you, too, if you take in a lungful.”

For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. Then came a crash and rustling of leaves and something began to fall from its perch high in the uppermost branches. A second later it struck the ground with a crunching thud. Moonlight shown on the Seedling, revealing it fully for the first time.

Cindy’s crayon drawing hadn’t been far from the truth. The thing resembled some monstrous, tree-like version of a mosquito. The Seedling’s arms and legs were gangly and jointed, seemingly made of wood than actual flesh and bone. Its body was knotty and twisted and its head was malformed, long and almost rodent-like in nature. Tufts of brown hair sprouted from its skull… the same brown hue as Roger’s. Its jaws gnashed angrily, bearing thin, jagged teeth as big around as a number 2 pencil, and from its back fluttered two wings. They resembled oversized leaves, the same shape and two-toned color as the foliage of the strange tree at the end of the deck.

“Now!” yelled Hot Pappy. “Do it now… while its wits are addled!”

As the thing thrashed on the ground, Roger jumped on top of it. Knobby elbows and knees drummed ineffectively against his torso, bruising his chest and ribs. He reached down and caught the creature beneath its chin, holding it down. He raised the hatchet, intending on bringing it down.

But something stopped him.

“Oh God!” moaned Roger. “It’s eyes!”

The eyes of the Seedling were not those of an unthinkable monster, but were, instead, his eyes. Hazel green and as human as human could be. Both Tyler and Cindy had inherited Roger’s eye color and, so it seemed, had his latest offspring.

“Daddy,” whimpered the Seedling pitifully. “Don’t.”

“Don’t look at its eyes, Mr. Perry!” warned Hot Pappy. “Kill it!”

“I… I don’t know if I can!”

The Seedling reached up with a thin hand constructed of knotted roots and twigs. “Don’t Daddy,” it protested. Tears bloomed in those mirror-image eyes as it tenderly stroked Roger’s face. “Love Daddy.”

“Dear Lord, Hot Pappy, I don’t think I can…”

The thing turned its ugly head and regarded the old man. “Kill you. Kill Daddy’s friend.”

Roger felt the thing shaking off the effects of the potion’s smoke. It was growing stronger, threatening to break his hold.

“KILL IT!” screamed Hot Pappy.

Roger Perry screamed himself as he reared back and then brought the edge of the wooden hatchet down upon the Seedling. The head of the axe parted the creature’s skull, splitting it in half. A gelatinous black substance—the thing’s brain, perhaps—spurted from the open wound. When it hit the ground, it sizzled and smoldered with a nasty, sulfurous stench.

“No, Daddy,” moaned the thing. “Don’t. Please…love me…”

Roger yelled hoarsely as he brought the hatchet down again and again. Finally, he felt the Seedling cease to move beneath him. He leapt up and stumbled backward. The thing’s head was a glistening ruin of splintered wood. The only things that remained whole and intact were those human-like eyes of hazel green.

“Oh, dear God, forgive me,” sobbed Roger. He tossed the wooden hatchet to the ground, as though it were a smoking gun.

“Forgive you… for what?” asked Hot Pappy.

“I… I created the thing. It was my…”

The elderly man was suddenly there, gripping Roger firmly by the shoulders. “No! Listen to me, Mr. Perry. It was a monster, plain and simple. True, you brought it to life, but that’s as far as it goes. It was never a part of you. Not a true part of you.”

Roger closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “What do we do with it now? Bury it?”

A look of pure terror shown in Hot Pappy’s ebony face. “Bury it? Oh, dear Jesus, no! Can you imagine what would happen if you buried… planted… a Seedling? Do you want a whole orchard of these sadistic little bastards sprouting up and going to town, looking for their daddy? Looking for you?”

“No!” mumbled Roger, trembling. “God help me, no.”

“There’s a better way. Now stand clear.”

Hot Pappy bent down and picked up the hatchet. Then he took a can of lighter fluid from his shirt pocket. He removed the cap and saturated the crumpled body of the creature. Then he took a book of matches and lit one from the fold. He tossed it at the Seedling and both of them stood there, watching, as it caught flame and burned.

“Is it over?” Roger asked, sounding drained, both physically and emotionally.

“Yes,” the black man assured him. “It’s most definitely over.”

 

The two were silent all the way back to Hot Pappy’s shack.

When Roger stopped the van and let it idle, the old man turned and looked him. Roger sat there, his head drooping slightly, his eyes still moist from crying. He didn’t need to see the expression on the man’s face to gauge his sorrow. It hung inside the vehicle like something alive and palpable… and he knew it would remain that way for some time.

“It was something that had to be done,” Hot Pappy told him softly. “If you hadn’t, you would have lost your family. A thing like that doesn’t stop until it has its way. Feel fortunate that you had the guts to end it before it was too late.”

“But… but its eyes!”

“I know. It’s a grievous thing to dwell on. But it wasn’t human, and it wasn’t actually your child. And what you did could never, in a million years, be considered an act of murder.”

Roger turned and stared at the old man. His eyes were feverish and haunted. “Couldn’t it?”

Hot Pappy reached over and patted the man’s shoulder. “Take care of yourself, Mr. Perry. Maybe we’ll run into each other around town. Or maybe not. If you’d rather not acknowledge me should we cross paths, then that’s okay. We’ll just pretend that it never happened.”

“Please,” said Roger dully, “just take your bottle and go.”

Hot Pappy nodded, took the brown bag bearing the bottle of Johnny Walker Black, and left the Dodge. Almost immediately, Roger Perry took off. A moment later, the red taillights of the van disappeared over a rise in the road and was gone.

The elderly man sighed, feeling ancient and exhausted. He made his way through his junky yard, mounted the porch, and let himself into the shack with a key.

Hot Pappy tossed his cap on the table, then plopped into the recliner. As he uncapped the bottle of Black and took a long swig, he stared at an old, yellowed photograph hanging on the wall. A pretty, young black woman wearing a calico dress and a white apron. She was holding a tiny girl with her hair tied up in cornrows, while a boy of five or six stood next to her, decked out in overalls and a big old toothy grin.

Something scratched at the bedroom door.

He took another drink of the liquor, feeling it burn going down, trying hard to ignore the sound.

The door creaked as it opened.

Hot Pappy tensed—as he always did—when it approached.

He stared at the wooden hatchet lying on the table a few feet away.

Feel fortunate that you had the guts to end it before it was too late, he had told Roger Perry. He felt ashamed… giving advice that he had been too cowardly to take to heart himself.

His skin crawled when it laid its knotty, gnarled hand upon his shoulder.

“Papa?” a voice whistled in his ear, cold and lonesome, like winter wind through a hollow log. “Papa… come home?”