"Wild Corner" by M.T. Reiten is original fiction from the anthology Speculative Story Bites. Get the whole anthology from Amazon, Kobo, or World Weaver Press.
Every backyard needs a wild corner. This is the final haven of dark thoughts and old dreams in an orderly and rational world. Where seeds blown in by chance may take root and grow, harming no manicured lawns or pampered garden plots.
Jason had kept the tangled shadowy area as it was when he and Amy had moved into the old neighborhood. Adolescent redbud saplings huddled together along the chain link fence in the far corner of the lot, partially hidden from view behind the garden shed. Strange sharp-edged ferns lurked in the shadows, afraid of the bright light of midday. Twisted grapevine bound the other growth in a slow strangling embrace, comrades against the precision and order in the surrounding subdivision.
Pushing his decrepit Craftsman lawnmower, Jason weaved between the haphazardly planted trees that the previous owners had put in to spruce up the landscape. Vibrations from the underpowered engine numbed his arms and the drone deadened his ears. Sweat and flecks of grass clung to his face as he turned, cutting swaths parallel to his red brick house. The moist smell of cut grass mingled sickeningly with blue-gray oil fumes as he ducked beneath the dead limbs of the ornamental plum.
The whirling blades only did their work on the lawn when moving forward; everything else was wasted time. Jason wanted his time back, the time that the lawn ate after a hectic day. So he maximized the forward motion and minimized the maneuvering to be finished as soon as possible.
Jason scowled across the metal fence dividing his yard from the next and caught his neighbor, Carver, moving away from the glass of his French doors. The vertical blinds swayed, the telltale that he watched, disapproving of Jason’s slipshod lawn maintenance.
Carver was a wiry old man, long retired from delivering Wonder Bread every morning for thirty-five years. His face had frozen in the morally offended frown of a neighborhood lawnmower Nazi. He never did his own yard work when Jason was around. Carver labored in the morning before the full heat and humidity of the day could settle in. Too often the snarl of Carver’s mower would sound just as the dew lifted from the grass on Sunday mornings when Jason and Amy tried to make some time alone in bed.
Carver’s turf was close-cropped, like a military haircut, and the first on the block to brown in the heat of August. Not a pinecone or fallen branch was suffered for more than twenty-four hours. But his extremist brand of lawn care encroached on Jason’s space. The narrow strip of yard between the fence and the road—legally Jason’s private property—bordering Carver’s lawn was always cut on Sunday morning. The strip conformed to the half-inch level that made Carver’s lawn rival a putting green. And weekly the encroachment grew, bit by bit, foot after foot, farther onto Jason’s land.
Jason fumed. He pushed his sputtering mower toward the wild corner, and smirked, knowing how the disarray behind the garden shed must drive Carver mad.
Purple grackles, eyes a malevolent yellow rimmed with black, peered out of the lush branches hanging over the garden shed. They croaked like rusty hinges before flapping away. A swarm of gnats coalesced into the sunlight like animate dust in the still air.
Jason had considered tearing the corner up, but who knew how many dead dogs with muzzles grayed by age had been put to rest there? How many children had cried over tiny graves for robins with broken necks turning the plot into hallowed ground? Some places were best left alone.
As a poorly practiced Catholic, Jason didn’t truly believe anything mystical happened in the wild corner, but he did honor the old spirits in a fashion. His faith wasn’t a contradiction, but a reflexive necessity, like those who lived in the hinterlands of Europe when the One God appeared. Pious mouths may have sung hymns during the daylight. However, wine was spilled to the dirt at night. An unnamed reverence felt proper within the green and shadows where he could forget for a moment that he was surrounded by neighbors.
Jason pivoted the mower around the garden shed. He released the kill-switch and let the engine die when he saw the remains of the wild corner.
The gangly redbud saplings stood, though trimmed of ground drooping branches, so to a casual glance it looked like the wild corner still lurked in the back of the property. Vines turned brown in a twisted tangle on the ground. The untamed growth had been torn free of the fence and cut down to the bare soil drying cement-like in the sun. Nothing remained of the lush foliage except heaps of yard waste on Jason’s side of the fence. Not even a stray leaf lay on Carver’s yard.
What should he do? Take pictures of it? Get his gloves and pile it up by the curb for trash day? Dump the remains over the fence into Carver’s yard? Jason mowed around the defiled debris, glaring across the chain link fence at his neighbor’s dark house.
The world bowed under the weight of conformity. Hot and sweating, Jason raged to himself and hated everything around him. He had to mark territory with the spiteful sameness of close-cropped lawns. He had to accept the temerity of keeping grazing land but no animals, save the despised cottontail, could eat the clover, sprayed with chemicals to keep it from growing. Early each spring, he had to scatter fertilizer, like poisonous green mouse turds, to the point that children were cautioned not to play on the grass. The entire city had engulfed its homes in moats of green vegetative dross, pumped up with steroids, a fascist predilection to the uber-race of specially ordained strains of proto-cereal crop never allowed to reach maturity and complete the cycle of life by spreading its seed to the wind, but cut down week after week in a fatuous show of ostentatious consumption of leisure time, gasoline, and subjected biomass.
All the tamed land squeezed everything wild into a tighter place, building up pressure. Jason chuckled unpleasantly when he realized that he was the vent. He would relieve the wild pressure. Jason abandoned the mower and stalked into the desecrated wild corner as the last light faded completely to dusk.
“You thought it was an eye-sore before, did you?” Jason gathered an armful of the remains and tugged it free. He dragged the leavings away from the corner and went to work under the dead ornamental plum.
The two years of suppressed rage from the ever-encroaching buzz-cut yard seemed to boil out of Jason. The tree limbs found on his side of the fence, cleanly cut and green leaves still growing. No complaint, just carted away. The concentrated chemical run-off from the neighboring lawn that had seared his grass and left brown patches, killing his small plum tree. No comment when tree removal flyers were stuffed in his mailbox. Carver posted “Keep Off the Grass” and “No Trespassing” signs, yet his white Lhasa Apso could run around freely and crap in Jason’s yard.
Jason hadn’t worked with found art sculpture since his freshman year in college, but this felt right—no, righteous—feeding his anger and giving it form. He bent the brown vines and twisted them like sinews. The thick bits of redbud sapling formed bones. He tore apart the mound of lawn mower mulch from behind the shed and squished the hot fermenting mass into the rib cage for lungs, heart, and guts. He crumpled a rose bush that had gone feral, knobby rose hips bending the branches like arthritic joints into spread claw-like hands. The oozing sap and crushed leaves, mingling with the split green wood, wrapped a sweet head-spinning aroma around Jason. He tied limbs to torso with curling grapevine and thistle, ignoring the prickly burn. Jason realized that he had woven a surreal Green Man figure, stripped of flesh and exposed like an autopsy corpse.
Jason wished it was Halloween, so he could place a carved pumpkin on top of the effigy he had lashed together. Working by sense of touch alone, he ripped up several oak saplings, spared Carver’s saw, and interlaced them together into a semblance of a head. Rootlets formed a crumbling beard and twisted twigs bearing oak leaves became an untamed mane.
Jason hefted the misshapen figure onto the dead plum tree. Thorny branches scratched across his face as he wrestled his creation into place, facing into the backyard of the neighbor. Stinging blood dribbled across the corner of his eye. He wiped it away with the palm of his dirty, leaf-stained hand. Finished, Jason stepped away and looked around for approval or shock. But he was alone in the growing twilight and fading heat of the day. No one was outside to admire his handiwork.
Let Carver complain to whoever listened to him in the morning. Jason would claim it as artwork. First Amendment rights protected him on his property. He marked his own territory and was done for the night, the passion of vengeance throbbing in his chest.
“You are filthy,” Amy pronounced as Jason stepped in the front door. She stood in the hallway with a frown on her pixyish face. But her accusing tone changed to concern when she saw him under the light. “Oh, gracious! You’re bleeding!”
Jason kicked off his shoes, moist with grass stains. “He went too far this time.”
“Who did? What happened?” Amy disappeared into the bathroom and then returned with a damp cloth.
“Carver cut up the wild corner. Probably with that pole attachment for his chainsaw.”
“Sounds like you have hardware envy.” Amy giggled.
“I don’t want more tools. I hate yard work.”
“Maybe we should have stayed in the apartment,” she said reaching up to Jason’s face.
“Why didn’t he come over here when we first moved in? Why doesn’t he just say that he’s got a problem with me?”
“Why don’t you just go over and ask him?” she asked, maddeningly calm and reasonable. She daubed at the cuts on his forehead, but not as gently as a few moments before.
Jason pulled away from Amy. “I’m grabbing a shower.”
He shucked his clothes beside the bathtub and stepped in. The water spurted from the showerhead, not quite warm enough for comfort or cool enough to refresh. He watched brown and green water run off his ankles and swirl around the drain slowly as he hung his head under the limp flow. He wondered if the sewer pipes were leaking and helping Carver ruin his lawn from beneath.
Amy called from the kitchen. “Jason, come here!”
“I’ll be out in a second!”
Jason stomped out of the bathroom with a towel around his waist. He dripped spitefully on the beige carpet. “What?” he demanded.
Amy stood in front of the sink, staring out the window into the backyard. She held the shades open with one hand and covered her mouth with the other. A flickering yellow glow lit her face.
Jason padded onto the linoleum and peered over Amy’s shoulder. Water dribbled from his hair and he had to wipe his eyes on the back of his hand before he could see.
The figure burned in its perch in the dead tree. The outstretched arms had flames snapping whip-like, coiling in thick orange-yellow ropes. Fire shot out of every portion of the mannequin: arms, legs, and head. Glowing red embers twirled above the figure in a searing cloud. The flames populated both yards with mad dancing shadows, spirits gathering at the pagan ritual.
“I’ve got to put that out.” Jason rubbed the towel frantically over his chest as he dashed back to the bathroom. He pulled on his sweaty, itching shorts and ran out the front door.
Amy followed him, but stopped on the porch. “Need help?”
“I’ll handle it.” He unscrewed the garden hose from the spigot where Amy had last sprinkled the front flowerbeds. The flimsy metal cap squeaked and bound up as he struggled to get it loose. Tepid water dribbled over his fingers.
The compost must have heated up enough to spontaneously combust, Jason decided. The mulch had felt hot when he stuffed the effigy, but everything had felt hot. No. Carver must have sprayed it with lighter fluid and tossed a match on it, just to get even.
Jason pulled the hose free and ran gingerly around the corner of his house. Twigs and fragments of ornamental lava rock bit into his feet. Instead of the dancing yellow glow from the burning mannequin, Jason saw red and blue flashing lights from a police cruiser illuminating the street.
A policeman walked out of Jason’s backyard and closed the gate behind him. He raised his Maglight. “Jason Hargrove?”
The glare made Jason blink and shield his face. “Yes, sir.”
The officer lowered the flashlight and holstered it. He had a round face with a goofy smile, lit alternately red and blue. “I’m Officer McGowan. Mr. Carver called in a complaint about a fire.”
“The compost. Had to be.”
The amiable look on the policeman’s face hardened slightly. “He claimed you were burning a six foot cross on his lawn.”
“There’s no sign of fire in either yard. Shoot, you don’t even have a grill.” The officer shook his head. “We’ve had problems with Carver over the past few years. This isn’t the first time he’s made a bogus statement.”
“Must be seeing things.” Jason, suddenly chilled, dropped the coiled hose. He wiped his forehead and felt tacky drying blood on the back of his hand.
“Whatever the problem, my advice is to first mend the fence. I hate getting called out in the middle of the night over a pissing contest between neighbors.” Officer McGowan readjusted his pistol belt. “You may also want to look into hiring a lawn service. I about twisted an ankle on the uneven ground back there. You’ve got cut worms or moles under that sod.”
Jason noticed the officer eyeing the garden hose that he had dropped. He hated himself for lying as he picked up the uncoiling hose. “I need to get the sprinkler going.”
“Before I go, I want to remind you that there is a burn ban on yard waste.” Officer McGowan swaggered toward his vehicle.
“Yes, sir. I know.” As the police cruiser drove away, Jason noticed shades and curtains pulled aside in houses all along the street. Especially the vertical blinds on the French doors at Carver’s house.
Sharp Bermuda grass poked between his toes as he walked across the lumpy yard. The soil did feel soft. He stood below the dead plum tree. The bone white branches were empty and unburned.
Jason went inside. He leaned his head against a bare wall. It would be so easy to believe that Carver had somehow taken the figure down. That had to be it. In those seconds between running outside and police arriving. He wanted to believe it.
“What did the cops say?” Amy asked.
“What about the fire?” she asked.
“There was nothing.”
“I saw a fire.” Amy’s usual smile had pursed into a stubborn frown.
“So did I, but nothing is out there. Not a damn thing.”
They undressed and went to bed in silence. Amy turned away from Jason as they lay beneath the cotton sheets. But after a few minutes, she reached out, found his hand with hers and pulled it over her side. Jason gave her a squeeze and he lay quietly in the darkness as she fell asleep.
Well after midnight, Jason heard the tapping of branches on the window, but he ignored it. Then the screech of nails on chalkboard, or claws across brick, pierced the quiet. The noise came from the outside walls throughout the house.
Amy sat up. “Did you hear that?”
Jason crawled out of bed to look out the window, but could see nothing strange under the sodium glow of the streetlight. Bushes and tree branches moved in a slight breeze.
Putting on a pair of boxers, Jason went to the darkened kitchen and pushed the shades aside. The dead plum tree was empty. Then a crudely wrought face rose up from below the window to stare back at him.
Jason yelped and pushed away from the counter, stumbling to the floor. But he could still see the face between the curtains. The face he had created in self-righteous fury. He pulled himself up by the sink.
The empty eyes gathered into a speckled glow, the robust yellow-green of chemlight sticks, and Jason could see the tentacle rootlets forming a beard below an angry man’s face. Skin like weathered bark. Then the glimmer shifted and ran across the draining face, like the evanescent fluid of a lightning bug spattered against the windshield of a speeding car. The glow of life slowly dimming, in pain and anguish. The twisted face seemed like a sketch of a skull, dull black eyes and gaping fleshless mouth, thorns protruding like fangs.
Then the face was gone; only Jason’s faint image reflected from the pane of glass. A dark silhouette walked out of Carver’s house into the adjacent backyard. Jason went to their seldom used backdoor.
“Where are you going?” Amy asked, a scared flutter in her voice. She stood in the hallway, away from the windows, arms covering her bare breasts.
“What? You don’t know what’s out there!”
“I made it. Stay inside, please.” Jason left his home to confront Carver on the other side of the fence. His anger had gone, leaving him dizzy, and the sharp grass didn’t bother him. Nothing felt right in his own backyard. Shadows had gathered strength, and the air felt thick and heavy, devoid of wind, but he could hear the rustle of leaves from the trees.
The fence looked shrouded in black silk, but as he got closer, Jason realized it was covered in vines. He reached out and discovered the entire length of fence had become a hedge of tissue soft leaves. They tickled the palm of his hand.
Carver stood in the middle of his own yard, fully dressed in khaki pants and matching long sleeve shirt. He shook a machete and pointed the beam from a small plastic flashlight into every dark corner of his property.
“Mr. Carver,” Jason called.
“I knew it would be you. Keep away from my house. Can’t you read the signs? No trespassing!” Carver waggled the machete at Jason as he approached the entwined fence. “Next time I’ll get my shotgun and shoot you as a burglar. Shoot you dead and it’s within my rights if you’re on my land.”
“I never touched your house.”
“I just repainted. It’s all scratched up.”
“I never touched your house.”
Straining metal squeaked beneath writhing tendrils. A quiet plink preceded a whole section of fence collapsing under a shroud of leaves. Jason and Carver both stepped away.
Carver poked at the vine with the tip of his machete. “Peas?”
Jason looked toward his garden shed, engulfed in dark foliage. The wild corner had regrown, expanded, and overflowed the waist-high fence. Carver’s yard now had a thriving wild corner of its own, intermingling with his small orderly vegetable plot. New leaves unfurled with a papery crinkle and branches extended with a serpentine hiss.
“I’m sorry about this,” Jason said.
“You sure as hell better be. I don’t know what you’ve done to my yard, but you’ll pay for this. I’ll get you evicted.”
Jason took a deep breath. “Mr. Carver, nothing good grows out of hatred. Let it go before something bad happens.”
“Is that a threat?” Carver raised the machete.
The figure of the Green Man stood next to them both, where nothing had been the moment before. Grass burst into seed where his feet sank into the soil. The mismatched arms lifted out, extending his twisted hands to Jason and Carver.
“What sick hoax are you pulling?” Carver’s voice grew loud and shrill. “I don’t believe this crap.”
“We don’t have to believe. It is.” It had always had been. Scents of juniper, skunkweed, and lilac swam around Jason. Thread skinny creepers shifted around his bare ankles, tickling and skittered up his legs. Sharp thorns of roses scratched delicately against his skin. The blooms flowered, dropped black petals, and grew into a spindle-shaped packet of seeds only to bloom again higher up his body, engulfing him in a prickly embrace.
Carver hacked at the inundating growth as it drew near his boots. He spun around, his blade biting into the earth. His head turned to face shadows, shoulders hunched with fear and loathing.
The Green Man spoke. No human words came out of the thorny mouth, but Jason understood the meaning. The seeds of anger were sown. Death is the harvest. It comes tonight. Nothing lives without death. No order exists without chaos. That is the inevitable way. A sacrifice of the innocent must be made.
“We could let the hatred die,” Jason whispered. “Is that enough?”
Eyes wide and rolling, Carver lunged forward and slashed across the neck of the Green Man. The machete passed cleanly through the grapevines and oak saplings. The woven head slid from the wooden shoulders and tumbled into the knee-high grass. The torso and limbs unraveled, springing apart with the tension of green wood. Carver bent over the scattered pieces of the figure and chopped at them, both hands clenched on the machete grip.
Carver stopped, greasy gray hair hanging over his face, and then he turned his attention to Jason. “This is your fault. You admitted it. I’m gonna cut you down like a weed.”
Jason couldn’t pull his legs free. The coils tightened and thorns pierced his bare skin. He fell onto the soft lawn as Carver stepped toward him.
The earth boiled with grubs and worms, a froth of squiggling soil. A gash split open exposing a maggot-infested wound below Carver’s feet. Roots rose out of the crawling ground, grasping and lifting the old man’s body like spider mandibles gripping an insect delicacy. They plunged into his clothes, shredding them. He hacked savagely at the tentacles, splitting them with his thick blade. Carver still didn’t understand. Innocent of belief.
Then the coiling fibers bit into his flesh, tearing at skin until it burst. He screamed, high pitched as his breath was forced out, but only for a moment. His tongue swelled out of his mouth, thick as a turnip, prying his jaws apart. His face split open as a massive taproot erupted from inside his body. The bloody root dove for the ground. Carver’s remains slid along the sinuous coils, grotesque beads on a vengeful necklace, and sunk into the open pit. The ground sealed and a small redbud tree stood on the line between the two properties.
Carefully, Jason pulled himself free. He went inside, damp and shivering. Every light in the house was on. He went to the bedroom.
Amy was crying, huddled in the middle of the bed. An aluminum softball bat lay across the pillow next to her. She looked up at him. “Don’t leave me like that again.”
In the morning, the fence and the tangle of vines that tore it down were gone. In the shadow of the dark-leafed redbud tree, a grouping of black-capped mushrooms had swollen up, like scabs over a wound. The fungus grew where Carver’s body had disappeared. Jason mowed over them and they oozed red spores. The scratch across his forehead seeped and dripped like wine onto the dirt.
M. T. Reiten is an author and scientist living in New Mexico with his wife and daughter. His stories have appeared in The Writers of the Future, Baen’s Universe, and S. M. Stirling’s The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth. Most recently, his work appeared in Mission Mars: Building Red. He did suffer the horrors of lawn care in Oklahoma, although his neighbor is probably still alive and edging his yard as you read this. Find more at www.mtreiten.com.
We'd love to hear what you thought of this story! Please leave a comment below, and/or review this story at Amazon or Goodreads!
World Weaver Press
Publishing fantasy, paranormal, and science fiction.