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I am in my 40s and recently quit my job of 20 years to take care of my ill son and to pursue my love of writing.  Within this blog, I hope to cover all the ups and downs I will face as I go from unpublished to published writer, while facing the challenges of being a stay at home dad to a teenager battling Crohns and colitis. Along the way I'll spout off on pop culture and revisit the entertainment that made me the person I am today.  My writing primarily falls under horror but I hope to branch out to other genres as I travel down this path. 

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  • ERIC BUTLER

The Grove

Updated: Feb 20

I started this for a publication looking for something spooky but with a hard cap of 1200 words. 2700 words later I completed the story and decided instead of cutting it down, I'd just share it here.



The Grove

Alan struggled to keep his eyes open. He was on hour nine of an eleven-hour trip and caffeine no longer helped. Even so, Alan sipped from his thermos as he listened to a nameless voice drone on about current events. He preferred music but this far out he rarely could find a station that played anything except the oldest of country songs, his kryptonite. As Alan neared the end of the country road he reached over and grabbed his map. He flipped on the dome light and glanced over the folded page. Is it a left or right? Even when he drove this route regularly he never could remember, and it had been years since he last visited.

A movement through his headlights grabbed his attention from the map; startled, he slammed on his breaks. "Oh shit," he yelled as the car slid out of his control. He fought with the wheel as he pumped the breaks. The car turned sideways as it spun off the road, slamming into a grove. Alan's head smacked into the window and his world went black.

A noise slipped through the fog, soft at first but with each passing second it gained in volume until his head ached from the blaring sound. Blinking his eyes, Alan sat back. Silence. He gingerly rubbed his forehead, shocked to find blood on his fingers when he pulled them away. It took a moment for Alan to realize that noise had been his horn. Wonder how long I was out. Glancing at the dashboard, he read 1:08; a couple hours. He fingered the knot on his forehead once again, using the rear-view mirror to assess the damage.

Last thing I needed tonight, but I guess I'm grateful no one was hurt. He winced as he applied too much pressure to the cut, well no one else. As he sat in the cold car he replayed what happened. A shape darted out in front of the car...and I missed it? Slowly nodding, he leaned forward peering out the windshield.

While it was darker out here than in the city, the full moon reflected off the snow and added to his headlights. He slipped the car into park. Lucky the car's still running, I'd have frozen to death without the heat. Alan shivered at the thought. He flipped the brights and gasped. Just off the side of the road lay a huddled form in the shadows. Scrambling to find his phone, he powered it up. No service...figures. Three days with no service out here in the boonies, but at least the flashlight app still worked.

Slipping from the car, Alan paused as soft cries came from the mound. He stepped over to the side and stopped short when his light fell on a rocking woman. She held something cradled tight to her chest and moved back and forth, shifting from sobs to cooing noises. The surrounding snow was dark with blood. Maybe I did hit her.

"Ma'am?" Alan called out, "Are you all right?"

She quieted but continued to rock. He stepped closer, and she recoiled, slipping to her side.

"It's okay," he said, squatting down and outstretching his free hand. "I won't hurt you. Please, let me help."

The woman's eyes shined in the moonlight and Alan shivered as she stared at him. He wanted to blame the cold, even though there was no wind. It was as if she drained the heat from him simply with her eyes. He shook his head; I must have really hit my head hard. Alan scooted forward, sliding on his boots without standing.

"Can I help?" The question hung between them as he inched closer, but she made no move to escape. She simply lay in the darkened snow, watching his every move. His shivering became more violent as he moved closer. Alan's arm shook as he reached out and placed his free hand on her arm.

"You're chilled to the bone," he said as his own teeth began to chatter. "Are you hurt?"

He studied her in the light from his phone. She appeared to be in her late teens; her pale skin almost translucent in spots. Long black hair hung in clumps around her face and shoulders. She wore an old fashion night gown that stopped above her ankles. It was an off-white color, but Alan suspected the outdoors had something to do with that. He moved the light to her bare feet and hissed. Bloody gashes covered them, making them almost black.

"Jesus," he muttered, moving the light back up. Her dark eyes never left his face. Alan wondered what she cradled so tightly. "Are your arms hurt?"

Surprisingly the woman shook her head but made no other motion to help him understand. Is she going to freak out if I try to see? A moment passed before he decided to ignore it for now and moved closer. The woman shrank smaller, a soft whimper escaping from her lips.

"Oh, sweetie...it's okay. But you can't move on those feet. Might explain why you're just lying here." He said, moving his hands closer, slipping them under her and lifting. She rolled tighter, shifting herself towards his chest. She doesn't weigh a thing. He strode quickly to the car, the cold starting to seep into his bones. Opening the back door, he placed her on the seat and hustled to the trunk.

Alan pushed the open button and waited for the pop. The trunk swung upwards, and he used his phone's light to help the small trunk bulb. Shifting a few bags around he found a blanket, a few bottles of water, and the first aid kit. He closed the trunk with a slam. He jumped as he realized the woman stared at him through the back window with large eyes. Irritated at his reaction, he moved back to the door and opened it.

"Okay, well I hope this helps," he said as he held out the blanket. "It was my son's favorite when he was little." Looking up he noticed she held her bundle tight and made no move to take the blanket. Alan offered a slight smile and leaned in, wrapping the blanket around her.

Alan squatted by the open door, enjoying the bit of heat he felt from the vents. He studied her a moment. Her dark eyes continued to stare at him, but she seemed a little more relaxed. Although the blanket covered most of her up, he could tell her shoulders had relaxed, and her hold appeared looser around her bundle.

"So, I have some water and a first aid kit for those feet. Will you slide them out of the car, so we don't make a mess?"

The woman scrutinized him before nodding slightly. She scooted over the back seat until her feet stuck out the open door. He offered a smile as he reached down and grabbed her right ankle. Alan counted to three before slowly pouring the cold water over the soles of her feet. She closed her eyes and issued a soft sigh. He glanced at her face, surprised at how calm she was as he washed the dried blood and dirt from the gashes. He switched to the other foot, before pulling out some ointment and bandages from the first aid kit.

Alan rubbed the thick gel over the cuts and bound each foot in a roll of gauze. Once both were secure, he turned the woman, so he could close the door. He scurried to the driver side as the wind picked up. Slipping in, he rubbed his hands together and pushed them in front of the heater.

"So of course there's no reception," he said, watching her in the rear-view mirror. "Hopefully the car's okay, and we can move the darn thing out of here."

Their eyes locked and Alan sighed as his body refused to warm up. He put the car in reverse and gently pressed on the gas. The car lurched backwards a foot before stopping. He could feel the wheels spinning, and he slammed his hand on the steering wheel. Taking a deep breath, he put it in drive. The car slid forward a bit but stopped with the same results.

"Well...shit," he mumbled. It was too cold, and he was too tired and possibly a little concussed to be trying to move the car from the outside. He leaned over the passenger's seat to grab the map from the floorboard. A click and a blast of cold air forced his attention to the backseat. The woman was gone.

Alan sprang from the car and turned his flashlight app back on, spinning in a circle. She was nowhere to be seen. After glancing in the back seat one more time, Alan stomped over to the place he discovered her, but found nothing. I must have hit my head much harder than I thought.

As Alan hurried back to his car, the road lit up with a truck's high beams. They quickly dimmed and Alan stood by his car. The truck stopped and the window rolled down, Patsy Cline's voice carried out to him. Alan grimaced but moved closer. Now is not the time for your music hang-ups, he reminded himself.

"Thanks for stopping," Alan said as he spoke through the open window. The driver, an older man with a white beard, nodded and put the vehicle into reverse.

"If you move over, I'll back up, and we can pull you out."

Alan hurried out of the way and the man placed the back of the truck next to Alan's back bumper. He got out, holding a length of rope.

"Before I tie it up," the man said as he moved in front of Alan, "I wonder if you saw her?"

"Her?" Alan asked, a flash of worry turning his stomach to jelly.

"Oh you would know."

"Then no, I guess not. I was driving, got tired, and then woke up in the grove."

The man studied Alan's face before nodding slowly.

"Good, cause I don't have time for trouble."

Alan wondered what that meant, "So who is this 'she'?"

The man stayed quiet as he wrapped the rope around the bumper and then his hitch. "Most people say she doesn't exist but too many have seen her...and those people know nothing but misfortune. Some whisper she's the victim of abuse by her folk, others say she was a willing participant, but they all agree she's a teenage mom who escaped the local loony bin back when we had one."

Alan had no idea what the man was talking about. No building matched anyone's idea of any insane asylums in this county, especially out here in the middle of nowhere.

"Every single person who crashes into that grove comes across her this time of year. Hell I almost didn't stop but you're just standing out here like nothing so maybe you're just a lucky son-of-a-bitch. I'm just glad I found you when I did."

"Why's that?" Alan asked as he slipped into the car and put it into neutral.

"Cause anyone who spends the night here, ends up missing or frozen in the grove like her."

The man stalked back to his truck without another word. Alan gripped the steering wheel and waited. The truck moved forward and the rope grew taut. The car held for a moment and then came free. Alan steered as the truck pulled his car back to the middle of the road. The man got out and started to untie the rope. Alan grabbed his wallet and slipped back out into the cold.

"Hey, can I give you money or anything for the help?"

"Naw, happy to help," the man said looking anything but happy. "Just stay on the road and be careful. It's not safe this time of year. Better if you remember that the next time you drive through these parts."

The man nodded and hopped back into his truck. The brake lights illuminated everything in red and Alan waved as the man pulled away. Shaking his head, he hopped back in and put the car in drive...

*****

Alan struggled to keep his eyes open. He reached over to grab his map. He flipped on the dome light and glanced over the folded page. Is it a left or right? He never could remember when he drove this route regularly, and he hadn't been out here for years.

A movement through his headlights grabbed his attention from the map; startled, he slammed on his breaks. "Oh shit," he yelled as the car slid out of his control. He fought with the wheel as he pumped the breaks. The car turned sideways as it spun off the road, slamming into a grove. Alan's head smacked into the window and his world went black.

Alan's eyes fluttered open to the sound of tapping. He blinked a few times, hoping to clear his vision. Tap, tap, tap, the sound mimicking the pounding in his head. Tap, tap, tap, Alan put his palms against his eyes and pressed. A small amount of relief came from the pressure, but the tapping continued. Slipping his hands down, he glared through his fingers. Seeing nothing outside the car, he fumbled with the dome light switch and the car went black. Tap, tap, tap.

Turning his head to the passenger side he blew out a sigh in relief. He made out the shadow of a branch broken in the crash, swinging back and forth into that window. Tap, tap, tap.

"Jesus," Alan said snorting in relief.

He wiped the sweat from his forehead and winced. No wonder my head hurts, he thought as he fingered the knot he found there. Alan frowned as all this felt so familiar. Squinting he tried to replay the day in his head but only saw flashes. He wondered how close the hospital might be and if he could make it in the car. The insane asylum should have an emergency room or at least a doctor. His head tilted in concern. What was he thinking about? There weren't any buildings like that out here, specialized or not.

Alan flipped the light switch back on before turning the key in the ignition. It struggled for a moment but turned over. Blowing out a long breath in relief, Alan closed his eyes. Where ever I go, I need to do it soon... Maybe I have some aspirin in that kit.

Tap, tap, tap...be happy to get the car away from that tree. Opening his eyes Alan sighed as his teeth began to chatter from an intense cold, and he put his hands in front of the vents. Hot air poured out but Alan became colder. Tap, tap, tap... Alan looked to the right but the branch was no longer there.

Tap, tap, tap... Turning his head to the left Alan let loose a startled yelp as a young woman stood by the driver side window. He blew out an exaggerated breath and rolled the window down.

"Man, you knocked a year off my life," Alan said with a forced chuckle. "Are you okay?"

"They would only let me see her for feeding," she whispered so softly he struggled to hear her over the heater.

Alan leaned closer to the window and said, "You know my son had a blanket just like that."

"Wasn't fair," she continued as if he never spoke. She glanced up, her dark eyes seemingly soaking up all the light from his vehicle.

"Let me help you," Alan said as he moved to open his door. "It's so cold and even with that blanket, you have to be frozen."

As his hand gripped the handle, the car lost power and the car plunged into darkness. Moonlight filtered through the grove but only offered shadows. He fumbled for his phone and turned on the flashlight. He shined the light out his window to make sure the woman was far enough away to open the door, but she was gone.

"What the hell?" Alan asked out loud. He turned the ignition, and the car started up after a small delay. The vents blasted him with cold air. He flipped the switch for the dome light and froze.

The woman stared at him from the back seat, her bundle tight against her chest. He could see it squirm as she raised it to her face to rub her cheek against the rough material. Alan returned her stare, unable to tear away from her dark eyes.

"They would only let me see her for feeding," she said, her voice drenched in despair. "Is that fair? She's my baby, not theirs. So I took her and ran, but we didn't get far..." she trailed off, her eyes shiny with tears.

Alan shook his head, vocal cords frozen as the temperature continued to drop. The bundle began to make small sounds, crying for warmth and substance. The woman offered a sad smile as she glimpsed down.

"We never get far. It's so cold and I'm too weak," she said, her voice cracking with despair. "My baby is so hungry." The woman returned her stare to Alan.

"You've been so kind...will you feed us?" she asked. Suddenly she sprang forward; her open mouth exposing rows of razor sharp teeth.

The lights of a truck flashed over the grove, exposing a car with the back door open. The driver slowed as he glimpsed a woman walking on the side of the road caring a bundle tight to her chest. He rolled down the window, "Miss... Do you need anything?" She turned her head and smiled. Blood poured down her chin, dripping into her baby's open, hungry mouth.

"No thanks;" she said as she glided through the snow, "We just ate."


© 2019 Naked Cat Press. All Rights Reserved

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All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of the stories may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
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