Night Walk – Sneak Peek

Antler Bart by Valerie Herron

Things That Grow

by Aeryn Rudel

I remember the old men and women who gathered at Hodge’s Feed talking about Mr. Wilmot. They’d go from near shouting about the weather or the Atlanta Braves to whispers and furtive glances when his name came up. It was always the same: he never married, his farm had been in the family for generations, and his fields were ripe even in the winter. They never said he had a green thumb or even that his crops were bountiful or lucrative. Instead, one of the old-timers would take a pull of the hooch Mr. Hodges brewed in his cellar and say something like, “It ain’t natural, but that man has a way with things that grow.”

When I was nine, I asked Daddy what they meant.

“Hush now, Matthew,” he’d said. “That’s grown-up talk.” I recall he whispered, like they did, and was careful not to say the man’s name.

The feed store wasn’t the only place people talked about Mr. Wilmot and his big farm in the middle of nowhere. When I was a freshman, some of the older kids would say things. A conversation between two of the popular boys, Danny Boyd and Justin Goddard, stands out.

“He ain’t never married or had no kids,” Danny said, his freckled face serious and knowing, like the old folks at the feed store. “None that lived.”

“My daddy said he steals babies and gives them to the devil,” Justin replied, his eyes twinkling with ugly mirth. He was an oily, short-tempered kid, mean and brutish.

Danny wrinkled his nose, like Justin’s words smelled as bad as they sounded. “Your daddy’s a drunk, and I don’t know nothin’ about what he said, but I know Mr. Wilmot’s fields make noise.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, that tempting bit of information giving me the courage to do more than listen. 

Danny regarded me the way you might a broke-leg dog. “One time we drove out there. Me and Justin. We heard it.”

The nastiness on Justin’s face faded, and something more fearful took root. “Yeah, like babies crying.”

A few years later, when I had a car of my own and more bravery than sense, I drove out to Mr. Wilmot’s farm. The dirt road to his property split off Route 57, and trees—great big things that swayed in the dark—crowded on all sides. I stopped the car about a mile from his place.

I got out, stood in the dark, and listened. I smoked one cigarette and then another to calm my nerves. The wind whispered in the trees, the frogs and crickets made their soft ruckus, and then, at the edge of what I could rightly hear, an unmistakable sound. There’s something different about how a newborn baby cries, a halting, hitching thing, plaintive and a little frightening. I heard that beneath the wind, up the road.

I should have turned back, but I wanted to know why the old folks talked about Mr. Wilmot in hushed tones, and why the mention of his fields could unsettle a mean-spirited asshole like Justin Goddard.

I walked down the road until Mr. Wilmot’s barn, black beneath the staring eye of the moon, loomed ahead. Tall rows of corn stalks thrust up near the structure, but next to the road, something else. Plump, bulbous things sprouted from the earth beneath twisting vines.

Those hitching cries came from the ground, and my blood froze, but I had to see.

I hopped a rickety wooden fence and my feet sunk into the soft earth on the other side, moist as a newly irrigated field. My shoes squished in the muck as I approached the swollen shapes on the ground.

I thought they were pumpkins or gourds, and they might have been at one time. It was so dark, I couldn’t make out much, but that pitiful newborn squalling rose up around me, louder, more insistent. I pulled out my lighter, thumbed it to life, and bent close to the ground.

My head spun from all the noise, the awful cries of Mr. Wilmot’s field, but I held the lighter up to one of the gourds. Its color was wrong, more pink than yellow or orange. The surface was smooth, unblemished, and I could hear it wailing, slightly muffled. I reached out and touched the thing. Its warmth made me cringe, but I rolled it over.

There, scrunched up on that fat gourd was the face of a newborn baby with an open mouth and black eyes. Freed from the dirt, it loosed a terrible, howling shriek. I fell backward on my ass and dropped the lighter. The cries around me became louder, desperate, a chorus of monsters screaming for their father.

A light came on in the barn, and I hightailed it to my car and raced back to town. I never spoke of it to anyone, not my father, not even the old folks at the feed store.

That was five years ago, and only now have I worked up the courage to return. They don’t talk about Mr. Wilmot’s strange agricultural skill any longer at Hodge’s Feed. They talk about people and animals disappearing near his farm, of darting shadows in the moonlight, and a new crop, more terrible than any before.

I’m standing on that dark road of Route 57, two cans of kerosene at my feet, my pockets stuffed with road flares. I don’t hear the wails of newborns. I hear the squeals of children, their voices high and piercing. There are no words, but I know they talk to each other and to their father in the black barn under the moon.

He has a way with things that grow, they said. I will burn it all before more of Mr. Wilmot’s children slip their vines and the rotten earth that made them.

Preorder Aeryn Rudel’s Night Walk: and Other Dark Paths on Kindle now.

Print preorders coming March 15th, 2021.
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