By A.L. Godfrey
THE HONDA CIVIC STRAINED as its tires gripped valiantly at the loose gravel
road, spitting it out behind itself as it crested the rise. Then it skidded a
bit as it came down the other side, still finding traction an elusive concept
here, deep in the Northern Ontario bush.
"Why on earth would anyone want to live out here?" Wanda asked bitterly,
staring out the passenger side window. "Calling it the middle of nowhere is
too flattering. This is the hind end of nowhere...and then some."
He grunted noncommittally as he fought the wheel, getting the car back
on track. Once the cruising was a bit more steady, he glanced at his
girlfriend. "Uncle Marmouth liked his solitude. He didn't like people.
Besides, I think he liked the solitude so he could concentrate on his
botanical work." Abruptly he slammed on the brake and the wheels caught half-
heartedly in the dirt, allowing the Honda Civic to skid forward another two
metres, its bumper almost touching the tree strewn across the road. "We hoof
it from here."
"Tell me you're joking, Dean?" Wanda begged. "Surely we can go around,
eh? Or try and move it?"
"Nope. This is where the road ends. It's been here for ages."
She frowned. "I thought you'd never been up here before?"
He grabbed his hat, not looking at her. "I haven't. The lawyer told me
about it. Now grab your bug spray -- this is blackfly country. Men have been
known to go mad up here from the bugs. And don't step in any muskeg -- 'cause
I may not be able to pull you out." As the door groaned open, and he set his
feet into the tangled, weedy grass by the side of the dead end road, he
thought again about the lawyer...
"Why on earth would anyone want to live out here?" Wanda asked bitterly, staring out the passenger side window. "Calling it the middle of nowhere is too flattering. This is the hind end of nowhere...and then some."
He grunted noncommittally as he fought the wheel, getting the car back on track. Once the cruising was a bit more steady, he glanced at his girlfriend. "Uncle Marmouth liked his solitude. He didn't like people. Besides, I think he liked the solitude so he could concentrate on his botanical work." Abruptly he slammed on the brake and the wheels caught half- heartedly in the dirt, allowing the Honda Civic to skid forward another two metres, its bumper almost touching the tree strewn across the road. "We hoof it from here."
"Tell me you're joking, Dean?" Wanda begged. "Surely we can go around, eh? Or try and move it?"
"Nope. This is where the road ends. It's been here for ages."
She frowned. "I thought you'd never been up here before?"
He grabbed his hat, not looking at her. "I haven't. The lawyer told me about it. Now grab your bug spray -- this is blackfly country. Men have been known to go mad up here from the bugs. And don't step in any muskeg -- 'cause I may not be able to pull you out." As the door groaned open, and he set his feet into the tangled, weedy grass by the side of the dead end road, he thought again about the lawyer...
Jean-Gaston Bussieres was an ancient, cadaverous figure who looked as though he'd be more at home in a Funeral Home -- though it was an even bet as to whether he'd be an employee or a client. His white hair was a dirty grey, his skin pallid. He had been dressed immaculately in a black, pin-striped suit, with an old fashioned bow tie (also striped) and a carnation in his lapel, as he sat behind his wide desk and read the will some days ago in Abitibi.
"..and to my nephew, Dean Cruickshank, my only surviving heir, I leave my summer home near Bearwalker Lake, and all that it contains." The afternoon sun burned through the window behind him, rendering him little more than a charcoal skeleton.
"That's it?" Dean spoke up, squinting uncomfortably against the glare. "Everyone knew Uncle Marmouth was loaded. He made millions from that herbal cough drop he invented."
"The bulk of the estate," explained the lawyer dryly in his French- Canadian accent, "is divided up among various charities and non-profit organizations relating to the environment and horticulture. As you know, he was an internationally reknowned botanist. I shouldn't feel too hard done by, however. The property is not insubstantial. The lab equipment alone has a re- sale value, I'm sure. And there are a few bonds and patents that are unaccounted for in his possessions. If they were kept at his Bearwalker Lake residence, that would certainly fall under the category of 'all it contains'."
Not feeling at all assuaged, Dean grumbled, "I'll contest."
The lawyer shrugged. "If you feel so inclined. But I really see no grounds. There is nothing at all unusual about the will. Except..." His crinkled, drawn face grew, if possible, even more corpse-like as it became pensive.
"It is curious that he actually changed his will only recently. Prior to that you were, indeed, the primary beneficiary." His tiny, black eyes stared at Dean neutrally. "Perhaps you have some inkling as to his motives?"
Dean ignored the question. "Is it grounds for having the will nullified?"
"Hardly. Just curious."
Dean rose dejectedly from his chair and turned to go. Then he stopped. "Bearwalker Lake? Never heard of it. What's a bearwalker?"
"I believe it's an Indian evil spirit..."
He and Wanda trudged painfully through the clogged brush, their pant legs thick with sticky bristles that dug painfully even through the fabric of their clothes. The gnarled branches clawed greedily at them as they struggled by, like emaciated beggars seeking alms. The air itself was virtually baking in the summer heat, each breath a scalding effort. And the high pitched scream of the cicadas made downtown Toronto seem quiet by comparison. And the air was thick with carnivorous flies. Dear fly, horse fly, and black fly. Their arms and faces were smeared with their own blood by the time they pushed back the last of the clawing branches and stumbled into a clearing.
Around them old trees coiled up from the ground, their leaf-strewn arms clutched chokingly about each other in what looked to be the frozen moment of some primal death struggle, as each sought to touch the sun ahead of the other. If the trees felt no loyalty to each other, Dean mused, it was no wonder two lone humans felt almost a palpable hatred directed at them. Thick grass scratched at the shimmering air as they dragged themselves through the stalks.
"That's it?" asked Wanda.
Even the trees themselves seemed to have pulled back from the centuries old house, as though with distaste. "The lawyer in Abitibi said the rumour was it was built by some Lieutenant Governor in the 19th Century -- to retire into. But he died before he ever lived in it."
"He probably killed himself when he saw it," Wanda muttered ruefully.
Although three stories, counting the gable, it did not so much rise from the ground, as much as it sagged miserably from the sky. The wooden walls sported sun-bleached and flaking paint -- where there was paint at all -- and dirt crusted, opaque windows glared balefully with reflected light. The grass, bolder than the trees, licked hungrily at the rotting walls, having scraped away the paint below knee level years ago.
"He didn't keep it up much, did he?" said Wanda.
"Only his lab."
Wanda shot him a curious look, but resisted the urge to pursue it with words. She swatted at the flies. "Can we get inside before we get eaten alive, eh?"
Dean glanced at her, seeming unwilling to violate the old monstrosity. Then, as if physically shaking himself from his stupor, he hurried forward, seeking solace from the flies and the heat. He fumbled with the rusted lock, scraping the key the lawyer gave him against the doorknob a couple of times before getting it open. Then he and Wanda staggered in, slamming the heavy door behind them as though wolves were at their heels. The impact sent dust rising and something -- he didn't know what -- rustled in the other room.
"This place is a mess," she complained. "How could he live like this?"
"He was dead a long time -- weeks -- before anyone found him. It's been months since anyone lived here, let alone cleaned."
Wanda slipped off her backpack and started sauntering through the old place, disappearing into the next room. "Please tell me there's electricity and plumping," she called.
He looked around, his eyes falling over a photograph, prominently displayed, of his uncle accepting an Order of Canada medal for his discoveries. He looked at the man, old even when that was taken. One side of his brow was discoloured by a large purple birthmark, like that Russian president a few years before. Dean flicked a switch beside him, and the overhead chandelier crackled belligerently to life after a moment. "Yup. Lights."
"Thank God. I-aaah!"
He jumped, but his feet felt almost nailed to the ground. He couldn't move for a moment. Then, haltingly, he started forward. "Wanda?"
The next room was empty, but he spotted her through the crooked door leading to the chamber beyond. She stood before a window, the light filtered through the dirty pane casting weird shadows upon her. "Th-that's not what I think it is...is it?"
He stopped beside her and followed her gaze. Out among the wild, savage grass, some twenty metres from the house, was a grave marker. He swallowed, his throat a little dry. "It's where he's buried. I didn't realize it was so close to the house."
"Jeezus! Buried...there? Is that even legal?"
"There used to be an old church just through those trees. This house abuts on consecrated ground. There's a whole graveyard out there, long since overgrown. Hasn't been used in a hundred years -- well, until uncle's will stipulated he wanted to be buried here."
She turned to him, her arms wrapped about herself. "I'm really hating this trip. I just thought you should know." She turned and stormed off.
"We just want to find any papers," he called. "Deeds and stocks and stuff. Then we can leave and let the real estate agent worry about this place." He glanced out at the lone marker, and shuddered.
He sat on his haunches in a sea of old papers, over turned file boxes spilling their contents on the floor around him. Wanda stood silhouetted in the door, nursing a beer. In frusration he threw the pile in his hands away, the leafs flipping and fluttering anti-climactically. "This would go faster if you helped."
She ignored him. "So how well did you know your uncle?"
"Well enough to ask him for money, right? But he turned you down -- that's what you told me."
He concentrated on shifting through another batch of papers. "These are just equations and science notes. Nothing of value."
"When was that? When he turned you down?" she continued. "Just a few months before he died, wasn't it? So when did you say you'd been here before, eh?"
"Never," he said tightly.
"Those must've been great directions that lawyer gave you then. I mean, you found this place like a salmon coming home to spawn. How did your uncle die?"
He carefully set the papers down and rose to his feet. He looked at her darkly. "Fell and hit his head. He died at the foot of the stairs."
"Right," she said, pulling on her beer. "You said that before, on the way up, and I thought it was odd then, too. That letter from the lawyer said he was found in his lab...but you keep thinking 'stairs'. I mean, maybe he fell at the stairs and dragged himself into his lab...though God knows why. But how would you know that?" She waited. "Did you know there's a broken window in the back -- broken inward, like someone broke in once?"
Dean moved up closer to her. Very softly, he said; "None of that means anything. He was a rich old eccentric and he died. And his money isn't going to find itself. Now help me, or shut the Hell up!"
She shrugged, then turned and walked away.
He was wrenched awake by Wanda's scream. She had elected to sleep in a separate room. He flicked on the light and stumbled into the hall in his pyjamas. He almost ran into her running the other way.
"Something's at the window! Something's trying to get in!"
He scowled -- they were on the second floor. Pushing past her, he turned on the light in her room. He grinned with relief. "It's nothing. Look. Just a vine trying to creep through the open window. Must've been blown by the wind." He shoved the offending branch outside and shut the window firmly. "There." He turned to her. "Go back to sleep."
"There wasn't a vine there before," she whispered.
He froze in the doorway. "What?"
"I would've seen it when I opened the window before I went to bed."
He chuckled. "Maybe you should cool it on the beer before bedtime." He went back to his room.
He lay awake for a time, strangely unable to sleep. There were sounds in the night. That was to be expected in an old, dilapidated house. There was nothing unusual about the occasional creak of a floorboard, the whistle of the wind through a crack in the ceiling. But this was something else. In the darkness, he could hear almost a scuttling sound, as though something was racing across the outside of the house. No, not racing. Dragging itself.
He rolled over. That was crazy, he told himself.
It was a long time before he slept.
He was roused again by Wanda's screaming, calling his name: "Dean! Dean!"
He squinted fuzzily at his watch. The light through the window told him it was morning, but he had only slept an hour or two. Grumbling, he staggered down the stairs. Wanda was pale and wide eyed at the foot of the stairs. "Tell me I'm imagining this!"
Bewildered, he let her drag him outside. Then she turned him to face the house. He stepped back, momentarily startled.
Where once the house had been nothing but worn wood and peeling paint, now much of it sported a lustrous green frock -- a living vine had clawed its way across one side of the place. He swallowed hard. "Maybe..." He shrugged. "Maybe we just didn't notice it yesterday."
He turned on her, irrationally angry. "So what are you saying? That it sprang up overnight."
"That's what it did," she insisted.
He started to argue, then looked at it again. "So maybe it did. Who knows how fast it might grow. Are you an expert on local plants? No? Then what's the big deal? Hey, maybe it was some hybrid my uncle was working on. Who cares? A plant can't hurt you." As if to prove his point, he stepped closer to it. The vines sported an attractive blossom -- the prettiest thing they'd seen in this wild, sun bleached part of the forest. The flowers were mainly an off-white, though with one petal a vibrant purple. It reminded him of something, but he could't say what.
"This is too much for me," Wanda said behind him. "This place is creepy. Those plants are creepy. And you -- you're creeping me out, too." She turned and started walking away from the crumbling old house. "I'm going back to the car. If you aren't with me in twenty minutes, I swear to God I'm driving away without you."
He watched her go, impassively. He had brought her along for company, but she was getting too suspicious, and way too skittish. Instead of making the isolation bearable, she had just made it worse. Good riddance to her. Now he wouldn't have to share whatever he found.
Not that he had necessarily intended to.
Hours later he stood in the basement, digging through old boxes, losing himself in his work so that he didn't have to listen to the rustling sound that had to be the wind blowing the vine on the outside walls. It had to be that. Nothing grew so fast that you could hear it spreading.
He tried not to dwell on the sound, or the past. He shouldn't have called Uncle Marmouth when he needed that money. He certainly shouldn't have threatened the old man on the phone. Did Uncle Marmouth really think Dean meant to go through with it? To murder him? Is that why he changed his will, leaving Dean nothing but this old house? Is that why he stipulated he was to be buried here, among the soil which had been part of his work for so long? Not that that made any sense. Besides, even Dean hadn't known he was going to kill the old man when he drove up to see him after their unfortunate phone conversation. It was just an accident.
Suddenly he let out a little gleeful exclamation. Angling a piece of paper to catch the light from the bald bulb overhead, he could make out the patterned design of a bond. He began digging eagerly through the box it had come from.
Something rustled nearby. He froze.
Unwillingly, he looked up. The basement was unfinished, and from the dirt walls something began to squirm, cascading granules of muck as hairy tendrils coiled out from the walls. He recoiled, covering his mouth in horror as though to stifle a scream. It looked like snakes, or monstrous worms. Then he recognized what the tendrils were. Roots! He backed clumsily toward the stairs, the stocks and bonds forgotten in the moment.
Turning, he tripped, scraping his shin on the lower step. But the pain barely registered as he scrambled to his feet and raced up stairs. There, he could restrain his scream no more.
Tentacles of vines had slipped through cracks and crevices, or maybe through that broken window Wanda had astutely noticed. The house had become infested with the vines while he worked. They reached and uncoiled, as though searching, as though hunting. Searching for what? Hunting for who?
Tears mingled with sweat as Dean stared wide eyed at the squirming infestation slithering across the walls, clawing across the floor. And everywhere were the little white blossoms with their mark of purple. And suddenly he realized what it reminded him of. That pale face of the flower with its petal of purple was like the picture of the old man with his birthmark in the front hall.
"U-uncle?" he gasped.
Then the lights flickered and blinked out, as the roots in the basement must have dug into the fusebox. Turning, cackling hysterically, Dean fled the house.
In the hospital, the head nurse stopped the young nurse. "Did I see you coming from Mr. Cruickshank's room?"
"Yes," said the younger girl. "It was all right, though. He's resting comfortably...and, of course, he's still restrained. I never did know his story."
The head nurse shrugged. "No one does. He emerged from the bush last week, babbling hysterically. It happens. People get lost, and the loneliness and the flies drive you a bit batty. No one's even come to claim him. We tried his number in Toronto, but there was no answer."
"Well, someone knows he's here," said the younger nurse. "There were some white and purple flowers waiting for him when I came on duty. That's why I was in his room, dropping them off."
The head nurse turned on her. "Well, you just take them out, right now! Didn't you read his chart? Mr. Cruickshank has some weird phobia about plants. He's been screaming about them for days." As they hurried back to the room, she said, "Who were they from anyway?"
"I don't know. I could barely make out even Mr. Cruickshank's name, the writing was so illegible -- almost," she chuckled nervously, "almost inhuman."
They pushed open the hospital room door...and the younger nurse started
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