Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"Flowers for Mommy"

a short story
by Tanya Pell

March 20, 2024
4,598 Words
Genre(s):

TW: child loss

Child-sized footprints snaked through the house from the backdoor.

Red clay looked far too much like blood in certain lighting.

Tabitha followed the footprints, barely a third of the size of her own feet, through the mudroom, into the kitchen, and out into the hall. The floorboards creaked, swollen with damp. She blinked, eyes adjusting to the dim light of the dark corridor. She could only make out the faintest smudges of prints on the wood, but it didn’t matter.

Even if she hadn’t known where to look, the giggle would have given it away. Her heart clenched at that sound. That laugh wasn’t a big girl laugh. Not yet.

Sinking down into a crouch, Tabitha opened the small door to the crawlspace under the stairs. She’d known when they first arrived the child-sized door would enchant her daughter who thought with such firm conviction such things were magical. And what child didn’t believe in secret worlds within wardrobes? What adult didn’t want to believe?

“I wonder what’s in here.” A screech of delight rose from the shadows, as did the sweet scent of her daughter’s tear-free shampoo. Tabitha tried not to smile, but it was hard when faced with such innocence. “Heather. You’ve tracked mud all over the house!”

A pause and Tabitha wondered if Heather was thinking about what she had done or how she could pretend it hadn’t happened. She had her answer when a tiny fist moved into the light clutching a half-wilted bouquet of dandelions, henpeck, and ditch lilies.

“I picked flowers for you, Mommy.”

Manipulative little thing.

“Oh,” Tabitha said, scooting into the cramped space under the stairs, ducking her head between her shoulders. “And they are beautiful. But I’m pretty sure Daddy and I said not to leave the yard and we don’t have lilies in our yard.”

“What’s lilies?” Heather asked, pointedly avoiding Tabitha’s point.

“This one,” Tabitha answered, touching the orange flowers that dwarfed the yellow dandelions and henpeck with their tiny specks of purple. “Where did you get it?”

“On the path.”

“Okay,” Tabitha said, jaw tightening. “Out.” She crawled backwards from under the stairs and stood, wincing as her lower back protested. Heather followed, cowed, but not entirely remorseful.

Tabitha put her hands on her hips and spread her feet, trying to look like she meant business. “Daddy and I have told you to stay in the yard if you go outside while we’re working. The path is not the yard.” Not entirely true. The path was part of the land Mark’s grandmother had owned and left to Mark. But the path was bordered on both sides by tall grasses and led down to the water; a murky, stinking marshland filled with snakes and gator nests. A pitiful, wire fence enclosed the yard, but the gate didn’t latch well and was no match for a precocious and determined five-year-old.

Especially one as precocious and determined as Heather, who thought locked doors puzzles to be solved and ‘Absolutely not’ was only a suggestion.

Which was evident when Tabitha saw the necklace she was wearing.

“Heather!” she snapped, forcing herself not to apologize as her child jumped to attention at such a harsh tone. Tabitha was always being accused of spoiling her. Of giving in too much. “I told you to leave Mommy’s necklace alone! It is special!”

The pink and white cameo hung from a gold chain far too big for Heather’s small neck. She didn’t even need to unclasp it to get it over her head. The tiny fist not holding the flowers reached up and gripped it tight and, right on cue, the lip quiver followed. “But I like it! And you said it was for me!”

Tabitha pinched the bridge of her nose, more to avoid looking at her daughter’s face, already beginning to splotch with hives as she prepped her tears, pale blue eyes she got from her father’s side of the family beginning to swim. “It is for you, baby. But not yet. It is for you when you get older. I’m saving it for when—if,” she corrected, “you get married. You will lose it and Mommy and you will be sad.”

It was an old piece passed down through Tabitha’s own family. One of the only things she had from her own mother, who was cruel and calculating and, like Heather, knew exactly when to cry to get her way. What she could not give in love she more than made up for in snide comments. When she’d passed right before Heather was born, Tabitha had only kept the cameo. Remembering how much she loved to look at it as a little girl and had never been allowed to touch it. Pretty things are for pretty girls, Tabi. Maybe one day you’ll be pretty enough. She had never been pretty enough or thin enough or talented enough or enough enough for her mother. But the cameo was hers now. And it would belong to her daughter. A daughter she would love fiercely. A daughter who would never doubt the depth of her love.

“Come on,” she said patiently, reaching out a hand, palm up.

With a pout that could have shamed God, Heather pulled the pendant up and over her head, the thin, gold chain sliding along her blonde ponytail, nearly snagging in her tiny butterfly clips. She dropped it into Tabitha’s outstretched hand, brow furrowed, chest heaving under her unicorn T-shirt.

“Thank you. Now, honey, this is important. Are you listening?”

Heather nodded once, sharply, still avoiding her mother’s eyes.

“You can’t take the necklace again. And you can’t leave the yard. That’s the most important thing. There are snakes and holes you might step in and twist your foot or any number of things that could happen. No more. Understand?”

Another nod. And then, with a consolatory gesture, Heather moved forward and wrapped her arms around Tabitha’s legs. “I’m sorry, Mommy.”

The tension left Tabitha’s body and she bent over her girl, hand tangling in the curls. “That’s ok.” Shit, she thought. She shouldn’t have said that. “Well, it isn’t okay, but I’m glad you’re sorry. Just don’t do it again, alright.”

A nod against the cut off shorts Tabitha had been sanding in. She would have liked a verbal confirmation, but a nod would do for now. She would have Mark gently, but firmly, remind Heather of the dangers when he read to her later. She would explain how she took care of it and he would be proud of her for being so firm and he would have his own ego stroked if she asked him for his help driving the point home. And everybody would be happy. Which is what Tabitha wanted.

“Do you want your flowers, Mommy? I picked them special.”

Tabitha kissed the top of her daughter’s head. “Yes. I love them. And I want you to help me clean up your yucky feet and the icky mess you made! C’mon!” she said, steering Heather to the mudroom. “Let’s hose you off first.”

“You told her what?”

Mark had the grace to look very, very uncomfortable as he brushed his teeth in their tiny bathroom. The old, pink, oyster shell sink was cracked and stained with rust from years of hard water and caked on soap. They had the new sink downstairs, but the floor had to be torn out and the tiles were still not in.

It had been Mark’s idea to move into and renovate his grandmother’s old house over the summer. The hardwood was original and just needed to be sanded and treated. Wallpaper peeling from the damp could be ripped down and they’d put up new, with modern prints and accent walls. They’d modernize the bathroom and clean up the yard and sell it. With the property values in South Carolina going straight up, he was sure they’d make a killing with the market.

Tabitha hated living in the middle of nowhere ten miles from a grocery store and thirty miles from a hospital. But Mark had shown her all the development signs popping up everywhere. Shown her what the value of the property was alone without the house and she’d been convinced. It would be nice to have the money to put into Heather’s college fund.

Mark spat into the sink, a white gob of toothpaste and saliva. “I told her about the snakes and sinkholes and how easy it would be for her to drown if she fell in the water and got snagged on a tree branch. And I told her an old story my granddad used to tell me. What’s the big deal?”

“You told our five-year-old a ghost story!”

“It’s not a ghost story,” he said, meekly, playing with the waist of his boxers as she hovered right behind him, glaring at him through the mirror. “It’s just a story they tell around here. Or they used to.”

“About a man that steals children.” Her tone was flat, but she was furious.

She could see the restraint Mark was using not to roll his eyes. He turned and moved into their bedroom, lowering his voice so as not to be overheard through the thin walls. “It’s not a man. It’s a legend. That’s just what people called him. The Moon Man. He takes things you’re not careful with. And if you want them back, you have to give him a present. And yea, some people used to blame accidental drownings or runaways on the Moon Man.”

“And you don’t think that sounds like a ghost story at best and a perverted story at worst?”

His face reddened and she could tell he was hearing his own words then, thinking it through and realizing she had a point. “Look,” he said, scratching the back of his neck. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to scare her! And I didn’t!”

That was true. Heather hadn’t seemed scared when she’d told Tabitha the story. She’d seemed enchanted. A story of magic rather than an ominous warning. About a man who took things to the water and wouldn’t give them back unless you gave him something else you loved. For a child like Heather, it was like adding gasoline to a fire. The marshland would become even more magical now.

“I can’t believe you,” Tabitha seethed. “If she has nightmares, you’re dealing with it!”

“I will.”

“As if that filthy swamp wasn’t already a lure for her with the flowers and the dragonflies and the lightning bugs. Now she’s going to want to go find a magical pervert!”

Mark sputtered a laugh and then Tabitha was laughing, too. Her husband came and wrapped his arms around her. “Look, I am sorry. I thought if I told her that story she wouldn’t be so freaked out about me telling her that fucking alligators could be down there! I was trying to balance the scales. But okay. No more magical pervert stories. Not until she’s thirty.”

Tabitha snorted against his shoulder, burrowing closer to him for warmth. Which was silly. The house had barely functioning AC and was a furnace, but suddenly she felt very, very cold.

“I’m sorry, Mommy!” Heather cried, cowering in the doorway as Tabitha tore through the living room, yanking the hideous crocheted pillows off the sagging couch and shoving her hand deep into crevices, searching.

“I was very clear, Heather!”

She’d seen the look on Heather’s face when she’d found her jewelry box open and the cameo missing. Knew it explained how quiet Heather had been all morning. It was a guilty quiet. The kind of quiet a child becomes when they know they’re going to be in trouble but thinks if they stay still the danger will pass like the T. rex in Jurassic Park.

Tabitha was apparently the T. rex.

And she could see it as she prowled around the house, hunting, looking for any sudden movement as if the cameo was just playing a game and would pop out at any minute in a place she had already examined twenty times. In the couch, the crawlspace, Heather’s bed, the sink. But it was gone. She knew it was not in the house. And her hopes of finding it in the yard with its crab grass and dandelions and rabbit tobacco were not good. She’d try. She’d have Heather out searching all afternoon, no matter how much she complained about how hot and sweaty she was. She’d reward her with a popsicle if she found it.

Don’t do that, she told herself for the umpteenth time. Do not reward her after a punishment!

“The Moon Man took it, Mommy.”

“Heather, stop it! We do not blame imaginary friends or whatevers for our mistakes! You took the necklace after I told you not to. You lost it after I said you would. And you are the one who is going to go look in the backyard for it. You were playing out there this morning, and now I want you to go look!”

Heather wrapped her fingers around the doorframe and peered at her mother with one pale eye gone wide, the pupil blown. “I don’t want to!” she whined. “And he did take it. He took it last night from my room!”

Tabitha pounced. “Oh, so it was in your room? So, you did take it?”

A flush colored Heather’s face and she ducked her head. “I took it yesterday, but he took it last night! He said I wasn’t careful and I didn’t deserve pretty things because I wasn’t good enough.”

A chill moved along Tabitha’s spine, reminiscent of the epidural she’d had the day she’d delivered Heather. The needle going in at the base of her spine and the rush of cold that had followed. Goosebumps lifted the fine hairs along her arms and the back of her neck, but she clenched her teeth. It was just Heather getting under her skin, finding the cracks and widening them so she could use them against her. But no more. Tabitha was not going to let her daughter turn into her mother. No matter how much she loved her.

“Heather, that’s enough,” she said to convince herself it was true. “I’m going to look upstairs. You go outside and look right now.”

“Mommy,” Heather pleaded, and was that actual fear in her voice?

Gritting her teeth, Tabitha pointed towards the back of the house. “Go!

She went.

She didn’t come back.

As the blinking lights illuminated the house and yard behind her, Tabitha stood on the edge of the swamp as close as they would allow her to go, watching boats filled with men with long poles and flashlights and wearing camo poking at the water and dragging nets. Mark was next to her, breathing hard, in the midst of a panic attack. A medic noticed and forced an oxygen mask on his face, telling him to breathe.

Tabitha was doing the same thing. Telling Heather to breathe wherever she was. Begging her to keep breathing.

It had been twelve hours since she’d sent Heather out into the yard to look for the necklace. It had been just under twelve hours since Tabitha had walked down the backsteps and called her daughter, expecting to see her near the edge of the fence picking flowers, her task forgotten. When she wasn’t there, Tabitha checked round the house. In the garage. In the crawlspace. No Heather.

Back outside, she’d seen the cement block next to the gate and the latch undone. Seen the bare footprints in the red clay headed down the path between the high grasses.

She had not found Heather. Nobody had found Heather. People from all over the county, volunteers who’d seen the news about a pretty little blonde girl missing had come with their flat-bottom boats and grim faces and casseroles. Strangers praying for the young couple and their little girl. Vultures who wanted a front row seat to someone’s misery.

Tabitha watched the boats slowly come in one after the other. The men in their waders walking past, giving her a wide berth and trampling the grasses so as not to disturb her from where she stood, gazing out at the water.

She dutifully tried to ignore the quiet talk all round her. Especially as a small-town policeman told Mark Heather might have been the victim of an alligator attack. One might have come and dragged her under, drowning her. They’d found tracks nearby. Small, but certainly big enough to take a little girl unawares. And from somewhere off to the side, she thought she’d heard some of the older folks whispering about the Moon Man and how sad it all was.

I wasn’t careful.

“Tabs?” Mark croaked behind her.

I wasn’t good enough.

Tabitha turned away from the water when movement caught her eye. Caught on a thorn bush on the edge of the water, was her cameo necklace. Clean and dry and freshly polished, pale as bone beneath the searchlights. Returned to its owner for payment received.

Tabitha listened to her heels clicking across the hardwood as she went to stand in front of the picture window overlooking the backyard and the wetland beyond. The skeletal silhouettes of trees painted black against a midnight blue sky, the moon a silent sentinel over the house. Watching and waiting.

Tabitha unslung her purse from her shoulder, the chain strap falling in a heap as she dropped it onto the side table, still cluttered with bits of their Before life. A picture of the three of them, matted and framed and ready to be hung lay abandoned next to a hammer and nails. A coffee cup had been left on the wood, no coaster beneath. If she moved it, she’d see a pale ring on the antique table. So she didn’t move it. Better to pretend than face another disappointment.

She’d pretended at the funeral, too. Pretended her daughter was in the pretty, pink coffin. Pretended pretty, pink coffins should even exist. She’d pretended to listen to whatever trivial nonsense was spoken about her child by people who did not know Heather or love her like she did. Even Mark.

Maybe even especially Mark. He’d brought them there to the place that had stolen their daughter. He’d been the first to accept it. And he didn’t blame her about the necklace. Didn’t seem to think of it at all. How could he ignore her culpability? What kind of father was he if he didn’t even care it was her fault?

The metallic clink of keys being tossed onto the sideboard somewhere behind her. Knew Mark was hovering. Afraid to touch her. Afraid of what would happen when she broke. He shuffled his feet and shoved his hands in his pockets, all nervous energy and sorrow.

“We’ll just sell it as is. Furnished. No more repairs. Whatever,” he said quietly, hopefully, and how dare he have hope? He said it as if it was a gift to her. An offering.

A sacrifice.

She looked up at the moon behind the glass.

“How did the story go?” she asked, voice flat. One more system shutting down.

“Honey, you don’t need to hear that right now.”

“I do.” She did.

A heavy sigh and the scratch, scratch of nails on stubble. He was weighing it. She could hear the synapses firing in his head, blinking on and off like the lightning bugs outside. Like the eyes of the gators in the swamp. She kept very still, staring outside at the moon. Waiting.

“Tabitha,” Mark tried again, rubbing the back of his neck nervously. The sweat had settled there, staining the collars of his white shirt and navy suit jacket. “It’s just not good for you.”

No. What was not good for her was not having Heather.

“Heather said the Moon Man takes things away if you aren’t careful. That if you want something returned, you have to give him something to prove you deserve to have it back.”

Mark was watching her, eyes on the back of her head burrowing into the base of her skull like he might see her thoughts. She had to keep still. Still so the T.rex did not see.

“Yeah,” he said, voice hoarse, holding back tears. “Yeah. That’s basically it.”

It was not a fair trade. Her daughter for a silly piece of jewelry.

“It wasn’t fair.” And though she was not speaking to him, had almost forgotten he was there, Mark answered.

“I know.”

I want Heather back.

“Come to bed.”

She saw the moon behind the live oaks and willows. In the reflection of the glass, it doubled, becoming two eyes staring into hers. She met the gaze.

“Alright.”

She was out of breath, dress soaked through with sweat and humidity by the time she reached the swamp. Tabitha hadn’t even realized how close she was until her stockinged feet sunk deep into the cold water and mud. She pulled them free with a sucking sound. She was not the offering. She couldn’t be. She had to make the trade.

She found purchase again on the damp ground, feet slipping and sliding, her heels long lost. Let the Moon Man have them, too, if he wanted. She didn’t care. Didn’t need them. She only needed Heather.

Tabitha grunted and panted, disturbing the cloud of mosquitos and gnats that floated around her head as she shoved Mark into the water, still in his navy suit and purple bunny tie. Her hands were sticky with blood and cerebrospinal fluid from the gaping holes the hammer left in the back of his head. Flecks of bone, loose hair, and spores from pushing aside ferns collected between her fingers, but she ignored them. They were all just distractions like Mark’s surprised groans and broken, slurred pleas. Like Mark’s weight and the sweat that pooling at her spine and under her arms and along her thighs.

The Moon Man watched her struggle, offering no help. She had to do it alone. A sacrifice meant nothing if you didn’t suffer for it. And that was part of the bargain. If she wanted something he had, she was going to have to prove it.

By the time she managed to get Mark’s shoulders into the water, she was soaked up to the waist and almost clinging to his body like a raft as she fought her way back to the bank, pulling her feet free from the muck below, grasping hands that would claim her, too. If she’d let them. And the temptation was there. He whispered in her ear. All of them together. A happy family.

A lie. A trick.

Mark was floating now and all she had to do was push him away, sending him into the middle of the black and murky water towards the lights. The small moons illuminated by the one overhead. Blinking on and off. Lightning bugs. Eyes. She heard splashes as she backed up onto the shore, mud squishing between her toes and caught in her tights. Mark bobbed a few times, rocked by gentle waves. Then he twitched.

Still alive.

No, she realized as he jerked again. He was being pulled down. She saw the eyes now. Heard the slap of a tail. The Moon Man’s children coming to claim her offering.

She threw the necklace in as well, listening to the satisfying plop as it landed on the surface of the water and sunk below. A bonus.

Tabitha collapsed to her knees, cattails brushing her cheeks like butterfly kisses as she watched her husband’s body sink below. The swirl of water and the release of gas, bubbling to the surface. Her mouth began moving in a frantic, ceaseless, silent prayer. Words said to dark and water and what lurked there she could not even put a voice to.

Her lips grew chapped and dry and she could no longer taste the bugs that were so foolish to fly between her teeth, hoping to eat her from the inside out. Didn’t they know grief was doing their work for them and far better than they ever could? But she still begged, prostrating herself in the clay and putrid algae and rotted fungus. She swam in and out of consciousness, seeing the moon above her and the moon below in the water as they became two ghostly eyes watching her, drinking her suffering. Her head lolled on her neck the way Mark’s had done with the first hammer blow. The one that had dropped him. It had been a dull thudding sound far different from the sharp cracks and wet slaps which had followed. She wanted to push those thoughts away, but she needed to think about them; she needed the Moon Man to know how great her sorrow and sacrifice.

At some point she fell asleep, slumped over, hair hanging over her face and ends trailing in the water. She didn’t know how long she had slept—five minutes, five hours. It was still full dark. Darker still because the moon was missing from the sky.

And she was alone.

Tabitha dragged herself to her feet, back aching, shoulders on fire, and she watched the flat, black expanse of water ahead of her. No crickets sang. No toads croaked. No fish splashed in the depths. There was simply an endless quiet, broken only by the breath escaping through her nose.

She turned her back on the swamp and went back to the house.

Tabitha weaved up the back stairs, knees ready to collapse under her. She slid her hand up the rough, wood banister, ignoring the splinters that sunk into her palm and fingers. Tabitha opened the screen door into the mudroom and stopped.

The pool of blood where Mark’s head had rested while she’d fumbled with the doors was almost black under the glow of the bare bulb overhead. An ink splotch on the yellowed linoleum, seeping into the porous surface and staining long mildewed grout red. And in the center of the congealing pool, a footprint about the third the size of her own.

Tabitha wiped at her cheeks, feeling the torn skin of her palms and the welts already rising from the countless bites she’d received in the swamp, smearing the dirt and sweat and salt of dried tears. She wiped her nose across her arm, a trail of silver left behind in the grime there as her eyes followed the tracks leading into the house.

Red clay. Blood. It made no difference.

She padded from the mudroom to the kitchen, the prints shifting from black to red and back again in the light, and followed them into the hallway, the shadows swallowing the trail. Tabitha didn’t need to see them to know where they led.

The giggle gave her away.

It wasn’t so much a giggle as a gurgle. A release of air underwater, bubbles popping and a wet spill of water hitting wood. But Tabitha reconciled it into the sound it should have been.

She opened the door to the crawlspace under the stairs and bent down, staring into the darkness. Two twin moons stared back, becoming wavy, shifting pinpricks of light as Tabitha’s eyes filled with tears. She didn’t smell the sweet scent of her baby girl’s tear-free shampoo, but the sweet smell of rotting meat and something else. Something loamy and mildewed. Something older.

“I picked flowers for you, Mommy.”

On all fours, Tabitha crawled into the dark.

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About the Author

Tanya Pell’s horror debut CICADA releases in Sept. ’24 through Shortwave. An HWA member, her short fiction can be found in MOTHER KNOWS BEST, OBSOLESCENCE, Shortwave Magazine, and Well, This is Tense. She is represented by Marcy Posner at Folio and FolioJr.

tanyapell.com

Copyright ©2024 by Tanya Pell.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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