The Thicket

by Steven Carr

 

The First Encounter

Tom Jensen pulled a rotting apple from the tree. The idea that he had brought his wife and daughter to a failing apple farm terrified him. His wife, Reba, hadn’t wanted to move to the farm to begin with. He shook his head in disgust and threw the apple into a thicket of bushes, vines, and gnarled trees that lined the west side of his property.

A moment later the apple flew out of the bushes and landed at the tips of his boots. He picked it up and examined the apple. He walked over to the thicket and separated the bushes wide enough to peer in. He pushed them apart a little more and stepped through. As soon as the bushes closed behind him he found he had stepped onto a small neatly manicured lawn. He turned about as if he had lost his bearings. He turned again, stunned to see a small weather-worn house sitting on a small hill about fifty yards from where he was standing.

Tiptoeing, he walked toward the dark house. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs that led up to a porch where an empty swing moved gently back and forth. He cautiously climbed the creaking stairs keeping his eyes on the warped boards under his boots. At the top of the stairs, movement on the swing startled him and made him turn his head. Mouth agape and eyes unblinking, Tom stared at an elderly black woman sitting in the swing. She was wearing a cotton floral print dress and white shoes. Her hair was pulled back into a bun.

The old woman smiled at him as a basket suddenly appeared at her side. She took a ball of yarn from the basket and moved her hands and fingers as if she were using invisible knitting needles.

“My name’s Muddy Weather,” she said. “I guess that’s the name they put on my birth certificate, but I don’t know for certain. But I’ve always been fine with being called Muddy Weather. Some folks call me Muddy for short, which is okay, or Mud if they’re bein’ impolite, which ain’t okay.”

Tom stared at her, bewildered.

“Well, you must be the new neighbor. I’m mighty pleased to meet you,”

Tom nodded. He looked back at the thicket then back at Muddy.

“Well, neighbor, you better get on home now ya hear. The next time you come by you don’t have to stare at me all open-mouthed. You can call me by name. You can say howdy Miss Weather or just call me Muddy. I’ll say hi right back, just like we were old friends. Maybe the next time when the cat don’t got your tongue, you can tell me something about yourself. You think about it. Now you better get home. Go along with you.”

Tom backed down the stairs and crossed the lawn. He glanced back. White curtains in the windows were blowing gently in the breeze. Muddy was standing at the porch railing petting a large tabby cat. She waved at him. He quickly stepped into the thicket.

He burst through the bushes, his arms scratched and bleeding. In front of him his white and green house gleamed in the sunlight.

The Return

When Tom next entered the thicket, it was like a night-shadowed version of a Dali painting. The trees were twisted, the mud holes dark and foreboding. Vines hung from the trees like tentacles. He fell out onto the dark grass of Muddy’s lawn.

Muddy was standing in the grass. She looked at him, surprised. “Well, neighbor, this is no time to come visitin’. I was just taking one last stroll before going to bed.” She looked up at the sky.

“Looks like we might have a touch of rain. Why, you look a little wet? Is it rainin’ at your place? I remember once when I was a little girl standing on a dry, sunny road and watching a downpour not more than five feet from where I was standing. It was a marvel. Neighbor, maybe you can tell me your name?”

“Tom. Tom Jensen,” he replied.

“Well, Mr. Tom Jensen, you come back and visit me when I’m not about to go to bed. We’ll have a long talk.” She turned toward her house.

“Wait,” Tom called out to her.

She turned and gazed at him.

“Something terrible is happening,” he said.

“Isn’t that the way of the world?” She went up her porch steps and into her house.

A Piece of the Pie

He looked down the driveway and saw his daughter, Earlean, enter the thicket. He threw open the door, ran down the driveway, and entered the thicket where Earlean had gone in. He called out her name as he pushed aside thorns and bramble bushes. He exited the thicket and found himself near a well-tended garden. He looked up at Muddy’s house.

She came out onto the porch with a plate in her hand. There was a piece of apple pie on the plate.

“Tom Jensen, you must be that youngster’s pa. Come on up here and let’s get acquainted. I got a nice piece of apple pie, fresh out the oven, here waitin’ for you.”

Tom shook his head in disbelief. He went to the stairs and stared at her. She smiled at him sympathetically.

“My little girl is here?” he asked.

“Lands sakes, yes. She’s out back playing with Whisper. Whisper don’t get much company. He sure loves children though”

“Whisper?”

“Whisper, my cat,” she replied.

“I was worried about my daughter.”

“Your daughter is doing fine. I gave her a fright, but she’ll come round in time. I guess when she’s not so scared-like she’ll be a little more talkative. But you didn’t say much either the first time we met.”

“I was here before? I thought I just dreamt it, but then I saw Earlean going into the thicket. I am awake, aren’t I?”

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell the stayin’ awake from bein’ asleep, ain’t it?” she said.

“I should take Earlean home. Her mother is going to worry with us both gone,” he said.

Earlean came around the corner of the house. She was carrying Whisper. “Look, Daddy. Whisper likes me.”

“That cat. He’s a sweet old thing,” Muddy said. “Look at me. I’m standin’ here holdin’ your pie and it’s gettin’ colder by the moment. Do you want a slice?”

“Thank you, but I better get back home. Miss Weather.”

“I’m right here if you want to come for a visit. Come back any time and bring your wife and little girl,” she said.

“Thank you.” He then turned Earlean, “Say goodbye to Whisper. We have to go.”

Earlean rubbed her face against the cat’s fur, then placed it on the porch. She took her father’s hand.

Tom looked around puzzled. “How do you get off your property?”

“Why, the same way you got on, Mr. Jensen. Do you see any other way?”

Tom looked around, then back at the porch. Muddy was gone.

Holding Earlean’s hand they went into the thicket.

Love and Marriage

Tom and Reba stumbled out of the thicket, falling into the grass near Muddy’s garden. Tom placed his hand on the bullet wound in Reba’s side, trying to stem the flow of blood. He looked up and saw the light on in Muddy’s house.

“Help. Help me. My wife has been shot,” Tom called out.

Muddy came out of the house and hurried down the stairs and across the grass to where Reba was lying cradled in Tom’s arms.

“She’s been shot. Our baby, Earlean, she’s in there. In the house. Call someone. Get someone,” Tom pleaded.

“I can’t call anyone Tom. Let’s get your wife into the house and then we can figure out what to do,” she helped Tom lift his wife and they carried her inside. They laid her on the sofa, her head resting on a handmade pillow. She closed her eyes and drifted in and out of consciousness. Tom pulled his hand away from Reba’s side. His hand was covered in her blood.

“Before anything else we got to stop that bleedin’. Tom you put your hand back there and keep talking to her nice and gentle.”

As Muddy went into her kitchen Tom put his head on Reba’s breasts and fell asleep.

Recovery?

Muddy was sitting on the porch swing feeding a squirrel that was sitting on her knees. Reba was sitting on the top step petting Whisper. She was wearing a dress exactly like Muddy’s. As Tom came out of the house, Reba stood and stretched.

He had a panicked look on his face. “Reba . . .?”

She gave him a coy smile. “It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day. I can’t thank you enough for taking care of me. And thank you Miss Weather for letting me sleep on your sofa.”

“You’re mighty welcome child. It was too late at night and too dangerous for you folks to be in that thicket,” Muddy said.

“Reba you were shot in the side. You were bleeding.”

“I’m much better now,” she said.

“Earlean . . .” Tom hadn’t seen his daughter.

“Earlean’s fine. She’s in the house making gingerbread men. Can’t you smell them? Mmmm.”

Tom sat on the steps next to his wife, head in his hands. “I don’t understand. Those men. Reba was shot. I think I’m…,” he looked up suddenly at Muddy. “Miss Weather! Am I, are we, dead? Is this heaven?”

“My heavens no. This may be heaven to me, but it’s my own little piece of heaven. Unless you folks are ghosts, you ain’t dead. I don’t have much use for ghosts hangin’ about. No, this ain’t heaven.”

“This doesn’t feel right,” Tom was confused by it all. “I can’t make sense of it. Any of it. I feel like I’ve got something to do – that I left something undone.”

“Some mornings are like that. You wake up and it feels like there are things to do. Even when there aren’t things to do,” Muddy said.

Apple Trees

Tom opened his eyes to sunlight streaming through the lace curtains in Muddy’s living room. Whisper was lying in the rocking chair, sleeping. Tom looked around a bit dazed, as he sat up on the sofa. He stood and walked to the door where he stepped out onto the porch.

In the lawn was a small orchard of apple trees. The trees were loaded with big apples that glistened in the sun. Muddy was standing by one of the trees, plucking apples from a branch. She carefully placed each apple in a small basket at her feet. She looked up and saw Tom.“Good morning, Tom. You sure are lookin’ better today.”

“Miss Weather, I feel like I’m missing something important.”

“It’s hard to know what’s really important.” She picked an apple and held it out to him. “Here, have an apple.”

Tom came down the stairs, took the apple, and bit into it. “Wow, this is a great tasting

apple.”

“I worried that the storm might hurt ’em, but they’re just fine. Ain’t it funny how an apple gets a bruise just like us?”

Tom looked over at the thicket. “I think something has happened to Reba.”

“It’s nice to see two people so suited for one another. You’re like two apples from the same tree.”

“Miss Weather, I’m a little mixed up.”

“Well, you’re walkin’ in a big parade full of folks that are,” Muddy said.

A Sleep Interlude

Tom opened his eyes. He was seated on Muddy’s swing. Whisper was walking back and forth rubbing her sides on his pants legs. He yawned.

Muddy came out of her house. “It’s too bad your wife and daughter couldn’t be here.”

Tom yawned again. “Excuse me,” he paused. “I’m so sleepy. I shouldn’t be so sleepy. I was doing something important. It concerned Reba and Earlean.” He yawned again. “I’ll take a nap, then go back through the thicket.” He leaned his head against a chain, that held the swing, and closed his eyes.

“Nothing like a little nap,” Muddy said.

Murder, He Says

“Tom, why heaven on earth! What have you gone and done to yourself,” Muddy suddenly appeared, standing over him.

He rolled over and wrapped his arms around her legs. “I’m so tired, Miss Weather. I’d like to close my eyes and go to sleep forever.”

“Now, now. Don’t you go talkin’ that way. We all get tired sometimes,” she consoled him.

“I’ve had a really bad day. My orchard isn’t doing well. I haven’t admitted this to anyone, but I don’t think I’m cut out to grow apples.” He paused. “There’s something else. I think some bad people killed my wife and daughter.”

“You mean that pretty wife and that precious child of yours is over at your house dead, and you’re here talking about being tired?”

“You don’t understand, Muddy. They came in and shot me.”

“You seem mighty scratched up, but I don’t see where any bullets went in you.”

He sat up. “I know, I know. I’m mixed up about it. Reba was tapping her pencil . . .no, she was tapping her fingers. Earlean wanted something. Cookies. People were coming. I made Earlean get in the closet.”

Muddy put her hand on his head. “I suppose you’re feeling the worse kind of misery the devil ever invented. Sometimes you got to wrestle with the devil. I’ve wrestled with him a few times. Look at me. I’m still standing. Now don’t you think a big strong man like you could do a little wrestlin’ with that fire-breathin’, horn-headed good-for nothin’?”

Tom began to sob. “I guess.”

A Follow-Up Encounter

Sam Hardy and Detective Russo got out of the police car they had parked in Tom Jensen’s driveway. Tom was in the back seat.

Det. Russo gazed appraisingly at the thicket. “Stay here with Mr. Jensen,” Det. Russo said. “I want to go in the house and have a look around again.”

“What are you looking for?” Sam asked.

“Even though he killed his wife and daughter, I don’t think he’s crazy. I don’t know what he is, but I have a gut feeling he’s not nuts,” Det. Russo walked toward the house.

“Detective, why did we bring him along?” Sam asked.

“I don’t know yet,” Det. Russo went to the front door and unlocked it and went in, leaving the door open behind him. There were splattered blood stains everywhere. Chalk outlines of Reba’s body remained on the living room floor. A large blood stain was on the carpet. He went into the kitchen. A crossword puzzle and pencil were on the table.

The door slammed in the living room.

“Sam, is that you?” Det. Russo called out. Getting no response, he walked into the living room.

He tried to open the door but was unable to. “Sam, are you out there?”

He turned, then fell back against the door.

Reba’s body was in the chair.

“What the hell?”

Hearing footsteps running down the hallway, he walked over in time to see the heel of a girl’s shoe going into Earlean’s bedroom. He raised his gun.

“Okay, who’s ever down there, come out with your hands up.”

He waited a minute then slowly walked down the hall and looked in Earlean’s bedroom. The door to the closet creaked open. Looking in, he saw Earlean’s hand sticking from beneath a stuffed animal that resembled a yellow tabby cat.

He suddenly inhaled, sniffing the air. “Apple pie?”

When he entered the kitchen, Tom was standing at the oven.

“Mmmm, doesn’t that apple pie smell good, Detective? There’s nothing like a fresh baked apple pie right out of the oven. Me and Whisper have been waiting for this pie, it seems like forever.”

Det. Russo raised his gun and aimed it at Tom.

“My, my, Detective you are the most impatient man I’ve ever met. The pie will be out soon enough.”

“Look, Jensen…”

“Muddy Weather is my name in case you forgot,” Tom interrupted the detective.

“Look, Jensen, this has gone far enough. I admit that I’ve seen enough to make me wonder about you, but it’s time to go,” Det. Russo ignored him.

“Go? But you haven’t seen all the possibilities. All the endless possibilities, Detective Russo,”

“What are you talking about? What possibilities?” The detective relaxed his arms.

Suddenly Reba appeared at the table, tapping a nail file on the table as she stared at the crossword puzzle. She looked up at Det. Russo and smiled. She suddenly vanished. The kitchen grew dark and the sound of rain hitting the roof resounded in the house. Det. Russo backed against the wall, scared speechless.

“I think my pie is finally done,” Tom opened the oven and pulled out a steaming hot pie. He held it close to his nose and closed his eyes in delight.

“Look Tom, Muddy, whatever is going on here, I don’t care. I just want the truth.”

Tom laughed loudly. Scratches suddenly appeared across his face and arms. “The truth? There is no truth Detective. I wish my daddy was here to explain it. He was always so much better at talkin’ to folks. There isn’t any truth though. There’s an event and the echoes of that event. One little thing can and always does set off a whole string of other things. You got to be careful Detective, but the truth is unknowable.”

“Okay, I get it,” Det. Russo raised his gun and aimed it at Tom. “I want out of here.”

Back To Where He Started

Det. Russo landed on his knees on the gravel walkway leading to the front door. He looked up and saw Sam staring at him, amused and perplexed.

“The ghosts in there getting to you, Detective?” Sam couldn’t hide his smirk.

Det. Russo stood up. “Sam, have you been out here the entire time?”

“All three minutes,” Sam replied, growing concerned.

“Three minutes?” Det. Russo ran over to the car and looked in.

Tom smiled at him, knowingly.

“He’s been in there the three minutes?”

“Yeah. What happened? What has you so spooked?” Sam asked.

“It’s some sort of parallel universe going on. I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense,” Det. Russo looked at Tom. “Let him go.”

“What? You want me to let Jensen go? I can’t do that,” Sam argued.

“Yes, you can. I’ll take the blame if anything happens. Let him go.”

Sam shook his head, opened the back door, reached in, and unlocked the handcuffs around Tom’s wrists.

Tom climbed out. “Oh, there’s nothing like a pretty day. Now, I don’t mind a good thunderstorm now and then and I must admit I’m partial to the kind of solitude that night provides, but a sunny day is special.” He walked to the thicket and stepped in.

Det. Russo followed him as Sam stared in disbelief.

The Solution

Det. Russo stumbled out of the thicket and landed on his knees on the gravel walkway. His face and arms were scratched. His clothes were torn. He looked up and saw Sam staring at him, concerned and perplexed.

“What were you doing in that thicket? You’re a mess.”

“Sam, have you been out here the entire time?” Det. Russo asked.

“Thirty-three minutes. I was getting worried. I almost came in after you.”

“Thirty-three minutes?”

Det. Russo ran over to the car and looked in at Tom. Tom smiled at him knowingly.

“He’s been in there the entire time?” Det. Russo asked.

“Yeah. What happened? You’re really acting like you were spooked.”

“I don’t know Sam, but it’s going to stop. Let Jensen go.”

“What? You want me to let Jensen go? I can’t do that,” Sam argued.

“Yes, you can. I’ll take the blame if anything happens. Let him go,” Det. Russo said.

Sam shook his head, opened the back door, reached in, and unlocked the handcuffs around Tom’s wrists.

Tom climbed out. “There’s nothing like a pretty day. Now, I don’t mind. . .”

Det. Russo raised his gun and shot Tom in the head.

THE END

 


 

About the Author

Steve Carr, who lives in Richmond, Va., began his writing career as a military journalist and has had over a hundred short stories published internationally in print and online magazines, literary journals and anthologies. His plays have been produced in several states. He was a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee. He is on Facebook and Twitter @carrsteven960.