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The Nursery

THE NURSERY

by Russ Anderson, Jr.

Copyright © 2012 Russ Anderson, Jr.

 

Published by AnderFam Press

All rights reserved.

 

Cover design by James, GoOnWrite.com

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this story are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

When I woke up, my forehead felt tight as a drum, the pulse beating in my temples stretching it nearly to the breaking point, and it felt like somebody sprinkled rock salt in my eyes before I’d gone off to dreamland. I’d had hangovers before, and this one probably wasn’t the worst, but it would have made it into the books. Probably would have got its own chapter.

There was a tumbler on the desktop by my hand. A sniff told me it had recently contained whiskey, and a somersaulting weasel in my belly told me that if I took another whiff I was going to puke. Which might be interesting from an academic point of view, since I couldn’t remember when or what I’d last ate. I also didn’t remember what this last bender had been about. With any luck, I could hold onto that forgetfulness for a little while longer so I wouldn’t have to deal with it. I shoved the glass away and it skittered across the desk, nearly knocking a 4×6 glossy off onto the floor.

That brought something back. The photo showed me a young black girl, skin like caramel and a smile that could light up a country night, sweetest of sweet sixteen. I rubbed at my eyes. This little girl’s mom had been in my office – what, yesterday? – asking me if I thought I could find her girl. Mom wore a clean, but old, gingham dress, checkered in blue and white. I could all but smell the country on her. A worried mom chasing her runaway daughter to the big city and hiring me to find her because (a) I was about the only black detective in town and (b) as a consequence of (a), I was also one of the cheapest.

I turned the photograph over and looked at the name scrawled on the back in my handwriting. Candy Warner. That was convenient, her having a name like ‘Candy’ already. It’d save her the trouble of coming up with one that fit her new profession.

Fact was, I didn’t know for certain where Candy had got to, but I knew her story well enough to take an educated guess. And her momma was no fool. Little girl comes to big city with nothing but dreams of her name in lights, what the hell else is she going to end up doing?

But I had taken Momma Warner’s money, and cheapest retainer in town or not, I owed the woman some closure for it. I rubbed at my salty eyes again.

I had a couple of medicinals growing in a window box for an awakening precisely as rough as this one. I plucked a few caps and took them into the bathroom with me, where I chewed them up and swallowed them with a little help from the water coughing and spluttering out of the tap. They tasted like used sweatsocks that had been abandoned in a damp locker, but I knew from experience they’d do the job I needed them to do. I splashed some water on my face, then went ahead and doffed my shirt and pants so I could splash some in my pits and nether regions too. I pulled a gallon jug of vinegar out from under the sink and carefully rubbed it into my face and hair and the places where sweat and darkness gathered on my skin. It would do until I had the time and inclination for a real shower.

Now that I was as clean as I was getting today, I pulled my shirt and pants back on and found a jacket that wasn’t as rumpled as the one I’d been wearing. Time to go find a girl that almost certainly didn’t want to be found so we could go and break her momma’s heart.

Really, it was no wonder I loved this job so much.

The frosted glass on the office’s front door said ARNOLD CHEEK. Since that was my name, I felt obligated to lock up on my way out.

*****

My office was a tiny dive near Times Square, meaning I shared my home with capheads, hookers, and shaky little punks who thought they were gunslingers. I hated it, but it was mine in a way no nice apartment in Gramercy was ever going to be, no matter if I struck it rich someday. Which wasn’t to say that I wouldn’t have been willing to give it a try if some fine young heiress wanted to make me her kept man… but since I’d looked at my face in a mirror not five minutes earlier, and knew how unpleasant it was, I couldn’t see that happening anytime soon.

I stopped at Al’s, a food cart on the corner of 7th and 42nd, and ordered my usual – a portabella drizzled with balsamic vinegar and a side of fries. I liked Al because he was a straight foodie, not one of these hucksters who sold ‘shrooms as enhancements. There were confidence men all up and down the Avenues who would try to convince gullible patrons that their fungus would make them smarter or clear up their acne or keep their dick hard longer. I hated cops on general principle, but I hated them even more for not sitting on those guys with any kind of regularity. Some ‘shrooms were medicine, some ‘shrooms were food, and some ‘shrooms were pretty good for making you crazy. Everything else these assholes tried to sell you was snake oil.

Al just sold food. Good food, too, the kind that made you think of Coney Island in the summer, back when we all had more years ahead of us than behind us. Since I was standing there chewing on my bella anyway, I pulled the 4×6 of Candy out of my coat and asked him if he’d ever seen her.

He gave me a funny kind of look, like he couldn’t believe I would ask such a thing, then shook his head with a sigh. “Nah, I ain’t never seen her.”

“You sure, Al? You maybe want to take another look?”

“I told you I ain’t seen her,” Al said, slamming his tongs down on top of the cart. “I’d remember her if I had, pretty girl like that. Why you riding me, Cheek?”

I tucked the picture back into my coat, never taking my eyes off of Al, until finally another set of customers came up and he turned his attention to them. He was all smiles and Brooklyn charm with them, a handsome white couple dressed like they were going to a show. Young, smart enough to avoid the ‘shroom hucksters, and completely unafraid of the tall black man taking up space in front of Al’s cart. I liked them already and, making a mental note to come back to Al if my other idea didn’t pan out, left them to their lunch.

A cleaning truck buzzed by, spraying vinegar and diluted bleach into the gutters and swishing it all around with the big brushes on the back. I could still see rogue mushrooms hiding in the drains, withered but alive and ready to encroach as soon as the city missed a cleaning. There were dark places at the openings to alleys and in the elbows where concrete stoops met brick buildings, where the mushrooms had worked their way through the sidewalk. These were no good for eating, of course, growing out of the cement and bedrock like that. If anybody tried, they’d most probably break every tooth in their head.

I’d finished my bella and put most of the fries to rest by the time I reached 11th Avenue. I threw the wrappers into the gutter and stood licking my fingers for a minute, getting my bearings. Then I crossed 42nd Street and slid up beside a couple of gals who were working the curb next to a rundown warehouse building. I knew one of them – she went by Lucy, God knew what her parents had named her. The other girl, the one I didn’t know, was Latina and looked too damn young to be there. That wouldn’t last long, of course – the mileage would overtake the years soon enough.

“Mondo says we ain’t supposed to be talking with you, Cheek,” Lucy said by way of greeting.

That caught me off-guard. “Mondo’s got a beef with me?” I asked. “Why’s that, baby?”

“You can stuff your ‘baby’,” Lucy said. “And take it up with him. Whatever it is, I ain’t having it taken out of my ass, you dig?” The Latina was pretending not to pay attention to us, but she had quietly repositioned herself on the other side of Lucy, away from me.

I started to reach into my coat. “I’m looking for a girl – a particular girl. Just take a look at this picture for me.”

Lucy put out a hand, pinning mine inside the coat. “Didn’t you hear me? I can’t talk to you or Mondo’s going to black and blue me up and down. Get out of here before he comes by.”

I sighed and pulled my hand out of the coat. “Fine, I’ll just go ask Mondo then.”

“Ask me what, motherfucker?”

I turned… and a hand the size of a bear’s paw fastened around my throat. The giant of a man attached to it shoved me back against the wall of the warehouse, rebounding me off the corner of the building and sending me sprawling into the alley. I went for my piece, but my coat was all twisted around me, and before I could get it free of the shoulder holster I heard the hammer-click of a forty-five from the mouth of the alley. I got my hands up and kept them there, still kneeling on the ground.

“What’s this about, Mondo?” I asked. I heard him trudging toward me and considered making a fight out of it, but no. Mondo was slow as a broke-leg tortoise, but he didn’t need to be fast with that hand cannon of his.

That bear’s paw fell on me again, yanking me to my feet this time and hurling me into the alley wall. I spun around, determined not to let him shoot me in the back, but kept my hands up. Mondo was already there, one hand wrung up in my shirt and the other pressing the warm barrel of the forty-five to my skull.

Mondo was six and a half feet tall, and most of that height was in his meanness. He had one gold tooth sparkling in the middle of his snarling face and a blue, sweat-stained bandanna wrapped around his bald head. I’d seen car hoods that weren’t as broad or smooth as that head of his. He had striking eyes, golden in color, but one of the irises had been misshapen by an infection when he was a kid.

I’d helped Mondo beat a murder rap once, even though I kind of suspected he was guilty at the time. None of that mattered today, apparently. I decided I’d better talk fast.

“Mondo, I’m looking for a girl,” I said in as calm a voice as I could manage under the circumstances. “That’s all I’m doing.”

“I know what you looking for, motherfucker,” Mondo said, digging the forty-five into my forehead. “I don’t want any of your bullshit around here.”

I tried to lean away from the barrel, but the wall was in my way and Mondo just dug in harder. “What are you talking about, man? You don’t even know-”

“You leave my girls alone,” he growled. “This the last time I’m telling you, Cheek. You can warn your boy Filly, too. I see either of you ‘round here again, I’m gonna plug your asses and throw the bodies in the goddamn river.”

He let go of my shirt and poked me hard with the gun, splitting the skin on my forehead open and slamming the back of my head against the wall. I fell to my knees with a grunt.

I watched him trudge out of the alley, tucking his gun back into the front of his pants. Lucy was standing there and he waved a threatening arm at her before sliding back into the front seat of a black Charger, which sat rumbling at the curb. As he pulled away, Lucy and her Latina friend beat a hasty retreat.

“Hope you shoot your dick off,” I muttered. There was blood in my eyes, and I put a hand up to probe at the wound, but touching it felt like driving an icepick into it, so I let it be for the moment. I’d have to stop somewhere and get cleaned up. Guy walked around with an open wound in this town, he was likely to have something growing in it before too long.

I got to my feet, staggered, and steadied myself. When the alley stopped bellydancing in front of me, I took a step away from the wall. Since I didn’t fall down, I took another and another, until finally I reached the street.

*****

Twenty minutes later, I had a bandage on my head and my face was clean. There was still blood on my collar, and I considered going home and getting a clean shirt, but since I wasn’t absolutely sure I had any clean shirts, I didn’t want to waste the trip. Also, something Mondo said had stuck in my craw and I needed to look into it.

Filly was an old buddy of mine that ran a bar up on 12th and 57th, near the west side docks. I hadn’t talked to him in months, but if Mondo was bundling me and Filly together into the same death threat, it stood to reason that some or all of the mysterious problem Mondo had with me was because of Filly. Having a psychotic pimp gunning for me seemed like a more urgent problem than finding Candy Warner just then, so I hailed a cab.

Ten minutes later I was standing in the doorway of Filly’s bar. It was the middle of the day, which never stopped folks from drinking, but did limit the number of patrons to only half a dozen or so. Filly was working the bar by himself when I walked in, chatting up some old-timer. The place had been cleaned recently, and still smelled a little of bleach. There was a new jukebox in the corner playing KC and the Sunshine Band, so I took a guess that business was pretty good.

Filly was a small guy. Back when we were kids, that meant he had to be smarter than the rest of us, and more ruthless, and he was still both of those things. He talked a mile a minute, like he was revved up on something, and for a while when we were teens, I thought he might have become a caphead – somebody who chewed the crazy ‘shrooms. But no caphead could hold a job together, let alone a business, and Filly had been doing that for years.

I raised a hand to him as I approached the bar, and watched the smile evaporate off of his face. He stepped away from the old-timer and closer to me, but set about the business of polishing the bar so he wouldn’t have to look at me.

“How you been, Cheek?” he asked. “What brings you to my establishment today?”

“Can I get a beer?”

“You gonna pay for it?”

I scoffed. “Why you always treat me like a mooch, Filly?”

“‘Cause you been one since the second grade,” he said, and there was a hint of a smile there. He was still tense, but he started pouring me a glass. I nodded down the bar at the old-timer, but he just scowled at me and returned to his own drink.

“Talked with Mondo today,” I said.

Filly hesitated. It was just for a beat, but it was unmistakable. “Yeah?” he asked, trying to keep it casual. “Why’d you do that, Cheek?”

“I got a case. I’m looking for a missing girl.”

“That a fact?” Filly brought me the beer and set it down, and when he talked next, his voice was low enough so the old-timer couldn’t hear us. “And was this girl’s name Candy?”

“Starting to feel like I came in in the middle of the movie, Filly,” I said, and took a drink.

“What are you playing at, Cheek?”

“Just trying to close a case. Earn some scratch. You know how it is.”

“No, I don’t. You’re like a dog’s had its nose slapped and still don’t know to keep off the table, you know that?”

I took another drink and very slowly set the glass down on the bar. Then I folded my hands and leaned across them, right into my old friend’s narrow face.

“Filly, I just got pistol-whipped by the biggest motherfucker that ever slapped a ho, and my head is pounding. How about we cut the shit and you tell me what you know about Candy Warner?”

Filly straightened then, and cocked his head. “Is this some tough guy bullshit? Why you acting like you don’t know?”

“Why you acting like I do?”

“Just drop it, Cheek. You know and I know you do not want a part of this.”

He started to turn away, but I snaked out a hand and grabbed him by the collar, yanking him back hard against the edge of the bar. He yelped, and the old-timer hollered in reply, hopping to his feet. The other patrons in the bar watched with only mild interest.

“Tell him we cool,” I hissed into Filly’s ear.

Filly raised his hands at the old-timer. “It’s cool, Horace. It’s cool. I got this.”

“Yeah, Horace,” I sneered. “We all friends here, right?” I let go of Filly and he stepped out of my reach, straightening his collar and trying to regain some of his cool.

“Don’t know what’s gotten into you,” he muttered. “I used to think you was smart, Cheek.”

“Now you just sound like my momma,” I said with a grin. It hurt my head to smile like that, but I did it anyway. “We gonna do this here, or do you wanna go for a walk?”

“Walk,” Filly said. “Horace’ll watch the bar for me for a couple of bucks. Let’s get this shit over with.”

*****

Filly’s idea of a “walk” was actually another cab ride, which he informed me I was going to be paying for. When we reached our destination, clear up on the upper east side, in the low 100s, I took no small pleasure in showing him my barren wallet, and that I didn’t have enough to cover the fare. Filly threw a couple bucks at the driver in disgust and we climbed out of the hack in front of a broke-down tenement on 3rd Avenue.

Filly glanced casually up and down the street, probably looking out for black-and-whites, then moseyed casually up to the stoop, past the capheads and the farmers who wandered these streets like something out of Night of the Living Dead. One of these guys was sitting on the stoop that Filly was making for, and he sprang up at our approach. I hesitated, but a second glance made it pretty clear he wasn’t some kind of bouncer or anything. He probably couldn’t have fought off a feisty three year-old, he was so thin. There was a blue tinge of moss growing in the corners of his eyes, and when he started talking, I could see there was something fuzzy on his teeth too, something a little more aggressive than plaque. The hygiene was the first thing to go with these guys.

“Some good shit here, cuz,” the caphead said. “You wanna see?” Without waiting for us to reply, he pulled up the sleeve of his shirt to show a gray-brown mushroom cap growing out of his forearm, and several circular sores, each the size of a nickel, where other fleshies had recently grown and been cut out. ‘Fleshies’ were crazy-makers and fetish-baiters. They were supposed to give you one of the most intense highs you could find… but I couldn’t say for sure, because they were one of the few vices I’d never partaken of. This was mostly because I’d yet to meet a fleshie farmer who wasn’t completely rock-bottom disgusting. You had to be pretty close to the floor when you decided to start farming – it was nearly impossible to stop the shit from growing once it started. Of course, most farmers never stopped, they just kept growing until they starved or ate the wrong cap or got a bad infection in one of those sores.

“Get the fuck away from us,” Filly growled, and the caphead did as he was told, averting his eyes as we mounted the steps.

“What’s going on here, Filly?” I asked as we reached the door. We were obviously far away from my theory that Candy Warner was working a street corner somewhere.

His eyes narrowed. “Man, why you doing this? It makes me look bad, and paints a big fat target on both of us.”

“I’m just trying to do my job.”

Filly’s eyes widened in understanding. “Aw hell, Cheek. You took something, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t take a damn thing!”

“Then why don’t you remember that we already came here three days ago?”

“Three days…” I shook my head. “Why would we’ve come here? I just met Candy’s mom yesterday.”

“No, you didn’t.” He put a hand on my shoulder. I tried to shrug it off, but he kept it there. “Three days ago, you were showing Candy’s picture to Mondo’s girls. Then you came to me, just like today, and I showed you what’s in this building. Then I told Mondo what was up, so he’d know to keep his mouth shut, and he didn’t want nothing more to do with it. That’s why he clobbered you this morning, bro. He thinks you’re trying to get him involved in some shit he don’t want to be involved in.”

I was shaking my head for the last half of his story. “No, that’s bullshit. Why don’t I remember any of that?”

“Question of the day,” Filly said. He glanced back toward the door, then looked at me. His eyes had softened. “Look, let’s go get a drink. I’ll tell you all about it, but you don’t need to see what’s in there, okay? Ain’t nobody needs to see it.”

“Is Candy Warner in there?”

Filly sighed. “Yeah, she is.”

“Then I need to see it.”

“You are killing me, Cheek.” He looked away. “Okay, fine. One more time. But if you pull this shit on me again, I’ll shoot you. Swear to God.”

He knocked on the door. There was silence, then motion from inside. The door opened a crack, stopping at the chain, and a large, ogre-ish face I didn’t recognize looked out.

“What you want, Filly?” the ogre asked.

“Let me in,” Filly demanded.

The ogre looked at me. “What’s he doing here again?” My heart nearly stopped in my chest. So it wasn’t just Filly messing with my head.

“He’s with me, Deanderus. Open the fucking door.”

Deanderus frowned. “I’ll have to let Bode know.”

“You do that,” Filly said. The door closed and Filly shot me a hateful look while the chain was being drawn back. The door opened and the ogre stepped aside so that we could enter.

Filly led the way and I followed, keeping an eye on Deanderus as I passed. He was almost as big as Mondo, though from all appearances, only about half as smart. He shut the door behind us and the hall went dark. There was no electricity in here of course… or at least that’s what I thought. Once my eyes adjusted, I could see a faint milky glow from underneath a couple of the doors down the hall.

Filly waved me down the hall, and we edged past peeling sheets of wallpaper and kicked needles and pill bottles aside as we went. The place was filthy, but I’d seen worse, and it was obvious that somebody was at least making an effort to keep a path through the building clear and the wild ‘shrooms under control. I heard a moan from one of the rooms we passed and paused. The latch had long ago been busted off the door, so I reached for it.

Filly’s hand was on my arm. “Not yet,” he said. “We’re almost there.”

He led me two doors farther down the hall and stopped. We were at the base of a flight of stairs, leading higher into the building. A thug sat on the stairs, almost as big as the guy at the door, and he had a shotgun laid across his lap. He didn’t bother to get up when he saw us, just raised a hand in acknowledgment of Filly.

Filly put his hand on the doorknob and stopped. He turned to me, and his voice was low, too low for the goon on the stairs to hear.

“You need to keep your head, now,” he said. “You ain’t gonna like this, man. I know that better than you do. But if you cause a ruckus, James there is likely to drag you out back and use his shotgun on you. You understand?”

I nodded. The wound on my forehead was throbbing. Suddenly I didn’t want him to open that door. I wanted to run back to my office and call Mrs. Warner and tell her that I couldn’t find her daughter and I had no intention of even trying to find her. And then I wanted to get good and drunk.

Filly pushed the door open.

The one-room apartment on the other side was lit by a single fluorescent lamp. There was a door, and a tiny bathroom that would have fit twice over into a broom closet, and the only furniture in the place was the small table where the lamp sat and a mattress. The place was relatively clean, considering, but the smell was atrocious. Like piss and shit and dead rat, all at once. Lying on the mattress was Candy Warner, dressed only in a spaghetti-strapped top and a pair of stained panties. Judging by the swell of her belly above those panties, she was about six months pregnant.

“Jesus,” I breathed. “What the hell kind of science experiment bullshit is this?”

Candy tossed and moaned at the sound of my voice, but her eyes were closed and she didn’t turn toward us. She was obviously out of it, probably drugged.

“Candy,” I said, loud enough for her to hear. “Candy, you gotta get up now. Your momma’s looking for you.” I moved toward her, but Filly’s hand was on my arm again.

“Did you not hear me, motherfucker?” he hissed, a panicky edge in his voice. “James will shoot you! He will shoot you as soon as look at you!”

I pulled my arm free. “What, you can’t tell him no? You’re the big man around here, right?”

“I’m just an investor,” Filly said, leaning over to shut the door behind him. “I got pull, but that’s all. And it ain’t enough to save your stupid ass if those men out there decide you’re a security risk!”

I dry-washed my face with one hand. I wanted to grab the girl and walk out of there, but I didn’t have the firepower to do it. “What’s wrong with her?”

“She’s drugged,” Filly said. “She needs to be, for the pain.”

I looked at the lamp. “What the hell’s going on here, Filly? Why does it smell so bad?”

“Somebody – I don’t know who, like I said, I’m just an investor – somebody came up with a new kind of ‘shroom, right? A fleshie that’s not like anything you’ve ever seen before. The high is stronger and longer lasting than anything else out there, and it makes you stronger too. Like, physically. Maybe even smarter.”

“Bullshit.”

Filly shrugged. “Think what you like. Lots of people think different. Any case, this fleshie can only grow under a very specific set of circumstances.”

He fell silent, and I looked again at Candy, at her closed eyes and her swollen belly. Without realizing it, one of my hands crept up to cover my mouth.

“Jesus Christ, Filly!”

“The spores are put in the womb early on, first month of the pregnancy, and they kill the fetus quick. It’s no worse than getting these ladies an abortion, Cheek.”

“Except you leave it in there,” I said. I thought of the portabella I’d had earlier that day and tasted vomit in the back of my throat. The smell!

“Something about the fungus keeps the mother’s body from rejecting the fetus once it’s dead. So it’s left to grow in there. It’s dark and it’s wet, right? And that’s what mushrooms need.

“And then at about seven or eight months, she gives birth to a six or seven pound fleshie. Six or seven pounds, Cheek! Even if those were normal fleshies, you got any idea how much money that would bring in?”

“Somebody eats them?”

“A lot of somebodies, bro. Wouldn’t be a profitable venture otherwise.”

I grabbed him by the lapels, drove him back against the wall, not caring if James heard or if anybody heard.

“You kill babies and sell them to people so they can get high? What kind of fucking monster are you?”

Filly was holding my wrists and grimacing, but wasn’t fighting back. “Tell you the same thing I told you three days ago, Cheek. Grow up.”

“I’ll kill you,” I hissed. “I’ll kill you and I’ll burn this place to the fucking ground!”

“Yeah? And who’s gonna take care of these girls when you do that? You? With us, nine in ten of them survive. Without us, dumped in some free clinic somewhere, how many of them you think gonna make it? They all here by choice, Cheek. They all being paid.”

“Any of them gonna be able to make a real baby again after this? Huh? I know how fleshies work, Filly. I know how hard it is to get rid of them.”

Filly shrugged, but he also dropped his gaze. “They being paid,” he said again.

Suddenly I was exhausted. I let him go, and he just sort of cleared his throat. “You wanna give me a slap, bro? Go for it. You did it before and I ain’t gonna stop you now. But if you try to take that girl out of here, I ain’t gonna be any help to you.

“This new fleshie is spreading like crazy. Labs going up all across the boroughs, man. You burn this one down, another one will go up next door tomorrow. All you’ll be doing is putting these girls here at risk, and those babies will still be dead.”

“And I’ll be keeping you from getting paid. Keep you from buying anymore shiny new jukeboxes.”

“There’s that too,” Filly said with a shrug. “But that’s the only thing you’ll be getting out of it, and if I think you’ll actually do it, I’ll have James or Deanderus kill you and dump your body in the alley. Serious as a heart attack.”

I looked at him, and I knew he wasn’t bluffing. I thought of the skinny kid I used to play stickball with when we were growing up in Clinton Hill, the one who kept his eye on the ball and found the sweet spot every time, because he wasn’t strong or fast enough to compete otherwise. His eye was on the motherfucking ball this time, for sure. He’d beat me.

I took one more look at Candy, writhing on the mattress with her big, infected belly and the horrible smell that could only be coming from one place.

“I’m sorry, baby,” I said, and then I pushed past Filly and out into the hallway.

*****

I didn’t wait for Filly when I left the room, just headed for the door. There was a kind of fog around the edges of my vision, like I was drunk or high, but that wasn’t it at all. I was focused, was all. Focused on getting out of that house, away from that smell. Deanderus stepped into my path, but Filly called him off. I don’t know what would have happened if he hadn’t, ‘cause even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could have stopped just then.

Once outside, with the door shut behind me, I crossed the street amid a crossfire of angry horns and squealing tires, and only when I was all the way across, with a wall of traffic separating me from Filly’s horror nursery, did I lean one hand against a wall and puke the contents of my guts onto the sidewalk. There was the beer I’d had at the bar, and the fries, and the portabella from Al’s. When I saw it, I heaved again, but there was nothing left in me.

If I went to the cops, it’d happen exactly like Filly said. Those girls would be dumped on some shitty clinic that didn’t know what to do about the fleshies, and they’d probably die. I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even save Candy Warner all by her lonesome, not with that thing growing inside of her like it was. And no way could I let her momma know about this. I’d have to give the money back, tell her I couldn’t help her. Maybe she’d get the hint and go back to her home upstate. God, I hoped that’s what she would do…

I thought of Filly saying that those girls were being paid, and I’d never wanted to put a bullet in somebody’s face so bad as I did at that moment.

“Need something for what ails you, brother?”

I looked up, still arming spit and vomit off my face, and saw the farmer, the caphead who’d offered me a fleshie when Filly and I got there. I took a stumbling step back.

“I know it’s only been a few days,” he said eagerly, showing me the fleshie growing out of his arm again, “but I had this one going for a bitty-bit before the last time, you dig? It’s just as good, just as ripe.”

I shook my head. His words were a disconnected jumble, making no sense. I took another step back.

“Ten bucks, man!” he said, seeing his sale slipping away. “That’s the best goddamn deal you’ll find on one like this! It’ll get you high for days, my man. I know I don’t look like much, but I’m clean, man. You standing here now, ain’t you? You know you ain’t gonna catch nothing from eating this shit.”

Finally – finally – I realized what he was talking about. Without thinking, I dipped a hand into my coat, where I’d stashed the last of my cash when I saw Filly was going to make me pay for the cab. “All I got is eight,” I said.

The farmer scoffed, and seemed to think about it for a moment, but it didn’t take him long. He took the money I was holding out to him, pocketed it, then drew out a tiny pocketknife, the kind your parents might let you use as kid but, as an adult, wasn’t good for much other than trimming your toenails. He sunk the blade into the stem of the fleshie growing out of his arm and, with a practiced twist, popped it off. Blood welled up in the new hole in his arm as he handed it to me.

“Don’t tell nobody else I gave it to you for no eight bucks,” he growled. Then he turned and was gone, covering his bleeding arm with one hand.

I looked at the fleshie dispassionately for a moment, then pocketed it. I didn’t bother to look to see if Filly had emerged from the tenement yet. I didn’t give a damn.

*****

I didn’t have anymore money stashed on me anywhere, which meant I had a long walk home ahead of me. It was dark by the time I reached my office. Al and his cart were both gone for the day, which was too bad. I would have liked to apologize. I was sure now that I’d asked him about Candy twice over the course of a couple of days without realizing it. He must have thought I was trying to insinuate something.

I still couldn’t remember shit, but way I figured it, this was what had happened: Three days ago, I’d started my search for Candy Warner the same way I had today. I’d shown her picture to Al, then shown it to Mondo’s girls, and maybe they knew that Candy had gotten mixed up with Filly somehow, or maybe there was some other clue that led me to that conclusion. In any case, I’d made it to Filly’s eventually. Filly had shown me his house of horrors, and I’d had the same reaction I’d had today. And when I’d walked out, I’d been so fucked up by what I saw that I just wanted to forget for a while, just wanted all the horror and the helplessness to go away.

Enter our friend the caphead.

A fleshie can make you crazy. I’d turned my nose up at them for years, but the one I’d bought off the farmer a couple days ago had done exactly what I’d needed it to do – it made me forget. It made me forget a little too well, because I hadn’t done anything, left a note or nothing, to ensure I wouldn’t do exactly the same thing I’d done before once I got around to waking up.

I poured myself a stiff glass when I got to the office, and sipped on it while I did what I had to for my skin, to keep the fungus and the mushrooms off. I rubbed the dark places with vinegar, put eyedrops in, and then I went back to my desk, got out an old knife from the drawer, and sliced the fleshie up.

I sat down and took the 4×6 of Candy out of my pocket. Such a pretty girl. They always were, though – pretty, I mean. The pretty ones always had the saddest stories.

I tore the picture up into tiny pieces and let them flutter into the overflowing trash can beside my desk. Then I dropped some pieces of the fleshie into the whiskey and watched them bubble. I sat like that for a while, looking at the glass of forgetfulness I’d made myself.

And when I couldn’t even stand thinking about it anymore, I drank.

 

[] AUTHOR’S NOTE

 

An earlier draft of the story you have just read was written and submitted to Innsmouth Free Press for one of their horror anthologies. Innsmouth took a pass on that version of the story (and rightly so… it wasn’t quite there yet), but the fact remains that this version of the story wouldn’t exist if that anthology hadn’t existed. So if you enjoyed this, please check out Innsmouth’s book, Fungi, due in the fall of 2012.

Or check out one of my other books. Or if you’re feeling generous, both.

Thanks for reading,

 

Russ Anderson

March, 2012

 

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Thanks for reading!

 

[] ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 

Russ Anderson can usually be found in the suburbs of Baltimore, where he lives with his wife and his two daughters. He is the editor of the HOW THE WEST WAS WEIRD anthology series, and the author of the novel MYTHWORLD for Pulpwork Press, and the FLY GIRL series at Pro Se Productions.

 

 


The Nursery

Arnold Cheek is a big city P.I. and his world is just like ours… except for one thing. In Arnold’s world, the fungus is a little more aggressive – mushrooms grow through bedrock and cement, and vinegar washes are the only things that keep mold from springing up on human skin. While investigating the disappearance of a girl, Cheek finds himself caught in a web of confusion and deceit, where his own actions and thoughts can’t even be trusted, and the everyday horrors of his life and his world are nothing compared to the horrors he’ll find in the Nursery. A detective/horror short story. Approximately 7,000 words.

  • Author: Russ Anderson, Jr
  • Published: 2016-04-03 15:35:07
  • Words: 6791
The Nursery The Nursery