Unnatural Germination

Jim finds something sinister growing in the garden of his family's new home.

An hour earlier, after talking his wife into taking the kids out, Jim planned to work on the garden and spend the rest of the day on the kitchen doorstep, drinking wine and musing over what bulbs to plant. Then he found the animal skeletons.

Jim dumped the bones he found—various rodents, birds, and quite possibly a cat—into a garbage bag full of weeds and rocks. Thankfully, the kids weren’t around, poking through the soil to “help.” As he upturned the earth, he recalled the time two of his childhood cats birthed kittens in the same week. Both litters succumbed to feline influenza. His father buried the poor little things beneath the apple tree in their backyard. Jim wondered if the family he just sold that house to would discover their tiny skeletons while digging their garden.

Jim shook his head, shoved the spade down. It vibrated as it encountered something solid. He retrieved the object in a gloved hand and prepared to toss it in the sack but paused. The skull seemed larger than those he had uncovered so far.

He looked around nervously, as if being observed examining a dead animal was a crime, but his only watchers were Burke and Hare. The twins’ rabbits watched him silently from a voluminous wooden cage, twitching their tiny pink noses.

A sheep skull? It had the right dimensions. Jim began clearing away crusted muck. Instead of bleached bone, it was a fleshy shade of pink. It squirmed in his palm, like a hibernating creature coming to unwholesome life.

Jim yelped and dropped the thing, watched it twist and shudder on the ground. As it writhed, bits of earth fell away, revealing more pink, pockmarked flesh. Jim retrieved his spade and thrust down, splitting the horror in two. It came apart but continued to move. Dark pus flowed from the bisected halves, issuing a stench that brought tears to his eyes. He scooped soil over the creature, watched its spasms slow while the ichor bled out. As the soil dampened, Jim stabbed the shovel down again and again, until only wet mush remained. The stink dissipated, leaving behind the wholesome smell of freshly turned soil. Jim shoveled a large pile of earth over the mass and tamped it down.

For a few days, Jim ignored the unpacking and tried to forget about the weird thing he found in the backyard. Instead, he played games with the twins—Sarah and Jim Jr.—enjoying the last few weeks of their summer break and his remaining time off before beginning the new job that brought his family North Yorkshire. He relished this calm, savoring it as much as possible.

On Friday morning, while on the phone with his new employer, Jim stared out of the upstairs window, watching Sarah and Jim Jr. dig in the garden with plastic spades from last year’s trip to the beach. The dull conversion over his pension plan continued, Jim only half-listening, remembering the bones, the pink skull, the wet mush. Sarah gestured at him with one hand and held something up with the other. Jim Jr. waved a yellow beach bucket.

Jim brought the conversation to an abrupt close and tossed the phone to the bed. He charged down the stairs and halfway across the kitchen, halting as the twins stepped through the back door. The blonde, mud-covered urchins starred quizzically as he leaned against the table, panting for breath. Sarah held a pink object in her grimy palm.

“Look Daddy, munchrooms!” she said. Jim Jr. walked up behind her, shaking his bucket.

“Mushrooms, you dork.” Jim Jr. laughed, rattling the bucket.

In her palm, Sarah held a tiny button mushroom. Around the size of Jim’s thumbnail, it was the same pale pink color as the dead creature, but—thankfully—not wriggling. With a happy smile, Jim Jr. emptied the bucket onto the kitchen table, pink blobs bouncing and scattering across the white tablecloth.

Jim retrieved a mushroom and examined it in the fluorescent light. The stem looked like an old tree trunk, gnarled and brown. Dark gills lined the underside. “Where did you get these?” he asked.

“They were all over the soil outside,” Sarah said. Her missing front tooth and dirty face gave her the air of a Dickensian waif.

“Can Mum make soup with them?” Jim Jr. said.

“Wait—you didn’t eat any of these, did you?” Jim asked. The children looked confused, unable to comprehend the fear in his voice. “They can be bad for you,” he added, “if they’re not cooked.”

The twins shared a glance before turning back to him. “No, we didn’t eat them,” Jim Jr. replied. “So, will Mum cook them for us?”

“We’ll see what your mum says when she gets back,” Jim said, surveying the mess. Emma was out with some new friends. He didn’t want her returning to a kitchen covered in mud and fungi. “Listen you two,” he said, “take off your shoes and get cleaned up. And don’t pick any more mushrooms until I say it’s alright.”

As the twins noisily left the kitchen, Jim went out to examine the offending patch of soil. He scanned it for mushrooms but found nothing. The kids had cleared the entire crop.

Emma returned an hour later, her arms laden with shopping bags. “You won’t believe what I found out today,” she said quietly, a mischievous grin on her face as she placed the bags onto the table. “Is it a secret?” Jim asked with a smile, peeking into a bag.

Emma shushed him and glanced towards the living room. “Something like that,” she said, taking the bag from him. “People were murdered here. In this house.”

The grin didn’t leave her face.

“What? Jesus!”

Emma shushed him again. “Keep it down, we don’t want the gremlins knowing!”

Jim pulled a seat from beneath the table and sat. “Aren’t they required to disclose that here? And why are you taking this so well?”

“It happened almost a hundred years ago, so it’s basically ancient history, but a man killed his entire family and buried them in the yard.” Emma giggled. “It’s cool in a spooky kind of way. Don’t you think?”

“That damned realtor… ‘bargain for an historic home’ my arse,” Jim muttered. “Who told you anyway?”

“Oh, some old geezer at the fruit shop in town.” Emma was pulling said fruit from a bag now, vegetables too. “Just look at it like this,” she continued, “this house has been rebuilt and renovated so many times by now, any ghosts probably packed their bags and moved due to the noise.”

“I suppose you’re right. We can do some research once the internet’s connected.” Jim glanced around the kitchen, at the large, ornate windows that spilled bright sunlight onto the powder-white walls, the modern butcher block island, and the glittering stainless appliances, then turned to Emma. “Besides, this is hardly the Amityville house.”

“Not many Indian burial grounds to build upon round here either,” she replied, laughing.

No, just a pet cemetery full of creepy fungus, Jim thought.

Jim never suffered bad dreams or night terrors. He never dreamt period, as well as he could remember. His psyche was devoid of any belief in the supernatural or ‘things that go bump in the night.’ So, when he jolted awake from a dead sleep, his heart pounding against his ribs, it was a new and horrifying experience. For a few befuddled moments, Jim didn’t know where he was, who he was—but he knew someone had entered the bedroom.

At the end of the bed, the floorboards creaked. As Jim’s eyes adjusted, a pale form materialized.

Jim Jr. stood silently in the gray pre-dawn, the spectral light turning his eyes into black dents in a pale, sickly visage.

“Buddy?” he whispered. “You okay?”

Jim Jr. didn’t move, didn’t respond. Jim reached over tentatively to take the boy by the shoulders, to lead him back to his bed.

“Daddy, I feel sick.”

The sudden sound of his son’s hollow voice made Jim flinch in surprise.

“My mouth and tummy are aching.”

Jim took a deep, calming breath and held a palm to his son’s forehead. Seemed normal enough, if a bit clammy.

“Is the tummy ache bad?” He took his son in his arms, white pajamas smelling sweetly of fabric softener, soft against his bare chest.

Jim Jr. replied in a small, tired voice. “Just kind of a hungry pain, like I’ve not eaten for ages.”

“You ate two plates of casserole and had a snack before bed. There’s no way you’re hungry.” Jim sat the boy on the toilet and retrieved a bottle of children’s aspirin from the cabinet over the sink. “Here,” he said, “chew this up.” Jim Jr. winced as he crushed the “bubble gum flavored” pill into a pale pink paste, then swallowed it, chasing it with a sip of water from the sink.

Jim tucked his son in, ruffled his hair, and went back to his own bed. Remnants of his nightmare returned in flashes as he drifted off.

Pulsating masses covered in pink skin.

Hands soaked in blood.

Unwholesome shapes wrapped in white sacks.

Jim Jr. appeared fine the next morning, and so did Sarah. “Did you get a tummy ache last night too?” Jim asked her.

Sarah shrugged. “A little,” she said, “but I just went back to sleep. I did have a lot of weird dreams, though.”

“Tummy ache?” Emma asked as she clicked the coffeemaker on. “Who had a tummy ache?”

“Oh, nothing,” Jim said. “Jim Jr. woke me up at three in the morning saying his stomach hurt, so I gave him an aspirin and put him to bed. He seems fine, but they found these mushrooms out in the garden—”

“They were pink,” Sarah interrupted, “and they looked yummy, but Dad said we couldn’t eat them because they might be bad for us if they aren’t cooked, so we told him to ask you if—”

“Woah!” Emma said. “Don’t interrupt!”

“Sorry,” Sarah said, frowning.

“Anyway,” Jim continued, “they found these pink mushrooms in the garden, but I threw them out. Figured it wasn’t worth the risk.”

“There are no poisonous mushrooms around here that I know of,” Emma said, “but if they ate some without preparing them, they could have picked up a bug.”

“We ate bugs?” Jim Jr. shouted. Jim and Emma exchanged a glance.

“Are you saying you ate those mushrooms?” Jim asked.

Jim Jr. looked down at his plate of eggs.

“Google?” Emma asked.

“Google.” Jim said.

Jim found a plethora of web pages dedicated to fungi. He learned not only the difference between mushrooms and toadstools, but also discovered that lethal breeds in an English garden were, as Emma guessed, extremely rare. No poisoning symptoms appeared to match Jim Jr.’s, either. There had been no vomiting or diarrhea.

Jim’s thoughts abruptly turned to the tumor-like growth, pulsing, splitting in half and bleeding viscous black fluid into the soil. He ran a variety of search queries (“pink pulsing garden tumor with black blood,” “fleshy garden organ,” “deformed ground rodents”) with no success.

Emma entered with a bowl of ice cream and a book, taking a seat on the sofa. “Find anything about the house?” she asked.

“The house? Oh! The house.” Jim typed in their address and found nothing but real estate websites.

“North Yorkshire didn’t exist until the mid-1970s,” Emma said, not looking up from her book. “It won’t come up if you search the address. Try ‘Roger McGreavy.”

There it was.

Triple murders: The father who destroyed his family – BBC News

10 Crimes That Shook Britain

Jim scanned down and paused.

Roger McGreavy , an English murderer who killed his wife and two … Evidence of cannibalism … Trial and conviction … Death in Broadmoor

McGreavy claimed they turned to demons.

Jim closed the page. “I’m going to feed the rabbits,” he said. “I need some air.”

“I’ll come with you,” Emma said, following behind him as he pulled open the back door and flicked on the light.

The mushrooms were back, spotting the soil like tiny pink gumballs.

Jim and Emma spent over an hour collecting the fungi. The rabbits were still unfed the next day.

“Would you mind feeding Burke and Hare?” Jim asked Sarah absently as he opened the mail at the kitchen table. “Feed is in the container on the top of the cage.”

“Sure!” she replied.

“I’m going too!” Jim Jr. called out from the living room.

Jim spent the next half hour reviewing his new pension plan, then realized the twins had been outside feeding the rabbits for quite some time. He looked out the large kitchen windows and saw them crouching around the empty cage.

Jim set the paperwork down and walked outside. “What’s going on out here?” he asked. Sarah sat with her back to him, hunched over.

A small strip of white fur in the grass caught his eye.

Sarah turned, her cheeks and chin covered in blood. Behind her, Jim Jr. gnawed on a piece of gleaming purple meat. Around both children’s knees, rabbit parts lay in a pool of coagulating blood, along with two torn, crimson-soaked torsos.

“What the hell have you done?” Jim shouted. “What is this?”

They looked up, dazed, like he had woken them from a trance. Their chins dripped red. Sarah crawled round to face him, her eyes gleaming with tears.

“We were so hungry, Daddy. We needed something warm.”

“Go inside and get cleaned up!” he shouted.

The kids, terrified, scrambled to their feet and ran past him towards the kitchen door. Sarah sobbed loudly as they fled.

Jim examined the area. Tucked beneath the cage, he found the killing tool: a pair of bloody shears.

He vomited, his stomach rejecting every bit of its contents onto the blood-soaked dirt—that plot of earth, once the harbor of death.

As he dug a hole and buried Burke and Hare. Jim decided he would cover the garden—the whole garden—in concrete, starting tomorrow. He tossed the shovel aside as Emma pulled in the driveway, fished his car keys from his pocket as he crossed the yard, and drove straight to the store to buy the materials, ignoring Emma’s confused shouts and her attempts to wave him inside the house.

When Jim returned, his car drooping with the bags of cement mix, the house was dark and unusually quiet. He stepped into the kitchen and flicked on the overhead light. A grocery bag sat overturned on the butcher block island. Apples lay scattered across the floor.

Jim heard a thump from upstairs, from his bedroom.

He took the steps two at a time, burst through the door, and locked eyes with Sarah.

Evil eyes, not his daughter’s, stared back like fleshy pink gumballs. Fresh blood dripped from her mouth. Emma lay on the floor in a puddle of blood, her throat torn wide open. Jim Jr. crouched in a corner, staring at Jim with feral gumball eyes, grinning with red lips. He raised a palm filled with tiny pink mushrooms.

Jim knew what he had to do.

He bolted, nearly falling down the stairs in his haste to get to the kitchen. Behind him, the monsters inside his twins belted out a staccato series of barking screeches, communicating in a primal language Jim couldn’t understand. He reached the butcher block and pulled out the carving knife, turning in time to see the children scrabbling on all fours like spiders, their bony joints bending at impossible angles.

Sarah jerked her head to the side, her blonde ringlets bouncing. Something almost like recognition briefly crossed her face.

“Sarah?” Jim said, his voice trembling. “Honey, it’s Daddy.”

The thing wearing Sarah’s skin grimaced, bared its teeth, and lunged at him. The force of her body knocked Jim down, cracking his head on the edge of the counter. Dazed, he watched as Sarah’s jaw unhinged with a crack, splitting her face wide open. Her sharp teeth lengthened, gleaming under the florescent kitchen light. Behind her, Jim Jr. hissed and growled, pacing in the shadows.

“Please! Sarah!” Jim shouted. “Don’t!”

Sarah sprang at him, snapping her jaws, her breath hot and reeking of blood and rancid meat, and Jim knew—his kids were gone.

He plunged the blade into the thing’s chest, all the way to the hilt. It yelped like a kicked dog, but whipped its head around again, snapping its jaws. Jim pulled the blade out and plunged it into the thing’s ribs again, and again, and again, until it collapsed on the floor, gasping its last wet, raspy breaths through ruined lungs.

Through it all, Jim Jr. watched, keeping its distance. Fueled by fury and grief, Jim didn’t hesitate. He tightened his grip on the knife and advanced toward the monster inside his boy, his chest heaving, his hands covered in blood up to the wrist.

The thing belted a howling shriek, leaped onto the butcher block counter, and vaulted out the ornate glass windows, escaping into the night.

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Issue 2.2 Paperback

In this issue of The Dread Machine, you’ll visit an automated retail hellscape, attend a wild party on Earth’s tempest-ravaged surface, and determine what caused the strange deaths at the AudioSnap building.

See the stars in the prison walls, inherit the sacred responsibility of an irradiated priestess, meet a sinister sommelier, befriend a spider, then attend a macabre art show. Whatever you do, don’t eat the honey, and avoid the child with the robotic toys.

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Issue 2.2 Paperback

Visit an automated retail hellscape, attend a wild party on Earth’s tempest-ravaged surface, and determine what caused the strange deaths at the AudioSnap building.

See the stars in the prison walls, inherit the sacred responsibility of an irradiated priestess, meet a sinister sommelier, befriend a spider, then attend a macabre art show.

Whatever you do, don’t eat the honey, and avoid the child with the robotic toys.

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Unnatural Germination

Jim finds something sinister growing in the garden of his family's new home.

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