Clarice glared out her window at the trees that surrounded the house. It had been her grandfather’s, once upon a time, and it still had that old people smell. He passed away during the summer and now her entire vacation was shot to hell. Instead of hanging out at the pool and driving around with her friends, she was stuck in this run down old shack with her parents for three excruciating months.
It was the type of place that couldn’t get pizza delivery. Clarice wasn’t even sure if the town had a pizza place. The TV barely worked and cell phone reception was almost non-existent. The internet was probably still just a rumor around here. The nearest neighbor was three miles away on the other side of a bunch of orange trees. She didn’t mind the distance, but she hated the fucking trees.
Her nose had started running and her eyes puffed up before they even made it to the end of the driveway. A never ending stream of snot and tears. The house itself sagged in the summer heat like a bitchy old lady, shedding long flakes of blue paint. For the last two weeks, she hid herself in her room and tried to avoid any human contact. The only time she came downstairs was for food and to take more allergy medicine.
When they first saw the place, her mother let out a low whistle and said it had “charm”. Her father nudged her and whispered, “That means it needs a ton of work, Clarice’s Pieces.” Clarice rolled her eyes. As if the nickname wasn’t bad enough, the joke was pure parent. If you laughed at their jokes, they might start thinking you were their friend, and the last thing she wanted was friendly parents.
She laid in bed at night, listening to them snoring in the next room and hating them for being able to sleep. If she was going to spend her summers in a small town at the ass-end of the map, at least she should be able to sleep. She stared at the shadows on the walls until she eventually drifted off. But she never stayed asleep for too long. Her dreams were filled with grasping roots sliding along the outsides of the walls, trying to find a way in.
They had to hire some contractors to fix things up before they could sell it. At first her father seemed to think that he could do a lot of the repairs himself. He’d even bought a tool belt and a few tools at the hardware store in town. Watching him stand there, examining the dry wall with his bright shiny tools, Clarice thought he looked like an idiot. He’d tried to build a spice rack two years ago that almost killed the cat.
“If you want it done right, you have to pay someone who knows what they’re doing!” her mother yelled one night. Her father just sighed loudly. Most of their conversations seemed to go that way lately.
Today’s contractor was a plumber. He was old, fat, and smelled like Old Spice. Staring at him, Clarice’s mind stuck on the thought, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” She let it roll through her head a couple of times while biting back a giggle, then went to her room to avoid having to talk to anyone.
It wasn’t long before her father and the plumber were talking loud enough that she could hear them over her music. She left her room with every intention of yelling at them to shut the hell up when the old man announced, “Yep, you got roots.”
Clarice stared at the walls around her. She pictured roots crawling through the insides, wrapping the house in a network of branches. Down below, her father said something that she couldn’t quite make out, and the plumber grunted in response.
“Tricky little fuckers,” he said. “Especially out in these parts. You’ll want to make sure that you clear them out straight away. You don’t want them creeping in on you.”
Clarice moved closer to the stairs now. The plumber was standing just inside the front door. Her father was in the hall, looking confused and clueless. She could see him calculating just how much this was going to cost him to fix. It was hard not to scream at him just to pay the man what he was asking for and be done with it.
The plumber nodded to himself, as if he was thinking the same thing. “Yep,” he said, rotating each arm carefully, the shoulders grinding loud enough that she could hear them from the stairs. “They’ll sneak up on you if you aren’t careful. Got some stuff in the truck you can use to clear ’em out if you want.”
“How much?” her father asked, with the weary voice of a man who has already paid too much.
The plumber shook his head and thought about it for a second. “Won’t cost you more than a hundred bucks.”
Even though she was looking at the back of his head, Clarice felt her father smile. “Or I could go pick some stuff up at the hardware store for a third of that.”
“You could do that,” the plumber said, nodding his head a little. “But that cheap, manufactured shit won’t do much for your problem here. You’re new in town, so maybe you don’t know how tricky these things can get–”
“It’s just a few roots,” her father interrupted. Clarice sighed. It was the same voice he’d used with her mother when he wanted to feel capable. “I’m pretty sure I can handle dumping some chemicals in the toilet to fix the problem.”
The plumber waved at the trees that surrounded the house. “This ain’t a problem that chemicals can fix,” he said. “You need someone who knows what they’re doing.”
Her father set his jaw and glared. They stood like that for a moment, staring at each other. Finally, the old man shook his head and shuffled out of the hall. Clarice hurried back up to her room and watched as he made his way back to his pickup truck. He looked back at the house once, right before he left, and she thought he might have waved at her. It was hard to tell. Then he shook his head again and drove off down the gravel road towards town.
She glanced out into the bathroom across the hall and tried not to think about roots crawling up through the toilet, or reaching for her while she washed her hair in the shower. Down below, her dad was muttering to himself. Clarice tried to block out the thoughts by shutting the door, promising to keep a mental note of every crack and lump in the walls around her.
Her father went to the hardware store not long after that and spent the rest of the afternoon flushing copper sulfate down the drain. He looked ridiculous with his safety goggles and rubber gloves, but if it stopped the roots, then maybe a little silliness was all right.
That night, they ate dinner in silence. At home, there had been music and jokes. This house seemed to pull the energy from anyone who set foot in it. Even the contractors seemed to get worn out after a few hours. Clarice wondered if her grandfather had the same root trouble they were having now. The trees that seemed to get closer to the house every day gave her a pretty good idea.
“What happened to Grandpa?” she asked.
“The doctor said it was a stroke,” her father said. “By the time they found him, it was far too late.” They all sat silently for a moment absorbing that knowledge.
“He loved this house, and these trees,” her mother added. “I remember him buying the place right before Mom died. She said they were finally happy here.”
Clarice watched her mother dab tears from her eyes with a napkin. Her father leaned in and whispered something in her mother’s ear that made them both smile. She wondered when the last time was that this house had seen a genuine smile.
“I have an idea,” her father said suddenly. “Let’s go into town and get ice cream!”
They both looked at Clarice. As tempting as ice cream was, her face was still puffy from the pollen and she could barely keep her eyes open. She fought back a yawn, and pushed some food around her plate.
“I’m too tired to go,” she said, waving them off. “Maybe tomorrow, after I get some sleep.”
They both nodded and went back to eating. Nobody said a word. When Clarice could barely keep her eyes open, she excused herself from the table and went upstairs. The trees had stopped scratching at the windows, and for a moment, it was easy to enjoy the quiet.
“The poison must have worked,” she thought, as she changed into her pajamas. Her father would be so happy that he finally did something right. Maybe if they pushed the trees back from the house, she’d be able to sleep a little better.
Clarice was brushing her teeth in the bathroom, when something brushed against her foot. At first she thought she’d imagined it, just a gentle caress against her bare skin. Then a sharp pain dug into her heel. She fell to the floor with a scream. Her head banged against the tile hard enough to stun her a little.
The roots spread across the bathroom floor. Clarice tried to back away from the one that had dug into her ankle. More came up from the toilet and bathtub, sharp pain ripped through her arms and legs as more roots buried themselves deep inside her skin. Slowly, they inched up her arms and legs. More plunged into her back.
She could see her grandfather tending to the trees. Small animals at first: a few squirrels, then a cat or a stray dog. Then, a red-headed child pinned to the wall as the roots drained him dry. Her grandfather watching from the doorway, tears streaming down his face. She felt the hunger of the trees. Desire crept through her, a desperate need for blood.
One child wouldn’t have been enough, she knew that now. The trees wanted more. Demanded more. Her grandfather sacrificed the only thing he had: his wife. The taste of her blood called out to Clarice through the years.
Even in the visions, Clarice could tell that he was not a kind man. He had a hard-bitten look to him. Thin like a rail, with skin that had browned in the sun until he looked like he was carved out of wood. His mouth was fixed in a permanent scowl, the lines printed in his face. He didn’t look like a man that knew how to laugh.
Her mother hadn’t spoken of him until he died. And even then, it was about the house and how they needed to fix it up. Clarice had never thought to ask about it. She just assumed that he was old and that was it. People stopped talking to their parents when they got old. That was life.
Tendrils dug into her scalp, lifting up her hair as they caressed her skull. She wanted to call out to her parents. Tell them to get away from the house, to leave now while they had a chance. In the distance, she heard them calling up the stairs to see if she was okay. The best she could do was moan slightly.
Thousands of roots shivered under her skin and slowly pulled her back towards the wall. Clarice tried to take a breath, but the roots filled her lungs. They fed oxygen to her body while slowly wrapping her in their warm embrace. Her mouth was forced open and she heard her own voice say, “I’m okay! Can you come here a minute?”
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