Contest #175 shortlist ⭐️

A Carefully Manicured Lawn

Submitted into Contest #175 in response to: Start your story with two people planting a tree together.... view prompt


Crime Mystery Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Hestia and her young neighbor slide the oak sapling into the gaping hole dug in the earth.

“Hold it straight, now,” Hestia says gruffly as she shovels dirt around the root ball.

“I can do this part, if you want? I’m younger and, uh,” the neighbor trails off as Hestia gives her best scathing look.

They finish the task in silence.


40 Hours Ago

Hestia opens another Diet Coke, the crack and fizzle a welcome sound to her ears. She knows it will be the death of her, but it is her vice of choice, and she will gladly take it to the grave. When the acidic bite of the first sip fades, she raises the binoculars with one gnarled old hand and peers Westward between the cracked blinds of her bedroom window. It is a good window, an upper story window that faces her back yard and more importantly, her neighbors back yards. She pays a neighborhood boy to haul his 10-foot ladder over and clean it from the outside once a week. Nearly a year ago, while on a walk with her dog, Peanut, she had seen him cleaning out gutters. Now, she gives him 2 dollars a week for the single window. The others she can do for herself, as they are all on the first floor. Once, he’d tried to dicker with her, but she'd whopped him on the back of the head and told him to respect his elders. He’d glared at her then but nodded, and the deal was struck. 

She needs the binoculars to see the house two down from her, number 17. A family lives there, a nice one if you didn’t know any better; a couple, two small children with angelic blonde hair, and a big dumb dog. As it is, the dog likes to chase poor Peanut and the kids cause an awful ruckus when they play out back. Plus, children are not interesting. She’d written them a very pointed letter where she suggested a shorter outside play time and a shorter leash for their menacing mutt. Yet, the Heathens ignored her letter, and the snot-nosed brats continue to do whatever they please, to Hell with everyone else. The new generation is doomed, she is sure of it.

Hestia had then spent several satisfying weeks tipping over their trashcan until she noticed that the tell-tale red light of a security camera had appeared on their front porch, and now she is forced to consider alternative methods of punishment. Currently, their yard is empty, and their windows are dark.

She belches loudly and turns to yell for Peanut, who either can’t hear her or ignores her. He is getting old, 14 or 15, so she can’t tell if he is hard of hearing or is being purposely disrespectful. She narrows her eyes, mutters, and turns back to the window.

The house sandwiched between the Heathens house and her own, number 18, is quite boring. An old man lives there. He is older than her, single, and he has no discernible family or friends. No one ever visits, and rarely does he leave. His groceries are delivered to his front porch once a week– very new age of him. His name is Arthur, but she calls him Humpty because he looks like an egg. Humpty likes gardening, and more than once she’d had a go at him for letting his rose bushes creep between the cracks of the fence that separated their properties. Honestly, she doesn’t care much about it but wants to see him riled up. He is, unfortunately, unflappable. She spends the least amount of time watching Humpty and hopes he will die soon so that someone else will move in.

She takes another gulp of Diet Coke and calls again for Peanut. This time, the elderly chihuahua pads into the room and lays down on the threadbare dog bed near her feet. She croons to him softly and nudges the bowl of Old Roy’s towards him which he sniffs, unimpressed, and lays his head down. Hestia rolls her neck several times, finishes her drink, and tosses it in a white trashcan overflowing with identical cans.

She peers out the window at her own back yard. It is overgrown and unkempt. Her husband, may he rot in Hell, had been crazy about the lawn. He’d worn spiked shoes when walking on it, lest he leave any footprints, and he forbade her from ever stepping foot on it. He would often go out just to prune a single branch and then come back inside and stare out into the back yard as if willing everything to grow just so. After he died, she’d taken great pleasure in watching the yard become wild and unruly. The dickering window boy had offered his services for that as well, which she’d declined acidly.

She lifts the binoculars and peers Easterly to the house two doors down in the other direction, number 21. It is a vacant house which has been on the market for eight months. Hestia concludes that the woman who is selling it mustn’t be desperate for money since she has been too stubborn to lower the outrageous asking price. So, the place has fallen into disrepair during its lengthy inoccupancy. The yard is cut once a month by persons unknown, but as it is summer, it often looks as wild as her own.

Finally, she turns to her most interesting neighbors, number 20. A young couple moved in a year ago and things were quiet at first. She guessed they were 30 or 35 years old. The woman has bright red hair and likes to read on the back porch when the sun is low in the sky. The man has a dark complexion and looks foreign -- Serbian? Columbian? -- she doesn’t know, all foreigners look the same to her. She calls them Jack and Diane. Diane occasionally waves at her from the front porch when their comings and goings coincided. Hestia appreciates the neighborliness and decides, magnanimously, not to send them a letter about parking their car so cattywampus. They don’t play loud music and they don’t have kids or dogs. The man keeps the lawn short and the bushes meticulously trimmed and shaped. But no one knows better than she the darkness that hides behind the costume of a carefully manicured lawn.

Eventually, the fights began; huge blow outs that spilled through the screen door where she can clearly hear them when she cracks her window. The general flow of these goes like this: Diane, who seems generally quiet and reserved, will argue whatever point she is trying to make. Then, Jack will inevitably start yelling over her, and Diane will take it for a while until eventually her composure is lost and she starts screaming in this high-pitched psychotic tone where Hestia can barely understand what she is saying. Sometimes, there is the sound of breaking glass or slamming doors. Occasionally, the sound of a car door, an engine revving, and a car speeding away from the house. Those are becoming more common place, so Hestia greedily watches number 20 whenever she can. Hestia hopes Diane gives as good as she gets. There had been a particularly nasty argument about money earlier, but all is quiet now.

When nothing happens for several long minutes, Hestia sighs and resigns herself to another lonesome night watching CSI with Peanut. She makes her way downstairs to the kitchen and retrieves a frozen dinner from the icebox and heats it up. She settles into the dingy couch in her living room and watches reruns while she finishes her dinner and promptly falls asleep as the sun retreats beneath the horizon.


She dreams that her dead husband is alive and standing at the foot of her bed holding his beloved hedge trimmers, a dark substance dripping off their sharpened tips. She awakes sometime later startled and disoriented. Peanut is snoring lightly beside her, his tongue hanging out the side of his mouth where several of his teeth are missing. She listens intently, but the only other sound is the quiet tick tick tick of the kitchen clock. She can’t fathom what time it is, but it seems preternaturally dark. She groans from standing and makes her way up the stairs to her bedroom. She peers outside and sees that the moon is barely a sliver in the sky. A glance at the bright red numbers on her bedside clock tells her that it is 2:59 AM. Her neck is stiff, and she gingerly turns her head this way and that to try to ease the ache she knows will still be there in the morning.


She jumps, still on edge from her nightmare. She brings one hand to her racing heart and wills it to slow.


She edges towards the window and waits for her eyes to adjust to the nearly moonless night.

There. She sees the vague outline of a hooded figure in the yard at number 20. They are near the edge of the property line where carefully tended grass meets suburban woods. What are they doing? Is it Jack or Diane? It is impossible to tell.


Hestia’s hand flies to her mouth in sudden realization. Her eyes are fully adjusted to the scant light now and she can see that they are digging, the metallic glint of the shovel appearing and disappearing beneath the earth with each successive clink.

Now, why would someone be digging a hole at this hour? There is only one reason she can think of, and it isn’t to get a leg up on the gardening before the summer heat rolls in. She knows it instinctively, not just because of the couple’s explosive fights, but also because she herself has thought about doing the same thing to her husband a million times before the scoundrel had the gall to drop dead of his own accord.

The real question is which one of them is doing the digging?

Hestia watches, transfixed, as the person continues to dig. An hour passes, then two, then three. She nods off in her chair twice only to snap awake moments later, unable to stop watching the crime unfold. It takes much longer to dig a grave than I thought, she thinks. And then, what a stupid place to bury someone.

Just before dawn, the figure walks back towards the house and disappears for several long minutes. When they return, they are dragging a misshapen bundle slowly towards the too-shallow pit. When the figure reaches the grave, the hood of their jacket slips back revealing red hair so vivid that it is impossible to miss even in the darkness. Not realizing she has been holding her breath, Hestia lets out a gasp of delight.

“You naughty girl,” she says, a Cheshire grin spreading across her face. It is unfamiliar, the smile, and she realizes it is the first one in a long while. She lets her mind wander into a daydream where she is the one doing the digging. The grin slides off her face, however, when she realizes that Diane is sure to get caught. One didn’t report a person missing and get away with a fresh mound of dirt in the back yard, did they?

But perhaps Diane wouldn’t report her husband missing. No, she quickly casts that idea aside. Hestia knows that Jack’s mother stops by regularly – she drives a horrible little minivan that backfires obscenely—and she occasionally joins her son in casting noisy aspersions at poor Diane. The woman would unquestionably look for her son, no doubt about it. Diane’s goose is as good as cooked.


The rusty cogs in Hestia’s mind turn more quickly now. Unless someone else intervened.


By 3 PM the next day, Hestia’s yard is looking more like it did in its previous life. The hedges are trimmed, the grass is cut and watered, flowering shrubs are planted, and one dickering neighbor boy is $100 richer. Hestia complains aloud to Peanut but is secretly quite satisfied at her progress. Like clockwork, Diane’s car rolls into the short driveway of number 20 at 3:45 PM. This pleases Hestia, who had been worried that Diane may have done a runner when her car pulled out of her driveway at 7 am. Based on the time, Hestia concludes that she must have gone to work to keep up appearances. Smart girl.

Now that she is certain that Diane will be around to appreciate her thoughtful plan, she collects her notebook and makes a draft of what she will say to the police.


That night, Hestia creeps into the silent back yard of Number 20 and digs up Jack’s poorly concealed body and drags it back to her own. She rolls it into the deep hole she had the neighbor boy dig and covers it with a layer of dirt and then a layer of manure, leaving a foot of unfilled space which she will address the following morning.


The redhead hands her strange old neighbor her spare suitcase. “Here. Where did you say you were going again?”

“Florida. Airport broke my old luggage,” Hestia says, waving a hand.

“And now you want me to help you plant a tree?” Diane asks slowly, trying to understand. She has never spoken more than a quick greeting to her neighbor in the entire year that she’s lived next door.

Hestia thinks Diane looks like Hell has swallowed her and spat her back out. She has a cut lip and a black eye and Hestia speculates if she went to work after all. The redhead’s eyes are dull and her clothes are a wrinkled mess. Hestia has no doubt that if Diane was her usual self, she would be more suspicious.

“I’m an old woman,” Hestia says by way of explanation. She is, in fact, quite sore from the previous night’s activities.

“Er, I’m a little busy,” Diane says.

“It’ll only take a minute. I just need someone to hold the tree steady.”

“Okay,” Diane says reluctantly.

Minutes later, Hestia and her young neighbor slide the oak sapling into the gaping hole dug in the earth.

“Hold it straight, now,” Hestia says gruffly as she shovels dirt around the root ball.

“I can do this part, if you want? I’m younger and, uh,” the neighbor trails off as Hestia gives her best scathing look.

They finish the task in silence.

When they return to the front yard and Diane turns towards her house, Hestia quickly offers to make some fresh lemonade –well, the powdered kind, anyway – to thank her for her help. Diane shrugs noncommittally.

“Great!” Hestia says a little too loudly and quickly makes her way to her kitchen, stashes the luggage in the hall closet, and promptly phones the police. She makes the lemonade slowly and comes outside just as two police cruisers park in front of Number 20.

Balancing the tray with lemonade and a stack of plastic cups, she shuffles over to Diane, who looks like she is going to be sick as the police officers exit their vehicles.

Hestia leans closer to her neighbor, imagining that she is in one of her favorite crime dramas.

“Listen to me. Get a lawyer, say nothing. Follow my lead,” she mutters under her breath, barely moving her lips.

Despite her apparent terror, Diane turns to look at her shrewdly, her eyes narrowed into slits.

“Good morning officers,” Hestia says brightly, wondering if she sounds as fake to their ears as she does her own. “Would you like some lemonade?”

“Ma’am. Miss,” one of the officers says, nodding his head. “No thank you, we’re here on official business.” He turns towards Diane. “Do you live at this residence? Number 20?”

Diane nods, not trusting herself to speak.

The second officer turns to Hestia and says, “Ma’am, this is a private matter. I’ll ask that you return home now, please.” Ah, so you’re the Bad Cop, then.

“Well, you see, I’m the one who phoned you, actually,” Hestia says sheepishly.

Diane looks at her, one eye wide, one eye swollen half shut.

“Is that so…?” Bad Cop sends Good Cop a conspicuous look. “We’ll talk to you both separately, then. Ma’am, would you kindly lead me to your place of residence?” Hestia catches Diane’s gaze one final time, makes a subtle zipper motion over her lips, and allows the officers to lead them in separate directions.

This isn’t exactly the way she had planned for things to go. She thought she’d make a big stink of things in front of Diane, explaining that Jack was abusive, and Hestia couldn’t take the fights and didn’t want poor Diane to get hurt anymore. That Jack had run off on foot and she had seen him with a suitcase walking that way (the direction of the bus station). But now they are separated and there is no time to get their stories straight. Hestia bites her lip hard enough to draw blood and hopes that Diane doesn’t incriminate herself or all of Hestia’s careful planning will be for naught.


In the end, something Diane says or does is suspicious enough that she is labeled a person of interest and carted off to the police station. Later, more officers appear and search the premises of Number 20 where they find blood, but it is almost all Diane’s. They also find the freshly churned dirt in the back yard and a team is sent with an excavator to dig it up, where they turn up nothing but worms. After two days, the authorities are forced to release her due to insufficient evidence, much to her confusion.

In time, the tiny sapling in Hestia’s backyard grows into a beautiful Oak tree and no one is the wiser, not even Diane, as to what lay beneath.

December 10, 2022 03:15

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Story Time
17:16 Dec 22, 2022

I love a good twist in a story when the author pulls it off. You did a great job with this one. Congrats on the shortlist.


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Britt O'Cull
14:53 Dec 19, 2022

I love this. I think this is my favorite. The true crime plot twist gives me life.


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Philip Ebuluofor
10:59 Dec 19, 2022

Congrats on your being shortlisted. They seem to know how to make people disappear permanently in the western world.


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Wally Schmidt
03:41 Dec 17, 2022

Such great details in this well written story. I like how Hestia finally finds a 'neighborly' purpose to her life and that something good came out of her watchful eye. Very well executed. Congrats on the shortlist!


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AnneMarie Miles
22:25 Dec 16, 2022

This was such a great read! As creepy as it is to think a neighbor is watching your every move, it makes a compelling and hilarious character. Love that Hestia bothered her neighbors about their rose bushes overgrowing when her own lawn is unkempt. There are real people out there like this! I did not see the twist coming, very well done. Congratulations on the shortlist! 🎉


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Jackie Roeder
16:51 Dec 13, 2022

I loved this story. I found myself laughing out loud at times. And I didn’t see the plot twist coming.


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Benjamin Probst
15:21 Dec 11, 2022

Such a fun story! I read it twice. I can still picture the pile of DC cans in the trash can


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