Contest #147 winner 🏆

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Fiction Horror Crime

This story contains sensitive content

*Content warning- some violence and gore*


Something is eating the hostas.


It’s a tricky section of the garden- shaded and north-facing- but the foliage thrives under my watchful eye. I ensure it grows lush and verdant, and only I can coax it from sulking in this hot, dry weather. I’m pleased to see the blue-green tones of sieboldiana flourishing beside the golden variegated undulates leaves.


I‘m outraged by the pock-marked damage I’ve discovered, and search for the culprit amongst the ovate leaves. There! A snail clings to the underside of a leaf, sucked close in a non-consensual and greedy kiss. I prise it off and the shell implodes in my pincer grip, crushed mush oozing between my fingertips. I discard the muck onto the soil with disdain, satisfied that feeder has now become food.


A gardener must be brutal, constantly battling soft bodied grubs, mandible-fanged pests, plagues of aphids and creeping insidious blight, all in order to protect the precious shoots and trembling new leaves. She must also have a hard, calculating heart to destroy what was previously nurtured, cutting back and curbing life when the time comes, sacrificing what was once so carefully created. I, the gardener, am like God; through me nature flows, giving vigour to the strong and enabling the weak and damaged to pass.


Inside the house the landline telephone clamours, taking seven rings for Mrs Nolan to stir from her armchair doze and mobilise her arthritic joints to answer it. Crouched here beneath the open kitchen window I am perfectly placed to eavesdrop what she says.


“Hello, this is Miriam…


“Oh, I’m as well as can be expected. And you?


“Yes, a very hot spell. The garden’s very thirsty…


“Oh…really? You’re too kind! Honestly, it’s too much…


“It’s an absolute honour. I can’t quite take it all in. Trevor would have been so pleased. So very, very pleased…


“Thank you ever so much. It’s all such a surprise!


“I certainly will, and you too. Cheerio.”


The telephone pings as it’s replaced in its cradle, and I sense Mrs Nolan shuffling along to the back door to find me. I muse over the emotional wobble I overheard in her voice. She’s been prone to tears since Mr Nolan’s unfortunate accident and numerous well meaning villagers have phoned to offer comfort, but this call was a curious one and I’m keen to be enlightened.


“Mercy, are you there?”


“Right over here, Mrs Nolan.” I sound as sweet as maple syrup.


Mrs Nolan emerges from the side of the house, blinking in the bright sunshine, taking a moment to locate me by the shadowy border.


“I’ve had the most remarkable news, Mercy. The Village Committee have nominated me for the Best Blooming Garden award. How kind of them! I’m sure it’s Trevor’s dahlias that persuaded the judges; he took such meticulous care of them. Trevor deserved the nomination, not me- he’d have been so proud- but it’s too late…”


Both Mrs Nolan and I glance involuntarily to the place on the lawn where Mr Nolan was found. I am pleasantly surprised to notice how prolifically the daisies are growing. They’re clearly thriving from minerals in Mr Nolan’s blood.


Here we go. Mrs Nolan’s eyes are welling up and her chin is wobbling. I stand, knit my eyebrows together with a show of concern and gently usher her back indoors to put the kettle on.


That’s when I know there is no hope left for Mrs Nolan. A well-meaning nomination- probably from sympathy votes- has exacerbated her misery and reduced her to convulsive weeping, proving any pleasure in life is now well beyond her grasp. What particularly irks me is that the dahlias were mostly attended to by myself, at least ever since Mr Nolan’s stroke last year, and I’ve exclusively cared for them since his recent demise. The dahlias, the roses, those blousy, vulgar petunias that Mrs Nolan chose and I obediently bedded in- the nomination is all thanks to me.


The world has no place for the old and feeble. In this very garden, right under our noses, nature uses all manner of macabre means to ensure order is kept; pincers, stingers, poisons, parasites that eat their host slowly from within. Although violent, these acts are essentially a great kindness. A kindness Mrs Nolan now deserves.


*


I ponder my options.


Whilst some impulsivity was involved with Mr Nolan, this time I'll carefully consider my plan.


Not to say last time wasn’t efficient and effective.


I’d taken great care that afternoon to prune the privet hedge to perfection. I was clearing away the cuttings- gloved, as the sap can sting- whilst Mr Nolan limped up and down, pedantically questioning some cross branch irregularities he perceived in the shrubs. I pitied him, unable as he was to appreciate my work and no longer able to manage the shears himself with one useless arm. It was the least I could do to relieve him of his agitation once and for all.


Stepping close, I plunged the points of the shears into his fleshy, cotton-shirted paunch, which gave little more resistance than a fish belly, and slid the blades upwards under his ribs. It was remarkably easy. This single moment of pain was all it took to free him from his frustrated, failing body. A poppy-crimson stain blossomed under his spread fingers as he clutched his gut in a futile attempt to hold back the seeping blood. Before my eyes his pallid face became slack-jawed with disbelief. He gurgled and spluttered, eyes bulging pleadingly, but there was nothing left to be said. As he staggered, I gently grasped him by the shoulders and guided him down to the ground face first, so the blade tips emerged through his back like fresh new shoots.


It looked every bit the tragic accident; the clumsy fall of a foolish man carrying tools he couldn’t handle, when he should have left the work for the gardener. I removed the remaining cuttings under the pretence I’d left much earlier, and left him for Mrs Nolan to find after she returned from the Parish cake sale.


Perhaps a similarly violent end for Mrs Nolan would be fitting. I’m briefly excited by the thought of her pale wrists cut to scarlet ribbons by secateurs- driven to suicide by grief, of course. I suspect the bleeding out could take some time and given the neighbours' windows will be wide open in the summer heat, enabling them to hear her screams, maybe this is an unwise option.


A fall on the patio? I think of Mrs Nolan’s head as the snail shell crushed between my fingers and wonder if one blow would be enough. Multiple blows would be inconsistent with a fall, raising suspicions that could compromise the innocent image I’m associated with throughout the village. I’m reluctant to take such risk.


My eyes narrow thoughtfully as I scan the tapestry of summer petalled foliage in the garden borders.


*


Mrs Nolan’s made a Victoria Sponge. She tells me it’s to celebrate the Best Blooming Garden nomination, but I can see her tired old heart’s not in it. Nevertheless we’re both playing along with her pointless charade, while it lasts.


“Do have a slice before you go,” she urges me. “I’ll wrap up an extra slice for you to take home.”


We’re sat at her little kitchen table. I’ve taken Mr Nolan’s chair as I’m curious to see her reaction, but she doesn’t comment. She’s adored my company since he’s been gone- evidence of her lonely, pitiful existence. My heart swells to think that soon I’ll have released her from her misery.


“Won’t you have any tea, Mercy?” She looks quizzically over the top of her cup at my untouched one.


“I’m enjoying the delicious cake, Mrs Nolan.” I’m certainly glowing with anticipation; not at the sickly slice on my plate, but to see beads of sweat break out on her forehead.


Mrs Nolan raises a hand her heart, probably feeling some palpitations. “Mercy, you’ve been a rock over these last few weeks. I don’t know how I would have coped without you,” she tells me earnestly.


A curious sensation passes through me; a brief flicker of guilt, possibly even doubt. After all, it’s not too late, is it? I push the inconvenient emotions away, remembering my role as gardener requires ruthless management of the weak and sickly, and I wait.


It’s all happening fast now. Panic creeps into Mrs Nolan’s face as her heart begins to gallop like wild horses. She gasps, reaches out a hand towards me but knocks my plate of cake onto the floor. Both smash into pieces on the tiles.


Digitalis Perurea, a cottage garden favourite commonly known as the foxglove, is an excellent pollinator adding height and structure to summer borders. It’s also highly toxic. The foxgloves I propagated have been glorious this year, in my opinion outshining the dahlias by far. From the unripe green seeds I’ve ground a paste and steeped it in the tea that Mrs Nolan’s poured from the pot. Her cup stands empty on the table, white and fluted like the trumpet of a foxglove flower.


I watch closely and am certain Mrs Nolan experiences minimal pain as her racing heart outruns itself, my face disappearing from her view as her vision blurs and darkens. At her age, no one will suspect a thing.


*


The village shop door tinkles as I enter, and I wait patiently while Janet serves a child buying sweets from one of the large jars on the shelf. I smile indulgently at the youngster who glances uneasily at me and takes a wary, wide sidestep around me as he leaves- so strange that children often sense their vulnerability better than their adult counterparts.


“Mercy! How are you bearing up?” Janet is the picture of kind concern. “Such a blow to hear about Miriam. I heard you were there when she took poorly?”


“It was terrible” I murmur, eyes downcast. “She’d never truly recovered from finding Mr Nolan in such a state.”


“It was the shock, wasn’t it? And a broken heart. Maybe it’s all for the best.” Janet shudders before her bright demeanour returns. “What can I help you with?”


“Could I pop a note in the window, please? To let people know I’m available for work.”


With Janet’s permission I take out from my bag the card I’ve carefully written my number on and slide it into one of the plastic sleeves hanging in the shop window. It’s placed alongside local business cards and adverts for piano tuition and babysitting.


In my neat, orderly cursive I’ve written my number and a friendly message. I’m confident there will be a good response, especially as the Best Blooming Garden award is still up for grabs.


Does your garden need some love and care?


Call now for experienced help.


Just ask for Mercy.


May 22, 2022 19:53

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135 comments

Michał Przywara
22:06 May 24, 2022

Great read, and I love the narrator's name, and therefore the last line/title :) As soon as I read "A gardener must be brutal" I got a suspicion of where this might be going. Poison was a safe choice, but the fact she got away with impalement-by-shears is impressive. The little moment of doubt during tea was good. A necessary component which made Mercy more real. She's operating on two levels. The main one is the efficient gardener, but the second one is that little voice at the back of her head that says, maybe this isn't the way. Maybe...

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07:05 May 25, 2022

Hi Michal Thanks so much, and great thoughts- I’m thinking about how Mercy would go about pruning her conscience…

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Michał Przywara
21:00 Jun 03, 2022

Congratulations on the win!

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07:19 Jun 04, 2022

Cheers Michal :)

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K. Antonio
21:58 Jun 01, 2022

I found Mercy being upeat and polite both delightfully nice to read and sinister to imagine. I actually really liked the diction, the dialogue, but what I loved the most was the beginning scene of the snail getting crushed. It was so well-detailed, so easy to imagine, so well. . . delightfully nice to read and sinister. The imagary in this piece was great, the prose clean, the character well-built. It was stellar read, L.!!

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Shea West
02:33 May 30, 2022

L., Many others have already said as much, you have a delicate hand with the way that you deliver your horror genre. Your delivery is pristine and almost to the point the reader has to remind themselves of the genre tag. I am thrilled anytime someone on Reedsy writes about plants etc. If you get a chance, read Nina Chyll's incredible story called The Tree Surgeon's Dictionary. https://blog.reedsy.com/short-story/c0560g/ This line: A snail clings to the underside of a leaf, sucked close in a non-consensual and greedy kiss. (damn, I wis...

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17:28 May 30, 2022

Hello Shea, I truly appreciate your feedback, thank you so much. Your comments give a lot of mileage. The Tree Surgeon’s Dictionary- stunning. I’m looking forward to reading more of Nina’s work. I think the use of plants/trees can give incredible context and vibrancy to stories, in parallel to real life. Exactly as you’ve demonstrated with ‘You’re The Apple Of My Eye.’ All the senses satisfied and the characters rooted into place and time.

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Shea West
03:00 May 31, 2022

You know what this reminded me of? Have you seen the movie Get Out? How it starts out so serene and there's all this beauty etc. Then it gets real dark real quick, but it's still painfully beautiful to watch even though you know what's happening. Your story made me think of that. I'll have you know that movie blew my mind!

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Carla Ward
15:10 Jun 08, 2022

Well done. Now we must wait for a sequel in which Mercy gets what's coming to her.

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19:39 Jun 11, 2022

Hello Carla, yes I suspect Mercy has a lot more killing to get out of her system :)

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K. Antonio
14:41 Jun 03, 2022

Not even gonna lie, I knew this had a really good chance of winning. 🤣 Guess, I'll be the bridesmais this week! Congratz, L. It's a well-deserved win!! You're killing it.

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15:08 Jun 03, 2022

Hah! Killing it… just off to water the foxgloves 🤣 You’re a bloomin’ wonderful bridesmaid by the way. Awesome talent.

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Sharon Hancock
01:21 May 26, 2022

This is fabulous in so many ways. I so enjoy your subtle yet surprising take on horror. The snail incident got me right away, so fast and unexpected and gross. The murder of the man was perfectly described, I had to read it twice to savor the imagery. And most of all, I love the use of poisonous flowers as a murder weapon. It’s always intrigued me how something so delicate and beautiful could be deadly. Excellent story with wonderful, beautiful horror at its finest😻

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07:07 May 26, 2022

Thank you Sharon, good to hear you relished the gruesome parts!

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Aeris Walker
16:36 May 25, 2022

I was under the impression that gardening was a calming hobby. ;) Beautiful writing, nice foreshadowing with the crushing of the snail—well done.

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07:06 May 26, 2022

Thanks very much Aeris :)

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Kelsey H
05:34 May 25, 2022

I guess I am not very imaginative, because my first thought when I started reading was - how can a story about gardening need a warning for gore? And of course soon found out as this took a dark turn, I loved how even as Mercy had these sadistic thoughts she was convincing herself she was actually doing a good thing, and when she does have a moment of guilt she manages to turn it around. Great little journey into the mind of a psychopath! Also I love the moment when the child is wary of her, and the ending line with the play on her name is g...

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17:18 May 25, 2022

Hey Kelsey, I’m glad you stuck with it to the gory bit :)

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Suma Jayachandar
05:26 May 24, 2022

Hi L, This is a treat for the readers and a masterclass in clean and impactful prose for the writers. The plot, characters and setting come together so well in this piece under your magic pen. And the imagery is gorgeous. You have earned a fan. Thanks for sharing.

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07:02 May 25, 2022

Hello Suma Thank you so much, your feedback warms my heart.

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Mike Panasitti
15:45 May 23, 2022

L., this and your other stories prove the writing part of your brain is fully awake. The ironic conclusion, with the name of the main character being (and having) the last word was both sinister and humorous. You've baked a literary treat, delectable in the conflict it makes a reader feel.

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18:00 May 23, 2022

Thank you for such encouraging feedback Mike, I really appreciate it. Thanks for reading!

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Amalia Wompa
16:50 Nov 18, 2022

This is such an interesting murder story with such a compelling premise. I couldn't stop reading, great job!

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Rolan Lopez
10:52 Oct 19, 2022

Please give me the I. Character II. Setting III. Conflict IV. Story V. Theme

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William Erekson
18:21 Oct 17, 2022

Also the name mercy really fits the the rest of the book

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William Erekson
18:19 Oct 17, 2022

This is a good and Erie story my friend told me about it and said that i should read it and i did and it was good

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Ann Lindsay
20:07 Oct 14, 2022

Love this story! The snail at the beginning gives a tiny clue about what is to follow. Well written!

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12:36 Oct 11, 2022

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Jim Wellnark
17:22 Oct 05, 2022

mm-m--m-m-m-m-mm money ayyyye

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Chayse Baskin
17:36 Aug 17, 2022

scary

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Lily Finch
17:35 Aug 11, 2022

HI L, the lines "She must also have a hard, calculating heart to destroy what was previously nurtured, cutting back and curbing life when the time comes, sacrificing what was once so carefully created. I, the gardener, am like God" foretold to me what Mercy was up to with this couple. Self-doubt comes into play perhaps that comes with Mercy killings? She is aptly named. Love your diction. Congratulations! Thanks, LF6

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18:07 Aug 13, 2022

Thanks for your feedback, LF6, much appreciated :)

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Joeann Lias
21:08 Jul 16, 2022

strange but I liked it Mercy

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