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Fiction Horror Speculative

The first ladybug of the season found me on one of those unseasonably warm days when the autumn dared retreat—when a high morning sun and the right amount of haze could conspire to make a person forget the summer had already gone. It was not the first one I had seen that year, of course. They had been flitting about in flashes of red since the spring. I had figured by now, though, they would all be hiding, holed up in damp crevices and corners to wait out the approaching winter.


This one had six spots. It landed easily in my hands as my dress shoes, thrown on only for being closest to the door, crunched through the long dead foliage at the forest’s edge.


Disturbed by my looking, the insect flew off again after only a few moments, disappearing over my shoulder as I stepped from the trees back onto the dusty path that still wound its way through the trailer park in which I was raised.


It was a permanent place—not the sort people drive away from—but rather the kind where the rows of tiny houses have steps and fences and clothing lines. My father would never call it a trailer park. He was too proud of building it up with his own hands, his fortune staked on this lonely plot of woods. 


And he had insisted for nearly thirty years, as long as he had been placing newspaper ads for it, that it was a “wonderful mobile community, affordable and fit for families.”


He always had trouble with that first word, though. It was the European still in him, the stubborn insistence of his mother tongue that he use vah-s when he meant wah-s. Vonder-ful.  


Maybe at one time, you could have believed him. Others did use to live here, others beyond the three or four who still did. I had enjoyed, before I had grown into this tall, ruddy man, friends and playmates my own age. But when his health began to fail, so did the place. It crumbled and left untended, began to rot.


“Hey there, honey! You’re out early. Hot today, isn’t it?” Nellie was on her porch, sprawled over the railing as if melting, her thick reddish-brown hair falling down over the splintered wood as she brought up a hand to wave at me. My shoes kicked up dirt as I marched through a long-dead flowerbed, crunching the vestiges of the flora beneath me.


“Morning,” I replied easily. Nellie had watched me grow up, but she herself was fortunate to be the sort of person who never changed. She looked now as I remembered her. “Just been out running some errands. How you doing today?”


“Oh, fine,” she said. “Happy I still got my little air conditioner in the window.” She moved to gesture vaguely at her door, where I could hear something rattling beyond. “Your father used to take it out for me every winter, you know, and put it back in every June.”


“He was like that. Doing things for everyone. You know.”


“Oh, I know. I know. He was a good man. The best. How have you been doing, honey? How is everything? I know it’s all so much.”


“Day by day. Clear out a drawer or close an account. Had a good fight with the insurance company, but we do what we have to, right? Don’t you worry about me.”


“Are you eating? You gotta make sure you eat.”


She came down the steps with that to pinch at me, and I sort of shied away, even managing something of a laugh despite it.


“Maybe I can come by and help cook something later. Our place has been sorta quiet. Phone rings off the hook, but other than that, I don’t see no one."


“Oh, of course, honey. That sounds nice. It’ll get easier. It always does,” Nellie cooed, reaching out to brush some hair from my face. “You know, you look so much like your dad in that shirt. He used to wear that one blue one with no sleeves when he gardened. I’d look out the window, and there he was. ‘You’ll get sunburn on your arms,’ I’d yell. Do you remember that? When there was a lawn? And flowers?” With a deep, dreamy sigh, she seemed to look out to the surrounding forest’s edge as if expecting to see something there.


A hand came up to absentmindedly scratch at her face when a ladybug landed on her cheek. Vexed, it flew away and poised itself on the blackened aluminum siding


“Dad was good at a lot of things. Landscaping too,” I said. “Wish maybe I could have inherited one or two of his talents, not just his nose.”


“You’ll figure it out, honey. Good head on your shoulders. When you really take on this place, bring it back, you’ll surprise yourself. Your daddy loved it so much, our own little corner of paradise.”


“Well, he sacrificed a lot. More than I think any of us know. He left pretty big shoes to fill.”


“Well, you’re gonna fill ‘em. We got nowhere else to go, you and me,” Nellie smiled weakly, but I caught, even then, the slightest hint of uncertainty in her voice. And I could not tell her in that moment, not in good faith, that no, I was not certain I could fill them.


I never imagined as a child that I would have to hand Nellie an eviction notice. She was, after all, simply a part of this place, as much as my father had been. But money was always an issue, and her meager rent, which I would not raise, never, could certainly not keep the lights on forever.


And so, I simply nodded, smiled, and gave a wave before turning to walk away, crunching through the remains of the flowerbed once more.


I heard the car before I saw it. With the guttural roar of its engine, echoing through the rows of empty homes, it rolled up the drive from the highway like a great metal beast, its wheels spinning up a cloud of speckled brown dust in its wake as it pulled before the office, a fading, yellow building near the front gate.


The man that emerged, his slick shoes sinking into the gravel, was broad and wormlike, with a sunken face that started at his neck and ended before his forehead. He had, during the drive, sweated through his collared shirt, and glistening, he spun in a half-circle, tugging down his glasses to take a better look at his clipboard.


“Morning! Can I help you? You need some directions?” I called, moving into a jog toward the vehicle. The stranger looked me up and down, and I could almost see his lip curl as he took in my reddened face, ratty tank top, and dress shoes. I must have been a sight.


“Do you work here? I’m looking for Otto, Otto, uh...”


“I’m sorry to say, he passed a few weeks ago.”


“Oh really? I didn’t see that in my notes. Is Mrs.…?”


“She passed many years ago. Those are my parents. I’m their son. Can I help you?”


“Christ! This is why I need a goddamn secretary. I left all my papers back at the office. I’ve been trying to call.”


“The phone’s been ringing off the hook, but well, you know, funerals and things.”


“Well, I left messages. I was hoping someone would have gotten back to me by now. But…here! This is my card,” he said, fishing it out his front pocket, slicked damp from the heat. I took it and held it up.


“Haynes? You’re a developer?” I asked.


“Well, I work for a developer. Are you the owner now? It’s hot out here. Could we go inside for a minute and maybe chat? I won’t take up too much of your time.”


“Uh, sure. Sure. There’s no air conditioner, though. I don’t know if it’ll be much better,” I replied, biting my lip. There was a moment where we each seemed to take one another in, a silent sort of standoff where, holding our respective footing in our mismatched and inopportune shoes, we absorbed one another’s forms.


But I was the one to break it, moving for the office door.


I pushed my way through, then, just as I had pushed my way through it for nearly thirty years, careless and overzealous, so that the flimsy door slammed against the wall.


The little room itself, with its heavy desk and cluttered shelves, still smelled pungent, chemical, like lemon air freshener. I reached out to pull the string for the light, and the bulb came to life overhead with no trouble, which meant that I had, at least, remembered the electricity bill.


“Huh! That’s not somethin you see every day, is it?” Mr. Haynes spoke up as he shuffled in behind me. He motioned at a cupboard on the far wall, a large hutch too big for the space, stuffed to its corners with carved wooden sculptures.


A jumping elk jutted upward from a sturdy rock, its delicately carved antlers glistening like the bare branches of some great tree. A pair of birds, frozen in an eternal silent song, sat atop a winding spire. And a woman with flowers in her hair smiled placidly, a carved bouquet draped carefully over her bare arms, garlands wrapped around her elbows.


In the center of all these and the others was a massive statue of the cloaked Madonna, so vibrant and lifelike to give pause, even in the dark woodgrain. Her features were locked in permanent woe, wooden lips open in a throaty, painful scream, crying for the death of her crucified child with tears etched like scratch marks into her face.


“Oh, my late father, he was a carpenter by trade. A builder. He made this little…office, shack, building. Whatever you wanna call it. But he could woodwork too,” I explained. “A real artist. He actually tried to teach me, but I guess I could never follow his lead that well.”


“Is that so?”


“It is. He did all these by hand. He loved animals and nature. And the beauty of things, you know?” I glanced over my shoulder to offer a polite smile through my diatribe.


But a ladybug had landed on Mr. Haynes’ soaked shirt. It crawled along his collar before jumping back into the air. And seeing it, he brought up his free hand and his clipboard to snap at it so that it fell dead to the ground. I let out a breath, a ghosting gasp.


“Ugh. I don’t like critters.”


“They’re actually good luck if they land on you, you know. You shouldn’t kill them. That’s bad,” I said. I turned around again, scrunching up my features. “Funny story, uh, my dad, he actually carved this statue of the Virgin Mary for my mother. She was sort of religious, I guess. What I mean is, she used to tell me that ladybugs, they’re actually sent by the Blessed Mother herself, as, like, little gifts to humanity. They’re good insects. They eat pests. So a good ladybug season means a good harvest.”


“I’d never heard that before. About Mary and the ladybugs, I mean. Weird trivia, hm?”


“Uh, yeah, I guess. It’s all right. My dad didn’t really go for that story either. He used to say the Church just came in and slapped a new coat of paint on other people’s stories,” I smiled weakly, lapsing into my well-practiced impression of my father’s accent. “They’re old tales, vo-man! Old, ancient! They remake it and change it! They change it so it’s prettier and nicer to keep in houses and schools and daycares!” I laughed. Mr. Haynes did not. My face fell. “But you didn’t come here for my family history. So really, what can I do for you?”


“Well, I’ll get right to the point, I suppose. My employers, they have their eye on your plot here. You see, we’ve started developing different parts of these wood, and…”


“You want to buy the mobile community?” I interrupted.


“Pardon?”


“The, uh, the trailer park? You want to buy it?”


“We’re prepared to make a very generous offer, yes. I did leave all this in the message.”


“Yes, the phone’s been ringing off the hook.”


Mr. Haynes bit his lip before a terse, uncertain, maybe impatient, smile spread across his face. “Look, uh, you seem like a real smart, salt-of-the-earth sort of young man. So, I’ll level with you, pal. This patch of dirt you got here, it’s much more valuable as a strip mall. Or an apartment complex. I mean, there’s nothing around here. This whole stretch of wood, it’s a place for drifters and criminals and folks who wanna go missing. And my company is an expert at changing the faces of places. We’re talking big things here.”


“Look, my father, he made a lot of sacrifices for this place.”


“I don’t mean to offend. I know it’s a sensitive topic, but…”


“No, I don’t think you do. My mother, she got sick when I was real young, and he just kept toiling and sacrificing. And he bought her a few years with that, and now, I mean, don’t you think I owe it to him to keep the dream alive? He couldn’t do it no more once he got sick, and I sure as hell couldn’t. I tried. But I wasn’t him. And…”


“With all due respect, you’re not him, right? Look, I’ve been in this business a long time. I know, running a place like this, it takes a lot of time and energy and money. Not to mention prayers.” Mr. Haynes gestured at the statue behind me. I did not laugh at this quip. “And like I said, we’re prepared to pay very, very generously. I can cut a check today. You can set yourself up somewhere. Do whatever you want with it.”


I looked at him, and he looked me. And our second standoff ticked by, inch by inch, until once again, I was the one to dare break it.


“How much?”


Mr. Haynes sighed, meeting my eye, before holding out his clipboard. I took it, narrowing my eyes at the muddied spot where the ladybug had died before flipping through its pages in silence.


“This is very generous. It’s more than I…but I can’t take your money,” I said at last. “Not yet. I should show you the property’s edge first. The soil on the outskirts, it’s starting to erode. And what if you back out once you see it? And then I’m screwed.”


I shook my head, but saying no more, I moved straight for the door, back into the yellow sun, back into the dust and haze, and back toward the forest’s edge. I did not turn to see if Mr. Haynes was following, but I could hear the crunch of his expensive shoes as I made way once more through the row of houses, past Nellie’s place and the dead flower patch.


And then came the rotted brown grass at the tree line. I marched back through it, my feet crunching.


“We’re going in there?”


“Yes. We own all the area right up through here. You could chop these down.”


And so I walked, and so, he followed me, deeper and deeper into the trees, where overhanging branches and still full canopies shielded us, at last, from the sky and the heat and the glare of the sun. The clearing where the woods opened appeared before me after some time. 


This hidden grassy plot, lush and green, nevertheless pulsed red at its center. The ladybugs swarmed, hundreds, thousands, writhing, ravenous, wings beating. There, the massive goddess sculpture, womanlike and animalesque all at once, flowers in her hair, towered—carved in wood, as if into the very trunk of some ancient tree.


And taking a step forward, I fell to the ground and bowed, prostrate, my face in the grass, before sliding back up to rest on my heels.


“What the hell is this?”


“It’s an altar,” I said. “My father’s masterpiece. I don’t know if she followed him here, or if he conjured her up with the making. But she takes good care.”


The first arm appeared with a thud, long and pallid and inhumanly slender, decorated in still green leaves. And then another. And another. And another. And two more. They wrapped around the sculpture from its rear, twitching, obscuring it, as if something massive and alive were emerging from a cocoon within.


And then came her face, her antlered, flowered crown, her unblinking, all-seeing eyes, rising as if from nothing behind the statue's head until, in her full glory, she soared before us.


“My father made so many sacrifices to the old gods,” I said without turning. “I guess now I have to too. No point in running. Bow.” I buried my face again in the grass, breathing deep its freshness, my head low and eyes closed tight.


Another ladybug landed on my hand as my dress shoes gently pressed the thick, vital grass at the forest’s edge some time later. Disturbed by my looking, however, the creature flew off again after only a few moments, disappearing over my shoulder as I stepped from the trees back onto the green path that wound its way through the trailer park in which I was raised.


I clutched Mr. Haynes’ car keys in my fist as I stopped near Nellie’s little house and bent down to study the flower there in the bed, budding with life, my offering earnestly made.


Nellie waved at me from the window, and in my torn blue tank top, I suppose I looked like my father, just like she used to catch him in the early hours on days like today. It had been a good ladybug season. There would be green again.

June 23, 2022 06:40

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10 comments

Kendall Defoe
12:03 Jun 24, 2022

I always knew that ladybugs deserved our respect...andvthis is without question the most interesting story I have read in a while... Excellent work!

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Lonnie Russo
18:24 Jun 24, 2022

Thanks very much for reading! I appreciate your kind words.

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Mark Wilhelm
14:04 Jun 30, 2022

Amazing read. Perfectly crafted. I read stories with a paranormal twist to them like this, and I would adore to be able to share this tale you've written with listeners. My site is FrighteningTales.com I don't do this to turn a profit, I just love to read stories. Have a listen and if you think it's a good fit I'd love to read your tale. If it's not something that interests you no worries, thank you for the entertaining read.

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Lonnie Russo
16:40 Jun 30, 2022

I would very much enjoy that. Please do feel free. I'm humbled by your kind words and your request. Thank you.

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Mark Wilhelm
05:03 Jul 17, 2022

I am happy to share that your story is available today to hear. Visit frighteningtales.com to listen on your favourite service. If you enjoyed the performance and have other stories please send them for a future episode to creepy@frighteningtales.com I would be ever so greatful.

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Lonnie Russo
17:27 Jul 22, 2022

Thank you for a wonderfully thematic and thrilling performance! I very much enjoyed it and will continue to listen each week.

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Kathleen Fine
23:05 Jun 29, 2022

Lonnie, you are a wonderful writer. The descriptions you use really capture the reader - I enjoyed this story very much!

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Lonnie Russo
16:32 Jun 30, 2022

Thank you very much for reading. I really appreciate it!

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Jazmine Abuzaid
14:32 Jun 28, 2022

great story! Defiantly interesting

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Lonnie Russo
18:06 Jun 28, 2022

Thank you for reading!

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