Everyone knew to stay away from the alley that ran down past Widow Greenbow’s big old house. Although two wheel ruts clearly marked the path cutting through the middle of the block, it seldom saw vehicle traffic of any kind. Foot traffic was rarer still — neighbourhood kids followed tradition and avoided the trail even though it might shave five or even ten minutes off a walk home from school.
So throughout the winter, the wheel ruts became smooth, elongated dents in clean snow. Not even animal tracks marred the perfect slopes of white that had drifted and piled over the shed leaves from the double-row of overhanging poplars and pine trees. In the summer it looked like a hollow from a storybook, all shady and green and leafy, soft grass lining the floor from street to street, beckoning curious passersby to enjoy its peace in spite of their hesitations. Even now, as the season finished turning and the slushy snow churned up muddy on the sides of the roads, the alley path looked clean and relatively dry. Patches of green grass showed themselves between tree roots and down the centre of the wheel ruts. It was what an older person might call “picturesque”, idyllic and serene. Inviting and untouchable. There was just a feeling about that part of the block, a quiet that didn’t want to be disturbed. Or shouldn’t be.
Lester had to pee, though. He desperately needed to go, had had to pee since second recess, but the supply teacher hadn’t let him leave the class for some stupid reason and then after school, the toilets in the boys’ washroom had overflowed because some nimrod had decided to try flushing a dirty magazine page. There was no way that Lester was going to dash into the girls’, and he didn’t dare to ask a teacher. None of his friends lived near the school. There was nothing for it but to run home as fast as he could.
The trouble was that he could barely walk anymore.
The pain in his groin was making his eyes water, and he had to hold himself as he stumbled forward through the melting slush. He wasn’t going to make it without wetting himself like some kindergartener, and if he did, what if someone saw the proof on his jeans? Which humiliation would be worse — getting spotted taking a piss in a back alley, or walking the rest of the way home with a big wet streak down the leg of his pants?
The alley was right there. And there was a stand of poplar trees about halfway down, sheltering a patch of freshly turned earth. He could see some little green points sticking up there, like the ones in his mom’s garden. He vaguely recalled that she’d said something about buying fertilizer. In school, they’d learned where fertilizer came from. Lester hopped from one foot to the other, pressing his knees together. Would it really be so bad? He wasn’t going to do number two, just . . . water them, a bit. He usually had good aim, too. As long as nobody saw . . .
Lester shuffled forward without another thought. His urge to pee was so great, he let the strap of his backpack slip down off his arm to the wrist, and when it banged against his thighs, he released his crotch long enough to let it fall so he wouldn’t end up accidentally peeing on it. Then he was at the tree, standing in the fresh earth, fumbling with his fly. The air was cold and fresh on his skin, helping what came naturally to come along.
“Aaaahhh,” he sighed, leaning against one of the slim tree trunks. “Oh, yeah . . .”
Finishing up with a quick shake, he tucked himself back in and looked around for a clean bit of snow to wipe his hands. There were a few piles outside of the circle around the tree. He’d taken care to avoid peeing on the little green shoots, but he felt badly just the same that he’d nearly trampled them in his haste. He squatted to peer at them in an apologetic sort of way. What had his mother called these early spring flowers? They weren’t cactuses; those grew in the desert. These ones had colourful tips, white and purple and pink, almost like when his sister had painted her nails that time. They poked up sharply, not soft like he thought flowers should be. The thought made him uncomfortable. Lester suddenly felt stupid about his urge to say sorry to some dumb plants, and put his hand on the ground to push himself up.
The green shoots thrust themselves at his arm and pierced his skin like thick green fish hooks.
Lester yelled, pulling back. Something green shot out of the ground and into his mouth, choking him. The soil stirred and churned, falling away as a hulking green limb the same colour as the flower stems emerged from beneath the dirt. He scrambled back, kicking and struggling, until his back hit the tree trunk and he could go no further.
Crocuses. The thought popped randomly into his panicked mind. They’re just crocuses.
Something round bulged up in the soil, barely higher than the level of the ground. A ridge moved and opened to a smooth white orb, a pulsing marble lined with black veins and green ooze. Lester tried to scream again. Below the white thing, a cavity yawned, black and deep. He gagged on the stench of rot and dog dirt that suddenly rose around him.
The green shoots in his wrist and elbow dug in and dragged him forward.
The thing was strong, stronger than Lester anyway, and he couldn’t find anything to grip to stop it. Desperately, he flailed for a stick, or a rock, or even a snowball, but there was nothing but dirt. With his free arm, he bashed the monster about its gaping jaw, weeping. The monster changed its pull on him, flinging him from side to side to make Lester stop struggling.
In the middle of his panic and fear, Lester heard the jingle of his house keys falling from his jacket pocket. Slamming his palm in the direction of the sound, he found them on the third or fourth try, just his fingertips catching the point of the backdoor key. He strained against the thing, his groans muffled by the vine in his mouth, vision blurring with tears from the effort to stretch himself far enough to grab his pitiful weapon.
Then he raised the key in his fist and stabbed it downward onto the thing’s bulbous white eye.
It rumbled horribly, gurgling in pain. The green shoots withdrew as quickly as they’d attacked, and suddenly his mouth was free of the choking vine. Lester lost his balance and fell forward toward the gaping maw, screaming hoarsely, but after a moment, he realized that his arms were pinwheeling against nothing but earth.
The creature had gone, if it had ever been there. Lester scrambled back, staring at his bleeding arm and the place where the green shoots had been. His pants were covered in wet mud, stained down to the knees. He crawled away, into the slush, snatched up his backpack, and dashed back the way he’d come. He didn’t stop running until he’d made it home, safely slamming the door behind him.
In the kitchen, his sister looked up from her nail polishing.
“Hey, loser, did you piss yourself on the way home from school?”
Photo credit: My aunty Deb in BC