Fertile Soil (short story)

Fertile Soil Cover

Demons will hide within the mind, unnoticed and unchecked.

They will stay as long as you feed them, and when they are strong enough,

they will exercise their own will over yours.


FERTILE SOIL

by L. E.Gay

Copyright © 2013, L. E. Gay

Alice was only sixteen years old when the demon planted the seed in the far, outer regions of her mind. Silently, he crept in unnoticed, dug a shallow hole with his grimy claws, and placed it gently beneath the surface – the way he’d done a thousand other times to a thousand other subjects. With his bony, gnarled fingers, he lovingly covered the seed, danced upon the spot to tamp it down, and slipped away as silently as he arrived.

The seed was small, not much more than a notion, a whim. Surely no one would notice just one pill… two. Half a bottle gone missing would certainly spark some questions, but one or two could be explained away without a second thought, if the discrepancy was discovered at all. It would be a quick fix to the problem.

Alice didn’t take the pill that day, but the notion held firm in her mind, for the demon hid it there securely, like a buried treasure waiting to be unearthed by its master at some later date.
Over time, the seed grew; the demon tended it regularly. It developed slowly at first, swelling more than sprouting, and her addiction started like any other – harmlessly, pleasantly even. Alice never realized it was growing. She didn’t recognize the signs until it was out of control. The demon often laughed in admiration of his handiwork.

If idle hands are the devil’s playground, then solitude is his Disneyland, and Alice was alone a lot. Her mother worked the dreaded evening shift, three to eleven, and since her father saw fit to drown himself in a bottle of Jack Daniel’s when she was twelve, Alice was left to care for herself.

Her mother fought a brief bout with depression when they laid the old man in the ground, but Alice didn’t shed a tear. Her father was gone, and with him, the stench of his whiskey-soaked breath, the shame in his hungry stares, and the nausea that accompanied his touch. Even in public, the man’s hands were always just over the line of what was deemed appropriate contact. There would be no more winks and sickening gestures behind her mother’s back, no more whispers of what would happen when mommy was out, no more threats of what would happen if she didn’t cooperate. Alice would spend no more nights crying herself to sleep in terrified silence, afraid the sound of her sobbing would raise questions. No, there would be no more tears at all. Alice was glad he was gone, a quick fix to the problem.

Perhaps that is why the demon chose Alice. Maybe he recognized her spark of jaded indifference as fertile soil for planting. Demons are meticulously crafty creatures, incessantly working the odds to their favor. Whatever the reason, the outcome was the same; the seed took root and held its ground. Little by little, it grew each day, in the quiet, after-school hours of isolation.

Since her mother began working at the hospital, Alice awakened herself each morning, made her own breakfast, and readied herself for school. A quick peek into her mother’s bedroom to announce she was leaving was her only human contact before catching the bus. Alice’s mother was usually so tired from her shift, a dismissive wave of the hand was her typical response. In time, Alice ceased bothering with the pointless ritual.

After school, the stringy-haired waif would pull the key from inside her shirt where it hung cold against her heart by a rough bit of cord. She would turn it in the lock and let herself into the empty house, her mother having already left for work. Sometimes there would be half a sandwich left on the kitchen table, or a styrofoam container with the remains of whatever slop the hospital served for dinner the previous evening. Occasionally the television would be left on, still tuned to whatever daytime trash her mother grazed on before leaving. These simple indicators were rare clues that someone else did indeed share the house, but the most welcoming feature for Alice was the emptiness – a soothing sigh of near-tangible solitude. Alice welcomed the isolation like a dear friend, and soon its familiarity led to a peculiar codependency: the darkness of the empty house needed Alice as much as she needed it. The demon lived in the darkness, and though he remained quiet and still, he was always there biding his time, comforting Alice with the safety of her father’s absence.

Shortly after Alice turned fifteen, just over a year before the planting of the seed, everything changed. Alice sensed something was amiss when she stepped off the bus that afternoon. A tingling sensation between the base of her neck and somewhere behind her stomach warned her something wasn’t right, even before she saw her mother’s Buick still parked in the drive. She didn’t need the key resting against her pounding heart; the door was unlocked. Though the house was quiet, as always, there was no doubt her dear friend, solitude, was gone.

Alice found her mother sitting at the kitchen table. She was dressed in her scrubs and nursing a cup of coffee. Her expression was grave, and her chin entertained a slight quiver.

Alice entered cautiously. Tears pooled in her mother’s eyes as she turned to speak. “Your grandmother is coming,” was the phrase that broke the silence. It was uttered with a cracking voice that expressed no joy.

The world stood still as Alice’s mind filled with images. Not of aprons, cookies, and oven mitts, the kind of warm images Alice imagined were supposed to be associated with grandmothers. Those were reserved for other people, lucky people. Instead, Alice’s mind recalled memories of IV bags, oxygen tubes, and hospital beds. She felt she could smell the acrid odor of the hospital: antiseptics and disinfectants trying to mask the stench of body odor and urine.

Alice’s mouth produced the words before she knew she was speaking. “Coming here? How can she…”

“The money is gone,” interrupted her mother, exhausted. “The insurance company has paid all they are going to pay. The hospital won’t keep her. They’re discharging her.”

Alice’s fifteen-year-old mind was drowning in a dark lake of confusion. Her grandmother was confined to a bed and had been for the past six months, which was six months longer than the doctors said she would live. The cancer was strong, but Alice’s grandmother was apparently fighting like a champ. “A tough old bird,” was what they called her. Hard as she fought, however, she was not getting better, only prolonging the inevitable. “How can they release her when she’s not better?” Alice demanded.

“The hospital wants their money and the insurance is tapped,” her mother offered in explanation. “They’re paying for the rental of a hospital bed and some supplies, but that’s it, no more treatment. She’s got to come here.”

Alice was stunned. She looked in the direction of the den and saw the furniture had been moved, leaving a large, open space in the center of the room. Her heart stopped.

“They’ll be delivering the bed later this afternoon,” her mother continued, rising from the table. “And they’ll be transporting her, by ambulance, tomorrow morning. She’ll be here when you get home from school.”

“What?” The exclamation was not audible to the outside world, but it screamed in Alice’s head like a chorus of air horns after a touchdown. “Who’s going to take care of her?” she asked timidly, afraid she already knew the answer.

“That’s going to be up to you and me, darling.”

Alice’s mother never called her “darling”. She knew the term was only added to try and soften the blow – as if life, as they knew it, was not screeching to a halt – as if this was no more of a change than new drapes.

“I’ve got to go to work,” her mother said, pouring the last of her coffee down the sink and rinsing her cup. Melba’s been covering my shift so I could set up the arrangements. I’ll be here for about an hour tomorrow when you get in. I’ll teach you how to deal with her special needs. In the meantime, show the med-service where to set up the bed. You’ll have to sign for it.” Alice’s mother shouldered her purse and retrieved a brown paper bag containing her lunch from the fridge. “When they ask how old you are, tell them eighteen. They don’t have to verify, they just have to ask.”

Alice stood completely dumbstruck as her mother kissed her forehead and said, “We can do this. It’ll be fine.” With that, she palmed the keys from the hook on the wall and left.

The silence hanging in the wake of the slamming door was terrifying. Alice wanted to run. She wanted to go to her room, stuff as many clothes as she could fit into her backpack and just run. She wanted no part of this new development. She barely even knew this woman. Sure, she visited the hospital a few times, at her mother’s request, but she was far from close to her grandmother. This was not the blessed angel from her mother’s side, who was killed in a car crash before Alice was born. No, this was his mother – the woman who spawned the foul beast with the twisted grin and the wandering hands. She was the one responsible for his existence, and now she was coming here, for what… to die? The thought was sobering. “She’s coming here to die.” She would die in Alice’s home, in the den, lying in a hospital bed with tubes coming out of God knows where.

Alice was sick. Despite the gravity of life and death, her only concern was the defiling of her space, her sanctuary. She had no compassion for her helpless, dying grandmother. After all, she thought, the woman brought it on herself. How do you smoke like a chimney for sixty-some-odd years and not see this coming? And now she was coming here, to sing her swan song in the one place Alice felt at peace.

Picking at her fingernails in a frenzy, Alice began to pace from the kitchen to the front door. She began making lists in her mind of very logical steps that would need to be followed, anything to disconnect from the situation. She convinced herself she didn’t care, swinging the pendulum far away from the cold, paralyzing fear on the other side. The doorbell finally snapped her from her trance.

The men from the medical supply company were polite, their job oddly routine. Did they not realize what they were doing? Were that not aware of their role in the devastation of their customer’s lives? Were they so far removed from the emotional turmoil of those they served that this awkward interaction was normal, even comfortable? Was it possible to learn this skill of turning off one’s emotions, distancing oneself enough to function unaffected? Of course it was, Alice thought, she was practicing it now. Instead of screaming like she wanted, she simply focused on the transaction. That’s all this was, after all – a business transaction. These men had a job to do. It was her responsibility to make sure they did it and finalize the paperwork, nothing more. Clenching her teeth, Alice signed the invoice, answered the appropriate questions, and watched through the window as the deliverymen went on their way. Each time her emotions threatened to surface, she squashed them down with increasing vigor. The demon smiled.

The next morning, Alice got dressed for school, trying not to think about the fact it would be her last morning to do so alone. She finished her breakfast of toast and cold cereal, flung her backpack over her shoulder, and slipped her key around her neck. She was almost to the front door when she caught a glimpse of the hospital bed from the corner of her eye. A lump formed in her throat as she quickened her pace, nearly running out of the door.

All the way to the bus stop she tried to stifle the rising anxiety with deep breathing, but the effort proved futile. Her heart raced, and her feet moved at nearly twice their normal pace. Every fiber of her being screamed Flee!

Alice could not pay attention in class. Her mind was fixated on what waited for her at home. By the time school was over Alice was nearly numb, and when she stepped off the bus, her urge to run was replaced by a strong desire to stand utterly still. Her feet felt glued to the sidewalk. The bus pulled away, made the next block, rounded the corner and was no longer in view by the time Alice gathered the courage to take the first step toward home. She had a feeling she would regret that step.

Once home, her mother insisted she welcome her grandmother properly. Alice acquiesced, reluctantly walking into the den, her den. Time seemed to turn in slow motion as she stepped around the hospital bed, into her grandmother’s view. The woman looked exactly the same as the last time Alice saw her. Her face was pleasant enough aside from the appearance of old shoe leather. Her pores seemed large enough to lodge a toothpick, and the creases around her mouth were long and deep but framed an expression that was, to Alice’s surprise, not discontent. There was by no means a smile, or even the hint of one, but neither was there the scowl Alice was expecting. There was a simple, blank expression Alice could only describe as a state of perpetual acceptance. Her stark-white hair was beginning to grow back in defiance of the chemo, and her eyes were glassy and clouded with cataracts.

“Her field of vision is really narrow,” explained Alice’s mother. “You have to nearly lean over her in order for her to see you.” With the two of them hovering, Alice could only think her grandmother looked…small.

For the next hour, Alice’s mother went over instructions on how to read the regulator and adjust oxygen levels on the tank. Alice learned how to change the fitting on the IV tube, how to change the bag, and when to use the latex gloves. She was also taught the joyous art of handling the bed pan, and how to discard its content. Initially, Alice was successful in removing herself emotionally from the situation, viewing her new responsibilities simply as tasks to be completed. But the more she watched her grandmother, knowing the old woman could barely look back, the more she began to see a person behind those distant eyes.

The demon was unaffected, for he knew it would not last long. The emotion masquerading as compassion was actually nothing more than pity, and that lasted about as long as a bad girl’s virginity. It was less than a month before the incessant cough grated like nails down a chalkboard, and the demon saw the soil was nearly right for planting. Alice’s after-school hours were transformed from blissful solitude to a content state of chaos. From preparing meals to cleaning Grandma after she used the bedpan for the third time, her duties seemed insurmountable.

As Alice’s patience wore thin, her grandmother’s temperament soured. The two began a war of animosity where malice was weaponry. The more lax Alice became in her attention, the more her grandmother’s demands increased.

Alice grew to hate the sound of her own name, perhaps because she heard it called so often in that raspy voice – that sickening, hacking, years-of-chain-smoking, tar-filled, raspy voice. Months went by and the old bag just hung in there, smelling up the house with her ointments, her waste, and her stale cigarette smoke. As instructed by Alice’s mother, Grandma was rationed one cigarette a day to help calm her nerves. The concept was vexing. The woman was dying, for God’s sake, what difference did it make? The damage was done.

The coughing and the wheezing became constant, and the old woman seemed to take pleasure in getting under Alice’s skin. Alice, my soup is cold. Alice, I need another blanket. Alice, this water tastes funny. Alice, clean me up!

The woman began creating more things for Alice to do: intentionally spilling food and drink, requesting items she didn’t need, dropping utensils to make Alice wash them. She stopped asking for the bedpan, soiling herself and her linens instead. Sometimes she would yell for Alice, only to reduce her volume to a whisper when making her request. Alice would have to lean far over the bed to hear, into the cloud of her grandmother’s foul, noxious breath. Often, Grandma would take the opportunity to commence a violent fit of coughing, spewing blood and mucus into Alice’s face.

After nearly a year, Alice was approaching her wit’s end. Her sleep patterns became erratic. Were it not for the quiet escape school provided she would have found herself too tired to attend. Her attention span withered, her grades plummeted, and she became less and less concerned with her own personal hygiene. She became the target of teasing and the butt of jokes around campus; she felt the same way at home.

Grandma had taken a turn for the worse and was now dependent on Alice and her mother for every aspect of her existence. She needed to be spoon-fed, bathed, changed, and given her medication.

The demon chose his timing carefully and planted the seed well. On the verge of a breakdown, Alice sorted through her grandmother’s medication, neatly placing each pill into its appropriate compartment in the rectangular, plastic container. Surely, just one pill wouldn’t be missed. They were for pain, weren’t they? Alice surely had enough of that. Though she didn’t succumb to the notion that day, Alice never handled her grandmother’s medication again without the thought crossing her mind. The demon tamped the soil.

One particularly dark afternoon, Alice sat down at the kitchen table. Still wet from her walk home through the rain, she sorted her grandmother’s pills. She held each one between her fingers before dropping them into their tiny slots, not wanting to let them go. “Just one,” she thought. Raindrops ran the length of her unkempt hair, collecting on the table in shallow, reflective pools. “Just one would be enough to ease the pain.”

She glanced into the bottle. It was well over half full, the prescription recently refilled. It was new enough to be plentiful, but used enough to discourage questions. Alice swallowed hard, her heart pounded. Anxiety clawed at her insides like a trapped cat. She needed a release.

From the next room, wheezing turned to coughing that echoed in her brain. Over and over it repeated, like a petulant crying child, insatiable. Alice knew she was about to hear her name again. That wicked, raspy voice was about to call her name, summoning her to hell. Any second now she would hear it. What would she want this time: her pillow fluffed, her blanket straightened, her mouth moistened? Her remote, her cream, her dinner, her water?

Alice held the pill so tightly she nearly crushed it between her fingers. Her body was shaking, her eyes were twitching, and the veins in her neck were throbbing. She needed release.

She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and dropped the pill into its box. Rising from the chair she retrieved a glass from the sink. It was dirty, but who cared? She filled it with water, took the pill box from the table, and walked to the den.

“Time for your meds,” she said, sitting down next to her grandmother. The old woman looked back with a blank stare and slowly dropped her jaw. The wheezing intensified. Alice popped open the appropriate compartment of the pill box and placed the painkiller on her grandmother’s tongue. Sliding a hand behind her neck, Alice lifted her grandmother’s head to meet the glass, poured a sip of water into her mouth and helped her swallow. From what Alice could see, her grandmother’s eyes were pleading. “Just one,” she thought. “That just might do it.” She popped open the next compartment, placed a second pill on her grandmother’s waiting tongue, and once again, helped her swallow. The same haunting look filled the old woman’s eyes as she wheezed and coughed harder than ever.

“What if one isn’t enough?” thought Alice. All the right switches inside her mind kicked on; the demon danced with glee. Without hesitation, she popped open a third compartment and delivered another painkiller, her thumb a bit more forceful this time. Exhausted, the old woman found it difficult to swallow. She nearly choked as water spilled from her mouth, down her neck and onto her gown.

One by one, Alice opened all the boxes and one by one stuffed the pills into her grandmother’s mouth. By the fifth tablet, the old woman’s eyes widened with recognition. She began using her tongue to refuse the pills, but Alice was persistent; the demon was in control now. She raised the woman’s neck with such force she nearly lifted her from the bed, pouring water and pills down her throat.

Fervent hatred blazed through Alice like wildfire. Her muscles tensed with excitement and a torrent of ecstasy consumed her as she recognized fear in the old woman’s eyes. It fueled a rush she never thought possible.

When the glass was empty, Alice sat down on the chair beside the bed and watched her grandmother drift off to sleep. As the reality of the situation settled in, she dismissed it without a care. Even if she was caught, only her mother would ever know. Her mother was just as disgusted and exhausted as she was and would likely be relieved. She would never say a word. Even if she recognized the ugly truth, she would consider it a mercy killing – a justified end to the suffering, a quick fix to the problem.

Alice watched her grandmother slip peacefully away. The wheezing stopped, and the cough fell silent. For the first time Alice could remember in a very long while, the whole house was quiet. Her friend, solitude, was home.

Just as Alice breathed a lengthy sigh of relief, the old woman’s eyes popped open in a dreadfully wide glare. Her hand gripped Alice’s wrist with all the strength she could rally. Her lungs filled to capacity in one instantaneous gasp. As Alice froze with shock, her grandmother raised her head and exhaled with the inhuman rattle of a desert snake. The rank odor of her final breath would never be forgotten. Halfway through exhaling, the old woman’s rattle fell silent and the remaining air escaped her lungs like a withering balloon. Her eyes remained wide open, staring straight at Alice in perpetual condemnation.

Alice stared back in satisfaction as a thin smile crept across her face. She refused to close her grandmother’s eyes, and though the woman’s grip surrendered its power to death, Alice did not remove her arm. She sat with the body, drinking in the peace of the silent house until her mother returned that evening.

The addiction was born, and the demon danced on.

*****

Human beings, not God, assign rank and status to sin.

It is not the amount of sin in our lives that offends God,

but the fact of sin.

*****

Demons will hide within the mind, unnoticed and unchecked.

They will stay as long as you feed them, and when they are strong enough,

they will exercise their own will over yours.

Unless you turn to Christ, they will take over completely.

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