Bad Seed: Chapter Eight

The Furry Friends League was a historical relic of the Colfax County Bottling Works, the building’s original inhabitant. The company folded during World War I and the Great Depression, but the solid brick building stood as one of the last vestiges of the bygone era. Today the worn pine flooring creaked and moaned under Stella’s chef clogs as she bounced from one foot to the other. The air was redolent with the smell of the strong herbal tea wafting from the dainty teacup on the large oak reception desk.  

A middle aged woman fully engulfed in a heavy, gray cardigan glared at Stella without a smile or even a greeting. Her eyes narrowed as she scanned Stella from her kitchen shoes to her chopped short hair. “Help you?” the lady asked with a tone of annoyance.

“I’m thinking about getting a cat,” Stella said. She tried to drop her shoulders to lessen her anxiety and appear to possess the confidence she couldn’t muster.

“How committed are you?”

While Stella respected the woman’s desire to protect and care for the animals under her charge, she resented the question of her resolve. The snide question had solidified her decision. “I want a cat.”

“Recent break-up?”

“This isn’t a reaction to some man.” Stella believed the words as she thought them, but knew they were a lie as they crossed her lips. The inspiration for adopting a pet did come from a man–or rather her negative thoughts about that son of a bitch–but it had morphed into a true desire to share her blessings with a living being.  She needed to balance the scales after so many hateful thoughts–to feel some love and give something good to the world.

 “We don’t have any kittens right now. Only cats.”

Stella nodded as she adjusted her mental image from a tiny ball of kitten fluff to a sassy, grown cat.

 The woman looked her up and down, then nodded her approval like a banker granting a loan. She opened the double doors and led Stella into the inner sanctum. They walked down a long make-shift hallway between kennels constructed of chain link fencing, strolled by two rabbits, a shelf of small cages and aquariums of rodents. Stella expected it to be loud and chaotic like a circus or third rate zoo, but this woman with her zen presence created calm–like a good kindergarten teacher in control of her classroom and beloved by her students.

Most of the dogs sat at attention toward the front of their kennel. The tails wagged the happy animals and pink tongues lolled in delighted grins. The woman hummed and sang a little ditty that was all repeated syllables that seemed to keep the dogs calm. They danced around and offered soft yowls without barking. Past the dogs, removed from the canine energy were smaller, quiet cages. Stella peered into each cage: a calico, a gray tabby, and a runty siamese. She spent several minutes looking at each one of the cats, but felt nothing. She was looking for a spark or an ah-ha moment that said, “This is the one.” 

Stella turned back to the woman, her mouth agape with an apology, when she spotted a smaller kennel set apart from the rest. A dog, a golden retriever mix of some sort, was curled into a tight ball at the back of the kennel with her nose pressed to the wall and eyes shut tight against the overhead fluorescent lighting. Her flanks rippled as her muscles were on edge and ready to pounce. Despite the dog’s athletic build and musculature, ribs were prominent along with several long scars that ran down her flank.

“What’s with that guy?” Stella asked and pointed at the dog.

The woman’s slender shoulders sagged under her thick sweater. “Found her wandering the fields near Granum. Been abused. Won’t eat. Not sure she’s gonna make it.” The woman shook her head and gazed down at her bright sneakers.

Stella was familiar with the dog’s defeated posture as she’d been curled into a ball and hiding in her home for too many months, not leaving her bed, cowering in fear and immobilized by self-pity. Stella plopped down to the cold, tiled floor next to the kennel, but faced the exposed brick wall. She looked down to her lap and began humming and softly singing. From the corner of her eye, she could see the dog’s eyes were open and searching.

“Do you euthanize?” Stella asked in a low sing-song whisper like it was the next lyric.

“No, but I’m afraid this girl’s gonna starve herself.” The woman wrapped her cardigan tighter around her small frame and sat down on a rolling stool across the open room.

The dog turned around in the kennel, but backed her butt into the corner with her head still lowered, big brown eyes watching everything like a gunslinger watching over the saloon from a corner table. Other than needing a good bath, the dog’s coat was stunning: golden coat with dark brindle markings with a white chest plate and dark muzzle, but the long floppy ears of a labrador. White paws in the front like she was wearing go-go boots. Stella gave a mock yawn and laid down next to the chain link fencing, pressing her backside against the wire.

Being a chef had taught her that the best things took time: Sunday roast, Thanksgiving turkey, a succulent baked ham. She could wait. Stella continued to hum her favorite Grateful Dead tune, but watched the woman’s face for any change. She’d made it through “Friend of the Devil” twice before she heard the faintest sniffing noises behind her. She felt the fabric of her tee-shirt move and the chain link clattered against the crossbar. The dog had laid down with her back pressed against Stella.

“I’ll be damned,” the woman said and her face brightened.

Bad Seed: Chapter Seven

The employee parking lot of the Granum Agribusiness headquarters was lined with a battalion of black trucks and SUVs owned by executives and lab geeks. The only touch of personality among the vehicular dress code were various alumni stickers: MIT, Stanford, Cornell, Purdue. Wyatt parked his battered Ford Ranger toward the back of the lot. His beloved truck–sun-bleached, with rusted fenders, and a thick layer of gravel dust–was an eyesore compared to the rest.

Wyatt pulled off his Cubs ball cap, swiped his security badge, and entered the employee entrance. Other than the handful of executives that ran operations from the glassed-in office suite, every employee was mandated to change into a jumpsuit before entering the lab or the test fields to eliminate possible cross contamination. It was hilarious to watch the lab minions get out of their oversized Escalades or Suburbans in designer business casual attire, scurry into the building, and change into their khaki coveralls like a cult member. Conformity was the norm.

It was Friday morning so most of the salaried employees were already at their desks or beakers putting in an early eight hours to start their weekend mid-afternoon. But Wyatt’s hourly schedule was dictated by his clueless supervisor.

Granum was started by a local boy done good–at least that’s what the public relations campaign and the local folklore claimed. The town’s golden boy, Walter Terpstra, attended Iowa State University on a football scholarship. While he didn’t make much of a name for himself on the gridiron, his prowess and recklessness in the University’s labs and chemical engineering program netted two new strains of GMO corn. Inspired by fellow Iowan Norman Bourlag, Walter Terpstra’s products addressed growing crops in less favorable conditions: flood plains, droughts, and sandy soils. He made his first million when sold his first GMO to an international agriscience consortium while pursuing an MBA. The company was more interested in controlling the patent rather than promoting or selling his product. At thirty, the prodigal son and his new bride returned to his hometown. Walter bought up a tract of industrial land and began building an empire. Although the company wasn’t internationally known like Dupont Pioneer, or Archer Daniels Midland–Granum was making money hand over fist and slowly changing modern farming in the soil, not in a courtroom. Wyatt took pride in working for a man that valued the common good over his bank account.

The employee locker room was empty at nine a.m. as all the geeks were at their microscopes or computers doing nerdy things, so Wyatt had the place to himself. He touched his thumb to the time clock. The print scanner was harmless, but he always rubbed the pad of his thumb like it had burned him. He strolled over to his locker in the corner, turned the combination, popped it open, and jumped back when an avalanche of red boxes fell to the floor at his feet.

Fucking Lucky Charms everywhere. He spun around looking for the perpetrator, like a coming of age drama produced by the idiots in Hollywood, he expected the football team to be hiding around a corner waiting to see the fruits of their bullying labors. The lab boys called him Lucky because of his small stature and Irish features. The ribbing was good natured at first, but turned malicious in recent years when the governor locked down the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic and essentially canceled St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Somehow the geeks blamed Wyatt for their inability to drink in bars for their favorite bullshit Irish holiday.

Anger flashed hot across his cheeks but faded to a slow burning resignation as he pulled on his jumpsuit and clipped a security badge to the breast pocket. He was tempted to leave the boxes scattered on the floor for the geeks to step over at quitting time, but he knew that the janitorial team would be forced to clean it up. He stooped and gathered the boxes and deposited two armloads into the trash. 

Wyatt wasn’t a lab tech or an executive, his official company title was Experiential Agriculture Technician. He was a farmer. He planted and maintained test cropland for the company. He planted more Colfax County fields than any other local farmer, but the office frat boys had no respect for the work he did.

He wished he was back in his apartment, nestled in bed next to Casey. She looked so peaceful on the pillow next to his with the quilt his grandma made pulled up to her chin and her long hair splayed across the sheets softened by years of weekly washing. Since they’d started dating a few months ago, there had been so many days that he didn’t want to leave the house. They were so content in their bubble and removed from the world. In his apartment, they’d talk for hours unaffected by their jobs or the world’s cruelty. He steeled himself with the memory of her wrapped up in his quilt, then stepped into the office suite.

Inside the cubicle maze of the administrative offices, he was a fish out of water–rather a jumpsuit among suits. He didn’t belong here. He wished he could come and go from the supply warehouse on the edge of the complex rather than share the same locker room with the executives and lab boys. Besides he should’ve been in the fields hours ago, before the heat of the day, cutting ground before the dew evaporated, but his schedule was dictated by a man that had never planted or tended a plot of land.

 The office was awash of white and beige tones from the generic artwork to the taupe Hon office furniture. The only pretense of personality was Kevin’s musical choice of Nashville pop hits. Toby Keith and his ilk of country “musicians” produced mindless drivel devoid of poetry or even a soul. Kevin swiveled in his leather office chair and smiled up at Wyatt. With his chin thrust forward and his thin lips hitched to one side of his unshaven face, the expression was more smug contempt than professionalism.

“Morning, Lucky,” Kevin said in an overly jolly, loud voice. The air in the office shifted and the lookie-loos sat up and paid attention like that moment before a bar brawl.

“What’s my assignment?” Wyatt asked. He wasn’t going to give anyone the satisfaction of a confrontation. Dad taught him better than that. 

His supervisor, Kevin, pulled a local topographical map from his desk drawer along with a package of markers. Kevin’s title was Experiential Agriculture Coordinator, which made him the keeper of maps.

“What field did you cultivate yesterday?” Kevin asked. Deep blue circles ringed each eye, but Wyatt knew from his father’s boxing days that these were from lack of sleep rather than shiner.

“Richardson,” Wyatt said.

Kevin’s lips twitched and turned into a sneer. “Test field 1940?” 

In Kevin’s estimation, land was something to be used and manipulated without regard of history and ownership. The use of surnames annoyed him. But names were important. They provided provenance: a history of the land as well as a cultural history. The land known as plot 1940 was bought from the Otoe Indian Tribe and first farmed by a German family in 1839, the year after Iowa was declared a territory. In the intervening century, the Klinkhammer’s original forty acres grew to nearly two hundred. While still owned by descendants of the Klinkhammer family, it was now known as the Richardson farm. The land along the Possum River was prone to flooding in the summer, but was excellent for spring crops. Kevin and his maps would never understand this, but it led Wyatt to believe that most crops, but especially corn, would never be successful on the Richardson land. But he was just a local farmer without a college degree or a cubicle or a white collar.

“Let’s plant 1940 today,” Kevin said and pointed to a shaded-in plot on the map that lay adjacent to the Possum river. 

“I’m going back to the Richardson farm?”

Wyatt knew he was getting under Kevin’s skin, when the man slid his chair back and sprang to his feet. As if his height or muscular stature gained him some advantage over Wyatt. But they stood eye to eye.

“Thanks, Lucky,” Kevin said as Wyatt turned to walk away.

Wyatt drew in a deep breath and pushed it out as if blowing into a straw. His face, again, flushed with a flash of anger. He dropped his shoulders and stretched his neck muscles before turning back.

“You know,” Wyatt said. He paused and took another deep breath and lowered his voice. “I really don’t like being called that.”

Another smug smile spread across Kevin’s face. “You’re welcome to file a complaint with your immediate supervisor.”

Bad Seed: Chapter Six

Plumes of white steam rose from the mineral hot spring pools, swirled in the light breeze, and caught the early morning light as the sun moved from the plains to the high country of Colorado. As a hotel guest, Lena had the run of the hot springs pools before the doors opened to the public in a few hours. She wandered the fifteen small pools which looked like over-sized hot tubs made by artisans with native stones and minerals mined from the surrounding peaks of the San Juan Mountains. On the deck of the smallest pools, she dropped her notebook, robe, and plush hotel towel onto a nearby lounge chair, slid off the dollar store flip-flops she bought the night before, and sat on the edge of the pool overlooking the San Juan River. She dipped her feet into the steaming water. The warmth entered the soles of her weary feet and rushed up to calm her spinning brain. She slid into the pool, submerging her body, then her head. Lena listened to the lub-dub of her heart echo through the calm water. 

With a renewed sense of calm, she doggy paddled to the edge of the pool, and took in her surroundings as if for the first time. Pink morning light licked the impressive and rugged San Juan Mountain peaks. Huge columns of steam billowed out of the hot spring pools and created a foggy, dream-like atmosphere. This was much better than wandering the Denver convention halls: politely laughing at lame chemistry jokes and deftly deflecting the clumsy flirting of her business competitors. She’d flown into Denver the day before, picked up her rental car, and drove past her hotel and the Denver convention center where she was booked for the American Chemical Society Spring Meeting. Tomorrow night, she was supposed to give the keynote address: The Future of Agribusiness in the Post Chemical Era. Or some such bullshit.

The speech was rehearsed and the notecards tucked into her briefcase. Her suit pressed. Shoes polished. But her heart wasn’t in it. There was nothing particularly thrilling about better living through chemistry or being the supermarket to the world or advancing human development one field at a time. It was capitalism run amok no matter how lofty or humanitarian the mission statement, it was all about the bank account balance.

She rolled onto her back and floated face up in the small pool. The infinite dome of blue sky above her seemed a good limit to let her mind wander over future possibilities. She needed a solid plan before broaching the subject with her husband and business partner. She could drive back to Denver and give her speech as her swan song. But even that felt like a lie. There was no Post Chemical Era in agribusiness and anyone who stood at a podium declaring such was a damn fool and a liar. Agriculture seeds sold in the United States were miracles of biotechnology and chemical engineering. 

Lena needed a pool like this at home: rocks from a native quarry, large hot tub with salt instead of chlorine and views of the landscape that inspired Grant Wood. Plenty of people had hot tubs or meditation temples on their property. This would be the combination of both. What could she accomplish with a quieter, more focused mind?

She dunked her head again and held herself under for as long as possible. When she broke the surface, she held the entire vision of the renovation in her mind’s eye. She’d put in three tubs: one at this temperature, one much hotter, then a cold plunge pool. Tony Robbins had a cold plunge pool–he was nearly the epitome of enlightenment–and he swore by the Finnish practice, something about lactic acid build up in the muscles. Maybe they could also build a sauna in a small bath house on the property. 

Lena climbed out of the pool and the chill of the spring morning quickly wrapped around her. She pulled on the hotel robe, pulled her wet hair up in the towel and found a quiet corner of the terrace overlooking the hot spring pools and the San Juan River. A tiny outcropping of rock that overlooked the river and stood apart from the rest of the pools and lounge chairs. She stretched out on a lounge chair and opened the Clairefontaine dot grid notebook that, in some form, had been her daily companion for over twenty years. She flipped to the perforated pages in the back and began drawing out her vision for the veranda she would build on the back of her Iowa home. She spent a pleasant half hour drawing her vision of her new spa backyard with pools and waterfalls. Although her doodles were elementary, she saw it all in her head. This drawing and planning was a distraction from her current predicament, but she was happy for the diversion. 

She pulled her cell phone from the plush pocket of her robe, texted her assistant in Denver to cancel her appearance due to illness. With the recent resurgence of COVID, the end of flu season, and RSV keeping hospitals and clinics full across the country, the lie was believable. Lena then called her husband. 

“Ready for your speech?” Walter asked after they exchanged hellos and morning pleasantries. 

“Not feeling myself, so I canceled,” Lena said. Lying to her assistant was one thing, but honesty within her marriage was sacrosanct. She sat up straighter and adjusted the towel on her head like she was about to address a jury.

“You alright?” he asked. She heard a faint click over the line and knew that he’s closed his laptop and was listening with rapt attention. 

“Not really.” Lena let the truth hang in the silence for a long moment. “I’m watching this amazing sunrise in the Rockies and you’re sitting in your office dreading your day.” 

Walter sighed. 

“Toby starts on Monday, right?” 

“Yeah.” Lena knew her husband well enough to know that his terse answers weren’t dismissive, rather he was attentive. 

“I want to come back here on Labor Day and share this place with you.” Although framed as desire, the simple sentence was the closest she’d come to issuing an ultimatum in their fifteen year marriage. 

After another long pause, Walter said, “I hear you.”

Bad Seed: Chapter Five

Mineral Springs started as a platted settlement at the junction of two stagecoach lines. Unlike other Iowa towns of the same start, Mineral Springs didn’t vanish into the landscape, but hit a streak of tremendous good luck, when a deep seam of coal was discovered in the hills rising above the Possum river. As the mineral deposits played out and the industry looked for cheaper options, a local miner located a mineral spring. The coal boom morphed into a spa tourism boom. Lavish hotels were constructed around the springs and a marketing campaign promoted the healing waters of central Iowa. Spa treatments and colonics and saunas to treat all that ails during the roaring twenties and went bust in the early years of the Great Depression. The low squat building that now housed the Furry Friends League inhabited the old pump house that once fed mineral water into the spas along main street and the affluent houses on the hills above town.

The pink had faded from the cloud bellies as the sun advanced across the rolling Iowa landscape toward more exotic Western locales. As a child, spring had been her favorite season and she still marveled at the changes. The northern hemisphere tilted toward the sun and its rays grew more powerful and able to burn her winter pale skin in a matter of minutes, yet the cool breezes made her reach for a jacket. And the breathless anticipation that at any moment father winter could pull back the blankets and sprinkle the world in ice and snow.

Stella pulled her eyes away from the Furry Friends Rescue front door to her white knuckle grip on the Subaru’s steering wheel. She’d been staring at the door, willing someone to open early as if by sheer power of thought the local dog catcher would forgo his morning coffee to allow Stella to adopt an animal and right the karmic scales. She sought to salve the deep hatred in her heart and caused her chest to ache. She unfurled her fingers from the steering wheel and dropped her aching hands into her lap. She leaned back against the headrest to avoid staring at the building again, but instead spied the mounds of black trash bags that filled the backend of the Outback wagon. She’d stripped all the sheets, pillows, and blankets off her bed. She wanted to take all the bags and even the mattress out to her aunt’s farm and light it all on fire in her burn pit in an ultimate–but fruitless–act of catharsis. She knew that watching her bed clothes burn wouldn’t absolve or heal her.

Out of habit, her left hand traced the scars that disfigured her right hand and wrist. With one sharp nail she traced the pink waxy skin elevated and swollen above her translucent flesh. Stella scratched at her scars as she sat in a daze. She stopped and held her hands straight like she was putting on mittens. If she wasn’t directly involved in a task that kept her hands busy, she often wore mittens to prevent this anxious habit. Instead of continuing to dig her nails into the scars in a bizarre unconscious attempt to reopen the wounds that Kevin had caused. Without a direct task, she moved from one anxious habit to the next, like a drunk that keeps changing his bar order. 

She clutched at her chest, and rapped her sharp knuckles against her sternum. Three, strong taps. But the hate wouldn’t come up. She wanted to cough it up like a ball phlegm and expel it from her body, but it remained tucked in her chest like the ravages of pneumonia awaiting the next minor illness to reclaim dominance of its host. 

Out of the corner of her eye she caught movement from across the parking lot. A tall man waved to her from the police station. She squinted at him until recognition flickered in her memory. The cop that had been there that night and testified on her behalf: Reggie, Officer Byers, or was it Detective? He strode toward her car as the physical embodiment of her victimhood. She pulled down her rolled up sleeves and got out of her SUV to meet him in the middle of the empty parking lot: a wide open spot where she couldn’t be cornered.

“Morning, Chef.” Reggie’s broad smile lit up his face, but didn’t mask his weariness. Deep lines rimmed his dark, hooded eyes. Reggie stooped with his arms open. Stella stepped into the hug but did not return the embrace, instead tucked her head into his chest for a brief moment. Although he looked rumpled and his unshaved face pulled at her hair, he smelled of fresh aftershave and mouthwash. She felt him relax into the awkward hug and exhale deeply before stepping back.

“It’s great to see you out.” Reggie asked and looked over her shoulder at her car. Yet another reminder of her failings. Even law enforcement knew of her reclusive nature. His brow furrowed for a second, but quickly returned to the passive expression of a seasoned interrogator. “Whatchu up to?”

Aside from an occasional trip to McCue’s Market for curbside grocery pick up, Stella hadn’t left her home since her divorce court proceedings six months prior. She wasn’t going to let small talk keep her from her resolute mission. “Thinking about getting a cat.”

Bad Seed: Chapter Four

Reggie squeezed a dab of Old Spice body wash into his palm, rubbed his hands together, reached up to scrub his blonde high and tight hair, and slammed his elbows into the walls. He closed his eyes against the pain, and took half a step back so his naked ass pressed against the cold shower wall before lathering his body. He missed his spacious bathroom off the master bedroom, but he’d chosen the tiny guest accommodations when Olivia entered his life. He’d bought the house as a bachelor, when the housing market was in a downturn. Those first years of homeownership were dedicated to renovating the house to accommodate his single, carefree lifestyle rather than making the guest bathroom more comfortable. The tiny shower stall tiled in shades of yellow and brown best described as shit and piss. As he rinsed the suds from his body, he dreamed of selling this place and the next move. They needed room for Olivia’s growing imagination, a bedroom for Grammy to stay on babysitting nights, and space for his sanity.

“Daddy!” Olivia called from outside the bathroom door. “Imma play in my house.”

Reggie stepped out of the shower and reached for a beach towel. He sniffed at the stiff and funky fabric. Been too long since he’d washed it. He tossed it back to the floor and pulled a small hand towel down from the rack towel above the toilet. It smelled marginally fresher. He dried off in a hurry not letting the towel linger on his skin too long. 

He pulled on a pair of boxers and peered out his bedroom window. Olivia was setting up a plastic tea service on a table in front of her playhouse. He’d bought the old shed from a local storage place going out of business last summer and spent a weekend with a couple gallons of paint and transformed the shed into a fairy tale cabin worthy of Snow White or Cinderella with shuddered windows and gabled roof. Reggie reached to the back of the closet, grabbed his suit, tossed the jacket onto the unmade bed, and put on the rest of the suit. The jacket was reserved for court appearances not mandatory overtime.

Reggie grabbed a mug of coffee from the kitchen, and joined Olivia in the front yard. He sat down on the bench of the miniature picnic table outside her playhouse while she was inside singing a song from Enchanted. Or was it Frozen? The deep front yard allowed for plenty of play space for Olivia. Without trying very hard, he’d raised her to play outside and use her imagination in her cottage rather than hiding inside in front of a screen, other than the weekly Sunday night Disney movie. For the past two months they’ve been watching “Brave” every Sunday night. Olivia loved the girl’s spirit and uncontrollable hair, but it inevitably led to questions about her mama. 

Roz was the only time he’d broken his own rule about not dating within the payroll. She was a part-time dispatcher, but they’d hit it off and spent one drunken weekend together fishing and fucking down by the lake. She was gone the next week. He’d thought of their weekend together as a bit of good luck and moved on. Three years later she showed up during a sheriff’s department staff BBQ with Olivia tucked in a car carrier. He might have contested paternity had it not been for the same birthmark at the crown of their heads. The rare birthmark caused the top of his head to grow in bright blonde among his strawberry blonde hair. Roz claimed she wanted her life back from “the impossible child.” 

Ever since that day four years ago, Olivia had been the apple of his eye and far from impossible. She was polite and outgoing and yet precocious. 

“Daddy,” Olivia called from inside her house. “Can we go to the lake today?”

“Grammy’s coming over in a bit. Daddy’s gotta work.”

“I wanna feed the fishies.”

“Maybe Grammy’ll take you.”

“I wanna go with you,” she started to whine. “You make the fishes talk.”

It was true. Reggie made the fish talk or made up voices for the fish as they rose to the surface to eat the fish food he bought in bulk from a pet store in Des Moines. They’d go down to one of the docks along the Possum and feed the rising catfish.  She loved it and he loved watching her delight.

“We’ll go tomorrow.”

She screeched and ran back into the playhouse and returned with a dolly which she sat across from Reggie and set up with a cup and saucer from the tea set. Olivia fussed over the dolly’s hair and her posture. 

Reggie sipped his coffee when a large moving truck, belching diesel fumes rumbled down the quiet street, and backed into the driveway of the old Sullivan place. Reggie knew the place had finally sold after being on the market for two months,but he wasn’t atwitter with gossip and conjecture about the new owners like the rest of his neighbors. He watched as a man, presumably the new owner, hustled around the expansive lawn directing the movers to unload into the garage, not into the house. Odd. The man caught Reggie’s eye and waved. Reggie lifted his mug in a mock salutation. Years ago, before Daddy days, Reggie would’ve wandered over to welcome the new neighbor with a bottle of top shelf booze or a sixer of a local brew. Today he pretended to sip from a plastic teacup.

At the top of the hill, he watched Stella drag two large trash bags out and load them into the back of her Subaru. Good thing he wasn’t one of those nitwits addicted to true crime podcasts or he’d be convinced that the agoraphobic chef at the end of the block was loading her abusive ex-husband’s dismembered body into the back of her SUV.

The radio on his waist crackled. “Unit 1022, what’s your twenty?” Van Dyke asked.

“Home base.”

“See you in ten for shift change.”

Their small town department worked twelve hour shifts four days a week. Shift change meant it was nearing eight am and still no calls from the media. He knew he wouldn’t be so lucky for the evening news.

Bad Seed: Chapter Three

Toby pulled off Interstate Eighty and halted the long, slow downhill slide from the Rockies on a long ribbon of concrete cutting a swath through the Midwestern corn and bean fields. While the scenery was pastoral and evocative of a simpler time in America’s short history, he was eager to plant his feet on some solid ground. The exit wasn’t littered with billboards boasting cheap coffee or the state’s oldest saloon, or a replica of an Old West town, instead he was greeted with small signs that ran the length of the flanking cornfield proclaiming Granum Seeds. He’d spent the last week exploring the National Parks of South Dakota while trying to avoid obvious tourist traps, but every truck stop along I-90 and gas station had some gimmick.

He cruised through the quiet streets and turned down the narrow residential road. GPS led his customized Toyota Tacoma to a small brick house with shuttered windows and even a white picket fence. Home. He threw his truck into reverse and parked in front of the Iowa Realty sold sign and left the driveway open so the moving van could back into the driveway in the next hour or two. He pulled a folding camp chair out of the back seat and set up on the lawn with a mug of coffee and a book about Wild Bill Hickok.

He read half a chapter of the Wild Bill biography before he was bored and restless. He dumped the bad coffee on the lawn, the caffeine wasn’t doing him any favors. Toby grabbed a can of beer from the cooler in the bed of the truck, tucked it into a koozie, and sat on the lowered tailgate. He felt no guilt about sipping a beer before most of the world had woken up. The beer in his hand felt and tasted like freedom. He sipped without the worry of tempting an alcoholic wife and without concern about what a nosy neighbor might say. 

“Can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning,” he said to himself.

 The thought of moving into this house today was baffling after living out of his truck for months. The moving van was mostly his library of books, a few bookcases, and his closet. No dishes, not a single pot or pan. Not even a bath towel. When he walked away from his marriage and career in Denver, he’d left it all behind. 

He took full responsibility for the demise of his marriage. He and Vanessa married months after his MBA program. She tended to domestic issues while he climbed the corporate ladder at MacGregor Pharmaceuticals. Vanessa was the perfect corporate wife: stunning, independent, and the life of every party, but the higher he climbed – from regional vice president to Chief Operating Officer – the more she drank. The deeper she slid into the bottle, the easier it was to throw himself into his work. 

More than the devil’s water, Vanessa was addicted to the downward spiral into rehab. She reveled in the attention she got the first three months of sobriety. As the adoration faded and the newness rubbed off, she started allowing herself a glass of wine with lunch. She couldn’t face the hard work of sobriety: taking a personal inventory, admitting her shortcomings, making amends, and living the rest of her life with nothing less than rigorous honesty.  After six months, Toby would find half-drunk bottles of lemon flavored vodka hidden in the linen closet. He stood at her side and held her hand through two rehabs. After the third inpatient stint, this time at the Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota, he dropped her off at her mother’s house, turned in his resignation, and traded in his Mercedes for a used Tacoma. He outfitted his every camping need at REI and drove west into the sunset. 

He could finally hear himself, his own voice distinct from the social constructs of husband and head of a Fortune 500 company. That small voice resembled the novels he was reading and took on the tone and timbre of Edward Abbey and Jon Krakuer and Norman Maclean. After a week hanging out with some hardcore climbers in the Bears Ears area of Utah, his voice gained strength and efficiency of language. As fall became winter, he followed the Colorado River south into Arizona. He hiked into the bottom of the Grand Canyon and his voice finally felt his own. They’d finally merged into one consciousness and his anxiousness melted away like warm butter dissolved into flapjacks.

The first time Toby heard the voice was the weekend before Vanessa returned from the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic. She’d be newly sober, fragile and all amends all the time. The prospect terrified and exhausted him. Toby stood in the Rocky Mountain National Park Alpine Visitor Center taking a break from an impromptu road trip. He held a guide book to the national parks and scrutinized at the map of the national parks of the west. A deep, raspy voice said, You should go.

Toby spun in a circle to see if the man was talking to him, but the shop was vacant aside from an aged volunteer in a fishing vest and a bored ranger examining his nails at a corner desk. Toby shook his head, dismissed the voice with trepidation and leaned closer to peer at the cluster of parks in Utah.

Pack your shit. Let’s go. The voice was clearer and stronger this time.

Toby didn’t spin in a circle this time, but looked over his shoulder. Instead of shaking it off again, he gave the voice a moment’s consideration. He bought an armload of guidebooks and maps to appease the voice. He called in sick on Monday and spent the day pouring over the materials and became more resolved to heed the voice’s edict. 

Once the divorce was settled and he felt solidly in his own skin, he started his job search from his laptop at a truckstop outside Joshua Tree. He was looking for something outside pharmaceuticals and far from his former stomping grounds in the boardrooms of Denver. Mineral Springs seemed to check all the boxes and maybe he could continue to play around with his new photography hobby.

He had the weekend to settle into his new home before work started on Monday. The founder and CEO of Granum was looking to step away from the chief role and focus more on the development side of the business. Although Toby wouldn’t step directly into the big office on his first day, he would take the helm within the year. His soul vacation across the National Parks had been crucial for doing the work on himself that his ex-wife seemed incapable of. While his personal inventory would never be complete, he’d forgiven himself for staying too long in a broken marriage, for enabling Vanessa’s disease, and for abandoning his career in Denver.

He regarded his new house much like a fresh campsite: do the bare minimum to claim the spot, then it was time to explore. He studied his new neighborhood. The real estate listing for this house hadn’t done the neighborhood justice. Ash trees, each with a metal tag tacked into its trunk as part of the town’s fight against the Emerald Ash Borer, flanked the street and ran up the massive hill creating a canopy over the street and framed the row of houses. Most were built during the 1940s during the town’s heyday. The houses ranged from small bungalows to larger craftsman style homes. 

In his posh Cherry Creek neighborhood in Denver he hadn’t know any of his neighbor’s personally, just whatever splashy headline made the front page of the Denver Post about the Broncos tight-end that lived across the street or the triumphs of the energy company Chief Marketing Officer to the west or the messy divorce of the socialite that he shared a back fence with.

In the driveway across the street was one oddity: a rusted out Dodge Caravan with a huge vinyl sticker on the back window advertising Tupperware by Bonnie. Must be hard times in the MLM business, especially when cheap Chinese knock-offs could be delivered to your door in two days courtesy of Amazon. Jesus, he moved in across the street from crazy. A figurine of a duck sipping an umbrella drink hung from the rearview mirror. The weak attempt at whimsy confirmed that Bonnie was certifiable. Hope she isn’t single, because crazy was just his type and he wouldn’t abide any romantic entanglements at this point.

Bad Seed: Chapter Two

Stella’s eyes fluttered open and followed the odd shadows cast by the metal fan blades. Four splotches of light reflected from nightlights around the room slid up one wall, merged in the corner and slid down the next wall as the fan oscillated. The fan had followed her nomadic lifestyle since childhood and lulled her to sleep with the weird wobble-rattle on every third pass. Stella searched her mind looking for a remnant of the dream that woke her, but found nothing, not even a scrap of nightmare. Weeks had passed since she’d woken in the middle of the night in a low-grade state of panic and her breath caught in her throat. 

It was nothing. Go back to sleep.

Earlier that evening, she’d indulged in her clean sheet day ritual and spent time shaving her legs and exfoliating her winter pale skin now a bright shade of pink from a day spent in the garden. Her agent had called with the news that advance copies of her book shipped. Life was marching on. The warm sunburn across her cheeks reminded her that life was good and the sun would rise on another glorious day in a few hours.

Stella rolled over to face the bedroom’s south wall with her back to the rest of the house, pulled the quilt up around her shoulders, and nestled deeper into the sheets as if hiding from an imaginary boogeyman. She thought of the silly games her therapist taught her. Most of the grounding techniques she could remember involved getting out of bed and either soaking her hands in warm water or holding an ice cube, but she was so snug in her sheets.

While she waited for the sandman to return, she opened her eyes and counted five things she could see: the pale orange glow of the night light leaking out of the master bathroom. Window sheers fluttering in the breeze of the open window, coffee mug with a half-drunk cup of hot peppermint tea, her kindle on the nightstand she set aside after only two pages of an Octavia Butler novel. A tub of lotion that she rubbed into her cracked and chapped hands at the end of a day in the kitchen.

Did I leave the window open?

Four things she can touch: soft cotton sheets, the shaggy nap of a well-loved fleece blanket, eyelet lace on the throw pillow, cool breeze on her sun-kissed cheeks.

Three things she could hear: the tick-click of the cuckoo clock in the kitchen, the buzz of the streetlamps outside of her bedroom window, and the whir-rattle-whir of the fan stuck on its track. 

Two things she could smell: fresh green scent of spring and something woodsy with a hint of citrus. She couldn’t place the smell  immediately.

One thing she could taste. The last dregs of Sleepytime Tea laced with the bitter hemp oil she bought in bulk from a Colorado company. Shipments from Boulder came every month since her separation.

After a sharp inhale of shock, her breath caught in her chest once again. Her inflated lungs pushed her heart into her throat where she could feel it throb and beat.

Happy by Clinique. Her ex-husband’s signature.

If she didn’t exhale, maybe the scent would prove to be a phantom. As adrenaline kick-started her heart and coursed through her veins, she was more aware of the space around her. While she played bullshit mental games to lull herself back into the land of nod, she had missed the obvious weight in the bed beside her.

Her first therapy sessions were spent learning to associate the scent of coconut with the feeling of safety and calm. Whenever she felt panicky or anxious she rubbed lotion between her hands, cupped them over her nose and mouth and meditated on her breath. The therapist explained that scent is the most powerful memory trigger and she was retraining her brain. The scent of him pulled Stella down into the murky depths of her own memory to that last night of their marriage: curled into a ball in the corner of their shitty rental kitchen nursing a broken hand while he continued to scream accusations and threats. Her left hand found the bottle of cologne he kept by the backdoor for a spritz on his way out. She whipped the bottle at him. The pitch went wild and the bottle exploded on the door frame above his head.

Stella cupped her hands around her nose and mouth and wished for some other nightmare. She’d loved, then battled this man for almost a decade. Kevin was there for a reason and wouldn’t leave until he was satisfied. 

“Get out,” Stella said. She tried to sound demanding and calm, but her voice cracked.

“I miss you.” Kevin’s husky voice was somewhere between a whisper and rasp. She’d thought it was sexy during their early courtship, but now it made her hair stand on end. He rolled onto his side and lightly ran his fingertips up her bare arm. The gesture used to comfort and soothe her to sleep during the good times, but now his touch turned her stomach. Hot acid rose up the back of her throat and threatened to gag her.

“Get the fuck out of my house.” Stella threw back the covers and planted her feet on the plush carpeting. She wiggled her toes and pulled at the carpet nap.  With her feet firmly planted in the present she couldn’t fall backward into past traumas. Too bad that damn therapist didn’t teach her techniques for dealing with trauma that was happening in the moment.

Kevin was sprawled out on the side of the queen bed closest to the bedroom door and could easily block her from the kitchen and her cellphone. Kevin tucked his hands behind his head and crossed his legs like he was trying to get more comfortable. “I wanna celebrate with you. Heard your book comes out next month. Didn’t think you’d ever make it happen.”

Her eyes flicked up to the face she used to love, but then she looked down and away like she was trying not to provoke a wild animal.

“Don’t you wanna share your success with me?” Kevin asked.

Kevin slid out from the sheets, folded the comforter back, smoothed out the wrinkles, and fluffed the pillows. As he was bent over the bed, Stella knew this was the moment to sprint past him and get free, but her feet were rooted in place. When evolution wired her brain in the womb, it forgot to connect the fight or flight switches. Stella dreamed of being brave and strong, but the moment for both left her frozen. Stella sank deeper into the plush carpet with the weight of her cowardice.

In the dark, Kevin’s silhouette was larger, like the soft man she once knew was wearing a muscle suit. Fear narrowed her focus and her vision tunneled in on his loose sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off and sweatpants. He was dressed like he’d been invited to spend the night.

“Leave. Now.” Her voice was the only part of her that felt brave. She kept her voice low and controlled. Kevin’s temper was unpredictable like a garden snake, content to bask in the sun one moment, striking at her the next moment.

Kevin bounded on top of the bed, scrambled across it in his sneakers and came to loom over her in a flash. He ran his fingertips over the top of her scalp, through her blonde tresses, looped a thick finger through her hair elastic, and pulled her head back.

“Do you miss me?” He leaned down and whispered in her ear his lips grazing her ear lobe and sending shivers down her spine. He closed his eyes while slowly inhaling her scent. The acid tickling the back of her throat became a fire that raged from the pit of her belly to the tip of her tongue. Maybe, just maybe, she wasn’t a coward, but a sleeping dragon. Through her nose, she drew a long breath deep into her stomach.

“GET OUT!” she screamed into his ear.

Kevin cocked his head, gripped her hair tighter, and forced her head back farther. He smiled at her outrage like she was a small yapping dog: cute yet ineffective.

“Kiss first?” Kevin asked. His chapped and cracked lips grazed the side of her cheek.

“I hope you fucking die.”

He kissed her cheek and the acrid smell of cheap whiskey tickled her nose. Fire erupted from within. First as a tremendous belch, then it came as a river of bile and acid. Kevin ambled from the room and the house before a single drop of vomit soiled the bedclothes and plush carpet.

Bad Seed: Chapter One, Part 3

The acrid stench rising from the crack under the door stung her nose while Camila listened to Jonas cough. Even with the tap running, she heard his ragged wheezes.

“I got you, babe,” she called through the door.

Camila ran across the kitchen to the junk drawer beside the back door and dug for Jonas’ rescue inhaler among the myriad of screwdrivers, safety pins, and unidentified keys. She grabbed the inhaler and turned back to the bathroom, but her ankle twisted and she crashed to the floor with a hard smack as all her exposed flesh kissed the polished tile floor. She’d be covered in bruises tomorrow, but that was a battle for another day. She rolled over and kicked off her knock-off Louboutin heels. They weren’t doing her a bit of good if they weren’t pointed to the bedroom ceiling. 

She scrambled to her feet and hobbled to the bathroom door on a swelling ankle. The tap water had stopped the noise replaced by the whistle-rattle of Jonas’ breathing.

“Let me in,” she yelled and rattled the locked door handle. 

The house fell silent. No whistle. No wheeze. Only the thump of Jonas’ body hitting the floor. 

She jiggled the handle again. Nothing. She tucked her shoulder and threw herself at the door multiple times. Thought she heard cracking, but wasn’t sure if it was the door frame or the boning of the corset hitting the thin door.

“Fuck!” she screamed as pain exploded out of her shoulder and across her chest.

She stepped back one more time, measured herself, and lunged forward. She planted her foot beside the doorknob and kicked like she was at bootcamp fitness class. There was a loud crack and the door flew open. Chemical fumes billowed out of the tiny room on a cloud of steam. Her lungs filled with the noxious fumes, her mouth watered, and her nose began to gush with mucus.

Jonas lay in a heap, wedged between the toilet and wall. Blood and mucus smeared his face and glowed crimson on his crisp white shirt. Camila dropped to her knees, she couldn’t get any air that didn’t turn into razor blades in her throat and lungs. She grabbed Jonas’ ankle and gave a weak tug that only resulted in him sliding farther behind the toilet and she could no longer see his face through bleary eyes. She needed to gather her strength and catch her breath, then she’d drag him out. Camila buried her face in the small area rug to wipe off the tears and snot and let it filter the air, but as she closed her eyes she gave in to the darkness.

Bad Seed: Chapter One, Part 2

Jonas left the front door open as he sprinted past his wife into the downstairs guest bathroom. He used his elbow to close the bathroom door and keep Camila at bay while he cleaned up his goddamn mess. He’d taken two showers in the lab, but could still feel the chemicals seeping into his hands like dry skin soaks in a fresh slather of lotion. 

The shoebox-sized guest bathroom was wedged in the corner of the kitchen under the stairs to the bedrooms on the second floor. At the tiny sink, Jonas didn’t bother with the pump on the soap bottle, but used his teeth to take off the lid and dumped globs of soap directly onto his hands and chucked the glass bottle in the tiny trash can tucked beside the toilet. Hot tap water steamed up the mirror over the small pedestal sink. Jonas tried the switch for the ventilation fan, but nothing happened. 

“Fuck,” Jonas said and flipped the switch to the off position.

“You okay?” Camila asked from the other side of the thin door.

When they designed this home before moving to Mineral Springs several years ago, they opted for the tankless water heater which provided an endless supply of scalding hot water on demand. As he ran the soap and suds between his two hands he was thankful for his forethought on that one detail.

The aroma of lavender and vanilla drifted on the steam. He opened the utility closet and snatched a nail brush off a small hook Camila had stuck to the door. Jonas scrubbed from his nails to his elbows. The thick rubber gloves he wore at work to work with the volatile mix of chemicals in his latest innovation had begun to deteriorate. When he’d finished the painstaking process of varnishing the seeds by hand and pulled the gloves off to start the next step, he noticed a small hole in the heavy rubber between the thumb and forefinger and now all he could see was the iridescence that initially coated his innovation and now coated his hand.

He ripped open the small cabinet over the toilet tank and grabbed the bottle of cleaner closest to him. He spun the sprayer top off and dumped the blue liquid over his hands. The strong ammonia odor stung his eyes and burned his nasal passages like it singed his nose hairs. The steam irritated his lungs. It started as a tickle at the back of his throat and quickly grew into a desperate need to cough. He tried to ignore the panic that gripped his hammering heart. The shimmer on his hands didn’t fade, only glowed a brighter violet.

Camila rapped on the door. “Baby?”

He couldn’t touch his wife with this shit on his skin. “I’ll be out in a minute.” His desperation ratcheted up another level. He used his teeth to open another bottle of cleaner and dumped it over his hands.

Bad Seed: Chapter 1

Camila dipped two manicured fingers under each of her small breasts and lifted them higher in the corset top. In the master bath’s full-length mirror she double checked that her nipples weren’t visible above the hem of the Playboy bunny costume. She leaned forward and shimmied her shoulders and the mounds jiggled like a Victoria Secret model. The corset lifted her pert breasts to new heights. With this bit of magic, she might have to give up her seat on the itty bitty titty committee. If those nitwits on Instagram could hock waist trainers as a weight loss device, she could rock a corset. 

The playboy bunny costume was made for her by a seamstress in Des Moines. While taking the measurements and the fitting was a bit awkward, the body suit was a perfect fit and modeled on the original bunny uniform worn in the 1960s. Hugh Hefner himself would have appreciated the seamtress’ attention to detail.

Her phone chimed from her nightstand. No doubt an automated notification from one of a half dozen apps tracking her fertility and a reminder that it was baby-making day. She adjusted her bunny ear headband and turned to check the fluffy bunny tail stuck to her ass with velcro. Over the past year Camila had tried various other costumes to spice up the sex during their fertile window in hopes her enthusiasm would spread to her ova. As she looked at the full length mirror in her walk-in closet, she knew this time was different. The stockings and heels made her feel nine feet tall and invincible like a superhero. She used two fingers to caress the swell of her white breasts which quickened her breath and sent shivers down her spine.

Even after five years of marriage, their sex life hadn’t suffered. This wasn’t some desperate attempt to rekindle a flame they hadn’t tended. Dr. Benson, the very expensive fertility guy they found in Des Moines, recommended that they only make love during her fertile times rather than fucking like rabbits like they normally would.

At first, the sexual prohibition had been insufferable. They’d bickered and snapped at each other like feuding roommates. That’s when she started playing with costumes to transform their nights of lust into a special event. This change ensured that they looked forward to the nights starred on the kitchen calendar. But into the third and fourth month of the baby making scheme, they’d learned to cope. Jonas had thrown himself into his work at Granum Labs with a special project he wasn’t allowed to talk about, but occupied much of his mind at work and at home. Camila had initially focused her energy on civic duties and volunteering for different beautification committees through city council in their adopted home of Mineral Springs. For a while she tinkered around with different hobbies: knitting, quilting, even taking a few classes in painting at the local art center. Now she spent most of her days deeply engrossed in a book and leading a few book clubs in their adopted town of Mineral Springs. She even called herself a “bookstagrammer.” although she hated that made up word. 

One last look in the mirror, she double-checked her winged eyeliner and false eyelashes before heading downstairs. She wanted to meet him at the door with a cocktail in hand.

At the sideboard in the formal dining room, she poured a double shot of Grey Goose into the cocktail shaker full of ice, added a splash of dry vermouth, replaced the top and gave it a shake. Her now bountiful breasts bounced and jiggled with the motion. God, she loved this. If only her tits looked like this all the time. Maybe after the baby and breastfeeding, she’d invest in some great tits. Although she wanted to keep jiggling her tits, she didn’t want to chip the ice and water down Jonas’ martini. She popped off the top and used the strainer to pour into the chilled glass. Damn. She’d forgotten the olives in the fridge.

Her heels clicked a great rhythm as she strode into the kitchen on the tile floors. As she stood with the fridge door open debating between classic queen olives and the blue cheese stuffed ones, she heard the front door bang open. Jonas was home.

She speared three queen olives onto a toothpick and dunked them into the liquor. She put the tippy martini glass on a small beverage serving tray, lifted it one handed, and clacked across the tile floor to greet her husband in the living room.