I am sharing a horror story for Halloween that I wrote a couple of years ago. I started thinking about children’s imaginary playmates, and began wondering if, sometimes, the playmates really weren’t imaginary at all. It is short, at a little over 1,600 words, but it packs a punch.
“Daddy, why did Mommy have to leave? I miss her so much,” said Susan. She stared upwards at her father with deep blue eyes, her sandy-blond hair scorched by the hot August sun. Susan was two weeks shy of being six years old, and curiosity was her constant companion.
“It’s hard to explain, Punkin,” said her father, Larry Connor. He leaned back in his chair and rocked for a few seconds, a gentle breeze cooling his face. “Sometimes people just have problems getting along, sweetie. It’s like I said. Sometimes people hurt the ones they love the most just to get away from the things they don’t like.”
Larry eased her up and set her in his lap. She put her arms around his neck and lay her head on his shoulder. He hugged her close. She was so naïve and delicate, and he was careful with his words, not wanting to harm her emotionally. “But don’t you go thinkin’ your old dad’s going to desert you, because you and I are in it for the long haul.”
Susan lay on his chest, fascinated by wasps shifting around on a paper nest snuggled up to one of the porch rafters high above her head.
Susan’s mother, Peggy, and Larry had been drifting apart for the last couple of years. He worked the second shift at the Millbrook Kia plant, and tended to drink after work, arriving home in the wee hours of the morning. This had not set well with Peggy, and Susan had lain awake in her bed late at night, listening to them arguing, tears welling in her eyes. Susan had awoke one morning two weeks ago, and sauntered into the kitchen for her morning bowl of Cheerios. Instead of her mother she had come upon the sight of her father sitting there at the table, bleary-eyed, drinking a bottle of Miller Lite beer.
“I’ve got some new playmates, Daddy,” she said, giggling through her words.
“Have you now?” he said.
“Mr. Snuggles and Mrs. Gardener,” said Susan, matter-of-factly.
“And why do you call them that?”
“I like to hug Mr. Snuggles. He sings me Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and The Farmer in the Dell, just like in kindergarten. And Mrs. Gardener likes to grow things like on that cartoon I like, Betsy’s Green Thumb. She must love to grow things because she has plants growing all around her,” said Susan.
“Is that so?” Larry listened to her prattle on, the afternoon sun a hot orb in the blue sky. Peggy being gone had complicated things. She was an only child. Her parents, Joe and Elizabeth Spangler, perished in a horrible car crash ten years before. His final vacation week was dwindling down, and school would be starting soon. There was no way around it. He’d have to hire a babysitter to watch Susan in the evenings. Yes, there were going to be abrupt changes around the house now that Peggy was gone. He envisioned her face, smooth velvety skin, blond hair, and her eyes, like gazing into deep pools of azure.
“Tell you what, Punkin,” he said, looking into her face. His own face bore the ravages of the sun, smoking, and hard living. Deep creases were etched into the leathery folds of skin, and his dark eyes prodded hers. “Why don’t you go finish playing with Mr. Snuggles and Mrs. Gardener? It’ll be time for your bath soon, then I’m going to take you into town. How does that sound?”
“Yay!” said Susan, jumping off his lap onto the sweltering wood of the front porch. She tip-toed down the steps barefooted, careful to tread lightly on the hot boards. She skittered onto the cool green grass of the side yard and was gone.
Susan chattered with excitement during the drive into town, jostling around on the seat of Larry’s pickup, sticking her head out into the wind. He drove her the fifteen miles into Millbrook to the local Wendy’s, where she ate cheeseburgers, her favorite treat. Her tummy stuffed, the constant hum of the tires on the asphalt lulled her. She drifted off to sleep on the ride back, her head nodding onto her chest. He carried her into the house, careful not to make the screen door squeak, and tucked her under the clean pink sheets of her fairytale canopy bed. He grabbed a couple of bottles of Miller Lite and flopped down in his rocker on the porch.
Larry awoke, tiny rivulets of sweat streaming down his neck. He swatted at a mosquito boring into his elbow and sat up. He lit a cigarette, checking his watch in the red glow of the tip. The hands were poised at eleven p.m. He gazed up at the bright new moon peeping through the misty silhouettes of dark, purplish clouds.
Larry rocked in his chair, thinking back to his first kill, when he was twenty. He was at an open college fraternity party. A live rock band was blaring Drivin’ N Cryin’: For You when he saw her. She was a petite burnette, curvy in all the right places, a carefree young woman enthralled with the beat of the music and the wild gyrations of the audience. After a few minutes of idle conversation she left with him. Frogs croaked around the backwoods pond as the sky popped with majestic white stars, accompanied by the throaty exhaust of the chainsaw as he dismembered her on the tailgate of his pickup. Sex wasn’t the motivation, his was another fixation. He enjoyed playing with the remains.
He began cruising seedy convenience stores and gravel parking lots of the local bars in Millbrook, drinking, looking for women to pick up. The women, expecting early-morning sex, were instead strangled with a garrote he kept in the glove box. He dismembered them with an axe. Sometimes, if the mood suited him, he would decapitate the bodies. While Peggy and Susan slept unawares, he sat down in the darkness beneath the house, fondling lips and feet and hands still attached to severed forearms. When he tired of this little game, he buried them in the soft black dirt of the spacious crawlspace until the urge struck him to dig them up and begin the game anew.
Larry loathed the monster within him, keeping it caged until its voracious hunger compelled him to kill again. Peggy entered his life, and love, or what passed for love, blossomed. Peggy gave him a daughter, an object for his tainted affections. Both his marriage to Peggy and having Susan quelled the urge within him. Up until two years ago.
He rocked, ruminating on his dilemma. He would have to move the bodies. He leaned back as cigarette smoke curled around his head and wafted skyward. He got up, humming to himself, giving in to the urge to dig in the playground one more time before the serious excavation commenced.
His mind focused on fields by the roadside drifted in with dead leaves and pine needles. Uncultivated by human hands, overshadowed by wayward cedar trees, dogwoods and bramble thickets, many wilderness lots awaited, any number of which could be utilized to re-bury the bodies without discovery ever being likely.
He tromped down the hill alongside the old house in the sweltering night air. Mosquitoes betrayed their presence with their high-pitched drone. He halted at the weathered door of the crawlspace opening, an undersized piece of split firewood propping it open. He paused, seeing light within, and heard Susan’s lilting voice carrying on the humid night air. Bits and pieces of her garbled conversation drifted out to him, and he reached for the scattered fragments, gathering what he could.
“No, Mrs. Gardener…No!” said Susan. A resounding thwack! interrupted the stillness, as of a set of keys slapped against a leather purse.
“…Can’t have him…” she hollered in a high sing-song tenor.
“…No, no, no, no, NO!” Susan was screaming now, and as Larry peered around the door into the crawlspace his heart sank as he realized a tiny portion of the monster had been firmly ingrained in his only daughter.
A flashlight lay aslant, half-buried in the loose, sandy soil, its upturned beam holding the invading darkness at bay around its perimeter. A child’s sand bucket along with a shiny trowel lay near it. Susan was wallowing in the dirt, her arm wrapped around the bleached rib cage of a human skeleton, cuddling it. A rotted shirt drooped from its clavicles. Its bony, festered skull, adorned with Larry’s favorite ball cap, rested on her shoulder. She’d taken a large Chef’s knife from the kitchen and now gripped it like a broadsword in her right hand. She was chopping at another skeleton propped up against the cool blocks of the foundation with it, her angry brows furrowed in determination.
Larry goggled at Susan, horrified, watching her chip away at the bones. He realized somewhere in the back of his mind that here was Mrs. Gardener at last. The rancid bones and ragged print dress were clotted with dirt, and a single stem of crabgrass was rooted in the right eye socket. A few withered crabgrass plants grew around her, their shoots turned upward in a desperate attempt to bask in the sparse warming rays of sunlight that slanted through the ventilation holes in the block each morning.
Larry stepped inside, bending slightly to clear the flooring above him. Susan turned, glowering at him with such a grimace of hatred that he took a step back. Then her face broke into a cheery smile.
“Daddy!” she squealed, dropping the knife. It plopped into the dirt. “Mrs. Gardener was being mean to me. She wanted to take Mr. Snuggles away. She wanted to keep him for herself.”
Susan reached behind her to retrieve something mostly hidden by the sand bucket. She came up clutching a moldering human head, blond hair straggling from the dirt-caked scalp.
“This is my newest playmate, Mrs. Hairy,” she said with a toothy grin. “Doesn’t she look a lot like Mommy?”