2022 Horror Showdown WINNER ‘The Fruits of Her Labor’ by NJ Gallegos

Knock, knock, knock.

                Naturally, interrupted just when she’d gotten to the juicy bits of her book. She sighed and pushed her cup of tea away. What were the chances it was Publisher’s Clearing House with a massive check? Nil. Probably some religious fanatics pedaling their deity. Crowding into her coveted free time. For fuck’s sake. Although… it might be Girl Scouts with a wagon packed with cookies.

                With Thin Mints on her mind, she trudged to the front door, turned the lock and opened it.

                Not religious nuts, but… not Girl Scouts either.

                A boy, probably five or six if she had to guess, but she was shit at telling kids’ ages. She’d wanted no children, and her IUD fought away errant sperm that hoped to ruin her life. Children were fomites and disgusting. Too much snot.

                “Can I help you?” she asked. Some neighborhood kid selling shit to raise money for space camp or something, probably.

Although if it were candy…

                The kid tilted his head up and flashed the woman a smile that might have been charming, except for the brown stains that covered his face. She sincerely hoped it was chocolate or pudding clinging to the sparse peach fuzz around his lips. Hell, even dog food might be better than the alternative. 

                “Hi there, Missus! I live next door,” he said, jutting his thumb towards the tan house to her right.

                “Uh, huh.” She vaguely recalled seeing some kids back there playing, but after a few glasses of wine, they all looked the same to her. “And…?”

                He reached into his jacket pocket and extracted a red fruit and a paperclip with lint clinging to it. He handed her the fruit and pocketed the linty paperclip. “That tree by your fence? This fell off of it into our yard. I thought you might want it.” He gave the woman another grin, his cheeks flushing.

                Great. Just great. The kid next door had a crush on her. Giving her fruit from her own tree!

                Wait… what tree?

                “Uh… thanks, kid,” she replied, staring at the fruit. It looked vaguely like a Red Delicious apple but was perfectly round, like an orange. She tore her gaze from the fruit and looked at the boy, who stared up at her expectantly. Did he want a tip or something? An invitation inside for milk and cookies? A hug?

                Fat chance of that.

                “Thanks,” she repeated, searching for words. “Uh… stay in school and don’t do drugs, okay little buddy?” His face twisted in confusion as the door shut. Friendly advice was always valuable, although… maybe she should have advised him to always use a condom when he was old enough. There were already too many crotch goblins running about, bothering people while they were reading. 

                She carried the fruit to the kitchen, skirting past polished marble countertops, and stared out the window.

Her tree?

What was the little rug rat talking about?

She scanned the yard and—nestled between two massive maples—spotted the tree. Rather small, maybe only seven feet tall. Its top branches were heavy with emerald leaves. One branch crested the wooden fence that separated her neighbor’s yard from hers. Scattered about were the siblings to the fruit she held. Their shiny red peels gleamed in the sunlight. How funny. She hadn’t even realized there was a tree there! Right where—

                No.

                She pushed the thought away from her mind.

                Best not to think of that.

                Her stomach rumbled, interrupting her thoughts, bringing her back to the present. A few shortbreads earlier with her tea had curbed her hunger, but now it was back with a vengeance. 

                Well… now was as good of a time as any to try the mystery fruit.

                She examined it again, rolling it in her hands. The skin felt the same as an apple and was taut and inviting. There was nothing better than biting into a firm apple and being rewarded with a sharp crunch and an explosion of juice. With a grumbling gut, she ran the fruit under the faucet, washing away any bird germs and the kid’s cooties. It certainly felt denser than an apple, as if it might contain a nugget of gold in the middle rather than seeds. Curiosity prickled at her. What was inside? Was it segmented like an orange? Meaty like an apple? Seeded like a pomegranate? Or something else altogether?

                Her taste buds tingled.

                Mouth opened wide; she took a bite.

                Her teeth crunched through the fruit, and a sweetness bloomed on her tongue. The perfect mix of tart and honeyed.

                Absolutely delicious!

                Another bite, this time digging further into the fruit. The texture abruptly changed and something squishy tickled her tongue. She paused and her stomach twisted. Had she bitten into a worm or some other nasty bug? Nausea roiled within her and she spat the contents into her hand, examining the masticated mess.

                Her breath caught in her throat and her stomach lurched, sending the one bite of fruit, shortbread cookies, and tea rocketing up her esophagus. She lunged to the sink and just made it before barfing all over her counters.

                She upchucked until her stomach rang hollow, bringing up acidic bile that scorched the lining of her throat.

                Squeezed her eyes shut.

                Please tell me that wasn’t…

                Ugh.

                She had to look. She didn’t want to, but…

                She had to.

                Marshalling her courage, she opened her eyes and clutched the counter with both hands. Stars overwhelmed her vision, but slowly receded into the periphery. She took in a massive deep breath and a sense of calm flooded her.

                Surely, she was overreacting. A combination of guilt and poor sleep making her see things that weren’t actually there. The last few nights had been rather restless with minimal sleep. Nightmares kept her from restful slumber. Images of shattering glass, her blood splattering on the walls, guttural screams, and cruel fists flying towards her…

                The nightmares.

                That had to be it.

                Her eyes shifted to the partially chewed fruit she’d tossed on the counter.

                A shudder rattled through her, reminding her of swimming through a cold pocket of water in the lake just a few miles from her childhood home. All the heat leached out of her and her teeth involuntarily chattered, both then and now.

                A perfectly round, pristinely preserved eye stared back at her.

                An eye!

                And an eye she’d know anywhere. Heterochromia, he’d told her when she asked. Just like David Bowie. Half of the iris was a deep chocolate brown color and the other half was a forest green. The black pupil remained stagnant, not constricting under the kitchen lights, and she easily made out the reflection of her shocked face in the obsidian.

                Those eyes were the first thing she’d noticed, even in the muggy darkness of the dingy bar. They twinkled with merriment, dancing over her face, lingering on her lips while she spoke. He hadn’t looked at another person with those dazzling peepers that night, not after he saw her.

                Picked her.

                Chose her.           

                God, she’d been so stupid!

                Panic seized her, making her thoughts race about frantically like squirrels hopped up on Adderall. She had to get rid of this… eye! She rushed to the sink and turned on the faucet. Chunks of puke swirled down the drain and she tossed the eye down the drain and flipped the switch for the garbage disposal. With disgust, she rubbed her hand on her pants, her skin crawling from the moist slickness of the organ. The blades whirred, shooting up clear jelly through the drain. She ran the water for a few minutes until the grinding ceased, leaving only the sounds of water splashing against the blades.      

                She shut the faucet and disposal off. 

                Stared out the window.

                At the tree.

                All the glistening fruits dangling from the branches.

                What else could be in there?

                Hurriedly, she eschewed her PJs and robe, pulling on yoga pants and a black sweatshirt. The all black getup made her feel like a criminal on their way to mug little old ladies, snatching massive purses heavy laden with stale candy and cashed Social Security checks. She completed the look with a hat, tugging the bill down to hide her face. After grabbing a plastic grocery bag from under the sink, she rushed to the yard, startling when the door slammed behind her.

                Get a grip. Act natural.    

                Fighting to keep her walk casual was a chore, especially with her muscles buzzing with nervous energy. She made her way to the tree.

                Counted.

                Seven more fruits. Although… there were the faintest hints of buds on other branches. Promises of even more fruit later.

                Fuck.

                Another image ran through her head: George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, ax in hand.

                She’d have to chop the sucker down.

                But…

                What about what was underneath the tree? In the ground?

                Memories gripped her, sending her mood skydiving straight into the ground. She’d fought so long to keep them away and—mostly—had been successful.

Out of sight, out of mind.

                But here was living proof that the adage was a crock of shit.

                Everything reeked of fairy tales at first. Murmured sweet nothings exchanged over a pillow after a night of vigorous fucking. How he made her shiver when he ran his tongue along her bottom lip! How his stubble brushed against the sensitive skin of her inner thighs as he drove her into a frenzy. Opening car doors on dates. And if they argued? He’d turn up the next day clutching a bouquet, wearing the jacket she’d bought him and a sheepish grin. Everything was forgiven; no apology needed.

                She’d been crazy about him.

                Breaking dates with friends. Forgetting to reschedule or even text back. Those were secondary concerns compared to being with him. Her friendships fizzled and fractured. No one called her, no one texted. When he nabbed a job clear across the country from her family and everything she’d ever known, she loaded her things in the moving truck and went along.

                The ring came next.

                When the ink on the marriage certificate dried… well…

                That’s when everything changed.

                It was an age-old story, boring as hell. Dumb woman falls for her dream man who was a monster in hiding all along. Happened every day. Probably more often than people thought.

                Her prince transformed into a beast instead of the vice versa seen in fairy tales.

                Sweet nothings morphed into berating. You stupid bitch! How could you have forgotten to iron my shirt? Unlike you, I have an actual job.

                Harsh words gave way to errant slaps that happened just infrequently enough that she could convince herself that the last time was the last time. And he only got physical after a few beers. He didn’t drink much, so she should count herself lucky. Some woman got it all the time. As soon as the red handprint blossomed on her cheek, he’d slump to his knees and dissolve into tears. I’m so sorry, honey. It’ll never happen again, I promise.

Falsehoods fell from his lips like snowflakes pelting the ground in a record-breaking blizzard.

Worse?

She’d believed every filthy fucking lie.

She let it happen, again and again. She made excuses for him: he’s had a hard time at work. He had a shitty relationship with his parents and a hard upbringing. Too much to drink.

She’d been so fucking stupid.

And here was the proof, knocking together in the bag.

Turning, she sprinted to the house. The hell with acting normal. It was her damn property, and she’d do as she damn well please!

Back in the kitchen—feeling like a ghoul that hissed at any mention of sunlight—she closed the blinds. No need for any lookie-loos. Like little neighbor boys with harmless crushes, perhaps? She opened the drawer, grabbed a cutting board, and selected a knife from the block. Her second favorite knife, that was. Her favorite was long gone, tossed into a river an hour away after she’d soaked it in a vinegar/water mixture. The antidote for fingerprints.

It had been a great knife. Sharp. Cut like a dream. She’d used it to prepare countless meals for the fucker.

And it had saved her life.

Her knuckles ached as she cut through each fruit, examining the horrors within.

Instead of a pit, seeds, or a core, she discovered —

The other eye.

An ear.

Something spongy that looked a lot like the turkey giblet she scooped out each Thanksgiving for a tense meal shared with the monster that slept in her bed. A thyroid gland maybe?

A thumb.

A shriveled penis.

Two pinkish lumps that she thought might be tonsils.

And, hacking through the fruit, her knife clinked again and again—rattling off of enamel—revealing a full set of teeth.

Her mind raced.

Dental records.

DNA.

Oh, shit.

She laid out all the evidence of her misdeed on the countertop. All that was missing were the numbered signs seen in crime scene photos. The police would be very interested in these lovely mementos. They’d looked at her with kind eyes that radiated pity after she’d showed them the texts he’d sent her: It’s over. I found someone else. Don’t bother contacting me. We’re done.  

They’d asked the cursory questions. How was your marriage? Any problems? Did you have any idea?

She’d answered with a voice choked with crocodile tears that ran down her cheeks, channeling her inner Meryl Streep. We had a wonderful marriage. We rarely argued. No, Officer, he never laid a hand on me. I didn’t know there was another woman.

She wasn’t a fucking idiot. If she answered, actually, come to think of it? He used me as his personal punching bag—now THAT would get gears a-turning. A missing husband? A battered, vindictive wife? The simplest math equation in the world, even a total imbecile could solve it.

Her.

They tracked his phone to San Diego until the signal went dead. Probably high-tailed it to Mexico, right across the border. With the unspoken with someone else. His credit cards remained quiet and unused.

She’d found the drifter under the bridge and brought him a Greyhound ticket to San Diego. The bottle of top shelf whisky and all the cash pilfered from the asshole’s wallet sweetened the deal. Handed the drifter the phone with the instructions to ditch it. Dump it in the ocean, shove it up their ass. She didn’t care. Just get rid of it.

Mission accomplished.

Unlocking his phone… initially induced an unrelenting panic. What was his passcode? She tried all the number combinations with no success. Then she remembered… he always used his thumb to unlock it.

The knife sawed through his bone easily.

That little piggy went to market.

She’d done everything right.

Except this tree shit.

His last resting place.

She hadn’t meant to kill him. Like always, he’d come home from work in a shitty mood, eyes shifting around, hoping to find something that would give him an excuse to pop off. Reeking of gin, his chiseled jaw gnashed, clenching and unclenching. His tell. She knew she was in for it. She’d kept her head down while she cut up carrots for the stew simmering on the stove for dinner.

Hoped that he’d breeze right passed her and spare her his rage. 

No such luck

He snarled, his uniquely colored eyes flashing with a sudden brutality, made even more stark by his bared teeth. Like a rabid bull charging a matador, nostrils flaring. All the better to scent the sour sweat and fear in the air.

From her.

“Why the fuck is dinner not ready yet, you fucking cunt?” He screamed. The veins in his neck distended in his rage, engorging with the fury that surged through his bloodstream. Stale alcohol and rank breath washed over her. She flinched, an act that stoked the fires of his temper, flaring the flames ever higher. Braced herself for the inevitable hit. Would it be a slap? A punch?

Neither.

Thrusting his fingers into her hair, he curled his fingers into cruel talons, gripping her hair and yanking up. Minute ripping tore through her skull as he wrenched her hair from its follicles and a searing pain exploded, spreading like lightning over her scalp. Her face filled with heat, but instead of her standard shame, resignation, and fear at his furies, a strange sense of calm flooded her.

Time crawled.

Her fist tightened over the knife handle, knuckles blanching white. Remnants of carrot still clung to the blade, and a piece fell to the floor, landing with a dull smack. With a suddenness that shocked her, she whipped the knife around, thrusting it forward with all her might.

It caught him in the throat.

She savored the way his eyes widened, his pupils widening until they’d nearly obliterated his two-toned irises. The blade was half buried in his throat, bobbing as his Adam’s apple hitched. His lips moved wordlessly, and a choked bark erupted from his mouth. A wet sucking sound… blood welling out of the wound while he tried to take in a breath, drowning in his own fluids. Blood dripped to the tile floor, making her think of the red candy buttons she used to rip off the paper at the movie theater. A bead rolled in the grout and she thought, surprising herself with how unphased she was at her husband’s murder—damn, that better not stain! It’ll be a bitch to get that out.

She’d definitely hit the trachea and the tip of her blade? Probably tickling the edge of his spinal column, maybe severing vital connections.

His mouth gaped open and closed like a fish gasping on dry land after being hooked. He pitched forward over the counter, landing with his torso flush against the marble.

Thankfully. All that blood would have been murder on the grout.

Her mind went on autopilot.

She’d grown up hunting with her daddy in the fall and knew her way around a body—deer, human, they were remarkably similar! Using her favorite, life-saving knife, she cut away flesh and tossed it down the disposal. She broke his joints. Liberated his thumb… and his fingerprint.

It was midnight when she snuck out to the yard. Under the indifferent moon and stars, she dug a deep hole. She tossed the rest of him in there, like she was tossing trash into a landfill.

He was trash.

As time passed, she thought of him less and less.

She hadn’t even noticed the tree!

No matter.

The tree would fall to another blade, just as that prick had. It’d be nothing. A quick trip to Lowe’s, paying in cash with an ax. Gotta prune my trees, she’d tell the bored cashier whose mind was miles away, thinking of ordering a pizza and packing a bowl after his shift ended.

The tree would go, falling mightily.

The nights were getting colder, and she was due for a bonfire. Marshmallows thrust on a pointed stick, browning over the flames.

Staring into the dancing inferno, reflecting on what she’d learned.

The entire experience had been rather…

Fruitful.  

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