We Grow Because of You. (A short spine-tingler)
Jesus, it’s hot…
Frank was used to heat; after drifting across the eastern seaboard for a decade, he was familiar with how the summer sun could turn even the lightest shirt into a sauna, how even a light breeze could present summer’s wrath as a blast furnace.
But this Iowa heat was something else, this miasma sullenly seeping out of the tall corn, mung-laced and choking with humidity and cornsilk. Frank pulled a bandana out of a side pocket of his backpack while he continued to trudge down Lincoln Highway, mopping his burnt brow and brushing back his unruly black hair.
I’d do anything for some shade, he thought.
Thank god, a town!
Frank chuckled as he spotted the dark mass of trees just visible in the distance through the heat waves dancing on the blacktop.
Good thing I saw that before I made a rash decision. Frank had a vague picture in his mind of a pointy-faced devil holding out a quill for Frank to relinquish his soul. Where’d that thought come from, a Bugs Bunny cartoon?
He continued his monotonous trek west on the largely abandoned highway (he hadn’t seen a car in an hour), his worn cowboy boots keeping time as he clocked along at his usual ground-eating pace.
As Frank neared the town, he could see tall oak, walnut and sycamore trees beckoning in a freshening breeze. <come stay awhile, Frank>
Another hundreds yards revealed what Frank could have predicted would rest on the entrance to town: a welcome sign, usually sponsored by the Moose, Elks, Rabid Koalas or whatever group du jour happened to be popular in the area.
This sign was apparently new, the dark-red bricks almost garish in the dappled light coming through the broad leaves of the oaks dominating the east end of town:
WELCOME TO STATE CENTER, IOWA — WE’RE GROWING BECAUSE OFYOU
“Typical small-town cheese,” Frank muttered as he stepped past the accompanying CITY LIMITS sign.
Almost immediately, Frank felt cooler. Whether by some trick of geography or strange weather pattern, State Center felt about 30 degrees cooler than the fields surrounding the town, with a pleasant breeze that carried none of the dank humidity that had been smothering him just a few hundred yards back.
“I don’t know about cheese, but you look like a guy who might want to earn some cheddar.”
Frank started. “Huh? What?”
“You know: Mulla, change, bank, coin, bread, bills, dead presidents.”
Frank turned and immediately felt hot again, but whether more from embarrasment or a more primal emotion, he had no idea.
She was gorgeous. Huge green eyes, a dusting of freckles and long red hair. And the way she was coming out of the top of her halter, Frank was careful to ONLY look in her eyes.
She smiled, as if silently acknowledging his hopefully-secret lustful thoughts.
“So how ‘bout it? I’ve got a lawn that needs mowed, a pitcher of lemonade and one hundred bucks. By the way, I’m Embeth.”
Frank had never been comfortable around women (or they he, truth be told). Frank shook Embeth’s outstretched hand <SOFT!>, keenly aware of his dirty, calloused hands. But he wasn’t about to turn down a cold drink OR $100, unless the lawn was the size of one of the endless cornfields…and even then he’d think about it, as $100 was a lot of money AND Embeth was sending electric currents down his spine every time she looked in his eyes.
“Okay, I can mow. But how ‘bout that lemonade, lady. I’m really thirsty.”
Embeth laughed, no, trilled. “Sure, kick your feet up and have a drink. The house is just down the street. Follow me.”
Frank followed the swaying, rolling hips of Embeth as he ventured further into State Center, only vaguely noting how immaculate and Norman Rockwell-like the town was. The majority of the houses were brick — a deep brown, almost black, with a few other homes the same dark red as the sign at the edge of town.
“We’re here. Sit on the patio in back and I’ll get the lemonade.”
Frank devoured the sight of Embeth as she climbed the few stairs to her front door before slipping inside.
Careful, Frank. Dad always said a sexy woman is a dangerous woman.
Frank snorted. While he knew he wasn’t exactly the brightest boy to ever leave the gothic halls of Baltimore’s St. Mary’s School for Boys, he knew that he had quite a few watts on good ol’ Dad, who was shot robbing a liquor store two blocks from his own home.
As he rounded the side of Embeth’s home (a strange, pink brick), he sighed with relief when he saw the patio with some lounging chairs. Distracted by Embeth, Frank was only now realizing his feet were sore. He shucked off his dusty canvas backpack and dropped into a chair.
Man, my feet really killing me.
Frank decided he’d kick off his shoes and rub some life back into his battered heels and soles. He worked on his left foot, then the right, groaning slightly as he kneaded the calloused evidence of thousands of miles of walking.
“I thought your feet might hurt, so I brought ointment.”
Frank’s eyes shot open; Embeth stood in front of him with a silver tray bearing a glass full of ice and a large pitcher of lemonade.
“Here, you drink, I’ll rub.”
“Um, Embeth?” Frank couldn’t believe a knockout like this would be willing to touch him at all, much less his feet.
“Shush. Drink, then mow. You want that $100, right?”
Frank drank as Embeth took a tube of some type of cream from the tray and began to rub his feet.
“I know, feels amazing, right? It’s mint ointment. It REALLY opens up the pores of the skin,” Embeth gushed. “It’s a lifesaver.”
Frank felt amazing. Refreshed by the lemonade, he decided he better get mowing so he had time to get further down the road. Unless a lonely Embeth invites me to stay?
He stood. “Okay, Embeth, where should I start?” He then noticed the mower along the backyard fence. “I guess right there, huh?”
“Right, handsome. I’m going to sit here and watch you — I want my money’s worth.”
Frank began mowing, leaving his shoes off. The cool grass felt so GOOD on his feet that he wasn’t about the encase them in leather again so soon. He lost himself in the rhythm of the task, up and down, back and forth. He could feel Embeth’s eyes on him, but concentrated on his task, working up a new sweat.
Soon, Frank wasn’t simply aware of Embeth’s eyes, he was sure somebody else was watching. He looked up.
The backyard neighbors stood on their back patio, huge grins plastered on their faces as they watched him mow.
Frank looked down at his work, then back up. What the hell?
Husband, wife and child all still staring, madly grinning their toothy grins.
“Hey, Embeth? Do you know your…” Frank trailed off as he turned to Embeth. She was standing now too, grinning. Her teeth were white, HUGE.
“Look is this some kind of joke?” Frank tried to put some laughter in his voice, but there was nothing funny about the maniacal grins.
He let go of the mower and reached down to turn it off and he caught out of the corner of his eye the neighbors on east side of the house, grinning.
Frank decided to leave the mower running. In fact, his boots and pack were worn anyway. He had noticed the neighbors shadows. There weren’t any. In fact the houses themselves threw no shadows, only the tall trees.
Frank slowly walked from the yard, backing his way toward the sidewalk.
Embeth followed, and as Frank’s eyes widened in horror, he realized her feet weren’t even leaving prints in the grass. A scarlet-painted toenail winked at him through the blades.
How is she not leaving footprints?
Frank backed into the street, his feet instantly burning on the hot tar and rock surface. More neighbors lined the sidewalks, he saw now. Staring. Smiling.
Frank looked back at Embeth as a guttural purr emanated from somewhere deep inside her. A rope of pink saliva dripped down her chin as she stopped her progress toward him, standing of the verge of the yard. Her head tilted to the side, as if to ask, Well, aren’t you going run?
Frank continued to back down the street, not wanting to start a mad dash of silent, grinning people. He could picture them tearing him limb from limb silently, still with that hideous smile on each face…
His feet hurt again; in fact, he was in agony. The hot tar and rock popped as his bare feet passed over it, wanting to cauterize him in place. He kept backing.
The sidewalks were completely full now. HUNDREDS of perfectly silent, perfectly beautiful people standing at the street’s edge. Smiling. Watching.
Frank stumbled as the pain in his feet became unbearable. NOT NOW! He could see the edge of town. Something told him if he could just get past city limits that somehow, some way, things would be okay.
Frank noticed bloody footprints on the street as he continued backing his way down Main Street, just feet from the sign and the edge of town.
Must have cut my fe…
Suddenly woozy, Frank fell, landing awkwardly on his side. Curled in a fetal position, he could see his bare feet. But what is THAT?! Frank moaned as he saw arteries and veins grow from the bottom of his feet and find the street’s surface.
“That can’t…I can’t….” he trailed off as he felt the lifeblood being pulled from his body, only now recognizing the pop and burn of the tar was the tearing of his own flesh as he backed away.
As his vision faded, on the edge of town, Frank saw the sign:
WELCOME TO STATE CENTER, IOWA — WE’RE GROWING BECAUSE OFYOU!
Another row of red bricks materialized on the sign….