Most of you know I participated in a writing contest a few months ago, in which we were assigned different genres, characters, and subjects to write about in each round. For the very first round, I was assigned “Horror, Flower Shop Owner, and Texting.” I took those three things and came up with Potter’s Blooms. These two creepy sisters are my favorite, and I apologize for what happens at the end.
Potters Blooms’ reputation as the Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory of flower shops automatically raises the expectations of any first-time visitor, including those of Aaron Fleming.
He’s not sure what to expect when he opens the door, but it doesn’t matter. Whatever he’d been told before about the shop, whatever he’d believed, the shop exceeds it. He stops to take it all in.
Every surface bursts with life. To his left, a forest of flowering trees, planted directly into the floor. To his right, blooms in a variety of hues grow on vines that slope down from the ceiling and loop over his head. He walks slowly, taking care not to step on any plants.
Finally, he peers over a rock garden lined with succulents and spots the shop’s Willy Wonka herself, tending to a few rose bushes near the sales counter. “Mrs. Potter?”
She turns, but he can’t tell if her milky blue eyes focus on him. She is impossibly old, with nearly translucent skin that looks like a piece of aluminum foil that’s been wadded up and stretched back out, pulled tight around her frame. He steps closer.
“I’m Aaron,” he says. “We spoke on the phone yesterday about renovating your basement.”
“Oh, yes.” The crease between her eyebrows disappears and she smiles. “I’m Ruby. You spoke with my sister.” She brushes a long strand of silver hair from her face and rises on her toes. “Penny? The contractor is here!”
“Already?” There’s a rustle in the lilies to his left, and Aaron turns as an equally tiny woman emerges, with striking white hair and the same shriveled skin. “I didn’t expect you so early.”
Aaron extends his hand. “Hi, I’m Aaron. I like to be on time.”
Penny rubs her palms down her apron before shaking his hand. “Well, that makes you better than the last one.”
“Last one?” he asks.
“We’ve had several contractors,” Ruby pipes up behind him. “The last one was perpetually late.”
“And then he dropped off the face of the earth,” Penny adds, eyeing his empty hands. “Did you bring your tools?”
He pulls his pencil from behind his ear and pats the tape measure on his belt. “This is all I need today. I’ll be back tomorrow to get started.”
“Very well,” Penny says. “Come on, Ruby. Let’s show him to the basement.”
Rather than a chocolate fountain, a stream of water runs across the floor. They walk alongside it, and Aaron admires the lily pads floating on its surface, marveling at the engineering that must have made this place possible.
They reach an old door at the back of the shop. Ruby pulls it open, releasing a gust of cold air before she descends the wooden stairs. Penny motions for Aaron to go ahead of her. There’s no handrail, so he drags his hand along the cool cement wall as he moves downward, his eyes adjusting to the darkness with every step.
Ruby flips a switch on the wall before Aaron reaches the bottom. Three dim light bulbs appear in the darkness, illuminating bags of potting soil stacked along the wall, mounds of empty flowerpots, and piles of old newspapers. Penny crosses in front of him to lead him through the clutter. She gestures at her surroundings. “We’ve been here nearly seventy years.”
He waves a hand in the air, dismissing her implied apology. “This is what my daughter’s room looks like after one day.”
Penny stops. “You have a daughter?”
He nods. “Yes ma’am. Ellie. She’s six.”
“How delightful,” Ruby replies, but the crease between her eyebrows is back.
Penny and Ruby exchange glances. Aaron waits for one of them to say something. When neither of them does, he looks past them to a wooden door in the far right corner with one step leading up to it. “Is that the room you mentioned?”
“Yes,” Penny responds. She continues, leading their tiny parade through the maze of boxes, pots, and bags.
When they reach the door, Penny presses it open and steps backward, allowing Aaron to enter first. Light from the basement throws his shadow across the dirt floor. A lone bulb hangs from a string in the middle of the room. He yanks the chain twice, but nothing happens.
“Old bulbs,” Penny states. “I’m sure there’s a new one around here somewhere.” She vanishes from the doorway, and he hears her rummaging through boxes. Ruby stands beyond the door, watching him.
The room isn’t much: dirt floor, low ceiling, four uneven walls. There’s an old-fashioned school desk in the corner, and he steps closer to take a look at it. He hears the familiar buzz buzz buzz of a cell phone, signaling a text notification on silent mode. He pulls his phone from his pocket before he remembers his phone isn’t on silent. He always leaves the ringer on in case Ellie needs him.
Ruby appears at the door, holding a light bulb. Penny appears on the step behind her, nudging Ruby until the two of them are standing shoulder to shoulder in the doorway. “Do you need to make a call?” Ruby asks, handing him the bulb. “Sometimes the signal is poor down here, especially in this room.”
“No ma’am. I thought I got a message.” He tips his head toward the school desk as he twists the new bulb into place. “Ellie would love that,” he says. “She loves to play school.”
Penny’s close-lipped smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “That was mine when I was little.”
He tries to imagine the two elderly sisters as young girls. “Did you play down here a lot?” he asks.
“Oh no,” Ruby replies, staring at the wall behind him. “We were never allowed to play in the basement.”
Aaron follows her gaze. There’s a dark spot along the top of the drywall that creeps down into the middle of the wall. “Did you have a water leak?” he asks.
Ruby rubs the back of her neck and looks to Penny, who replies, “I don’t think so.”
“Well,” he moves to the wall and runs his hand over the discoloration. It’s odd—it seems almost greasy. “I can remove some of this drywall and see what’s going on behind it. You want me to knock down these two inside walls, right?”
Ruby nods. “Yes. Take down the two walls, and add a couple of outlets along the other outside wall.” She takes a deep breath. “You don’t need to bother with that spot on the wall, dear.”
He eyes the wall. “I’d feel better if I did,” he says. “If moisture is trapped there and begins to mold, it could cause a bigger problem.”
buzz buzz buzz
Aaron freezes, trying to figure out the source of the vibration. The sisters don’t seem to notice it. Maybe it isn’t a text notification at all. Something else in the shop has to be making the tiny sound, maybe even something upstairs.
Penny gives her sister a look before bringing her gaze back to Aaron. “Of course you’ll need to fix that wall.”
“I know you’re ready to have all this work done,” Aaron says, looking over Penny’s shoulder to Ruby. “It’s a shame the last contractor disappeared on you.”
Ruby swallows. “That’s what contractors do around here, I suppose.”
He smiles at the two women. “I promise to finish the job.”
“We’ll let you get started,” Penny says. She turns and places a hand on Ruby’s elbow, pushing her toward the door. She looks back over her shoulder, nodding toward the school desk. “You should bring your daughter tomorrow. Let her play.”
Beside her, Ruby goes rigid, jerking her head toward Penny.
“Oh, pish,” Penny says, dismissing her sister’s wide-eyed stare. “I know you don’t like kids running around but I’m sure she’s old enough to be careful. Isn’t she, Aaron?”
Aaron clears his throat. “Ah, yes, she’s very well-behaved. I may see if she wants to come by.” He squints, trying to decipher the change in Ruby’s demeanor. “Thank you.”
Penny nods and presses Ruby out the door.
The next morning, Aaron carries his toolbox down the basement stairs and makes his way to the room. He pulls the chain to turn the light on, and sets his metal toolbox on the floor by the school desk. He’d mentioned it to Ellie last night, and even now he smiles remembering how she’d hopped around her room, gathering her teaching supplies. He’d asked his mom to drop her off at the flower shop around one o’clock. He checks the time on his phone before tossing it onto the school desk. Nine o’clock. Time to get started so he can play with Ellie when she arrives.
He ties his blue bandana around his face to cover his mouth and nose and picks up his crowbar. He swings it backward and hears the buzz of a text notification again, stopping his swing mid-air. He looks over his shoulder at his phone, still dark on the desk. His arm drops to his side.
Where’s that sound coming from?
He steps forward and leans into the wall, placing his ear right next to it.
He holds his breath, listening.
buzz buzz buzz
Aaron jumps backward.
It’s inside the wall.
He laughs at himself and shakes his head. So there’s something on the other side of the wall making a weird noise. So what? In an old building like this, it could be any number of things.
He lifts the crowbar again, plunges it into the drywall, and drags it down and outward. He repeats the movement again and again until he’s made a sizable hole. There’s another wall behind it, covered in wallpaper. He pulls more and more of the first wall away, alternating between his hands and the crowbar, and steps closer to examine the wall he uncovered.
The wallpaper is gorgeous. It’s velvet and filled with flowers—deep reds and pinks—and rich green vines and leaves, all against a cream background. Metallic gold lines highlight flowers here and there.
Aaron spins to see Ruby in the doorway, holding two mugs. She lifts one in his direction. “I thought you might like some coffee.”
He pulls his bandana from his face and drops it to the ground by the wall. “Thank you,” he says, taking the mug from her hand as he follows her out of the room. Ruby takes a seat on the step outside the room, and he sits, too.
“Did you know there’s another wall behind there?” he asks. “It’s got this great old wallpaper on it. Lots of gold and flowers.”
She studies her coffee mug. “Oh yes, I’d forgotten that.”
“It’s beautiful.” He sips his coffee. “I can’t wait to show Ellie.”
She looks at him. “Your daughter is coming?”
“My mom is dropping her off around one.” He shifts, remembering how she’d acted when Penny invited Ellie yesterday. “Is that okay? I won’t let her get into your things. We’ll play a quick round of school and get out.”
“Of course it’s okay,” Penny barks, appearing from behind a stack of boxes.
“Penny!” Ruby hobbles to her feet, nearly spilling her drink. Aaron reaches up a hand to steady her. “I didn’t hear you come down.”
“I need you upstairs,” Penny replies, raising an eyebrow.
Aaron looks from Ruby to Penny. “It’s really something that you two still work everyday. It can’t be easy.”
“It’s our family business,” Penny says. “It’s all we have. Besides, the plants take care of themselves. Come along, Ruby.”
Ruby doesn’t meet Aaron’s gaze. He watches her follow her sister across the room and up the stairs and makes a mental note to be nicer to his brother.
buzz buzz buzz
He rests his mug on the step and climbs back into the room. Using a scraper from his toolbox, he locates a loose edge of the wallpaper and removes a large section to show Ellie. His cough reminds him to put his mask back on, but when he kneels to the ground where he’d dropped it, the bandana is gone.
He pivots, feeling the floor with his hands, but the bandana is nowhere to be found. He moves away from the wall for a better look. Still nothing.
buzz buzz buzz
With the first layer of wall gone, it’s even more evident that the buzzing sound is coming from behind the second wall. Aaron decides the Mystery of the Missing Bandana can wait while he solves the Mystery of the Text Notification. Besides, he has half an hour until Ellie arrives, and he needs to get the wall torn down by then.
He pulls his shirt collar up and over his nose, then slams the end of the crowbar into the second wall. When he drags it back, he reveals a tangled mess of vines. He takes his crowbar to the wall again and again, revealing a larger mass of roots, vines, and leaves with every swing. He tugs on them with his hands, but they won’t budge. He stands at the opening and stares. It’s not only the presence of the plants behind the wall that puzzles him, it’s their movement. They’re practically pulsing, slithering in and around one another, constantly in motion.
A piece of blue cloth appears a few inches in. His bandana.
“What the hell?” he mutters.
He pinches it between two fingers and pulls, but it’s in shreds, like something has chomped through it.
buzz buzz buzz
He spot the pale light of a phone buried deep within the vines.
He reaches for it, and a vine wraps itself around his wrist. He jerks backward. Another vine curls under his elbow.
Is his shirt hung on something? He looks down to see another vine curling through his belt loops.
buzz buzz buzz
His fingers brush across something unfamiliar, cool and doughy, near the phone.
It’s a human hand.
Aaron screams, and the roots pull him closer. He screams again.
The vines climb over his shoulders and slither between his legs, tighter and tighter, until he’s completely within the wall. Finally, they wrap around his neck, cutting off his screams.
Penny’s silhouette appears in the doorway.
Aaron struggles against the vines, gasping for air.
The old woman steps closer, her face blank. She tosses his phone into his toolbox and kicks it against the wall. His eyes widen as the vines absorb the box, until there is nothing.
“As I said, dear,” Penny says quietly, her gaze locking with his, “the plants take care of themselves.”
The roots pull at his arms and legs, stretching Aaron in every direction, poking his spine, twisting his feet. He feels his shoulders pop from their sockets; the balls of his hips slide out of place. The vines drag him deeper and deeper into the wall, enveloping him until only his two brown eyes, wide with horror, can be seen.
Penny takes a step back to watch the wallpaper regenerate. The gold lines light up, tracing their path across the vines and creating a new closure. There’s a lot of rustling behind the new wall, and then everything goes still. She glances around the room and sighs, wiping the palms of her hands on her apron.
Tiny feet pound across the floor upstairs and the basement door creaks open. “Daddy?”
Penny leans out the doorway but keeps her eyes on the wall as she calls, “Ellie, dear? Come on down. He’s in here.”