Blood Grove

March’s theme was Man vs Nature.

Synopsis

As the community of Odelia recovers from a hurricane, people are dying from what appears to be a plant that feeds on human blood. The people of Odelia must work together to stop the threat, but first they must face some terrible truths about some of their most respected members.

Blood Grove

by Jessica Wren

2023

Two hikers looked at each other with bewildered expressions. Deep in the woods, near the abandoned subdivision of Odelia, there was a barb-wire fence with a sign that said danger: keep out. authorized personnel only. The two had spent the day hiking through the ruins of Odelia, which had been abandoned six weeks after Hurricane Todd grazed the Georgia coast seven years ago.

“Do you think the stories are true?” one hiker asked his companion. “The government denies them.”

“I don’t know,” the other one said. They skirted the perimeter of the fence. About every one hundred feet there was an identical sign warning of the danger beyond the fence. “I think the truth is inside this fence. Want to take a look?”

“Yeah,” the other said. The purpose of the expedition, to find evidence of the rumors surrounding the desolation of Odelia, seemed just within their reach. They knew there would be a penalty if they were caught trespassing on government property, but it would be worth it to uncover the greatest mystery in recent Southeast Georgia history. The country held its breath as a lady from Odelia and her brother were charged with mass murder within days after life was beginning to return to normal after Hurricane Todd, but the precise details were kept from the public.

The pair climbed the fence, only to discover the top part of it was electrified. Not enough to do serious harm, but painful enough to discourage intruders. As they fell to the ground with heavy thumps, they both decided maybe there was a good reason the government wanted whatever lay behind that fence to be remain unknown. With their backsides and egos bruised, the two got up, the unspoken message that it was time to cut their losses and go home between them.

“Hey, look!” one of them suddenly said, pointing.

“What?’ the other one asked with sharp annoyance. He looked in the direction his companion was pointing. On an oak tree, in plain sight, was a carving that said Blood grove.

“So the stories are true,” the man said as he and his partner stood in shocked silence. Then, reality hit them. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Saturday, October 9, 2016

The rather deep flesh wound on Alex’s arm hadn’t healed after a week. He wasn’t worried; after all, it was his own fault for being careless with the sulfuric acid he had been using to unclog his kitchen sink. The chemical burn had been excruciating, but short-lived, and it was just a matter of time before the wound would heal, leaving a brownish-pink reminder to be more careful in the future with caustic chemicals.

Alex was more concerned when he noticed that inside his would, a small, black grain that resembled a poppy seed implanted itself. He dug around with one of his wife’s sewing needles but was unable to dislodge it. He got up, and after his morning coffee, started to dig around again, the sight of the grain more of an irritant than its feel.

“Quit messing with it,” his wife, Paige, a registered nurse, said, startling him and causing him to poke himself with the needle. “It will become infected.”

“What is this?” he asked, showing her the black grain.

Paige inspected the wound on her husband’s arm with a professional eye. “I have no idea.” She finally said. “But if you like, I can squeeze you in to see Dr. Crawford.” Dr. Crawford, a wound-care specialist out of Trawick who worked primarily with diabetics, seemed like a logical choice.

“Let’s give it a few days and see how it goes,” Alex said. Paige nodded and, drinking the last of her coffee, kissed her husband and started to leave for work. Alex headed to the bathroom for his morning shower. He too would have to be at work in an hour.

“Owwwwwwww!” When Alex heard Paige cry out in pain, he rushed to her side.

“What is it?” he asked frantically.

“No big deal. Just cut my hand on the coffee mug. The darn thing broke when I tried to wash it out. How weird is that?” Paige said as droplets of blood spotted the sink. “Just get me a bandage, please.” Alex complied and came back with a bandage, which he himself applied to the cut. The drama was over in less than two minutes and Paige was on her way to work. It occurred to Alex that he should do the same on his own arm wound, both to avoid infection and to stifle the urge to take a needle to it.

Alex went on to work at Eastman Drugstore, a drugstore and pharmacy his grandfather started. The wound on his arm started to throb suddenly. It wasn’t especially painful, but it was distracting and made him consider asking Paige to go ahead and get that appointment as soon as he could.

“Good morning, Alex,” Julia, Alex’s sister and the pharmacist said, lacking her usual alacrity.

“Morning, Julia,” Alex replied. “You doing alright today?”

“Oh, I’m fine,” Julia said. “Did you hear about Bonnie Cochran?” Alex was dismayed but not surprised. Ms. Cochran was the dictionary definition of a charity case. Mentally ill, homeless, and surviving on the church’s meager handouts, she stood in the middle of the cul-de-sac on the last day she was seen alive, yelling that, Karl McRae, pastor of  Odelia Presbyterian Church that had fed, clothed, and sheltered her for four decades was headed to the hottest cauldrons of Hell. According to Ms. Cochran, Hurricane Todd, which at the time was set to strike Odelia in the next two days,  was God’s judgment for Pastor McRae’s “sinful ways.” Said sinful ways, Alex admitted, was an open secret in Odelia; Pastor McRae was what had once been described as a carnal malefactor, and Alex was sure he wasn’t the only person in Odelia who’d secretly hoped the winds of Todd would carry the lecherous hypocrite out to sea. Alex and Paige, not so secret skeptics, went to church regularly primarily to keep a running welfare check on Lisa, the Pastor’s dutiful Christian wife who’d suffered the humiliation in silence for years.

Nonetheless, the mandatory evacuation of Odelia due to Todd imminent approach superseded all concerns about Ms. Cochran’s delusional rants and Pastor McRae’s bedroom activity.

“She didn’t survive Todd, did she?” Alex asked.

“Nope,” Julia said. “But no one can figure out how she managed to grow a cactus out of her mouth.”

“Julia, what the hell are you talking about?” Alex said, shocked and unmindful of the customers who had stopped and stared.

“Bonnie Cochran was found dead early this morning,” Julia said impatiently. “There was a sapling tree growing out of her mouth. One that looked like a cactus.”

“Okay,” Alex raised his palms defensively. He was in no mood to argue with his sister, who had been separated from her husband, Matthew, for the past month. She had been living with Otto and Hermine Byron and had barely spoken to her teenage daughter. His niece Danielle had spent many nights at Alex’s house. Her afternoons were spent at the home of her boyfriend, Colin Sterling. Since both Julia and Matthew declined to discuss the nature of their separation, Alex was at a loss as to how to best counsel his niece.  “I agree that’s strange. And it really is too bad about Ms. Cochran.”

The bell rang, indicating a customer was coming in the front door. In her perpetual drama-queen fashion, Nicole Jessup walked in and flounced towards the pharmacy counter. She placed a prescription on the counter in front of Julia without a word, her whole demeanor saying ‘I have better things to do.’ Alex didn’t give her a second thought; Danielle was the same age and the teenage crowd in general wasn’t known to run errands without parentally-enforced technology withdrawal. Julia, equally unfazed, began filling the prescription without catering to Nicole’s spoiled-princess attitude.

“Do you have any questions about your prescription, Ms. Jessup? Have you taken amoxycillin before?” Julia asked a little too loudly. Alex was disturbed by his sister’s spitefulness, but secretly enjoyed seeing Nicole put in her place. “I know strep’s going around pretty bad this year. I keep trying to tell high school kids to avoid making out, but I might as well be telling them not to text in class.”

“Mr. Byron bloodied his knuckles trimming some trees,” Nicole replied icily. “His cut got infected.” Nicole was raised with just enough respect for her elders to avoid verbalizing the thoughts that came through clear in her eyes. Not everyone sucks face the same way your daughter and the Sterling boy do. It’s a surprise their faces haven’t melted together yet. Besides, I don’t even have a boyfriend. Me? Go out with a hick from Odelia? Naw! I’m saving myself for one of those college-bound potheads from St. Stephens Island.

“Well, we can’t have Jessup Estates looking like a hurricane struck,” Julia said. Alex stifled a laugh. Nicole and her widowed father Trent lived in one of the seven identical duplexes that made up Odelia. The only other residents were two sex offenders who lived on the edge of the fourteen-family community in a trailer, and, before the hurricane, Bonnie Cochran, who lived in the church.  “Tell Mr. Byron to call if he has questions.” Nicole placed the money on the counter without looking at Julia, and when she did, Alex noticed briefly that she had four small parallel abrasions on her forearm.

“Guess Naomi didn’t want to play,” Alex whispered to Julia after Nicole left, and the two shared a small laugh. In spite of her snobbish attitude, Nicole had a well-known fondness for a nomadic neighborhood cat that everyone in the Odelia neighborhood fed and cared for. Nicole was the only one the cat didn’t seem to care for. The wound on his own arm began to itch, and the slight throbbing radiated slightly into his carpal ligament. He was also feeling weak and dizzy, as if he hadn’t eaten in a while. I should have listened to Paige, he thought as he excused himself to make a call to Dr. Crawford.

“Sure, Alex, I can see you tomorrow,” Dr. Crawford said. “Oddly enough, you’re the third person from Odelia I’ve had this week with infected wounds.”

“Otto Byron being one,” Alex asked, not expecting a confirmation. He knew Dr. Crawford, his wife’s boss, to hold himself to a strict code of professional ethics which included not divulging confidential medical information. “Well, anything I can do in the meantime?”

“Just keep it clean and covered,” Dr. Crawford said. “If it turns red or you develop a fever, go to the emergency room in Trawick.”

“10-4,” Alex replied. “Say, Julia told me the strangest story today.”

“About Bonnie Cochran,” Dr. Crawford said.

“Yeah. Is it true?”

“It is,” Dr. Crawford said nervously. “Her body has been sent to the Center for Disease Control, and the U.S Forest Service has taken over her case. But I have patients waiting, so I’ll see you tomorrow, ok? Oh, and put some peroxide on that wound.”

After the call ended, Alex purchased a bottle of peroxide and a box of bandages. He then went into the bathroom to change his bandage and noticed to his horror that the small grain had grown. His wound was unchanged, but the size of the small black grain had definitely increased in size. Alex washed it with soap and a paper towel, poured a generous amount of peroxide on it, and covered it with a fresh bandage before going back to work.

It hadn’t helped. By lunch time, the wound was throbbing so badly that he bought some ibuprofen to ease the pain. The bandage bulged slightly.  What the hell? Alex wondered if it was possible that his wound still had traces of sulfuric acid in it that had reacted badly with the peroxide. The pills didn’t help, and by two in the afternoon, he had lost feeling in the fingers on his right hand. He also had a bad headache and had to eat two afternoon snacks to fight the hypoglycemic feel that had been with him since midmorning. A bandage change revealed that his wound had changed from a bright red circle to an irregularly-shaped black gash. And the black grain in the middle had grown and almost looked like a…no, it couldn’t be.

“This thing on my arm is worse,” he texted to Paige. “Should I go to the ER?”

“Yea,” Paige texted back. “U will never believe this. One patient’s hand turned completely black. Has 2 be amputated. I think the hurricane brought in some type of flesh-eating bacteria. Yea, u better get to the ER.”

“Otto Byron?”

“Yep. How did u know?”

“Trent J. sent N. in for a scrip for Otto. Said he cut his hand with a saw.”

“Well, gotta go. Hermine’s here.” Hermine Byron, Otto’s wife, suffered an assortment of health conditions, including diabetes, and was Eastman’s most regular customers. Alex left his store in the hands his assistant manager, and headed to the emergency room in Trawick. What if I’m overreacting? Alex thought. Before sitting for six hours in Trawick’s notoriously slow emergency room, he decided to seek a second opinion. Paige would be his preferred choice, but she would be at work until seven, if not later. He decided to visit Lisa McRae, the pastor’s longsuffering wife. When he got there, he noticed Nicole Jessup was there. She looked down, as if absorbed in some invisible task, and avoided eye contact with Alex.

“Oh, Heavens! That looks bad, Alex,” Mrs. McRae said. She seemed sad and distant, but in his own distressed state, the thought of asking how she was didn’t occur to Alex. “Even under the bandage. Let me see it.” Alex obeyed and stripped the bandage off.

What he saw would change his life forever. “Oh, Jesus!” Alex said, forgetting he was in the presence of a deeply religious woman. “Mrs. McRae, that’s a fucking plant!”

****************

Alex’s arm was amputated just below the elbow, the same procedure that had been performed on Otto Bryon earlier that day. Alex had barely awoken from the anesthesia-induced stupor when the surgeon told him a team of specialists from the Center for Disease Control, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Federal Interagency Committee for the Management of Noxious and Exotic Weeds had come to see him.

“Dr. Seth Houston,” the CDC agent said. Out of respect, he did not extend his hand. “There is a major problem here.”

“We have investigated the unusual death of Ms. Bonnie Cochran,” the FICMNEW agent, who did not offer his name, said. “There is only one plant in the world known to germinate in the human body, and a preliminary DNA tests shows that the plant that took root in a cold sore in Ms. Cochran’s mouth is the stenocereus sanguinem, a cactus that produces the inedible Blood Pitaya. The fruit contains very small seeds and can only germinate in the body of large mammals in the presence of glucose. There is only one controlled farm of the Blood Pitaya in the world and it is located on a remote island in the Caribbean. Mr. Eastman, I regret to inform you that the seed of the Blood Pitaya has taken root in dorsal carpal branch of your radial artery. Surgeons had to amputate, or you would have died of hypoglycemia. The plant sucks the glucose out of your blood.”

“It is colloquially known as the Vampire Cactus,” the U.S. Forest agent added.

“How did those seeds get to Odelia if they are on a controlled farm?” Alex asked sleepily. He reached for the water jug by his side with his now-phantom right hand.

“Hurricane Todd struck the island of Maldiciones, which is just north of the fifteen degree longitude line and where the farm is located, as a powerful Category Five. The fruit must have been carried by the storm winds.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, why is a fruit that feeds on blood grown on farms?” The bitterness at losing his right arm was beginning to sink in. “And if I recall correctly, Hurricane Todd crossed over Cuba. It doesn’t seem logical that something coming from the tropics circled around Cuba and ended up on the coast of Georgia.”

Dr. Houston fidgeted. “The Blood Pitaya contains a chemical from which many cancer-fighting drugs are produced. And once carefully refined, the oil of the Blood Pitaya seed is the most potent source of omega-3 fatty acids,” Dr. Houston said. “Also, it is being studied as a possible treatment for diabetes. It appears Ms. Cochran is the only person who actually consumed the fruit. The seeds of the Blood Pitaya are very sticky. Ms. Cochran got the seeds in her mouth by taking a bite of the fruit—but how she found it, we will probably never know. We don’t know how it did end up in Georgia. We are only assuming it somehow travelled the ocean currents along with Todd.”

“Are there others besides myself and Otto Byron?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Dr. Houston said, glancing nervously at his colleagues. “Three have died today, including one in a rather undignified manner. Surgeons in Trawick have performed two additional amputations today. A sixth victim, a young child, had a cut on his shoulder cauterized in time to kill the roots. Otherwise it would have spread to his neck and death would have been certain.”

“Ian Sterling,” Alex said to himself. Fiona Sterling’s six-year-old son had fallen off his bicycle shortly before the evacuation. Paige tended the abrasion on his shoulder. The Sterlings lived in the duplex next to the McRaes.

The doctors nodded their confirmation. “I guess you can’t say the names of the others?” Alex asked.

“I’m not a medical doctor and not bound by any confidentiality laws,” the US. Forest agent said. “I don’t recall the names, but a teenage girl also had her right arm amputated. A diabetic woman had a full cactus coming out of her foot when doctors operated on her. Ironically, if it weren’t for her high blood sugar, she would have died, too.”

“That is why the plant is being studied as a potential treatment for diabetes,” Dr. Houston said while everyone ignored him.

“Two teenagers died when they got seeds lodged in wounds in their mouth. One we know recently had a tonsillectomy,” Colin Sterling. Alex wondered how Fiona, arguably more high-strung than Nicole, was taking the death of her older son. “The other, a teenage girl, had an unexplained injury in her mouth. And the other death, well, I’d prefer not to say. But you’ll hear about it soon enough from your neighbors,” the Forest agent said. Nicole Jessup and Hermine Byron lost limbs. Ian Sterling was barely spared having a cactus growing out of his neck, and his brother had died in a similar manner as Bonnie. Alex had a sinking feeling in his gut, and prayed the girl with the mouth injury was not Danielle. “Mr. Eastman, we’re very sorry to spring this on you so soon after your surgery, but the seed is very sticky and does not travel by wind. It would have had to attach itself to clothing, hair, animal fur, or something like that. In all cases except for the two teens and yourself, we have traced the seed to a cat who lives in the neighborhood.” Again, the agent shifted his eyes nervously. “Poor Naomi will have to be euthanized.”

“But I thought you said it was Bonnie who handled the fruit,” Alex said. “My wife and I spent all of Friday cleaning the debris out of the yard. The only person we talked to after we got back was Pastor McRae. He asked if I needed help cleaning the yard. I told him no thanks. I’d no more accept his help than I would Satan’s. Especially after seeing how he took Paige’s arm and started rubbing it. He did the same to me.” The memory made Alex angry. The gesture was not friendly. The Pastor had grabbed Paige’s arm in a manner that was more than merely aggressive. Alex had seen him do similar things to other women and girls. There was something about this action that was more than the ordinary lasciviousness of a dirty old man. There was a sense of entitlement, as if the women he touched were his property. When he touched Alex in a similar manner, there was a look in the old man’s eyes that cut into it soul: I know all your secrets, boy. Every dirty thought you’ve ever had. Every time you snuck away with a dirty magazine? Yep, I know about them. The one time you visited a Trawick strip club behind Paige’s back? I know about that, too. You can’t keep secrets from me, boy. No one can.  Most women and the handful of men the Pastor groped, including himself and Matthew Towns, knew how to politely extract themselves from his unwanted grip, but never Bonnie. Alex had seen how the dirty, ragged lady tolerated his touch with forced gratitude. The look of fear in her eyes as she approached the church for her meals and at night. Alex had seen her during a depressive episode, shaking and saying ‘I’m a whore. I’m a dirty whore. And I’m going to Hell.’ Over and over as if reciting a chant. How, over time and without the open objections of the community, the Pastor had regularly taken Ms. Cochran to a room in the back of the church, alone, while Lisa pretended not to see. “Everyone knows Bonnie Cochran was his sex slave,” Alex told the agents. “Lisa lives in a state of denial. Ms. Cochran had to earn her keep.” Alex was furious and uninhibited due to the morphine. “I doubt Ms. Cochran was the only one the Pastor’s abusing. And there’s something else.” A memory struggled to free itself from Alex’s drug-addled brain. There was something he desperately needed to tell the,, but couldn’t remember what. “I’m going to have Paige call the authorities and report Pastor McRae for being the sexual predator he is.”

“It’s a little past the point now, I’m afraid,” the Forest agent said. The trio started towards the door. “Your wife is waiting to see you, so we’ll leave you alone now.” They walked out in a rush, stumbling each other to get out.

*********************

There was no memorial service for either Bonnie Cochran or Pastor Karl McRae. Ms. Center for Disease Control kept Ms. Cochran’s body for study, and the Pastor’s had gone missing. Lisa was very silent on the details of her husband’s death, and no one knew precisely what had happened to him after being hauled away by paramedics. Without her oppressive husband, Lisa looked as if she had shed twenty years overnight. The CDC denied having his body in their possession. Dr. Houston denied the body was in CDC custody, and the paramedics swore they’d taken it to the hospital in Trawick. However, there was no record of Pastor McRae having been admitted.

Alex learned of the death of his niece, Danielle Towns, when Paige came to visit. A Blood Pitaya sapling had taken root in her gum, and from there had quickly spread to her sinus cavity and then to her brain. There was nothing they could do for her. Her boyfriend, Colin Sterling, whose younger brother had been spared when his open wound was cauterized in the nick of time, before the root could reach a major blood vessel, had suffered a similar fate when the seed had taken root in the unhealed incisions of his tonsillectomy. Government agents thoroughly scoured the Sterling home, the apparent ground zero of the outbreak. Patient Zero had been Bonnie Cochran. It was unknown how she found the Blood Pitaya, and the only theory had been that it had washed up somewhere near the Sterling home, where Bonnie had found it and had mistaken it for a fig from a tree that grew on the Sterling/McRae property. During Hurricane Todd, Ms. Cochran decided accept Fiona’s invitation to take shelter in the Sterlings’ home.

“I only said ‘attic’ so she would be on high ground in the event of a flood,” Fiona Sterling guiltily told investigators, holding her ear as if she had an earache. “She was more than welcome to use any part of our house.” Bullshit, Alex thought as he watched the videotaped interview. The coldhearted bitch had only allowed Bonnie into their home because Lisa publicly shamed them. Lisa quite loudly asked Fiona if she would be willing to host Bonnie, as she and Karl were allowing Gaston Warner and Earl Baxley, who lived in a run-down trailer at the edge of the community to comply with the 1000-feet-from-a-school-bus-stop law. The two men lived together, pooled their meager resources, and drove together in one barely-functioning car every day to their job as fisherman. They had the unfortunate label as sex offenders stemming from statutory rape charges that were more than twenty years old.

The evidence showed that Ms. Cochran ate her fruit some time on the first day of the storm, as Fiona had thrown out all other provisions, claiming they would go bad when the electricity was lost. More likely, her motivation was resentment at having the filthy, disruptive woman in her home. The Pitaya was sticky and messy, and at some point during the storm, Gaston and Earl came in via the back door and cleaned up the mess for her. Used paper towels equaling around half a roll were found in a trash bag in the Sterlings’ collection bin, along with the remnants of the Blood Pitaya. Afterwards, the two men understandably wanted a shower, so one used the shower while the other washed the towels they used along with their own clothes. Both houses were completely spotless and all three guests were gone by the time the regular occupants arrived home.

“What was in that load of laundry, Mrs. McRae?” an investigator asked.

“Mostly towels,” Lisa answered. “I think a few of Karl’s T-shirts.” Fiona, sitting next to Lisa shuddered as fresh grief overtook her. “Colin,” she whispered and burst into tears. Ryan, her husband,  gently led her away. The CDC confiscated every item of clothing, every bed linen, every towel, and even the curtains in both the Sterling and the McRae house. They offered a perfunctory apology for the intrusion, but reiterated that public safety was the first priority.

Later that day, the community, suddenly unburdened by the dark clouds of Hurricane Todd and the predatory Pastor McRae, presented the family with brand new house items and gift cards for new clothes. However, out of respect for their recent loss and because Fiona was ill-and an unspoken fear of contracting the Blood Pitaya—no one stayed long.

Nicole Jessup was more upset by the euthanizing of Naomi than by the loss of her arm. When the Blood Pitaya seeds were found in the cat’s fur, there was no other choice. The cat, who was allowed to wander freely when the weather was good, likely picked up seeds from around the Sterlings’ trash can. Otto Byron, who also loved the cat as if it were her own, told authorities he’d petted it, and because Hermine often bought cans of wet food for the cat, it had rubbed against her ankles, begging for a meal and unwittingly costing Hermine her foot.

No one could figure out how Danielle or Colin got the seed in their throats. The general consensus was that one gave it to the other doing what teens in love do after a few days’ separation. With no other theory to go by, the conclusion was that one of them had inhaled a piece of cat fur with the seed attached.

************************

Fiona walked into the McRae house without a word, holding up a jar. Lisa jumped back as if she had seen  a ghost.

“Where did you get that?” Lisa asked frantically. “I threw that in the trash.”

“Yeah, well, Colin found it in the refrigerator,” Fiona answered coldly. “He and Danielle were eating it on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Earlier that week, Lisa had prepared a batch of jelly. Nicole had helped, and had asked Ian to taste it.

“No!” Lisa said sharply. “Uh…it hadn’t been pressure-canned yet.”

“Yes, it has, Mrs. Lisa, I just–”Nicole began.

“It’s not ready yet,” Lisa snapped, more out of fear, Nicole could tell, than rudeness.

****************

Alex was discharged from the hospital three days after his amputation. Meanwhile, the Blood Cactus claimed more victims. Fiona Sterling had been found dead in her bed the morning after the impromptu housewarming party, rendering the brand-new linens unusable. Arguably more disturbing was that someone had taken advantage of the chaos in Odelia to cleanse the town of the two innocuous sex offenders who had taken shelter in the McRae home during the storm. Fishing resumed a week after Hurricane Todd bade farewell to the area. When the two men failed to show up for work after four days, someone thought to check in on them. Just to be sure the two middle-aged, broke, boring men didn’t have an entire crowd of eager teenage girls throwing themselves at their door days after a major storm passed by, several fisherman and Sherriff Matthew Towns, father of the recently deceased girl, broke down the door. Gaston Warner had a full-grown cactus growing out of his eye. Earl Baxley’s face bore several wilted saplings sprouting out of what appeared to be scratch marks on his face.

No one had told him anything during his hospital stay, and Alex had gotten the distinct impression that the silence was intentional. It was only through an overheard conversation between two indiscreet nurses that he’d learned that Lisa McRae had overgone an emergency hysterectomy after ‘one of those things’ had somehow gotten lodged in her genital tract. Alex squeezed his eyes shut tightly.

“Danielle was intentionally murdered,” Alex said to his wife.

“What?” Paige looked at her husband as if he had lost his mind.

“The others and I, with the exception of the Pastor and possibly the sex offenders, were exposed to the Blood Seed accidentally by direct contact with the fruit pulp,” Alex said. “Do you remember the night we came home from the evacuation? Danielle kept spitting blood. She said that during dinner, she had cut her mouth on a sliver of glass that somehow ended up in her dinner plate.”

“Why would anyone put glass in Danielle’s food?” Paige asked.

Alex stared at her with a hard expression. “I think you know why.” Paige lowered her head. “The Pastor finally got what was coming to him, and frankly, I don’t feel even slightly sorry for him. About Gaston and Earl–”

“I don’t think they were murdered,” Paige interrupted to tell him. “Lisa said that during the storm, Bonnie became agitated and tried to run outside. Gaston tried to stop her, and she spit in his face. He and Earl eventually subdued her, but not without a fight. Lisa said they were both so scratched up when she last saw them that she asked if Naomi had attacked them.”

“Right. And she’d also mentioned that she kept Naomi on the back porch during the storm. If someone petted her, that would explain how she got coated with the Blood Seeds. But ask yourself why would Bonnie go into the home of the man who’d tortured her for so many years.”

“Because she didn’t have a choice, Alex. Fiona threw out all the food. Gaston and Earl offered to share what they had with her.”

“Now, Paige, I want you to envision the interior of the McRae living room. We’ve both been over there many times and we know how it’s laid out. What do you see in there that could possibly trigger a freak-out that would make Bonnie run outside into hurricane-force winds? See it?”

Paige’s eyes grew wide with realization. “Okay, I get it.”

“Paige, you do know that Blood Fruit wasn’t washed up by the storm, right? I did some research, and it is true that the Blood Cactus is only known to grow on the Island of Maldiciones, which is about two hundred miles due east of Martinique. Forget the fact that a fruit somehow dodging every single island in the Caribbean and landing intact and ripe in Odelia, which is five miles from the Atlantic Ocean, is infinitesimally slim.  Forget the fact that even if it had happened this way, the fruit would have been rotten. Hurricane Todd struck Maldiciones almost a week and a half before passing by Odelia, and yet the remnants found in the Sterlings’ trash can showed decomposition consistent with a perfectly ripe fruit that had been discarded that same day. Furthermore, the rind found in the trash can didn’t have a single trace of salt water on it.”

“How do you know all this?” Paige asked in a quivering voice.

“Someone brought it here with the purpose of killing the Pastor, and possibly Bonnie,” Alex said. “It does sound like the two sex offenders were collateral damage, I agree. That would explain why the bodies were never brought to Trawick. The question is: who got the fruit and how? The Blood Fruit is not something you can just order on the Internet. The Pastor died in the middle of the night right after we returned, and a very reliable source told me that he had multiple Blood Cactus saplings growing out of his groin. That same source told me he was in the midst of an active herpes outbreak.”

“Lisa?”

“No. The US Forest agent who’s investigating the case. He seems quite interested in giving me all the gruesome details of the victims. But he does it in a nervous way, as if fishing for information about Odelia. Does that make sense?”

“Not really.”

“That Dr. Houston guy works for the Center for Disease Control, and he let it slip that he’s studying the Blood Pitaya as a possible diabetes treatment. I think it’s reasonable to conclude that he has access to a plentiful supply of the fruit.”

“Why would Dr. Houston bring a deadly plant to Odelia?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to figure out,” Alex said. “But back to my main point. The Forest agent told me that Danielle had a sapling growing out of her gum. Exactly where she’d cut herself on that glass. That night, she went back home to Matt and Julia’s. To my knowledge, she did not go to the Sterlings that night, which cancels out the theory that she got the seed by French-kissing Colin, who in any case had a severely sore throat and wouldn’t have likely been up to making out.”

“So it sounds like you’re saying that Fiona left the fruit for Bonnie as the only food source,” Paige said. “That seems extreme even for Fiona, and I can’t imagine her endangering her own sons that way. And how would she get hold of the fruit? Is there any reason to believe she had contact with Dr. Houston prior to the storm?”

“No, Paige. As much as it pains me to say it, I think it was Lisa,” Alex said.

“And who could blame her?” Paige said. “The Pastor brutalized her for years.”

“Right. And the Sterlings could hear her cries and did nothing.”

“That’s not actually true,” Paige said. “They always called Trent Jessup. Trent would come over and put the Pastor in his place.”

Alex’s mulled over the information for a moment. “Then that strengthens my point. Why would they be calling Trent do the job Matt was supposed to do as an officer of the law?”

“Good question,” Paige said. “But I just don’t see Lisa killing Danielle to get back at Matt.” Then, like a dark storm cloud, the truth formed between them.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of this now,” Alex said. “I’m calling a community meeting. We are going to have to get the Trawick Police involved, but, well, we owe it to them to come clean to use first.” Alex started for the door.

“Why would they want Danielle dead?” Paige said.

“You already know the answer to that, Paige.”

“Right,” Paige said despondently. “Do you think it would be best to speak with him man-to-man first? He might just open up to you. If you corner him in front of everyone, he may shut down.”

“Good point,” Alex said. “Now, Julia has been staying with the Bryons. Go there first. Then gather everyone in the commons and wait for us.”

*******************

Lisa McRae lay in her hospital bed. “I can’t do it anymore,” she said, sobbing. “I never meant for anyone else to die.”

“That was an accident,” her visitor said. “Lisa, do you know why you’re here? Karl raped you brutally. He cut you in forty-seven visible places. It’s very fortunate that the only seed implanted on the cervix, or things could have been a lot worse. I thought you decided not to go through with it.”

“I did,” Lisa said. “After Nicole nearly gave some of the jelly to Ian, I realized that our plan could hurt more people than just Karl. It’s my fault,” Lisa started crying again. “I don’t know what I was thinking by challenging Fiona, knowing how passive-aggressive she is. And I tried to get rid of the jelly. It never occurred to me that Fiona would stoop so low as to intentionally throw out all her food to spite Bonnie, or that Bonnie would dig in my trash can to get that jelly. Or that she would make such an unholy mess trying to eat it. Or that she would put the jelly back in the refrigerator and two kids would eat it. I also never factored Naomi, the cat, into our plan. Gaston told me that Naomi had gotten into the laundry room and he petted her. We can’t blame Gaston for not thinking to himself ‘you know, if I pet this very familiar cat, I might just be spreading seeds of death on her fur.’ I’ve thought this over. It’s time we went to the police.”

Her visitor gave a sigh of resignation. “Anything you decide to do, I will go with,” he said. “I knew going into this with you that prison may be a possibility.”

“There is nothing in prison that could be worse than living with Karl,” Lisa said.

“At least I know that he will never hurt you again,” the visitor said. “I promised Mother I’d look out for you, and for too long, I failed in that regard.”

****************

“Sit down and shut the fuck up, you son of a bitch!” Alex roared.

“Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?” Matt Towns said, matching his brother-in-law’s aggression.

“Exactly what type of crime did Danielle commit that deserved the death penalty?” Alex yelled. Matthew opened his mouth to say something, but Alex cut him off. “And before one single lie comes out of your mouth, just know that we know the whole truth. Danielle told us everything. She knew why you and Julia separated.”

“Alex, please,” Matthew said, his arrogance lost. “You don’t really think I killed Danielle, do you? And I don’t think Julia would, either. It’s just that…sometimes it’s best to let sleeping dogs lie. I didn’t even know until three years after we were married. My grandmother who raised me told me, and that was only because I kept pushing the issue. I should have left well enough alone.”

It took all of Alex’s self-control to refrain from strangling his brother-in-law. “Forget all that. Just tell me how a Danielle ended up with a shard of glass that was coated with the Blood Fruit in her dinner plate.”

“I swear to you, Alex, I don’t know.”

“Was anyone at dinner that night besides Julia?”

“No.”

“And you’re sure she cut her mouth at dinner.”

“Yes. She yelled out and then pulled the glass out of her mouth. She couldn’t stop bleeding. At the time, we just thought it was a fragment from a broken glass. Julia can be rather clumsy at times. I asked Danielle if she wanted me to take her to the clinic in Trawick, and she said no,” Matt paused, as if measuring his words, and then asked, “And you’re sure Danielle came straight to you after she ate?”

“Matt, use your brain. Her mouth was bleeding profusely. Colin wouldn’t be kissing that, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“No. Did she mention anything about going to the Byrons? Julia left that night after we ate. She really is trying hard to accept the truth, Alex. I can understand why she was so upset. Personally, I blame Trent. What he did accomplished nothing but cause unnecessary pain and suffering.”

“Unless Trent was present at dinner, then no, you can’t blame him, although I agree his actions were vindictive. But no, she didn’t say anything about going to the Byrons.”

“She had a pretty nasty fight with her mom that night. Danielle said ‘don’t take it out on me and Dad because you were a slut who opened her legs for some pervert.’ No matter what I’m going through with Julia, I wasn’t going to tolerate Danielle speaking to her mother in that manner, so I grounded her. She told me she was going to your house. She’d been acting out a lot since Julia and I separated, and I figured under the circumstances, it was best to let everyone calm down and talk it over in the morning.”

“So Julia was the only one present at dinner besides you and Danielle,” Alex pressed on. “And Julia cooked the meal. Matt, is that the story you’re sticking to?”

“Alex, please understand that Julia was only thirteen,” Matt said.

“She’s fifty now,” Alex said. “No matter what happened then, that’s no reason to kill her own daughter.” Matt hung his head.

“I didn’t want to believe it,” Matt said as tears welled up in her eyes. “I’ve already lost my daughter. I can’t stand to lose Julia, too.”

*******************

Julia Towns was calm, even peaceful, as she revealed the secret she’d hidden for thirty-seven years to Paige and Hermine.

“He told ‘you won’t be able to hide it forever’ and I suppose he was right. Matt tried to tell me Danielle was entitled to the truth, but I didn’t see how it was any of her business.” Julia’s uncharacteristic coldness made the hair on the back of Paige’s neck stand on end.

“So what happened?” Hermine said in a motherly tone.

“I was thirteen when Pastor McRae pulled me in his office and raped me,” Julia said. “My parents didn’t believe me. The Pastor didn’t help when he said I would go to Hell for lying against him, a representative of God.  It was at moment that I decided I was an atheist. If God would make someone like Karl McRae one of his representatives, then I would prefer to believe He doesn’t exist at all. I’ve been going to church all these years so I could keep an eye on him and make sure he wasn’t victimizing anyone else, since my parents lived in complete denial. When I started having attacks of nausea and dizzy spells, they accused me of faking it to get out of going to school. And when my belly started showing, they said nothing. They shipped me off to a home for unwed mothers. One of the ladies—her name was Mrs. Cronin, and I stayed in touch with her until she died ten years ago—told me the best I could do for myself was to stay in school and get my education. She told me the right man to be my husband would come to me in due time, and when he did, I should tell him the truth about what happened and that I’d had a baby out of wedlock.  When I met Matt, I knew Mrs. Cronin was right. Matt was—was—the best thing that ever happened to me. He never held my rape or my illegitimate child against me.”

“What happened that changed things?” Hermine asked.

“It started after Bonnie gave birth to Nicole,” Julia said. “Seeing how completely unfit Bonnie was to be a mother, I was personally relieved when Lisa said she’d found a great couple willing to adopt the baby. I swear, Lisa has the biggest heart of anyone I know. Our tensions started when I asked why Matt was so hesitant to deal with The Pastor. Lisa lived most of her life being tormented by her husband, all because the community buried its collective head I the sand. We could have put an end to her abuse a long time ago.”

“Someone did,” Hermine pointed out, and Julia tensed visibly. “Ever since Trent told him he would kill him if he ever heard of him beating Lisa, The Pastor hadn’t laid a hand on her.”

“Yes, he did,” Julia said. “He just became better at hiding it, and more skilled at intimidating Lisa. Trent made things worse by intervening. And that’s precisely where my problem lies. When I found out that a nice couple were willing to adopt Bonnie’s baby, my faith in God was almost restored. Until I found out that the adoptive couple were Trent and Sarah Jessup, and that instead of taking the baby away from Odelia, they were moving two doors down. As soon as I saw Trent, I knew he was…him. It was like the Universe, or Satan, or whatever evil force you choose to believe in sent The Pastor to torment me all over again.”

“Wait,” Hermine said. “Are you saying Trent Jessup is your child with The Pastor?”

“Yes,” Julia said. “There was no way it was a coincidence. Trent came in to adopt his baby sister, and for the sole purpose of tormenting me.”

“That’s not entirely true,” Hermine said. “Trent’s a great father.”

“Hermine, he treats Nicole like his personal servant,” Julia said. “He completely ignores her unless he wants her to run an errand. She spends a lot of time with Lisa, so I’m not sure if she knows that The Pastor is her father. But this story gets worse. I can’t help it. I hated Bonnie for bringing another spawn of Satan into the world. The fact that she was probably just as much a victim as I was didn’t matter to me. I hated Nicole for being his child. I couldn’t stand that she was Danielle’s best friend and was constantly at the house. And most of all, I hated Trent. I begged my parents to let me have an abortion. They told me they would have no part in my continued descent into the pit of Hell. In their eyes, I was already condemned for what they say were my lies against The Pastor, for getting pregnant, and for turning my back on their God.”

“Honey, you can’t help how you feel, and it’s natural that you would have bad feelings about anything connected to a man who violated you at such a young age,” Hermine said. “The Pastor ruined your life. The important thing is that you never revealed your feelings to Bonnie or Nicole, who as you admit, are innocent in the whole matter.”

“Matt and Danielle are innocent victims, too,” Julia said. “Matt told me about a month ago that his grandmother revealed who his real parents were: The Pastor and her daughter, who had abandoned Matt after he was born and was never seen again. Matt can’t control who his parents are any more than Trent or Nicole could, but still, after that, every time I looked at them, I saw The Pastor’s son and granddaughter. I could not believe it. The Pastor is like one of those seeds. Once they get on you, they stick to you and dig in and suck the life right out of you. I have to leave Odelia. It’s the only way I’ll ever be free, and that means leaving behind the husband I still love but can no longer stand to have touch me.”

“Julia,” Paige said. “It won’t be that simple, I’m afraid. We know how Danielle died. The police will want to talk to you about that.”

“What do you mean?” Julia asked. “Are they saying I killed Danielle?”

*************

“You fucked up, you asshole!” Nicole said viciously.

“Don’t you talk to your father that way!” Trent snarled.

“You’re not my father, idiot. You’re my brother. And you got me in a world of trouble, so I’d say I can talk to you any way I damn well please. You killed my best friend.”

“Your niece,” Trent corrected. “And what did you expect me to do, sit there and watch them eat? Was I supposed to say, ‘Hermine, make sure to tell Julia to eat that specific slice of lasagna?’ It was a one in three gamble that unfortunately I didn’t win. Say, what is Danielle to me? She’s my sister on Julia’s side, but on Matt’s side, she’s my niece. It’s a little creepy.”

“Shut up!” Nicole screamed. “Why in the hell were you so obsessed with Julia? I mean, you were the result of her rape. What did you expect from her, a plate of fucking cookies? Did you think she was going to take you in her arms and shower you with kisses? I mean, damn! Your bizarre desire for revenge against her for being your mother only caused an innocent person to die.”

“It’s what we agreed to,” Trent said coldly. “You would get me the Blood Pitaya and not ask questions, and I would take out The Pastor and free Mrs. Lisa from her tormentor. I did my part, so what are you bitching about?”

“The fact that your plan was just plain stupid. Julia never hurt anyone. And you forgot the main goal was to help Lisa kill her husband.”

“Which I did,” Trent said. “I kept an eye on him. He’d always had a thing for Alex Eastman’s wife. And Alex, too, for that matter. He stared at both of them like a starving man would stare at filet mignon, though I think in Alex’s case, I think he got off knowing that he fucked his sister and Alex couldn’t do anything about it. I saw him looking at Paige like he wanted to jump her. I think he realized my mother was a close call, and when he felt the urge coming on, he took it out on his wife or Bonnie. Anyways, I followed him into the house, and when he whipped it out to try to force himself on Lisa, I pinned him to the bed and rubbed that fruit all over his dick. I’d been planning to cut him too but he had sores all over, so that saved me the trouble. You know what the nasty fucker did?”

“No, and I don’t want to know.”

Trent ignored her. “He started jacking off with the pulp! Christ, the guy had serious problems. He got accosted in his own house, with the stickiest fruit in existence, and by his own son, and that turns him on. But I’d done my part and according to Seth, he’d be dead in less than a day. So I ran outside and threw up.”

“Lovely,” Nicole said flatly. “But as you said, you did your part, so this is where you and I go our separate ways.”

“I don’t think so,” Trent said, giving her a look that frightened her. “Do you think I trust you not to snitch on me? I may not be your father, but I’m still your legal guardian for another two years. And if you want to live to be eighteen, you better do precisely as I say.”

“Screw that,” Nicole said. “If Mrs. Lisa goes to prison, so will I. I don’t give a damn what you do.”

Trent snorted. “All this trouble for Lisa,” he said. “First her brother, and now you.”

Nicole froze. “I didn’t know Mrs. Lisa had a brother.”

“Yes,” Trent said. “Her maiden name was Lisa Houston. The doctor is her brother.”

Nicole gave him a thousand-dagger stare. “You’re just as cold and unfeeling as Fiona Sterling. Everyone in Odelia allowed The Pastor to go unchecked for almost fifty fucking years.” An idea was beginning to form in her head. No one suspected they had a role in any of the Blood Pitaya deaths. Nicole felt she should take advantage of one last chance to eliminate all the people who’d ignored her beloved godmother for so long. “What do you say we work together one last time before going our separate ways?”

Trent seemed intrigued. “What do you have in mind?” Nicole’s stomach turned. It was clear he was still hoping for an opportunity to get rid of his victimized birth mother.

“Oh, I think you’re going to like this,” Nicole said. “Do you still have that crate of Blood Pitaya?”

*******************

“Here’s the deal,” Matt said, addressing the crowd. “Lisa McRae and Seth Houston have already admitted to concocting a jelly of the Blood Pitaya to feed to The Pastor. The rest of these victims of the Blood Pitaya accidentally came in contact with the jelly, mostly by contact with Naomi’s fur or by items handled directly by Bonnie Cochran. The one exception is my daughter, Danielle Towns. After a careful investigation, we have cause to believe my daughter died when she ingested a shard of glass that had been coated with the Blood Pitaya. This shard was intended for my wife, Julia.” Confused murmuring swept through the crowd. “I’m not sure how many people know this, but Trent Jessup had been harassing Julia for a long time.”

“Why?” someone asked.

“I’m declining to say,” Matt said. “All I’m going to say is that we believe the glass, which was placed in a lasagna prepared by Trent that Julia served, not knowing it was fatal, was intended for Julia. We can’t prove it, of course, and we have all contacted the Trawick Police. They are searching for Trent, who has left the area with Nicole.”

“No, I didn’t,” Trent came out if his hiding spot and into the commons. “I’m going to wait for the police. I helped Lisa get rid of the bodies of her husband and Bonnie. If you want to know where they are, they are in the woods that way, about half a mile.” Trent gestured toward a wooded area. “There you will find the body of my mother, Julia Towns, who, in an ironic twist of fate, married the son of the man who abused her.” People looked at each with confused expressions. “You heard right: Matthew Towns is the son of your late beloved Pastor McRae. And my supposed daughter, as you are also aware, is Bonnie’s love child with Karl McRae. We aren’t the only three, either. Your Pastor had seventeen children with as many women, but none by his wife, whom he sterilized by giving her a chlamydia infection early in their marriage. You people really should have not let this go on for so long. What does Odelia have to show for it? Six deaths, six amputations, two people going to prison for life, and one fucked-up family dynamic where a woman’s son is also her brother-in-law, and I had a sister who was also my niece. And I suppose you would like an explanation about what happened to Danielle. Well, unfortunately, she ate a piece of lasagna intended for her mother, as Matt correctly pointed out. And if you want to know where Julia is, along with Nicole, go look in the woods next to The Pastor and Bonnie. Careful, though. The plants are full-grown and are quite prickly.” The crowd hurried off into the direction of the woods, just as Trent expected. Nicole’s a genius, Trent thought. And she’s going to get away with this, just like her dad got away with his crimes for so long.

A loud bang originating from the behind his head deafened him. He felt a warm, sticky substance and the prick of a thousand hot needles on the back of his neck and head. A genius, all right. The bitch set me up. This was Trent’s last thought before falling to the ground. His eardrums were busted and he did not hear the police cars arrive. He also did not hear them as the captain yelled for his men to back away from Trent’s body. The sticky fruit made it difficult to pull his head off the ground. It didn’t seem worth the effort to move. He already knew he would be dead in less than twenty-four hours.

*****************

He tried to resist and was shot by police, Alex thought, trying to justify in his mind the loud bang he’d heard. His instincts told him that was not the case. Torn between going back and locating the body of his sister, he chose the latter. He’d never thought of Trent as his nephew and believed that whatever had happened to him was of his own making, and in any case there was nothing he could do for Trent. Still, Alex couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.

In front of him, Otto was carrying his wife, who could not navigate the woods on her crutches. Paige held the stump of Alex’s right arm. Ryan Sterling, leading Ian by the hand, led the group, while Matt, the most able-bodied person of what was left of Odelia, brought up the rear in case Trent tried to follow them. Alex reached into his left pocket and prepared his pocket knife. It wasn’t much but was better than nothing. He’s lying, Alex’s inner voice told him. Julia had made a brief trip to the hospital to verify the story directly from Lisa. In the last few days, so many lies and accusations were thrown around, and everyone agreed it was time to get the truth out. Hermine admitted that she had given a lasagna prepared by Trent to Julia and had encouraged Julia to try to make peace with her family. No one in Odelia believed that Hermine knowingly gave tainted food to Julia to feed to her family. Julia wanted to know what role Trent played in the plot to kill The Pastor, and she wanted to hear it directly from Lisa. Furthermore, she wanted to know if Lisa knew that Trent was Julia’s son by The Pastor. Julia’s at the hospital with Lisa and Trent’s lying.

Alex’s denial came to an abrupt end when he saw his sister’s body, mutilated by small cuts and the hideous Blood Pitaya smeared on her. Next to her body was her own heart; a gaping hole in her chest showed where someone had cut her heat out before feeding her to the Blood Cactus. The metaphorical murder pointed directly to its perpetrator; Trent Jessup was the only person who believed Julia had no heart.

On Julia’s right was a small grove of full-grown cacti. The bodies were decomposed, but the Italian leather shoes and the worn running shoes nearby left no doubt as to the Blood Cacti’s hosts. The Pastor and Bonnie had been laid side-by-side, as if they had been husband and wife. The community of Odelia formed a semi-circle around the bodies, staring in disbelief.

“Hey, where’s Nicole?” Ryan suddenly asked.

Before anyone could answer, a series of deafening explosions ensued. Alex felt something sharp pierce him in various parts of his body. He also felt the sickly-sweet Blood Pitaya as it clung to his skin and landed in his mouth. Something sharp pierced his tongue. A quick look around showed that everyone who had come out to the final resting sites of Pastor McRae, Bonnie, and Julia. was also coated in the Blood Pitaya. Various sounds of pains, from low whines to high pitched screams, sounded as if they were coming from far away. A bomb, Alex thought. Someone made an improvised bomb filled with the Blood Pitaya and shards of glass. That’s the sound we heard coming from home. Was it Trent? Julia? Nicole? Had Lisa somehow managed to set a booby trap from the hospital?

Alex knew he would never get an answer to that question. He would never know the outcome of the trial of Lisa McRae. Alex immediately discarded the idea that Lisa was somehow responsible for the bomb, said a quick prayer to a God he wasn’t sure existed that she would get mercy. They would all be dead within a matter of hours, if they were lucky. The unfortunate ones like Hermine, whom Oto had dropped to the ground after they were both splattered in the face with the deadly fruit, might have to wait all night for death to claim her. No one thought that going back for help was feasible. Whoever made the bomb had filled it with enough fruit to completely coat everyone in the sticky pulp and enough glass to ensure everyone had at least a dozen cuts.

Alex was surprised to realize that even though he knew they were all doomed, he felt no anger. In a way, he felt Odelia got what they deserved, and that included himself. He scanned the fruit-covered crowd. Matt, who had rushed to his dead wife’s side, got the worst of the explosion and had been knocked unconscious, his face unrecognizable from the blood and fruit. Alex envied him; at least Matt would hopefully not suffer. Alex located Ian, the youngest of the community. Seeing the child lying on his back on the ground sparked his anger, which had been temporarily quelled by his compassion for Lisa. A small spark quickly spread into a raging inferno in his heart. This surge of rage gave him the strength to take out his pocket knife, and, with the last of his strength, carve the words Blood grove on the nearest tree.

*****************

2023

“Lisa McRae,” one of the hikers said, stopping. “That was her name. And her brother was Seth.” The other shrugged as if the matter no longer held any importance to him. His companion continued, “They say she killed her husband and about thirty other people. They never said how, though.”

“Yeah,” the other said. “I heard that some other guy set off those bombs and she took the blame for it.” And they walked out of sight.

Sarah Todd, the alias for the person formerly known as Nicole Jessup, came out of a hiding place she used when she visited Blood Grove, which was often. Nicole Jessup was declared dead in the Blood Pitaya Bombing. Trent had been very careful not to leave behind any evidence linking them to the bombing, and therefore, Lisa was suspected. Seth quickly came forward and declared himself responsible for the bombing, an act that had won Nicole’s everlasting admiration and respect. When Seth was executed last year, Nicole cried for the first time in her life.

She had genuinely grieved for Trent. His death was accident. He had been carrying a small pipe bomb with the fruit-glass concoction in his hood as a backup in the event the horrible people of Odelia had refused to go to the woods. Nicole in her nervousness had pressed the wrong detonator. She hadn’t felt any remorse for the deaths of anyone else in Odelia. Anyone who would harbor a vile man like Pastor McRae and pretend he wasn’t physically and sexually abusing his wife and others just as bad as he was. She placed the blame for Ian’s untimely death squarely on Ryan. Why would any man take his young son to a murder scene? Over the years, Nicole had intentionally tune out the voice that told her that Ryan had to choose between taking his son or leaving him at the mercy of Trent.

As Sarah Todd, Nicole had finished school, earned a two-year degree in animal science, and had several relationships, which she broke off when they became too serious. Her fate was sealed and she had no desire to bring anyone else into it. For the past seven years, she resisted the strong urge to visit Lisa in prison, where she was serving a twenty-year sentence. Nicole was grateful that the jury had shown her mercy, and that the Pastor’s hideous crimes had finally been exposed. Finally, she went. Lisa did not seem surprised to see her.

“Pray for forgiveness,” Lisa, who was dying of cancer, urged her. “And forgive everyone who has hurt you, including yourself.”

“I will never forgive The Pastor for all the pain he caused,” Nicole said.

“The Lord took all the sins of the world on Himself on the cross,” Lisa said. “My husband has paid for his sins, as I and my brother have.”

“But I haven’t,” Nicole said. She bowed her head. Lord, if you hear me, I pray that you punish me for all of Mrs. Lisa’s sins and give her eternal peace. Since I’m going to Hell anyways, I might as well pay the price for both of us. Please, don’t let her suffer another moment on The Pastor’s account.”

Lisa McRae died peacefully a few hours later.

“I will do what’s right,” Nicole said as she took Lisa’s lifeless hand and soaked it with her tears. And she did. After leaving, Nicole went directly to Blood Grove. She grabbed a fresh Blood Pitaya and squeezed it to help her bear the pain as she cut off a piece of the Cactus, using the same knife left behind by Alex Eastman, and chewed it. The taste of blood in her mouth as the spines cut the inside of her mouth gave her a feeling of deep inner peace. You will be washed in the blood of Christ, she remembered Lisa telling her. Nicole was willing to settle for being grown into the blood of the grove. Knowing that Lisa was finally getting her hard-earned eternal peace,  she licked the crushed fruit off her hand, lay down, and waited to become part of Blood Grove.