Honorable mention: Bitter Blue
by Nancy Skiba
Marvella Upton leaned her elbows on the red and white Formica breakfast table and blew on the steaming cup of generic coffee. The cup was a well worn restaurant mug with a chip on the rim. Like many things in her 1950s home, it had been picked up for pennies at a yard sale. Marvella didn’t believe in wasting money on the latest gadgets or doodads. She’d lived in the plain, white, two bedroom house high up on Via La Circula since her divorce in 1954. She got the house, and Harvey Upton got away in one piece. She considered the little mortuary salesman a boring little wimp. Marvella didn’t think much of other people. She could size anyone up in a few minutes, and prided herself on seeing through their civilized facades and kind gestures. In particular, Marvella loathed nicey-nice people. She was secure in her misanthropy. Nobody could get one over on her.
Her small house was an eyesore by the standards of the day. Other houses on the winding tree-lined hill had been enlarged and renovated quite nicely, with sprawling manicured yards and views of the sea through pepper trees and willows. If anything, it was best to avoid looking at Marvella’s house. A stray glance might catch a glimpse of the bitter old battleaxe herself, and possibly lead to some unpleasantness. The families who lived in the nice homes on her street went on with their lives as if that particular address did not exist. Marvella preferred it that way, and so did everyone else. It did not stop her from watching their activities from her windows. They could feel the hawk-like gaze from behind her old curtains. The family she viewed with the most contempt was the next door Billings. Middle-aged Doug and his “new” family, the one that replaced his middle-aged wife and teenage kids, with his newly rebuilt house, new and improved younger wife, two young rug rats and the red Hummer. Marvella snorted at that, and emptied her coffee mug. She set it down on the old tile countertop next to the 1950s Mixmaster.
She turned her attention to the pretty little house on her other side. It was vacant now that Bettina had gone to live with her daughter after breaking her hip in a fall. Marvella was hoping it would soon be on the market so she could scoop it up as income property. It had a good-sized yard around it, and vegetables still grew like mad even though the little widow had been gone for weeks. She had to hand it to her in that respect, Bettina had a green thumb, everything she planted grew. Even though Marvella had brushed off Bettina’s attempts to be neighborly a few years ago when she moved in, as time went by Marvella had developed a definite longing for fresh tomatoes and vegetables….Bettina’s. In a perverse way, stolen tomatoes tasted much better to Marvella than store-bought. It was also a petty means to getting back at Bettina for dolling up her little house, which served to emphasize how drab and fading Marvella’s was. Where Bettina had many thriving plants and vegetables all around her little blue home, Marvella had a rock garden to avoid caring for a lawn, and an assortment of old cacti. Like Marvella, they grew more prickly and less attractive with each passing season. She was amazed that a beanstalk didn’t grow up into the sky too. The hollyhocks and larkspurs were doing just that.
The truth be told, Marvella had been stealing from the vegetable patch for some time, late at night when Bettina’s lights were out and all was quiet on Via La Circula. There was a little door in the wooden fence separating the two properties. Marvella would quietly open the door and sneak around harvesting tomatoes, peppers, and little squash, surreptitiously taking ones that might not be noticed as missing. One time she took too many cherry tomatoes, and the next morning Bettina stood in front of the plant, mystified at the reduced crop. She never said anything to Marvella. But she knew. For a while, Marvella stayed away. But one early morning before dawn, she could not help herself, and pulled a watering hose loose from its holder on the wall by Bettina’s back porch, just enough to make a trip hazard.
Marvella had watched the ambulance pull away with Bettina inside. That was last month. Surely, Bettina was not going to return to that house with its steps front and back. Marvella wondered what the asking price would be.
The day started off well enough. Then she heard a truck pull up out front and stole a peek from her side window. What on earth was this? A black SUV was parked in front of Bettina’s, and a tall thin young woman was carrying things into the house, and animal carriers. The stranger appeared to be in her twenties, with long black hair and black-rimmed eyes. Marvella fretted. Perhaps Bettina had rented out the house to someone, and was not going to sell. She stepped outside her front door, checking her mailbox as an excuse to get a better look. The woman came back outside for more boxes in her car. She saw Marvella and looked at her without blinking. It was an odd gaze and made Marvella uncomfortable for some reason. Then she saw the front window of the blue house, and two big orange cats watching her through the glass with the same odd stare. She could swear those furballs had given her the evil eye. She went back inside without greeting the stranger, who carried the rest of her boxes inside.
Marvella was used to being unwelcome. She had long been known in her neighborhood for reporting expired registration tags on her neighbors’ vehicles, for notifying Animal Control about barking dogs and stray cats, complaining about people parking in front of her house, and about celebrations and barbecues that seemed too loud. Mostly she enjoyed needling people. It wasn’t often anyone needled her back. Anyone who tried was usually sorry. She had let air out of more than one visitor’s tires on holidays when they stayed all day and into the evening. She had rinsed the sidewalk, a rare phenomenon, when the Billings kids kept riding their little bikes past her house that one day. It wasn’t her fault that Ricky Billings skidded and broke his arm.
When Marvella backed her old, black 1950s Volkswagen out of her driveway to go to the market, she noticed that there were an assortment of shimmering crystals hanging in the front window of Bettina’s house, along with a mobile that appeared to be some kind of star shape. Bettina must have hit her head when she fell, renting out to some hippie. Marvella’s VW sputtered its way down the hill. She was most annoyed that she was going to be buying tomatoes, when perfectly delicious ones were just across the fence. She wondered if this hippie was going to keep up the garden.
When she returned home, Marvella blinked and stared. It seemed to her that Bettina’s vining passion flower plant had grown since yesterday and was drooping its creepy purple flowers over the fence even further. The ferns and bougainvilleas appeared thicker and taller as well. How could that be? And as she drove into her driveway, she glimpsed those orange cats once again staring at her, this time from the top of Bettina’s fence, where they were lounging. She hurried into her house with her groceries.
That night she spied the black-haired woman out in the garden. She seemed to be burying something in the yard. She looked up, perhaps feeling Marvella’s watchful eye. Marvella ducked back behind her curtains and tried to see what she was burying but it was too late. Marvella watched the woman as she scattered something along the fence line, and turned around twice, then stared at Marvella’s window, where Marvella was hiding. The woman went back inside. In a while the lights went out. When Marvella went to bed, she peeked out one more time. Those cats were staring at her through a window of Bettina’s house. It was unnerving.
Marvella did not have a good night’s sleep. She woke several times, thinking she heard a scratching sound at her back door, but when she tiptoed there to peer out, nothing was there. She looked all around her yard from the windows but there was no prowler. She returned to bed and fell back asleep. Hours went by.
Out in Bettina’s yard, among the tomatoes and vegetables, there was a long garden hose. It appeared to move slightly on its own. It seemed to be moving ever so slowly toward the fence and Marvella’s house. From Marvella’s side of the fence there was a slight rustling sound, as if leaves were moving, as if shoots were growing, and indeed they were. Under the full moon, the vines and plants were growing, peeking above the fence top, and reaching under the gaps in the fence toward Marvella’s house.
Marvella tossed and turned in her bed. Moonlight dribbled in from the sides of the curtains but she did not wake. The Big Ben clock on her nightstand ticked. It was 3:30 a.m.
Out in Bettina’s garden, one of the cats was pawing at the ground where something had been buried. Its claws uncovered a small black cloth doll shape, with unruly reddish hair, which bore a faint resemblance to Marvella. The doll was bound with red thread. The door of the blue house opened a crack, and the cat stopped pawing at the earth, and kicked soil back on top of the hidden doll shape. Then the cat scurried back into the house and the door closed behind it.
The old dog door on the back of Marvella’s house opened a tad, and the green of vines and roots edged their way inside through the slim opening, pushing it wider. Living plant life poured in through the dog door and slid across the kitchen floor. The garden hose followed. As it inched its way across the kitchen it transformed in the moonlight into a green snake.
The vines and leafy greenery crept up to her bedroom door, and slid silently across the braided rug to her bed, and climbed up the legs of the bed and the headboard. The snake slithered along with it, and slowly headed toward Marvella. She stirred slightly in her sleep, rubbing her nose, feeling a slight tickle as the greenery closed in around her on the pillow and up the sides of the bed. She opened her eyes and froze in terror. No sound came out as the greenery covered her …
The next day, when the man came to read the electric meter, he saw a strange sight through the open curtain of Marvella’s bedroom. She was lying on the bed, her eyes open in a macabre silent scream, her skin pale and she was much too still. He used his cell phone to call 911.
Some time later, the doors of the mortuary van closed and it pulled away down the hill with Marvella. Outside the house, the Billings family stood staring at the house and talking quietly with other neighbors. Someone was heard to snicker and say, “We should throw a block party.” A policeman closed the kitchen door and as he stepped outside, a piece of green vine fell onto the porch. It was very quiet now as people headed home. The black and white cruiser drove away after the officer finished talking with the neighbors. Someone had Marvella’s son’s phone number. He had not visited there in years.
Inside the blue house, the orange cats watched all the activity through the front window. The black-haired woman turned away from the window, and spoke into her cell phone. “Nana, it’s Lilith. You can come home now. I’ll be by to pick you up. The garden is doing beautifully…just like magic.” She smiled. B