Horror and Thriller Fiction posted February 11, 2017

This work has reached the exceptional level
First version of False Leads, a False Key story

The Woods Are Lovely

by kathleenspalding

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.
The author has placed a warning on this post for language.
The author has placed a warning on this post for sexual content.

*Sorry this is long. I tried to knock it back, but it kept coming, just like...never mind (spoiler). I'd love a review; even if you don't finish it, I'd like to know where you stopped reading and why (helps me identify boring spots). Be honest. I don't care about praise or stars, I just want to make this story better. Thanks!* (Updated March 6, 2017)

~ Monday ~

The stewardess handed me a Coke and peanuts with a flirtatious smile. Beneath my airplane window, Illinois' frozen white fields surrendered to tropical greenery. Mondays are usually a day of rest for me. Weekends spent minding Chicagold Public Relations' more disruptive clients can leave a body drained. But who can relax, crammed into a coach seat?

Downing my Coke, I flipped through the Millers' folder again. On the face of it, they were extraordinarily average. But the conglomerate that Margaret Miller and I worked for was far from average, though Margaret didn't seem to know it. Being strictly a payroll accountant, she'd have no reason to suspect she was involved in Edward Rossi's money laundering scheme. Heck, I'd worked for Chicagold for years before I found out, and that was just because a client had a big mouth.

Margaret and her husband, Barry, had left for a weeklong Florida vacation Saturday before last. This morning neither returned to their jobs, and their phones went directly to voice mail. Payroll or not, any missing accountant was a concern to Mr. Rossi. He assigned investigators to check the Millers' house, sent geeks to hack into their computers, and flew one private eye wannabe to Florida.

I spent the flight memorizing Margaret and Barry's middle-aged Caucasian faces and scrutinizing their financials. Average and average. They had no close family and the cops hadn't shown up at either one's place of employment. Apparently no one else had noticed the Millers' return from paradise was two days overdue.

Disembarking, I checked my phone. Dave, my boss, had texted "Ride will pick you up at Miami airport."

"Hello, Roy."

Every fiber in my body stiffened at the sound of that familiar feminine voice.


Julia Campinni. Edward Rossi's wild-child grandniece. In a fitted silk jacket and mini-skirt, she looked thinner than I remembered.

"Julia. What a surprise. I thought you'd be back in college by now."

She shrugged and flipped her thick blond hair off her shoulder. Turning to slip her arm through mine, she started walking. "I quit," she said, staring straight ahead. Long lashes thick with mascara hid ice blue eyes.

No surprise there. Julia never was much for structure, or rules.

"Well, college isn't for everyone," I offered.

"Definitely. How was your flight?"

"Uneventful, thanks. And yours?"

"Rather hurried, I'm afraid. Uncle Ed sent me down on a private jet." Julia lengthened her stride to match mine. Chagrined, I slowed down.

She continued in a low voice. "Two of Uncle Ed's investigators, Matt and Sid, flew down with me. We went to Hertz with some cheesy bacon fries and got the manager's sympathy with a song and dance about a company laptop left in the car the Millers rented.

"Since we had all the Millers' information, they checked their surveillance videos for us. Unfortunately, the car had been cleaned. I rented it, by the way. It was dropped off Saturday morning around 4:00 a.m., with the keys and paperwork left inside. No one actually saw Margaret or Barry, and whoever returned the car parked it in the shadows. The surveillance camera didn't catch their face."

My hopes for the Millers sank. "So you think -"

"We know the Millers never got on the plane back to Chicago. They may not have made it back to Miami, but Matt and Sid will stay here tonight and check out some possibilities."

"And we...?" I stopped to open the glass door, wondering if Rossi thought the Millers' disappearance had been planned.

"We go on to False Key and make a reservation at Mangrove Inn, where Margaret had booked a room for the week. It's a couples-only resort."

"So that's why you're here?"

Julia gave me a lopsided smile. "I think we should say we eloped, don't you? So romantic. Tonight we have reservations at Beachside Motel. We'll visit Mangrove Inn tomorrow morning. Then we'll meet Matt and Sid for lunch at a restaurant called Castro's Beard."

Walking to a black Cadillac in the pick up lane, I put my bag in the trunk and shook my head. "You might look like you're in your twenties, but are you sure you want to do this?"

"I'm eighteen, Roy," she snapped, "and I can take care of myself."

The driver opened the back door for Julia. I ducked into the opposite side and stared as an oversized carpetbag undulated on the seat between us. A small lump moved toward the bag's opening and a Ping-Pong ball sized head sprouting tan and silver fur poked out.

"What the hell is that?"

Julia pouted. "This is Duchess. She's a Teacup Yorkie." Setting the freakishly small dog on her lap, she gushed, "And she's a good girl, aren't you Sweetie." Duchess licked at Julia's face before snarling at me. "I didn't have time to board her. Don't worry, she stays in my bag. No one'll know she's there."

"That leaves a lot to chance." I frowned at the brilliant orange sunset beyond the windshield. Things left to chance tend to fall apart and turn to shit. In this case, teeny-tiny dog shit.


Margaret Miller's credit card had been used twice after they landed in Miami. She'd rented a Toyota Corolla at Hertz, and purchased beach gear at Winkie's Convenience Store halfway down the Keys. The Cadillac dropped us off at Hertz, and Julia and I drove off in the same Corolla the Millers had used, sending my creep meter to maximum.

We stopped for dinner before battling Miami's dense traffic. After we passed Homestead, darkness swallowed everything except the small strip of US 1 rolling under our headlights.

"Why do you think they sent us here, Roy?"

"Well, I figured your uncle's professionals were busy checking everything Miller in Chicago, but he wanted someone in Florida, just in case."

"Do you think he's trying to get rid of us?" Fumbling in the glove compartment, Julia pulled out a travel pack of tissues and blew her nose.

My stomach clenched. Was Rossi uncomfortable, knowing I knew more than I should? It wasn't my fault one of his clients yapped about the money laundering, and I've kept my own mouth shut. "What? Why?" I asked.

She turned her head away and looked out the window. "No one in my family wants much to do with me now."

"Because you quit college?"

"Among other things."

I was surprised she cared. Her parents' bad habits and ugly divorce had given Julia an overabundance of childhood scars. Three years ago she was busy playing her parents against each other.

"People hate it when their plans get upset," I reassured her, "even if it's someone else's life they're planning. They'll get over it."

"You didn't get over it."


"You never asked me out again."

"Jules," the nickname slipped out, unbidden, "you were fifteen. I never would have asked you out if I'd known that."

"That was more than three years ago."

Three years. The summer before my senior year at college. I was working with Chicagold's event staff. When I first met Julia, I'd assumed she was one of the models hired to docent an event.

"You let me think you were in college, not boarding school." That punched in the gut feeling returned. Just like when Dave had taken me aside and warned me I was dating Edward Rossi's fifteen-year-old grandniece.

"Like you said, you wouldn't have asked me out. I thought we'd get together last summer. I was eighteen."

And still Edward Rossi's grandniece. "Work was crazy last summer. Too many clients to baby-sit." Chicagold PR had hired me to chauffeur and bodyguard their wilder clientele after I graduated from college.

Julia touched my arm. "Still got those muscles. Lucky clients."

Change the subject. Quick. "You know, Dave wouldn't send us into danger. He's always looked out for me."

"Really? Bodyguard is a safe job?" She removed her hand.

"Well, more like a minder, you know? Keep the clients from overdosing, make sure they get where they're supposed to be on time, preferably sober. Stall the paparazzi while they puke their guts out behind some bar..."

"You make it sound so glamorous." The hint of a smile flitted across her lips.

We went over a small bump and the tires hummed a higher pitch as I drove onto the first bridge to the Keys.


Blue neon lights announced Winkie's Convenience Store was Always Open.

I went in with an itemized list from Margaret Miller's credit card and duplicated her purchase of sunscreen and beach towels. I also grabbed some water shoes, two super-bright flashlights, and a hefty multi-tool.

Julia came in and paced the aisles. Two four-packs of wine coolers and a ridiculously small bikini joined my pile on the counter. "Go get some water shoes." I pointed to the display then handed my company credit card to the cashier.

Shivers and sweat crawled down my spine as I put our bags in the trunk, just like Barry Miller had probably done. Palm trees rustled in the ocean breeze and the moon spread vague light behind fast moving clouds.

In the car, Julia spread one of the beach towels across her legs and set Duchess in her lap. By the time we reached Seven Mile Bridge, they were both asleep.

Streetlights and darkness, land and ocean, I looked into the rearview mirror. What happened to you, Millers?

The tires moaned over the bridge, and a stagnant stench permeated the car. I glared at Duchess and cracked my window. How could Julia sleep through that? They didn't wake up until I hit a pothole.

"Oh good," I said as Julia stretched. "You can help me look for the hotel."

"I think you turn left as soon as you hit False Key," she yawned. "God, I hope it's a decent room."


It was definitely decent. The sight of two beds sent me into a happy dance. I brought the luggage in while Julia stayed outside with Duchess, and by the time she walked through the door, I was under the sheets of the bed farthest from the bathroom.

She opened a wine cooler and asked, "Will it bother you if I take a shower?"

"Nah. I'm bushed." I rolled over and faced the wall. But I didn't fall asleep until I heard her get into the other bed.

~ Tuesday ~

I needed to kill the morning wood, so I remembered my mother. Specifically, my mother walking away from the stove, brandishing a spatula at my brothers and me, saying, "Girls lie. They think all they have to do is get pregnant and you'll take care of them."

Hearing the "pft" of a bottle being opened and smelling the sour strawberry malt killed the last of it. Morning drunks. Their days start out bad and only get worse.

"Good morning." I said before rolling over.

"Morning," Julia raised her nearly empty bottle in a toast. "I'll take Duchess out so you can get dressed."

"Uh, thanks."

I took the world's fastest shower and dressed in business casual to match Julia's conservative dress. When Julia and Duchess returned we packed our suitcases in silence. Giving the room a final once-over, I laid two twenties from my expense cash on the bedside table for the maid. Why not.

It was a short drive to Mangrove Inn, where we booked a room for the night with incredible ease.

"Mind if we look around?" I asked.

The matronly desk clerk replied, "The room's not ready, but feel free to enjoy the grounds."

An elderly couple swallowed up in fluffy yellow robes waddled across the lobby. Waving at the desk clerk, they walked through the French doors at the back. Pool or ocean, I wondered.

The hotel grounds were skillfully landscaped and devoid of body-sized holes. There weren't any swaths of fresh mulch. We circled to the rear of the building and followed a short path from the lobby's French doors to a white sand beach.

"I can't wait to go swimming," Julia murmured, her eyes fixed on the clear blue Gulf.

Two bright yellow robes lay on the beach, but the elderly couple from the lobby was nowhere to be seen. Instead, a younger man and woman splashed in the surf. Embracing, they kissed before she broke away and danced ahead of him. He laughed and gave chase, caught her well-endowed body, and drew her in for another passionate kiss.

"Okay, time to go," Julia snickered. "For Pete's sake, people, go to your room."

We did an about face. Perhaps the older couple had abandoned the beach for the same reason.


I took my time driving to lunch. We passed through swamps and vegetation so thick it was easy to imagine the Millers had disappeared simply by stepping off the road.

Glancing at Julia, I said, "I expect alligators and foot-long mosquitoes to attack at any moment."

She smiled but kept her eyes focused on our surroundings. The wilderness gave way to houses and shops. She pointed. "There's the road to the restaurant."

I turned right and parked the car. In front of Castro's Beard, I leaned against a wrought iron fence that separated the restaurant's walkway from a patio filled with potted plants. Smells of cooked meat and spice made my stomach rumble as we surveyed a constant stream of tourists.

"How could the Millers get noticed in a place like this, let alone remembered?" I wondered out loud. "Where do you start?"

"Where they were going. Mangrove Inn." Julia said.

A soft voice intoned, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep." Eyes wide, Julia and I looked at each other then craned our necks, searching for the person who had spoken. Duchess growled softly from her bag.

"'But I have promises to keep.'" I shrugged and grinned, feeling foolish. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. Robert Frost."

"'And miles to go before I sleep.'" Julia returned my grin.

Matt and Sid walked up and Julia introduced us. Acting relaxed, we gave them a description of Mangrove Inn's grounds and lobby. To the passing tourist, we could have been yuppies discussing fishing or golf.

"The woods are lovely, dark and deep." We all stopped talking and looked around for the source of the voice. Julia shivered and Duchess growled louder this time.

"Sounded like it came from behind this fence," I said, bending down for a closer look at the patio. A large green head followed by a prone, scaled body scampered through the plants behind the fence. "Holy shit!" I jumped back. The five-foot long iguana gazed at me and did a series of pushups before extending a foot long flap of orange skin from its throat.

"Welcome." I turned to see an older man holding a handful of menus. He continued in a thick Cuban accent. "I am your host, Hector. I see you have already met Fidel. Table for four? Follow me, please."

Walking behind him, we exchanged looks.

The food was as good as the place was strange. After the meal, Matt told us to wait for an hour while they questioned Mangrove Inn's staff. Then check in and watch for unusual activity. As we left I laid two twenties on the table. Hector thanks you, Mr. Rossi.

Julia eyed the open air craft stalls across the road and said, "I'm going shopping."


An hour later we returned to Mangrove Inn, where Julia laid a dizzy blonde act on the desk clerk while I looked around the empty lobby. Matt and Sid's visit hadn't provoked any scurrying about, hiding bodies and clues.

Picking up a brochure, Julia read, "'Mangrove Propagation Project.' Oh my gosh! Botany was my favorite class in college! I can't remember their names, but I just loved all those beautiful trees." She clutched the brochure to her chest.

The clerk rewarded her with an indulgent smile. "Mangroves are essential to coral reef health..."

I wandered off and checked the empty hallways on either side of the lobby's rear door. Circling back to the desk, I heard the clerk say, "When the tide is out, you can see how the red mangroves on the other side of the beach stand on their prop roots. But please don't go into the grove or disturb the small trees."

"Oh, we won't." Julia turned to me with a wide smile. "Let's go see."

"Sure." I smirked. Inside the elevator I asked, "You ever think of taking acting lessons?"

She pulled some bobby pins out of her hair and shook it loose. "Life is my acting lesson."

Our second floor room was clean and unremarkable. Only one bed, but I'd be fine in the reclining chair tonight. Julia pulled the drapes open and gasped. "Have you ever seen anything more beautiful?"

Puffy white clouds perched above turquoise water. Perfect landscaping framed pristine, white sand. It could be a postcard. Dear Mr. and Mrs. Miller, wish you were here.

"As beautiful, but not more," I admitted. "You change while I check around."

Mangrove Inn's halls were empty until a giggling young couple in yellow robes rushed past. She wrapped her arms around him as he unlocked the door to their room.

When I got back, Jules was wearing an open-weave beach cover over her bikini. I ducked into the bathroom and changed to swimming trunks and a tee shirt while she finished off another wine cooler. Then we donned our water shoes and headed outside with Duchess stuffed between two beach towels in Julia's bag.

"Let's get a good look at the mangroves while we have plenty of light," I suggested.

"Fine. But we're coming back before sunset. I'm dying for a swim."

We walked along the beach then circled behind the tall trees until we reached the edge of an inlet. Slender mangroves stood in the water several yards past the shoreline. Climbing onto a limestone outcropping, we examined the brackish water nine feet below. Seagulls screeched above. Spindly branches rubbed each other in the steady breeze, making strange sounds that mimicked crying.

Duchess whined and Julia set her on the ground. But instead of running around and sniffing, she hunkered down between Julia's feet.

"Okay," Julia said. "So far everything around here looks like a great place to dump a couple bodies. Smells like it, too. Let's go."

She hurried back to the beach and dropped her cover on the sand. I admired the view as she ran to the water. Looking over her shoulder, she called back, "You owe me an hour of sunbathing, too." I laid a towel on the sand and sat down with Duchess.

Julia backstroked a few yards then stood up. "Aren't you coming in? The water's great!"

I shook my head and called out, "Nah. I saw Jaws."

She held her arms out and dropped backwards into the water. Duchess and I watched the sun descend over her, turning clouds to peach then fiery gold. Julia climbed onto the beach and stood over me. "Roy, I'm not leaving until you have a swim."

I tore my eyes away from her overstuffed bikini. "Okay. Just for a bit." She was right; the warm water pulled the tension out of every muscle.

She wobbled and grabbed my arm. Much as I should have, when she regained her balance I didn't break away. She pressed against me and her lips brushed my shoulder. Smiling up at me she said, "Truth or dare."

"Truth." I don't dare anything around you.

"Why didn't you ask me out this summer?"

"My mom said you were a bad influence."

"Wha-? Are you kidding me!"

"Yes." I laughed.

"You..." She gave me a push.

"Oh. Was that a mosquito?"

"Turd." She laughed.

"Mister Turd. Truth or dare."

She quieted down and faced me. "Truth."

"Are you an alcoholic?" I asked.

"You give me a bullshit answer and then ask a question like that?"

"Want the dare?" I decided it would be to pour the rest of the wine coolers down the sink.

Looking in my eyes, she said, "No. And no, I don't drink every day, only every time I get a chance." She took my hand. I didn't pull away.

"Truth or dare. Do you want to ask me out?"


She stepped closer and put my hand on her waist. "Why don't you then?"

I ran my other hand up her back, felt the thin string that would release the land of no return, and struggled to speak. "You're Edward Rossi's grandniece."

She leaned her head against my chest and circled me in her slender arms. Kissing my breastbone, she murmured, "He's not here, you know." Her hands pushed down on my trunks.

I pulled her tight against me, hoping my trunks would be pinned between us, a barrier, however thin. A mistake. I lowered my mouth to hers.


My second shower of the day was cold. Lathering up, I recited the reasons why I should not sleep with Julia tonight. Babies. STDs. Edward Rossi. When I left the bathroom Julia was dressed and bent over, blow-drying her hair upside down. She turned off the dryer and stood up, flipping her hair back. Running a comb through it, she asked, "Want to go get something to eat?"

"Sure. Where do you think the Millers went?"

"A seafood restaurant. And I bet they walked."

Duchess refused to get into a bag made of reclaimed plastic that Julia had bought this morning. "Darn. They look so cute together," she said, turning to face me so I could see the pattern created by holding the bag next to her wide, intricate plastic belt.

"She doesn't want to wear trash," I teased.

Julia shot me look and lowered the carpetbag. Duchess jumped in, wagging her tail.

"Sure you don't want to take the car?" I asked.

"Nah, I want to enjoy this weather. I'm okay with walking if you are."

I gave her one flashlight and put the other in my cargo shorts, added the car keys just in case, and the multi-tool. Maybe she could use it to crack some lobster claws. We didn't discuss this afternoon, but when we walked we stayed close together, with my arm around her shoulders, or holding hands.

The Seafood Shanty looked interesting, and Julia texted its name and sent a photo to Matt while we waited for our meals. She laid waste to a seafood sampler while I devoured a hamburger.

Returning to Mangrove Inn, arm in arm under the moon's soft light, we walked past shops and houses before melting into the darkness beneath the trees. Earthy smells filled the oxygen-rich air.

"I wish we could stay here forever." Julia sighed.

"Well, that won't happen, so what are we going to do?"

"We are going to go home to our jobs and our families, and we will date, like normal people."

"Might not be too bad." I had a good track record with Chicagold's wilder clients. Maybe Rossi sent Julia here because he thought I would keep her safe.

Turned out I hadn't needed to think up excuses. As soon as we walked into our room, we sat down on the bed. Taking off our shoes, we lay back on the soft comforter and fell asleep.


What woke me up? The click of a doorknob? I opened my eyes. Light streamed out from under the bathroom door and the exhaust fan whirred softly. I waited a minute. Then I got up and knocked. "Julia?"

No answer. I pushed the door open; the bathroom was empty. Switching on a lamp, I saw Duchess's bag on the floor at the foot of the bed. The little dog cowered inside.

"Duchess? What's up, girl?"

She whined in reply.

"Where's Julia?"

Duchess shivered.

I made use of the bathroom and looked around. The ice bucket was here. The remaining wine coolers were here. I put on my water shoes and decided to check the lobby, maybe the beach. Duchess shot out the door as soon as I opened it.

"Duchess!" I hissed. She scampered to the stairway at the end of the hall and descended a few steps before I caught up with her and slipped her into my shorts pocket.

The lobby was empty and the French doors were unlocked. Outside, I put Duchess down then ran after her in the moonlight. We soon reached a butt-sized rut that paralleled the water and led to the mangroves. Feet pounding wet sand, with every heartbeat this morning's disembodied voice whispered in my memory. "The woods are lovely, dark and deep."

I lost track of Duchess amid the freaky, towering mangrove roots. Low tide's detritus mired my feet like taffy. I grabbed hold of the roots and pulled myself toward dry land. From the depths of the trees, Duchess's shrill barks urged me on.

Running on packed sand, I recognized the area near the inlet. The limestone outcropping loomed ahead. I cast my flashlight's beam along the rocky base and saw a hole that would have been under water this morning. Duchess's barking echoed inside.

I splashed toward the hole, slowed by tidal pools and sharp protrusions. Kneeling at the opening, I shined my light inside and saw...

"Julia!" I shouted. She couldn't have been more than fifteen feet away, lying on the rough floor, facing away from me. Duchess stood at her head, whining and yapping. I crawled through the opening, and found I could stand.

"Julia? Jules?" I rushed to her and patted her face. Her groan was the most beautiful sound I'd ever heard.

"YIIIKE!" Duchess's death cry pierced the air.

Sweeping the flashlight, I found the poor little dog struggling against a massive claw clamped on her rear leg. A dark, low creature dragged her toward a pit in the floor.

"No!" I lunged. Too late! I thrust my arm into the pit and waved it frantically, but only warm, empty water met my hand. "Dammit!" Pain shot through my fingers and I jerked my arm out of the hole. A seething swarm of crabs surged out after it! They dangled from my hand and crawled up my legs.

I stumbled backwards to Julia, flashlight swinging wildly. Everywhere the beam touched not just crabs but lobsters and isopods scuttled toward us. Mussels and clams snapped like castanets on the cave's walls. Deafened by the clicking and scratching, I checked for the cave's opening then dropped my flashlight onto a roiling mound of crustaceans. I grabbed Julia by her belt with my good hand, lifted her onto my shoulder and stomped to the cave's mouth. Pinchers tortured me as I pushed Julia through.

The narrow opening scraped several of the chitinous bastards off me. Creatures boiled out after us like thick, dark lava. With Julia over my shoulder, I ran like a son of a bitch. I ran until shells no longer cracked under my feet and Julia shrieked, "Put me down!"

Surrounded by mangroves, I fell to my knees and pounded my hand against the ground until the crabs let go of my fingers.

Julia's screams echoed through the trees, amplifying, coming at me from all directions. Gleaming in the moonlight, long thin creatures held fast to Julia's fingers, anchoring her to the sand. Pulling at her hand, she shrieked in agony.

Crabs that had latched onto my shoes and shorts now climbed up my legs and back. I tore off my shirt and beat the crabs from my legs in seconds. Digging the multi-tool out of my shorts pocket, I turned to Julia.

Whatever the skinny sons of bitches were, they were tough and stiff as hell. Grabbing Julia's trapped hand I pushed down and out, and was rewarded by three sharp snaps. Julia's screams raised in pitch and volume. Feeling for the break, I used the multi-tool to finish the creatures off by cutting them in half. Goo dripped from their severed bodies.

I knelt to drape Julia over my shoulder, but I couldn't budge her. With Julia folded over my back, I dug out the sand beneath her and attacked the skinny bastards latched to her feet. When she was finally free I staggered forward.

Envisioning another onslaught, I forced my legs to move. Faster, across the beach, to the parking lot. Realizing the keys were still in my pocket, I went straight to the car and loaded Julia into the passenger's seat. Then I crawled into the driver's side and floored it all the way to the emergency hospital in Key West.

~ Wednesday ~

I received a stern scolding after the ER Doctor decided I was okay. If I'd called 911, we would've gotten medical attention sooner and the cops might have gotten a look at that trench in the sand before the tide washed it away.

As soon as I hung up the phone, Edward Rossi sent a jet to Key West to bring us back to a Chicago hospital. Top neurosurgeons worked on Julia's hand and feet for hours. Whatever the thin creatures were, they had clamped onto three of her fingers and five of her toes so hard that they broke through bones and sinew, which fell off when I carried her. And somewhere in that frantic run I must have dragged her against the mangroves, because splinters extended inches into her hand and feet and wood packed the stumps of her severed fingers and toes so tightly that it adhered to the tissue. Horrible as it was, the packed wood had stopped Julia's bleeding, and probably saved her life.

Sitting beside Julia's hospital bed as she came out of anesthesia, I held her good hand.

"I still can't remember how I got to the cave," she whispered. Tears streamed down her face. "I remember dreaming about Gulliver and the Lilliputians. They were chanting, 'Guilty Gullie Glutton' over and over. And I woke up when I heard..." She choked up and shook her head. "Poor Duchess."

"I'm so sorry."

Julia sniffled. "You stuck your arm inside that hole to save her. No one's ever done anything that brave for me."

I decided it wasn't a good time to remind Julia that her mom had given birth to her, putting my instinctive reaction to shame. "Duchess was brave, too. She found you, and she fought that thing right to the end." It felt better somehow, thinking of Duchess as a warrior.

My phone chimed. After reading Dave's message I said, "The police aren't allowing Matt and Sid near the cave. It's been quarantined."

"Good," Julia nodded and went back to sleep.

~ Afterwards ~

To my relief, when Mr. Rossi visited Julia in the hospital he shook my hand instead of breaking my balls for letting her get hurt.

Police and Fish and Wildlife agents searched the cave and found scraps of clothing, cell phones, jewelry, you name it. But no bones. There was talk of fencing off the opening, or even blowing up the cave, but the False Key Council and the Environmental Protection Agency decided the matter needed further study. Now there are cameras mounted at the cave's mouth, and Keep Out signs warning of dangerous animals and drowning hazards.

Nothing has been seen or heard of the Millers since the Saturday they landed in Miami and bought beach towels at Winkie's Convenience Store in Marathon Key. Mangrove Inn said they never showed up to occupy the room Margaret had booked, and the Inn doesn't have security cameras to prove otherwise. But I can't help wondering if the Millers ended up in that cave.

I still come to work to rest on Mondays. Weekends free of clients are spent with Julia, who drains my energy in the most pleasant ways.

Winter is surrendering to Spring in Chicago. Pink blossoms and pale green leaves are budding on bare branches, and it feels like paradise.

The End

Author's note: What really happened to the Millers? That story has already been told by Mary Freeman, author of the short story "Propagation" in Somewhere South of Sane, More Stories from False Key.

Hector and Fidel the poetry quoting lizard are characters created by Serena Schreiber ("Castro's Beard", Somewhere South of Normal, Stories from False Key)
and are used with permission.

Based on the short story "Propagation" by Mary Freeman, published in Somewhere South of Sane, More Stories from False Key.

Horror Story Writing Contest contest entry

This story is based on the short story "Propagation" by Mary Freeman in the Somewhere South of Sane anthology, where the Millers are the main characters. Hector and Fidel the poetry quoting lizard are characters created by Serena Schreiber (Castro's Beard, in Somewhere South of Normal). (Used with permission)
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by bd shutterspeed at FanArtReview.com

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