's 2017 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Austin Brooks

I struggled into the passenger seat of Ivy's car with enough leftover chicken to feed a small army. She placed even more in the backseat. "You know you don't have to do this..." "Oh please you're fine" she reassured me once more. I glanced around uncomfortably as she got in the driver's seat.

We had just finished our closing shift and she had insisted in giving me a ride home instead of letting me walk to Walmart to wait for my dad to pick me up on his way home. She'd been working at the resturaunt for a couple months longer than me, and when she heard I had a big family she insisted I take home all the leftovers.

She pulled off her hat as we pulled out of the parking lot, releasing a wave of hair that surrounded her head like an ebony halo. "Ok, so, where are we going?" "I, uh, live a ways out of ten minutes...Sorry..."

It was almost 10 o'clock and I felt bad making her drag me all the way home. "Hell I've got nothing better to do tonight!" she laughed with a snort. "Maybe I can meet the fam." I blanched thinking about the possibility. "How many siblings do you even have?" I calculated for a moment before I responded. Whenever people asked about my family, the truth, or as close to it as I could get it, was usually the best policy. "I have, uh,, nine! Full siblings. I always forget the twins count as two." That got a chuckle. Best to keep them laughing. That way they can't tell if you're serious or not. "Wow." "yeah and a bunch of half siblings." That got a look. "There's a bit of an age gap between my parents. My dad's like fifty..." Ivy nodded in understanding. We were passing through the center of our tiny Louisiana town. The streetlights colored Main Street a sickly piss yellow. I looked out the car window at the night sky. Nighttime in town disturbed me, the way the sky looks like an empty black void without any starlight.

"It's a left up ahead."

"I'm still pretty new here," Ivy said "I've never been to this side of town." We started up out of town towards my place. "My family's lived here forever. Well, my mom's family. My dad's from Cleveland." I shifted around nervously. "So, would they be pissed about you coming home with a black girl?" she teased. "...I don't know..." I sighed quietly. Awkward silence. "To be honest I'm not sure they've ever even seen a black person..." Ivy snorted at that, suppressing laughter. "Hopefully everybody's asleep." They wouldn't be, not everyone. Everyone kinda ran on their own schedule. A better bet would be hoping everybody was busy somewhere else. By now we were pretty far out of town, heading into the woods.

"Take a right."

I changed the subject. We liked a lot of the same stuff. I could never talk to my family about stuff like Final Fantasy or Pokemon. I told her how much I liked Pokemon Moon, but from what I'd heard she'd be better off just getting Ultra Sun or Ultra Moon. We were deep in the woods now, passing only the occasional log cabin, hunting lodge or mobile home. "Geez Im not sure I'll be able to make it home..." "You can actually keep going down that way and loop around and make it back to town a little faster, but it's probably not a good idea to try it in the dark. You better just retrace your way back the way you came." We were well out of cell service, and anyway the police wouldn't even come out here. Not after the last time.

"Slow down, the turn jumps out at you up ahead."

We crept onto the dirt road nearly hidden by the hanging foliage of the willows. The woods gave way to swampland. By now there weren't any signs of civilization other than the occasional abandoned washing machine or refrigerator. The headlights of Ivy's tiny sedan cut into the gloom but really didn't do much but exaggerate the skeletal shadows of the trees. "You know this is basically our driveway. I can walk the rest of the way." "You gonna carry all this chicken too? No way, I'mma drop you off at the front door. I really do wanna meet your family, I bet they're as fun as you." We pulled up to my family's place.

I groaned internally. It finally fully hit me how this place must look to somebody else. A small pack of dogs of various degrees of mixed breed sniffed at the tires. A weathered and moss covered dock jutted out into the water of the swamp proper. Lights were stung about the surrounding trees by elaborate strands of extension cords that were a nightmare to set up and would likely be a nightmare if we ever needed to take them down. The rusty upended truck sticking nearly vertically out of the muck really topped it all off.

We didn't have a central "house" so much as a cluster of outbuildings basically sprouting out of the surrounding bog. What might have once been the main house was mostly submerged, sunk into and reclaimed by the swamp. Not that this made it unusable. The lights in a couple of the shacks and the hum of one of gas-powered generators in the background told me at least somebody was up and on dry land.

Ivy's face scrunched involuntarily, "You really.. live here?" "Its, well, its not as bad as it looks from outside. Everything's waterproofed. We really don't need a whole lot-" I was rudely interrupted by Ivy's small but piercing shriek of terror. A little girl had stepped out into the beam of Ivy's headlights, long locks of wet black hair obscuring her face. I sighed in relief. "It's okay that's just Molly. She's 8." If Ivy

to meet one of my siblings, my youngest sister Molly was probably the best bet. I struggled out of the car with the chicken.

"Hey mudbug. Why are you out here this late? Who's watching you." She cleared her hair out of her eyes and drew closer to the car, looking significantly less ominous in her Powerpuff Girl's pajamas. "Gug says I could play out here since it's a warm night. Her, and the Twins, an'Becky are getting'ready to go to the bonfire at Ricky's. Cotton's watchin'. I think she mighta fell asleep though." I glanced up at the trees. "Yeah, that does sound like her." By now Ivy had worked up the courage to face a creepy little swamp girl. "Hi sweetheart! Im Ivy, I work with your brother." She cooed, extending her hand. Molly glanced at me before extending her right hand in response. Her right hand only had one finger and a thumb on it. To Ivy's credit she didn't even flinch.

"Ok so see you tomorrow-" "Hold on, I gotta help you with all this chicken!" Shit, I forgot there was more chicken in her car. As she turned away I heard a sharp *Slap!* *Slap!* behind me. Goddamn it Molly. "Molly Why." She was slapping the surface of the water with a waterlogged 2x4. "You brought Food!" she chirped happily.

"What's she doing?" Ivy asked as she came around the car. "Ringing the dinner bell." I groaned.

A trail of bubbles appeared on the surface of the water coming closer to the dock. "Wha. Wh. What's that?" "Probably Bentley." Sure enough my brother's wide, nearly neckless head breached the scummy surface, followed by his broad shoulders. His wader overalls were more fashion than function, considering he had been completely submerged in the swamp. He's completely hairless, with wide set blank eyes. The center of his face

is a lipless circle of gums surrounding two long rows of slightly crooked but mostly human teeth and a pair of slit-nostrils. He lifted his arm above the water, gripping the tail of what looked to be an adolescent alligator. "Dinn'r." he rumbled. But as he reached the waters edge and hoisted his bulk up onto the pier it was clear he had only successfully fetched the back half of the gator, ending abruptly at the midsection as if something had taken a tremendous bite of its front end. It was equally likely it had been Bentley as anything else that lived around here. Bentley looked at his quarry as if suddenly noticing for the first time it was already half eaten. "...Uh oh..."... "Smell chik'n.".

"Yeah Ben I brought supper home from the resturaunt. This is Ivy." He looked up and squinted. His eyes worked better underwater. "...Pretty. Good." He nudged me with an elbow the size of a hickory ham and made a deep gurgling noise from the back of his throat. I rolled my eyes. And looked apologetically to Ivy. Her wide eyes darted from Bently to me and back. " He's laughing. He thinks he's funny. Look my family is gonna be weird about me bringing a girl home so why don't you-"

"You brought a girl??" came a groggy voice from the dense canopy of willow branches directly above Ivy's head. My oldest full sister Cotton's head slowly descended from the leaves, her conventionally pretty face with sleepy pond water eyes framed by cattail-colored drapes of hair, her neck stretching back up into the tree, leading to her narrow shoulders ending in stubby, almost vestigial arms followed by an even longer midsection with pale green skin like the belly of a frog, then similarly if not even more underdeveloped legs and finally a long flattened tail all draped over the surrounding branches. Cotton fancied herself something of a swamp mermaid but most of our family thought she was closer to an overgrown newt. "Youuu brought a giiirrrrlll?!" she repeated. "Go back to sleep Cotton. Great job watching Molly by the way." "Thanks! What do you see in him? He's so weird!" she asked Ivy as she began leisurely disentangled herself from the foliage. "I uh. I um we. We work together you're really... Long." Cotton kept her face level with Ivy's even as her body dropped in coils around her. "Tha-anks! I grew three feet last year! I love your hair, by the way. I'm thinking of moving out soon. Know anybody looking for a roommate?" "I I ah what-" "Cotton I brought food home." "Oh cool!"

Cotton's front end started moving towards the picnic table where Molly and Bentley had already begun sampling the leftovers just in time for the rest of her tail to finish slithering out of the tree with a soft wet slap on the damp ground. The rest of the girls, led by my second oldest sister Gug, were heading out of their wardrobe shed, all dressed for a night out, met by Molly and Cotton's cries of "Artie brought food!" and "Artie brought a girl!" "Will you be okay here for a minute? I need to talk to them." Ivy nodded numbly, sitting down stiffly between Bentley, who seemed very pleased to have the back half of a gator all to himself, and Cotton's rear end, her midsection draped over the picnic table and her torso seated on the opposite side. She seemed to be attempting to trade Bentley a chicken sandwich in exchange for a gator leg.

Gug is probably the closest of my siblings to "normal" in terms of... knowing what the world's about, I guess. She even went to public school like I did, because when she was 5 she still looked pretty ordinary. But by the time she was in 3rd grade her face had started to...shift. My parents took her out by the time she hit middle school and all the guys picked up the term "butterface". Now, at 21, her mouth was completely vertical, and her eyes sat one on top of the other on the other side of her face. "Gug, is this a party the girls should be going to?" "Relax, it's just a bonfire at the Finnigan's." The Finnigans were family friends. Most of the town knew we were weird, but only a couple clans really knew just how weird. Ricky Finnigan was also Gug's long term boyfriend, and she seemed to make a point of dressing... provocatively... when they partied together. "Are the Frost boys going to be there? Those boys can be... unruly." "Just Sarah Joe." "Sarah Joe is unruly. And you're taking the twins?""The Twins are staying here, they were just helping us get ready."

My parent's named the twins Imogene and Mellissa because they hated rhyming twin names and they wanted them to feel like individuals, but that seemed to have backfired because it was honestly just easier to call them The Twins instead of their full names, due to the fact they were literally conjoined at the hip. Two torsos sharing one pair of legs, with the torsos joined by a rod of flesh and bone where their arms facing each other would be, kinda like an upside down "A", made finding clothing difficult. When they were young we kinda had to redneck their outfits together, but by the time they were 8 they were sewing together their own outfits, and now at 14 they were making clothes for pretty much the whole family, from two-fingered gloves for molly to extra long hoodies for Cotton. "You two don't want to go?" "We were gonna binge the next season of Project Runway." Mellissa replied, adjusting her glasses.

"Girls, I don't know if those shorts are an appropriate length for Becky Sue. She's 16." "But she wants to show off her legs! There the only thing she likes about herself!" Imogene cried in exasperation. She was Passionate about her siblings body image issues. Becky was slowly making her way to the rest of us on a pair of admittedly shapely legs, but her daisy dukes were about two inches too short for an older brother's liking. I wasn't even going to comment on the pink camo bikini top, if only because it was pulled over her torso which looked much more like the front half of an adorable crayfish than an unruly teenager.

I crossed my arm and did my best to look stern as the girls and I sat at an impass. "Fine... But she looses the heels. She can barely walk in them." Gug made a decent attempt as acting scandalized. "What do you expect her to do, go barefoot?" "Gug, I don't think any of us ever even wore shoes before the age of five." Becky had already kicked them off and gave me a few grateful clicks. "Now you know not to let any of those boys get handsy, right?" Becky snapped her claws in an aggressive "z" formation. "Good. Go have fun. Be good." Gug let out an exited rebel yell as the two headed to the fanboat. "Becky, you get to drive home!"

"Sweet Jesus H. Christ on a bike. How are you doing Ivy?" I looked back to the picnic table where Ivy was nervously nodding along to Cotton's plans to find a nice mangrove swamp to settle down in because "Two of my older sisters already moved to the everglades and it'd just be crowded with three of us there, y'know?" I grabbed Ivy's hand and started leading her back to her car. "Ok guys I think Ivy's probably ready to go home now so-" I was interrupted by a deep, familiar rumbling. Shit. Mom's awake. A mass of thick soggy reeds breached the murky swamp water. It rose slowly, larger and larger. Soon it was clear it was at least as large as the smallest of our outbuildings, and it was impossible to tell what was matted river plants and what was tangled black hair. Algae and swamp water drained back down in rivers from her scalp, sounding like a miniature rainstorm had visited the bog. She slowly opened her eyes, massive globes of molten gold flowing around pitch black rectangular pupils. Her mouth was still below the surface, but I could feel her deep rumbling voice in my chest.

"Hi Ma. This is my friend Ivy." I looked back at her, her hand still clasped in mine. Her mouth was hanging open, and she was trembling all over. "Its Ok" I whispered. The ground beneath our feet quaked and shifted. Fingers the size of small tree trunks pushed their way out of the soil to our right. Thick black mud fell to the ground with wet plops as mother lifted her arm out of the earth. In addition to being huge, her hand was clearly not quite human, with seven fingers that were all the wrong sort of proportions. A fingernail like the end of a gnarled tree limb brushed the top of my head lightly. I reached up and grabbed the first joint of her finger to return her greeting. I could hear the wet scrape as her eyes shifted to Ivy. She was standing motionless, except for the tremors of fear that shook her entire body. Her twisted claw came to rest under her chin, and with the slightest of twitches closed her mouth. I felt her soft rumble of approval. She liked it when we introduced her to new people, especially ones that don't scream. She extended her arm slowly up out of the wet ground, raining down all manner of loose soil, plants, and insects, and reached over our heads back to the table, and grabbed up what was left of Bentley's gator between her thumb and forefinger, lifting it up and over us and back down into the wet muck. Which a parting gurgle Ma sank back under the water.

"Well. That wasn't awful. Ok you ready- Oh you fainted." Ivy seemed to have crumpled to the ground. "She sleep!" Bently called helpfully.

5 minutes later Ivy woke up in the driver seat of her car with me in the passenger. "That bad huh?" She looked around for a moment, disoriented. Then she caught sight of Molly, Bentley, Cotton, and the Twins still eating at the picnic table. "No, no, I'm just...Is this like, a secret? Like why me?" I sighed. "well it's not really a secret. We don't really broadcast it to everybody but we don't try to hide. Between me and my dad nobody else has too much reason to go to town too often. Mellissa and Imogene talk about getting on one of those medical oddity shows, but they don't want to until after they move out." "So... how did your mom and dad..." "Nope. I don't know, I don't want to know, I don't even want to think about that at all. I know she's kinda in a hurry for the girls to find guys to settle down with. I think my older half-siblings are almost as big as her by now." I stopped for a minute. I looked up through the sun roof. Out here you could see millions and millions of stars. "So anyway. Sorry we traumatized you. I get it if you don't really want to, like, hang out again." Ivy was watching the others out the window.

"Y'know. I was thinking I might come over for dinner some time. If that's okay."