's 2018 Horror Write-off:

Welcome Home.

Submitted by Spencer G. (email)

You ever heard of a windbreak? No, not the tacky neon vomit affair your mom gave you when you were 13. Close, though. To uh, oversimplify, a windbreak is a bunch of trees planted around something to break...y'know, the wind. Keeps the heating and cooling costs down, protects your sweet, sweet soil from being blown away, stuff like that. Windbreaks are pretty common in the midwest due to the nature of being a huge flyover area made of nothing but plains and liquor stores, so of course we had one where I lived when I was young.
It was a pretty tightly cropped shelterbelt, snuggled up so close to the house that the branches would scratch at the windows. Being the stupid kid I was, I used to try and scare my older sister by telling her it was a murderer breaking into her room. She always took me seriously, and I appreciate her a lot for that. Made me feel like a big man.
See, when I was a kid, I didn't know that a windbreak was usually just about three rows deep. I didn't even know that until today. Had you a mighty stream, you might be able to piss to the other side. Probably not. Point is, my dad always told me I had a great imagination when I told him about the private woods we lived in and how much I loved it. It mystified and irritated me, but hey, a lot of parents brush off what their children say. I knew that much, so I'd shrug and wander off outside, into the treeline.
I don't remember much about those times and what I do remember are like flashbulbs of memory, hot and bright but capturing only the smallest bit of the truth. The scent of roses (though none grew near our home), the skeleton of a buck tangled in the treetops (though it seemed to have one too many eyesockets, the third set square in the center of the skull) and a strange sense of coming home. Nothing bad seemed to happen in the fake windbreak forest, so it didn't bother me. Woods are scary. Being alone is scary. Kids think a lot of things are scary. What would be so special about some roses, a dead deer and feeling like maybe someone's looking at you? I've had scarier things happen at summer camp.
That line of thought held true. For a while.
Thing is, I came home for the holidays this year. Things weren't so hot between my mother and I after dad died and I don't really remember a lot of it, so I moved out and lived with my way-too-kind sister when I was sixteen. However, mother dearest reached out this year and expressed what I could only see as...actual genuine remorse, which made me feel like a dick. So I agreed to come over for Christmas. It'd be nice to sit down with my sister Catherine, her wife Ainsley, and my mother. Have some mimosas, some ham, tell my dad's ashes that I miss him more every day. Things like that.
First thing that came to mind was how short and open the treeline surrounding the house was. I parked my pickup in the yard and stepped out, glancing around. I waved at Catherine who had stepped outside and asked what happened to the woods, making some offhand remark about selling it for timber. More words spilled out of my mouth, something about how I remember there was no proper driveway and how much I missed the woods. She shifted uncomfortably and asked what I was talking about, apparently not eager to continue with the subject at hand.
It'd been a couple years since I saw Cat face to face, so I laughed and shook my hand to dismiss the topic. It bugged me, but hey, memory is faulty. I hadn't been here in twelve years, I was probably just being dumb. Kids tend to exaggerate, after all. I gave her a hug, she pecked my cheek, we went inside.
I gotta tell ya. Seeing my mother's face after twelve years was like a bag of bricks to the chest. My breath caught and I barely managed to wave and give her a "hi, mom." She was equally stunned. Apparently she didn't think I'd actually show up. Teach ya to doubt your kid again. Maybe that's too mean. She helped me unload the gifts from my truck, and a wave of relief washed over me.
The night started uneventfully, the haze of holiday power drifting over and through our heads. Open wounds became old wounds and dad got passed around so we could all say a little something. Ainsley told my mom about the first time we met - Cat brought her home around three in the morning and I was playing a game in the living room on the TV. She asked what I was doing, as completely unsober as she was, and my equally inebriated response was apparently along the lines of "I'm fuckin' camping, what does it look like?" Needless to say, we ended up being best friends. I'm glad she married my sister.
The dark had long since set in, and we ended up around the fireplace, passing a large bottle of whiskey around as a comfortable floral aroma filled the room. Old tales came out (like that spooky shit at summer camp) and eventually, I got back to the topic of the woods. Mom and Cat looked apprehensive, but Ainsley leaned in, urging me on.
So I asked again. What happened to all the trees? There was only a little box of pines around the house, just enough for a windbreak. Without stopping for an answer, I rambled on about running off into the trees to chase the smell of roses because I thought mom might like them, or how I saw deer in the distance from time to time. I didn't remember much, but the woods had felt like home, I said.
The mood collapsed in upon itself almost oppressively.
My mom bit her lip hard, drawing a thin line of blood. She spoke in the sharp and hot voice that drove me out of the house, demanding to know how I could ask such a stupid question. I was honestly bewildered, so I asked what the hell she meant. She searched me with eyes harder and colder than anything I've felt, but my bafflement must have convinced her. With a mutter about how I really didn't know, she drained the rest of the whiskey and started talking.
There were never any woods.
She explained what a windbreak was, and how, if anything, there were more trees now than when I was a kid. I went to interrupt, but she shot my voice down without a word, boring into me with her gaze. I let her continue. I'd disappear for hours at a time. They'd see me one minute, talking to dad or playing with the game system in my room and then I'd just be...gone. I'd return as suddenly as I disappeared, smelling of wild roses and covered in burrs and leaves no matter the season. I'd always be dazed, and sometimes I'd bring things back. The petals of flowers, wilted and crushed in my small hands. Shards of charred bone. Irregular and jagged marbles that looked like eyes. One time I came back with a thin scrap of strange meat in my mouth. My mom shuddered when she told me I chewed it peacefully, but reacted strongly when she tried to prize it from me.
As I grew, the amount of time I spent missing increased. An hour here or there would become two, would stretch into six. I'd get out of school and not show up until midnight. One morning after I turned sixteen, I disappeared for three days. My parents were hysterical, my mother said she had been begging my father to call the police. He refused her, telling her to be patient. He said that I "would always come back in the end."
When the third day arose, however, even my dad could no longer ignore it. Mom said that he seemed to be hiding something when it came to my "adventures" into the words that weren't there. Before he went out to look for me , armed with his hunting rifle and hand axe, he told her something. In what she described as a very casual manner, dad told her that "our boy is headed home." She took it as encouragement at the time.
I had appeared on the edge of the windbreak near the house just before midnight, naked and covered in what looked to be moss and mud. Dad wasn't with me. I was nigh-catatonic from what she told me, and it was weeks before I would speak. When I did, the first thing I asked was where dad was.
That was the first and only time my mother had ever struck me. I remember it clearly - in fact, it's the first thing I can remember when thinking about my teenage years. My cheek stung as she lashed out at me, screaming that it was my fault the state troopers found his torso in the trees, that I should have never come back. She yelled herself hoarse, telling me to get out, and that was how I went to live with Cat.
She apologized. Apparently, mom thought I knew. She thought I knew what happened and never spoke of it, since the one thing I came back with was my father's decorative band, made of ebony, gripped tightly in my left hand. Since the day he'd brought me home to her, she'd never seen that ring leave his finger. I glanced down at my left hand, twisting the black wood band on my finger around uneasily before looking back at her. Her arms were open We held each other, cried tears we didn't know we held and apologized again and again. I didn't know, but I was sorry for the grief. I was sorry about my father. Sorry about the burden on my sister. Sorry about leaving my mother alone. The night wore on, and eventually, the ladies retired to their rooms. Only I was left, twisting the ebony band and collecting my thoughts. Thoughts about windbreaks and yesteryear.
I breathed in deeply in an attempt to collect myself, taking in more of whatever flowery candle my mother must have been burning. The scent reminded me of my childhood, and it eased all of the tension and fatigue out of my body. It smelled like home, really. I glanced around to try and find the candle, but before I could, something clicked in my head. I looked out the kitchen window to make sure of what I saw.
The woods were outside.
Dark and deep, expansive, pervasive. Unflinching and almost boring in their sudden appearance, as if they had never left at all. The scent of flowers sharpened in my nostrils and I recognized the smell as being that of roses. It made it hard to think, wrapped itself comfortably around my head and I found myself leaning out of the doorway, as if something had been tugging on my left hand. I stepped from the porch.
I was headed home.