The Thing That Kept On Growing
The thing in Mr. Delaney’s yard used to be a lot smaller. I remember walking down the cracked sidewalk to peek at the monstrosity, all dark and growing, a patch of death against the meticulous green background of Mr. Delaney’s grass. I would stop and stare, convinced that I could see the blackness twist on itself, growing both upwards and inwards at the same time. No one in our town knew what it was, and whether or not that was a good thing, I still don’t know.
I remember when it first showed up, spiky and ominous, and how Mr. Delaney vowed to cut it down. He grabbed a handsaw and a ladder, and started chopping its branches off one by one, if you could call them branches. He looked at his work when finished and smiled contentedly. What remained was a large black pillar. He bundled up the branches, loaded them on his truck, and said he’d cut the rest down in the morning.
When sunlight came, the tree had twice as many branches as the day before.
Bewildered, Mr. Delaney went at them again, cutting into the wee hours of night. He brought a lawn chair and a six pack to the lawn with every intention of watching the black thing, making sure it wouldn’t grow again. Unfortunately, he fell asleep. When he woke, the branches had doubled yet again.
He called the city about it. After a day or two of bureaucratic difficulties, the city sent a small delegation to come talk about the “tricky” situation. The delegates had apparently located a document that showed the 5X5 plot of land the thing was growing on didn’t actually belong to Mr. Delaney. Apparently, back in the early 1900s, a small religious group (who wished to remain anonymous) bought a patch of land on what turned out to be Mr. Delaney’s yard and had continued to pay their dues. The plot was so small, and the group had disappeared from the public eye, but the rules were rules. The delegates shrugged at Mr. Delaney.
What could they do now?
Mr. Delaney was furious, to say the least. He yelled at the delegates, poked their chests, and demanded that they remove the obscene monster from HIS damn yard. The delegates shook their heads, clucked softly, and gathered their materials to leave. One delegate, a short bald man in his late thirties, made eye contact with me before leaving.
“Life’s a bitch, kid.”
When I turned eleven, the thing had grown to be about twenty feet high. It was black, wiry, alien, and threatening. Every single day, Mr. Delaney would go outside and measure the branches, just waiting for the moment the thriving black mass crept over the five-square-foot allotment.
Early September, Mr. Delaney got his wish. A twig was three inches past the 5X5 plot. He called the city again, this time demanding justice. It took the delegates three days to get to his yard, at which point the twig was six inches past its allowed growing space. He told us all that they were finally coming around, and that the amount of complaints they received all year compelled the delegates to make some major changes about it.
The delegates arrived with axes, blowtorches, and large plastic vats with quarantine labels all over their blue hinds. One of the neighbors asked if the black thing was poisonous. A tall, angry looking delegate told us that she didn’t think so. The delegates didn’t answer any more questions.
After forcing the crowd back, they surrounded the black thing with their axes and blowtorches. Moments before attacking the black thing, an extremely small and hooded figure came sprinting from the street.
“Wait!” it yelled in a comically squeaky voice.
We all watched the figure hobble towards the delegates. The group of government workers waited until the figure reached them before speaking. It was very short, astoundingly short, less than five feet. The figure wore an all-black robe and red bathroom slippers. The robe looked brand new, sparkly, and intricately designed. The slippers were old and muddy.
After a quick conversation, the delegates turned their flamethrowers off.
“Sorry folks,” a short, bald delegate said. “Turns out that we originally misread this organization’s land rights. Apparently, they own a 6X6 plot, not 5X5. So sorry for the inconvenience. Our hands are tied.”
Mr. Delaney was furious. He walked up the delegates and started yelling, yelling about how this thing was destroying his yard, and how unamerican it was to have to let these—these things take over what was rightfully his. He spat and pointed his finger roughly at their chests.
The delegates shrugged and told him that they could do nothing. Mr. Delaney was escorted away from the group while cursing and ranting. The rest of the neighbors watched awkwardly.
The bald delegate had another brief conversation with the short, robed figure. They shook hands and parted ways. The delegates got in their cars and drove away, ignoring the bewildered and upset crowd of neighbors.
Mr. Delaney and I were the only two that watched the robed figure hobble away. It never turned around, just kept moving at that weird, jaunted pace until it was out of sight behind a line of trees.
Mr. Delaney looked at me and shook his head furiously.
“You see,” he said, pointing a gnarled, crooked finger at the horizon, “this is why our country will never be what it used to.”
I didn’t really know if he was talking about the tiny robed person, the bureaucrats, or the large, hulking spectacle that was eating his yard. I just nodded and tried to walk away. He grabbed my arm and pulled me back into a stare down. He smelled like old cheese and stale beer.
“Do you know what the worst part of society is?” he asked.
I shook my head. His grip bit into my arm.
“Apathy,” he spat. He glared at me and let go.
I ran home, fighting back tears. I knew that I probably should have told mother, but something held me back from it. I sat in my room and stared at the black thing in Mr. Delaney’s yard. Even though the experts told us that it grew too slow to be seen by human eyes, I disagreed. I could’ve sworn that I saw it spiraling up, and up, and up into the sky, eventually blending into the rainclouds that were starting to form.
Despite what Mr. Delaney told everyone, it was me that discovered salt impeded the black thing’s growth. I was the one that had just learned how to kill slugs and wanted to see if salt had any effect on the thing. I was the one that screamed when I heard the tar-like bark scream itself. It sounded like a stuck pig. I was the one that ran to Mr. Delaney’s door, both excited and tearful, and knocked furiously until he came outside. I guess, in the end, I wasn’t sure if his ego saved me or cursed me to live alone with all I was responsible for.
“What do you want?” he said sourly when he opened the door. He wore an old, grey robe, a ski cap, and was smoking a cigarette.
I lamely held my hand out, offering to him a small, glass salt shaker.
“And what the hell am I supposed to do with that?” he spat.
In a confused jumble of word vomit, I explained what had happened. That this simple, everyday table salt, seemed to hurt the thing. If Mr. Delaney really wanted to get rid of it, here was how. Maybe.
At first he didn’t believe me.
“Well, try it yourself,” I said.
We walked into his front yard. It was getting close to evening, and the sun was starting to hide, but it wasn’t quite dark yet. We looked around, making sure no one was watching, and then I poured more salt near the base of the black thing.
That horrible screech sounded again, and this time the whole thing shook. Mr. Delaney stared at the top and smiled wickedly.
“It shrank!” he cried. He started dancing a wild jig in his bathrobe. “I can’t believe it shrank! I’ve tried everything. Everything you hear! But salt? Of all things? How fucking biblical!”
He cackled again. I started to grow nervous.
“Mr. Delaney, you gotta stop yelling,” I said, tugging his arm. “People are gonna hear.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “Let them hear.”
His pupils were wide. Sweat was on his brow. I wondered if he was drunk.
“I’ve won!” he yelled. “Finally!”
I backed away, holding my hands up in a defensive posture.
“Where are you going, kid?” he asked. His gaze fixated on me, and I felt very much like a zebra being stared down by a tiger.
“H-home,” I stammered.
Mr. Delaney stared at me, and for a moment, I thought he wasn’t going to let me leave. The black thing kept screaming in the background. Twilight approached.
“If you breathe a word,” he said through gritted teeth, “I’ll get you.”
I nodded, solidifying our pact, and sprinted home. Mother asked why I was so sweaty, and I told her I was playing with Johnny, one of the other neighborhood kids. She glared at me, but seemed to believe me, because I was still allowed to eat dinner at the table. I finished quickly and hurried to my room.
Lying in bed, I thought of Mr. Delaney and the mysterious robed creature. Would he come visiting? Would he get mad at Mr. Delaney? Would the city arrest him? Would I get in trouble? I tossed and turned fitfully before entering a long and unpleasant dream.
The sound of a thousand screams woke me up. It was horrible. Like listening to an army of children being tortured, screams at every pitch, timber, and frequency possible. My whole house was shaking.
I sprinted down into the family room to find mother up and putting on her coat.
“Go back upstairs!” she shouted.
I pretended to listen, waited until she left the house, then threw my own jacket on and left out the back door. Much like I suspected, the screaming was coming from Mr. Delaney’s yard.
Sneaking around the hedges, I positioned myself to where I could see across the street. A crowd was gathering in front of the house, and many people were shining flashlights, phone lights, and anything else they could to see what was going on.
Mr. Delany had poured gallons and gallons of salt on the base of the black thing. He was still robed, dancing in front of what looked like a giant salt sandbox. In the light, I could see steam rising off of the black thing. The screaming grew louder and louder. The black thing was shaking and groaning. This continued for minutes until the cops showed up.
By the time they arrived, there wasn’t much they could do. They stepped out, all scratching their heads and looking at the scene around them. Anybody who lived in a fifty-mile radius of our neighborhood had likely heard of the thing that kept on growing, but not many people wanted to come see it after finding pictures online. This included police officers.
Two of the officers walked up to Mr. Delaney and spoke sternly. He barely even noticed them and continued to dance. The neighbors all stood, watching. Even my mother was speechless for once. Then, right as the police officers tried to grab Mr. Delaney, the thing fell apart.
The screams had risen to an ear-splitting roar as we all covered our ears. And then, with a loud crack, chunks of the black material started raining down from the sky. The wind and god-knows-what-else blew the chunks in all directions, and they landed in driveways, sidewalks, houses, lawns, gardens, and hedges. All in all, it affected seven different houses, mine included.
The police officers, after a few moments of silence, put Mr. Delaney in cuffs.
“You can’t arrest me!” he shouted. “I’m defending my land! It’s my right!”
The cops ignored his protests and shoved him in the back of their car.
My mother walked up to the officers before they drove off.
“What about this mess? Who’s going to clean it?”
“We’ll call the city,” one of the officers said.
They drove off.
A crowd of neighbors stayed near the lawn, lamenting the mess the thing had made. Mother stared for a second, lips pursed, then marched back to our house. I made it inside just in time to see her storm to the phone. She dialed with a ferocity and held nothing back when the delegates at the city answered.
“You need to send someone over to _________ right away!” she yelled.
There was a pause as the city answered her. I saw her eyes flash, her forehead darkening to a shade of purple that meant a fist was going to come flying at any second.
“You can’t tell me it’s not an emergency! No—I know no one has been hurt, but this is serious. It can’t wait until tomorrow! No, you listen to ME. And—dammit!”
She slammed the phone back down, letting a noise that was somewhere in between a growl and a scream come ripping from her throat. I watched nervously as she sat on the table and held her head in her hands.
Slowly, I walked towards her from the stairs, sitting next to her and putting a hand on her back. She flinched at first, but let me rest there.
“Are you ok?” I asked.
“I don’t know _________,” she said. “I just don’t know.”
I stayed there for a good thirty minutes, not speaking. For the first time in my life, she didn’t scold me for staying up past my bedtime, didn’t look at me like an idiot, didn’t have instructions for me. We were simply a mother and child, desperately trying to ignore the world and to create a place of comfort. For a moment, and just a moment, we succeeded.
The city had no idea what to do. The delegates had shown up first thing the next morning and looked around in horror. The multitude of spots that the chunks had landed in were all growing already. They counted twelve different growths, all spanning throughout our neighborhood.
The delegates still had their heads together, formulating a plan, or at least an answer, when three of the tiny robed figures showed up. No one knew where they came from, but suddenly, they were hobbling towards the officers, wading past the crowd. They were all the same size, miniscule, and wore equally raggedy pairs of bath slippers.
The crowd of people, all fifteen of us, murmured and pointed as they walked up to the delegates. Two robed figures talked to the delegates while the other walked up to the crowd and cleared its throat.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” it squeaked in a small, but powerful voice, “it is with great sadness that I say this land now belongs to the great and terrible Balzar. You must immediately vacate the premises, that is if you both value and admire human life.”
The crowd’s murmuring grew until one of the neighbors spoke up.
“What if we don’t want to leave?”
“Would you ask the same question if I told you your home was now an oven?” the robed figure asked matter-of-factly. It gestured rudely and walked over to join its brethren with the delegates. The discussion was short and impassioned, the city both nodding and frowning. They shook hands with the robed figures and walked towards the crowd.
“They’re right,” one of the delegates said. “You guys should probably all move.”
“What?!” shouted mother.
“What if we can’t afford it?” another voice rang out.
“This is evil! Pure evil!” shouted someone else.
The delegate shrugged.
“I don’t know. Just repeating what we’ve been told. Kind of out of our pay grade here to be honest. Talk to the state, I guess.”
The delegates walked to their cars, this time bringing the robed figures with them. I guess this was a smart move, because I could get sense that the crowd of neighbors would have torn them apart limb from limb if they stayed. They were frothing at the mouth. One woman was crying.
The black things continued to jut from the ground, steaming in in the wind.
Mother grabbed my hand and led me back to the house. I pulled against her hand, trying to stay with the crowd. I wanted to hear what was going to happen next. Were they going to blame anyone? Had Mr. Delaney told anyone that it was my idea yet?
Mother ignored my pulls and took me home.
“I’ll help you pack,” she said. “We’re going to go stay in a motel till we can find something permanent.”
“We’re leaving?” I asked, both scared and relieved.
“You heard them,” she said, staring at me like I was stupid. “I’m not taking any chances. We’re gone.”
Thinking of Mr. Delaney, Johnny, school, the black thing, and those weird, old bath slippers, I went to my room and started to pack. After a few hours, we had all the essentials, and mother and I drove away from our home.
I pressed my face against the window and watched the black things stand defiantly in the wind. Other neighbors’ hedges and trees were shaking violently at the gusts, but the black things all stood tall. They threatened even the air. Behind us were a few other cars, leaving their homes for good.
What else could we do?
They say that our neighborhood, _________, became halfway between a museum and a roadside attraction. Mr. Delaney moved back after serving a few days in jail for being a public disruption, and rumor is that he teamed up with the robed figures to create an admission fee, a parking lot, and invested in a few restaurants and hotels that were within walking distance of the neighborhood.
Rumor had it, they didn’t make bad money. No one from the surrounding area would ever visit, but I guess the billboards on Highway _________ were tempting enough, simply saying “Come Visit Hell On Earth … And Leave!”
People said that the black things were each fifteen plus feet now, towering and ominous. The air in the neighborhood smelt like burnt meat and fresh mulch. Birds avoided the area like the plague. Even stray dogs and cats left the empty streets alone. What was once a quiet, suburban neighborhood was now a growing, silent carcass.
I tried to make it back myself one day. I had just received my driver’s license, and living only thirty minutes away, I figured that a quick visit would be more than doable. I borrowed mother’s car, saying that I was getting some school supplies.
I made it to the block before neighborhood before I felt a deep, spiky weight on my chest. I saw the gas station that we would normally turn left at to get home and found myself driving right past it. I turned around, attempting to go back, but automatically drove past it again.
Unsure of what else to do, I pulled into a new diner (thanks, Mr. Delaney). Finding a nice, out-of-the-way booth, I grabbed a newspaper and sat down. I splayed the paper out on the table but didn’t really read any of the headlines. There were a few other people in the diner, and even one group of small, robed figures. Rumor was that there were more sightings of the creatures. They hung around town but never actually approached the black things. The only person who got close enough to touch them was always Mr. Delaney.
An older waitress approached me. She took my order, and I was fixated on her wrinkles. They were deep enough to almost show her thin cheekbones. I figured that being a waitress was either your first job or your last.
After ordering, I sat back and looked over to the table of robed figures. Weirdly enough they were whispering, and every few seconds, one would turn its head towards me then back to the group. I could’ve sworn one was pointing at me.
I averted my attention to the newspaper and waited for my food. A few minutes later, the robed figures left. I breathed a sigh of relief and was anxious to eat my hamburger and leave as well. When it arrived, I tried to eat fast, forcing myself to ignore how burnt the meat was. As I chewed I bit into something hard and spat it out on my plate. Staring back up at me was a chunk of blackness, so dark and obsidian that I knew it wasn’t part of my meal.
I left cash on the table and hurried out of the diner. Driving home, I kept the radio off. I preferred the silence, which was so encompassing that I didn’t need to think. I got back and gave my mother a hug, handing her the keys. I didn’t mention what I almost did, or what I almost ate, and went straight to my room.
Two months later, Mother found a better job in _________, and we moved away for good. I never kept any contact with my old neighbors and friends, and did my very hardest to forget my hometown. Sometimes I succeeded. But still, every now and then, I’d have nightmares about that place, about growing, black monsters, and Mr. Delaney’s red and laughing face, laughing without smiling, laughing without joy.
Some nights I woke up sweating and walked to the kitchen to grab a glass of water, finding Mother sitting at the table drinking a gin and tonic.
“Nightmares?” she’d ask.
“No, just couldn’t sleep,” I always said. “You?”
“Same,” she said.
We would sit in silence at the table, silently agreeing to ignore each other’s lies.
Silently agreeing to pretend that we could move on.
What else could we do?