Horror Story of the Week – Mark Allan Gunnells: I Never Promised You a Rose Garden
“I NEVER PROMISED YOU A ROSE GARDEN”
Written by: Mark Allan Gunnells
Willow stopped at the sign that read “Janie Earle Furman Rose Garden”, clutching the strap of her backpack as if afraid someone might try to snatch it off her shoulder. Several older people—probably not much older than her actually, but to a sophomore in high school college students seemed infinitely more worldly just by virtue of matriculation—passed her without a glance on their way from one part of campus to another. Still, she felt conspicuous, the proverbial sore thumb. She’d visited Furman University several times in the past year, but she always felt out of place, like someone had taped a sign to her back that said “JUST A KID!”
But Karen never treated her like a kid. Karen treated her like an equal.
After taking a deep breath, Willow started down the brick walkway that led into the garden, walking beneath the overreaching Magnolia branches and the crepe myrtles that flanked both sides of the path. She could already see Karen, sitting in the gazebo at the very center of the garden. She hadn’t spotted Willow yet, as always focused on a book in her hands.
“Hey Nerd,” Willow said with a smile as she approached.
Karen looked up, offered a smile of her own, and closed the book. “There you are, Infant. I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show.
Karen always called Willow Infant and Willow called Karen Nerd. Strange terms of endearment, but it made Willow feel special. As if the nicknames meant she and Karen were part of a secret club. A club that had only two members but a club nonetheless. It made Willow, who had never had many friends because of her quiet introversion, feel like she really belonged.
Willow entered the gazebo, which was small and intimate, and sat on the bench next to Karen. “Hope you didn’t mind meeting me here.”
“Not at all. The rose garden is one of my favorite places on campus. Especially this time of year when it’s usually deserted. I’m not much one for crowds these days.”
“Me either,” Willow said then gestured to the book in Karen’s lap. “So what are you studying?”
“Oh, nothing,” Karen said, holding up the book. What Dreams May Come by someone named Richard Matheson. “Just a little pleasure reading.”
“Funny, I’ve been doing a little pleasure reading myself.”
Willow shrugged off the backpack and placed it between her feet. Unzipping the top compartment, she pulled out an old cloth-bound book. The pages were yellowed and the cover tattered, and a musty, spicy smell that was not entirely unpleasant wafted from the thing. There was gold lettering on the spine, but it was so worn as to be illegible.
“What is that?” Karen asked in a soft, hushed voice. A voice of reverence.
“It’s a book of spells. I found it in a trunk full of my mother’s old things. Yearbooks, photo albums, trophies from when she was on the volleyball team in high school, even her wedding dress which I had no idea she’d kept. Down at the very bottom, underneath all that other stuff, was this spell book. I asked her about it and she said my Great Grandmother had passed it down to her when she was a girl.”
Karen took the book delicately, showing it the respect it deserved, and ran her fingers lightly over the cover. “So I take it that’s why you wanted to meet today, to try our hand at one of the spells in this book?”
“If you don’t mind,” Willow said timidly. She feared being a nuisance.
“Of course I don’t mind. You know I love hanging out with you.”
Willow felt relief flow over her like warm water. She and Karen had been friends for almost a year now, but she still worried she was intruding on the older girl’s life. Then again, she realized that Karen herself had few friends. Perhaps she needed Willow as much as the younger girl needed her.
Willow enjoyed going out to Coffee Underground and seeing plays at the Warehouse Theatre with Karen, but her favorite thing was when they performed spells together. Even though Willow had grown up around her mother’s coven, most of them had very little in the way of actual magickal ability. Karen was one of only a very few natural witches Willow had ever met, and by far the most adept and powerful.
“So,” Karen said, flipping through the pages of the book, “is there a particular spell you were wanting to try.”
“Actually, yes. I found a…well, a love spell I want to try.”
Karen’s eyes shot up from the book to meet Willow’s, and her smile deflated into a frown. “Love spell? You shouldn’t be messing with that sort of thing. Magic and hormones tend to be a volatile mix, and you’re only 16. You’ve got plenty of time to find love. Just slow down and—”
“Hey, calm down, Nerd,” Willow said with a forced laugh. “The spell isn’t for me. It’s for my mother.”
Karen blinked and stuttered for a moment before getting her words out. “Your Mother? You want to do a love spell for your mother? Does she know?”
Willow shook her head. “But she needs it. She’s been so lonely and unhappy ever since my father left us, but recently she went out on a few dates with a guy that works with her at the plant. Doug, that’s his name. He seems really nice, and he dotes on my mother, treats her well, and I thought she liked him a lot…but after four dates she abruptly broke it off, won’t answer his texts or emails or anything. Said he was getting too serious. Now she’s back to spending all her evenings after work at home in her nightgown, watching reruns on TV. She barely leaves the apartment on the weekends. That’s why it’s so easy for me to get the car lately; she never goes anywhere.”
“And you want…?”
“I just want her to give Doug a chance, see what might develop. I think he could really make her happy, if she’d just let him in.”
Karen gave her a look of such tenderness and pity that it made Willow want to cry. “It’s really sweet that you want to help your mother, but I still don’t think this is a good idea. Love spells are notoriously erratic and sometimes flat-out dangerous. You can’t really create genuine affection through magick; the most you can do is generate an inflated sense of infatuation. And that can too easily lead to obsession. Love spells are best left alone.”
“You don’t understand. When I said it was a love spell, that wasn’t exactly what I meant. It’s sort of the reverse, an unlove spell.”
“You’re right, I don’t understand,” Karen said, her frown returning.
“You see, my father walked out on us when I was 11, ran off to Florida with a woman he met at a convenience store. He’s pretty much been a non-entity in our lives ever since. I’ll get the occasional birthday or Christmas card from him, but that’s about as sporadic as the child support payments he sends. I haven’t actually seen him since he left. And yet my mother has never gotten over him. She still loves him, I can tell. I catch her sometimes looking at old pictures of them together, just crying. I believe the reason she won’t give any other man a chance is because she is still pining for my father.”
“I think I get it now. You want to do a spell to make your mother fall out of love with your father, is that right?”
Willow reached out for the book. “There’s a spell in here that’s supposed to help mend your heart after a broken love affair. Help you move on. I want to do the spell for my mother. She’s never going to be happy until she lets my father go and puts those feelings behind her.”
“You know, time can often provide that healing.”
“It’s been five years, and it hasn’t gotten any better. And the situation with Doug just made me realize that if I don’t help her, she’ll never allow herself to be happy again.”
Karen didn’t say anything, but her eyes took on that faraway cast that Willow had come to recognize as her Deep Thinking look. She placed her hand on the book, idly running her fingers down the spine.
“Please,” Willow said, embarrassed by the pleading tone she heard in her own voice but unable to prevent it. “Will you please help me?”
Folding her hands in her lap, Karen stretched out the suspense for a moment more before smiling and saying, “Okay, Infant, I’ll help.”
Another shower of relief expressed through a shaky laugh. “Thank you so much. You don’t know how much this means to me.”
“Save the thanks until after the spell works. Now what will we need?”
“Don’t worry, I have everything,” Willow said, diving into her backpack again and pulling out the items she’d brought along. “There’s an incantation we have to recite in the book. In addition, we’ll need these herbs. A couple of blue candles. A picture of the couple in question.” Here she pulled out a photo of her parents on their wedding day, hugging and smiling at the camera as if their relationship wasn’t going to end in betrayal and abandonment. “We’ll have to rip the photo in half as a symbolic separation. Then of course there’s this.” Now she showed Karen a Ziploc baggie full of hair. “I pulled it out of my mother’s hairbrush.”
“And you don’t need anything personal like that for your father?”
“No, it’s only my mother’s heart we hope to affect with the spell, so this will be sufficient. Oh, and there’s one more ingredient we need. A single rose blossom. That’s why I suggested we meet here.”
Karen turned her head to scan the rose garden. It was fairly large, but currently all the bushes and vines were bare and browned. “I hate to burst your bubble, but it’s the middle of February. You’re not going to find any roses here.”
“Ye of little faith,” Willow said then stretched her arm over the back railing of the gazebo, reaching out until she could just touch one of the thorny vines. She pressed her thumb into a particularly large thorn that looked more like a shark’s tooth, pricking the skin and drawing several drops of crimson. Then she held her hand there, allowing her blood to dribble down onto a vine. She closed her eyes, muttered a phrase in Latin, and when her lids fluttered open she found a startling red rose blossom blooming on the vine. With a smile she snapped it off and held it out to Karen as if it were a corsage. “Ta da.”
Karen took the blossom with a bemused look of awe. “I had no idea you had mastered regeneration. Your power is growing impressively.”
“I’m still no match for you, Nerd.”
“Give yourself time. I have a feeling even you don’t know the true scope of your potential.”
Willow felt heat suffusing her cheeks, and she glanced away, afraid tears were going to start spilling down her cheeks. She’d never learned to take compliments well.
Karen, always sensitive to Willow’s moods, changed the subject. “I’d invite you back to my room to do the spell, but my roommate was there when I left earlier.”
“That’s okay. I’d love to do it here, unless you think we might be interrupted.”
“I doubt it, but let’s move back to the fountain so we’re not quite as visible to the random passersby.”
They gathered all the spell ingredients, placing them in the backpack once more, then left the gazebo and walked the labyrinthine pathways of the rose garden until they reached the back end. Willow stared with amused puzzlement at the little fountain tucked away here. The statuary at its center baffled her. A cherubic angel clutching an oversized fish that had water shooting out of its gaping mouth. She couldn’t imagine what message the sculptor had intended with this piece.
Karen sat cross-legged on the stones just in front of the fountain then looked up at Willow. “Okay Infant, you ready?”
Willow took a deep breath then sat across from her friend. “Ready.”
When the spell was done, Willow and Karen said their goodbyes. Karen left the rose garden by the back stairs that led up to the quad, heading off toward her dorm, but Willow walked back through and exited the way she’d entered. She paused to stare across the shimmering lake at the thrusting clock tower on the far side then turned left, toward the café bookstore and the lot where she’d parked her mother’s Volvo.
Just before she reached the café she paused again. Here, just at the edge of the lake next to a deck that jutted out over the water, was a black cauldron with a coal fire burning. Karen had explained once that it was supposed to represent the flames of knowledge, always burning bright. Willow reached into her backpack and retrieved half of the torn photo they’d used in the spell. This half showed her father in his tux and oversized glasses, big goofy grin plastered across his face. The only thing visible of her mother was an arm snaked around her father’s midsection.
Without fanfare, Willow dropped the photo into the fire, watching it bubble and curl and char. She stayed there until it was just ash.
“Goodbye, Daddy,” she said softly then walked quickly away. She was eager to get home and see if her mother felt like going out.
thanks for the free short story.
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A very good, readable story by a reliable storyteller. Nice touches throughout, it seems nice & gentle at first but a good macarbe twist to close it.
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I get a Buffy the Vampire Slayer feel from the piece. I mean the character is in many ways a match for Willow from the series. As a short story it is fairly successful. However, the conclusion is a bit both abrupt and cliché. It felt like it might be personal to the author. There were some nuances in imagery I didn’t get, but felt important to the narrative. Overall, I agree with Andrew in that it was a very good readable story.
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Just FYI for all those nice enough to take the time to read it, this short story is set within the world of my novel OUTCAST. The events of that novel do not effect this story, so it is a standalone, but the two characters are from that novel. It is a more quiet and gentle story than I typically write, but sometimes that just calls to me.
Thanks for all the comments, and let it be known that I will be picking a winner from those that comment here to receive a paperback copy of OUTCAST.
Not as much participation as I might have wanted, but thank you for the comments I did receive. And Andrew is the winner!