The Underside of the Fern

The Underside of the Fern by Jim Latham

It wasn’t seeing the fern that had Liz worried. She knew the fern well. She knew every plant, every fallen log, every crossing of the creek that wound through the birch forest near the old farmhouse she shared with her grandmother. Had been watching it grow for years. But she wondered why she was looking up at it through the grimy basement window. 

She didn’t remember coming down the stairs, didn’t remember falling asleep on the couch, didn’t remember anything, really, of the last day. She took a deep breath and a long look around the shelves of her memory. There was almost nothing after Uncle Kevin showed up, a bottle of wine under one arm and something he just had to tell Liz and Gramma on his mind. 

Liz had never understood what Aunt Mo saw in Kevin. Something was just off about him. Nothing she could pinpoint and pin down, but something. She’d made sure to sit well down the table from him at family dinners, made a point of knowing where he was. Just in case. She’d only sipped at the wine. Hadn’t drunk near enough to account for the headache splitting her skull.

Liz squinted up at the spores bunched on the underside of the fern’s fragile, serrated leaves that arced up then bent over, the tips pointing toward the thick carpet of birch leaves that had blown against the foundation stones. She shortened her focus, looked at the window. Even if she could get it open, it was far too small to crawl out of. 

Why she was thinking about crawling out of windows when a perfectly good set of stairs led up into the kitchen? A few steps later, Liz stood in front of the heavy door and leaned on the handrail, wondering why she was out of breath. Why the dusty wooden stairs had wobbled under her feet as she climbed. She’d been up and down the stairs a million times, stacking jars of beans, tomatoes, preserves that she and Gramma put up. Getting meat out of the freezer or putting it in during hunting season. The stairs had never so much as creaked. Nothing Grampa built ever creaked or wobbled.

Liz turned the knob and pushed. The door opened a crack, then jerked to a stop. A lock rattled against a hasp. She pushed again. The door didn’t move. Behind it, in the kitchen, she heard a low, raspy chuckle. 

“Well, well. Look who’s awake.” Kevin’s voice. He sounded drunk.

Fear spiked Liz’s blood, banishing the fog. She took a step back and down. Steadier now than she had been. She took another step then turned and ran down the stairs.

Above her, she heard a chair scrape across the floor. Steps coming toward the door. The rattle of the lock against the door. Kevin’s clumsy, drunken hands gifting her precious seconds.

Liz slid the well-oiled bolt home and raised the rifle. The moment Kevin’s swaying frame filled the door, she pulled the trigger. 

About this story: This story grew from the prompt a lock, a fern, a basement—courtesy of jeninerd, who is on IGTwitter, and the regular web.

If you send me a prompt, I’ll write a story with it. Give me an inanimate object, an animal, and a location, and I’ll see what I can do.

Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash