Eight stories of literary dark fiction from a master storyteller. Exploring the shadow side of love, these are tales of grief, obsession, control. Intricate examinations of trauma and tragedy in raw, poetic prose. In these narratives, a woman imagines horrific scenarios whilst caring for her infant niece; on-line posts chronicle a cancer diagnosis; a couple in the park with their small child encounter a stranger with horrific consequences; a toxic relationship reaches a terrifying resolution…
Originally published under the title The Strange Thing We Become and Other Dark Tales, this is a much-praised collection of deeply unsettling, painfully dark tales.
Release date: March 7, 2023
Publisher: Titan Books
Print pages: 208
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The Trees Grew Because I Bled There: Collected Stories
“Why don’t you go out there and introduce yourself?” he asks me with a charm I had forgotten he possessed—a grin so cloying that a magician might redden.
My eyes drift out the rain-spattered window, watching the group of children crowd near the entrance to our driveway—acoterie of adolescents wearing dark-colored costumes made of papier-mâché and toting bright Chinese lanterns.
Some of the group members carry large percussive instruments like hand drums, brass cymbals, and tambourines. They float down the center of the empty lane just beyond where the house lights reach as if they were a flock of blackbirds.
“They wouldn’t like me,” I say, chewing on my lip until it turns purple.
My father isn’t convinced.
“They seem pleasant enough,” he says, straining to wave at them before exhaustion has its arms around him and pulls him down on an invisible leash.
They don’t seem to notice my father as they mill about near our mailbox, clanging their instruments like a horse’s hooves beating against cobblestones.
“How do you know?” I ask, just to be smart.
“Well, don’t they?”
“Seems odd for them to rehearse in the rain like this,” I say. Never mind the fact we had moved to Saint Benedict—a small town in the northeastern corner of New Hampshire—nearlythree weeks ago and hadn’t seen any children in the neighborhood until now.
“Go on,” my father insists, coughing slightly and smearing threads of saliva across his mouth as he hunts in the kitchen cupboard for a flashlight.
He finds one with a cracked handle and passes it to me.
“I wasn’t invited.”
My father’s shoulders drop. His voice softens—brittle thin as if the small tumor in his brain were speaking for him. “You don’t need an invitation.”
“I’ll get soaked.”
He’s already rummaging in the coat closet near the front door, dragging out an umbrella printed with a collection of ladybugs. “Here. Borrow the umbrella.”
I think of another excuse. Anything to get out of this. “My boots have holes in them.”
“Borrow mine,” he says, pointing at the mud-slimed galoshes in the boot basket beside the foyer’s credenza.
I cross my arms like a petulant toddler. “They don’t fit me right.”
“You’ll only be wearing them for a few minutes,” he reminds me, ushering me from the dining room into the foyer. “Just go out there and say ‘hello.’”
“They’ll laugh at the way I say things,” I say, covering my mouth as if it were an attempt to hide my lisp.
“You don’t know for sure.”
“Not everybody in this world is out to hurt you,” he says.
If anybody had a right to complain about unfair treatment, it would be him.
“You don’t know that.”
“I’ve never hurt you,” he reminds me with a gentle hand around my shoulder.
“Parents aren’t supposed to hurt their children.”
His head lowers as if in prayer. “Sometimes they do.”
My attention returns to the small group of children gathered on the street, idling there as if waiting for something—a sign, a warning, anything.
“Will you come with me?” I beg him.
My father laughs until he’s hoarse, sliding a hand across his bald head from where the chemotherapy robbed him of his once auburn curls. “You think introducing them to your father will help get you on their good side?”
“They won’t mind.”
He draws in sharply, considering his every word. “Sometimes you have to do things on your own.”
For the first time in thirteen years, I’m honest with him. “I’m scared,” I say.
“I’ll be right here watching you.”
But I’m too stubborn for my own good. “You can’t come with me?”
“I can’t be with you all the time,” he says, deflating as if he knows full well how much he’s hurting me. “We’ve already talked about this.”
“Follow them,” he says. “You’re allowed.”
“Wherever they go?”
I know just how to hurt him—how to curl an invisible hand inside him like radiation’s fingers. “You just want me gone,” I say.
I instantly regret it. He doesn’t deserve to be hurt. Besides, I’ve already done enough harm to him.
“You know that’s not true,” he tells me. Voice thinning to a whisper, he eases himself into one of the only small chairs in the foyer not piled with unopened cardboard boxes. “It’s just—I’m worried. Have been for a while.”
“I’m worried you won’t be able to take care of yourself when I’m gone.”
Once again, another obscene thought crashes into my mind and violently roots itself where I can’t pluck it away—thethought of my father, his face pallid and ashen, framed inside a wooden pine box and being carried away by well-dressed pallbearers.
“But you’re not leaving anytime soon. Right?”
He caresses my hand. “You have a child to give them to the world. Not keep them from it.”
“Is that what you’re doing?” I ask. “Giving me to the world?”
“You’ll see one day,” he says. “When you have a family of your own.”
His eyes lower for a moment. Then, they meander out the window, staring blankly at the small band of children idling beside our mailbox and quietly playing their instruments as a rain shower beats against them.
“You know,” he says, “in some countries they bind children’s feet to keep them as tiny and as delicate as possible.”
“I know,” I say, cringing slightly as I recall the black-and-white photographs I’ve seen in history class.
“Well,” he says, “you can either wear shoes too small for you. Or you can find shoes your own size.”
He stretches out his hand, passing the flashlight to me.
I consider it for a moment.
Do I dare?
Then, as if commanded by a bloodless worm twitching in my brain, I snatch the flashlight from his hands. I shove my feet into my father’s pair of rainboots, my toes curling at the smallness of their size.
I peck my father with a kiss on his forehead. His skin feels warm as if feverish.
Opening the door and sailing down the front steps, I weave across the lawn as I scale the small embankment leading to the roadway where the band of children wait for me. Rain drizzles, blurring my sight until I smear the water from my eyes.
Greeting them with a halfhearted wave and an unsure smile creasing my face, they lower their percussive instruments, and their playing comes to a halt. The leader of the group—a blond-haired boy dressed in a gold lamé suit—approaches me.
“When did that get here?” I ask.
I turn my head slightly and watch as an ambulance arrives, a dark crimson shadow leeching across the lawn. A body draped in white linen is carried out from the house, medics sliding the corpse into the rear of the vehicle and latching the doors shut.
A breath escapes me with a single word. “Dad?”
The blond-haired boy in the gold lamé suit inches closer toward me, his followers shadowing him and closing in around me the way a herd of animals surround a wounded member of their pack.
“You look uncomfortable,” he says, pitifully.
His eyes scan me from my head to my feet. Then, he kicks off his boots and swipes them from the ground.
“These should be your size,” he says, passing them to me.
He sees the confusion on my face, my eyes searching him for an explanation.
He smiles at me. “You’re one of us now.”
One of the other children elbows their way through the crowd toward me and offers me a tambourine.
“We should be on our way,” he says to the group as they prepare their instruments once more.
They begin to march down the lane, clanging their cymbals and skirting beyond the streetlights like small insects. I’m glued to where I’m standing, for a moment too afraid to join. It’s not long before a gentle breeze pushes me along as if it were a gentle hand dragging me after them.
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