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Yield

Chad savoured the sweetness of his orange juice while the crackling sound of eggs on a too-hot pan drowned out the radio sitting atop the fridge. Mom was bouncing around the kitchen like a pinball, trying to multitask a hearty breakfast for the family, specifically the family member likely to be the hungriest. Chad looked at the clock on the wall, which read 9:30 a.m. He had to squint to read it, as the Century Farm plaque on the kitchen wall reflected the morning sun right into his eyes. Next to it, a certificate proclaiming their more than 100-year-old farm a National Heritage site. The old man ought to be rambling in from the field anytime now, after a morning of harvesting on a lovely Manitoba morning.

Sure enough, the front door opened and slammed shut, and Chad heard the sound of the family patriarch shuffling off his work boots. His dad, Ernest Kulyk, still had dirt on his clothes when he entered the kitchen to give mom a peck on the cheek.

"Go get yourself cleaned up," Judy Kulyk opened the oven door to check on some farmer sausage while it sizzled in a grill pan. "Breakfast is still a couple of minutes away."

"Those eggs are burning, I think," Ernest flipped up a fried egg to inspect its browning underside.

"Get out, you. Come back when you're clean."

Ernest grumbled a complaint but obediently made his way upstairs. The sound of water rushing through pipes came down through the ceiling above as the shower in the master bedroom's washroom was turned on.

"You know he's going to really start pressing you now, Chad," Judy plated a couple of the crispier fried eggs for her son, who preferred them that way.

"I know. Still don't care."

"Don't dismiss it so easily. It's a good life. Your dad and I provided very well for you off this farm."

"I don't want to farm, mom. I never did." The words were true. Chad was nineteen now, and even if he wasn't sure just what he was going to do, he knew it didn't involve agriculture, or staying in sleepy Killarney, Manitoba. Something about the farm had always put him ill at ease, ever since he was a kid.

Judy paused with the fridge door open. Chad saw his mom's face go neutral as she considered her next words.

"Not everything is up to you. Some things you don't really get to decide," she grabbed a jug of orange juice off the fridge's top shelf and let the door slam shut.

"What does that mean, mom?"

"I'm just saying, listen to your dad when he speaks. Think about the future."

Chad ate his breakfast in silence, while his mother finished off hash browns and butterflied farmer sausages and plated her husband's meal, putting a cover over it to trap the heat. Chad thought about what his mother had told him. Why shouldn't he get to choose not to inherit the farm? At times he resented being an only child, longing for a brother or sister who could take over in his place.

His father came downstairs smelling of Irish Spring and grabbed his plate off the counter. He wolfed down his food as fast as ever, something that always amazed Chad. His father only ever chewed his food as long as it took for the fork to travel from his mouth to his plate, and back again.

"I'm going to need help loading the crop for transport, Chad. Got an errand in town, so I won't be here to run the harvester for the guy picking up today. No arguments," Ernest scraped up the last fragments of hash browns into a tiny bite's worth.

"Dad, I'm supposed to be going to the lake with Jack and Samantha this afternoon. Why can't you do it?" Chad was pissed at the idea of having to postpone, more out of a desire to see Samantha than anything else.

"I said no arguments. You want to go to the lake? Be ready when you're needed and make sure it's done right. You'll still have time to go out with your friends. Come on, now. There's barely even anything to load in there. Just one trailer's worth."

Chad sighed. He didn't like to even help on the farm, but he knew when he had to. He chugged the rest of his orange juice, slammed the glass on the table hard enough to make his mother shoot a glare at him for it, and went upstairs to put on his "working" jeans.

A couple hours later, a tractor hauling a huge open-topped trailer pulled up to their property. They had been coming for a couple of weeks now, taking the crop bit by bit as Chad's father harvested their eight-hectare farm. Chad never got to know any of the drivers who came to pick up their product, since there seemed to be a new one every season. They showed up, the canola would be poured by chute from their combine into the trailer, and off it would go. When he was a kid, Chad asked his father if any of the canola oil they saw in stores was from their farm, but the answer was always no. Their farm apparently did its work for Manitoba Agriculture, growing test crops from GMO seeds, intended to be used only for research. Their crop never went farm to table—it went farm to lab. That they gave up their land for this purpose was the whole reason they could afford to live on such a small, non-diverse operation. The government paid well to do its dirty work, he heard, again and again.

At the very least, being able to run a small farm meant the harvesting work could be done at a fairly leisurely pace, compared to their neighbours, who spent a lot more of their time in the field per day than Chad's father ever needed to—which meant the old man rarely ever bothered him for help.

Once the tractor hauling the trailer arrived, Chad approached the driver's side door. Chad waved at the man inside, and the window rolled down. Inside was a man so thin he was nearly skeletal, with a wisp of a moustache and an oversized plaid shirt hanging off his narrow shoulders.

"Here for the crop. Short on time," the man wasn't making any room for new friendships.

"Oh, okay. Drive up ahead and line up with the chute."

The man nodded and rolled up his window. Chad jogged toward the combine as the tractor went on ahead of him.

Chad got into the combine, turned on the engine, and checked his watch. Jack and Sam would be getting ready to head for the lake right now.

It took a while for the crop to fill up the trailer, during which time Chad idly half-read articles on a few different blogs. At least they only had a few trailers' worth on their land, and this would be the last one of the season.

The last of the crop sputtered out of the chute and into the trailer. He worked the controls to swing the chute away from its position overtop the now-delivered crop, and as the chute returned to its default position a few handfuls of canola spilled out onto the dry ground.

"Stop!" the thin man leapt out of the tractor and bolted to the other side, where the canola had spilled out. He immediately put on a pair of white gloves and a dust mask.

"Get me a broom, a rake, anything. We can't leave any of this behind."

"What? Who cares, it's like only a few ounces."

"Do it. Now."

Chad shrugged his shoulders and went to the barn for a rake while the thin man gingerly picked handfuls of crop off the ground and deposited them into the trailer. After everything had been cleaned up sufficiently, the man gave Chad a curt nod, muttered to himself about being late, got back into the trailer, and left. Chad goes back into the house to grab his swimsuit and sunscreen.

"Get it all loaded up?" his mom's voice emanates from the basement.

"Yeah. The guy was a jerk, like they always are. Especially when we spilled a little bit at the end."

Chad's mother practically sprinted up the stairs, making the old steps groan and shake with her stomping. The commotion startled him; he'd never seen his mother move so fast.

"Did you pick it all up? All of it?"

"Yes! Yes, we practically went over the drive with a microscope. Geez, what is with everyone? It's just some stupid canola."

Chad's mom seemed to physically lighten as her stress left her just as quickly as it had come. She clapped her hands on his broad shoulders.

"Yes. Of course. How silly of me. Go have fun with your friends. Your things are on the island."

Chad grabbed his stuff out of the kitchen, got into his beat-up five-litre Mustang, and peeled out of the drive.

Once he got to the lake, he was able to relax. As always, Samantha had been good enough to bring a little weed to the proceedings, and a decent high was all it took to wipe away the annoyances of the day so far. Chad didn't like being indebted to his friends, though, so he contributed a bottle of rye himself. Seeing the look on Samantha's face when he pulled it out of his trunk was worth the all-nighter shift at the bakery earlier in the week. For once, he could shell out for the good stuff.

Jack, the mooch, had brought nothing as usual. His presence, he never missed a chance to say, was their present. Chad threw him off the dock to get his money's worth of entertainment.

They fished a little, but there was nothing to catch, not anymore. The old timers had told Chad that back in the '70s, the lake was teeming with perch, not very big but fun to catch. These days you were lucky to see a decent-sized pike. Today, it was nothing but bullheads. Jack and Chad hauled them up one after another, tossing them in the grass to die, so they couldn't go on eating the eggs of better fish.

The sun came down, and once they were sober it was time to head home. Jack and Samantha had gotten a ride to the lake with their parents, and while Jack was cool to stay at Chad's house for the night, Chad's mom would never allow Samantha to stay at their house overnight. His mom didn't know anything for sure, but her assumption was absolutely correct. He still thought it was a little cold. The three of them piled into the Mustang and started heading for Boissevain, where Sam lived. Jack complained that he, the tallest by far, was crammed into the back seat yet again, but Chad ignored him. He preferred Sam riding shotgun, every time.

"Feel better now?" Samantha's grin could still be seen in the darkness. She was probably still a little high, Chad thought.

"Oh yeah. A little fishin', a little booze, some primo ditch weed. Always the cure for what ails me."

"Ditch weed? How dare you. How dare you, sir," Samantha punched his arm. "So what's your old man's problem, anyway?"

"Same thing as ever. He wants me to inherit the farm and he's mad I won't."

"Well, no duh. But you shouldn't have to do it if you don't want to. He could sell the farm to anyone, so what does he care?"

"I don't know. I think he's just a traditionalist."

"What, like a line of succession?" Jack took a hit off a freshly rolled joint. "Does he know he's a canola farmer in Westman and not the Baron of Rochestershire or some shit?"

"Right?" Samantha snorted as she laughed. "Parents, man."

"Yeah." Chad rolled down the window to clear the air inside the car a little.

They dropped off Samantha and began making their way back to the farm. As they began to turn onto Highway 3 to take them home, something burst underneath the car and Chad instantly felt an imbalance from behind the wheel.

"Damn!" Chad pulled over. "Jack, there's a flashlight rolling around back there, get it for me."

Jack found the flashlight and a quick glance confirmed the rear passenger-side tire was as flat as it could be. Chad popped the trunk for his spare, jack and tire iron, and got to work raising up the car. Jack watched patiently, trying to look like he was helping by observing. Chad got the blown wheel off and had just put the spare in place when Jack began to tap him on the shoulder.

"You hear that?"

"What, man? Coyotes?"

"Nah, man. Listen."

Chad stopped and focused. It took a few seconds but he heard it too, carrying on the little bit of wind in the air: the sound of low, droning voices, like chanting. They were coming from a field of tall, golden sunflowers, yet to be harvested.

"It's coming from the field right here, behind us," Jack stood up to try and see what could be making the noise.

Chad got the nuts on the spare, lowered the car, and gave them one good, hard twist, stomping down on the tire iron as it rested on each nut to ensure it was secure. He threw the jack into the trunk, but kept the tire iron.

"Where are we? Right by the intersection of three and ten, right?" Chad tried to get a sense of his exact position, peering around in the darkness. Jack's joint had been potent enough that he was feeling it second-hand.

"Right past it, yeah."

"Then this would be George Patterson's field," Chad gripped the tire iron a little tighter. "No way old George is out here this late. He's been a friend of my family my whole life. If someone's screwing around on his property, then I got something to say about that."

"What, so now you're the champion of the farmers? If you're right, who knows how many goons are over there, anyway?"

"What does that matter? A friend is a friend. And plus, I have you to back me up. C'mon, who leads the league in penalty minutes?"

Jack kicked a rock, trying to hide a grin. "I do."

"And how many of those are for fighting?"

"Most of 'em."

"Then let's go."

They began wading through stalks of sunflowers, toward the chanting. It grew louder until, about two hundred yards in, the sound was overbearing, and they could see torchlight start to flicker through the stalks.

"They're going to torch the field. I knew it, man," Chad tried to keep his voice to a whisper.

"You were right. Let's just take our time though, get a good head count before we rush in."

Chad nodded. They bent the last row of flowers away from them ever so slightly.

Once Chad got a look at the crowd, he dropped the tire iron in surprise, though luckily he was kneeling and it only had a few inches to fall to the wet earth with a soft thud. Standing in a circle in front of them were George Patterson, his wife Nellie, the thin man who'd hauled away their crop, a bunch of other people he didn't recognize—and Chad's father.

All of them wore heavy, wheat-coloured robes with their hoods down, the torchlight illuminating their faces. In the centre of their wide circle was an open, concrete pit, which seemed to contain the entirety of the crop he'd helped load up that afternoon. It was not a small quantity of canola, and the pit wasn't very wide in diameter, so Chad concluded it must be very, very deep.

Ernest stepped forward, carrying a torch. Chad could see sweat coming down his father's temples as the flame flickered near his head.

"Our apologies, Mother, for denying you again. Forgive our insolence. We must endure, at your expense," Chad's father's voice took on a grave property he had never heard before.

"We must endure," the crowd echoed in unison.

Ernest tossed the torch into the pit, and the flame began to spread across the crop. A high, whining sound emanated from the pit as the fire grew larger. As the group began to walk away from the pit, the thin man slipped in the mud and tumbled into the flames.

The thin man's shriek made Chad's heart stop for a moment. There was a panic among the group, with George and his wife trying to reach in to grab the thin man. Chad saw his father rush over to them both, pull them away from the pit, and slap George in the mouth.

"What are you doing?" Chad heard his father's voice roar. "You leave him there, damn it. He might bring some of it out with him. It might get buried in this mud before we find it."

The Pattersons glumly nodded and turned back toward the house. Nellie looks back once, covering her mouth, the flames making the hot-pink frames of her glasses shine. The thin man screamed for a few moments more, and then he stopped. The crop, however, continued to whine.

"Dude," Jack shook Chad by the shoulders gently. "We have to go."

Chad snapped to his senses and the two backed away quietly until they felt they were out of earshot, at which point they ran for the Mustang, got in, and peeled away. They drove the extra distance to Ninette, and slept at Jack's house.

Chad woke up to sunlight beaming in through Jack's bedroom window, the light making dust particles dance around his head. He had a moment's peace during his brief half-asleep haze, until the events of the night before returned to him. The ritual. The fire. The thin man screaming. Chad lurched out of the sleeping bag Jack had given him, raced to the bathroom down the hall, and vomited.

Chad got out of the house before Jack woke and went straight to his car, driving it back into town so his tire could be dropped off for repair or replacement. Unfortunately, it was the latter. Chad took the new tire with him, preferring to install it himself and save the money on labour.

He'd lie to Jack, he decided. Tell him he had no recollection of what happened in the field, that Jack must have dreamt it. Jack was dumb enough to buy that. He'd been pretty high at the time. That, however, would have to wait. He had a meeting with the old man first.

He couldn't listen to the radio on the brief drive back to the farm, about five kilometres east of town. He rehearsed the conversation in his head over and over, though only his own lines—who knew what his father would tell him. If he told him anything.

Maybe bringing it up would get him killed.

He pulled into the drive just as the old man was heading into the house. By the look of his greasy clothes, Chad guessed he'd finally gotten around to changing the oil in the banged up, faded-blue four-by-four used to cruise around the property.

A cloud of dust kicked up as Chad pulled up the dirt driveway. He saw his father's head cock to the side, inspecting the car as he drove up.

"Got your donut on? What happened?" His father's face turned to a frown, always so worried about road safety. His jaw worked methodically on a piece of nicotine gum.

"I hit a nail last night. Sorry I'm only getting home now. Ended up spending the night at Jack's house."

"You drive drunk?"

"No. Of course not."

"Hmm. So where did you hit a nail?"

"Right after the turnoff back home, after dropping off Sam," Chad raised his eyes to meet his Ernest's gaze. "Pulled over right by George Patterson's sunflower field to change it."

Ernest stopped his chewing and only slightly inhaled.

"Funny noises coming from the field that night. I wonder if maybe somebody was screwing around out there. We should let George know. Maybe call the cops," Chad's face was as still as carved stone after he spoke. He refused to look away from the old man.

Ernest gripped his wrench a little tighter, walking slowly to come within an inch of his son. Chad maintained eye contact. He felt his father's free hand, calloused and powerful, snatch him by the throat. He didn't squeeze enough to choke, but it was intimidating.

A moment later he released his grip and Chad stumbled back a bit. Ernest spit out his gum.

"Come with me," the whispered words were barely audible over the breeze passing between them.

Ernest began walking in the direction of the farm's old silo. It dated back to his great-grandfather's day but had fallen out of use a long time ago, though workers often came out to preserve it as part of the farm's heritage status. Chad followed, but left some distance between them, studying his father's body language, watching how tightly he was gripping that wrench. Halfway to the silo, Chad had endured enough suspense.

"I'm not going to just walk silently with you all over the farm. I want answers. Why grow all that canola just to burn it? And how could it be so dangerous that you left a man to die rather than have any of it spill?"

Ernest didn't answer. He stayed silent until they reached the old wooden silo. Ernest placed his hand on the door.

"Canola," Ernest spat out the word. "Son, we've never grown canola on this farm."

Ernest pushed the door open and they walked in. It was empty inside, just as it had always been, save for a small table with some basic tools scattered on it. Chad watched his father grab a flathead screwdriver off the table and begin working at a panel on the wall. He loosened four screws and pulled off a piece of the wall to reveal a switchbox. He tossed the screwdriver to Chad.

"There's a panel in the floor with more screws. Remove them, and take out the piece," Ernest, even under mysterious circumstances, bossed Chad around as easily as ever.

Chad did as he was told. The wood piece was big—about eight feet squared—and beneath was a steel hatch of some kind. Ernest flipped a black toggle switch and the hatched opened up, and an elevator platform rose up from beneath.

"What the hell?" Chad said.

"Pretty high-tech, I know," Ernest put his hands in his pockets. "It used to be a ladder. But we keep having to go deeper in, so that got too hard to climb up and down when we needed to."

"How did you build this without any of us knowing?"

"Oh, you always knew, Chad. You've seen people come in to work on this silo over the years. Lucky for us, we happened to be named a Heritage site, 'somehow,' which means there's a constant preservation effort around here."

"Oh my God. I thought they were just treating the wood, maybe replacing rotted supports, but—"

"Yup. When I was your age, the excuse was that we qualified for a special program 'to maintain and modernize sustainable farms in the province.' You can trust the government to never run out of bullshit excuses to spend money. Now they've got the history angle. That'll work forever."

Ernest motioned to Chad to join him on the platform. Chad approached cautiously. What was below them?

"If we don't grow canola and we don't harvest crops, what the hell is this farm for?"

"We keep something in the ground. Forever, hopefully."

Ernest hit a button on a panel on the platform, and the elevator began to sink into the ground. It moved faster than Chad expected it to.

"Why are we dropping so hard?" Chad gripped the railing of the platform tightly.

"We have a long way to go. Better to get there fast."

Tracks of lighting lined the chute they were dropping down, but it only barely allowed Chad to see the two of them. As they descended further, he occasionally caught a flicker of something in the distance, which told him they were travelling through a wide, open cavity beneath the ground, with a wire cage encasing the elevator. He wondered how long it had taken them to tunnel so far down, through the shale, clay, sandstone, and whatever else was beneath the topsoil here. The musty smell of wet earth was overwhelming.

The elevator was surrounded by steel walls on all sides again as they neared the bottom of the shaft. Vertical doors opened in front of them to reveal a long catwalk into the middle of the cavity. Ernest gave his son a shove from behind.

"Well, go on. You wanted to know so badly. Go and look."

Chad regretted ever bringing it up. He wished he could go back and pretend he'd never seen anything. He wondered if his father was Illuminati, or the leader of a terrorist splinter cell, or some other thing, and that he would never see the outside of this cavern again. He took tiny steps down the catwalk, keeping his eyes focused on the end of it. Behind him, Ernest hit a switch that lit a series of spotlights at the end of the platform, all of them pointed up.

As he reached the end, he felt the air get warmer, more humid, coming down on him from above in powerful bursts. By the time he reached the end of the catwalk, and stood surrounded by the spotlights, he had a sense of what he would see when he looked up.

"Go on, Chad. Say hello to Mother," Ernest's voice echoed off the walls of the cavern.

Chad felt his body tremble from head to toe as he slowly raised his eyes to the ceiling. Looming there, a couple dozen feet above him, was a huge, open-mouthed face, not unlike a frog's. It looked down at him with half a dozen eyes sealed shut by brown lids, each the size of a decent above-ground swimming pool. The mouth hung open, leaving a tongue of bundled, thin branches to descend, almost on top of their heads, the branches teeming with golden flowers. Tracing the outline of the creature he realized there were no support structures to hold the cavern up: the creature was the support, its four limbs acting as pillars and bowing out, shaping the space into a dome. It had to be at least the size of his high school. His lip quivered while he watched it, not knowing if it—she—could see him, too. Its muddy belly sucked in and sagged down with every breath. Parts of its torso twitched and convulsed, but it didn't seem to mind the pressure of the weight bearing down on it. Ernest, who had followed Chad to the centre, stood just beneath the tongue, which swayed gently with the thing's breathing.

Chad looked away. He couldn't bear it. He wanted to pretend it wasn't there anymore.

"What is this?"

"We don't know, exactly. What we do know is that it wasn't here to begin with," Ernest sauntered down the catwalk, obviously used to the sight. "Our best guess is it came to this land on your great-great-grandfather's back, so to speak. He carried it here from Ukraine, in the tread of a boot or maybe on his clothes somewhere, back when it was just a seed. None of the kooks we've asked have been able to pin down what it is. Some of 'em say it's a spirit, or a plant elemental, maybe even some kind of weird uber-fairy. We call her what we do because 'Mother Nature' is about the closest way to describe whatever the hell she is. If she's even female."

Ernest looked up at the monster's face. Its breathing quickened.

"Did you hear me apologize to it? At the ritual?"

"Yes,"

"I do that because I know she can hear. She's connected to every part of her, at least in some ways. The parts we cut off? She can see and hear through them. She knew we were burning it."

"Why are you doing that?"

Ernest leaned up against the rail at the end of the catwalk, backlit by spotlights.

"He had no idea he'd brought it over here. Your ancestor. He began to grow barley and for two years straight, his whole crop turned out terribly. During processing they found some kind of contaminant inside, and it ruined the whole batch. They didn't know what it was, but they did what was safe for them, and they refused to buy from him," Ernest popped another piece of nicotine gum into his mouth.

"And you think it was this thing that did that?"

"We know it was," Ernest reached into the pocket of his overalls and placed a tiny pod of canola seeds, about an inch and a half long, in Chad's palm. "This one got left behind somehow. You guys weren't thorough enough. Break it open and see what happens."

Chad looked at the little pod and squeezed. Trails of crimson erupted from his hand, and the pod squealed.

"Blood," Chad's voice was hushed.

"Blood. No seeds. It's not interested in reproducing. Saves all its energy for itself. This thing took root at the same time as the first crop, and it camouflaged itself. Its sprouts look exactly like whatever it's planted alongside. You'd never know if you didn't break into them. You actually did it by accident, once, when you were a little boy. You were so terrified. Hell, maybe that's why you want nothing to do with this place."

"Why does it matter if we leave seeds on the ground, then, if it can't reproduce?"

"Mother's a tenacious thing, whatever she is," Ernest produced a tissue from his pocket so Chad could wipe his bloodied hands. "If we leave seeds somewhere we're not accounting for, the roots will stretch all the way back to her eventually. We're not sure how far they'll travel exactly, but it's a long ways. We need to keep everything so we know where she is, where her flowers are growing. If we left a seed in a ditch somewhere, bet your ass a flower would bloom and she'd wake right up."

Chad thought back to the thin man's panic, and his mother's. They had spent their whole lives trying desperately to keep Mother from waking up. And where had it gotten the thin man? Dead in a giant bonfire.

"So how did he find out about it?"

"The third year, after the first two crops failed, your great-great-grandfather fell into a depression and refused to seed anything. He started planning to switch over to livestock—turkeys. But the crop grew anyway. He ignored it and didn't notice that a few weeks after harvest would normally be complete, all that barley burst out with huge, purple flowers. Like big, mutant lilies. Two hours later, his entire house began to shake. She woke up."

"So she's sleeping right now?"

"Dormant, I guess. She can't move, but she's aware. Without any sunlight to absorb, she can't get mobile. But when she woke up, whoa man. She was only the size of a bus around then, but that was big enough. She immediately went after everything artificial, or constructed, the houses and vehicles and such. Anything not quite natural. They shot her, they burned her, they hacked at her. Every farmer in the area came together to handle it. It took a full day to put her down, and even then she wasn't defeated—she just dug underground again, waiting for her next try. Every single year, she gets a little bigger under here. Every single year, she sprouts more and more of that 'canola' hoping to get even one flower open so she can wake up again. That's why we have to hack it all down, and burn every bit of it. So it can never bloom."

"Good God. And the whole community helped? They're all in on this?"

"The families who were around back then, yeah, they're in on it. That's why the Pattersons are in on it. George's dad was one of the people who knew the secret first. He went on to become the ag minister, and he set up our whole test-farm scheme— we switched to planting canola right after they developed it back in the '70s, and Mother copied it immediately—to explain why we can afford to live on such a relatively small crop. Of course, we actually get paid a lot better than most people know."

Chad looked up again, at the behemoth hanging above him, indirectly keeping their whole farm from crashing down on his head. He almost felt sorry for it, being asleep for all these years. But if it woke up now, could it ever be defeated?

"Do you know why it has to be you to inherit this farm, Chad?" he felt his father's hand on his shoulder.

"No. Even with all this, no."

"Of all the occultists and mystics our family has talked to in the last hundred years, the one consistency is that this thing is linked to us now. It knows we're standing in its way. If we sell the farm to someone else, and they screw it up and wake this thing up, the first thing it's doing is coming straight for anyone connected to this family. Every living generation of our family, including you. Your safety is too important to me, Chad. I know you don't want to farm, but if you know the stakes, I know you'll do it right."

"That, and you don't want anyone outside your little cult squealing on you."

"That, too. And watch the attitude. I have probably literally saved the world every year by running that combine and burning that crop. So don't give me your teenage shit, Chad."

"How am I supposed to have a life of my own, now? You want me to take over the farm so I can have this thing on my hands for the rest of my life? Growing and harvesting a crop just to have to burn it in secret, terrified I might miss a single pod, and hoping no one breaks down by the road on the wrong night?"

"You can have the life you want, Chad. I'm not blind. I know you have a thing for that Samantha girl."

Ernest reached up toward the woody tongue, which weakly flinched away at his touch. A wet breath escaped Mother. Grumbling, Ernest jumped up and snatched the tongue in his hand, causing its thin branches to crack under his grip. He ripped a yellow flower off and released the tongue. He walked over to Chad and pressed the flower into his hand.

"This flower has tremendous properties. It's magical. If you really want a life with Samantha, you give her this, and she's yours."

"I don't want some love potion to force her to be with me."

"That's not what it is. It amplifies emotion. If she already likes you, all this will do is nudge her into 'love.' If she doesn't like you, then believe me, you'll know it."

Chad knew she was into him. He looked at the yellow flower, shining as bright as polished gold in his hands. A life with Samantha. He could have it if he wanted.

"What are you thinking, son?" Ernest snapped his fingers in Chad's face, bringing him back to Earth.

Chad felt a deep resentment for his father, for his whole family back to the beginning, for saddling him with this. Maybe it wasn't their fault that Mother got here to begin with. He still loathed them for bringing him into the world with no chance to have a life of his own. He knew already, he didn't want the world they offered him.

"You know this is wrong. I heard what you said out in the field, when you burned it all. You apologized to this thing."

Ernest shifted uneasily on his feet. "Chad, maybe Mother was part of some order of things before. I understand that. But whatever role she served, she can't serve it anymore, not today, not in this time. We've got to keep a lid on her."

"And you get to decide that?"

"Chad-"

"Just leave me alone. I need to think. I need to process this."

Ernest nodded and walked back down the catwalk, his footsteps echoing through the cavern. Chad took a look at Mother, watched her bulbous eyes twitch under their lids. He listened as his father got into the elevator and took it back up to the surface alone. Looking up at the creature, he saw its eyes roll slightly—following the elevator's path. Chad's breath caught in his throat. His father had told him Mother was aware, but it still surprised him to realize how much. The eyes rolled around a little more, settling at a downward angle, toward him. The hot breathing above picked up in pace, and Mother's belly sucked in and sagged down a little faster, more excitedly.

"If it makes you feel any better," Chad returned his gaze to his feet, not wanting to look at the creature too long. "I don't like being stuck here any more than you do."

He stuffed the flower into his pocket and walked back down the catwalk. After he rode the elevator back above ground, he and Ernest returned to the house in silence.

Chad sat at the kitchen table the following afternoon, staring blankly at a ham and cheese sandwich he'd haphazardly assembled. Too much mustard leaked out of the sides, and he was iffy on the quality of the meat. He reached for his glass of water, but it began to jitter away from him. For a moment he thought he might have actually gone crazy, but then he noticed the rest of the room was rattling around as well.

The ground was shaking.

A scream came from upstairs—his mom's voice.

"Ernest!" The cry was loud enough to reach across their whole property. Hurried footsteps raced up the basement stairs and his father braced himself in the doorway as the house began to shake more violently.

"Chad." Ernest's voice said everything it needed to.

They both struggled to stay steady on their feet as the ground rumbled beneath, but they got out of the house and made their way to the four-by-four.

"What's going on?"

"We screwed the pooch, is what's going on," Ernest said. "We missed some. Oh dear God, we missed some. We have to hurry. Get in the back."

They got into the car, Ernest driving and Chad in the bed of the truck, and raced off down the middle of their land. Ernest slid the back window open and reached through it as he drove, handing Chad a pair of binoculars.

"Look for purple. Find it fast."

Chad looked through the binoculars, trying to get a good look through them despite his shaking viewpoint. Pockets of ground burst up around them, little explosions that flung wet earth into the air. Chad wondered how far out the quake was reaching. Did their neighbours feel it, too?

He looked all around and finally, in the northeast corner of their land, a small patch of purple.

"There, northeast," Chad shouted through the back window. Ernest nodded and Chad sunk into the bed, his free hand clutching the side of the truck. The vehicle veered wildly toward the flowers.

The truck fishtailed to a stop a few yards from the flowers and Ernest got out. Chad gaped at the blooms—two of them, each the size of a beach ball, in the most luxurious royal purple hue Chad had ever seen.

"Quit gawking and help," Ernest roared over the sound of the rattling earth. Chad leapt out of the box and raced to join his father.

"You grab one, and I grab one. Pull with everything you got, they won't come up easy," Ernest wrapped his thick hands around the thin stalks of the plant. Chad did the same with his flower, realizing that though thin, the stalks were incredibly strong, since they held up disproportionately large blooms.

They pulled with all their strength, constantly having to adjust their footing as the ground kept shaking. Adrenaline surged through him as he felt the ground break up around him, the soil fissuring around the flowers as Mother's awakening progressed. Neither of them made progress.

"Shit," Ernest said. "Fine, we do it the messy way."

Ernest raced back to the truck and produced a machete from the cab. He ran back over to the flowers.

"Get clear," Ernest said. Chad did as he was told and began backing away.

With a solid hack, the machete cut the stalk, and blood burst out of it, painting Ernest red. Chad watched the ground behind his father burst open, a gigantic, gnarled object jutting out of the opening. It gripped the surface behind Ernest, who went to the other stalk and began hacking at it. Chad heard a squeal, just like the one the pod had made when he'd crushed it, only much louder. The sound made him wince, and not just because of the pitch of the note. He could practically feel the slashes himself as his father hacked away. Three strikes later, the second flower fell, coating Ernest in another layer of red fluid.

The tremors stopped. The earth settled. The geysers of blood from the stems settled, coughing out a few more spurts before drying up. Chad could suddenly hear his own heartbeat. Ernest fell down to his hands and knees, exhausted, looking like he'd rolled around on a slaughterhouse floor. Both of their breathing was heavy and ragged.

Chad passed by his father, his eyes locked on the thing that had erupted from the ground. The shape didn't exactly match that of a human's, but they looked an awful lot like fingers to Chad. He reached the exposed bit of Mother and placed a shaking hand on it. It was warm, and solid. It felt harder than the steel in his car. Thin, white roots grow out of its epidermis, as if its hairs were standing on end. The roots wrapped themselves tightly around Chad's fingers.

Feeling a lump in his throat, he placed his other hand on top of the one she grasped, the way he might take an older woman's handshake in church.

Chad looked back at his father, who was now staring back at him. He jerked his hand away, tearing himself free of the thin roots, aware of how he must look to the old man. The exposed piece slides back into the earth, the disrupted soil filling in overtop of it.

Chad walked back to his father, now on his feet.

"I thought her hands would be bigger, considering," Chad said.

"Some of them are," Ernest said. "I honestly have no clue how many she has at this point."

Ernest's cell phone rang. He looked at the screen.

"Your mother," he said. He answered, listened for a few moments, and hung up.

"No tremors at the neighbours' farms. She didn't get enough energy for that. We're lucky it was only two flowers. Two more than that, we might not have made it in time to stop her. Do you get it now, Chad? Do you know why we need to know where all these are?"

Chad looked at their cracked field, felt the palpitations in his chest.

"She's even stronger than I imagined. It's incredible."

Ernest and his parents had a tense supper. It had taken the afternoon to get Chad's father and his clothes clean. Mother's blood was scentless, but it had a viscous quality to it, making bigger clean-up efforts akin to tackling an oil spill. Ernest had wanted to try pulling the flowers first so the blood flow would mostly take place underground, at the severed roots. This was another reason for the need to harvest quickly, as the blood didn't start flowing through the stems until the flowers were open.

"I'm turning in," Ernest let his knife and fork fall in a clatter onto the plate. "I'm exhausted."

"Okay, dear. You do that, I'll clean up here," Chad's mother gave Ernest a peck on the cheek as he rose.

Chad watched his father ascend the stairs, letting his eyes follow his father's path without craning his neck or turning his head. His father didn't pay Chad any mind—not even a goodnight. That was fine with Chad. He didn't want to exchange niceties today.

Chad volunteered to help his mother dry the dishes, which elated her. She didn't know he just wanted the job done so she could settle in for the evening faster. Afterward she settled in to Wheel of Fortune and promptly tuned everything else out. Chad snuck out the door, carefully closing the clasp without letting the door slam.

Once outside he carefully walked toward the silo, making sure not to crunch any grass underfoot too loudly, since most of the windows in the house were open. Once he was sure he wouldn't be heard, he sprinted. He accessed the elevator and descended, down into the cavern again.

He made his way down into the cavern, lit by electric lights that triggered as he descended. It wasn't much, but it let him see where he was going. The elevator reached the bottom and he saw the array of spotlights flick on, shining on Mother's face. Her breathing echoed off the walls. It felt like the whole cavern was alive. Maybe it was, given how big she was.

He walked up, almost right below her mouth, and looked up.

"Did it hurt you? When he cut down the flowers?"

A raspy breath comes down on him, bringing up the humidity in his vicinity.

"Has it hurt every time? All the harvests?"

The breathing becomes more rapid. Mother's eyes roll down in their sockets. It feels like she's looking at him.

"I don't know what to make of any of this. What to do about any of it. Dad says you'll kill the whole world if you're allowed to totally revive. But when I think about what you've gone through, what they've done to you all these years, I don't even know if I blame you. But I don't want to die, either. Not that you care about my problems. I'm just another son of the Kulyks for you to get back at, right?"

He turned back and started walking toward the elevator. Halfway back, he heard the sound of leaves rustle to his right. He turned to look at the source of the noise—a thick vine had snaked down from the ceiling, making its way to him.

Chad began to step backward, holding his hands out in front of him. His thoughts turned to final prayers, confident that Mother was about to take revenge on him. Would she strangle him? Grow a flower that shoots poison darts? Devour him whole in some sort of Venus flytrap-like mouth?

A studded brown branch emerged from the point of the vine, about as thick as the handle of the wooden spoons his mom cooked with. Before his eyes, buds began to sprout from it, producing half a dozen tiny, thin seed pods, just like the one he'd crushed moments ago. He looked up again at Mother.

"How? How are you moving? You haven't..."

It hit him. She had sunshine, just earlier that day. Not enough to get mobile again, but enough to do a little something. He wondered, if Ernest had paid a visit tonight, would he have been killed?

Chad snapped the pods off the branch and put it in his other pants pocket, next to the flower. The vine receded, wrapping itself around a column of hard earth near the cavern's perimeter. Mother went still.

That night, he got a text from Sam that was pretty direct: she wanted him to meet her, alone, at the beach around dusk. That didn't surprise him—she wanted to take advantage of swimming weather while their unseasonably warm fall lasted. She had managed to borrow her brother's car, though, which he knew meant the partying would be kept to a minimum.

After supper, he brushed past his mom, "forgetting" to thank her for the meal and skipping the hug he usually gave her. He didn't even know what to make of her anymore, knowing she'd kept the secret too. Was she only with his father because of the flower's spell? Did she even really love him, or was that just an offshoot of the effect? They could justify it all however they wanted—they had given him a false life, an endless string of false choices, all of them leading to a predetermined fate. He got into the Mustang, feeling the flower in his pocket on one side, the seed pod in the other.

It was busy around the lake tonight, with plenty of summertime tourists milling around the burger joint/miniature golf course across the street from the beach's parking lot. He parked right next to the path leading to the beach, cursing as he felt his front bumper smack the worn, wooden post on the border of the parking lot. As he walked toward the sand he saw a couple of kids fishing off the dock of a lakeside house. One of them pulled up a short, fat bullhead. The boy curled his mouth in a frown, unhooked the little fish, and hurled it against a rock. Chad nodded his approval.

He saw Sam sitting on a towel in the gritty, dark-brown sand, jeans covering up the bottom half of her two-piece. The beach had mostly cleared out, save for a pair of stalwart parents letting their kids have some extra time in the water, and some guys playing Frisbee in their jeans at about knee-depth. Chad understood them—he always hated wearing shorts and had been in the water in his denim a time or two.

"Hey," Samantha rolled out a towel next to hers. Chad sat down, but knew he'd regret it. He could already feel sand seeping into his sneakers and coating his socks, despite the towel.

"Hey. How's Boissevain?"

"Busy."

"Ha. Tell me another one."

"Hey, you didn't bring your trunks?" Samantha looked over Chad, checking for a grocery bag on him or anything that might have suggested he packed something for the trip.

"Oh, no. Sorry. Wasn't thinking."

"Well, too bad for you, I guess. I want in that water before it gets too cold. Unless you're cool to swim in your clothes."

"Not today."

"Okay. I'll be back soon."

She took off her jeans and ran off into the water, diving straight in. She shrieked when she came up, and he could see her teeth chattering from his position on the sand. She gave him a thumbs-up and dove back under. He reached into his pocket and took out the yellow flower, which still shone brightly in its crushed state. The petals folded out neatly, restoring the flower's original shape. Its perfume wafted up at him. He thought about Mother, and what it would mean to bring Samantha in on such a secret. He thought about what their kids might look like. He looked out at the water, saw her fail an attempt at an underwater handstand. She coughed up some water, pulled wet strands of brown hair away from her eyes, and beckoned for him to join her.

If there was ever a time to man up and spill his guts, to make his overture, this was it. He took a deep swallow, feeling the softness of the petals in his palm.

Then he remembered the sound of Mother's breathing. The sweet smell of the flower dissipated, his memory replacing it with the smell of blood from the pod he'd crushed. He remembered the way Mother had grabbed his hand out in the field, embracing instead of crushing him. Chad began to think maybe Mother wasn't as primitive as his family thought. He crumpled up the flower and buried it in the sand. Not like this. As he buried the flower, a chill went through him, his stomach writhing in knots. His lips curled into a frown as he processed the choice to give up on Sam for good. It wasn't fair. None of it had been fair. And the worst, he decided, was still to come.

Samantha came out of the water and began to towel off. Chad made sure never to look at her directly, knowing he'd made things awkward. His hands ran down the sides of his jeans and he felt the little, stolen seed pods through the denim.

"Hey. I have an idea. Wanna take a walk?" Chad pointed his thumb in the direction of the town proper. "A little evening pizza, maybe?"

"I can never say no to pep and bacon. Let's do it."

As they walked, Chad found himself preoccupied and only replied with the bare minimum as Samantha spoke. They came across the big, open park, a green space left that way after an old school had been demolished years prior. On the corner of the lot was a small garden bed, now empty during autumn, marking the town's various Communities In Bloom awards.

"Check it out," Chad produced the little seed pods out of his pocket. Samantha wrinkled her nose at him. She was a town kid, and despite having hung out at his house plenty of times over the years, had shown even less interest in general agricultural knowledge than him.

"What the hell is that?"

"Magic beans. Let's plant them and see what grows."

"You're such a dork sometimes. Really." Samantha continued walking down the sidewalk, leaving it behind.

Chad chuckled and reached into the centre of the flower display, digging small holes in the black earth. He placed the pods inside them, and covered them up.

The next autumn, Chad sat in the local greasy spoon, sipping coffee while old-timers chattered away about the weather. It had been a dull, depressing year. He'd dutifully signed up for agricultural science courses at the nearest community college, managing to land a spot in the winter semester, telling his father he was serious about taking over the farm. After their near-miss with Mother, it was easy for the old man to believe Chad's turnaround. The coursework had been boring as hell, but Chad wasn't stupid, so he did well enough to earn respectable marks. After that had been a dull summer "tending the farm" with the old man. But if he was lucky, everything would soon change.

"Have you heard from Samantha yet?" Jack stuffed the last of his hash browns into his face, talking with his mouth full again. Chad had successfully played dumb with Jack about that night in the field, the big lug easily accepting the idea it was all a dream. Maybe he just needed to think it was.

"No, not in a while, she must be enjoying it out there."

Samantha's absence had made the year even more depressing for Chad—she'd decided to put off university for a year to travel, an option Chad had floated to her discreetly, and then pushed her toward once she took the bait. He hadn't expected to be so relieved to watch her leave him. Under ordinary circumstances, he would've been crushed. But she needed to be far, far away. She needed to be gone when it happened. If it happened. He checked his watch.

"Man, she must be loving it," Jack downed the last of his coffee, long gone cold. "Working as a nanny for some rich family and then partying in Dublin the rest of the time? Nice work if you can get it."

"Well, like I said to her: take this chance to get out of town, while you have it. You should have done the same."

"What can I say? I like home."

Chad looked away, pretending to be distracted by something. He paid both their bills and left a generous tip on the table.

"Whoa, thanks bud," Jack said.

"No problem."

"Just let me know how I can pay you back."

They left and began walking up the main drag. Chad was unsurprised when he came across a group of locals, gathered in front of the flower bed. He could already see that royal colour from a distance. When they approached the group, he found all of them rapt in conversation with each other. There were five huge purple flowers in the bed that hadn't been there yesterday. Chad tensed his muscles, trying to suppress nervous excitement—just as he'd hoped, the pods had split, sending roots down into the soil, before the winter frost set in. They'd had all winter to trace back to Mother, creating a lifeline so the sun's rays could reach her.

"What's up with the flowers?" Jack asked an older woman using a walker.

"The marigolds. The marigolds just exploded overnight into these things. Aren't they lovely? But how strange. I've never seen anything like it."

Chad was amazed at how quickly Mother's camouflage worked. Each of the canola pod doppelgangers had transformed themselves into copies of the marigolds seeded in the bed during spring. He looked at the flowers, checking his watch, wondering how long they'd been open in the sun. If she was going to wake up, she could well be awake already. He knew from the previous year that the tremors could have begun at the farm a while ago without him ever feeling them in town. He imagined his father ripping around the field in the truck, looking for flowers that were nowhere near the property.

Too bad, mom and dad. Sometimes not everything is up to you. There are some things you just don't get to decide.

There was a rustling in the air, and the crowd went quiet. All of the birds in the trees down the main drag burst into the sky at once. Chad barely heard it at first. A smile began to creep across his face as the sound got louder. The group covered its ears as a deafening roar swept over the town, decades of pent-up rage exploding into the sky. Mother was awake.

Chad looked over at Jack, who was trembling. He grabbed his friend by the arm.

"You want to know how you can pay me back? Listen to me today. Do everything I say. Every single thing."

Jack looked at Chad with frightened eyes, but nodded in agreement.

Chad walked over to the swaying purple flowers. They hadn't understood, none of them: generation after generation of his family, dutifully trying to keep Mother silent, to contain her. They had to know they would fail eventually. It would take a lot of arrogance, or stupidity, not to. Chad had realized the truth that day, out in the field, when he felt her rumble beneath the soil.

He placed his hand in the centre of a flower, and leaned in to whisper as the crowd scattered, all of them headed for home.

"I'm the one who freed you. Do you hear me, Mother? I let you go. I figure it's your turn."

The flower got warmer under Chad's hands. It folded its petals in, tightening around his fist. A whisper rolled off the flower's leaves.

Sweet child.

About the Author
Darren Ridgley is a journalist, speculative fiction writer, and grump residing in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His short fiction has previously appeared in the Fitting In: Historical Accounts of Paranormal Subcultures anthology, and magazines including Polar Borealis and Fantasia Divinity. You can follow his tweets at @DarrenRidgley.
Background image by ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R.Gendler, J-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne, and C. Feron.
http://www.eso.org/public/images/etamosaicnm2/, CC BY 4.0, Link