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Ninth Annual Popular Fiction Awards Thriller Winner: "The Tale of Twisted Creek"

“The Tale of Twisted Creek,” by Lauren Gail, is the First Place winning story in the thriller category for the Ninth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with W.R. Parrish and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2014 issue of Writer's DigestAnd click here for more information about entering the Tenth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.

In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Lauren's winning entry.

The Tale of Twisted Creek
by Lauren Gail

Mama collapsed in pain. A pool of water seeped from her crumpled form.

“It’s time, Izzy. Go.” Daddy ordered. “I’ll move her to the bed.”

I ran down the dirt road, leaving a trail of dust in my wake. I thought about what it’d be like with a brother or sister or even a baby of my own. After all, I was fifteen, and one of my girlfriends married only a month ago. But I didn’t want to be married yet, besides, I was stick straight—all knees and elbows, Mama said—and the boys made fun of my pale red hair and freckles. Maybe Mama would like me around more if I was happy to help with the baby.

My lungs burned, but I dared not slow down. I took a sharp left at the top of CopperHill to cut through a patch of woods, then down through our neighbor’s field.

Old Ma’ Jenkins, perched on her rickety porch, scowled at me as she snapped string beans. I waved and continued my mission. Long shadows crept across the countryside. I bounded up the steps and banged on the midwife’s weathered threshold.

A scrawny, hardened woman opened the door and stared at me through leathery slits. Strands of gray and brown hair escaped the bun and framed either side of her sun-worn face.

I bent over and put my hands on my knees, gasping for air. “It’s time. Mama’s birthin’ the baby.”

“Well, then. I’ll grab my bag.” She turned and walked down the hall, disappearing into a room.

I paced from one end of the porch to the other, waiting. Finally, she strode around the side of the house leading a black horse with a rope halter, but no saddle. “We’ll ride. You’re not but a slip of girl.”

Grinning, I readily accepted her leg-up. Riding made me feel so free, I almost felt guilty for enjoying the wind whip through my hair and the scratch of horse hide against my skin.

I flung open the screen door and lead the way to the bedroom.

Mama writhed on the bed. Flickering candlelight caught tears streaking down her face.Dark bangs lay plastered against her forehead. The knuckles of her tapered hands turned white as she gripped handfuls of home-made quilt.

Daddy’s face was grey, and he staggered out of the room.

Mama looked at me and half-growled, half-grunted, “Izzy, get out!”

It felt like a slap in the face. I recoiled and looked from Mama to the midwife.

The elder lady soaked towels in a water basin. “Go, child. It’s best you don’t see this.”

What I saw already scared me. I’mkind of glad they sent me out,even though it hurt. I found my dad sitting on the porch steps and reached out to him.

He jumped. “Oh. Hey, Isabella.”

I sat down next to him. “Daddy, was it like that when Mama had me?” I whispered.

He put his arm around me and pulled me close. “No darlin’, this is different. This is worse. A lot worse.”

I loved to be in his arms, especially after he worked the field and still smelled like fresh soil. Daddy told me I was beautiful when no one else did. After several minutes passed, he gazed toward the rising moon, unblinking, lost in his own worries.

He didn’t acknowledge the kiss I left on his cheek.

I headed to the only place left to go, my bedroom.The cool cotton of my nightgown refreshed my spirits, if only a little. I curled up under my thin sheets, watching the shadows cast by candlelight dance on the ceiling. After what seemed like a couple of hours, I grew accustomed to the muffled cries of my mom and rough voice of the midwife. A restless sleep brought strange dreams—flashes of Daddy’s ashen face, Mama’s bloodshot puffy eyes, big black horses, a scream. No, wait, the scream wasn’t a dream.

Another horrible scream tore through the cool night air. My eyes shot open. Was it Mama? Was it the baby? I leapt from the bed and cracked my bedroom door to peek out. My skin prickled.

Daddy’s heavy footfall rang down the hallway.

The midwife burst from the bedroom, white as a ghost, clutching bloody hands to her chest. “Evil!”

“What? Is she alright? Is the baby okay?” Daddy shook her shoulders.

She jerked her eyes to his. “Your wife ain’t well. Those devil babies almost killed ‘er.”

His face contorted into an expression I’d never seen. “Devil babies?”

“Yes, bless my soul, your wife just birthed twins. They’re possessed!” She broke from his grasp and ran from the house.

I gasped. Twins! What could have happened? I quietly stepped out of my room and stood at the edge of their bedroom doorway.

Mama didn’t move, and Daddy knelt by her side. Blood soaked the sheets, and a tiny hand reached out from behind her leg. Gurgled cries became louder.

I gravitated into the room.

Daddy finally noticed and pushed me out. “I’ll take care of this. I’ll clean them up.”

I stomped my foot. “But I can help!”

“No, Isabella.” His voice remained low, and his face pained, so I didn’t argue.

I closed myself in my room again. Sitting defeated on the floor, I hugged my knees to my chest and listened. I’d never heard my dad cry before. Before long,his sobs were overshadowed by Mama’s. Wasn’t new life supposed to be beautiful? What did the midwife mean by devil babies? My dreams of a happy family seemed to be fading away with the moon.

Early the next morning, resolved to learn what happened, I dressed for the day. I made breakfast for Daddy, and he seemed grateful.

He placed a hand on my back, but didn’t say anything. “Is Mama well?” I asked.

“Yes, I think so. She lost a lot of blood, but I think she’ll make it.”

“What about the babies? Are they boys or girls?” I risked a glance at him.

He didn’t meet my gaze. He looked off into the living room instead. “I was able to clean them up and hold them to your mom’s breast to eat. But…” His voice broke. “Now that she’s awake, she won’t feed the babies. She doesn’t want anything to do with them. I’m goin’ into town for goat’s milk.”

My jaw dropped, and I could feel my eyes bug out of my head. “Was the midwife right? Is there something wrong with the babies?”

“You stay away from them. Your Ma’ and me are at odds on how to handle…the situation.”

I bit my lip, held back tears, and just nodded.

“Now, you help your Ma with whatever she needs, but don’t you go peekin’ at those babies.” He grabbed his hat and left. The screen door slapped shut behind him.

I watched him get smaller and smaller as he walked down the road. When I couldn’t see him anymore, I crept to Mama’s bedroom and eased the door open enough to see in. Mama looked so frail, as if the bed might swallow her at any second. Matted black hair a tangled mess and cracked lips barely moved. Her papery pale eyelids fluttered, like she was glancing around the room with her eyes closed.

Cooing and the sound of fabric against fabric directed my attention to the farthest corner of the room. Willing the floorboards not to creak, I tiptoed toward the rustling. Tucked between a dresser and wall—out of Mama’s sight—sat a big basket.

I stood over the basket. Not sure of what I’d find, my hand shook as I gently reached in to uncover the babies.

Sensing a presence, they started moving their little arms faster and pulled the blanket from my fingers. Two beautiful, totally normal looking babies stared at me with big dark eyes. My breath caught. Why doesn’t Mama like them?

The one on the left reached for me.

I still didn’t know if it was a boy or girl. I scooped the baby up, making sure to support the head and cradled it in my arm.

The baby looked at me and made what seemed to be happy noises.

I peeked under the cloth diaper. A girl. Love swelled in me, and I started humming Hush Little Baby.

After a couple of minutes, I remembered where I was and stopped humming for fear of waking Mama. I poked my head around the dresser and found her still asleep. I felt a strange wiggle against my arm. I stood completely still.

The baby looked ready to cry, and the wiggle grew more forceful.

I let out a yelp and held the baby up, holding her on either side under her arms. A tail! The baby had a tail!I took a step back, let out another yelp, and almost dropped her. I didn’t know what to do.

She cried, and the flesh-colored tail flicked around like a cat’s when it got upset.

My stomach flopped. The baby probably sensed my fear, and it upset her. I knew how it felt to be sent away and not really wanted, so I ignored my fears and held the baby to my chest.

She quieted down.

I started to hum again.

“Put that thing down this instant!” Mama’s hissing voice shocked us. I jumped, and the baby whimpered.

“I’m sorry, Mama.” I laid the baby gently in the basket. I checked the other baby and noticed it was a boy and also had a tail.

“Leave those devil babies alone! We don’t need that wicked force in this house.” Her face reddened, her cheeks trembled.

I worried for their lives. “But Mama, are they really wicked? Just because they have tails, does it make them evil?”

“You sound like your father. Yes, child. They will bring us harm.We’ll be banished or worse, if we keep those things.” She spat out the words. “We’ll just tell the towns folk they were weak when born and they died.”

I stood there, unwilling to comprehend what she meant.

“Well, don’t stand there staring at me like that. Help me out of this bed,” Mama said. “And shut them up!”

The cries only grew louder.

“Shouldn’t you rest more? I’ll bring you lunch, and I can remove the babies from your room.”

“They’re not babies, Izzy. They’re wicked beings.” She settled back into the sheets. “Yes, bring me something to eat and make them disappear.”

“Yes, Mama.” I rushed to the kitchen and readied biscuits and ham. I brought the plate to Mama and helped her prop up against the bed board to eat. “I’ll take the babe—um, the things, so you can rest.”

“Good girl. Go on now.”

I grabbed the basket and scooted out of the room as fast as I could. Daddy told me not to go near the babies, but Mama told me to get rid of them…what choice did I have but to take them to my room? Now that I knew what was wrong, maybe he’d let me help care for them.

On the way to my room, I looked at the little pink beings staring up at me. “I know y’all have to be very hungry. Let’s go to the kitchen and see if we can find the emergency dry milk stash.”

I placed the basket on the table and opened cupboard after cupboard. “Ah ha. Here it is.” I mixed up a batch. "Ok, guys. Now for the bottles…" I rummaged around the storage room, which also served as a pantry, and triumphantly retrieved a box of baby supplies. Chattering along, I set the box on the table and quickly sifted through the items—clothes, cloth diapers, rattles, and little blankies. "Hmm, between the new stuff and my old things, we’ll have enough for both of you. Here are the bottles." I washed them, mixed milk in both bottles, and touched them to their tiny mouths.

They were ravenous, gulping and grunting, their tails twitching.

Scared and in awe at the same time, I examined the weird appendage. It was about eight inches long. Thicker where it connected at the base of the spine, it tapered to a fine tip and seemed to be made of muscle. Would the tail grow with their bodies? Would they be able to control it voluntarily?"

"Are you getting full, little ones?" I asked.

The little boy drifted to sleep, his tail draped over a chubby leg.

I set his bottle on the table and petted his velvety head. I stroked his tail with my fingers. It felt like normal baby skin.

Still awake and sucking on her bottle, the girl’s tail reached for my hand and wrapped around my index finger.

I smiled. "Does that mean you like me?"

"Isabella Marie!" Daddy's gruff voice boomed across the kitchen. The door banged behind him.

I jumped, accidentally jerking my finger away from the baby. "I'm sorry, Daddy!"

The babies turned red, and struck out with their arms and legs in frustration. Like tea kettles over a fire, they reached a boiling point and shrieked.

"Momma said to get rid of them and keep them quiet. I had no choice! I thought if I fed them, they'd hush."

"Get away from them." He glowered, jaw set and lips pinched into a hard line. He plopped the glass bottle of goat's milk onto the table and pushed me away from the basket.

My heart leapt into my throat. I didn't want to lose them. "But I can help! They like me."

"This isn't your problem to take care of." He stared at them.

My chin quivered. "What do you mean? They'll need diapers changed soon, and Mama wants them quiet. How can you keep them from wailing by ignoring them?"

His brows furrowed and he finally looked into my eyes. "These babies could be dangerous, and I don't want you hurt. Isabella, they may not live much longer."

Nausea washed over me. "Well, they look healthy to me. How would they die?" My voice sounded strained and squeaky, not like my own.

He sighed. "I don't know. I'm discussing it with your mother. They could easily get some sickness, Izzy. It's just the nature of things."

Totally spent, the babies cried themselves to sleep, but an odor permeated the air. They needed to be changed.

"Do you want me to do it?" I made my voice cheery.

He sighed and shook his head. "No. Go to your room and don't come out until I say."

I clenched my fists and bit the inside of my cheek. Tears welled, and my nose tingled. "Yes, sir." I turned and ran to my room. I threw myself on the bed, surrendering to the anger and fear pressing on me. I must have fallen asleep. When I stirred, it was dark and raining. I bolted from bed. What time is it? Where are the babies? I cracked my bedroom door.

My parents argued in their room.

The babies might still be safe, then. I shut my door and grabbed a bag from under my bed. I stuffed a change of clothes in it, then slipped out to the kitchen. Working by the light of the moon and flashes of lightning, I threw in the baby items I found earlier along with the remaining milk.

On the way back to my room, between peals of thunder, I caught the words "...bury...demons...woods...Isabella."

A noise escaped my lips before I caught myself. Are they going to kill me too?

The voices in the room paused.

The floor boards creaked, and I scurried to my room, hoping not to be caught. I tossed the bag under the bed and jumped under the covers as the door opened. Would Daddy hear my heart and heavy breath?

A figure came to the side of the bed and leaned over me. Hands reached toward my face, and I screamed.

"Izzy, it's just me. Your Ma. It's okay!" She gently pressed the back of her hand to my forehead.

"Oh! Sorry. You surprised me, is all." I worked to tamp down my emotions and sound normal.

"You feel warm...I hope you're not getting sick from messing with those things."

"No, Mama. I'm fine."

"You understand what we have to do, right? You see that we have no choice but to kill the evil ones?"

I couldn't see her face, but her hands held onto mine, and her voice sounded syrupy sweet. My stomach soured, but I tried to mimic her tone. "Yes, of course. They could be dangerous."

"That's right. I knew you'd see it right. It's just the nature of things." I could hear her smile.

"So...when is it going to happen? How is it going to happen?"

She smoothed my hair back, then stood. “Don't worry about the details, darlin'. Just go back to sleep, and it'll all be over in the morning."

"Yes, Mama. Good night."

I heard the door click shut and listened to the rain plink fat drops on my window for several minutes, giving her time to snuggle down in bed. I thought of her safe and dry while she sent Daddy to kill the innocent lives they created. Anger stirred in me.

Tossing the covers aside, I rolled out of bed, grabbed the bag, and slung it over my shoulders. My window overlooked the back yard, down to the barn and field beyond. Through the streaks of water, I saw candlelight dancing in the barn.

I crossed the room and opened my door. I tiptoed to their room and peered in.

Mama lay curled up, sound asleep, with no basket of babies to disturb her.

I hurried to the kitchen and put on one of Daddy's jackets and hats. As an afterthought, I jammed left-over biscuits into the pockets and carefully slipped out the screen door into the storm. I rushed down toward the barn in search of the babies. Rain ran off the brim of the large hat, and my shoes squished into the soft grass. Approaching the barn, I heard cries. They’re still alive!

Thankful for the cover of darkness, rain, and thunder, I poked my head around the door in time to see Daddy exit the back door. He carried the covered basket in one hand and a shovel in the other.

I followed as close as possible, dodging behind trees or bushes when he looked around as if he sensed someone there. The pack dug into my flesh and the rain soaked me to the bone, but I refused to stop now. We walked for a couple miles and then trudged up a steep wooded hill.

The mountain leveled off into woods, thick with underbrush. Daddy barged into it, and I followed more closely to make use of his path. Thorns and thin branches grabbed at my clothes and scratched my face. Thankfully, the landscape cleared into a flat circular glade covered in leaf litter. Flashes of lightning revealed a row of stones, jutting up from the earth. Are those graves?

Daddy kneeled, bracing against the shovel, and placed the basket down beside him. He uncovered the babies and hung his head, shoulders shaking as his cries joined those of the babies. He stood up with new resolve and looked at the moon. Rain drops and tears glistened on his face. He lifted the shovel high, and, with an anguished wail, he slammed it into the ground.

My heart beat faster with every scoop of dirt piled to the side. Acid roiled in my stomach. What am I going to do? I unfurled from my hiding spot and slowly made my way to the basket.

Breathing hard, he dropped the shovel and stepped back, the task complete. He turned toward the basket.

I planted myself in front of the babies, making my form as big as possible.

When his eyes landed on me, he yelled, stumbled back, and nearly fell into the fresh hole. "Jesus. Izzy?" his voice clipped and strange as he tried to recover.

"I don't imagine Jesus is the one you are inviting out here, since you're the one about to kill my brother and sister," I said.

"You realize these babies might be evil and hurt us, right? I can't live without your mother and this...” He gestured to the basket, then the hole " what she wants."

"I don't think she ever really wanted me, either. What are you going to do—bury them alive or kill them first?" I glanced back at the basket. Four eyes stared intently at me, as if trying to communicate. A deadly calm came over me.

"Isabella, please." He took a step toward me.

"No! Stay. Away," I said. "What if I don't let you murder them? Are you going to murder me too, Daddy?"

"No! Of course, I don't want to kill you. But you must understand how dangerous they are." He took a deep breath and continued. "It's happened before. Another couple in town, long before you were born, had demon twins with tails. They tried to keep it from the rest of the town folk, but horrible things started happening. Anyone who crossed the family grew ill, or their livestock died, or their house burnt down. Once the town found out about the tail-babies, they formed a mob and killed the whole family in their sleep. These are their graves." He motioned to the stones in the clearing. “Meet your kin, Izzy. This is your great Uncle’s family.”

A chill ran through my body.

"So that’s why I would kill you too, if I had too," he said in a low voice and stepped closer.

It was like the breath was knocked out of me. "No, Daddy!"

He flinched, but grasped the shovel firmly. His mouth moved with unheard words.

Time froze. The cool moist air sizzled with energy. I looked at the babies again. Were their eyes glowing? I jerked my head up and ran with all my might toward him. I slipped on the wet leaves and half ran, half fell into him, my head and shoulder slammedagainst his torso.

He yelled and reeled back. "Izzy, no!" He couldn't regain his balance and stumbled backward into the hole, arms flailing. His head hit the opposite end of the hole, and I heard a snap.

I rushed to the side and leaned over to see how he fared.

His body lay at an awkward angle, vacant eyes staring nowhere.

I turned away and retched. Then, I ran to the babies and scooped them into my arms.

They snuggled against me, their tails wrapping possessively around my wrists.

Once my heart slowed, an odd calmness and peace washed over me. I placed them in the basket and asked, "What about Mama? She's going to be extremely angry."

The babies grew still and looked so intently into my eyes, it startled me.

I nodded my head, strapped the shovel to my pack,and picked up the basket. We made our way back to the house. I didn't bother to be quiet.

"Is that you, honey?" Mama called.

My boots squished with each step and sounded loud in the long hallway. I rounded the corner with shovel in hand.

She screamed.

I smiled. "Don't worry, Mama, it's just the nature of things."

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