Highway Flowers by Kathryn Nairn




The Cabin 9 door had a perpetual creak. It was slanted, I think because it had a loose upper hinge. We could always tell when one of us got back. Or when one of us left. 

It was the summer of 1991 and we were old enough to have attitude problems and a communal stash of tampons under Stacey Nelson’s bunk.

“Don’t let these prissy bitches get to you,” my dad had warned. For him, any female could be a bitch, but prissy was one of the worst varieties. I was still shocked he was letting me go. 

There was something oddly comforting about frolicking around in the woods with the girls of Cabin 9. Like if a bear came by in the middle of the night, I knew I was the only one that could survive. But maybe, if I had a shotgun and some gear, I would have saved Claire or Jessie. I could imagine holding them back while I sunk a bullet right between its eyes. Maybe we’d hug afterwards, or cry. Make friendship bracelets out of bear fur. 

The too-hot days blurred together into one long string, punctuated by little dips in the lake and the haphazard meals we’d eat in the mess hall. Eventually, the air got so thick that I couldn’t breathe. 

Our cabin was the closest one to the interstate, and sometimes I would wander out there. I would wait a few minutes for a car to fly by and give me a little gust of air. A breeze was all I needed, and in the meantime I got to look at all the highway flowers. 

In Chapter 37 of Plants of the World, they talk about how a few smart city planners actually think these things through. They figured out that lining the boundaries with toxic plants keeps animals off the road. Plus, it’s pretty when the drivers look out their windows. Most people don’t know that. 

The other girls liked me well enough. I suppose they thought I was quiet, but they always included me in their little adventures. At the very least I was useful. When Gretchen stepped in poison ivy during Capture the Flag, I was the only one of us brave enough to lather calamine on her inflamed legs.

She said it hurt too much to do it herself. I thought she just liked to be the center of attention, but I didn’t argue. 

My dad believed in building immunity. I screamed when he pinned my arms and rubbed the leaves over my lips. The next morning blisters lined my mouth and boiled hot pus. He must’ve felt bad because he brought me a milkshake. I tried to drink it so that it wouldn’t hit the skin of my cheeks, but it still mixed with blood on the way down. I forced myself to smile up at him through cracked lips. 

Toxicodendron radicans. The sores dotted Gretchen’s shins, cropping up in little bulbous clusters so that her skin got thin and shiny. Sobs wracked her shoulders, but all I thought about was festering skin, necrotic, dying cells, the inside spilling out. 

As summer stretched on, we stayed up later and later each night, flittery girl-whispers streaking between our cots. The deafening squeal of the door deterred any late night outings, as if amplifying the silent dark. We all felt it, the warning in the Cabin 9 door. Its creak, the aching sound of warped wood, kept us all on edge. It kept us in line.  

So instead, we would tire ourselves out twittering away about the latest drama. Mary Louise Porter had hairy legs. Alex Jacobs slept with his teddy bear every night. Most nights I had no interest in whatever mindless drivel they dug up, but every once in a while someone got a hold of something really good. 

The dead rabbit appeared a few weeks in. It was just there one morning, right in the center of camp, rigid and cold. Its mouth was stretched open wide like it was trying to scream, if rabbits could even do that.

It was the only thing anyone could talk about. 

Cody Burton found the second rabbit a few days later. This one’s fur was still soft and white by the time I got a good look. Little bits of ground up leaves stuck to its teeth like cow’s cud. One is a tragedy. Two becomes a pattern.

The girls’ voices ran shrill and thin as they grasped at explanations. A rabbit plague, a pack of coyotes, a Satanic cult. As the explanations flew further from reality, it became clear that those dead bunnies had fractured something in the collective psyche. We were primed for a fight.

I knew what we needed. 

“Guess what I just saw?” A good old fashioned distraction. Dying rabbits were easily overtaken in both novelty and scandal by Nora Retton caught with Josh Benson behind the kitchen. I used a series of nondescript lewd gestures, and the girls seemed to get the gist. No one even questioned why I’d been wandering near the edge of camp. 

My gossip made me something of a celebrity in Cabin 9. When we went swimming the next day, Rebecca let me borrow her bikini. Usually, I just swam in basketball shorts and my oldest t-shirt, leaving the water like a dredged rat as the clothes clung to my skin. 

The swimsuit was hot pink, and the girls all whooped when I tried it on. My cheeks burnt at their compliments, though I bristled at the ones I didn’t quite understand. For instance, I wasn’t sure I liked the idea of my legs being miles long, they just felt exposed. 

They pulled my hair back in braids so tight I felt the skin on my face stretch, applied cakey makeup from broken compacts, and nail polish from a nearly empty bottle. I was their project. I was better than dead rabbits or Nora Retton or stupid Gretchen’s poison ivy. I was something to fix, and make just like them. 

I kept the braids in until my hair had frizzed out almost completely. The intricately knotted rope bracelets on my wrist started to chafe. I flaked off my nail polish into a little pile beside my bed, but I refused to wipe off the makeup. I just let it slide off with sweat. I didn’t know how to ask for more, and no one offered. 

That night, I pulled the thin sheet up over my head and thought about rereading Chapter 37. Using my flashlight was a waste of batteries when I could just replay the pages I’d already committed to memory. My own version of counting sheep. Actaea pachypoda, doll’s eyes, Digitalis purpurea, foxglove, Conium maculatum, poison hemlock. 

Vines sprawled out in my mind. Shrubs cropped in the corners. Flowers took the center.  

I heard the door slam open and shut before I saw Claire standing beside it. Her face was flush, damp with sweat. Her hands clenched into fists at her side. Her eyes wide, but staring at nothing.  

A trickle of thin bile dripped from her chin. Someone shrieked behind me. Then, a gnarled retch. A wet gulch as vomit hit the floor. 

Nerium oleander. Any more in the chili pot and it would’ve been acute tachycardia, cardiac arrest. Some would say I got lucky. 

I walked to the center of camp just as lanterns started flicking on. Kids flew out of their cabins, leaking acid and heat from between their teeth. 

There was Mary Louise and Jessie and Josh and Nora. I watched them strain and crawl. My dad always said lying was ugly, and that liars always got caught. For me, starting that rumor had been the easiest part of all. 

As for the rabbits, those were rookie mistakes. Once they sent us all home, I got my hands on a veterinary dictionary. No reverse peristalsis meant no emetic response meant those little rabbits had no line of defense. 

But I learned, and I did it fast. 

Highway flowers are pretty and tough. They’re poisonous, and resistant to drought. They’re everywhere, if you know where to look. 

I stuck with oleander for a while. Tested its limits (this time not on rabbits). But, I branched out when it mattered. 

Like when it was time to take the old man down. I hit him with everything I had.


Kathryn Nairn writes horror, dark romance, and speculative fiction. As a full-time Neuroscience student, she fills whatever free time she can find as a Staff Writer for the Harvard Crimson, reading spooky books, and listening to her numerous Halloween playlists. 

Published 8/23/23


  1. Well, you got me. Great twist and the subtle setups were perfect. Why were you wandering near the edge of camp! Ha! Well done.

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