Laura held the white plastic stick under the light of the small bathroom and watched for the faintest trace of a line.
She had already convinced herself of the outcome. It soon became clear that she was right.
Hot tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. She sat on the toilet and allowed the myriad of raw emotions to wash over her. Once the tears had run their course, Laura took some time to compose herself before flushing the toilet on her way out the door.
Nancy was arranging a bouquet when Laura walked in from the back of the store. The flower shop was cluttered with stock; not surprising given that tomorrow was arguably their busiest day of the year.
Laura avoided eye contact as she unpacked a box of cards. She eventually risked a glance at Nancy: the older woman was watching her, deep lines of worry etched on her face.
“Oh, sweetie.” Nancy put down her pruning shears and moved to embrace Laura.
Laura was grateful for the gesture. She desperately wanted her mum… and Nancy, her late mother’s best friend, was the closest thing to her at this moment. Nancy had been a teacher her entire working life, retiring three years ago and offering to help Laura with the store. “Plants are considerably kinder than children” was one of her regular sayings.
Laura knew Nancy didn’t necessarily approve of her decision to become a single mother, but it was comforting to know support was there despite their differing opinions.
“I really thought this was it,” said Laura.
Nancy looked her firmly in the eyes. “Some things, often the best things, take time.”
“Yeah. And a whole lot of money.”
A bell tinkled as the shop door opened. A young woman in dark makeup and black attire made straight for the counter.
Nancy’s face tightened. “Late again, Kaitlin.”
Kaitlin — ‘Kat’ to nearly everyone but Nancy — dumped her knapsack on the counter.
Nancy sucked in a breath. “And your nipples are showing.”
Kat glanced down at the thin material of her blouse. She smirked. “It’s cold out.”
“Unacceptable,” snapped Nancy.
Kat spun on her heels to face her. “I really don’t need this right now. I just had to take out a restraining order on my psycho fucked-up ex-boyfriend, so how ‘bout some slack, huh?”
Laura held up her palms. “Alright, ladies — that’s enough. It’s a big day tomorrow and we’ve got a lot to get through, so I need all of us on the same team. Please.”
Nancy gave a curt nod.
Kat tossed a stick of gum in her mouth and chewed in an exaggerated fashion. “Sure thing.”
“Right,” said Laura. “Let’s get to it.”
The three women went about their respective tasks.
Laura finished with the box of cards. She moved to the computer and began calling up orders. Her brow furrowed. “Nancy, has Frank made his delivery yet?”
“No. And he hasn’t answered my calls. I’ll try him again.”
Nancy crossed to the phone hanging on a wall.
Laura fished her cell from a jeans pocket. She found Frank’s number and typed a message. Do you have ETA on delivery? Need ASAP.
She was about to put her phone away when Frank sent a reply. NEED YOU
“Still no answer,” declared Nancy.
Laura stared at the two words. “I just got a message.”
“What did he say?”
“Not sure yet.” Laura sent another text. Need help? Can pick up if you’re busy?
She watched the flashing dots as Frank typed a reply. YES NEED YOU R HELP
More dots as Frank typed. PICK UP
Laura clucked her tongue. “We need to go collect.”
“That’ll put us behind,” said Nancy.
“Not much of a choice. Plus we can’t really complain — he’s done us plenty of favors in the past.”
Laura sent another text. Be there in an hour.
Frank typed a response. BE HERE
Laura smiled and shook her head. She’d gotten used to Frank’s oddity over the last couple of years, but this was something else. “Fancy a ride, Kat? May need your muscles.”
Kat threw down a tangle of ribbon. “You got it.”
Laura fetched her keys. “Hold the fort, Nancy. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
Nancy nodded as Laura made for the door.
Kat followed, throwing Nancy a sour look as she brushed passed her. “By the way… your roots are showing.”
Nancy ignored the comment. Once she was certain the two women were gone, she found her reflection in the store window and carefully inspected her hair.
Laura drove the van through the gates to Frank Witherby’s farm, marvelling at the change in surroundings. The foliage outside the fence was dense and overgrown, but inside the property every shrub, every blade of grass, was immaculately manicured. Beds of flowers — a perfect display of form and color — hedged either side of the driveway leading up to the restored farmhouse. Behind the house, a large semicylindrical greenhouse loomed, its translucent panes washed in the amber glow of the setting sun.
Kat shifted in her seat, spotting the reflective eyes of an owl, or some other nocturnal creature, perched high in a tree. “Who the hell is this guy, anyway? You sure he’s not luring us out here to carve us into lamp shades or something?”
Laura laughed. “Frank’s harmless. Odd, but harmless. Used to be some sort of horticultural consultant. Government stuff.”
“No shit. And now he grows flowers in Buttfuck, Idaho.”
“Yes,” said Laura. “And he happens to be really good at it.”
Laura knocked on the front door of the farmhouse. Daylight was fading fast. There was no sign of light or movement beyond the sheer curtains of the windows.
“Sure he’s home?” said Kat.
“His car’s here.” Laura pulled out her phone and texted. Where are you?
She watched the screen as Frank typed a reply. 0 61 019 03
Laura shrugged and showed the message to Kat.
Kat raised an eyebrow. “Maybe he’s had a stroke. Or smoked a little too much of that killer weed he’s got stashed away in the greenhouse.”
“Greenhouse…” Laura motioned to Kat as she walked along the porch toward the side of the house. “Come on.”
Kat almost tripped on a metal bowl as she paced after Laura. “He has a dog? I don’t do dogs, Laura. Seriously.”
“Rosie wouldn’t hurt a flea. She’s a collie.”
“She’s a what?”
Laura sighed. “You know Lassie?”
Kat thought about it before giving a nod. “I can do Lassie.”
Laura’s phone buzzed as they approached the sleek metal door to the greenhouse. It was another message from Frank. HERE
The phone buzzed again. 0 61 019 03
Laura eyed the electronic lock built into the door handle. “Okay, I think I get it. It’s the code.” She entered the digits into the small keypad…
The light on the lock switched from red to green as an audible click sounded.
“Bingo,” said Kat.
Laura pushed on the deceptively heavy door.
The air inside was thick and hot. The last of the day’s light struggled to penetrate the translucent glass building.
Laura blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dim, maze-like interior.
Kat ran a hand around the door. “And no light switch near the door because that would make total sense.”
“Relax,” said Laura. She moved to one of the nearby racks and flipped a switch. A series of UV lights lit up along the frame, revealing several shelves lined with seedlings.
Kat leaned in. “Aww, they’re just babies.” She tickled a sapling’s leaf and noticed a small black square attached to it. All the other saplings had identical squares.
Kat pointed them out. “What are these?”
Laura bent in for a closer look. “Microchips. They measure electrical impulses. Let Frank know when the plants are thirsty. That kind of stuff.”
Kat threw Laura a side-glance. “The guy talks to plants?”
“No… more like they talk to him.”
“Oh, okay. That sounds a lot less crazy.”
A long groan reverberated from further within.
Kat bolted upright. “Shit, Laura, that was creepy as fuck.”
Laura raised her voice. “Frank?” She rushed along the main aisle of the greenhouse, glancing down each of the branching paths as she passed them. Kat followed closely behind.
Laura texted as she walked. Are you hurt? Where are you???
Frank’s reply was almost immediate. YES HURT
He texted again. NEED YOU R HELP
Another groan pushed through the silence, closer this time. Their surroundings were barely visible.
“Screw this,” said Kat. “I’m going for the lights.”
Laura nodded. “We may need a paramedic, so be ready for anything.”
Kat pulled out her phone, activated the flashlight, and hurried back the way they came.
Laura took a moment to steady herself. She inhaled deeply through her nose and was overwhelmed with a mixture of heady scents. Damp soil. Fertilizer. The hint of gasoline. And underneath… a sickly-sweet scent that soothed her nerves.
Laura turned on her own phone flashlight and shone it around her surroundings. “Frank, I need you to tell me where you are. Call out, make a noise.”
Laura jumped as her foot connected with something — the sound of a bass drum boomed through the greenhouse. She looked down to see an empty canister at her feet, the last drops of gasoline leaking from the open lid.
“Laura?” Kat’s disembodied voice echoed around her.
“I’m okay…” Laura’s head swam. The excessively sweet aroma was overpowering now. She felt giddy, light on her feet.
Laura snapped out of her stupor as her phone died, plunging her into semi-darkness. “Shit.” She tried turning it back on and caught the briefest glimpse of a red battery icon before it shut down again.
“Lauraaaa…” It was a ragged, drawn-out husk of a voice.
And it was close.
Laura held her breath as she gingerly peered around a wall of vegetation…
Slumped in a chair, next to a bench of equipment, was the shadowed form of a man.
The shadow’s head tilted to the side, regarding Laura as it wheezed with each labored breath. “…no…”
Laura recognised the voice. “Frank. Oh, my God.” She moved toward him. The floor was spongy and uneven.
“NO!” Frank jerked as he tried to turn away.
Laura stopped in her tracks.
Something in Frank’s voice…
The way his body propped itself up in the chair…
“Bingo!” yelled Kat’s voice.
Lights flared across the greenhouse, an unforgiving burst of ultraviolet.
Frank’s body was laced with spindly black roots that whipped and wriggled as they fed into his flesh. Purplish-black growths — not unlike large blood blisters — covered his body, pulsing to their own irregular beat. Frank’s stomach, bruised and bulging like over-ripe fruit, pushed out from under the tatters of his shirt.
Laura’s mind reeled. She spotted a pistol on the floor next to the chair, along with Frank’s phone. A writhing root system of black tendrils and the strange purple bulbs spread out from under Frank. Laura had already stepped on a few of the bulbs, blood-red sap pooling where they had burst.
Laura tried to focus. The smell of the sap was intoxicating. She took a few tentative steps back.
Frank’s head twisted in her direction. A serpentine root had burrowed into his left ear; another plugged the bullet hole in the top of his head. “It was just a tiny seed. A souvenir from the stars…” Frank squirmed as he spoke — or rather something inside of him did. “Dormant for years. Hidden. Forgotten. And then one day it told me what it needed. To help it germinate. I gave it life… and now it gives me life. It needs…”
Laura shook her head, trying to clear the fog in her brain. Frank was closer now.
She was closer.
Laura had been taking steps toward him, not the other way.
“I’m sorry, Laura.” Frank’s body went limp as his bloated stomach twitched and quivered. His arms rose, beckoning her. The gesture was unnatural — the forced action of a marionette.
Frank groaned, an almost orgasmic sound, as his back arched, pushing his bulging stomach toward Laura. The bulbs across his flesh vibrated and pulsed with a deep glow, emitting a noise like a nest of angry rattlesnakes.
There was a wet bang as Frank’s stomach ruptured, spewing a cloud of dark spores into the air.
Laura gagged. She fell to her hands and knees, fighting for breath. Somebody called her name. She caught a glimpse of Kat rushing toward her.
Kat had nearly reached her when a dark shape slammed into her, sending her sprawling to the floor. The shape thrashed as it fought with Kat. Laura, in her delirium, recognised Rosie.
The dog’s fur was riddled with purplish bulbs, clinging like giant engorged ticks. Laura could hear Kat’s screams, but they no longer bothered her as she floated toward a safe place.
The screaming stopped, replaced with fits of coughing. Laura thought she heard the words “Fucking Lassie.”
Laura’s limbs could no longer support her. She slipped to the floor, head lolling to the side. She noticed Frank’s body, the meat of his stomach splayed open like a grotesque flower. His phone was near her face. The screen lit up as the bulb beside it throbbed and chirped. Two words appeared on-screen before Laura’s eyes drifted shut…
Laura sat behind the counter, humming a tune she wasn’t familiar with as she arranged a bouquet. She noticed a fresh bulb pushing through the skin of her wrist and snipped it with an expert swipe of her pruning shears. The hole in her skin closed over as something underneath pulled it shut. Laura picked up the bulb, admired it, and added it to the bouquet.
Kat swept the floor, wearing a heavy black coat to conceal the remarkable changes happening to her body. She worked her way around Nancy, who stood in a corner, unblinking and mouth agape. It was taking some time for the older woman’s body to accept the gift, but something in Laura knew that Nancy would soon come around.
The bell over the front door tinkled. A couple, a young male and female, entered the store.
Kat brushed past Nancy. “Your roots are showing.”
Spindly tips retracted into Nancy’s left ear, like the limbs of a startled hermit crab seeking safety in a shell.
The couple chose a bunch of assorted flowers and approached the counter.
“It smells amazing in here,” said the young woman.
Laura beamed. ”Doesn’t it just?”
“Oh, wow, you look about ready to pop.” The woman nodded at Laura’s pregnant belly. “When are you due?”
Laura rubbed her bump, the sensation providing her with a considerable amount of comfort. “Soon. Very soon.”
The woman paid Laura and thanked her for the flowers.
Fibrous tendrils beneath Laura’s face contracted, stretching her cheeks into an over-exaggerated smile.
“You’re most welcome,” said Laura. “Happy Mother’s Day.”