Andy wondered almost immediately what was going on. Everyone was in the corner of the room hunched over something when he walked into class. A few people were giggling excitedly, some were smiling and high five-ing. He walked over to the table, absently preparing the right words to ask what was going on.
“So… why’s everyone huddling like this?” He looked over shoulders as classmates turned.
“School’s doing a field trip to the botanical gardens next week. We get out of algebra and English!”
There was an appreciative chorus of “hell yeah!” and “fuckin’ sick” as he saw the brochure on the desk.
Helquist Gardens: “There are none fairer than nature”.
Inside were a multitude of pictures of overexposed greenhouses, giant, painted flowers, massive shaped hedges, and overdone ads with lime green text everywhere. In the centerfold, bold text on the waxy paper was written “See, now until March, the World’s Largest Flower, Rafflesia arnoldii!” There was a picture of a man dressed up as an old timey explorer, complete with pith helmet, standing next to a flower easily his height and smiling broadly. The cheesy brochure was passed around the classroom, everyone excitedly talking about it, but Andy remained skeptical. When he brought the permission slip home, his mother excitedly signed it,
“Oh that’ll be so much fun Andrew! We went there a long time ago, your father and I went before we were married. It’s just gorgeous.”
“It seems a little… corny, mom.”
“Oh don’t worry about that… it's very classy.” Andy’s mom was a round woman with goofy personality, the last words of that sentence said with a faux Harvard accent. She chuckled to herself and walked off, turning only to ask Andy if he was hungry.
“Nah, it's fine mom. I’ve got a shit ton of homework.”
“Watch it, bud.”
The next day, the day before the trip, Andy was eating with his friends Mark and Brett, the conversation shifted from Callie Hannon, to the new xbox, back to the Gardens.
“Mmmh…” Mark’s mouth was full of taco, “Shit’s gonna be so cool. I got one of those disposable cameras and everything.”
Brett nodded in assent, “Yeah, no for real, they said we can use phone cameras too.”
Mark laughed. “Good thing I bought the disposable then,” he said knocking his ancient flip phone against the table. They all laughed and the conversation stopped for a beat.
“No but seriously, you really think this is going to be fun?” Andy asked.
“Hell yeah, dude. We’re getting out of school for it!”
“But the brochure was so damn stupid looking. If it's that great, why’d they have the guy in that idiotic costume?”
Brett shrugged, “Fuck if I know, but it is a neat place. Trust me.”
Andy didn't breach the topic again. He resolved himself to go with an open mind and judge the garden once more informed. When the time came the next day to board the bus, he had his camera ready, and a decent enough attitude. He got on the bus and immediately took out his phone, texting friends that were still in the building. Mark sat down next to him roughly,
“Fuckin’ chairs are not big enough for two people anymore.”
Andy mumbled and nodded his agreement, and continued to manage conversations on Verizon’s dime.
“Come on asshole, get excited!”
“Okay, okay. Sorry dude. I brought my camera, see. I am trying to have a good time.”
“You know who’ll be there too. Plenty of time to ah… cop a feel?”
Andy shoved Mark out of the seat at that. The person he’d been referring to, Callie Hannon, sat only a few seats in front of them, also playing with her phone. It would probably do no good to describe her, all things to all people she was damn pretty, the kind of easy beauty that doesn’t require effort or makeup. Currently she was deep in the throes of a three way bidding war for One Direction tickets, something that Andy would’ve laughed at if he wasn’t quite so fixated on the way her hair fell in big, loose curls without any work.
“She doesn’t even know I exist.” Andy snapped back to reality.
“So, that. I’m nobody to her.”
“Weak. Weak fucker. Just go talk to her.”
“You know what?”
“I will.” With that, Andy stood, swaying unsteadily on the bus. He sat down as casually as he could next to Callie, smiling with what he thought was ease.
“Hey Callie. Do you ah… do you have a pen?”
“Oh. Sure. Here let me get it.”
As she bent under the seat to get her backpack, Andy turned around and shot Mark a smug look of success. Mark rolled his eyes and went back to reading the brochure. Again. Callie sat back up and handed Andy the pen,
“Just give it back when you’re done?”
“Uh… sure. Thanks Callie.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Andy returned to his seat with the pen, the whole walk trying to come up with some valid use for it. He snatched the brochure from Mark and began circling random attractions,
“Just play along.”
“You better be writing down her number.”
“Fuck off Mark.”
Mark started laughing and shook his head. He grabbed the brochure back from Andy,
“Yeah, lets be sure to see uh…. Professor Lichner’s Poinsettia Laboratory? Really?”
When they finally arrived at the gardens, Andy had worn down the battery on his phone considerably. They stepped off the bus and were immediately hit with the smell.
“Ah shit, what is that?”
“I dunno. Flowers I guess.” Andy was looking around.
“Never thought I could smell something beautiful.”
“Yeah, it’s kinda nice.”
“Hello fellow botanophiles!”
Andy, Mark and the rest of the group looked up the trail, where the hedge garden began. The man from the brochure was walking towards them, all dolled up in the costume he was wearing in the brochure. Something about the perfect day, coupled with the man’s cartoonishly curled moustache and monocle was vaguely unsettling to Andy, but he put it aside. The flower smell, the cloudless sky, and the immaculately tailored lawn all seemed pretty nice. The man had reached them now, and was standing patiently, hands clasped, waiting for quiet. When Andy’s teacher finally got them silent, the man, like a wind up toy, launched into a singsong, very prepared speech.
“Hello children, My name is Wallace, and I’m going to be your tour guide today. The Evander Helquist Gardens are a rich, colorful oasis of tropical life here in Upstate New York, but you have to know where to step!” This last word punctuated by a swing of his arm.
“So before we get started, there are a few ground rules: One, no eating within property limits, none. Two, flash photography is permitted and forbidden room to room, pay attention to signs. Three, do not touch anything unless explicitly told you have that option. Many of these plants are poisonous and can very easily harm you. Four, restroom facilities are denoted by signs at the entrance and exit of most exhibits, if you need help finding them, just ask. And finally, rule five. as you can see, we’ve taken painstaking measures to keep the gardens spotless, can any of you find a single piece of litter?”
There were murmurs from the crowd.
“Precisely. If it’s not kept this way…”
Andy’s teacher butted in, “You’ll have me to answer to.”
Wallace’s face grew dark… his brow furrowed, his face turned deep scarlet red, and his teeth gritted audibly. He looked away from the crowd for probably thirty seconds, but when he turned around again, he was smiling brightly and looked completely at ease.
“Not exactly, Ma’am. More than you, these children will have me to answer to, the park staff as well, Dr. Helquist himself, likely even God!”
“Okay then.” Ms. Linez was clearly disturbed by Wallace’s overzealous retort, but she hid it under a few layers of practiced sweetness that only an educator could have arrived at.
“That said, let’s begin the tour.” Wallace turned again in the opposite direction, knickers blinding white against the perfect, even grass.
“The hell…” Mark was gesturing towards Wallace.
“No Idea dude. He’s probably a little wacky from working here. Told you this place was weird.”
“Yeah probably, but like… look at the grass. There’s not a single weed. Actually, it's all the same height.”
“Three and four quarters inch Kentucky bluegrass, watered twice daily for 3 minutes. And the hedges are English Blackthorn, about 12 years old now, they’re full size.”
Andy hadn’t noticed Wallace fall to the back of the group, but he had somehow walked up behind them. “Wow, sir. You sure do know a lot about the garden.” “Please m’boy, call me Wallace. And yes I should say I do. One has to know the jungle to survive it for as long as I have.”
Andy laughed at the very obvious schtick. Wallace was, to his credit, a very talented actor. From the gung-ho attitude to the very realistic British accent, he played his part quite well.
“Wallace, then. How long have you been working here?”
“Well let’s see now… came over from the UK in July… started work here in September, what’s today’s date then?”
Mark chimed in, “The sixteenth?”
“What year, lad?”
“So then that’d be… about… one hundred thirty years.”
Mark and I laughed, but Wallace didn’t crack even the slightest smile. He really was a fantastic actor.
The group had finally made its way to the giant, glass-domed facade of the actual greenhouse complex. Behind the wrought iron doors was a veritable forest of exotic plants, an indoor jungle was actually fairly accurate, Andy thought. When they entered the building, Wallace immediately began rattling off information about the plants, but most of it was lost on Andy. Surrounded by all of these beautiful flowers and leaves, he was soon all but lost in them. Half heard concepts reached his ears occasionally:
“…big fella now isn’t it? Not the sort of…”
“…always keeps you on your toes, that one…”
“…strigamorphis andropili. Good question young lady…”
Finally, Andy snapped out of his reverie to find Wallace mid-sentence, staring quite directly at him from the corner of his eye while continuing his speech. He, took out his phone, but found himself stopped by another employee of the Garden who had come forward seemingly from nowhere,
“No flash photography in this room.”
“No, I was just going to text my-“
“I’m sorry sir, please refrain from using a camera in this room.”
“I’m not using the camera!”
Wallace had walked over, a look of overacted concern on his face, “What’s wrong here Andrew? Aren’t you enjoying the tour?”
“I was just trying to text my mother, but this woman said I can’t.”
Wallace turned to the employee, “Is there flash photography allowed in this room Marcia?”
She shook her head.
Wallace turned to Andy again, this time wearing an exaggerated frown,
“A thousand apologies m’boy, you’ll just have to wait for the next room.”
“I’m not using the camera though…”
“Rules are rules Andrew, I wouldn’t go arguing with employees now.”
The next room was also flash prohibited, Wallace shrugged and promised the next one would be fine. Three more after that and Andy was quite angry. Thankfully, the tour stopped in that room, Andy was so furious he barely even registered that until he bumped into Mark,
“Oh sorry dude.”
“S… s… okay.” Mark walked slowly away from Andy, never taking his eyes off the plants.
Andy now noticed that almost all of his classmates were doing the same thing, slowly wandering around the room taking in the sights. In Andy’s opinion they all looked drugged, but he said nothing. Wallace walked over to Andy and bent to eye level,
“You’re surprisingly lucid…”
“You may use your phone now Andrew.”
“I’ll be waiting over there,” he gestured towards a giant palm tree, “when you’ve finished If you have any questions.”
Wallace walked away, carefully avoiding touching the people Andy had come with. Andy pulled out his phone and turned it on, the familiar startup noise echoing faintly in the cavernous greenhouse. Andy saw that he had two missed calls and three voicemails, all from his mom. He hit the call button and held the phone up to his ear, “Hey Andy it’s mom. Just got an email from school saying you guys had to cancel? That’s bad luck driving all the way and getting rained on when you get there. Oh well, I’m sure they’ll reschedule. I’ll see you after school. Love. —END MESSAGE” the robotic voice intoned.
He selected the second one:
“Hey Andy, mom again, you coming home right after school or did you have something? Let me know soon. Call me. — END MESSAGE”
He hit the final one:
“Hey, you really need to pick up your phone bud… I don’t want you out this late unless you’re staying at someone’s house. Mark’s mom just called and asked if you two were together, are you staying at Brett’s? Please, please pick up your phone. —END MESSAGE.”
Andy stopped for a second, dead still. He wondered what kind of joke his mom was playing, there was no way that he’d been in the gardens for more than an hour, and rain? She did not have her facts straight at all. I mean really, he chuckled to himself, it was still midday outside. That said, his phone hadn’t vibrated at all when the calls were placed. He thought perhaps he had just missed it in all the excitement, but just to be safe he checked the times they were sent.
Nine fifty-two? No way, Andy thought to himself, but just to be safe he checked his phone clock, 11:31 PM.
“Okay…” he breathed the word out, already walking over to Wallace.
“How long have we been here?”
“Well like I said, I started here-“
“No, please, sir, I need a real answer… my phone’s acting up and it’s freaking me out a little.” Andy interrupted.
“You and your group have been here about eight hours now… roughly.” Wallace checked his watch.
“That’s impossible, it’s still light out.”
“Oh… so it is. Perhaps it’s daylight savings time already,” Wallace regarded Andy evenly.
“Daylight savings time is the period when the clocks roll-“
“No not that.” Andy was getting more nervous by the second.
“When are we leaving?”
“Why, whenever you want, m’boy.”
“I want to leave now.”
“I’m not in control of that, lad. Convince your teacher over there.”
Andy walked over to Ms. Linez and tapped her on the shoulder,
“Can we leave? Please?”
“But… we just got here.”
“Ms. Linez we’ve been here for eight hours.”
“I don’t… want to leave. Neither do the… neither dp your classmates. Don’t be…. such a stick in the…”
Her voice trailed off as she wandered slowly over to one of the other exhibits. Andy walked back over to Wallace, who was looking coldly at him from behind the monocle.
“So, Andrew… figure it out yet?”
“Whatever’s going on-“
“Stop right there, m’boy.” He leaned close to Andy. His breath smelled coppery, very much like blood. “Let’s go for a walk.”
Wallace grabbed Andy’s arm firmly, weaving him in and out of the dazed crowd he’d come with.
“Tell me Andrew, have you ever heard of Dionaea muscipula?”
Andy stared blankly.
“The venus fly trap?”
“Good. Then you know that it uses a complex array of visual and olfactory stimulants to draw food in and keep it happy as it is, quite literally, digested.”
“Language please, lad. Anyway, that’s what we modeled this garden after. The idea that we could shepherd humans into this space with the promise of beautiful sights, sounds, and smells and then keep them here was very attractive to us. You see, having a well stocked food bank is quite rare these days, what with churches getting smaller and smaller every day and the forests getting less densely populated with each year, this was one of our best options.”
“What are you?”
“Me? I’m a Lutheran.” Wallace laughed at his own joke, the smell of blood on his breath now very strong.
“No, but all jesting aside, I’m what humanity has forced me to be. You know we’ve been around a lot longer than you, we were there when you lived among us, and we see you destroy us today. Who was it that said ‘look upon your work and despair’? No matter, he wasn’t born when this body still had a human in it.”
They had reached what looked like a maintenance door at one end of a long corridor. With a small pop, Wallace’s eye shot out of it’s socket, a small tendril of vine waving slowly in it’s place.
“God in heaven it feels good to stretch these limbs.”
More vines began snaking their way up out of Wallace’s throat, they came out of nostrils, ears, the ancient hiking boots he had been wearing split open, revealing woody roots.
“Oh…” the word barely escaped his lips as Andy felt the human hand-glove tighten and then rip. Vines wound their way around his bicep, quickly snapping the bone and bringing him to his knees.
“Andrew do you remember the motto on the brochure?”
Andy couldn’t talk from the pain. “None fairer than nature”, Wallace laughed, “True though isn’t it? You kill us for years, now here we go. Fair is fair.”
Andy struggled weakly to escape, he thought quickly to the person he’d thought was his mother earlier,
“What did I see today?” Andy was being dragged limply.
“What we wanted you to see. In fact, if it wasn’t for the damn cell phones, you probably would have let the issue go the second it was out of view. I swear they are making it damn hard to keep people content. They keep breaking the illusion.”
“Am I going to die?”
“No, that would be a complete waste. No I need a younger body, m’boy, and seeing as you’ve foiled our rather impressive illusion, I can’t rightly let you return to the crowd. For all I know you could convince them to leave.”
“Oh no one is held against their will, for the most part we just wait until they starve and die, then we grind them up, and the fertilization process begins all over.”
Wallace’s face was rippling now, vines twisting underneath the skin. The eye bounced like a ball off of Wallace’s flexing cheek, until, with a great rip, the skin came off entirely.
The muscle structure of Wallace’s skull was still largely intact. Roots and leaves were interwoven into the nervous system quite effectively, making the mouth move and the vocal cords vibrate. Eventually they reached a room where Andy was roughly thrown in, Wallace looked around, before entering and shutting the door.
Andy returned to the rest of his group, apologizing to Ms. Linez for taking such a long bathroom break. She briefly looked at him and nodded before collapsing to the floor. It had, after all, been almost two weeks without food or water. Andy stepped over the quickly decaying body of one Callie Hannon and walked up to Mark. Emaciated and shaking, but still with a look of complete awe on his face, Mark jumped when Andy spoke.
“Wow Mark, isn’t this place amazing?!”
“…Yeah. I could… stay here… forever.”
“Me too!” Andy smiled broadly.
Mark looked at him, an expression of utmost serenity on his face, “And we haven’t… even been here… for an hour…”
Written by Bloodybucket