by Christopher Cornell
Locked down. Shut in. The latest in smart-condo tech, now pressed into service as a makeshift mausoleum. It was a joke for a certain audience, I had to admit, but I was not laughing. Until that week the trap that held me in place had been financial; now the restraint proved physical as well.
The scratching at the door had stopped at least. But the silence was more ominous. I knew it was still out there, exhaling noxious breath. Huffing and puffing in vain for the moment, or as long as the circulation system prevailed. The thermostat revealed the toxic threat had diminished by three percent since last I checked. The electronic complaints over the sound system had slowed to every ten minutes or so.
Perhaps the diminishing danger cues meant this thing was winding down. I prayed I wouldn’t be forced to make the call, admit what I’d done and suffer the consequences. The intent had been benign, the beginning so innocent.
But that’s what they all said, wasn’t it?
* * *
“You sure this thing isn’t illegal?”
Nothing good ever followed that phrase. But here I stood in the back-alley market, mesmerized. Corkscrewed, cobalt tendrils reaching for the sky, barely contained within its atmospheric pod. Alien beauty through and through, not at all a terrestrial shrub. Gorgeous. Just what I needed, but too good to be true.
“Nah, bruh. Come in from outer colonies las’ week. Customs be good. All a these.” The funny little trader sniffed at me, several hands extended to encompass the dozen or so medium-sized pods arranged around him.
I had my doubts, but I couldn’t resist the thought of Mrs. Berquist livid with envy. Fines were steep for violating invasive species codes, but the little man had papers for them. I scrolled through the fine print on the pod’s small display.
“This thing really grows to seven feet?”
“Yah, bruh. On home colony.” He nodded as well as he could with no visible neck. “Earthside go nuts, bruh. Twice that in least. Count ’o the atmosphere, I told.” He traced a large circle with two hands, indicating a future circumference. Perfect.
“Sold.” I swiped my card over the pay strip below the pod’s display, unwilling to haggle over a few Earth dollars. The trader chittered with brief excitement.
“Good choice, bruh. Be sure and ready ta plant when ya break seal, yah? Only the good grow-stuff, now.”
He made a show of releasing the table lock and I picked up the transparent pod, about the size of a large medicine ball but lighter than expected. The tendrils inside swayed as if in approval. This would do nicely.
* * *
Depression ensued as the days wore on with little change in the exotic vine. There it sat, impassive in its trench of Gro-Gel soil substitute just outside the front window. I’d followed the instructions to the letter, but the promised explosive growth had failed to materialize. Meanwhile, Mrs. Berquist’s front lawn flourished in greens and blues and yellows.
Hell with it. If I was stuck here for the foreseeable future, I was in no way ready to concede my own dismal patch of crumbling mulch and bland Terran horticulture. The instructions called for gradually replacing the diminished Gro-Gel with local soil, but the fertilizer was taking its sweet time producing results. I chose to funnel more of the nutrient-rich slime into the trench as the exotic flora absorbed it with gusto. Wherever all that artificial loam was going, results must be forthcoming. I would persevere.
* * *
One morning I opened the front door to a pleasant surprise: lithe blue tendrils woven across the length of the postage-stamp lawn, ringlets of quasi-succulent stalks transforming the formerly dismal patch into a hard-shelled inland sea. It was breathtaking.
Mrs. Berquist gave me the eye as she scooped up her errant Siamese and carried it home. Home to her own sculpted but pedestrian garden. I smiled.
A good start. The hard spirals had consumed the front walkway in their wake, and approached waist height as well. A good pruning was in order, but I’d give it another day or so. For now I’d be content to bask in victory.
* * *
However reluctant the hedge had been to acclimate to life on Earth, now that it had found its footing it refused to dawdle. The next morning the great coils reached above the roof in spots, and extended into the concrete driveway. Perhaps I’d been a tad overzealous with the Gro-Gel. Regardless, it was time to act before it consumed the yard and wound its way next door.
To my dismay, maximum force on the mother of all garden shears yielded little more than surface scratches on the rigid stalks. Several anxious supply runs confirmed similar results with a fire axe, an old-fashioned chainsaw, even a consumer-grade laser torch.
Through it all, Mrs. Berquist looked on from behind her vertical blinds. Gloating? Worried? I couldn’t give her the satisfaction.
* * *
A raw, agonized shriek from outside disrupted the evening meal. Pulse racing, I flipped on the porch light and peered out into the gathering gloom. The spirals jutted angrily overhead now and an unfamiliar dark mass caught my eye. Opening the front door revealed the source of the cry: Mrs. Berquist’s Siamese, impaled on new growth near the edge of the yard. The mewling had ceased and the limp carcass glided down the slender corkscrew with deliberation. Vlad Tepes would have appreciated my handiwork.
I allowed my stomach several lurches before leaping into action, gathering necessary materials. Within a quarter-hour the poor thing was boxed and resting underneath the back porch, away from prying eyes. Away from the silent killer out front, too. Over the fence I could hear Mrs. Berquist calling for her pet to come in for the night.
Before I could think I was in the car, speeding to the store before closing. Two three-gallon power sprayers of Weed-B-Gone and a filtered respirator; desperate measures and all that. This would end tonight. I had blood on my hands.
Mrs. Berquist eventually gave up for the evening. I waited her out, of course. No porch light, either. In total darkness I sprayed and sprayed, then sprayed some more. Once both tanks tapped out I chanced a quick look under the front beam. The saturated tendrils seemed to darken in color as I watched, stiff branches drawing inwards. At last an adverse reaction. I powered down and settled into satisfying sleep, confident that morning would witness the deadly garden’s death throes.
* * *
Loud, percussive noises disrupted my morning sleep. Muffled thud after thud against the front door, as if the kid down the block delivered a year’s worth of papers at once. What I saw as I peered with caution out the front window drained blood down into my toes.
Stiff cerulean tendrils had transformed to sickly black whiplash vines, rippling over the yard like a Gulf spill. Front tendrils cleared the porch and hurled themselves at the entrance as if sensing the source of the attempted homicide. Dark fumes roiled in their wake, blanketing the yard in a concentrated haze.
The plant had consumed and repurposed the pesticide. What doesn’t kill you... Through the haze I began to recognize more dark, slumped shapes throughout the yard. Looked like several birds and rodents had succumbed to the vapors, littering the alien landscape like a mass grave.
Strong black fumes curling under the door’s weather-stripping broke my paralysis of indecision. My eyes began to water and burn. A search in vain reminded me of the respirator’s resting place on the back porch. A few swipes at the regulatory panel caused the ventilation and filtration system to kick in. Nothing left but to set in and hope I could outlast the thrashing nightmare outside.
* * *
So here I sat, nodding off in fits and starts. I was not sure how long it had been. Outside was quiet again, but I couldn’t be sure it was gone. I didn’t want to look.
“Hey! You in there?”
The sudden voice made me jump out of my skin. Someone was outside? Did they not see the danger?
“Hey! Open up!” More thuds, but not insistent flailing this time. Knocks.
I peered out the window and caution gave way to astonishment. The dark smoke was dissipating, shriveled branches drooping to the ground. I flung open the door to a sight worse than a sentient garden of death.
“It’s gone,” Mrs. Berquist said. She held my garden hose from the side tap, drip-drip-dripping rivulets onto the front stoop. “Water,” she continued. “H-two-oh. Wreaks havoc on those outer world shrubs. You really don’t know a thing about gardening, do you?”
I had no reply for her. I shut the door instead.
Copyright © 2013 by Christopher Cornell