The Garden Street Apartments
by Cyn Bermudez
She was the first I had seen during my annual walk in The Gardens, the first who impressed me with her desire for detail: the way she examined the lilies and stargazers, the way she courted falling leaves, the color of autumn, sun-kisses waning after a summer’s dream.
She sat with perfect posture on a wooden bench, under a flowered trestle. Her white dress a faux skin hiding her sins, her covetous nature. At night, she haphazardly consumed her young men and women.
I had seen this in her eyes: promises of grandeur; she lured a succession of offerings to an altar of self-idolatry. She disarmed them with a smile, the sudden force of the kill. She bathed in their ichor, drank of their essence, milky-red passion massaged into her skin.
I could taste the briny iron, the pungent of saline sweat and tears, the struggle. The wails and shrieks of her victims still lingered in the air around her, their blood staining her cheeks.
I had chosen Iris because of this: her ardor for petals admirable; her taste for youthful dolor trite; her knowledge prideful and limited. I prized her dedication.
In my excitement, I had shared a few of my own secrets: only the ripened leaves, the stems as it hardened with age, venules of fading green and crumbling apexes. She had seen in my eyes the extent of death, the moment. It had been enough, as I knew it would be, to entice her.
In the doorway of my home, at first, all I saw was her hat: A large white brim hung over her eyes in a wave, in a swoop, topped with a garish hot-pink flower pinning black ribbon. Shadow cut diagonally across her face, leading my eyes to lipstick spilling over thin slits, candy-apple red smudging her teeth.
She held a torn piece of paper bag, my address scrawled on it. She checked the numbers, matching them to my door. She squinted to read the large loops of my handwriting, lines curving like bubbles.
“Hello, Iris. Right on time.”
She tilted her head to the side, revealing a slanted eye giving me the once-over, lingering on my hands cloaked in black leather.
“Of course,” she said. “I’m nothing if not punctual. Cold?” She eyed my gloves warily.
“Come in, come in,” I said, moving from the doorway. “Dinner is almost ready.”
“I must bring Corcus, my aide, if you don’t mind. I insist on it. He doesn’t eat much.” Iris pointed toward a short pudgy man, his silver hair in a comb-over atop his shiny head. He was studying a neighbor’s monstera, the split leaf wilting under his girth.
Before I could say anything, Corcus pushed passed me, rattling my vases and portraits of blossoms that hung generously on the walls, his skin smelling of damp wood. In his wake, a gust of wind rose of sour clothing and gardenias, the rising aroma of dinner still too far in the distance.
“Lovely home you have here, Cosmo.” Corcus took in my apartment decor in a single twirl. “Oh, I’m Corcus,” he said, remembering where I stood. He charged for me, swaddling his sausage-fingers around my hand.
I matched the firmness of his handshake, his palm feeling like taut skin wrapping doughy innards.
“Quaint, I suppose,” Iris said. She looked around my apartment much the way Corcus had, but she turned slower, studying every nook, every crevice, her gaze unabating.
“Right. Quaint,” Corcus said.
“My landlord will be joining us as well—”
“For what?” Iris’s head snapped in my direction.
“He reviews all potential inhabitants.”
“Of course.” She smiled and continued her scrutiny of my place.
I prepared the table: stuffed Cornish hens glazed with cranberry-lemon sauce, asparagus tips, port wine. I placed fine burgundy linen folded neatly into little hats, lined polished silverware, my grandmother’s china.
“Cosmo, you look like hell,” said Oleander, his beer gut hanging from his spindly frame. Oleander had arrived a few minutes earlier, entering my home without knocking. “For godsakes put a comb through that hair.” The consummate landlord.
“You assume I haven’t.” I brushed my hair again with my fingers. “Dinner is ready.”
My guests sat at the table, a disfigurement of assorted sizes. I placed halved hens on the plates in front of each of my guests, rosemary and lemon invaded the room. The aroma pushed out the leafy smell of soil, the floral fragrances of my paintings, Corcus’s musty wear.
Iris continued to eye my apartment; she paid extra attention to the plants and flowers wilting under artificial light. Corcus mimicked her movements. He nodded his head in disapproval, agreeing with Iris’s deconstruction of the workings of my own private garden.
I had seen Corcus in The Garden that day, too. He stood by Birds of Paradise, breaking and bending their leaves. I saw within him, too, the hidden giant, not the docile jester in front of me. I saw his deeds imprinted on his aura, his secrets glimmering in his eyes. I had seen echoes of thoughts and unsaid whispers and the pulling of strings. I had seen a devil’s tool.
Now, at my table, as I had seen in the garden, I saw in Corcus the faces he hides: arrogance hidden under compliments, the pleasure for pain. He waited. He watched as Iris sized up her prey, the way she desired my blood, the prospect of my unexpected landlord. I heard his silent murmur: “Their blood will smooth the lines of your character; give depth in your eyes, the youthful vigor of the finest bouquet.” Unseen words caressed Iris’s skin. Corcus pulled the cords, a masterful puppeteer hidden behind the mask of a doting fool.
“I must say, Cosmo, I expected this apartment of yours to be top notch,” Iris said. She wet her lips. “The Garden Street Apartments are renowned for their beauty, for their famed garden. That is why I came here. Indeed, the external gardens are a sight to see. But I have to admit I’m discouraged with how your own garden looks.” She pointed to my patio, to my indoor plants and flowers, even to my portraits of blossoms. “What can I possibly gain from you?”
I had invited Iris for dinner, to discuss her possible habitation in the building. She had no real desire for the building, for residency. She only came here for the secrets within its walls, its lush green gardens, for the taste of my death. I knew this. But I, too, never intended for her to live in the building.
“I assure you we are the best,” Oleander said. “These plants and flowers are in need of a little tending. Nothing Cosmo can’t handle, mind you. The boy’s got talent.”
“Talent?” Iris had her own garden, one that she would never really leave. She scoffed and took out a small portfolio from her purse. “I’ll show you a green thumb.” She placed the picture book into my hands. Its binding rough and prickly, pieces fitted together from skin and hair. “Just look at these withering poppies, these beautiful flowers. Exquisitely sensual, wouldn’t say?”
“Yes, they’re quite ... vaginal,” Oleander said, hovering over my shoulder.
Centered in the photograph was a bouquet of mixed flowers: closed, unflowered red and purple, strung together with black ribbon. Iris examined the flowers in the photo like a connoisseur, as if each petal contained complexity and trepidation, the beauty and terror of each of her victims.
“One of my favorites, Iris. I love this arrangement,” Corcus said. “So simple. So powerful. So sensual. Show them the other bouquets, Iris. The images of your garden.”
Iris flipped through the pages of her portfolio. The smell of paper and glue mixing with the scent of lemon. She showed me photos of her garden and bouquets, each containing the same mix of flowers. The last few pages, to my surprise, showed pieces of various flowers arranged systematically, a cacophony of stiff colors, petals made of fabric!
Oleander gasped. I reciprocated. The sight of faux flowers made my skin ripple, my flesh churn uneasily. Oleander pulled on my arm, sharp fingernails pinching into the wrinkles of my elbow.
I shoved food in my mouth in an effort to hide my disgust. Bits of poultry melted on my tongue, lightly salted, the meat saturated in lemon, the crispy skin tasted of rosemary. I swallowed without chewing, without breathing. Oleander only stared at his food. His knee tapped incessantly.
“Cosmo,” Oleander said, leaning toward my ear. His voice shook. “I can’t have Iris in this building.”
“We need them.” I moved closer to Oleander, careful to keep my voice low.
“We don’t need them.” Oleander shifted in his seat. Corcus watched him warily.
“There aren’t any potentials left at the moment,” I said. Oleander knew this wasn’t true, but he also knew visiting The Garden so soon was against procedure; he knew waiting for the right benefactor could take weeks. “I must do with what I have.”
“Eat up, eat up,” he said. “Dinner is getting cold.” Oleander rammed asparagus in his mouth, alternating hen and wine in rapid movements of fork and fingers and glass. The creases of his fingers glistened with butter and grease.
Iris seemed unfazed; she savored each bite, but Corcus ate with caution. Soon we sat with full bellies, exhausted from our gluttonous display.
“It’s time,” I said. Oleander nodded his head in reluctant compliance.
“Time for what?” Iris looked at her watch.
“I’ve accepted Cosmo’s bid to incorporate your... uh... fine contribution into our residence.” Oleander gritted his teeth. “We at The Garden Street Apartments thank you. Please know that our acceptance is a great honor we have bestowed upon you. Good evening to you both.” He breathed deeply, giving a quick glance at Iris’s portfolio that laid half-closed on the table, then looked at me. “Cosmo,” he said and turned quickly and left.
“I’m honored, Cosmo, really,” Iris said. She flipped her hair and re-topped her head with her white, large-brimmed hat. “I’m not sure if Corcus and I are the right fit. I mean, I think residency here would be wonderful, but I already have a garden and a home I’m quite happy with.”
“You’re absolutely right. Your own garden is genius. Why leave it for something so... quaint.”
The gleam I had seen so many times in Corcus’s eyes reared its head, a shimmer, tar-like distortions rippling through his eyes. They were ready for the kill. Iris and Corcus began circling me.
“You misunderstand, Iris. And you, too, Corcus,” I said. “Residency is only for a select few, gifted, so to speak.” Confusion rendered over their faces. “How do you like that wall over there?” They turned to the bare wall in my dining room area.
“It’s bare but simple, I guess,” Iris said.
“I think we should go now, Iris,” Corcus said.
“I agree. Bare, simple, as you say. It’s a great place for a new contribution.” Corcus bolted for the door. He twisted and turned the knob. But the door would not open. Iris only stared dumbfounded at the empty wall.
The wall began to wobble, shifting concave-convex, in and out, as if it were breathing. White, malleable globules of elastic plaster formed into limb-like extensions, crowned with a smooth spherical surface.
The limbs jutted forward, one encircled Corcus by the waist. He gripped the doorknob, capillaries bursting under his eyes. His fingernails snapped off as they scraped against the door.
A smaller limb extended from the one wrapped around Corcus, twisting up snake-like, coiling around Corcus’s mouth. He squirmed — muffled screams, bleeding ears, eyes red like sunset — pushing and pulling the limbs futilely.
Iris, in contrast, was catatonic now. Another white limb had lifted her into the air. The wall-limbs holding both Corcus and Iris retracted fast, a wet clap reverberated through the windows. They hung motionless like still life on a wall.
The entire process took about four hours. By the second hour, their eyes became as black as their veins, veins black as tar, bulging, throbbing on their plaster skin, tarry venules spreading throughout their bodies.
Their eyes stared up to the ceiling, glistening under incandescent lights, bellies protruded. Arms and legs and partial faces stretched the lining of the wall. A multitude of faces frozen, mouths agape mid-scream, bubbled under the surface.
Slowly, arterial roots branched out across the wall, darkened blood permeated up from the remains of Iris and Corcus, into the stems of the plants and portraits and circuitry.
At the fourth hour, my walls whitened. The appliances polished. The grass and plants in my patio garden shone a bright green. The portrait blossoms exploded with vivid colors. My flowers bloomed.
The next morning, I woke up to find Oleander standing in my dining room. A brown, curly-haired woman stood next to him. They examined my newly decorated wall.
“Ever heard of knocking?” Leftovers and dirty dishes and half-emptied wine glasses spotted my table.
“Cosmo, my boy, I had my doubts, but I must say you certainly have the eye.” Oleander beamed proudly at my newest additions, to the two new portraits of blossoms on my wall.
“Yes, they’re beautiful,” the woman said. “I’m Veronica, by the way.”
“Our newest resident,” Oleander said. “I was hoping you can give her some pointers for selection in The Garden.
“Of course,” I said.
We took a moment to admire my new portraits. The first one in a gold-plated frame, a fuchsia bouquet of pink tri-petal flowers, thin lipped, petals curved over its stem and sepal, yellow carpel, held together with black ribbon. The second in a thicker bronze frame, a portly glass vase that held purple flowers with swooping petals and long orange stamens.
“Yes, yes,” Oleander said. “The boy’s got talent.”
Copyright © 2015 by Cyn Bermudez