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Serpent’s Teeth: Part II
by Steve Spaulding

a continuation of the story that began in Issue 8

 

I sat there in the dirt, just staring and staring at them. For maybe half a second I had hoped they were people. Human, I mean. But that was just my brain grasping at straws. Except for their shape and their voices there was nothing human about them.


I kept waiting for the shock to pass, to resolve itself into some feeling I could grab hold of – anger, fear, disgust, excitement – something. But you know, it never did. I mean never; not there out behind Jake’s trailer, not later when we went inside, or a week after that or … or ever, to tell the truth. Even now as I sit here writing, thinking about that

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day, thinking about them, buried in their little plot of ground, it’s a gigantic blank. As if something pulled the rug out from under whatever mental faculty it is that attaches meanings to things. I think that Jake had some of that disconnect – whatever you want to call it – as well. Probably he had it even worse.


"Water," the one right in front of me said again, and then a chorus of scattered whisperings from the others echoed the word: "Water."


Calmly, Jake left me where I sat and walked over to the pump. He filled a large tin pail and, grabbling the handle in both fists, legs bowing a bit from the strain, walked it back to his plot. He awkwardly slopped the water up and down between the rows. "Ah," said several of the plant-people as the liquid splashed them, some of them looking up, expressionless, blinking their golden eyes at Jake. "Ah."


"They’re always bitching about something or other," said Jake as he went. "Well, mostly it’s about water, I guess."


"What are they?" I asked. My voice sounded small.


He set his pail down and wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his arm. "Actually, I was kind of hoping you could help me out in that department." Jake put his hands on his hips and gave me a hopeful smile.


I got to my feet slowly. "Help you how, exactly?"


"Well, you were the guy who was always so good in science class. I mean, biology, chemistry – you were even in that advanced placement physics class senior year." Again he gave me the hopeful smile – the desperately hopeful smile, I now saw.


"Jake," I said, "It was high school, okay? I was a science geek back in high school. I don’t think I’ve done anything harder than multiply fractions in the past 10 years." I turned from him back to the whatever-they-weres, growing calmly in their rows. "And this… I mean, these…"


"There’s got to be something you can find out about them," Jake said, clapping me gently on the shoulder. "You were always the smartest guy I knew."


I could remember how he’d used that line to get me to do his homework for him. It had stopped working sometime around sophomore year. It pissed me off that he was still using it – especially using it now. For fuck’s sake, I thought, why couldn’t you just have a drug addiction, or a brain tumor, or be a plain old-fashioned screw-up like a normal person, Jake? Then we could have a few beers, relive some old times, and go back to our lives. But nooooooo… not for you. For you it had to be something like plant people, space aliens, or vampires. "I don’t think there’s much I could – "


"Well even a little would be more than I could manage," he cut me off. "Please. I need to know what I might be doing wrong. I don’t want this batch to end up like the last one."


"What last one?" I asked.


I shouldn’t have asked.


Jake motioned me up to the side of the trailer where I noticed a blue tarp lying in the shade. Actually, it seemed to be draped over a small mound of something, with the corners weighted down by rocks like a compost heap. Jake kicked a rock off one corner and pulled the tarp aside, almost, I thought, with a flourish – like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.
It’s a good thing I was still numb. There were about five or six of them lying under the tarp, but it was difficult to say since many of them were in pieces and heaped on top of one another. Instead of golden yellow they were a dingy old-newspaper color with splotches of gray and brown. None of them had the bright eyes or gentle swaying motions of the others. None of them were alive and talking, thank God. I don’t think I would have liked what they might have had to say.


One seemed to have split its seams, like an overstuffed couch. Another had started "budding" like crazy: extra limbs, extra heads, even a miniature copy of itself, tiny head, arms, and torso struggling to grow out of its upper thigh. Another was having obvious gender difficulties …
Jake was talking, but I wasn’t listening very hard. Saying something about fertilizer, about rainfall, about planting too early or planting too late – wait a second … planting?


"Planting what, exactly?" I asked.


Jake gave me a long, hard look just then. I could tell he was weighing in his mind the decision to tell me. I couldn’t, at the time, imagine why. He had shown me all this – he had even shown me his reject pile. What could he possibly still need to keep secret?


At last he shrugged, replaced the tarp, and led me back into the trailer. Now the whiskey bottle came out. We sat at the bad formica table in his kitchenette and Jake poured us each a good three fingers. I drank maybe a little too fast and got a chuckle out of him. Jake fired up a menthol cigarette, then went to the fridge and took down from the top a long, red toolbox secured with a padlock. He took a key from a chain around his neck and opened it up, the top towards me. He pulled a chunky-looking blue-steel revolver out and laid it on the table. "Security, right?" he said, smiling at me. I took another long pull on my drink. He took another long drag off his cigarette.


"I need you to keep all of this quiet, of course," he said. "But this next in particular. All the rest, I mean, if I have to I can up and leave it. It’d suck, yeah, but I could walk away. As long as I still have these, I can always start over."


He turned the toolbox around. It was filled with maybe two dozen small, brown-black spheres. I picked one up. They were about the size of golf balls and oddly spiky – a bit like pictures I’d seen of pufferfish, only not sharp enough to break the skin. They weren’t like any sort of seed or nut I’d ever seen. They were too round, too regular.


"These are what they grow out of?" I asked.


"Yep," Jake said. "And I know just what you’re wondering. There’s a plastic baggie in there somewhere you should take a look at."


Sure enough, I found it tucked in a corner. It held one of the spheres, but this one had been neatly cut in half, and was now held together by strips of black electrical tape. With Jake nodding it was all right, I opened up the baggie and carefully removed the tape.


Inside, curled up in a tight little ball, was a perfectly formed woman, much darker in color than the "adults" growing outside. If she had unfolded she might have stood two inches tall. I could tell she was female because of the shape of her hips and the slight curve of her breasts tucked beneath her folded arms. Just like the smaller ones I’d seen growing in Jake’s garden, they were the same proportions on a different scale. They look human, I thought, but they don’t grow up. They just grow.


I think that was the moment that hooked me. I’ve written about how the creatures, for all the strangeness of them, failed to produce an emotional response in me. The part they did provoke, it turned out, was my curiosity – I’m not sure you can really call that an emotion. But I knew then, looking at that tiny, yellow figure, that my need to understand them was every bit as strong as Jake’s. And somehow or another, he knew it too. I guess that’s why he’d shown her to me in the first place.


So I collected my samples – enough to fill a mason jar and a plastic bag – all from the dead pile under the blue tarp. Jake wouldn’t let me touch his growing crop, not even to do a scraping. "The smallest amount of damage," he said, "can make them start to shoot off buds, and then the whole thing’s wrecked."


And of course he wouldn’t let me take one of the round black seeds. It was clear from the gun in his toolbox he didn’t want anyone else cultivating. When I asked him where he’d gotten the seeds from in the first place he just smiled and said, "An estate sale." He was so obviously lying it was pointless to ask again.


All of which begged a disturbing question. It was obvious how much his crop meant to him, but once they were grown, what then? I mean, what, exactly, happened at harvest time? And what would happen after? He obviously wasn’t hoping for fame and fortune. Something about the look he gave me before showing me his seeds convinced me that he wouldn’t have sold one for any amount of money.


So, after I was back in my car, engine started, a little alcohol buzz singing in my head, samples neatly packed under the passenger seat beside me, I leaned out the window and called out to Jake’s back as he was heading off to his trailer, "Hey!"


Jake turned around.


"What are you doing this for in the first place, anyway?" I asked.


His face went perfectly blank. "Because I can," he said, as if the answer was the most obvious thing in the world. Then he turned and went inside, and I started the long drive back to the city.


To be concluded next issue…


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Copyright©2002 by Steve Spaulding

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