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,
"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,
"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
"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?"
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…