Heather lay on the floor, vaguely aware of her surroundings. They had come into her bedroom uninvited. She had been unable to fight them. There had been hundreds of empty water and soda bottles on the floor. Her eyes were almost fully green, her skin was a sickly green, and she could no longer hear because of the vines growing out of her ears.
She had been placed in a plastic room. Two people she couldn’t see because of the yellow suits came in with a stretcher. She tried to lift her head as they hoisted her up. The vines trailed on the floor as they left. They wheeled her down the hall. She didn’t see the man with the flame thrower behind them. There was an operating room. She saw people with knives. She wanted a drink of water. Breathing was so hard.
An anesthesiologist was set to start an IV. As she was lifted onto the operating table, they took her pulse. He looked up and nodded no. Her pale green skin bulged from underneath. The woman with the scalpel screamed as what was left of Heather’s green skin slowly burst and vines trailed outward.
The look on the General’s face was one of surprise. Tony was shocked. One of the General’s phones went off. He answered, “WHAT?” There was the mumble of conversation, “How far under the city?” More mumbling, “Well? Get down there and kill it, burn it all.” As he hung up another phone rang “What?”
This time, after the person spoke, the General stood up, “Then dam up the river until we get this thing contained. Go two miles down; get them testing the waters all the way to the ocean.” He paced the room.
Two young soldiers who drew short straws were ordered to go underground, John and Jim. They stood on Fourth Avenue, not knowing who the houses had belonged to, not really caring. But Heather’s house was gone, the Professor’s house was gone, Bill and Karen, Josh’s house, Jessica’s house, all the trees, all the grass. They were told to burn it all. St. Mary’s Church still stood. It took two other soldiers to lift the manhole cover off. Very, very reluctantly they started down under the road. They both had headgear with bright lights on; both were armed with flame throwers and gas masks.
It was dark. The red brick under the road was barely visible through the green plants, John said to Jim, who was above him on the ladder, “I thought I was going to the Persian Gulf when I signed up for the Army.” Jim said, while looking down, “So did I.”
There was a crunching sound when Jim stepped on the ground. He looked and saw, the green vines stretched from wall to wall. “Little bastard”. Jim got down behind him, “What did you say?”
John said, “I didn’t say anything.” They both looked in every direction, “You’re holding me back.” Jim asked, “Is someone down here?” “Sometimes I just hate you.” They looked up to the open manhole, about 15 feet above them. One of the guys still up there said while bent over looking down, “Quit playing around. Burn all organic matter, anything that’s growing down there. That’s our orders.”
“Quit playing around, quit playing around, quit playing around, quit playing around, quit playing around, quit playing around, quit playing around.” The talking came from everywhere. Both guys, who were already spooked, looked back and forth. Both John and Jim said, “Screw this.” But each man’s ‘Screw this’ meant something different. Jim’s ‘Screw this’ meant he had had enough and started back up the ladder. John’s ‘Screw this’ meant pulling the trigger on his flamethrower and ashing everything he could see.
He aimed at the green leaves and started burning. The flames licked the walls and lit up the space underground. He put on his mask and goggles, the oxygen started flowing, he breathed easy, eyes protected. All around him he heard a weird screaming.
As Jim climbed, he felt things being pulled off of him. He felt scratching on his skin through his glove, so he took it off. When he reached the top of the ladder, it looked to him like those two assholes had pushed the manhole cover back. He had lost the light on his helmet in his panic. When he reached out with his other gloved hand, it felt soft. Taking it off, he pushed.
The two soldiers who had not drawn short straws stood on the road smoking cigarettes when they heard a tearing sound. Looking down, they saw a hand, then a face attempting to burst through a bunch of vines stretching across the open manhole. The vines must have been sharp because Jim’s face and hand had cuts on it as he tried to push through. One of the soldiers meant to give him a hand when he saw the vines wrap around and climb into Jim’s mouth, then his eyes and nose. Jim’s his screaming was first muffled as more plants piled in, then silenced altogether. Both of the soldiers on the ground took a step backward and looked at each other.
Down below, John thought about what he was doing. They hadn’t really told him why they were here, ’In Minnesota of all places,’ he thought. When he saw plants crawling toward him he figured, that’s why. He had plenty of fuel left. He walked up and down burning the walls. He didn’t see Jim being carried along the ceiling, struggling. He also didn’t see Jim being pulled into a small drain, legs kicking the whole time, with plants receding after him to feed.
It took him maybe 25 minutes. He looked in all directions, he checked the pipes and, just for good measure, gave every opening a healthy spray of fire. When he climbed out and took off his goggles and face mask, black smoke poured upward around him. He was coughing, “It looks like I got all of it. All you gotta do is burn it.” He was coated in black, the white of his skin contrasted with the black layer of smudge the goggles hadn’t been covering. The two soldiers had their guns drawn and were pointing at him. They were shaking. He raised his green gloved hands and asked, “What’s the matter?”
Lyle had gone missing. His work at the cemetery/funeral home had been logged. Kurt was furious. He sat on an Army cot in the warehouse with his arms crossed, it was morning. With Lyle gone, he had been working 20 hour days. He had to get the bodies ready, attend the wake. He didn’t even want to think about how long the grass at the cemetery was now. He would have to deal with that eventually. He felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.
The warehouse was still dark. Kurt was the first one up. Last night they had taken all the women from the room he was in and ushered them somewhere. In the room were about 300 men. There were soldiers stationed at all the exits. He should have been on guard, but he couldn’t get past the fact that Lyle had just run off again. It was maybe eight years ago he had done it the last time, climbed into a whiskey bottle and disappeared for weeks.
Six cots down from Kurt was the man wearing his Big Roy’s Heating and Plumbing red-buttoned shirt. He had died around 10:30 last night. Behind Kurt was Herbie, who yesterday had been relieved of his garbage truck driver status.
Two days back Herbie had been grabbing a garbage can, cursing Luis for still being sick, (and now missing) when a rusty jagged pipe fell onto his right arm, resulting in a doctor’s visit and a damn tetanus shot, which really hurt. The deep cut had received nine stitches. Dr. Wong had been grateful to finally have someone who didn’t have that weird rash.
When Herbie opened his eyes, his first thought was of his job and how much he hated it. He laid there in the dark for a moment, not opening his eyes, not moving. He remembered when the turkey plant had been partially out in open air. As a kid, he and his friends would watch the turkeys get strung upside down, getting their throats slit, wings flapping the entire time. He flexed his right arm, it felt numb. Using his left hand, he felt his fingers were cold. Feeling the bandages over his stitches, he felt a bulge, then he felt something had crawled under his bandages. Herbie sat up.
Kurt sat cross-armed, still fuming about Lyle, when behind him the guy in the garbage man’s uniform started to scream. When Kurt stood up and looked behind him, his brain didn’t register what he was seeing. Someone had tied a green cord to the garbage man’s arm. When he pulled, the guy a few cots down was pulled off his cot, which tipped over. His redshirt was covered in green stuff. Kurt didn’t know what the big deal was until the other guys started waking up.
In a circle around Big Roy’s Heating and Plumbing, the vines had spread from him, attaching to multiple people who also started screaming. Above, bright lights turned on. With the additional light, Kurt saw they were actually plants, not a green cord. Before he knew it, he and a lot of other guys had their backs against the wall. He watched the garbage man try to pull the plant from his arm. The garbage man ended up laying the vine on the floor, stepping on it. It took both arms for him to pull the plant loose. It made a sucking sound. It must’ve hurt because the garbage man screamed as he did so. Blood splattered on the floor as the man held his hurt arm to his chest.
The people who had been attached to the plants were quickly segregated, one guy pulling the plants from his face. Soldiers quickly got between the guys with plants on them and the guys without. The ones who awoke scrambled to get the plants off. Herbie tried to act like he was fine. “It’s okay, I got it out. C’mon, guys. I’m fine.” He walked forward. Palms out, he pleaded to the sounds of guns cocking, “Please, I didn’t do anything wrong. Please!” When he bum-rushed the soldiers, he was shot down, Kurt was suddenly no longer worried about Lyle’s disappearance. The bullets pushed Herbie back. His feet flew out in front of him; he piled up cots as he slid backward. It was a strange thing to hear multiple men screaming. When they saw the plants moving over to clean up the dark red blood and wrap around the garbage man and enter his open wounds, the ones who hadn’t screamed, started to. One can only back up so far when one is against a wall, but damned if they weren’t trying.
Jessica sat next to Amy in the neighboring warehouse. Her kids were still sleeping under scratchy Army blankets. They had been given numbers; there weren’t many women left. Jessica had retrieved coffee for her and Amy. They both looked up when they heard gunshots.
Josh had to be strapped down. Because of the many drugs he had been consuming the last couple of weeks, they were unable to sedate him for long. “Quit playing around back there,” he laughed. There had been multiple pain killers injected around his rectum. The plants had made light work inside his body because of the drugs, mostly cocaine, but then they had slowed and almost stopped consuming him. His butt was propped up on the operating table. There were six military surgeons at work. Josh wouldn’t shut up. “Shut the back door,” he laughed again. “The back door is rusty.” He was groggy.
One of the surgeons asked, “Can we gag him?” Josh interrupted, “Can’t you read? It says Exit Only,” followed by a laugh.
As the General looked at what was left of Heather’s body, he was amused at the possibilities. If he had a big white mustache, he would have been twisting it like an old black and white movie villain. Tony was receiving 10 texts a minute. When his phone beeped again, he said, “They’re here”. The General’s face lit up in a smile.
Ten years earlier, Joey had staked out a woman who looked like that blond lady from, “The Age of Adaline”. It took him three months to find out where she lived in southern Minneapolis, without her knowing he was following her. After work, he would sit outside her house. He got her routine down. Using his laptop, he also got her browsing history and hacked her credit card info for later. She liked coats, fancy ones. Even in summer she bought them.
He saw through email she was going to be alone. Her two kids would be gone with their father. She had difficulty getting off work and couldn’t accompany them. He had waited five months for her. That Friday night, when he broke into her house, must have been a good time, he just didn’t remember it. That’s how it usually was. She had been raped and murdered; it had been messy.
Joey might have been good at hacking, but what he didn’t know was that a 15 year-old who lived next door to his victim was better. He had been watching Joey, watching her. He printed out all of his information, using plastic gloves for no finger-prints, and anonymously dropped it off at the police station one morning on his way to school. He didn’t want credit for it. They arrested Joey later in the day at work, his face bright red in embarrassment as they walked him off in cuffs. They were able to pin nine other unsolved cases to him. All the victims were mothers, all were raped and murdered. Minnesota doesn’t have the death penalty. He got multiple life sentences.
He had been weight-lifting at the Federal Correctional Institute in St. Cloud when he saw the Army guys drive up. The fences had sharp barbed wire lining the tops. He was dressed in an orange one-piece. Half an hour later, he and two other guys were called inside.
The Army dude told him if he agreed to some experiments and survived for two, weeks he would be released. Joey couldn’t sign fast enough.
To remain inconspicuous, they traded out Joey’s orange jump-suit to a green one. He still had to wear the cuffs on his ankles and hands. He rode in a bus that had all the windows blacked out. Once they arrived at the turkey warehouses, he was led out with the two other guys. He assumed they got the same deal he did, then he wondered what their crimes were, and why the hell were they in Melrose? And what was the deal with all those Army barricades? They had to pass like five to get here?
Six soldiers accompanied him and the other prisoners. Inside the warehouse were a bunch of cots. Parts of the floors were charred black. As Joey was escorted in, he saw two women get out of another bus, also in shackles. He smiled. On top of the charred remains was a giant semi-trailer’s back end. It sat on the floor, no wheels. It was lined with plastic on the outside. Other than the people with him, the warehouse was empty. ’When they let me go, I’m going to disappear,’ he thought. He couldn’t wait.
He was shuffled to the middle of the warehouse. The two other prisoners and the two women inmates were separated and marched down dark halls. A woman wearing a yellow hazmat suit with a clipboard and an i-Phone walked out to meet him.
“There is oxygen being pumped in there. You will not suffocate. The space inside is air-tight, you cannot escape. If, for some reason, you are able to escape…”
Joey interrupted her, “Are you single?” He threw a smile that creeped her out. He had long ago shaved his head. In jail, you have to or they grab your hair in the fights. His first thought was that if he had his brown hair it would better his chances with the ladies.
She sighed and continued, “This door”, she unlatched it, “is the only way in or out. If for some reason, you are able to escape, there are 24 hour guards with guns and you will be shot. There are cameras inside. If you attempt to destroy or alter the cameras, you will be shot.”
As one of the guards began taking the cuffs off, Joey nodded and said, “Yeah, you’re single. Wanna come inside with me?” He rubbed his wrists. The handcuffs had been tight.
She continued while facing away from Joey, “Inside is a table. Every hour you are to take a blood sample and put it in the slot inside. It will be collected. If you miss one hour in the next two weeks, you will be shot. Take the sample from anywhere, we will need blood. You will be fed regularly. Any questions?”
As she pulled the zipper down, Joey asked again while reaching out to touch her arm, “Yes, are you single?”
Before he was able to make physical contact, one of the guards brought his stick down and smashed the top of his hand. He turned to say ‘What the fu…’ while rubbing his hand, when the barrel of another soldier’s Army rifle was jammed in his face. The guard said, “Move it”.
He backed up the single step and went inside. They latched the doors behind him. He never took his eyes off her, he didn’t stop smiling, he hasn’t been that close to a woman in a long time. Once the doors were latched, they zipped up everything and sealed him in. He saw the table with the syringes, as a loudspeaker, said, “Blood sample.” It sounded like that same lady.
He didn’t really like needles, but as his mother used to say, ”Soonest begun, soonest done.” He took a blood sample from his arm and put it in the slot. “It’s bright in here,” he said to himself. He could see cameras pointed in every direction.
There was a TV and a small collection of books. There were bottles of water, a little toilet. On the other side of the trailer was a greenhouse looking pile of plants. He ignored them. He would have preferred a La-Z-Boy instead of a brown folding chair’ there was nothing to play music with either.
He had been reading a lot lately because his headphones kept getting stolen in prison, but at least here it was quiet. He picked up, “The Firm” by John Grisham and put his feet up on the table.
Every hour he put his blood sample in the slot. He didn’t know what time it was, but assumed it was bedtime when they slightly dimmed the lights. One of the cots had been moved into the trailer earlier. It was the one Kurt had been sleeping on and it had been sanitized. Joey slept in his clothes. Because it was so quiet, he slept deep. His last thought as he drifted off was at how easy this was going to be.
A half-hour later at the other end of the trailer, above what used to be Heather, a large amount of cocaine was sprinkled down from the ceiling onto the green pile of vines, it looked like snow. The little leaves quickly started to vibrate. Always hungry, they became overly stimulated. The effects on Josh’s body with all the drugs in his system, mixed with the way the plants fed, provided a lot of unanswered questions.
Tony was horrified; the General was giddy. Both had their faces inches from the monitor. They’d had larger screens brought in so they could watch the results.
Joey was irritated, he kept hearing, “Little Bastard, Little Bastard, Little Bastard, Little Bastard, Little Bastard, Little Bastard, Little Bastard” in a shaky voice over and over again. It rang throughout his dreams until he woke. He then sat up and said “Shut up, already!, I was sleepin’,” while he rubbed his eyes. As he swiveled and swung his feet down to the floor, the lights were brought to full brightness. He had an erection as he stood. The lady in the yellow suit was sexy.
There is a character on a show called “South Park” called Tweak, the “Little Bastard” being repeated over and over reminded him of that little guy. As his vision adjusted to the light, he looked around and jumped. The pile of vines was quivering and reaching, the other end of the semi was now empty, the plants were crawling to his side.
Never before had he heard of anything like what he was seeing, plants moving on their own. He backed up until he could back up no more and quickly noticed that when he moved to the right, the plants moved to the right. When he moved left the plants moved left. ’No’, he thought, ’It’s not me the plants are looking at.’
He looked at the top of his hand, where there were open cuts and some dried blood from when that soldier had hit him. “The vines want my cuts?” he said out loud.
At the worst possible time, for Joey at least, the loudspeaker said, “Blood Sample.” Joey screamed; all of the vines reacted to the noise and jumped forward.
The lady on the outside of the trailer stood and waited for him to put his sample into the slot. There were three armed guards with their guns drawn. She should have felt safe, right? The four of them didn’t have the luxury of cameras, but they heard. The guards first heard pounding and screaming. It was muffled, but the trailer wasn’t soundproof. They wished it was. Up and down the trailer they heard banging and screaming. This went on for a time. At one point, there appeared to be dents coming from the inside on the side of the trailer. After the screaming, quieted the sound of pounding lasted a for a little while.
Tony pulled the garbage can out from under the desk and vomited. The General’s eyes were open wide. He shrugged as Tony, on his knees, puked. The General looked down at Tony and said, “Okay, you were right. The cocaine might have been a bit much.”
The next day, the woman doing out-processing sat at her desk. Amy was allowed to leave. She did so sheepishly, never really figuring out what had happened there. Jessica and her two babies entered the room. The kids had been loaned hand-me-down clothes; there were no shoes so they only had socks. She saw on the Army lady’s desk a computer and a microphone and a yellow notebook. The woman indicated for her to sit down.
She filed her papers. Jessica noticed her belly. She thought the Army lady might have just given birth. The lady spoke, “Hello, Jessica. You have gone last because you are a special case.”
Jessica asked, “Special? In what way?”
Army lady, “You have seen the reason why we’re here. It is by luck alone you haven’t spoken about it to anyone in the warehouse.”
Jessica pointed, “You mean those damn moving plants? I wanted to ask….”
The Army lady moved her arm to the left to the base of the microphone and said quietly, “Don’t ask about it, don’t talk about it.” Jessica’s son ran around the room. She held her daughter in her arms.
Jessica frowned. “I don’t understand? Why would you…” As she began to speak a man with a rifle peeked his head through the door. He looked ugly and pissed off. “Something wrong with your mic?”
The Army lady put on the most innocent face she could and picked it up, turning it over and over. She said, “I don’t think so.” She bent her head down and said loudly, “You hear me now?” The man jerked as he backed out of the room, his hands flying up to his earpiece, for the moment satisfied.
The Army lady continued, “Whatever it is you think you have seen, you haven’t. Your husband cannot know about it, your mother or your sister cannot know about it. There will be people coming and going from their lives, who will ask them about this and if they know why you were quarantined, they will disappear, then you will disappear. This will not make your marriage any easier, but if your husband knows it will put him in danger, and you. Your children can’t speak yet, so we lucked out there. Do you understand?”
Jessica stood up, angry, “You keep me here for days and now you threaten me?”
The Army lady waved her down and flashed a picture of her own baby boy. “I am simply relaying the message. You will never see me again regardless. As long as you stay silent, your children get to have a mother. Please sign here.”
Jessica read the paper. It had TOP SECRET stamped on the top, it also said, “If any of what I have seen here is repeated. I hereby forfeit my life. Signed……………………………”
She looked up at the Army Lady who pointed and said, “Please sign on the dotted line. Here is a check for $200,000 to help you relocate. Your house has been destroyed.” She slid the check across the table and said, “There is a vehicle outside for you. It will be collected when you’re settled. There are baby seats.”
Jessica sat for a while and tapped the pen on the paper. Weighing out the pros and cons, she took off the top of the pen and signed her name.
Jessica stood and readjusted her daughter on her hip, and she was shown the door, son holding her hand. Outside, she was put in a black car, with a license plate reading, GOVT. She drove off. After maybe 10 different checkpoints, she was back to regular Minnesota.
When she finally did find a phone, (hers had been confiscated), and when she was finally reunited with her family, she realized the Army lady had under advertised how difficult it would be when asked, “What did you see? Where were you?” and not be able to talk about it. She would never be left alone, they would never stop asking, her personal life became nearly impossible, her kids were happy though.