From the author: This is a story that my publisher wanted to include in my early collections, but I demurred. I was teaching high school English at the time, and I didn't want to risk the parents of any of my students reading it, then deciding they didn't want a person who was capable of writing such a piece to be teaching their child. ADULT CONTENT WARNING.
Jermaine said, "Just being around growing young women makes me feel alive." He poked a finger into the cement planter's black dirt. "That's where the excitement is, Bucko, and these are nearly ready to harvest."
Gregory looked down the long aisle through the middle of the greenhouse where rows of heavy trunked plants like the one they stood next to grew from solid, grey planters. From the top of each plant, four branches sprouted and bowed with the weight of their fruit, full sized women.
They walked to the next plant and Jermaine picked a handful of dirt out of it, felt it like an expert farmer and then let it dribble back. Even though the planter was only three feet tall, Jermaine had to reach up to replace the dirt. He was very short, almost a midget. A moody man who Gregory didn't particularly like, he had insisted they come to the flower shop when he overheard Gregory arguing with his newly "ex" girl friend on the phone.
Jermaine said, "I hear that their secret here is meticulous care. Each gene splicing, forced mutation and pollenization is done by hand."
"I'm not sure I'm ready...I mean...a plant...I want to live alone," said Gregory.
"Not just a 'plant.' A designer house plant, a state of the art product! And don't give me this stuff about living alone, Bucko. Unless you think house plants think, you'll still be on your own. That's the beauty of it."
Gregory turned away from Jermaine and faced the next "fruit" dangling from an acorn like skull cap that cupped the top half of her head. Green streaks showed faintly through her pale skin, through her eyelids.
"This one's almost ripe." Despite his three piece suit, Jermaine clambered onto the planter, grasped the "girl's" wrist and examined the hand, turning it palm up. "See, fingers separated." He pressed his thumb into the palm and the fingers closed slowly around it. "Stimulus reflexes coming along." He beckoned Gregory, "Here, touch its skin."
Shaking his head, Gregory backed away.
"Relax, Bucko, it's meant to be handled. That's what it's here for."
"I'm uncomfortable." Gregory's face flushed. "She's naked."
"Come on." Jermaine held out a hand. "It's all right."
As if afraid that someone observed his reluctance, Gregory glanced side to side then stepped up next to Jermaine.
"You said they were 'fully functioning'?"
"Fully reflexive. Press here." Jermaine directed Gregory's hand to the small of the woman's back; he reached around her tentatively but jerked his hand away when he touched her.
"Of course. Would you want a cold one? Hold that spot longer. Don't move your hand."
Gregory touched her again. For a few seconds the three of them stood still; fans at the far end of the greenhouse blew humid air past them, ruffling Gregory's hair, partially uncovering a bald spot. Then the plant moved. Her hips pushed against him rhythmically, and her arms moved up as if to encircle him. He stepped away. The woman's arms dropped and her torso quit moving.
"Oh, my," he exclaimed.
"That reflex will improve, naturally, when she's completely ripe, about a week after she's picked."
"Are there other...uh...models?"
"Sure. Each trunk produces three slightly different usable fruits, like sisters, but the separate plants...well, you can see." Jermaine gestured to the next planter where "girls" distinctly different from the one they were standing next to hung: more delicate, shorter. Gregory tried not to stare. He looked away.
"You said there were three 'fruits' per plant, but I count four." Gregory pointed to a fourth girl dangling in the shadow behind the trunk.
"Ah, you mean Rose." Jermaine sidled around the plant between the trunk and the girls. "They're a recessive gene, I understand. quite unusable."
Gregory hopped off the planter and went around to where Jermaine was standing. His hand sunk into the wet dirt when he braced himself. Little globs of soil flew from his fingers as he shook them, and he held his hand away from his suit until Jermaine tossed him a rag to wipe it off.
Relieved to be doing something mundane, something as unembarrassing as cleaning his hands, Gregory wiped each finger meticulously. When he finished he looked at "Rose" and gasped.
"Quite striking, isn't she?"
Like the others, her toes brushed the dirt as she swayed slightly from her branch. Her hands rested against her thighs, relaxed, fingers curved as if waiting for someone to hold them, but no one would hold these hands, Gregory realized, no one would embrace this "fruit," because huge thorns, hard, wicked and sharp poked through her skin at every point. She bristled with inch long stickers so heavily that she didn't even mimic human appearance as the others did. From her forehead, her cheeks and lips, her neck and shoulders; from her breasts and belly, her hips and thighs, they curved out, translucent at the tips, needle sharp and glistening.
Gregory reached out to touch a thorn on her leg.
"Better not, Bucko. She's fully reflexive too." Jermaine lightly brushed the thorns on her belly, then pulled his hand away as her hips thrust forward. "You could get a nasty little cut from this one." He laughed. "She got me and I knew it was coming." He put the heel of his hand in his mouth.
"I don't know. Depends on how you look at her."
Gregory shuddered. "Why do they grow anything like this?"
"Like I said, a recessive gene. Completely unavoidable. Sometimes they sell one for novelty." Jermaine climbed off the planter. "Let's look at some of the others."
A half hour later, Gregory chose a "girl" that he liked and signed the contract for delivery. He felt, absurdly, like he had as a child after buying a Christmas tree.
The next day, at home, Gregory waited for the delivery. He was watering an African Violet, letting the water's weight push the leaves into the black earth, until the pot overflowed. He tapped the leave's edges to shake the drops off, then rubbed the soft fuzz on the leaf as if the plant were a mouse. The violets were Sara's, his "ex." He had expected her to pick them up after she left, but as the days passed and the leaves began to droop and shrivel, he had watered them. "You have to talk to them," she's said when she'd bought them. "Talk and TLC and they'll bloom." She'd say, "Here's water for my ducks. How are my babies?" That's ridiculous, he had thought at the time.
Pots of African Violets covered the entire counter top. She'd replaced the florescent bulb over the counter with a grow light, and as each plant flourished, she'd pinched and pruned, divided and replanted, until not a patch of the mauve linoleum counter was visible. Gregory refilled the canister and, without talking, doused the next plant.
She had loved simple things: plants, horses, sad movies, sappy poetry. For a big woman--a hint of double chin, padded shoulders and cushioned collar bones, round soft hips, broad thighs, pliant skin--she had moved over the tiny plants with a delicate grace. "Water, water everywhere and here's a drop to drink."
Finished with the violets, Gregory checked his watch, opened the front door and looked up and down the long, empty street, sat in front of the T.V., staring at the blank screen. A car hummed past the house and he half got up but sat again when it didn't stop. Finally he searched his collection of tapes for something to watch until the delivery. He paused at The King and I, a tape that Sara had watched over and over. He had found her slumped into the recliner one morning the week before she'd left, the remote control in hand, crying during a dance sequence. "Why?" he'd said. "Because they love each other," she'd replied.
He pushed Little Shop of Horrors into the machine and fast forwarded to the climax ("Feed me Seymour! Feed me!").
He fell asleep before it ended and dreamed about Sara. He held out his hand to her, but when she took it she screamed. His palm was filled with thorns. He woke up biting his lip.
The delivery man was scrawny and short. Gregory thought he could be a jockey if he got out of the delivery business. The heavy, blue plastic crate, like a huge Smurf coffin, stood on end in the living room. The delivery man unsnapped the buckles that held the lid closed, but he didn't open it. "You got instructions, right?" he said. Before Gregory could answer, he continued, "Keep it out of the sun. Otherwise you'll get sprouts. Wet its skin once a day. Otherwise you'll get cracks. A damp sponge'll do the trick. Unpadded manacles, whips, vibrators or anything sharp will bruise or break the skin, which will void you warranty. Keep it out of direct breezes, like a fan, air conditioner or heating duct. Store it in the carrying case when you're not using it." He paused to consult a card he held. Gregory felt like he was having his Miranda Rights read to him. "A diluted alcohol wipe will kill bug infestations. Forcing the limbs beyond normal range will void the warranty. So will the use of oil based paints, electrical devices or abrasives, like sandpaper or nail files."
The man sighed. "The stories I could tell." He looked at the card again. "The case is heated, so plug it in and it'll stay at body temperature. The plant will hold heat for several hours. Sort of like a water bed." He laughed then grabbed a pair of recessed handles in the lid and pulled it open. "Of course, it's a little green. Newly picked this morning. A couple of days, the color should be fine."
"She's wearing a robe." Gregory's voice squeaked.
"Part of the service. You can keep it. Most people don't. We'll be by in two weeks with a fresh plant."
"Two weeks, three weeks, depends on the weather, they get soft. Like an old tomato. It's in your contract. Didn't you read it?"
Gregory had thrown the papers in his desk without looking at them. "Yes, I'm sorry. Slipped my mind."
The delivery man shut the case, looked Gregory over sagely. "Your first one, right? Nothing to it. Read the instructions. Just like when you were a kid with a model airplane."
The delivery man was in the truck and half way down the street before Gregory realized what he meant.
During dinner, he felt the presence of the coffin sized case in his bedroom where he had moved it, but he made himself eat slowly. Sara used to complain that he chewed his food twice as much as he needed to. She'd smiled and said, "Gregory, you're like a cow." But she stayed at the table until they were done, and on the nights they made love, they did it right after dinner.
After he cleaned the dishes and put the leftovers away, he stood in front of the case in his bedroom with the lights out a long time. When he finally opened it, the smell of grass wafted out, pasture grass after a rain.
She was, as Jermaine promised, fully reflexive.
Gregory met Jermaine the next night at a popular fern bar, The Block and Tackle. Under the dark oak sign that hung from rusted chains and illuminated by hidden lights was the Block and Tackle's slogan, "Everyone Gets Lucky."
Jermaine waited for him at a back table, far from the dim lights over the bar. Too obstinate to sit on a book or use a booster seat, his arms just cleared the edge of the table where he cradled a schooner of beer.
"So what did you think, Bucko?" asked Jermaine. Gregory flinched. He hated being called "Bucko." "Was it everything I promised?" He pushed a beer toward Gregory as he sat down.
Gregory sipped from the mug for a while before answering. The beer, cool and smooth, felt good on his throat. "Different. Very different."
"Good, though, right? What did I tell you? Never a better time." Jermaine tipped his beer and swallowed a huge gulp.
"Yes." Gregory didn't know what to add to that. After he had put her on the bed, he lay beside her. The light from the window shone off her eyes, and he marveled at how life like, how utterly human, she appeared. He watched her breasts, perfectly formed, for a rise of breath that never came. The bedroom was utterly silent, and it made him remember Sara the last weeks before she left when she would lie beside him, awake but not speaking, aware that he was watching her, not asleep and barely breathing. Stiff, weighing down the mattress and mentally not in the room, the plant reminded him of her, so he reached across her belly and caressed her side. The plant/woman rolled into him and wrapped her arms around him, startling him so that he almost jumped from the bed, but he didn't. She was warm and felt good, her skin soft and firm; her smell, again he noticed, like wet spring grass. She pulled him tighter. For a long time he did nothing but let himself be held.
Jermaine rested his chin on the table, a posture Gregory had seen him in before but that had always unnerved him. A grown man shouldn't look comfortable that way. When Jermaine spoke, his chin anchored to the table, the top of his head bobbed up and down like a talking clam in a comic. "Give her a week. In a week she'll be at her best. Don't plan on working then, either. Stay home. She won't get any better than that."
At the bar, behind Jermaine, Gregory saw women sitting, glasses beside them. All were turned so they were looking into the tables, but shadows hid their faces. Jermaine glanced over his shoulder, then put his chin back on the table. "Beautiful, aren't they?" he said.
"Yes, they are."
"You're lucky now. Got one of your own at home."
Surprised, Gregory said, "Don't you too?"
Jermaine sighed and closed his eyes. After a few moments, Gregory thought he had gone to sleep. Then Jermaine said, "They all go rotten, you know, Bucko. All rotten." He rolled his head to the side and opened one eye. "Pick 'em while they're fresh and dump 'em before they go bad. I haven't had one in the house for six months. Before that I went through dozens, one every two weeks." He covered his face with his hands and kept talking, muffled. "I fell in love with everyone, too. I know that sounds stupid, but I did. They're dead, you know, or dying. As soon as they're plucked. It was like loving someone with a terminal illness." His breath caught, and Gregory wondered if he was crying. He wondered what he should do. Jermaine continued, "Sometimes I come here just to look, but underneath the air I smell 'em going bad. It's all bad, bad, bad." He drank deeply again.
Gregory saw a man walk down the row of girls at the bar, pause at one, look her over and then motion to the bartender who took the offered credit card and handed the man a key. He disappeared through a door at the end of the bar where Gregory supposed one of the girl's "sisters" waited. Gregory had never "gotten lucky" at the fern bar.
"If you feel that way, why don't you go out with a real woman?" Gregory asked. "I mean, Sara and I had a lot of problems, but we were together."
"Doesn't matter, Bucko. You hold them long enough, their love rots away."
"Jesus, that's depressing. So what's left if nothing lasts?"
Jermaine said, "Lots of sex. Sex, sex, sex till it hurts. And even that's a short haul, but maybe, you know, you could tie into something you can't let go of. Something that'll stick to you, and it'll either kill you then because it's so good, or you'll remember it forever when nothing else will measure up."
Sickened, Gregory looked into his beer. Because of the darkness of the bar, the liquid seemed black.
Abruptly Jermaine said, "Let me borrow your plant. I can't buy here. They're clean, but it's the smell, you know, alcohol wipe and aftershave on their skin. Just for the evening."
"Don't be ridiculous, Jermaine."
Jermaine fisted both hands as if he wanted to hit him, and Gregory pushed his chair away from the table. Gradually the fists relaxed until the finger lay flat on the table. He said, "I'm going home. Enjoy her while she's still fresh." He stood, all four-and-a-half feet of him and said, "You know what I wonder? I wonder if being plucked hurts. I wonder if it pisses them off. The beer's paid for." He left.
When Gregory got home, the smell hit him as he opened the door, a whiff of wet, old vegetables. He took a step onto the carpet and sniffed carefully, turning his head side to side, testing the air. "I'm home," he said and felt immediately stupid, and then, because he was alone in his own apartment and there was no one to hear him, he said it again, "I'm home, dear." He sniffed once more and rushed to the back of the house.
In the bedroom, the case leaned against the end of the bed where he'd put it in the morning. The room smelled fresh with a hint of his deodorant and shampoo. Nothing else. He put his hand on the case, snapped open the latches, but hesitated with his hand on the edge of the lid. No, he thought, it couldn't be from here. Not yet.
In the hallway he couldn't smell anything. Pictures on the wall of Sara and him horseback riding stopped him for a moment. He straightened the close-up that showed them side by side holding reins to horses that were blurry brown shapes in the background.
In the living room he caught it again, a deep, damp solid smell like packed leaves gone grey and slimy at the bottom of a barrel. He wondered how he could have missed it in the morning before leaving for work. The trash can under the coffee table was empty and dry. He moved into the kitchen where he checked the garbage can, the trash compactor, the garbage disposal and the refrigerator, all dry and odorless. Frustrated, he stood in the middle and clamped his hands on his hips to survey the room. He sniffed loudly.
"Ahhh," he said. The field of African Violets on the counter top looked suspicious. Their leaves drooped colorlessly over the edges of the pots, and when he leaned close, the source of the smell became obvious. He poked at the gummy soil at the base of several of the plants. He'd over watered, something Sara had warned him about before she left, and now the dirt was muddy and rotting the plants.
He opened the kitchen window, turned on the stove's exhaust fan and went back into the bedroom.
Later, in bed with the plant/woman, the light on, Gregory examined her skin. He pressed his finger into her upper arm, one of the few places he had discovered he could touch without triggering some kind of motion. The skin compressed exactly as if it were real, a quarter of an inch of give and then a hard resistance as if he were digging into bone. Close up, he could see nothing plant-like about her. He stroked her arm, which felt real. Even the slight whisper of his fingers moving back and forth was convincing.
He jerked his hand back and wiped it on his thigh.
An hour later, after lying beside her but not touching her, waiting, bizarrely he realized, for her to do something, he rolled away and dialed the telephone.
"Sara," he said when she answered, "The violets are dying. I over watered."
She said nothing. He listened to the wisp of static, a thread of a ghost conversation from some crossing of the lines.
"I can't talk to you now," she finally said and hung up.
The dead phone in his hand, Gregory sat on the edge of the bed. He looked at the plant lying on her back, and he couldn't detect even a thread of passion within himself. He hung the phone back up, but before he let go it rang, startling him into knocking it to the floor. He grabbed it and pressed it hard to his ear. "Sara?" he said.
He squeezed the phone hard, "Jermaine?"
"I shouldn't have bothered you about borrowing your plant."
At first, Gregory couldn't figure out what Jermaine was talking about. Then he remembered. "Oh. That's O.K."
"No. I mean it, Bucko. I apologize. I won't do it again."
They talked for a few minutes, and when they hung up, Gregory realized he felt more sorrow than revulsion for the little man.
In the cafeteria the next day, Gregory saw a haggard and unkempt Jermaine walk through the door, his tray in hand, and when their eyes met Jermaine looked quickly away and sat at another table. Gregory ate alone.
The African Violets weren't any livelier that evening as Gregory contemplated them. If anything, despite the open window, the smell was worse. He put a thick layer of paper towels under all the pots, using up two rolls and part of a third, reasoning that if he could blot away as much of the water as possible, he might be able to reverse the rotting. After a half hour, he replaced the soaked towels with a new layer. He called a florist who said, "If they ain't dead yet, don't water again until the dirt's like rock. Them violet's hardier then they look. Try talking."
"To the plants?" he said weakly.
"Sure. Plants got feelings too."
He turned up the heat in the apartment, figuring that the violets would dry out quicker, but he couldn't bring himself to talk to them.
Even though he had stored the plant/woman in her case, he slept that night on the couch.
Late in the night, something woke him. His neck hurt. One arm of the couch held his head higher than his pillow; the other arm forced his knees to bend a little bit so that the back of his thighs ached. He rolled to his side. What woke him? He strained his eyes in the darkened room; the VCR clock glowed a steady green, 2:17 a.m. A sound, he decided, some small sound that didn't belong. The refrigerator motor kicked on and he almost screeched. A click, maybe, a metallic sound like a briefcase unlatching. Carefully, slowly, he raised his head and listened. The refrigerator hummed. Something rumbled in the distance outside, a train, perhaps, or some industry that day noises muffled. Something thumped. He pushed himself onto one elbow. A neighbor, maybe, opening a door or dropping a book? At 2:17? But it sounded like it was in the apartment. What in his apartment could make such a noise? A latch opening and then a thud? He thought of the plant/woman's case leaning against his bed, the dead shape within, waiting only to be used.
His head raised in the dark, super aware, he listened for another minute, but heard nothing. Were these imagined sounds? Sometimes in a strange room he would hear things, creeping steps on a carpet, the tiny pop of lips separating, the crack of a knuckle or knee, and these could be like those. He began to believe he had imagined them. Then he smelled the rotting violets, but he'd been smelling them for hours and hardly noticed them now. Something else, though. He thought he smelled something else, something familiar. Cut grass. Wet, cut grass. Was she in the hallway now, hidden in the shadows, waiting for him to put his head back down? He thought, how patient is a vegetable? and he almost laughed, but he choked it back. Could her eyes really see? Jermaine didn't say that she couldn't see. Plants are light sensitive. He reached for the table lamp at the end of the couch, a lamp he couldn't see but knew was there. His arm felt naked, hairs on end, and he almost expected something to grab his wrist, a warm firm inhuman grip to stop him from turning on the light.
He turned on the light. The room was empty. The hallway was empty. He wrapped the blanket around himself, took a carving knife from the kitchen, and stalked down the hallway to the bedroom.
The top latch on the case was open. Thoughtfully, Gregory pressed it closed. The mechanism barely held. He touched it from behind and it snapped open. The sound was the same he'd heard, the one that woke him. He tested it again to make sure. It had popped open on its own, he concluded. Taking a deep breath, he unlatched the bottom one, which was firmly shut, and opened the case. She stood the way he'd left her: her head turned to one side, one arm straight and the other slightly bent so the elbow pressed against the case.
She was beautiful, but like a sculpture beautiful, like a well done photo in a men's magazine, not real, not thinking, and in an elemental way, not satisfying. A representation of human beauty. Not human. He shut the case, and pulled it into the living room. He would call the plant store in the morning and have them take it back. Then he'd call Sara. Maybe she wouldn't talk to him. Maybe she would. He thought he would tell her this: "You can talk to plants, but they won't listen," and then he wouldn't explain what he meant. Maybe she could show him how to save the violets. He slept in his own bed and when he woke in the morning, he couldn't remember any dreams, good or bad.
At lunch he wanted to tell Jermaine what he had decided, but Jermaine didn't come in. Gregory pushed a lone corn kernel through the creme with his fork, waiting for him until the cafeteria began to clear. He stopped a man on the way out who was Jermaine's coworker, asked about him, but he said he hadn't come to work. "He didn't call in sick, either, and I got a contract two inches thick to finish with him by tomorrow. So if you see him, tell him Roger's pissed!" the man said.
Gregory dropped his tray on the nearest table and ran to his office and the phone. The company directory had both Jermaine's number and address. Jermaine's answering machine said, in a subdued voice, not the one Gregory associated with Jermaine at all, "Thank you for calling, but I'm not at home. Please leave a message at the beep."
At Jermaine's apartment, after knocking, Gregory pushed the front door open. The apartment looked much like his own, a small living room, a kitchen to the left and a hallway that led to a bedroom. Gregory felt that he should be scared, or feeling silly and out of place, but he didn't. He knew what he'd find. And when he entered the bedroom, he wasn't surprised to see a plant/woman case open on the floor; and he wasn't surprised to see blood on the sheets that covered two bodies, a lot of blood; and he wasn't surprised, not one bit, that through the sheets that covered one of the humps, protruded thorns, thousands of needle sharp, translucent at the end, thorns.
This story originally appeared in Aberrations.