By: Steve Carr
Madeline Travers leaned against the large island in the middle of the kitchen sipping on a cup of steaming hot coffee. Between every sip she blew across the surface of the liquid, cooling it while forming ripples and blowing away the rising steam. She had a lot to do, but little inclination to do anything. Putting the cup to her lips she inhaled the bitter aroma of the coffee and wished she had spent more time while at the grocery store buying a better brand. Her husband, Mike, hadn't complained, but his cups were left practically full after breakfast every morning before he rushed off to work. As she watched a dust bunny roll across the floor, she rolled her eyes, put the cup on the island, and opened the broom closet door to get the Swiffer mop. Knocking over several straw brooms she found the mop in the corner, then remembered she had forgotten to buy pads to put on it. Closing the closet she dreaded the idea of having to drag out the vacuum cleaner over a dust bunny or two. She went back to the island and picked up the cup of coffee and blew on it, then took a sip. Through the kitchen window she saw a moving van pull into the driveway at the vacant house next door.
Mike Travers walked into the office sipping on a large Styrofoam cup filled with coffee. There was a new temp at the receptionist desk who smiled at him wanly as she tied, then untied, then tied again a bright red scarf around her neck. Mike nodded at her and passed by the closed door of his boss, John Drake, before going into his own office and sitting the coffee by the computer on his desk. Before sitting down he turned the computer on and looked at the day's schedule. He groaned lightly seeing that he had appointments most of the day. As he lifted the lid from the cup and the fragrant aroma of good coffee wafted upward he chided himself for not telling Madeline that the coffee she bought was awful. The coffee from the corner Kwik Mart was much better. Sitting down, he leaned back in his chair and yawned. When his intercom buzzed he took a quick drink of coffee and hit the speaker button.
"Your client is here." The new receptionist said.
"Thank you," he said. "I'll be right out." He took another drink, then put the lid back on and put the cup in the bottom desk drawer along with other empty cups and candy wrappers.
With the basket of laundry at her feet, Madeline sat on the porch swing eating an apple while watching men carry household items into the house next door. Everything with upholstery had large floral or fern designs. There were an inordinate number of potted plants of all shapes, sizes and varieties. From the back of the van the movers brought out armfuls of rakes, hoes, bags of fertilizer, and sundry other gardening tools and products and carried them around to the shed.
The lawn next door had always been a disaster with overgrown weeds and large bare or brown spots amidst the crabgrass which made Madeline feel somewhat better about the neglect of her own yard. She gave fleeting thought to getting out the clippers and trimming the hedges, but looked at the unfolded clothes in the basket and decided if the new neighbors didn't like how she and her husband kept their yard, they should have moved somewhere else. Tossing the apple core out into the yard she picked up the basket and went into the house, with Sweetie, their black Cocker Spaniel, following behind.
Mike slowly pulled into his driveway distracted by a woman who appeared to be in her thirties in the large front window next door putting up drapes with a bright green forest scene print. He hit the brakes barely in time to prevent his front bumper from ramming into the garage door. He got out while brushing from his lap bits of breaded fried chicken skin. He threw the chicken bone into the back seat and as he closed the door he saw a man, similar in age to the woman, putting a mailbox in the yard next door.
"Welcome to the neighborhood," Mike called out, resting his arms on the roof of his car.
The man turned. "Thanks," he said with a quick wave of the hand, then returned to installing the mailbox.
Mike watched for several minutes. The man picked up a post hole digger and hammer and kicked dirt around the base of the post, then went around the house toward the shed. On the mailbox in big green letters was the name Gardener.
Sweetie sat by Mike's chair during dinner, accepting scraps given to him without Madeline's knowledge.
"I saw the new neighbors," Mike said to his wife sitting across the table as he put a small mouthful of lumpy mashed potatoes in his mouth.
"Did you talk to them?" Madeline asked, pushing a greasy pork chop around on her plate.
"Not really. He was putting up their mailbox. I welcomed him to the neighborhood. She was inside putting up drapes. Their name is Gardener."
"How do you know that?" she asked.
"It's on their mailbox." He handed Sweetie a piece of burnt dinner roll.
"Gardener is a good name for them. I was watching the movers taking things out of the moving van and there were lots of gardening tools and they have lots of house plants," Madeline said as she smashed mushy overcooked broccoli onto her plate with a fork.
"They're about our age I think. Maybe we should have them over for dinner sometime," he said, grinding black pepper onto the pork chop. "Well, maybe not dinner, but something."
"I'll just take some flowers over to them tomorrow and maybe get an idea what kind of people they are," she said.
"Good idea," Mike said giving Sweetie a piece of the pork.
The dog sneezed several times as it turned away from the meat and went to a corner and sat down.
Mike looked in the rear view mirror as he slowly backed out of the driveway and noticed the bags under his eyes. He thought about going to the neighbor's house and ask them why they had been up all night watering their lawn and making noise going in and out of their shed. It had kept him up most of the night. Looking at their yard it already looked much better than it had the day before. He pulled out into the street and went to work, stopping along the way as always to get a cup of coffee. There was a new temp at the reception desk. Large silver loop earrings hung from her earlobes.
"Good morning, sir," she said with exaggerated cheerfulness. "Can I help you?"
"I work here," he said. "I'm Mike Travers, the accounts executive."
"Oh, I'm so sorry Mr. Travers. If there's anything you need I'll be here all day. My name is Janine."
"Thanks, Janine," Mike said. "Has Mr. Drake come in yet?"
"Not yet, sir," Janine said.
"Thanks." Mike went into his office, sat down at his desk and turned on his computer. While sipping coffee he googled the phrase "gardening at night." All he could find was a song by R.E.M. He looked up the lyrics and it had nothing to do with gardening. He leaned back in his and chair took a sip of coffee and switched to his appointment schedule for the day and groaned.
As a warm breeze came through the open bedroom window, Madeline watched Mrs. Gardener in their back yard putting seeds in furrows she had dug out with a trowel shortly before. Careful not to be seen, Madeline darted out of sight beside the window each time Mrs. Gardener looked up from what she was doing. When Mrs. Gardener had emptied the packets of seeds, she stood up and covered them with dirt and got the hose and watered the ground, then went inside. Madeline gently pushed Sweetie away with her foot when the dog licked her leg. She was terribly curious about what Mrs. Gardener had planted and as she finished the dry piece of toast she had been chewing on the entire time, she decided it was time to go to the florist and buy the welcome-to-the-neighborhood flowers for the Gardeners.
"You look like crap," John said as he leaned against the door frame of Mike's office.
"My new neighbor was up all night watering his lawn and it kept me awake."
"Your neighbors must really care about the appearance of their lawn," John said. He pushed his red ball cap back on his head.
"I think it's strange," Mike said. "Based on what Madeline saw, I think the neighbors have some kind of plant fetish."
"I've seen your yard. Maybe it's a fetish you might want to look into."
"Very funny," Mike said. "Lawn care is among my lowest priorities. Madeline is taking them some flowers and I'm hoping that's the extent of any exchange regarding plant life."
"Taking cut flowers to some people is tantamount to delivering corpses." John said, scratching his head underneath the cap.
"That's ridiculous," Mike said.
"Getting a plant that you know is on its way to dying, if not dead already, is just not everyone's thing," John said, then left.
After John left, Mike called his wife's cell phone and didn't get an answer so he left a message. "Don't buy the flowers. I'll explain when I get home."
Madeline pushed on the doorbell several times and was about to leave when the door opened. She held out a large bouquet of flowers.
"Welcome to the neighborhood," Madeline said.
Mrs. Gardener shrieked, then fainted.
"I told you not to buy the flowers," Mike said as he propped his feet up on the ottoman.
"I didn't have my cell phone with me and I was out buying the flowers when you left the message," Madeline said. She was standing at the living room window watching Mr. Gardener putting mulch on his front lawn. "Besides, I've never known anyone to pass out from getting flowers."
Sweetie jumped into Mike's lap.
"I wouldn't have thought of it either but John warned me," Mike said, petting the dog.
"What would John know about it?" Madeline said.
"I don't know, but in this case he was right." Mike belched loudly. "So what happened after you woke up Mrs. Gardener?"
"I apologized and then invited them to dinner for tomorrow night."
After dinner and cleaning the kitchen Madeline took the trash out to the can in the back of the house as Sweetie followed behind. She put the bag in the can and then leaned over the hedge and looked at Mrs. Gardener's garden. Bright green shoots were pushing through the moist earth. "That's impossible," Madeline said aloud.
"Who's out there?" It was Mrs. Gardener at her back door.
Madeline ducked down and ran back into the house and shut the door. She leaned against the door, caught her breath, and then went into the living room. Mike was sound asleep on the sofa. She kicked the side of the sofa.
Mike opened his eyes and stared at her blearily. "What?"
"The garden she planted this morning is growing already," Madeline said.
"Maybe she's using some kind of miracle grow stuff," he said.
"I don't know what she's using, but I didn't think plants growing that fast was possible."
Mike sat up. "What do either of us know about plants?" He stood up. "I'm going to lay on the bed and watch some television. You coming?"
"You're not concerned about what I just told you?"
"We can ask her about it tomorrow night when they come for dinner," he said, heading for the stairs.
Sweetie scratched at the back door for several minutes before turning away and going through the hedges into the Gardener's garden.
Mike knocked on the Gardener's front door several times before Mr. Gardener opened the door. He wiped a smudge of dirt from his face. "You're the neighbor," he said as if not quite certain.
"Yes," Mike said. "We haven't introduced ourselves. I'm Mike Travers." He reached out his hand to shake Mr. Gardener's.
Mr. Gardener rubbed his hand on his pants then shook Mike's hand. "I'm Tobias Gardener. You're not usually out this early in the morning. Is there something I can do for you?"
"I'm sorry to bother you, but our dog is missing and I wondered if you might have seen it."
"If it's of the Cocker Spaniel variety there was a dog like that digging around in our garden last night but my wife yelled at it and it ran off," Tobias said.
"That's him," Mike said. "We'll have to keep looking around the neighborhood for him, but it's not like him to run off."
"Animals are very unpredictable," Tobias said. "If we see him we'll be sure to let you know."
"My wife said you and your wife are coming to dinner at our house tonight."
"Yes, we are. Thank you for the invitation. It's very neighborly," Tobias said. "John Drake said you were nice folks."
Mike stared agape at Tobias. "You know John Drake?"
"He helped us find this house," Tobias said. "I need to get back to what I was doing. I hope you find your dog. I'll see you this evening."
As Tobias closed his door, Mike peeked into their house. The floor was covered in dirt. Mike turned away, befuddled. He got in his car and went to work.
Madeline sat at her PC and ran off a dozen copies of a flier with Sweetie's picture and details about him missing. She carried the fliers into the kitchen and put them on the island and then poured coffee into a cup and went to the window. As she tilted the cup to her lips she spilled coffee on her terry cloth bath robe. The Gardener's garden was practically in full bloom with row after row of different varieties of flowers.
Mike walked into the office and was greeted by a new temp receptionist. She was plump, but pretty. She wiggled her short stubby fingers covered in rings at him.
"Hello there," she said with a big smile. "Are you Mr.Travers?"
Mike stopped at the desk. "Yes I am. What's your name?"
"Becky Schmidt. I'm your temp for the day I guess," she said. "Mr. Drake hired me from the agency I work for. It was so sweet of him to give me work."
"Has he come in yet?"
"Not yet, Mr. Travers," she said. "Can I get you anything?"
Mike held up a Styrofoam cup filled with coffee. "I'm all set," he said. "I'll be in my office when my first client comes in."
He went into his office, closed the door, and sat at the computer on his desk. He turned it on and sipped the coffee until the computer screen lit up. He logged in and googled the name Tobias Gardener. Several names and pictures came up, each with a plant or garden of some variety, but none of his neighbor. He leaned back in his chair and drank the coffee until his first client arrived.
"They can't make it for dinner," Madeline said. "One of them slipped a note under the front door." She handed the note to Mike.
"Something has come up." Mike said, reading the note.
"I'm kinda relieved," Madeline said. "I've spent the entire day looking for Sweetie. I put fliers up wherever I could all over the neighborhood and knocked on everyone's door. Several people told me their pets were missing also." She lifted the lid on a can of ravioli and sniffed the contents.
"I found out John knows the Gardener's. He never mentioned it," Mike said.
"That's strange," Madeline said. "Did you ask him about it?"
"I was going to but he didn't come into work today." Mike loosened his tie and took a sip of beer from a bottle. "It occurred to me how little I know about John outside of work."
"I almost forgot," Madeline said, grabbing his arm and pulling him to the window. "Look at that," she said pointing at the Gardener's lush garden.
Under the cover of night, Mike and Madeline crept along beside the cars lined in the Gardener's driveway. Crouched under the front window of the house they peered in between the narrow opening between the two forest patterned drapes. Mike clapped his hand over Madeline's mouth to keep her from screaming.
In the Gardener's front room six green human size plants with stems for bodies and twisted vine-like tentacles for arms shuffled in the dirt on large flat leaf feet around a table. Their heads were unopened flower bulbs. Around the neck of one was a red scarf, large hoop earrings dangled from the side of another, and the tentacled fingers of another was covered in rings. On the top of the bulb of one sat a red ball cap. A pile of clothing and human skins, including those of the Gardeners, John Drake and the temps, was in a corner of the room.
On the table on a bed of green leaves steam rose from the skinned body of an animal the size of Sweetie.