This slow-burn story is reminiscent of Night Shift–era Stephen King. Lots of characterization leading to a surprising and horrifying, but somehow inevitable, climax.
Stephen Forest hated ties. He always felt that they were choking the life from him like a paisley constrictor preparing to feast. He tugged at the uncomfortable piece of fabric while adjusting himself in the equally uncomfortable chair. The waiting room was dully off-white and nearly silent save for the occasional flurry of clicking as the receptionist rush-typed some sort of correspondence. Waiting rooms were supposed to have some form of reading material, weren’t they? Stephen would have given anything for a ragged copy of Field & Stream or Time. Anything to distract his mind from that damn tie and the wait. He hated waiting almost as much as he hated ties. On the other hand, a steady paycheck would make all this mess worthwhile.
His name was called and Stephen crossed the waiting area to the door that the receptionist had opened for him. Stephen returned her smile and entered a smaller but no more stimulating room. He sat down in yet another uncomfortable chair and began waiting again. “There must have been a sale,” he thought as he shifted his thin frame against the thin vinyl covered foam padding that were rumored to be cushions.
A fat, balding man in a rumpled suit entered the room and sat down behind the desk. He looked at Stephen for a moment before shuffling some papers on the cluttered desktop. Even though it was a comfortable seventy degrees, that was the only comfortable thing about this office. The fat man was sweating profusely. He smiled at Stephen as he wiped his brow with an already damp handkerchief.
“I see you are applying for the agriculture assistant position.” The fat man shuffled the papers again, an action that seemed more a nervous habit than one that produced an appreciable effect.
“Yes,” Steven answered, shifting in the chair. In truth, he had no idea what the job entailed but he had come too far in this awkward comedy to be picky about what sort of job they were offering.
The fat man glanced at a paper that appeared to be Stephen’s application, “Normally, Mister Forest, we are looking for someone who has a little more experience in these matters. The last person to hold this position vacated rather suddenly so we are over a barrel to find a replacement. The job is an on-site position. Do you have any objection to relocating to the facility where you will be working?”
“Good. The cabin is furnished and uniforms are provided so I would suggest bringing a few changes of clothes for your off-duty times and any form of entertainment you enjoy.” The fat man scribbled on a slip of paper with the stub of a pencil. “Go to this address and speak to Phillip Johnson. He’ll walk you through your duties.”
Stephen took the piece of paper and looked at the address before slipping it into his pocket. That was easy, he thought. Maybe a little too easy.
A quick Internet search told Stephen that his new job was in the middle of large forested region near the state line. He left his mother’s apartment before dawn, taking advantage of the lull in city traffic.
He stopped at a small gas station for a snack and to empty his bladder of the three cups of coffee he had chugged down before leaving. Stephen could not remember the last time he had travelled this way. He leaned against the car and inhaled. The air felt lighter here and smelled of dust and trees. Even though he still had no real clue of what his job was, Stephen thought that taking it may have been the best choice of his life.
The road wound through an area of large farms. Cows and horses meandered through large pastures and fields of corn stood like ranks of thin soldiers by the side of the road. Stephen smiled. Though it was Wednesday, he had the road mostly to himself. He smiled and rolled the window down, letting the warm country air rush into the car. He checked his GPS and made the turn it indicated. Soon after, he saw a fence on the side of the road that seemed to stretch for miles. Stephen turned into a side road and through an automated gate. The road led to a small parking area and a second massive fence. A dull gray building sat on a small hill at the top of the lot. Stephen exited the car and walked in.
He found himself in a room similar to the one he had been interviewed in, except that this one was a bit warmer. A large box fan hummed on one side of the room, drawing the musky air of the forest in through open windows. His eyes registered movement in a small adjoining room.
“Hello?” Stephen called.
“Be right there,” a voice answered. “Have a seat.”
Stephen sat down, instantly not that this room contained a small number of the same uncomfortable chairs from the other office. His mind wandered to how such uncomfortable pieces of furniture came to be. He imagined a pair of men in expensive suits arguing over several manufacturers before settling on the de Sade Furniture Company.
He didn’t notice that he was smiling when Phillip Johnson greeted him.
“Well, you look like a pleasant sort.”
“What? Oh, Sorry,” Stephen stammered, “I was just thinking about something.”
Johnson nodded. “This place will do that to you. Something about the air, I think. Phillip Johnson.”
“Stephen, Stephen Forest.”
“Well, Stephen, let’s show you around.”
Johnson was a tall man, thin, almost skeletal, with a pair of thick-rimmed glasses perched on an aquiline nose. Stephen thought he looked like a scarecrow with the head of an owl. A shock of straw-colored hair only added to the effect. Johnson ran a hand through that shaggy mop and wiped his hand on the back of his trousers before leading Stephen through the back door and into the fenced compound.
The pair walked along a winding, tree-lined path that lead deeper into the compound.
“What is it that you do here?”
“This is a test farm.”
“What do you grow?” Stephen asked.
Johnson smiled as they entered the center of a large ring of pine trees. “This.”
Stephen’s mouth dropped when he saw the sun-dappled mass of crimson blooms. Five thick leaves or petals the color of blood radiated out from a wide light brown stalk. Where the stalk met the petals was a cluster of hair thin fibers that cascaded toward the ground.
With a nod from his companion, Stephen approached the nearest of the blooms. The petals were covered in tiny spots of the brightest yellow he had ever seen. He reached out to touch the astonishing plant but jerked his hand back when the thought he saw the mass of fibers move.
Johnson, aware of Stephen’s reaction, responded, “The tendrils are extremely delicate and move with tiny air currents that are imperceptible to you and me.”
“Your job is to watch over these beauties.” Johnson pointed to a small shed near the edge of the clearing. “You’ll be taking soil samples and monitoring the feeding mix …”
“Where did they come from?”
“That is a proprietary secret that I am not privy to. I guess the people in charge of the project think the less we know on the ground, the better. There is a computer terminal in the shed linked to the home office. Enter your sample readings and other data there.”
“Sounds easy,” Stephen said, raising an eyebrow.
“It is. There is one more thing: if any of the blooms turn brown, cut it down and burn it immediately.”
“Don’t know. Just part of the job.”
The rest of the afternoon was spent with Johnson helping Stephen move his things into the small cabin near the clearing occupied by the blooms. Johnson then demonstrated the exact measurements Stephen was to take, how to enter the data into the terminal and the basic maintenance for the pumping system that supplied the feeding mixture. Afterwards, Johnson invited Stephen to the front building for a beer to celebrate the day’s accomplishments.
“I think you are going to like it here.” Johnson smiled over the neck of his bottle.
“I think you’re right.” Stephen swirled the dregs of his beer. “It was a long drive to get here, so I think I might read a little and then turn in for the night. See you in the morning.”
“About that.” Johnson’s smile faded. “We have several similar facilities along the Eastern Seaboard. Each one is a one-man operation. I oversee all of them, but I’ll be back to check up on you in a couple of weeks to see how you are doing.”
Stephen nodded. He had not been expecting solitude, but in this environment, working with things of such ethereal beauty, it wouldn’t take too long to adjust. He wondered for a moment if it was loneliness that drove the previous caretaker away from what was essentially a paradise.
“Last guy couldn’t hack it alone?” Stephen asked as he rose to leave the front building.
“Hard to say,” Johnson responded dryly. “The previous caretaker vanished.” He pointed to a small pile of boxes in the corner of the office. “Left all her stuff. I had seen her a week before. No sign that she was stressed out. She just pulled up and left.”
He paused and seem to contemplate it for a moment, then handed Stephen his card. “I like you, Stephen. I think you’ll work out here, but if the solitude ever gets to you, call me.”
“Thanks,” Stephen said before stepping out into the darkened grounds.
“A flashlight would be handy.” Stephen said aloud to himself as he picked his way along the dark path toward the cabin. The parking area and the front building had a few lights on poles, but they provided little light. Stephen stumbled a few times on tree roots.
Stephen thought he could see a faint light amid the trees. He rubbed his eyes, wondering if six beers had been too much. There was definitely a glow in the direction of the field of blooms. Entranced by the spectral luminescence, Stephen felt like he was being pulled through the night toward his mysterious charges.
Once he entered the clearing, Stephen was awed by the alien vision before him. All the blooms emitted an aura of shifting colors. Yellow faded to green, then to blue, then to purple. Stephen sat down on the ground under a tall pine and watched the display. Nothing else seemed to exist in that moment. The forest around them was an endless ink-black mass, devoid of sound and light, devoid of anything that could take away from the hazy wonder of the blooms.
Stephen woke up as dawn broke through the boughs of the stand of pine.He had fallen asleep watching the blooms. and now he was damp from a mist that had descended upon him during the night. Rubbing his cramped neck, Stephen rose and took in the latest vista the forest offered to him.
He walked back to the cabin in a daze that he could not simply chalk up to last night’s alcohol. He had not just been given a job; Stephen had been transported to a magical realm. He imagined for a moment that he was now in a parallel plane where satyrs played their pipes in shaded groves and fairies danced in pools of golden sunlight. Stephen swore he could hear the crystalline tones of flutes accompanied by the giggles of dancers echoing between the trunks.
An unshakable peace had descended on Stephen in the time he was tending the blooms. Two weeks had passed already and Johnson would be coming by even though it seemed he had just left, further lending credence to Stephen’s theory that time acted differently within the compound.
Since the first night in the clearing, he had begun structuring his day so that he completed his few duties right around dusk. He appropriated a lawn chair, presumably belonging to one of his predecessors, from a small storage shed near the main building and set up an area near the edge of the clearing where he could watch the display of color for a few hours every night. Sometimes he would also listen to music, but most evenings were spent in the relative silence of the forest.
As promised, Johnson came to check on Stephen. After the supervisor had made sure all the records were in order and looked in on the general condition of the blooms, Stephen probed him for any hint that he was aware of the blooms’ luminescent properties. Satisfied that Johnson knew nothing, Stephen considered inviting him to participate in one of his nightly viewings. But no; the blooms’ display was one thing that he considered his alone. A bit of magic from the universe just for him.
Stephen hoped that Johnson would leave well before dark. He did not want to miss a single second of the blooms. Stephen waited at the door to the main building, watching Johnson’s taillights vanish into the growing darkness. Once he was satisfied that his supervisor was gone, Stephen rushed through the compound toward the clearing and the nightly dose of enchantment that now seemed like it was a piece of Stephen’s life he had always been missing.
Summer gave way to autumn and the cooling temperatures triggered a change in the blooms. The mass of tendrils curled up in a thick ball at the center of the petals. The red of the petals deepened until they eventually closed signalling what Stephen assumed would be a period of dormancy. This hypothesis was confirmed by Johnson during one of his less and less frequent visits to the compound.
Stephen’s routine changed as well. The blooms, in their dormant state, did not produce the glow he had become accustomed to, so he replaced that display with another of nature’s splendors. The forest, seemingly jealous of the blooms, erupted into the most vibrant fall foliage that Stephen could remember. He had taken to leisurely walks around the dirt paths of the compound and the road leading to the automated gate. The rambling lacked the raw vitality of his evenings with the blooms, but Stephen enjoyed the way the crisp air felt in his nostrils.
The cabin had a small wood stove to heat it during the winter months, but the wood box was empty. Stephen combed the woods near the cabin to gather kindling and scout for fallen trees the could cut for the stove. During one of the mornings he dedicated to his task was the first time he heard it: a shrieking whistle like a tea kettle. Startled, Stephen scanned the trees for the cause. Finding no immediate source for the sound, Stephen shrugged it off and gathered as much wood as he could carry and returned home.
He heard the sound again that night as he was falling sleep, more shrill and closer than it had been in the forest. Again, the whistle only sounded once. Stephen lay in the bed with the blanket pulled up to his chin, senses sharp in curiosity tinged with fear. Listening for any other sound and scanning the small window across the room for any signs of movement. He drifted off into a dreamless slumber.
Old Man Winter’s frigid air made things difficult for Stephen. Some mornings he did not want to step outside, preferring the crackle of the fire and the warmth that it brought to his meager dwelling. He still took his required soil samples but the colder temperatures meant that he did not have to run the pumps for the sprinkler system. Stephen continued his hikes around the compound, sometimes venturing deep into the forest before returning to his cabin. The mysterious whistle had never sounded again, leading Stephen to believe that perhaps it had been an auditory hallucination brought on by the solitude.
Johnson returned once again to look in on him and make certain that he was stocked for the Winter. Forecasters were expecting heavy snowfall and a single snowstorm could trap Stephen in the compound for the remainder of the season. A couple of quick trips into town with Johnson corrected any shortcomings in Stephen’s preparations. The supervisor left after informing him that it would be Spring before they saw each other again and confirming that Stephen did not require anything else for his comfort. Johnson did leave a bottle of Scotch with Stephen, a traditional gift for the long, cold nights ahead.
During the other months of the year, the area surrounding Stephen’s cabin was quiet, but not silent. Sounds of life were all around him in those months, but the snows had brought with them the silence of the grave. The only sound he could hear was the occasional creak of the trees under the weight of the snow. Stephen spent many nights now staring out the window at the featureless expanse of white and wondering what it must have been like for his predecessor, the lady who disappeared.
By the time spring came, Stephen fully understood the phrase “cabin fever.” To fill the long periods of utter silence, he had begun a journal detailing his experiences in the compound. He knew that because the blooms were a secret project, the journal would not become his Walden. In fact, he was certain that no one would read it. At least that was what he told himself. Stephen had also developed the hermetic habit of filling the long periods of silence by having conversations with himself.
The snows finally melted enough for Stephen to resume his job caring for the blooms. He picked his way through the cluster of dormant miracles, noticing that one had not made it through the winter. Its stem had grown soft and the underside of the petals had changed to a sickly yellow-brown. A sweet smell, like that of decomposing wood, tickled Stephen’s nostrils.
He followed the instructions he was given and uprooted the bloom with a spade he retrieved from the shed. Although the dead bloom felt like it would turn to mush under his touch, he was able to lift it with no problem and carry it to the incinerator, essentially a large metal box that Stephen would have to fill with wood for the fire.
Filling the incinerator took longer than he thought it would. Stephen struck a match and the kindling began to smolder. He went back to checking the rest of the blooms, returning later to find that the fire had not caught. He checked the holes near the bottom and found them clear. When he opened the large door, Stephen was struck in the face by a dense gray cloud that caused him to gag. He cursed as he managed to light the fire.
That night he dreamt of running naked through the forest.
It was the first warm day of the year. Stephen was eating a breakfast of instant oatmeal when he felt an irresistible pull, similar to what he felt the first night he had been on the job, the night he had seen the radiance of the blooms for the first time.
He went out to the clearing and stood facing the dormant blooms. An electric sensation overcame him as the blooms shuddered in unison and, one by one, reopened. Elation crept up his spine while the mass of tendrils unfurled from the center of the petals. Tears welled in Stephen’s eyes as he watched this miracle of nature. He laughed at himself for such a sappy display, but it truly felt as though his family had returned after a long absence.
At sundown, amid the songs of night birds, color returned to Stephen’s life.
The nightly ritual felt different to him somehow. A hum, barely imperceptible to Stephen’s hearing, accompanied the shifting emanations of color. Then the sound rose to an ear-splitting whine that threatened to split his skull open and forced him away from the blooms. He retreated to the cabin, where the pain subsided with distance from the blooms and a few slugs of the whiskey.
What once were marvels to Stephen quickly became objects of dread. Any time he approached the blooms, the hum began anew. Days passed like this, and he developed headaches, nosebleeds, and insomnia.
The fever struck suddenly.
Stephen leapt from his bed in the middle of the night, his skin burning. Something was calling to him, something primal. It was a pull entirely unfamiliar to him. He ran outside without taking the time to put on a shirt or shoes.
He entered the clearing and dove into the cluster of blooms, ripping them apart with his bare hands and tearing into the fleshy petals with his teeth. Viscous fluids oozed from the wounds he caused, coating his body with a slimy purple goo that glowed. The purple sap tasted like ambrosia on his tongue and Stephen drank deep of the blooms’ essences. The hum rose to a deafening whine in his ears.
Stephen fled the patch in tatters. Fever burning, He ran into the forest, tearing at his chest, rending great jagged gashes in his flesh. Masses of hairlike tendrils tore their way through the wounds, lapping up the blood and sap like a myriad of tiny tongues.
Stephen fell to his knees, clawing at his eyes and ripping at the flesh of his face. He had to get out. He needed to be free of the confining ape-flesh that bound him. He stopped for a moment, panting. His fingers dug into the cool soil of the forest floor. He raised his head to the sky as his skull split open and five petals unfurled, soaked in his gore. A sound escaped from the quivering slit that was once Stephen Forest’s mouth: a shrill whistle that escaped and echoed into the darkness.
From somewhere in the shadows, the call was answered.