A Short Story
Mark Swinton was a slender lad, some twelve years old, suffering through the spring of his sixth-grade year at the John B. Hood Middle School in Blanchard Springs, Texas. Other states and bigger towns might have renamed the school, since it honored a decorated veteran of the Confederate States Army, but Blanchard Springs was a mostly white, mostly Republican town in a backwater district of East Texas, and change came slowly. Life there was slow-paced for the most part; the biggest excitement of the year came in the fall when the high school football team battled rival Carthage for a shot at the district title.
Not that Mark cared for sports; he was scrawny, bespectacled, and still spoke in the high, piping tones of an elementary student. He favored books over athletics and video games over hunting and fishing. His classmates teased him endlessly, and for the last two years he had been forced to endure the humiliation of being thought of as gay by most of his peers. In a different state, in a bigger town, he might have pretended it was true, since gay was the new cool – at least according to his online friends from trendy towns like Cincinnati and Boston – but homosexuality was still a huge badge of shame in rural Texas, and the taunts came thick and fast, especially in the locker room, a place he avoided at all costs except during the forty-five minutes of mandatory torture known as Physical Education.
The heck of it was, Mark liked girls, liked them a lot! Unfortunately, while most of the girls he knew were quite kind to him and even stood up for him when the jocks began slinging slurs his way, he dwelled so deep in the “friendzone” of the female population of Hood Middle School he doubted he would ever escape. Other guys his age had enjoyed their first kiss in fourth grade or earlier, and some of them had already made the legendary trip to “second base” (a few said they had been further, but frankly Mark thought they were liars). Mark was still pining for his first kiss, and he knew who he wanted to administer it: Laura Henderson.
Laura was Mark’s “study buddy” in Mrs. Reasoner’s upper track English class, and his next-door neighbor. They had been friends since first grade, but in the last year Mark had seen his tomboy playmate from elementary school blossom into an adolescent beauty that took his breath away. Her long red hair shone like burnished copper in the sun, and her smile was blinding. Mark tried to maintain the same easy ways with her that had made them such good friends as kids, but the fact is he was smitten and smitten deeply. Laura had no idea that Mark was romantically interested in her; she chattered happily to him about the boys she liked and who she thought would ask her to the Spring Fling dance, never noticing the hurt in his eyes.
Mark had already made up his mind that he would ask her himself, he was just waiting for the perfect opportunity. As the bell rang for the end of the day, he thought that maybe that moment had come. They were working on a report together for English over Rudyard Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” and would be going to her house after school to do some research on mongooses, and then maybe play some Fallout 4 together. Surely, somewhere over the next two hours, he could work up the courage to ask her to the dance!
A shoulder slammed into his chest, knocking him into his locker and sending his books flying.
“Watch where you’re going, Squinton!” said Bobby Busby, one of Mark’s chief tormentors, using his favorite nickname for his favorite victim.
“You know what they say makes little boys go blind!” echoed Jimmy Hanson, Mark’s sidekick. The two of them brayed in donkey-like laughter and sauntered down the hall, looking for a new target.
Mark imagined what it would be like to vaporize both of them with a plasma rifle as he gathered his books up and closed his locker.
“I wish those guys would find someone else to pick on,” said Laura, stooping to help him. “I hope you hit a growth spurt and are a foot taller than them by the time you’re a sophomore!”
“Fat chance,” Mark said. His Dad was slightly built, and of below average height. “I’d be better off wishing I could become a werewolf or a mutant and eat them alive.”
“They’d probably taste nasty,” she said as they headed towards the door.
The pair left the school and walked towards home in a companionable silence. From time to time, Mark cast a shy glance at this girl he desired above all things, but no matter how many times he screamed Ask her, you moron! inside his head, he could not get the words out. Frustrated with himself, he glanced over at the overgrown abandoned lot they were passing. A forbidding three story house had stood there until their first-grade year, when it had been consumed in a spectacular fire that claimed the life of its only occupant, a retired scientist. There were all sorts of stories about what this mysterious man had really done for a living, and speculation on how the fire got started, but no one knew much for sure – only that Dr. Craig had been a botanist by training, and had worked for NASA.
Mark was replaying one of the more lurid theories about the fire in his head when a splash of bizarre color caught his eye, standing out in stark contrast to the greens and browns of the weeds that covered most of the lot. He stopped and stared for a moment, and then stepped off the sidewalk.
“Where are you going, silly?” Laura asked him. “That place is haunted!”
“I’ll be right back,” Mark said, and began carefully walking through the weeds towards the blooming plant.
The stalk was a very dark green, like the shadows in the deepest corners of some forgotten forest, and the leaves were shaped like nothing Mark had ever seen – almost like snowflakes in their delicate complexity. But the flower!
The single blossom was nearly a foot across, displaying a sunburst of colors so bizarre and different that Mark could not even come up with names for them. What did you call a bright, glowing mix of purple and green, or red and brightest blue? Even those words and combinations did not do the bloom justice – it was purely and simply the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
That was when the idea struck him: he would give this flower to Laura, the greatest beauty he could find for the greatest beauty that he knew, and as she looked at its radiant petals, he would ask her to the dance. His face lit up with a smile as he imagined her reaction.
The stalk was cold to the touch, but pulsating with life. Mark plucked the flower with the greatest of ease; it let go of its stem at the gentlest of tugs, not losing a single petal. Cradling it in both hands, he turned and walked across the lot, holding it out before him.
“This is for you,” he said, “because you are the prettiest girl I have ever known.”
She took it from him, awestruck, and sniffed deeply of its fragrance. Her eyes softened as she looked at him, and Mark knew to the depths of his soul that she finally – finally! – saw the love he had carried for her for so long, saw it and returned it.
“Laura, would you go to the Spring Fling dance with me?” he asked.
Her smile melted his heart.
“I thought you would never ask!” she exclaimed, and carefully setting the flower down, she took his face in her hands and leaned forward, her lips reaching for his.
But none of that ever happened.
Instead, the moment Mark touched the stalk of the plant, the flower emitted a wispy stream of vapor that curled up to his nostrils before he could even begin to try and pluck the bloom. The powerful pheromone hit his cerebral cortex and broadcast images into his brain, images of the things he most wanted to happen. He stood there frozen as the story played out in his mind.
Laura was curious as to why Mark had taken off across the lot where the mad scientist’s house once stood, and had started after him almost right away. She saw him walk up to the brightly colored flower and place his hand on it, and when the strange mist sprayed in his face, she paused to see how he would react. A beatific smile came across his face, and he looked happier than she had ever seen him. She started to speak, but decided to hold her silence, letting him enjoy whatever it was that filled him with such radiant bliss.
That was when the flower sprayed a second time. This time the mist was black, and there was much more of it. It wove around Mark’s body, then closed in on him and vanished, seemingly sinking into his pores. His smile wavered for just a moment, and a look of alarm came into his eyes. But before he could open his mouth to speak, a horrible transformation took place,
Before her eyes, Mark began to dissipate, his body breaking down to a cloud of mist, or dust, individual particles swirling around, still maintaining the shape of a young boy, but losing all solidity and mass. Then, as she stared in shock, the flower opened, opened up impossibly wide, exposing row after row of tiny, needle like teeth lining a trumpet-shaped proboscis. With a hideous sucking sound, the cloud of particles that had been Mark were drawn into that brilliantly colored maw.
Laura screamed and ran, blind with terror, seeking only to put as much distance between her and that unearthly blossom of death. She never saw the minivan that struck her, sending her flying forward, then rolling over the small of her back and crushing her spine. She never felt her head hit the pavement, fracturing her skull in three places. In time, she would recover some cognitive function. Although her memories of that terrible moment never went away, she could not communicate them to anyone – her speech center was too badly damaged. She did scream “The Flower!! The Flower!” for years afterward when she was afraid or upset, but she could not explain what the phrase meant, and the gentle nurses who tended the ruined husk of a once-beautiful girl simply made sure that new bouquets were never delivered to her room or placed where she could see them.
Search parties looked frantically for Mark for several days, and in a more resigned fashion for weeks thereafter, but not trace of him was ever found. Only his mother came close to unraveling the mystery; the day after Laura’s terrible accident, she came to the scene and wandered into the vacant lot. She saw the unusual plant and its single colorful blossom. Although the flower was already wilting, she could see it had been a remarkably beautiful specimen when in full bloom. Despite being an experience gardener, she did not recognize the plant at all. She leaned closer, her grief and sorrow forgotten for a moment in simple curiosity. That was when the bloom shot out a cloud of black vapor.
The mist smelled foul, like blood and rot and sewage, but that was not what made her stagger back in terror. For as the black cloud swirled about in the air above the dying bloom, for just a second it took on the contours of a human face – her son’s face, twisted in anguish and fear. Then a gentle breeze dispersed the pollen – surely that is what it was, she told herself! – and the terrifying image was gone, if it had ever been there to begin with. Over time, she convinced herself that she had hallucinated the whole thing. But for the rest of her life, that swirling, gritty image of her son’s face haunted her nightmares, even after her conscious mind forgot it.
A week after Mark disappeared, the vacant lot was bulldozed to make room for a new coffee shop. The flower never bloomed again.