Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Last Wonder of the World

by T. N. Dockrey

Cala knew the plant was special because it moved. It swayed with a rhythm not dictated by the wind. Its leaves were thick and ragged and low to the ground like a weed's, dark and speckled in the twilight. And she knew, without being able to say why she knew, that it was hungry.

The neighbor's tree, laden with ripe peaches, was robbed. The plant ate three without a hiccup. Three whole peaches would satisfy her, much less a little plant like that. Satisfied, Cala told the plant she would be back to feed it, then proceeded home.

The new neighbor had moved in sometime during her weekend away. Since the two apartments had once been adjacent sections of the same house, walled thinly apart, it was no wonder that she could hear him--she had not seen him but could hear that he was a man--greeting his housewarming guests, and knew when he popped the cork off the wine. She listened with annoyed interest to his party until the wind's howling drowned it out.

That reminded her that there had been a tropical storm warning that morning, she'd heard on the car radio. She jumped off her couch, worried and sick at her carelessness. She turned on the television to the news.

The plant. Of course her house would be fine--there were no signs of it turning into a hurricane so far, and it was early in the season. But a little plant might be swept away, or drowned, and this plant was too special to fall prey to such a fate.

She found a bucket, normally holding suds to wash all the dirty corners accumulated by an old, creaky house, and rushed outside in flip-flops and a rain coat. She didn't see her next door neighbor seeing her, as he stepped outside to see his guests to their car before the storm hit full.

It was dark. It seemed like no one had their lights on around the lot where she'd seen the plant. She searched low to the ground, and didn't see it at first because it was much bigger than she remembered.

It was frightened, understandably, by the storm, and she had a time of it coaxing the plant out of the ground and into the bucket. Finally it was the plant's appetite that did it. She promised more food at home. Then the plant jumped right in. It had a weight and heft to it, like a small child. She scooped soil with her hands and patted it in around the bulbous roots.

The new neighbor was on the shared porch when she arrived. She squinted against the wind, and before the rain pattered once, twice, then poured in a torrent, she recognized him from a few of her classes.

"Hey, I know you," he said. "Cala, right?"

She didn't remember his name, but she nodded and didn't protest as he let himself in.

They dripped in the kitchen for a minute, staring at each other in the fluorescent light. He had shaggy hair, a longish face. She wanted to say his name was Jeremy, but she really didn't remember.

"Thanks," he said, indicating her kitchen. "I'm from up north. Storms like this scare me. I wanted to ask if we need to evacuate."

"We should be fine," she replied, setting the plant on the counter.

"Whatcha got there?"

"A special plant. I didn't want to chance leaving it outside during the storm. Besides, it's hungry," she said. Then she yelped "Hey!"

Maybe-Jeremy had brought the bottle of wine in and was pouring a bit of it onto the plant.

"It's a libation," he said. "You know, like to the Gods."

She pulled the plant away from him pointedly. He laughed as she opened the fridge.

"What, you gonna feed it ham?"

Now that he'd said it, she realized that the plant probably wanted meat. She didn't have ham, but there was some turkey breast. And tofu. She wondered if it would like tofu.

She held a slice of turkey over the plant, let it drop. It disappeared as quickly as the peaches had.

Jeremy-maybe jumped back, practically up onto the other counter. "What the--"

Cala surveyed him coolly, wondering what he was still doing in her apartment, and peeled off another slice of lunchmeat.

Her calmness brought him down from his perch. But he was still shaken. His hand gripped the wine bottle around the neck, but he was too distracted to even take a fortifying swig.

"What in the seven hells is that thing?"

"Are there seven?" she asked.

"Come again?"

"Seven hells. I thought Dante said there were nine. Nine circles of hell."

"Seven, nine, whatever. What is that thing?"

"You can tell by looking at it," she said, annoyed at his flippant disregard of the accurate number of circles of hell.

Thunder shook the house. The wind howled. The lights flickered then shut off, but it wasn't very dark outside anymore. Maybe it was the low-lying clouds of the storm reflecting light. Though she wondered where the light was coming from, if it was reflected.

"Do we have a generator?" asked Jeremy.

"Yeah right," she said, amused.

"Shouldn't all the houses down here have a generator in case of outages?"

"You should call the landlord and complain."

Beyond belief, he actually picked up the phone, and actually seemed surprised that it was dead.

"So we're stuck," he said. "Stuck here with that thing."

"What do you mean? We're at home. At least I'm at home." All they had to do was wait out the storm. But Jeremy seemed incapable of rest. He paced her kitchen restlessly.

"Do you have emergency candles? I just got here, and I haven't had time to--"

"I can see fine."

But he looked so dismayed that she felt bad for bullying. She retrieved the scented candles from her room and lit them. Lighting the candles made the room seem darker somehow, forcing all the shadows into concentrated masses in the corners. The light played on the contours of the plant. It already looked much bigger than before.

"Did you see that movie--the one about the huge Venus fly-trap?"

"No."

"Neither did I. But doesn't this remind you of it?"

"Not really. He's not a Venus fly-trap."

"He is it?" Jeremy muttered. "Then how the hell did it eat that ham?"

It became clear, after a certain point, that Jeremy wasn't going to leave. Not that he would admit he was scared. He just paced and fidgeted pointlessly.

The sky lit purple and jade.

"Look," she whispered to the plant. "This is the beauty of the south."

"I'm going to bed," she said to Jeremy.

"What? You're going to sleep in this?"

"I'm sleepy."

"Well, hey, we should keep watches, you know? In case it floods or the house gets damaged."

She was exasperated. She wanted him to leave. But she knew you couldn't force a thing, and she wanted to stay close to the plant anyway. She got blankets and they set up camp in the living room.

Hours passed. She dozed and woke in the small reaches of the night. Mind fuzzy with the vestiges of a dream, she thought she saw a strange silhouette against the wall--elongated limbs with too many joints, moving in a disjointed manner.

She was too tired to be scared. Or perhaps she was still walking half in the realm of dreams, where the impossible felt mundane. She rose, went to the plant. It was bigger than before, though did not the nightmare silhouette. She stroked a leaf and felt a deep and ardent love for it, the likes of which she had never felt before, not even in the arms of the lovers she'd known. She wanted to give herself to it--to give her life's blood if that was what the plant desired. If that was what it needed to grow stronger and larger and even more beautiful than it was now.

The plant felt her wish. It reached out a tendril, and some of the silhouette came into being. Cala did not see it, however. She closed her eyes in bliss, in surrender.

Then pain, a shriek, a sense of loss. She opened her eyes. Jeremy was in front of her, hacking at the plant with the butcher knife. She stepped back. There were pieces of thick, limb-like vines, bulbous and bilious green, and much too large to have belonged to that little plant, all over the linoleum. And Jeremy was still hacking, his eyes wild with fear and triumph. He hacked until the plant's remains were scattered, ragged and obscene, across the kitchen counters, the floor, even Jeremy himself.

The plant was dead. She could feel it. Jeremy could too, for he jumped down from the counter, grinning with adrenaline.

"That thing was about to eat you," he babbled. "See, I told you it was like that movie. I knew I was right to keep watch--it had you hypnotized or something. There was this green glow in your eyes, just like in the movies--"

Cala's eyes flicked back and forth, between his over-bright, excited eyes, his quick breaths and damp hair, and the dead, dull pieces of what had just moments ago been a wonder. It had been a wonder, in a world that didn't have enough wonder in it, and now that it was dead it seemed there would never be any wonder left in the world.

What was the point, then?

She looked back at Jeremy and felt he was the ugliest thing she had ever seen.

The butcher knife was on the counter behind him. She took a step towards him, reached behind him. Jeremy leaned into the embrace.

She stepped back and hacked.

THE END


© 2009 T. N. Dockrey

Bio: T.N. studies law, language, history, and contemplates the strange relationship between the ways Human societies define the world and the actual state of the world, the power of belief, and whether peanut butter exists in Heaven (surely it would be incomplete without it, even if ghosts do not need to eat). T. N.'s story Time Warps and Jump Fever appeared in the September 2009 edition of Aphelion. For more information, visit: Stories of Dust and Moonlight.

E-mail: T. N. Dockrey

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