Her car was on its last leg: rusted, holey, corroded. With just enough money for a full tank of gas, Emily prayed she would make it. She crossed herself and kissed her hand up to the sky. The car sputtered and let out a cough so loud she thought it would die right there.
“Please, God, don’t do this to me.” The words shot out of her mouth like machine gun fire. She turned the stereo all the way up. The fuzzy dice hanging from her mirror swung back and forth as the radio jockey announced, “this is dedicated to all you free birds.”
The song blared through the speakers. Emily belted out the lyrics like she was a rock star. A crack in the heavens lit up the earth. Her heart raced. She sank into her seat, her grip on the steering wheel tightening. “I can’t believe Mark is making me drive to his place for the first time today, this weekend of all weekends too.” She shook her head. I must really love him. She smiled.
The raindrops crashed onto the windshield like a thousand shards of glass. She turned the wipers on. They squeaked across as if God himself brushed the water off with his own hand. Silence grew as the sky changed from dark blue to black. It was dismal and desperate. She flipped the lights on and slowed to a gentle roll.
A sequence of lightning bolts danced in the air and a deep rumble ensued. Drip. Drip. Drip. The raindrops now thicker and heavier forced Emily turn up the wiper speed, but they were tired, overworked, and unwilling to cooperate. She squinted, searching for a semblance of the living. Got to pull over for a minute.
Short, green buildings covered in moss came into view, hardly distinguishable from the brush behind them. Emily wondered where she was. She didn’t remember any green town on the way to Mark’s house. Must’ve taken a wrong turn. Damn rain.
A desolate gas station with a single flood light shining across the forecourt stood on the corner covered properly in fuzz. She glanced at the fuel gauge. The needle read half a tank. A lightning bolt whipped across the sky. Her body shook. She reached for her phone. No service. A deafening thunderclap struck. Emily winced. I’ve got to get out of this storm.
She looked around and spotted the only building not covered in moss. It was short and concrete. The sign above read “Creek Town Nursery.” She pulled into the parking lot and circled around the steep incline pulling into a space near the entrance. Turning off her car, she sat for a moment and stuffed her brown leather wallet and map into her purse. She opened the door, set her purse on top of her head, and ran for it, but the downpour was torrential.
She stepped inside and ran her hands down her face, flinging off the excess wetness. She took a breath. The air strangled her with its invisible grip. She gasped for air and started coughing. Ripping her purse open, she searched inside. She inhaled, then exhaled, releasing bronchodilator particles into the air. Placing her hand against her neck, she took a shallow breath. A customer walking around stopped to ask if she was okay. She nodded her head yes.
The rays of the fake orange sun illuminated the warehouse like a prism of apricots. A canopy of trees lining the main walkway hid the lichens on the ground, the loud crunch under Emily’s shoes reminiscent of semi-soft Cheerios. Every so often, the faux sun shone through the leaves of the trees overhead casting scorpion-like shadows on the floor. Dozens of Amazonian-sized Venus flytraps and mimosa plants stood along the walls. As she walked past, her eyes opened wide. The flora cringed. Shocked by the sudden movement, she ran into an aisle filled with dragon trees. Their long scaling branches huddled against each other as they stretched up to ceiling, their leaves bigger than dinner plates with jagged edges like tiny swords. A flush fell over her. She grabbed hold of the metal shelf, cold, but stable. She was lightheaded. Reaching into her pocket, she sucked on the open end of her inhaler. Wheeze, hiss, wheeze, hiss. Emily put the inhaler away and breathed in deep before wandering into the next section. Enormous stalks of ginger and birds of paradise filled the shelves. She had never seen anything like it; a rainforest kept locked away for safekeeping.
A thin, wrinkled woman, who looked as if she sat out in the sun too long, was stocking the shelves. She had an oval shaped face with an extra long chin. Old fashioned green eye shadow was caked atop her lids, her lips radish red. She was dressed in a blue polyester jumpsuit cinched in at the waist. Her hair was twisted into a beehive. She smiled at Emily.
Emily gave her the side-eye and watched the woman pet one of the plant’s leaves like it was a dog. Emily knew that was her cue to inch her way to the next aisle. As she did, the woman approached her.
“No, thanks, just looking.” Emily cleared her throat.
The woman’s badge was pinned beneath her shoulder. It read “Mary” and underneath in tiny letters “Manager.”
She continued to wade through the aisles taking notice of the large and small scale brush. She came across a seasonal section filled with Halloween decorations. She picked up a hanging skeleton for the window, its body parts in pieces and held together by tiny metal rounds. Emily felt as if somebody was watching her. She turned. It was Mary. She jumped back. Her heart was racing, her breath uncontrollable.
“Is there anything you’re looking for in particular?”
“No,” she said angrily. “I’m just looking.” She sat the skeleton down.
“Mmm-kay,” Mary said as she stared.
Emily picked her hands. “What?”
Mary raised her eyebrows. “Nothing, dear,” she replied and walked away.
“What a freak,” she said aloud as she shook her head. She spotted a black pointy witch’s hat and tried it on before looking down the aisle at a mirror. She smiled at herself and caught Mary’s reflection behind her. Emily quickly turned around and uttered, “Are you following me?”
“You know, it’s really terrible weather out.”
Emily rolled her eyes. “I know.”
“You should really think about where you’re going to stay tonight.”
“Uh-huh…” Emily shifted her body. “Do you have any tomato seeds?”
“Sure, hon, they’re in the seed aisle. Follow me.”
Emily followed behind. She watched a man water the hanging plants above. He stopped and eyed Emily, his skin tinted green. The man smiled, showcasing his missing two front teeth. Embarrassed for him, Emily looked away.
Mary extended her hand and made a slight semi-circle. “Here you go, hon.”
She looked around.
Mary pointed. “They’re right here, hon. You said tomato, right?”
Mary picked up the package. “Well, they’re right here. It says they’ll grow really large. You should get these.”
Emily raised her voice. “Thank you very much, Mary, but I’ll take it from here.”
“But you’ll want to get these seeds.”
She sighed aloud. “Mary, isn’t there something else you have to do?”
She shook her head. “Mmmm, not really. No.”
Emily glanced around. A few men were scattered about wandering through the sales section. The raindrops crashed against the windows, the storm heavier than before. A thunderbolt shook her to the core. She looked at her feet.
“You can always stay here for the night.”
“In the nursery?”
“Well, we have a shelter in the back.”
Emily’s heart palpitated. She pulled her cell phone from her purse. No service. “Ugh. Do you have a phone I can use?”
Mary shook her head and lifted her hand to her chin. “No dear.”
“What? You don’t have a phone in this store?”
Emily squinted. “What do you mean you don’t have a phone?”
“Phones don’t work in this town.”
Her eyes grew wide. So that’s why my phone didn’t work in the car. “Phones don’t…” her voice trailed off. I just want to talk to Mark.
She waved to Mary and hastily said, “I’ve really got to get going,” and ran-walked towards the entrance.
Mary squinted. “Where to?”
Emily didn’t answer.
“It’s your life.”
Emily stopped deadpan and turned around. “What’d you say?”
“I said it’s your loss.”
“No, you didn’t.”
Was that a threat? A chill ran through Emily’s body. She reached the front door and saw three plastic ties wound around the handles. She tugged. The doors were locked. She froze. Her mind raced. Keys, car, bag, knife, inhaler, moss, trees, scorpions. She felt a hand squeeze her shoulder.
Mary shot her a crooked smile.
Pointing in front of her, she screamed. “Why is the door locked?”
“Oh, we just do that when there is an emergency.”
“You can’t lock the doors when there are customers in the store, emergency or not!”
“You can in this town.”
Emily was taken aback. “What do you mean this town?”
“You’re in Creek Town.”
“And in Creek Town, we have our own laws.”
Emily backed into the door. “What?”
Mary shrugged. “Mmmm, yes, dear, we can do whatever we like.”
She pointed to the doors. “Open this door!”
Mary was calm. “I’m sorry, dear, that’s just not possible.”
She pushed Mary and ran past. Mary stumbled and reached into her pocket pulling out a small whistle. She blew. The sound pierced Emily’s ears; ringing like a million tiny jingling bells, the buzz of an alarm clock, a school bell ringing after class. She looked around and saw the toothless man racing down the ladder.
That’s when Emily noticed all the employees dressed in blue jumpsuits standing beside Mary. All four took steps when Mary took steps, stopped at the aisles when Mary stopped at the aisles, and looked down and about whenever Mary did the same. As the sound of their footsteps amplified, Emily’s body shook and her knees gave out. She fell to the ground. Wheeze, wheeze. A flush came over her. She reached into her bag. Hiss, hiss. She sucked in. The back door was mere inches from her face. She scrambled to get up and pulled it open.
The dark, dingy room looked like a gymnasium with wooden floors, tall ceilings, and metal halide lamps overhead. Several cots were lined in rows across the room. Emily saw four girls tied to the cots, their mouths taped shut. They started to yell when they saw her, their cries muffled. One of them attempted to lift her head. Emily ran over and ripped the tape off her mouth.
“My God! What the hell is going on here?”
“Go lock the door.”
Emily ran to the door and locked it. She ran back to the girl and untied her straps.
“Help me free the others!” Emily directed. “What’s going on here?”
They ran over and released the straps.
“These people, they’re insane. They have keys, so we have to hurry,” one of the girls said.
“Is there a way out of here?”
“Yeah, I see the men leaving out of that door in the back.”
Emily spotted a knife on the back table and grabbed it. The sound of Mary’s keys jingled. They scurried to the backdoor. Near the exit sat a bucket marked “Venus Flytrap Food.” In it, human limbs. Emily gasped and leaped out the door behind them stumbling past the threshold.
Tall, vertical hedges lay in front of them, a labyrinth.
“Oh, my God,” Emily said. “It’s a maze. You’ve got to be kidding me!”
She placed her hands along the brush. It was cold and moist like early morning dew.
“Come on, guys, move. I think they’re behind us. Stay close to the wall.”
They turned the corner and saw a corridor. “What should we do?”
“Keep going down. Take the first left.”
Mary opened the door and pointed at the trail. “Get them!”
The men took their shoes off, their feet shaped like potato roots. Their bodies sank into the ground, stretching along the walls like vines.
“Where are we going?” one of the girls shouted.
“To my car!”
Mary watched the vines creep towards the girls. A smile fell on her face. “Get them.”
The trailing plants, feeling the vibrations of their pounding feet, caught up with the girls. They crawled along, slowly, methodically until they were close enough to one of the girl’s ankles. They lifted her off the ground. The other girls, still running, turned their heads and shrieked.
“What do we do? What do we do?”
“Keep running! I’ll help her.” Emily watched as the climbing plant flipped the girl on her back. A series of sharp thorns appeared, the spikes puncturing and strangling the girl’s neck. Emily raced over, grabbed the knife from her back pocket and began slicing. White blood sprayed out like coagulated milk. The vine loosened its grip and the girl plopped to the ground like a beanbag. Emily grabbed at it and held it in place to make another cut. It slithered, slicing her hand like a blade. She screamed. The cut was deep and serrated. Tiny green seeds, invisible to Emily, lay inside. The vines lashed toward her face. She flinched and backed away. They turned and drained the blood from the girl’s lifeless body; her limbs gone, her body decapitated.
The girls anxiously awaited Emily’s return. “Get to the yellow car!” They sprinted. Emily’s legs were swollen. It was as if she was running through an ocean of molasses.
Her sight was blurry, the world muted. She was in slow-motion. The parking lot was filled with old men stocking their trucks and cars with potted plants. Where’d all these people come from? They scurried into her car and locked the doors.
Emily fumbled with her keys trying to push them into the ignition. They didn’t fit. She dropped them on the floor.
Emily got them in and turned the key. The car rumbled.
“Christ,” she said hugging the steering wheel. “I need a jump.”
The girls began to cry.
“Shut up! You’re making me nervous.”
She looked at the entrance. Mary was standing in the doorway pointing. Her heart pumped. How did I get myself into this mess? It was weighing on her, the dependency of it all.
“Emily! Snap out of it.”
She caught a glimpse of Mary. For a second their eyes locked. Emily put the car in neutral and turned to the girls in the back. “On three, I want you two to get out of the car and push, okay? You got to give it one good push or we’ll be stuck here forever.”
“One, two, three. Now!”
The girls opened their doors and jumped out. They pushed. Emily opened her door and put one hand on the frame and the other in the middle of the door hinge. The car rolled.
The girls jumped in the back. As the car gained momentum, Emily maneuvered it the best she could and steered it away from the plants in the parking lot. She closed her eyes and headed straight down the ramp onto the empty road. As the car coasted, she turned the key in the ignition. It started straight away. The girls never looked back.
A few days later, a farmer in the next town over found a car sitting on his land. It was overrun with weeds. He opened the door and took a look inside. There were four human sized plants in the seats and moss along the door jamb. He mistakenly ran his hand over it. “What’s this car doing here? I got to get this car off my land.”
He closed the door and rubbed his itchy eye before going inside to tell his wife.
Mark looked out the window, hoping the next car he saw was Emily’s. He opened the screen door and went outside. There was a strange moss growing on the stairs. He knelt to get a better look. As a car drove past, he stood up to see if it was her.