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Blood Flower

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Blood Flower

 

"Photo-synth...phytodoma..."

"Phytophotodermatitis"

"What the hell does that mean?" asked Sarah, turning the page.

"It's a phototoxic inflammatory reaction resulting from contact with a light-sensitizing botanical agent followed by exposure to ultraviolet light."

Sarah looked up from the textbook and stared at me, the way one does when they know you're showing off. I rolled my eyes and glanced back at the road. "It means if you get any of the sap on you, be prepared for one hell of a sunburn."

A shade of fear touched her, I kept my face as blank as I could. The prospect of terrifying her loomed on the horizon like outstretched candy begging to be taken, but if I was going to get her into the woods today the shenanigans would have to be put on hold. It was difficult to get her to agree to the trip, no point in riling her up now. "Relax," I said. "Stay beside me, don't touch anything and we'll be fine.”

"You mean don’t touch the Hogweed," she said.

"Hogweed is a nickname that refers to several types of pl..."

“Sorry, I meant Giant Hogweed," she said, running a hand through her auburn hair. That little motion all by itself nearly made me pull the car over. We'd only been dating a few months, but I've had the hots for her a long time, since before we'd graduated from Missouri State, she with her bachelors in Musical Theory, mine in Environmental Biology. I couldn't believe it when I'd run into her scooping up an armful of books with late charges at the library years later. How easily I'd found the courage to ask her out. That first date devolved into mouth sucking and body squeezing while a B-rated horror flick droned uselessly in the background; a modern take on The Creature from the Black Lagoon dressed in a nightmare of poor digital graphics. The plot may have saved it, I have no idea. Sarah held all my attention and we 'Netflixed and chilled’ as the kids say. When she didn’t leave...that was a welcome surprise.

Now she stretched in the passenger seat next to me and her shirt rode up her stomach in a flash of brown skin, my eyes crawled down her as helplessly as a bug flying at a windshield going 60 mph. "George!" she shouted. The car swerved, I righted it, pushing my glasses higher

onto my nose. My cheeks burned as she laughed. "You're not so impressive now, are you?" she cackled.

"Shut it. By the way you snort when you laugh."

That only made it worse and she spent several minutes trying to catch her breath, failing, making a gregarious choir of piglet noises and spitting out gibberish. “Before you tried to kill us," she threatened to start hee-hawing all over again. "You were telling me about Death Weed and why we need to go on a forest hike deep in the heart of the Midwest to find it."

"Heracleum mantegazzianum’, actually. Like I said, Giant Hogweed is just a common nickname that..." She was staring again, I sighed. "Because it's not supposed to be here, the Hogweed.”

“Death Weed,” she corrected.

“It is indigenous to Eurasia, though it was imported to the United States and Europe years back as an 'ornamental’ flower. Essentially garden enthusiasts thought it looked pretty and didn't care that it was dangerous. It's pretty common on the East and West coasts now, even some as far inland as Illinois. But here? It shouldn't be here." I slowed the car for the exit. On either side of us, grasslands and barbed wire fences stretched the hillside-horizon along a narrow spit of gravel road. I pressed my foot to the peddle and a dust devil spun in our wake, obscuring the road behind us.

"How dangerous is it?" Sarah fiddled with her sunglasses.

I weighed the answer, shrugging. “That depends on how you specifically react to it. Think of poison ivy, your skin reacts to the urushiol oil, not to the plant itself. Some people get a bad rash, others could wipe their butt with it and get nothing. But, with Giant Hogweed..."

She flipped open the book again, turning a page, her eyes widened. "’With Giant Hogweed, the sap lowers your skin's ability to withstand ultraviolet light. That leads to first-degree burns, welts, even blindness.‘ George, what if one of us trips in the stuff?"

I shook my head. "I brought PPE gear, gloves, facial wear, all of the precautions. As long as we follow procedure we'll be fine."

"I don't know the procedure, babe."

I smiled. I still wasn't quite used to her calling me that, but everytime she did my heart jumped about three feet in my chest. "Don't worry, I'll show you. It'll be a piece of cake. I just need to get a slice of it to take back for a sample."

"Why?" asked Sarah.

"Because my company wants it. The truth is we don't know that it is heracleum mantegazzianum. There is something unusual about this particular strain of the plant and they want to examine it. It's in the wrong climate, for one thing. You have to admit it's fascinating.”

Sarah grabbed her phone from her pocket and opened a game with rabbits. "I don't have to admit to anything yet," she said, frowning at the screen. "You just make sure we get out of here with our eyes and all our body parts, ok?”

I grinned. "Don't worry, the last thing I'd want is for you to lose any of your body parts."

She smirked at me. "I'll bet."

#

Ten miles later the road angled down into a valley thicket of cottonwood and willow trees. The undergrowth near the thicket was a formidable wall of cattails and water reeds surrounded on all sides by hillside berms. The depression had been dug, I assume, for drainage purposes to keep the fields above from flooding. Since whatever age it had been constructed, probably by dust bowl Cornhuskers with shovels and wheelbarrows, a jungle of tall, thick trees now encapsulated the basin in shade. I couldn't see more than a foot into the thorny undergrowth from any angle. The road became less and less gravel and more a set of mud tracks left by tractors and combines to get to the land uphill. It was easy enough to see at midday with the sun riding hot and heavy over a marble of blue sky and white clouds sifting in the stratosphere in a milky swirl. The basin was a sinister oasis of isolated forest left to grow wild, when all else had been cut down to till and sow. I tried to think of the farmer's name who owned the land, but it didn't come to me. He'd had no teeth and limped hard to his left in a pair of dirt-clad overalls that made him look like Old Mcdonald come straight out of a nursery rhyme. For all I could remember, his name may very well have been Mcdonald. It surprised me I couldn't recall it, because I hadn't met another rural man like him in the whole state. All of the farmers I'd spoken to wore high-priced flannel shirts, leather shitkicker boots and drove trucks that cost up in the 50k range. With houses nicer than anything I'd ever set foot in, they had all politely told me I was a crazy man for looking for Hogweed this far west of the Mississippi and would I please fuck off their porch. Not Old Mcdonald, though, he was an aging Johnny Appleseed, laughing and chewing on a hay stem, patting me on the back several weeks pastwhen I'd asked about this little venture into his corn. There was a perm-a-smile on his mouth, light in his eyes, a kind of old-timey guilt free look that said he was happy with his lot in life and he'd never do a thing differently. Fresh air and clean water were his constants; a product of god-fearing, country living. Farmer Mcdonald, or whatever his name truly was, would have pissed off every metropolitan human being I knew just by saying hello.

"I heard that you might have Hogweed on your farm," I'd said to him. I"d love to see it."

He’d looked at me gravely, the flash of bright, brain-dead joy disappearing. "You don't want to see that ole' hoss. I've been here my whole life and I've not gone there but once with my brother, he never came back out. Listen to me now, just stay clear! Trust what I say." That had only served to pique my interest and through some swift talking I managed to get Old Mcdonald to lead to the very grove of trees I was now in front of.

#

"And you're sure it's ok we're on his land? " asked Sarah.

"I'm sure. There is a gate up ahead, we'll have to drop the chain. Thankfully this guy doesn't care much about locking up."

"Why thankfully? Wouldn't he open it for us if he knows we're here?" she said with a coy smile.

I opened my mouth, closed it again. She had me dead to rights and we both knew it.

"You owe me something after this. I don't know what yet, but something. You hear me?" She leveled me with her sweet blue eyes and tommy-girl smile. She could have asked me for anything in that moment and I'd have given it to her, she knew it.

"I do," I said sheepishly. She grabbed me by the shirt and kissed me. Then she pushed open the car door and hopped out into the sun. "Christ it's hot," she said, putting up a hand in vain to shield from the galactic ball of fire beaming down on us from several million miles out. The gold light flooded my eyes and instinctively I withdrew into what shade I could find.

Sarah ran to the gate, a function of steel bars melded together on a hinge. She fumbled with a set of chains that had been wound around the post, untying the knot and letting the gate swing wide. She rode it until it stopped, shouting "Woooo!' the whole way and when it clunked against the fence, she dropped down and ran back to the car. "You're weird," I told her as she wiggled back into the passenger seat.

She smiled and hunched her shoulders cutely, which was apparently the only way she knew how to. "I know," she said and I pressed my foot to the gas.

After I'd gotten past the fence, I pulled the gate closed and got back in the car. "It's at the bottom of this asshat's corn field. It's a grove, we'll have to follow the stream but if what he told me is true then the Hogweed isn't far inside. We'll be in and out before lunch."

"Great, I'm starving," she said, putting her foot on the dashboard of my Dodge Avenger. The path ahead was nothing but two mud marks slanted by steel horses. As we neared the end, the grove loomed and even the mud marks disappeared into a sea of tall grass

"What if we get stuck?" asked Sarah, her voice held a soft hint of alarm. Now she was sitting up straight in the seat, glancing nervously into the blades of grass as they hissed around the tires.

"We aren't going to get stuck," I said and pressed my foot on the gas. "I came through here once already, I told you. Trust me, it's dry as bone now. The water shut off in July, I checked the weather reports before we left. They're in a drought."

Sarah looked less than impressed. "Is that a fact?"

"That's a fact, Jack."

"Well then, Doctor Genius. You might explain to me why there is mud splattering on my window."

I blinked and looked over at her. "What?" I said.

Sarah pointed her finger at the window and tapped on the glass. Her glasses slid down her nose as she glared. "Mud. Window. Water."

I stomped my foot on the break. "Great," I said, punching the steering wheel

"Are we stuck?" she asked.

"I don't think so, but it definitely means we can't drive any further. If the ground is soggy here, It will only get worse."

"So we walk from here," she said.

"Looks that way."

"George?”

I looked over.

“PPE suits or not, if you didn't bring bug spray you aren't getting any for a month." I took a deep breath and turned off the car.

#

I didn't know how bad it was going to be, the path into the grove. I helped Sarah into the PPE; latex gloves, goggles and tape wrapped around her wrists and ankles. I told her how sexy she was in a hazmat suit, a declaration met with hateful glares as she lunged in the grass. Then I took a machete I'd bought from Lowes and started hacking through the brush. Sarah followed behind, making comments about my technique as I went. "I think you have to swing diagonal, no not up and down. Have you ever even seen a slasher movie? Here give me the machete, Vorhees. You're going to take off one of your legs before you get through that branch. Give it." I glared at her reproachfully through my own goggles, but I handed her the blade.

"Hold your tupperware," she said.

"That is a special composite container for scientific samples." I said, swiping it from her hand.

"It's tupperware. Ok, stand back got it?"

"I got it"

Sarah reached back once and swung the machete down in a smooth, slanted line. The branch cleaved neatly in two and fell to the ground. She turned around and grinned at me.

"Now who's showing off," I muttered.

"Awe don't worry sweetie, If we get mugged I'll handle it." she winked and turned back toward the brush. I thought by now she'd be screaming, sprinting up hills, or at the very least retreating back to the car to sit in the AC, cranking up whatever old country station might push through rural static out here. The longer she was here, ankle deep in swamp water that stank of stagnation and whatever animals might have died in it, the stronger she got. Pretty soon I was the one more concerned with swatting at bugs and glancing at the sun through the cottonwoods high above. The humidity in the grove was off the charts. The further we went the more I began to feel like a lobster in a pressure cooker, screaming through my shell of paper gear as the sweat ran into my eyes and down my back. All the while Sarah kept hacking away like she’d been doing it her entire life, while I crouched behind her and did my absolute best not to take one of her swings in the cranium.

“How far are we going here?” she asked at one point, while I reached up to pluck a tick off her back. She stopped swinging immediately. “What was that?” she said, frozen.

“A bug. And I think you can stop hacking now. It looks like the path opens here, you see it?” Ahead, I could hear the faintest trinkle of a stream spreading through more cat tails, the grass had concealed the water’s flow until now, but no longer. “I can’t believe it,” I said.

“What?”

“It’s mid-July, no reason why there should be running water with no recent rainfall. That means there is an underground spring back here somewhere, it's not common in northwest Missouri, the water table is too low. It’s an oddity.”

“What’s odd is that I can feel something crawling around in my hair,” she grumbled. “I swear to you George, one tick and…”

“No ticks yet, we’ll be ok. Keep going, I can sort of see towards the center of it now, just through there. Keep doing your thing, we’re getting close.“

Sarah hesitated. “George, what am I not supposed to be hacking at?” “What?”

She turned to glare at me. “You think there is a phototoxic plant back here, right? That was your word, phototoxic. What happens if I nick it by accident?”

“Ah,” I said, running a hand across my face. “Good point, best put down the machete for now. We can make it through, we’ll just follow the stream. Don’t touch anything you don’t have to and…”

“Remind me what it looks like, George.”

“Ah, well it can reach fifteen feet high, it’ll have little white petals on it, very pretty actually. Lots of... Sarah," I said as she reached up with the machete to cleave herself a new row of limbs. The blade paused in her hand and she blinked at me. "Don't take another swing." I said.

She cocked her head at me, one boot lanced forward like a warrior in a fighting stance. "What is it?"

I nodded at the wall of shrubbery in front of her. The Hogweed was at a height I hadn't expected. I knew it could reach above ten feet easily, but this was much higher. It was a fairly common weed that grew all over the coastlines. But here? Like this? No. It shouldn't be that high, nearly twenty feet. It towered maybe a foot in front of her, the stalk tipped with white, springy flowers that hung in the air below the canopy in a crown of purity and deception. "That's it?" she asked.

"That's it.”

"And I nearly cut right into it, yeah?"

"Yes," I said, slinging my feet through grass and water and mud. Sarah was shaking, the blade wavered in her hand. All of a sudden her impression of Davy Crocket dissolved back into the choir-girl I'd known her as a few hours ago.

"I'm going to freaking kill you," she said. "I could have...I almost." she turned around and looked at me, her knuckles white around the machete. "WHAT IF I'D GONE BLIND?" she snarled.

"Then I'd be the one swinging the machete." I regretted the joke as soon as I'd said it. Tears were in her eyes and I knew I'd gone too far. "Babe, listen. I saw it, I stopped you, you're not going blind ok?"

"Just shut up," she said, and stomped past me through the hole she'd made in the underbrush. "I'm going back to the car."

"Sarah, wait...You're wearing goggles it can't.."

"Just shut up, George. I don't want to hear it. That was way too close, you shouldn't have let me go in there like Lady Rambo, I could have...I..." she started peeling the tape off her gloves, pulling apart at the seams. "I don't want anything else to do with this, you get your sample. I'm going to be in the AC. George? George?"

The Hogweed reared in front of me, a growth maybe five to ten years old, it had flowered tall and true with a stalk six inches thick, red and green striped. Amber sap dripped from it and I realized that she hadn't been wrong. If she'd taken one swipe at the stalk, furanocoumarins, toxic sap could have splashed her, burning holes through skin and leaving her pretty face a collage of movie monster scars. She would never have forgiven me for that, I could never have forgiven myself. I later wished that would have been the end of the day, that I hadn't seen anything more.

That isn't what I was looking at. What I saw was behind the Hogweed. At first I thought it was a conifer of some kind, growing from a pool of swamp water like a throne of needles from the very heart of the grove. The trunk was a white spine, a jagged line twelve inches thick like a frozen lightning bolt. The needles that grew from it were long and crimson like blood welling from a cut. The...tree? I don't really know what, sprung from the mud. It's long, straight branches crowned through leafy treetops in every direction. A totem straight out of Hell, it towered in the grove, looking neither alive or dead but glaring all the same. Like it had a mind to hate with.

"Oh shit," I whispered, adjusting the goggles over my eyes.

"What is it?" Sarah asked, causing me to jump. I hadn't heard her creeping up beside me. "Is that...more Hogweed? It looks like it, but not really? It has flowers on the top, do you see that? George, I've never seen flowers so red, is that normal? I thought flowering trees didn't have pine needles…”

"They don't. They have cones, but not like this.I don't know what that is.”

"It has leaves..." she said.

"It does."

"And needles...and thorns. George...what the hell are those?" Below the needles on the trees were pustules; yellow, pulsating sacs like parasite larva. They laced the limbs of the red and white tree like christmas ornaments, hanging precariously low by the dozens.

"I don't know, but Sarah...I have to get a sample.”

She blinked at me, startled. "Have you gone insane?" she asked, but I had already started trudging through the mud. Each step brought me closer, I could feel the earth sucking my feet, trying to keep me from taking another. "George, don't you dare. You'll have to walk right through that stupid ass Hogweed. George!” I wasn't listening, something had possessed me. Whatever that plant was, I was positive it hadn't been discovered. I was hypnotized by it, enamored with it. There was no chance I was walking out of here without my sample. Several more steps brought me to its trunk. The sludge filled around my boots like cement.

"What in the hell are ya doin' out er?"

I turned suddenly and there was Old Mcdonald. He stood inside the shade of trees but that look of contentment I'd seen on him on before, the smile that said 'I drink my own rainwater and shit out sunshine and nothing gets me down, you can bet all the chips on it’, was gone, replaced by alarmed eyes and and a toothless grimace. His skin was colored with sweat rash, his peppered curly hair smashed down under a faded John Deere cap. His overalls were the same denim getup from before, but now smattered in an extra layer of black mud he'd gathered while walking through our macheted entryway. He raised the rifle so that I was looking

down the barrel. The steel caught a glint of daylight as his hands shook. "I said what in the hell ya doin’ out er?"

"We....I," I began.

"Don't matter what, don't matter 'tall. Come here now, get out of it. Don't go no closer."

I turned to glance at the...I don’t know what to call it. There is no name or classification for this kind of malignant growth. It had flowers, a crossbreed of something neither coniferous or deciduous but maybe of both. It loomed in the undergrowth like a bone obelisk with blood-red thistles. A cool wind rattled the trees and light spotted through the high branches, laying bright fingers on the nightmare. Illumination made it more menacing, its pustule-like sacs shone with amber. I glanced back at Old Mcdonald, he noticed the look in my eyes and raised the gun higher. "Don't you do it," he said. "You listen to me now, that ain't Hogweed. It's nothing you want, nothing anybody wants."

I was still staring at it, hypnotized by the way the light reflected off the bone-white trunk. "Then what is it?"

"Come on George he's got a gun..." Sarah shouted. "Get out of there."

I couldn't, I couldn't move at all. My feet were trapped in the mud, something wanted me there and I needed to know what it was.

"It's a door, a warning sign. Take your pick," said Mcdonald."It's there to tell you that things live here that don't want to be disturbed. It's been here longer'n me, n' you, it'll be here long after we're gone. If you don't do as I say, that's not gonna' be very long. Come out of there while you can!"

"George...please babe, please come out."

I watched the thing a while longer, staring at it as it shimmered like blood and cartilage, a centipede standing on its haunches, wiggling its fingers. The middle of the tree, where the red flowers bloomed like roses, the white of the trunk reminded me of a skull, eyeless and blind, but seeing me without the need of them. There was a darkness to it that I couldn't understand but it sent tendrils of fear shivering down my stomach and into my crotch. My hands shook and I dropped the tupperware. "Ok..." I said finally. "Ok I'm coming." I tried to pull my leg up, but it wouldn't come. "Shit..." I said, I tried the other, but that too was glued into the mud.

"What is it George. George?"

I tried to bounce from one leg to the next to gain some momentum, force one foot out of the suction, but neither of them would move. "I’m stuck," I said finally. "I can't pull free."

McDonald hesitated, I could see some instinct kicking in in his mind, that polite rural sense of humility and manners was taking over quickly. “Shit fire and save the matches, hold on, I’m coming.” he laid his rifle down against a willow where the ground was hard enough to support it and then trudged through the muck, passing Sarah in his long boots with a practiced ease. “Now I’ll try’n pull you out but you might end up having to give up those boots and crawl out of here barefoot if we can’t get ’em free. You hear me? Good, now grab hold of my damn hand, here we go.”

He took my arms, we counted and he yanked. My feet wanted to move, they pulled up just slightly, but I stayed there as surely as if my toes were caught in tree roots. “Jesus H. Christ,” said McDonald, taking off his hat and wiping the sweat from his brow. “Ok, we’ve got one more go and then off come the rubbers. Ok? Ok.”

Again he took my wrist and pulled with all his might. Now I was really starting to come free, and I glanced up to see that Sarah had taken his other hand and they were both making a tug-o-war line. “Almost…” I said, “Almost got it...” That’s when I lost my balance and nearly dropped, feet still caught. My other hand flailed out, trying to recapture something, anything that would balance me.

“George!” shouted Sarah, her eyes were full of alarm. I had pistoned myself back on both feet, but my ankles were burning with exhaustion. “George, let go of it!”

“Let go of what?” I growled back.

“The Hogweed! Let go of it!” I looked down to my other hand and saw she wasn’t wrong. In my wild attempt to keep from diving into mud I’d reached out for the Hogweed. I might have been saved by the gloves, but something had ripped right through the latex and into my palm. I could feel blood spring from a deep cut, where some rogue prick had buried in my flesh.

“Shit,” I said, letting go. That nearly sent me sailing into the muck, but Mcdonald’s thick, calloused grip still held me.

“I told you not to get back here.” His face held a threat that gave a firm belief he might still shoot me. “You’ll be lucky if a cut on your hand is all you walk out of here with. Now get those boots off, while we can.”

“While we can?”

“You heard me, now get….”

That is when I heard it. A high pitched wail that made me release McDonald’s and put my hands over my ears, covering one in the sap of the Hogweed. “What is that?” I asked.

“Get those boots off. Come on now Miss you can’t stay, you can’t. Let him go, come on now!” He grabbed Sarah, dragging her away. She kicked hard at his legs, clawing at his arms, but he’d wrapped his hands hard around her waist. I tried to crawl out of my boots to follow but it was slow going and the ringing grew louder and louder. Covering my ears, I fell back into the muck, and a stone’s throw away the totem loomed over me. With growing terror I realized it had moved closer, shrieking as it came, its needles vibrating in the air like the scaled hood of a cobra. The pustules along its branches were shaking as if taken by a strong wind. Then the sacs exploded in an arc of phlegm-colored slime.

The sap of the Blood Flower is not like anything else I’d experienced. I don’t know why I knew to call it that, all I do know is that once the thick, burning liquid touched the PPE gear it burned right through and peppered my skin. As it coursed down my body, it burned like I’d been rubbed head to foot in acid.

“Sweet Jesus!” cried McDonald. It was then I realized that he too was covered, back to boot. “Help me, oh for the love of help me!” He was wiping off his arms and face, but it stuck to him as he sprinted through the mud. Like a snot film it curled in his fingers and dripped down his clothes.

Sarah hadn’t run. She was close, reaching down, her fingers trembling and slicked wet as she attempted to pull me to my feet. I don’t know what force possessed her to do so.

Unknown to me, she had a spine made of steel that made me look like a petulant toddler. The panic had already leaked out of her face even with the Blood Flower looming over us like an eldritch cryptid, coiling, watching. She took my hand and finally I struggled out of my boots.

Farmer McDonald bolted into the sun. Mid-July can be well over 90 degrees fahrenheit in the midwest on a normal day, and today was not one of those. Today was over 100, that might not have been so horrible if the humidity hadn’t been thick enough to choke air right out of the lungs. Under that radiant ball of light, it seared the eyes and burned the skin. I watched McDonald go and thought about how hot he must have felt as he pulled himself on his John Deere tractor, the one he’d ridden down to check on us. I could hear him crying as he panicked, a sort of braying yelp like a mule with a leg in a bear trap. Heat blisters bubbled on his neck like eggs in a frying pan; blotched and growing quickly from quarters to silver dollars. By the time he got a hand on the ignition the blisters had popped, spurting, not oozing, and his overalls were stained with a soupy miasma of bright blood and white-yellow puss. None of that mattered when his skin started melting and soon he was more wax than man wherever the flesh was exposed, not that anything covered was saved either I’m sure. The tractor under him was old, but cared for and the buttons and levers moved with the grace of hands used to stroking them. ‘By God, somehow he’s still driving that tractor.’ I thought. The tractor lurched forward and he bounced in the bright yellow chair as it tumbled up the hillside, all the while his screams grew louder. Maybe he managed to keep his corn from burning for a quarter mile, maybe. But ten minutes in? No longer. Flames erupted from his body in a blood-orange halo, the smoke billowed black and hungry as it stretched across the fields like a blanket. McDonald roared into the distance and everything around him caught fire, his insides boiled, split and spit. He kept trying to steer the tractor, I don’t know why he thought that would help, but he continued. I suppose he’d decided to outwork the burn, the way farmers think they can outwork anything. Soon his brain matter was charcoal, his body slumped forward on the dashboard while the foot sank as dead weight on the accelerator. The last we saw he was crashing through corn, a bouncing corpse with a conflagratory wake jetting into the Fall’s harvest. That inferno grew into a chaos that rivaled the sun, an infant star all on its own.

#

“We wait until nightfall,” Sarah whispered, “We wait until dark. Then we go.”

“The fire is getting too close, babe. It’s six hours to night. One strong wind and it’ll be here, we’ll be dead in minutes.” I tossed a stick at the Blood Flower.

Sarah looked up at me from where she sat in the mud. The adrenaline was out of her and she was shaking, a tear slipped down her face. Instinctively, she reached up to wipe it from her skin.

“Don’t!” I shouted and batted her hand away. Startled, she punched me in the arm as hard as she could. “I...I just..” my voice trailed off. “Put your goggles back on. You really don’t want it in your eyes…”

“Shut up, George. Does it matter? Does it matter whether I keep the goggles on? Look at us!” she waved her hand around the grove to prove her point. Above the edge of the tree line, a crown of smoke circled the sky.

“It could…” I said. “It could matter a lot. You touched me and I touched the Hogweed and we both got splattered by the...”

“And you don’t want me to go blind, I got it…” she shouted, turning away from me. For a moment we both sat in silence. “Ok, ok George listen,” she said finally. “How do you even know what happened to him will happen to us?”

I frowned at her. “I don’t, but we got splattered by the same juice and it stands to reason...”

“Reason,” she spat. “What about this sounds reasonable to you? What kind of plant secretes a…”

“Phototoxic reaction, if that is what it is. If it’s the same as Heracleum mantegazzianum and I’ve no idea if it is…”

“No idea, no idea George? Look at that thing, it’s…it’s staring at us.”

“That’s paranoia, it’s scary looking, I’ll grant you that. I’ve never seen anything like it in my whole life. It’s flowering midsummer and there are pine needles...or are those thorns? That isn’t possible, I don’t think...”

We looked up at the Blood Flower again. “What?” she asked, turning back to me. Her voice was cracking, she pulled her knees up to her chest and hugged them. “You don’t think what, George? Finish what you were saying…”

I opened my mouth to speak, and then shook my head.

“Say it, George. What don’t you think?”

I pressed my fingers against my temples, the heat was starting to get to me. Every part of me felt dry or burnt where the sap had splattered. “I don’t think it can possibly be real.”

Sarah threw her head back and cackled, her voice cracked, the sound of it was brittle and maniacal, like she was trying to cough up a bone caught in her throat. “What are you saying, George? Are you saying we’ve both gone nuts? Well let me tell you, a-fucking-men babe. I’m pretty sure I lost whatever mind I had two hours ago. That cornfield is still on fire, isn’t it?” she pointed toward the horizon. The smoke roiled into the sky, tainting it a grey curtain. The flames were closer, I could taste the heat from it, smell the burning husks from twenty acres of roasting crops. It was a wild blaze, untethered, surfing the horizon like an ocean wave rising over a beach front.

“Sarah, we have to try to think...we’ve got to…” I gaped at her, lost, and when I did she threw back her head and laughed again, kicking her feet in the mud.

“I’ll tell you what George, if I’m going to fry it’s not going to be in this getup. I’m taking this crap off.” Sarah bit down on the tape around her wrists, unwrapping the latex gloves. When those came off, she tore at her chest, ripping it off like the Incredible Hulk until tearing until it was nothing more than a few shreds of static white at her feet.

“Sarah, stop.” I tried to grab her arm, but she shrugged it away. Her eyes were lightning, there was a fever to them, a madness. With the gear discarded, she dropped back in the mud, clad only in t-shirt and jeans that had been sweated all the way through. “Why did you do that?” I yelled. “That might have been the only thing keeping us from…”

“From what George? Exploding in a ball of fire like that farmer did? Well newsflash, clothes didn’t help him!”

“It was better than nothing, Sarah!” I growled. She was right of course, we had no way of knowing what had caused the fire. No reason to think it was anything more than some freak accident. ‘The world is full of the unexplained. Maybe the tractor did it, that’s possible. It could have leaked gasoline on his clothes, maybe he hit something and then a spark and...boom. That’s probably it? Right? It makes a lot more sense than some supernatural plant spewing phototoxic ignitor fluid. I’ll have to make sure…’ I walked to the edge of the grove, where the tree line cast its shadow like a parapet. Past that defensive line, the sun scorched the earth like a laser, brilliant and deadly.

“George, come back. What are you doing? Get back here!” Sarah shouted.

“I have to know. Listen to me, ok? All I’m going to do is stick my hand in the sun. That’s it. If nothing bad happens, then we’ll know this is just some kind of weird accident.”

She stomped up behind me, her anger melting back into fear. “But the Hogweed, the Hogweed causes burns too! You touched it, George. You touched the damn thing…”

“Only with the glove Sarah, even if I am contaminated with that I’ll live. We can’t stay here, we won’t live through that. The fire is close, the wind isn’t doing us any favors. Even if we don’t explode, we could suffocate on smoke in a firestorm. I read about it somewhere. We’ve got to get back to the car and get out of here.” I could see my car, not more than fifty yards away, gleaming silver in the daylight. We were so close to it I could throw a rock and hit the window.

“Someone will come, George.” she pleaded. “Someone will come soon. That fire, people have to see it for miles. There’s no way they won’t come.”

I shook my head. “Maybe so, but where are they? It’s been burning for awhile and by now it's got to be a half-mile wide. If they’re fighting it somewhere, it’s not here. With all that smoke they might not even see us. Remember the road? There isn’t another home in sight. No one lives out here, no one is looking for us.” I reached the edge of the shadow and balled my hand into a fist. Beneath the latex glove, my fingertips were slick with sweat.

“George I…” she stuttered, I glanced back at her, she was trembling. I gave her a reassuring smile.

“It will be alright,” I said. I reached out for the sunlight.

#

I only awoke one more time in my life. Sarah was screaming and I was back in the shadow of the trees looking at the sky. There was a phantom there, one made black by the carbon roasting off green corn stalks and summer heat. The phantom spread its arms across the blue expanse, and its roar was the call of Hell itself. Below the smoke, blood-red light reached out its arms like needles, piercing and leaping. It was the Blood Flower grown to the height of a titan, hungry, hostile, a thing of flames and consumption. It wanted me, the Blood Flower.

I felt something cool slapping my shoulder and with a heavy thud, my back hit the ground again and again, but I could barely feel it. I looked at Sarah, something horrified her, she was shouting at me but my ears were ringing. Sarah scooped up mud from the grove and

lathered it on me. The wet clay slid between her fingers as she smothered it on what was left of my body.

My arm was there, sort of. My meat dangled from charred bone. The smell of it was wonderful and absently my stomach grumbled. We hadn’t eaten since this morning and I was starving. I turned my head to the side and threw up in my mouth.

“Hold on, George!” shouted Sarah. The adrenaline had kicked in for her again as she smeared herself with mud. “I’ll get us out of here…” My hero. I tried to take her hand, but the limb was dead as dead could be. From my shoulder to the charred husks where my fingers used to be was a corpse. Sarah’s palms were red, burnt, the skin missing. I knew that she had put the fire out, somehow. I realized suddenly that the damage went much further than I could see and a despair took me. This woman was the best thing that had ever happened to me, someone willing to literally snub out a fire on my skin. I was going to die, I wouldn’t get to spend anymore time with her. What a fucking tragedy.

“Give me your other hand babe,” she said. “It'll be alright, give me the hand.” She was caked with mud, eyes peering through a clay mask. She smiled at me, but her eyes told the truth. “I’ve got you,” she said kindly and took hold of me. Anchoring her feet, she began to drag what was left of me through the muck. The path beyond wouldn’t be easy, the grass was tall, thick, serrated. “This’ll work,” she said. “This’ll work, babe.” I tried to speak, but bile came out of my lips instead. It took her a long time to get me back to the edge of the shade line. I could barely breathe, my lungs were full of some other fluid, and it was getting harder and harder. The coppery taste of blood overtook the bile and tinged my lips. As I looked back into the grove a final time, something scared me so badly that a line of piss trailed down my leg. It was the Blood Flower, vibrant against the shadows like a skull attached to a spine, watching me go. I could hear it in my mind, whispering to me. “I am happy,” it said. ‘Thank you for watering me. Thank you so, so much.” Beneath it in the slime, I could see something else. Someone with arms and legs, a misshapen face grinning from beneath it. It was a little boy, I think, and the Blood Flower bloomed from his chest as he kicked his legs playfully beneath it. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I could hear the Farmer speaking to me. “I only went there once with my brother, and he never came back out.”

The shade fell away and the sun seared my eyes. There was a moment when I expected to go up in flames again, but nothing happened. In the distance, the fire crackled in the corn. “See George? We’re going to make it. It won’t burn us like this, with the mud on our skin!” said Sarah with a lunatic smile. She pulled me toward our little oasis in the tall grass, my silver car. It waited only a few feet away, ready to take us out of here. I nodded to her, trying to breathe.

Sarah was right, the same as when she’d tell me I wanted pizza for dinner. She was right about most things and that alone made me truly believe we’d survive. I trusted her completely. That is why the last little bit of terror I felt as the flames began to rise from her exposed hair, melting her face as she cried in agony, tasted like betrayal.






Copyright © 2020 by Kenneth McIntosh


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