“I need a plant!”
The meticulously dressed, fiftyish woman leaned over the counter and spoke in a low murmur.
Lily smiled encouragingly. Sometimes the first visit was a little disconcerting.
“Well, as you can see,” she indicated, waving her arm, “we’re all about plants here.” She waited.
“I’ve been told this is the place — ” the woman’s voice dropped further, to an almost inaudible but urgent whisper, “to obtain a ‘plant’.”
As she mouthed the last word, she brought her hands discreetly in front of herself and wiggled her fingers in minuscule air quotes. Her immaculately plucked eyebrows rose.
“Oh!” Lily answered brightly, with a broadening smile. “You want one of our specialty plants, then. Follow me — I’ll show you our selection. I’m Lily, by the way, and what’s your name?” she inquired pleasantly.
“Um, Paula,” the customer replied reluctantly.
“Nice to meet you, Paula.”
Lily pushed open the little “Employees Only” swing gate and beckoned to the woman.
Holding aside the feathery fronds of two bamboo palms guarding the doorway, Lily motioned to her customer to precede her.
Paula’s heels made sharp contact with the natural stone floor. She appeared uneasy at the noise, and adjusted her walk to a tiptoe as they emerged into a nearly suffocating greenness.
“Hh-uh!” She gasped with a sharp inhalation, overwhelmed by the cloy of chlorophyll. Even the diffuse light in the room had a greenish tinge, an almost eerie glow.
The very atmosphere was odd and mysterious. It felt damp and warm, yet there was an underlying drift of coolness. Sound was muffled, and at the same time, amplified. One entire wall, built of rock, had a sheet of water flowing down to a catch pool, whooshing and trickling; it provided at once feelings of tranquility and of agitation.
Lily watched Paula for a silent moment, gauging her reaction before informing her,
“I’ll need to ask you a few questions to make sure we choose a suitable type. What is the setting? And is this purchase for a special occasion?”
“Setting? Oh, umm, I — it’s for a care home. My mother lives there. And no, it’s not an occasion.”
“Ah! I see.” Lily winked. “You want to make sure everything is being done properly.”
“Yes!” Paula’s relief was palpable. She wouldn’t need to explain much. “Yes! I need to know what goes on — ”
“ — when you’re not there,” Lily finished. “Got it!”
She scanned the room before suggesting,
“Here’s a lovely specimen of Monstera deliciosa, split-leaf philodendron. The leaves are (ah-hmm) very large, as you can see. Would this do?”
Paula gazed up at an imposing representative of the plant kingdom. Its main stalk was about the circumference of two of her fingers, and the heart-shaped, perforated leaves were the diameter of dinner plates.
“Yes,” she nodded, “That will do nicely.”
She didn’t ask the price. Glancing at Lily again, she asked, “And what about…?”
“Bugs? Yes. We’ll make sure you have everything necessary to take care of them. Anything else you’d like in here?”
“Oh — no, I don’t think so, today. We’ll see how this goes though; I may come for something else another time.”
Back out at the register, Lily typed in Paula’s contact details and the address of the Monstera’s destination.
“Now,” she explained, “I’ll get you set up with — we call it ‘counter intelligence’, ha ha!, because we keep them under the counter, you see, and they’re intelligent devices. Ha ha! It’s called SmartBug.” She brought a tray out from under the counter.
“TWEE-doodly-dee!” sang a cheerful chime, emulating an unspecified songbird. Someone else had entered the store. Paula jittered nervously and looked around at the door as it swished shut on its soft-close pneumatic arm. “Whsshh…”
“Oh, hi, Glenn!” Lily waved at the funny little man who was padding toward them. He looked like a bizarre caricature of something Paula couldn’t quite bring to mind… He wore soft booties — Paula, in her mind, called them “elf shoes” — that made no sound. In fact, he walked as if his feet were not quite touching the floor. He was small and skinny, of indeterminate age. He might have been fifty or eighty, but was most likely somewhere in between.
“He’s all right,” Lily assured Paula in a whisper, then raised her voice to a normal tone.
“I was wondering if you’d be coming by, Glenn. Want a delivery job? This lady is buying one of the specialties.”
Glenn ducked his head in a quick nod and smiled cheerfully at Paula. His appearance was Seuss-like, she finally decided: baggy, shapeless pullover sweater that had possibly been light gray once upon a time, paired with dark green, too-long parachute pants that billowed at the tops of his mole colored booties. Topping off the ensemble was a multicolored flat-topped beanie hat that looked hand knitted. Wisps of hair sprouted from under the hat and around his chin.
“I’d love to, but I’m not prepared to drive right now. I’d have to go home and grab my license. Is that all right?” He looked at Lily, who passed the look on to Paula. Paula nodded.
“There’s no rush.”
“Well, anyway, I came to bring you this,” Glenn informed Lily, tossing a small paper bag on the counter. He turned with a small wave of his long, slender hand.
“I’ll be back later.”
“TWEE-doodly-dee!” The bird chime announced Glenn’s departure.
“Is he — capable of delivering that big thing?” Paula asked worriedly. “He looks pretty scrawny.”
“Oh, yes!” Lily nodded vigorously. “He delivers for us regularly, and he’s familiar with setting up — ” she indicated the tray, “these. And now, you get to choose one.”
Paula looked over the selection. They all looked convincingly realistic. There were iridescent purple and teal dragonflies, delicate lime green lacewings, vibrant emerald mantids.
“They’re beautiful! It’s amazing that they look so real.” Her hand hovered over one, then another. “I think — this one.” She picked up the largest praying mantis. “But how do I make sure the staff doesn’t think it is real, and try to remove it?”
“Tell them it’s a watering monitor.”
Lily helped Paula load the SmartBug app on her phone, poking buttons and changing settings to make surveillance easier.
“There you go — all set! Glenn will make arrangements with the care home for delivery and setup. He’s the perfect cover.” Again, Lily winked. Paula wasn’t quite sure why, but she felt slightly disconcerted.
Several more customers came in that day, but no one else was looking for a specialty item. They all just wanted ordinary plants. Lily was prepared for that; each purchase, no matter how small, came with a complimentary beetle-shaped “watering monitor” from the little paper bag left by Glenn.
Late in the afternoon, Glenn came back.
“Ready to go!” he declared.
Lily assisted him in loading Monstera into the delivery van, which had “Obvious Plants” decals conspicuously displayed on the sides.
“One more for you, Glenn.” Lily handed him a stunning pale pink Phalaenopsis orchid. She had seen Paula admiring it.
“After you deliver the Monstera, take this to the customer’s house. Complimentary. Comes with a coordinating Hymenopus coronatus.” She winked.
Glenn smiled approvingly at the pink orchid mantis carefully attached to one of the spikes, mimicking a blossom.
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Quite a world of 'plants' you have created there! Seemed to me that they are equally capable of doling out vengeance or karma. I like your use of onomatopoeia, here and in your other pieces as well. Thanks for sharing this intrigue filled, thought provoking story!
Yes - don’t know how well it comes off. I think you do that sort of mysterious feeling better than I, but it’s fun to try! I do love using onomatopoeia. When I’m writing, I always put myself in the scene and try to portray sensory images. Maybe related to being very rhythm-oriented. Thanks for the read and comment!
What a delightfully surreal story! “I’ve been told this is the place — ” the woman’s voice dropped further, to an almost inaudible but urgent whisper, “to obtain a ‘plant’.” I think that made the opening for me. Such weird behaviour, I just had to find out what this was about. I assumed drugs, heh. I like the descriptions of the plant room. They were very vivid. The ending is interesting, it makes it seem like there's so much more to this story. Thanks for sharing!
Surreal - yes! Thanks for coming up with that description. I wasn’t quite sure myself how to describe that world… When I saw the prompts, I thought I’d use the one about two different species - but it just didn’t come together. These shifty people popped in instead. Rather purposefully insinuated what you thought. When I read it to my daughter, she asked, “Are you trying to make people think it’s about drugs, but it’s not?” The plant room was fun to visualize! I’m not sure about the ending. Maybe there’s more to the story. We may never know...