Bethany’s Bliss by H. J. Harding

~4100 Words

  Julie pulled into her sister Bethany’s driveway shortly before noon. Ignoring the front door, she headed straight for the gate in the hedge. Sure enough, Bethany was in her garden, weeding. Judging from the dirt on her clothes and skin, she had been at it awhile.

“You’re going to get sunstroke,” Julie chided, hiding a smile when Bethany jumped. “Come on, time to go inside for a while.”

“I didn’t hear you come in,” Bethany said. “Besides, it’s not that hot.”

She was already getting up, so Julie didn’t mention that the back of her shirt was drenched in sweat and that her face was red.

The garden was Bethany’s paradise, and it was clear from the rose bushes that lined the back, to the hollyhocks along the wall, the lavender that transitioned to violets, that bled into pansies, then into tulips, and from there to things Julie couldn’t identify. It was good that she was still gardening. When Bethany had been forced to close the greenhouse she had operated, Julie had been afraid her sister would slip into depression. For a little while she hadn’t even seemed interested in her garden. Julie was glad to see that that was over.

Julie’s heels clicked on the stepping-stones, wanting to be inside before Bethany hosed the dirt off her legs so that she didn’t get her hose wet. Once inside, Julie headed to the kitchen to get the lemonade while Bethany cleaned up a little more.

Julie had finished pouring the lemonade and was putting the ice back when she spotted something on the floor, behind the refrigerator. It looked like an envelope. She frowned, wondering what it was. It could be important, but she wasn’t sure how to get it without getting filthy.

Using a broom handle she finally managed to get it within reach.

“Julie, what are you doing?” Bethany asked as she came into the room.

“Trying to get that envelope,” Julie answered, trying to manoeuvre it closer.

Bethany rolled her eyes and ducked down to pick it up. “A little dirt isn’t going to kill you. What is this, anyway?”

“I don’t know, it was behind your fridge.” Julie put the broom back. It was a small brown envelope, about the size to put buttons or coins in, and it wasn’t empty.

Bethany looked inside and frowned as she poured out little red hooked seeds into her hands.

Julie looked closer. “I’ve never seen those before. What seeds are they? They are seeds, right?”

Bethany was examining one closely, finally splitting it with her fingernail. “Yes, they’re seeds, but I don’t recognise them.”

“Then where did they come from?”

“Probably a plant show.” Bethany shrugged. “I’ll have to look these up. They don’t match anything I can think of.”

“But you’re a professional horti-thingy!” Julie protested. ‘shouldn’t you know what they are?”

Bethany suppressed a smile. She put the seeds back and took her lemonade to the table. “Horticulturist. A degree that unfortunately does not bestow on me the ability to recognise every seed in the world. You’re a realtor, do you know every architectural style ever used?”

Julie ignored the correction. She knew the word, but for whatever reason, she had trouble pronouncing it. “So are you going to plant some?”

Bethany’s answer involved water requirements, shade, light, and soil acidity. Julie nodded and made agreeable noises, while trying not to let her eyes glaze over.

Finally, Bethany either finished her explanation or realised she had lost her audience. She said, “Well, maybe. It can’t hurt to try. Besides, a growing plant is easier to identify than a packet of seeds.”

“And you were saying you needed something new for the next flower show,” Julie pointed out.

“The next flower show is a little more than two months away. Unless this grows faster than kudzu, which I rather hope it doesn’t, it probably won’t be show-ready by then.”

“Fine, I bow to your awesome plant knowledge. Unfortunately, I have to show a house in less than an hour, so I better go.”

“Coffee at your place next week?”

“I’ll be out of town. Week after?”

“Sure.”

#

It was three weeks before Julie was back at Bethany’s house. As she let herself into the side yard, the first thing she noticed was a tall purple-and-red plant that looked something like a leafy aloe with spiny creeper vines. She was sure Bethany hadn’t had that before.

“Like it?” Bethany’s voice came from behind her.

“What is it?”

“No idea. It grew from those mystery seeds you found, but neither the seeds nor the plant match anything from my reference books. I can’t even classify the type. I can rule out a few things, but that’s it.”

“It’s at least a foot tall. Plants don’t grow from seeds to small shrubs in three weeks.”

“Fifteen inches. I measured this morning.” Bethany eyed it closely. “Actually, it may have grown a bit since then. That rate of growth is unusual but not unheard of.”

“It’s going to take over your garden.”

“I doubt it. I’ll rein it in. Besides, I’m doing something wrong.” At Julie’s sceptical look, she said, “it’s not thriving. I can tell. Unfortunately, I don’t know its optimal growing conditions. It may not like the temperature, the soil; maybe it wants more light, more shade, more water, less water. I just don’t know.”

“Looks fine to me.” Julie turned, heading inside. “I brought scones.”

“Orange?”

“Cinnamon chip.”

“Even better.”

#

An hour later, the sisters were still talking, and Julie was eyeing the two remaining scones, debating on whether or not she wanted another. “That grey cat is in your yard again,” she said, seeing it through the window behind Bethany.

Bethany shook her head. “Mrs Miller’s cat. I’ve told her to keep him out of my yard, or at least put a bell on him, but every time I try… my mouth goes dry, my knees go weak, and my throat closes. I think I managed to ask her once. She told me he was a cat and to just deal with it. He keeps stalking the birds.”

“You’re too polite. She knows she can walk all over you,” Julie said. “I can talk to her, if you want.”

“What? No. Sheesh, it’s not that big a deal. Not worth having her hate me over. The birds are good at getting away. Most of the time he leaves my plants alone.”

Julie shrugged. “Actually, he’s chasing a squirrel. Ugh, he caught it.” Julie flinched and turned away from the window.

“I really needed to know that,” Bethany said wryly, avoiding looking outside.

Well, she didn’t want that scone anymore. “Changing the subject now.”

“Good idea. You aren’t dressed up today. Not meeting any clients?”

“No, not today. Hey, you were saying the other day that we haven’t been to the movies in a while. Want to go?”

“Sure, why not. It’s summer, there should be something out.” Bethany answered, grabbing a jacket.

As they left through the side door, Julie took another look at the purple plant. “Has it got bigger?”

“It may have. It’s also perked up some. That’s odd.”

Bethany examined the plant, then turned to leave, but Julie hesitated. This was exactly where the cat had killed the squirrel, she was sure of it. She was equally sure she had seen blood. Where was the blood now?

Bethany’s voice tore her from her thoughts, and she hurried to the car. “What was that about?” Bethany asked after Julie climbed in.

“Um, nothing important.”

#

“I know you weren’t two feet tall yesterday,” Bethany said to the purple plant she had just re-measured. As a long time horticulturist, she usually talked to her plants. As long as they didn’t answer back, she figured she was fine. “How are you growing this fast?”

True to form, the plant didn’t reply. Bethany shook her head and turned to examine the tulips next to it.

A rapid fluttering caught her attention. She slowly turned, looking for the origin of the sound, until she spotted a hummingbird headed to her nectar feeder. Bright colours, so it was probably a male. Lots of green… but it wasn’t holding still for a good look. Likely a ruby-throated hummingbird. It paused at the nectar feeder, when a red creeper vine snagged it out of the air and dragged the struggling bird into the purple shrub.

Bethany froze, as the bird became surrounded by more and more leaves until all movement stilled.

When it was over, Bethany had to convince herself that it had happened at all. The small fluff of feathers on the ground showed that it had. “A carnivore?”

She had grown carnivorous plants before, primarily pitchers, but they were much smaller and stuck to insects. Carnivorous plants were also known for not growing well or quickly. It was possible for one to get large enough to eat small birds and rodents, but it was very rare.

Bethany spent a few hours checking all her plant reference materials before coming to a conclusion. The purple-red bush outside matched absolutely nothing in current scientific knowledge. After the official reference books failed, she tried a Google image search for “weird plants”, “purple plants”, “purple aloe”, and “weird purple plants”, but none of the results matched the plant in her yard.

The horror of having a plant that could kill birds was fading under disbelief and excitement. This was possibly brand new, a huge scientific discovery. Bethany had been trying for something new for years, something that could put her name in the books, and here was something dropped in her lap.

As tempting as it was to start trying to contact experts, she decided to be patient. All she had right now was a fast-growing plant that grew from seeds her sister found behind the fridge. Where had those come from anyway? She would have to be alert to find out. After all, it did no good for her to declare her discovery only to find that someone else had got there first.

She’d wait. Once she could get it reproducing, know the life cycle, grow second-generation plants, then it would be something to show. Until then, she would keep it quiet. The last thing she needed was someone trying to steal cuttings, and steal her thunder.

Bethany opened the window and smiled at the plant. “Just you wait, we’re going to be famous.” She closed her eyes, as it seemed to sing to her.

#

She named the shrub Nosferatu, after the vampire legend. It seemed to be more accurate than she had anticipated. Nosferatu was close to five feet by now, and sending out trailers for other shoots. In the process, it seemed to be weakening the other plants in her garden. Many were definitely showing signs of stress. Bethany wasn’t sure if it was because she had been so busy that she had been neglecting the rest of her beloved garden, or if Nosferatu was affecting the soil to get rid of competition. It wasn’t an uncommon means of plant warfare. Bethany made a mental note to get the soil tested. She would need that information anyway.

While staking some tomato plants, Bethany spotted Mrs Miller’s cat slip through the hedges into her yard. Irritated more than she knew the situation warranted, Bethany stood up to chase off the stalking feline. That was when she caught sight of Nosferatu’s creepers, reaching out to hunt the hunter.

Without a thought, Bethany scooped the cat up, ignoring the agitated tendrils waving about, and marched over to her neighbour’s door.

It took three rings for the middle-aged woman to answer. “Yes?” Then she saw the cat. “What are you doing with my Sebastian?”

Bethany opened her mouth, expecting her normal shyness to kick in, but it was drowned by anger. “Mrs Miller, I have asked you before to keep your cat out of my yard. He kills birds and squirrels, he digs up my plants and sometimes eats them, and is just generally a nuisance.”

“He’s just being a cat–“

“Well, his ‘just being a cat’ could get him killed!”

“Are you threatening my Sebastian? Let me tell you something, Missy–“

“I’m not threatening, I’m warning. Most of the chemicals I use are dangerous to animals, and lots of plants can be toxic if ingested. I just stopped him from investigating one myself.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t be planting poison, you witch!”

“Tulips are toxic if ingested, and I have a right to plant what I choose.” Bethany answered, eyes narrowed. She couldn’t remember the last time she had had such a bad altercation.

“It’s not tulips you’re worried about. It’s that ugly purple monstrosity, isn’t it?”

“Enough! Keep your cat out of my yard or I won’t be held responsible for the consequences.” Bethany stalked off, hearing singing in her ears as she tried to ignore the older woman’s muttering to her cat about the rude, nasty, crazy….

#

An hour later, Bethany was inside, cleaning, when she saw the cat slip back into her yard not far from the now almost-six-foot-tall plant. “Not my problem. I warned her and warned her. She should have listened. Even if I did stop him this time, he’d just keep coming until I wasn’t there to stop him.”

Bethany kept telling herself that, as she turned away to dust the mantle. She never looked back, not even when she heard the strangled meow, but she couldn’t stop a few tears from falling.

#

“Where’s my Sebastian? What have you done with him, you witch?” Mrs Miller demanded as she forced her way into Bethany’s garden, trampling on her hyacinths.

Bethany winced, though she wasn’t sure if it was over the cat or the flowers. “I’ve done nothing to him. I don’t go about deliberately hurting animals. Even irritating ones. Would you please not step on the flowers? I do have a walkway.” She indicated the stepping-stones, but wasn’t surprised that Mrs Miller ignored her.

“He never came home last night.”

“As you have pointed out, he is a cat. They”re pretty well-known for roaming.” She dug her trowel into the dirt with a little more force then necessary, trying to ignore the singing in her ears. It seemed to match her pulse. Both were getting faster.

“Not Sebastian. He never leaves the block. I know you did something.”

“Then you know incorrectly.” After all, she hadn’t done anything. It was Nosferatu. “Try an ad in the paper. Maybe someone will respond.”

“What happened to my Sebastian?” Mrs Miller grabbed her shoulder, acrylic nails digging in.

Bethany shook her off, perhaps a little harder than she needed to, before rising to her feet. “How should I know? If your cat got into trouble, it had nothing to do with me. Maybe he got into something he shouldn’t have. After all, curiosity killed the cat, didn’t it?” She regretted saying that the moment it left her mouth, but there was no help for it.

“He’s a good cat! The only one who ever complains about him is you! You with your oh-so-perfect garden, and purple monstrosities!”

Mrs Miller aimed a kick at Nosferatu before Bethany could stop her. As soon as her foot made contact, the nine-foot-tall plant attacked.

Bethany dashed forward, trying to rip away the creepers encircling the woman. They pulled at her hands, small thorns scratching her fingers, before the large leaves batted her down to the ground. Grabbing the trowel, she jumped up, hacking away at the creepers, but there were too many and they were too resilient.

Mrs Miller was unable to scream, because of the creepers around her neck, but her frightened eyes begged for help. Until she was entirely swallowed up.

Then the creepers twitched towards Bethany. She dropped the trowel and flew to the door, not stopping until she was inside and behind a locked door. Then she fell to the floor, sobbing.

This was too much. A plant that ate birds she could handle. Maybe even one that ate cats. But not people. Never people. She had to kill Nosferatu, before it got her or someone else. But how? What could she do? She couldn’t even think over the singing in her ears.

She wanted to call for help, the police, or even a lawn service, but it wouldn’t work. They would think she was crazy, or that she had killed Mrs Miller and was covering it up. She’d get locked up and Nosferatu would be free to devour at will. Bethany was on her own.

So what did she have? The trowel had barely scratched it, and she didn’t have a machete or a chainsaw. Her weed whacker probably wouldn’t work very well. Weed killer might or might not affect it, and would take too long. Fire might work, but all the ways she could think of to use it would be either incredibly inefficient or set the whole yard aflame.

All her tools were outside. But would any of them work? Maybe the hedge clippers. She could use that to get any creepers that came after her, and then get the plant at the root. From there she should be able to kill it with poison. Now, if she could only get the clippers quickly.

Bethany inched outside, her heart in her throat. Nosferatu looked calm and still, as if it hadn’t just killed one of her neighbours. She hated the plant. She had to hate it.

One hand found her hedge clippers, so she had to get closer. Pity she currently wanted to be a million miles away. A little closer. No creepers came at her. A little more. Could she reach the bottom from here? She had just decided to risk it, when she spotted a blossom. Before her eyes, the bud unfurled to become the most beautiful flower she had ever seen. Similar in shape to a tiger lily, it was white with a red stripe down the centre of each petal, freckled with tiny blue dots.

Bethany stared, transfixed by the flower, not noticing the creepers until they were at her face. But instead of grabbing her, they rustled in her ears, singing, giving her information. Telling her what she needed to know. How to care for the plant, and how often it needed its special fertiliser. The clippers fell from nerveless fingers. “I understand.”

#

Julie frowned at the phone. For the past month, her sister had been making excuses to keep Julie away. Julie had been suspicious but hadn’t felt the right to press. After all, she still saw Bethany, just not as often. But it was getting less often, and when she did see Bethany, she seemed to be acting very strange. Maybe it was time to get a little nosy.

“Hello?” Bethany answered the phone. Did she sound scared?

“Hey, Bethany? It’s Julie. How are you?”

“Julie? What? Oh, I’m fine.” There was a long pause. “And you?”

“I’m fine, but I’m a bit worried about you.”

“About me? I’m fine.” She answered so quickly the words ran together.

“Are you sure? You’re acting different.”

“I’m fine.”

“I haven’t been by in a while, why don’t I stop over?” Julie suggested, trying a different tack.

“No! No, you don’t want to do that. The house is…. Messy. Yeah, really messy.”

Julie blinked at that. Bethany was usually pretty organised. Yes, she had a higher tolerance for dust and dirt than Julie did, but this was still weird. “I don’t mind. Maybe I can help for a while.”

“No, it’s fine.”

She sighed. This was going nowhere. “Well, do you want to come here?”

“No, I’m busy.”

“Bethany, I’m coming over.” Julie hung up before her sister could respond. Something was clearly wrong with Bethany and she intended to find out what.

Her first clue was the ten-foot-tall purple-and-red plant taking over the yard. “Bethany? What is this?”

“You shouldn’t have come. I tried to keep you away, I really did.” Bethany walked out of the house, looking, grey, haggard and resigned.

“Bethany?” Julie whispered, unable to believe this zombie was her sister.

“Do you see the plant?”

“They can see it on satellite. What about it?”

“It’s carnivorous.”

Julie looked it up and down, trying to find the traps. “Like your pitcher plants?”

“No, they were passive, and only ate insects. Nosferatu here is active and likes bigger prey.”

A shudder ran down her back, but Julie pushed it away. “How big?”

“I discovered what was missing.” Her voice was inflectionless as she spoke. “It’s blood. Nosferatu woke up when it tasted blood. And now it wants more.”

“You’re scaring me.” Julie said.

“Not enough. Do you see the flowers?”

Julie looked at the white blossoms. “They’re beautiful.”

“They only grow after Nosferatu has eaten a person.”

“That-that’s impossible. There are five flowers. Y-you can’t tell me…” Julie sputtered.

“Mrs Miller was the first. Then a mail carrier. A gardener. Some dumb tourist who got too close, and then, this morning, a police officer looking into the disappearances.” The dry recitation, like reading a shopping list, made it worse than if she had shouted.

“Bethany…” Tell me you’re joking. Tell me you’re hallucinating, or have taken some kind of drug. Tell me anything, just don’t tell me this.

“I tried to keep you away. Keep you safe. But it’s too late now. It wants you. Your blood.”

Julie noticed the creepers out of the corner of her eye, and leapt over the table. In a less stressful time she would have wondered how she had managed that. The creepers were advancing towards her.

“There’s no point in fighting it. You can’t get away. Neither of us can,” the puppet disguised as her sister said.

“Bethany, you have to stop this!” Could she run inside?

“I can’t.” The words were final because Bethany watched as Julie ran.

“Yes, you can!” Julie shook her. “Snap out of it! How can we kill it?”

“We can’t.”

Julie growled, backed away and reached for the rake. She smacked away the next creeper that came towards her. And the next. But there were more and more. “Get inside!”

“Stop fighting, Julie,” Bethany said, trying to take the rake from her. “it’s just putting off the inevitable.”

“No!” Julie pushed her away. Bethany fell, scraping her arm against the concrete stepping-stones. The scent of blood filled the air. The creepers converged on Bethany in an instant.

Julie watched in horror as her sister was enveloped by the plant. “No!” Swinging the rake towards it, she stopped as another flower bloomed, bigger and more beautiful than the rest. Creepers rustled in her ears, singing, telling her what she needed to know.

“I understand,” Julie answered, letting the rake fall to the ground.

#

“Say, you’re Bethany Anderson’s sister, aren’t you?” An older woman asked. According to her name tag, she was one of the supervisors of the springtime flower show.

“That’s right. I’m Julie.”

“I’m so sorry about your sister. She’ll be greatly missed. Always a champion of the show.”

“I know. She was amazing. But plants were her passion. That’s why I’m here. I had to bring the last plant she was working on before her untimely death. It was… I won’t call it an obsession, but it was one she loved. I call it ‘Bethany’s Bliss’.”

“It’s certainly very unusual. Rather striking colouration.”

“Yes, I have some seeds that I’m giving to anyone who wants some.”

“Very generous of you. There are over one hundred horticulturists here. And even more guests.” She examined the purple-and-red plant. “Is it difficult to care for?”

“Not at all. In fact, it practically takes care of itself.”

“Do you know about the soil requirements? You see, I’m on my way back home to England, and that’s a different climate from here.”

“I have no idea, but there’s no harm in trying. Here, take some extras, you can give them out to your friends.” Julie all but forced the woman to take several envelopes.

“Thank you. I do hope it grows. It’s such a fascinating plant, and the flower is beautiful. It must have been almost painful to remove it.”

Julie smiled. “A little bit. But there are twelve more still on the plant.”


Author Bio:  H. J. Harding has been writing for more years than she cares to admit to. Previously, she has been published in ‘Living Waters Review’ and ‘Aoife’s Kiss’. She has a blog at http://hjhardingwrite.wordpress.com. She also hopes you enjoy the story and never have to worry about killer plants.

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One comment on “Bethany’s Bliss by H. J. Harding

  1. Pingback: Interveiwing your characters | H. J. Harding's Map to Wonder.

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