Apartment 29

Lyndsi Salvatore kept plants in her apartment. 

It began as a hobby, a way to keep herself sane while she job-hunted. She’d been fired from her job as a salesperson at Agilix Software, so she had a lot of free time. At first she job hunted, but as time wore on, she found herself going out less and less, sitting around in her apartment in her pajamas, watching crappy TV and eating junk food.

One day, when she was out on a routine grocery run, she passed a gardening store on Bascom Avenue. She thought, hey, what the hell, she’d go in and have a look; she had nothing but time on her hands. So she went in and came out with a snake plant (Sansivieria trifasciata), because she liked how it looked.

The next day, she stopped at the same store to get fertilizer. The man behind the counter talked her into buying an African Violet (Saintpaulia ionantha pendula), an Umbrella Plant (Schefflera arboricola), and a rubber plant (Ficus elastica).

The weeks turned into months and she was still jobless, living off her savings account and her parents’ money. Her apartment slowly filled with plants. First the main room was filled, then the bedroom and bathroom. Harsh California light filtered into her bedroom through the winding leaves of an English Ivy (Hedera helix), becoming soft and green. Her apartment was humid and full of the smell of plants. Sometimes she felt like she was breathing through a thick soup. Apartment 29 was filled with green, velvety-soft shadows.

To be honest, even though her savings account was rapidly shrinking, she liked having plants in her apartment. When she was eleven, Lyndsi’s parents took her and her two sisters on a vacation to Costa Rica, and they’d walked in the high cloud forests. The light and humidity in her apartment reminded her of that Costa Rican jungle, and her apartment was transfigured into a treasured childhood memory.

Even so, she was occasionally aware tha she had a problem.

“I feel like I’m turning into the neighborhood cat lady,” said Lyndsi to Yu-mei, her last friend from Agilix Software, as they ate lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Campbell. “Except that I’m not a cat lady. I’m a plant lady. My apartment is overrun with plants.”

Yu-mei was originally from Taiwan, and refused to eat Mexican food despite the fact that she had lived in California since childhood. Even so, she humored Lyndsi by nibbling tortilla chips and sipping a Mexican coke while Lyndsi ploughed through her chicken-and-nopales enchilada. “You know, having plants isn’t necessarily not a bad thing,” she said. “I mean, plants’ll never shit on your floor or puke on your furniture.”

Lyndsi took a sip of her draft Negro Modelo and licked the beer mustache off her upper lip. “I know. It still doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“Hey, did you hear about that case in Santa Cruz County where there was some mountain man who kept, like, thousands of cats in his trailer?” asked Yu-mei. “They were starving, ‘cause the guy who owned them fed them next to nothing. So they started eating each other. Eventually there were corpses all over the place, and the SPCA had to be sent in to clear away the bodies. The guy got serious jail time. I heard that one of the workers described it as a ‘feline mass grave’.”

“Wow,” said Lyndsi. “How could somebody live with so many cats?”

“Beats me. People do weird shit over the hill.”

Lyndsi cut a piece of enchilada with the side of her fork and spooned it into her mouth. “Well, I’m not that bad. You would never need to call plant protective services for my apartment.”

“Do they even have plant protective services?”

“I have no idea.”

Yu-mei took another sip of her Mexican coke. “So, what are you going to be doing later this week? Any job interviews lined up?”

“You know I don’t have any interviews, Yu-mei.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah. Getting fired from Agilix was the worst thing that ever happened to me. By the way– can you pay for lunch?”

“What? I thought we were going to go dutch!”

“Yeah, well, I’m almost broke. I’ve got about two hundred dollars left in my savings, and I’m pretty sure my parents are going to stop just letting me use them as an interest-free indefinite loan.”

“Oh. Well, if you insist, I can pay–”

“Plus I want to stop at that gardening store on Bascom on the way home. I want to get some fertilizer, and–”

“Oh my God, Lyndsi! You’re broke, and you’re thinking about buying plants?”

“Not plants. Plant-related parapharnalia.”

Yu-mei looked Lyndsi in the eye, and sighed. “Lyndsi, I was wrong: you have a serious problem. You’re broke and jobless. Stop buying plants, and plant-related parapharnalia, and anything other than what you need to survive. Do you understand me?”

Lyndsi sighed. “Fine. If you really want me to, I won’t go to the gardening store.”

“You have to promise me, Lyndsi.”

“Yeah. Okay. I promise.”

“Okay,” said Yu-mei. She smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ll get the bill. As a favor.”

But as she hugged Yu-mei goodbye, Lyndsi realized that she wasn’t going to keep her promise. She really needed fertilizer, and maybe a plant or two…

That gardening store on Bascom was great. They made their own special blend of fertilizer.

# # #

Jesús Ortiz wasn’t a violent man. Most white people assumed he was a gangbanger for several reasons: his tattoos, his shaved head, his baggy pants, and especially his brown skin. He understood their assumptions: he’d grown up in Salinas, where you usually had to be in a gang or be killed as a teenager. Somehow, Jesús had escaped the Salinas browns, joining the army after graduating and getting stationed in Japan (and gracias a Dios that he hadn’t waited two more years to join the army, because if he had, he’d probably have been sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, where he’d have been blown to bits by IEDs). He left the army in ’02, got a good job in San Jose, married a beautiful woman and had a son and daughter who were the apples of his eye. Jesús had spent most of his life challenging Gringolandia’s expectations of typical young Latino masculinity.

So it was ironic, thought Jesús, that he was mopping up his boss’s spilled blood and brains in the back room.

Jesús never wanted Mr. Anderberg dead. But it was out of his control. Mr. Anderberg had walked in on him and Tyler doing something nasty in the back room and went apeshit. He started yelling at the two of them that such acts in his store were completely forbidden, and that they were fired, so go to the break room immediately and get your stuff and leave. Jesús tried to calm Mr. Anderberg down, but Tyler pulled up his pants and started yelling at their boss. Suddenly something went wrong in his eyes. He picked up a shovel and smashed it over Mr. Anderberg’s head. The boss crumpled to the ground like a sack of fertilizer, and Tyler hit Mr. Anderberg over and over again. The boss’s skull cracked, and runny brain soup started to leak out.

At first Jesús wanted to call the cops. But Tyler had said, “Uh-uh, Ortiz. You think they’ll believe you? You gotta understand: if you even make a move towards the phone, then I’ll tell them you did it. Who do you think they’ll believe, huh? The Mexican guy with a shaved head and tattoos, or the white teenager who’s clean and good-looking?” He looked Jesús firmly in the eye. “You call the cops, and I’ll send you off to jail faster than you can say tu madre es una puta fea, Ortiz. You cooperate with me, and I’ll make sure nobody notices the body’s gone. You got me?”

Tyler went off to the hardware store and returned half an hour later with a brand new wood chipper. Jesús didn’t really want to think about what his psychotic coworker was going to do with it.

Jesús couldn’t believe he was doing this. He was so fucking pissed off at that goddamn white kid. Sure, Tyler came across nice and friendly, a typical California jock with clear skin and a smile glittering with braces, but the kid was a little crazy. More than a little, actually– he was batshit insane. He was– what had they called it in his high school psych class? A sociopath? Tyler liked to hurt things. Jesús had noticed it the first time they’d had sex, the way Tyler dug his sharp fingernails into Jesús’s skin. And the kid was angry. Jesús could see that. He was filled up with rage at the world, at his parents, his school, his job, his life. The amount of anger in that kid… Jesús didn’t know how Tyler coped with it.

Jesús finished cleaning up the boss’s blood and brains and went over to the sink to wash his hands. He looked down at his clothes and realized his pants were soaked with blood. Fortunately he’d brought another pair of jeans to work– when you worked in a garden supply store, you often went through multiple pairs of pants in the same day.

Jesús went to the break room and changed his pants. Then he took off his apron, and got a Pepsi from the minifridge. He sighed, running his hand across his stubbly scalp. Goddamn crazy white kids. He went out to the main room and took a sip of Pepsi.

The bell on the door jingled. Someone walked in.

“Hi,” said the customer, a thirty-something white woman who Jesús recognized as a regular– she was in Anderberg’s Seed and Garden maybe five times a week. “I know the sign on the door says ‘Closed’, but I saw you in here, so I thought I’d come in. Is Mr. Anderberg here? I need some of your homemade fertilizer.”

Mierda, thought Jesús. It was bad enough that he was an accomplice to murder, and that if somebody found out about it, he’d be arrested and thrown into San Quentin or Folsom in no time flat. Now he had to deal with crazy white bitches who had nothing better to do than come in and buy plants. But he had to make everything seem normal.

Jesús attempted to smile cheerfully. “I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said. “But Mr. Anderberg is on vacation in Hawaii. He left just this morning. And the store is closed.”

The woman smiled, that friendly but condescending smile that white people used towards anyone brown. “He’s in Hawaii? Lucky. If it’s okay, I just want to get a bag of fertilizer. Can you do that for me? Just ring up a bag. I mean, you’re here, and I’m here. Please?”

Jesús had had a trying day. But he at least attempted to appease the woman. “Fine. Okay. I think my coworker has just finished making a fresh batch of fertilizer. I’ll go see what I can do. I you could please wait here…?”

The woman smiled. “Excellent. Thank you.”

The moment the white woman turned her back, Jesús facepalmed and muttered curses under his breath. He went out back, where Tyler was indeed mixing a fresh batch of fertilizer. He was dumping a vast quantity of pink slime in with the fish scales, compost, bison dung, and other material that usually went into making Anderberg’s Homemade Fertilizer.

“What are you doing?” cried Jesús.

Tyler looked up, his bright blue eyes looking especially malicious and gleeful. He had a cigarette clamped firmly between his teeth, and he was smiling. “Disposing of the evidence. What do you think I’m doing?”

“Idiot! You’re mixing Mr. Anderson in with the fertilizer!”

Tyler nodded. “Yeah. Easiest way to avoid detection. We bag up the fertilizer with the boss mixed in with it. That way, we avoid having the body in one piece. Keeps the cops from getting suspicious. Avoids getting you arrested, or sent back to Guadalamaja or some shit like that.”

I’m not an illegal immigrant, thought Jesús angrily. I was born in California, dammit. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Aren’t there CSIs or something who can track the fertilizer?”

Tyler took a drag on his cigarette. “Yeah. Sure. You think that the cops will send a full forensics team out here, like on Law & Order or something?” He grinned. “Face it, amigo, three people go missing in Santa Clara County every day. You think the cops can fully investigate everybody?”

Jesús scowled. He was contemplating commiting a capital crime for the second time that day– and this time, he’d be holding the shovel.

Tyler put the squishy, slimy fertilizer through the bagging machine. “Now, I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with that nice lady inside.” The first bag of fertilizer plopped down on the ground. “So why don’t you go take this bag out to her and ring her up?” He blew smoke through his nostrils, making him look like especially demonic. “And be quick. I need your help bagging this stuff afterwards. Hop to it, scrap.” And he hefted another load of fertilizer into the bagging machine.

Visions of bloody murder flashed through Jesús’ head as he carried the bag of fertilizer to the white woman. She was admiring a plant over in the corner. When she saw Jesús, she looked up and grinned. “Perfect. Thank you so much. So– how much is this going to be?”

Jesús dumped the bag of Anderberg-enhanced fertilizer on the ground at the woman’s feet. “No charge, ma’am. And take that plant you’re looking at, too.”

The woman’s face lit up. “Thank you! Are you sure that’s okay?”

A vein in Jesús’s head throbbed. “Just consider it a reward for being such a good customer.” He smiled again. “Let me help you take that to your car.”

# # #

Lyndsi left Anderberg’s Seed and Garden and headed back to her house. She was feeling pretty good. The nice man behind the counter had given her a bag of fertilizer for free, as well as a brand-new spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum). Since Lyndsi was down to her last couple hundred bucks, she wanted to save as much money as possible.

She came home, and noticed that the number 9 in the address on her door had come loose and fallen onto her tatty WELCOME mat. She sighed, and made a mental note to talk with the super about fixing it. She unlocked the door and stepped in. Her apartment was green and inviting, a veritable jungle. The afternoon light shone in, turned green by the English Ivy (Hedera Helix) that grew across the windows. The air was rich with the smell of growing things.

“Hey, babies,” Lyndsi said cheerily. “How’s it going? Do you want some nice fertilizer? Huh?” She put the bag in the corner, and gently stroked the petals of a wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) that grew in a pot in her kitchenette. “I got some for you guys. Your favorite. Would you like that?”

When Lyndsi opened the bag of fertilizer, she noticed it smelled funny. Hmm. Maybe they were using a new formula or something.

Lyndsi filled a small bucket to the brim with fertilizer and went to work. She went up and down her apartment, filling pots with new fertilizer, watering plants, misting their leaves, spraying them with insect repellent, hanging the new spider plant from in the kitchenette. She tended to her plants like a mother to her children. She. As she worked, she played ‘90s rock music, since she knew that music helped plants grow, and she had a preference for the Smashing Pumpkins.

Lyndsi thought about how many plants she had. She lived in a three-room apartment: a combination living room/kitchenette, a cramped bedroom/office, and a tiny bathroom. To properly care for the plants took five whole hours. By the time she was done, the sun was setting over downtown San Jose. She felt tired and hungry, so she went into the kitchen and made dinner (DiGiorno frozen pizza), then sat down in front of the TV with a glass of two-buck wine. She turned the TV on and watched the latest reality show on E! (plastic rich bitches complaining about their boyfriends and stabbing each other in the back) until night came. When she finished her pizza, she went the the freezer and got a tub of ice cream. She had another glass of wine, and then another, until she fell asleep on the couch, clutching the melting tub of ice cream to her chest as she slept.

# # #

And in the night, Lyndsi’s plants grew…

# # #

Lyndsi woke in a bleary haze, her head swimming as she surfaced from a strange and unsettling dream. She moaned, looking up to the ceiling and putting a hand to her forehead. Shit. She felt like crap.

After a second or so of confusion, she realized that she was holding onto a melted container of ice cream. It suddenly came to her– she’d fallen asleep on the couch last night and hadn’t even bothered to put the ice cream back in the freezer. She groaned, and tried to smack her forehead with the heel of her palm.

She couldn’t move.

Lyndsi was stuck to the couch, bound with what felt like strong rope. She cried out and thrashed around, but she couldn’t escape. She was trapped like a damsel in an old-timey melodrama, tied to the railroad tracks and left to await an oncoming express train. She thrashed and struggled. The ropes tightened around her, cutting off circulation. Mustering all her strength, she ripped free from her bonds with a grunt, pulled up and off the couch, and banged her forehead on the coffee table as she fell to the floor.

Lyndsi stood, her head throbbing with pain. She touched her forehead and realized she was bleeding. Then, for the first time since she woke up, she looked around her.

Her plants had grown during the night. When she’d fallen asleep, they’d been neatly trimmed and orderly. Not a single frond was out of place, not a leaf was too big or small. Now the plants were huge, wild, untamed. Above her head, a golden yellow-flowered Dendrobium (Dendrobium chrysanthum) drooped, its flowers swollen and pendulous, like massive drooling tongues. The walls were covered with English ivy (Hedera helix), as well as the windows. In the corner, a common prickly pear (Opuntia monacantha) bristled with spikes. It had grown enormous, stretching up to the ceiling and tripling in girth. The leaves of her umbrella plant (Schefflera arboricola), one of the first plants she’d ever bought, had grown to two feet in width. Her friendly-looking Weeping Fig’s (Ficus benjamina) leaves had turned so dark they almost seemed to be Gothic black. And off in the kitchen, a Spanish Dagger Yucca (Yucca gloriosa) had grown huge white flowers, and its gray-green leaves were like knives.

“My god,” murmured Lyndsi. “What the hell was in that fertilizer?”

Something gently stroked the bleeding gash on her temple where she had banged her head. It was as gentle as a lover’s caress, and sent spasms of pain through her head and down her spine. She swore and stepped backwards. Above her, hanging down from a pot on the ceiling, was the drooping, yellow-green frond of a Boston Fern (Nephrolepis Bostoniensis). The end of the frond was covered with blood. Her blood.

The fern moved again, trying to touch her forehead a second time. She screamed and swatted it away. It paused, almost as if startled, then slapped her full-on in the face. Lyndsi felt a second blow as the leaf of a rubber plant (Ficus elastica) hit her on the back of the head. Normally, a rubber leaf slapping her wouldn’t have hurt. But this rubber leaf was as thick as a full-grown man’s hand– and it didn’t pull its punches. Lyndsi swiveled around to face it. The Boston Fern grabbed her hair and pulled her close.

Having her hair pulled hurt like hell, and Lyndsi’s temple was already stinging with hot pain. Blood was weeping down her forehead and getting into her eyes. She pulled away. What seemed like half the hair on her scalp ripped free of the Boston Fern’s grasp.

Lyndsi bolted for the door of her apartment. As she ran, the quivering leaves of a Parlor Palm (Chamaeadora elegans) slashed her in the upper arm. The leaves of the palm were as sharp as a serrated bread knife, and she cried out as it cut through skin and muscle. She grabbed the doorknob and tried to open it, but some wandering tendrils of English Ivy (Hedera helix) had gotten into the mechanism that allowed the knob to turn. She tried to bash it open, but the strands of ivy that covered the door grabbed onto her clothes, holding her to the door. She pulled free, and leaves of ivy clung to her clothes like little grasping hands.

Her bedroom window, then. She sprinted to the bedroom, but the window was held by ivy shut as tightly as the door had been. She tried to force the window open, to escape her apartment, so she could call the police or get a canister of Agent Orange or anything, when something grabbed her leg. She looked down. It was the blade of a snake plant (Sansevieria trifasciata), wrapped around her ankle and holding her down. She tried to rip free, but more and more snake plant leaves wrapped around her leg, holding her tighter and tighter. She screamed as loudly as possible. “Help!” she yelled. “Somebody help me!

The massively elongated stem of a foxtail cactus (Mammillaria pottsii) clubbed her in the back of the head. She fell unconscious, collapsing to the floor.

# # #

Lyndsi awoke in a pool of green light. The sun had moved, and it was late afternoon. Light shone directly through her west-facing window, passing through the tangle of foliage and shining into her eyes. She felt exactly like she was in a jungle now: the air was hot and humid, and thick with pollen. However, unlike the Costa Rican cloud forests, everything was eerily silent. Even the sound of passing cars was muffled.

Lyndsi tried to move, but couldn’t. She was tied to the ground again. The long leaves of her snake plant had wrapped three times around her face, making a tight gag that kept her from shouting. She could feel her heart pounding. With every heartbeat, a fresh white-hot bolt of pain streaked through her head, nearly blinding her. She’d lost a lot of blood. Everything on the right side of her face felt like one giant bloodstain. She was dizzy and faint. She had to get to a hospital, but she was too sluggish and tired to move, much less break free of her bonds. Lyndsi felt like a fly in a spider’s web, wrapped in a coccoon of silk.

She felt the gentle touch of a creeping root on her forehead, feeling the blood. She flinched, but couldn’t move away. Slowly Lyndsi realized that the root was drinking her blood.

Lyndsi started to cry. She was completely trapped.

As the root drank, it went deeper and deeper into her head wound. She could feel it moving slowly underneath her skin, down her cheek and into her neck. There was a not-unpleasant sucking sensation as the root drank her blood. More roots entered her, breaking her skin with sharp little pinpricks. She shuddered as she felt them moving inside her, slowly drinking her blood up from the inside, like someone slurping the last bit of milkshake out of a glass. Her skin tightened as the roots of the plants– her plants– consumed her, spreading through her limbs, entering her chest and moving through her veins and arteries. Finally, as she slipped into final darkness, she felt a gently-questing root touch her heart, squeezing it and drinking deep of her life’s water.

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