“The Guardian of Flora” “The earth laughs in flowers.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson “I must have flowers, always, and always.” ~ Claude Monet Chapter One “Awww, dammit!” Maggie cursed and stumbled to the hard, desert ground. She landed on all fours. Pointy rocks dug into the fleshy parts of her palms. It seemed wearing shorts had been a dumb idea - despite the unusual heat and mugginess making it hard to breathe - because her bare, knobby knees had rocks jabbing into them, too. Her ankle was already voicing its displeasure. And was it already starting to swell? She could see it was. “Dammit!” she said again. She rolled onto her fanny, rested her forearms on her kneecaps and swiped a trickle of sweat from her forehead. Her face was filmed; dark bangs clung unpleasantly to her skin. This part of the hike wasn’t particularly treacherous; she walked it nearly every day. It just required more carefully placed steps since the ground wasn’t always even. But she was more fatigued than usual because of the dense air. And despite the shorts, she was overheating and light headed – which wasn’t like her. Maggie had come a long way since her first hike in these hills; back when she could barely go a quarter mile without wheezing and puking. But she was fit as a fiddle now; strong both in the flesh and in her lungs. Still, the tumble had been a nasty one. Her left ankle, the weaker of the two, had kinked over on the loose, wet gravel, and down she went - like tower of Jenga pieces. The left shoe of her good hiking boots, the new ones, were MIA this morning, so she’d pulled on these beaten up boots; boots that should’ve been trashed long ago instead of buried at the back of her closet under old sneakers and mismatched flip-flops. These went way beyond the term broken-in. The buttery soft leather was flimsy with no support. Her swollen ankle just confirmed that. The ground wasn’t exactly wet, but the surface was damp from the sudden storm last night. It had come from out of nowhere; no clouds, no thunder, no warning. Maggie had been watching a movie in bed when the skies simply opened up and dumped an ocean of rain onto her little house. And just as the first raindrops hit her rooftop, an intense flash of lightening lit up her entire room like a dozen ginormous spot lights aimed right through her window. Judging by the brightness, it struck close to home. Luckily, the land surrounding her house didn’t have much to catch fire when random lightening struck. Rock and dirt weren’t exactly flammable. The rain though… it had fallen so quickly, so forcefully that the wooden barrel Maggie kept parked near the shed was over half full by the time it stopped. And that was the other thing; it stopped just as it had started - suddenly and without warning. As if someone, perhaps God, had simply turned off a spigot. The ground, having been denied rainfall since early spring, sopped it right up. Just not apparently the path she’d just slipped on. The gravel here was still slick with moisture, and the soles of these boots were worn as smooth as a babe’s cheek; no traction. “Not too smart wearing these – was it, Simon?” Maggie asked the black and white, seventy five pound love of her life. She had found Simon on the lonely stretch of road between town and her property almost nine years ago, when he was a pup. What he was doing way out here where no people lived, she hadn’t a clue. But dogs sneak out of doors, they jump fences and get out of yards; they just plain get lost. And what was even worse; on this kind of road the truly wicked will simply shove an unwanted pet out their car door and drive off, uncaring if they’re hit by a car, eaten by a coyote, or die of starvation. Maggie hated those people. Without even knowing them, she hated them. Her personal belief was that many of those lost or abandoned animals crossed countless miles to get to where they should be; to the humans that needed them. She believed that’s how she and Simon came together; because someone upstairs knew she needed him and sent him on a journey to find her. That’s what she believed, anyway - and they’d been inseparable ever since. Simon was a step or two ahead, sniffing the ground, his fluffy tail, pert and upright. He stopped and turned to look down at her quizzically, then trotted over to lick her face. Maggie giggled and ran her fingers through the long mane around his neck. He sat, head tilted, awaiting a command. “I guess this means we should head back, don’t you?” Maggie said with a sigh, and poked a finger into her puffy ankle. Just then a loud “clunk” followed by a shuffling sound came from the narrow valley they were headed toward before she fell. They turned toward it; Maggie a little uneasily. In all the years she’d hiked these hills, she’d always felt perfectly safe as long as Simon was with her. Her dog had saved her once from a rattle snake and another time from a bobcat. There was no telling what else he had scared away over the years just by virtue of being present. She knew he had her back and trusted him implicitly. Simon meant safety. Maybe that was too much pressure to put on a four legged creature, but there it was. They lived thirty seven miles past the nearest gas station signifying the outskirts of Canyon Ridge, Nevada - population 352. From there, her driveway – a dirt road with a camouflaged entrance of Joshua Trees and strategically placed boulders – went another two miles. She had planned it that way. This land was private – all twelve hundred acres of it. Nobody came out this way unless they were coming to see her, and nobody did that. In fact; Maggie kept a post office box in town, something she checked every couple of weeks, so that even the mailman didn’t have to drive out. There was only one road that led to her house, and Maggie couldn’t recall the last time a car that wasn’t hers had driven it. That road led to her sanctuary, her paradise, the place she’d run to almost nine years ago - away from the dangers of people and the hazards they bring with them. She surrounded herself with those she trusted - and they all came covered in fur or feathers. So during their daily mid morning hikes, Maggie knew they were alone. Or rather she knew she was the only human around. She expected to see little critters - desert mice, lizards, birds and the like - scampering about, and they were just fine by her. She loved the idea of them living their innocent, simple lives nearby, and seeing them made her almost believe that sometimes things could be right in the world. But the sound just now wasn’t from a little critter. It had the weight of a heavy foot kicking a hefty rock, and then… dragging something. Only a few things out here could make that kind of sound; a person or a large animal, like a coyote or mountain lion. It was the wrong time of day for coyotes, so she was fairly certain it wasn’t that. Maggie knew mountain lions roamed these hills, although she’d never seen one before. For that she was grateful. She didn’t know if Simon stood much of a chance against one of the big cats. With that mental picture in her head, she was suddenly worried he would take off after the noise. “Stay here boy.” she told him. He stayed in ‘sit’ position, looking at her, but turned back toward the valley when they heard the sound again, this time louder. Maggie was getting deep-down nervous now. The noise seemed deliberate; attention seeking. When they heard it a third time, Simon took off running. “Simon, Come!” Maggie called after him, but he was gone. She could hear him running through more gravel, the sound getting fainter the further away he got. “C’mon boy…let’s go get a treat!” she yelled, trying the ‘flies with honey’ approach. But all she heard was silence. “Come, Simon!” she said sternly, and struggled to her feet. She leaned heavily on her good leg, wincing when she put any weight on the other. Then Simon barked, clearly alarmed, and all Maggie’s pain was forgotten. Hands flailing, she managed a kind of walk-jog toward him. “Stay!” she shouted, fearful he’d already been bitten by a snake or attacked by the phantom mountain lion. By the time she reached him, he was standing perfectly still, ears alert, and staring at a little green plant covered with yellow flowers. It was less than twelve inches tall and growing all by itself in a deep crack near the base of a boulder. Its stem stood straight and tall, as if reaching for the sun. Except for the little pile of dead leaves near its base, it was the picture of botanical health - literally bursting with life. It was weird and gorgeous at the same time; weird because nothing wild that looked like it grew out here. In this part of the dessert – even Joshua Trees and cactus were few. Something with lush green leaves and bright yellow flowers was nonexistent. Maggie made her way over to Simon. He glanced up as she approached, but turned his attention back to the plant as soon as she knelt down. He was totally focused, as if expecting it to run and prompt a game of chase. The same way he tried to convince the lizards outside her house that all he wanted was to play tag. Oh, they would run, but it was pretty clear; they weren’t at all interested in his games. Simon didn’t know the difference, though. They ran, he chased; simple as that. “What’cha got there, little man? What’s this lovely thing doing all the way out here?” she said, and stroked the fur along his back. Looking at it up close, she suddenly found herself becoming kind of stuck - like the way her eyes sometimes locked onto a spot in space, unable to look away. Like daydreaming, but not really. She was lost in the yellow flowers, thinking how beautiful they were when she realized they were moving… sort of. The plant was trembling. And the trembling seemed to send a wonderful honeysuckle scent into the air that enveloped and made her dizzy. A dreamy smile danced across her face and her eyelids went slack. She turned to find Simon already on his belly, looking drowsy with his head on his paws. All of Maggie’s movements, no matter how meager, felt like moving underwater. She had a ridiculous, overwhelming need to rest her head and take a nap. “I’m s-so tired…” she muttered, noticing how her voice sounded; like she were two hours into a double dose of Benadryl after a really nasty allergy attack. Her tongue felt fat and lazy and like it needed a nap, too. She rolled onto her side and laid her head on Simon’s fur, a little surprised he accepted the full weight of it on his arthritic hip. She simply didn’t have the energy to hold it up a second longer. And Simon didn’t seem to have the energy to object. “Okay, we’ll sleep, but…only…f-f-for a m-minute…” she murmured into his fur, and then she was out. Chapter Two Maggie awoke with her cheek in the dirt and something wet flinging across her face. She swatted at it, still half asleep, and her hand smacked into something narrow and fuzzy with a wet nose. Simon was awake and standing over her, tail wagging in a tic-tock, metronome fashion. His face was intense and his body language, all business; “Let’s go!” it said. She brushed away bits of rock that were stuck to her skin and pushed into a sitting position. Leaning forward, she started to get up her when her foot erupted in pain. Her ankle, in the light of the almost setting sun (how long have I been out?) looked ripe and purple, like the glossy skin of an Eggplant. Shit. How am I going to get home now? she thought, annoyed. Maggie looked over at the plant as she got awkwardly to her feet. Seeing it brought something to the front of her mind, a dream she must have had while she was out. A single thought kept repeating itself - four words whispered from a dormant part of her brain. Take me with you, it said. She looked hard at it, at the flowers, expecting to see it tremble again. It didn’t. Had she really seen what she thought she saw, though? She didn’t know now. Then she remembered the smell… that sweet, sweet smell. Take me with you. Take me with you. Take me with you. Take me… The words were a steady stream of conscious thought that bounced down the corridors of her mind. She shook her head as if to clear water from her ears. Could she still be dreaming? Or maybe she was still hallucinating, if that was what this was. She had an overstuffed and bloated feeling in her bones, as if she’d just come out of surgery. “Arf! Arf!Arf!” Simon barked his “look at me!” bark and started down the path toward home. He was nearly ten feet away and stopped to look back. When she continued to ignore him, he barked again, very loudly, insistently. “Arf!Aarf!Arf!Arf!”, he said, stomping his front paws at the ground. Then he spun, stomped again, and barked again. “ARF! Arf! Arf!” She could see he wanted her to follow. Take me with you. Take me with you, she heard, over and over again. Maggie’s eyes were drawn back to the yellow flowers and green leaves. It looked different in the setting sun; wilted and sort of sad. The blooms were droopy, as if drying up. She limped over and felt around its base, surprised to find it so loosely attached to the ground. Without thinking, she wrapped her fingers around it and gave a gentle tug. It came out as easily as a day old dandelion, almost as if it had loosened itself for her. Not sure what else to do now that she’d uprooted it, and knowing it would die if she left it on the ground (which seemed mean, since it had been resilient enough to grow all the way out here) – she wrapped it in the long sleeved T-shirt she had tied around her waist. She knotted the arms, draped it around her neck, and slung it over her back to keep her hands free during her walk home. Simon was noisily running in circles around her. She could’ve sworn he snapped at her back, but that couldn’t be right. He was never aggressive, and certainly never toward her. “Heyzeus, Simon! Could you give it a rest?” she scolded. His barking was more than her ears could take. She had a thrumming headache at the base of her skull, as if somebody had taken a rolling pin to it. But her headache aside, the last thing they needed was to draw attention to their location. Coyotes would begin trolling the area soon; the sun was beginning to settle and a loudly barking dog would carry. She took a few timid steps, testing her ankle. It was painful but okay. She lumbered forward clumsily, but found a rhythm that oddly reminded her of a song from the seventies. Suddenly she could hear Rita Coolidge’s “Shadows in the Moonlight” each time a foot hit the ground and began humming the melody. And since no one was out here to hear what a God-awful singer she was, after several steps, she opened her mouth and sang the words. Simon looked up at her while keeping pace with her stilted gait, glancing warily at the thing on her back every so often. Eventually he dropped into ‘heel’ and stayed there the rest of the way home. Chapter Three It was long past dusk by the time a tired Maggie and Simon trudged to her backdoor. She unlocked it, dropped the tee-shirt wrapped plant (which now looked more wilted and sad than ever) into the kitchen sink and hobbled to her recliner in the den. Falling heavily onto the leather seat, she pulled off her boots, taking extra care with the one on her bad leg. Then she made her way back to the sink to unwrap the plant. It dropped into an upside down “U” as soon as she stood it up. If it wasn’t already dead, it was close to it. Why had she bothered bringing this thing with her? She couldn’t remember now. She walked it to the trash can and pressed the floor lever with her good foot. Suspended in midair, she was ready to drop in when those words came back to her. Perhaps it was just a memory from earlier, an echo of what she’d dreamed while in the desert, but something about them made her stop. Take me with you, it had said. Instead of trashing it, she grabbed a large vase from above the refrigerator, filled it with water and plopped the plant in. She put it on a table in the three season sunroom between the kitchen and den. Then she flipped the lights off and headed toward the hallway. She was exhausted. Today had been one for the books; a twisted ankle and napping in the desert (and what was that about, anyway?) - all she wanted was to crawl between clean sheets and fall asleep. Hobbling to her bedroom, she realized she’d forgotten something; something important. Everyone needed to eat. How could she forget that? Maggie’s life revolved around her furry family members. Since she was an only child and both her parents had passed, her pets were the only living, breathing beings on earth she was connected to. But she was feeling pretty out of it since her hike, so maybe that was why she blanked. More sleep and a good night’s rest; a night to recharge was what she needed. She’d get the feeding done quickly and then rest. She flipped the light back on and went to the pantry. As soon as the familiar creak of the pantry door sounded, they all knew. Samson-the-cat came running down the hallway; a long winded meow bounced out of him as he rushed into the kitchen. Desi and Lucy, her Peach-faced lovebirds flapped their wings and made soft, cheerful noises from their condo-birdcage in the sunroom. Chester, her tan and white teddy bear hamster that also lived in the sunroom, dismounted the wheel where he’d been engaged in his evening aerobics. He stretched up tall against the glass of his one hundred twenty gallon enclosure, sniffing the air. And then there was Simon, already sitting patiently, watching his master and waiting for his bowl to be filled. Maggie took from the pantry shelf a tall Tupperware container designed for breakfast cereal. In her home it was full of bird seed. From beside it she grabbed the short zippered foil bag that read CAREfresh Complete Hamsters & Gerbils. She would need more soon; it was only a third full. She measured half a cup of each into Chester’s and Desi and Lucy’s bowls, returned the containers to the pantry, and then from the pantry floor, she dug into two bigger bags; one with Simon’s dog food (Nutrish, it read, a picture of a grinning Rachel Ray and her pittie-pooch, Isaboo, on the front), and a smaller yellow and purple bag of Meow Mix for Samson, her Maine Coon. Each of their bowls got a cup of kibble. Then Maggie waddled around filling water bowls from the glass pitcher she kept on the counter. She poured herself a glass and shook four Advil out of the economy sized bottle she kept next to the coffee maker. At the last minute she grabbed a slice of plastic wrapped Kraft American Cheese from the refrigerator’s lunchmeat drawer. She gulped down the Advil, unwrapped the cheese, trashed the plastic, and took a big bite as she turned the lights back off. Lastly, she went into the den and picked up the hiking books she’d worn that morning. She grabbed both with her free hand, walked them to the trash bin and did what she should’ve done long ago; she opened the lid and dropped them in. Although she was beat, (I must be coming down with something, she thought. Why else would she be so tired?) she knew she should shower if she didn’t want to drag desert sand into bed with her. She’d fallen asleep on the ground, after all. And for Maggie, there was nothing worse than the feeling of sand on her sheets. That meant a filthy bed, and a filthy bed meant danger. It was better to not risk it and just shower now. She turned the shower tap on and stripped down to her birthday suit while the water got hot. Seeing her reflection in the mirror, she removed the elastic hair band and released black, wavy hair. There was a permanent, deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes, and a constant worry in her brow. Do I really look like this? she thought sadly. How did this terrified little mouse become me? The thing was - she knew how. And she knew she could never go back to being the woman she had been all those years ago. That Maggie was gone; forever gone. “No use thinking about any of that now”, she said to her reflection. It never did any good; thinking didn’t change a thing. She stepped under the warm jets, lathered a pink, brand new bar of Caress into a bath sponge and scrubbed vigorously all over, taking extra care around her injured ankle. There was no broken skin, but it was still swollen and tender. When her body was a mask of white suds, she shampooed her hair and then stood under the pulsating Shower Massage jets, rinsing her hair and body at the same time. After toweling off, she slipped her double-extra-large Got Guitar? tee-shirt over her head. It was soft and roomy and her favorite sleep gear. Maggie had ordered it from Amazon.com on impulse, just because she thought it was clever and looked cool. She had always liked those Got Milk? ads. She thought they were clever, too. But Maggie didn’t know the first thing about playing guitar – had never even held one in her hands before. Luckily, there was nobody here to think what a big fat pretentious liar she was for wearing it. She brushed with her Braun electric toothbrush (the greatest invention ever, she thought) then padded off to her bedroom and flipped off the light. After the long, strange day, there were no words to describe her childlike bliss as she slipped between the cool, freshly laundered eighteen-hundred-thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, another Amazon.com purchase. The comforting smell of Clorox Bleach - what she washed all of her sheets and towels in - floated through the air as she adjusted and fluffed them. Mmmmm… Maggie loved the smell of bleach. Something about it said “I am safe because I am clean.” She wondered when that had become true; when the smell of bleach had translated into safety. Her mind was skipping toward the answer when it took a detour as she caught the whiff of sweet honeysuckle. It seemed to crawl along the airwaves, invading her cells. She was thinking how lovely it was when she dropped into a dreamless sleep. Chapter Four Maggie awoke the next day with a marked heaviness in her limbs. Her arms seemed made of lead, and her temples throbbed. Simon was standing beside her bed, his tail thwacking loudly against the frame. She managed to pull an arm out from under the covers, but it felt like it’d gained twenty pounds in the night. She reached across and anchored her fingers in Simon’s fur. “Gotta pee, boy?” she asked sleepily. Turning her aching head, she noticed Samson wasn’t on the pillow next to hers. He wasn’t curled into his tight ball, the way he was every morning. “Where’s Samson? Have you seen that kitty cat?” she asked Simon, ruffling his fur. He answered with more tail thwacking. “Okay, I’ll get up…” she groaned, and dragged her feet to the floor. Totally forgetting about her injury, she tried to stand up. An explosion of pain shot through her ankle and landed in her throat, sending her reeling back onto the bed. After she caught her breath, she lifted her leg to examine it, shocked at the rainbow of colors a twisted ankle could produce; purple, red, and orange, and twice its normal size. She should have iced and wrapped it before bed last night; she realized that now. But she had been so tired. All she could think about was sleep. With most of her weight on the good leg, she tottered to the back door. Simon dashed out as soon as she cracked it open, making a b-line for the shaded grassy patch on the side of the house that Maggie kept watered and green just for him. Normally by now Samson would have scampered into the room to weave his customary figure eight between her feet before feeding time. Where was he? She made her way into the kitchen where she dumped two scoops of Folgers Cinnamon Swirl into the coffee maker. Then she began the morning ritual of feeding her kids. She liked calling them that. It made them feel like the family members she meant them to be. She had Hamster kibble and bird seed in each hand, but stopped short as she came into the sunroom. The plant she’d put in the pitcher of water, the same plant that had been at death’s door last night… it wasn’t just alive - it was thriving! It was easily a foot taller than last night, and the blossoms – blossoms that were shriveled and papery just hours earlier – they were a smooth, yellowy orange, just a shade before the color of tangerine sherbet. Not only that, the stem was thick and solid, and the leaves; a deep, rich, velvety green. The pitcher itself was bone dry; every drop of water gone. Must have needed the water, Maggie reasoned. It must have been literally starving for it while in the desert. But that didn’t make sense since it’d looked so lush and vibrant when she and Simon first came upon it. By the time she’d awakened from her nap, though (and why did I do that again?) - it hadn’t looked so hot. She went to it now and ran her fingers along the soft, hardy leaves, getting a closer look at the flowers themselves. She hadn’t done that yesterday. She’d gotten sleepy too quickly. They were like lilies, only unlike any she’d ever seen, and Maggie considered herself quite the horticulturalist; for a layman, anyway. She’d discovered, since moving to the desert, that she had quite the green thumb. Plants responded to her for some reason. She didn’t understand why – especially why she was successful in a desert, for cryin’ out loud - but she loved taking care of them and loved the results even more. Learning about desert flowers had brought an entirely new dimension to her world, and her vegetable garden was a godsend. Her secret was really good soil - the kind that came in big, plastic bags from the hardware store. And water… lots and lots of water. The well she had dug when she bought the property had been very good to her. These flowers were a puzzle, though. They were bell shaped like a lily and each petal had a rippled edge lined with tiny fibers. The flowers had been decent sized yesterday, but today they were the size of a Casablanca Lily, only prettier – which was saying a lot since Casablanca’s were Maggie’s favorite. She didn’t remember the color being quite this rich and intense either. It had been bright and cheerful, like a daffodil. Looking into the throat of the flower, she could see tinges of red deep down, toward the stamen. The red looked almost liquid. Just then she heard a muted ‘Marf!’ from Simon at the back door. She walked over and opened it, and to her surprise, Samson followed him in. He instantly began weaving between her feet. “How did you get out there, Mr. Man?” she asked, and reached down to pick him up. He began purring as soon as he heard her voice. She lifted him face level and kissed the top of his head with a loud smack, and then carried him into the kitchen. Suddenly Maggie was famished. Going to bed with nothing but Advil and a little cheese had left her starving; she’d only had a small bowl of oatmeal before her hike yesterday. A cheesy omelet with crisp bacon and toast would be just the ticket. But first she needed to finish feeding the kids. With Samson cradled in one arm, she was busy dumping bird seed into Desi and Lucy’s bowl when she realized there was no sound from Chester’s enclosure. She wasn’t hearing his early morning work-out on his wheel. Typically, as soon as the sun lit the sky, he was on that wheel, going as fast as he could - as if racing toward an invisible finish line he would never reach. She looked down into the topless enclosure and saw that it was empty. Samson’s little nose twitched as he leaned over and sniffed at some dried up leaves that had somehow blown under the wire wheel. Then he stretched his nose toward the plant, sniffing some more. Maggie had never bothered putting a cover on Chester’s home. She left it open so that he didn’t feel too caged in. She suffered serious bouts of claustrophobia and freely admitted to projecting that onto her pets. So she wanted Chester to feel he could stretch his tiny legs out… zoom around, do some laps if the desire struck. Somehow, though, he had found a way out. Did he climb on top of his aerobic wheel and get over the glass edge? That didn’t seem possible. There was nothing tall enough to get him on top of that wheel, and it would just spin and spin if he tried to climb up the outside of it. The glass walls themselves were too high for his little five inch body to reach over, even if he were stretched to the max from the top of that wheel. Samson, suddenly squirmy, jumped out of her arms and darted down the hallway. Maggie looked from the hamster-apartment to his receding tail as he ran toward the bedroom and caught herself wondering; is that guilt? Do cats feel guilt? Is he the reason Chester was missing? Samson had always been very sweet with her little rodent, even snuggling next to him as they both napped on Maggie’s belly during movie time. He had never shown any desire to chase or harm Chester, so it didn’t make sense that he suddenly would now. He was a cat, though. And cats typically chase, toy with, and often kill small animals, particularly rodents. She desperately hoped Samson hadn’t had a Mr. Hyde moment out of the blue last night. Walking through her house, Maggie called Chester’s name. She wasn’t naïve enough to expect him to come on command. But he seemed to recognize his name when she talked to him, and there was nowhere for him to go, so maybe she’d get lucky. No matter how he’d gotten out, he was probably investigating the nooks and crannies of her house, enjoying his little vacation away from his glass home. So why not let him enjoy it a while longer? Maggie took one more peek under the sofa and saw nothing but a few dust bunnies. Then she noticed Simon standing in the entryway of the sunroom, staring at something. He was focused on the plant again; hyper focused in fact, but not in the playful, curious way of yesterday. Today he looked guarded. And cautious. “What is it, sweetie? It’s pretty, don’t you think?” She often talked to Simon as if he would talk back. She supposed that was the only thing she missed about the human race; conversational chitchat. She missed it, but not enough to live near people. Nope; one-sided banter with her pets would do her just dandy. “Why don’t we name him, huh boy?” she asked Simon. “Make him an official part of the family. What do you think?” Her head tilted as she gazed at the unusual blossoms. The plant looked amazingly robust. And to have come back from the brink of death in less than a day with nothing more than a little tap water was nothing short of remarkable. Something with that kind of gusto needed a title; something reflecting its personality, its sheer will to live. That thought – the idea of fighting to survive - reminded her of the only movies featuring burly, muscular men that didn’t churn her stomach and feed her nightmares. For Maggie there were only two movies that fit that bill; Braveheart and Gladiator. Their muscle-rippled brutality managed to be both noble and romantic. She wished she knew men like that. Maybe she could feel safe with them. For today she would go with the latter’s star character. “Maximus… yeah; that fits!” It was perfect and made her smile. “I dub thee Maximus – Guardian of Flora!” Maggie said formerly, bowing and giggling at her own silliness. Simon continued to stare at it, unmoved by his new housemate’s name. “Okay, let’s get a bite to eat.” she told him and walked into the kitchen. “Then we’ll look for Chester…he has to be around here somewhere.” Chapter Five Once everyone else was fed (she put food in Chester’s bowl, too - out of habit more than anything else), Maggie set to making her breakfast. Into her favorite ice-cream bowl she broke two eggs. She added S&P, garlic powder and a splash of milk, and then whisked it with a fork before pouring it into a hot, buttery pan. She had already gotten her bacon into the oven. She liked it all one length, without the curling ends pan-frying caused. Her method was a four hundred degree oven and half a package of thick cut bacon laid out crossways on a cookie sheet. Twenty minutes at that temperature garnered perfectly cooked strips. Maggie could easily go through half a pound all by herself in a single meal, and did so often. This time, though, she planned to save four or five strips for a BLT later. Those were her favorite; toasted bread, lots of Duke’s mayo, fresh lettuce and plump, ripe tomatoes from her garden, plus a thick slice of sharp cheddar cheese, slightly softened by the heat of hot bacon… the first bite was pure ecstasy on toast. She swirled the beaten egg up the pan’s edges, then worked it loose with a rubber spatula and expertly flipped the disc over, landing it squarely in the center. Next she added grated sharp cheddar, diced tomato, chopped scallions – but only the green parts – and folded it over. A little more cheddar was sprinkled on top before she turned off the heat and covered the pan so the cheese could get all gooey. The twenty minute oven timer went off just as she finished the eggs. Once the bacon was removed and slightly cooled, she took five, wrapped them in a napkin, tucked them into a Ziploc bag and put them in the fridge. While in there, she grabbed milk, poured a glass full into a mason jar, and snagged two slices of homemade Potato Bread. Tuesday afternoons were devoted to bread making in Maggie’s home; Two Loaf Tuesday is what she called it because she made two loaves of one kind of bread every week. Pumpernickel, whole wheat, farmer bread, French bread…this week it was Potato Bread. She adored potato bread. The smooth, even texture was perfect for French toast and sublime as grilled cheese. She got them toasting and was plating the rest of her breakfast when the plunger popped up. After slathering her perfectly browned bread with homemade honey-butter, she settled herself at the table. Something about the syrupy aroma of honey made her think of something else; the sweetness of honeysuckle. But that thought was swept away by the smell of smoky bacon. With a piece of it ready to go in her left hand, she loaded her fork with some cheesy egg and took a bite. Then she took a bite of bacon, and then a bite of honey-buttered toast. She chewed, swallowed and cleared her pallet with a few gulps of cold milk. It wasn’t long before her plate was wiped clean and her glass, drained. Chapter Six With her belly full, Maggie turned her house upside down searching for Chester. Surprised he wasn’t tucked away in a closet, behind a bookshelf, or under a chair nibbling on a stray almond or cracker, she went outside, just in case. She crawled behind plants, looked under old wood piles, underneath the wheelbarrow and several old buckets - hoping and praying she wouldn’t find his limp, lifeless body in the dirt. Her ankle kept her from going very far, but she managed to cover the property closest to the house. She couldn’t imagine him going further than that, if he’d gone outside at all. She came away with nothing, though – inside or out. All she found was an open window between the kitchen and sunroom. If he’d somehow crawled through it, her chances of finding him were bleak at best. He likely would have been snatched up by an owl or snake. She hated picturing her sweet Chester as some wild animal’s midnight snack – but if he’d gotten out, that was probably what went down. She came back inside and stared at the window, confused. How was it open in the first place? It wasn’t one she checked often because she didn’t need to. It stayed shut. It was awkwardly located on a short wall between the refrigerator and the sunroom’s doorway and faced the wrong way for evening breezes. So it stayed closed; closed and locked. But today it was open a good twenty inches. She didn’t remember opening it, but it didn’t mean she hadn’t. Ever since the thing that happened ten years ago, the thing that brought her out here in the first place, she would sometimes wake up standing in another part of the house. Sleepwalking was one of the gifts Maggie had taken from the city. Maybe it was her subconscious trying to find a way out when the nightmare came. She didn’t know. But it wasn’t too farfetched that she had opened it during one of those episodes. Looking more closely, the inside of the window frame had strange dimpled gashes on the metal lip, as if a screwdriver or knife had been taken to it. That was odd since those tools would be used to get into a window - not out of one. But maybe she’d done that in her sleep, too. She made sure it was shut and locked tight before leaving the kitchen. With a lot of the day still ahead of her, it felt wrong not getting her hike in. It was a ritualistic part of Maggie’s day; make coffee, feed the kids, water the garden, eat breakfast, and… hike the hills. But walking around her house and property looking for Chester had actually tuckered her out more than she thought it would. Gimping on one foot takes a lot more energy than walking on two. It was obvious by now that there would be no hiking for at least the rest of the weekend. She figured she needed three days of downtime for her leg to improve. She sure as heck didn’t want to go to the city for an X-ray or anything like that. That meant going where the people were – where the men were – and that was something she did only if she absolutely had to. She didn’t know yet if she ‘absolutely had to’ – so she would just wait out the weekend and hope for the best. Since she hadn’t found Chester and couldn’t go hiking, she decided to keep busy by giving Maximus a more permanent home. She took him outside to her garden bench and put him in an eight inch clay pot. She still couldn’t believe how he’d improved. He looked so healthy. She added potting soil to the pot and patted it down. Then she stepped back and admired her work. He looked just beautiful – the peachy-yellow colored blooms and rich green leaves were exquisite against the terracotta pot. She had intended to put him out on the patio so he could enjoy the November sunshine, but looking at him now, she couldn’t bring herself to do that. She wanted to enjoy Maximus’ beauty for a little while longer in the house. She brought him back inside, gave the fresh soil a thorough soaking from the tap in the kitchen, and then put him back on the table in the sunroom with an old pie tin underneath for drainage. Suddenly the insides of her stomach squeezed in on itself, growling. Breakfast had been hours ago, and she’d burned up quite a bit of energy looking for Chester. It was time for her BLT. She went to the kitchen, assembled her sandwich, plunked two spears of Vlasic Kosher Dills on her plate alongside it, and poured another glass of milk. She loved milk with a good BLT. Something about it felt like the childhood she didn’t have. Like the lunch a mom should’ve made for her and never did. Maggie’s mother hadn’t been a bad mom; just one that took to the task of mothering as more of a job - not something to actually love doing. And a good BLT, made with care and served with a glass of cold milk, for some odd reason in Maggie’s mind - that said love. She sat at the kitchen table and began to eat, glancing every so often at Maximus’ blossoms in the sunroom. It was hard to not keep looking at him. Her eyes were constantly drawn back to the yellow flowers and velvety leaves. She adjusted her seat so that he wasn’t in her clear line of vision; so she could concentrate on her lunch. Her sandwich, pickle and milk were delicious, as always - but the enjoyment factor wasn’t the same. Not with Chester missing. Even if she had found his dead body, at least she would know what had happened to him. The not knowing was the worst part. But she didn’t know where else to look. Now that she had been sitting for a while, her ankle was aching. She needed to stay off it for a while. She would finish up a few things then park it on the sofa for the rest of the day. The animals - her kids - were quickly fed and watered, and then she went outside to water the garden. She hadn’t gotten to do that yesterday after the whole ankle issue and feeling so kaput when she got home. They had to be thirsty, and Maggie just hated imagining them thirsty. Even with the kind of heavy rainfall they’d gotten the other night (and just like every rainfall in these parts), the desert clay drank it all up and asked for more. It was great to have had the storm, but Maggie knew the sudden downpour wasn’t enough for her garden. During summer and fall months she watered twice a day to keep everything happy. Otherwise her tomatoes, lettuce and carrots looked emaciated; like they were dying. She knew how awful it felt to be at-the-brink-of-death dehydrated. She felt it the first time she hiked in these hills; was actually worried she wouldn’t make it home, between the thirst and throwing up. She knew how melodramatic that seemed, but with no one out here but her, she honestly feared that first hike was going to be the end of her. Hence her conclusion that dehydration was among the cruelest ways to go. It made her anxious, raised her blood pressure to imagine them parched and dry, so she tried to stay two steps ahead of that at all times. She struggled clumsily with the hose, turned the water on, twisted the nozzle to Shower and began watering. Just as she suspected, the water soaked in as if the ground were made of holes . From across the yard she saw Samson and Simon lying in the grass. Their eyes were closed, their faces turned toward the late autumn sun, looking like a pair of contented sphinxes. She loved having them outside with her while she watered. It made her happy, seeing them in the sunshine. But then she thought about Chester and her heart sank. She finished watering then rolled the hose up and went inside. She dug into the closet in the hallway and grabbed a movie and then took from the freezer the two quart-sized Ziploc baggies she’d filled after breakfast. In each bag was two parts water, one part rubbing alcohol. The liquid had gone from loose and runny to icy slush; just right for her needs. She folded each bag into a cotton tea towel then went to the sofa to stretch out and wrap her ankle. With the ice packs tied on, she elevated her foot on a small stack of throw pillows and tucked another under her knee for support. Because she lived way out in the boonies, Maggie didn’t have cable TV, but she actually preferred it that way. And even if her Samsung Flatscreen allowed for it (which it didn’t), she never had any intention of hooking up those hideous rabbit ears for channel reception. She despised the trash she used to see on TV when she lived in the city. Programming was getting worse by the day, even back then, with more and more attention drawn to dysfunctional freak show families, glorified criminals, and clever “how to never get caught” ways of screwing over your neighbor or BFF or wife or parent. That’s the kind of garbage that turns humans into monsters, in Maggie’s mind, and she had absolutely no interest in that BS. What she did have was an eclectic array of DVD’s she ordered through a mail catalog. She disliked TV programs, but loved getting lost in a good film. Having all the lights down, a fine flick on the tube with Simon snoring on his doggie-bed beside her and Samson and Chester resting peacefully on her belly - it was the best thing in the world. Safety and comfort; she had it all right here in her little house with these little guys. Maggie had grabbed an older movie before getting the icepacks; one she’d seen easily twenty times already. You’ve Got Mail was her go-to film when she needed something uplifting and light. It was already out of its case and in the player. With a small roll pillow tucked neatly under her neck, she burrowed under the fleece throw from the back of the sofa, hit PLAY on the remote and settled in. Simon was already in position on his bed beside her, and a bouncy ‘meow’ from the hall announced that Samson was on his way. He got himself comfy on Maggie’s tummy, purring like a mini Porsche. All that was missing was Chester. Please be okay, wherever you are, she thought. Maggie was listening to Meg Ryan’s character, Kathleen Kelly, and her easy banter with her employees at the bookstore, The Shop Around the Corner. She liked imagining herself in Kathleen Kelly’s shoes, wearing her clothes, enjoying the brisk New York weather while walking to work every day (and feeling safe walking to work). Then the sweet aroma of honeysuckle filled the room. Her eyelids felt tethered to tiny weights. She fought to keep them open, but then had a defiant thought; she’s a grown woman who can sleep any darn time she wants. She has no schedule and nobody keeping tabs on how she spends or wastes her days. She turned the movie off, adjusted her pillow, closed her eyes, and within seconds she began to dream. Chapter Seven Maggie could hear hard soled footsteps hitting concrete from behind her. It was dark, the street was empty, and all the businesses and shops were closed. This is how it had been in real life. Almost. The difference was the street hadn’t really been empty. There had been five men hiding in the shadows. They were here too, though; she knew they were. They just hadn’t shown themselves yet. In real life she never knew, but sometimes wondered if what happened that night had been their original intent, or did it just...happen; chance, opportunity, bad luck and all that. Was she a fly that got caught in their wicked web? Or had it merely been an unlucky accident that they were there - and she was there - in that same moment? It didn’t really matter, because what happened happened and there was no undoing it. But still…she wondered. She quickened her pace, trying not to run, although running might’ve been the smarter option. She was trying not to show fear, though. Predators, be they human or beast, respond to another’s fear. It gives them an edge because fear causes instability in those that are afraid. At least that’s what she’d always heard. So Maggie tried not to be afraid, but it wasn’t working. She was terrified. Not just because of being followed, but because she knew what came next; what always came next when she dreamed of the empty, dark street and the footsteps. She cursed herself for not calling a cab, for not taking a busier street, for leaving the bar at this hour. She wasn’t drunk; was nowhere near drunk, but two AM wasn’t a smart time to be on the street by yourself, especially if you’re female, because others who were on the street might very well be drunk. Not all of them - but enough to make it risky. And Maggie wasn’t one to take risks. Not normally. “Hey! Hey chica! Where ju’ goeeng so fast, ayyyye?” the man with a thick, Puerto Rican accent shouted from behind her. He wasn’t close yet, but he wasn’t far either. She heard others snickering and giggling. That scared her more than anything. Men out for kicks, men with nothing to do at this time of night on a lonely, vacant street – men deciding on a lark to follow the woman walking by herself because they were stoned, or drunk, or bored… these are the men to fear. To Maggie men running in packs looking for a good time were as dangerous as a snake pit of vipers. Urban gangbangers, redneck yayhoos, college frat boys…there was little difference. Mix a bunch of testosterone with boredom and booze and a girl could easily lose her life, not to mention what could happen at their hands before they took it. It was that thought that got her moving; she started running. The empty street echoed the sound of her boot heels hitting pavement and the panting of her labored breathing. What was scarier; she could hear what turned out to be ten feet pick up their pace, running after her. She heard more laughter, some cat-calls, and the worse sound of all. “Get her, Rico! Don’t let her get away!” someone yelled. Maggie ran hard, knowing she couldn’t keep up the pace, but also knowing she’d die of exhaustion before slowing down. It wouldn’t matter though. Not in the end. Maggie was no athlete and running of any kind wasn’t in her repertoire of things to do with her day. They were gaining fast. One of them was close enough to grab her long hair when she heard what sounded like birds screeching. It was followed by a strange rattling and frantically flapping wings, then the deafening shrieks of more birds. She dared to look over her shoulder just as something with green feathers flew into her face, knocked her to the ground, and began pecking her eyes out. Chapter Eight Maggie was awakened by somebody’s screams, and then realized they were hers. She’d been dreaming the dream again. It came less often these days, but it still came. There was no running from it, even after ten years. It was different this time, though. What was different was fuzzy, but she remembered something about feathers and beaks. “Arf! Arf! ArfArfArfArf!” Simon’s bark from the kitchen startled her. She sat up and tried to go to him, but her feet seemed stuck in mud. Every movement was painfully slow, and the headache at the back of her neck had returned tenfold. She turned around and saw him standing in the kitchen entryway, facing the sunroom. His hackle was a Mohawk. It stood straight up, from his neck to the tip of his tail, and his frame was rigid and taut. Maggie rolled off the sofa, remembering at the last second that Samson was on her stomach. She was afraid she’d squash him, but he wasn’t there. She fell onto a melted icepack, exploding it onto the rug. What felt like a whiskey-induced hangover headache pulsated through her head. “ArfArfArfArf! ARF!ARF!ARF!!” “Simon, calm down!” she yelled, trying to outshout him. “What is it?” He stopped barking as soon as he heard her voice, but his body remained stiff. She made her way over, peeked into the sunroom, and stopped dead in her tracks. Maximus the plant had grown again. He was easily eighteen inches taller, practically to the ceiling fan. And he had somehow managed to become more… lush. His stem was now a stalk; thick and sturdy, and the flowers that had been a yellowy-peach color this morning were now a rich burnt orange. Then Maggie remembered the part of her dream from just before waking – the part about birds. She went into the sunroom, and what she saw turned her blood cold. The door to the condo-cage, Desi and Lucy’s home, was open, and the cage - empty. Beneath their perch were some dried up leaves that had somehow blown in (how are leaves getting into the house when there are no trees outside? she wondered offhandedly), but her sweet birds were nowhere to be found. She looked up – up to the ceiling fan, on top of lampshades, up at the curtain rods; anywhere they might go if they had somehow, magically unlatched the small door and flown out. She listened hard - hoping to hear wings flapping in another part of the house. But it was dead silent. Then she wondered; where was Samson? He was missing again, just like this morning when she discovered Chester gone. Surely he hadn’t done something to Desi and Lucy, too – had he? It didn’t seem possible that he could suddenly turn into a household predator… not after all the time he’d lived harmoniously with the others. He was a docile, patient, love bug – one she would never suspect of this kind of thing. But there really wasn’t any other explanation. At least none she could think of. “Samson!” she called firmly. A part of her was already angry with him, even without proof of his crime. She heard him meowing and watched as he crawled back into the house through the small window near the refrigerator; a window she remembered closing earlier. But maybe she hadn’t. She didn’t remember opening it the first time. Maybe she’d done the same thing while napping on the sofa. It wasn’t typical to sleepwalk twice in such a short space of time, but nothing seemed typical these last days. Samson came to her immediately, making a wide berth around the sunroom entryway, purring and rubbing against her shin. Frustrated and angry, she had a sudden urge to kick him across the room. How dare he hunt her pets and then act as if he’d done nothing? Instead, she bent down, picked him up, and took him to the recliner. She sat with him on her lap and inspected the fur around his mouth, his ears, and his paws, looking for blood; blood from Chester or her lovebirds, maybe even his own if they had put up a fight. But he was clean; no blood, no dirt, nothing. Maggie got up and closed the window – making sure this time that it was locked. A frightening thought occurred to her then; could they have somehow opened their cage and flown out that window, into the desert? Please, God; don’t let that be what happened, she pleaded. Her lovebirds weren’t prepared for the wild, and just like Chester, wouldn’t fare well if left to their own devices; vulnerable, with no protection or place to hide. Frightened for them now, she walked through the house again, and then again, and then she went outside and looked for them there, even though it was dark. Just as she had with Chester, she called their names – knowing full well how futile it was. She couldn’t help it, though. She didn’t know what else to do. How could three of her beloved pets go missing from these four walls in the space of a single day? She was deep in thought when her eyes fell on Maximus. “How are you growing like this?” she asked aloud. She half expected the plant to shake and tremble in response, but it didn’t. It just sat there – mute and gorgeous. It seemed impossible that this was the same practically dead plant she had put in a vase of water the night before. But there he was – practically glowing with life. She decided she needed to find out what kind of plant Maximus was. He was kind of a miracle to Maggie. There was no internet out where she lived, so she couldn’t look it up right away, but she had access at the post office, where she made her Amazon.com purchases. She could look it up there. They had a computer for public use that cost her only two bucks an hour. She never understood why it wasn’t free like the computers at the library in the city, but she didn’t complain. It was something she could use when she wanted, and it was cheap. Really, though; she needn’t worry about the cost. Money woes, even after all these years, were just a knee jerk habit for Maggie. The truth was she wouldn’t have to worry about money ever again. No fear over paying bills, buying food, making rent. There was enough for five more lifetimes, after hers was done. Since the thing that happened in the city and the settlement from the police department, those kinds of worries were all in the past. In fact, the settlement made it possible for her to buy the twelve hundred acres she now lived on, which included the two hundred year old pueblo home - something she did a little remodeling-for-comfort to in that first year - and the two outbuildings that sat on it. Who would’ve thought the most terrifying event of Maggie’s life, the worst thing that could ever have happened to her would mean a lifetime of financial security? It was a perverted twist on poetic justice and something she would reverse in a heartbeat if she had the power. She loved her home, her land, her quiet life with her animals, she loved being in these hills, away from danger - away from other people… she even loved having a mega-fat bank account (sometimes sleazoid ambulance chasing lawyers are a good thing in this world) - but she would trade it all in a nanosecond and go back to living paycheck to paycheck, even endure the power being shut off for non-payment, a semi regular occurrence in her old life, if only she could have what happened to her not have happened. She hated being afraid; detested feeling weak. So staying isolated, staying away from those that made fear unbearable was how she managed. Her life was what it was; there was no rewind button in the real world. It was after midnight, and although she’d been asleep for the better part of the day (and I really should look for Desi and Lucy again, she thought), she couldn’t believe how tired she still was. She thought she might collapse if she didn’t get into bed. She put food and water out for Simon and Samson, let Simon outside for a few minutes, and then gimped the short distance down the hallway to brush her teeth and climb into bed. Two minutes in and she was out like a light. Chapter Nine Every so often Maggie’s dreams would do this to her. Since early childhood her dreams have been vivid. But the ability to pick up where another dream left off was fairly new. There were dreams from her past that would’ve been a blast to continue, but this wasn’t one of them. And where it picked up wasn’t exactly where the last one ended… but it was close enough. The Hispanic man on the empty, darkened street that had asked her where she was “goeeeng so fast” had caught up with her. He reached out and grabbed her by the hair, yanking so hard that she landed on her back, clearing the air from her lungs. Her head hit the concrete with an audible thud, causing her to see stars, but only for a moment, and then everything went black. *** Maggie came to in what looked like a warehouse. There were men, tattoo covered gangbangers with droopy pants, bandanas and blinged out teeth, at a table under bright lights dividing piles of powder and arguing with one another. She could feel the thump of rap music nearby. Another ganger was at a separate table bundling stacks of bills from what looked like a money machine. “Man, ju’ shouldn’t ha’brought her here! The Cuban is comeeeng, ju’ know. This is baaaad, homes.” he said. “Don’worry, esse! She’s out like a light, man.” said the man she guessed was Rico. “Ju’ better make sure she stays that way, homes.” “Don’worry… Is okaaaay, esse!” Maggie was barely coherent, but she could hear and see around her. Then the man that must have been Rico was marching toward her, gripping something in his fist. As he neared, she was horrified to realize he held a syringe. He roughly wrenched her arm over to find a vein. When she tried to scream, he clamped a dirty, smelly hand over her mouth. “Be quiet, Vaneella!” he said through gold-rimmed teeth. A sparkly rhinestone planted in a lateral incisor winked at her. Then he stuck her with the needle, depressed the plunger and walked away. Before she passed out she had time to notice the stained and dirty mattress she lay on. She could feel loose dirt on its surface, below the hem of her Capri pants. She could also feel the hard plastic lump where she had tucked her cell phone earlier tonight. These Capri’s had a low-profile, secret pocket sewn inside the back of the waistband. She used it when bar hopping to stash her phone, her Chapstick, a single apartment key, and her ID and bank card. With a blousy shirt worn over the waistband, it was virtually invisible and kept her hands free. She couldn’t believe her luck in that they hadn’t discovered the pocket or her phone. As the fog began to overtake her, Maggie prayed; please God, let there be some juice in left the battery! It had been almost empty when she left the bar, and she had no idea how long ago that was. *** What woke Maggie next was the thing that has stayed with her; the genesis of her fear of other people, of men. Her Capri’s and underwear were pulled down and her legs spread wide. The pants themselves were crumpled in a heap around her right ankle, as if yanked down in a rage. Breathing was hard because of the heavy thing on top of her… the weight of Rico. She tried to open her mouth to scream and couldn’t. She wanted to bite him, but muscle control was gone - she couldn’t feel anything. She could breathe, she could see, but she couldn’t lift a finger. Rico’s sweaty face floated above hers. She could see three of his crew standing behind him with expressions that terrified her even more. The juvenile giggles from earlier were no more. Everything about their demeanor was intense…primal. They were oblivious to one another, oblivious to the fact that she could see their faces. They were focused solely on Ricco’s bare ass ramming into her with such force, it looked like he was trying to shatter her pelvis. He took a long time, but when he finished, when he had filled her insides with his nasty, spunky jizz - he crawled off, laughing and winded. “You’re next, esse!” he said to one of the three, who then unzipped his fly, draped her limp knees over his shoulders and stuck his thing in. And when he was through, another ganger climbed on top. And when he was done, the third… and all Maggie could do was lie there on that filthy mattress and endure it. Endure it and pray; please let it end soon, but more than that, I beg you; please don’t let me get pregnant. Please, please don’t let me. There was a loud knock at the same time the last ganger was finishing. Maggie had a clear view of the door from where she lay in the far corner of the room. The disgusting fat-pig-rapist rolled off and pulled his trousers up, stumbling over his two hundred dollar pair of Jordans. He rushed, huffing and dripping sweat, to where the others were gathered at the tables. Just then Maggie realized she was getting a tingly feeling in her legs. She looked down the length of her body and tried to twitch her toes. They wiggled. She then concentrated with all her might on dragging her legs closed and nearly got them together. Next she worked on moving her arms. It was slow, but she could do it. “Tha’s heeem,” Rico said. “Is it ready?” “Yeah,” the rapists with the expensive sneakers said, and set a duffle bag on the table. Rico went to the door and opened it. When Maggie saw what was on the other side, she wanted to cry out with relief. Praise Jesus, I’m saved! she thought. Two uniformed policemen stood there, shoulder to shoulder. The big one resembled a bulky version of Ricky Ricardo from the I Love Lucy show. He leaned into the warehouse and seemed to look directly at her. “What the hell’s going on in here?” he demanded. “Is notheeeng, esse – just a little fun with our Vaneella girlfriend, homes. Don’worrrry!” said Rico. “I’m supposed to worry, you ignorant asshole!” he boomed. “Especially when it’s happening right in front of me. And it doesn’t look like she’s having much fun, you stupid spic. What the hell’s wrong with you? You know I can’t ignore this!” “Shooor you can, homes. Coz we got a little sometheeeng extra to sweeten the deal, esse.” Rico walked over to the table covered in cash, picked up the duffle with one hand and wrapped the other around three green bundles. He went back to the door, dropped the duffle at the policeman’s feet and shoved the stacks of money at his chest. The big cop simply stood there at first, glowering down at the smallish ganger. Rico grinned up at him, a smirk of gold and rhinestone. “C’mon, man, don’worry! Is okaaay.” The policeman turned to the redheaded Irish looking cop standing next to him. “What do you think?” he asked. “Whatever, dude. Let’s just get out of here.” the Irish cop said and looked around uneasily. The big policeman covered the money with a beefy paw. He glanced briefly at Maggie on the mattress and sighed. “I don’t want to see this shit again, you fucking gangbanger.” he said, pointing a finger at Rico. “This isn’t part of the deal.” Then he bent down and picked up the duffle bag. “I tol’ you - is okaaay… don’ worry!” Rico laughed; the other gangers laughed with him. “Fucking spics…” the policeman sneered under his breath as he and the Irish cop turned and walked away. “Nice doeeeeng beenuz wit’u, Officer Cuban!” Rico called out, still laughing, and closed the door. What Officer Cuban hadn’t noticed; what he and the Irish policeman didn’t see while taking their drug-money-payoff and “little something extra” was Maggie’s phone. She had managed to reach her pants near her foot and pull it out of the pocket while everyone was focused on the door. With it pulled to her chest, she buried it in the folds of her blouse and turned the camera on. She had no idea if the battery was dead, if any of the men were actually in the frame, or if her blouse was blocking the lens, but she had to try. After the policemen walked away, while the gangers were busy high-fiving one another for getting away with the gang rape of a “Vaneella” chica, she tucked the phone into her bra and prayed nobody would try to feel her up now that the raping was done. They didn’t. *** What really happened to Maggie that night in the city was exactly what her mind relentlessly replayed when she slept; what the therapist in the city, the one she briefly saw during the trial, called a recurring nightmare. A dream that, in the beginning, showed itself almost every night, but was now down to just a few times a week… on a good week. However, what the dreams didn’t show was how the gangers haphazardly dressed her; how, after discovering the secret pocket and everything in it – giving them access to her home, “and your bed”, Ricco had smirked – they’d threatened to pay her a visit for more ‘fun’ if she blabbed to the cops. How they’d blindfolded her, bound her hands, and shoved her into a stripped down van before pushing her out onto an empty street after a fifteen minute ride. Or how she was found early that morning and taken to safety at Meadowood General by an elderly woman - Mrs. Leonard was her name - who was out for her daily morning walk with her two Schnauzers, Peter and Piper. It never showed how, once in the hospital, Maggie came to a decision. It was cowardly, she knew, but she insisted - both to Mrs. Leonard, who tried to talk her out of it, and the hospital staff; she would not talk to the police. She just couldn’t bring herself to file charges. The threat of seeing Rico again, of them revisiting the ‘fun’… it scared the shit out of her. She knew Rico wasn’t bluffing. Even if he were incarcerated, gangs were exactly that; more people. It would be easy for him to sic one of his dogs on her, even from jail. And what if she went to the cops and he still skated? Rico would come for her. She could still hear his evil laugh, asking ‘where she was goooeeeeng”, snaking out his greasy, stinking hand and clutching at her hair. And anyway; how were the cops any safer? Cops could be just as corrupt as Rico and his pack of thugs. The two that had walked away in the face of a felony - turned their backs on a rape victim and their own badges for nothing more than thirty pieces of silver; that proved it to Maggie. No, she didn’t trust the process, or the people in charge of the process, and she couldn’t live through that experience again. Her mind wouldn’t survive it. She would keep her mouth shut and put it behind her. The hospital’s policy, though, required a rape kit as well as a toxicology report because of the bruised injection site in her arm. And when that tox screen revealed something called succinylcholine in her system – a paralyzing agent used in hospitals and the reason she could do nothing but lay motionless while those four men mauled her… for some reason, even after deciding she would do nothing - her battered soul stood up and got mad. She was angry because, by using that drug, they’d hijacked her fighting chance; neutralized what every victim had a right to - the mere possibility of defending themselves. That changed her mind, and she filed charges. During the trial the tox screen findings, DNA results, and the testimony of two witnesses plus Maggie’s were enough to convict Rico and his gangbanging compadres. Three of them were sentenced to fifteen to twenty years. Rico got twenty seven. He had a triple charge; kidnapping, the administering of a drug with intent to do harm, and of course; the rape itself. She learned years later, though - after she’d moved away - that Rico rotted in prison for only seven of those years. Apparently even thug rapists were well connected with friends in high places. While he and his crew were convicted – and because the D.A prosecuted only those that had kidnapped and raped her - the scumbag cops that left Maggie to the wolves were never mentioned during the trial. Maggie couldn’t stomach the idea of Officer Cuban and the redheaded Irish Cop turning a blind eye, taking their cash, and sashaying into their futures with no consequences. So she got a hold of one of those super obnoxious mouthpieces on TV with a reputation for fighting nasty and winning big. Maggie had an ace up her sleeve, too; a big one. On that night in the warehouse, her phone camera had perfectly picked up the cop’s voices, and even better; their faces. When she showed her attorney what was on her phone, he grinned like a Cheshire cat and took that phone to his computer-geek-for-hire. Before Maggie could say Cheese! - their faces and what they’d done went viral on YouTube. It’s amazing how quickly the public wants to hate cops, if given a reason. It didn’t take long before their names were plastered all over the news, once the media got wind of the video. And after that, Officer Cuban and the Irish cop were treated like the lepers they were; at least where the public was concerned. Maggie heard their cars and homes were vandalized and that the Ricky Ricardo lookalike received more than a few death threats; several from women. The police department, who couldn’t afford such nasty publicity since they already had a less than stellar reputation with the locals, fired them, publically denounced their behavior, and swore to the press; ‘this kind of inhuman corruption is extremely rare in this great city’s police department’, the police chief said. Maggie wasn’t sure how true that actually was, and was pretty sure the rest of the public didn’t buy it either. The obnoxious mouthpiece filed a civil suit against “this great city’s police department” for an unmentionable amount of dough. She hoped for only a fraction of the number he came up with, because there was no way they would dole out that kind of cash… no way. But she was wrong. Way wrong. Within a week they offered a settlement and gave her every single dime. So true to his TV commercials, her obnoxious mouthpiece had fought nasty and won big, and Maggie’s bank account was stuffed to the gills because of it. After winning the law suit and moving away, she never knew what became of those two cops. She doubted they had the connections Rico had, if they’d even ended up in prison. She secretly hoped they were there and living out their days as a particularly violent inmate’s unwilling girlfriend. That would fit their crime to a T, in her eyes. What Maggie’s dreams also didn’t show were some of her personal issues that happened as a result of that night. They didn’t show how she’d become so plagued with paralyzing fear – agoraphobic, in fact - that she decided after the criminal trial and civil suit, if she were to retain her sanity, her next move was to essentially run and hide. And because of that fat bank account, those funds gave her the freedom to move all the way across the continent to this golden nugget of desert-paradise… a place to mend her spirit, or a place to at least try. The brain was quite the trickster, though. It seemed to take joy in tormenting her with those memories – especially at night when the lights were all down and her defenses low. Or maybe her mind had become so traumatized that it got stuck on some loop with the replay button jammed. Perhaps that was why she hadn’t been able to truly move forward, not really - not the way she had meant to. Instead she created a kind of desert bubble around herself and stayed within that bubble. It made her feel human, at least - even if she wasn’t emotionally whole - because all these years later, she’d never been unable to shake her fear of people. She couldn’t bring herself to let down her guard. So living out in the middle of BF-nowhere had become critical; her way of finding air and relearning the physical act of breathing. On this night, though, Maggie’s memory-nightmare, just like the other nights, went only so far; to the two policemen leaving her in Rico’s hands and walking away with their money. That was the extent of what it always showed her. It made her relive the torment of the rape, the panic of being paralyzed, and the helplessness of watching what she thought was hope and salvation turning away. She could still see that image so clearly - could feel the doom in her heart and the certainty that she would be dead soon. She still doesn’t know why they let her live. But maybe murdering a “Vaneela” woman was going a too far… even for gang-banging, drug dealing rapists like them. What was more likely, she thought, was that maybe they hadn’t paid Officer Cuban enough to ignore a murder. Three bundles is only enough to ignore a rape. Maggie continued sleeping as the dream looped itself, over and over again, terrorizing her for five more hours. She was totally unaware of anything happening around her. Chapter Ten Simon was sleeping on the floor next to his master when he smelled the smell again. He knew it was bad; that it meant danger. He nudged his master on the leg and barked loudly, trying to wake her. They needed to get out, right now! But she wasn’t moving. She was in that same kind of sleep she was in during their hike yesterday and then again in the living room just a while ago. He didn’t like it. Something was wrong with it. It wasn’t like her, either. He was always able to wake her just by breathing on her face from beside the bed if he needed to go out in the middle of the night. His master was a light sleeper; always had been, for as long as he’d been with her. Samson-the-cat seemed to smell the smell the same time he did. He jumped off the bed and began meowing loudly, in clear distress. Still, their master remained motionless. Not knowing what else to do, the two went into the hallway and Simon pulled the bedroom door closed with his jaws until it clicked shut. That was the only way he knew to protect her. Then Samson followed closely behind as he walked cautiously down the hallway, toward the kitchen. Once he got there he felt himself dropping into the same sleepiness that overtook him out in the desert. It was stronger, though; so strong he wondered if he would actually make it this time. The honeysuckle scent was fierce and the desire to rest, overwhelming. Samson just kept on meowing. Maybe he wasn’t affected by the smell like Simon and his master were. Even he seemed less affected than she was. On the day of the hike, he’d only slept a few minutes before waking and seeing the plant with the yellow flowers pulling itself toward them, leaning in… sniffing them. He had barked and growled at it – warning it to stay back! It did, but he had the distinct impression it wasn’t happy about it. So he stood guard until she awoke several hours later. When she finally did, he tried to get her home quickly. But then she decided to bring the plant home with them! In desperation he tried to grab it and run away with it – get rid of it - but it had been out of his reach. He could do nothing but follow his master home. The sleepiness he felt now, though, was worse than that day. The smell had a thickness to it that practically demanded he lay down and sleep. Trying hard to resist, he managed to make it over to the window between the refrigerator and sunroom. While keeping an eye on the plant in the sunroom, the plant his master had named Maximus, he nudged at the lock on the window with his snout. It was difficult this time, unlike the day before. Feeling more urgent than yesterday, he worked fast, causing the edge of the lock to cut into his nose. He could already taste blood as it dripped past his mouth. That actually frightened him more than the sleepiness. He was suddenly worried Maximus would catch a whiff of it and find a way to slink over. Finally he worked the lock free. He bit the edge of the window’s frame between his teeth and worked it up by throwing his head back. He was working as quickly as he could, but it was taking too long. Samson was close by, walking in circles, meowing his woeful meow; the one he used when very upset. Every few seconds he would look at Maximus in the sunroom, arch his back, flatten his ears, and hiss. Simon thought he saw a shadow pass over head, moving out of the sunroom doorway, but he couldn’t be sure and didn’t have time to stop to look. He had to get them out. Then Samson’s voice changed. Instead of meowing and hissing he was suddenly growling. Simon tried to hurry faster - he was almost there! The window was nearly high enough for them to squeeze through when he heard a horrible sound; a strangled growl followed by dead silence. He gave a final shove to the window then turned to look behind him. Samson was gone. Simon saw something that looked like dried up leaves on the floor in a crude shape; almost the shape of a cat. He looked up then. Maximus was closer than he was before. And he was bigger than ever… bigger, wider, taller. Yes, looking fully at him now, Maximus was huge and towering over him. And the clay pot that held him was now so top-heavy; he feared it would topple over, landing Maximus close enough to reach out and grab him. Panicked, Simon grasped the windowpane’s ledge with his front paws. He heaved himself up, wriggled through the window, and leaped into the darkness. He ran over to the shed and shimmied into the crawlspace underneath and laid down, keeping his eyes on the house the entire time. More importantly; he kept his eyes on the opened window. He watched it until the sun came up, waiting to see if a dark green, velvety leaf would try to walk itself out. Chapter Eleven The sky was just starting to lighten. Maggie awoke early after a fitful slumber of nightmares. She was on the toilette emptying her bladder when she realized Simon wasn’t there. He was always in her bedroom, every morning, stretched out on his doggie bed, watching as she waddled off to the bathroom. That was their routine. It never changed. Now that she was a little more awake she noticed Samson wasn’t in the room either. He slept on the bed with her every night. But this was the second night in a row that he wasn’t curled up on his pillow when she woke. What was going on? Looking down at her ankle, she realized she’d walked to the bathroom pretty much like a normal person – virtually pain free. She was relieved to find it less inflamed. It was still colorful with some brown and yellow added to keep the purple, red and orange company. But she could actually see the ankle bones that were buried under all that fluid yesterday. That meant progress, and better still; that she wouldn’t need to see a doctor - and that was very good indeed. She slid her feet into her house slippers and pulled on her robe. “Simon? Come here, sweet boy.” she called out as she walked into the hallway. Nothing; not even the sound of him snoring from another room, which would’ve been peculiar (and something he never did), but at least it would explain why he wasn’t in her bedroom. “Simon! Where are you boy?” She yelled more loudly this time. And where was that cat? “Samson… where are you, kitty-cat?” she shouted. More silence. Standing in the hallway, she noticed how very quiet the house was. Eerily quiet. Creepy quiet. She was scared now. Everyone was gone. How could all of her pets go missing in forty eight hours? Her heart went into double time and her breathing grew shallow. She was dangerously close to hyperventilating. Anxiously, uncertainly and with her back against the wall, she inched toward the kitchen, calling their names, suddenly afraid she would come upon a boogey man, or a monster, or a Rico. As she reached the kitchen and glanced toward the sunroom, her heart came to a screeching halt. It was Maximus. He’d grown so tall that his trunk - because he was no longer a mere plant; he’d become a small tree - extended all the way up to the ceiling. He would have gone beyond it had there been no roof. The tip hit the ceiling and bent into the shape of a candy-cane. What’s more, the flowers were now a dazzling, glowing red, and the fibers that lined the rippled petals looked like hundreds of tiny, silver needles. The leaves – they were a deep green with a furry, fuzzy texture. “What the hell?” she said aloud, squinting in confusion. “How is this happening?” Dread made its way into her gut, and as she stood there gaping, the leaves began to tremble. Only this time it was different than in the dessert. The trembling was more of a jangle, as if the blossoms were huge, flowery bells. Then the smell hit her in the face; so sweet, so rich it made her gag. She was sure she would throw up, but instead she felt herself falling. Maggie was unconscious before she hit the floor. Chapter Twelve Simon had just fallen asleep as the sun began to rise. What woke him just now was the sickly sweet smell that he’d run from the night before. Worried, he crawled out, ran to the open window and stood on hind legs to look inside. His master was probably awake by now, and if that smell was reaching him all the way outside, she could already be in danger. He was right. He saw her passed out on the kitchen floor. The part that scared him to death was Maximus. He had stretched himself into the kitchen, all the way from the clay pot in the sunroom, like a twisted, giant, gangly human made of branches. Three of his flowers were suctioned to his master’s leg and moving in a bizarre way. They seemed to be drinking. And as they did, Maximus grew bigger, and his leaves - broader, greener. Simon flew through the window and clamped his jaws onto Maximus. Snarling, he dug his teeth in; thrashing and shaking his head with such force he was sure his neck would be ruined for life. But he persisted; thrashing, growling, shaking, snarling – doing his best to tear and rip into Maximus. It was difficult, though. The branches seemed practically made of stone. Even the leaves were tough, somehow refusing to be torn, showing no teeth marks even as he bit into them. And then he heard something that made him almost let go; a high pitched, piercing noise that felt like daggers in his ears. A sound that was a little like the whistle his master had used to train him when he was a pup, only this was so much louder; louder and shatteringly shrill, as if trying to detonate his brain. Simon looked up when he noticed his master moving. Slowly, she lifted her head and then looked down, confused, at the things wrapped around her leg. He watched her face as it registered what was happening, what she was seeing. Then she let out a terrible, earsplitting scream, almost shriller than the sound from Maximus. She screamed in a way Simon had never heard before, all the while pushing and kicking at Maximus’ branches as he reached for her. But Maximus was strong; probably stronger after making a meal of Chester, Lucy and Desi, and Samson-the-cat. Every time Maggie peeled a blossom off her skin another one sneaked around and attacked a different part of her leg. And as they attacked, each blossom seemed to go from a deep, rich, ruby red to a blackish-purple. The most frightening thing, though, were his master’s continuous screams. They were no longer human to his dog ears, and she had a wild, unhinged look in her eyes he’d never seen before. It petrified him. He let go his grip and lunged after the thickest part of Maximus. He had to get a better bite, one to do real damage. There had to be a soft spot; every living thing had a soft spot... something that made it vulnerable. Simon got lucky and felt his canines sink into the widest, fleshiest part of Maximus’ trunk. Something vile coated his tongue and dripped down his jaw. Whipping his head back and forth, the strange liquid splattered onto the floor, against the refrigerator, and onto the walls. He couldn’t tell what it was, but it seemed his master could. She saw it and a shriek came out of her that made him want to turn tail and RUN! He didn’t though; she needed him and he loved her. He would stay and fight. He thrashed his head as hard as he could; back and forth and back and forth and back and forth again. At then something snapped. Maximus’ trunk was suddenly in two, with that vile fluid draining onto the tiles. The flowers that had been feeding on his master magically lost their grip and lay flat and deflated on the floor. With a cross between a scream and a whimper, she frantically kicked the limbs away. Her feet slipped on the pooling sludge as she scooted toward the wall. Simon, praying Maximus was dying if not already dead, went over and began licking the tears from her face. He couldn’t bear to see her like this. She looked so… so broken. Dazed and in shock, Maggie slowly grew quiet and still. Then with her eyes shut tight, she reached up, wrapped her arms around Simon’s neck and pulled him close, whispering “thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you…” into his fur. He let himself be held; he welcomed it. He was so grateful the awful screaming had stopped; that the scary look in her eyes was gone, or at least hidden behind her closed eyes. They stayed that way for a long time. Chapter Thirteen Nearly thirty minutes later, Maggie finally let go of Simon and gradually opened her eyes. She was scared to look around – afraid that what she thought she had seen would turn out to be real and not some distorted Twilight Zone hallucination. Please God, let it just be that. Then her eyes fell on what lay before her. She just sat there at first, staring at what was left of Maximus. He had shriveled into a gnarled, dried up bunch of limbs and leaves. The flowers were practically nonexistent. She could barely tell where they had been. But the image of them morphing from deep red to blackish-purple as they fed on her felt very real and it made her shudder. She took a deep breath then, mentally bracing herself before looking at her leg. She didn’t want to look; didn’t want to because she couldn’t feel anything below her left hip. It wasn’t just numb; it felt absent, gone, like nothing was there. What she saw when she finally looked horrified her. The thing at the end of her leg no longer looked like a human foot. It, or what was left of it, had shrunken into a leathery, dried out lump, like a miniature, deflated football. And the rest of the leg, right up to her thigh, was emaciated, necrotic, the bones visible through transparent skin that seemed somehow roasted. It was as if the entire extremity had been desiccated and cauterized, like a burned up piece of wood wrapped in dehydrated pig skin. It reminded her, too much in fact, of the hickory smoked shank bones she gave Simon on occasion. She couldn’t grasp that this was her leg. How…how is this possible? Suddenly she was angry – angry that she had been immobilized, paralyzed and violated - again. She was furious that her refuge, her sanctuary, her safe haven was forever spoiled. Here she was, miles and miles from a single human being and danger had still come for her. How would she ever feel safe again? In her mind she saw her hamster, her love birds, her sweet cat being attacked, liquefied and ingested by Maximus. How could I let this happen? That thought snapped her out of the crushing grief threatening to overtake her; grief that would need to wait. She had failed to protect her pets, her kids, but she would not surrender; she refused to forfeit her fighting chance. No one would take that from her again – especially a flesh eating plant. She would make damn certain there was nothing left of Maximus to harm another soul ever again. Simon was still alive and she would protect him, no matter what. She shambled quickly outside, pogo-stick style, determined and already unmindful of her lack of foot. She got the broom and a flat shovel and leaned them against the counter. Then she dragged a large galvanized trashcan into the kitchen. She swept what was left of Maximus into a heap, shoveled it into the trashcan and dragged it back outside, away from the house. The lighter fluid was near the grill across her patio. She hopped over to it, snatched it up, hopped back and drenched Maximus’ remains in flammable liquid. Careful to avoid the purplish-red puddles of sludge on the floor (that’s blood… that’s our blood – my furry family and mine, Maggie thought with a hitch in her chest, angry tears too close to the surface), she went back into the kitchen, took the box of matches from above the range, and once outside - struck three and tossed them in. What was left of Maximus burst into flames. As the fire engulfed the contents, the sound Simon heard earlier – the piercing high pitched screech he heard as he attacked Maximus (only it was worse this time - more piercing, more shrill) filled the air like a hundred police sirens. Maggie stumbled backwards in stunned silence, barely able to stay upright. Her eyes were huge, the size of dinner plates. She covered her ears with her hands, but it was pointless. The sound, the shrillness was coming from inside her head… a telekinetic scream. She squeezed more and more of the lighter fluid onto the flames – needing it to burn faster, hotter, please God – just BURN! Thankfully, the bigger and higher the flames grew, the quieter the psychic-scream became. And after what felt like forever, at last it was silenced. Maggie looked down and noticed a smear of purple-red on the arm of her bathrobe. She tore it off, snatched off her remaining slipper that was also soaked in sludge, and flung them both into the fire. The other slipper had to be somewhere in the kitchen. She would have to find it and destroy it. Balanced perfectly on her remaining leg, doing a fair imitation of a one-legged flamingo, Maggie stood there, keeping watch as it burned with Simon standing beside her. They were both traumatized, watching the dying embers of this thing that had eaten their friends - both aware that it would have eaten Maggie, too - if it’d had enough time. When the last of the coals had burned out – when there was no glow, no light left – she shuffled back into the house and began the disturbing task of cleaning up the puddles. Maggie tackled it with an entire roll of paper towels and almost an entire gallon of Clorox - straight. She then poured the remaining bleach over what was left of her leg, in case some of Maximus’ freak germs were still there, growing, mutating. She found her stray slipper lodged under the refrigerator and pushed it out with the emptied cardboard roll from the paper towels. Then she put the slipper, the cardboard roll, and dirtied paper towels into the trashcan with Maximus’ ashes. She emptied the rest of the lighter fluid onto the contents and lit it. It took longer to burn since the paper towels were saturated with bleach and blood, but after twenty minutes, there was nothing but ash. She and Simon went back into the house then. She locked the door behind them and made sure the window, all the windows, in fact, were closed and also locked. On her way through the house Maggie glanced into the sunroom. She saw Desi and Lucy’s vacant condo-cage and looked at Chester’s empty hamster apartment. She would like to hope that Samson had somehow made it, that he was outside somewhere, hiding - but she suspected Maximus’ sudden growth spurt meant her precious Samson was gone. He had eaten her cat. She was crying again; this time without the screams that accompanied her earlier tears. She was beyond heartbroken. It felt as though her insides had been hollowed out with a teaspoon. How could this horrible thing happen to her, way out here? She had run so far, so fast from the dangers of the city, she was sure nothing could reach her here. But she had been wrong, so wrong - and almost all of her beloved pets had paid the ultimate price. Because of me; they’re all gone because of me. Maggie went into the bathroom and disrobed. She stepped into the shower stall and leaned against the tile wall. Completely unaware she had turned only the cold on, she stood shivering under the shower’s spray, numbly rubbing the bar of soap into her hair and over her skin. She rinsed and robotically toweled dry, and then pulled the T-shirt from the doorknob over her head. With a wet, soapy washcloth, she wiped Simon’s head, ears, all around his mouth, and all four of his paws. She rinsed the washcloth, wiped him again, and then rinsed and wiped and rinsed and wiped one more time. It didn’t occur to her to simply bathe him in her shower. Her brain seemed to have gone into hibernation. She’d burned everything else that could’ve been tainted by Maximus’ blood, but that wasn’t an option here. She did the best she could with the washcloth and hoped it was enough. Calling Simon’s name, she crawled under her sheets and patted the space beside her. He looked up from his doggie bed, puzzled by the invitation. Then he gracefully jumped up and snuggled into the crook of her fetal position. She buried her face in the soft fur of his neck and wept until she fell asleep. Not long after, Simon was asleep. They both slept like the dead. Neither of them heard the rain or the flash of lightening that came in the night. It came with no warning, and left the same way. *** It was a full twenty four hours before either of them opened their eyes, and when Maggie did, for the first time in days, she finally felt normal… no hang over, no headache. She dragged herself out of bed, braced her hand against the wall for support, and hopped her way to the back of the house where she unlocked then pushed the door open for Simon. Through a strangled yawn, she looked down when she realized that Simon hadn’t moved. He simply stood there, eyes focused, refusing to go outside. His body had gone rigid and his hackle stood straight up like a razorback. Confused, she looked out into her yard. Then Maggie unleashed a scream that went right to the center of Simon’s brain. He was certain this time that it would burst. The trashcan that held the burned remains of Maximus lay on its side. It was tipped over, an empty vessel –the inside, practically wiped clean. And covering every square inch of Maggie’s yard was hundreds of tiny green plants…. tiny plants with lush green leaves and tiny yellow buds.