Muir Cantell stared at the new flower he found in his greenhouse late that night. How did it get there? If his wife, Paula, had brought it in, surely she would have told him about it.
It was a beautiful, but unique flower. He’d never seen this kind of flower ever before, in all his years of gardening. It had silvery-gold, shining petals, with touches of bright red along some of the edges. A silvery gold that made wealth seem like poverty, a red like freshly-shed blood.
The flower seemed to stare back at him as it emerged from the black shadows; the bright petals were a chiaroscuro contrast to their home in the darkness. The petals seemed to speak to him.
Their language was their scent, an alien, dirty smell, but a smell that made him want to stay by the flower more and more, the longer he smelled it.
He watered it lovingly, then left to go to bed in his house beside the greenhouse, wanting to stay with the flower, but also afraid to stay.
The next morning, he and Paula went into the greenhouse to begin the business day of selling flowers. He hurried over to the new flower, while his wife stayed at the other end of the greenhouse, as if trying to avoid the flower. When he reached the corner of the greenhouse where the flower was, he noticed an odd thing.
There were now two flowers.
The second was an identical twin of the first. The smell of the flowers was, as would be expected, twice as powerful as it had been the night before.
“It’s a…miracle,” Muir sighed, and stood before the flowers, almost as if in a trance. “They’re magical.”
He picked up his watering can and poured water on the two flowers, grinning at their glowing beauty.
The petals opened wider to receive the water. The flowers were like mouths that were opening not only to drink the water, but to thank their loving gardener.
Tiny black seeds, ones as small as sesame seeds, flew out of the centre of both flowers and landed in the soil surrounding them.
“Does this mean I’ll get two more beautiful flowers by the end of the day?” he whispered to the flowers, imagining they could hear his words.
“Hey, Muir!” Paula called from the other side of the greenhouse. “We have customers here! Come on!”
“You handle it, honey,” he said, gazing at his flowers. “I’m busy here.”
“You bastard,” she whispered, then turned her frown upside down to meet the customers. “So, Helen, what can I do for you today?”
“What are those flowers your husband is so interested in?” Helen asked. “He looks as if he’s under a spell.”
“Something we got recently. They sure are pretty, but–I don’t know, there’s something about them…”
Muir pulled himself away from the flowers and rushed over to where Paula and Helen were.
Wow, he thought, I mustn’t let myself be around those two beauties for too long. They have some kind of hold on me. He went past the two women without saying a word.
“Good,” Paula said, assuming he was going to serve the other customer there, a man in his thirties looking at some orchids. “It’s about time you did your jo–hey, where ya goin’?”
Muir ran out of the greenhouse.
“What?” the male customer said. “I thought he was going to–”
“So did I,” Paula said. “Maybe he needs to use the bathroom. Well, I guess I have to take care of you both myself. Do you want some orchids today, Mr. Gadd?”
“Yes, Mrs. Cantell,” he said. “But what about those flowers your husband was obsessing over?”
“Yeah, what about them?” Paula asked, then all three of them went over to those two flowers.
When they came within smelling distance, the dirty reek was overwhelming. The three tilted their heads back and said, “Whoa!” at the same time.
“They are pretty flowers, but that smell,” Helen said. “It kind of pulls you in and pushes you away at the same time.” She held her nose, but kept looking at them.
“All they do is push me away,” Mr. Gadd said, squinting and holding his nose. “They’re a dangerous beautiful. It feels like they’re pulling you in to destroy you.”
“I agree,” Paula said, frowning and looking askance at them. “I remember just one flower. Muir seems to have sneaked another flower in here.” She looked closer before wincing. “And what’s that little stem in the…”
“What are you doing?” Muir shouted as he rushed back to the flowers, pushing his wife and Mr. Gadd to the side to get back to his darlings. “Don’t touch them!”
“Muir, what’s the matter with you?” Paula asked.
“Well, they are lovely,” Helen said. “You just have to get used to the smell. I’d like to buy one.”
“They aren’t for sale,” Muir said. “They’re mine.”
“Honey,” Paula said. “You and I are going to have a talk about those flowers later.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he said, gesturing to them to go away. He looked down at the soil in anticipation. He was practically salivating.
Paula and Mr. Gadd walked away with furrows of worry on their brows. Helen followed, but was looking back at the flowers from time to time.
“Paula?” she asked. “Before I go, could I please borrow your purple hat? I’d like to take it to the haberdasher to have him help design a copy for me. Your hat is so unique, and so pretty. May I copy it, please?”
“Sure,” Paula said. “As soon as we’re done here with Mr. Gadd, I’ll take you over to the house and give it to you.”
“Thanks,” Helen said.
Muir just kept grinning and staring at his flowers, and at the soil where the seeds had fallen and sunk into.
On either side of the two flowers, he saw two little thin stalks growing.
As soon as the greenhouse was empty of customers, which was a mere twenty minutes after Helen and Mr. Gadd left, Paula walked over to Muir, who was still watching the flowers. He was gazing at them in his usual, grinning daze.
“OK, Muir, what’s with you and those flow–” she began, then froze with widened eyes.
There were now four fully-grown flowers.
“Muir, where did you get that flower, the first one, I mean?”
“I didn’t,” he said, finally looking away from them. “I thought you got it.”
“I thought you got it,” she said. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.” He stepped back from the flowers, and turned his smile upside-down. “Who gave them to us, or rather, what did?”
“Let’s get away from them,” she said, taking him by the arm and pulling him back. “The smell is awful. That flower–those flowers–are giving me the creeps. How could two new flowers have grown out of nowhere so quickly?”
“Three new flowers. The second grew late last night.”
“My God. I’ve never seen that kind of flower in my life.”
“Nor have I. They’re a gift from heaven.”
“Or a curse from hell. In any case, they’re something completely alien. They’re…scary. Let’s throw them away. Let’s kill them.”
“No!” he shouted, picking up a trowel and aiming it at her heart. He scowled at her like a vicious dog, baring a few teeth like fangs; the hand holding the trowel was shaking.
Her whole body was now shaking.
The whites of almost all her eyeballs, it seemed, were showing as she stared at that trowel, then at his own wild eyes. Her eyes didn’t see her husband anymore, for his eyes weren’t the eyes of her husband–she was sure of that.
“Who…are you?” she almost sobbed, then ran out of the greenhouse and back home.
He looked down at the trowel he’d just threatened his wife with. “Indeed,” he gasped. Tears were soaking his eyes. He ran out after her, wanting to scream out an apology, but too ashamed to speak.
He’d been lying in bed, shaking, for the rest of the day. He was pale. An itch made him want to go back to the flowers…to see if they were safe and healthy, but he didn’t dare, for he sensed what they were doing to him, and making him like what they were doing.
Paula had been sitting on the sofa all day, rocking back and forth, but relieved that at least he understood he’d flipped his lid, and was staying away from the flowers. By the evening, she was finally starting to calm down.
Then Helen knocked on the front door. Paula answered the door.
“Yes, Helen,” she said with a smile to hide her fear. “Are you finished with my hat?”
“No, not yet,” Helen said. “It’s about those flowers. I know your husband doesn’t want to sell any of them, but I just must have one. I’ll pay you any amount he wants.”
“Well…they’re rather dang–I mean, I have a bad feeling about…” She looked up to the second-floor bedroom and thought about Muir, who, for all she knew, was much better now. “Well, maybe we can spare one flower and see what happens.”
Paula led Helen out to the greenhouse. When they reached the far corner where the new flowers were, they saw eight of them. The smell was overpowering.
“Are you sure you want one?” Paula asked Helen. “They smell awful. Oh!”
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Helen said. “If I grow only one, I should be able to tolerate the smell. They’re just so pretty and colourful.”
“OK, but you may find yourself with more than one flower, and sooner than you know. There’s something spooky about…”
“Oh, they’re just flowers. I can kill them if I don’t like them. But I must have one. I’ll give you $20 for one.” Helen held out a $20 bill for Paula, who took it.
“Well, OK,” Paula said. “Pick whichever one you like, not that there’s any variation between–”
Helen had already snatched one and run out of the greenhouse without even saying good night to Paula.
Well, Paula thought, at least we got rid of one of them. Muir won’t miss a flower he never saw grow, surely.
The next morning, Muir felt unable to stand staying away from his precious flowers anymore, so he ran out to the greenhouse to check up on them.
I saw four seeds fly out of my flowers after I last watered them, he thought as he approached them. I should see eight now. “What?” he shouted. “Only seven?”
He watered the remaining seven with feverish speed, watched seven little black seeds fly out and land in the surrounding soil, then ran back to the house. He found an axe in the basement, then looked up to the ground floor. He was gritting his teeth.
“Paula?” he called up to her. “Come down here.”
“What is it?” she said in a shaky voice as she began descending the stairs. He held the axe behind him as she continued down to the basement. “Are you feeling any better?”
“You sold one of my flowers, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t,” she said with a twitch.
“Don’t you lie to me! There should have been at least eight flowers in that corner of the greenhouse, where I reserved all that extra soil for my flowers. There are only seven there now. You sold one. It’s the only explanation.”
“Muir, if you can replace the flowers so easily with new ones, what do you care if you give up one or two? We could make a lot of money with them. Helen gave us twenty dollars for the one I sold her. She was as crazy about them as you are.” Tears were rolling down her cheeks as she presented the money in a trembling hand. “Here, I’ll give you her money. Every one of those flowers that we sell, you can have all the money made from them. I won’t take a cent of it.”
He clenched his bared teeth and brought the axe out front. He started walking towards her.
“Muir…what are you doing?” She stepped back with spastic legs. “I-I think, you’re losing your…you need to see a…doctor. The flowers are doing this to you.”
“You sold my flower,” he growled, raising the axe over his head. “Now I have to get it back from her, and that won’t be easy. It’s your fault.”
“Muir, my God! Don’t! No!”
He brought the axe down on her head, chopping it right down the middle, separating her cerebral hemispheres and spraying her blood everywhere.
After showering and changing his clothes, Muir drove over to Helen’s house down the street. He had a small knife in his jacket pocket.
Her husband was at work, and their kids were all at school. She was at home alone. He rang the doorbell.
“Mr. Cantell,” she said as she approached the door. She opened the screen door and let him in. “Are you here about the flower, or Paula’s hat? I know you didn’t want to part with any of them, but I loved them so much that I just had to have one.”
“Oh, that’s OK,” he lied. “I’d just like to see it one last time, if you don’t mind.”
She led him to the back of the house, where she had the flower.
“There it is,” he sighed, his heartbeat slowing down.
“Yes,” she said with a grin as wide as his. “It is so beautiful, and if you look…” she stepped in front and pointed at the surrounding soil with a trowel, “…a new flower is beginning to grow. See the thin, green stem?”
“Yes, I do,” he said as he pulled the knife out of his pocket. He slowly brought it over to her neck.
“These flowers are a gift that keeps on giving, aren’t they?” she said, still gawking at the flower with dazed eyes and a toothy smile as his knife reached a centimetre or two from her throat.
“Yes, but only one person can have them,” he said.
“You’re right,” she said. Me!”
She spun around and stabbed him in the gut with the trowel. He’d only managed to slice a shallow, thin red line along the back of her neck.
He fell to the floor with a thud; only the handle of the trowel was sticking out of his stomach. A pool of blood surrounded his body in a growing circle.
She grabbed a nearby tissue and pressed it against her neck to stop the blood. Then she squatted down. “I knew you’d kill your wife for selling me the flower, and that you’d want to kill me for taking it from you,” she said. “Such is the power those flowers have over us. But now that you Cantells are gone, I can take over the greenhouse, and have all the flowers to myself. Oh, don’t worry: I won’t sell any of them.”
She cleaned up the basement, wrapped his body in old, dirty blankets, then took it out to his car, checking to make sure no one was around in the neighbourhood: everyone was either at work or at school, and the only other housewife of their area, a gossipy middle-aged woman named Mrs. Granville, lived far off on the other end of the street, to the far side of the greenhouse; so Helen figured she was safe from being seen.
She had his car keys, put on Paula’s hat, then drove away to a forest out of town to bury the body there. She drove back the Cantells’ house and found Paula’s body in the basement.
Showing no emotion at the gory sight of the body (for owning those flowers was infinitely more important to her), Helen disposed of it near Muir’s.
Now the greenhouse was hers.
When the neighbours wondered why Helen was running the Cantells’ greenhouse business, her excuse was that Muir and Paula had suddenly decided to take a vacation, since they’d been stressed lately. The neighbours were suspicious of Helen running the business in place of the Cantells, since she had no experience in gardening or selling flowers. What’s more, Helen was more interested in watching over those new flowers, which by now numbered over thirty, than selling the others, which were dying from neglect.
When the customers realized Helen had no intention of selling any of the new flowers, which soon became the vast majority of those in the greenhouse, they all left with frowns.
Mr. Gadd stopped by a week after the murders, and found himself concerned not so much from the change from the Cantells’ to Helen’s management, but about how identical her attitude was to Muir’s.
And the smell of that greenhouse, now with only the identical-looking flowers, put him in a staggering daze once he’d entered.
As he walked back to his car, his staggering changing into normal walking after about ten seconds from exiting the greenhouse, he saw Mrs. Granville sitting on her porch, her mouth in a permanent pout and her eyes and ears out like antennae.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Gadd,” she called out to him.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Granville,” he said, then put a small plastic bag in his glove compartment.
“Why didn’t you buy any flowers today?” she asked.
“None to buy that are of interest to me,” he said.
“What about all those pretty new flowers they have, the ones that all look like clones of each other?”
“You mean the silvery-gold-red ones? That’s all they have now. Over fifty of them, I’d say.”
“Well, why not buy one of those?”
“Nah. I don’t like them.”
“I don’t blame you. They all stink. They’re evil, too.”
“That’s the feeling I’ve always had of them. They have an evil charm.”
“C’mere, Mr. Gadd,” she said with a sly smirk and squinted eyes. “I’ll bet I know something you don’t about what’s going on over there.”
“What’s that?” he asked as he approached her porch.
“Y’know how Helen’s supposed to be watching over the greenhouse while the Cantells are in Florida?”
“Yeah, I heard. There’s no way they can afford a two-week vacation in Miami Beach.”
“Well, I remember seeing Helen buy one of those evil flowers, when none of ‘em were supposed to be for sale. She also borrowed one of Paula’s hats, her purple one, the day before she bought that flower. I saw Helen twice driving the Cantells’ car wearing that hat. She’d dragged something big and heavy into the car from the Cantells’ house. Big and heavy enough to be a body.”
“Are you sure?” Gadd asked.
“Yes. I think Helen killed the Cantells to get at those flowers. They’re supposed to return from their ‘vacation’ at the end of next week. I’ll make a million-dollar bet that Helen will still be running the greenhouse business, saying she doesn’t know what happened to the Cantells, then eventually make us believe they were murdered in Miami Beach instead of here.”
“Could be. There’s something about those flowers. Something in the smell. A smell of…covetousness.”
“I agree. That’s what I smelled, and I recoiled instantly upon smelling it. A smell honest people could never stand. You watch Helen over the next week. I sure will.”
“Yes, we should watch her.”
But Helen was watching them from the greenhouse, noting their scowling looks at her.
Two days later, Mrs. Granville went over to the greenhouse to see what was going on over there. She stood just outside, looking through the glass to see, but not smell, the goings-on inside.
She gasped at what she saw.
Helen, pale, was swinging a knife at men and women who were trying to take her flowers; worse, the men and women had knives of their own, and stabbed not only at her, but at each other. Helen would need a larger bandage than the one along the back of her neck to cover the bloody gash along her left forearm.
A woman she’d stabbed in the back was lying dead on the floor between her and the other fighting customers, all of whom had cuts and gashes on their arms or legs. All of them ignored the pain, so focused were they on getting control of all the flowers. Some jealously held flowerpots in the arms that weren’t brandishing knives.
Mrs. Granville backed away from the window of the greenhouse when she saw Helen’s scowling eyes aiming murderously at hers. With a shaky hand, she took her cellphone out of her handbag and tried tapping a phone number, grunting in nervous annoyance whenever she tapped any wrong numbers. Finally, she finished dialling.
“Hello?” Mr. Gadd said.
“This is Mrs. Granville,” she said. “The situation with Helen and the flowers is much worse now.”
“How many are there now? In the hundreds?”
“Yes, but that’s not the worst part. She and several customers are swinging knives at each other, trying to take over the greenhouse and have all the flowers to themselves. One woman’s lying on the floor dead…Oh! I just saw a man stabbed and falling–he must be dead, too. All the others, including Helen, are cut and wounded, but still fighting as if they hadn’t a spot of blood on them.”
“They’re swinging knives at each other in broad daylight?” Gadd asked. “They aren’t worried about cops coming to stop them?”
“Of course not. The flowers have driven them all mad.”
“I’m coming over there.”
“Why? It’s dangerous. I should call the police.”
“No! Not yet. They won’t understand what needs to be done. The flowers must all be destroyed.” He sighed, then continued. “Arresting a few people won’t end this problem. As long as there are flowers, people will fight to have them. I’m on my way. Bye.”
He hung up.
Mrs. Granville watched in helpless horror as the fighting continued. She kept backing up slowly, without noticing the curb as her feet neared it.
A man swung his knife in an arc from right to left, slicing Helen across the guts and tearing them open. Shc buckled and fell to the floor, with parts of her intestines snaking out of the wound, coated in blood.
The man reached for the flowerpot she was holding and caught it before she hit the floor, but a woman stabbed him in the back and snatched the flower from him.
“Aah!” Mrs. Granville screamed not only from the violence, but also from tripping over the curb and hitting the road, hurting her right elbow.
A car raced over and was about to hit her in the face. She screamed, but the car stopped, the bumper just a few inches away from her nose. Mr. Gadd got out of the car and ran over to the greenhouse. He had a container of gasoline.
He began running around the greenhouse, pouring gasoline all along the perimeter. Once he’d finished his tour around the greenhouse, he flicked a cigarette lighter and reached down to the ground.
“Oh, my God!” she said, moaning in pain as she fought to get back on her feet. She limped back to her house, saying, “Still, if those people are mad enough to kill each other over that devil of a flower, maybe they should all burn in the hell of their greed.”
She reached her porch. By the time she’d sat down, rubbing her elbow, she saw a rectangle of fire surrounding the greenhouse. Gadd raced back to his car and drove off.
One woman, the one who’d stabbed Helen’s killer in the back, was the sole survivor of the knife fight…though she wouldn’t survive much longer.
The flowers by the glass were bursting into flame. As they burned, they made a chorus of squeals so shrill and ear-piercing, they made the screeching violins of horror movie soundtracks seem soothing.
More and more flowers burned and screamed. The woman joined in the screaming as the flames moved further and further inside, inching closer to her and the three flowerpots she was squeezing to her chest in a futile effort to protect them.
“No!” she screamed. “My flowers! They’re dying!”
By the time a fire truck and police cars had arrived, she and all the flowers had burned to a crisp.
Still on her porch and watching everything, Mrs. Granville called Mr. Gadd on her cellphone again.
“Are all the flowers dead?” he asked her.
“Every last one of them, thank God,” she said. “The last surviving woman in that fight perished, too. So awful.”
“Yeah. I feel bad about having caused such a loss of life, but you know as well as I do that those flowers had to be killed, to stop the cycle of human violence. Sometimes you have to make difficult sacrifices to avoid worse suffering.”
“I agree. She was a killer for those evil flowers, so I don’t feel much sympathy for her. Honest people like you and me would never allow ourselves to covet those flowers. Don’t worry, Mr. Gadd, I won’t tell the police what you did.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Granville,” he said. “Well, I have a few things to do, so if you’ll excuse me, we can discuss the rest of this later, OK?”
“Yes, of course,” she said. “We both need a rest from all of this violence. Goodbye, Mr. Gadd.” They hung up.
Mr. Gadd took the little bag out of the glove compartment of his car and went over to his garden.
Now that there aren’t any more of those flowers around elsewhere, I’ll feel safe doing this, he thought. I hated having to kill all of them, but sometimes you have to make great sacrifices to avoid worse violence.
He opened the bag and sprinkled little black seeds on the soil.