Conservatory — 1986
Megan knew people talked about her. Whenever she came into a room, adults stopped talking in their low, earnest voices, and their grim faces would stretch into fake, painted-on smiles meant to make her feel wanted and welcome. She saw through it to the pity underneath. And she hated it.
At school, she heard whispers around her as she walked to class, felt eyes boring into the back of her head. No pity there, at least. Only questions no one dared ask her directly. Poor little orphan girl. Tragic. How did her parents die, again? Curiosity colored by distrust.
But it didn’t keep them from buying what she had to sell.
As if prompted by the thought, a tap on the greenhouse door startled her. A pale face pressed against the glass. Quick breaths clouded the thick pane.
Megan wiped her hands on her jeans and opened the door.
David Spencer fell across the threshold, catching himself before spilling across the floor. “It worked,” he said, trying to catch his breath. “She said yes. But I need more before I pick her up tonight. This can’t go wrong.”
Desperation lay across his face, and his eyes were underlined with smudges like small bruises.
Megan stood impassive, regarding him. “Come back later. I don’t have any right now.”
The captain of the Arnold F. Brisbane High School football team made a sound like a quarterback speared in the gut by a linebacker. “You can’t be out. I need it.” He grabbed the front of Megan’s t-shirt in desperation. “You have to give me more.”
Megan’s lips curled into a syrupy sweet smile, and she peeled his fingers loose. “Come back tomorrow, football head.” She shoved him through the door and latched it behind him. He stood on the stepping stones in the side yard, stricken and forlorn. She turned her back and ignored him. He gave up and left a few minutes later.
Megan pinched off a dead leaf from an African violet and moved down the line of healthy plants, plucking away the shriveled castoffs. She grunted in satisfaction as she prodded the damp soil.
A black and white cat watched her with one leery eye while it licked its paw and smoothed the fur on its ears. As Megan rounded the finished row and moved to one along the glass wall, the cat made a quick burr sound deep in its throat, then darted over to wind around Megan’s ankles.
“Go away,” Megan said without looking down. “I’m busy.”
The cat mewed at her and persisted. Megan nudged it away with the top of her shoe. “Go.”
Whimpers from the far corner of her row startled the cat. It hissed and ran from the conservatory, tail bristling and ears flat.
Megan hustled toward the sound, anxious to quell it before it became too loud to hide.
“Shhh,” she said. She stroked the quivering leaves and cooed in a soft voice. “Mama’s here. Don’t cry, pretty Baby.”
The plant sniffled, and the nostril-like slits in its flat face oozed sappy fluid. Its tiny black eyes opened to the size of dimes and fixed on the girl’s face. “Mmmr?”
“I know you’re hungry, sweetie, but you have to give Mama something to work with first.”
Tears welled up and dribbled down the green face, distorting the bright yellow speckles spattered across its waxy surface. The stalks that stood out on either side of the cabbage head shook, and a gash opened below the nostrils, forming a mouth. A mouth gearing up for a tantrum.
Megan’s hands fluttered in panic. “No, no! Aunt Sophie should be home any minute.” She stuffed a knuckle into the open maw, and the infant sucked it like a pacifier. “There you go. See? That’s better.” The girl used her other hand to prod the soil with her fingers. She nodded, grabbed the nearby watering can, and poured liquid into the flower pot. The water welled up to the edge, then drained away into the plate beneath it.
“Aomph,” the plant said, spitting out Megan’s finger. It squinched its face, pudgy cheeks turning a deeper green.
“That’s it, sweetheart. There you go.” She stroked the leaves circling the head, offering encouragement. The two side-stalks jerked, and blue-green veins rose to the surface. The tips grew dark and round, then popped open like eyeballs. Megan clapped her hands. “You did it! Good for you!”
She plucked the marble-sized pods from where they nestled, and placed them on the table. Crooning a lullaby, she petted her little cabbage baby until it slept. “Cabbage Patch Kids, growin’ in the garden. Cabbage Patch Kids, growin’ in the sun…”
She grabbed the two pods and tiptoed away. Water was good for a short nap, but Baby needed to be fed.
“Megan, are you out there?” Aunt Sophie stuck her head into the room, arms filled with groceries.
Megan rolled her eyes. “Where else would I be?”
Aunt Sophie plastered on her best fake smile. Megan knew it wasn’t real. The clenched jaw gave it away.
“I just wanted to remind you we’re having the McDonalds’ over for dinner tonight. I know you like to eat out here, but for tonight, could you clean up and join us as a family?”
Clean up? Megan looked down at her t-shirt. Dirt and sap smudged the front of the Bon Jovi graphic, obscuring the letters and making it look like the “ippery hen et tour.”
“When do I have to be out there?”
“Dinner’s at seven. I’m making my lemon chicken.” Aunt Sophie disappeared down the hall without waiting for an answer.
Megan made a face. She hated lemon chicken. It was sour, for one thing. And dry. And the McDonalds were awful people who didn’t know anything about birth control. Wall to wall kids tonight.
And Baby would wake up in a few hours, hungry.
Heaving a sigh, she checked her black plastic Swatch. Three hours. She nodded. Enough, if she worked hard.
Aunt Sophie and Uncle Charlie had given Megan the heavy mortar and pestle for her birthday last month. It was the largest they could find. They’d given her a hard time about it, at first. Why did a seventeen-year-old girl need something like that? She told them it was to grind seeds. They still looked puzzled, but they bought it for her.
She gathered the new pods and added them to a pile of others she’d been collecting for several weeks. Up until today, she’d only ground one at a time. One was more than enough for several desperate teenagers to hand over pieces of their college funds. The grinding was difficult, especially since the pods hadn’t dried out much. Still. They were fairly dry to begin with and, with some work, a fine powder filled the bowl. It was quite a pile.
Startled, Megan looked up from her work to find Mr. All American at the door again. His hair hung lank around his ears and the bruising under his eyes was more apparent. She let him in.
“I said come back tomorrow.” Megan smiled up at him, mimicking her aunt’s forced brightness. “But I just finished a fresh batch.”
David’s eyes lit up, and some of the color came back to his cheeks. “Really?”
“Would I lie?” Megan didn’t wait for an answer. “Sit over there.” She pointed at a wrought-iron patio chair next to a small table.
She drew him a glass of tap water from the hose and sprinkled a tiny bit of the white powder into it. It bubbled and churned, then went clear and still. Her chin pointed over her shoulder at him. “You’ve got money?”
He rummaged in his pockets while she carried the glass to him. A wad of tens scattered across the table. “Is that enough?”
She prodded the pile with her hand, then nodded, satisfied. “That’ll do.” She set the glass down in front of him and stuffed the cash in her jeans. “You know how this works. Concentrate hard on what you want, then drink.”
David took a deep breath and straightened his letterman jacket. “I want Jen to love me.”
“Yeah. I wish. I wish Jen would love me.” He took another minute to focus, his eyes following a drip on the side of his tumbler. His fingers curled around the glass, and he downed the water in three quick gulps. His baby blues lost focus, and the cup slipped out of his hand, bouncing to the floor.
Megan picked it up. “And that’s why we always use plastic out here,” she said to his sleeping form. She snorted. “Like Jen would’ve turned you down in the first place. Idiot.” The powder gave a false confidence and sense of euphoria for awhile. It wasn’t difficult to convince people with weak minds it could grant wishes.
On the other side of the room, Baby stirred awake. “Urrm?” it said, calling to her. She wound her way through the foliage and patted the little head. “Go ahead, sweetheart. I know you’re hungry.”
The plant closed its black eyes, humming and swaying to its own odd music. Megan went back to David and watched thick tendrils of light radiate off his skin and float in Baby’s direction. There wasn’t as much as last time. It took no time before the light grew thin and weak. By the time it went out, Megan realized her mistake. She felt for a pulse. Usually, Baby fed for a little while, then got full and stopped.
There hadn’t been much left of David to take.
“Well, shit.” Megan ran her hands through her hair. Obviously, she’d have to find a place to dump the body later, something more permanent. Far back under the tables would do for now. No one ever came in here but her. She dragged him backwards by the armpits and shoved him out of the way. Checking her watch, she realized they’d expect her for dinner in a few minutes.
Before she left, she checked on her little one. It smacked its lipless mouth and smiled up at her. “Erm?”
“Look at you, all glowing and pretty.” Megan fluffed the leaves around its head, admiring the glossiness and increased size. “That added a good three inches to you.” She squinted and looked closely at the plant’s base. “Are those new stalks I see?”
Baby grinned and babbled at her.
She leaned in and gave it a kiss on its smooth face. “Mama has to leave for a little while. I won’t be long, sweetheart.”
Megan scraped the pile of white powder into a plastic bag. It was more than she usually sold in two months.
“Mama’s going to help with dinner, Baby. They’re having lemon chicken.” She smiled and shook the bag. “And you’re having McDonalds.”