—FROM THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PARASITOLOGY, PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 2015.
San Bruno officials have as yet made no statement relating to the strange events at the downtown San Bruno Mall, although one mall employee has reported a strange smell in the area of the second-floor public restrooms. Sources indicate that a gas leak of some kind may have triggered the strange behavior in the five individuals affected by what locals have begun calling “the Sleeping Sickness.”
All five of the victims of this strange outbreak have been hospitalized, and are being held in quarantine pending further updates on their condition…
—FROM THE CONTRA COSTA TIMES, AUGUST 7, 2027.
The morning dawned bright, early, and awkward. Joyce was sullen and refused to talk during breakfast; Mom was already gone by the time I got up. I had an e-mail from Nathan apologizing for not calling me the night before; there had been a sudden surge of patients at the ER, bad enough that it overwhelmed the normal doctors and caused them to call as many specialists as they could lure out of their labs. As a staff parasitologist, Nathan was accustomed to doing ER rounds—there were medical conditions that could be alleviated by making adjustments to the patient’s SymboGen implant, and others that could kill the implants, requiring them to be extracted immediately, before decomposition could set in. There were very few medical emergencies that could be improved by having two and a half pounds of dead tapeworm decaying in the patient’s gut.
I might have thought that the influx of patients was somehow related to what Joyce and I saw at the mall, but he was using the code words that meant “accident.” I didn’t like to think about car crashes, and so he avoided discussing them with me in any specific terms. He invited me to come to the hospital for lunch. Since I didn’t have to be at the shelter that day, I wrote back saying I’d be there. Anything to get out of the house.
Dad and Joyce were leaving for work at ten: unusually late, but a concession they were sometimes able to make when I needed a ride. They dropped me off six blocks from the hospital, at a little florist’s shop I’d discovered during my outpatient physical therapy. The shop always had terrible roses. They made up for it by having some of the most beautiful orchids I’d ever seen—but that wasn’t their specialty: McNally’s Flowers specialized in carnivorous plants.
The bell over the door rang as I stepped into the warm, moist confines of the shop. There was no one in sight. “Hello?” I called. The store’s orange tabby came strolling out from a rack of vases, his tail held in a high, relaxed position. I knelt to offer him my hand. “Hey, Tumbleweeds. How are you today? Where are your people?”
Tumbleweeds deigned to walk over and sniff my fingers before butting his head against the back of my hand. Then he turned and walked away again, having accomplished his duty as store greeter.
“You’re lucky,” said a voice. I lifted my head. The owner, Marya, was standing near the cooler where she kept the substandard but seemingly obligatory roses. She was a tall, solid woman with long black hair and a narrow waist that she kept cinched in a wide leather belt at all times. I sometimes found myself wondering whether she would explode if the belt was removed.
She kept smiling as she strolled toward the front of the store, adding, “Tumbles has been standoffish lately. People come in, and he snubs them. He even hissed at a poor woman yesterday. She’d come in to buy flowers for her husband, and here’s my cat, hissing at her.”
“Did you sell her flowers anyway?” I asked, straightening up.
“Four dozen of the long-stemmed red roses.” Marya clucked her tongue. “I tried to steer her toward something worth giving to a person who doesn’t feel his best—who wants my roses when they’re already unwell?—but eh, can’t steer a person who won’t be steered, now, can we? She seemed happy enough.”
I laughed. “You can’t save everyone,” I said.
“No, I suppose I can’t,” Marya mildly agreed. “What can I get for you today? Something sweet and covered in pretty blossoms?”
“I was hoping you had some new sundews, actually,” I said. “Nathan had a hard night last night. I wanted to bring him something pretty.”
“Ah! A discerning customer is the joy of a retailer’s heart.” Marya waved for me to follow her to the back of the store, where another glass door stood between the common flowers and the more exotic climate-controlled carnivorous plants. She held the door open for me, waiting until I was past her before closing it tight and flicking on the overhead lights. “Browse as you like, I’ve nothing better to do.”
Marya’s attitude wasn’t as odd as it seemed, despite the fact that she was the only one currently working. The bell over the door would ring if anybody else came in, and her true joy was selling her carnivorous babies. Having someone who actually wanted to look at sundews was worth any number of missed opportunities to sell bad roses to tourists.
“I have some gorgeous King Sundews,” she said, guiding me toward one of the trays of plants resting under their heat lamps, sticky petals spread toward the absent sun. The largest of the King Sundews was bigger than my palm, with beads of delicate pink “dew” clinging to the cilia of its long, green and orange fronds. “They just came in day before yesterday; you’re the first one who’s come in to see them.”
From her proprietary tone, I could tell what she wanted to hear, and I was happy to give it to her: “Oh, Marya, they’re gorgeous,” I breathed, crouching down to study the sundews with a careful eye. They were no less impressive up close. “What are the care notes?”