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The Scientist’s Garden

by Heather J. Frederick

Whenever the scientist went out of town, Lysa invited me over for dinner. The scientist, her husband, was famous in his field — some kind of biology — and traveled often to conferences all over the world. Between trips, he organized grad students and grants and “puttered in his gardens, as any old man with a beautiful, young wife has a right and obligation to do.”

“They’re gorgeous,” I’d said, meaning the gardens he was showing me: two fenced enclosures half an acre each, filled with raised beds and trellises and guarded circumferentially by deer netting and motion-sensing sprinklers. He’d just hired me, their new neighbor, to mow their acres of landscaped lawns.

“My wife’s got the gorgeous ones,” the scientist cackled. “And they’re all mine!” He swatted my hand. “Keep your hands off the pole beans, young man. They’re invasive.”

Mad scientist, I thought. He was eighty years old if he was a day. Knock-kneed and stooped, flyaway white hair, and that crazy laugh. What kind of beautiful young wife is he dreaming about?

I hadn’t met Lysa yet. Once I did, I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, have tried to compete. But I was a young man with no wife, and I did anyway.

Tonight I’d changed from my usual cut-off jeans to black cargo pants and t-shirt, and I walked up her drive swinging my deliberately cheap bottle of wine, as anything more expensive would have been too obvious a courtship gesture. A new slew of “Ban GMO” and “Only God should play God” fliers had been stapled to her post. Yet again, I ripped them off. The inexplicable sign underneath brought a smile: “Beware of chickens.” Someday I’d bring a marker and add, “Beware of beans: They shoot first, ask questions later.”

I shouldn’t have waited. But how could I have known?

It was high summer, and our evenings of food, wine, and conversation had a habit of tapering into the witching hour. Most nights we dined in their outdoor kitchen. She flipped burgers at the grill, chicken for her and bean for me.

The beans from their garden were prolific. Bright green pole beans, bush beans, and a thriving variety of black, which I didn’t think grew north of Mexico. Tonight she was wrapped in a towel over her bikini, still wet from the pool. When I asked why they — a childless couple — had two kitchens large enough to feed ten, she merely replied, “My husband the scientist is a perfectionist when it comes to food.”

Under the flickering lights of the tiki torches, her smooth olive complexion glowed from her self-admitted addiction to full sun. I used to tease her for it — my dad was a dermatologist — but lately, I’d noticed myself doing the same thing. Standing in my driveway, soaking up noon’s almost too-hot burn.

After dinner we sipped the last of the wine and shared homemade peach ice cream over a minuscule end table that brought our knees into a do-or-die face-off. Propriety lost, and they intertwined.

I perched on the edge of my seat, waiting for any hint of permission to move closer...

“Have you ever thought,” she asked, “about why you’re a vegetarian?”

I sagged back, rejected. Furthermore, the idea of responding filled me with anxiety. Is she tired of making me veggie burgers? I’d been vegetarian for so long — two months now — I suppose I’d simply lost my taste for meat. But I didn’t feel like admitting I’d only become one to impress my last girlfriend, who dumped me anyway.

“If I raised such healthy animals on my own land,” I finally said. “I might not be.”

She leaned in closer. “They die for you. Would you do the same?”

Her green eyes flashed with intensity. I feared our future was on the line. That, and my dinners. “I own a gun. But I’d rather not use it.”

“Hmmm.” Her glance lost focus and wandered over my shoulder. “I wish that were enough.”

She looked lonely, almost scared. I couldn’t help but wonder if the question had something to do with her husband’s work. Protesters had been picketing his lab with such bizarre posters, they’d made the headlines of the newspaper: “Chicken Fights Coyotes, Who Will Be Next?” And: “Keep Jumping Genes In the Beans.”

I had no idea what they meant.

My hand was next to Lysa’s on the table, and the inch separating it from hers pulsed with heat, as if my fingers yearned to grow tendrils and bridge the distance, but I firmly kept them in place. I didn’t want to ask about her husband. All I wanted was to bring her back to me.

“You’re an amazing cook,” I said, “No matter the ingredients.”

She shook her head and smiled, a little. “Oh, Kyle. It’s all about the ingredients.” She held up her glass for a clink.

I clinked. We drank.

“Is it just me,” I said, “or are your eyes greener than they were last week?”

I’d meant it as the flirtation it sounded. But as I said it, I looked more closely and realized they were.

“Yours, too,” she said.

A chill shivered through me. I have brown eyes.

The confusion of the moment bridged our glance into a gaze, our lighthearted smiles into that look of mutual wonderment and recognition. I dared not move for fear of ruining it.

Except the ants had found us, violated us, and were marching over my sticky fingers. I hate bugs. I forced myself still.

She reached across the distance and touched my hand.

My heart soared. The ants were forgotten. With her touch some tumbler fell into place. She became part of me, and I couldn’t imagine it ever being any other way.

And she dropped something into her bowl of ice cream — an ant she’d picked off the back of my hand. With her spoon she scooped it up and ate it.

My stomach lurched.

“I love my husband, Kyle.”

I lurched again. She’d ripped me out, roots and all. Meanwhile, all the wrong words jumped into my head. But what about me? This is my home, too! Where had that come from?

I wanted to say them — I wish I’d said anything — but then gunshots destroyed the night.

My first thought — It’s him! How did he know? — should have catapulted me to action. To hide, if nothing else. But I froze. I waited for Lysa to say something.

Instead, she jumped to her feet and waved her arms, her head bobbing up and down. Was she choking? Trying to scream? Her eyes narrowed, darted wildly around, and when they focused on me she hissed, an ugly, horrible sound. She was terrified, I realized.

But of what was coming? Or what was happening to her?

More gunshots. She pushed herself away from the table, and stumbled toward the farmyard, arms still flapping.

In a moment of nauseating clarity, I saw myself for the coward — and fool — I was. This violence was out of proportion for an irate husband, who, despite my intentions, hadn’t been wronged. We were under attack.

The hollow crash of bullets hitting glass and metal tolled the death of her Mercedes. They hit the henhouse next, and the squawking of chickens joined the cacophony.

Oh, dear God, no. I saw where she was heading and finally pushed myself up from my chair. I ran to stop her.

I was too late. I watched the rest of it, hidden behind the oak I’d fantasized about pressing her against for our first kiss. When I saw the inside of the henhouse, my stomach churned. I realized that sometimes, there is a key. Love can be undone.

She had palmed the front door, and it gaped open still. The lights had come on automatically. In the midst of birds biting, clawing, and skewering with strange, rapier-thin beaks, she stood, a mess of feathers, blood, and chicken shit. She crowed, then knelt. From hen to hen, she nuzzled necks, bumped butts, and herded. She was organizing, I realized.

She was acting the rooster.

There were only three gunmen, but between them they had a lot of firepower. AK-47s, if I had to guess. Everyone thinks guys just know these things, but I live on my own farm and have a truck covered in peace sign bumper stickers.

My gun was not an AK-47.

One of the men, in black fatigues and ski mask, poked his head in the door from around the side. Most chickens surrender at the slightest shadow. Come and get me, hawk, they say. I won’t be no trouble. Lysa’s chicken flew at him, and he lost an eye from a well-aimed beak.

But he was no coyote. The guy in black aimed his gun and fired once.

Whether he hit what he was aiming for or not, I’ll never know. But Lysa’s back arched in a spasm of pain. Blood blossomed high in her right chest. She writhed once and died.

I felt sick with terror and loss. I let myself slide to the ground. As soon as my hands reached the coolness of the dirt, I clutched the moist soil, digging for purchase as if my life depended on it.

The gunman stepped into the chicken house and opened fire. Everything in it died. If there were mice in the rafters, they died when the building collapsed. If there were spiders in the cobwebs, they died when the whole pile was set on fire.

More people in fatigues showed up and set fire to the vegetable gardens and the house. It was the black night of a new moon and the oak was old and wide, and I hid behind it while the estate went up in flames.

Paralysis and fear went well with me, and I had plenty of time to think about that as I pretended to be a tree in the dark.

But of course they found me.

It was long after midnight. I had to pee. I had to cry. I didn’t know which problem was worse. A few minutes later, someone tripped over my feet.

“Hello, what do we have here?” It was an unreasonably friendly young voice.

I grunted. I’m not the kind of guy who had his last words picked out, and I couldn’t think of anything to say.

“We’re only after the genetic stock, you know.” A long gun — a shadow in the night — dangled from his hand.

I remained sitting, not reassured.

His next words sealed my fate, but I didn’t know it yet. He knelt and put his face too close to mine. “You do know about her husband’s work, right?”

I knew Lysa wanted, secretly, to be a chef. That she laughed at my bad jokes. That she went to medical school, but never practiced because of her husband’s job. But I had been a psych major. I didn’t really know what he did.

I took a guess. “Something with genetics?”

A harsh laugh. “In the same way Oppenheimer did ‘something with physics’, yeah.”

“And you just destroyed... all of it? His life? His work? His wife?

“The same way people tried to stop the nuclear bomb from being built, yeah.”

My turn to laugh. “How’d that work out in the long run?”

“Do you really think we know yet?”

A pat on the knee and he stood up. “You’ll thank us someday. Genetically modified food has its place, but the world wasn’t ready for what he did.”

“What’s so bad about genetically modified food?”

He shot me a look of pity and Don’t you read the news? “Look what eating their ‘free-range, coyote-fighting’ chickens did to his wife — Do you think she even knew? I just worked for the guy — thank God I never ate his food.”

He walked away. At first, all I felt was terrible, selfish relief. Lysa, beautiful Lysa was gone — but I hadn’t, of course, eaten the chicken.

I guess it was worth being a vegetarian after all.

After hours of sitting there, his words still echoed in my ears... Thank God I never ate his food...

I almost wished he’d killed me, too. Because each time I thought of a way to get up, it slipped away. And the longer I sat on the ground, the rest of that night, the more I felt like staying. As if I were growing... roots.

Copyright © 2014 by Heather J. Frederick

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