“How long were you gone?” Jason asked. His face was screwed up into a look of confusion with just a hint of judgment.
“I wasn’t even gone a full day! I left for Carol’s at 8 and came back before noon today. It looked fine when I left!” Nicole raised her hand to her brow and rubbed. “At least I think it did.” She looked down at the hard brown knot of sticks and leaves that had once been a brilliant purple ficus benjamina-style plant. She stared at it and moved her hands from her head to the soil around the stem, half believing that a clue to its sudden death would reveal itself. Nothing of the sort happened.
“Maybe it was aphids? Or a fungus or something. The leaves look weird.” Jason reached for a leaf and it fell into his hand as soon as he touched it along with four others that littered the table. He inspected it with the care and precision of someone that has more concern than facts to contribute to the matter. The leaf was dark brown and dry as parchment. It was shriveled like a used juice pouch, its edges crumbled toward the center.
Nicole pulled her finger out of the soil and wiped off the clinging dirt on the side of the pot. “Its still wet in there! I don’t get it.”
“Yeah that’s weird as fuck. I’d go back to Grow and see if they’ll take back custom jobs. I’m really sorry, I know how excited you were to get one of these things.” Jason felt a little guilty. Not only had he insisted that she splurge for a custom color, but he had been the first person to show her the trendy new plants popping up in windows across the city.
They had been walking to lunch when Nicole pointed to a ruby read ivy plant growing in the flowerbed of a brownstone. “Look at that! It’s not even October and that ivy is already turning.”
“No that’s one of those plants with all the weird colors or whatever.”
“The what?” Nicole tried to sound like a curmudgeon but she scared herself when the words came out like an infomercial host.
“It’s that company that sells these plants in wacky colors, they breed them that way. You can get almost anything if you’re willing to wait a few hours and pay extra. They grow super fast too so you can prune them into the shape of a goose or whatever and it’ll grow back out in a week and you can do something else. I think the company is called Grow, just about everyone in my building has one of their plants.” They both studied the permanently red ivy and agreed that it detracted from the uniqueness of fall and wondered if it turned blue or some other weird color before the leaves fell off in the winter. They also agreed that if Grow started making anymore more than ornamental house plants they would finally go to one of those Back to Earth First rallies that their friend Ray kept inviting them to, so long as they were drunk when they did it.
The ivy leaves, in fact, turned a dark purple in autumn. At least that was what the tag said on the Grow store’s floor model. Jason had dragged Nicole there after work despite her insistence that she’d probably order one online when her insomnia kicked in later in the week. “You know I’ll do it!” It was no use, as Jason practically pushed her through the doors of the store and into the bright full spectrum light that kept the floor models alive. Her eyes had barely adjusted to the light before a tall man in a polo shirt approached her and asked if she was ready to take home her new favorite plant. She murmured something like “I think so.”
His hands came together in an awkward gesture that looked as though his left side was shaking the hand of his right. “Let me show you what’s been popular in your area. You live in the park neighborhood, correct? Man, could you imagine what an entire park of Grow Plants would look like? Rad right?.”
“Yeah…” Nicole almost asked how he knew where she lived but quickly remembered she had reset her phone the other day and forgotten to reinstall AdBlock. The stupid thing probably tattled on her as soon as she walked in the door. She made a note of the tiny black device in the tall man’s left ear. “But you don’t do that right? You only sell house plants.”
“Yup! Just house plants and we rent Christmas trees starting in October. Its really too bad the FDA won’t let us plant anything in uncontained soil. If you make a purchase today we hope you also agree to sign our petition to start trials for agricultural research.” Nicole made a face that caused the tall man to change the subject, “So what are you interested in? Someone just around the block from you bought this beautiful red ivy—“
“No, I don’t think I want something that looks…” Nicole hesitated as she threw out the first word that came to mind, searched for another, but reluctantly decided that the first word was the right one, “Um, real?”
“Totally! That’s cool. Well we have some that detect your mood and change colors based on how you’re feeling –very retro—but that’s probably not something you want using your phone’s battery all day, right? Doesn’t look like you keep those ambient sensors running, I get it, I don’t want my phone telling me how long I’ve been standing here all day!” Nicole realized that the tall man had subtly shifted from the usual overly-familiar conversation of a customer associate to the mild flirtations of the newly single. It was annoying. She made a nod of agreement and excused herself to a touchscreen that advertised custom plants. Jason was already poking at the screen and he beckoned her to joined him.
The options were almost overwhelming. She played with sliders and color palettes, selected “no” each time there was an offer to add some sort of functionality that required permissions to access her phone’s ambient sensors. “Why would I want a plant that glows when my pizza delivery arrives?” Jason made several convincing arguments but none of them justified the extra twenty dollars she would have to spend. The plant she walked out with was blind, deaf, and beautiful, just the way she wanted.
But now that plant was dead and Nicole’s sadness surprised her. Intellectually she knew it was just a plant but she had taken such joy in sampling the leaf color from a purple in her favorite dress she’d worn that day and she loved the way the eggshell white branches formed a smooth trunk that went into the black soil contained in a fat round pot with a matte teal finish. It was art as much as it was nature but the loss felt more like having a pet die than ruining a decoration.
Jason suggested they investigate her return options over lunch in the park. They put the dead plant in a big plastic bag and headed out. The day was hot and bright and anything that could emit an odor, did. The park was only half a block away, the entrance visible from the front door of Nicole’s building. They could see city workers gathered by the entrance’s main gate, their heads bowed down and their arms outstretched pointing to something on the ground. It took a few paces to see what it was that was wrong and a moment more to realize the problem ran the whole length of the block. Meters of hedges, brand new ones by the look of the freshly laid mulch, were completely dead.
As Jason and Nicole got closer they could hear the workers. Two young but big men were pleading with someone that looked to be their boss. They argued over water, driving habits, and the finer points of mulch spreading. One was already digging up the dead plants and throwing them into a truck bed.
The line for the park café was surprising long for so late in the day but there was no sense in rushing, it only gave them more time to look up the return policy. Nicole tapped at her phone with one hand and shielded the screen from the sun with the other. “It looks like I can return it because its so new but they don’t say specifically for custom colors. The page for custom stuff doesn’t say anything about returns which makes me think—Jason, what?”
Jason was staring intently at his own phone, his head shaking slightly with disbelief. He looked up briefly when Nicole said his name before his eyes went back down to the screen and he started reading aloud, “Biotech firm Grow has released a statement saying they detected mysterious activity in one of their datacenters in Minneapolis.” He looked up and handed his phone to Nicole. “And now apparently the feds are there or something. Like it’s a bigger deal than just credit card info.”
The search for a return policy was quickly forgotten as talk of the datacenter breach was cut off by having to order, and then finding a place to sit. Nicole looked across the soccer field to the tall evergreens and watched their sparse tips wave gently in the midafternoon breeze. It was just as she returned her gaze back to her plate that a flicker caught her eye. She squinted and tried to make out what she was seeing. “Jason what the hell is that?”
She pointed to the edge of the field where it met the evergreens. The trees cast a jagged shadow but somewhere in the shadow something moved, or at least it seemed like motion. It looked kind of like flickering. Pieces of the field seemed to go dark for a moment then lighter again; as though countless bugs had crawled out of the ground for a fraction of a second and then buried back in. Then the bugs stayed out longer and in bigger patches. It was only when the flickering extended out from the shadows did Nicole understand what she was looking at. In perfect squares the bright green grass flickered yellow and then to brown. Like a warehouse ceiling’s fluorescent lights the green grass was dying right before her eyes in rapid succession. The field was halfway dead before most people in the café started noticing. Several people stood up from their chairs and started walking backwards incase death itself was coming for all things, not just the soccer fields.
Only once the field was entirely brown did Nicole move her eyes back to Jason. He had been filming the whole thing on his phone and was already waiting for it to upload. “This is fucking nuts.” He said as he tapped out the video’s title: Entire soccer field goes TOTALLY BROWN INSTANTLY!!!
“Do you still have that Grow story on your phone? Did they update that story?” Nicole was starting to look too but Jason already had the story back up.
“Apparently there’s a media blackout around the whole datacenter, no one can broadcast from there.”
“Where does it say that? I can’t find the story.”
“Umm, its. Wait, shit. I can’t get it to reload again. I think they took it down.” Jason looked out at the dead field with an expression that looked way too excited for Nicole’s taste. She was horrified. Then Jason’s phone buzzed. “My video was taken down.”
“No way, really? Does it say why?”
“Says its an IP violation.” His fingers started scrolling up and down before stopping suddenly. “Take a look at this. Probably won’t last long.” Jason held up his phone to Nicole and she took it. The video was shaky but what it captured was very clear. The sky was grey and rain was pouring heavy. Whoever was filming was under a porch and the water was sliding off the roof in sheets. Out past the falling water and under the vast grey sky as far as the horizon were long rows of brown. The camera panned to the left and to the right, showing more rows of brown in all directions. Nicole turned up the volume on the phone to hear what she already saw. Rain falling on acres of dead corn, dry as a bone.
[Also if you could help me find the original creator of the image at the top please let me know so I can give credit. I found it here.]