Inland - SUMMER (six months earlier)

Brad took a deep breath and tried to stay still. Intense pain washed through his lower leg. Blood weeped from a dozen little pricks around the back of his right calf. He'd walked through this patch of vines before and knew they featured nearly invisible thorns up the stalk, but he'd always possessed the sense to wear jeans before today. These vines were strange—like something you'd see in the rainforest, he thought—the slightest touch made them curl up. He'd seen moving plants before, like the Venus Flytrap, but nothing on this scale. These vines looked like they could pull down a rabbit. Brad looked around, happy he'd only taken a step or two into the patch before being ensnared.

Clipped to the back of his belt he kept a utility knife. Brad grabbed it and folded it open. The almost-new blade looked fresh and sharp. He kept his legs straight and bent at the waist, thankful he could touch his toes from countless hours of yoga, and began to slice through the root of the vine. He pinched it against the side of his sandal and severed the vine curled around his calf. Brad clenched his jaw and started to slide his right leg back. The vine, though cut off, clenched tighter around his leg.

He took one more deep breath and then leapt backwards. He landed on his ass, just past the edge of the vine patch. One of the vines at the edge twitched and flopped towards his foot. Brad shuffled back.

"Damn!" he said as the vine twisted even tighter around his calf. "What are you?"

He picked at the top of the vine, up near his knee. It looked almost like a baby fern—a fiddlehead. The thorns were barbed. As he pulled the vine away from his leg, bumps of skin rose too.

"Ow!" he said to the woods.

Brad liked to talk to himself while he worked outside. He spent a lot of time alone, and he sometimes missed the personal contact of working in an office or living with someone. When he spent time in his woods, almost a mile from his nearest neighbor, he talked out loud. He unwrapped about half the vine from his leg when he decided to pull from the other end. As soon as he let go of the tip, the vine curled around his leg again, but with a lot less strength.

"Oh, come on!" he said.

This time he used his utility knife to cut the vine in several places before he started to peel it away from his skin. He tossed the little segments back into the vine patch, except for the end with the tip. He held the segment up to the sky so he could see the sun glint off the clear thorns. With his other hand he waved at the cloud of black flies buzzing around.

"Yeah, they've got little hooks," he said. "Almost looks like a thistle burr." The vine twitched in his hand and he dropped it onto his shirt, laughing. "You scared me. So it's not just movement you react to. Is it breath?"

He picked up the vine by the tender, curled tip and blew across one of the baby leaves. The vine twisted itself up when his warm breath hit it.

"So you go after breathing things, too? Couldn't be the warmth, maybe the carbon dioxide in my breath? That's the same thing that attracts these damn black flies, I think," he said.

He held the short segment of vine away from his body as he inspected his leg. Some of the punctures were weeping lines of blood, and others were swelling up slightly. His leg looked like it had been attacked by a spiral line of very hungry mosquitoes. Brad got to his feet and headed back for the path. He maintained a rough road between the back pasture and the house, but he almost always just walked back there. It was only a couple hundred yards—not too far to carry a chainsaw and some tools.

Today he carried nothing. He was just out for a walk, not intending to do any clearing or be attacked by killer vines. The bottom half of his right leg ached and itched. Brad picked up his pace.

"Where did you come from?" he asked the segment of vine he carried. "You weren't up there last year. And I walked right through that patch last week and I didn't notice anything trying to grab my jeans. Did you develop more, or is it just because I had bare skin today? That's an idea. I should bring gloves and see if one of those vines goes after a gloved hand. If you haven't poisoned me."

The vine wasn't trying to curl up anymore. It flopped as he walked, limp in his fingers. Brad slowed down and breathed on the vine. It didn't stir.

"Oh well," he said.

His stride felt normal most of the way back to the house. By the time he reached the mowed part of the yard, his right leg hitched a little. His calf and knee felt tight. It looked a little swollen, but not enough to alarm Brad. He entered his house through the back deck.

In the kitchen, Brad dropped the little segment of vine into a plastic bag and thought better of it.

"Let's see if you like this," he said. He drew some water into a small glass and then poured off all but a half inch. He hooked the top of the vine over the rim of the glass and let the severed base fall into the water.

In his bathroom, he slipped off his sandals and sat on the edge of the tub. The cool water felt good on his swollen calf, so Brad just let it flow for a couple of minutes. He touched a puncture on his ankle. A little invisible splinter from the thorn still stuck out of the wound. Brad reached the vanity drawer and got his tweezers. He couldn't see the thorn, but by brushing the tweezers over his ankle, he could feel it. When he pulled, the skin pulled up too. The thorn's barb tugged at his flesh.

"Why would you be so persistent?" he asked the thorn. "Usually with burrs there's a seed or something to transport," he said.

The other bloody spots were surrounded with leg hair. He couldn't tell if they still had thorns or not. He plucked out several hairs before giving up. After scrubbing the rest of the blood from his leg, he dabbed some antibiotic cream on the worst spots.

Back in the bedroom, next to his bed, Brad kept a little diary with a pen stuck in its spiral binding. He flipped it open to the ribbon he used as a bookmark and wrote, "Plants that move." This book served as his Internet reminder list. It used to be his ex-wife's dream journal. Aside from the smell of her hair conditioner, the journal was the only thing of hers left in the master bedroom. He sat down on the edge of the bed and scratched his leg. A few of the bumps really itched. He opened the diary again and wrote, "Venomous plants?" He put the book back on the nightstand.

The pillow sat right there at the head of the bed. With one quick move he could stretch out and kill the whole afternoon with a nice nap. This was the problem with working at home and vacationing at home, he decided. Every moment turned into a decision—should he stay busy, or just relax? Which would lead to a better quality of life? Brad usually chose activity over leisure. He gained a great deal of satisfaction from a job well done. This week would be tough. He had the whole week off to catch up on chores and home projects, but he couldn't finish everything on his list. No matter what he did, he would remain disappointed at the end of the week.

He pushed to his feet and then flopped back down. On second thought, he figured a slothful hour or two wouldn't hurt anything.

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

When he woke up, the sun had already set. The clock read nine something. He felt stiff all over as he rolled over to turn on the lights. He immediately looked to his leg. No real sign of the injury remained. He found a couple of slightly red spots on the back of his calf, but his leg looked so intact that he started to wonder if it had just been a dream. Brad jumped up and headed for the kitchen. His little glass still sat on the counter with a tiny amount of water in the bottom, but he didn't find the vine.

"That's odd," he said.

The phone started ringing. Brad just stood there, staring at the glass. He almost didn't get to the phone before the call disappeared into voicemail-land.

"Hello?" he asked.

"Hi, Brad?" asked the voice. His client, Phil Anderson, didn't wait for a response before he continued, "I'm so sorry to bother you on your day off. Is this a bad time?"

"No, not at all, Phil," Brad said. He rubbed his temples with his free hand. "What's going on?"

"We've got a surprise slippage with some of our programmers. We're looking for a white night here."

"Yeah?" Brad asked. Phil couldn't possibly be this dumb, thought Brad. He'd sent a memo to Phil almost a month before, predicting this exact circumstance. How could he describe it as a "surprise slippage?"

"Yeah," said Phil. "I thought we addressed this quite a while ago, but apparently not everyone got the message."

"You know I'm working for Cincinnati next week, right?" asked Phil. He tried to keep his voice upbeat and friendly. The most important part of contracting, more important than the work itself, was being perceived as a positive, friendly, team-player. Brad learned that lesson years before. But he also knew you must show up on time, and the Cincinnati project was twenty times more lucrative than Phil's unexpected emergency.

"I know, I know," said Phil. "We're just trying to get you for the next five days. I know you're supposed to be on vacation until Monday, but we'll pay you ten percent over your normal rate if you can lend a hand."

"Absolutely, Phil," Brad said. This was another technique he'd learned from previous jobs—you always agreed with the client. You agreed, and then you presented your caveats. "But since today is Wednesday, then I only four days to give you. And the ten percent is unnecessary, because you know my contract states I get time-and-a-half for weekends. So, Thursday and Friday will be regular time, and Saturday and Sunday will be time-and-a-half."

Normally, Brad would leave the details of his rate to the accountants, but Phil managed his budget with tight fist. If he didn't have a solid agreement on the phone, Brad would never get his money out of Phil at the end of the month.

"That's right," said Phil. "Fifty percent over for weekends, I remember. But what about Wednesday? You can't work tomorrow, buddy?"

"I'm sorry?" Brad asked. He looked up at the calendar. It was Wednesday, right? The glass on the counter caught his eye. He stared at the little bit of water in the bottom of the glass and tried to remember the events of Tuesday.

"Brad?" asked Phil.

Brad looked at the phone. The display read Tuesday, June seventh, almost ten o'clock. Why was Phil calling him so late?

"Yeah," Brad said. "Yes. I can work five days. Wednesday through Sunday."

"Great," said Phil. "That's just great. Hey, maybe you'll finish early and you'll still have a weekend."

That would be perfect, thought Brad. He could work on his vacation week and then save Phil the time-and-a-half by finishing before the weekend. He thought he might somehow figure out how to stretch the work through the weekend. He would finish after exactly eight hours of work on Sunday, all for his buddy Phil. That was the reward he received for finishing his part of the contract on time—he got to clean up after the grunts they paid one quarter of his hourly wage. Could be worse, he thought. He could be in the opposite situation.

"I'll check in tomorrow morning then," Brad said.

"Great," said Phil. "Talk to you then."

Brad hung up and propped his arms on the counter, staring at the glass. He could imagine losing a day, but he couldn't begin to understand how he gained another Wednesday. One day was like the next though. He had very little to hang a calendar on. He remembered the letter. He always wrote a letter on Tuesday night. Since he'd just woken up he couldn't have written one yet, but he remembered what he'd written. He nearly ran for his office.

The legal pad sat in its normal spot, propped next to his printer. He grabbed it and flipped to the middle. The last entry was from June second—a week earlier. He wondered if it was possible to dream an entire day with such clarity that it seemed real. Brad flipped the page on his yellow legal pad. Each Tuesday night letter was to his ex-wife. He never sent them anywhere. After divorcing Brad, Karen put the final stamp on their relationship by dying. He sat down to rewrite the letter he thought he'd already written.

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

Dear Karen,

I should tell you straight-away—the Cartonio place burned down. I know you'll be heartbroken. Nobody was hurt, thankfully. I showed up just after Butch kicked in the kitchen door and pulled the dogs out of there. Butch smelled and heard the fire down at his place, so you can imagine it was pretty far gone by the time he got there. Luckily, the dogs were in the kitchen and the fire started over by the garage. All those propane tanks, old mower engines, and junked cars were exploding when I happened to drive by. It sounded like the fourth of July. Now the nearest neighbor to this house is almost three quarters of a mile away. There goes your theory—this place is getting more rural every year. I'm certain Cartonio won't try to rebuild the place. He didn't have any insurance, and he owes the town a bunch of back-taxes anyway. If the town puts a lien on the property then he'll have to sell, and I'll try to pick up the land cheap. I'd rather pick up more property I don't need than have someone put up another shack.

This summer has really heated up. Hard to believe after the cold, wet spring. I heard it was the second wettest spring on record. I've got some really interesting plants out back. Your pasture is almost done. At least the clearing part is almost done. I know, I've said it before, but I finally broke down and bought one of those brush clearing machines, so it really does look like a pasture now. I'll get one of the Hucker brothers over here to level it out and then maybe hydro-seed it. I wish you were here. I can't remember exactly what seed mixture you wanted out in the back pasture.

Anyway, this one type of plant popped up this spring in a place I cleared last fall. It's over near the oak tree you said would straighten out once it got full sun (it never did straighten out, but at least it filled out). This plant is a short vine with two sets of leaves on it. The big leaves look almost like grape leaves, but it also has these tiny, oval leaves running up the stem. It moves! It's like a mimosa—the when the plant is disturbed, the leaves fold up towards the stem. That's the one I'm thinking of, right? The stem also has these little barbed thorns. When the leaves fold up the whole vine kinda curls, and it sinks its thorns into your legs. Really odd—I've never seen anything quite like it. You'd probably know exactly what it was, I'm sure. I just thought it was a nuisance until I went back there with shorts on today. When that vine muckles ahold, it's really painful to get it unstuck.

Well, that's the bulk of what's going on. I miss you so much.

Much Love,



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