Inland - SUMMER (five months earlier)

"Fax? You mean like fax machine?" Brad asked the phone.

He sat in his special high-backed desk chair—the kind that cost more than a good used car.

"Yes," Phil said. His voice came from the speakers on either side of Brad's computer monitor. "You do have that capability, don't you?"

"Sure," Brad said. He pondered the idea. He could crawl through the attic, find his fax machine, print out his estimate, and then send it over, but why? He'd already emailed the document; why would anyone need a faxed copy? Brad suddenly realized he could probably find an online service to turn his email into a fax. He calmed down a bit, now that he could dismiss the chore of going up to the stifling-hot attic.

"We'll review your quote and get back to you by the end of the week," said Phil. "Then you'll start right away?"

"Absolutely," Brad said.

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

Brad flicked his computer mouse to wake up his monitor. He disconnected from the call.

He pushed back and put his feet up on his desk. Phil would probably stand by the fax machine, waiting for his transmission, but Phil could wait. Brad knew that Phil would never get approval by the end of the week. If Phil promised you a contract on Friday, he really meant you should expect it sometime in the next month.

The project had turned into a nightmare. Phil talked him into a five day engagement that turned into six weeks of work. Worse than that, Phil convinced the Cincinnati office to use another contractor so Phil could have Brad all to himself. Brad liked to to make himself indispensable, but Phil was turning into a stalker.

Now, with the project nearly complete, Phil let the stakeholders change several major requirements. Two major sub-systems would have to be reworked, and one of the supporting applications overhauled. Brad produced an estimate for the change order, and now waited for Phil to get approval for the work.

"I'll be lucky if I hear from him by September," Brad said to the ceiling. "On the other hand, I don't have to work until September, if I don't want to."

Despite the lower hourly rate, Phil's insistence on overtime and weekend work netted Brad a huge windfall for June and July. He always kept a decent financial cushion to weather the lean times. Now he had enough money saved to coast for a year without another contract; not that he would ever indulge himself to such a degree.

Brad intertwined his fingers behind his head and leaned back farther.

"What if I just quit?" he asked nobody. "What if I just fax over a picture of my middle finger? Phil can get one of the Prague guys to finish up this mess. Sure, it will take him three times as long, but they only charge half as much. He'll be a hero until they figure out the Prague guys don't know jack shit about their data."

Brad closed his eyes and tried to imagine what his life would actually be like if he quit. He always pictured a perfect life—he would have time to work on the house, clean up the yard, or maybe meet some new people in town. But he knew better. Between jobs he always obsessed about money and trying to find a new job. He wouldn't be able to enjoy a stress-free life; it would make him anxious.

He shifted his weight and dropped his fingers to the keyboard. In a few minutes he figured out how to fax his estimate to Phil.

"Now I just have to wait," he said to the monitor. The clock on his computer read half-past ten. "Looks like a good day for a pre-lunch walk."

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

Brad started down the path looking at his feet. This time he wanted to be careful where he stepped. Remembering his encounter with the mystery vines over a month before, he wore his hiking boots and jeans. A clicking sound ahead made him stop and look up. He stood, still a hundred yards from the place where the vine had wrapped around his leg, and listened to the clicking.

The clicking was loud, and sounded like it came from up on the hill. Whatever it was clicked about twice a second, then sped up to several times that rate, and then slowed again. Brad almost felt hypnotized by the rhythm. He started forward again, keeping his focus on the clicking. Nobody ever came back here except Brad. Even in hunting season, people didn't stray this far. Dragging a deer a mile through thick woods didn't appeal to the local hunters.

One year a neighbor he'd never met came to the door and asked Brad to unlock the gate so he could get his deer out to his truck. That was back when Karen had still been alive and married to Brad. She stood behind him as he talked to the hunter on the porch.

Wearing an orange hat and camo shirt and pants, the man had introduced himself and then explained his request, "I'm wondering if you can unlock your gate so I can haul out my deer." The man stood drenched in sweat despite the cool November day.

"Boy," Brad said, "you look like you've been dragging that deer for half a mile."

"No," the hunter laughed, "not quite that far, but it was quite a haul."

"So, less than half a mile?" Brad asked. He felt Karen's hand on his back. The hand might have meant "good job," or maybe just "back off." He didn't know.

"Maybe a few hundred yards, I guess," said the hunter. His smile faltered.

"So a quarter of a mile?" Brad asked.

"Look, if you could just open the gate, or maybe loan me the key?" asked the hunter.

"I'm just asking because our property extends at least a half mile in every direction from that gate, unless you took the deer across a road," Brad said. "And since we spent the better part of five hundred dollars putting up signs every fifty feet, I would assume you know—we don't allow hunting on our property."

"Look, I'm sorry," the hunter said. "I didn't see your signs, and I didn't mean to hunt without your permission."

"Understood," Brad said.

"But I've got a deer right on the other side of your gate. I certainly won't hunt your land again, but what do you want me to do? Should I just leave it there, or are you going to let me through the gate?"

"I tell you what," Brad said. "You can haul it back around our fence, or you can leave it there and I'll have the game warden come collect it."

The hunter left, furious. The confrontation didn't give Brad any satisfaction.

Brad recalled his anger as he stood listening to the clicking sound. He didn't even realize he'd stopped moving. The confrontation with the hunter had been years before, but he'd seen it play out right before his eyes, like a movie. He wanted to turn around and go back to the house. He forced his feet to move forward, up the hill, towards the clicking.

When Brad reached the edge of the clearing, the clicking noise stopped. It had been loud enough to echo off the trees to his left. After the clicking stopped the normal noises of summer began again. Birds sang, the occasional early cricket chirped, and squirrels rustled through the underbrush. Had it been his imagination that those sounds were absent during the clicking? Brad couldn't decide.

The vines had spread since he'd been there last. They now covered the entire cleared area and stretched across the path where it picked up on the other side. On his left, he saw the vines curling up the trunks of the trees. Some trees were nearly choked with vines. The leaves looked brown on these trees—they wouldn't live to see another spring. Pink and purple flowers stood out on the vines, but none were close enough for Brad to inspect. These vines were too long to cross. If they acted like the one he'd seen back in June, they would wrap all the way up to his neck, he figured.

Brad thought about going to town, to the garden center with the big greenhouse. They would know what the vine was, and probably how to kill it. He pulled his gardening gloves from his back pocket and crouched, grabbing the smallest vine near his feet. When he tugged on the vine, it immediately constricted, like a boa, on his gloved hand. Brad slashed at it with his knife, cutting off about a foot. He put his gloved hand in a plastic bag and pulled off the glove and vine.

Brad was still crouched down on his haunches when he heard the click again. It sounded just once. He moved only his head and looked up. He couldn't see anything unusual. Trees, bushes, vines—tons of vines, a big rock, and clear blue sky.

Click—he heard it again.

Brad's brow furrowed as he scanned the clearing again. Something was out of place. The rock—what was that giant gray rock doing over near the far tree line? He and Karen had cleared every inch of the pasture themselves. He would have remembered a big stately boulder at the edge of it. There was another problem with the rock—it didn't have vines draped all over it. Everything else he could see was covered by the creeping menace. Only the rock sat unmolested.

He wanted to get a closer look, but didn't think it wise to try to cross the vine patch. From where he stood, it looked like a truly horrible idea. Just one of those vines had incapacitated his bare leg a month and a half before, and it only measured a few feet long. Now the vines were piled in a tangled mess, looking waist-deep in parts.

Brad backed down the path until he found a clear patch of alders. He struck out on a course tangential to the edge of the clearing, hoping to circle around through the woods to the other side. A couple dozen yards later, he was stopped by the vines again. A swath of vines, about ten feet across, passed through the trees. Some curled up the trunks to choke out the low trees, but most just piled on themselves to form a little river of vegetation. Brad swung the bag containing the glove and piece of vine back and forth and considered his options.

He followed the vine river for a while, away from the clearing. It didn't show any signs of petering out.

The clicking started again: click, click, click, click-click-click-click, click, click, click. Brad turned and listened. It was almost soothing. He reached out to steady himself on a tree and nearly put his hand on a curling vine.

Brad thought about his grandfather, Grandpa Joe. Grandpa Joe was a logging man until he started working as a surveyor for the state. By the time Brad was old enough to spend his summers with Grandpa Joe, the old man retired, but still cut firewood as a hobby. He used to take Brad out in the woods with him when Brad would visit.

Grandpa Joe always cut with his four foot bow saw, and delimbed with a razor-sharp axe. Joe carried the saw over his left shoulder and the axe in his right hand, so Brad carried the small chainsaw. Grandpa Joe called the chainsaw "Justin."

"Why do you call the chainsaw Justin?" Brad asked one day.

"Same reason I keep it in a case," said Grandpa Joe.

"Why's that?" asked young Brad.

"I don't intend to use it, but I have you bring it along Justin Case," said Joe.

Grandpa Joe smiled at Brad when he saw that Brad finally got the joke. The old man could bring down a tree and have it bucked into perfect, four-foot segments before most people could even get their chain saw started. And Grandpa Joe moved almost silently through the woods. The only noise you'd hear would be when he crashed the next tree to the ground.

Brad blinked several times and snapped himself from the memory. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes with his free hand. He felt like he'd been asleep on his feet. The clicking stopped again.

"Am I crazy, or did you get closer to me?" Brad asked the vine river. He pulled his phone from his back pocket to check the time.

"What?" he whispered. For some reason the clock on his phone read one in the afternoon. If it was right, somehow he'd spent over two hours on his twenty minute walk.

"Jesus," he whispered. Movement drew his eyes to the right. On the tree a few feet away, blossoms opened up on the curling vine. They started from the tip of the vine and opened one at a time down its length. To Brad it looked like the world's slowest fireworks display. They were a plush, throaty blossom, reminding Brad of Morning Glories. The flowers alternated in color: pink, purple, pink, purple. The ones down near the base of the tree were larger than the ones at the tip of the vine, which were almost at eye level.

Brad backed up two steps without taking his eyes off the strange flowers. He pulled out his utility knife, thinking he should get a sample with flowers on it, but then changed his mind. Those vines hadn't been there when he zonked out. What if he was just one more hypnosis away from being enveloped by the vines? He tore his gaze away from the pretty flowers and scanned for a good exit route.

He could feel his heart beating faster. It had been so long since Brad really felt fear, it was almost nice. The fear felt like a leftover emotion from childhood; something he wasn't sure he would ever experience again so completely. There'd been an adrenaline rush the time the woman at the gas station almost backed into his car, but no real fear. Brad fed into the emotion, wanting to keep it going. He started walking.

The vine river spread out—Brad walked almost directly downhill to get away from them. His direct route back to his road had been flanked. After a minute of picking his way through the woods, the vines around Brad started to peter out. His pace slowed until the clicking sound started again. It was still coming from up the hill, from his clearing, but it brought Brad's fear back with a rush. He started to run downhill through the woods, back towards his house.

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

Brad dropped his latest vine sample back at the house and grabbed his binoculars from the laundry room. He hauled his biggest ladder from its hooks on the outside of the garage and headed for the big pine trees down near the pond. His property sloped down from the new pasture out back, and then up from a gully to the house. From the ladder, he thought he might be able to get a look at the pasture.

He propped the ladder just below a cluster of branches and started climbing. Way off in the distance, he could still hear the rhythmic clicking.

"Music," he said to himself. For a second, he tried to fish the earphones out of his pocket while he stood on the ladder, but then he changed his mind and climbed back down.

Brad talked to himself while he hooked the earphones up to his music player—"Just in case. Justin Case. Maybe if I can't hear you, I won't get hypnotized? Worth a shot." He found some classic rock to act as his soundtrack for his little spying mission.

Even at the top of the ladder, he was still a little lower than the clearing on the far hill, but he had a pretty good view. The branches he leaned on were covered in sap, but they felt more stable than trying to balance on the ladder. Brad propped his elbows on a branch so he could stead his hands for the binoculars.

He could see a portion of his overgrown road and the vine-covered clearing. The strange rock sat dead center in the clearing.

"I thought you were closer to the trees," Brad said to himself. He couldn't hear himself over the music. He glanced around, suddenly self-conscious and certain he'd see new vines climbing up the pine tree, or even the ladder itself. The drums on his music dropped into a low, steady beat. Brad thought he could hear the clicking beneath the beat.

With the binoculars at maximum magnification, his view jittered with each small movement of his hands. It almost looked like the rock was moving, but he couldn't tell for sure. Brad switched back and forth between looking through the binoculars and pulling them down to squint over the distance.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The breath steadied his hands. That's when he figured it out—the rock wasn't moving; it was spinning. It spun very slowly, clockwise. One of the bumps on the right profile of the big boulder slowly melted as it moved to the left. It took several minutes, but eventually he saw the same bump appear on the left side.

Brad hung the binoculars around his neck and fished his cell phone out his pocket. He turned off the music and ran through the contact list until he found the name he wanted. He started to dial and then changed his mind. Brad put the phone away and climbed down the ladder.

Once he stood safely on the ground again he dialed his friend.

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

"Thanks for coming over so fast," Brad said.

Brad walked his old friend Stavros back towards the pine tree where the ladder still stood against the tree.

"You sounded pretty panicked," said Stavros. "Besides, I was just watching the crew dig up the culverts down by the fire station."

Stavros Orestes acted as the Code Enforcement Officer for Kingston. Technically, Brad's property was in Kingston Depot, which had a completely separate town government and a different enforcement officer, so Stavros was only there unofficially.

"Honestly? I'm a little freaked out," Brad said. "Something strange is going on in my back forty."

"Yeah, I heard. Apparently something so strange you wouldn't even give me the slightest clue on the phone," said Stavros.

"Wait, stop," Brad said, "do you hear that?"

"Hear what?" asked Stavros.

"That clicking noise. Way off in the distance, do you hear it?" Brad asked. It was obvious to Brad, but he knew exactly what to listen for.

"I hear a thousand things clicking," said Stavros. "You're going to have to be more specific."

"Never mind, you'll hear it better from the ladder anyway," Brad said.

He walked his friend across the back yard, around the blackberry patch, and down to the big pine tree where his ladder stood.

"Here, take these," Brad said, handing the binoculars to Stavros. "Look straight across this way, over at the clearing at the top of the hill."

"What am I looking for?" asked Stavros.

"The whole thing is covered in a weird kind of weed, but you'll have to see it up close. Look for the rock in the middle of the clearing," Brad said.

"Okay," said Stavros.

Stavros Orestes wore his casual work clothes—cargo shorts, hiking boots, and a short-sleeve chambray shirt. He was accustomed to getting dirty during the course of the day and had no objection to climbing a ladder or a tree. He held the binoculars in one hand and quickly climbed the ladder with the other.

"I see the clearing, but no rock," said Stavros.

"It might not be in the middle anymore," Brad said.

Stavros lowered the binoculars and looked down at Brad, who stood on the ground looking up.

"Say that again?" Stavros asked.

"Just keep looking," Brad said.

Stavros scanned the clearing for a few minutes before descending and handing the binoculars back. Brad couldn't stand it—he climbed up and verified the rock had disappeared.

"I didn't think it would move that fast," Brad said. "I was looking at it right before you showed up."

"So it's not a rock?" asked Stavros.

"I would have sworn it was," Brad said, "except it was rotating."

Stavros spun his finger in the air.

"No," Brad said, "not rolling, on a vertical axis. Clockwise. Like this." Brad demonstrated, making a stirring motion with his own finger.

"That's definitely not normal," Stavros said, smiling. "You've got your rolling stones, and your stationary ones. Those are usually the only two types. Why don't we just walk up there and you can show me where it was?"

"I think it might be dangerous," Brad said. "I think vines try to hypnotize you so they can eat you."

"Not to be an ass or anything," said Stavros, "but you're feeling okay, right? Not too much stress with your job or anything lately? Any dizziness, change in medication?"

"Come inside," Brad said. "I'll tell you the whole story and show you a piece of vine."

Brad walked Stavros into the kitchen, relating all the details as they walked. The plastic bag with the vine lay on the counter. Brad's hands shook a little as he dumped the bag out on the counter. He expected it to be empty; for the hunk of vine to have disappeared just like the last one. The glove fell out, but nothing else came out of the bag. He turned it inside out and let out a relieved breath when he found the piece of vine clinging to the bag.

"This," he said. "And look, it has a flower."

"So it doesn't move once you cut it?" asked Stavros. He leaned in close to peer at the vine.

"Yeah, it only stayed alive for a little while once I clipped it off last time," Brad said. "But I was able to get a reaction when I..." Brad blew on the vine. One end flipped up off the counter and the vine spun itself into a tight coil. "See!" Brad said.

"Wow," said Stavros. "I've never seen anything like that."

"Yeah, like I said," Brad said.

Stavros reached out and touched the vine before Brad could stop him. The vine's action had weakened, but it still curled around his index finger, sinking its tiny thorns into his flesh.

"Shit!" said Stavros. He plucked at the end of the vine and pulled it away from his skin.

"They're barbed," Brad said. "I told you."

"Yeah," Stavros said, grimacing with the pain while he pulled the thorns from his finger, "I guess I like to see for myself."

"So what do you think it is?" Brad asked.

"How the hell should I know?" asked Stavros. "What do I look like, a botanist?"

"Not since about twenty pounds ago," Brad said, laughing. They had become friends and then roommates in college, when Stavros studied botany, and Brad studied engineering.

Stavros pulled out the last thorn and tossed the piece of vine back on the counter. He sucked on the side of his finger and both men watched as the vine flipped over one last time.

"So what's the connection to rock? Anything?" asked Stavros.

"I don't know, but the vines didn't touch the rock-thing, and it was right in the middle of them," Brad said.

"Yeah, well even those thorns wouldn't do anything against a rock," said Stavros.

"If I had to guess," Brad said. "I think it might be just a really big animal camouflaged to look like a rock. A rhino kinda looks like a rock, or a big turtle."

"So you've got some new species of plant back there," said Stavros. "At least they're nothing indigenous, and nothing I've ever heard of before. How dangerous is this clicking you were talking about."

"As far as I can tell, it just kinda hypnotized me for a little while," Brad said. "But those vines got pretty close while I was out. It's like a psychic game of 'Red Light, Green Light,' I wouldn't want to find out what happens if they win."

"You said you heard the clicking when we were walking," said Stavros, "but you didn't pass out then."

"Maybe it wasn't loud enough?" Brad asked. "Who knows. I wore headphones when I was up on the ladder before and I was fine. I don't know—maybe I would have been fine without them. Hell, I don't even know if the effect was caused by the sound or what. Could have been a smell, or anything."

"We've got a whole lot of questions and not many answers," said Stavros. "I still know some working botanists; do you want me to have them check this thing out?" He pointed at the vine.

"Sure," Brad said. "I've got acres of the things."

"Okay," said Stavros. "In the meantime, I'd suggest you don't venture out back there again until we have an answer."

"Fine by me," Brad said.

"And if they really do grow as fast as you said, you'd better keep a good eye on the yard," said Stavros. "If you see any of those things creeping up on the house, just get in the car and drive," he said, smiling.

"Yeah, will do," Brad said, laughing. "Attack of the killer plants."

"Seriously," said Stavros, laughing too. "Those things hurt."

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

Dear Karen,

I saw Stavros today. He came over to look at those plants I was telling you about. He didn't know what they were either, but he said he would send my clipping off to a friend of his. I wish we got together more, like we used to. Those dinners on the porch, watching the sun set over the hill—I think that was the greatest time of my life. Half of the women Stavros brought were totally crazy, but I don't think he ever really felt comfortable hanging out with us as a couple when he was alone. Now that I'm alone, I think Stavros and Julianne feel bad for me.

It's been a long time.

I know I told you this before, but when Stavros tried to set me up, I wanted to kill him. It may have been Julianne's idea—in fact it probably was—since she worked for the same company as Julianne. You were always the outgoing one. I met more people through you than from all other aspects of my life. My only friends used to be your friends and my work friends. Now, since I'm doing contract work all the time, I don't meet anyone. Stavros is the last person from growing up I'm even still in contact with.

Sorry to sound so melancholy. You know what? I'm going to sign up for the yoga class you used to take down at the old mill. I never wanted to go with you because I was so bad at it, and I didn't know any of the moves. Now that I've had a few years of practicing with videos, I can probably fake my way through it. Maybe I'll meet some new people there. I'll probably even meet some people you knew, once upon a time. I miss you.

Much Love,

Brad

✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪

Having handed the problem off to his friend, Brad found it easy to temporarily ignore the odd things going on in his back pasture. He did his usual Tuesday night routine—ate an early dinner, wrote his letter to his dead ex-wife, and didn't send it. The letter spoke mostly of the adventure out back, but also featured a section about Stavros. Karen always loved Stavros.

Brad went to bed early. He tossed and turned through a long night of tortured dreams he could barely remember when he woke up. Somehow, he'd slept right through his alarm.

He took his coffee out to the deck and sat on the stairs, looking up towards the hill out back. Random chores kept popping into his head. He needed to clear the brush around the fence line. He needed to paint the trim on the windows. He needed to weed the front flower beds. Brad decided the only way to get peace from his chores would be to write them all down and prioritize the list. At least then he'd have a chance of knocking a few of the big ticket items off before he got another call about a contract. Brad sighed and stood, ready to go inside and make his list.

As he turned, a pile of dirt caught his eye. He set his coffee down on the railing and descended the stairs. Right next to where the deck met the foundation of the garage, Brad saw the edge of a big pile of freshly-turned dirt. The top of the dirt on the pile had just started to dry out, but the bulk of the sandy pile looked fresh and moist.

Brad reached the lawn and saw the extent of the damage. His deck was big, and stood about five feet above the surrounding yard. Next to the foundation of the garage, a giant hole had been dug, easily seven feet across. Almost all of the excavated dirt was piled under the deck. The pile Brad saw initially was a tiny fraction of the amount under there. Brad backed up and gaped—the dirt pile under the deck ran the entire twenty-foot length.

"That's enough dirt to fill the living room," Brad said to himself.

He reached up and gripped the back of his head with his hands. Brad spun slowly, looking for any tracks on the lawn.

"It would have taken an excavator all night," he said under his breath. "I was just out here last night. Last night."

Brad approached the gaping hole slowly. The hole exposed the side of the concrete foundation, where it descended into the soil. The concrete was still dark under the soil-line, where it had recently been in contact with the dirt. His foundation went down about four feet below the grass, but the hole went lower. Brad leaned forward to see the smooth edge of the bottom of the concrete footing.

Eight or ten feet down, the bottom of the hole curved towards the garage, like a tunnel. Brad looked at the grass beneath his feet. The grass was completely undisturbed right up to the ragged edge of the hole. Aside from the mammoth pile of dirt under the deck and the small pile he'd seen first, the area was completely clean. Brad couldn't even imagine how one would dig such a perfect hole in any circumstance, let alone over the course of just one night. Instead of going back up the stairs to the deck, Brad left his coffee behind and walked around the garage and opened the big door. His biggest ladder still rested against the pine tree out back, but he had a smaller, more appropriate ladder for this job anyway. He retrieved his six-foot step ladder and carried it overhead to get it past his truck.

A tan sedan pulled down the driveway and parked alongside the fence as Brad set the ladder down.

Brad walked up to within ten feet of the car and waited for the man to get out.

The man looked tired, but extremely precise. He glanced through the car window at Brad, gave him a single, clipped nod and then opened the car door. His feet hit the gravel drive together, perpendicular to the car, and the man stood with one quick motion, not pushing against the doorframe or pulling on the door for assistance. Brad just watched, not making any movement to introduce himself or greet the man. The man wore a golf shirt and crisp khaki pants—no pleat.

When the man stood to his full height, Brad was surprised. Brad stood about six-foot two, and didn't expect to be dwarfed by the man in the tan sedan. The man was thin, too. Brad guessed they probably weighed the same, even though the man stood several inches taller. The man removed his sunglasses and perched them atop his crew cut before he closed the door and approached Brad.

The man put out his hand to Brad.

"Good morning, sir," said the man. "I'm Herm Gunther, I want to talk to you about your plants?"

"Plants?" Brad asked.

"Yes," said Herm. "Your name is Brad Jenkins, correct? You gave a sample to Stayev-ross Orestus last Tuesday?"

"Yesterday," Brad said, nodding.

"I'm sorry?" asked Herm.

"I gave a sample to STAVross OrestES yesterday. On Tuesday," Brad said. He crossed his arms and looked at Herm's shoes. They were casual boat shoes, which Herm wore with no socks. Brad could see a half inch of bright white ankle between the shoes and the khakis. He guessed Herm's ankles didn't get much sun. His hands and forearms did though, Brad saw tan lines about halfway down the man's biceps.

"Would you be more comfortable if we moved inside?" asked Herm.

"No, I'm fine here," Brad said.

"Do you have a cell phone on you by any chance?" asked Herm.

"Yes, I do," Brad said. He didn't move for a second, but then pulled the phone from his back pocket and waved it at Herm.

"Good," said Herm. "Would you like to check the date?"

"Okay?" Brad said, with a hint of uncertainty creeping into the edges of his voice. The phone informed him of the current date: Thursday, July twenty-first. Brad's eyes shifted from side-to-side as he tried to figure out where Wednesday had gone. He remembered Tuesday, then writing a letter, and then going to bed a little early. How was it Thursday?

Herm watched Brad's puzzlement and rubbed his eyes while Brad tried to piece together his calendar. "These plants are close to your house?" he asked.

"No," Brad said. "No, they're out back. Who are you again?"

"I'm Herm Gunther," said the man. "I work for USDA on the abatement of aquatic and arboreal invasives. Have you taken any trips to Georgia or South Carolina recently?"

"Nope," Brad said. "I've been right here. Are you saying that plant is from Georgia."

"More than likely," said Herm. "It's been on the Federal Noxious Weed list for years, but it's just starting to show up in other parts of the country. Would you mind showing me where you took the clipping?"

"Well, perhaps," Brad said. He put his hands on his hips and then thrust them into his pockets. "I'm, uh, I'm a little concerned though."

"Concerned?" asked Herm.

"Well, I'm not sure why, but the last time I was out back I kept going into a little of a dream state or something. I know this sounds weird, but maybe since you've heard of this plant, you've heard of this as well?"

"Dream state?" asked Herm.

"Yeah," Brad said. "It was... It was like I became unconscious for a few moments. I thought maybe it was a sound or a chemical the plant is giving off?"

"Did you see any out of place puddles, patches of fog, boulders, piles of sand, or lava flows?" asked Herm.

"Lava flows?" Brad asked. "Do you think I would be talking to you about plants if I'd seen any out of place lava flows?"

"Flows or pools—any molten or even iridescent metals?" asked Herm.

"No," Brad said. "But a boulder, yes. I did see an out of place boulder."

"And the boulder was with the plants?" asked Herm.

"Yes," Brad said.

"Did you hear a loud 'tock' sound, like a giant clock?" asked Herm.

"Yes. It was more like a click, but yes," Brad said.

"Thank you," said Herm. He walked back to his car and opened the door. Herm reached across the seat and his torso disappeared from Brad's view for a second. When he reappeared, he was holding a hand-held radio unit. "Can you show me the area now?"

"Like I said, I'm a little concerned," Brad said.

"Don't worry," said Herm. "I've read about this. We'll be fine. I'll call into the office, and if we don't check back in, one of my co-workers will come. But there's really nothing to be worried about."

"Okay," Brad said. He was still hesitant, but Herm knew about both the rock and the clicking sound, so he felt inclined to go along with him. Plus, Herm seemed very professional—not likely to take unwarranted risks, despite how tired the man looked.

"Let me just change my shoes first," Brad said. "You might want to consider socks, if you've got them."

"Thanks, I'm fine," said Herm.

Brad shrugged and walked over to his side door. He kept his boots on the tile floor of his entryway, so he sat down on the porch to change into them. While Brad laced up the boots, Herm just stood there, looking off into the distance.

"Hey, um, Mister ..." Brad said. He couldn't remember the man's name. It was something silly sounding—weird nickname—he remembered.

"Herm," said the man, "call me Herm."

"Thank you, Herm. You can call me Brad. May I ask, what was the rock thing I saw out back?" Brad asked.

"I have no idea," said Herm.

"But you mentioned rocks as part of your list, with the lava flows, and the iridescent metal, and the mist?" Brad asked.

"Patches of fog," said Herm. "Yes, it's one of the things I read about."

"Read about from?" Brad asked.

"We get bulletins from the Office of Communications. The rocks were mentioned with your plants in one of those," said Herm.

"Huh," Brad said. "But they didn't say what they were?"

"Probably not important," said Herm. "I just need to make an identification for the abatement group."

Brad finished with his boots and stood up. He walked past Herm and waved for the man to follow—"And the abatement group does what, exactly?" Brad asked.

"They just work to eradicate or control the invasive infestation. You can imagine—herbicides, bush hogs, maybe some burning," said Herm.

"Sounds like it's going to cost me," Brad said.

"Nope," said Herm. "Your tax dollars at work. It's for the common good, so the government foots the bill."

"Good to know," Brad said. He held open the gate between the driveway and the field and let Herm walk through first. He pointed ahead and said, "Straight back to the other gate."

"You've probably seen our guys before on the side of the highway with the orange jumpsuits. We get a lot of invasives along the highway, from tourists," said Herm.

"I can imagine," Brad said. Brad noted how talkative Herm had gotten once they were underway. But it seemed like just as quickly as the conversation began, it was over. Herm didn't offer any more information.

Herm walked at a fast pace. Brad unlatched the back gate and Herm was already dozens of paces away by the time Brad buttoned the gate back up. Brad dropped into a half-jog to catch up with the tall man.

"You might want to watch your step," Brad said. "Those things grow at a pretty fast pace, and I wouldn't envy you if one wrapped around your ankle."

"Thanks," said Herm.

They walked in silence for a while down Brad's path to the back clearing. Walking side-by-side, they brushed the trees and bushes which crowded in from the sides. Brad usually cleared the brush along the path once or twice a month during the summer when he wasn't too busy with work. This year he'd have to wait until fall, when the weeds were a bit more manageable.

Brad broke the silence when they had walked about halfway to the clearing, "So," he said, "how long have you worked for the USDA?"

"Ten years," said Herm. The answer came fast and didn't reveal anything to Brad. He usually got a sense of whether someone liked their job just by how they answered that question. A sigh, a smile, a head-tilt all meant something, but Herm snapped off his answer and kept his eyes moving, scanning the sides of the path.

"Good work?" Brad asked.

"The best," said Herm. His tone stayed flat.

"Wait," Brad said. He put out his hand to stop Herm, but Herm had already stopped. "Did you hear it?"

"No," said Herm.

"I thought I heard a click," Brad said. "Probably just a squirrel."

Herm started walking again. Brad fell in behind him and Herm picked up the pace, walking fast up the hill to the clearing. Herm stopped at the edge of the weeds.

"I should have brought a knife or something," Brad said. "Did you want a sample."

Herm didn't answer right away, he scanned the tree line at the far edge of the clearing. Brad knelt to look at the vines, but Herm stayed upright.

"You saw a rock over there?" Herm finally asked.

Brad looked up; Herm pointed to the spot where Brad last saw the mysterious spinning boulder.

"Yeah, that's the spot," Brad said. "How did you know?"

Herm bent down and reached for the end of a vine.

"Careful!" Brad said, shuffling back a half-step.

Herm's hand never slowed. He snatched the very tip of a vine between his fingers and pulled it back. The vine thrashed as Herm pulled it back. Brad moved out of the way and Herm stretched the vine several feet before it pulled taut. The vine stopped trying to flip and curl as Herm tugged. Brad stepped to Herm's side and leaned in to look at how Herm was holding the vine. The very tip curled around Herm's index finger, but it didn't look like it had sunk any thorns into the man's flesh.

"Is it what you thought it was?" Brad asked. "The thing from Georgia, or whatever?"

Herm didn't answer. He tugged at the vine several times, about once every two seconds. Flowers popped open near the base of the vine. He tugged four more times and flowers, orange and purple, started opening on the suspended portion of the vine.

They heard a loud "tock," from somewhere on the other side of the clearing, deep in the woods. Herm stopped tugging.

"Back up," said Herm.

Brad scrambled back down the path and Herm backed up until he held the vine at arm's length. He dropped the vine and stepped away. The vine floundered and twisted. Each flop brought it closer back to the vine patch until it regained the company of its fellow vines.

Herm reached to the radio clipped to his belt. He pressed a button on the side twice and then turned towards Brad.

"We should head back," said Herm.

Brad could barely make out what Herm said. A loud "TOCK!" interrupted the sentence, but Brad got the gist. Brad started down the hill first and Herm followed close behind. The heard a few more of the loud clicking noises while they walked, but the volume decreased as they moved away from the clearing.

"So that's what you expected?" Brad asked over his shoulder as they walked.

"Yes," said Herm.

"You're going to get people out here to remove those vines?" Brad asked. "I can't believe those things are commonplace. They seem pretty extraordinary. I've never seen plants move or spontaneously bloom."

"We'll get a crew out here as soon as we can," said Herm.

"When do you think that will be?" Brad asked. They reached the bottom of the hill and started back up the small slope to the yard.

"I don't have any insight into the schedule," said Herm.

Brad opened the gate and let Herm through. He thought twice about shutting it—instead, he swung the big gate open and pinned it open to a pole sticking up from the ground. He did the same to the other side of the big gate, so a truck could drive through.

"I'll leave these open," Brad said. "For the crew."

"Thank you," said Herm.

Herm headed back up to his car while Brad walked over to the gate on the road. He repeated the procedure, opening the front gate to give access to vehicles pulling in from the road. When Brad got back up to the house, Herm was talking to someone on his radio. Brad arrived in time to hear Herm signing off.

"Will do," said Herm.

"So, just the vines, a rock, and the clicking sound? Nothing else strange?" Herm asked.

"Yes," Brad said. "Isn't that enough?"

Herm smiled and said, "Yes, I think so. Do you mind if I sit here in my car for a few minutes? I've got some paperwork to fill out."

"No problem," Brad said. "Do you want to come inside and use a table?"

"No, thanks, I've got everything I need in here," said Herm. He patted the roof of the tan sedan.

Brad crossed the driveway and sat down on his front steps to take off his boots. The ladder leaning against the front of the garage drew his eye. Brad thought about what Herm asked him—"Nothing else strange?" Did a giant hole next to the back foundation of his garage qualify as something strange? If he'd taken Herm out the back door instead of down through the side yard, the man would have already seen the hole and probably asked about it. But, as it stood, Herm didn't know about the hole. Brad made a snap decision—he wouldn't tell anyone about the hole until he investigated it further himself. He welcomed the idea of a team of workers in orange jumpsuits who would come and rip out all the killer vines from the back pasture, but as for the hole, he wanted a chance to evaluate his new discovery.

Tucking his laces into his boots instead of retying them, Brad walked over to his ladder. He glanced at Herm, but Herm was sitting in the sedan with his head bent over some papers. Brad picked up the ladder and carried it back into the garage. He walked it around his truck and to the door to the mudroom. From his mudroom, he carried the ladder out to the back deck. He backtracked to take one more look at Herm, to make sure he was still busy with his papers, and then Brad hauled his short ladder over to the side of the hole.

He lay down on the grass next to the hole to drop the ladder in just the right spot. The bottom of the hole curved away, but the soil was loose enough that Brad could wedge the legs down and lean the ladder right against the edge of the hole. The top of the stepladder stopped well below the edge of the hole. Brad considered the hole and studied where it curved under the knee wall of the garage foundation. The soil looked damp, and the hole was as black as midnight where it passed under the concrete.

Brad pushed up to his feet and headed back into the house. From the garage, he fetched a coil of rope and his long flashlight. Through the open garage door, Brad peeked at Herm, who still sat in the sedan with the door open. The tall man still looked down; Brad figured he was still doing paperwork.

Back at the hole, Brad tied one end of the rope around one of the deck's posts. He dropped the coil into the hole. If the base of the ladder wouldn't anchor in the dirt, he wanted a reliable tether to the above-ground world. With his flashlight tested and his boots retied, Brad lowered himself over the lip and descended the ladder. Gripping the rope in one hand and ready to scramble back up the ladder, Brad squatted down and pointed his flashlight under the garage.

The hole looked like the den of some huge animal, and a big part of Brad's brain suggested he might be disturbing something dangerous. He could barely see into the hole. It was such a bright day, his flashlight was almost no help at all. Brad removed his hand from the ladder to shield his eyes from the sun. He shuffled closer.

After passing under the concrete footing, the hole dropped off. Brad shuffled even closer. He stopped again about halfway to the garage. Brad peered into the darkness, imagining some giant creature sleeping under there. He reached down to his feet, grabbed a handful of dirt and pebbles, and tossed the dirt into the black. Barely any sound came back to him—just the odds and ends of dirt hitting dirt in the dark.

He looked around for something more substantial and his eyes settled on the rope. Most of the rope was still bunched in a loose coil at his feet. Brad straightened the loops out a bit and then flung them into the dark.

"Okay," he said to the hole. "If there's anything under there, I'm coming in."

Brad crept forward and crouched right next to the foundation, where the hole went under his garage. He had about four feet between the bottom of the footing and the bottom of the hole. Brad braced his hand against the concrete and stuck his head far enough under so his eyes could adjust.

The cave under his garage slowly came into focus. Directly ahead of him, the rope fell away into another deeper hole. Above him, in spots, he saw the underside of the concrete which formed the floor of his garage. Something had excavated almost the dirt supporting the garage.

"I've got to move my truck," Brad whispered.

Across the pit in front of him, on the opposite side of the cave, a ledge of dirt looked compacted compared to all the loose soil which made up the walls.

A noise behind him startled Brad and he spun on the balls of his feet, aiming the flashlight into the sun.

"It's a breeding hole, as far as we know," said Herm. The tall man, Herm, had somehow climbed down the ladder and snuck up on Brad. "You best come out of there—you don't want to know how far down that hole in front of you goes."

"Breeding hole for what, and how do you know anything about it?" Brad asked.

Herm held out his hand to Brad and said, "I'll feel more comfortable when you come away from there."

"Fine," Brad said. He didn't take Herm's hand, but pushed away from the concrete and stood next to Herm, looking him in the eye. "How about you tell me what's going on here."

"I will," said Herm. "Can we go inside?"

Brad stooped and picked up his rope, gathering it into a coil. He waved for Herm to go up the ladder and the tall man obliged. He looked like he barely even touched the steps. Herm's legs moved, but it almost looked like he floated up out of the hole. Brad followed, carrying the coil of rope. When he got near the top, Herm leaned down and took the coil from him so Brad could use both his hands to get back up on the grass. Lifting the ladder out of the hole took Brad a few grunting tries until Herm helped him.

Brad waved his guest up onto the deck and in through the back door.

"Brad," said Herm, "I'm afraid you've got some hard changes coming your way."

"How's that?" Brad asked. He led Herm down the hallway to the living room.

"I'm going to come clean with you now. It's going to feel at times like you're a prisoner in your own house, but you have to believe, it's for the greater good," said Herm.

Brad stopped and turned in the middle of the living room. He didn't sit down, he just stood in the middle of the room and looked at Herm, who stood near the arch to the hall.

"Can you back up and tell me exactly what the hell you're talking about?" Brad asked.

Herm gestured towards the window. Brad's mouth fell open as he regarded the driveway. Men wearing golf shirts, cargo shorts, and boat shoes, milled about carrying equipment and having discussions in tight circles. Several sedans parked side-by-side in the driveway behind a white panel van. Brad counted about a dozen men before he saw the Humvee pulling through the lower part of the yard and out through the back gate.

Brad rushed to the window to get a better view.

"What the fuck?" he whispered to himself.

Towards the front of the house he saw a bucket truck from the cable company working on the wires at the telephone pole.

"We have to deal with the situation out back," said Herm, startling Brad. He had crept to within arm's length while Brad looked out the window. The tall man could sneak up on a chipmunk.

"What exactly is the situation out back? Are you really from the USDA?" Brad asked.

"No, not the USDA," said Herm. "I work for the government. Truth is, we're not exactly sure what's going on with the vines."

"I thought so," Brad said. "From Georgia? Not likely."

"You're right," said Herm. "Why don't you have a seat and I'll explain." He gestured towards the couch.

"I think I have some phone calls to make first, if you don't mind," Brad said. He pulled his phone from his back pocket. The phone read full-strength signal—unusual for his living room—and where the carrier normally displayed, instead of "AT&T," the display read "NOS."

Brad called Stavros.

"Hello?" asked a voice.

Brad looked at his phone—he dialed correctly, but it wasn't Stavros he was talking to.

"May I speak with Stavros please?" Brad asked.

"I'm sorry sir, I've been instructed to hold your calls until you speak with Mr. Guntner," said the voice.

"Gunther," Brad said. He looked at Herm. "He told me his name was Gunther."

"That's what I said, sir. Gunther," said the voice.

"Sure," Brad said. He ended the call. "Okay," Brad said, throwing up his hands and flopping down to the couch, "You've got my car blocked in, my phone redirected, and I'm guessing you won't let me just walk away, so you might as well talk."

"I know we're stepping on your liberties here, Brad," said Herm.

"You can call me Mr. Jenkins," Brad said.

"Yes, Mr. Jenkins," said Herm. Herm's shoulders sagged, and the corners of his eyes betrayed his exhaustion again. "We're stepping on your liberties because we need to get control of this situation before it causes a panic. Most people would be a little disconcerted to learn that you've got some unknown species in your little portion of the Maine woods."

"You can't just cover up something like this," Brad said. "Wait a minute, did you guys cause the fire at the Cartonio place? Was it part of your coverup?"

"No, sir, no," said Herm. "This isn't some giant conspiracy going on here. If you could just stow the tinfoil hat for a minute, I'll explain. We've found these same plants and animals other places, but nowhere near any population until yours. And this isn't a coverup, we're just keeping a lid on the publicity until we have a better understanding of what we're dealing with, and how to proceed."

After a very quick rap on the door, a man walked in. He looked older an even more tired than Herm. He wore khakis, a Hawaiian shirt, and a baseball cap. "Sorry about the intrusion here, Mr. Jenkins. You copacetic for cocktail hour, Herman?" the man asked.

"Blue skies, Ollie," said Herm.

"Take care, Mr. Jenkins," the man said. He ducked out through the door, closing it softly.

"Your superior?" Brad asked.

"I'm sorry?" asked Herm.

"I'm just working on this theory," Brad said. "Looking at those guys in the driveway, it seems like the more covered up you guys are, the higher the rank. You've got pants and a golf shirt. That guy is wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a cap—which makes him your boss, or at least higher rank. The guys with the cargo shorts must be pretty low on the totem pole, and the one hanging on the back of the Humvee was just wearing a tank top and soccer shorts, is that the lowest rank?"

"You're pretty observant, and you're correct," said Herm. "And I was just about to try to establish rapport by revealing something I shouldn't. Guess I don't need to now?"

"You'd have to go a long way to establish rapport at this point," Brad said.

"Let me try," said Herm. "I'll just be as straightforward as I can. We're intercepting your phone and we run a delay on everything you say. If you try to reveal anything, we drop your call or fuzz it out. We've got a similar system hooked up to your internet connection. My guys say you work from home, programming, right? You can keep doing that, but remember, all your communication will be gated through us. That means documents, code check-ins, emails, everything."

"I won't be able to work," Brad said. "All my communication with the office has to be through secured channels. You're either flying blind or you have to block it completely."

Herm smiled and nodded.

"The guys have tricks even I don't understand, Mr. Jenkins," said Herm. "Just continue to live your life as normal, don't try to alert anyone, and everything will go smoothly. Before you know it, we'll be out of your hair. We'll do your shopping, your errands, and you even get a stipend for the inconvenience."

"My friends and family are going to suspect something's up if I don't turn up," Brad said.

"Our research guys put together a plan before I showed up here, Brad. I don't think we have much to worry about," said Herm. "I'm going to leave you to mull things over for a bit. I'll be back later to answer any questions."

Herm stood and held out his hand for Brad to shake. Brad just stared at the tall man and kept his place on the couch. Herm shrugged and showed himself out.

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