Seedling: Chapter Six
The bus windows are already down as we cram on and sit in our usual spots. I have my knees up against the seatback in front of me. I’m sprawled out. I’ve been sitting by myself since Tuck got sick. The bus rumbles a little and starts moving out of the parking lot. I’m thinking about him today. Maybe it’s the warm air or the smell of the healthy diesel mixed with spring coming in through the rectangular windows.
I scrunch down in the seat and open my latest book picked off the shelves of Wire’s farmhouse. A first edition copy of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. When I found it, I brushed off the dust a bit and almost squealed. I’ve been wrapping it in a gallon freezer bag for protection while I’m not reading the thing. When I’m done, I’m going to sell it and give the cash to Wire, even if he uses every bit of it to buy gas for his 4-wheeler.
I’m about halfway through the section titled On the Inhabitants of Oceanic Islands when the bus driver slams on the brakes and all our backpacks slide forward under our seats. We come to a stop and everyone stands up in our places to see what’s happened. Just ahead of the bus is a person standing in the middle of the road, not moving, not even for the giant yellow mass that’s just missed him. The driver honks the big horn at him, nothing, not a flinch. 20 or 30 seconds go by and the man walks towards the woods but stops at the edge of the pavement. He is looking straight into the trees. The driver swerves out into the middle of the two-lane and drives around him. The other kids move to my side of the bus to get a better look. We’re nearly past the guy when the driver yells, “Hey! Everyone in their seats!” I scooch down and find my place.
Walking the quarter mile back to my house, I see the driveway is empty. I feel sad for a moment, Wire’s been here nearly every day after school. I walk into the house and drop my books on my bed. They bounce a little and tip over into a messy sideways stack. I dig out my notes on my latest experiments. The episodes have been changing in the rats. No longer are they simply eating everything in their cages, they are experiencing trance-like states. Standing on their hind legs, erect and upright, they have held at attention anywhere from 1 hour to 12 hours. I add a new note, The Sopo seems to be affecting contaminated humans in similar ways.
I go outside and sit on the porch while I dial Oscar’s number. It rings over and over until I finally here a small click on the other end. “Yes, yes, you have the Goeteluck residence. Might I ask who is calling?”
“Oscar, this is Flora.”
“Ah yes, hello Ms. Black,” he says.
“Oscar, I was hoping I might be able to discuss some of my findings with you this evening. Are you free?”
“Oh, well, um, this evening isn’t good for me. I’ve had something come up.” He sounds distracted on the other end.
I think for a moment, “Ok, what about tomorrow?” I ask.
“Not then either my dear.” He says and then I hear a little sadness in his voice, just a twinge.
“Oscar, are you ok?” I ask.
He takes a long pause, “Yes. I’m fine Flora. I’ll call you soon.” Then I hear the phone click and silence.
I’m looking out at the yard feeling worried as I see a car coming up the road. I can’t tell who it is until they’re pulling into our driveway and then I see Book in the passenger seat. A pretty girl is driving so I wave and walk into the house to give them privacy. I think about Oscar. The longer I think about it, the more I feel like I should go check on him.
Mom has the car at work, who can I call. I try Lynn. She doesn’t answer. I try the number I’ve never used that Wire gave me a while back but it’s been disconnected, a usual occurrence. I walk towards the door to go back out and see if Book’s friend might give me a ride to town, but Book opens the door as soon as I have the thought.
I think for a long time and then I realize, Tuck. There’s no one else. Maybe not Tuck himself, but maybe his mom could drive me out there. I call the number, it rings 3 times and then Tuck’s mom answers the phone, “Hello!”
“Um, hello Mrs. Vance. This is Flora, I was wondering if I could ask you a favor?” I say.
“Oh my dear, Flora Black, such a shame with you and Tuck. I know you two got along so well. Whatdya need sweetheart?” she says back.
I am astounded by her candor, “Well, I need a ride out to Nice Creek. I’m worried about a friend of mine and mom has the car in town.”
“Oh yes dear, I was about to head out to run some errands anyhow. Are you ready to go or do you need some time?”
“Yes, I’m ready to go, thank you so much Mrs. Vance!” I say back.
“Alright then, call your mother and tell her what you’re doing, we don’t need to cause anyone else to worry.” She says to me before we hang up. I call mom and tell her. Mrs. Vance pulls in the driveway 15 minutes later. I stand up from my seat on the steps and open the passenger door.
We are awkward at first but then we ease into some polite conversation. “How have you been?” She asks me. “How is school going? Are you still interested in all that woodland science?” She says it with a big drawl, “wood science?”
I finally get up the nerve to ask her the question that I can’t get out of my brain, “How’s Tuck really doing, Mrs. Vance?”
She pauses for a long time, 30 seconds maybe. “Well dear, he is struggling. I think he has this illness that is going around. Sometimes he seems like a totally different person and others he seems just like my sweet, sensitive boy. I have no idea what to do with him. This new girl he’s seeing, I don’t even know if he has any real feelings for her. He just seems so disconnected.” She stops herself and glances at me from the driver’s seat, the car gently going around the curves in the two-lane. “I’m so sorry. No one asks me about him, I never get to talk about it. It feels like a secret that everyone knows but no one will admit.”
“I’m so sorry Mrs. Vance. You know I really thought the world of Tuck, I still think he is good, we just need to figure out how to…there’s the driveway! Sorry, there is the driveway Mrs. Vance. Turn right there.” She pulls in and follows the pretty drive. “Wait here, I’ll be right back,” I say as I shut the car door behind myself. I walk up the stairs to the perfect little cottage and swing the cast iron knocker hard 3 times. The house stays quiet. Linna doesn’t bark, there is total silence. I turn on my cell phone flashlight and walk around the corner of the place to the study. I stand on my tip toes to see in the window. I hold my phone up and see the whole house empty. I go to another window and move a bench from the garden to stand on. There isn’t a single piece of furniture left. My head starts racing. I go to the next window and the next. Nothing, there is nothing in the whole place. Vacant.
Shining my light, I walk the path to the greenhouse. As I get close, I start to see huge shards of broken glass. I lift my phone up and see the pots that held so many beautiful and rare species crushed, terra cotta and dirt in small piles. I yell for Oscar and Linna a long time before I finally give up. I’m crouching to get in the car when she comes limping from under the house. I can’t tell if she’s hurt or if it is just a symptom of her age.
She walks up to me and I pat her damp head. I look over at Mrs. Vance and before I can get the question out she says, “I’ve got a towel we can put on the backseat, she can lay there.”
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Vance. I don’t know where Oscar is, but I’ll call and leave him a message telling him I have Linna. I can’t thank you enough.”
I sit in the back seat with her. Mrs. Vance cracks the windows, and the air that had been warm in the afternoon now feels cold blowing on my face. We go gently around the turns and I feel Linna’s weight shift as we do. The local public radio station plays the nightly news in the background.
“Hundreds of persons have been found standing on the edge of highways across Appalachia staring into the wide-open woods. Still and unmoving, they are victims of the bouts, the illness ravaging the region and the better part of rural America. Why are they standing and looking into the wilderness, blame it on the latest common symptom, listlessness.”
“Tonight 13 people were found in 13 different bathrooms strewn across Appalachia. Those found were twisted up in toilet paper and paper towels, drenched with water from the sink or the toilet. The hand dryers were blowing, set off over and over by the subtle movements of the very ill individual struggling on the ground below them.”
“22 Persons Injured, 47 Persons Killed in Bouts-Related Crashes this Month in West Virginia. Hit-and-Runs Reach All-time High.”
“Tuesday’s hearing came just hours before a recall on the dish detergent brand known as Mr. Marcell’s Very Fine Dish Detergent. In the hearing room, both parties grilled the company over the potential risks associated with their product. The Drug Enforcement Administration found the distribution of the soap especially high in grocery stores around West Virginia and Appalachia.”
Mrs. Vance pulls into the driveway. I cradle Linna as I step out of the car, “Thank you Mrs. Vance, thank you for everything.”
“It wasn’t a thing sweetheart, I hope your friend is ok.” She says back to me.
I give her a small grin as she pulls away. I walk in the house and give the dog a bath and some leftover meat out of the fridge. Linna curls up on a soft rug in the laundry room like she’s lived here for years.
I sit down on the couch next to Book and think about what could have happened to Oscar and who could be responsible. I can’t help but think that it must have something to do with what we’ve been working on. What our findings have been suggesting. “Book,” I say, “I might be in trouble.”