He looked up, frowning. A woman's scream: specifically, his wife's. Eleanor's scream had a peculiar tinny quality that was unmistakable. It was not repeated.
He hesitated before folding the paper and rising from his chair. It would be ungallant, certainly, for a gentleman not to aid a lady in distress—Gregory was of a generation that still valued such things. The strangeness of the situation, rather than his immersion in the paper, made him hesitate.
It came from the backyard, whence Eleanor, some time since, had disappeared with the stated intention of doing some gardening. On the way to the back door, he paused to consider whether he should grab a kitchen knife to deal with . . . whatever it was.
His decision was made for him when Eleanor, red in the face but quite whole, banged her way into the mudroom.
She was breathing heavily, her bosom heaving up and down. Sweat poured down her face (one could hardly call it a feminine dew), and her clothing was mud-spattered.
She leaned on the sink, panting. She seemed to have, nonetheless, an air of—what? Satisfaction? Triumph?
Now he noticed that a tremendous gash was opened across her shoulder and her gardening shirt stained with blood. The wound continued down her arm, terminating in a nasty scratch on her wrist.
"Eleanor? Are you quite alright?"
She turned on the water and carefully tore the loose fabric from her arm.
"I'm right as rain," she said, cheerfully. "Tricky thing almost had me there, but I beat it off with the spade. Smacked it right in the nodules." She chuckled. "It'll think twice about trying that again." Matter-of-factly, she started to wash the blood from her arm.
"What tricky thing?" asked Gregory, feeling out of his depth. Did she need stitches?
"Tasmanian Devil-vine," she replied, frowning at her ruined shirt. "I didn't realize they matured so soon. The Vampire-daisies don't grow their teeth until late spring, and since they're from the same climactic zone, I thought they had a similar cycle. Would you mind reaching me the bandages from the cupboard, sweetheart? I'm a bit hobbled at the moment."
He opened the door and stared at the contents. Bandages, gauze, antiseptic. It looked like a hospital shelf. When had she procured all this?
He helped her wash and wrap the damaged arm. "Make sure you get all those little stickery things out," she said. "Those are its seeds, and if you don't remove them, they root in and feed off your putrefying flesh. Very interesting life cycle. And, of course, beautiful flowers. Mrs. Wynn-Smyth has some of the miniatures; they're far easier to control. But they make a poor show against the full-grown variety."
"I didn't realize gardening had gotten so . . . dangerous," he commented as he taped the gauze in place.
"It's not that dangerous, really, if you keep your wits about you and have the right tools. Rake, shears, double-edged hunting knife. It's quite the rage, nowadays."
"Extreme horticulture. Making gardening an adventure. It's just that the regular stuff—roses, bulbs, ornamentals—well, it's alright in its own way, but it's gotten so . . . dull."
Gregory was tempted to point out that gardening was intended to be relaxing rather than death-defying. And yet she seemed so . . . happy. Energized. He wondered that he hadn't noticed it before.
When she dressed for bed, he saw that she had white scars, some quite deep, criss-crossing her entire body. And she slept the sleep of happy exhaustion.
Midmorning, a tall, gray-suited figure leaned into the doorway: MacReynolds, head of sales. Gregory studied him. He'd never noticed the scar running down his cheek, or how craggy and watchful were his features, or how he had the contemplative look of an alpha gorilla on the lookout.
"I was wondering if I could have the March sales figures today," said MacReynolds, genially. "I need to schedule combat between the two top sellers to see who gets the Haynes Account."
Gregory stared. "Combat?"
"Yes, we've found sales increased twenty percent with the new program. We've got some hungry up-and-comers on the team. Adams has been dominant so far this year, but the Greene girl's got him on his toes. Good hand with a Bowie knife, that one. Excuse me."
MacReynolds ducked. A knife quivered in the doorframe over his head. He rose in time to tackle the figure that hurtled towards him, hooking the legs from underneath it and flinging it across the hall. Gregory heard a muffled thump, followed by a groan. MacReynolds adjusted his jacket.
"Nice try, Adams," he called, amiably. He turned back to Gregory.
"I'll have them for you this afternoon," said Gregory.
"Great," said MacReynolds, grinning. He leaped away and Gregory heard him running down the hall, then a smacking sound, then a grunt.
Gregory stared out of his window. A forest, dark and foreboding, had grown overnight to the edge of the employee parking lot. As he watched, the trees at the perimeter stirred and tossed, and an animal—a boar, a tremendous boar—emerged, followed by a pack of people clad in a combination of business attire and furs. A spear hung from the boar's side, and as it caromed into the neatly lined Hondas and Accords, more people leaped from behind the cars, knives and spears at the ready. Gregory recognized Peters from accounting, and Hawthorne, the floor supervisor. They'd painted their faces with dull red stripes.
Gregory rubbed the back of his neck. He couldn't deny that they all seemed rather exuberant. Energized.
Hawthorne struck the killing blow; the boar was down. He stood atop the beast's humped back, while the others ululated.
The sound came faint to the thick glass of Gregory's window.
Hawthorne split over the boar's side with his spear. He reached inside and drew out the dripping heart.
Gregory leaned over and twitched open the bottommost drawer on the right side of his desk. Neatly folded, waiting for him, was a deerskin loincloth. Atop it, a dagger and a throwing-hatchet.
Gregory smiled. It was time.
Somewhere down the hall, a drum was beating.
Samantha Henderson lives in Southern California with her family and various fauna. Her fiction and poetry has been published in, , , , , , and .
image, "Garden" © 2007, Darin Bradley—All Rights Reserved