Sep 27 2011 10:00am
“Specimen 313,“ by Jeff Strand, tells the story of story of a meat-eating plant named Max and his mad doctor keeper. Eating humans is nice, but after a while it starts to get old. However, with the arrival of a new female neighbor, Max’s malaise may finally be over....
This story is featured in the upcoming monster anthology Monster’s Corner, out from St. Martin’s Press on September 27th. You can download a free ebook version of this story here or wherever ebooks are sold.
Keep an eye on Tor.com in late October for more monster tales and read what we’re doing in the future for All Hallow’s Read.
Max, whose real name was Specimen 278, tried to be happy as he digested the arm. It had been a delicious meal for sure (he didn’t get to eat humans very often, so it was always a special treat), but he felt somehow unsatisfied. Not hungry, necessarily, just sort of . . . unfulfilled.
He shifted in his dirt a bit. Almost watering time. Maybe that was the problem— his soil was too dry, and it was keeping him from enjoying his dinner.
He’d actually felt this way for the past couple of days. Kind of bored. Kind of sad. There were plenty of things going on in the greenhouse laboratory for him to watch, including a minor rampage by Specimen 201 that ended with the unfortunate plant being clipped to shreds with a pair of garden shears, but none of them captured his interest the way they had in the past.
He wished he had a means to communicate with humans. It would be nice to be able to ask Dr. Prethorius about why he might be feeling this way. He hoped he wasn’t sick.
Dr. Prethorius certainly wasn’t down in the dumps. The scientist had let out his usual high-pitched cackle when Max’s powerful leaves slammed shut over the vagrant’s arm, severing it at the shoulder, and he’d laughed so hard that tears flowed down his cheeks as he used a shovel to deliver more blows to the head than were probably necessary.
“One for you, and one for you, and one for you,” he’d said, tossing pieces of the vagrant to the hungry plants.“And one for you, and one for me . . . no, just kidding . . . and one for you.”
Max had been very proud at that moment. After all, most of the specimens couldn’t even bite off a finger, much less an entire arm. Of the last five hobos who’d perished in the greenhouse, Dr. Prethorius had seen fit to lure three of them to Max’s area. Max wasn’t the biggest plant in the lab — in fact, he wasn’t even the biggest of the gene-spliced Venus flytraps — but he was the deadliest.
Normally that made him feel great.
If he could have let out a deep, sad sigh, he would have. But he couldn’t. All he could do was wait and hope that he’d feel better soon.
Transplant day . . . ?
There was no more frightening sight in the greenhouse than Dr. Prethorius picking up the large shovel that rested against the far wall. Sometimes it simply meant that a plant was being moved to a new spot, but more often it meant that a particular experiment was over.
“Hello, hello,” said the doctor, walking straight toward Max. His eyes were red and glassy, but he wore his usual smile. “Need to get a bigger greenhouse, yes I do. Hate to see plants go to waste. But, try as I might, I can’t seem to make a tree that grows money!”
He laughed at his joke, which he’d used before, and then regarded Specimen 47, Charlie, who had been planted to Max’s right for as long as he could remember. Charlie was noncarnivorous and covered with pretty red and yellow flowers, and was always pleasant if not particularly fascinating.
Max’s leaves stiffened as Dr. Prethorius plunged the shovel into the dirt.
“Time to go, time to go,” said the doctor in a singsong voice.“Out with the old, in with the new, it’s good for me, too bad for you.”
Max watched in horror as the doctor scooped out shovelful after shovelful of dirt. He hadn’t forgotten what had happened to Specimen 159, who’d been dug up and discarded — thrown into a corner. It took the plant several agonizing days to dry up and starve to death.
After a few minutes of work, the doctor wrapped his arms around Charlie and pulled him out by the roots. He dragged the plant away, leaving a trail of red and yellow flowers.
Max tried to use this to make himself feel better. After all, he was unhappy, but at least he was still firmly planted in the dirt.
It didn’t work. He was sadder than ever.
When Max uncurled his leaves upon the morning light, he had a new neighbor. Another Venus flytrap. The new plant was a darker shade of green than Max, and about a foot shorter, with leaves that were narrower.
Max was surprised. Usually the new plants were bigger than the old ones. What made her so special?
Oh. That was it. His new neighbor was a “she.”
Max’s mood suddenly improved. He twitched his front leaves. Hello, there.
I think I’m Specimen 313.
Glad to meet you. You’ll like it here.
I don’t think I will.
It’s really not that bad. Once you get used to it you’ll be fine, I promise.
I don’t feel like talking now, if that’s okay.
Max stopped twitching his leaves. He didn’t blame her. The greenhouse was not as comfortable as the garden where he’d grown up (had she grown up there, too?). There he got to be outside and see the real sun instead of just light through the ceiling, and he got to feel a breeze sometimes, and though he couldn’t actually go anyplace else, he felt like he could leave if he wanted.
So if Specimen 313 had been in the garden yesterday and was moved to the greenhouse today, he completely understood if she didn’t want to talk. That was fine. He’d just wait for something to happen, like he always did.
About an hour later, Dr. Prethorius walked over with his plastic watering can. The greenhouse had an automated sprinkler system, but the doctor still used the watering can every once in a while. “Hello, Jenny,” he said as he watered her. “Are you adjusting to your new home? I have a guest waiting to see you, but I wanted to make sure you hadn’t fallen over first!”
He giggled. “I’ll be right back, so don’t go anywhere.”
The doctor left.
I don’t want to be here, said Jenny.
You’ll learn to like it.
No. I won’t.
She didn’t say anything else. When the doctor returned, he was with an old man who had a thick beard and a dirty jacket. The old man looked around at the other plants, mouth slightly ajar, and almost tripped over a hose.
“Careful, now. Careful,” said the doctor. He gestured to Jenny. “And here it is. The prize of my collection. Specimen 313.”
The old man wiped his nose on his sleeve. “That’s a pretty big plant.”
“Indeed it is.”
“That one of those fly- eating ones? Those trap ones? You know, that . . .” He moved his hands together in a trap- closing movement.
“Again you are correct. How does somebody with your level of intellect end up living out of a cardboard box?”
The old man lowered his eyes. “Bad luck, I guess.”
“I certainly hope you weren’t naughty with the crack cocaine. So do you like my plant?”
“Yeah, it’s kind of neat. Did I look at it long enough? Do I get my twenty bucks now?”
Max realized that he was not jealous at all that Jenny was going to get to eat the old man. Normally he was a little bit jealous — not a lot, just a bit — but with Jenny, he only hoped that it would make her feel better. When she had chunks of that old man digesting inside of her, she’d know that this was a welcoming place.
“Almost, almost, not quite yet,” said Dr. Prethorius. “Just a couple more minutes. It took a great deal of cross- breeding to create such an impressive specimen, and I want to make sure you take in the details.”
“So . . . why me?” asked the old man. “I ain’t got no appreciation for plants. Shouldn’t you have those people from that Nobel Prize thing here?”
“They don’t appreciate true invention. Those cowards are just as likely to contact the authorities as they are to bestow a prize. That’s why I need you. Somebody simpler of mind. Somebody who makes a good . . . fly.”
Jenny suddenly bent forward, leaves wide open. The old man let out a quick shriek that was cut off as her leaves closed over the top half of his body with a loud crunch.
Max had never seen anything like that!
The old man’s legs and waist dropped to the ground. Some blood trickled from between Jenny’s leaves as she . . . was she actually chewing?
Dr. Prethorius squealed with laughter and danced in a merry circle. “It worked! It worked! I never imagined that it could work so well!”
Jenny opened up her leaves, revealing a skull and rib cage, then bent down and gobbled up the lower half of the man’s body.
Dr. Prethorius laughed even louder. “Shoes and all! She ate him shoes and all! They all ridiculed me, but now it is I who will be administering the ridicule! And she hasn’t even displayed her full potential! We’ll see who’s not a genius!”
He laughed for a while longer and then left.
Max twitched his leaves. How was he?
Not bad. His beard was awful. It tasted like smoke.
I liked the way you did that.
Thank you. Jenny seemed genuinely pleased.
Had you planned to do it exactly when the doctor told him he needed somebody who made a good fly?
I didn’t know what the doctor was going to say. It just felt like the right moment.
Had you ever eaten any humans before?
So never live ones?
Oh, I’ve eaten them alive. The doctor removed somebody’s arms and legs and fed me his torso.
He screamed a lot.
Want to hear something weird?
The doctor looked around to make sure nobody was watching — I guess we don’t count — and then he bit off one of the toes.
Yeah. He spat it out quickly, though.
He must not appreciate the finer things in life.
Thanks for being nice to me.
“I said, walk over to the plant!” said Dr. Prethorius, jabbing the barrel of the revolver into the young woman’s back. She sobbed and pleaded incoherently and fell to her knees.
“Get up! I said, get up!”
“Please!” she wailed.
Dr. Prethorius kicked her. “Are you trying to get yourself killed? Is that what you want? Get up and go see the plant!”
“Please! I have a baby at home!”
Dr. Prethorius kicked her again. “Get up! Get up! Get up! It’s not that hard! Just get up and . . . you know what? Fine. Don’t.”
He shot the woman in the back of the head. Her entire body went limp.
Dr. Prethorius crouched down next to her. He stared at her for so long that Max thought he might have become one of those zombies he occasionally experimented with creating, but finally he sprang back to life. “Well, that was no good. Shouldn’t have let that happen. Not scientific at all.”
He took her by the hands and dragged her along the path. He stopped in front of Jenny, regarded her for a moment, and then shrugged and looked back at Max. “You might as well have this one. Such a waste.”
Max happily opened his leaves.The doctor pulled the woman to her feet and held her so that her arm was right next to Max’s leaves. He bit it off. The doctor repeated the process with the other arm, then let the woman’s body fall to the ground again.
“Maybe I’ll grind up the rest of her and mix her into the soil,” he said, stroking his chin. “I haven’t used my meat grinder in a while. The gears might be rusty. I don’t know how well it will do on a big- boned girl like her, but the worst that can happen is my meat grinder gets jammed, and that’s really not such a big deal, now is it?”
Dr. Prethorius walked away, leaving the armless corpse between Max and Jenny. Max wasn’t disappointed that his meal had been cut short; after all, two arms was still a feast, even if he would have rather eaten her legs, given the choice. If the doctor ground her into fertilizer, then everybody could enjoy her, including the daffodils — Specimens 195 and 196 — who had probably never tasted a drop of blood in their lives.
But what did he mean by You might as well have this one?
Might as well?
Max couldn’t bend forward and snatch prey like Jenny, but he was far from obsolete, right? He could still bite arms off, or heads, or what ever parts the good doctor wanted bit off. Perhaps he couldn’t bite somebody completely in half or swallow them whole, but why would you even need that skill?
He was still one of the most vicious plants in the greenhouse. By far.
Sorry you didn’t get any, he told Jenny. He usually shares better.
It’s okay. I’m not that hungry.
The pool of blood is getting close. You might be able to bend over and slurp it up.
Thanks, but I don’t need leftovers.
What do you mean?
I’m sorry. That was rude. I didn’t mean anything by it. Jenny bent all the way down to the ground, stayed there for a few seconds, then sprang back to an upright position. I can’t reach the blood yet.
It’s still moving. It’ll get there soon.
I’m really sorry about that. I didn’t mean that your half-eaten meals were leftovers. I’d like to share. Really.
I know what you meant. I totally understand.
Specimen 90 was dug up and discarded the next morning. He hadn’t come out of the ground easily, and finally the doctor had taken an axe to his roots. Most of the specimens perished fairly quietly, but not Specimen 90. He called them all monsters for just watching him die. Said he hoped that the greenhouse caught fire and that they all burned to death.
Max felt sorry for him, truly he did, but there was nothing any of the others could do. Getting to spend time around Jenny had brought some of the plea sure back to Max’s life, and he was secretly relieved when Specimen 90 died after only one night out of the dirt.
The day after that, Dr. Prethorius walked through the greenhouse with a baby. All of the plants grew extremely excited, and Jenny stretched forward as far as she could, but the doctor walked around the entire lab without offering the baby to anybody. He manipulated the baby’s hand to wave good-bye and then left.
I think that was his grandson, said Max. He’s mentioned him before.
Oh well. We can’t expect him to feed us his grandson.
Are you feeling okay? asked Jenny.
Your leaves are lighter today.
No, I feel fine.
“Hmmmmm,” said Dr. Prethorius, plucking off one of Max’s leaves — a small one near the bottom. He turned the leaf around, looking at it from a few different angles, and frowned. “Hmmmmm.”
You’ll be fine, Max.
What do you think he’s going to do to me?
He’s not going to do anything to you. One vagrant in your trap and you’ll be good as new, I promise.
No. I don’t need human flesh to survive. It’s just a treat. There’s something else wrong with me.
Maybe your dietary needs have changed. It happens all the time. You need to stop worrying.
I don’t want to die.
I love you, Jenny.
Max hadn’t actually meant to say that. He tried to decide if it would be better to take it back and pretend that she’d misunderstood him, or leave it out there.
If he was going to die, he wanted to die happy.
I love you, he repeated.
What do you want me to say?
I don’t know.
I like you a lot, Max. I like you better than anybody else in the whole greenhouse, even the sunflower. You’re my best friend. I just don’t see you in that way.
Don’t be mad.
I’m not mad.
Don’t be sad, either.
I can be a little sad, right? It’s okay. I understand. I can’t devour victims as well as you. You need somebody who can be more ferocious.
It’s not that at all. I’m just not looking for anything like that right now. This is all still new to me.
Promise me that you’re okay.
Dr. Prethorius dragged the shovel along the path, whistling a happy tune.
“Life,” he said, stopping in front of Max. “It’s so filled with unexpected twists and turns. One minute you’re happily planted in the ground, and the next minute you’re tossed aside, ready to make way for Specimen 314.”
No! This couldn’t happen! There were dozens of other plants that were much less advanced than him! He wasn’t that sick. Why would the doctor kill him instead of one of the lesser specimens? It wasn’t fair!
“Of course, that won’t happen to you,” said Dr. Prethorius. “The discarding, I mean. I’ve invented a new acid test, and you’ll be perfect for it!” He giggled. “Acid on the leaves, acid on the leaves, watch them sizzle, watch them fizzle!”
He pressed the shovel into the dirt, then stomped on it. As he scooped out the first shovelful of soil, Max frantically opened and closed his leaves.
“Trying to bite my face off, huh? Naughty, naughty. What am I to do with such a misbehaving plant? Oh, I know. Acid on the leaves, acid on the leaves, watch them disintegrate, watch them . . .”
He spun around. Jenny sprang back up to her normal position.
“Trying to eat your master, are you? We can’t have that. Oh, no, we can’t have that at all. I realize that I bred you specifically to hunger for human flesh, but you’re not supposed to crave my human flesh, oh, no, that’s not right!”
He pulled the shovel back, preparing for a powerful swing, and then bashed it into Jenny. She bent backward, bounced back up, and then took a second hit with the shovel.
This time she stayed down.
“It’s sad times for the world of science when one’s own creations try to attack him,” Dr. Prethorius muttered. “Sad times indeed. I had such high hopes for Specimen 313. Oh well. Plenty of acid to go around.”
He returned his attention to Max and began to dig out more shovelfuls of soil. His eyes were wild and he flung each scoop of dirt as far as he could, hitting several of the other specimens.
Max had never been so terrified. He opened and closed his leaves, figuring that at this point it didn’t really matter if Dr. Prethorius got mad at him, but the doctor kept himself well out of harm’s way.
Behind him, Jenny lay on the ground, unmoving.
“They all laughed at me, you know,” said the doctor.“When I grew the world’s largest pumpkin, oh, they were filled with praise, but when I carved it into the world’s largest jack-o’-lantern, they called me mad! I ask you, would a madman create a cherry tree with fruits that ooze deadly poison? Would a madman develop blades of grass sharp enough to slice off your fingers?” His digging became even more frantic.
Poor, poor Jenny. She shouldn’t have tried to save him.
Max tilted forward as the next scoop of dirt came from underneath his roots. And then he realized that Jenny was slowly rising up again.
Don’t do it! he said. He’ll kill you! It’s too late for me!
Jenny straightened up completely but did not bend forward. Yet she continued to strain at something.
What are you doing?
Be quiet. I can’t concentrate.
Don’t do anything!
With the next scoop of dirt, Max tilted forward even farther, at about a forty-fi ve-degree angle from the ground. He wondered how it felt to have acid burn through him.
All of Jenny’s leaves were pressed tightly against her stalk as she strained, strained, strained . . .
One of her roots popped out of the ground.
And then another.
Then a third.
Max’s amazement overshadowed his terror as Jenny pulled herself out of the ground and took an actual step forward.
With the next shovelful of dirt, Max fell forward and almost smacked against the ground.
“What should I use?” asked Dr. Prethorius. “A few drops of acid to make it last, or should I just pour the whole bottle right on—” He let out a yelp and dropped his shovel as Jenny’s leaves clamped down upon his leg.
She straightened again. The doctor dangled upside-down from her trap, struggling desperately but unable to escape.
“Let me go!” he screamed. “I’m your master! Let me go! Please, please, please, let me go!”
Should I let him go? Jenny asked.
I don’t think so.
I love you, Jenny.
You’re a good friend, Max. Would you like to share?
She slammed the shrieking doctor against the ground, which did not shut him up, and then dragged him to the side. His arm slid underneath Max’s leaves. Max bit down.
Try to get his head, too, said Jenny, stepping forward.
Max did. Dr. Prethorius stopped screaming as they pulled him in two.
Thank you, said Max.
They ate without speaking for a while.
What’s wrong? Max asked.
I don’t think I can replant you.
But I can bring humans to you. I’ll leave the greenhouse and get them, as many as you want. You’ll eat and eat and eat until you get healthy again.
That would be nice.
They continued to enjoy their meal. The doctor tasted better than the other humans he’d eaten. Perhaps insanity made meat more tender.
Maybe he didn’t have a lover, but Max had a friend, and he knew that he could be happy for a long, long time.
“Specimen 313” © copyright 2011 Jeff Strand