Len wakes one morning to find two green shoots erupting from his head.
He blinks hard: once, twice. One shoot on either side, each stalk half the length of a finger and half the thickness of a pencil, like daffodils poking out of the ground after a long winter. He raises a hand to one of them. His fingers feel the shoot, but the shoot doesn't feel his fingers and neither does his head, except for a faint pressure on his scalp around the stalk.
Phoebe did this, he thinks; then, Don't be ridiculous. She was breaking up with me, that's all.
His shaking thumbnail punches through the stalk. A rush of clear, greenish-yellow fluid seeps onto his thumb and index finger. It doesn't hurt, but he feels lightheaded and queasy, like the time Mariel told him horror stories about third world restrooms.
This can't be happening. He closes his eyes, grips both shoots as close to his head as possible, pulls them out. He tries not to look at the fat green quills in his hands, but he sees them anyway and another wave of nausea convulses him. He drops them into the toilet bowl and keeps his eyes on his reflection above the sink as the flushing water carries them away.
It's Monday, and last week's upgrade to the database access system still isn't working. Between the twenty-foot high glass doors at the entrance and his sunless cubicle in the back hallway, he's accosted by five angry scientists who "haven't seen data since Thursday" and dodges blistering looks from several others.
"It's not a system upgrade if the system stops working," Gonzalo informs him before stalking away in a dignified huff.
"You think?" Len mutters. Gonzalo made a name for himself at one of the big American pharmaceutical companies before coming here, and his favorite refrain is the backwardness of Vancouver's biotech sector.
Len's boss is in meetings all morning, probably explaining how the system failure is the fault of Len and the others in informatics, not his fault for promising what he knew they couldn't deliver. At least this way he can't ask for status updates every half hour.
Len can hardly remember what it felt like, three years ago, to accept this job. He'd chosen it over others that paid better because he wanted to help save lives. Lots of government support and big pharma money, Nobel laureates on the board--"attracting the best and brightest scientific minds to tackle the unmet medical needs of the global village." He feels like a failure for hating it.
"Lensman, dude!" Alex calls out as Len passes the coffee machine corner, where Alex and Suzy are gossiping instead of working on the database. "What's with the toque?"
Len tugs the edges of the knit woolen hat farther down over his temples instead of answering. The holes in his head are still visible under his hair, but only if you know where to look.
He fires up his computer, starts to read his email, gives up after seeing that it's all spam from scientific vendors or researchers complaining about the database. Then he tries calling Phoebe for the third time that morning. No luck. He's just getting down to real work when he senses Alex looming over him from behind.
"What do you want?" Len says without turning, scrolling through pages of code. His nose itches from all the cologne Alex has lathered on. The holes in his head itch, too.
"Dude," Alex says. He tries to talk like a California surfer, wears shorts and flip-flops twelve months of the year, but he's really from the Yukon, right over the border from Alaska. "So touchy. You need to get more sleep."
"Shenster was pissed you weren't here yesterday." Shenster is their boss, Philip Shen, head of Information Technology.
"I had stuff to do," Len says. Like wait around for Phoebe to remember they had a date. "Besides, it was Sunday."
Alex snickers. "Face time, dude." As far as Len can tell, Alex's strategy is to spend most of his waking hours at the office but spend very few of them doing actual work. Somehow, Alex has been promoted first.
"Yeah, well," Len says. "Right now I'm spending face time with my monitor, trying to get the database working."
Alex snickers again, gives the back of Len's office chair a little shove that's either friendly or aggressive, and shuffles off, calling "Peace out!" over his shoulder.
I could quit, Len thinks. But no one leaves a job these days without having another lined up, and every time he thinks about starting to look he's overcome by a wave of inertia so powerful that it takes all his energy to even blink.
And besides, if I couldn't stay excited about curing tuberculosis, there's not much hope for me.
The sides of his head are itching again. He's been trying not to touch the holes but in a moment of weakness he lets two fingers slip up under the edge of the toque to scratch.
Instead of just skin and hair, his fingertips find themselves tracing the contours of something cool and smooth, rounded points pushing up from his skin.
That wave of dizziness again, threatening to make him either faint or throw up.
It's not possible, plants don't grow out of people's heads. He can't stop fingering it though, the strange little bud that can't be there, and he's just about to reach up on the other side with the fingers of his left hand when he realizes that there's not one shoot sprouting out of the right side of his head, but two.
Yesterday, Phoebe showed up three hours late for lunch, then pretended to have forgotten when they were supposed to meet. It wasn't the first time this had happened. He tried to stay angry but, as always, her laughter and bright smile thawed his frozen heart. Before they'd even reached his apartment, he felt the last shards of his resentment melt away.
He knew nothing of her past, not even her last name. Nothing before the afternoon they'd met, when she walked into a friend's party and turned heads as if they were sunflowers. "You shouldn't ask dangerous questions," she warned when he fished for information. He'd never seen nor even spoken to her at night. "I am a creature of the sun," she said, with that smile that almost convinced him she was joking. Almost.
It was all a mask, he assumed, an attempt to escape an unhappy past by remaking herself. He wanted to drive the ghosts from her heart, make her trust him enough that she would let him into the empty places left behind. But that seemed as impossible as curing tuberculosis. And lately, Len hadn't been sure of his motives. Did he want this because he loved her, or because he thought he should love her, or because he thought he would love her if he only understood her better?
Perhaps that was why, when he saw she'd forgotten to take her purse into the bathroom with her, Len picked it up and started rummaging for clues. He knew he was crossing a line. But wasn't he entitled to know something about his own girlfriend, even something as simple as her full name?
There was no driver's license in her wallet. No credit cards, no library card. He found a small amount of cash, a few customer reward cards for clothing stores and coffee shops, none that showed the customer's name.
He looked up, and Phoebe was standing in the hallway watching him. He hadn't heard the bathroom door open.
"You should have trusted me," he said, aware of how stupid that sounded, her wallet open in his palm. "I love you."
The expression on her face didn't change: betrayal, anger, regret. "I warned you," she said. She came over to him, and stupidly he thought, We're finally going to sit down and talk about this. But no; she only stooped to pick up her purse and jacket from the sofa, then turned her back on him and headed for the door.
"Your wallet," he said, holding it out.
She turned to face him, but instead of reaching for the wallet she said, "You will never walk with me again."
It was such an odd way to break up with someone that for the rest of the afternoon and evening – between leaving apologetic messages on her answering machine – Len kept revisiting it, wondering what she'd meant.
When he saw the strange green shoots protruding from his head the next morning, his first thought was, She's cursed me.
His reflection in the bathroom mirror at work confirms what his fingers told him. Each side of his head now has two shoots poking out, one above the other.
He glances at the bathroom door. The last thing he needs is for one of his coworkers to see this.
He locks himself in a stall and tears out the new stalks, flushing them down the toilet. One pair hasn't protruded far enough for him to get a decent grip, but he pinches off the tips and scrapes them level with his skin. Then he washes his hands for a long time in scalding water. It doesn't help. He can still feel a faint stickiness, and an odor of resin clings to his fingers.
Len doesn't even go back to his cubicle for his jacket. He walks down the hallway, without acknowledging anyone, through the futuristic atrium with the transparent ceiling and out of the twenty-foot high glass doors and their DNA-inspired frosted etchings.
Gonzalo is smoking a furtive cigarette at the edge of the parking lot.
"Len!" he coughs. "What's the status? I'm meeting with a consultant next...." His voice fades as Len walks past him without slowing, heading for his car.
Each time Len looks in a mirror, he sees new green shoots. Dark, skin-lined holes gape wherever he pulls the stalks out, until a few hours later when they grow back. They always grow back thicker. The holes don't hurt or bleed, but the pits and tunnels hollowed into his head make it look as if he's being eaten by worms from the inside out.
By the third day, he can't stand pulling them out anymore. They seem to be joining together beneath his skin and bones, and he can feel the stalks snap deep inside his skull when he pulls them, can feel their increased resistance to uprooting as the net of subcutaneous fibers grows stronger. Shoots bud from his forehead and the bridge of his nose and two or three have sprouted near the crook of each elbow.
His boss Philip, and eventually Human Resources, keep calling. Alex and Suzy stop by unexpectedly, but he lets them ring the buzzer and bang on his apartment door until they give up and leave him alone. He's almost more afraid of being seen like this than of what's happening. Maybe because if no one else sees, then the change might not be real.
Phoebe stays unreachable, even after Len emails her to apologize. He almost calls Mariel, even though he hasn't talked to her since a few days after they broke up, over a year ago. He trusts Mariel's advice more than that of most people. But it still feels too awkward.
He doesn't know why he's so upset about Phoebe's disappearance. He'd been much happier with Mariel and had fantasized more than once about breaking up with Phoebe and seeing if Mariel would take him back, just like he'd fantasized about quitting his job. Maybe he's upset about Phoebe because he can't shake off the absurd suspicion that she's responsible for what's happening to him.
What can he do about what's happening to him? Len has no idea. He spends an entire afternoon running Internet searches on variations of "people turning into trees". Most of the non-junk hits are about splicing human DNA into plants. But he finds a Greek myth about the river nymph Daphne who turns into a tree to escape the attentions of the god Apollo; he vaguely remembers having read that story before, somewhere. And he finds a story by Hans Christian Andersen that he doesn't remember reading: "The Little Elder-Tree Mother". An elder tree grows out of a boy's pot of tea and turns into a girl, and she spirits the boy all through Denmark in each of the four seasons. And they find each season more beautiful than the last, all the people they visit content with simple everyday pleasures, no other life they would have chosen.
That story breaks him. He falls on his bed and cries hysterically for the first time since the plant shoots started poking out of him. When he and Mariel were together, she said many times that Vancouver was the loveliest city on earth, and she had surely seen most of them as a teenager traveling with her eccentric, artistic parents. She said it was the snow-capped peaks standing serenely behind the glass and steel and concrete skyline, the glittering bay, the beaches of pale gold, the secretive cedars with their graceful branches, and the constant companionship of the gray, misting rain, soothing sorrow and calming anxious hearts.
Her description, not his. Len hates Vancouver like he hated Toronto during his university days; like he hated his hometown and every new place to which his mother dragged him after his father disappeared. Life after school was supposed to bring stability, no more moving around, but no one else his age seems to want that and new friends come and go with depressing regularity. What does it matter how beautiful a city is, if no one belongs or stays there?
When he finally decides to call someone, it's his doctor from his hometown, a few hours outside of Vancouver. He doesn't have a doctor here and the thought of showing up at a clinic or the ER in his current state fills him with dread. Dr. Cole and Len's mother were friends – and may have been more than friends once, just after Len's father left – but Len doesn't know what else to do and is tired of doing nothing.
It's hard to convince the doctor to come, but Len persists. "I think I'm dying," he keeps saying. "I need to know if there's anything that can save me."
At his first sight of Len, Dr. Cole staggers as if Len had punched him. An indecipherable sound comes from between his lips.
Len has stopped wearing shirts. A green nimbus surrounds his head, narrow, leafy branches protruding from every surface of his skull, from his nose and cheekbones, from his jaw, down the sides and back of his neck. His arms, chest and the backs of his hands are a field of delicate tendrils, his back dotted with the same fat, green quills that first appeared on the sides of his head. His legs still look normal, but each day they become more difficult to bend, harder to pull his jeans over.
"Come in," Len says. His voice sounds high and reedy. He closes the door behind the doctor, locking it. Dr. Cole starts visibly at the sound of that click. Sweat beads on his bald forehead.
Len almost laughs out loud. "I always lock it. It's a big city. I'm not trying to keep you from leaving."
The doctor does not seem relieved but he does follow as Len stumps into the living room. "What do you want me to do for you?" he asks. He seems smaller than Len remembers him, even since the funeral for Len's mother two years ago, diminished from that bear-like man with the booming voice who always knew what to say to put a frightened child at ease.
"I want to know what's happening to me," Len says. "I don't know anything about medicine or biology." He wishes he'd paid more attention to what the scientists at work studied; would that have helped? "I don't know why this is happening. I don't know what to do." The panic in his voice reminds him how he used to wail whenever he saw a needle approaching, his hysterical fear the time he fell out of a tree and broke his leg in two places.
Dr. Cole nods twice, suddenly in charge. "I'll see what I can do, Len. I'll see what we can figure out." He glances around the living room. "Can you ... do you still sit down?"
Sitting doesn't hurt, not exactly, but it makes the skin on his legs feel strange: stretched-out, overly sensitive. "I like standing better. You can sit, if you like." With one hand, Len motions towards the armchair. He remembers Mariel helping him pick it out. He can't imagine Phoebe ever helping him pick out furniture.
Seated, Dr. Cole begins to ask questions in that same calm, reassuring, neutral voice. When did the problem begin and how did it first come to Len's attention? Had he noticed anything unusual in his sleep patterns or emotional state before that morning? Had he made any sudden changes to his diet or exercise routine? The doctor pounces on Len's revelation that he works at a biotech company, obviously grasping for evidence that the affliction has a rational, scientific explanation. But Len's never even gone into the labs, and if working for a biotech has done anything, it's cured him of any lingering belief that science experiments gone awry can turn people into superheroes. Or bizarre plant creatures.
Still, Len answers each question as completely as he can, although he doesn't mention Phoebe or their break-up. But, after Dr. Cole's seventh or eighth question, the ridiculousness of the situation strikes him and suddenly all he can manage as an answer is a dry, choking laugh, almost a strangled cry of rage.
"This is stupid!" Len protests. "You're acting like I have high cholesterol. Look at me!" He waves both hands in emphasis. Halfway across the room, the unacknowledged termination papers from work fly off the coffee table and slowly spiral down, caught in the eddy generated by the small branches growing out of his arms.
Dr. Cole swallows hard and grips the legal pad he's been taking notes on. His eyes examine Len. The doctor doesn't have any children of his own and Len doesn't know if that makes him feel more or less kindly towards an old friend's adult son.
"Come over here then," Dr. Cole says, and when Len obeys, the doctor says, "Stretch your arm out towards me."
Len extends one arm and Dr. Cole slowly reaches up and wraps his fingers around Len's forearm, just below the elbow. He turns the arm slightly from side to side. He touches one of the thin branches sprouting out of the skin. Len shudders.
Dr. Cole snatches his hand back. He looks up and meets Len's eyes.
"You need to go to a hospital."
"Why? What can they do?" Images dance before his inner eye: himself, cloistered in an antiseptic room more distant from the sun than his office cubicle; shunted from one unfamiliar setting to another with even less say than when his mother would move them every other year.
Dr. Cole seems to be forcing himself not to look away. "What do you think I can do here in your apartment? Have you considered that this condition might be contagious?" If Dr. Cole is concerned about his own safety, his steady gaze gives no hint of it.
"It's not, and I haven't left the apartment or gone near anyone since it started happening."
"It would seem," Dr. Cole says, "that going to a hospital is your best chance of stopping this. Maybe you need to ask yourself if the reason you won't go is that you don't really want to make it stop."
The day after Dr. Cole leaves, Len realizes that the rough, scaly rash spreading over his legs is bark. With difficulty, he peels one of the patches away. It feels like picking off a large scab, only it doesn't hurt or bleed. A yellow liquid with a faint aroma of spring flowers moistens the underlying flesh, clinging to his fingers and making them stick to everything he touches.
He hasn't eaten in days. He's never hungry. Thirsty, yes; and he craves sunlight. He spends hours standing at his bedroom window, tracking the sun across the sky. It gives him a sense of peace that he's never felt before.
Intruding into his peace are the daily phone calls from Dr. Cole, urging him to seek treatment, or at least a more official quarantine than the one Len has imposed upon himself. Len never answers, but when the doctor hints in a message that he's considered reporting Len to the Centre for Disease Control, with or without his consent, Len knows he doesn't have much time left. He's going to have to make a decision.
That evening, he calls Mariel. She seems pleased to hear from him but keeps asking if there's something wrong with his throat. She says he sounds hoarse.
They talk about nothing until Len can no longer stand it. "Mariel," he says suddenly, into a grace moment between family news and the weather, "I'm sorry."
Silence. Then, "Sorry for what?"
After a second awkward pause, Len says, "I don't know. For everything." For running away to chase after Phoebe's deceptive glamor, he thinks. For never being able to describe the sharp, bright pain of his feelings for her. For refusing to be happy.
"Oh, Len." Is that pity in her voice? "You don't mean what happened back when we broke up, do you? That was a long time ago. I'm really okay about that now."
She keeps talking. They had been far too young to consider settling down. Sure, it was difficult when Len announced that they needed to break up and almost immediately started dating someone he'd just met. But now she's grateful. "We're not right for each other, Len. I didn't realize it at the time but now I do, and I can't feel sorry about a break-up that brought me to a better place."
"Phoebe left," he says.
"Oh." Mariel sounds genuinely sorry. "Are you all right?"
Len chokes back a bitter laugh. He glances down at his naked body, at the patches of bark creeping up over his thighs. "Have you seen her at all? In the last--" He doesn't know how long it's been. "Two weeks? Three?"
"No," Mariel says. "After that party where we all met, I never saw her except with you. You know that."
What if he tells Mariel everything? He lifts his free hand in front of his face. Three twigs have sprouted from the back, each with half a dozen spade-like green leaves and so many tiny unfurled buds that he can't count them.
"Did you ever hear rumors that there was anything weird about her?" He realizes that's the wrong question as soon as he's voiced it; everything about Phoebe is weird. "Anything ... I don't know ... supernatural?"
"Supernatural?" Mariel sounds honestly puzzled and Len knows she doesn't lie well. "No-o-o. I don't think so. Does it matter?"
Does it matter? Even if Phoebe had somehow caused him to begin turning into a tree, intentionally or unintentionally, would knowing that help him to change back?
Does he even want to change back? He thinks about the unconditional warmth of the sun on his leaves, the way his loneliness and the memories of his miserable job have receded into insignificance.
"Yeah," he says. "I don't know. I have to go, okay? It's been good talking to you."
He stares at the phone in his hand for a while after Mariel hangs up. Eventually, he shrugs, and sets the phone on the coffee table. He walks into his bedroom and stands at the window. Even through the glass the sun warms him, flesh and leaf alike.
He wonders if he'll be any happier as a tree than as a human. But maybe that depends on him.
The sun sets, and rises, and sets again. In the deepest dark of night, he leaves his apartment for the last time. He trundles down the hallway in loping but awkward strides, his stiff legs dragging at each step. The tips of his limbs brush uncomfortably against doorways as he passes through them, down two flights of stairs, out the rear exit. His night vision is worse than he had expected.
He stares at the silvery car for a long time before remembering what to do. At first he thinks he won't fit inside, but somehow, after moving the seat back, he manages to kink his legs enough to fold himself in. He presses against the roof of the small vehicle and against the glass to his left. But he's secure.
The streets are quiet, but not empty. Horns blare as he passes, and at one point a knot of young women, their hair unnaturally stiff and their stilettoed gait as awkward as his own, point in unison, one raising a hand to her open mouth. He speeds by too quickly to hear her scream. He wonders if he would have found her attractive, once.
A park occupies the tip of the peninsula, and a forest that seems displaced from one of the rugged harbor islands. Even inside the vehicle with the windows closed, his blood thrums in harmony with the wind in the branches. It's like listening to a language he has forgotten; once every several beats he understands, but the full meaning remains elusive. He thinks they might be welcoming him.
He stumbles away from the car in slow, lumbering steps. Lustrous brown bark on his legs and hips glistens in the light of lampposts, and his leaves waver in the dancing breeze. Voices whisper all around.
When he stops, he remembers the place. A bench beside a wide gravel path. He remembers sitting on the bench with a girl, her eyes bright as the sun, wishing he knew her true name.
For a moment he thinks he sees her, watching him from where the path curves into the trees. But when he looks again, she has disappeared.
He lifts his arms above his head, reaching towards the faint gray glow that foretells the rising of the sun, and stretches his toes down into the warm soil. It feels like coming home.
Although Kristin Janz was born in Vancouver and attended graduate school there, she has spent most of her life elsewhere, most recently in Boston. Her fiction has appeared in several other publications, including On Spec, Futurismic, and Imaginarium 2012: The Best Canadian Speculative Writing. To learn more, please visit her website and occasional blog at http://www.kristinjanz.com.
© Kristin Janz 2014