Linden Botanicals  

 Emil stood before his new greenhouse feeling simultaneously overjoyed and dissatisfied. He chewed the tip of a fingernail completely off and spat it on the rooftop, leaving a jagged, angry curve. Dirt could not creep in if no space were available; he pretended this was a conscious decision and not a nervous habit.

 The tall structure was finally complete—it had only taken him all summer. After returning from Astoria, he decided that it was time to make some real progress on this last piece of his little haven. Feeling misunderstood, angry, and depressed, he’d called Killian and asked the shifter if he’d help assemble the greenhouse. “You‘ll get some overtime!” Emil had said, falsely cheerful and excited. Maybe the landscaper had noticed, maybe not. Fast-forward to the next week, and it was done. The exterior reflected the morning sun, and the heat radiating from the walls made him take a few steps into the shadows.

 The glass climbed well above the roof’s railing, comfortably sitting 16 feet at the apex, plenty of room for warm air to rise from his collection within. The permits for the building were downstairs in a file stamped, signed, and sealed by the city of Portland. Emil thought it would look terrible from the street, but the installation of exterior trellises on the street-facing side made it easy to convince them that it wouldn’t be starting any fires during the summer months. Now there was just the ivy to install. It sat inside, long enough to climb up now. He would wait for the cover of darkness to ask it to occupy its new home.

 The interior of the greenhouse looked sparse for now, but he would work the next few nights to fill it up. Several items could now be moved up here, and their growth accelerated to fill the space appropriately. The plants in his apartment on the floor below could also be thinned—not that Emil minded sharing space with so many, but he wouldn’t mind more floor space in his bedroom. Having exactly one two-foot area beside the bed in which to climb in and out was difficult to navigate in darkness when you had to piss in the middle of the night.

 He descended the exterior stair, locking the gate firmly behind him before entering through the back door on the ground level. Stopping at the register, he booted up the point of sale and mechanically arranged things on the counter to prepare for the day.

 Numb. That’s how he felt just now. Not even Charlie’s text the day before could positively alter the black fog that occupied his brain. The orchid on his counter even made an effort to lean over and look into his face, bright petals twitching, trying—in its way—to ask, what’s wrong? Emil reached up, stroking the stem with a gentle finger, allowing the orchid’s aloof nature to soothe him, offering cause to care a little less about his hurts.

 The bell above the door tinkled brightly in sharp contrast to swirling bleakness.

Saturdays had long claimed the gauntlet of Charlie’s favorite day of the week, spanning nearly his entire life – beginning in young childhood when his family would get together and his parents were home from work, through his school years when it was the freest day from obligations, and continuing to the present when he remained on an academic calendar. Just as his students cherished liberation from homework and studying, so did he prefer days without grading, lesson plans, or office hours. What wasn’t to like? Sleeping in if at all possible, enjoying a leisurely breakfast, Saturday morning cartoons, followed by whatever tickled his fancy or wherever the wind led him. This had been the pattern even in childhood, as his parents had insisted on Friday evening services instead of Saturday mornings, cordoning off the weekend proper for necessary errands, family bonding, children’s activities, and rest as so commanded.

Wherever the wind led him was far less adventurous than his more gregarious older siblings, owing to a combination of his powers and the touch of social anxiety that afflicted him. (On bad days, it was less of a touch than it was a five-fingered slap across the face.) He had developed a routine over the past couple of years, ever since moving and settling into his little apartment and learning the boundaries of his neighborhood and the greater city limits. There were the shops he visited, sometimes the Market if he felt particularly stable (and always prepared to duck out if he found himself overwhelmed by a toddler tantrum or the sudden arrival of a midlife crisis). There were museums, sometimes, and the vast tracts of natural beauty. There was his occasional trip to the barber if he remembered. There were restaurants or takeout to sample, even if his palate was narrower than his older siblings’ as well.

There were friends.

This was particularly true with Emil’s arrival in Portland, which had so delighted Charlie that his mood had been buoyed by anticipation for an entire week’s duration. At the time, one could have been forgiven for confusing him with his older brother, mistaking him for an extroverted social butterfly. And now those visits, too, were folded into the routine, spread across more than Saturday, although this week, this full day of weekend had become the focal point of his social life. They were to meet once his friend had finished his late shift at the shop, and Charlie had looked forward to this for the entire week.

The atrocious humidity soaked his shirt through with sweat, prompting a costume change before he left the apartment, switching into a cotton undershirt and a white Hawaiian shirt patterned with lizards that he’d found on the rack at Target and, somehow, fit his bony and too-tall frame. His arrival at the shop was accompanied by the soft jingle of a bell above, and no sooner had he crossed the threshold than a wave of despair as intense as a high school freshman’s discovery of …Is a Real Boy. The air whooshed from his lungs, as dark eyebrows narrowed, and the smile on his lips fell into a frown.

“Emil?” He took a few cautious steps through the shop, heels of his boots clacking against the floor. “Are you…ah…” His voice trailed off, swallowed by his struggle against the reflected despair.

 Emil looked up in time to see Charlie swamped by the thick emotions rolling around inside his brain. Lips in a thin line, he curled them further into his mouth, attempting to banish the grumps with a silly face made to no one in particular. Shaking his head, he gave a pathetic nod of his head to his longtime friend.

 “Shoulda told you to try tomorrow,” he said, careless, voice flatter than usual. “Maybe I’d’ve been better after getting the greenhouse all put together.” Shrugging, he came out from behind the counter and put a bit more distance between himself and his friend, content to shout if it made any difference. “Is it better from over here?” He asked, stopping near a tall fern that decided to shamelessly poke fronds into his messy hair. Emil batted the thing away gently, matching the plant blow-by-blow for attempts to get into his shirt collar. The activity softened him until he struck his chin. “Ow.” He rubbed the spot, a smile fighting to appear.

Charlie lifted one hand, palm facing outward in a pantomime of a crossing guard, a signal that his friend could cease his retreat lest they found themselves screaming at the top of their lungs to carry on a simple conversation. “It’s okay.”

Deep breath.

His eyelids fluttered as he drew on every ounce of internal merriment – so abundant mere moments ago – to drag him from the pit and smooth his mood to a neutral baseline. Would that he had developed a halfway useful power, like Emil’s for instance, that this wasn’t necessary and he could simply ask a friend what was wrong without feeling it in the depths of his very soul.

Deep breath.

“I’m okay.” Him, this time, and not merely the situation and what physical distance his friend had already put between them. Charlie straightened, eyes snapping open to resume some semblance of normality, to undo the past couple of minutes since he entered the shop. “And I’m already here. So.”

He clapped his hands together and peered around the shop, lips curling up at the interaction between Emil and the overly-affectionate fern. "Won’t you introduce me to your friend? Not Audrey III, I hope?”

Not Farrah II, either, for that matter.

 Emil continued the wrestling match, using a bit of his power to calm his over-eager charge. Finally, the tremendous leafy thing went still, stems and leaves straightening to wave placidly (and normally) in the slight breeze produced by the ceiling vents. Emil stood by it for a second, hand on one frond, conveying peace the best way he knew how—by finding just a shred of it himself. Maybe this was his friend’s presence? Knowing very few people with whom he could be himself, Emil was glad to see him.

 “Ha-ha.” He enunciated, glancing over at Charlie. “No, this is Heinrich. He’s just excited. They all are, really.” He quickly turned on the spot, arms extending to encompass every growing thing in the place. There was a great whoosh like a wave breaking on sand as leaves rustled throughout the room. “Most evenings, I’ve been wearing myself out before going to bed…” He trailed off, his mood on the very edge of souring. But! “To get a bunch of my clippings ready for potting in the greenhouse.” Emil looked back at the fern. It shuddered slightly, as if cold. He squinted at it. Heinrich went still. “All the power floating around in here makes everyone a bit, uh, overeager.” As if cued, the ivy climbing around the steel supports above dropped a tendril on his head.

 “Anyway. Want to see it?” Emil smiled at the other man, thrusting his hands in his jacket pockets. “The greenhouse, obviously.”

“Heinrich.” Charlie tested the name on his tongue, matching pronunciation syllable for syllable. He lifted his hand again, this time waving warmly to the plant rather than giving direction to his friend. He had long been fascinated by Emil’s power – this ability to interact with living creatures and affect the physical world. Infinitely more useful and interesting than his own protracted puberty. “It’s nice to meet you. I hope you’re taking good care of Emil for me.”

His expression mirrored the other witch’s, smile brightened watt for watt – not merely the effect of contagious emotions but born from true excitement to share in a friend’s achievements. “I sure do. Show me the way, and don’t spare any details. I want to hear about soil ph and learn the names of all the lady bugs.”

His own experiences with gardening were more limited. Short of what Emil had told him over the years, there had been a project in elementary school where he had to grow cucumbers, and then ninth grade biology where they’d dissected plants to learn about cell walls. Also his mother’s greenery during Shavout but that fell firmly under his mother’s adventures with the plant kingdom rather than his own.

Charlie stepped closer to his friend, hands slipping into his pockets to prevent fidgeting. “So, have you named everyone here? Or just Heinrich?”

 The ivy began to wind itself up from Emil’s head before being asked. It twisted itself around one overhead beam, hopeful that it might keep the six feet of extra growth. Emil didn’t want to explain about the fire marshal, but would, if the vines couldn’t be convinced to drop the spare tendril—use the rationale that the extra could be propagated in the greenhouse. Perhaps he could avoid a long, confusing talk.

 The fern shook a few of its forward-pointed fronds at Charlie, surprising a bark of laughter from Emil. He couldn't decide if the residual power in the shop had something to do with the plants’ willingness to interact with someone who wasn’t him but was satisfied that Charlie’s remark hadn’t gone unanswered.

 “Follow me then. It’s a short trek to the roof.” Emil turned on the spot and started to walk toward the exterior door leading to the outer stair. Charlie’s question didn’t come as a surprise. He shrugged. “Only those I don’t plan to sell.” Fiddling with the bolts on the door, he thrust it open, inhaling the subsequent blast of outside air. “Heinrich has sired, I guess you could say, a bunch of other ferns. He’ll stay downstairs, though. He’s a space-filler, and his pot is way too heavy for me to lug up these stairs.” Emil pointed at the gate he’d locked a quarter-hour before. The thorny vines that twined around the locks retreated at his approach, their spines moving well out of the way. “Don’t touch the gate. Clara is very protective.” He moved through, holding the gate open for his friend.

Now that Emil’s despair had receded a bit, and Charlie had centered himself, his own emotions were able to peek out from behind the wall where they had retreated during the inadvertent onslaught, sending prickles of excitement and anticipation into the universe. As bidden, he followed behind his friend, his pace a touch slower despite far longer legs, as he cast about to examine the vines and the other plants that they passed along the way.

“That makes sense,” he offered. He thought that he’d heard of a similar policy enacted at farms and pet stores, choosing not to name any creature with whom the owners might part, as a means of avoiding getting too attached.

At the warning, he glanced up, first making eye contact with Emil, then searching for which plant Clara might be, before falling on the thorny vines. “No problem.” This was, perhaps, a bit more difficult a promise than for the average, less compulsive person, but he shoved both hands into his jeans pockets to better resist the temptation. He spoke next to the plant, seeking eye contact with one of the spines that had moved. “I get it, Clara. I don’t like people touching my things without permission either.”

That statement was true without caveat or accommodation. Then, with that, he ducked through the gate that Emil had opened, careful not to accidentally brush a bony shoulder or hip against the metal as he passed through.

"How long have you been putting it together?"

 Emil glared a warning at Clara, queen of thorns, as Charlie passed through the gate. Being tough and relentless was her job, and not a thief had ever been able to break through the gate during his residency. He’d seen blood on those thorns but never a peep in follow-up to those encounters. So, her royal highness had likely saved Emil more than she ever cost him.

 “Heh. Shoulda seen her when I had my shifter landscaper come up to help me assemble this thing. Didn’t know if she wanted to have a chat with him or kill him.” Emil gesticulated while they climbed the stairs. “She was either in love or choosing which limb to sever first.” He grimaced at the air before him. “Had to do a little explaining then, but we got through it. Think we’re on equal footing now.”

 Answering Charlie’s question when they reached the top, he said, “Had the metal pieces since March. Before, really.” He scratched his head. “A couple vendors wanted to sell me a kit, but I liked the idea of coming up with something custom. So, I had a local guy forge the metal bits, and ordered the glass in sheets. It’s expensive stuff, but really nice now that it’s all in one piece.” He looked up, bouncing on the balls of his feet, grinning like an idiot.

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