Who needs a green thumb when the garden takes care of itself?
The winter winds chased Alison inside the greenhouse, rattling the metal door until she locked it. The rust, the rattling, and the rot worsened every year. Alison brushed thick chunks of snow from her hair with lilac-coloured wool gloves before she got to work.
Dad paid for her yearly vacations, from snowboarding equipment to her chalet membership. Tidying up his little greenhouse was the very least she could do for him but it didn’t make her task easier to bear. Alison unfolded the Post It note from her back pocket. Ali, please dump old plants, move racks from walls, replace the heater. Thanks. Alison crumpled the list.
The greenhouse was twenty-foot by fifty, and stuffed during peak season. Thanks to her dad’s gout attack in mid-August, the greenhouse became an icy, abandoned tomb for all 500 remaining plants. He hired no help, insistent he could do it all himself. Alison’s stepmom Heather suffered from arthritis and devoted her time to keeping the house together.
Could be worse, Alison decided. I could be doing this for free.
Father could afford the money, he was a lawyer only a few years ago. He sold his practice and bought the countryside greenhouse when Alison started University. In less than six months, Alison found her father happier than he ever been in his stuffy office. But after a few years of this new life, the novelty of the farm life wore off for both Alison and Heather.
Alison picked up a mid-sized potted shrub nearest to the door. The plastic pot cracked and spilled icy mulch across the floor. "Oh, dammit..." Alison reached for a straw broom leaning against a wire shelf, and not realizing the straw was trapped inside an ice puddle, ripped the brush in half. Defeated, Alison tossed the broom aside.
Alison could already hear her father’s laughter. Great, now I have to drive all the way into town to buy him a broom and a space heater. It would easily be a two-week wait until the snow melted enough for her to get onto the highway in her truck. Alison checked the heater, knee-high on the floor by an outdoor electrical plug. She flipped the switch. No power. Just like last year. Alison unplugged the heater and stood up.
She surveyed the ruins of the greenhouse, breath clouds blocking her vision. Most plants died from invisible drafts and incorrect planting, but that was apart of her father’s charm. Heather’s jam business kept the power on and the mortgage was long ago paid. Alison passed rows of frosty vines, brown flowers, and saggy leaves, begging for help. Perennials and annuals suffered the same fate alike here. Dad’s determination impressed Alison, but he could not master everything.
Just behind a black strawberry bush, Alison spotted a little green plant. It trembled, hit with winds that broke through the uneven metal bars and glass panes. "Hello, little one. How did you survive this?" Alison asked. He had several long vines, wrapped around the wire racking. He sat in a wood lacquer planter, a far cry fancier than his friends' plastic pots.
Alison tucked the plant, pot and all, into her windbreaker, and left. The greenhouse won. This time.
Alison examined the plant, now sitting on the kitchen counter, in mid-noon sunlight. The window faced the setting sun where its light peeked out from behind the greenhouse and forests. Snow clouds slowly covered the sun, a storm incoming. "Good thing I saved you. There’s a wood fireplace in here." The plant still trembled from the cold. "So, what are you anyway?"
She peeled the leaves back slightly. He had pointy leaves, like a poinsettia, but they were blue instead of red or white. He bore no fruit, and his crumbling vines smelled like copper. Alison examined the soil: grey, dry dust. For the first time, she noticed his planter. In Heater’s curly handwriting, the word NICHEL was burnt into the wood--whatever that meant. She would ask her parents when they returned in the spring. Reluctantly, Alison left "Nichel" to start dinner.
Nothing made research more enjoyable than a spiked hot chocolate. Maybe three. Alison flipped through several horticultural textbooks and her father’s notebooks from the living room library. She started with the encyclopedias, leafing through hundreds of plant illustrations. No Nichels. As far as Alison could tell, she was the first to find him and took some pride in that. Unless dad beat me to it. After brewing hot chocolate number four, Alison searched through her father’s sketchbooks.
He had a gift for drawing, used only for his gardening journey. Each flower and vegetable was carefully sketched with light strokes in coloured pencil, detailed as if they were real. Opposite each sketch were lists of his caretaking notes. Near the end of the first book, Alison spotted Nichel.
In the same planter with the same vines, Nichel blessed the pages. "Nichel" was his official name according to her father’s notes. Heather made a flower pot for her brother, wrote Nichel instead of Michel. Unknown species. Enjoys hot weather and green tea. His notes ended there.
"Looks like you made lots of friends here." Alison slurred, stumbling to the kitchen counter where Nichel perched. She fumbled with the kettle, dropping tea bags everywhere. "I don’t know where you come from... smell better tomorrow, all right?" After spilling half the kettle on the floor, Alison abandoned her mugs and went to sleep on the sofa.
The green tea went missing. Alison yawned, searching each cupboard and the floor for the tin. It sat in the sink next to two clean mugs, soaking wet tea bags, and her empty bottle of cognac. Never again, Alison promised herself. While her head stopped spinning, she admired Nichel. Overnight, his colour and dancing perked up. His single bloom even opened. Alison poked it with a fingernail, forcing it to shut. Alison brewed herself a pot of coffee, more interested in curing her hangover than him. She didn’t notice his flower reopen to watch her.
She returned to the living room with a coffee. On top of her seasonal work, Alison worked year-round as her father’s accountant. Sufficiently sober, she loaded up this quarter’s spreadsheets. When the page loaded, Alison choked on her coffee.
Red. Red everywhere. Zero sales. All assets dumped to purchase power tools. How the hell haven’t they sold the house yet? Was this where Heather’s arthritic attacks came from? Alison rubbed her face with her hands. Did her dad finally lose his mind?
Shattering glass pulled Alison from her reverie. Silently, she peeked her head around the door frame and looked into the kitchen.
Nichel lay on the floor. His roots stretched out from his shattered planter while his vine felt its way through a shattered coffee carafe, drinking up the spilled coffee from the tiles. Alison shuddered. "What the hell are you?" She demanded.
Nichel stilled. Alison had seen enough. "Okay, time to throw you out." Alison, barefoot, stepped around the glass to grab Nichel.
Nichel dragged himself across the floor, scampering up the fridge door, and onto the cupboards. Alison slipped, landing on the shattered pot, cutting her legs and palms open. She lay on the floor, watching Nichel climb higher.
On the fridge hung a whiteboard. Nichel flicked off a pen cap and began to write. In shaky letters upside down, he scribbled FRIEND.
"You’re a plant! This isn’t allowed to happen!" Alison shouted.
Nichel continued to write. SAFE. HOME. After some hesitation, he added : ).
Alison leaned on the counter, pulling herself onto shaky legs. "I need to get rid of you. I don’t have time for this."
Nichel fell off the fridge, tearing down the whiteboard with him. Alison scooped him up off the floor, his stem and vine limp in her arms. Overnight, he grew from five inches to over two feet long. She hesitated. His vine wrapped around her wrist, its five-point leaves hugging her like tiny hands. For a time, the two were at a standstill. Slowly, Alison lowered him onto the counter. Nichel didn’t let go immediately, waiting for her to pry his leaves off. She wiped the whiteboard clean, leaving it beside him. "Don’t break anything," Alison chided. "I have to clean the kitchen now."
While Alison scrubbed coffee grounds from grout, she kept an eye on Nichel. He dragged an empty tin from the cupboard, replanting himself in it. Alison dragged out her task, searching the floor for more glass shards. By the time she was done, Nichel filled up the whiteboard with disjointed words.
HOME GONE. DEAD. NEW FORM. EARTH. ALONE. FRIEND?
That was all. "You’re welcome to stay here." Alison decided. She twisted a leaf off his vine with her thumb. "But you gotta earn your keep." Nichel didn’t respond, still fast "asleep."
Alison sat down with her laptop once again. She loaded up her browser, Nichel’s laying on the table beside her. She scrolled through gardening and horticulture forums, every post receiving the same answer: no one has seen her plant before. Anywhere. She didn’t mention the writing or clumsy aspects of owning a Nichel.
Alison looked between her browser and spreadsheets. Her father’s savings was emptied. Everything that was meant for twenty years in retirement had been spent in five. She looked at all the hits in her feed from the forum. Many people were intrigued by her plant, suggesting different ways to grow it.
"Hello, billion-dollar mansion." Alison admired Nichel’s leaf laying on the coffee table, slammed her laptop shut.
Three hours later, Alison planted three dozen trays of Nichel roots in tiny pots under the cupboard light. He liked the heat, so she gave them a tiny space heater. "Isn’t this exciting? You’ll have lots of friends." Alison told him. The marker rolled off the table. She glanced over at the whiteboard. NO. YOU FRIEND.
Alison rolled her eyes. "You have pick of the crop here for your best friend once these start growing." Nichel refused to write to her for the rest of the day, even after Alison apologized and made him a glass of Rooibos.
She checked on her trays every hour, hopeful Nichel had forgiven her. Nothing. She leaned in and whispered to him. "If you can grow us at least a few more Nichels, little guy, you can save daddy’s greenhouse. Wouldn’t that be real sweet? Your little friends can grow up and make more friends." He didn’t respond. Alison tried again. "I’ll be your best friend if you help me out."
Alison went to bed that night, unsure if Nichel’s "babies" would grow at all. Glass shattered in the kitchen. "Quiet, please!" She shouted from the sofa. The noise stopped.
The snow let up and the sun shined brightly through the kitchen window the next morning. "You big dummy. I asked you to not make messes." Nichel threw the trays onto the ground, overturning every tiny planter. He danced for her, his whiteboard filled with new words.
FRIEND. NEED FOOD. BROWN.
"Brown?" It hit her. What made Alison think this old soil she found by the backdoor was good enough for Nichel’s children? Without hesitation, Alison put on her jacket and went out to the greenhouse. Although the snow stopped, the wind was bitter. She still had to tidy the greenhouse, but she wouldn’t dare try the highways with how icy they were.
She dragged a large bag of soil from a shelf, hoping the vegetable mix was good enough for Nichel. It was all they had in stock. Alison hesitated by the generator. It would be useful to drag inside for the upstairs bedrooms, hardly habitable during the cold months. Alison knelt beside the panel, playing with the switch. She examined the box, but nothing was out of place. If anything, it looked brand new. She slapped her forehead when she discovered the problem. The cord lay next to the electric socket, unplugged. How did she miss that last time?
The wind howled on outside, drowning out the gentle trickle of water down the metal beams and puddling beneath the electric generator when Alison plugged it in.
As soon as they could catch the next plane, Harry and Heather flew home.
The fire chief stood outside, his men cleaning up the ruins of the shattered greenhouse. Alison’s body was long gone, cleared of any signs of foul play. "I’m sorry, Harold. She was a good kid."
"Where is she?" Harry demanded. "Did you find her?"
The fire chief shook his head. "I don’t get it. Her boots were there. Can’t find her body. It wasn’t high enough temps to leave behind a body. It’s been a few days, it’s not unlikely a bear or--"
"--Don’t say anymore." Harry snapped. He winced. His gout came back when they hit the colder climate. "It’s my damn fault for neglecting the damn thing."
All Heather could do was feed her husband pain meds and wander the house. Neither wanted to look at the greenhouse. Heather kept the kitchen blinds shuttered, refusing to look at its charred remains. Her joints ached in the chill, and Alison left the place tidy. All that was left in life was agony--from a decrepit body and a hole in her heart.
Heather sat down on a kitchen stool by the centre island. She squinted at the little trays, sprouting tiny greens. Alison didn’t go to the ski lodge this year. A larger tin planter grew a strange viney plant, shimmering from an invisible wind. It was the weed Harry dug out of the driveway last summer. Michel? Was that the stupid name Harry gave it? Michel had an additional sprout beside him, its lovely lilac petals shimmering like a dancer under Nichel’s protective vine hug.
"Alison, you silly thing." Heather found the whiteboard on the counter covered with Alison’s curly handwriting.
RECIPE FOR FRIEND