MacGregor stumbled on a snaking root and sprawled headlong into the undergrowth. The orange petals of a giant flower brushed against his face and he sprang back in horror, only to crack the back of his skull against a tree trunk.
For a second, he was too stunned to move. He leaned there, panting in the heavy air, gazing at the endless jungle canopy above through black spots that seemed to dance around above him.
The spots were just beginning to fade when he felt something curl around his ankle. Inky black tendrils of vine slid over the tops of his ragged boots.
With a cry MacGregor yanked his feet free and lurched away. Sweat dripped in his eyes as he forced his legs to move at top speed, pushing through tangled growth and dodging low-hanging branches.
He was almost at the end of his strength when he burst out of the trees and felt the sun on his face. The shock of it made him fall to his knees on the hard ground. With a trembling hand he reached out and touched the packed earth. There was no grass. How long had it been since he had seen earth with nothing growing in it?
How long had it been since he had seen a clearing?
MacGregor’s last refuge had been a rocky cave, just large enough for him to lay down on the floor, in the side of a cliff of some sort. Even there, the jungle had grown right up to the edge of the cliff and long vines had hung down over the opening. It had been a miracle that he had found it, and he would have stayed forever, drinking from the condensation that formed on the stone walls, if hunger hadn’t eventually driven him out. None of the plants in that area were edible. He had tried, but the resulting stomach pain had only made things worse.
MacGregor felt the soft coarseness of dirt under his fingers. He hadn’t thought places like this existed any more.
Hardly daring to breath, MacGregor lifted his head to examine his surroundings.
It was right there in front of him, larger than life and glittering in the sunlight that wasn’t tinged green from passing through leaves and branches. A giant building, made of glass.
MacGregor stared it at, willing it not to be a mirage. He blinked. It didn’t disappear.
Pushing slowly to his feet, he kept his eyes on the structure. It had a giant, domed roof, also made of glass and topped with a golden knob. MacGregor inched toward it, unwanted hope building with each step. Finally he was close enough to reach out and touch the glass. It felt solid and smooth under his fingertips, clean and manmade, something else he never thought he would feel again.
MacGregor leaned forward, his nose almost touching the glass, then he jerked back suddenly, heart pounding. A face! There had been another face on the other side! Shuddering but unable to resist the fascination, he looked up again.
A young woman stood just inside the building. Her long dark hair was drawn back into a neat braid and her pale skin was clean. Clean! More astonishing, she was smiling, looking right at him and smiling a sweet and welcoming smile. MacGregor stood up again.
The woman gestured him forward and pointed to the left. At first MacGregor found it impossible to take his eyes off of her, but as she continued to insiste, finally he looked where she was pointing. A door.
A glass door, set in a glass wall, with shiny metal hinges untouched by rust.
Moving as if in a dream, MacGregor crossed to the door and opened it. He stepped into a tiny glass room, as humid as the air outside and even warmer. He felt a moment of panic, but another door was right in front of him, and it opened just as easily as the last.
MacGregor stepped through into an air-conditioned paradise.
The air was clear and dry. The sound of running water greeted his ear, along with another sound he hadn’t thought to ever hear again. Laughter. A warm, comforting smell met his nose, a smell he knew he ought to recognize but didn’t. Then it came to him: baking bread. Somewhere nearby, someone had put a loaf of bread in the oven. Tears came unbidden to MacGregor’s eyes.
The young woman with the dark hair walked toward him, her smile warm and gentle. “It’s okay. We all felt that way when we arrived.”
MacGregor blinked as she reached a hand out for him to shake. Even this simple gesture seemed impossibly miraculous.
“I’m Holly,” the woman said. “Welcome to the Greenhouse.”
MacGregor had been at the Greenhouse for two weeks, but the constant fear that curled at the base of his spine had not let go.
Holly and the others told him several times a day that there was nothing to worry about, that he was safe here, that the Greenhouse had never been breached. This didn’t stop MacGregor from looking over his shoulder every few minutes.
It wasn’t that he didn’t believe Holly. He had seen the evidence of her words. The Greenhouse was built entirely of glass, so that he could see outside, could see the way the jungle stayed back, never touching those transparent walls. He had seen the stream that passed under one corner and out the other side, no moss on its banks, no leaves floating on the surface. He had seen the stock piles of food supplies, the neatly ordered garden just outside the walls. No weeds. No vines.
He had eaten the bread, filled his stomach completely for the first time in months. He had taken a shower, washed away every bit of the dirt and sweat and then dried himself on a huge towel. He had forgotten what it felt like to have dry feet.
Still, something wasn’t right. Something wouldn’t let him relax.
It was more than just the lingering terror of a war survivor. It was more than post traumatic stress. This was an intuition, a premonition. Something didn’t add up, and his mind couldn’t stop working on the problem, even as he ate well and did his share of the work and held an actual book in his hands again.
There were no safe places anymore. The jungle covered everything now. Its carnivorous plants had consumed almost all of the animals a good many of the humans as well. Most of those that had learned to fight, to stay free and alive, had succumbed to disease or poison as they attempted to find food in an animal-free world. MacGregor had heard of cities built out on the oceans, of ships strapped together and people fishing for their survival, but he wasn’t sure if those were myths or reality. In any case, the ocean was far away, and no one traveling far these days survived.
There were no safe places. The jungle had a mind of its own and it could move. It had ripped apart cities and tunneled its roots into bunkers and crumbled fortresses to dust.
No, there were no safe places.
And yet, he stood in one.
No one could tell him why.
That was the thing that really bothered him. No one could explain what kept the jungle back. An old man named Harry Spaulding and his two grown daughters had been in the Greenhouse the longest, but even they did not know who built it, or how. When they had stumbled across it ten months before, nearly dead from starvation, it had been fully powered, fully stocked, but completely empty. They had settled in and never left.
Since then, people had trickled in, usually one at a time, though occasionally in pairs. Now there were thirty-eight people in the Greenhouse, and it had sleeping room for dozens more.
Who had planned this place and then never occupied it?
None of the other thiry-eight seemed to question their refuge. Exhausted from the struggle to survive before they came, they merely accepted this relief, shed grateful tears for it, grew to trust it. Now they were living their lives as if such a thing were normal. Two couples had gotten married since arriving at the Greenhouse, and one was actually expecting a baby. How they could be joyful at the thought of bringing a child into this horrifying world was a thing MacGregor couldn’t understand. He avoided the pregnant woman as much as possible.
No one ever went outside, except to work in the small garden, and even then, they kept close to the glass walls. No one on garden duty had been attacked, they said. Whatever kept the jungle away from the Greenhouse, it seemed to include the garden area.
MacGregor was relieved that at least they didn’t suggest planting the garden inside. Nothing green grew inside the Greenhouse. Ventilation pumps brought in oxygen rich air from outside and pumped out the stale carbon dioxide air the humans breathed out. Holly had showed him how it worked. Maintaining the systems was one of her jobs.
MacGregor had stared at the air pumps for several minutes, something about it tickling the back of his mind, but he had been unable to put his finger on it, and then Carol Spaulding had come by and told them there were fresh cookies in the kitchen, and Holly had dragged him off to taste them, smiling with that way that lit her whole face as he tasted chocolate for the first time in years.
The moment with the cookies and the light on Holly’s face was golden. For a little while MacGregor felt that life truly could be good.
But that night on his bunk, the clean-smelling sheets pulled up to his chin, his mind went back to the ventilation system, to the dry air, to the scientific perfection of this place.
Something wasn’t right.
MacGregor had been in the Greenhouse for two months when the next new arrival stumbled up to the glass walls. The man was emaciated and too shell-shocked to even tell them his name. The first night, he thrashed in his sleep and yelled the name Sonia over and over. MacGregor took a turn sitting by his bedside, getting sips of water and vegetable broth into the man’s mouth and trying to not to see his own nightmares before his waking eyes.
Three days later, cleaned up and fed and decently clothed again, the man was able to tell them that his name was Blake. Whether it was his first name or last wasn’t clear, but no one pushed him. No one asked him for his story. No one asked anything at all. They all had come here the same way. For the first time, MacGregor felt a sense of belonging with this people. He was one of them. He even found himself reassuring Blake, as the man stared at him with haunted eyes. It’s safe here. You’re safe.
That night, Carlton Sparrow disappeared.
No one saw the old man leave the Greenhouse, but when they all sat down to breakfast the next morning, his place was empty. A thorough search left no doubt that he was gone. After all, there wasn’t much room to hide.
At first, MacGregor felt a dark suspicion of the newcomer. It seemed too much of a coincidence that Carlton’s disappearance would happen just days after Blake’s arrival. When he said as much to Holly, though, she just shrugged and told him sometimes people wandered into the jungle. They never came back. She seemed to take this as a matter of course, though MacGregor couldn’t think of any reason why a quiet old man would suddenly decide to leave safe haven and head into the deadly trees. He hadn’t seemed depressed.
Still, when MacGregor saw Blake later in the day, the man was barely able to sit upright. It seemed ridiculous to think that he could have attacked anyone.
All of MacGregor’s suspicions were back, but he still couldn’t find anything definite to worry about. Weeks and months passed. The Greenhouse remained safe.
Over the course of a year, MacGregor came to feel that the Greenhouse was home. It was a bit confining, of course, but there was always work to be done and plenty of company. After his solitary months before arriving here, this normal interation with other human beings never got stale. Meanwhile, the garden flourished. They expanded it just enough that they were on the point of being self-sustaining. Without his permission, hope began to sprout in MacGregor’s heart.
During that first year they had eight new arrivals and three more disappearances. It wasn’t until the last one that MacGregor noticed that these comings and goings always seemed to even out the number of men and women. He tried to shrug the observation off as coincidence, but it clung like a burr to the back of his mind.
Two more couples asked to be married. MacGregor knew of at least three others who weren’t making it so official.
The Wilsons’ baby was born and thrived. MacGregor saw the way the other women watched the child. He knew there would be more soon.
He began to spend all his evenings with Holly. She liked to read books from the huge shelves out loud to him, and he whittled corn cobs with his knife. He was getting pretty good, even if he did say it himself. He was making a chess set.
One night before going off to bed, Holly kissed him. MacGregor kissed her back in spite of himself.
A week later, three sisters stumbled out of the jungle. They were all in their early twenties and looked surprisingly healthy for having spent so much time in the wild. MacGregor assumed it had a lot to do with the long machete Ruth, the oldest, was carrying. She looked like she knew how to use it. He and Holly greeted the sisters and found places for them to sleep. MacGregor saw their doubtful expressions and remembered all his own questions. Somehow they didn’t seem as urgent any more.
The questions didn’t go away either.
Two nights later, MacGregor lay on his bunk unable to sleep. He thought of the look Holly had given him before bd. They hadn’t kissed since that first time, but now he wished they had.
MacGregor got up and crept over the room where Holly slept. There was almost no light, just dim emergnecy lights in the hallway, but when he opened her door, he could make out her still form and hear her peaceful breathing.
He almost walked away and let her sleep. He wasn’t sure what made him step into the room.
The texture under his bare feet was the first thing he noticed. It was soft and springy, nothing like the tiled floors of the Greenhouse. It was a texture he knew.
A sudden horror came into his mind, and MacGregor sprang back. He slapped the button on the wall and light flooded the room.
Vines covered the floor. Vines with leaves so dark a green that they almost seemed black. Even as MacGregor watched, they crept up the side of the bed where Holly was sleeping.
But the light had woken her. Holly screamed.
The vines stopped their advance, wriggled a bit, and then pulled back rapidly, disappearing into a hole in the floor that quickly closed ast the tiles slid together.
MacGregor couldn’t move, his mind frozen with shock and horror. It was Holly’s sobbing that finally broke through. Even as he ran to her, careful not to step where that hole had been, even as he took her in his arms, he knew what he had just seen. He understood what it meant.
Still, he said nothing to Holly. He held her until she was calm. By then he had a plan. He had to be sure.
Together, Holly and MacGregor woke the others and gathered everyone in the dining room. MacGregor explained and asked them all to stay put, to stay together until he came back. No one argued. No one volunteered to come with him either.
It wasn’t until MacGregor was back in Holly’s room that he noticed Ruth had followed him. Her machete was in her hand. He nodded.
Together they pried open the false tiles and looked down into dark hole below. MacGregor shined a flashlight into the abyss. The light reflected back to him a few feet down. Water, probably. Nothing was moving.
MacGregor dropped into the hole. Ruth was right behind him. They headed off down the tunnel. It didn’t go far before it slanted upward. They moved more cautiously now.
MacGregor stopped when his flashlight showed him exactly what he had expected to see. The giant head of a reddish-orange flower waited just outside the tunnel. It waved back and forth, even through there was no wind. Its petals had been closed, but when the light hit them, they opened, revealing a space large enough to swallow a man whole.
Ruth gave a shout, and MacGregor tore his eyes away from the man-eating plant. Vine were now wriggling toward them like so many snakes intent on their prey. Ruth swung her machete in a vicious arc and severed the first reaching tendrils.
Both man and woman turned and ran back up the tunnel. Vines such as these could be fought, but not in such an enclosed space.
At the opening, MacGregor boosted Ruth up, and she reached down and pulled him up after her. They threw the tiles back in place, knowing it wouldn’t buy them much time, and sprinted for the dining room.
When they burst through the dining room doors, a riot of color met them on every side. The heavy fragrance of flowers was in the air. Its sickly sweet scent filled MacGregor’s head.
He saw Holly and the others seated at the long tables, vacant expressions on their faces.
“Everyone get up!” he yelled. “We have to go now!”
No one moved.
MacGregor seized Holly’s arm, dragging her to her feet. He saw Ruth shaking her sisters.
“THis place is a trap!” MacGregor urged Holly. “We have to leave now.”
“This is a haven,” Holly said dreamily.
“No it isn’t!” MacGregor shouted. “It’s a farm. They’re growing us, for food and probably for the carbon dioxide we breathe, too.”
“We’re safe here,” Holly insisted dully.
The perfume on the air was so heavy that MacGregor could hardly think straight. “No,” he protested, but not so forcefully this time. “No place is safe anymore.”
“They leave us alone here,” Holly murmured. She sank back down onto her chair, eyes drifting shut.
“No,” MacGregor said. They needed to leave. He knew it was urgent, but he couldn’t remember why. He forced himself to think. “No, they brought us…they need us…they’re…cultivating us.” Yes, that was it, cultivating. For food. For air. Like a garden. Like their garden outside. The corn was growing so well this summer. They would soon have things set up to last them forever. This place would be sustainable. They could stay here their whole lives. And be safe. Safe.
MacGregor sat down next to Holly and took her hand in his. He saw Ruth still standing, looking around her in confusion. It was always hard your first few days in the Greenhouse. It was such a big adjustment.
MacGregor closed his eyes for just a minute. He hadn’t gotten a good night’s sleep. Maybe if he just rested his head here for a bit before breakfast. Ruth was breathing softly next to him. He drifted off.
The windows in the ceiling opened and long stems of multicolored flowers withdrew out into the night. The windows close again.
The air inside the Greenhouse cooled. The last of the perfume was pumped away along with all of the carbon dioxide the humans exhaled.
MacGregor dreamed of children splashing in a cool stream and woke to the smell of oatmeal cooking. He smiled at Holly. She smiled back.
The jungle stayed outside and watched from a distance.