by Arnold Snyder
The afternoon sun felt good on my skin. I walked, enjoying the solitude and the sounds of the daytime traffic.
What was I going to do about my second Pete? A fucking tree branch is ruining my life, ordering me around, sending me out of my own apartment just so I can attempt to think straight. The obvious solution would be to take him and toss him in the alley or in any of the dumpsters decorating the neighborhood this week. But can I be that cruel? Does he deserve it? It can’t be easy to be a dolphin trapped in a tree branch.
I called my third Megan, Babs, and was surprised that she picked up.
“Morgan, it’s two o’clock in the afternoon. Why are you calling me at a reasonable hour?”
“Babs,” I said, “I met this weird tree branch.”
“The Transearth dude?”
“You know him?”
“I know about him. He has a big following. He’s got a huge lawsuit going in New York. The ACLU is representing him.”
“That’s the guy? I heard about that case, but I didn’t know the ACLU would represent a tree branch. How does he even talk to them?”
“Quite a few of the ACLU attorneys are transplants.”
“Wow. I thought he was a bag of wind. I thought he was crazy.” I stopped at a corner to let a truck go by.
“He is crazy. That’s a known fact. He has a megalomaniacal streak, which is uncommon for a dolphin, but not that uncommon for a tree branch. Then again, aren’t the crazy people in this world the only ones who ever get anything done?”
I was too wound up by this conversation to continue walking. I just stood there on the corner as other pedestrians passed by. “But do you understand,” I said, “that if that sociopathic branch, our second Pete, gets his way, the ants will soon rule the planet?”
“Actually, he’s like my sixth Pete. And do you think the ants could be any worse than the current numbskulls in charge?”
“But they’ll enslave us!”
“Like I said …”
“Please, Megan, Babs, can I bring him to your house for a while?”
“I don’t know what to do with him.”
“Take him to a hotel. He’s got money. He’s loaded. That Transearth Foundation is a global giant. He specializes in hostile takeovers.”
“But he’s a tree branch? He told me my fourth Megan hacksawed him off a tree.”
“Geez, Morgan, don’t you follow social media at all? She sawed him off that tree months ago. He made immediate connections with some of the wealthiest transplants in the world and turns out he’s a financial genius. Everything he touches turns to money.”
“Did she know who he was?”
“Of course. They were out in public all the time. Do a search on their images sometime. They were quite the couple. Now, she’s calling him all kinds of names. Everyone knew she dumped him today. It was all over the net. But nobody knew where. Turns out it was with you. Ha! You got taken, Morgan. Now you’re his slave. That’s how it works with plants.”
“So, that’s why she came to my apartment? I thought it was to see Dusty, but it was really to pawn off Pete. Well, she can have Dusty. I’m grateful to her for taking that bitch off my hands, pardon my French.”
I turned and started walking back toward my apartment building.
“She already got rid of Dusty,” Megan said. “I saw Dusty’s picture on the ASPCP rescue page. Dusty’s at a no-kill shelter for abused homeless plants.”
“She won’t be there long,” I said. “She’ll charm some fool into taking her home. Babs, I’ve got to go face the music. I’m going home to talk with Pete but I’m not going to take orders from him.”
“Just don’t bring him over here. Don’t even bother knocking because I won’t open the door. Good night, Morgan.”
I walked back to my apartment and took a few deep breaths, ready to confront my second Pete. When I walked in, I found him right where I’d left him on my living room floor, but now the floor was swarming with ants—not the little brown ones, but the big black ones. The ugly disgusting ones that bite.
I ran to the laundry room to get the ant poison.
Stop it, Morgan. I invited them in. I was visiting with them, that’s all.
I went back to the living room without the insecticide.
“You invited them in?” I said.
We were having a meeting. Planning for the future.
The ants were already dispersing.
A chill ran through me. I felt as if I were witnessing the destruction of the world as I knew it. Unless Pete was stopped, some very bad things were going to happen.
I walked over to Pete and picked him up.
Where are we going? Take me out to the balcony. It looks like a beautiful night.
“Did you report me?” I said.
“As I recall, you were threatening to report me to the grievance committee when I left for my evening stroll.”
Oh, no, of course not. You’re my campaign manager. Where are we going?
I opened the door and walked down the hall to the elevator. “For a walk,” I said.
Morgan, I don’t like the sound of your voice. Where are you taking me?
I ignored his question and took the stairs down to the ground floor instead of waiting for the elevator.
Pete became frantic when we got outside.
I demand to know where you are taking me! Let the record show that I protest this action and I insist you return me to my balcony!
“That’s my balcony.” I said, walking casually down the street with branch in hand.
So, that’s how you want to play this game? You’re making a serious mistake, Morgan. Stop and consider what you’re doing. Do you have any idea who you’re dealing with?
“I’d say I’m dealing with a tyrant who thinks he’s my boss.”
Where are you taking me, damn it?
“See that dumpster at the end of the block. That’s your new home.”
I’ll die in there! You can’t do this to me! I’ve got money! I’ll pay you! Any amount! Please, Morgan, listen to reason! Have a heart!
“Shut the fuck up, Pete. I’m tired of your bullshit.”
“Who’s going to help you, Pete? I’m the only one who can hear you.”
You’re not the only transplant on the planet. I have more friends than you know. You’re a nobody, Morgan. You’ll be sorry you ever abandoned me. HELP! HELP! HELP!
I stopped walking.
Pete stopped yelling.
Are you reconsidering?
Actually, I was considering my options. There was a possibility that some other transplant would hear Pete screaming inside the dumpster and save his ass. That bothered me. He really might be able to exact his revenge. He had connections. I stood him up and held him like a staff. I counted seven green leaves growing on three small twigs on his top end.
“These leaves look pretty healthy,” I said.
Yes, and that means I’m very much alive and kicking.
“So, in order to plant you so that you would take root, how do I do that?”
Oh, Morgan, I’m so glad you decided to help me. You won’t regret it. The first thing you have to do is snip off one of the branches that has the healthiest leaves at the base. That’s all you have to do to get a cutting that will grow when you plant it.
“What happens to the rest of the branch?”
It dies, but my soul will be in the living portion you cut off.
“What happens if I just pull all the leaves off?”
Why would you ask me such a question? What happens to you if I pull your lungs out of your chest?
I pulled off one of the small twigs that had two small leaves growing on it.
Please, Morgan, stop acting like that. You’re not a murderer. You’re a good man. There should be more like you in this world. Let’s everybody calm down, okay?
I looked at the twig for a few seconds before pulling the two small leaves off of it and dropping them and the twig to the ground. Then I pulled off the smaller of the two remaining twigs.
Goddamn it, Morgan, you’re scaring the fucking shit out of me!
I yanked off the two leaves from the weak twig I’d pulled and crumpled them before tossing them. I reached for the final twig.
You’re not a killer, Morgan. Don’t pull that one off until you’re ready to plant me. You need a rich potting soil and some kind of fertilizer. If you take me to the nursery tomorrow, I’ll pick the best one. A good shot of nitrogen would get me sprouting roots fast.
I pulled the three-leaf twig from the branch.
No! No! No! Now you’ve done it. We only have a few hours. We’ll have to get the good soil tomorrow so you can transfer me. Right now we just need some dirt and water.
I dropped the big branch on the sidewalk—it was dead—and started walking back toward my apartment, holding the six-inch twig with its three sad leaves in front of me like a pathetic bouquet.
Do you have some kind of dirt at your house? Maybe you should pilfer some out of one of your neighbor’s gardens? Pete’s voice was noticeably softer.
I ripped off one of Pete’s leaves and flipped it over my shoulder.
Ouch! What are you doing? That hurts! I need those leaves!
I ripped off a second leaf and walked up the stairs to my apartment, with Pete jabbering the whole way, but his voice now only a whisper.
I’m on my knees before you, Morgan, please just find me some small patch of dirt, anything, don’t dismember my last leaf, I need that leaf, that leaf is now the only reason I’m still alive, but it’s not too late to plant me, I can do a lot of things for you, I’m a powerful entity with a lot of—”
I plucked the last leaf.
I listened to the beautiful silence.
I entered my apartment and tossed the last remains of my second Pete—a six-inch twig—into the wastebasket beside my desk.
I sat down on the couch and did nothing for a long time, like an hour, just staring at the nothingness of my life. I had committed murder. Knowingly. Because I knew I could get away with it.
I felt an itch on my arm and looked to see a large black ant crawling on me. I slapped it. I noticed others on the couch, the floor, two on my pant leg. Goddamn it, I thought they were gone.
I knew what I had to do. I started packing things in boxes in my living room. I’d made up my mind.
I called Pete, my first Pete.
“I’ve made a decision,” I said. “I’m going home.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m home, at my apartment. But I mean I’m going back to Strait City.”
“No fuckin’ way, man!”
“I’m already packing. Vegas is just too weird for me. My apartment is crawling with ants. I can’t take this shit anymore. I’m going back to being normal.”
“But your job, Morgan?”
“There’s a post office in Strait City. My work record’s fine. I’ll get back in eventually. I’ve just got to get out of here, Pete.”
“I heard you broke up with Dusty.”
“How’d you hear that?”
“Vegas is a small town. Word gets around.”
“Is that why you’re leaving town? Too many bad memories?”
“I don’t know. That might be part of it. It’s just everything. I want a simpler life. A normal life. These goddamn ants are driving me crazy. They’re crawling up my legs.”
“We gotta go out and get drunk one last time, man. How about tonight?”
“Sure,” I said. “That might help me clear my head of the crazy shit going on in my brain.”
“I’ll come by in a couple hours.”
“I’ll be here. Just honk.”
“I’m going to try and talk you out of it, you know.”
“I know. But you can’t. I’ll appreciate you trying.”
“Leave your plastic at home. The night’s on me. See you soon.”
I resumed taking books from my bookcase and packing them.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Pete, my second Pete, the Pete whom I’d murdered in cold blood. No court in the land would ever find me guilty, but I knew the truth. I tried to tell myself I was saving mankind. I’d done it for the greater good. Maybe killers always think that. Who was I to decide that ants would not be better masters of the planet? Maybe Pete was right. I felt an ant bite on my calf under my pantleg. Damn these fucking ants! Damn Pete! He’s the one that brought them in here! I’d never had ants in my apartment before.
Do you think you’ll get away with it?
It was a deep voice, an old voice, a tired voice.
I looked around the living room, looking for any type of plant matter that might be alive.
I’m right here in front of you, Morgan.
I looked down.
It was the corrugated cardboard box I was packing.
I saw what you did.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
You killed our savior.
“You’re out of your mind.”
I saw it.
“Everyone knows corrugated cardboard boxes are crazy.”
You’re wrong, Morgan. Corrugated cardboard boxes that are trapped in human bodies are crazy. But I’m not trapped inside a human body. I’m a perfectly sane and lucid corrugated cardboard box.
“But what kind of person or plant or animal is trapped inside you?”
An ant, Morgan. I’m an ant trapped in a corrugated cardboard box. More pointedly, a queen ant.
I started swatting at ants that were now all over my legs and arms. “Your testimony will never hold up in a court of law,” I said.
I stood up. I looked around my living room, looked at each of the objects—the couch, the chairs, the rug, the lamps, the wall clock, the pictures on the walls. Everything was crawling with big black ants.
“Does anybody else in here have something to say?” I said.
I walked up to the couch. “You got a problem?” I said.
I looked at the clock. “You looking at me, clocky?”
I went back to the box and started pulling the books out of it that I’d packed. Then I broke it down, listening to the box’s begging and pleading that sounded so much like my second Pete’s just minutes prior.
Please please I don’t want to die not like this not like this I’m not gonna say anything to anyone about anything just put me back in the closet or take me down to the garage and just leave me there I’m not a trouble maker …
When I started shredding the queen ant/box, so I could fit her in pieces into my barbecue grill on the balcony, her whining turned to shrieks.
When I started squirting the lighter fluid on her, she started shouting No! so loud I worried that any transplants within a quarter-mile might hear her. I doused her good.
And as I was lighting her on fire, what a wail she made, like the sound of a soul in Hell.
Then I listened to the beautiful silence, before stirring the ashes and going inside.
Go to Chapter Seventeen