Zera and the Green Man: Chapter 4

They arrived at dusk to find the brand new All-American Burger Depot lit up like a patriotic amusement park. The building mimicked the American flag, a big concrete rectangle painted red, white, and blue with stars and stripes. For the Grand Opening, fiber-optic Christmas lights in the same colors decorated the building and the outside patio.

Zera nearly retched when she spied the twelve-foot-tall plastic bull, glowing atop the restaurant. He wore cowboy duds — jeans, a red gingham shirt, chaps, and a fringed vest — and held a lasso that curled above him to form the six-foot-high neon words “All-American.”

She had to ask as her uncle’s E-SAT pulled into the parking lot, “What is that thing on top of the building?”

“That, Zera, is All-American Mac.”

“Ewww.” From inside the vehicle she heard the throbbing beat of a band playing country and western music.

“This is a huge event,” said Tiffany.

“Yep,” The Toad croaked out the word. “The biggest ever. The franchise CEO’s here, BioTech execs and scientists, even the mayor. Tomorrow is the Grand Opening for the public. It’ll be an even bigger party then.” Theodore braked, suddenly pitching them forward. “Sorry. Hey Tiffany, did you see the Channel 8 news van?”

He’d pulled into a parking spot crookedly and had to back out again. Zera could almost see the nervousness radiating off her uncle.

“I sure did. Channel 11’s here too.” Tiffany checked her makeup in the lighted mirror on the visor. “You know, they may want to interview you.”

The Toad pulled into the parking spot again, this time on the yellow line on the passenger side. “Good enough,” he said under his breath. He turned off the ignition and pushed his black-rimmed glasses up on his nose. “I’ve prepared a short speech. I hope it’ll be enough.”

Walking toward the building, they saw a group of people across the street with signs. “What’s going on over there?” Zera wondered.

About twenty protesters marched on the sidewalk, carrying large signs. Six policemen, in riot gear, stood watch. Zera read, “All-American Does Not Represent ALL Americans; Bioengineering is not good for man or other living things; YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT. One says, ‘The Green G’s are coming.’ Who are the Green G’s? “

“Who cares?” Tiffany said. “They’re all a bunch of nuts.”

Theodore looked over at the group. “The Green G’s are the Green Guerrillas, an environmental activist group.”

“Oh, I’ve heard of them,” said Zera.

“The Green Guerrillas . . .” Tiffany hugged her coat around her, shot a look at the protesters. “That’s the organization your old high school friend became involved in, isn’t it?” The Toad blushed. “Lily Gibbons started it.” His eyes searched the crowd. Zera thought he looked like he was afraid he might see her there and wondered about Lily Gibbons — she’d never heard of her before. After a few seconds The Toad’s furrowed brow relaxed. “I don’t think we have to worry about that group. I doubt they understand the science behind what we’re doing.”

“Maybe,” said Zera, “they understand common sense instead.”

Tiffany turned to Zera, her cat-eyes narrowing. “Listen, missy — this is a big night for Theodore, for all of us, and we expect you to be on your best behavior.” Her hand went up to smooth her blonde tresses. “Otherwise, your uncle might have to make you wait to open those presents from Guinevere.”

“As far as I know,” Zera said, glancing at the red, white, and blue building, “this is still a free country.”

“Ladies,” said The Toad, “I think we need to calm down.”

“I have a right to my opinion,” murmured Zera. She silently dared Tiffany to follow up on her threat. She knew Tiffany could be mean, but it wasn’t her style to do something truly hateful in front of her uncle.

Entering the double doors, the trio was greeted by the franchise’s female mascot, a robotic cow-human.

“All-American Marilyn,” The Toad said.

cow-marilynMarilyn, like All-American Mac, stood upright and had a human body shape. The hard foam structure gave her bovine facial features the texture of human flesh. She was decked out in a tight red jumpsuit, blue scarf, and high-heeled pumps. She held two American flags, one in each hoof.

“Let’s put our coats away and get our nametags, shall we?” Tiffany said.

Standing in line for their nametags, they watched Marilyn’s routine. In an electronically activated voice, she breathily exclaimed, “Try our Beefy Fries. They’re All-American!” At the words “All-American,” she waved her flags. Next came a shimmy-dance from horn to hoof as she exclaimed, “Our milk-shakes are Moo-Licious!” She ended with a “Mooo! Mooo! Mooo!” while turning her head from side to side, winking.

An older man working at the table winked at Tiffany. “They should have named her Marilyn ‘Moo-roe,’ don’t you think?”

“Oh, how clever!”

Another man who looked to be in his late 20’s, but was balding (Zera could see the bare top of his head in the security mirrors overhead) walked up to them. He wore a navy blue suit almost identical to The Toad’s. The dark hair that circled his head matched the color of his large, furry eyebrows, brows that reminded Zera of caterpillars.

“So, Theo,” he said, “what do you think of Marilyn?”

“Hey, Harv. She’s all right, I guess. As long as she sells hamburgers.”

“And don’t forget Beefy Fries.” Harv laughed and gave Theodore a friendly clap on the shoulder.

The Toad beamed.

“It’s gonna be your night, buddy,” said Harv. “Gonna be your night.”

Theodore introduced Tiffany and Zera to Harvey Headstrom, one of the newer scientists at BioTech Multinational. Zera noticed that he clapped The Toad on the back again when he said something about meeting the deadline for the project. Zera’s attention drifted as they chatted about her uncle’s new E-SAT and his lame vanity plate: NU CR8N, New Creation. She caught herself absentmindedly staring at the glowing reflective pattern the light made on Harv’s shiny head until Tiffany nudged her. Embarrassed, Zera diverted her gaze. A dark sea of geekdom surrounded her. Most, obviously from BioTech, wore eerily similar dark suits and white shirts. Although The Toad’s DNA bowtie is icky, at least he doesn’t look totally cloned. I stand out like a sore thumb — a big, sore, pink thumb.

A huge monitor for Americo, the pharmaceutical company that created Burger Depot and funded Biotech’s work, hung on the wall opposite the nametag table. Americo products flashed across the screen as a spokeswoman’s voice said: “Our research has made acne a thing of the past. Our next goal is to rid the world of cancer.”

Instead of the usual teenaged fast-food employees, waiters in black and white uniforms stood at attention behind the service counters. Conveyor belts under heat lamps moved forward while 3-D technology on the wall monitors showed pictures of the franchise’s offerings, glistening and sizzling. Zera didn’t see anyone under the age of twenty and breathed a little easier. It’s embarrassing enough to be seen in public in this dress, much less by kids my age. I’ll have to remember to avoid all TV cameras, though. She fingered her green strand of hair and fidgeted, rocking on her heels as the strains of an old tune she recognized, Thank God I’m a Country Boy, drifted through the room. Zera groaned inwardly. Maybe I should go to the restroom and escape out a window.

Tiffany noticed Zera squirming and shot her a look that carried an unmistakable warning — You’d better cool it.

“Have you seen Mr. Cadger?” Theodore asked Harv.

“Over there,” Harv pointed, “talking to the Burger Depot people and the reporters. Chet Wrangler is going to speak first, then Cadger. “In fact,” Harv said, as he looked at his watch, which held a mini v-phone, “it’s about time. You’d better find a seat.”

Zera followed Harv’s nod and spotted The Toad’s boss in the next room, a short man with close-cropped blond hair, in the middle of a crowd. The tables around them were set with linens, silver cutlery, and crystal — details that amused Zera — pretty fancy for burgers. In the far back of the room, someone had turned off the band equipment and the walls glowed with large projections of ads from Americo. The ads showed medical advancements Americo had helped produce. One was a repeat of what the spokeswoman on the monitor had said about acne and possible cancer cures. Another explained that a bio-engineered smoking cessation pill was well on its way to making cigarette smoking a vice of the past. Zera wondered if Harv wished they would work on curing hair loss instead.

Tiffany tugged on her arm. “Come on.” Zera was pulled away in the direction of Bob Cadger.

Zera heard her uncle say behind her, “Chairs are filling fast. . . Tiffany . . . ?” Zera looked back to see him follow them in his usual puppy-dog manner, until he was intercepted by another co-worker.

Elbowing her way to the center of the fray, Tiffany interrupted the small man with dandelion-colored hair talking to a man with an electronic notepad. “Good evening, Mr. Cadger.”

“Oh, hello,” Cadger said, turning from the reporter. A look of recognition flickered across his face. “You’re Theodore Green’s girlfriend, aren’t you? We’ve met before, at the company picnic, I believe.”

“Yes.” Tiffany flashed her most winning smile. “I’m Tiffany Taylor.” Zera noticed that she brought a slender hand up to her double chin for a moment. Giving him a 1,000 watt smile, Tiffany shook hands with Cadger, then put a hand on Zera’s shoulder. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted Theodore’s niece Zera to meet you. She’s the youngest member of the Green dynasty. It’s so exciting that the opening is today. You see, it’s Zera’s birthday. Her fifteenth.”

“Well, happy birthday, young lady.” Cadger shook Zera’s hand. “My goodness, what a lovely dress, you look like quite the princess tonight.” Zera stifled a frown. She guessed she was taller than Cadger by at least four inches. She smiled back half-heartedly. His eyes darted to her swatch of green hair, causing her to blush. Still, she stood straight and maintained eye contact. She’d heard a few things about Cadger from her uncle, mostly comments about how his boss didn’t know a lot about science, but made a hundred times more than the other employees, the ones who did the “real” work.

“I imagine you’re quite proud of your uncle today,” Cadger said. “Who knows, if you follow in the Green family’s footsteps, maybe one day you, too, will work for BioTech.”

Zera’s stomach lurched. An urge to run, to claw her way out of the crowd, filled her. She suddenly realized why Tiffany made such a big deal of her being there. Of course, Mr. Cadger knows all about Green Seed Company; it was once the biggest seed company in the world. The images of several forebears, all renowned botanists, flashed through her mind. This is just an opportunity for them to look good by parading around with the poor orphaned niece. Yeah, sure, Mr. Cadger, she longed to say, I’m sure I’ll work for you one day. When hell freezes over!

The urge to run subsided. Zera took a deep breath and put on her fakest smile. “As you know, Mr. Cadger, my grandmother, Guinevere Green, owned the Green Seed Company. She’s never approved of what is being done in genetic engineering — and neither do I.”

Cadger’s eyes registered shock, but his flashing smile diminished only slightly. He turned to the staring reporter, “Oh, the youth of today, such kidders!”

“But I’m not — ” Zera began.

“Zera!” Tiffany said. “Mr. Cadger, I am so sorry. I guess since it’s her birthday, Zera thinks she can just say whatever rude thing comes into her mind!”

Cadger’s smile tightened and he ran one hand over his close-cropped yellow hair. “Believe me, I understand. I have two teenagers of my own.” He turned to Zera, eyes focusing on her green hair just long enough to convey disapproval. “Young lady, progress is a good thing, always has been, always will be. In fact, it’s the only way. You’ll find that out one day.” He turned to the reporter, effectively cutting them off. “Now, as far as the future of biotechnology . . .”

Tiffany took Zera’s arm and began leading her away from the group.

“Wait a minute. Excuse me,” a middle-aged woman with poofy red hair moved in front of them; another reporter with an electronic notepad. She smiled at Zera. “I heard you say you didn’t ‘approve of what is being done in genetic engineering.’ I’m just curious, what do you mean by that, exactly?”

Tiffany let go of Zera’s sleeve. Caught between Zera having a reporter’s undivided attention and being afraid of what Zera might say, she was momentarily unsure of what to do. Zera’s reaction was the opposite. Everything she had heard growing up about genetic engineering and plant life came flooding back. She took a deep breath. “My grandmother always said there are a lot of things that can go wrong with bioengineered crops. She explained to me how genetically-engineered crops can’t be contained in their fields. Pollen can get carried away by wind, bees, and other insects, causing the plants to reproduce with wild plants or non-GM crops. This forever changes the wild plants’ or non-GMO crops’ DNA — DNA that’s taken millions of years to evolve. She’s always said that it’s a tragedy to our food supply waiting to happen.”

“And your grandmother, she’s . . .”

“Guinevere Green, of Green Seed Company.”

“Well. We’ve certainly all heard of Green Seed Company. Interesting,” said the reporter. She moved closer to Zera. “I’ve researched this topic. Biotech Multinational’s literature says they’ve taken steps to ensure such events, bioengineered plants escaping into the wild for example, won’t happen. That they’ve spent millions in failsafe procedures.”

“Failsafe is impossible.”

Tiffany went into red alert. “I’m sorry,” she said, putting her body between Zera and the reporter. “I hope you’re not thinking of quoting a fourteen year old without permission. Everything she just said is off the record.” She grabbed Zera’s arm and this time did not stop dragging her away until they were a good distance from the crowd.

“Fifteen!” said Zera. “Today’s my birthday, remember?”

“We’d better find a seat,” Tiffany whispered to Theodore when she found him. “But you’re sitting next to Zera, I’ve had enough of that brat for one day.”

The Toad gave Zera a look she knew well, raised eyebrows, wrinkled forehead. His expression clearly asked, “What did you do now?”

As they sat waiting, Zera felt satisfaction about speaking up, rude or not. It surprised her that she’d had the courage. Nonny would be proud. Her satisfaction was a little undercut, however, by fear of Tiffany’s revenge. Zera didn’t feel quite so certain now that Tiffany would let her open her grandmother’s gifts when they got home.

On the stage at the front of the room, Bob Cadger’s secretary introduced Chet Wrangler, the CEO of All-American Burger Depot. A giant of a man in a tan suit, Stetson cowboy hat, and faux alligator boots, stomped up to the podium. His long, thick mustache and doughy features reminded Zera of a walrus, yet his massiveness, his tree trunk body and legs, brought to her mind the image of a mighty oak.

“He looks almost as strange as I do,” Zera said under her breath.

“Shhh.” The Toad narrowed his eyes at her from behind his dark-framed glasses.

“Good evening.” Wrangler tipped his hat. “I appreciate y’all coming tonight to our little celebration, the Colorado opening of Americo’s first All-American Burger Depot.”

Applause thundered from the audience.

“I want y’all to know that we couldn’t have done this without our partnership with the scientific geniuses at BioTech.” Wrangler bestowed a smile as big as Texas upon Cadger, seated to his right.

Cadger nodded in return.

“Tonight,” continued Wrangler, “you’ll taste two of our newest products. First our dee-licious Beefy Fries, developed from a potato enhanced with the genes from a cow! These babies are going to once-and-for-all change the words ‘French fries’ to ‘American fries.’ All-American fries!”

The crowd chuckled.

“These beefy fries have been off the charts in every single taste test. They’re going to be big, real big.” Wrangler spread out his long, meaty arms to illustrate exactly how big. “I just hope they don’t get too big, and make hamburgers obsolete — or my little 500,000-head cattle ranch back in Texas is in trouble!”

The crowd laughed again.

During this part of the speech, several people smiled at her uncle, and Zera watched him actually puff up. Just like a toad, she thought. She’d heard all about The Toad’s masterpiece, Beefy Fries, for months. They were made from something that looked like a regular potato but were far from it; they oozed a little of a blood-like substance when harvested and sliced into fries. The Toad said that was just a minor concern, and soon they’d have a “new and improved” version. Zera thought up another nickname for her uncle, “Lord of the Fries.” She envisioned another amphibian, a frog, sitting on a lily pad, his tongue darting out at winged fries mooing and buzzing above his head.

“Our second creation,” Chet Wrangler said, “is our Marilyn Milkshake, named after our sweet little mascot, whom I’m sure y’all have met.”

The crowd nodded and smiled. A few people chuckled. Someone called out “Moo!”

“These milkshakes are rich and tasty, and they are absolutely cutting edge, having both public satisfaction and health in mind. They are the first milkshakes ever that induce weight loss, by way of a secret ingredient added to the recipe.” Wrangler winked.

“Ooooh!” murmured the audience.

Wrangler’s grin revealed a glitter of white teeth below his mustache. “I welcome you to a new era, an era where good old scientific know-how is paving the way for our food. And this is only the beginning. We’ve got a lot of projects, just as fantastic, on the back burner.”

A man yelled out, “Yeah, the Bunsen burner!” and a few in the crowd tittered.

“But what is so extra-special about All-American,” Wrangler hooked his thumbs into his front jean pockets, and sweetened his voice to molasses, “is that we’ve created a homey, warm atmosphere where you can enjoy a nice time out with your family. And that’s what we care about most at Americo — family.

“Anyhow, I won’t keep you longer, I know you’re all hungry, and itchin’ to try this food. You’re gonna love it, I guarantee it! So now I’ll turn y’all over to a man most of you know and love, Mr. Bob Cadger, President of BioTech Multinational. Thank you!”

An upbeat music number started playing as the crowd clapped, but the word “itchin” made Zera remember her scratchy dress. She rubbed the back of her neck where the ruffled material irritated her skin the most. The audience applauded louder as Cadger changed places with Wrangler at the podium. Cadger now wore a top hat decorated with stars and stripes. Zera heard chuckles of admiration and a couple of comments about Cadger’s “sense of humor.”

The microphone stand automatically adjusted itself to Cadger’s height. Cadger looked up at Wrangler. “Thanks, Chet.”

Cadger clapped along with the crowd as Wrangler took a seat. He then took the microphone from its stand, walked up to the edge of the stage and grinned. His audience, glassy-eyed with admiration, stood and clapped. Zera looked around and sighed. What do they see in this guy?

“That’s a vintage microphone,” Tiffany said to Theodore, “I wonder why he’s using an old one, the kind with a cord?”

Theodore shrugged. “Beats me.”

“Wow, what an act to follow!” Cadger said. Holding onto the microphone’s cord, he dropped it down past the stage, nearly to the floor, then swung it back up in a long arc, catching it in his hand.

The audience went wild. Zera almost gagged. She’d seen a rock star from about fifty years ago do that once on a Home Theater concert and knew Bob Cadger was just copying him.

“Isn’t this a great evening!” Cadger motioned for his audience to sit back down, all the while smiling, gee-whiz-boyishly and arrogantly at the same time. The music stopped. “When Americo approached us five years ago, they wanted to see what we could do in the arena of fast food. They knew of our work, our fantastic successes in the field of genetic modification. They knew that in less than six years, we’d grown from a very small company into a multinational corporation.”

Tiffany said, “And they couldn’t have done any of it without you, Theodore.”

The Toad grinned and looked around expectantly, as if he were ready to be called to the stage himself.

“I am proud,” Cadger said. “We are a team of winners. I want to thank Mr. Wrangler and Americo, but I especially want to thank all of you.”

Several minutes later, and without any mention of her uncle, Bob Cadger received a standing ovation — and for a moment, seeing her uncle’s disappointment, Zera forgot all about her birthday.

*     *     *     *     *

Zera winced as The Toad slurped his chocolate shake from its crystal tumbler; it sounded like sludge being sucked down a drain. When they sat down, she saw that his hair, combed neatly when they arrived, had begun reverting to its usual messed-up state. His cowlick had returned and two patches of hair stuck up in opposite directions at the back of his head. No one had spoken a word during the meal. A few people from the lab had visited their table to compliment her uncle on the Beefy Fries, but The Toad only nodded in return, his expression grim.

Harv Headstrom walked up, carrying a plate. Between mouthfuls of fries he said, “Wow, Theo, these are so good! They taste exactly like steak and potatoes!” He licked his lips, raised his caterpillar eyebrows. “It was weird, though, that Cadger didn’t single you out for all your work.”

Theodore gave Harv a frosty look and no reply as Harv stood in silence for a few awkward seconds. Zera again noticed the reflective quality of his balding head and looked away quickly.

Harv mumbled, “I guess I’ll see you at the office,” and walked away.

Zera picked at her salad. The idea of trying the Beefy Fries or a Marilyn shake made her stomach lurch. At a table near them, she’d overheard one of the scientists say that the “secret ingredient” in the milkshakes was the genetic code from some kind of parasite, attached to a cow’s “milk” gene in order to create “weight-loss milk.” I don’t even want to know the details.

Zera looked over at that table again and her fork slipped from her grasp as a sudden brightness filled the room and a dizziness overtook her. No, she thought, that’s ketchup, not blood. For a moment she thought she saw blood on the corner of the scientist’s mouth, blood on the fries. For that moment, even the scent of copper had filled her nostrils. She did a double-take and her head cleared; the “blood” turned back to ordinary red ketchup, the smell disappeared. This place is getting to me, thought Zera. I’m going bonkers. Too much information.

Theodore broke his silence. In a croaky voice, barely above a whisper he said, “He led me on, Tiffany.” He glanced around. “Not one word, not one stinking word. And I’m the one who single-handedly created Beefy Fries. Damn it!”

Zera was shocked. She’d never heard her uncle swear.

“You should have known something was up when they didn’t let you name them.” Tiffany daintily dipped a Beefy Fry into a puddle of ketchup and Zera had to look away before she put it in her mouth. “They’ve been walking all over you and you’ve let them.”

The Toad didn’t respond. Shaking off the blood-ketchup thing, Zera remembered the Beefy Fry naming episode. Months ago The Toad submitted a scientific name for his creation. He’d bragged to Tiffany and Zera how he’d cleverly combined the Latin name Solanum tuberosum, for potato, with the one for cattle, Bos taurus, into Bos x tuberosum and added his own name as inventor — Green, or greenii, for the Latin translation, on the end. Bos x tuberosum greenii was rejected as a name by corporate headquarters in preference of Bos x tuberosum sparkii — in honor of Bob Cadger’s dog, Sparky.

“You’re right,” The Toad said. “I’m one of the greatest minds in this field and I haven’t received my due for anything. BioTech’s walked all over me.”

Zera tried to be invisible, taking small sips from her water and not adding anything to the conversation. She also knew about The Toad’s other “products.” Although she always pretended she wasn’t interested when he talked about them, she listened attentively. She’d heard about Biocorn, the corn spliced with a bacteria that immediately killed any bug that nibbled on it, and about the New World strawberries, strawberries that had their genes combined with those of the great strawberry-worm. The strawberries were designed so that the caterpillars would not recognize them as food. The only flaw was that the strawberries looked a bit like the caterpillars, green with yellow spots and long black hairs — not very appetizing. Zera thought BioTech Multinational’s products were disgusting, but also strangely mesmerizing. She couldn’t help but feel sorry for her uncle.

The Toad sat up straighter and raised his voice a little. “This is the last straw. Things are going to change.”

“It’s about time,” Tiffany said. “Because he doesn’t deserve the money, or the glory. You do.” She jerked her blonde head in the direction of Cadger, sitting at the largest table in the middle of the room, surrounded by admirers. Cadger hadn’t said a single word to The Toad since they got there.

Tiffany touched the corners of her mouth with a star-spangled napkin then looked at The Toad, her eyes steely with determination. “You’re brilliant, Theodore, but you’re not a businessman. We need to change that. I know how to get ahead. I grew up poor, the shabbiest dressed kid in Rosemont High, but I worked my way out of it. I know what it takes to get what you want.”

Tiffany’s words and the alley-cat-hungry look in her eyes sent a shiver up Zera’s spine.

*     *     *     *     *

Back at the condo, the sight of Nonny’s packages thrilled Zera. With all the drama of the evening, including a discussion between The Toad and Tiffany on the way home about what “they” were going to do about Theodore’s situation at BioTech, she’d forgotten about her presents.

“I hope I can open them now,” she said to her uncle, ignoring Tiffany and what she’d said earlier.

“Sure,” The Toad said.

“Suit yourself,” Tiffany added, letting Zera know that this was her decision, too. She plopped down on the sofa and kicked off her high heels. “But hurry up. I’m exhausted, it’s late. We all need to turn in early tonight.”

Zera ignored the remark and went for the boxes. She opened the one with the holes first.

“It’s a Venus flytrap!” Taken from its protective paper nest, she held up the plant in its glass pot with detachable clear glass lid. The flytrap was small, about five inches tall, and a bright green color.

“Pretty interesting, Zera,” The Toad had recovered enough from the evening to grin roguishly at her. “That’s a carnivorous plant, you know. Eats flesh. Woooo . . . scary . . .” he wiggled his long, warty fingers in the air.

Tiffany rolled her eyes, but Zera’s sparkled. “This is so cool!”

“Imagine, sending someone a plant on their birthday,” Tiffany said. “That mother of yours is certainly an oddball, Theodore.”

Zera opened the other boxes. One held a book entitled Plant Oddities and Their Care, and in the largest, heaviest box, was an antique terrarium.

Zera admired the rectangular fourteen-inch-tall iron and glass terrarium. A series of pointed arches stood joined together on each side, three across the front and back and two on each side. The separate base was all metal, patterned in twining vines. A fancy cut-glass knob opened the iron top. Zera sighed. It’s beautiful.

In the bottom of the box was a light pink envelope from Nonny Green, the flamboyant script addressing it to “My Darling Seed.”

Zera smiled. Her name, Zera, meant “seed” in Hebrew. She took out the envelope and opened it. The outside of the card showed a gorgeous spring bouquet of flowers in reds, blues, purples, creams, and chartreuse, nearly exploding from an earthenware vase. Three tiny fairies flew around the blossoms. Zera instantly recognized it as one of her mother’s paintings. Dad had this painting in his music studio. Nonny made it into a card. Zera’s throat tightened. Nonny, you’re the greatest.

She looked up at her uncle and saw him swallow hard, knowing he recognized his sister’s work. “Beautiful card,” he said.

Zera opened it.

My Dearest Zera,

Happy 15th birthday! I found this little Venus Flytrap at the Denver Botanical Gardens. She seemed to speak to me, to tell me that she would be the perfect birthday present for you. I know it’s not the “real” pet you’ve been wanting for so long, but I’m sure you’ll find her interesting and educational.
All in Ute Springs (including your furry and feathered friends) send their love and birthday wishes. We love you and miss you so much.

Nonny

P.S. The terrarium is a family heirloom from 1891 — a gift from Queen Victoria to your great-great-grandmother Rose. A token of appreciation for some herbal advice, I believe.

Zera felt, finally, as if it were truly her birthday, as if her mother, father and grandmother were there with her in a small but real way. She hugged the card to her chest. “Nonny says this terrarium belonged to my great-great-grandmother Rose. It was a gift from Queen Victoria!” Zera’s hand caressed the pointed arches, the crystal knob on top. “I love it!”

“Hmmmm,” murmured Tiffany. She got up from the sofa and walked over to the terrarium. “I wonder how much it’s worth.”

“I remember it,” The Toad said. “It used to sit in Nonny’s, my Nonny’s, conservatory.” He picked up the Venus flytrap and turned it around in his hand, examining it from all angles. “Nice-looking plant. You know, Zera, plants are fascinating . . . everything that eats, everything that’s alive, depends on plants to stay alive, in one way or another.”

“Yeah,” Zera said as she kept an eye on Tiffany, “we studied that in school. They supply food and oxygen for the planet. But I knew all that anyway.”

“It doesn’t look that fabulous to me,” Tiffany said, “considering it was supposedly a gift from a queen. I’ll never understand your family’s attraction to plants. To me, they’re just something you have to take care of — water, feed, dust — and they bring dirt into the house. Silk plants are far superior, and they’ve been around for ages, too.” She tossed her mane, as if the fuss they made over the terrarium was a little too much for her to bear.

“I’ll take it upstairs for you, Zera,” The Toad said. “It’s pretty heavy.”

Clutching her plant and book close to her, Zera followed him up the stairs to her room.

Zera studied the plant. It’s lovely, she thought, so tiny, so perfect. Such a pretty green color, and the reddish traps look so delicate!

After a quick shower, she changed into pajama bottoms and a badly faded rock group T-shirt that had belonged to her father. Curled up on her bed, she began reading Plant Oddities and Their Care. It was weird to have a real book in her hands again; she hadn’t been around books very much since she left home. The Toad felt computer libraries were superior to real ones because all you had to do was ask a question, and the answer would almost instantly appear, or the computers would talk and tell you the answers, or take you on a video journey showing you the answer, if you preferred that. Zera loved paper books, their smell, and their weight in her hands. She liked flipping through pages, making discoveries.

venus-fly-trap10In this book, full of delightfully bizarre and attractive illustrations, Zera found that the scientific, or Latin, species name for her Venus flytrap was Dionea muscipula. Zera read that the flytrap’s ancestors were discovered in the United States in 1760. At that time they were called “Fly Trap Sensitive.” The Latin name translated into “Aphrodite’s Mouse-trap” but they were commonly called “Venus Flytrap.” So, Zera mused, the name comes from both Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, and Venus, the Roman goddess of love. How cool! She thought about how fun it would be to have a collection of plants in her room, how it would make Tiffany’s flamingo-colored decor of frills and ruffles more bearable. Inspired by a quote she remembered, tacked to the bulletin board in her father’s music studio, “Love is Nature’s second sun,” she chose to name her flytrap “Sunny.”

“Zera, your uncle’s going to walk me home now!” Tiffany’s voice rang from downstairs. “Lights out time! And be careful that you don’t make a mess with that plant. I do not want any water on the furniture!”

And a goodnight, happy birthday to you too, Tiff. Zera turned off the light and said goodnight to Sunny, whose pot sat in the terrarium, on her night table. Zera fell asleep thinking about her grandmother.

In the dark, sphagnum moss-filled terrarium, Sunny shut and opened all fifteen of her traps in quick succession. It was her way of paying homage to Zera’s fifteenth birthday, and saying goodnight to her new friend.

 

To purchase your own copy of Zera and the Green Man, visit the official website now. Paperback and Kindle versions are now available.

Zera and the Green Man is a novel by Sandra Knauf, a local author and sustainability advocate living in Colorado Springs.

GreenwomanPublishing

Published via US Represented by consent of the publisher:
Published by Greenwoman Publishing, LLC
P. O. Box 6587, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 80934-6587, U.S.A.

First published in the United States of America
Copyright © Sandra Knauf, 2013
All rights reserved

ISBN: 978-0-9897056-0-8 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-0-9897056-1-5 (ebook)

Cover drawing by Paul Spielman.
Cover photography by CanStockPhoto 11569383
Cover and interior design by Zora Knauf.

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or living-dead, is entirely coincidental.

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