By Jason Norton
What had begun as a wretch of a week for Preston Alstodt was turning out most glorious. His elation would have invariably been lost on the casual observer who did not share his passion for botany. But knee-deep in the brackish muck of the Everglades — leeches, gators, and fist-sized mosquitoes aside — he was reborn.
Originally, he’d planned to stay on campus and work through Spring Break. That was before the kitchen pipes burst and the alternator in his 2007 Toyota Corolla died. On Thursday, two of his fellow biology professors were notified that Harvard did not require their talents in the upcoming year. With untold semesters to go before he could even hope for the security of tenure, Preston took their dismissal as a threat. He needed to publish or at least contribute to some credible research soon to bolster his credentials — or his resume.
It was all too much at once. He had to get away. Harvard was just too damned cold in March — especially this March.
On Friday afternoon, he called his contractor, worked out where to leave the key, and taxied to the airport. Five hours later, he was on a red-eye to Florida.
It was supposed to have been a casual getaway, not an expedition. But Preston never really allowed himself such respite.
His field team, sixteen strong, remained in Boston. Janie would’ve made seventeen but she was still in Ithaca. She’d refused to accompany him on the last leg of his doctoral pursuit. She’d seen the writing on the wall in his sophomore year at Cornell and realized she would always be his second most-loved carbon-based life form. They still talked, at least once per month by phone. E-mails were intermittent. They hadn’t been face to face or body to body in over six years. Her choice.
He was married to his work, but he made no apologies. Human relationships had always been too difficult. Plants were easy. They lived and died. In the interim they waged a silent war for survival; fighting and scratching and doing their damnedest to choke out competitive species for territorial dominance. Win some, lose some. Not too far removed from humanity.
But with plants, emotions were never involved. There was no need for conversation or compromise. They were content to be alone.
Janie was still with him, in his mind, as his plane taxied the tarmac. Six years hadn’t helped him forget; not surprisingly, three gin and tonics hadn’t either. He would keep trying. He had six days.
Saturday morning, he took full advantage of the hotel’s pastry-laden continental breakfast and swiped a cardboard four-cup carrier to smuggle a proper morning’s worth of coffee back to his room. He showered and slathered on sunscreen. Grabbing a folder full of yet-to-be-graded mid-terms and the complimentary Miami Herald left outside his door, he headed to the beach that fronted his corner room.
It was already hot — no surprise there — but the beach was suspiciously devoid of sunbathers. Preston then remembered he was on Spring Break in Miami, it was only a little after 9 a.m. and he was nearly 30. The college tourists that had bombarded the city still had at least six to eight hours before they would depart, zombie-like, from their hotels.
He took nearly 30 minutes to trudge through three mid-terms. It was difficult to focus. It was practically impossible. Peeling himself from his chair, he waded into the blue-green Atlantic.
He dove under the waves, making his way past the breakers. Lifting his feet, he allowed the tide to buoy him as he lay backward. He closed his eyes and floated, embracing the respite as waves lapped against his face. He began to mentally rifle through rare orchid species. It was a form of cognitive yoga he’d first utilized when writing his thesis, as a way to calm and clear his head.
Cymbidium sinense: indigenous to India, Taiwan and Thailand. Found in cool climates. Requires ample light with lower temperatures. Thrives in an ideal humidity between 40 and 60 percent.
Cattleya schilleriana: Brazil. Grows in cool to hot temperatures on cliff faces and in rivers anywhere from sea level to 800 meters above. Often used to create hybrids in attempts to breed “super orchids.”
Dendrophylax lindenii: first found in Cuba in 1844, discovered in south Florida 50 years later. Commonly known as the Ghost Orchid due to its billowy white appearance. Two thousand known to be in existence in Florida; their location mostly kept secret by researchers and horticulturalists. Considered the most sought after orchid in the U.S. and possibly the world.
He opened his eyes at the realization, losing the poise of his float posture.
South Florida. He was in South Florida. Within forty minutes he could be in the heart of Big Cypress Swamp, smack dab in the middle of Ghost Orchid Central. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it sooner. He could find a Ghost Orchid. Bringing one back would be tantamount to sacrilege, but if he got the chance to study one in the wild — hell, to even see one — he was sure it would spark inspiration for his next project.
He returned to his chair, toweled his hands and dug his cell phone from his bag. Dialing information, he asked for airboat companies. He stopped the operator at the third listing: Fan-Dango Airboat Tours. She connected him directly.
“Fan-Dango Airboat Tours; best gator-gazing getaway in the ‘Glades,” the gravelly voice on the other end said, more lackadaisically than one would expect, considering such a reputation.
“Moe speaking; may I help you?” the voice followed, no more enthusiastically.
“Do you have tours going out today?”
“Sure do,” Moe replied.
Preston waited expectantly. “What time?” he asked, realizing Moe wasn’t volunteering additional information.
“Time you wanna leave?” Moe said, after an audible sip and swallow.
“Aaahh, how about around noon?” Preston suggested, caught off-guard at the man’s nonchalance. He wondered if all the natives were as casual.
“Nah, noon’s no good. Too damn hot. How about let’s say four? Sun’ll be lower,” Moe countered.
“Four it is,” Preston said. “Listen, is there any chance this could be a private tour?”
Moe took another drink. “Hell, they’ll all be private today. Spring breakers don’t care about airboatin’. Ain’t no sex or booze in it.” He paused. “Well, no sex anyway, ‘less a couple of them co-eds show up and play their cards right.”
Preston arrived at Fan-Dango fifteen minutes early. There wasn’t much to the place. The tiny shack had an attached pavilion that barely covered two picnic tables. An 80’s-era cash register sat atop a weathered L-shaped bar. Two t-shirts — one red, one black — hung on coat hangers dangling from the eight-foot-high rafters. The sun-bleached shirts proudly displayed the white Fan-Dango logo — an airboat driven by an over-sized bespectacled alligator, Ray-Ban sunglasses resting on his snout.
A graying, rotund man wearing a trucker’s cap with the same logo emerged from the shack. His name was embroidered on his black Polo. Moe.
“Howdy, friend. You must be my four o’clock. Mr. …”
“Alstodt,” Preston reminded him. “Doctor Preston Alstodt.”
“My apologies,” Moe said, extending his hand. “M.D.?”
“Professor. Botanical Sciences. Harvard,” Preston said, shaking the larger man’s hand.
“An Ivy-League plant man. Funny,” Moe said.
“I suppose so,” Preston agreed, surprised he’d never made the same connection.
“You must be here on business then, considerin’ your request for a private ride,” Moe said.
“Correct. I’m hoping to find …”
“A Ghost Orchid?” Moe finished for him. It was quickly becoming apparent that despite the man’s local-yokel appearance, he was no dummy. “I can probably help you with that. But it’ll cost a little more than the regular fare. How about we say a hun’erd?”
“That won’t be a problem,” Preston said, pulling his wallet from his back pocket.
“Card reader’s on the fritz,” Moe said, when he saw Preston thumbing a Visa.
“Oh, sure,” Preston said. He fished out cash, making a mental note to hit an ATM once he returned to Miami.
“Alrighty then,” Moe said, pocketing the bills as he headed back inside the shack. Within moments, he emerged, a hefty red and white Igloo cooler in his right hand. In his left, he carried a bag of jumbo jet-puffed marshmallows.
The spring-loaded wooden door clattered behind him as he grinned at Preston. “Okay professor,” he said. “Let’s ride.”
Within fifteen minutes of their departure, Preston was certain that his cheeks had flown off. Then the boat tore through a small swarm of mayflies that peppered him like scattered buckshot and he realized that his face was — perhaps regrettably — still intact. He’d never been so thankful for sunglasses.
“Sorry ’bout that doc!” Moe yelled over the drone of the whining propeller from his elevated seat. “Trying to avoid some brush on the left.”
It was no easy task. Stilted red mangroves threw scattering roots in intricate basket weaves across untold acres of the swamp floor. Preston was impressed at how well Moe was dodging the trees considering the sweet odor he’d noticed on his breath earlier — plus the two beers he’d downed since they’d begun.
“We only need a couple inches of water to run on, but we can still run aground if we snag anything too stout or dry,” Moe said.
The combined speed, gas fumes, and frequent zig-zagging were beginning to weigh on Preston. “How much further?” he yelled over his shoulder between burp-heaves.
“Half-hour, little more. Your thumb ain’t the only thing green right now, doc,” Moe said, taking another opportunity for a pun. “Here, I’ll pull over for a sec. Let you get your gut right.”
Slowly, he killed the throttle. Turning the propeller handle, he guided the boat into a clearing surrounded by mangroves. The fan blades whirred to a stop as the boat drifted in the shallows.
“Thanks,” Preston said, his stomach equally appreciative. Examining the perimeter, he spied bladderworts, water lilies, and spatterdocks.
Moe opened the marshmallows, as a ripple swirled to the left of the boat.
“What was that?” Preston asked anxiously. “That,” Moe said, stepping down and leaning over the side of the boat, “is Big Al. He’s a local legend in these parts.”
“Al? As in …”
“You came by that doctorate honest, by God” Moe said. “Yep. Old Al is about eighteen-feet-worth of gator. Most folks figure he’s about 65 years old. That makes him a pretty big deal. Most gators grow to about 11 feet and check out by their fiftieth birthday. He’s what a fella like you would probably call an anomaly.”
Preston craned his neck as far as it would swivel, trying to spot the beast. Something so large should’ve been easier to find. He watched Moe, trying to follow the older man’s searching eye. Staring off the rear of the boat, Moe plucked a marshmallow from the bag and held it out over the water.
“You may wanna’ scoot back,” he told Preston.
The professor inched back as far as his seat would allow. He tensed, feeling the sweat drip down his back. The sun may have weakened, but the humidity was thick as ever. He’d forgotten it while the boat was cutting through the swamp, the headwind drying his skin.
Moe clicked his tongue as casually as if he were summoning a housecat to dinner. “Here, gator, gator, gator,” he called.
With a violent splash, Big Al broke the water, lunging upward for Moe’s outstretched arm. The gator’s moss-green head was easily the size of the curbside garbage can provided to Preston by the City of Boston’s Public Works department. Its yellowed teeth, thick as fingers, gnarled like splayed barbed wire.
Big Al opened his bottom jaw, so wide that it looked as if he could swallow Moe whole. At the last possible second, the old boatman dodged backward, letting the marshmallow fly. The gator snatched it from the air and dove back into the water, sending a swell under the boat that nearly capsized it. Preston pitched backward on the vinyl seat, clutching it to keep from somersaulting overboard. Instantly, Big Al disappeared.
“Ya alright, doc? Man, you shoulda seen your face!”
Preston couldn’t speak. He really wanted to, so he could ask Moe just what the hell was wrong with him and why he would endanger both their lives for such a stupid stunt. But his lips wouldn’t work.
Moe offered the bag to Preston. “Your turn. Give it a shot?”
“N-no. No th-thank you,” Preston stammered. His eyes were wide as he frantically scanned the water.
“Suit yourself,” Moe said. “Don’t know what you’re missing.”
“Is … is he coming back?” Preston asked.
“Not unless I give him another.”
“Please don’t,” Preston said, before Moe could hardly finish.
Moe chuckled. “I’m sorry, doc. It’s just a gag I use with the tourists. They usually get a kick out of it. Course I usually don’t do it with Al. He can be a little intimidating.”
“Genghis Khan was a little intimidating. Big Al would’ve made him soil his fur-lined panties,” Preston said dryly.
Moe grinned. He reached into the Igloo. He popped the top on another beer, shoving it at Preston. “Have one. It’ll calm your nerves.”
Staying low, Preston took as few steps as possible to accept the offer. “Thanks,” he said.
“Don’t worry, she ain’t gonna tip over, Jumpy,” Moe said. “Tell ya what. I’ll get us back out into the main and we can troll a bit before we pick up speed again.”
Moe fiddled with buttons on what Preston recognized as the engine. Pulling a ripcord, the fan blade spun to life. He reached for the rudder, gently guiding the boat into the open swamp.
Preston sipped his beer. It was bitter and fruity. He studied the label. Swamp Ape IPA.
“It’s brewed up in Melbourne, ’bout 150 miles north,” Moe said.
“It’s good,” Preston said.
“Bet your ass it is. Just like everything in Florida, ‘cept the damned Cubans.” Preston shot him an uncomfortable glance. “No offense,” Moe said, forgetting he was dealing with one of those scholarly types who didn’t appreciate such commentary.
“None taken,” Preston lied.
Preston pulled his cell phone from his pocket. Eleven minutes after five. Still hot.
“How long until the orchids?” he asked.
“Depends how you’re feeling,” Moe replied.
“I’m good. We can pick up speed anytime.”
“Relax, doc. Enjoy the scenery. You ain’t payin’ by the hour, and you’re still looking a little green. Green. Get it?” Again, Preston didn’t share Moe’s enthusiasm for the joke.
Preston swatted a mosquito from his neck, wishing he’d stopped for repellant.
“The Spanish were the first to ever map the Everglades, though they hadn’t even seen it,” Moe began, in full tour guide mode. “They knew there was something between the Gulf and the Atlantic, but they didn’t know exactly what. They named it ‘Laguna del Espíritu Santo: Lake of the Holy Spirit.'”
“Right. I read that in a brochure,” Preston said.
“The primary vegetation here is obviously sawgrass, which has some interesting characteristics. For example, sawgrass leaves will burn …”
“But not the submerged roots,” Preston said. “It’s how the sawgrass survives all the fires caused by lightning strikes.”
“Sharp cookie,” Moe said, clinking his beer against Preston’s, as they both took congratulatory sips. Preston smiled. “That is kind of my area of expertise,” he said with an air of pride.
“How about a little history lesson then?”
“Please,” the professor said, less anxious now, thanks in part to the beer.
“I’m sure you are familiar with the Lost Colony of Virginia?”
“Sure. They were the last members of modern-day North Carolina’s Roanoke Colony who just disappeared. When other settlers came looking for them, they found all their homes and buildings dismantled. The only clue to their disappearance was the word ‘Croatoan’ carved into a nearby tree. Some scholars believe the group was signaling that they were relocating to Croatoan Island; what we now know as Hatteras Island,” Preston said, as if he were lecturing back at Harvard.
“And the other theory?” Moe tested the doctor.
“The colonists were trying to point to a tribe that abducted them. That’s highly unlikely, though,” Preston said.
“You think so?”
“Of course. How would someone have the wits or the time to carve something like that into a tree during a mass kidnapping?” Preston said.
“Oh you’d be surprised what fear can do for you,” Moe said, finishing his beer. “What if I told you we had our own little lost colony right here in the ‘Glades?”
“I didn’t realize there were colonists here,” Preston said.
“Not colonists, per se. Indians … I mean Native Americans,” Moe corrected, now attempting to be on his best politically correct behavior.
“Go on,” Preston said, handing over his empty. Moe tossed him another Swamp Ape.
“Initially, there were two major tribes in the Everglades: the Calusa and the Taquesta. The Calusas were the big boys. They had the numbers, about 7,000. But they suffered attacks from an invading tribe from the north, the Yamasee. By 1700, only about 1,000 Calusa were left. Most of them pled with the Spanish explorers who showed up in the interim to relocate them to Cuba. They stayed there for a while, but when disease starting killing them off, they moved on to the Keys.
“The Taquesta were supposedly a more peaceful people. Spanish historical records indicate otherwise. The Spanish were scared shitless of the Taquesta. Said they ambushed Spanish sailors who ran aground in the ‘Glades, and would torture them before killing them. In the mid-1700’s, Spanish priests tried to build missions along the coast, figuring they may be able to make peace with the Tequesta if they could convert them. Turns out, another invading tribe — the Yucchi — took care of the problem for them. Between them and the Seminoles, the Taquesta were nearly wiped out. A British historian, name of Romans, found most of their villages leveled — and deserted — in the 1770s. Legend has is that the final 30 surviving Taquesta were deported to Havana. Most folks around here don’t believe that though,” Moe said.
“So what do they think happened?” Preston asked, between swallows.
“Nobody really knows. But this flower you’re looking for? The old timers ’round here swear those dead Indians’ spirits are what gives those things life.”
“So you’re saying the Taquesta put the ghost in the Ghost Orchid?” Preston said, suppressing a grin.
“I’m not saying anything. I’m just telling you what folks believe. That’s why they say those orchids are so rare. So special. They think the Taquesta’s spirits inhabit the orchids and protect them. Sort of the last piece of their property that they don’t want to lose,” Moe explained.
Preston poured out the remaining backwash of his second beer and tossed the bottle into the cooler. “Well I’ve heard some interesting theories on plant development, but that’s a new one on me,” he said.
Moe revved the throttle gently and motioned for Preston to ready himself for another takeoff. “All I know,” he said just before he unwound the engine, “is that you don’t get to be old by being stupid.”
Moe’s propensity for understatement was becoming increasingly apparent with each passing minute. What was supposed to have been little more than a half-hour trip had turned into the proverbial three-hour tour.
Preston’s cell phone battery was dead. The last thing he’d seen on it was a notification of a voicemail from Sam, his contractor. He hadn’t been able to bring himself to listen to the financial misfortune that it undoubtedly involved. He’d simply texted “fix it” in reply, figuring an actual call would have little chance of connecting in his current environment.
Moe, predictably, wore no watch. The professor estimated that it must be some time near eight o’clock. The sun had set about a half-hour earlier; daylight would start to succumb to evening soon.
The beer proved to be a double-edged sword. It undoubtedly helped make the trip more enjoyable, but it had nearly stolen Moe’s recollection of the orchids’ location. They lost more sunlight when they stopped twice to relieve themselves, thanks to the Swamp Ape’s revenge. Preston cut himself off at three; he wanted to be lucid when — and maybe if, now it seemed — they found the orchids.
He’d lost count of how many Moe had finished (or how many times he’d followed dead ends). Still, his control of the airboat seemed unfazed.
“How much longer?” Preston asked for the umpteenth time.
“I’m pretty sure they are just up around that bend there.”
Preston followed Moe’s gesture, spying the outline of a tiny mangrove outcropping about a quarter of a mile in the hazy distance.
“Yep, won’t be long now,” Moe said.
Preston restrained his anticipation. Moe’s navigational track record had proven less than stellar so far. Still, Moe had been good company. He hadn’t had a conversation this lengthy with anyone in recent memory. Not even …
Janie. There she was. Right where he’d left her, waiting in the back of his mind, like always.
Only now did he realize how long he’d gone without thinking of her. He couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. He chose the obvious option.
“I’ll take another beer if there’s any left,” he told Moe.
“Last one, but you’d better knock it back quick,” Moe said, tossing it his way. “We’re here.”
Preston looked up, realizing how far the boat and his memory had traveled. For all of the trip’s sluggish meanderings, the last leg had taken seconds.
“Here ya go, as promised,” Moe said, idling the boat into the cove. Waving his arm like he was about to pull a rabbit out of his blue Fan-Dango hat, he gestured toward the sawgrass fronting the boat. “May I present the one and only Florida Ghost Orchid.”
Preston peered ahead into the increasing darkness, forgetting the beer. He struggled to make out the disparate foliage among the sawgrass.
“Here, doc,” Moe said, clicking on the spotlight anchored to the right of his captain’s chair.
He was right. He had remembered. Despite God-knows-how-many wrong turns and Swamp Apes, Moe had done it.
Hundreds of Ghost Orchids — as white as they were in the pictures Preston had seen — danced in the gently lapping bay.
The professor was nearly moved to tears.
“You okay, doc?”
“My God; there’s so many of them. There were only supposed to be 2,000 in the state,” Preston said, his attention unwavering.
“Well, that may have been all they’ve found, but that don’t mean that’s all there is. Sometimes experience trumps education, doc. When you’ve been running the ‘Glades as long as I have, you learn a few secrets,” Moe said.
Moe eased the boat closer, allowing Preston a better look. “There’s enough ground there to walk right out and touch one,” Moe said, pointing to the twenty feet of mud-covered bank in front of the boat.
“Seriously? Aren’t there gators out there?” Preston asked, captivated by the opportunity.
“Hell, doc, there’s gators everywhere around here. Just don’t stay too long. I’ll keep the light on and holler if I see anything,” Moe reassured him.
Preston tossed his wallet and phone in the boat, then eased his way out onto the marshy beach. He swapped his vision between the orchids and the watery slop that came up to his knees, in case Big Al’s cousin chose to make an appearance. But now, this close, he was more excited than afraid.
He reached out, cradling an orchid. Its petals, sepals and lobes all fluttered in perfect unison; its fluted stigma stood proud, displaying elegance amongst strength. “My God,” Preston repeated, a joyous laughter filling his vocal chords. “Moe, you have got to come see this up close! This is … unbelievable!”
“No thanks,” Moe said, edging off his seat to pocket Preston’s abandoned valuables. Reaching back, he restarted the engine. “I’ll pass.”
Preston heard the motor, but couldn’t take his eyes off the near-perfect specimens.
Then he caught Moe’s voice again; this time further off.
“Alright doc. It’s been real. On second thought, stay a while. I think you’ll like it here,” Moe called, opening the engine full-bore.
Preston turned, the shrill hum and sudden gust disrupting his stupor.
Moe was backing away.
Preston lunged after him, bewildered. He took two steps and plummeted face first into water that was now higher than his waist. Panic and confusion overtook him. He tried to swim after the boat but was tossed aside in its churning wake. He screamed for Moe until he lost sight of the spotlight. Terrified and alone in the blackness, he slid back through the ooze to the company of the orchids.
He tried to scramble as high on the bank as possible, out of gator range. Scratching blindly in the muck, he found the root of a mangrove and held on for dear life, trying to climb high enough to get his feet on land.
A guttural murmur came from the left. He froze. It didn’t sound like any gator he’d ever heard, including Big Al. Again it warbled, louder this time. An echo answered from the rear.
Within seconds, the sounds surrounded Preston. He stood and tried to run, but tumbled back into the marsh. He stayed under for as long as he could, hoping the noise would be gone when he surfaced. No such luck. But when he emerged just far enough to try and look toward the bank, the disparity between the water and air allowed him a brief moment of auditory clarity.
The noise sounded vaguely like language. Ancient, lost language unfamiliar to Preston. He stood stone-like; trying to decipher what he could hear, squinting to adjust his vision to the total absence of light.
He saw nothing at first; then he glimpsed a glow. Tiny and red, it bounced within yards of him before disappearing. Suddenly it came back. It was quickly joined by yellows, oranges, and more reds, all in small pairs.
Eyes. Lots of them.
He did a quick visual estimation.
There were about thirty pairs.
Something brushed past his legs. He thrashed in the water, finding the mangrove again, backing against it. Silence and stillness returned. The eyes had disappeared.
Taking a deep breath, Preston clambered up onto the roots of the tree. He had imagined it all. It had just been some type of a fish against his leg; fireflies in the trees. Moe’s stories had gotten the better of him, but they wouldn’t get the best. He was a man of science, after all.
And then the world went liquidly black. Moss-covered hands, dozens of them, pulled him beneath the surface. He thrashed, kicking and screaming, his bubbling voice sounding much like those of his now-screaming tormentors. Reds and oranges and yellows flashed around him as he was driven down into the bowels of the swamp. Mud and water filled his nose and his eyes. Within seconds his lungs would be flooded.
Suddenly, the screaming stopped. It was replaced by a quieter bellow, rhythmic and placid. He ceased his struggle, as the strong hands gently guided him deeper into the mud. When he opened his eyes, he could see clearly. Everything was yellow.
Vines snaked around him, piercing his flesh and organs in excruciating precision. Slime-covered vegetation slithered down his throat, nesting his organs in floral incubators. Roots replaced bone.
He could hear the process in his mind — the sentient screams of his dying cells and the triumphant battle cries of the new organisms conquering his body. Then came the voices of his brothers, as they began to hoist him from the murk. He understood them all completely now, though he could not explain why.
He tried to hold on, tried to salvage what was left of whatever it was he seemed to remember being just moments — or maybe eons — before.
He thought of Jennie. Jamie. Janet. Jan … What was it again?
He wasn’t alone anymore.
Jason Norton is a lifelong fan of comic books, science fiction, and monster-under-your-bed stories. He hopes to one day be mistaken as an author of such. A former small-town newspaper reporter, Jason is now a personal trainer and massage therapist. When he’s not playing volleyball, he studies wilderness survival skills. Honest. Not even he could have made all that up. Jason and his wife live in Powhatan, Virginia. He has a son, two cats and two dogs. He prefers the son. Jason’s flash fiction piece, “Cave Dwellers,” was recently published at Bewildering Stories. Follow his exploits at: thewritefandango.blogspot.com