“Showstopper” by S.C. Jensen

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Mike Zeilinski had been dead for seventeen days when his eyes shot open and he lurched down the stairs and out his back door. He collapsed on the lawn of his silver-ribbon award-winning garden in the bright midday sun. He knew it was seventeen days because the man on the radio had said it was July 23 and the last thing he remembered was dragging himself home from the clinic, taking three ibuprofen, and laying down to sleep off the skull-splitting pain in his forehead. A note on the table, next to the telephone, read “Dr. Novak July 6 @ 1400.”

But that realization came later.

First, he lay in the sunlight, hardly remembering to breathe for joy of the sun’s warmth on his face and arms. After a moment he stripped off his damp, stinking, oddly blackened clothes, and bared the rest of his skin to the blissful rays. He didn’t know how long he lay there before a sudden, dreadful thirst forced him back into the house, to the kitchen, where he stuck his face straight under the tap and drank until he thought his stomach would burst.

Then Mike planted himself at the dinette table, sat directly in a beam of afternoon light, and read the note.

Seventeen days.

Perhaps it was a stretch to assume that he was dead, but Mike could remember nothing that happened in the time between lying down and waking up. When he went back upstairs to check his bedroom for signs that he’d fed and watered himself over the course of past two and a half weeks, he found none. As far as Mike knew, it was basically impossible to survive that length of time without food and drink. And, besides that, he distinctly remembered his last thoughts before losing consciousness. It had been like something was tunnelling into his brain. Through the twisting, burning agony he had thought, “I’m going to die.”

It didn’t matter, though. Mike felt more or less unmoved by the fact of his death and rebirth. What he was fascinated by was his bed. Mounds of black soil covered the mattress. A single set of foot prints made a path from the bed, out the bedroom, and down the stairs. His own.

Mike swallowed. His tongue was thick and waxy in his mouth. It seemed to coil around itself, tightly. He fought an urge to lay on the bed and dig his hands and feet into the muck. He decided, instead, to get another drink of water and sit in the sunshine outside.

It wasn’t until he was planted on the back step, looking out at his garden with a glass of water in his hand, that he noticed his fingers. Long, hair-like fibers dangled from his fingertips. From his toes, too, he realized once he looked down. And underneath the skin on his arms and legs, lumps wound their way up his limbs where they seemed to disappear into his muscles. Every now and then, the lumps pulsed and coiled like worms burrowing through compost.

Compost.

He had been working in the garden when the headache started, applying compost to the central flower bed. It was a new arrangement. The special order bulbs he’d planted that spring were coming in in great verdant bursts. Mike remembered fingering the delicate pink buds that were beginning to show within the clusters of spikey leaves. Excitement had thrummed through his body like electricity. A showstopper, the catalogue had said, guaranteed. Mike had never heard of the strain before and, he hoped, the judges of this years’ Amateur Horticulturalist Society competition hadn’t either. This was his year. He was going to win it, for sure. Not second best to Mrs. Evelyn Brown’s roses, again. He was going for the gold.

He’d lost seventeen days, though. It was time to get to work. He didn’t understand what had happened to him, but that didn’t matter. More than anything, Mike needed to tend to his garden. He heaved himself off the porch, wrapped his fibrous fingers around the handles of his wheelbarrow, and humped his way over to the fertilizer.

Flies buzzed like tiny black drones around the heap of rotting leaves and kitchen compost. The air around the pile was heavier and hotter than in the rest of the garden, rich with the promise of life-giving nutrient matter. His limbs moved sluggishly as he shoveled scoop after scoop into the bucket of the wheelbarrow, but Mike felt fine. Better than fine, he was invigorated.

When the bucket was full, he rolled it over to his central plot and dumped the stinking stuff right in the middle. This was where his best plants were. This was where the winners grew. Mike covered them with a thick blanket of compost. He knelt and pushed the mixture into the soil with his bare hands, and he felt that same jolt of electricity flow through him. As he kneaded the earth around his prize plants the lumps in his arms began to churn with him. The writhing shapes swelled as he worked, swelled until skin began to burst like the flesh of an overripe peach.

But Mike felt fine.

He dug deeper and deeper into the plot, working his limbs in slowly until, at last, he was ready to rest. This time, when Mike turned his face up to the late afternoon sun and closed his eyes, he knew he wouldn’t open them again.

Five days later, when the judges arrived from the AHS competition, they found the most extraordinary sight. A flower of prehistoric proportions dominated the garden. Petals, like folds of sunburned flesh, spilled out of the central plot, piled upon themselves with almost grotesque abundance. No one had seen anything like it.

Mr. Zeilinski, unfortunately, could not be found to answer for the unusual specimen or to accept his prize. So the gold, once again, went to Mrs. Brown’s roses.

*********************************************************************************

989 Words

This piece was inspired by the January prompt “Flower” at BlogBattle! Thank you so much to Simon from Planet Simon for the suggestion to try this challenge as well as the others I’ve got going this month. I had a lot of fun with it. Can you tell? What did you think? As always, thanks for reading!

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34 thoughts on ““Showstopper” by S.C. Jensen

  1. Of *course* I came by to read yours after your kind comments on mine. 😉

    Poor old Mike, can’t even get Best in Show when he’s putting on a fine show because he couldn’t show.

    1. Thank you very much! Ya, poor guy couldn’t catch a break. The funny thing is I planned for him to win! But when I was writing the ending it just didn’t come out like that 😂 Funny how our stories wrote themselves sometimes.

  2. Love it! But now I’m worried about my compost pile and that amaryllis DF gave me. 😳

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

      1. There’s more to that thought than is immediately apparent. The spores are everywhere.

    1. Thank you so much! It’s a little off the wall and probably won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I had fun 😝

  3. I like this… I think you did it well but having just the one character in it… It’s given me thoughts on how I could work mine again.

    Sorry… I wasn’t hard.

    1. Next time, gadget! (I hope I’m not the only one who remembers that show…)

      Thanks! I’ve been working on short stories for a couple of years now, and I
      always used to start with too big an idea for the word count, too many characters, too much back story. But I’m starting to find my comfort zone.

      Now I almost never use more than two characters for anything under 2500 words. I try to stick to a single scene, a single goal/challenge for that character to overcome (or try to overcome and fail at).

      Then, if I like how the flash piece comes out, I can flesh it out with more scenes and characters to make it a “real” short story. Although there is starting to be a decent market for flash fiction, so I might have to stop publishing to my blog and start submitting them as they are!

      1. You’ve got the right approach to short stories I think I’m going to have to take a page out of your book.

        I’m going to try this with the next big battle and actually spend some time on it. I’m fact I need to get back into my blogging mojo.

        1. I need to be more consistent with my non-fiction posts. Sharing stories is fun, but my original intent for this blog was to discuss themes and ideas in SF, and share my own experiences in the publishing industry; from querying the big guys and agents, to working with small publishers, to attempts at self publishing. So, I’ll hold you to your schedule if you hold me to mine 😝 it helps to know there are some people reading out there!

          1. I’ll do my best to hold you to your schedule. I’ll be keeping up as much as I can. I’ve been creating posts around the ideas and concepts around sci-fi and I have to agree it is harder as you’re not making it up and have to research.
            Maybe we can help each other with that as well 😀

          2. That would be great! Even just someone to brainstorm topics with would be awesome.

          3. If you’d like to email me at ***** we can get something organized!

  4. Aha, here you are! Obviously we tracked via the BlogBattle link. This one reminded me of Invasion of The Body Snatchers. Ergo I’m rather intrigued by the seed merchant and whether these are other worldly beings terraforming earth to suit their needs using us as the growth medium!

    Rather like Simon, I need to find the blogging mojo more and actually push manuscripts somewhere. Reading other posts by writers does help the former considerably. Really enjoyed this one!

    1. Thank you, Gary! I think Invasion of the Body Snatchers was the first true Sci-Fi book I ever read. I hadn’t actually thought about it in regards to this story, but it wouldn’t surprise me if something like that was going on behind my brain curtains 😂 I remember being supremely creeped out by the pod people.

      Yes, BlogBattle has connected me with a bunch of great WordPress writers. I’m really excited by that. Talking shop seems to keep me from letting writing fall on the back burner. Knowing other people are out there working and improving their craft, and are willing to help me work on mine, is a huge motivator.

      If you like prompt challenges, 12 Short Stories is another great one with lots of feedback. I’m doing that one this year, too. (www.12shortstories.com) I’m looking forward to February’s BlogBattle prompt!

      1. I think writers store up lots of books, films and life experience and it sits as latent inspiration waiting to burst out. I have a fond memory of the film with Donald Sutherland and Leonard Nimoy. The concept is well creepy which is where compost man had me going!

        We’re hoping to grow the BB community this year. I’m helping Rachael admin it so shouting it out is on my list for Thursday next week. Well, it’s when the new prompt word goes live on my blog. We stagger it on the main site, then Rachael’s then mine. Really hope to see you on the list again now!

        You’re dead right though. Getting involved in discussions and debates is a very good way of motivating and seeing an opinion on something that stirs a thought. I love promote yes, but this year I’m holding out for NaNo Camps to finish a manuscript that’s sat way too long. That 12 short stories site does look good, but I’d just use it to procrastinate even more than I do already lol

        1. I’ve experimented with a few prompt/feedback groups, and I’m really impressed with BB! Based on the quality of the stories and the writers, I think I’m going to limit myself to BlogBattle and 12 Short Stories, and (fingers-crossed) my next NYC Midnight Short Story heat this year. So you will definitely be seeing more of me. For better or worse!

          Between those, my novel, and my blog I should have enough to keep me actively writing but not overwhelmed.

          The funny thing about all those latent memories/inspirations is that I cannot for the life of me remember the actual plots of books or movies that I’ve seen. Even ones I’ve read/seen multiple times. So it always surprises me when I realize where an inspiration may have come from, haha. But we can be inspired by the smallest things, too. A single image, or the feel of a particular setting, and it can spark a whole world of ideas!

          I really look forward to being a part of the community!

          1. The BlogBattle has been resurrected recently after a lapse. It was more intense and time consuming for Rachael to administer. Prompts ran every week and for me that was too much. Now I think we have a better balance and numbers are growing with new participants along with some older ones. I’d love to see it grow even more. It would be excellent to see you as a regular now too. I mean, would we be talking if not for it lol?

            I’m of a growing opinion writers subconsciously store everything. Not necessarily in a linear manner, but things we see (books, film, radio, stories, people watching etc) all get hoarded and wait for a prompt to ignite an idea. I know it’s improved my observation abilities wrt people and seeing more than they say. Same with historical places, i now soak up the atmosphere and imagine the times where ruin was populated. Not to mention how many connections it builds with authors and bloggers. I’d call that an immense bonus lol

          2. Yes, I was in a group that did weekly challenges. Writing a flash piece a week was usually doable, but reading and leaving feedback for everyone became a monumental task!

            I’m going to try to read all of the BlogBattle pieces and leave some kind of constructive comment on as many as I can. I think the giving/receiving feedback is as important as writing when it comes to improving one’s own skills. It forces us to think critically about a work we aren’t as emotionally invested in, and that practice helps us to apply the same advice to our own work (even if it’s only a subconscious thing) I know I usually comment about things I’m practicing myself because it’s at the forefront of my mind!

          3. I think it’s a bit crass to write, accept feedback and not give any personally so I’m right with you there! I do try to read everyone’s and always shout them out on my social media. As you say, trying to do that on a weekly basis with other things going on is really hard. I think the balance is now better in that respect. Of course this week everyone else gets to know the new prompt too!

    1. Thanks for reading! My stories always end up a little… different 😂 even when I try to play it straight!

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