Chapter 5:

A Vision; a Paean

City of Flowers

"Alright, Georgie. Talk to me."

"Iris, I don't really see—"

"Try it. Talk to me. Tell me facts about yourself, or your deepest, darkest secrets."

Georgie sighs. "My mama's getting a raise, my brother's trying to break into the high corporate scene, and my assignments are due next week on Tuesday. What am I thinking of?"

Iris clutches her phone. Memories of Georgie’s room—patchwork duvets, a toy moulded from baked clay, a desk overflowing with filled notebooks and grubby reconstructions of strange, miniature houses. A woman with bright, red hair hobbles into the room. She is crying.

“It doesn’t work like that, Georgie,” Iris says, suddenly guilty about her newest invention. “I can’t tell what you’re thinking, it just tells me…things. Things that I’m not supposed to know.”

Georgie does not look convinced. “Like?”

A sigh—Iris runs her fingers through her hair. "It shows me an image. Sometimes it's related to what you're saying, sometimes it isn't at all. I just know that I'm not supposed to be able to see it."

"And what exactly did you see in this elusive "it"?"

Another sigh. "Fine. Your room. I saw your room."

"My room?"

When Iris doesn't respond, Georgie realises that she is not joking. She splutters out an incredulous laugh and asks again: "My room?"

“Notebooks and all.”

"I don't keep notebooks. I haven't kept them since eighth grade."

Iris presses her lips together. "I don't think it was in the present."

"And you didn't see anyone else?"

Silence. Then, Iris says, "I saw your mother. She was crying."

Something flickers for a moment in Georgie's eyes, then flickers out. "I wish you didn't mess around with that… stuff, Iris," she says. "I really wish you didn't."

"Shh." Panic flutters through Iris' veins, and her nerves tense up, turn iron hard. "It's the one thing I'm good at."

"You shouldn't be happy about being good at doing illegal things."

"As long as I keep quiet about it and stick to the usual security protocols, I'm gonna be fine."

But the conversation is unsalvageable. Georgie gets up and brushes down her skirt—she is wearing an orange knitted a-line with a woolly filigree hem—before she says, almost coldly, "It's not good to be on the wrong side of the law, Iris. It's not cool, it's not quirky, it's not artsy. It's just dangerous, and it's not going to help you with your interviews. You should get rid of it."

"Wait, Georgie," Iris manages to blurt out as Georgie begins to turn away from their table. To her pleasant surprise, she actually stops. "I'm going to go see the Blumen tomorrow, maybe take some notes from the employees, you know? They might like my blueprints, or they might have something to say. I was wondering if—"

"No. Absolutely not."

When she walks away from the table, her footsteps are so quiet that Iris can hardly hear them. She surmises that her friend's sneakers are beginning to wear away at the soles.

She also surmises that her friend might be more adjusted than she had once thought.

A machine—slick, made of matte plastic, and roundish—scuttles up towards Iris. She places her phone into its mouth, where it hums gently and says “Identification verified. Please remove your phone.”

The nearest Blumen institution from Iris' uni campus is hardly close at all; it is three bus rides across several blocks and a kilometre's walk away. The building itself resembles a slab of concrete: uncarved, untouched. Black stains dribble down its walls. This is what happens to unmaintained concrete. It spoils.

The hallways are painfully bright, lit up only by a fluorescent light that persists in shades of orange through Iris' eyelids. The ceiling is fading, old—but the corners are clean of cobwebs. Spiders are liabilities in any Blumen institute, because most of them are small and can easily slip through any crack. And anything with blood and muscle is a liability.

It’s why Iris—and the four other visitors—must only observe the Blumen through the glass. It is thick, reinforced glass, the kind that splits Iris’ reflection into two. The first display room is empty, dark. In the soupy blackness is the occasional shuffle of leaves against leaves, and in the corner, Iris can see a tall, hulking figure. Following closer inspection, she discovers that it is a simple, thick-trunked tree.

She drags her line of sight away from the windows. She is not here today for the Blumen.

There is one employee manning the institution, and he looks as if he is ready to go home. Iris marks him as the perfect target right as he is checking his wristwatch for the tenth time in a minute. She taps him on the shoulder to grab his attention. When that doesn’t work, she says, “Excuse me!”

“State your business,” he says, and nothing more.

All of a sudden, this seems like a terrible idea. Sweat beads on her back; her hands tingle, then become moist. “I’m a second year architecture student looking into the specifics of Blumen institutes. I was wondering if you have some time to answer some que—”

The man looks at Iris as if she is a tattered tongue begging for scraps. “No. I don’t have the time.”

Iris clenches her hand around her phone, and visions of a warm dinner and a candlelit table surge through her head. A woman reclines in a leather seat, her slippered feet resting on an ottoman. Her phone plays a solemn tune; it is a track that falls somewhere between a ballad and jazz, between melody and dissonance.

“Ok, sorry.” Iris puts up her hands. “I guess your shift’s almost over, huh? Shouldnt’ve bothered you. Again—sorry! I’ll ask the next… guy…”

The employee does not even spare Iris a second glance as he hangs up his fluorescent coat and tosses his keys onto the table. By now, the other visitors have already wandered into the next room, their interest already having drifted from the sole display in the room.

The display is brightly lit, but occasionally, the light fails and flickers into darkness. At first Iris cannot see what lies amidst the fronds and grass, but then she sees a leaf brush against another, as if affected by a slight breeze.

There is no wind in these displays. The environments have been handcrafted to appear forest-like, but they are closer to isolation cells than forests.

She watches with rapt attention, steps closer. From the ages of four to sixteen, every child in New England is taken to the nearest Blumen centre annually during school. She has seen Blumen before, has been told to refrain from pressing her face against the glass and to step behind the yellow line.

Today, there is no teacher to reprimand her.

Iris places her hands against the glass.

The surface is warm, as if somebody else’s, something else’s, hands have also been there, pressed against that very same glass.

And the leaves—they shudder again. They expand, contract; Iris recognises it as breathing. It is magical, almost human even.

The door next to the entrance clicks, and a second employee arrives. Her hair has been bunched into a low bun, and beneath her eyeshadow lies the faintest imprint of two black circles. They make eye contact briefly, and then the woman nods towards the yellow line.

Iris steps back, sheepish. When she looks back into the display, the plants have gone completely still.

"That one doesn't like to move often," the new employee says. "Bit of a recluse, honestly."

"It was moving a second ago." Iris squints and squints into the display again, but she cannot separate plant from Blumen, leaf from limb.

The employee raises her eyebrows and makes a "hmm!" sound at the back of her throat.

"Is it shy?" Iris asks.

"Won't eat anything if someone's watching. Gotta clear out after we chuck the meat in there, otherwise it'll probably starve to death." She lowers her voice, as if the plants might understand her if she speaks too loudly, or too clearly. "It'd be better if it did. But they don't want that."

"I see…"

The worker opens a thin door next to the desk, revealing several vertically stacked racks of raw meat. She tosses several slabs into a bucket. "It seems to like you. Wanna try feeding it?" She snaps a pair of plastic tongs in Iris' direction.

"Sure. Why not?"

Iris has seen the workers feed the Blumen many times; it occurs at least once every school visit, perhaps even more if a child is brave enough to ask for a more “hands-on” approach. Iris has never been one of these children, but she supposes that she could start today.

With the prongs, she picks up a cut of meat from the bucket and places it gently into a chute above the glass window. The portion lands, kicks up the detritus.

Iris waits.

There is no movement.

"Ah, well." The worker shrugs. "Was worth a shot, eh?"

"I wonder why it's so shy," Iris says.

The worker picks up her tools and heads for the next room. "Dunno. They don't exactly come prepackaged with a functioning backstory. Don't even know if they're capable of that. Feeling and remembering things, I mean. The alternative is that everything they do is biological, which is a whole lot easier to argue than… that."

"They have to." Iris watches the display. "They have personalities. They all act differently."

A bark of laughter. The worker swings open the door to the next room. "Aw, well. That's a whole 'nother can of worms you're trying to open. I'll leave you to ponder that."

The door shuts. It is only when Iris glances towards the display again that she realises she has forgotten to ask the employee about her design proposition.

She swallows. "What's your story?" she asks seemingly nobody at all. "What's happened to you?"

A twig twitches, like a bony arm on a malnourished beggar. Iris is flinching backwards before she even realises that something in the display has moved. Her breath hitches, her hand flies to rest on her phone—

A creeping fungus, its body pale white like water-logged skin. From its orifices: ruby red acid that will singe her to the bone if she touches it—Iris does not know how she knows, because she has never seen such a specimen in her life. It covers the walls, the trees, the world, the ceilings, like kilometres of hot pressed plastic film.

Then the vision shifts to a field of grey grass and grey skies. The air is thick enough to rest on her skin, and an ethereal, muted glow presses through the clouds. When she takes a step forward her boots crunch against the grass, and then she realises that the field is not entirely natural but is instead a stretching landfill of manmade scraps, and that the sky is not clouded over but is instead low and hanging; smoke and ash. Her heel snags on a hook of white metal. She rips her sole open as she frees it.

Iris hunches downwards to attempt to fix what is left of her boot. It is there that she catches the horizon—or at least what is left of it—in the corner of her eye.

The glow had not been the sun.

At the end of the world, an orange explosion blooms.

Iris draws back from the display, trembling. She dares not blink, because if she were to close her eyes for even a millisecond she would see those flesh-wrought mushrooms again in her mind’s eye. By the time she has regained control of her breathing, she realises that her nails are digging through her cardigan and into her arm. Blood spots her cardigan when she removes her hand. In the middle of all of this, she has somehow ended up crouching on the floor.

She stands, her face flushing. How long has she been on the floor? She takes out her phone, glares at the dismissive error message on her screen:



and she realises that whoever’s head she has jumped into this time belongs to a truly tortured individual, or perhaps to someone who watches war films in their spare time.

But the vision had been so real, so tangible. Realer than any silver screen rendition. But Iris also knows that no one has fought a war in a thousand years, and no matter how realistic her vision had been, it simply had not happened. It could not have happened, could not have existed in anyone’s immediate memory in the Age of Metal.

Her eyes catch movement in the display again; a rustle, like thousands of motes of sand shuffling around in a glass jar. When she confirms that it is not her reflection on the glass, she wanders closer.

In the display, a blue rose snakes through the overgrowth.

The rose hovers above the meat, and its petals flutter like a bird ruffling its plume. Parts of its stem have been singed away, and there are bright red stains flecking over its leaves.

"Oh," Iris breathes. "The memory—it was from…?"

It bobs, as if surveying the freshness of Iris' offering, then it sinks its petals into the meat and drags it into the bushes.

“No—it couldn’t…?”

It is a trained sort of violence, one of a soldier's, not a predator's.

And though she has been fighting it, she sees the cloud of smoke and ash and fire and gas bloom once more. Something on the horizon, something like a war. She draws away from the display once more, frightened by the vision, by the revelation.

Iris leaves the institution without saying goodbye to neither the Blumen nor the worker.