On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the most innocent and unlikely of places ...
The rain beat down on the dull brown pavements outside Rufus’s flower shop as the citizens of Skid Row went about their usual monotonous day. There was a faint rumble of a thunderstorm every so often as Bill set out some flower pots on the top shelves behind the counter.
His boss, Rufus, sat at the shop window with his nose in the paper, no doubt scanning the bereavement section to find any funerals they could offer flowers to. It was often the only reason people would come to the shop, never to brighten their day or surprise a lover.
It was a dead-end job, by any standard. Skid Row was a place that never had any reason for good cheer so why anyone would spend money for plants in a place like this wasn’t something Bill could figure out. But it was how the saying went; all the jobs in Skid Row were a dead end. It's why no one ever made it out, just barely making enough to live on.
But there was one reason Bill had to be excited to come into work and said reason had just arrived ten minutes late for the second time this week.
"Sorry, Rufus! It was my dad, I had to stay and clean up the house since I forgot last night," Ted rushed out as he hurried out of the rain, quickly closing the door behind him.
His frequent lateness had become a running theme in the few months he'd been working there and he always apologised even though Rufus hadn't once been mad at him for it.
Rufus raised his eyebrow from behind his paper as Ted hung up his coat. Bill couldn't help but notice the low neckline and high-waisted cigarette pants Ted was wearing that accentuated his lithe figure and prayed that his face wasn't as hot as it felt. It's not like it was his fault Ted had a most attractive sense of style to go with his lovely dark eyes and long hair.
He willed himself to stop staring as Rufus turned his head back to his paper.
"Not as if we're run off our feet here, kid," he said. "Though you know how I feel about that dad of yours always making you late."
Bill saw Ted's shoulders hunch from the back and fought the regular urge to wrap his arms around him from behind and hold him close. There wasn't a day that went by where Bill didn't lie awake wishing he could sock Ted's dad in his jaw and pull Ted away from that awful flat across the street where he lived.
Not that it was that easy. Skid Row was a truly wretched place to live, with violent neighbours and sleazy goings-on in the night. Ted's dad, Officer Logan, was one of the main police officers that patrolled the area but it was common knowledge that he was as corrupt as the rest of the place.
Bill had never met him officially but he hated the guts of the man, especially when Ted would sometimes come into work late looking lost and scared. It sank Bill's heart every time to see someone as bright and wonderful as Ted suddenly shut down and not meet his eyes whenever his dad was brought up.
In the time he had been working in the shop, Ted had opened up to Bill about almost everything except his father. They had bonded immediately, much to Rufus's amusement. He would often cast a knowing smirk Bill’s way as Ted was spraying plant food in the back of the shop, as if he could see Bill's head turning to mush in real time as Ted talked.
Ted could talk for hours about comic books, the fact that he loved music as much as Bill did and how best to arrange lilies for the funeral of a mob boss. It was most endearing and Bill had felt the tell-tale thump of his heart from the first day Ted had come to work there.
Ted had looked at him with wide wonder-filled eyes as Bill had shown him his collection of weird, unusual plants and the record player he kept in the shop basement.
Before long, the two of them were spending their shared lunch breaks sampling new music and Bill really should've known he was a goner when he'd pulled Ted in for a dance one day, at first a joking suggestion turned breathlessly serious when he'd pulled Ted in close. He'd clasped Ted's hand in his as they did a clumsy fox-trot and Ted's thigh bumped against his hip.
For a moment, the music went quiet as Bill became aware that he was at eye-level with Ted's lips. The tension escalated as he looked up at Ted, who looked most anxious. The moment hung for a second before breaking as Rufus yelled at them from the counter to get back to work. The tension broke and all they could do was laugh nervously.
It was then that Bill realised that he had it bad for his excellent work-colleague-turned-friend. Being able to see Ted in the morning as he rushed in late, watching him arranging flowers and bushes for a new window display, dancing with him in the shop basement and catching each other’s eyes for just moments too long made Bill's existence living in this dingy street worth the trouble. Ted was a ray of sunshine in this awful place and Bill could never get tired of listening to him.
But whenever Ted's father was brought up, it was enough to make him go silent. He would absently prep his fingers between the bouquets, as if trying to look busy so he didn’t have to think about it. Bill felt there was more going on than met the eye but he didn't want to push Ted further into what already seemed like a dark place.
There was only time that Ted had let down his walls around Bill, one night when they were closing up. After much prompting from his roommate Missy, he had finally worked up the courage to ask Ted to the movies as they both went to grab their coats after closing the shutters.
Ted had lit up as he met Bill's eyes for just a moment before they glossed over and his gaze dropped to his shoes.
"I'd love to, dude, so much. But it's my dad ... I need to be home before he's home. I don't think he'd like me going out with someone."
Bill watched how Ted's arms had wrapped around himself, as if trying to make himself smaller despite his being a good few inches taller than Bill. He found he couldn't bite his tongue any more.
"He sounds like just the worst, dude! He's always making you late, he's a dickweed to everyone in town just because he's a cop and you always look most bothered about him!"
Ted had looked up at him with impossibly large eyes, as if something had gone wildly off-script in his head. He hunched forward slightly so his hair covered his face more.
"He's not really that bad ... I just mess up a lot, that's all. When I was younger, he used to talk about sending me away somewhere so I could learn to be … I don’t really know what he wants me to be. I just know he doesn’t like what I am.”
When Ted spoke again, it felt like he was looking past Bill at something only he could see.
“I feel so guilty sometimes, Bill. I feel like I’d do anything to get out of Skid Row. Go away somewhere to something better, like in the magazines.” He tore his eyes away from Bill to fumble with his coat sleeve. “But maybe I don’t deserve better.”
"Ted, you can't believe that! That's one of the most heinous things I've ever heard!" Bill exclaimed, fuming at the thought of Ted going home at the end of every day and being told he wasn't good enough, berated constantly for his dreams.
Ted gave Bill a sad smile, as if he was trying to humour him.
"It's a bit ... what's the word? Complicated? I think that's the word. I have a little brother as well and life is hard enough here as it is. If I left, it would just be Deacon and my dad. If I wasn't there, I don't know how much worse he could get."
Bill could've sworn he saw Ted's hands trembling slightly. He'd wanted to say something comforting but his brain wasn't pulling out anything useful.
If he was feeling helpless, he couldn't image how Ted must feel. It was well-known that Officer Logan had a lot of the Skid Row police department under his thumb and most knew better than to get involved with him. Anyone he had a grudge against could easily be tracked down.
As if he'd snapped out of a daze Ted blinked his eyes quickly, smiling up at Bill suddenly.
"Woah, sorry to get all heavy there man! Don't know what came over me there. Sorry if I made you worry, I'm totally fine really! There's nothing to worry about. See you tomorrow morning?"
Bill had thought of a million things he wanted to say, a lot of them messy and full of mixed feelings. Anger at Ted's dad, his heartache at how false Ted's normally lovely smile was, how much it felt like Ted was still hiding from him.
Instead, he'd heard himself say through his own forced smile, "Yeah. See you tomorrow, man. Stay safe."
And within a closing door, Ted was gone for the night.
Nothing had changed between them since then. Ted was still his usual self the next morning, apologising for being late and rushing in the back to busy himself with the peace lilies to be put up for sale in the shop window.
Which brought them to their current usual predicament; with Rufus staring out the shop window to spot potential customers, Bill at the till nearly falling asleep and Ted in the back of the shop, flower arranging.
Ted wasn't so good managing the till; he wasn't the best with numbers and got real nervous when dealing with grumpy customers. But he was excellent at arranging displays, with a great eye for colours and patterns. He really was so much more talented than people gave him credit for, Bill thought dreamily as he rested his head in his hand at the counter.
The shop was depressingly empty, even for a weekday. The rain poured outside but the dirt on the pavements didn't budge.
Rufus gave a frustrated sigh as he set down his paper.
"Another day, not a customer in sight. That finally does it. I'm packing it up."
Bill felt his hand slide out under his chin and he nearly banged his elbow, knocking him out of his daze.
"Wait, what? What do you mean, Rufus?"
"I'm sorry boys," Rufus said as he pulled down the window shutters, "I just can't afford to keep the place open. It's finished. Don't bother coming in tomorrow."
"But you can't!" Bill turned to see Ted in the back door of the shop, carrying a jug of plant food.
"Rufus, we need to keep the place open! I don't know if I can find another job ... and I enjoy being here. It's the best part of my day."
Maybe Bill was imagining it but he could have sworn he saw Ted's eyes flicker over to him as he said that. Rufus seemed to catch it as well and his face fell sympathetically.
"Look boys, I don't want to close it either. But we're just not making any money. No one's been in here for a big order in weeks. It's time to pack it in."
Bill could feel the hurt showing on his face as he looked over at Ted. Sure, the job wasn't that great but it was his only way of seeing Ted every day. He'd gotten so used to it; he suddenly felt a clutch at his heart at the thought of no longer seeing Ted's smile every morning.
“Oh, wait!” Ted grabbed Bill’s hand and pulled him over to Rufus. “I remember! Bill, why don’t you show him that strange and interesting plant you found last week?”
Bill took a moment to let his head catch up with his feelings and then immediately ran down to the basement. “Oh yeah! Good thinking, Ted! Wait till you see this, Rufus!”
“I thought of an idea a while ago, Rufus,” Ted exclaimed while Bill rattled around in the basement.
“Bill showed me a super unusual plant he found last week and I thought, it’s so interesting! I don’t know what it is and I think, if we put it in the shop window, it might help attract people who also don’t know what it is!”
Bill emerged from the basement, both hands wrapped around a decently sized pot. Rufus’s eyes widened as he set it down on the counter.
“Well… it’s definitely weird-looking,” Rufus said. “Where the heck did you find a thing like that?”
“Well …” Bill said. “You remember that total eclipse of the sun about a week ago?”
Both Rufus and Ted looked back at him with blank expressions.
“Guess not. Well, I was at the market last week when something weird happened. It’s on the way back from me and Missy’s place. There’s this old dude there who often sells me weird and exotic plants, if he can find them.
“He often puts them away for me in case I come wandering round. So, I was looking around and he didn’t seem to have much. When suddenly there was this weird kind of eclipse and the whole street went dark just for a minute.
“I swear, I saw something like a green flash for just a moment and then everything was back to normal. Next thing I know, there was this weird plant just sitting there on the table. It kinda looked like it was glowing or something. I asked the guy, who said he hadn’t seen it before but it was on the table so he’d sell it to me. So, I’ve had it here in the store since.”
Rufus looked utterly puzzled and Bill didn’t blame him. It was a pretty weird story and neither he nor Ted had ever come across a plant like this before. Similar to a Venus flytrap but with a large, bulbous head and leaves framing its neck.
“I called it Ted 2, or Teddy.”
“After me?” Ted’s lovely eyes were practically sparkling. Bill could feel he probably had the dopiest grin on his own face.
“Yeah, after you.” Bill said, as he set the plant down in the shop window.
“Well, it’s definitely unusual but I really don’t think the whole street's going to turn out just because you stick something weird in the wind-“ Rufus was interrupted as the bell of the door rung and a well-dressed man stepped into the shop.
“Hello, there! I was just passing by and noticed that strange and interesting plant you have in the window! Wherever did you get it?”
The three of them stood there stunned for a minute, before Ted suddenly put on his most energetic customer face.
“It was my excellent friend Bill here who found it! It’s a most interesting story. Bill, tell him!”
“..Huh? Oh, right!” Bill said, snapping back to reality.
“I certainly enjoy an interesting story!” the strange man exclaimed. “And while I’m here, I might as well pick up a rose bouquet. Can you do me fifty?”
“Fifty?!” Rufus looked struck dumb as Ted squealed in delight, immediately rushing into the back to put together a huge rose bouquet. Rufus also sprang into action, ushering the man up to the till. Bill glanced out the display window and saw several other people beginning to gather.
It turned out Ted’s great idea had worked, Bill smiled. He was most certainly more talented than people gave him credit for. He turned back to the guy fishing about for his wallet, still waiting on the story eagerly.
“So, you remember that total eclipse of the sun about a week ago?”
The day ended up being the busiest they’d had in months. With everyone coming in to get a glimpse of Bill’s new discovery, the whole place had been bought out in a few hours. It actually felt like they were running a real shop; Rufus ordering more stock on the phone, Bill coping on the till as Ted passed out arrangements of vibrant colours and potted bushes, wishing every customer a good day as they left.
It was the first time in a long time Bill felt some genuine joy in the air and he couldn’t help noticing the beautiful flush on Ted’s face as he ran back and forth. By the end of the day, the shop had been cleared out and the till was overflowing.
“That was great, you two!” Rufus gleefully exclaimed as he turned the CLOSED sign on the door. “Best day of business we’ve had in months! We might even have made profits!”
Ted jumped in excitement and wrapped his arms around Bill. Bill (too swept up to think) hugged him back, trying his best to ignore Rufus’s sly grin.
“Tonight, we’re celebrating! I’m taking you two out for dinner!”
“Ah…” Ted untangled himself from Bill, his previous mirth draining. “I’m sorry, Rufus. I can’t tonight. My dad’s not working late tonight and he expects me to be home …”
Rufus pulled a resigned expression, clapping Ted on the shoulder.
“That’s fine, Ted. But you know you can always come to us if something’s wrong, right?”
Bill recognised the same smile Ted had given him last night being given to Rufus now and fought back the urge to hold him close again. No matter what his own feelings were, Ted wasn’t in a position for that kind of relationship and Bill grimly resolved to respect that, even if he resented that it wasn’t entirely Ted’s choice.
“Thanks Rufus. I should probably head home now. See you both tomorrow!” With an extra squeeze at Bill’s hand before he got his coat, Ted exited into the dark, dingy streets.
Bill sighed and walked over to lift Ted 2 out of the shop window display. To his surprise, he noticed the plant had drooped since the morning and moulted leaves surrounded the pot.
“What’s wrong with our latest attraction?” Rufus said as he counted through the till.
“I’m not sure, really,” Bill said. “It’s been alright for the past few days but in the last few hours, it’s not been so well. I don’t think Ted 2 is the healthiest little dude right now.”
Rufus sighed as he grabbed his coat. “Strictly between us, I don’t think the original is either. I know I’d be hauled down to the slammer just for trying but sometimes I really want to just give that Officer Logan a right talking-to.”
“You’re not the only one,” Bill muttered darkly, turning away to set the plant on the counter. “Dinner tonight sounds great Rufus but I think I’m gonna just stick around and see if I can get Teddy here growing again. If business keeps up like this, it could really turn things around round here.”
“No complaints here!” Rufus laughed as he tossed Bill the keys. “Just remember to lock up when you’re done. Oh, and Bill?”
“Just … keep an eye on Ted. I know how much you care. Keep him right, you know?”
Bill smiled sadly as Rufus left through the shop door.
“Sure thing, Rufus.”
Bill slumped himself down on the spare camper bed in the basement. Despite having lived with Missy for a few years, he sometimes would stay overnight at work when his shift ran late or he just didn't feel like making the trek back across Skid Row late at night.
He put Ted 2 down across from him on a stool.
He'd had the plant down here in his collection for a full week. At first it had been content with water and fertilizer but in the last few hours, it had wilted rapidly.
He had tried everything he could think of and his frustration was mounting.
"What is it you want, huh?" he asked it. "I've tried all the different plant foods and treatments I can think of. I even tried singing to you!"
He turned his back away as he began to unpack the rose bushes from their boxes, still talking more to himself than the plant.
"I mean, what is it you want from me? Maybe I can look it up and- ouch!"
Blood blossomed from the tip of his finger as he snagged it on a rose thorn. His own fault for not wearing gloves, he supposed. He went to find a cloth to wipe it on, when he caught movement out of the corner of his eye.
It moved. The plant had moved. And what’s more, it moved in the direction of his finger, making a strange sucking sound. Almost as if it could smell the blood dribbling down his finger. Bill had worked in the shop for a while and knew some plants needed rather odd special care. However, a plant that was apparently lusting after the blood on his hand was a first.
“Is – Is this it? Is this what you want?”
He held up his bloody finger gingerly over the plant, letting a few drops fall in. Amazingly the flytrap opened and closed as the blood dropped from above, almost like a mouth.
After a few minutes, Ted 2 seemed sated. Bill was most perplexed by this oddness but quite a few strange things had happened with this plant already and he was beginning to accept it.
“Well, I just hope it helps you grow. If this place starts doing well, we might get some actual money behind us. Enough to get out of this place.” Enough to get Ted out of this place, he added in his head.
Trying not to think too hard about Ted just a few steps across the street away, he decided to crash in the shop for the night and resolved to check on the plant in the morning.
After all it’s not like things could get stranger, right?