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"I've never seen cactus flowers, never even knew they flowered, hardly ever ventured into the desert," Elias said. He gazed at the varieties of cacti and succulents that lined the gravel road. Carter, his host, power slid the sleek red convertible through a turn. It wasn't yet eight AM and the temperature was near one hundred degrees.
In the middle of nowhere, he turned on a dirt road and drove into a playa. In the middle was an old wagon wheel with an emaciated and naked man strapped to it spread-eagled. Elias smiled. The wheel reminded him of a rotisserie in the desert's solar oven. The man's skin was brown, desiccated, weatherbeaten. his bones protruded under the skin. The bleached white skull of a cow rested at the base of the device. Carter replaced a bottle of tanning oil that dripped from the man's body.
"Elias meet Scott. He's becoming a talking rawboned frieze for a haunted trail this Halloween." Carter felt Scott's chest. His skin flexed like leather. "You're progressing well. How was last night?" Carter asked. The man looked directly at Elias through milky white corneas. Elias was amazed that he could still see.
"Nothing unusual. A coyote sniffed around and ate the pocket mice that were running over me. I don't fear varmints and other critters. Hell, a few nibbles might add veracity to me, right?"
"I never imagined this," Elias said, surprised that the man could still talk as fluently as he did.
"You're asking yourself, how did that man come to the desert?" Scott's leathery jowls flexed, making an effort to smile. Elias stayed silent, puzzled. Scott wanted him to guess but Elias had no way of knowing. Finally, Scott explained. "War and back-biting in Antartica. I spent three years stationed in a Jamesway Hut in the Antarctic. Three years it never rose above cold as ice, downright hyperborean. I haven't been warm since."
"The Antarctic is colder than the northlands. The weather bureau says the temperature is going to reach one-thirty-five today. You think that's hot enough?"
"I never feel warm. That's my gig. What's your gig?" Scott's voice sounded dry and brittle, but he did wink, his stretched skin more animated than Elias considered possible.
"Me?" Elias stuttered. The question felt surreal. It took Elias a few seconds to compose his answer. "I'm a contortionist. I squeeze into tight spaces and jump out to scare people. Carter wants me to be a talking table."
"No kidding, a talking table. Nothing like a talking table to be the center of attraction at a dinner party, eh Carter?" He lay back against the stone, jaw agape and laughed; a suitable figure to scare anyone at Halloween.
"I like to call my art a conversation starter," Elias smiled and winked at the man.
"You can talk after getting into your table," Carter said, putting a hand on Elias's shoulder, massaging it. Elias pushed the hand away. It felt creepy. He wasn't here for Carter to touch. No touching was a rule.
They drove another mile in silence. An expansive desert house with a broad flat roof, large open rooms, glass walls appeared over the top of a hill. On one side, it had a patio filled with limestone sculptures and the other side a swimming pool flanked with agave.
"This is your house?" Elias asked, looking at the red sandstone buttes and brown sands surrounding them.
"I only keep the city apartment for business. I grow agave and create statues for the rich and famous. The market is begging for statues. In a few years, agave plants will be the big new thing. This party is advertising for my business."
"I never thought of a cactus as art."
"Succulents, young man, succulents." Carter slipped behind Elias and closed a metal shackle on one of Elias's wrists. Elias jumped, surprised, not realizing that this was the start of his confinement. He sighed, held out his other hand and let Carter close the manacles.
"You don't waste time." Elias tugged at the manacles.
"I like to be in control."
"My father said beware of men with bonny eyes and yours sparkled more than most. I didn't expect bondage."
"Don't overthink this. You get in a box and talk Proust or Shakespeare or Quantum Mechanics, whatever my guests wish and that's all there is to it."
"I thought I could get out and walk around for little while."
"Not in front of the guests. The night will pass fast enough without you worrying about some conspiracy theory. I've heard that song before: I'm a country boy, lost my dog, lost my rent, lost my truck, lost my mind. Don't be such a downer. You either let circumstances control your life or seize the reins and own it. YOLO, isn't it? Make a decision this moment," Carter said.
"Sorry, only my nerves. I'll relax in a moment."
"Let's get this show on the road," Carter said, pointing Elias to the patio doors. Outside, he cut Elias' t-shirt and jeans from his body. Elias stayed silent but resented the manhandling. Naked and feeling self-conscious, Elias sat on the teakwood base. Four metal all-thread posts rose from the corners.
"Scrunch up, please," Carter said. Elias obeyed as the man bolted his ankles to the two front posts and bent his feet inside the square. He then bolted Carter's elbows to the back posts. It was small but not too small. Elias could make his body fit in smaller boxes. This table was roomy once Carter fastened the teak sides into place and bolted them together. The thick wood barely touched his body. He shivered, visibly.
"How does that feel?" Carter asked.
"Boxy," Elias said, embarrassed. He swallowed his pride. He'd been sealed inside boxes for longer times than this and he'd not been apprehensive.
"This is the top of the planter," Carter said. He took two halves of a teakwood top and placed them on either side of Carter's neck. The pieces bolted to the sides of the box. Only Elias's head poked remained visible.
It had an industrial, a metal and wood look--silver hardware on dark teak. Elias tried to look around, but the wood box prevented it. Carter tightened the bolts and the pedestal shrank, pushing Elias's shoulders down and his arms and legs tight against his body. Elias tried moving a second time but couldn't do more than talk, head straight forward.
"I've been told that this table was a good buy, like a Chatty Cathy doll or a new talking Elmo," Carter said, messing with Elias' mind. Elias' eyes darted around the room.
"All this metal makes me feel like a pot-bound African Violet in some the little old ladies house, waiting for a kitty cat to knock me off the shelf. I'm not comfortable," he said.
Carter laughed and patted Elias' cheek to calm him.
"More overthinking turning into the perversity of man; You're going to be the center of attraction for a night."
Elias remembered his failsafe. His buddy would come out with the police and get him released tomorrow. He took a deep breath and regained control of his panicky thoughts.
"Sorry, I lost it for a moment. Don't know why. It was silly of me," he said.
"I'm not going to harm you." Carter looked to his right. It was Noon. "I need to check on Scott. He's due for another bottle. Want to tag along?"
"Like this?" Elias swiveled his head as much as he could.
"A change of scene will relax you."
"Don't have much choice, do I?" Elias said, half-heartedly.
Carter added wheels to Elias's box and rolled him out of the house and onto the lift-gate of a small truck. He secured him on the truck bed.
The ride mellowed Elias' feelings. He felt foolish for his panic attack. Seeing another person was a wise move and would relax him, even if that person was a skeleton. Carter parked the truck tailgate towards Scott, rolled Elias off the lift gate, and over the sand to where Scott lay. The man was baking in the sun like a slab of meat being roasted in a solar oven. He looked skeletal.
Carter brushed tanning oil on Scott's leathery skin like he was basting a turkey. When he finished, he opened a beach umbrella and sat under it.
Scott's burned out eyes rotated and directed his strange gaze on Elias's head.
"Hot enough for you?" Elias asked.
"You did it. You look adorable."
"You remind me of those cow skeletons on the roadside, dark brown leathery skin over bleached white bones."
"Fair enough. I want my bones white as chalk, my body wizened, my skin like parchment. For that, I need to be hot, hot, hot in the desert sun. No more snow or ice," Scott said.
"Isn't that reckless and immoderate?"
"No way! Look kid, I'm going to be scaring people come Halloween. They'll only see a cadaverous skeleton, withered and haggard, scaring the patrons of Carter's Halloween Fun House. I bake so tomorrow I be glorious. It is more like a pilgrimage to the temples of fear and not an entertainment."
"I'm play-acting a table, no acting involved."
"No acting? How can you say that? Acting is always a mission. Even heretics have purpose. Put your heart into it, man. Be not afraid of what you can be. One of us will be ashen and deathlike, the other talkative and witty. Own what you are. Become what you are." He paused, waiting for a reply, receiving none, he changed the subject. "Enough about me, tell me about yourself. Are you truly interested in taking the road less traveled or interesting in merely Money? Consider this our private truth or dare?"
"No secret, I started in middle school. I used to twist myself into impossible positions, hide in a locker, and scare the teachers. In high school, I ran away to clown school, worked the circuses, took acting parts in a couple monster movies, and was laid off in the recession. I'm back at college to get the education I neglected."
Sweat covered his face and ran into his eyes.
"Hey Carter, you want roasted agave-boy in that box? Water your plant or you going to fry him like an egg."
"I only have one bottle of water but lots of agave extract mixed with sand, destined to become face and hand creams," Carter said.
"Hand Creme? Unless you want a table with babbling from sunstroke at your party, cool me down." Elias smacked dry lips.
"I'll get it."
Carter fished a tube behind his neck, and the wet sand dribbled inside the box. He put a straw in the bottle of water, and Elias drank.
"You acted more, as I recall, porn, wasn't it? I recognized you. My buddies and I stayed warm in the Antarctic with your movies. We all knew what side our the bread was buttered, and we buttered each other to keep warm. You opened a few right-proper orifices and took it deep, as I recall," Scott said. Elias couldn't hide with only his head sticking out of a box.
"I won't deny it. I had to eat," Elias grumbled. His anger made him relax, and his body felt soft, squishy, less cramped. The gooey liquid crept up his body.
"Talking tables aren't as lucrative as making porn, right?" the question directed right at Elias' conceits. Both men knew the answer. Porn stole the soul first and the body second. He changed the subject now that he had the upper hand in the conversation. "How's that goop Carter pouring over you feel?"
"It's prickly like a cactus," Elias giggled, "and it's sticky like molasses." He wiggled to distribute it. There wasn't much else he could do. When the liquid filled the box, it would drip out the bottom, and when it did, Carter would take him back to the house.
"You still hot?" Scott asked.
"Don't feel the heat like I did. Let's me focus on staying in control," Elias said. He didn't want the discussion to return to his past choice of careers. He shivered as the level of sand and crushed agave frond goop rose past his armpits.
"All of this reminds me of that infernal nonsense Pinafore," Scott said out of the clear blue.
"You can be Dick Deadeye." He leaned his head back to see the sun.
Carter moved behind him. He knew the man had something else that he couldn't see it.
"My psychic abilities predict another surprise for you," Elias said. The three men laughed.
"No surprise, I'm creating a headrest," Carter said, placing green, spiky fronds from the heart of an agave around the back of Elias's neck. The sticky end of the agave fronds gripped his neck and formed a headrest.
As the sun moved across the sky, the rays eventually hit Elias's face. Carter didn't wait a reply. Instead, he made Elias comfortable.
"Sun still bothering you?"
"No, it feels good," Elias said.
Carter picked a dozen smaller agave fronds from the truck and set them front of Elias's neck and face. Elias didn't mind the stickiness and the needles poking around his face, but they blocked his vision, and he could only see slivers of the sun.
"Aw, you're blocking the sun," he said, craning his head back as far as possible to see the sun. The fronds stuck tight to his face and neck.
"Only takes an hour or two in this sunlight," Carter said to Scott as he rotated Elias to see the sun.
Elias moved his head to see more, but the agave fronds moved as if they were part of him. He felt the hot, desert breeze blow across the fronds.
"I feel more like an African Violet than a side table, funky and gritty," he said.
Scott and Carter burst into laughter.
"That's not a box you're in; it's a planter. You're my new prize-winning agave."
"You can't be serious," Elias said.
"You've become one with the sun and sand. A new seeker in the unconscious life of plants, of trees, a life more different, as Proust said.Tomorrow, you won't think about anything but the sun shining down on you all day," Scott said.
"Stop. Release me."
"I don't think that would be wise. Those newly formed roots growing out of your body can't live outside sand and soil." Carter said.
"I don't have roots," Elias said.
"Of course you do. They are thin, wispy, white roots that will grip the sand and suck in nourishment from the ground. That tingling feeling you feel is your flesh and bone turning to roots. By tomorrow, the changes will consume your body." Carter said.
"But I didn't agree to that," Elias stammered.
"You signed a contract and didn't read the fine print. Once inside the box, I can do what I want with you for twenty-four hours. As I said before, by tomorrow, no one will recognize you as an agave not even your buddy," he paused to take a drink. "Oh yes, I know all about your best buddy."
Scott snorted. "Agave-boy will be a beautiful, prize-winning succulent, the crown jewel of our new garden." He turned to Elias. "You did well. Tomorrow he will transplant you and tend you until you bloom."
"My customers wanted a different and unique variety of agave. This new world walks upside-down, the blind lead and their followers fall into the abyss, their bird-like chattering children leave before they are ready, jackasses play harps and steers dance. The world is my oyster, and I will sup until gorged on living flesh. I have three more succulents waiting, a yucca, a crimson hedgehog, and a velvet mesquite," Carter said.
The next morning Elias's friend and two policemen did visit Carter's house. They found no trace of Elias. They saw the hybrid succulents in the main garden, and they laughed at the Halloween display -- a sun-bleached skeleton of an old cowboy dead of dehydration surrounded by rocks and artificial pumpkins. The police and Elias' friend left. They never noticed that the skeleton saluted their backs with its bony middle finger.
Two years later, Elias bloomed and produced seeds. Carter sold the seeds as Millennial Agaves. His hybridization experiments were a success.
1500 words more or less
FUTURES YET UNKNOWN
Ten Stories by Dave Fragments
*An Alien serial murderer and a furry detective with fleas.
*Murder on a world with altered humans.
*Disturbing apocalyptic visions *Monstrous dystopian societies.
*A man on trial for betraying the human race to robots.
*Devils, demons and ghosts.
*Survivors of a plague war.
*Cyborgs trying to be human.
*Six friends in a strange sinkhole.
*The truth about a world drowning in rain, without sun, without hope.
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