FLORA AND FAUNA
Anna Gallis sat behind the counter of her flower shop, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and watched a middle-aged woman pawing the roses hanging on the far wall. The oils on the woman’s fingers seeped into the thin, red petals, upsetting the delicate balance of chemicals within the flowers. Anna reached her mind out to the plant, moving up the stem and finding….
“Ow!” the woman cried, popping a finger into her mouth. “Goddamn thorn.”
Anna smiled and stared down at the counter as the woman approached. Drumming her fingers on the glass, the woman looked past Anna at the board mounted on the wall outlining prices and options.
“I’m looking for a ‘Get Well’ bouquet,” the woman said. “My niece is in the hospital and I’m on my way to visit. What would you recommend?”
“Aloe vera is believed to have healing properties,” Anna replied.
She grabbed a seed from behind the counter and pressed into it with her mind. The thick, cactus-like leaves sprouted spontaneously, twining around each other in her hand and expanding into the shape of a bouquet. A spike grew up through the centre of the bouquet and bloomed dozens of tubular, yellow flowers.
“That was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen,” the woman muttered, staring aghast at the bouquet.
Anna shrugged and placed the aloe in a vase on the counter.
“Sunflowers are a common choice for Get Well bouquets,” she said.
“Why didn’t you just say so?” the woman snapped. “Just give me that.”
Anna grabbed more seeds and produced half a dozen sunflowers interspersed with sprigs of goldenrod. The woman paid and left the shop without saying another word. Anna sighed and stroked the aloe leaves, listening to the fluid pumping through them like blood.
“Are you always that rude to your customers?” another woman asked, standing by the door.
“Only the ones who upset the plants,” Anna replied.
The woman stepped closer. She was younger than Anna – maybe mid-twenties – and professionally dressed with long blonde hair in a ponytail.
“Plants have feelings?” the woman asked.
“Of course,” Anna said. “Feelings, like all biology, are just a series of chemical reactions to external stimuli.”
“True,” the woman said, “but don’t you need a brain to process all that?”
“She didn’t,” Anna replied, jabbing her thumb toward the door.
The woman laughed. “I like you,” she said. “What are you doing Sunday?”
“Are you… asking me out?” Anna asked. “Because I don’t—”
“No, no, I’m actually engaged,” the woman said, holding up a finger with a diamond ring on it. “The wedding’s on Sunday, you see, and my florist just totally bailed on me at the last minute. I know it’s seriously short notice, but is there any way you could help me out?”
“I don’t know,” Anna said. “A wedding’s a lot of work. The planning alone….”
“My old florist left detailed notes,” the woman said. “All you’d have to do is pick up where she left off.”
Anna sighed, stroked the Aloe vera one more time, and said, “Fine, let me see these notes.”
“You won’t regret this!” the woman said, digging into her purse and handing Anna several sheets of loose leaf. “It’s all here. The chapel layout, the flower types, the arrangements, everything. You can follow these to the letter or you can tweak it completely, whichever’s easiest on you. At this point I think I’d be happy with anything.”
The woman took a deep breath and leaned against the counter.
“I’m Amy, by the way,” she added.
Anna closed up shop at five and headed out, skimming over the notes she’d received from Amy. The previous florist’s plan was strictly by the book, nothing too complicated for someone like Anna, but still… she wondered what, exactly, she was getting herself into. She usually avoided working events, preferring instead to stick with retail.
She passed by Victorious Park on her way home and decided to take a walk through. She felt at peace here, like she was a part of something grander than herself. All the extraneous noise in her mind filtered out among the countless plants surrounding her, swallowing her up as she headed deeper and deeper into the woods.
She stopped in front of the centerpiece of the park: a Western red cedar from the early twentieth century. Just standing here, she could feel the decades of history emanating from within the massive tree, like an old man mumbling in his sleep about the good old days. She placed her hand on the rough red bark and closed her eyes.
“What are you doing?” a voice said behind her.
She glanced back over her shoulder; a tall, Asian man stood on the trail next to a large, black German Shepherd.
“Having a private conversation,” Anna replied, and turned back to the tree. “You mind?”
Footsteps approached behind her and the man placed his hand on the tree, several inches from her own.
“I don’t hear anything,” he said.
“Why would you?” she asked, pulling her hand away.
“I don’t know, I just…” he said, trailing off. “You’re very strange, you know that?”
“That’s what people keep telling me,” she said dryly.
She resisted the urge to back away as the dog padded over to the man and sat by his side again.
“What’s the tree saying, anyway?” the man asked, withdrawing his hand and dusting bark from his palm.
“Nothing,” she replied. “It’s… more of a feeling.”
She reached out and touched the tree again.
“Right now, it’s mostly upset about the environment,” she said, closing her eyes. “The winters are warmer than they used to be but the air is dirtier, the soil lacks richness. The tree is unable to adapt.”
“Sounds like my grandmother,” the man said, smiling.
Anna suppressed a chuckle and looked away, removing her hand from the tree. The man stepped forward and extended his hand toward her.
“I’m Lian,” he said.
“Anna,” she replied, and reached toward him.
The dog growled, and Anna pulled away.
“Don’t be rude, Riot,” Lian said to the dog, patting it on the head.
The dog looked up and Anna could have sworn she saw it roll its eyes at him.
“I’m sorry,” Lian said. “She’s very protective.”
“It’s okay,” Anna said, nervously meeting the dog’s glare.
“Do you live around here?” Lian asked.
“Yeah,” Anna replied.
“Me too,” he said. “I just moved out to this part of the city recently. Much nicer than living downtown. This park is great for dogs.”
“Uh huh,” Anna said, and glanced up the trail. “I should go.”
“Oh, of course,” Lian said. “It was nice meeting you, Anna. Hopefully we’ll run into each other again sometime.”
Anna shrugged and said, “Bye.”
“Good night,” he said.
She turned and headed down the path. Behind her, she heard Lian talking quietly and the dog barking. She forced herself not to look back. She rounded a bend in the trail before she finally exhaled.
Anna spent Sunday morning in the chapel, planting seeds in precise positions according to the previous florist’s arrangements. When everything was in place, she poked her head out into the foyer and beckoned to Amy.
“Do you want to watch?” Anna asked.
Amy grinned. “Absolutely.”
She hurried into the chapel and rubbed her hands together expectantly. Anna clenched her fists and reached her mind out to the seeds, coaxing them from their shells.
One by one, bouquets of white dahlias blossomed at the ends of each pew, spreading up the aisle and back again, and a pair of flower stands by the door exploded into a rainbow of colors. At the altar, twin rows of stems rose from the floor and curved inward, meeting at the middle and erupting into a canopy of white lilies.
“That… was amazing,” Amy said, spinning around to take it all in. “Seriously, that was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Thanks,” Anna said, smiling faintly.
“Hey, I know this wasn’t part of our agreement,” Amy said, “but would you be willing to do something like that during the actual ceremony? I’ll make it worth your while.”
Anna shook her head. “I’m not a performer.”
“You wouldn’t have to be,” Amy said. “Follow me.”
She led Anna to the back row of pews and sat at an end nearest the wall. She patted the seat beside her. Anna reluctantly joined her.
“If you were sitting back here,” Amy said, “would you still be able to do your thing?”
Anna looked around the room; she didn’t have a great view from here, but she could feel the plants strongly enough to fill in the blanks. She folded her hands on her lap and connected with the dahlias; in a flash, their color shifted from white to violet.
“Perfect,” Amy said, and squeezed Anna’s hand.
The “Bridal Chorus” from Lohengrin blared over the chapel speakers as the doors opened and a young girl stepped inside sprinkling flower petals on the floor. Behind her, Amy entered in her wedding dress with her father on her arm. White fabric trailed behind her as she walked, her face covered with a translucent veil. The crowd murmured and sobbed excitedly, but Anna still didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about.
She extended her mind to the dahlias once again and changed each bouquet back to white as Amy passed by, following her all the way to the altar, where a shower of white petals fell from the archway. As Amy turned to face the groom, Anna reached out to the seeds in the bride’s right hand, and a bouquet of white orchids spontaneously appeared.
Anna felt a swell of pride as the audience applauded. A part of her wanted to stand up and take a bow, but… no. She remained seated, back in the corner next to a great uncle and a third cousin and various other minor relatives of the bride.
The ceremony continued as usual, and Anna grew anxious to leave now that her part in it was over. A few minutes into the priest’s speech, she became aware of a pair of eyes watching her from up near the altar: Lian, standing beside the groom as best man.
Anna froze like a deer in headlights. The flowers in the chapel began taking on a reddish hue, growing steadily brighter. Lian quickly looked away and Anna managed to clear her mind; the flowers returned to pure white. She spent the rest of the ceremony examining her shoes, her heart pounding in her chest.
Anna remained in her seat while the guests were lining up to congratulate the couple and their families. She saw Lian approach out of the corner of her eye but she kept staring at the back of the pew in front of her. He sat beside her and leaned back.
“You know, I’ve been kicking myself all week for not getting your number,” he said. “I was starting to think I’d never see you again. I certainly didn’t expect you to turn up here, of all places.”
He smiled at her, and the flowers turned red again. She closed her eyes, forced the flowers back to white.
“Where’s your dog?” she asked.
“Home,” he replied. “She isn’t really comfortable around people.”
“I know the feeling,” Anna said.
He laughed. “I bet you do,” he said. “So, what brings you here anyway? Are you friends with Amy? Relative?”
Anna shook her head. “I’m just the florist.”
“Ah,” he said, nodding slowly. “That was you with the flowers, wasn’t it? How’d you make them change color like that?”
“I just… told them to,” she replied.
“That’s really impressive,” he said, and laughed. “And here I was thinking you were just playing a joke on me with that whole ‘talking to the trees’ routine.”
“I’d never joke about that,” she replied.
“Fair enough,” he said. “Hey, what do you say we—”
“Well, well, well,” Amy said, strolling over in her dress. “What have we here?”
“Well,” Lian said, “it turns out your last-minute florist and the girl I told you about the other day are one and the same.”
“Huh,” Amy said. “Small world.”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s like fate or something.”
Amy laughed. “Or something,” she said. “Listen, we’re about to move things outside. Would you mind giving Billy a hand?”
“Sure thing,” Lian said, standing from the pew and fixing his tie. “See you later, Anna.”
Anna nodded, and watched Lian walk over to the groom and pick up one of the flower stands.
“You were incredible,” Amy said, sitting beside Anna. “You really made this day special.”
Anna stared at her hands and said, “It was nothing, really.”
“Don’t be so modest,” Amy said. “Plenty of brides would pay a fortune for that little show you put on. You should seriously consider doing it more often. I bet I could hook you up with plenty of new clients.”
“I’ll… think about it,” Anna replied.
“That’s all I ask,” Amy said, and then leaned in closer. “On a different note, I don’t know what’s going on between you and Lian, but there’s something you should probably know. It’s about his dog. She’s… not normal.”
“What do you mean?” Anna asked.
“Amy!” an older woman yelled from the doorway. “Get out here and toss your bouquet!”
“Okay!” she yelled back, and turned to Anna. “We’ll talk more later.”
Amy stood and hurried out of the chapel, leaving Anna alone and confused.
Anna went through the motions of serving customers the next day, but her mind was elsewhere. As hard as she tried to focus her thoughts, they always found their way back to Lian. His voice had burrowed inside her brain, replaying itself over and over again. She closed her eyes and could see his face.
“Hi,” his voice said, so real she could have sworn it wasn’t just in her head. “What would you recommend I buy for a pretty girl I keep running into and want to get to know better?”
She opened her eyes and nearly fell off her stool. Lian was standing on the other side of the counter, reading the board over her head. He looked down at Anna and smiled.
“I spent all morning coming up with that line,” he said. “What’d you think?”
“How… how did you find me?” Anna asked, standing from her stool.
“Well, uh, Amy wouldn’t tell me where you worked,” he said, “so I’ve been going around to every flower shop in town looking for…. I probably shouldn’t be telling you any of this, should I?”
“Probably not,” she replied.
“Oh, hey, what a coincidence!” he said, feigning surprise. “I was just… buying flowers… and it turns out the first shop I went into was yours. How wacky is that?”
She rolled her eyes and stared down at the table.
“I totally made myself look like a stalker just now, didn’t I?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she replied.
“I should leave, shouldn’t I?” he asked. “You’re all creeped out now.”
Anna stared down at the counter for a long moment, then glanced up and said, “Dinner.”
“What?” he said.
“You asked me what you should buy that girl,” she said, looking up at him. “You should buy her dinner.”
“Hmm, good thinking,” he said. “But where should I take her?”
“The Rogues Gallery,” she replied.
Lian rubbed his chin. “Hmm, I’ve heard good things about it,” he said. “And what time would you recommend I pick her up?”
“Five o’clock should be good,” Anna replied.
“All right, it’s settled,” he said. “I will see… her… later.”
“Okay,” she said. “Have fun.”
He smiled and strolled out the door. A moment later, he poked his head back inside.
“You do realize I was talking about you, right?” he asked.
“Yes,” she replied, and he was gone again.
The Rogues Gallery was a high-end steakhouse in downtown Victory City. Inside, the restaurant was dimly lit, with wood-paneled walls and a warm ambience. Anna had been here once, as a teenager, and little had changed in the intervening years. A waiter with a shaved head greeted them at the door and led them to a small table in the back corner.
“Can I start you off with anything to drink while you look at the menu?” he asked.
“What do you think?” Lian asked Anna. “Bottle of wine?”
She looked up at the waiter and said, “I’ll have water.”
“I guess I’ll have the same,” Lian said.
“Coming right up,” the waiter said, tucking his notepad into his pocket.
He leaned forward and placed his hand between a pair of unlit candles on the table. With a snap of his fingers, the wicks ignited, a pair of little flames springing to life in front of their eyes. The waiter smiled and strolled off to the kitchen.
Lian reached out to the nearest candle and snapped his fingers, as if expecting something to happen. When nothing did, he glanced across the table and smiled sheepishly at Anna. The floral centerpiece between them reddened; she buried her face in her menu until the waiter returned with their water.
“We all set to order?” he asked.
Anna ordered the filet mignon, while Lian went with the grilled chicken breast. The waiter took their menus and returned to the kitchen. Anna stared down at the white tablecloth for a long moment, trying to think of something to say.
“So, what’s life like for you outside of work?” Lian asked. “Do you live alone?”
“Any pets?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “I’m… not good with animals.”
“That’s too bad,” he said, leaning back. “I’m what you might call an animal person. I’m a veterinarian by trade. And, of course, I’ve got Riot.”
Anna glanced down at the table.
“Amy told me Riot isn’t a normal dog,” Anna said, and looked up again. “What did she mean?”
Lian chuckled. “She would bring that up,” he said, and took a long drink from his glass. “Riot used to be a superhero.”
“A superhero,” Anna repeated flatly. “Really.”
He nodded, and said, “Have you heard of the Riot Squad?”
She shook her head.
“They’re a group of antiheroes from Los Angeles,” he said. “Riot was sort of their mascot. They came to town some years back, chasing a slaughterbeast up the West Coast.”
“Oh yeah, I remember that,” Anna said. “It made a real mess of the park.”
“Yeah,” Lian said. “It made a real mess of Riot, too. She ended up at my clinic while her teammates chased the monster up into the Arctic. It was touch-and-go for a while, but I patched her up as best I could. She was too weak to be moved at the time, and the Riot Squad had to get back to the States right away, so they left her here. And she’s been with me ever since.”
“Does she have any powers?” Anna asked.
“Her injuries took a lot out of her,” Lian said, “but she’s smart. I know all pet owners say that, but she really is. She possesses a near-human level of understanding. Self-awareness. The whole package.”
“Huh,” Anna said. “The way Amy was talking, I thought it was going to be something weird. Why was she making a big deal out of it?”
“Well, this isn’t exactly an appropriate conversation for a first date,” he said, “but suffice it to say there was a time when I could have seen myself as more than just the best man at that wedding.”
“Ah,” Anna said. “Okay.”
“That doesn’t make things weird, does it?” he asked.
“Why would it?” she replied.
“Not everybody is cool with the whole ‘friends with your exes’ thing,” he said.
She shrugged. “I’m realistic,” she said. “Relationships are like plants. The seed is sown, it sprouts and grows, it flowers and sometimes bears fruit, and then it withers and dies. And the cycle starts over again. It’s just… natural.”
“Sounds like you’ve been through it a lot,” he said.
“No,” she replied. “I just sell the flowers.”
He laughed. “Well, it’s not quite as pointless as you make it sound.”
“Sure it is,” she replied, “but I didn’t say that was going to stop me.”
He smiled and said, “That’s a relief.”
She smiled back as the waiter returned with their food. Over the meal, they got talking about their childhoods; hers in a small town outside Victory City, his in a crowded urban sprawl in Hong Kong. By the time they exhausted the topic, they’d finished eating and needed to clear the table for new customers. He paid the bill, and they headed out.
They made their way to a café down the street, where they spent the next few hours chatting about their lives, their jobs, their hobbies, even political and religious views. Eventually they decided to call it a night, and they sat in Lian’s car in front of Anna’s building for several minutes before either of them spoke.
“I had a great time tonight,” he said, his hands gripping the steering wheel.
“Me too,” she replied.
“Do you… want to do it again sometime?” he asked.
She glanced out the window for a long moment, then said, “Okay.”
“How about Friday night?” he asked. “There are a bunch of new movies coming out and a few of them actually look kind of decent.”
“So I’ll pick you up at your shop after work?” he asked.
She nodded again and climbed out of the car, quickly heading for her building. Her heart pounded all the way up to the fifth floor, and she fumbled with her keys for a couple minutes before she finally managed to get into her apartment.
Her living room was packed with more plants than her shop, and they all turned toward her as she entered. She removed her coat but she still felt exceedingly warm inside. She took a shower, changed into her pajamas, and climbed into bed beneath a canopy of ferns, drifting quickly to sleep.
She was standing in darkness, surrounded by growling. She reached out her mind, trying to see through the plants around her, but she could find none. She walked forward and her footsteps echoed on stone walls. The growl grew closer, creeping up the back of her neck, and she ran.
She saw a spot of light up ahead and hurried toward it. She reached out her hand as if to grasp it, and her feet gave out beneath her. Her chin struck the cold, hard floor and she rolled over as a large black dog loomed above her with its teeth bared. She threw her hands in front of her face and screamed.
She sat bolt upright, the scream echoing off her bedroom walls. Her heart pounded and her lungs hurt, as if she’d actually been running for her life. She lay back in bed and stared up at the ferns overhead; they closed in around her like a giant cocoon, comforting her.
As she caught her breath, it occurred to her that the dog in her dream had looked almost exactly like Riot.
The dream hounded Anna. Each night, she lay awake, tossing and turning, trying to claim what little rest she could between the visions. Coffee kept her awake during the day, but did little to calm her nerves.
On Wednesday, she flinched at a little white terrier yapping at her on the sidewalk. As she walked home from work Thursday evening, she saw the black dog sitting on the sidewalk ahead of her, but when she blinked, it was gone.
By the time Lian arrived to pick her up after work on Friday, she was a nervous wreck, walking around in a daze, afraid to close her eyes. She downed an energy drink and followed him out to his car.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked in the theatre after her head slumped forward for the fifth time. “We can reschedule for another night if you’d rather just go home.”
“I’ll be fine,” she replied, munching on some popcorn. “It’s just a bit of insomnia.”
“If you say so,” he said hesitantly, and smiled. “I suppose I do tend to have that effect on women.”
“Putting them to sleep?” she replied.
“No, I meant….” he started to say, and then laughed. “You knew what I meant, you were just being snarky.”
“Maybe,” she said.
The house lights dimmed and the screen lit up with a series of trailers for various vapid romantic comedies and dumb action movies. Keeping her eyes open through all this was a struggle, and she realized quickly that it was a losing battle.
The last thing she remembered before plunging back into darkness was the movie’s opening credits.
Anna screamed as the dog’s fangs sunk into her neck. She tried to sit up but something was holding her in place. She reached up and found a strap across her chest. She opened her eyes; she was sitting in the passenger seat of a car, her apartment building looming just outside the window.
“That must’ve been quite a dream,” Lian said, smiling at her from the driver seat.
Anna rubbed her eyes and said, “How long was I asleep?”
“A few hours,” he replied. “I didn’t notice until well into the movie and I managed to rouse you enough to get you to the car, but you’ve been out cold ever since.”
“So this whole time, you’ve just been… watching me sleep?” she asked.
“Well, it sounds creepy when you put it like that,” he replied, “but I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t know which apartment you live in, and I didn’t want to go digging around in your pants for your keys. I couldn’t just leave you on the doorstep, and I figured if I brought you back to my place, you’d think I’d kidnapped you or—”
She grabbed him by the collar and kissed him. It had been so long since her last kiss that she barely knew what she was doing, but Lian didn’t seem to notice. A tingling sensation ran from her lips, across her face, up along her scalp and down her arms. When she could finally take no more, she pulled away.
“Let’s try the movie again tomorrow,” she said. “Pick me up here after lunch?”
“O-okay,” he stammered.
She smiled and backed out of the car, strolling up the stone path to the lobby of her building. All around her, flowers sprouted among the grass, spreading across the lawn like a tsunami.
She stepped inside without glancing back at Lian and quickly made her way upstairs. Her second wind ran out the moment she stepped into her apartment, and she barely made it to her bed in time to pass out fully clothed.
The darkness enveloped her again, and within it, the dog growled. She closed her eyes and listened to it, moving around her, drawing closer. She backed away from the sound, but it kept coming, faster and faster until….
The growl turned to a yelp, and Anna opened her eyes. Between her and the dog, a row of twisted vines extended into the air like a wrought-iron fence. As the dog tried to step around it, more vines sprouted, until Anna was completely encircled by the organic fence.
The dog paced around the enclosure like a tiger inside – or in this case, outside – a cage, growling constantly and occasionally clawing at the vines, trying to open a gap wide enough to force its snout through. Anna huddled inside her barrier, afraid to close her eyes.
Hours seemed to pass, until finally a beam of light pierced through the darkness overhead. The bright yellow glow spread across the sky, descending rapidly to the earth, and Anna found herself standing in a vast, sunlit field with no dog in sight.
She pointed herself in a random direction, and walked.
She woke up the next morning feeling only slightly refreshed, but she managed to stay awake through the entire movie that afternoon. They went out for dinner afterward and he drove her home later in the evening. They shared another kiss and sat in the car for several awkward minutes.
“I hope I’m not being too forward,” he said, “but I’m actually pretty decent in the kitchen… and I was wondering… would you like to come over to my place for a home-cooked meal? Say, Tuesday?”
Her mind flashed on all the implications of the words “my place” and she felt her face grow flushed. She looked away and cleared her throat.
“Sure,” she said, trying to sound nonchalant. “See you then.”
She opened the door and hurried into her building without looking back.
She spent the next three nights cowering within the circle of vines as the dog paced menacingly around it. Each morning she awoke with just enough energy to get through the day, but the dreams were still wearing on her nerves, which were already twisted into a ball in anticipation of the upcoming date.
By the time Tuesday rolled around, she had almost convinced herself that everything was going to be just fine. In the middle of the afternoon, following a completely uneventful morning, the shop door burst inward and a well-tanned Amy stepped inside. She stormed up to the counter and crossed her arms.
“So I’m back from my honeymoon less than an hour and what do I hear?” Amy asked. “You and Lian are dating. What the hell, dude? I thought I warned you about getting involved with him.”
“You only started to,” Anna replied.
“And I assumed you’d have the sense to wait for me to finish,” Amy said. “How far have you gotten?”
“Just a couple dates,” Anna said, and glanced down at the countertop. “We… kissed.”
“Okay, maybe I’m not too late,” Amy said. “Tell me, have you started having the dreams yet?”
Anna stood from her stool.
“How do you know about that?” she asked.
“It’s that damn dog,” Amy replied. “I tried to tell you before. She has this… ability. She gets into your head and… does things. Torments you, tries to run you off. And no matter what you say, Lian refuses to believe that his beloved Riot could possibly be capable of hurting someone.”
“The dog… is psychic,” Anna said flatly. “You’re just making fun of me now, aren’t you?”
“I’m just trying to spare you some pain in the long run,” Amy said. “Believe me, I don’t want to be saying any of this stuff. Lian’s a great guy overall, but he’s blind to the elephant in the room. Seriously, you should just phone him up right now and call this whole thing off.”
“I’ll… think about it,” Anna said.
“That’s all I ask,” Amy said. “I just don’t want to see you get hurt, is all. Anyway, I’ll get out of your hair now. Take care.”
“Bye,” Anna said as the door shut behind Amy.
Anna locked up at five and waited nervously outside the shop for Lian to arrive. His white station wagon pulled up after ten minutes and she climbed inside. Neither of them spoke much aside from basic small talk as he drove to his apartment.
It was a nice building not too far from her own, bordering on Victorious Park. He parked off to one side and held the front door for her as they headed to the elevator. They got off on the tenth floor at the end of a long hallway and he led her to the last door on the left.
As he fished his keys out of his pocket, a cacophony of barks erupted on the other side of the door. Anna backed away until she bumped up against the wall.
“It’s okay,” he said, taking her hand. “She won’t bite.”
“It’s not the biting I’m worried about,” Anna replied.
Lian smiled and opened the door. Riot sat in the foyer, her tail wagging at the sight of her master. Her tail froze when she saw Anna, and she glared at the newcomer. Anna tried to back away again, but Lian still had her hand.
“Go on inside,” he said to the dog.
Riot turned and padded off into another room. Lian led Anna up the entry hall and into a fancy living room complete with a leather couch and a flatscreen television. A tall ficus tree sat between the couch and the window. Riot curled up on a floral rug in front of the couch.
“Why don’t you have a seat while I get supper ready?” Lian said to Anna, gesturing to the couch. “Feel free to watch some TV.”
“Okay,” Anna said, stepping forward nervously with her eyes on the dog.
She sat at the end of the couch farthest from the dog and Lian disappeared into the kitchen.
“I know what you’ve been doing,” Anna said softly, “and it’s not going to work.”
Riot’s ears pricked up but she otherwise didn’t react.
“I really like Lian,” Anna continued. “More than I thought I could like anyone. So if you think a few nightmares are enough to scare me away, you’re sorely mistaken.”
Riot snorted and laid her chin on the rug. Anna chuckled.
“Maybe I really am going crazy,” she muttered. “Talking to a dog. How sad is that?”
Riot continued to ignore Anna as she grabbed the remote from the end table and turned on the television. She browsed through the channels until she stumbled across footage from a news helicopter flying over the park.
Riot sat up on the rug and shot Anna a piercing glare. Across the room, the footage froze, and a bolt of lightning struck down from the sky, igniting the tallest tree. The fire spread rapidly across the forest and spilled out over the edge of the television screen.
Paralyzed, Anna watched as the fire crept along the floor toward her and leapt up onto the couch. The smell of burning leather filled her nostrils as the flames closed in. She tried to scream but she couldn’t open her mouth, couldn’t even draw breath.
She reached out her mind to the ficus tree and it responded to her thoughts, lashing out at Riot like a big, green fist. The blow knocked the dog across the room; she slammed into the television and landed in a heap on the floor. The heat subsided and Anna stood from the couch.
“What the hell did you do?” Lian snapped, hurrying across the room as the dog rose, limping, from the floor. “Are you okay, girl?”
Riot whimpered and glanced fearfully at Anna. Lian glared up at her, clutching the dog to his side.
“It’s not what it looks like,” Anna said. “She… she… Oh forget it, Amy was right.”
Anna stormed past Lian and hurried out of the apartment, slamming the door behind her. She mashed the elevator call button but quickly grew impatient. When she heard the apartment door reopen, she gave up on the elevator and ran down the stairs two steps at a time.
On the way out of the lobby, she heard the elevator ding behind her, and she saw Lian’s reflection in the glass as she pushed the front door open. She pressed on, rushing out to the sidewalk and darting across the street through a gap in traffic.
Without hesitation, she plunged into the park, picking up speed as she moved among the trees, putting as much distance between her and that dog as she could. Branches scraped her face as she pushed through the foliage faster than she could clear a path, until eventually she broke through the other side. She stumbled a few steps and came to a stop in front of the old cedar at the center of the park.
Anna leaned back against the tree and slid down until she was sitting among it massive roots, which bent to shield her from the outside world. She still felt uneasy, as if her grasp on reality might fall apart at any moment.
She almost thought she was hallucinating again when she saw Lian come rushing up the path. He stopped in front of the tree and doubled over, trying to catch his breath.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he said. “Would you mind explaining what just happened?”
Anna hugged her knees and said, “You won’t believe me.”
“Try me,” he replied, stepping closer.
“She… attacked me,” Anna said, and tapped her temple. “In here. I didn’t want to hurt her, but I had no choice. I was frozen, I couldn’t breathe, and the flames.… She’s been giving me nightmares, too. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in days, and it’s all because of her.”
“There’s got to be some other explanation,” Lian said. “Even if Riot were able to do something like that, she wouldn’t. She’s a good dog.”
“Amy said you’d say that,” Anna replied, standing up and leaning against the tree. “She tried to warn me from the start, and I should have listened.” Anna turned and headed up the path. “I’m going home now. You should do the same. You have a dog to take care of.”
“Wait,” Lian said. “Let’s just say… hypothetically… that I believe you. That ever since I met her, Riot’s been using… psychic powers… to sabotage all my relationships, including this one. Why would she do this?”
Anna shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “She’s your dog. Why don’t you ask her?”
“Okay,” Lian said. “Let’s go back to my apartment and do just that. Please, I can’t lose someone else like this. I need to understand why this keeps happening to me.”
As Anna turned to face Lian, the cedar dissolved into a red mist and the world around them faded to black. Lian spun around in confusion, pacing one direction and then the next, running his hands over his arms as if checking to make sure he was still alive. Finally, he turned back to Anna, wide-eyed.
“Where the hell are we?” he asked.
Anna pointed past him as Riot materialized from the darkness several feet away. Behind the dog, a group of men and women appeared, each of them carrying heavy weapons and dressed to the nines in body armor complete with shoulder pads and countless little pouches.
“That’s… the Riot Squad,” Lian said. “But why are they….”
As he spoke, Riot vanished, and a large Rottweiler appeared in her place. Moments later, the whole lot of them disappeared.
Elsewhere in the darkness, a dog barked, and Anna turned to see a second Lian in the distance, running around and playing with Riot. He threw a Frisbee, and the dog leapt to catch it in her mouth. She vanished in mid-air, and a second Anna appeared beside Lian’s doppelganger; they walked off into the darkness, arm-in-arm.
“Is that what this is about?” the real Lian asked the darkness. “All these years, you thought I was going to abandon you the moment somebody new came along? You’re my best friend, Riot. How could I ever replace you?”
The darkness around them lifted, and the park reappeared. Riot stood in the grass several feet away, hanging her head in shame. She approached him tentatively and sat at his feet. He kneeled beside her and hugged her neck.
“And to think,” he said, “I’ve been telling people for years that you’re smart.”
She growled, and he laughed. Anna approached cautiously and extended her hand to the dog. Riot sniffed her palm for a moment and then bowed her head.
“I can’t guarantee supper isn’t burning as we speak,” said, “but would you be willing to give this another try?”
Anna looked down at Riot and said, “I am if she is.”
The dog looked up at Anna and nodded.