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Rated: 13+ · Fiction · Dark · #2299592
Only one of us will make it out alive, and it's not you.
Merit Badge in Immortality Iris
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This is the first of the two Merit Badges you helped design. Thank You for helping Pubby during his Christmas Quest.

"Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality…"
– Emily Dickinson

The man guided the black Altima along the winding two lane road through the rolling Tennessee hillsides with steady care. He was by no means reckless. The young woman in the passenger seat sat stiff and straight, hands folded, eyes on the road ahead. After three days of heavy rain, the midsummer sun now burned down on them from a crystalline blue sky. But between the air-conditioning and the heavily tinted windows, they felt none of its effects.

Damien cut a stocky figure, of middle age and average height, with a shock of black hair and jet black eyes that flashed with the same hard steely glint as his car's finish. His face was pale and angular, with a brooding brow and a mouth that closed firmly in two thin lines above a stern jaw, resembling the Persil man. There was a certain dark handsomeness about his features, but it was betrayed by a harsh, unfeeling gaze. He wore a white button down shirt and a red tie with black scrollwork. At his right hip an empty holster was strapped to the belt of his black trousers. His eyes remained predominantly fixed on the road ahead, glancing narrowly every so often in the direction of Mary Rose, who turned her face towards the window, her blue eyes studying the endless, lonely acres alternating farmland and forest that spread past them.

She wore a bright blue long sleeve fishing shirt, one of those smooth polyester ones that promises superior UV protection. Her face, neck, hands and wrists were pale, but tanned a healthy shade; all other skin was covered. As a veteran gardener, she knew the risks of sun exposure. A fresh red rosebud was stuck almost randomly into her blonde ponytail, a relic from one of the flourishing shrubs in her yard. She was pretty, in a simple, fresh, outdoorsy way. Silence hung heavy between the two for some miles.

"Well. Are you afraid?" She did not answer and kept her head turned away. "A better question might be, why are you so calm?" He continued impassively. Mary shifted slightly in her seat, considering this.

"I'm thinking." She kept it simple.

"Not panicking? Or praying?" With a trace of a sneer. Certainly she was praying, but she felt that hardly needed to be assented to. Instead she asked her own burning question.

"Where are we going?"

"That's for me to know and you to find out. Don't you know these roads? Lived here long enough." Yes, Mary knew most every numbered route in Middle Tennessee like the back of her hand. She spent hours studying the state maps and had plenty of driving experience. But this was one particularly wild stretch of road she had never attempted to navigate. It crossed the river and slipped through a valley pass between two mountains and led generally nowhere, dwindling away to a dirt trail, at least on paper.

They passed an abandoned nursery, bringing a flood of memories to Mary's mind; long hot days spent working in her garden alongside Pierre, her fiance: creating cobblestone paths, setting new plants, endlessly weeding and watering and caring for their personal paradise. She wandered mentally through it now, stopping by the birdbath, admiring the delicate, exotic yellow crocosmia arching over a short stone wall, noting the pearly peach sunset shades of fine English roses and how they matched her carefully selected daylilies, seeing the sturdy sword-like foliage of irises poking up in fans from their long canoe-like rhizomes resting lightly on the soil surface. Mary prided herself on knowing all the names of her perennials, names like an obscure foreign language: penstemon, physostegia, caryopteris, perovskia, echinacea, artemisia, buddleia, forsythia, rhododendron, pachysandra, on and on. Their significance was like a code, something which identified fellow gardeners in almost the same way as the handshakes and secret signs of the Freemasons…

Her reverie dissolved into harsh reality as Damien flipped the turn signal and turned down a road narrower than the one they were on; trees closed about them on either side, shutting out the bright sunlight and replacing it with a shadowy, foreboding and oppressive gloom.

"Bet this one isn't on your maps." He remarked with another note of sarcasm. Agreed, it probably wasn't.

"Why?" A single word: sudden, raw, angry.

"You know why. Your father had his chance to drop the case against me, and he refused. I'm not about to be arrested for government hacking without exacting the appropriate penalty from him. That means you." Damien spoke coldly, with grim resolve: a voice that brooked no argument.

"What will happen?"

"Your life will end shortly."

"And what else?"

"That's all."

"I don't believe you."

"You think I'm kidding?"

"I think there's more to it."

"As in…?"

"I—" Mary placed a hand against her throat. She struggled to get the words out, choosing them carefully. "I intend to keep my… purity."

"You speak matter-of-factly. How do you intend to keep it, if I tried to take it away?"

What a question. Mary opened her mouth and found she couldn't get a word past her constricted throat. Instead she turned, leaned over and grabbed the steering wheel, pulling it to the side. The car veered wildly. Damien hit the brakes. He yanked her hand off and shoved her back against the passenger side. He course-corrected and continued to drive with as little emotion as if it were an airplane that had hit turbulence.

"You would rather die in a car crash than be violated?" Perhaps the most alarming thing about him was his even temper. There was no trace of anger in his voice, merely disbelief and a slight amusement.

"It—it goes without saying!" She smoothed her clothes and tried to breathe normally.

"For you it does. I would have thought otherwise. So I'll cut you a deal: I have no intention of violating you, therefore you have no reason to go wrecking my car. Got that?"

"How do I know that?"

"I want your life, not your body."

"Why not?"

"Because I'm a hacker, not a sex offender."

"You're not a sex offender, but you are a murderer." Her tone now bordered on sarcasm. "That doesn't add up. A hacker doesn't escalate the charges to premeditated murder! Why are you really doing this?"

"Call it a hate crime."

"What, am I part of a despised minority? Which one, pray tell?"

"You're the only daughter of your father, so that's enough of a minority."

"You're crazy."

"Crazy like a malfunctioning ATM… you are aware that computer programs complete transactions whether you like it or not. I warned your father to back off, I threatened your life, and he ignored it. I will now proceed to do exactly what I said I would do."

"Oh indeed. You're going to great lengths to get it done, aren't you? A bullet to the head in my front yard would have served as well."

"You are an interesting subject."

"I don't like the sound of that."

"Again, whether you like it or not…"

"Right. You're a malfunctioning ATM. That explains it." This was the strangest conversation Mary had ever had. She turned towards the window again and fought within herself to remain calm.

In other words, this is a psych-op. He's toying with me, trying my reactions, like a caged bird. A cat and mouse. God help me – when in heaven's name is this interminable road going to end?! Her head exploded inside, but outwardly Mary only gripped her hands tighter together and sat up a bit straighter. She thought of Barkley, her wire fox terrier, who had lunged so fiercely at Damien the first time they met. The man had kicked him clear across the room, but Barkley was a spunky dog and had come growling, bounding right back. He thinks he can murder me just like he tried to murder my dog. And if I die out here, Barkley will never know what happened to me. He'll be forever waiting, like the Akita in the movie. She thought of Pierre, with his warm, supportive smile, good-humored green eyes, and brown curly hair so marvelously similar to Barkley's fur. Do not go gentle into that good night - rage, rage against the dying of the light… Yes. She had too much to live for. What would become of her family? Of her garden? She wasn't going to let this happen without a fight. Barkley's unstoppable terrier spirit warmed her with a determined flicker of courage.

Mary heard the turn signal ticking again, breaking into her thoughts. The car swung once more, this time onto a rough, pitted gravel driveway choked with weeds, just wide enough to allow it to pass between the trees. Gradually the land opened out in front of them until they passed through the twisted, rusty gate of a broken down picket fence. Damien pulled up to where the driveway finally narrowed down into a mere footpath, and stopped, parking the car and letting it idle.

Mary surveyed the eerie scene which lay before her: an abandoned house, boarded up and half falling down, with Virginia creeper and feral wisteria climbing over it and grasses sprouting out of the gutters. The front yard appeared to have been a well-kept garden at some point long past, but now all was in sickly disarray, scarcely recognizable amid grossly luxuriant weeds, the same ones she knew from long experience quelling them in her own yard. Standing out among the other more commonplace illicit greenery was the peculiarly tropical pokeweed, with its succulent pink stems, fleshy umbrella leaves and racemes of purple berries. Mary spotted a crepe myrtle shouldering bravely above the overgrowth, its swaying, arching branches drooping at the ends with fluffy panicles of white. By the front door of the house, a large iris patch also stood its ground against the weeds, blooming out of season, pure white showy flowers which made a vivid contrast with the dull red brick wall.

"Nice place, isn't it?" He began loosening his tie, folding back his cuffs and unbuttoning his shirt collar. Mary turned and watched. One button. Two buttons.

"Keep your shirt on," She snapped. He gave her a narrow sideways look.

"No worries. I'm not as good looking under there as your Pierre must be."

"I haven't even seen Pierre without a shirt."

"Nonsense. Who gets engaged to a man without knowing what he looks like under his shirt? What if he has prison tattoos? Or gang markings?"

Mary sniffed.

"Maybe you have some," She remarked acidly. "He doesn't."

Damien laughed, a short sharp laugh.

"Not me. Hackers don't get involved with that… why do you have an aversion to men without shirts anyway?"

"It's savage," She responded primly.

"Oh, shocking, to be sure." He jeered. "Little Miss Princess." She flushed and tossed her head up a bit higher. If ever there was a lady worthy of the title, it was probably Mary. But she was proud of it.

Damien finished primping and turned towards her. "How do I look?" He asked, keeping a straight face. One disdainful glance at his open collar and limp red tie sufficed:


"Sleazy?" He repeated with mocking disappointment. He looked in the courtesy mirror, running a hand through his thick black hair. "Oh, I get it. All I need is a wine glass and some lipstick stains?"

"Exactly." Mary wondered how it was they were having such a stupid conversation.
Damien opened his door. She watched as he slowly, casually pulled a gun out from the door's storage pocket and checked it over. Some swift instinctive move of hers towards him made him exit quickly, to turn and lean on the open door, eyeing Mary with an intense stare. He aimed the gun silently into the vehicle at her. She pulled back against the passenger door and raised her hands, her heart quite literally skipping several beats, the color draining from her face.

"No, no. Please don't." She would not, could not lower herself to beg any further than this from such a man; it was not in her nature. All she could do was watch mutely with tragic eyes and brace herself. Is this really it? So horrifically simple, no chance of my being able to do anything to save myself… He held her like this, at gunpoint with no words and no expression on his cold harsh face – then laughed and holstered it.

"Just sit there. I'll come around." Mary's face flushed with anger: he had played with her to see her grovel. Stiffly she sat up again, feeling the powerful urge to do something yet not knowing what or how. If I could get the gun away from him… Damien opened the passenger door and held it, waiting.

Mary climbed out of the low car with care, one hand held modestly against her neckline, well aware of his unbending male gaze, though she did not have much for anyone to see. She stood up and tried to stretch some of the tension out of her muscles after the long drive: a slender, willowy figure, tall enough to look Damien in the eye.
Outdoors, no longer behind his tinted windows, she found herself being blinded by the sunlight reflecting off of his white shirt. She squinted and saw burning under her eyelids a perfect inverse copy of that ugly red tie of his. She sneezed, once, twice, almost in his face.

"What's the matter? Allergic to me?"

"It's the sun."

He raised an eyebrow, clearly amused.

"Really now? A gardener and you're allergic to the sun?"

"It's not an allergy, it's just – " Mary sneezed again for the final time as her eyes adjusted to the light, and she became more aware of her surroundings. Despite the abandoned yard being such a mess, it was still overflowing with life. She could hear a multitude of different native birds, her keenly trained ear picking out the sweet song of a robin, the argumentative cry of blue jays, and the "Doherty Doherty Doherty doe" of a cardinal. It was all so familiar, yet so twisted, as if he had brought her through an electronic time warp into her own yard again, in some alternate universe where she did not quite exist.

"You're right, you are a computer," She said suddenly, accusingly. "A computer infected with a malicious virus."

"A fine compliment to one who prides himself on his hacking abilities," Damien observed with a smirk.

He slipped his right arm through her left and turned to start walking. She pulled swiftly away from him and edged back against the car, pressing her hands flat on its surface.

"Don't touch me."

He turned and looked her over.

"Why not?" Calmly.

"There's no need to. I'm not going anywhere." Mary paused as he edged closer to her. A wave of lightheadedness, perhaps even of nausea, swept over her. Don't faint. And don't barf. Hang in there. A deep breath and her head cleared again. "It's at least five miles to the nearest house." She added to prove her point.

"Six point one," Damien corrected with automatic precision. "Wouldn't do you any good to run anyway. I'd have you taken down like a deer in the grass." She eyed his weapon, wondering if it had a long enough range – "I'm not kidding. This gun is fully capable of that. The police do it all the time."

"Well hands off then." She said irritably. He just stood coolly, motionless, hands loose at his sides, waiting. He was now quite close, getting into her space, trying to intimidate by sheer overwhelming presence. She met his dark narrowed eyes, focused on hers, seemingly drilling into her very soul, calculating how long she would hold out for. How ironic he would find me interesting. We have nothing in common. His only desire is to take control, to wreak havoc. I might as well be a piece of code in one of his corrupted files. He can't wait to hack into me, take me apart, see what makes me tick and bend me to his will. Ugh. They stared each other down for some moments, the tension building. Mary heard now a rustling silence, as the birds hushed with the appearance of intruders. A single crow called an alert from the top of a pine tree, and several crows answered from afar. She knew he was waiting, wearing her down, ready to strike, snakelike. Her eyes flicked nervously away from his face into the brush, spotted a monarch butterfly hovering over a patch of milkweed, and lingered there briefly. In that moment his left hand shot out and grasped her upper right arm. A small cry of indignation escaped her, and he felt an electric shock of revulsion run through her thin, wiry frame.

"Let go of me! We agreed I can't run away – why are you – !?"

"Because I can."

"No you can't." Mary scowled and tugged, but he just laughed and tightened his grip.

"Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden… die?" Damien's tone of cruel sarcasm was unbearable. She wanted desperately to punch him in the face, but obviously it wouldn't be a good idea. So she steeled herself and rigidly allowed him to lead her along.

They picked their way carefully down the broken, weedy path, past a line of tangled, spindly rose bushes that were trying their best to grow. Several were languishing under the grip of witches broom. This ailment, peculiar to roses, is caused by a virus that makes the plant produce rapid malformed shoots of discolored, stunted new growth which only shrivels and dies, eventually taking over and spreading to others nearby. Mary was familiar with removing this from her own yard; it had indeed killed several of her prized roses.

There's another irony… I stop viruses, he spreads them. I grow, he destroys. If I'm stuck here with him long enough, I may turn into a cold, heartless virus-infected computer myself!

She recognized a rare, blushing English rose bearing two fragile clusters of flowers, laden with fat blue green Japanese beetles eating swiss-cheese holes in both bloom and foliage. Her heart ached to see it under such attack; the urge to reach out and shake off the disgusting beetles and stomp them into the dirt was nearly irresistible.

"It's Sharifa Asma…" she murmured, almost unaware she had spoken aloud.


"A rose – a David Austin."

"You know a fine rose the way an artist knows the fine painters." He observed quietly, for once without any sarcasm. There was a touch of regret in his voice, something that, combined with the frustration of seeing a garden in such disarray, brought Mary closer to tears than she had been so far.

She looked up and saw the white iris patch in front of them, doing surprisingly well despite its base being suffocated with crabgrass and leaf litter. It was a large, glorious pure white flower, without any hint of yellow on the fuzzy beards. When they came alongside it, they paused. Mary glanced at Damien; even he seemed to be marveling at the sight.

"I'd like to smell an iris again." She said wistfully.

"Didn't know they have a scent."

"Can I…? They mean a lot to me."

He considered this a moment. She's only a girl, he thought condescendingly. Wouldn't disrupt the program to let her stop a moment. That is a nice little plant there, isn't it. He released her arm and drew back a little.

"Go ahead. Get a good long look at it." After an awkward pause, they both knelt down beside the plant, Mary with her back towards the brick wall and Damien closer by the path. She leaned into a flower and smelled that unique sugar cookie scent of the German iris. Though her middle name was Rose, she had over the years become attached to irises, and viewed them as a sort of personal symbol. Damien was examining it curiously, as if trying to remember when he had seen something like this before.

"I thought irises bloom in the spring."

"This is a reblooming variety. It's called Immortality."

"Immortality?" He repeated the name with a slight sneer. "That's ironic." She eyed him over the top of the plant, a withering look.

"Mine are only just budding out." She added angrily, "I don't suppose I'll get to see them bloom again."

"Darn right you won't." He laughed harshly and stood up again. "We're going inside now." Mary also stood up, folding her arms, straightening her back and tossing aside her ponytail with an air of determination.

"No we're not." She said firmly.

"Oh? Why not?"

"I'm not going into some dirty rat-infested tumbledown old house. We can finish this right here."

"Here? Outside?" His eyes were narrow with incredulity and amusement. "You don't mean that."

"Yes I do." Mary dug her sneakers into the dirt and returned his look. "If I have to die, I'll die out here in the fresh air, in the garden." I know these plants, she thought. They're like my friends. Even the weeds. Damien shook his head.

"That's ridiculous. You don't know what you're saying."

"I'm not budging." A long pause, another staring match. A sudden wind blew through the crepe myrtles and sent a shower of fluffy white petal puffs floating down like snowflakes. The eerie, owl-like call of a mourning dove echoed out of the pine tree. Somewhere far in the distance a dog howled. Damien folded his own arms and smiled, a slow, clever, twisted smile.

"One word, Miss Princess: vultures." Mary instinctively looked up at the sky and felt a rush of nausea. Five, six, no – seven turkey vultures circled slowly, high in the air directly above them. She was used to seeing one or two every so often over her own yard, but this many?!

"Oh, come on!" She cried in disgust. "You must have set this up. They don't know – !"

"Perhaps they do." He chuckled. Mary grimaced. Her stomach cringed.

"I don't care. That's beside the point. And anyway, it's just… nature." Eew. What am I saying? Don't think about it.

"Listen. You have two choices." He bent down, yanked one of the iris flowers off its stem and held it up in front of her. "The first: deconstruction." Slowly and deliberately he peeled the flower apart, much to her dismay: first the upright standards, the beards, the delicate interior parts, the ruffly falls, letting each piece fall to the ground between them. He paused. "The second: destruction." He broke off another flower.

"Stop that!" Mary reached out to take it from him, but he held it away. Swiftly he crushed the flower in his hand and dropped it, mangled, at her feet.

"You!" She hissed. "You're a monster."

"Nothing you can do about it." He jeered, coming around the iris plant towards her. Mary backed against the brick wall, heart pounding, hands sweating. All she could think of to do was – Damien stopped about a foot away and pulled out his gun. In the brief moment before he had it aimed, she lunged forward and grabbed his arm with both hands.

"Hey!" They struggled. "You'll regret this, you idiot!" Mary had no idea what she was doing, but good grief, she had to do something. It felt better than standing around waiting to be executed against a wall like some kind of gang war. But within perhaps ten seconds Damien had broken her grasp, hauled her around to the side of the path and flung her down into the weeds. She landed on her back with a gasp, the breath knocked out of her lungs. It took several horrifying seconds before she could breathe again, feeling like a bug flipped helplessly belly-up, and she fully expected him to get down and pin her to the ground. But he only stood back and watched as she scrambled up and brushed herself off, breathing hard now, sweating under the hot sun.

"You really thought that was a good idea?" He demanded. "You could have had your head blown off. And if I'd sent you flying into the wall, you'd be in several pieces." She said nothing. She was shaking all over, and a twitch had formed under one eyelid. "You know you can't win a fight with me, silly." He continued mockingly. "I'm at least twice your size and strength."

"I – I – " Mary pressed one hand to her chest and one over her mouth and collapsed to her knees on the ground.

"Ow – my heart!" She moaned. "Help! It hurts!" Curious at this sudden attack, Damien squatted down beside her.

"I thought you looked like the kind with a weak heart," he remarked insensitively. "Probably an aneurysm… that's what you get for your lame attempt at a fight. Should've known better." He sat relaxed, letting the gun dangle in his hands between his legs, watching Mary scrunched there on the ground making small sounds of anguish, without any attempt to render assistance. She bent forward limply, hands pressed into the dirt. Then, she felt a thick clump of crabgrass and wrapped her right hand tightly around the base of the growth. Still groaning and writhing, she pulled hard at the clump of weeds. The ground, still soft from the previous night's heavy rain, gave way and came forth with a large and weighty rootball, which Mary hurled with all her strength directly into Damien's smug, unsuspecting face. An explosion of dirt, roots, pebbles, worms and whatever else was hiding in that crabgrass came crumbling, showering down over him; in stunned shock he threw his arms up over his face, falling back flat onto the path, the gun bouncing over the weeds towards Mary, who grabbed it and leaped to her feet. She found herself once more with her back to the brick wall, clutching the gun against her chest with both hands, watching Damien as he sat up in the path and tried to clear the dirt out of his eyes and mouth. Furiously he glared up at her. She stood straight and tall and aimed the gun at him.

"You filthy little vixen, you – !" He sputtered, pulling crabgrass out of his hair, his white shirt stained with soft red clay soil.

"Watch your mouth. You're the one who's filthy." Mary stifled a strange, shattered laugh. Damien got to his feet, and she saw at once that he was really, dangerously angry.

"Stay back! I'll shoot! I'm not kidding!" She cried, tightening her hold on the gun and aiming with both hands straight to his chest. But he didn't listen, thinking perhaps he had some chance of tackling her and wrestling the gun away. He lunged forward blindly, his face red and dirt-smeared like some demon broken through straight from hell.

Mary shrieked, "Stop!" and pulled the trigger as he was almost on top of her. The loud recoil of firing shook her to the core, but she maintained her balance and watched as he fell heavily to the ground at her feet.

A deep silence settled over the landscape like a stormcloud as she stood there, ears ringing, staring down at his body, waiting for some sign of life. Then, still clutching the gun close, she knelt down and cautiously, cringingly placed two fingers at the pulse point of his neck. Nothing.

As she leaned over, the red rosebud she had stuck in her hair before the journey finally came loose and tumbled out, landing on his chest next to the bullet hole, within the slowly spreading red stain, as if it had perhaps once been a white rose. Mary, not knowing what else to do with it, laid the gun down beside the rose and got back to her feet, her joints sore and aching.

"My God, I—I just killed somebody…"

A robin began singing again from a limb of the white crepe myrtle, and the beautiful sound of it made her burst into tears as she realized the distinct possibility of her having indeed become infected with his virus…

"Since then, tis centuries, and yet
Seems shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were towards Eternity."
– Emily Dickinson
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