Charlie knew something was off when he felt the largest toe on his left foot graze the inner tip of his long-worn work boot. Charlie had owned these boots for a decade, and over the countless miles he strode, the firm boots accepted him and had developed a kindness to him. They had always fit perfectly before, as did everything in his quaint little home. Well… Who is meant to tell feet when to stop growing? Certainly not Charlie. He made the best of situations, never letting himself get caught up in hysterics or drama.
Truly, the only thing Charlie could ever be caught up in was the tidying of his home and excessive grooming of his grounds. In reality, his front yard could fit no more than four giraffes standing side-by-side. Four very relaxed giraffes I might add. To Charlie however, his grounds were the Orangerie. So meticulously plucked and pampered, his yard bloomed with exotic dahlia and peonies in the summer, and a cornucopia of tulips, every color. Even a few black tulips shipped in directly from France. Charlie was not very fond of Dumas himself, however, he thought it would amuse the more cultured guests. Not that he could expect to even have uncultured company.
To say that Charlie “lived alone”, was an understatement. To say that Charlie was alone, doubly so. He had never wed, nor had he sprouted any fastidious children. Charlie had always meant to start a family but a certain type of nothing seemed to have delayed that plan for so long he had chalked that down to one of life’s necessary tragedies. Besides, he had his home to look after. He also felt a certain dread at the thought of his own flesh and blood tearing up his garden. Or worse, neglecting its tending and watching it fall to ruin. A ghastly thought. Though not because of the death of so many a beautiful flower. Rather, he would mourn the loss of his image, for he believed that presentation was everything.
Charlie’s home reflected his condition acutely. There was a palpable history held within its walls. A history which Charlie had always been so eager to tell. Unfortunately, he had never been granted the opportunity. If he were given the honor however, we would have started with the china. It had been a gift to him from his mother. That china set had been her most valuable possession. Charlie (she always called him Charles), remembered how overjoyed she was when she saw what a lovely home he had acquired. He believed he was doing her honor by having the dining table always set for a great gathering.
Salad forks, wine glasses, cloth napkins in the shapes of stars, and a glorious golden candle holder. The candle it held had been lit before, but only once. The day he first set the table. This happened to be just before he fancied a stroll around the grounds. Even Charlie knew not to leave a lit flame unattended. By now, even the candle had given up hope for good company, settling into the life of a coping mechanism. Speaking of which, Charlie had an open pantry that was always overflowing with fresh breads, fruit preserves, salted meats, fresh potted herbs, and aged wine. He believed in always being ready for company, and that meant, always being ready for a good feast.
Some may pity his condition, but he lived a very purposeful life, in his own regard. Never giving himself enough rest to become truly comfortable, for fear he would grow sedentary and neglect his grounds. Coincidentally, rest was also the first thing it took from Charlie.
He could not tell why at first. He had always gone to bed when the sun would fall and wake when she would rise again. This time was different. It could not have been him for he certainly did not do anything out of the ordinary, he always made a point of that.
Before the week was out, Charlie had flipped the mattress eight times, rotated it five, and had repositioned the bed against the wall. Not that this helped any great deal, he just convinced himself it did so he could get back to his garden. Sighing, he stepped out the door with his gardening shears and gloves in hand. It was then that he noticed the third extraordinary occurrence. In a struggle to fit his hands into his gloves, he tore a hole in the palm. It was evident his hands were too big to fit into the gloves he had used for the last two tulip seasons. His mind and gaze went to his feet, feeling his big toes rub against the tip of his boots.
That night, after long hours of careful grooming, Charlie dreamt that he is woken by a great thumping outside his door. When he looks out the window, he sees a monster, no less than twenty-feet tall. The books his father used to read him as a child would have called the ugly beast a giant. The giant was using its massive feet to stomp his precious tulips into mince. Without the slightest thought, Charlie runs out his door and is frozen as the giants cold, dark eyes meet his. Without a word, the giant comes barreling towards him. In its wake, a cloud of topsoil, earthworms, and missed opportunity. Charlie narrowly dodges the giant’s bum rush only to find that he was not the beast’s target. It was his beloved home to take that blow. In one charge, the giant had torn through the whole house before calmly thumping off into the surrounding wood.
Charlie woke in a frenzy. Dashing and leaping off every piece of furniture on his way out the front door. He nearly collapsed to the ground at the relief of seeing his grounds safe and sound. Feeling a little light-headed and a bit out of sorts, he stepped back into the house and rummaged around the kitchen for some breakfast. He settled into familiarity. Two eggs (sunny side up), a thin slice of salt-cured roast, and a glass of fresh orange juice. Perhaps it was residual paranoia from his night terror, but it seemed to him that he had finished his breakfast a bit faster than usual. Most people would not pick up on these nuances. But to Charlie, it had to be noted.
He had been weeding his flower patches (now barehanded) for a few hours when he began to feel a slight rumbling in his abdomen, which his brain immediately interpreted as hunger. This was an entirely unusual feeling that years of routine meals sheltered him from. He looked at the time. Still two hours till lunch. He tried not to let more irrational paranoia pry into his subconscious. Upon stepping back inside, a bowl of fresh pears on his dining table seemed to call. No. Shout to Charlie. He heedlessly rushed to the table to retrieve one, his forehead making-contact with the stained-glass lighting fixture hanging above his table.
This could not be written off as another coincidence. Yet another meticulous feature of his home, was that every lamp, rafter, doorway, and cabinet door was positioned at least a few inches higher than himself, as to not encounter such a fate. Dazed, Charlie fell into a wicker chair beside the table that abruptly gave way under his weight, sending him crashing twenty-two inches with a thud that woke up all the mice that lived under his floorboards. The squirrel in his attic however, was completely unphased (he was pretty easy going about these things). After a moment or two, the haziness subsided.
Stumbling to his feet, he made way for the bedroom. In these types of situations, a good night’s rest is the only thing for you. Unfortunately, just as that thought crossed his mind, his head connected with the doorway and before he could even register what happened, Charlie was laid out flat on his back.
He woke to a familiar thudding outside his home. He recognized the giant, barreling out of the wood towards his home once again. He thought of nothing but his precious acreage (more yardage speaking technically). Deep in his subconscious, he tore out the front door far faster than humanly possible. Managing to reach the edge of his grounds before the giant. This time, utterly fearless, he stood ready to defend his livelihood. Strangely, when the giant reached him, it stopped. Somewhere in the neighborhood between carelessness and bravery, he stood reverent.
The great creature let out a great huff of air and bent down. Frozen, he was merely a spectator in his own undoing. Expecting to be squished or chewed on, Charlie found himself in the gentle grasp of the great giant. He was pulled closer and higher, almost expecting to see a smile on the giant’s face. He was met with quite the opposite.
The gnarling brute stared through him with its bowling ball eyes. The giant took in such a breath, Charlie nearly felt he would be swept away. The beast bore its foul teeth and out of his mouth came a cacophony of voices. It was as if, behind the giant’s grizzly maw, a mob was erupting.
He awoke on the floor, where he had just suffered a slight head trauma. His father, Charles senior would have said he merely “rang his bell”. Charlie was never very fond of that expression because to him, a bell always meant dinner. This was quite possibly the farthest thing from a home-cooked meal. Groggy and beaten, Charlie managed to slink himself into his bed. He would normally have felt pathetic in this moment but thankfully that feeling was overshadowed by the feeling of a mild concussion. He probably would have felt pathetic the next morning as well, if it had not been that his feet were now sticking about one dinner roll’s length past his bedframe.
Charlie was never much for superstition, but he certainly knew how long his bedframe was. He was the one who built it. The frame had once been a mighty oak with roots far older than Charlie or his precious china. He decided to chop it down very early into his residence. He thought it would make more room for guests at his famous garden receptions and summer soirees. Famous to him and the tulips that is. These theoretical shindigs were the real reason he decided to move away from home and settle down in the first place. The image of strangers venturing far and wide to visit his humble home motivated him to a point of obsession. He believed, if he cared for his flowers with all his mind and body, that one day the forest breeze would carry their sweet scent into the busy streets of the city outside the wood. The overworked laborers and artisans would follow the aroma to his home where they would be greeted with fresh food, music, and most importantly, good company. Charlie was sure that he could convince everyone in all the land to stop and smell the roses, so to speak.
Seasons had come and passed, his flowers grew high and bloomed the most beautiful colors. When the winds would bellow, Charlie would don his wicker tables with cloth and crystal. He would arrange the freshest fruit picked from his trees and sit on the lawn playing his strings waiting company to emerge from the wood. After five blooming seasons, Charlie looked upon his grounds. Every blade of grass groomed, every tree pruned, every blossom flourishing. This disconcerted him and forced him to direct his criticism within. Charlie had become fixated on perfecting every single aspect of his home. He was sure that once all facets of his dwelling were complete, his estate would flood with visitors and his perfect life would be complete.
In the following days, paranoia and fear gripped Charlie. Only leaving the house to quickly tend to his grounds. He found himself looking at the corners of his house, questioning how his fork and knife fit in his palms, and how his shadow seemed to climb higher and higher on the wall each evening. On one particularly quiet night he managed to quell his worries and sink the part of his body that still fit on his bed into a deep sleep.
Charlie woke up to the sun shining in his eyes. He would probably have wondered how he slept so late, but he was entirely preoccupied by an unfamiliar bustle. He meandered through his home cautiously, anxious as to the source of the ruckus. As he passed through his oaken front door, the sunshine illuminated something far more surprising than a snarling beast. Before him was…a gathering? What a turnout. Charlie did not know whether to start sobbing or dancing a light jig as he studied his own property. People were telling stories, stuffing their faces, and laughing like the very first joke had debuted at that very reception.
Awestruck, Charlie gazed over the guests. Cherishing their presence and doing his best to take in every aspect of their existence. He tried to commit each of their faces to memory. He wished he could imprint every word of their conversations into his memory so he may recall them as a symbol of triumph. In a trance, Charlie strode towards the commotion. With every step, he felt the distance between himself and the ground stretch. Foot over foot he began to tower over his guests. Their heads began to look like marbles in the games he played as a child. Slowly, the guest’s eyes began to meet his and he saw as their cheery faces turned horrified. Some let out shrieks of terror, mothers clutched their children, some made haste into the woods, some stunned petrified in their seats.
Charlie tried explaining himself but when he opened his mouth, only snarled rumbles escaped. Almost all the guests were now to their feet and Charlie panicked. He chased after them trying to show his visitors that he was not the monster they saw before them. In his desperation, he grabbed hold of a woman stumbling into the forest at the back of the pack and brought her to his line of sight. She let out a frantic call for help before passing out seemingly from lightheadedness. Charlie placed her gently down on a topiary the border of his property and turned dejected back toward his home. He noticed that in his panic, he accidentally trampled his precious plot of tulips. He dropped to the earth in agony. Collapsing into unconsciousness himself too now, just after catching a glimpse of himself in the reflection of his kitchen window. Realizing he was now face to face with the giant beast that had plagued his nightmares.
He woke to a crash, a thud, and a flop. His oaken bedframe had buckled under his now, hulking frame. His pajamas were hugging him much in the way that a suitcase hugs its contents when one has been told that there is not enough space for two pieces of luggage. Upon rising, all of Charlie’s buttons altogether gave up their post and set off, in search of greener pastures. One even flew clear across the room and landed gracefully in a porcelain carafe that he had been using to house a blushing orchid, as well as, unknowingly, a small family of stinkbugs who had lived in the carafe for the past four years. One would assume that the stinkbugs would have given up their position at this point because of the species’ titular emissions. The Franklins (that was the stinkbug family’s surname) however, were a compromising lot that understood how to coexist and always made a point of respecting the owners of the homes they inhabited. Though Charlie knew nothing of their existence, given the opportunity, he would probably have gotten along quite well with the Franklins.
Stepping into the kitchen, Charlie’s clothes wrenched, snapped, and pulled until they forcibly sloughed off his body onto the wooden floor. From a great distance, it may look as if Charlie was molting. Much unlike a butterfly, he felt naked, cold, and void of any wings (one tends to notice that sort of thing). He scoured his modest closet for any oversized articles that may shelter his looming form. Unfortunately, like everything in Charlie’s life, all of his clothes were not oversized, they were merely… sized. He was now too big for his britches, literally. If the situation were not so distressing, he may have been able to enjoy the irony.
Charlie was further gripped with the fangs of paranoia. He was growing into a monster and there was seemingly nothing to be done about it. He could not face the prospect of being seen. Remembering what happened to the woman in his dream, he would not allow any other nightmare prophecy to make its way into his reality. With sleepless eyes and a weary heart, he began to board up each and every window, door, and mousehole. And as the last traces of natural light were snuffed out, he saw his once pleasant home turn to a detention cell.
The first few days we’re the unkindest to Charlie. He wept first for his tulips. Imagining them being overtaken and slowly consumed by the weeds he so vehemently kept at bay. Picturing their gentle petals gnawed on by the mammalian inhabitants of the forest. Charlie then wept for his dreams. He would never get to see his garden full of life and conversation. No one would hear his songs or enjoy the sweet smells of his flowers. It made him wonder if he would have been better off just trying to enjoy his own company all these years instead of yearning for other’s.
By the end of the first week, Charlie was confined to his bedroom because he was no longer able to stoop low enough to duck beneath the rafter between his bedroom and kitchen. By the end of the second, he could no longer stand straight up without making-contact with the ceiling and was forced to shift between crouching or laying in the fetal position. He laid there, deep in thought, trying to find some semblance of a silver lining. The only thing he was thankful for was the boards on his windows obstructing his view to his garden. He wasn’t sure he could take seeing his tulips fall to ruin as well as himself.
It was at around the month benchmark. No matter what position Charlie sat, kneeled, or laid, pieces of furniture stabbed into his body. The rubble that was once his bed was now splinters in his shins and his dresser dug sharply into the space between his second and third left rib. His spine had caused small fissures to spread in the rafters of his vaulted ceiling and he now pressed uncomfortably against the dark wood. He expanded in shallow breaths and with each inspiration, the pressure against the ceiling mounted. He would sometimes hear the little musings of wooden boards give way. A snap here or a crack there terrified him. His sanctuary would not hold him for much longer.
Because of the shallow breaths coupled with his bent posture, Charlie had been suffering from a mild hypoxia. Lightheadedness gave way to confusion and soon enough, he sank into a dreamlike state. In his delirium, he was no longer confined to his claustrophobic dwelling. He dreamed he was back in his garden.
The space around him felt effortless. Like time was somehow moving slightly slower than Charlie. Just slow enough to take each moment in fully, wholly, as it was. The breeze danced along his cheekbones and the sunlight swaddled him tightly. It all felt different than before. Like it was entirely there this time. Not missing any pieces to the puzzle. Not a puzzle, he thought. There were no pieces, no parts, no links to go missing. It was home.
He felt the grass in his hands. Tangible, genuine, impressionable. The heard the sounds of the trees. Their words, verbose and prosaic. He stepped forth and felt his knees extend on cathedral-door hinges. Heavy and burdened but willing. He felt pressure in his chest as he approached the bed of tulips. His precious cultivation was calling to him in an unspoken but omnipotent language. Consumed with every step, the will to reach his creation sustains him but barely. At the foot of the flowerbed, he topples limply into them.
Rather than being crushed under his weight, the tulips embrace the wilted body, and the crash makes almost no sound at all. Charlie is lucid as he watches the light pass through the leaves of the trees above. Reflexively, his body retracted into itself. Gently rolling onto his side, his arms and legs withdrew into his chest. Bathed in light, he had returned to the place he kept safe for himself. His eyelids became heavy and a part of him wondered if this is what a final resting place is meant to feel like. Peace.
He felt the tulips envelop him. Their roots and stems begin to fasten and intertwine around his fatigued form. The light passing through the spaces in the lattice become scant and he feels himself being to unravel beneath the foliage but felt the sting of uncertainty. Not disturbed, but unready.
With what little room there is left beneath his leafy cocoon, he managed to plant his palms upon the rich soil. His complete absence of vitality was proven fundamentally dishonest as he began feeling the pressure of the roots and vines against his back. What starts as light snaps and tears become heavy fractures. Charlie can feel the first stitches of light through the cracks in his canopy and soon the shelter gives way.
Standing, Charlie was blinded by light. Not soft and maternal as before, but harsh and oppressive. He felt the breeze as well. But it did not dance as it did before. It seemed to slice thick channels through the spaces between his appendages, chilling him to the bone. It was then that he realized.
Still adjusting to the light, the Charlie was forcefully torn from his illusion. The feeling of utter nakedness came just moments before absolute mortal fear. Shock proceeded. Followed by a momentary regret of not giving into his delusion and fading away into his flowerbed. By this time, the image of Charlie’s surroundings was beginning to become clear.
The scene was mosaic. Though overgrown and partially neglected, the garden retained its beauty in a new, symbiotic way. It was no longer an oasis, constantly resisting the diplomatic engagements taken by the forest perimeter. But rather, a welcome addendum to what already seemed complete.
Despite the implications, Charlie did not feel he did in his nightmares. His legs felt atrophied, his voice thin. He felt in no way tremendous. He was not looking down upon his flowers nor did he feel monstrous strength behind his flesh. He felt small, weak, and fractured. It was then that he finally let his gaze fall to his feet.
He felt wholly mistaken. What was once his mighty bastion, now little more than splintered wood and fragmented cement. His home, far more than he; had become small, weak, and terribly fractured. He knelt just briefly to ensure that he was in no way deceived by the sight.
Shifting bits of rubble around with his forefinger, he scraped his hand around the bedroom, then what had once resembled a kitchen, and finally the dining room. The wreckage was all but unrecognizable until something shiny caught a small fractal of light through the debris. Charlie managed to grasp between his thumb and forefinger, the candleholder that at one time had been the centerpiece of his dining room table. Now barely a toothpick in Charlie’s hand.
All at once, the unkempt grounds and forest came back to him. Still, just as he left them. There was only a moment of mourning. An instant of remembrance for his home. He remembered it spitefully, for it had been a prison for much longer than he had been boarded inside.
He embraced his flowers briefly. For they looked back at him with fervent familiarity. He was just the same. Bare, disheveled, but in no way disproportional to the world around him. No larger than the day he first stepped onto the grounds.
Then, without another glance, Charlie began a determined and unsteady pace into the wood. Naked and fragmented, leaving the image of home in his wake.