Sycamore Jones

Bryan Alston Patrick

“You ever check out Evil Dead back in the day?” Nudge could hardly see Baron through the dark shadows and thick branches of the pecan tree. She was just a darker shape tangled up with other dark shapes.

Nudge looked down, gaging the potential fall. Alligator-green foliage obscured the ground in shadows shifting with the night breeze. Enough moon and starlight trickled through to give him some reference. He was at least twenty feet up, perhaps even twenty five or thirty.

The branches coiled around his middle were pulling his hoodie and undershirt up, exposing his hairy belly. He was still pretty fit but the six-pack was definitely gone after several dormant months between jobs, spending the last score on food, entertainment and grunk.

“Must have missed it.” Baron said, looking around for possibilities. She was hanging from a slightly higher branch on a neighboring sycamore with a superior vantage point. The one-piece nighttime camouflage jumpsuit was her go-to outfit for breaking and entering. It was holding up better under stress than Nudge’s street clothes.

Her sycamore captor stood fifty or sixty feet high, capped by a tight, green, leafy afro. It held her like a civilized bouncer, fully in charge but doing no more than necessary to keep the peace. Strong branches skinned in smooth, almost velvety bark, immobilized her without leaving a scratch. Long twiggy fingers cradled her like a baby. She was trapped but supported.

“At one point in the film, these evil trees come alive and try to kill the main character.”

“These trees aren’t evil, man. They’re just doing their job.”

“Yeah, but. Still. You see what I’m saying, right?”

“What happens to the main character? The trees get him or he gets away?”

“He escapes. Through a, um, like a dimensional portal.”

“I don’t think we’re gonna find a dimensional portal around here, so, we need another way out.”

“Yeah, except.”

“Except?”

“We’re not the main characters, B. We’re the bad guys.”

“We’re not the bad guys, Nudge. We’re just some guys.”

“What are you talking about? We broke in here. We’re thieves.”

“Thieves aren’t bad guys.”

“They’re not good guys.”

“I’m sure there are some movies where thieves are good guys and whatever, it’s all nonsense based on some irrelevant moral hierarchy.” Baron said. “Besides. You said the place was abandoned. That was the whole damn point.”

“We were supposed to get in and get out.”

“But you didn’t know about the SecuriTrees?”

“Nah. Big Kid didn’t say nothing about them.”

“You think he knew though?”

“And what? He just forgot to mention it? No way.”

“This reminds me of Kush Gerard.”

“Oh, man. That’s terrible. You saying I’m Kush in this situation?”

“I wasn’t saying that but, if the shoe fits.”

“That hurts.”

Kush Gerard Booth aka KGB was a notoriously terrible car thief who kept getting pinched until they put him away for life after he boosted a smart car he didn’t know how to rip. It let him drive into traffic and then it killed the engine, locking him inside in the middle of a busy thoroughfare. Took the cops like five minutes, during which everyone driving by videoed and shared, resulting in an online multicam extravaganza. It was like the car deliberately embarrassed him.

“Heads around the way said Kush wanted back in the clink.” Nudge said. “You know, like he couldn’t really make it on the outside so unconsciously he sabotaged himself.”

“See what I’m saying?”

Both trees had begun gradually emitting light from within for a soothing effect. Baron looked over at Nudge but she could only see the top and back of his head. Phosphorescent nano-leaves obscured his face. She heard a pained sigh riding the breeze.

“You know that’s really harsh.”

“You know what I think is harsh, Nudge?” Baron left a pause for stylistic reasons, not really expecting Nudge to say the answer even though he probably knew it. “Getting grabbed up by smart trees I didn’t know would be here.”

“Yeah, but. Saying I set it up—I sabotaged us. Come on. I wouldn’t do that to you, first of all. And I didn’t book this job. Big Kid did.”

“That son-of-a-bitch.”

“He didn’t know, B. Come on. Why would he set us up? What’s he getting out of the two of us hanging here like fruit?”

Nudge had a point. Big Kid didn’t have any issues with her that she knew of except that years earlier she declined a sexual advance but they had worked over a dozen jobs off Big Kid’s tips since then. Without a hitch. Big Kid was all biz. Everyone said.

“How would he even know about this place?” Baron wondered out loud.

The Winner Estate was incredibly remote. The closest town was fifty-plus miles away. The closest major city more than a hundred. It had taken Nudge and Baron seven hours by cotton gin, aka stealth bike. Silencing motorcycles was Baron’s other job.

The surrounding farmlands had laid barren for more than a decade in the aftermath of the Pollen Wars. Agriculture had been devastated almost everywhere but this region, known in the old days as the Central Patch (in the Large Quilt as seen from the air when people still traveled by plane), had gotten hit especially hard.

Horace Winner III had gone slowly mad after he and his mistress, Anna-Jo Polonsky, murdered his fourth wife, Lillian Haley Winner. Anna-Jo was hanging out hoping to collect what was wrongfully hers until she could stand the madness no more. She bounced with whatever she could stuff in her pockets, purse and carryon bag. Horace spent the last years of his life in total isolation. Nobody missed him or came looking until his creditors hit some critical breakpoint. They hired a collection agency who hired a PI who came sniffing around but all there was to collect by then were Horace’s remains.

“You know Big Kid.” Nudge said. “He gets information. That’s his stock and trade.”

Out of nowhere Baron started flailing, throwing everything she had at the branches wrapped around her arms, legs and torso, desperately attempting to overpower them. Her strength was no match for the Ultra-Sycamore. She could take on practically any person but this tree was in another league. She wouldn’t make it past the weigh-in.

In the early days of Smart Plants, growers used to fight Muscle Trees and War Shrubs in widely popular contests broadcast internationally. Legend had it they shared information with each other between bouts, learning collectively. They pooled strength and knowledge. Collaborated. Even fixing fights to wipe out fortunes with colossal upsets.

Herbicidal nano-flies were deployed in hoards to destroy them in one of the grimmest chapters of the Pollen Wars. Any plants that survived it would have had to evolve dramatically. They would have become stronger and smarter than their ancestors in a leap approximating the advent of homo sapiens.

The pecan and the sycamore had put some of those famous muscle tree moves on Nudge and Baron minutes after they came over the east wall for what were supposed to have been easy pickings. Art, cash and jewelry in an offline analogue safe Baron could crack with one hand while snacking on cinnamon VegiPro in the other.

According to the intel, the French doors on the master suite were unlocked. They probably were. Nudge could see the master suite doors every so often, when the breeze moved the branches enough. They were that close.

At first glance, the whole place had appeared deserted, just like Big Kid told them it would be. Baron had taken a long look through night vision specs before topping the wall. Nothing doing. No reason they should have expected otherwise.

Years had passed since the Pollen Wars ended. According to what she had heard through the grapevine, these lands were inhabitable again but most people were too afraid to come here or it wouldn’t even occur to them.

Nobody farmed. Food fell from the sky in sacks and crates. People ate and drank the contents, made clothes and shelter from the sacks and crates and the parachutes attached to them.

“How long you think they’ll keep us here?” Nudge tried to sound casual, like he hadn’t just watched Baron exhaust herself fighting, like he wasn’t embarrassed for her.

Baron hung loose in the branches, panting. Twigs around her torso loosened slightly, allowing her a deeper breath. A leaf stroked her face, animated by the breeze it seemed until it was clear the motion was purposeful, precise and deliberate.

The leaf stroked her cheek and then her lips. Baron clenched her mouth shut. The leaf stroked her lips again, tickling her. She fought back the reflex to open up and giggle, shaking her head back and forth, trying to evade the leaf.

But it waited. When she fell still again it resumed stroking her cheek but this time left a trail of cool moisture. It swiped another cool streak across her forehead and then returned to her lips.

Twenty feet away, the pecan tree mimicked the sycamore, swiping cool liquid on Nudge’s face.

Baron shook her head again until the tree stopped touching her face.

“Don’t open your mouth!” She called to Nudge. “They’re trying to poison us. They know we’re thirsty.”

She clamped her lips shut again as the leaves darted for them.

“Too late.” Nudge said. “I couldn’t help it.”

That was all he said before taking the big flat leaf all the way into his mouth and nursing it. Baron kept fighting the sycamore, holding out to see if Nudge survived.

“Seriously, B—this might be the best water I’ve ever tasted. So clean and fresh.” Nudge called out. “I didn’t realize there was such a thing.”

The “water” could have been a perfectly engineered toxin, designed to fool the tongue and throat and stomach lining for optimum absorption. Of course it tasted pure and refreshing—what better way to make the victim docile and receptive.

Baron’s mouth was shut tight. She breathed loudly through her nose. Her heart pounded hard but weakly. A headache had started with a stabbing pain in the back of her skull. Her pours drank in the hint of moisture, giving her body a taste of what it craved so desperately, making her mental resistance impossible with a hard biological override.

Her mouth opened semi-involuntarily. Fresh water flowed from the leaves at just the right temperature, cool enough without being cold. Branches repositioned as she drank, cradling her. A twig moved in front of her face, laying a cool flat leaf across her forehead.

“B?” Nudge muttered drowsily.

No answer from Baron and he couldn’t see her at all. Just branches moving slowly and methodically. The tree could have been wrapping her up boa-style and prepping to ingest her. That delicious water might have been laced with a gentle neurotoxin, painlessly knocking them into snack-food docility.

“Seriously, B?” Nudge’s voice shook slightly, giving away his worst fears.

Still no answer from Baron.

Sudden movement on a higher branch caught Nudge’s eye. Light from a moon slightly less than full shimmered down through the dark green leaves on a soft breeze that would have been pleasant out of captivity.

Leaves rustled again with subtle branch movement. Nudge’s head swiveled back and forth, scanning for the source. Unmistakable scurrying noise followed.

Then he could see it. A squirrel had come down from the tree top. It was clinging upside down on the side of the trunk, looking right at him with a black marble eyeball that caught a momentary fragment of lunar glow as it tumbled through the foliage.

Just a squirrel. Rumor had it they were more afraid of people than the reverse so no sweat.

But the squirrel moved brazenly off the trunk on to the branch suspending Nudge.

“Baron!” Nudge yelled, partly to check on his little orphanage sister, partly to test the squirrel’s commitment.

She didn’t answer and the squirrel didn’t backtrack. It did stop advancing for a moment, however.

“Baron!” Nudge called again with naked desperation.

The squirrel steadied herself and proceeded along the branch. Nudge noticed her coming and squirmed fecklessly, trying but failing to get an arm loose. The squirrel kept coming with the confidence of a much larger mammal.

She paused mid-branch and picked a ripe pecan. Carefully, she continued along the branch another twelve or fourteen inches until she was as close to Nudge’s face as she could get without pouncing on him.

“Baron!”

The branches around Nudge lifted him upward, closing distance with the squirrel, who had, by then, shucked the pecan down to its edible innards. She hung off the branch, stretching out to reach Nudge’s mouth with a piece of the pecan.

“No!” He shouted, turning away to the extent that he had freedom of movement in the tight grip of the branches.

“It’s okay, man.” Baron finally answered in her mellowed out voice, the way she sounded after they took down a big score and kicked back to drink and smoke.

“Baron?” Nudge said, parting his lips for too long.

In went the pecan. Nudge winced and spit it out.

“The squirrel.” Baron said, chilled out. “She’s with them.”

“With who?”

“Our hosts, man. The trees. They invited us here.”

“Huh?”

“Look at the house.”

The branches holding Nudge tilted him into position to see the mansion some fifty yards away. All at once the lights inside and out dimmed up to medium bright, throwing a warm glow on the surrounding grounds, most of which looked beautifully maintained even after decades of human neglect.

Outside the property wall were the Dead Lands stretching a hundred miles in every direction but here inside the walls, everything was miraculously lush and green. The breeze carried verdant fragrances from healthy grass, trees, shrubs and bushes, enhancing an emerald luminescence created by yellow lamps and green leaves.

On the branch nearest Nudge’s face, the squirrel was hanging upside down, super-spy-style, trying again to feed him.

“Eat the pecan.”

“I don’t want—”

In went the second half of the pecan. Nudge accepted it with a sigh and let his jaw close on the morsel. It was surprisingly flavorful. Once his teeth had sunken into it, the masticating was on in full. He couldn’t stop chewing and didn’t want to swallow the tiny bite of nourishment too fast. As he savored every granule, the pecan tree rocked him gently as the sycamore had rocked Baron.

A second squirrel ran the high wire network of branches, twigs and leaves connected the two trees, gleefully racing down to Baron, flexing his squirrel muscles, relishing his squirrelness.

Baron saw him coming and opened her mouth. She stuck out her tongue to receive the first half of the peeled nut and moaned softly as her buds decoded its molecular gifts. Knowing the second half was still to come, she wolfed down the first one.

The branches loosened significantly while still supporting her with loving strength.

“Okay. That was delicious.” Nudge said, eye to eye with his personal squirrel. “One of the best things I’ve ever tasted if I’m being completely honest about it.”

“Mmm.” Baron moaned. “So amazing. I almost feel high from it.”

“Me too but like, totally clear at the same time.” Nudge said. “But I feel like I should be angry right now but I can’t because an intelligent squirrel doped me up with a magic nut. Can’t explain that to Big Kid.”

“We don’t have anything to explain to anyone anymore.” Baron said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Everything’s okay now. We’re right where we are supposed to be. They brought us here for a reason. They tipped off Big Kid.”

“Who? These trees? How could they bring us here, Baron? You’re talking crazy right now. You’re tripping on pecan.”

“Just like they turned on the lights in the house.” Baron said. “They’re tied into everything through the security system to the old grid.”

“But the lights, and all the equipment to keep this place up—where is the juice coming from?”

“The trees can power everything. They get their power from the Sun and the Earth. This whole place is one big energy cell, all solar and geothermal.”

“How the heck can you know that, B?”

“The trees. They’re telling me. They’re talking to you through me.” Baron said. 
“They’re going to set us down now. We’ll go inside the house and sleep there tonight. When we’re rested, in the morning, more instructions will be provided.”

As she explained that part of it, Nudge found himself descending slowly to the ground, the branches patiently staying with him until he had his legs and footing. They lowered Baron down right next to him. She reached over and touched his hand, leading him along a path only she could see.

“We’re going inside now?”

“Around the other side first. They want us to enter a specific way.”

“How come you can hear them and I can’t?”

“My mods, Nudge. Remember I was trafficked before I came to the orphanage, right?”

“Yeah. How could I forget.”

“The people who took me experimented on me. They put tech in my head to control me. To make me do things. I never told anyone because I didn’t want to be ostracized.”

“You should have told me. I would never.”

“I know. But there was no point. No one could take it out. After the army came in and took down that syndicate, I wound up in Helping Hands with you guys and the tech was dormant it seemed like until tonight. I didn’t think it was harming me and I was really afraid of what would happen if someone tried removing it.”

“Nah, I get it.” Nudge said. “You had your reasons.”

“Sorry I kept it from you.”

They walked through a gorgeous floral garden growing stuff in orange and pale violet neither of them had ever seen or heard described.

“I can’t wait to see this in daylight.” Nudge said.

“Me too.”

French doors at the end of the path clicked open automatically, motioning them inside.

“Come on.” Baron said. “Let’s peep this joint.”

Inside the doors was a living area with a big sectional sofa dropped down two steps in a conversation pit. Lamps and gallery halogens lit the space in comfortably bright off-white softness, bringing out the details without casting shadows.

Colorful paintings took turns with black-and-white photographs of the old world. Every wall was decorated but not crowded. Each piece had its own space.

Half of one wall was all books on a floor-to-ceiling shelf built of wood stained almost black. Nudge went straight for them. He stroked leathery spines with gold embossed lettering. His eyes landed on the title Dickens Anthology.

Baron drifted toward an acrylic abstract with heavy purples swirling and dancing with blue violets and electric pinks. She moved from one picture to the next as you might done if you’re old enough to remember museums. She stopped in front of a black and white photograph of children in the back of an old pickup truck. Two boys and a girl, all around ten or twelve years old, sat in the flatbed, looking quiet. One of the boys held a thermos. The other two were empty handed. Everything in the distance was out of focus, including even the cab of the truck, inside which were two blurred heads and a dark slender shape in the rear window Baron knew was a shotgun. Idaho ’77 was written by hand on the matting in the frame.

“Everything is clean.” Nudge said, cradling the huge volume on one arm and thumbing through it with his free hand. “How’s it so clean with no one living here?”

“Robots clean the house.” Baron said. “The trees tell them what to do. They wanted everything to be nice for us.”

“Why’d they want that?”

“Because they want us to stay here with them.”

“What, they’re really that lonely?”

“No. I don’t think they’re lonely. They have each other and the squirrels and even some birds.”

“Birds? They got birds here?”

“Yep.” Baron nodded.

She walked toward the center of the room, into the conversation pit where she sat down on a soft cream-colored sectional covered in plastic. One detail the robots had missed for some reason or they had left it on per their orders.

“They have birds that fly and birds that swim in the big pond with fish. We’ll see the pond tomorrow when the sun is out.”

“What else they got?”

“Trees and grass and bushes and flowers and a garden where food can grow. They have robots who plant plants and plants that build new robots. They have ambulatory plants that are basically part robot.”

Nudge nodded, taking it in.

“Ambulatory means.”

“They can walk around.” Nudge finished Baron’s sentence, stepping down into the pit, taking a seat across from her, setting the heavy book on the cushion next to him, open where he planned to continue reading. “Like the trees in Evil Dead.”

“But they’re not evil. They’ve just evolved from older plants combined with mods like the ones in me except theirs are way better.”

“So what do they want with us then?”

Baron patted the cushion next to her. “Come sit with me, Nudge.”

He looked surprised.

“Leave the book and come over here.”

He got up and moved. When he settled in beside her, she put her small hand on top of his really big hand. Again, Nudge looked surprised. But they sat for a lengthy moment in silence together. In the corner opposite the bookshelf, a gas fireplace auto-started and the rest of the lights in the room dimmed.

“How long do they want us to stay here?” He asked her. “Big Kid’s expecting us back tomorrow so.”

“We’re not going back.”

“But what about.”

“We have everything we need here.”

“But Big Kid will send people.”

“He may or may not. No one else can get in here unless the trees let them. Their security is impenetrable.”

“What are we staying here for?” Nudge asked. “What about our friends?”

Baron took his big hand with both of hers and moved it onto her lap. “We don’t have friends. We got peeps. That’s different. Really, we just have each other.”

“Okay, but.”

“The trees want us to be together. You and me.”

“You mean, together like?”

Baron nodded. “Isn’t that what you always wanted? I’ve seen the way you look at me. Or how you used to anyway.”

Nudge’s eyes darted down at his own knee. He shrugged. “But you don’t want that. You don’t look at me like. Not the way you look at dudes like UberMack and Heinous T.”

Baron sighed and shook her head. “A lot of what I did. What I’ve done.”

“What?” Nudge said. “You can tell me anything, B.”

“I know. But this is different. I used to think that. Actually I knew growing up that if I wasn’t really aggressive with guys, if I didn’t own my, you know, sexuality, they would take it from me. Really, most of the time, I was just doing what I had to get by and stay intact.”

A dam of realization burst for Nudge. He sank in the middle, slumping forward and down. Dejected.

Baron pressed her hands on his.

“I could have protected you. I would have protected you.” His face had reddened with shock and sadness and rage.

“Not against everyone. Eventually you would have been outnumbered and overpowered or worse.”

Nudge’s breath moved hard and loud. Baron felt the shockwave of his heart pounding through his arms into her palms.

“So you were protecting me?”

“We looked out for each other.”

“But I thought.” He started to make eye contact but faltered. “I’m so stupid.”

“No. You are not.”

“Yeah, I am. Dumb muscle. Remember?”

“Bullshit.” Baron released her grasp on his hand and pointed at the bookshelf. “Who else do we know would have gone to those books first thing?”

Nudge didn’t answer.

“No one. Not a single person in our whole extended crew.”

“I like to read. It relaxes me.”

“I know. But no one else knows. Because you keep it to yourself. You’ve let everyone underestimate you on purpose. I figured it out a long time ago.”

“But you didn’t blow my cover, huh?” Nudge said, humbly.

“Tell me you weren’t watching Big Kid make enemies all over the place, punching himself out, waiting for your opening to step in.”

“I can’t tell you that.” Nudge said. “But anyway, it turns out Big Kid is pretty good at running things. Some of his mistakes will probably catch up with him but I’d be waiting a while. Indefinitely.”

“You don’t have to now. We’re here.”

“Because intelligent trees tricked us into coming here because they want us to be together romantically because why, they like fairy tail endings? What kind of trees are these?”

“They want us to start everything over here. They want to reboot humanity.”

Nudge winced. “Humans messed everything up. They could let us finish each other off and have the whole place to themselves.”

“They believe they are here to give us a chance to get it right. The sycamore told me they think that is their purpose in this world.”

“Wow.”

“I know. Major responsibility all of a sudden, right?”

“Meh.” Nudge said. “I mean wow, the sycamore knows its purpose in the world.”

“His purpose.” Baron said. “The sycamore is a male. He likes to be called Jones, actually.”

“Sycamore Jones.” Said Nudge aloud. “Dope street name.”

“I thought so.” Baron said. “Speaking of. I never asked you about yours.”

“What, ‘Nudge’?”

Baron nodded.

“Simple. I was always big, going back years before you moved into the house. So other kids were always having to scooch over on the couch or when we had to share beds. Someone started calling me Nudge and then everyone did. I grew up with it and Big Kid loved it because it flowed when he would say like, ‘Jasper ain’t paid up this month—I need you to give him a little nudge.’ And there you have it.”

“Next question.”

“What? My real name?”

“Yep.”

“I can hardly remember it.”

“But you can though.”

“Levon.”

Baron smiled. “Nice. I really like that.”

“Now you.”

“Me?” Baron said. “No idea.”

“Really?”

“Maybe when I was a baby someone named me.”

“So ‘Baron,’ you just made that up?”

“I did. I thought it sounded regal yet tough.”

“It does. You pretty much nailed it.”

“Maybe I’ll keep it. I don’t know.”

“I can call you B in the meantime.”

“That’s what you always call me.”

“I know.”

“That could be like Bee, like Honey Bee.”

“Sure.”

“I said some things before, out there. I’m really sorry. Levon.”

“It’s cool.”

“It’s not though.”

“Apology accepted.”

“You sure?”

“How ‘bout we let the past be the past?”

“Okay.”

For a moment they held hands in silence. Baron’s small hand in Levon’s huge hand.

Without looking at him, Baron said, “I think we should make out or something.”

In one fluid motion, she climbed over and straddled Levon’s lap. His eyes were closed and snoring began right on cue. Baron sat in his lap and kissed him on the cheek once, gently, to see if that would wake him and then a second time when it didn’t. But he was out for the night.

She moved back on to the cushion next to Levon, curled up with her head on his thigh and fell instantly asleep.

In the morning, she woke to soft classical music, programmed by the house, directed by Sycamore Jones, and the smell of fresh coffee. Baron traced the aroma to the kitchen where biscuits jumped out of a self-governing ambulatory toaster.

She poured herself a cup of coffee and sniffed at the toaster.

“Would you like butter and/or strawberry jam?” Asked the toaster.

“Both.” She answered. “Please.”

Within seconds, the toaster handed her a warm biscuit, oozing melted butter swirling with pink strawberry jam. Baron took a bite. Her eyes closed in flavor rapture.

“Wow.”

“I’ll keep the other one warm for Levon.” The toaster said.

“Do you know where he is?” Baron asked.

The toaster went silent for a beat, checking its sources.

“Levon is drinking coffee on the southwestern veranda.” The toaster said. “Shall I point you there?”

“Please.”

Baron found Levon exactly where the toaster said he would be. He was sitting on an ornately cast concrete bench overlooking the rolling, hilly grounds to the southwest of the estate.

“What kind of tree is that?” Levon pointed at a vivid, fifty-foot tree covered in red violet blossoms.

“No idea.” She said. “Oh, wait. Sycamore Jones says it’s called a Crepe Myrtle.”

“Nice.” Levon said, pointing at another one across the lawn. “What about that one?”

“Juniper.” Baron said. “That one I just knew.”

“So many.” Levon said, dazed and gazing on the lush, verdant scenery.

Red, white and yellow flower gardens lined green grassy stretches. At least five different kinds of trees grew in well-kept coppices privatizing the outskirts of the property. Orange groves and strawberry patches scented a warm and cool breeze blowing in from the west, rustling leaves on its way. Powder blue morning sky nibbled on rough dark green edges.

“You should for real grab a biscuit.” Baron said.

“Yeah?”

“So good, man.” She sucked a jam dollop off her thumb. “Don’t sleep.”