“It’s called what?” I leaned in and peered at the seed packet in Cara’s hand. We’d just eaten and were settling onto the couch in our apartment when Cara pulled the packet from her purse.
“Brain Fruit,” she said, tapping on the packet instructions with one manicured nail. “See, it grows best in sunlight or strong natural window light. So a person just needs to be in a room with lots of windows.”
“Huh.” I set down my wine on the coffee table. I was on my third glass and having a hard time processing what I was reading on the seed packet. “Needs no direct watering, but be sure to drink lots of fluids. Plant three seeds per brain.” I leaned back on the couch. “Wait. Per brain?”
“Because then you thin the seedlings to the strongest plant, see. Just like regular seedlings.” Cara turned the packet over to show me a drawing of a person’s head with what looked like broccoli growing from the top. From the stem’s crown hung half a dozen grayish-red orbs on green tendrils. The illustration would have been funny if not for the slack, stoned expression on the man’s face, his eyes half closed.
“Wait,” I said, pointing to the label. “This is self-hypnosis. It says, ‘Plant powerful seeds of suggestion in your mind.’ Maybe it’s about positive affirmations. Must be a marketing thing. Did you pick it up from one of the tables at the job fair you went to today?”
“Yes.” Cara looked inside the packet, then folded down the top. “Sure looks like real seeds. It even says the brains take about 62 days to ripen.” She tossed it onto the coffee table and refilled both our wine glasses, emptying the bottle. “I wouldn’t mind trying it, though, Jess. I could use more brains.”
I laughed, but Cara’s expression held no mirth. She’d been laid off her job a month ago due to budget cuts and was feeling useless at the moment, especially since she’d been finishing up their five-day company retreat in the deep woods where she’d slept in a tent and participated in daily team building activities. On the last day of the retreat, most of the employees had been informed that the company was downsizing and they’d be let go.
“Look, you have all the brains you need, lady,” I said, and clinked my glass with hers in a toast. “It was about budget, not intelligence.”
“Yeah, but they kept certain people for a special fast track to promotion,” she said. “I wasn’t selected for it. Maybe I didn’t do fly fishing well enough, or it could be because I screamed all the way down the zipline.”
I had no insight into this since I didn’t work for the same company she did. We’d been apartment roomies for six months and found we both liked cooking gourmet food, watching old movies, and drinking good wine. I patted her arm. “You’ll find something. It’s all about politics and who you know.”
“I guess.” She didn’t look convinced.
When Cara went off to bed a little later, I opened the packet to see about a dozen of what must be the tiniest seeds on the planet. If they were even seeds. They looked like specks of black dust that could float away on the slightest breeze.
I read over the rest of the instructions although the wine I’d consumed made the words somewhat blurry. Dig a hole in top of head approximately 7 mm deep. Plant three seeds and thin to 1 strong seedling when 2 inches tall. Stalk grows up to 1 ft and produces juicy, round fruit approx. 2.5 inch in diameter. Eat right off the stalk for an instant pick-me-up, slice over cereal, or process into juice, jam, or jelly. Makes a smart snack for work or school. For recipes, check our website!
I scoffed and shook my head. The whole idea of a fruit plant growing out of a person’s brain was clever but disgusting. It had to be a marketing ploy by the self-hypnosis company to play off the idea of planting the seeds of suggestion. The website address was at the bottom of the seed packet, but I was too tired to check it now. I’d do it in the morning after I’d had my coffee, if I had time before leaving for work. I set the packet on the coffee table and crawled into bed.
The next morning, I’d gotten off the train and had almost reached my workplace before I remembered to check the website on the seed packet. What was it? Something with the word ‘mindfulness’ in it. At my desk, I searched for sites that had anything to do with mindfulness and planting seeds of suggestion. I found the one I thought might be from the packet, and glanced over it. As expected, the company sold audios for self-hypnosis as well as items for meditation: crystals, music, mats and cushions, oils, singing bowls, and candles, among other items meant to help send a person into deep meditation. The seed packets were a promotional item to give to gardener friends who might need some meditation in their lives. Clever idea. I’d have to show Cara the site when I got home today. Maybe she could get into some meditation to help her relax while she looked for another job.
After an afternoon of web development planning meetings, I left the building at around six pm and headed to the grocery store to pick up ingredients to make chocolate ganache truffles for dessert tonight. Cara would be putting together dinner, and I was in charge of dessert. Of course, if she needed to budget her expenses, I’d pay her back. I needed to remember to tell her that. She’d seemed so down last night.
I opened the apartment door and stood in the entryway.
Cara had apparently done some research on relaxation or meditation. Candles sat on the side tables, coffee table, and along the floor of the hall leading to our bedrooms. Soft, ambient music floated from Cara’s bedroom. A scent in the air — had to be sage — wafted throughout the apartment.
I smiled and took the bag of groceries into the kitchen and set it on the counter. Cara apparently hadn’t started preparations for dinner. “Hey, Cara,“ I called out. “I got stuff for dessert.”
She didn’t reply, which made me think she was sleeping. Or maybe meditating. All the time she’d lived in the apartment with me, I’ve never seen her meditate or heard her talk about it. The candles, the sage scent, and the relaxing music coming from her bedroom were new to me.
I left the kitchen to go to her bedroom. The door was open a crack, so I opened it another inch and peered in. “Cara?”
My view was of her dresser right inside the door. Beyond that was a closet. I couldn’t see Cara, so I opened the door wider and poked in my head. The music was playing, the incense was burning, but Cara was not in her room.
Where was she? I turned away from the door. It could be that she’d left the apartment, maybe to go grocery shopping or job-hunting, or to an interview. But why would he leave incense and candles burning? Talk about a fire hazard.
A few feet further down the hallway was the bathroom, situated an equal distance between our bedrooms. I decided I would check in there, and my bedroom as well, to rule out any possibility of her still being in here.
Growing irritated and alarmed — it wasn’t like her to be so irresponsible — I went around blowing out candles. The incense was too strong, so I put that out too, and then opened a window in the kitchen and another in the living room. Only then did I see two red droplets on the top of one of the light gray armchairs. Blood-red. Fresh.
Heart pounding, my gaze went to the sliding glass door behind the chairs. The drapes were closed. To the right of the drapes was the drawstring to pull them open, and I grasped the string with growing trepidation. Cara was out of a job. She’d been down last night, her hands lying in her lap, her gaze downcast. I glanced at the couch where she’d sat last night, then at the coffee table where we’d looked at the strange seed packet. She thought they really were for a person’s brain.
The seed packet was gone.
I jerked the drapes open, hand over hand, and looked through the glass onto the tiny balcony. Cara sat on one of the blue plastic chairs, scrolling through her phone. My lungs emptied in a sigh of relief. I slid open the door. “You okay?”
She looked up from her phone. She wore sunglasses. “Yeah, fine. Why?”
“There’s blood on the chair.”
“Oh, that.” Cara held up an index finger, the tip wrapped in a bandaid. “I got a little cut when I started on dinner.”
I nodded although the kitchen counters held no signs of food preparation. A waft of incense floated out the door. “What about the candles and stuff? What’s up with all that? Are you into meditation now?”
The corners of her mouth turned down, and I adjusted my tone. “I mean, it’s okay, I don’t care. Just curious.”
“It’s my way of relaxing.” She stood, stumbled. One hand grabbed the balcony rail, and she lowered her head. Her chest rose in a deep breath. “I was feeling kind of depressed, so I got things to help me, okay?”
“No problem.” I stepped out onto the balcony. “Here, take my arm. You look pale.”
She waved me off. “I’m fine. Just got up too fast.”
I stepped aside and watched her trudge through the doorway. She didn’t look fine. She still wore the sunglasses, but what I could see of her face was pinched in a grimace. “Must’ve been a bad cut,” I said. “Mind if I take a look?”
Cara took off her sunglasses and peered at her bandaged finger. “It’s not bad. I’ll get the armchair cleaned, don’t worry. I need to go lie down. Headache.” She turned to go to her bedroom, but not before I saw her bloodshot eyes.
The next few days were strange. Cara rarely left her room. She hadn’t lit the candles or sage again, or played the meditation music. She spoke very little. I couldn’t get her to tell me what was wrong, but figured she was down because she hadn’t been able to find another job. I fixed several meals, but she hardly ate.
We had a long weekend due to a holiday. On Monday I suggested we go to the lake nearby and relax on what they called a beach: a stretch of sand along part of the lakefront that had been modified from its original grassy area, and had beach chairs and grills for cooking out. The ocean was several hours from us, so Todd Lake Beach was as close to a substitute as we could get. Poor man’s beach, people called it, but it was kept clean and family-oriented. I’d half expected Cara to refuse, but she raised her head from her pillow and said yes.
Her eyes. In the sunlight their redness was pronounced, and her brown irises seemed to have darkened almost to black. She put on her sunglasses as soon as we got into the car and left them on all afternoon.
We’d found two empty lounge chairs over on the far side of the beach, and had settled in to bask in the sun. After twenty minutes or so, I looked over at Cara’s slack face and wondered if she’d gone to sleep.
“Cara? Want to go into the water?” I asked.
She didn’t answer. Her mouth opened a bit, and she sighed and turned her head away from me. Yes, she was asleep. I decided not to bother her. Maybe she hadn’t been sleeping well.
I began to stand, but then paused, looking at the back of Cara’s head. Her ash-blond roots had started to show through the burgundy dye she’d kept up on her hair. A scab, small and rust-colored, showed through right behind the crown. It was about the size of a pencil eraser, easy to miss in her thick curls.
I leaned in closer, trying to get a better look, but Cara shifted in her sleep and the scab was hidden from view again. A shiver ran down my spine as I sat back down. I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off with Cara. Her behavior had been strange since Friday, and now this scab on her head. Was it related to the seed packet? Had she actually tried to hurt herself? I had to find out what was going on.
When Cara woke up, we went for a walk along the beach. I waited for the right moment to bring up my concerns. “Cara, can we talk?”
“Sure,” she said.
“I’m worried about you. You’ve been acting strange lately, and now I noticed a scab on your head. Is everything okay?”
Cara’s face darkened, and she looked away. “It’s nothing, really. Just a cut from my scissors. I was giving myself a trim.”
“Does this have anything to do with that seed packet you picked up at the job fair?”
“What seed packet?”
“The one that has that weird drawing of a guy on the front with a plant growing out of his head. I haven’t seen it since Friday night. Did you do something with it?”
Cara let out a sigh and pushed back her bags with her fingers. “Okay, fine. I did try the seeds. I didn’t think they would do anything, but it was worth a try. I passed out for a couple of minutes, but it’s healing fast.”
My steps faltered. “What do you mean, you tried them? And passed out? What did you do?”
“I followed the instructions.” She shrugged. “It was easy enough.”
I had stopped completely by then. Two kids trotted by kicking a red and blue beach ball. The sun blazed down on my head and shoulders. But I shivered. “You drilled a hole in your head…”
“More like poked the top of my head with a hammer and a nail. A little nail. Just a tiny hole. No big deal.”
She looked so tired, so nonchalant. I trembled as I reached for her arm. “You put those seeds into your brain, didn’t you. It wasn’t real. The seed packet was a joke. Oh God. Cara.”
Now she laughed a little. “I don’t think the nail reached my brain. After the first hit with the hammer, everything went black. And I didn’t even hit that hard. I would never intentionally hurt myself.”
“But you did hurt yourself, Cara.”
She took off her sunglasses and looked into my eyes. “I’m fine, Jess. Really. After I woke up with a headache and saw the blood in the tub, I decided to sprinkle the seeds into the hole I’d made as best I could. Most of them disappeared into my hair and the tub, but maybe some went in there. My head still hurts, but I’ll be okay.”
“Let’s at least go see a doctor. You may have cracked your skull. The wound might be getting infected.”
Cara shrugged off my arm. “Maybe. I’ll see how I feel in a few days. I can’t exactly afford any medical expenses right now.”
I was about to protest, but Cara’s bloodshot eyes had grown distant, as if she was lost in thought. Or about to faint. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Everything just feels… off. Like something’s watching me, or following me. I keep hearing whispers, but no one’s there.” She shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. “I’m probably just paranoid, but I can’t help feeling like something’s not right.”
I put a comforting arm around her shoulder. “It’s the wind in the trees. And kids are yelling. And don’t forget you have a head injury. Think about getting it checked, okay?”
I didn’t show it, but my own paranoia of Cara’s actions made me want to move out of the apartment. I knew I wouldn’t, though, not right now. I’d see this through and make sure she was okay. I just didn’t know how she could have done this to herself. She was a bright, intelligent woman. She must be depressed. And desperate.
That night, as I lay in bed, I heard Cara in her bedroom, muttering in her sleep.
This wasn’t unusual — she often talked in her sleep — but this time, she sounded agitated. Scared. I got up and turned on the hall light, then went to her room and gently pushed open the door.
Cara lay on her back, her head hanging off the side of the bed and facing me. Her face was pinched, her lips tight as she murmured the same phrase over and over.
“Feed it, feed it, feed it.”
I opened the door wider to let in more light, then stepped into the room, intending to make her more comfortable, to try to move her so that her head was on the pillow.
When I touched her shoulder, she sat straight up. Her back was to me now, and her head hung back, eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling. “Feed feed feed feed feed,” she repeated, voice high, urgent.
“Cara. What the hell. Wake up.” I took her shoulders and tried to turn her. Abruptly her mouth opened wide, and then she screamed.
I pulled away in shock. My foot hit the corner of her nightstand and I lost my balance. I crashed onto the floor, landing on my wrist, and cried out as hot pain shot up my arm.
Cara had now turned her body so that her legs dangled off the bed, and she stared at me, looking wide awake. “Jess? What are you doing?”
“My wrist,” I said on a moan. “I fell on it. You were having a nightmare.”
“Oh, no.” Cara stood, then fell back onto the bed and put her hands over the sides of her head. “I’m feeling really dizzy.”
I tentatively moved my wrist. No bones broken, I thought, but I’d definitely sprained it. “I need ice.”
Holding my wrist with my other hand, I went into the kitchen and got an ice pack from the freezer. I wrapped the pack in a towel, then rummaged through the linen closet where we kept first aid supplies. I found a bandage and wrapped my wrist as best as I could. Cara had remained quiet, and I wondered if she’d gone back to sleep. However, when I returned to look in on her, she had turned on the lamp and sat up against her pillows.
I held the icepack to my throbbing wrist. I had difficulty keeping the distress from my voice as I told her how I’d found her hanging off the bed and muttering something about feeding. “Something’s not right, Cara. You need to get help.”
Cara looked down at her lap and shook her head. “No, I can’t tell anyone. They’ll think I’m crazy.”
“But you need to do something. You can’t just ignore this. Go to an urgent care facility now. Have someone look at your wound. It’s probably getting infected.”
She looked up at me then, and her eyes had narrowed. “I can handle this on my own.”
“Let me at least check the wound. And take your temperature. You could have a fever.”
“I said no,” she said, her tone adamant. “Leave me alone. I’m fine.”
She was a grown woman, so I didn’t argue. “Just let me know what you want to do,” I said, and she nodded.
I stayed with her for a few more minutes, and then took a pain reliever and went back to bed. In the morning, she remained asleep as I made coffee one-handed and then fumbled with a bowl of cereal before leaving for work. I’d unwrapped the bandage around my wrist before my shower and was alarmed at the swelling and angry purple color. I could still bend it a little, so it must be a bad sprain. I thought I’d better go to the doctor after my morning meeting.
Cara was in the kitchen cooking when I returned from work. She’d put together a meal, and seemed more upbeat than I’d seen her in days. She smiled at me, then frowned at my wrist.
“It’s just a sprain,” I said. “The doctor put a brace on it.”
“I caused that,” Cara said. “I’m so sorry, Jess. Are you in any pain?”
I waved away her apology with my good arm. “No. The doctor gave me some pain meds. It’s all good.” Cara’s hair was greasy, and I was sure those wrinkled clothes she was wearing were the same she’d worn yesterday and maybe slept in last night. But she was smiling, and I hadn’t seen her do that in over a week. “Hey, looks like you’re feeling better,” I said.
“Yes, better than I was.” She touched her mouth, then tapped her chin with one finger. “Although I feel so nervous for some reason. Like, on edge. I don’t know why. And I still have a headache, but the spot is healing where I put the nail. That was stupid, I know.”
I shrugged. “You’re between jobs, maybe feeling lost. I’ve been there, believe me. As soon as you get settled into a new job, you’ll be fine.”
She might be even better if she got her head examined. It was rude of me to think that way, but something was definitely off about the person I’d lived with and gotten to know over the last six months. I hoped she’d get it together soon, maybe get some therapy. I sure didn’t want a repeat of what had happened last night.
I fixed the chocolate ganache truffles for dessert that I’d planned for last Friday and never got around to doing, and we enjoyed a normal meal. Well, almost normal, since Cara didn’t want any wine and didn’t talk much. This was unusual, but understandable since she wasn’t feeling good. In fact, since I’d come home, she’d grown more pale except for bright spots of color on her cheeks, and her eyes were even more bloodshot. She also kept glancing over her shoulder, then up to the ceiling and to the far wall.
“Something’s watching me,” she finally said. “I know it.”
The curtains were closed against the evening. “No one is here. Just me.” I stood. “I’ll put everything away. Why don’t you go relax on the couch, and we’ll watch a movie.” I would have suggested she take her temperature, but reminded myself again that she was an adult who could make her own decisions.
Cara got up and turned toward the living room as I reached across the table to pick up her plate. I froze.
“Wait. What is that?” I stared at the back of her head. “Cara,” I said on a breath. “There’s something…”
She turned back to me. “What?”
“Your head. Something is moving.”
Cara touched the top of her head.
“No,” I said. “The back. Where the scab is.”
“There’s another scab?” She put her fingers behind her head, and flinched. “What the hell?”
I rushed around the table to get a better look. Cara was breathing in harsh, shallow pants as I parted her hair.
A small, wriggling black lump poked out of the scab on her head. It pulsed as if trying to get out.
I put my hand over my mouth. “It’s…it’s a worm. Coming out of your head.”
Cara whimpered and ran to the bathroom. I followed. She clenched a hand mirror and looked at the back of her head in the medicine cabinet mirror. She gasped. “Get it out. Get it out, get it out!”
“Hold on.” I unwound a wad of toilet paper from the roll and gently tried to tug the thing out, but it wouldn’t budge. “Hold still,” I said, horrified. “This might hurt.”
She winced as I tugged again. The worm slid from the wound with a small sucking sound. About an inch long, it was moving frantically in the tissue.
“What the fuck is that?” Cara cried out, her voice shaking.
“I don’t know,” I said, trying to keep my composure. Bile rose to my throat. “But we need to get you to a doctor. Now.”
Cara nodded. Her face had lost all color. I drove her to the emergency room, where they admitted her immediately.
As we waited for the doctor to examine her, Cara held my hand tightly, her eyes wide with fear. I tried to comfort her, but I was just as terrified as she was. What had really been in that seed packet?
After the doctor finally came in and looked at the worm I’d brought along in a zip-lock bag, he then examined Cara’s head and gave her a grim look. “You’ve been infected with a parasitic worm known as a botfly,” he said. “But that’s not the biggest issue here. Your skull is injured, right on top of your head. I’m ordering a CT scan of your brain so we can see the extent of the damage.” He left and came back a moment later. “You’ll be taken up to imaging shortly. Can you tell me what happened? How you injured your head?”
“I hit my head on a sharp object,” Cara said. “I thought it would be okay.”
It was the truth, although she didn’t add that the sharp object had actually been a nail she’d driven into her scalp with a hammer.
“How did the worm get in there?” I asked.
“It can happen when the botfly lays its eggs on mosquitoes or other insects that then bite humans. The eggs hatch under the skin and develop into larvae. They feed off the host’s flesh until they’re fully grown and ready to emerge, usually after about thirty days.”
“Thirty days? But I hurt my head just a week ago.” Cara looked at me, eyes wide. “Wait a minute. The company retreat last month. We were in the woods and on a lake. Tons of insects everywhere.”
The doctor nodded. “It happens, but usually to animals more than people.” He examined the rest of Cara’s scalp carefully. “We’ll see if there are any more surprises, but I want to see what’s going on with this injury.”
What about the seeds from the packet? Were there any still in her wound? I wanted to ask, to tell the doctor everything. But one look from Cara made me keep my mouth shut.
Cara was taken up to get the CT scan, and I returned to the waiting room. Later, I was called to a room where Cara sat on the hospital bed wringing her hands. “More doctors were called in,” she said. “They found something weird.”
“No. Something at the spot where I hit myself with the nail.”
“Cara,” I said, and took her hand. “What did you do with the seed packet after you emptied it?”
“Threw it away,” she said.
“We should let the company that put out that packet know what happened,” I said. “Maybe other people really think those are seeds for the brain.”
“That’s just it,” she said, and looked toward the curtain that had been drawn across the tiny recovery room space where we sat. “They saw the seeds in the CT scan. Two of them. And they’ve sprouted. I have roots growing in my head.”
I sat back. This was serious. But then I pictured stalks growing out of Cara’s head along with some buzzing botflies. “Do you still feel like you could use more brains? Looks like you may have the chance of growing some.”
Cara smiled through her worried expression. “If they can clean me up, I’ll never do anything stupid like this again.”
The curtain opened, and Cara was wheeled to the operating room.
One month later
I got home from work carrying two bags of groceries. Cara was in the kitchen making a tossed salad, and offered me a glass of Chardonnay. Her head was healing from the operation to remove all traces of the sprouting seeds. The shaved area around her scalp now showed a fuzz of fine, ash-blond hair.
“How did the interview with the Mindfulness Company go?” I asked, putting away the groceries.
“It went well. I told them about the surgery, was upfront about the reason for it and how I’d be out of commission for another two weeks. They said they can work with my timeframe. I’m expecting to hear something tomorrow.”
“Fantastic!” I said. “And what about the reports on the news? Does that bother the CEO?”
“Well, being as the CEO is the one who pushed for the marketing of those stupid seed packets, I got the impression that she’s happy with the publicity, but she took them off the market. I guess we’ll never know how the media got hold of the story. It will fade out, though. People will forget I was Cara the Human Greenhouse.”
Someone at the hospital had let slip that a woman had inserted seeds into her scalp, misconstruing a marketing campaign about planting seeds of suggestion in one’s mind through self-hypnosis. Cara’s brief interview with the local media as she left the hospital after surgery had made the national news.
I sipped my wine. “And the book offer?”
“Turned it down,” she said. “Mindfulness offered a salary that doubles what I was making at the other tech company. A tell-all book would reflect negatively on my new workplace, I think. Oh, and they promised there would be no deep-woods company retreats, only those held in a convention hotel.”
She picked up her glass of wine and we toasted to her successful operation, her new job, and our deepening friendship.
And any seed packet brought home would definitely be sprinkled into soil.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, dialogue, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to a person, living or deceased, events, or locations is purely coincidental.
The idea for this story came from an email I received about self-hypnosis. The title had to do with planting powerful seeds of suggestions into one’s mind. It made me wonder if an actual seed would take root in someone’s nutrient-rich brain if planted in the top of the head with a drilled hole in the skull, much like poking a hole in the dirt and dropping in the seed. The rest was my version of what happened.