“Man, this would be an incredible place to hold the wedding, wouldn’t it?” Jeremy had stopped behind the rest of the hiking group, hands on his hips, looking down like a prince surveying his kingdom.
Susan nodded once, not agreement or disagreement, just acknowledgement. They’d hiked two hours into the middle of the desert, after driving two hours from home to get here. Who would come? And even if anyone would, why here, instead of the hillside covered with California poppies, or the sea of goldfields the path had bisected an hour back.
Here, though, the trail ran along the top of a gently sloped plain peppered with bristly gray-green bushes. Thin stems carried forebodingly spiny leaves, but burst into brilliance, gold centers in a haze of pale purple petals. They were her favorite desert wildflower, although she doubted Jeremy knew that. He’d say he liked gardens because she liked gardens, but it wasn’t what he meant.
“You think that’s a stupid idea, huh?” Jeremy shrugged, handsome brow creased with irritation. She couldn’t deny it was handsome, that he was handsome, even if he’d adopted a disquietingly military look over the last year: shaved head, camo shorts, grey T-shirts a size too small, so they highlighted his muscles.
“No.” A lie, but it was the safe answer.
“Nah, it kinda is,” he continued. “You like these kinds of flowers? These…” He waved at the nearest bush.
“Asters.” She wiped sweat out of her eyes, brushing back long brown hair that had gone limp with heat. It taunted her by falling right back where it had been. “Mojave asters.”
“Yeah.” He started walking back toward the group. “You could put those in the garden.”
She didn’t have a garden, yet. She had a flower box on the apartment patio. He meant the imagined garden in the imagined house they’d move to when they were married. When you and I are one, he’d say. He thought it sounded romantic; she thought it sounded as if they’d fuse into some twisted matrimonial monster. “Plants like those need deserts,” she pointed out.
“People put desert plants in their gardens all the time around here. We move down closer to Chula Vista, I could get a big plot of land, a half-acre, maybe more. All the asters you want.”
“I like being in the city.” She wasn’t lying. As much as she dreamed of gardens and meadows and wild vistas, she liked coffee shops and art galleries, little spaces away from the apartment she could hold for herself an hour or two at a time. She dreaded having nothing to walk to, nowhere to go on her own. “Besides, there’s your Saturday Night Fun Club.”
“I can just drive back up,” he said, giving her a don’t-be-stupid look. “And maybe some of them’ll move down, too. Get enough land, We could have a compound.” He motioned her to speed up, and without checking to see if she was, hurried to catch up with the group.
She veered off to the side, away from the group, and took a drink of uncomfortably hot water from her canteen. Her throat was dryer than the desert spring air. Compound? Like a militia? His politics had grown darker, uglier, over the last year, and she couldn’t tell if it had started with the Fun Club or those good-for-nothings had just amplified it. She’d drawn the line at being dragged to a Blue Lives Matter rally, but hadn’t been able to stop him from going, hadn’t been able to make him listen. It was the closest he’d come to hitting her. Yet.
As she screwed the cap back on and let it fall to her side, she saw something move just outside her field of vision, off to the right. Susan froze a moment, then turned her head. In the distance, partially hidden by one of the aster bushes, a coyote watched her.
She couldn’t help but smile. It was a gorgeous animal, its coat in perfect, glossy shape, and the sunlight off the flowers made its fur appear the same pale purple as the petals.
Susan tilted her head. The coyote tilted its head the same way. She straightened up. After a moment, so did it.
Okay, adorable, although she’d expect it to be more wary of humans. And had it gotten closer? She hadn’t seen it move at all. No, she’d been the one who moved, walking away from the group toward it. She frowned, disoriented, looking between the rest of the hikers and the coyote. She shouldn’t be this close to a wild animal.
But wait. Was it behind the aster bush or in it? Had it gotten stuck? It wasn’t yelping or struggling. It just sat there, like the plant’s biggest flower. And maybe the purple fur wasn’t just a trick of the light.
The coyote’s golden eyes locked onto hers, and it smiled. Glistening tendrils slipped past its lips, snaking out like grasping vines.
Her eyes widened. She turned and bolted.
Jeremy turned as she ran up. “What got into you?”
He looked over her head. “Don’t see it now. Coyotes aren’t big critters. You probably spooked it when you ran off.” He made the word two syllables the way he said it: kye-oats.
“It had plants coming out of its mouth!”
“You’re scared because it was eating flowers?” He grinned, pulling her into a sweaty, one-armed hug. “I’ll put up a coyote fence for your garden.”
She stumbled, and squirmed out of his embrace. “It wasn’t eating flowers.”
“You think the flowers were eating it?” He snorted. “Relax. Jesus. Enjoy this place.”
She fell into silence, trudging along.
The path curved down through the field, and brittlebrush became the dominant flower. Mojave asters still popped up here and there, sometimes close to the path. Whenever Susan thought she saw movement around one, she kept her eyes to the ground. Once she heard rustling—something large—in an aster bush within arm’s length of the trail. She kept her hands in her pockets as if they might be grabbed.
The day moved from warm to hot, but the remaining loop trail was an easy trek: no more climbs and, after a turn into sandier terrain, different vegetation. Susan relaxed enough to mull over what she’d seen. Maybe the coyote had just been eating flowers, although she didn’t think they did that. Maybe it really had been stuck. Maybe she should have helped it.
It took just over an hour to make it back to the park’s visitor center, a long stone building artfully blended into a hillside. Susan felt exhausted, but Jeremy seemed to have picked up energy, first from ogling one of the other hikers and then from chatting up her boyfriend. He was muy simpático, Jeremy enthused as they walked into the blessedly cool visitor center, muy simpático. Maybe, Jeremy said, he’d go over and tell the guy to check out the Fun Club tonight.
Great, she’d said. He’d do that, and she’d get a diet Coke, sit down somewhere, and not think about him flirting with other girls while she was right there. He’d only grinned.
Even in the shade, the temperature took a fifteen-degree jump from inside to out, but she needed that space for herself right now. Finding a deserted side patio, she slumped down in a plastic chair at a stone table, as far from the sole Mojave aster bush she spotted as she could get, and took a long drink of the soda.
God, muy simpático. She knew what Jeremy meant: not the literal very nice as much as like-minded, someone else who was… go ahead, say it. Alt-right. Her boyfriend, her future husband, was becoming alt-right. Using a Spanish phrase was bitterly ironic.
She still hoped she could pull him back, change him. Maybe she could make him choose: her, or them. And if he chose them, would it be so bad to be alone?
Right now, at this moment, no. But she wasn’t truly solitary. She wasn’t truly strong.
Sighing, she set down the soda and leaned back, closing her eyes. If nothing else, there was at least the sex. She guessed. She hadn’t had much better, but she didn’t have much else to compare it to, either. In her more cynical moments, though, she knew he measured how much she enjoyed love-making by how much he enjoyed it. You feel so good, baby, he would pant. You feel so good. Yeah. Great.
She opened her eyes again and looked across the patio at the aster bush. Jeremy had to be right. A coyote could not be a flower could not be a coyote. The flower could consume the coyote, possess it, transform it to something fully flower and fully coyote and more than either—
Susan blinked, rubbing her forehead. Where had that suddenly come from?
The bush quivered, as if wind blew through it, and petals took flight like butterflies, swirling around and above the plant. As they coalesced into a cloud, as the cloud became a shape, she knew exactly what she was about to face. She wanted to push her chair back, to run inside, but felt frozen.
The coyote’s fur was definitely pale, shimmering purple: it had formed from the petals. The creature was incredibly lovely. But it was barely twenty feet away, and now it wasn’t hidden behind the bush. Now, it towered over it. It might be big enough to swallow her whole.
The coyote parted its jaws in that same canine smile it had flashed before. Again, tendrils snaked out from between its teeth, slightly curling over its dark purple lips, wet with… what? Saliva? Nectar?
Susan couldn’t breathe. It felt like one of those immense paws was already on her torso, pinning her, squeezing. Don’t run, a voice said in her head. Don’t run. It’ll think you’re prey.
Its pollen-gold eyes met hers, and it slowly ambled forward. A fibrous, dark green paw pad smashed an empty chair, along with her vain hope that this impossibility was a mirage. Then the coyote-creature stopped, its left forepaw almost touching her foot. She tilted her head back, determined to keep meeting its eyes as long as she could. She could, if nothing else, try to be defiant.
But it just held her gaze, studying her as closely as she studied it. She began to squirm in her seat. If she wasn’t prey, what was she? Maybe she’d misread this. The creature was formed of fragile, beautiful flowers. Maybe—
It lifted its head and walked directly over her. She gaped, turning her head to follow as it moved to stand close to the visitor center’s wall, nose just over the side door.
Jeremy’s new muy simpático friend stepped out, lighting up a cigarette. He looked over at Susan and flashed a lecherous grin.
Susan’s eyes flicked over his head, watching the coyote creature lean over, open its mouth, let those glistening stems drip down.
His brow furrowed, and he followed her gaze, then gaped. The cigarette dropped from his open mouth to the concrete, but he barely had a chance to yell before the monster closed its jaws around his head and shoulders.
Susan put a hand to her mouth, but didn’t scream, watching in terrible, rapt fascination as wet tendrils swept out along the man’s body, quickly binding his arms to his sides, his legs together. Then they yanked him up into the muzzle.
The coyote turned and trotted toward her with its catch as it began to swallow. Maybe the right word was envelop. The struggling, screaming man slipped into its long muzzle smoothly, the fur-like petals—petal-like fur?—on its throat bulging out with his bulk. As he went down, the monster closed its eyes, stretching, tail wagging, swaying back and forth. Its expression was so pleased, the little growling moans it made bordering on lascivious.
Susan whimpered, but still didn’t scream, not once, even though it took at least a half-minute for him to disappear completely. Watching that final gulp, as the creature tilted its head back and groaned, made her feel strangely voyeuristic.
The coyote licked its lips with a wet, wood-brown tongue, and wagged its huge floral tail. As it looked back at her, it seemed almost hopeful, as if to say, do you understand what I want with you now?
“No,” she whispered helplessly. “I don’t.” She could still hear simpático man, his faint, muffled screams a higher, more desperate pitch. She wondered what it was like to be digested alive by a… this.
It grinned more widely, then disintegrated just as it had formed, breaking apart into petals, swirling back into the bush.
Trembling, Susan walked over to the aster. Like the coyote, the bush was impossibly big now, taller than she was, with denser foliage, more blooms, bigger flowers. If she held her breath, stayed perfectly silent, she could still hear fading screams, somewhere.
She slowly crushed the still-lit cigarette out with her sandal.
“There you are.” Jeremy had walked out onto the patio with simpático man’s girlfriend. “I thought you were coming back in when you finished your Coke.”
“I… I got… distracted.”
He gestured at the plant. “That’s one of those Mojave… what was it, asters?”
“You really like those, huh? Take a flower or two back as a souvenir.”
She swallowed, mouth dry despite the soda. “You’re not allowed to.” She turned to the bush just as the biggest bud—bigger than an aster blossom should ever be—tilted and fell off the plant.
“Look, it wants you to. Come on, we gotta get back.” He motioned toward the parking lot, and looked at the other girl. “Tell Tommy I’ll be looking for him tonight, all right?”
“Yeah, I will.” She looked at Susan. “You didn’t see him come out here to smoke, did you?”
“I saw him light up. But I don’t know where he is now.”
Jeremy was right. It did want her to, and she couldn’t possibly explain how terrifying that was. She had never been one to take risks, even when she understood them. She played it safe. And look where that had gotten her.
She knelt and picked up the flower.
As she followed back to the car, she heard the girlfriend calling Tommy’s name, over and over, more angrily and worriedly each time. Feverish laughter bubbled up inside her, and she knew if she let it out it would become a scream. She sat in the passenger seat, the flower on her lap, and clenched her fists hard enough to dig her nails into her palms.
On the drive back, Jeremy brought up weddings again. Now he wanted a church wedding, a real wedding, not one out in some desert or garden or other hippie shit. “You’re the one who brought up getting married in the desert, not me,” she said tiredly, and he scowled.
When they got home, though, he was all smiles, all pleased with the day, all pleased she was pleased. All wanting her to show him just how pleased she was. She’d been expecting that. While she wasn’t in the mood, it was easier to go along than have a fight. As he finished, she caught herself wishing she’d gotten half as much from it as the coyote-creature had seemed to get from eating Tommy, and felt flushed and horrified.
When he rolled off her, he seemed especially pleased. “You got really into that.” He sprawled on his side of the bed, closing his eyes. “You feel so good.”
“Yeah,” she whispered, staring at the ceiling.
When his breathing deepened, she slid off the bed and walked to the apartment’s far bathroom, so she could take a shower without waking him. He’d get up on his own well before his Fun Club meeting. She could use a nap, too, but was afraid of what she’d dream about.
Do you understand what I want with you?
She shook her head in response, turning the water temperature down as she rinsed rose-scented shampoo out of her hair. Frowning, she stepped out of the shower and dried off, then quietly walked back into the living room.
The aster blossom remained where she’d left it on the coffee table. Other than being nearly a foot across, it just looked like any other flower. But it had been only a half-foot across when she’d set it down. She knew—she’d had it in her lap the whole drive home. And she wasn’t even surprised. “So now what?” she murmured.
The flower’s petals rippled, as if hit by a breeze.
She glanced around the room, now acutely self-conscious. She was crouching naked, damp, talking to—what? A coyote spirit or demon or desert god? Maybe just a damned flower?
Gently, she touched a finger to the flower’s center, brushing along the bright yellow filaments of the stamen. The petals curled inward, closing around her hand. Despite their softness, she could feel disquieting strength there—and as she watched, the petals crept up to her elbow. She jerked her arm back, springing to her feet. The flower lifted off the table, then let go of her hand, drifting to the floor.
She stared down at it warily, but it remained motionless, pretending to be just a normal flower once more. Except it had, again, nearly doubled in size.
Susan circled slowly around the table, then crouched once more and hesitantly touched the edge of a petal. No response. She let her finger trace along the petal’s edge, back to the stamen, now bigger than her hand. The filaments remained soft and flexible, but felt different, stronger. As she slid her hand into their mass, they wrapped around her fingers in a warm, supple clutch.
And the flower grew. This time she saw it clearly, the center widening, the filaments stretching, the petals lengthening. They reached her feet where she crouched, slipping past. Then, as they had when she’d touched it on the coffee table, they began curling inward.
Biting back an instinctive cry for help, she tried to pull her hand away. For a second, the flower held on, letting her know that now it was stronger than she was. Then the filaments unwound, leaving her hand dusted with pollen past the wrist, and the petals went limp.
Slowly, Susan rose to her feet. The Aster—it deserved a capital letter in her mind now—took up most of the small living room. The flower’s bright yellow center was the size of a manhole cover. She hadn’t noticed much scent at its smaller size, but now she smelled chamomile or sage.
She looked toward the bedroom. From here, she couldn’t see Jeremy, but he’d stopped snoring. He’d be awake soon.
Do you understand what I want with you?
Susan took a step forward. Then another. She stood, arms by her side, in the center of Aster’s stamen, over the pistil. The shin-length filaments brushed pollen-laden anthers against her skin. “Yes,” she breathed.
The filaments began to loosely wrap around her, lengthening, climbing up her legs, the soft heads of the stalks leaving yellow streaks along her body. This time, when the petals curled up they didn’t stop. Her vision became soft, diffused purple light. The air became the rising scent of green sage. Tendrils brought slippery warmth around her body as they encircled her stomach, brushed under and between and over her breasts.
Oh, god. She hadn’t expected this. Had she? No, and yes, and oh god it was going there and there and there too, between her legs and behind her, over her, around her, caressing her, entering her, teasing, pulling, petting, thrusting. Jeremy had been so bad at this after all, hadn’t he?
The light dimmed, and the scent grew, and the flower filled her, pressure building in impossible ways. She stumbled, but couldn’t tell if she’d fallen. Her moans and gasps turned into a scream, but an anther slipped quickly inside toward her throat. Pleasure and pain blurred together. She began bucking, writhing, unable to breathe, unable to see, losing track of where flesh ended and leaf began.
Then the tight floral space around her squeezed, grinding, crushing, and everything inside her burst through, ripping, tearing, sprouting. The world went black.
Then light returned all at once, a dazzling, searing whiteness. She dry heaved, gasping, coughing up leaves and petals. A little animal yapped somewhere by her, pricking her side. She batted it away blindly, feeling around her to sit up as shapes slowly resolved.
It took her long seconds to realize she was still in the living room. Everything from ceiling on down dripped pollen. Couches had been ripped apart, tables smashed, the television shattered. Everything seemed small, toylike.
And her hands—her hands were soft, petal-furred purple.
She turned them this way and that, gasping again, then laughing as she ran those hands along her body. Susan’s body. She had been an attractive woman by human standards, hadn’t she? Long hair, heavy breasts, well-curved hips. But now she had the lovely petal-fur of the coyote. And the tail, paws, muzzle, teeth. Truly the best of all forms. But it was so much new to take in. When was the last time she had been bipedal?
She focused on the little yapping animal. No longer yapping, since she’d knocked it into a wall. Him. Jeremy, dressed only in boxers. The pricks had been gunshots. He’d lost the pistol, which was too bad. It would have been fun to let him keep firing until he ran out of bullets.
“Susan,” he groaned. “Susan.”
She worked her muzzle, making a yip, a bark, trying to form human words. “Rrrsss. Ess. Ooo. Soooossnnn.” That was close. “Su. San. Susan.” She wagged her tail once, pleased.
He staggered to his feet, staring dumbly up at her, then ran for the door.
Smirking, she just raised an arm, spreading her fingers. Tendrils shot out of her fibrous palm, grabbing him and yanking him back like a yoyo returning to a hand. He screamed, cursing and kicking futilely as she readjusted her grip, wrapping her fingers fully around his torso. Oh, yes, opposable thumbs. Wonderful!
She turned him to face her and grinned, letting glistening tendrils drip out from between her teeth. “‘Kai-yo-tee,’” she said, enunciating all three syllables. “Goodbye, Jeremy.”
His eyes widened in shock. He didn’t recover before she pressed him between her breasts. The tendrils that slipped out between her petals curled around him more slowly, almost teasingly. He recovered enough to start kicking, then as more and more tendrils tightened around him, to start screaming.
Oh, that was nice. She dropped her hand, leaning back, chest rising and falling faster as she watched him struggle against ever-tightening bonds, his screams turning to frantic pleading as her body drew him slowly inside. She tilted her head back, starting to pant, then let herself sprawl on her back, paws kicking through the walls. Jeremy’s struggles became violent, delightfully futile. “No! God! No—”
She groaned, shuddering, then locked her huge, golden eyes on his, licking her lips, and gave him a last, wicked grin. “You feel so good, baby.”
Only Jeremy’s head and shoulders were visible, but that was enough for her to see his satisfyingly stricken expression. She pushed him the rest of the way into her hungry body with a polished wood claw-tip, petals rippling over him as he vanished. Susan might not have wanted to admit how much she’d hated Jeremy, but Aster had no use for such illusions.
She stretched, rolling onto her side, and rested her hand on her belly, feeling his last, delicious struggles fade. Then she sat up, looking through the glass patio doors, admiring her reflection for a moment.
But the Saturday Night Fun Club would be starting soon, wouldn’t it? Oh, they had no idea how much fun tonight be.
Spreading her arms wide, she started to grow, filling more and more of the ruined living room, then began to punch through the ceiling with her hands. As she grew, it became easier, the first floor all but vanishing under her as the second and third floors crumbled under those nimble hands. She didn’t chase the surprised, bewildered humans as she exposed them, but those who found themselves under her fingers found themselves quickly tossed in her mouth, coated with sage-scented nectar, swallowed with pleased moans.
When she stepped out of the ruins, Aster clasped her hands together and bowed her head. “Thank you so much, Susan.” She wagged her tail, scattering loose petals. “For your memories, your knowledge, your form. And for my new, lovely hunting ground, with such delightful prey.” She straightened up and licked her lips. “Time for some fun with Jeremy’s friends, hmm?”
She strolled forward. In each huge, perfect paw print left behind, amidst the cracked pavement and crumpled cars, beautiful, brilliant flowers began to blossom.