Chapter 12

“What is with you and that guy?” asked Van. He and Mabel crossed River Street and cut through an alley between Bumper’s Stuff Shop and Logjam Savings Bank. They waved at Coco Alda who was hauling boxes out to the dumpster behind the store. “I’m getting a little tired of his freaky suggestions,” Van continued. “In fact, it would probably be easier to just let Mitchell beat me up and be done with it.”

“I don’t know, Van,” answered Mabel. “I really haven’t figured out what he wants, but he is right about something.”

“What’s that?” asked Van.

“I have, or had, another set of parents, I mean besides my mom and dad.”

Van raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“Okay,” said Mabel, “Just listen. But it’s going to sound weird.”


A few shortcuts through the woods later, Mabel and Van were on the gravel hill to Halfslips’ Botanical Center.

“So,” asked Van, “do you think these people, I mean the biological parents, are around somewhere?”

Mabel stopped walking, and considered the question. “Yes,” she said, surprising herself with her decisiveness. “They are around. But I don’t know where.”

“And we don’t know why Arbogast cares,” added Van.

“Oh no!” said Mabel, coming to a halt at the top of the hill. “That illegal stuff guy is here.”

Van motioned to where two more identical black sedans were parked. “And some of his friends, too,” he added.

Mary Halfslip waved from the front porch of the house. “Ivy’s not feeling great today,” she called, “but she’d like you guys to come in and say hi.”

Ivy was slouched at the kitchen table. In front of her sat a nearly empty glass of her green nutrition supplement, and she gazed at it despondently.

“Still that bad, huh?” asked Mabel, as she and Van entered the room.

Ivy looked as pale as Mabel had ever seen her, and tired, as if just staying in the chair required effort. She grimaced at the glass. “I felt stinky before the latest dose. It’s helped a little, but not much.”

Mrs. Halfslip leaned around the doorway. “You wanted to show Mabel and Van our surprise?” she asked. Although she nodded encouragingly at Ivy, Mabel glimpsed what she took to be apprehension on Mrs. Halfslip’s face as she exited the room.

“Your mom’s worried about you,” said Mabel to Ivy. “Have you been to see Dr. Rotter?”

“Yeah,” responded Ivy, “he’s running some blood tests and stuff.”

Van sat down on the table. “You know,” he said, “Doc Rotter’s one of the smartest guys in the world, but…he doesn’t have a medical license. Have your parents considered getting a second opinion?”

“They can’t,” answered Ivy. “And besides, Doctor Rotter didn’t lose his license for being a bad doctor, it was for taking, you know…spare parts.”

“You said they can’t,” said Mabel. “Why not?”

Ivy swirled her glass and watched the green debris form patterns. “Doctor Rotter’s the only one we can trust,” she said quietly. “If anyone else examined me, they’d find out, and they might tell.”

“Find out what?” asked Mabel.

Ivy rocked the glass back and forth on the tabletop, and thought for a few minutes. “You guys are my best friends,” she said. “Mom said it would be okay to show you my baby brother.”

Mabel exchanged glances with Van, and concluded that he was equally confused.

“Okay,” said Van, sounding remarkably casual, “I didn’t know you had one.”

“Come on,” said Ivy, getting to her feet with visible effort. She walked across the kitchen to a hallway which led to the bedroom wing of the house, then turned and looked expectantly at Mabel and Van. They followed.

The hallway was decorated with photographs and posters. Many of Norton Halfslip, piloting a small bi-plane with his future wife walking the wing. Ivy saw Mabel looking. “Pop-pop’s proud of those days,” she said as she opened a door at the end of the hall.

Mabel had visited the small greenhouse room many times, and knew that Mrs. Halfslip tended the plants there with extraordinary care. They entered the small room, embraced by the increase in warmth and humidity.

“The Vigna, in the corner,” said Ivy, pointing to a sprawling bean plant with enormous leaves. Its clay pot was bathtub sized, and many vines spilled over the edge while others climbed a wooden trellis on the glass wall.

“That’s been there forever,” said Mabel. “I remember helping you water it when we were really little.”

“It is old,” said Ivy, gently stroking one of several pods growing beneath the shelter of a broad leaf. “Way older than me. Of course it has to be.”

“Okay,” said Van, trying to sound very patient, “if it’s older than you, how can it be your baby brother?”

Ivy giggled, though the effort made her wince. “The Vigna isn’t my brother,” she said. “Look.”

Ivy separated several vines, and gently held a cluster of leaves out of the way, then turned her wide hazel eyes to Mabel and Van. “This is my brother.”

Mabel saw what appeared to be an unusually large bean pod growing under the leaves. She blinked and looked again, not quite willing to trust her first glimpse. The bean had kicked.

“Holy Geronimo,” whispered Van, “that bean is moving!”

“It’s not a bean,” said Ivy. “It’s my brother. At least we’re pretty sure it’s a boy.”

“So, Ivy,” said Van, “that’s not exactly the usual way to get a baby brother. Are there babies growing in all these pods?”

“No Van, my father worked with this specific pod only. And, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you this…” Ivy continued, then paused briefly, “…but most vignas don’t have the capacity to carry human genetic material. Dad has done a fair amount of fiddling here. In fact, this vigna’s grafted onto the root system of a Nepenthes spectabilis for durability. They come from places like Sumatra, and can grow in really rough conditions. See, Mom was a little worried about not having a green thumb back then, and she wanted to be sure she wouldn’t kill me by neglect.”

“Kill YOU?” asked Mabel. “Are you saying that this is not the first time a baby has grown on that plant?”

“I am saying that,” replied Ivy.

“Jeesh,” said Van. His gaze alternated between Ivy and the bean plant. “Wow. Well, I guess I’m the last person who should question other people’s origins.” Van shrugged. “That baby really is your brother then.”

“That’s what I told you,” said Ivy.

Ivy closed the door to the greenhouse room as the three returned to the kitchen. “Mom’s worried about a couple things,” she said. “One is, that if a regular doctor finds out that part of my DNA is plant-based, they’ll make some kind of freak show out of it.”

“DNA,” interrupted Mabel. “That means what you’re made of?”

Ivy nodded and continued, “and the other thing she’s afraid of is that somebody, you know, like this DIS guy, would confiscate the vigna and not really understand there’s a baby growing on it. Most people would find that a little odd, you know.”

“Yeah,” said Van, “I know exactly what you mean.”

Ivy looked suddenly very shaky, and Mabel reached to steady her.

“I think I’m going to lie down for a while,” said Ivy. “You guys go ahead and visit Buster and the dogs. Maybe I’ll see you in school tomorrow.”

“Do you think Ivy’s going to be okay?” asked Van as he and Mabel walked across the parking area toward Greenhouse 3.

“I don’t know, Van,” answered Mabel, “but I have this feeling that we need to get her some other kind of help…oh, sorry!” Mabel had opened the greenhouse door right into someone’s trenchcoated bottom. A raven-haired Department of Illegal Substances officer peered at them through her cat-eye glasses.

“Please children,” she said, turning back to the plants in front of her, “I must ask that you stay out of the way while we collect samples.”

“Samples of what?” asked Van.

“I’m sorry,” responded the agent, “but this investigation is classified, and there’s not much I can share with you, if you don’t mind.”

“Okay,” said Mabel. She gestured to Van that he should follow her to where Norton was working with the jerfinia ferns.

Norton grinned broadly, then glanced toward the front of the greenhouse as if to make sure he wasn’t being watched. Then he tapped on his shirt pocket, and Buster’s little walnut head peeked out.

Buster craned his neck to see the DIS agent across the room, then shook his head. “No lady, lady, lady,” he said.

“Is he learning English?” asked Mabel with surprise.

Norton nodded and continued to fertilize the jerfinias. Suddenly he paused, and reached deeply into his trousers pocket, pulling something out.

“Look,” said Buster, as Norton opened his hand to show Mabel what he was holding. Several tiny spherical seeds, the color of earth, rolled about on Norton’s palm.

“They’re jerfinia spores, aren’t they?” asked Mabel, rolling her finger across the little balls.

“Have one, plant one,” chirped Buster, pointing first at the spores, and then at Mabel.

Norton nodded, and extended his hand toward Mabel. Gingerly, she grasped a tiny sphere and dropped it into the watch-pocket of her jeans.

“Stop that animal!” yelled a voice from the front of the greenhouse.

Mabel and Van turned to see Sparkle, her head and tail proudly erect, trotting briskly toward them with something black clenched in her teeth. Directly behind her was Sig, struggling to keep up with his mother without falling over front paws he hadn’t yet grown into.

“That dog has my cell phone!” shouted Reynolds Manderley, beginning to run after Sparkle.

“Sparkle!” chided Mabel. “Give the man his phone back.” Sparkle spit the phone into Mabel’s hand as if it was distasteful.

“Tastes like Old Spice,” said Sparkle, although Mabel was certain she was the only one who had heard. “The coat people are trouble-causers. Just thought I’d give them a little trouble back,” Sparkle added.

“Sorry Mister, here you go,” said Mabel, handing the phone to Agent Manderley. He nodded his thanks and wiped it off with a handkerchief. “Van and I will take the dogs outside,” said Mabel.

“Notice Sig’s beautiful coat,” instructed Sparkle, as she and the puppy followed Mabel and Van out of the greenhouse. Mabel stopped in the grass by Sparkle’s shed to admire Sig who was growing fluffier and more inquisitive by the day.

“Look how handsome he is, Van,” said Mabel as she stroked the puppy’s fur.

“Those are some funny zigzags,” said Van, running his fingers through Sig’s coat. “It’s almost like a lightning bolt, the way these white stripes run together.”

“With a star,” added Mabel, pointing out the distinctive marking beside the lightning-like pattern.

Mabel and Van were startled by a throat being abruptly cleared.

“Pardon me,” said a short, bald DIS agent. “Did you see which way Agent Manderley went?”

“He’s in there, cleaning his phone,” responded Van, pointing toward Greenhouse 3. The agent took off at a trot.

“Mabel,” said Van, “what if that trouble Arbogast was talking about has something to do with these trenchcoat goons?”

“He was talking about our parents, Van, yours and mine,” responded Mabel. “So far whatever this is has only involved the Halfslips. Besides, my Dad says it’s nothing to worry about. They haven’t done anything wrong.”

“But I’m starting to worry.” said a quiet voice. “I don’t like the way things are going.” Mrs. Halfslip had appeared behind them suddenly, and was crouching in the grass scratching Sparkle behind the ears. The fear Mabel saw in Mary Halfslip’s brown eyes made her heart sink.

Mrs. Halfslip continued. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, Mabel, but I feel that I must. Whatever happens, Ivy must not see a doctor, other than Doctor Rotter.”

“I’ll help any way I can,” said Mabel, trying to sound reassuring, but not feeling at all big enough for the job, whatever it might be.

The gravel on the hillside crunched, and a bicycle crested the hill. Patience coasted to a stop and set the kickstand in place. Her face was flushed and invigorated from the ride, and she waved at the small group visiting Sparkle and Sig. “I’m running an errand for Sonja,” she said. Her dark hair was pulled into a ponytail, and she had on white linen overalls over a baby blue t-shirt. “She’s run out of mint leaves,” Patience continued, “and I said there’s nothing I’d like more than to ride home with the essence of mint wafting through the air.”

“Help yourself,” said Mrs. Halfslip. “Mabel, could you and Van show Patience where the herbs are, in the back of Greenhouse 2? Just follow the DIS crew.”

Mabel looked to see that Agent Manderley was striding purposefully into the second greenhouse followed by his team.

Patience followed Van and Mabel, and her eyes were everywhere. “Do you think they’d mind if I set up my easel here? What a breathtaking array of colors and textures…Oh, and scents…only it’s such a shame that beautiful aromas can’t be captured on canvas…perhaps I could portray them in an abstract manner…”

“If you kids don’t mind,” interrupted the agent in cat-eye glasses, “we’re having an important conference here.”

Three trenchcoated agents were huddled around Agent Manderley who was gesturing, in a no-nonsense way, at notes posted on his clipboard.

“You won’t mind if we snip some fresh mint before we go?” asked Patience. “We’ll only be a minute.”

Reynolds Manderley looked up from his clip-board. “Don’t you people grasp the gravity of this invest…” Suddenly, his expression, authoritative and serious, thawed a notch. His blue eyes looked confused, then softened into gentle little pools. His mustache twitched and he tried to smile. “I’m sorry…” he said, “you want some…mint?”

The cat-eye agent and the bald agent looked at Manderley, then at each other, as if thoroughly confused.

“Yes, please, if you don’t…mind,” responded Patience. An angelic smile suddenly lit her exquisitely scarred face. Moments before she had gazed about the greenhouse as if to absorb every detail. Now her sparkling brown eyes were riveted to one place. Agent Manderley’s blue eyes.

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