Derek Austin Johnson

The September Editor's Pick Writer is Derek Austin Johnson

Feel free to email Derek at: derek.a.johnson@gmail.com


by Derek Austin Johnson

The car’s air conditioner roared like a lion about to devour its prey until Daniel Surview silenced it with the press of a button. Brushing his thin brown hair from his forehead, he plugged the charger into the cigarette lighter to bring his dead flip phone to life, then got out of his mud-colored Toyota and stretched, his thick imitation leather-bound Bible tucked in the crook of his bare arm. 

As he opened the rear driver-side door to collect his spiral notebook and flimsy magazines, he sneezed. Pollen was supposed to be bad today; the yellow dust coating the car’s hood confirmed it. Quickly he blew his nose into a tissue and tossed it into the street. Being hot was bad enough. It would not do at all to meet people if he was sweating and sniffling.

A cheap lighter and spare change jingled in the pocket of his gray polyester slacks as he crossed the street and approached the Vida Verde Estates gate—the tall coral walls lined by squat, unclipped willow leaf holly. The soles of his black loafers clopped on the smooth, bone-white sidewalk, a pair of steps, before he stopped. He turned, pushing his hand into his pocked to ensure that he had brought his keys with him, then sighed in relief as he drew his finger along the key’s teeth. 

All good, he thought, then saw that he had parked too close to a fire hydrant. Shrugging, he pulled another tissue from his pocket and dabbed at the sweat beading on his forehead. He had parked in front of hydrants before, and he doubted anyone would start a fire here, much less call the fire department, or even a tow truck. Besides, leaving the car where it was meant that he didn’t have to venture into the bar’s parking lot.

The bar. He had never been near Vida Verde Estates, but the bar across the street, tucked between a convenience store and a small gardening supply place, resembled the one where he forgot about the day’s stresses. He tried to remember when he had last been through the dirty pink double doors, in the cool claustrophobic space where the smell of cigarettes infused everything from the cracked leather stools to the scarred Formica tables to the bourbon itself. He was sure he had never been in this one, but it didn’t matter. They were all the same, all full of empty promises made to be broken. Promises he reminded himself he no longer wanted, believed he could no longer hear.

But Vida Verde Estates, guarded by a faded archway and a black iron gate, this was a new Promised Land. Or would be when he visited the houses and offered testimony.

It surprised him when, during one of the church gatherings, he noticed that this one subdivision seemed unvisited. Thinking back, “church” always met with cognitive dissonance. Daniel’s father had been a minister, so Daniel had grown up in places of worship filled with pews of heavy oak, vaulted ceilings, stained glass that, on the most vibrant spring days, glowed with sunlight and illuminated the sanctuary. He never forgot the gold crosses stitched onto the red cloth draping the sacristy. 

His “church,” by contrast, was squeezed next to a dry cleaner’s in a seedy strip center, fluorescent lights bearing down on observers who sat on plastic chairs at particle board tables. Still, his church spread the Word, so the trappings didn’t matter.

Vida Verde Estates obsessed him. He had asked Mark, one of the senior members of the Faith, about it. Mark shrugged. Some had tried to spread the Word there once, he’d said, but no one expressed interest in hearing it.

Daniel pursued the issue, but Mark repeated his response. “No one was moved by testimony,” he said. Even Jean, the man with a woman’s name who often wore a rakish fedora, tried to deliver testimony. He was never heard from after that.

It mystified Daniel, who took to heart Reverend Martin’s dictum that one should never forego an opportunity for another to hear the Word, for it may take root in someone, thus causing the Word, the Faith, to blossom.

Daniel considered what he knew about the neighborhood. Little crime occurred, but no growth, either; in fact, the walls appeared to hold Vida Verde Estates in stasis. Nobody of the Faith spoke of who might live there (if they spoke of Vida Verde Estates at all), or their possible socioeconomic status, but Daniel presumed its residents to be well off based on the houses he could see beyond the gate. Lawns looked well-kept and deep green—the smell of cut grass suggested that someone had recently mowed—and spotless windows reflected the April sunshine, as did bone-white driveways that made Daniel squint. He wished he had brought his sunglasses.

The gate was closed. He gripped one of the pickets, the afternoon sun warm but not hot on the smooth iron, and pushed, but it did not budge an inch. He gazed to the top of the gate. Each picket rose a foot over the topmost curved metal arch, sculpted black vines laced with thorns snaking around them, closed black rose bulbs tipping each seeming to kiss a sandstone archway. 

He pressed his shoulder against the iron bar, but it was solid. He tried again, but his shoulder slid off and wedged itself between the bars.

An electronic lock clicked, and the gate hummed open.

Daniel twisted his head to the street, searching for a car, as he attempted to tug his shoulder from between the railing, but it wouldn’t budge. His feet dragged as the gate pulled him backwards. 

He glanced behind him and saw that he was moving toward the arch, the machinery opening the gate within growling as if hungry for his flesh. He dropped his book and notebook and, fingers squeezing around the black iron, tried wrenching his shoulder from between the rails, but the squeezed his shoulder tighter. He whimpered as the gate drew him closer to the arch, and his eyes widened in terror at the thought of his shoulder snapping and his arm possibly breaking once the gate opened fully.

As his back touched sandstone, the iron bars released him. He slid away from the gate, stumbled, and slid against the rough wall, scraping his head as he fell behind a willow leaf. A car’s tires hissed across the road, and he scrambled for his book and notebook, then, hunched over, ran to the wall as a dark car turned from the street and entered Vida Verde Estates, disappearing at the first right turn. 

The gate clicked and slowly trundled closed. Daniel rushed past and breathed, and then he was among Vida Verde Estates’s houses and lawns.

The realization of where he was filled him with the Faith, a tingle in his chest that spread until his entire body ached. Now he could bring the Word to them.

He followed the route the car had taken. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand and rubbed his hand on his pants, his keys almost biting him through the fabric. The temperature had risen; the afternoon was going to be hotter than the weather forecast predicted. It didn’t matter, he decided. The Faith would see him through.

The houses lined the road, each lawn alive with trees and shrubs. Across the street, someone in faded clothes and a wide-brimmed straw hat hunched over something in her front yard. He chose a house several lots from the corner, walking past a large wooden X set in the front lawn. Vines he couldn’t recognize snaked over it, the deep green in stark contrast to the white paint. Daniel found the structure remarkable enough that his eyes fixed on the velvet, spear-like leaves as he passed. 

As he knocked on the heavy oak door, he realized that he could not tell where the vines originated. No pottery stood behind or near the X. Did the vines spring from the rich blades of grass themselves?

Nobody opened the door. He knocked again, the sound of his knuckles against the wood muffled. Stepping back, Daniel scanned the front window surrounded by red brick.

A filmy curtain shrouded the view inside. He shielded his eyes and peered inside, hoping to catch a glimpse of the homeowner, or a child playing inside, but the gauzy curtain, no thicker than mosquito netting, occluded even the shapes of furniture. Even peeking where the curtains joined together yielded no indication of what was inside.

Then he heard a voice. “Hey!”

Daniel started and turned around so quickly that his vision tracked a second behind him. Sunlight blinded him and caused his eyes to water. He blinked.

Through bright spots, the woman in the wide-brimmed hat stormed toward him, hard lines etched into her cheeks, her eyes dark with anger. “What on earth are you doing?” she commanded in a harsh voice.

He smiled and held his book in front of his chest as a knight might have held a shield. “Good day, Ma’am,” he said, his smile too wide. “My name is Daniel Surview, and I’m with the Faith of the—”

“You’re not supposed to be here,” she snapped. Her chin jutted forward, pointing at him. “How did you get here, anyway? You are only allowed to be here through invitation. And you’re not invited.”

“But Ma’am,” Daniel said, his voice rising to drown hers. “You have not heard of our Faith, of the good it can do, and the meaning it can bring to your life.” 

“We don’t want it. We have everything we need here. Go away.”

Daniel faltered. Despite her confrontational stance, her arms hung limply at her sides, the hands covered with modern blue garden gloves, the kind with rough gray material over the palms and fingers. And while he heard the command in her voice, he thought there might be something else there, something he couldn’t place. 

He tried a different tactic. “Perhaps you do not know the Faith’s core doctrines,” he began. 

He opened his mouth as his eyes focused on the woman’s hat band: strands of vine, like the one on the X in the front yard. Though she stood still, and no breeze blew, a small, spear-like leaf moved upward on her hat, resting on the front of the crown. When the tip pointed straight up, the leaf fluttered, and the netted veins flooded a deep crimson.

A chill rushed from the top of Daniel’s head and pooled at his feet.

“Did you hear what I said?”

He clutched the book tighter to his chest. “Ma’am?”

“This is not a place for you.” Her gloved hands balled into fists. “Go. Or you will have to face the consequences.” She walked back toward her own home, onto her lawn, where a structure similar to the one on this lawn stood.

And he was alone again. 

He scanned the road but saw no one. The house where he had knocked remained silent, but he thought he saw the curtain occluding the window close, as if someone had been watching. He stepped onto the lawn to approach the window, and suddenly the ground came up to meet him.

He fell hard, knocking the breath out of his lungs. Thick blades of damp grass filled his mouth and stuck to his hands, and green stains smeared on his shirt. In his fall he’d dropped his Bible, its spine facing the sky and tissue-thin pages crumpled and soaked by the dew. 

Daniel groped for it and searched for his notebook, his hands frantic until he found it beneath his shoe. The glue holding the sole to the upper had dissolved, and the heel had begun to peel away. It was like his shoes were disintegrating while still on his feet.

Shakily he managed to get back on his feet. He brushed grass clinging to his shirt and pants and tried to walk away from the house but could not move his foot. The tendril of a vine wrapped around his ankle, not firmly, but enough to trip him. 

He touched it; prickly white hairs coated its warm green body. The hairs stabbed his fingers as Daniel pulled his ankle free. He peered at the tendril, following it to a dark leaf with crimson veins like the one on the woman’s hat, then backed away and sucked at his fingers where the vine bit him.

Bit him?

Back on the sidewalk, Daniel stared at the vine-covered X in the front yard. The sun beat down on his shoulders, and spots danced across his vision again. He rubbed his eyes with his knuckles and scratched at the tip of his index finger with a thumbnail. Red bumps rose on the grooves of his fingerprints, microscopic beads of blood welling from each. His nose wrinkled as he sniffed; his fingers smelled of rotten, like meat left too long on a warm kitchen’s counter.

He looked back at the vines again. Had they moved? Had more crawled up the structure?

Blindly Daniel turned and walked down the sidewalk, the loose sole of his shoe slapping against his foot with every step, and as he followed the smooth, bone-white sidewalk this way and that, he realized he was lost. Each house looked identical to the one next to it, wooden X trellises sitting in the front yards, vines with spear-like leaves climbing each. 

He spun but had no sense of where he was. A glance at the sun blinded him; it was impossible to discern whether it was overhead or dipping toward a horizon. East or west meant nothing. He never wore a watch so had no idea of the time, and even if he knew he had no idea how to find direction in the way shadows pointed. 

A curtain parted in the windows of one of the houses. Daniel stepped toward it and stopped when the vines on the X-trellis appeared to be joined by others. The plants seemed almost to thicken. 

He yelped and backed into the street, its black, shiny surface seeming to smell not like the fresh tar that he was used to but the musky smell of fresh earth that had been turned over. The curtain opened more, but the darkness behind it deepened, as if swallowing sunlight.

Daniel screamed and ran, taking every turn he could. One left. Two right, his clopping footfalls echoing until he lost the sole of his shoe somewhere. After several blocks he stopped, the Bible in his hands warping with sweat and his notebook gone. He looked behind him but could not see it and did not remember where he had dropped it.

It didn’t matter, he told himself. He just needed to be out of here, away from this place, and in his mind’s eye saw the pink double doors of the bar near Vida Verde. His skin pebbled at the thought of its air conditioner blasting, his mouth watering as ice clinked in a glass. A drink, he thought. When I get out of here I will drink.

His lips smacked in thirst. No, he did not want water, though he figured his body needed it. He wanted the biting kiss of alcohol, the warmth of its hug spreading through his body, not the burning sky that pinned him to this suburban purgatory.

That woman had warned him, had told him he would face the consequences if he didn’t leave. His eyes squeezed shut, and as the spots faded, he rose and realized what he had to do. Of course, he would face the consequences. That was part of the test. The Faithful always were tested. He was here because of the Faith, and the people in Vida Verde needed to hear the Word.

The Bible in his hands resembled lumpy clay crushing the leaves of a dead white flower, its imitation leather cover sticking to his fingers, coating them with black gum. His thumb sought the rising, bleeding welts, but they were lost in the tacky substance, as were his fingerprints. He closed and spread his fingers, the gooey substance making a sound like a tongue ticking on the roof of a mouth.

Hobbling to an intersection, he shielded his eyes from the sun. The way in front of him seemed to curve. If he continued walking straight, he might be able to find some differentiation in the clonelike rows of houses. He limped ahead, his hands kneading the Bible like dough. 

Though he swore he had seen the street curve, the longer Daniel walked, the straighter the road became, the more identical the houses…and then it occurred to him why so much of Vida Verde confused him. He saw no streetlights anywhere, no stop signs, or speed zone notices.

There must be cars here, he thought. He’d followed one past the gate. But he had no idea where it had driven. With his toe of his ruined shoe he touched the street. It seemed not only new but practically unused. 

In the distance a truck roared. His chin rose as he tried to pinpoint where it was coming from. The engine chugged, as if pulling a great weight, though it didn’t sound like a tanker. He gasped as he realized that it must be a tow truck. Somebody must have called about his car blocking the fire hydrant and had it taken to an impound lot. 

He cursed. Maybe, when he was done spreading the Word here, he could use the bar’s telephone so that one of the Faithful could pick him up.

Seeing that his path kept going straight, Daniel turned right at the next intersection to find what looked like a clearing surrounded by a white picket fence. As he stepped closer, he saw that ankle-high reedy yellow grass flowed like ripples on a pond—it gave that effect despite the absence of wind. Dotting the grass were flowers, their petals round, their anthers clustered together so tightly that they resembled solid amber. 

The grass rustled, as if whispering to him. 

Daniel would have backed away had it not been for the figure standing in the middle of the clearing. It was a tall, thin man—it was too tall to be a woman—facing away from him, a floppy fedora perched on his head, baggy denim shirt and grass-stained khakis limp over his body. The man’s arms were low but open, as if accepting the sun. 

A breeze brushed Daniel and the man, the first cool air Daniel had felt all day. Daniel smiled. Finally, he would be able to offer his testimony of the Faith.

He stepped into the clearing, his lumpy Bible in front of him like an offering. “Good day, sir.  My name is Daniel Surview, and I’m with the Faith—”

The man did not respond. Daniel continued his approach, the grass rising from his ankles to his shins. It felt dry, the rustle growing louder. 

“Sir, I have come a long way, and if I had just a moment to provide you with my testimony, and tell you what the Faith has to offer…”

Still no response. 

Daniel was behind him now, but the man did not move. His shirt swayed in the gentle breeze. 

And then Daniel recognized the fedora. It was Jean’s. He was sure of it. He spoke Jean’s name and tugged at the man’s shirt.

Something moved beneath it.

Feeling fear crawl up his body, Daniel reached for the brim of the man’s hat and pulled. It stayed on top of the man’s head, as if glued. Daniel shouted and yanked, the brim tearing as he ripped the hat from the man’s head. It wasn’t a man but a white splintered post, as tall as Daniel and writhing with vines.

He screamed and tried to run for the clearing’s entrance. Something wrapped around his ankles and tripped him, his face brushed with the grass and his nostrils filled with the smell of decay. He kicked to try to free his legs but saw the vines snaking over his legs, the fine white hairs pointing and piercing his slacks. 

Daniel held his potato-shaped Bible like a cross and prayed, his arms flailing, and then he remembered the lighter in his pants. 

Fumbling it from his pocket, he flicked the cheap plastic stone, the spark wheel flicking but not catching. He cried as he waved his arms.

The vines crawled over his shoulders and biceps, white hairs sinking into his flesh, biting, chewing.

Daniel brought his thumb on the stone hard and he felt flame burn the sticky residue from his Bible. He genuflected as the vines bit into his forearms and tightened around his legs and began to draw him back to the center of the clearing.

The movement made him lose control and the burning lighter touched the remnants of his Bible, the flame a bright rush that engulfed his hands. He screamed as the vines wrapped themselves around his throat, and gloved his hands, the tendril so thick that they put out the fire. 

Daniel offered one more silent prayer, and tried to utter one final scream, but it died with a whimper as the vines reached into his mouth and the thick leaves enveloped him like a shroud.

Derek Austin Johnson was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, but has lived most of his life in the Lone Star State. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he has worked as a projectionist, a substitute teacher, a bookseller, an internal auditor, and a legislative liaison.

He has written movie reviews for RevolutionSF, and his monthly film column “Watching the Future” appeared at SF Site and the Hugo Award-winning SF Signal. His fiction has appeared in Rayguns Over Texas! and Skull Fragments: A Skelos Sampler

He lives in Central Texas with the Goddess.