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The Advantages of Age

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"Oh, no, what have we here? You look a little wilted, my dear Matilda. Are those brown spots on your leaves? ... Hmmm ... They couldn't be aphids; it's not the right season. Here, now, let me take a look."

Feliks Twist examined the rest of his indoor hothouse with a critical eye, searching for other signs of herbaceous distress. He had been away for just over a week, visiting friends and attending to some financial business which required his personal presence, and had left his precious collection of hothouse plants in the care of a local gardening service. At a glance, he could tell they had failed him. Worse, they had failed his beloved flora.

For Feliks, gardening was more than a hobby. Raising rare hothouse orchids, bromeliads and other plants was a gentleman's occupation, to begin with, and he always strove to be a gentleman. Over the years, though, his conservatory had become his refuge, and the plants, his companions. In his mind's eye, the needs and tendencies of each had developed them into individuals, complete with personalities and names. They had unique histories, known only to him. Several were unusually long lived for their particular species, having been cared for lovingly all their lives. Some of these transcended companionship, and Feliks considered them friends. He cared for them, and in return they gave him beauty and fragrance reminiscent of the sunlit days to which he was no longer entitled.

After all, sunlight is deadly to vampires, and Feliks Twist was a vampire. So long as he had his plants, and his hothouse, he did not miss the sun. Without them, though, the endless night threatened once again to become oppressive and terribly, crushingly colorless and lonely. 

He missed his leafy companions when he traveled, so he only traveled when absolutely necessary. He usually stayed with his clients when he did, and all of them knew of his preference for living plants versus cut flower arrangements. He could not abide cut flowers in a vase; to him, they smelled of death and decay.  In the spirit of hospitality carried over from another age, his most recent host had provided him with something rare and distinctive to keep him company on his visit. It was an added incentive for future visits, but Feliks still found it refreshing to find a new and unfamiliar species while traveling. He had been delighted to bring the rare fern home.

The fern was legendary; there were those who denied its very existence. The Sceptridium biternatum, or Southern Grape Fern, was relatively easy to grow and care for. It was reputed to grow around graves, and its leaves turned a deep, blood-red color in autumn. Thus, it had become known as a “red fern.” Feliks had already named the fern, “Basil,” in fond memory of a red-haired vampire child he had brought across in the mid-18th century. Basil had not survived long as a vampire, unfortunately. He had the fiery temper associated with his hair color, or perhaps inspired by it. Regardless, he had gotten the short end of the stick, so to speak, in a fight with one of his elders in the Community, and had been unable to seek shelter from the sun before the dawn took him. He had only lived about forty years, mortal and vampire together, and Feliks had been sad to lose him. Now, he would have a new Basil to care for in the protected environment of his hothouse.

Returning home, Feliks’ first order of business was to introduce Basil to his new habitat. He opened the conservatory doors to find his own treasured collection ill-cared for and visibly suffering. He could smell the beginnings of decay and disease in the unusually stagnant air. Matilda was the first of his beloved plants to draw his attention, but she certainly was not the last. As he moved through the hothouse, his eyes glowed an angry red, and his fangs dropped into their predatory prominence and stayed there. Those responsible for this outrage would certainly be made to pay for it!

He started planning his retribution. To many of his kind, he appeared a fop, a fussy sort of vampire not given to acting on his vampiric inclinations. He was tolerated by some only because of his astute financial prowess. Otherwise, he was considered weak and beneath their notice. Nothing could have been further from the truth. He projected the sort of image that he wanted to maintain, both to mortals and to his vampire brethren. Few of the latter understood just how much power he kept leashed behind his façade of gentility and refinement.

One of the advantages of age and experience is the development of both patience and perspective. Feliks waited until his rage calmed to smoldering embers before taking the first step in his plan. He telephoned the gardening service and left a message asking for a representative to be sent to his home the following evening. He spent the rest of a long night tending to his ailing friends, using the physical labor as a balm to his distress.

By morning, he had done all he could do for his “leafy lads and lasses.” He closed up the hothouse and headed for his own bed.

In late afternoon, he was awakened by a determined knocking on his front door, accompanied by a persistent ringing of his doorbell. Using the security screen by his bed, he saw a bespectacled young man in the uniform of his gardening service fidgeting impatiently on his front stoop. Feliks sighed. It was no wonder that the service had failed his beloved plants. They were obviously incapable of following even the simplest directions. This was not evening, by anyone’s definition. Why was he here so early?

He pressed the speaker button and spoke slowly and clearly into it. “Wait there. I will be down in a moment.” The youngster looked around, found the camera lens, and nodded to it. He pulled a phone from his pocket and began fiddling with it while he waited.

Feliks took his time answering the front door. He dressed and visited the kitchen to stifle his thirst before dealing with the intrusion on his sleep. He winced in the late afternoon light as he opened the front door carefully, stepping back quickly into the shadows, and invited the young man to step into the front hall.

“So, yeah, Mr. Twist?” the young man started. Feliks stared at him impassively. Was that an inquiry or a preamble, he wondered.

After a moment of silent scrutiny, the young man looked up from the documents on his clipboard. He appeared to be waiting for a reply of some kind. When none was forthcoming, he cleared his throat and tried again. “You are Mr. Twist, right?”

Feliks nodded and looked at the young man expectantly. The silence was having its intended effect: the young man was becoming nervous.

“I’ve got the details of your service here.” He indicated the clipboard. “I need you to sign right there.” He pointed to a signature line as he spoke. “Did you want to use a credit card for that? The office said you hadn’t made any arrangements for payment yet. Or I can, you know, take a check if that’s all you got, I mean, if that’s how you want to handle it?”

The youngster’s increased nervousness at last brought a smile to Feliks’s face. He spoke haughtily, arching a well-groomed eyebrow and adopting all the manner of an offended lord. “Do come in, young man. I assume you are here about the gardening services I contracted for…” When the youngster nodded, he continued, “Very well. What is your name?”

“Oh, I’m Danny,” the young man responded quickly, now that the ice appeared to have been broken. He tucked the clipboard under one arm and offered his hand. “I’ve been looking after your greenhouse while you were away.”

Feliks stared at the hand and made no move to take it. “Ah,” he said as it was hesitantly withdrawn, “yes…well…come with me, Danny.” He turned as he spoke and led the way silently to the indoor hothouse. Danny followed without comment. When they reached the doors, Feliks entered first and began turning on the lights. He wanted to make sure this mortal fool could clearly see the results of his careless ineptitude before he was made to pay the price for it.

“Oh, Mr. Twist! Did you leave the lights off again? No wonder your poor plants are in such bad shape. I mean, you’ve got some beautiful specimens in here, but you need to give them more light, though, or they’ll start to wilt and die.” He rushed to the main table and took a leaf gently into one hand, ignoring Feliks as he went by. “See this?” he asked. “This curling here at the ends of the leaves shows that it needs more light. Y’know, you can’t get any natural sunlight in here, so you’ve got to have the lights on during the day to simulate daylight. They go off at night, of course, so they get the whole cycle of light and dark thing. Without that, they don’t grow properly.”

Danny dropped his clipboard on the edge of the table and moved quickly around the room. He was obviously familiar with all of the plants there, and rattled on and on with his observations about their health, the sorts of food and frequency of watering each should have, the amount and type of sunlight or shade each needed. His nervousness disappeared entirely in a flood of enthusiasm. He correctly noted almost every change Feliks had made since coming home, and commented on each one with his own appraisal of its effectiveness in bringing benefit to the plants or the hothouse as a whole.

Feliks watched him, stunned. Was this the same inarticulate youth he had met in the hall?

By the time Danny had finished his tour and review, Feliks had quite forgotten his ire. He had, instead, discovered the source of his plants’ distress: a significant misunderstanding, indeed.

“Danny,” he said when the youth finally slowed down, “what time of day did you usually come to my home while I was gone?”

“Uh, geez, not the same time every day. It, like, depended on the schedule for the day, you know what I mean? Like, some days I have to go to the nursery for new plants, and, like, stuff like that, y’know, and sometimes I have to do the shopping mall run, you know what I mean? Like, when the boss has meetings and stuff. Then, other times I just do the office buildings. Your greenhouse was the only private home on our list, though, so I was always the one to take care of it.” He looked around the large room as he spoke, eyeing everything appraisingly. “I guess it’s not really a greenhouse, though, is it, ‘cause it’s all inside, and there’s no sunlight.” He paused for breath, and Feliks jumped at the opportunity.

“Was it always during the day, or did you sometimes come over at night? You see, it’s important for me to know.”

Danny looked around nervously. He was not sure where the conversation was going, and he was beginning to get the creeps from being around the strange Mr. Twist. Just as Feliks thought he might have to mesmerize the young man, he answered the question sullenly. “Yeah, well, I always tried to get here during the day, but sometimes it was a bit later.” He looked up with a resigned expression before continuing, “Why? Does it make any difference?”

“Were the lights on or off when you first arrived?” Feliks waited patiently while Danny considered.

“Um, yeah, about that. Well, the first day I got here, the lights were off when I went in. I’m not sure who messed up your timers, but it wasn’t me, okay? Maybe you had a power surge or something, but all your timers were, like, completely reversed. It took me awhile to figure out the lighting system and reset it. In fact, there’s a new app you can upload on your phone that can monitor that for you, and you can make changes remotely, but you’re not set up for that kind of system now. I can help you with that, maybe, if you’re interested.” He paused, looking hopeful.

Feliks would have been tempted to laugh if the consequences of Danny’s interference had not been so dramatic. Instead, he focused a superior glance on the youthful face and intoned, “My boy, my business requires me to work nights and sleep days. I work from home, mostly, and so the lights in my hothouse are set to come on at night and go off during the day. My plants are accustomed to that circadian rhythm. I noted that specifically when hiring your firm. When you altered that rhythm, you stressed them, and some of them might not recover from that stress.”

“Oh, Mr. Twist, I’m sorry about that. I wondered why some of them were wilting, and I felt so bad. Nobody told me anything about it. I thought it was because the lights had been left off for too long before I got there to take care of them. We can try to replace any of the plants that die, but some of the specimens you’ve got are really rare, and I don’t know where we’d find replacements.”

Vestiges of Feliks’ anger threatened to wake the vampire within, and he paused for a moment to confirm his control. Would Danny be able to understand? “I have cared for all of the plants in my hothouse for most of their lives, some from seedlings, others from the original seeds. Each has its own history, its own origin and life story.” He fixed Danny with a piercing glare, listening for the heartbeat, bringing his voice into just the right pitch for the strongest hypnotic impact. “Each one has a name. It would be impossible to replace them.”

Feliks moved through the room with Danny in tow. “This is Ashley, my miniature magnolia. He is a gift from one of my first clients on this continent, and it is quite a challenge to control his size, even in this large room.” He stroked the rough bark tenderly before bringing his attention to Basil, who he’d settled in the shadiest depths of the understory created by Ashley’s leafy branches.

He moved to Matilda next, introducing Danny to her properly, as one did between friends. “I’m not sure Matilda can recover. Her leaves are wilting and she only has a few to provide her the nutrients she needs.” His voice almost cracked then, but he focused on his anger and his control returned. “Orchids can be so fragile, as I’m sure you know,” he continued, frigidly.

Lucia, a beautiful digitalis, was next, followed by Cordelia, a pink begonia, and the collection of bromeliads: Luke (a common yellow variety), and Cassius (Bromelia humilis) and Claudia (Bromelia balansae), with their crimson centers. Boris, Trot (from his Dickens-loving phase), Juliana, and Digsby, all varying colors and sizes of tricolor violas, or pansies, he kept in tribute to his beloved Marcia Adolina, his child and companion of a thousand years, now lost to him. She had called them, “monkey faces,” and they had always brought a smile to her face. They did so, as well, for him even now as he introduced each to Danny.

Feliks paused by the more carefully situated orchids. Most of these were named for mortals or vampires he had known, loved, and lost. There was not enough room in the entire house for each of the names in this category to be so honored. The orchids in his collection were instead named for those whose characteristics were most closely reflected in them. He was suddenly overcome by memories, and unwilling to share these most intimate of friends with the young man whose mind he had released from his control some time ago. He turned to find Danny staring moist-eyed and compassionately at him.

“Hey, Mr. Twist, I get it,” Danny said earnestly. “I’d like to help you try to fix things if you’ll let me.”

The boy’s face was earnest, and Feliks found himself looking at his precious orchids and slipping into the past, remembering the same earnest look on another man’s face….

The younger vampire had approached him tentatively. “You are a friend to Lucien LaCroix, are you not?” he had asked. When Feliks did not contradict him, he continued, “He, himself, told me where to find you, and that you can be trusted. It’s a financial matter, you see….”

He had liked young Nicholas immediately. They spent several pleasant months together recovering a fortune from various hiding places and placing it in a dozen new ones and had become fast friends. Vampires tended to hoard wealth like legendary dragons, and Feliks had become adept over the course of centuries in how to hide and invest it, and a wizard at creating ways to avoid losing it in times of political and economic unrest. His expertise had won him a certain standing in the Community.

It was no surprise that LaCroix had sent this protégé to him for financial tutoring and advice. Feliks had known Lucien LaCroix for centuries, and even now he was not sure which of them was older. They respected each other’s areas of expertise. When Nicholas needed help managing his “blood money,” as LaCroix called it, who else would he send him to?

Feliks had not heard from Nicholas in some time, not since the mid-1990’s, but that was not unusual in and of itself. After all, vampires were not static creatures. They moved from life to life, from passion to passion. Each era brought its own interests and opportunities. Indeed, it was not until the invention of electric light, and then of “sun lamps” that he had discovered the satisfaction of gardening and the passion which eased the loneliness his great age imposed upon him. The change had been a welcome one, lifting his increasingly dark mood with memories of beauty and sunlit days he had thought long lost.

Of course, some vampires changed more than others, and not always for the better. Nicholas had changed in the course of the two centuries Feliks had known him. Feliks had watched with some dismay as his young friend turned away from LaCroix, his master, and the Community in search of a return to mortality. His initial dismay gave way to puzzled concern when Nicholas began to talk about seeking redemption and forgiveness. He was amazed that the same man who had slain a Dauphin to gain a fortune had become a policeman, serving and protecting the mortals around him. Two personas struggled within Nicholas. Likewise, the Dimorphorchis lowii that bore his name had the rare quality of producing two different hued blossoms from the same spike.

Feliks continued to stroll through his hothouse and his memories, absently tending to his garden while postponing an answer to Danny’s proposal. His mind was taking him down memory lane for a purpose, and he needed to follow his thoughts through to their conclusions before deciding what to do. He froze and closed his eyes as a vivid memory overtook him.

 

LaCroix appeared on his doorstep at dawn one morning, years ago in Toronto: naked, bloody, badly battered (a gaping hole in his chest, no less), and singed around the edges. Feliks had taken him in and cared for him as he healed. Slowly, the story behind his injuries came out. Nicholas had very nearly killed him, but not without provocation.  

Feliks took advantage of the opportunity to place LaCroix in his debt as he kept him safely hidden during his convalescence. He ensured that no one in the Community learned of LaCroix’s location or condition. Fortunately, the Community also seemed unaware of the battle which produced that condition.

As LaCroix grew stronger, they spent many long nights in serious discussion. Feliks’ concern for Nicholas grew in proportion to LaCroix’s growing rage and desire for revenge. Before LaCroix could act on his urges, however, Feliks intervened. The advantages of age, he had argued, are patience and perspective. LaCroix, upon reflection, was forced to recognize that Nicholas had proven himself his creator’s match, his equal if you will, in personal combat and in determination. Didn’t he see? LaCroix now had an opportunity to form a true friendship with his offspring, based on a mutual respect, but only if LaCroix forswore his vengeance.

Finally, LaCroix conceded the point, but only to appease his host, and only to “return the favour” of his hospitality and generous rehabilitative care. Feliks recognized the huge concession and graciously allowed his guest to save face. Still, LaCroix took no direct revenge upon Nicholas. In the years that followed, Feliks had watched approvingly as their relationship grew slowly toward real friendship. He smiled at the memory.  The two had disappeared suddenly about, oh what was it, twenty years or more ago? Well, they were vampires, and vampires did that from time to time. He was confident he would see them again sometime. Still, he had named orchids for them both. Lucien was a gorgeous Habenaria medusa Kraaenzl, with long, spidery  white petals.

 

Feliks turned from both his orchids and his memories. He knew then that he would forgo his planned vengeance. To honor both Nicholas and LaCroix, and their choices, he would not take out his anger on Danny. He would allow the young man to help him undo as much of the damage to his leafy friends as they could. Danny was seeking redemption. Feliks would help him find it … for Nicholas’ and Lucien’s sakes, wherever they were.

He turned once more to the patiently waiting young man. “Are you familiar with the benefits and uses of blood meal as fertilizer, Danny?”

“Of course, Mr. Twist. I’m in my senior year at the University of Guelph. I’m studying horticulture, with an emphasis in ornamental horticulture. I noticed that many of your plants prefer a higher pH soil. Is that what you use for fertilizer?”

“Well, yes, more or less.” Feliks considered the man before him carefully. After another moment of hesitation, he continued. “Danny, I’m not very pleased about the state of my plants. I understand how it happened, but that doesn’t change the fact that you are responsible for my losses.” Danny looked more distraught than before. To his surprise, Feliks smiled at him warmly. Eyes which had seen millennia looked appraisingly into eyes barely two decades old. “Come on, college boy! Let’s talk about nursing my poor plants back to health. You might know some new things that I don’t, and I can guarantee, my boy, that I know a few tricks you’ve never heard of.”

Danny smiled and looked relieved. “I’d like that very much, Mr. Twist. I’ll help you however I can.”

“Good. Let’s get started, shall we?”