When Boris looks at me like this I know he is about to say something weird.
“There’s a house that wasn’t there before.”
“Yes, just like a regular old, yellow house with a roof and porch and the whole deal.” He shows me his phone and sure enough, there it is. Blurred in grease, but an unmistakably beige Cape nestled right in our artificial jungle as if it had always been a part of the terrain.
“Yeah, I didn’t put that there. Are you positive it wasn’t you?” We’re up at the veranda of the silver-blazed trailhead where, right on schedule, our gnats and mosquitoes are condensing into a blanket. The Mexican long-nosed bat delivery is delayed so the insects are pretty aggressive right now.
Boris hones his goth surfer hair into a ponytail, something he does when he needs to think. He is narrow-faced with a certain sitcom hokeyness that women find charming and want to protect. This version of him, however, is less pastoral. Much less lovable.
“I’m sure. Unless…maybe Hamanda did it.” Hamanda is our Chief Coder for this near replica of a German primeval forest, accurate down to the fallen limbs with mossy back-hair and cloned aurochs, which are still calves held at distribution. Their natural diet of annual bluegrass, foxtail, and boysenberries has been perfectly recreated as part of the native flora here. Boris sends Hamanda several texts and we wait. I consider waving my hand through him.
“Where was it?”
“Near the dead vine-peach grove and just past the LaCroix waterfall.”
“Let me check in the back of the report one more time.” I bet it was her. Over the past few months we’d been building Straw Gully: The untouched, virgin green of Eastern Europe cascading into the sedimentary heavens of the American West. The best possible hiking experience you can find, made using 97% organic-grade, sustainably sourced materials. That’s the pitch stamped on every brochure. We bred old-growth with a clone of Glenwood Canyon—gray faced cliffs that dip into hanging lakes and bayous neon with turquoise water from the limestone runoff. The infrastructure was prepared in a factory in Beijing and transported in pieces on a ship. A whole 964-acre landscape planted like stadium turf in northern Rhode Island.
We even implanted a legend about a prospector who came here searching for gold only to find a dead horse at the entrance to the gulch. He left his wife and son behind and traveled across the map just to see a horse that wasn’t even alive. The archetypical American dream. Our lawyers advised us to name this particular quadrant Gold Pony Gulch. Dead Horse Gulch was too forward.
Boris takes out his tablet and sifts through a checklist we’ve been through too many times. Before the beta testers come in, it’s up to us to ensure everything has bloomed as it should. Boris’ sneakers are barren of scuff marks and I think he notices me noticing this.
“Let’s go see it,” I tell him.
“No way man, it gave me the creeps.”
“I don’t know, yeah. Something about it was just off.”
Corporate did mention we’d have to iron out some things. What this really meant was that we needed to unfuck their ill-conceived designs. Adding intelligent plants that can choose their own sex and are also edible only seems like a good idea in a boardroom full of free Red Bull. The King Oyster Drosera has since gone rogue, quietly producing side-effects from its spores being pumped into the air instead of naturally wafting out from spongy debris, like I had originally recommended. Everyone knows housebreaking young fungi is the hardest part. And we’re not going to tell Ben about the speed at which the sundews have been breeding. There’s no way. He’s been in a mood. We’ll just have to figure everything out on our own. Boris starts to make his face again, but it slackens. This is a new development. The spores are still too potent for commercial use and I check a box to confirm both this and Boris’ facial evolution.
“Dude, you don’t get it. It was like a house with shutters and everything.”
“Was there a mailbox?”
“Nope, no driveway or anything like that.”
“I’ve heard of skeleton foundations being incorporated to mimic forgotten mill villages, but not full suburban homes.” I grab my backpack and I know Boris will follow me if I leave because something in the air leaves us frightened of being alone.
We’re on day 181, almost a month behind schedule completing the market-ready phase of Straw Gulley. Corporate set us back, demanding 13% more mountain laurel as well as a secret vista where, if it’s a clear enough day, hikers can spot the city. Hamanda worked in the third tallest building there. Early data collection proved better SEO results for nature destinations with ‘secret view’ and ‘gem’ facets. At the press junket, Ben gloated about embedding a community garden for the homeless, yet nixed this at the last minute because we were over budget.
Boris pauses to squat in a witch-hazel pool and furiously scribbles on his tablet, making notes or drawing storms. The coyotes will be coming out soon. At night, their drunken cave-dog shanties have become a soothing part of sleeping in the trailers. The hay smell from the yet-to-be rolled-out, pre-decayed compost layer has been filling my dreams with tractors bucking like wild stallions.
“Look, there’s Mariah.”
One coyote is already stalking the game trails. I had seen this one before and named her Mariah, after the pop singer. The pheromones in the atmosphere make them just docile enough to avoid humans.
“The coyote.” It sniffs at some leaves before pawing away from us.
“Oh, yeah,” Boris says, his face illuminated by the tablet. He is distracted.
“We don’t have time,” I say, clapping at the bug fog. “It’s getting dark, dude.” He doesn’t respond so I try to trigger a different neuropath. “How are things with Georgia?” She also lived in the city, but in the low-laying part that leeches whatever nutrients it can get from the canopy of skyscrapers.
Boris sighs as I suspected he would. “She’s cool. Still doing the photography thing. Making like, zero money.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve seen her stuff, it’s so good.” I fear I put too much emphasis on the so.
We amble down into the understory, following silver to blue to orange. Our voices are hidden in a belligerent ocean of crickets, not tuned quite right. I tell Boris we’ll have to fix that. There’s an overly urgent, almost static belch to what is supposed to be washboards drawling until they’re triggered off by the chill in the morning air. We clamber up a rock face that will get pretty slimy whenever it rains. Beech trunks are skinny and positioned at just the right places to navigate by. If you halved one, you’d see a factory watermark in the rings. You’d also be fined $175.
“Do crickets bite?”
“They’re just loud. Don’t be a baby.”
We’re not at the view yet, but it’s getting too dark to see. The incline makes our breath heavy. This is where bros in cargo shorts will clamor up, fix their windbreakers around their hips, and swig from canteens. The same ledge a prospector’s granddaughter used as a vantage point when she came searching, but found only a horrible vastness she could never shake.
When we get to the wild onion, Boris says he has an irrational fear of meeting Georgia’s parents.
“You’re great dude, parents love you. If I was a mom or a dad, I’d embrace you as my son-in-law. Fully.”
“Son-in-law. Sun inlaw.” He tries to compute what I’m saying but ultimately seems to understand.
Hamanda texts me back to confirm what we knew all along. The MSG-climate flavor enhancers that the pollinators pump in have been hijacked by the carnivorous sundews within the ecosystem’s AI. After a period of careful study, they deployed hallucinatory spores to act as feelers. We’ve been speculating they are predatory in nature, including this latest rendition of Boris. Poor Boris, copied to be a fake ghost used as a piece of bait. I guess there are worse ways to be commemorated.
It’s hard to avoid tearing the cinnamon ferns up. Out this far, without any hummingbirds to get at the wool, they’re overflowing with gingery hair that sticks in your boot rivets. We have to be careful not to pick up stowaway seedlings. This whole project is a botanical cocktail. We can’t be the ones to mix it; that’s for the first customers to do.
They’ll experience fermenting goldenrod nectar. A whir of cascading seltzer hissing in the distance. Impenetrable walls of green. Peach vines dried out into withered ribs. We must be getting close. These edges are where Straw Gulley begins its identity crisis. We figure the compost blanket will help blend the desert rocks with the dinosaur plants just seamlessly enough.
Boris is acting cautious, to the point where his emotions must be forced.
Turning away, I pretend to analyze what light we have left as I text my response to Hamanda. He’s dulling his emotions the closer we get. Few indicators. Here the climate shields everything in a fuzzed skin. I note this is where the hallucinogens are likely reproducing. We’ve been moving in zig-zags, and it is going to be tough finding my way back alone.
“Is this where it was?” I pull my breathing respirator from my backpack and affix it to my face.
“Yeah, yeah.” He is confused. Squinting to find it. “It was here, I’m positive.”
“Let’s go a little further. Is this even on the map? I don’t think we’re on the map.” Despite my voice being completely muffled, he understands everything I’m saying, almost before I say it.
“Look.” He shows me his map. We’re way out past the border, indicated by a yellow brush stroke. Hamanda is artsy like that, with her septum piercing and MFA. Our company is a graveyard for failed artists fresh off of their graduate theses. She is the genius behind the pre-eroded limestone deposits which make the hanging lake change color like a sour apple Jolly Rancher inside a jellyfish.
“There, do you see it?” Sure enough, just ahead is a flash of creamy primer. Black shutters folding onto ornamental door ridges. It looks solid, though Boris is beginning to flicker.
“Are you going inside?” Boris says, still as set fudge, waiting for me to enter.
“I don’t know about that, bud.” I make a final note in the tablet. There could be other hallucinated hologram spirits wandering around here and regret pushing past daylight. At the same time, it’s possible that creepy feeling is another byproduct of our MSG pathogen. A defense mechanism to alert its attacked host. How it feels to have something studying you.
“What’s wrong? Go ahead.” He sounds desperate. He holds his hand out, gesturing for me to enter. It recalls. Adjusts. The real Boris is back in the trailer, probably heating up the last of our kielbasa or lying to Ben.
“Go in dude.” He waits by the entrance. I am almost curious enough to get closer. Hamanda has yet to respond. We’re 96% sure this whole carnivorous plant glitch is harmless. A baited hook with nothing waiting on the other end. Some natural reflex to its environment.
“What’s going to be in there?”
“How should I know,” he says flatly. The respirator is filtering whatever made Boris look real, recalibrating my brain. Now his ashy face fits like a melted Halloween mask. When I wave my hand through him, it feels like cobwebs.
I could take a quick peek inside. I know it’s not real, but I’ve already breathed in enough spores for the effects to last a few more minutes.
“You want me to go in?”
“Yes.” There is pixelated saliva pooling at the edge of his lip.
I approach the porch, perfectly warped as if generations of families had trampled over it. There’s a faded welcome mat caked with leaves and pollen. A screen door flaps on its hinge. “Want to tell me what’s in there first? Is there like, a blood pie cooling on a windowsill?”
Boris is leering at me. “Go on, dude.”
“Don’t get excited.” The respirator is beginning to taste like cooked plastic and recycled breath. A whiff of a sneeze still damp on arm flesh.
“You’re as delicious to us as we are to you,” Boris says.
“Yeah, well that’s some bark coming from a dog with all gums. From a stupid, talking salad.” I press my palm to the door, which is sticky as flypaper. “Here’s a tip. Next time, make sure your shoes don’t look brand new.” I say this not to Boris’ transparent form, but to the jungle closing in on us. He inspects his impeccably rendered Nikes and I’m off the porch, backtracking to camp.
“Thanks,” he says. It says.
A text from real Boris asks me to send him a picture of himself but when I turn around to face the house again, the copy has taken a seat in a rocking chair and a woman’s voice is humming from somewhere deep inside.