The Sneak Thief of Meyer’s Greenhouse


     I woke up thinking that it was too dark out and too early to be awake. Then I remembered what day it was. The pale hour of five-thirty showed in the bars of watery light just beginning to peek through the blinds of my lone bedroom window. It was also on the green-numbered face of the alarm clock sitting on my low-topped dresser across the room, shouting at me. I rolled out of bed, untangling my feet from a colorful quilt, stumbled across the bedroom floor, and cast my arm in the general direction of the snooze button. Then the morning was quiet. 

     My mouth tasted gross, and my hair was in a clump of brown flyaway tangles. There was only half an hour before I needed to be out the door and on my way to Meyer’s Greenhouse. It was my first day at a new job, and it started at seven in the morning. I rushed to get cleaned up and dressed, putting a quick lunch together and heading out to the car at six o’clock. The Greenhouse was an hour’s drive away. 

     I wondered again why I was doing this as I made my way along the still mostly empty highway, trying to stay awake and warm in my heater-less car. I liked the idea of working with plants. I mean, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I had much talent at it, but starting a garden every year was a favorite tradition of mine, and I was interested in learning what I could. But an hour’s drive to make eight dollars an hour didn’t seem altogether brilliant. It was so cold in the car. Next time, I decided, I should bring a blanket. 

     I shivered and watched as the sky tried on a succession of pastels before it finally decided on a light springtime blue. Pulling in to the parking lot in front of the Greenhouse, I turned the car off and got out. 

     “Hi! Karen, right?” A man in waterproof boots, blue denim jeans, navy button-down shirt, thick brown coat, and with a round smiling face fringed by short dark red hair walked across the gravel parking lot to greet me. I knew him. His name was Ray Carper, and he was joint owner of the greenhouses. I’d spoken to him on the phone before my interview. 

     “Yes, sir,” I said, smiling back at him. 

     “Great, great,” Ray Carper said energetically. “So let’s get you inside to fill out paperwork and stuff, and then we can get started.” 

     “Okay,” I agreed, walking fast to keep pace with him as he turned and headed to the office. 

     “You excited?” he asked. 

     I nodded, realized that he hadn’t seen, then added, “Yep.”

     I looked around me and noticed the gray gravel underfoot, the greenhouses, long tubes stretching on forever it seemed to one side of me, and plain, white-sided buildings in a row on the other side. Everything was pale, I thought. 

     “Good morning, Janet,” Ray Carper greeted the receptionist as we walked into the small office building.

     The Greenhouse didn’t need much of an office space, really, as most of it was made up of rows upon rows of greenhouses and large storage and work rooms I’d seen on my way in. There were a few desks in a small room, a couple of telephones, and a reception counter in front of it all with a narrow hallway guiding you through the tiny space. Just enough office equipment to answer phones, take orders, fill out forms, and check schedules. 

     Half an hour later, I was an official employee, and bound to be a hungry employee come lunchtime. In my rush earlier that morning I’d forgotten my lunch on the kitchen counter. It was going to be a long day, I sighed to myself, as I followed Ray Carper to the maintenance room. 

    “Hey, Greg, how’s it going?” Ray Carper spoke to a stout man with an oval white face, wire-rimmed glasses over blue eyes, and short brown hair. Greg was standing there in t-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes, despite the cold morning, and held colorful nozzle attachments for putting on a hose in his two hands. I also noticed he wore a large waterproof watch. It occurred to me that I was going to wish I hadn’t worn sneakers. 

     “Not bad, Ray,” Greg said, smiling a little curiously over at me. 

     “Great,” Ray Carper said, “this is our new employee, Karen Wycke. Karen, this is Greg Burns and he’s going to show you the ropes today.” 

     Greg and I nodded at each other, and I waited for further instruction. 

     “Okay, well I’ll leave you to it then.” Ray Carper gave us a smile. “Have fun!” 

    And with that he was off to other things. Greg, meanwhile, started showing me the different nozzles and explaining their uses. I pretty much just followed him around for the first part of the day as he went from greenhouse to greenhouse, attaching a nozzle to the hoses that were hooked up for each one, and telling me how to identify which plants needed watering, and when. My shoes were soaked in no time.

    Around eleven o’clock, we all stopped for lunch break. Some of the other workers let me have bits of their lunches because they felt sorry for me, and though I was grateful for any food at all, I was still pretty famished at the end of that first day. 

     That isn’t to say it wasn’t enjoyable. I actually liked the job. Over the next week they let me water in greenhouses by myself, and spending the morning in such solitude and routine was very satisfying. I think my favorite part was late afternoon, though, when we finished watering and got to go to the planting room for the remaining hour or two of the workday. The best thing about gardening is the feeling of dirt on my hands and the smell of it, and seeing things that I planted from seed start to come up out of the soil, so tiny and so perfect. Sometimes I maybe even rushed through the watering just to be able to spend the afternoon in the planting room. I saw it as the highlight of the day. 

     Anyway, about three weeks into my new job at Meyer’s Greenhouse, Greg came up to me while I was in House 16 watering strawberries and dianthus. He had a worried look on his face, and it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the imminent drenching of his shoes as he walked through the puddles on the greenhouse floor on his way up to me. I’d started tying plastic bags around my socks underneath an old pair of tennis shoes to solve that problem, which was mostly effective.

      “Hey, Karen,” he said. “How’s it going?” 

     “All right.” I nodded and waited for him to say what he meant to say. 

     “Have you noticed . . . Has anything of yours gone missing?” he managed to ask after a bit. 

     “No, not that I know of.” I looked at him questioningly. 

     “Hm, okay.” He shrugged. 

     “Why?” I asked, my curiosity piqued by his question and his strange mood. 

     “Oh, no reason, really,” he said, trying to sound unconcerned. “Stuff has just been going missing lately. Nothing too important. Somebody’s iPod, a set of earphones, some loose change, a hat . . . you know. I was just wondering if you’d lost anything like that.” 

     “Yeah, I don’t think so,” I said again. “Do you think someone’s taking stuff?” 

     “Maybe. Then again, it could just be getting lost. Who knows? I just figured I’d check.” 

     “Okay,” was all I said. I didn’t like the idea of somebody stealing things from around the greenhouses. But, like Greg said, it could just be people losing stuff. 

     “Oh, I also wanted to let you know that we want to run fertilizer in 19 and 20 today,” Greg told me. “Do you know how to do that?” 

     “Yeah, I just turn the lever next to the hose, right?” 

     “Right,” he said. “And there’s been some animal, probably a raccoon, messing with some of the plants up here. If you see anything give us a call on your radio, will you?” 

     “Sure,” I said. 

     “And make sure to get the plants in back along the wall.” He gestured to the back row of dianthus that I was missing. 

     I nodded and started to water the back row of plants as he walked out of the greenhouse on his way to another task. 

     A few minutes later I heard a shout and looked out the greenhouse door to see one of the Mexican workers, Matias I’d heard him called, running with a brick in his hand. A few of the other workers followed him. They all seemed to be very interested in something a few feet ahead of them. I looked for the source of the commotion and that’s when I noticed a small gray-brown creature scurrying away from its excited pursuers. The raccoon. The little guy was fast, and bolted away from Matias and beyond the greenhouse grounds. The Mexican worker whooped in victory at chasing him off the property. 

     I turned to go back into the greenhouse to finish watering. In spite of the animal generated diversion, we worked at a greenhouse and the plants took precedence here. As I turned though, I saw another worker standing by a greenhouse across from me and two down. His name was Carlisle, and his long brown face and the wary look in his eyes made me pay attention to his hands, which were picking up something from a plant cart near the greenhouse door and putting it subtly into the pocket of his gray sweat jacket. 

     I almost called out, but maybe the thing was his. The sneakiness with which he’d picked it up made me think whatever it was didn’t belong to him, though. I ducked back into the greenhouse quickly before he could notice me watching him, and I wondered if Carlisle might be stealing things. 

     That afternoon I bumped into Alyssa, another waterer. She looked a little rushed, her curly blonde hair nearly escaping the ponytail she’d pulled it back in in an explosion of fuzz, and her face pink and shiny with sweat as she wiped her hands on her blue jeans and came up to me. We’d just finished lunch, and I was almost done watering my section of greenhouses, so I was feeling pretty good. 

     “Hi, Karen,” she said. “Would you be able to help me finish watering my section? I’m sorry, but there was a lot to do in 28 and I haven’t made it even halfway through yet, and the plants really need watered.” 

     “Sure,” I said with a smile. I’d kind of been looking forward to helping out in the planting room when I finished, but couldn’t refuse to help her, and I knew that the watering had to be finished first. “I’ve got one more greenhouse to do, and then I’ll head right over.” 

     “Great!” Alyssa said, relieved. 

     We got our nozzles out again from the maintenance room and headed in separate directions to resume watering. When I’d finished the last house in my section, I went down to hers and looked around the greenhouses until I spotted her. 

    “Hey,” I said. “Which houses have you done so far, and which still need to be watered?” 

     “I’ve done 21 through 26, and 28, and some of this one, 37,” she said. 

     “Okay; I’ll start at 31 then and work my way across the bottom row, I guess?” I offered. 

     “Sounds good,” she said. “Thanks!” 

     “No problem.” I waved as I went to start watering. 

     I got to 31 and saw that there were hornets among the sweet potato vine. They must really like that stuff, I thought, because they are all over it. I looked a little closer, at the soil, just to make sure the plants needed water. I was half hoping that they didn’t because I did not want to have to be the person spraying water at hornets. But the soil was dry, so there was no getting around it. 

     Carefully, I walked over to the hook where the hose was hanging and twisted my nozzle onto the end of the hose. Then, taking a deep breath, I turned the lever and let water fill the hose and come spraying out the end. After waiting a few seconds like Greg had showed me to make sure any old water and sediment that may have been sitting around in the hose had gone through, I gingerly started to water the sweet potato vines. 

     Hornets flew up everywhere, but either through sheer luck or my chant of “Please, please don’t hurt me. Please don’t let them hurt me” I didn’t get stung, and none of them seemed to even notice me. Maybe they were too busy avoiding the hose and death by drowning. Anyway, I made it through house 31 and finished up the watering, helped in the planting room a bit, and then went home. 

     The next day some of the workers were in the break room before getting started for the day and one of them was telling another about a watch he’d lost the other day on one of the planting carts. He’d taken it off to plant baskets, and couldn’t seem to find it after. I talked to Alyssa about the whole mystery as we were taking cuttings from some Wandering Jew plants in house 25. 

     “Do you know about the stuff going missing?” I said, breaking right into my main subject. “I wonder if somebody’s stealing around here.” 

     “I’d heard about it,” she said thoughtfully. “People misplace things, though, so it may not actually be stolen.” 

     “I know,” I said. “It’s just . . . Carlisle was being suspicious around one of the planting carts yesterday, and I thought he slipped something in his pocket . . . And now somebody’s missing their watch. I can’t shake the feeling that Carlisle’s weird behavior yesterday has something to do with it, and that maybe he’s the one who took the other things too.” 

     “Maybe,” Alyssa said, snipping off another cutting and putting it in our quickly-filling tray of them. She wiped some sweat from her forehead with the back of her hand and looked at me. “I wouldn’t want to jump to conclusions though. But I guess I’ll keep an eye out.” 

     “Thanks,” I said grinning. “Me too. Like you said, it might be nothing, but—” 

     “Can’t hurt to be careful,” she finished my sentence for me. 

     “Exactly,” I agreed. 

     A week passed and nothing extraordinary happened. Nobody said anything had gone missing, and Alyssa and I were too busy doing various things to talk over any ideas, even if there had been anything to talk about. I thought maybe I should bring the whole thing up to Ray Carper or Greg, but I couldn’t make up my mind to. I didn’t really have enough evidence to prove anything, and I didn’t want to get Carlisle in trouble if I was wrong. 

     On a rainy Thursday I went into the planting room. Watering had ended early because of the weather; there was never as much to do on a rainy cloudy day. Emiliano, the nice middle-aged Mexican man who was in charge of planting, who sang badly and raced us to see who could plant the fastest and the best, sent me to the back warehouse room to fetch some more plastic plant trays after a few minutes of planting. We were going through them pretty quickly with so many extra hands in there that day. I had to go back into a shadowy corner where the trays were stacked in huge towers on pallets.

     As I was separating a stack of new trays, I saw a space between some piles of old or broken plant trays, and something caught my eye. It was a shallow cardboard box, and when I looked closer, I saw that almost all of the missing objects of the last few weeks were in the bottom of that box. There was the iPod, and attached to it some silver earphones. There was a wad of tinfoil from somebody’s lunch probably. There were a few quarters and dimes. There was a be-jeweled baseball cap. There was a random spoon. The only thing I didn’t see was the watch. 

     It didn’t make any sense. They couldn’t have all ended up here by accident, but if someone was stealing them then why did they leave them in a box instead of taking them home or something? 

     I didn’t understand. And then I thought about the objects. Most of them made sense to steal, in a way, but what about the tin foil and the spoon? They certainly weren’t worth much, which is probably why they hadn’t been mentioned in Greg’s list of missing things. Who would steal things like that? 

     A rough-edged hole near the bottom of the box caught my attention as my brain tried to solve this puzzle, and suddenly the whole thing made sense. I’d been wrong about Carlisle. He wasn’t taking the things. And what’s more, I didn’t think any human being was . . . It was an animal. And I had a pretty good guess as to which one. 

     I needed to go and check something to make sure, though. I finished carrying the stack of trays into the planting room, and then under the excuse that I had to go to the bathroom I went outside in the direction of the outhouse. But instead of going there, I headed for house 16. 

     And out on the gravel, near a corner of the greenhouse across from 16, was a beautiful metal watch. The last shiny thing that the raccoon had tried to stash away before being banished from the land by Matias.


By Phoenix

(This story was originally published on Ink and Fairy Dust)