Normally, Lottie Lotus’ garden was a refuge. The topiaries had been clipped into such sweet shapes; there was a raven that presided over the east side of the garden and a crow that ruled the west. The crow’s side was themed aquatic — multiple fountains sprayed patterns in front of an intricate mosaic depicting an oceanic scene. The raven’s, on the other hand, was more arid. A series of cacti, specially grown to look like nesting dolls popping out of each other stood over an obsidian statue of a cat hissing. A stripe of moss painted a line through the exact middle of the garden, where Lottie had placed an enormous, throne-shaped boulder. From this rock, Lottie presided over her garden, ensuring that order was kept.
Lottie was not an easy person to get along with — her ex-husband Lloyd could attest that her obsession with order took precedence over their relationship. When they were together, she frequently showed up to the skyscraper that Lloyd worked in because he had forgotten to put his coffee mug in the sink that morning. She would bring the mug and shatter it against his 30-floor window, then immediately leave. Their split came unexpectedly to Lloyd. Lottie just decided that she needed more space in the house and that was that.
The neighborhood tended to know that Lottie was one to be avoided when she was on her warpath. She was the founder and head of their HOA, an organization that most folks in the neighborhood politely detested. Lottie didn’t mind that people weren’t happy with the HOA. She knew that everyone’s house could be as beautifully-done as hers if they just followed her rules, so she made the rules. Simple as that. The only sticking point was when the neighbors didn’t listen to her; if her neighbors wouldn’t listen to her, how would she have everyone’s house look perfect?
She sipped her piña colada and leaned back on her boulder throne. Her issue of late was with a woman who lived across the cul-de-sac from her: Maybelle. Maybelle had moved in about a year ago, bringing a new variable to the equation of the neighborhood. Lottie had watched Maybelle for six months and couldn’t figure out what was going on with her. She didn’t have a consistent schedule, nor did this ‘Maybelle’ seem to care about any of the rules that Lottie had set up for the neighborhood. Lottie could see that her hedges were above regulation height and that her mailbox was not one of the pre-approved styles.
As Lottie watched this Maybelle’s house, she saw another strange phenomenon. Every month or so, it seemed like another person was living in Maybelle’s house. Lottie couldn’t be entirely sure, but there always seemed to be too many people coming and going from that evil terracotta building.
Lottie was at war.
“Lottie Lotus at your service, dear. I’ve come over today to inquire about a few HOA rules that I think you might be breaking,” she said, buckteeth bared in an attempt at a friendly smile.
“Oh, um. Let me get my— my, uh, aunt,” said Miles. He had heard about this woman from his “aunt” and knew that he shouldn’t be the one dealing with her. He closed the door slowly, watching the buckteeth gritted towards him disappear behind the oak door with an owl on it. The boy hurdled upstairs as quickly as he could, looking for his friend Maybelle. She had been renting a room to Miles and some other folks for quite some time now, as the housing market wasn’t exactly friendly at this point in history. She posed as everyone’s aunt, a relation believable enough for the prying eyes of the, let’s say, uptight neighbors.
“Maybelle? Miss Maybelle?”
Miles listened as her television snapped off and her door opened.
“Miles? What is it?” Her voice rasped, sandpaper rough proof of years of cigarettes and singing.
“The HOA woman is here, and she seems…well, unhinged.”
There was a grand creaking and groaning as Maybelle extricated herself from her large bed. She didn’t get up for much, but the HOA was one of the unfortunate things that required her to add stress to her aging joints. One foot on the ground, then two. A soft clanking as she came to the door. Finally, the creak of the door as it opened; Miles looked into her glowing green eyes.
“I’m sorry, Maybelle. She looks like she might hurl a brick through the window if we don’t talk with her this time.”
Maybelle sighed. That was every time this Lottie came around. She stretched her pistons and headed downstairs. With a sigh, she pulled the door open.
“Hi there. ‘Aunt’ Maybelle, is it? I’m just here as a representative of the neighborhood’s HOA. May I come in?” Maybelle could hear the woman grinding her teeth as she finished her sentence.
“I’m sorry, Lottie. It’s not a good time. Is there something that I can help you with now?” Maybelle did her best to be patient with her neighbor, but she felt her gears locking up.
Lottie smiled, gritting her teeth. She looked at Maybelle’s glowing green eyes, studying them for a sign of weakness.
“You know, Maybelle. I have reason to believe that you’re running a discrete boarding house here in the neighborhood. And I don’t have just enough proof yet, but I am going to nail you to the ground once I do. The HOA won’t stand for this.”
Maybelle’s eyes flickered for a moment.
“You must have a boring life if you have to work so hard on destroying other people’s. Have a nice evening,” Maybelle said as she shut the door. She turned, ignoring the sound of Lottie’s teeth grinding, and shuffled into the kitchen. It was time to make dinner.
The sun had sunk below Maybelle’s house, shooting its beams out from behind the house. The neatly-crowned halo smiled sweetly at Lottie, who was about to blow a gasket. She stalked off toward her own home, already plotting how to get Maybelle out of the neighborhood. The other houses, who were not as upset as Lottie, snoozed in the late-afternoon sun, awaiting the arrival of their occupants. The cul-de-sac normally had this sleepy energy, only revealing its occupants when the weather was clear — which wasn’t much these days. Older residents could go on about the blue of the sky, but children tended to wander off, wondering how their clouded-over dome could’ve been any other way.
It was only Lottie who caused trouble in the neighborhood. She was always wandering around, claiming that HOA code violations were a scourge on the neighborhood — as if civil society was melting down because the tint of the Rodriguez’s house was not up to some code. People tended to leave her alone for this reason; they knew that her prying eyes would eventually find something wrong with their homes, so they averted their vision when she looked. Lottie, not noticing the lack of attention, was a workaholic for “cul-de-sac justice” — at least that’s what she called it.
Maybelle had little patience for Lottie and her justice, yet was continually inundated with requests from the HOA about various infractions. She always would say to her various tenants, “who the hell cares if my house is terracotta?” She truly couldn’t imagine why Lottie cared so much.
Maybelle shrugged to herself as she kept cooking. That ghoul may had theorized correctly about the boarding house, but she would never get the evidence to prove it.
Maybelle would make sure of it.
Four generally wayward souls were boarded with Maybelle at this time: Miles, Marcus, Madge, and Mallory. All four had similarly been artificially modified like Maybelle. Now that they lived in the cul-de-sac with Maybelle, their enhancements were somewhat over-redundant, to overstate the point. When the acrid air of the megalopolis doesn’t try to choke you every morning, your iron lungs seem overkill. This being said, none of the enhancement surgeries were reversible, so the cyborgs moved to the suburbs as they were. Not many people in the suburb thought much about it; Carol McMahon from two doors down thought that they were “sweet kids, those cousins.”
Carol was right about the kids being sweet, but Madge always felt a little bad about what Maybelle called “stretching the truth for their safety.” None of the boarders in Maybelle’s house were as patient or kind as Madge, who used to work amongst the screaming, grinding machines in the Air Force factories. Even though she had complete control over her now-mechanized hearing, she never turned it off, regardless of how objectively obnoxious the person talking to her was.
Madge had a habit of going to the mountains just near the cul-de-sac to gather wild herbs for Maybelle’s kitchen. The mountain air was crisp, soft on Madge’s lungs. When she went up there for the first time, she couldn’t help the fat tears falling from her eyes as she breathed clearly. Now that joy was too familiar for tears, but Madge still loved following the Pine Creek trail to a certain meadow halfway up the Crimson Mountain.
She was walking back to Maybelle’s house when she saw Lottie storming across the cul-de-sac. Madge could hear her grinding her teeth from down the street. What had just happened? Lottie was stark against the quiet houses, a seething figure amongst the sleeping homes.
“Ms. Lotus?” Madge called out.
Madge heard Lottie stop grinding her teeth before she saw her turn.
“Well, Madge, isn’t it? How are you?” Lottie was close to Madge a little too quickly, even though Madge hadn’t seen Lottie run. Madge looked up at Lottie, who was nearly a head taller and now bared her teeth in what was an attempt at a kind smile.
“I’m fine, Ms. Lotus. I was just up in the mountains today, picking some herbs. The wild rosemary up there is blooming without abandon. Would you like some?” Madge offered the rosemary as she spoke.
Lottie paused for quite some time, her eyes glazing over. She ran her tongue over her teeth, considering the grooves as Madge watched. Madge thought this was exceedingly odd, but she didn’t say anything about it. Some people were wound differently, but it wasn’t any of her business to look under the hood when it came to other people.
Lottie finally accepted the rosemary from Madge, keeping the glazed look. She patted Madge on the forehead without saying anything and headed back to her house. Madge watched, wondering what was going on with this woman from the HOA.
The woman from the HOA didn’t wonder about Madge either. She stalked toward her home, sprig of rosemary crushed in her fist. As she walked, Lottie appeared to grow taller. Could it have been a trick of the light? Madge decided not. She turned and made her way home so she’d be there for dinner.
There was no trick of the light. Lottie felt her center of gravity change as she approached her house. This was entirely new to Lottie — how was she growing? She didn’t think about the strange power of her consistent, concentrated nosiness. Lottie would have to come to terms with the fact that she was much too deep in her neighbors’ business; but the odds of her controlling the burning need to get her neighbors and their homes in order — and, in turn, the odds of her complete transformation — did not look good.
Lottie whacked her head on the doorframe as she entered her home. This too was entirely new. The door frame stood over 6 feet tall, so she wasn’t commonly running into it. What was happening? She thought, furrowing her brow and feeling something strange happen as she did. Was that her skin pulling at the top of her head? She felt around up there, feeling her skin flaking away under her hair. Good lord. She couldn’t be balding, could she?
She headed to her bedroom to further observe this change. Her house, starkly lit with the canned lights, greeted her return with a resounding nothing. The house was cold, even to the most discerning eye: marble everywhere, white walls and cabinetry, glass sculptures of various ancients: Ptolemy, Eris, and even the Leviathan. Lottie’s house brought up the image of a museum or, even better, a temple of some sort. It was not a place of comfort; the thought of a child entering the compound was laughable.
Rounding the corner after thoroughly searching through her hair, Lottie was livid. She hustled to the window, pulling the curtain back to try to get a clear view of Maybelle’s house. If she leaned to the right far enough, she could just see into the dining room, where Maybelle and her “family” were sitting down to dinner. Lottie felt a sharp pain in her right knee. She looked down for a moment and spotted something breaking through her capris. What was happening?
She looked back up at Maybelle’s house and found that a matching pain was coming from her left knee now. Another pain and another spine, now coming from the left. There was movement across the street. One of Maybelle’s nephews was coming out the door — the kid she spoke to earlier that afternoon! What was he up to? She ran to another window, her legs now splitting into four separate entities. Scrabbling to stand as she slid on the marble floor, Lottie hoisted herself onto the window sill. The boy wandered around to the side of the house, heading towards the trash bins. Lottie’s skin became hard, soft flesh now becoming exoskeleton. Her eyes protruded slightly from her head, beginning to resemble eye stalks.
Maybelle’s “nephew” placed a trash bag in one of the bins and moved all three of them out to the curb for trash day. Lottie felt herself grow to over seven feet tall, so tall that she now had to crouch a little bit to get a good vantage out the window. God! All this just to see someone put out the bins?! Lottie felt anger pang through her, an almost physical feeling. She threw the window open and hollered at the boy.
“THREE FEET BETWEEN THE CANS, BOY!”
She immediately fell over after yelling. Her voice was so deep and raspy now! It had surprised her so much that she hadn’t heard the boy say “Sorry, sir” as he went through and spaced the cans out. What was this outlandish punishment? What incredibly powerful entity had she crossed? She put her hand on the sill to try and push herself up to stand, but she nearly fell over again. Her hand and arm had split into different sections as well. The transformation complete, she crawled onto the wall, hissing.
The next morning, Maybelle found an odd note slipped under her door. It was written in an odd green ink, the calligraphy absolutely stunning. She turned the envelope over in her hands. On the back, in the same green ink, it read “Lotus” in impeccable script.
“Oh, great,” Maybelle said and ripped open the envelope.
A single sheet of embossed stationary lay within the envelope. Maybelle read it quickly, and found herself chuckling under her breath.
“So first she wants to throw me out of the neighborhood and now she wants me over for dinner,” Maybelle muttered.
“Hm?” asked Madge, who happened to be within earshot.
“Oh, nothing. That crazy Lottie wants to have dinner with us. I’m going to go tell her no right now.”
“Why don’t you go?” Madge looked at her, trying to see through the quiet fire that Maybelle possessed.
“Well, she wants to throw us out of our home. And she’s annoying,” responded Maybelle. “What reason do you have for wanting me to go so badly?”
“I think she regrets her behavior. Maybelle, she’s — well, she’s alone. I think she might be a little sad and may have realized that she overstepped her bounds with you. Can you give her that chance?” said Madge.
Maybelle paused for a moment, sizing up the girl.
“Fine. If you insist, I’ll go and see what olive branch the woman is trying to offer, But you have to promise that you’ll come as a backup about twenty minutes after I get there so you can be a buffer between the two of us,” said Maybelle, giving Madge a stern look to show the severity of her dislike of Lottie.
“Sure, Miss Maybelle. Whatever you need. Just promise me you’ll give her a chance. She might want peace in the cul-de-sac.”
Maybelle smiled to herself. She didn’t think Madge could possibly be right, but there was no sense in arguing with the girl. Madge hugged Maybelle and ran upstairs. Madge was a good kid, but Maybelle was sure her optimism was too strong. Lottie, the teeth grinder, ready to make peace? Of course not. But Maybelle had promised Madge, so she would go. When the thought of cancelling returned later that morning, then afternoon, and then evening, she pushed it out of her head. For Madge.
When the time came, Maybelle brushed her salt-and-pepper hair, got some oil on her squeaky joints, and headed across the street to Lottie’s. The door was slightly ajar. Maybelle didn’t think too much about it as she knocked lightly and called out to Lottie.
Immediately on entering, Maybelle felt inordinately out of place. Lottie’s house was terrifying. With the lights much too dim to see most things clearly, the room felt like an enormous stomach. Maybelle appeared to be alone, but she felt like she was being watched.
“Lottie?” called out Maybelle.
A creak just above Maybelle’s head. She looked up toward the sound, and when she turned back around, Lottie was there.
“Oh, hello Lottie. Thanks — thanks for having me,” said Maybelle.
Lottie smiled. She seemed off to Maybelle, and even more than usual. Her hair wasn’t pinned into its regular plait, and there was lipstick on her teeth.
As Maybelle watched, Lottie’s smile became larger, tearing through her cheeks and stretching all the way to her ears. Her skin loosened, revealing a hard exoskeleton underneath. Bones grew through her body in various spots, creating terrifying spikes all over her body.
The cracking and beastly groaning as Lottie transformed in front of Maybelle’s eyes was enough to make a grown person scream. Maybelle watched, disgusted as Lottie’s body transformed in ungodly proportion. The small woman from the HOA now loomed over Maybelle, who stood at seven feet tall herself.
“Beauty,” growled Lottie in a voice much deeper than her regular one.
She scrabbled at the banister, finally pulling her new body to a fully upright position. She glared at Maybelle with bloodshot eyes.
“All I would was to make the neighborhood beautiful. Why did you keep getting in my way?” Lottie asked.
“It’s not just your neighborhood, Lottie. I love my home the way it is.”
Lottie scuttled onto the ceiling, turning her head all the way around slowly. She took labored breaths up there, her beady eyes glazing over periodically.
Her voice was even more ragged now. Some spines broke thought her horribly loose skin on her back, making her scream and grimace. She gnashed her teeth as her eyes came back to focus on Maybelle.
“Maybelle. I thought you would be better. I guess I was wrong. That’s a first.”
Lottie moved, angry lightning striking a rain-starved forest, and Maybelle fell backward. She hit the ground hard, pistons screaming as they hyperextended. Something sharp and organic pierced Maybelle’s flesh; one of Lottie’s spines collided with one of Maybelle’s bones, fracturing it instantly. Lottie was back up on the wall again, hissing. Maybelle rocked back and forth, trying to right herself, but each move was weaker as she felt a numbness spread over her body.
“Maybelle? Ms. Lotus?”
Maybelle twitched towards the sound of this new voice. How did Madge get in here?
“Madge— M— ” Maybelle struggled to speak as Lottie’s poison coursed through her veins.
There was Madge, framed in the dying light from the open doorway. She clutched a bushel of flowers that she meant to give to Lottie as a small gift. Lottie scuttled back into the gloom, hiding out from the last wisps of daylight left that Madge let into her home. Madge saw Maybelle on the ground and rushed to her. Maybelle reached up toward her, stroked Madge’s face once, then dropped her hand. Neither of them noticed the front door slowly come to a close.
Maybelle tried to say something else, but ceased to move.
Madge was cornered by Lottie now, who had grown a scorpion-like stinging tail.
“Miss Lotus? What happened to you?”
Lottie didn’t respond, other than foaming something green from her mouth. She moved closer to Madge, chittering. Madge backed up, finding the door behind her. Lottie loomed large, ready to strike. Right before she could, Madge screamed and covered her head, dropping the small bushel at Lottie’s feet.
The small token distracted Lottie, who stared down at the flowers. They were from the mountain behind the cul-de-sac, where two brooks met and became a stream. Small red tears leaked from her eyes, distracting her from Madge running from the house. Lottie reached with her strange, fractured hand down toward the flowers. The red and yellow hues were so bright, lulling Lottie closer.
Lottie gripped the bushel and picked the small gift up. Some of her red tears hit the floor. As she looked at the flowers, Lottie’s vision went green. She watched as a forest grew around her, the trees screaming as they flew upward. Lottie whirled around, looking to see where she was. She foamed at the mouth more aggressively, starting to choke on the green bile. All Lottie could hear was a disembodied chant: “Lottie, look what you’ve become. So hideous. So hideous.” She howled. Lottie tried to breathe, but found no air. She raised her sharp, spiny hand and jammed it just below where her breastbone was. Lottie fell hard, cracking her skull on the marble steps. All she could hear were the disembodied voices, telling her how hideous she was. The last thing moving was the bushel of flowers falling from her fractured hand. The woman from the HOA was still.