's 2018 Horror Write-off:

Kick the Bucket

Submitted by Hisham Hasan

I, Francis Alexander Penkin, write this in order to shed light on the death of Orvin Steiner.

"I know it was wrong of me to keep this to myself for so long. I know I should have gone to the police from the very beginning, but the truth was, I was afraid of being wrongfully accused. Self-preservation won out over civic duty.

"I’m not sure why I feel compelled to write this now. Perhaps this was all precipitated by the passing of my dear wife, Clara. She was a good woman, far too good for a man like me.

"Maybe her passing gave me cause to reconsider what I had done with my life so far. To come clean. Tie up any loose ends. To leave without any regrets.

"Or maybe it’s because that now, she can no longer be disappointed in me, be hurt by my revelations.

"I’m not sure if I’ll be charged with anything. Withholding information isn’t illegal, although tampering with evidence is certainly a crime. I guess it could be argued that I concealed evidence, but the fact is, there wasn’t a crime in the first place. I guess that’s up to the attorneys to decide.

"I doubt the police will take this seriously, especially after all this time, but who knows? Someone with a strong sense of justice and a desire to seek the truth might find this account useful.

"In any case, my conscience is clear on one point; when I found Steiner, he was already beyond all help.

"We did not know Orvin Steiner that well. He was my next-door neighbor, our houses just barely separated by a thin strip of ground and a fence. With a good running start, you could jump from one roof to the other.

"He greeted us when we first moved into the neighborhood. He was a quiet, reserved man, well mannered, and rarely spoke of himself. He was retired, and had recently divorced his third wife.

"That was the full extent of what we knew of Steiner’s personal life. My wife and I were still new to the neighborhood, and we didn’t socialize for quite a while.

"Besides, we had come here for a fresh start, to leave troubled pasts and toxic relationships behind. We wanted to be by ourselves for a while.

"One day, I came home a bit early, to be greeted by the scene of Steiner struggling to unload an armchair from his truck.

"I came forward to offer my assistance. Together, we carried the thing to his upstairs office.

"He offered refreshments, and I declined.

"On my way out, I passed by the bathroom, and caught a glimpse of something that literally stopped me in my tracks.

"Steiner, following my gaze, smiled and pushed the door open.

"“Care to take a closer look?”

"The bathroom was a small one, with just a shower stall and no bathtub. And on the tiled floor was what looked like a colossal, papery, wrinkled bean, as big as the armchair we were just lugging around, resting upright on its tip. It was buttery yellow and covered with faded freckles.

"A long, sheathed stalk led from the back of the bean upwards into what looked like a massive, particularly untidy bird's nest dangling from the ceiling, out of which sprouted light green, sword-shaped leaves.

"Steiner chuckled. “Can you guess what it is? That, my friend, is the biggest orchid flower I have ever seen. It’s still a bud, so when it finally blooms it’ll probably be even bigger!”

"I could only gape. “Where did you even get something like this? The Amazon rainforest?”

"He shrugged. “I bought it online from some guy. The seller only knows that it came from Costa Rica, and it’s a species of Coryanthes. I’ve looked it up everywhere and checked every reference, and there is no species or cultivar that comes even close to this size.”

"He chuckled. “I was a bit of an orchid fanatic when I was younger. But I certainly didn’t expect something like this when I ordered that half-withered clump.”

"He rambled on a bit about all the pictures he was taking, then eventually invited me and Clara to come over once it was fully in bloom.

"It was a bit funny watching this man gushing about an orchid blooming like it was a momentous occasion. Still, you don’t see a flower that big every day.

"I took my leave and told Clara about the whole thing. She was certainly more excited about it than I was, and seeing her delight I started looking forward to it as well.

"Days passed. I didn’t see much of Steiner, we were both too busy.

"Then finally one morning Steiner called. The bud was starting to bloom, and it was likely it would be fully open by the afternoon. And once it was in full bloom, he would call us over.

"Unfortunately (or rather, fortunately, as it turns out), Clara was away. Her sister was scheduled for surgery, and was completely terrified at the prospect of being alone in the hospital, so Clara had gone to spend the night with her.

"Evening came, and Steiner hadn’t called. Clara did, and lamented the fact the fact she was going to miss the whole spectacle. I promised to take plenty of pictures, maybe even take a video, if Steiner was willing.

"Night had fallen, and still no call. I thought maybe the orchid was taking its sweet time opening up. After all, a flower that big probably takes a while.

"I tried calling a couple of times, but he never answered.

"I was starting to feel a bit uneasy. It wasn’t that I really needed to see a giant orchid; I did feel slightly concerned for Steiner. The man was only too eager to show off his triumph of gardening; what could have happened?

"I went over and knocked on the door and rang the bell for a good while. I called out.

"No answer.

"At this point I was truly afraid something serious might have happened to him. Heart attack? Stroke? It was always a private fear of mine, to die alone and unnoticed.

"The front door was locked, but maybe Steiner was the sort to leave his back door unlocked.

"I went over to the back, and sure enough, the door was open.

"As I entered the kitchen, a fragrant perfume hit my nostrils.

"A deliciously sweet, spicy scent. Like cola, or cinnamon. Like a whole bakery of cinnamon buns.

"I saw a bottle of champagne chilling in a bucket of ice, with two wineglasses.

"Steiner was clearly in a celebratory mood, and was indeed planning on having me over.

"So where was he?

"Considering the situation, I decided not to call out. What if there was an intruder? Anyone could have entered through the kitchen door, and the ruckus I made at the front door earlier would have alerted them.

"As I moved through the house, the scent grew stronger and stronger.

"It seemed to be emanating from the bathroom. The one housing the orchid.

"The light was on, the door ajar.

"I figured if Steiner did indeed collapse, it would have happened in the bathroom, right next to the orchid. Probably the poor guy got a little overexcited and passed out.

"I pushed open the door.

"The scent billowed over me like a wave, overwhelming and intoxicating, with strange alcoholic undertones.

"The bud had indeed opened.

"The blossom was unlike anything I had ever seen.

"A huge, oblong vat or tub, squarish and blocky, even bigger than the bud had ever been. At one end of the tub's rim rose a thick obscene structure, like a helmeted mushroom. At the opposite end, a short vertical column supporting a set of half-wilted petals shaped like a pair of fleshy butterfly wings, big enough to envelope the whole structure. A thick, fleshy rod connected the column and mushroom thing, spanning the length of the tub. And from where the petals joined the column, a pair of knobs protruded right over the tub, and from them dripped a clear liquid into the tub below.

"The whole thing was heavily peppered with orange and reddish-brown spots. The base color was a deep, rich egg-yolk gold.

"From the top of the petal-bearing column, the stalk stretched upwards, connecting the bloom with the main plant.

"And in the bloom’s tub, just below the rim, I saw the soles of Steiner’s shoes, facing upwards.

"Cold dread flooded over me. I approached reluctantly.

"He was lying on his belly, head down, legs up against tub’s wall.

"There was some water in the tub, or at least some sort of clear liquid, but it was only up to the one-third mark.

"Still, even a little water could be fatal, if he had lost consciousness and pitched forward.

"As I approached, my first thought was that I was too late, that he was indeed dead, drowned in the fluids of a giant orchid.

"But then I noticed his head was thrust into the side of the tub. There was some sort of opening in the side, the one with the petaled column.

"The side facing away from me.

"A glimmer of hope. He might have been still alive, just unconscious. I went over to take a closer look.

"Seeing Steiner’s swollen, discolored face and dull staring eyes removed all doubts; he was well and truly dead.

"His head emerged from a puckered swelling, below the petals, a macabre parody of childbirth. I could even see the tips of a few fingers, wedged tight against his chin.

"His last desperate attempts to pry himself free.

"He had obviously died of strangulation after getting stuck in the orchid’s orifice.

"What possessed the man to do such a thing?

"I stood up.

"My heart was racing. I pressed my hands to my head, trying to concentrate.

"Now, I’m an ex-felon. I’ve served my time. My crimes weren’t violent crimes, nor sexual assault. But in the eyes of the police, once a criminal, always a criminal.

"And so you can see, I wasn’t eager to call in the police. I highly doubted they would have my best interests at heart.

"The whole situation was looking pretty bad for me.

"Now some of you might think I was overreacting. What incriminating evidence could there possibly be? I hadn’t touched him, and there were no signs of a struggle or anything,

"Here’s the thing though; the person discovers the body is always a suspect. Why? Because the first one on the scene basically has a free pass to do whatever they want; eliminate, conceal or alter any evidence, before CSI shows up.

"Think about it. The whole situation was unnatural, surreal. No man would kill himself like that. Surely the only rational explanation was that someone else had forced him into the flower and shoved his head into an orchid’s sphincter.

"So there must be a culprit.

"And who could be more convenient than a next-door neighbor who’s an ex-felon?

"And once the police think they have their culprit, well, planting evidence is easy.

"So you see, I could not be the first person who found the body. It would spell my doom.

"I couldn’t risk it. I was too scared. I couldn’t go back to jail. But more than that, I couldn’t put Carla through all that again, not a second time.

"I stood there thinking.

"It was possible someone had seen me knocking and shouting at front door earlier. That could be explained easily. The phone records would show Steiner had called me earlier that day, and that I had called back. Perfectly reasonable for me to go check up on him.

"The houses behind us weren’t occupied, and Steiner’s other neighbor was away on vacation. It was unlikely anyone saw me enter from the back.

"Part of me did feel guilty for leaving Steiner like that. But the fear was greater.

"I was careful not to touch anything as I made my way back to the kitchen.

"I grabbed the wineglasses and tossed them into the trash bin, covered them with garbage then pressed down to crush them. I used a towel to ease the bottle of champagne into the fridge. I didn’t want the police to realize he was expecting guests.

"There was no going back. After checking that the coast was clear, I returned to my house. The rest of night passed uneventfully, although I could barely sleep.

"The next day was my day off. I drove out to pick up Clara from the airport.

"Mercifully, she was so exhausted she slept most of the way, sparing me her questions. I still hadn’t figured out what to say to her.

"But my reprieve was short-lived. As I entered our neighborhood, I saw the police lights.

"Apparently, Steiner had planned for a couple of reporters to show up the next morning; when he didn’t answer the door or his phone, the bolder of the two had gone in the back as I did, and called in the emergency services.

"The next part was unpleasant for all involved.

"I was right. The detective fixated on me from the very beginning. Statement after statement, interview after interview, he kept repeating the same questions, hoping I’d slip up.

"I stuck to my story; Steiner had called me, had invited me to come over at a later time, but never called back. After calling him a couple of times, I went knocking at his door. Getting no reply, I had gone home, figured that he had fallen asleep or something. It all there in the official record.

"I think Carla suspected. I think Carla knew I was holding something back, but she never asked, and I never told her.

"Later at the inquest, I was surprised that the coroner’s verdict was “death by undetermined means”.

"Of course, I was relieved it wasn’t “homicide”, but I would have thought “suicide” or “accidental” would have been more appropriate. No mention of the plant, either.

"Only later did it occur to me; some orchid flowers last only a single day or so before wilting. Perhaps by the time the body was discovered, the massive bloom had already withered, leaving nothing but shriveled straps.

"Had I gone to the police earlier, they would have seen it for themselves. But then they might have suspected me.

"I do not know what became of the plant afterward. I do remember a moving truck coming by to pick up all of Steiner’s possessions.

"Was the plant taken as well? Is it now growing in some new location, admired and cared for? Or was it left to wither and rot in that bathroom?

"The house is still vacant, and I don’t wish to enter it ever again. And I now find the smell of cinnamon and cola to be absolutely sickening.

"I still wonder though, why?

"Why would a sane man dive head first into an orchid and try to force his head through a tiny hole? What was he trying to accomplish? There were easier ways of committing suicide.

"I’ve searched for the answer. I read up on orchids, the structure of their flowers, and the strange ways they achieve pollination.

"For pollination to occur, an orchid blossom must be visited by the correct pollinator, which must later visit an individual of the same species in bloom, within the window period of the pollen's viability. In addition, the second flower itself must be visited previously, and its pollen removed, in order for its pistil to ripen and become receptive.

"Many orchids improve their chances by restricting themselves to a single courier, recruiting a specialized and exclusive pollinator to ferry their precious cargo. Each tailors its blossoms and scents to specifically attract that particular agent.

"I wonder.

"Was Steiner’s death a result of an ecological mismatch?

"Was it all a mistake? A simple matter of an exotic plant, in a strange new environment and exposed to species it never encountered in its native home, accidently attracting an unsuitable pollinator?