Nina heard Dr. Mumtaz Murtaza laughing into her phone.
“Meteorite Lands in Farmer’s Field, Pulverizes Cow! That was the best headline I saw. Well, I’ve got to go. Talk to you later, dear.”
She slipped the phone back into her purse as Nina walked over to the counter to take her order.
“The usual,” said Dr. Murtaza. “Three sugars, no cream.”
Nina was already pouring out the coffee. Just before she turned to walk out of the University Cafeteria, Dr. Murtaza paused, adjusted the folds of her cranberry-colored hijab and smiled at Nina.
“I certainly need coffee after this morning. I thought the paperwork would never end.”
The smile made Nina ask, “What are you working on?”
Dr. Murtaza looked suprised. Until today, their conversations had never gone much beyond, “Coffee, sugar, yes, no, please and thank you.” Maybe she thought Nina wasn’t interested in anything except coffee.
“Did you hear about the big meteorite?”
“No,” said Nina, “Until just now.”
“It came down in some farmer’s cow pasture out in the middle of nowhere. That was fortunate, since it weighs over two hundred pounds. They’re bringing it here to the University for research, and let me tell you, we had to fight tooth and nail to get it first. We are planning to examine it here and run some tests, but I suppose we will have to share it eventually.” She sipped her steaming coffee. “I have studied meteroites before, but I never dreamed I’d get to see such a big one.”
A month went by and Dr. Murtaza didn’t say anything more to Nina about the meteorite, and Nina forgot about it, until one spring day when the weather was so bright and fresh that she decided to take her lunch outside. Her favorite spot was the grassy strip between the science building and the laboratories. Nobody else ever thought to come there.
That day, as Nina ate her sandwich, her eyes drifted over the stained brick walls, the tufts of grass, the pebbles, without really focusing on anything, until a flash of color caught her eye. She jumped up and ran over for a closer look. It was a cluster of flowers. They were lemon yellow, coral, turquoise, tangerine, colors that seemed too bright and tropical to be real. She had never seen flowers like them. Their long fleshy petals waved in the still air. She knelt to touch one. It was warm and something that felt almost like electricity made her fingers tingle.
“Have you seen the ones around the corner?”
Nina leaped to her feet, stifling a startled yelp. The man behind her seemed to have appeared out of nowhere.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you. But you have to see the other new flowers. They’re even more incredible than these. Over there.” He waved his hand toward the end of the laboratory building. Nona squeezed her hands together to stop them shaking and studied him. He was very tall and thin. His round eyes behind even rounder glasses made him look surprised, but his voice was soft.
“I’m Dr. Simon. I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m sorry.”
“I’m fine, don’t worry. You just came up so quietly. I’m Nina.”
“Are you in one of my math classes? You look familiar.”
“No, but I work at the University Coffee shop.”
“I’ve probably seen you there, then. What are you doing back here?”
“This is my quiet spot. I eat my lunch here sometimes.What are you doing here?”
“I just wanted to check and see if there was anything growing back here too. Other than the grass, I mean,” he said.
“Like those flowers?”
“I’ve never seen anything like those flowers before. They’re alive. I mean, more alive than plants normally are. Almost like an animal is alive, if you know what I mean. But they’re not what you are looking for?” Nina asked.
Dr. Simon studied her face. “Yes, maybe. But probably not ... I’m really not sure. It’s a long story. It all began with the meteorite. You’ve heard about the meteorite?”
“Yes. We read about it in the newspaper.”
“Well...” he adjusted his glasses. “I don’t know how to explain it all. Besides, you probably have to go back to work and you can’t miss seeing the other flowers that sprouted up too. Just come around the corner.”
The strip of wiry grass in front of the lab building was spangled with white, star-shaped flowers. They didn’t have leaves or stems and seemed to hover just above the ground. Dr. Simon knelt down and cupped his hands around one. It glowed in the shadow his hands made. “They even give off a faint light.”
Nina waited for him to move or say something else.
Finally he looked up at her. “These are flowers from Heaven,” he said.
“Are they called that because of the star shape?”
“No, I didn’t mean that was their name. I mean these are from Heaven, at least they might as well be. They shouldn’t be growing on earth. Can’t you tell? Out there somewhere,” his long arm swept across the sky, “are places where little girls probably make daisy chains out of these. Daisy chains that never wither.”
Nina took a step back. He must be crazy. Friendly, but crazy. What would he say next? What would he do?
“I have to go. Thanks for showing me. They really are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” she said.
She walked away as quickly as she could without making him think she was trying to get away from him.
Dr. Simon made Nina nervous, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the beauty of the flowers they had found together. He sounded crazy, but she wondered if it might be the kind of crazy that would make sense if she gave him a chance to explain.
The next day at lunch break Nina almost ran out the door and down the sidewalk toward the university grounds. She made herself slow down and walk as she came to the laboratory buildings. Such flowers should be approached with reverence. Even if they were gone, the spot where they had lived their brief lives shouldn’t be trampled. As she got nearer, she heard men talking, low and intense. “You were wrong,” said one. She recognized it as the voice of a serious, gray-bearded man who often bought herbal tea at the cafeteria. She couldn’t remember his name. “The plant does exist, and I will find it. There are dozens of species growing in the lab right now, and it’s only a matter of time before I figure out how to make them live long enough to produce fruit.”
“I didn’t say the plant didn’t exist,” said the other voice. It was Dr. Simon. “I said even if it did, you have no business trying to grow it, let alone eat whatever fruit it might have. Nobody does. Alex, you grew up going to church, just like me. You know how this is supposed to work. If you want to experience eternal life, you had better be prepared to die first.”
“I am tired of all your posturing and your religious nonsense. If you’re not willing to help me, I am sure Mumtaz will. I can’t believe you would turn down being part of the discovery of the century, maybe the millenium, for some superstition about your sins, or about death.”
“Yes, it is about death, but not mine. And I don’t think Mumtaz will help you. We have some differences of opinion, but we both believe in the Resurrection and the Last Day.”
“If death is a thing of the past, who cares about resurrection? Eli,” it was the same voice, but now it sounded strained, as if the gray-bearded man was trying to keep it steady. “The doctor said I’ve got about three months. Megan isn’t getting married until Christmas, but I am going to be at her wedding.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“No you aren’t.”
Nina heard one set of angry footsteps crunching away, and she started to tiptoe off too.
It would be embarrasing if the two professors caught her eavesdropping on their private conversation. She should have sneaked away sooner, but it was the strangest conversation she had ever heard and she’d almost forgotten that she shouldn’t be there. She glanced down. A big red rose lay on the ground at her feet. She didn’t have time to wonder how it could possibly have gotten there before it put out delicate translucent legs like roots and began to crawl across the ground toward her shoe. At the same moment, something tickled her ear, shifted, and dropped onto her arm. It was another of the crawling roses. They were beautiful, deep crimson masses of velvet petals, but the spindling, spiderlike legs spoiled the effect. She squealed and shook it off. Dr. Simon ran around the corner.