They noticed he was taking longer lunches. He had never gone out with them, but now his solitary lunch hours seemed to go on beyond the hour, then two, sometimes three.
They considered themselves adults in an adult workplace. As long as you got your work done this stuff didn't matter, right? He was nice, quiet, and he got his work done. They thought this was important and they prided themselves on being flexible.
The offices at the botanical garden were to the back, far away from the entrance. The public never came near them. The flat, concrete slab construction popular in the late 60s, and early 70s, hadn't aged well. Despite the beauty of the Japanese garden, and the care and attention paid to the famous Glass Houses and the main building itself, a magnificently renovated Victorian structure, the offices were somewhat ignored and depressing.
None of them assigned too much fault for this, after all, the offices were not the primary reason for the existence of the gardens, or even necessarily deserving of much of the limited annual funding, which came mostly from members and wealthy donors.
It had been happening, they believed, during the night. Things had been moved during the night. They kept the place tidy, and the gardeners kept the shed tidy. It was the gardeners who brought it up. The gardeners said their tools would be in the wrong places, as if put back haphazardly, in a rush. Then they too noticed their own office things were being relocated. A lamp moved, a tray of papers on the opposite side of a desk, a little pile of paperclips or staples.
Together no one considered this very important. However, secretly, in their heads, everyone blamed one another. Quietly, passively, assigning blame, as often happens in offices.
One night a few of them went out for drinks and this situation came up in conversation. The booze and being outside the office loosened their tongues. There were sudden revelations of camaraderie (I thought it was you! No, I thought it was you!).
This continued for several months. One morning the director found her management, botanical, and other awards rearranged. She had kept them meticulously placed in a glass cabinet across from her desk. Although she might play it down when asked, they meant a great deal to her. And she had labored over their placement. She decided they needed to put a stop to this unseen meddler.
She started locking her office at the end of the day. This had been a line nobody else had been willing to cross, it indicated that some employees or employee couldn't be trusted. It was a bad feeling, that sound of the door being locked, it echoed. In the mornings, if they were in the office before her, they looked sidelong at the door as if it were radioactive. When she arrived to unlock it, if she fumbled with the key in the slightest, the tension was thick and painful.
Then the gardeners shed was locked. It'd always had a chain and padlock, but the awkwardness of pulling the heavy, dirty chain through handles on each side, then juggling the somewhat absurdly sized padlock, holding two sides of chain together while hooking the top of the padlock through, meant this had only ever been done on holidays. The gardeners were working in and out of that shed so often it just seemed unnecessary and cumbersome. But now they locked it despite nothing having been stolen.
In retrospect there had been other odd events. None of them would've quite been able to put their finger on it. The pungent smell from the refrigerator that seemed to come and go. The tropical nature of the back bathroom where someone obviously kept opening up the radiator fully. The absurd growth of a potted fern by reception that caused consternation one morning. The time at lunch Darlene discovered she was missing a clump of hair from the back of her head. Also, once, overnight, all the candy from the candy bowls had disappeared. Free candy had been a collectively accepted perk they all took very seriously and ate only with self-effacing restraint.
And he kept taking longer lunches. There were jokes made, but eventually resentment started to poison the sentiment. Why did he get to "step out" for the afternoon while they had to sit and go through those spreadsheets again? It wasn't fair.
One morning they saw the director call him into her office. Surely this was it, they each thought, the director would put a stop to it. Too bad for him, but that's what happens when you don't use a little common sense.
He didn't come back for a few days. There was nothing said about him being let go, and they speculated furiously.
Although something had happened in those couple of days. One day the head gardener came in briskly, went straight to the director's office. This was unusual in itself, the gardeners hated the office, they had their own space. There was a discussion, then they saw the director and gardener leave together.
Evidently they found something on the grounds. Hair or something, or some kind of plant, or pods or bulbs, they didn't know what. Maybe an invasive species. Anyway, they were large. The head gardener seemed sort of worked up about it. The gardeners dug them up, to keep them separate, put in the back of the greenhouse. This generated some excitement.
When he came back he said he'd gone up north to visit his family. He apologized for his long lunches. He was a good guy after all, they thought. When they told him about the new species he didn't seem to care that much.
As far as everyone knew, he was the last one in the office that night. "Catching up on some work" he'd said.
When the earliest of them showed up the next morning, the first thing she saw was the snow. Oh, she noticed, it wasn't snow, it was fluff, seeds, with white wispy floss, like milk weed.
It was everywhere. Inside the office too, and the greenhouse, and in the Japanese garden. There were places so thick with it, it was in drifts, rounding out all the corners, and sticking to everything.
She didn't know what to do. It was a botanical garden after all. She sat at her desk, answering the phone, slowly being covered in seedlings, occasionally puffing at them to get them away from her face.
As other people arrived, a general commotion began. When the head gardener arrived, this escalated to general panic. This was not, he said, milk weed at all. He checked on their newly discovered pods in the back of the greenhouse. They had swelled, ripened and exploded, expelling a huge amount of seeds. It seemed endless and impossible. The left over husks were oddly shaped, like empty horse heads.
He didn't show up for work. They didn't really notice that first day anyway, because of the snow. The second day there were visiting scientists, so they didn't notice then either. About a week went by when it occurred to them. But a lot had happened in the meantime. A lot of things had grown. And the snow, it just didn't seem to ever stop.