The Mutant Mango
Binny, Zach, and Penny sat huddled together under the long table, as the footsteps and the whistling got louder and louder. Finally, a pair of well-worn workboots appeared directly in front of them. The whistling continued. Binny repeated over and over in her head a silent plea for the boots to turn around and walk straight out the door. Zach was afraid to breathe.
The whistling stopped. Before the kids could react, a face appeared, peering under the table and smiling broadly. At least it looked like a smile. It was hard to tell since it was almost completely upside down. Then the face spoke. “Seems crowded under there. Wanna come out?”
The kids looked at each other, not entirely sure what to do. Binny was the first to emerge, with Zach and Penny following uncertainly. The face belonged to an old man with pale white skin, rosy cheeks, and white hair. If the man were a bit heavier and had a beard he might have been Santa Claus.
He didn’t look like all the other employees. A plaid shirt completed his outfit, and his hands were dirty. It seemed clear to Binny that this man worked in the greenhouse. What did you call someone who tended to the plants in a greenhouse? A gardener? That didn’t seem quite right. “Hi.” Binny responded.
“You can’t see much from down there, don’t you think?” The Santa man addressed the children gently, chuckling.
The kids couldn’t help but smile. The man’s friendliness was infectious. “True.” Binny smiled back.
“What exactly are we looking at?” Penny interjected, curiosity getting the better of her.
“That’s an excellent question. What are we looking at?” The man seemed positively thrilled to be asked. Binny imagined that the man didn’t get many visitors in the greenhouse. He continued, “We are looking at the entire catalog of flora that we grow here at Luce Laboratories. Mostly tropical species, hence the humid environment.” The man chuckled again as he wiped a bit of sweat from his brow.
“Why does a drug company need to grow tropical plants?” Now it was Zach’s turn to be curious.
The man produced something large and ovoid out of his pocket as he spoke. “Another excellent question, young man.” Zach was still suspicious but couldn’t help but soften a little at the compliment. The kids recognized the object as a mango. The man pulled a pocket knife out of his other pocket and started cutting into the fruit as he answered. “Well, our job here is to create compounds that heal people. And we believe that many of these compounds already exist in nature.”
The kids’ eyes fixated on the knife slicing through the fruit as they listened to the Santa-like man’s friendly explanation. “Long before there were pharmaceutical companies like Luce Laboratories, medicine men – and women,” he added looking at Binny and Penny, “found all sorts of plants growing that had healing properties. Have your parents ever put aloe on a burn?”
“My mom has an aloe plant growing on the window sill in the kitchen.” Penny chimed in.
“Exactly! Your kitchen window sill is just a miniature version of this greenhouse. Here at Luce Laboratories we just grow a lot more plants and use science to enhance the plants and find out what they can do.” The man finished slicing, put the knife back in his pocket, and offered the cutting board with several slices of juicy and tasty looking mango to Binny, Penny, and Zach.
Binny eyed the fruit suspiciously. “What disease does your mutant mango cure?”
The man’s eyes lit up with excitement as he took a breath looking like he was thrilled to share the answer. “Hunger!”
There was a brief moment where the kids didn’t understand the answer and then the old man started laughing. Penny and the others couldn’t help but smile. “I forget to pack my lunch sometimes and the climate in here is perfect for mangoes. I assure you that the only special quality they have is how delicious they are. Go ahead, try some.” The man pushed the cutting board towards the kids, renewing his offer.
Penny was first to grab a slice, and Zach and Binny soon followed. It was delicious. Juicy. Possibly the best mango they’d ever tasted. They’d done a lot of biking, climbing, and hiding, with the sun beating down overhead and didn’t realize how tired and dehydrated they were. The kids mumbled ‘thank you’s in between bites and the man couldn’t have looked more pleased. “I told you they were delicious.”
The man continued, “My mission in life is to find the special things given to us by mother nature. They’re not usually as delicious as these mangoes, though. But they do help people fight disease.”
Binny couldn’t tell if the man’s excitement and friendliness stemmed from his genuine love for his work or from the likelihood that he didn’t get many visitors. Binny stated more than asked him, “When you find these special things that nature makes, these miracle plants, you try to figure out what makes them special.”
“Exactly, my dear.” The man was thrilled that he’d made his point. “We use the scientific method to find out what medicinal properties a particular plant exhibits.”
Binny continued, “Doesn’t taking things apart or “enhancing” them to find out what makes them special, kill the thing you’re investigating?”
Penny’s eyes widened at Binny’s challenge. Zach shot Binny a look: He also thought she was being rude to their host. Binny didn’t notice either of them. She was looking straight at the old man.
For his part, the man didn’t seem to take offense. He just smiled more broadly, enthusiastically engaging in the argument. “Well, yes, of course, but these are just plants, my dear. And while your concern for them is admirable, when we find something special we share it with the world in the form of medicine. Our job is to find what’s special in nature and share it with everyone to make the world a better place.”
When that didn’t seem to satisfy Binny, he added, “And of course you’re right. Sometimes we have to help mother nature along. Our scientists spend a lot of time experimenting with and enhancing many of these species until they have just the right medicinal effect. This is the ‘magic’ we do here.”
“That’s them.” The thin woman in the lab coat burst through the door to the greenhouse followed by two large men clad in black from head-to-toe. One of them had “HEAD OF SECURITY” embroidered on his chest pocket. On the other pocket was presumably his name, “G. GRATER”. His even bigger counterpart only had his name embroidered: “V. BARRIOS”. There was no mistaking it now. The thin woman was definitely angry.
“I’m so sorry, have they been bothering you?” The woman glared at the three kids as she addressed the old man.
The man laughed, “Oh, hello Dr. Trace. No. Not at all. I’ve just had the pleasure of showing them what we do here in the greenhouse and at the lab in general.”
“You said your mother works in the Records Room. She most certainly does not.” Now Dr. Trace was addressing Binny, her finger pointing sharply, her face extra pinched. “This is a place of business, not a playground.”
“There must be some confusion. The children are working on a summer science project, learning about how we can harness the power of nature to make medicine. Their mother suggested they come here to do some research. Right children?” The man was now looking directly at Binny for confirmation. A mischievous sparkle in his eye now accompanied the perpetual smile on his face.
Quickly overcoming her surprise at the old man’s covering for them, Binny agreed enthusiastically. “Oh yes. We’re doing research. You’re doing very interesting work here.” Binny nodded towards the rows of plants nearby.
“It’s perfect for our science project.” Penny added.
Zach looked nervous and confused at the strange turn of events.
The security men stood there stone faced, but had relaxed their stances a little bit. The one in charge, Grater, looked a little disappointed.
Dr. Trace was even more annoyed than when she’d entered the greenhouse. “Who has school projects over the summer?”
“We’re very studious.” Binny offered earnestly.
“Little girl. You told me your mother worked here.”
“Did I?” Binny responded looking up at the ceiling of the greenhouse pretending to be confused. But she couldn’t stop the corners of her mouth from turning up in a bit of a smile at the woman the old man had called Dr. Trace.
Zach could see that Binny’s smugness was infuriating Dr. Trace even further. “We really better get home now to write down what we learned and work on our project. Thank you so much.” Zach started pushing the girls towards the door.
The kids mumbled goodbyes to the old man as the two large security officers parted ways to let them out. “Thanks for the mango. It was delicious.” Penny yelled back as the door closed behind them.
This time as the kids made their escape from the thin woman, they couldn’t contain their laughter and started giggling the moment the door slammed shut.
The laughter subsided after the first few minutes of the bike ride home.
“That was awesome!!” Penny shouted exultantly.
“That was insane.” Zach corrected her. “We almost got in huge trouble.”
“But we didn’t. Why is that?” The question changed Binny’s mood from giddy relief to contemplative and serious. “Why did the greenhouse caretaker cover for us?”
“Those mangoes were amazingly delicious.” Penny was remembering how juicy they were as she said the words.
“Seriously, why did he lie to that angry lady?” Binny repeated.
“Seriously, they were delicious.” Penny said, imitating Binny’s somber tone.
Zach burst out laughing at Penny’s joke. But Binny was getting annoyed. Even though Penny was a new friend, she sure did say irritating things sometimes.
“You guys are being jerks!” Binny pedaled faster to move ahead of her brother and her friend.
“Hey, hey, we were just kidding.” Zach offered, giving Penny a look that said maybe they should ease up on Binny.
Binny came to a stop and turned to face the others. “We didn’t go there to eat. We went there to get answers to our questions. In case you two have forgotten, Cassie can turn herself invisible, and Mom got pregnant with the help of an experimental drug made by those weirdos at Luce Laboratories. I don’t think plants are the only things they experiment on!”
Penny and Zach were just staring at Binny now, mouths open, not quite knowing what to say.
“Did you hear him?” Binny continued. “In order to enhance things that occur naturally, they first dissect them to find out what makes them special!” Binny was almost yelling.
“I don’t think he used the word ‘dissect’.” Zach said.
“It doesn’t matter. That’s what scientists do. They dissect things!” Binny replied.
Penny tried to be conciliatory offering gently, “He was talking about plants.”
Binny turned on Penny angrily, “I know what he was talking about. Believe me, I know.”
Zach and Penny didn’t know what to say to mollify Binny. She was clearly convinced.
Binny had made up her mind about something. “We need to confront Huitre.”
“What?” Zach and Penny raised their voices in unison?
“Huitre is the connection between Luce Laboratories and Mom. He’s the one who gave her the drug. We need to go talk to him.”
“You think he’s just going to tell us what he did?” Zach was skeptical.
“We’re kids. Adults think that they can get away with anything. Nobody believes kids. That lady, Dr. Trace, didn’t believe us, but she believed the old man. He’ll tell us what he did because he thinks nobody would believe us anyway.”
“I think you watch too much TV.” Penny responded.
“I don’t want to go back into that house. We barely got away with it last time.” Zach looked decidedly unexcited for another visit to Dr. Huitre’s, and Dr. Huitre’s dog.
“There’s no other choice. We need to protect Cassie.”
Zach decided to try a different tack with his sister. “Okay, let’s say we go over there and he does admit what he did. Even if he tells us, how would we prove that to Mom and Dad?”
“I’ll have your phone in my pocket recording the conversation.” Their mom had bought Zach a phone when he got old enough to start riding his bike all over the neighborhood.
“You really do watch too much TV.” Penny interjected again.
“I! Do! Not!” Now Binny was yelling.
“You’re being bossy. I’m outta here.” Penny had hit her breaking point with Binny and decided to pedal home on her own.
Zach watched Penny get smaller and smaller as she rode on alone. “You’re scaring me a little, Binny,” he said.
“Good. You should be scared. Something weird is going on here. And if we don’t uncover it, something bad is going to happen to Cassie. I don’t trust Dr. Huitre. I don’t trust that Dr. Trace at Luce Laboratories. And I don’t trust Mom and Dad to pay attention long enough to notice that your sister – our sister – is in danger.”
Zach was fully chastened. And determined. “OK. You’re right. I’ll help.”
It was just after lunch when Binny and Zach arrived at home to quietly grab something to eat and then slip out to confront Dr. Huitre. As they had earlier in the day, they wanted to avoid having Cassie tag along. But this time they weren’t so lucky.
“There you are. I have to go meet your mother for an appointment downtown and I need you guys to watch your sister.” Jay ignored Zach and Binny’s protests as he headed out the door, adding “And this time, please actually keep track of where she is. I don’t want a repeat of yesterday. We’ll be back in time to make dinner.” With that, Jay was out the door and the Jordan children were on their own again.
“What should we play?” Cassie asked her older siblings the moment the door had closed.
“Now what?” Zach said in a low voice to Binny.
Binny, her face set tightly, her eyes focused intently on her little sister, responded to Zach, “She’s going to have to come with.”