thigmotropism

About to snip off another shoot, Markelle paused. Her eyes focused on the vines she was cutting. The way the vines had grown…something about the shape looked vaguely familiar. Her eyes followed the stems climbing in a lithe column, noting the way it flared and tapered in subtle curves. A little below eye level some of the vines split off into a horizontal spiral reaching in her direction, terminating in a splay of grasping tendrils: five of them, outstretched in a desperate plea. There were enough gaps in the vines for her to see that whatever the vines had grown up around was no longer there. Not that she could see where else it might have gone.

Something touched the back of her hand. She looked down to see the first pale, slender tendril curling tenderly around her wrist.

Advertisements

omens writ large in the skies

I’d been incubating for seven years, three months, and eleven days when they decided the time had come and unbottled me, an act that I didn’t take to kindly. I was ripped from amniotic dreams of environmental physics and macrobiology and thrust into a wild, bewildering environment that filled my virgin lungs with stingingly cold air. I responded by breaking into spontaneous wailing. Which, apparently, was typical. Technicians in nature-greens manhandled me into a shower, then clothes, then bed, me bawling the whole while. I even sniffled in my sleep.

They gave me twenty-four hours for my vat-grown muscles to acclimate to full grav before coming back. By then, the shock had worn off. I didn’t want to be here, but now that I was out of the creche there was no going back. I made up my mind that no one would see me cry ever again. I put on the uniform they gave me, high-necked and blue as a soft sleep, with a firm smile. And I knew I had done the right thing when one of the technicians let out a tiny held breath, and the heavy anxiety scored into her face eased, if only fractionally.

I had a job to do.

The technicians agreed to my request to go outside. I braced myself for the worst–they wouldn’t have unbottled me, or any of us, if the situation weren’t dire. I wanted to see for myself just how bad the situation was.

And yet. Yet.

I hadn’t expected the sky to be brown. In all my creche-fed knowledge, the sky was blue, shading towards yellow where urban living overwhelmed environmental capabilities. But not this thick, choked color. I hadn’t expected the clouds to smear themselves against rooftops, so heavy with pollutants they couldn’t drag themselves higher. I hadn’t expected the air to burn mucous membranes like weak acid.

I hadn’t expected the sun to look bitter and jaundiced as an old man’s eye.

“You can help us, won’t you?” one of the technicians said quietly to my silence. The one who’d smiled. Or almost smiled, at least.

Reading the sky, I said, “You should have woken me sooner.”

Looking at her face, I learned two more things that the creche hadn’t taught: what a lie was, and when to do it.

we are forbidden to open

Our house is old. It’s the sort of house that doesn’t get built anymore, where generations of the same family are born, live, and die within its walls. A house built of age, and weight, and ghosts.

There’s a door on the third floor we are forbidden to open. It’s not a large door, more the size you’d expect to see on a child’s playhouse, tucked into a nook that looks like an accident of architecture. It’s secured by a single battered, rusty lock, the key to which lives on a chain around Nan’s neck.

When I was eight, I convinced my cousin to open the door with me. We waited until Nan had retired for her afternoon nap. Nan snores in her sleep. She didn’t so much as stir as I lifted flicked open the clasp and let the chain run silkily into my hand around the weight of our prize, polished smooth from decades worn against skin.

Cody insisted on being the one to open the door. We argued, but Cody’s older. She won.

They key turned smoothly in the lock. We eased the door open, conscious of squeaky hinges–and found ourselves staring at an empty, dusty room like a broom cupboard, with not even a bare bulb dangling from a chain to act as a point of focus. We were staring at nothing. Disappointed, I started to shut the door.

“Did you hear that?” Cory said.

“Hear what?”

“That. There it is again.” Her head swung towards the empty space. “Someone’s speaking. They’re whispering…” Her voice took on a dreamy quality that traced a cold line down my spine. “They know who I am. And they’re lonely.”

I strained to hear. There was the muted chatter of the adults downstairs, taking their time over coffee. There was the habitual groans of an old house settling down on old foundations. There was a soft sigh, as of wind, so quiet I thought I was imagining it. “I don’t hear anything.”

Cory took a step forward, then another. Her eyes never left the room. One hand lifted towards the empty space.

A sense of dread filled me. Abruptly, I knew that I couldn’t let her enter the room. Cory was two steps from crossing the threshold when I slammed the door shut and wrenched the key out.

Adult voices called from downstairs. The noise hadn’t gone unnoticed. I shoved the key at Cory. “Put it back with Nan. I’ll distract them.” Cory didn’t move. She’d frozen when I slammed the door, transfixed. I shoved her. “Go!”

That did the trick. She turned and headed for Nan’s room, while I raced downstairs to head off the inevitable inquiry.

After that, Cory changed. She withdrew; she grew quiet. At night I would wake up to find her standing in a corner, facing the wall, whispering to herself. She always stopped when I called her name, crawled back into bed like she wasn’t even awake. During the day she never spoke unless prodded. She ate almost nothing. After meals I’d hear her in the bathroom, retching hard enough to leave blood spattered on the white porcelain.

I only tried to talk to her about the room once. At the mention of the room, her face went blank. It looked like the face of someone long dead. The fleeting, vivid impression flashed through me that Cory had gone away, and whatever remained in front of me had been hollowed out, her insides scooped away clean as a watermelon rind, and I had to leave the room or scream.

I never brought up the room again.

One day, Cory was gone. Boarding school, her parents said over breakfast. It was a lie; they knew what Cory had done. I read it in their white-knuckled grips on their spoons and the strained flesh around their eyes. The blank, frozen expressions so like their daughter’s when I’d slammed the door to the empty room shut.

And I was glad Cory had insisted on being the one who opened the door, not me.

Decades later, the door is there, still. Locked. The key hangs around Nan’s neck, still. Untouched.

a promise is a promise

The cigarette looked like any other cigarette. Alice sniffed it. It smelled like any other cigarette.

“Go on,” Sing urged, “try it.”

A promise was a promise. Alice lit up and took a drag.

“Well?”

Nothing, Alice said, or tried to at least. But at that moment she felt a wrench deep in her gut, and some fundamental underpinning of reality slipped out of true. The lab around her blurred. Knife-sharp table edges melted into neon flowers into used genesplicers into Sing in the middle, looking nothing like herself with long hair and stone eyes even as her mouth moved in words Alice hadn’t known she remembered. I’m sorry, sweetie. I don’t have a choice. I’d take you with me if I could, you know I would.

Somewhere far away, a little girl wept.

Alice blinked. The lab wrenched back into alignment. The little girl vanished.

A tissue appeared in front of her face. “Take it.”

Alice wiped her eyes. The tears burned.

“Well?” Sing pressed.

“What happened?”

“You froze. I called your name a few times, but you didn’t so much as twitch. Then you started–” She touched the corner of her own eye. “It worked this time, didn’t it? What did you see?”

Overhead fluorescent lights gleamed off Sing’s shaven scalp and traced the eager lines of her face. Scientific curiosity has no respect for individual feelings. The taste of whatever it was Sing had spliced together soured the back of her throat.

“Not much. The room got a little blurry, but that’s about it. I could tell you were calling me, but I wanted to see if something more would happen.”

Sing’s expression fell. “But you were crying.”

“Sensitive eyes. The smoke must’ve irritated them. Sorry.”

Sing’s mouth twisted. She turned back to her workbench. “I thought for sure this time… Well, thanks for your help anyways.”

Alice held up the remains of the cigarette. “Mind if I keep this?”

Sing flapped a hand over her shoulder, pulling a species of fluorescent orange daffodil towards herself. The pruning shears clacked in terse, frustrated bites as Alice let herself out.

Alice waited until she hit sidewalk before putting the still-smoldering stub to her lips. This time when the crying started she was ready for it. The tears tasted familiar in a way she knew from childhood, and wouldn’t have recognized until five minutes ago. I’m sorry, sweetie. I don’t have a choice. I’m sorry, sweetie. I don’t have a choice. I’m sorry, sweetie. I don’t have a choice.

She smoked until her mouth was sour as vinegar and nothing remained in her pockets but ash. Sing would have wanted her to, after all. A promise was a promise.

white sand beaches

The shovel struck something hard beneath the surface. Buried treasure? A lost toy? Sand flew coruscating through the air.

What emerged was a bone: so smooth and eroded that she thought at first it was a stick of bleached wood. From the sliver that remained, it could have been a femur. Or a tibia. How long had it been buried here, waiting to be dug up? How long had it taken for it to be ground down to this little twig?

And where had the rest of it gone?

Unbidden, her gaze lifted, and she stared down the ribbon of sand, glittering in the summer sun. Pristine, bone-white sand.

the opposite of bitterness

I cried the day my innocence died.

I laid it in a coffin of dark, aged oak that I carved myself. I’d made it the size of a six-year-old, an abortive length that made me want to knock off one end and tack on a couple more feet, but even that wound up being too big. When I laid my innocence in the padded silk and lifted, it rolled around like a bowling pin, knocking against the sides with hollow mocking. Undignified. I wound up padding the empty space with clouds of cotton balls, an earthly heaven that smelled faintly of antiseptic and left streaks of old makeup on the wood.

The funeral took place at three in the afternoon, myself the only one in attendance. I dirged and eulogized and keened, and scooped the dirt on, one, two, three loads of the shovel. A single spiny asphodel marked the grave and beaconed what lay beneath long after the grass had furred it over.

Every now and then I visit. The asphodel blooms eternal. I bend my face down to feed on the heavy perfume of the past. I repay it with tears straight into the cups of its flowers, and it sighs in satisfaction. We’re content, the asphodel and I. We each give what the other wants.

do you swear to tell the truth

Gossip is a poisonous thing. It drips, it corrodes, it eats away at the fabric of reality. It sucks the love out of marriage and the fun out of living free. It kills more surely than a bullet to the brain.

Some people live on gossip, like my ex-sister-in-law, who will spread any rumor through her social network as long as it’s juicy enough. She’s a beast of burden grinding the grist of the rumor mill. And what an industrious little beast she is.

Case in point: yesterday I ran into Christopher for the first time in three months. He smiled at me well enough, but I could tell there was something on his mind. And sure enough, after a few exchanged pleasantries, he said, “I hear you’re seeing someone.”

“And if I am?”

“Don’t you think it’s a bit soon for you to be dating again?”

I folded my arms over my chest. “It’s been three months since Don died. What am I supposed to do, float around town in black for a year and a day. Have sudden weeping fits in public?”

“Don’t bitch at me, Joan. I’m concerned. You just wrapped up all that business with the police and got Don’s affairs settled, and the first thing you do is jump in someone else’s bed? It looks suspicious. People are starting to say you got him killed so you could collect insurance and remarry again as soon as possible.”

I started to laugh, then stopped at the look on his face. “For fuck’s sake. Don’t tell me you actually believe it.”

His cheeks flushed dull red, but he didn’t look away. “It’s what people are saying.”

“‘People.’ You mean Patrice.”

The red darkened. “So what if it is?”

I laughed mirthlessly. “Patrice hated my guts even before I married her brother. Of course she’s going to try to spin whatever I do to be as suspicious as possible. If you believe a word out of her mouth, you’re an idiot.”

“She says he never drank, not before he married you. She says you drove him insane cheating on him, and the night he crashed, it was because he’d found out about another one of your affairs and you threw him out of the house drunk.” He took a deep breath. “She’s been saying it all over town.”

“She can say whatever she wants. It’s none of my business.”

“It is if she goes to the police with it,” he said quietly.

“The police already questioned me a thousand times. They found nothing suspicious.”

“There was his insurance policy.”

“Again, nothing. Patrice is grasping at straws.”

“Joan.” Quiet again. “People are starting to wonder.”

“This conversation is over.” I spun on my heel. I could feel his eyes following me until I turned the corner and passed out of sight. People talked; what did I care? I had my money and my life, and words were nothing more than pretty sounds. They could speculate all the wanted; I was the only person who knew what had really happened. Don had too, but Don was dead now. So in the end, it was only me.

And all the gossip in the world wouldn’t change that.