The Propagator – Simone Kern

The Propagator – Simone Kern

August 2019 cover
August 2019

There’s a packet of powder taped to my inner thigh, and it feels like the plastic is burning a hole through my leg. Two police officers wave me towards the chem-detecting archway—one last hurdle before I can board the ferry. Sweat pools in the pits of my cooling suit, and my breath comes fast and hot through my respirator. I tell myself they’re just city cops, not agents of VerdiCorp. They’re just looking for drugs or run-of-the-mill explosives, not the far rarer substance I’ve stolen. Their arch shouldn’t be programmed to catch what I’m carrying.

And it’s not.

I pass through without a beep. The cops don’t give me a second look. My legs are shaking, but only a small part of that is fear. Lately, whenever I’m near any kind of law enforcement, I see Milo. His tiny body curled on one side, the skin of his face twisted up and back. I see his mouth around the breathing tube, wide with a silent scream, and the gaping hole where the back of his skull should’ve grown, but didn’t.

My blood runs hot with rage. I picture myself pouncing on the bigger cop. Tearing away his air mask. Gouging my fingernails into the soft places of his face.

I am almost getting used to these visions.

I do nothing, of course, but take a steadying breath and force my shaking legs up the gangway. I focus on the feel of the plastic against my thigh. I got away with it. I’m sticking it to the fuckers, in my own way.

Then I’m on board the ferry. A last surge of adrenaline lights up my bloodstream, and suddenly I’m giddy over a crime committed.

The other passengers head inside the purified air of the cabin, eager to shed their bulky outdoor gear. But inside it’ll be stuffy and noisy. Every surface—walls, ceiling, seatbacks—will be crowded with the ads I can’t bear to see. So I find a spot outside, leaning over the starboard rail. The water slapping the hull is rust-brown, but a strong gulf wind has blown away the usual smog, and the sun gilds each oily wave with a rainbow shimmer.

The ferry pushes away from the docks, carving a path through the labyrinthine chemical refineries towering overhead. The ship channel is choked with rush-hour traffic—gargantuan oil tankers, commuter ferries swapping out day-and-night-shift refinery workers, and the sleek speedboats of executives, darting between us all at breakneck speeds.

We leave the industrial sector behind, smokestacks flaring against the sunset. Winding through sunken neighborhoods, each neon graffiti-scrawled rooftop blazes, like bright flowers sprouting from the murky water. By the time we pass downtown, dusk is falling, and the towers and walkways where the rich live, as high above the waterline as they can afford, glitter against a bruise-colored sky.

High off a close scrape with law enforcement, Houston looks almost beautiful.

Which isn’t to say I don’t hurt.

I still, always, hurt.

But tonight I’m glad to be watching the stars appear one-by-one in the big Texan sky. I’m glad to see the cube of our habitation block loom up out of the water ahead.

I’m ready to get to work.

Beneath the decontamination showers in the vestibule of our building, I brace myself for the coming onslaught. The hallway and elevator up to our apartment is a gauntlet of triggers. When the last of the polluted water swirls away into the floor, I pull my respirator down and push open the door.

As soon as I step into the hallway, every inch of space—walls, ceiling, floors—bursts to life with ads, designed just for me.

Giggling toddlers wave and run across the walls. They’re all the same age Milo would have been.

I unfocus my eyes and hurry forward, trying not to hear. Time for a toddler-sized stroller? Our air-tight, easy-fold system is lightweight and protects your child from harmful airborne pollutants, like benzene, ozone, metal particulates, and chlorinated hydrocarbons!

A lot of the ads call my name: Marisol, buy this! Marisol, you need that!

But the worst ones are spoken in a toddler’s voice:

Mommy, c’n I have a Busy-Bug Indoor Jungle Gym?

Mommy! I want yummy, plant-like snacks from Ponix!

My eyes start to sting. I just have to keep moving. I’ve tried manually adjusting my ad settings—saying I don’t want to see anything with little kids. But every time an ad-scanner catches me out with the stroller, they assume I’m a parent all over again.

The only other ads I get are from VerdiCorp. Every few meters, I get a blessed relief from grinning babies, and the hall is filled with blooming bromeliads and towering monstera deliciosa plants instead.

Liven up your living space with VerdiCorp!

Take home a palm, your own slice of paradise. Soil & maintenance included, with no money down, and payments as low as $99.99 a month!

According to the CDC, families with even one plant in the home are 30% less likely to develop cancer. Suicide rates fall for each additional species of plant in a home!

The ad fades as I push the elevator call button, and again I’m surrounded by giggling babies—a toothpaste ad.

As soon as the elevator doors open, I charge in, nearly knocking over our building owner.

“Woah there, Ms. Murphy, what’s the hurry?” Rufus chuckles. I slam the doors-closed button. “No little one with you today?”

Like the ad-scanners, he’s seen me with the stroller plenty of times, and he’s always assumed that beneath the UV-blocking shell, there was a baby inside. I’ve never felt it wise to correct him.

“Just me,” I say, willing the elevator to climb faster.

He leans against the wall and scratches his beard. “Might be some construction going on soon, just a heads-up.”

Dread thickens in my stomach. “What’s going on?” I try to sound casual.

“Weird thing. Energy bill for the AC keeps going up, even though each apartment’s usage is the same. Might be faulty wiring. Thinking about getting an electrician in here to check it out.”

My blood’s turned to ice. Electricians “checking it out,” means poking around in the walls, behind the walls, where I’m hiding things far worse than what’s in the stolen packet taped to my leg.

“You know Ethan’s a journeyman?” I say, in what I hope is a casual tone. “He runs electrical at the plants. I’m sure he could take a look? As a favor?”

“Hey, that’d be great! I like your Ethan. Quiet, but I can tell he’s a good guy. Bet he’s a good dad too, huh?”

The comment undoes me. Suddenly I’m back in the NICU, watching Ethan hunched over Milo’s crib, powerless as me to comfort our dying son.

As soon as the elevator doors open, I mumble a goodbye and bolt for our apartment, past a dozen more squealing toddlers darting across the walls. As soon as I’m inside, I collapse against the door, breathing myself calm in the silence.

The floor of the living area is littered, as always, with the old-timey devices Ethan fixes up for a little extra food money. Analog clocks and desktop computers and mechanical cameras crowd every surface. Ethan sits on the floor in the midst of them, the shape of his back a familiar boulder. He’s twisting a screwdriver into the bowels of some dusty, old thing.

“Ethan—Ethan!” I pick my away across the circuit-strewn floor, laying a hand on his shoulder gently. He startles, then pulls one headphone out of his ears.

“Sorry. Just trying to finish this before you got home.” He holds up what I now see is a reading light, fitted with a UV bulb. Another grow light for me.

“Thank you,” I say, taking the object, although today it sparks more fear than gratitude. “Ethan, I ran into Rufus in the elevator. He’s noticed. Says the AC bill keeps going up. He’s going to hire an electrician!” My voice is panicked.

“Shit.” Ethan rubs a hand down his face.

“I told him you could take a look?” I tug my fingers through my hair. “But maybe we should shut it all down. Dump everything tonight. It’s too risky—with this new crop. What the hell was I thinking?”

“No,” Ethan cuts me off. He pushes off one knee to stand. Upright, he towers over me. “I’ll find Rufus. Tell him it’s the smog. It’s been affecting power draws over at the plants too. I’ll offer to pressure-wash the solar roof. That should help with his bill.”

“Are you sure?” I ask, “I mean—about all of it?”

Our eyes meet, and it’s a shock. How long has it been since we last held each other’s gaze? His eyes seem to have gotten paler—filtered-water-blue.

“I’m sure,” he says, pulling me close. He speaks again into my hair, his voice more loving, more decisive than I’ve heard in a long time.

“Grow your flowers, Marcy.”

I used to be terrified of breaking the law, afraid I might do it by accident. When I was eight years old, my school gave us this “Kid’s Guide to Texas Law” trivia hologame that I obsessively re-played, memorizing every right answer. As I got older, learned how the world worked—how badly the odds were stacked against folks from habitation blocks like mine—I only became more determined to avoid arrest.

But after Milo, nothing seemed to matter anymore.

Ironically, it was a trip to a prison that sparked my criminal career. It was my first day back at VerdiCorp from bereavement leave, and I was still so sick with grief that I didn’t really pay attention to the details when my shift manager explained the job at Sugarland Correctional. I just punched in the order and let the warehouse drones load my boat to capacity, only vaguely registering how massive the order was—20 cubic yards of D-Grade soil, 2000 square feet of Bermuda sod. Grief had robbed me of curiosity. There was only getting through the hours of the work day, earning enough pay so I could bring home something to eat with Ethan. Why I kept going through the motions of this life, and whether I should keep doing it, were questions I couldn’t answer.

At the prison docks, my fleet of drones started unloading the cargo and a mustached guard told me I’d be installing a new green space in Cell Block D—Reproductive Crimes.

It was like a sick joke. I’d let Milo suffer to avoid being sent to this place. Now guilt socked me in the gut, solid as a fist, and I struggled to breathe as the guard led me through a series of chem scanners and locked steel doors. My installation drones trundled behind us, hauling the massive bio-storage drums and rolls of sod.

As soon as we passed through the gates of Cell Block D, hundreds of furious eyes from three stories of cells fell upon us, and a howling started up, like the first gusts of a hurricane. The inmates were cursing and wailing, kicking the bars and their beds. Many of them were pregnant—women and trans men. I saw one guy, scraggly beard and swollen belly, must’ve been nine months along. He was chained to his bed, sobbing into his hands.

The guard leaned towards me, and for a moment I thought he was going to arrest me. Like he also knew what was in my rotten heart. But slowly, I processed what he was shouting over the din. “They thought their little ‘protest’ would get them something better than that,” he pointed back at my drones and their rolls of sod.

We stepped through another set of doors into a blessedly quiet corridor, and his voice dropped to a normal volume. “We meet all the legal requirements. Every inmate gets an hour a day of green time, and we have 1 square foot of lawn for every girl. But that wasn’t good enough for them.”

We reached a set of steel doors. Above them a sign read: The Garden.

“They went on hunger strike. Even the pregnant ones. Wrote up a list of demands—there were like twenty different species of plants on it!” He snorted, swiping his hand over a DNA-reader.

The doors slid open, and we stepped into what used to be a gymnasium—rusting basketball hoops still clung to the walls. But the center of the tile floor had been dug out and replaced with grass—mostly dead now. Huge swaths of brown criss-crossed a few remaining patches of green lawn.

“The warden ordered the medical staff to force-feed the girls. They lost their damn minds over that,” he shook his head. “There was a riot, and some of them did this. Got into the cleaning stores and poured bleach all over the grass. I guess they thought we’d replace it with something better,” he snorted. “If you ask me, they should lose their green time altogether for this, but the warden says that’ll get us into legal trouble. Damn ACLU.”

I said nothing, wanting to just finish the job and get the hell out of there. I was still shaken by the inmates’ screams. I didn’t want to know their stories. I didn’t have room in my heart for anyone else’s pain.

“Someone needs to sign for the product,” I said, passing him my tablet.

“What is this?”

“Terms of your lease,” I rattled through the spiel robotically. “VerdiCorp reserves all rights to the living matter. Propagation of plants without a permit is a violation of federal law. Soil is to be used only for growing plants leased through VerdiCorp, and any maintenance, fertilization, or pest control must be contracted through VerdiCorp.”

The guard scrawled his signature, then left me alone in the cavernous space. Most of the soil was unsalvageable—poisoned by the dioxin in the bleach. But in the corners of the lawn, the grass was still green. I sent my drones to start digging out all the contaminated soil and called my manager. I asked her what to do about the soil that was still okay.

“All the soil is to be replaced.”

“A lot of it is still good.”

“They ordered all-new soil, so give them all-new soil.”

“I bet there’s a cubic yard or more of healthy dirt—”

“Marisol? It’s a government contract. All the soil is to be replaced,” her tone deepened, barring any future discussion.

“Okay. Got it,” I said, hanging up. But I just stared at the pit. The good soil there could provide green space for a hundred families. I couldn’t bring myself to order the drones to pack it in with the dioxin-poisoned earth.

I started picturing what could’ve been done with this space, and with the amount of money the prison had spent on the order. Instead of 2,000 square feet of monotonous lawn, they could’ve had a slightly smaller tropical garden, complete with trees and vines and flowering plants, and they still would’ve fallen well within the legal requirements for green space. Was it laziness or cruelty that made the warden order 2,000 square feet of the same damn plant, when he could’ve just as easily ordered the twenty different species the inmates wanted?

Or maybe he thought he had to punish them for the protest. To control them.

Imprisoned and shackled to their beds. Force-fed and forced to watch their bellies swell. Was it too much to ask that they get to look at some fucking flowers?

And suddenly I understood exactly why they’d poured bleach all over their “garden.” Blood pounded hot in my ears, my muscles started to shake, and I felt it too, then. Blood-on-fire, fuck-the-consequences, burn-the-world-down rage.

I wanted to wail like the inmates and kick my drones to pieces. I wanted to find that asshole warden and drive my fingers through the skin of his neck. The clarity and specificity of that vision scared me, but it was also exhilarating. I hadn’t felt anything but numbing grief since Milo’s death. At least the desire for violence was a desire.

But surely I was under surveillance. I couldn’t make any sudden movements, let alone enact destruction. I forced myself to take some deep breaths. And as I watched my drones dig, I realized there was something I could do that would be a fuck-you to Sugarland Correctional, and VerdiCorp, and my bitch of a manager, and even that asshole warden.

I could save the good soil.

Fingers shaking, I programmed my drones to gather up the healthy soil in a separate 200-gallon storage drum from the contaminated earth. My mind raced. What the hell would I do with it? I was supposed head straight from here to WasteWerks, to turn over all the drums of earth. If I showed up back at the warehouse with one drum remaining, my manager would probably fire me just for subverting her authority. I certainly couldn’t bring a whole drum of dirt home. I’d have to stash it somewhere.

The soil was the property of VerdiCorp, and even though they didn’t want it, were just going to give it to WasteWerks to shore up a barrier island outside the city, that wouldn’t matter in a court of law. While in transit, the soil belonged to my employers, and stashing it somewhere was theft.

I was angry enough not to care. I couldn’t give these inmates the garden they deserved, but I could steal this soil. I could use it to make things grow.

On the way back to the warehouse, I ran my boat up alongside the third story of a brick mansion in a sunken neighborhood. I had a drone maneuver the drum through a window, shattered long ago. Then I rigged a power surge to flood my drones’ charging stations, forcing a reboot that wiped their memories of the entire job. As my boat puttered away through rotting tree-tops, part of me hoped an anarchist gang would find the drum before I returned. I knew already that stolen soil would lead me towards greater crimes, though I couldn’t see the shape of them just yet.

When I got home, I told Ethan what I’d done. That I wanted to use the stolen soil to propagate VerdiCorp plants—a federal crime. I’d be putting us both at risk. Was he okay with that?

He looked up from a disemboweled stereo system long enough to shrug and say he didn’t care. It was the most we’d talked in days, both of us lost in a grief that made everything seem pointless.

That night I couldn’t sleep, and not for the usual reasons. I wandered the apartment, looking for something I could use to transport the soil. The mop-bucket was a good size but didn’t have a lid. I needed something airtight, so the soil wouldn’t get contaminated by airborne toxins in transit. The Tupperware in the kitchen was too small—transporting the soil that way would take years. Finally, in the back of my closet, I found the perfect thing.

UV-blocking, self-contained air filtration, and it held about a gallon of dirt. It was the fancy stroller Ethan’s mom had given us, before we knew. I hadn’t had the heart to sell it yet.

So I ventured out just after midnight, loading the stroller into Ethan’s dinghy. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find the right house in the darkness, but after puttering around the sunken River Oaks neighborhood, my searchlight fell on a familiar stretch of brick. Inside, I found the drum of soil, untouched. I quickly shoveled a few armfuls of dirt into the stroller, then sealed its beetle-shell lid against the toxic air.

At that time, Ethan and I only had one plant—a neon-green pothos we’d been leasing for years. Its vines wrapped around the walls of the living room, dangling from hooks we’d drilled as supports. That night, I snipped a handful of pothos leaves, just past where they met the vine, and dropped them in water. A few days later, the pothos cuttings had sprouted roots, and I transferred each one to a Tupperware of stolen soil.

From one living thing, many. A theft of VerdiCorp’s profits.

Each night for the weeks that followed, I repeated my midnight trip to the sunken neighborhood, hauling about a gallon of soil a night. We started saving food containers for use as growing pots. Ethan scoured the junkyards for light fixtures to turn into grow lamps. Pothos cuttings took over every surface of the kitchen. I loved that profusion of neon green, but if someone were to go in there—Rufus, maybe, snooping while we were at work—it would be obvious we were running a criminal growing operation.

The electric bill had shot up from all the grow lights running 24/7, and our water usage had nearly doubled. One night Ethan asked if I had any plans for what to do with all our new plants, or was I just trying to get us arrested? A fair question, and I didn’t have an answer.

The next day, I had off work, and I headed to the city botanical gardens, pushing the stroller, a small razor tucked up in my sleeve. I wanted to see if I could sneak cuttings of some other species of plants.

Beneath the cavernous glass dome of the tropical gardens, the shrieks of countless kids running up and down the paths grated on my ears. The gardens were always jam-packed on Saturdays with families that couldn’t afford their own gardens. I was bent over a fire-colored croton plant, trying to work up the courage to sneakily slice off a leaf, when a small body barreled into me, knocking me into the croton.

I slipped a few crushed leaves up my sleeve as I straightened up. A parent rushed over to me, brushing off their kid. “Sorry, sorry! He shouldn’t have been running.” Both of them had golden-brown skin and long, loose curls.

“No trouble,” I said, glad for the chance to sneak a few cuttings. “I think the plant is okay.”

“They’re so easy when they’re little, aren’t they?”

“Really? I think they’re more finicky. Can’t afford to dry out at all, roots aren’t established.”

She looked at me quizzically, and it took us both a second.

“Oh, you meant…?” I gestured to the stroller.

“Yea. Kids. When they’re little, you can just set them down anywhere.”

“I was talking about plants.”

“I got that,” she laughed warmly. There was something about her I instantly liked. A genuineness. Her name was Danni, a teacher.

“Do you have any? Plants?” I asked, gesturing to the croton.

“No, no. We’ve been saving up for an ivy or something, but with five kids…” she trailed off. “Anyways, that’s why we come here so often.”

The thought of five kids growing up without a single stem of green at home made me come to a rash decision. My next words would make me something worse than a thief or a propagator in the eyes of the law. I’d be a dealer, subject to minimum sentencing laws of ten years federal prison.

The din of happy children’s screams was probably loud enough to obscure my voice from ad scanners, but I whispered anyways.

“You want one?”

A few days after I met Danni, the shower ran cold again, and rather than risk inviting Rufus into the apartment, Ethan decided to fix the plumbing himself. While shining his flashlight back among the pipes, he discovered that above the building’s air- and water-recycling ducts, a secret crawlspace ran the length of the building. It was an answer to many of our problems.

Tonight, I take the new grow light Ethan made me into the bathroom and remove the plumbing access panel behind the shower. I squeeze through the narrow opening between the hot water pipe and the wall and push through a curtain of purple-and-green trandescantia pallida leaves, emerging into my garden.

The ceiling is only five feet high, so I stoop as I make my way towards the cluttered desk where I do my propagating. Shelves line the walls, loaded with dozens of species of plants, all blazing in the light of a hundred mismatched grow lights. Ethan rigged it so all of them are plugged directly into the power line for the building’s AC. We don’t pay the bills, Rufus does, and now he’s noticed the increase.

After I gave her that first pothos, I told Danni to tell her friends about me. Word spread that there was a lone woman with a black stroller who hung out in the botanical gardens on weekends, who would give some green to any plantless parents. I delivered the plants to their homes directly, tucked inside the stroller. A few times I ran into police checkpoints, but they never asked me to open the UV shield—an absurd bit of luck.

In the homes of my clients, I accepted their luke-warm mugs of Koffee and instructed them in proper plant care. I told them to hide the plants away in a back room, to avoid the suspicion of neighbors. Every time I knocked on a client’s door, my heart was in my throat—never knowing whether I’d been set up, whether agents from VerdiCorp were waiting inside with handcuffs.

And then one afternoon, sitting on a bench in the botanical garden, someone approached me who didn’t seem to be a parent. No kids in tow. Nose ring, stripe-shaved head, anarchist tattoos crawling up their tanned arms, and spider legs drawn around their sharp-cornered eyes. I had never been approached by a non-parent before. Would I give to one? Was it worth the risk? I was doing this for the kids, right? If I gave to one anarchist punk, how many more would come—

“Marisol?” They sat right next to me.

My heartrate spiked. Besides Danni, I’d been careful never to tell clients my name. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”

“We have a mutual friend.” They raised their eyebrows meaningfully. “Lilith?”

A friend of Lilith’s…a friend of Lilith’s…the phrase stuck in my mind, like a half-remembered nursery rhyme. It meant something—something high school kids giggled about. Anarchist slang, maybe. I couldn’t remember.

“I’m sorry, you have the wrong person,” I said, moving to stand.

Their hand clamped over my wrist, their voice urgent. “Lilith knows about Milo. What you had to do.”

I sank back down, fighting to keep my face impassive.

“Lilith helps people who are…like you were.”

Suddenly it clicks. Friend of Lilith. “She’s gone to see a friend of Lilith.” That’s what kids would say when someone met a doctor at a sunken home, late at night, maybe never to emerge. “She tried to visit Lilith.” That meant one of our classmates was in the hospital for eating a box of laxatives. Or digging inside themselves with an unbent coat hanger.

They waited for a clump of screaming kids to run by to whisper, “We know you’re a grower, and we have something that needs growing. You can help Lilith in her work.”

They pressed a twist of paper into my palm and stood abruptly. “We’ll be in touch.”

I was supposed to feel horrified. I was supposed to flag down the nearest police officer and report them. But I didn’t. And by the time I thought to ask, “How do you know I’ll help you?” they had already disappeared down the crowded path towards the desert biome.

I peeled back one corner of the paper and peeked. Inside were half-a-dozen tiny, black seeds.

At first, I thought the ultrasound tech was just unfriendly. She slathered cold jelly on my belly, her face set in a grim line. I wanted to chat about names and nesting, but she was all business, pushing the wand vigorously into my flesh. Now, of course, I understand her reserve. With each passing year, she must see more and more pregnancies like mine. To a parent, even a smile from her might seem like a promise she can’t keep. The only words I remember her saying were, “I’m going to get the doctor.”

Dr. Lavan’s eyes were kind and stayed glued to mine when he told us that our baby had a neural tube defect. “A worst-case scenario.”

I made him repeat the ugly word, write it down for me, until my tongue could wrap around it, as if that would give me some control: craniorachischisis.

Our baby’s neural tube had never closed, would never close, and so both his brain and spinal cord were exposed to the amniotic fluid. No baby born with craniorachischisis had ever survived longer than two days outside the womb.

Dr. Lavan warned me against searching the term on the net. The pictures would be disturbing, he said.

Ethan’s hands clamped like vices on my shoulders. I was nearly shouting at Dr. Lavan then, like my protests could change anything. “But I took my prenatals! I’ve always worn my respirator! Hell, I’ve tried not to go outside at all!”

“This is just something that happens,” he said, so kindly. “It could be genetic. Or you could have been exposed to something years ago. There’s nothing to be gained by placing blame.”

I could barely get out the next words. “Is he in pain?”

Dr. Lavan paused for too long. “I don’t know.”

I broke down crying then, knowing it was a lie.

“I’ve worked with parents in your situation before. This will be hard—for both of you.” He turned to Ethan. “I’m going to write you each a prescription for mood stabilizers—”

“Oh, so your ass is covered?” I snapped. “If I lose my mind over the next five months and throw myself—” The warning look on Dr. Lavan’s face stopped me, reminded me that every word we said was being recorded, subject to review by life enforcement detectives.

He spoke very slowly. “Given the nature of this pregnancy, it’s very important that we do everything possible to maximize your baby’s chance of survival. You’ll need to be diligent in taking your vitamins, no risky food choices, and be sure not to miss a single check-up.”

He didn’t need to say the “or else.” I knew—if this baby died before birth, we’d both be investigated for evidence of wrongdoing.

He risked his medical license with the next sentence, lingering on two words, letting me know how carefully they were chosen. “I am not a neural tube specialist, but if you were able to…travel…to see a specialist, they might have more…options…for you.”

He meant that if we could get North, make it to Illinois, or West to California, there were doctors there who could end the pregnancy.

In that moment, I was furious with him. I had been taught from elementary school to look with horror on the years before Turner vs. Alabama. To feel superior to all those lawless, Northern states where the genocide of the unborn continued unabated. And Dr. Lavan knew how badly we wanted this baby. How we’d been trying to conceive for more than a year. I had cried, sitting on the toilet, over a dozen negative pregnancy tests, and I had cried for joy when I’d finally gotten to tell him our good news.

But as soon as we got home from the ultrasound, of course I immediately searched the internet for “chranioarachischisis.” I saw the pictures of those tiny, blue-skinned bodies with their gaping skulls, and I knew the shape of agony growing inside me.

And so late that night, holding each other in bed, Ethan and I discussed it. If there was no conceivable way our baby could live, if he was in pain, then maybe Dr. Lavan was right. Maybe we should see a “specialist.” But there was no way we could afford the trip across three states, let alone the thousands the procedure would cost. It would be cheaper and closer to get to Mexico, but crossing the border could be deadly. And even if we did somehow raise the money, once it was done, we could never return home, or we’d be arrested the moment we crossed into Texas.

I needed a “friend of Lilith” then, but I didn’t know how to find one. I knew there were ways to do it yourself, but I was more likely to kill myself trying. Even searching the internet for answers could get me arrested. And if I wound up at the hospital for any reason, even just food poisoning, I’d face investigation for repro crimes.

So we did nothing. I waited for the long months of my pregnancy to tick by. My symptoms worsened—nausea and cramps and heartburn, aching breasts and back and feet. I was in pain and exhausted all the time. It must feel different, for parents of healthy babies. For me, each day I was pregnant was more miserable than the last. When I couldn’t think of a reason to get out of bed anymore, I started taking Dr. Lavan’s mood stabilizers.

The baby grew. I tried not to think of him as my son. I tried not to think of him at all. But like any healthy baby, he became impossible to ignore as the months dragged by. I felt his first hiccups, and then his first kicks, but there was no joy in those flutters. I guessed that with each movement, he was writhing in pain.

Sometimes I wanted to claw him out with my fingernails.

Sometimes I wanted to lean over the rail of the ferry and sink to the flooded streets below.

And sometimes, late at night, my lifelong disbelief didn’t seem to matter, and I’d curl around my swollen stomach, praying for a miracle. For his skull to grow, for the skin along the back of his spine to knit shut, his face relaxing into a smile.

More often, though, I prayed for him to die. In a spontaneous, painless, medically conclusive way that would absolve me of any wrongdoing.

He didn’t, so at 39 weeks, Dr. Lavan was legally obligated to remove him from my body via C-Section, as the baby would have a greater likelihood of surviving that operation than a vaginal birth. Dr. Lavan didn’t have a choice in the matter, and neither, of course, did I. The law guided his hand, as he sliced through the flesh of my belly, then my uterus, extricated my mangled child, and reassembled me.

Milo Lopez McMannis (they forced us to name him) lived for forty-three hours after his birth. Nearly a world record. I wasn’t allowed to hold him while he was still alive. After, the nurse offered me his corpse, wrapped in a blanket, but I said no. I think Ethan did hold him. I don’t remember much, honestly. Dr. Lavan had given me a blessedly strong cocktail of painkillers that let me sleep through most of Milo’s life and the days that followed.

Dr. Lavan said we could try again if we liked. That there was a good chance my next baby would be normal. But just in case, I wasn’t going to let Ethan so much as kiss my neck after that. He never tried.

I had done what they wanted. I’d been a good girl. I’d thought that if I stayed on the right side of the law, when it was all over, my life would to go back to normal. But I couldn’t turn back into the girl I was before I grew a dying boy, any more than I could erase that mocking scar slashed across my belly.

Two weeks after Milo’s death, I was back at work. And I found myself standing in a cell block for reproductive criminals, staring at a mostly-dead lawn.

It took twenty-three days for the mystery seeds to germinate. Of the six, four sprouted into seedlings, and the next time I visited the botanical gardens, Lilith’s friend was waiting at my usual bench.

“Seen any interesting plants today?” they asked quietly as I sat down.

“Some kind of plumbago, but I don’t know the species. There’s no record of it in the database at work.”

“I wouldn’t go searching the net to find it. You might trip an algorithm.”

My guess was correct, then. This particular plumbago must be an abortifacient.

“You expect me to work for you, but I’ve been thinking. This plant—it couldn’t have helped me, right? I was too far along by the time I knew I needed it?”

“Probably,” they said. “But your friend Danni? She’s the one who told us about you. She needed us a few weeks ago, and we were able to help, because of other growers like you.”

I thought of Danni and her husband, five kids already, all of them crammed into an apartment smaller than me and Ethan’s. I didn’t know how she fed them all as it was.

“I do want to help,” I said slowly. “But someone who takes this…they could end up getting sick, right? Even dying?”

“There are no guarantees.” They pursed their lips. “But Lilith has many friends. Chemists, doctors, midwives …going through us is much safer than going it alone.”

“Is it in the flowers?”

“The root.”

I let out a rush of air. “That’ll take time.” It’d be another month or two for this batch to flower, another few weeks to produce seeds. At that point I could start a new crop and harvest the four measly roots I’d grown, but who knew if I’d still be a free citizen by then?

Of course, if I could propagate the plumbago from cuttings, rather than seeds—that would greatly speed up my growing times. But plumbago species were tricky to propagate. I would need rooting hormone—a Class A controlled substance. There was plenty of it in the vault at VerdiCorp.

I just had to steal some without getting caught.

The plumbago has just started to blossom, filling the crawlspace with heady perfume. Reaching into my pants, I peel the packet of stolen rooting hormone off my thigh. I grasp a clump of bright white blossoms.

With a sharp scissors, I cut off a leaf cluster just below the node and dip the severed stem in the packet of rooting hormone. I drop the stem in a cup of water, then choose another clump of leaves to amputate.

When I finish, I have twenty new plants. If the roots take, they’ll grow much faster than those I started from seed.

Soon, all the pothos, monstera, and kalanchoe I’ve lovingly cultivated will have to be composted to make room for more plumbago. It’d be too risky to try and distribute so many plants so quickly, and I mean to grow as much as I possibly can.

Lilith’s friend said one six-inch root can make four doses. I stare around the crawlspace and do the math, imagining the shelves loaded with white blossoms floor-to-ceiling. My only fear is that I won’t stay free long enough to see it. An electrician could bust through the wall and discover my garden. The neighbors might notice the sweet floral smell. Maybe I already got caught on camera, earlier today, slipping that packet of rooting hormone up my sleeve. Or maybe “Lilith’s friend” is really a life-enforcement detective, and this whole thing has been a setup.

However it comes, I sense in my bones that time is running out. You can’t grow a garden like this in Texas and get away with it forever. Ethan knows it too.

But he said, “Grow your flowers, Marcy.”

When I’m caught, I’ll be lucky to get life in prison. But fear isn’t what keeps me awake each night. It’s the wanting to go back in time, to the day I got the diagnosis. I should’ve chugged a fifth of vodka, hung around crowded places, asking for “Lilith.” I should have followed Dr. Lavan home and demanded he give me “options.” I should have shown a shred of courage. Tried something to end Milo’s suffering.

Because the moment I saw him, I knew.

All he did was suffer.

I like to think that when they come for me with handcuffs, I’ll hold my head high. That I’ll wear a smile when they lead me into the courtroom, strap me to a table for the last breaths of my life.

The world will know, then. I was one of Lilith’s friends.

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