Before the summer I turned twelve, plants had seemed innocuous: sometimes pretty, mostly boring, perennial background filler. I did know someone once who claimed her Ficus granted pleasant dreams when fed a mixture of honey and dried banana peel; another who swore his succulent had cannibalized his others while he was at work, leaving behind a massacre of black fertilizer and a noticeably plumper cactus sunning itself on the windowsill. But I heard those stories later, when I knew better, when I believed them.
It had always been there, thick and bulbous, rotating like a miniature planet in its harness, but I couldn’t remember ever looking at it directly until that summer. I dropped the black plastic bags next to the toolshed, and pulled my grandfather’s heavy work gloves off and left them on the wooden bench. Above, hung an assortment of rust spotted tools: hoes, trowels, and an axe with a heavy maple handle. I returned the shed key to its spot under the stone frog and turned back towards the plant.
I sifted through the sounds that had stopped me; beneath the soft tear of weeds ripping from the earth and sand shimmying into the trash bag, I thought I had heard a sigh, as if the giant thing had exhaled.
I looked back towards the house. Everyone had finished swimming and the grill crackled with burgers and hotdogs. The impromptu garden tidying had been Grandpa’s idea, cut short by his dizzy spell—my enlistment in chores a frequent occurence while we lived with Grandpa and Grandma over the summer—now he sunned himself on the porch in a plastic Adirondack chair, a halo of pipe smoke hanging over his head. He looked faded, indistinct, a photo of a photo. Dad was setting up slender tubes on the concrete walkway, peering upward to ensure their trajectory.
I listened again, but the whole yard lay in a state of lazy, sunburnt silence—the only sound the creak of the chains bracing the plant as it rocked in the wind.
Later, Grandma took a thick bag of sugar out of the cupboard for shortbread.
“Twenty years or so?” She slid a tab of butter into the mixing bowl and leaned against the counter. She was short, only a head taller than me, in her red apron with multicolored fireworks threaded through the chest, but she had never seemed old, with her face like starched white linen. In the living room I could hear Dad talking about the progress on our new house, the one we would move into after the summer.
“Was it always that big?” I asked.
She glanced through the sliding glass door, but the afternoon sun obscured any view of the backyard.
“I wouldn’t worry,” she said, turning and dusting her hands on her apron, “your grandfather has always taken care of the weeds. I try not to pay attention to those things.”
She handed me the mixing bowl. It was the size of my chest and I needed to sit down on the steps that led down into the sunken living room and brace it with my knees to maneuver the spoon.
Mom lay on the opposite couch, bathed in light, arm drifting across her forehead while Dad paced in the foyer making a sales call.
I grasped the spoon with both hands to work it around the bowl, but it barely budged. In a minute my forearms screamed, and Grandpa noticed and heaved himself from the recliner, squatted down next to me on the floor, and placed his callused hands around my small ones. Together we smoothed out the dough.
After dinner we filed out to the backyard. Beyond the stiff Saint Augustine grass, baked to glass by the heat, cut a chain link fence that separated my grandparents’ yard from a retention ditch. Over the years, seeds and pollen drenched by rainwater and street runoff had erupted into a tangle of thorny vines and greasy flat-leafed vegetation that crowded at the fence, ready to tear it down if we let it. I stared at the boundary while Dad lit the first of the rockets. It fizzled to life as Grandma handed us each a dense brick of shortbread from her cookie tin.
My eyes burned from an afternoon of swimming, but I forced them open against the sky to watch the rockets disintegrate into pink sparks.
A week later I sat on the concrete steps by the pool next to a crowded collection of aloe, spiny and prehistoric, and a skull of desiccated coral. I’d never worn a tie before. I kept clipping and unclipping it from my shirt collar.
Inside, mourners gathered, afraid to bump into each other, polite and fragile. Their whispering was too loud. A portrait of my grandfather, decked out in his navy uniform, sat on the kitchen table, encircled by a wreath of white lilies.
I wondered if I had a time bomb in my chest too, winding down to its final tic.
I loped out across the grass, the late afternoon sun an orange disk, to the plant.
It was so big it stretched against the chains suspending it from the oak, causing the tree to splinter along its trunk.
I placed my hand, pink from the heat, against the lime green skin of the thing. It was warmer than my hand, and something seemed to pulse beneath the surface. I imagined what it would be like to peel back all its layers, what it would hold in the center. An eye, maybe, bloodshot and swiveling, corded in inch-thick veins. Or nothing. Just more and more layers until you came out the other side.
Then I thought of snakes, and imagined one was hiding now, waiting for my hand to slide closer to one of the folds. I jerked away.
Dad joined me. He looked uncomfortable and sad, unsure of what to say.
“She’ll be okay,” he said finally.
“Who?” I asked.
“Well, both of them, I guess.” He dug the heel of a black shoe into the earth. “But your mother,” he added, before walking away.
I stared at the space next to the porch where a week before the five of us had watched stars explode in the sky.
A rustle and groan beside me, and I turned slowly towards the plant. I squinted, first with one eye, then the other.
I lifted my hand, measuring the distance between the plant and the pool door using my fingers.
I was sure.
It had grown.
On the kitchen table, Grandma’s tin lay bare, its tarnished corners worn silver where the seams met. The last few guests edged out, sharing pained glances with me, offering to help with the bags of trash Dad held from his hand, his other on the door jamb.
I found it difficult to look anyone in the face. Mom and Dad and Grandma made movements that approximated normal, but were too fast and slow all at once, like the jerky movements of marionettes.
That night, Mom and Dad made a bed up for me in the living room, tucking a quilt into the couch cushions and draping it over me like an envelope. Grandma had gone to sleep, or at least retreated into a far dark corner of the house to be alone. I had never noticed how the house echoed when only one person was speaking, the sounds ricocheting off the walls like softballs.
I still felt that when I glanced at the recliner he’d be there, square jawed and immense, chewing the end of his pipe.
“Mom,” I said, and the word felt funny, like I was saying it for the first time.
She waited in the doorway that led back to the bedrooms.
“That thing in the backyard—”
“Thing?” She said, closing her robe against her throat and bracing herself against the wall.
“The plant, I guess.” Because maybe that’s all it was.
“Oh, Bryan’s plant.” She read the silence, studied the room for a place to sit, but she seemed to see mines everywhere that could go off at the slightest pressure. Ultimately, she chose the step where I held the mixing bowl a week before.
“Bryan gave that to your grandmother a few weeks before the accident. A birthday gift.” Her eyes creased at the corners. “You know, it was this big,” she held her hands a few inches above one another, “when he bought it. He was always doing stuff like that. That’s why he was the favorite.”
Mom never spoke of her brother, who had died in an accident before I was born. I knew little about him other than that we shared a name.
I absorbed this, appreciating the way speaking helped fill up the room, and it felt clandestine, opening doors on the past that had been locked—peering into a time before I was born, a mythology I might never have access to again.
“Did you ever think about getting rid of it?” And I knew I’d made a mistake by the way her eyes froze, and her hand clawed its way back up her throat, as if someone had just thrown open the door on a blizzard and an icy wind was thrashing around the room. But the only change was my question, which had shorn the conversation in half.
“No, we couldn’t.” She stood, took a step forward, and flicked the light off.
Things were worse at the funeral. I was realizing that pain wasn’t linear: it peaked and ebbed, then crested again unexpectantly, violently.
Mom had been quiet in the few days leading up to it. I watched her the way you watch tinder in a bonfire, wary and expectant. The funeral was held on the same grounds where Bryan was buried, Grandma told me. They even used the same priest, a tottering old man who asked me to hold the scripture readings for him at the lectern as he spoke. Everyone thought this was a great idea.
The same shopworn people who had come to my grandparents’ home were there, milling around, checking their phones, keeping close to the perimeter.
Dad and Mom were fighting. Dad had to leave in the morning to catch a flight to Austin for a sales meeting, but Mom wanted him to stay to help Grandma pack up Grandpa’s things. With the neighborhood getting more dangerous and Grandma alone, Mom thought it best to move her into a condo closer to our new house.
I could sense the hesitancy, a hole that suggestion had fallen into.
“Well, that may not be a good idea,” Dad said.
“Why not? She could help with Bryan. and you said the house is nearly finished anyway, we just need your final bonus to—”
Dad rushed in “—I just don’t think we should be too hasty, is all. With everything going on…the funeral, I mean… I… we may have to hold off on the move.”
I could sense something change. A drop in pressure. A curdling of the air.
“We have savings for that, Dean.” An electric current pulsed through each word.
They couldn’t hear me on the outside of the door. I had come to tell them that I didn’t want to hold the papers. I didn’t want to stand in front of all those people in their caked-on suits and dresses, and not for the last time, I wished I had an older brother or sister to take my hand and tell me what to do. But instead, I wiped my face and forced the rock in my throat down to my belly, where it settled, and walked away. I imagined it growing in there, calcifying like the coral on Grandma’s porch.
As I perched by the lectern, a man walked into the back of the parlor; I saw him over the greying heads, hunched slightly, wearing aviators and a creased leather jacket. Dad had his head bowed, but I could see him stiffen as he caught sight of him. The hymnal in his hands quaked. Mom turned too, but it was difficult to read her expressions, her emotions as opaque as sea-glass.
She placed a palm on Dad’s and whispered something in his ear. He pushed her hands away to lie lonely and tangled in her lap.
“You have no right—” Dad was saying.
I froze in the doorway with a tray full of plastic wineglasses to throw away. Clearly a ploy to keep me from this scene.
The man in the leather jacket had one hand on a hip and the other outstretched, palm up, as if he expected Dad to shake it.
They were standing in the funeral parlor’s kitchen area, forced close together by cardboard boxes filled with wine. I could smell aftershave that wasn’t Dad’s—something sickeningly spicy and sweet.
“It was in the paper. I just came to pay my respects,” the man said. His accent was slightly southern, a cowboy in a Marlboro ad.
I felt hands on my shoulders moving me out of the doorway and back into the hallway.
Mom’s face, close to mine: Go, she mouthed, but before I could retreat there was a massive crash and the shattering of glass, and the man stumbled out of the doorway pinching the bridge of his nose between his fingers. A crimson gush darkened the collar of his white shirt. He leaned his head back and disappeared wordlessly through a doorway to our right.
My hands were shaking, and plastic cups tilted off the tray, spilling their contents on the carpet. Dad came out next, massaging his knuckles, his face drawn and startled.
Mom stood with her hands on her hips. She glanced once through the doorway and her face collapsed, eyes jolting up at the corners, a choking sob breaking free of her lips.
Dad reached for her, but she turned away.
I got on my hands and knees, shaking, and began to stack the cups back on the tray. I held one up to the light. At the bottom, curled in a C, lay a slim finger of lime green vine.
The plant’s sagging belly now dipped into the ground, making a little furrow of the muddy soil beneath. The top branches of the tree had begun to angle precipitously towards the roof of the house, and as I watched, a squirrel zigzagged across the shingles and clambered onto an outstretched limb. I was afraid to touch the plant—I could feel heat coming from it like a furnace. Whatever was inside was burning, fueling growth.
The man from the funeral, his nostrils stuffed with tissue, walked across the grass barefoot.
“Does Dad know he’ll be here?” I had asked in the car ride over.
“He’s an old friend; we need all the help we can get right now,” she had said, not answering.
I eyed the plant and hoped it would shoot out leafy arms or vines and wrap him up like a mummy, twirl him up into pasta until the only thing visible was the top of his sweaty head, which would burst from the pressure, leaking red over green.
But I could sense that whatever the plant was, it wasn’t benevolent; it merely squatted, motionless under its own gargantuan weight.
I stared down at the man’s muddy feet, his jeans rolled over his bony ankles, and wondered what he had said to Dad in the funeral parlor. Dad, who didn’t let me watch Terminator when it played on T.V.
“You know, I was there when he bought this—with your uncle, I mean.” His voice twanged like a broken banjo string.
“Uncle Bryan?” I asked.
He squinted at it although storm clouds had covered the sun for hours.
“Yap. Knew your granda, way back when,” he added.
“It looks like you know my dad, too,” I said.
This stopped him and he looked at me for a moment, searching, then unconsciously reached for his nose but stopped himself and pointed at me instead.
“I think we maybe got off on the wrong foot yesterday. I’m Jake.” He stuck out his hand and leaned over it like a magician coaxing a reluctant volunteer from a crowd.
It sank to his side when I didn’t take it.
“I don’t think I need to know your name,” I said. “You’re just here to help Mom. Then you’re leaving.”
His smile made my stomach turn acidic.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I might stick around for a while.”
“Dad will be home tomorrow,” I said, fast enough to run my words over one another.
He shook his head, mouth in a line but with a corner twisted up like a rusty hook.
“Nope. In Austin all week.” He dragged it out in a way that made me aware of the sweat running down my back.
“Come look at this,” Mom said. The three of them were hunched over a peeling leather photo album in the kitchen. I had been pacing the edge of the pool for an hour and I smelled like the outside that had seeped into my clothes.
I crossed my arms and edged forward reluctantly.
Jake had his hands on either side of the thing, as if he were holding the whole world of the album between his arms. Grandma and Mom were on either side of him. Grandma looked thinner, I realized, her parchment pale skin sagging at the corners of her mouth.
In the picture I saw Uncle Bryan, Mom’s twin. He crouched next to a small motorcycle, hand placed on the shiny black seat. Behind him, I recognized Jake, although a much younger version, with long hair that swooped across his forehead. They were standing in the front yard, the oak trees smaller and the paint on the house a brighter shade of white. In the background, Mom rested her arms across a wrought iron gate.
There was no fence like there was now and I could see straight into the backyard where a small leafy plant dangled from a tree branch. It was light enough to suspend from a single nylon rope.
“He was so proud of that bike,” Grandma said, turning from the table and busying herself in the kitchen.
“Is that…” I started, pointing at the bike.
Mom nodded, two fingers close to the edge of the photo, an inch or so away from Jake’s.
“What happened to it?” I asked.
“After the accident, it wasn’t nothing but scrap metal,” Jake said. “I hauled it over to the junkyard.”
Grandma made a pained sound in her throat and for a second I thought she had cut her hand, which grasped a potato, a paring knife in the other. Her head was tilted forward over the sink as if she was about to fall into it.
Jake scraped his chair away from the table and walked behind her, taking the blade. “Let me take care of this,” he said. “Why don’t you ladies take a load off and let the boys finish dinner?”
Mom gave him an appreciative glance that lingered in the air, then grabbed Grandma’s arm and guided her into the living room.
“I need to shower,” I protested.
“After dinner,” Mom said. “Help Jake with whatever he needs.”
Jake hauled a pot out of the cabinet under the sink and threw a washcloth over his shoulder. I was uncomfortable with the ease with which he knew the locations of items: the saltshaker, the grater, the ceramic butter plate. Things I never really paid attention to, but now felt imbued with importance; if I appreciated them more, he wouldn’t have to touch them.
The light outside died as a fine drizzle greyed the yard. I heard the scrape of branches against the roof, their bent weight scratching like fingernails.
Jake stopped with a potato in one hand and stared intently at a picture above the sink. It was a photo of my mother when she was in high school, taken at prom or homecoming. In it, she perched on the edge of a couch, fingers laced under her chin, her head lifted towards the source of light shining from somewhere outside of the frame. Her hair had been curled, and it curved under her delicate chin in an auburn wave, the border of a pale green dress just visible at her collar. Mom usually never smiled in pictures, there were only a few I had seen where her teeth were visible, and because of this, I’d always liked this photo of her, imagining that this was who she was on some secret horizon. Her smiles were never given freely; they had to be earned, and anytime she did smile, I felt accomplished. I kept those moments close.
He leaned over the sink, and I tensed, watching his finger raise to stroke the frame.
“Don’t,” I said and felt my hands clench.
His head swiveled towards me, that grin leaking out of his face, running all over the place, spilling onto the counter.
“You know who took this picture?” he asked.
I don’t want him to say it. There were fault lines running through this house and underneath were gaping mouths with sharp teeth and I wanted Dad to rush in and make him bleed again; it was a wash of rage and violence that I had never experienced before, and it tasted like terror.
“Prom. I wore a blue tuxedo. Borrowed your uncle’s bike—got home real late that night.” He picked up the knife and potato and, in fine papery shavings, began removing the skin.
There was a shriek like two-by-fours being compressed by immense pressure. I heard a crack, too, but was unsure if it was the snap of wood or thunder.
He didn’t look up as I snatched the phone off the receiver and darted into the hallway. Mom had taken to staying in Grandma’s room, which left the only other bedroom open. I closed the door, locked it, and dialed Dad’s number.
He picked up after what felt like too many rings.
“Everything okay?” he asked. I could hear traffic in the background, like he was at a street corner or a bus stop.
I tried to keep my voice level.
“When are you coming home?” I asked.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line.
“Well, it’s taking a bit longer than I thought out here…” His voice trailed off.
“But we need…I think you should come home.”
“Has something happened?”
Although I was thankful he had finally asked, the question lacked the urgency that I needed, and I had no idea how to answer.
“The plant—” I started, then thought better of it. What if it could hear me? What if even now there were tendrils snaking below the floorboards, finding cracks in the foundation, listening with a thousand different moist pores to this conversation. “I mean, Mom has the guy—”
A long sigh. Not the intake of breath, swear, yell, or shattering glass that I wanted from him.
“Jake,” he said. “Your mother invited Jake over.”
“Yes. I don’t like him and he’s saying things about Mom, and I think —” I was rushing through it and my thoughts were skittering like spiders but there was one thought that was coherent above all: “He should leave, Dad. I don’t want him here.”
“Listen,” he said, “unfortunately, there’s nothing that either of us can do about that right now. He’s…kind of been in the picture for a while.”
“But you…can’t you just tell her she can’t see him?” I said, and I felt tears breaking free and a hard knot forming in my throat.
“It’s not that easy,” he said. I heard voices in the background and laughing. “I just don’t think your mother wants to hear from me right now.”
I sensed finality; shovelfuls of dirt tumbling in over my head and light being shut out, closed coffins and stale air. I stared at the phone and ended the call.
I refused dinner, ignored Mom’s voice when she called from the kitchen, then waited for a knock at the door, but none came. I crept silently into bed and listened to the probing life outside, trying to force its way in.
The next morning, I awoke to find Jake splayed across the couch, eyes lizard-like slits in the orange light spilling from the curtains. Mom walked in a moment later, saw me standing with my fists like rocks and Jake smiling slyly from the couch, but only gave herself a second to look guilty before she disappeared into the kitchen.
It took us three days get Grandpa’s things packed up neatly into boxes and placed into the moving truck. Each box that was carted off felt like a little piece of my grandfather being cut out and tossed aside. I wanted to wrap my arms around everything in the house and keep it in place. I wanted to stop it all from slipping away. If enough pieces of him were gone then it was really happening, and there would be no going back. I wanted to tell Mom the secret that I knew: that we didn’t have to go along with this; that death was just a rumor we didn’t have to believe, and if we simply let it pass, he would come walking back in the door, Dad would return from his trip, Jake would fade away like a bad dream, and the plant would be destroyed forever.
Because that was the other thing I knew.
It was the plant that had started this, with its menacing leaves and the thing growing inside of it, and the vines which had now started to wind themselves underfoot, so that you had to watch them when you were carrying boxes across the thick grass. But every time I thought about damaging it—purposely running a dolly over a clammy limb or puncturing the swollen belly with a kitchen knife—Jake seemed to be there, watching.
“Your mother could use your help in the garage,” Jake said, on the final day of packing, standing with his arms crossed and feet spread underneath the oak.
I trudged away, finding Mom paused at the brick wall of the garage, a plastic bag in her fist.
With her back turned I was able to stow the pocket-knife under a stack of wool quilts on a shelf where I had been hiding it. I needed something much bigger, I decided.
Mom didn’t turn as I entered the garage. We hadn’t spoken much in the last three days, not since I had foregone dinner the night after the funeral.
I watched her back now, thin under her t-shirt, all collarbones and elbows and long hair twisted up into a bun beginning to fray.
“Mom,” I called.
She turned and her eyes, half-lidded, found mine. She was far away, and it took her a moment to swim back, whatever rip tide was pulling her away ebbing momentarily.
She gestured, and I grabbed the trash can and swung it over to her.
She tossed the bag in and settled heavily into a plastic lawn chair that lay in a triangle of light from the open garage door. Beyond, Grandma watched Jake rattle down the U-Haul’s wide door.
At the end of the lawn, the retention ditch gave off a cloying smell, rotting vegetables and decay, and my stomach tensed.
“How did you ever live next door to that?” I said, wiping my mouth with a sleeve. “It reeks.”
Mom glanced absently at the neon green wasteland beyond the chain-link fence and shrugged. “You can get used to anything.”
I wanted to ask her so many things then: why they had kept the plant all these years, what had made it stop growing? If we escaped before awaking one morning to find it erupting in a slimy green spike from our mouths, would it simply follow us? Appear suddenly in the folds of a rose blossom, or wait as a seedling attached to an eyelash? Had we been spreading it this whole time?
But I settled on this: “What is Jake?”
She waved it away.
“He’s an old friend, I told you that.”
“More than that. He took you to prom. He was there when Bryan died. He was there when…”
She held a hand to her face, the flash of her wedding band floating through the garage like a lightning bug. She looked weak, fed upon. When she looked up again, her eyes moved past me.
Jake stood in the doorway, one hand holding the pocketknife. He tapped it against his thigh, slowly, then ushered me over. His eyes glinted. “Time for a talk.”
I kept my distance from him as we circled into the backyard, through the faded wooden gate, under the smoldering afternoon sky, to stand again at the plant.
He picked his way across the grass, almost reverently, reaching out a hand but stopping short of touching the thing. His hand traced the veiny membranes like an ancient text he could read.
“Can you hear it?” he whispered.
Waves of disgust roiled through me at his proximity to the thing. Sweat beaded on his forehead. I wanted to run, but part of me needed to hear what he would say. Maybe there would be an answer, a clue, a way to kill it.
“It’s special, you know.” He shook his head, “Of course, we didn’t know that when he bought it. It was just a green thing, a small fragile thing someone had left half alive in the back of a hardware store.” He rubbed the damp area above his lip. “Your Uncle didn’t want it, but I could sense it was…” he tossed his head, as if clearing it of fog.
Goosebumps rippled along the tops of my arms despite the heat.
“It spoke to me.” His voice was toneless, eyes lost, and I took a step backwards. “It will give you what you want if you feed it. Anything you want.” He angled his body towards the garage as if he could see through the brick and plaster to where Mom sat.
“No.” I said, my voice a croak.
“We’ve been waiting,” he droned, continuing. “I thought your uncle would be enough—”
The accident. Not an accident. Jake, who had used the bike before. Who had needed something, a sacrifice. Now, with Grandpa gone, the pain rippling through us had made it grow again. A cold, sick feeling flowed through me, and when I had the strength, I pried myself away from his dull, green gaze, and ran inside.
That night we ate a dinner of frozen pizza that tasted like used tea leaves. Jake never left Mom’s side long enough for me to speak to her, so I retreated into the bedroom instead. I was lifting the window latch when Grandma tapped on the door and let herself in.
She carried something under her arm, a big book, leatherbound, that she set on the edge of the bed. “We haven’t had the chance to talk,” she said and pulled a wicker chair from the corner.
The book was filled with newspaper clippings, browned with age but preserved behind a yellowing sheet of plastic.
“You know your uncle passed away when he was young, only seventeen,” she started.
“You don’t have to do this,” I said.
She glanced at me, watery blue eyes and papery skin, resting a small warm hand on my arm and smiled.
“You need to hear this, especially now,” she said and began to flip through the album.
And she told me the story, of how bad it was, how Bryan took his bike out and they got the phone call an hour later and how they slept on the cold linoleum floor of the hospital for a week, waiting for him to wake up. How Jake had been there with Mom, and how, when something bad happens, the people who experience it with you, you never really forget, because the pain gets in under your skin and travels to your heart and if it wakes up again you go looking for those people who were with you before.
“The plant is going to keep growing,” I whispered.
She closed the book filled with the images of Bryan.
“It may,” she said.
“Aren’t you scared?” I asked.
She nodded, put her hand underneath my chin.
And because I was eleven and because this wasn’t even close to the answer that I needed, that I wanted, I waited until the house was asleep, and cracked the window, and slipped out into the rain.
The toolshed was a black mass with the bulky bags of yard waste that had never been thrown out still sitting next to the wall from weeks ago when I had watched those fires explode in the sky and Dad’s hand was in Mom’s and the pain was there, sure, but it was manageable, hadn’t broken free from its constraints to destroy us.
My feet sucked at the muddy ground, each step filling with brown water, and my shirt was soaked by the when I reached the shed. The motion light flooded the yard with light, but it would be too late by the time they realized what I planned.
I scrabbled for the key underneath the stone frog and shoved open the doors. The axe, an old one, its blade nearly blunt but sharp enough, hung heavy from its peg. I needed both hands to lift it, and it banged into my shoulder painfully as I swung it down from the wall.
I dragged the axe behind me, tracing a line from shed to plant that created a little ditch of rainwater.
I heard shouting from the porch.
Lightning flashed and there was a shape in my path, arms outstretched to bar the way.
Jake. Who must have perched near the window all night, standing guard. His undershirt shriveled in the rain; dark hair plastered across his forehead.
He was a part of this thing, a parasite living on the fringes of pain, waiting for it to weaken its host before he consumed it. A slash of a smile sliced under his still swollen nose.
I didn’t feel bad when the flat end of the axe smashed into his forearm, audibly snapping the bone like a piece of uncooked spaghetti.
He screamed and flung himself away from the next stroke, which whistled into the side of the plant with all my strength. For some reason I thought of my grandfather’s hands on mine the night before he died, guiding me.
The axe sunk into the flesh with a wet schlick.
Suddenly, with a scream of wood rearranging itself, the oak straightened, tugging the chain upwards as putrid air and black liquid poured from the opening of the plant and hissed, steaming, onto the ground.
I heard Jake moaning to my right, propped against the screen of the porch and a cry from the patio as the sliding glass door shivered open and Mom and Grandma rushed out.
I was hacking frantically now, creating little triangles of green and yellow plant flesh. Piles of mushy vegetable matter rose at my feet, stinging my shins while my arms burned from the effort.
Soon the only thing left was a tiny, shriveled acorn; a wrinkled brown seed the size of my fist, connected to the chain which now swung freely in the wind.
I gathered the fallen pieces in my arms. They smelled like overripe bananas and the blankets of a person long sick. I stumbled under their weight and walked to the edge of the yard. There, I let the pieces slide from me, over the chain link fence and into the green waste beyond. I heard them rolling into the foliage on the far side, and the splash as they hit the water.
I collapsed into the mud. My shirt reeked of sweat and sickness and I pulled it off and threw it behind me over the fence.
The floodlamp illuminated the place where the plant hung. Mom recoiled from Jake, the spell broken somehow, as he grasped at her with his one good arm. He appeared small, depleted. Grandma moved through the rain, the light framing a face shrouded in shadow. She approached, feet squelching through the mud.
I expected to see her smile, but when the lightning cracked again her face looked worn, carved from marble, eyes drooping at the edges in sorrow.
“It’s okay,” I splayed my fingers out against the light from the porch so I could see her face better, maybe her expression was simply a trick of the light. “I killed it.”
But she shook her head.
“Don’t you think we’ve tried?” she answered softly.
And I felt then the press of growing things at my back, an entire ditch filled and probing at the edges, a lifetime of pain hacked and discarded, yet continuing to grow. What grandfather had tended, what his death had unleashed.
I saw the heart of the thing, swaying gently from the chain, a single, fragile leaf breaking free.
I pulled on the gloves, too big for my hands, and grabbed a roll of black trash bags. The morning had dawned bright and brutal, the air thick, and Grandma brought me ginger ale while I worked, removing patches of rotting rosebushes, digging up rectangles of brown grass, and heaving husks of the plant into a lined trashcan.
She handed me the sweating glass and I pressed it against my forehead, the sensation painfully refreshing in the heat.
Mom had entered the bedroom at dawn while I pretended to sleep, and curled her fingers through my hair, kissing my forehead.
“He’s gone,” she whispered, then, before she left: “Dad will be home tomorrow.”
Jake had disappeared after I had attacked the plant, evaporating into the rain-soaked night without a word. I hadn’t decided whether to tell Mom of Bryan’s accident, whether I thought it was an accident. But for now, it was enough that Jake was gone.
Grandma and I lingered in the yard, watching the stunted plant quiver slightly, but hold its shape.
I thought of all the times Grandpa must have fought the grief that threatened to destroy him. How many times he must have pulled on these same gloves and hacked away at the plant, knowing it would just grow back, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.
“There isn’t a way to destroy it, not really, it’ll just spread,” I said to her. She patted my hand silently and made to walk back across the grass to the porch, then turned, looking up at the wide oak trees, the flowers blazing along the paving stones in hues violet and cream, until her gaze settled on me.
And she smiled, adding: “But we can let it starve.”