by Tara Campbell
Misty watched Joe pace the living room. Things had been going missing—car keys, loose change, magazines, and now his cigarettes.
“That’s the second pack this week,” he growled, lifting a stack of papers off the coffee table.
“Sorry, Joe,” she said from the couch.
“How does this keep happening?” He stomped into the kitchen and Misty heard drawers opening and banging shut. The edge in his voice told her to stay on the couch, out of his way.
He stalked back out of the kitchen and stood in the living room, fists on hips. Misty watched him take a deep breath in and out as he scanned shelves and windowsills. She supposed he was counting to ten. “Guess I need to get another pack,” he grumbled.
She had to get him out of this mood. “Maybe Chelsea’s swiping them,” she said, reaching over to pet the small, rust-colored tabby curled up next to her. “Maybe kitty doesn’t like smoking in the house.” Chelsea purred and rolled over to expose her soft white belly. Misty looked up at Joe with a tentative smile.
“The cat, eh?” His face was unreadable. Behind her smile, Misty clenched her teeth as he sat down next to her on the couch.
“Babe,” he said, “all you have to do is ask. I’ll open a window.” Misty tried not to flinch as he reached over her to give Chelsea’s stomach a quick scratch. “But cigarettes aren’t cheap. Where are they?”
“Joe, I’m telling you, I don’t know.”
Joe’s eyes burned into hers for a moment before he sank back into the couch. Misty followed his gaze up to the leafy canopy hanging from the ceiling, her houseplant’s silent march above their heads. Eugene, her philodendron, was thriving in his new/old home.
She’d brought Chelsea and Eugene with her when she’d moved back in with Joe. Eugene was in a bigger pot now, so the only place sturdy enough for him was on top of the squat laminate bookshelf in the corner. To keep his vines from spilling over in front of Joe’s books, she’d started taping them to the walls. Since then, Eugene’s tendrils had shot up to the ceiling and started to make their way across the room. She was going through tape like crazy to keep his vines from falling in Joe’s way.
Misty jumped as Joe sat up with a jolt. He got down on his hands and knees to look under the couch.
“There they are!”
He pulled two packs of Lucky Strikes out from underneath the sofa and dusted them off. “Look, you don’t have to hide them, I’ll just open the window.” He shook out a cigarette and stuck it in his mouth before patting all of his pockets.
“Now the lighter? Be back in a few,” he muttered.
The front door slammed and one of Eugene’s vines fell.
“I didn’t hide anything,” said Misty softly. She got up and pulled out a chair to stand on. The chair wobbled slightly as she looped the green, fleshy vine over her finger and tore off a length of clear tape, gently sticking the ends to the ceiling on either side of the stem. Hooks would have worked better, but Joe didn’t want her putting any holes in the walls; and anyway, she liked the illusion that the vines were clinging to the ceiling on their own. All she had to do was look up, and she was in an exotic jungle far away.
She’d had Eugene even longer than she’d had Chelsea. The three of them had been through a lot over the years; moving in with—and away from—Joe, then Jeff, then Marcus, and now back with Joe. Each time she’d learned to read the signs a little bit better, to get out before the first punch was thrown. She wasn’t going to take that anymore. Joe had promised, and he was trying, she could tell.
She stroked one of Eugene’s large, heart-shaped leaves. She’d bought him at a flea market the first time she’d moved in with Joe, and he’d grown so fast she felt he deserved a name. She’d gone back to get another one for her mother’s birthday, but the plant guy wasn’t there anymore. She never came across another plant with the same leaves: light green, darker on the edges, with a purplish-red tinge down the center line.
And every time she thought about taking a clipping for her mother, the scissors were missing.
Misty came home from working the breakfast shift to find Chelsea crouching on the back of the sofa, sniffing at the fall air coming through a side window. The cat’s ears twitched at the horns, sirens and laughter drifting up from the street.
“Joe, did you leave the window open?” She shooed Chelsea away from the window and cranked the handle to close it. “Joe?”
She put her purse down on the coffee table and went back to the bedroom. The air was humid and smelled like soap, and Joe was rubbing his hair dry with a towel.
“Joe, did you leave the window open?” she asked.
“Well, it was open when I got home. Chelsea was sitting right by it.”
“You must have left it open yesterday.” He finished drying his hair and dropped the towel onto the bed.
“No, it wasn’t open this morning.”
He pulled a T-shirt over his head. “Well, we should leave ‘em open anyway, get some fresh air.”
“Sure, but not that one, okay?” She moved past him to pick up the towel. “There’s no screen; Chelsea could get out.”
He looked squarely at her. “I didn’t open it.”
She recognized that look; that tone. She should stop pushing and just keep a better eye on Chelsea. He was trying.
The faint ringing of her phone out in the living room turned both their heads.
“Go get it,” said Joe.
She squeezed by him and hurried out of the bedroom to pick it up. “Hello? Hi, Mom. No, everything’s fine …”
Home at last, thought Misty, putting her key into the apartment door. This day had been a nightmare from beginning to end. She could hardly wait to vent, tell Joe how everything had conspired against her: she couldn’t find her phone that morning, one of the cooks was sick, then she burned her finger trying to help out in the kitchen, then they got slammed with a tour group. And her boss was giving her that creepy look again—although she’d better leave that last part out; Joe didn’t like hearing about her pervy boss.
“Joe?” she called out, throwing her keys down next to his in the bowl by the door.
“Joe?” He was there, she could feel it, but he wasn’t answering. No TV, no radio—the silence was unnerving. Misty took a deep breath, chiding herself for being afraid of a little peace and quiet.
“Joe?” Passing through the tiny hallway from the door to the living room seemed to take an eternity. Joe was sitting on the couch, wearing his coat, a can of beer in his hand.
He didn’t even look at her when he asked, “Where have you been?”
The quiet rage in his voice paralyzed her.
“I said, where were you?” He cocked his head and looked at her with narrowed eyes. “I’ve been trying to call you all day.”
“I—” Misty clutched her pursestrap and tried to swallow the tremor in her voice. “I lost my phone.”
Joe spoke slowly, his anger simmering in the space between each word. “Where have you been?”
“I was at work, where do you—”
“I’ve been trying to call you,” he said, putting the can down with care.
Misty’s head began to feel light. “I just told you, I lost my phone.”
“Right, lost your phone,” he said, rising from the couch. “You think I don’t know about you and your boss?”
“What?” This had to be a bad dream.
Joe crossed over to her, his face flushed. “You too busy ‘serving’ your boss to pick up the phone?” His breath was hot and sour.
Misty shook her head. He said it would be different this time. “Joe, I don’t know what you’re—”
“Too busy to take a call from me?” he pressed. He never slurred, no matter how much he’d had to drink. “The one who’s feeding you and keeping a roof over your head?”
“Joe, I’m telling you, I—”
“Oh, right, you lost your phone,” he said, stepping back and throwing his hands up theatrically. “Well, let’s just see, shall we? Why don’t I call you right now? Let’s see what happens?”
He dug his phone out of his pocket and stabbed at it with clumsy fingers, looking expectantly at the purse still dangling from her hand. She couldn’t help but look down at her purse too. But the ringing came from somewhere else.
The ringing came from somewhere else, and her heart exploded with relief. Joe stood dumbly, rooted to one spot as Misty darted around the room. She followed the ringing to the bookshelf where Eugene’s pot sat, then dove her hand into a curtain of lush, green leaves and pulled out the phone. The ringing stopped.
Misty turned back to Joe tentatively. He was looking at the ground. What was he thinking?
She heard a whisper of leaves and the tip of one of Eugene’s vines plopped down on Joe’s head. They both jumped. Misty put a hand to her mouth to suppress a giggle. They would both laugh about this later, she knew.
Joe looked up at the ceiling, his face wrinkled in a sneer. He reached up, hateful and quick, and tore down the vine before storming out of the room. Misty heard him claw his keys out of the bowl and slam the door behind him.
Misty stared at Eugene’s broken limb on the floor. It took a moment for her to snap out of her shock and pick it up. She hurried the vine into the kitchen and filled a glass of water.
“Don’t worry baby,” she breathed, plunking the broken end into the water. “I’ll get another pot, and some dirt, and you’ll be fine. He had no right to do that to you. He can’t touch any of my babies like that!”
Her breath caught.
“Where’s Chelsea?” The cat always came to her as soon as she got home.
She ran back into the living room. The window was wide open.
Chelsea was gone. And she didn’t dare blame Joe.
Misty e-mailed all of her friends and posted a picture of Chelsea online with a plea to help find her. All week, when she wasn’t at work, she searched the neighborhood for the cat, papering every open surface with Xeroxed signs. Day after day she returned to the apartment exhausted and cat-less.
She wondered if Chelsea was still alive, what she was eating, where she was sleeping. Joe wasn’t much of a help with the search, but at least he’d apologized about the phone—and, when pressed, about Eugene. He was still trying, she supposed. If he could just stop drinking, at least cut down, things would get better. And as soon as she found Chelsea, everything would be whole again, she was sure of it.
“Poor Eugene,” she said, stroking one of his velvety leaves. “I know you miss her too. Don’t worry, I’ll find her. We’ll all be back together.” But what kind of mother was she, letting their little family get broken up like this?
With a pang of guilt, she reached for Eugene’s fertilizer. She opened the bottle and breathed in the murky odor of seaweed and rotting fish. She used to hold her breath when she fertilized Eugene, but over time she’d actually grown to like the smell. It make her feel like a good mother, giving him his special milk, rich with the nutrients he needed. She’d even tasted it once, had tried a drop of it on the tip of her tongue. It was filmy and gritty, and its sourness had turned the corners of her mouth down. She was happy to leave it all for Eugene.
She lifted the mass of vines and leaves around the edge of the pot and dribbled some of the soupy, black-brown fluid onto the dirt. She was supposed to mix it with water, but if she drank her scotch neat, she didn’t see why Eugene had to settle for watered-down fertilizer either. Not that she was supposed to drink scotch anymore, or anything. She had her license back, and hardly ever drank anymore. She just wished Joe would cut down too.
She put the fertilizer away, turned on the TV and lay down on the couch. Just for a few minutes …
She dreamt she was wandering in a bright, green field with Chelsea. It was a sunny day, with a slight breeze lifting her hair and playing at the gauzy, white fabric of her dress. She smiled as Chelsea stalked imaginary prey in the thigh-high grass.
As she walked, clouds started to form on the horizon and the air thickened with humidity. She was amazed at how quickly the wind picked up and the sky darkened. With the wind came the sound of rustling leaves—but where were the trees? There was no shelter at all that she could see. When thunder started to rumble, she scooped Chelsea up, picked a direction and ran, head down against the wind.
She looked up to get her bearings and saw that the clouds had turned into giant heart-shaped leaves. They were just like Eugene’s, light green in the middle, dark on the edges, purplish-red down the crease. The leaves grew and multiplied, filling the sky and plunging the field into dusk. She had no idea where she was going, but started to run even faster. The wind howled and the rustling of leaves filled her ears. She looked up into the sky. All the stripes in the leaves had turned from purple to blood red.
Misty woke up with a start. The rustling in her ears stopped a moment later. She was staring straight into one of Eugene’s vines, which had slipped down from the ceiling and was hanging in front of her face. She brushed it aside and sat up to see why her phone was beeping.
Joe had just texted her. He was going out with the guys—would be home a little late.
Misty twisted her lips. She typed out a reply: “You the designated driver?”
But she didn’t hit send. She pressed the delete button and watched the words disappear one letter at a time.
Misty took in a deep breath. There was still a hint of Eugene’s fertilizer in the air. She went into the kitchen. Joe had a bottle of rye in there somewhere.
The rent was due. Joe was gone, and her own measly paycheck wouldn’t cut it, and she didn’t know what to do. It was Joe’s apartment, but the manager had let her stay. He felt real bad about what had happened to Joe.
She’d woken up that night to a shout and the sounds of breaking tree limbs. She’d heard something soft and heavy hitting the pavement outside. She didn’t like to remember the sound.
The police had come and gone, had interrogated her, her neighbors, his friends. He’d been drinking, they said. It looked like a very unfortunate accident, they’d told her, but don’t go anywhere for the next few weeks, we may need to speak with you again.
Where would she go, anyway?
Joe’s family had taken care of the arrangements, coming to town and leaving within a matter of days. She was grateful for their help. She didn’t have the money for a funeral. She didn’t have the money for rent. She’d been off work since the accident, sitting at home with Eugene and Chelsea—that was the one small consolation; that the cat had come home again.
But how could she just go back to the restaurant like everything was normal? Nothing was normal after that night; nothing, not even her dreams. She spent her days in a stupor and her nights jerking awake every few minutes. That terrible night, and every night since, she dreamt she was Joe, coming home from the bar in the middle of the night.
She opened the front door as quietly as she could. Someone had left a light on for her. She went to turn it off and she froze, startled by the sight of twin discs glowing in the darkness outside. The cat! It was sitting on a branch just outside the window.
She reached out toward the cat. “Psst psst psst, here kitty.”
Chelsea didn’t move.
“Dammit, come on!” She wiggled her fingers and made kissing sounds.
Chelsea inched farther back into the tree.
Misty leaned farther out of the window. The rustling of leaves filled the room.
Misty always woke up right at this moment, trying to remember the last fragments of the dream: the lurch forward, and what, aside from fear, she’d felt prickling the back of her neck before the fall.
She knew the police weren’t finished with her. It would only be a matter of time before they would start asking her about Marcus. And Jeff. There had been other accidents, but never lethal—until now. How many coincidences would they be willing to believe? She was starting not to believe it herself.
Chelsea meowed from atop the dining room table. “Chelsea, what’s gotten in to you?” scolded Misty, heading over to shoo her away. As the cat leapt from the table, a pair of scissors slid off and clattered on the floor.
Misty bent down and picked up the scissors. The cat meowed again.
Misty looked up at Eugene. He’d gotten huge. It would take hours for someone to unstick and untangle his vines; and even then, he’d be too big to carry with all of his new growth. If someone had to move quick and travel light …
Misty trembled and began to cut Eugene with hands that no longer felt like her own.
Tara Campbell [www.taracampbell.com] is a Washington, D.C.-based writer of crossover sci-fi. With a BA in English and an MA in German Language and Literature, she has a demonstrated aversion to money and power.
Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Tara has also lived in Oregon, Ohio, New York, Germany and Austria. Her work has appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books, Potomac Review Blog, Hogglepot Journal, Lorelei Signal, Punchnel’s, GlassFire Magazine, the WiFiles, Silverthought Online, Toasted Cake Podcast, Litro Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, Up Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog, Master’s Review, Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly and Latchkey Tales, Elementals: Children of Water.