‘Nettles’, Arley Sorg

Illustrations © 2013 Martin Hanford

 [ Nettles, © 2013 Martin Hanford ] Grace leaned her elbows into the peeling window sill.

Three floors below, crammed between the cracked rear wall and a littered street, her building’s yard was a tangle of fractured promises. A dull ache twisted along sleek vines, sitcom resolutions half-remembered among shadows of red bruised leaves and motionless, overgrown grass. Trackless, swallowed by an old fence, and faintly dusted with a blur of bugs.

Despair clung cold to the inside of her ribs. This time she recognized the quick sting, she rose with a ballooning sigh and wedged her way between still sealed boxes.

I survived.

Because really, Casey had tried to kill her.

In his spitting-drunk, revenge-bloodshot rage, he’d tried his best to smother her. Throwing her out in the middle of the night. Just the latest and last homicidal abuse; at the least predictable. Up until then he’d done a fine job portraying a sorry, self-deprecating manic, desperate to make amends and follow his steps. He’d nearly finished her: she’d felt her chest cave, sternum cracking under the weight of her fucked up life.

A folded newspaper with ruinous black vortexes suctioning unlikely housing matches was discarded on her shiny tiled kitchen counter. It was battered and rendered useless, like a carcass left by a cat. Her copy of the lease next to it, fresh white paper contrasting the memory evoked: Mr. Craigson’s gangly fingers flexing forward at the pass of each item, unmistakably brushing hers, sending spiders scurrying up her back. The pen, the fresh paper eager for her signature, his narrowed eyes, perpetually dulled with a skeptic’s disdain, and the wet hunger of a mouth that never quite closed.

Grace slipped the lease into a drawer—any drawer—and crumpled the newspaper until it was too tight to crumple further.

There was a list of items she and Casey had purchased together. Each item a mounting, solemn vow. Microwave, television, safe, kitchen knives. Pre-Casey, she had a habit of collecting but never throwing out a handful of items, such as books, magazines, exercise gear, much of which was still in its original packaging. Those items that she could claim as exclusively and historically hers she had snatched away in brisk, tense silence; those that would require haggling and raised voices, she decided, had too little value to bargain for. So she left them all behind, a dry annotation of their too long journey together, each piece as good as broken in her mind.

Among those shared items were both the kitchen and the bathroom trash cans. She squeezed the balled newspaper in a fist, shook her head at her picnic table sized kitchen, as if the stove were the reason for her lack of fight, and pushed the ill fitting ball into a pocket.

New neighbors were too sensible to get involved. They were groundhogs diving into holes at the first sign of intrusion. Grace excavated her soggy woolen self from her place, after a long internal discussion on the various reasons she might get out, the cracked clock on the stove slipping sequences of numbers in a strangely insulting way. She wandered on numb legs up a busy street. Every eye turned away as quickly as met, the accident of her circumstance clearly too grotesque for staring.

She’d seen a woman once, when she was sixteen, on the curb of a sidewalk, crying and shuddering. Rain pricked tentative, icy drops through her shirt, and she weighed the virtues of comforting a stranger with the sting in her chest and the tight in her gut. She walked by, the woman’s air-sucking huffs small shocking shoves against the small of her back. She steeped in gritty guilt but mostly, more than anything, swore she would never be seen sitting on a curb, crying her body dry.

That had been the suburbs, where people might stare through gauzy curtains, perceived as shades and whispers from outside the shell of their houses. Now Grace had trapped herself in the city. Schools of fishy people, glassy eyes averted, a tide that pressed her willfully back toward her own grubby hole. She used everything she had to keep walking, fight through the lapping press, sniffling and rubbing her eyes as if the flu was what raged under her skin.

Milk made tight, glistening plastic rows behind a glass door. A door she could refocus her eyes at, the kind she could see herself in, should she choose. Pointedly she pierced the glass, she visually framed plastic bottles in a near painful focus.

I don’t even drink milk…

And she was blinking again. Embarrassed and confused. She’d been kidnapped and dropped here, where ever here was, by some insanity gifted to her genetically by a frantic mother and nearly unknown father. She suspected the clerk eyed her with tenacious suspicion but refused to look at him: he would just look away.

“Is it that hard to pick milk?”

A woman. A girl. Dark hair partially unwinding from a forced labor of hard curls. Severe, bitchy eyeliner and a bright pop of pink lipstick. Her ribs expanded noticeably, stretched the fabric of a tight white tube top, under breasts too perfect to be real. Grace nearly sighed, somehow grateful at seeing the imperfection of her dusky, knobby knees, one with a long, terrible scar.

“Girl, you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine,” Grace lied.

“You look fucked up. You fucked up?”

“No.” Eyes twitched sideways—an expensive habit, it had cost her many arguments. “Yes. Not like that though. But yeah, I’m really fucked up.” I’m not a girl on the sidewalk. I’m not.

The girl shifted her weight to one leg, like a dancer about to kick up her foot, a finger plying the swooping causeways of her ringlets. Bitchy eyes slightly narrowed. All Grace’s pre-collegiate teenage-rebellious recriminations against parentally limited world perspectives flashed; all those late night, procrastination driven, mold crunching debates around personality and impression, race, class, every struggled argument and line, exploded, collided, burned at once, against the nausea in her stomach, the crease in her chest, mostly the pace of her heart, her body eager to get the hell away from this girl. Who might have a knife in her back pocket! A gun in that little shiny bag! Or just hit her in the face with those big-ass ghetto rings.

Grace argued against herself enough to stay still. To keep her feet from rushing her out of that little store. But not enough to calm down.

The girl stared a moment longer, considering what to watch on TV, or perhaps which earrings went with what skirt, or maybe what she wanted for dinner. To move her eyes away would be racist, Grace was sure, though the reasons didn’t quite articulate in her dazzled mind; and the longer she stared back, the more she wanted to pee. The harder her gut insisted she leave.

“You wanna talk about it?” the girl finally blinked, and Grace felt she’d both won and lost everything.

“I don’t know. I just.” What?

“Look, I know we don’t know each other or nothin’. But you know. I got a few minutes. We’re both here.”

Grace snorted a laugh, not quite feeling funny, her legs wanting to drop her like a hiker at the end of a long trek.

“Or not, shit. It’s up to you. Bet you don’t want no milk anyways.” The girl shifted again, turned her head, gave a laugh that felt like a slap against Grace’s heart.

Her words lurched from inside, thoughtless and honest and utterly nonsensical. “Yeah. I want to talk. Yes please.”

The girl had her buy them beers, led Grace to a parking lot nearby, a short walk past graffiti stained brick and broken sidewalks, and Grace continuously pushed to the fringe of her thought the different horrible things this girl was about to do to her. They sat on cement lumps. The girl produced a knife. An old, partly rusted, Swiss army knife with at least a dozen different uses, one of which she employed with a smirk to pop the lid from their bottles. She handed Grace a beer as if she’d bought them and was doing her a huge solid.

“Alright. So talk.”

Grace hesitated. Feeling the strangeness of everything around her shoulders, a scratchy shawl that challenged sitting still. She probed at the girl’s eyes again and found a face that seemed sincere, eyes that could be as interested as they were bitchy, and a pose that spoke of hidden experiences met with resilience.

In the next moment Grace talked. She cried, a woman on a curb, half-hidden by vacated cars. She let her body shudder and shed the enormity of all the sorrow she’d clung to. Nothing like a bitch at all, the girl, Terri, listened, closer with each passing moment, until they had their heads pressed against each other, Terri’s arm slung across Grace’s shoulders, their tears making flat puddles on cracked, dry tar.

“I’mma kill that mutha fucker!”

Terri prowled through the limiting space of kitchen. Her fury more pronounced for the captivity, and Grace fancied them both as inmates in a cosmic cell, spinning through space and not knowing which way was up. Up is where you look, Terri would tell her. But Grace made a careful habit of not sharing everything.

She’d made that mistake the day they met. Terri was ruthless when pissed. She would use anything, there was no sacred ground or untouchable topic when it came to trying to hurt the people she loves.

“Call his old, white ass up! Get him up here. We’ll see what’s up.”

I’m white too, Grace swallowed her objections, breath in her chest smashed impossibly against itself, feeling trapped despite being released. “I can’t just call him. Not for no reason.”

“Make some shit up! Tell him your sink is leaking!”

“He says we have to call the plumber ourselves.”

“Then tell him the radiator is busted. Hell, I’ll bust that shit!” Terri took a knife from a drawer, marched scowling to the radiator, as if the urge to turn serial killer had finally taken her over.

“Your Swiss army knife would work better,” Grace smirked.

“Oh, you think this is funny? You think it’s ‘all good?’” She set the knife on the cramped-in coffee table, hands on her waist, the way her mother probably did when she got serious. Terri came uncomfortably close, up in her face she would say. Nervousness tickled laughter up from Grace’s belly.

Despite welt red eyes Terri started to laugh too, shaking her head. “Bitch! You gonna have me killin’ someone one of these days!” Her hands always burned hotter than Grace’s skin. She felt them through her cotton tee, sliding possessively. Her fingers pushed down through the space where jeans hugged hips, rested warmly along that border of skin impassable by those without intimate invitation.

Grace leaned into the feeling. The knowing. That those fingers could wander wherever they damn well pleased. It made her woozy, and her drowsy eyes slipped to Terri’s hips, bony like shark fins about to cut water, hidden as their secrets, under a denim skirt with a slightly frayed hem.

Grace licked her lips, considered unveiling those dangerous hips.

“You need to stand up to that prick.” Grace resisted as well she could the insistence of Terri’s voice. It would pull her from the high, the cloud that filled her chest and head, the pleasantness that was mindlessly being together. “You need to tell him to leave you alone. Tell him you got someone at least!”

This again. The shutting out of light. Not the excitement of a theater, dimming in prescience of thrills and fantasy. This was the violent shuttering of day, the mysterious, superstitious eclipse of goodness. At once cold, Grace pulled out from Terri’s prowling, invasive fingers. “I don’t ‘got someone’.”

Hands on her hips again, as if this wasn’t a conversation they’d run through a good six or seven times. It was becoming rehearsed. Perhaps she expected Grace to give way a little more each time. Terri was a horror movie nurse, pushing an irritating needle at Grace, determined to find a way in, each time trying a slightly different spot. “What the fuck is this then?”

“You know this is special,” for the hundredth time! “Technically I’m still married, though. I mean…”

“You ain’t married! Shit, he threw you out! Bitch, you that stupid?”

“I told you, Ter. I just can’t be a fucking dyke! It’s not me!”

“So this is like, a layover, huh.” She shook her head in syrupy derision.

“No. No, Ter. You’re more than that. God, you’re so much more.”

“Okay then. When you wanna get real with me? Or I need a dick for that?”

“I don’t know. Okay? Can we not talk about this right now?” It was the only way to settle the fight. That or sex. And Grace was, instantly, a decidedly non-sexual being. The first few times, they’d talked around in circles, late into night turning into morning. Feinting and dodging in a tense calm, boxers reluctant to throw a punch.

That seemed like a long time ago.

“Well shit, you don’t wanna talk about your asshole landlord, you don’t wanna talk about us. What you wanna talk about then?”

“Let’s…” Grace pushed cramping fingers through her still damp hair. She’d showered quickly, intending the morning to billow her into dreamlike oblivion—a long passionate tussle of the anxious, eager sex Terri practiced, followed by a languid laying about under the sunlight, the only redeeming feature of her tiny nightmare of an apartment. She forgave the spider web cracks along one window and the wavy, sickly yellow panes of the bathroom window, for the glitter and heaven of warmth that flooded, nearly other-worldly and possibly healing, for a strong handful of hours in the morning. “Let’s just lay in the sun. Like a couple of lizards. Let’s just not talk for a while.”

Terri blinked a neatly enraged look. It slowed time and stretched Grace’s heart beats into painfully slow pulses. Bitch, she was thinking, most likely, because she loved to call Grace a bitch whether she was pissed off or not. I’mma talk if I want to, she was thinking, most likely, because she hated being controlled. Unless that control was in being lost to pleasure, Grace’s face buried in her moist heat, mouth and tongue working tirelessly. Then Terri would give up control, she would let her body spasm and thrash, she would gurgle and shout, she would arch, sit up, fall back, grip Grace’s hair and make sure they both knew she wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Terri shook her head, let a smile and laugh blow from her lips, and time lurched full speed again, Grace’s chest stopped hurting again, and they fell onto the bed, light pleasantly burning against skin. “Bitch,” Terri breathed, the sound of her smile inflating every tone. “One day I’mma kill yo’ ass. You know that?”

Wonderfully helpless, Grace wrapped Terri in her arms as much as physically possible, and mumbled I know into her neck.

The garden was a claustrophobic space.

Grace was not usually given to feeling trapped. Not outside of her former life, anyways. The splintering fence seemed closer than it looked. Ropy arcs of bush limbs covered too much ground. Blades of yellowed, dry grasses crowded together, more prison camp than yard. Even the trees looked weary and weak.

She hesitated, limbs become action figure stiff. A slender, rectangular window was a cancer spot on the side of the building. His window, she guessed, and she dimly remembered being caught with her hand in her mom’s purse, hungry for candy; she remembered Dawson Trolley yanking open the high school gym closet, catching her kissing Martin Shaw. She remembered smoking pot, sprawled on the living room floor, Shane Bolton urging her on with dull brown eyes, her own eyes stuck to the front door, roach pinched too hard between index and thumb, knowing her mom would not be home for hours but believing it in no part of her restless body.

Her feet had turned to clay, wet and mixed into the soil; her eyes searched the dark ripples of that rectangle, intent to catch the slightest shift in light.

The garden lingered. In her periphery it buzzed and rustled, stung dirty, desiccated smells in her nose. Rotting roots, sickly mulch, likely animals had been trapped and lost their flesh and fat to entropy.

Finally she flexed her fingers in tight leather gloves. It had taken a furious hour to find them; her boxes had been thrown together; Despite Terri’s help, many still made a Mayan pyramid of sorts against a wall. Moreover, there just wasn’t enough room for all her crap. She would never unpack, not in this place.

She knew nothing about gardens, about plants, she never grew tomatoes and was always surprised to learn how many kinds of something there were, like carrots or peas. Nonetheless, Grace plucked her feet from their spot by the door. She took careful, forced steps, through knee high, scratchy grass, to the edge of the real mess.

And she began.

“What the fuck?” Terri was pissed. But she was always pissed. She really had only a handful of moods: horny, pissed, and distracted.

“What now?” Grace sighed, regretting the now she’d added, as it could open a whole new world of conflict.

What chu mean ‘what now’, bitch? You must have lost yo’ damn mind!

“What happened to your arms? Baby, you are all scratched up!” Terri left the doorway. The space without her was a gap, like a missing tooth, like a discovered wound that didn’t hurt the way it should. She gripped Grace’s arms and Grace pulled free, shut the door carefully.

“Aren’t you sensitive all of a sudden.”

“Sensitive? Bitch, I’m the one you cried all over when we met! You surprised I’m sensitive?”

Grace pressed her lips together, words roiling in her mouth. She waited for the right ones to dissolve into her tongue.

“What the fuck happened to you?” Terri went on. “Did he do this to you?”

“Who?” Grace felt her frown echo through the muscles of her face. “Casey? I haven’t talked to him in…”

“No, fuck Casey! He knows better than to come ‘round here. Your fucking landlord! The perv! Did he scratch you up?”

“No! No, Ter. I hardly see him.”

“But you see him, right? He tried any shit?” Hands on her hips, classic Terri. She’d changed her hair, dyed it with blond streaks swooping out from behind her right ear. And she was dressed nearly slutty. Grace had not succeeded in changing her taste in clothes.

“You look really cute. I like your hair like that,” she sounded nearly convincing. She ran her fingers through the blond streak to make it more real.

Terri frowned hard, a frown that could karate chop a block of cement into dust. But then her eyes slobbered their way down Grace’s body. A war of disparate urges displayed a subtle twitch at the corner of her mouth.

Grace decided she’d rather make love than war. So she consumed the space between them with her body, she pressed Terri back until she was against the wall. She kissed her before bitch could slip out. Her tongue searched Terri’s lips for the word, hunted along her teeth, explored, dove, flicked, if the word was in there, she would find it. She kissed her until Terri’s breath came ragged through her nose, that was when she knew the war had been won.

Terri would not submit for long, they both knew that. After her first moan, legs seeming to buckle, she stood straight, pushed Grace back so hard she nearly tripped over. Unapologetic and grinning, she gripped Grace’s blouse, yanked it off and laughed when Grace squealed hey. Buttons made tickling noise on the wooden floor. By the time they stopped Grace was on her back, jeans around her ankles, happily entangled and pretending to struggle.

Grace had Terri in her arms. That was their way. In words Terri would press for more, demand, argue, scream, cry. But in bodies, where it mattered, as far as Grace was concerned, it was always Terri staring up at the ceiling, or out the window, aloof as Everest seen through a documentary, while Grace clung to her, eternally climbing a new face, starting over every time they met.

Pissed. Horny. Distracted.

“What are you thinking about?” The words snuck out of Grace’s mouth. She usually imprisoned them in her chest. Set guards at the doors, chained them down. They always pushed, brooded, deep in the cavern of her heart.

Terri loved to pry open Grace’s chest, to expose her feelings. She was an avid listener, she could recite lines of secrets that had been scrawled in the close air by Grace’s whispers.

“What the fuck happened to your arms anyways?” her eyes drifted from the window, pulled by the eddies of her words. As much as the sound had lacked conviction, her eyes redoubled the effort of convincing. Terri pulled one of Grace’s arms off her, down to the stifling space between their bodies, but held her hand as consolation. Grace thought her blood wouldn’t flow, soon her arm would be numb, but she’d rather suffer small discomforts than lose the twining of fingers.

“Just weeds.”

“The fuck you mean ‘weeds?’”

“Was doing some gardening, that’s all.”

“Gardening!” Terri: Master of questions made statements, of statements sounding like insults, and she could do it loudly or quietly with impact.

It was a thorn stuck into Grace’s chest, piercing a fleshy, thin veil. A shudder threatened birth from the cavity within, the place she’d shoved everything, stamped down on it, plastered it with spit and blood, and layered thoughts of Terri’s presence for good measure. Grace swallowed hard, made herself shrug, blinked at the sting in her eyes. “Yeah. Gardening. You know, like, a hobby.”

“Shouldn’t yo’ ass be looking for a job?”

“I’m looking.” It wasn’t a total lie. She had bought newspapers, she had checked online. She had made notes. She just hadn’t called anyone, sent any emails, gone out to apply. She had, however, rifled through boxes, flipped through the clothes in the sorry excuse for a closet, she had thought about what she would wear, what she would say. She had read a dozen articles about how to interview.

“Bitch!” Terri half rose. Feeling rushed back to Grace’s arm in unpleasant tingles, but she gripped her fingers against Terri’s, her hand a bear trap. “You ain’t looked for shit!”

“I have!”

“Why you wasting your time gardening? You should be out there. Where you interviewed at?”

“It’s important! You don’t understand.” Nausea, nervousness washed into Grace’s limbs. She pulled her hand away, rolled onto her side, her back cold with Terri’s presence behind her.

“Don’t you run from me!”

“I’m not running!”

“Okay. Well you don’t have to be a little…”

“You just don’t understand some things,” Grace pouted. “We’re just different. You listen but you don’t get it.”

“What? Girl, I get you. I get you better than you do.”

“You don’t. That’s why you’re yelling at me now!”

“I ain’t yellin’. Bitch, you’ll know when I’m yellin’!”

“Yeah. I’ll know. You yell enough. But you don’t get me.”

Terri half growled, the sound rolled into a sigh, a puff of air and sensation that tickled along Grace’s back. In the next moment, the weight of Terri was on her, drenched her in heat, smothering the cavity with pleasant numb. “So explain it to me, girl. You know you’re my baby, right? I’mma take care of you. You got to let me know what’s up, though.”

“Okay,” Grace breathed. Letting the weight of Terri squeeze out the breath, she felt all the cold inside her sweep out. “Just. Okay, so. When I moved here, it was the last of three places I could find. I had three more places I’d circled in my paper. But I was exhausted, at the end of my rope.”


“I was tired, determined. I had spent two weeks in a fucking dirty, scummy motel. Eating away my money. I swear, Ter. There were people, like. Doing drugs in the parking lot!”

“Okay.” Her fingers probed their way into Grace’s hair, rested in a loose grip. “Go on baby girl.”

“I told myself, just pick one of those three spots. Just take whatever, get the hell off the street. I studied the three ads, trying to think of which would be the best. I was done, you know? I just had what the ads said to go by. This one promised a garden. It said there was a view of a garden. It’s the only reason I took this place!”

Terri shook her head, grunted. “Why you gotta be the gardener, though, girl? That part of your rent or somethin’?”

“No. I’m just…” Grace swallowed, her throat too tight. She pushed her face into a pillow. Pressed her eyes shut. “I’m just so fucking tired of every promise being fucked!”

“Hey girl. Hey, don’t cry. I’m here. Hey.” Terri eased her onto her back, intent on finding her eyes, gazing hard and dabbing away tears with soft fingertips. “I’mma make you a promise you can bank on.”

“No, Terri. Don’t. I can’t take it!”

“No matter what, hey. Look at me. No matter what. No matter we lovers or friends, no matter we fuckin’ or fightin’. I’mma always be here for you. Always. You hear me? You hear me baby girl?”

Grace sniffled hard, scraped her face with the corner of her pillow case. She laughed and spluttered, nodded, and did everything she could to staunch the breakdown trembling its chains just under her breastbone.

Rain finally came and the timing couldn’t have been better. Nothing less than God’s own reflection of Grace’s mood. A long sky streaked with dark gray, shredded in spots by bright white lightning, and a hazy blurring drizzle, soppy but light, like being misted by an overeager perfume seller. It left her face damp, dappled her plaid shirt in dark blotches, and universally justified the new tears that insisted out of her eyes. Crying was just nature, it was rapport with the weather; so much easier for being surrounded by caged wilderness and that rickety fence.

During the week she had purchased supplies. Pruning shears, a couple of books, thick gloves, and a plaid shirt. Her father would have smiled at her. He had close set eyes and a crooked nose, big ears that leaned away from his army cap. She always seemed fixated on something when he magically showed up, and he’d look at her as if she were his own creation, and all good things were his gift to the world. This your latest project? He had a Masters in Mixed Messages, slippery condescension stirred with icy, distant pride, a bitter cocktail few bartenders could mimic.

Their play was performed with fixed roles. She was the hopeful daughter, speechless and still, body clenched, expectant of disdain and eager for praise. And he was the judge, jury and executioner, her heart on the chopping block, rendered guilty and sliced to shit in a handful of words. At first they were distractions, her projects, as he called them. Something to think about, focus on, anything besides her mother’s neurotic ramblings; or locking herself in her room and staring at the walls or TV. Later, when she learned to calculate his orbit, when he’d come crashing through their atmosphere again, though she would never admit this, not until much later, she searched for projects, eager to find that one magical moment, anything that would make the tone of his voice shift, cause him to spill out all that disdain onto the floor and feed her cool liquid love.

The sturdiest door in Craigson’s building was the metal security door that led from a short snake of hallway to the back garden. As she had done several times now, Grace paused with a hand planted just under the “KEEP OUT” sign, door propped open, skin prickling electrically. The first rain she’d seen in a while teasing out her tears. The rectangle of window a dark slug in her periphery, powerful enough to stall her motion. Every time, this was the moment where, were she caught, she could maybe skate on some excuse, claim she’d been snatched in a fugue, or hey, just curious. Keep Fucking Out, she imagined him saying. His eyes would sneak what glimpses of her he thought he could get away with, and his yellow stained fingers would point at the sign.

Once the electricity passed, once her gut steadied, she let the door shut, swallowing the sign with it. This time she looked at the sky, into the deepest stretch of gray, and let the misty drops mingle with her wet sadness.

She hadn’t planned on coming out and testing her shears. But Terri had fucking lied and her apartment was the last place she wanted to linger. It stank of her, memories of her vibrated in the sheets and glistened on the shower door.

It had been a week since her last bout with the garden’s unruly elements. Her arms still itched, scratches lined with welts and bubbling blisters, weeds had raked her neck, she looked as if she’d been strangled.

The worst was an enormous bush half hidden straight back. It had long reaching limbs, covered in alluring little purple flowers and fuzz. The first time, she’d mistaken the fuzz for something like felt or down. Curious as a cat she’d stroked it with a finger. The fuzz scratched, more like razor wire; blood drops glistened on her skin. Worse was the itching. Within minutes, rash had coated her flesh, itching and burning in turns, and within days little blisters pushed up like a miniature mountain range.

My fucking project, she moaned wordlessly, eyeing the dangerous weed. It seemed to peek from the shadows, a child shivering in the moments before a long, hard spanking. She sagged bodily, her feet pressed with the enormous weight of her everything, each step a labor.

Stray dogs, home movies, writing stories; karaoke, model planes, books; softball, judo—each step was a memoir to a project she’d sampled. She reached the edge of the unruly, the vegetal chaos nearly enshrouding, and she hadn’t finished her list. Limp trees and sticking thorns shrugged shadows across her feet, feigning innocent randomness.

She had continued building upon her list long after her father stopped showing up. As if the ritual itself might summon him back. She built on the list even after she’d run away, after she’d bought a bus ticket and put her screaming mother far behind her.

As she always did, she told herself this was not “just a project,” and to suggest such was pure, unfiltered insult. This is taking control, she sniffed hard at the air, trying to suck tears back into her eyes. This was being the Master of her Destiny.

The paper bag clenched in her fist was stained dark, the logo looked ready to pull apart, like the meat of her life, too tender to resist all the opposing forces: gravity, desire and despair. Fuck it all she whispered, opened the bag, and pulled out her shiny new shears.

Stupid. Stupid stupid stupid.

What had she been thinking? What was she going to say if he found out? How could she keep him from finding out?

She’d played out the scene enough times. In her mind, Craigson would thank her, she’d maybe even get a discount on rent. It was a mess! She’d smile, and he’d have to admit it, he’d have to tell her she was right. I wasn’t sure ‘bout you, he’d say. But you’re alright.

Grace habitually fell into mental rehearsals. Long conversations rambled in her head, especially over trouble. They never, ever, ever went the way she’d played them.

She’d confronted Casey about the condoms she’d found. He had a temper, she knew that, but she hadn’t planned on him throwing her out. She’d seen it as the one thing he’d have to admit to, it was undeniable, and as much as he hated apologizing or owning up to anything, whether it was leaving trash in the sink or going out with his friends and drinking all night when they’d made plans, every time she played the conversation in her head, it ended up with them somehow getting closer.

It disgusted her, it sent tendrils of ugly through her limbs, it devoured all her strength to stay steady. But he had spent the last two years drifting more and more. As if proving that he didn’t need her. And she had foolishly thought they would fight and end up tangled in each other’s arms. The way it had been, the way it used to be, the way it once was.

She’d confronted Terri about their relationship. Or lack thereof. After Terri had yelled at her in the middle of the subway, with two dozen strangers gaping, because she’d caught Grace studying the male form. Fit and barely hidden by a toilet-paper-thin, clinging tank top, and shimmery basketball shorts. She’d nearly drooled at the stiff nipples, the curve of chest, sinew and flesh bound together in flawless symmetry. He’d leaned back against the cement pillar, abs strained fabric, and a good length of his cock was semi-erect, shaped clearly against shimmer.

After all, it had been a good, fucking long while!

And Grace could only be called bitch so many times before the double sidedness of it cut away her dignity, released her steaming rage.

She had the decency to wait, to smolder, all the way home. As soon as the door was shut she let it all go. A bleary tempest, strained and wailing, culminating in a clearly stated denial of any possibility of them ever being anything real, solid, actual. Regret piled sticky in Grace’s gut, for she had spat the words, each syllable emphasized by her fist smacking her palm, I am not a fucking dyke!

That was when Terri took the picture of them, framed and elegantly poised over the bed. She smashed it against the wall, chipping a hole and shattering the glass. She shouted, Bitch! Don’t bother fucking calling me then! And slammed the door behind her.

That was when Grace felt the lie of her, another blistered promise, popped and oozing the same sulking sorrow as always. This one hurt more, hurt with all the others, but hurt differently, and she’d had to come to the garden.

The rain had gone, the air had dried but the ground was still mucky. A sloppy pile of limbs and leaves and branches, uprooted weeds and clumps of dead grass, made a long shape in the shadows of dusk. Looking over it, all Grace could think of was the way Terri scowled at the land lord—a protective, skinny pitbull, always ready to bite—the few times they’d passed each other in the hall.

He had protruding cheek bones, as if his skin strained to cover them, and quick eyes that could steal before either of them had realized what he’d taken. She’d thought lizard when she’d met him but later decided cat, a predator that liked to play with its food. Terri wasn’t scared of him, and when they were together, neither was Grace. After Craigson encounters they’d laugh, realizing the subtleties of their meeting, comparing who he’d checked out more and surprised at how many glances he’d gotten away with, the puzzle only completed by both their perspectives.

Ripe with intention, Grace had left her phone up in her apartment. She’d gone to her garden, she wasn’t going to be bothered, even if Terri rang a hundred times to apologize. She stared up through bruising night, her window with its spider web cracks easy to find. In pulsing moments, guilt grew like dank mold on the underside of her mind, aloneness stained rot through her resolve, and she hoped her phone battery was being tested by constant calls and messages.

Or perhaps it sat quiet this whole time.

It was only her and the dark all around, and the dark within, a weight slipped off its barbell, tied with cord and swinging from her gut.

“The hell you think you’re doing!” Craigson’s shout shattered her. She didn’t know she was glass until his noise appeared. She’d missed the tell-tale squeal of hinges, the metal door so loud it always made her cringe.

“Gardening.” Harried, she glanced for her tools. They depressed tufts of grass at the new borders of weeds. Her work had satisfyingly remapped the continent of the yard.

The weed stood daunting, dangerous, daring her. The one that had scored her arms and neck, even possibly nicked her face tonight. As if bothered by her nearness, some subtle wind, too soft for her to taste, had flickered one of its fingers, it flinched against her cheek, the itch had flared and she knew it had challenged her. She had meant to hack at the thing, but she’d forgotten. She’d floated away on a tenuous hope, staring up at her window.

“You can’t be out here!” His face was humorous, exaggerated, swollen with red. “Fucking keep out!”

She turned her back to him, her planned dialogue boiled from her mind, a sauce hopelessly separating and all the ingredients ruined. She couldn’t find a single word. She hunched her back, the way she used to when she sensed Casey’s impending violence, dropped knees into the mud. Thinking to collect what was hers.

“Get away from there!” More shriek than command. Fear and hate mixed with an expertise to rival her father’s. Her shoulders jumped. She jerked around, heart paralyzed in her chest. “Get the fuck out of here! Get out of my building!”

“I’m just fucking gardening!” she shouted back. He was supposed to thank her, see what she’d done! And he couldn’t kick her out for that. Could he? Her stomach stitched up, a too familiar sting tickled her eyes, similar to the sting blistering her cheek. “Look at this shit! You promised me a garden! Not some fucking poisonous weeds!”

She reached. Yanked at the weed, the one arching over like a sneering parent, the one mocking her. She pulled at its thick base, slick and dense as bone.

Craigson yelped, fell over or leapt at her, made a noisy splash nearby. The roots were up; smell of dank, mulch, life and death, rot. Worms. Maggots.


Lumps, shapes in the dark, familiar and impossible. Her chest hurt, impulse made her drop the plant as if it scorched her hand.

A single heatless shaft of light from the hall, through the door he’d left open, cut over his thick, prone body, across the balding spot on the back of his head, slanted odd-shaped into the space where one of the bunched roots lay exposed. Twining and gripping a mostly decomposed head. Unmistakably human, despite the ragged flesh dripping from bone.

Her legs melted. Her eyes wider than they’d ever been, everything in her begged to run.

“You’ve ruined it! You’ve ruined everything! You fucking bitch!”

Wordless. Hot. Rage swallowed her whole. Rose on the tide of unspeakable, ate at once the sad, the fear. He had broken her, utterly destroyed her, and from the patch of ash he’d left, he’d sparked her back into a fury she’d never before known.

“Not you,” Grace screamed with the vastness of her lungs, the flex of her legs. “You don’t call me that!” Her hand found her brand new shears.

He was mouth and eyes, hungry and hateful, lust and derision and judgment in flashes. She leapt on him, the way Terri sometimes leapt on her. She smothered him, the way she’d always been smothered, by everyone and everything, even by this stupid fucking garden! “You don’t get to call me that!” She shrieked, her eyes made stone, hands iron on the shears, a darting singular movement, as if the passing storm had flicked its tail and brushed her hand. Blood made a spout, spurted from his neck. The shears didn’t stick but they’d cut him open. Darker than she’d thought, that blood, a gush of near black that drenched the soil.

Awareness climbed up her skin, needles pricking her body awake.

She leapt back, fell onto her rump. Her hands wavered over her face, not her hands at all, but wooden things that refused to obey. Gather it up, she thought. Get the hell out of here. Run. Her body heaved, pain wracked inhalation, dizzying exhalation, legs trembling under her.

Slow as crawling worms, like cold-stunned snakes, at first only imaginary surely, a trick of light or the moon or just adrenaline, but then undeniable in its continuation, in its steady, creeping motion, the limbs of that damned weed moved. Grace watched. Unable to move. Moving would acknowledge it was real. None of this was real, nothing could be real. Reality had broken back when she’d found the condoms. They had promised to love each other, he’d convinced her, over and over, and like a complete idiot she’d fallen for it. Reality had cracked when she’d fallen for it.

Moving would mean this really was her life. She watched dumbly, face numb but for the flare of pain on her cheek. The furred vines slunk long, stretched, wrapped around the man’s leaden limbs. His face was too pale under the hallway light, a clay effigy. She hadn’t done anything, she argued to herself. She’d knocked over a pretend version of him. A scarecrow, that’s all.

The limbs encircled his wrists, his ankles, like a kinky minded lover, gentle but firm, then his gut, his knees, so many limbs Grace was surprised at their strength and number. They tugged him, inched him into the mess of plant life, into the shadowy spaces, the dense snags and nets of weeds, dragged him through the muck until he was slowly but completely sucked under the mud.

The head was gone, too, submerged beneath another knot of wrist thick weed bases, though the one root she’d upended laid on its side, as if too tired to impose its will any longer.

Grace stayed on her rump a long while, breathing night air, desperate for everything she’d seen to be unseen. The body unfurled from under the brush, her shears clean of all that sticking blood. She sat until her thighs were numb, her rear ached, her back complained in off-beat shocks. The sun came, that healing, warm orb, tracing gold first along the top of the fence, then gently washing her face, until she had to blink. When she blinked she felt as if she had awakened for the first time.

 [ Ground, © 2013 Martin Hanford ] She waited on the front steps. Chewing at the corner of her lip. Playing a dialogue in her mind.

Her phone felt like an awkward hunk of plastic in her hands. The night was too cold, she hadn’t thought to wear a coat. She rubbed at her arms, willed the bumps to stop, willed the shivers to go away, but the shivers were more than the cold and the bumps were more than just chills.

“Hey.” He was gruff, aloof. In character. A negative to what he’d been when they’d met. Still, he seemed taller than she remembered, slick and sleek in a black trench, his belly had dropped a few pounds, she was sure.

“You look good,” she smiled, leapt up from her perch.

“Thanks.” Hands on his hips. He reminded her of Terri. He eyed the facade, too skeptical to be genuine. “This place is a dump. What happened to you, Grace?”

“Nothing. Look. I’m just ready to move on, okay? Like I said.” She slipped her phone into her back pocket. “We can’t all be as lucky as you,” she joked over her shoulder, punching in the key code to the door.

Through the hall, then she paused at the bottom of the stairs. “Anyways, tonight’s your night. I’mma make you dinner, we’re gonna talk. We’ll work all this stuff out.”

“You know we aren’t getting back together. Right?” Folded arms made his trench tighten at the shoulders, his eyes went dark, the way they did before a fight. Like the ocean pulling out, only to come back fast and hard.

“I know. We should be friends, though. We had a few good years together. Listen, just. Let’s not be awkward and all.”

Casey nodded after a long moment. Looked at her shoes, fingered his ear; she was that brief itch, she knew. Easy to scratch, to be rid of, to flick out into the abyss. “Alright. Maybe,” he shrugged.

“Cool. Before we go up though. Let me show you something. You know how I always have my projects, right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, you’re always working on something.” His face ticked into a smile.

A sudden burst of warmth streaked through her chest, melted the edges of cold resolve she’d packed into a ball. She swallowed hard, flexed her belly, remembered her dialogue. Her role. “I got a new project, the latest. Come check it out.” She took easy strides back, past the stairs, toward the short snake of hall.

“You’ve changed, you know,” he called abruptly. “Actually, it looks good on you. I have to admit.” His hand was on her arm, strong, but not hard, demanding but not abusive.

Not yet.

“You seeing someone?” he sounded cautious. “Or you just like living here?”

Her throat was dry, a harsh, arid garden of weeds. “I am, actually,” she managed after another scratchy swallow. She pulled her arm free, but carefully. She didn’t want him too suspicious. “You’ll be shocked. You would never believe.” She turned, tingling excitement. He would be curious now. He’d be knocked down a peg. Wait till he finds out! She could say it was all his fault, too. That would cut his ego up. It wasn’t really true, not really, but she could say it anyways.

Grace led Casey out into the garden. Most of it was transformed, at least compared to what it had been. She’d nearly worn a path, and she’d learned most of the names of the plants. This was her haven, the only one she’d ever known.

Well, one of two, she thought, a smirk tickled across her face.

“This your project? You got a ways to go, huh.”

Fucker. Ire was a misshapen ice cube she’d swallowed. Cold bruised her throat. Instinct pulsed at her, eager. She walked across the grass, out to the mess of plants. He trailed, she could nearly feel him, his arrogance, his uselessness, his greed. Her worn paper bag waited, small brown dots marked it with history in code. “Check this one out, it’s my favorite.”

He leaned. Eyeing fuzzy limbs and little purple flowers. “Huh.”

“Cool, isn’t it?” She stood behind him, shears in her tense fingers, a hand on his shoulder, like an old lover easing into a slow seduction. “My girlfriend hates that thing,” she let her breath tickle his ear, let him feel the strange excitement closeness brings, let his last moments be the thrill of an unspoken lie, the air around them vibrant with possibilities that she knew would never exist.

© 2013 Arley Sorg

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