~ Christi Nogle
I should never have let Lee move us out here. All that time we were hooked into Zillow, I secretly prayed she’d fixate on one with a smaller lot and higher square footage. Instead, we opted for acreage bordering public land, the house little more than an afterthought: one room for living, one for sleeping, one bathroom with the washer and dryer wrenched in, and a sloping lean-to added on to serve as workshop, guest room, storage for dog supplies and yes, kitchen. It was Lee’s choice; I couldn’t deny her.
Oh, but the outside made up for it those first few years. We were happy. Though there was nothing to see in town, Lee would drive in whenever we wanted and then, this: the thriving garden, the new puppy, the picnics and hikes. Lee trained all three dogs to be safe off-leash, which I’d never thought could happen. I planted flowers everywhere and trained morning glories, wisteria and orange-flowering trumpet vines up the walls to cover the ugly lean-to. We brought a tree guy out to prune the little orchard. The trees thanked us with so much fruit we had to take up canning.
Our bodies changed shape. We grew fatter from all the home cooking while our legs narrowed and toned from hiking and our arms grew brawny from woodcutting and gardening.
The truth was we both felt awfully fit up until Lee started getting the breaks. First was the fractured arm—a yellowjacket stung while she was high on a ladder picking apples. That one could have happened to anyone. It healed up right on schedule and then things just seemed to snowball: a fall on a hike and the ankle was screwed up, and it healed, and then a slip in the bathroom shattered her wrist, then the dogs didn’t see Lee while they were running. She took a terrible crash to her ribs. We spent weeks in the city running up bills not just for the treatments and hospital room but also hotels, food, gas, dog boarding. Osteoporosis, the likely cause, was ruled out early. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with Lee’s bones. What was making the accidents happen, then? It seemed like they investigated every little thing, her brain and inner ear to her toe-joints. In the end, all agreed that the series of breaks had been all coincidence.
Only now, between the lingering pain and the fear, Lee just about couldn’t move. I didn’t like to focus on it, but the bills would send me back to work. Not just a job (if indeed I could find one) but a commute. Little traffic, one would hope, but bad roads in the winter and deer shooting into the road.
The place was paid for, but I feared we’d lose it if the debt got too bad. Sometimes I felt we had already lost everything and just didn’t know it yet. Other times I felt that fear was silly, something that could never happen, a sign of my losing it. We were both getting squirrely, but I tried to hide my own irrationality, tried to be strong for Lee.
Nothing got taken care of all that time. Vegetables froze in the garden, and with the thaw, the vines went wild. New ones with white-and-celadon blossoms joined and then overtook the rest. The trees went unpruned, fruit falling onto the ground, drawing wildlife, freezing and thawing to stink.
The dogs were distressed from being boarded and then neglected at home. I felt I didn’t know these creatures who lost their cool chasing things off the property, sending me out into the forest with a flashlight, so helpless and small—scared of falling and breaking something myself, or being shot by a hunter. Even more, I feared that the dogs might be shot or break their legs.
I was always living through worst-case scenes, it seemed.
I hadn’t been afraid of the woods with Lee, but it was different now. The first few times the dogs ran off in the night, I hyperventilated and bawled the whole time I searched. I resolved to chain them, which broke my heart all over again. They sat quietly indoors but would jump up and beg to go out whenever I made a move. They hated the chains but hated more to be inside with us.
Lee stayed in bed sweating and thrashing in terrible nightmares. I slept thinly on the bed’s outer edge until Lee begged me to go elsewhere in case I might break her in my sleep. I carried my pillow into the lean-to and headed for the futon where we’d hoped some wandering relative or old friend might sleep one day. I stopped, gasped.
The vines had come inside the lean-to and made themselves at home, coiling around the futon frame, threading into the stove burners, groping into the bag of dog food with their spiny fingers. I’d heated up something or other on the stove not too long ago, so that infestation was new, but the other encroachments might not have been so new. Who’d been paying attention?
Lee hadn’t come into this room in a while, either. I recalled that just the other day, she’d said she could not stand to be in the lean-to anymore. Maybe it was too cold?
Certainly drafts swirled in the room. The vines must have compromised the windows. I investigated. Yes, and they’d compromised the floor. The dog food was gone, and I had the strange thought that the vines had eaten it. Up close, their veiny green blossoms were formed like the propeller-seeds of maples—or like dragonfly wings. They had that pearly, iridescent sheen. Just now these blossoms riffled in the breeze inside the lean-to.
I stepped outside and hauled the dogs in by their chains. I stoked the fire, layered their beds and all the couch blankets onto the floor and set about bonding with them, stroking their fur and cooing to them. Dogs forgive. Soon we were a pack again, just the four of us. I regretted Lee being apart from this reconciliation, but I was weary. I coiled into the blankets, and we slept into the afternoon.
Lee, all this time, had one arm hanging off the side of the bed. Something hadn’t healed just right, and it eased the pain to get some extra blood into her wrist. The whole arm dangled, tempting the new vines that were just then exploring that space between bed and wall. The vines reached out with grasping tendrils thick as fingers. Thinking of me, Lee held onto a wiry hand, squeezed it in sleep. The hand squeezed back. The hand raked through her sweaty hair on its way to her shoulder. It was afternoon, and my feet hit a creaky spot on the floor. Lee moaned, and the hand slipped back to its protected spot between the bed and wall.
“Dogs are out of food,” I said from the bedroom doorway. I barely saw Lee in the darkened room and caught no hint of the vine. “I’ve got to go to town.”
I didn’t want to drive, didn’t want to leave Lee.
“Can you get ginger ale?” she said.
I nodded. Yes, ginger ale, soup, and ice cream. All the foods for sick folks, though Lee wasn’t sick. Just aching and scared. And heartsick, same as me.
It was sunny with scattered rain. The dogs enjoyed the ride. I did too. While we sped toward town, the vine repeated its travel up Lee’s arm and through her hair, onto her shoulder, over her ribs. Only this time, Lee was awake and staring in awe. Lee’s blood moved faster. Maybe the vine heard that or felt it. Felt it, most probably. A pulsing. The vine pulsed back.
While I trudged through the grocery store, the dogs were good. They paced, protecting the car, barking at shoppers who came close to the windows.
While they paced, the vine pushed against certain parts of Lee’s body, the places where the breaks had been.
While I stood in the checkout line, a strange shiver went through me. Lee—Lee’s in danger. Suddenly I needed to hurry home. I fumbled the change the cashier passed to me and left it scattered on the floor.
Another break, that’s what I feared.
While the dogs pushed their noses out into speeding air, the vine began entry into the bone. Had it gotten a taste for marrow from the dog food? Or did it already know what it needed to form its fruit and its swarms?
This vine that had infiltrated so much else now plowed its slow way into its first human body. Not victim. No one thought of Lee as the victim, neither the vine nor Lee herself. This new thing she hadn’t known to fear was come, and it was gentle. It burrowed deep and lay a seed into a crevice of unmended bone. Another seed, another.
While a Miata tailgated so hard I could barely breathe, the first seed sprouted—or egg hatched. It wasn’t clear which. Lee felt a thrill. New layered blossoms like corsages opened rapidly from her wrist, from her ribs and leg and arm. She tore off her nightgown to see the wonder of them, celadon green but bordered in rose and gold and a hundred different blues, all rainbow-pearly as oil in puddles. They opened so powerfully that she heard another break. She felt nothing.
The convertible kept veering to pass and then tucking back in behind me. Now, finally, a stretch of empty road opened up. I slowed. The convertible came up alongside—just as a truck entered the road. Someone lay on the horn and I veered, praying. The dogs, oh, the dogs.
But we were safe, all of us. We leveled out, slowed onto the shoulder. The red car was far in the distance now. I cried just briefly in relief, the dogs whimpering and licking my neck and face. Dogs have extra senses at times like this.
They felt it, saw it maybe: the anxiety that had held me so long was now dissipated.
While we had our moment on the shoulder, the blossoms grew larger. They grew firm with a lacy coral-like bone. Lee thought of flowers formed of porcelain. The vines that had held her retreated, making her slump and shatter in places. She felt nothing but was aware, watching. Her hand was farther from her body than it had ever been. The wrist was, it seemed, a deep pile of pollen—but animated. Crawling.
Lee was no longer the focus. Whatever happened, on and in her body, was beside the point. One sinewy vine lashed around her mouth, holding her fast to the bedframe, but the rest had moved on, lurking all around the bedroom door, just waiting for the four of us to walk into the room. Maybe the dogs were what it wanted all along, or maybe it would do something novel with my unbroken body. Lee would wait. She would see.
She would speak, soon enough. That last vine would loosen and move on to other entertainments. Later, as I dangled from the ceiling, as the dogs grew their beautiful, terrible wings, as the larval things filled up the air, we would be able to speak, to share notes. What had gone on while I was in town, what would happen next, what did it all mean, how would it end? There was no pain, and so what looked like destruction did not feel like destruction. It felt like a new beginning.
Yes, we would come back together, all five of us now, to share not regret but only wonder.
Christi Nogle is the author of the novel Beulah (Cemetery Gates Media, 2022) and the collections The Best of Our Past, the Worst of Our Future and Promise (Flame Tree Press, 2023). Her short stories have appeared in over fifty publications including the anthologies XVIII (Eighteen), What One Wouldn’t Do, and Flame Tree’s American Gothic and Chilling Crime.