And the Beanstalk by Aurora McKee

Wednesday, April 17, 2024
An autistic girl called Jack tends to a mysterious plant growing in her back garden to try and escape from a memory she can't bring herself to voice.

Image generated with OpenAI
There's a new plant in the garden.

New as in no one planted it, no one's put anything there since Grandma died. Her roses have all withered, her lilacs choked with weeds, flower petals rotting into the dirt like little girls' skins. The rabbits sneak in from the woods and pick over the carnage until Dad chases them away, shouting and waving his arms.

But there's a new plant in the garden. Jack can see it poking up from the ground, the faintest, sharpest spike of green. It looks... different, somehow, from all their other weeds, or the weeds she's seen around neighbor's backyards. More vivid and less real all at once, in a way she can't quite put her finger on. Its smell is faint, but familiar in a way she can't quite name.

If anyone else has seen it, she hasn't heard them say anything. Not that anyone really talks around the house these days, but you'd think a new plant would come up at least once, and it hasn't.

There's a new plant in the garden, and she doesn't think it's supposed to be there.

Jack thinks about the plant as she walks down the hallway at school, shoulders hunched, keeping eyes on her shoelaces flopping around the ground (she doesn't tie them anymore, she doesn't trip and they always fell apart anyway, the only person to tie her shoelaces properly was...).

She thinks about it, avoiding eye contact with the corkboard and the Have You Seen Me? poster and everybody else's eyes on hers, whispering, whispering, other fifth-graders leaning out of her way. She blinks, blinks, trying to see green instead of red.

Her sister's dead, the shadows say. Her sister ran off with some guy. Her sister's gonna make porn. Her sister's on drugs. Her sister got abducted by aliens. Do you think she did it? Is that why she doesn't talk anymore? Do you think she -

During lunch she goes to the school library, looking for books about plants. The librarian smiles and says the oh-Jackie-I'm-so-sorry-about-Ellise thing and Jack smiles back and nods and doesn't say my name isn't Jackie because only one person ever really called her Jack. Only one person knew how much she smiled at Jack-and-the-beanstalk, you're getting so big -

Jack flips through one of the books on the bus ride home, while kids scream and yell and poke each other around her. The driver has the local radio on, and even with her headphones she can hear somebody talking about the missing person case, searching for a body, before he curses, remembering he's got the (other) girl on his bus, and flips the channel.

I don't mind, Jack wants to say. I really don't. I know they're not gonna find anything. But she doesn't - it would just confuse him, and besides, she doesn't like to talk that much.

(People say she's special needs because she's on the spectrum, and they look sad about it, but she's got an autism infinity sign on her backpack and a voice in the back of her head saying they can all go fuck themselves, so she doesn't think there's any reason to be sad at all.)

She rests her forehead on the back of the seat in front, and closes her eyes. The music blares uncomfortably loud, sunlight stabbing through the windows, and somewhere the river is still being dredged. Again. Even though they won't find anything.

(The body didn't end up there.)

Jack presses her thumb to the sharp paper corner of one of the books, pressing down until her thumb stings. She puts her thumb in her mouth like a little kid and sucks, long and hard, warm metal blossoming over her tongue.

She keeps reading the book as Mom watches TV, sticking carefully to cooking shows and gardening, no news. Pages turn in Jack's hands, showing off sprout after sprout, and none of them look quite right. None of them look like what she found in the backyard.

Jack twists around in her seat, pulling aside the curtain (the curtains used to be left open all the time, but things are different now). It's a pretty day and the sun shines warmly over the garden, a stray puff of wind tossing the weeds like happy nodding heads. The new plant is too little to really nod or toss, but it shivers like it's trying.

Maybe if it was a bit bigger, she could figure out what it was. Maybe if it was a bit bigger, she could figure out why it was growing right where -

Bad. Bad. Jack presses the heels of her hands to her eyes, squeezing them shut. Bad thoughts. Bad thoughts. Bad bad bad.

On screen, the cooking lady drops something, laughing nervously. Jack wants her to be quiet, wants Mom to turn the TV down - Dad isn't home, but they have to be quiet, it isn't safe. It'll never be safe.

Her hands shake as she pulls the curtains shut again, pressing them nice and tight as if that'll drown out the world, drown out everything. As if she still can't feel the plant sitting outside, watching her, waiting.

As if there isn't something almost comforting about that.

Mom is cooking dinner as Jack gets a watering can, chopping with a knife, one of the five left in the six-knife block. She puts it down to pat Jack on the head and tells her she's doing such a good job taking care of the flowers, voice low and exaggerated the way she gets sometimes.

C'mon, Jack, Ellise huffs, stroking her hair. She doesn't know any better -

She steps over some of the tiles on her way out, steps careful and precise, like stepping over cracks on the way to school. Mom raises an eyebrow as she goes, but doesn't say anything.

Outside, wind rustles through the weeds, murmuring like a crowd watching her go by. It's early evening, too light for stars, but she can make out the moon's small, pale outline. She remembers lying on her back and squinting up at it with... with...

Can you see the lady, Jack? Everybody says it's a man up there, but I think it's a girl. I think she likes us.

Jack drops to one knee beside the strange new plant, watering it carefully. She doesn't know what it needs, but she knows she has to make sure it doesn't drown, giving the fragile little shoots space to breathe. She waters until the soil is all damp and glistening, like a piece of fresh chocolate cake.

Then she leans forward and presses her forehead to the ground, eyes squeezed shut, listening. She stays like that until Mom calls her in, tells her to wash that dirt off your face, sweetheart. Jack takes the can in with her, leaving it under the sink so she can go out watering tomorrow.

"The officers want to come over on Tuesday," Dad says over dinner. Jack twirls a fork through her mashed potatoes, pictures herself stirring stars. Clouds. Brains. "They want to ask some more about the case. They've been looking at her swim coach..."

"Wasn't he at his sister's wedding that week?" Mom asks. Her voice is perfectly pleasant, but her knuckles are white around the fork.

Dad huffs. "They say they're trying all their options." He stabs a fork into his steak like he's angry at it, juices splattering, and Jack very carefully does not flinch.

That night, she lies in bed, eyes open, staring up at the faded glow-in-the-dark stickers they put on the ceiling. The hand-me-down rabbit in her arms digs into her chin, velvet ears resting like a collar around her throat. She wants them to tighten, she wants to choke, because there are footsteps pacing back and forth outside her door.

He won't come in. He won't come in. He won't come in. He won't -

He doesn't come in. His footsteps clump back down the wall, the bedroom door creaking shut, Mom letting out a soft sigh like the wind in the garden. Jack squeezes her eyes shut, so tightly it hurts.

He won't come in. Not tonight, anyway.

(She remembers creaking doors and sleepy murmurings, she remembers going to the bathroom past an open bedroom door, but the door to her parents' room was shut tight, she remembers creaking mattresses and fractured noises and something very very very wrong in the air, something dead.)

He won't come in tonight.

Jack waters the strange plant regularly, going out again and again, only halting on rainy days where she sits and watches it shiver under a barrage of drops. Sometimes she takes a book to read while the water settles on the ground, or tries to get an audiobook on her phone (also a hand-me-down) so she and the plant can both listen. She thinks it likes that, if plants can like anything.

"There's nothing growing out there," Jack hears Dad say as she makes her way inside late one Tuesday. "Everything your mother planted out there is dead, and even the weeds are barely hanging on."

"It gives her something to do, doesn't it?" Mom asks. "You know what the doctor said - order, structure, it's good for her."

"I know, but I don't like spending so much time out near..." Dad trails off as Jack enters the living room, both her parents looking up at her in surprise.

"Hey, baby," Mom says, smiling a big, forced smile. Jack's lip twitches as she tries to smile back the same way - maybe it's not a good enough mirror, or maybe it's so good a mirror it makes Mom nervous, because she frowns and looks away.

"You, uh, out getting some sun, Jackie?" Dad asks, eyes darting towards the windows, darting towards her. Skittering over her skin like bugs in the dirt, hungry little bugs, and she resists the urge to start picking at her skin, pulling them off. She's not supposed to do that anymore - she didn't after she got her fidget spinner, but she lost it again and she hasn't asked for a new one. They all have more important things on her minds.

"Your daddy asked you a question," Mom says, a little worried, a little tight. Oh, right. Jack nods, pulling her knees to her chest. She's been getting sun, and so is the plant. It's been getting bigger, taller, green leaves curling like fingers. Heavy like fingers, too, warm in her hand, although she guesses that's just the sun. Sometimes the rippling wind makes it feel like they're pulling on her, squeezing, although that could just be the wind.

"What've you got growing out there?" Dad asks, jerking his head outside. She meets his eyes for a heartbeat - he and Jack have the same eyes, dark gray, almost black. Mom's eyes are light brown, and so were Ellise's. The difference between soil and concrete, although Ellise never saw it that way.

Jack shrugs. She's gone on website after website, checked out book after book, and none of the plants she's seen or read about quite fit the thing in the garden. This should maybe bother her, but it doesn't seem to be hurting anything, and she likes the mystery, likes turning it over in her head while she stares at the blackboard and ignores the other students and the teachers talking in the hall about cops visiting again.

"Well. Um." Dad shrugs. "We could get more plants out there, if you're interested in gardening like your grandma was."

She shakes her head, a resounding no. Too many plants risks luring the rabbits back and she can't have that, doesn't want to think about what they could do with her plant.

"Are you sure?" Mom asks, leaning forward. Light brown eyes narrowed in concentration, like she's trying to see through Jack's skin and into her bones, read her entrails like an old soothsayer from her back. Jack squirms, not too keen on getting Mom a good view, staring at her shoes.

"Honey." A sigh. "We talked about looking people in the eye."

Ellise never talked about looking people in the eye (people are fucking stupid, Jack, you don't have to fucking stare at 'em if you don't want to). Sometimes, Ellise would look away even if Jack was trying to look in her eye, would stare distantly at the kitchen wall. Eyes distant, gaze hollow, fingers white around her spoon, perched carefully on her chair like she'd shatter if she moved too fast.

And Jack would know, even if she'd slept through it this time, that there had been creaking doors and the smell of death last night. That Mom had been sleeping alone, and that Dad hadn't been. That - that -

Jack stands up too fast, shoes squeaking awkwardly across the floor. Her heart is pounding, fists clenched at her sides, and she doesn't know why. There are a lot of things she doesn't know, and a lot of the time, she likes that. Although sometimes she wonders if not wanting to know makes her a coward, but there's no one to talk to about that stuff anymore, so maybe it doesn't matter.

"Jacqueline -" her mother warns, but she's already running out of the room. Up the stairs and down the hall, dodging past the hamper that's out in the hall even though it used to be in the bathroom. Dad put it in the hall after Jack and Ellise started putting it in front of the bathroom door while they showered, because the bathroom door has never had a lock.

Her room doesn't have a lock and Ellise's didn't either. This is a house without locks, without secrets. She knows this. If nothing else, she knows this.

Jack throws herself onto her bed and grabs the nearest stuffie, a soft blue cat she presses so tightly to her chest she can feel it passing through her skin and sinking her claws into her heart, ripping it open. Her sister's waiting inside, blinking at her, living brown eyes. What took you so long?

She sneaks out to visit the plant before she goes to school, and that's how she discovers it's sprouted flowers. Sort of.

They look like petals, right? But most of the petals in the books aren't so long or curly, and none of them are that particular shade of light brown, the one that makes her stomach twist with something shaped like memory. Still, they're softer than the rest of the plant, the way Jack thinks petals are supposed to be. She gives one a careful tug, watching it bounce in itself before curling out again.

Fuck, Jack, easy -

She smooths it over, apologetic, and the whole plant quivers as if it likes the touch. So, Jack smooths it over again, and again, light enough that it's the faintest tickle against her palm, soft kisses against her skin.

The plant's smell has gotten deeper, too. Jack shoots a quick glance back at the house before leaning over to nuzzle her whole face against it, taking greedy lungfuls of the smell, of pencil cases and old books and leather boots like Ellise used to wear, of the minty shampoo they both used because Jack liked it and so Ellise begged for it, of something she's been missing for a very long time -

"Jack!" Mom calls, and she's rushing inside, hurrying so she doesn't miss school. Grabbing her lunch from her mom's hands, ignoring her questions, running with her head down and her lungs tight, trying not to let the precious smell go.

In her Special Class she draws a picture of a plant made of green hands and curly dark hair, then rips it up before anyone can see and draws flowers instead, roses and lilies and tulips and other perfectly normal flowers, flowers that look like flowers. It's safer that way.

Three days after the maybe-flowers sprout, she gets out of the shower to find her dad standing in her bedroom.

"Oh, shit." He whirls to face her with wide, startled eyes, her own big eyes looking back at her, and she quickly shifts her gaze to his hands instead, big and pale and spread wide like birds. "Fuck, Jackie, I didn't - fuck. I'm sorry."

Jack stands very, very still. She's wearing a bathrobe, Ellise's big fluffy pink one, and maybe it's creepy to wear her dead older sister's bathrobe like that, but hers is in the wash and she keeps forgetting to take it out. Her dad's face works when he sees her in it, eyes darting over her again as he steps forwards.

She jerks herself out of the way, pressing against the wall, holding very, very still. Dad steps with her, almost without seeming to notice, like he's a puppet being jerked on her strings. He makes a strange, choked noise, like something's being smothered in him.

"Jackie," he says hoarsely. "Baby, I..." He shakes his head. "Fuck, I'm sorry. I know, I know that things have been rough. Rough. Since. Since your sister, you know -" His hands clench into fists. "I'm sorry."

He's said that before. Jack stares up at him, breathing very slowly, very carefully, like the way you're supposed to do if you see a bear in the woods.

When he reaches out, her breathing stops entirely.

"I wanted to see if you were okay." His thumb brushes over her collarbone, tickling her throat. "I love you so much, honey."

He loves us so much, Ellise says. She's lying on the bed with her legs propped up, staring at the ceiling. That's the worst part. A quick, jagged shake of her head. I shouldn't - I shouldn't be telling you this. I'm sorry. I don't know how to make it make sense.

"I shouldn't -" Dad's breath hitches. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I can't... I don't know how -"

Downstairs, something clatters, Mom letting out a curse. Dad jerks away with a sharp breath, stumbling towards the doorway. "Honey?" he calls down the stairs. "You alright?"

Jack grabs the door and shuts it firmly, slams her back against the door. She presses the back of her head against the wood, biting her lip, waiting for him to try to force it open, knowing she won't be able to stop him if he does (when he does, because if not now it'll come soon).

Dad doesn't try. He just stands there for a minute and then he sighs, a long, sad sigh. "I love you, sweetheart," he says, and then he walks away.

Jack reaches up and presses a hand to her chest, digs her nails in until she feels wet. She wants to rip herself open, tearing every fragment of skin he's ever touched away, and wash the bones clean afterward. Her hands are shaking and she doesn't know why, he didn't do anything, he didn't do anything. He didn't -

He didn't do anything, she sobs to Ellise as her sister drags her down the stairs. He didn't, he was just playing a game. Her sister is shaking, crying, muttering to herself. He loves us. You said.

He does. Her sister lets her go as they stumble away into the kitchen and Jack jerks away, clutching her bruised arm. It's not enough.

Jack's arm aches. Her chest aches. The room is too small and there are no locks and she can't breathe, she can't breathe. The room is too, too, too small, pressing on her like a coffin, waves of dirt pushing her down, curled on the floor like a snake devouring itself.

By the time she can breathe again, her hair has dried. It's quiet downstairs, the sounds of settling, her parents going to bed. But bed doesn't mean sleep, and sleep doesn't mean dreams.

The shadows whisper her sister's never coming back. The shadows whisper I love you. The shadows whisper, Ellise, what the hell do you think you're doing?

Jack pulls on her clothes, rough and haphazard, stumbles down the stairs. She thinks for an instant about running out the door, but no, no, she can't leave her - her plant. Can't and won't and doesn't know how, so she sprints outside instead, bare feet slapping against the dirt.

Crashing to her knees like a supplicant, like people in church praying for the poor lost girl to come home, Lord, bring her home. Raise her like your own fucking son, she thinks, and wants to giggle, but she can't.

(She never was a noisy girl, but it got worse after... after... it got worse.)

The scent that is so close to Ellise's it hurts fills her nose, and she sobs as she digs her fingers into the dirt, as she presses her forehead into the ground. She can feel leaves brushing her skin like fingers, feel hair-soft petals blushing her temples.

We're leaving, the past says, and that didn't happen, but she breathes deep and can almost believe that it did.

In her dream, she's sitting at the kitchen table. Sitting and watching in silence, hands resting politely like she's at her desk, back straight, mouth closed and calm. Watching two girls and a man standing there, standing in the room, yelling and screaming.

Ellise - the younger girl begs, tugging at her sister's shoulder. This was back when she still talked, sometimes. Back when the doctors used semiverbal with hopeful expressions, instead of nonverbal with dull sorrow.

We're leaving, the older girl screams, yelling at the man's face. We're leaving and you can go to fucking hell.

The man is yelling back, saying things Jack can't make out, too many words, too many sounds, boiling on top of each other. There's a woman in the doorway, watching. Watching her husband's arm wrap around her daughter's wrist, pull her close, pull both girls close.

You creep. You fucking pedo. You fucking, fucking, fucking -

Language, Ellise - the mother murmurs.

The older girl's hand jerks at that, spasmodic. Fumbles along the counter, pulls a knife, one of the six in the six-knife block. Turns on her father with a sound that makes Jack pull away, hands over her ears.

Hands over her ears, cowering, helpless. Useless. She watches. Jack, the dreaming Jack, watches. As the girl lunges at the man, as they struggle, their bodies twisting together like a bird folding its wings on itself, a flower crumpling to nothing. Petals folding tight, closer than an embrace, closer than a kiss.

When it opens up again, the petals are red, now. The man is screaming, arm jerking, why don't you listen to me, why the fuck don't you listen to me. The little girl closes her eyes on the floor, but dreaming-Jack watches, eyes open. Watches the older girl split open like meat under the butcher's knife, the petals of a rose.

She falls with a wet slapping sound, hands sprayed across the floor. The red is everywhere, now, all over the man, the little girl.

It's quiet. The man is crying. I'm sorry. Oh. God. I'm sorry, baby.

The little girl's mouth hangs open, a black cave with a scream trapped inside, suffocating. Her hands twisting in her hair, scratching at her bloodied skin, circling her eyes like she wants to gouge them out.

The clock skips ahead. Jack watches her then-father push himself to his feet, stagger across the room. Grabs a shovel, grabs his daughter. Carries her outside, while her sister watches.

The woman steps forward, slowly picking her way through the mess. Slowly picking the girl up. It's okay, baby, she says, carrying the girl out of the room, holding her awkwardly, like a parcel. It's okay. Your sister's just feeling a little sick right now.

The clock on the wall, the pretty one with the different birds, skips ahead. The man comes back covered in dirt. Somewhere upstairs, Jack knows, the little girl is crying silently as her mother scrubs her clean with rough soap, washing every trace of blood away. Puts her to bed, with the hamper propped in front of the door.

The clock skips ahead. The man strips down, naked and terrifying. He cleans with bleach and a mop, mechanical, stiff. The woman comes back down and watches, face blank, as every last trace of her daughter is scrubbed away. He goes upstairs to shower and she stands there, staring.

The clock skips ahead, farther now. It's morning. The little girl is downstairs now, sitting next to Jack, staring into a bowl of her favorite cereal, wearing a pair of her favorite pajamas with the big blue aliens. Her parents are sitting across from her, but they don't see Jack, either version of her, even if they're looking her way.

Your daddy had a terrible accident, the mother says, slow and exaggerated in the way the girl usually hates, but can't really bring herself to feel anything about right now. Something very bad happened last night, because your sister didn't give him a choice. She didn't listen, and something terrible happened, and we - her breath hitches - we miss her very much. But we don't want to lose anyone else, do we?

She reaches out, squeezes her daughter's hand. The girl tries to jerk her hand away, but her mom holds on tight. They'd blame you, for the accident, just for being there. Same as us. We'd all get taken away to horrible places, and we'd never see each other again, ever. Do you understand?

The clock skips ahead. There are police now, talking about the runaway. The girl is still sitting at the table, but she's in good clothes now, although it isn't a school day. Her mom is crying from the living room, and it's real. Her dad sounds sad and scared, and it's real. But none of the cops are going outside, to the garden, to behind the weeds where nobody looks. The ground, that has to still be disturbed.

A cop sits at the table, with the little girl. He's drinking his coffee and she swallows hard, digging her nails into her palms. Reminding herself to be brave, because even if Mom is right, she can't - she can't -

My dad, she says, and the cop looks up, surprised. The girl clears her throat; this is the first thing she said since she begged for Ellise. My dad, he... He did a thing. In the garden.

The cop stares at her for the second, blinking, before glancing outside. Huh. Looks... nice out there, I guess? He's awkward, uncomfortable around a girl he's been told is special needs.

The Jack of then shakes her head, clears her throat. A... A bad... thing. Forcing the words out, especially in front of a stranger she's making herself look in the eye, visibly exhausts her. He did it.

Silence, as the cop stares at her. Jack can see the paperwork over in his head, the labor of slogging out into that messy garden based on the words of the retarded kid, pissing off the already hysterical parents.

I don't think so, sweetheart. He sips his coffee, turning away. Your folks seem like good people.

He gets up and leaves her there. The girl shrinks in on herself, quiet, wilting. Jack can feel the silence already gathering in her bones, Jack's bones.

The clock skips. Empty kitchen. The clock skips. Mom making dinner, jaw tight. The clock skips. Dinner with no Ellise. The clock skips, skips, skips, skips -

And then someone's shaking her, yelling, and Dad is looking down at her with furious gray eyes.

"What the fuck are you doing out here?" His voice is low and strained and close, too close, a hot blast on her face. Jack wants to clap her hands over her ears, but he's jerking her upright by the arms, shaking her so hard her bones rattle. "What the fuck is this? What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fucking -"

She slips in the mud and crashes to the ground, panting. Her father lurches back, arms waving, darting between the plant and her and the plant and her and the plant, eyes so big and wild they look like they're going to tear straight out of his skull.

Jack shifts gingerly around the mud, wincing at her scraped knees. It's early morning, the faintest half-light in the sky, but there's more light streaming in from the kitchen, and she can get a better look at the plant, her plant. She can see what happened while she was dreaming, and that's when she realizes that she was wrong, the hair-like things weren't flowers at all.

Because there are flowers, proper flowers, with six petals each. Red petals, like drops of shed blood spilled across the kitchen floor. And the center of each flower is a light brown, a shade they both know very, very well. They've seen it in Mom's eyes, in -

Dad falls to his knees with a choked sound, scratching his fingers through the dirt. "No," he snarls, patting at the earth, and Jack - Jack -

She'd always known, maybe, where the body was buried. She knew it was out there somewhere, she'd been vaguely aware of how carefully the earth around her plant was patted down. But she doesn't think she's ever really thought of it before; she's never let the pieces slip together into her mind. Never tried to plot out in her head where, exactly, her father buried her sister's corpse.

But she can feel it now. She can feel Ellise beneath her like a lodestone, tugging her down, down, down into the dark beneath her feet, beneath the roots of her plant. And she can hear the rustling leaves of this plant with her sister's hair, her sister's eyes, her sister -

Dad lurches forward, brushing his shaking hands over the plants' leaves. He lets out a slow breath, blinking frantically, tears glistening in his eyes. Jack wants to shove his hands away, but her own hands are frozen in her lap, breath still in her chest.

"Oh," Dad whispers, caressing the stem, tender as Jack's ever seen him. "Oh, god."

Then he lunges for the roots.

Fast, so fast, the way he'd been the night she's only ever allowed herself to remember in dreams, he grabs. He pulls. He yanks so hard he almost goes flying backward, and the roots come tearing up from the ground with a noise like the whole world is splitting apart. Jack can feel it in her guts, the wound ripping her open like what happened to Ellise, dirt scattering wetly on her face like blood.

Inhale. Exhale. Jack watches the roots she's tended so carefully dangle like little girls' entrails from her father's hands, dirt raining down on the ruined earth. Her mouth slides open, wider, wider, wider, and inside her something cracks as the scream she's been hiding since her sister's death tears out of her mouth, wet and howling.

She lunges for her father, clawing at him, clawing for her plant, scraping dirty nails over his eyes, the eyes she doesn't want to share with him anymore, hasn't wanted to share for a long while. He roars, dragon's fury, and shrugs hard enough to send her flying, the hard ground slamming into her spine like a punch. Jack gasps up at the sky, heaving for air, the stars spinning above her like they want to fling themselves out of the sky.

Then there are hands on her again, soft, familiar hands. "C'mon, baby," her mom whispers, soft, frantic. "C'mon -"

Jack sucks in a breath and starts screaming again, even louder, as she twists around to claw at her mother's sleeve. Her mother cries out, the back of her hand cracking against Jack's cheek, sending her flying, but she's up again, screaming screaming screaming. She knows no one will come, they'll think the poor girl's just having another fit, but she doesn't care. They'll never get her to shut up ever again, never, they'll have to shut her up in a home or something and she'll still scream the whole place down.

"Christ -" Dad lurches up, dropping the murdered plant on the grass, and lunges towards her, tackling her to the grass and pinning her with heavy knees, rough hands. On top of her like he was with Ellise, night after night, like he wanted to do with Jack when he finally got the fucking guts to start it all again, and that makes Jack scream even louder, a huge dark cavern that she wants to swallow up the whole world.

"Stop it!" Her father's hands press down on her throat and Jack's scream chokes off, airways pulling tight as a noose. Mom stands and watches, hands over her mouth, like a statue trapped on the lawn.

"Why can't -" Dad's hands bear down harder, calluses digging into her skin as spots flash before Jack's eyes. "Why can't you just listen, huh?" His eyes are so bright, so close, and she can't help squeezing her own shut (sorry, Mommy, no eye contact, sorry sorry sorry).

"Why can't just you both just fucking listen?" Air is being forced out in strangled gasps, she claws at his forearms helplessly, uselessly. Mom makes a sound she can't make out over the ringing in her ears, the grind of her collarbone pressed to the breaking point. Her head is getting lighter, she's gonna drift away, she just hopes Ellise is waiting, she hopes -

Her father's hands jerk away from her throat as if he's been burned, and Jack's eyes fly open as she heaves for air, great blazing lungfuls of it. She scrambles back against the grass, hands shaking, trying to get in enough breath for another scream.

Dad beats her to it, though. He's thrashing on the ground, yowling in terror, frantically scratching at his ankles and kicking wildly at the ground. She can see something wrapped around his feet, clinging doggedly - she can see roots, smooth tight roots, sinking into his skin and quivering like they're drinking water (except Dad isn't full of water, is he?). She can see red and green and brown flaring with every desperate kick, petals and leaves unfolding wider, wider, wider.

"Get it off," Dad screams. "Get it off me, get it off -" Mom lurches forward, hesitant, unsteady, and Jack's plant unfurls a long green tendril that slams into her chest and sends her flying, slamming against the side of the house with a dull thud.

The plant's growing, growing, growing, faster and faster, like a sped-up movie that Jack can't tear her eyes away from. Growing up Dad's struggling length as he screams and cries, as blood trickles down his legs, as thorns slice out of the plant's leafy guts and bury themselves in his skin. She can see its outline sharpening, a massive green figure sprawled over his, wrapping them tight and tighter like lovers. Bones crack and Dad screams again, so loud it makes Jack clap her hands over her ears.

She can still hear him crying, though: "I'm sorry, I'm sorry -" The green descends over him and Jack curls into a ball, squeezing her eyes shut again.

The ground shakes around her, a metallic taste spreading across her tongue as something wet and red and filthy sloshes across the ground. Something cracks, crunches, crushes in on itself with slick tearing noises and she can feel warm wetness sloshing across the garden, bumping against her knees.

Dad screams again, one more time. Then he stops, and he doesn't start again.

Silence. Jack lies curled up into a little ball, shaking all over, shaking so hard it hurts. Somewhere she can hear the neighbors yelling, something about calling the cops (it's not the girls anymore, something's different, something's wrong).

Heavy footsteps, bumping across the ground. They move strangely, slowly, with low sucking noises, like something has to be stuck into the earth and carefully pulled out again with each step. It stops over her, waiting patiently.

Jack takes a long, slow breath before she looks up. And up.

The thing standing in the garden is... tall, she's sure of that much, tall and leafy green, tall and glinting with thorns poking in and out of the skin, tall with small red and long curly petals bouncing all over. Tall, with the lower third a tangle of slick roots digging into the earth, helping the creature balance.

No face that she can make out. No proper outline, at least not one she can recognize. But. There are some things she doesn't need to describe to know in her core.

Jack clears her throat, summons the last of her strength. "Ellise?" she whispers, and it comes easier than any word has in a very long time.

A beat, and then the green thing bends down, arms folding to wrap all around Jack. Her instinct is to squirm away, the way she usually does with sudden hugs, but this doesn't feel sudden at all. There's nothing rough or scratchy about the leaves pressing in on her, either, just softness that cradles her close as she's lifted into the air, nostrils flaring with her plant's smell (her sister's smell). Her cheek props against the leafy... chest-part? where a heart might be on a very different body.

The creature's outline rustles all over, and a voice slowly, tentatively pushes out. It's rougher than Jack remembers, gravelly with water and dirt, the kind of voice that would rumble up from split rocks instead of a teenage girl. Jack would know it anywhere, anywhere.

"Look at you, Jack-and-the-beanstalk," Ellise murmurs. She turns and starts to walk, pushing back through the weeds. "You've gotten big." Away from the house, away from the garden, away from the red thing on the ground and their mother's heaving breath and the strangers that will never understand. "I missed you so much." She sounds exhausted, but happy.

"You came," Jack whispers. "You came -"

"Of course I did." Ellise's leaves ripple around her as they flow over the garden fence, into the forest waiting beyond. "You looked after me, remember? You brought me back to you." The trees shift closed behind them, cutting the rest of the world away. "You brought me home."


  1. Somehow, this is one of the saddest stories I have ever read, but very well told. Such violence! Such violation! Good way to put it…a house with no locks. Jack endures too much. Elise endured too much. There was some relief when the dad is killed. It was a long story, but I was completely engaged. Really good writing!

  2. I admire the way you portrayed a neurodivergent protagonist. They are 3% of our population yet are rarely represented in our stories.

    (I am not a horror fan - one has to have a taste for the genre - but I also admire how you have stacked your horror story with multiple horrors - both real (pedophilia, incest, murder) and imaginary (plant monster!))

  3. The strange combination of realistic family tragedy and a horror movie near trope work. Mr. Mirth

  4. Terror via sweet metaphors. Bravo! Such a startling story readers rarely get a chance to experience. The options of peace facing violence.

  5. As others have said this has a good balance of horror (and terror) with matter-of-fact realism. I like the repetition of certain phrases and words as this portrays the protagonist's mind well.

  6. Aurora’s tale is a wonderful exposition of tragic and violent loss; of pedophilia; and of a transcendent love between sisters. The father comes across as truly awful miscreant, the mother as craven and Jack as long suffering. Great metaphors abound: “…until the soil is all damp and glistening, like a piece of fresh chocolate cake.” And “The little girl’s mouth hangs open, a black cave with a scream trapped inside.” This story has so much to offer, not the least of which is the ethereal conclusion, when the murdered Elise take retribution against the man who killed her. At the conclusion, when Elise trundled into the forest undergrowth, I wanted to shout Yay! Terrific story, Aurora, on many levels.

  7. Rozanne CharbonneauApril 18, 2024 at 4:52 PM

    The balance between horror and realism was very compelling. Well done, Aurora!

  8. A powerful exploration of trauma, loss and coping. Imaginative and original with excellent imagery. As Bill T. Points out, the use of metaphor works well.
    - David Henson