Photo by Sugar Bee on Unsplash
A Garden of Vines
Jane Marshall Fleming
Click. My eyes flicked open. It was nearly two in the morning now and my neck ached from resting on the arm of the couch. I could hear the street underneath my windows buzzing with the sounds of the late-night bar crowds being released like rats into the night.
The knob of my front door jerked back and forth, stopping against the deadbolt. I caught my breath, letting only the soft tick of my watch unfurl across the vinyl floors.
The sound rang forward, click, click, click. The chrome shine of the doorknob glared at me, daring me to move, to breathe. Long shadows from the television light obscured everything but the light of the hallway snaking underneath the door. I pulled my phone from my pocket and considered calling the police. What do I say? Someone is messing with my door handle?
Instead, I texted Matty, “She’s here,” and then placed the phone back into my pocket. It could just be a drunk neighbor, I thought. But no, I knew better. I could feel her blank eyes drilling holes through the cheap wood on the door, a soft chant of “let me in” on her lips. The downy hair on my arms stood at attention, my skin prickling with it.
The handle stopped moving. I waited for the patter of her footsteps away from the door. None came. I strained to listen until the buzz of the fluorescent lights in the hallway filled my ears. In the silence, I imagined her staring quietly, her face blank, eyes wet, two inches from the chipped white wood of the door. How much time had passed? Minutes? Hours?
I sat with my feet curled under me, tingling, threatening pins and needles if I were to unwind. I knew it would be hours before I could fall asleep.
I looked at my phone again. Matty had been calling me, frantic.
“Are you okay?”
“Do you need me to call the police?”
“All clear,” I responded, “I think she left.”
When my phone let out the chime of my morning alarm, I felt as though I had just been pulled from deep water. I sputtered upwards from my troubled sleep fighting for breath. I grabbed the device and rolled over, moaning and rubbing my sore neck.
My body felt stiff and feverish. In the bathroom, I shuttered at my own reflection, opening the medicine cabinet to push the mirror out of the way. Maybe it’s not real. But I couldn’t let go of the sight of her red hair that softly curled down her bony back, her face full of freckles, blue-gray eyes the color of slate, and lips, thin and pink, like mine. They were all mine.
The rain had continued. The windows in my living room were playing host to tiny eddies rolling down the glass, obscuring the city skyline beyond. Indigo storm clouds peaked in between the glass buildings and bright yellow cranes. We needed the weather— Dallas was a city trapped between grass and dust and the dirt-streaked window panes on the buildings around us showed it. But right now, the dirt had simply turned to mud, rolling black and brown slime down the windows, creating trash-filled pools that smelled of Sulphur against the sidewalks.
I sipped my coffee, listening to talk radio on low and slowly unfurling the fist-sized knot that had formed in my stomach. It will be okay. Self-soothing was never my strong-suit. I resisted indulging myself in doomsday theories that explained why a being who was me, but so obviously not me would appear on my doorstep, would insist upon crossing the threshold.
When I got up to leave, the door was heavy, faltering as I pulled it in from its water-warped frame. I stepped into the hall and nearly jumped out of my skin. She was curled up against the side of my apartment, asleep. A fire-headed cat. Her lips were curled into a faint smile, her eyelids heavy over the slate-colored eyes. My eyes. Is this what I look like when I sleep?
I locked the door and stepped around her to the elevators as if she were a fleshy ghost.
Our office building was a tan block of ill-conceived concrete— one of those sixties era behemoths that plague all major U.S. cities like an unsightly case of concrete and metal acne. As I walked through the maze of gray cubicles towards my desk, Matty wheeled into my path, offering me a concerned, knowing look from underneath his mop of dark brown hair.
“Are you okay?” He mouthed.
I nodded and gave him a dismissive waive. I am fine. I am okay.
I made my way to my cube, tacitly acknowledging colleagues who craned their necks out of their own desks to say hello. I sat in my cube, staring at a blank spreadsheet, unread emails blinking in the corner of my screen in small flutters. For nearly an hour, I produced precisely nothing. Finally, I stood and announced to no one in particular that I needed some air. I suddenly understood why people smoked cigarettes— that need to funnel energy into something alive, burning, to release the smoke from the fire that was forming in your chest. The closest I could come to such a relief was the intake of fresh, city air.
As I walked into the office building’s atrium, a coworker stood just beyond the glass sliding doors, her brown hair falling in front of her face as she leaned forward to shake the water on her umbrella onto the sidewalk.
“Hey Kristy,” I said, stepping out from the entrance.
She looked up, “Oh, hey Julie. Weren’t you—” Her eyes scanned the parking lot and then became wide, glistening with fear.
“I,” She stammered, “I don’t feel well.” She clutched her stomach, her face contorting to match the inward turmoil. She tottered, her slight figure swaying loosely. Before I could reach her to offer an arm, she pitched face first into the concrete, her skull making a sickening crack. I gasped and turned her over. A deep scarlet canyon formed on her forehead. She groaned, still clutching at her stomach. I lifted her shirt to reveal a plum-sized bruise around her navel that was expanding outward in a perfect circle.
The front desk attendant ran outside shouting, “What’s going—,” before whipping back around to frantically jam the “emergency” button on her desk phone.
I knelt next to Kristy and held her head, sopping up what blood I could with the ends of my cotton skirt. What I couldn’t catch with my skirt was beginning to crawl down the sidewalk in bright red tendrils.
She’s here somewhere. I peered through the wall of rain, squinting my eyes, straining, Kristy’s head heavy in my lap. Kristy was just the latest victim of her anger, the rage that reached out from behind a wall of rain to run its thin, knobby fingers against my skin. The rage that she threw forward to consume everything in its path. She was hunting. I was hunting. I was the hunted. I squinted harder. Blue and black sedans, dim yellowed street lights, perfectly manicured bushes and grass medians, a thin, still, burst of red.
When I returned to my apartment, she was awake, slumped against my door instead of the wall. Her yellow and green t-shirt was soaked through with rain, hair slicked in dark red clumps to her flushed cheeks like clotted blood. For a moment, I wanted to offer her a towel, to tend to her.
She turned her eyes towards me but did not stand up.
“Please move,” I said, again wincing at her echoing response. She just stared at me, eyes blinking slowly, as if I was speaking in tongues.
“Move or I am going to call the police.”
“Fine,” I said. I lifted my leg and placed a wet boot on her chest. The move startled her, but she regained her composure, grabbing the rubber with both hands. Her eyes were fixed on mine, slate on slate.
I pressed down, light at first, then heavy. I could feel her struggling to breathe. The fuck are you doing? Just call the police. I pressed harder. She let out a short wheeze and began clawing at the rubber around my ankles. I released her, retracted my leg and then, with a swift extension, I kicked her against the door. I kicked her again. And again. She looked helpless, bewildered, but I was unable to stop. My flesh was hot with rage. Incontrovertible rage. It filled me like molten iron, slow and thick.
She began to scramble against the door, catching my leg again. I jerked it away and bared my fists at her instead.
I was dazed. What did she just hit me with?
Thwack. Thwack. Thwack.
I woke up on my couch, a resealable icepack adorning my scalp like a crown. The popcorn ceiling was dancing patterns of pocked plaster. My pulse throbbed in my temples. I tried to lift my arms. They were decorated with deep, ring-shaped bruises. I was nude. How did I get here?
I turned my head to find her in my green armchair, gazing at me intently. When I groaned, she groaned with me, lifting out of the chair and breezing over to my side. She ran a wet washcloth down my legs. It was cold, soothing. When I sat up, she pushed me back down with a hand in my chest, baring her teeth at me like a threatened animal.
“What are you doing?!” I cried.
She sighed, “I am helping you.”
My breath caught in my chest with the last whisper of “you.” I could hear my voice echoing with hers. No, that voice was me. I had made my mouth move. I had forced my vocal chords to constrict and vibrate.
“Please, what do you want? What is going on?”
She ignored me and began to hum instead. A hum that I could feel in my chest. A languid sound, like the vibration of tuning fork, that was escaping my closed lips too.
She rose and walked out of the room. I snatched my phone off the coffee table and texted Matty the word, “Help,” before lying back down, too stiff for any significant movement.
The rage. I had never felt rage like that. Did she do that? What about Kristy? Is this even fucking real? I turned to my side and crawled onto the floor. My legs dropped behind me as dead weight. My arms shook from the strain as I heaved my body forward on the vinyl floor. I needed to leave, to get her to leave. I needed help.
She walked back in, her lips curled into that same close-lipped smile that she had worn while she slept.
“Where are you going?” She asked. I clasped my hand over my mouth to try to stop the sound, making the echo into a muted gurgle.
“Please leave me alone,” I begged. My voice was soft, desperate.
“You don’t understand,” She said, or I said, “You need this.”
She produced the same wet wash cloth that she had been using. This time, I could smell the coconut of my body wash on its surface. I recoiled from her touch. She responded by grabbing my wrist and holding me down.
“Let me help you,” She whispered through clenched teeth.
She slid the cloth once more from my ankles to the tops of my thighs, between my legs and up my tensed stomach. She swept under and over my breasts, my armpits, my shoulders, my neck. I jerked my head away when she reached my face.
“Oh?” She said, before grasping my chin and turning it back towards her. She began to scrub my cheeks in tiny circles. She was preparing me. Brushing me. Washing the meat before supper.
At last, she removed the cloth and looked at me, a satisfied smirk alighting her face. My face. She turned and walked back towards the bathroom. Tears welled behind my eyes in painful knots. How do I leave? Why can’t I move? Why do I hurt?
She returned to perform the ritual one last time, removing the body wash with quick swipes of the damp cloth. When she was finished, she placed it on the table and whispered, “You are ready.” Her voice was gentle this time.
She knelt next to me and placed a freckled hand on my shoulder reassuringly. Then, she carefully undressed, pulling shirt, bra, jeans, panties off in long, easy motions and then she laid on her side facing me. A mirror. The same freckled chin with the same ski jump nose. The same lily-white chest with nipples dark and round, like small purple lily-pads. The same freckled stomach with round birthing hips.
I found myself reaching forward to run my hands along her, touching first her shoulders and then her arms. When I reached her hands, I recoiled, suddenly aware that the hands that I was touching did not simply feel like my own, they were my own. It was like picking your arm out from under your pillow after you have slept on it all night. You know that it is yours, but you cannot feel it as yours. She was that numb arm and, until now, I could not feel her as a part of me.
“You will be okay,” She said. I said. We said.
“You will be okay,” We repeated.
I could feel her moving closer, wanting to touch me, curious. “I am you,” we said softly.
I nodded in reply, no longer resisting the tips of her fingers sliding against my flanks. I stared into her eyes. An empty vessel. A blank slate. She wants me. She needs me. She is me. My phone buzzed. I could feel myself begin to shed my fleshy exterior like a costume.
“You will be okay.”
She pulled my ribs apart and climbed me like a vine, took my skin, took my eyes. And all at once, we were both truly alive.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
“Julie!” Matty shouted through the door. “Julie! Are you in there? Open up!”
I crossed the room and open the door, my skin burning.
“Yes?” I asked.
“I got your text,” He wheezed, “Are you okay? What’s going on? Is she back?”
“I’m fine,” I said, “I took care of it. I am sorry you had to come all the way out here.”
Matty looked bewildered.
“Are you sure you are okay?” He asked.
I nodded. I wanted to fly at him. I wanted to tear him to pieces. A thick compulsion, pulling me out like gravity, pulsing under my paper thin skin. I could feel her curled around my heart, my lungs, my spine. She wanted me to create canyons of his head too.
“Later,” She whispered to me, that hum that vibrated through my chest.
“I’m fine,” I said and then I closed the door.
Jane Marshall Fleming is an author and artist living in Austin, Texas. She is the author of the poetry collection, Ocotillo Worship (APEP, 2019), and two forthcoming hybrid collections of poetry and prose including Violence/Joy/Chaos (Rhythm & Bones Press 2020).