CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Terraforming (n). The process of transforming an alien planet into one sufficiently similar to its source to support terrestrial life.
Terraforming Agent (n). A substance or device introduced (intentionally) into an ecosystem to cause terraforming.
This time last year, I called my doctor to tell her I was dying. Though she said it was earlier than expected, she wasn’t surprised, and she promised she would fit me in for an appointment as soon as she could. In the meantime, I was to keep a symptom book and record the daily locations and progresses of my sprouting. I opened up the little black notebook and wrote DAY 21 in the date box. Then I put the pencil down and stared at myself in the mirror. The sprout in the corner of my eye had grown back in. A little dot of green where it should have been pink. Except for that I looked uncomfortably normal. I couldn’t see inside my nose, so I pressed my finger to the side of it, trying to feel if anything had grown in there. But that only happened later, on DAY 29 according to my book. I opened my mouth to look in the mirror. The two sprouts on the top of my tongue had bloomed into pink and blue flowers, and there were three new sprigs on the inside of my left cheek. Nothing on the roof of my mouth, or visible in the back of my throat. It was only the one in my eye that really bothered me. I could feel it every time I blinked. When my eyes were closed, it poked at the lid, and when they were open, I could see a little green blur at the corner of my vision. Matilda—my doctor—specifically asked that I not prune myself, but we all did it. I took a pair of tweezers from the counter and guided them to my eye. When the metal tips had blurred out of focus, and all I could see were fuzzy splotches of gray flanking a blur of green like a tiny foreign army, I squeezed them, catching the sprout gently in the precise jaws. I pulled; I tried to keep my hand steady as I felt the sprout give. I moved slowly, like I used to tug grass when I was little, trying to get the whole blade out of the ground without tearing it. But this time, I was the ground, and I could feel the blade move behind my eyeball and slide against my optic nerve. But I was also the grass, and I could feel the pressure of the tweezers and the tugging and the tension that I was about to be split apart. When the sprout was about six inches from my eye, the delicate little vine snapped and left a dribble of blood on my cheek (it grew back by dinner). I wrote everything down and closed the notebook. At that point, I was still progressing pretty slowly. I hadn’t really started to grow. I wiped my cheek with a cloth and brushed my teeth, spitting foamy toothpaste, blood, and petals into the sink.
It was three more weeks before I had an appointment. The examining room was lined with brochures: “Making the Most of Your Infection! Your Guide to the Growing Stage,” “Are You About to Sprout? Know the Warning Signs,” “How to Prepare for Planting,” and “Burn Therapy: Is It Right for You?” There was a little picture of me on the corner of the last one, smiling at the patients. I remembered writing it, staying up all night and reading copy to Matilda over the phone. It was exciting, to have a drug I’d invented on the market. Especially one that could give people so much more time. Now, I picked it up and opened the trifold across my lap. I scanned over the list of side effects while I ran my tongue over the new sprout on the roof of my mouth. I remembered doing my best to soften the copy. What was recorded in test trials as “severe pain” had become “some pain,” and “causes blurred vision, distorted taste, loss of smell, and deafness” became “may cause some sensory damage to applied area.” Meaning, if I burned the sprout in the corner of my eye, I was likely to burn my vision too. In the “Making Your Choice” panel I found a typo that must have been there for over two years.
There was a knock over the speaker on the wall. “Come in,” I said and a screen lit up, projecting a glowing image of Matilda into the room. Henry’s work in holographic and robotic technology eliminated the need for doctors to leave the Quarantine. As soon as that happened, medical schools were flooded with applications again and the barren years without uninfected doctors were over. But if you were infected and you wanted to see a doctor in person, you’d have to find them. Nowadays, it’s usually a nurse practitioner, if anyone at all. I think I’m the only registered MD left in the city. And I know I’m the only one in my lab.
“Ellie!” Matilda said, sounding excited despite herself. I should have been better at keeping in touch, but the last few months there hadn’t been much to say. “Oh, I wish I could say it’s good to see you. How about this, I wish it were under better circumstances.”
“I’m glad to see you either way,” I promised. My words were a little thick; I blamed it on the flowers.
“I like your sweater!” she said with a certain measure of forced enthusiasm. I looked down at it. My mother hadn’t stopped knitting since my father died, and she used to send me sweaters from Quarantine every year on Christmas and my birthday. The one I was wearing was the only one I really liked. It was the kind of purple that tastes like grape and it was already beginning to fray.
We spent a few minutes chatting. Nothing was pressing. I knew my course of treatment and she knew my prognosis. So we avoided the topic for as long as we could. Eventually, we had to talk about my infection.
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, you know everything about it. I’ve already got a prescription for the burns.” She pressed a button on the wall in front of her and emailed me the file. It chirped on the phone in my purse.
“I wish I didn’t have to do this,” I said as I skimmed over the prescription. Burn therapy is as painful as it sounds. It would burn the vines off me, which would slow their growth, but it would burn me too. Most people stomach it for about six months, maybe a year, and then decide that their quality of life has declined too much. Usually it’s when they are 55 to 60 percent sprouted. They don’t want to burn 60 percent of their bodies. I couldn’t blame them. When I first developed the therapy, PharmStrong™ had me sign a contract entailing that no matter what, I would use the cream myself until my body was at least 40 percent sprouted. Although by the point I needed it Burn Therapy had been clinically proven to extend the time between sprouting and rooting by three to eleven months, they didn’t want the controversy of the developer refusing her own treatment. I understood. It was an expensive and arduous drug, and back when it was released there were a lot of rumors that it just sucked money out of the infected and gave them nothing but pain in return.
“Well, you’re a trooper, Eleanor,” she said.
I gave a sarcastic little “Thanks” and when I met her slightly flickering, transparent eyes all I saw was pity.
“Do you need to talk to someone,” she asked, “other people who know what you’re going through?”
I shook my head. “You know that stuff’s not for me.”
“There’s a really good support group in your area,” she said, insisting.
“Thanks, but I’m trying not think about it too much.”
“That’s not as healthy as you think. I’m going to send you the information right now. Just go once. It can’t hurt.” But that’s where Matilda was wrong. It could hurt. I didn’t want to see other people going through this. I didn’t want to be exposed to whatever unbleached pain they had to share. I just wanted to get up and go to work for as long as I could. This wasn’t a bad way to die if you didn’t put too much thought into it. It didn’t hurt if you just let it take its course. You stopped eating, which meant you stopped needing to shit. So no one had to clean up after you when your arms were too full of branches and vines to lean over and wipe your own ass. But when you thought about it. When you really tried to understand it and what had happened to you. Or when you looked out at all the forests and tried to count the trees and think to yourself: Those were/are people. That’s when it got hard. That’s when it hurt. I didn’t want to sit around and infect myself with their fears and their insecurities, just for the benefit of purging myself of mine.
But I could tell it was an issue that Matilda would press, and so I backed away from that fight, and caved. “I’ll think about it,” I agreed.
“There’s a meeting in two days. I’m treating the man who leads them, Thomas. You’ll really like him. I’ll email and tell him you’re coming.”
I glared at her, but the hologram had already turned off, and the hum of the projector faded to silent.
“I’ll call you in a few days,” she said, her disembodied voice now obviously coming out of the speaker in the wall, “go down the hall and get your labs done. I’ve ordered a few extra vials so you can send yourself samples.”
On Wednesday, I went to the support group because there wasn’t anything good on TV. The Biography Channel was rerunning its documentary on George Anderson, who created the filtration domes for the Quarantines, and then there was a conspiracy theory about aliens or something, and a few sappy soap operas with terrible makeup where they glued pipe cleaners on to healthy people to make them look like they were sprouting. The group met in a church basement. Matilda had left that detail out of the email when she sent me the address. If I had known, I don’t think it would have affected my decision to go as much as it would have when I was in med school, making speeches about how Sylvan’s Virus disproved God, if everything else hadn’t already. But I understood her reluctance to tell me.
The church was a little run-down and the basement looked like it hadn’t been renovated in thirty years. The vinyl flooring was beginning to peel at the edges and the salmon rug was stained with decades of dropped coffee cups and muddy boots.
Father Thomas, as people referred to him, hadn’t arrived yet. Besides me, everyone there seemed to know each other, and they chatted pleasantly about all the things they weren’t going to talk about when they sat down. They avoided the chairs when they could, and asked each other questions about the books they were reading, if they were voting in the election next month, and if they thought the weekend would be nice enough for a day at the beach. They were the sort of conversations that weren’t worth eavesdropping, but I couldn’t help but listen in.
When Thomas came in, he was carrying a bright red crate of cigarettes under one arm and a stack of worn green prayer books under the other. The books he deposited in a side room, and the cigarettes he left on the table next to the pitcher of water. He was tall. Much taller than I expected. He had to duck under the doorway, and he seemed to almost reach the ceiling. But he moved with a natural ease, despite the bloat in his clothes. He didn’t dress like a priest. Or maybe he just dressed like a priest does on his off-days, in street clothes that didn’t advertise his faith. He wasn’t exactly fat—his neck and hands barely looked chubby, but his clothes looked a bit too full, and he had a stomach that pinched in where his jeans buttoned. It was the sort of plump that only men can get away with. There was a rush of noise as the people around me greeted him. Maybe seven of them asked—at the same time, but out of sync—how he was.
“Let’s all sit down,” he told them.
And though everyone seemed to be avoiding the chairs before the meeting, they settled into them quickly and lapsed into an almost reverent silence. He started with a quick update of the various other events the church hosted. I was already tuning him out and looking around the room.
Sylvan’s virus is perhaps most interesting in the diversity, not of symptoms, but of their manifestations. Though the disease follows a precise, stable timeline, everyone looks different. Some people (like me) flower and grow vines; others grow leaves and wooden branches like saplings. That’s what happened to Anais, who sat across from me that first day. Her skull had erupted with three large antlers that probably added a foot to her height. In a month, I worried I would look like Sue, who had a beard of vines growing out from her nose and around her mouth. Then there was a man whose nametag read “WALTER” who had long leafy tentacles coming out of his ears. There were a few people who had vines hanging out of their mouths and couldn’t speak. They just stared at the support group, breathing unnecessarily through their noses. They made me the most nervous, but I tried to look at them like patients rather than people or forecasts of my prognosis.
Near the end of his life—long before I stiffened my stomach and went to medical school—I’d been so afraid of my father that I’d stopped visiting him. Not entirely, but my daily visits thinned out until they were weekly. I just couldn’t stand the smell. The ripe, fragrant vines, dark green and swollen with blood. I was afraid to let him kiss me, because I didn’t want the mushrooms growing in the corner of his lips to touch my skin. My sister hadn’t been infected yet, and I was the only one he could kiss, but I pulled away and let him kiss the air next to my cheek and pretend it was me. But the people here didn’t frighten me the way he had. Maybe because I had seen it enough that I had gotten used to it. My father was in the first generation of those to plant, back before there were even forests. When all of this was new and more terrifying.
Most of what everyone said in the first meeting was a puzzle. Threads that had been dropped a week ago were picked up. People reported their progress, they didn’t go over the gaps in the story for the new members, and I appreciated that. I didn’t want to be invited into their pain. The distance, the puzzle, kept me comfortable. It was more interesting to listen when I had to pick out the details. It took three or four meetings before I could patch together most people’s stories. But it was Dinah’s first meeting too. Maybe that’s why we were sitting together, neither of us had anyone to talk to in the few minutes before the meeting, and so while everyone else paired off with their friends in the circle, we gravitated towards each other in silence. She was nineteen, which meant she had probably been infected anytime between the ages of eight and eleven. She talked about how it had been a year since she was forced to leave the group home she had been raised in, how she missed her friends there, and how she loved having younger kids around. Mostly she talked about her boyfriend. About how afraid she was—not of dying—but of being ugly. She didn’t want to smell like burnt blood and have black scabs all over her body. Her boyfriend hadn’t sprouted yet, and wouldn’t for a few more years even though he was older than she. He had been infected when he was fifteen. She told us she was worried that he wouldn’t want to kiss her. She quivered and the tears slipped off her chin and splashed into her sweater.
I wanted to say something. Something to lend comfort that she could turn over in her mind all night, and actually find peace in. But all I could think of was either trite or a little bit mean. So I kept my mouth shut and watched, uncomfortable in the chair as Howard—who had bright yellow flowers blooming in his eye sockets—padded across the circle, and held her while she cried.
When it was my turn after her, I was just about ready to spill a gallon of blood straight out of my heart and onto the floor. But then I caught a look at Walter, who was twisting the tendrils coming out of his ears; he looked too drained and tired to listen. He hadn’t spoken much except to say that between this meeting and the next was the anniversary of his daughter’s planting and that he didn’t want to be alone. Thomas promised to cancel his plans and Sue said she’d be there as soon as she got off work. Sometimes I regret meeting Walter that day. He became one of the people I liked best. He wrote a satire column for the Online Herald, and he had a mean sense of humor coupled with an eye for the funnier idiosyncrasies of people’s mannerisms that made him an excellent impressionist. But my first impression of him was of a man who was speaking through a hollow can, and no matter how much he would make me smile over the next months, his voice never really lost its metallic echo.
After the hour was up and everyone had talked, it felt wrong to just grab my things and go, gathering their insecurities into my purse with my keys and cell phone before getting into my car. So I stayed and helped clean up. I stacked discarded red cups into towers, and dropped them in the trash bin while Sue folded up chairs and Thomas handed out cigarettes and coupons for Sun-Lamps.
I walked towards the broken circle and started helping Sue with the chairs, while those who could no longer cry offered unused handkerchiefs to those who could. I tried to avoid watching them. It felt uncomfortable to see someone crying in public. When I was younger it always interested me, and I would look at them, as if just by seeing them cry I could diagnose the cause of their sorrow. But I knew why everyone was crying here, and it made it harder to see. Still, once in a while, something would catch my attention, and I’d start staring. I think I was watching Dinah help Howard up the stairs when Thomas first introduced himself to me.
“Thanks for coming, Eleanor,” he said extending his hand.
I shook it. “Thanks for having me.”
He handed me a carton of cigarettes. It was a big thing among the infected, to smoke.
“I can’t. I’m a doctor,” I said, shaking my head.
“Have you been eating?” he asked.
I looked down, a little bit ashamed. The truth was, I didn’t eat most of the time. I had tried to keep Henry eating for so long. But after he died, I think it was a whole week before I ate anything. It still tasted good, and I still liked all my favorite foods. But it was uncomfortable and I felt bloated afterwards. Most days I only had some toast with a little bit of butter or cheese.
I shook my head and said, “No. I still eat sometimes, but not really.”
“Well, it’s nice to develop an oral fixation while you still have a mouth. I have menthols for people in burn therapy. Are you?”
“I have a prescription waiting, but I haven’t filled it yet.”
“The menthols,” he said, and plucked a minty-green carton off the table and handed it to me. I looked down at it, not quite sure what I was supposed to do. Cool & Refreshing was embossed on the side in silver ink, and I could see my face like a little pink blur warped in it. I pocketed the pack without any intention of taking it out of the plastic.
“Nice try,” he said grinning. He lifted his hand and I saw a pair of cigarettes sticking out from between his fingers like tobacco filled antennae. “Come on, you can’t get cancer.”
I didn’t try to stifle my laugh as I shook my head. “I hate the smell.”
“Trust me, it’s better than anything else you’re going to smell.” He was right about that. The smoke is pungent. It sticks in your clothes and your hair, and gets between you and the pollen on your skin. The smell of the flowers can get a little nauseating, like a floral BO you can’t get rid of, and the smoke did help with that. And it masked the smell of burned blood, which was even more useful. It hid fire under fire. I took the cigarette and leaned with him against the wall. I felt sort of like a teenager, smoking behind a gas station the cigarettes that I had bought with a fake ID. It felt rebellious, in that fake, conventional sort of way.
Even then, I noticed there was something special about Thomas. He was just one of those people who lived his life as a magnet. He’d stuck his finger in a wall socket when he was a toddler and done something to his blood and everyone around him felt that little tug of affection. If there was one side that repelled you, all you had to do was turn around and he would suck you right in. You could feel him in the gravity of a room. I never tried to figure out what it was exactly, because I thought it was different for every person. Some people looked at him, and loved the way he could be so silly. Some loved the way he could be so serious, or how grave he was in the moments that required solemnity. Others liked how gentle he was. Others how straightforward he could be. He wasn’t a saint—at least not in this life. It was clear that he liked the attention, maybe more than was good for him. He was the kind of person who’d say something clever just because he thought about it and wanted you to know he was smart. But he cared about them. He really cared about them. But it wasn’t just that. It was how much I wanted him to care about me.
“Are you married?” he asked and looked down at my hand. I saw my wedding ring.
“Widowed—well, you know.”
He nodded. “When?”
“I don’t know exactly.”
“That sounds like it has a story to it.” He offered me a second cigarette and his lighter. But I shook my head. He shrugged this time and then prompted me to go on.
“It’s not much of a story. I got back from work one day. I cut my hours at the lab to spend more time with him when he got towards the end, and well, he was just gone. He left me this long video explaining how much he loved me, but how it was better this way. I don’t even know where he planted. I think I hated him for a year. And then after that I realized there was no way he was still awake, that he must have planted, that one of those trees out there …” My hand shook on the end of the cigarette, the glowing orange butt streaked along the desaturated night like a drunk firefly.
In the months after Richard planted my lab was a little too quiet. Sometimes I kept the radio on for the company, but more often it was just me and the equipment. Since I’d developed burn therapy, I had been trying to find a way to see if it could be similarly applied to a cell. The disease started small, and got big quickly. When all those people died at once, every man with a pulpit got on TV with something to scream about. We were being punished. We were being cleansed. I was so young when it happened, I didn’t really remember much of what it was like back then. Other than scary, and very, very big. People told me this had never happened before, but back then nothing had ever happened to me before. I hadn’t seen my first presidential election. I just assumed that cataclysms would come and go, that even if it was new, it was still normal. All I remembered was that every day I had to wear a mask that smelled like the dentist’s office and my mother would cry every week before my blood tests. They burned a lot of trees in those days, before the scientists detected the heartbeats and found strings of neural tissues on the fully matured trees. Those burnings stuck in my mind for the rest of my life. It was the only thing we had ever seen that could kill these trees. It was my inspiration for burn cream, and I think that’s part of why so many people were afraid of it. I still think it’s the only cure anyone can hope for. When I’m stuck and need inspiration, I burn my samples. It’s then that the virus and the human become separate again. Human blood doesn’t burn like sap. But by the end, it’s all ash.
I had been looking for a chemical that would be similarly toxic to the virus. That could burn it out of the cells leaving the rest intact. Alternately, I was also looking for something that could block it from attacking the cells in the first place. We had found things a few times that stopped infection, but the virus was smarter than we were. It adapted faster than we could. It always found a way to penetrate our cells and grow. I hadn’t thought I was going to succeed, and I didn’t, but I wanted to keep trying. At least until my hands were too weedy to hold a pipette or twist the dials on a microscope.
It took me two weeks to pick up the prescription for burn cream. Matilda left me a message saying the pharmacy called to tell her I had never picked it up, but it was only when one of StrongPharm’s lawyers left a harsher version of the same message, reminding me that I was under contract to treat my sprouting, that I finally bit the bullet. I wiggled the trackpad of my computer and typed in my password while turning over the active ingredients. I had a missed call from my mother. I hadn’t heard it ring after it was forwarded to my phone. I clicked the blue return-call button and then walked across the kitchen to make myself some tea while it rang, expecting her to be out, or at least asleep. She usually had something going on at 8:00, whether it was book club or some other dinner. I would leave a message and tell her to call me back. I wasn’t really in the mood for talking, but she picked up on the second ring.
“Eleanor, is that you? Where’s your video?” she asked, her voice lilting through the speaker in the kitchen.
“Yes, mom!” I said, “just pouring myself a drink, I’ll be right there.” I found myself a bottle of clear liquid in the back of the cabinet. It had no label, but it was assuredly not water. Henry must have left it.
I poured as much of it into the souvenir mug as would fit.
“Oh, you’re still eating! Eleanor that’s wonderful!” Her relief made me smile, even though I hadn’t had solid food in over a week. I still drank, because the plants that had grown in my stomach could absorb the water. Or vodka as the case might be.
“I’m turning on the video now, mom,” I pressed another blue button and watched as my face popped onto the screen. I looked much better than I felt. My mother peered through her glasses into the camera, before looking back down at what must have been her knitting. I appreciated the familiar metal clicks. “You look good,” I told her. And she did. At sixty-five, Anne Avis still had all her skin, which was impressive considering the infection rate and life expectancy. Of her entire generation, 22 percent had made it that far without being infected. She had been careful with her self-preservation. Most parents didn’t go long without being infected once their children had been, but she survived both Ally’s and mine somehow. I thought of Walter, leaving his wife and his Quarantine, with his daughter swaddled in his arms. It wasn’t that she didn’t love us, or that she was selfish about it. She was just terrified. And a little reclusive back then. It was years after my father died before she started dating again, and maybe five years ago, she found something serious. He and I had spoken a few times on the phone, usually when I called and my mom was out. She wanted us to bond when they first started living together, but eventually we settled into a polite, comfortable distance. He walked by the back of the camera and I waved a hello. He was a nice man named Peter who worked as a stockbroker and seemed like the salt of the earth. He made her happy and stopped her from being lonely, which was all I needed him to do.
“It’s so hard, you know?” she interrupted herself, and I realized I hadn’t really been listening.
“What is?” I asked.
“Not being infected.” I spit a sip of my drink back into the glass but didn’t say anything. “I can’t stand watching you and your sister go through this. I wish she would move to live by you. I wish I could see you. I know it must sound like an awful thing to say that it’s hard for me to not be going through this with you, but you don’t know what it’s like. I can’t do anything. I can’t come visit you. I can’t hold your hand. You were my little baby, and now …”
We went through that almost every time we talked. It hurt, because I knew it weighed on her, but I didn’t want it weighing on me. I pushed the conversation towards her friends, what she was doing, and if she had seen the new Tate Wexler film that everyone was talking about. She hadn’t. But I hadn’t either, so that topic didn’t last too long. And eventually she found her way back to talking about our relationship.
“It’s much better to talk to you like this. When you can see my face. And I’m not in one of those suits. If I were infected now, who knows what would become of me.” If she were infected then, she’d be nearly seventy-five when she started sprouting. When meant she’d plant after her daughters by well over nine years. Assuming she didn’t do any burns to prolong it.
After we had talked about Peter for a while, she asked me if I was seeing anyone new. I said I wasn’t. She was adamant that I move on from my widowhood as ably as she had moved on from hers. “I don’t want you to be all alone, you know. When the time comes.”
I promised her I wouldn’t. But it was all she talked about until Peter came and told her they’d be late for their reservation if she stayed on the phone any longer. I gave him a look that said “thank you,” and I thought I saw him wink before my mother hung up with a “Please call more often, I love you!”
The screen went back to my background: a school of brightly colored fish. I wasn’t sure what I liked about it, other than the colors. Maybe it was the gills, and the fins. I took another gulp of my drink before turning on the TV, the narrow, menacing tube of ointment abandoned on my desk.
Two days later, I was ready to start burning. Half a decade ago, I thought about how excited I would be to do this. I wanted to know everything about the drug I was developing—even if it hurt. I wanted to experience it in full, as if only then I would truly be able to call myself its maker. But I left it on my counter to taunt me until I started avoiding the kitchen. Which is when I stopped drinking for the most part. I had more than thirty areas of sprouting when I started using the cream. Most of them were still only sprigs, but a few had thickened into patches. They pressed up through the skin on my throat and the back of my hand like dense, mossy fur. Rubbing my finger over it, I felt the fur tingle and send small, confused nerve impulses into my skin. Sometimes it tickled, and sometimes it felt like what a cat must feel when you rub behind her ears—an addicted, perfect pleasure that made me want to purr. Other times, it hurt. My brain didn’t know what to do with these new nerves. It didn’t know where to put the information, and so every day it changed. The sprig in the corner of my eye had spread into a patch across my eyelid. I squeezed the ointment out of the tube onto the applicator brush and applied it like eye shadow. I shouldn’t have done it first. It tingled and made me tear and I had to rush through the rest of the application, leaving thick globs of it on my legs before the pain got to be too much for me to even see.
I sat down in Henry’s chair. It was big and soft and still smelled like his aftershave and sweat. Since he left, I had been avoiding it. Trying to leave it intact and perfectly his. Now I reached a burning arm into my pocket and looked at the carton of cigarettes Thomas had given me at the last meeting. I still only smoked with him. Cool & Soothing glimmered at me, and I pulled one of the cigarettes from the carton. I held it to my lips but the minty air made me cough. I crunched it out quickly on the end table. Burning hurt so much more than I had imagined. I think until then I had only thought of it as something like a sunburn. But there was a difference between being burned and really burning. I felt the vines moving inside me. They wriggled in pain and I looked down at my skin, watching with one eye as they moved.
Henry had left little gouges in the upholstery of the chair with his nails, and my fingers slid right into his holes. His hands were much bigger than mine, and I had to spread my fingers out to find his nooks. He’d left them for me, like knobs in a climbing wall. I closed my eyes and tried to pantomime his arms around me. I listened to the low gurgle of his voice in my head, warped by memory and time to sound more and more like mine. I’ve edited him in my mind. I’ve erased the vines that spilled out of his belly button, and the black flakes of dried leaf and sap from the burn scars. Now he looks strong again, like the man who boxed in college. His face is set, and his forehead shines with sweat. When he was still here, I had to cut his vine off every morning, and burn the rest until the chemicals started boiling a crater in his stomach, and I realized his skin was only a shell, and he was all vines inside. I can only imagine how much it must have hurt. He never screamed though. Just dug holes for me. I squeeze them and try my best not to scream either.
Some people called me brave for using my husband as a test subject. Others called me selfish. I was both, neither, and also, I realize, sadistic. Though I have always tried to side with the people who called me brave, I think I’d prefer to have a drink with the ones who thought I was selfish. Because I was. Madly selfish. To keep him in this chair day after day. He asked me once what the difference was between extending life and prolonging it. He said it through gritted teeth. That was when I realized he wanted to die.
We had an October frost right before my birthday, but thanks to my fur, which grew quickly enough that I was able to stop the burning earlier than I expected, I didn’t need a coat. I rang Thomas’s doorbell, crushing the moss down against the smooth button. It hurt that time. It was an addictive little pain and I pressed the bell again. When Thomas answered his door, he was wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and boxers. His legs didn’t really fit into pants by that point. There was no skin until his ankles where the large, braided vines hadn’t completely grown through, and there was a bit of ivy tucking out of his shirt collar. Wordlessly I pressed up on my tiptoes to put it back in.
“Thanks,” he said with a smile. “Come on in. Smoke?”
He handed me a cigarette that was already lit and I accepted. I always accepted what anyone offered me. I’d been to his apartment before, but this time it felt colder. Less lived-in. Except for the living room, which looked crammed and torn with overuse. There were bloody leaves on the floor that reminded me of a crime scene. Thomas must have accidentally torn them off getting dressed. I didn’t think his couch had ever been new, but then it looked almost soiled and there was a long imprint where his body had spent too much time on it. I wondered exactly how much time that too much was, if he was like Henry who had spent days and days in that chair. Judging by the small city of books piled around it, he rarely got up anymore. But he acted merry as ever.
We spent a few hours talking about our friends, the things that Dinah did that annoyed us, or the way we couldn’t help but laugh and think of Patricia every time we saw that one commercial for dental floss.
“How does it work?” he asked me. He was referring to the disease. We all learned the basics in middle school, but I got the feeling he was looking for me to say something new. If he could just wrap his head around it, he told me, he could forgive it. But to understand it that well, he would have to understand the why, not the cause. All I knew were the mechanics.
“Well, one of the first things that the virus does upon infection is take over your nervous system. That’s why you can feel the plants and control them if you practice enough. Like those hikers, the ones that uncoil their vines and use them as ropes and rappel down cliffs before they plant. The plants grow inside you. But it’s not like there is a seed in your stomach or your intestines. They grow out of you and on top of you. Within a week of infection every single one of your cells is a seed.” This seemed to me like the kind of stuff that everyone knew. I had learned it in high school, twice again in college, and maybe nine different times in medical school. But he looked thoughtful and disturbed, as though this were news to him. “It’s an amazing virus,” I continued, “and we can learn so much from it. We have learned so much from it.”
He asked me a few questions about the disease’s regenerative properties. How it can allow your skin to grow, but cannot build its own. We got deeper into the biology of it than I ever had with anyone who was not a doctor. Eventually, Thomas looked down at his sleeves and rolled them up over his forearms. “I want you to see this before it gets consumed with the rest of it,” he said.
I wasn’t sure if it was something he said to many people or if it was something intimate between the two of us. Thomas was so good at creating intimacy, I always found myself worried about whether it went two ways. But when I looked down at his forearms, I stopped thinking about that. In the center of each arm was a long, narrow, almond patch of vines. They were thin, crosshatched like little threads. I once had something like this on my ankle, but it was all moss now. I still remembered getting it. I was walking in the woods when I caught my ankle on a piece of broken glass some teenagers had left by a bonfire. I felt blood trickle down and looked at the cut on my leg. A thin, green vine poked out of the edges of the torn skin and shot across to the other side, before returning back, threading its way across horizontally and vertically until it made a little webbed net the consistency of cheesecloth. I flexed my foot, and blood oozed out from between the vines; they increased their thread count until they made a solid, nylon-like patch. I ran my fingers over it to get used to the texture of my new skin; I wanted to get comfortable with the little ridges between the crosshatched pattern. I tried to think of it like a scab, but my old skin wasn’t going to heal. Thomas had been cut down his forearms. Or, well, had cut himself. Back in my dad’s generation there was a whole generation of people who had these scars before they realized they couldn’t die. Had Thomas tried just to make sure? There was one way to kill yourself: immolation. A few people did it, but most preferred to plant. I wanted to talk to him about it, but he said he had nothing to say. He just wanted me to see.
So I closed my mouth and nodded.
“Do you know what we should do, Miss Mossy?” He seemed so cheerful it was jarring. And I looked for an element of the suicidal under his smile.
“Go to a bar.”
“We don’t drink.” When people start sprouting enough to grow a full layer of green moss on their entire body or lose the ability to wear pants they tend to stop going to restaurants. Usually they aren’t eating, and even out here restaurants are for those who look like they belong in them. It’s rare that you’ll see anyone who has grown over at a table chewing uselessly on breadsticks or grinding up beer nuts in their molars (if they have them). But that was exactly what Thomas wanted to do.
“Fuck them, Eleanor. I’m sick of avoiding people. I’m sick of cooping myself up inside because everything else is too hard. If they’re going to be scared of me, fine. I want to scare them. We’re all infected.” I laughed, but it seemed mean. Everyone in whatever bar or restaurant we went to was going to look like us someday. Most people tried to forget it, I tried to forget it. It seemed cruel to remind anyone. There was no formal segregation but the infected world just worked that way. When there were still other people there, I would sit in the parking lot of my lab and wait to avoid the ones who were sprouting, just so they didn’t have to see me avert my eyes. And I knew that people were doing it to me, in return. Maybe it was rude, but I was grateful. But Thomas insisted, “It’s not a healthy way to die.”
We took my car. Thomas admitted that he hadn’t been able to drive for the past week, and had been getting rides if he needed to go to the bookstore. Sue brought him to the meetings. But mostly he had just stayed in. I could understand why he felt so desperate to do something.
“Fifty bucks says I can get a girl to go home with me,” he said.
“And do what? You’re a priest with no penis,” I said.
He looked at me with mock hurt, and then looked down at his naked green trunk-legs. They were sinewed and sexless. “I’m gifted in other ways.”
It took us a while to find a bar that was just right. He was picky. You don’t really know when you’re going to sprout. And even if you can hide it easily, you don’t know how quickly it’s going to reach the point at which you don’t want to go out anymore. So it’s hard to plan your last hurrah in advance. This was Thomas’s (and though I never really thought about it that way, it was mine too) and he wanted it to be perfect.
We found a hipster sports bar on Willow Street that was right for him. It was full of oak and decorated with strings of Christmas lights hung like fake stars over a school play. The people, infected, but otherwise healthy, barely looked real as we entered. I ran my fingers through the moss that had replaced my hair, flicking a pill bug out from behind my ear.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt as much of a spectacle as I did at that bar. I spoke at a medical conference once, where I knew one hundred other doctors were looking at me, but even then I didn’t feel as much of a focus. Their attention would drift to the exit signs, they would cross and uncross their legs, look down at their laptops, or open a game on their phone. Even the most enraptured would flip through their mental channels when I spoke. They passed their attention like a baton, dropping it into the next person’s hands and waiting before they looked again. I glanced at Thomas, suddenly jealous that as soon as he sat down, people would either stare at his legs or the bits of green in his collar, but they wouldn’t be able to see all of it. I on the other hand was all fuzzed over. No one who looked at me could ignore it.
We ordered drinks from the bartender, who was doing his best to pretend we were normal, but lingered by the other end of the bar whenever we didn’t need tending. I ordered a Cosmo, and Thomas had a beer. The bartender was careful to stand away as he slid us our drinks. I folded up my napkin, trying to get used to the fur that had replaced my skin, and what it felt like to hold something as soft as the paper, when it only connected with me in these little fuzzy peaks.
“This might be harder than I thought,” he mumbled.
I swirled my drink, listening to the ice clack.
Thomas waved cordially to a group by a table. One person waved back nervously, while everyone else looked down at their food, or towards the wall. Thomas scowled.
After a few hours my drink was melted and perspiring, and we were the last two people in the bar. It was 11:00 on a Saturday night. There hadn’t been a stampede, but people had trickled out, closing their tabs at the far end of the counter where the bartender cleaned the same glass over and over, asking us questions without looking our way. I scratched a patch of moss on my arm, it tickled but bled, and I tugged down my sleeve.
We left soon after that. I gave the bartender three times the bill for a tip. Thomas was quiet as we drove, and I didn’t push him to say anything. I’m not sure what he had expected, but that wasn’t it.
When it got too hard for Thomas to walk, we stopped meeting in the church basement. Instead we congregated at the hospice. Most people didn’t move in to hospice as early as Thomas had. He was still mostly awake when we laid him out on the bed. But he seemed happier there than inside his house. He told us he was, and he didn’t have a reason to lie. Like I said, there isn’t much you need to do for someone towards the end. They don’t require fluids, cleaning, or all that much care. But as they get ready to root, and sew themselves into the earth, it gets harder and harder for them to move. People bought plots for the places they wanted to root. They had a bed and they lay there until they grew off it and into the ground. Thomas would plant between his mother and his uncle. When I arrived and I saw him like that, it was the first time I was glad I hadn’t seen Henry towards the end. Thomas’s eyes barely visible, with branches growing around them, and out of one. He stared blankly at the tree that had once been/still was someone he loved. I couldn’t tell if it was his mother or his uncle, and I wasn’t sure he knew either.
There was a human-interest story in a magazine I once read, about someone who tried to root in their apartment. The vines grew through the floor and into the foundation. They had to cut him down before the building crumbled. There was an interview with one of the crew members. He normally worked construction but did the job for some extra money. He said he had never seen that much blood before in his life. He said he felt like he had killed someone. I knew what he meant. In medical school, we had a required class called “The Other Human Heart” in which we learned about the trees, how they worked, and eventually we had to dissect one. She had donated herself to “science,” which meant she had donated herself to a crew of first-year medical students who hacked at her in a disgusted, inquisitive frenzy. I remember when we finally finished sawing we got to the heart at the center. It didn’t look like a human heart anymore. It had grown over and almost didn’t look like a heart at all. Bernard almost cut straight through it. It took us five hours to identify each part of it, the ventricles had grown thick and hard and the aorta was more like a collection of wires than a tube. By the end our biohazard suits were sticky with blood. A few people dropped out that day, during that lab. The mess of blood and leaves and branches got everywhere, and it lined everything. The whole tree had been as full of blood as any human limb, every branch and leaf was swollen and sanguine. Under a microscope, the blood looked identical to that of an infected person. I had heard on the news that some people were burning the hospices again, trying to take back the planet, if not the dead. Whenever I thought about that, though, I remembered that heart, that it had been beating for a few minutes after the tree had been uprooted and carved apart by med students.
Rooting is tricky. For some people it takes a few seconds, for others a few days. I felt uncomfortable, being outside so long. I loved the feeling of the wet earth in my moss; the wooden branches that grew under it yearned for sunlight. But I wanted to be inside, I wanted to hide from that tickle of pleasure and sit on the couch and watch television. I wasn’t ready to live out here, no matter how much my body wanted to.
From Thomas’s bedside, I looked through the hospice and wondered if this was where Henry had gone. If he just bought his plot and his bed and spent however long he had lying on the ground and looking at the bit of sky his branches would soon occupy.
Walter and I set up chairs and passed out cigarettes and tried to talk. But most of the time, we would just watch Thomas and fill the time. Unlike most diseases, towards the end Sylvan’s makes you still. It breaths for you so you never hyperventilate. Your heart rate stays steady. It wasn’t that he looked sicker and sicker; just less and less like a person. Somewhere down the line, he stopped being charming. Instead he was a breathing lump of vines and ivy and branches and a patchwork of a face. I talked to him once. He had a crisis of faith right before the end. I don’t blame him, but it shook me up. Sometimes I think the hardest thing about believing in something is sustaining it. Trust takes far more energy than skepticism. Gretchen was the most help for him then. She’d sit by his bed, and they’d pray together. He told me he was scared, and I told him there was nothing to be afraid of and leaned in so he could kiss my mossy cheek.
We could tell when he was just about to plant. His arms had grown up and his legs had grown down. Attendants had moved the bed away. He looked more impaled than standing. By the time everyone had arrived, his head was nearly buried in the sinewy bark. The tree had tried to swallow him and choked somewhere on the way down, and then it waited for its jaws to get bigger so it could take him in the rest of the way. It would be over by the end of the night. It wasn’t a time to say goodbye. But we all did. We rested our palms (if we had them) against the tree and felt the heart beating at its center, reminding us he was still there. It was the bit of Thomas that would live forever, or at least as long as his tree stood. A few of us who were blooming plucked our flowers and left them on different parts of his branches. We didn’t mind the blood that trickled through our greenery. Then we sang. All his favorite songs echoed through mp3 files and shitty portable speakers. We tried our best to move our mouths as quickly as the lyrics. We held hands. We ran around his tree in circles winding ourselves up. And then I spun around until I was too dizzy to stand. Vines trailed after me. I could hear the air hiss through the moss that grew inside my ears. I ran faster. It got louder. I ran faster again. And eventually it all just became noise. Loud, rushing nose. Like laughter. We were all laughing by then as we fell down one by one on the grass around his tree. We lay on our backs and looked through his branches, laughing until our sides hurt. Mike’s actually split.
When things calmed down we all sat around him, our backs pressed against his trunk. His heart beat a steady rhythm. Dinah started crying first. She pressed her face into her knees and shook and for the first time it felt like he was gone. I held her shoulder, and drew her as close as I could. A few people rested their hands on her back, or on her leg if they couldn’t reach. No one wanted to be the first to leave.
For a few nights, I wondered what it would be like to plant. I couldn’t picture it in a hospice. I wanted to go somewhere else, somewhere there weren’t any other trees to talk to. I pictured it in a field, one that looked like a hillside from before the virus. The longer I waited, the easier it got to imagine.
My body drank sunlight like lemonade in Arabia. Vines poured out my mouth and nose, weaving together until they were a trunk, thick, tall, and old, reaching up to try and get closer to the sun. They spread out from my fingertips, twirling and knotting themselves into branches. They bloomed lush leaves and bright flowers, shed pink petals on the ground, and devoured light until I no longer felt hungry. They gushed down from between my legs and between my toes. They buried themselves deep in the earth. I wrapped myself in a robe of vines and felt the few remaining bits of my skin decay and shed to grass. My roots rushed down and grabbed hold of the rocks and the fabric of the universe, and they would never let go.
After Thomas planted, the group stopped meeting. Not right away. We trickled out. It happened naturally. People got busy. Charles would miss one week then Dinah the next. Sue said Tuesdays and Fridays just didn’t work for her anymore. When they didn’t work for Walter either, we thought of changing the date. I stopped going a little after that. We kept in touch, though. We talked and were glad to see each other. It was a small community that was only getting smaller, though the meetings got less and less frequent as most of us sank into our couches. I thought of going out again and finding another bar while there was still time, but no one ever wanted to go with me when I suggested it, and so I never went. But on the particularly bad days, I always had someone to call. And we always got together for the plantings. Though none of them had been quite like Thomas’s and we stopped trying to make them that way. Each one was full of stories and friends and eulogies. Walter’s was particularly hard. I stayed there all night, long after everyone else left. On the whole, though, we came later and left earlier. It got easier to go home and let them go. But we were always there. Towards the end, I got worried. I wanted to grow faster, plant sooner. I didn’t want to be last.
Sarah Alpert lives in Madison, Connecticut. This is her first published work.