“Hey, tits, how’s it hanging? Both of them, I mean.”
It never occurred to Gabrielle at the time that everyone on the planet was here for a reason, and yes, that even included assholes like Marcus Stoll. During most of study period he had done nothing but lounge at his desk with his dirty-blond hair falling into his eyes, drumming his chewed stub of a pencil on the desk, and making no secret of staring at her chest while she tried to focus on her Sociology essay, aptly titled “Crime and the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.”
“You know,” she said, keeping her tone as cold as possible, “You really should give this a read. It might help you in later life.”
Marcus only laughed, a sudden and blunt croak. Nope, there was probably no helping him.
Simon used to say that Marcus liked her, but because he was so emotionally stunted he didn’t know how to show it so he said shitty things to her instead. Gabrielle wasn’t sure, though she often wondered if there was any truth to Simon’s theory.
“You made any new friends yet?” Marcus asked. Gabrielle didn’t need to see the smirk, it was right there in his tone.
She wished Simon was there, sitting beside her, preparing to back her up when she told Marcus to piss off. “Piss off,” she said.
“Hey, I’m just trying to look out for you.”
She refused to glance up from her notebook. The nib of her pen created a vicious smudge of ink across the last word she wrote. Soft denim hissed gently as Marcus slid across one space to sit beside her, in Simon’s old chair. Nobody had sat there since. Marcus smelled like weed and cheap deodorant. He dipped his head so he could speak to her without others hearing.
“I bet you get a lot of attention from guys. But you know, they’re only after one thing, right?”
“Oh? And what are you after?” she said, prickles winding up her back.
Marcus fiddled with the corner edge of her textbook, ruffing up the pages. “I just want to make sure you have a friend to lean on. You know, after all that McCullough stuff.”
Heat flushed through her. “You don’t know anything about it.”
“I know he was your buddy. Maybe he was more than that—who am I to say? McCullough—what was it, Simon?—yeah, he seemed all right.”
Gabrielle was pretty sure Marcus and Simon never exchanged a friendly word. She wondered if Marcus ever exchanged friendly words with anyone.
“So was he your boyfriend?” he asked.
Was this his odd way of trying to make conversation? Up until now, he had only ever teased Gabrielle about the size of her boobs. “Not that it’s any of your business, but no,” she said between gritted teeth. “He was my best friend.” The best friend anyone could dare to hope for.
“Aw man, I didn’t mean to hit a nerve.” Marcus tapped his fingertips on the table. “It’s just rough, is all. How he killed himself—”
Now Gabrielle snapped around to glare at him. “You shut your mouth. Where have you been getting your information?”
“Hey, it’s just been going around.” Marcus idly rubbed his pointed chin where a fine ghost of stubble pushed through. His eyes usually had a dark and lazy quality to them, as if he wasn’t engaged in whatever was happening, but at that moment they were bright and alert, gauging her reactions. He just wanted to get a rise out of her, Gabrielle was sure.
“Well you should check your facts before talking crap,” she said, gathering her books.
“Aw, come on, I’m just trying to make friends with you.” Marcus pressed his hand against her elbow as she shoved her books into her bag. “Don’t be like that. Come on, tits.”
Asshole, she wanted to snap. Bastard. But her throat was too tight and she couldn’t speak another word. She brushed past the back of his chair, her bag knocking him in the shoulder. Trust the rumour mill to make up some horrid story about Simon. Suicide couldn’t be further from the truth. She bet they had all been in each other’s DMs about it, spreading lies until the lies became real for everyone at school who didn’t know how Simon died.
Gabrielle didn’t think twice about skipping her next class.
The tangled, overgrown garden was tucked near the back of the allotments, the one spot that had never been claimed because it was so much smaller than the others although the landowner charged just as much. None of the other allotment owners seemed to mind Gabrielle and Simon using it to hang out, study after school, or watch movies on the tablet with their headphones on. They especially didn’t mind when they eventually began to grow plants—which had been Simon’s idea, on account of him having green fingers, on account of his dad being a landscape artist.
Unlike him, Gabrielle always struggled to keep things alive. She tugged a few weeds out of the dry soil, wishing for more of the little yellow buds that speckled the strange vine-like creepers that covered their patch like veins, though unsure of what they were or how to grow more.
“I’ll make it really easy for you, Gabs. Like, literally give you the easiest plants to take care of. Trust me, a hamster could grow these.”
“What are they?”
“Succulents. Look, they’re kind of small and prickly-looking but they’re nice at heart. A bit like you.”
She wished she could hear Simon’s deep and hearty laughter, just one more time. It would have cheered her up after her encounter with Marcus Stoll and put her at ease about people making up rumours about her best friend. Then again, if Simon was there to ease her worries, there wouldn’t be any rumours about him.
But their garden served another, more secretive purpose, one that only they knew. It had been Gabrielle’s idea, based on a folk tale in a TV show she watched when she was younger.
Take a really bad day, a Marcus Stoll kind of day, a day where you failed a test or, in Gabrielle’s case, a day where you’ve got horrible period cramps and just want to curl up and not. Gabrielle and Simon dug holes between the plants on those days, small in diameter but as deep as they could go with their basic tools.
Then they yelled into the earth, as long and loud as they could, pouring out all of their anger and pain and exhaustion until they felt better. As soon as they were done, they filled the holes in and planted something in their place.
Let’s leave something nice, Simon once said. We don’t want to poison the garden by accident.
Gabrielle stood at the allotment edge, the gardening gloves her grandmother leant her suddenly feeling too big for her hands and the trowel too small to make an impact on the dried, early-summer dirt. Part of her wanted to plunge the trowel into the ground and stab and stab and stab, but Simon had loved this little patch of earth and it didn’t feel right.
It was theirs.
Well, hers now, she supposed.
She shoved her curls out of her face and knelt, picking a random spot and starting to dig out a hole. Maybe, once she had screamed down into it, she would plant something. Simon always said it was better to grow something nice in place of a weed.
She was only a few inches into the dig when a breeze swept across the allotment, far colder than any June breeze had a right to be. On that burst of frigid air came a whisper, soft and sibilant. Gabrielle sat back on her heels and looked around. All the other allotment plots were quiet, not another gardener in sight.
Another strong gust of chill air shuddered across her skin and she dropped the trowel, one of her oversized gloves slipping from her hand. “Hello?” If this was some perv’s idea of a joke she was going to be mad. She’d heard her parents talking about an old local who liked to sit in hedges and watch the traffic, but creeping on a girl on her own just minding her business and digging a scream hole was beyond weird.
“Holy sssssshi—” She forgot the trowel and shoved herself backward on the dirt as something fluttered in the air before her, pale and filmy like smoke. Then, the disembodied voice again.
You didn’t seriously just fall over in the middle of the horror movie, did you? God, how cliche can you get?
It couldn’t be. It couldn’t be Simon’s voice—Simon was dead. But there it was, that familiar tone, always loaded with his gentle sarcasm.
Gabrielle knew grief did strange things to a person. Her counsellor had told her as much during their past sessions. But hallucinating? Nobody had explicitly mentioned that.
Um, hello? This is your friendly dead best friend. Earth to Gabs, do you read me?
The voice was not quite a voice, although Gabrielle heard it clear as a rushing river. Simon’s voice, in her head and her chest and all around her. “Si?” she whispered, as the pale wispy smoke shape grew bigger.
“Oh my God, it’s really you? I can’t even…”
Yeah. So, guess I died then. That’s a shame.
“This isn’t real,” Gabrielle said, more to herself.
OK, whatever you say. But could you still help me? It’s cold here and too quiet. I want to come back. I miss you. Would you believe me if I said I kind of miss school?
“No,” she said almost without thinking. She began shuffling backward on her butt, away from the twisting ghostly figure.
I know this is a lot—
“This is so more than just a lot.”
—right, but… Gabs. There’s a way. A way for me to come back.
“That doesn’t sound right.” Neither did chatting with the ghost of her dead friend, but there you go. Gabrielle was pretty sure she was having a breakdown of some sort. “None of this is right. I think I’ve cracked.”
You and me both, mate. Try being the dead one in this scenario.
She let out an incredulous, involuntary burst of laughter. It sounded so loud and alien among the silent plants. Had it really been that long since she’d laughed?
It was his humour, for sure. That breeze again, chill and whispering, freezing the tears Gabrielle didn’t even realise streaked her face.
Gabs, I need your help. Even if you don’t believe this is real, would you do this for me anyway?
How could she say no to even the hallucination of Simon, the boy she had known since they were little, the boy who always had her back, who would’ve done anything for her?
“What… what do you need me to do?”
It’s easy, I swear. We just need something to exchange. Some hair or a fingernail or something. Nothing major, I promise. But it can’t be yours. It needs to be—look, just relax and I’ll tell you everything.
As the sun began to set, Simon—ghost, hallucination, whatever he was—outlined the plan.
Marcus Stoll caught up with her near the lockers the next day. Gabrielle didn’t notice him approach through the crowds passing between lessons, until he noisily leaned a shoulder against the locker next to hers. One earbud was jammed in his left ear, the other dangling on its wire against his tarnished belt buckle. The hems of his jeans were frayed.
“What’s up, tits. Is that a new shirt?”
“What do you want?” Gabrielle sighed. She needed to play this carefully, although she had a feeling it wouldn’t be too difficult, based on pretty much all of their encounters to date. “And my name is Gabrielle, not tits.”
A tangle of students snickered nearby. Gabrielle’s shoulders tightened but she continued fussing at nothing-in-particular in her locker.
“OK, OK, Gabrieeellllle,” Marcus said. She heard his smirk rather than saw it. He seemed to like an audience and she wondered why since his father was the town drunk and his mother was… well, nobody knew where Mrs Stoll was these days. Sometimes Gabrielle felt bad for him, but then he’d go and open his mouth. “But you can’t blame me for noticing. They’re… impressive.”
She turned and smacked him on the arm, only lightly, hoping it was the right move.
“Whoa, you know I’m teasing, right? Like I don’t really mean any bad. You should be proud anyway. Most of your friends are still flat. Hey,” he leaned in. “You free tonight?”
There it was.
Only now Gabrielle craned her neck to stare up at him. “Why?”
“Wondered if you wanted to go to the beach. My uncle’s staying with my dad and he leant me his car. It’s a banger but should get us to the coast.”
“Tempting,” Gabrielle said slowly.
“C’mon, you’ll adore me once you get to know me. You just need to give me a chance.” It almost sounded believable, if it wasn’t for the way his eyes flicked downward. Was eye contact really that hard? She was also pretty sure she knew what chance he was after.
Gabrielle remembered Simon’s wispy, pale form. There’s a way. A way for me to come back. The way Simon had laid it out that evening on the allotment sounded simple enough. “Hm. All right. But not the beach. I’ve got a better place.”
He lifted one unruly eyebrow. “Oh yeah?”
She just needed to get a bit of his hair, or some small memento from a living person, even if it meant letting him in close. How hard could that be? Let him think she wanted to kiss, then just yank it out. He’d probably swear, call her a bitch, might even shove her. Who cared? This wasn’t about her. It was about Simon.
“Yeah. Here.” She tore a scrap of paper out of her notebook and scrawled the directions. “We can meet here. It’ll be quiet.”
Marcus scanned the paper. “Really? Isn’t that where old people go and hug trees or some shit?”
“It’ll be empty,” she clarified. “Seven o’clock. I need to go home for a bit first and drop off my school stuff.”
“Sweet. Yeah, OK. I’ll bring a smoke. My brother got hold of this great weed, really sticky and strong.”
Gabrielle lifted a shoulder, not willing to agree to anything but not wanting to put him off. A bitter taste rose up in her throat and she swallowed it back.
“Or we can just chill, you know, whatever.” Seriously, he might be convincing if he could just maintain eye contact.
“Yes, whatever,” she said.
Marcus laughed and tossed back his hair. “Whatever gets you off. But let me get stoned first, ‘K?” He shoved himself from the lockers and disappeared into the crowded hallway.
Painfully aware that some of their classmates had stopped chatting so that they could listen to the exchange, Gabrielle turned back to her open locker, wanting to crawl inside it. No doubt the rumour mill would pick up pace again, not to mention the things Marcus would say about her once he realised she was not up for sex.
She would just deal with those rumours, and it wasn’t like there was a lot of time left before the school year was out and then she’d be done with it all and go to uni where nobody knew who she was or what she’d been through. The plan was to go to the same uni as Simon, and now they could make that dream a reality.
This was for a good cause, the best cause, she reminded herself. It would fix everything.
A tight ball of prickles sat in her stomach. It had been there all day and it wouldn’t go away. Gabrielle got to the allotments first just before seven, weaving through the narrow walkways. The change was noticeable before she even reached the boundaries of their plot, and the smell…
The garden bloated with something like life, though it wasn’t the life she remembered Simon cultivating. Fly orchids spiralled up in strange helixes, different from the photos Simon had shown her the day they originally planted them. The delicate dancing girls she had planted with their soft petal arms were pushed down, pinned under the violent arch of sharp red leaves. The parasitic underground hydnora africana gave off a familiar, sickly-sweet and cloying scent, its red flowers worming up through the soil with their hungry mouths gaping open. Fat, moist-looking vines netted the ground, spewing out hundreds of those little yellow buds that seemed to scuttle like insects. Colours oozed together into uncanny spectrums that Gabrielle couldn’t quite wrap her head around.
Weird. It had never looked like this before. It had never made her feel like this before: slightly nauseous. She took a step backward.
A chill breeze lifted her hair from her neck, drying the sweat on her skin. The reassurance was all she needed and she released a breath.
“I’ve got someone. You’re probably not going to like it, but… anyway. It’s Marcus Stoll.”
That cold breeze again, sharper this time. Oh well, it was too late to change it now. Plus, she was sure that if there was a huge part of her eager to see Marcus freak the hell out, there would be a huge part of Simon eager to see it too.
Gabrielle thought she saw the glimmer of something near the hedge at the rim of their allotment, just for a moment. “So how does this work, exactly?” she asked.
But Simon didn’t reply or appear.
Dirt crunched beneath a heavy foot behind her. Gabrielle spun around.
“Holy shit, tits—I mean, Gabrielle.” Marcus stepped off the path and headed toward her, wrinkling his nose and waving his hand in front of his face. “This place stinks.” A thin joint was hooked behind one ear and his eyes were bright with anticipation for something she had no intention of giving him.
“You’ll get used to it,” Gabrielle said. “I told you it was quiet.”
“Yeah.” Marcus didn’t sound too sure. “Quiet and creepy as fuck.”
Here goes. Gabrielle held out her hand.
“Is this like a fetish or something?” Nevertheless, Marcus stepped into the garden to meet her. She was sure to put on her tightest t-shirt after school. “Whatever. It’s not about the venue, right? It’s all about the show.”
Gabrielle grabbed his sleeve and pulled him in close. Marcus stumbled, his feet catching in the vines, and they tumbled together to the ground.
“Hey—” He no longer sounded so self-assured. Beyond them, a grey shadow rose up and loomed above them in the still summer air. It was like time ground to a halt, no distant cars passing through town on the main road, no birdsong, nothing.
Gabrielle grabbed the collar of Marcus’s shirt and kissed him, crushing her mouth against his. Before she knew it his tongue was inside, sliding against her too fast and too forcefully to be pleasant. He tasted of weed and his nose was cold at the tip. She reminded herself that this was a good cause. Just a few strands of hair, Simon had said. Gabrielle reached up to tangle her fingers through Marcus’s dark-blond strands, finding them surprisingly soft.
Through the wet sucking of Marcus’s lips, the air hung heavy with that sickly-sweet scent and Gabrielle finally placed it.
It was rot.
She began to pull back, thinking she might throw up, the prickles churning in her stomach, but Marcus grasped her hard and held her still. A solid rise nudged against her thigh, straining against his jeans.
Just grab the hair, just grab the hair. But her arms were trapped by Marcus’s grip.
“Si!” she tried to scream, but the sound died in her throat.
Something slick and cool snaked around her leg. Gabrielle jerked and their chins struck. “Wait.” She heard her own voice as a distant alarm; her ears started to ring. For a moment Marcus froze, too.
“What?” he said. Then, “Wait. What the hell is that?”
Finally he released her. As Gabrielle scooted backward across the dirt, thorns latched onto her clothes, biting her skin beneath.
She looked over to where Marcus lay. Thick purple, pulsing tendrils wrapped around his legs, rising up past his knees. Tiny thistles burst from the yellow buds and clung to him, and he let out a guttural noise, something between a cry and a curse.
“Tits—Gab—!” he shrieked. “What the hell is this? Is this some kind of—oh, Jesus.”
The vines crept higher, twisting up around his thighs, thickening, lengthening, shining with a dark sap-like goop that stained Marcus’s threadbare jeans. The roots tightened around him. Marcus scrabbled with his hands, dragging lines of dirt but getting nowhere.
Gabrielle covered her mouth with her hand. She looked for Simon’s ghost and found it crouched at the edge of the garden, its pale, nebulous arms dug deep into the earth, its head inclined toward the struggling, shrieking Marcus.
“Si, stop. This wasn’t part of the plan!” Gabrielle cried. “What are you doing?”
Marcus gave up trying to drag himself to the edge of the garden, and waved his arms at her as if he expected her to grab him and help pull him free. But Gabrielle couldn’t move. The rise at the front of his jeans had abated. More tendrils sipped up out of the soil, hiking up great clods of earth, breaking flower heads. The tendrils wrapped around Marcus’s arms and stomach, and up, and up, snaking across his exposed throat, slimy trails glistening on his skin. When the vine tip entered his mouth, he let out a noise more vulnerable than anything Gabrielle had heard before in her life.
This isn’t right, what is Si doing? Yet she knew there was no stopping it. The garden—it was too hungry. Simon was too hungry.
A scream burbled up from the pit of Marcus, from somewhere deep inside that Gabrielle didn’t know existed. It was a child’s wet scream. But the garden ate his cries, and the vines visibly tightened around his throat.
“Si!” Gabrielle’s limbs suddenly gave and she shot forward, trying to pry the vines from Marcus’s neck. “Si, stop this!”
As she spoke, the earth shuddered and began to peel, dusty dry soil rolling back away from Marcus. He was sinking. The garden was eating him alive and Gabrielle couldn’t tear the vines from his neck. The garden pulled Marcus down, soil gaping to accommodate him; first his feet, his scuffed and faded Chuck Taylors vanishing beneath the dirt, then his legs. Dirt and the vine sap streaked his belly where his t-shirt had ridden up. His chest heaved with unspent cries, the vine in his mouth so thick now that no sound could escape.
Tears poured down Gabrielle’s cheeks.
I did this.
But Simon would never lie to me.
This can’t be happening.
But it was. Shoulder-deep in the soil, Marcus finally lost consciousness. The vine in his throat, bloated and black, pulsed slowly like a heartbeat. Gabrielle shut her eyes as he sank deeper, and all she was left with was the sounds.
Shuffle. Slurp. Rip. Ssschlop.
Gabrielle didn’t know how long she lay motionless among the plants, eyelids squeezed tight, mouth pursed against the screams that twisted in her throat like vines.
She didn’t want to open her eyes. The garden had grown still and silent. She felt dry, still roots pressing into her back. The thump of her pulse sounded loud, blood-rush like thunder in her ears.
A single bird cawed long and low somewhere nearby, a keening, melancholy sound.
Gabrielle dared to look.
Simon crawled to a sitting position, wobbled back and forth, and then slowly rose to his feet on shaky, stick-thin legs. Mud caked his naked body. He smiled a smile that was almost Simon’s, but not quite.
“See, Gabs.” His voice just a husk of what it once was. Soil fell from between cracked lips. “I told you everything would work out. Easy.”
Jennifer Oliver (she/her) is a writer, gamer and illustrator based in the UK. She writes stories set in the fantasy, sci-fi and horror genres aimed at both adults and young adults. Her stories have been published in Kaleidotrope and Youth Imagination Magazine. Visit her website at jenniferoliverwriter.com.
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