– Fierce Fiction by Belinda McCauley –
The plants grow unnaturally.
Obviously, there are those that say, Of course they don’t, they’re plants; they are nature, so nothing they do is unnatural. Even growing to the height of skyscrapers in mere months. Even swallowing highways. Even reclaiming ramshackle towns where everyone knows everyone’s business.
Jordan used to say it was their revenge. He was one of those people passionate about the planet, but only passionate enough to toss his Pepsi can into the blue bin. “Maggie,” he’d tell me, “the plants are angry. We ruined the world, so now they’re ruining ours. They’re reclaiming the life they should’ve had. Against all odds, they’re coming back from being dead and overcoming us.”
But Jordan didn’t know shit, and his passions were always fleeting. His Pepsi can might’ve gone in the blue bin sometimes, but he threw it into my kitchen trash whenever he stayed over at my place.
“Yeah,” I’d tell him, “and recycling your can will save you from their wrath.”
I’d laugh, and he’d smile uncomfortably and change the channel.
I don’t intend to go to the empty mall. I park down the street at my old high school, thinking I’ll walk its empty halls, but it’s Sunday and my knees aren’t up to hopping the fence anymore. So my feet carry me to the mall, even though I can already feel the blisters forming on my heels from the brand new flats I wear. I don’t have another pair of shoes with me. That’s what happens when you pack last minute.
I clutch my camera closer to my chest as I pick my way across the broken concrete of the parking lot. Weeds aren’t the only thing invading through the cracks. The Pacific Northwest’s climate makes it so that all sorts of plants have run wild here; my dad can’t use his driveway anymore because of the apple tree that sprang up in the middle of it.
I resist the urge to stop and photograph the plants outside. I’m here for something else, right? Not just the vibrantly colored flowers springing up from the sidewalk.
The door to the inside opens after a bit of coaxing. The vine holding it is stubborn, holding the door in place until I tug against it once, twice. Inside, the tiles are broken up by the plants bursting between them. Planters still dot the center of the corridor like a lane divide, and I do finally photograph one of these, because plants burst through it so exquisitely.
I know where I need to go, but I don’t look up at the Macy’s on the far end of the mall, lodged between the echoes of a Wetzel’s Pretzels and a Payless Shoes. I take my time, running my fingers over vines that creep along the walls, poking a flower that shrinks back at my touch. I stumble on a cracked tile, and the back of my flat cuts more deeply into my heel.
I almost leave. I almost decide it’s not worth it. But finally I suck in a deep breath, look up at the Macy’s, and accept what I need to do.
The grate over the entrance was breached ages ago, by looters and plants alike. I easily step into the store. The cash wraps are exactly where I remember them being, though the registers are long gone. Some signs still hang from the ceiling, crooked and torn. The escalator to the second level stands frozen, and coming up from the broken tile beside it stretches an arm of plant life, reaching for the sunlight flooding into the mall’s corridor. There are no windows in the store.
I flip on my phone’s flashlight as I pick my way up the escalator, leaping over broken steps. I think this one used to go down. A cashier definitely yelled at me and Jordan once because we dashed up, against the current. She didn’t stop us, though.
At the top, I pause. To the right used to be the model beds, now just hollow platforms that have toppled over. To the left was our favorite spot: the towels and bathmats. It was secluded and soft, and Jordan and I could go there to make out during the class periods we ditched.
I weave between the shelves, using my free hand to wipe away the dust in random stripes. My fingers come away gray and disgusting. I almost wipe them on my pants when I remember I’m wearing my good pants: black slacks bought at full price from a Saks Fifth Avenue. I can’t wipe on my blouse either, a black silk one I have never worn before today. A funeral outfit just for Jordan.
You always look stunning in black, Maggie.
His mom, Gina, was the one who called me. After fifteen years, she still has a soft spot for me. In high school, she always invited me over for dinner and movie nights. When I visited during college, even though Jordan and I had broken up, she would take me out for coffee. But her call was still unexpected.
I haven’t returned to my hometown in almost five years, whisked away to New York City by the false promise of fame and fortune. I like to let people think my job is glamorous; I don’t tell them that I never get to take pictures and life in a cubicle withers my soul.
After Gina and I hung up, I realized I understood why Jordan did it. At least, I thought I did. He visited me just two months ago, part of our more recent era of encounters wherein we try to pretend we’re still in high school and abandon our adult responsibilities in favor of a few days of laughter and sex. We cuddled up in my cramped Brooklyn apartment, his vanilla skin swirling against my chocolate.
Do you ever just feel…alone? Like, no one else gets it. No one possibly could.
I brushed off his words, rolled my eyes even as I wrapped up my hair for the night. I thought he was being dramatic. I should have taken him seriously. I should have listened.
Jordan believed the plants fight to overcome our world. But he couldn’t overcome it.
In the corner of what used to be the bath accessories, the carpet is torn up by weeds at the base of the built-in shelves. The wood underneath smells so strongly of mold that I sneeze. I think I see moss, but it’s hard to tell, and I don’t want to lean any closer. I’m pretty sure this is the corner where, sophomore year of high school, Jordan and I snuggled up after school, long before sex and truancy became a part of our relationship. He made me laugh with a joke, or maybe he just said something dumb, as he often did. I giggled until it became a guffaw, guffawed until my sides hurt and tears leaked from my eyes. When I finally finished, Jordan lifted my chin with his fingers.
I love you, Maggie.
I loved him, too.
For a while in college, I thought maybe I hadn’t. I’d been too young and dumb to understand love. He’d been important, but I hadn’t loved him. I didn’t talk to him for years, thinking this, sure of it. And then five years ago, I made my way back to Seattle, four hours from our hometown, for our high school reunion. I hadn’t thought about him much, too caught up in my own life to spare much energy for his. But when I saw him that night, he came right up to me and reached out for a hug. The pain of our breakup had vanished, our romance favorably colored by nostalgia, and as I hugged him back, a million emotions rushed into me, most distinctly conviction. I had loved him. A part of me had really loved him.
We spent the entire night talking at the reunion party, and then the entire next morning in our hotel room. The sex had been different in all the best ways, and the conversation didn’t lapse when we had ten years to fill in. Just like that, we were okay, returned to a normalcy we had forgotten about.
Still, we had obligations and responsibilities we could not ignore. Though we ached for each other’s bodies, Jordan could not pull me away from New York, and I could not free him from our hometown. Even as bankruptcy hit, even as the plant life grew out of control and reclaimed the landscape, we could not be moved.
I focus my lens on the moldy corner and snap a few photos. I can make a series of this photos I take today. Maybe I’ll call it lovers lost. Maybe something else.
I didn’t plan this. I packed my camera without thinking and left it in the trunk of my rental car during the funeral. I embraced Gina at the wake, told her I was so, so sorry. I couldn’t stay there. How could I pretend to share in that grief when I didn’t feel Jordan there?
Now I’m staring at the place he first told me he loved me, backing away from it, every footstep an echo of my life fifteen years ago.
Echoes. Another possible title. Everything in this Macy’s, in this entire mall, is an echo. Nothing here is quite right. The plants are natural but unnatural. The town flails, drowns, reverts to its roots. The people and buildings are swallowed by the greenery, because they do not belong here.
I do not belong here.
I abandon the corner, meandering through the empty aisles, shining my phone light on the shelves. I trip over a thick root that crosses the aisle at an angle, pulsing with life and disappearing under the dilapidated shelves on either side of me. I back out of the aisle to trace the root. On the right, it doesn’t emerge, but on the left, it continues into the dark, beyond my sight.
I double check my camera is secure and follow the root.
I didn’t mean to bring the camera, but I’m glad I did. It gave me an excuse to come here, to leave the wake once I noticed Jordan’s wife across the room, eyeing me strangely. Maybe she recognized me from an old photo. Jordan never told her much about me, but she must have known something. She must have known that first love is hard to outgrow.
I’ve thought about you for ten years.
Jordan told me he was married shortly after the reunion. He even admitted to stowing his wedding band in his pocket the moment he’d spotted me. His confession didn’t surprise me; Jordan was never the loyal type, not to anyone else. Our carnal magnetism could not be helped. In high school, I told myself that was how love worked. Now I know it’s only how our love works.
In some sort of twisted way, I think Jordan and I were meant for each other. We grew together, rooted in the same soil of our hometown, and we wrapped around each other until it was impossible to distinguish which thoughts were mine and which were his. It was only a matter of time before we twisted too far, before we strangled each other.
I couldn’t look his wife in the eyes. I don’t even know her name. If she’d reached out to shake my hand, to ask my name or ask if I’m Jordan’s old friend Maggie, I would have burst out sobbing right there. No, it’s better that I’m here, where I can grieve in the hollow, dark remnants of my old life with Jordan alone. Where I don’t have to worry who will get hurt when I try to say that I miss him, too, because I loved him in a way I hardly understand. I don’t get to claim that open grief, surrounded by loving friends and family.
Entitlement. Another title.
I’m yours. I’ve always been only yours.
The pulsing root winds around the elevator shaft sitting in the middle of the second floor. It might be a trick of the eyes, but I swear the darkness is less dense here. I think I even see a stream of light beyond that. The root gets thicker, too, as thick as my bicep now.
I have nothing to say to Jordan’s wife. What we had was separate from her, something that could not be helped. I never wanted to take him away from her.
But apparently I did.
Junior year of high school, I cried next to Jordan’s hospital bed. Bandages covered his wrists, the gauze stained with blood. I would trace his scars again and again, with eyes, fingers, lips. I tried to understand why he did it, but I never could. I think Jordan knew that.
This last time, he didn’t slice his veins along those scars. He didn’t try to hang himself in the closet with a necktie like he did while I was at college, something Gina told me over coffee. No, this time he overdosed on sleeping pills. His most peaceful attempt, and the one that finally worked.
I stop walking. This used to be the juniors’ department. We came here before senior prom, pulling every other dress off the rack and making Jordan watch as I tried them all on. Though I’m curious about the weak light not far away now and the roots snaking beneath my feet multiply, I can’t resist this spot. I take slow, precise steps around the toppled clothing racks. I take photos here and there, and then, looking up, I realize the light is likely from a hole in the roof over the dressing rooms just beyond this department.
I snap a photo of a lone hanger, already half-distracted. The lone hanger dangles over the roots beneath it. Just hanging on. Not a great title, but it’s what Jordan did for a long time.
During the prom dress shopping, I eventually picked a strappy red number that hugged my youthful curves. I knew it was the one moment I put it on, so I didn’t let Jordan see it. I wanted his eyes to pop out of his skull the moment he saw me in it, hair done up, nails manicured, lips painted a startling scarlet to match the dress.
You’re gorgeous. I can’t believe how beautiful you are.
We had sex in the dressing room after, on top of the pile of discarded dresses. It was the middle of the day, maybe a Wednesday, and he clamped a hand over my mouth so that I wouldn’t moan too loudly. (Suppressed bliss, another title.) Can I find that exact dressing room?
The roots get thicker the closer I get to the dim light. They fuse together, doubling in size, twisting around each other to build to something larger than they can be separate and apart. The light grows stronger, and I can see the hole in the ceiling. The sun illuminates something, and I think so myself I must not be seeing it right.
The last thing I said to Jordan was at the end of his final visit. His bag was packed, his arms around me as we stood in my kitchen. His Lyft waited downstairs, ready to take him away from me again.
Jordan kissed my forehead, my lips. You know I love you.
It was something we just said to each other. It rolled off the tongue easily. Against the odds, we still wound around each other, building ourselves into something greater. We had split, and then returned to ourselves. What else can you call that need, that thirst for another person’s arms around you?
“I love you, too,” I replied. “I’ll see you in a couple of months.”
It would have been next weekend. I texted Jordan different flights that would work for me to meet him at the airport the day before Gina called me. He never replied. Now I know why.
At least he knew that I loved him, in that strange, strangling way we loved each other. I can live without him, but part of me, deep inside, will always mourn for him. He is dead, and for some reason he loved me. He loved me for damn near twenty years.
I approach the door in front of the beam of light. This is the one. This is a place where Jordan and I laughed and loved as I twirled before him in silly dresses. This is a place where we lived.
I nudge open the door and gasp. Before me towers the impossible: a tree. It’s taller than me, with leaves sticking up through the hole in the ceiling and branches splayed along the back wall. Though this mall has been abandoned just a few years, this tree stands with the solidity of an ancient redwood. Its trunk is as wide as my hips, and the roots around its base are as thick as my leg, pulsing like veins carrying life back to the tree, scavenging nutrients from somewhere deep in the store.
The tree basks in the light pouring down on it. One day, its trunk will be too wide for this dressing room. It will rip through the walls, forged from its dead brethren, and consume them. Their deaths will feed its life, just as this shell of a mall stabilizes its roots.
At the funeral, I stared down at Jordan’s body in the open casket. I tried not to take too much time, tried not to seem like I was as affected by his death as I am. His eyes were closed, but I longed to see their kind green staring down at me. His dark hair was neatly combed, and I had to stop myself from running my fingers through it. His lips were shut, pale, but I remembered perfectly the first time they had pressed to mine, and the last. He wore a suit, not a very nice one, but nicer than anything I’d ever seen him in. The wrinkles between his eyebrows had been smoothed away, like years of stress washed clean. Like he was shiny and new, at last.
Post-mortem, I decide. After death.
I plant my feet among the roots, careful not to step on them. I lift my camera and take dozens of photos, capturing every trick of the light, every dust mote, every impossible root and leaf that shines in the light. Every smile that once existed here, every laugh, every affectionate whisper.
This place should be dead. It should be an echo, a place of lost lovers and livelihoods. I crouch down, finally daring to run my fingers along the roots like I ran them along Jordan’s scars and veins. I can feel the tree breathe beneath my touch, so very alive.
I sigh with the tree, releasing the weight of Jordan’s death on my heart. The tears sprout from my eyes before I can stop them, blazing trails down my cheeks, dripping onto the tangled roots beneath. Feeding this new life.
Maggie, the plants are angry. We ruined the world, so now they’re ruining ours. They’re reclaiming the life they should’ve had. Against all odds, they’re coming back from the dead and overcoming use.
He is trying to tell me that he was right.
I spare one last look for the tree, for Jordan, before I take my things and leave.
About the Author – Belinda McCauley
Belinda McCauley is a writer and editor who recently completed her MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University. Her work has appeared in The Dark River Review and Sad Girls Club Lit. She currently lives outside of Los Angeles with her partner and their cats.
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