Jackie and The_Vine_Bitch

The vines began growing out of Bea’s back after she made out with B.J. Olsen behind the school, up against the shed storing cobwebbed buckets and rakes missing most of their teeth. When he went for her waistband, she pulled away—his mouth tasted like vegetable soup, his back was a sagebrushed landscape of acne, and she’d be late to work at the coffee shop. But he pushed her into a derelict vegetable patch and pressed her down onto a pole bean that long ago went to seed. He pressed and pressed and pressed. She watched bits of cloud coalesce into a mouth screaming, stretch into a too-wide grin, and unravel into strands of grey thread. Her shirt tore and her back was gashed and her head knocked against a stone arcing out of the dirt. She found the whole situation deeply unpleasant but unsurprising.

When she got home, she scrubbed herself, though she could never get clean in their bathtub, shellacked with a grey scum of soap and skin that came with the apartment. That night, itchy patches formed around her cuts. The next night, growths the size and feel of ball bearings kept her awake. In the morning, pale green shoots sprouted from her back. She skipped school to lie on the couch, tendrils unfurling from inside her like curls of dust from a beaten rug.

“Why is this happening?” her mother asked, running her fingers through the tendrils.

Bea shivered. Though she was not pleased to have plants grow from her body, she’d expected something like this to happen at some point. She was relieved by this development, in a way—a physical manifestation of the vague tragedy she’d believed had been growing inside her since before she was born.

She covered herself with a heavy sweater despite the early spring heat. At the coffee shop that afternoon, she messed up three orders and spilled steamed milk on a coworker’s arm, sending Jörn home with a streak of burned skin. The vines itched and crawled down her back searching for escape from the wool she’d trapped them in, and she scratched and shimmied and twisted. A customer asked if she had fleas. The customer was a dog groomer and had seen this behavior before. “They have really good flea shampoo next door,” he said, indicating the pet supply store with his head as he picked up the paper wrapper holding his warmed egg-white bite between a finger and thumb, as if he could catch whatever Bea had.

At the end of her shift, the manager called Bea into his office. She leaned forward in the chair to avoid crushing her vines, which the manager viewed as an invitation. He sat on his desk with his legs spread at her eye-level.

“I know you’ve been taking the day-old croissants,” he said.

She looked at the tiled floor, shifted so the wool of her sweater scratched her back. She imagined digging at her back with a fork until she bled again.

“Are you tweaking?” the manager asked.

“What’s tweaking?”

The manager sighed and rubbed the tops of his thighs. He was 27, nearly bald already. He drank cold brew until his hand wrapped in a claw around the cup, took questionable muscle-building supplements, and spent a significant portion of his time managing the coffee shop in the bathroom. He said he may have to let her go.

“But the croissants are going to be thrown away,” she said. “They’re old.”

“It’s not just the croissants. You didn’t show up yesterday. You’re acting weird today. There’s the thing with Jörn—I have paperwork to fill out now.” He stared at her until she met his eyes. “It’s about trust.” She looked down again. He slid off the desk and crouched next to her, his pants stretched to capacity across his thighs. He lifted her chin with a finger and tilted his head. “Maybe there’s something we can do to build some trust between us.”

He reached around her, put a hand up the back of her sweater, went for her bra.

“The fuck is that?” He pulled up her sweater, exposed the green growths poking from her skin. “Oh, you are definitely fired,” he said, pointing to the door and shaking his head. “Gross.”

Bea told her mother she lost the job because of the vines, not because she had been taking day-old pastries to give to their pet cow, Au Lait.

“I need you to have a job,” Jackie said.

Jackie had been unemployed for two months after being fired from customer service at a grocery delivery company. (“Some woman emailed me a picture of her can of green beans, said it looks funny. I said, it looks fine to me. So she ate them and got botulism and somehow that’s my fault.”) Au Lait needed 50 pounds of feed a day and had clomped at least one hole in the floor. Lou, the downstairs neighbor with a tattoo of a spitting chicken on his neck, wanted a payoff for not notifying the landlord of the undisclosed pet.

“I’m going to fix you,” Jackie said.

Bea lay face-down on her bed. Au Lait watched from the doorway. Jackie tugged on the vines. Bea screamed. Au Lait bellowed. Jackie cursed, pulled again. Chills shot through Bea as root hairs held fast to her ribs.

Jackie retrieved the scissors, pushed Au Lait to the side with her hips. Bea gripped the edge of the mattress as the cold metal pressed into her vines. Her watery eyes met Au Lait’s expansive brown ones; she imagined sinking into them.

Jackie squeezed. The pain seared. Bea screamed. Jackie squeezed harder. Hot tears rolled onto the sheets. Jackie pressed her knee into Bea’s back for leverage and sawed the blades back and forth. Bea writhed. Au Lait nosed Jackie and hoofed the floor.

“I got through one!” Jackie held up the green stalk. Au Lait licked the cut end.

Bea touched the raw stump in her back. Sticky ooze seeped from it. The smell of rotting leaves filled the room.

“Don’t cut any more of them, please,” she said. Au Lait moaned from the doorway and let go a massive shit.

Jackie leaned against the wall, nearly out of breath, trying to unstick the sappy scissor blades. “No, I don’t think I will.”

Bea closed her eyes and pictured the summer sun, unimpeded by clouds, burning the grass and her skin to a crisp.

The vines twined together into a trunk thicker than Bea’s leg. Tendrils wrapped themselves around a lamp, buried themselves in a blanket, curled around her wrists. The root cap sucked at her insides like a fetus. The roots hairs urged themselves into the spongy spaces of her body. Her nerves coiled upward, veined through tendrils and to the tips of leaves.

As she lay on the couch, a fly landed on a leaf, its feathery legs flickering and its tongue prodding along Bea’s waxy skin. She felt into it, focused on each of the fly’s footfalls until everything else was gone, her mind colorless and her body limp, and she flicked the tip of the leaf and knocked the fly away.

She was left breathless but giddy. She could control these things growing from her. She sent her mind to the base of the vines, to the roots spreading into her body. She saw each root hair retract, disappear, leave her body. Her body was open and free, she was walking, running, flying under an open sky. Her back was only smooth flesh. Then her mind caved to black.

When she woke, she was still on the couch, her vines feeling the warmer air at the ceiling, dust motes settling on her leaves. So she could move these things, but she couldn’t expel them. Au Lait pressed her wet nose to Bea’s stalk, tested it with her flat teeth. Bea swatted at her.

Jackie pushed Au Lait aside and sat. “I’ve decided we need to reframe this situation: your vines are a blessing, sweetie.” She pulled out her phone. “I started a GoFundMe for your treatment. And your Instagram account already has 200,000 followers.”

Bea propped up on her elbows and took the phone. “The_Vine_Bitch?”

“I want you to seem edgy and interesting—hot. You could use some help in that department.”

A few of the pictures Bea recognized. Some were taken when she was asleep. Bea pointed to a picture of a cactus shaped like a penis.

Jackie shrugged. “It’s funny. People like memes.”

Au Lait knocked Jackie’s cigarette to the floor as she nosed the phone. “Goddammit, cow.” Au Lait backed away, the floor creaked under her. Jackie stomped the cigarette out in a groove cut into the floor by a hoof.

“Have you fed her?” Bea asked.

“She’s fine.” Jackie rubbed the screen on her pants. “I think it would be good to have people come see you, take selfies with you. Your vines will be influencers.”

Bea was face down in the grass at the park near their apartment. The vines reached past the willow oak.

People took pictures and selfies, yes, but no one wanted to just see The_Vine_Bitch—they wanted to touch her, to wrap their arms around her, to climb her. They wanted to feel that she was real. They carved their initials with plus signs into her cellulose and ran their fingers over the gashes, to feel that they were real.

Jackie charged $50 a climb. She discouraged carving. She practiced her smile and told herself that her small, widely spaced teeth were disarming, not distracting. She swat-fluffed the back of her short hair despite the spring humidity.

Bea felt legs wrapping around her, bodies pressing and scooting themselves up. She could’ve thrown up the dirt she’d eaten.

Au Lait munched brown patches around the playscape and on the soccer field. She curled next to Bea like a cat during the nights. Bea slept fitfully, unused to sleeping under the sky. Au Lait woke her in the mornings by trying to chew on the vines. Bea waved her away with an arm, or a tendril.

The vines soon reached the clouds, and The_Vine_Bitch’s followers had grown into the millions. Bea’s skin was papery and brown with dirt. The vines were hungry and thirsty and her body was restless. She felt the frantic energy of pacing though she could only lie still, as if her body wanted to fight the takeover but knew it would fail.

“We’re getting an American Ninja Warrior today.” Jackie bounced on her toes. “We’re going to set up a fence, and cops will be here for crowd control. Lou is helping me sell tickets.” She sat on the grass and lowered her voice. “You know Lou. From downstairs. He’s actually pretty nice, once you get to know him. He’s very tall. Did you ever notice how tall? He’s like a giant.”

Bea shook her head.

“I might have a real chance with him. But right now I’ve got to focus on this event. We’re bringing in a lot of money.”

Bea looked at her mother, at her clay-red hair poofed like a fur hat. She wore a dress Bea hadn’t seen before.

“After this, will we have enough money for treatment?”

“Oh honey. Please.” Jackie picked a leaf out of Bea’s hair, then tugged at her dress near the armpits, where a chicken cutlet of skin swelled over the fabric.

The American Ninja Warrior thighs gripped her vines like a vise. His cleats tore into Bea’s cellulose as he pushed himself up and up. The crowd cheered: “Climb the Vine” and “Mount that bitch!” and “All the way! All the way!” He humped the stalk he clung to, and the crowd pressed against the orange plastic fencing. Au Lait lowed. Bea pushed her head deeper until dirt filled her ears. She had bitten through her lips. Blood mixed with dirt on her tongue.

He went higher than anyone else, past the cover of clouds. She felt his body tighten around her against the wind. Her mind retreated into itself, into the gray folds lined with root hairs, and she flicked the ends of her vines, shook them like a wet dog. Second later, she felt the ground reverberate from his fall, from his splatting in a broken heap near the swings.

State Health Services argued with Environmental Protection about who had jurisdiction over Bea. Fish and Wildlife categorized her as an invasive species that required removal, but Child Protective Services intervened. Protect Our Parks wanted the cow to be rehomed with The Benevolent Barn. The Benevolent Barn had no room for an elderly Holstein. The neighborhood forum was overrun with debate on whether Bea was a nuisance or a miracle. Signs for both sides were placed in yards, and neighbors stopped speaking. The police tried to stop people from climbing and a protest broke out because the people had a right to climb, goddammit! Rubber bullets were fired, a mother of three was trampled to death, the coffee shop manager started throwing wild punches after being elbowed in the eye. The police eventually turned against each other when an officer tried to climb Bea to escape the angry mob.

UrbnFarmr1345 commented on The_Vine_Bitch’s most recent post that he was certain the cow had mastitis, and he would call Animal Control. Jackie’s ex commented that she’d stolen the cow from him. Jackie replied that she took the cow because he still owed her the $1,000 he borrowed to “get his truck fixed” and she was going to sell the cow but it turns out the cow wasn’t worth beans anyway and because who knew a cow would have amazing homing abilities after you’d let it stay in your apartment and fed it Cheetos and what does he care, he never even asked for her back so fuck off. BJOlsen05 commented that face-down in the dirt was a good look for that filthy bitch.

People cut the orange fence at night and livestreamed their climbs. Bea flicked them off, and they landed, cracked and ruptured. The city replaced the temporary fencing with chain-link. People hopped the chain-link fence at night and livestreamed their climbs. Bea flicked them off. A line of electricity was run over the top of the fence, and people livestreamed themselves get shocked as they hopped the fence.

Jackie was the only civilian given a key to the gate so she could mulch and water Bea and operate her climbing business, which was granted an expedited permit after the riot. She discouraged carving, and smiled in the background of other people’s selfies. She posted a NO REFUNDS NO MATTER WHAT sign. She hated seeing people try to ride Au Lait. She hated that they tried to tip her when they sneaked in at night, that someone fed her something that turned her pupils into black holes and made her throw up on the park bench, that someone tried to milk her and kicked her udder when nothing came out. But what could Jackie do? They were paying customers.

Over one thousand people had died climbing Bea. Three people had died in violent protests concerning Bea. One man founded the Church of the Vine, claiming Bea went all the way to heaven, and he had 150 disciples. The_Vine_Bitch had 2.3 million followers. Her GoFundMe had earned $250,000, but Jackie was holding off on spending it, what with the pending litigation. Anyway, she’d made more from the climbers than she would have ever made at the grocery delivery company. Lou told her he was thinking about training to be an EMT, considering the recent local job demand in that sector.

Jackie squinted at the clouds, glowing golden in the afternoon sun. She loved Bea, she did. Bea had been a good partner, which was not what she’d expected from a daughter. Jackie liked to say Bea was an old soul because she was good at adult stuff Jackie was bad at, like following directions and not getting lost, putting things together, staying calm in a crisis. They never would have made it out of the Midwest if it weren’t for Bea. If Bea hadn’t been reading the map and telling her what to do, Jackie would have gone in circles, thrown a fit, and ended up back at the place she was trying to leave. And there was the time Jackie tried to quit smoking and woke up with nicotine gum in her hair. Bea walked into the bathroom to find Jackie crying, about to cut a chunk of hair from the side of her head. Bea took the scissors, sat Jackie on the edge of the tub, and worked the gum out with vegetable oil.

“How the hell did you know to do that?” Jackie had asked. Bea said she’d gotten gum out of her doll’s hair that way once. But that didn’t answer Jackie’s question. Somehow, Bea just knew certain things. Like how Jackie knew certain other things—how the scar on her wrist would ache if it were going to rain. Or how sometimes she just knew a person’s character, or at least she was getting better at it. Like with Lou. She could tell he wasn’t interested in her because she had money now, like some other guys had been, the ones who sent disgusting DMs. Lou really cared about her, which was why he was taking it so slow.

Jackie would miss Bea. But Jackie considered herself the kind of person who could find a silver lining in the most tragic circumstances. Most people would have been pissed to find themselves stuck with a pet cow in a two-bedroom apartment. But Jackie saw the bright side: it was good for Bea to have a pet, something to be responsible for. And now these vines. Jackie saw them for what they were: a message that it was time for her to grow up and learn to rely on herself, because Bea wouldn’t be with her forever, one way or another. Jackie was still young, after all. She would have a chance to try again, to have a second life, after Bea was gone. Not many people were so blessed. And Bea didn’t seem to mind. She never complained. It was not in her nature to complain, which was part of why she’d been a good match for Jackie.

Jackie picked a few clumps of dirt from Bea’s hair. “Do you like the new mulch? I got it from the nice garden store, the one on the south side.”

“Yeah, it’s good,” Bea said. In truth, it was bitter and scratchy, but she knew her mother was doing her best.

Jackie smiled. She craned her neck up to see the spot where her daughter disappeared into the clouds. “What’s up there, sweetie? Can you tell?”

Bea felt something beyond the clouds—the feeling of being watched. “I don’t know. Probably nothing.”

“I just wonder why people are so hellbent on climbing you. It’s like they know something I don’t.” She poked at Bea with a piece of mulch but felt as if it might go through her skin. “Maybe someone will make it back to tell us.” Bea felt her mother’s eyes search her, but she turned back to the soil.

Root hairs crawled through Bea’s veins. She itched. She was always thirsty, so she did not mind the spring rains. She couldn’t taste the rain through her roots, not exactly. But it felt like a memory, not an actual memory but one she wished she had. Like a soft hand moving over her skin, or of covered with a blanket before realizing she was cold.

In the quiet moments, when no one was climbing, Au Lait licked the waffle spots left by cleats and the gashes made by pens and pocketknives. Bea allowed herself to be lulled by the warm tongue. She thought of the sky, how she missed searching its wide blue possibility. The best she could do was turn her head all the way to the side to see a crescent of blue stretched above her. She could no longer look out to the horizon and wonder how long it would take to meet it. When she had wondered about finding the place where the earth and sky met, she had never thought of meeting the sky at its peak, where the air opened wide above the clouds, sparkled like sapphires, and ripped apart anything that didn’t bend to its whims.

She closed her eyes against the dirt so her eyelids held clouds of spun gold, silver grids of contrails billowing into vapor at their edges, pencil dashes of bird wings gliding higher than should be possible. And beyond that swept the something watching, the something that saw her fling the climbers back to earth. But that something, she could not picture.

Au Lait’s thick tongue passed over Bea’s wounds and she imagined the vines passing through her body, their roots coming out her front, splitting her lengthwise. Her two halves could pick themselves up, stick themselves back together, and she could climb and hope whatever she found up so high would let her stay.

Jackie stroked Bea’s hair, and another clump pulled free. She thought of laying the hair back onto Bea’s head to cover the bare spots, but would that look worse? She didn’t want this in anyone’s pictures. She didn’t want anyone to be reminded this would end. She shoved the hair under some mulch.

Au Lait was curled under the willow oak. Bea felt the air pressure shift above the clouds, a mix of hot and cold that distracted and soothed her.

“Bea, sweetie. I’ve been thinking,” Jackie said. “I want to go up. I need to see what’s up there.”

Bea pulled her face out of the dirt to look at her mother. Root hairs had breached the backs of her eyeballs and wrapped around her optic nerve. Her mother was fuzzy, but she could see the red of her hair—hair the color of a burning sunset. The color of the feeling of her mother running away from something while she hurtled toward something else.

“Bea, if I go up, will you help me? I don’t want to fall.” Jackie reached for Bea’s hand. The skin was damp and cold.

The boundaries and abilities of Bea’s body, sunken into the dirt, were always shifting now, like mud on a riverbank. She felt elemental—cells and soil and water and nerves and wind and sun. Her throat was lined with root hairs. She feared what would come out if she opened her mouth.

Bea tried again to focus on her mother, but she remained fuzzy, unseeable. Bea turned her head into the dirt, let her eyes rest. The ground was cool and soft. The insistence of it pressing up against her, swallowing her bit by bit, felt as inevitable as spring turning to summer, when the sun would burn the grass to nails.

The crowd started small the day Jackie decided to climb. She let herself in the gate, careful to lock it behind her. She waved. “I’m her mother!” she said, as if they didn’t know. “I’m going to climb today!” There were a few cheers, more murmurs of concern. Who would be in charge after she fell?

Au Lait’s legs straightened upward like a scissor lift as she watched Jackie attach herself to the vines with a harness. Jackie’s pockets held protein bars, and a water bottle was clamped to her belt. She patted the vines. “We’ll do this together, ok?”

She turned on the GoPro strapped around her head and tapped her phone. Her cleats dug into Bea’s cells. She ascended steadily. “I’m finally taking my turn,” Jackie said, scooting herself up the vines. “I know everyone who has climbed so far has fallen, but I think my daughter will find a way to protect me.” She laughed. “I feel good about this.”

Au Lait watched Jackie ascend and listened to her voice fade. More people gathered to watch. Bea felt her mother climb slowly, carefully, more carefully than Bea expected—almost as if she were afraid. The sun began its slow slide down the sky.

The watching crowd was ready for anything. They had brought what they could find: a woman had a knife in her pocket, a boy had an axe in his hand, several men had guns in their waistbands. Someone held a chair leg, nails still sticking out of the top. The mother would fall today, creating an opening that each person in the crowd was ready to fill.

Jackie’s grip tightened as she reached the uppermost part of the vines, near the clouds. The air was stagnant, as if the entire sky was watching. She was at the top. If there was something to see, she was there to see it.

Au Lait began to gnaw at the vines. Bea felt the teeth against her, but she remained still—she did not swat. She was tired.

The crowd pushed against the fence. The cow would ruin everything; they had to stop the cow. They tore at the chainlink, ripped up the posts, felt the electrical shocks of the wires as infusing them with strength. The ground sighed around Bea as the fence was uprooted. She felt the pounding of feet above her. Au Lait’s breath was warm, and her tongue was soft. Bea relaxed into the soil until the gnawing grew distant. She allowed her mind to go dark, to stop trying. She let go, and her thinned skin finally gave way to the root tendrils curled inside her. They unfurled and pierced through her heart, her lungs, her liver, and dug themselves into the dirt. The crowd charged at Au Lait, brandishing their weapons.

The cow chomped through the last strands as she was descended upon. She lowed, and the sound vibrated into the dirt, into Bea. The cow’s hide was stabbed, her head bludgeoned, her body pounded down onto Bea’s sticky stumps.

Bea sunk deeper into the soil, the color of Au Lait’s earthen eyes and moist from her blood, where the ground was warm, and the worms waited. Above, the vines slid to the earth like a coiling rope. The crowd held its breath and waited for what else would fall.  

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