by Mari Ness
First, my thumbs turned green, then my hands. I rather liked the color, a deep brilliant emerald green that shimmered in the sun. My boyfriend was less impressed.
“It’s like you’re some kinda mutant or something,” he complained.
“Mutant, huh?” I said, twisting my hands so I could watch the lambent light skate across my green fingers. “Wonder what my powers are?”
“Ha, ha,” I said, and continued to look at my hands.
We lived in a very small apartment just over an almost equally small laundromat near the train tracks back then. It was noisy, it was hot, even with the AC on full blast, and it had only three advantages: it was cheap enough that both of us could get away with working part time jobs and not doing much else when we pooled our resources for the rent, and we had outstanding satellite TV thanks to the other advantage, the roof access.
I spent most days and most nights up there, dragging up my laptop, huddling there even in South Florida’s heaviest rains beneath the cheap patio umbrella we’d rescued from a closeout sale in Target. I pretended that I was writing, or doing web page design, or something that made me seem useful, even when I was, for the most part, just playing World of Warcraft or staring into space until it was time to drag my ass out to Starbucks for my job or some other place to socialize, to pretend to be human for awhile. My boyfriend didn’t call me on it. He couldn’t, really: every spare cent of his was going towards pot, even with the extra stuff we were growing in the closet.
I didn’t know why I was with him, exactly, any more than I understood why I worked at Starbucks, or why I was living in this apartment. It was one of those things that just had seemed to happen. Like the way my hands had turned green, totally out of my control, totally beyond me. I’d met him, we’d started going out, we’d moved in together to save money, he’d lost a full time job and didn’t feel inclined to get another one, I’d lost a full time job and didn’t have the energy to get another one, and gas prices were going up.
So here we were, surrounded by computers and books and a wide open roof surrounded by a noisy train and rain, hellish amounts of rain, that I cowered beneath, clutching my laptop, and I didn’t know why. And I knew better than to ask him. He had fewer answers than I did.
• • •
At Starbucks, they hardly noticed my green hands. Starbucks employees are used to much worse, and I guess they figured as long as I wasn’t actually dipping my hands into the coffee or anything, everything was all right. A few customers blinked, but I guess they either figured Dahianna’s nose rings had set the fashion precedent or were more noticeable, or that I’d just decided to tattoo my hands. I poured out coffee and created lattes and cappuccinos and chatted with customers and watched my hands continue to gleam in the light.
“Pretty,” said Dahianna. “Where dy’a have it done?”
“I didn’t,” I said.
“Ha, ha. That boyfriend of yours again?”
I thought about that for a moment. “What do you mean?” I asked. As far as I could remember, I’d never accused my boyfriend of being the sort of person who would, consciously or unconsciously, turn someone’s hands green.
Dahianna shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “Just figured, well, he’s the one with access to you, right?”
I thought about that as I made a raspberry latte. “Maybe,” I said. “You think he’d go to the effort of dyeing my hands green?”
“I dunno. You think he would?”
“You’re making me wonder.”
“Are you paying any fucking attention to me?” asked a customer.
We weren’t, but we pretended to, for a little while.
Much later, another customer exclaimed at my hands. “Green thumbs,” she said brightly. “You must be a gardener.” She laughed heartily at her joke.
“Not really,” I had to admit as I created her latte.
“Then you will be,” she said. “Who was it that told me about it? I can’t remember. Some great aunt or other probably. But when your hands turn green, plants and gardens come into your life.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for them,” I said, handing out her latte.
No one else seemed to notice my hands for the rest of the evening, even when I held them up to the light to watch how the light streamed along them.
• • •
I crept home well past midnight that night, with my green hands shining in the streetlights. My boyfriend wasn’t in bed yet — he never was — and he grunted when I came in.
“Dahianna thinks you made my hands green,” I told her.
He made some noise in the back of his throat that might have been protest, or agreement, or something to do with the game.
“She says you’re the only one who has access to me,” I added.
“Except, of course, for half the freaking world who decided to show up to Starbucks today.”
“They’re taking over the world,” he said.
It was about the only thing he said that night.
The green on my hands shone in the darkness, and I had green flickers behind my eyes as I fell asleep. I don’t think I dreamed.
• • •
Usually, after a late evening shift, I sleep in. This time, however, something woke me in the early morning hours. A train, maybe — I’d gotten accustomed to hearing them roll by, whistling, but they could still wake me up on occasion. I listened to my boyfriend’s breaths in the darkness.
Plants will invade your life. The customer’s voice echoed in my head. Only she hadn’t exactly said that, had she? She certainly hadn’t used the word invade. I would have remembered that, I thought. But the words kept echoing in my head, plants will invade your life, and then I felt my feet actually itch. I pulled them up and scratched them with my green hands. Even in the darkness, my hands glowed.
Something made me stand up from the bed then and walk towards the closet. I’m not an morning person — it’s one of many reasons I avoid Starbucks morning shifts and just try to work evenings — and usually, the only thing that can get me moving at 4 in the morning is an urgent need for a bathroom. But just then, my feet itched. And for no particular reason, I went to the closet.
As I’ve said, we grew pot there — well, my boyfriend did, and I never objected much. He said it was a decent cost savings, which it might have been, even though he continued to buy pot from his occasional dealers. It helped clear the air, he said, even as we both took a hit. I opened the closet and stared at the lights we’d installed there, set on a timer for optimum growth.
They’d never grown particularly well — how could they, trapped in a closet? But they’d grown. I passed my hands over them. Maybe it was the breeze caused by my hand movements, or maybe something else, but I thought the leaves followed the movement of my hands. They almost shone against the darkness, I thought. Plants, I thought. Plants. Why were the only plants in the house all here, trapped in the closet?
The green on my hands shone against the darkness of the room.
Our local grocery store had plants, I thought. And it was open twenty-four hours. I snuck out of the apartment and headed there.
• • •
I came home with two tiny plants, one balanced in each hand, one in a bright pink pot and the other in a neon green pot. I couldn’t tell you what types of plants they were — I’m not really a gardener, whatever my customer might have said. They were green, and at 5:30 in the morning they looked healthy enough.
I paused at the door of the apartment and looked around. My boyfriend was still sleeping on the bed, unmoving. I knew from past experience that I could do anything short of firing a gun and not wake him. I could place the plants on the windowsills, I thought, next to the dirty windows. Perhaps clean the inside of the windows while I was at it. Or at the desk, where sometimes one or both of us gamed. Or next to the TV. Or next to the bed.
Instead, still balancing the plants, I climbed to the roof. The surrounding streetlights cast a dim light; I never had been able to lie back and really see the stars, not here, so crowded by people and light. I placed one in one corner, below the low lying walls that lined the roof, and the other directly opposite. For no particular reason I stroked them with my hands. “Green,” I whispered. “Invade.” I couldn’t have told you why; I couldn’t even tell myself why.
I stayed there, crouching over the little plants until the sun came up and drowned out the streetlights. I stood up and wandered back down and climbed into bed. My boyfriend hadn’t moved. I hadn’t expected him to.
• • •
I can’t honestly say that I hated him, or even that I hated my job, or the apartment. What I felt was too weak for that, too apathetic. Uncaring, maybe, but even that wasn’t correct. At times I looked at him and felt a certain fondness, a certain hope that life would work out for him, that he would find his happiness someplace. At times I was convinced he had, that however unsatisfying his job, however awful the apartment, he still had the life he wanted, a life filled with very little except for gaming and socializing with gamers. It pretty much was the life I wanted too. I thought. Almost no responsibilities, plenty of television, plenty of books, plenty of gaming — yeah. It was the life I wanted.
I hadn’t left the local area for over a year. Not even to escape to my previous frequent destination of Orlando, or to the nearby Bahamas. I’d just — stayed, telling myself truthfully enough that I was broke. And I was, but it wasn’t a condition I tried too hard to change, either, even when I felt jealous twinges after hearing about my sister’s jaunts to Europe and Africa, or watched my friends — the ones with full time jobs, anyway — stock up with the latest electronic gadgets. I had a decent computer, and an iPod and with credit cards I could get more. I didn’t want more. I just wanted to sit and game. Which is also what my boyfriend wanted. We had the lives we wanted.
I would fill that life with plants, with air, with life. It would be the life we wanted. I curled up in bed and watched his back, and breathed, and slept.
• • •
The next day, I didn’t have to work, so I headed back to sleep, and spent the next afternoon and evening on World of Warcraft, up on the roof, listening to the trains and traffic roar by. I slept in the next morning, too, after trading my morning shift with another coworker. (As you might have gathered, I’m not much of a morning person.) Before I left for work that afternoon, I walked up to the roof to look at my two plants. They hadn’t moved or changed much, but then again, I’d just gotten them. Above me, the rain clouds gathered, threatening one of South Florida’s massive heavy rains. I ran my green hands over the plants. “Grow,” I whispered. “Grow.”
Starbucks was the way it always was, a few customers commenting on my hands, most customers not even mildly interested, the usual rushes here and there, the usual moments spent wondering what the hell I was doing as I pressed whipped cream into a hot drink. I had a college degree, after all, one burning a hole on my wall, and I hadn’t even made manager here. Didn’t want to be a Starbucks manager, actually, when I thought about it.
Starbucks didn’t have any plants inside the café. I wasn’t sure if we’d be allowed to have one, or what the corporate rules might be about that. It was all corporate rules here, rules for how this was to be prepared and that was to look and how things had to be lined up on the shelves, to make sure that everything looked the same everywhere. Branding, they called it. It had given me a comfortable feeling when I’d travelled, to find the same walls and decorations and drinks everywhere. Now I longed to bring in a plant or two.
But instead I gossiped and chattered and poured drinks, and watched as the green on my hands crept up above my elbows.
• • •
That night I headed straight to bed, hardly talking to my boyfriend, who was ensconced in City of Heroes. I curled up to the sounds of his keyboard clicking and the noise of the train, and fell asleep. In the morning, I climbed up to the roof.
My plants had blossomed. More than blossomed. In — it had only been a day or so since I’d brushed my green tinted hands over them, hadn’t it? Hadn’t it? — the once six inch plant in the right hand corner had already shot out vines that were three feet long. The other plant had shot up into the sky, at least quadrupling its height. Water, I thought. They will need water. I dashed downstairs and filled up a measuring cup and headed back up.
You will be invaded by plants, I thought I heard, but this didn’t feel like an invasion. I watered my plants, and passed my hands over them, and thought I saw them shiver in delight. “Grow”, I said, softly. “Grow.”
They shivered. Or I thought they did.
I went downstairs once more, to lug up my laptop and a battery power source, and huddled under the umbrella again, watching.
You will be invaded by plants, I thought again. My fingers itched to stroke the leaves. If this was an invasion, I was the traitor on the other side. I gave in and passed my hands over the plants again. And watched them grow. I couldn’t quite see them pushing leaves out — not quite — but if I moved my eyes away for a second, and focused on something else, anything else, when I looked back, the plants would be a little larger.
I had to get more plants.
• • •
I called in sick to my shift that night. I knew they’d be mad — it’s almost impossible to get someone else in that last minute — but I had to. After I hung up the phone, I rushed out to the grocery store again, deciding to walk. It was only three and a half blocks, after all, and I’d seen some scraggly plants along the way.
About a block later, almost wilting in the fierce heat, I started to regret my decision. Still — a bougainvillea (that was the right name, right? I couldn’t remember) was just there, its purple flowers drooping in the heat. And here, another sad looking bush looking wilted in the sands. I passed my green hands over them both, hastily, hoping no one would see me. No one seemed to, even as cars rushed by, and I made it to the grocery store without anyone stopping me.
Once there, I purchased two more tiny plants, and, as an afterthought, some snack food. I walked home even more slowly — the heat was genuinely unbearable by then — and looked at the plants I’d placed my hands over.
Perhaps I wasn’t a plant mutant then. Perhaps I could only do things on my own roof.
And I hurried up to the roof and placed my two new plants along the roof walls. And sat with my junk food and computer and watched.
• • •
Over the next few days, the roof plants exploded. I didn’t have any other word for it — a few days before, we’d had nothing up there except for the old patio furniture and the cheap umbrella from Target. Now, I had a jungle. My four plants had grown rapidly, sending vines and flowers and solid branches in every direction. I breathed in the air that they cleaned for me and waved my green hands over them. The green had now reached my shoulders and was beginning to creep towards my chest. I hardly noticed. I hardly noticed anything, except for my plants.
It took a few more days before my boyfriend spoke to me in anything other than his usual grunt. He’d been up to the roof a few times, looking out, sometimes playing World of Warcraft on his computer, and never mentioning the plants. I figured he didn’t know what to say, or was afraid that if he said something, I might think he was nuts. Fair enough; I wasn’t saying anything to him for pretty much the same reason. We grunted and nodded, and that seemed quite enough.
“Starbucks called,” he said to me, from the head of the stairs.
“Oh?” I said, and then realized: I hadn’t called or even talked to them since I’d last called in sick. Shit. My manager was not going to go for this. As soon as I thought that, I realized how little I cared.
“They’re a little pissed. I told them you were too sick to get on the phone and that I was supposed to call in for you but hadn’t.”
“Thanks,” I said, still staring at the plants.
“Mind telling me what’s going on?” he said, waving his hand vaguely in the direction of the roof.
“I don’t think I can explain it,” I said.
“Well, if you’re planning on quitting Starbucks, that’s fine, but don’t you think we should at least discuss it first? Or did you just get another job?”
“I’m not planning on quitting Starbucks,” I said.
“Sure doesn’t seem that way,” I said.
I shrugged. “I don’t have anything against them. It’s just — how can I do Starbucks when there’s this?” And I waved my hand towards the roof.
My boyfriend gave me an incredulous stare. “This what?” he said.
“This. The plants. The — the everything,” I said, stumbling over the words.
He looked around. “Plants?” he said. His eyes flickered to the corners.
“The plants,” I said, stupidly, not sure what else to say.
“What plants?” he said.
And I watched him walk right through them, as if they weren’t there — as if they really weren’t there — vanishing behind the leaves. They seemed to grow even faster after he vanished behind them.
“Oh, you mean the plants over here in the corner?” he said. I couldn’t see him behind the huge leaves and ferns between us. “They’re nice. When you’d get them?”
“Just a few days ago,” I said, stupefied. Surely he could see? Surely he could —
I reached out and touched one of the plants. Its leaves felt solidly real and rough under my fingers.
“I can see why you’d take them over work though,” he said. “Even little scrawny ones like this.”
I remembered the way the roof had been, before it had been transformed into this. I breathed in the scent of my flowers and wondered what they were. It should have bothered me that he couldn’t see them — it should have made me question my sanity, or something. Only somehow, it didn’t.
“Yeah,” I said. I made myself laugh a little. “I think the job is really getting to me. You know, I was even starting to think that the plants had taken over the roof.”
“Too much WoW,” he said.
The leaves rustled in agreement.
“If you need to quit, you know, that’s cool,” he said. “Just, just make sure you can still pay the bills.” He emerged from the plants. “My guild’s meeting up,” he said. “Later.”
“Later,” I told him.
He bent down and pressed his lips against my forehead. It felt nice. For a moment, I almost remembered what it had been like when we first got together, how much I’d wanted to spend the entire day in bed with him.
But that memory soon faded. I bent over my laptop and wrote. A poem, a short story, a something — it didn’t matter. I wrote, and watched my plants grow.
• • •
Sometime later that day — night, really — I emerged from the roof and our apartment, and went wandering around the side streets. It probably wasn’t the best idea, since we didn’t live in the best of neighborhoods. But somehow or other, I couldn’t make myself care.
I looked for plants. Healthy plants, wilting plants, dull plants, beautiful plants, flowery plants, brown and dying plants. Any plants. I ran my hands over and around them and watched as their leaves twirled towards me. Witchery, I thought. Or mutation, or something. “Grow,” I whispered. “Grow.”
Only they didn’t.
I went back the following day, retracing my steps. None of the plants I’d touched outside my roof had altered in the slightest, although I thought — or imagined — that they followed me and my green hands, their leaves twitching as I walked by. But they hadn’t changed.
The plants on my roof continued to climb towards the sky.
• • •
When I came back from that second trip, my boyfriend was waiting for me. He kissed my cheek — I almost flinched from surprise — and handed me a small envelope. “Electric bill,” he said.
I nodded. “I can handle it,” I said. It was true. I had some money still in checking.
“K,” he said, turning back to sit at the desk. Once he sat, he looked over at me. “It’ll be ok,” he told me. “You won’t have problems getting another job. Starbucks sucked, you know.”
“I know,” I said, not wanting to argue. I went into our tiny bathroom and turned on the shower, letting the water half drown me.
Once I emerged, he had left, for some game or other, I supposed. I looked down at myself, at my body, at the green that was now heading towards the center of my chest, towards my heart. I grabbed my laptop and headed up to the roof.
For once, I didn’t sit under the umbrella. Instead, I enmeshed myself within my plants, feeling their vines move about me, entangling my legs and arms. Above us, above me and the plants, the heavy clouds loomed. I opened up my computer and paid the electric bill, then, more slowly, typed out an email to my boyfriend. I didn’t explain what had happened, because I had no explanations. I didn’t ask why my hands had turned green, why I’d been invaded by plants, why I welcomed the invasion, because I didn’t have the questions, and didn’t want the answers. The first raindrops fell. After a few halting sentences, I hit send, then put the laptop on the ground.
And watched the plants climb into the sky.
It began to pour then, really pour. I did not move, but let the rain wash over me and my plants.
And that night, I chose to follow them, and climb into the clouds.
Copyright © 2011 by Mari Ness