Lifeline by Shannon Roberts

Editor Sarah Orizaga, Fiction, March 14th, 2019

"The only thing worse than death would be the next family gathering."


Fiction by Shannon Roberts

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          Rose inherited the garden when her mother died. The land spooked most people, but she was used to it. Each morning, she greeted her crops, imitating what her mother had done so many years ago. The tomatoes, onions, corn—when she was done, she acknowledged the crows, their beady eyes scouting for a free meal.

          Seldom did her harvest respond when she said, “Good morning,” but the crows always squawked their disapproval when her eyes met theirs. They always ended up getting their share when Rose looked away, giving them the opportunity to dive in and peck at the produce. She couldn’t tell them apart, but she knew that no crow ever returned after they fed. They didn’t live to make it to seconds.

          Mud stuck in webs between Rose’s toes. As she left the garden, leaving footprints behind in the earth, she heard the birds swoop down to devour the tomatoes. Most of the birds grew bored after feeding and went along their way, but one always remained, gawking at her as though there was a challenge that it intended to win. Rose cackled at the thought of the crow’s fate, revealing her rotten gums.

          Her breath had the tendency to offend people, but her greenery didn’t mind. Sometimes she’d catch them leaning toward her when she turned her back. They were a bashful bunch.

          The last crow had wings and could spread them whenever it chose, but it remained still, staring at her. Rose’s feet seemed to sink deeper into the muck. She wasn’t going anywhere. Her mother’s house sequestered her to the quiet suburb. There was nothing of interest in the town. No landmarks or famous people dwelled there. Even if she were to use her gift and stir up trouble in the small town, no one would care or even notice.

          Across the country people were losing their homes to a hurricane, but she was there talking to vegetables and killing crows. Her eldest cousin, Harper, was the storm’s heart. Surely her step-cousin, Theo, would join the bandwagon when Harper tired out and make a twister.

          “Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six.” The crow croaked one final squawk before it dropped from the fence and returned itself to the earth. She shook her head as the soil conformed to its body before acting as quicksand, pulling the departed down. Crows made wonderful fertilizer.

          Rose continued making her rounds through the garden. The apple tree at the furthest perimeter of the yard had a different glow to it. It was the garden’s newest addition, but it didn’t belong. It was wise and had secrets.

          It took only days to rise to its full height—absolutely reckless. It had a bad habit of hovering over the neighbor’s property, reaching a single green apple down as an offering. Rose pressed a firm hand to its trunk.

          “That is off limits. You will not do anything without my say.” The apple tree slowly moved its limb away so that the apple was out of the neighbor’s reach, but not without a smart remark. Rose may have been in over her head with this tree, but it was right. She hadn’t made a move in ages. She didn’t have the same mighty power of earthquakes and tsunamis like her cousins did, but she could do something. Otherwise, she’d pass on undetected and astray, the same way her mother had.

          The only thing worse than death would be the next family gathering. There were two more years until she’d have to face them. She pivoted on her heel and returned to her back porch, feeling as though the tree’s roots wrapped around her ankle. Perhaps they had. She walked faster.

          She sat in her rocking chair, swaying slowly. Its wooden frame warped to her shape with the years they’d spent together. It creaked as she swayed, begging to be put out of its misery, and she commiserated.

          “Did you lose it yet?” Rose heard a girl ask on the neighbor’s side. That wasn’t the Mason’s daughter. A trespasser.

          “Not yet. Just waiting for the right one,” another girl answered. Rose relaxed. The second girl was the Mason’s daughter. The daughter hadn’t had a friend over since her bike had training wheels. Perhaps a school project?

          The intruder laughed and Rose recognized what menace hid behind it.

          “Well if you sit around all day, it’ll never happen. Your life isn’t a Disney movie.”

          Whenever her cousin Ezra passed through with an earthquake, Rose would hear his laugh beneath the rumble. He never laid a hand on her, or her crops, but his laugh told her he could if he ever chose to. The option to destroy her was always there.

          The white picket fence hindered Rose’s immediate vision of the girls, but the wind carried their scent and told her all about the pair. She could smell too much makeup on the newcomer, paired with fruitful perfume that was too wild to be considered sweet. On the Mason’s daughter, Rose could smell grass and sweat that no amount of body spray could cover. It was late afternoon, so the girl was returning from soccer practice.

          “What’s your address again? Davian is going to get me at eight.” Rose heard them walking up the back-door steps and she caught the sight of the crowns of their heads.

          The Mason’s family lived there for 13 years. The daughter was accustomed to Rose’s presence and that of her crops, and she must have felt an unequal balance in the air and the apple tree’s eye lock on her. She turned her head as she jiggled the key in the door, finally meeting the apple tree’s gaze.

          The intruder also looked at the tree.

          “Do your neighbors always steal your space? If the fruit falls on your side, it’s yours, you know.” Again, the branch hovered on the other side, the apple too bright and inviting.

          “That wasn’t there yesterday,” the Mason’s daughter said and Rose could sense fright building within the girl.

          “Carla, it’s a tree. You think it went for a stroll around town? C’mon, we gotta do my hair and that math homework…”

          The door clicked shut.

          Rose stopped rocking and stared into the eye of the tree, the roots that shackled her to it began to pulse.

          “Here’s what we will do,” she said, feeling that she was no longer in charge.

          Among the white, gentle clouds, a storm cloud imposed its presence, moving past them, as if to say, “Excuse me.” Rain burst from its heavy bottom, watering her crops briefly before the rain abruptly ceased and the cloud hovered stationary above her home like a car parked in front of the driveway of a house.

          Rose walked inside to greet her guest.

          “Florence, I haven’t seen you in years.” Her cousin’s long, stringy hair dripped moisture on the floor as she gazed at photos on the wall. Most of them were of Rose’s mother and past plants. There were a few that included Rose’s cousins.

          “I’d die out here, Rose. Too many hills for me to make a real flood.” She laughed. “I’d only make the town newspaper here.”

          “Well, thanks for watering my children. They were delighted for more water.” Any more and they would drown.

          Florence grinned at her sheepishly. It’s seemed she was counting in her head the years that had separated them. Just a runt and she’d accomplished so much already. The flooding in the country was a very popular topic among the people.

          “I could’ve sworn one of them was cursing me. What’s up with that tree?”

          With her back to her cousin, Rose watched the apple tree through the window.

          “What brings you here? We haven’t spoken since the last gathering.” Florence trailed water behind her as she went to Rose’s side, placing a hand on her cousin’s shoulder, demanding eye contact.

          “You can go anywhere. Come with me to the city. Together, we’d be-” Rose shook the girl’s hand off as she turned to face her.

          “This land served my mother—your aunt—just fine. Besides, I already have a plan in motion.”

          “There’s all kinds of people out there, Rose.” The young woman paced, dancing in her own puddles, her daydreams seeping out of her mind into the room. “Politicians, doctors, musicians, you name it. I wish I had your powers. There’s so much you can to do.” With a sneaky gaze, she looked at Rose as she stood at the door, about to take her leave. “But! If you say you have a plan…I just didn’t want you to look silly at the gathering again. See you in two years!” With that, she disappeared into the sky.

          Florence enjoyed making people suffer. For her, the more well-known they were, the better. Rose wondered if she still had a book of names of all the famous people she had brought misfortune to. Rose imagined her cousin reading the names to herself as a bedtime story, lulling herself to sleep with a smile.

          Rose didn’t care for that kind of thing, but with her vegetation and this new apple tree, bringing that type of misery to politicians, singers, even reality stars would cause panic across the country. If the country’s most beloved people were poisoned, no one would have a sense of security. They would never take a day for granted again.

          The tree was still watching her. Florence was right about one thing. Rose could leave if she chose to. In fact, the apple tree dared her to. Rose stood taller, ensuring that the tree knew she wasn’t going anywhere until she was six feet under the crops.

          Her mother was buried beneath the onions, so Rose would be buried next to her, beneath the corn. The anniversary of her mother’s death was approaching. It had almost been twelve years. She used to sit in the rocking chair where the apple tree was for hours, talking to her children and listening to them.

          Her mother used to tell them all about her childhood days, family members—especially the ones she wished she could kill, but of course couldn’t. There was a family code that was never broken, and she wasn’t going to be the first idiot. Before Rose built the fence, the town folk watched and listened.

          “Dementia,” they had said. “She’ll croak soon,” they assured each other. Sometimes passersby would check on her when they felt sorry enough. She’d give them an apple no matter what, but the type depended on who they were. The old tree that had passed with her mother gave fruit that could extend your life five more years or bring you right to your death bed. One day, her mother was reciting her hit list to her children, and a neighbor walking her snappy dog listened, too.

          The neighbor said her mother was “disturbing the peace.” Ridding the earth of a nosy neighbor was too simple for Rose’s mother to care for. She made sure to leave the dog a real nice treat the next time. That was the last time she saw that dog or the woman.

          Music blasted and vibrated through Rose’s bones. A car pulled in front of the Mason’s house. “Michael’s here! Davian’s a flake. Later, loser!” Rose heard the intruder say with a smile. If the Mason’s daughter was a loser, why would the intruder accompany her? The intruder walked down the backstairs and the tree called out to her, holding out an apple.

          Rose wasn’t as gifted as her mother was. She didn’t always understand what the plants were saying, but the tree was loud and clear. Suffer.

          Rose used to resent being in the garden with her mother. She had to take her mother’s word for what the plants said, and she always sensed the plants were taunting her. One day, her mother had shared something that she didn’t understand back then. “You get a bad apple now and then, but they usually mean well.” Her mother laughed, her teeth were nearly all charcoal by then. “Your cousins miss out. They destroy all day, and never make any friends.”

          The girl took the apple, biting into it immediately. Laughter pealed from the apple tree, and other plants shifted away as far as they could. He wasn’t anyone’s friend.

          The girl’s entire being shifted and the apple tree’s wicked resolve spread through her veins. Still, she continued to eat, ravenously taking bites. The boy parked in front honked the horn, but she ignored it. The apple tree taunted her. Yes, eat it all. Even the core! And she did. Soon your insides will be your outside. The tree cackled and its branches shook as if a great wind passed through.

          Rose fled inside to the attic. When she was old enough to utter words, her mother had made her swear to never use it, no matter what happened. She had sworn. It was hidden behind the old furniture and framed photos of all the women before her mother who she had never met. They guarded it, and none of them dared to use it when they were alive.

          Rose gripped the glass bottle. The clear concoction could be mistaken for water, but it was poison. Her plan had been to make the girl appear as ugly as her soul. A wart covered face, a crooked nose, and a hunch in her back. By now, the apple had probably killed the girl, pulling her organs outside of her body.

          Rose’s cousins would have commended her. “Great start! Now poison the town! Then the next one.” The tree was her trump card. It had also been hidden in the attic—no one before her had had the guts to plant it. She had thought she was different, so she planted it.

          When Rose went to the gatherings, her family had always laughed and snorted whenever it was her mother’s turn to speak. Her eyes were always focused on someone, but her mind was far away, and her smile was of a long-ago romance. “The garden has doubled in size in the past year. Now, they all have thought patterns past the elementary level,” Rose’s mother had said once.

          Reina, Rose’s eldest cousin, had hushed the laughter and replied. “That’s a lovely pastime, but what have you done?”

          Her mother had looked at Reina in alarm, just noticing her presence. “Why, I just told you. What were you expecting, a massacre?”

          “Marienne, we’ve discussed this. The humans need us. Their fear and loss allow them to thrive, and even love. We’re doing them the greatest service of all.”

          One tentative knock came to the door, and then two more, just as shy. No doorbell rang—there was none. With the vile close to her body, and her intentions battling each other, Rose went to the door, gazing through the peephole. Years of neglect and lack of usage hindered her view of who was on the other side. She gave in and cracked the door ever so slightly. It was the Mason’s daughter. The same girl who had dressed as a witch three years in a row. She’d tried to cast spells on stray cats to make them become human and be her friends. Then she settled for them simply being her friends. She still spoke to them when she thought no one could hear.

          Tears covered the girl’s face. “I was always jealous. She’s pretty, confident, and everyone always wants to talk to her! I know I wished bad on her, but I didn’t mean it!”

          “Why are you telling me this?” Rose opened the door wider to see if the tree had done anything to the girl.

          She looked down and hugged her arms. “Your tree. He told me a lot. That it’s all my fault.”

          Rose almost slammed the door, grateful the shadows hid her shaking hands. “Child, have you gone mad? Trees don’t speak.”

          “But he said you’ll never have the guts to do what needs to be done. What does that mean?”

          Rose slammed the door. No other plant in the garden had the power to speak to humans. How long had it been talking to the girl? She could feel the apple tree growing more new apples. If she didn’t stop it now, there was no going back.

          When she entered the garden with the poison, she hoped the tree would cower like everyone else. Instead, it laughed.

          You think just like a human. You forgot why you summoned me. The tree held an apple to her. It was red. You are thinking about what Reina said. You know she’s right. They need us, and you need me.

          She picked the apple and saw her reflection on its smooth surface. Just one bite and you’ll know what I know. She felt the tree’s roots send chills up her spine and shoot its roots through her body.

          The tree shared its vision with Rose of cities across the country poisoned with diseases in the mind and body that science couldn’t explain. News anchors on the verge of tears as they covered the stories on the epidemic—musicians selling out arenas as they played shows to benefit the victims. Alive, the tree’s power was unstoppable. It didn’t have time to focus on bringing tragedy to actors and movie stars—it had a mission to fulfill.

          “When they latch on, you may fall in love or feel the exact opposite,” her mother had told her when the old apple tree started to sprout.

          Rose imagined the next family gathering. If she ate the apple, maybe they would respect her. Perhaps she’d truly become one of them and make her contribution to the human race. She pictured them all clapping as she arrived, begging her to share her exploits first.

          The tree heard her wish, and its roots finally reached her hand and raised the apple to her mouth. She didn’t resist and gave in to the tree’s demand. Rose bit the apple, sweet juice trickling down her chin. The tree cackled and howled as she chewed. One bite was all it took, but she found herself famished. She bit again, greedy for all of its knowledge. Soon, the core was in her stomach and there was nothing left.

          She stepped close to the tree and put a hand to its trunk. Now she, too, understood.

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Header image courtesy of Bill Dunlap. To view his Artist Feature, go here.

Shannon Roberts is a social media volunteer for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. She received her Bachelor’s from Manhattanville College where she was also a student athlete. She works in the creative writing field and loves running, lifting, and yoga.


Sarah Orizaga

Sarah is a fiction writer living in Portland, OR with her wife and cat. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University and a BA in International Development from Portland State University. Sarah is new to the NAILED team and is excited to read fiction that serves the soul through a unique view of the everyday. She is constantly on the lookout for new and emerging voices that explore culture and identity in fresh, positive ways. When she's not reading, writing, or editing you can find her watching true crime series and anything narrated by David Attenborough.