Petunia petals, dewy guttation, rotten flotsam, bland passivity, cherry-red caskets, full-blown delinquents, viridescent veins, crystalline slides & bootleg fertilizer.
It was at the backyard pond that I found Ms. Kaine throwing grocery bags into her end of the water. Her yard was stark, bare, all trimmed shrubbery and hollow stones, and our end was covered in rotted pool noodles and empty sunblock containers. The water had long turned a murky brown, more rust-red from her side, more grey-green from ours. The colors mixed in the middle to a horrible diluted texture that reminded me of stale vomit.
Our flotsam was innocuous enough, if distasteful. Ms. Kaine’s remained an utter mystery; sometimes the bag broke to spill handfuls of black beans, except I knew they weren’t beans by the way they split into reddish powder when they hit the water and sunk to the bottom like stones. No one from outside the Kaine-Whitaker Brownstone had ever inspected the backyard pool.
By autumn, dead petunia petals had joined the mess.
Ms. Kaine grew her own plants in the backyard. My father had long given up the simple duties of maintaining a flowerbed; within one month of tearing open a packet of rose seeds, the patch of dirt had turned into breeding paradise for black, jagged weeds and swollen slugs that trailed mucus over all the wilted blossoms. His roses drooped ashen in the sun. On the contrary, Ms. Kaine had personally invited me to watch her tend to her garden.
“A lot of criminals do chemistry.” She sprayed the bush with practiced efficiency, combing each leaf and bramble with a spout of glittery blue crystals that seemed to vaporize in the air.
She had given me a close-up of the bottle. It was unlabeled and plain and painted drab beige, and from the outside it looked like any mundane bottle of spray.
“Made the fertilizer myself,” Ms. Kaine informed me, the nozzle pointedly turned away from my face. “Churned it right in my basement. I think that’s illegal. You do chemistry, girl?”
“A lot of criminals do chemistry.” She sprayed the bush with practiced efficiency, combing each leaf and bramble with a spout of glittery blue crystals that seemed to vaporize in the air. “You want to go down that path, you might as well be good at it.”
Ms. Kaine was of the bullheaded belief that all adolescents were destined to be criminals in the near future. If we ever shared interaction in the mornings where I had to wait at the bus stop—right when the sun peeked from the horizon, all pale spun gold skimming across shale roofs—she would patiently, kindly and almost compassionately remind me that I would become a full-blown delinquent by fifteen. At eleven, I pleaded tearfully with her to determine my guilty charges.
“Definitely vandalism,” she had said without looking up. She was out spraying her bushes, even if the petunias had begun to slump into brown rashes. Our brownstone’s façade gleamed neat and perky, like always. “Maybe drugs, too.”
“I’m not a criminal,” I begged to her, my ratty sneakers slowly sinking into the lawn’s mud. Yesterday night a storm had pealed and cracked over the town, over the trash, podunk backwater residence we called home, and for a moment the rainwater had cleaned our pool into something swimmable. The air smelled like dew and guttation and fresh, sharp water, like needles fashioned into individual sprays of mist. Clouds rolled bleak across the sky.
Yesterday night a storm had pealed and cracked over the town, over the trash, podunk backwater residence we called home, and for a moment the rainwater had cleaned our pool into something swimmable.
Ms. Kaine leveled me with a look that, to this day, I couldn’t exactly pinpoint.
“No,” she agreed, “you’re not. But there’ll be others around you that might be.”
“My friends aren’t criminals.”
“Never said they were.” She violently shook her fertilizer spray; a puff of blue dust coated all over her forearm. “Just—look—”
She gestured down the road.
“Just be careful out there, okay?”
Out there, at the moment, could’ve meant any number of things. She could’ve gestured to 622 Washer Road, where the brownstones clumped miserable and glistening in tight quarters, the grass yellow and brittle, the way stray automobiles dislodged sizable chunks of the road whenever they pushed the high side of twenty-five miles per hour. She could’ve meant the districts beyond, where school was a squat, lumpy building just off the ruins of the freeway, its enclosing wooden fence damp with mold. She could’ve meant the cemetery on the hill where our ancestors still lay, cherry-red caskets buried thousands of feet beneath the earth. She could’ve gestured to the river that looped around this town, this cesspool of exhaustion and bone-deep weariness and a wistfulness like a lost crow, the river that joined hundreds of tributaries and flowed to the sea. All blood returned to the heart, and all vessels merged with the great, giant ocean.
To the ocean—or anywhere, really, past the dried cornfields and mangroves and trailer parks and whatever the hell laid out there—the roads would be firm. Solid. Cars would be sleek predators on endless roads, the sky cool against skin, the air open and free.
On my fifteenth birthday, Ms. Kaine had grown old. While I had grown taller and my back had straightened and my hair spilled down to lazy curls, Ms. Kaine grew more weathered. Silver peppered her brows, her eyelashes, wrinkles and seams softly moulding into the contours of her face. She reminded me of a statuette perched at the teeny corner of a shelf. You could pass by it every day and never notice something amiss, and then one day you’d heft it into your hand and realized how chipped it was at its pedestal, how its delicate features had flattened into bland passivity.
Ms. Kaine was a sum of her changes. Her garden still flourished, sprawling with lilies and daffodils and irises, and during the week of my birthday I crept around the pool—still dark and filthy as always—and onto her side of the yard.
I hadn’t talked to her in months.
“Ms. Kaine,” I finally peeped out, because at school I was borderline vicious, like a feral cat abandoned in the empty lots behind the strip malls, prowling and twitching among emaciated pigeons.
She could’ve gestured to the river that looped around this town, this cesspool of exhaustion and bone-deep weariness and a wistfulness like a lost crow, the river that joined hundreds of tributaries and flowed to the sea. All blood returned to the heart, and all vessels merged with the great, giant ocean.
But at home, I was almost a revenant; I spoke of meaningless things like the state of my clothes, the way I could easily loop fingers around my wrist, the way our ceiling fan spun lazily and the fan blades swatted at the fat black flies buzzing around the air ventilation. Our AC had crumbled down during the heat of last summer.
With Ms. Kaine, however, I was still a child.
Ms. Kaine didn’t say anything for a while. She had a new batch of flowers ready to be cultivated—I had observed her pruning them from my windowsill, cobwebs traced over the ledge—and they were large, beautiful chamomiles that shone like stars on a black canvas. She still synthesized her own fertilizers. This brand was chunky fuchsia pieces, where she carefully strew them among the bottommost leaves and they left ribbons of pink on viridescent veins. The weather was humid, a towel wrapped around our senses, filling the mouth and throat with moisture until the eyes would tear up.
“You haven’t talked to me for a long time,” she finally said.
We must’ve drifted apart. By junior high school she had laid off labeling me as a felon, and instead watched me come home with my first Ziploc clutched precariously in my hand. I told her the pieces were candy.
“Who gave it to you?” she had whispered.
She reminded me of a statuette perched at the teeny corner of a shelf. You could pass by it every day and never notice something amiss, and then one day you’d heft it into your hand and realized how chipped it was at its pedestal, how its delicate features had flattened into bland passivity.
Selah Pennyworth. Marcus Antonserry. Maggie Temming. School was a blitz. School ranged from the blackboards to shattered chalk to the dark alleyways bordering the playground, swings vacant and forlorn, colored smoke wafting from mouths too young to drink. The forest around us had been decaying. Everywhere we went the town festered, its ground bowing before our heels. Time trickled to long, syrupy seconds whenever we walked, like the clock itched to roll backward, its hour and minute hands backtracking on its ticks.
“No one you’d know,” I had tossed back. Back then, I still kept loyalty to my friends—if I could call them that—still kept myself in the dark on what happened behind closed classroom doors. I’d like to think that our activities, our behaviors, stemmed from our homes. Some of us had never seen our moms or dads before. Some of us hovered around the broken dryer, the torn clothesline, watching the rags on our backs break apart into soft threads. We hitched ourselves onto our knees to crawl besides the gutters and clean sewage filth out. Near the river we’d talk about our homes. Today Toney would talk about the dishwasher, how it clanked and screeched before de-powering into the humming of machinery. Tomorrow Drake would talk about his mom and how she sat silently on the futon, glossy new magazines in her lap, how she sighed and told him to leave this place, leave it like Lot’s wife, never, ever look back no matter how much you wanted to, because the streets here spiral outward and you were supposed to flee until the end of your days. And then the next day Zachary stumbled in with his eyes crusted and red-rimmed and the vein in his temple visible like a bright tattoo and he handed everyone their usual baggies, and we pulled out streams of money from our pockets, money we complained we never had, crumpled bills and rusted coins salvaged from every nook and cranny in our homes. Zachary was the talented one. We were his guinea pigs for his candy, his crystalline slides, and the first time I had put it on my tongue I had passed out in the lot for four hours.
At school I was borderline vicious, like a feral cat abandoned in the empty lots behind the strip malls, prowling and twitching among emaciated pigeons.
“They’re meds,” I had snapped, because she was feeling up and pawing away at the Ziploc like it was her personal lottery stash. “Give me some credit. It’s just one of my friends’ candy—”
Ms. Kaine took out one of the slides.
It was almost transparent under the sun. The contours of the tablet had already started dissolving into the warm, wet heat of her palm, pristine glass flaking into silvery silt, and I didn’t recognize the powder; it was like fine sand pouring across her fingers, like cobwebs and light, airy silk as it streamed across her lap. Both of us still stared at it when a gentle breeze scattered the grains across her lawn, dying petunias mingling with the heroin as it skimmed across the pond, and I’d be damned to say that that was probably the sole time Ms. Kaine looked at me with any trace of sympathy.
Eighteen, and I stood alone on the graduation podium.
The weather had taken a sudden plummet last week; today’s wind cut at sixty degrees, our robes billowing and flapping like enormous wings, and a small cluster of parents and children gathered on the school lawn below.
The microphone had been broken for nearly a year. The principal cupped his hands classical-megaphone style and tried to out-scream the weather, his voice cracking in hoarse, deep rasps, and the rest of us shifted and stirred and said nothing.
“Tamara Whitaker,” the principal coughed out.
The weather was humid, a towel wrapped around our senses, filling the mouth and throat with moisture until the eyes would tear up.
There was supposed to be some innate bubble of pride as one stood on the podium, hands clutching a piece of paper guaranteed to open roads outside of this town, years and years of effort culminated into an eight-by-eleven piece of card stock slightly crimped at its corners.
My parents hadn’t shown up for the ceremony. Instead, Ms. Kaine took their place, looking sleepy as she slumped on the lawn chair, but she was one of the few who clapped when I shook the principal’s hand. He was proud of me, he said. He hoped I would go out and do great things.
He was lying through his teeth, and I still had to awkwardly gaze back up at him and promise him I would, and in the warped light of his spectacles I could see the town reflected in his lenses. It looked grey and small and static, reduced to the size of my thumbnail. There were cairns untouched on its boundaries and kids whose smiles cracked in its innards, but I shook his hand and swore to be better. Even if it was an absolute lie.
Thought you’d be sleeping by now,” Ms. Kaine finally observed.
The pond’s smell had rolled in thick, heavy fumes to my bedroom window until it had been almost impossible to breathe. At the edge of the pool, water seeped into my sneakers—grey, cloudy water, littered with brown speckles and dead bugs and fragmented petals. I pushed the net farther toward the center of the pond to the point when my shoulders burned, straining to scoop up a wrinkled mess of bags.
Both of us still stared at it when a gentle breeze scattered the grains across her lawn, dying petunias mingling with the heroin as it skimmed across the pond, and I’d be damned to say that that was probably the sole time Ms. Kaine looked at me with any trace of sympathy.
“I’m sorry,” I said softly.
She sighed, and slowly moved to stand next to me. I trawled out the messes in the pond’s deep interior where she couldn’t reach, and she mopped up the litter at its rim. In silence we cleaned until the dawn came.
Natalie Wang is a high school senior currently residing in Texas who was recently accepted into Stanford University. Her writing has been recognized by the National Scholastic Art and Writing Alliance, The New York Times Learning Network and the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio, as well as by several international and teen magazines. In her free time, she enjoys reading through film scripts and catching up on the latest books and news. This story was a finalist in Nowhere’s Fall 2019 Travel Writing Contest.
Lead image: J W