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Creeping Vines and Tangled Questions

Updated: Jul 28, 2022


(occurs about 7 years before the start of the main Leyward Stones series)


It’s been days since Mom first fell into the fever sleep, and I’ve finally resorted to digging my father’s journal out of the attic. Mom’s half-lucid mumblings about it are the only lead I have for helping her, and heaven knows no other help is coming. I’m not even sure the neighbors are still out there. For days, I’ve heard nothing but the weeds.

After poring over the journal at the kitchen table for the past hour, there are two things I’m certain of: my father is every bit the jerk I thought he was, and the weeds outside are Fae. It doesn’t help much, really. Mom is still dying. But at least now I know what I’m dealing with… and why they won’t stop whispering.

A sloppily-written cursive phrase in the journal’s margin catches my eye, and my anxious frustration flares in to anger—whoosh!—like dry timber tossed on a bonfire. Protect with honor. Some motto, for a man who told his wife he’d never wanted a kid, then abandoned us before my fifth birthday. Not for the first time this morning, I wish I had something to punch. Instead, I breathe deep, and force myself to search for answers. The motto is tucked next to a charcoal sketch of the hideous Fae weeds that burst up around the edges of our land last Wednesday, thick and leafless like mossy fingers reaching up from the soil, soaking the air with a sweet-sharp scent like honey with vinegar.

These weeds are my father’s fault, somehow, and this journal proves it. Or maybe the world just makes more sense, right now, if I have someone to blame.

Huh. Maybe that counselor Mom made me see actually did some good.

My heart clenches again, as it does every time I think of Mom on the couch in the living room. I keep turning pages.

Mom’s living on borrowed time, already two days longer than Mr. Veylent from the farm next door made it, and every page I turn with no solution makes me more anxious, more angry. My father is worse than useless, even in journal form. I hate this journal, its scrawled motto, its sketches with no answers, and I hate the man who drew them.

My father deserves whatever blame I give him, weeds or no weeds. I’m sixteen now, old enough to know how much different life could’ve been if Mom hadn’t spent the last decade believing he’d come back someday. Abandoning me was one thing—he hardly knew me. But he broke Mom’s heart, and for that, I will never forgive him.

Come outside, Abby.

The whispers again. They’re not quite words, more like a swelling chorus of hisses, but I understand them—they come with pictures. Me, crossing the fields, slipping through the weeds’ waist-high stalks. Me, standing at the edge of the woods behind our property. Me, in rain boots, shoving branches aside and stepping into the muck and shadows.

I’ve tried for days to pretend the whispers I hear aren’t real, but admitting the weeds are actually talking to me at least means I’m not going insane, right? Killer weeds, according to the journal. Not that I hadn’t already known that.

Overnight, the weeds swallowed not only our three-acre plot, but every grassy spot in Marshton, knee-deep, a sea of green fingers. Mom roared in on the mower like it was a tank, felling row after row of weeds, and she wasn’t the only one. Plumes of sick-sweet pollen burst from the stems as they were cut, smelling like rotten apples. By Friday, pea-green bales lined the fields on every side of us, and the fingers were gone.

On Saturday, the screaming started.

I heard the fever got Mr. Veylent, Mr. McConnor next door, and people from town, too… but it was hard to care about much else once Mom’s began. Saturday night, someone called to tell us Mr. Veylent had died.

The weeds reappeared Sunday morning, all the way to the edges of our front porch, like no one had ever cut them. I started hearing whispers. The emergency lines gave busy signals. The neighbors stopped answering their phones.

That’s when I shut all the curtains.

My father’s journal says Fae aren’t allowed to breach Earthside without permission, that there’s some kind of police called the LeyGuard who are meant to enforce those things. I feel half crazy that I’m even considering what’s in my father’s journal might be true, but with the kind of week I’ve had, reality feels a bit unhinged, anyway.

There’s nothing in the journal about how to destroy the weeds, but I’ve been wondering if that’s even the right move. The weeds are the ones who poisoned Mom, maybe the only ones who can tell me how to fix it. I don’t need to know how to kill them, I need to know what they want. I need leverage.

Abby.

I ignore the whisper and straighten, stretch my aching back, then grab my plate of peanut butter toast from the counter. The peanut butter is runny, the last of that gross all-natural stuff Mom insisted on buying, but I force it down anyway. Sweat trails my spine beneath my shirt. The house is hot, air turned off—Mom’s always cold, now. I don’t know why the weeds talk to me instead of attacking me, why they haven’t just flooded my house with the spores or poison or whatever that cloud was Mom breathed in last Friday that brought the pain and the coughing—and the forgetting.

Mom coughs from the couch in the living room a few feet over. “Abby.” Her voice sounds like an accordion, squeezed out with a wheeze behind.

I drop my toast, rush to her side, grab her hand—glad she knows who I am, again. Terrified it won’t last. Mom’s head drops to the pillow. Her eyes roll back.

I brace myself for the scream I know is coming. It’s brief, this time, but it sets my teeth on edge, shreds my heart, leaves my ears ringing.

Mom’s hand drops limp. Asleep again.

I sink to the floor, tuck my knees to my chest.

Jaden McConnor is in my Biology class at school. He called the day after the screaming started, which is how I knew his parents were sick, too. But Jaden wasn’t hearing whispers. I quickly changed the subject, embarrassed I’d mentioned it. But the effect he described was the same as Mom: started in the chest, the lungs, then moved to the brain, bringing pain and screams, muddling thoughts, messing with memories. When I called the next day, no one answered.

I don’t know any more than that—but I know that when a killer Fae plant tells you to come outside, you don’t obey it unless you have a plan. And so far, I’ve got nothing. I’ve also watched enough fantasy and science fiction movies and enough TV medical dramas to extrapolate the outcome of Mom’s symptoms if I don’t find a way to help her. I try not to think about it too much.

It’s all I can think about.

Abby.

My chest tightens. For days, I’ve been feeding Mom broth and sips of water with a spoon, what little I can get her to swallow. I’ve changed her clothes and blankets daily, every time telling myself this isn’t real, this isn’t Mom, but then I have to tell myself it is, and she needs me, or I won’t be brave enough to do it. I worry about her getting bed sores—aren’t those a thing? We’d been due for a grocery trip before all this happened, and now we’re down to bread and peanut butter, a little orange juice, some jarred fruit, a few cans of broth. We’ve got one cow, but I’m not even sure where Cheryl is now. She’s probably eaten all the lettuce, if it’s even still out there, if she’s even still alive. And the chicken coop is so swallowed by weeds, I’d never be able to get to the eggs, even if they stuck around to lay them. What do I do when we run out of food?

Abby. Come to us. The whispers are pleading, like they want to help.

I don’t trust them. But there’s got to be a reason why I hear them when no one else does, why they keep sending images of me crossing the field and entering the woods. If I could just figure out what they wanted, I could try to leverage it, force them to help Mom.

The last lucid thing Mom told me was not to go outside, that it wasn't safe. But I’m getting nowhere just sitting here, and the journal told me nothing other than that the weeds are Fae, which wasn’t actually that helpful.

The weeds must want something, and I know only one way to figure out what it is.

I need to go ask them.

Mom coughs, a racking sound that slices to my core and excises the last of my hesitation.

I jump up, grab my backpack and dump the books out of it, then hurry to the basement. I’m not crazy enough to go talk to killer weeds without some kind of protection, so I grab the only hedge clippers we own and shove them in my bag.

I’ll go outside like the weeds demand, see what they want, then find a way to leverage it to make them help me. To help Mom. I’ll beg, if I have to.

And if they won’t help us...well, I’ve got hedge clippers, and if that doesn’t scare them, maybe I can bluff, threaten to contact the LeyGuard to destroy them. Maybe I can make the weeds help us.

Back upstairs, I stuff my feet in my rain boots, pushing away the vision that flickers, the one that means I’m doing just what the weeds want. I kiss Mom goodbye and creep to the front door. The front door sticks. I shove it open. Chickens cluck from the roof, hiding from the weeds that have swallowed their coop. The weeds are up to the threshold, now, tickling the edges of the door.

Fear ripples through me and spreads, like a strike on a gong. I don’t know if leaving Mom here alone is the right thing, or what might happen, but I have to try something.

Abbyyyyyy. The whisper-images flicker in again, hissing. Me, wearing my backpack, crossing the field, entering the woods.

I pivot to my left. The woods are there, an acre away. An acre full of waist-high weeds, reaching up like fingers. They want me to cross that field, go into the woods, which means it’s probably the last thing I should do. But I at least need to initiate a conversation. I slide the hedge clippers from my backpack and step out onto the front stoop.

Tendrils snake out, snatch at my pants, and cling to my shirt. They've grown a layer of fuzz now, like fine Velcro. I imagine them creeping into the house while I’m gone, spreading over the floor, wrapping mom in a cocoon of snaking, green fingers. I shudder and shut the door behind me.

“Okay, now what?” My words are clipped, irritated, but I’m beyond caring whether I anger a bunch of weeds. Weeds. The fact I’m even considering their feelings makes me question my sanity. But I’m not the crazy one here. It’s reality that’s off its rocker. “I’m here to… talk.” To weeds. I am the crazy one.

It takes me a minute to realize the weed-fingers clinging to my waist are tightening.

I swing the hedge clippers above my head and look down. “Hey, ease up!” The Velcro tendrils freeze—as though they can convince me I hadn’t felt them creeping around my hips, climbing to my ribs, closing around me like a giant hand. I look out over the field, gauging the sheer volume of these weeds, hundreds upon hundreds between me and the woods.

Panic rushes through me. I force a shaky breath and try to still my quivering hands. If my mother wasn’t dying inside, if I wasn’t her only chance at getting help, I’d hack the weeds off me and run screaming back into my house this instant.

Instead, I fix my gaze on the ugly weed-fingers clasping my waist. “I want to speak to...your leader?” The last word comes out like a question. Apparently, modified sci-fi dialogue sounds absolutely ridiculous when you say it in real life. My cheeks heat with embarrassment.

The weeds don’t respond. They’ve gone still against my torso, stealth mode, but I glance away again for an instant and feel them creeping further. Tighter. I look down. They’ve grown longer, somehow, in just those few seconds, and wider—no, they’ve twined themselves around each other, their freakish, long fingers are now a wrist-thick rope. They’re binding me.

I’ve got to get free. I swing the hedge-clippers out in front of me but they stick shut, stiff with disuse. I struggle, arms shaking. The blades snap open with a schwick. Relief rushes through me.

The weeds around my waist twitch.

A thin vapor plumes out from them, sick-sweet like overripe peaches. My thoughts swirl. My chest squeezes. The vapor is sucked back toward the weeds, like the plants have flipped a reverse switch. My mind clears.

The weeds don’t have to whisper-flash my mind for me to understand—that was a warning. I have a strong foreboding that I don’t want to know what happens if I make the weeds angry. A cold stone of fear plunges into my stomach. This was a bad idea. I should’ve stayed inside like Mom told me, should’ve kept trying to phone for help. But it’s too late for that, so now what?

Maybe I can talk to them? I clear my throat. “So, I—I need—”

Whisper-flickers flash again. Me. The woods. Some trees. Insistent.

Apparently, the weeds don’t want to talk. The weeds against my back press into me, nudging me. The weeds have wrapped my legs, loosely enough that I can walk, but only in an awkward shuffle.

If I convince them I’m complying, move toward the woods, will they release me?I could go back inside, think this through, come up with a better way to convince them.

I wonder how hard it is to build a makeshift flame-thrower.

More weed fingers slip in from the sides, trailing up my legs. I look down. They’re coiling into thicker vines, wrapping slowly around my thighs like a python.

They cinch tight and yank.

My back slams the ground, knocking the breath from me. The hedge clippers go flying. I barely snatch them from the dirt before I’m dragged out of reach, clutching them to my chest. The weeds snap tight around my body and wind, pinning my arms. The metal from the clippers digs into the skin of my stomach through my shirt. I gasp a breath, reassess. I’m probably bleeding a little, but that’s the least of my problems. I’m being kidnapped by weeds.

I kick and flail and scream. Flashes of sky and blaring sun speed past me as the green fingers pass me tendril to tendril so fast I can barely track the movement. From the ground, the weeds seem tall as corn stalks. The ones around my body have pulled loose from the ground. They stay on me like ropes, flecks of soil flinging from their waving roots, spattering my face. Grains of dirt grind between my teeth. The weeds on my upper body tighten and tighten, until it hurts, until I can hardly breathe, until finally I fall still because if they squeeze any tighter they may actually snap my ribs. I suck shallow breaths, trying to corral my galloping thoughts into some kind of strategy.

I’m being kidnapped by weeds. There is no strategy for this.

Abbbyyyy. The whisper-images flicker: the woods, me speeding toward them on my back, wrapped tight in ugly green finger-ropes. Then a new image flickers in. A tree in the woods ahead—no, a huge weed, with leaves up top like a gargantuan celery, rivaling the branches of the trees around it. Smaller weeds cluster at its base, taking refuge in its shade.

They’re taking me to a freaking mother-weed.

Whisper-pictures flicker in of me sitting cross-legged in the shade, staring up at the giant celery, hands gesturing like I’m talking to it. Come, Abby.

“Shut up, you stupid plants!” My throat scrapes raw with my screams. I pant between each one to catch what breath I can still fit in my compressed lungs. I can barely move my legs, but I kick anyway. If they’re abducting me, I’m going to make them work for it. They’ll have to squeeze me until I pop, like a tick, before I’ll quit fighting.

An image of my mom, pale and shivering on the couch, flashes into my mind. If I die out here, she’ll have no one. The thought hits me like a brick to the chest.

I should’ve listened, should’ve stayed inside. I never should’ve left her.

The weeds yank me upright, dangling my trapped legs just above the ground, and thrust me forward.

My hands catch me by instinct just before my chest slams the ground. The hedge clippers skid away, out of reach. I’ve barely had time to process that my arms and legs are suddenly free when a voice grabs me, smooth as velvet—a single, audible voice this time, not a chorus of hisses. Its words close over my mind like a vice grip, clamping my thoughts in place. Abby. Finally. I’m glad you’ve come.

I look up. I’m in the woods now, dappled sunlight across fallen leaves on loose soil, oaks and pines in every direction, adorned by moss and vines. And there, in the middle of them all and nearly as tall, stands the mother-weed.

“Come? You kidnapped me!” I shove to my feet, furious with the giant celery stalk, the weeds, my father’s journal that said they’re Fae, the stupid weed-poison that’s sucking my mom’s life away. Furious with everything. I yank the hedge clippers from the ground, wishing I had that flame-thrower. The mother-weed is thick as a tree, too big for me to hack, but the weedlings in her shadows aren’t. I lurch forward, wrench the clippers open, and position them over a weed-tendril no taller than my knee, like holding a knife to its neck. “Leave my mom and me alone!

The celery-leaves at the top of the mother-weed’s stalk waggle, jostling the branches of the trees around them. Abby Weston. Its voice is sad, chiding, like a disappointed mother. You are like your father.

I stagger back. “What?”

The kick to the gut of that statement is rivaled only by the scene the mother-weed slams into my mind, as if I’m there watching it: a roguish man with dark hair and a sleeveless leather jerkin, biceps covered in geometric tattoos. He stands on a moonlit stone wall, hands outstretched, eyes on the shadowed field below. Green eyes, almond-shaped, with thick, dark lashes. Eyes I’ve seen before, in the photo Mom hid in her dresser. Eyes like mine.

“I’m not like him!” The vision snaps away. I clench my fists, trembling, and glare up at the weed-tree, but there’s no face, no eyes staring back, nothing to fix my glare on. “Not him!” I’ve hated him for so many years, I don’t even remember loving him.

He broke the LeyGuard oath. A flash of a stone arch in a field, a man stepping through it like a portal. We are Eldervine. It was his job to protect us. A field, littered with felled stalks, charred, among rows of knee-high stumps. Only one stalk still stands, emitting green smoke. He betrayed us. The LeyGuard used to be honorable.

I grasp the first response that flashes to mind. “You aren’t even supposed to be here! Fae aren’t supposed to come to Earth!”

The mind grip tightens. His seed grew you. A flash of charging creatures, upright like men but grotesque, fangs bared, dark wings outspread. They’re shouting, axes held high, as they sweep over the field—toward a copse of enormous green stalks. A flash of my father, standing atop the wall—arm raised. Red sparks flickering from his fingertips.

I’m going to have a lot of questions for my mom when she wakes up. If she wakes up.

My heart clenches. “Please—I need—”

The mother-weed tightens her grasp on my mind, swallowing all other thoughts. You share his roots. At my father’s shout, swords swing. Pea-green plumes burst from stalk after stalk. Inhuman shrieks pierce the valley. My father swings his arms wide. Flames stream from his hands, arcing over the axe-wielders. The stalks ignite, shrieks intensify. You are the same.

A flash of me, holding hedge clippers to a sapling. Are you not?

The vice grip releases. The woods around me snap back into view.

I drop the hedge clippers like they’re a hot poker, scurry three steps backward. “I’m not.” My voice shakes. Who was this man, my father? He committed genocide, the plant version, a whole community of them. He shot flames from his fingertips. He abandoned his own family. I’m nothing like him!” My eyes catch the clippers, still open beside the trembling weedling.

Am I?

I feel like the four-year-old version of myself, again, standing in the doorway, confused, as my father throws shirts into a suitcase. Hearing the car door slam. Lying frozen in bed, pretending not to hear Mom cry. Terrified she had been broken. Not knowing how to fix it. Helpless to change it. Like now.

My words are small when I speak again. “I just want to save my mom.”

Flickers flash of Mr. Veylent on his tractor, plowing up weeds. Of Mom on the mower, roaring over rows of them. Of me on my doorstep, holding hedge clippers. I just want to save my children.

The weight of that stuns me, flips my heart upside-down.

We fall into a long silence.

Then a flicker of a charred valley, covered in smoldering stumps, trickles into my mind. The Dark Fae hunt us. He revealed us. I and my children—we are all that’s left.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, and I mean it. “But your spore plumes poisoned my mom.” My voice gains its legs. “Maybe my dad saw the danger, too, maybe he was protecting people.” I can’t believe I’m defending him. Or am I defending me?

We only poison when we’re hurt. A flash of my father searing. My mom mowing. We did not attack first. It shows me itself, roots rutting up from the soil like giant spider legs, creeping over the hill like a giant, walking celery. Seedlings cling to its stalk by their delicate roots, dozens of them. Maybe hundreds. Like a mother spider transporting babies. I found the Gate. I found here. I felt you. You are LeyGuard.

“So you want...what? Revenge? To kill me, for what he did to you?”

No. I get flickers of the field behind me, spreading toward my house, weeds trembling in the breeze, covering the McConnors’ pasture. You must protect us. I can feel a collective sigh among them as they spread their roots in our soil, grow, soak in the sun and air. We want to survive.

I glare up at the stalk, imagining a face somewhere around the base of its flapping leaves, envisioning huge, beady eyes. “But you’re killing us to do it! You’re swallowing our whole town!”

The mind-flickers flutter. I can feel the mind-stream it’s using to control me. There’s static around its edges, like the gaps between channels on Mom’s old antique TV.

I grab control of the channel like there’s a dial in my mind, and twist until I feel it flip directions.

My visions flash between us this time and I shove them at her—at it, this mother-weed—Jaden’s trembling voice on the phone. The hollow ringing and ringing when I tried to call back. The weeds up to my front door. The swallowed chicken coop. Mom, on the couch, sweat-sheened and screaming. And screaming. And screaming. Me, tucked into a ball in the kitchen, unable to take the screams, unable to escape them. Alone. My body quivers with fury until it explodes in my chest. You’re killing everyone!

The stalk shudders. You can mind-speak. It says it with significance, as though it should mean something to me. I feel a brain-flicker pushing in and I allow it passage, surprised at my sudden confidence that I could’ve denied it, had I chosen to. The mother-weed shows me an image of myself, flames flickering from my fingertips. LeyGuard.

“I am not like him!”

The mother-weed is silent for a moment. Then, she sends me a flicker-image of the infant weeds at my feet. At the hedge clippers I dropped beside them, when I realized what I’d almost done.

No, her voice says. You have honor.

I look up at the plant. “But do you?”

In the weight of the silence that follows, I imagine the mother-weed staring down at me, imagine her eyes softening, mouth twisting in regret. Or maybe she’s wanting me to see that.

We did not mean to harm anyone.

I clench my arms tight around my chest. Well, you did a sucky job of that.”

We came here for help.

So did I.

An unexpected empathy hits me, and the anger in my chest softens. “I don’t know how to help you.” With this comes the realization that I have nothing to bargain with. If they wanted to, they could sweep their roots through our whole town and we’d all be vine-cocoons by morning, on our way to becoming fertilizer. Unless…

I summon the knob in my mind again, and project an image of the weeds outside my house, when they sucked their plumes back in, when they removed the poison that fogged my brain. Then I imagine my mom, whole again, healthy, and send her that picture. I imagine Jaden and his parents, chatting with Mom and me over the fence, and send her that, too.

I stare up at her, afraid to hope but hoping anyway, in spite of myself. My voice is small as I ask, “You can do that, right? Make it better?”

Her answer comes instant and firm. Yes.

My breath quivers as I force an image of my own three-acre property, covered by a forest of celery stalks, with a small clearing for our tiny house. It’s the one thing I know they want: safety. A place to call home.

“It may be cramped,” I whisper, “but it’s almost as big as the field you showed me.” I whisper. “The one you came from. Do you understand?”

Your land in exchange for ours. A restitution. She sends a flicker of my land, swarmed with vines, sprawling to the edges of my property and spreading into the woods.

I shake my head. “No. We still need to live here, too.” I project more images. Cheryl, eating grass between the trees. The chicken coop, unharmed. The house, weeds gone. The McConnors’ farm, the Veylents’, the roads to town, all weedless. “I’ll protect you from anyone harming you on my land, but you pull all your children from the woods and all the other farms, from everywhere else. You leave everyone else alone.”

The celery leaves high above me shake. No.

I see a flash of an archway deep in those marshy woods, stones crumbling, sealed over by weeds. She sends me a glimpse of what’s on the other side of the seal: gnarled creatures clawing at the sealed gate, snarling, enraged. They know we are here, now. They will keep trying to get through..

That archway is in these woods, just off the edges of my property. With only her tendrils to keep those creatures at bay. Fear chills me as I realize this is so much bigger than I could possibly handle.

Protect with honor, her voice sounds in my mind.

The phrase stops my mind cold. “What did you say?”

Our agreement. Protect with honor. From us to the LeyGuard, and the LeyGuard to us. Our pact.

That explains why my father never felt the need to apply that phrase to his own family—it was never about us. Not that he upheld it toward the Eldervines, either.

The mother-weed’s voice turns pleading, like the whispers had been in the beginning. Help us. And let us help you.

I can’t fix all the harm my father has caused, but maybe I can do something about this one. I look up at her. “What—what do we do?”

She sends me a bird’s-eye flicker of the gate, still sealed with weed stalks, and I feel the surge of her agreement for my terms to stay on my land—with the exception of the woods where the gate stands. Can you protect us? Her emotions flicker through: That’s all they want, a safe place to live. In return, they’ll continue to guard the gate for us.

I think of my father, of the destructive power he showed—I don’t know if I possess that kind of power, but I know I’ll do everything within my power to keep my word, to keep these plants safe on my land. I stand tall and look up at her. “I will do everything I possibly can.”

I feel her mind studying me, then her celery leaves shake in what feels like a nod. I believe you, Abby. That is all any of us can do. Her branches arch forward, as though she’s looking down at me. We protect each other.

I stare up at her and nod. “You have a deal.”

#

I rock gently on my front porch swing six years later, watching the rows of stalk leaves flutter in the wind as the sun rises over our farmland. The time Earthside has changed the weeds. The little ones have grown and look almost like normal trees, fuzzy surfaces replaced by bark, though their shapes still resemble celery. Their scent is floral-sweet now, like honeysuckle. I breathe it in. My hand rests on my pregnant belly as I rock the swing with one leg, the other tucked beneath me.

The porch door creaks open. Jaden steps out, and I still my rocking. He sinks beside me on the swing, twines his left hand through my right. He leans down, lays his other hand over my belly. The baby kicks at his touch.

Jaden’s eyes flick up to mine. His lips spread into his signature crooked smirk. My heart flutters, as it always does when he smiles like that—ever since things shifted. Our friendship changed when the weeds retreated, when he tore across the field, frantic to check on Mom and me after he was freed from his weed-swallowed house, and crushed me in an unexpected hug. Nothing was the same, after that. It was better. Jaden offered some of his family’s land to the weeds, too, to give them extra space, but most of them preferred to stay near me. Near us.

Jaden rubs my hand. “It’s almost time.”

I glance at the sun and nod. “Yes.” My c-section is set to happen bright and early this morning. My whole life is about to change in a single day, again—but this time, we’ve been looking forward to it.

The porch door slams open. Mom rushes out, messy bun tinged with streaks of gray, a crumpled dish towel in her hand.

Mom has been happier, somehow, since she woke from the fever, more at peace. But she’s busied over me these last few days of the pregnancy like a nervous hen. “I’ve got the baby bag. Did you pack the snacks? What about your chapstick?”

Jaden smiles at her. “It’s all in the car, Meredith.”

Mom nods absently, then gasps. “My purse.” She rushes back inside.

Jaden turns to me, offers me his hand. “You ready?”

I look at him. “Give me a moment?”

He doesn’t ask why, just nods and kisses my temple, then heads down the porch steps toward the dirt trail where we park the truck, temporarily abandoning me.

Abby.

I look up at the stalk nearest the porch. The mother-weed towers over the house, her broad leaves providing ample shade for Cheryl and the chickens. She doesn’t often speak to me in the presence of the others. Eldervines don’t speak often, in general, I’ve learned. They’re a quiet species, content to live in silence, speaking only when they have something important to say.

She says my name again, like a question. Abby?

“We’ll be gone a few days,” I tell her.

The mother-weed’s branches shiver. You will be safe there?

“Yes. My doctors are good. And Jaden and Mom will be with me.”

The leaves wave, but in my mind I feel it as a nod.

I wondered often, after those first days, if I’d made the right choice. Even when the weeds retreated, when they freed my mom and our neighbors of their poison and made good on their end of the bargain, I still wondered if it was wise to keep them close. Mom questioned if we could trust the plants, after what they’d done. My father hadn’t let Mom very far into that part of his life, so she knew little about the LeyGuard—I’m not entirely sure she’d even believed him. But I’d seen from the mother-weeds visions what harm my mother and the other farmers had caused the weeds, without even realizing it. Had my father been trying to protect people he cared about, trying to survive, when he harmed these weeds, the same as the rest of us? Mom thinks maybe he was. I guess I’ll never know, but he’s not me and the harm was done, so his intention doesn’t really matter. What matters is what we do now, in the wake of it.

Could the weeds turn on us? Yes. But we could also turn on them. Blame can go on forever, and comparative risk was never the point—the point is that we have chosen to see each other, instead, as friends.

The truck rumbles up to the base of the porch. Jaden leaps out. Behind me, the porch door slams. Mom, with her purse and a back-up bag of snacks over her shoulder.

Jaden takes my elbow, kisses the top of my head. “Ready?”

I nod, and he helps me to my feet.

We will keep your home safe for your return—and your seedling. The mother-weed’s leaves flutter as her voice floods my mind. We will protect you with honor, Abby Weston.

I smile up at her. I know.”


END


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