“Hello,” said a high voice behind her. Ruth jumped. The little girl had shining dark hair in braids that trailed down her ruffled yellow sundress. She smiled sweetly. Ruth managed to smile back, guiltily banishing thoughts about dead bodies.
“I’m Keira. What are you doing?” the girl said.
Ruth hesitated, then introduced herself. She was never sure about using first names with kids. Wasn’t she supposed to be teaching them to respect their elders? She didn’t feel like an elder. “I’m just taking the weeds out. I’m going to put in some basil and rosemary and lavender. Maybe tomatoes, but they can be fussy.”
Usually this was the part where other people looked annoyed, because they didn’t want detailed answers to chitchat questions. Keira only nodded and said, “Those sound nice.” She hesitated, her small mouth half-open, then added, “Can you do something for me? Can you leave that weed alone?”
Ruth looked to where the girl was pointing. It was the tallest weed, and the ugliest, with knobby buds poking out everywhere and a feathery fringe at the top that rose to a point. It was like a parody of a castle tower. Her pretty herbs, under this monstrosity? She tried not to shudder. “Why do you like that weed so much?”
Keira stepped closer, and her grayish-brown sandals bounced the sunlight into Ruth’s eyes. She gazed at the weed, clasping her hands. “I need it. It’s really important. Please?”
The “please” did it. Ruth’s neighbor on one side wore suits and seemed to work in an office. He was always rushing around with his laptop case, texting one-handed, never saying hello. The neighbor on the other side was a pink-faced retiree in pink sweats and an oversized pin saying, “HOA Board Member!” who kept reminding Ruth in a syrupy voice about the homeowners’ association rules and the importance of curb appeal, which was why Ruth was cleaning out the garden bed even though she’d only been here a week and was still tripping over boxes in her living room and kitchen. Keira was the first person to have an actual conversation with Ruth, and she’d asked so nicely.
“Ummm…sure.” Ruth shrugged. “Okay.” She wasn’t sure she could pull the weed out anyway. She’d need a larger shovel, or maybe a backhoe.
Keira’s small face lit up. “Oh, thank you! I’m so glad we’re neighbors.” She was gone in a twirl of skirts, too quick for Ruth to see which way she went. How had the girl even gotten into her yard? Ruth glanced around, but there was no door or hole in the wooden fence. Maybe she’d climbed.
Ruth went back to digging and grumbled when her trowel struck more rocks. She scooped them out of the soil, but instead of tossing them into the trash bag next to her, she let them fall through her gloved fingers. They gleamed white against the patchy grass.
Why were there bone fragments in her garden?
Fertilizer. That’s what Ruth told herself later. Some disgusting new type of fertilizer. As though blood meal wasn’t disgusting enough. Why the previous owner would have bothered with fertilizer when he’d otherwise abandoned the garden, Ruth couldn’t answer that. She focused on digging and yanking, then composting, planting, and mulching.
The weed towered over the herbs surrounding it. They bravely reached for the sun anyway, trying to dodge the weed’s shadow. Ruth sighed and took her morning mug of tea back inside. She got to sip it twice before the doorbell rang.
“Hello,” chirped the pink neighbor. Cindy or Sissy or something, Ruth couldn’t remember. “I think you missed a spot in your garden cleanup.”
Ruth tugged at her short brown hair. She felt less feminine just looking at the neighbor. “I think it looks fine.”
Cindy or Sissy giggled like glass splintering. “Sweetie. You do know that’s a weed. So unsightly. I have to look at it every time I’m in my yard. I don’t think that’s very neighborly, do you?”
“Maybe you could make your fence taller?” Ruth said.
Cindy-Sissy’s pink mouth thinned to flatness. Not a helpful suggestion, apparently.
Ruth’s phone pinged a reminder from her back pocket, and she fought to keep the relieved smile off her face. “Sorry, I’ve got a meeting.” She knew she was supposed to say “Nice talking to you” or something like that, but it hadn’t been nice, so she didn’t.
“A taller fence would be against the HOA rules,” Cindy-Sissy said primly as Ruth closed the door.
Ruth got to know the homeowners’ association rules very well in the next few days, because Cindy-Sissy kept leaving copies in her mailbox, taping them to her front door, and texting her PDFs. How had that woman gotten her phone number?
“You seem sad,” Keira said as they sat on the plastic patio chairs in Ruth’s yard. She appeared whenever Ruth was outside, though Ruth never could figure out which unit she was coming from. The girl liked to talk about the plants, or how nice the sunlight felt, or how the air smelled like rain. Ruth was quietly beginning to enjoy the chatter. “But your garden is so perfect,” Keira added. “Much nicer than the last one.”
“The previous owner?” Ruth guessed, curling a hand around her glass of lemonade. Keira hadn’t wanted any. She basked in the sun, letting her fingers trail through the air as though it were water.
“He was mean,” Keira said. “Not a helpful neighbor. He went away.”
Into foreclosure, actually, since Ruth had bought the place through a bank auction. She’d felt lucky to get it. Affordable starter homes were rare these days, especially for a single woman with a tech job that mortgage brokers found confusing. Or a young woman desperate to prove to skeptical parents that she could, in fact, be a functional adult.
Copying Keira, Ruth stretched out, letting the almost-summer sun warm her legs through her faded jeans. She tried not to look at the weed, but it loomed in the corner of her eye, like a feathery fringed nightmare. Direct questions had never worked well for her growing up—part of the mysteries of social interactions that Ruth had decided she’d never understand—but she tried again. “Keira. What do you need the weed for?”
Keira bounced up from her chair and skipped around the garden. She whirled, offering Ruth a brilliant smile. “Really soon now.”
The next morning, there was a soft squishy mass wound into one angled corner of the weed. Ruth fumbled her mug and half her tea spilled onto the patio. No bug could build a cocoon or egg sac that quickly, not that size. The weed listed sideways under the weight of it, like a child with an overstuffed backpack.
At noon, Ruth found a petition rubber-banded to her front doorknob. Twelve of her neighbors, ten of whom she’d never met, demanded that she beautify her yard and stop damaging their resale values. Ruth glanced up and down the street of gray-sided condos, identical down to their decorative green shutters, trying to guess where the neighbors lived and whether they could even see her yard from their windows. But all the units were identically silent.
A polite cease-and-desist letter stapled to the petition was from the HOA. Ruth remembered the pin on Cindy-Sissy’s sweatshirt.
By 2 p.m., the squishy mass had doubled in size. Ruth ignored the rapping on her front door and tried to focus on work.
At 2:30, a woman from the municipal offices called. Someone had filed a complaint with the town about her yard, calling it an eyesore and a safety hazard. Ruth could face a fine if she didn’t rectify the situation, the woman recited, as though she were reading a script.
“How long do I have to rectify the situation?” Ruth asked.
“The sooner, the better, honey,” the woman said. “Don’t you want to get along with your neighbors?”
“My name isn’t Honey,” Ruth said.
The woman sniffed and ended the call.
There was a snap, loud enough that Ruth heard it through the sliding glass doors. Ruth blinked, then poked her head outside. One of the branching things had pressed so firmly into the pink neighbor’s pristine white fence that it had cracked off a piece at the top. Ruth winced. Could she glue it back? Did she have glue? She rummaged through her kitchen junk drawer.
She’d just pulled out an old bottle of rubber cement, and was debating whether it would keep the wood shard in place until she got back from the hardware store, when she heard the shriek. It was full of offended fury. Ruth groaned and swiped a hand across her forehead. How much would she have to grovel? Could Cindy-Sissy get her kicked out of her own condo for weed disturbance?
Ruth pulled the sliding door open again. The smell smacked her in the face so firmly that she staggered back. Just an overpowering, overwhelming smell of—
Oh no. Ruth stumbled forward, one hand clamped over her nose and mouth. A noxious cloud of weed killer floated through her yard. Cindy-Sissy leaned over the fence, smiling wide, pumping the spray bottle she held as though it were a video game controller. The weed was already shriveling, curling in on itself and dropping lower to the ground.
“Stop it,” Ruth coughed out. “This isn’t your yard. Stop killing it!”
“I’m just keeping the neighborhood up to our standards,” trilled Cindy-Sissy. “Per the HOA rules!” She didn’t seem bothered by the stench. Ruth thought she glimpsed nose plugs.
Ruth’s hand shot out and wrapped around the bottle. Her other hand slapped the neighbor across the face, hard. Cindy-Sissy shrieked again and stumbled back, nearly tripping over the gleaming white patio chairs in her own yard. “You assaulted me. Over a weed. What is wrong with you?”
What was wrong with her? Why was Ruth in the wrong? Cindy-Sissy stood there, panting with rage. Ruth’s mind was so snarled that she couldn’t think of a single thing worth saying. After a silent minute, Cindy-Sissy bared her teeth and said, “You should have stayed in whatever junkyard you came from.” She whirled and marched off into her condo, leaving Ruth to survey the wreckage of her garden. Even the herbs and flowers that dotted the neat little bed were drooping, leaning low and sad to the ground as though they were in mourning.
There was nothing she could do now. She trudged back inside, picturing the sad look on Keira’s face when she saw the weed.
The knocking was just loud enough to wake Ruth up. She’d dozed off on the couch, unsettled and reeking of weed spray. Rap-rap-rap. She got herself over to the glass door and slid it open, even as part of her wondered why anyone would be coming through her backyard to knock.
She heard the coughing immediately. Keira was doubled over with it. Shivering, her skin mottled red. When she caught her breath, she whispered, “Burns.”
Ruth scooped her up and headed for the stairs. A dim part of her brain recited the things she was supposed to be doing: calling 911, finding the girl’s parents, hauling out her dusty first aid kit. But she thought of the weed and why the drooping girl needed it, and she filled the tub instead. She lowered Keira into the cool water, dress and all. Keira sighed and closed her eyes. Ruth sat on the toilet lid and watched as Keira’s arms drifted outward to the tub’s edges, her hair loosened and spiraling across the water. Unfurling.
“Do you need anything?” Ruth asked after a while. “Food? A blanket?”
The cracked-rosebud mouth opened a tiny bit. “Window.” Ruth nodded, even though Keira’s eyes were closed, and reached up to open the square window. It squeaked from disuse, and the screen had a few holes. Bugs were definitely going to get in. Maybe bees could come in and pollinate. Ruth pushed the thought away.
The night air drifted in cool and soft. Keira floated serenely in the tub. Eventually, Ruth crept off to bed.
When she checked the next morning, there was a green squishy mass in her tub. Ruth nodded, strangely unsurprised. She did wish she’d bought a unit with two full bathrooms, though. Showering was going to be a problem.
The mass nested in her tub for a week, sending little tendrils up to catch the sunlight from the window. Ruth joined a gym so she could use the shower there. She tried the treadmill a couple times.
A police officer came by, interrupting her virtual team meeting, to sheepishly explain that her neighbor had reported an assault. Ruth showed him the sad remains of her garden. “I’m not even sure what she used was legal,” Ruth told him. “I had trouble breathing afterward.”
“I get that,” the officer said. He was young and vaguely cherubic-looking, and sighed a lot, as though he’d rather be somewhere else. “But she’s, um, she’s claiming she fears for her safety, ma’am.”
“I just want her to leave me alone,” Ruth said.
He blew out another sigh. “Yeah. Candidly, we’ve had a number of complaints from her about various neighbors. Including the previous owner here, I think.”
“Doesn’t that get in the way of you fighting real crimes?” Ruth asked earnestly. The officer choked back a laugh and left.
Good thing he hadn’t asked to use the bathroom. The tendrils were beginning to poke through the holes in the screen.
The mass hardened, becoming shiny. Ruth studied it as she leaned against the bathroom doorway. She wasn’t sure what was going to happen next, but she could tell that whatever it was, it was coming any day now. She would’ve asked the previous owner for insights, except that the news reports she’d found said that he’d disappeared. That was why the bank had repossessed his condo, and why the garden had grown so wild. Ruth thought about the bone fragments in her garden. She poked around inside herself for some skein of fear, but saw only Keira’s sweet face. “I’d like my bathroom back, though,” Ruth told the pod. “Those bath mats are new.”
She groaned when her doorbell rang, several times in a row, insistent as an angry bee. She’d been hoping Cindy-Sissy had given up.
The neighbor’s pink face was eggplant-purple beneath her still-perfect twist of hair. “I told you,” she gritted out. “I warned you. I even fixed your garden for you. And not only did you assault me for it”—her voice rose—“you moved that hideous thing inside. I can see it from your window. Do you know what you’re doing to the air quality in here? In the air that we share? I haven’t breathed properly for days.”
“That doesn’t seem likely,” Ruth said. It was hard to know which accusation to respond to first.
“I am trying to keep order in this neighborhood, and you keep insisting on chaos.” She punctuated the word by yanking the screen door open. Ruth grabbed for the door handle, but was overbalanced, arms swinging. Cindy-Sissy pushed right on in, knocking Ruth to her knees. “I am getting rid of your poison once and for all,” Cindy-Sissy declared as she marched up the stairs. “You are a disgusting neighbor. Worse than the last one.” Behind her back was an enormous pair of garden shears with bright pink handles.
The intrusion was more than Ruth knew what to deal with, and she doubled over, eyes shut, panic-gasping for a few precious seconds. When her vision cleared, she tore up the stairs.
The first scream came when she was two steps from the landing.
“Keira, wait!” Ruth cried as she skidded up to the bathroom. “Keira, stop!” She got to the doorway just as the shining dark creature with the ruffled yellow wings wrapped grayish legs around Cindy-Sissy. Its proboscis danced closer to her head. Cindy-Sissy screamed again. There were already several bloody pockmarked spots on her cheek. They sizzled slightly around the edges.
“Keira,” Ruth said, breathing hard, taking in the open wreckage of the pod in the tub and the oily goo coating the walls, tile floor, and bath mats. “I know you needed that plant so you could”—Molt? Evolve? Who knew?— “but you can’t keep killing us to protect it. That’s what you did to the previous owner, right? Or another of you did.” She remembered the bone fragments. The images scrolled through her head unbidden: The man wrestling with the giant plant during a morning gardening session. The pod opening early. The man’s scream quickly before being stifled. Ruth tried to swallow back the nausea.
“He didn’t know the plant was important,” she added desperately, the words tumbling out. “I’m sure he just wanted this lady to leave him alone.” Cindy-Sissy moaned, swaying in her spiky-legged prison. “But see, I know better now,” Ruth said. “Because you asked me for help. Because we’re neighbors. Good neighbors help each other.” She tried not to look at Cindy-Sissy. “And they know when to mind their own business.”
The giant wings shivered. After a moment the fuzzy legs opened, and Cindy-Sissy stumbled backward with a sob. Ruth thought it might be safe to smile. Until the garden shears sank into her arm.
Ruth stared down at the shears, at the blood seeping out onto her blue button-down shirt (I can’t wear this to the webinar now, I’ll have to change, some dim part of her mind babbled), then up at Cindy-Sissy’s triumphant face.
“You don’t belong here,” Cindy-Sissy said, one steady word at a time, as though convincing herself. “You won’t follow the rules. You’re letting in monsters. No one will blame me for this.” She pulled the shears out, ignoring Ruth’s yelp of pain, then aimed them at Ruth’s heart.
The proboscis bobbed along Ruth’s cheek, asking a question. Ruth closed her eyes and nodded. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. She stood there, one hand wrapped around her bloody arm, as the giant legs scrabbled past her. Cindy-Sissy managed one mangled yelp. All the other sounds after that were wet and soft and splattery.
When it was quiet again, Ruth dared to open her eyes. The creature had resettled in the tub, folded neatly into itself. There was no trace of Cindy-Sissy, except for a scattering of bone-white shards on the tile and a few reddish drops along the creature’s proboscis.
Ruth tried to swallow back the nausea. She took a great shuddering breath. “Wait till tonight,” she said. “I’ll leave the sliding door open. You’re too big for the window.” A wing reached out to brush her hair, as though in thanks. She stumbled downstairs.
She used her salad bowl for the vomit, her old first aid kit for the stab wound, and her phone to schedule a sick day. She curled up on the kitchen floor, too exhausted to find her bedroom. When she woke up the next morning, sore all over and her arm swollen with pain, the creature was gone.
Ruth drove, wincing, to the urgent care center and explained that there had been an accident with her shears. The doctor looked at her dubiously but stitched her up. “Gardeners,” he said. “They get the weirdest injuries.”
The sheepish police officer visited to say that Ruth’s missing neighbor had been heard yelling at her front door. “She told me I was a disgusting neighbor,” Ruth said. “I haven’t seen her since.” The officer nodded and wished her a nice day. No one else came looking for Cindy-Sissy. Ruth couldn’t decide if that made her feel better or worse.
When she felt up to it, she cleaned the bathroom. Then twice more. The goo was everywhere, and it smelled like rot. She studiously avoided looking out the window at the empty condo and its FORECLOSURE sign.
The condo was immaculate, and it sold quickly. After the new owners moved in, Ruth knocked on their door with a plate of cookies and a polite request to ignore the science experiment she was conducting in the garden. The young couple gave her strange looks, accepted the cookies, and never spoke to her again. She didn’t mind.
Being an adult sometimes meant cultivating the neighbors you did want and weeding out the others. She understood that now.
When the new weed began to sprout the following spring, she gave it an extra spritz of water. “Thanks!” said the boy in the yellow shirt behind her. “Hi, I’m Jason.”
“Hi, Jason,” Ruth said, and smiled. There were worse neighbors to have.
Copyright © 2023 Marlaina Cockcroft