After they processed her, I packed what was left of Grams in a box. She’d been stuffed with seeds and peat and wrapped tightly into a pill-shaped duffel of bark-brown biodegradable mesh, somehow no longer than my forearm and no wider than my head. One word, “AfterGrow®,” was emblazoned on the bag in bold, turquoise letters. For a moment I pictured her in there, desiccated and compressed. Her mouth open, full of dirt. I shivered and shook my head, jostling the image loose like an Etch-a-Sketch.
The cardboard box I packed her in made for a crude coffin, but it’s what I had. I covered her duffel with soil and set her on the windowsill so she’d get plenty of sun. After a few days the first shoots sprouted, little tendrils of nascent green pushing up through the soil.
When I signed up, the AfterGrow customer service rep (“Grief Support Agents,” they called themselves) said tending to Grams would be easy, that they only implanted hardy varietals that thrived in a wide range of environments and could survive people with clumsy green thumbs. And if I struggled at all with caring for her, the hotline was always open.
Easy or not, I took care to water the plants every day. Couldn’t let Grams die all over again. Far more challenging would be keeping her here at all, perched on the windowsill like a gargoyle. Sometimes, if I stared at the box for long enough, it appeared to swell and ebb. Taking breaths, drinking in the air and the sun. Part of me yearned for that illusion, but a stronger part of me rejected it.
My sister, Naomi, found the whole concept of AfterGrow cruel. Not for Grams, but for her survivors. She couldn’t stand to look at Grams when she came over. But our jobs waiting tables didn’t leave us money for a burial, and I couldn’t stand the thought of cremating her. Fire stripping away her essence, wiping the slate clean. Naomi had a fondness for clean slates. Scorched earth. No respect for the time it took to grow something. To nourish it.
“Fire is nourishing, Asher,” she argued. “Just ask the pine trees.”
“Not so nourishing in a crematorium,” I scoffed.
The first flower to bud was a lily, Grams’s favorite. It had an oblong, pink-and-white bulb framed by thick outer leaves raised up like prayer hands. After that came a freckled vine with large leaves striped green and purple. The leaves bore the same violet shade as the long, flowing caftan Grams wore for special occasions, the one with the gold filigree. And their green hue matched the jade earrings she favored. I’d never seen a vine like that. So peculiar, in an exciting and disquieting way, how evocative it was of her essence.
I sent a picture to Naomi to see if she knew what it was. She replied with a link to an app that identifies plants from pictures. “Go to town, Ash,” she wrote. A signal to leave her out of this.
In no time at all, Grams was covered in plants of all types. More lilies had sprouted, and several more shoots of the purple-striped vine snaked around the other stalks. Periwinkle, phlox, and other creeper flowers hid beneath broad leaves from other vines. Pothos, maybe. Each leaf bore unique patterns, squiggly and chaotic tangles of sage-green lines meandering through the leaves’ waxy, emerald-green remainder.
I uploaded new photos to the app, but they all came back unidentifiable. I called the AfterGrow hotline to ask about them.
“The seeds we use are proprietary,” explained the Grief Support Agent. “That’s why your app won’t recognize them.”
“The patterns are so cool. You should document them!”
“They are marvelous, aren’t they?” she said. Her laugh was buoyant, stirring. “Unfortunately for science, client confidentiality takes precedence.”
Over the next several weeks, I settled into an unremarkable routine. I watered Grams every morning around ten—earlier if I was working brunch that day—and measured her soil moisture when I got home, checking as gingerly as I could for root rot. In between, my shifts passed in a blur of cramped kitchen hallways and hot oil and “Behind!” and forced smiles and the warm, herbal smoke from an offered joint or cigarette.
Taking care of Grams was an antidote of peace and quiet. The initial excitement of seeing her first sprouts had worn off, now that it was harder to measure her growth. No casual gardener or plant-parent I knew had ever mentioned anything about the comfortable mundanity of completing the same tasks, day in and day out, to keep something alive. I began to understand the impulse to accumulate more plants, to have more to take care of.
But I didn’t give in to that impulse. I wanted to do right by Grams, and she was enough for an amateur. Her vines grew and grew, drawing strength from the soil and the remnants of her bones. They grew so long, their weight threatened to drag her off the windowsill. I put up some dowel rods in the window and guided the vines up and over my makeshift trellis.
My apartment became as humid as a greenhouse. As the plants flourished, they filled the air with sweet, cloying perfumes of flowers and wet wood. Every so often, I’d catch a whiff of sharp mint, like the Listerine strips Grams devoured like candy before she got sick. I kept the window open most nights to freshen the place. Spring had turned to summer, so it was warm enough now.
Grams always preferred the warmth when she was alive. Every afternoon, she’d settle into her favorite rocking chair like a mama bird roosting in a tree. Back when Grams and Naomi were still speaking, we would spend hours on the front porch together. Naomi and I would play checkers on the floor while the three of us invented stories about Grams’s eccentric neighbors. As Grams got sicker and angrier, Naomi couldn’t bear to spend much time with her anymore. I would sit with her alone, watching the sunset, trying to make conversation when she was in a good mood, staying quiet when she wasn’t. Eventually her in-home nurses helped carry that burden, keeping vigil on the porch when I wasn’t around.
In death, Grams favored warmth too. Her vine-arms crept steadily toward the threshold, soaking up the sun, only she’d traded a rocking chair on her porch for a box on a windowsill. I’d come home from work and lean next to her, smoking a joint, sometimes two, gazing out at the pine trees’ crowns swaying in the courtyard. I rarely made it home in time for sunset, but I was glad Grams could enjoy it from her perch.
By the end of summer, her leaves were bigger than my fist. Their variegated patterns had also shifted, transforming from chaos into cursive. When I watered her in the mornings, I’d catch glimpses of what I thought were letters decorating her leaves.
I convinced myself my mind was playing tricks on me until a new purple vine sprouted. At its tip were two leaves, each bearing a clear, elegantly-drawn letter. “A” and “N.” Asher and Naomi, emerging from the same stem.
I immediately sent a pic to Naomi. For once she wasn’t dismissive, sending back a short but sweet “Aww.” I wiped a tear from my eye and celebrated the small victory.
From then on, every new leaf Grams grew bore a letter. More A’s and N’s but also plenty of others. Then she started sending them in two-letter pairs. The chaotic clouds of variegated lines grew longer and longer until they disentangled into full words. One near the base of the purple-striped vine read “sun.” A pothos leaf read “peace.” The leaves adorned with “A” and “N” now spelled my full name and Naomi’s, too. On days when I’d wake up too early, unable to get back to sleep, I’d sit by the windows and study each one, holding them up to the soft dawn light and tracing their creases like a palm reader.
I sent more photos to Naomi, choosing words that evoked nice memories of Grams. “Tuck” for when she’d put us to bed, “game” for our front porch checkers matches, “swim” for the swimming lessons she gave us at the community pool. I left out “drown” from the same vine. No need to burden Naomi with the less happy words.
Her reply was short. “Bad juju,” then a grimacing emoji.
“It’s nice,” I retorted. “She’s bringing me joy for a change.”
As Grams continued to grow, rising up and up to almost completely cover my windows, the words transformed again. “Sun” became “sin.” “Game” became “blame.” Over time, more and more of her nice words contorted into ugly ones. Some were references to her illness (“cough,” “fluid”), while others alluded to death (“ending,” “killing”). The leaves changed as well. They grew larger every day, but their edges began to wither and brown spots stained their middles like cigarette burns.
Before another tiresome brunch shift, I found seven leaves scattered on the floor below the windowsill, their stems brittle toothpicks. Each leaf had a different word on it, yellow cursive snaking through decayed brown. I shifted them around a bit, until the message clicked:
still a deadbeat as always, i see
Alarm, tingly and fast, skittered down my spine. I looked around my apartment, as though there would be anyone else who could confirm what I saw. Grams’ box loomed above me, the bottom corners crusted with mold, the sides bulging from the extra biomass that sun and water and my own breath had nourished. Eyeless, she stared at me through the layers of soil and greenery. Ever vigilant.
I called in sick to work, then called the AfterGrow hotline. Maybe something had gone wrong with the seeds. Or with Grams. I held the leaves, crumpled in my hand, while I recounted their words to the Grief Support Agent. His voice was firm and measured. “It’s uncommon, but with the right level of care, your loved one can send messages through the growth.”
“What kind of messages?”
“Any kind, really. Depends on the person, their temperament, how much they left unresolved before they passed. Most of the time they’re just shapes or letters or fragments of words. It’s pretty rare to get something so lucid.”
I shivered. I thought of Naomi and her appetite for fire. Clean slates.
“Is there any way to stop it?”
“It’s part of the natural process of unburdening,” he droned, like he’d read this script a thousand times before. “Releasing the extra weight.”
“All of this should’ve been in your orientation literature. I can’t shape the process. I can only help you through it.”
“Well, great. Really helpful.”
I hung up. Tried to swallow but couldn’t. My mouth was as dry as dirt.
Maybe Naomi had been right. Maybe I hadn’t researched AfterGrow thoroughly enough. But Grams was here now, somewhere between alive and not-alive. I couldn’t just abandon her.
“Yes, you can,” hissed Naomi, when I called and said the same to her. “You don’t need to let her control you anymore.”
“But she’s speaking to me!”
“She’s dead, Asher. Whatever is happening has more to do with you than her.” She sighed. “Look, you know what I’d do. Just torch the bitch.”
I growled and chucked my phone across the room. I couldn’t believe Naomi would be so disrespectful, especially because part of me believed she was right. This could all be over, and quickly.
I took deep breaths, matching the rhythm of Grams’s box swelling and shrinking. My anger abated. The smoke in my head cleared. Embers of something, a product of some emotional debt I harbored, smoldered softly deep down in my gut. This would be a slow burn, not a bonfire.
Taking care of Grams was the right thing to do. If she had things to get off her chest, I’d hear them. All part of the process, even if it ached.
Tending to Grams had become second nature, but I was beginning to worry that her vines looked worse for wear. I gave her extra water before evening shifts to armor her against the harsh late-afternoon sunlight, but every time I came home, I’d find more leaves on the floor. I bought a plastic tub for her after roots burrowed through the corners of the cardboard box. Not much of an upgrade, but more structurally sound at least. The pothos and purple vines were the only plants left now, having choked out the lilies and creeper flowers. They grew ever longer, grasping at the sun and leaving behind long stretches of barren stem.
New messages dropped about once per week. Some I couldn’t quite make sense of (drain fluid from behind eyes, doctors and their blade fingers), but some really hurt.
stuck in your ways.
never made time to visit.
always a lazy brat.
Things she’d said during those last visits. Things her mouth had said. Empty words, divorced from her mind, which was clearly elsewhere. Still, the words clung to me, wrapped around my bones like ivy on a trellis.
Every time a message dropped, I put the words in order, then took a picture before crumpling the leaves. For some reason, storing a memory in pixels was easier than holding onto Grams’s physical remnants. More distance, or something. I made a note to call the hotline about that, but then deleted it. They hadn’t done a great job of “helping me through it,” or whatever the last guy had said.
After our last exchange, Naomi disengaged completely. I texted her often, alluding to Grams’s messages, probing for sisterly advice, but she either missed the hints or didn’t care. Or maybe she had nothing new to say. I could hear her smug, nasally voice in my head. “You should’ve read everything more carefully. You’ve only got yourself to blame. Don’t come crying to me.”
When winter arrived, Grams’s vines dropped nearly all their leaves. The apartment became a swamp, air spongy and rank with decay. Mildew grew in corners among the cobwebs and along baseboards. As much as I wanted to ventilate the place, I kept Grams’s window closed, buffering her from the cold as much as I could. If she had a fighting chance, I’d help her along.
I purchased a grow lamp and a portable rotary fan and hung both above her, but they didn’t seem to help. Grams’s vine-arms chattered like teeth in the manufactured breeze, losing more leaves and sending messages nearly every day.
cant hold on.
dont let me die alone again.
for once do something.
Every time I looked, it seemed more leaves littered the ground. Then an entire shoot from the purple vine snapped off and flailed across the hardwood floor.
do something asher.
do something damn it.
My hands trembled. Sobs pushed up from my stomach in heaves. I couldn’t handle it anymore.
I called the hotline. “Help! She’s—Grams is dying,” I stammered, struggling to hold the phone. “I—I don’t know what to do. What do I do?”
“It’s okay,” said the Grief Support Agent, her voice melodic and unfathomably calm. “Everything is going to be alright.”
“The plants, I couldn’t—I couldn’t keep them—they’re all withered, dying. Dead, actually. Dead as dirt.” The fan sheared more leaves off Grams’s vines. “And I bought this stupid fan thinking she needed air, and this grow lamp thinking she needed sun and—” I marched over to the windows and ripped their power cords out of the wall. “They did jack shit.”
“Deep breaths, Asher. I want you to take deep breaths. In. Now out.”
I did as she instructed, but the rush of air did nothing to untangle the knot in my stomach or quench the smoldering embers of my guilt.
“That’s good,” she continued. “Keep breathing like that, slow and steady. Now, tell me more about the plants. How do they look?”
“Brown. Leaves are brittle. Vines are weak and drooping, like I said. What should I do? How do I fix this?”
She laughed softly, the way someone laughs when they’ve solved a riddle. “There’s no need to fix anything. This is natural. The plants are dying because they’re running out of organic material.”
“So we need more. How can I get more?”
“It’s a good thing, Asher. It means your Grams is becoming unburdened. Finally.”
do something. asher. cold. hurt. why wont you do something.
“Time to let go.” Her voice was soft but firm. Urgent.
I dropped my phone and crossed the room to the box. For a moment, I contemplated reaching into the dirt, feeling through the roots and rot to touch her, to see how much was left. How much time she had. Maybe I could add to her, shore up her reserves. Stick my head beneath the soil and suffocate. Fill my mouth with dirt. Let the plants eat away at my hair and skin, worm through my ears to my brain and unburden me, too.
I looked out the window at the trees in the courtyard. Naomi’s voice rang in my head.
Fire is nourishing. Just ask the pine trees.
I opened the window. The cold air wafted into the apartment, pushing out the humid cloud Grams had created. It stoked the slow-burning fire in my gut. Making it grow. Making it rise.
Grams’s leaves shivered in the wind. Some snapped off.
no no help do something so cold do something damn it
Carefully, I unthreaded her vines from the dowel rods and laid them in a pile on top of her. I grabbed her bin and took it downstairs to the courtyard, setting it a short distance from my favorite pine. A tall, gangly thing swaying aimlessly in the cloudy, winter sky.
I reached into my pocket, took out my lighter and a joint. I lit it, drinking in the herbal smoke. Warmth flooded me.
I cradled the shriveled stalks of the purple vine and the pothos, braiding and unbraiding them between my fingers. Holding Grams’s hands in mine for the last time.
Then I brought both of the vines to my lighter’s little flame. It lapped at the stalks, eager to drink.
Once the fire caught, it raced down Grams’s arms like a swarm of ants. The flames consumed everything, now dry as chaff. The vines, the leaves, Grams’s last words. All gone, milled to ash. I took one more drag and exhaled, my smoke swirling and dancing with hers.