The experts touted survival rates early on, like surviving was a good thing.
And why not? RhiVID-2079 was just the latest in a series of superviruses, the twelfth pandemic this century. We knew the drill by then—isolate, vaccinate, start again. We even celebrated the mutated strain that spread faster but killed fewer. You wouldn’t die gasping for breath, drowning in your own immune response.
But later you might wish you had.
“Ready?” I hitch my backpack over my shoulders.
Em hesitates. She hates these runs. But we’re out of oranges, and our supplies won’t stretch if we don’t supplement with fresher options. Finally, she nods and we head to the grove.
RhiVID-2079 jumped from us to plants three years ago. The palm trees turned first, growing faster than bamboo, stretching impossibly tall almost overnight and sprouting tendrils that whipped and stung. Blades of grass became sharp as razors. Saw palmettos developed flowers like the heads of Venus flytraps, massive and gaping and hungry. Pines almost seemed to move, entire forests shifting like they were tiptoeing along on shallow roots. It was like the Earth had grown bored of waiting for pandemics to wipe us out, so it decided to help things along. After all we’d done—the forests we’d decimated, the oceans we’d filled with plastic, the air we’d fouled—I couldn’t blame it.
One by one, species by species, the plants grew ravenous and consumed whatever they could reach. They snatched the alligators from the swamps and the deer from the low-lying scrublands. Snakes and panthers and possums and raccoons, all caught by grasping vines and starving, vicious blooms. They took it all, and then they reached for us. Now there aren’t many of us left.
Some of the plants are still edible, which is good because they didn’t leave us much else. They don’t timber willingly onto our table, though.
Following the sick-sweet stench of orange blossoms, Em and I make our way east, sticking to what’s left of the road. The plants are gradually claiming it back, shoving their way up through the asphalt, turning cracks to canyons, but for now, it’s still the safest way to travel.
The grove was a lucky find. Orange trees haven’t gone quite so feral, not yet. They’ve retained some of their natural sweetness. They’ll still lash out, but they’re relatively easy to handle. The smell when they bloom, though… It’s thick and hot and sweeter than cotton candy; it coils in your sinuses and stays there. The trees used to blossom only in springtime, but now it’s all year long, a constant influx of noxious flowers leading to a steady supply of fresh food, and I’m grateful for the nourishment, I really am.
But that smell. It’s almost enough to make me choose hunger.
Em lost her sense of smell to the virus, which is part of why we hunt so well together. With me nearby to distract the trees, she can creep in and get close without vomiting, and collect enough fallen oranges to last us weeks.
That’s part of it.
We also hunt well together because I love her. She’s all I have left. I would throw myself in front of a palm vine to protect her too-kind, too-quiet ass.
The grove—our grove, I guess, since we haven’t seen another person for months now—used to be part of a nursery and landscaping company. I don’t like to think of what might have happened to its employees. I don’t like to wonder if they’re part of why the oranges grow so juicy and enormous.
We reach what’s left of the grove’s fence. The groundcover is working to overtake it, turning it lush and green and more dangerous than barbed wire. The gate hangs open, half off its rusted hinges.
“Liv?” Em asks. “Ready?”
“Yeah. Just let me suit up.”
It’s hot as hell today, like a fever that won’t break. Humidity coats my lungs with what feels like melting tar. But I shrug on my leather jacket anyway, slicking its lining with sweat. I’ll need the protection in a minute.
I glance at Em, and she nods, and then I sprint into the grove. Blades of grass slash at my heavy boots. I hurtle toward a particularly large tree, screaming until it fixates on me. I almost swear I can hear it roar back.
“Come on, you bastard.” I dart closer, flinging rocks at its trunk, holding its raging attention. From the corner of my eye I glimpse the blue flash of Em running, and then I’m ducking as a massive branch lunges toward me, dropping oranges everywhere.
That’s when I see the body trapped in a crook of the tree’s trunk, held in place with grasping branches that bounce her like a puppet.
For half a second I think it’s Em, and panic zaps through me until I register the long red hair, so different from Em’s short black curls. She’s paler than Em, too, although her skin has gone fetid-gray. She’s been dead for days, but the cotton-candy-vomit of the orange blossoms covers the stench.
Orange trees aren’t usually such slow eaters. There’s still so much of her left.
I freeze, staring up at the red-haired girl while what’s left of her face stares right back down at me. I don’t register the branch swooping toward me until it hits my upper arm, slicing through leather to reach the skin of my bicep. I yelp in pain and turn to run, and a root pops up to catch my boot, nearly sending me sprawling. Without looking back, I scramble toward the gate, but what about Em, I need to make sure—
She’s already outside the fence, gesturing wildly, her pack heavy with oranges.
I keep going until I reach the road, where I crumble gratefully onto scorching asphalt.
“What happened back there? What were you staring at?” Em touches the sleeve of my jacket. “You’re bleeding.”
“The tree had someone.”
“Oh God. Were they…dead?”
“Yeah.” I pause to force a breath into my locked lungs. “It seemed like the tree wanted me to see. That’s not possible, right? They’re not getting that smart.”
“I’m sure they’re not,” she says quickly. “That would be…” Her voice trails off. We both know what it would be. It would be bad.
We’ve had enough bad.
“How many—” I bite off the words, flinching at the flame of pain in my upper arm.
“Let’s see what that looks like.” Em helps me with the jacket.
I twist my neck to stare down at the deep cut. “What if the orange trees have gone venomous?”
“You’d know by now if they had,” she says. “We need to stop the bleeding.” She glances toward the buildings that had once been the nursery’s shop and greenhouse. “Stay here. Maybe I can find something.”
She jogs down the drive. I should be the one to go. I’m the one who takes the risks. But the combination of pain and adrenaline and orange blossom is making me woozy.
She’s gone for long enough to trigger a bloom of panic in my chest, but then there’s that flash of blue again. Faded denim. Vintage overalls. Em. She holds a balled-up handful of fabric. “Found an old shirt in the shop,” she says, using strips of it to bind my bicep. “I’ll patch you up properly when we get home. For now, this will help the bleeding.”
The pressure makes the cut throb. She ties the makeshift bandage in place and kisses my shoulder before helping me to my feet, and then it’s back down the road, back toward the house we share that used to belong to my parents, with its bare Xeriscaped yard of rock and sun-bleached mulch. So safe and bland and stark, a blessing of a wasteland.
Liv will be furious if she finds out what I’m bringing home.
I tend to her wound in the kitchen. We’re low on antiseptics and I’m not looking forward to another supply run. Going out for oranges is bad enough. The obvious options for other necessities were cleared out long ago; we’re down to breaking into houses and hoping there’s not a spider plant or monstera inside, waiting to feed.
I used to love plants so much. I miss my little garden. Maybe now…
But no, Liv comes first. I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for her. That morning three years ago lurks in my memory like a monster in the shadows. That was the day the plants began to change, and I screamed in my backyard while the tomato plants I’d nurtured from seedlings broke free of their stakes and twined around my wrists, bound my ankles, spooled around my neck. A girl being slowly devoured by her own garden—it would have been comic if it hadn’t been terrifying, if my skin didn’t still carry the scars. At least I hadn’t planted flowers that year—bitterly, I hadn’t seen the point after the virus took my sense of smell. If I had, dozens of toothy, hungry morning glories might have finished me off before the girl with the blonde ponytail heard my screams and saved me.
I loved Liv from the first moment I saw her.
Once I’m satisfied that Liv’s wound is properly dressed, she offers to help put away the oranges. I say no just a little too quickly, too sharply, and her eyes narrow. “You need to rest,” I add, softening.
I expect her to argue. She always has to be so strong. But today is different. There’s a shadow in her gaze, a haunted quality that I can’t not notice. It’s been a couple of months since I’ve seen her like this, but then again, it’s been a couple of months since we last encountered a body. She goes off to lie down, and I get to work emptying my pack.
The oranges go in their basket on the counter. I pause and sniff one, just in case. Nothing. I used to think oranges smelled like sunshine.
I reach into my pack one last time. My fingers close around a little lump of cloth—more of the shirt I found, a strip I’d torn before going back to Liv. I unwind the fabric like I’m unpacking a precious artifact.
The succulent is tiny, less than three inches tall, with the flat, pointed leaves of a common echeveria. Those leaves are sharper than they should be but other than that, it seems like such a normal little plantling. I found it in the ruins of the nursery’s shop, unpotted and bare-rooted, a tiny propagation living off the remains of its shriveled mother-leaf. Some buried instinct whispered in my brain, that part of me that used to adore nurturing a garden full of little lives. Plants had grown vicious, but this one was small and alone and maybe it could be different, a kitten in a world of tigers. It didn’t bite me when I touched its leaves, didn’t lash out with a knifepoint flower stalk. It let me tuck it into a small pot with a handful of dirt. And maybe it gave off an almost inaudible chirp, and maybe it seemed to breathe, or maybe I imagined those things.
I need this. I need something to care for. I have Liv, but she pulls away if I overdo it, if my worry becomes too much. I used to pour that need into my garden. I’d had a collection of succulents once, lined up on the back porch, where they sunned themselves like lazy cats. I can’t fuss over this new baby like I did with those, with specialty soil and carefully measured sips of water, but I can still try.
It will need sun, though, and that’s tricky when it has to stay hidden. I’ll tell Liv eventually, once I prove it’s not a threat, but for now, it has to be a secret. I creep out back and tuck it near a corner of the lanai, behind a pile of abandoned pool equipment, where it can sip at least a little sunlight.
When I touch one of its small sharp leaves, it purrs.
It’s too hot to nap. I might miss air conditioning more than I miss being part of a functioning society.
My upper arm aches. I check the bathroom for painkillers, but the bottle we scavenged months ago is empty. Another run soon, then. We’ll try Tanner Street this time, or maybe Newport Avenue. We’ll find houses that haven’t already been looted.
I lie back down, but when I close my eyes I see flaking gray skin and weeping sockets where the redhead’s eyes used to be. Who was she? Was our grove her grove, too? Maybe she knew other survivors. If we had run into each other, we might have teamed up, or at least traded supplies and helped each other or—
No, I tell myself. You saw plenty of apocalypse movies in the before time. You know how that kind of thing always goes.
People are too human for it to work.
Yet my mind plays with the idea, with the thought of a community. If it’s just Em and me for the rest of our lives, we can do that, we can keep going with me always in the lead and Em at our center, a single system with a brain and a beating heart. But I’m tired of finding ways to keep us safe. I’m tired of always being vigilant, of constantly guessing what will come for us next because without me Em would be eaten alive.
I’m so tired.
But when I finally doze, I see that gray face and its carrot-red mane coming off in clumps, twining around me in a cloud of cotton-candy vomit until I’m wrapped and trapped and—
I lurch up, gasping for air to cleanse the memory of orange blossoms from my lungs.
I find Em in the kitchen. She fills a glass from a rainwater bucket and hands it to me. “How’s your arm?”
“Fine,” I lie, gulping water. The taste is tepid and flat and metallic. I miss the condensation forming on the outside of a glass of ice water.
She holds up a can of beans. “This okay tonight? This and oranges?”
“How many cans do we have left?”
“Enough.” The not in front of her remark is silent, but I hear it. She portions out cold beans because it’s too hot to bother warming them. She’s already sliced up a few oranges. I stop myself from wrinkling my nose at the smell. It’s not orange blossom, but it’s close enough.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asks after a few minutes of silence.
I shrug and gulp down an orange section without chewing. It slides down my throat like a rain-cool slug.
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” she adds quickly. “I just thought—”
“There’s not much to talk about. I saw a person. First stranger I’ve seen in months. She looked young. She was dead.”
“I’m sorry you had to see that.”
I bristle. Why does she always have to be so nice? “Don’t apologize. You’re not the one who shook a dead body at me.”
“I know, but—”
“You just… You don’t have to apologize for the trees.” I go quiet for a moment, chewing on a thought. “It really did feel kind of deliberate.”
“What? Like the trees…planned it?”
“Maybe.” I tip my bowl, letting the last of the cold beans avalanche into my mouth. “Why was she up there rotting? The trees should have eaten her by now. They don’t usually waste food. Maybe she’s like…”
“Yeah. A scarecrow. A scarehuman.”
“They’re not that smart.”
“How do you know? We have no clue what they’re capable of. Maybe they’re still mutating. Evolving. Learning.”
Em opens her mouth. Closes it.
Tension creeps through my shoulders. “What?”
“It’s just… Isn’t that something we should study? Maybe?”
“What? Like scientifically?”
“I barely pulled a C in bio.”
“I’m just thinking out loud. Casually.” She doesn’t sound casual. She’s talking too fast, her tone breezy, the way it gets when we go on a supply run and she says she’s not scared, or when she insists she doesn’t miss her family all that much. “We could figure something out. Keep specimens. Observe them. Maybe we could even figure out how to communicate.”
“They’re predators, Em.”
“Not all of them, maybe.”
Something dark and dreadful twists in my stomach. “What did you do?”
“Nothing!” she says.
“You said the person in the grove looked young?”
The question whiplashes me back to the orange grove. “Yeah. She might have been about our age.”
Someday that will be us, rotting away, being slowly devoured.
I want out of this conversation. “If you want to study the plants, fine. Just be careful, okay? Keep your distance. No pets.”
She nods and clears the table.
“No secrets,” she parrots, and I go outside in search of an evening breeze.
I freeze when Liv heads out to the lanai. There’s no reason for her to go near the jumble of pool equipment. Surely she won’t find the plant.
Guilt climbs my spine like moonflowers on a trellis. Dragging the conversation back to the body in the grove hurt Liv. I saw the question shake her. I brought that back to her. On purpose.
But I had to change the subject. I couldn’t let her keep digging. I can’t lie to Liv, not for long, so I traded one betrayal for another and held my breath that it would be enough.
Now I watch. She goes to the right, toward the pool equipment, but then she sidesteps the pile and sits on the deck. The setting sun fires her blonde hair to a coppery orange.
Liv takes care of me. She keeps me alive. She loves me. How can I tell her all that isn’t enough?
I want to be the one to save us.
It’s been three months. The baby is thriving. Its perfect rosette has tripled in size, growing round and plump and healthy. It makes noise when I touch its leaves, a skittering purr that sounds happy. The tips of those leaves are sharp, but it doesn’t jab at me when I water it or turn its little pot to let it follow the sun. I think it understands that I saved it.
I think it knows I’m a friend.
I take notes and hide them from Liv. She seems to have forgotten that I ever brought up the idea of a study. I wait until she’s otherwise occupied to tend to the plant. Hiding it from her is easier than I expected. Liv watches for danger from all sides, but she doesn’t expect it to sprout right here between us. She’s distracted by the results of our recent supply runs, too. We’re not finding much anymore. She talks about us going elsewhere, heading north, finding somewhere new.
I don’t want to go. At least here we know what we’re up against.
Lately, she’s been spending her mornings in the garage, fashioning weapons from her father’s old tools and gardening supplies. We should be well-armed, she says, if we decide to travel. Today I leave her to it and go out back to check the baby.
It chirps when I peek around the pool equipment, and I put a finger to my lips even though I have no clue if it can understand the gesture or even see me do it. “Hello, teeny,” I whisper, picking up its pot and smiling when it strains little leaves toward my fingers, asking for affection.
See? This. This is what I meant when I told Liv that perhaps not all of the plants have gone bad, that we might still find some friends in this world. I sit cross-legged, leaning against the pool stuff with the pot balanced on my thigh as I take notes in my secret notebook, trying to decipher the baby’s sounds. Maybe we really can learn to communicate.
Then I pull out my tape measure, and the succulent trembles and purrs while I measure the width of its rosette, the average length of its leaves. It’s growing faster than before. Another interesting detail to observe and study.
“What the hell are you doing?”
I scream and jump, upsetting the pot and catching it before it can topple.
Liv stands nearby. I can’t believe I didn’t hear her coming. I was too caught up with the baby.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” she goes on, walking toward me, her long legs covering the distance too quickly. “What is that?”
“It’s an experiment.” I stand and cup my hand around the baby, but it’s no longer the tiny plantling I smuggled home in my pack. My care has helped it grow too large to hide.
Liv’s eyes go wide. Her breathing shallows. “Dump it out so I can stomp it.”
“We’re getting rid of it. Now. Those things kill people, Em.”
The succulent shivers against my palm. Its leaves stretch like it’s drawing itself up. “This one doesn’t,” I say. “This one is safe.”
“No. No way. None of them are safe. I can’t believe you’re even touching that thing. I can’t believe you’ve been keeping it so close to us.” She points toward the house. “Our bedroom is right there. You’ve been keeping a monster a few yards from where we sleep. Do you realize what might have happened?”
Under my hand, the plant hisses. “Nothing was going to happen,” I say. “You’re overreacting. It’s little. It’s harmless. It’s just one plant.”
“Says the girl who almost got eaten by her own tomato garden.” Liv steps toward me. Her eyes grow bright, almost fevered. “Just hand it over.”
“Em, give me the monster.”
She closes her hand around my arm and yanks, trying to wrestle the pot away from me. I cry out as a sharp little leaf slices into my thumb. Something hot and almost sparkling enters my bloodstream through the wound, surging through my body like fire.
“See? See?” Liv cries. “I told you it was dangerous!”
In some corner of my mind, I’m aware of Liv grabbing the baby. I hear the rough crack of terra cotta against concrete. I can’t focus on any of it, though, because my vision is going white and something’s inside of me, something’s surging and I don’t feel well and I can’t, I can’t—
“Oh God, oh God, is it venomous? Em? Emily, focus on me, don’t leave me, please don’t go…”
I hear her, but I can’t answer.
The world goes blank.
My eyelids flutter open. I’m in our bed. Afternoon sunlight glows through the window. Liv lies beside me, her hands tucked together, her body curled defensively even in sleep.
Her eyes snap open. She never sleeps deeply. “Em,” she gasps like she’s terrified of letting my name escape. “Are you okay? You passed out and you wouldn’t wake up and I thought—”
“I’m okay.” I am, I think. My head is pounding and my thumb is throbbing, but that’s it. I launch myself at Liv, wrapping my arms around her. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You were right.”
She hugs me back. “I’m just glad you’re okay.”
I pull away and look at my thumb. It’s wrapped in a clean scrap of fabric. We haven’t been able to scavenge actual bandages in months.
“I cleaned the cut,” Liv says. “It’s deep, but I think it’ll heal all right. And I destroyed the plant. Stomped it into the deck.”
My heart clenches, but I know she was right to do so. “I’m sorry,” I say again. Those are the only words my tongue can find.
“Are you hungry? Want some dinner?”
I nod and follow her to the kitchen, where she slices oranges from our most recent visit to the grove. The body Liv saw months ago is long gone, devoured by the trees. I wish it could leave her head the same way, but I know it never will.
I breathe deeply as she puts the plate of oranges on the table. “I guess I’m even hungrier than I realized,” I say. “Those smell so good.”
So does Liv.
“You can smell the oranges?” she asks when she finds her voice.
I inhale, almost terrified to try. There it is again, that bright, sunny sweetness. “I can.” I haven’t smelled anything in years, not since the virus stole the sense from me, and I laugh as the scent of oranges tickles my nose. “I can!”
“Em! Oh my God!” Liv grabs my hands and swings me around the kitchen. “It must’ve been something in the venom! It made you better! It—” She stops and goes still.
“The baby.” I breathe out the words, my heart clenching again, and I run outside. “Tell me you didn’t really destroy it, tell me you didn’t—”
But there it is, nothing but smashed terra cotta and scattered dirt and a dull green stain against the concrete deck. I stare down numbly.
It wasn’t venom, the stuff that sparkled in my veins. It was an antidote. It was a different kind of mutation.
And it’s gone.
Liv stands next to me, her hands over her mouth.
“What if we could have used it?” I go hollow. “What if that plant was the answer? It healed me. Maybe it could have healed the whole world, and now…”
“I didn’t know.” Liv’s voice goes thin and strangled. “I just knew it hurt you, and after everything that’s happened, I wanted it dead.” She sits down hard like her legs can’t support her. “What have I done?”
I stagger toward the pile of pool equipment, intending to kick it to bits. But first I look over its edge at the spot where I kept the baby safe and hidden. That’s where it waited for me. That’s where it thrived.
And that’s where I spot it. One last little leaf.
I hadn’t even realized the plant had shed any leaves, but there it is—small and green and sharp and perfect, its squat stem callused over, with tiny roots already searching for a home.
Because that’s the thing with succulents. All you need is one small leaf, and sometimes you can grow a garden.
“Liv.” I show her the leaf cradled in my palm. “I think it might be okay.”
I still don’t understand how she did it, but then again, I’ve always had a brown thumb. Plants and I have never gotten along, even before they started trying to eat me.
Em coaxed that one small leaf until it created an entire plant, a round little beauty that grew and grew, faster and faster like it knew how badly the world needed it. When it was large and healthy, Em plucked leaves from it, propagating another plant from each, twin after twin after twin. And when those babies were large enough, we planted them in the ground.
We started in the grove. It was another of Em’s experiments. Did the antidote need to be injected directly, or could it spread like the virus must have, through air and soil?
Over the following months, the grove grew peaceful and still. We could pick oranges—normal oranges the size of baseballs—without risking our lives. The trees were still larger than they should have been, but they were harmless. They went dormant in the winter, and when spring brought the orange blossoms, they smelled sweet and fresh, like something new and gentle and right just beginning to bloom.
When that worked, we planted more babies. We planted them everywhere. We felt the calmness settle over our little corner of the planet like the soft glow of a spring day.
Things didn’t go back to normal, of course. They never will. This is a new world. It’s safer now, though. I can breathe a little easier. Sometimes I can even sleep—not doze, but really sleep.
Em has dozens of new babies ready to plant, and hundreds of leaves propagating. We’re going to spread them everywhere, as far as we can.
I sat in a patch of grass the other day, and then I lay down and rolled in it the way I used to as a kid, and it didn’t cut me or stab me or poison me. And yesterday morning Em spotted a pair of crows, the first animals we’ve seen in years. If the crows survived, maybe other animals did, too.
Maybe they’ll start to come back.
And maybe we can find others like us, and we can give them some of Em’s plants and show them what to do.
Today I’m helping Em plant the beginning of a garden, using vegetable seed packets we found in what’s left of the grove’s old nursery shop. They’re years out of date, but Em hopes a few of them might still have a little life. We surround our garden plot with more of her succulent babies, just in case, and I watch her press the seeds into the ground, and then I kiss her. I need her, and she needs this, and together we’ll keep the healing going.
I thought I had to save my girl. To keep her safe. Turns out she might just save the entire world.