A Heart Has Roots of Flame and Blood

Published on Fri 14 June 2019 • 23 min read

Miranda watches as the tree’s purple roots slowly lap blood from the frozen topsoil. They twist and slither over the ground, pushing away the pebbles that surround its base, looking for every last drop within their reach. The cut on her arm stopped bleeding a moment ago, and she glances at her phone, a stop watch running on its screen.

“Two minutes,” she mutters to herself, as they absorb the last of it, and fall still. “Faster today.”

She grits her teeth and draws a shaky breath that has nothing to do with the chill. She glares at the tree one last time, looking for any sign of movement from its corkscrew branches above, but there is nothing more than swaying in the breeze. She imagines for a moment that she can see the indigo bark flush, but she knows better. She keeps a laminated color chart tacked to a small post she drove into the ground next to it, and the bark always matches the colored swatch at the bottom.

She backs away from it, waiting until she’s even with the edge of the shed before she allows herself to turn her back to the tree for the last few steps along the white privacy fence to the side door of her house. She steps inside her utility room, locks the door behind her, and sighs. Her breath steams in front of her in the barely heated room.

She beelines to the wooden stairs that lead to the warmth of the upstairs, pausing only a moment to look at the framed photograph hanging from the wall halfway to the next floor. It’s a photo of her, six years old and in pigtails, swinging in a tire hanging from the branch of a great oak tree. Those old oaks are almost unheard of now. There are stories of old growth forests far to the North, but that seems like a fantasy to Miranda. She hadn’t seen one of the trees of her childhood for almost ten years now. The invasive copycats have made short work of their competition.

The stairs lead her to a warm kitchen, sunlight streaming in through the windows. Hannah sits at the counter eating cereal while she studies her phone, probably answering work emails, she thinks. A lock of her dark hair dangles free from her hair-tie, its tips almost touching the surface of the milk.

“You should be more careful, hon,” she says, reaching out and pushing the strands back behind Hannah’s left ear.

“What?” says Hannah. “Oh. Thanks. Sorry, was a little caught up there.”

Miranda pours herself a cup of coffee. “Solving the problems of the world?”

“More like cleaning up David’s mess.”

“Again?”

Hannah shrugs and rolls her eyes.

Miranda tuts, and shakes her head. She opens a notebook on the counter to a page marked with a yellow ribbon. She takes a pen and neatly writes between the ruled lines of the paper: “December 19 — 2 min, 5 seconds; left arm.”

She closes the book and turns back to see Hannah’s stare. “Don’t start,” Miranda says.

Hannah grimaces. “It’s not healthy, Mir.”

“I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not. You need to stop.”

“I’m ok, really. You don’t need to worry.”

Hannah’s brown eyes widen, and Miranda can almost picture flames behind them. “I ‘don’t need to worry’? My girlfriend is cutting herself to see if a tree will eat her blood! On the list of things I could or should worry about, this is pretty close to the top.”

“I know… I know it’s hard to understand.”

“Uh, yeah!. Mir, before you showed me, I hadn’t heard of anything like this, and as far as I know, no one else has either. It freaks me out. Why do you keep doing this to yourself?”

Miranda nods. “I know, I get it. And I’m sorry for worrying you. But this helps me, okay? It helps if I can learn about it.”

“Learn about it? You’re just…” Hannah holds up a hand, closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath. When she opens them, her voice is softer. “Listen, Mir, it’s getting worse. In the beginning it was only every few weeks, but you’re doing this almost every day now. I can’t not be worried at all the stained bandages in the trash.”

“I can handle it, I heal fast.”

“That’s not the point,” she begins, but her phone trills an alarm. Hannah glares at the device for interrupting. “Shit, I have to get to work.” She sighs. “I guess we’ll continue this later.”

“Must we?”

The fire is in her eyes again for a moment before her expression softens. “Yes, we must.”

Hannah scoops up her phone and bolts toward the front of the house, stopping only to give Miranda a kiss on the cheek as she passes. “Take care today, Mir. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

Miranda sits at the counter, hands wrapped around the warm mug of coffee as it slowly draws the chill from her fingers. She waits until she hears Hannah’s car pull out of the driveway before she allows the tears to come.

+++

On her tenth birthday, celebrating with only her parents in an unexpectedly guest-less gathering, Miranda puts on a brave face over grinding teeth. Her mother and father wear strained smiles, and speak with an exaggerated joy, trying to distract her from the disappointment. But Miranda isn’t disappointed; she is angry. Once again, Cindy, the eleven year old bitch in training, has deliberately scheduled a conflicting party on her estate.

The backyard picnic table had been set for at least nine kids, but her parents quickly cleared away the extra plates when they realized that no one else was coming. Miranda blows out the candles on her store-bought birthday cake with breath that feels like fire in her throat, and wears a crooked smile as her parents clap for her.

There is a groan behind her and she turns to see the bark of the old oak tree split as its trunk bursts open revealing the purple weed that has been eating it from the inside. The branch holding the tire swing sags and bends like wet papier-mâché. The split in the oak causes it to open like a blooming flower, and her parents spend the rest of the afternoon clearing away the dying boughs that now hover over the side of the house.

While they clear the yard, Miranda runs to her room and cries for the next two hours.

The rest of the tree rots away quickly, as if being digested, and within weeks there is only the indigo sapling, stretching towards the sun like a hungry ghoul towards carrion. Within months, its trunk has widened to the point that it looks as if it has been there for decades. It chokes away the life of any plants within reach of its aggressive root system, and a large chunk of their hedge line withers away. Her parents yank the dead bushes from the earth, and install fencing to fill the gap.

“It’s happening all over,” says her father, running a hand through sweat soaked gray hair. “I drove past Wheeler Park yesterday. The whole thing has gone purple.”

Her mother hammers the last fence post into place, and turns to look at the tree. “Well, at least they’re pretty.”

That night, Miranda is outside in the drizzling rain with a shovel, trying to dig up the offending roots, but even the damp earth resists her, and her white shoes grow caked with black soil. She only manages a small hole before she is dragged kicking and screaming back into the house by her mother, her father returning the shovel to the shed.

+++

Still in pajamas, Miranda flips back through her notebook. It’s a complex and modular edition, part daily planner, part journal, and part vision board for the year. A gift from Hannah, an evangelist of personal planning, and apart from the anxiety inducing pages devoted goal-setting, Miranda loves it. The paper quality is excellent, and she delights in the way it takes the ink from her pen. It takes some time to get past the pages upon pages of tree timing results to her older, more comprehensive entries. She flips past these quickly, until she reaches her to-do list.

Her task list is written in alternating colors of gel ink, red, orange, pink, green, and blue. She breezes right past the items around her job search, and skips ahead to list of bills she has to pay today. She opens her computer and transfers the necessary amount from her trust fund to cover the checks. Her parents had intended it to fund the grad school that Miranda never attended. But they aren’t around anymore, and she finds it works just as well to pay bills during an extended period of unemployment.

She closes her online banking page and moves to the next task. She earns a little extra cash on the side doing freelance web design for small businesses that don’t know any better. She finishes up the last bit of configuration on the blog template she’s repurposing for the thrift shop downtown and sends the owner a preview link to the site. She then saves an alternative version locally that already has the anticipated corrections applied. Best to let the client have something obvious to comment on so that he feels useful, and so she can quickly burn a review round.

She crosses this task off her list, and opens her social feed, where she’s been providing copies of her daily test results. She scrolls through her replies. It’s the usual mix. Despite her best efforts, her most supportive comments are from people who think it’s some sort of performance art.

@mirtree: This is so wild. Can’t wait to see where this project goes!

She had tried posting video and photos of the feedings, but that hadn’t helped the matter.

@mirtree: Holy crap! That’s awesome. What did you use for the roots?

If anything, providing visual evidence made things worse. She now receives a constant stream of critical and aggressive responses.

@mirtree: You either need to use thinner string for your practical effects, or get better at touching up the video. I can still see some pixels from them after you edited them out.

@mirtree: Do you get off on lying to people? Don’t you have anything better to do with your time?

She opens a new post and writes:

Two minutes and five seconds today. The fastest absorption yet. The roots were especially active during today’s feeding. If anything, it seems to be getting more keen.

I know most of you don’t believe me, but I am telling you, these things can become carnivorous. Exercise caution around any purple elm you see, and please do not try this at home.

She saves the entry and within a minute replies are coming in.

@mirtree: This is just sad.

@mirtree: hey, why don’t you post pictures anymore? tired of being called out?

@ mirtree: Would love another shot of the tree. Can you make sure your feet are in the frame?

@mirtree: Does your employer know you’re doing this? Do you even HAVE an employer?

Miranda grits her teeth and closes her laptop. She stands up and looks out the kitchen window overlooking the back yard. She used to have plantings out there, but she began ignoring them far before the frosts came. It had barely been a garden anyway. The purple elm leeches nutrients from the entire yard, and its roots now stretch far enough kill off anything she tries to plant. Now there’s just the tree, its indigo limbs stretching high into the air. Despite the cold, its leathery eggplant-colored leaves are thick on its boughs, and her lawn has become a barren dustbowl around it.

Miranda exhales against the glass, and writes two words in the resulting fog with her fingertip.

FUCK YOU

She turns back to her laptop.

+++

Miranda, now thirteen, watches the annual Arbor Day parade of science pundits on television trying to explain the phenomenon and failing. Most of these faces are familiar to her now. Two years ago, one of the rotating cast of so-called experts referred to the invaders as “purple elms” and the name stuck, regardless of its inaccuracy. This year, it’s the usual conversation. It changes a little from year to year, but as always, the talking heads alternately theorize that the parasites are an organism brought to Earth on a meteor, or one thawed free from dormancy in the permafrost by global warming. But Miranda doesn’t care where they came from. She only wants them to stop.

“They never say that,” she says. “They only want to guess about space bugs or whatever.”

“Those stories sell more books,” says her father. He looks old and tired, his face prematurely lined with age.

“And it’s not like there’s anything else new there,” says her mother, adjusting the fit of the nasal tubes connected to her oxygen tank.

It’s true. The purple elms are utterly resistant to pesticides. Slash and burn can control their spread and keep them from crops, but it fails to eradicate them. Anywhere a tree grows is a potential infection waiting to happen, and none of the pundits can agree on how the disease is transferred from tree to tree.

“One thing I find puzzling,” says the newscaster, a silver fox from the national network, “is why we haven’t seen more negative impacts from the deforestation.”

“That’s an interesting question,” says their guest, his hair perfectly coifed. “The thing is that despite their fewer numbers, the purple elms emit the same amount of moisture and exchange as much carbon dioxide to oxygen as the forests they replace. And their root systems are exceptionally strong and effective at holding ground together. In fact, they even seem to do better than a traditional grass lawn.”

“And that’s the reason for the reclassification?”

Miranda sits up straight, eyes locked on the screen.

“Exactly right. Given everything we know now, it seems silly to treat this species as a disease. They’re invasive, yes, but so are many plants. For that reason, myself and many of my colleagues have proposed that we begin considering the purple elm simply a product of natural evolution. A new species of tree. After all, that’s the way most people think about them anyway.“

Miranda clenches her hands into fists and stalks out of the room, ignoring her parent’s calls for her to sit back down. She steps outside into the autumn air and stands before the indigo trunk.

“I hate you,” she whispers under her breath. She holds up her right hand, still balled up, and swings a light punch at the trunk. The rough bark is harsh against her skin, and she shakes her stinging hand.

“I hate you!” This time she swings hard, tearing back the skin on two of her knuckles. She cradles her fist in her left hand and drops to her knees. Hot tears roll down her cheeks, and she sobs.

It takes her several minutes to get enough control over herself to stand back up, grudgingly using the trunk to brace herself. She walks back to the house, and eyes still burning with tears, she doesn’t notice the first little quivers making their way along the purple roots.

+++

Dinner is Chinese take-out that Hannah picked up on the way home. Hannah’s having her usual Kung Pao with a Cabernet, and Miranda is poking at her Lo Mein in-between sips of herbal tea.

“So,” says Miranda, “did you sort out your… work thing?”

Hannah takes a drink of her wine. “I salvaged what I could, but the client’s still going to be pissed. ”

Miranda nods in sympathy. “It’ll be okay though, right?”

“We should be able to smooth it over.”

“That’s good, at least.”

Hannah lifts her glass and swirls it idly. “How about you? Any luck on the job search?”

“It’s slow but good,” she lies. “Sent my resume into a few other places, but no interviews yet.”

“Uh huh.” Hannah lifts an eyebrow into that attractive sly arch that drew Miranda to her when they first met.

“Yep, and I got that web job basically finished up, so we’ll have a little extra coming in.”

“Raymond’s?”

“Yep.”

“So what’s this that Gemma tells me about you getting into a flame war today?”

Miranda sighs. “It was barely anything. I was just setting a few things straight. And why does Gemma care?”

“Because she’s a nosy bitch, of course. But she also worries about you.”

“Worries about you, you mean.”

Hannah sets down her glass. “Seriously?”

“She’s your ex, Han.”

“Emphasis on the ‘ex’, yes. She’s just a friend now.”

“She’s still carrying a torch for you, though. Always has.”

Hannah rolls her eyes. “Okay, is this a Thing? Because if so, we can talk about it. I just don’t want to go in blind.”

“No, it’s okay. We can drop it.”

Hannah shakes her head. “Only if it’s not a Thing. Those are our rules.”

Miranda takes a breath. “It’s not a Thing, I promise.” She twirls her fork and lifts some noodles to her mouth.

“Ok, then,” says Hannah, grabbing a piece of chicken with her chopsticks, and returning her attention to her dish.

Miranda takes a sip of tea, watching Hannah over the lip of her mug.

+++

The next morning, the roots are already writhing by the time Miranda gets close.

“Huh,” she says aloud, “haven’t even cut myself yet.”

She rubs her razor with an alcohol wipe and makes the cut on her forearm. Blood begins to drip between the trees thrashing tendrils, and she starts the stopwatch on her phone.

“God damn you,” she rasps under her breath, watching the blood disappear, not even sure who she’s addressing anymore. “Damn you to hell.”

+++

this crazy bitch @mirtree is cutting herself every day. If this isn’t a cry for help I don’t know what is…

@mirtree: So tired of your bullshit. Go DIAF.

Ha! @mirtree snapped yesterday and got all pissy. She knows we’ve seen through her lies.

Miranda grimaces, and opens a new post.

Don’t believe me? GFY. This is reality, and I’m not gonna shut up just because you’ve got nothing better to do than try to tear me down.

A reply notification lights up just as she prepares to log out.

@mirtree: fuck you, you fucking liar. someone should teach you a lesson…

Miranda slams her laptop shut without reading the rest.

+++

“Do you know who’s car that is?” Hannah points out the front window.

Miranda looks up from her book on the ecology of old growth forests, and peers out at the small red Toyota driving slowly down the street. “No, why?”

“It’s driven by like four times now in the last twenty minutes.”

“Maybe they’re lost?”

“Yeah, but they keep slowing down in front of our place.”

“That is a little weird.” Miranda chews her lip. “Want me to check it out?”

Hannah sighs. “No, it’s probably nothing. Like you said, it’s probably just someone lost, and they’re already gone anyway.”

Miranda looks out the window again. The little red car, small and squat like an oversized beetle, comes back around the corner.

“Maybe not,” she says. “Here it is again.”

The sedan slows and comes to a complete stop along the curb in front of the house, and parks, engine idling. Miranda can’t make out the driver’s face, but he looks to be holding up some type of smartphone, aiming its rear camera toward them.

“Okay, so that’s fucked up,” says Hannah.

Miranda closes her book and sets it aside. “I’m on it.”

She steps quickly to the front door and as she walks out onto the porch, she sees the driver visibly jump and drop his phone. He grabs the steering wheel and with a squeal of tires, the car peels away. Miranda’s jaw drops open in shock. She can hear Hannah’s footsteps running up quickly behind her.

“Did that just fucking happen?” Hannah asks.

Miranda licks her lips. Her throat feels dry and tight. “Apparently.”

“I’m calling the police.” Hannah already has her phone in hand. “Did you get a good look at them?”

“No, not really.” All she can picture is the phone falling.

“I guess they did bolt pretty quick.” Hannah puts her phone to her ear. “Hi, yes. I’d like to report some suspicious activity?”

Miranda slowly bends her knees to sit on the steps of their porch, and waits for her heart to stop pounding.

+++

The conversation with the police officer is stilted. It’s clear from the beginning that nothing will come of it, but they all feel the need to stick to the script. No, Miranda did not get a good look at the suspect. No, she did not get the license plate. No, she has no idea who would be taking pictures of their house.

“Have you received any threats?” asks the officer. Her name tag says lists her name as Henders. Her shoulders are massive and Miranda keeps getting distracted by them.

“Not me,” says Hannah.

“And you, ma’am?”

Miranda clears her throat and shakes her head. “No more than usual.”

The officer pauses and looks up from her notepad. “What does that mean?”

Her lips twist in a scowl. “I write a lot online. And I’m a woman. You do the math.”

“Miranda,” says Hannah, “she’s trying to help.”

“No, it’s okay” says Officer Henders. “Can you show me some of the threats you’ve received?”

“Sure.” Miranda fetches her laptop and opens her feed. She hands it to Henders.

The officer looks up after a few moments. “Some of this is pretty nasty.”

Miranda shrugs.

“You should have reported some of this already.”

Hannah nods emphatically. “I’ve told her the same.”

“I didn’t see the point,” says Miranda. “It’s all anonymous anyway.”

“Not always. Sometimes we can track them down.”

“But then they win.” The words taste like hot venom in her mouth.

Henders meets Miranda’s eyes and it feels like she’s been slapped. “It’s not a game, ma’am. It’s not about winning, but staying safe.” Miranda’s tries to meet her gaze, but looks away first. “Do you two mind if I take some screenshots?”

Miranda’s voice is quiet. “That’s fine.”

OK, I’m going to look into some of these, but I’d like to suggest you two stay somewhere else tonight. Do you have any friends or family you can stay with until we can get a little further along with this?”

Hannah puts a hand on Miranda’s knee. “We’ll figure something out.”

“Good. If either of you think of anything else, let me know.” Henders hands Hannah a business card. “I’ll be in touch tomorrow with any updates.”

“Thank you, officer.”

Hannah sees her out, and as she returns to the room, she’s already texting someone on her phone. “Okay, Gemma says we can stay with her. She’s got a guest room we can use.”

Miranda grits her teeth and stares at the carpet in silence. Hannah doesn’t seem to notice.

“I’ll go throw a bag together. You want me to grab some of your stuff too?” Hannah almost always does the packing. She travels for work, and can load up a suitcase faster than Miranda can finish counting out the number of outfits she needs to pack.

Hannah clears her throat and waves her hand at her. “Mir, did you hear me?”

“Yes.”

“Cool. I’ll be back in a mo.”

Miranda barely moves during the fifteen minutes that Hannah is gone. When she returns, she’s wheeling a small carryon bag behind her.

“K, I packed a few options for you, but this should be good.”

“I’m not going,” says Miranda, her voice low.

“What? Of course you are. You heard the cop.”

Miranda shakes her head, her eyes still locked on the shag of the carpet. “I’m staying.”

Hannah steps away from the bag and crouches down next to Miranda. “What’s going on, hon?”

When Miranda meets Hannah’s eyes, she has to blink through tears. “I just…” She clears her throat. “I’m not running away.”

Hannah’s brow furrows. “Hon, it’s not safe. Let the police do their work.”

“It’s okay if you want to go. I just need to stay.”

Hannah rests the palm of her right hand on Miranda’s left cheek. “I would spend the whole time worrying about you.”

“Then stay.”

Hannah presses her lips together into a thin, straight line. “Please, Mir. Let’s just go. We’ll come back tomorrow after we’ve checked in with the police.”

“I don’t want to stay at Gemma’s.”

Hannah leans back quickly as if shoved, lowering her hand. She asks softly, “Is that what this is about?”

Miranda tries to swallow past the lump in her throat, but it makes her next words a sad little croak. “No. I…”

“I thought this wasn’t a Thing.”

“It’s not.”

“It sounds like a Thing.”

Miranda squirms under Hannah’s searching gaze.

Hannah looks away, and takes a deep, slow breath. “If it’s a Thing, or even if it isn’t, we can do something different, okay? I can get us a hotel room. Would that be better?”

“Maybe, but I need to be back here by dawn.”

Hannah spreads her hands. “Why?”

Miranda’s eyes dart to the side window where a purple limb branches off into smaller tendrils.

Hannah follows her gaze, and her voice goes flat. “Oh, you have to be fucking kidding me.”

+++

After they exhaust themselves yelling at each other, and they run out of tears, the trip to the hotel is filled with heavy silence. They exchange only a handful of words during check-in, and before long they are in bed, the only illumination coming from Hannah’s phone. Miranda turns on her side to face away from her, and tries not to think about whom Hannah is texting.

+++

Miranda wakes early and slips out of bed, careful not to disturb Hannah. As usual, her partner’s phone rests face down on her chest from when she fell asleep with it in her hand. Miranda gingerly picks it up and moves it to the bed side table, plugging it into the charger cable. For a brief moment, the screen lights up, and even without trying, she can see the text notification from Gemma.

As always, Hanners. I’m here if you need to talk.

Miranda closes her hand into a fist, and hisses through her teeth.

+++

She takes a cab, leaving the car behind for Hannah, and she gets home as the twilight sky begins its transition from violet to a light blue. Her breath steams in the air as she unlocks the front door. Floorboards creak as she makes her way to the kitchen, almost a whimper, like the house itself is nursing a dark bruise from the argument the night before.

Her laptop is sitting on the kitchen counter, the lines of its closed lid grimacing at her. She opens it, and the screen wakes showing her feed. There, posted over and over again, each from a different account, is the photo of her walking out of her house. Under each appears the same caption.

@mirtree Looking forward to seeing you.

She shouts at the screen before she even realizes she’s doing it. “Fuck you!”

She opens a new post, responding to a random one of the sock puppet accounts.

Remember: you ran from me, asshole. You ran like a scared little boy.

She closes the machine, ignoring the insistent ding of replies rapidly coming in, and walks down the steps to the basement, the air cooling by noticeable degrees with each step. She grabs her alcohol wipes and her razor, and steps out the back door.

The purple elm menaces where it stands in the center of the yard, and she curls her upper lip at the first wriggles of roots at its base.

“Always hungry, aren’t you? You’d eat the world, wouldn’t you, bitch? Hell, after the last couple days, I might even let you.”

She wipes the blade down with alcohol and the tendrils at her feet begin to quiver in apparent anticipation. She pulls up the left sleeve of her sweater exposing the numerous scars from previous feedings. The edge of the razor kisses her skin, and she slides it in a quick cut, and turns her arm to let it drip onto the thrashing roots below. She starts the stopwatch on her phone.

The blood is gone within a minute and a half. She stops the clock on her phone and raises an eyebrow in surprise at the speed. The movement at her feet is already down to a lazy waving when she hears the heavy and fast footsteps coming up behind her.

She tries to turn but something slams into her back sending her face first into the trunk of the tree. Her breath is driven out of her and the taste of copper is in her mouth. There’s a low growl next to her ear.

“I didn’t run this time, did I?”

Rage dulls the pain, even as her assailant digs his elbow into her spine. He’s breathing heavy and fast like he’s struggling to catch his breath. She glances down to aim and then drives her left foot hard into his shin.

“Motherfucker!” His voice almost cracks as the pitch of the cry leaps up. He limps backwards and she turns. He’s not much taller than her, wearing a dark sweater and a black ski mask. His chest is heaving and she can see from the pudge of his round belly that it’s not just excitement or anger that’s cheating him of breath.

She drops the alcohol wipes and raises her shaking right hand holding the razor. She bares her red-stained teeth at him before spitting blood at his right eye.

He cries out and brings a gloved hand to his eye to wipe away the blood. “You bitch!”

She swings the straight razor at him wildly. He tries to jump out of reach, but not before her blade grazes his sweater, making a shallow cut across his newly exposed pale belly. He presses a hand against the cut, hissing.

“Run away, asshole,” she says. “I told you: I’m not going anywhere.”

“Shut up!” He roars. “Shut the fuck up!”

He charges her and she tries to cut him again, but he gets his hands locked around her wrist in a painful vice grip. She tries to scratch at his face with her left and he is forced to grab it with his other hand. It doesn’t relieve the pain in her right wrist. He’s strong and heavy, and she can feel her grip on the razor weakening.

She screams at him, but she can’t hear her own words over the pounding of blood in her ears. The razor falls out of her hand, and she tries to bite at his mask and misses. He presses her backward against the tree.

“I told you…,” he says between breaths, “to shut up.”

She stares hate into his black eyes. “Fuck. You.”

His eyes widen in surprise and he looks down. “What the hell?”

Miranda brings his hand to her face and bites down hard on his fingers until he lets go, but he’s already staggering backward. There are purple tendrils twining around his legs, lapping at trail of blood dripping from his cut belly. He’s batting at the wooden limbs with his hands and trying to stumble away. Miranda leans against the tree trunk, mouth open, her anger overcome by surprise.

When the first of the tree’s tap roots begin to dig into the cut across his stomach, his shouts turn to shrieks. They pull him to the ground, and his arms flail against them, as if it were possible to bruise something so solid or implacable. Miranda doesn’t turn away until the tree snakes into his mouth and down his throat, turning his screams to gurgles.

She looks around the yard, wondering why there aren’t neighbors gathered around peering over the fence posts. She realizes that she’s never met anyone from the neighborhood watch, and briefly wonders if it exists at all beyond the fancy roadsigns at the end of each block. She wonders if this is what it feels like to be in shock.

It’s quiet in the yard now, and when she turns back the only sign of her attacker is some disturbed earth being smoothed over by lazily swaying indigo roots, which seem to quiver in aftershocks of pleasure. She nods, not even sure why, and collects her straight razor and the alcohol wipes. She looks at the tree one last time before heading inside.

In the kitchen, she starts the tea kettle and measures out some tea leaves into her infuser, placing it in her favorite mug. While she waits for the water to boil, she opens her journal and jots down the timing from the original feeding, prior to the interruption, adding the note: “Fastest ever!” She pauses, then flips back to her to-do list and adds an item, which she underlines. “Talk to Hannah about Gemma.”

The kettle whistles and she sets the book aside, pouring the hot water into the mug, watching the liquid slowly darken as the leaves steep within it. She takes her mug and returns to her stool at the counter.

She opens her laptop. She ignores all the unread replies in her feed and writes a new entry.

I’m not going anywhere. You want to shut me up?

I’d like to see you fucking try.

Miranda clicks the post button, and then triggers the laptop’s shut down cycle. When the screen goes dark, her reflection in the glass is wearing a fierce smile.