Overwatering After the funeral, Kayla joins her mom and aunts back at her grandmother’s apartment to divide up Nana’s stuff. She stands to the side as the older women barter over silverware and picture frames until her mom approaches with a tremendous Christmas cactus. “Take it,” says Kayla’s mom. “It’ll brighten up your living room.” “Absolutely not,” says Kayla. “Someone needs to.” Kayla’s mom picks at the remains of last season’s flowers. “It’s almost thirty years old. Same as you.” “I can’t keep plants alive.” “This one,” Kayla’s mom says, “will be different.”
* The Four Houseplants Kayla Has Already Killed 1. The spider plant from her freshman dorm that she forgot to take home over winter break. 2.The philodendron Jason gave her that, despite impeccable window placement and watering, succumbed to the hatred she harbored for him after he cheated with his ex-girlfriend. 3.The basil plant that turned yellow because she admitted to friends that she was only mostly pro-choice. 4. The ficus that withered because she took her dog to the vet to be euthanized, even though he would likely have lived another year with daily injections.
“What the hell is that?” Jason asks from the couch as Kayla shimmies the plant through their apartment door. “Can you help me?” The leaves tremble as if her voice originates from the roots. Jason drops his video game controller and sidles between the couch and chair. Kayla relinquishes the plant and he delivers it to the scuffed kitchen table. “How was the funeral?” he asks. She slips off her oxfords. “Fine.” “I could have gone with you.” “That wouldn’t have worked.” “Your mom has to find out we’re back together eventually.” The weight of his statement causes the cactus’s leaves to wilt. Jason returns to the couch and retrieves his controller. “What was your grandma like?” he asks. “She was amazing.” Kayla would extrapolate, but there’s no point. Jason’s already unpaused.
Kayla’s Most Cherished Memories with Her Grandmother 1. Picking raspberries from the overgrown patch behind Nana’s house. 2. Sitting on Nana’s lap, paging through old college year books in which Nana was almost the only girl. 3. Standing next to her grandmother at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the new elementary school that bore Nana’s name. 4. When Kayla’s life-plan anxieties grew too sharp, and Nana would say, “You don’t need to find your path, sweetheart. You’re on it already.”
Within three days, the plant’s leaves start turning brown. “Water it more,” says Jason as he pours cereal into a bowl. “It’s a cactus. Too much water will kill it.” “That’s fucking dumb. Plants need water.” Jason returns to the couch. The milk remains on the counter, the cereal bag unclipped. The branch resting in Kayla’s palm droops further. “Jason,” she says. “Sorry, mission’s started.” “Put the damn milk away.” The force of her tone prompts him to act. His eyes remain on the television, but he returns to the kitchen to clean up. When Kayla gets home from work that afternoon, Grandma’s cactus has regained its emerald color.
* The Parts of Jason Kayla Most Wishes She Could Fix 1.His work-from-home job that lets him sit around all day without getting dressed. 2.His rudeness, especially his swearing. 3.Whenever she’s on her period, he acts like she’s contagious. 4.When they make up after their frequent fights, he says, “I’m not sure why you put up with me. You could do so much better.” 5.He’s right.
For a few days, the plant looks healthy. Then some leaves turn black and drop off, but only on certain mornings. It takes a week for Kayla to figure out the correlation. “I can’t have sex with you for a while.” Jason removes his headphones. “What? Why?” “Yeast infection.” “What the fuck does that even mean?” “Look it up. We’re taking some time off.” Jason shakes his head and clenches his jaw, and Kayla wonders what he’s stopping himself from saying. How awful could it actually be? “I’m going back to porn then,” he says. “I don’t care.” “You sure cared last time.”
The week Kayla stops doing Jason’s laundry, the cactus grows six inches. The morning after she kicks his friends out for being too loud at 1:00 AM, it erupts in flowers the color of tangerines. Sometimes Kayla whispers to the plant, quiet enough that Jason can’t hear, in hopes that her grandmother can. Five weeks after Nana’s death, Kayla needs some time away from Jason, and the perfect opportunity arises: instead of declining the quarterly invitation to her office’s weekend leadership retreats at a log cabin resort two hours north of the city, she says yes. While sitting around a campfire, she shares an idea for a new customer program, and several members of the administrative team love it. So does the company’s owner. By the time she returns home on Sunday, Nana’s Christmas cactus is dead. She drops her suitcase, approaches the kitchen table, and brushes its cooked- spinach leaves. “What happened to my plant?” “What do you mean?” asks Jason. “It’s gone.” “Are you sure? I watered it a bunch.” He keeps his eyes glued to the television. “Don’t worry. Plants are really hard to keep alive.” “I know.” She straightens her shoulders, stands tall. “Can you take it to the dumpster for me?” Jason sighs. “Fine.” He grabs the cactus, and Kayla holds the door open for him. After she hears his footfalls on the stairs, she fills the watering can that came with the Christmas cactus. Then she waters Jason’s video game console, his cellphone, and his laptop. Over each, the glassy stream of water explodes into a hundred sparkle drops. The water bubbles up around the keys and flows from the drives and ports. She’s surprised how much liquid the items can absorb. They can’t get enough.
-- Eric Rasmussen is a western Wisconsin writer serving as fiction editor for Sundog Lit, as well as editor of the upper Midwest literary journal Barstow & Grand. He has published short fiction in Third Coast (2022 Fiction Contest finalist), North American Review (2022 Kurt Vonnegut Prize runner-up), Blue Mesa Review (2022 Fiction Contest winner), Fugue, and Pithead Chapel, among others.