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"Leaves” by Juliet Kemp | 1,109 words | Short Fiction | No content warnings
Ell sat on the sofa and opened the letter from the Department for Work and Pensions. Her stomach turned over in resigned horror. She hadn’t expected any different; everyone else she knew had already had their disability benefits cut.
She wanted to be angry, but she hadn’t the energy. She’d been out to the shop, which meant three flights of stairs down and three back up, because the lift was out again; that was it, energy-wise.
She twisted her fingers into the charity-shop blanket that hid the holes in the sofa. The holes were doubtless why it had been left on the street for Ell to find, sitting on it to claim it while she phoned Charlotte and Priti to ask if they’d carry it up to her flat. Charlotte and Priti were wandering around Europe now, kipping in anarchist squats and working on permaculture farms. They’d asked Ell along, but sleeping on the floor and digging potatoes were incompatible with Ell’s particular brand of bodily disintegration.
Ell slid, slowly and deliberately, off the sofa and onto the floor. She lay there, full length on her back, and stared at the pattern of damp at the top of the wall.
After a while, it began to look like a tree.
Ell wished she lived in a tree. Not a real tree, like in a protest camp. A magical tree; a tree of comfort and wellbeing. And elves. A tree that would look after her, or maybe its elves would. A magical elf tree.
She snorted a laugh, then sat up, scrabbled a marker pen out of the pile of crap by the sofa, and inched over to the wall. She drew a leaf, a bright green leaf that shone in the sunlight. She couldn’t reach to draw it near the damp-tree, but never mind. Fuck the deposit, shitty landlord would find a way to keep it whatever. Ell would have a tree. Not a magical tree; but you take what you can get.
That was the first leaf.
The next day, the damp-tree had grown. Well, trees grew, didn’t they? Albeit usually more slowly. Ell contemplated phoning the landlord; when she was done laughing, she squinted at the tree. One leaf wasn’t enough. She wanted another leaf, and maybe a little branch.
The leaves were such a bright green. And the branch held the promise of more leaves.
After that, Ell had instant noodles and a cup of tea. It was, as these things went, a good day.
That was the next leaf. Once you’ve gone from one leaf to the next, you can keep going forever. Forever
Days passed. Some good; some not so much. At least bad days were cheap, what with all the staying still, and June meant no heating bill.
She drew more leaves. Her green markers ran out; so she moved to yellow, and to orange, red, purple, blue. A rainbow tree.
The damp-tree grew, and became more bark-like. Brown bark, which was weird for white(ish) plaster. A trick of the light, Ell told herself, and drew another leaf.
The leaves—the whole room—had been throbbing for a few days now, in time with her pulse. An interesting experience which her therapist would either a) take way too seriously, or b) dismiss. If she had a therapist, which right now she didn’t, because she’d had her six sessions and been discharged. Since Ell was officially well enough not to need a therapist, the tree couldn’t possibly be throbbing. Or have a heartbeat.
Or be glowing.
She drew another leaf.
The first fruit was a shock. A welcome one: Ell was fed up with instant noodles and value baked beans on value white bread.
So there was the fruit, on the tree whose round trunk now pushed out of the wall where it met Ell’s leaves. Overhead, on the ceiling, its own leaves now grew, blue and green and red and gold.
So there was the fruit, and fruit didn’t grow out of walls. The only things that grew out of walls were mushrooms, and not the good kind.
So there was the fruit. Red, glowing, inviting.
Ell reached out, broke it off, and bit into it.
Because, really, why the hell not.
It tasted of summer strawberries, and oranges at Saturday park football, and cool lemonade in the shade, and apples in the autumn. It tasted of joy and sunshine.
Ell ate fruit, and drew leaves. The floor was bark now, and the sofa rocked gently in an unfelt breeze.
The kettle still worked, which was good, because tea, but the meter wasn’t clicking down. Nor was the box of teabags emptying. Ell contemplated this, while the kettle came to the boil. She drew a leaf on the tiny patch of bare wall that remained; then she looked across the room and realised the door had disappeared.
On the upside, now she couldn’t go downstairs to the mailbox (if indeed there were still stairs, or a mailbox, out there), which meant no more DWP letters. On the downside, no more postcards from Charlotte and Priti. Or trips to Tesco. Not that Ell had been to Tesco lately. The fruit was nicer than baked beans. Today it tasted of raspberries, with the odd bite of banana, incongruous but pleasant.
Ell had tea, and fruit. Her dried out marker pens were working again. There were still bad days, but she’d started drawing in her sketchbook again. She was happy.
Who needed a door?
Time passed. Ell drew.
After a day, or a few days, or maybe more, a door appeared amid the leaves, where the window had once been. After a while, Ell opened it.
She looked out onto a green valley; a rushing stream; a balloon-ship in the distance. A rose-pink sky. Two small dim suns.
The leaves rustled, encouraging.
Her joints didn’t hurt so much today. It was, as these things went, a good day.
Ell tucked her sketchbook under her arm and a handful of markers into her back pocket, picked another fruit, and stepped out into the rose.
Juliet Kemp is a queer, agender writer, who lives in London with their partners, child, and dog. Their fantasy novel “The Deep And Shining Dark” (Elsewhen Press) and their YA SF novella “A Glimmer Of Silver” (Book Smugglers) both came out in 2018, and their short fiction has appeared in various places. In their free time, they go bouldering, tend their towering to-be-read pile, and get over-enthusiastic about fountain pens. They can be found at http://julietkemp.com, or as @julietk on Twitter.