Penny got up early Thursday and went to Dane’s trailer, hoping to catch him before he left. They lived in a two-trailer trailer park and Penny had no one else to show. He’d said the same thing for the past week: must’ve missed me. I went elsewhere for the day. His presence had always been a shadowy thing. Penny had memories of going to his door as a child, nestled between the gaunt pillars of her parents. Inside, Dane lurking behind a leg, a chair. Is your boy around? Maybe he could come and play with Penny. She remembered sitting with him in the pale sunlight, picking at stray weeds, her parents in deep slumber on the couch beside their trailer, limp necks and open mouths, the soft sounds of their breathing. Penny had whispered, I’m glad we live next door to each other, and Dane had looked at the ground, whispered so small that Penny could barely hear, me too.
Their parents had died several years ago now. Penny sometimes imagined her and Dane taking a trip with all their ashes, walking in the night with a wagon of urns, the squeaking of tiny wheels and the distant lights of unknown lands.
Dane answered the door in an undershirt and sweatpants, coffee in hand.“Pen,” he said. “What’s up?”
“It’s the cactuses,” Penny said. “Remember?”
“Oh yeah” Dane looked off into the distance. “Let’s have a look maybe.”
Penny lit a cigarette as she led Dane to the gray cactuses behind her trailer. She’d sweat in her sleep and her shorts stuck to her skin. The cactus farthest away still had an edge of green. Penny looked at Dane as he surveyed the lot. His eyebrows were lowered and his mouth was ajar.
“Thanks for showing me,” he said. “I have to go now.”
“I have to go elsewhere.” He turned away without looking at her and disappeared around the corner. Penny wanted to talk about it more, about how this had happened, how she could stop it, but she was glad that at least he had seen. She approached one of the cactuses and knelt beside it. There was something repulsive about it, something naked and deprived. The smoke from her cigarette seemed to sog into its flesh, to be ingested and felt. She pressed on one of the needles and it gave against the pressure, bending like rubber and straightening out languidly upon release.
When Penny and Dane were little, their parents sometimes had picnics in the cactus patch. The four of them would sit quietly under the cinder-colored sky and chew stale bread. Their blank faces and brown teeth. Penny and Dane wandered nearby, taking silent steps around the solid green cactuses. With skittish eyes they dared each other to see how close they could get to the needles. Penny remembered touching a finger to one of them and yowling, grinning at the jolt of it. Dane’s laughter as he rushed over, full of admiration, asking how it felt.
Inside, Penny swept the ants off her bowl and poured the last of the cereal into it. She hated the sound the empty bag made when she scrunched it up to throw away, so harsh and intrusive. She sat by the window and ate as the sun rose, trying not to look at the gray cactuses. At ten she left to attend to the sick family she was caring for. The walk took her through long stretches of gravel and debris until she arrived at the rotting structure of an old Victorian, standing alone and decrepit in a field of dirt. The family was mute and Penny had never learned how they’d come to live there. Every day the door was answered by the youngest child, the only one with strength enough to move around. Penny guessed him to be around twenty. He wrote her notes and grocery lists, always with a smiley face at the bottom. Sometimes he would reach for her hand as he fell asleep and Penny would curl her fingers around his palm with great caution, afraid of squeezing too hard; it felt as if his bones could crumple. The rest of the six were nearly catatonic. They lay bedridden in separate areas of the house, stomachs making small mounds of coarse breath, sallow heads sagging into pillows stained with soot. They never communicated with Penny, only watched her as she delivered sustenance to their various positions of stagnancy, sorrow in their eyes, waiting for it to stop.
Before Penny left that day, the youngest handed her a scrap of paper and nodded at it with a smile. She unfolded the note and read the scraggly handwriting within: when we die, the house is yours. Penny nodded back, though she didn’t think she would want to live in the house; it felt inseparable from the family’s sickness, as if the disease had spread into the bones of its foundation.
That night Penny lay on the floor of her trailer and watched the tiny spotlights move across the ceiling. She always felt glad when she saw them, worrying when they didn’t appear that they might be gone forever. They’d been there most nights ever since she could remember, sliding fluidly past one another as if choreographed, never quite touching. Penny hadn’t told anyone about them; it was a feeling she didn’t really understand, but she wanted the lights to herself. She almost expected them to form into an image or word specifically for her, though she couldn’t imagine what it would be; she had always led a quiet life, devoid of bright markers. The lights on the ceiling had a grainy, soft glow. Penny thought they looked fragile, composed of vulnerable particles. She watched them for a long time.
In the morning Penny opened her blinds to see Dane spray-painting the grey cactuses green. She walked outside and stood watching him.
He finished off the last cactus and smiled at her.“Good as new.”
“We’ll still know,” Penny said.
Dane’s expression became somber and he nodded. “Yes,” he said. “I suppose so.”
Penny asked if he wanted to come in for coffee, because what else could they do? They went into her trailer and sat at the table, looking at the cactuses out the window. Steam rose from their mugs. Dane’s fingers were shaking a little, half-looped around the handle. Penny looked at him, trying to draw his eyes onto hers, to share a moment composed of more than just physical proximity. His gaze shifted between the table and the window before finally gravitating towards her. They made momentary eye contact and Penny smiled a smile that felt too big on her face.
“This is nice,” she said.
“It is,” Dane said.
They drank and swallowed. Penny cleared her throat. It started to rain and the green on the cactuses began to bleed.
“Damn,” Dane said. He looked as if he wanted to cry but couldn’t get the tears to come. Penny slid her hand across the table and brushed his fingers, but they didn’t seem to register her touch. After a minute Dane stood and thanked her and went elsewhere.
Penny felt something in the air pushing down on her body, keeping its movements sluggish and inconsequential. Her thoughts would go to the gray cactuses, drift to something else, and then return to them, as if by some sort of psychic magnet. In her mind’s eye she could see the insides of them, the hollow caverns of their diseased lining. She breathed the murky air that filled their bodies, like rotted broth at the bottom of an abandoned soup bowl.
The sick family’s house stood dark against the ashen landscape, a small breeze making tiny dust clouds around Penny’s feet as she approached. Inside, the house appeared deserted. Penny looked through all the rooms on the first floor, then headed upstairs. Each bed was bereft, covers in disheveled clumps. Penny sat on the floor in the master bedroom and looked out the window. Why did it feel as if she had been abandoned, left behind to take care of no one but herself? Suddenly she caught sight of the youngest child on the ground in back of the house. He was crawling towards a hole. Penny hurried outside and ran to him, grasping his arm.He looked up at her blankly, his face chalky and slack.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m ready.”
Penny paused. Had she imagined it? “You’re speaking,” she said.
The boy nodded. “Please, I’m so tired.”
Penny stared at him, trying to see inside, to whatever was still there. Her grip on him weakened and she finally let go. He dumped himself into the hole head-first.
The wind picked up during Penny’s walk home and soon the air was thick with dust. Penny put on the goggles she kept in her fanny pack. She thought of the family piled on top of one another in the hole, slanted and slumped like sacks in a trashcan. Had it really been too late? When she got to the trailer park, Penny went to Dane’s door and knocked. She didn’t want to be alone. When there was no answer he went to the window and peered inside. Dane lay stretched out on the carpet, eyes closed with a syringe in his hand. Penny hurried back to the door and kicked it open. Inside, Dane was gone. In the spot where he’d lain there stood a green cactus. Penny circled its perimeter. She hovered beside it, breathed with it. It looked peaceful and in need of nothing. Penny closed her eyes and embraced it and the needles tore into her skin. She felt the room darken around her. The air went out through the walls, leaving only the remnants of a breath. Finally the pain stopped and Penny opened her eyes. A soft white glow encircled them. On the ceiling, a single spotlight hovered, alone.
(Previously published in formercactus.)