Chewing On It

Emma made a face at the little, green leaf floating in her latte foam. The sweet smell wafting up from the cup made her stomach churn. She had made the drink herself with extra foam and a healthy sprinkle of cocoa powder on top, just the way she liked it. Emma tossed the garnish on without a thought, a tragic byproduct of muscle memory that had ruined her perfectly good latte. She took her spoon and pushed the offending leaf all the way down to the bottom of her cup before standing and throwing the whole thing away along with a barely picked-at scone.

Sprigs of the plant were sitting in fancy, glass vases on every table. Their leaves wiggled slightly under the breeze created from the ceiling fan. Just when she thought they couldn’t find any more ridiculous ways to force it on everyone, they kept surprising her. Emma was having none of it. 

“You sure take short lunch breaks,” Jamie said. She was leaning back against the counter, waiting for a panini to finish in the press. Emma adjusted her apron as she returned to her station near the bakery case. “Did you even eat anything?”

“I’m not too hungry,” Emma replied, “Besides, I like making the coffees more than I like drinking them.” 

“Well, lucky for me, I hate that milk steamer. It burned me again last week!” The chimes on the front door jingled, “Look, here comes Mr. Charles, right on time.” Jamie went to take the man’s order. He owned the local market and was nice enough, but kept his eyes a little too low for Emma’s taste. He ordered the fish and chips as always with a large iced mocha and a wink to Jamie that she politely smiled at. Mr. Charles went to find a table and Jamie turned back to Emma to stick her tongue out in a fake gag. Emma made the drink quickly, plucking off a few green leaves from a bundle of the plant Brandy had left at the station and sprinkling them on top to finish it off.           

“How long do you think Brandy is going to make us use this stuff?,” Emma asked. “It’s messing up my artistic vision. She even made me put it on top of the blueberry muffins. Who garnishes a muffin?”

“I don’t know, it’s fancy or whatever. Besides, it’s just like using mint.”

“It’s not the same and you know it.” Emma’s eyes moved over and out the window to the park bench across the street. She could almost picture the hunched over figure sitting down, shaggy grey hair and an old army coat, spitting out chewed-up mint leaves all over the place. “He died there. It’s creepy.”

“Well, I think it’s sort of cool,” Jamie said. “Plus, business has picked up since we started using it. I’m not mad at these tips.” The fish came up from the fryer, complete with chopped up, little green leaves on top. Looking at the things, slightly wet with fry grease, made Emma choke back a gag. She took a deep breath to calm her stomach and focused her gaze outside at the park.

There were people walking through, stopping to sit in the grass and enjoy the spring weather. It was more crowded now than it had ever been. Every now and then, someone would bend down beside a park bench and pluck some of the plant straight from the ground. There was a small crowd patiently chatting while they waited for a turn. Emma suddenly felt the urge to get back in the kitchen and mumbled something to Jamie about rolling out dough for cherry pies as she fled to the kitchen.

Davie had been a regular, sort of. He would linger outside by the front staring at everyone who walked by, muttering to himself, before making his way over to his usual spot on that park bench across the street. He always sat at the same bench. He would stare into space and mutter more there, always chewing raw mint leaves the way other people chewed tobacco. Chew, spit, mutter, and shout. He shouted about a lot of things. Mostly God, sometimes the end of the world, and how men from the telephone company were coming to kill him. A lot of people avoided the park altogether. Emma was always the first to arrive at the diner to start baking for the day and she would give him a fresh danish and a to-go coffee. He never thanked her and usually sent her away with a brisk wave and a muttered curse.

Davie died on that bench. Emma tried to think of it like he died at home. The city had the whole thing cleaned professionally afterwards; the park district even paid to have flowers planted around the walkways and a new water fountain put in. A couple weeks later, the plant started sprouting up all around Davie’s bench. It looked like mint from far away, but up closer you could see the leaves were longer. They curled and twisted in strange ways, looking a bit like pointing fingers. It grew in patches, crawling all over the grass but never more than a few yards away from Davie’s bench. 

It creeped Emma out, but the other townspeople loved it. They hung it in garlands, added it to floral bouquets, and served it in lemonades. It was getting to be a little much, honestly. She had even heard Brandy talking about adding it into pancake batter. Every morning, Emma came to work and hurried past the park. She pointedly ignored the curly, crinkled leaves and the now empty bench.

***

Mr. Brian Porter, The Junior Parks Supervisor, was thrilled. He’d been content when the hobo man had died, God rest his soul. A tragedy, of course, but it filled him with glee to think that maybe the park could be used for more productive matters without that vagrant yelling and scaring people off all day and night. It was the last thing a small town needed, aggressive drifters.  He’d taken it upon himself to have the whole area sanitized. He’d made powerpoints full of proposals from weekly summer concerts to crafts fairs. He’d even hired landscapers! It was the biggest park in town, three miles of sheer potential right in the center of most of their shops and restaurants. It was time for it to be treated with respect.

The problem was that people kept leaving. All the young people, the good people, with skills and aspirations. They had no interest in giving back to their community. It could be fixed however, if they created the right environment to shmooze them into staying put. In a park you could have arts festivals, farmers markets, and even club sports. Structured activities were the sorts of things one looked at when deciding on committees and elected officials, after all. The weird plant had been a surprise bonus. 

A couple weeks after cleaning up the park, a sort of weed sprouted up all around the vagrant’s bench. At first, Mr. Porter had them ripped out, but they just crept back stronger by the next morning. They spread all the way around that damned bench, crawling along the ground like clover, but stopped a couple yards away, forming a near circle around it. It grew low to the ground in thin, curly leaves. If he looked from the right angle, the leaves looked a bit like fingers, reaching out towards the sky. Mr. Porter didn’t like to look at it too long.

“It tastes just like mint,” Jones, one of the gardeners, had told him.

“You mean you ate some of it?,” he questioned, gobsmacked. 

“Tastes fine, is all I’m saying. You might as well just leave it, it won’t hurt nobody.” Mr. Porter could not believe anyone would willingly eat an unknown plant. He had thought about it all day. He told his wife about it that night and she immediately wanted to try some herself. She picked a handful and passed it around to the ladies at her bridge game. It did, in fact, taste just like mint. She said it had been a real hoot, the ladies ended up fashioning a round of juleps with it.

Mr. Porter started to form an idea. This was just like that city up north, where the woman had died in her apartment and no one had found her for months. She rotted away to bones still wearing her church shoes, sitting in her favorite chair. When they had finally cleared the place out people flocked to stay there for a night. Ghost enthusiasts and devil worshippers, not really the sorts of people he wanted in his town, but Mr. Porter believed he could work with it. This was natural after all. It was a locally sourced crop, brought into existence by the departed spirit of a beloved local. The whole thing was sort of divine, really.

Mr. Porter set up a meeting with Brandy, who’d been running Tad’s place since his heart attack. He invited Williette from the dinner club, Ben from the radio station, and Father Beckitt of the local parish too. Mr. Porter cheerfully pulled out a bundle of the plant he had picked on the walk over and tossed them into everyone’s salad bowl. Here, was the opportunity of a lifetime. A way to bring people together over a common product for the good of their town. What was better than that?

***

Emma swallowed down against her nausea, looking over the tray of muffins she had baked that morning. They looked beautiful, perfect, with crispy brown tops and just a hint of red berries leaking through the wrappers. But the sweet, minty smell of the plant leaves scattered on the tray stuck in her nose and overpowered everything else. People had taken to calling the stuff ‘Davie’s Hands’,  Emma adamantly refused to go along with it. Maybe her anger was unjustified. She had never really spoken to the man and gave him the same wide berth everyone else did, but she had always felt they had an understanding with one another. Emma had the feeling that Davie had been someone before he ended up in town. She wondered where he had been, if it was anywhere Emma might see one day. Probably not. 

Emma couldn’t sit still for long without feeling like people were watching her. She could be completely alone and still feel eyes burning into her skin, wordless and faceless beings sneering from the shadows. She could never last long enough to eat a meal or finish a book. Anytime she wasn’t busy doing something her skin started to buzz and her breath came short. Here, Emma could stay busy. If someone was looking, she would be doing something impressive. She could swirl frosting and crimp crusts all day long. And then, people could coo over the pretty buttercream roses and focus on the fresh muffins. They wouldn’t pay attention to her at all.

“Do you want to go on break first today?,” Jamie asked. She had come in late that morning, last night’s makeup still smudged around her eyes and her hair in a haphazard bun.  

“No, I’m not sure I’ll take one today. I’m feeling a little restless, I might go back and make some whoopie pies. Holler if we get busy?” 

“Alright, just let me know if you feel sick and remember to eat something.” 

Emma kept busy all day, rolling out dough, cutting biscuits, and putting together fruit tarts. Each item was to be topped with a little bit of the plant. Emma set a whole leaf on top of a cupcake, noticing that it really did look like fingers up close. It sat curled on the frosting, wiggling gently from the kitchen fan, like it was beckoning her forward. She ended up chopping them up into thin strips for the rest. 

Emma declined a ride home from Brandy. She stayed late, drinking a cup of tea and nibbling a piece of toast in the dark, empty kitchen. When she finally started the walk home, Emma took the long way, avoiding the park, and curving through the streets of town. She peered into dark windows at drawn curtains and hanging bushels of the plant left in doorways. Father Beckitt had started proclaiming hanging a bunch over your front door would bring good luck and now every building had one. The leaves were strung into garlands, weaved around streetlights and draped over railings. The leaves waved in the wind and cast shadows onto the street like fingers, beckoning Emma further along her path.

She walked until she found herself at the church’s gate across town. Davie’s grave was in the back of the churchyard, a rough, brick red stone paid for by the congregation. No one had known when he was born so it just read -Davie- with a cross carved in at the top. She patted the bare headstone and noticed something sprouting up at the base. It was a small cluster of the plant. She had never seen it anywhere else except the park around Davie’s bench. Emma plucked a leaf off and sniffed it. The plant smelled like regular mint. She popped it into her mouth, ready to see what the fuss was all about. It burned on her tongue and Emma spat it back out.

***

Mr. Porter had decided that he was a genius. The people loved “being in Davie’s Hands”, as Father Beckitt had called it earlier at mass. It was their own local miracle! A television station up North was even coming down next week to do a feature. Mr. Porter himself didn’t care for it, the minty smell made his nose itch, but his people were consuming the stuff by the bushel. They picked their leaves fresh, stuck them in smoothies and breakfast burritos. They crushed it and used the oil in candles and soaps. They dried it and hung it in their windows for luck. 

The park had families in it, everyone stopping in to pick their fill. If you stayed all day you could even watch the plant regrow itself, crawling along the earth as new leaves unfurled. Soon, after charging a small harvesting fee, they could buy one of those big screens and show outdoor movies. Mr. Porter was filled with ideas, a whole binder in fact, ready to be taken before the board at their next monthly overview meeting. 

After a successful day out in town, Mr. Porter came home. He read a book, drank a warm glass of milk, and worked on a crossword puzzle. He laid beside his wife who had been asleep since he had gotten in. He dropped a kiss to her hair and drifted off himself. 

Usually Stella woke up before him, but the next morning he could still feel the weight of her next to him in bed. He rolled over to wake her up, except when he reached out a hand she was cold. Mr. Porter had to steel himself to take a closer look. Her skin was gray and rough to the touch. She laid there, not breathing and no heartbeat, completely frozen. The shape of her was exactly right with her closed eyes and wrinkled forehead, but her skin and hair was gray and rough to the touch. She had turned to stone. He shook her. He pulled at her arms. When she wouldn’t budge, Mr. Porter got out of bed and put on his shoes. He left the house in his pajamas and started walking towards downtown. 

Mr. Porter ran into Sammy Franklin next, also turned to stone. He was stuck looking out from his window, squinting and waving down at Miss Nadia from the bank. She had not seen him waving yet. She was frozen facing down, holding her skirt and picking her foot up to step over a dip in the sidewalk.

Next came Mrs. Adams, who was turned to stone in the middle of her morning walk. In her hand she held a sprig of Davie’s Hands, still fresh and green, waving in the breeze like Miss Nadia’s skirt. Mr. Porter kept walking and he found Brandy. She had a hand stretched out towards the side door of Tad’s, her key held in unmovable fingers. Paula from the butcher’s sat in the park, a packet of bird seed dropped next to her along with three stone pigeons. As Mr. Porter made the rounds through town, it became clear that everyone was gone. Well, everyone was here. The faces of his people forever set in calm, blissful smiles. A sea of blank stares that peered out into nothingness from gray, stone eyes. 

Mr. Porter wished to be stone as well. Back home again, he looked over his wife and thought maybe he could lay back next to her, close his eyes, and it would take him too. It didn’t, so he packed a small bag and headed for the train station. He walked through the park, stopping to pick a candy bar wrapper out of a flower bed and throw it away. He passed the bench and saw that the plant had finally crawled far enough without interruption to wrap itself around the legs of the bench. Davie’s Hands curled around the bench legs, green leaves gripping tightly enough to splinter the wood.

***

Emma left for work later than usual. The few hours of sleep she had gotten settled behind her eyes like a buzz. She walked towards town enjoying the slowly rising sun. Its hazy, pink light gave her an idea for an upside down plum cake she would try to make later. Something with a honey glaze on top that would look just like the sunbeams casting rays on the sidewalk. Emma noticed Paula was already sitting at the park with her bird seed. 

“Good morning,” Emma offered. Paula didn’t answer her. Emma stepped forward and her foot knocked against something hard. She looked down to see a large rock, no, a bird at her feet. It was a startlingly realistic pigeon. 

“Wow, some carving, huh?” Again there was no answer. Emma finally raised her head to meet Paula’s eyes. They were flat and gray. Emma realized with a bolt of shock running through her that she could not remember what color they were supposed to be. Now, Paula was just hard and grey all over like concrete. She reached out to jostle Paula’s shoulder which was rough like a stone.

 Emma backed away and then ran across the street to the diner. Brandy was out by the door, key stuck in her stony hand. There was no sign of Jamie at all. Emma ran away from her. She ran down the main street and passed by a few others who were also all stuck like statues. She tried shaking a couple, but no one even budged. Was she dreaming? Hallucinating? Was she turning into stone too? Emma ran a hand down her sweaty face. The sun had risen higher, casting shadows off of the stony faces of people she knew and onto the street. Emma felt her racing heart and the pull of her lungs in her chest. She didn’t feel like stone. Slowly, she walked back to the diner. 

She scooted around Brandy and went inside. The diner was dark and empty as it was each morning. Emma took her proofed bread dough out to rest on the counter. She prepped some vegetables and put a round of danishes in the oven to bake. Emma went into the dining area, flipped on the lights, and pulled back the curtains. Across the street, she could see the back of Paula’s stone head facing away. 

Emma was about to turn away when she saw the man from city hall run by through the park. He wasn’t stone either, then. She thought about going after him, saying something, but she couldn’t remember his name. She let him go and watched as he disappeared across the park. Emma stayed in the window, waiting to see if anyone would run by, but no one did. Eventually, the timer for her danishes went off. After taking them out, she rummaged around the fridge and pulled out some eggs, mushrooms, and cheese. Emma’s stomach rumbled.

As her eggs cooked, Emma walked up to the front and flipped the Closed sign to Open. She turned her omlet out onto a plate, perfectly golden and steaming. She left off the garnish and went to sit down at a booth with her plate and a bowl of sliced watermelon. She faced out towards the park and took a bite of eggs, promising herself that the next person to come by, she’d get up and say something. For now, it looked like she had time to sit and eat for a while.

Eliza Marley

Eliza Marley is a Loyola University Chicago graduate and current masters student at UIC. She has previously been published in Camas Magazine, The Bookends Review, Red Ogre Review, and Chaotic Merge magazine. Eliza enjoys stories with surreal undertones that seek out the mystery hidden within the mundanity of everyday life. When not writing, Eliza enjoys kayaking, baking, and telling ghost stories to tourists. 
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