“Jarek, can I tell you a secret?” asked Sally, the talking shrubbery.
“You can ask me anything,” said Jarek, dreamingly.
“I like your friend, Beckett. Like, like-like.”
“Beckett? He’s not my friend. He’s an asshole. Everyone in school thinks so.”
“Really? I’ve only seen him be nice to you. Plus, he’s really pretty. I so want to get to know him.”
Jarek was silent, seemingly to reflect for a moment. “Everyone’s nice when they want something from you.”
“Oh…that’s pretty grim. Hey, someone’s coming.”
Two petite girls wandered down the paved path of the park, clutching the straps of their backpacks. They looked around them—at the scattered trees, the benches, the water fountain centering the park—as if looking something they lost. As they unwittingly approached Sally, Jarek hopped to his feet to reveal himself. Jarek was known throughout high school for jumping at people from behind bushes, trees, or tall grass in unkept lawns. He was also rumored to sell hard drugs to other students. Both were gross exaggerations, he once confided in her. For one, except for the two or three times he lunged at someone from behind a tree, he only appeared from behind Sally, who is rooted in the local park near school. For another, he sells weed and ecstasy, nothing more.
Dozens of times had Sally watched Jarek, with his shaggy blond hair and dirt brown jacket, take cash from prettier people for the contents of his tattered blue backpack. This was no exception. The two girls knew they could find him here. They needed happy pills for some party in a couple of weeks to help fit in with cool kids like Beckett and Waterson. Jarek cared little for why they were buying from him, as long as they brought from him.
The sun was setting. Sally knew that this would be his last sale before he had to head home to avoid suspicion from his mother. Then she would be alone, surrounded by non-sentient shrubbery and passing humans who would run in terror if they heard her speak. Part of her wished for Jarek to visit her without using her as a front for his “business.” At the same time, wouldn’t it be wonderful if she could enjoy the company of someone as pretty as that Beckett boy who liked to get high.
He was fascinated by her. Jarek’s desk stood next to a window with the blinds open. For the forty-five minutes of literature class, thirty minutes were spent staring outside at the well-maintained grass and the bur oak tree in the distance. He’s been by that tree several times. It didn’t talk, not even when he sat along under it, swearing to keep its sentience a secret. It didn’t say a word. When he told the story to Sally, she confessed that she never heard a word from the other greenery in the park. He couldn’t help but wonder if she could see with her leaves, where is her mouth that allowed her to talk, and why did her voice sound so pleasant.
He thought about her as he noticed Beckett and his friends in the hallway in between class periods. How lonely must she have been before he came along? How nice would it be for her to have more people to converse with, to understand her? But he couldn’t understand why she would want to get more acquainted with him. Tyler Beckett. His shoulder-length hair was straightened, yet he shaved the sides to show off his earrings that did not match. He wore a tie-dye suit, tailormade suit for his petite five-foot-one frame. Outside the classroom he could always be found wearing heart shaped shades, which were hardly noticeable as his head always tilted back, his nose turned up to the rest of the school.
“What do you think you’re doing?” asked Jeremy Hixon, a muscular kid on the football team walking with Beckett. He placed a large, threatening hand on Jarek’s chest. The jocks and popular kids, despite popular assumption, were not dumb. It was best practice not to be seen in public talking to your dealer.
“November 5th,” Jarek said, looking straight at Beckett, who looked back at him, although with the sunglasses on it was hard to tell. “Midnight. Be sober.” He turned and walked away.
“Sorry, man, if you need a laxative try Nurse Bree’s office,” Hixon said audibly for the surrounding students to hear and laugh.
“Wait, so she didn’t lose her shoe?” asked Jarek.
“No!” said Sally. “She was just pretending. You know, to get his attention. He was really handsome and super nice to help her look. It kinda tickled when she dug her hand through my branches to retrieve her shoe. She ran after him and they talked a while, but they were too far for me to hear. Oh, I wish they were just a tiny bit closer so I could know if they exchanged numbers or not.”
Jarek laughed. “They most likely added each other on Instagram or something. Nobody exchanges numbers anymore. How old are you?”
“You can’t ask a lady that!”
Jarek laughed again. He stood up to see if anyone he recognized was wandering nearby to make a purchase. “Hey, guess what?” he asked as he squatted back to her level.
“What?” Sally asked playfully.
“You’re going to see Beckett in a week from now.”
Sally made an audible gasp, and if she were able to make expressions her astonishment and surprise would have shown.
They heard footsteps moving closer to their position. Jarek stood up once more for the approaching woman. This stranger, based on her size, wanted to shed some pounds with a good run that evening, yet was caught off guard by hearing two voices where one person resided.
“Excuse me,” said the stranger with some loss of breath, “but I thought there was a pretty girl with you just now.”
Color rushed to Jarek’s cheeks, and he imagined the same would have happened to Sally if she had any. “Nope. Just practicing my ventriloquism.” He raised his wrist to make a makeshift mouth with the side of his index finger and his thumb.
“Hi, I’m Shaquita,” said his hand who, coincidentally, sounded like Sally. “I’m eighteen. I beez in da trap with my baby daddy. Bitches will be bitches. Lol.”
The woman, taken aback, clapped, cheered, and asked for an encore.
“I’ll cut a ho for my man, I don’t give a fuck. Free my brother, Jamal. LMFAO.”
The woman laughed as she nodded in agreement. “You’re so talented, I home you make it big one day. Sorry for interrupting your practice.” She stepped closer to him. “Do you post videos on your Instagram?”
“Not really,” said Jarek. “But since you’re here, do you want to buy some pot?”
Sally, being shrubbery, didn’t sleep, but if she could she would have been unable to that night. Jarek told her of his plan to get her more acquainted with Beckett. He kept to himself a special strain called “nana’s fix,” saving it for a special occasion. He planned to roll one for Beckett to try. As he’s tripping balls, he would be less alarmed when Sally tried to strike a conversation with him. At that point she would “win him over with her charm,” as he put it. Ignorant of the effects, and legality, of marijuana, Sally only hoped for the plan’s success.
A part of her, however, wished for easier circumstances. Jarek never required such scheming. It happened by chance, about a year ago, as he wandered the park in a dejected state. He climbed inside her branches as if to stow himself away from the world but couldn’t find a better hiding place at the time. She couldn’t help but laugh, because it tickled, until she cried in pain from her insides being stretched.
“Don’t do that!” she said.
“What? Who said that?” he asked, now startled. No one else was around, for it was afterhours in the park, and the park security was nowhere to be seen.
“Me, you idiot. Don’t get inside me like that.”
“Oh, I’m sorry! Did I violate you?”
“Well, not in that way. Maybe? I don’t know, I didn’t have human parts. But, yeah, don’t do that.”
She thought their meeting was funny in hindsight. He avoided talking about it, only acknowledging that it was a low period in his life—for other reasons, of course. She can recall meeting people similarly down on their luck in her distant past, most of them drunk, all of them terrified at the sound of her voice. She wished for the pretty Beckett boy to have the same disposition as Jarek, one that won’t repel him when she talked, one that won’t need the aid of some special substance or concoction to accept her existence.
At the moment, she resolved to stay optimistic on the matter. “I’m going to make more friends than you, Charlotte,” she said to shrubbery rooted opposite her. For decades, in her loneliest moments, she talked to Charlotte, a normal bush. Charlotte’s silent indifference has caused a rift between them. “People are gonna talk to me all the time and accept me for who I am. And there’s nothing you can say to stop it, you uppity bitch.”
November 5th, Randy Withers’ house. Randy was pinned to the living room couch by Kaufman’s enormous butt, as Waterson and Lacy Kincaid used permanent marker to play tic-tac-toe on his exposed belly. They roared with laughter when Kaufman, sitting on Randy’s chest, forced an audible fart. Jarek only glanced at Randy’s public humiliation at his own party as he glanced the room from a corner. The music was loud, of course. Juniors and seniors crowded the scene, dancing and socializing with red plastic cups in their hands. Two petite girls walked past him in a daze. He finally spotted Beckett, standoffish with a lit cigarette in his hand, not even looking in the direction of Hixon and a couple of others who talked around him. What a douche, Jarek thought. He should have explained to Sally how bad this guy was weeks ago. But it’s too late now, and he didn’t want to disappoint her at the last minute. He wanted to make sure Beckett didn’t do anything wild that might jeopardize the plan, but the only thing wild about the cool kid was his blue rubber ducky shirt and matching shorts.
“Hey, you!” Taylor West hopped in front of him. “I didn’t know you liked to party. Some people think you’re a weirdo, but I don’t. You wanna dance when the next song starts?” Frivolously she punched him in the arm. She was the hot redhead, yet she never dated any of the athletes as far as Jarek knew. She never took a step without drawing the attention of those who can’t get enough of her attractiveness and ditzy personality. This is the first time her and Jarek interacted, in or out of school.
“Maybe later,” said Jarek. “I’m waiting on something.”
It did not take long for two of Taylor’s friends to hook her by the arm and drag her away from the weirdo.
“Let’s smoke sometime, okay?” she cried out while walking away. He was flattered, but not overly so. Her inviting features, her infectious smile, her body so ripe and curvy; an eighteen year-old natural likes to these things. But that last line of hers: “let’s smoke sometime.” Those in the know were aware of his afterschool business, even if they never purchased from him directly. He couldn’t shake the sense that any interaction between them would be merely transactional. Her body for his weed. His weed for her body. Real desire, yet so rudimentary. It wasn’t a prospect he longed for.
12:10 A.M. Park security should be wearier of troublesome teens on a Saturday night, but it wasn’t.
“It’s okay,” said Sally. “Don’t look so stressed. It means the world to me that you would try.”
“He wouldn’t miss out on what I’m offering,” said Jarek as much to himself as to Sally. “Not tonight. So where is he?”
Beckett did arrive, however. Trailing behind him were the jocks, Hixon, Waterson, and Kaufman, and Lacy Kincaid with her layers of makeup still intact. The four of them, carefree and vulgar, shared a bottle of Jack Daniels. Beckett was pretentious as ever in his composure.
“Bro, why are you trying to get baked this late?” asked Hixon.
“You sharing, right?” asked Waterson. “Share with the rest of the class, Tyler,” he said, mimicking one of their nagging teachers.
Beckett ignored his entourage and walked up to Jarek in as stern of a manner as his relative height allowed him. He removed his sunglasses. Jarek was always caught off guard whenever he saw Beckett without his sunglasses. The cool kid wore them so often that it was easy to forget how spaced out his eyes were.
“I have been waiting for this moment all night,” said Beckett. He spoke with a lisp. As lisps were concerned, it wasn’t severe, yet it was jarring given that it came from someone of his social standing. No wonder he rarely spoke, why he tilted his head the way he did, why he wore such trendy clothes. He would have been another Randy Withers otherwise: one of the rare uncool rich kids, bullied for trying to fit in. “You promised me some dope shit. I want to get baked like a shepherd’s pie.”
Jarek pulled from his backpack a rolled joint. Nana’s fix. They exchanged the normal weed fee for the joint. Beckett placed the tip of the joint in the mouth and pulled out his lighter.
“Hi, Beckett!” said Sally. Everyone stared at her direction, including Jarek. “Sorry, Jarek, but I got so excited. Hi, Beckett, again. My name is Sally. I’m a living bush who lives in the park. I think you’re really cool and really pretty, and even though your eyes are slightly less flattering than I thought they’d be I still totally want to be your friend.”
Much confusion and swearing followed. The popular kids inspected Sally, thinking there was someone hiding behind her, or some recording device inside her branches meant to prank them.
“Why’d you do that?” asked Jarek inches from her, almost in a whisper. “Now they’re freaked out.”
“I’m sorry, I’m not good at social stuff.”
“Oh my God, it’s a talking bush,” said Waterson. Beckett’s entourage laughed in unison from the absurdity of what stood before them.
“Hey, Sally,” said Lacy, thrusting her hips forward and placing her hands around her crouch in front of the shrubbery. “I’m a bush, too. Let’s be friends.”
They laughed louder. Sally’s discomfort grew, as did Jarek’s frustration. Beckett stood frozen for the past several minutes, blunt in mouth, lighter in hand. But then, impulsively, he snatched the Jack Daniels from Hixon’s hand and empty the contents onto Sally.
“Uh, okay,” said Sally. “Is this a party thing I’m not aware of?”
Jarek panicked and rushed for Beckett, but Hixon shoved him to the ground. When he sprung to his feet, Hixon and Kaufman held him back. Waterman and Lacy played cheerleader. Beckett lit his lighter. Jarek grew more violent yet was helpless before the two larger athletes. Beckett’s sunglasses were back on, the surface of the shade reflecting the flame. Sally stayed silent this time. She couldn’t understand the urgency of Jarek nor the coldness of Beckett’s demeaner. Nothing felt right at that moment.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“There they are!” cried Randy from afar. “I told you they were trespassing.”
“Hey!” yelled an overweight, middle-aged man in a security uniform. He rode a golfcart with Randy in the passenger’s seat. The poor kid, embarrassed at the party he personally thrown, humiliated in his own home. He must have noticed the cool kids leave and followed them. Now was his chance for payback. Beckett and the rest scattered like cockroaches to escape authority. The security guard gave chase in his cart and was closing in on Beckett, the slowest of the bunch.
Meanwhile, Jarek hid where he always hid from potential eyes: behind Sally.
“Wow,” said Sally, “that was intense, huh? I guess I was asking for too much from him.”
A tear fell from Jarek’s eye. “I’m so, so, so sorry, Sally. I should have warned you. Beckett’s an asshole. They’re all assholes. You don’t need friends like that. I’ll protect your from now on. I’ll buy a knife. A gun, even. No one will ever even think about hurting you again.”
“But why do you care so much?” asked Sally, genuinely confused. “I thought I was just the spot you use to sell drugs.”
“You’re so much more than that, Sally, more than you can possibly imagine.” He grabbed her branches with both hands and pressed his face against her leaves.
“Stop that,” said Sally with a giggle. “That tickles.”
A peculiar aroma radiated from Sally. Jarek breathed it in and out with a moan. It was a familiar scent, one that made his struggling grades and broken family slip from his mind. It’s a scent stronger than the Jack Daniels; somehow, it made a talking bush the center of his world.
The combination of fire and alcohol is something Sally was not familiar with, so she couldn’t grasp her mortal danger. Her knowledge of the world came only from the conversations she overheard from park wanderers during the day, and from Jarek. She could, however, comprehend emotions. She sensed the callousness of Beckett and his friends. She couldn’t stand her own naivety when it came to them. But for Jarek, there was always an attraction to him that was oddly human. Was it his hair? His height? His smile? Occasionally she would have this tingling sensation from it. At this very moment, her feelings were reciprocated.