The cop eyes her photo I.D. “Virginia Washington. Sounds like an alias.”
Ginny shoves her hands in her jeans pockets and doesn’t mention her nickname. “My mama’s got a sense of humor.”
“She know you’re wandering the streets this time of night?” he asks, drumming the fingers of one hand on his holster.
“No,” she says. “She’s dead.”
The cop frowns and mumbles something into his walkie-talkie that sounds like the make-believe language she and her little sister invented when they were young. All jargon and slang and official-sounding TV-type talk. Ginny’s mama called it Pig Latin, but Ginny learned later it wasn’t nothing like Ig-pay Atin-lay. Though now she thinks the term is all right for cop-speak.
A dispatcher on the end of the line says some Pig Latin back that makes the cop inspecting Ginny scowl.
“You got any weapons or drugs on you? Anything I should know about?” he asks.
“I don’t smoke,” she says. “Don’t do none of that.”
He nods like he believes her, but she can see the fake painted in his eyes. They’re blue as storybook skies and touristy pictures of the Mississippi River and that baby she found last year in an alley and never told no one about but God. She has nightmares of a blue like that.
“Turn around and put your hands on the wall,” he says.
She shrugs and places her palms against the cracked, brick building, spreads her legs shoulder-width apart without him asking. She keeps her face forward and watches her breath fog and disappear into the dark, trying hard not to think how this cop will be the first person who wasn’t her sister to touch her in a long time. How she hopes he doesn’t remove her thin gardening gloves.
He runs his hands over her arms and sides, down her legs to squeeze her ankles. He dips inside her coat pocket and grunts. “The hell,” he says. He rummages inside the pocket and scoops out the clump of dirt Ginny’d dug up not an hour earlier. Holding it out for her, he says, “What’s this?”
The lump of soil is still damp, and it drips a bit through his white fingers and muddies his palm. Inside it, a worm has wrapped itself around an acorn like a dragon guarding the last known world. She sees this even if the cop can’t.
“It’s for school,” she lies, then tacks on some truth. “I study at Jackson State.”
He sniffs the soil, frowns, and shoves it back in her pocket. “You got class in the morning?”
“Yeah, bio lab.”
He lifts her hands from the wall and positions them behind her back. The cuffs click closed around her wrists. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“What’m I charged with?”
He hesitates. “Loitering.”
She rolls the bullshit around her mind for a moment, sliding into the backseat of the cop car. When the cop settles up front, she says, “What’d Dakota do this time?”
Startled, the cop glances back at her, and she notices how young his face is. No lines around the pale eyes or between brown brows. He hasn’t been a cop long enough for the city to sink into his skin, but it would happen soon.
“A detective wants you to answer some questions,” he says.
He drives cautious as an old lady, weaving around potholes and buckled macadam and trash tossed aside like trivial memories. A lonely shoe, a sofa cushion gone moldy, bags with shiny logos, and cups with golden arches, a tire, a broken doll, a hobo. Ginny slouches, studying the images flashing by her window. She draws comfort from the soil in her pocket, tries to reassure the worm of her presence as the radio chirps more Pig Latin.
“Hey,” she says when it’s silent. “Thanks for giving me back my dirt.”
The cop shifts uncomfortably in his seat. “Sure.”
“And for not being a jerk. Nicest arrest I ever had.”
He glances in the rear-view, and she catches his smile. “Sure,” he says again.
Ginny thinks maybe his blue eyes don’t look nothing like that baby. Maybe they’re just eyes like skies she’s never seen and that’s why they scare her.
“Get whatever you like, Ginny baby,” Mama says.
Ginny looks around, sees the dresses hanging like flower petals. Her hand glides over the fabrics, soft cottons and scratchy sheer laces. She’s never seen so many beautiful things in one place. As if God took all the pretty from the world and strung it up on racks.
“Anything?” Ginny asks, unsure.
Her mama nods.
She’s never gotten new clothes before, only hand-me-downs from neighbor kids and the Salvation Army. Now, the unfaded colors and sharply creased materials threaten to overwhelm her. She considers running down the aisles, grabbing at everything within reach, and stuffing it into the cart. But she restrains herself and straightens her spine. At six years old, Virginia Washington knows this is a moment to savor.
She chooses a green dress. Plain fabric, smooth as spring-soaked grass, with daisies blooming along the waistline. Later, she chooses to forget how her mama hides the dress in her purse and carries it past the cashier, or how the sewed-on daisies fall off the first time Mama does the wash. Ginny does not want to remember the way green fabric turns brown when stained with blood.
The cop shop is old, broken. A square building that squats on the corner of two streets with busted pavement and decorative orange barrels. Moss creeps over the barrels, and roots push between cracked concrete. The cop shop stares at the intrusion defiantly, but the ivy still climbs graffiti-covered walls.
Inside, Ginny is escorted to an interrogation room. She recognizes it from the one-way mirror, glaring fluorescent lights, and the stick-thin table and chair that would shatter if she bashed it over a detective’s head.
The blue-eyed cop eases her into the chair and leaves with a little nod. She learned his name is Stephens from the desk cop out front who’d greeted him and gave Ginny a nasty, puckered expression. Stephens had frowned and whispered, “Don’t worry, he always looks ugly,” once they were out of earshot. Replaying it now in her mind, she smiles and decides she likes Stephens.
They let her sit in the room for some time, arms still secure behind her back, dirt humming in her pocket. The worm grows weaker; its grip around the acorn slackens and sickens her stomach. She watches the mirror with a bored, blank gaze but says, “Please don’t waste my time.”
They make her wait anyway.
When the detective finally enters, it’s with a puff of perfume that makes Ginny want to puke. It reeks of fake flowers, like lies that make a person sweat.
“Do you know why you’re here?” The detective crosses her arms and looks down her pointed nose at Ginny. She’s an older lady with steel roots in her bottle-black hair and a long, line-riddled face that reminds Ginny of wrinkled bedsheets.
“Kinda philosophical question, but I guess you mean my sister,” Ginny says.
The detective lays a mugshot on the table. A man stares out like he’s devouring the world with his eyes. The markings on the wall behind him say he’s over six feet tall, and Ginny thinks his loam-like skin would be beautiful in sunlight.
“Recognize him?” the detective asks.
Ginny shakes her head.
“Robert Jamison, goes by Bobby James. Twenty-two years old and already wanted for burglary, assault with a deadly, and a slew of misdemeanors. But for the most part, our Bobby prefers arson. He’s burned six homes in the past week, one of which nearly cost the lives of two squatters inside.”
“What’s this have to do with me?”
“He’s been seeing your sister,” she says.
Ginny furrows her brow. “Dakota don’t have any boyfriends.”
The detective shrugs. “Right now, she’s wanted as accessory to Bobby’s most recent burn-job. When’s the last time you saw your sister?”
The chair below Ginny squeaks as she adjusts herself. She slides her tennis shoes along the linoleum, feeling the cool push of wooden floorboards through her soles, of poured cement and copper piping and the deep, dark press of earth. Fat roots slink through the ground and stab toward her position above them. The worm inside her pocket whimpers. She hears the soil sing.
The last time she saw Dakota, Ginny came home to her sister passed out in front of her door. Bruises and malnourishment had turned Dakota’s brown skin yellow, and meth had rotted her teeth. Ginny carried her inside, made the sofa into a bed, and removed Dakota’s worn sandals. She whispered lullabies and stroked her baby sister’s hair until she fell unconscious beside her.
In the morning, Ginny discovered only emptiness: couch, purse, and refrigerator. The only things Dakota left were shadows under Ginny’s eyes, hollows in her cheeks, and dead leaves in her garden.
“Don’t know,” she tells the detective. “Couple weeks.”
The detective paces around the table, circling Ginny like a vulture. “Your sheet stretches back to juvie. Been in the system, never leaving. You and your sister’ve made trouble since you crawled out of your mother’s belly.”
“Guess you know all about us then.”
“I know your type.” She narrows her eyes and rests a hand on Ginny’s shoulder. “Dakota’s in a lot of trouble, and the best thing you can do is help me find her. She’s still a minor. She can make a clean break of it, go straight like you.”
The detective’s acrylic nails bite into Ginny’s collarbone in a way that is part comfort, part threat. They carry the smell of beauty parlors and Swisher Sweet cigarillos and remind Ginny of her mama.
A cold finger snakes down her spine. In her pocket, the worm hisses.
“Look,” Ginny says, “I got nothing to tell you. Dakota comes and goes. I’d like to see her as much as you, but unless you’re gonna hold me on trumped up loitering shit, I got a class to wake up for in five hours.”
Without warning, the detective slams Ginny’s face against the table. Stars burst in her eyes and her ears ring. She grunts, mouth half-smashed to the tabletop. Spittle dribbles between her lips.
The detective holds her there by the collar, leans in and whispers, “Don’t get smart. You’ve been arrested enough I don’t need a reason to throw you in the tank overnight. You find your sister and you march her ass in here. You do not want me to find her and Bobby James first.”
Ginny can’t nod, can’t speak until the detective releases her grip and storms out of the room. When the fuzz clears, she notices a business card on the table for Detective Rosa Henneman.
Underneath Ginny, the linoleum floor has spider-webbed with cracks.
“Make it go.” A two-year-old Dakota points her sister toward an acorn. It’s nearly rotten and wedged between an uneven sidewalk. “Make it go, make it go,” Dakota says, bouncing on wobbly legs.
Ginny–nine-years-old and already slouching from the press of the city–crouches next to her sister. She wraps one arm securely around Dakota, hugging her, and cups the acorn in her free hand. It pulses against her palm, tickling a greeting and smelling of sunshine and freedom and warm, wet grass. Ginny tickles back and invites it inside her. Slowly, like sucking a milkshake up a straw, the acorn pulls on her. It starts under her rib cage, lower like a stomach ache, and tugs at things inside her that were never meant to be tugged.
The seed opens, a green shoot budding before their eyes.
“We can plant it here,” Ginny says, leading her sister toward a vacant lot filled with overgrown weeds and car tires. “It’ll grow big, like you, and make acorns of its own. It’ll be part of us. Our secret.”
She digs a hole with her hands. The dry earth darkens, and the soil becomes strong. She sets the acorn inside. Roots take hold, caressing her skin before sliding into the earth. Dirt streaks Ginny’s arms and stains her knees; the touch of it makes her sigh.
But Dakota giggles and dives into the ground, pushing her fingers deep. She digs with fervor until dirt peppers her face, her body. She laughs until the weeds around her wither. Laughs until tears roll down her cheeks and splash the soil like acid rain. Fissures form around her fingertips, like veins leading toward the sapling protected at its heart.
“Make it go,” she says and reaches for the budding oak tree.
Ginny grabs her sister’s hands and pulls her into a careful embrace.
“It’s done,” she whispers and stares at her lonely island of green surrounded by Dakota’s destruction. She inhales the ashen remains of weeds fluttering in the breeze. She stops herself from crying.
“You make everything better,” Dakota says.
But Ginny knows she can’t fix what her sister has wrought.
Stephens offers her a ride home when he sees the bruise along her cheek, the blackening around her eye. He’s pulled a hoodie over his uniform and stuffed his gun and cuffs and police paraphernalia into a backpack slung over his shoulder. Off-duty like this, he looks almost human.
Ginny says no, but he insists, and who is she to argue with a cop who’s already arrested her once tonight?
He walks her around back to the fenced-in cop lot. Only a handful of vehicles remain at three a.m., but she knows the bike is his the moment she sees it. All shiny chrome and blue paint job like his eyes. He holds a helmet out to her, and she slips it on.
“Little cold for motorcycles, isn’t it?” she asks.
“I like the outdoors,” he says, mounting the bike and gunning the engine.
She wraps her arms around his waist. “Me, too.”
They arrive at her apartment building and idle awkwardly at the curb. She almost expects to see Dakota passed out against the door again, but it’s as empty as it will be in her basement studio. Only her garden and the sough of crawlers through her bedroom walls to welcome her home.
“You want to come in?” she asks, still clinging to his back.
He tenses. “That would be inappropriate.”
“Yeah,” she says and hops off the bike. She hands him the helmet and meets his gaze. She’s never thought of herself as pretty, but she knows her eyes are dark and deep and sometimes people get lost in them. “You want to come in anyway?”
Stephens stares at her a long moment, then he kills the engine. “Yeah.”
She leads him inside, down the narrow stairs to her apartment. It’s one room plus a shower-only bath. The windows are set high, near the ceiling, so it’s always darker and damper and smelling of rain. She doesn’t have a TV or microwave or a real bed, but she does have walls lined with bookshelves and potted plants, a drop-ceiling threaded with hanging vines, and a hydroponic garden that would put a pothead to shame.
“I’m a biologist,” she tells Stephens, more apology than explanation. “Or I want to be.” She frowns. “I’m supposed to graduate in May.”
She rinses a bowl in the kitchen sink, sets it on the counter. From her pocket she removes the clump of dirt–the worm and acorn hiding inside–and puts it in the dish. She takes a scoop of soil from a nearby plant and packs it on top, sprinkling it with water. The worm whispers its pleasure.
Then she turns to Stephens, watches him survey the room with round eyes. He inhales several times, breathing in the thick, heady scent of life. The tension between his shoulders seems to dissolve; his posture relaxes. With a hesitant hand, he traces the bruise on her cheekbone.
“Who are you?” he asks.
Ginny doesn’t answer, just molds her mouth to his and listens to the leaves breathe around them.
The green dress doesn’t fit anymore, so she holds it up to Dakota’s shoulders. The hem kisses the stained carpet.
“It’s beautiful.” Dakota’s black eyes are big and bottomless. She glances at Ginny in the mirror. “Can I keep it?”
Ginny nods. “It’s yours now.”
Dakota squeals and spins. She lifts the dress over her head and shimmies into it. The daisies are long gone, but the fabric remains petal-soft. In love with her own reflection, she doesn’t notice the man stepping out of their mama’s bedroom, but Ginny does. He’s tall and too thin, sunken cheeks and a jaw sharp enough to cut. He reeks of old tobacco and brine.
“Pretty,” the man says, his eyes locked on Ginny.
She’s seen this before, a clarity passing over some grown-up faces when they look at her, as if they’re waking up from a long sleep. They want to touch her then, stroke her hair and kiss her forehead, hold her until they pull on her like the dandelion. But she won’t welcome them.
The man approaches the girls. He lays a hand on both their shoulders, but jerks away from Dakota as if burned. Instead, he leans into Ginny, rubbing her back. She tries to move but he fists her hair. She cries out. Dakota growls. The man nuzzles Ginny’s neck, swatting Dakota with the back of his hand. The younger sister flies, smacking the wall with a sickening crunch. When she rises, her shoulder is cocked at an impossible angle and she lurches toward the man with hands outstretched.
Then there are only the man’s screams deafening Ginny’s ears and charred meat filling her nostrils and a brilliant red soaking Dakota’s dress.
In the morning, Ginny leaves Stephens lying on the pillows of her pull-out couch. His nude back glows under a shaft of sunlight spilling in from the uncovered windows. She wants to thank him for making the vines dance and the flowers blossom–for taking only what she gave–but she doesn’t know how to explain the fading of his old football injury or where the silvery scar on his shoulder went or how his tongue tastes like honeysuckle and promises.
She lifts the bowl with her secret buried inside. Overnight the acorn has sprouted. A shoot of green peeks from the soil, and the worm waltzes around its roots. Today everything will change, she knows, and she carries it to the curb.
The bike remains on the street. Crabgrass and morning glories have wrapped between its spoke wheels and tied tight to its handlebars. With a whisper, Ginny draws them back to sprawl across the sidewalk like a blanket cushioning the concrete. More greenery grows to join it, and the blanket spreads into the street. Underneath the pavement, roots contort around pipelines and sewer systems; they squeeze and push and punch the surface. They call to her.
She slips Stephens’s keys from her pocket, secures her grip on the bowl with the acorn, and heads toward the Coliseum. Behind her, the exhaust plumes and the blacktop breaks.
The husks of Dakota’s handiwork grow thicker as Ginny approaches the eastside. Blackened buildings dot the landscape, and the January air is ripe with rot and smoke. Boarded-up windows watch as she parks the motorcycle. The Mississippi Coliseum stands untouched by the decay, a domed structure surrounded by cement. But below it, far down in the depths of the world, she senses the seam between mantle rocks, hears it sigh like a slumbering dragon.
Ginny nestles the plant and bowl in the crook of her elbow. Everything is empty in the dawn, and no one stops her as she touches the main doors. For the first time, she pulls back on the earth, draws the dragon into her, feeds on it as it comes alive under her feet. Wood and iron buckle, bowing inward enough to allow her passage. Her steps shake the walls, rumble supports and braces, shatter glass. It cannot be helped.
The ground trembles.
Inside is all stadium seating and a floor shined in preparation for the next basketball game. The lacquered wood twists and snaps. The noise of her destruction enfolds her. Her teeth vibrate.
“Figures you’d find me here,” Dakota calls over the chaos. She’s standing opposite the broken entrance, half-obscured by shadow. Her hair has fallen out almost completely, a few strands of black curling over her forehead. Her skin is sallow, one giant green bruise, and peppered with open sores. She limps and coughs and smells of gangrene.
The Coliseum shudders.
“Looks like you’re finally ready.” Dakota says.
“I’ll help you.” Ginny nods. “Please, God, let me help you.”
Dakota comes closer. Wooden bleachers wither in her wake. Her footsteps singe the floor in the shape of her toes. She smiles, revealing ruddy gums. “Bobby said the same thing. You two would’ve liked each other.”
“Where is he?”
Dakota shrugs. “Can’t stand the heat…” She staggers to half-court, kneels and splays her hands on the ground. Her fingers sink in as the flooring disintegrates. Tiny sparks ignite along the edges, and the sick scent of burning plastic fills the air. “I can only get so far,” she says. “You’ll need to open it the rest of the way.”
“And when it’s over?”
Her little sister looks up at her, and for a moment Ginny sees the sixteen-year-old girl inside Dakota. Not the addict or the anarchist or the death goddess, just a scared kid in a green dress.
“We’ll start again.” Hope shines in Dakota’s endless eyes. “We can build whatever we want, be whatever we want.”
Holding the potted plant close to her side, Ginny nods. “All right.”
Sirens sound over the cacophony of splitting timbers and shredding steel. Distantly, a voice she recognizes shouts through a megaphone, but she ignores whatever it’s saying.
Ginny reaches down and wakes the dragon.
“That’s fucking stupid.” Dakota’s small breasts push against the tabletop as she bends over to snort the white line. “Why would you build something on a fucking volcano?”
“It’s extinct,” Ginny says, pointing at the textbook propped over her thighs. “Has been forever.”
Dakota squints and leans her head back. “But one time?”
“Long ago, I guess it was active.”
Her sister smiles, a sly, lop-sided thing that is part childish, part devil. Her eyes glaze over and blood from her nose fills the indent of her upper lip. “Bet you could make it work.”
“Dunno. And if I could, I wouldn’t. The whole city might burn.”
Dakota takes her hand, squeezes it. “Nothing but steel and sinners. The city did this to us, Ginny. Imagine what you could grow if you started fresh?”
The pull is an easy, lazy tug on her heart. Ginny’s fingers start to ache; her knuckles flake and crack. But in her grasp, Dakota’s wrinkled skin turns rich and dark and lovely.
Tectonic plates shift and shudder. The hot, slow flow of magma begins to bubble and writhe. Ginny delves into the earth, feels its rhythmic rumble. She opens herself to its pull, feels it snake inside her stomach, coil around her lungs. She gasps.
“Like that.” Dakota clasps Ginny’s hand. Power rushes like wildfire from the earth’s core, between them, through them. Uncontrolled and unfathomable. Dakota’s hair grows in first, then her teeth. Her skin glows with health, and her eyes sparkle with unshed tears.
Ginny ages a dozen years.
Chunks of debris rain around them, crashing like waves on rocky shores. The ground opens where Ginny wills, a pit descending into shadow and fire. Her muscles burn and the bones in her legs snap. She cries out from the force of it, the swirl of life and energy.
Then Stephens appears beyond a collapsed wall. He’s calling her name and he’s still in his hoodie and does he have to look at her like that? Beside him, Detective Rosa Henneman raises her gun.
“No,” is all Ginny can mumble as the bullet flies. She doesn’t even hear the gunshot over the storm, but she sees it pierce Dakota’s back and exit her breast. It nicks Ginny’s bicep, and her secret–the tiny pot of dirt and worm and acorn–tumbles to the shattered floor.
For a moment, Dakota seems surprised, unaware that she’s dead, then her smile droops and she slumps to Ginny’s lap.
The scream that tears from Ginny’s mouth is all fury and thunder, rippling the earth for miles. She clutches Dakota to her chest and buries her face in her sister’s hair.
“I know it’s not how you wanted,” she murmurs, “but we’re gonna start fresh.”
Cradling Dakota against her, Ginny gathers her acorn. The worm says it is ready. She tosses it slow, like rolling dice, into the hole she’s created. Then she welcomes the dragon’s pull, feeds it everything that is left for her to give.
It begins quietly. The dust settles; the fire dies. Roots take hold and a tree grows. It springs from the earth and pushes toward the heavens. A thick web of grass and bluebells and morning glories spreads outward, cloaking the city in a green gown. The verdure knits itself across concrete and over cars. It scales skyscrapers and fills factories. It cannot be stopped.
In the center of it is an oak tree that towers above all. Two trunks twine together at the base, but only one reaches toward a blue, blue sky.