The shriek jolted me awake. I hung, bobbing a little, trying to gather myself together. I had just mustered up enough courage to pop open an eye, when –
There it was again! My eye shut faster than a pea could snap. I trembled, leaves shaking, quivering on the vine.
“Knock it off,” came my sister’s voice, sleepy and irritated.
“Princess,” I whispered, admiring her audacity in talking down the noise-maker, “Did you hear it, too?”
“Hear what?” she said, more sharply. “I was talking to you, Runt! Quit shaking so much. You woke me up, and you’re making my leaves itch.”
“Someone was screaming! It sounded like there was a murder!” I cried. “You really didn’t hear anything?”
“Nothing,” she snapped. “You were probably just dreaming. Like I should be!”
“It was real!” I insisted, but quietly, to myself. I didn’t want to upset Princess any more. Her temperament matched her complexion, and she was hard enough to deal with well-rested.
“It was real,” I worried to myself again.
“Of couurrrssssse it was reeealllllll,” came a shadowy whisper overhead. There was a rustling, scuttling sound, as the spider plant to the left of our pot leaned over and brushed the top of my stalk. “Sweeeet baaaaby,” it hissed to me as I shivered, “You’ve never heard the carrotsss ssscreeeam before?”
“The carrottssssss. They ssssccreeaam!”
I had only ever seen the carrots when they traveled. We were very different. My family rested on the window sill, a group hangout of individuals in the sun. They nestled together, bunched up in the fridge. Still, they had always looked calm and happy.
“Why do they do that?”
“Ssseeeee for yourrsssself!” With a click, the spider plant shot out a tendril, nudging me into opening my eyes. “Overrr on the kitchen tablllle.”
I had to swing on my vine to see, bumping into brothers and sisters who sleepily protested. Finally, I was arcing high enough to get a view of the table. There was a group of carrots, set out on a plate. On my next swing, I saw a person standing in front of them, holding up a long blade that glinted in the light from the overhead bulb. Then, they brought the blade down.
“EeeeeeeeYAAAAAIIIIIIII!” The carrots screamed as their heads were chopped off.
“What the fig!” I gasped, staring at the disconnected carrot heads lying on the plate. Their faces made perfect, horrified, dead-vegetable O’s as the rest of their bodies were chopped up. “What the huckleberry is happening?”
“Guesssss,” said the spider plant. “Or…watch some mooore.”
I couldn’t. I shut my eyes again, tight, until I had stopped swinging. The sound of crunching filled the room.
“Yum, yum, yum!” said the person in the kitchen. I heard them pick up the knife, and open the refrigerator door.
“They’re going to do this again?” I asked, disbelieving. “What kind of monster can murder screaming victims over and over again, and be so cheerful about it? Don’t the screams bother them?”
“They don’t heeeaaarr themmm,” rustled the spider plant. “Carrot screamsss are too hiiighhh for their eearsss. I’m ssurpriiissssed that yooouu can even hear them. Mosssst other vegetablesss do not!”
That explained why no one else in my family had woken up. The sound of crunching, meanwhile, was overwhelming.
“Wait,” I said, “Hang on. So you’re saying that this sort of thing happens a lot?” The spider leaves were still, studying. “Vegetables being murdered, and chopped up, and eaten. This is normal? And no one is aware? No one does anything?”
“Did you thiiiink you would staaaaayyy on that vine forreverrrr?” was the response I got.
I had never thought about that. No one had, that I knew of. Not even Princess. She talked a lot about the duties and prestige of being first Heir, of growing and ripening. She threatened all of us with being dropped from the Heirloom vine before our time, but she never talked about what would happen when it was our time. Did she know?
She couldn’t. She got redder and riper every day. Why would she brag about that if she knew where she would end up? She loved to condescend to me, and often led the others in calling me “Runt”. Up until this point, I had hated being such a late bloomer. Now, I was grateful for it.
“You look paaaale,” whispered the spider plant to me, “Altogetherrr unrrripe. Not that you were very briiiight to being withhh. Stiiiillllll, now you are more yelllloww than orrrange! Feeling feearrrr?”
I didn’t answer him. I couldn’t. With the next “EeeeeeeeYAAAAAIIIIIIII!” I passed out.
I woke up and almost screamed. In front of our pot was the human from the night before, hungrily eyeing the family vine. Their hand reached out for me, and I shut my eyes as the palm cupped me. The fingers explored my surface. They squeezed me gently, as their thumb rubbed slowly against my skin. This is it, I thought, terrified. This is the end. I’ll be plucked off the vine, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it!
“Hmmm,” the person murmured. The outer corners of their mouth turned down, and I started to hope. “Yellow! That’s no good. Not like this beauty!” They let go of me, and moved up the vine to squeeze Princess. “You, my love, are just what I need. The sauce I will make with you! Yum!” Whereas I had been rigid with fear, Princess was reveling in this person’s hand. She blushed with happiness at their touch, turning an even deeper red.
“Princess,” I whispered to her, concerned. “Are you even listening to what this person is saying? Why are you okay with them grabbing you?”
Princess looked at me distractedly, with disdain. “Saying? What are you talking about?”
“You don’t understand?” I asked her. “This is not a good person!”
“Oh, be quiet, Runt!” Princess said. “All these stories you keep making up; things you claim to hear. You wouldn’t let me sleep last night, and now you won’t let me enjoy my massage. Don’t be jealous that mine is lasting longer than yours did!”
“Son of a brussell sprout,” I muttered, and began to think.
Princess was a goner, that was unavoidable. But I didn’t have to be. I thought about the spider plant last night, commenting on how the fear turned me pale. Then about the human dropping yellow me for the deep red Princess. This latest interaction made me realize: the humans only wanted to eat good vegetables. If I was undesirable, maybe I wouldn’t have to leave the vine.
I waited until the human was gone, before swinging over to Princess.
“Princess,” I asked, “How did you get to be such a beautiful color?” She looked at me with condescension.
“Why do you ask, Runt?” she asked. “Trying to speed up your bloom? Tired of lagging behind? It’s about time you took pride in your appearance. Actually,” she raised her voice now, swiveling to address the rest of the family. “You should all be taking some lessons from me. I didn’t see any of you get as nice massages as I did, today. This family needs to get its look together. We are Heirlooms!” Our brothers and sisters dutifully listened as Princess laid out the steps to improve our image.
“As Heirlooms,” she lectured, “We need plenty of sunlight. The sun, the sun, the sun! This is the key to our brightest color, because it gives us our food. Sun, and water! You can’t have one without the other. Look at radishes! Those silly things, they only drink, drink, drink, and never see the light of day until they get yanked out of the ground! How pale and disgusting. And carrots! They stay underground for so long, they can only ever become orange!”
She went on, but I had tuned out after she mentioned the carrots. Sun and water, I thought. You can’t have one without the other. Without the sun, you won’t turn red.
I looked around the kitchen, still thinking. The humans had put pictures up on the walls, and occasionally referred to them. One was of an older, balder human, smiling over the rim of spectacles. His whole body was wizened, and it made his head look a little like a lollipop.
“Think,” I told myself. “You’re close to finding a way out of this. Think!”
“Ah!” came a deep, sing-songy voice to my right. “You must be the young Heirloom Houdini!”
“Excuse me?” I asked, looking over. It was the bonzai tree.
“Our spider friend has been talking about you,” said the bonzai. “You are the vegetable that knows its fate, and wants nothing to do with it. You want to avoid the human cutting board!”
“I will avoid it,” I said, wrinkling my skin as I tried to think harder.
“Why stress, though? You are in such an incredible position.”
“What do you mean?” I demanded.
“We all have our time to go,” said the bonzai tree. “We all have something we were created to do. Look at your own case this way: you know what your purpose is. That is unique – some might even call you special!”
“So,” I said slowly, “With my knowledge, I have the ability to avoid what will happen to all the others!” The bonzai leaves shook, and the tree hesitated before answering.
“Perhaps you could make a different fate for yourself,” it intoned. “But I do not think that you should try to fight what is meant for you. What I am saying, is that you are lucky to know what is coming.”
“How does that make me lucky? I’m miserable!”
“Would you rather be like your eldest sister?”
“No,” I said.
“Why not?” Bonzai asked.
“Because. She thinks the world is one way, when it isn’t. She’s going to die, and right before that happens, her entire world will be shattered. You’re asking if it’s better to live in ignorance or truth.”
“It seems that is what you are asking,” the tree said. “But you don’t get to choose that now. You cannot become ignorant to your fate. You can only accept it, make peace with it, and make the most of your life until then.”
I disagreed. I didn’t want to accept that fate. Casting about the room, my eyes landed on the lollipop man once more. Looking at that smiling old human, I finally came up with my plan.
From that moment on, I avoided the sun. It was hard at first, and cold. My body ached, but I made myself take comfort in knowing that as long as I felt the ache, I had a better chance at staying alive. I stayed between my sisters, underneath my brothers, pretending to boost others up in an effort to make them more beautiful. They thought I was strange, and laughed at me. Princess laughed the most of all, before she was plucked off the vine and lost her head. Her red truly was magnificent. All the humans commented on how it made their salads so “festive”. The currants. I didn’t mourn her. I didn’t have the energy.
Time passed. I got used to the near-constant headache. I stayed alive, as more brothers and sisters reached ripeness and were murdered for it. Eventually, another pot was placed beside mine on the windowsill. Cousins! I was determined to teach them my ways of survival.
“Stay away from the sun!” I would call to them. “Do not let vanity cause your downfall! Learn to love yellow, or you will end up in a stew!”
No one listened to me. The whole family thought I had lost my mind. My few remaining siblings only looked at my in contempt when I spoke out, and my cousins looked at me with pity, from their safe distance away in the sun. It was so frustrating. I did not want to see any more family members die.
“You have to believe me!” I cried. “You must understand! The only way to survive is to make the humans forget they could want you!”
“The thing isss” hissed the spider plant, eventually. “You mayyy not want to be forgottennn ACtualllyyyy. Neglect does you morrrre harrrrm than goooood!”
“How can that be possible?” I asked, unbelieving.
“Obsssserve the gourrrrrd,” said the plant. “I believe shee wasss meannnt to be ssspaghettiiiii squasshhh.” Long tendrils indicated an oblong shape lying in a basket. Squash was accurate. The poor vegetable’s head looked like it was near caving in. I noticed that there were other gourds in the basket, but they were all huddled away from the spaghetti squash, looking at it in disdain.
“Dragonfruit! What is wrong with that thing?” I asked.
“She neeedss cooking!” Spider snapped. “Yet she laaayyys there, untouched. A leper! And thiiiis is not her choice! She is loooosing her sennnses the looonger she laaays.”
“Because,” said the gentle, yet heavy voice of the bonzai tree, “She is not meant to stay forever. Her body is shutting down, and she is rotting. It is the course of things. There are some elements of nature you cannot cheat, and remain true to yourself. Even you, my friend. You may have found a clever way to avoid ripening, but you are nevertheless spoiling yourself, and I can’t believe you are enjoying your existence.”
I looked at my reflection in the window. I was pale, utterly unappetizing – and gross!
“Do I have chin hair?” I asked, looking at a small growth under my mouth.
“That is mold,” said the bonzai tree. “In an effort not to be murdered, you are killing yourself.” I thought about it.
“That means you were wrong, then,” I said. “You told me I couldn’t fight my purpose.”
“I said that you should not.”
“Well, still. All of that business about not being able to fight your fate, and the inevitability of our lives. I didn’t have to end up in some human’s stomach. Fig your fate!”
“You are correct,” sighed the tree. “Technically. Although, I still think you might have been happier accepting it.”
Just then, a human walked into the kitchen and found the rotting gourd. The rest of the squashes sighed in happy relief as their sick relative was lifted out of the basket, and carried across the room.
“Wait a minute,” I heard the human say. For the first time since before Princess’s butchering, I felt fingers prodding at my skin. “Yuck!” said the voice, and the fingers gripped me harder. I felt a great tug and tear as I was suddenly yanked from the vine.
I went flying through the air. Free! The sensation was incredible. I felt the stalks of mold stripped away in the flight, and I tossed my head, catching the light. The sunlight! Sweet, glorious sunlight, coating my entire body, kissing my delicate skin. I had missed it. It was a good thing, I knew, that I had already escaped the human-created death, because there was no way I could starve myself again after this replenishment. I sighed contentedly as I landed in the trash can, still lit up by the sun’s rays.
“Goodbye,” called the bonzai tree.
“Faaaarewellll,” whispered the spider plant.
“Yum!” sang the trash can.
“OOOMPH” the gourd and I grunted together, as she landed directly onto me, splatting the pair of us out of existence.