That’s the thing about the country, it’s not the city. Eve didn’t care how obvious that was because, in that moment, she meant it. She couldn’t sleep at night. It was too quiet. No dogs barking or ambulances roaring with murder in the middle of the night. She asked her grandmother for a white noise machine, and her grandmother asked if that was like when the sun stays out all night in Alaska. Eve didn’t have the energy to argue with her. Eve didn’t have the energy for much these days.
There were three things Eve hated about her grandmother’s house in Incorrectly Pronounced French Name, Ohio. First, was that she had called it a farm since the 1970s when she moved in with Eve’s father and his father before Grandma realized Fred liked other women and their husbands’ liquor cabinets a little more than he liked her or their infant son. It was really just a little Podunk house with the doors falling off. You couldn’t afford to have a flimsy screen door in a tornado county, but if you lived in a tornado county, you couldn’t afford anything better.
Second, Eve hated her room. She hated it, mostly, because it was not hers. It was her Aunt Julie’s when she was a little girl. The walls were papered in clowns, yellowing art projects, and pictures of Julie with people that Eve didn’t recognize because Julie was especially gifted at dismissing all of her friends, or so Grandma halfway complained. The mattress was harder than a rock, and Eve asked her grandmother to replace it shortly after she was forced to move in. Grandma didn’t budge. Julie liked that mattress.
“But Julie isn’t sleeping in it,” Eve said. “I am.
“Julie liked that mattress,” Grandma said, and that was the end of it.
The worst thing about the house was that it always smelled like death. Not decay, exactly, but the distinct smell of mourning. Grandma kept the plants from Julie’s funeral in the living room. Julie’s funeral was seven years prior, and the plants were on their last legs, but Grandma didn’t care.
“They’d be in better shape if you took better care of them,” Eve’s father told Grandma the last time he was at the farm. “You’re overwatering them. It’s killing them.”
“I think they look fine,” Grandma said, and that was the end of it.
It was like Julie was still there, she said as she watered the plants every morning. Eve stared at the plants once. They seemed to reach out to her, asking her to pull the plug. If Eve knew how, she would.
“Are you feeling alright today, sweetie?” Grandma asked. “You didn’t eat breakfast again.”
“Sorry,” Eve said, lying on the couch, trying to find a comfortable position to read Anna Karenina in before realizing it was a lost cause.
“Does it not taste good to you?” Grandma pressed.
Yes, Eve thought, but she knew she’d never say it out loud. If there was one thing her upstanding Protestant grandmother couldn’t stand, it was honesty.
“No, it’s not that,” she lied. “I just felt sick this morning, that’s all.”
“Oh. Can’t imagine why.”
“Really? You can’t imagine why I’d be sick when I wake up?”
Grandma shrugged and made her way toward the kitchen. When she came back out, she held a plastic watering can that was mostly green but featured a prominent streak of red paint right down the middle. Eve painted it when she was seven. When her father asked why she’d done it, she said, “It looked boring before.” The lengths Eve would go to for a little excitement.
“These plants are so beautiful,” Grandma said as she dumped too much water into the dark soil. “I think Julie would have liked them. Don’t you, Eve?”
“Mmm-hmm,” Eve murmured.
“I miss her every day,” Grandma emptied the rest of the watering can into the second of four plants. “You remember how much fun she used to be.”
Eve did remember how much fun Julie used to be. She was the one good thing about weekends at the farm. While everyone else watched B-grade movies starring A-list celebrities, Eve and Julie sat up in Julie’s room, reading old books, acting them out, talking about them as if they were made of real people. Eve hadn’t hated Julie’s room then.
She did wonder, however, why a woman in her late twenties still had pictures of butterflies on her walls and a musty old comforter with circus clowns stitched around it. The last time Eve ever saw Julie, she asked her how she managed to get men up into a room that looked like Barnum and Bailey’s wet dream.
“Oh, I don’t,” Julie said.
“You don’t?” Eve asked.
“Of course not. Your grandma couldn’t take it if I brought a boy in my room. I’m the youngest. It would break her heart.”
Eve remembered feeling unsettled by that, but she also remembered not knowing why.
As she sat on the hard, orange couch that morning, she was angry with Julie. Eve had been angry with Julie since her parents pulled her out of school for falling in love. At least, it sounded better if Eve said it like that. If she had really been in love (and loved in return), she figured she probably wouldn’t have to live here on a circus bed.
If anyone would know what it was like to be here – right here, feeling just the way Eve did – it would have been Julie. Before she died, she also left school for what she thought was love. Of course, Julie mistook ravishment for romance, which only made Eve angrier. She wouldn’t have known any of it if Grandma hadn’t read her diary after the funeral. Broke the lock and all. Eve begged her not to read it, but Grandma never listened to anyone. She walked over to the plants and watered them again.
“Oh, oops!” Grandma looked down at the watering can and laughed. “Looks like I need more for the other two.”
“No, no, Grandma,” Eve said. “I think you’ve done enough.”
“But I only watered two plants.”
“No, I have to. Hold on, Eve.”
Grandma scuttled into the kitchen and turned the faucet up as high as it would go. Eve found herself going back seven years, back to when she was fourteen and Butler would have been… well; Butler still would have been too old for her. But she didn’t want to think about Butler. If it weren’t for him, she wouldn’t be at the farm.
She remembered where she was the night Julie died. She and Charlotte were sitting in the basement, wishing they could be superheroes when Eve heard a man’s shout.
There were footsteps on the stairs. Just a moment later, Eve saw her mother with tiny tears in her eyes.
“Eve,” she said, her voice smooth and even. “That was Grandma Jean. Aunt Julie died.”
Eve wasn’t surprised. The last time they’d spoken, Julie told Eve about this man who made her feel things she’d never thought possible, and how he was never going to leave that woman at home so he could be with her forever, and she’d rather be dead than live without him. When she heard Julie say all of that, Eve felt very sick inside. Eve was only fourteen, but Julie was in the horrid habit of treating her like a peer. Maybe that was why Eve was sleeping on the same mattress in the same place as Julie.
It was obvious what Julie had done, and for a long time (especially that morning in the living room) Eve hated her for it. How dare she take herself out of a world that needed her in it?
Eve almost didn’t go the funeral. She didn’t want to celebrate the end of a life that should have kept on. The only reason she went was because her father asked her to, and she couldn’t bear to disappoint him. She was just fourteen, after all.
Because she was just fourteen, Eve told her father about the things Julie used to tell her… about the reason Julie decided to die. For a moment, he didn’t say anything. Then his eyes flickered to the picture of him with Julie on his wedding day, and he snarled, “You couldn’t have gotten a friend your own age.”
Eve wasn’t sure if that was directed at her or at Julie, but she figured it applied either way.
At the farm, Grandma held Sunday school lessons. One afternoon, Eve forgot, and she found herself in the middle of a lesson on the Ten Commandments. Eve grabbed her Oreo cookies and potato chips and tried to hurry back to the circus room, but Grandma pulled her into the circus instead.
“This is my granddaughter, Eve,” Grandma said. Judging by the looks on all the women’s faces, Eve figured her name wasn’t one that church-going ladies particularly liked.
“What do you say, girls?” Grandma asked. “Should we quiz my Eve on the Ten Commandments?”
The women got a kick out of that, hooting and hollering for Eve to recite the Ten Commandments like it was the first-grade talent show. In many ways, Eve wasn’t sure she’d ever left that stage. She felt as though she was still wiping her seven-year-old hands on her pink frock, reciting Christina Rossetti as if that took talent.
Eve broke down and recited nine Commandments for her less-than-adoring fans, pretending to have forgotten the Sixth. She watched Grandma from out of the corner of her eye. She was green, and Eve wasn’t as satisfied with making Grandma sick as she thought she would be.
Grandma came back into the living room, the watering can filled to the brim. All of a sudden, she jumped backward and let out a helpless squeak. Eve touched her own hair and knew why.
“Shoot, Eve!” Grandma screeched. “I could have sworn you were our Julie!”
Eve sighed. Everyone always said she looked just like Julie with her hair all piled up on her head.
“I can take my hair down,” Eve reached for her hair again.
“No, you don’t have to,” Grandma said, and that was the end of it.
As she continued to water the plants, Grandma didn’t take her eyes off Eve. It didn’t seem like she could, not even if she wanted to.
If Julie were still here, she and Eve would be up in the circus room. They’d be reading. They’d be writing and swapping ideas like some people swap sweaters. Eve would lie back on the mattress and ask Julie what to do about the third person in the room.
Before the reason she died came, Julie would have said something like, “Do what you need to do, babe. I’ll go with you if that’s what you need to do.”
After the reason she died came, Julie would have said something like, “Well, what does he think you should do?”
Eve knew what Butler thought she should do. He said she could do anything she wanted – anything she wanted, and he would be fine with it. For a moment, Eve thought that meant he must really love her. Now, Eve just thought it made him halfway decent.
She had six days left to commit what Grandma called a woman’s “dirty, dirty sin.” Eve had been considering it for nine weeks, and she wasn’t sure she would go through with it after all. This thing might be a replacement for what greatness the world lost seven years before.
“You should be glad you look like our Julie,” Grandma dumped all the water into the third plant without noticing. There was almost a flood on the shag carpet. “She’s so beautiful.”
Eve wanted to ask if Julie looked like her father, but she had put Grandma through enough already.
“She was,” Eve said, disliking her use of the past tense to describe someone she loved enough to hate.
“So beautiful,” Grandma said and stared at the plants. “The boys wanted to court our Julie, you know.”
“So, why didn’t they?”
Grandma became very quiet, and Eve wondered if maybe she didn’t know the answer. She walked over to Eve, took her soft, white cheeks in her wrinkly, cracked hands and squeezed them, turning her face over as if she were the Hope Diamond.
“You’re beautiful, too, you know?” Grandma said like that was an important thing for a woman to be.
Grandma looked back down at the watering can and noticed it was empty again.
“Oops!” she giggled with canned innocence. “Guess I’m out of water again. Boy, Eve, once I get talking to you, I lose my old lady mind.”
And then Eve did something she hadn’t done since she was seven. She smiled at Grandma like she meant it, and she did. The moment felt so warm that Eve forgot about the plants.
In the last year of her life, Julie finally checked herself out of the farm. Grandma begged for her to stay because she wasn’t ready to go it on her own, but Julie wouldn’t listen. That was the natural order of things, she argued as she threw her last bag into the U-Haul. She moved East and rented a room in the home of a woman and her anthropologist husband, who would become the reason she died. Julie could have chosen death at the hands of something more public, but she went back to the farm.
She knew her mother kept a gun in a hollowed-out copy of the Holy Bible on the top shelf. Grandma said she had it there so she could shoot the gophers when they came around the farm. She kept it on a high shelf in the living room, thinking her son wasn’t interested enough in books to find it. Of course, she forgot to remember that Julie was taller than her brother and loved books.
At Julie’s visitation, Eve heard Grandma say something that made her palms sweat and her stomach go sick.
“I don’t like to think about her with that man,” Grandma said. “I just like to picture her as my little Julie.”
Eve was surprised she didn’t vomit. It would have added some color, and Julie had loved color. Was Grandma so stupid that she didn’t know Julie didn’t willingly give of herself to this man? Was she so stupid to assume that whatever happened in that bed was fun for Julie? Eve was fourteen then and knew better than a grown woman. It seemed wrong, but then again, Grandma bought her eyeglasses at the supermarket.
Years later, Eve heard Grandma say the same thing about her. It felt a little different, wanting to be with Butler and all, feeling like maybe she could have loved him, but it pinched her. Her father dropped her off at the farm and explained why Eve would spend the next few mornings with her head in the toilet. Her skin went numb when she heard what Grandma said next.
“I don’t like to think about her with that man. I just like to picture her as my little Eve.”
This time, Eve was not filled with sickness but with rage. Why couldn’t Grandma just say what had happened to her? Why couldn’t Grandma just say that Eve had sex with a married man?
And why couldn’t Grandma just admit what happened to Julie? She didn’t bruise her own body. The medical examiner told them that, and though Eve wasn’t there to see it, she heard her father had cried. Julie’s diary even gave the name of the man who bruised her. Grandma insisted on reading the whole diary after Julie was gone. She believed all the good words and ignored all of the bad ones. That was how she lived.
For the third time that morning, Grandma returned to the living room with the watering can. Eve stared at it, but she wasn’t sure for how long. She stared at it until finally, a clichéd something snapped.
Eve leaped from the couch, feeling more energetic than she’d felt in eleven weeks and one day. She put her hands around the watering can and began to tug.
“Eve, you let go now!” Grandma yelled.
“I’m not letting go!” Eve said with labored breath.
“I have to water the plants!”
“No… you… don’t!”
With one final tug, Eve felt the watering can in her shaky hands. Grandma stumbled backward but caught her balance. Later, she would thank Pilates with her friend Polly for helping her stand up straight again. Suddenly, Eve was cold. She opened her green eyes and looked down to find that she was covered in water.
She took a deep breath, slowly turned around, and she looked at the plants.
They were beautiful. Grandma was right about that. They were beautiful, but it was the kind of beautiful Eve saw in her Nana before she decided she was ready to go. The plants looked the same. Tired. Happy to have lived while they could, but tired. Their leaves gazed up at Eve, still asking her to put them into eternal life.
The phone rang, and while Grandma chased after it like some psychological experiment, Eve decided she should do something about the plants.
As Grandma emptily chattered with someone from the church, Eve snuck into the kitchen and pulled out a knife. She remembered this one. It was the one Julie had used when they reenacted a rumble from some book or another. Eve’s heart went sick again. She took a deep breath and remembered she was doing this for her.
It was easy for Eve to slip out the front door. Grandma never locked it.
She stood on the yellowing front lawn, wind stinging her bare arms. She lifted the heavy potted plant over her head before throwing it on the concrete driveway before her. The pot shattered into clay-colored pieces, and Eve couldn’t believe they’d chosen such an ugly color to remember such a beautiful woman.
She knelt before the fragments and stabbed. She maimed the leaves. She severed the roots. She could almost hear them thanking her as one by one, she killed them. One by one, she let go of Julie for a woman who never really understood why she had left.
Butler would have told her to write this down. Nobody would ever believe it, and what a great piece of art it would make. Maybe once she hit Day Ninety, she would call him and ask him to see her. Maybe he would come. He’d done it before.
She wondered how long it would take for Grandma to notice that the plants weren’t only gone, but also dead.
Eve wiped the sweat from her face, leaving dirt on her apple cheeks. She looked down at the dead plant and laughed out loud. It was funny. A funny thing always happens at the farm.