Chel Hylott and Chelsea Lim have a new lesbian sci fi/fantasy book out: “Undergrowth.”
Seventeen-year-old Mariam has been mixed up with the supernatural since she was a kid. Between a half-rotting Beast showing up in her dad’s study when she was six years old and the fact that she can’t die, it doesn’t come as too much of a shock when drought-ridden Los Angeles turns into a sentient, carnivorous rainforest overnight.
The tedium of wandering through a ruined city filled with dead bodies and crumbling buildings is broken when she stumbles upon beautiful Camila and her ragtag crew of survivors. Mariam isn’t exactly altruist of the year, but her soft spot for kids means she can’t just leave them to fend for their own. She rescues them and decides to throw her lot in with theirs.
Despite herself, she quickly becomes a part of their family. However, even as they all start feeling at home in their new vegetal world, sinister figures from Mariam’s past begin to reappear, and the whole hell-jungle situation begins to feel a lot more personal. As she learns more about her family’s involvement with the unnatural forces that caused all of this destruction, Mariam is faced with a terrifying truth: she might have to betray someone to save the city and her new friends.
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The door gives way with a wet squish, and Mariam wrinkles her nose against the smell. Damp wood, ripe fruit, the sharp tang of tree sap, and, yup, there it is: there’s something dead in here. Probably whoever thought holing up in a hardware store would save them. At least, she thinks it’s a hardware store. The sign out front is mossed over in green, and the display window has been overrun with vines. Still, it seems like the right kind of place.
Mariam doesn’t really want to go inside. She’s seen plenty of death, and the smell is rank enough, it’s almost certain that there’s more than one body in there. But she’s here for a reason, and who knows when she’ll next get another opportunity this good? She needs tools, and there are tools here.
Shoving a shoulder against the door gets it open wide enough to slip through. Inside, it takes a minute for her eyes to adjust, but eventually, rows and rows of shelving swim up out of the darkness. Everything is slick with damp.
Under the death, there is the smell that is particular to home improvement and hardware stores, something like sawdust and varnish. That and the nails scattered all over the floor indicate she’s found the right place. She bends to pick up one of the nails, considers it, grabs a box off the shelf, and stuffs it into her backpack. Who knows? Maybe she’ll need them at some point.
Down the first aisle, then. Screws, nuts, hex bolts…halfway down she trips and catches herself, but not before something moist brushes her ankle. She looks down and sees a leg, then another. Bile rises to her throat; she chokes, the stench suddenly overwhelming, before she steadies herself, hand on a shelf. Memories of her mother rise before her, short blonde hair streaked with red and gray slime, sprawled over the floor, her pale white hand blackened with gunpowder. Then Mariam blinks, and she’s back in the dark, the stink of blood replaced with that of rot, and nothing to be heard but the thudthudthud of her heart.
A family, maybe. Those shoes are too small for an adult. She leaves them where they lie.
She tries to distract herself and rakes her eyes over the shelves in a direction away from the bodies, and a large red toolbox catches her attention. She walks over and tries to open it. It’s stuck fast. She tries not to think about the bodies, thinks instead of her father, and braces herself, then pounds the toolbox with her fist. Her flesh breaks and she hisses, but as soon as the pain hits, it shifts a register, run through with a tingle of the supernatural. Skin knits back together before her eyes, and she bites back the scream that’s welling up inside of her throat. Goddamnit. If she could turn it off, she would, though that might not be advisable in her current situation. It’s useful, she can’t deny it, but the pain feels like more trouble than it’s worth.
At least the toolbox is open now, and the pain’s cleared her head. She takes a shaky breath as the scar fades away into clear skin and peers inside the toolbox.
Inside she finds pliers, a pair of shears, a utility knife, two screwdrivers, and a chisel. She puts them into her backpack and moves on to the next aisle, where a shelf of flashlights piques her interest. Promising. But when she finds the batteries to go along with them, they’re all wet and leaking acid. So much for that.
Three aisles later and she’s picked up a coil of nylon rope and a dust mask, but what she really wants is at the back of the store. A rack of sledgehammers, picks, and axes has fallen over in the corner, already half overgrown with slippery vegetation. Mariam lifts one after another, testing them for weight and grip and something else she can’t pinpoint.
The last one is wedged under the rack itself, but she yanks it out and blinks at it in the dark. This one. This one will do. It’s small, just a little hatchet with a wooden handle and a blade painted red, but it feels heavy and solid in her hand.
She gives it a couple of practice swings and smiles to herself as it snicks through the air. It’ll cut through the less robust vegetation, in any case, and it’s still light enough to use as a weapon if she ever needs it. And she probably will, if she’s honest, despite the twist it puts in her gut. There are animals, now, smarter and more vicious than they have any reason to be, and plants, too, that will grab at your ankles and wind themselves around your neck if you aren’t careful. And there are people. Not many, it seems, but there are some, and Mariam knows people aren’t always friendly in times like these.
The hatchet sits snug at her hip, looped through her belt.
She avoids the first aisle and its inhabitants on her way out. A careful step over the vines at the door and she’s back out into the perpetual gloom of what used to be a six-lane boulevard. It’s morning still, probably. Overhead, the arms of newly sprouted trees make a lattice of dripping green that just about blocks out the sky. Down here on the ground, time passes almost imperceptibly, everything slow and sluggish like she’s underwater with only faint, filtered light from on high to guess at the position of the sun. Maybe time stopped when the tremors ceased. Maybe a lot of things.
It’s been weeks, now. How many, she’s not exactly sure. For a while, she’d kept track of the days in a little notebook, but then a curious vine plucked her pen right out of her hand, so that was that. And what’s the point anyway? By now she’s pretty sure humans won’t be around long enough to read anything she writes for it to matter, not if what happened here happened everywhere.
It started with the blackouts, which wasn’t so bad. Just another summer storm rumbling through, making the lights flicker with its static, she’d thought. But soon there were rolling waves of vibration that pulsed through the walls, through the floors and ceilings, and set her bones to shuddering. The lights brightened, dimmed, buzzed, and then popped. When they went out for the last time, who was to know they’d never come back on?
After that it was quiet for the space of about five seconds. All the electric humming in the whole world suddenly gone. It was the kind of stillness no one had known for a hundred years or more.
Then, a sound like a screech, like the earth itself was screaming. The sky flashed neon and the ground shook and shook and shook. Suddenly in her nose, the choking stench of smoke, sickly sweet but caustic all the same.
She doesn’t know, really, what happened next, because she was home alone at the time, and, yeah, she’d locked herself in the basement with a box of crackers and three bottles of water until it was over. A couple of times someone had banged at the door, and once they’d begged and pleaded, but she didn’t open up. She’s not ashamed. It kept her alive, which is more than can be said for most people who ventured out to help their neighbors or investigate or whatever the hell they were doing outside. She’s found their bodies all over the place. Some of them still had skin.
The bodies aren’t the main feature, though, because most of them are gone by this point, overgrown or threaded through with leaves or sunken into the peat. The world is different now.
After the last of the aftershocks faded, she’d crept up to the door and peered outside to discover that overnight, everything had turned green.
So much for the drought. So much for ripping out your lawn and replacing it with desert plants, because, oh man, this is not a desert anymore. Los Angeles is now a clot of humidity and vegetation. Huge trees, their trunks furred with moss, sunk their roots right through what used to be highways and sidewalks and stretched up to tangle their branches in the windows of skyscrapers. Every surface, it seems, is covered with flat, spongy leaves or snake-like vines that secrete a sticky sap when they get agitated.
It burns, the sap. Mariam found that out the first time she tried to fend them off and came away with her palms crisscrossed in acid burns. They healed up quick, like they always do, with painful side effects, and she’s been careful ever since.
The vines aren’t the only things to look out for, and in the short time she’s been out here on her own, she’s discovered that pretty much anything can turn out to be deadly. Not long after she’d crawled out from her house, some guy she knew from around the neighborhood called to her from across the way and started toward her, until halfway there, he shrieked and the ground just swallowed him. She didn’t go over to investigate. That’s the kind of stupidity she has no time for.
She doesn’t quite know what to do after raiding the hardware store. Without a purpose, the emptiness that’s threatened to eat away at her since she was a tiny girl hovers at her consciousness, so she does what she usually does when despair sits heavy in her gut: she goes to the ocean.
She used to spend so many nights at the beach, playing her guitar for strangers and staring at the sky. It was her place to think. Maybe it can still be.
It turns out to be a bad idea.
Finding it at all is hard enough with her sense of direction torn to shreds from all the new vegetation. The vines mostly leave her alone, but every so often, like a curious kitten, they bat at her face, hair, and clothes. It’s disconcerting and horrible and weird. The vines cease their explorations once she removes her hatchet and starts swinging wildly, anger and a case of the heebie-jeebies giving her newfound strength. At first, sap stings at her face and arms, but that will pass. Better than to have the creepy things all over her.
She gets close to the beach when her heart stops.
She can hear people, lots of them, and dogs barking too, somewhere on the other side of a thick lattice made of branches and vines. Through the chinks in the trees, she can see them moving, bright spots of color in the green.
She yells, “Hey! In here!” and jogs as fast as she can through the tangled plant life toward the voices.
“Hey!” she shouts again as she gets closer, but there’s no answering call from the other side of the vines and no change in their movements. Mariam peers through a gap in the vegetation, just a little gap as wide as her hand. She can tell it’s almost sunset, but even so, it’s blindingly bright out, the sun bouncing off the ocean, and she has to squint for a moment before things become clear. Closer to her, a group of men and dogs are milling around on the beach: military, probably, based on their uniforms. One’s talking into a radio, the rest walking back and forth along the tree line, peering in suspiciously.
“Hello? I’m in here!” she calls out again, but even to her it sounds muffled, and none of them turn.
“No, can’t get through. Chainsaw didn’t even leave a mark—the stuff just kept growing back thicker. We’re going to head out,” the man on the radio says, and his handset crackles in response.
“No way through the top, either. Wait, there’s something going on. Something’s moving down there, it’s…looks like vines. Vines are…” There’s a pause, and the static buzzes louder, then, “Oh my God, they’re coming at us! They’re pulling us down! Someone help! Someone—” The radio crackles again, this time ominously, and Mariam hears a crash somewhere far behind her. She curses under her breath.
What the hell is going on?
She tries another, “I’m in here!” as loud as she can, the desperate sound scraping at her throat, but it’s obvious they can’t hear her. They don’t even turn. Instead, they shuffle nervously in place and glance around at one another in silence before their leader puts the radio to his mouth and asks, “John? You there?”
After another moment the man issues an order and they turn away, dogs and all, heading back toward the sea.
“Wait!” Mariam cries, but they’re already climbing into their boat. Someone starts the motor.
She has to fight back tears of frustration and anger.
Mariam scrubs an agitated hand through her hair, cropped close to her head but still longer than she likes—she’d been due for a haircut already when disaster struck. Now it’s threatening to tickle her ears and stick to the back of her neck.
What’s she gonna do now? Hack her way through to the beach to try to get to the people there? She can’t. The vines are too thick and her little hatchet isn’t big enough. If the military with all their tools can’t get through, how can she even begin to—
She hears a shriek inland. Sounds like one of those scary smart monkeys. She’d better get away from here before…another ungodly scream rents the air, and wait. That doesn’t sound like a monkey.
That sounds like a little girl.
Mariam hears more shrieks, childish voices screaming in horror, adult voices shouting to run. She looks at her hatchet, and her eyes harden. Then she runs back into the overgrowth, her weapon at the ready.
Chelsea Lim is a writer, teacher, and reluctant academic. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she now lives in Los Angeles with her partner and too many books. In her spare time, she loves cooking elaborate meals, watching wushu films, and procrastinating on her dissertation.
Chel Hylott is a Brazilian-American living in Surrey, England with her wife and pug. When she isn’t writing sappy Sapphic short stories, you can find her reading Tarot or listening to Bossa Nova.
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