Trigger Warning: body horror, mention of cutting skin
It wasn’t noticeable. Not at first, anyway, compared to the climate devastation around us.
It grew out of her shoulder, you see. When I first noticed it, it just looked like bumps beneath her black and grey tattoo. “Oh, I think I have some rash,” she had said. “Some weird infection of some kind. I’m sure some cream will knock it right out.”
Instead, the bumps turned to raised lines turned to a stem growing out of her turned to the petals protruding through her skin. It was no longer drawn, no longer art, but a living sunflower, its petals the color of her pale skin and gradient grey, set against the backdrop of wildfire smoke.
Soon, she realized she wasn’t alone. Others with flower and plant tattoos experienced the same. Thorns and roses grew to reality, the thorns piercing through skin a lot easier than a simple sunflower stem. My friend suffered more, I think, from the dull scratching stem yearning for oxygen rather than immediate thorned pain of the rose tattoos.
First, it was the plants, but slowly those with animals inked on their bodies saw actual birds attempting to break free of the arm’s skin, or the lion roaring its way to life. Bodies contorted, weight fluctuated, and soon those who could no longer move were overtaken by their life-sized tattoos that grew bigger and bigger. As humans bent to the will of nature, the wildfire smoke vanished bit by bit. Then, the factories were abandoned. Finally, the plants and animals tore the pipelines up. The process to return to green and blue and nature’s other colors was underway.
For those of us without tattoos, though, all we could do was watch.
I had never wanted tattoos. I couldn’t understand the permanency behind it, the commitment. After all, what would happen if I hated what I inked onto my skin? What if my idea wasn’t good enough or meant I would be laughed at? I was never one for conviction.
I watched my friend’s sunflower grow so tall that her arm collapsed under the weight and she could no longer move. Her fingers twitched, then one hand reached for the ground while the other stretched toward me. With shimmering eyes, she said, “You can join us.”
It was both her voice and not. Then, my stomach swooped, and I shook my head wildly. “Wh-what the hell?!”
“I’m joining Them,” she said. “I am Them. It’s time you did the same.” As she said so, her tattooed arm sunk itself deeper into the soil. I imagined her fingers moving through the dirt before settling, still and calm, roots firm in their place. “Won’t you?”
Looking back, I should have joined. I should have taken her offer as good will, not as something sinister. Instead, I revolted and smacked her hand away. “What the hellis wrong with people like you?!” And I ran as her sunflower reared its head toward the sun, as she closed her eyes and succumbed to whoever “Them” were.
Now I may never know. I sit here, on a planet bursting with new life and plants, where tattooed bodies were the first to rejoin the Earth, where those humans left have made their new communities in conjunction with the tattooed plants and animals, where I am alone, legs curled, arms encircling, rocking back and forth. I refused my friend, I refused others, and now I am alone.
“Them” don’t want me, not anymore. I’ve made my case, and I made the wrong one. My self-deprecating talk won’t get me anywhere either. Even trying to carve a nature tattoo into my skin did nothing: there is something else that everyone else did that I didn’t. They committed to a new world, even when the change felt frightening, even if it meant sacrifice. I never found the courage to do so. Even when they waited for me, I abandoned Them.
Today, as I gasp for breath, tongue heavy and eyes drooping, I think about her. My friend the sunflower. I drag myself over to the last place I remember her. My eyes widen slightly at the sight of her: she has no body anymore, but her skeleton is bent to the will of the flower itself. Her skull submerged, her ribs pricking into the ground, her knees digging into the dirt. I collapse and force my head up, using all my energy, to see the miles-high sunflower above me. Has it just sapped her energy, and will it sap mine? Does it feed on humanity?
The sunflower turns its head downward. Though it has no eyes, its gaze prickles my skin. “Are you… her?” I whisper.
It says nothing. The wind blows in, softly, and the sunflower sways in spite of its grounded stance. It waits.
I bite my lip. “I messed up. I should have listened the first time. But I’m here now. I know you may not forgive me, but… but I want to know.”
The silence grows like a vine between us. Its chokehold knocks the air out of me, even as I will my body to breathe. I am done for, finished—
As I fall to the ground, I go fingers first. With my remaining strength, I heave a breath and force my arm into the dampened earth. I wince, but when my gaze travels up to the sunflower’s face, it is hidden by the sun. Only its silhouette remains, encouraging me on.
I chuckle. “I deserved that.”
When I turn my head into the earth, closing my eyes, I sigh. The tension leaves my body as my arm submerges itself fully. I reach—can I still reach her—
Our roots grasp together. We unite, and though I can’t see her, the ground trembles so slightly. She has my strength. The light of the sun nourishes her and in turn myself, through our clasped hands. I squeeze a little tighter. I’m here, I swear—this time I mean it.
Writer’s Note: Thank you for reading! This story was inspired by a prompt I saw for a submissions call I ended up never submitting for, as well as my own flower tattoo haha. If you enjoyed it, give it a like please!