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  • Writer's pictureDeborah L Brewer


Updated: Mar 19, 2023

Familial duty is complicated—ask Jill.

Monstera Cutting DLB 2023


by Deborah L. Brewer

Jill peered through the glass window in the door of the mid-century La Playa home that her sister, Penny, shared with Victor. All she could see were boxes of clothing and men’s shoes piled on the other side. Jill held the door buzzer down for the third time. She’d driven three hours in afternoon traffic, non-stop from Pasadena to San Diego, and she needed to pee.

Penny opened the door wearing a denim apron with “Plant Mom” embroidered on it, one of a pair of aprons Jill had sent the couple over the holidays. Penny’s hair sported chunky blonde highlights. It wasn’t her sister’s best look, but Jill was pleased she could tell her parents that Penny was alive.

Penny looked down on her younger sister with disdain. “Why are you here?”

“Hey,” said Jill, starting towards the door.

Penny stepped out on the stoop and blocked Jill’s path. She pulled the door half closed behind her. “I’d invite you in, but it’s not a good time.”

Jill squeezed her thighs together. “I’ve been worried about you. Mom and Dad have been worried, too. You don’t text people that your wedding is off and then not return their texts or calls.”

“Sorry, I’ve been a little distracted. I’ve been caught up in a new hobby—a terrarium.”

“It’s been two weeks.”

Penny’s eyes roved up and down the street while Jill looked longingly through the open door. There was a spattering of brown spots on the foyer wall above the boxes of clothes. From under a pair of sneakers peeked what appeared to be Victor’s “Plant Dad” apron, cut into pieces.

Jill felt a chill run through her. Maybe there was something to worry about.

Penny nodded towards the discards. “I’m lugging this stuff out to the curb in the morning.”

“It’s Victor’s?”


Jill noted the tension around her sister’s mouth and eyes. “Mom and Dad asked me to check on you, just to make sure you’re okay and don’t do anything… regrettable. You know, like when you slashed the seats in that kid’s car in high school.”

Penny huffed. “It’s not like he didn’t deserve it.”

Jill’s eyebrows rose in protest.

Penny crossed her arms over her chest. “So, you’ve come to spy on me for the parents—just like in the good old days?”

Jill shrugged. “You know I’m not going to lie.”

Penny chuckled. “You always were self-righteous. People like little white lies, you know. It makes them feel like they’re somebody good. You should learn to prevaricate. It could save your life one day.”

“Look,” said Jill, hopping with urgency, “now that I know you’re okay, I won’t stay, but do you mind if I just pop in for a minute? I need to use the loo.”

Penny sighed and rolled her eyes. She pulled Jill inside and scooted her down the hall. “It’s straight ahead. You can’t miss it.”

When Jill exited the powder room, she glanced into the open door of Victor’s dimly lit office. On his desk was a sleek laptop computer and a houseplant-themed mug full of coffee. It looked like Victor was still in residence. Jill brightened. Maybe the love birds had spent the last two weeks making up.

She followed the light at the end of the hall to find Penny in her open-concept great room with its half-vaulted ceiling, stacked windows, and skylights. The room was stuffed with houseplants large and small—airy ferns, lush tropicals, the expected Ficus, and a towering Fiddle-Leaf Fig. The few furnishings included a boxy green sofa and a pegboard-backed potting bench. A walnut dining table with angled legs was half covered in sculptural succulents and stacks of books on composting and plant care. A wall of windows looked out onto Shelter Island and its docks filled with sleek white yachts and stout fishing boats. Jill found the room ethereal and completely unexpected.

“Wow.” Her mouth hung open while she took it all in.

Penny surveyed her handiwork with a look of satisfaction. “I know, right?”

Jill spied a huge pot bursting with erect sword-like leaves, each vying with the others for coveted space. “This looks healthy.” She motioned toward the plant.

“It’s Sansevieria,” said Penny caressing a sharp leaf tip with her finger, “but you might know it as Mother-in-law’s Tongue or Snake Plant. It’s nothing special. We only kept it because it was a gift from Vic’s late mother.” Her voice was cutting. “Even a know-nothing like you could grow it.”

“Seriously, Penny? I didn’t come here to trade insults,” said Jill. “Mom and Dad are terrified you’re going to die old and alone. What happened between you and Victor? Have you made up? You’re both so crazy about houseplants; we all thought he was the one.”

“We parted ways like people do. You don’t need to make such a big deal of it. He went crazy one afternoon, scooped his precious Monstera Variegata into his arms, and was gone. It’s not like I’d be happy with a man who loved a plant more than me. I’m glad I found out before the big day.”

“Still, it sucks. It’s been nice having Victor look after you these past few years.”

“I can look after myself.”

Jill’s gaze followed Penny’s to the potting bench. The pegboard at the back of it was outfitted with a dozen tools fit for the most exacting houseplant hobbyist and sported several vicious-looking pairs of garden shears. “Do you need all those shears for indoor plants?”

“Oh, they’re very handy.” Penny’s expression was pained as if she were remembering. She removed a medium-sized pair of shears from one peg and hung it with the largest pair, obscuring the latter from view. “You’ve got to keep them clean, though,” she said, “when the blades get all gummed up, they’re useless.”

On the potting bench was a plant bearing broad leaves striped in cream, with holes like Swiss cheese. Jill didn’t know much about plants, but she’d seen influencers boasting about the pricey Monstera Variegata on social media. “Isn’t this the plant you said left with Victor?”

Penny gave Jill a shifty look. “He didn’t need to take it from me. It was over watered, and its leaves were turning brown, but it’s doing fine now.”

Penny stroked a leaf of the plant gently, between finger and thumb. “Vic called me his little Monstera, you know. I even had my hair highlighted for him, so I could be the posh Variegata and not the cheap, plain green variety nearly everyone has these days. He was such a jerk to go and ruin everything.” Penny sniffed and blinked back tears.

“I’m really sorry,” said Jill. She forced herself to reach out and gave her sister’s hand a gentle squeeze.

“Yeah, well, since you’re here…” Penny wiped the back of her hand on her jeans. “Come see what I’ve been working on. It will be a nice detail in your tattle-tale report.”

Penny led the way across the room to a fern-filled pine and plexiglass terrarium some six feet high and wide. The planter base was paneled in wood, while the rest was built as a greenhouse with numerous plexiglass doors and a gabled, plexiglass roof. The terrarium leaned a bit to the left. A section of its roof was held together with a piece of duct tape.

“Amazing, right?” Penny beamed with pride. “It’s a bioactive terrarium with springtail insects and special bacteria. I put in a dozen types of ferns, a pygmy date palm, and lots and lots of moss.

“What are the bugs for?” Jill peered inside and tried to get a glimpse of one.

“They’re nature’s little composters.”

With no bugs in sight, Jill’s critical eye was drawn back to the duct tape. “What happened with the roof?”

Penny’s eyes grew hard. “Don’t be like Victor, Jill. I can’t be perfect all the time.”

“No, no, I’m sorry,” said Jill taking a step back. “This is an incredible project to complete in just two weeks. It looks like you really got into it.”

“Yeah,” said Penny, “I had to take time off from work. And I don’t even want to look at my credit card bill. We all heal in different ways, you know.”

“It seems the plants have been a comfort. I hope you’re going to be okay.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be fine. I just have to accept that I’m better with plants than people.”

“So, this is Victor’s house, right?” said Jill glancing around. “You told me he blew his entire inheritance on it because it was built by a famous architect. Is he letting you stay here until you find someplace else? Why are you getting rid of his stuff?”

“So many questions, Jill.” Penny’s hand slashed the air. “I’m not moving back in with the parents if that’s what you’re getting at. I couldn’t live anywhere else but here.”

The buzzing of her cell phone caught Penny’s attention. “Ugh, it’s Vic’s boss again. I’ve been ignoring him, but I suppose if I don’t want him on my doorstep like you, I’d better take the call.” She looked at the terrarium and then at Jill. “Don’t touch anything, okay? I’ll be back in a minute.” She answered her phone as she walked toward the kitchen. “Hello?”

Jill peered into the terrarium, wondering about the bugs. From under a fern poked a strange little mushroom, like a hairy, moldering toe. An unwelcome image flashed through her mind— Victor under the soil. Her heart raced. Her limbs shook. She bent low to the glass to get a better look at the mushroom. It had a toenail.

Penny’s voice carried into the great room. “I told you already. He’s done with me; I’m done with him. And you might expect he’s done with you.”

Jill wanted to run, but she had to know more. She pulled open a terrarium door and fell back, gagging from a putrid stench. Grimacing and squealing, she pushed the soil aside to find a second toe and three more. All five were attached to a hairy, masculine foot.

A clatter from the kitchen signaled that Penny had finished her call. She hollered, “I’ll be right out.”

Jill looked up in horror. Frantic, she shoved the soil back into place, desperate to conceal her discovery.

She was still fumbling with the terrarium door when her sister appeared. She wiped her dirty hands on her jeans and tried her best to look casual as if rummaging through other people’s houseplants was something she did every day.

“Jill, what are you doing?” Penny set the water bottle on the potting bench and picked up a pair of shears. “How is it I leave the room for three minutes, and you’re in here making a mess?”

Jill decided now might be a good time to start lying. “The bugs,” she sputtered. “I just wanted to see the little bugs you told me about—the springboks or whatever.”

“It’s springtail, Jill. And while it’s nice to see you squirm, I don’t believe you—at all.”

Jill’s eyes fixed on the shears in her sister’s hand. A man had been murdered, and if Jill couldn’t talk her way out of it, she could be next.

“What do the springtails look like,” she asked, “grasshoppers?”

“No, they’re tiny like fleas but squishier,” said Penny. “There are probably a couple of them wriggling up your sleeves right now.”

Jill’s skin began to crawl. She slapped her arms in anguish and whimpered in distress.

Penny laughed wholeheartedly. “Oh, Jill, you’re so funny. You don’t have to worry. They only eat dead stuff. Like I told you before, they’re composting bugs.”

“That was cruel, Penny. You know I hate bugs.”

“So, if not springtails, what did you find?” Penny’s sharp tone made it clear Jill’s answer had better be good.

“Nothing. Nothing but dirt. Lots and lots of fluffy dirt.” Jill thought if she said it enough times, even she might believe it.

Penny loomed large—shears in hand, her eyebrows raised in skepticism. “Right…” Penny leaned down and held the tips of the steel blades close to her sister’s face. “You’re so freaked out, Jill. Are you worried I’m going to stab you?” She snipped the air with the shears.

Jill gasped. More lies, as Penny had suggested, seemed the most promising method of defense.

Jill held up her still dirty hands and stood. “Okay, you caught me.” Perhaps the lies would come more easily if she mingled them with the truth. “I was trying to trash the terrarium because I was jealous. What you have here is so incredible—not just the terrarium, but this whole garden room, your plant-goddess life.”

Penny’s face softened, and her anger seemed to cool a little.

“And the tattling,” said Jill, “I always did it because I was envious. You’ve always had so much fun doing interesting things I’d never have been brave enough to do. I’m sorry I got you into trouble with Mom and Dad. I know they weren’t very understanding.”

“Thank you for that,” said Penny, giving Jill a long look. “I like your pretty lies. It means a lot to me to know there’s a little monster inside you, too. I’ve always hated you for being such a goody-two-shoes and a snitch. I’m glad to see you’ve matured a little.” She returned to the potting bench. “Let me get you that cutting from the Monstera.”

Penny gently snipped a sturdy leaf and stem from the plant and dropped it into the bottle of water. “I’ve added a bit of rooting hormone. When the cutting’s roots half fill the bottle, you should transfer it to a pot of soil. You can think of me when you’re looking after it.”

Jill’s hands shook as she accepted the gift. “I’d like that,” she lied. Even if she did escape her sister alive, a daily reminder of Penny didn’t seem like a plus.

Jill opened the camera on her phone. Her story would be so outlandish that she’d need a photo to lend it credibility. “Before I go, let’s get a picture in front of the terrarium for the parents.” They leaned in together with big toothy grins that amplified their family resemblance.

As Penny showed her out, Jill noticed brown stains in the grout lines of the tiled entryway floor. Jill looked away but couldn’t block out an image of Victor’s demise. In her vision, Victor told Penny to leave, but Penny refused to go.

Penny held the front door open, and Jill, her heart still racing, slipped outside.

Penny grimaced. “I know you know, Jill. And that you’re going to tell.”

Jill thought they likely had gardens in prisons, but she bit her lips rather than speak.

Penny’s eyes scanned the street. “I’ll be here when the police come looking for me. You’ll give me a little time, won’t you?”

Jill nodded as the roar of an ascending jetliner from the nearby airport filled the awkward silence, and Penny shut the door.

Jill drove down the hill to Kellogg Beach as the sun dipped below the horizon. She parked in the empty lot and followed sandy footprints past succulent-covered dunes to the water’s edge. She kicked off her shoes and, mingling with sandpipers and crying gulls, scrubbed her defiled hands in the bay.

Her phone buzzed with a text from her mother, “Well?” Jill didn’t know what to say. She zoomed in on the photo she’d taken with her phone and saw the toe.

Returning to her car, Jill spied a police cruiser making a slow loop around the parking lot. She sent the photo to her mother and hailed the officers. Poor Monstera-loving Victor, she thought—may he rest in peace.

The End


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