Rooting Humber River

Illustration by Mathew Borrett

Feet planted, fists wider than hips, the infamous Marigold Winters looms six feet tall at the gate, as though she could singlehandedly defend the compound. Not sure what I expected, maybe a dragon in a tie-dyed caftan, but she looks exactly like what she is: a rich old white lady. Wearing turquoise under long-sleeved billowy fabric, wide-legged pants, a brimmed hat for the relentless sun. Silver shoulder-length hair, topaz on earlobes and fingers, large smoky quartz at her neck. Old but classy. Very smart, and like she knows it.

On my side of the wall it’s just a regular Toronto day. Thirty-one degrees, hitting forty by noon. Buses bump through rush hour with thousands of sputtering cars, overheated faces frowning out the windows. The diesel-free self-drive lane moves faster. I’ve ditched my bike in the ravine — probably already scavenged for parts by now. Frankly, if Marigold doesn’t play ball, I’m screwed. No back-up plan, and my ego can’t take the fail.

“Creeping Jenny, what a name,” she laughs. “Lysimachia nummularia, a.k.a. moneywort. Hardy and invasive.” Eyebrow cocked, she’s sizing me up.

I’m scrubbed clean, braids brushed out, no colours, no studs or metal, scars and branding covered. “My mom’s a Healer,” I say. “Was.” I bite my lip. “She used to study with you. Said to come here if anything ever happened.” I sleeve-swipe my teary eyes. I’m banking on nostalgia and, of course, her immeasurable guilt.

“Aw, Hon,” says Marigold. “What was her name?”

“Janice. Used to go by Ginseng?”

Marigold’s mouth slackens. Boom. “The spitting image, I should’ve known. I’m so sorry.” Jiggly arms crush me to pendulous bosom. The crystal cuts into my forehead, and I can hardly breathe: patchouli and lavender and the stale scent of sweat, like she’d been working hard earlier. “Let’s get you some tea,” she murmurs. “Oat straw and chamomile and,” she holds my face between wizened fingers, looking into my eyes, “borage. Looks like you could use a dash of courage.”

Kindness. It knifes me somewhere in the gut. I sniff, lean on her rounded shoulder. The high-voltage metal gate clangs behind us, and bam, I’ve got myself a first-class ticket to the exclusive Humber River Herbal Collective. Suckers.

Truth: my name is Creeping Jenny, for stealth. Anytime we need a scout, they send me. I climb trees, parkour buildings, crawl ventilation shafts. I’m small, quiet, and camouflaged to the tits. I see and hear everything, share the minimum. Knowledge is fucking currency, Babe. That’s what Bones said back when I first ran with his junkyard gang. I figure he sent a drone, that he’s watching even now from the comfort of his tricked-out lair, probably entwined with Charlene and Ebony, so when Marigold turns, I shoot the grey sky my finger. Eat it, dickshit.

I love him, but it’s complicated.

Marigold tours me around reception, pointing out retrofits for zero-carbon emissions, grey-water laundry, and showering, smart-sensor blinds, and points through thick glass walls to the courtyard’s herb beds and greenhouse. It is paradise, no joke. Butterflies, moths, and bumblebees flit above flowering beds. Birds, too. It’s like watching the nature-doc app, but real-time. Of course I’d already scaled the walls and surveyed for myself, but some things still blow me away, and the doted-upon gardens are one.

Marigold scoops herbs, drops them into a teapot, brings a kettle to boil. Sympathy alone won’t gain me entrance: it’ll go to a vote if they let me work a trial period. At a half-mill deposit per applicant, obviously I’m a charity case. This could go a hundred ways.

Gently, she says, “Tell me about your mom. We lost touch many years ago.”

“She struggled.”

“You said she was a Healer. Was she practicing herbal magic?”

“Therapeutic touch?” I say. “Pretty much since I was born.”

Truth: my mother is totally dead, but she was not a Healer. Janice was a pole dancer downtown and got hit with the virus a few years ago, when it first swooped through the States after L.A. Probably an American tourist or businessman, someone who paid for a private booth, the works, as she used to say. She was laid out, a bad flu, covered in sores, and never got better. Police tape at the apartment escalated to plastic-sealant, and I watched from across the street as zombies lurched in Hazmat suits. I was running wild, hardly went to school. Just as well. Forced inoculation backfired, and half my class dropped dead before Christmas, teacher too. Slept rough. Partied with older guys, bankrollers, never gave it for free. Food, sometimes. I got lucky, or maybe I’m viral-resistant. Anyways, that was a long time ago, before Bones found me, back when I was, like, 12.

“My mom mentioned you a lot.” I don’t say how she cursed Marigold’s name, blaming her for everything gone wrong, saying we were meant to live at Humber River, that she’d swindled my birthright.

“She was very special.” Marigold’s voice trembles. “Things ended poorly between us. I’d always hoped to make amends.” She pours more into my cup. “Did she tell you we were lovers?”

I nearly spit tea onto the hardwood table.

“Guess not,” she says, delighted. “Young people can be so uptight.”

Seriously. Marigold is really old. My mom must have been, like, half her age. “So, uh, when did my mom leave?”

“A few months before you were born.” Marigold blushes. “We argued over you. Well, not you, but the idea of having a baby. I’d always thought it irresponsible, given how population density strains earth resources.”

“Now, not so much.” I wonder if she fist-pumped for the virus after it weeded us out. Did she still enforce member sterilization, given the whole dwindling fertility thing? If my parts work, I want to keep my options open. Definitely a money-maker.

“Well, overpopulation might be one of the reasons the virus evolved and spread so quickly.” Her eyes shift. “How exactly did your mom pass if you don’t mind?”


Her chin trembles.

I practised this lie most. It has to ring true. If Marigold thinks the virus got her, I’ll never penetrate the inner sanctum. She’s sworn to protect the Collective.

Which is definitely worth protecting: four luxury condo towers connected by tunnel and airshaft, green roofs supplying 40% of the vegetables. Landscaped courtyard with shade and fruit trees, berry bushes, edible flowers, laying hens, and a premium trade agreement with the Organic Greenbelt Farmers’ Coalition. Advanced compost, including toilets. Their own damn water well. I’ve been sending drones, analysing data for months. I know the soil quality, human-resource stats, food stocks, tools, generator situation, and, most importantly, that they have next to nil in munitions. They are wealthy, emergency-prepared, established pacifists.

Totally asking for it.

“Poor Ginseng.” Marigold is lost in thought. When she comes to, she says, “Right. I owe your mother. I’ll support your nomination to stay. You’ll share my quarters as my guest. But we have rules that must be followed, mainly for safety. No exception.”

It was that easy. I didn’t have to blackmail or threaten or raise a hand.

Marigold leaves me with auto-admin, a step above a droid, and after skin-scratch DNA swipes and a battery of blood tests analyzed by its own app, I’m led past reception for deep-clean: dental, cavity inspections, scouring under nail beds, a terrifying hose-down, and retinal scans. I sip another steaming mug of tea while it runs data. Do or die.

Truth: I had quite the record in my pre-Junkyard days, one Digger said he’d clear, like he did for us all. His caramel eyes lit up when he infiltrated the high-security system. Shoplifting, loitering, several counts of public mischief, assault charges, and arson. “Shit, Jenny,” he said, impressed. Children’s Aid notes, sealed court records, psych assessments, and the scumbag shrink’s personal warning after I bit off his ear, all deleted.

I blow on the hot tea to calm myself as the system paws through my past. I was fast and smart, Digger had a soft spot for me: no reason not to trust him. Still, it’s a relief when I get the all-clear. I put on a set of their pristine clothes, total nerdporn: button-down shirt, cargo pants, soft-soled TOMS. Whatever. I’m in. The Junkyard Trojan Horse.

The first week, I keep my head down, wash dishes, play with their ding-dong kids. Kills me how oblivious and sheltered they are. None of them dumpster-dine, fight, or sex to survive, but we all grew up in the same two-kilometre radius. The original GreenLab investors — lawyers, researchers, bankers, profs, neo-hippie dorks — designed this gated community, started building a dozen years ago. All above board with paper-pushing loopholes, a few accusations of white elitism they deflected with a diversity-outreach program. Headlined in Toronto Life, the Star, the Globe. Not under the radar by any means, and their branding is on point, social media being what it is. Who bothers anymore other than com-core and people over forty? Whatever, Humber River has serious pull with City Hall. Private security company, but no weapons cache and zero ex-marines or military in residence.

I’ve been dreaming this payday for years, filling one detail at a time.

When I explained my takeover fantasy to Bones, he smiled lazily and said in that deep voice, “Ripe for the picking, Jenny Girl.” No other gang would risk drawing attention from cops or the army reserve, which patrols nightly ever since the riots. None of them have the balls or the brains.

Nights inside are hard. So quiet, like the seconds between chucking a brick and the alarm sounding. Plus it’s weird being in Marigold’s suite, thinking about her and my mom doing it. Janice had a slew of boyfriends, mostly jerks. When I was really little there’d been Billy, who explained they were non-binary. Billy was kind and fun and I never really thought about their relationship with my mom, but I was sad when it went back to being just the two of us. My mom was a mess.

Marigold finds me pacing the moonlit balcony. Sparks up a fatty and laughs at my bug-eyed surprise. She tokes, passes it, I inhale. Smoke hangs in the fragrant air.

“Woah.” This shit blows government green out of the water.

“White Widow,” she says. “Sativa-Indica cultivar, my magnum opus.”

She talks about Janice, making her sound almost cool. Asks about my life. Stuff I can’t answer — fear of outing myself, never having known how other people live. I tell about Bones, the edited version, that I hope he misses me and wants to get back together. Hope he’ll drop those other girls cold.

“What’s he like?”

The first time I saw Bones my mouth watered. An animal thing, fear and desire, everything lit up at once.

“He’s incredible,” I gush. Like a shovel in my chest, digging out organs and ribs, and long, silver tendons. God, I’m so high! 

Marigold says, “Picture your life moving forward without him. Who might you become?”

Impossible. Without him I’d still be an orphan banging for Big Macs, scamming social workers, hexing the state.

Or dead.

Bones scooped me right out of the gutter: starving, scabby, a belly full of worms. Full-grown and ripped, inked, and gang-branded with gold in his teeth. Bones is like an old-time pirate. Ebony says Daddy issues, but I don’t even have a dad. Whenever I’m cocky or fierce, he leans back and laughs, and that’s my favourite sound, bubbling up from a deep, dark barrel. I was the only one for so long. Then he started up with Charlene, eighteen and womanly. Ebony says guys get tired of the same girl, nothing personal. She says, “Whatever you do, don’t act sad. Guys hate that.”

Sad? I’m livid. Can’t open my mouth without flames licking out, singeing anyone in reach. If he doesn’t want me, I’ll frigging destroy him.

Truth: if this stunt doesn’t win Bones back, nothing will.

A few days later, weeding herb beds, Marigold asks, “Did Janice like your boyfriend?”

“Uh.” I hadn’t thought this through.

“Look,” she says. “When you break the plant at the top, the root stays below, getting stronger, interfering with the others, and we have no way of knowing. You need to slide this down to loosen the roots, then pull up the whole thing. Try.”

I do like she says, and what do you know? It works.

“To be completely candid,” she says, “I’m not sure he sounds like a positive influence. I wouldn’t feel comfortable having him here.”

Tick, tick, boom. Is she on to me? To distract I say, “Do you hate men? Janice was totally pooning out; that’s why we had to leave!”

Marigold throws her head back and howls. “Oh, Hon. It wasn’t like that. She could have sex with whomever she wanted. I’ll admit, I got jealous with the whole male-fecundity issue. It wasn’t very evolved of me. I finally learned you can’t take hold of another person.”

We keep working. I’m definitely trying to take hold of Bones. He’d taken me. And the other girls. Bones calls the shots, and if you act up, you’re screwed. “Not cute,” he says, and starves you out for days. The girls turn on you, too.

Ideas itch just like fleas. Got to scratch, and still they spread. For instance, why should Bones get Humber River when it’s my birthright?

“Anything you want to tell me, Jenny?” Marigold’s dirt-caked fingers hold my wrist. She looks me in the eye, waiting.

Finally, lunchtime: velvet squash soup, homemade bread. At the dining table, tiny diamonds swirl like magic around Marigold: chandelier reflections. Three weeks keeping my nose clean, and every day my body loosens its grip of doom: shoulders, hips, jaw. Getting soft with this good food, this surrogate Mom. Truth: part of me, call it deluded, wants to be voted in legit, call off the takeover. Imagine a future I’m capable of, given a chance. Marigold’s kind of embarrassing but she’s nice. Her biggest mistake was rescuing me.

Meanwhile, tick-tock. Junkyard’s closing in. Waiting for my signal, for a day most adults are off-site, kids at their fancy schools. It’s all up to me. Set the flare. Digger jams security, Bones and Ebony eliminate the guards, I open the gate. Digger resets the coding, all of it. We round up the hippies, send them packing. Who to keep: engineers, janitorial, a contract lawyer, the chef. I sent photos, so no mix-ups.

I’m on the fence about Marigold. She knows so much. Plus I’m starting to really like her. But she’d never follow Bones. She’d root him out by the balls or die trying. She’s older and smarter and better than him. If anyone could take him, it’d be Marigold. But he’s meaner. Can’t stand being outshone, especially by a woman. He’d use that snub-nosed Glock like he’s done so many times before. And guess what? She’d have his undivided attention, just like that.

dedicated to Jan Brady

About Kristyn Dunnion