The yard was hungry, Sheila could tell.
She could see it in the way its leaves curled towards her, the way the blades of grass held on a little too long underfoot. She could see it in the way the trees’ canopies swallowed the sunlight, and the way darkness clung too closely around the thorn-enclosed jungle.
That’s what they called it: The Jungle. And yet here Sheila’s father was, determined to clean up the backyard this brisk fall morning armed with nothing but an old machete and even older yellow gardening gloves.
Sheila’s mother joined the cause willingly, brandishing a gardening apron and slightly rusted shears with a sort of manic delight. Sheila, on the other hand, was roped into it, brandishing clippers and a cardboard box for yard waste with considerably less enjoyment.
The family stood silent for a moment at the edge of the jungle, toes on the threshold where the shrubbery began nibbling at the back steps. For a moment, they were caught in the Jungle’s full imposing, ominous splendor. For a moment, Sheila dared to hope they would put it off for another day, another week, another month.
No such luck. Sheila’s father moved first, clapping his hands loudly and hefting his machete.
“Well, this is a daunting task, isn’t it?” He forced a bright smile. “Better get to work!”
With that, he strode into the dense warren of weeds, carving a haphazard pathway through the undergrowth. Sheila and her mother had no choice but to follow, her mother chattering animatedly about landscaping and a birdbath while Sheila remained mute.
She had a bad feeling about this.
For awhile, nothing out of the ordinary happened. The family cut. They snipped. They clipped. After the fifth thorny vine wrapped around her calf, Sheila swore the plants were being belligerent (or maybe threatening) on purpose, but her parents paid her no mind, charging on through the Jungle with reckless abandon.
Nothing happened — that is, until they found the first plate.
It was Sheila who discovered it. Trudging sullenly behind her parents, halfheartedly pulling up a root here or there, she paused when her foot came down hard with the loud crack of broken china. She peered at the dirt. Her parents stopped chatting. Under a patina of grime, finely inlaid porcelain lay cracked beneath her sneaker. Sheila skittered back, her heart suddenly pounding.
“Oh,” her mother said, staring, covering her mouth with one gloved hand. “That’s part of my second-best china set. I misplaced some of it for awhile, but…”
“It shouldn’t be here,” Sheila said anxiously. Her skin felt too tight all of a sudden. “Let’s go back.” She pulled on her mother’s arm, but she wouldn’t budge.
“Must have been the dogs.” Sheila’s father broke the silence, forcing a laugh. “C’mon, Mary, what else could it be? Let’s go. We’re wasting time.”
Sheila’s mother picked up the halves of her broken plate, placing them gently into the box of debris. “It’s nothing, Sheila. Your father’s right. What else could it be?”
Magic, Sheila wanted to say, as her mother pulled away and followed her father. Sorcery. Supernatural entities. The Jungle itself. She wanted to say something, anything, to convince them to go back, but her lips wouldn’t form the words.
It wasn’t long before they found the teacup. Another dinner plate and the matching saucers followed a few steps later. But at every stride of the journey, every eerie, unearthed piece of china, Sheila’s father merely laughed and threw the pieces in the box behind him. Sheila’s mother merely shrugged uneasily, chalking it up to the dogs or the cat or even rats.
By the time they uncovered the toolbox, its teal exterior covered in orange rust, Sheila’s father wasn’t even surprised.
“Oh,” he said. “Been missing that for absolute ages. Must have been neighborhood scoundrels.” He gave its contents a cursory glance, then laughed in delight. “Lucky they left everything in here, huh?” And with that, he grinned broadly, picked up the toolbox, and foraged deeper into the underbrush.
Her parents were blaming anything, anyone. Anything but the truth. There was something strange going on, and Sheila was determined to find out what the Jungle was hiding.
The brambles curled tighter here, forming sailor’s knots and labyrinthine corridors. Sheila was sure that whatever the greenery was hiding was close, and a knot of apprehension grew within her. But her father hacked on with his machete, and her mother trudged along with her shears, and so Sheila followed, clutching the now-overflowing box tightly in her clammy hands.
Her father wicked away beads of sweat from his forehead. “Almost to the center, now,” he said cheerfully.
“Yes,” her mother agreed, “and it’s getting dark. We’ll get to the center, and then we’ll go back. Save some yard work for next weekend, perhaps.”
By now, the sense of dread filling Sheila’s chest was heavy and overwhelming, but she knew better than to complain. It certainly hadn’t gotten her anywhere before this.
Just to the center, Sheila told herself, chanting it like a good luck mantra. Then we’ll go back. Then we’ll go back. Center, then back.
But would it be too late?
Sheila took a slow, deep breath. Suddenly, there was a gasp ahead of her.
She found her parents standing in a strange, natural clearing. Suddenly, the feeling of anxiety that had been plaguing her vanished. Suddenly, she knew: this was what the Jungle was hiding. This was its deepest secret. All she had to do was bear witness.
Three figures huddled in the clearing: leafy, human-shaped topiaries the same size and shape of the family approaching them. Sheila slowly trudged up to the girl-shaped one. It looked exactly like her, if she were a bush: the same haircut, the same two barrettes now pressing portentously into her forehead, the outline of a Peter Pan collar and the flare of the leafy skirt matching Sheila’s own. Her parents were finally silent, staring at their own duplicates. Sheila shivered. If she looked closely, she could see yellowed bone beneath the greenery, a ghastly skeletal framework for the intricate shrubs.
She swallowed as a glint of gold caught her eye. Reaching out to her verdant doppelganger’s neck, Sheila fingered its golden necklace, identical to the one she’d been missing.
“Oh,” she said softly.