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Forty-one short stories
by Holly Gramazio

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37 down

Hey, who do you think you are?

Eleven o'clock and Phil's waiting in the churchyard, torch and green bag nestled under a bush, calm until he hears the telltale hiss of a spraycan round the back. Vandals. Usually he'd get Jed to scare them off, but he's the only one here; nobody else is due until at least quarter past.

He doesn't want to draw attention. On the other hand, he doesn't want the back of the church covered with scraggly graffiti, either, so he picks up a shovel and rounds the corner shouting "hoi", and there's a thud as somebody drops something, and then a scuffle of footsteps through leaves. It's too dark here, he can't see anything.

He moves back around to the front after listening for a minute or two, and then his phone vibrates. It's a message from Liz: someone ran me off from the churchyard, meet in square instead.

That was me, he sends back, and waits, leaning over the wall towards the footpath. His latest seedling's been knocked about since last week, by passers-by or the weather, but he pushes it back into the crack in the wall without even disturbing the raindrops that brim from its leaves.

Liz prods him in the shoulder when she gets back. "Shouting at me," she says.

He straightens. "I thought I heard spraypaint."

"It was a plant mister." She holds it up; the nearest streetlight shines through the plastic and casts a green shadow over the dirt, like moss.

"It's been pouring all afternoon," he says. "You can't possibly need a plant mister."

"There's some lichen under the eaves that doesn't get rained on."

He helps him carry her seedlings around the front from where she dropped them when she ran. They're looking good: strong enough to survive on their own, just beginning to flower.

"And look what else I brought you." She hands him a paper bag. Seed pods; small and brown and a bit fuzzy. He doesn't recognise them.

"Kudzu," she says. "Picked them up while I was in Queensland."

"Kudzu," he says, and suddenly the pods seem hairier and menacing. "Liz." He's never seen the real thing, but he's seen photos: miles of forest buried under vines, disappearing sheds, houses abandoned to the encroaching front. He's read the studies, too, how most of the pesticides don't work, how a few of them just make it grow faster.

She smiles. "Mm, I know. It's just a joke."

He pockets them to burn when he gets home; bins can fall over, especially in this wind. Jed turns up a few minutes later with a sack of bark chips and a girl called Rachel (khaki singlet, combat boots; she's probably got a balaclava in her bag, Phil thinks); the others filter in by twenty-five past. It's a better turn-out than he'd expected.

At half-past eleven they scatter along divergent roads like a puff of dandelion seeds. Phil heads for the alleyways. A few years ago he'd have tried the high-profile streets, risking alarms on shop rooftops to wind bright-flowering vines around drainpipes, planting geraniums in blocked-up chimney pots. Some of the others still do. Their plants don't last, though; someone always notices and tears them down. He goes for corners and crevices instead, places that nobody cares about. Milk crates filled with dirt and lobelias, hollyhocks slotted into any narrow gap between walls that looks like it might get sun. There are recesses hidden behind dustbins that he's been working on for six months now, and abandoned corners of parking lots, and they're gorgeous: clusters of waist-high trees, groundcovers with tiny purple flowers.

The flowers give it away, in the first alley, before he notices anything else: it's dark, but usually that doesn't matter, he can smell them from around the corner, all sugar and air. This time he can't, and a moment later he's near enough to see why: someone's put a thick metal gate and a private property sign across the entrance, and when he shines his torch through the slats the plants are gone. The flowerbox by the street-lamp's been emptied out as well, and replanted with council marigolds.

The parking lot in the next street over's been bulldozed, and there's a sign out the front with an architect's sketch of some angularly futuristic apartments.

He meets Liz at the corner, and they walk down the next alley together. She turns on her torch and it lands on tangled graffiti, high across a window, so high that the taggers must have been standing on something, and yes: below it are upturned tubs of trampled seedlings. Phil thumps the handle of his spade into a wall.

"It's not that bad," Liz says, turning the tubs the right way up and pressing the dirt back down, pinching off damaged leaves; but it is. When they meet up with Jed, khaki-singleted Rachel is crouching in a flower bed, interleafing tiny marijuana plants with the pre-existing petunias.

"You can't do that," Phil says. He reaches down and starts pulling them out.

"Hey, who do you think you are?" Rachel grabs a plant back and starts to push it back into the soil.

"Come on, Phil," Liz says. "What's the harm in it?"

"This is supposed to be about reclamation," he says. "Reclamation and beauty and nature. It's about creating an environment where people can be happy. We're not here to sneak drugs into a flowerbed outside government offices and then snigger at how interesting and counterculture we are. If that's what you're after then go join Resistance. Chalk up messages about the World Trade Organisation and knit communist scarves."

Rachel glances at Jed, then back. "It's just a few plants."

It isn't, not to Phil. "Anyway," he says, "you've got no idea what's been dumped in the ground around here. If your plants end up in someone's body there's a good chance you'll poison them." He turns around.

"Don't mind Phil," Liz says to Rachel behind him as he walks away. "He takes this very seriously."

Very seriously. There's so much potential, it could all be so wonderful. Bring in clean soil, cover it with orchards; vines clustering over the stobie poles, grapes weighing down telephone wires, streets mazed with hedges and pumpkins. He clutches the kudzu seeds, and thinks about a garden that doesn't crumple under security-guard boots, that covers bins and graffiti, that bursts open sudden metal gates, that splits walls in half or swallows them. And when he comes through into the churchyard there's a woman on the footpath, crouched by his last tiny seedling, and she stands up and walks on and won't the world leave him a crack in a wall, does it have to tear up even that? He pulls the bag out of his pocket and grabs a handful of seeds, then he holds them tight till they press patterns in his skin and he throws them with as wide a gesture as he can manage, seeds thudding lightly into the ground around him like raindrops. He sees green leaves breaking apart the pavers at his feet; vines twisting around official flowerbeds and council walls, tethering bulldozers where they stand, crumpling half-built glass-and-metal apartments to the ground and rising from the shards.