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Wither
A short screenplay by Cheeseburger Brown
SCENES 1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8|9|10|11|12
The Automatic Marlboro, a novelette by Cheeseburger Brown; illustration by Matthew Hemming

DRAMATIS PERSONAE
Nameless Girl (age 9 – 12)
Nameless Crone (age 99)
Nameless Girl's Mother (age 40 – 45)

SETTING
Suburban United States, affluent and familiar; Present Day


SCENE I

With a bang the loading ramp is cloistered. The engine revs, the long moving van draws away. In its wake is revealed a lone GIRL sitting on the stoop, her family disappearing inside the house carrying boxes. They hold the door for one another as they step around her.

Birds chirp. It's a lovely sun-dappled summer day. The GIRL's expression is grim, and also oddly focused.

Her MOTHER exits the house to fetch another load but stops, frowning, over a row of boxes on the lawn. The cardboard boxes are identical except for one in the middle which is water-stained, moldering and misshapen. The MOTHER looks up sharply.

MOTHER (exasperated): Jesus.

The GIRL looks at her shoes, not so much chagrined as unwilling to engage. She's not sorry, she's just sick of being scolded.

GIRL (mumbling, sardonic): Sorry.

Behind the row of boxes is a vanity. As her MOTHER bends to pick-up another box the GIRL regards herself in the vanity's mirror. She scowls, looks away. Her MOTHER tries to dodge her on the stoop.

MOTHER: If you can't help, can you at least stay out of the way?

GIRL: Whatever.

Our GIRL sullenly hops down and shrugs off, stalking past the vanity whose mirror is now cracked like an ancient antique, its luster diminished and yellowed by a thick filigree of mildew and caked-on dust coating the fractured glass.


SCENE II

It rains. The girl's MOTHER leans against the kitchen wall wearily as speaks into a telephone handset.

MOTHER: I'm just not convinced more tests are what we need right now. We're losing her. Every day she's further and further away. I'm at the end of my rope...

Outside the window the GIRL stands in a yellow slicker, hunkering under an umbrella. She turns away from the sound of her MOTHER's voice, lips twisted into a sneer. She jams her hands into her pockets, umbrella pinioned beneath one armpit, and sets off across the grass. She pushes carelessly through a wall of hedges and escapes the property.

She passes from yard to yard, disdainfully perusing the gardens and their gay, decorative accoutrements. She steps on a tomato. She knocks down a trellis. Then she spots a garden gnome in his bright red hat and cheerful blue eyes. The GIRL's eyes narrow, that odd look of concentration pervading her gaze.

The gnome is ruined: peeling paint, cracked ceramic, a decade of grime. The GIRL smirks and strolls on. Rain rolls down the gnome's tarnished cheek.

An ivory birdbath, pristine and white: now yellowed, now fetid with green tendrils of algae. A magnificent orchid blossom, tall and green: now gnarled, now brown and dry. A hand-made tile embedded in a garden path -- an homage from a young boy to his lost dog -- now fractured and faded and speckled, a crumbling ruin.

The GIRL saunters brashly through a rose garden, crushing flowers beneath her rubber boots. At the edge of the garden a set of metal wind-chimes hang from a tree, glinting as drops of rain make it sway one way and then the other.

GIRL: Shut up.

The chimes are corroded beyond recognition. The GIRL looks past them and gasps: she is being watched. A skeletal CRONE stands at the window, expression inscrutable as she pins the GIRL with her gaze.

For the first time our GIRL seems to feel a genuinely vulnerable emotion: the CRONE frightens her. Nervously she sidles to the edge of the yard and then flees, boots splashing in the puddles.


SCENE III

A sunny morning. A row of daisies. One by one, from left to right, the flowers blacken and wither and curl. The GIRL lies on her belly in the grass, chin resting on her laced hands as she scrunches up her features for another shot of concentration. The last daisy dies.

She's startled by a voice.

CRONE: I know your kind. Not a word of lie, I truly do.

The GIRL looks up. The CRONE is looking down upon her from a second storey window in the next house over. The GIRL steels herself to run but hesitates. She bites her lip and composes an appropriate scowl before facing the old woman.

GIRL: Kids aren't supposed to talk to strangers, you know.

CRONE: We're not strangers. We're enemies.

GIRL: Why?

CRONE: I'm sure I don't know, peach. But you've wilted all my roses and that's a far cry from a friendly thing to do. I'd be angrier, but like I said you're not the first I've met. I feel for you.

GIRL: I don't care.

CRONE: Why, of course you do, lamb. That's the rub with your kind, isn't it? You care too much. You care all the time. You can't quit caring, until your little heart's fit to tear itself to smithereens.

GIRL (irritably): Why are you even talking to me?

CRONE: Because if you want to know what I know, you owe me a bed of roses.

GIRL: What do you know?

CRONE: I know what's got a hold of you. I know what it's called, I know how it works, and I know how to turn it right.

GIRL: I think you're a senile old liar.

CRONE: Sure, honey. I know you do.

The CRONE begins to turn away from the window. The GIRL is briefly torn, then calls up to her.

GIRL: So what's it called, then?

CRONE: It's called the withering stare, girl. And you've got it fierce.


SCENE IV

The kettle whistles, billowing steam. The CRONE shuffles from one end of her small, cluttered kitchen to the other, preparing two cups of milky tea. The GIRL watches her painful progress warily, arms crossed, but does not lend a hand.

CRONE: Have you had your first bleed yet, sweetheart?

GIRL (scandalized): What? No! Jesus Christ, I'm just a goddamn kid.

CRONE (undisturbed): Good. That means there's still time.

GIRL: Time for what?

CRONE: Time to save you.

She pushes a hot cuppa across the counter to the GIRL who regards her through the steam.

GIRL: I don't have any money. There's nothing I can do to replace those flowers.

CRONE: Don't expect you to buy anything, doe. I expect you to grow them.

GIRL: You've got it all wrong. That's not how it works.

CRONE: How does it work?

GIRL: If I stare at things I can make them die, or if it's just dead stuff I can make it really old. It just happens. I was born this way. I didn't choose it.

CRONE: That's the withering stare, sure. That's how it comes.

GIRL: So don't you get it? It's not like I can reverse it. I can't make things magically young, or magically grow. You're going to have to get your flowers from a store, just like everyone else.

CRONE: Every flower starts with a seed, child. Nothing else. A little water, a little tenderness...

GIRL: I'm not like a farmer or something, you know.

CRONE: You're young. You can learn.

GIRL: Screw that.

CRONE: You have a debt to repay.

GIRL: You can't make me. Why don't you just go ahead and call my mom or call the police or call whoever. I don't care. I'm not sitting here anymore, and I'm not going to be your personal little gardener. Sorry about your damn roses, but that's life I guess.

The GIRL pushes back her chair and stands up, turning to leave.

CRONE: Don't go, honey-doll. Not just yet.

The GIRL pauses at the threshold of the kitchen, eyes narrowing.

GIRL (hissing): I could kill you, you know. I could. All I have to do is stare at you. I could turn you into a pile of dust. That should scare you. I'm a monster.

The CRONE releases a slow, dry laugh. The GIRL turns back to look, brow furrowed.

CRONE: Girl, I'm more cancer than woman. It hurts to breathe, it hurts to sleep, it hurts to pee. You can't scare me with death. I'm here now – in this house – to die the way I want instead of hooked up to tubes and machines. So if you really want to end it for me, go ahead. I've been ready for a long time. Go on, girl. Take me home.

The GIRL looks anywhere but at the CRONE, her fingers interlaced and twisting with tension. After a beat her shoulders drop.

CRONE: No? Well then. Maybe you're less monster than you think.


SCENE V

The GIRL kneels in the CRONE's garden while the CRONE sits nearby on a fold-out chair. The GIRL wipes at her sweaty brow, leaving behind a smear of muck. She is preparing the flower bed for replanting.

GIRL: This sucks.

CRONE: A little rain just makes the sunshine sweeter. Mark me, girl: contrast is everything. It's the hard work that makes your rest restful; it's having a cry now and again that lets a smile lift you.

The GIRL rolls her eyes.

CRONE: I have something for you.

GIRL: What?

CRONE: Roses are slow. You need practice in the meantime. So this pot is for you.

GIRL: What's in it?

CRONE: Marigolds, if you treat them right.

GIRL (unimpressed): What do they need? Water or something?

CRONE: Water's a good start, dear. Certainly, do start with water.

GIRL: I already told you: my condition...it can't make things grow.

CRONE: Oh, but it can, lamb. It will. I promise. Just you wait and see.

The GIRL frowns dubiously, then glares at the little pot.


SCENE VI

A large, dusty volume. The CRONE licks her finger and turns a yellowing page. She scans the dense text, her head drawn close to the paper. She mutters as the GIRL looks on. They sit at the kitchen table. On the table is a pitcher of lemonade. The GIRL is holding an ice-filled glass against her elbow, wincing a bit.

CRONE: Vaskania, it's called now and again. Or the Salty Eye, sometimes. Nazar. Blepedaimones. There are a million names.

GIRL: How come?

CRONE: Because it's older than words, child. When words got fruitful and started travelling wide, changing as they went, they carried the idea of the withering stare with them. It's been with us since the beginning.

The CRONE shows the GIRL an egg.

GIRL: What are you doing?

CRONE: Hold still.

The CRONE passes the egg all over the GIRL's body, hovering over her skin without touching. Satisfied, she breaks the egg into a glass and scrutinizes the yolk as it settles.

CRONE: Eggs are very pure when they're new. They're like sponges. They can be easily stained.

GIRL: Stained by what?

CRONE: By your power.

GIRL: By my curse.

CRONE: To-may-to, to-mah-to, sugar.

The CRONE smiles.

CRONE: The yolk has good news.

GIRL: I think you're crazy.

CRONE: I was right. There's hope for you. There's room to grow. It hasn't trapped you yet.

The GIRL looks up.

GIRL: Okay. So now what?

The egg crackles as it fries in a pan. The CRONE drops in a couple of slices of tomato and a dash of pepper. The GIRL takes a sniff.

GIRL: Actually, maybe I'm hungrier than I thought I was.

CRONE (smiling to herself): Figured you might be.


SCENE VII

The day is grey. In her yellow-slicker the GIRL dutifully continues to work on the CRONE's rose garden, planting seeds in neat rows and gently packing dirt atop each. Behind her is a metal serving tray with plastic baggies of seeds on them. As the GIRL turns, she accidentally knocks the tray down and scatters its contents.

Face contorted in rage, the GIRL stands and focuses her withering stare at the tray. A tiny spot in the centre begins to tarnish...

But the GIRL stops it. She blinks and sniffs. She takes a breath and rights the tray, then sets to picking up the bags of seeds. Amid this work she looks up and catches the eye of the CRONE in the window. The CRONE nods encouragingly.

The GIRL tries but fails to suppress a grin.


SCENE VIII

The GIRL enters the CRONE's house. As she comes into the salon she finds the CRONE with another moldering old volume in her lap.

GIRL: Jeez, another book? What's in this one?

The CRONE reverses the volume to present its contents to the GIRL.

CRONE: Why don't you tell me?

The GIRL squints at an illustration. It is a famous optical illusion, an ambiguous human profile which can be alternately resolved as a maiden or a crone.

GIRL: It's a girl...no, wait -- it's an old lady. Or I guess it's both. It's one of those optical illusion things.

CRONE: It's not an illusion, sweetheart, it's a choice. The maiden and the crone are flip sides of the same line. Both of them are equally real. But we choose which to see.

The CRONE looks at the GIRL significantly.

CRONE: Your power is like this picture. Can you understand that?

The GIRL says nothing. She glances over at her potted marigold, its surface of dirt unbroken by any sign of growth. She shrugs at the CRONE.

CRONE: Don't fret. The answer will find you, darling, when you're ready. Now go on and wash up.


SCENE IX

The GIRL enters the back door of her own home. Her MOTHER looks up from cradling an empty coffee cup.

MOTHER: Where have you been?

GIRL: A couple of yards over. I'm just helping this lady.

MOTHER: Helping her what?

GIRL: Just like in her garden and stuff.

MOTHER: Since when are you into gardening?

GIRL (mocking): Why, is gardening not allowed in your house under your rules or something?

MOTHER: Check that attitude, missy.

GIRL: Yeah, I'm such a delinquent, helping out old ladies with their flowers. I can't imagine how, like, embarrassed you must be because I'm so out of control.

MOTHER: I don't want you inside a stranger's house.

GIRL: She's not a stranger. She's -- she's my friend, Mom. She's just an old lady. She's nice. She teaches --

MOTHER (suspicious): She teachers you what?

GIRL: Nothing. She's just trying to help me understand what's wrong with me, is all.

MOTHER: I thought we agreed that it wasn't something we spoke about except with Dr. Nashby.

GIRL: Dr. Nashby tries to look down my shirt.

MOTHER: That's ridiculous.

GIRL: You never believe me about anything.

MOTHER: Your condition is private family business. I don't want you discussing it with this woman.

GIRL: She knows more about it than anyone.

MOTHER: I don't like the sound of that.

GIRL: But it's okay for Dr. Nashby to know things?

MOTHER: Don't be stupid. Dr. Nashby is a professional, not some demented old witch.

GIRL: Take that back.

MOTHER: Watch your tone.

GIRL (screeching): I said take that back!

MOTHER: That's it -- consider yourself grounded.

GIRL: No. That's not it. It's a choice. And I'm not grounded -- I'm flying.


SCENE X

The GIRL runs through the back yards, the bushes and barbecues a blur. She passes through the wall of hedges, wiping tears from her cheeks. She breaks free on the other side, leaping high. She lands with confidence, pelts on between the rose-beds and straight into the CRONE's home.


SCENE XI

The GIRL wanders from room to room, brow furrowed as she pants to catch her breath. The CRONE is nowhere to be found.

GIRL: Hello? Hello?

A bath is running, gurgling into the overflow. The CRONE waits patiently on the bathroom floor, pinioned awkwardly between the toilet and the wall. She raises a feeble hand as the GIRL skids to a stop at the bathroom door.

GIRL: Oh my God! What happened? Are you alright?

CRONE (lips pursed into a grimace as she shifts): Alright? Goodness no, honey-doll, goodness no. I'm a bag of dried twigs. A girl like me only has one big fall in her, and I just took it.

GIRL (kneeling at her side): What should I do?

CRONE: Make me a cuppa tea, will you?

GIRL: We've got to get you up.

CRONE (softly): No, lamb. That's all behind me now. I've fallen hard. Inside me, I can feel it -- I'm ruined. Torn. I'm coming right apart inside.

GIRL: I'm going to call 911.

CRONE: You'll do no such thing.

GIRL: You can't give up!

CRONE: You can move the hands on the clock but the day isn't fooled: it's still midnight, child.

GIRL: You can't die.

CRONE: Oh, honey, honey. At this point, dying's all I can do. Let me touch your face. There's a girl. You're so warm.

GIRL (crying): You were going to teach me.

CRONE (smiling ruefully): I have, lamb. I've shown you your true strength.

GIRL: But I'm helpless! All I can do is destroy.

CRONE: It's a choice, lovey. All you can do is destroy, or all you can not-do is not-destroy. To choose not to wither – to sit atop your power in peace -- to let be: walk in those shoes and you will be a powerful woman indeed. Stand up, and your power will live in your shadow instead of the other way around.

GIRL: I don't...I don't understand.

CRONE: Darling, you will. Trust me: I did.

GIRL: Please don't go.

The GIRL cradles the head of the CRONE, now departed forever from her body. A beat. The GIRL looks up again. Her tears have turned to fury. She rushes out of the bathroom and screams as she directs her withering stare around the kitchen and the salon and the dining room: the loveseat cushions split at the seams, the wallpaper turns brown, the books turn to dust and flake away into clouds of scrap. The GIRL yanks at her hair and curls her hands into shaking fists, screeching again as she sears the ceiling, cracks opening in the plaster, dust raining down. Finally, the metal armatures supporting shelves of knick-knacks corrode away and the shelves spill over, objects tumbling and smashing in a slew. The last to topple is the GIRL's marigold pot.

Before it shatters she catches it. Conflicted and impulsive, she seems at turns relieved and then even angrier. A withering stare begins to boil out from behind her eyes.

And then she spots a tiny green shoot that has pushed up through the soil.

GIRL: Oh my God. Oh my God.

She swallows, and wipes tears from her cheek. Hesitantly she smiles.

GIRL (whispering, reverent): Hello there. Hi. You're...growing.

She cradles the pot. She hugs it. She rocks back and forth on her knees, mourning but also recognizing something important about the passage. Finally, she gets up and shuffles through the debris of her tantrum to find a watering can.

Amid heaps of destruction, the GIRL waters the little plant, her expression serene.


SCENE XII

The sun is shining. Birds chase one another. It's a beautiful day. On the windowsill of the GIRL's bedroom sits a pot of blooming marigolds. But the GIRL is nowhere to be seen...

...On the other side of the block a "For Sale" sign has been planted in the front yard of the CRONE's house. As the real estate agent's car pulls away the GIRL peeks out of the bushes. Eating an apple, nonchalant, she strides around to the back yard and proceeds to tend to the roses. Tall, thriving roses.

Dappled by sun, the GIRL takes a moment to look up into the sky. Her brow is open and unlined, her eyes clear. The world sparkles and glistens with new light. She takes a refreshing, cleansing breath and returns to gardening, humming happily all the while.

Fin.



SCENES
1|2|3|4|5|6|7|8|9|10|11|12



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