So I began one of Chuck's FF challenges a couple of weeks ago on Apples (assigned the names of 3 apples by a random number generator and write a story containing all 3) and didn't get anywhere near finishing it. As penitence I've taken those 3 apples: Melrose, Jewett Red and Malinda and worked them into this week's FF which in the wake of the Ebola panic and Halloween is a disease based horror short. So here it goes... "Fall"
Today the wind is chill, but warmed by the last flames of my fire, I watch them come. They’ve come like this every year since The Fall. Breakin’ through the warning biohazard barriers and lurchin’ forward over the roots which fill the forested avenue, shuffling through the undergrowth with their strange jerky limbs.
I was here for it all. The October quake which wrecked the town. The trick or treat-ers thrown to the ground by the tremors. The cacophony of house and car alarms in the streets. The gaping fissure which opened up in the middle of Melrose. Cleaving the town in two. Folks homes were destroyed, lit’rally torn in half. An’ it was half a miracle no-one died right there and then.
I remember when they first found Mother creeping out of the fissure. Of course she was just a young sapling then, but she shocked everyone by how fast she grew. Within a week she was as tall as most folk and by the time the December frost hit she looked like one of ‘em Giant Redwoods you get up in the Sierra Nevada. I remember they put tinsel and baubles on her lower branches for Christmas. Little did they know then what she was.
You see Christmas came and went and Mother she carried on growin’. And at the same time the sickness started. A few folk started noticin’ a painful rash appearin’ and a fair few more complained of stomach cramps. After a while most of the town had one of t’other of the symptoms and the local crops were tested and found to be infected with an unknown bacteria. They were burnt. Every last one. The farmers were up in arms. Threatening legal action and the like.
I watch the figures moving towards the edge of town. By the time they reach the base of Mother and begin their final ascent my fire is waning. I take a deep breath to savour the smell of the smoke as its warmth begins to fade...
By the time Spring came around Mother was measured as over 100m high. Her trunk was wide as a bus. Of course there were problems about having such a big tree in the centre of the town but she was becoming a big tourist draw. Coachloads of tourists arrived every day to gawp at her size, and folk were getting’ rich off of the business. Even when it was suggested she was to blame for the rash and cramps, an’ had somehow infected the soil of those crops the talk of tryin’ to cut her down to stop the spread was shouted down. A few botanists came and tried to take samples but they all left empty handed. None of their instruments were sharp enough to strip bark from her trunk.
And it carried on like that for a while with the townsfolk gettin’ rich from cheap “Mother: World’s biggest tree” mugs and t-shirts. It was only when the town’s streets near Mother’s trunk began to crack and rise up to meet her that folk realised just how large she’d got under the ground. We were livin’ on the expanding base of where her trunk met her roots and those roots were estimated to stretch for sev’ral miles around. The theories that it was her roots infectin’ the crops became accepted as fact more or less and what with the town bein’ instable leaning on those roots the tourists soon dried up and folks began packing up and leavin’ their homes.
It was around this time that Mother began to blossom. Those now famous bright red double-helix pods lined her branches, pods the like of which the world had never seen. The sickness spread and got worse, the infected areas of skin started hardening and folks’ joints began stiffenin’ up. The TV was awash with adverts for lotions promisin’ to softening the skin and sooth the pain. There were only six of us not infected in Melrose and the town was quarantined along with around 12 others with multiple cases. The odd case was reported elsewhere and hospitals began preparing small isolation wards in case it reached other towns. The disease was given a name – Malinda. The media went with the name the Melrose merchandise had coined and began calling her Mother. A number of companies were hired to try to fell her or cut her back but they still couldn’t find a blade to touch her.
That Summer was a hot one, but Melrose was cool. Mother had got so big you couldn’t see her top and the shadow she cast kept both sides of the town in shade. The quarantine hadn’t worked and hospitals up and down the country were overflowing with the infected. The hard skin had begun to spread, in some cases over the infected’s eyes and mouth, and there were a few deaths from suffocation. The feet of the sick began to swell up to more than twice their normal size. All flights were grounded with a worldwide ban on any people or produce leavin’ the country.
With that embargo on exportin’ in place, it didn’t take long for the economy to crash. Panic set in as tests confirmed that the Malinda pathogen had been found in several reservoirs across the country, and folk not infected started stayin’ indoors when it rained on account of the hydrological cycle. Deaths from starvation were reported with some people refusin’ to eat in case their food was infected. Aid packages of food and medical supplies began to be dropped in from other countries. Mother silently carried on growin’ through it all, covered in her strange red pods, insects buzzing around her and hastening Malinda’s spread.
I start to shiver as the fire burns itself out with only a few embers glowing to warm the watching post. The last of the figures still moving have begun their climb, leaving a handful behind to watch their progress…
By the time the fall came the WHO had declared an international public health emergency. Estimates put the numbers of dead in the thousands. The number of infected was as high as 75% of the country and numerous cases were reported in other countries on other continents. There were countless attempts to cull Mother, to cut her, to burn her, to poison her. Nothing had any effect. Emergency summit meetings were announced and nuclear action was discussed. As the politicians dithered over “appropriate measures”, with all of the other trees Mother shed her blossom. They drifted from her like sycamore helicopters as she cast her terrible pods for miles around.
The worst of the infected who’d been spared suffocation from their hardened skin by this stage saw their joints fuse together and they struggled to move at all. The hard skin covered virtually all of their body and their swollen feet began to crack apart.
The fall saw the birth of Green religious cults. They sprang up everywhere. Payback claimed Malinda was Gaia’s revenge, repaying the decades of abuse we’d inflicted on the earth. Malianity proclaimed Mother as the bringer of the rapture. The GIM group (God is Mother) were the most popular of the groups and very quickly established themselves as a major religious and political force. As October came around they began preaching the virtues of auto-infection, with symbolic baptismal fonts full of infected water and a “return to Mother” slogan. Jewett and me, by now we were the only two left in Melrose not infected. We took to our watch posts and saw it all unfold.
October 31st. A year to the day since the quake had hit Melrose, the wind picked up and blew through Mother’s branches. The sound was deafening. A shill whistled call to arms.
The infected took to the streets wherever they were. The GIM auto-infected return party had by this time reached Melrose and we watched them cut their way through the barriers. They struggled on towards Mother as across the world cracked swollen feet burst open and the infected began to sprout roots. People were tethered to the ground where they stood. The scene was the same in cities around the world as the infected were frozen in place. Strange ghostly figures.
That was 4 years ago. Every year the GIM party gets bigger. This year there must be a few hundred. I watch them now as I watched them then, clambering up to Mother to join the forest that now fills Melrose’s streets. One by one they stop, suspended in time, frozen to the ground. I warm my hands on the last embers of the fire and look back through the cracked glass. As the sun sets over Melrose, the sky beyond Mother’s branches stains the figure of Jewett red. He walks through the frozen figures, his axe glinting in the fading light. Soon we’ll have a new fire to burn. Even from up here I know I’ll hear the screams.