Roots

Clarice glared out her window at the trees that surrounded the house. It had been her grandfather’s, once upon a time, and it still had that old people smell. He passed away during the summer and now her entire vacation was shot to hell. Instead of hanging out at the pool and driving around with her friends, she was stuck in this run down old shack with her parents for three excruciating months.

It was the type of place that couldn’t get pizza delivery. Clarice wasn’t even sure if the town had a pizza place. The TV barely worked and cell phone reception was almost non-existent. The internet was probably still just a rumor around here. The nearest neighbor was three miles away on the other side of a bunch of orange trees. She didn’t mind the distance, but she hated the fucking trees.

Her nose had started running and her eyes puffed up before they even made it to the end of the driveway. A never ending stream of snot and tears. The house itself sagged in the summer heat like a bitchy old lady, shedding long flakes of blue paint. For the last two weeks, she hid herself in her room and tried to avoid any human contact. The only time she came downstairs was for food and to take more allergy medicine.

When they first saw the place, her mother let out a low whistle and said it had “charm”. Her father nudged her and whispered, “That means it needs a ton of work, Clarice’s Pieces.” Clarice rolled her eyes. As if the nickname wasn’t bad enough, the joke was pure parent. If you laughed at their jokes, they might start thinking you were their friend, and the last thing she wanted was friendly parents.

She laid in bed at night, listening to them snoring in the next room and hating them for being able to sleep. If she was going to spend her summers in a small town at the ass-end of the map, at least she should be able to sleep. She stared at the shadows on the walls until she eventually drifted off. But she never stayed asleep for too long. Her dreams were filled with grasping roots sliding along the outsides of the walls, trying to find a way in.

They had to hire some contractors to fix things up before they could sell it. At first her father seemed to think that he could do a lot of the repairs himself. He’d even bought a tool belt and a few tools at the hardware store in town. Watching him stand there, examining the dry wall with his bright shiny tools, Clarice thought he looked like an idiot. He’d tried to build a spice rack two years ago that almost killed the cat.

“If you want it done right, you have to pay someone who knows what they’re doing!” her mother yelled one night. Her father just sighed loudly. Most of their conversations seemed to go that way lately.

Today’s contractor was a plumber. He was old, fat, and smelled like Old Spice. Staring at him, Clarice’s mind stuck on the thought, “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” She let it roll through her head a couple of times while biting back a giggle, then went to her room to avoid having to talk to anyone.

It wasn’t long before her father and the plumber were talking loud enough that she could hear them over her music. She left her room with every intention of yelling at them to shut the hell up when the old man announced, “Yep, you got roots.”

Clarice stared at the walls around her. She pictured roots crawling through the insides, wrapping the house in a network of branches. Down below, her father said something that she couldn’t quite make out, and the plumber grunted in response.

“Tricky little fuckers,” he said. “Especially out in these parts. You’ll want to make sure that you clear them out straight away. You don’t want them creeping in on you.”

Clarice moved closer to the stairs now. The plumber was standing just inside the front door. Her father was in the hall, looking confused and clueless. She could see him calculating just how much this was going to cost him to fix. It was hard not to scream at him just to pay the man what he was asking for and be done with it.

The plumber nodded to himself, as if he was thinking the same thing. “Yep,” he said, rotating each arm carefully, the shoulders grinding loud enough that she could hear them from the stairs. “They’ll sneak up on you if you aren’t careful. Got some stuff in the truck you can use to clear ’em out if you want.”

“How much?” her father asked, with the weary voice of a man who has already paid too much.

The plumber shook his head and thought about it for a second. “Won’t cost you more than a hundred bucks.”

Even though she was looking at the back of his head, Clarice felt her father smile. “Or I could go pick some stuff up at the hardware store for a third of that.”

“You could do that,” the plumber said, nodding his head a little. “But that cheap, manufactured shit won’t do much for your problem here. You’re new in town, so maybe you don’t know how tricky these things can get–”

“It’s just a few roots,” her father interrupted. Clarice sighed. It was the same voice he’d used with her mother when he wanted to feel capable. “I’m pretty sure I can handle dumping some chemicals in the toilet to fix the problem.”

The plumber waved at the trees that surrounded the house. “This ain’t a problem that chemicals can fix,” he said. “You need someone who knows what they’re doing.”

Her father set his jaw and glared. They stood like that for a moment, staring at each other. Finally, the old man shook his head and shuffled out of the hall. Clarice hurried back up to her room and watched as he made his way back to his pickup truck. He looked back at the house once, right before he left, and she thought he might have waved at her. It was hard to tell. Then he shook his head again and drove off down the gravel road towards town.

She glanced out into the bathroom across the hall and tried not to think about roots crawling up through the toilet, or reaching for her while she washed her hair in the shower. Down below, her dad was muttering to himself. Clarice tried to block out the thoughts by shutting the door, promising to keep a mental note of every crack and lump in the walls around her.

Her father went to the hardware store not long after that and spent the rest of the afternoon flushing copper sulfate down the drain. He looked ridiculous with his safety goggles and rubber gloves, but if it stopped the roots, then maybe a little silliness was all right.

That night, they ate dinner in silence. At home, there had been music and jokes. This house seemed to pull the energy from anyone who set foot in it. Even the contractors seemed to get worn out after a few hours. Clarice wondered if her grandfather had the same root trouble they were having now. The trees that seemed to get closer to the house every day gave her a pretty good idea.

“What happened to Grandpa?” she asked.

“The doctor said it was a stroke,” her father said. “By the time they found him, it was far too late.” They all sat silently for a moment absorbing that knowledge.

“He loved this house, and these trees,” her mother added. “I remember him buying the place right before Mom died. She said they were finally happy here.”

Clarice watched her mother dab tears from her eyes with a napkin. Her father leaned in and whispered something in her mother’s ear that made them both smile. She wondered when the last time was that this house had seen a genuine smile.

“I have an idea,” her father said suddenly. “Let’s go into town and get ice cream!”

They both looked at Clarice. As tempting as ice cream was, her face was still puffy from the pollen and she could barely keep her eyes open. She fought back a yawn, and pushed some food around her plate.

“I’m too tired to go,” she said, waving them off. “Maybe tomorrow, after I get some sleep.”

They both nodded and went back to eating. Nobody said a word. When Clarice could barely keep her eyes open, she excused herself from the table and went upstairs. The trees had stopped scratching at the windows, and for a moment, it was easy to enjoy the quiet.

“The poison must have worked,” she thought, as she changed into her pajamas. Her father would be so happy that he finally did something right. Maybe if they pushed the trees back from the house, she’d be able to sleep a little better.

Clarice was brushing her teeth in the bathroom, when something brushed against her foot. At first she thought she’d imagined it, just a gentle caress against her bare skin. Then a sharp pain dug into her heel. She fell to the floor with a scream. Her head banged against the tile hard enough to stun her a little.

The roots spread across the bathroom floor. Clarice tried to back away from the one that had dug into her ankle. More came up from the toilet and bathtub, sharp pain ripped through her arms and legs as more roots buried themselves deep inside her skin. Slowly, they inched up her arms and legs. More plunged into her back.

She could see her grandfather tending to the trees. Small animals at first: a few squirrels, then a cat or a stray dog. Then, a red-headed child pinned to the wall as the roots drained him dry. Her grandfather watching from the doorway, tears streaming down his face. She felt the hunger of the trees. Desire crept through her, a desperate need for blood.

One child wouldn’t have been enough, she knew that now. The trees wanted more. Demanded more. Her grandfather sacrificed the only thing he had: his wife. The taste of her blood called out to Clarice through the years.

Even in the visions, Clarice could tell that he was not a kind man. He had a hard-bitten look to him. Thin like a rail, with skin that had browned in the sun until he looked like he was carved out of wood. His mouth was fixed in a permanent scowl, the lines printed in his face. He didn’t look like a man that knew how to laugh.

Her mother hadn’t spoken of him until he died. And even then, it was about the house and how they needed to fix it up. Clarice had never thought to ask about it. She just assumed that he was old and that was it. People stopped talking to their parents when they got old. That was life.

Tendrils dug into her scalp, lifting up her hair as they caressed her skull. She wanted to call out to her parents. Tell them to get away from the house, to leave now while they had a chance. In the distance, she heard them calling up the stairs to see if she was okay. The best she could do was moan slightly.

Thousands of roots shivered under her skin and slowly pulled her back towards the wall. Clarice tried to take a breath, but the roots filled her lungs. They fed oxygen to her body while slowly wrapping her in their warm embrace. Her mouth was forced open and she heard her own voice say, “I’m okay! Can you come here a minute?”

 

©2017 Chris Page. All rights reserved.

Spores

The elevator rises in fits and starts, and I already know I’m in for a long afternoon. I adjust the mask that covers my mouth and nose, then check the gloves on my hands for the hundredth time. I try not to think about how old the cables are that pull the tiny metal box upward, never mind how crusted they might be with spores.

The box grinds to a halt, and I start to panic. The doors only open at the top and bottom of the shaft. It’s only been a few minutes, I’m nowhere near the surface. This would be a shitty way to die, trapped in a five by four coffin, my brain says. I tell it to shut up and remind it that Lewis wouldn’t leave me up here.

As if on cue, I hear his voice over the speakers. “We had a bit of a fuck-up with the machine, Yuki. We’re going manual. You should still make it up with plenty of time before the next sporefall.”

There’s no way to communicate back down with him, but I nod anyway. The elevator lurches upward again, a few feet at a time, and I let out a sigh of relief. It’s been fifteen days since the last time I was topside. Runners are supposed to wait three weeks between shifts. I managed to talk Lewis into letting me go early. It took a couple of days, and now I’m so close to the surface I can barely breathe.

“This is as far as we can get you,” Lewis says as the elevator grinds to a stop. “You’ve got two hours, make them count.”

I slide my goggles into place before pulling the hood up over my head, and tightening it down. The doctors find so much as single spore hitching a ride and you’re grounded for at least two months. I grab the crowbar that sits in every elevator, then pry the doors open. A small bit of blue sky peeks out at me from the two foot gap between the top of the door and the pavement.

Wedging the doors open, I jump and pull myself up. There’s always a moment, when you’re halfway through, when you worry about the elevator falling. I slide myself through the gap, careful not to tear my suit. It’ll only keep the spores out for a few hours, but then, two’s all I’ve got.

It takes my breath away every time. Above me, there’s nothing but blue sky, streaked with a few wisps of green from the last sporefall. My eyes drop down over the buildings to the street, still lightly dusted with pollen. Stepping out, I can just make out the same worn path from previous runners.

I follow it for awhile, noting the most common trails that branch off. My last run, all I came back with were a couple cans of rancid meat and a jar of pickles. I need to bring something good back for Lewis, and I won’t find it in picked over apartments and old offices.

I break away from the main track and start on my usual route towards the water. I’ve found some good stuff there before, and most of the other runners won’t go that far out of their way to find things. After a few blocks, I start to jog. I’m aching to feel the wind against my skin. But even the little bit left exposed on my face means a heavy scrub from the doctors when I get back.

The water is just barely visible when I see the tracks. Someone was here recently. My mind flashes back to the schedule, trying to figure out who would have the nerve to run my route. Parker went up last week, so she’s out for awhile, and Emma tends to go towards the other side of town. I kneel down to inspect the fresh footprints in the green dust.

Size 9s with a zig-zag tread. Simone.

“That bitch,” I think, as I stand up. She knew I was on the docket. I head down towards the water anyway, hoping to find something that she missed. I pass by the first two high-rises, knowing that I cleaned them out years ago. A little further down, I start looking for the telltale signs that someone’s hit a place: a hand print on a window or pollen pushed away from the entrance by a door opening.

Without much hope, I try a few buildings I’d been saving. Simone’s been too thorough. The lower levels are cleaned out and I don’t have time to reach the top floors. It’s not a complete waste, as I manage to grab a few tins of pudding from one. Simone ignored them, but I know the guys in maintenance have a sweet tooth. It never hurts to have them in your good graces.

I check a couple more places and manage to pick up some unlabeled cans of food. Feeling better about myself, I hit the fifth floor of the last stop on my run. I’m only up there a few seconds, when I see a flash from the sky. The sun peeks out from behind the sporefall, catching the top of a skyscraper that somehow escaped the usual dusting of green.

I stand for a moment, dazzled by the light shining off the metal. It’s not that far away. If I leave now, I have just enough time to check it out and still get back to the elevator.

Something crashes down in the room above me and I freeze. My first thought is Simone. I quickly dismiss it, since she’s not clumsy enough to make that much noise. Anyone who is should probably be avoided though. I give the place one last check on my way out.

On a shelf in the hall I find a couple of books and shove them in my bag before heading for the stairs. I always try to grab at least one book for Lewis every run. He’d burn through a novel a night if he had the chance. Plus, the look on his face when he’s absorbed in a book always makes me smile.

From the ground, the shiny building is a bit harder to find. I head in its general direction, but quickly become lost on the unfamiliar streets. The spores are thicker here, muffling all of the sound. There’s a faint hum in the air. Almost like a song that I can’t quite make out. It’s pretty clear that nobody has been by this way in a long time. I glance up now and then to make sure I’m headed in the right direction, but otherwise my eyes are moving back and forth across the street, marking off potential targets for my next run.

I’m so close that I’ve started shaking with excitement. The ground is thick with spores. Even through the mask, I can smell the pollen hanging in the air. The hum is louder here. I can practically feel it in my bones. My brain warns me that I’m running out of time, but all I can think of is the flash of metal in the sunlight. I hurry down an alley, hoping to cut some time off my travel.

Long tendrils of mold hang down from the fire escapes above me, floating gently in the breeze. Water drips steadily somewhere in the darkness. I rush forward, trying to keep my footing in the thick green around me. My feet kick up chunks of it with each step, and a quick glance behind me shows my footprints stretching back out to the street.

I hurry around the corner, holding my breath. There it is, the sharp gleaming spire I had seen earlier. I walk towards it in awe. Everything else is completely covered in green, but it only reaches halfway up this one. The top floors remain entirely untouched.

Moving slowly towards it, I remind myself to breathe. Every step causes small ripples to spread along the spores on the ground. Without thinking, I walk up to the front doors and the spores seem to shudder in anticipation. My hand moves on its own towards the door handle.

I shake my head and stop.

Backing away from the building, I try to clear my head. The hum grows louder and the spores slide away from me, revealing the pavement below my feet.

“This is new,” I think, before I catch movement out of the corner of my eye.

Ahead of me, on the street, something lurches up from under the green. I brush the pollen from my goggles and stare. More movement follows and a body drags itself towards me. Covered in pollen, its limbs moving jerkily, it’s already half a block away and getting closer. I glance back to the sidewalks and see more of them following.

I run back down the alley, trying to ignore the ripples that spread out with every step. I’ve just reached the other side when my foot sticks. I look down and see the spores harden around my left boot. Turning back to the alley, more bodies are shambling down the fire escapes and through the doors. They move like puppets, taking halting steps forward.

I grab my boot to pull it up, but the spores have already moved up another half an inch. My right foot is now stuck as well. Ahead of me is clear pavement. I unlace my boots, sliding my feet out, and jump for the pavement. My upper body hits hard against the concrete and I roll forward.

My heart breaks a little as I run back the way I came. Those boots were my mother’s, back when she was a runner. I give them one last look and they’re already completely covered in spores. I try not to think about how much damage the pavement is doing to my bare feet. The only important thing is getting back to the elevator.

The streets ahead are clear of pollen as more spore-covered bodies emerge from the buildings. They push forward off the sidewalk, trying to close off the street in front of me. I run faster, ducking under grasping green hands. Even as I run past them, my eyes pick up little details. The spores squirming under the skin. Muscles straining to fight even as they’re forced forward.

I can see the elevator now. I look behind me, and my feet slow to a stop. At the head of the pack is Simone. The spores wriggle under her skin, forcing her forward. The green has already broken through in places. But her eyes are still human and full of fear. I step back from her as she takes another halting step forward.

The elevator is only a few yards away now. She reaches out a hand for me, and I don’t know if it’s her or the spores. I turn my head and run for the elevator, sliding down into the narrow gap, and pulling the metal bar behind me.

The doors slam shut, and I sit in the darkness clutching the bar. I fight the urge to rip the mask and goggles off. There’s spores on my clothes, my skin. I try to breathe through the mask, but I can’t. Trying to calm myself, I check my bag. Follow the routine. Everything is still there. There’s a loud groan and I stare at the doors waiting. The elevator shudders to life with a squeal and the lights kick on.

“Good to have you back,” Lewis says, as the elevator begins its descent back home.

©2015 Chris Page. All rights reserved.