Perhaps my favorite story that I’ve ever written, Bloom and Fade has appeared in the Trapped Tales anthology as well as Wizards in Space Literary Magazine. I want to share it with you here because it seems to resonate with people – and I love to share what I’ve done with the world.
“Thought you were never coming back, Shayna,” Jackson says. He steps in close and I see that his bad eye has gone strangely milky since I last saw him, what – six? Eight months ago? It’s so easy to lose track the longer we all go on.
Glancing around the gravel-crusted old cul-de-sac, I hold up my hands, show my holstered knife and pistol clearly in a gesture that I hope says that I don’t want to use them. “I just came here to fill my water bags for some .22 ammo I found. Four boxes – and I know you need it. If I had any other choice, you know I’d go elsewhere.”
I count four proper firearms among the gathered men. A few more hold improvised weapons: wooden boards with nails, a piece of pipe, one even has a genuine baseball bat. I hope they don’t think they need to use those things on me. Even I can’t take that much hurt. There are a dozen men here, crowding around to see Eden’s former freak. Behind them, I watch as two children try to play soccer in their cumbersome, adult-sized gas masks while the mothers of some other, younger kids fuss and corral them inside.
Some of these women wear breathing units. Others have tied scarves over their noses and mouths. Paranoia. Eden has always stayed free of the Bloom. They maintain a quarter mile of burned land out from the fence line to keep the creatures away, and they always isolate anyone who’s any kind of sick, just in case. It’s tough to keep the town safe from encroaching woods and underbrush with the Blue Ridge Mountains so close, but they’ve always done all right. Done well, even. The town’s grown since I last passed through.
The Bloom, we call this terrible new plague. Seems stupid. What a perversely pretty name for something so terrible and ugly. It makes the skin erupt into oozing green blisters, ropes of fungus, making it into strange, predatory alien plantlife. I shudder. These plant monsters keep growing if they aren’t cut or burned, turning neighborhoods and even whole cities into hungry jungles of vermillion and violet and that stink of death.
Inching ever closer is old man Jackson, head of security and self-appointed mayor of Eden. “Last chance,” he says, his hand sliding toward his firearm. I’m not sure he knows he’s even doing it. “Show us that thing on your arm or you ain’t leaving. No water, no more talking, nothing. Show it.”
He has the upper hand, and I still want to get out of here without any trouble. I tug my left sleeve up to reveal the ugly purple smear covering that forearm. Head high, arm thrust out, I show the scar I carry to every man there. If this is what Jackson and his posse want to see then let them see it. Let them stare. Let them gawk at the freak.
“Got bigger,” is all Jackson says.
“The hell it did,” I snap. “It’s nothing.”
Jackson is crazy, letting his paranoia about airborne sickness scare everyone else.
“More than nothing. Means the disease will spread throughout your body, eventually.” Jackson catches my wrist and turns my arm to make sure everyone in his security team can see the mark clearly. “This is a Bloom scar. You all remember what this looks like, if you ain’t seen one before! You all know what this means!”
I shrug out of his grasp, glancing at the handful of patched houses, once single-family units now packed tight with twenty or more people each. It’s not comfortable, but it’s safe. They’re pretty old buildings with painted shutters and the townspeople of Eden have taken pride in maintaining them in shades of blue and white and green. There’s even a grass field with small trees and a flower garden a hundred yards or so beyond the water tanks. The little town is thriving with women, kids, some older folks, and even a flock of chickens running around in the distance. Eden looks like a tiny paradise in a world of death. “It was years ago!” I roll my eyes like a kid. “Before I ever lived here – and it’s never made no one sick during the years I was here.”
“We were lenient with you before, Shayna, Let you leave. Shoulda kept you and your scar in quarantine.”
I hate that scar. It reminds me of the early days. I was thirteen when the first bomb hit. A dud, everybody thought. That was an easy assumption until the next five slammed into the ground and buried themselves deep in the earth while only their bright purple tails of jagged metal stuck out.
We thought it was radiation sickness at first. Hair dropping out in handfuls, seeping lesions, skin sloughing off. Hospitals did their best to treat the sick. We looked to the bombs themselves, hauled them out of the ground, but they yielded no answers. Our silent visitors in the sky refused to respond to any communications. Either they didn’t understand or they didn’t care. Didn’t matter either way. Their massive ships hovered motionless above us, covering the sky like never-ending storm clouds. They were no saviors. They hang there still. Waiting. I figure they need us to die out so they can move in. Well, I got no plans to die any time soon.
A ray of sunshine on my face pulls me back to the present and I’m grateful to see clear skies over a decent-sized town. The mountains keep the big grey ships a little further off but give lots of quarter to the advancing armies of vicious Bloom growth that are eating the Appalachians more and more every day. What was once Asheville had been a perfect place for a settlement. For them. For others. Never for me.
Jackson draws me back in to conversation. “We got medicine here. Some strong antibiotics from the old hospital. Maybe it’ll help your scar.”
“Pass,” I say. I bet my life he’s lying. Sick people disappeared from Eden and never came back from the small clinic. Once I found the unmarked mass grave in the woods, I knew I could never stay in Jackson’s so-called Eden.
“You could live here again,” he offers. “It’s gotta be better than being on the road all the time.”
“I don’t do well in towns, old man. You know that. And I do worse in hospitals, getting prodded with needles.”
“You used to be a part of something here, girl. You’re a good shot and a level head. Think maybe you could live here again, if you can follow the rules this time.”
“I’m just here to trade ammo for water and you know it. No need to complicate this.”
“We could use a scout like you.” He changes tack. “Someone who knows the ways in and out of smaller, overrun areas. Long as we don’t have no need to be scared.”
“What of?” I pretend to stretch, look over Jackson’s shoulder, get a look at the men trying to close in on me slowly.
“Of you. I keep hearing all these rumors about you killing folk. Killed your mother, gutted her like a fish. Killed some little kids for trying to take a rabbit you snared. And that ain’t the worst of it. The worst part is that I believe them.”
I say nothing. He sighs, finally ready to be honest with me. “Shayna, I’m not going to let you leave here. I think you know that. But it can be your choice and go easy.” I see his hand lay across the wooden stock of his shotgun as he puts his other hand on my shoulder. “Stay. Be part of the Good. Help us learn about the Bloom.”
I spit on the ground. Screw him and his Good. Cruel idealism like that will get you killed. It’ll get whole towns killed. And me? I’m just here for water, not a lecture. Not to become his personal little lab rat.
I get right back in his face. “You know as well as I that the good always die while the monsters like us go on living. And this monster? She doesn’t want to live here just to get poked and prodded and cut into little pieces.”
“If you die, I’m not letting you take this town with you. You’ll stay here in quarantine and we’ll see if we can’t get that thing under control. Maybe we can all learn a little more about what makes this disease tick, you ‘n’ me, huh?” He puts up one hand like he’s trying to soothe a scared animal. “There’s no need to be afraid.”
“I fear no man and I won’t live in no cage.”
“Come on, Shayna.” He’s sliding the gun out of his thigh holster now. My hand is on my own pistol strapped to my leg. “We can make this go down easy.”
“I always do seem to do things the hard way.”
I can’t say for sure what happens first. Something cracks me on the side of the head and I drive my hunting knife blindly into the closest thing I can find. Jackson yowls in pain as he clutches his bleeding thigh. It sends his crew into chaos.
I roll and take cover behind one of the water tanks, a big old, pot-bellied copper bulge that used to brew beer. It’s perfect cover; the Eden folk will never risk putting a hole in their precious water supply. I turn the small tap and set one of my bags to filling while I peer under the belly of the tank. There are two pairs of feet moving at me real slow, and so I lie down and line up the shot careful and take one of the men in the ankle. He yowls and falls to the ground. The other set of feet goes running away. So do a few more sets farther off; sounds like I scared some of the rabble away.
Switching my second water bag in, I check around the far side of the tank. Two men stand back in the distance holding AR-15 rifles, but it’s just for show since .223 ammo’s been impossible to find for years – I know, I’ve looked. They might as well be holding clubs. What a waste. Clubs can’t kill the Bloom.
“Come on out, girl!” I hear someone call. “Heard you like killing for fun!”
“Why don’t you come kill us like you killed your mama! Bet I’d bleed like her!”
“Get tired of hunting those things out there yet? Why not hunt real men instead? Bet it’d be fun!”
They taunt me from a safe distance. The hell do they even know? I bite my tongue until I taste blood. My knife’s handle is slick with sweat as I squeeze it. I take a deep breath and try to even my temper but I don’t want to be calmed down. I want to punch Jackson and his boys. I want to hit them until my knuckles bleed.
The little town square is empty now. Silhouettes peer out from between closed curtains. No more little kids playing soccer. No more chickens. No more moms. Just seven men and weapons and me. Jackson gestures as he limps, telling the men to fan out. They spread into a semicircle and try to flank me but I can pick one of the armed men off easy enough with a single shot. The other one, the bearded guy, fires at me and I hear the bullet ping off of the water tank, followed by an angry shout. Jackson must be going easy on these guys or else they don’t do range practice any more because of the ammo shortage. They’re terrible shots.
I peer around the tank, where a small trickle of water flows from the copper wall into the dusty, pebble-covered ground. Jackson is lining up a shot at me, squinting with one eye. I’m more worried about the bat-wielding man closing in on me to my left. In a moment, two gunshots echo and the man with the bat drops. I glance down and see that Jackson has hit my water bag. It’s torn open and spilling its insides onto the thirsty lot.
Five men left. One runs when I lean around the tank again. Four. I catch one in the stomach with a lucky shot. Three. Jackson aims at me again and, before I know it, my left shoulder is on fire. I glance down. It’s just a graze but I’m going to have to clean it soon and thoroughly. Stings something fierce, too. I shoot old man Jackson somewhere in his chest and he drops, moaning.
When I emerge from behind the tank with my pistol pointed at the last two men, they put their hands up and back away. I let them run to the town square. Jackson is already dead by the time I reach him, a pool of blood by his leg and soaking the ground around his head and shoulders.
Taking the shotgun from his lifeless hand, I holster my own weapon and turn his shotgun on the town’s water tanks. Screw this place. They want to cage me? Study me? Dump my body in a hole in the woods? They never will. I wish I could burn its cheerful facade to the ground. I don’t belong in this town and it doesn’t deserve my mercy. My wounded shoulder throbs with every shot I take. Holes erupt across the mismatched bellies of the water storage tanks. I’m sure they’ll patch them in time but not before they remember who put them there.
The man I caught in the stomach earlier is hardly more than a boy. I see him bleeding out into the rocky dirt at my feet. A stomach wound like that? He won’t last much longer. As a mercy, I open up the throat of that skinny red-haired kid. The pipe falls from his fingers and he keeps on staring at me as the life fades from his eyes. I don’t remember much from the walk out of town but the way the evening sun hit his hair and lit it all up like fire as he bled into the dirt. That’ll be forever in my head. Some things you can’t forget.
Some things you should never forget. I don’t belong in towns? Fine. I’ll go live in the wild with the monsters where I belong.
The change. The Bloom. It was the dawn of a new species, I think. Not everyone agrees. Some want to believe that the things are still human. But me? I’ve seen too much. I know better. When their skin splits and reveals another creature underneath – when your mother’s face opens up and a snapping-toothed monster dripping with fungus emerges from it and tries to take your hand off over your cereal – that’s not a person. That’s what’s standing between you and survival. So you take a kitchen knife and you plunge it into your mother with all of your strength and terror as the thing erupts steaming gunk. Don’t think. Let go of the blood- and gore-covered knife and run. Run and don’t look back.
You can buy a copy of Trapped Tales on Amazon. An ebook is in the works presently. I hope you liked Bloom and Fade – I just know you’ll love the other stories in the anthology. They’re all so different and engaging.
Bloom and Fade copyright Deidre Dykes 2014