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"Dem Bones" by Grace Fong

CONTENT WARNING:


1.

 

From the second-floor window of the abandoned building, Ezra could see something he thought impossible. Behind the wall of the derelict structure that was once a textile factory, a sort of wild garden had sprouted. Ezra could see tomato bushes and dandelions, bluebells and blackberry bushes leaning to against the muddy pools that collected on the ground. And there, in a sort of enclosure of rusted barbed wire and crude sharpened sticks nailed to the ground, the impossible: a wild apple tree, sprouting with fruit.

It had taken him months of furtive searching through this part of the city, going by vague rumours that led to nothing but dead-ends. He had done a five-year stretch up north where he shared a cell with a guy who first told him about it. Said how, in this neighbourhood, long before, it was all apple orchards. How the houses came up and the trees came down and the factories were built for the workers to live around, but the damn apple trees came back, like thieves, growing here, there, in alleyways and places where you’d least expect them.

Well, Ezra thought the guy was full of shit, but he was desperate once they let him out. In prison they gave them a slice a day and that was just enough to ward off the worst of it, but not all, and the doctors prowled the prison corridors at night with their snicker-snacks, and the tread of their heavy boots on the concrete floor kept Ezra awake in the dark hours. The guy who told him all the stories didn’t make it out, but Ezra did, and he’d been scouting the neighbourhood ever since.

Now he stared at the garden and at the tree.

It looked abandoned. But that didn’t mean it was.

Ezra knew people lived here, still. Trying to stay out of sight, and getting very good at it. There used to be more, but many of them couldn’t keep up the schedule and sooner or later the doctors took them away. Just like they did his cellmate up north.

So he watched, and he waited. But no one showed up. No one entered the garden and no one picked the fruit. The apples were just sitting there!

And he was running out of time.

He had to get some of the stuff. He had to.

He’d killed an old woman in a gas station for a grocery bag of old wizened apples and that was two weeks back.

He kept watching the old abandoned factory grounds but he could swear he couldn’t see anything or anyone.

Maybe all the stories really were true.

 

2.

 

“They say God lives there,” Carmichael said. He looked at Ezra across the table and downed his shot. “That’s why no one ever gets in.”

“It’s just an old factory building,” Ezra said.

“Yeah, well.”

Ezra knew Carmichael from a previous stint inside. That’s how he got to know most people, to tell the truth. Carmichael was one of those people who could get into places other people wanted to keep people like Carmichael out of. There was this thing about him, too. He always had an apple on him.

“Old textile factory, I think.”

“Yeah, well.”

Ezra suspected Carmichael used to work for the syndicate back east that ran most of the apples down that way. He was either retired or fell out with the bosses, or something, but he still kept on getting a regular supply somehow. The doctors had nothing on him.

“So are you in, or are you out?”

“I’m in, I’m in,” Carmichael said. “Hold your horses, will ya.”

Ezra signalled the waitress for two more shots and stared out of the window. The streetlight glowed and a dark shape moved underneath it with unhurried steps and he flinched. It was a doctor.

The doctor wasn’t very easy to make out. He wore heavy studded boots, and an elongated gas mask for a face. Some people said they had snouts, others that it was just people underneath. The doctor stopped. He turned and stared through the window—stared straight at Ezra. Ezra stared back. He had as much right as anyone to be there, he thought.

The doctor went up to the door. His face under the flashing neon sign was vaguely demonic. Ezra wasn’t the religious type. He’d given up on church eighty-three psalms and nineteen years ago. The doctor stepped through the door and conversation ceased. The only sound was the damn boots as they slapped the floor.

He came and stood by Ezra’s table.

“Here,” Ezra said, unwillingly. He reached in his coat pocket and came back with one of the two apples he had left from the old lady. The doctor stared at the offering in his hand. His eyes were hidden behind the big glass windows of the mask.

“What?” Ezra said. “I’m good for it.”

The doctor nodded. He took the apple. Turned to Carmichael, who already had one in hand, just waiting. A nice, fresh, green apple. Plenty of juice. The doctor nodded in appreciation and took that apple too.

He turned his back on the two men.

“Another day, another apple,” Carmichael said.

The doctor’s heavy footsteps echoed in the silent bar. He made almost to leave but then he turned abruptly. There was a man sitting slouched on the counter. He had a half-drunk glass of beer in front of him. He had a face that had given up on everything other than that drink in front of him. The doctor tapped him on the shoulder and the man didn’t stir. The doctor, with difficulty, spoke. He had a raspy, strained voice, as though forming words caused him pain.

The doctor said, “Ah-pfelh.”

The man turned with his drink in his hand and bashed the glass in the doctor’s face.

The doctor wiped broken glass from his gas mask face.

Ah-pfelh.”

The man spat in the doctor’s face.

The doctor said, “No ah-pfelh?”

“Go to h—” the man said, or started to.

Ezra didn’t want to watch. The doctor’s snicker-snacks snapped out and a fist equipped with impossible blade-claws wrapped around the man’s neck and pulled.

The man fell from his stool and the stool crashed to the ground. The doctor dragged the man by the neck and along the floor and out of the door.

A doctor’s car waited outside. The vehicles always came for the doctors. They were black and compact, more like weird beach balls than cars. The doctor dragged the patient into the car and it rolled down the street and was gone.

The waitress came and placed two new drinks on the table for Ezra and Carmichael.

Ezra only sipped this time. It was strong and he felt a little light-headed. The door opened and a thin young man came in and plonked himself in their booth, beside Carmichael. He had a lean, hungry face. His name was Noah.

“Did I miss anything?” he said.

“You got the stuff?” Ezra said.

Noah nodded. “Sure.”

“Then let’s go,” Ezra said.

 

3.

 

They stood outside the walls of the garden but not for very long.

“Razor wire,” Carmichael said mournfully, looking up. “You want it quiet or you want it loud?”

“I want it fast,” Ezra said.

“Then loud it is.”

The boy Noah nodded. “No worries,” he said, and set to work. He attached a small block of C-4 to the wall, carefully stuck in the detonator, then unspooled the cord and the three men moved away.

“Go.”

The explosion tore the wall neatly inwards. The old bricks collapsed and with them came down the rusted razor wire. The explosion was loud and then it was quiet again. It was very quiet. The men waited for the dust to clear. When it did, they stepped over the breach.

Ezra moved cautiously. The gardens were large, larger than they had seemed from the window across the street. It was quiet but now he thought he could hear birds calling in the distance, and the rustling of grass, and the slithering of a snake in some shrubberies. But he couldn’t see the tree.

Noah came up to him. “Look,” he said. He pointed up. Ezra looked at the sky. It was very black and clear and the stars shone in a multitude of bright lights, as though the three men weren’t even in the city anymore, as though they were in the middle of a desert or on an island, somewhere where there was no light pollution at all.

“It’s weird,” Noah said, “but I can’t see any of the constellations and the north star should be—”

Then he stepped on what looked like an old soda can. A puzzled look came onto his face. There was a faint glow and a weird whooshing sound. Ezra ducked.

Noah didn’t.

The thing came seemingly out of nowhere. It was like a sword of flame. It slashed clean through Noah and vanished. Noah dropped to the ground.

“What was that?”

“Some sort of trip wire, I think,” Carmichael said.

Noah’s blood soaked into the earth. Tiny centipedes and fat black beetles came crawling on to the corpse. They swarmed over it. Ezra cursed and lifted his foot. He and Carmichael moved away.

“I don’t see it,” Carmichael said.

“It’s got to be here somewhere.”

Ezra realised he couldn’t even see the hole in the wall anymore. They must have gone deeper into the garden than he’d realised. But the apples had to be there somewhere. He drew his gun and motioned for Carmichael to do the same.

“Watch your back,” he said.

 

4.

 

There were so many trees, everywhere he turned to look. Oranges and pomegranates, a grove of ancient olive trees, pear and avocado and almonds. And he could hear monkeys in the trees, and wild birds singing, and again that slithering sound. He could no longer see the garden’s walls, or hear any sounds of the city, and all the stars overhead were unknown.

“Carmichael, don’t—” he said. But Carmichael had reached for a peach and bit into it with relish. The juice ran down his lips and chin.

“It’s good,” he said. “It’s real g—”

Something lunged at them from between the roots. Ezra fell back. He couldn’t quite make out what it was. Some sort of scaly reptile, hissing. It struck Carmichael’s calf and for a moment Ezra could make out a gaping mouth and long, sharp fangs. Two bright, lidless eyes stared at Ezra. Then the creature was gone.

“Carmichael?”

But the man never said another word. Ezra knelt beside him. He took Carmichael’s wrist and felt for a pulse but there was none.

He let the man’s hand drop.

Left him there to fertilise the garden.

Went back into the trees.

 

5.

 

How long he wandered there he did not know. There was night and then there was day.

Then he saw it. It was just an old apple tree. It was surrounded by crude sharpened sticks driven into the ground, and bits of barbed wire and broken glass shards. But he just kicked most of it away. Then he hesitated, standing there in the shadow of the tree.

At last he reached for the lowest apple and plucked it from the tree. He held it in his hand. It felt warm and smooth. He took a bite from the apple, and then another, and another, until he ate the whole damn thing. He laughed. He saw that really the garden was not that large at all. And there was the hole in the wall. He dropped the apple core on the ground to feed the garden. He left the tree where it was and then he went back into the world. It started to rain then, a light soft rain, and it smudged all the colours and made the street seem softer. Ezra began to walk. He walked until there were people on the streets again. He walked past the bar where he’d met the others. He walked until he was nearly on the highway. For a moment he felt almost free.

Then he heard the tread of studded boots. He turned and the doctor was there, like he’d always been there, waiting. Ezra stared at those lidless eyes.

“Ah-pfelh?” the doctor said.

“No ah-pfelh,” Ezra said, and for a moment he felt almost sorry.

It had stopped raining. The day felt very fresh and clear. There was a rainbow somewhere over the highway, with all the little cars going underneath it, blowing out fumes. A doctor’s car came rolling to a stop and then another, and more doctors stepped out, their gas mask faces solemn. Ezra had known about good and evil but he had thought them different. Now he could see more clearly. He hesitated there, on the edge of the highway, as the tiny cars zoomed past, to and from; just before the doctors took him away.



Lavie Tidhar is the author of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize–winning and Premio Roma nominee A Man Lies Dreaming (2014), the World Fantasy Award–winning Osama (2011), and the Campbell Award–winning and Locus and Clarke Award–nominated Central Station (2016). His latest novels are Unholy Land (2018) and his first children’s novel Candy (2018). He is the author of many other novels, novellas, and short stories. Twitter: @lavietidhar
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