To the Spot
The last time Marcus got out of bed, a little sapling was growing in the eavestrough below his window. Through nature’s care or neglect, it managed to sprout from the mulch despite the cramped depth of the eavestrough. Marcus used to sit up to see it at the edge of the roof below the sill. Now, as he peeked over the stinking sheets, he could just see the top of a leaf glowing green and opaque against the sodden grey world. He didn’t know the average rate of growth for a sapling, but its climb upwards and outwards was his only means of tracking time. Marcus turned over his greasy pillow and closed his eyes again.
He dreamed and mused on all sorts of things. Sometimes, he dreamed of waking up. He would be standing in the middle of his small, narrow bedroom, facing the window, his back to the door, his bed to the right. Every detail would be perfect, down to the nails in the splitting floorboards, the mildewed clothes under his feet, and the weight of his own body on his bones. The smell of old food, still air, stale beer, and soiled linens clouding in his nose. It was life, replicated for him in the safety of his bed.
Other times his various musings bled into each other in a warm, smeared mess. In one such mess, it occurred to him that he must have been in bed for quite long time for that little tree to have grown so high. Perhaps if he stayed in bed long enough, his body would start to eat itself, burning away calories and fat and muscle until his skin was stretched tight over his bones, crackling and brown like the ends of overcooked turkey legs. And then maybe, if he stayed long enough, his room would freeze over in an ice-age, preserving what remained of his body to be stumbled upon by backpackers. They’d put him in a museum, all curled up and crunchy, and scribble their speculations on clipboards. But it would all be meaningless because they’d never find out whose theory was right. They’d just keep him in a refrigerated glass box, not really sure what to do with him, only that they had to keep him cold.
Marcus shivered awake.
He blinked in the pale light under the sheets. Slowly, he moved his mouth away from a puddle of drool and smacked his lips. Hunkering further into the covers, his post-adolescent beard scraped down his pillowcase and across the sheets, plucking at threads along the way. Cool air was seeping into the bedding, rendering Marcus fetal in defense of his stale warmth.
Too cold to keep sleeping, he breathed in his own smell and pondered. Maybe there was another blanket on the floor. At the idea of poking his head out to look, his mouth contorted. It was either lie in the semi-cold, unwilling to look but unable to sleep, or brave the frigid air with a lowered body temperature.
When he decided he could take no more purgatory, he took a breath and uncurled his head and shoulders from the sheets.
There was indeed, a blanket on the floor.
He reached out and swatted lamely at his blue wool blanket lying out of reach. Then he gave up and flopped over the side of the bed, his right arm crumpled on the floor at the wrist and more drool oozing out over his patchy beard.
He was still so cold.
This wasn’t enough? What more could be asked of him? He was awake – he had moved – why couldn’t the planets align and industry make peace with nature and mankind make peace with God so the blanket could just be one fucking centimetre closer?
Marcus knew what must be done. The thought of it alone was exhausting.
Leaving his arm limp, he shifted his torso towards the edge of the bed. Then he stretched out his arm and just brushed the curling fibers of the blanket with the tip of his middle finger. The exertion made his eyes close and roll back in his head.
He would have to move his hips, keepers of the heat from his loins. The risk of losing even more warmth was high and so was the risk –he couldn’t bear to think it – of falling out of bed.
Marcus drew up whatever strength remained and flexed the muscles in his back and abdomen to start dragging his lower body. He tugged on the edge of the bed. He tugged again – nothing was moving. He tugged and tugged and reached desperately for the blanket, but it still eluded him. He blew the hair from his eyes and crumpled once again, head lolling, his arm a pile of bones on the floor.
This is how it ends. The idea flickered quietly into his mind, like muted footage of lightning splitting a tree. I’ll die here.
He felt something in his thigh.
Marcus’s brow creased. He rolled his head and shoulders over until he was on his back, fully in bed. Then he raised his head to see his legs.
A root was growing through his right thigh. Pale and beige, it was about the size and shape of a baby elephant’s trunk and bore the ridges and pockmarks of fresh bark. It looked healthy, and even a bit swollen, like it was on its way to growing larger.
Marcus’s eyes followed the root’s path from his leg, off the foot of the bed to the window frame, which was busted loose from its moulding with thin, leafy branches poking through jagged holes at the edge of the glass. Wind whistled through the space around the window and he shivered in the trickle of rainy air. More roots were entwining themselves around the exposed brick, tunneling through mortar and poking through the knotholes in the floorboards. Palm-sized mounds of deep green fuzzy moss had popped up in the gaps where the hardwood met the brick wall. The view through the window, which was still wedged into place, was green with leaves like curious faces pressed against the glass, shining from the rain.
He looked back at his leg. The root had grown through the top of his thigh, into his flesh and down into the mattress, pinning him. He sat up sharply, and flinched as crust fell into his eye. Flakes of it fluttered into his chest hair as he rubbed the remaining residue away.
When he had stopped rubbing, the root was still there.
He leaned his chin on his hand and drummed his fingers on his jaw, staring at the young tree growing out of his roof and into his top floor bedroom window.
When did he get into bed? When he did, the sapling was three inches high. It now had footholds in the bricks, the window frame, the floorboards, and Marcus. The thing was latched to the building like an octopus, leaning bulbously over the edge of the roof, but with branches striking out in all directions.
And there it was again, the strange sensation. It wasn’t pain – surprising, since he had always assumed impalement to be painful. It was more like… when acid laps against the lining of a stomach.
Slowly, he leaned forward and flicked the root with a fingernail. It gave a dull thud.
Gripping the sheets, he pulled his legs again. His left leg moved, but his body just pivoted around the penetrating root.
He looked back at the blanket on the floor, then at the door to his room, bolted from the inside. His mouth went dry; he chewed his fingernails and bobbed his left leg up and down, holding his breath.
Through his fingers, he said: “I can’t get out of bed.”
Sweat beaded on his forehead; he scratched at his beard and rubbed his dirty hair; he shifted in his seat. In a release of gibberish, Marcus grabbed the root with both hands and throttled it. It didn’t budge. It grew deep and strong through his leg and the bed beneath.
He went back to chewing his nails and staring, his brain frothing in panic. Sick, restless, clawing at his skin, he knew he’d perish in this place.
Arnika’s umbrella was blown inside-out and wrenched from her hand, so she cursed at it, abandoned it to the wind, turned up her collar, and sprinted with the spring rain lashing at her face. Eyes scrunched up against the weather, she ran down the derelict block of student housing and hammered on the front door of Marcus’s house eight times before remembering she had a spare key for it. Water flicked off her hair as she flew up the stairs and collided with his bedroom door.
There was no answer after five hard blows with her fist. She tried the knob. Five more blows.
“Jesus, shit, Jesus… Marcus if you’re dead in there, I swear to God…”
Arnika took a step backwards and eyeballed the warped doorframe. Then she launched herself forward and slammed her foot into the door. Old flakes of paint fluttered into her hair.
“If you don’t unlock this door, Marc, I will kick it down. I’ll do it! It’s your security deposit, not mine!”
She backed up to the other side of the hallway and kicked the door from a running start. The frame splintered and she could see light coming from inside.
Face pressed against the crack, she called:
When she inhaled to call again, the smell reached her. She clapped her hands over her nose and mouth and reeled back to the opposite wall. Her stomach and throat lurched violently, impulsively. She didn’t know what she smelled. She had never known the smell of rotting flesh.
Her hands slid up to cover her face. Back against the wall, she stood shaking.
This is it. This is when I find him.
She listened to her breath behind her hands. Outside, the wind had died down and the rain muttered apologetically on the elderly rooftop. It was some long minutes until she could bring herself to stillness. Jaw clenched, she lowered her hands. If somebody had to find him, it may as well have been Arnika.
With one hand against the wall and the rest of her body poised to strike, she took one last moment to appreciate her psyche as it was now: unmuddled by images of rotting corpses with their wrists slit open, or their brains blown out, or their lips deflated and stretched translucent across their teeth.
The door burst open, showering the floor with splinters.
Arnika stood panting, taking in the room. Almost every type of household garbage covered each flat surface, except for the bed. On the bed, naked to the waist, was Marcus, sitting up with the sheets over his legs. He grinned nervously:
Arnika was still.
“Why didn’t you answer me, Marc.”
“I…I was sleeping.”
“No one could sleep through that,” she said.
All he could think to do was shrug slowly.
That did it. Arnika kicked up a stack of garbage.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?! You disappear off the face of the Earth for weeks-”
“-and I get back from basic training to hear no one’s even seen you leave your room for…”she trailed off. Then she sat down on the bed next to him, sliding her fingers up her temples into her wet black hair. “Did you wait for me to leave the city?” she asked. “Did you wait for me to be gone? Because you know I’d never let you do this. You tried before and I made sure it didn’t happen. I know your history – I was there with you – so for me to get here and have you give me this ‘maybe-if-she-thinks-I’m-not-here-she’ll-go-away’ bullshit really doesn’t fly.”
“You’re damn right, you’re sorry.” Her nose wrinkled. “No, you know what? Don’t be sorry. Not about that.”
“You should be sorry,” Arnika continued, “for this horrific, otherworldly, wretch-inducing, goddamned, motherfucking stink. Do you know what I…” she softened, “…do you understand what I thought out there?”
They looked into each other’s faces. Marcus watched a drop of water snake down her brown forehead and disappear into her eyebrow. The rich dark eye beneath it blinked slowly.
After a while, he said: “I really am sorry.”
Arnika sighed through her nose. Then she visibly gathered herself up.
“Wow, Marcus, did you eat? At all? You’re skin and bones. Come on, let’s get you cleaned up and something hot in your belly.”
The sheets didn’t so much billow as flop stiffly to the floor when Arnika stood and tried to flourish them off the bed. Their ragged hem fell from her open fingers as she stared at Marcus’s leg.
“I got a root in my leg,” sighed Marcus.
“You got a root in your leg,” replied Arnika. She opened, closed, and opened her mouth. “How,” she asked, “did you get a root in your leg?”
Rubbing his eye, he pursed his lips in thought.
“Well, after we last talked I wasn’t in a great place. You know. So I came back here to do some serious thinking; re-evaluate where my life has taken me. I decided I had to focus a lot on where I came from – really,” his lip twitched, “get back to my roots.”
Not a single muscle moved in Arnika’s face.
“I’m kidding.” He said. “I have no idea.”
“Well, we’ve got to get it out!”
“No we don’t.”
“Um, Marcus, yes we do. Do you have a saw somewhere? Maybe we can bring you to the ER with a piece still there.”
“We’re not cutting it off! I think it needs me.”
Incredulous, she blinked at him.
“I’m serious, I think I can feel it…” he hesitated, “…drawing the nutrients from my body.”
Arnika placed a hand on his left leg. “My friend,” she said softly, “you’ve been in here for too long.”
“Don’t patronize me! I made something. This exists because of me. You couldn’t imagine what it’s like to have your body support life.”
She looked down at herself and back up at Marcus with her head to one side.
“Pretty sure I could.”
“Not like this.”
“Marcus, you cannot stay like this, I mean how are you going to-”
“-go to the bathroom? How can I eat? How can I shower or go to class or pay my rent or see you ever again if I can’t get out of bed?” He touched the root. “This tree scares the bejesus out of me. This thing gets me so worried I’ll never escape this room, that my blood boils and I can’t sit still and Arnie, I don’t mind telling you, I think I could shit myself. I just shake in terror. I’m tormented,” he looked up at her, “and grateful.”
At a loss, Arnika stared into Marcus’s pale, lean face, shiny with grease, obscured by hair, with two endearing little green eyes piercing through it all.
Once again, she took a seat beside him. “How long have you been in here?” she asked, not unkindly.
“Since that tree wasn’t high enough to be seen through the window.”
“And now its roots are through the wall and it’s blocking the light of day.”
Leaning forward, she pressed her forehead against his, mostly for affection, but also to stop him from fully seeing her face. His breath was rank, but she stayed close, listening until his breathing slowed to the pace of her own.
“Trees don’t grow that fast,” she whispered.
Two floorboards cracked out from the floor and smashed into the window. The leaves outside swayed and Marcus and Arnika froze as wood creaked ominously. Roots entwined in other floorboards strained, snapped, and were pulled through the cracked window frame by the weight of the tree which lurched downwards again, pulling more of itself towards the edge of the roof below the window. Arnika barely had time to grab Marcus before the eavestrough outside finally gave way, screaming as it split, and the tree plummeted towards the street. Marcus was wrenched violently towards the window by his leg, but Arnika held on as tightly as she could. They were pulled off the bed and onto the floor before the root ripped out of his thigh, flicking blood across the walls, and disappeared.
Cool, damp air and the sound of rain floated in where the wall used to be. The tree, still clutching the remains of the brick wall, lay mangled in the street in a halo of broken wood and masonry. Its trunk was squat and round and the roots mirrored the span of the branches, like a titanic Bonsai tree.
Marcus began to hyperventilate, clutching the wounds in his leg. Arnika swore and scrambled to her feet. As she ripped a long strip off the sheet and wound it tightly around his leg, Marcus’s breathing became half-laughter.
Bloodied and working furiously, Arnika said: “It’s alright, it’s alright, what’s funny?”
“I got out of bed…”
Without looking up, she shook her head and laughed sickly. “You did, Marc, you did. How does it feel?”
“I know it does. Let’s get you to a fucking hospital.”