Nolan still wouldn’t eat one apple from the mighty tree in his yard, even though his grays stood out like violin strings and the body beneath the tree had surely rotted to bones. His father had passed away quietly two weeks ago, leaving him the Victorian house and the niggling uncertainty about what lay buried outside. The housecleaning only uncovered childhood memories and closets of ordinary things. Nolan found no record or memento of the sex offenders his father would often joke about: the one supposedly shot for wandering too close to the house, the other one shot for sport, or the others killed for bad looks or mere principle. He found no more sills to dust off since moving in and no more cupboards to sort through on his way out. He kept his cleaning gloves on and took with him the spotty old shovel from the basement.
Outside, however, he froze like the two deer who stared at him from under the green cloud of the apple tree. They made their hundred or so assessments of distance and danger before bending their necks again. They ate the bruised apples littering the lawn, just as the roots had eaten through the equally browned corpse over the years. This year’s apples probably contained only a few particles from one of the dead men. Nolan leaned the shovel on the side of the house, his house now, and the deer froze again like Christmas decorations.
Although they vacuumed up the assimilated flesh, the mother and fawn didn’t deserve to lose their late-summer treat. The tree didn’t deserve an uprooting, nor the lawn a giant muddy mess. Nolan closed his eyes, but the memories of his father’s confessions remained. The dark jokes had ended when Nolan’s diaper days ended, perhaps in the hope that he wouldn’t remember.
But he did remember. He stared at the apple tree as it appeared to take a deep breath of sunlight. Not even its vast roots could cover the number of bodies his father had described.
He walked to the trees bordering the lawn, a canopy forbidden to him until today. The scant path still showed itself where his father would take buckets of apples–every apple–into the woods. Nolan gathered some branches off the grass and threw them onto the trail. They only drew more attention there. He knew he could never hide his encroaching grays either. He wanted a wife soon, a young enough woman to bear him children, and even wealthy retirees like him needed immaculate properties to attract anyone. What if she went down that wooded path? What if she found rectangular mounds with no apple trees at all?
Nolan sidled down the trail, dodging every branch that reached for him. They seemed to reach for everything, but had failed to fill in the incriminating path. It led a ways off his property to a cluster of thinner apple trees. They struggled to grow amid bullies, stuck in the crowd of the wilder firs and alders. At the roots, above the roots, lay jawbones with flattish molars and gray fillings.
Nolan counted four human jaws. He didn’t bother counting the mossy chunks of vertebrae the scavengers had left behind. The crumbling scat risen around the bones didn’t help with the foraging, but it certainly helped hide the remains. Nolan rubbed his temples until they turned pink.
He glared at the sky and inhaled through just his nose. The treetops blocked his view of the mother tree on his lawn, and the earth hid her roots, yet he still knew that no human being lay tucked beneath her. Animals, after all, could scatter and dissolve even the marrow. To bury the bones would only preserve them. The revelation made Nolan’s stomach turn. The rest of him wanted to turn as well and retreat to his tidy home. The faint trail, however, continued the opposite way.
He stomped further into the woods, brooding over why his father would lie about burying a body under the tree. The vigilante had wanted to pass on his sick principles to his son, planting them into the subconscious formed in the toddler years. Nolan nearly hollered in rage at the bits of rural road visible through the branches. He strained to see the messy trail ahead, yet he also wished for it to disappear.
After climbing a hill, he turned and spotted the beautiful roof of his house. It loomed like a flag risen through the greenery. The blend of shingles looked neater than a weaver’s nest–neater than its feathers.
The trail soon reached a dead end for whatever grim reason. Nolan crouched and spied an old stone well several meters ahead in a trash-laden clearing. He gasped as he looked up the well at the two-meter tower of beer bottles risen from the depths. They overflowed from the top, having piled up from the bottom. The gamut of vices, including syringes and tapestries of draped condoms, tapered toward the sky like a turret. The well’s topmost stones lay around the base, having crumbled off from the weight of the diabolical heap. Even the moss on the stonework had turned brown, stained further with cruddy dribbles of vomit.
Most of the stains looked recent, fresh enough for the cloud of busy flies.
Nolan squinted too much already at the heap from hell, but he somehow squinted more. Some green graffiti on the well, most of it facing him, read HAPPY HUMPING. He detected older neon colors–he had never seen neon brown before–which spelled out the same message beneath the green layer. Several gym mats surrounded the well in dangerous proximity to the tower of bottles. The mats had spray-painted squiggles too, but lacked the upkeep given to the letters on the well. Clothes and sun-blanched bondage gear lay bundled up either for use as pillows or simply abandoned. Nolan couldn’t tell which.
He crept forward, crouching to duck the boughs or keeling over sick–again, he couldn’t tell which. He noticed an overgrown driveway which welcomed all decadents into the scenic wild. The adjacent clearing with the well looked trampled down by sneakers and sex. Trees surrounded the recess, creating an accessible slot in nature where the urbanites wouldn’t have to trudge far for privacy. Nolan spotted a familiar intersection through the evergreens. Both roads led to different cities, but cities very much the same. Their most softened voluptuaries spilled out here, converging to shake or make something far worse than improvised pillows.
The hiss of a car approached, so Nolan stayed down. He could almost see the locals’ oblivious faces through the poplar branches. While kneeling, he noticed a set of tracks too close to each other for a car and too thin for ATV tires. The driveway had several of them in the trampled moss, and they all came from motorized wheelchairs. The ruts went deeper on the shortest path to the well. They led to modernity, to rampant and limitless hedonism. Once the gallivanters burned out their organs with drugs, they came here to burn the rest of the way.
Another car passed. No–it slowed and pulled over. Nolan turned and sprang back to the path of his father.
He earned two badges for it, wet mud stains on his knees. He winced at them, then grimaced at what jiggled from the taxi. Two androgynous forms lumbered out, heavily tatted, with plus-size tube tops and buzz cuts for daily ease. The woman, built like a tractor, wore something which resembled a curtain around her waist. It covered a backside as disproportionate as a wasp’s. A man, Nolan assumed, toddled behind her, wearing the same. A collection of cold sores made the rest of him look outright gorgeous in comparison. The couple’s bloated heads sagged more than anything else below them, like rotten jack-o’-lanterns.
They thudded into the handsome and healthy forest. The sun fell into their waistband pockets and wrung sweat out of their love handles. The two could still walk, but hated every step. The taxi sped away, leaving them to bash down their abilities further. The end goal: nursing home admission by 40. One of the urban behemoths held a folded tarp under one arm. It looked sticky already, even before the duo spread it over some twig-covered mats.
Nolan stared at something else, something worse: a sunken patch of earth at the trail’s end. His father had knelt there for hours, stiff and bitter. He could fire his .30-30 round through two, maybe even three orgy goers embraced in just the wrong way. He would have waited for their hearts to align. The bottles in the well, just a glint at the bottom in those days, wouldn’t even glare in his eyes. All the glares went the other way.
The lovers crashed and sprawled on their tarp, their bodies the sickest nodules on Earth, spheres of every pleasure amassed. Nolan saw death even without any bullet taking the lead. He saw a modern flourishing of all the wrong genes, meat for the hospitals, hulks to keep the nurses well paid. They begged to die so they could flee the world in some twisted elation.
They had constellations of skin problems Nolan had never thought about before. He turned and fled. The breeze took from his clothes the precious scent of cleaning products he once found annoying.
He had better stuff, gas in the basement. The mats would burn, but so could the trees. The police might even poke around the ashes and find the stupid, stupid, stupid trail his father had made when hunting humans. Nolan carved it wider while he ran, breaking branches and tramping down ferns. He sped from the easiest deathtrap in the world, where anonymous gluttons hooked up and vanished in a land of bears and foxes.
Nolan nearly coughed up his own pounding heart when he heard a voice call after him.
“Lover boy, come back! We need a free squirt!”
Their laughter echoed after him. They had spotted an alien within their clubber world, a lean man whose cleaning clothes looked downright dapper. Nolan let the boughs whip his face. He ran off the trail for more. The erasures never came. The branches closed behind him, never quite beating back the cackles.
He emerged on his lawn, his shirt lashed green with added cobwebs and fewer buttons. The deer had gone, perhaps to another forest. Nolan sought refreshment just as they had. He picked up the cleanest apple from the spread and wiped it off hard with the inside of his sleeve.
When the couple’s booming laugh came again, it hit like inverted thunder, a bellow from the ground. Nolan had one glove off and the apple nearly pressed to his panting lips. The whole forest seemed to shudder, and a round of robins flew away to a far-off valley. He watched the birds scatter. The serenity of his home likewise dissolved into the sky. He dropped the apple and put on his glove.
Nolan went inside, drank from the tap, and went back out with a laundry basket. He gathered every apple off the lawn and carried the entire load down the trail like a farmer with a wheelbarrow. He flung the apples over the jawbones and vertebrae for the foxes, raccoons, and porcupines. The bones would disappear too, once the bears and coyotes came.
He felt his gut churn like before, only worse. He had to keep his distance from the ugly bones. Nature had built those mistakes, and nature could take them back.
The cackles struck his house in sick rhythm, a grand speech from the promiscuity pandemic. The laughter vibrated through the kitchen window even after he closed it. He saw his ominous gray streaks in the reflection, right where his future wife would probably stand. She would want to gaze out to adore the rabbits that hopped around the lawn every fall.
The faint shrieks echoed in the house with everything finally put away. The swinging front door also sounded too familiar today, but the cleaning had to get done in the summer. Nolan put the shovel back in the basement and took the old .30-30 out of the cabinet.
BIO: Nicholas Stillman writes science fiction with medical themes. His work has appeared in The Colored Lens, Bards and Sages Quarterly, The Martian Wave, Not One of Us, and Helios Quarterly Magazine.