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Two field biologists from N.J. Fish & Wildlife discover a pair of waterfowl clinging to a metal cleat with twig-like growths protruding from their skulls and have traced the contagion to a common marsh grass called Phragmites. Shortly after their reporting to the CDC, the contagion has found a human host, then another and another. In less than 24 hours, Phragmites will release their seed to the world, carrying the contagion with it. The event happens quickly and is known among those who study this grass as, November Seed.
This novella began as a warm up exercise for my upcoming Sci-Fi novel, Silversides. Word by word, this idea began to grow with encouragement from family and friends who persuaded me to publish it and I’m glad they did.
Every November, in the northeast, when the air is crisp and strong gusts sweep against a quilted sky, Phragmites will jettison their seed in one spectacular and wondrous event that can easily be mistaken for the first flurries of the season. But their legions are once again on the move, quietly increasing their ranks.
When I write, l listen to music. It inspires and guides me along the way. Below are the two pieces I listened to when I wrote this. Enjoy.
“Shit!” Matt said under his breath as he reached blindly into the dark, his fingers almost knocking the chirping phone from the nightstand. Swiping the screen cast a dim light into the bedroom and connected to a voice on the far end that spoke rapidly.
“Whoa!” Matt cut in, trying to rub the haze from his eyes. “Dan? Is that you?” He asked recognizing the voice.
“Of course it’s me! Who else would I be?”
Dan’s alertness was pulling Matt from his sleep. “What time is it?”
“I don’t know,” Dan responded. “That’s not important right now.”
Laurie, Matt’s wife, began to stir at his side. She was half asleep with her cheek buried into the pillow, her voice sounding like the vocal fry of so many young girls these days.
“Who is that?”
Matt held the phone away from his ear but could still hear Dan’s frantic voice.
“It’s Jake. From State Farm.”
“You’re such an asshole,” she half laughed. “It’s Dan, isn’t it?”
“Is he okay?”
“He’s sounds frantic, but I think so. Go back to sleep,” he whispered, and returned the phone to his ear.
“Dan! I haven’t been listening to a word you were saying. Slow down.” Matt sat up and draped his legs over the side of the bed where the crisp November air was dense at his feet. Laurie liked to sleep with the window cracked open, but on Matt’s side of the bed. The murderer’s side she called it, the side closest to the door. It was freezing, so he pulled the duvet cover up along his shoulders and squinted his eyes, finally able to see the time on his phone.
“It’s three in the morning Dan! This can’t wait a few hours?”
“Matt, you need to get to the President of the United States!” Dan shouted into the phone.
Laurie rose up on her elbows. “Is it really three o’clock?”
Matt pushed the phone into his lap to muffle the volume.
“Yes, but try and go back to sleep. If it’s important, I’ll wake you.” Content, she sank beneath the covers with only a tuft of blond hair poking out.
“Dan! Dan!” Matt’s harsh whisper silencing him for the moment. “You woke Laurie.”
“Tell Laurie I’m sorry, but you need to get to the President, Matt! We don’t have much time. I checked the weather; we have a day, two at best. It might already be too late.“
“Too late for what? What are you talking about? I don’t think being a field manager qualifies me to get in touch with the President of the United States. Are you stoned?”
“Matt! The Phragmites!” Dan shouted through the phone.
“Oh Christ,” Matt yawned. “You woke me at three in the morning to tell me about your alien invasion? Dan, it was funny two nights ago and you almost had me there,” Matt whispered, cupping his hand around the phone. “But we were both stoned and it’s not funny right now.”
“No, no, no. It’s not what I originally thought! It’s different. I’ve got new data. It’s more than–” Dan managed to say before Matt swiped the phone, disconnecting the call. He sat there, shaking his head in disbelief, then threw the phone back onto the nightstand, his jellyfish screen saver rippling a dull green throughout the room. Matt plucked his feet from the cold and slid them beneath the crisp cotton sheets; his eyes were wide open, his head resting on the palms of his hands behind him. He almost started to laugh. Two nights ago, Dan pulled out a vaporizer and some Mango Krush— “medicinal”, Dan contended and began to spin his hypothesis that Phragmites was not brought to the US from Europe, as early botanists had thought, but was an aggressive alien species spreading along brackish waters of every shoreline in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, working its way inland. Dan’s basis was that Phragmites was seeded by a distantly traveled probe terraforming Earth ahead of an invading entity.
Matt’s phone began to chirp, and the trill of the MP3 told him it was Dan calling back. Groaning, he sprang up in time to answer on the second loop.
“Dan! I’m up now. So is Laurie. I am going to get dressed and will be there in half an hour. Have some fresh coffee for me–I mean that!” He ended the call before Dan could say another word.
Laurie was sitting with her knees drawn up under the covers. There was concern in her voice. “Is it serious?”
Matt’s chuckle eased her concern. “I can’t think of the last time Fish & Wildlife of South Jersey was ever serious, but when he gets excited like this, my phone will keep ringing. I promise to call you if it’s anything to worry about. Now please, go back to sleep. No reason both of us need to be up right now,” he said through a yawn. “You still have four hours, so enjoy it.” He leaned over and placed his dry lips against hers. She purred and slid beneath the covers then peeked back at him with a smile, his screen saver shutting off, plunging them both into darkness. Sliding once more to the edge of the bed, he threw back the duvet and placed his feet onto the floorboards. They were cold. He rushed toward the bathroom, his naked body in full isometrics, his arms crossed in front of his chest. Colder still were the bathroom tiles as he flipped on the light switch expecting to see his breath.
Matt and his wife Laurie lived in a bungalow on the south end of Ocean City, NJ, where the view every morning of Corson’s Inlet was a welcome site. But the night’s freezing rain, like a heavy tablecloth, had weighted the bayberry branches to the ground and the sound of frozen sand crunching beneath his feet made for an unwelcome walk to his truck. It took some effort to open the frozen door and then start the engine before getting on his way. Backing out of his driveway he drove up West Avenue, hunched forward with knots in his back and the cold air from the vents stabbing at him, but grateful the traffic lights were in winter mode, giving him a clear run without having to stop every hundred yards. Ten minutes later he was merging onto the Parkway North. There were no taillights to follow and no headlights approaching from the southbound lanes. The temperature outside of his vintage Land Rover was 21 degrees, while the heater inside continued to blow cool air and the frost from his breath fogged the windshield. Even the sign for Exit 29 seemed a wish for the day’s high as he veered off and followed the ramp, the left blinker dimming as he slowed. He stopped, looked both ways and felt the solitude before turning left onto May’s Landing Road. A few minutes later he arrived at Somerset Cove Marina where a sign hung on rusted chains, stenciled with NJ Fish & Wildlife, Tuckahoe Branch Lab. Matt turned right onto the gravel road, the tires picking up anything they could to assault the wheel wells.
Dan could see Matt heading toward the lab as the headlights from his truck bounced along the ruts and potholes.
When Matt pulled into the lab parking lot, Dan yanked open the passenger side door and jumped in, rubbing his hands together for warmth. He looked terrible, with dark circles under his bloodshot eyes and his sparse facial hair giving him a Fu Manchu look.
“Dude! You look like shit.” Matt remarked.
Matt, it’s incredible. You have to see this!”
“Can we get out of the truck? I’m freezing.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Dan said, nodding with thought as he bolted from the passenger side, leaving the door open for the cold to take his place. Dan was back in the lab before Matt could turn off the key and wait for the engine to cough out a few misfires in protest. He grabbed his pack, circled the truck to shut the passenger door and climbed the stairs. He was glad to see Dan had stacked some wood outside the door and could smell the burning oak in the air. Inside was paradise; the wood stove glowing in the corner next to the tattered leather couch he often studied on and the smell of freshly ground coffee was worth the early ride in.
“Fresh ground Sumatra, half & half poured first, coffee second, right?” Dan recited, handing Matt his first cup. Guilt quickly set in as Matt put things in perspective. He would never want another partner or be in need of a better friend. They were college pals from Stockton in South Jersey; MARS majors taking a surf break between classes when they met on an empty street in the north end of Atlantic City back in the late nineties. It was a November day just like this, west wind, ebbing tide and shoulder high barrels peeling off the jetty. Matt and Dan had arrived at the same time, racing to pull on their wetsuits, when a squad of police cars flooded onto the street, the officers jumping out, guns drawn, running toward them. Matt and Dan faced off, reasoning the other was the cause, only to see the officers rush between them and up the stoop into the building, shots firing. They grabbed their boards and coolly walked to the beach, like this happened every day, neither willing to show they were scared shitless. By the time they hit the water they were the best of friends.
Back in the lab, Dan led Matt to the negative pressure hoods with several glass slides scattered about.
“I need you to check this out. I’ve got a live culture going, but have no idea what I’m looking at. I’m hoping you’ve seen this before.” Dan said as he ushered Matt to the scope.
“How long have you been here?” Matt asked, reluctant to surrender the warmth of the mug as he placed it onto the table; his hands were just starting to warm.
“Oh, I don’t know, Saturday morning?” Dan responded, not sure himself. All Matt could do was gesture with a nod and peer into the eyepiece. He was confused by what lay before him. Highly magnified were parallel rows of crystalline structures, resembling marine plankton. Unlike plankton, these intricate structures were replicating with agility and no sign of mitosis; the way a 3-D printer forms something, layer by layer. Lifting away from the eyepiece, Matt looked at the magnification setting. The structures were just under 1 mm wide. He returned to the scope and observed the elongated horns of the crystals locked into one another like an Escher drawing. There was a latticework of filaments weaving through the hollow cavities, as if they were nerves passing through vertebra. Matt pulled away from the eyepiece to look at Dan.
“Dude, I have never seen anything like this? Where did this come from and what’s the petri medium? It looks like blood!”
Dan handed Matt a pair of gloves and a mask. “Here, put these on. And it is blood.” That got Matt’s attention. He led Matt to the far section of the lab and walked him through the necropsy of a pair of American Bitterns, common along the estuaries of the east coast. They were splayed out on dissecting trays under a set of hoods. Each bittern had a twig-like growth, attached to the base of the cranium, just below the occipital plate. Each twig curved outward along the skull, then shot straight up, like antenna with elaborate branching, each unique. Dan pointed out the small bladders at each bifurcation of the twigs. He had carefully cut away one of the skulls to reveal the growth inside. There was no mistaking that the twigs had punctured the cranial cavity, from the inside out, while a chord of tendrils had branched into specific areas of the brain.