By Steve Neal
Huddled beneath a blanket on the porch’s love seat, Tam and Antony looked over the shadowed canopies and moonlight-stained rooftops of Kingsport. On a hill above the town, with all of humanity’s influence diminished to the amber glow of dim bulbs and shifting silhouettes, they had the perfect seat for the lunar eclipse. In town, countless others gathered to watch the once in a lifetime event. Bonfires flickered amidst groups, lone astronomers adjusted their telescopes, and photographers triple-checked their aperture. Not a soul in the town slept close to midnight, not one willing to miss such a rare occurrence.
With a table full of mismatched snacks and travel bottles of wine, the night promised to be the perfect end to the couple’s getaway. Moonlight’s influence on the world steadily declined. Silver accents on treetops faded to a dull grey, the town softened and still.
“Does everything go dark? Like, will we be able to see?” Antony asked, finishing off the last dregs of wine in his glass.
Tam snickered. “Yes, we’ll be able to see, dear. Why not slow down a bit? Don’t want you snoring five minutes in.”
“And you said it’s two hours long?” Antony cracked the next bottle of wine and started pouring into his glass.
“Close,” Tam grabbed the small bottle and took a swig, keeping it by his side. “And it’s literally the only time ever this will happen, so stay conscious.”
Over the next half hour, while the Earth’s penumbra muted the moon and tarnished its left side, Tam gave Antony a tour of the stars. With little light pollution and a waning moon, distant infernos and millennia past mottled the sky. All of which Antony showed a slurred curiosity for. Every time a new configuration caught his eye, he’d point, waggle his finger, and grab Tam’s head to adjust his gaze until they viewed the same stars.
“And which ones are those?” He’d ask.
Tam always answered to the best of his ability, only making up names for a few obscure and distant clusters. Antony wouldn’t notice, all the information likely to dissipate within an hour at best. It wasn’t worth getting up to grab his phone, to miss even a second of the beauty laid bare for them.
An abyssal sea swept across the moon’s surface as it passed into Earth’s umbra. All detail and texture sucked into nothingness.
“That’s terrifying,” Antony said. “It’s just,” he made a slurping sound, the sound of the moon succumbing to darkness.
“Just wait, it gets better,” Tam grabbed a handful of pretzels and nestled into Antony.
Once the shadow engulfed the moon, it only vanished for a few moments before a red hue descended down it. The blood moon. A deep scarlet tinge exacerbated the craters and pores on the surface.
“What. The. Shit,” Antony stretched each word. “You didn’t tell me it did that,” he stood, uncaring that Tam flopped to the side as he raced to the porch’s railing. “And it’s going to stay like this?”
Tam sat up straight and helped himself to another glass of wine. “Amazing, isn’t it? Sunlight’s refracting off the Earth’s atmosphere and creating the optical illusion.”
“And the stars,” Antony’s arms flapped around above his head. “You knocked it out the park with this one. It’s gorgeous.”
Antony’s ceaseless, alcohol-fueled enthusiasm grew as the minutes rolled by. He marched from one end of the porch to the other, always with a new question or comment about the night sky. Each time he passed Tam on the love seat, he held out his glass to receive a top-up like a marathoner needing refreshment.
It took twenty minutes for him to slow down and find his place back at the railing. Bent at the hip, his forearms rested against the wood, a slight sway existed in his poise like a boat bobbing on gentle waves. He didn’t instinctively clutch his wine glass in his right hand at all times, the dregs settled in the bottom of it on the table.
“That’s pretty,” he slurred.
“Isn’t it?” Tam had sprawled out on the love seat, back against the cushions, body aligned with the sky.
“You said the light wouldn’t change.”
Tam giggled. “It hasn’t, you’re just a little drunk, dear, the light is fine.”
“No, the field has red in it.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Tam sighed, already exhausted by this stage of Antony’s intoxication.
“Really, it does. Look,” Antony stiffened his posture, held onto the railing for balance, and pointed a hand out into Kingsport.
Tam grumbled as he left his cocoon of blankets and pillows to walk across the deck. At Antony’s side, he found himself subjected to rigorous jostling and repositioning by his partner, until his head pointed in the correct direction. He was right. Far across town, behind the weathered church spire, a field had rows of red at its edges. Tam squinted and tilted his head.
“They’re rose bushes, you boob.” He slapped his partner on the thigh.
“What about those over there then?” Antony’s arm swung across town; a finger directed at someone’s backyard.
“Probably the same—”
Tam cut himself off. It wasn’t just one yard doused in patchwork spots of burgundy but multiple. No rhythm or pattern to the hue, sporadic portions of the world dyed. From such a distance, Tam couldn’t tell what they were. It was impossible for moonlight to cause such a phenomenon. Everywhere he looked, a new patch of red appeared. Even places previously doused in midnight gained small patches of red when his eyes scanned across them.
“Shit, you were right,” Antony stumbled away from the railing, staggering across the deck without his crutch to hold him upright.
At the far end of the porch, thin dark vines weaved themselves between the floorboards. Some curled up and around the railing. Others entangled the trees, coiling around their trunks and boughs. Tiny buds sprouted from them; bright red teardrops twisted on the vine to orient themselves toward the moon.
“You didn’t tell me this happened,” Antony said as he crouched down to inspect the odd vegetation closer.
“It doesn’t. This isn’t okay,” Tam said as he continued to scan Kingsport.
A still night came alive in front of him. Silhouettes everywhere crowded the splotches of red. Pinpricks of light pierced through darkness everywhere as flashlights and cameras turned on to see the rare plants in a better light.
“They smell a bit odd, kinda like… the sea. Salty.” Antony was on his hands and knees, nose pressed up to one of the buds, huffing it.
A scream in the east of town reverberated through the night, the misery repeated through shrill echoes across miles. Tam stood on his tiptoes, neck stiff, and tried to see whatever caused such a strident reaction.
“I want to go inside. Something’s wrong with this.”
“Coincidence,” Antony kept exploring the plant, his fingers running over the vines and buds. “They feel metallic. Rock-solid.”
In town, the silhouettes moved again. Away from the red. Some crumpled in a heap or bent at the waist, others ran. Another shriek came. Tam turned, ready to drag Antony away from the plant and back inside.
The bud in front of Antony’s face burst open with a puff of red mist. Floorboards cracked and split from the force of the petals expanding, branches snapped, more screams came from around town. All around flowers bloomed, destroying whatever blocked their aggressive maturation. Floorboards cracked and split from the force, branches snapped, so the quarter-sized flower could spread to its fullest. Claret petals with sanguine striations that curved and forked like veins, gorgeous things seemed to glow in the darkness. More screams echoed throughout the night, but Antony’s own howls drowned them out as he rolled around on the floor, clutching his face. Pollen hung in the air around him, swaying as it floated downward.
“Inside. Up, up,” Tam picked him up by the armpit and dragged him inside, slamming the sliding glass door shut behind them.
Tam led Antony through the rustic decor of the living room, leading him around oak furniture and into the hall to the bathroom. At no point did he release his face or stop the ear-piercing scream.
“We gotta wash it out,” Tam stepped onto the dark tile of the walk-in shower and pulled Antony close to his side. “You have to move your hands, okay?”
Antony’s hands trembled as he lowered them. Spores covered every inch of his face, a fine powder that dyed his olive skin a neon red. Clumps stuck between his eyelashes and in his tear ducts. His screams intensified when cold water hit his face. He slapped and clawed at his own face. Incomprehensible pleas to remove the spores from his skin. Tam grabbed the nearest washcloth and took rough swipes at any patch of red, rinsing it between each wipe. Pink water ran over the grout like rivers bloodied from an upstream massacre. Antony’s scream weakened into whimpers once most of the spores were out of his eyes and nostrils. Tears fell from bloodshot eyes as his body tried to flush the remaining spores from his body. Even once Tam cleared every visible spore from Antony’s skin, the pair stayed in the water for an additional ten minutes, ensuring nothing still clung to his body.
“Are you okay? Does anything still hurt?” Tam asked, looking him over for any lingering signs.
Antony pointed at his left eye. “Stings,” his voice was shaky, barely audible over the shower’s patter.
“Okay, tilt your head back, we’ll flush it again.”
Tam cupped his hands beneath the shower stream and poured cool water into Antony’s eye multiple times, making sure he’d rinsed every bit multiple times.
Antony shook his head.
“It’s probably just irritated. Anything else hurt?”
“I just want to sleep.” Antony grabbed a towel from the rail and wrapped it around his sopping clothes before making a dejected trudge toward the hallway.
“Let’s keep you awake for a bit to monitor you, okay?” Tam removed the clothes stuck to his skin and started to dry himself off.
“Fuck that,” Antony’s voice carried from the living room, the most clarity his voice had since the flower’s discharge.
Alone in the bathroom, the panic and chaos dissipated, the reality of the situation dawned on Tam. How many dormant seeds lay in the Earth, growing once every few millennia to wreak havoc on their surroundings? How many times has it happened before? A multiplicative process, one that, in time, would douse the world’s entire atmosphere in thick clouds of pollen. Tam stared at the wall with a blank expression, mouth hung open. He found himself incapable of moving, frozen by the sheer impossibility of the moment, terrified by the prospect of it lasting longer than the night.
The thin window at the shower’s top caught his attention. A drift of spores flew by like shooting stars against the darkness, camouflaged as they passed across the moon. It might’ve been beautiful if they’d not caused such torment.
He collected himself, knew that Antony still stumbled around the cabin, likely in shock from the mix of alcohol and pain. Tam knew he had to get his partner to bed, sleep it off, and hope that tomorrow provided a quieter end to their trip. With the towel wrapped around his waist, he took a deep inhale and exited into the hall.
“We really should get you to bed. You’ll feel—”
As Tam walked into the living room, he saw the state of the world through the sliding glass door. Spores covered most of the deck, like a crimson snowfall powdered the world. New flowers burst open every second, adding to the mist that hung in the air.
“Will you please tell me I’m just too drunk and this isn’t happening.”
“I… I wish I could.”
“Gonna go lay down. I can’t with this shit,” Antony shuffled off down the hall to the bedroom at the far end.
Tam couldn’t pull himself away from the view. The deck was destroyed. Floorboards sat at odd angles, cracked and crooked to accommodate the bursting flowers. Multiple railings snapped in two, vines wrapped around either side of the bisected wood. A whole portion of the railing was missing, presumably somewhere on the forest floor below. All he could do was shake his head in disbelief and pray the blossoming ended soon. Through the door, he could hear the muffled screams of those afflicted by spores. The temporary blindness and burning skin. It couldn’t last all night. There had to be a limit to the dormant seeds, incapable of sprouting forever.
He thought he saw movement on the deck. A slight twitch or tremor, somewhere among the blood-red blanket on the world. After minutes of surveying the destruction, he saw the source. On the deck in front of the door, a single spore split open. A vine dragged itself along the wood, growing as it curled toward the sky. Tiny buds formed and grew in a matter of seconds. Others sprouted along with it, all searching for a clear view of the moon. A slight cracking brought his attention down to his feet. Along the track of the sliding door, a vine crept along the metal, its buds squeezed beneath the frame. Spiderweb cracks spread from the bottom of the door seconds before it shattered, the frame bent upward from the forceful opening. Tam threw himself away before shards and spores covered him.
He scrambled on his hands and knees up to a stand, and into the hallway. “The things broke the fucking door and I think they react to the moonli… are you alright?”
Antony stood on the opposite side of the room, across the king-sized bed, facing out the window, back to Tam. “I can’t see out my left eye.” He had no hint of distress or urgency in his voice. A tone as neutral as possible.
“Please, don’t mess with me. And get away from the window.”
“It doesn’t hurt. I’m sure it’s just irritation, right?”
Tam took a single step into the bedroom, unwilling to venture farther. “Please, let’s get away from the window.”
“Can you just look and fucking tell me it’s okay?”
Antony turned and took a stumbled step toward Tam. A stagger that betrayed a weakness in his body that couldn’t have come from the alcohol alone. He clutched onto the oak bedpost to stop himself from hitting the hardwood floor. “It’s alright, right?” He looked up at Tam.
A single vine emerged from his left tear duct and snaked along his bottom eyelid. Tiny buds bubbled up along the vine and twisted to re-align themselves with the moon, digging into Antony’s eyeball.
“Oh God, okay, um, lay down,” Tam tried not to panic, relying on the rational part of his brain. “On this side, come on,” he held out his hand and directed Antony onto the bed on the side away from the window.
“How bad is it?” Antony lay flat with his arms at his side, both hands gripped the duvet in anticipation.
“You’ve just got something stuck in there. Nothing bad,” Tam knew that they should go to the hospital, that the entwined vines likely needed surgery for removal. But that wasn’t possible. With the constant eruptions, stepping outside was tantamount to suicide.
“You’re an awful liar, you know?”
“I know, but… We’ll fix this,” Tam grabbed his backpack from next to the nightstand and rummaged around inside until he found his toiletries bag. Inside, a small pair of metal tweezers offered the only feasible solution. “Focus on your breathing, okay?”
“Just don’t rip out my eye.” A forced smile crossed Antony’s lips. The attempt at assuaging the situation betrayed by a tear that rolled from his right eye down to his temple.
Tam wiped it away with a gentle swipe of his index finger. “I’ll take care of you. Close your right eye and stay still, okay?”
The process was a delicate one, to grab the vine without digging the metal tip of the tweezers into Antony’s eye would be a strenuous task in stress-free conditions. A slight tremor in his hand from the adrenaline exacerbated the risk. The slight flicker and twitches of his eyelid moved the vine, made it bob and jump, never sitting still. Using the bridge of Antony’s nose to steady the tweezers, Tam lined up the prongs on either side of the vine.
He pinched and began to draw the tweezers away.
Antony squirmed as Tam dragged centimeters of vine out from inside his eye. Even with timid movements, the soft sound of flesh tearing accompanied each part extracted. Blood started to bubble around his tear duct. Through clenched teeth, Antony groaned and grunted, his feet kicked, palms slapped onto the floral duvet.
After he’d removed three inches, the vine snagged on something. Gentle pulls no longer granted any additional movement. Each pull, no matter how delicate, caused a guttural squeal to emerge from Antony’s mouth.
“I’m gonna need to pull hard, are you ready?” Tam re-positioned himself, knee rested atop Antony’s sternum, ready to pin him down.
Antony coughed and gagged as a response.
“Ant? Are you ready?”
He started to thrash again with violent desperation, both hands grabbed at his throat. His right eye shot open, a primordial panic in his pupil. Two sneezes came in quick succession that sprayed blood onto Tam’s stomach.
“Babe,” Tam tried to pin him down, but Ant fought with greater urgency; enough adrenaline and fear in his bloodstream to toss Tam off the bed onto the floor.
Antony flailed around on the bed and tried every position in hopes it might provide momentary relief. Cracks and thuds rang out throughout the house, Antony’s limbs smacking into the walls, and deeper, more structural thuds from other rooms. More frames bent, plaster split, windows shattered. Streams of blood dribbled out the sides of his mouth and nose as he rolled off the other side of the bed and flung himself at the wall. He grabbed the vine in his eye with both hands and started to yank with all his might. Each time, his scream became more stifled, unable to break through the blockage in the back of his mouth. More vines emerged, curving around his lips and onto his cheeks and chin. Others snaked out of his left nostrils and curled up and around onto the bridge of his nose. Still, he continued to writhe and pull, as if his fate weren’t sealed.
The first bud blossomed, bursting open against Antony’s left cheek, caving the bone inward and tearing flesh and muscle away from his face. Spores and blood splattered against the wall as one of the buds along his eyelid bloomed. The impact destroyed the eye and cleaved his brow ridge, leaving only remnants of its form against the rigid petals. With the left side of his face torn apart, Antony stumbled forward and crashed into the bed. Blood poured from the craters on his face, the vines lost inside the crimson cascade. In desperation, he reached across the mattress for Tam, who had huddled against the wall. When the bud inside Antony’s sinus cavity opened, it tore his face asunder. His forehead erupted down its center, while his nose and right eye tore from his face and fell downward, still attached to his lip and cheek.
Tam closed his eyes and tried to cover his face as pollen descended on him. An instant burning spread across the crown of his head and arms. He held his breath as he blindly navigated his way out of the room. The final, weak groans of Antony rang out. Choked gurgles as his consciousness faded. Tam wanted to collapse onto the bed, and quit right next to his partner, but searing heat across his skin refused to grant him even a second’s rest. Using the walls as a guide, Tam navigated his way from the room and down the hall to the bathroom. He stumbled his way into the shower and reached outward, slapping at the tile to find the knob. His fingers brushed against bumps in the tile. Attenuated lines that ran vertically up the shower wall, small bumps every few inches. From the clumps of pores in the drain, dozens of vines wound their way through the grate and over walls.
One above him burst, dousing his bare back in another layer of spores that brought the agony to unmanageable levels. Tam dropped down to his knees, unable to stand under that much pain. Another burst on the floor to his left, one that sent shards of shrapnel across the shower. Tam tossed himself to the side, hoping to avoid more pollen from stinging his skin. He crashed into the sliding door in the shower. He lay in the fetal position, protecting any cavities to the best of his ability. Pain overwhelmed him, spikes of agony causing him to gasp for air.
Dense air filled his lungs, a weight to his innards as spores clung to the interior lining of his body. He opened his eyes enough to see the room through his eyelashes. A thick fog of pollen clouded the bathroom. He watched as it sucked inward with each breath. Thousands of spores that’d hatch in a matter of minutes, blossom, and tear a hole in his chest. Through the blood red mist, Tam saw a faint glow through the window. A once in a lifetime sight.
Steve Neal is a neurodivergent, English-born writer currently surviving the summers of Florida with his supportive wife and less supportive cats. As a lifelong horror fanatic, he enjoys poking at the unknown and seeing what comes crawling out, as long as it isn’t spiders. Follow him on Twitter @SteveNealWrites.