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					Warwick Fraser-Coombe

Blackberry Crumble

Blackberry Crumble Alice woke with a jolt when the meteorite shrieked over the roof in the middle of the night. The impact in the neighbouring field shook dust from the rafters and rattled the windows in their frames like loose teeth. Derek snored beside her, oblivious, and was grouchy when she tried to rouse him. “Did you hear that? Something just fell from the sky.” She said. “Mmmmff, leave me be.” “There’s a fire in the woods. It’s still flickering. Look!” “Daft cow. Go to sleep.”

The following morning, Alice left the cottage to search for the meteor under the pretence that she was going to pick blackberries. It was a small lie but she no longer cared. As she’d discovered so recently and so devastatingly, their whole marriage was cemented over a deep trench of infidelity and deceit; it hadn’t taken long for the cracks to show. What was one lie compared with all those he told her? This holiday was a final attempt to shore up the damage, but so far it wasn’t going at all well. The day grew balmy as the sun crested the summit of the gas-flame sky, the breeze was crammed with so much pollen you could taste the honey on it, and it wasn’t long before she forgot her hurt as she marched across the land with a plastic pail in hand, enjoying the view and the simple joy of blackberry picking. It must have been the recent rain and the hothouse temperatures because the fruit was so abundant her fingers were stained with juice even before she was halfway towards the woods. The thriving undergrowth reached up to her waist, and left unattended, it

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exploded in any way it so desired. As a city girl she loved the wilderness. Mice scurried through the grass at her feet, small birds chirped and insects sang. If only Derek had bothered to join her, they might have salvaged something through this shared beauty, but as it was, the moment was all hers. Fifteen minutes work and the bucket was a quarter-full. Her boots squelched through a stream that meandered across the valley floor and on the other side the brambles grew to ever more epic proportions. Alice convinced herself she was perfectly relaxed as she entered the area of last night’s impact, and yet her breath was shallow and her heart skipped along far too briskly. Had the undergrowth seemed so wild when they’d arrived yesterday? Sure, they’d been hauling suitcases from the taxi, and were sweating, exhausted and sullen with each other; on the verge of yet another argument. She’d glanced across the field, scouting locations for the perfect, marriage-reviving picnic and although distant, the view hadn’t been of such a voluptuous jungle. In places the blackberry bushes grew nearly as tall as some of the trees. The sun dappled in through the leaves above. She smelt pine sap. Fat wasps droned past. There was something wrong here, she thought, the plants were unnaturally large. At first, Alice dismissed this absurdity, but the further she walked, the harder it was to deny. Soon, some of the blackberries she picked were as big as fists. She examined one such curio before she threw it into the bucket. It was warm and soft in her hands, smelling sickly-sweet, and vaguely repulsive. She recoiled from it. It wasn’t a rich soil that was responsible for this abundant crop, or the exceptionally rainy summer they’d been having; it was the arrival of the last night’s

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shooting star. She hung up her bucket on the rotted remains of an old fencepost and began to do what she’d intended all along, and started to search for it. She headed in the direction where the fire had burned, and the closer she got, the more the greenery became bloated and misshapen. Clumps of nettles shivered in the breeze, lumpish and evil-looking, they were equal in height to her husband, and the base of each stalk was as thick as one of his forearms. It didn’t seem odd to be comparing him to such a nasty plant; such was the state of things. The mutations weren’t just confined to a simple enlarging process either. The effects were more random and damaging. It was as if the DNA of the local foliage had been smashed with a hammer blow. Vegetation blossomed in irregular directions: Marsh Violets twisted into serpentine coils, strangling their neighbors in a murderous grip; Beech Ferns grappled with each other like wrestlers; Toadstools grew inverted. Scattered about were flowers with too many heads or petals. Their natural symmetry deformed by jade melanomas. Even the trees were warped, their roots reaching out of the ground to sip the air whilst branches stretched down, hulking limbs pressed into the dark soil. It wasn’t only the flora that was distorted as if by a funhouse mirror. The local fauna was equally fractured. She saw swollen beetles the size of bedroom slippers and hideous spiders as large as cats or small dogs. She thought of all those mice she’d heard scurrying through the underbrush and shuddered, what other horrors had she missed? Thankfully most of these creatures were dead or dying; they writhed on the ground, their legs flailing skyward in a desperate supplication to whatever deity they worshipped there. Gravity pummeled them. Their complex anatomies couldn’t support their new bulk, and they were failed by intricate respiratory systems that only worked in miniature.

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On the lip of the crater she discovered a bumble-bee the size of a washing machine. Thankfully it was no longer able to fly, though its wings still buzzed ferociously, humming like a disco subwoofer. The vibration thrummed through her feet and ribcage. The bee jabbed mindlessly at the air with a stinger that could probably have killed her. The crater itself was much smaller than she expected, less than six feet in diameter, and lay at the end of a deep slash in the earth. The heat of the impact had burned a patch of grass around it into a ghostly-grey ash. The air smelled of freshly turned soil and smoke. The meteorite was tiny considering all the clamor and fuss it had made as it scythed through the atmosphere last night. It was the size of an egg and looked like a broken shard of mirror, glittering faintly in the early morning light. Alice felt a strange tingling sensation as she reached for it, like pins and needles beneath her skin and inside her head. She balked at the last second. What psychosis was this? Did she really intend to touch the thing when its proximity had clearly done so much damage to the surrounding eco-system? Did she think for one second she was exempt from whatever odd radiation or disease it had brought with it? The thought shot through her like a bolt of lightening, waking her from the daydream she’d been having and she was on her feet and running away as quickly as she was physically able. That tingling persisted as she fled; a furious itching along the drumsticks of her bones, through the caves of her body, dancing across the membrane of her brain. She was out of the danger zone when it overtook her, and she collapsed amongst the bushes in a heap. When she woke six hours later, the sun had paled from the afternoon sky and the distant horizon was ripening to a deep pink. Alice felt scared and tired and alone. The

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shadows had spread like malignant tumors and there was a wintry coldness in the wind that hadn’t been there before. Her head pounded as she staggered grimly back, dragging the bucket behind her. Its contents were repulsive and she didn’t want to touch them for fear of contamination, but they were evidence enough to back up the madwoman’s tale she was going to tell. She vomited what little breakfast she’d eaten in the outside bathroom, and took five minutes to check herself over in the cracked mirror before she entered the cottage. Thankfully there didn’t seem to be any lasting effects of her encounter, but who could say how she would feel tomorrow? Derek sat in front of the television where she left him. “Where the hell have you been?” He said as she stumbled in. Alice couldn’t believe it, she assumed the cottage would be full of policemen, or a search party at the very least, “I told you where I was going. Didn’t you even try to look for me?” “Well, I shouted out for you at lunchtime, you didn’t come, the lunch got cold so I put it in the bin!” “But, didn’t you even wonder where I was, Derek? I’ve. . . had the. . . strangest experience. . .” “Yeah I wondered. Then I figured you’d probably gone into town and met some bloke-” “What? I can’t believe this! You thought that- I can’t believe it! I’m the one who can’t trust you remember?” “Oh how did I know you’d bring all that up?”

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Alice shrieked in fury and retreated back into the kitchen before she committed murder. I’m going to leave him, I really will, she thought, tearing off her wedding ring and staring out of the window into the coming night. There was no way she could stay with him a minute more. After all that he’s done and he’s still blaming me! Her eyes wandered to the sink where she’d left the bucket; inside was a sick-looking blackberry the size of a human head. The sight of it made her stomach convulse with disgust. It was syrupy cancer. She couldn’t remember a more hateful day her whole life through. Derek came in half an hour later. The kitchen was clouded with steam and the smelled of chopped vegetables. He was contrite. “I know things have been bad between us and I was totally out of order earlier. I want to make things right again. Can I help with the dinner?” “It’s okay,” she said without looking up, “I’m nearly done.” “What’s that over there?” “I made dessert as well. Your favorite, blackberry crumble.” “Yum yum!” He said smiling like a spoilt child, “What’s it like, is it really sweet?” “I haven’t had any. Probably won’t touch it. You know. Diet.”

Alice awoke past midnight and wondered (prayed) if the whole thing had been a dream. It was a while before she registered the empty space in the bed beside her and the quiet moaning coming from the darkness of the bathroom. Derek was a gloomy silhouette in the murk of the doorway. His shape was. . . wrong.

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“Alice, babe,” he sobbed, “Am I still asleep? I am, please say I am. There’s something really horrible going on.” Oh god in heaven. She thought as he fumbled for the switch. Please. Don’t turn on the light.

END

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