Bryan hadn’t been back to Seneca in years, but the small South Carolina town, nestled at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains and once renowned for its fall foliage and lake resorts, seemed remarkably unchanged at first glance. Perhaps there were fewer people on the streets, and the tiny historic district looked a little shabbier than he remembered, but other than that, you’d never know that the town had been the site of one of the worst nuclear reactor incidents in US history.
It had been almost four years since a partial core meltdown at the Oconee Nuclear Station caused everyone within a five mile radius to evacuate the town, his sister Belinda and her family among them. The disaster was quickly contained, but it was two months before the EPA lifted the evacuation order and allowed residents to return to the area. Clearly, not all of them had; upon closer inspection, there were closed storefronts on every block, and, on the edges of town, abandoned houses and trailers were being overtaken by cathedrals of kudzu. Belinda and her son Owen had returned; her asshole husband Dave had not. He now worked at a Kia dealership in Chapel Hill, paid child support sporadically, and saw his son perhaps twice a year.
The Fairfield Inn where Bryan and his family were staying had certainly seen better days. The rooms were shabby, the staff listless. Seneca had once been a town largely supported by tourism. Now, despite the EPA’s assurances, tourists were afraid to venture near this corner of the state, and the town, even as it tried to maintain outward appearances, was slowly falling into poverty and disrepair.
Bryan, seated in a sticky booth at the waffle house adjacent to the hotel, looked up from his lukewarm coffee as the bell over the door dinged. His sister entered the establishment, looking tired and thinner than the last time he’d seen her. But her face lit up when she saw him, and she hurried over to embrace him before settling into the booth.
“How was the drive down?” Belinda asked, as a silent waitress with thin gray hair plopped a menu down in front of her.
“Oh… long. We left around six o’clock this morning, and we just got into town an hour ago.”
“Claire and the kids doing alright?”
“They’re fine. All settled in. Claire wanted to see you, but the kids are exhausted. She decided to just stay in the room with them.”
This was a lie; his wife, a nurse at Johns Hopkins, did not care much for Belinda or any other member of his family. Their home in the Baltimore suburb of Columbia, where Bryan chaired the history department at Howard Community College, was only an eight-hour drive from Seneca, but culturally they were light-years away. Claire, originally from Boston, used to tease Bryan about his “hillbilly” roots.
“I can barely understand her when she talks,” Claire remarked after meeting his mother for the first time. About his sister, she was even less enthusiastic: “1980 called. They want their turquoise eyeshadow back.”
It did not help that Belinda, an aide at a local nursing home, tried to find common ground between her employment at Shady Elms and Claire’s work at one of the premier research hospitals of the western world. In his wife’s presence, Bryan felt ashamed of his family, where previously he had merely felt indifferent toward them. His father had died when he was young, and his mother had worked two jobs to keep food on the table. She was a hard and distant woman, seldom present at home and not given to displays of affection when she was. Belinda had mostly been responsible for Bryan’s care, but by the time she was in high school she was a lot more interested in smoking pot and running around with boys than in babysitting her kid brother. So Bryan spent a lot of time unsupervised during his formative years.
Still, Belinda was all the family he had left now. Their mother had died of congestive heart failure just a few days before the reactor meltdown at Oconee. Belinda had to postpone the funeral and burial until after the government scientists finished their investigations and declared it safe to come back. After she and her son returned to Seneca, now minus the absconded Dave, she had contacted Bryan about money for their mother’s burial. Bryan had been more than happy to comply. It assuaged his guilt at not attending the service. Claire would not hear of it- “Over my dead body are you going to drag my children into a radioactive zone!”- and Bryan didn’t want to go anyway. He and his mother had never been close. It wasn’t a convenient time to leave work. He was more than happy to finance the burial from afar and allow his sister to take care of the details. He was a little surprised by what she ended up with, however.
“It’s called Tree Pod Burial.” Belinda told him over the phone, a week after the evacuation order was lifted. “It’s cheaper than a casket. And it’s, like, environmentally friendly. I’ll send you a link.”
“Do you think…I mean, is this something Mom would’ve wanted?” Bryan asked. He honestly had no idea. His contact with his mother had basically dwindled to mailing her cards for Christmas and Mother’s Day.
“Why not? Mom liked trees.” Belinda replied, somewhat defensively.
“Well, whatever you think is best.”
“There’s a place right outside town. It’s called the Forest of Remembrance. It’s a cemetery where they do tree pod burial. Instead of depressing old gravestones, it’s got a bunch of nice trees.”
“Have you actually been there?” Bryan asked.
“I’ve driven past it, on my way to work. It’s nice!”
“Okay. If that’s what you think Mom would’ve wanted. I don’t mind paying for a more traditional burial.”
“Well, what if… “Belinda began, then broke off.
“Well, a regular burial is around eight thousand dollars. This tree pod thing is less than four thousand. What if you let me keep the difference?”
Deeply embarrassed, Bryan said of course, of course she should keep the extra money, and call him if she needed more. He knew she was struggling now that Dave had left her, even though rents and property values in Seneca had no doubt taken a steep nosedive since the reactor meltdown and subsequent evacuation. After they hung up, he clicked on the link his sister had sent him and was treated to a disturbing description of what awaited his mother’s corpse. It would be interred in a fetal position, inside a biodegradable “pod”, along with a tree sapling (choice of trees available). In a few years, a majestic oak, elm, or birch would shade his mother’s final resting place, ostensibly nourished by her decomposing remains. The idea repulsed him, but he supposed it was no worse than her lying underground in a box, pumped full of chemicals. It was the picture on the website that disturbed him the most: an illustration of a human body curled into a fetal position in its underground pod, surrounded by tree roots. It reminded him of mice, moles, and other small animals that hibernate in underground burrows, waiting for Spring so they could emerge.
Anyway, that was years ago. He’d never visited his mother’s resting place or seen her tree, nor had he seen his sister and nephew since before the meltdown. When Claire suggested Disneyworld in Orlando for their summer vacation, Bryan countered with a suggestion that they drive down instead of flying, stopping in South Carolina to visit Belinda and Owen and pay their respects to his mother’s tree. He was surprised when Claire agreed easily, but then again she was a nurse. She knew the dangers of radiation, and was no doubt satisfied that the danger in Oconee County had passed… or was, at least, negligible, for visitors just passing through. She did insist they bring their own bottled water to drink, and not use any of the tap water in Seneca while they were there, not even to brush their teeth. This seemed like a reasonable precaution, so the trip was planned. It was a day’s drive to Seneca. They planned to spend the night, visit Bryan’s mother’s memorial tree in the morning with Belinda and Owen, and be on the road by noon, arriving in Orlando around dark.
“So how are things with you and the kiddo?” Bryan asked, as the elderly waitress leaned over to refill his coffee. He couldn’t help but notice a large purplish-black mass on the back of the old woman’s hand, and two smaller ones on her scrawny forearm. His eyes recoiled from the sight, and he busied himself with packets of artificial sweetener as the woman took his sister’s order and retreated.
“Same old. He’ll be starting seventh grade soon. He’s supposed to go spend a week with his dad in August. I told him not to get too excited. You know Dave. He’ll probably cancel at the last minute.”
Bryan made a noncommittal grunt. In fact, he did not know Dave very well at all, but he was willing to take his sister’s word for it.
“And your work?”
“Same as always. Still plenty of old people around here needing their asses wiped.”
The waitress returned with a cup of coffee for his sister, and Bryan averted his eyes, but not before observing that she had one of those purple-black spots on her chin as well, and that it had two coarse gray hairs growing out of it.
Shuddering inwardly, he stared out the window until she was gone.
“How’s the town? You know, since the….”
“The nuclear disaster?” Belinda smirked, blowing on her coffee to cool it. “Oh, we’re doing okay. Most of the babies are born with two heads these days, but that just makes em twice as smart.”
“I’m sorry, I’m just….”
“You’re just a little chickenshit. You always were. I can’t believe you didn’t even come to Mom’s service.”
“Well, I thought about it, but Claire….”
“I know, I know. She wouldn’t let you. I’m surprised you’re here now. And that she’s not forcing you to wear a hazmat suit.” Belinda chuckled, and Bryan saw that she was only teasing him.
“She is making us all drink bottled water,” he offered, allowing himself a tentative laugh at his wife’s expense, although he was generally happy to defer to Claire’s medical expertise.
They drank their coffee in companionable silence, staring out the window at Seneca’s darkened and deserted historical district.
“So, seriously… everything’s okay here?” Bryan asked after a few minutes.
“Well, the economy’s tanked, obviously. A lot of people left town, or never came back at all, after the evac. Lots of local businesses have closed down. But, I mean… radiation-wise? I haven’t noticed any real problems. I know some people who have cancer, but what do you expect? I work in a frigging nursing home. Old people are always gonna have cancer.”
Conversation ran dry after that. They finished their coffee and made plans to meet up in the morning and visit their mother’s burial site. Bryan headed across the mostly empty parking lot toward his hotel. Several emaciated cats, startled by his passing, emerged from behind a dumpster and darted down the alley behind the waffle house. They were momentarily illuminated by a streetlight, and Bryan noticed that one of them appeared to be losing its matted gray fur in patches and had oozing sores all over its head. Shaken, Bryan picked up his pace and hurried back to his room.
The following morning, Bryan pulled into a gravel drive next to a low stone wall. A tasteful plaque near the entrance read “Welcome to the Forest of Remembrance Memorial Park”.
His sister was already there, seated atop the wall, dressed in shorts and a halter. She grinned and waved, swinging her bare legs insolently. Claire, in the passenger seat, withheld comment, but Bryan could feel disapproval radiating from her in waves. Claire was wearing low heels and a tailored black suit. In the backseat, their daughters Grace and Ava were also wearing dresses.
“Why do we have to wear church clothes?” Grace had whined on the drive over.
“To show respect to your Grandma Sarah.” Claire replied. “She loved you both very much.”
“I don’t think I remember her,” said Ava, who was nine and had been only four the last time she’d seen Bryan’s mother.
“I do,” said Grace. At twelve, she was growing like a weed, her legs long and skinny as a colt’s beneath the hem of her proper navy blue skirt. “She was fat and smoked a lot.”
“Grace Ann!” Claire exclaimed.
“Well, it’s true.” Bryan shrugged. “It’s her own fault the girls didn’t really know her. She could’ve made more of an effort.”
“Regardless. I will not encourage them to speak that way.”
With that, Claire put on her sunglasses, the girls put in their earbuds, and Bryan, chastened, drove on in silence.
“Hey, y’all!” Belinda called out, hopping down from the wall. On her feet, she wore sandals with plastic flowers on them. Her toenails were painted purple.
“It’s so good to see you, honey,” she said, approaching Claire.
“Hello,” Claire said, then stiffened as Belinda swept her up in a quick hug. Bryan stifled a grin. His sister was leaning hard into her Southern twang, specifically to annoy her sister-in-law.
“And there are my beautiful nieces!” Belinda gathered the girls into her arms. “You’ve grown a foot since I last saw you. And Gracie, my God, girl! Are you getting boobs already?”
“Aunt Belinda!” Grace squealed, secretly pleased but pretending to be mortified.
“Where’s your boy?” Bryan asked.
“Owen? Oh, he ran off already. He’s in there somewhere.” She waved her arm vaguely toward the cemetery.
“Well, then.” Bryan locked the car and pocketed his keys. “Shall we?”
The five of them made their way through the gates and into the memorial park. There were certainly trees, but it did not much resemble a forest; the trees, in various stages of growth, were spaced in perfectly even rows, with footpaths between them. Bryan tried not to think about the peculiar soil from which these trees had sprung, or about the rows of corpses curled in fetal positions beneath their feet, roots protruding from their bodies like tentacles. He shivered, although the day was warm, almost uncomfortably so. He’d forgotten how humid it was here, how the air felt somehow thick. He noticed that Claire was sweating- possibly regretting her choice of attire, although she’d never admit it- and that Grace was fanning herself with the cellophane-wrapped bouquet of carnations she’d talked Bryan into purchasing at a gas station on the drive over. Ava skipped along cheerfully behind her, holding the string of a mylar balloon (another gas station purchase). Bryan, dressed in a short-sleeved polo and cotton slacks, was beginning to perspire as well. The gray sky clamped down over them like a pot lid, and not a breeze stirred.
“I haven’t been here in a couple of years,” said Belinda, leading the group. “I don’t remember which row she’s in, but I remember it’s way back in here… we need to read the plaques.”
Looking down, Bryan realized there was a bronze plaque set in the ground at the base of each tree. These were partially obscured by grass and weeds. Bryan gingerly pushed the vegetation aside with the toe of his loafer and read one of them.
“This one says Robert Nash, let’s see… died in 2016… there’s a number on here, F-17?”
“Okay, F is the row, 17 is the plot,” replied Belinda. “Mom’s in H-12. This way.”
She headed down the path to the left, and the rest of them followed.
Eventually, she came to a stop in front of a spindly tree with twisted limbs and white bark. She squatted down to read the plaque, her shorts riding up alarmingly as she did so.
“Found it!” she cried triumphantly. “This is it. This is Mom’s tree.”
Suddenly, a dark figure leaped down from the branches of a nearby oak with a terrible roar, startling the adults and causing the girls to scream. Grace dropped her phone. Ava let go of her balloon string. The mylar balloon drifted away above the treetops and disappeared into the sky.
“God damn it, Owen!” Belinda yelled, slapping at her grinning son. “You about gave us all a heart attack! Is that any way to treat your cousins?”
“Sorry, Mom, but that was funny,” the boy smirked. He was about the same age as Grace but looked older. “Y’all shoulda seen your faces!”
Ava, still staring after her vanishing balloon, began to cry.
That was for Grandma Sarah,” she sniffled. “I was going to tie it to her tree.”
“It’s okay, honey.” Belinda pulled her into a comforting embrace. “You know what? Grandma Sarah is taking that balloon right up to heaven.”
After checking her phone to make sure the screen wasn’t cracked, Grace stepped up to the tree and laid the bouquet of gas-station flowers at the base of its trunk. She stepped back and bowed her head solemnly. There was something performative about her actions, Bryan thought, mildly annoyed, as if she were role-playing for some hidden camera. He had noticed this about his daughter before, and wondered if it had something to do with the amount of time she spent on social media.
“What kind of tree is this?” Claire asked.
“It’s supposed to be a birch. Silver birch, white birch, something like that.” Belinda replied, her arm still wrapped protectively around Ava. “I picked it because they said it would grow fast. Like, two feet a year or more.”
“But it’s only been, what, four years since it was planted? This tree has got to be twelve feet tall.” Bryan stared at the tree. He couldn’t help thinking about the fact that it was devouring his mother’s earthly remains for nourishment. He supposed that was the point. Still, it gave him the creeps.
“Well, plants grow faster around here, since the Oconee thing. That’s for sure. Did y’all notice all that kudzu when you were coming into town? And like, the sunflowers in my yard? Jeez, they’re like eight feet tall, as big around as dinner plates. And the grass grows fast. My neighbors all complain about how often they have to mow now.”
“What are all those black spots on the tree trunk?” Claire said, to no one in particular. “Is that normal? It looks like the tree is diseased.”
Bryan took a closer look, and he had to admit Claire was right; the tree definitely did not look healthy. Its white bark seemed unnaturally smooth, and the entire length of the trunk was pocked with wet-looking holes of various sizes, some of them oozing black sap.
“Maybe that black stuff is Grandma, rotting.” suggested Owen. Bryan wanted to punch the boy. Belinda, as if reading his mind, released Ava and reached over to smack her son upside the head.
“Don’t you talk that way about my momma!” she cried indignantly. “Are you gonna talk like that about me when I’m dead?”
“Well, no, but I love you,” Owen responded, rubbing his reddened ear, his eyes filling with tears. “I didn’t love Grandma. She was a mean old bitch. You said so yourself.”
“She was a mean old bitch, but I loved her anyway.” Belinda said, pulling her son in for a quick hug and planting a kiss on his ear. “And I love you too, baby.”
Mollified, Owen wandered away to examine the tree more closely. Touching the oozing black sap, he first sniffed it, then reached out for Ava as if to rub it on her. Ava squeaked in alarm and darted off to hide behind Claire. Watching his nephew made Bryan grateful he had daughters. Grace might be performing for some imaginary camera half the time, but at least she knew how to behave properly. Claire wouldn’t put up with anything less.
Owen was now pretending to lick the sap from his fingers, causing Grace to make gagging noises and look away. Owen’s mother ignored him, focusing on the plaque at the bottom of the tree.
“Bryan, did you ever know Mom’s middle name?” she asked. “It was Jane. Sarah Jane. That’s pretty, isn’t it?”
Bryan was about to respond- he had not, in fact, known that- when suddenly Owen screamed.
At first Bryan wasn’t alarmed. He assumed the boy was up to some inappropriate new caper. But the screaming continued, rising in volume, until the adults rushed over to him and found him with tears streaming down his reddened cheeks.
“Something’s got me!” he screamed. “Something’s biting my finger!”
Bryan looked down in confusion and saw that Owen had stuck his index finger into one of the black holes in the tree, and could not pull it out.
“Maybe it’s just stuck?” Bryan suggested, feeling dazed and useless.
“It’s biting meeee!” wailed Owen. Belinda grabbed her son’s wrist and yanked his hand away from the tree. A great gout of blood arced from the stump of his missing index finger, splattering the entire stunned group. Ava began to whimper, and Grace let out a shrill scream.
Claire, good and efficient nurse that she was, suddenly swung into action. She ripped off her tailored suit jacket and wrapped it around the boy’s hand. “Belinda! Hold pressure on this! Grace, call 911 from your phone! Bryan, try to get the finger out. They might be able to reattach it if we hurry! Let’s go to my car, I have bandages and a tourniquet in my first aid kit.”
“Get the finger…?” Bryan repeated numbly.
“Yes, Bryan.” Claire snapped. She had never looked more beautiful to him than she did at that moment, with her stern face and her hair in disarray, clad in a blood-spattered silk camisole. “Get your nephew’s finger out. It must be stuck in the hole in the tree. Now hurry!”
Then the whole group was gone, hustling the wailing boy off down the path to the car. Bryan stared at his mother’s tree, feeling punch-drunk.
“Well shit, Mom.” he said.
He pulled his phone out of his pocket, turned on the flashlight, and shined it into the now-bloody hole in the tree, hoping to see the amputated digit. What he saw instead was a set of teeth. Bryan gasped and dropped his phone. Suddenly, a bearded man in a long-sleeved green t-shirt and a sun visor materialized beside him.
“What’s going on here?” the man asked.
Bryan pointed to the hole in the tree. “The, the tree, it… wait, who are you?”
“I’m Jeffrey. I’m a groundskeeper. I work here. I was over there weeding when I heard screams. What’s going on? Are you hurt?”
Bryan took a deep, steadying breath and explained to the man that this was his mother’s memorial tree, that his nephew had stuck his finger in a hole in the tree, and that his nephew had lost his finger.
“Jesus Christ.” Jeffrey muttered. “Where is he now?”
“My wife is a nurse. She and the rest of the family are taking my nephew to the hospital. She asked me to try and retrieve the finger. But when I looked into the hole, I didn’t see it. Instead I saw… teeth.”
“I was afraid of this.” Jeffrey said darkly. Pulling a slim flashlight out of the toolbelt around his waist, he peered into the hole. Bryan stared off into the distance, unable to bring himself to look into the hole again. “Oh, man. This is bad.”
“What… what is it?” Bryan asked shakily.
“Arboreal teratomas,” the groundskeeper said, pronouncing each syllable carefully. “The EPA guys already know about them. Yep, they’ve been out here with their hazmat suits, their little geiger counters. I’ve seen teeth before. A lot of these trees have teeth in them. Teeth, bone fragments, eyes, partial ears, fingernails. One of the elms over there had a big old clump of gray hair hanging out of it. Looked like Spanish moss. I cut it out, of course.”
“Teratomas…?” Bryan said. “Aren’t those, like… tumors?”
“Yeah, they’re those really gross tumors with teeth, hair, other body parts. Teratomas are made of germ cells, and germ cells can develop into various body parts. The EPA guys explained it all to me. Anyway, here at Forest of Remembrance, the trees have been developing what’s called Arboreal Teratomas. At least, that’s what the government calls it.”
“And what do you call it?” said Bryan, eyeing the dark hole in the tree.
“I call it Hell.” Jeffrey replied simply. “We opened a gateway to Hell with that Oconee reactor, and this is what came through.”
Bryan had no response to that.
“You know,” Jeffrey continued, “I’ve seen random teeth in these trees before, but never a full set. You say this is your mother’s tree?”
Bryan nodded dumbly.
She had all her teeth when she died?”
“My mother didn’t have a tooth in her head,” Bryan replied. “She got dentures in her thirties. Full upper and lower plates.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Jeffrey whistled, shining his flashlight into the hole again. “That’s exactly what’s in this hole. Dentures. Full upper and lower plates.”
It was midafternoon by the time Bryan got to the hospital. Owen was still in surgery. Belinda was asleep in a chair. The girls had gone to the cafeteria for snacks.
“I couldn’t get it. The finger.” Bryan told Claire. There was more he wanted to say, but somehow he couldn’t get his mouth to form the necessary words.
“We almost hit a deer,” Claire replied dully. “On the way to the hospital. It wandered out of the woods, right out in front of the car. It had a huge… a tumor, or some kind of abscess, on the side of its neck. The deer was starving, it was so thin.”
“Sweetheart.” Bryan said, folding his wife into his arms. “I’m so sorry about all of this.”
Claire leaned her face against his neck, put her lips to his ear, and whispered, “Get me the fuck out of this place.”
They went home, and they never spoke of it again. Not until years later; eight years, to be precise. By that time, Claire was dying of breast cancer which had metastasized to her liver and lungs. They were divorced by then, but Bryan still came to see her. Of course, he did. She was in hospice at Gilchrist House, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins, where she had spent so many years as a nurse.
She had fought for as long as she could, but now she was near the end. She was mostly free of pain, thanks to whopping doses of Fentanyl and Oxycodone. She slept most of the time, and even when she was awake, she was in a dream-state. Bryan sat by her bed and held her hand.
One afternoon, he sat by her bedside, dozing. He was dreaming about mice and moles and other small animals that live in burrows, curled up underground. When he opened his eyes, he found his ex-wife gazing at him, and her eyes, for the first time in days, were lucid.
“I never drank the water,” she said.
Still fuzzy with sleep, he thought she was thirsty and reached for the water cup next to her bed. She batted it away impatiently.
“I never drank it,” she said. “I only drank bottled water. The whole time we were there. I even used bottled water to brush my teeth.”
“I know you did, sweetheart. I know.” Bryan replied.
“So it isn’t really fair,” she said.
“It really isn’t,” Bryan agreed, stroking her hand, which by that time was just bones covered with dry skin.
“You should try to sleep, sweetheart,” he said to her. And she did.
Belinda called him after Claire’s funeral. They hadn’t spoken much in the years since Bryan visited Seneca.
“How are the girls?” Belinda asked.
“Well, I mean, they’re torn up about their mother. We all are. But they’re doing fine. Grace is at Loyola. Ava’s a senior this year. How are you? How’s Owen?”
“Oh, same as always, I guess. Owen dropped out of school, but he got a job down at the auto repair shop on First Street. Finch Automotive. He seems real happy there. He’s got a girlfriend. And he’s in a band. He plays bass.”
“Wow. That’s great, Belinda. I’m really glad to hear it. It’s great that he can do all that, without… you know.”
“Hold on. I’m gonna text you a picture.” said Belinda. Bryan’s phone pinged. He opened the text. It was a picture of his sister and his nephew. Owen had grown into a giant of a young man, over six feet tall and broad shouldered. In the picture, he’s standing behind Belinda with his arms wrapped around her. Both of his hands are visible. On each of his hands, there are five fingers.
“I don’t understand.” Bryan said. “How…?”
“It grew back,” Belinda said simply.
“That’s impossible. I mean, isn’t it?”
“The doctor says it happens sometimes. It’s rare, but not unheard of. Kids, especially, can sometimes regrow a finger, even down to the fingernail.”
“Well, that’s amazing. Strange, but amazing.”
Bryan looked at the photo again. His sister, dwarfed by her enormous son, looked younger than he remembered, younger and happier than she had looked in a long time. In fact, she looked impossibly young, more like a teenager than a fifty-year-old woman.
“Well,” she said. “Strange things do happen around here.”
If you would like to be part of The Chamber Magazine family, follow this link to the submissions guidelines. If you like more mainstream fiction and poetry with a rural setting and addressing rural themes, you may also want to check out Rural Fiction Magazine.
Please repost this to give it maximum distribution.