I do so hope you enjoy...
Jordan Rose found the Christmas tree sale quite easily.
It was thankfully accessible from the turn off and not too far down the A4. The weather was typical for England at this time of year: no snow as usual. It got to the point where Jordan started to wonder just why so many Christmas cards and decorations depicted luscious snow laden wonderlands.
“Snow men,” he thought. “When was the last time you saw a snowman while being awoken by your three insane children at 4 am?” Bloody nowhere, that's where. There was plenty of morbid gloom in the skies, a whole legion of blithering rain and it wasn't even that cold usually just a weak mild chill in the air.
He put the effort into buying a genuine Christmas tree because despite his cantankerous attitude to the lack of festive weather he loved this time of year as it gave him a few precious moments with his family.
Two years divorced from Elaine and it had been Hell ever since. A maelstrom of arguments fuelled with misconceived jealousy erupted in their domestic bliss and destroyed it with its burning magma until nothing was left of their lives save ashes and three small islands of hope, the triplets.
But the year had almost ended and for once with a glimmer of hope... a slow delicate regrowth of love between him and his ex-wife, making Jordan think of the tender green shoots of vegetation after an apocalyptic wildfire.
He stopped the car on the smooth wet tarmac that led to the Christmas tree farm, not wanting to take too long wrestling the tree into the car. His plan was to have the thing set up and decorated before Elaine got back.
His thoughts travelled back to the strong relationship of years gone by, the type of love that stings you in its absence when the festive time of year presses itself once again on society. His heart beat quickened as he shut the door, the distant promise that each and every small gesture of affection, the reattachments of formerly savaged bonds strengthened with the deeds and displays of heart from himself could just rescue everything he ever wanted.
He pressed the button on his key fob, the bleep reassuring him that everything was secure and the doors clamped shut.
The tree park was a hive of activity, people changing notes for Christmas trees that were wrapped in plastic webbing. They looked as lush and splendid as they did in the glossy advert he'd seen. He found it strange that not a single tree was stringy, broken or otherwise imperfect.
He approached the mass of winter clothed people with a growing smile, for once maybe this tree wouldn't shit pins all over the carpet and he wouldn't get half a ton of Christmas vegetation embedded in his skin. That was one of the mysteries about his Christmases - for some reason Jordan managed to prick himself with a multitude of the damn things. It could of been a new form of torture, he imagined, "Death by a thousand Christmas tree needle pricks".
The vendor was unusually quiet, not seeming to need to tout his wares. It was as if the trees sold themselves just by how they looked, maybe word of mouth did the trick all by itself.
The crowd were too dense for Jordan to push through and he didn't feel like waiting around for too long, his time was precious. He walked around the sales pitch a little until he came to an area slightly hidden away from the public. It was a section behind the tellers and customers, a piece of sky blue plastic sheeting held up by a frail frame work of iron rods. There was a small makeshift doorway, a basic flap of plastic that flipped and twisted in the light winter breeze.
As the wind lifted the opening, Jordan narrowed his eyes to focus on something quite strange: inside sat about six of seven people, mostly male, wearing cheap nylon jackets and wrapped in scarves and all wearing leather gloves. He had to inch closer to inspect what was going on, he felt the dreaded notion that he shouldn't be there, as if he had discovered something secret and personal.
He frowned to dismiss the importance of its restriction. Surely something that such a business would wish to keep preserved from public gaze would be secreted from people with more than a bit of meccano and plastic hoarding?
It still didn't prevent him from flicking his head around to check if anyone was watching him. The crowd were thriving in the glee of purchasing trees and the sellers' attention was swamped by the baying hands and calls from their punters.
For a moment Jordan wondered if he should just return to the action and pick up a tree before they all went, that would be utter disaster but there were so many of the things that he could imagine the company being well fed with stock until July.
So with a slight tinge of perturbed endeavour he crept towards the sheet of flapping plastic. As he eased closer, he could make out that each person had a number of Christmas trees beside them, gripping the shaft of the peak of the tree and pinching something off of it.
He was within a spectre's breath of the make shift hut when he finally saw what these people where doing: at the top of the tree was a long thin needle, radiant crimson much like that of Father Christmas' jacket.
Each needle was carefully prized from its place and placed into individual tiny plastic tubes, then the tube was sealed tightly before being put into a slit on the top of a heavily locked steel box.
Jordan swung back away from his peeping stance, almost catching the eye line of a one woman sitting diagonally opposite from him. Why did he feel like he would get into trouble?
He stood for a moment and could hear no conversation from the people inside, just the sounds of work, and then he thought about what he just seen and couldn't understand it.
His mobile phone buzzed and broke the silence, his mouth dropping and eyes widening as he realised that he cover had been blown. A large olive skinned man wrestled back the plastic opening and stood to face him. Jordan stammered, “Oh. Hi.”, smiling red-faced and embarrassed as the man in front of him looked gruff and annoyed, but not angry.
“What do you want?” The man's eyes stared at him, unimpressed by his presence. He turned to his co-workers inside the plastic tent to carry on working and continued to look silently, expecting an answer.
“I was..it was...I got mixed up. I was looking for the toilets.” Jordan cursed his weak excuse but he had never been a man who could easily make up an alibi to get him out of trouble. “There are no toilets here, son...so again what you up to?”
It felt slightly ridiculous now. Jordan considered that maybe the man thought he was about to steal something or up to a real crime. “I'm sorry. I just got curious and wondered what was going on in there, I really didn't mean to disturb you.”
The man just carried on glaring at him, dismissive, expecting it as another excuse to hide his real motivations. He grunted. “It's alright, son. To be honest it's none of your business : if you really wanted to know you should have just asked instead of causing all sorts of alarm by sneaking around.”
Jordan puffed out his cheeks, chided by the man's words ,and thought it best if he save what little dignity he had left and go back and buy the tree he had come for all along. “Point taken mate, I'll just push off and buy a tree.” But the man put out a hand to stop him just as he started to walk towards the crowd of people. “You wanted to know right, it's why you came,” he whispered. “This won't take five minutes, just step inside the tent and I'll explain.”
Jordan hesitated a moment, his eyes resting about the large man, and he squinted at him a little. The man stood his ground. “Well c'mon then, it's what you wanted right?” Jordan shrugged. His curious thirst had run dry but an unusual compelling social etiquette forced him to enter the tent.
Inside was a semi-circle of bowed headed individuals, hooded, their features wrapped in warm winter clothing. It was almost impossible for Jordan to decipher revealing details of the group, a thick silence hung over everybody. He knew that they were all talking before he arrived but his introduction brought about a noticeable resignation of communication.
He felt somewhat cold and outside the collection of clandestine workers, all sitting on upturned wooden boxes picking out red needles from the tops of Christmas trees and inserting them in a large metal box.
“Right mate - let's explain the basics.” The large man sat down on empty box top and gestured for Jordan to sit on the one opposite to him. “Myself and my brother spent a while out of this country, taking in the world on a bit of cash our dad left us. France, Spain, Italy...well most of Europe, we did America and Mexico and then jetted off to New Zealand”. He reached into his pocket and produced a bottle of whiskey, unscrewed it and took a nip, offering it to Jordan.
When Jordan shook his head, the man frowned, perhaps considering him as a light weight. Truth was, he dare not touch a drop ever again. He even felt a slight cold sweat forming from seeing whiskey so close to him.
The man continued. “Anyhow. so me and my brother were running a little low on cash but we wanted to a place away from tourists. We got talking to this bloke in a harbour in a small town on the coast, talked to him about our problem and he took us to somewhere called Christmas Island. Beautiful place it was...”
Between sips of whiskey and illuminating hand gestures, he went on to describe a strange crop of trees growing in a piece of dissolute land. He spoke of how they were infamous on the island due to their almost mystical qualities.
“A single red needle can grow on any surface,” he explained. “Penetrate the ground, and it gestates. The natives didn't like it, warned us off taking any of the trees or red needles from the island. Some ancient lore or something.” He was completely inebriated at this point, boasting of paying a small boy $14 to have access to the plantation and steal a few hundred of the red needles.
Jordan hesitated. “That's fantastic,” he said. But you could sell this idea to someone and make REAL money, couldn't you?” The man snorted. “We already DO make real money! We put five years of hard graft into this whole scheme, brought up a few hundred acres of dead land in the middle of England. This is MY idea.”
He hadn't mentioned his brother. Jordan furrowed his brow and watched him throw the whiskey cap behind him and take a full swig from the bottle.
They were interrupted by a face from behind the flap of plastic, and the conversation was clearly over. The face was haunted and scarred, a dull gleam in the grey bloodshot eyes, the skin underneath baggy and hanging.
Jordan glanced down at his feet, and noticed something affixed between the tread of his toes, something red. He started to reach down, but heard a shout.
“OI SON! This ain't a bloody tour show...get out the sodding tent.”
He could smell the man's breath thick with alcohol. Jordan left the tent in a pathetic display of apologies and bowed head movements to try and appease the man's rage. Once outside, the sheeting cover was quickly tugged shut, a “piss off” that didn't need verbalising. He sighed and wondered whether all the fuss was worth it. He had been talking to nutter inside a plastic pretend shed for the best part of half an hour.
“I'd better get that bloody tree and get home before the others do,” he muttered to himself, pushing his way through the sprawling masses, still mulling over the conversation. He shoved his way to the front, grabbed the tree and focused on getting home. The car door shut with a metallic thud, and he yawned. “Finally,” he thought. “Out of the mad rush.” He stretched out his arms and smiled. The only thing in front of him now was a warm, delightful Christmas with his children,and hopefully the carefully nurtured love of his wife once more.
Peering into his rear view mirror, he regarded the rocking Christmas tree bouncing upon his roof rack. That thing had taken a great deal of strength to get up there and tie down. He swept his face with his hand – at least he was driving down his own street now. Familiarity dispelled part of the frustration of traffic and winter chill. All along the street, houses sparkled like neon castles of family magic, fairy lights illuminating like synthetic flowers, signs wishing “Merry Christmas” adorning places of residence awaiting the joy of the giving season. He pulled at the clutch as he parked and felt a sudden sharp pain grip his foot.
“Fucking hell! These stupid cheap shoes again!” He was fed up of the saga of pain from shoes purchased an age ago that he hadn't bothered to replace. Reaching down he took off the offending shoe to throw into the front garden, but his eyes struck something. An unusual find. Holding the tread of the shoe to the yellow light of the rear view mirror, he spied a thin crimson pine. His eyes widened - it was the eerie shoot that could grow on any surface.
Needle-sharp eyes squinted at a needle-shaped fragment, and a cutting-edge re-evaluation picked his brain. Taking great care, he wrapped the needle gently into a piece of his tissue and placed the whole thing in his trouser pocket. Stepping out of his car and into the sheer cold of night, he looked up towards the lulling tree and grinned, as this could be the last time he ever needed to lug such a beast of vegetation ever again.
He looked at his watch and noticed the urgency of getting everything done. Hastily, he unstrapped the tree, and dragged its lifeless form from the roof of the car, across the lawn, and down the iced pathway. One sweat beaded brow and huffing chest later, he had finally pulled the tree indoors, albeit in a tremendous messy venture.
He frowned at the idea that he would have to task the vacuum cleaner to tidy it all, that however would have to wait as right now he would need to focus all his remaining strength on erecting the green beast. With one shoe off and the other on, he battled against the lifeless collection of branches and trunk to the corner of the room he had left free. Before pushing and shoving it any further he walk to the spacious corner to analyse the best way to position the thing. The trunk was facing him as he planned, and the tip reached towards the middle of the living room. He groaned. “It's too tall for the bloody room!”
Thinking quickly, he dragged it out into the back garden, forced it up towards the shed with a dull thud and placed it behind a mound of tarpaulin that sheltered a whole stack of unused bricks. If he had to saw the thing in half he didn't want the kids and his ex to find the rest - it was quite embarrassing that he failed to buy the right tree.
He wanted so badly to be the perfect husband and father again. Why did he have to make such a daft mistake as this? How much did he need to hack off the bottom? How much time did he have left?
The door slammed behind him as he rushed back into the living room . “Need to think,” he muttered. He reached down to scratch his right thigh. The highly unpleasant tickle turned into a violent, sharp pain piercing into his groin, like a fine steel cable shooting directly into his vein.
“Did I leave a needle in my trousers?” The discomfort mutated into a distinct, frightening pain. “Did a wasp get caught up in my trousers – in Winter?” His brain paddled in a deep water of confusion, growing ever more treacherous with the mounting torture. He fumbled at the button fly of his jeans and pulled them apart as the power travelled past his hip. As he exposed his legs and genitalia, he spotted an arcane and shocking image – a half a millimetre of crimson needle jutting from the flesh of his right inner thigh. He tried to pick and scratch the burrowing thread out of his body, but the flesh screamed back at him with deep stabbing sensations.
“No...not the bloody red needle..it can't...”
He unwrapped the tissue in his pocket. It was empty. The horrible truth hit him – what the strange man under the tarpaulin had said was true. The needle was growing and thriving in his flesh. He stumbled on to his left leg, the right numbing with miniature blood red tendrils, visibly wriggling and squirming under a translucent layer of skin.
They were heading for his abdomen.
The needle was fully embedded and submerging into the deeper levels of his skin, transforming to a deeper burgundy red. It was growing in width and thickening, straight beams of light pink spreading from the bottom end like descending ink drops in clear water. He retched as he felt the itch in his belly, delicate sensitive feelers creeping into the outside of his stomach lining, touching gently, wishing to enter and open it up, to sprout and flourish.
He couldn't scream, didn't understand why. He should wail for help. He couldn't. All he felt was a muscular constriction is his throat, and that vague itching in his stomach, that sickening, terrifying tickling.
He tried to lunge towards the doorway and grab the phone on the desk. His shoe slipped in the pile of Christmas tree needles, sending him crashing into the corner of the room, his backside hitting the floor with a heavy thud. He screamed a deserted cry with all the violent motion of a man on the edge of his own existence, like lightning divorced from its thunder.
He sat, slumped forward, his vision blurred and the first true pang of fear charged through him, lonely black drops cascading into his tinder dry resolve. He was aware of the strengthening gravity pinning his backside and abdomen to the ground, and he looked down to his naked waist and witnessed hundreds of networking red lines amassing over his groin and belly. His skin was obscured and discoloured, turning a deep reddish brown from the concentration of tendrils. The tickle at his belly had turned sinister, a gripping, strangulation, as the thing inside him was rooting around him, twisting and contorting his belly until it popped.
Gurgling, he had reached his pain threshold. His chest tingled now, his breath coming out in sheer panic, light red spindly fingers reaching out and exploring his pectoral muscles, filtering into his lungs and approaching his heart.
No loving reunion with his dear ex-wife. Never would he see his children grow into proud adults. The sheer drop into the black cloak of doom gripped him, the great expansive plains of nothingness and death, the human mind ripped into oblivion and the body turned to all the disfigured dark shapes that decay could muster.
His eyes were wide with a horrified gaze of dread, watching things sprouting through his skin, tiny soft brown branches looking to claim the sky and seek the cool atmosphere. There was no blood. The roots of whatever was growing deep inside of his anatomy seemed to drain all of it from his body, feeding the organism. He felt a great thirst sweep him. His left leg was peeling flesh, growing short and stubby and trunk like. His eyes lolled around in their sockets as he fell into unconsciousness, drained by the vines of all his body fluid, his tissue turning to bark and nourishment for the thriving branches.
The branches grew thick, pulling outward from the main trunk to form finely shaped green needles and thus decorate the new tree in its suitably festive image. And finally, one single needle sprang from the remnants of his brain, pushing its way to the zenith of the tree, a beautiful crimson resting proudly. There was no trace of Jordan any more.
The tree stood, waiting in the corner of the still black room.
“Mummy! It's a Christmas tree!”
Excited voices. A door left strangely unlocked. The lights off. A handwritten note on the dinner table. A note, but no Jordan, like so many times before...
His ex-wife looked at the tree, rooted to the spot, and crumpled the note in silence.