The Magic Number

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An alternate version to the usual renditions of the apocalypse, this has the plants turning against us in a frightening manner.

Submitted: August 13, 2016

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Submitted: August 13, 2016

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 Nia struggled to keep the shaking from her hands as she lifted the fork to her lips, consuming the last of the potatoes, knowing this bite would only make things worse, yet unable to stop herself. Her father had warned her it would do no good to eat, she might as well fast as long as she could, but she couldn't hold out anymore. It had been three days since food had last passed her lips, and in that time, she had grown so weak, she lost almost all control of her body. Not that anyone alive was in any better shape than her, although some had a stronger constitution that allowed them to remain robust a month or so longer than the average, but in the end, they would all succumb. She knew it in her bones, even though her father had naysayed her, telling her it would end, to wait, to hold out, that soon, very soon, they could eat again. She knew better, however. She knew Nature wouldn't give up until She had achieved her balance, and balance was still far away.

Nia wept as she put her fork down. Food, food, food, was all she could think of. It coalesced around her thoughts as she woke and slept, as she moaned in pain and when the pain ebbed into a dull, twisting ache. Food. Food. When would she be able to be satisfied? Would it ever happen again? She made up in her mind the term “The Magic Number,” stolen no doubt from antiquity, but she didn't care if it was original or not. The Magic Number, the number at which life would revert back to normal. What was it though? Thousands, millions, billions? No, not billions. That was probably long since passed, although it was hard to collect an accurate tally in their current predicament. Her father guessed at millions, saying that was sustainable. He was the most intelligent man Nia had ever known, so she believed him. Yet his assessment didn't ring true to her, much as his hopefulness fell short for her. She was more inclined to guess thousands, despite the trumpeting encouragement her father pounded into her every day. Nia briefly wondered how close they were to thousands, then chucked the idea away as the food roiled in her belly, a spasming of her stomach muscles causing her to bend double. The damnable food! If only it wouldn't do that. If only she could eat, like she used to. She sighed and straightened after the waves of gripping pain subsided. If she had had energy for more tears, she would have shed them. Instead, she sat dolefully looking out the window, at the glorious summer day, wishing against all odds that a piece—just one—of normal food would grow again.

 

 

“Nia? Nia! Wake up! Nia, get up!!” The voice of her father cut through her somnambulant stupor, bringing her back to an awareness she would rather have stayed away from. Her eyes focused poorly on him, and she realized she was losing her day vision as well as her night vision. She hadn't been able to see at night for the past month, and she wondered when the vision loss would extend to the daylight hours as well.

“Daddy? I'm awake. I'm losing my sight,” she gasped, trying to care more, as the old Nia would, but failing to bring up the emotions needed for concern. Apathy weighed on everyone, with only tenuous sparks of life showing through here and there, as in her father just now, when he thought she had passed.

“Oh, baby, baby,” he crooned as he rocked her softly. “I'm trying, honey, believe me, I'm trying.”

“I know Daddy. I know you are,” Nia whispered, her lips stiff, the objects in the room large blurs.

“I swear I'll find a cure for this. Ok, honey? I swear. I won't let you lose your sight. I'm on it. Just hang in there a bit longer.” A tenebrous inflection settled in on his last words, and Nia knew he was losing faith in himself.

“Daddy, it's ok. I will hang in there, I promise you.” She gave a false statement, unsure of how much longer she could stay in this body that was wasting away, no matter if she ate or not.

“That's it, my girl. I love you. I'm sorry Nia. I wish—” His voice cracked, then he gave up speaking all together. They sat in the murky silence of sunset, the verdure outside refulgent, yet hushed with the absence of life.

 

“Here you go, sweetie. Last one,” her father pushed a round, ripe tomato at her, the end of its kind. “Eat it. It'll help you.”

“Why don't we split it?” Nia objected, not wanting to take what paltry remains they had left from her father.

“No, honey, you take it. Please. I'm fine. I still have strength. You need it more.” His words were true, so she dutifully accepted the tomato, savoring each dripping bite, loving the taste of it all the more for knowing it would go into her body without harm. When she had finished, her father wiped her chin for her.

“I never thought it would come to this. Did you?” He sadly ruminated, clearly dwelling on the past and all the mistakes everyone had made.

“No. I never did. I thought that once it started, you and the other lab guys would find a cure. Or, if not you, then someone else, in another country. I don't think anyone thought it would go this far.” She smiled suddenly, remembering rosy childhood times, and shared them with her father until they were both laughing, the present gone as they divested themselves of it, diving into happier years, moments of serenity and peacefulness.

“That tomato was so good,” Nia brought the subject round to her last meal, without meaning to, but linking it subconsciously with the good things that had befallen her and her father. “I don't think I ever had a better one!” Her spirits high, she rose unsteadily and embraced her father, her legs threatening to give out under her at any moment. Her father, noting her tottering, eased her down into a chair.

“I'm glad you liked it. Sit here now, I've got to go and right this disaster.” He made to leave for the lab, but Nia held him back.

“Can't I go with you? Please? I'm scared to be alone. I can't—I can't move my legs right.” Her father gazed down at his shrunken daughter, an emaciated, skeletal version of what should have been a blooming young woman.

“Yes, come with me,” he helped her up, one bony hand supporting another. “I don't know how much longer I can keep going there, but I'll be damned if I don't keep trying till my dying day.” Hefting their wasted bodies along, Nia and her father reached the lab, out of breath and dizzy.

“Ok sweetie, you know you can't come into the actual lab with me, we don't have enough respirators for you. And we're working with gases right now, so you'll have to stay outside. Think you can handle that?” He gave an attenuated smile, his teeth too large for his mummified face.

“Yes, Daddy, I'd like that. Maybe I can get some sun so I won't get rickets too,” Nia half joked, looking forward to the warm rays drenching her wanting form.

“That's my girl. Don't move, I'll come out when we're done.” Her father disappeared into the huge, cinder block building, considerately propping Nia on the steps before he took his leave.

Nia sighed, her brain desiring oxygen and so much more, but unable to get it. She took stock of the planet, the leafy trees, the bright greens, reds, yellows and oranges of bushes and plants in full summer swing. And not one animal among them.

 

 

The plate of pasta was put in front of her, smelling so aromatic that she scarfed it down, hating herself for doing it, hating her weakness, hating that she couldn't hold out one more day. Her father ate too, with an expression of grim dispiritment that she was sure was plastered over her own face as well. The food tasted so good, why did it have to kill them as they ate it? But eat they must, or die even faster of starvation.

“We should have known. Shouldn't we?” Nia asked her father, her mouth brimming with the white-gold strands of what was once nutritious.

“Maybe. I don't know that we could have foreseen this. The writing was on the wall, but so wasn't a lot of other writing. We didn't know which writing to take seriously and which to ignore. A failing of the human race, I suppose.” Her father shrugged, disheartened as he always was at mealtimes. What little she could see of him didn't look good. In the past few weeks, he had aged rapidly, his thick hair fallen out, edema clustering in heavy bumps around his ankles, and sores appearing in ragged red rashes, running up his neck and clasping his face in their chancroid embrace. Nia felt horrible her father was in such a state, her heart reaching out for him, wanting to comfort him while he sat through the disquieting drudgery of another deleterious meal.

Nia, finished with her plate of pasta, rose to put it in the sink, when her legs buckled under her, collapsing her in a heap on the floor, the plate shattering into a dozen pieces.

“Nia! Get up, oh, baby, don't fall, don't fall,” her father moaned as he rushed to her side, picking up her frail shoulders and hugging her to him. “I'm close, so close, don't die now.”

“I'm not dying yet, Daddy. I'm still here,” she croaked out, something convulsing within her, racking her with painful tremors. Her father held her while she writhed on the floor, begging her to stay with him, the tears that should have formed in his eyes not forthcoming, the muster needed to produce them long since dried up. Once her heaving had stopped, Nia lay silent, comatose, her famished, ravaged body unable and unwilling to move. She spoke only three words.

“Magic number, Daddy.”

 

 

The Magic Number, however, hadn't been reached. More was needed. How much more, Nia couldn't begin to guess. Was the number to be none? Was that what was demanded of them? None was the Magic Number for other animal life. For most animal life. If it was so, then Nia wanted to get there sooner rather than later, end her suffering now if there really was no hope for the future.

Her father had placed her outside, on the long, supple, fertile grass. Flowers shone in their brilliant mantles, almost crowing their superiority over Nia. She wouldn't have been surprised to see one or more of them attain human qualities and brag to her how much better suited they were than she for this new order. She hated them, even as she loved their nearness, their fragrance, their vitality. She wished she could be one of them, and not this wretched human who lay dying at their petaled feet.

Her father was gone all that day, into early evening. When dusk began to descend, she grew worried. Had he died at the lab? She thought it very likely he could have. If he did, no one, not what was left of his friends or colleagues, would come to her aid. They had their own families—if anyone was left in their families. If they were alone, then they had their own worries to deal with. They wouldn't even stop to ponder on the fate of Nia, who they had only met in passing, back when things were good and right. No, she was all alone if her father didn't return. She almost wished for it, for him to have died there, so she could finally lay her head down and rest, join him and her mother. Her mother...she dosed into a fitful dream of her mother, a beautiful, dark-haired woman who had loved Nia so. Nia was in shock when her mother was one of the first to succumb to this. She had thought her so strong, so healthy, that a few weeks of starvation wouldn't kill her. She was wrong. She dreamed for hours, or minutes, of her mother, of warm, loving arms, of a table full of food that wouldn't kill you. She awoke to a drooping sky and the haggard face of her father leaning over her, seeming as though he would collapse on top of her for want of fortitude.

“We came close, so close, sweetie. But we failed. It didn't work.” He was crushed, all hope gone, as he crumpled onto the ground next to her. He took her in his gaunt arms and stroked her bald skull, the wisps of black hair remaining there dancing in the breeze. She coughed once, then fell into him, as despairing of survival as he.

 

The raiders came the next day, weak figures who could stand no more than Nia could, yet who had a burning determination to live, to fight for what shreds of humanity remained to them. Stumbling along, unable to put one foot in front of the other, these sorts of looters would normally not inspire fear, yet to Nia and her father, who were even more debilitated than them, they sent a shiver of trepidation up their spines.

“What can they take that we have?” Nia asked, straining to see them.

“Nothing.” Her father answered, lugubrious and forlorn. “Let them do what they will. They can barely move any better than us. Why they'd waste what little energy they have left to come here is beyond me.” Yet her father knew why they had come. For the lab. For the slim chance of hope it provided. As he had suspected, the cadaverous crew made their slow way to the labs front steps, crawling up it if necessary, to take by force what they imagined was inside. Hours later, two of the bunch emerged, weeping bitterly, their toothless mouths agape with frustration and disconsolate fear.

“They found what we found out yesterday,” her father said, bitter and angry at the would-be horde, if only they had the verve to become one.

“What's that Daddy?” Nia asked, genuinely curious.

“Nothing. The Magic Number hasn't been attained. We must keep dying.”

 

“Are you going to the lab today?”

“No, sweetie. The lab's closed.” Her father's cast down visage terrified Nia more than his words. The labs closing was a terrible turn of events for them, to be sure, but his demoralized tone was even more so. She had always relied on her father to bolster them up, when times were good, and especially now that the situation was dire. If he had given up, then she might as well too.

“Why?” She prodded.

“Because most of my colleagues are gone.” He spoke without meeting her gaze, hiding what little misery he could from her.

“Gone?”

“Gone,” he reiterated.

“Gone how? Dead? Left?” Nia had to know, had to find out if she should keep on living.

Her father sighed, then pulled her to him, staying that way for long moments. Nia could hear his heart hammering a faulty tune in his chest, as if it were on a discursive, cacophonous march. After a time, he disengaged from her, his jaundiced eyes seeking her own failing ones out.

“Some left, to die with their families. Most perished, after our failed gas experiment. They lost heart.” He stated it so simply, yet it was far from simple. Nia's whole world, what was left of her faith, of her dreams, broke as she beheld her father. That was it then. No more trying. No more experimenting. No more hope.

She stared as hard as she could at the thick, cinereal edifice across the way. Outwardly, it didn't present as anything more than another building thrown up to house great minds at work. Inwardly, it was all she had. It seemed so stalwart, so implacable, squatting there, standing up to Nature and what She had deluged them with. It was, however, no greater than the people who had built it, no matter how much conviction she had instilled in it. And now that those people were gone, the stony mound was reduced to rubble, despite its still standing exactly as it had been before she'd been told of its abandonment.

Nia bent her head, clasped her father's hand, and stroked the brittle skin that papered it.

“So that's it then?” She implored one last time.

“That's it,” he assented heavily, a deep melancholy suffusing his being, so that Nia unintentionally absorbed it, and as she did so, she felt her soul wither. She gripped his hand tighter, as tight as her own fragility would allow, feeling the absence of his nails, long since fallen off, and the crusted sores that marred his flesh. She glanced up once more at the lab building, wanted to curse it, wanted to rail against it, to force it back to life, to coerce it into giving her her life back, then realized she didn't have the vigor to even think angry thoughts, and detached imperceptibly, one thread of life at a time. First, she let go of her patina-shaded memories, those memories that had fed her when food would not. Then, she let go of the desire to feed herself, the constant, unattainable need for sustenance that nearly drove her mad in the beginning. Finally, she looked to her father, and sank into him and all he represented: love, security, the future. She blew those last remnants of vitality away with her breath, as she spoke to him, feeling something inexplicable break inside her.

“Daddy? Can you tell me the story of the Kudu's?”

“Why do you want to hear that?” He questioned her gently, as they rocked in a slow, methodical rhythm.

“Because it gives this meaning. Because it makes the pain bearable.” She sounded like a child, questioning the existence of the sky, of the grass, of the bugs.

“It does, doesn't it,” her father agreed. “Well, Nia, a story. Years ago, there was a drought in Southern Africa. The Kudu's were thought to be in peril for want of food, but they found enough to eat off the leaves of the Acacia trees. Soon after, though, the Kudu's began to die en-mass. Scientists couldn't figure it out. They were studied and worried over, everything was tried to stop the die-off. Fathers, mothers, babies, all were falling victim to whatever was killing them. Then one day, someone figured it out. The leaves on the Acacia trees were to blame. You see, the Kudu's had done so well populating the area, that the Acacia trees—their main staple in drought times—were unable to support such a large population of Kudu's. The Acacia trees could support some, yes, but the number had gotten out of hand. So what did the clever little tree do? It poisoned the Kudu's by increasing its tannin production, to get the Kudu's down to a more sustainable number. It produced four times more tannin in its leaves than normal, so when the burdensome Kudu's came to graze, they were poisoned by the food that had sustained them for so long. And not only did the Acacia trees poison Kudu's in the general area, they also sent along messages via the wind, by ethylene gas, which told other Acacia trees farther away to begin producing more tannin, so that, even if the Kudu's migrated, they would still be eating poisoned leaves. Things weren't balanced. Nature--”

“Had to reach the Magic Number, right Daddy?” Nia interrupted her father, twirling her fingers through his as she did so.

“Yes, sweetie, had to reach the Magic Number. The number at which life can be sustained,” her father finished.

“We aren't there, are we?” Nia beseeched him, more out of habit than for any fragments of hope.

“No, sweetie, we aren't,” he said despondently, kissing her forehead.

“So now we're the Kudu's.” She goaded him on, wanting more discourse on the reason for her suffering.

“Yes, we're the Kudu's now. All animal life is the Kudu's now. The plants know there's an imbalance, and they're righting the world. Now, we can eat all we want, and it won't matter.” Her father's stick-like arms wrapped Nia in their love, not caring that their bodies were nearly at their ends.

Nia reflected a moment on all that had passed in the last six months, twirling a long stem of grass between her knuckled fingers. The grass seemed to beam with a glowing, resplendent light, as if certain of its survival. Nia would have eaten the grass if she could have, but what good would it do? She was the Kudu, the grass was the poisonous Acacia tree, might as well give in to the nothingness of hunger and starvation than the slow poisoning brought on by consumption.

She shuddered, not sure if it was the cold that had infiltrated her body or the knowledge of what was occurring that chilled her so. The initial discovery that the plants had changed hadn't been noticed at first, but slowly, people began to feel ill. Animals began to die, first the delicate ones, then the hardier ones. Soon, no animals were left, their meager, shriveled corpses lying prostrate across the globe. Humans fell soon afterward, and that's when it was really understood. The plants that had supported life at such a high standard for so long had decided that there was too much life now, and so had morphed, their mitochondria producing enzymes that catalyzed the production of poisons. Their chemical make-up shifted, transmuting into something horrible, so that they were no longer placid little beings that allowed themselves to be ingested. Much as the Acacia trees had done, they sent up a series of self-defenses against the consumptive populations.

Nia dully became aware of a deep purplish bruise spreading underneath her skin, flowing along the corridors of her arms and calves. She nudged further into her father, wanting him to hold her tighter, so she wouldn't have to consciously endure what was coming next. Her brain became fuzzy, then sharpened again, making Nia long for the numbness of unconsciousness. Her father had explained the circumstances when he understood them, long before her mother had died, so she was all too expectant of the stages of death.

The nutritional deficiencies wrought by the plants was the worst part, even worse than the constant hunger they induced. They leeched the vitamins and minerals out of animal life at such alarming proportions, that signs of malnutrition appeared, no matter how much anyone ate. The raised blood sugar, causing humans and animals to rapaciously grab at more and more, was only a perverted excuse the plants had effected to make the animals deaths all the faster. The insidious plants simultaneously took the very reason for eating--nutrition--and flushed it out of the kidneys and in the excretions of those in the animal kingdom. Even when Nia ate to bursting she was hungry, the nutritional void all too yawning to ever quelch. Muscles wasted away, bones fractured, and a nightmare on earth settled in, with no way to avoid it: everyone had to eat. The cycle continued, needing to eat, yet dying more every time someone did, as ever increasing quantities of nutrients were lost in the body, until only skeletal figures remained; then those too perished. No amount of supplemental vitamins and minerals could compete with the rapid loss the plants engendered, so that, in the end, mortality was as assured as the rising of the sun.

“How are you doing, sweetie?” Her father asked in a croaking whisper.

“Scared.” She trembled like a moth-eaten leaf in his embrace.

“Me, too. We'll see your mother soon.” He lifted his tone in a light-hearted sorrow, and Nia guessed he was happy they were going to be with her mother again, but sad that their lives were the forfeiture for that admission.

“I hope so. I'll be glad to be with her,” Nia stated this truthfully, for her weariness of living in a ravaged body was growing to unbearable proportions. “I was just thinking of that last tomato. It was so good. Do you think I'll ever taste anything like it when we're with Mom?”

“Yes, I do think so. You'll have all the tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, and turkey pies you can eat.” For an instant, her father's old tenacity flared up, then faded again as quickly.

Tomatoes...how wonderful it was, the taste, just knowing that it was the last vestiges of food that would not kill her. Her father must have hoarded it for months in a freezer, probably in the lab, just for her. To know that one of her final meals was clean and pure, despite the pasta dish that had come later, was heaven in itself. After everyone had realized the implications of the poisonous food, clean food was an impossibility to come by, unless you happened to have it stored already. The clean food didn't last long, maybe weeks, maybe a month. Except for that tomato her father had given her, it had been three whole months since she'd had anything clean to eat.

Lost in remembrances, Nia didn't notice the first drops of blood splattering against her thigh bones until her nose started gushing. She started, then relaxed, easing into the inevitable death that awaited her in mere minutes. She gazed up at her father, the insipid, yellowed hue of his features contorting in his own internal agony, and gave him one last, feathery kiss.

“I love you, Daddy,” she murmured, barely audible above the warm winds playing through the grasses and shimmying across the trees leaves. If I could, I would wish that my death might bring us to the Magic Number, so that balance will be restored and no one else would need to die, she pleaded with all her might to Nature, and to the heavens above. The hushed response of nothingness confirmed to her what she had been dreading: that the Magic Number for humanity was the same number Nature had imposed on all the rest of the animal kingdom—zero. No survivors. Nia could almost hear the thought coming into her consciousness as if from an external, sentient source. She glanced back up at her father, at his tumid ankles, so grotesquely swollen that they seemed like logs attached to thin knees, and cried.

As the last of her vision blurred and finally failed, leaving nothing but a sheen of darkness, she lifted one feeble hand to her father's face, and tumbled into a yawning, black void with him.


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