Death arrived in London in a plain, brown, cardboard box topped with a ribbon.
Martha Bazelton found the box on her stoop early on a chilly Tuesday morning. Expecting to see little but the week’s milk when she opened her door, Mrs. Bazelton instead took her first steps toward her own gruesome and painful death by cocking her head to the side with curiosity. Then she leaned down and picked up the object of mass doom. It seemed an ordinary box, perhaps eighteen inches to a side, and she found it slightly heavier than she might have expected, as if someone had shipped a twelve or thirteen pound bowling ball to her front stoop.
She went inside and closed the door. The week’s milk remained behind.
Mrs. Bazelton brought the innocent-looking box into the kitchen and sat it down on the table in front of her husband, Gordon Bazelton. Mr. Bazelton was an important man, with a good job in the financial sector of the city, and Mrs. Bazelton assumed any package sent to their door must be meant for him.
“What’s this?” he asked, a spoonful of cottage cheese halfway to his mouth.
“A package,” answered his wife, quickly busying herself with making her husband’s lunch.
“I can bloody well see that,” snarled Mr. Bazelton. “Who’s it from?”
“Don’t know, didn’t see a return post,” was her answer.
Mr. Bazelton frowned energetically at his incredibly lazy wife, then peered down at the box. He looked at the top of the box. He looked at the sides of the box. He picked it up (grunting slightly at the unexpected weight of the thing) and looked at the bottom of the box. Mrs. Bazelton was right, there was no address anywhere on the box. In fact, there were no markings, nor was there anything on the box to indicate that it was meant for Mr. Bazelton.
“Where did you say you found this?” he asked Mrs. Bazelton.
“It was on the stoop with the milk,” she answered, before throwing her hands up. “Oy! The milk!”
And she shuffled back to the stoop to retrieve the forgotten milk.
Mr. Bazelton sat back down in his chair and gazed at his box. Yes, he had decided that markings or no, it was his box. It had been found by his wife on his stoop so that made it his box.
He wondered what could be inside his box. Money? Jewels? The latest mechanical wonder, straight from the workshops of Crankshaft & Groove? (Mr. Bazelton had always wanted to be the first in the office to own something new from C & G, if only to rub it in Barnaby Snaller’s pudgy little nose.) Of course, there was no way Mr. Bazelton could ever have guessed what actually awaited him within the confines of that simple, cardboard box which sat looking as harmless as the sugar bowl on his kitchen table. He had no way of knowing of the days, weeks, months, and years of agony and terror he would suffer because of the contents therein, nor how his name would grow to become synonymous with the end of the world, nor indeed how he had been specifically selected as one most likely to open the anonymous box and help bring about that which history would eventually term The Spreading.
He had no way of knowing that within the box, sitting just inches from his face, was a Lovecraftian horror the likes of which mankind had never known and would never have the chance to know again.
In truth, Mr. Gordon Bazelton had simply no idea what could possibly be in the box. But he assumed it was valuable.
Why else ship it in a box?
So Gordon Bazelton pushed his chair away from the table, stood, and crossed to the counter where his wife was just finishing up his pickle and cheese sandwich.
“Hand me the scissors, will you Luv?” he asked.
Mrs. Bazelton tut-tutted her husband as she folded the slice of bread over on itself, completing the main course of the last lunch Mr. Bazelton would ever eat (and that only because he would eat it long before arriving at his office). She quickly and automatically licked remnants of pickle from her fingertips before wiping them on the hand towel tucked at her waist, then opened the utility drawer to fetch Mr. Bazelton the scissors.
“Here you are then,” she said.
Mr. Bazelton snatched the scissors from his wife’s plump hands and returned his attention to the mesmerizing cardboard box. Though bereft of markings, the box was professionally sealed with sturdy packing tape. Oddly enough, the taping had been so thorough that not a single edge or seam remained unsealed.
This could have been, if not the first, then certainly one of the earlier warnings regarding the inherent danger of the contents waiting to be revealed, but of course Gordon Bazelton paid it no mind.
As the one who had sent the box had known he would not.
“Right. I’m opening the bloody thing,” said Mr. Bazelton. Not exactly inspiring final words, but then, of course, he wasn’t aware they were to be his final words.
With a steady-handed jab, Mr. Bazelton broke the hermetically-sealed (if a seal created by industrial-strength packing tape could be considered hermetic) box, exposing the enclosed surprise to the atmosphere for the first time in exactly 26 days, which happened to be the creature’s gestation period.
Mr. Bazelton withdrew his scissors from the box, opened them wide, slipped the lower blade into the cardboard wound he’d just created, and proceeded to calmly cut through the tape until he was able to bend back the flaps and peer inside. He was, for all intents and purposes, already dead, a fact that would dawn on him a few hours later as he was dragged kicking and screaming into his own private Hell.
“Hmmm,” mumbled the soon-to-wish-he-was-dead man.
“What is it, dear?” asked Mrs. Bazelton, who after no small manner of investigation would come to be labeled Patient 0001.
Mr. Bazelton reached inside the box with both hands and pulled forth three small, pulsating bulbs resting within a single standard-sized clay pot. That it was some sort of plant life was obvious. Exactly what sort of plant life it might be was anything but obvious.
“Good Lord, Gordon! What on Earth have you got there?” asked Mrs. Bazelton.
The bulbs had an almost fleshy look to them, and the only hint that they were plants was the stubby, greenish stems ploughing themselves into the dirt. The surfaces of the three bulbs rippled, much like the belly of a pregnant woman ripples when the baby within kicks and turns. Mr. Bazelton leaned forward, equally fascinated and disgusted, and gently poked one of the bulbs with his finger. The skin gave slightly, then sprung back into shape when he pulled his hand away. It was unlike anything Mr. Bazelton had ever seen—not surprising since he was, in fact, the first human to ever lay eyes on this particular species (the only other human to have ever come into contact with it had been extremely careful never to let it fully germinate).
Mr. Bazelton was about to tell his wife that he’d never seen anything like this before in his life (thereby updating what was to be his final words) when one of the bulbs exploded in his face.
“Gordon!” shrieked Mrs. Bazelton, as her husband gasped a desperate ‘Ack!’ and tipped his chair backwards, arms flailing in front of his face. A sticky, sickly-brown sap covered every inch of his face, clogging his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, and in the half-an-instant after the bulb burst, Mr. Bazelton crashed to the floor, banging his head hard against the wall in the process and causing his eyes to momentarily roll backwards into his head.
“Oh, Heavens! Gordon! My sweet Gordon!” Mrs. Bazelton dropped everything and ran to her husband’s side, fearing the worst. She knelt down, utterly devoid of any idea as to what she should do: her husband’s face was covered in sap to the point that he appeared unable to breathe, this same sap had spread all over the kitchen and, in fact (though she was unaware of this), microscopic molecules of it were even now burrowing their way into her lungs, and the kitchen chair had toppled over onto its side leaving a mark on her wall.
“Gordon? Are you alright?” She felt as if she should shake him awake, but found herself unable to place her hands upon his sap-encrusted body. Instead, she realized it was her duty to find someone else to try and help her husband. “I’ll call an ambulance!”
The ironic truth of the matter was that had she done so, the human race might have been spared the horrific future it was soon to undergo for at least a while longer. It is not realistic to think The Spreading would never have happened, because had the attempt been foiled by Mrs. Bazelton’s quick thinking, there is every reason to believe the perpetrator would have tried again. And again. Until he or she succeeded. However, it is undeniable that had Martha Bazelton called for an ambulance the instant her husband had been first hit by the spray from the exploding bulb, the outbreak would have been contained to an easily-quarantinable hospital, and the death toll would have been mere hundreds (including most certainly both Mr. and Mrs. Bazelton), rather than billions.
However, just as Mrs. Bazelton stood to reach for the phone, her husband reached up and grabbed her arm.
“Gordon! Good grief! You gave me a fright!”
Gordon Bazelton may have tried to say something, but his mouth had been completely sealed by the sticky sap of the bulb. The remainder of his face, however, was oddly clearing of the other-worldly substance. Had Mrs. Bazelton bothered to notice (which she did not), she would have seen the sap ooze its way into the various orifices of Mr. Bazelton’s face. Sap rose up into his nose, dribbled down into his ear canals, and even forced its way through tear ducts not nearly large enough to accommodate the globular mass. All of this caused agony unmentionable to Mr. Bazelton, however, seeing as his entire system was in the process of shutting down, his reaction was understandably muted.
“Gordon? Are you alright? Would you like a wet nap for your face?”
Her husband groggily pulled himself to a standing position as the remaining sap on his face sunk into his skin through his pores. Once he had his balance, he gazed out at a blurry world through eyes speckled with flecks of green and red while microscopic things moved about within his body.
“Oh! You’re… how are you… I say!” Mrs. Bazelton was not exactly coherent at that particular time, her pleasantly simple-minded nature finding it difficult to proceed in light of recent events.
For his part, Mr. Bazelton blinked at the foggy world around him, unable to vocalise his feelings (having, as has been mentioned, already imparted what would be, at least at this particular stage of his life, his final words). He knew that something dreadful had just happened to him, and he rather thought his prized box was to blame, but for the life of him he hadn’t yet managed to wrap his head around the whole business.
“You should… well perhaps… should I call…” Mrs. Bazelton’s mind spun through an assortment of responses to her husband being attacked by an exploding plant, but came up empty. In truth, the poor woman was overwhelmed by the gruesome details of what had just occurred, and her unduly-burdened intellect desperately sought for a way to regain some semblance of control over the situation. Finally, she glanced at the clock on the wall, shoved all thoughts of horror untold out of her mind, and allowed her good breeding to kick in.
“Deary me! Gordon! You’ll be late for the tube!”
She hurried to the far side of the counter, grabbed Mr. Bazelton’s lunch, handed it to her awkwardly pliant husband, and shooed him towards the door. “You’ve got that big meeting this morning! Salsbury’s up from Brighton!” She grabbed her husband’s coat and hat and stuffed Mr. Bazelton into his proper garb. “Hurry! Hurry!”
And with precision rarely found in the modern family, Mrs. Bazelton steered her dazed husband out the door and pointed him towards the tube station at the end of the street, purposefully oblivious to his current state of zombie-like incoherency.
Once he was away, Mrs. Bazelton closed and locked her front door, shaking her head and walking right past the two remaining bulbs sitting in their pot on the table as she made her way to the kitchen, where she had dishes to wash.
The bulbs would burst momentarily, of course, but as Martha Bazelton had no errands to run and no plans to set foot outside her home all day, their efforts at mass carnage would be thwarted and they would have to satisfy themselves with making Mrs. Bazelton’s final moments on Earth a living Hell of pain, suffering, and terror.
She would be dead in less than two hours.
How Gordon Bazelton managed to board the tube in his condition he would never know. It was difficult to concentrate with everybody and everything refusing to come into focus. Plus he was suffering some damnable headache that seemed to crest upon his consciousness in wave after pounding wave. The repetitive chug-chuging of the underground train did not help matters, nor did the unnatural heat that seemed to permeate the tube on this particular morning.
Though the tube was quite crowded, what with it being the morning commute and all, Mr. Bazelton found himself sitting alone in a three-seat booth—his fellow travelers having quickly pegged the heavily-sweating individual stumbling down the aisle as someone with whom they would rather not share a seat.
As the tube churned beneath London on its way towards the center of the city, Gordon Bazelton found himself ripping open the lunch bag, which had been so painstakingly folded by his wife, and wolfing down his pickle and cheese sandwich in a minimal number of bites. That was followed by the tea biscuits meant for his morning snack and even the apple he usually tossed into the waste bin.
When a woman pregnant with child eats a large meal, it is said that she is eating for two. Though he had no way of knowing, Mr. Bazelton was, in fact, eating for just over 700, which might have had something to do with the voracity with which he devoured what would be his last identifiable meal.
Though the trip through the London Underground seemed to pass in the blink of an eye to Mr. Bazelton, such was not the case to the rest of the car’s passengers. Rather, they feared the nightmare commute would never end and that they’d be forced to remain confined with the slimey man who oozed and spit and was obviously ill and just as obviously contagious for eternity. The rows immediately in front of and behind Mr. Bazelton emptied almost before the train had left the station. Only the standard morning rush hour over-crowding kept anyone within the car at all, though more than a few got off at the earliest opportunity to wait for the next train.
The seventeen passengers who chose to struggle through, however, would eventually come to be known as Patients 0002 through 0016, Patient 0019, and Patient 0231 (it took some time before the existence of Mr. Carson Beckett on that ill-fated train was discovered, during which time the cause of The Spreading’s sudden explosion within the city of Paris had remained a mystery).
The tube arrived at the lower levels of King’s Cross Station right on time. Mr. Bazelton, now more or less running on autopilot, lurched his way forward, coughing up spittle with every step. His fellow passengers shoved one another aside in their rush to escape both the confines of the train car and the path of the alarmingly diseased Mr. Bazelton. Like roaches scuttling from the light, these Typhoid Marys quickly emptied the platform and raced up the stairs to put as much distance between themselves and their morning commute as possible. One by one they hailed taxis, jumped onto passing buses, or just hurried down the street—all the while unknowingly sharing the seeds of Armageddon with every individual they passed on their travels.
Mr. Bazelton’s office was less than a block away from the station. When Benny, the octogenarian doorman, held the door open for the familiar face, he froze in shock at the sight before him. His mouth hung open so long that his jaw nearly dried out.
Mr. Bazelton somehow made his way to his office, leaving a growing parade of stunned onlookers in his wake. There was Miss Wilmington the receptionist, Fredricks and Fallow in accounting, young Archibald the lift operator (the unfortunate recipient of a particularly violent sneeze from Mr. Bazelton), Mags in personnel, the new boy whose name Mr. Bazelton could never remember, and finally his own secretary, Agnes Millford. Each person shrunk back from Mr. Bazelton in horror. Each person worried after the health of Mr. Bazelton. Each person wondered if he really ought to be in the office in his condition. Each person was infected and would be dead by the end of the day.
“Mr. Bazelton? Are you ill, Sir?” asked poor Agnes Millford, poking her head into Mr. Bazelton’s office only as much as propriety demanded.
Mr. Bazelton answered by coughing up gobs of mucus all over a series of very important documents having something to do with pork futures.
“I’ve got Salsbury here, up from Brighton. Shall I send him in, then?”
Another coughing fit, punctuated by a vigorous nodding of the head and wave of the hand. Somewhere inside the inner workings of what had once been Mr. Bazelton’s body but was now more accurately labeled as an unwilling greenhouse, the man he had once been was determined to carry on with his normal routine, infestation be damned.
Agnes pulled her head out of the office and ushered in Salsbury, who had come up from Brighton. A spindle of a man with an elaborate mustache, he entered the room fully prepared to dive into the nitty gritty of his business but stopped two feet inside the door when he beheld the twitching figure of Mr. Bazelton.
“Good Lord, Bazelton! You’re a sight!”
A moist grunt uttered from somewhere deep within the moving carcass of Gordon Bazelton. Salsbury mistakenly attributed it to his associate, but the truth was, the noise was simply the result of chemical reactions within the man’s innards as more and more of his internal organs were terraformed by the biological entities forming beneath his skin to serve other purposes.
Salsbury, bless his heart, was a kind-hearted soul. While his generousness would not be the death of him (simply entering Bazelton’s office had served that purpose), it did bring upon the gentle man an especially horrific fate. “I say, Bazelton, you look a bit dehydrated. Hang on a moment.”
Being a frequent guest to the office, Salsbury knew Bazelton kept bottles of chilled water in the ice box next to his desk. The good samaritan hurried over and and pulled one out. “Normally, Old Boy, I’d look for a proper glass, but I think this may not be the best time to stand on ceremony,” he said.
Unscrewing the lid, Salsbury moved to Bazelton’s side and lifted the bottle towards the sickly man’s lips. At the same time that this honest deed of good will was being performed, something deep within Mr. Bazelton erupted and his mouth opened to release a gruesome stream of gore along with a few concentrated pods the size of cocoa beans. The jet of bile slammed into Salsbury, knocking him backwards, while the pods pelted his forehead, splitting open upon impact and releasing tiny, squiggling, tendrils of life desperate to plant themselves within something soft and begin their own circle of life.
Unfortunately for Salsbury, four of the evil nubs did indeed plant themselves into his flesh. He screamed an unholy roar of agony and terror as the nubs quickly and easily dug in, spreading their tiny roots within his bloodstream, interrupting the normal workflow of the human body.
Bazelton continued to spew forth a small number of seed pods, many of which broke open leaving their contents little to no hope of finding fertile soil in which to evolve, until the final spasms left his system and a semblance of humanity returned into the farthest reaches of his mind. He saw Salsbury on the floor, he heard the screams of Miss Millford who had yet again popped her head past the door. He knew he was to blame, and he wanted to leave. He needed to leave. He needed to go away.
Again, his thoughts were not so much his own as they were being guided by the demonic entities within him. They, too, were aware of their surroundings, and they saw that aside from the newly sowed field of Mr. Amos Salsbury, there was little here suitable for planting.
This was why Mr. Bazelton had the odd desire to find his way below ground as quickly as possible, though the final traces of his humanity explained the urge away as a wish to return home on the tube.
The being that stumbled its way out of the office building was vaguely shaped like a human, but that is where the similarities ended. The former Mr. Bazelton’s flesh was an unsettling shade of brownish-green (not surprisingly the same color as the original pods that had arrived that morning on his stoop in a cardboard box topped with a ribbon), he gave off a powerfully distinct earthy aroma, and, had he stood still long enough for any to notice, they would have seen an assortment of unholy movement just beneath the surface of his skin. They also, if they looked closely enough, may have noticed one or two green shoots which had ripped their way out of his scalp.
Giving in to an animalistic need to be underground, the thing that had once been Mr. Bazelton hopped, limped, and slumped its way back to the tube station, spewing forth gallons of highly-contagious bile and spittle with every step, and infecting dozens of innocent passersby who would soon enough enter their own personal Hell. At the top of the steps leading to the underground, one his eyeballs burst from his head, shoved out of the socket by a large green stem which quickly whipped about from within. The Bazelton Creature dropped to its knees, and then rolled down the stairs into the darkness below, its progress easily indicated by the squeals of all it encountered along the way.
Acting on instinct alone, this sad remnance of a human being dragged itself forward onto a platform. Within seconds, all others had fled and Patient 0000 lay on what had once been its stomach, alone in the dark. The other eye was forced out of the socket, rolling off the edge of the platform to splatter onto the tracks below. A second thick green stem snaked out of this suddenly-vacated eye socket and felt around the home nest, searching for moisture, searching for darkness, searching for soil.
When Investigators arrived on the scene the next day (thereby inadvertently exposing themselves to the contagion and doing their part to further The Spreading) they found nothing in the dark catacombs but a bloody trail leading from the middle of the platform to the edge of the tracks. As the lone security camera on the platform had been inoperable for the past two weeks, there would never be documentation of what transpired on the platform that morning. Where the bulk of matter making up Gordon Bazelton’s body disappeared to would not be known for several years to anyone except a lone individual. A mad, twisted individual tortured beyond all imagination.
Somewhere in the darkness beneath London, this lone individual screamed a perpetual, silent scream-haunted by memories that, wish as it might, would not be forgotten.
Memories of dozens of multi-limbed stalks punching their way through his flesh like tiny, unwanted extra limbs.
Of these arachnid-like appendages lifting the body off the ground and dragging it down to the tracks.
Of its journey into the void of the tunnels, where it would gestate, mutate, and evolve over the next several years.
All the while, the small etchings of humanity that remained untouched in a huddled corner of the diseased mind were never completely allowed to forget what it was, what it had become, and what it was doing.
Or the pain. It was never allowed to forget the pain.
© 2014 by David Nielsen
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