The Appearance of Order by Kelly Ann Jacobson
2021 August | Utopia Science Fiction Magazine
In the old world, they called her crazy. Crazy Kat at her mother’s farm where she built the bunker, and Crazy Old Peters here, on the fifth floor of building 4, where she sits under her anti-radiation blanket among the canned peas and bottled water and calmly lives out the current apocalypse. Oh, how she’d felt smug victory the day the vines came creeping out of the canopy of trees and covered the space where a concrete slab and a few dry shrubs had been. How she’d known before she even saw the monsters bud from the vines and bloom that this was finally it. How she’d relished every request that had come to her door since. And she gave freely, for she would outlive all of them, especially because she knew something no one else did: the software that had first created this wild mess, sweetly named Root, had been created by one Dr. Flaggers, king of the reforestation chat rooms, master of the political debate, secret caretaker to humanity, and, most importantly, her special pen pal.
Yes, that kind.
Dr. Flaggers had last emailed her that he felt Root coming to life, and that he felt one with the great tree trunk into which Dr. Flaggers had inserted his software and from which Root sent his detailed system into the world. He cannot be stopped, Dr. Flaggers had warned. He can only be survived. But this implied there was a way to survive, and thus she had begun to add to her already-expansive collection. Food and flashlights, but also knives, guns, lasers, and weed killer — lots of it. Kat had also written back and enclosed a picture of herself in her white slip, and though she never received another message, she imagined Dr. Flaggers took great comfort in the visual as Root consumed him.
This assurance gave her peace whenever she yearned for the familiar black cursive of his long notes in her mail slot.
Oh, Dr. Flaggers. Oh, Jim.
Kat has not told anyone in Building 4 about the weed killer because she’s determined that if Root’s purpose is to cull, she will let him do his work. If, however, he comes to her door with that black-robed reaper… Well, he’d better be ready for a hell of a fight. She has buckets of the stuff rigged to drop if she pulls the right string, as well as two sprayer guns and a machete. She has an exit route mapped and a second route for backup. Her survival backpack is stashed in the hall closet.
All she is missing now is the last item on her list: a map of the rumored underground passageways supposedly connecting the city. Sure, the local government has always claimed ignorance about the tunnels, but Kat has read the message boards maintained by concerned citizens — she knows the truth. The map of the tunnels is somewhere in Mayor Tom’s apartment, and she is going to find it.
When Kat knocks, she hears the slow drag of sneakers on carpet and then a sharp, “Damn it, what does she want?”
“I can hear you, Tom,” Kat says.
“Course you can. Bet you got my whole apartment bugged, you conspiracy-monger.”
The door opens. The apartment is dim but familiar, all twilight blue paneling and white trim and austere gold frames in the hallway displaying smiling grandchildren, some of whom are probably dead by now. Kat avoids looking directly into their faces. She slips inside and shuts the door quickly, bringing her awkwardly close to Mayor Tom, broad and boney even with his stoop. She imagines herself through his eyes: black combat boots, green vest, safari hat, two sprayer bottles, army backpack, gun. Crazy Old Peters.
“And what are you doing to save Building 4 from this apocalypse?” Kat asks sharply.
“Oh, Katrina.” Mayor Tom waves her further into the apartment with his spotted hand. “Come have a seat.”
Kat perches on one of the wooden dining chairs and helps herself to an Oreo from the glass jar in the center. Icing and chocolate. What a luxury. She licks her fingers, and then asks again, “What are you doing for us, Tom?”
Mayor Tom sits down across from her with trouble. “You look like hell, Katrina.”
“Not too great yourself.” She can’t help running a hand over the white streak in her hair skunking the raven black. “Maybe it’s the weight of responsibility causing those wrinkles.”
Tom sighs deeply. “I’m not the mayor anymore, Katrina. That was twenty years ago.”
“And I don’t have a say in diddlysquat. I’m old and useless, and so are you.”
Kat scoffs. She retrieves the switchblade from her boot, stabbing it into the center of the table. “Bullshit. Randy would never have stood for this ‘old and useless’ mumbo jumbo.”
Tom blinks, but he doesn’t startle — Kat likes that about him. She also likes the cut of his navy button-down shirt. He reminds her of Randy, and she imagines what he looks like under that nylon stretch.
“Randy thought that the air force controlled the weather. What exactly do you want from me?”
“Want?” She plucks the knife up and folds it away. Then, while trying to maintain eye contact, she rifles through the stack of papers beside her. Electricity bill. Advertisement for a pizza joint. Coupon for an oil change, $29.99. “I want you to put Building 4 first. I want you to take charge. We’re a ship without a captain, Tom. We need action. We need leadership.”
Kat is not sure why she’s saying these things. Hadn’t she just been telling herself she’d let the vine monsters do their work? Yet here in Tom’s apartment, she feels suddenly carried away by enthusiasm for her new cause. Find the tunnels. Rescue the humans. Yes.
“And you want me to be that leader?”
“Know anyone else better for the job?”
Tom lists a bunch of names she doesn’t recognize — young people, probably. Idiots.
“No, no,” she interrupts, “we need the old guard. The people who know.”
Tom shakes his head. “This coming from the woman who sabotaged every town hall meeting for eight years? What is it you said the last time? New Industrialist trash with his hand so far in their pocket he could tie their shoes?”
“I’ll admit I might have gone a little far.”
“You egged my door,” Tom says. “Do you know how long it took to wash spoiled egg out of the hall carpet? And don’t get me started about the picketing. God, Kat, it got so bad that we couldn’t even go out the front door — ”
Kat stands, overturning the chair. “What matters now is that we band together to save ourselves from extinction. Are you with me, Tom?”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?” Tom tilts his head thoughtfully. “And I suppose you have a plan?”
In bed, the heat of their bodies and the sun coming around the curtains remind Kat of being at the shore with Randy. He liked to watch the seagulls — quite a birder, her Randy. One time they had rescued a gull from the plastic rings of a six-pack holder. Now she’s naked with his greatest enemy, Mayor Tom, who once voted to remove the community garden because it attracted too many slugs.
Slugs, for god’s sake.
“And you’re sure it’ll work?” Tom sits up against the headboard, all business. “Dr. Flaggers definitely mentioned a trunk — a real tree trunk?”
“Oh, yes.” Kat reclines on his pillow, memory foam with a soft cotton cover that’s slightly browned in the center. “Find the trunk sending out the vines and we find the heart of Root.”
Tom says he wants to start right away. “Certainly the people can be convinced, if they only understood the possibility of destroying Root for good, and — ”
Kat has stopped listening. She’s putting on her uniform, strapping on her weapons, hefting up her backpack. Tom kisses her cheek, but he’s barely there anymore, which is good because Kat can slip out the door without much fuss. Down the hall she treads, her fifty-pound backpack perpetually pulling at her back like a tired child riding her home. Only, she isn’t going home — not when the others are going to war with a killer tree stump.
It’s not her fault she’s abandoning ship, though. She has been misled. The truth is that there is no tunnel map — she checked during Tom’s long bathroom trip and found only an ancient email printout from his old secretary with a screenshot of one of the message boards and the comment, “Can you believe these people think there are secret tunnels all over town? Ha!” — but there is a list of the old fallout shelters installed after the last invasion. The shelters won’t fit a whole building, of course, but they’ll do quite nicely for a single woman traveling alone. And besides, she’s done her part. She’s set Mayor Tom on the path, given him all the clues, the shared addresses and detailed code and every theory from every comment thread she’s ever come across.
But putting herself in harm’s way for some strangers who call her Crazy Old Peters? Certainly not. Kat would rather take her chances in that garden outside, killer or otherwise.
The lobby is empty, and Kat has to cut through about a thousand ropes to get out the front door, but she manages eventually. Funny that they thought ropes could keep out weeds, back before they watched tendrils climb fifty feet and enter a building through a single hole in the corner of a window frame. She’s really doing them a favor. Paving them a quick escape.
The fresh air on her face is wet and heavy. The vines are everywhere, a maze of thick stalks and frozen yellow buds awaiting activation. Birds call to each other, or maybe to something unseen in the distant forest. Root has transformed the entire city into this luscious panorama — just like Dr. Flaggers said he would.
“I’m rooting for Tom,” Kat confesses to the empty space between her and the trees. “But I’ll settle for you.”
With that, she takes three steps and disappears between the hungry pitcher mouths of two blooming baby buds.
Originally published in the August 2021 issue of Utopia Science Fiction Magazine.
Kelly Ann Jacobson is the author or editor of many published books, including her chapbook An Inventory of Abandoned Things, which won the 2020 Split/Lip Chapbook Contest, and her young adult novel Tink and Wendy, forthcoming from Three Rooms Press in October 2021. Kelly received her PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University and teaches as the Visiting Assistant Professor of English at the University of West Alabama and as an instructor of speculative fiction and
short story writing for Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA in creative writing. Her short fiction has been published in such places as Northern Virginia Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, New Plains Review, Gargoyle, Daily Science Fiction, and Best Small Fictions 2020. More information about her can be found at www.kellyannjacobson.com.