Aphelion Issue 244, Volume 23
October 2019
 
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The Sound of Apples

by Koos Kombuis


When Desmond awoke one fateful morning in December 2012, he could feel the earth spinning.

The earth had always been spinning, of course, but Desmond had never been aware of it before. He had to hold on to his pillow to stop himself from falling off the bed. To his surprise, the stuff on the bedside table -- his reading specs, a glass of water, his bedside lamp -- seemed utterly motionless. But Desmond could feel the earth spinning. It felt like the incredibly fast, yet ponderous motion of a giant sphere.

The ground under his bed was moving, the floor, the trees outside the windows, the clouds in the sky, everything. Everything was moving in an easterly direction. Everything. He could not see it moving, but he could feel it.

His wife entered the bedroom at that moment, carrying a breakfast tray. The tray held the usual pot of coffee, two mugs, the day's folded hologram, and a bowl of cereal with yogurt and fresh apple slices. Desmond and Grace were by no means fanatical health freaks, but they firmly believed the old adage of "an apple a day keeps the doctor away".

"So!" she chirped, brightly. "It's Friday, the twenty-second of December, 2012, and nothing terrible has happened to the world! The Mayans were wrong, after all!" She tossed the unopened holographic newspaper on to the bed. "Everything is still normal! Wasn't the world supposed to end yesterday?"

"Careful with that tray, Grace!" Desmond whispered hoarsely. "Everything is not normal! The earth is spinning!"

"The earth is what?" She stopped in her tracks, and glanced at him with irritation. "What's going on with you, Desmond? You look positively petrified."

Desmond was indeed a sight to behold. He did not look like his usual passive, morbidly introspective self at all. This morning, his behavior was most erratic. All his hair was standing on end, he was hanging on to the headboard of the bed like someone drowning in high seas, and his eyes were staring wildly into space. Though he was lying perfectly still on the bed, he seemed to be in mortal fear, like someone perched on the edge a high cliff.

"The earth is spinning!" Desmond shouted. "Stop it, will you? Will someone please make it stop! It's driving me... it's driving me crazy!"

"What do you mean, the earth is spinning?" Grace asked, nonplussed. "Of course the earth is spinning! It has always been spinning! Why is it suddenly important?"

"It's not just... the earth," Desmond mumbled. "It's the whole ... universe. I can feel it expanding... like a... like a balloon... a surge of vibrant electricity... an atomic bomb... mushrooming out into infinity, getting larger and larger every second... where is it going? Could someone please stop it?"

Grace put down the tray on the bedside table, and bent to touch Desmond's forehead. She was a trained nurse, and would immediately feel if her husband had a fever. After feeling his forehead, she sat down on the bed and took his wrist in her hand to feel his pulse.

"You have no fever, but your heartbeat is unnaturally slow," she said, quizzically. Looking into his eyes, she remarked: "And your pupils are very small! I think we should get you to a hospital! Why don't you get dressed, dear, I'll get the car out. I've never seen you in such a state... we better have it checked out." She sounded serious all of a sudden.

"It's not me," Desmond said aggressively. "It's the world. It's everything. How can I get up and get dressed if everything is moving at such a rapid pace?"

"Nothing is moving, Desmond!" she said, now almost irritably. "At least put on your gown and slippers, I'll meet you out front. Where are the car keys?"

"If it's not on the kitchen counter, it's... oops, careful, Grace!"

She was already out of the room.

Desmond lay back in bed, panting. "How can she be so calm?" he asked himself. Then he attempted to get up out of bed. "Maybe she's right. I better see a doctor. This feels like the time when I was a boy, and I lost my balance because something went wrong in my ears... Whoopee! This feels odd!" He was standing next to the bed now, swaying like a tree in a strong wind. "I can stand, but it feels as if I'm perched on the wing of huge passenger airplane, flying at top speed! If I concentrate, I might be able to stop myself from falling over..." Gingerly, he took one or two steps forward.

From the front door, he could hear his wife calling: "Come on, Desmond, hurry up! I phoned Dr Walter, and he said to bring you in immediately. Apparently, you're not the only one..."

"What do you mean, I'm not the only one?" Desmond was at his wife's side in three large steps. "Are there other people who can also feel the earth spinning?" He had a mad glint in his eyes, and his mouth seemed to be drooling in anticipation.

"Desmond, you're scaring me. Just get in the car, will you?" she had locked the front door behind them, and was standing in the driveway, impatiently swinging the car keys. "Let's just get this over with!"

Desmond got in the car...

####

The drive to the doctor took place in almost perfect silence. Desmond sat, stiff as a pole, staring at the houses they passed, fidgeting with his fingers, but not saying a word. He still seemed to be scared out of his wits, though, even more so than before; perhaps the movement of the car, combined with the spinning of the earth and the expansion of the universe, had effectively silenced him into a mindless stupor of sheer terror. Every few seconds, Grace glanced at her husband. The naked fear in his eyes was worse than anything she had ever seen; he was certainly not faking his symptoms. Desmond, the man she had been married to for almost ten years, the mildly philosophical, whimsical lecturer in English literature at the local university, was experiencing some kind of primordial mortal paranoia unknown to rational, civilized creatures of habit. She was not sure whether she should drive slower, so as not to scare him too much, or faster, and get him to the Doctor sooner. She opted for more speed.

This caused no change in Desmond's condition; he remained in the same position, staring at the peaceful surrounding suburban landscape in petrified silence. Grace drove as fast as she could through the quiet streets, barely slowing for stop signs, and screeching the tires of the car around corners.

The battery-driven car made no noise as Grace rushed through the tree-lined streets in the direction of the private clinic. Dr Walter had instructed her to meet him there rather than at the hospital, as he was in a virtual research conference at that moment, and not doing his rounds. It was with a tremendous relief that she finally swung the car, with a splattering of gravel, through the gates and into the courtyard of the clinic. To her surprise, the usually quiet parking lot was crowded with other vehicles. Could this be...? She refused to think of the possibilities, and concentrated on parking in the last empty space, right next to Dr Walters's sedan. As she got out and walked around to Desmond's side of the car, she noticed that several of the other cars were parked in a rather haphazard way. Some of the car doors were still open, as if folk had gotten out in a hurry and forgotten to lock up. At last two of the cars still had their engines running.

"Think you're okay to walk, dear?" she asked him sympathetically through the open window, trying to keep the increasing sense of horror out of her voice. Desmond just nodded stiffly, and attempted to open his door, but only groped wildly at nothing. It was as if he was weightless, and could not remember exactly where the door handle used to be. She opened the door from the outside, and tried to drag him out. "Come," she whispered hoarsely. The doctor is waiting." Step by step, she guided him on the gravel path leading to the front door of the clinic. He seemed to be walking fine, if agonizingly slow, until they reached the steps leading up to the porch, he waved his arms in all directions so as not to lose his precarious foothold on Mother Earth.

Inside, they were greeted by complete, and totally unexpected, pandemonium.

Several people -- some of them friends from the suburb, as well as a few folk they both vaguely knew from sight -- were standing and sitting around, in odd bodily positions, in the foyer of the clinic. Most of them had wild, staring eyes. Most of them were acting exactly like Desmond.

There was Mr. Henderson, the music teacher at the local school, hanging on to the back of a chair for dear life, while staring, with mouth agape, up at the sky.

Old Miss Trollip, who lived down the road and who was usually all sunny smiles and kindness, was on her hands and feet, her features contorted in a look of utter panic.

The head of the local police station was there, too; he was jumping up and down in the center of the room, shouting at the top of his voice: "Stop! Stop! Please make it stop! "

Everyone was speaking and whimpering at the same time, and making no sense at all. Around them, and in between them, were their concerned spouses and friends, who were not exhibiting the same symptoms, but were trying very hard calm down their crazed family members.

Grace was dumbfounded until she saw Dr Walters motioning at her from the open door of his office across the room. "Come in, quickly!" she heard him say above the din. She positioned Desmond on the nearest chair -- one of the few which had not yet been upturned - ran past at least two shattered ornaments until she reached the inner office.

Dr Walters closed the door behind them, and breathed a sigh of relief as the noise from the foyer subsided slightly. 'Thank heavens you're here!" he said. "Things have gotten much worse since you phoned. As you can see for yourself." He gestured to the closed door. "During the last ten minutes, at least seven new cases arrived. And I'm severely understaffed today, I had no consultations scheduled."

"Doctor, what is going on? This seems like a bad dream! What's happening to Desmond? What's happening to all these people?"

"Sit down, sit down." He offered her a chair. "I'll tell you what I've learned so far. I've just spoken to..." He walked to a large flat TV screen mounted against the wall of the office, switched it on, and started flipping through channels with a remote control.

"Now, where the hell is CNN... I could use some help here, Grace. I've tried to phone my regular staff to come in this morning, but couldn't get through to anyone -- I've got no receptionist, no nurse! You used to work at the general hospital, perhaps you can make yourself useful. This situation has got everyone on edge. I'm right in the middle of a virtual conference with doctors and staff from several other hospitals and clinics across the country, and the same things are happening there! This is worse than the riots after Obama got killed, I tell you."

He had finally located a news channel on the TV. It was, at that moment, broadcasting live footage, in three dimensions, of traffic chaos on one of the large San Francisco bridges. Cars were being driven erratically, and several had crashed through the railing, and were already sinking into the water below.

"You... you mean this kind of weird stuff is happening all over the country?" Grace asked, her face ashen.

"All over the world, Grace. The same thing has been reported from Australia, from Russia, from the UK, all over. "I was woken up by the first SMS at four o'clock, and by then the process was well under way. Ever since the sun rose in the east this morning, a tiny yet significant percentage of the population for the world has been experiencing the same crazy symptoms... they are in mortal fear, claiming they can feel the earth spinning, revolving around the sun, the solar system moving through the galaxy, nonsense like that."

"The universe expanding..." Grace added, tears in her eyes.

"Yes, that as well," Dr Walters said. "According to reports, some of these people even claim they can sense flowers growing, that they hear the sounds of clouds passing by overhead, the rumbling of fires and molten rock deep inside the earth...it's as if they had become super-sensitive to sound and motion, and all the normal information filtering mechanisms in their brains have fallen away."

On the TV screen, an attractive young female newscaster was saying: "... in the studio with me is Professor Graham Latham of thee Institute of Psychometric Research in California... Professor, you were saying just a moment ago that these symptoms are similar to the symptoms people exhibit when they're high on hallucinogenic drugs?"

The camera panned to an eccentric-looking gray-haired man in a crumpled suit. "Yes, we are awaiting the results of the preliminary toxicity screening any moment now. If these unfortunate people have accidentally ingested any form of strange chemical substance, their analyzed blood samples might reveal what exactly is going on. It seems a far-fetched idea, though, that so many people throughout the world, mostly men and women with no prior exposure to mind-altering substances, could be experiencing the same hallucinations simultaneously..."

Dr Walters switched the TV sound off, leaving the Professor to carry on speaking and gesticulating inaudibly, and sat down at the chair opposite Grace. "He is talking nonsense, of course. The preliminary results of the toxicity report are already known, but only a few researchers have had access to it so far. The result has been held from the general public. Professor Latham there is almost certainly going to feed the wrong information to the viewers. What my colleagues across the world have discovered is that these people's symptoms are not drug-induced. In fact, it's just the opposite. They are exhibiting symptoms of people coming OFF drugs. Their sense of reality is by no means distorted, but amplified. They don't act like people dreaming, but almost like people..." he sighed, and walked over to a state-of-the-art Apple Mac computer on his desk. "..Like people waking up from a dream. My research colleagues and I are now trying to analyze numerous blood samples to figure out what's missing in their chemical makeup, to find out what exactly it is that all of us so-called 'normal people' still have in our systems." He started furiously typing on his keypad. Then, in mid-motion, he stopped, swiveled in his chair, looked straight at the nurse, and said: "Grace, your husband and all those crazy-acting people in the foyer are not the ones on drugs. We are."

"We... that's impossible! That's simply impossible! I'm not a drug user! I've never smoked pot, not even at college! Neither has Des..."

But, once again, Doctor Walters was lost in thought. "If only we can isolate the substance," he murmured. "If only we could find out its characteristics, where it comes from, how long it stays in the body... then we can find out for how long the human race has been living in a trance. And why some of them have decided to snap out of it today."

"You're saying that... the people out there are normal? And there's something wrong with us?"

On the TV screen, new footage appeared. It showed people dancing in the streets of Paris. The Arc de Triomphe was in the background. This time, there were no moving cars in sight. The dancing people no longer appeared to be scared, but ecstatic. A new element had entered the equation... apart from a few baffled-looking bystanders, every one of the dancers were stark naked. They appeared to be singing.

"Ah, here's the final toxicity report. It's strictly confidential, of course; I'm lucky to have received it. They have a chemical formula for the drug... now why does it look vaguely familiar? And here's a comparative list of known mind-altering drugs with their active ingredients and symptoms of use..."

Grace could vaguely hear their voices. They were all singing different tunes, but all the voices were in harmony.

Then she realized: the TV sound is off. The singing voices were not those of the people dancing in the streets of Paris. It was coming from behind the closed door of the clinic. Yet the voices singing behind the door appeared to be in perfect lip-synch with the voices of the happy people on the TV screen.

She stood up, and walked slowly towards the closed door, while a cold hand of terror gripped her entire being. Did she imagine it, or could she feel the first stirrings... the very vague stirrings of a planet waking up to itself, becoming aware of its own body, the people living and breathing on its skin, like ants scurrying across the rosy cheeks of apples? My God, is it happening to me, too?

Behind her, she heard Doctor Walters speaking, but it sounded far away, as if he was mumbling into a glass jar. "The brain's filtering ability... dosage... length of trips.... psychedelic or dissociative? Two to three hours in the case of marijuana, up to eight hours with LSD... deliriants..." His voice started achieving a rhythm of its own, almost as if he was talking to the rhythm of a rap song. "Dilation of pupils... antihistamines diphenhydramine... overdose and permanent toxic psychosis... the drugs used by humankind, cacti and variety of other plants... mescaline, induced schizophrenia, counter culture, verbal association, induced apathy, compulsive structuring..."

Grace opened the door. The singing outside was suddenly much louder, but somehow she was no longer frightened. It sounded like a song she had been waiting all her life, all her countless lives on earth, to hear. A song she had known centuries ago, and forgotten... until today....

"... Apple juice? Are you crazy? This is impossible! Just normal juice? What kind of apples? Only in Mesopotamia... is it extinct?"

Everyone in the foyer of the clinic seemed happy to see her. They were in various stages of undress; pieces of clothing lay discarded on the floor and on the reception counter. Nobody seemed afraid any more. Everyone was wide-eyed with wonder.

The next moment Desmond was standing in front of her, saying: "So this is what it's really like," he said dreamily. "This is the music of the spheres... no more religion... no more guilt... no more pornography... this is what it means to be truly human. Oh, Grace, I'm so happy! I've never felt like this in my life... no more nine to five for us any more, we can just spend all our time breathing, and living, and singing, and moving with the electrons, and the galaxies, and the quasars, and the... stuff! All the stuff! Can you hear it, Grace, can you hear it? The stuff! It's all around us!"

"How can a drug stay in the system for so long after just one dosage? Was it passed on from generation to generation? What are the active ingredients? What do you mean, approximately thirty thousand years?"

For a moment, for one moment only, Grace felt the urge to dismiss Desmond's monologue as the mindless chatter of a deranged man. Then her husband looked deeply into her eyes. She looked into his eyes. It was as if they saw each other for the first time. They were becoming like children, they remembered the feeling of true innocence, an innocence not shared by the human race since that disastrous day, millennia ago, in the Garden of Eden.

"I... I think so... I'm beginning to spin with the earth... I'm beginning to hear it... it sounds like the sound of apples..." Grace whispered.

Then she, too, like all humankind around her, surrendered to the collective newfound freedom of Planet Earth, and flung her arms open to embrace life for what seemed like the first time.

THE END


© 2010 Koos Kombuis

Bio: Koos Kombuis is a resident of South Africa who describes himself as a "novelist, columnist, anti-apartheid activist, rock musician and counter-cultural troubleshooter". He is new to the science fiction genre, but has already placed a story in Planet Magazine (The Last Coffee Shop Philosopher), and the same story will appear in print in The Last Man Anthology (from Sword & Saga Publishing). Visit Mr. Kombuis's blog at Koos Kombuis - Perpetual Enfant Terrible of SA Culture.

E-mail: Koos Kombuis

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