By Jeffrey Bishop
Tell Time: 7 minutes
Scare Rating: 2/5 Ghosts
“We don’t have yogurt, I’m afraid,” said the waiter to Jess the first morning of their vacation with her parents at the tropical island of Vrinjay, off the coast of Thailand. “Mademoiselle would like to try the monster fruit, no? It is like yogurt.”
“Monster fruit? What in the world is that?” asked Chase, Jess’ older brother.
“It is a local favorite,” said the waiter, dismissive of the boy. With a flick of two fingers, a second waiter quickly appeared from nowhere. He brought with him a large, round dark-hulled object and a cart that appeared as though it had been carved from a single block of wood.
“Is that it?” asked Chase, wrinkling his nose at the brown gnarled object. “No thanks!”
Jess had both a sweeter disposition and a keener sense for adventure than her brother. The curious, eager grin on her face as she marveled at the fruit told the waiter it was a “yes” for Jess, and after a confirming glance from mom, the assistant waiter carefully carved the fruit into two halves, artfully dodging the bumps on the surface.
“I think you will enjoy it,” said the waiter as he served half of the fruit before the young girl, along with a side plate and a silver spoon. “Just avoid the seeds.”
The waiters whisked their cart away, and Jess savored the meal that sat before her, with her eyes and her nose first. A deep, moist, fruity fragrance hung low over the fruit-bowl, which looked like a swirled, whipped custard. Tiny bead-like seeds appeared like so many sprinkles on top.
As she dipped her spoon into the dish and took the first bite — which tasted descended from heaven — Jess’ father started to read from an online dictionary; he had been feverishly tapping on his smart phone while the rest of the family ordered breakfast, and had found a trove of information about the exotic fruit.
“The monster fruit isn’t famous for its good looks,” he read. “The size of a soccer ball, the fruit hangs heavy from the canopy of the large Kukulu trees in south-east Asia.
“The grey-brown rind is thick, gnarled and covered with pustules that ooze an acidic gel if pierced. As the fruit ripens, it grows heavier, pulling the branch from which it hangs toward the ground; when fully ripened, each monster fruit hangs about 5 feet over the ground,” Dad continued. “a perfect height for plucking.
“Wait too long, however, and the tree drops its prize to the ground with a ceremonious splatter of flesh, seed and rancid stink; any given seed of which will sprout overnight into a new tree that quickly grows up into the canopy of its parent, forming a thick copse of trees.
“Those who can get past the fruit’s appearance, difficulties and dangers are rewarded by a thick, custardy center of pink-orange fruit-meat that’s sweet, fragrant and tangy.”
“That’s for sure,” said Jess, clearly enjoying the fruit-custard fruit filling. “Want to try some?” she offered. Mom and Dad took a small taste each, but Chase, who had been almost salivating over her dish since it was first opened and he could see — and smell — the ugly fruit’s innards, dug a deep spoonful.
“Help yourself,” she said sarcastically as Dad continued to read.
“While the monster fruit is a local delicacy, it unfortunately isn’t marketable for the impoverished populations where it is common. It’s various unique characteristics keep it from appealing to wider markets, but it is nonetheless a vital food staple for locals, who savor its flavors and nutritional value, and who best know how to avoid its dangerous husk and mysterious seeds, which should not be eaten at any cost.”
Jess swallowed hard at that pronouncement. While she’d been diligent in spitting out the tiny bead-like seeds from each bite, she was certain her last bite contained a single, small seed. As tears welled up in her eyes, Chase started to laugh — he could read on her face what had happened.
“Jess is going to have a monster tree grow inside of her!” he said, laughing and pointing at his sister, who burst out in a flood of tears at the teasing.
“Quit bothering your sister!” scolded Mom.
“But that’s what happens if you swallow an apple seed!” Chase protested.
“I’m sure you’ll be fine, dear,” Mom told Jess, looking at the pile of tiny seeds on her side plate. “How much harm can a little seed like that do, anyway?”
Dad’s brow was furrowed, as his fingers flew across the keypad of his phone. “I can’t find anything more about the fruit — and nothing about its seeds besides advice to not eat them,” he said. “My guess is that you’ll have some stomach discomfort, but I think you’ll be OK. Let’s go hit the beach and enjoy the day,” he added reassuringly.
Jess let Chase finish her monster fruit, and although she physically felt fine, she nonetheless was in a funk throughout the day. Mom and Dad decided to put her to bed early and let her have a fresh start the next day.
“She’s down, but it’s a fitful rest,” said Mom as she emerged from the girl’s bedroom. The family settled down to play cards in the sitting area of their suite and tried to be quiet to let Jess rest.
“Go fish!” said Chase to Dad. As Dad was about to draw a card, the game was interrupted by a loud crash, as the wall that had kept noise out of Jess’ room collapsed into a pile of rubble and dust.
Before the dust could settle, a giant creature — clearly the thing that had made the hole — pushed through the rubble and into the room, where Chase, Mom and Dad had retreated into the farthest corner of the room.
The monster was large and ugly, with two striped horns on its head and a crazed look in its, single forehead eyeball. A fat, lolling red tongue hid lazily behind the craggy, dark maw that was its mouth. Its skin was mottled red, pink and brown and was covered with large, angry-looking boils.
The demonic thing looked over the family; Dad stood in front of his wife and son, half defiant and half terrified; Chase was curled up in a ball in the corner behind both of his parents. The monster let out a sound that sound half like an angry bellow and half like a belly laugh, then sprung toward the door — and through it.
As soon as the monster cleared the room, Mom ran into Jess’ room. She frantically dug through the wreckage, looking for her daughter, who was no longer there.
“My baby! That thing took my baby!” Mom shrieked, before collapsing into a sobbing mess atop the mess in the bedroom.
It was a long night for many people on the island. Most locals sheltered in place, armed as best they could. A large hunting party searched for the beast that had laid waste to a good portion of the hotel, while Dad, Mom and Chase looked all over the hotel grounds for young Jess.
“Dad, what’s this over here?” Chase called from the beach. In the high, blue moonlight of the deep night, Chase had discovered a small figure curled up in the sand beneath the canopy of a large tree. As Mom and Dad quickly approached, it seemed almost as if the low-hanging branches were gently caressing the figure in the sea breeze.
“Dad! Mom! It’s her!” Chase called. He gently shook his sister as their parents fell to the sand next to them.
“Chase, where are we?” Jess asked groggily. “I just had the craziest dream. I dreamed what you said: that the monster fruit seed did sprout in my stomach, and that a tree grew up and out of my body. Can you imagine anything so crazy as that coming from that monster fruit?”
Chase looked up at their parents to meet their relieved smiles with one of his own.
“Compared to what might actually have happened,” he said, “that doesn’t sound so crazy at all!”