The Money Tree
It’s not that money can’t grow on trees …
By Jeffrey Bishop
Tell Time: 7 minutes
Scare Rating: 3 of 5 Ghosts
“Money doesn’t grow on trees!” That’s what Rupert’s mom loved to remind him whenever he’d ask her for help. Lately, down-on-his-luck Rupert had heard it a lot.
Rupert wasn’t bad, really; he was just young and a bit dim-witted, and had been somewhat coddled up to his 20th birthday by his mother. Thus, he had not yet made the connection between sustained, hard, quality work and continued employment and pay.
He wasn’t quite sure what had gotten into his mother lately; she had suddenly stopped the one-way flow of support that had welled from a spring deep in her heart and ran toward him from the day of his birth. Why that spring ran dry was a mystery to Rupert alone; he attributed it to a drying up of his mother’s love and affection for him. But rather, it was precisely because of her overwhelming love for her son that she finally, fully cut him off from any tangible support: no allowance, no lodging, no food (save for Sunday dinner), no laundry. Nothing but love and encouragement.
He didn’t see things exactly that way; as the bills mounted on his dinette table or when he hunkered down quietly in his easy chair whenever the landlord came by for the overdue rent, Rupert felt more and more lost and desperate. He felt like he was drowning; he needed a lifeline.
“Where can I get some easy money, fast?” he muttered to himself.
“Maybe I can help?” came a voice from across the room. It was a thick, dark, powerful voice — it floated heavily across the room like the sickly sweet smell of cigar smoke. Rupert looked up in surprise; he thought that he was all alone in the small apartment.
Standing across the room was a tall, lean figure; he faced away from Rupert, in contemplation of a framed poster hanging in the lad’s living room. He wore a suit that, to Rupert’s untrained eye nonetheless looked very expensive, fashionable and well-cut. The man turned toward Rupert and offered a sincere, if dark smile — the toothy grin of a hungry crocodile.
“Who are you? How’d you get in here?”
“That’s not important,” the man replied. He wore a Van Dyke-styled beard, which he absentmindedly stroked as he spoke. “What matters is that I have what you need. And you might have something for me.”
“What is it that I need?” challenged the young man.
“Well, I know that your mother doesn’t think it grows on trees. But I happen to know that it does,” replied the man glibly. He displayed mannerisms of a cat that has successfully cornered a small mouse.
“Ok, so you know that I need money. Who doesn’t need money? What’s it to you?” The youngster was intrigued, but still puzzled at how the man had gained access to his apartment without him knowing. Maybe the landlord had let him in. Regardless, if the conversation didn’t get to its point soon, he’d throw the well-heeled guest out the door. The man must have sensed this, because he quickly introduced his thesis.
“You need money. I have a money tree. Yes, a bona fide money tree,” he said to the boy’s derisive snortle. “You may not have any money, but apparently the U.S. government has plenty to spend on obscure and useless science projects, like growing hamburger meat in a petri dish. Or, as it were, a live tree that bears U.S. currency as fruit.
“Just such an invention is in my possession. I’m willing to part with it — to give it to you — for just a trifling. I know you have needs today, but what of your needs tomorrow and for the rest of your natural life? Wouldn’t you rather live a luxurious life of plenty, at no expense to you in labor or time or effort or creativity? Or do you want to toil and work for a pittance and struggle to meet basic earthly needs all the same?”
The words he heard whet the young man’s appetite. He liked money and the things it could buy. He hated work, and hated being subservient to anyone but himself. He mouthed at the bait on the hook, tasting it, but with lingering caution.
“What’s the catch?” he asked. “What’s it gonna cost me?”
“Oh, very little to you,” the man said sincerely. “I want something that you don’t now value in the least: your eternal soul!”
A nervous laugh escaped the young man’s lips.
“So what, you’re supposed to be the devil?” he asked. “Only the devil is interested in souls.”
“Well, there’s another … ” said the devil, but he didn’t finish that thought aloud. “Yes, to your simple understanding, that is what, or whom, I am.”
“Well since I don’t really believe in you, then I don’t really think I have anything to lose,” said Rupert with all the cunning he could muster.
“Precisely,” was the reply. A large, wide smile spread across the suave man’s face. Behind the Cheshire grin a mouse sat waiting to be swallowed. “So we have a deal?”
“First, show me this tree,” Rupert insisted.
“By all means,” replied the man. “Look behind you.”
In the corner near the patio window — a corner that had been empty before — sat a potted tree, not unlike a ficus. Rupert approached the tree to examine it. As he lifted the leaves, he saw a few dozen drab green fruits hanging in various stages of maturity. The unripe fruit was small and dark and coiled into a funnel shape. But the larger fruit was flat or only slightly curled, and Rupert could clearly see denominations of $5, $10, $20 and even $50 and $100 bills hanging from the tree in varying stages of maturity. Each one in legal tender.
He snapped a bill off cleanly and held it up to look at it closely. The hologram of President Grant on the $50 bill shone through from the backside in the light. He felt the paper between his fingerprints; it felt like the cotton-hemp of any other crisp, new bank note he’d ever held. He even sniffed it, and found that it smelled like new money, perhaps with faint citrus notes as well.
The tree was heavy with fruit, and new buds seemed to erupt at every moment, while mature fruit started to fall gently to the ground, forming a pile of money at the base of the tree.
Rupert slipped the large bill into his pocket. He was satisfied.
“Deal,” he said. The devil’s grin grew even wider — impossibly so. That was all he longed to hear; he snapped his fingers, and the youngster felt a quick, sharp ripping pain from his chest. It was over quickly, and Rupert felt a chill on his insides. The devil drew a silk scarf from his breast pocket and dabbed at the corner of his mouth, as though he’d just finished a delicate, savory meal.
With a sense of satisfaction, he turned on his heel and made for the door.
“Enjoy life!” called the devil as he let himself out. “I know I do!”
The young man was famished; he needed something to fill his empty insides. He thought that food would do it.
He scooped up a few more bills from the floor beneath the tree and headed out the door and toward the Quik-e-Mart around the corner. He scooped up dozens of snack pastries, a frozen pizza and a quart of ice cream. He carried his heavy shopping basket to the counter, where the checker totaled his purchase: $52.98.
Rupert was glad at the thought that he could finally make such a large purchase, and could do so without help from his mother. He reached into his pocket where he’d stuffed the new bills, but instead of cash, he felt a cold, sticky wetness. He jerked his hand out and found it covered with a green, moldy slime. He didn’t know what it was, but it was getting on his new money. He put his hand back into the pocket, deep, and pulled all of its contents out and onto the counter. There, in a flat, wet, rotting mess, was the money. Rupert picked through it, and realized that the money wasn’t in the mess; but that it was the mess. Before his eyes, he saw green, fuzzy mold grow over Grant’s proud face, consuming the dead president and turning the last bit of the currency into the same rotted fruit pulp that the other bills had changed to.
The fabled money tree had indeed borne fruit, but of a decidedly deceptive and wickedly rotten variety that again brought low a proud. young man.