“I’m not saying it’s bloom,” says Doc. “I’m just saying it’s probably bloom.”
Larry glowers at him from beneath eyebrows the color of rust. “Are you saying it is or it isn’t?”
The hobo steps back and lifts the half empty bourbon bottle to his mouth, drinks, and scratches his chin, payment for his diagnosis. They both look down at the blemish on Larry’s arm, a fuzzy birthmark.
Doc hands the bottle back to Larry.“When I worked at the lab…”
“The one in Fresno. We were studying goat prions.”
“What?” Larry snatches the bottle and takes a swig, annoyed at the half-assed answer.
“Prions. They’re little rogue proteins. They eat away at your brain, make you forget things, act different.”
“Thats a virus…” Doc takes a breath. “What I was saying is that at the lab we called these fairy rings?”
“Fairy rings. Like a bunch of fairies might dance around them. It’s folklore, Larry.”
Larry makes a face and takes another swig. “I’ll tell you who’s a fairy and it ain’t me.”
“No, you’re the troll.”
“Under the bridge,” Doc smiles and points to the tracks high overhead, lost in the night sky. He runs a dirty hand through his wild salt and pepper hair. It wisps slightly in the breeze coming off the gorge as they sit beneath the railroad bridge. A tin can sitting on the rock beside him falls over and they both watch it tumble down the slope into the San Joaquin river. Then the ground rumbles and Larry looks back at his arm. Now there are two rings.
“Fairy ring, eh?”
“Yep. you see them a lot in the wild. Formed by mushrooms.”
“I thought you said prions.”
“These were mushrooms, a fungus.” He points at Larry’s fairy ring. “That probably is too.”
“Someone plant them like that?” asks Larry. “The mushrooms I mean.”
“Nope. Just happens naturally.”
Larry screws up his face and takes a drink. “How do they know to be in a circle?”
Fifty feet up, a train makes its way over the bridge. The ground moves. Doc’s mouth begins to move, but Larry can’t really hear over the train. He looks down at his arm again. They’re still there, a dozen wispy towers in a circle, growing out of his skin just below the crook in his elbow. At the center stands another cottony spire, half an inch high. It doesn’t hurt, but Larry can’t help but wonder if it will.
“So is this a prion or a virus, or a fungus or what?” he asks. But Doc is still talking and the train is making it impossible to hear his own thoughts. What he does hear, sounds like music. The train above is blasting Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherazade. All Larry can do it smile.
Doc is staring at him. “You alright, Larry?”
“You’ve been staring at that fairy ring on your arm for the last two hours.”
He sees now that Doc is wearing a paper face mask. When did that go on, he wonders. “I have?”
Doc nods slowly.
Scheherazade sounds fainter now that the train is gone. But Larry still thinks he can remember the tune. He hums and then laughs.
“Damn. I couldn’t even play drums in school.” He beams at Doc with a gap-toothed grin. “They kicked me out of marching band. But I fuckin’ loved me some Scheherazade.”
But Doc isn’t laughing with him. Doc just stares, his dark eyes going between the fairy ring and his face. Finally Doc reached into his tackle box and brings out a clear plastic bottle.
“What’s that?” asks Larry.
“Rubbing Alcohol,” says Doc. He pours some on a damp rag. “Give me your arm.”
He’s on his feet before he knows it. “Why?”
“Because,” Doc says. “I’m going to see if I can get rid of it.”
The arm moves fast, snatching up a rusty metal shiv and brandishing it at the old man. Larry stares at his arm like some alien appendage. A full minute passes before he can relax and the shiv comes down. It clatters on the dirty concrete. “I’d… I guess I’d rather you didn’t.”
Doc gives a slow cautious nod, damp rag in hand. The music is louder again, and Larry can’t tell if Doc is smiling or frowning behind that surgeon mask. He likes to think the old man is smiling, smiling along with him. Maybe he hears Scheherazade too.
“Why does it know how to grow in a circle like that?”
“Maybe that’s just what it’s meant to do,” says Doc. He stands and takes his tackle box. “Lots of things in nature do things without knowing why. How does a spider know how to make a web? How does a bee know how to plot its GPS coordinates to the hive? How does a lyrebird know how to mimic any sound it hears? How do we know how to write or sing or play the harpsichord?” He begins to walk past Larry, but stops to look down at the arm. “Maybe that’s all talent is, ,just some flipped genetic switch. What you should be asking, is if you are remembering a song, or if the bloom is remembering it for you. Or if you are even remembering this conversation.”
“But I… you said it wasn’t bloom.”
But Doc is gone and it’s now daylight. Larry looks at the sky and blinks. How did it get so fucking bright? He raises his hand to block the sun and frowns at the wool muff over his arm. Densely packed fibers hint only a faint suggestion of the hand and forearm underneath.
Larry flexes his fingers, and the fibres shift like a feather duster under water. And from somewhere deep inside, Larry hears the song again. He smiles up at the warmth in the sky, and hums along.
This is a flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds.com.