Image: Koren Shadmi


This story is over 5 years old.



What if climate change grew so extreme that plants were forced to take root in our bodies? Well, this.

There's extreme climate change, and there's climate change so extreme that it gives rise to a disease that allows tropical plants to grow in human bodies. That's the horrific scenario imagined by Kelli Trapnell, a writer who currently works at the New Yorker, and who may keep you steering clear of greenery for the foreseeable future. Sweet dreams. -the Eds.

Again, I dreamed of plants. Blue orchids grew out from the center of my palms, unfurling slow, as though in a time-lapse. Their roots stretched under my pale skin, curled tight around my veins. When I tugged the orchids free, I bled.


I woke, fumbled for a match. A sound like a rip in the dark, and a flame bloomed bright in my fingers. I looked at the Band-Aid in the center of my left palm. Near the wound itself, nothing had changed—no additional bleeding, no signs of bruising or discoloration—but the rest of my body was feverish. Hot and then cold raced over my skin, and my forehead felt warm to the touch. I had sweated through my t-shirt.

The whole week my sister had come in town, I'd been having these nightmares. At the hospital earlier that day, we'd lost our third patient in a row to the same disease, the new one, so now the CDC was stepping in. As if that weren't stress enough, after I'd taken the patient's blood, I noticed a small tear in the glove of my Hazmat suit. Probably fine, but still. I made sure to thoroughly cleanse the wound afterward in the break room.

I pulled on my jeans and went up to the roof of my building, where it would be cooler. It was the middle of July: fall was just edging into winter, and the low-hanging fog of the early morning made it hard to see past arms' reach. I leaned on the raised ledge of the roof, and the wind ripped at my hair.

My sister and her boyfriend Tanner were sleeping in the spare bedroom down the long, brick hallway. She'd come into the city for an interview. Tanner was here for "emotional support," though so far, all he seemed to do was lay around my apartment smoking pot and drinking the milk in the fridge straight from the carton.


A dump truck rumbled along on the streets below, wheezing and stopping every so often. A few taxis honked. The city was waking up. I could picture all the people reacting to the headlines: "CDC CONFIRMS OUTBREAK OF NEW EPIDEMIC," "IS THIS THE EBOLA SCARE OF 2033?" After the first case proved fatal, the press went crazy over the infection, eager to talk about something other than the submerged cities and mass migrations. They'd named it the "Greenhouse Flu," which was catchy, but technically incorrect. Every doctor at our hospital had been fielding questions about the sickness on and off the clock. None of them could identify what exactly was happening. I overheard one of the surgeons saying that if she didn't know better, she would have said that the patients had simply been pollinated.

The condition itself was conveniently terrifying. No one had ever seen anything like it before: actual plants growing at incredible speed just beneath the skin, emitting toxins and enzymes ten times the strength of normal greenery. The patients who contracted the infection—which was really more of an invasion—didn't just die when they flat-lined. They exploded in flora. I shivered and thanked my luck; if anyone had seen that torn glove, I would probably be strapped down in an air-locked room at the hospital.

My palms stung a little. I didn't want to consider what could be happening inside of my body. I kept thinking of the orchids from my dream.


Then I saw something, a shadow in the mist that became more human as it approached, head down, gait pained and shuffling. The gravel on the roof crunched beneath its steps. Soon I could see that the man had shaggy brown hair, a long black jacket. The same beaten-in brown corduroys that Tanner wore. He crawled onto the roof's ledge, muttering to himself. His normally deep voice was like sound forced through a crack. I felt for the phone in my pocket; my sister would know what to do. Tanner skipped clumsily along the brick ledge toward me.

"When does it stop itching?" he said when he got close enough. There was dried blood on his palms and on his bare feet. He smelled like cigarettes and rich dark potting soil.

"Take it easy," I said. He laughed and stumbled toward me, and I saw his face for the first time.

Spiny green and pink thistle blossoms drooped from his eye sockets, and just beneath the skin on his cheeks, blue and purple roots spread across this face like burst blood vessels. His coat opened to reveal a bare chest, likewise tattooed with subterranean root systems. Tiny button mushrooms sprouted like barnacles over his collarbones and sternum.

I reached out to touch him, and Tanner moaned and stumbled backward. I rushed to the ledge, looked over. All I saw was the fog thinning, the ground below empty and unchanged. I staggered back from the ledge. I looked down at my hands. Blood, dry. Caked brown and thickening inward from the edges of my palms.


My sister.

I ran across the roof, down the stairs and into the shocking quiet of the apartment. Panic pushed at my throat. I called out for my sister, but there was no answer. Behind me, the door to our bathroom was closed. I listened hard, but only heard the thump of my own blood in my ears. I slipped, threw a hand up to the wall for balance. My feet were wet, sticky with dark liquid that coated the floor. I picked one foot up. Black glop stretched between my foot and the wooden floorboards like tar. From inside the bathroom came the squelch sound of skin slipping against the sloped ceramic surface of an empty tub. A puddle of glop oozed out from beneath the closed door.

I pushed the door open. The room smelled rank, like rotting flowers. A sucking sound was coming from the tub, like the noise that a sink with a clogged drain makes.

Mud coated the tile floor and walls in streaks—it looked as though a wounded animal had tried to claw its way in through the window. But my dark blue shower curtain was drawn halfway back, and I could see that the fire escape was empty, save for a coat of thickly splattered muck on the iron stairs. My eyes fell on a sliver of black fabric—the sleeve of a black winter coat—peeking out from behind the shower curtain. Beneath the sucking sound, I could hear a faint whine.

I pulled back the curtain slowly, feeling cold. There in the tub was a heaving, vaguely human-shaped mass of mud. Tanner, or what was left of him. He was about three feet tall and didn't have legs that I could tell, just a torso, head, and arms, all of which were completely covered with nubby white button mushrooms. A prickly clutch of pink thistle blossoms poured from the face and head. If I looked hard enough, I thought I could just make out his sharp jaw and nose, his wide mouth. The thing reached for me with a muffled groan and I leapt backward, away from the tub.


I had never seen any of the other patients deteriorate this far. At this stage, the internal framework of his body was giving out. The plants growing all over his muddied skin were breaking down his bones and muscle tissue; beneath him was a thickening puddle of brown sludge, weeds, and fungal growth. In the time I'd been standing there, he had lost half his body weight to the suck of the shower drain. The tub burbled again, slurped down the rest of the mud. Where the man had been just a few moments before, there was only a standing puddle of muck, along with a black winter coat and a crumpled pair of brown pants. A few thistles stuck up from the drain.

I felt sick. I reached for the windowsill, leaned out and dry heaved. On the sidewalk three stories down, there was a large brown splat of mud, and almost every one of the windows of the apartment complex across from mine were streaked with dark fluid.

In some windows, though, I saw bits of silent motion, no less troubling: a dark-haired woman clawing at the red poppies that burst in a spray from her mouth. An old man four stories up from me pushed open his window and leapt, his body wrapped in a bush of thorny red roses. In one of the lower-level windows, a young father frantically tried to uncoil the black-green kudzu vines wrapped tight around his sandy-haired toddler's chest. The child was almost perfectly still, her face serene as her father worked. With her muddy fingers, she etched a stick figure onto the window. In the place where its head should be, she drew the head of a daisy.

A fresh pain, the popping of blisters, erupted down my spine. I jerked back inside, ripped off my t-shirt and looked in the dirty mirror. A swath of clover had sprouted along my cheekbone and down the side of my neck. I turned and saw a line of crabgrass poking up between my shoulders, more and more of the flat green blades unfolding as I watched. I felt a bite in my palm and stared at it in disbelief. A thin green stem wound up from the middle of my hand, at the end of which a milky blue bud was forming. An orchid. With a yell, I ripped it out, tossed it away.

There was a crashing sound from the spare bedroom. In the back of the house, the brick hallway had been swallowed by plants. Vines intertwined viciously with orange and fuchsia bleeding-hearts, with delicate lavender wisteria flowers. A thick bed of moss spread outward from my sister's closed door at the end of the hall. I ran to her room as best I could, tripping on the tendrils of honeysuckle poking out of the legs of my jeans. As I ran, I called out for her, but my words caught in my throat. Waxy leaves clogged my lungs, made it hard to breathe.

When I opened the door, I saw her standing in the very center of the bed, wrapped in a thick system of tree roots that started at her bare ankles. The green trunk of a sapling drove up through her chest, and held her upright, even as her flesh started to give way. From her arms sprung entire branches of bright golden leaves, as full and crisp and dead as in the middle of autumn.

I glanced down at my own skin, then. It was veined like the back of a leaf, nearly translucent in places. I felt so tired. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, I saw her face, spotted with blood and dirt, a bed of modest violets curled into her short hair. She looked strangely serene. I watched the roots dangling from her open mouth start to move, searching for flesh. Slowly, they curled her lips back into a smile.