This is a slightly re-edited version of a story first published in 2011. Scroll to the bottom for links to ebook and audio editions.
I never thought the world would end like this. Even now, I can say that without any doubt. Climate change? Yes. Nuclear war? Yes.
Strawberries? Hard no.
It all started yesterday—at least, for us it did—after Suzie got back from the supermarket. Suzie: that’s my sister, by the way; I’ve shared a house with her and Chrissie since last year. They needed a third person to cover the rent for a place they liked the look of and, wouldn’t you know, I ended up being that person. While I’m at it, I may as well spill that the reason I ended up being that person was because I had the hots for Chrissie. Of course, stupid me, it was only after signing the contract that I figured why Suzie and Chrissie were talking about living together in the first place.
So, let’s just say it’s a two-bedroom house and that’s all you need to know about that.
As I was saying, Suzie had come back from the supermarket. It was a warm, sunny, perfect weekend and the three of us had decided that there was no better way to spend it than sitting in our tiny garden stuffing ourselves with whatever quality food, wine and other snacks our meagre spare cash could afford. We imagined great things, but naturally the limits of our budget didn’t match either our visions or our appetites. We ended up with two bottles of cheap white wine, Doritos, some discounted hummus and a selection pack of miniature cheeses.
Oh … and a punnet of strawberries.
“Nearly didn’t get those,” Suzie said as we eagerly unpacked our goods.
“The strawberries?” Chrissie asked. “Didn’t even know you liked them.”
Suzie nodded. “Sure, yeah… well… sometimes. They’re okay, I guess. Figured they’d be nice. Whatever, they were on special; everyone was buying them so figured I’d better get in there.”
I remember now looking at the strawberries, sitting in their tiny plastic packet. It seems to me that I had a chance to get rid of them in those first moments, as though my subconscious was urging me to throw them in the bin but I wasn’t listening hard enough. The truth was all I was doing was trying to decide whether to put them in the fridge or leave them out.
“Yeah, leave those out,” Suzie said, reading my mind. “We’ll eat them now.”
“Was that the last pack?” Chrissie asked.
“You said you almost didn’t get them. Had they run out?”
Suzie shook her head. “Not even close, they had stacks of the things. But this old fruit of woman came up to me after I paid and asked if she could have them.”
“Just like that?” I asked. “For free?”
“I know, right?” Suzie said. “Didn’t want anything else: just the strawberries. Come to think of it, I don’t even know how she knew I had them. I suppose she must have been watching me at the checkout.”
Chrissie couldn’t work it out, I could tell by her face: and also because I’d realised over the last year that there tended to be a lot of things Chrissie couldn’t work out. “Why did she do that? Why didn’t she just buy her own?”
Suzie shrugged as she picked up the bottle opener. “Said she couldn’t afford to buy any—no, wait … ‘any more’ is what she said: she couldn’t afford to buy any more, but she ‘had to have them’. And, shit, she wasn’t kidding. I mean she had to have them. She was like this wrinkled up old junkie. What a freak. Do you suppose strawberries turn into some kind of crack when you get old and crazy?”
Suzie laughed weakly as she opened the wine. I could tell she was more disturbed by the old junkie than she was letting on, but she was trying to pass it off as a funny tale from the supermarket. Whenever Suzie talked about anything at length it was a sure sign it was eating at her in some way.
“Did you tell her to get bent?” Chrissie asked.
“Should’ve. What’s funny is I almost gave her the stupid things. She looked so sad and desperate, like her world was going to fall apart if she didn’t get these strawberries. And then …”
She trailed off, staring intently at the packet of strawberries.
“Then what?” I eventually prompted.
Suzie rubbed her head. “It’s like she knew what I was thinking and she changed. Like, as soon as I thought maybe I’d just give her the bloody things she stopped looking like a total loser and started to look … I don’t know, sort of hungry. She stopped looking at me and just stared at the bag, like she couldn’t wait for me to get the strawberries out of there so she could grab them and run off. Not gonna lie: she was kind of a scary bitch by that point. Eighty years old and I just wanted to get the hell away from her.”
Chrissie continued to look puzzled. “So how did you get rid of her?”
“I pointed her back into the shop, showed her the big stack of strawberries piled up in there, and told her they had plenty left. She saw it and wandered away like I didn’t even exist anymore. Freak.”
Chrissie shrugged. “They’re only strawberries.”
Ten minutes later the first bottle of wine was well on the way to being empty, the hummus was being dipped into, the miniature cheeses were doing whatever miniature cheeses do and the strawberries were waiting.
Suzie reached into the bowl and picked one out.
“All that bullshit to get these and nobody’s even gonna eat them?”
She scowled at us and took a bite. Chrissie and I, both curious about the oldladycrack strawberries, watched her closely.
“Oh!!” she exclaimed loudly.
“What?” I asked. “Is it bad?”
“Bad?! No way, it’s the most delicious fucking strawberry I’ve ever had in my life! Why did none of you ever tell me these things tasted so fucking good?”
Before she could pause to take another breath she stuffed the rest of the fruit in her mouth and swallowed it down. Quickly, she grabbed another.
Then Chrissie reached into the bowl. I saw Suzie’s eyes flash coldly at her, as if she was about to switch the channel in the middle of her favourite TV show. Chrissie hesitated, her hand poised awkwardly over the bowl: “I just thought I’d better try one before you eat them all, yeah?”
Suzie smiled, perhaps a little too anxiously. “Sure, of course. Have one while you still can, eh?”
I watched them both, as Chrissie popped the strawberry in her mouth and as Suzie, in turn, watched her. Like any couple they bickered from time to time, but everything was always out in the open with them: I don’t think Suzie had the patience for secrecy, and Chrissie certainly didn’t have the guile. But for the first time I could think of it felt like Suzie was leaving something unsaid and suddenly there was something dark and hidden between herself and Chrissie. It was my second warning of the day, and once again I let it fly right by me.
“Oh wow!” Chrissie squealed as she tasted the strawberry. She turned to me: “Hey, you should totally try one of these.”
I shook my head. “No way. I don’t want to risk getting between the two of you there. Anyway, not all that keen on strawberries.”
“No problem – all the more for us.”
As the two of them carried on eating I went inside to see if our kitchen had any hidden snacks to reveal. I really was happy to miss out on the strawberries, and as long as there was still plenty of cheese and hummus to go around I wasn’t going to complain. True, it was a combination that wasn’t about to make me anyone’s best friend, but that was one of the benefits when you had absolutely no chance of scoring anyway.
“Hey!” I heard Suzie shouting.
I looked out of the window and saw her waving the empty bowl in Chrissie’s face, her face twisted with anger: “Eat the last one why don’t you?! Pig!”
Chrissie flinched. “I—no, you ate the last one. I’m sure you did.”
“There was one left in the bowl! I saw it!”
“I thought you left that for me?”
“Left it for you? Oh, you’d like to think that wouldn’t you! Left it for you? Dream on, why don’t you?!”
I couldn’t remember a single time I’d seen Suzie and Chrissie fighting, not like this: proper raised-voices, picking-up-inanimate-objects type fighting. I thought about staying out of it, but I didn’t much like the way Suzie was brandishing that bowl around Chrissie’s head. I hurried back in the garden and put myself between them both. “Tell you what, why don’t I just go and buy some more?”
Suzie’s eyes—colder and harder than I could ever remember seeing them—had been fixed on Chrissie, but as soon as I mentioned getting more strawberries they flicked hungrily towards me. “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”
I nodded then poured the rest of the wine into their glasses, hoping the alcohol would help soothe them, and hoping neither of them noticed the way my hand was shaking. “Okay,” I said. “You two sit here, have some more wine and chill out, and I’ll be back with some more strawberries before you even notice I’m gone.”
“Two punnets,” Suzie said.
“Think that’ll be enough for you?” Chrissie said, her lip curling.
“Sure. I’ll just buy whatever’s left,” I told them as I hurried off to the car.
Five minutes later I pulled up at the supermarket. If I hadn’t been so unnerved by the bizarre showdown in our garden I might have taken more notice of the police car parked outside, or the small crowd of people gathered listlessly near the supermarket entrance. In the end, just like everything else, I only thought about those things when it was already too late.
I walked straight inside, my eyes drawn immediately to the big stack of strawberries that Suzie had talked about earlier: they were set out on a wide stand which was being guarded (and I’m certain that’s the right word) by two staff members. A third man handed out punnets to the waiting shoppers.
I joined the queue. As soon as one person took a pack, another walked up, then another, and another. The assistant could barely dish them out fast enough. I waited my turn anxiously: the sooner I got to the front of the queue the sooner I could get home and make sure my flatmates didn’t tear each others’ faces off.
To the side, I noticed a middle-aged businessman sitting on the floor eating greedily from his own punnet of strawberries. The juice ran freely down his chin and over the top of his shirt. I didn’t even have time to register the strangeness of the scene before a punnet of strawberries was thrust at me; I had reached the front of the queue without even realising.
“Oh, cheers. Can I get a couple more of those?”
The assistant laughed sourly. “Ha, not a chance mate. One pack per shopper, only way we’re keeping things under control here.”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw the businessman getting up, discarding his empty punnet. “More,” I heard him grunting.
“You’re kidding me, riot control for fruit now?” I joked, hoping to get on the guy’s good side. “What’s the world coming to, eh?”
I didn’t get a laugh, and it was clear the assistant wasn’t going to give me any more strawberries no matter how funny I failed to be. His attention had been diverted by the businessman.
“Maybe you should be handing out bibs as well?” I suggested, looking at the businessman’s grossly stained shirt. The assistant completely ignored me, making me wonder again why I even bothered.
I’d forgotten that I was still at the head of the queue. As both myself and the assistant watched the businessman staggering over, the person behind me lost patience. I was shoved mindlessly out of the way as they went to grab a punnet. The assistant cut them off, his hand against their chest. At the same moment the businessman lunged for the pile of strawberries. One of the guards stepped forward and pushed him back: “Oi, back of the queue, mate!”
I decided it was time to retreat to the checkout, hoping Suzie would accept just the one punnet without biting my head off.
It wasn’t the most I’d ever paid for fruit, but it still took me aback for a moment. “I guess you’re not giving them away today then?”
The boy looked at me, his eyes cloudy and disinterested. “You still want them?”
I nodded. “Better or my sister’d kill me!”
At the time it seemed like a joke.
“6.99 then,” the boy repeated.
I was worried the boy was suffering from a humour bypass, and the only thing that stopped me from cracking another bad joke was the fighting that broke out then.
I heard the shouting first, and looked around. The shopper who had just reached the front of the queue was trying to coerce the assistant into giving him more strawberries. People at the back were pushing. Somehow one of the guards had ended up on the floor. Without quite believing I was seeing it, the businessman with the stained shirt lunged out of nowhere, emitting a brainless grunt, and smashed what looked like a frozen joint of beef on the other guard’s head. The man fell to the floor, blood leaking over his face. The other guard clambered back to his feet, but he was no match for the mass of people torn between grabbing the strawberries while they could and running in panic from the violence. The assistant dived out of the way and suddenly it was pure mayhem; a violent free-for-all as shoppers beat down other shoppers in a frantic race to get at the strawberries.
“Oh shit,” the checkout boy whispered, looking like he was ready to abandon his ration and make a break for it himself.
I decided to follow his instinct and got the hell out of there. It was only when I got into the car that I realised I hadn’t paid for the strawberries after all. No matter, I figured: the supermarket had bigger things to worry about than one missing pack of strawberries, and I wasn’t about to return them when they were potentially the only thing between me and Suzie’s wrath.
I pulled into my driveway with an instant feeling that something was wrong. Suzie and Chrissie arguing was unnatural enough, and the scene at the supermarket had been downright frightening, but as I got out of the car I knew something was bothering me. I just couldn’t nail what it was.
I closed the door and took two steps down the driveway and then it struck me. The garden: I couldn’t hear anything coming from the garden, no arguing, no banter, not even any sullen chatter. And it wasn’t just that: something else had caught the corner of my eye as I’d driven past. I ran to the back gate, looked through and, sure enough, the table was lying on its side, the wine bottle and glasses shattered over the patio. Neither Suzie nor Chrissie were anywhere to be seen.
I ran to the door and hurried inside …
… where everything looked completely normal.
I still couldn’t hear Suzie or Chrissie but at least there were no more signs of damage. No indications of a fight, nor that someone had broken in.
I was still standing there trying to figure it all out when Suzie’s voice right behind me almost brought on a heart attack: “Did you get them?”
“What?” I asked, turning round while trying to catch my breath back.
“The strawberries. Did you get them?”
I didn’t much like the flat tone in Suzie’s voice. “Where’s Chrissie?” I asked.
Suzie glanced around the room for a moment, as if she’d forgotten all about her girlfriend. “Oh. She’s having a lie down.”
I decided I probably wanted to check on Chrissie for myself, while also deciding I didn’t want to think too hard on the reasons why I wasn’t about to take Suzie’s word on Chrissie’s wellbeing. “What happened?” I asked, making my way towards their room as casually as I could. “Is she alright?”
Suzie followed me closely. “She fell over, in the garden … we had a little bit of a squabble, that’s all. She fell over on the table. She … hurt her arm, you see. Just a bit. That’s all it is. She’s fine.”
I paused at the door, worried about what might happen if I tried to open it. “Can I see her?”
Suzie stared at me, her face remaining flat and emotionless. She had every right to tell me to mind my own business but I had a feeling I wasn’t going to accept that answer today. She looked down, and then her face cracked in a bemused grin: “If you must.”
I went into their room, Suzie following me every step of the way. Chrissie was lying on the bed, quite still. As I got closer I was almost surprised to find that she was simply asleep. There was a bruise across her forehead, and her arm had been laid carefully across her chest, but she appeared fine. The bizarre sense of relief made me laugh, just for a moment, before I noticed Suzie’s eyes hunting over me.
I knew straight away what she was doing.
“I haven’t got the strawberries,” I told her.
“Not? Why not?! Where are they?”
“Just listen a minute,” I said, trying to make myself sound calm and reasonable as I walked around her and out of the bedroom. “I know you’ll think I’m crazy, but I think maybe you shouldn’t have any more strawberries. You see, there were all these people in the supermarket, they were queueing up and— … I mean, shit, they were out of their heads, Suzie. Everyone was fighting. I don’t know what was going on… it was like that old woman you told us about, but … scary, Suzie. It was really scary.”
I paused for a moment, not sure how to go on, so I just came out with it: “I think there might be something wrong with the strawberries.”
Suzie looked at me seriously for a moment, her eyes widening, then: “Oh, fuck off!”
That wasn’t the reaction I had been expecting. “I mean it. Think about it: you and Chrissie, you both freaked out after you starting eating them—“
“There’s nothing wrong with the strawberries!” Suzie shrieked. “They’re just … too … yummy! I want more—where are they, where did you put them?”
Suzie began tearing at my clothes as if I’d hidden the strawberries in one of my pockets. I grabbed her arms: “Stop it! Look at what you’re doing!”
She struggled free. “What am I doing?! What are you doing? You just want them all for yourself, that’s what you’re doing …”
I put my hands on her shoulders, trying to calm her down. “Why don’t you have a lie down, sleep for a bit, see how you feel later?”
She put a hand on my arm. “Lie down, eh? Is that what you want?”
She leaned closer. “You want to lie with me?”
“Don’t pretend you haven’t thought about it, with me and Chrissie. Oh, we’ve thought about it – all the time …”
I was starting to feel sick. “Suzie, stop it—“
“No, let’s start it. Go on, just get the strawberries and we can—we don’t even have to tell Chrissie. We can sit down and eat them together and then … you see? Forbidden fruit. Go on, get the strawberries …?”
She pawed and me and I pushed her away. “Stop! Listen to yourself—”
Before I could finish, she turned. In the space of a single breath, she changed into another person. Into something else. A melee of hands started beating me, pushing me against the wall, tearing at my hair. In the middle of it was Suzie screaming at me, determined to tear me limb from limb to find those damned strawberries. I sank to the ground, trying to flee from the onslaught. As I did I wondered if there was any limit she wouldn’t succumb to in her current state, and what I would have to do to stop it.
Needless to say Suzie didn’t kill me, but it felt like she was getting close to it for a hot minute or two. I was able to overpower her eventually and get her into my room: she’s lying there now, on my bed, peaceful once again.
If I had any doubts about there being something in the strawberries they’re gone now. It’s been all over the news: people going crazy, trashing supermarkets and grocery stores, killing each other. All over a tiny fruit. Some reports are even suggesting it’s not only strawberries, but by the time they manage to work out which foods are affected and which are safe it’ll be too late. What are they going to do? Make us all eat out of tins? Destroy all the fresh fruit and veg just in case? Whatever they do I know things are never going to be the same ever again.
Funny thing is: it looks like I’m immune. Just lucky, I guess. I tried one of the strawberries on my way home from the supermarket. I had to do it, I had to know what the fuss was all about. And it was all true, just like Suzie said: it wasn’t just the best strawberry I’d ever had, it was just about the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten in my life. It didn’t make me crazy and I never really thought it would. But I had to know.
It’s too bad Chrissie and Suzie weren’t immune. I couldn’t bear to see them turned into brainless maniacs like the others, not my Chrissie and Suzie. So I went into Chrissie’s room a little while ago and held a pillow over her face until she was still and peaceful again. That’s the way I want to remember her.
I didn’t have to do anything for Suzie. She was already dead. She didn’t end up surviving our fight in the hallway. It’s a shame she had to go that way, but she really left me no choice. She was determined to take those strawberries away from me.
I’ll go to the hospital soon. They can run some tests on me and find out why this terrible thing isn’t affecting me, maybe I can even help them develop a vaccine.
But first I’ll have another strawberry.
— the end —