This is a choose-your-own-ending story. The prologue and two endings appear in audio, and the main story appears in text printed in the main book.
Press play to listen to the audio as you read along.
[An open, ethereal, swirling of sound.] Dear listener, consider, if you will, the fire plum. A seemingly innocuous object that betrays its placid nature to represent eternal opposing forces: sweetness and bitterness; health and dis-ease; yes, even life and death. For some, its flesh is an ambrosia so blissful it tastes like living, like being fully alive. For others, for the severely allergic, the fire plum is quite literally death incarnate. As you consider the fire plum, soon too you’ll consider Percy, an allergic soul divided, split by indecision and discord. Watch as he gazes into the Janus-faced fire plum, searching its pleasures and poisons for a cure to unite his fractures.
One morning after I brushed my teeth and the taste of toothpaste had faded, I noticed that my mouth held a rough texture, as if my tongue and gums had grown suddenly wrinkled and baggy like an old person’s flesh. By late evening, the right side of my face lay frozen and drooped—half a tragedy mask. Before I left for the hospital, I passed my wife, Sharaina, sitting in the rocking chair in our bedroom, where she was breastfeeding our youngest son, Mickey. I flashed her the horror of my face. Pretty elaborate plan to get away from us, she said, with a smirk that made it look briefly as if she, too, had a frozen half face. I found her joke odd. The breeziness of it. I may have appeared calm, but the river within ran choppy and rough with fright. I had always been scared that a stroke would descend, crippling me, the slow deterioration pulling me from this world. Which is what I feared this was, the start of that. I couldn’t help blaming my wife for all of this. The previous night I learned that I was the subject of an experiment she had been conducting.
Like the rest of my family, she never believed me when I complained of an adverse reaction to fire plums—that peculiar fruit, neither fire nor plum. I remember, as a boy, how the world seemed to be made of fire plums and fire plum pits, my family so loved the fruit. My mother had insisted on packing me fire plums daily for lunch, often next to peanut butter and fire plum jelly sandwiches, and I would tell her I hated them because they tickled the top of my mouth. If I’d had the language, I could have described the throbbing and itching on my tongue, in the back of my throat, and on the roof of my mouth. Perhaps you read this in horror, wondering what sort of savage dislikes fire plums. But it’s fate that decided my hatred of the fruit, forcing my body to revolt against even a single drop of its juices. I soon learned that to test the existence of my allergy, my wife—doubting Thomasina, the unbeliever—had pureed a single fire plum and buried it in the ingredients of a sauce she draped over the previous night’s chicken thighs. I picked clean the carcass, poured more purple sauce over the bones, and licked them again. I’ll give it to her: my wife can cook, and the sauce, though loaded with allergens, was delicious.
My son Roy, nine and a half, the elder of two, watched me eat with a deep disgust. The purple store called, he said. Told me they’re running out of purple!
Running out of purple, Roy said again, chuckling and elbowing his brother, who now rocked in his high chair. I ignored Roy as he told his joke over and over, coaxing a laugh out of the baby, who jerked back and forth vigorously, screaming, Puhpa! and cackling as if he understood.
This, I said, my fingertips and the corner of my mouth all covered in purple—this is wonderful. This is why I married you! This is what life is about.
Sharaina nodded and her smile curled with what I thought was a peculiar pride. I had seen that look before on comically villainous cartoon characters. Even then, my throat tingled and small bumps rose along my tongue, but I thought nothing of it.
Later that night, my wife plopped herself next to me on the cushions of our blue living room couch. She asked: You like the sauce, huh?
I smiled goofily, the kind of silly expression my face would soon lose the ability to make.
Well, bucko, it’s made of fire plums! She practically screamed it, throwing up her hands like the winning game show contestant. How you like them plums, huh? she said.
The next night, when my face drooped and I could no longer press my lips together to pronounce my b’s and p’s, and I walked out the door of our apartment on my way to the hospital, serenaded by the sounds of my wife’s laughter, I scowled at her and thought: I don’t like them damn plums at all, not even a little.
When I arrived at Cross River General, I waited first in a room surrounded by people who writhed and screamed; I stared at the plaster tiles of the ceiling and imagined I was sitting in a ring of hell. Next, I waited in a cold, white stall beside a bed, wearing only a flimsy robe. A thin blue curtain separated me from the rest of the hospital and rendered me a shadow to passersby. I sat there for several hours, through sleep and wake. When the doctor arrived, she apologized curtly and sighed. She told me her night had been taken up with administering too many TB tests, but her accent, from somewhere in India, I guessed, made it sound as if she said tibi tess, so in my head I began calling her Dr. Tibi Tess, and for the life of me, now I can’t recall her true name.
She stared into my face, kneading and massaging my frozen jaw. I think I am having an allergic reaction, I said. My wife keeps putting fire plums in my—
Now, why would you say a thing like that? Dr. Tibi Tess said. Did you know that a single fire plum can give you all the day’s nutrients? Has anybody ever told you this, huh? Fire plum allergies have been widely researched, and they’re so rare as to be nonexistent. I can assure you, Mr.———, that you don’t have a fire plum allergy, because no one does, and your wife is right to put them into your food.
I shivered then and attributed it to the sterile hospital cold.
There’s a nerve that runs along your jaw, Mr. ———, and it’s inflamed. Simple spring allergies. The doctor ran the backside of her hand along my dead cheek. That nerve is inflamed, all right. It’s real angry. What I want you to do is take two fire plums—that beautiful fruit you so maligned—and grind them into a paste. Add some honey and a little bit of lemon. Coat the right side of your face with it, and when you wake in the morning, you’ll be cured. Fire plums are magic, Mr. ———. A wonder drug, if you would just trust and believe.
I hesitated to follow the doctor’s orders, but the next night, after an hour of watching the stiff side of my face in the mirror, I pulled out a mortar and pestle and ground the last two fire plums from the fridge into a paste. When the plum, honey, and lemon mush became thick and smooth, I scooped the slop into my hands and smeared it over the right side of my half-droopy face. I could no longer close my right eyelid, so in bed I stared up at the ceiling with one eye open until that eye lost vision and I lost consciousness. I woke nearly an hour later to the feeling of someone jooking flaming needles into my face.
Beneath my screaming and flailing, I could hear Sharaina trying to calm me, but how could there be calming? My skin felt as if it had been doused in acid. I stumbled to the bathroom and scrubbed the fire plum mask from my cheek, now a minefield of blisters. Some popped and oozed before I realized what I had done.
Later, at the hospital, a different hospital, Cross River Hospital Center, another doctor stared at my face, this time for only half a second.
Aw, yeah, that’s Bell’s palsy, he said.
A kind of partial facial paralysis.
The blisters too?
Uh, no, he said. You applied crushed fire plums to your face, you say? You must be allergic.
So fire plum allergies are real?
Of course. Who told you they weren’t? Those idiots—excuse me—down at Cross River General? You know how often we have to clean up their messes? Did you look at the paperwork they sent you home with? The doctor gestured toward the flimsy yellow paper I had left sitting by the bedside. Did you notice they listed you as deceased?
I took the paper in hand, and there in the corner, Dr. Tibi Tess had checked a little box next to the word deceased. The doctor chuckled.
I can assure you, Mr. ———, you are not deceased. I can also assure you that you, like me, have a fire plum allergy. Those plums are real healthy for you, unless they’re not.
The doctor said the fire plums likely hadn’t caused the Bell’s palsy, and he sent me home with ointment for the blisters and pills he told me would probably do nothing to thaw the freeze of my face. Time will fix it, he said. Or it won’t, he added as he shrugged and turned from me. That night Sharaina didn’t dance in front of me while biting into a fire plum, as she often did. Instead she kissed my blisters, spread salve onto half my face, and whispered, I’m sorry, baby. I’ll never make you eat fire plums again, ever, ever, ever, ever…
For most people with Bell’s palsy, the shadow of paralysis passes quickly, but for me—months later, and possibly forever—a slight lean lingered on my face. And though the blisters disappeared, if you looked closely, as I often did, you could see the scarring they left behind. Even still, my family seemed to forget my night of twisting and writhing. Or perhaps they were being gracious by never mentioning the scars. Sharaina no longer experimented on me (to my knowledge), but each morning she, Roy, and Mickey would eat fire plums with their breakfast, and at night before going to bed, Sharaina covered a single fire plum in chocolate syrup and ate it slowly while watching the talk shows. If I sat too close as they ate, I could feel a tingling on my tongue, on the roof of my mouth, and at the back of my throat. To Sharaina and Roy, my complaints amounted to great comedy, and even the baby learned to laugh when I glanced at fire plums a certain way.
Ah, fire plums. The fire fruit is life for some. To them, the juices taste like hopefulness and peace. A soft, sweet meditativeness. A beauty that is too good to keep to oneself. A beauty that must be shared. That’s why so many become fire plum evangelists. Why Sharaina wanted me to experience them alongside her. How can anyone not feel it and love it and take it inside themselves and be born anew? But the same plum that is a blend of nectar and contentment to one person might taste to another like water. Emptiness. Nothing. Fire plums taste to these people like a shrug. You cannot feel the love, of course, when fire plums taste like nothing.
But then there are the allergic ones, the outcasts from the fire plum. For those folks, fire plums can taste like something far worse than emptiness. Fire plums can taste like hate. Closing throats and death in the worst cases. Count the bodies over time: the fire plum is a mass murderer.
My fire plum–loving family—my father, my mother, my twin older brothers, and my younger sister—used to laugh and tell me my allergy was all in my head as they chomped the fruit in my face, purple liquid raining down the sides of their mouth. My mother cooked with them nearly every night, and the more I complained, the more she mocked me. I hated childhood. I despised the smell of the fire plums and how the fruit lingered on my breath; when I was young I’d say, It makes my breath stink. Now, though, my allergy went far beyond foul scents and mild mouth tingles. These days, a single accidental bite of a fire plum often meant a whole afternoon doubled over with pain, nausea, and slight disorientation. Perhaps the evolving allergy was no longer mild, but at least the plums wouldn’t kill me. My death, though, was the only reaction my family would have accepted as proof of my sensitivity to the fire plum’s allergens.
The sweetest ones, people say, grow wild in the heart of the Wildlands, right here in the trees on the edge of Cross River. It’s an adventure to go plumming. There, they sprout from a tree guarded by a Great Wolf with glowing eyes and breath tinged with the scent of the humans who tried to eat from the fire plum tree. That’s a tale I’ve never believed. The bitterest supposedly grow across the bridge in Port Yooga, Virginia, on a tree that once hanged Black people by the hundreds. I’ve heard it said that every tenth fire plum from the murder tree tastes like blood. It’s a great misfortune to eat of the Port Yooga fire plum tree, some say, though that, too, sounds like an old wives’ tale. Others swear by those Port Yooga plums and claim their bitterness is perfect for baking. Eating any fire plum is a great misfortune for me, of course. It’s hard to overstate the number of problems fire plums have caused in my life.
The fire plums most people eat come from neither Cross River nor Port Yooga, though—neither place produces enough of the fruit for the insatiable appetites of the nonallergic. The fire plums in your fridge are likely the major export of a small Caribbean nation called Bimin.
This was a year that a hurricane swept Bimin, wiping away hundreds of trees, and for months there stood no grocery store in which you could find even an ugly or a bruised or a misshapen fire plum.
I still remember the night Sharaina ate the final fire plum she’d get her hands on for some time. This was about three months after the night my face twisted. Both of us had watched their ranks thin in the Cap’n Savs-a-Lot produce aisle, until they disappeared altogether. I’d smiled an evil smile at the empty spot and teased Sharaina later that night.
Better save that last one in the fridge, I’d told her. Freeze it or something. Good riddance to the fire plum. That bitch is extinct.
It’s not a joke, Sharaina replied. What if something you cared about disappeared? What the hell do you even care about besides mocking me?
I shrugged, but I did notice she had moved that shriveled little plum from the fridge to the back of the freezer.
I watched Sharaina’s mood shift that evening. She became irritable and lethargic. Her face drooped, her shoulders slumped, and she even became far less attractive to me.
No use in saving it, Percy, she said, sitting there on the blue couch. I’m tired, but I can’t sleep.
She slunk off to the kitchen and returned with the shriveled, frozen purple thing. Iced fire plum is a delicacy, they say, but as soon as Sharaina put it into her mouth she spit it onto the floor. There’s still a bean-shaped purple stain on the rug where the fire fragment landed.
God, it tastes like nothing, she said. Like deepest, emptiest, loneliest space.
Sharaina developed a new nightly ritual. She would sit on the blue couch, sinking into it as the late-night talk shows flashed across her face. Without her chocolate fire plums, she’d nod off and toss and toss and toss—sometimes until the early morning. When she woke she’d watch me with hatred, saying: Why didn’t you wake me and get me to bed? Do you care nothing for me?
This accusation ignored the hours I’d spent shaking her, begging, pleading with her to retire down the hall to the bedroom. Since this occurred in the late-night gaps between consciousness and unconsciousness, Sharaina simply didn’t remember my heroic efforts. I wanted the blue couch and the television for myself. I wanted the solitude that Mickey, Roy, and Sharaina would never give me during the day. Sharaina, when between sleep and wake, could be quite mean. She’d order me, in a sleep-filled mumble, to bring her a fire plum, and even the mention of the fruit would cause a tingle in my throat. After an hour or two of trying to rouse her, I’d leave Sharaina be, and when she woke she’d grumble and scream: Won’t wake me. Won’t get me a plum. What the fuck are you good for? I could be lonely all by myself.
I felt myself flinching and shrinking from her.
What do you expect me to do? I replied one night. There is not a grocery store in fifty miles that’s carrying fire plums these days.
Use your imagination, Percy. Sarah Lawson’s husband stays going into the Wildlands to get his family the fruits.
Sarah Lawson’s husband isn’t allergic to fire plums.
Oh god, this bullshit again.
You forget the number those things did on my face, I said. I’m still scarred—
Blah, blah, blah. Old stuff. Your face has been fine for months, but you still want to bring up old stuff. What am I supposed to tell Mickey and Roy? That their father is afraid of a little rash?
Sharaina’s love of the fruit grew into a pained longing, as if for a lover, as if her tongue and the pit of her gut wailed together in agony. I tried to ignore it, but it seemed her love for the fire plums rivaled even her love for me.
I simply, simply cannot move, she often said late at night, half-asleep, lying across the blue couch, leaving me just a tiny corner. I’m serious—until you get me a fire plum.
We spent much of our time together arguing; she called me weak, and who was I to refute that assessment? Her insults curled me into a ball. I was not a model of strength and poise. Still, I couldn’t blame her: it was my own passivity—in addition to the lack of fire plums—that made her like this. On weekends I had no hopelessly bland office to go to; she had no elementary school students to teach agriculture and geography to. Without work to break up the assault, I had nowhere to hide. Late one Saturday night on the blue couch, she roused herself between stretches of sleep to batter me. She implored me to head to the Wildlands that very minute to pick her some fire plums.
She moaned for a while, reasserted my weakness, and then she said, I’m sorry, Percy. I’ve been a lot. I’m so, so, so sorry. I just want that feeling again and I want you to be a part of it. There’s gotta be a way for you to eat and love fire plums, baby. I want us to be whole again. In fire love and contentment. That should have been in our vows. Wouldn’t you love that, baby?
I said little in response. Instead I rubbed my eyes and took deep breaths. I wanted none of the confrontation I feared would reignite if I spoke; I desired only peace. At some point her sweet talk turned again into insults, and by morning I knew there could never be peace without a fire plum offering. Before dawn, while Sharaina and the boys slept, I grabbed a cloth bag and left my wife a note telling her of my plan to journey into the Wildlands to bring her back the thing that had come to be her one true love.
I chose to walk, as it let my mind wander to places my day-to-day life wouldn’t allow. I saw my mother’s face, slathered in fire plum juices. Sometimes, my mother said, your body lies to you. And when her words finished building a hot rage in me, she turned into Sharaina and repeated my mother’s words, and then she turned into my father, and then into my siblings and my children. Shut the fuck up, I said to no one, making a tight fist and shaking it. Stop whining, Sharaina said, before turning back into my mother and then into my twin brothers. Your allergycould be so much worse, one brother said. It’s not like they’ll kill you, said the other.
As always, I felt like a strawberry in a bowl of rotting fire plums.
I was about to turn left down the trail into the Wildlands when I spotted, in the opposite direction, the bridge to Port Yooga. I admired the shimmering white light across the ripples of the river. The sun shone hot that day, suspended in a cloudless blue that made the sky seem like another inviting body of water. It wasn’t often, historically speaking, that Port Yooga seemed to someone on this side like a wonderful place to visit, but the day’s beauty made the expanse beyond the bridge look like a land over the rainbow or something. I thought then of the fire plum trees of Port Yooga and their notoriously bitter fruit. I wondered how Sharaina would feel biting into the bitterness. Her desperation was so pure and all-encompassing, I figured any old fire plum would do.
I didn’t believe all the stories people told about the Port Yooga plums, and yet their trees took on mythic proportions in my mind. I imagined them several stories tall with leaves arranged to form angry faces, hanged bodies swaying. Their branches would pelt me with plums if I got too close. Those were the stories my parents told me and my siblings late at night over fire plum ice cream. Tales passed down from the previous century to warn us riverbabies away from even thinking of nosing around the Port Yooga plums. I wondered about those trees, though; something in me yearned to stare into those angry faces. I wasn’t someone who decided things easily. Sometimes I tried calculating how much time the art of indecision added to even the smallest, most inconsequential tasks—choosing between grape and strawberry (but never fire plum) jelly to go with my peanut butter, for instance. I looked at the trail to the Wildlands and then at the bridge to Port Yooga and thought of the poem that said taking one path over the next as the road diverges in the woods could make all the difference.
If you believe that Percy followed the trail into the Wildlands to visit the fire plum tree guarded by the Great Wolf, read ending one.
If you believe Percy crossed the bridge into Port Yooga to see the fire plums of the hanging tree, read ending two.