A Ghost in the Fruit - Uncharted

A Ghost in the Fruit

By Ryan Cole

Ella, in the dim, flickering light of the janitor’s closet, could see that the berries had regrown their teeth. Not whole sets—at least, not yet. Cranking the dial on her newly stolen microscope, she leaned over Sebastian, who was prepping a fresh pot of jam on the floor, and she zoomed in on the fruit: the dark blue skin, the row of tiny incisors poking from the stem. It had been several months since the berries had awakened—several profitable months—and she worried that her high school wouldn’t survive another slaughter.

Last time was bad enough. She had the scars to prove it.

Carefully, she picked up the berry from the petri dish. Her thumb started to bleed.

“Shit,” her brother said. He wrinkled his nose at the sickly-sweet aroma of freshly squeezed lemon juice and overripe fruit that wafted in plumes from their Bunsen-burner stove. “Did the blueberry bite you?”

Ella threw the now-feral fruit in the trash can. She sucked on her thumb. “Looks like they’re angry.”

Sebastian kept stirring, but the tremor in his voice, and the white-knuckle grip he kept on the spoon, were enough of a sign that, despite being older, he was just as spooked as she was. “Maybe it’s a fluke. The rest look okay.”

Ella wasn’t convinced. She gathered her dark, wavy hair into a bun, rolled up her sleeves, and filled up a fresh jar of jam from the pot. Then, she hid it with the others that were stashed in the shelves behind a set of old brooms, a dirty mop bucket, and a pile of dry rags that stank of disinfectant. None of which had seen use in years, if ever. She had chosen their main base of operations well. Hidden in the basement of their school’s cafeteria, no one, aside from their customers, would find them. “What do we do?”

Sebastian scraped the pot and tossed in a cup of fresh berries and sugar, breathing in the sweetness. “I say we sell.”

Ella kept sucking at the cut on her finger. “And what if someone gets hurt?”

Her brother just shrugged. “Then too bad for them.”

Easy for him to say. He’d already been censured. Jessalyn, the honor council president, had punished him for using a ghost-enhanced strawberry smoothie—one he’d bought from his Fruityz dealer—on the algebra midterm exam last semester. Which was only the latest in a months-long pattern of using and cheating since Mom had passed away. He’d abandoned his future, didn’t care about the consequences.

Just like Dad.

Ella, on the other hand, had harnessed her grief. If only from necessity. She didn’t have the luxury of acting impulsively, not when the money in their house was so tight and the little that was left had transformed into liquor. Or Fruityz. Or both. Someone had to act. Someone had to salvage what was left of their family.

So, it was Ella who had dug at Mom’s grave, it was Ella who had planted the blueberry bush, waiting for weeks as a corporeal essence seeped out from the coffin and into the roots, enriching the berries with its neuron-boosting plasma. And it was Ella who would suffer the ultimate price—an honor council jury, or even worse, jail—if she ever got caught. Fruityz were illegal. She had seen what could happen when a drug ring went sour. Channel 7 news had done an in-depth piece on the failed pomegranate gang that once ruled the graveyard where Mom was now buried. Every last member, in the end, had been convicted.

But that hadn’t stopped her, and neither would the teeth.

“Don’t worry,” Sebastian said. “No one will find out.”

She nodded. Continued to fill up the jars. And she tried to believe that it would all be worth it.


Later that day, once the last bell had rung, their customers came.

Ella was ready. She and Sebastian had stockpiled sandwiches—slathered with peanut butter and blueberry jam—until the slices of thick, white bread filled the shelves. Seemingly ordinary. The perfect disguise for what was hidden within. That was when she heard the knock, three sharp taps. And a whisper from the hallway. “One half, please.”

Ella didn’t answer. She stuffed a saran-wrapped peanut butter sandwich through the slot that Sebastian had carved into the door. An envelope of money came through from the other side, and she ripped open the flap. Twenty dollars. Not bad.  

Sebastian, now grinning, threw the money on the shelf. “One order down. Several dozen to go.”

Which, six months ago, would have seemed absurd. This many kids who would pay for Fruityz? Who would risk being sent to the honor code council? And yet, here they were. Trickling, day after day, to their closet. Avoiding the ever-watchful eyes of the teachers. Eating what should have been a mundane fruit—which it usually was, without a ghost to enrich it—in order to do a little better on an exam. 

Ella felt guilty for using her mother. For selling what was left of her earthly presence. But she hoped, deep down, that the ghost would forgive her. It was the least she could do for having left them so early.

Sebastian, on the other hand, was all forced bravado. He puffed out his gangly, un-muscled chest. “Why do you look like you’ve just been censured? Whoever buys the Fruityz takes a risk—it’s their choice.”

“Right,” Ella said as she heard a soft knock. She passed another sandwich through the door and grabbed the money. “Except that last time, we—”

“No.” Sebastian grimaced. “The teeth weren’t that long. I couldn’t even see them.”

They continued like that for the rest of the afternoon. Knocks and exchanges of drug-laced sandwiches. Around four o’clock, they were almost through their stash. Only one piece of inventory was left on the shelf.

Sebastian was sifting through a fat stack of bills. “Almost two-thousand dollars. In just one week. Do you think you can bring more Fruityz tomorrow?”

Ella rolled her eyes. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“What if we grew more bushes, or—”

“Sebastian. Fruityz take time to enrich, to mature. If they didn’t, we would have a whole lot more competition.”

Her brother’s shoulders slumped. “But—in a few weeks?”

“We’ll see,” Ella said. She felt something thud against the tip of her sneaker. An envelope falling through the slot in the door. But when she opened the flap, no money came out. There was a note, all crumpled and written in black Sharpie. Her heart skipped a beat as she silently read it.

Sebastian kept counting—and recounting—their earnings. “One more sale?” He didn’t look up.

But Ella couldn’t breathe. And it wasn’t from the burn of the cut on her thumb, or the festering guilt caught in her chest. She held out the note.

Sebastian took it from her. When he read it, his soft amber eyes went wide. “Oh, shit,” he whispered.

Oh, shit was right.  It was only one sentence, without any signature: Give me the berries, or I am going to tell them.

It wasn’t that hard to imagine who they meant. Whoever had sent this had wanted to scare her. To mess with her head. For what, she didn’t know. But it seemed that the teeth, and what she’d do if they grew, were now the least of her worries.


The mud on her fingers was cold that evening, the wind in the graveyard like ice on her cheeks. But Ella did her best to not let it bother her—not when the fate of her family was at stake. Dad, after dinner, had gone on one of his binges. She’d found him passed out, face-down, on the sofa, in his now-normal state: with a half-eaten watermelon rind in his hand, a dribble of pale red juice on his chin. His Fruityz of choice.

Ella resented him for acting this way. For making her into the parent that he wasn’t. She wanted to yell at him to wake up, to live. But he wouldn’t have heard—he wouldn’t have cared. So, she snuck out. 

She had knelt in the blueberry bush for an hour, gathering the last few berries that remained, and each one left a bloody mark on her hand. Which she supposed she deserved. Stealing from the dead—and from her very own kin—was a betrayal of epic, otherworldly proportions.

But she didn’t have a choice.

Give me the berries, or I am going to tell them.

For the hundredth time, she looked over the note. Who could have sent it? The suspects were many—too many to count. It could have been any of her hundreds of customers. It could have been someone who was threatened by her business—one of the strawberry dealers in town, or the cantaloupe cartel that smuggled down the coast—eager to siphon a bit of her profit. It could have been the student honor council itself, those self-righteous few who had made it their religion to eradicate Fruityz. And punish those who ate them.

Whoever it was, they had the upper hand. Ella barely had any berries left to give. The ones that remained were shriveled with age, razor sharp at the stem. The kind that would not serve well in a jam. Like knives on the throat and needles in the stomach.

“What can I do?” she said to the bush, hoping her mother could somehow hear her.

But no answer came. Nothing but the whine of the wind in the trees. The white-lantern glow of the moon overhead.

She waited and hoped for what felt like an eternity. The berries would come. They would grow back, eventually, without any teeth. Surely, the anonymous writer could wait. Surely, they’d understand how these things worked.

Alone in the dark, she wasn’t so certain.


One week later, Ella received another note: Meet me at 3:30pm in the auditorium. I know who you are.

“They’re lying,” Sebastian said. “We’ve been so careful.”

Ella packed the berries into the cafeteria freezer, wiping the frost from her fingers on her jeans. “How else could they have known to put the note in my locker?”

“Lucky guess?” Sebastian said.

But Ella knew better. Whoever they were dealing with wasn’t just guessing. So, that afternoon, she went to the auditorium. Sebastian went with her, and he hid behind the blue velvet curtains backstage, leaving her alone in the front row of seats.

When a girl walked out from the orchestra pit, Ella’s breath caught. “Jessalyn,” she said. 

“Ella,” said the honor council first-in-command, whose freckles were as red as the hair in her ponytail. They stared at one another for several awkward moments.

Then Ella hissed, “How did you know?”

“It was easy,” Jessalyn said. “I noticed a pattern of students staying late. Going to the basement when there wasn’t any reason. I cross-checked the schedules of the entire student body—with the principal’s permission—and saw that you’ve nearly reached your quota for absences. I had a strong hunch. It proved to be right.”

Ella narrowed her eyes. “And what will you do now?”

“That depends,” Jessalyn said. “On what you can do for me.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I want you to give me the names of all of your customers.”

Ella blinked. “I don’t know their names.”

“Then you’ll have to find out.”

“Jessalyn, most of my berries are gone. And what’s left aren’t safe—for me or for them. I don’t have any way to lure people back.”

Jessalyn sighed, twirling her ponytail. “Then I’ll have to bring you into the council for questioning.”

Both of them knew what that would mean for Ella: censure, humiliation, likely expulsion. Taking a Fruityz was at one end of the spectrum. Selling to the whole student body was quite another.

“Or,” Ella said. “I can stop altogether. Have a clean slate.”

“Too late,” Jessalyn said. 

Ella’s heart fluttered; her neck dripped with sweat. How could she undermine—or rather, betray—so many of her peers? 

Jessalyn smiled. “I’ll give you one day. Until then, think about it.” She stalked down the aisle and out the side-door, her footsteps quietly echoing off the walls.

Sebastian crept out from the safety of the curtains. He shook his head in pity, or maybe disbelief. “Sucks,” he said. “That’s not much of a choice.”

Ella rubbed her forehead, trying not to cry, watching as all of her hard work imploded.

“So, what’s the plan?”

“I—I don’t know.” She slumped, head down, in one of the aisle-seats. She stared at her lap. And she wished, for the first time in several long months, that she could speak to her mother. Ask for advice. Know that the steps she had taken were justified.

But of course, she couldn’t. For this, and for everything else, she was on her own.


Ella heard about the first injury at lunch time. It was a messy affair—blood on the lunch tables, blueberry jam and peanut butter smeared everywhere, the now-angry blueberries hungry for vengeance. The unlucky boy—who had taken a bite right before his math exam, to improve his concentration—had tried to be discreet. Tried to make it seem like it was any other sandwich. But he spat out the berries as soon as they had bitten him. The teeth, it turned out, had not stopped growing.

There were similar stories throughout the afternoon. They ranged from the minor to the full-on nurse rehab. Several of the students had to be sent home. Several had to miss whatever test they had enhanced for. And the more that happened, the more the principal, and the honor council, noticed.

Ella whispered to Sebastian. “Maybe it’s a good thing?”

Sebastian frowned. “How?”

“Maybe now, Jessalyn will take back her threat? There’s no way she’d want us to sell to more students.”

But Ella was wrong. “You want us to sell? Even with the teeth?”

Jessalyn rearranged her bright red ponytail; it glowed in the light from behind the stage curtains. “Why would you stop?”

“Because of all the injuries!”

Jessalyn scoffed. “It was their choice to cheat. Those students knew the rules, knew the risk of what could happen, and they still chose to break them. In my view, they deserve it.”

Ella’s throat was tight. “But you have half the names. The ones who have been hurt.”

“And I still want the rest.”

“But why would the students buy Fruityz after this? How will I find them?”

Jessalyn grinned. “I’m sure you’ll think of something.”


“It’s no use.” Ella stood over the microscope and poked at the berry underneath the lens. “I can’t pull the teeth out. They’ve gotten too sharp.”

Sebastian stepped over the rags in the closet, holding his nose. “There’s got to be a way to make the berries calm down.”

“There isn’t,” Ella said.

“I don’t believe it,” Sebastian said. “Do you know why the berries grew feral in the first place?”

Ella considered, afraid to say it out loud. To admit what she had done. “Mom—I think she’s mad at me for using her ghost.”

Sebastian’s face hardened. “Who cares what she thinks. She left us, she’s gone.”

Ella looked again at the berry in the petri dish, laying a hand on her brother’s stiff shoulder, knowing the hurt he felt was her own. “I think that she’s angry. Those berries—or the essence they contain—are sacred. They aren’t supposed to be sold.”

Sebastian rolled his eyes. “So, what—we just stop?”

“That’s why the teeth disappeared last time. She thought we’d given up.”

Sebastian crossed his arms. “Well, it sounds like there’s only one thing we can do.”

Ella blinked. “What’s that?”

“We need her on our side.”

So, later that evening, they knelt by the grave that Sebastian had avoided since the day of the funeral. The day their world ended. “Now what?” he said.

“Now, we’ll try to speak to her.”

“But how? She’s a ghost.”

Ella wasn’t sure. Every time she had tried, the bush had been silent. 

“How about a berry?” Sebastian plucked one from a branch.

“Are you crazy?” Ella said. “That’ll tear up my mouth.”

“But it could give you an idea. Just because they’re haunted doesn’t mean they won’t work.”

Her brother had a point. Even after so many months of selling sandwiches, Ella had never eaten a berry for herself. She had saved them for the business, every last one. 

What would it feel like to eat one now? 

Would she feel closer to Mom? Did she want that connection? She feared it would validate all of her fears—that her mother disapproved, that she was ashamed of Ella. 

Sebastian held it out to her. “We might as well try.”

Ella hesitated, but she picked up the berry. She plopped it in her mouth. And as she started to chew, her eyes grew wide at the voice in her head that she hadn’t heard in months.


Three days later, she was summoned to the hall of the student honor council.  

Jessalyn was waiting. She sat, legs crossed, at the center of the table set on the dais, flanked by a row of other academic purists. Each of them embodied the honor code scripture—their navy-blue uniforms immaculately starched, their hair slicked in place, their lips all pouty and ready to condemn. They smiled at Ella without any warmth.

“Welcome,” Jessalyn said. “Won’t you please take a seat?”

Ella eased into the only other chair. It sat in the middle of the otherwise empty room.

Then came the onslaught.

Jessalyn stood. She held a gavel in her hand. “It has come to our attention that our rules have been broken.”

Ella cleared her throat. She croaked, “Which rules?”

“It is written very clearly in the honor council scripture that Fruityz are banned—in all forms—from school grounds.” She continued to pretend that they hadn’t ever spoken, that she hadn’t blackmailed Ella. “Surely, you’ve heard of the recent streak of injuries. The bad batch of jam?”

 Ella nodded. “Of course.”

“And do you know where it came from?”

“I have no idea.”

“That’s a shame, because the council has decided to be lenient. Whoever is selling the jam will be pardoned, if they choose to comply. Are you willing to comply?”

“I have nothing to comply with.” 

“You’re lying,” Jessalyn hissed.

Ella started sweating, her hands grew clammy. Was this just a test? More intimidation? Unchecked, Jessalyn could slam her with a censure that would taint any vestige of her academic career. She could summon the police, she could loop in the media. The girl was a snake, unpredictable and ruthless. And yet, Ella wasn’t scared. She was tired of hiding, tired of running. Tired of carrying her family on her shoulders.

And now, she wouldn’t have to—at least, not by herself.

Ella looked directly at Jessalyn. “I did it.”

The row of honor council minions smirked from the dais.

But Ella wasn’t finished. “I did it to help other students feel good—about their work, about themselves, about what they can achieve.”

“No,” Jessalyn said, “you did it for the money.”

Ella recoiled. The truth was hard to hear. But now that she’d heard the ghost-voice of her mother, now that she’d learned why the berries were angry, nothing could stop her. She stood up from her chair. “How did it taste?”

Jessalyn paused. “What do you mean?”

“The Fruityz, the jam. When you bit into the sandwich.”

 Jessalyn blushed. “I would never do that.”

“But the fruit—or the ghost in the fruit—told me differently.”

The room went silent. All that she heard was the creaking of chairs as the rest of the honor council turned towards Jessalyn.

“She is obviously lying.”

“Am I?” Ella asked. “And what about your tongue? I’d imagine there are cuts.”

Jessalyn fiddled with her bright red ponytail. “This isn’t my trial.”

“No,” Ella said, “but I do think it strange that you knew it was me. Plenty of other kids are absent from class. Plenty of other kids go to the cafeteria. Only a customer—a repeat customer—could have had any insight into who they were paying. And I think you’ve been buying my goods for some time.”

Jessalyn spluttered. “No one will believe that.”

But the rest of her honor council minions were intrigued. They whispered and shifted uncomfortably on the dais.

“And she isn’t alone.” Ella’s voice cracked, but she couldn’t give up. Not here, not now. “I would wager that every single one of you—at some point—has come to my closet.” She knew it was true. Mom’s ghost had told her.

The council erupted. The room was a flurry of put-upon outrage:

“How could you say that?”

“How could you question our honor? Our intelligence?”

“Lies! Those are all that a person like you would tell.”

But Ella, all thanks to Mom’s ghost, had proof. She knew when the berries had chomped on their tongues. She knew that the honor council had no honor. And she wasn’t afraid to wield the power of that knowledge.

Calmly, she eased back into her chair. “Now,” she said, as she folded her arms. “I wonder what would happen if the principal knew this.”

Jessalyn glared. “You wouldn’t,” she said. 

“Oh, but I would.” Ella smiled in turn. “What else is there to lose?”

One by one, the council members sat. They grumbled in distaste. And they listened to Ella as she outlined her proposal.


Night had just fallen as she knelt by the bush with Sebastian at her side. He deposited the rest of their stash in the dirt. “What now?” he asked.

Ella shrugged. She knew she should feel more relief at their freedom, that the honor council wouldn’t try to litigate her case. Yet, the guilt was still there. “We can’t sell the Fruityz.”

Sebastian’s shoulders slumped. “But the money.” He sighed.

Ella felt his pain. The money was good. But the truth was even better—that the supernatural fruit had been meant for them alone. That as long as she kept it, she’d always have the ghost of her mother by her side, propping her up. Making her stronger. And it wouldn’t need to grow teeth to make sure she listened.

She picked up a berry, raised it to her lips. The world felt that much clearer as she chewed.

About the Author

Ryan Cole is a speculative fiction writer who lives in Virginia with his husband and snuggly pug child. He is a winner of the Writers of the Future Contest, and his recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, MetaStellar, Voyage YA by Uncharted, Gallery of Curiosities, and the Bram Stoker Award-nominated anthology Mother: Tales of Love and Terror (Weird Little Worlds Press). Find out more at www.ryancolewrites.com.

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