After all the schools and municipal cafeterias stopped taking shipments of wild mushrooms from the county co-op, they all came to my company for us to use. Normally, this would be fantastic. Mushrooms make great fertilizer.
I’ve got acres upon acres of property with great soil. It’s such good stuff that people come from all over the country in dump trucks to buy a load and haul it back to wherever they want. Our family’s been caring for the land for going on 200 years now. We’ve been asked to sell the property to big agribusinesses more times than we can count, but we could never give it up. Even when the offers got into the upper seven figures, we’ve been content with the low sixes that come in consistently, year after year.
I got a phone call a month ago from the farm co-op that’s been handling all the local produce for the county’s schools and whatnot. Apparently there’s been no interest in the mushroom glut after little Danny Lansing’s tragic passing. The co-op guy on the phone told me what I already knew: the boy’s death was from an unknown allergic reaction and no one else, as far as he knew, had gotten sick from the mushrooms. I listened and waited for him to tell me what kind of deal he’d give me if I were to buy the whole supply.
I’ll admit, I was pretty surprised when he said he wasn’t even considering charging me for the supply. To the contrary: he said the co-op would give me five thousand bucks if I sent our trucks over to take them all away. $5000 sounded like a hell of a lot for a local farm co-op, and when I said that to the guy, he just said “well, it’s a hell of a lot of mushrooms.”
Two of my guys, Ramon and Juan, headed over to the co-op; one in a dump truck and the other in a backhoe. Ramon and his dump truck were the first to arrive, and he radioed to me the minute he saw the amount of product they’d have to move. I called in two more guys and sent them with another two dump trucks. When all was said and done, they’d picked up eight truckloads. I let them split the $5000 among themselves.
The last half of the truckloads were delivered after dark, so even though I knew I was getting tons of the things, I was still taken aback in the morning when I saw the mountains of fungus sitting in the field near the barn. I went over to investigate, and saw the majority of them looked like portobellos, but there were some stringy, white ones in there that looked a little like the Japanese kind I can’t remember the name of.
The four guys who’d helped out yesterday were there at the crack of dawn. They hadn’t expected such a huge bonus yesterday, so they were eager to get to work and show their appreciation. I’ve always believed it’s important to treat the people who you employ with respect. These guys have been with us for a long time; Juan had just celebrated his 30th year here. Without them, the company wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is. I make sure to tell them that as often as I can.
They got to work loading the mushrooms into a huge grinder that’s been part of the business for almost a century. It eats through any organic matter you feed into it and turns it into the perfect size and consistency to get incorporated into the soil. Five hours later, two piles of mushrooms had been reduced to a pulpy sludge.
I worked out which part of the property should get the new fertilizer, and as luck would have it for the guys who had to spread it out, the area right near where they’d been working had gone the longest without upkeep. After two days, that part of the field was all finished. Just in time for the weekend.
No one was around from Saturday until Tuesday. I told the guys my wife and I were going to take a few day trips to enjoy the unseasonably-warm weather, and I had them take Monday off. We got back in the wee hours of Tuesday. Long before sunrise. It felt like I’d just gotten to sleep when I heard banging on the door. My cell phone started ringing, too. I picked up and Pedro started yelling in my ear. My ability to understand Spanish is okay, but not when it’s being spoken at a hundred miles an hour and being half shouted. I told Pedro to calm down and asked if his dad was available to talk. I love the kid, but he’s pretty excitable. I guess all 16 year olds are.
Juan got on the line as I walked over to the front door. Ramon was standing there looking bewildered. Juan was saying something about mushrooms on the phone as Ramon pulled me by the arm around to the other side of the house, near the field where they’d been working. I saw Pedro first, then Juan, still talking into his cell phone. I’d stopped listening, though. I could see something in the newly-fertilized field about a hundred yards away, but it was being blurred by a haze of orange fog.
The four of us walked toward the field. I started to get a nagging feeling of unease. There were large, bulbous shapes protruding from the ground. Even as we closed in, their clear shapes eluded us. The dark-orange fog still obscured the details. Ramon pointed out footprints in the dirt, all converging on that part of the field. The more I looked, the more I saw. Tens of pairs of footprints.
Orange fog licked at our feet and ankles and legs as we got closer. I put my shirt over my mouth and nose before walking any closer. The rest of the guys did, too. The footprints appeared to come from all around, all spaced out as if they were running. We’d gotten close enough to make out the bulbous forms. They were some kind of fungus. They looked like giant pieces of ginger root sticking out of the ground. Their sides were lined with pores, some open, some covered with a loose membrane.
Out of nowhere, Pedro screamed and put his hands to his face, dropping his shirt from his mouth in the process. I saw him gasp in a lungful of the fog. My eyes widened when I saw what had startled him. Bodies were wrapped around the base of each mushroom stalk, as if they were embracing them. Their skin was destroyed. I can’t think of any other way to put it. Massive patches were missing, usually a foot or more in diameter in each spot. And there were many, many spots.
The most unsettling aspect, though, as if it could get much worse, was the condition of their feet. Some of them were in tatters; bones sticking out of shredded muscle and veins dangling like thick, loose hair. I don’t know what could have possibly happened – it almost looked like they were worn away.
We heard loud breathing behind us and we spun around. A hideously thin woman, completely naked and patterned with areas of missing flesh, ran by us. One of her feet was missing. Each step pushed the stump of her ankle into the dirt. She ran face-first into one of the mushrooms, wrapped her arms around it, and sunk to the ground with a smile on her face. As her arms slid across the pores in the stalk, they burst open, filling the air with more orange fog.
The men with me were all talking loudly to one another and backing away. More runners in similarly-devastated conditions were arriving. We kept walking away and out of the orange fog. Juan called Pedro’s name. I noticed he wasn’t with us. He called again. Pedro came out of the fog, coated, like we were, with orange spores. Unlike us, though, his mouth and nose were still uncovered. He stared blankly and scratched at his face and neck.
Juan rushed toward his son and started pulling him away from the field, but Pedro turned toward it and began to walk back. Juan, being much stronger, was still able to pull the boy back out of the field to the barn, where we all stripped down and hosed one another off. We stood in the middle of the barn wondering aloud what the hell was happening.
Pedro, now clean, kept scratching himself. Lines had started to form over the spots where his fingernails had traveled. His legs pumped as he ran in place, not listening to his father ordering him to stay still. A moment later, while Juan was trying to call 911, we watched, helplessly, as Pedro started running in the direction of the mushroom field, slamming into the closed door of the barn, picking himself up, and doing it all again. And again. And again.