The Rot Within
“I’m telling you, it’s totally safe,” Maggie reassured her roommate for the sixth time since she’d extracted the mushrooms from the rotting log. “They’re oyster mushrooms, just like you buy at the store.”
Kanti gripped the steering wheel a little tighter. Maggie’s words did nothing to ease her nerves. “Maybe, but what if you’re wrong? I don’t want to be puking my guts up because you fed us poisonous mushrooms you found in the woods.”
Pulling the offending item from the paper bag on her lap, Maggie held it up as if to prove its harmlessness. “This is like the easiest mushroom to identify. There are no poisonous look-alikes around here.”
Eyes fixed diligently on the road, Kanti remained silent. The forest whizzed by in a blur of green. The past few months her roommate had been obsessed with foraging wild garlic, dandelion leaves, elderflowers and blackberries. This was the first time they’d come across mushrooms. Kanti knew Maggie was excited, but she was still uneasy about the idea.
Finally Maggie relented, letting out an exasperated sigh. “Fine, if you won’t eat them then how about we grow them? It’ll be like a fun science experiment."
Kanti thought it over, one hand rubbing her necklace across her bottom lip as she drove, a nervous habit she’d picked up from her mother before she’d passed away.
“I guess that’s okay.”
After a mushroom-free meal of leftover curry that evening Kanti retreated to her room while Maggie researched spore collection, substrate options and climate influences. The next morning she woke to find a plastic bag on the sill of the frosted glass window in the bathroom. It was riddled with holes and packed with damp cardboard and coffee grounds.
“I’ve already added the mushroom spores,” Maggie said. “All we have to do now is wait.”
The soiled bag soon became part of the everyday scenery of the bathroom. Maggie misted it occasionally with a spray bottle, but mostly relied on the humidity of the shower to keep it moist.
A week after the mushy bag made its appearance Kanti was brushing her long, black hair when she noticed thin, white tentacles burrowing through the substrate.
“The mycelium is growing,” her roommate informed her, eyes bright like a child about to open a present.
Over the next few days the pale strands wove their way through the growth mixture like silky spider webs. Kanti found it strangely fascinating, but it also made her skin crawl.
The window faced the bathroom door, making it impossible not to notice the mushroom’s growth, which increased drastically once the mycelium appeared.
Muted, gray bubbles sprouted beneath the plastic like frog spawn. Pinning, as Maggie called it. The growths forced their way through the openings in the bag, swelling outward on stubby, beige tendrils like sea anemones. They puffed out in larval shoots, darkening to a scabby, black color as they grew over one another to fight for space.
As the fungi matured their complexion paled to a mushy gray before settling on the creamy color more characteristic of mushrooms at the store. The fleshy stems of the budding stalks had an oddly skin-like texture, smooth and plump, reminding Kanti of skin growths and lesions.
Realizing she was staring again, Kanti shuttered and turned her attention back to the mirror to apply eyeliner. She’d eaten store-bought mushrooms plenty of times. Still, the way these grew unnerved her. There was something almost sinister about them. They grew so fast, fought so hard. There was something too…hungry about them.
“Scared of the mushrooms again?” Maggie asked, coming into the bathroom.
“I’m not scared. They’re just kind of gross.”
Wrapping a strand of dental floss around each index finger, Maggie inspected the growths. “I think they’re kind of cute. Look at them. Our little babies are growing up.” She began popping the floss between her teeth, scraping the sides as she scrutinized the taupe protrusions ballooning from the plastic.
“I think they’ll be ready to harvest soon.” Teeth red-tinged with the blood of her gums Maggie nudged her way past Kanti to the sink. She spat, scarlet saliva slinking down the drain.
Kanti wrinkled her nose, an unsettling feeling rising in her stomach.
The next morning Kanti’s bedroom door burst open with a bang. The overhead light flashed on, bringing her out of a deep sleep. She’d been having a horrible dream about mushroom stalks and it took her a moment to register her current environment.
“How could you?” Maggie snapped from the doorway.
“What’s going on?” Kanti scratched her scalp and squinted through the brightness.
“I can’t believe you! I know you didn’t like them, but you didn’t have to destroy them.”
“What are you talking about?”
Nostrils flaring, Maggie grabbed Kanti by the hand and yanked her out of bed.
In the bathroom Maggie waved at the windowsill, her lips a tight line.
Kanti blinked quickly and started as she took in the scene.
Where the day before thick stalks of new mushrooms had flourished, there was nothing left but ragged stumps. It looked as though they had been roughly plucked, and a red liquid seeped from the jagged remains.
The liquid oozed from the plastic, dripping down onto the wall. Kanti’s mind automatically added a fresh coat of paint to the lengthening to-do list if they ever wanted to see their security deposit again.
A grunt from Maggie brought Kanti out of her thoughts.
“Are you going to explain yourself, or what?” Turning to her, the tips of Kanti’s brows worked their way upward into an unspoken question. “Don’t play dumb with me! I know you hated those mushrooms from the start, but you could have just asked me to move them. I would’ve put them in my room or something. You didn’t have to do this.”
Kanti turned back to the sodden remains, her groggy mind still putting the pieces together. Finally she pointed, her eyes turning sympathetic.
“You think I did this?”
“It didn’t destroy itself,” Maggie countered.
“Maggie, no, I promise.” Eyes fierce, Kanti gripped the stone pendant that hung from her neck, brandishing it in Maggie’s direction. “I swear I didn’t.”
Maggie studied her roommate’s face carefully, considering her words. Kanti wasn’t typically one to lie, and she’d never break a promise made on her mother’s necklace.
“Well, it’s not like they just got up and walked away.” Wiping a scarlet glob from the wall Maggie brought it to her nose, giving it a quick sniff as her expression softened.
“I guess this is pretty elaborate. I would’ve thought you’d just use ketchup, but this looks like legit fake blood.”
She touched her finger to her tongue and instantly drew back at the bitter taste.
“Why would you do that?” Kanti practically screamed.
“I thought it’d be corn syrup.” Maggie gagged, then splashed her mouth with water from the faucet.
“You shouldn’t be tasting everything you find,” Kanti said with a roll of her eyes. “I think it’s safe to say we’re done with this.”
Picking up the lump of plastic she dropped it unceremoniously into the trash bin.
Tension was high as they did a thorough sweep of the apartment, making sure the windows and doors were secure; if Kanti hadn’t touched the mushrooms then someone else had, yet they found no sign of entry.
That night Kanti dreamed of creamy mushroom stalks dripping with sticky, red liquid.
When little faces sprouted on the stems she woke in a sweat.
As she rose she felt a hard yank at the back of her head, causing her to flop back onto the bed. She traced the silky strands of her hair with her fingers to the metal bars of the headboard.
Panic flared as she realized her hair was tied to it in intricate knots.
At Kanti’s scream Maggie rushed in, umbrella in hand, expecting to find an intruder.
As soon as she saw Kanti she stopped, her eyes widening.
“What’s wrong with you?” Kanti demanded. “Why would you do this?”
Maggie silently gaped at her roommate who struggled to free herself.
“I know you’re mad about the mushrooms, but I told you I didn’t do anything.”
“I didn’t – ”
“Just help me,” Kanti croaked between tears. It took nearly an hour, but finally Maggie disentangled Kanti from the headboard without resorting to cutting her hair, reassuring her the entire time she’d had no part in the trick.
After checking that the doors and windows were still locked the two huddled in Maggie’s room, a low bookshelf braced against the door.
Maggie turned to her roommate to reveal her own odd discovery.
On the pale skin of her stomach Maggie pointed out the welt that had appeared overnight. It was a small protrusion about the size of an eraser head, white in color with black dots in the center like the blood vessels of a wart. “What do you think it is?”
Nervously, Kanti rubbed the chain of her necklace across her lip. “A pimple, maybe? It’s an odd color though. Did you try popping it?”
Maggie poked the hard welt. “Yeah, nothing happened.”
“Leave it alone. If it isn’t better in a few days, go to the health center.”
Restlessly they huddled in Maggie’s bed. Neither could shake the feeling that somewhere eyes were watching them.
The next day they brought their concerns to the apartment manager, who thankfully took them seriously. She checked over all the locks, assuring them they were secure. To help ease their minds she installed a door chain on the front door until she could change the locks.
As the days passed the swelling on Maggie’s stomach tripled in size, bulging on her skin like a tumor.
“I think you should get that check out. It doesn’t look good,” Kanti advised from the doorway as she toweled her wet hair, unable to take her eyes off the growth. She couldn’t shake how Maggie’s skin tone perfectly matched the mushrooms’ complexion. She shuddered, then retreated to the bathroom to finish getting ready.
She returned a moment later.
“Have you seen my necklace?” she asked.
Maggie shook her head. “When did you see it last?”
“In the bathroom just now. I took it off before I got in the shower.”
“Not sure. Maybe it fell behind the sink?”
Kanti’s face turned serious. “Promise you didn’t take it? This isn’t a joke?”
Maggie looked slightly offended. “I know how much that necklace means to you. I’d never take it.” It had been three years since Kanti’s mother had passed, but she’d never fully recovered from the loss. The necklace made her feel connected to her still.
“I’ll never forgive myself if I lose that necklace,” Kanti said as she left to look again.
“While you’re at it let me know if you see my earrings, the peace sign ones. I swear I left them in there, but I can’t find them now.”
Kanti woke from a nightmare to the sound of scuttling noises. They seemed to come from the air vent. She made a mental note to mention it to the building manager when she came by to replace the locks; a bird must have found its way inside.
She was just drifting back to sleep when she heard a loud thud outside her room.
“Kanti,” Maggie’s voice groaned.
Rushing through the hall Kanti noted the disarray, scattered items marking a path from Maggie’s bedroom. She followed the moans to the bathroom where she found Maggie crumbled on the floor. Her face was like a corpse, dark circles the only hint of color against shockingly pale skin. Beads of sweat dotted her forehead as she thrashed on the floor, her body racked with waves of pain and nausea.
Kanti rushed to her side, realizing her roommate must have crawled all the way from her room. It was impossible not to notice the lump on her stomach, now twice as large as it had been the day before.
Lifting Maggie’s shirt Kanti brushed the swelling with her fingertips. She nearly vomited when it shift away from her touch, migrating on its own beneath the flesh. Another scream pierced the air as Maggie squirmed against the crawling sensation.
There was a ripping sound as the lump burst open. Putrid, black bumps forced their way through the skin, elongating on fleshy, white stems. The protrusions spewed out at an alarming rate; nothing held them back once the skin was broken.
Maggie looked up at Kanti through heavy lids. She opened her mouth to say something, but no sound came out. Instead, more mushroom-like growths spilled from her open jaw.
Kanti choked down bile, pushing herself backwards. Maggie reached out toward her, but the stems kept growing, now emerging from her nostrils and ears. The expanding mass soon consumed Maggie’s entire body, covering her completely.
Realizing there was no way to help her roommate Kanti ran. She fumbled in the dark, making her way to the front door. Halfway through the living room a movement caught her eye.
Through the dull illumination from the streetlamps outside Kanti saw something float in front of her face. It took her a moment to register its odd appearance.
The creature was about the size of her thumb, with a stubby torso that tapered off at the bottom into two thin legs. Its head was enlarged into an umbrella-like shape, like a mushroom with a tiny face. Spindly arms jutted from its sides, ending in tiny hands with grotesquely long, claw-tipped fingers. From its back grew a pair of tattered, black wings that looked too ragged to be capable of flight, yet it flitted about in front of her.
It was like a faerie out of a nightmare, with a malicious glint in its black eyes. Kanti blinked, her mind unable to decern if what she was seeing was real. Then the creature let out a high-pitched giggle, revealing needle-like fangs.
Dangling from its drawn-out fingers was a familiar silver chain adorned with a stone pendant. Kanti’s hands balled into fists as the creature swung the necklace in her face, as though mocking her. She snatched for it, but the little beast was too quick. It darted out of the way, past her shoulder and down the hallway toward the bedrooms.
Rage roiled in her chest thinking of the filthy creature’s grotesque hands on her mother’s necklace. Pursuing it into the bathroom, she watched it fly up to the vent placed high on the wall close to the ceiling. Rapping its gnarled knuckles on the vent three times the covering swung down, revealing the opening.
From the doorway Kanti could see the stash of things inside; jewelry, keys, spoons, a cellphone charger, odds and ends that had recently gone missing. More of the tiny creatures lounged in the stollen stash. The one she’d followed still held her necklace, swinging it back and forth as though daring her to retrieve it.
Kanti eyed the unrecognizable remains of her motionless roommate, which slumped between her and the vent. The bubbling wave of mushrooms had slowed, but still crawled along the floor.
Holding her breath, Kanti slowly skirted around the mass. The small space did not allow her the distance she would’ve liked.
At the closest point she chanced a look at the mushrooms.
The mushrooms looked back.
Blinking dumbly, Kanti’s progress halted as she stared. Tiny slits of eyes marked each beige stem, each with a miniscule mouth below.
Kanti stilled, muscles tense.
With a series of squelches flimsy, wet wings extended from the mushrooms, oozing with red-black sludge. Holes dotted the tattered wings, as though the mushroom-faeries had started to consume themselves. They proceeded to rip themselves from Maggie’s body, leaving bloody ends where they separated.
With one quick hop Kanti was on the side of the bathtub. Extending her arm to its full length she used the momentary distraction to snatch the necklace from the vent, then she dove through the mess of mushroom creatures and out of the room.
A few slipped out before she slammed the door, buzzing around her head. They nipped and picked at her, pointed teeth and claws drawing blood. Tiny tongues lapped at her skin as they flitted around her face and pulled at her hair.
Kanti attempted to throw open the front door but the chain held fast, preventing it from opening fully. As she fumbled with it one of the faeries flew in front of her face. She jolted back as the creature opened its hand to reveal a palmful of powder. Bringing it to its face it looked Kanti dead in the eye, then blew the powder toward her.
Swatting the faerie away Kanti felt a tickle in the back of her throat. She burst through the door and into the hallway, then began stumbling down the stairwell.
As she descended her breathing became heavy. She squeezed her mother’s pendant in her palm and tried to ignore the tightness in her chest, but something creeped through her lungs. It coated all available surfaces.
She grabbed the handrail to stabilize herself, her legs weak and bare feet heavy on the stairs. Images of mushroom spores and those terrifyingly tiny faces filled her mind.
Something rose in her throat, and she thought she was going to be sick. Between the second and third floors she collapsed, her chest aching. She opened her mouth to vomit, but something else came out.
Mushrooms exploded from her throat as Kanti’s vision clouded with white dots in a sky of darkness. Absorbing the nutrients of their host, the mushrooms multiplied quickly on the feast of fresh blood.
It had been a stroke of luck the mushroom-faeries had found themselves in a new habitat, one with a limitless buffet of potential meals. They continued to spread and consume, their hunger insatiable.
Mushrooms thrive on decaying matter, but not all of them are patient enough to wait until it’s dead.
McKenzie Richardson About the Author McKenzie Richardson lives in Milwaukee, WI. A lifelong explorer of imagined worlds on the written page, over the last few years she has been finding homes for her own creations. Most recently, her work will be published in Eerie River Publishing’s With Blood and Ash, coming 2021. Her stories and poetry are also featured in anthologies from Black Hare Press, Iron Faerie Publishing, and Dragon Soul Press. In addition, she has published a poetry collaboration with Casey Renee Kiser, 433 Lighted Way, and her middle-grade fantasy novel, Heartstrings, is available on Amazon. McKenzie loves all things books and is currently working towards a master’s degree in Library and Information Sciences. When not writing, she can usually be found in her book hoard, reading or just looking at her shelves longingly. For more on her writing, follow her on: Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/mckenzielrichardson/ Instagram: http://www.instagram.com/mckenzielrichardson/ Blog: http://www.craft-cycle.com