‘Did you hear Mummy and Daddy fighting last night?’
Derek paused awkwardly, bent halfway through the listing wire fence dividing their backyard from a line of trees across a narrow stream. His stomach clenched, and he briefly relived the argument that had echoed through the house late the night before. He shook his head, then straightened and stepped away from the fence.
Flicking a glance at his little brother, Derek turned and stared at the trees. His earlier thoughts were wrong. What looked to be a line of trees was instead the leading fringe of a dense copse, the trunks of those beyond the line buried in shadow.
‘Just a difference of opinion, Tommy. They’re tired from the move. We all are.’ He looked at his brother.
Tommy eyed him doubtfully. His cheeks were red from the cold and exertion and water beaded his knitted cap. He glanced at the house, which the morning fog had hid, cloaking the double storey brick building in a filmy cataract. Derek followed his gaze, imagining their parents sitting sullenly at breakfast, looking everywhere but at each other. It was the reason he had dragged Tommy outside; it might be cold in the backyard, but anything was better than the stony atmosphere in the house.
‘They were shouting,’ Tommy pointed out. His lips quirked downwards.
Derek silently cursed his parents. Well, Dad and Jill, he silently reminded himself. It hadn’t been Mum and Dad for…he was surprised to realise it took him a moment to remember how many years it had been since his mother had died. He looked down at Tommy then reached out and patted his shoulder.
‘I know it isn’t nice to hear them like that. I don’t like it myself.’ He glanced back at the house. Despite the cold, Derek didn’t feel inclined return. Let them stew, he thought to himself. He had lain in bedroom, mutely watching the ceiling while his father and Jill had gone at it for almost half an hour. The familiar refrain. Money. Bad choices. Taking responsibility.
‘Then you should tell them.’ Tommy slipped a mittened hand into Derek’s, who curled his hand around it comfortingly. Not for the first time, the solemn look on his brother’s face surprised Derek. It was sometimes hard to believe he was only eight.
‘Maybe when we get back?’ Derek said, though he knew he wouldn’t. They stood in companionable silence for a while.
‘You’re going to college soon, aren’t you?’ Caught off guard by the question, Derek could only nod his head.
‘I don’t want you to go,’ Tommy said. He looked up at Derek, who saw a tear glimmering in his eye.
Derek had known for weeks this was coming, but had put it off, partly due to the move, but mostly struggling to find a way to bring it up. He’d waited too long, he realised now as he knelt on the wet grass.
‘Come on, Tommy. I’m not going for months yet.’ Three months, he thought to himself, and despite how upset it made Tommy, Derek looked forward to it. Eagerly, in fact. Back to the city, back amongst his friends. Away from the anger and bitterness that had followed them here, welling up when his father’s investments had gone sour. The memory of his father yelling on the phone at his broker as the market collapsed and the margin calls had rained down like confetti remained sharp.
Pouting, Tommy folded his arms. Derek sighed.
‘Sometimes, when you get older, home gets to be too small. I’ll still be around, just not always. And anyway, you’ll have this whole place to yourself. It’s big enough for a full time adventurer.’
Tommy thought about it for a moment, his forehead creased as he puzzled through what Derek had said. Then, to Derek’s relief, his face cleared and he looked up at him, nodding.
Derek pointed to the stream.
‘Why don’t we cross over there and see what we can find? An adventure before lunch time.’
‘What about unpacking?’ Tommy looked doubtfully back at the house.
‘What would you rather? Unpack boxes all day or check out the gloomy forest? Might be a dragon or two that needs slaying.’ He smiled playfully. Tommy’s face turned serious again.
‘I’m not seven anymore, Derek. I know there’s no such thing as dragons. Or elves. Or anything like that.’
Looking at Tommy, Derek felt a little sad. Not so long ago it had been Santa Claus is coming, then dressing up as the Easter Bunny and hunting through the garden for chocolate eggs. When had Tommy lost all that? When Dad lost his job, a thin, acid voice whispered in his mind.
‘Well, whether your seven or seventeen’ – Derek jammed his thumb into his chest – ‘any adventure is better than unpacking boxes. Come on.’ Tugging on Tommy’s arm, he pulled him towards the stream. Derek spared the fog-bound house a glance. He thought he saw a face smeared against the kitchen window. Before he could wave, it dissolved into the fog. Shaking his head, he turned to the stream, and began working out how to get himself and Tommy across without getting wet in the process.
The copse’s soft, loamy floor absorbed their footsteps with a thick finality that made Derek unaccountably uneasy. Tendrils of fog curled around the trees which swayed in a slight breeze. Tommy had wandered off a little, and Derek could just see his cap floating in the fog.
The tops of the trees were lost in the white haze, and Derek fancied the world had gone away, leaving a white cold landscape behind. Pausing, he listened for the stream, and could just hear a faint trickling that sounded distant, even though he knew it was less than ten yards away.
Fog clung to his clothes, and he felt the cold through his jacket. He almost jumped when something clattered overhead, peering up into the tight lattice of branches and seeing a dark shape darting through them.
‘Qouth the raven,’ he murmured. Still looking into the branches, he placed a hand against a tree trunk and felt something soft and greasy burst against his palm. Face screwed in disgust, he waved his hand and heard something pulpy hit the ground.
Wide eyed, he saw bloated mushrooms covering the trunk, their swollen caps cracked and weeping grey fluid. Grimacing, he knelt and wiped his hand repeatedly in the dirt until he had removed all the juice. Rising, he looked around at the nearby trees and saw that each was covered in a thick layer of mushrooms.
‘Hey Tommy,’ he called absently, unable to look away from the bizarre scene around him. ‘Get a load of…’
Derek realised that Tommy had vanished.
‘Jesus.’ He felt his stomach tighten. Heart pounding, Derek turned around, listening intently.
‘Tommy?’ The fog swallowed his shaky voice. He thought he heard giggling, the sound muffled by the fog. He whirled, tried to get a fix on it, and saw a shape slip between two trees, before disappearing.
‘Great. Tommy, I don’t want to play games, okay. Come on, where are you?’
More laughter. Derek lurched towards it, bounced off a tree and felt a mushroom pop glutinously against his shoulder. Caught off balance, he tripped and fell. A branch scraped his face on the way down.
On his hands and knees, the fog whirling over him, Tommy felt his check. His fingers came away bloody. Sinking them into the soft earth, he struggled to his feet and looked wildly around.
‘God damn it, Derek,’ he yelled, pressing the back of his hand to his bleeding face. ‘If you don’t come back here right now I’m going to give you the hiding of your life.’
The copse fell silent. Shame quickly replaced his anger. He’d never struck Tommy; had never threatened to. Dabbing at his face, he realised the bleeding, what little was, had stopped. It was only his pride that made him so angry, he realised. Did he have his father’s pride?
‘Come on, Tommy. I’m sorry, okay? I didn’t mean it. Let’s go back.’
Brooding silence. Shifting, the fog grew thicker, thinned a little, then thickened once more. A tree creaked. Derek glanced at it and shuddered at the mushrooms growing on it, like thick polyps. Or tumours, he thought. He remembered his mother.
‘I’m over here.’ The thin voice, unmistakably Tommy’s, came from his right. The knot stomach loosened. Careful to avoid the trees and the clinging mushrooms, Derek picked his way towards the sound.
The trees suddenly opened into a small clearing. Sunlight streamed in through a gap in the fog, illuminating Tommy who stood in the centre of the clearing, grinning from ear to ear. The fog curled away from him, revealing a drift of fallen pine needles, brown and withered. The wind died, and the creaking of the trees died with it, leaving a strange hush. Derek noticed that Tommy stood within a circle of mushrooms.
‘Look at these,’ Tommy said, his voice high and childish with delight. ‘A fairy ring.’ His smile grew, and Derek ventured an uneasy smile in return. The world felt as if it had slid slightly awry, and Derek couldn’t work out why if felt that way. His eyes drifted again to the mushrooms. They formed a perfect circle around Derek, their bloated caps oozing a thick grey fluid. He felt unease burrowing deep into him.
‘Derek, come away,’ he called, holding a hand it. He saw the mushroom pulp caking it, and felt a crawling sensation up his arm.
‘Aww. Can’t we stay a bit longer? Perhaps a fairy will come out, and we can dance around with it.’ Derek thought Tommy sounded serious, though his eyes were wide with exaggerated humour. The wind picked up, the fog swirling with it. The cold deepened and Derek found himself shivering.
‘No. We’re going home. Now.’ Derek stepped forward to emphasise his point. At that moment, a number of things happened at once. The trees resumed their creaking, the branches clattering loudly. The sound seemed like a code communicated from tree to tree. Another dark shape flitted through the lattice, though this time there was no mistaking the grey, bloated shape. And then Derek saw every single cap on every single mushroom surrounding Tommy split down the middle in a wide, lipless mouth, and issue a thick cloud of grey-green spores, which rose and swirled and fell upon Tommy in a thick cloud. The boy stiffened. Then, without a word, Tommy collapsed to the ground.
Jill stared out the kitchen window, willing Tommy and Derek to emerge from the fog and save her from the wreckage her marriage was swiftly becoming. Even with her back turned to him, the waves of resentment pouring off Frank were unmistakeable.
The boys had been gone a little over half an hour, and in that space, the silence between her and Frank had widened to a chasm. Last night’s argument, resounding through the house, loomed in memory like an iceberg emerging from the fog. Frustrated, she rattled the dishes in the sink, hoping that would elicit some sort of response. She was rewarded with the crackle of paper and when she turned, she saw him hidden behind yesterday’s newspaper.
‘Don’t be so bloody childish, Frank,’ she said, exasperated. The top of the paper fell forward, revealing his glowering eyes.
‘I wouldn’t need to be so ‘bloody childish’ if you cut me some slack.’ For a moment, she saw his shoulders hunch, as if he was preparing to shift a heavy load. Then he sighed and let the paper drop. He looked away, and Jill could tell he was thinking. Despite everything, after ten years of marriage, she knew his moods. His face cleared.
‘Look, I’m sorry about last night.’ His fingers drummed the table. ‘Things are tough, you don’t need me to tell you that. You’re right, it’s my fault. But we’re in this together; I need your support otherwise everything…’
A distant shout and flicker of movement from the corner of her eye caught Jill’s attention. Drawn to it, she saw Derek stagger out of the fog. Her hand went to her mouth and Frank looked up, alert.
‘What? Damn it Jill, what?’ Then he heard Derek’s shouts, and he was out of his chair and dashing towards the door to the backyard.
With Tommy lolling bonelessly in his arms, Derek stumbled up the slight incline towards the house. He fell to his knees and felt cold water soak his jeans. Struggling with his burden, he saw his father racing across the grass.
‘Dad.’ Derek’s voice was shaky with panic. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with him.’ Frank slid to a halt beside him, his hands cupping Tommy’s face.
‘What the hell’s happened?’ Frank’s eyes were wild.
Derek looked down. Tommy’s face was white, but around his nose and lips clung a greasy film of grey-green spores. His narrow chest rose and fell shallowly and Derek felt him shivering uncontrollably. Derek looked down at his brother and felt fear blossoming in his own chest.
‘I don’t know…we were in the trees. There were these mushrooms…’
‘Mushrooms? Don’t you tell me he’s eaten any?’ His father shouted, spittle flecking his lips white. He bent and snatched Tommy from Derek’s nerveless fingers. Relieved of his burden, Derek dully watched Jill arrive.
‘Tommy?’ Her voice was small, lost. She brushed a hand over Tommy’s face, and recoiled when her fingers came in touch with spores around his mouth.
‘Get up and call the bloody ambulance,’ Frank snarled at Derek. He stared dumbly up at his father, then staggered to his feet and stumbled towards the house. His father, with Jill in tow, followed close behind and disappeared into the living room.
Casting around, Derek found his father’s mobile on the bench. Grabbing it up, he dialled 000 and listened dully to the dial tone ringing reproachfully in his ear.
‘Well, he certainly hasn’t ingested anything untoward.’ Derek huddled at the back of the cubicle, dimly aware of the sounds on the other side of the curtain. Clinging to each other, Jill and his Dad looked down at Tommy. He lay curled on his side in bed, tucked beneath thickly starched sheets.
‘Then what’s wrong with him?’ Jill looked bewildered, her eyes flicking from her son to the doctor and back.
Clearing his throat, the doctor scratched his cheek before answering. His scalp gleamed beneath a scrap of thinning hair. Derek thought he looked like the sort of man who didn’t enjoy not having an answer.
‘I think we can discount young Derek’s story. Mushrooms, at least in my experiences, don’t disgorge their contents in unison.’ He attempted a chuckle, but it curled up in the frosty silence. His face reddened. Derek stared at him.
‘It’s possible he had an allergic reaction to something he touched. Tree sap? Perhaps an insect bite? After all, you’re all from an urban environment. There’s a world of difference out in the country, as you’ll no doubt find out. We think…’
‘Is he going to be all right?’ Frank cut in hotly. ‘All I’m hearing at the moment is waffle.’ He was about to go on when Jill laid a hand on his.
‘We just want to know when he’ll wake up.’
Smiling benevolently, the doctor shook his head.
‘That’s a tricky question. Until we can –‘
‘He’s awake now,’ Derek cut in. He pointed at Tommy, whose eyes had opened.
With a relieved cry, Jill lent down and hugged her son. Relieved, Frank awkwardly patted his wife on the back. Watching all this from his seat, Derek stayed put. Tommy stared at him with half slitted eyes, like a cat. Derek didn’t like the gleam he saw there.
With Tommy awake, his discharge ground its way through another hour of more checks, then more paperwork. With the doctor telling them he’d have the results of the blood test in a couple of days, they left the small hospital and piled into the car.
Derek realised with some surprise that the day had vanished into the evening. He stared outside the car’s warm cocoon into a night black as pitch, the sky punctuated by scintillating points of night that only served to emphasis the isolation he felt. When he looked across at Tommy, he found the boy staring at him. The spores had been wiped from his face, but the skin around his nose and mouth gleamed. Tommy lips abruptly curled back from his teeth, and Derek realised with a start that he was smiling.
‘Everyone all right back there?’ Frank called. His voice was still shaky with relief.
‘Yeah, no worries.’
He saw Jill’s hand creep across the centre console and reach out for his father’s. After a moment’s hesitation, his father’s clutched convulsively at Jill’s. Feeling a lump in his throat, Derek looked out the window, and saw his brother’s reflection in it, gazed avidly at him. Afraid, and not knowing why, Derek stared blindly at the stars.
Derek lay in bed and watched the moon hanging framed in the uncurtained window. Boxes sat on the floor, humped shadows lying in wait. Wind moaned around the eaves and in the distance, he could hear the faint rushing noise of the wind tossing the pine trees about. He thought again of the creature scuttling through the branches and he huddled deeper into his blankets.
Dinner had been a strange affair. They had sat at the table while Jill got dinner ready. Frank sat next to Tommy, while Derek sat at the other end of the table, watching his brother help Frank with his crossword. The kitchen, filled with warmth and the cosy sounds of cooking, seemed friendly enough, but whenever Derek caught Tommy looking slyly at him, he’d felt a chill.
‘There we are,’ Jill said, carrying plates heaped with food to the table. ‘Dinner for all my lovely, lovely men.’ Derek thought she sounded a little hysterical. His father seemed happy enough, so perversely, out of all the earlier trouble, perhaps tonight would be free of any arguments. At least Derek hoped so. College never seemed further away than right now.
Derek watched Tommy snuggled closer to his father. Frank beamed at the boy, rubbing his cheek affectionately. Derek thought of the spores clinging to Tommy’s face and looked away.
Halfway through the meal, Derek saw his father set his cutlery aside. Looking a little embarrassed, Frank cleared his throat.
‘Look,’ Frank began, turning to each of them in turn. ‘I know things have been a little rough the past few days. Last few months, really. But especially today.’ He looked down at Tommy, who stared adoringly at his father.
‘I just want to say that this is a new start for all of us. I realise things aren’t the same as they once were.’ He turned to Jill and smiled hesitantly at her. She returned it, and reached over and clasped his hand.
‘But we’re going to make a go of it, here. As a family.’ He turned to Derek. ‘I want to thank you, son. For what you did with Tommy. Not many in this life who can keep it together like you did.’ His voice roughened, and he ducked his head. Derek, embarrassed and proud at the same time, nodded wordlessly.
‘Oh, you two.’ Jill stood up and went around the table. To Derek’s increased embarrassment, she kissed him soundly on the cheek and hugged him tightly.
‘Thank you,’ she whispered in his ear, and when she pulled away, he saw tears sparkling in her eyes. Cheered, Derek glanced around the table and saw Tommy staring coldly at him. He remembered those half slitted eyes in the hospital. Turning his attention to his plate, Derek kept his head down until he finished his meal.
A cloud slid across the face of the moon, plunging the bedroom into darkness. The wind dropped, and Derek heard his father’s gentle snoring drift down the corridor. Jill had insisted that Tommy sleep with her and Frank tonight. Frank had agreed and Derek had been grateful. The idea that Tommy might be lying in the bed on the other side of the room staring at him with those eyes had been disturbing. In any event, his step brother had been pleased at the offer, and after his bath, had scampered into the master bedroom, where he sat in the middle of the bed patiently waiting for his parents to join him.
The wind gusted sharply. The cloud disappeared, flooding the room with sterile light. Frank’s snoring deepened sharply; became a thick, glottal rumble that sent a chill through Derek. Just as suddenly as it happened, it dropped away completely. Had his father stopped breathing? Derek found himself counting. With each passing second, his worry grew, until with a rush of relief, he heard his father’s snoring recommence. Lying back, Derek froze. He had heard a gentle, high pitched laugh.
Sitting up, Derek strained to hear. The sound had been unmistakeable. He imagined Tommy, sitting up in his parent’s bed, gleaming eyes roving possessively over his parents. The image grew and grew in Derek’s mind until it he couldn’t stand it anymore. Flinging aside the blankets, he got out of bed.
Standing, he glimpsed the pine trees through his window. The image of the mushrooms clinging tightly to their trunks came to Derek again, and he felt his hand tingle. He’d scrubbed his hand for several minutes in the bathroom before he was satisfied it was completely clean, but something about it didn’t feel right. Clenching and unclenching it, he walked carefully to his bedroom door, listening intently.
At the door, he stopped, wrinkling his noise. A thick, musty smell heavy with moisture drifted around him. His hand tingled again and his eyes widened and suddenly he was back amongst the trees, feet sinking into the thick, loamy soil, which clung with strange tenacity to his shoes.
Swallowing, Derek stepped into the corridor. Shadows buried the walls and Derek felt like he teetered on the edge of a bottomless well. Fighting nausea, he held out an arm and trailed his fingers against the wall. It felt soft and lumpy and very, very cold. Stepping forward hesitantly, his feet sank into the carpet, and he shuddered at the clammy touch on the soles of his feet.
A lighter patch of darkness along the wall announced the door to his parent’s bedroom. His father’s snoring had descended once more into a glutinous throbbing, the snuffling sound reminding him of a pig snorting at the trough. Fingers fumbling, he slid them up and down the door jamb, until he found the light switch. He flicked it on.
The expected explosion of light never eventuated. Instead, a thin, filmy light washed faintly over him. Derek stared uncomprehendingly at the light bulb, which swayed gently on its twisted cord. A thick, grey crust clung to it like a fist, filtering the light.
The stench in the room was overwhelming. Thin stalked mushrooms covered the walls, swaying gently together despite the absence of any breeze. The light revealed a thick carpet of bulbous mushrooms stretching across the room. Clutching the door with fingers that had almost lost their strength, Derek felt the wood crumble beneath his touch. Chunks of it sloughed to the ground. He raised his hand in front of his face and saw grey green dots covering it. Then he saw what was on the bed, and screamed.
His father lay on his back, his mouth wide open. Small mushrooms dotted his body, throbbing growths that pulsed in time with his faltering heart. His eyes and face were covered in a fine grey fungus that rippled with an inner life, advancing with each choking breath. And from his mouth, forcing his jaw painfully wide, sprouted a distorted mushroom, a monstrous grey tongue that swelled and throbbed and grew with each passing breath.
Derek saw how Jill had been buried beneath a forest of mushrooms, erasing her humanity. Her body shuddered, as if the tendrils buried deep within her were even now consuming her organs. As he watched, one of her legs slowly expanded, thickening like an overstuffed sausage. Derek dropped to his knees, light-headed from the rank, rotten clamminess that enveloped the room.
And then there was Tommy. Like a Buddha, he sat cross-legged between his parents. There was little to remind Derek that his brother had once been human. Mushrooms, as thickly packed as the pines in the copse, crowded his skin. Some had split, oozing a thick, mucky fluid. Only his eyes remained, and these were half slitted, and despite being almost insensible, Derek felt the malign intelligence behind them.
Tommy’s chest began to swell and Derek heard bones cracking. The swelling spread, until his neck bulged dangerously on one side. The eyes, still glittering, watched Derek with something approaching ecstasy as Tommy’s head split from crown to jaw, his face caving in and the two halves flopping aside. Mired in the muck on the floor, Derek could only watch as a cloud of spores belched into the air, reducing the light to a grey smudge. His chest hitching convulsively, Derek felt the spores burrow into his nose and throat. The world went grey, but not before Derek saw the mushrooms on the walls shiver ecstatically.