In Rides the Devil -- Short Stories

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Ancient Estate

One early morning, Lucie Arnett decided she would depart from Lethbridge, Alberta, cross the Albertan border, and head into the British Columbian woodlands. There, she sped down the Trans Canada Highway down through the Fairmont Hot springs area. Her mother and father had owned property back in the 70s before it became a hot spot for tourists. She had called numerous times throughout last week, but she couldn’t get through for some reason. Instead of contacting the RCMP dispatch in her Momma’s area, she decided to venture out of Lethbridge. She handed her screaming six-year-old into her husband’s hesitant arms and told him that she had to see how her Momma was doing after the cancer treatment. That had reawakened another bout of arguments, all because Margaret, while drunk at Lucie and Harold’s wedding, said that her daughter could do better.

It was when Lucie and her Momma started to drift apart. Even after her Pa had died, there was tension between them. Momma barely ever came around to see the kids. Occasionally, she’d send Christmas cards and present for the children when she bothered to get the names right and when Lucie could provide a new address. It was unfortunate that she and Harold moved around a lot. Usually, it was for jobs in different cities, and mostly to avoid those they owed. As she strapped on the driver’s side seatbelt, she knew deep in her heart that her Momma was in trouble and only she could help her. Maybe, even make amends for everything that went wrong between them.

So that alone was reasons enough as to why Lucie was speeding along the back roads in a beater car with expired car insurance. To make sure her last remaining relative was still alive or not. Lucie usually hated to drive on the highway, but once on the road, she opened it up and safely managed not to get herself killed in an accident or ever (thankfully) pulled over by the RCMP for speeding. At this speed, she would reach her Momma’s before nightfall.

With her reading glasses on, puffing away on a joint, Margaret Joanne Arnett sat at her typewriter looking out from her studio window, watching the early morning sun cast through a steaming canopy of trees. Closing her eyes to the rays of orange-red light as it warmly glowed over her, she calmly sipped at the earl gray tea she made, and her other hand lingered over the place where her left breast had been just weeks before. Her doctor had told her that the cancer was in remission. But the treatment was far from being over. Instead of staying in her downtown apartment in Cranbrook for over twenty years, she abruptly decided to leave and go back to a simpler life. She relocated to the cottage. Frank, her devoted husband, had bought years ago when the kids were still in university. An ideal spot to rekindle their relationship they both felt they had lost in the pursuit of their careers. But that was a generation ago, and dear Frank left this world long before she had cancer of her own to eat up her remaining years alone.

Margaret’s attention drifted lazily over the pictures of her children and their children framed up on the wall beside her. She fondly touched the spot of her oldest daughter Lucie was next to her. She had many times promised to call her, but every time her deadbeat husband answered, she hung up.

Perhaps today was the day to bury the hatchet between them, Margaret mused.

She then eyed the blank piece of paper trapped between the platen and the paper table of her gray Epoch Manual typewriter. Despite all of her efforts to summon a single word, nothing arose. After thirty minutes of daydreaming and soul searching, she glanced over to old Bosco and sighed. The old Irish setter sheepishly looked up at her from his favorite spot on his mat beside her workstation. “It looks like it’s going to be another beautiful autumn day without rain, Bosco,” Margaret smiled down on her companion. “Come on; let’s head off to the market to get some supplies. Maybe that will jog my head clear of these cobwebs. Get me back on track with that blasted manuscript I promised my editor last month. What do you say?”

Bosco gave her proposal a low gruff, thumping his tail heavily on the floor as he welcomed her request with a full-body stretch and a wide yawn.

As they left together, she locked the cottage’s front door as they stepped down the wood stairs and headed to her Toyota Avalon. A gift from her oldest son so she could come and go as she pleased on her own. She let Bosco sit as her passenger, but he loved it best when going through the woodlands with the windows down. Margaret knew that Basco’s vision was fading, but the smell became everything to him as for his nose. He loved to smell everything his muzzle came across. So much that Margaret had wondered if he was half bloodhound.

At the market, Margaret kept Bosco leashed, which he did not seem to mind. His face was into everything, and it was not long before he was chewing and swallowing down something he uncovered in their trek through the market square. Margaret ambled down each kiosk, table, and tent with a sense of numb detachment. Nothing seemed of interest, and she considered going back to her car and get back to the story she wanted, no needed to finish.”

“Lovely day, ain’t it?” a scratchy voice greeted her.

She looked over to the merchant that seemed perchance the kind of older fellow you would see laboring in a farmer’s field or unloading fresh fish at a local peer. He was the kind of chap that would rather sleep all day in the sun or under a field lit with starlight without complaint. The drab and faded clothing clung to his tall, lean flesh. He had been living off the land for some years. There was something in his eyes that made her give pause. His eyes were as blue as a clear sky. He seemed pleasant enough and had a wooden vendor cart in front with the words: special mushrooms—cheap painted on the front of it.

“A good day to you, and yes, it is,” she looked at the contents in his old wooden cart in front of him. Not very large, but it contained a collection of mushrooms. She bent closer to admire his produce. “So many I’ve never seen before.”

The man held one up and blew off the dirt that still clung to the stem. “I gathered these yesterday, and I will tell you, madam, that they are not only the freshest but the most potent for anything that ails you.” He eyed her carefully, “You don’t happen to be recovering from an illness, are you?”

Margaret went on the defense, “What makes you think that I had been through such an ordeal?”

“I don’t want to bother you with the details, but you seem rather—” he thought carefully what his following words would be, “tired. I suspect because of the chemo you’ve been receiving?” he raised a shaggy eyebrow at her. “Am I correct?”

“Perhaps,” she squinted at the man. “I don’t see how that—”

He squinted at her like a retired doctor, who never lost the knack of detection. “You’ve had cancer treatment, didn’t you?” the hairy fellow blurted out with a stupid grin. “Ah,” thought so.” He pointed at the spot where her breast had once been. “My most sincere apologies, my dear… for my wife, bless her soul, had passed away from the same horrible affliction. I, since then, have scoured the world for a solution.”

Margaret, who remained both shocked and mute, squirmed uncomfortably under his gaze.

“Well then,” he clapped his hands and drew close. “I might have something specific for that.” He grunted as he began to rummage through his collection. He mumbled to himself as he searched through his prize collection.

Margaret watched as he brought out the strangest and most enormous mushroom he had.”

“Ah, this one here,” he pointed at it with his dirty fingers. “This one should do the trick,” he handed it to her.

She hesitated to take it, but there it sat in the palm of her hands. Margaret looked down at it skeptically and unconsciously took a step back from his smug face. “I hope this is not another homeopathic remedy because, to be honest, I’ve gone through my share of disappointing—”

“Oh, no,” the man blustered, “my dear, no.” The man held a filthy palm to his chest. “I would not steer you wrong. Mushrooms have been around for many millennia, even before humankind clamored out of the primordial waters. They not only hold the key to life, but they hold the very building blocks of life throughout the entire universe.”

Margaret raised an eyebrow as she tried to give him back his prized mushroom. Thinking he was just another hippie crackpot that spun homeopathic remedies that acted as placebos instead of an actual cure. “I really shouldn’t—” she stammered after a long pause, “it might conflict with my medication.”

“Oh poppy-cock,” the man smiled and pulled out a paper bag from behind the vendor cart like a magician. “Tell you what, I’ll give you a sample to take home, and if that helps you in any way, you come right back here.” He pointed at the spot and smiled. “But if not, ask the other vendors where Josiah is—that’s me, by the way—and I promise on my wife’s grave, I’ll come to you.” He then nodded as he handed her a scrap of paper in his handwriting. “Now follow the instructions to the letter, and you will see results, I promise you.” He raised an eyebrow at her.

“Alright, Josiah, I’ll give it a try,” she gratefully took the bag from him. “My name’s Margaret,” she added and allowed him to take her fingers in his rough hand and nodded.

“You just let me know if this does the trick.” He winked.

“Alright then, thank you.”

Whenever Margaret was on her meds, she felt far worse after. She eyed the paper bag with the sizeable strange mushroom in it and when to her purse in search of the instructions from her kitchen sink. Josiah’s scrawled note suggests washing the mushroom before being cooked or eaten raw. Since her stomach was already empty, she decided to try a sample of it first. She carefully washed the mushroom, then took a pinch from the cap to get a good taste of it. It was earthy and bitter, and after two minutes, she felt a little dizzy. The kitchen started to warp around her slowly. In a panic, Margaret hurried over to a nearby wood chair only to topple to the floor next to it and embarked on one hell of a psychedelic trip.

Margaret opened her eyes and was in both awe and utter stupor. Situated outside on a most humid day, she stood in a massive marshy field all covered in cattails, tall ferns, and massive towering giant fungi the size of trees. A giant dragonfly, the size of a pigeon, noisily zipped past her. One particular towering fungus had a different human shape to it caught her eye. She cautioned closer to get a better look at it.

The giant plantlike creature turned its tapering sausage-shaped head her way. Where eyes would have been on a human, it appeared sunken, hollow, and shadowed. Its misshapen humanlike form was an assortment of uncoiling ferns, a collection of fungi, and a “carpet of Moses.”

“What are you,” Margaret tried to back away. Her footing sunk deeply into the soft damp earth. She felt a cold mud sucking at her bare feet as she lost her balance and fell backward. The abomination loomed down and looked her over. It extended an appendage without digits from the side of its distorted form, but the ferns and vines on it curled around Margaret’s arm and hoisted her upright.

As the humanoid moves closer, a gaping hole opened up and where the mouth would be. From it, something stirred and blew forth like a rush of hot wet air. Spores and seedlings coated her aged and naked flesh. Her nose and mouth were full of plant matter. Margaret tried to breathe, but she was drowning in plant matter. Struggling for breath, she collapsed back onto the wet-soft earth in a narcotic haze.

After what felt like hours, she gained consciousness but was unable to move. Weighted down by a root and plant matter network, she started to panic and struggled to get free. Her index finger managed to push through the interweaving of plant matter. She then ripped a hole big enough to get her hand free. She welcomed the cool fresh air on her sweat-coated body. Margaret started pushing hard against the opening until she could get free of her organic prison.

Margaret awoke to a slow, slobbering lick to the face, followed by the insistent panting of stinky dog breath. She pushed Bosco away with one hand and pushed up upright with the other.”

“Ugh,” she waved her hand in the air, “what did you eat at the market, Bosco? Your fart is just awful.”

She was back in the dining area, and it was already late in the evening. She noted how dark it had become and moaned as she went to stand. In the corner, her reading glasses sat damaged, and that just made her day worse.

Margaret reached over, patting Bosco for waking her, and watched as he strolled towards the front door and waited for her to let him out.

After a long five-hour drive, Lucie’s car rocked as the lumpy, gravel path lead to her families’ cottage that was off the main road. A fine place to visit, but Lucie never willing ever wanted to stay there. It had been too breezy and lacked insulation against the cold and wet weather. The iron fireplace constantly needed slips of wood just to keep the house at a comfortable temperature. At least it had running water and a working bathroom. The only room in the place that she ever felt comfortable in (and bug-free) had been the living area. But then that was some twenty years ago when she was young, and even though it had been refurbished and added on, she had never once considered going back to see the results of her parents’ hard labor of love.

Lucie slammed the door to her rusted 1995 Ford Fiesta and stood at the trial that should have allowed her mother’s house. Instead, a giant rotten out tree covered in what looked like a bracket, polypore, and e-floral. Something she had learned as a girl scout in camp years ago against her will—a thing her parents compelled her to do, reason enough why she hated having anything to do with living in the wild.

It was midday, so there was plenty of light through the trees to make her way down the trail without needing a flashlight. It wasn’t as if she always kept one with her all the time anyway. She imagined how disappointed the scout leaders would be for her arriving so unprepared. She did, however, see that her husband’s painting gear and sprayer mask sat in the back seat, so her stay at her mom’s would have to be very short, or she’d never heard the end of it. As Lucie stepped around the giant, fallen western Hemlock, she noticed that many of the other surrounding trees, too, had rotted. Their sides are full of colonies of honey mushrooms and other more poisonous molds and fungi. She never remembered there being so many old trees in decay and close to falling over. The damp air smelled of wood rot, dirt, and mildew. Cluster flies and Culex mosquitoes swarmed around her. Her nose and eyes started to itch, and before she knew it, she started to cough and choke. The air was thick with something that made it rather uncomfortable to breathe. Like her Momma, she had allergies, but not this bad. Whatever was in the autumn air was getting her feeling stuffy and light-headed, with a hint of a headache. Her skin started to itch. Lucie ran back to the car to go through her husband’s paint gear and found something that could reduce the allergic reaction.

Margaret allowed Bosco to relieve himself while making some tea to counteract the mushroom’s effects on her. Entering, she paused at her reflection in the window. To her surprise, she spotted that she had fewer wrinkles than before. Her skin felt surprisingly smooth to the touch.

Margaret hurried to the bathroom mirror, and there she took a long look at her face. She placed a hand on her chest a felt something that made her cry out. She inspected the spot where cancer took her breast. Instead of feeling the scars made by the operation, they had swelled up. She even felt areola taking shape. “What the-” she stammered but sure enough, the once removed nipple on her regenerating breast started to form.

“T-this is impossible!” she tore off her shirt, and sure enough, in her reflection, she spotted a nipple forming over a slowly developing breast. Even her scars had begun to fade. Tears trailed down her cheek. After getting her shirt back on, Margaret headed into the kitchen where she had last seen the mushroom and balked at the empty countertop. The ceramic plate it had been on earlier was on the floor.

It could not have just disappeared! Margaret thought as she blinked at the spot where it should be. But then she remembered that someone else besides her could eat anything that came his way: Bosco.

She hurried to the front door, flicked on the patio light, unlatched, and shoved open the screen door to find her beloved pet. “Bosco!” Her voice echoed.

She heard nothing but the birds chirping and roosting for the night. Flying insects swarmed around in the porch light, some to mate, others to feast. Margaret hurried back inside, got her jacket, slipped her gumboots on, tested her flashlight, and grabbed for her oak hiking stick (for safety reasons). She began to panic. He usually would not roam off the grounds without her. She worried that if Bosco was high from the mushroom he ate, he could be sick or poisoned. That would mean she needed to find him and quickly.

“Goddamn it, Bosco, where are you?” She hurried through the forest beyond the cottage, calling out his name, hoping he will stride up to her unharmed by the mushroom’s effects.

She wandered deeper into the forest but kept close to the gravel road. The last thing she wanted was to come across some sizeable carnivorous animal, all too willing to make her its prey. She held on to her hiking stick so tightly that her knuckles were white. The flashlight was a poor substitute for daylight, and in less than an hour, she was too exhausted both mentally and physically to continue. She was so angry for not being careful over something so potent. Margaret decided that as soon as she found Bosco together, they would seek out that strange man at the market. She would get her life back. She would be young again. No more meds to make her sick, biopsies, breasts removed, and above all—no more cancer.

Her foot reached the first stair of the front porch, and that was when she spotted something furry lying on its side under the cottage. “Bosco?” she squinted as she bent as low as her old body could without cramping up. In one hand, she held the flashlight. On the other, the hiking stick.

Bosco’s hind legs kicked out, perhaps dreaming of chasing after a hare or some ducks in a pond. Margaret smiled and used her stick to give Bosco a poke to wake him up.

Instead of waking, Bosco’s furry body exploded like a popped balloon. Margaret got a face full of hot spores and gasped in utter horror. She gripped onto her throat and rolled around on the ground, trying to catch her breath. Her eyes blurred. Her mind retreated to the primordial world she had dreamt about earlier.

Lucie tightened the N95 mask to breathe through the filters without discomfort, thus reducing her lungs’ exposure to the organic matter floating in the air. The whole body white polypropylene coverall her husband had was a little big on her and sagged in areas. Still, it would reduce the amount of exposure her body would get into contact with something she had little intention of bringing back home with her to the baby (or to Harold). Satisfied by her choice for protection, she stood before what remained of her parent’s cottage.

The place had fallen apart; the remaining walls harbored various lichen, mildew, and mold. Strange towering fungus-like plants, the mid-sized trees pushed through the rotten wood floorboards like cardboard. Like smokestacks, they bellowed out through its pores a dark green stream of spores, which took to the air like blown smoke. Lucie came to where her mother spent countless hours writing. On the rotting floorboards lay a rusted old typewriter.

“How can this be? It’s like this place hasn’t been here for years, but I was out here just a few weeks ago.” She looked around and noted the same towering fungus trees had spread out from where she stood. Wherever terrible had happened, it started right here, in her Momma’s cottage. The floorboards felt rubbery with each step. Some areas softer than others, and many times, her foot would push down a floorboard, and even more spores and seedlings would drift-free. Lucie decides right then that she must head to a local RCMP dispatch and get them to come back here with her to find out what happened to her mom and this place.”

From behind, a stranger yelled out to her.

Lucie spun around to see who the caller is, just as the wood floor beneath her gave way. Before she could even utter out a word or cry out, she was lying on her back in a bed of moss, coughing for breath. She eyed the giant hole she came through. A man wearing shaded sunglasses and a handkerchief over his nose and mouth looked down on her, “you ought to be more careful around rotting wood.”

“Yup,” Lucie tried to stand, but her left leg said differently. “My goddamn leg!” she screamed out, holding her leg.

The man calmly took out a flashlight from his backpack and aimed it at her leg. “Looks like you might’ve twisted that ankle of yours.”

“You think?” she yelled back at him and then began to cough uncontrollably. She looked around in the dark for her mask.

“Looks like you dropped this,” he held up the breather that must have fallen off when she fell through.

“Give it to me.”

As she spoke, the spores entered her mouth and nose, irritated and burned her eyes and skin. It felt like grit and tasted like dirt. The surrounding air lingered with mildew and wood rot. She went into a coughing fit and found it hard to breathe.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. I can’t have you interrupting my yield.”

“You did this?”

“You know,” the stranger tilted his head, “you look a lot like her.

“Momma?” Lucie starts to panic. Even though she was struggling to breathe, she defiantly screamed, “Where is she? You better not have done anything to her!”

”Tut! Tut! Why not just ask her yourself?” He aimed the flashlight at the fungus-covered corpse next to Lucie.

In utter horror, her mother’s empty eye sockets had massive strange-looking mushrooms growing out of them. Bosco’s canine body was just an arm’s reach away.“

“What did you do?”

“I gave her a cure for her breast cancer,” the man chuckled. “But…I guess the price was too high. But at least I can still salvage a living from this massive cluster of mushrooms around here. Did you know that all those giant towering mushrooms you see once covered the entire landmass eons ago, like a fungal forest?”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass,” she sputtered out with a cough.

“Ah-ah-ah,” He interjected. “You want your mask back, right?” He dangled it above her, just out of reach.

“Fuck you,” she grimaced, and her hands unzipped the overalls she wore and instantly felt itchy all over. Her hands started to feel numb; the lack of clean air was making her light-headed. She felt the world around her starting to spin.

The strange man kept ranting about these giant mushrooms being the following invasive species that would inevitably take back the world as its own. And it would filter out the impurities and the plastics in the waterways and the seas. It would make a greener world, a cleaner world off the corpses of humankind.

Lucie fought to stay conscious as the spores and fungi glowed around her rhythmically. The lack of air to her brain didn’t seem to matter to her anymore. She began to feel a little sleepy. But then, she remembered something from her youth, an experiment that her biology teacher had once shown the class. Her teacher held up a flask full of organic powder and introduced flame with a long stick match as the eighth graders’ awe at the lit organic powder that blew around the flask had suddenly burst into flames.

Fire… Lucie withdrew a small cigarette lighter from her pocket, then rolled her thumb over the flint wheel, depressed the button under it, and made a tiny flame. She waved at the strange man to get him closer to hear her last words. She mumbled something incoherently, just to get his attention on her.

The fiend bent lower just as the thick fog of spores spread across the forest floor, blooming into a roaring ocean of fire, consuming everything in its path.

- End -

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