Sunday, April 4, 2010
Gladys frowned as she pulled on the stubborn root. She had been tending the university garden for forty years now and had never seen a mushroom like this. The dull brown color was typical enough, but its tenacity was remarkable.
“Ouch!” she exclaimed as she tore off her gardening gloves and sucked on her finger. She examined the wound closely. It was bleeding the way a nasty paper cut would. Pulling out a small bandage from her left front pants pocket, she put it over the cut.
Tucking a wisp of gray hair behind her ear, she lay down on her stomach and took a more careful approach to the now bloody mushroom. Bending it back, she noticed the small razor sharp edges that protruded slightly from the pale stalk. Gently touching the edge, she wondered how it had developed the sharp blade. Self defense?
Taking a trowel from her supply belt, she dug a deep hole around the plant and scooped it up. Surely Dr. Harold Benjamin would know what to make of this specimen.
Her heart beat a little faster and she couldn’t help smiling. She was suddenly thankful for the bloodthirsty mushroom, as Harold always welcomed new species of plants, any plants. Plants were his passion.
She put the plant into one of the many empty pots she had in her cart and took off for the Science Building. As she motored along she wondered if Harold would know this variety or if he would have to look it up in a book. She hoped it would take a while, giving her an excuse to stay.
“Gladys,” said the professor as she walked in. She admired his snow-white hair and matching teeth. “Always a pleasure.”
Gladys blushed and stammered an awkward hello before thrusting the plant into his outstretched hand. Blushing further she realized that the hand had been outstretched in an attempt to grasp hers, but she had chosen to put a dirty pot in it instead.
“What’s this?” he asked with a quizzical look.
“I found it out by the auditorium,” she responded, not quite meeting his eyes. As he turned the pot around to look at it from all angles, she raised her eyes up to look at his handsome face. He was lost in the mystery of the plant. She felt immense joy as she realized that it was indeed a new variety.
After a few moments he looked at her and said, “What an odd little mushroom this is.” He went over to his bookshelf on the north wall of his small office. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Is it bleeding?”
“It cut me,” she said holding up her bandaged finger like a schoolgirl.
“Want me to kiss it and make it feel better?” he asked grinning slightly.
“More than you know,” she thought, but instead she said, “It’s okay. I put a bandage on it.” Harold chuckled and Gladys cursed her inability to banter.
Harold went through book after book, until there was a large pile on his desk and very few left on the shelves. “I give up,” he said. “I have no idea what this thing is. Well, except that it’s a mushroom. I mean the large cap and stalk kind of give that away.”
“So, what now?” she asked eagerly, hoping that she could be a part of the research process.
“Are you interested in mushrooms?” he asked looking quizzically at her.
“Sure,” she replied.
“Okay, then follow me,” he said as he left his office and walked down the corridor. Gladys had to trot to keep up with his gait. She admired his long strides and wished she were a little taller.
“Here we are,” he said as he opened the door to Dr. Phillip’s office. “Allan?”
“Hey, Harry! How are you?” the young man said cheerfully. “And Gladys, this is a surprise. What brings you out from dirt duty?”
Gladys laughed. Allan was a recent PHD from Harvard, who often stopped to chat with her while she was tending to the landscape. “Dirt duty” was his little joke with her, as he confided in her that he hated toiling in soil despite being a foremost expert in Botany.
“I found an odd mushroom and brought it over to Harry,” she said with a smile.
“Allan, I’ve never seen anything like it and it’s not in any of my books. Can you take a look?” Harold asked, handing him the pot.
“Is that blood?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes, I cut myself trying to pull it out,” she replied keeping her eyes carefully on Allan. She felt the thrill of being close to Harold, but didn’t dare look at him - at least until she was sure he was looking at something else.
Allan let out a low whistle. “Sharp little sucker, ain’t you?” he said. “Any theories?” He looked up at Harold.
“Not a one,” he said. “You’re the young upstart. Figured you’d know.”
“Not a clue,” he said. “Leave it here and I’ll see what I can find out.”
“We’re not going to research it together?” Gladys was disappointed at the thought of leaving the office so soon.
“I’ve got a class at 2:00,” Allan said. “But I’ll call you when I’ve had a chance to look into it.”
Gladys and Harold left. The walked down the corridor in silence as Gladys tried to think of something to say.
“Thank you, Gladys,” Harold said as he reached his office. “That was an interesting specimen.”
“When will I see you again?” Gladys asked hurriedly as she watched him open the door to his office.
“What?” Harold asked turning around.
“I mean, when do you think we’ll know more about the mushroom?” Gladys asked managing to look him in the eye.
Harold met her gaze and said softly, “You’re always welcome to stop by. Anytime at all. You know that, right?”
His words felt like velvet across her skin and she couldn’t help taking a half step closer to him. Her eyes fell to his lips as she said, “Anytime?” She couldn’t believe the husky timbre that her voice suddenly had. When she observed the corners of his mouth curl up, she lifted her eyes to his and waited for a response.
“Any time,” he replied slowly and deliberately.
Gladys grinned and turned around and walked down the corridor.
Gladys paused outside the door to Harold’s office the next morning and took a deep breath. Although she would turn sixty-two next month, she felt like a teenager as she patted her curls into place. She turned the knob and tried not to look disappointed when she saw Allan sitting across from Harold.
“Hello,” she said with a cheerful smile.
“Oh, hey there,” Allan said. “I was just telling our friend here that you might have discovered the first extraterrestrial life form.”
“What?” Gladys exclaimed with a small shiver.
“Our young friend’s jumping the gun a bit I think,” Harold said. “What he means to say is that your mushroom has pretty amazing properties.”
“Like what?” Gladys asked.
Allan eagerly jumped in. “Like the fact that it seems to be very strong and resilient to everything I’ve thrown at it. Although it looks like a regular old mushroom, it’s far from ordinary. That thing has the combined properties of fiberglass and some sort of metal alloy.”
“You look like a kid on Christmas day,” Harold commented with a chuckle.
“It’s damn exciting,” Allan replied jumping up from his chair. He began pacing back and forth in the small office. “I know someone at the Environmental Protection Agency and I gave her a call this morning.”
“Really? Why?” Gladys asked.
“They have better equipment and might be able to place it.”
“But you’ve already deemed it to be a Martian mushroom,” Harold said with a lopsided grin.
“Nah, not from Mars,” Allan replied. He stopped his pacing and leaned against a wall.
“Much farther out.”
“Is he serious?” Gladys asked.
“I don’t know,” Harold replied.
“I’m rarely serious,” Allan quipped, “But I am sincere.”
“But from outer space? Really?” Gladys looked unconvinced.
“There’s all kinds of space junk that rains down on us all the time,” Allan replied.
“Millions of pounds per year, as a matter of fact.”
“But why would these mushrooms sprout here?” Gladys asked.
“That’s hard to say,” Allan replied. “Maybe they were attracted to the emissions that we keep pumping into our atmosphere. Or maybe they feed on the precipitation from our acid rain.
“All I know is that this ain’t no Earth mushroom. I’m not even sure it’s a Milky Way mushroom.” He walked over to the window and stared out at the manicured lawn.
“There’s a song in there somewhere,” Gladys said taking the empty seat. “Sounds country western, don’t you think?”
“Oh my God!” Allan cried.
Gladys craned her neck around to look at him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to -”
“No,” he interrupted. “It’s not that. Look!”
Harold and Gladys went to the window and peered out. There, dotted along the lawn, were small to medium sized mushrooms. “They weren’t there yesterday,” Gladys whispered. She inched herself closer to Harold who put his arm around her.
“If anyone’d know, it’d be you,” Harold said. He whistled low as he looked across the lawn.
“There’re all over!” Gladys cried. “I mean mushrooms can spring up fast if the soil’s right, but not that fast. They’re taking over.”
“I can’t believe this!” Gladys cried. She stared out over the field of mushrooms. The once luscious green grass was turning brown all around the campus.
“I know,” Harold said quietly. “And they’re growing larger and expanding out.”
“It’s only been two days,” Allan said in awe.
“What did that gal at the EPA say?” Harold asked.
“Not much. She didn’t have any more information than I,” Allan responded as he looked all around him at the grounds. “Looks like the grass is dying.”
“I know,” Gladys said quietly. “I have no idea what to do about it.”
“I don’t think you should try anything,” Harold said. “You might end up feeding the mushrooms and making the problem worse.”
“Are you starting to think it’s an invasion too?” Gladys’s whisper was barely audible.
“I don’t think they can hear you,” Allan said trying to lighten the mood. He cursed himself for having shared his alien theories with Gladys. The dark circles under her eyes told him that she was not sleeping well. “You don’t have to whisper.”
Gladys grinned at him. “No, I don’t suppose they have ears.”
“Music has been known to calm plants,” Harold said. “Maybe we should play some punk rock for these little suckers.”
Gladys giggled. “Or rap.”
“I know it sounds funny, but I’m kind of serious.”
“I’ll run it by Sylvia at the EPA. It couldn’t hurt,” Allan said.
“I wonder how widespread these mushrooms are,” Gladys mused. “I mean is China dealing with these things too?”
“They’re all over,” Harold answered quickly. He instantly regretted it as he saw fear cross Gladys’s face. “I mean, that’s what one news story said,” he added lamely.
“All over?” Gladys asked. “It’s times like this I wish I had a television.”
“You don’t own a TV?” Allan asked.
“No, I hate them. Rather read a good book.”
Allan looked at her with new respect. “Good for you!”
“Look, we need to do something,” Gladys said. Panic crept into her voice. “We can’t just sit and watch them take over.”
“What do you propose?” Allan asked.
“Let’s just try different things in the lab,” she responded. “Since you gave the first one to the EPA, we’ll just uproot another and experiment on it ourselves.” She took out her trowel and bent down. Carefully she dug around a mushroom, but soon discovered that she couldn’t get very far. Now that they had become entrenched, their roots went far down and seemed to have formed an intricate lattice underground.
“No wonder the grass is dying, these mushrooms are monopolizing the soil,” Gladys said trying to break the root with her tool, but couldn’t even create a dent. She stood up and said, “There’s no uprooting them. We’ll just have to do our experiments out here.”
“I still think we should hold off. I’d hate to accidentally do something to increase their size,” Harold said.
“Yeah, but they’re growing and spreading as we speak. I think we should try something,” Allan pointed out.
Harold nodded. “Okay, but we should take notes and keep the subject area limited.”
Throughout the day the trio worked together to try various fungicides, vinegar and other standard methods for removing mushrooms. They even tried music and other innovative ideas, but nothing produced any effect on the mushrooms. They just seemed to grow and spread. By the end of the day, Gladys cringed at the constant sound of the cracking pavement as the mushrooms ran out of lawn space and ventured into the sidewalk.
As dusk descended, Allan suggested that they call it quits for the night. “Let’s meet back here tomorrow morning and look at this from a fresh point of view.”
“Agreed,” Harold said, holding his back and stretching. “I’m getting too old for this.”
Gladys went home and tried to rest, but it seemed to her like every time she came close to falling asleep a loud crack would reverberate through her house, jolting her eyes open. She wasn’t sure if it was the sidewalks or foundation of her home that was cracking, but either way it she did not feel safe indoors.
She went outside and wept at the sight of the ugly brown mushrooms that had taken over her once beautifully manicured rose garden. She took out a shovel and started beating a larger toadstool. It stood about six inches tall and had a large cap that looked to be about a foot in diameter. After a few minutes of slamming the heavy shovel all around the mushroom, she felt a little better, but was amazed that it took the shock of the impact. It wasn’t damaged at all by the beating.
“Where are you from?” she asked it, almost expecting an answer. When it didn’t respond she plopped down on the ground in front of it and put her face in her hands. She thought it looked a little smug, if such a thing was possible.
“Well if you really are from outer space,” she said more to herself than to the mushroom, “I guess you’re not going to be affected by our puny Earth treatments.” She stared hard at the plain brown top as if trying to read a clue or hint in the scales that lay there. “I wonder…”
She slowly rose and walked to the small shed at the corner of her property. The sun was rising, but she didn’t notice the brilliant colors as they spread across the sky. She pulled out a large bag of manure and dragged it over to the toadstool. She opened it and poured it over the cap. The small mountain buried the mushroom. She waited ten minutes and then pushed away the manure with her trowel.
She gave a cry of pleasure and started jumping up and down with joy. “Take that you little alien creep!” The toadstool had shrunken to about two-thirds its size and had turned a darker color. She grabbed another bag of manure and loaded it up into her car, calling Harold on her cell phone.
“Hello?” a sleepy voice answered.
“Were you sleeping?” she asked incredulously.
“Now why would I be doing something as silly as that?” he asked sounding a touch irritated.
“I figured it out,” she responded giddily.
“The mushroom problem. I figured it out!”
Harold was now fully awake. “What do you mean? What did you do? Tell me!”
“Meet me at the campus and I’ll show you!” She could hear his cry of protest as she pushed the disconnect button on her phone. He’ll call Allan, she thought.
She pulled up into her parking spot and pulled out the large bag of manure. Gladys dragged it over to the corner edge of an area covered with the ugly brown caps. She had to step carefully as the pavement was pretty well cracked all over the campus. The whole campus looked surreal, like a landscape from another world. Gladys realized that she was no longer afraid. She knew these mushrooms would be gone before the week was out.
As she poured out the contents of the single bag of manure, Gladys wondered how much manure would be needed to terminate the mushrooms all over the world. She’d need to get a few reporters out here to witness the miracle. She looked around and wondered when Harold would arrive. She couldn’t wait to show him the effects of her cure.
Pulling out her cell phone, she dialed 411 and asked for the number to the local news station. She wondered how long it would take them to come out to interview her. She hoped that they would believe her. It was vital that they did and that they would report her story quickly so that the rest of the planet could start treating the mushrooms with manure.
Fortunately the woman that answered the phone immediately connected Gladys to a woman who was very interested in the story. She asked Gladys for her exact location and begged for her not to move. Hanging up, Gladys knew that the reporters would be there in a matter of moments. Looking up, she saw Harold and Allan both pull up simultaneously, screeching to a halt next to her car.
“What did you find? What is the solution? Does it really work?” Harold and Allan asked looking at the mound of dirt at her feet.
“See for yourself!” Gladys said, pushing the dirt aside to reveal the shrunken, black mushrooms under the manure.
“Whoa!” Allan exclaimed bending down. “They look dead!”
Harold bent down and examined the mushrooms as well. He picked up the soil and asked, “What’s this stuff anyway?”
“Manure,” Gladys replied eagerly. “Llama manure to be precise.”
“Llama manure?” Allan asked with a chuckle. “Are you serious?”
“Yeah, it’s the best stuff,” Gladys answered. “I use it at home in my garden. It’s expensive, but it has the highest nitrogen content that I’ve found and it makes my roses bloom.”
“So why did you feed it to these mushrooms?” Harold asked in disbelief still squatting before the shrunken mushrooms. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“I figured alien mushrooms might not respond the same way that Earth ones do. I thought I would try the opposite approach,” Gladys replied. A frown wrinkled her brow. “Why don’t you look happy?” She tried to keep the disappointment out of her voice.
Harold straightened up. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that we don’t have all the facts yet. All we know is that they appear to shrink when you bury them in llama manure.”
“They’re all black,” Allan pointed out. “I know that we haven’t done any tests yet, but this looks good, Harry.”
Harold nodded and said, “I’m probably just being conservative here. We just need to keep this to ourselves before going public with. . .” The rest of Harold’s words were drowned out by the sound of a screeching van pulling up beside their cars. A cameraman and reporter hopped out and raced over to them.
“You Gladys?” the young reporter asked excitedly.
“Yes,” Gladys said cautiously, looking over at Harold. “I called them while I was waiting for you to get here,” she said to him. “I figured we needed to get the information out as quickly as possible.”
Harold turned to the reporter and said, “We don’t have a story for you yet.”
The reporter ignored him and looked down at the shrunken black mushrooms. “Steven, is the camera rolling?” he cried to the man behind him. When Steven nodded he continued into the camera, “This is George Franken reporting from Clarke University, where Gladys Heckleren has found a cure for the common fungus that plagues us all.” He pulled Gladys into him and shoved the microphone into her face. “Gladys, tell us what you’ve found.”
Gladys looked at him and then back at Harold, who shook his head slightly. “We need to wait,” he said quietly.
George pointed down to the ground and said, “Gladys called us this morning to tell us her startling discovery. Manure, specifically llama manure, will have this effect on those pesky mushrooms taking over your property.” The camera pointed down and caught the blackened mushrooms. “We all need to stamp out this blight on our gardens before they take over!”
Harold pulled Gladys aside as the reporter talked on and on about the dangers of these mushrooms and how we all must do our civic duty to wipe them out. “We need to do something. This report cannot go out!” he whispered. Finally when George stopped talking and the cameras were turned off, Harold said, “Please don’t report on this yet. Let us do some more tests!”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” George scoffed. “There’s no way I’m sitting on this story!” He ran to the van as if Harold were chasing him and the cameraman jumped in behind him. They tore out of the parking lot with squealing tires.
“Damn!” Harold muttered running his hand through his hair.
“I’m sorry,” Gladys said with tears in her eyes. “I thought I was doing the right thing.”
“I know,” Harold said. “You’re not to blame. We just need to continue our research.”
As the day wore on, the television and radio stations were flooded with stories about the miracle cure for the mushrooms. Harold, Allan and Gladys tried to stop the various stations from spreading the stories, but no one would listen. Finally the trio focused their attention on studying the black mushrooms.
Dumping more manure on the blackened mushrooms had no further effect. They still couldn’t be removed from the ground; in fact they seemed more resilient. They didn’t bend or give at all.
“I’m calling it a day,” Allan said wiping his brow. “Let’s meet here tomorrow morning.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Gladys said. “At least they’re more manageable now.”
Harold nodded. “It’s a good beginning. We just need to figure out how to cut them out and get rid of them.”
“We have time,” Gladys said.
As Allan got into his car Harold leaned over and whispered into Gladys’s ear, “Would you like to sleep at my house tonight?”
Gladys looked up at him in disbelief. She couldn’t form words and just stared at him.
“I promise to be a perfect gentleman,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
“Oh,” she said. Disappointment tinged her voice and she grimaced at it.
Harold chuckled low and bent down to brush her lips with his. “Well, maybe not perfect,” he murmured.
Gladys heard the bells ringing in her dream. She was happier than she’d ever been, standing outside the tiny chapel in her white gown. No, the ringing wasn’t the church bell. It was a phone ring. Dazedly she awakened and threw her hand out to try to find the offensive culprit. She could feel the delicious heat coming from Harold’s lips as he continued to sleep beside her. Smiling because she’d succeeded in picking the phone receiver up without opening her eyes or disturbing Harold, she whispered “Hello?”
“They’re huge!” Allan screamed into the phone.
Gladys’s eyes popped open. She was fully awake now. “W..what?” she stuttered.
“What is it, sweetie?” Harold asked, snuggling closer to her.
“It’s Allan,” she said. “He’s. . .”
“The mushrooms are gigantic!” Allan screamed causing Harold to jump.
“Oh my God!” Harold exclaimed. He quickly jumped out of bed and began putting on his clothes. “Ask him what they look like.”
“Harold wants to know –“ Gladys began.
“I heard him. Put me on speaker,” Allan replied. Gladys complied. “The ones you treated yesterday are towering over my head and have completely torn up the pavement.”
“Oh my God!” Gladys moaned. “My house! It’s got to be in ruins.”
“Uh, oh,” Allan said softly. “I think we’re in trouble.”
“What?” Harold asked. “What it is? What’s going on there?”
Allan’s voice had a far away quality to it. “There’s manure all over the campus. Someone must have dumped it last night. It’s all over. People are here desperately trying to remove it all, but they’ve just started.”
“What do the other mushrooms look like?” Harold asked with dread in his voice.
“They’re all still hibernating, I think,” Allan said.
“Hibernating?” Gladys asked. “What’s he talking about?”
“The manure seems to have had a delayed effect. We thought it was killing them, but in fact it was recharging them. This stuff is acting like super food for them!” Allan’s voice was cracking and Gladys could tell he was crying.
“I don’t understand,” Gladys said numbly.
“I’ll explain in the car,” Harold said. “Allan, pull yourself together. We’re on our way.”
“How long until the rest are like this?” Gladys asked pausing in her task of shoveling manure into a wheelbarrow. Her back ached, but she pushed the pain aside and filled another shovel full of dirt.
“It’s hard to say. I don’t know exactly when the first ones sprouted like that,” Allan replied indicating the large ones at the edge of the campus.
“Look, people all over are shoveling up the manure,” Harold said. “We’ve a good chance of stopping them.”
“But they’ve been hibernating all night!” Gladys cried out in frustration. “Besides the effects of the manure were instantaneous. They shrunk immediately.”
“We don’t exactly know what the effects were. Think positively,” Harold said calmly.
“I can’t believe that I was this big an idiot,” Gladys said fighting the urge to just sit down in the dirt and cry.
“We’ve no idea how much time these things need,” Allan said. “The best we can do is get rid of as much of the manure as possible. However…”
“Yes?” Gladys asked.
“We should come up with a plan B.”
“Nonsense, you were trying to help. Even if you didn’t do what you did, they were going to grow anyway,” Harold said, trying to reassure Gladys. He looked out the window at the mushrooms lining the street and pushing up through the sidewalks and porches.
“I can’t take that sound anymore,” Gladys said burrowing into Harold’s embrace, while putting her hands over her ears in a feeble attempt to block the noise. The popping of cement was constant now. “It’s driving me mad.”
“We need to figure out where we’re going to go,” Harold said. “We can’t stay here. The foundation’s already ripping apart.”
“Got any ideas?” Allan asked.
“Yeah, but I don’t know what to do for supplies. From the news reports, there are feeding frenzies at the stores,” Harold replied grimly.
“Supplies aren’t a problem,” Allan said. “I’ve been stocked since the last hurricane.”
“What good are supplies without a place to go,” Gladys lamented hating the whiney tone of her voice.
“So what’s your idea?” Allan asked Harold.
“My boat,” Harold said quietly.
“You’ve got a boat?” Gladys asked lifting her head. She felt hopeful for the first time all day.
Harold nodded his head and thought for a moment. “It’s small, but it’ll do the trick. I’m thinking the ocean’s the best place to be,” he said. “Mushrooms don’t grow on water. But we should move quickly before people start evacuating enmasse.”
Gladys sipped her coffee and looked out at the mushroom banks. They had been at sea for two weeks now and the entire landscape of her world had changed. The lucky people who had boats or who were able to afford spots on the luxury liners were able to escape. The rest, well nobody talked about them.
When they had first arrived on the boat, they would watch the news reports nonstop and cringe at the destruction and the sounds of full-scale panic. At first they were all optimistic that someone would come up with a solution, but as the days wore on and the mushrooms grew, hope lessened.
The force of the mushrooms squeezing together crushed all the buildings one by one. Gladys witnessed the destruction of the Washington Monument before the news stations all lost their ability to transmit picture.
Fortunately Allan was a disaster preparedness freak, so they had cases of food and supplies and were set for at least another few months.
“You’re up early,” Harold said quietly. “Still not sleeping?”
Gladys shrugged. “As my father used to say, there’ll be time to sleep when I’m dead.” She let out a course laugh and looked up at Harold.
“Somebody’ll come up with something,” he said rotely.
“Yeah,” she said looking back out on the banks. “What do you think the mushrooms will do when they’ve finished taking over Earth?”
“They’ll probably shoot more spores into space,” Allan answered quietly from the small doorway. “And the cycle perpetuates.”
“Good morning,” Harold said looking over at him.
“Is it?” Allan asked grimacing at the shore.
No one replied. Gladys wondered how long it would take for the mushrooms to completely block the sun and how soon the shore line would start moving out into the sea. She couldn’t stop the tear from trickling down her face, nor the many that soon followed.
Laura Sherman is a freelance writer and chess coach. She's proud to report that "Mushrooms" was a quarterfinalist in the Writers of the Future Contest. You can learn more about Laura, her writing and her interest in chess at Friendly Writer and Say Yes to Chess.
Posted by Karen Cantwell at 3:02 PM