The Horror in the Undergrowth
By
Brian H. McLelland

“Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Allergic to mushrooms? I never heard such a thing,” said Bill Baker, the older man who was old even when James was young. Even in James’ youth, Bill Baker was the nice older man who lived just up the road, somewhere along the way he became the even older man who still lived just up the road from James’ parents.
“Yeah, it only affects less than 1% of the population on Earth, I got lucky I guess,” said James, in an effort to make conversation.
Bill’s scruffy eyebrows furrowed, looking like an exotic caterpillar on his brow, “sounds like the same bullshit as that gluten free vegan shit that’s so popular in California.” At some point between James moving away to the west coast at 19, up to now, ten years on, Bill Baker became a huge asshole. James had learned a lot of valuable lessons in California. He smiled at Bill, nice and big.
“Well, I confirmed it with my doctor. I can die from it,” James concluded and let it hang in the air as Bill stared. The Florida air hung in the room, hot and still.
“Who wants dessert?” asked James’ mom, Kathy.
“As long as it don’t have no mushrooms innit!” Bill guffawed at his own brilliance.
“Nope, just some homemade Key Lime Pie,” Kathy replied. Kathy and Bill’s wife, a large woman named Anita, who used to get upset at James for not eating the cookies she offered him when he was young, chatted about the new Bank of America that just opened up in town and the disappearance of a local boy into the woods. James struggled to find an opening in Bill and Tim’s conversation. Tim, James’ stepdad, tried to include James, but Bill Baker wasn’t interested. The two men argued back and forth for progress and change in the sleepy north Florida town.
James gave up and decided to go for a walk. He excused himself and went to the kitchen, he stood over the sink and ate several enormous spoonsful of his mom’s pie. To be fair to Bill Baker, James hadn’t had pie this good in ten years, California pies were bland affairs. California felt like a different country compared to the rustic Florida town he’d come from.
James grabbed his father’s bourbon from the shelf in the kitchen and then looked for a whiskey tumbler or some kind of small glass to drink from, but found only Tim’s special glass. He improvised, and snagged out a tea glass from the cupboard. An intricate latticework on the glass remained as pristine as when he drank from these same glasses as a kid, though the contents of those glasses had changed a lot. He poured a full glass of bourbon and opened the back door and let the screen door slam closed behind him.
The monolithic Spanish Oak trees from his childhood that ringed his parents’ property seemed even more enormous and imposing than when he was young. Spanish moss dangled off the branches here and there like rags on a skeleton. He spat and took a hard gulp off the top of the glass as he strolled around the edge of the property and worked back towards the tree line that lead off into the woods. The boundry between Florida wilderness and his step-dad’s well-kept backyard was a stark gash into the overgrowth punctuated with a squat wood and wire fence. Tim did his best to fight back the rampant growth, the constant moisture, the heat, and everything else Florida had to throw at his meager plot.
I hate this place, James thought. He poured sweat, he tried to wipe it away, but it had already started to bead on his scalp. He checked his phone. 8:30 at night, still sweating like a pig. He finished the thought by doing some quick math, he flew back home to California in roughly four days. It seemed like so long.
A snap off to his left in the woods made him pause and peer into the dark. He heard nothing and could see nothing in the woods. He turned and looked back toward the house, two small rectangles of light where the windows were, but the light from inside died out in the dense night long before reaching James. The moonlight was obscured by the Spanish Oak’s dangling moss, which James tried to avoid touching. Tim had warned him about ticks living in them when he was a boy, he never bothered to look up if it were true or not. He ignored the sound and moved on, it could have been anything.
Another swallow of bourbon. His stomach felt hot, his skin felt like it might cook off his bones between the liquor and the heat. James wandered along the edge of the woods, disturbing countless bugs in the grass that flitted away into the night. Everything here crawled, scuttled, or scurried. Mosquitos, bats, opossums, bobcats, alligators, tree roaches, banana spiders, the list went on and on. Florida was and still is a giant primordial soup, risen from the ocean floor. James thought about how, as a kid, Tim would take him to construction sites where bulldozers moved earth to clear land for new houses, they’d sift through the mounds of dirt, sand, and clay for shark teeth, sloth bones, and other fossils. Time-lost artifacts of life.
James wandered a bit farther along the forest’s edge and finished the bourbon. As he peered through the bottom of the glass he saw movement near the edge of the woods, just on the other side of Tim’s inadequate fence. A small, stout, round-topped form that just barely registered in the dark. It looked like a giant mushroom. He moved closer to get a better look. Small, simple flowers grew from the top of the mushroom’s cap here and there, but they seemed bioluminescent in the Florida dark. A soft blue glow emitted from them. He reached down and touched one, it was soft and glowed in his hand. As he reached for his phone to take a picture he noticed more of the giant mushrooms in the trees as well as behind him in the yard. He hadn’t noticed them before, four of them sat in the dark, unadorned like the one he stood next to. James pulled his phone from his pocket. As he went to unlock the screen the four mushrooms moved, fast, towards him and grabbed his legs. He landed hard in the grass yard and thought he heard high pitched laughter and squealing as the darkness crept in around him and small hands began to drag him towards a gap in the fence.
James grasped but his arms and legs were held by small bodies, warm and squishy, as if he were being carted off by a pack of toddlers. Into the dark of the woods, they took him ever deeper and hoisted him with ease over root, rock, and overgrowth. James wasn’t sure what to do, he felt positive his mind had snapped. Maybe he was still in his mom and Tim’s house and Bill Baker’s bigoted rambling had driven him mad. He yelled.
“HELP ME!”
The tiny figures stopped and held fast to him, he looked down and could make out subtle, radiating features under their caps. Two off-white orbs glared at him in the dark, to his horror, James realized these things had faces. The one he was looking at, that held his right arm snug, must have registered a change in James’ face in the dark, it opened its mouth, yellow teeth glowed in the maw, and let out a tiny, rasping sound that James could only assume was laughter. He heard movement behind his head before he was struck with a rock.
“SHUT!” a small voice screeched.
The moments that followed were a blur of steady, continued movement in silence. James heard the chirping, buzzing, and insect hum in the woods. He could see the sky here and there through the dense canopies of the interwoven Spanish Oaks. After some time, James didn’t know how long, the darkened canopy of branch and foliage gave way to a low, earthen ceiling with bulbous illuminated mushrooms dotted here and there along the underside. This continued for several more moments before the tunnel gave way to a larger cavern. Limestone, dirt, mushrooms, fungus, clovers, weeds were scattered around the inside of the area. Large, toddler-sized mushrooms grew from the ceiling like soft white light bulbs. A bioluminescent fungus glowed green and blue over most surfaces.
James was abruptly dropped and hit the soft ground inside the cavern, he had no chance to sit up or finish taking in his surroundings when a hoarse voice began to speak.
“Finally, a return,” it slurred. James noticed a large, gaunt figure in the middle of the room. It resembled a man, but elongated in proportion, its head resembled rotten wood with a mockery of a face carved into it. “You will be used to make another elder, quite an honor,” it said. Its voice had a tone that sounded like Styrofoam or mushroom caps being rubbed together.
Sweat dripped into James’ eyes, he stared in disbelief a moment longer. He blinked hard and then sprang to his feet. He took a single, determined step before the small ones seized him and pulled him back down.
“NO! WHAT DO YOU WANT?!” James screamed, he squirmed, but six of the smaller abominations held him fast, unable to wiggle loose.
The hideous figure leaned over to look into James’ face. It stank of rotten vegetation and fertilizer, James thought of cow farms. “You will host an elder. When your kind climbed in trees, we were already unified. We have experienced more than you know. Now, your death will give life to another of my kind, your body will be the vessel for our seed.”
My allergy, James thought. The creature stood and stepped back.
“Tobella will bestow the gift into you,” the thing said.
James watched the small one with the glowing flowers on its cap march up to his head, it placed its small hand on James’ forehead and pushed it to the ground.
“Open,” it said, the child-like voice almost made James laugh. He felt madness boiling at the base of his mind, but tried to keep his mouth shut.
“OPEN,” it insisted. Another one emerged from somewhere James couldn’t see and pinned his head down. Its soft, fleshy hands were warm and moist. The flowered one, “Tobella” the thing had called it, began to push and pull on James’ lips and cheeks. It seemed to have some sort of fingernail or hard edge on its tiny, groping fingers, the nail bit into James’ lips, lacerating them as they were pried apart.
“Opennnnnn,” it muttered as it struggled. James kept his teeth together, his jaw ached and gums hurt from the effort. He struggled harder but they held fast, sweat covered him, he could feel the coolness of the Earth below him, but the heat poured over him, he felt claustrophobic. He screamed behind his teeth and struggled to pull away. He could feel Tobella’s probing, insistent fingernails trying to find purchase on his teeth.
“OPEN!” it shrieked.
Exasperated, Tobella turned to the large thing. “Basidio!” it squealed for attention. Tobella pointed a hideous little digit toward James’ mouth and spat, “OPEN.”
“Tobella, I know you will succeed. You are the smartest of all our progeny,” it said and reached its gangly, branch-like limbs to pat her on her round mushroom cap.
Reinvigorated, Tobella seemed pleased and went back to James’ mouth and resumed her clawing advances at his teeth. He didn’t know how long he could hold out. Tobella struck him with her fleshy fist, “opennnnn,” she said, almost sweetly. He could feel the excitement in the ones holding him, their fingers and hands flexed as they held him, they knew he didn’t have much longer.
James felt some give on his right side, his fingers grappled at the ground for something, anything. Then, something, just to the right of his hand. It felt like hard plastic, a child’s toy. Adrenaline surged through James, he clutched the toy as best he could and swung it up toward his own face where it struck Tobella in the back of her mushroom cap. She squealed and pulled away, James felt weight come off him and he began to punch and kick. He scrambled to his feet and Bisidio loomed in the dark of the room not far away. James roared and struck the amalgamation; decaying bark tore away from its face as the children’s toy telephone connected with the side of its hideous wooden mask. James noted the stretched skin pulled taut and woven into the vegetation of this creature’s body. He looked to the dirty toy in his hand, red nose, the phone receiver was absent. He kicked several of the small ones and ran from the room. James could hear Bisidio’s rasping laughter and the chittering of more of the little ones.
Down the dirt hallway he scrambled, it branched here and there, he chose on instinct, right, right, then left. He stopped as he found himself in a room with four large, open-topped mounds that jutted out of the ground which were filled with a foul-smelling brown liquid. Around the room in large heaps were children’s clothes and shoes. His presence must have been noticed as ripples began to appear on the top of the water. Something moved beneath the muck and he saw a protrusion near the top of the vat farthest from him, it looked like a small hand trapped under the liquid skin of soup left out too long. He vomited onto his feet, dropped the toy phone he still clutched, and forced himself forward to continue his mad dash through the underground maze.
He felt the air get warmer as he ran, he heard soft pattering behind him down the tunnels. Then James noticed, in the tunnel ahead were vines that grew vertically up and out. He stopped beneath him and looked up, it looked like a dirt hole, but he had to try. He climbed up the vines and into the tight hole, he heard screeching behind him in the tunnel. He scrambled, his shoulders became stuck for a moment and he had to fight off the urge to panic. He continued to struggle as dirt, insects, and rotten leaves dislodged all around him. James was so determined, he almost didn’t notice he was outside.
James turned and saw a large hole beneath a Spanish Oak tree from which he’d come from. He took a moment to catch his breath, he knew they were coming, scrabbling up the hole like baby-sized monsters from some dark pre-history. For a second, the woods were still, James heard only the sound of his heavy breathing, the Spanish moss lazily swayed back and forth from the Spanish Oak above him.
He stood and ran. His body ached, his lungs burned, he felt like his body couldn’t possibly produce any more sweat, but it did. He didn’t stop until he reached his parents’ house.

James never tried to explain what happened or what he saw. He told Tim and his mom he tripped and fell into a briar patch while drunk. He moved up his flight and left the following day, citing some made-up event at work.
A month passed from the events of that night, James felt crazy. He felt certain that he must have been drugged, it couldn’t have been real. He’d put in an anonymous call to the police station there, but nothing came of it, he heard nothing else. He doesn’t know if the woods were ever searched His mom and he still spoke on Sundays and it all seemed quite normal.
As the weeks ticked by, James resumed living his life. He swore he’d never return to Florida and he tried to push the events of that night out of his mind, convinced it was some psychotic break or drug induced hallucination.
Christopher, James’ best friend, invited him out for beers and to blow off some tension and steam after a long work week. They wandered from bar to bar, mixing laughter with deep conversation and alcohol, but finally arrived at their usual end-of-the-night destination. They sat at the bar of the dimly lit tavern, Christopher ordered four waters for each of them and two cheeseburgers. Many times had James and Christopher performed this very routine. James sat at the bar by himself as Christopher stumbled to the bathroom to relieve himself. He glanced at his phone, it was approaching 3 AM, his mind swam and he knew he’d hate himself in the morning, his stomach gurgled.
“Here you go my dear,” the bartender said as she put down the burgers for them. He picked up the sandwich and took a large bite. He sat, chewed, and was content. He wondered where Christopher was and what was taking him so long, he swallowed. His attention floated around the bar until it fell upon the service window that peered into the dirty kitchen. There, in the dark, he saw something move.
Something glowing.
Something blue.
His stomach lurched, his throat felt tight. He glanced down at his food and saw, just beneath the grease-soaked bun and melted cheese, a slight wiggle of movement before a half-bitten mushroom fell onto his plate. He looked again into the dark of the kitchen, perched atop the counter, Tobella’s hideous glowing features smiled at him from in the dark. Her mouth moved and he heard, over the din of the late-night tavern crowd, her tiny voice whisper to him.
“Open.”

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