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Spore

“I got it from my girlfriend,” the boy says. “Ex-girlfriend.” Color rises in his light brown cheeks. “Wow, that makes it sound bad.”

I shift in the unforgiving molded plastic chair, fighting a sigh and winning—just. My face feels awkward, as though my sympathetic-interviewer expression is about to tilt and slide off. I glance toward the window, but the glass gives nothing back. Outside the study room are tables littered with stray books, students with earbuds sprouting from their skulls, and the cramped rows of bound periodicals in the library basement. A fluorescent tube flickers in one corner.

I forced my attention away from the soporific stutter of the light and back to the boy. Which isn’t fair—he’s only a few years younger than me, the second half of his twenties. My notes say he’s a grad student in Religious Studies, that his name is Aaron. I don’t know if that’s true, but he answers to it. He wears a worn tweed sport coat over a t-shirt for a band I’ve never heard of.

I should never have let Dora talk me into this ridiculous project.

Put your tits on, woman. Get this over with. “Where did she first come into contact with it?”

“I don’t know. She never talked about it.” He takes his glasses off for the third time, rubs the bridge of his nose. This time he folds them and sets them on the table out of fidgeting range. He looks everywhere but the little digital recorder on the table between us. Because he’s lying, or because he’s telling the truth? “She didn’t talk about a lot of things. It wasn’t a relationship based on trust and open communication. I probably should have figured that out sooner.”

“How did you know you’d been exposed?”

His cheeks flush the color of cinnamon. “It started with weird spots. And the dreams. I didn’t connect them at first. I went to the clinic. The doctor said it was a superficial mycosis and gave me antifungals. Before I started them, Dora—Dr. Muñoz—showed up. I didn’t believe her, but she knew about the dreams. Things I hadn’t told anyone. She introduced me to some of the others.”

“Were you scared?” Not what I mean to ask, but it slips out anyway.

“I still am. But—I don’t mean to sound all support-group here, but it’s true—I’m not alone. Not just the way counselors say you’re not alone. I can feel the others, like white noise in the back of my head. I know how that sounds,” he says with a grimace, making a vague woo-woo gesture.

He leans forward, squinting as he catches my eye. “You don’t really believe me, do you?”

“No.” The flickering light is giving me a headache. “Which doesn’t mean it isn’t true,” I add, a half-hearted sop toward professionalism. “But you’re not the only person Dor—Dr. Muñoz asked me to talk to. Maybe I’ll understand it better after I’ve spoken with everyone else.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“I’m an anthropologist. Recording stories is part of my job. Dr. Muñoz thought this would interest me.” Dora always joked that I became an anthropologist to learn how to talk to humans. We both knew it wasn’t really a joke.

“Good luck.” Aaron reaches for his glasses, and his myopic black eyes sharpen as he studies me. “Maybe I’ll see you again.”

• • • •

That night I sit cross-legged on a hard hotel mattress, squinting at the transcript on my laptop. The recorder lies on the fantastically ugly floral bedspread, feeding Aaron’s words back to me. My own words, distorted and strange coming from outside my skull. I grimace at the catch in my voice when I said Dora’s name.

I never should have agreed to this. Never mind that Dora is paying for my travel expenses, that I was sick of ramen and job-hunting and staring down my student loans, and would have leapt at any excuse to get out my stifling apartment. Never mind that I still wake up horny and lonely more than a year after Dora left, or that I’ve only had a handful of dates or one-night stands since.

Not that I had so many more before Dora. But then the inevitable end of every relationship rarely bothered me. Maybe I missed the sex, or someone to split the bills with, but the person— I hadn’t really known how to miss someone, before Dora.

Oxytocin. Dopamine. Nothing but chemicals. Quitting smoking was easier than quitting Dora Muñoz.

I never should have agreed, because Dora is crazy. The kind of passionate manic brilliance it’s too easy to get caught up in. She took trips at a moment’s notice—South America, Asia—chasing after weird plants or fungus that might be the cure for cancer, or impotence, or the common cold. I envied her that—not the travel, but the passion. The way her eyes lit up when she caught a scent. Too often the trails led nowhere, though, and eventually funding dried up. But not Dora’s passion. Until one day she vanished after a lead and never came home. I received a stream of e-mails, then a trickle, then nothing except enough money to break our lease, and one final message telling me she was going off the grid. Leaving me to pack up her stuff and explain things to her friends and colleagues, most of whom proceeded to tiptoe around me like I was a widow, or like her crazy might have rubbed off on me.

That should have been my cue to move on with my life. But then came a string of cryptic e-mails and invitations. A trail of breadcrumbs for me to follow like a lost child. And here I am.

• • • •

“What is this, like Humans of New York?” The girl named Anne drags on her American Spirit, taps ash onto her empty saucer. We’re well within fifty feet of the café’s front door, but no one has told her to stop yet.

I smile, like I haven’t heard that a hundred times since I decided to do a photographic census as my thesis project. “Something like that. I’ll listen to your story, if you want to tell it.” The sun creeps slowly across the sidewalk, pushing the shade away from our table. Sweat beads on the back of my neck, and the dregs of my iced latte melt into milky translucence.

Blue eyes narrow behind a curl of smoke. Wary, intense. Anne doesn’t fidget the way Aaron did, but this is her third cigarette. She lifts long brown hair off her neck one-handedly and blows a stream of smoke into the sky. She smells of tobacco and cinnamon and espresso.

“I got the caps at a party. I’d never met the guy before. He cornered me and my roommate and started talking about human consciousness and interspecies communication. Pretty interesting stuff, actually. I thought he just wanted in our pants, but at least he was entertaining. He gave me a bag of mushrooms. Said they’d give me a new perspective. I’d heard all that before, but he didn’t even ask for my number.

“The next night my roommate and I took them. She got sick early on, puked her guts out. Didn’t bother me, though. It was . . . a weird trip. Not bad. Intense. I spent what felt like three hours lying on the living room floor wondering if I’d ever be straight again.” She stabs her cigarette out amidst scattered muffin crumbs. “Turns out I won’t.”

“Did you ever find the guy from the party again?”

“I dream about him sometimes. Whatever this is, he’s further along than I am.”

The sigh wins this time. I blame the smell of tobacco and a night of restless sleep. “So, what? This is . . . an alien parasite? A psychic fungus?”

Anne’s lips thin. Pale, shimmery lip gloss leaves an iridescent sheen on her cigarette butts. “I don’t give a fuck if you think I’m crazy, but Dora said I should talk to you. Am I wasting my time, Dr. Jernigan?”

“I— I don’t know. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound like an asshole. I just don’t understand this. For all I know this is an elaborate joke. And if you’re going to yell at me, call me Beth.” Damn it, Beth. Don’t flirt with the crazy psychic fungus lady.

“If it is a joke, I’m not in on it.” Anne’s narrow face rearranges itself, finally settling into a strained smile. “And you bought me coffee, so I guess I’m not wasting my time. I don’t have many other people I can talk about this with.”

Silence settles over the table. I turn my glass in careful circles. Condensation drips through the weave of the metal table onto the pavement. People pass us on the sidewalk, bright summer colors and chattering voices. Hands touch arms to punctuate conversation; shoulders brush; a couple rests their hands in each other’s back pockets. The little things humans do to keep the chemicals flowing, to fool themselves into believe they’re not alone.

If Anne and Aaron are telling the truth, what makes their supposed connection any different?

“Have you considered taking anything? Antifungals?”

Anne laughs, bitter and tobacco-roughened. “I’ve thought of taking a lot of things. Hell, I’ve thought of throwing myself off a roof, or in front of a train. My life wasn’t so great, but it was my fucking life. I’ll never get that back. But sometimes the dreams feel so good . . .”

• • • •

Another night, another city, another hotel bed—inoffensively ugly this time, bland blues and browns. The muted television throws light across the walls. My phone sits on the nightstand, also silent. I broke and texted Dora two hours ago. Still no response.

She’s fucking with me. That’s the easiest answer. It would justify my anger, let me go home and forget this. Forget her.

Because that worked so well last time.

You’ll meet someone else, a classmate told me once, on a rare occasion when I shared something personal, bitterness over some breakup. I don’t even remember with whom anymore. She meant it to reassure, but it left me feeling ill.

Of course I would meet someone else. The world is teeming with humans; you can’t avoid meeting them. Some of them are lonely and searching, and see the same in you. So you fumble for connection all over again, hoping that this time it will stick. That this time will be worth it.

Dora was hardly the first to see how hard connections were for me. But instead of being angry or hurt or determined to fix me, it engaged her scientific curiosity. I felt like an alien anthropologist in any relationship; with Dora, I didn’t have to pretend otherwise. Was that love?

I roll over, pressing my face into the musty, starch-stiff pillow. My thighs slide together and my pulse throbs softly in my labia. The taste of coffee lingers on the back of my tongue, reminding me of cinnamon and the sheen of lip gloss. I could masturbate until I fall asleep, but I know I’ll think of Dora.

One more day. I have my bus ticket for tomorrow. One more of these ridiculous trips. Then I’m done.

• • • •

“I had cancer.” The woman named Minette shifts in the booth, tracing nicks and gouges and old graffiti on the wooden table. Hands like white spiders, lovely and unsettling. “After the first mastectomy— it was awful, but it was over. Done. I’d survived. Then we found the new tumor, and I ran out of rope.”

Late-morning sun angles through windows dull with grime, seeping between chipped paint and faded flyers to stripe the battered tabletop. Dust motes spiral in the lazy air. Daylight lends the Angels’ Share a lonely, abandoned feeling.

“I met a woman. I don’t remember where. I saw so many ‘alternative health professionals.’” She makes lopsided air quotes. “I tried so many things. I was about to give up when I met her. She gave me a little bag of mushrooms. She said they weren’t a cure—she said that over and over until she was sure I understood. It wasn’t a cure, but it would help the pain.”

“Did it?” My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. The bottles behind the bar shine in the dusty light. I didn’t bother with the recorder this time.

Minette smiles, dark-flecked hazel eyes creasing beneath long translucent lashes. Delicate bones stark beneath too little flesh, pale skin tinged nearly blue. Her hair is a colorless stubble that looks soft as suede. She’s dying; that, like her fragile hands, is beautiful and unnerving all at once.

“It did more than that.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to believe you.” I shake my head. “All right, maybe it is. But I don’t. I can’t.”

“I understand.” Minette slides a plastic bag across the table. “Dora asked me to give you this. She wanted to see you, but she had to leave too early.”

I trace one dry, gray-brown tendril carefully through the plastic. “Is this what you took?”

“Yes.” She pulls herself out of the booth while I’m still searching for a reply. “Can I get you anything? On the house.”

I draw a breath to decline, but fuck it. “Bourbon. Neat.” I follow her, leaning against the bar while she takes down a bottle. “Dora wants me to eat these?”

“She said to tell you that it doesn’t have to be permanent. You can get treatment after one dose. But it will be enough for the dreams.” She sets a glass in front of me. Liquor catches the light, sending a wash of amber over the polished wood. Saliva pools on my tongue.

“After the surgery it was so hard to look at myself in the mirror. I felt like a freak. But now I feel beautiful again. Look.”

She turns away and grabs the hem of her T-shirt in both hands, peels it slowly over her head. I swallow, staring at the pale curve of her back. Her vertebrae are a string of pearls under her skin, the shadows beneath her scapulae like folded wings. My pulse sharpens as she turns back.

Her right breast is pale, pink-nippled and blue-veined, small but sagging gently without a bra. The remains of a scar stretch from sternum to armpit where her left once was, hidden now by a tattoo—

No. Not a tattoo.

Whorls of fungus grow from the scar’s pink seam, fruiting bodies curling together like rose petals. Ghost white at the center, shading into yellow and teal toward the edges.

I open my mouth, dry tongue peeling off my palate, but no sound comes out. I lift my glass with a numb hand. The whiskey burns all the way down my throat, dissolving all the stillborn things I might have said.

Minette watches, something that might be disappointment narrowing the corners of her eyes. Finally she nods and tugs her shirt back on. “I understand. I need to open the bar. Come back later if you have more questions.”

I’ve hurt her, but I don’t know how to take it back. Instead I turn like a coward and walk away.

• • • •

That night I stand naked in front of the steam-clouded mirror, the carpet of this latest hotel room rough and tacky beneath my feet. My hair drips down my shoulders and goosebumps roughen my legs.

The bag waits on the bedside table. If I take its contents, where will fruiting bodies sprout on me? Will it grow through my skin like lace?

Leave, I tell myself. Take a taxi to the airport and go home.

Home to what? An ordinary life of work and debt and fleeting relationships. Recording the faces and stories of strangers, because that illusory connection is stronger than any lasting interaction. More than one ex-girlfriend told me I need therapy—I can’t discount that possibility, but I always resisted. Just because I’m not like you doesn’t make me broken. Does it?

The bag is nearly weightless. Dull and gray at first glance, but colors linger in the creases, hints of blue and creamy yellow. They would photograph beautifully up close, but the light is bad.

I tried psilocybin once in undergrad. Aside from passing nausea and belching mushrooms for an hour, it was a pleasant evening. The friend who gave it to me promised a life-altering experience, though, and a few hours of pretty lights and floating hadn’t delivered.

Maybe that’s all this will be. Or maybe it will turn me into some sort of fungus zombie.

I could play this up, make a ceremony out of it, but that would only make me feel sillier. Before I can vacillate any more, I tear open the bag and lay the largest stem on my tongue.

Damn it, Dora.

Dry, rubbery, bitter and cloyingly organic, like earth and decay. My face contorts as I chew. I wash it down with a glass of sour tap water and belch. Then, lacking any better ideas, I turn off the lights and lie down on the bed.

I try not to watch the clock, but it’s the brightest thing in the room. Heat fills my stomach. Twenty-two minutes in, my face feels numb. At thirty-five I can’t feel my feet, and my arms tingle. The clock face brightens into brilliant emerald lines. I watch them change, certain a message will form.

The message is: you’ve been staring at a clock in a dark room for forty-seven minutes. Because you’re on drugs.

The electric hum of the clock envelopes me. Patterns swim behind my eyes, lingering when I open them. Every noise outside is too sharp, ominous. I remind myself that I’m naked every time I think of running outside to confront them.

I drag my nails across the bedspread to study the sound, shift my heels to marvel at the sensation of calluses on rough fabric. I don’t know how long I’ve been drifting when the realization fills me: I’m not alone.

The darkness and its shifting lattice of color doesn’t change, but I feel a weight in the room, the gravity of another presence. If I sat up I might see someone there, but my head is too heavy to lift.

‘Hello, Beth,” Dora says.

And damn it all, my brain produces happy chemicals at the sound of her voice. “What is this thing? A parasite? A symbiote?”

A soft snort of breath, not quite a sigh. A familiar sound that means I’ve got something wrong. “Any relationship between two organisms is symbiosis,” she says. “It can be parasitic or mutualistic or commensal. In this case, it can be all of the above.”

What were we? I want to ask. “Does it kill you?”

“Everything kills you eventually, love. Playing host can shorten a human lifespan, yes. It varies. But in return the fungus takes you into the web. Our memories, our identities—maybe our souls, if you believe in that—are incorporated into a greater whole. They’ve spored a hundred worlds, encountered thousands of cultures. They’ve seen and preserved things humans can only dream of. They’re historians. Archivists. I’ll live forever within the colony. Learn forever. Long after every human civilization has fallen to dust.”

That old familiar passion suffuses her voice. As always, I envy it.

“How many of these cultures have been archived willingly?”

“More than you might think. Hell, some worship the colony. I don’t think that matters to it, though. Like so many relationships, if the practical benefits aren’t enough there’s a chemical reward to keep you invested.”

The dreams feel so good. Yes. Yes they do. “Serotonin. Dopamine. Endogenous opioids.” I was a runner once, years ago. I remember how sweet those can be.

“Yes. They make us nervous, those chemicals. We fall into the puritanical trap of believing that anything that feels good must be wrong somehow.”

“Will it feel so good that I’ll throw myself off a roof to spread the infection?”

“The urge may present itself. They’re not O. unilateralis, Beth. We’re not ants. We can make our own decisions.”

I don’t know about that—how many people live their entire lives reacting to chemical stimulus and never understanding why?

“Why?” The word echoes from my brain off my tongue. “Why did you bring me here?”

“To spread the infection, silly.” I hear the laugh in her voice, imagine her dark eyes crinkling at the corners. “Because I thought you would appreciate the opportunity, or at least have the capacity to. And because I miss you.”

“Where are you?” I grope across the bed, searching for warmth, but find nothing.

“With the colony. I said the timeline varies—mine was short. I pushed. I wanted to see more, so the fungus grew faster. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late to reverse. I wish I could have seen you again, but I wouldn’t do anything differently.”

Of course not. Dora wasn’t a creature made for regret.

Maybe that’s what I envy most about her.

• • • •

I stumble back to the Angels’ Share the next night. Not quite literally, but gravity isn’t working the way it should. Lights are still too bright, oversaturated. Minette only nods and sets a double bourbon in front of me before returning to the regulars. A quiet night, a handful of people at the bar, a couple in a booth across the room. I huddle in a corner, engrossed in the texture of the table, the light reflecting off rows of bottles.

When all the patrons are gone and the chairs put up, Minette returns.

“I’m sorry,” I mutter into my empty glass like a coward, before forcing myself to meet her eyes. It’s hard to focus—I haven’t eaten anything since before the mushrooms. “I didn’t mean—”

“Hush.” She takes my hand and draws me up. “You look rough. Stay here tonight.”

She leads me down a narrow hall in the back, up a flight of stairs. At the top of the steps something changes—her arms slide around me, or mine around her. Her mouth is sticky-sweet, her fragile hands surprisingly strong. She draws away after a long, tangling kiss, both of us breathless. Her eyes gleam in the shadows as she watches me, waiting.

“Yes,” I whisper, reaching for her.

We fumble through a dark room and onto a bed that smells like her—sweet, musky, earthen. I’m wet before she tugs my jeans off. One cool hand slides into my bra; the other slips between my legs. I come hard a minute later, gasping, and she laughs.

I pause as I ease her shirt up, and feel her answering tension.

“It’s not that,” I say. Here in the dark, it’s the truth. “I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t.”

Her skin is cool, roughening as I trail kisses down her ribs. Her breath catches as I make my way back up, to what used to be her left breast.

Cooler than her flesh, and not quite softer, silken and rubbery at the same time. She moans as I run my tongue along the edge of one whorl. Her back arches and the swirl of ridges spreads, opening to my touch. They taste of earth and cinnamon.

Later, I drift awake to Minette spooning against me. Her fingers trace patterns on my shoulders, drawing constellations amid the freckles.

“I won’t be here much longer,” she murmurs. Her breath ruffles the fine hair on my nape. “But the bar will be. If you need a place—”

I make a noncommittal noise into the pillow and nestle closer. Sleep takes me again before I find an answer.

• • • •

I dream of being cradled in a rosebud, curled tight like a baby waiting to be born. Dora is beside me in the dark. At first it’s just her familiar presence, but then images unfurl in the darkness.

She hangs amid a web of soft organic tissue. Shelves and curling fronds and spiraling embroidered ribbons of fungus. Growth like creamy lace sprouts from her skin, envelops her like a bridal gown. She’s as beautiful as ever. She smiles at me, and something stirs in response beneath my skin. For once, I’m not alone.

• • • •

Two weeks later I wake to find Minette gone. The keys to the bar rest on the nightstand, on top of a folded note. I don’t need to read it to know what’s happened.

I sit on the edge of the bed in the curtained gloom, trying to identify that thorny, prickling sensation behind my sternum. Almost grief, but I know that’s foolish. I’ll dream of her tonight, after all.

• • • •

A week after that, I’m polishing the bar one lazy afternoon when the door chimes. A draft of sticky August heat pushes past the AC.

A young man steps in, squinting against the shadows. He runs a hand through his black curls and adjusts clunky black-framed glasses on the bridge of his nose. He blinks when he recognizes me.

“Dr. Jernigan. Nice to see you again.”

“Aaron.” His discomfiture makes me smile. But I should probably be nice; we’ll know each other a long time. “Call me Beth.”

Amanda Downum

Amanda Downum

Amanda Downum is the author of the Necromancer Chronicles and Dreams of Shreds & Tatters. Her short fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, and Weird Tales, and in the anthologies Lovecraft Unbound and Dreams From the Witch House. She lives in Austin, TX. Her day job sometimes involves dressing as a giant worm.