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Authors: Kurtis Scaletta

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BOOK: The Tanglewood Terror
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The game would be a blowout. Better yet, a tight game with an inspiring finish. The Oxen would have a five-point lead and the ball, the clock would be ticking down. All they would need to do is run out the clock, but Randy would be on the sideline, swinging around on his crutches, hollering encouragement to everyone. “Live the dream!” he’d shout. Everyone would stand up and shout out the Owls cheer: “Who’s going to win? Whoo? Whoo?”

The Oxen would snap the ball. I’d storm through their tackles, drop the quarterback, force a fumble, pick up the ball, and gallop into the end zone. The buzzer would sound, and the Owls would have won! My teammates would crowd around to heave me up, but I’d point them to Randy. It’d be him we’d pick up and carry off the field.

Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I imagine my whole football career, from the University of Maine Black Bears to the Patriots to the Hall of Fame. That night I punched the pillow, turned over, and began again at square one, where I made up with Randy. If I didn’t do that, the rest of it couldn’t happen.

I got up before dawn, knowing sleep would never come. I rummaged through the Pig Boy bag and moved the uniform to my sports bag, since I’d need it for practice after I apologized to Randy. It looked like everything was there except my helmet, which I always left in the equipment room. But wait—my cleats were also gone. I’d thrown them in the garbage along with everything else, but they weren’t here. I’d have to go back to Michelle’s house to get them.

Dad was up already, making toast. I grabbed a soda from the fridge.

“You’re drinking Coke for breakfast?” Dad asked.

“I guess so.” I cracked it open and took a swig. “How come you’re up already?”

“I’m used to it. My job in Boston starts at seven, and I have to commute.”

“Oh, yeah.” Dad’s day job was doing computer stuff for a
law firm. He lived in the city and worked in a suburb, which is the opposite of what most people do. When Brian and I visited him there, we all slept on the floor in the middle of the efficiency apartment. It was like camping out, except for the cars going by all night. “I thought maybe the mushroom light bothered you.”

“Nah,” he said. “There’s a neon sign outside my apartment window in Boston, so it kind of reminds me of home.” His toast popped up. “Want this batch? I can make more.”

“Yeah, that would be awesome.” I buttered it and peanut-buttered it and jellied it.

“Can you walk Brian to school? I’m going to go early.”

“Of course,” he said. “I got nothing else to do.”

“We’re also low on lots of stuff,” I told him.

“No problem. I can go grocery shopping.”

“But, uh, I’m not eating pork anymore,” I told him, deciding then and there that I wasn’t. “So no bacon or anything. Not for me, anyway.”

“What about beef?”

“Beef is fine,” I said. I didn’t know any cows.

After slamming down my toast and soda, I headed through the tunnel of green-blue light to Michelle’s house to find my cleats. Halfway there I could hear Cassie snorting and squealing, obviously upset. I couldn’t believe those guys were back. Even if they were mad at me, what did Cassie ever do to them? I took off running and stumbled over some tree roots but managed to regain my balance before I went facedown in the mushrooms. I stopped as soon as I got to the
fence instead of running down to the gate. I wanted to see what was going on.

There was a teenager-sized person in the shadows, pinned in the corner by Cassie, who was standing her ground and shrieking. Good for her. The intruder couldn’t have been Tom or Will—he wasn’t big enough—but it might have been one of the smaller players. Whoever it was, I could take him, but he had something in his hand that was hard to make out in the darkness. It might have been some kind of weapon. I didn’t want him to see me until I knew what he had.

Cassie’s pen was connected to the shed so she could get in out of the cold. The only door was through the sty, but there was a window on the other side, about five feet off the ground. The fence was chain-link, and not a high-security thing. I dropped my backpack and gym bag and climbed to the top and leaped to the roof of the shed two feet away. I landed with a dull thud, which the intruder probably heard, but I didn’t think he could see me. I lay there for a few minutes, looking out at the field—which had become dotted by mushrooms—before I crawled to the edge, reached down, and pushed the top pane open. It slid easily and almost noiselessly, a little squeak of wood against wood.

The window was really close to the roof. I wormed my way in, feetfirst, nearly getting Winnie-the-Poohed when I was halfway through, but gravity did its thing and I came crashing down into the pile of piggy-smelling hay where Cassie sleeps sometimes. Something smelled terrible—it was even worse than the usual pigsty smell—making me gag. I
pulled my shirt up to cover my mouth and nose, then found and flipped the two light switches. The overhead light came on in the shed, and the floodlight outside filled the sty with brightness. I looked out the door and saw a girl standing there, still cornered by Cassie. She was holding Cassie’s brush in one hand and looked terrified. I recognized her. It was the runaway girl.

I couldn’t remember her last name, but I knew her first name: Amanda.

“Finally,” she said. “Someone’s here.” Her voice was frayed, and she sounded close to tears. Her hair was standing up all over, and she looked rumpled and scared.

Cassie came over and bumped her head against my leg, nearly knocking me flat. “It’s okay,” I told her, reaching down to scratch her ears. She calmed down.

“What’s going on?” I asked Amanda. My tired brain couldn’t come up with any explanation for a runaway from Mom’s school winding up in Cassie’s sty. I’d have been less surprised to see my football coach in one of Brian’s video games.

“One of the neighbors left a pumpkin on the porch, with a note saying it was one more than they needed for jack-o’-lanterns, and that Cassie might like it. I guessed that Cassie was the pig, so I—”

“You gave her an entire pumpkin?”

“Yeah.”

“She can’t eat that much at once.”

“I figured that out when it all came out the other end half an hour later.”

“Michelle calls that the squash squirts.”

“Ugh. I tried to clean her, and she went crazy. I’ve heard that pigs can really hurt people, so I froze and waited for her to calm down, but she didn’t, and …” She stopped, caught her breath. “I think it was because she had an upset tummy.”

“Did you pick up her bucket?”

“Yeah, I filled it with hot soapy water to scrub her down. I must have dropped it.” She looked around and found Babe behind her. She tossed it over to me. I shook it out, spattering my jeans. Cassie nudged me in the leg with her head, grunting impatiently.

“I need to rinse this off,” I told her. Cassie gave me a particularly determined butt, nearly knocking me over. I got the hose and washed Babe, and soon Cassie was in her hay, cooing at Babe. She needed a bath, too, but it would have to wait. She’d had a long night.

After I retrieved my stuff from behind the fence, we sat in Michelle’s living room, which Mandy—that was what most people called her, she said—was actually living in. There was a wad of blankets on the couch, a pile of clothes on a chair, and a plate with a crust of sandwich and an apple core on the coffee table.

“Broke in and made yourself at home, huh?”

“Yeah,” she admitted, picking up the blanket so I could sit at the opposite end of the couch. “Except I didn’t break anything. I found a key.”

“The one in the shed?” Michelle keeps one on a nail, high above the door in the shed. You would never see it unless you knew it was there.

“Yeah. I read this book about a master thief once. He almost never had to pick locks or shatter windows. He was always finding keys buried in the garden under a gnome or tied to a string in a mailbox. It only ever took him a couple of minutes, but it took me two hours. Not that I’m a master thief or even aspire to be one, but I needed a place to stay and something to eat, and neither a hotel nor a restaurant was going to work.”

“How did you know Michelle was gone?”

“Um … there was mail in the mailbox and no car in the driveway?”

She’d made herself small on the couch, her feet tucked under her sideways, the blanket pulled up over her. She didn’t look like a master thief. She looked like a kid up past her bedtime.

“Your parents are probably freaking out,” I said.

“I called them and told them I was okay.”

“Really?” My mom hadn’t mentioned that, but it wasn’t like she was giving me daily updates. Mandy might be telling the truth. She was still causing
my
mom to freak out, of course.

“Really,” she said. “I even let my father yell at me for, like, half an hour.”

“You weren’t worried about them tracking you down through your phone?”

“I have ways of doing things,” she said. “They think I
called from a landline in Madison, and since my big sister is a student there, they’re probably sure that she’s hiding me. It’s a huge fringe benefit if they get on her case.”

I heard my school counselor’s voice in my head. “What do you do when you WITNESS any kind of CRIME?” she’d ask. And the right answer would be to call the cops, even if someone borrowed a pen and kept it by mistake. The specifics didn’t matter to her, but they did to me.

I imagined it as penalties assessed one after another by a football referee. Illegal infraction of Michelle’s house, go back five yards. Trying to take care of Cassie, maybe move up five yards. Making my mom’s life difficult, go back another fifteen yards with a loss of down.

“Why did you run away from the school?” I asked. Maybe that would be the deciding factor.

“How did you know I ran away from a
school
?” she asked.

“You were on TV,” I told her. I decided to leave my mom out of it for now.

“Oh, right. Well, I didn’t really run away. I just left for a few days. I’ll go back when I’m done.”

“Done with what?”

“I wanted to see something with my own eyes.”

“A pig with the squash squirts?”

She laughed, then leaned forward and whispered, even though we were alone, “Have you noticed there are glowing mushrooms in the woods?”

“Of course.”

“Do you know what they are?”

“They’re called honey fungus. I researched them for school.”

“That’s what they want you to think.” She grabbed her phone off the coffee table and tapped the screen a bunch of times, then showed it to me. She’d brought up a picture of mushrooms. “
This
is honey fungus,” she said.

“And those mushrooms look like the ones in the woods.”

“The ones in the woods are bluer and pointier. You’ll also notice that the ones in that picture have a ring around the stem. Ours don’t. I’ll show you
our
mushrooms.” Her fingers danced across the screen again, and she showed me another picture of mushrooms. This one was an illustration, not a photo. The mushrooms were bluer and more cone-shaped than the mushrooms in the first image.

“Okay, those do look more like the ones growing outside,” I admitted.

“They look
exactly
like the ones outside. I wanted to see them for myself and make sure, and now I am sure. They’re the same mushrooms.”

“Glowing mushrooms are glowing mushrooms. What difference does it make?” Michelle said she’d seen all kinds and colors of glowing mushrooms.

“Let me zoom out.” She tapped the screen a few times, then handed me the phone. “This is what we’re dealing with.”

I had to scroll up and down to see the entire picture. In the background you could see houses smashed to smithereens. I tapped down and saw a massive tangle of branches and limbs
that had almost taken on the shape of a monster. Some of the limbs looked more like tentacles, and mushrooms were erupting all over the creature’s body. A man lay on the ground, either dead or badly hurt. Another man waved a pitchfork at the thing, but my money was on the monster. At the bottom, it said:

Next month:
THE FUNGAL WRATH!
A new story by Maxwell Bailey

“This is from a comic book or something,” I told her.

“It’s from a pulp magazine called
Weird Tales
in June 1933. The story never appeared. Nobody knows for sure if Bailey ever finished it, but the picture’s famous. I recognized those mushrooms immediately.”

“So what are you telling me—that our mushrooms are going to turn into that thing?”

“I don’t know. That’s what I need to find out.”

She took the phone back again and put it to sleep, flipping its case closed. There was a vampire dude on the front.

“You like that guy? Edward?” I asked. That explained a lot. If she thought vampires were cool, she might think all kinds of monsters were cool.

“Please,” she said. “It’s Lestat. He doesn’t
sparkle.

It was all the same to me. If I’m going to read a book, it needs to be about real people and real things, not vampires.

“There’s no such thing as a mushroom monster, or whatever that thing is,” I told her.

“How do you know?”

BOOK: The Tanglewood Terror
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