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Authors: Kurtis Scaletta

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BOOK: The Tanglewood Terror
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“Because it’s ridiculous. We’d know if there was.”

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” she said. “Do you think scientists have discovered and documented every single species of mushroom?”

“Probably.”

“Not even close,” she said. “I read that they’ve documented less than a quarter of the world’s fungi, so there.”

“Really?”

“Yes. There might be one extraordinary species of fungus that’s capable of things we never imagined.”

“What are you going to do to it if there is?” I asked her. “Spray it with Tinactin?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I need more evidence first. That’s why I’m here.”

“How did you even know about the mushrooms?” I asked. Alden was miles from here.

“There’s this Internet message board for fans of old sci-fi and horror stories. This guy Dreamweaver—that’s what he calls himself—he posted a photo and said, ‘Hey, don’t these mushrooms look like the ones in Max Bailey’s picture?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, they look like the ones in “The Fungal Wrath” because they’re the same mushrooms.’ So I asked him where he took the picture, and he said that it was near Tanglewood, Maine. And I was like, Whoa, I’m a few miles from Tanglewood, Maine.…”

I was only half listening, thinking about the guy calling himself Dreamweaver who lived near here and who’d taken a picture of the mushrooms with his cell phone.

“… and there was no way I could do all of that at the school, because I’m not even supposed to have Internet access, and they try to control you twenty-four-seven. Okay, maybe that’s the
real
reason I left. I’ve been thinking about it since the day I got there, but this was what I really needed—a mission.”

She realized I was tuning her out. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t like the mushrooms either, but I don’t think the fungus is going to rise up out of the earth and eat the town.”

She burrowed under the blanket. “I feel dumb for even mentioning it,” she said.

“Ah, don’t feel dumb,” I told her. “People believe all kinds of stupid stuff.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“I didn’t mean you were stupid,” I told the mound under the blanket.

“And after I washed your football uniform,” it said.

“Oh, that was you?”

“I saw you throw it out. I hate football but I felt bad for you. Besides, you’re a good pig-sitter.”

“Thanks.” I wondered if she’d seen the incident with Randy as well, and how much of it she’d seen.

“No problem.” She finally poked her head out from under the blanket. “Anytime.”

“So did you, uh, see my cleats?”

“Yeah, they were pretty nasty, and I didn’t want to throw them in the washer, so …”

“You left them in the garbage?”

“No. I put them on the bench in the shed, so you’d find them.”

I remembered that first big whiff of stink after I squeezed through the window.

“Great.” I glanced at the clock. School would start in twenty minutes. I’d left the mushroom jar at home, but I could run home and still get back in time for school.

“I better go,” I told her, “and, um … so should you.”

If I turned Mandy in, Mom wouldn’t have to deal with her being missing, and that meant Dad would go back to Boston. He’d said so himself. Brian would be heartbroken.

So Mandy got a bad call in her favor. I wasn’t going to turn her in. But I wasn’t going to let her run amok, either.

“This is my boss’s house,” I added. “She’s my friend, too. I don’t feel right about letting you stay here.”

“Fine,” she said.

“I’m serious. I’ll tell the cops.” I watched her closely. If she had seen what had happened with Randy, and seen it well enough to know I was guilty, she could blackmail me.

She didn’t let on either way. She had a good game face.

“Don’t worry about me,” she said.

I ran through the woods, my bags bouncing against my knees, one stinky cleat in either hand.

“Hey, who’s that?” Dad hollered from upstairs when I slid open the back door and hurried through the family room.

“It’s me!” I hollered back. I took the basement steps two at a time and washed the bottoms of the cleats in the laundry sink, swiping at them with a brush Brian uses to clean the hedgehog terrarium. The cleats were still a little bit stinky and a lot wet, but at least I could wear them to practice without half the team passing out.

When I was done, I noticed Dad’s books lined up on shelves made of boards and cinder blocks. He’d never taken them to Boston. They were all out of order, so I hoped that I could find the book I was looking for, if it was even there.

It was.
The Collected Stories of Maxwell Bailey
, in paperback. The cover image was of a forest with innumerable eyes among the trees. It was hard to tell if there were things hidden there or if the trees themselves could see, but either way the effect was creepy. The cover bragged that the book included “Twenty-four color plates of illustrations,” so I
flipped through to see them. The mushroom monster was in there, sure enough. The caption said it was possibly his most famous illustration, even though the story had never been published, or maybe
because
it had never been published.

I realized I hadn’t even flipped on the light to the basement. There was enough light from the mushrooms to read by. They now covered the floor and all four walls. I felt like I’d realized a dozen cockroaches were crawling all over me, and I even did a little dance to shake them off of me before I ran back upstairs to grab the jar.

I still got to school a few minutes early. I staked out my place in homeroom, opened my book, and started reading the introduction. Max Bailey was an only child, grew up in Boston, moved to Maine, and attended Bowdoin College but was expelled for unknown reasons.

Randy was barely in the door before a girl offered to carry his stuff. He’d become a girl magnet like never before, a combination of superstar and vulnerable puppy they couldn’t resist.

I read about how Bailey became an illustrator for a newspaper in Portland and wrote stories in his spare time. He got married and had a daughter named Howard—that must have been a mistake in the book—but his wife died during childbirth. He went into a deep depression.

Randy paused at the front of the class and looked at me.

Bailey became fascinated by newspaper articles about unusual phenomena, and he kept folders full of clippings. His short stories took a turn toward the dark and fantastic.

Randy hobbled by me, taking his time. “That book is awesome,” he muttered in a low voice as he passed. I nodded, but he didn’t even see it. He was already sitting down, talking to a girl. He didn’t say another word to me for the entire class.

He found me in the hall later. Dad had said I shouldn’t talk to him, but I couldn’t help it if he tried to talk to me. The bell was about to ring, and everyone else was in class.

“So how long have you been reading Max Bailey?” he asked.

“For a while,” I said vaguely. “My dad has all kinds of cool books.”

“I should come check it out. What else are you into?”

I thought hard, trying to remember some of my dad’s other books so Randy wouldn’t know I was a poser.

“Um … Lovecraft?” Dad has a bunch by that guy, and the name stuck in my head.

“Yeah, he’s the best, but Bailey’s great too. I didn’t know you were into that stuff.”

“Me neither,” I said. “I mean, I didn’t know you were.” The bell rang. “We’re late.”

He nodded at his crutches. “I can be a little late. Nobody’s going to give me a hard time.”

“Hey, I’m sorry about that.”

“Me too, man. Hey, I want you to know, I don’t kick puppies or set cats on fire or anything. I didn’t know all that stuff about that pig and her babies, and now I’m sorry I went along with it.”

“Same here.”

“We were just kidding around. We didn’t even do it to mess with the pig. We did it to mess with
you
. It was Tom’s idea.”

“Never mind. I guess you got the worst of it.”

“So are you playing tomorrow?”

“If they want me to.”

“Of course they want you to.”

“Tom and Will and those guys—”

“Just Tom and Will and me,” he said. “Nobody else even knows.”

“Huh?” Everybody’d been talking about me, though. They’d been whispering and pointing. At least I thought they were. I tried to run through the highlight reel in my head. Did I just see kids yakking at each other like always and assume the worst?

“Tom said we should stick together, like teammates do,” said Randy. I wondered if Tom felt like it was partly his fault, which it was.

The late bell rang.

“Go ahead,” I told Randy. Our next class was together—most of our classes were. “I’ll need a tardy slip from the office.”

“I’ll say you were helping me,” he said. “I’ll say I fell down or something.”

“Cool.” We headed to class. Randy was pretty good with the crutches already, but it was slow going.

I couldn’t believe I was off the hook so completely, even though I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong in the first place. Just yesterday the situation looked hopeless.

“Hey, what about that school assembly?” I asked him before we went in. “Why did the school counselor say all that stuff about bullying?”

“Um … I heard some guys dumped a sixth grader in a garbage can. His mom went ballistic and called the school.”

“Oh.”

“Hey, one more thing,” he whispered. “This thing is our secret, right?”

“You mean about Cassie?”

“No, I mean me being a sci-fi geek.” I could tell he was dead serious. “I have an image to protect, man.”

“You got it, Dreamweaver.”

I told Ms. Weller I could go ahead with my oral report. I had one notebook page of notes and a jar of mushrooms. I was all set.

“Eric has volunteered to be the next presenter on scientific discovery,” she told the class, followed by some blah blah blah about how the world is chock-full of science for us to discover. “Eric is going to talk about mushrooms,” she said at last, and a few kids groaned.

The jar was a little misty inside, like the mushrooms had been breathing, fogging it up. I handed the jar to Heidi in the front row to be passed around. Some of the kids sent it right on down the line, without even looking at it. I realized the kids who did all lived in my part of town.

“Some of you have probably seen them already,” I guessed.

“Duh. They’re in my yard,” said the other kid named Eric in my class. “I’m already sick of them.”

“My dog ate one and threw up,” said Monica.

“Well, I, uh … I don’t like them either, but I wanted to know more about them.” I stammered through what I knew about the honey fungus—that it was all one great big fungus that was who knows how old, and that most of it lived underground. That it was like an underground tree with a trunk at the center and a lot of limbs coming out every which way. That the branches grew close to the surface, and the mushrooms popped up aboveground. Ms. Weller didn’t correct me about anything, so it must have all been true.

“But why do they light up?” one kid asked.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “The article wasn’t very specific.” A few kids laughed.

“They light up because they consume wood so quickly,” Ms. Weller said. “They need to get rid of energy or they’ll burn up, so they give that energy off as light.”

“I’ve seen Eric eat,” said Tom. “I’m surprised he doesn’t light up.” The class roared, and it was pretty funny, I have to admit.

“I heard they turn red,” said Tony when the laughter died down, “and then they blow up.”

“I think that only happens in video games,” I told him. The class laughed again.

“Do they burn you when you touch them?” a kid named Michael asked.

“No,” I said. “At least I don’t think so.” I wasn’t sure because I hadn’t touched any.

“Why don’t you reach into the jar and find out?” Heidi suggested.

“Ah, those mushrooms are old and half dead,” said Michael. “I mean the live ones.”

“Well, let’s go get some fresh ones, then,” she said. “There’s plenty on the football field.”

“What?” Tom leaned forward at his desk. “I was there yesterday. It was fine.”

“They must spread fast,” Heidi said. “Now there are mushrooms all over it.”

“But we have a game tomorrow!” said Randy.

“Not just any game,” said Tom. “A championship.”

“Nobody told the mushrooms,” she said.

A few kids ran to the window, but we were on the wrong side of the school to see the field.

“Can we go look?” I asked the teacher. “It’s scientific discovery.”

“I suppose,” she said.

So the class herded out of the school and to the football field, which, like Heidi said, was overgrown with mushrooms. It could have been worse. They were mostly in one corner, spreading out across the back of one end zone and down one sideline to about the thirty-yard line.

“They aren’t even lit up now,” said Michael.

“It’s hard to see the glow in daylight,” I told him.

Heidi dropped to her knees, cupped the mushrooms with her hands to create a dome of darkness, and peered into the gap between her thumbs.

“It’s true! They’re lit up!” She looked at her hands. “They’re not warm.” I reached down and brushed my fingertips along the caps. It was the first time I’d actually
touched them, and they felt like normal mushrooms, cool and a little slippery. You’d never know they were gobbling up nutrients so fast they were burning up.

BOOK: The Tanglewood Terror
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