Lost Note from the Dry Fields (1995)

I

Linnea Amber fancied that, as she was wont to after sampling some of the cheap beer they offered her back at the bar in little red plastic cups, she could see time. With a knot twisting tighter and tighter in her stomach, she could see it leaking, as though it were some swampy effluvium or gaseous excrescence, from everything; from the gold and scarlet wallpaper depicting leafed vines winding through some kind of orchard or garden; from the ancient oak beams that supported the wide ceiling, tiled in blue and white to imitate or perhaps mock the storming sky outside; from the floor, rich in a shallow burgundy shag that had faded over the decades to a color resembling spilled wine that had been forgotten; from the broad stage in front of her, old tile made to resemble fine black marble hewn from the quarries of Greece or France, the curtain like a horizontal waterfall foaming in theatrical red; from all the incense, both stick and cone, a bad blending of sandalwood and dragon's blood, which partly filled the room and turned it into some form of exotic jungle or forest where strange things grew; and from the people, each one nodding and shaking hands and rubbing shoulders with each other, all while harboring a concealed hostility that all artists shared for each other.

Medusa was not one of Linnea's favorite haunts. She had tried on several instances to figure out why it irked her so much, though never fully reaching a definitive conclusion. She supposed it was because it tried too hard to betoo much. Before Medusa House became a hangout for those offbeat poets, actors, and other artists that couldn't find a proper audience, a sort of Midwestern château bohéme, it was a single-screen movie theater from 1942 to 1989, and before that it was a medium-production theatre back to 1898.

Before that, Linnea supposed it had been among the hundreds of saloons or cathouses that had a way of popping up like toadstools in towns that had begun as mere logging or mining communities, wild and free from the confines of poorly established law. She looked again at the gaudy wallpaper and old timbers, seeing all that time seeping out, envisioning where once a woman might have indulged in opium while reclining on golden silk pillows, or where a man might pay for a night with one of the dancers, he covered in pine sap, soil, and grime, and she haloed by lavender perfumes and fields of makeup hiding other, long past nights.

Her friend Kiyomi settled down into a seat beside her, lazily smoothing out the creases in her plaid dress. The seats were uncomfortable things, dark old pews taken from some church that had been gutted by lightning-fire, and the burn marks were still evident in the wood. Even though they had been upholstered and the backs sanded down a bit, the inherent discomfort still remained.

Kiyomi cast her sharp eyes among the growing crowd of hipsters, goths, trend-setters, and other art snobs seeking something new. "Man, can't thread a needle in this place. Tom really knows how to reel people in."

Linnea stoically watched a pair of men begin to hook up a bulky projector, carting around on an old book display. "Goes to show just how far you can go with daddy's money, doesn't it?"

Kiyomi's stare settled on Linnea for a moment, her laser-focus gaze enhanced, making her eyes seem even bluer than they already impossibly were. Her teeth showed through her thin grin, an alley cat grin if ever such a thing existed, and she dipped her nose into her own red plastic cup. "He must be ready to start soon. If he doesn't, I'm gonna start chanting."

"Don't, Kiyomi. You don't need to make a spectacle here as well."

Her friend laughed, a high rose-gentle sound that made some people turn in their seats. "Spectacle is the very meaning of this place! If art is expression, statement, or translation, then what good is it if no one sees it? What good are these eyes of mine that cannot see beauty? What vile imperatrix could take away that which doomed sweet Narcissus and Pygmalion!?"

Kiyomi was beginning to gesticulate with her hands, her eyes widening in mock terror, until Linnea took it upon herself to play nursemaid or embarrassed mother—she grabbed and pulled down her friend's arms. "Are you finished," she asked, more than aware of all the eyes that were now looking at them, and the spare mumblings and whisperings being passed around like notes. "Do you need me to get you your sippy-cup or something?"

"Thanks, already got mine," Kiyomi said, holding up her beer. After a while, the overhead lights blinked twice, as though recalling the days when it had been a legitimate theatre, announcing the beginning of the production. A lean-faced man with a pen nib beard and moss-like facial hair walked out onto the stage from the side. He had a smile sharp enough to cut steel, with teeth the color of post-it notes. He beamed at the audience, spreading his hands wide as if to embrace everyone and then clapped them together.

Eventually, the crowd had settled in well enough for him to begin.

Clearing his throat, he said "In the final stanza of his poem 'Pan,' Oscar Wilde suggested that that old goat-foot god cast aside his pipes and flutes in favor of a trumpet, to come parading back into the world we had made uninhabitable for him. This house, with all its grandeur and antique pulchritude, can be likened to Pan's trumpets, and we are its players.

"As purveyors and residents of that realm called art, we find it isn't merely our duty to create and translate artistic expressions to the world, but our very means of existence. I suppose that's why so many of us have to scratch and scrabble to protect our brand."

There was a smattering of polite laughter, no doubt projected by those patrons enamored by the alcohol. Kiyomi nudged Linnea in the shoulder and leaned down to whisper. "What's that translated to Proletariat?"

Linnea shushed her, hoarding a chuckle in her chest until it subsided. After a bit more chatter, Tom thanked everyone for showing up and then went to the projector, where he began to fiddle with the switches and knobs. A wry grin split Linnea's lips; no doubt the man had been hiding in the wings, ordering one of the technicians to give him a rudimentary understanding of the machine before he went out to work it himself. She had once thought that the pomposity of some people could no longer surprise her.

The lights darkened, the projection light lanced the shadows of the theatre curtain, and the whispers died down long enough for low piping music to enter everyone's ears. Linnea watched a forested backdrop behind a lonely old farmhouse, jays and wrens flitting about, and then the title came up in flowery italic scrawl: Vetiver Lane's End.

"Oh, god," Kiyomi muttered none-too-quietly. She sipped from her beer and then settled deeper into her seat, looking to Linnea like a disgruntled lioness. Linnea took a deep breath, wishing she'd said no to Kiyomi's invitation, wishing she could just be back home in her apartment, where the shadows were familiar and the air wasn't so cloying. Cloying, yes, because a new scent had begun to fill her nostrils, one that mingled damp earth and decaying vegetation, and cast away the incense like candle flames in a gale.

II

The film had a duration of just over an hour; by the time the meager credits popped up in that horrid flowery script, Linnea's rear and the backs of her thighs had become numb and pin-pricked. The lights went back on, The Cocteau Twins started crooning from the speakers again, and everybody started to move; it was as if the Medusa House had realized it had dozed through the film and was half-apologetically waking up. She expected Tom to begin wading through the audience trawling for compliments any second now. She waited, though, for others to stand up and mingle so she could become lost in the crowd.

She pulled on Kiyomi's sleeve and said "I'm just going out for a bit."

"What's that?" she shouted over the drone of a hundred voices.

"I said I'm going out! There's too much in here!"

"Yeah, alright. I'm just going to hang around here for a while."

Linnea found it difficult to thread her way through the throng without accidentally bumping into others, or brushing someone's clothes in a manner she felt a bit too intimate. She made it to the back of the room, near the replica paintings of Goya and Jeffrey Catherine Jones that lined the wall, and from there she could slip into the foyer. There were acquaintances and colleagues, as well as one or two actual friends, who jokingly noticed her sneaking around like a bedraggled dog. She paid them no mind, eager to just get away from everything and be alone. A few minutes, that was all she wanted.

Frowning, she tried to think of what she meant when she spoke to Kiyomi. Too much? Yes, that was true, a proper excuse, but she didn't quite know what she was referring to. Had she only meant the crowd, or the false gaudiness of the Medusa? Perhaps it was the air, that awful "deep" smell.

Yes, that was what it was. It was that terrible smell that was neither rot nor growth, but lying between in some transitory state. It was the smell of time.

Outside Medusa, the world was splitting apart as the storm hovered over the city. Veins and arteries of white-violet summer lightning were tearing out bits and pieces of sky. The clouds were the color of blueberry skin, coiling in furious veils. The rain wasn't that bad, which only meant it was revving up to be much worse in a short while. It wasn't until a storm was chewing away at it or it was being embalmed by a blizzard would the wholeness and glamour of Asenath be thrown against reality and expectation.

The grim reverie she was pulling herself into was suddenly interrupted when a soft voice called out behind her. "Excuse me? Hello?"

The girl—Linnea felt she was vindicated in using the word "girl" since she appeared to be about a decade younger than her, probably mid-twenty-something though a full head taller—had just stepped out of the building and was walking toward her, heedless of the rain. No hat, no umbrella, the water soaking into her short Henna-brown hair and turning them into thickly coiled serpents. "You wouldn't be Miss Linnea Amber, would you?" she asked.

"Yes," Linnea said, then cleared her throat and said it again, a bit louder. "Yes, I am." The girl nodded and smiled, lips the color of blackberries tilting up into a grin.

"I'm happy to meet you finally. I was told by a friend that you prefer to meet appointments in person instead of through the phone. He says that that way you can make a decision on how to do your work. I mean, is that true or am I being put on?"

Linnea looked at her, at this girl who didn't at all look like a reporter—but then how often do reporters look like reporters? She was wearing a dark brown fringe jacket over a grey underachiever top, denim jeans that were running threadbare at the bottoms. In one blink of lightning she noticed two things that made her wonder if the one cup of beer she'd had was affecting her powers of perception. The first, that the girl's eyes were a deep grey like iron or weathered platinum. The second, that she wore a pendant on a thin chain, a small glass bauble that had some sort of black powder inside it. Ash, charcoal, black salt?

"I think your friend must be messing with you," Linnea said. "I'd actually rather do this sort of thing over the phone…I'm sorry, who are you?"

"Oh, I'm Morel Olwen." A hand extended in the rain, and for a shallow moment Linnea only stared at that pale, pale hand. When lightning illuminated the street she fancied that that hand and the rest of her body soaked up the light, making it dimly glow with an arsenic moonlight.

No, just an optical illusion. Just a…what was that called? An afterimage, just a brightness inconsistency, like what happens after you've glanced at the sun and you can still see a fuzzy dot of orange-yellow for minutes afterward. Just the rods and cones in her eyes saying "what the fuck is going on" and being unable to readapt quickly enough.

Jogging herself out of her thoughts, Linnea quickly shook the other woman's hand. It was cold and clammy. She could feel callouses.

"I don't blame you for getting out of there," the girl—Morel—said, that wired grin still on her face. "I wished I'd left sooner. That movie was probably the worst thing I've ever seen. Either Cronenberg or Milligan would have done better than that."

"Yeah, it wasn't…it wasn't all that great, was it?" The thunder was making the woman hard to hear, the rain becoming harder to bear. "Look, do you mind if we walk? There's a diner down the street, and this rain…"

"Yeah, yeah, that'd be perfect! Let's go," the woman's expression seemed to explode, her grey eyes widening and that grin pulling tighter. The gripping feeling in Linnea's stomach seemed to jump into her chest. The girl was very good at holding a forced smile, so she probably was a reporter.

Stop being so jumpy, she told herself, chastised herself in her friend's voice. If she's not a reporter, she's probably just another weird fan wanting an interview, or another painter wanting some tips on the trade. Linnea wondered how much the coffee was at the diner down the street; how much to shred her expectation?

After a few steps, she finally let the question out. "So, are you a reporter or something? Or a student maybe?"

The girl's grin didn't let up. "No, I'm not. I can't stand talking to people for too long. Conversation to me is like a stick of gum that wears out real quick. It becomes stunted and bland and in the end, nothing we say really matters. Does it?"

Wow, that well dried up pretty quick. Linnea looked at the girl, dark and brooding and still wearing that grin in the shadow of the storm, and the urge to not be here slowly suffused her body. "So, are you…"

"My dad is Saturn Olwen. He commissioned six paintings from you over the past three years."

"Oh!" That was a name with which Linnea was familiar, and which held only positive connotations. Beginning in the autumn of 1992, Linnea had fallen into the dry times that all others in her profession inevitably fall into. She was running late on her payments, backing up in late fees month after month, and she was breaking her budget just to be able to eat. Then, on the morning of the last day of September, she'd received a call from a man named Saturn Olwen, a farmer way out in the country outside of Asenath. He called to say he'd received one of her cards and had wanted to commission a landscape painting of his home. She was so ecstatic she didn't think to discuss funds, which wasn't that much of an issue since he'd paid about twenty percent more than she'd reserved for detailed commissions. The first piece he wanted to be titled "The Dry Fields," but anything after that, he said, she was free to title herself.

She would be asked several more times by Saturn to paint different locales on his property at different angles, from the nice three-story house to the oddly squat, wide barn, to the rolling hills and fields that took on a surreal, almost Dada-esque quality when an October mist wound through everything, and each item she produced was received with enthusiasm and an exorbitant check. The money bolstered both her assets and her resolve. She didn't know she'd painted six of them, it certainly felt like more.

Seeing the woman in a new light, Linnea now felt comfortable enough to smile. "Well, it's certainly nice to meet you. I hope your father's doing alright."

The woman motioned to a pickup truck that stood by the curb a few yards away. One of the side mirrors was missing, and the parts that weren't rusted brown-orange were pine green. "There's my ride over there."

"Ah. I mean, your father must be—"

"He died two months ago, Miss Amber. Cerebral aneurism." Morel then made a sound with her lips, a cartoonish imitation of a bubble popping, just like Victor Borge would have done.

Morel suddenly darted ahead, blocking Linnea off. She pulled something small out of an inner pocket in her jacket, something that glinted with blue steel as lightning clawed at the sky. The mouth of the barrel couldn't have been larger than her thumb, but less than a few feet from her body it appeared massive.

"Get in the truck, Miss Amber," the woman said, her grey eyes deadening in their sockets. Her lipstick was starting to run in the rain, night-black shadows vomiting down her chin.

Linnea tried to think of something to say; heroes in stories and movies have a way of coming up with clever witticisms on the spot, some clever riposte or quip that left their opponent stunned, giving them time to properly react. The sight of Morel's pistol had emptied her mind, and all she could think to say was "What?"

"Get in the fucking truck. Right now."

She looked around, hoping that someone would be witnessing this and were already calling the police, but there wasn't a soul in the street. Everyone had gone to get out of the rain. They were standing behind the truck, which shielded them from the passing cars. With the pouring rain she doubted someone could comprehend what they were seeing anyway.

With a chill deeper than the rain forming inside her, she opened the passenger door of the truck and slid inside. Morel slammed it shut, and the too-loud pop-click of the locks rattled through her skin.

Time filled her nose again, filled her lungs and coated the cilia of her uvula. That terrible living-rotting smell poured out in a long ceaseless wave from the air conditioning vents, the stereo, the seats. She was lost in a cloud of the stuff. She covered her nose and started to gag. Just then, Morel opened the driver's side door with the key and jumped in, staring at her with eyes grimmer than the clouds.

"If you try to make a break for it," she said as she hefted her revolver, "you can say goodbye to your kneecaps. If you try to take this away from me, you can kiss your hands farewell, too. Clear?"

Linnea nodded. She tried to turn away from the gun, to turn her attention to the windshield and the blurry shapes beyond the cresting waves on the glass, but she couldn't. In a moment, the truck roared to sonorous life. White Zombie began blaring from the speakers, the windows vibrating to each chord.

"Buckle up," Morel said. She quickly attached her own seatbelt and turned to stare at Linnea. "We're not leaving 'til you put your damn seatbelt on, Miss Amber. Safety first and shit."

Linnea put her seatbelt on, as quickly as she could without seeming twitchy or unpredictable. Her chest pounded as she fought for breath, trying to find that spot between getting sufficient oxygen and not warranting attention.

"Chocks away," Morel said and pulled out into the desolate street. The height of the seat was alien to Linnea, who had only ever owned small sedans. She felt like she was in the belly of some steel beast running rampant through the city, and everything, even the rain, was careening to get out of its way.

In time—in the suppurating limbs of that damnable damning Time—an hour had quickly passed on, and then another. The CD in the player was already on its third cycle, and Asenath was far and away behind them, a seraphic garden of concrete and steel and age no longer visible. All that seemed to exist was the dense corridor of pines, silver birch, and skinny tamarack that stretched forward and back into forever. The road was still asphalt, but cracked and porous. Here, the road signs were pockmarked with those signs of rural life typical of television shows or melodramas; shotgun acne and dirt, the paint sometimes faded by the weather, or taken over by rust. Some had their supports bent to tortured angles by drunken drivers.

Neither of them had spoken in those two too-long hours. Linnea's thoughts would occasionally fall onto her tongue, but her lips would remain shut. She tried to formulate some clever lie that might make this woman think twice about what she was doing, but by the time the thought had reached its end stage she would inadvertently realize that even if Morel couldn't see right through the lies, she'd probably not believe them anyway.

When Morel's voice broke the monotony, Linnea felt like she'd just woken up from a bad dream into the same awful dream. A pale hand flicked out snake-quick and dialed down the volume. "You know something? When you're out in the forest and you're foraging, just foraging, it's just a hobby or a pastime for some people. Just something you do on your off days. But when it becomes the thing that actually sustains you, that becomes the sole source of income for your family, then you learn real quick what you have to get clever at. That's us, Amber, all the way. The Olwen family is an old Welsh family that knows the difference between a chanterelle and a death cap. Mushrooms, you see, are our family's wealth. You sit in your nice lofty apartment and paint your bills away, but we have to forage, to root through the earth and cultivate things that don't want to be cultivated, unless you know how to convince them. It's how we were able to live where we are for almost one hundred years, how I was able to take university classes, and how my father could afford your goddamn paintings.

"Maybe you knew this, Amber, and maybe you didn't, but about five years ago my dad was starting the first stages of Alzheimer's. I didn't see it, or maybe I didn't want to see it, but there were signs right from the beginning. It was the little things he'd forget. Where he'd left his keys, where he'd put his boots when he'd come back from the store. And the shaking. But that's the thing about disease, it's like a snowball on a mountain. You barely see it when it starts, maybe the shadow, but you can't see it until it's right there, twenty feet high and barreling right into you. By the end he was hallucinating, living in a world that was thirty years ago and I wasn't even a zygote yet. He didn't know who I was, my own dad. I'd tell him my name and he'd make this disgusted face and shake his head. 'That's a disgusting name,' he'd say. 'That's not a name for a girl like you. Why in the hell would I name a child that?'

"Do you know what a morel is, Miss Amber? It's a mushroom. It's a commercially marketed edible fungus that looks like a brain that's caved in on itself after rotting from the inside out. It's a little tumorous heart, replete with pits and ridges, and there are fields of them at home. Morchella esculenta, or common yellow morel. We have a wealth of them there, as well as other Ascomycetes and Basidiomycetes. Truffles, puffballs, chanterelles, even some small boletes grow on our farm—I imagine it's so rich in nitrogen and old organic matter that they can flourish anywhere there, which is just as well. I used to wonder how terribly difficult it would be to harvest them when I was little, as if they were normal crops like corn or tomatoes. Hell no, fungi have claws, and they can survive…"

Linnea listened as hard as she watched, as intently as the limits of her perception warranted, and she noticed by the thin glaze in Morel's eyes that she was working herself into some kind of a meditative state by waxing scientifically about her mushrooms. She was looking past the road now. Linnea looked at the gun in her hand, swallowing with a dry throat at the prospect. At the next road marker, the one coming up, right then…

"The microscopic hyphae can extend out well past normal expected parameters, and given enough nutrients and water, they can grow out indefinitely. Not merely feet or yards, but whole miles, hectares of bundled up hyphae spread out like a nervous system, down there in the soil, existing for years or even centuries through the fading seasons. Might make you think the next time you see a little fairy ring of meadow mush—"

Linnea was on her in a second, both hands reaching for the revolver. Morel's grip had not weakened as she had hoped; the wheel spun with her, sending the truck off kilter and into the other lane while Morel tried to right it.

Linnea gripped the gun, encased in the other woman's fingers, trying to pry those clammy fingers apart while keeping the barrel point away from her stomach. Morel made a sound deep in her throat, a guttural and primitive sound. She wrenched her hand away and a spear of pain shot through Linnea's palm. There was blood there, a slash of red and raw pink. The barrel sights must have torn the skin.

There was a thud as the gun fell to the floor between Morel's feet. Linnea felt a hand grip the back of her head, saw the dashboard flying up to meet her, and then there was nothing.

III

Sight was pain. For a long time, perception and sensation held hands long enough to coat Linnea's world in bright throbbing agony, transforming everything into homogenized shapes. The moment she opened her eyes they were affronted by furred blobs of color, indefinite, swirling. Everything was dancing, the air cold and oily, and everywhere was that terrible smell of Time.

With a lurch that carried her chair a couple of inches, she vomited over the side. Some ended up on her shirt, but there was little she could do about that. She wriggled her hands against the thick rope securing her to the chair. In a bizarre abstraction of thought, she recognized it as the same kind that she'd used when her aunt and uncle took her fishing along the rivers that ran through Alberta. A kind of rope strong enough to keep a muskie from breaking free.

Trapped, yes. Caught.

Eventually her vision cleared enough and her pain became more centralized, pinpointed across her forehead. She awoke to a fantasy, something that couldn't be true in a normal world. To the best of her knowledge, she assumed she was in a spacious living room that branched out to at least three different rooms or halls, rustically well-to-do, but whatever grandeur it might have had had been consumed by the fungi that seemed to grow along every possible substrate. She could see fat polypores the size of small flower pots growing on the walls, fuzzy molds and rot spreading in waves across what had once been a nice carpet, and brilliantly colored toadstools and caps sprouting, ascending almost religiously, in tight groups from whatever physical surface that could be spared. Sections of the wooden siding in the house had rotted clear through, allowing scaffolds of daylight to pierce through the walls. At her feet were bizarre black nodules that rose up and wavered, resembling the barbels of catfish.

Morel suddenly walked into her vision, her jacket divested and her makeup gone, so that now Linnea could see how sunken and red her eyes were. She held a small white mushroom in her right hand, brought it up to her mouth and took a shallow bite. She chewed it, staring at Linnea with that dead, disconnected expression. "Agaricus campestris has a sugary taste, pretty saccharine, until you get to the gills. The spores are earthy and bitter. They weren't made to be eaten. Nothing is, really."

"What are you doing," Linnea asked, her voice sounded odd and muffled in her own ears. "What's going on?"

"You know what's going on!" Morel flung the remaining flesh of the mushroom at her, clipping her neck. "Stop pretending and just confess already!"

"What? I don't…I don't know what you're talking about."

For a moment, a moment too long in Linnea's reality, Morel didn't look human. Her nostrils flared and her eyes seemed to soak and exude a hatred of the most undiluted form. She stomped across the floor, the rotted wood seeming to wail against her onslaught, and she placed both her hands on the arms of the chair, positioning her face inches from Linnea's. Her voice was like rocks gathering momentum down a hillside.

"Before the aneurism, my dad was driving himself insane. The disease and his own retrograded thoughts were creating delusions about our home, about his work, about me. Everything was skewed in his mind, but whatever he saw, he saw it as normal. Your paintings, your expensive paintings, exacerbated his delusions. Your art fed his madness, but it was never enough for him; he kept crawling back to you for more. You just. Wouldn't. Stop."

Linnea wanted to reply but she couldn't, something had formed in her throat and kept the words from coming out. The air made her feel as though her ribs were closing in on her lungs.

Morel got up and quickly walked behind the chair. She then ungently pushed Linnea around the hollering floor, grinding through the sea of fungi beneath their feet until she came to a painting. Linnea recognized it as the first one in the series she'd painted, The Dry Fields. "I like this one, Amber. I really like how it expresses an honest working mentality set against the infinity of the dusk. It's like all that hard work could be swept away in a breeze and the dusk wouldn't give a damn."

Linnea noticed that some kind of sweeping white rot was taking hold across the canvas, starting from the top, as though an ugly mist was falling down onto the farmhouse.

"Or what about this one?" Linnea was shunted along until they came to another one. This one showed the beginning of the woodlands beyond the farmhouse, set against a normal clouded sky. It also had deep gouges and angry slash marks from something big and sharp. Some of the strips hung down like sad dog ears. "I think this one is your best work. I really do."

"I'm sorry about your dad, Morel," Linnea said, starting to gasp for breath. A fist was clenching her chest. "I really am, but I didn't know. I didn't know anything about your dad or anyone in your family. I just…it was just work."

"Work." Morel appeared to pause, to contemplate the word that hung on her lips and slowly dribbled out, sounding it out in two syllables. In that time, Linnea realized that she'd just said the wrong thing.

"Do you want to know what work is? I'll show you work. I'll show you my work."

Morel grabbed the chair and hauled it and Linnea as though they weighed nothing through the room and down the dark hallway. At the end, in the dark, she paused, jerking the chair back, making Linnea's head jerk back with a sharp pain. She felt something small pop. There was a tall ornate door at the end of the hall, staring back at them, daylight pouring out from the bottom.

"You want work," Morel kept saying. She strutted around the chair and up to the door. She glanced back at Linnea, her eyes mingling rage and expectant joy, like someone hoarding the punchline of a joke. The air was so close here, so thick and cold and Linnea could hardly breathe anymore.

Morel slowly opened the door, the grey light slowly cutting away the shadows. Filamentous hyphae gave way with audible snaps and crackles. Dust and grime and things that Linnea didn't know fell from the top of the door as it opened, and it opened up to something that forced what remained of her air up into her throat in a weak scream.

Laying prostrate on the bed in the funerary Osiris pose was what she could only describe as the corpse of a man, unclothed and uncovered, that had been allowed to remain above ground for two months. His flesh was not dry, but damp and grey, a kind of gruelish complexion. Where there once had been eyes were empty sockets that had become home to groupings of pale, ghostly mushrooms. The mouth likewise was orange and strangely phosphorescent with what Linnea's aunt always called swamp beacons. Mushrooms of a variety of species and stages of life festooned every square inch of the small room, white threads spread out into a spidery haze, but Linnea wouldn't be able to notice this until she had opened her eyes again.

"This is going to be a collaboration," Morel whispered down into her ears. The chair started moving toward the room, wood-on-wood squealing like rats. "All three of us are going to be the maker and the medium."

For the first time in a while, the primitive reptilian cells in her brain sought action, and the seeking thought finally found strength in muscle tissue. Linnea kicked upward with both legs. One struck only open air—that cold hungry air inside the room—but the other found the doorframe. Morel, caught off guard, found herself bent over the back of the chair by her own momentum.

Linnea kicked out, not only sending the chair backward a ways but completely ass-over-teakettle backwards. Morel shouted as the chair's back scraped against her.

Her landing was not so graceful. What remained of her air was driven out of her chest when she struck the floor. Morel recovered much more quickly, and was on her in an instant. Spittle was flinging from her lips as she leaned down, moving around the chair to the front so she could get a better purchase.

Linnea kicked out again, catching Morel in the stomach and sending her back a ways.

The blow was not very strong, she'd certainly held back so she could try to regain some of her breath. But something, whether it was the velocity that sent her back a few steps, or it was caution on Morel's part that made her take that extra step backward, had worked out.

Morel tripped on the doorframe, and she reached for the door as she fell backward into the room with what used to be her father. She made a sound before the door slammed shut and bathed the hall in darkness, a low sound like a series of expletives congealed into one syllable.

Linnea was unable to move, she could only listen to the frantic scrabbling, gasping, choking on air that wasn't air on the other side of that black door. The light under the door became strangled by swirling motes of yellow, brown, and white miasma as the spores spread out, seeking some new substrate on which to grow.