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The phone call from Johnny came late that night, after nine, when I’d already decided that the dinner was a bust and was sadly finishing the entire pan of chimichangas.
“David,” he said, and I immediately knew that he was not alone. Otherwise, he would’ve called me one of his affectionate nicknames—for a man of his profession and gruff disposition, Johnny was surprisingly mushy sometimes. “Sorry I’m late, but there’s this…body here. I might actually need your expertise.”
Surprise at my usefulness was obvious in his voice, but I decided not to get upset and instead forgive myself the chimichanga excess. One thing canceled the other, you see. “What can I do for you?” I said in my most professional tone and added, “Also, I ate your dinner.”
“No problem,” he said. “I grabbed a hotdog on the way. Listen, we have a possible homicide here, and it’s just gross. But we don’t know what or how. And also, there’s a case like it in Arizona.”
“And I would be useful how?” I was a biologist, teaching at a community college, not a junior detective or anything.
“We have some slides we need you to look at. Tissue slides.”
I specialized in fungi, but really, most tissues were familiar to me. But so would they be to any pathologist, one of which they surely had at the morgue or otherwise available, and I pointed that out to Johnny.
“We need an expert,” he said. “The morgue says that they’ve never seen anything like it. Can you come down to the precinct?”
Of course I could and I did, barely taking time to smooth down my hair, wipe the telltale sour cream from my face, and grab a leather jacket. It was not strictly necessary—it was warm outside, seeing how it was August, but this jacket smelled of familiar leather and old sweat, and was always comforting. I thought I’d need that.
It wasn’t the first time I stopped by the precinct—while dating a cop, it was necessary. I wasn’t sure how much Johnny ever told anyone about us; it was his style not to explain anything and hope that no one would notice. So I usually picked him up after work or before lunch and tried to be non-embarrassing.
Johnny waited for me outside, the pale strip of skin on his upper lip eerily resembling a smile—it was still lighter than the rest of his face after he shaved off the mustache he’d sported when we first met. Good riddance to that thing. A cigarette dangled, limp, and he slouched against the rod iron banister by the doorway, hands in pockets, looking more like a teenage malcontent than a proper detective.
My heart went out to him.
He glanced about him to make sure we were alone before giving me a quick hug. That was pretty good in such proximity to his place of work. “You have to see this,” he said, and pressed something large and white and cottony into my hand. It was a face mask.
“Something infectious?” I offered, as I followed him inside.
We trotted down the linoleum corridor and weaved between the cubicles, to one of the back rooms where they had a makeshift lab set up. The pathologist, an old balding man named Cramer, and a few other men I’d never met before, sat around a long, chipped table, with two microscopes and a handful of slides strewn about. Their faces were featureless, hidden by the masks, and their troubled eyes above the white muzzles disturbed me more than anything else.
I put the mask on and looked through the eyepiece. At first, I only saw normal brain tissue—gray matter, little neuron bodies splayed like stars. Then I realized that there was something else: white filaments stretching between the cells, like some weird shadow axons connecting them, while the real axons were nowhere to be seen.
“Huh,” I said out loud. “That’s a fungus.”
I looked up at Cramer who’d asked, anxiously, and shrugged. “Hard to say. Looks like a dikaryon to me, so likely a basidiomycete or an ascomycete. Cup fungus. The same group as a truffle.”
“What is a truffle doing in his head?” Johnny muttered, and his lovely dark eyes looked at me, tortured, the white palimpsest of a former mustache twitching.
“Not a truffle, probably,” I said. “More likely, some mold like a bread mold or some parasitic thing. I don’t think any are parasitic on humans.”
“Can you find out exactly what it is then?” a previously silent man I’ve never met before asked.
“I suppose I could do some DNA testing on it,” I said. I could, and really, this was kind of interesting. You don’t see a lot of people killed by a fungus in their brain. At least, I didn’t. “Can I get a sample?”
“Only dead tissue,” Cramer said. “CDC is on us. Even the slides have to be treated cautiously. CDC is saying it’s an epidemic.”
“It’s not,” Johnny interrupted, and the rest of them nodded. “They just have to overreact. Boy who cried wolf, you know.”
“There are similar cases?” I asked.
Johnny nodded. “We just heard that there was another case in Atlanta. One in Texas. One in India. One in Russia, two in China, two in Korea, one in Western Europe, one in the Philippines. Possibly in Ghana, but that one wasn’t confirmed.”
Even though I wasn’t an epidemiologist, I finally understood the perplexed expressions of everyone here. It didn’t make any sense—with an epidemic, one expected a localized cluster. Some connection between people. With no discernible pattern at all and just a few cases per continent, it didn’t make any sense.
“I’ll find out about the fungus,” I promised. “I’ll be careful.”
With that, Cramer handed me a slide, and that was that. “I’m going home then,” I said, and looked at Johnny. “Unless you need me for anything.”
He shook his head, sorrowful. “No one needs anything right now. We should all go home. You mind driving?”
* * * *
And that was how I ended up with the mystery fungus in my figurative lap. The labs in community colleges were not exactly state of the art, but neither was their security, so I smuggled my slides in and made sure that no other faculty members were interested in using the thermocycler. I figured I’d amplify some standard sequences with Neurospora markers to see if the ascomycete databases turned up this particular sequence. Because if that didn’t work, I would have to bother someone better off in terms of lab equipment…although it could be a good excuse to go see Alan.
I chastised myself for managing to drag the poor undeserving Alan into my tawdry schemes. And really, I owed it to everyone involved to keep my love life uncomplicated and straightforward, and I had decided a few months ago that Alan was a mere friend, a good friend, with whom I had daily chat sessions. Nothing unusual there. Plenty of people did that; but I would be the first to admit that the fact that my scientific interests lately boiled down to excuses to see Alan was, at the very least, problematic.
I dug through the freezer, looking for primers which I surely had and Taq polymerase that I possibly had, and promised myself to talk to Alan as soon as the thermocycler was up and running. The whole process was way too close to magic for my taste—you never knew when the temperamental apparatus would decide not to work, and I considered sacrificing small animals to the unknown, but hopefully amenable to bribery, gods of the PCR and molecular biology.
Thankfully, I found the polymerase and the primers and all the buffers, and loaded the machine. I had a computer in the lab—an old, embarrassingly outdated, PC which ground and whined every time I attempted to run AIM and internet browser at the same time, as if it were the greatest indignity ever inflicted on machine kind. It sat squatly, like a plastic toad, on the chipped bench of which I claimed only half (the colleague to whom the other half belonged was thankfully not as interested in research as he used to be a few years back).
The thermocycler was doing its mysterious thing, and I said a stupid little prayer for my controls to work at the very least. Then I logged on.
Alan worked in an IT department of a bigger and better university barely fifty miles away. I’d met him when they’d had a conference on fungal ecology, and Alan had shown up repeatedly to fix people’s laptops that wouldn’t interface with projectors or to help with other technical crap a roomful of academics couldn’t deal with. I offered to buy him lunch out of gratitude and the fact that his jeans fitted surprisingly well for an IT guy. We have talked daily ever since, and I’ve meticulously hidden it from Johnny, even though I wasn’t doing anything untoward.
Alan pinged me immediately—I didn’t even have to pretend to ignore him.
“Hi,” he said. “A friend of mine died.”
“Who?” I messaged back, thinking about the body in the morgue not a mile from me. A body with its brain removed and sliced and infected by an ascomycete. An ascomycete whose DNA was hopefully being amplified at this very lab.
“No one you’d know,” he replied. “A friend in Kenya. They think it’s some brain infection.”
Even better. “I didn’t realize you had a Kenyan connection.”
“I traveled a few times. My grandparents came from there.”
“Sorry to hear about your friend.” I wondered if I should tell him. “Johnny says there’ve been a few cases like that all over the world.”
A long pause. Finally, he typed, “Do they know what’s causing it?”
“No. There was a dead man at the police station yesterday. I’m helping out with some work.”
“I’m sure they have CDC cracking on that too.”
He didn’t have to be dismissive. Sure, I was small potatoes, but someone cared enough to find out what I thought. I held my whining back because the man had just lost a friend. “I’m sure I’m not humanity’s only hope,” I typed with unnecessarily forceful keystrokes. “But the more people are working on it, the better.”
“Sorry,” Alan said. “You want to get together soon?”
By now, I’m certain that Alan had no romantic or sexual interest in me. And yet my heart sped up.
There were things that remained unsaid between Alan and me; for example, Johnny and the fact he’s a cop, and what was I doing and all that. Alan disliked Johnny on general principle, I think—he confessed his mistrust of the cops almost as soon as we’d met. We ran an interesting continuum of GLBT activism—I was always signing petitions and organizing things at the college, while Johnny, if not exactly closeted, preferred not to mention words like GLBT.
On the third hand, Alan seemed to be used to several different kinds of oppression so that neither one stood out as particularly deserving of anger. I supposed that when you catch enough shit, every new offense becomes just one more thing. Early on, he told me as much. “You’re white,” he said. “You expect to be treated well. When people don’t, you get outraged and run to the nearest pride parade. It must be nice to have only one thing to ever be annoyed about.”
“Not as nice as having nothing to be annoyed about,” I parried, but took his point. Between the three of us, we presented a nearly comprehensive picture of neuroses and coping strategies. Neuroses were mostly mine and strategies mostly Alan’s, with Johnny partaking as little as possible of either.
Alan’s IM screen timed out, then he came back on. “Sorry. On the phone with another friend. It’s weird but it seems that someone I know is also dead. In Denver.”
“They don’t know. Dropped dead in front of his computer.”
I swallowed hard. Johnny had said they’d found the fungal corpse (this is what I’d started calling him) in front of the computer, too. Then again, if I were to drop dead, the likelihood would be that I would go in the same way—I was spending too much time in front of the monitor. It was becoming a cliché, like death in front of the TV. “Was he online a lot?”
“Yes. Isn’t everyone?”
“LOL,” I typed, obligatorily. And immediately added, “Sorry about your friend.”
“We gamed together sometimes,” Alan said. “Isn’t it sad how virtual friends become your actual friends? I swear, between you and my gaming group, that’s most of my social life.”
I felt flattered that he included me.
Alan logged off soon after, and I played spider solitaire until the thermocycler did its dirty business and spat out some DNA. Fortunately, it worked—the control shone nice and brightly, but the sample wasn’t even there. I cursed and called the bio-tech supplier to get primers for every fungal group known to humankind. Afterward, I checked online to see if Alan was back on (he wasn’t), and headed home soon after.
Johnny got home early too—I was barely starting on dinner. I decided to make pork loins with sweet potatoes and mango relish, and Johnny sniffed the air suspiciously. “Fruit?”
“Some,” I said, and chopped mangoes. This place had an all-right kitchen, with a vaulted window and spacious slate counter tops, but I wished for a bigger stove and a breakfast nook. Perhaps we could remodel some day, if Johnny overcame his distaste for any sort of domestic tasks. And gourmet food.
“Don’t make it too fancy, okay?” he said.
He lingered in the kitchen, two steps behind me, and I could see the frown on his forehead out of the corner of my eye.
“What’s up?” I said. “Any word from CDC?”
He shook his head. “They think it’s fungal meningitis. Crypto-something.”
“Cryptococcus.” The word hung uncomfortably. For a gay man of his age, Johnny was so naïve—it’s like he’d never heard of cryptococcal meningitis. “But it mostly affects immuno-compromised people.”
“That’s what the CDC said.”
“Only it’s not—Cryptococcus is usually a yeast, and these grew into filaments.”
Johnny shrugged. “Can’t help you there.”
“I’m getting basidiomycete primers tomorrow,” I said. And added when I saw his blank look, “Crypto is a basidiomycete.”
“There was another case today,” he said. “In Denver.”
“How did he die?”
“Collapsed in front of his computer. The weird thing though…that guy in Denver had ants crawling all over him, and there was broken glass. When he fell, it looks like he broke his ant farm.”
“Ant farm?” What was he, five?
Johnny nodded. “The guy last night…he had one, too. Do you think….”
“Ants and humans don’t share any fungal parasites. There are some fungi that parasitize ants, like Cordyceps, but it’s an ascomycete. The sample isn’t.”
I peeled sweet potatoes and talked, trying to cover up the sensation of quiet dread that was starting to stir in my stomach. If you’re a kid, you get this sensation in the dark, walking to the bathroom in the middle of the night, that pure maddening fear that makes you forget your dignity and run and leap into bed, irrational fear turning into no less irrational triumph at having escaped and made it under the blanket. As an adult, I had nowhere to run and no way to overcome the fear but by talking. I felt Johnny’s irritation with my chattiness growing, like a billowing steam cloud very close behind my back, but I couldn’t help it.
“David,” he said, after I babbled about ascomycetes for a good five minutes. “I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about, but it smells delicious. I’m going to hit the shower and I’ll see you in a little bit, all right?”
I felt perverse as I said, without turning, just imagining his hunched over back receding toward the living room, “Alan knew this guy, I think.”
“You spoke to Alan.” He stopped. “When?”
“Today.” I really never meant to use Alan to make Johnny jealous, but I always did nonetheless. “He said a friend of his died in Denver, collapsed in front of the computer. I think it’s the same guy.”
“Could be.” Johnny sounded thoughtful rather than pissed off or upset. “Can you ask him the guy’s name, and if that’s the right guy, ask Alan what the dead man had wanted with an ant farm.”
“What happened to the ants?”
“In the criminology lab,” Johnny said. “they’re testing them for pathogens.”
I was certain that they wouldn’t find anything, but kept quiet.
Johnny resumed his tired trek to the bathroom, and I was left with my cooking and my guilt. And a great excuse to call Alan and meet him for coffee—why, Johnny had practically encouraged me to.
* * * *
I got hold of Alan first thing in the morning. “Did your friend have an ant farm?” I messaged.
“Larry? Yeah, he did.” The right guy then. “Spoke about it a lot. Weird that you asked.”
“Why?” I asked, warming up to my new role as an interrogator.
“Last time we spoke, he kept asking me to get an ant farm. He said, these are not some stupid regular ants—these are leaf cutter ants, and he could mail me a starter colony because he just got some flying ones. He said he would mail them to me if I wanted. And the mushrooms they grow—you know, for food. It is kinda neat. Ever heard of it?”
I did. Leaf-cutter ants and their fungal gardens had always fascinated me—the fungi more than the ants, because those were the ones not found anywhere else but the ants’ burrows. Talk about mutualism! I just wasn’t sure they would make great pets.
“Dunno.” Alan fell silent for a few minutes, and I was starting to worry. When he came back, he only said, “He liked the way they mulched those leaves, and the fungal gardens.”
And then he logged off abruptly. I waited around, hoping he would come back and it was a computer malfunction and not a virtual slammed door. He never returned, and I started another round of PCR—thank God for overnight primers.
Things nagged on my mind—the deaths, of course, but also this subdued strangeness and the interplay of the fungal groups. What I had at first thought to be an ascomycete was likely to be a basidiomycete, the group that included edible mushrooms and Cryptococcus and some disease-causing fungi, and— I stopped abruptly, my mind searching for tentative connections where there weren’t any. Molds that leaf-cutter ants grew were also basidiomycetes, only they were edible, not parasitic.
The phone rang, startling me. It was Johnny, of course—who else would call me at the lab during the summer break? College was such a ghost town then, it was difficult to believe that it was packed with young bodies for most of the year, and I was just a pale, pudgy apparition among their exuberant, fleshy youth. Now, however, I was fully present, solid, and flinching at the sound of the ringing phone. I picked up.
“Interesting thing,” he said. He often started mid-sentence. “CDC says it’s not crypto—you were right. They don’t know what it is. Sequences don’t match anything in the database.”
Scooped by the CDC—not surprising, they of course have better equipment and more people who are better at this stuff. “They’re sure.”
“Yeah. Apparently, there was another body. Some shut-in, he must’ve died days ago. He never came out, just played his online games. Neighbors complained about the smell. Anyway, he was in bad shape to begin with, but the weird thing was, there was something like a black horn growing out of his head. They sent a bio-hazard team and sealed the area, because they think it’s the mushroom, or whatever you call it.”
“Fungal fruiting body,” I mumbled, trying not to be too alienating. “You sure it looks like a horn?”
“Sure, but I can Email you some pictures.” He paused, humming to himself. “You know, it’s so strange to be working with CDC. They really get on those cases quick, and I like that they keep us in the loop.”
“They can’t arrest people. Or do all the legwork. They need you.”
“I suppose.” He heaved a sigh. “Listen, I’ll be home early. I’ll make dinner.”
Well, that was new. “Thanks. I’ll work a little later then.”
“Have you spoken to Alan?”
“Briefly, on IM. He said his friend in Denver was really into ants. I’ll look into it.”
As soon as we hung up, I collapsed onto my stupid metal chair with the twisty leg that didn’t quite work properly, and clasped my head in my hands. There was something awfully familiar about all this, and the black horn…I logged into my Email and shuddered when I saw the pictures Johnny had sent: the man’s face was carefully blotted out, but the blue and purple streaks on his balding scalp spoke of decomposition, and there was an ugly protuberance emerging from the back of his skull. A long thin black horn stretched upward, like a leech doing a tail stand. I had to remind myself that I was looking at the actual picture of an actual dead person, so fascinated I was with the alien structure.
I shifted my attention to the background—behind the swollen purple head with no face, there silvered a rectangle of the computer monitor opened to a blank page. And to the right of the head, there was a dark angle streaked with white, and it took me a second to realize that I was looking at a fish tank filled with earth, and the white streaks were mere reflected light from the monitor. An ant farm, with the possibility of a close look.
I opened the picture and zoomed in—high resolution photography made everyone a blade runner—and stared at the twisty, creviced mass of the soil. There were darker specks of underground tunnels, as one would expect in an ant farm, and I moved the cursor around, looking for any hint of anything unusual. In the very corner, I finally found something: thin threads of yellow and blue, coalescing into a lace-like pattern, fuzzing upward. Mold, I thought, good old fashioned ant food. That looked nothing like the black horn growing out of the dead man’s head.
I sighed and opened the browser. I knew now what I was looking for, only I still had no clue as to what it meant. I Googled “Cordyceps” and Emailed the images to Johnny.
Cordyceps was a parasitic fungus, infecting ants and other insects. It would take over their minds, make them behave in a strange manner—like climb to the very top of a tree, where the fungus would produce a fruiting body, a tiny slender horn, that would then disseminate its spores from the highest point possible. The horn that looked just like the one in Johnny’s picture.
There were two problems with that: first, Cordyceps was an ascomycete, and I’d already ruled out this possibility. Second, humans were not insects, and no fungus ever jumped host from insect to a human. Also, there didn’t seem to be an explanation for involvement of computers or ant farms.
The thermocycler beeped, helpfully letting me know that it was done. I slapped the tube contents onto a gel to run it. While the gel was doing its thing, I called Alan.
It took him a while to answer.
“I need to talk to you,” I said.
His voice came slow, dreamy. “I can’t. I need to set up the farm.”
“What farm?” I asked, chilling inside.
“An ant farm, stupid,” he said, and breathed his usual affectionate laugh. “Larry was right—it’s awesome.”
There wasn’t anything particularly great about the one in the dead man’s apartment. It was just a drab ant farm with some colorful mold, and by now I had no doubt it was dangerous. “Listen to me,” I said slowly, my mouth suddenly dry and my heart too sluggish to pump thick corn-syrup-like blood. “Don’t touch those ants and the mold, okay? I think they might be killing those people.”
His laughter came distant now, as if through a layer of cotton wool. “They’re fine, really. Larry told me all about them.”
“Larry’s dead,” I said.
There was the pause and the peculiar silence that let you know when someone had hung up on you. I put the receiver down and drew in a deep breath.
I felt light and empty and transparent as the things that had been happening to other people, in my proximity but not actually inside my sphere of concern, suddenly became personal and mattered to the point of heart palpitations and sick stomach and sweat on my palms. I didn’t like the feeling one bit.
Now it was my turn to call home and apologize for being late; I would’ve found a perverse pleasure in it if I weren’t so rattled. Thankfully, Johnny didn’t pick up. I left a message, hoping that my voice was steady enough. “Johnny,” I started. “I need to go see Alan. I think he got some of these ants. They grow this fungus, this mold—and it’s a basidiomycete.” (A quick shine with a UV lamp at my gel confirmed it—basidiomycete primers did their thing and there were fluorescent smudges of DNA all over the gel. “Yes, sure enough. See, those are leaf-cutter ants, and they grow a basidiomycete that they eat. But this one seems to be different—its fruiting body looks like an ascomycete, a parasitic fungus. I think it’s a fusion organism of some sort.” I caught myself then, and unplugged the gel—it would be fine ‘til tomorrow. “Anyway. I worry about Alan, and I’ll go see him, all right? Don’t worry—I won’t go inside and I’ll call the police if anything seems amiss. Love you.”
* * * *
Alan lived about forty miles north, in Elizabeth. I used to live there once, many years ago, and I still had a warm regard for the city, no matter how ugly-polluted-industrialized-gentrified it grew by the day. I’d never been to Alan’s place even though his address was in my Rolodex—I mailed him a book once, more of an excuse, the card in the pile of other cards a potential promise. I took it with me and, guided by recollection rather than useless GPS, drove along Elmora Street, looking for Vine that would take me to Dehart. The store fronts were just as I remembered them, Portuguese bakeries and bodegas, only older and with fraying awnings. I had no time to grieve for them, and I finally found the street and then the house, and rang the doorbell with a sense of dark foreboding.
There was no answer, and I knocked, and then banged on the door. The hallway, barely visible through the gauzy shade on the glass door, remained dark and dusty and empty. I rang the doorbell again.
Just as I was about to call the police, I heard footsteps. An old woman came to the door, dragging a foot and glaring at me from in between her hunched shoulders wrapped in a cabbage rose shawl.
“Looking for Alan,” I said, as soon as she opened the door.
She waved her desiccated arm to point me up the stairs. “Third floor,” she said. “Loft. He’s probably playing his game again. He always wears headphones and cannot hear a thing.”
Somewhat relieved, I thanked her and rushed up the stairs, taking three steps at a time. First I would have to flush those ants down the toilet…no, too dangerous. I needed to get Alan out of there and then call the hazmat team. That made sense.
Alan’s apartment was located at the top storey, which was smaller than the other two—it was practically a turret or a garret crowning the old house. I knew places like this; I always loved them for their open floor plan and surprising nooks and crannies. But now was not a good time to consider architecture, and I knocked. Alan didn’t answer, but the door squealed open the moment I applied some force to it.
The windows were tiny and the loft was dimly lit by fading daylight. No lights were on, and the nearest window was all but blocked off by a sizable jade tree in a clay pot. “Alan?” I called.
There was no answer except for faint, distant clacking, and I squinted into the dusk, past the raised platform with an undone bed on it and a tiny kitchen adjacent, separated only by half a drywall, and to the opposite end where another window was hidden behind drawn curtains and the milky light of a large flat monitor beckoned me.
Nothing but the keystrokes, and—despite my promises to Johnny and myself—I didn’t turn and call the cops, I, instead, took a cautious step toward the computer.
Alan did not turn even when I was barely a foot behind him. The accursed ant farm sat next to him on the table, and Alan’s IM window was open.
“These ants are great,” he typed. “You have to get them. I have some extras.”
“Alan?” I called without much hope of him ever hearing me.
He continued to type with stiff fingers, dead like those of a marionette. I fought the familiar quiet terror that had been twisting my stomach into knots and suddenly remembered danger. I started to back away—I remembered that the ants took those who were infected by Cordyceps as far from their anthills as possible. I was supposed to be smarter than an ant; then again, if they didn’t get infected by casual contact…I remembered the black horn, the spore-producing fruiting body. It was only when it bloomed out of the wretched head of an unfortunate insect and shed spores that it became dangerous. I hoped it worked the same here.
Then another window popped up, and he typed the same text, intent, oblivious to everything but the tapping of the keys. Then another. I was about to pull him off, to warn people on the receiving end of his messages that they didn’t need ant farms, when a video-chat window popped up. As if moved by an invisible force that filled him like a hand filling an empty glove, he picked up the ant farm and held it up, to the blinking eye of the small camera on top of the monitor. In the chat window, a pale pair of hands and a fish tank with ants appeared. It was very quiet as two men held their ant farms, as if the fish tanks were talking to each other.
Of course not. It was the ants—and the dark, damp room span before me as if a fissure opened before my feet. Of course, of course—the ants took over gamers, geeks, and others who spent time online so that they could persuade others to get more ants, and then ants made them facilitate communications between colonies. Ants took advantage of technology.
Very carefully, I pried the tank out of Alan’s fingers. He didn’t look at me, his hands still curled, fingers twitching as if struggling against imaginary weight. I rested the tank on the table, and grabbed Alan’s elbow. He felt rigid beneath my fingers, as if rigor mortis were already setting in.
“Come on,” I muttered, and dragged him to his feet.
He swayed but stood, empty. Cordyceps took control of ants’ brains; the fungus that they’d made (and by then I had no doubt that the mold in the tank was some unholy union of a parasitic ascomycete and a mild-mannered edible basidiomycete ants have been cultivating for millennia, created by ants) was likely to influence human behavior in a manner conducive to ants’ designs—spread them around and then let them talk to each other by video, so that they could teach each other how to grow the terrible fungus.
I almost laughed out loud at the absurd marriage of hive minds, ant colony and the internet, as I maneuvered Alan, stiff and light like a dead cat, toward the door of his apartment. Was he contagious? I hoped not. I hoped that there was some anti-fungal that would clear Alan’s poor infected geeky brain right out. I also hoped that I wasn’t messing up too badly.
I propped Alan against the wall as I dialed 911. They apparently got the CDC memo—as soon as I mentioned a fungal infection in the brain, I was transferred and a very calm, very kind voice told be not to take Alan outside but to wait inside the apartment.
Now that he was away from the ants, he seems to have lost the animating essence that moved him, and I let him collapse onto his bed. He sat, slumped, hands dangling between his knees, unresponsive to the world. If the fungus was still sending signals to his brain, he was unable to obey them. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I tried to warn you. I’m sure they can fix you.” I wasn’t. More disturbingly, I was getting a little light-headed from all the exertion and excitement. I tried to breathe deeper, all the while wishing I had a paper bag. Then I thought about the spores and held my breath.
There were sirens outside, and voices, and then the day caught up with me and I watched the darkness slowly fold over me, like a midnight-dark steamroller.
* * * *
I woke up in a hospital bed, a blue corrugated curtain blocking the view of the rest of the room, but I knew someone was there. A chair squealed and I looked up to see Johnny leaning forward in his chair.
“Don’t move,” he said. “You’re on the IV drip for the fungus.”
“They sure it’ll work?”
He smiled. “Pretty sure. You know you’re crazy to have gone in there. You should’ve just called the cops.”
I sensed his anxiety, thick in the air like the smell of sweat. “I would’ve done the same for you,” I answered the question he didn’t ask. “It was just so awful to think of someone all alone, and no one there to help. Like that man with a mushroom growing out of his head, you know?”
Johnny nodded. “Yeah. It was noble of you.”
I listened for traces of sarcasm but couldn’t find any. “I saw him showing the ants to the camera while someone else did the same. The ants, they talk via video-chat”
Johnny raised his eyebrows. “You saw that?”
I nodded. “See, it’s a good thing I went inside. I’m sure that this fungus both feeds the ants and helps them spread by infecting people and making them do the ants’ bidding.”
Johnny shrugged. “Weird,” he said. “Thank you for doing the work. CDC got some genes of this thing but they had no idea what it is or where it came from or what it does.”
I thumbed at the IV line. “Am I infected for sure?”
“They’re not sure—you crashed pretty badly. Feel a need to act like an ant?”
I smiled at the joke. “Not at all. I feel like squashing them all, really.”
Johnny managed a smile. “Then you’ll be all right.”
“He should be all right too. They think that fungus doesn’t have any immunities, so the meds should work.” He paused a while. “Anything else you need to tell me?”
“I told you everything I know.”
“Not about the fungus. About—” he thrust his chin in the direction of the curtain behind which Alan presumably lay in an identical bed.
I closed my eyes and smiled. It was nice to see him return to normalcy so quickly—on the one hand, there were intelligent ants and their weaponized fungus. On the other, Johnny was jealous, and it made me feel comforted, as if nothing was too bad when there were people who found energy to be jealous. As long as our little relationships mattered to us, there wasn’t going to be the end of the world.
I shook my head, the hospital pillowcase whispering starched and parchment-thin with every movement. “No,” I said. “Nothing at all.”