The Mushroom and the Cold

Author: John McNeil

The weather was too good. It should be twenty degrees with snow on the ground, but it was sixty-five and sunny. Milo hiked the forest outside Edgewood with unease. Edgewood was a mean, hypocritical, self-regarding city, a place of enlightenment so bright that all the people sleeping under the bridges couldn’t even sleep in the dark.
While he hiked Milo’s sweat evaporated from his neck as soon as it formed. They didn’t deserve this pleasantness, he thought, and would pay for it. He gathered mushrooms often in these forests, and today he searched for one that looked like a rotting orange peel. A mycologist by training, he was three years unemployed since the beginning of the Unraveling. That was what they now called the cascade of plague, depression, and strife they had thought was just one bad year when it started.
In his days as a scientist, he hadn’t believed the myths about healing mushrooms in the forest. The world so plainly needed healing now, though, that he tried to believe. If he were a doctor he would have researched a cure, if he were a sociologist he would have proposed a social program, but he was an ex-mycologist, so he searched for magic healing mushrooms.
They would like the shade over this hilltop. There might be some there. But “I got them before you,” said a familiar voice as Milo stepped over.
“Hi Blake,” Milo sighed. A rival from grad school, the only other person in Edgewood who cared as much about wild mushrooms. And indeed, Blake already had a basket full of orange.
“You don’t need all of those.”
“No, but you don’t get any.”
“We need them to fix us.”
“That’s stupid.”
“They could stop the Unraveling.”
“It’s sad you talk like that. You used to be a scientist.”
“Used to be.” Milo lunged and tried to grab the basket, but Blake picked it up too quickly, so Milo just tripped and fell into Blake, knocking him over. They both rolled down the hill, twigs, and brambles dragging against them till they stopped.
Milo imagined grabbing a sharp stick, raising it high, and plunging it into Blake’s heart, killing him. Then he’d stand and with the basket of mushrooms held high in the air, inhale a deep breath of pleasant air on a sunny day, skip out of the forest and catch a bus to the Water Treatment Facility, bribe someone to drop the pulverized mushrooms into the water and then kick back and watch the world get better.
Instead, he sat up. “Never mind. Keep them.”
“You’re giving up?”
“Yeah, it’s stupid anyway.”
“Okay,” said Blake, “is this a trick?”
“It’ll be cold tomorrow,” Milo said. “This can’t last.” He stood and dusted himself. “Keep them,” he said, and walked back over the hill.
“I’m glad you gave up,” Blake yelled after him, “but you look a little pathetic right now.”
Once out of Blake’s sight he walked faster, then run at full speed, until he crashed out of the forest onto the streets. Inside his jacket pocket, his hand clenched the mushroom he had grabbed during the scuffle. He ran till he reached the bus stop. There he halted, doubled over and panting. As his body heat from the run dissipated, Milo felt chillier, like a cold front had come in just then. The cold and the mushroom, Milo thought. One of them had to work.

The Bicyclist

Author: John McNeil

A yellow bicycle leans on the sign at the trailhead. Its narrow tires are completely unsuitable for the trail. The sign says “Closed For the Season.” It’s November and there are several inches of snow on the ground. These are just foothills, not mountains, but still. The snow and ice get worse as you go up. What’s a bike doing there?

That’s what Morton Serm is wondering. Middle-aged, balding, Caucasian, he works for the Park District, works at the Visitor Center by the parking lot near the trailhead. Now, during the offseason, there aren’t many visitors.

There are tracks in the snow near the bike, he now notices. Not footprints, but tracks of some kind. Not animal tracks. Sixteen small perfect circles in two rows. They’re printed in the snow in a few places near the bike, near the sign, and going up the trail.

Morton looks back at the parking lot. His car is there. It’s already 3:00 pm, and the sun will go down soon. He’s on the clock till 4:30 pm, but if he left now no one would notice. Stacey had the day off, and no one else is working today. Visitors aren’t likely to stop by this close to sundown, in winter. The phone doesn’t ring much either. He could just drive home. Pretend he never saw the bike.

He sighs and starts walking up the trail, following the tracks. It must be some new winter activity I haven’t heard of, he thinks. Why would you wear shoes with round pegs on the bottom for hiking in the snow? Sort of like the opposite of snowshoeing? Peg shoeing? He can ask when he finds this person. After scolding them for ignoring the sign.

The bicyclist is sitting half-way up the hill. Its two eight-pegged feet are what’s puzzling Morton Serm. They are dangling from a boulder where the bicyclist is sitting, facing a clearing in the forest, having chosen this spot so the last rays of sunshine will fall on its face before the sunset. It is not human, not from Earth. Its hydraulic joints and fiber optic sinews bend and flex. Photovoltaic eyes drink every remaining drop of light before the fast begins at dusk. Up on a hill, it can eat for longer.

Morton Serm rounds a bend in the trail. He can see the bicyclist now. It is wearing loose clothing and its head is blurred by the sunlight. He can’t tell its gender or age. “The trail’s closed,” he calls out.

The bicyclist doesn’t look at him. Morton feels ignored and gets angry. “You’re not supposed to be here,” he shouts, striding closer.

Now the bicyclist turns to him. It prepared for this, learned what to ask a human of Earth: “Do you have a flashlight?”

The question confuses Morton. He stops. He says no. He left his phone in the car. The bicyclist turns to the sun again. Morton lunges forward, but trips and lands on the ground. The bicyclist leaps down from the boulder and pinches Morton’s head between the soles of its feet. “That’s all right,” it says. “You store enough charge for one night.”

The next morning Stacey arrives. Mort’s car is there, but he’s not, and the Center is locked. At the trailhead, there’s a bike and strange tracks. Two rows of eight circles. And footprints in the snow, going up the trail. They’re Morton’s, but why would he head up the closed trail? Stacey sets off after him. The bicyclist will be glad to meet her on a cloudy day.