Alex Reynard's Online Books
The next few days were misery of a kind Toby had never imagined before.
Four kinds, actually: Hunger, Dread, Insomnia and Loneliness.
The bare dirt floor of his cave made his squeaky rubber sheets at home feel like cloud nine. He had only his arm for a pillow. Sleep was something he yearned for so desperately he felt like he'd kill himself for it. Sleep was something he feared so much it turned his mind black with paralyzing, primal horror.
To say the first night was the worst would be a lie, because all the nights were the worst. Toby had never known suffering like this. Even the times when his sickness' symptoms would make him twitch and writhe and scream and beg for it to end, at least they eventually did end. At least Mommy would give him an IV full of knockout juice and he'd sail away on to the next morning. This nightmare-now was endless. Every hour took a month. Every night took a year. His cave was not cold, but he shivered constantly nonetheless.
When you are terminal and have missed your pills, you start to wonder if every sneeze might be your last. Every ache, twitch and spasm might be the beginning of your death throes. Toby laid on his side and listened to his heart. The spaces between each beat seemed to stretch longer and longer. How long until they stopped? How long until this world's germs invaded him from every pore and orifice and wrought havoc on his defenseless immune system?
When the Mushroom Woman had clamped her miry hand across his mouth, the smell of topsoil filled his nostrils. All he could see was her moonlike eye staring back into his. She had only one left. Her fur was gone too, so her species was impossible to pinpoint. A cat of some sort? A raccoon? Dried mud stained her skin a brackish brown. And anywhere that wasn't stained, the mushrooms grew. They'd conquered half her face already, making the skin sag down like a bloodhound's jowls. Her arms were polka-dotted with grey-capped passengers. She hunched over due to the fungal metropolis growing out of her spine. It seemed impossible she could stand with all that weight, much less move as nimbly as she did.
Toby's mind went into panic mode. His weak struggles embarrassed him. His chest heaved in and out with rapid breath. This was it. This was his end.
But the Mushroom Woman leaned in close and said, "HUSH."
Toby did. Maybe if this new monster was willing to speak to him, that meant it wouldn't eat him.
Her voice was soggy. The skin of her mouth drooped and swung as she spoke. "I shouldn't be helping you," she said in a threatening whisper. "I should leave you out here to die. But you look too scrawny to be a threat to me so I'm taking a chance. You don't know how much that means." Her lone eye radiated hatred. "If you scream when I take my hand away, I'll kill you. Do it myself," she promised. "Self-preservation. Simple as that. You make noise, it brings in beasts."
Toby nodded. He'd seen enough evidence of that.
Slowly the gnarled hand withdrew. A tiny toadstool flaked off and brushed Toby's lips as it fell. He slapped at his mouth in disgust (but tried to not make any sound as he did).
The Mushroom Woman stared at him. "Why are you here?"
"I don't-!" Toby stopped and switched to a whisper. "...I don't know. I was in bed just a moment ago. I don't know where I am. Please don't hurt me. Please."
Her wary contempt turned briefly into pity. Her eye scrolled up and down the thin frame sheathed in dirty pajamas. She hmmphed, as if she'd seen this before. "You're in a very special hell now, mouse."
"How do I get home!?" he begged.
She chuckled mirthlessly. When she shook, spores fell from her shoulders like snowfall. "There's only one way. Believe me, I've tried it all. I've kept myself alive in this nightmare longer than you can imagine. There's only one way, and you can't get there."
Toby felt a tiny bit insulted. He tried to call upon the bravery of his movie heroes. "M-maybe I can. What is it?"
She grinned. "I can show you, but you'll never see it for yourself. I've never made it past these woods in all my centuries of trying. I've stopped trying. I live where it's safe. This world's not killing me, no it's not!" She stood up straighter while reaching down to wrap her fingers around Toby's head. She pulled him to his feet like lifting a bowling ball. Then he winced as she twisted his neck towards the horizon. "See that tower?" she rasped.
Toby couldn't see anything but clouds at first. But then he squinted and thought he could see a thin mountain peak in the farthest distance.
"This place here is the Blackdamp. The farthest I've gotten is the village of Stoma, just at the edge of the trees. But I've heard people talk. Many people talk. There's whole cities out there, and places where people can't hope to live, and worse. Beyond it all is Anasarca."
The word made echoing ripples inside Toby's mind. It felt sacred. The Mushroom Woman's fingers were digging unpleasantly into his scalp, but he didn't dare complain. "Wh-what's there?"
"The wizard Aldridge," she said with a grunt of contempt. Her lips curled into a sour-grapes sneer. "They say he runs this world like a God. High above all. People talk about traveling to meet him, to ask him to grant them wishes. But no one ever seems to come back. Maybe they went home. More likely, their body's lying in some wasteland with the bones picked clean. You won't see me trying again. These hellforsaken mushrooms are bad enough." With that she started violently scratching herself. Toby had to duck out of the way as more spores and fungal shreds cascaded down. He definitely didn't want what she had.
Toby began backing away, but the Mushroom Woman swiveled around like a railswitch and her stare drilled him to the spot. "Don't be stupid, boy! I told you all that just so's I won't be the only one tortured with knowing I can never see my home again! Try it and die! Or be smart and be safe and do what I say." She pointed behind him. "There's hill country in that direction. And caves in the hills. Get your tiny self there and hunker down. Make your home there. Dig in. It's the only way you'll survive!" Her voice started rising in ferocity. "It's the only way you'll survive!! I've seen more death than you can dream of! But they won't get me! They Won't Get Me!!"
She took a menacing step towards him, and that was all it took. Toby bolted like he'd been fired from a crossbow.
"RUN, BOY, RUN!!!" the Mushroom Woman screeched at him.
Toby didn't have to be told. His paws thudded on leaves again, towards the caves she'd spoken of. He didn't have time to wonder if she'd lied.
"YOU'LL NEVER SEE HOME AGAIN!!!"
Those words echoed through the woods like a hunter's shot.
That was the last he heard of her. He wondered sometimes, later on, if her shouting had indeed drawn beasts. He wondered if a giant bird hadn't swooped down and dragged her screaming into the sky. Or maybe she had made it safely back to whatever home she'd made for herself. It seemed like she'd had enough practice.
After running for only a few minutes, up ahead he did see hills, and here and there he did see caves. Even though she'd nearly scared him to the point of arrhythmia, Toby's opinion of the Mushroom Woman grew more favorable when he saw proof she'd been telling the truth.
And as much as he suffered in the following days, curled up and waiting to die in one of those very same caves, he never blamed the Mushroom Woman. His suffering in here was infinitely preferable to whatever suffering he'd face out there.
Toby now understood what real fear was. He'd read scary movies and scary books before. He'd woken up from nightmares. There was even the fear of lying in a hospital bed and worrying if the pain would ever go away. But now he'd made acquaintance with a new kind of fear. Dread seemed the most fitting name for it.
It was unthinking. Irrational. And it never ended. It never ended. That was the worst part. Toby remembered, back in his old life, the jolt of fear he'd feel when a movie monster would rush at the camera and shriek. That lightning bolt of terror. But afterwards it ended. No matter how much it rattled you, in the next moment you could comfort yourself that it was all over and it wasn't real. That jolting moment never ended for Toby now. He felt that fear every minute of every day. And it was so exhausting it was painful.
In the daytime it was somewhat bearable. At least he could see. He made a sentry nest for himself behind a large rock near the cave's entrance. Close enough to see out but not be seen. He kept watch. The dry clay floor of the cave dyed his fur and pajamas a rusty brown. He sat and sat and sat and sat until his leg muscles felt ready to explode from his skin like snapped violin strings. His other muscles hated him just as much. His tail hurt. His eyes burned. His neck complained. His stomach clenched like a fist. Every part of him ached. This is what sitting for hours in petrified alertness will do to you. Every moment spent tensed for an attack you know will come the very second you stop expecting it.
On top of this was the everpresent countdown clock of wondering how long he had until the remaining medicine in his body ran out. Would the withdrawal symptoms kill him if the lack of new medicine didn't? Would he seize up and choke to death on his saliva? Would he die in brain-scrambling pain, his systems overloading as he stared up at the cave ceiling and felt his body eat itself?
At night when the darkness came, he'd drag himself as far deep into the cave as he could stand. Just far enough to where a few rays of moonlight could still reach. He didn't dare spend nighttime back in the cave's deepest part, where it was so black his fingers disappeared in front of his face. That would just be giving his fear more ammunition. As it was, getting to sleep was already like fighting a war. One army was called Dread, the other Exhaustion, and his body was their battlefield. Exhaustion would whisper to him sweetly that nothing in the world would feel better than letting his muscles relax and his eyelids droop closed. But the instant they did, Dread would set off firecrackers in his head, bellowing at him that now was the time when the unseen enemies all around him would pounce. Toby's eyes would dart around the cave. In every shadow lurked a killer. Every rock was just about to turn and reveal the yellow eyes of a monster that would reach out its long arms and cram him face-first down its rotting throat.
Every time he managed to fall asleep, he'd be shocked awake again soon enough. It was torture. A constant hailstorm of falling adrenaline needles. Every sound and every twitch of his body woke him. By the time daytime came, he had no idea how much sleep he'd actually gotten. Maybe a few hours? Not even that? To his body it felt like mere minutes. Every sunrise left him feeling more in need of sleep than ever. Waking each morning felt like peeling himself off a concrete road where someone had plastered him flat with a fusillade of hammer blows.
Sometimes Toby simply sagged to the floor of the cave and cried uncontrollably. What else could he do?
He missed Mommy. He could imagine her pacing around the house, calling policemen to come, sobbing every minute that he was gone. He missed her fur, her scent, her voice. Even just the background hum of her vacuum cleaner. He had been so fully dependent on her for so long, being without her now was a two-headed agony: the pain of missing her coupled with the terror of having no idea how to survive without her. What did he know of survival, other than what he'd seen in fiction? And how much of that knowledge could be trusted?
If there was one lucky light in his circumstance, it was that the cave had a little spring deep in the back. At nighttime he didn't dare go back there, but during the day he'd risk a drink. It was one of his very few comforts. Like the lake, the spring water was delicious, clear and cold.
For food though, there was nothing. He'd explored the cave to the limits of his courage and found only mushrooms. He was not about to eat any of those. Outside, far down the hill, he could see what might have been a bush full of small crimson berries. But leaving the cave meant making himself as exposed and edible as any low-hanging fruit. (The berries were probably poisonous anyway.)
When one day he'd finally built up the nerve to explore the cave more fully, it didn't yield many useful results. Several yards back, the single tunnel forked into two. Both paths were entirely engulfed in darkness. Toby turned back at that point. There was no way he was going to risk getting lost in here. Absolutely not. But the part of the cave he'd claimed seemed safe enough. A few bugs here and there, but nothing that looked too horrifying. Just beetles. The only out-of-the-ordinary thing he'd found was the fossilized door.
It looked like carved wood, but was clearly the same rock as the cave itself. He imagined a normal door from a normal house being transported here and getting turned to stone upon arrival. It was open slightly, but nothing would ever open it any further. (Toby didn't even try; he knew this was no exit). From out of the gap, a large pile of wooden hands had spilled onto the floor. They were many years old, judging by the dust. This discovery had sent Toby fleeing in panic at first, though hours later he'd come creeping back, as this was the only interesting thing he'd found to explore so far in his tiny new world. The door itself hadn't moved. The dust was still there. The hands hadn't moved either. They were just carved mannequin parts made of dark, whorled wood. Toby thought maybe he could burn some of them to make a fire. But that would require something to make a spark with, and he didn't have that. This discovery was curious, and nothing more.
So, with nothing else to do, during the day he would sit by himself and dwell on his inevitable bloody end in this horrible place. Or he would cry. Or he would wish for Mommy. Or he would sit behind his rock at the cave's entrance and look outside.
What he saw there convinced him firmly that he was no longer anywhere near home. This was not his planet. Maybe not even his dimension. His cave was slightly up the hill so he could see a ways down into the forest. And the longer he looked, the more his dread solidified.
The daytime sky was the only true constant. It was always that same uniform drabness. An upside-down ocean of dirty snow. Yet the trees beneath seemed to move. And not directly as if they were alive. Indirectly. Anything he didn't strictly focus on was liable to have subtly shifted place the next time he looked back. The berry bush stayed still for the most part. But each new day the trees closest to it weren't the same ones from the day before. The distance from the cave to the forest could vary by several meters every hour. Rocks appeared and disappeared. Things of this sort happened enough times to make him consider that just maybe he wasn't hallucinating.
Sometimes he saw animals. Usually they moved too fast to get an idea of what they'd been. But sometimes he'd see parts of them. Beaks. Spines. Wings. One time, he saw a silver fin like a shark's cutting through the brush, but the animal it was attached to had moved like a puma.
Toby thought for sure he was losing his mind one twilight when he looked up at the moon and saw a flock of winged staplers fighting to the death with a swarm of staple removers. They moved through the air like swooping pterodactyls. The sounds of clashing metal and unnatural shrieks lasted for hours. They'd tear each other to pieces, and the pieces would come tumbling down and crash into the ground below. By the sound of one of the impacts, some poor animal had been crushed beneath and lived for a few more agonizing minutes afterwards. Toby tried to convince himself the next day that he'd dreamed this. But he didn't succeed. If the rust-beast was real, and the carnivorous salamander, and the Mushroom Woman... then anything could be real here.
Oddly enough, that particular fact was the only thing that germinated a sparkling of hope in his heart. Because, if all those horrors could be real here, then maybe Anasarca was too. Maybe the Mushroom Woman had been telling the truth about the wizard, just like she'd told the truth about the caves.
Sometimes this thought made Toby quiver from wanting. Maybe he could leave this cave and go on a quest. He could apply everything he'd learned from the heroes in his books. He could scavenge around for materials to build into a weapon. Armor too. Just because the Mushroom Woman was too afraid to make it past the woods didn't mean he couldn't.
But then another part of his brain would smack him in disgust. 'You shake with fear every time you think about leaving your room. You're afraid of breaking your bones when you step out of the tub. You can't even explore this cave. You'd get two steps into those woods and come running back with peepee dripping down your legs at the first sign of danger. You are a perfect coward, Toby deLeon, and that is all you are.'
As harsh as this voice was, Toby knew it was right. He didn't think he was a coward though. Not really. He just wasn't cut out for adventure that was all. He'd been sick all his life. Weak and shrimpy. He'd never had any experience being bold. He'd practically grown up in a hospital bed. All he knew of the world was what he'd seen other people doing, or read about. He was pathetically unprepared and unarmed.
And that of course contributed to his dread. It wasn't just the fear of monsters finding him. It was the reality that he had no hope of fighting back. If one of those shark-puma things came wandering in here one day, it could eat him as easily as he ate his bowls of oatmeal. It could eat him alive. It could take its time. Toby could flail and kick all he wanted, and at most he'd mildly annoy the creature as it took leisurely bites of the soft morsels inside his ribcage.
His only defense was to stay put and stay hidden. So he did.
And even though each moment seemed to stretch on endlessly like chewing gum pulled slowly through one's teeth to arm's length, Toby started losing track of time. The days slid in and out of each other. He could no longer remember with any certainty how long he'd been here. Five days? No, four. Surely not a week? The part of his brain responsible for keeping track of this stuff had seemingly fallen out and ran away. He experienced days and nights, but couldn't add them together to keep a reliable timeline.
So as time passed, a new enemy gradually became Toby's ally. Boredom appeared, and it fed itself by nibbling away at the corners and edges of Toby's fear. The suffering of Dread slowly swapped places with the suffering of Tedium.
A living thing can only feel pants-ruining panic for so long before their brain chemicals grow bloated on it and stop responding. Instead of spending his days curled up in a little pill of shivering fur for hours on end, Toby started looking for things to do.
He found there were some places in the cave where the soil was so sandy he could draw in it with his finger.
He tried to see how many of the wooden hands he could stack on top of one another.
He'd sit with his back to the chilly stone, close his eyes, and quietly sing to himself every song that he knew.
And one day, those berry bushes down the hill started to look damn near irresistible.
"Come on, they're red. They're probably poison."
"I'm starving. What does it even matter? Besides, I can just try one. Or part of one. One bite. Then sit for a while and see if I throw up."
"The second you poke a toe out there, some big ugly thing with teeth is gonna chew you up like a garbage disposal."
"But... that could happen in my sleep anyway. And maybe I can run fast enough to grab some berries and get back real quick."
"You? Run? You're twigskinny anyway. And you've had nothing but water for a week now."
"It has not been a week."
"It's probably been two weeks! You're going loop-de-loo in here. Soon enough you're gonna be writing your name on the wall in cursive with your own poop."
"...I will not." (Toby felt a bit unsettled to realized he hadn't pooped at all since he'd gotten here. Or peed. Not even once. That couldn't be healthy.)
Those berries really didn't look all that far away. Less than a city block? He'd used to walk seven blocks to school when he was way littler. He could do this. Right?
Toby stood up. His legs groaned like a worn-out rocking chair.
His stomach chewed at itself. His tail flicked nervously. Toby held his ears open for maximum radar. He didn't seem to hear anything moving, or breathing.
Before he had time to convince himself for the forty-ninth time that this would be his doom, he was dashing off down the hill.
Yes, he was actually running! Sprinting! Toby was perplexed by this but wasn't stupid enough to pause to contemplate it. All his senses were focused on getting to the bush and back ASAP. Even so, his mind couldn't help but ask him how in the hell it was possible for him to have been starving for however many days it had been, and he hadn't had a single pill in all that time, yet here he was running just as quickly as that first day he'd arrived.
Why question it if it meant he'd get back to the cave faster?
Toby's head boomeranged back and forth, scanning every inch of the forest for signs of hostile life. Some purple birds scattered out of the way when he came too near, but they didn't seem interested in him. He nearly leapt four feet when he spotted a centipede on the path ahead. It was big as a wrench.
The bush wasn't far. The berries looked ripe and plump. His mouth was gushing just thinking about them. At that point he no longer cared if they were so chock full of poison they'd turn him to stone on the spot. His hunger had shoved it's way onto the throne of his emotions.
Toby skidded to a stop in front of the bush and then his hands were cramming berries into his mouth without conscious thought. He winced deeply. Ooooh, they were sour! But good! Like cranberries mixed with orange soda. They fizzed on his tongue and he knew that meant they were probably releasing toxic acid and in just a moment his skeletonized jaw would fall off and go plop in the dirt, but who cared?
Instead, all that happened was that Toby gobbled up so many berries he became very, very satisfied.
Then a sound made his head pop up so quick his neck clicked.
Was that a voice?
It came again: "Hey!"
Toby blinked. He was suddenly aware of how hard his heart was thundering in his chest, treating his ribcage like a timpani.
"Hey, come here!"
The voice sounded surprisingly friendly. Was that even possible?
Maybe. The Mushroom Woman certainly couldn't have been called 'friendly', but at least she'd been helpful. And she'd mentioned there were other people in this place, not just beasts.
It spoke again: "I can help! Will you come closer so I can see you?"
Toby's brain twirled. One half was setting off alarm bells, another half was sick and tired of feeling so alone and helpless. If there was even the possibility of finding someone who could offer assistance...
Toby stepped towards the voice. It was coming from just beyond the bush in front of him.
"I can help!" it said.
Toby cautiously lifted one foot past the branches, then felt it come down in a patch of something irresistibly slippery. He got a faceful of foliage and continued falling into a completely unseen tunnel in the earth.