By L. E. Warde
You're tired of being labeled a killjoy. It's just one night, besides, everyone else is doing it.
You lean over the side of the boat, heaving with the rise and fall of the waves. Bile stings your sinuses as you retch, and your esophagus tightens, choking you, causing you to cough and sputter. You blink your eyes against the cold ocean spray blowing towards your face, your throat and nose still burning from your own stomach acid.
“You’right there pal?” the captain calls over his shoulder, averting his eyes out of respect for your privacy. You watch the tendrils of your inky black vomit spread out into the water and disappear into the wake, the churning water as grey as the dusk sky.
“I’m fine,” you reply, and clear your throat. “Just a little seasick.”
“Happens to the best of us, kiddo. We’ll be hitting dry land soon.”
Your breath hitches at his words, and you feel a fresh wave of nausea grip your gut. You sit back down on the fishing boat’s corrugated steel bench and close your eyes, breathing deeply. You recall when you last landed on Jedediah Island, yesterday morning.
Lochlan had borrowed his dad’s boat, and the four of you loaded it up with your tents, some food, and three coolers full of booze. Lochlan, Miles, and Raina had wanted to get absolutely trashed, and you weren't eager to be labeled a killjoy. Again.
You made landfall just before noon and wasted little time in setting up camp and cracking open drinks. Raina was pounding them back and you decided to keep pace with her, so you at least wouldn’t be sober when she ended up all over Lochlan. And then of course, in between makeout sessions, she would probably point out how cute Miles and you would be together and wonder aloud why you two hadn’t hooked up yet. You were running out of excuses.
The four of you had continued drinking for a couple hours before Lochlan and Miles decided to go explore the island, leaving just you and Raina. She was going on about some resort in Mexico that she had gone to with Lochlan and his family in the spring. You were only half listening, watching the sun’s residual pink glow as it dipped beneath the horizon. Raina’s voice blended in with the crackling campfire, and the scent of woodsmoke filled your lungs, gripping you with a sudden sense of melancholy. Something you hadn’t felt since your last day of high school when you were all saying goodbye.
The rustling in the brush behind you announced the boys’ return. Lochlan was already shouting before you could even see him.
“You will not believe what Miles found,” he had said, when he finally arrived at the campfire with flushed cheeks and a mischievous grin. He reached into his pocket to retrieve a Ziploc bag and dramatically displayed it. It was full of gnarled, twisted shapes, dry and alien-looking.
“Holy shit!” Raina’s eyes had lit up. She reached out to the bag to inspect its contents. “For real, Miles?”
“Yeah. Psilocybe Cubensis,” Miles responded, a few steps behind Lochlan. “Found them at the mouth of a cave back there. Which I guess makes sense, since they usually grow indo–”
Lochlan cut him off with a noogie. “I knew there was a reason I kept this nerd around! These are beauties, too. We’re going to the fucking moon.”
“How can you tell?” you asked, and were met with a round of laughs. You were used to your inexperience being the butt of the joke.
Miles crossed over to take the bag from Raina, then moved to the log you were sitting on. He pulled out a dried mushroom and held it up so you could see it in the light.
“You see that blue colouration on the bottom of the stem?” he asked. You nodded. “That,” he continued, snapping the stem of the mushroom in half, “is the psilocybin in the mushrooms oxidizing.” He held up the broken end of the stem to your face, which had bloomed into a rich peacock blue. “The bluer the better. And I’ve never seen any quite like this,” he finished, dropping the pieces back in the bag before handing it back to Lochlan, who was filling the kettle from his water bottle.
You moved over to Raina, who grinned at you with delight. “Are you sure it’ll be okay?” you asked her, lowering your voice out of embarrassment.
“It’ll be fine, hon. You should live a little.” She looked at you then, and the weight of all your years of friendship tugged at your heart. She was always the adventurous one, and you were always a few steps behind, happy to get dragged along in her crazy schemes. You’d do anything she wanted you to, and she knew that.
“Okay,” you had relented. “Why not?”
Lochlan steeped the mushrooms in a fruity herbal tea, so it didn’t taste bad on the way down. The chunks of mushroom weren’t an enjoyable texture, but you got them down, your stomach fluttering in anticipation for the effects to take hold. You cringed when Miles ate some raw mushrooms on top of his tea, egged on by Lochlan. Something about trying to impress you.
"The bluer the better. And I’ve never seen any quite like this."
It was subtle, at first. You had been so mesmerized by the spiraling fire that you had forgotten your companions entirely, until hearing Raina’s peals of laughter. You looked over at her and started back slightly. Her face was glowing, her irises consumed by her ballooning pupils. She grinned when she saw you staring, her mouth a wide gash in her face, revealing far too many teeth. The corners of her cheeks curled in on themselves and she waved at you, waggling her fingers in a way that looked as though her bones were gelatinous.
“How’s it going?” she asked, and her words vibrated through your skull. Lochlan and Miles turned to look at you, sporting similar bulging eyes and grins overflowing with teeth. The three of them laughed at your face, which must have looked quite alien itself. You felt hot tears prick at the corner of your eyes and a roiling flame overtook the inside of your stomach. You got up and ran away from the fire, down to the edge of the water.
You fell to your hands and knees, the waves lapping at your fingers. Your stomach lurched again and you vomited into the surf. The black mass bubbled and frothed in the water. You couldn’t stand to look at it, and instead looked up into the sky at the full moon, falling backwards onto the sand. The moon was impossibly large, looking as though it might drop from the sky and consume the whole island. It pulsed and breathed, rippling as if there were trillions of maggots writhing just under its cratered surface. You had watched as the maggots contorted and wove themselves into hands, a thousand swirling hands, straining towards you with elongated fingers, clawing to pull you closer, to hold you.
Raina and the others had found you there, lying rigid on the sand, staring at the moon in petrified terror. They carried you back to camp, the same way the waves had carried away your pitch-coloured sick, and you felt as though you were floating alongside it, boiling and churning on the surface of the moonlit sea.
The sunrise that next morning was all too bright on your eyes, weary from the overwhelming visuals of the previous night. Lochlan gave you weak condolences on the bad trip, but then made fun of you for throwing up in the same breath. He and Raina went over to set up the boat and left Miles in charge of ‘keeping you safe’ while you were bundled up in a blanket on a camping chair, wincing through your throbbing headache.
The camp remained intact, save for the tent you shared with Raina last night. She and Lochlan would be using Lochlan’s tent tonight, which had housed him and Miles. You wished you could remember sleeping next to her.
“I’m really sorry you had such a bad time,” he said, sitting down in the chair next to you. The heavy dark circles under his eyes pronounced his guilt, and you felt compelled to assuage it.
“It’s fine, really. I just got a little freaked out, and I kind of have a nervous stomach.”
“Apparently.” He laughed. “What freaked you out?”
“The moon,” you replied. “It was, like, alive and… I don’t know, it felt like it was asking for something.”
“Asking for something?” He didn’t seem like he was making fun of you, but his echoing made you self-conscious anyway.
“Yeah, or more like… beckoning. And the craziest thing is, I wanted to go to it. More than anything. I wanted to hold her, and tell her it’s okay, and—whatever, it’s stupid anyway. Obviously the moon’s not alive.”
“I don’t think it’s that stupid,” he mused. “People, for thousands of years, have thought that the Earth’s alive, and the moon’s part of the Earth.”
“Yeah, it’s super cool, actually.” His eyes lit up, then, and it was the most animated you’d ever seen him. “So scientists think that like thirteen billion years ago, a planet the size of Mars collided with us, and a massive piece of Earth broke off and became the moon.”
“God damn it, Miles,” Lochlan called out as he approached the camp. “I leave you two alone and you’re talking about science shit? I thought you had more game than that, bud.”
Miles dropped his eyes and scratched the back of his neck. “Uh, I don’t kno–”
“Yeah, yeah okay, let’s go. It’s boat time, Casanova,” Lochlan said.
You couldn’t shake the nausea you had been gripped with last night, and instead carried it with you like a rock in your gut as Lochlan boated Miles and you back home before returning to the island for another night of camping with Raina. Miles hadn’t been able to get off work for two nights of camping and you were more than partied out, so you opted to just go home instead of third-wheeling. Miles had dropped you off at your apartment before going to get ready for work and you collapsed onto your bed, so exhausted that you plunged immediately into a deep sleep.
You snapped awake suddenly, your unsettled stomach propelling you into the bathroom. You kneeled over the toilet, and felt your heart seize with horror when you saw the deep black substance you had expelled from your stomach. In your psychedelic haze the night before, the black vomit hadn’t stood out as especially wrong, but the bracing clarity of sobriety had borne an oppressive dread that settled over you. You pressed the lever on the toilet, watching water spill into the bowl and wrest your black waste down the pipes. You looked into the mirror and your dread only grew when you processed the sickly wan quality of your skin. It seemed as though the blood had drained from your face, and your lips were a necrotic shade of purple. You pulled down the skin of your eyelid with your fingertip and gasped. The inside of your lower eyelid, what should have normally been pink, was a lifeless grey, tinged slightly teal. You felt bile rise again in your esophagus, like your body was trying desperately to eject the heavy weight that hung in your chest, but you quelled it. You glanced at the digital clock on your bathroom counter, which read 5:56 PM. Miles would be finished work by now. You flipped open your cell phone and dialed Miles’ number, again and again, hearing nothing but the ringtone and the first few words of his voicemail message.
You had driven to Miles’ basement apartment in a panic after that, and as you approached his door you felt as though every cell in your body was screaming for you to run away, to jump into the ocean and swim across the strait, not stopping until you were back on Jedediah. You pulled his spare key from its hiding spot under a frog statue and turned it in the lock, steeling yourself with a deep breath before pushing open the door.
Even now, as you’re sailing over crisp evening waves, you can still smell the stagnant air of Miles’ apartment. The scent of mold was overwhelming, and you struggled to breathe. But Miles' apartment was nearly spotless, as usual. There weren’t even any dishes in the sink that could be blamed for the odour. The scent of mold and rot grew stronger as you moved deeper into the apartment. You poked your head into Miles’ empty bedroom, where the sheets on his bed were balled up as though he’d been in the throes of a fitful sleep. Light streamed out from underneath the closed door to the bathroom, and you reached a trembling hand to the knob, dreading what awaited you on the other side of the door.
“We’re here.” The captain’s voice frees you from the grip of that horrible memory. You’re stopped a few feet out from the shore of Jedediah, and the sand is as grey as your skin. You can see the bow of Lochlan’s father’s boat, bobbing in the waves. You pull all the cash out of your wallet, around ninety-five dollars, and hand it to the owner of the fishing boat.
“This is yours if you just wait here while I go ashore,” you say. He gives you a weird look but takes the money.
You leap over the side of the boat, soaking your pants up to your thighs in the brisk water. You trudge up towards the camp, coughing into your elbow and trying to keep your mind clear, but you can’t help but picture how you found Miles earlier today.
He had been curled up on the floor of his bathroom, slumped against the toilet—its porcelain basin filled with Miles’ own black puke. His head tilted back over the rim, slack-jawed, looking up at the bathroom light. Sprouting up from his face were tendrils of blue-black mushrooms, sprouting out of his mouth, nostrils, even the corners of his eyes. His eyeballs had bulged out of his sockets, displaced by the fungal mass blooming out of his skull.
Miles’ desiccated corpse plays on the edges of your vision while you comb through Lochlan’s bag. The image of Miles’ face morphs into Raina’s and you shake it away. She’ll be okay. She has to be. Somewhere, deep in your mind is a voice screaming that you shouldn’t care about Raina, that you’ll be dead soon anyway, but it’s overpowered by the compulsion you feel to reunite with your love. You pull out Lochlan’s flashlight and click it on, immediately regretting doing so from the searing pain that tears through your head. You wish you could keep it off, but it’s gotten far too dark by now to navigate the woods, and the overcast sky shields you from any moonlight. The flashlight beam bounces off of pools of black vomit leading away from the camp, deeper into the woods.
After walking along the trail for a few minutes you find Lochlan. He’s face down on the ground and his knees and arms are caked with dirt, as though he’d crawled some distance. He must have felt the same pull you do, back towards the cave, trying to reach Raina. His arm is outstretched, and emerging from underneath his face are more mushrooms, extending out ahead of him. You decide not to turn over his body. You already know what you’ll see.
The trail of black vomit takes you to the mouth of a cave ringed by mushroom caps, and a blast of warm air erupts from it, carrying with it that same scent of mold and rot from Miles’ apartment. You know it’s stupid to go in, but you also know that you have to. Deep in your gut, you know that Raina is in there. The clouds part then, and the light of the still-full moon cascades over you, encouraging your recklessness. You enter the cave.
Once inside, the pressure in your chest and head increases, propelling you deeper. You aim the flashlight around the smooth stone walls of the tunnel, peppered with small white mushrooms, all growing in the direction you’re heading, towards the heart.
It doesn’t take you long to find Raina. She’s laying on the smooth stone floor of the cave, in the center of a craterous cavern, awash in the moonlight beaming down from an opening above. Surrounding her, filling the bowl of the cave are the mushroom caps, which seem to be glowing along with the moon. You drop the flashlight and wade your way through the fungal field and collapse on your knees next to her, cradling the back of her neck and gently lifting her to look at you. She’s alive, and her bulging eyes widen in recognition when she sees your face.
"Somewhere, deep in your mind is a voice screaming that you shouldn’t care about Raina, that you’ll be dead soon anyway, but it’s overpowered by the compulsion you feel to reunite with your love."
“You came…” her weak voice is cut off by a bout of coughing. You go to respond, but your breath hitches in your throat, launching your own coughing fit. Your back strains, and you feel as though your lungs have only a pinprick opening for air to travel through. Finally, something moves in your throat, and a final cough dislodges a mass that was stuck. The midnight blue mushrooms that have been incubating inside you finally burst forth, spiraling out of your mouth and up, intertwining with the identical stalks now blooming out of Raina. You feel pressure building from the fungi teeming in your eye sockets and are surprised at the lack of pain when they finally sprout out of your waterline. You look at Raina’s mangled face one last time before your eyeballs roll upwards, pushed up by the mushrooms shooting up from underneath them. Your gaze is forced onto the full moon, which pulses, just as it did last night. But instead of the terror you felt before, you are wracked with a desperate longing. Your tear ducts, compressed by sprouting mushroom caps, spill hot liquid down your swollen cheeks as you yearn to be whole again.
L. E. Warde is a queer writer from the lush and transcendental realm of Vancouver Island. When they aren't endlessly poring over books and articles in a desperate attempt to finish their degree, they can be seen just out of the corner of your eye, watching. Should you encounter them deep in the temperate rainforest, leave an offering of a frog-shaped knick knack and run the other way. Do not look back.