Foley was a bit drunk and a little blue after having spent the morning drinking with the usual crowd at the Breeze Inn. One of the regulars had mentioned old Red and it was a damned shame they couldn’t find him. Probably got himself lost in that damned forest.Through the haze of shots and beers Foley thought about that. Over the years a lot of people seemed to get lost in that forest, or so the local myths went. Foley had lived in Setonsville all his life and even as a kid had heard stories of someone going up into the hills and down into the woods and never coming back. What, somebody would go out there and poof, disappear? Was that what had happened to Foley’s own kid brother? Foley’s old man had claimed the kid just took off, run away from home, but Foley wasn’t sure about that. Maybe he’d never see his brother again but he was going to look for old Red.
He left the Breeze Inn without saying goodbye and walked across Route 59 in the noon sun to the trailer park. His pickup sat patient in the slot in front of his sagging trailer. Foley climbed in grim faced and determined, and turned left onto Route 59, through Setonsville, past a little over a mile of farmland, and through Axton. Just beyond the college at the end of town he squinted and found the turnoff dirt road that snaked steadily up into the hills flanking Axton.
There was the occasional summer cottage tucked behind the trees along the rutted road, but Foley saw no one else. At the top of the hill he slowed. Below him was the forest, set dead center in a valley between hills that marched away as far as he could see. He couldn’t remember ever being down there. Red had asked him many times to go hunting with him, but Foley had never gone.
He pumped the brake even though the down slope wasn’t that steep, because he couldn’t stop glancing down at the forest. Dense trees blanketed an area off the road perhaps a mile square, except for what seemed like a clearing in the middle of the forest. Foley was still too far up to make out what was in the clearing. The ruts jolted his pickup and he gripped the wheel hard and swung his gaze back to the road.
At last the road leveled at the valley floor. Foley pulled over to the forest’s edge and cut the engine. What struck him then was the silence. He could see no other vehicles on the road that snaked upward toward another hill. There was no wind, no breeze. No birds. No animals.
And the trees. They were tall enough to filter the sunlight. A man could get lost in those trees. Maybe that’s what had happened to Red. Foley pulled out his pocketknife and peeled a strip of bark from the first tree so he could find his way back. Every dozen or so feet he repeated the process, peeling bark as he squinted through alternate shadows and beams of sunlight looking for his friend.
This was crazy. He admitted he was on the knife-edge between sober and drunk, but he had never seen anything like this. There was something off about the trees, something blurry and distorted. And the ground. Soft, shifting under his boots as if a giant pulse beat underground. He gouged out another piece of bark and watched it slide off the knife blade and hit the earth and curl and shrivel until it disappeared. He shook his head to clear his vision. Crazy. He had to find Red and get out of here.
He plodded on toward where he thought the clearing was and noticed that the trees were spaced father apart. More sunlight seemed to penetrate the gloom. He looked up to find that the trees were smaller. The clearing must be ahead.
Except for the bare patch of ground he might have missed the signs. Foot high wooden stakes with foot wide planking nailed to the top, crude lettering seemingly burned into the planks. The signs reminded Foley of the old Burma Shave jingles. Feel free, the first proclaimed. Yards away the second: To indulge. Later: Until you bulge. Finally: Then you will see.
In the clearing beyond the last sign Foley saw and gaped. Before him was an acre of mushrooms large as a man, fat, enormous caps swaying. He squinted up into the sun. Weren’t mushrooms supposed to grow in the dark? He sniffed. A scent lodged in his nostrils and pulled him forward, making him salivate. He staggered toward the nearest mushroom and ripped a chunk from it, pausing when he thought he heard a faint, faraway scream.
He tore and chewed and swallowed, ignoring the phantom screams and missing the sight of Red’s battered baseball hat crumpled at the mushroom’s base. He ate. Visions blossomed, psychedelic, kaleidoscopic. Knowledge flooded his mind. Every question he had ever asked, answered.
His stomach ballooned, legs blended and rooted, arms shrunk to gray stubs. He leaned and chomped mushroom with his teeth until his mouth was gray mass. Visions faded. Knowledge slowed, stopped.
Where Foley stood, now a new mushroom stood, fat, enormous cap swaying, its scent beckoning.
Next to it, tiny leftover pieces began to grow around Red’s baseball hat.