The blade of the ax slid along the log, shaving fine chips of wood as Hanna worked silently. It wasn’t an ideal tool–there were no ideal tools any more, just what you could find–but it was sufficient for the job she needed to do.
She packed the wood shavings into an old detergent bucket and carried it to the stream to soak, then dragged it to the cave. Holding fast to the guide rope, she worked her way to the end of their farm by feel, trying her best to ignore the pungent smell that permeated everything.
She had believed that she would get used to it eventually. You would have to when mushrooms were the only crop that would grow anymore, but she didn’t. She still hated mushrooms and the smell made her sick; only the will to survive kept her at work. After all she had to survive. She was one of the lucky ones. At least she told herself that.
She had been out camping when the world ended. When the bombs fell, she hadn’t been in any of the cities whose smoke now blackened the sky and left the world cold. She had even survived with a few others while most died of starvation before they could harvest their first crop.
Now she was alone. It had been days since her friends had left her to go down the mountain looking for new tools and other survivors, if they existed, days since she heard another human voice. She almost didn’t realize it when she heard one again. She gave a start looking up from her work amending the mushroom beds with the moist wood shavings.
“Hanna!” Rowan’s voice called from outside, “Hanna! Are you there?”
Blindly she felt her way back through the cave. “Yes, I’m coming!” she called, unfamiliar with the sounds she made.
“There you are,” Rosa exclaimed as Hanna reemerged into the gray light.
“I’m relieved you’re back,” Hanna breathed. “Did you find anything, anyone?”
“No one again,” Rowan Responded. “I doubt anything can survive in the radiation long. Cullen found some working solar panels though. We think we will be able to rig some lights into the cave.” Rowan finished holding up some LED light strands.
Hanna nodded, then seized Rowan’s arm. “Burns,” she hissed, “I told you the radiation is too dangerous even for short trips!”
“Whoa! Calm down,” Cullen said coming up from behind Rowan. “That’s a chemical burn,” he said in calming tones.
“We tried to salvage some batteries to hook up to the solar panels, but they were corroded and leaked on my arm,” Rowan said.
“We only stayed in the perimeter of town, and only for a few hours at that,” Rosa added. “I don’t think we came close enough to the epicenter for too much exposure.”
Hanna grimaced. Despite their precautions, thinking about the ruined cities on the far side of the mountain made her anxious.
The others went to work on setting up the solar panels while Hanna kept the fire. It wasn’t late in the day but since The End, summer never came. She was warming her hands when Rosa approached from behind.
“Have you seen Cullen?” she asked, and Hanna flinched, unaware Rosa had been there.
“The last I saw him he was stringing lights into the cave,” Hanna answered.
“Can you come with me? I think Rowan’s burns are getting worse.” The concern was evident in Rosa’s voice as she offered her hand.
“Where is he?” worry filled her as she took Rosa’s hand.
“I left him on the hillside where he was trying to mount a panel.”
“He washed himself after the batteries leaked right?”
“As soon as we got to a stream.”
“It must still be on his clothes then.” Hanna frowned.
Rowan stood up from his work to greet them as Hanna and Rosa came up the hill.
“Hey,” he said, “I think we’re done here.”
“Rowan!” Hanna yelled, out of breath, “Oh my god!”
That the burns were worse was an understatement. What had been an isolated blister on his arm had spread to cover the whole thing, and tendrils of scar tissue appeared to be creeping up his neck.
“Come on Rowan,” Rosa said, “lets get you to the stream so we can wash your burns.”
“My burn?” Rowan asked, “It feels fine.”
“Look at it!” Hanna wailed.
His eyes widened as the tendrils spread up his face, and Rosa helped him down the hillside and brought him to the stream. Stripping off his clothes revealed the extent the burn had spread. His entire torso crawled with lesions.
Stepping into the water Rowan shivered and then screamed. His flesh writhed and he fell to his knees.
“Rowan!” Hanna shrieked, as dark fuzz sprouted from his hands, mouth, and eyes.
Nodules appeared across his back, and the screaming abated as he began to choke. Rosa rushed to the bank and pulled him out of the water, his face twisted by the swelling growths and terror.
A familiar pungent smell rose on the air as the bulges erupted into fruiting mushrooms. Rowan fell and a terrible silence filled the clearing, broken as Rosa started screaming. Mycelium sprouted from Rowan’s arm where she held him, binding her hand there.
“Help! Oh my god Hanna help! It burns!” Rosa sobbed, collapsing with rowan on the bank.
Hanna fell back, afraid to touch them now, as Rowan’s body became an unrecognizable mass propagating mushrooms.
Rosa wriggled, inching toward her as the fungus spread, stopping only when the mycelium rooted her to the ground.
“Please, please,” Rosa gasped again before falling still.
An interminable amount of time passed while Hanna trembled, unable to stand as she watched her friends decay. A faint moaning finally reached her conscious mind. She had no idea how long she had heard it without being aware.
The sound came from the cave. Cullen was still in there. Standing, she shivered as she tried to reassure herself that the farm didn’t kill her friends, that Rowan had picked up some mutant spores in the valley. She wanted to believe that.
The whimpering continued as Hanna stood transfixed by the cave’s gaping maw. “Cullen!” she called finally.
“Han… Hanna,” Cullen’s voice trembled, “I tripped over something and twisted my leg.” he said between whimpers. “I need your help to get out.”
She looked as far as she could into the cave, the faint glow of the light string was too dim to see much by, but not too far in she could see a cluster of them rising and falling with Cullen’s breath. She swallowed her unease and found the guide rope. There shouldn’t be anything to trip over; they had worked meticulously to clear the cave of debris to allow them to work without light. Still Hanna stepped carefully.
It wasn’t long before she found Cullen reposed against the cave wall, lit by the jumble of dimly-glowing lights.
“Thanks for coming,” he said weakly. “I was worried I would have to spend the night in here before anyone came to look for me.”
Hanna pursed her lips, “Let me look at your leg, we need to know how badly you’re hurt.”
Cullen nodded and lifted up his pant leg. Hanna knelt and ran her hand along his calf. It was swollen, but not broken, thankfully. She felt the ground where he had fallen to find what he had tripped over, but the dusty floor didn’t give anything away. Then next to her knee she found it, the broken cap of a mushroom. Her hand drew back, and she pulled a cluster of lights together to look at Cullen’s leg, and let out a sigh of relief not to find any burns or lesions. The bundle of lights fell to the ground and she drew back as her eyes focused where they fell.
“Hanna? Is it bad?” he asked trying to hide the distress her reaction caused.
White threads of mycelium lined the sole of his shoe, and she stepped back.
“Hanna!” panic crept into his voice, “Don’t leave me Hanna!” he wept.
She turned and ran out of the cave, leaving Cullen’s cries behind her. Out in the clearing she breathed deeply. The smell of rotting choked her. She regarded the cave and listened as Cullen’s screams grew then silenced.
She ran, ran until it burned. How far was it until she was safe? She didn’t know, but surviving was all that mattered. She was the lucky one right?
Thanks for reading!
This fan-story was submitted to us by the clever Eric Porter