This is one of a collection of stories that are like “Final Destination” meets “The Monkey’s Paw” (W. W. Jacobs, 1902). As such, they are tragedies more than either mysteries or horror, and would appeal most to readers who enjoy the inexorable pull of a story arc that leads to doom. In each story, a protagonist makes a wish that comes true with fatal results for someone, often the person making the wish. Nothing supernatural, but just how things work out. (Or is it?) The technical details surrounding the fatal (or near-fatal) event are drawn from real cases in the US OSHA incident report database or similar sources and are therefore entirely realistic, even if seemingly outlandish. The plots draw lightly from cultural beliefs around actions such as pointing at someone with a stick or knife, wishing in front of a mirror, or stepping on a crack.
Kannika Saelim was a medical researcher who had recently migrated from a Thai university to work at a US laboratory on a promising drug for liver cancer. She met her neighbor when she found a gigantic, but very friendly, white dog in her kitchen, leaning over her stove and sniffing the simmering pots. She was startled to see him there, but soon made friends, and read his name off a collar tag. “Well, Bosco, are you hungry?” She offered him a sample of the pan-fried roti bread she had just made. It didn’t take long to discover where he had tunneled under the garden fence from the small holding plot next door. Kannika twisted a scarf, tied one end to Bosco’s collar, and took him for a walk around to the gate of the 3-acre spread next door.
Dr. Opal Otter gave Kannika a tour of her special garden after the aromatic reasons for Bosco’s visit had been discussed. Behind a locked gate was a garden with some of the more rare and interesting edible plants and mushrooms. Opal showed off her small patch of exotic Yartsa Gunbu mushrooms and a crop of “Hen-of-the-wood,” which was arguably the most flavorful mushroom in the world. Talk quickly settled on recipes, and a discussion of local edible plants, and public land where Kannika could walk, forage, and enjoy the natural environment. Opal gave her some local maps and marked up the best spots to walk and find edible berries and herbs.
Glen had not had a fun week. He had been evicted from his leaky apartment after a fight with his girlfriend over who used the last oxycodone, and he had been sleeping in his camper van since then. His boss at the tire place had cut his work back by 10 hours a week, and the prescription for his pain medication had run out. Two years before, Glen had injured his back removing a wheel from a truck, and was regularly taking high-strength medication to cope with the pain. Suspicious of doctors and big pharma at the best of times, Glen felt trapped. He needed his pain meds, hated needing them, hated the doctors, but needed them, and despised and mistrusted pharmaceutical manufacturers, but needed their products. He was pinched between having to fight and scheme to be allowed to have the drugs, but also had to fight to find the money to pay for them. He had usually relied on street drugs when money was short, and sometimes dealers allowed him to trade stuff he owned or acquired for drugs, or even work off the drug price by doing a little job here and there. That was before a bunch of police had died in some freak accident, and the new police chief and replacement officers were far better at cleaning up the drug trade. That left a gap in Glen’s supply, and he started looking for plant options like weed.
The following Saturday morning, a very shaken Kannika visited Opal again, and over a mug of coffee, recounted a disturbing experience. She had been following a river trail that Opal had recommended, and had recognized a large patch of Paddy Straw mushrooms. She had eagerly gathered two handfuls when a scruffy and agitated man suddenly appeared on the path, blocking her way. He pointed at the mushrooms she was busy wiping down. “Are those the real thing? Are they magic?” Kannika said that yes, these were edible, but didn’t understand his reference to “magic.” She had tried to back away from him, but he grew very angry and took out a knife, demanding she give the mushrooms to him. She threw the mushrooms on the ground and ran away as fast as she could. “Then I drove straight here!”
Opal held Kannika’s hand and reassured her that she would come with her to file a police report. A second thought occurred to Opal. “Do you still have any of the mushrooms?” Kannika fished in the baggy pockets of her jacket and pulled out two small button mushrooms. Opal gingerly picked one up and examined it closely. “Yes, these do look a lot like Paddy Straw mushrooms, but they are actually juvenile Amanita Phalloides, or Death Cap.”
She looked over at the stunned Kannika. “You had a very lucky escape. These are highly poisonous!”
Kannika was surprised and explained that she had seen pictures of the Death Cap, but that she had regularly collected and cooked Paddy Straw mushrooms back in Korea. Opal smiled, spread her fingers, and explained that the Death Cap looked very similar to the Paddy Straw when it was in its button stage, but was already poisonous. Opal fetched a mushroom field guide from a bookshelf that was filled to capacity. As she handed the well-used guide to Kannika, she implored her please not to gather mushrooms in the US, at all, ever, until she had studied it carefully and gone out with somebody from the local mushroom society a few times.
At the police station, Opal and Kannika waited for over an hour before an officer took her statement. He was attentive, but explained that stealing foraged mushrooms was not worth investigating because it would be hard to prove a financial value or ownership. The assault part of the story was more worthwhile, he said. However, while “threat with menacing” could be a felony, unless there was a witness or admission, it was hard for the DA to prosecute. As far as Opal’s concern that he might be eating poisonous mushrooms, he was almost derisive. “Doc, if we had to chase after every fool that was running about shoving stupid things into their bodies, we would need 10 times as many officers, and still not get to the half of them!” Shaking his head, he just about said outright that if the guy ate deadly mushrooms, it would serve him right. By the time they got back home and had something to eat, evening was creeping up on them.
Glen was not feeling too good. He had found a fair number of magic mushrooms and had lifted more from an Asian woman who was poaching in his area. He had split his hoard between what he would sell for cash and those for his own use. He had intended to wait until he got home, but since the trails were now busy and there were too many people around, he decided to have a rest, eat some of the shrooms, and take a little trip. When the trip hit, the visuals were not as strong as he had expected, so he ate a few more and sat against an old tree, enjoying the rush of sounds and feelings and some intense visual effects. By the time the trail traffic had died down, he was still tripping, so he just slept in the woods. By morning, he had a really bad case of “Shroom Belly” and was having severe cramping, nausea, and vomiting. He had also soiled his pants badly. When he had got rid of everything in his guts, he rinsed his pants in the stream and cleaned up. To cheer himself up, he dug into his stash again and had some breakfast.
After a fitful night worrying about the guy in the woods, Opal took Bosco on a walk along the river trail that Kannika had described. It was a beautiful area, and with the sounds of the river and teeming birdlife along the trail, Opal almost forgot why they were there. Just over a mile from the trail head, Bosco wanted to leave the main path and investigate. As they got deeper into the forest, with dappled light filtering through the canopy of trees towering overhead, Opal grew nervous. It was one thing to be looking for a sick person on the trail, but quite another, she reflected to herself, to be deep in the forest and encounter someone who had already proven themselves to be violent. As she was about to pull Bosco back, a large figure loomed from the underbrush. Opal yelped involuntarily, Bosco let out a hearty bark, and the figure doubled over and retched loudly and unproductively. Turning his head and glaring at them, he rasped out a question. “Are you the devil?”
Unsure how to answer the question, and suspecting that he was hallucinating or intoxicated, Opal asked if he had eaten mushrooms. The mention of mushrooms jerked him upright. Lumbering toward her, he drew a knife from his belt. Before she could even raise an arm or turn to run, a white streak of angry growling dog launched itself, and Bosco closed his jaws around the man’s knee, yanking it from side to side. The man shrieked and fell to the forest floor like a large sack of potatoes. Swiveling, he kicked out with the other leg, landing a blow in Bosco’s ribs. Bosco yelped in pain, but answered by clamping down on the ankle of the offending foot. The soft popping and scraping sounds of snapping bones was completely drowned out by Opal yelling at both of them and the screams and howls coming from the man. Opal got Bosco’s attention by yelling “leave!” and she headed for the parking at a gallop, with an immensely proud Bosco loping along beside her. Back at her car, Opal loaded Bosco in the back, and called the police to inform them that she had found the man that had threatened Kannika. She explained that he was injured, showed signs of having eaten poisonous mushrooms, and gave them the map reference of approximately where she had found him. She emphasized that he needed to be transported to the ED urgently. The call dispatcher dutifully took the details, created a new incident in the system, and assured Opal that this would be relayed to the uniformed police in the area.
The police did not, however, see it as an urgent matter, and were not especially keen on scouring the area of woods that Opal had indicated in search of someone who was potentially armed and belligerent and probably not eager to be found. By the time the incident was handed from uniform to drug squad, then to the K9 team, and back to the local uniformed police to raise a search party, 3 days had passed. By that time, finding him was a matter of simply following the smell, and eventually the police discovered Glen under a bush where he had died from the amatoxin that had caused his “Shroom Belly” and fatal liver failure.