Don’t date a fungus, my sister had tried to warn me. Too eager, too needy, too much of a chance it would smother my body in smelly gray peach fuzz, stealing all the love I was desperate to give it. All true, in the end. On my right foot, at least. My pinky-toe dewy and covered in spores as the fungus-that-was-my-boyfriend slowly grew up my ankle.
“I told you it would be bad,” said Trudy with a smirk, as she smoothed out the soil in the terrarium at her bedside, the glass walls aglitter in the sunlight from the bedroom window. “Why can’t you date a tree, or a flower, or even an acorn? Some other plant—anything—that isn’t so… invasive?”
Easy for her to say. We might have been twins—her smile and brown eyes and bushy hair were my own. But how could she have known what it was like to be dumped? The honor-roll, varsity, goody-two-shoes sophomore? She’d been dating a daffodil for nearly two months now, ever since she’d bombed in the cheerleading regionals—not a good day to have your uniform rip—and all of her once-friends abandoned her at school. A tragedy, for sure. But nothing compared to the love I had lost. A love I’d been hunting for sixteen long years. Not a fungus or a plant, but a flesh-and-blood senior on the basketball team. Who made me believe I was the luckiest boy in the world.
All gone, as of last week. Patrick had made it very clear that we were over. Leaving me as empty as my foot used to be before I’d purchased the spores that now sprouted between my toes.
I pulled up my sock so that Trudy couldn’t see, not wanting her to notice how quickly it had spread, how the gray fuzz-fibers—now prickly as thorns—were blackening my skin. “It’s supposed to be the best species for a rebound,” I said. “The garden-shop attendant said he’s dated one for years. They’re not always dangerous. They can sometimes let go.” What I didn’t say was how good it felt on my skin, how it wrapped me in a suffocating, warm-wet hug, never asking for anything else in return.
“Suit yourself,” said Trudy, and she leaned into the terrarium, petting the stem of her daffodil-girlfriend. She kissed each of one of its butter-yellow petals, the dew of its morning-sweat dotting her lips, and with a whispered “I love you”, she slipped on her backpack and pinned me with one of her know-it-all glares, even though she was only thirty-seven seconds older. “You saw the interview on Channel Seven last night. You know what could happen. Do you really think it’s worth it?”
A complicated question. I’d seen what my family, what the whole world, had seen. I remembered the fear in Mom and Dad’s wide eyes as they gaped at the television screen in disbelief. At the woman in Montana—still bone-sick with grief—whose husband had left her for the teenage babysitter. At the wisteria vine that grew tight around her neck. Even in the interview, as she answered their questions, it seemed to constrict, its green stem digging like a rope into her flesh, cutting her voice down to a choked-up whisper. Don’t you want us to remove it? Don’t you want us to help you? And always, she’d said no. It made her feel safe. Made her feel secure. Made her feel like something in this world truly needed her.
Not so different from the millions of others who had traded lost love for the love of a plant—or, in my case, a fungus. A worldwide craze in the last few years—of blogs and TV shows and social media trends, of bestselling books on which flora was best for your age or your height or astrology sign, all of them desperate to match you with “the one”. Most of them were innocent, their plant-love gentle. Most of them couldn’t just as easily kill.
“Is it really any better than Patrick?” said Trudy, resting a soil-darkened hand on my shoulder. She gave me a little squeeze, just like Patrick used to do, which ripped my mind back to all the months of false kisses, the tears on my pillow, the lies of “don’t worry, you’re the only one for me”, that Patrick had breathed into my ear like a spell.
I smiled at Trudy and forced out the lie. “I’ll be fine, I promise.”
From the way she rolled her eyes, she didn’t believe me. I didn’t believe it either. Even less when the two of us jumped at the ding of my phone in my pocket. At the name on the screen, and the row of black text. A name I thought I’d left in the past.
Hey Tucker, can we talk?
We met up outside the gymnasium that afternoon. Our usual spot. Right next to the case full of plastic-gold trophies and championship ribbons, all sporting Patrick’s name, where I’d gotten so used to spending hours alone, watching him practice with his teammates on the court. Where he’d first asked me my name, and he’d said I was cute, and would I like to hang out?
Today, though, his smile wasn’t nearly so electric. The slopes of his arms weren’t so effortlessly perfect. “Wasn’t sure if you’d come,” he said when he saw me.
I drank in his musk as he stopped right in front of me, the lemon-lime stink of his deodorant in my mouth, and he leaned with a grin against the glass of the display case, pulling me silently back into his orbit.
“I missed you,” I said, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Knew he would hurt me if I gave him the chance. “It’s been a rough week, and… I’m glad you reached out.”
Patrick just flashed me that million-dollar smile, the one that broadened his fame beyond the basketball team, and he reached for my hand. “I didn’t like how things ended.”
I waited for more, leaning into his warmth, but no apology came. No “sorry” for missing my sixteenth birthday. No acknowledgement for calling me a “clingy little kid”. No remorse for the hurt that he’d made me endure when I learned he’d been kissing Danny Bronson in the locker room.
Kind of hard to ignore when he’d been my first love. The first time a guy had shown me any attention. Even if that attention always came at a price.
“I was thinking,” said Patrick, interweaving our fingers. “Maybe, if you’re up for it, we could give it another go?”
I tried to say no. I wanted to say no. But I couldn’t stop thinking of his voice in my ear, his breath on my lips, the rush of excitement that made me feel alive, even though I knew the good could never outweigh the bad. Patrick was the well from which I couldn’t stop drinking. And no matter what he did to me, I was ready to drown.
“Let’s do it,” I said before I lost my last chance. Before the fungus could stop me. The closer we got, the more that he spoke, the more that its gray fuzz wriggled to life, squeezing my skin like a chain link blanket, my right foot numb from the prickling fibers.
But Patrick didn’t see. I hid my pain well. Despite all he’d done, who he’d kissed, how he’d hurt me, he was still the same person. Fickle, and rash, and over-confident to a fault. He wouldn’t like to know that I was sharing my love. That he wasn’t my one-and-only.
The fungus, or Patrick. I didn’t want to have to choose. I didn’t want to lose either one.
And why should they know?
It would be my own little secret.
“You told him what?” said Trudy as she leaned into her terrarium, sprinkling the daffodil with cool sink water. Her flower-girlfriend seemed to perk up at the moisture, its yellow-petaled head turning up to face the ceiling. “That guy is so mean—all he’s ever done is hurt you.” She let her hands fall with an exasperated sigh.
“It’ll be different this time,” I said, fighting the lie. But I already knew. Patrick couldn’t be trusted. He went where he wanted, said what he wanted, and if I ever disagreed, he would make me regret it. Safe in the fact that he had better things to do and better people to see.
And yet, thinking of him now made my mouth go dry, made me crave the satisfaction of his hand on my waist…
Trudy raised an eyebrow, entirely unconvinced. “And what about the fungus? They’re notoriously clingy. It isn’t going to like that you’re splitting your attention.”
A problem of which I was increasingly aware. Ever since that afternoon, it had started to bloom, gray fuzz creeping up my ankle to my knee. When I said Patrick’s name, it would press into my skin, my muscles on fire from the needle-like warmth, leaving a trail of black blisters and pus.
“I think it might be jealous,” I said with a wince, as a fresh spore burst on the back of my thigh.
“No doubt,” said Trudy. “I talk to my daffodil every single day. Try to tell it how I’m feeling. It might not have ears, but I heard on the news they can parse your emotions from the ripples in your voice. Love through vibration. When was the last time you talked to your fungus?”
“Never,” I said.
“Well, you might want to try it,” said Trudy with a shrug. “You could start with a letter. Organize your thoughts. Harder to say the wrong thing and make it mad.”
I thought of the woman on the Channel Seven news, of wisteria vines growing tight around my neck, and I decided she was right. No use in keeping the fungus around if it killed me in my sleep.
But what could I say?
A letter, it turned out, was harder than it sounded.
Dear Fungus, I’m sorry for leading you on…
Dear Fungus, I promise that I never meant to hurt you…
None of them were right. None of them could put my guilt into words—how I didn’t want to use it the way Patrick had used me. How I hoped it could be there if things didn’t end well. To catch me in the fallout. To cover up my scars.
All of these letters I threw into the trash can, hunched bleary-eyed over my desk into the night. Making excuses. Lying to myself. And with each word written, my leg grew darker, gray fuzz reaching all the way up to my waist.
Patrick came over to our house the next evening. “To study for a math exam,” I told Mom and Dad. “He’s a whiz at geometry, I could really use the help.” Both of them narrowed their eyes in suspicion—when had I ever brought a friend home from school? —but neither one questioned us going upstairs, closing my door, and sprawling together on my twin-size mattress, ready to do anything but math proofs and homework.
Which left us, for the first time, blessedly alone. Where no one could watch us, no one could stop us, no one could keep me from tracing his bicep with the tip of my finger, could keep him from kissing the base of my neck, could keep us from reaching where we shouldn’t have gone.
“Hold on,” I said, grabbing his caramel-brown wrist. It hovered at the point where my t-shirt met my jeans. Just inches above where the fungus had stopped growing.
“What’s wrong?” said Patrick.
“I… my parents are downstairs. I don’t want them to suspect.”
Patrick just smiled, but thankfully, he listened. He wrapped one hand around the small of my back.
It didn’t stay there long. The more that we kissed, the lower it drifted, the more that the gray fuzz bristled below, tensing as if it were ready to pounce.
Patrick didn’t notice. His fingertip poked at the lip of my jeans, dipped underneath. And I knew I should have stopped him, knew it wouldn’t end well, but I couldn’t find my breath. My voice was just a croak. My whole body sweat-slick and silently trembling.
And then I saw the blood.
“What the hell?” said Patrick as he whipped his hand away. Bits of gray fuzz still clung to his fingertips, all bloody and bitten. He sneered, wide-eyed, at the skin on my stomach, at the fungus retreating back down to my waist. His lip curled in disgust. The same as the disgust I now felt for myself. For not being good enough. For not listening to Trudy. For craving the love I couldn’t feel on my own.
“I’m outta here,” said Patrick, and he ran for the door, a bloody hand wrapped in his faded white t-shirt.
“Wait! I can explain!”
But there was no use. He was already gone.
Patrick avoided me for the next few days. The rest of his teammates were just as aloof. If I rounded the corner, they would turn the other way; if I sat by them at lunch, they would find another table, pointing and laughing at my jeans-covered leg.
Patrick must have told them, must have told the whole school. And how could I blame him? Who would be desperate enough to date a fungus?
“You have to tell it how you feel,” said Trudy one morning, arranging the soil in her daffodil’s bed. “It won’t leave on its own. You have to be honest.”
But that was the problem. I didn’t want it to leave. Sure, I was angry for what it had done. Angry for ruining my one and only chance. And yet, a part of me wanted for Patrick to hurt. To see him all bloody and bitten and broken as the crumpled-up shell that he’d made of my heart.
So, I ripped out the half-written letters from my journal. I tried to pretend that it could all somehow work. That the fungus didn’t creep in a line up my chest. That I couldn’t feel the pin-prick stubble of its teeth. That Trudy and Patrick and the world were all wrong, and I was fine on my own, I didn’t need anyone else.
But I knew it couldn’t last.
Gym class had just ended, the first bell of the day. I was one of the only few left in the locker room. I kept my t-shirt on until I got to the shower stall. I slipped out of my shorts once the curtain was closed. The fungus-fuzz tore at the cloth as I undressed, tried to keep itself hidden, sweat-damp and stinking like old rotten eggs.
I flinched from the cold as I turned on the faucet. My fingers all scratched-up and matted with thread as I scrubbed at the fuzz on my spore-blackened chest. The fungus recoiled. It wriggled away, tried to reach up to my throat, and all I could think of was wisteria vines and the Channel Seven news and the look on Patrick’s face when he ran out of my room.
My whole body prickled with white-hot anger. From me, or from the fungus, I still wasn’t sure.
Shivering, I turned the shower faucet off. Reached for my towel on the rack.
But it was gone.
Using the wet shower curtain as a shield, I stuck out my foot to the edge of the stall, where I’d piled my sneakers and my shorts and my t-shirt. All of them gone.
“Very funny!” I said, my voice starting to crack.
Nothing in response. No laughter or jokes. No innocent “I’m sorry” from the janitorial staff. The locker room was empty.
Still, I couldn’t leave. Too much of a risk. Too much of a chance this was all some trick. Someone would be hiding, would be waiting outside. Ready to capture my shame in a picture.
But I couldn’t stay hidden. I couldn’t wait there forever.
Carefully, I unhooked the shower curtain liner, the plastic all sticky with months’ worth of mold. Teeth gritted from the cold, I wrapped it around my waist.
One more look around the edge of the stall. One deep breath.
Then I stepped onto the tile of the locker room floor.
My stomach in my throat, I crept down the hallway, past the row of showers. Cringing at the plip-plop of water in the drains. Bracing myself for the inevitable “gotcha!”, the laughter and sneers. None of which came. By the time I had tiptoed all the way to my locker, I thought, for a moment, that I could actually be free.
Too soon to hope.
The shower curtain ripped out from around my waist. One of the hooks fell clattering to the floor. And before I could stop, I was sitting butt-naked on the mildewy tile, my tailbone pounding, my eyes wet with tears.
And all in a row, in the hallway to the shower, was the basketball team. Laughing. Pointing.
Patrick stepped out from the center of the group. He tossed my wet t-shirt in a ball into my lap. Barely enough to hide my spore-blackened leg.
“Thought you might need this,” he said with a laugh, his eyes bright with revenge, and without a goodbye, he left me there sitting all alone on the floor.
“You okay?” said Trudy from the other side of my bed, an awkward hand placed on the sheets in between us. “You can trust me, you know. I won’t tell Mom and Dad.”
But what could I say? That soon, the whole school would see the pictures of me naked? That I wouldn’t—I couldn’t—leave my bedroom ever again, crushed by the sound of all the laughter in my ears?
“Oh Tucker,” said Trudy, leaning over to hug me. “You’re better than this. You’re stronger than this.”
Hard to believe her, to think past the guilt. The anger at Patrick, and the fungus, and myself. “It’s over,” I whispered.
“No, it isn’t,” said Trudy. “Not unless you want it to be.” She lifted my chin with the tip of her finger, and she wiped at the tears running rampant on my cheeks. “Pretend that I’m Patrick. What would you say to him?”
I paused, too aware of the fuzz on my chest, now wriggling closer to the well of my neck. Ready to strike if I said the wrong thing. “I… I don’t know.”
“Well, why don’t you try?” She picked up the journal from the edge of the desk, pushed it into my lap. “You have your own voice, Tucker. You have to learn how to use it.”
I flipped through the journal. At a loss for what to write. Thinking of what I could say to the guy who had used me and tricked me and torn me to pieces for the very last time. The person to whom I should have always been writing. Not the fuzz on my skin. The real fungus in my life.
Long after Trudy left, I crawled out from my sheets. Opened up a new page. Put my pencil to the paper, hands shaking.
Early the next morning, we snuck into the gymnasium. Before the first bell rang, when the locker room was still empty.
“You ready?” said Trudy, when we got to the locker at the end of the row.
Yes, I wanted to say, despite the pounding in my chest, the sweat that was caking my t-shirt to my neck. But instead, I said, “I’m scared.”
“Here,” said Trudy. “We can do it together.”
She lifted my hand—the one with the note that I’d written overnight, folded into a small square—and she guided me up to the slit in the locker, right next to a placard with the initials P.D. I held the note at the edge, let it dangle through the metal.
But I didn’t let go.
As if it could hear me, the gray fuzz coating my chest started to ripple. Pushing me forward. Stretching its fibers up my trembling arm. Giving me the courage to do what I’d never done before.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Took a deep, deep breath.
And I let the note fall through the cold metal slit. Too nervous to breathe until I heard it touch the bottom.
“I’m proud of you,” said Trudy, and she wrapped me in a hug.
The moment she pulled away, the fungus did too. The gray fuzz clung to her blue jeans, her sweater, the once-sticky spores on my arms going dry. It came off in patches. Shriveling up like a dead patch of grass. The two of us watched, mouths open in awe, as the fungus, for the first time in weeks, retreated. Leaving my arms more nut-brown than black. Fading away now that I no longer needed it.
Maybe the fungus had never been jealous. Maybe it had only ever wanted to help, lending me strength when I needed it the most.
And yet, where did that leave me?
Patrick was gone. I was on my own again. Only sixteen years old. Still trying to learn who I was, what I wanted.
And maybe that was okay.
Maybe, for right now, it was enough to just be Tucker.