Henry never understood why what happened to him happened to him, but he was keenly aware of what it felt like: an itching neurosis, blooming in his brain, triggered a desperate need to climb out his window on the fifteenth floor of his penthouse apartment on 79th and 1st. His hands felt gummy when he opened the window, and for a horrible moment he couldn’t let go of the plastic molding. The pustules on his hand barfed more viscous glue as he gave another pull and freed himself to begin the climb.
Sun, he thought. I need sunlight. That’s the ticket.
He reached around the window and began to climb toward the roof a few feet above. For a moment he imagined himself to be Peter Parker, scaling his first building, until he pushed his face out of shadow into the warming plane of sun, and the urge to climb any higher dissolved. He gritted his teeth, pressed himself against the concrete above his window, and stayed there until the muck oozing out of him solidified and all hope of further movement was lost.
The itch was gone. In its place was a tranquility he’d rarely known in his thirty-five years. He finally felt he’d reached the place he belonged.
There was no way Henry could know it was merely the Ophiocordyceps humanis talking. A new and youthful form of fungus, recently mutated accidentally by a prominent pesticide company supplying a major farming conglomerate, the new species had made its way to Henry’s body through a potato he’d purchased from a vegetable cart on the corner. The fungus had spidered through his brain and triggered an autoimmune reaction from his skin the likes of which had not been predicted by the prominent pesticide company, whose researchers had never considered what their new product might evolve into, given exposure to bacteria found in farmlands downstream from slaughterhouse cattle pens.
Yet so long as Henry did what the fungus wanted him to do, it rewarded him with blasts of endorphins. It was, probably, the best he’d ever felt in his entire life, clinging like a smiling, hardening booger to the side of his Manhattan high-rise.
He wasn’t alone. The fungus by that point was rampant in the greater New York City area. It had, in fact, been making the rounds for a little over a week. In his peripheral vision, Henry noted the presence of many other people, all creeping toward the slants of sunlight striking the tops of the neighboring buildings. They crowded together, sometimes crawling over each other to steal space, yet all looked quite content.
Quite content indeed. It wasn’t so bad, dying outside in the sun.
Not until the sun set, anyway, and the fungus changed its tune. The itch returned, but Henry could no longer move, nor was there any sun to move toward. The lights of the city around him whispered a faint call, but he knew it wasn’t enough. Around him, he heard crying; he heard moaning and rage and sadness. The city was wailing. He was hungry and thirsty, and the fall night air bit through his mucus encasement.
He didn’t know why no one was coming to save them. He thought he heard helicopters in the distance.
Maybe we’re not worth saving. Maybe we’re as good as dead.
It seemed likely. If he’d seen people glued to buildings on TV, he would assume they had some terrible disease best left within a well-enforced quarantine. Not in his backyard, no way.
It occurred to him he would never again go to a backyard barbecue. Never eat another cheesehamburger or steak, or drink another beer. Even worse–he realized he was never going to finish the fantasy series he was reading. Such a shame–he really wanted to know what happened next.
Then he had The Thought.
As soon as The Thought happened, he tried to mentally brush it away. The Thought was such a cheesy thing to think, and no, he wouldn’t condemn his life that way. It was lazy thinking. It was too easy. It was wrong. He’d lived a good life. He had. Maybe he hadn’t accomplished everything he’d wanted to, but–
Bullshit. He’d accomplished nothing. Nothing of what he’d set out to do. He’d done a lot of nonsense, yes, and now–
Whatever. It was fine. He’d lived enough. Had he not? And what was achievement worth anyway at such a time as this, dying in a rigid-as-bone crust?
His tears came out gluey, and his eyes soon would no longer open. He spent so long in the cold, starving dark, he thought he’d finally died and was floating through empty space. Except there was a nail in his head. A thickening nail, and soon he was weeping with the pain of a throbbing headache that broke through all his delusions of death.
Death wasn’t this painful.
The pain lasted a long, long time. Each second of that interminable night felt like an hour, and when dawn came and the sun spread over Henry and the other flowers of the Ophiocordyceps humanis, his mind was quite broken. Yet it received the doses of endorphins just the same, and for the next day the mood inside the hardened shell was once again bright. Bright, until an early-evening thunderstorm blacked out the sun and brought an early return of the dark, and the pods moaned again. With their mouths sealed, the sounds were muffled and haunting, like a whimpering wind through hollow trees.
It continued like this for four days, until the spores emerged from the cocooned bodies, and the stalks of the fungus broke from the heads of the dead, rising in alien shapes above the silent streets, and burst, releasing their dust into the wind.