A man who has recently broken up with his girlfriend becomes infected with a parasitical fungus that eventually spreads across the entire state of California. There are 500 more words to the story that provide a conclusion.




Will Hughes (United States)

Graham Winters didn’t think much of the subtle red stain on his left hand at first. He noticed it, but it certainly didn’t inspire any alarm or concern. It was probably an allergy to something he had brushed up against in one of his morning walks with Desmond, his golden retriever. He had come out to Lake Tahoe earlier in the week after an awful scene with Johanna, his now-ex-girlfriend, so he had been walking the dog down by the lake in the mornings. Since it was the off season, he’d gotten an excellent deal on a small cabin.
Given that he was approaching fifty, Graham assumed his aging body was more sensitive to dander, plants, and pollen than it once was, so the red stain did not worry him. It was awfully faint. If there were itching, burning, or pain, he might have tried to do something about it, but his doctor was back in Sacramento, a few hours’ drive away, and he desperately needed to get away from the city because Johanna lived there, and he was doing everything he could not to think about her. He’d also already rented the cabin for the week, so driving back to Sacramento would be a waste of money. Instead, he planned to fish as much as possible, watch old movies, and figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He was getting old, and though he found most people difficult, and dating at his age impossible, loneliness scared him. When he looked ahead to the future, he saw only himself and the memories of Teresa, his wife of 15 years who died last summer. Those memories represented the happiest time in his life, but they were only memories now. All that was over.
By the late afternoon the red stain had darkened so that it looked like he had dipped the back of his hand in Kool-Aid. He washed it diligently, but that only made it redder. While on the couch watching TV, Desmond licked it, and that helped to comfort him. Surely it would be gone in the morning. He caught two trout in the evening, ate one for dinner with a very tall glass of bourbon and went to bed.
In the night, tiny white pearls began to push themselves gently up through his skin. He woke once and brushed his right hand over them, noticing that their texture was like the pimples he used to have when he was in high school. But in the dark he couldn’t see how the redness has darkened to a deep crimson, and because the texture was so faint, he went back to sleep only slightly concerned.
In the morning, the back of his hand was covered in a light downy fuzz, also of a deep red. His heart pounded when he woke and saw this. He’d never seen anything like it and realized instantly that he should have rushed to the doctor the day before. The white pearls under the skin were larger too, and he could move them around slightly with his fingers.
Once, when was in his early twenties, he’d caught scabies from a kindergarten teacher he had been dating, who had caught them from one of her students. People think scabies are transmitted sexually, but any skin-to-skin contact can pass them along. The pearls under his skin reminded him of scabies, but the pearls were larger, seemed to be growing, and were not irritated. Not to mention, scabies itch like hell, and this thing on his hand caused almost no sensation at all. But it didn’t look right, and it was getting worse.
Pissed that he had to go back to Sacramento, Graham packed himself and Desmond into the car and headed back to the city. He called the doctor’s office before he left and was able to get an appointment for that afternoon.
Dr. Kruchev was only mildly surprised when he saw Graham’s hand. It certainly didn’t look good, but he’d seen weirder things in his years of practicing medicine. Graham didn’t report any pain, so Dr. Kruchev diagnosed him with dermatitis, gave him a cream to use, and sent him home with instructions to return the following day if his condition worsened.
Having already driven for several hours that day, Graham didn’t want to make the trip back to Tahoe right away. He knew Johanna would be off of work at five, and it was already 4:30. Even though they’d had that awful fight just a few days before, he wanted to see her. This trip to Tahoe was supposed to be the beginning of a new chapter in his life. He had planned on asking Johanna to marry him while they spent the week at the lake. But she had been pulling away from him for months now. Or maybe he had been pulling away from her. He really liked spending time with her, and they had fun, but he wasn’t the most exciting person in California. He was a homebody with an aging paunch and a long line of eventless days and nights ahead of him. While she never said so, Graham suspected Johanna was getting bored with him. He couldn’t blame her. Most of the time he was bored with himself.
Graham grabbed a pair of gloves he hardly ever wore—it was rarely that cold in Sacramento—and headed to Johanna’s apartment. He didn’t want the redness on his hand to alarm her. He knocked at her door, and when she answered the surprise on her face was evident.
“Graham. Hello.” She looked at him quizzically. “I thought you were in Tahoe.”
“I was. I had a doctor’s appointment, and I wanted to see you.”
Johanna opened the door, gesturing him inside. They sat on her couch, and Johanna noticed the black leather gloves Graham wore.
“Is everything ok?” she asked.
“Just a minor irritation on my hand. I think I brushed up against some poison ivy back in Tahoe. Doctor says it’s nothing to worry about.” He looked at her. “I want to talk about what happened the other day.”

Graham and Johanna talked through their problems. Johanna wasn’t as bored with Graham as he had feared. She confessed to being distracted with work and with her son who was just about to begin his first semester at Sacramento State. Graham opened up to her more fully than he had before. After the death of Teresa, he had found it very difficult to share his feelings with others, including Johanna. But they seemed to understand one another better now. Graham spent the night, removing the gloves in the dark, so Johanna couldn’t see the redness on his hand. It felt worse, though it looked the same in the dark. He made a note to visit Dr. Kruchev again the next day.
But in the night, pain woke him with a start. He groaned, waking Johanna.
“What is it?” she said as she turned on the light.
“My hand,” he said through clenched teeth. In the light his mangled hand was visible. The pearls had erupted from under his skin, bursting up little red shoots like vines with tapered bulbs at their ends. Redness was everywhere, like a fuzz covered in fluid, but it wasn’t clear if the red was blood or something else. It covered his whole hand and forearm and was smeared on the bedsheets with spots on his face and chest.
“What is happening?” Johanna wailed. “I’ll call an ambulance.”
Graham grasped her in shock. “I…I…” he stammered.
Johanna grabbed her phone from the nightstand, but in her shock she forgot it was plugged in and it fell to the floor as she yanked it from the cord. She crawled on the floor to retrieve it.
“Something is happening,” said Graham. The tendrils that grew from his hand were elongating, squirming themselves out of his flesh and waving. There were seven of them, Graham noted. The bulbs began to swell as he stared at them in horror.
Johanna retrieved the phone and dialed 911. Just then the first bulb, reaching the size of a walnut, opened. As it parted itself into three sections, a red mist sprayed into the air. Graham inhaled it instantly, unable to help himself. Then everything changed. For him, anyway. His screaming stopped, and he was absolutely calm.
“Johanna,” he said. “Johanna, look.”
Still kneeling on the floor, Johanna looked at the horrific scene before her.
“Hello, what is your emergency?” the 911 operator said.
Two more of the swollen bulbs burst open spreading the red mist through the air. Unknowingly, Johanna inhaled it too. She hung up the phone.
“Beautiful,” she said. She wasn’t referring to the horrific mess in front of her. Rather, she described the feeling that overcame her as the red mist worked its way into her brain. She felt at peace, like when she was a child and God was a certainty.

Competition: Friendly feedback, Round 1



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