Editor’s note: This is the second story we’re publishing in Nino’s “It Happened To Me” series. You can read the first one here.
I was twenty-three, and on my lunch break when the giant alien mushroom bloomed in the sky over Lake Michigan. I nearly spit out my Jamba Juice when I saw Amanita, spreading above Chicago’s skyline like an otherworldly egg, cracked onto the flat expanse of sky.
In those first dark days, a lot of us clung to anything and anyone in reach. For some, it was a stockpile of guns; for me, it was the assistant manager of a Dick’s Sporting Goods, who shared my hiding spot in a donut shop while fleeing the city. We lasted for a year in a remote cabin in the Rocky Mountains before I broke it off. I wasn’t interested in being a bunker wife.
I came back to the city, ready for a new start. Chicago has survived worse than alien mushrooms. What’s a floating otherworldly fungus compared to the Chicago Fire, or Prohibition, or Rahm Emmanuel? Once it became clear that Amanita was inactive, she became just another place you took out-of-towners to when they dropped in to visit, if you didn’t want to spring for tickets to the Field Museum. Nobody looks up in cities, except for tourists.
There was no getting away from Amanita, despite the city’s collective cold shoulder. Its gentle pulses of pink and red light woke me just like the sunrise, and every so often, when the wind was right, I’d catch her scent: popcorn mixed with bubblegum, to me. I was flabbergasted when friends complained that it smelled like rotting meat.
I didn’t learn until later why it was different for me: I had been chosen.
The first symptom was a headache that was almost pleasurable. You know the ache in your muscles after a great yoga session? It was like that, warm and tingly and just on the achy side of good.
I’d had acne since my teens, and it never entirely went away, especially when food prices skyrocketed after the post-Amanita panic and I couldn’t keep my usual Paleo diet. But when the headache faded, I noticed that my skin had cleared up.
Then my sleep patterns got weird. I’d always slept like a rock. Even during the riots, I had no trouble getting my eight hours, despite the explosions, screams, and sirens. But I’d find myself waking up from a dream while standing in front of my window — the window that faced Lake Michigan, and Amanita hovering above it.
If you’ve ever been in a relationship, you’ll recognize the feeling I’m about to describe: when you wake in the middle of the night, and before you remember where you are or what’s happened, you reach for your lover on the other side of the bed. That’s what I was doing, and Amanita had been doing the same to so many of us. She was lonely, and she reached out to me, recognizing my own solitude and listlessness.
I was in denial for weeks, at least when I was awake. When I told a coworker about my sleepwalking, she shrugged it off. When I mentioned Amanita, she rolled her eyes. “Didn’t you read the CDC reports? No adverse physical effects from living under the Puffball.”
All the while, I could feel Amanita, nudging at the edge of my consciousness. I’d close my eyes and see her soft, pink, pulses of light behind my eyelids. Sometimes, on the train home after work, I’d feel like she was watching me, waiting for me to return her gaze.
Others of Amanita’s chosen began to recognize me. The first encounter happened on my lunch break — always my lunch breaks! I must be cursed. A bike courier stepped out of line at Chipotle and told me, “She beckons.” When I just stared at him in confusion, he repeated himself: “She beckons.” Then he brushed past me, and before I could stop him, he’d hopped on his bike and zoomed down the street. The only thing that lingered was a faint whiff of bubblegum and popcorn.
It happened a few more times, but my denial just dug in its heels. I lived in a city, I told myself: you had to expect a few weirdoes. It was just a coincidence that they all said the same thing to me.
That all changed on the night I woke up on my roof.
Let’s get one thing straight: I didn’t even know I had access to my roof. I just woke up there, barefoot and still in my pajamas. My head was hurting again, and the pleasurable ache had spread to my entire body: a dull throbbing that seemed to match the muted lights emanating from Amanita.
“What do you want?” I found myself whispering.
“She wants you,” a voice said from behind me. The bike courier from Chipotle was there on the roof too, a dozen feet away.
I was too dazed to be embarrassed he’d seen my ugly PJs.. I could feel Amanita now, in a way I hadn’t before, a gentle tugging on my consciousness. Pink lights and the smell of bubblegum and popcorn.
I won’t divulge the details of what happened afterwards. If you want to find out, all you really have to do is be open to her. You might have felt Amanita already, waking up at night to the smell of something wonderful; or an all-over ache that you find yourself enjoying.
I feel great having melded my consciousness with Amanita. I feel whole. I’ve finally found that “something bigger” that I’ve been searching for my entire life. Her name is Amanita, and she comes from somewhere very far away, and she understands loneliness. That’s why she’s gathered us: not just me and Doug, the bike courier, but hundreds of us, maybe thousands now.
Can’t you feel her beckoning? She wants you, too.