“Terror in El Pueblo” is the second of several Colorado-based short stories written by local authors we’ll be publishing on the Denver Horror Collective website and in The Epitaph newsletter, as a lead-up to the fall release of Terror at 5280′, our local horror fiction anthology.
Terror in El Pueblo
by Cory Swanson
Luke had done a lot of diving. The Stachybotrys chartarum in his brain, on the other hand, had not. Stachy enveloped the boy’s visual cortex and gazed out over the scene.
Down below and out around them were fake rocks that descended into a deep pool of water colored blueish green by the lights within. A waterfall cascaded over the rocks, pumped continuously through a series of tubes that Stachy had inhabited himself. Or themselves, as it were. The mold reproduced asexually, sporing and growing in the damp places of the world.
Stachy looked out beyond the pool through the boy’s eyes. Other humans sat, eating what looked to be food made of grains and dairy. They could sense the boy’s disgust and disdain as he looked out over the crowd. El Pueblo no joke-o, Luke thought. How can they eat that?
The mold didn’t get the joke. It dug through the boy’s memories trying to extract meaning. They boy had been a competitive diver at school. An impressive athletic specimen. He’d been scouted and hired by this restaurant to perform cliff diving for the diners. El Pueblo Loco.
The crazy town, the mold thought.
But the mold had witnessed a genocide of its own kind. As it tried to spread through the damp and inviting environment of aging and leaky pumps and cracked concrete pools, the humans had ruthlessly retaliated. Chemical warfare. Poisons. Destruction.
Stachybotris had to defend itself.
As the boy prepared to jump, the mold clamped down on his nervous system, taking control of his functions. It tested the extent of its invasion, lifting Luke’s arm above his head like a puppeteer working his puppet.
The boy didn’t go down easily. In fact, he panicked when the Stachy took over, fighting for control of his own body.
But the mold had been studying his internal functionings for several days now. Stachy squeezed a gland and released dopamine throughout the young man’s body. Luke’s heart-rate fell.
The mold moved several of the boy’s limbs for him, testing the extent of its power, finding its control complete. The diners gasped and murmured at the boy’s strange behavior.
“Luke, are you okay?” another diver called out, attempting to climb the rocks up to their perch.
What’s happening to me? the boy thought. I can’t control my body.
Shhhh, Stachy urged. It will all be over soon,it told the boy’s brain.
The mold steered the athletic body around and threw one arm up, grabbing onto the fake rocks and gripping them as tightly as they could. It did the same with the other three limbs and squeezed until Luke’s appendages bled with the effort. Awkwardly but effectively, the mold made the boy’s body climb up toward the ceiling.
The entire restaurant erupted. Screaming and shouting filled the air to the point that the mold shut down the boy’s ears, unable to concentrate through the chaotic sounds.
Now holding to the highest point of the building, Stachybotris Chartarum completed its mission, ejecting trillions of spores in to the boy’s lungs. The mold closed Luke’s glottis and squeezed his abdominal muscles. Then, with a bone-shaking cough, it released the spores in a black cloud around the boy’s head. Stachy repeated the process several dozen more times until it had exhausted its resources.
Luke’s body, now having been deprived of oxygen for several minutes, could no longer process the basic functions of life. The air filled with the black seed of itsspawn, the mold let loose its grip on the boy, his body plummeting down the two stories, and breaking with a squishy thud across the edge of the pool below.
“Why the hell are you calling me at midnight on a Tuesday?” Bill barked into his phone. “What could be so important?” He rolled over in his silk pajamas and fished around on his bed-stand for his glasses.
“Something’s happened at the restaurant, sir,” came the voice of his secretary on the other end.
“El Pueblo Loco. You’re going to want to come out here. It seems someone got very sick.”
“What’s new? People get sick eating there all the time.” This was true. Bill had found it best not to touch anything or dare eat a bite while at his own restaurants. Many agreed with him. You didn’t go to El Pueblo Loco for the food.
“This is different, sir. Your reputation is on the line.”
Bill wiped at his face and groaned. He was no spring chicken anymore. He’d opened that restaurant, what, forty years ago? He’d been young then. Ambitious. Something of a P.T. Barnum of the food industry building campy Mexican restaurants from Oklahoma City to Phoenix. In his twenties, he’d have happily hopped a plane in the middle of the night to go be the center of attention. The cameras, the media: it all used to excite him, even when the attention was negative.
Now, though, he preferred to be in bed by nine. He liked his silk pajamas and his cup of warm milk before the evening news.
Bill sighed. This is what I get for not officially retiring. “Yeah, book me a flight around noon tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll send you the booking in your email,” his secretary said.
Bill hung up and rolled over.
“Is everything okay?” his wife groaned.
“It’ll be fine. Someone got sick at El Pueblo Loco.”
“The one in Denver?”
“It’s the only one left.”
“Is everyone okay?”
“Probably not. I’m flying out tomorrow.”
“I told you the food was terrible there.”
“The food was never the point.”
“Mr. Whyge, there are reports that someone died in there.”
The lights almost stung they were so bright. “Yes. One of our employees became gravely ill. It is unfortunate and our condolences go out to his family.”
Another reporter piped in as Bill wondered whether the bags under his eyes would show up on camera.
“But Mr. Whyge, there are reports that he climbed to the ceiling and vomited. People are blaming the food.”
“The origin of Mr. Peltier’s illness is still a mystery, but I have every confidence that our food was not at fault. I can show you the copies of our recent health inspections.”
Bill’s secretary tapped him on his shoulder and whispered in his ear. “Sir, remember you bribed the health inspector,” she said.
He shot her a warning glance. Of course, he’d bribed the health inspector. That was why he knew any investigations would come up clean. This place was an institution. They weren’t going to shut down an historical landmark just because of a little food poisoning.
“Mr. Whyge,” another reporter shouted. “There are reports of rampant mold in the building. Could this be the cause of Luke Peltier’s illness?”
“That’s just speculation, and you know it. We fumigate extensively for mold once a year. It’s part of having an indoor pool. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to tend to some business.”
Bill rushed back inside the building, his lawyer and his secretary at his side. The reporters shouted questions after them in their usual frenzy as they departed. “That was murder,” he said when the doors finally shut. “Why did we agree to a press conference?”
“We had to address the situation publicly,” his lawyer said. “Hiding makes us look guilty.”
“Lying makes us look guilty. They’re going to see right through it.”
“Sir, if I may. This is the era of Donald Trump. Lying is almost expected in these situations.”
“Whatever. Take me in there. I want to see what happened.”
“You’re going to need this,” his secretary said, holding out a breathing mask.
“Hmph,” Bill said, putting it on and walking through the big doors to the poolside viewing area. Investigators in hazmat suits stood on a scissor lift. They wiped at the black smudge on the ceiling with cotton swabs and placed the samples in specimen jars. “What’s that?” Bill asked.
“That’s what Luke coughed up before he fell,” the lawyer said.
“Christ. What is it?”
“We’re not one hundred percent certain, but it appears to be some sort of mold.”
“So he climbed to the ceiling to vomit mold and fell to his death.”
“Something like that.”
Bill’s eyes brightened. “Case closed, then. The mold could be from anything.”
“But it could be from here.”
“That’s circumstantial evidence. We’re off the hook.”
“If I may, sir,” his secretary piped in, “everyone knows we have a mold problem. Circumstantial or not, we have a public relations debacle on our hands.”
“So we fumigate and reopen. We’ve weathered worse.”
“Sir, if I can be so bold,” the lawyer interjected. “This is bad. No one knows what made this boy climb to the ceiling and vomit mold. It beggars explanation. Maybe it would be prudent to shut down for a while.”
Bill’s eyes became dark above his breathing mask. “Do you know what it would cost me to shut this place down? This restaurant is an icon. People come here regardless of the bad food. They come for the campy atmosphere. The melodramas. The Bandit’s cave is an institution, and a profitable one at that. Fumigate and reopen. That’s an order.”
Stachy acted fast at the first smell of the concrobium mold fogger. They released their spores and pulled a microscopic blitzkrieg on the attackers. They searched for any breach of security and found one. A small hole in the side of one of the gas masks.
Stachy entered the man’s nostril and penetrated to his brain, reproducing at an astronomical rate until they coated the man’s nervous system and took over.
This time, Stachy did not work to quell the man’s panic. There was no time. With clumsy control of the man’s hands, they used them to rip the protective gear from his head and toss the fungicide sprayer to the side.
The man screamed as the mold made him do this, but it couldn’t be helped. The other fumigators turned to look at him, and Stachy ran to one and began to tear off the other man’s gas mask.
The man fought back in fear, but the mold fought back harder, holding him down and coughing spores in his face.
The other two fumigators fled, but Stachy now had two humans under their control. They calmed them with dopamine and stood them up, walking them into The Bandit’s cave. Within, they found a dark corner and hid the men inside, keeping them alive.
The battle had been won. They’d protected their kingdom and even taken hostages. Stachy regrouped and prepared for the greater war.
“I heard what you told me and I’m still ordering you to reopen,” Bill said, rolling over on the mattress of his hotel room bed and barking into his phone. His wife called him ‘The Prince and the Pea,’ but for the life of him, he couldn’t get comfortable in any bed but his own.
“Sir,” the voice of his secretary over the phone pleaded. “Those men are missing. The other workers said they saw the one cough mold onto the other.”
“The public doesn’t know that. And you said they couldn’t find the other two men. They probably pulled a prank and are drinking in a bar in LoDo for all we know. Every day that place is closed it costs me thousands. I know you don’t care because you get paid anyway.”
“I care, sir. I really do, but—”
“No buts. It looks to the public like we fumigated. The threat of illness hasn’t kept people away from El Pueblo before, why should it now? We open tomorrow. End of story.”
“The employees are scared to come back.”
“We’ll fire anyone who doesn’t show up and hire more. Hell, I’llwait tables tomorrow if I have to. You can cook and my lawyer can perform the cliff diving show.”
“Sir, that won’t be necessary.”
“I know it won’t be necessary because you’re going to call everyone and reassure them that it’s going to be fine.”
“Sir, it’s ten o’clock at night.”
“I know it is.”
Bill hung up, thoroughly missing the tactile pleasure he used to get from slamming a physical phone back into its cradle. Somehow, touching the button on his cell phone screen just didn’t have the same pizzaz.
He rolled over and shut off the bedside lamp and stared at the blinking light of the smoke alarm in the corner of the ceiling. It’s going to be okay, he thought. Everything’s going to be fine. If anything, it adds to the El Pueblo Loco legend. It’ll get more people to come.
He couldn’t help feeling the particular brand of loneliness that being in a hotel room alone brewed. He wanted to call his wife, but knew she’d long been asleep.
Bill sighed and turned on the TV.
Stachy loved the damp inner reaches of The Bandit’s cave. Here they bided their time as they waited to negotiate with their hostages. Stachy knew they would come for their kind eventually, then they would make their demands.
Then this place would be theirs, a paradise of Stachybotris Chartarum.
Through the ears of the men, he could hear the voices. They were coming. One of the hostages tried to wrest control of his body and shout out to the other humans, but Stachy clamped down, causing the man to choke the words back in a pained moan.
The footsteps came walking through, closer and closer. Stachytried to prepare what it would say to the humans, anxious that this should go well.
As the humans rounded the corner, a flashing light tripped on, startling the small human.
“I demand autonomy,” Stachy yelled, the hostage’s tongue functioning with a clumsy thickness.
The tiny human screamed and ran. The light turned back off.
That was strange, Stachy thought. The mold had imagined the exchange going much differently. Maybe some discourse, a little disagreement, but not a scream of fear from a small child.
Maybe they hadn’t spoken very clearly.
More footsteps came echoing down the cave. The flashing light tripped on again and two humans stood before them with wide eyes.
“This is the country of my brethren and we demand you cease your genocide,” Stachy said with the voices of both men simultaneously.
The female human ducked into the male human’s arms, screaming. The male looked more confused than scared. Ultimately, he cradled her off toward the exit of the cave.
The mold’s message was not reaching its audience. What are we doing wrong? they thought.
They had several chances to practice with new humans coming through the cave at a rapid rate now.
“Surrender or die,” they tried.
Also, “Unless our demands are met, we will continue to kill.”
Try as they might, their message simply wasn’t getting across.
“This is going swimmingly,” Bill said, standing next to the pool, watching the campy melodrama unfolded on the cliffs above him.
His secretary nodded uncomfortably, trying not to breathe too deeply. “Sir, can I talk to you about something?”
Bill didn’t seem to hear her. “I mean, you can’t even see the spot on the ceiling any more.”
Up above them, they could see an oblong patch of new paint where the black mold stain had been.
“Sir, this is wonderful and all. Could I tell you about something?”
“I mean, privately.”
Bill looked at her. “Now? The performance isn’t over yet.”
“They’re just going to fall in the water, Bill. You know how it ends.”
He shook his head. “Okay,” he said, motioning her through a side door that led to the room that housed the water pumps. “What do you want to tell me about?”
The secretary looked nervous. “I was watching TV last night.”
“So was I,” Bill said impatiently.
“There was this nature show about these bugs.”
“What does this have to do with our restaurant?”
“Well, there was this mold that took over the brains of these ants. It forced them to march to a high spot on a tree or something. Then it grew a stalk out of the ant’s brain and released its spores all over the forest.”
“Ooooookay.” Bill wore a face of concern for his overworked secretary. “Are you feeling alright?”
“I’m fine. But I’m scared.”
“Of mold taking over my brain. I mean, this sounds like exactly what happened to Luke Peltier.”
Bill stifled a laugh. “What would we do about it even if it were true?”
“We would shut the place down and make sure it was thoroughly cleaned. Can you imagine what this would do to the human race if it got loose?”
“Listen. You’ve been working very hard and you’re under a lot of stress. I promise when this blows over, you can cash in some of your vacation time. You need the rest.”
“Sir, you can’t keep ignoring this. People are dying. They’re going missing.”
“It’s not the mold,” Bill cooed, his hands on her arms now. “That would be crazy. Have you ever considered speaking with a therapist?”
The secretary’s face soured. “I’m not crazy, sir, I just—”
The door burst open. “There you are,” one of the waiters said. “There’s something going on in The Bandit’s cave.”
Bill remained incredulous. It felt like the world was out to get him. These kids are trying to pull a big prank on me. Someone is trying to get attention at my expense. This all has to be a big hoax. Even though he knew the thoughts to be irrational, his mind kept clinging to these notions because they seemed far more sane than parasitic molds making zombies out of people.
The rationalizing did serve a purpose, though. It got him through the walk up to The Bandit’s Cave. It helped him put one foot in front of the other.
“Stay here and keep people out for a minute,” he told his secretary at the cave’s entrance.
She nodded, looking relieved to not have to go in.
Bill took his first cautious steps into The Bandit’s Cave. He knew every nook and cranny. After all, he’d helped design it. He knew where the sensors would trip and light up the dummy in the clown mask. He knew where the loot was and where the skulls were hidden.
Something in him still delighted in this. It had a flavor of campy unreality that had endured for generations even if the building hadn’t fared so well.
But psychoactive molds that took over people’s minds? Probably just a couple pranksters hiding out and scaring people. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d had to kick someone out of El Pueblo Loco.
Bill stepped on the trigger and the strobe lights lit up. Two men in partially disassembled hazmat suits flanked the clown dummy. “The resistance will fight to the end,” their voices said in clumsy unison.
“Alright, you jokers,” Bill said, gesturing towards the cave’s exit. “The prank’s over. Let’s get out of here.”
“This is our country and our home,” the men said, their eyes glassy. “The revolution will fight to the last spore.”
“Very funny,” Bill said, getting impatient. “You’re playing up the mold bit. How topical of you. Now get out of here before I call security in.”
Bill grabbed the man on the left and tried to pull him along. With unreal strength, the man’s arm snapped back and in a single motion pushed Bill into the wall across from them where he fell in a heap.
It hurt. Bill hadn’t been ready for that. He was no spring chicken after all, and now he thought he might have broken something. But as he had his entire life, he faced this adversity with his usual brand of misguided bravado. “Is that all you’ve got?” he said, forcing himself painfully up from the floor. “Do you know how many people I’ve kicked out of my restaurant in my day? I’ve tossed drunks out on their asses who were ten times your size.”
The man on the right stood. Bill couldn’t tell if his intimidating form had anything to do with the hazmat suit, but Bill felt outmatched and terrified. Why did I come in here alone? Why didn’t I bring security in with me?
The answer was simple. He hadn’t wanted anyone to freak out. If he could toss a couple of drugged out pranksters back on the street and have no one be the wiser then there wouldn’t be anything for anyone to gossip about.
But he wasn’t prepared for this. Somewhere in there, he forgot to factor in his age.
Then something clicked in his brain. The hazmat suits. Were these the fumigators that had gone missing? If so, what the hell were they doing scaring people out of their wits in the Bandit’s Cave?
The man grabbed Bill by both arms, his face contorted. “Are you the master of this land?”
“I own this restaurant.” If there was something Bill was good at, it was bravado in the face of terror. “Hell, I invented this place.”
“This is our land now,” the man said, then he began to cough. Big convulsive heaves of coughs that covered Bill in a foul smell.
Bill wrestled free of the man’s grip and fell to the ground. “What the hell was that?” he shouted. “You stink like something’s rotting in you.”
Bill’s hand grabbed at his tie and pulled it loose. Only it wasn’t his hand somehow. He hadn’t been the one to move it. Something else had compelled him. Something outside of himself. It’s the mold, he thought. It’s true.
A new brand of terror swept through Bill’s body. One that shot waves of panic through his limbs. His body stood itself up and began to walk towards the cave’s exit under its own agency. Bill tried to scream, but the mold choked off his throat so all that came out was a dull moan of anguish.
His body stumbled out into the restaurant, meandering through the crowd of children watching the animatronic rocks singing. “Help,” he tried to call out, but again, all that made it past his lips was an anguished, zombielike moan.
Children ran screaming into the arms of their parents, and Bill’s body made for the waterfall. No, he thought. Please no.
His protests were futile. Strange and bizarre thoughts sprang crystal clear in his brain. You have committed genocide against us. Now you will pay.
Of course I committed genocide against you, Bill thought back at the mold in his brain. You’re mold. Disgusting black mold. You’ve been growing everywhere in this place.
This is our home now. You will pay the ultimate price.
Bill tried to think, attempting to face down this new foe in the landscape of his thoughts, but now his body climbed over the rocks and stood at the top of the waterfall. Please don’t do this, Bill pleaded with the voices in his head. This place is my greatest achievement. You’ll ruin me.
Just as you tried to ruin us, you will pay, Bill Whyge.
Bill’s eyes looked out over the crowd. People gasped and shouted. They hid their children’s eyes and cowered from the sight.
I don’t want to die, Bill pleaded. I don’t want to ruin my restaurant.
Bill’s knees bent without his control. He tried to scream in terror, but again, only a strained moan escaped his throat. With everything he had, Bill tried to fight against the microscopic beings that were trying to kill him.
Then, as quickly as the dopamine could dissipate through his bloodstream, everything calmed. What just happened?
You will go to your death peacefully, the mold told him.
As much as he wanted to resist, he couldn’t. Everything seemed serene now. The fake palm trees. The crystal clear blue water below him.
His hands went in the air and his knees sprung. He felt his body lift from the platform and glide out over the water.
The sensation of falling thrilled Bill. It occurred to him halfway to the water that he’d never jumped from the cliffs before. In all these years, he’d never had the courage to do the dive. It was his restaurant, he could have done it any time. Yet not once had he been able to bring himself to take the plunge.
Thank you, he thought to the mold. This is fun.
He hit the water awkwardly. It hurt a little, but the thrill of the fall cancelled out any pain he felt.
You’ll notice we left you alive, the mold told him as it granted him control of his body again.
Why? Bill thought back at them.
To serve as a warning. Now you can work to grant us our freedom.
Bill thrashed in the water. His secretary reached in and grabbed his arm, pulling him out. He stood up, soaked to the bone, and waved at the crowd. A cheer exploded and Bill basked in the attention as long as he could.
“What the hell just happened?” his secretary asked him.
“The most fun I’ve had in years,” he said.
“You were acting funny up there.”
“Yeah, yeah. The mold got me.”
“Why didn’t the mold kill you?”
“Because I thought of a plan.”
Somehow, through some kind of trickery, Bill’s lawyer figured out how to make everything legal. “I don’t see why you don’t just sell the right to dive,” the lawyer said.
“That’s just the thing,” Bill said, his enthusiasm boiling over. “I never would have done it without Stachy.”
“Stachy being the mold?”
“Yeah. I was too scared I’d hurt myself. Plus, it gives them a job.”
“They being the mold?”
“Yes. Of course.”
The idea gave the restaurant new life. No longer was El Pueblo Loco an aging homage to a lost era. Bill embraced the black mold and welcomed it into the very fabric of the restaurant.
For a sizable fee and the signing of several liability waivers, customers could now stick their heads in The Bandit’s Bucket. From there, Stachybotris Chartarum would inhabit the customer’s body and walk them out to the cliffs.
In exchange, the mold was allowed to live in the recesses of The Bandit’s Cave, inhabiting all of the dark and damp nooks and crannies therein.
On Bill’s urging, his secretary was the first customer. “Trust me, Jill, it’s great fun,” he told her.
She looked at him skeptically, holding the bucket in her hands. There was something in Bill’s eyes she hadn’t seen in years. A twinkle. A spark of delight. “Okay, what the hell,” she said and stuck her head in the bucket, inhaling deeply.
Welcome to El Pueblo Loco, she heard in her head. Mariachi music played from somewhere she couldn’t see like ghosts in another room. Our name is Stachybotris Chartarum and we are going to take you on the ride of your life. The mold shouted a gritoand the music intensified.
The secretary’s arm lifted away from the bucket and she couldn’t tell if she’d performed the action herself or not. Only when her legs began moving on their own did she recognize that she’d lost control of her body.
Now don’t be scared. We know how to keep you safe.
But Jill was scared. Her heart pounded so hard she could feel it in her throat. But as suddenly as it started, she felt a feeling of peace and serenity flood through her body.
There’s a little dopamine to keep you calm. Now, let’s go to the cliffs, shall we?
The mold opened a door with her hand and she peered out over the restaurant. Expectant eyes looked up at her from every table, ignoring steaming piles of sopapillas to watch the spectacle that was Jill. Her hand waved to the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are unveiling a new attraction tonight,” came the voice of the teenaged announcer. “Have you ever wanted to dive off the cliffs at El Pueblo Loco? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to fly through the air like a bird and plunge into the depths of the waters below? Well, tonight, your dreams could come true.”
Jill’s hand waved to the crowd.
“Through the magic discovered in The Bandit’s cave,” the announcer continued, “you too could dive from these cliffs with grace and ease. Even if you don’t know how, you will glide thirty feet through the air and land safely in the waters below.”
The music in Jill’s head began to intensify and her body did a little dance. How embarrassing, she thought, yet the crow seemed to be tapping their feet to the beat as well. A man and a woman stood up and did a tango. Wait a minute. They can hear it too?
Stachy laughed in her head and yelled another grito.
“Who’s ready to see this lady dive?” the announcer shouted.
The crowd roared.
How could you be in everyone’s head? Jill asked the mold. That’s not what you agreed to.
“Alright. On the count of three,” the announcer began.
Calm down, Stachy urged. We’re going to make this the greatest restaurant ever.
The crowd looked enraptured. Every face wore a smile.
Jill’s knees bent and her hands went over her head. She couldn’t deny the thrill and the fun of the evening. She’d never seen El Pueblo Loco so full of mirth and happiness. The music roared in her head like a fire.
Her legs sprung and she felt her body tumbling through the air.
A Littleton native, Cory Swanson lives, writes, and teaches music in Windsor, Colorado. His short story, “The Musicologists,” appears in the anthology Triangulation: Harmony and Dissonance and his novella, “Geminus,” will be published by Castrum Press within the year.