Bugs

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy.  That’s what it was.  Travis lifted the package of meat to his nose and sniffed, though all he got was the scent of cool plastic.  He lowered it again and ignored the woman who passed him, a short blonde with her kid in the cart.  He raised a finger and pointed at Travis, and then giggled.  Travis felt his cheeks turn pink, and he turned away.

He waited until he was sure the woman and her spawn were occupied elsewhere, and peered down at the meat.

I don’t like those brown spots.  They look like disease.  

Another voice answered the first.  So, why are you still holding it?

He mentally shrugged and tossed the meat back into the display case.  He pulled a small bottle of sanitizer from his pocket and squirted some into his hands, then scrubbed them together, counting to twelve.  When he was done, he slipped the bottle back into his pants and pulled out a small packet of aspirin.  He tore it open and chewed two, the bitter taste feeling like a cleansing acid to his tongue.  He swallowed and made his way toward the dry aisles.

Couldn’t go wrong with canned food.  Hermetically sealed, vacuum packed, untouched by human hands.

Except…

What?

Except, what if a rat fell in?  Or someone lost a finger?  What if the meat they used wasn’t sanitized?

His head started to throb.  The fluorescents overhead were too bright, and he imagined he could hear them buzzing like nests of hornets above him.  He rubbed his eyes and shook his head to clear it.  After another minute of staring at an array of cans with labels printed with names like Potted Meat Product, SPAM, and Vienna Sausages, he shook his head once more and decided he would have vegetables for dinner.

He picked out a nice ear of corn and a squash, and for dessert, a kiwi.  He didn’t like the hair on them, but he loved the flavor, so he made concessions.  At the front of the store, he chose the self-checkout.  It was a Devil’s choice, really.  More people touched the screens (which is why he used his touchscreen gloves), but no one was handling his food.

The woman from the meat aisle was in front of him, her kid dangling his feet from the leg holes in the cart.  He scrunched his face up at Travis and stuck his tongue out, and made a raspberry.  That wasn’t the sound that came out, though.  Instead, it was a deep buzzing, like that of a bee close to your ear.  Travis started, and dropped his vegetables.  He stepped away, his heart pounding, and headed for the front door.  The register attendant tried to catch his attention.

“Sir – you dropped these.”

He started after Travis with a handful of vegetables like a vengeful farmer.  Travis looked over his shoulder at the approaching teenager, and thought he saw the boy’s eyes flash black in the bright lights.  He lowered his head and picked up his pace.

“Sir, sir, si-bzzzzzzzzz.”

The sound drew a small squeak of terror from Travis, and he broke into a run, barely giving the sliding doors the chance to open before he burst into the parking lot.  He sprinted to his car and ripped the door open.  Once in, he jammed the key in the ignition, and as soon as the engine roared to life, tore out of the lot like all the hounds of Hell were on his ass.

The cashier stood at the sliding doors for a moment, watching the sedan roar away.  He looked down at the vegetables and cursed.  He was going to have to put these back on the shelves now.  He trudged back inside.

***

The doorman greeted Travis with his usual enthusiasm.

“Hello, Mr. Phobos.  Good day?”

Travis glanced up and saw nictating membranes – the third eyelid – flash over the man’s eyes.  The doorman, Joe, coughed, and Travis heard a distinct buzz.  He turned to the side and slipped through the door without a word, careful to keep himself from the man’s gloved hand.  He walked hurriedly down the hall to the elevators, and didn’t let out the breath he’d been holding until the doors opened on his suite.

The suite was white and brass.  He had read somewhere brass was one of those metals that had natural antimicrobial properties – given a few hours, it would sterilize itself.  The white was so he could see any dirt that might pop up and nip it in the bud.  He walked to the sink and washed his hands, his mind free-floating.

One two three four, wash them some more.  There’s more of them today than yesterday, and more than the day before that.  It’s spreading, and someone’s got to do something.

He shut the water off, steam rising from the tap, and sanitized his hands.  Then he made a call.  A lifetime of fastidiousness had made him very precise and exacting – it was why he was so good with numbers – it had also made him quite wealthy.  Being wealthy had its perks – you knew who to call when you needed unsavory things done, no matter how dirty it might get you.

The phone rang twice, and a voice, thick with sleep, picked up.

“‘lo?”

“Harry.  I need a favor.”

On the other end of the line, Harry’s ears perked up.  Favors were always lucrative when it came to Mr. Phobos.

***

The van was idling in an alley that looked like it hadn’t seen a broom or a good rain in twenty years.  Travis pulled his coat and his gloves on tighter, and adjusted his surgical mask.  The little man he was facing was twitchy, a quality that endeared him to Travis.

Man like that knows what’s out there.  Knows the value of vigilance.

The little man, Carlos, opened the van’s doors and swept an arm at the contents.

“At your service, Mr. Phobos.”

The interior of the van was lined with weapons of all shapes and sizes – pistols and rifles and knives and Travis even thought he saw a rocket launcher in the back.  He leaned in and pointed out a heavy-looking automatic.  Carlos picked it out of its lined bed, with a clip and several bullets.  After a moment, he also grabbed a holster, an under-the-shoulder thing made of several straps and leather.

Travis took them, and tried on the holster, then slipped the clip into the pistol and racked a round.  The sound was satisfying, clean.  Carlos watched him.

“You like?”

Travis nodded.

“Fifteen hundr-zzzzzz-ed.”

Travis looked at him.  He noticed the man’s sweatshirt had pulled up around his forearms, exposing skin that was mottled and hard with chitinous scales.

“What?”  He asked Carlos.

“Bzzzz. Bzzz.  Bzzzzzzz bzzzzzzzz.”

Travis shot the man in the face.  The sound ricocheted around the alley, then died away in a distant echo.  He looked at the corpse, green blood oozing from its ruined head.

There, that’s it.  Getting worse.  Need to cleanse them all.

He walked out of the alley, leaving the van and the bug behind.

***

The grocery store was bright.  Too bright, like the things that lived there needed the light, needed the noise, the incessant buzzing from overhead to make them feel at home.  He watched shoppers trudge by, most unaware of the horror they stood in.  One of the stockboys walked by, his corduroys making whispering sounds between his legs, and Travis imagined the insects here liked that.  He sanitized his hands, and walked to the canned meat aisle.

He inspected the cans for the second time that week.  They read with new names – Chopped Meal Worm Bits, Nectar, Exoskeleton Builder, and Caterpillar Meal.  He saw the first of the intruders walking down the aisle, a fat woman with antennae poking from her bouffant.  He waited until she got closer, and pulled the pistol.

She barely had time to register before the weapon roared and spread her brains like a Jackson Pollack over the Kraft products.  Her body fell to the ground and made a sound like a side of beef hitting concrete.  Someone screamed, and suddenly, the store was chaos.  Buzzing came from overhead, the voices of the Overlords.  He shot at the speakers, but that only seemed to anger them.

The stockboy he had seen earlier stepped into the aisle, confusion on his face.  He held that expression for a minute, his mandibles working in terror just before a bullet removed that half of his skull.  Green blood flew and decorated the tiles and he collapsed.

More of them came, with their carapaces and screaming buzzsaw language.  Travis destroyed each and every one, laying waste to their nest.  He was triumphant, his was a glorious battle.  He turned and saw a new threat, a great mantis holding some sort of rod.  The rod roared, and Travis’ arm dissolved into a red agony.  He looked down and panicked.

I’ve been poisoned.

He dropped his weapon and tried to reach his sanitizer.  He needed to cleanse the wound.  Another mantis, bigger than the first, appeared at the end of the aisle, a rod in its hand as well.  The weapon roared, and Travis dove for his weapon.  He managed to grab it just as another buzz from the opposite end of the aisle started.  He glanced over his shoulder, in time to see more of the warriors emerging from the greeting cards.  He raised his pistol.

Filthy bugs! Filthy bug-

The bullet that exploded his brain ended the thought prematurely.

Officer Franklin, only a week from a vacation – somewhere nice, like Cozumel – lowered his pistol.  He looked at Roberts, his Sergeant, then the carnage in the aisle.  Bodies lay strewn about like a child had a tantrum with his toys.  He turned back to Roberts.

“Bzzz.  Bzzz.  Bzzzz.”

Cold Snap

It’s got to be fifteen, twenty below with the wind chill.  It can get to you, the way it creeps into your clothes and saps the warmth from your skin.  If you know anything about physiological reactions, you know your veins drift deeper into your skin in that kind of cold, in order to insulate you, warm you more efficiently.  Your heartbeat slows, your breathing becomes more rhythmic.  It’s as if your body wants to sleep.  The French have a phrase for sleep – le petit mort – the little death.  I wonder if they have a phrase for dying in the cold.

Another thing – the quiet.  It creeps into your head, like a live thing.  If you stop and hold your breath and stand still, you can hear the snowflakes chime against each other, like flakes of steel from a frozen forge.  It’s quiet like that that can ring in your head, the absence of sound as loud as a hammer blow.  I watch the smoke from my cigarette drift in lazy spirals and imagine the smoke making a sound in the quiet, like a snake’s skin shivering against a rock.

Something makes me look out from my deck, across the frozen field that in the summer grows thick sheaves of hay.  Maybe it’s a change in the quality of the light that filters through a hazy gray sky, maybe it’s the crunching sound of snow being compacted across the field.  I squint into the haze and pick out a figure, not more than a shadow at this distance.  I wonder for a moment who the hell would be walking across that field.  I have a rifle in the closet, and think maybe I should get it.  Curiosity gets the better of me though, and I flex my fingers in my gloves, and wait instead.

It’s some time before he gets close enough to see.  I consider going in.  I consider another cigarette.  I wait both those things out, and peer instead into the drifting waves of dry snow that the wind kicks across my vision.  I wonder what this place was like with trees, or with people.  I wonder if there are people any more.  The thought slips away like smoke when the man steps through another wall of snow.  He’s older, his face a tanned map of twisting weathered lines.  His eyes are blue, like ice on a clear lake, and he’s only wearing an old pea coat buttoned to his neck and black slacks that ripple in the wind like small pennons.  His hair is thin and white, and I can see an age spot or two on his scalp when the wind stirs it.  He stops when he sees me, and raises a hand, a slight smile on his face.  I nod.

It’s only another minute, maybe two, before he stops in front of the porch.  His hands are deep in his pockets, and he looks around, as though taking in the small farmhouse and the barn out back.  He nods once, as though he’s made a decision, and looks at me.  The smile still plays a little on his lips, as though he’s tasted something he’s enjoyed.

“Afternoon.”  He says.  I watch him, and after a moment, he sniffs, and goes on.  “You’re a hard man to find.”

“I’m not hiding.”  I say.

He squints one eye a bit, as though weighing me.  “I suppose you’re not.  You are just in the middle of a field in the middle of the prairie in the middle of winter.  Hard to get to, maybe.  Not hiding.”

He’s quiet for another beat, and I can hear the wind stirring the snow, like powdered glass in a breeze.  He looks off to his right, past the house and off to the field.  He purses his lips, and turns back to me.

“I don’t suppose you’d like to invite me up?  Mighty cold out here.”

I feel a bit of shame at that.  My grandfather always believed even the Devil deserved hospitality.

“Come on up.”

He pulls his hands from his coat and lays them on the banister.  They are pale and thin, the skin stretched like parchment, his fingers like spiders.  The nails have a dull luster, and peek above his fingertips like opaque claws.  He pulls himself up, his feet leaving the snow, and I see he is in bare feet, the same color and state as his hands.  I take a step back, and let him up, and hope he doesn’t hear my heart beating timpani in my chest.

He moves up the steps like a snake coils its way around a staff, and stops at the top.  I breathe out, the fear in my chest leaving the air hot and steaming in the cold.  I look to the man, who is watching me with an intent curiosity.  Another round of fear ripples through my chest, and coils its way to my belly.  I can’t see his breath.

I stifle the chill in my guts, and walk to the patio furniture I keep out all year.  I drop into a chair and light a cigarette with shaking hands.  The man sits opposite me, in the chair Martha would lounge in on hot summer nights, a smoke dangling from her fingers, a beer sweating in her other.  I glance over at him and see he has his legs crossed, one bare foot dangling over the cold boards of the deck.  One hand rests on the glass of the patio table, the other on the chair.  He doesn’t speak for a while, just lets me smoke in peace.  He breaks the silence first.

“You know, we’re sorry about Martha.”

I freeze, the cigarette halfway to my lips, and he continues.

“It shouldn’t have happened the way it did.  A woman shouldn’t be without her man at times like that.  At the end.  And a man shouldn’t have to hear about it from some talking head on TV.”

A thick wave of anger rippled through me.  “How would you know?  How did you know?”

He waved a hand, as though counseling patience, or understanding.  I didn’t feel as though I had either, though I did have the time.

“It was the end, right?  The cities went first.  Busy work, the cities.  You barely have to knock on doors or travel.  Just wall to wall people.  Like reaping wheat.”

I remembered.  She’d gone to pick up milk, smokes, and some dinner.  Then the end came.  The sky rolled back, the sun went black, and the world grew cold.  She never came home.

“She was brave, if it helps.”   He said.  “She just..closed her eyes, there in the middle of the street, and waited.”

My anger was kindling to a white flame.  “Why tell me this?”

He shrugs.  “Seems a man would want to know that sort of thing.”

I stand.  “You need to leave.”

He raises a placating hand.  “Not quite yet, Mr. Sorenson.  There’s something you need to know.  A choice you need to make.”

I eye those long fingernails and pale flesh, and think of Romero movies and the long dead, whose fingernails and hair appear to grow even after the breath that drives the body has ended.  I wonder what it is he has to say, and the curiosity drives me back to my chair.  I sit on the cold metal and wait, my hands absently lighting another cigarette.

“Well?”

“You know your Dante?”  He asks.

“I have an idea.”  I was a good Catholic boy once upon a time.

“Your wife is alone, David.  Alone, on a track chased by demons for eternity.  She screams, and they laugh, and whip her.  They flog her flesh until it bleeds, and when it heals, they start over, ripping her flesh again.”

I shoot to my feet, and before I know I’m doing it, I have the old man by his lapel and my cigarette hovers an inch from his naked eye.  He stares at me, his face impassive.  I can see the steam from my breath in the cold, and realize I’m shivering, but he is calm and still and I still cannot see his breath.  He raises one hand and places it on mine, and his skin is like ice.  I drop his lapel and turn away, toward the field.

“Fuck you.”  I say, and watch the wind whip the snow.  From somewhere far off, I can hear the sound of hooves on earth.  The silence stretches.  I turn back to him.

“What choice do I have?”

He opens his hands.  “You’re the last.  The very last.  It’s a special honor, an accomplishment, really.”

I open my mouth to reply, and he holds a hand up again, a listen gesture.  “Your choice, then.  Stay here, and rot, and lament your woman.  Or, find a way to her.”

He leans forward, the most movement I’ve seen from him since he chose the chair.  “The very last, David.  Don’t let her alone.  It’s not right for a woman to suffer without her man.”

He leans back, looks out at the snow, and that slight smile plays across his mouth.  After a moment, he stands, thrust his hands in his pockets, and heads for the stairs.  I watch him step down them, his bare feet slipping into the snow.  At the bottom, he turns back.

“You hear the hooves, David.  Decide, or they will.”

He turns to face the field again, and begins to walk.  I watch him go, until he is a black speck on a whitewashed wall.  The hoof beats are louder after he’s gone, as though the riders follow in his wake.  They probably do.  Behold, a pale horse.

I watch the fields, and imagine if I squint through the screen of snow I can see four shadows, hazy in the distance.  I think of Martha, and her laugh.  I feel numb.  Maybe it’s just the cold, but I have my doubts.  I flick the cigarette, and watch the ember soar and land and flicker, then turn, and head for the door.

I think of the warmth inside, and of the rifle in the closet.