They had come out of nowhere.
Trella cut the engine and stared through the bug-spattered windshield, waiting for her heart rate to slow. What had just happened?
After sitting for forty minutes in a construction zone backup, she had exited onto the old federal highway, which more or less paralleled the interstate. Minding her own business in America’s heartland. Nothing to see but corn and soybean fields and, in the far distance, two smokestacks belching white smoke into the blue.
She was thinking she should stop for coffee, when they came at her. Or at least that was the way it had seemed: with intention. Attacking her car, throwing themselves at it, thousands of them. And the twittering roar. Like dry leaves whirling in a million box fans. She knew DDT was outlawed, but weren’t there other megadeath insecticides that were just as effective? She’d come within a hair of a crash; of becoming, herself, a bug on the windshield of life.
As soon as she had pulled onto the concrete apron of the sub shop and stopped moving, the cloud disappeared. Across the blacktop stood a boarded-up Shell station. This was not even a wide place in the road.
Hannibal was still hours away and she needed to get there by five p.m., to begin a week of babysitting her two grandchildren while her daughter and son-in-law went on vacation.
When she entered, the room fell silent. Trella got the feeling she had interrupted something. Although hers was the only car, inside the shop there was a line of customers: a tall teenaged boy with curly hair and black-framed glasses; two couples, the women Caucasian and the men African American; a much-pierced blond girl in gray sweats and red high tops; and a woman of about her own age with a leathery smoker’s face, wearing a maroon velour exercise suit stretched out at the knees. The farm report droned from wall speakers.
Two tables were occupied, one by a wild-haired man of around sixty wearing wrinkled khaki shorts, a dingy white polo shirt, and a baby blue cotton bucket hat embroidered with the words, Ritz Carlton Spa. He was circling statistics in the sports section of a newspaper. At the other occupied table sat a tall man wearing a black suit and a clerical collar. He was steadily leafing through a leather-bound Bible, as if looking for cash between the pages.
A middle-aged man with a raggedy mustache stood at the cash register, while a thirtyish man made sandwiches. Both employees wore hairnets, which made their heads look slick and small.
“Hey,” said the man in front of Trella. Shaven skull and heavy shoulders, brutal features. “See that? They got black ham. Got to get me some of that.”
The redheaded woman in the quartet clucked her tongue. “Black forest ham. It says black forest.”
“Gimme some of that black ham, my brothah,” he said to the counter man, who was building a meatball sandwich for the teenager.
Two women came in and lined up behind Trella. Each wore a turquoise nurse’s uniform and white clogs.
“They evacuated Japan,” said one.
“The tsunami? That was months ago,” snapped her friend.
Out of the corner of her eye, Trella saw a flittering blur. Must have followed her inside. She swatted at it.
“NO!” shouted one of the nurses.
On the second swing Trella knocked the little white moth to the floor, where it weakly fanned its wings. She ground it under the ball of her foot.
She looked up to find everyone staring at her and experienced an electric sense of menace held in check. The preacher had risen half out of his seat.
Trella turned to the nurses. “I almost had a wreck just now. This cloud of bugs surrounded me. They looked like that one I just smacked. Is that normal around here? Is there”—she smiled—“some kind of plague?”
The nearer woman goggled at Trella through thick-lensed glasses that magnified her eyes, making Trella think of the compound eyes of a fly.
“Normal? What’s normal?” she said.
“Good question,” said her companion. She was younger, with purple-painted nails and frizzy brown hair.
Something’s wrong, Trella thought, but what? For one thing, the customers’ voices sounded eerily alike, sharing the same timbre. Well, maybe that was the acoustics or just the contrast with the silence she’d been experiencing in the car. But there also was a strangely static feel to the scene. The place reminded her of a stage set.
“Gimme some of that cheesy provolone,” said the muscle guy. He laughed, a harsh, barking sound.
The hatted man looked up from his newspaper. “Provolone. That’s not a cheese. That’s a financial transaction in Utah. Get it? Provo loan.”
Everyone but Trella nodded.
The sandwich man put a sandwich into the toaster oven, leaned his hips against the bread case, and closed his eyes. With alarm, Trella watched as various parts of his body began to twitch: eyelids, nose, the fingers of both hands. Some form of Tourette’s? No one else appeared to notice and the cash register guy stayed where he was. With visible effort, jaw muscles flexing, the man appeared to will his twitching into abeyance.
A fire truck roared past, horn blaring, followed by a wailing ambulance. The sound of the fire truck horn faded with distance, but not the two–note ambulance siren. After a momentary dip in volume, it rose again: doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee-doo-dee.
The renewal of the siren noise was coming from the man in the bucket hat.
Bucket Hat quit sirening and put down his pencil. “We know Notre Dame teams are the Fighting Irish. But are the women’s teams called the Lady Fighting Irish or the Fighting Irish Ladies?” When no one answered, he repeated his question.
The man at the cash register disappeared into a back room, sneakers chirping on the linoleum as if he had some problem with foot placement. The other customers stood still as if, Trella mused, they were figures in an art installation depicting a sandwich shop in the early twenty-first century.
She activated the timer feature on her wristwatch. Her daughter had to leave the house by five fifteen to make an evening flight in Kansas City. But she didn’t want to abandon her position in line, and the promise of a Coke. Her throat felt scratchy, as if she had swallowed some dust from the insect cloud.
After three minutes and forty-seven seconds, the cash register man came out of the back room and resumed his position. The teenager paid for his meatball sub and took a seat near the windows.
The man in front of Trella said loudly, “I said, gimme some of that black ham. And I’m going to need some of that, do you have some kind of peppers? And I’m going to need some of those olives, maybe some mustard, no, wait, you can scrape that off . . .” As the man added and subtracted ingredients although it still was not his turn, Trella focused on letting go of present distractions, as she did in yoga class. Another five minutes passed.
When at last her turn came, she ordered a tuna fish on whole wheat with lettuce, tomato, green pepper, and onion; then watched the sub guy dress white Italian bread with tuna, jalapeños, black olives, extra mayonnaise, and pickles. Whatever. Get it and get out, she told herself.
As she paid, the counterman said, “Can I buy some quarters from you?”
Trella checked the change in her billfold. “Sure, but I only have four.”
“You should have more in your car.”
“How would you know that?”
He fingered his mustache. “People have quarters.”
In fact, she did have a cache of coins in the ashtray.
But as soon as she got in the car, she beat it back to the highway. Strange place. It would make a good story to tell Kathy and Josh. She passed the ambulance coming the other way, silent now.
They watched her go, chittering among themselves, their collective consciousness firing up. All clear. All clear. Critique exercise. The counterman’s twitching increased and was taken up by the others like a contagion. With a loud pop, the lights dimmed, came up again. Why their change back into giant insect form affected the electricity, no one knew. There was so much they didn’t understand.
The great European Corn Borer rested his soft mid-segments against the counter and detached his mind from the collective will. They had come so far, riding on centuries of human agricultural development that slowly produced larger and smarter arthropods, as the humans called them. A better and better food supply, coupled with the slowly accreting resistance to ever more powerful insecticides and felicitous mutations, often brought about by radioactive waste and other secret underground activities.
What a good thing that human governments kept their populations so ignorant! Perhaps it was the vagaries of radioactivity that had given him such bulk and longevity but had marooned him in the larva stage. He had been born near a toxic waste dump in western Illinois.
“And yet we can’t master the va-et-vien of their conversation!” he burst out, va-et-vien being a favorite phrase he’d learned from a Canadian cousin. “The woman was suspicious from the beginning. Black ham, indeed! Fighting Irish Ladies!”
The Japanese Beetle waved its antennae irritably. “Why must we ape them? We are older and more numerous. The earth has always belonged to us and will long after they have destroyed themselves.”
“Not if they destroy the earth,” cautioned the European Corn Borer.
From his position by the window, the Western Corn Rootworm emitted a hiss. “Why must we have the same arguments again and again and always the soybean feeders against the corn feeders? Here we must stick to the study of language. This field station and others like it exist to perfect our language use. Besides, only here in the American breadbasket, in a small part of Canada, and in China, do we have the size and brain development to succeed. Legions of us are still small and weak and short-lived. One day we will have to negotiate and we must be prepared.”
“Never negotiate. Annihilate!” cried the Japanese Beetle, gnashing its mandibles.
The ambulance pulled into the lot and drove around to the back. A technician, still in human form but with excessively knobby joints, entered the dining area.
“What news, Gregor?” said the Praying Mantis, stroking his Bible. He had promised not to eat any of the others, but his resolve was weakening.
The newcomer replied, “The swarm has succeeded. One human male, coerced into a telephone pole, dead on impact.”
“Put it in the cooler for the research lab,” said the European Corn Borer. They were learning so much from autopsies. But would their investigations bear fruit in time? The toxins in the new genetically altered crops were taking a toll. “We should have kept the woman,” he mused. “It’s always good to have both male and female specimens for comparison.”
“I’ll tell the swarm,” said the technician.
On the straight-arrow road, having eaten her sandwich as she drove, Trella phoned her daughter and got voicemail.
After the beep she said, “Hi, sweetie. Ran into some delays, but I’m still hoping to get there by five. I’m speeding. Hope no cops catch me. The road is deserted, so I’m making good time. Love you.”
Behind her, very near, a chittering began, and quickly increased in volume. DSS
Elaine Fowler Palencia, 66, of Champaign, IL. directs the Red Herring Fiction Workshop of Champaign-Urbana, and is the author of four pulp novels, two literary short story collections, "Small Caucasian Woman" and "Brier Country," and two poetry chapbooks. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is a link to her Author's Guild page.
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