Saturday, March 8, 2014

Grasshopper Season 1 by Jonathan Moon

1: Grasshopper Season

Jerry Armstrong has lived in the Hoo-Doo County mountains long enough to know seasons aren’t just marked by corporate holidays and calendars or even the weather. His momma loved the flowers and that’s how she grew up knowing what season she was in between the snows. Tulips and pansies bloom in early spring and most are dying off before the mid-summer lilies and snapdragons which are losing their luster as the hollyhocks really begin to blossom at summer’s coming end.  About the time those tulips are opening up and revealing the beauty of their petals the warm air is filled with the humming buzz of bees during the days and the irritating swirling buzz of the mosquitoes during the nights. When grandmothers are squeezing snapdragons into flora puppets for starry-eyed grandchildren, the wasps and hornets are out in force- aggressive at the smell of summer BBQs. Grasshoppers don’t start pestering the farmers of Jerry’s rolling mountain region until mid-summer.

You almost forget about the yearly hoppers, until you’re standing there admiring the lilies lining the irrigation ditch and somewhere in the browning weeds around you a chorus of chirps erupts. Around the time most farmers are readying for their first run of bailing, tiny hoppers by the millions are nibbling on an assortment of tasty regional crops and growing in fat crop-devouring nightmares. It seemed natural for Jerry Armstrong, Alfalfa King, to be an enemy of the high mountain grasshoppers and a fan of the time-off the snows guaranteed the hay farmer.

But, Jerry hates the winter and the summer both. He hates the winter because that’s when Margret died and Christmas ain’t no damn fun when you’re all alone. He kept that to himself from anyone who would ask and would instead just share the honest truth of his wrists and knees swelling up something fierce when the cold nights came. Jerry hates summer because it is grasshopper season. And Jerry hates grasshoppers because they ate his Grandpa. Then, they ate his Pa.

He didn’t see them do it, so he couldn’t prove it. But knowin’ and provin’ are two totally separate things to the Armstrong men. Just the same, no provin’ meant no talkin’ and Jerry ain’t never told anyone about the true causes of his kin’s terrible disappearances, except for when he’s had a few drinks in him.

His Pa never fully explained to Jerry what happened the day Grandpa didn’t come back from the field, he just mouthed for Jerry to fetch him some whiskey and then he disappeared in his room for the night leaving Jerry to wander out into the field for his self.

Jerry remembers now, as he did then, his grandfather’s stories which his Pa used to roll his eyes at. Grandpa told Jerry there was something dark out past the ridge at the edge of the property. His Grandpa told him it made the soil rich and the crops heavy. It was basically, the old man confided with an ashamed whisper, the secret to the family’s success. Grandpa explained every few years it would ‘burp’ and everything in the proximity of the ridge past the property line got a little out of control; crops would over grow and begin rotting before harvest, the mountain creeks would taste of flowers and poison man and beast alike, and the late summer grasshoppers would grow frighteningly large and carnivorous.  Pa didn’t like the stories but he’d tolerate them, as long Grandpa didn’t start talking about the Corn Eater.

Grandpa told Jerry there was a creepy old man who lived in a tiny shack deep in the forest surrounded by stalks of strange corn. These stalks, Grandpa swore, grew thick and purple and barbed. As Grandpa’s story went the corn itself was black and red and when the old hermit would feast on it the crimson juices would drizzle down and stain his waist-long beard. According to Grandpa this Corn Eater controlled the crops and their bounty or lack thereof. There was no way to appease or reason or barter with the strange old man as he has gone quite insane over his years in the forest.

Even after all these years, Jerry never questioned his Grandpa’s story, even back when Pa used to scoff at them both. Right now, Jerry’s eyes are closed but in his mind he is twelve years old again and walking through the field. The image of a circle trampled down in the alfalfa, flies buzzing above the blood-soaked swath, is forever burned in his mind. He can smell the blood, thin and rusty on the hot dry air. Jerry can see tiny drops of Grandpa’s blood leading out in all directions from the flattened crimson center. The silence of the scene is terrifying after weeks of grasshopper chatter and chirping. Before he snaps back to the present he always sees blood drying on a stalk of dry uncut hay. He watches the bright red dry to a moldy brown in the heat of the sun, and then he opens his eyes and hopes tears aren’t slipping out already.

The grasshoppers are singing now.

Jerry sighs and lets the memories continue to play out. He and Pa remained after Grandpa’s death, which baffled investigators and took nearly three years to yield Grandpa’s sizeable life insurance policy. They couldn’t walk away, business was far too profitable. The modest family farmhouse took up only a sliver of the fifty acres, which left the majority of their nutrient-rich land for the high-priced alfalfa they grew. ‘Armstrong Alfalfa’ was a booming business in the aged mining and logging region. So booming, in fact, Jerry didn’t walk away even after they ate his Pa in much the same fashion.

The grasshoppers got Pa clear out near the tree line. He had been moving the bailer, preparing it for the bountiful harvest they were looking to reap the next week. Jerry had been driving back in from the Ag Depot in Stillwater, since St. Jim’s didn’t have anywhere that could get the massive parts they needed. He was stiff from his day on the road, and irritated with the sound of the pop country radio so he was riding in silence when he came back in range of the farm and the walkie-talkie Pa forced him to carry came alive with the terrible sounds of his Pa’s dying screams. By the time Jerry reached the edge of the field, all he heard were wet chewing sounds. The bright green John Deere bailer was speckled with dots of his Pa’s maroon blood and the air was silent save for the buzzing of the flies. The only scrap of his dad he could find was the old fella’s badly chewed boot five feet away from the blood-speckled bailer. Jerry could feel something like eyes watching him from the ridge that day, and he shivers now as fiercely as he had then at the reek of malevolence and blood on the breeze.

Learning from his Pa and Grandpa before him, Jerry refused to walk away. Armstrong Alfalfa continued to grow and Jerry invested his profits into more land to farm, buying out ranchers and farmers who were once competitors. Jerry Armstrong has raised his family’s business into an alfalfa empire but continued to live in the same farmhouse Grandpa had built. Jerry could afford to tear it down and rebuild it in three times the scale and still have land and money left over, but Jerry didn’t need or want to leave. He enjoys the quiet of the farm’s remote location and the strong tie to his childhood from living in the same house his entire life.

He would spend his days working on the fleet of tractors and bailers and swathers, and dealing with purchasing orders and trade deals with local consumers through a vet’s office and two different stables in the region. Come evening he’d be sitting on the back porch, sipping on whiskey and watching the tree line. He would wonder if he’d ever see the Corn Eater in the darkness of wood and earth. Jerry would wonder how the crops would turn out.

Every summer Jerry would pay to have the surrounding acreage, once the most profitable, sprayed with so many pesticides it would hardly produce any longer. Recession hit, and Jerry couldn’t afford to have the home fields bathed in the proper amount of toxic pesticides to keep them silent.

The grasshoppers are singing now.

So now he is drunk at noon and sitting in a lawn chair on his back porch with a shotgun across his lap. Jerry scratches his grey neck-stubble and squints into the sun. The constant chirping of the grasshopper’s songs overwhelms any other sound he could possibly be hearing. Jerry leans back in his chair, closing his eyes in a desperate attempt of sleep. Deep down, he knows if he can’t get any shut-eye in the dead of night there was no way he was going to catch any in the heat of the mid-day sun. With his eyes shut tight all Jerry can see is fields; tan dry and ready to cut. The exact same thing he would be seeing if his eyes were open except behind his eyelids he sees no grasshoppers. It is beautiful to Jerry, so very beautiful.

A smile cracks his whiskered face seconds before a grasshopper lands on his cheek. Jerry kicks and flails his arms to get the insect the hell off of him, firing the shotgun into the field at the end of the porch on accident. At the same time the gun is blasting away, Jerry is slapping himself so hard in the nose it makes his eyes water, but he manages to knock the small insect of his face. He tries to get a good look at the field in front of him, because the near-constant chirp of the grasshoppers has finally, sudden and ominously, ceased but his vision is too blurry through his fresh tears. The ring of the newborn silence harmonizes with the dying echo of the shotgun blast reverberating off the mountain ridge side at the edge of the property. The sound stirs something in Jerry’s gut, and sends a painful chill up his spine.

Jerry struggles to his feet, blinking his eyes and wiping away any excess moisture. He nearly falls directly back down in his seat when he sees the giant grasshopper blown in two twitching halves in front of him. The insect would have been the size of a feisty old barn cat if Jerry hadn’t squeezed off his accidental shot. The dead insect bleeds a thick orange sludge down it mottled black exoskeleton. Jerry pokes the carcass with the tip of his shot gun and it moves just enough for his to see a folded and bent length of bright purple wing tucked under it.

While his tired old eyes are focusing on his strange kill, he sees blurry movement all around him. He steps away from the dead grasshopper, each step crushing several grasshoppers under his work boots as he leans for the door. The porch is crawling with grasshoppers, but other than their swarming behavior they are no different than those Jerry has seen every summer of his life. But beyond the porch, off in the tall dry alfalfa there, several dark shapes scuttle forward before leaping simultaneously forward, a charging brigade of insectoid terror.

Before he realizes what he is doing, Jerry kicks the big carcass off his porch and takes aim at the shadowed shape nearest him. Dirt and tacky orange slime erupt into the sky. The booming echo of the new blast awakens the grasshopper chorus again. Their song is chiseling away at his sanity as he discharges the spent shells and loads two more. As Jerry sees the dog–sized grasshoppers jumping in his direction, he begins laughing like a man comfortable in the numbing grip of madness. With his eyes wide and rolling over the advancing shadowed shapes Jerry tucks the shotgun in the crook of his elbows, and then flips both his middle fingers up at the field teeming with movement before readjusting his shotgun and reiterating his gestured sentiment with buckshot.

Jerry wings one of the big hoppers, but another leaps over the destroyed corpse hissing as it lands a mere three feet from where he stands. Jerry sees a glimmer of malice in the grasshopper’s eyes, and he feels it readying to leap more than he notices its body hunch down and prepare for launch. Jerry is too close to get a good shot, so he takes step back as the hideous creature springs at him. With pure dumb panicked luck Jerry swings the shotgun by the barrel like a baseball bat, knocking the airborne grasshopper ten feet to the side of the porch. It lands with a clatter and Jerry sees the field behind it and the dozens of large black and purple grasshoppers leaping towards him. Jerry stomps into the house, paying attention to the grasshopper he batted aside as it twitches in a spastic circle and not noticing the hundreds of normal-sized grasshoppers covering the outside windows and walls of his house.

Jerry disappears into his house and slams the door closed behind him without looking back. In the following instant the porch is crawling with enlarged black and purple grasshoppers, none smaller than a cat and several the size of large dogs. Their song is rattling the shutters, even before they begin throwing themselves at the walls.

Inside the house, Jerry is yanking drawers from their slots and throwing them across the room in search of his bargain box of shotgun shells. He spins away from the empty shelves, and tips over a cabinet before he finally finds the extra-large box of ammunition. The grasshoppers’ song surrounds him, his hands trembling as he reloads the spent shell. He drops the remaining shells from the box to the side and front bib pockets of his overalls. He stomps back the way he came but stops in the hallway when he notices the hoppers crawling over the window in such great numbers they’re blocking out the noonday sun.

“Waiting on me, huh? Ya bastards!” Jerry bellows as he spins away from the back door and storms out the side door instead.

Jerry slaps the screen door open and it in turn slaps dozens of normal sized hoppers out of the air as it swings wide open. With every stomp back in the direction of the back porch Jerry’s boots are crunching grasshoppers into goo. He rounds the back corner of the house with his gun held low, and he fires without slowing his step. Two big black hoppers and dozens of smaller ones disappear in a puff of acrid smoke and neon orange slime from the rear of the porch. A big hopper in the doorway of the now splintering back door squats as if he is planning to leap at Jerry, but after Jerry lets loose the second barrel only a slime crusted crater remains.

Big hoppers jump in all directions, scattered by the gunfire. Thousands of normal-sized grasshoppers flitter through the air around Jerry as he struggles to reload his shotgun again. Before he can slam the new shells in all the way he is forced to stagger back from a cat-sized hopper jumping at him. He slams the butt of the shotgun down on the creature’s head with as much force as he can muster. Hardened wood smashes through black exoskeleton to splatter Jerry’s legs with putrid orange slime. Out of the corners of his wide eyes Jerry sees the dozens of larger grasshoppers charging through the field towards him. He slams the shotgun closed and raises it in one smooth motion as he has hunting since he was a little boy. He fires at the closet grasshopper and it explodes skywards, a steaming geyser of orange goo.

Three others loop around to get at his blind spot, but Jerry spins on his boot heels to face them first. Jerry smiles down the barrel at them and fires. Two are close enough to each other to both be melded into a combined mess of shell and sludge. The third escapes the brunt of the blast to drag itself towards Jerry’s boots, missing two of its back legs to buckshot. Jerry calmly digs in his bib pocket for more shells, while slamming the butt of his weapon into its head which cracks open like a rotten pumpkin. The sound of the grasshoppers chirping swallows his next shot even as the largest hopper yet explodes clean in half from the force of it. Small hoppers are crawling all over Jerry but he does his best to ignore them until one bites his earlobe hard enough to draw blood with its small mandibles.

Jerry slaps at the tiny grasshopper dangling from his ear and dripping with his blood. The larger grasshoppers quicken their pace at his momentary distraction. Jerry manages to remove the insect from his ear and others climbing through his hair and on his whiskered cheek, just as a giant jumps at him. He doesn’t have enough time or space to fire, but manages to use the hopper’s momentum against it and impales the jumping demon in mid-air with the barrel of the shotgun.

They are singing as they swarm him, and they are coming too fast for him to kill them all. He raises the shotgun, with the impaled hopper still twitching fiercely at the tip of it, aiming it at the largest cluster of monsters and pulls the triggers as he starts running. He swings the shotgun around as he flees to reload it and flings the scorched remains of the impaled hopper at his feet as he catches it with both hands. Jerry reloads as he runs to his bright red Dodge Ram one-ton pick-up. Hundreds of tiny grasshoppers creep and crawl over his truck and he has to wipe them away from the handle to get in. As they fall away from his hand, he can’t help but think how much is truck looks like the color of fresh blood drying in the sun.

As he shimmies into the cab, hundreds of grasshoppers jump into the tailpipe. They scamper blindly up the narrow pipe to the trucks engine, their numbers so great they clog the passage with their squirming bodies. Jerry turns the key and the hoppers in the exhaust pipe martyr themselves but their carcasses block the exhaust enough the engine seizes and dies with a shudder.

Jerry grabs his shotgun off the seat next to him and reaches for the door. He draws his hand back because a dog-sized grasshopper smashes into it. He rocks back, pointing his shotgun at the fresh inward dent and uttering a silent prayer. He reaches a trembling hand into his bib pocket to find it empty. He pulls one shell out of his side pocket, and curses aloud when he realizes he must have dropped the rest during his frantic escape. He grabs the keys from the ignition, a smile teasing at the corner of his mouth as he feels the oddly shaped swather key.

With a glance through the grasshoppers scurrying over the windshield he sees the big red machine used for cutting the field for harvest resting a mere forty feet away. Without closing his eyes he sees visions of the giant black and purple hoppers being pulled under the machines heavy spinning blades and brutally sliced into thick chucks of orange goop and shimmering black exoskeleton. Jerry uses the vision as fire for his charge, thinking about it as he opens the door.

Right outside the door he spots the hopper that smashed into the door and it staggers in his direction with orange slime dripping of its wounded face. Jerry raises the shotgun and sends the hopper to hell.

Before he can take another step a grasshopper the size of a bear cub leaps up and smashes him hard enough in the ribs to crack and break each one it hits. Jerry wheezes in agony as he falls back with the hopper clutched tight to his torso.  The giant insect grips with its legs, digging into tender flesh with its sharpened limbs as it smashes down on Jerry’s chest, smashing his sternum down into quivering lungs. It sits on his chest and chitters excitedly inches from his face. Jerry’s head rolls to the left and he sees the shotgun where he dropped it. Just beyond the sprawled weapon it seems is the swather.

Jerry turns back to the monster leaning closer to his face. Despite the screaming agony it cause he raises his arms and slaps weakly at the grasshopper. It leans in past his weak defense and nips his throat open with its powerful mandibles. Jerry’s blood gushes from the wound, spurting in great burps when he tries to scream. His body goes rigid and his thumb presses down on the panic button for his truck’s alarm system on his keychain. The blaring beep of his truck’s alarm covers the thick slurping and wet ripping sounds of the grasshoppers feeding. When the battery for his truck finally dies the sun is drooping in the pink and orange sky and the mountain air is eerily quiet. 

Next Chapter- Friday, March 14.

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