2: Tree Horn Ridge
The roar of the battered old pick-up cuts through the silence of the forest like a chainsaw through scrap wood. It’s a pale yellow Forest Service truck that has been up, over, and around all the dirt roads of varying quality which twist and snake their way through the Hoo-Doo County wilderness. The still early morning air bristles with the aggressive sound of the battered vehicle, small forest animals scampering through the sunrise to escape it. The small Ford Ranger pick-up growls and spits rocks from its rear wheels as it rounds every corner. The grizzled old man behind the wheel cares not for the scattershot of pebbles he kicks up with every swerve. His only entertainment and immediate concern is torturing the college kid focusing all his attention on reading the paper while riding shotgun.
The old man, Mark, doesn’t have any one specific thing he dislikes about the college kid, Warren, but rather has pointed the frustration of his life spent in the small singlewide trailer in the same small hick town, where the only difference day to day was the bottle he was swimming in directly at Warren. In Warren he sees someone determined to do more than he ever tried to, and consciously or not Mark wants to make everything as hard for Warren as he can before he is off making better money. Before the two were assigned to work together, Mark already hated everything in his life he just didn’t have anything to focus his misery on so he was just a grouchy old prick to everyone in general.
Mark takes a sharp turn on a wide corner so tight the passenger-side wheels rumble over the rocks lining the road. The paper in Warren’s hands folds inward and crumples into his face, knocking his black-rimmed glasses askew. The fountain soda between his legs bounces up and nearly tips over onto his shoes, but his young caffeinated reflexes save the soda at the risk of taking the newspaper to his face. Without adjusting his glasses, Warren shoots Mark a distrustful look.
“It’s time to work, not to read, School Boy.” Mark snaps.
Warren turns away from Mark, folds the paper and rests it on his lap, then readjusts his glasses. He looks out the window, swallowing his growing fury at the older man’s shitty attitude. “What is our work today?”
Mark wants an argument and is let down enough he sighs when he doesn’t get it. He knows Warren has no hard time going to supervisors, and he knows the book-smart little shit also knows every small rule within the Forest Service legal department. “We are headed up to Tree Horn Ridge, the old clear-cut up there anyway. It’s been three years this week, and we gotta see if it’s ready to be re-planted yet.”
Warren nods his understanding, but doesn’t speak because he doesn’t want to give Mark any openings for the argument he always seems to be seeking. Warren graduated during the winter quarter, spent the holidays with his parents, and then hustled back to the first job he could get with the Forest Service. He’d been working with Mark for two months now, and he knew from the first day the old man was just an asshole who had been an asshole so long without someone whooping him for it he wasn’t going to change. Wordlessly, he refolds his paper and tucks it beside him. When he reaches for his soda again, Mark jerks the wheel back and forth but Warren ignores him still and chooses instead to keep looking at the beautiful forest scenery out the window. They round another corner and tree Horn Ridge comes into view. Warren has been out on the deep forest ridge a few times already but it still takes his breath away every time, as it does now.
The ridge jutted out from the mountainside at such a sharp angle it almost doubles back on itself with a copse of indigenous evergreen trees lining one side all the way down to a small creek at the bottom of it. Three years ago, Forest Service crews did a cut and burn on a square mile clear cut straight down the left side of the ridge. Where the men usually park the pickup, they can stand and have thick green forest on the right and stump-dotted clear cut so thistle-covered it appears a soft glowing purple on their left.
As the clear-cut comes into view Mark gives Warren the snide words he had worked so hard not to hear. “Ya’ know, School Boy, I’ll be able to tell ‘em as soon as I touch the dirt if it’s ready for replanting, and it don’t take me no eighty-thousand dollar degree. In a year from now you’ll be sitting in an office with a view, while me and Ler and Butch will still be out here busting our asses in the dirt and sunshine.”
Warren opens his mouth to defend himself, but Mark raises the volume of his voice and continues. “So, just keep your trap shut, and you might actually learn a thing or two about a goddamn hard day’s work!”
The old man shouts with so much force his bitter spit speckles Warren’s glasses. For some reason, despite the fact he has been wearing more of his sodas than drinking them and still managed to keep his cool then, staring through Mark’s brown-tinted saliva dripping slowly down his lens bubbles the fury he has so deeply buried up and over. His voice breaks as he screeches the three feet across the cab at Mark, “What the hell is your problem? You old shithead prick!”
The smile melts off Mark’s face and he takes his eyes of the winding road to gawk at the kid’s gall. Mark wants an argument, not to be screeched at by someone half his age. Both the men are scowling and staring at each other, each contemplating the next thing they could shout at each other, as Mark takes the final turn to the clear-cut side of the ridge. Warren instantly becomes nervous that Mark isn’t watching the road as it bends around a rocky jutting corner. Mark has been up this same road hundreds of times of his four decades with the Forest Service, and the clear-cut side (even before its trimming) has always been one of his favorite places to visit. He has made the trip in zero visibility, and he isn’t worried about taking his eyes off the nervous Warren as he relies on his muscle memory to handle the wide turn. Warren doesn’t trust Mark’s crusty old man reflexes, and breaks their indignant staring contest to make sure Mark doesn’t crash them into one of the huge tree trunks lining the road.
Mark snorts at Warren’s surrender, and opens his mouth to release a string of mocking snideness but before he can something black smashes into the middle of the windshield. The eight-inch long black object simultaneously cracks the windshield from the center out while splattering thick orange sludge all the way across the spider-webbed glass. Mark over-reacts and jerks the wheel far too hard to the side, his muscle memory fails and they thump off the edge of the road and bounce down the clear-cut. Mark squints his eyes and attempts to look through the splinters in the glass or the orange slime smeared across it in order to crashing into anything.
The truck bounces over tree stumps and decaying logs, sending dust and chips of bark high into the still morning air as it careens down the side of the ridge. Despite Mark’s best downhill driving several weather-worn tree stumps tear the little pick-up’s undercarriage to scrap. After a wild, blind ride the truck finally comes to a sudden lurching stop high-centered on a large blackened stump.
The engine is still grinding to an angry, yet ready, death as Warren screams at Mark and falls out his door as he opens it. “Damn it! Damn it, damn it, son of a bitch!”
Warren stumbles on unsure legs, distraught and shaken but uninjured. He grimaces when he notices the mixture of sticky Mountain Dew and fragrant urine soaking the front of his Forest Service issued khakis. Angry tears burn in his eyes when he realizes he hasn’t wiped Mark’s flung spit from his eyeglasses yet. He darts back to the truck to retrieve his paper, slipping with nearly every step and cursing his older coworker with every breath.
Mark has to slam his shoulder into the frame of his door to get it to open. It gives with a horrible scream of metal on metal. At some point during the crash Mark bounced his forehead off the hard plastic steering wheel, and as he escapes the wreckage blood is trickling into his watery eyes from a cut in the middle of his forehead. Mark spins around to say something to Warren, but the younger man scampers back out of the truck again and throws his crushed and empty cup at him instead of screaming through his rage. The cup bounces off of Mark’s face after connecting with pin-point accuracy to the freshly opened gash. Mark blushes and winces at the same time, for once unable to snap anything back at Warren.
Warren sees the old man’s rare speechlessness, but his restraint is spent. “This is your fault, you grouchy prick! You weren’t even looking where you were going, too concerned with being a total asshole to me for no good damn reason. Well, you old worthless shit-sack, I hope to hell it was worth it because they are going to fire your stupid ass after the next time I talk to them!”
Warren dives back into the truck cab, and grabs his paper- ignoring the fact it is damp with split soda, and storms away from the ruined truck and his embarrassed partner without allowing him a single word. Mark lets him go, and when he does he reaches back into the truck to grab his cell phone. He sighs when, as expected it has no service. He reaches in and tries the radio but with no battery power it doesn’t work.
Warren is waving his folded up paper in front of him as he walks to the tree line, slapping grasshoppers out of the air with it. He says nothing, but to him it seems like there is an excessive amount grasshoppers in the high mountain clear-cut. For reasons he can’t explain their song sends chills through him despite the late summer humidity.
Mark watches Warren reach a stump near the tree and sit down flinging his paper open. Mark reaches back in the cab for his typical breakfast of pretzels and jerky. His bag of pretzels has overturned and half have spilled across the floor of the truck, but he rolls the top and tucks the bag under his arm the way Warren had tucked his newspaper away. He walks over to Warren chewing on his jerky and looking from Warren and the ground. Warren doesn’t acknowledge Mark’s presence or look away from his paper.
“Whatcha’ reading about?” Mark asks in the gentlest voice he has ever used in his life.
Warren lowers his paper just enough for him to peek over the top. “Do you really give a half a shit?”
“Yeah.” Mark assures but then relents with another blush at Warren’s raising eyebrow. “Okay, not so much. It is just gonna be a long while before Bruce and Larry head back this way.”
“You can’t call them?”
“You’re an asshole.” The paper goes back up and Warren disappears behind it.
Mark clears his throat and winces through it as if he is preparing swallow razor blade words. “I’m sorry. Ya know, for all of this.”
“I bet. People always remember that moment when they went and fucked off the best job they’d ever have. You’ll be sorry for a long damn time I figure.”
Mark is so furious he is trembling, his fists clenching and un-clenching at his sides. Up until today he has been firmly in control of the relationship between Warren and he, and having their roles so rapid and severely reversed just pisses Mark the hell off. Warren is right and it just stokes the indignant fire which seems to power Mark through his days and nights. His feelings threaten to peel back on himself so he simply sits down against the trunk of the tree closest Warren’s stump. Luckily for Mark, Warren isn’t a rotten old bastard and after a few moments of uncomfortable silence between them filled with a pulsing grasshoppers’ song, he feels bad for shouting and throwing his cup at him. He’d rather forgive the old bastard and have conversation to drown out the grasshoppers.
He doesn’t lower his paper but tells Mark, “I’m reading about that farmer that went missing last week.”
“Jerry Armstrong, Alfalfa King.” Mark chuckles grimly.
“Yeah, I think that’s him.” Warren tells him, knowing full well it is because his name is in the title of the front page article.
“Oh, it’s him alright. Does it say anywhere in your article there that his daddy and his granddaddy both ‘went missing’ before him?”
“I don’t recall that.” Warren answers honestly, but the knowledge excites him as if he is part of a deepening mystery.
“Of course not. I bet that reporter is a ‘school boy’ just like you.”
“What the hell man?” Warren spins on Mark, and though he doesn’t jump to his feet he stares his co-worker down with murderous intent glazing his eyes.
Mark shakes his head, old habits are hard to break and old pricks don’t just start smiling after crashing their work truck down a ridge-side. He wonders if he might want to apologize or suffer through Warren’s fury, but when he looks at Warren he sees the kid is doing his best to just calm down. Once he realizes he isn’t going to be attacked, Mark stands up and licks his thumb. Mark is holding his thumb in the air, staring at it with one eye squinted shut like he is staring through a rifle scope. He turns a few degrees to the side, and then spins in a half circle with his lips mumbling silent equations in his head. Warren watches for a few awkward moments waiting for Mark to speak. Mark does speak again and his words send more chills through Warren.
“In fact, the Old Armstrong fields are just on the other side of that copse of trees.” Mark smiles, proud of himself for remembering such.
Warren stares at the grizzled old man but says nothing.
“Would you believe me if I told you one night at the Salty Dog over a round of whiskeys, Old Jerry told me his kin had both been chewed up by grasshoppers?”
“I have a harder time believing people will sit and drink with you.” Warren answers honestly.
Mark laughs in spite of himself, the force of his guffaw forcing him to spit a mouthful of blood onto a nearby stump. Warren can’t help but laugh along, and as Mark is wiping the blood from his chin the two men share the first smile they ever have. If they were looking at the stump Mark spit on instead of each other they would have seen the six-inch long black hopper, fluttering its purple wings and landing in the crimson puddle to splash and kick. Mark speaks again, but has to raise his voice to be heard over the grasshoppers’ song.
“Yeah, some do,” Mark smiles his half-toothless grin at Warren and nods at the truck high-centered on the big tree-stump. “Hell, I’d even buy you a shot or three if we could keep this quiet.”
Warren’s brow furrows, his eyes squinting accusingly behind his spit-speckled lenses.
Mark understands, and amends his statement. “I mean, keep it quiet, because it was all my fault, and I don’t wanna’ get fired and all.”
Satisfied with Mark’s admittance, Warren calms enough to know he really won’t get one of these old timers fired. Shit, they’d all be tons of fun to work with after snitching off their buddy. For the first time, Mark isn’t being a total prick, and Warren sees this as a chance to show the old bastard that just because he went to college he doesn’t have it out for any of them.
“Okay, sure.” Warren concedes to Mark and then unfolds his paper and goes back to reading it.
Downhill from the men a dark shape shifts through the tall brown grass and vibrant purple thistle, unnoticed and inching ever closer.
Warren is sitting on his stump seat, reading his paper. Next to him, the sound of the grasshoppers chirps begin to sound like thousands of tiny screams to Mark. He can’t sit and listen to them so he keeps talking despite every word he speaks filling him with a strange unshakable dread.
“Old Jerry Armstrong, Alfalfa King, ‘gone missing’. He told me ‘nother time about an old shack somewhere up around this selfsame ridge. He said there was a crazy old man who lived in the shack and ate this blood-colored corn that grew around the shed. Called that old man the ‘Corn Eater’ he did. Said this Corn Eater was the reason he was rich and the reason he was sad.”
Warren lowers his paper just enough for Mark to see his raised, quizzical eyebrow.
Again Mark gets the unspoken drift, “Sad on account of the Corn Eater’s bastard grasshoppers eatin’ his kin and all.”
Still holding the paper up, but now using it to hide a slight grin, Warren asks, “So you believe in man eating grasshoppers and corn eating hermits?”
“I believe there are a lot of the little chirping bastards right now, maybe not killer, but goddamned annoying ain’t they?”
“Yup.” Warren raises the paper to finish the article on a rash of ‘missing persons’ reports from the town of Stillwater leaving Mark to just deal with the grasshoppers and their constant ringing chittering. They sit this way for a moment, Warren reading about vanishing people, and Mark humming classic rock songs in his head to drown out the screaming of the grasshoppers.
The clear-cut is alive with tiny grasshoppers, the air filled with as much of their clacking scattered flights as it is their incessant chirping. Several jump up against the back of Warren’s paper, but he ignores them until a heavy black one smacks into it with enough force to fold it closed in Warren’s face.
“Damn it all!” Warren snaps. He looks at Mark and sees the gap-toothed grin he fully expects.
The six-inch long black hopper on the stump next to Mark has lapped up a fair amount of the blood goober and hungry for more, leaps at Mark’s shoulder. The old man’s head snaps to the side, a look of fear etched on his weathered face as he regards the mutant insect digging needle sharp legs into the meat of his shoulder. Mark’s hand twitches at his side, but before he can slap the strange grasshopper away it leaps again to land on his face.
The black hopper’s feet sink into the leathery flesh of Mark’s face and he screams and slaps at in response. Warren, thinking Mark is being funny, points and laughs at the struggling old man. Mark’s frenzied slaps smack his nose and previously opened wound more than they hit the grasshopper barbed into his face. He does make contact once and it merely angers the insect. The big grasshopper leaps away from Mark’s face with its purple wings clacking and a fan of blood trailing behind it like a tail.
Warren stops laughing when Mark holds up a blood-covered hand. Warren goes pale when he sees the gaping hole in Mark’s cheek so long he can see the nicotine-yellowed teeth underneath. Warren’s stomach threatens to void the rushed gas station breakfast he gobbled when Mark screams at him and his cheek flaps obscenely with each word.
“We gotta get the hell outta’ here!”
Mark shoves off the tree and stumbles forward. He only manages a few sloppy steps before a grasshopper the size of a dog leaps up and crashes into his chest, slamming him right back against the tree trunk. Pinned fast in place, Mark slaps wildly at the monster attacking him as its powerful back legs find purchase in the soft flesh of his beer belly. Mark manages to make a fist and punch the insect once in its bugling multi-sectioned eye. It reacts exactly as the smaller hopper on his face had, and leaps backwards away from Mark. Instead of a mouthful of his flesh the dog-sized grasshopper lets its momentum drag its razor sharp limbs from Mark’s belt line to his stubborn sternum. Mark’s innards rush from him as if excited to flee his toxic personality and self-abuse. Nearly emptied of his vital organs, Mark sways forward and lands on his knees in a puddle of his guts. As Mark dies he has time to see grasshoppers of all sizes feasting on his spilled innards all around him.
Warren is up and running before Mark’s eyes go cloudy. He jumps over stumps and logs, slapping at the grasshoppers suddenly swarming the clear-cut. The air is filled with grasshoppers; all around him Warren sees huge black and purple ones like the nightmare one that killed Mark but only bigger and bigger. All the grasshoppers jump, flutter, and sing at him. As he barrels back towards the pickup he spots a colossal black hopper, bigger than the pick-up they had driven up in, crawling methodically uphill from him and moving eerily in step from its distance. Warren’s eyes dart from the pick-up in front of him to the giant hopper above him until it falls behind. He doesn’t have time to question its behavior and pushes his burning legs forward through the clear-cut. None of the others Warren sees match the size and girth of the giant above him, but several others the size of small dogs leap at him squeaking and chittering hateful guttural noises. Some bounce off of his darting form, their hard exoskeletons leaving instant bruises where they slapped against Warren’s skin. Warren feels their limbs slice at him as they launch themselves at him, and soon blood trickles from dozens of cuts on his arms and torso.
Warren is nearly to the truck when he looks up and sees three black grasshoppers each the size of a bear atop the truck he was praying to seek refuge in. The hopper on the hood flitters its legs at him, glittering purple which strikes Warren as lovely and deeply terrifying at the same time. His eyes go blurry as they fill with tears which slip down his flushed cheeks. He reaches up to adjust his glasses when he hears an incredible crash of wood and earth behind him. He stands there not wanting to step forward or turn around, and small hoppers latch onto him the moment he stops moving. They dangle from his face and arms, falling away greedily sucking at little scraps of flesh they manage to tear away from him.
The grasshoppers’ song is reaching a crescendo Warren feels like toxic shock in his soul. The three hoppers on the pick-up flutter their purple wings at him and he spins around from the monsters. As he turns slowly around Warren starts thinking again about the way Mark had kept saying ‘went missing’. Less than ten feet away is the mammoth grasshopper that had been up hill from him. Up close its black exoskeleton has an oily sheen as if rainbows of neon are swimming in its shell.
The monster hunkers down and leaps at him. Warren raises his arms instantly to defend himself, but they are both quickly severed by powerful mandibles and feed into a hole like mouth lined with hundreds of tiny teeth. Warren swoons as he watches his forearms disappear into the grasshopper’s deadly maw, but it catches him with its head as it leaps towards the truck. Warren folds over the insect’s head as if hit by a speeding vehicle as it soars through the air. His ribs shattered, his lungs deflating and his spine shattered in several places, Warren slips from its face and falls onto the destroyed pick-up. The other three giants jump out of Warren’s way at the last possible second, and as he makes contact and sends gore and broken glass all over the thousands of grasshoppers overtaking the clear-cut they flutter their purple wings and join the feeding frenzy.
Next 'episode' posted up on Monday March 17.
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