5: Early Damn It Massacre
The bright orange of the road construction signs announcing the upcoming road work stand out against the earth tones of the evergreen forest landscape. The morning sun is peeking through the tall pines and the shadows retreat back across the four lane road from it. A small line of traffic moves lazily up the winding road as if the vehicles themselves are still waking up.
A light blue Chevy pickup brakes suddenly in front of Tom and Anna in their black Honda. Already irritated, Tom launches into a diatribe against the Chevy’s driver.
“Are you kidding me? The sign says road work ahead, asshole, I bet there is another mile between us and it. And a up and down mile at that! I don’t want to be behind your slow redneck ass! Bullshit country drivers!”
Anna looks at the Chevy’s battered tailgate in front of her on the road, but says nothing. She glances at the clock on the car’s stereo and winces to herself when she reads 7:27 am in the neon green numbers. Tom hated being woken up early, and she had done just that. She had not only woken him up early, but done so sleep deprived, terrified, and inconsolable. Anna had endured a sleepless night, cuddled to Tom’s snoring shape in the dark, but unable to sleep herself for the grasshoppers chirping, clicking, and singing outside the hotel window.
Anna grew up in Chicago so she was more familiar with cockroaches than grasshoppers, and even being a novice about crop-eaters she fully expected them to be silent once night wrapped the sleepy town of St. Jim’s in its oily arms. Instead as she watched the moon rise higher and higher into the sky they got louder and louder. Around midnight the chirping took on a menacing tone, and she could her screams in the chirping, clicking, and singing outside. The sound became so overpowering it was if the insects had transformed themselves into the very sound they were making and using it to crawl all over her, tangling in her hair and sticking their heads into every orifice they can find. So she wiggled and thrashed as her mind and reality did battle in the dark of a strange hotel room. She was chewing the inside of her cheek raw, with tears streaming down her face when the first precious ray of sunshine wandered in from between the nicotine-yellowed drapes. It was all the provocation her exhausted and frightened mind needed and she was rolling Tom out of bed, demanding he take her from St. Jim’s and never let her return. At the time he was still more asleep than awake, so any fight he had was overpowered by her obvious, irrational or not, panic.
Now, he is grinding his teeth as he mad-dogs the light blue Chevy’s tailgate. He stomps on the accelerator and jerks the wheel hard to the side, so he can pass the Chevy. She realizes he has had plenty of time to wake up and be mad about it.
“I’m not following some redneck asshole who is going to slam on his breaks every time he sees an orange cone on the side of the road!” Tom shouts his words as they approach, but they aren’t directed truly at Anna or the truck’s driver.
The little black Honda squeals at the combination of increases in both speed and road grade as it jerks them past the pickup. Tom doesn’t even look over at the driver as he passes, he just huffs the word ‘asshole’ and keeps his angry eyes on the road. Anna does turn and look, taking in the square-jawed man’s weary appearance under his worn ball-cap. His eye are so bloodshot they almost seem crimson, and the worry lines on his forehead match the roadmap of illogical fear on Anna’s own forehead. He had a night like me, she thinks to herself.
Anna keeps her eyes on the Honda’s speedometer, expecting it to drop once they pass the pickup but instead it continues climbing. 55, 60, 65, 70, 75.
Tom stares at the road, a winding concrete snake slithering through Hoo-Doo County. Every few feet squat orange cones line the side of the old mountain highway, giving the concrete reptile vibrant markings to go with its blacktop camouflage. Another bright orange diamond shaped sign informs them they are losing the left lane in less than a mile.
“Seriously who is doing road work at seven in the damn it?” Tom yells and Anna bristles at the anger in his voice. Then, his choice of words strikes her as odd.
“Don’t you mean seven in the morning?”
Tom smiles back, an almost involuntary reaction to how amused he is by his own cleverness. “No, I meant damn it. From now on, the morning begins at 8:00 am, and anything before then is the damn it.”
Anna laughs out loud, the sound of her joyful glee tickling Tom until he is laughing along with her. The Honda’s speed drops back down, 85, 80, 75, 70, 65, 60. She squeezes his hand. He winks at her. Without saying the words, she apologizes for waking him up and making them leave before breakfast and he accepts. The little Honda speeds around a turn a little yellow sign recommends be taken at 45 mph or less, and they see where the left lane ends three hundred feet ahead of them. The wide, white rear-end of a nice RV blocks the view of the road as it sits idling and waiting on something ahead of them.
Tom stomps of the breaks harder than he means to, pitching them both forward sharply, then slamming them back hard.
“Son of a bitch!” Tom bellows.
“Afternoon already?” Anna quickly jests.
Tom smiles, though it looks uneasy enough if he would have laughed it would have been forced and fake. He looks into the rearview mirror at the Chevy behind them. He scowls at the reflection he sees.
“That asshole in the Chevy thought that was funny. Eh, I mean the RV making me slam on my breaks, not your ‘joke’.” Tom looks at Anna sideways, teasing.
“Well, he would have if he heard it. Roll down your window, and I’ll yell it out to him.” Anna waves her hand at Tom, motioning for him to roll his window down, but he playfully waves her back. She looks back to the man driving the Chevy and sees a wide maniacal smile even with the square jaw, though the bloodshot eyes and deeply etched worry lines are now hidden by the shade of the cap’s bill. The unmistakable crack of rifle fire echoes through the morning air, startling both Tom and Anna to the point of jumping in their seats. Anna ‘s eyes go back to the rear-view mirror where the man is the pickup, still smiling wide, is now nodding his head fervently.
“What the hell was that Tom?” Anna’s voice squeals slightly, but her buried fear has to vent some way or another. The echo of the rifle shot is having the same effect as the grasshoppers’ overnight serenade, a sinking drowning sense of dread and despair that almost brings tears to hers eyes as it steals the moisture from her mouth.
Tom opens his mouth to answer that it could be hunters but a metallic silver Ford Mustang zips up over the last hill, right around the blue Chevy and then Tom and Anna’s black Honda before the RV’s taillights bring it to a stop just past the Honda’s front bumper with even harsher grinds than Tom’s moments before.
“That is kinda’ funny from back here.” Tom concedes and both of them laugh at it as the RV’s complete stoppage stops the coiling line of morning traffic leading back into St. Jim’s. Its wide rear-end completely blocks the view of what is obstructing the road and causing the delay.
The instant the car stops rolling the echoing clapping of the grasshoppers’ song fills the air as if licking to taste the echo of the rifle shot. Anna rolls her window up, and rubs her temples, hoping to keep it together. Hundreds of brown and green grasshoppers are jumping from the forested roadside and hopping down towards the farmed fields surrounding hilltops like they are drawn by a strange dormant migration instinct. Anna looks away from the grasshoppers crawling and jumping all over the ground to the forested hillside ahead of them. The northern Idaho terrain has gone from rolling hills to sharp rugged mountains, with as much predictability as a pregnant woman’s moods in the time Tom and Anna have been traveling through it, and the road from St. Jim’s to the larger town of Falterwood is no different, with patches of farmed fields dispersed amongst the trees and all of it on ever-rolling hills of earth.
Anna’s wandering eyes, desperate to avoid the hundreds of grasshoppers, see a sign announcing an upcoming road as Tree Horn Ridge Loop Drive. How quint, Anna thinks to herself, but her inner voice is mocking and snide so Anna keeps it to herself.
From where they have come to a stop Tom can’t see any oncoming traffic, but he can see the left side of a massive yellow bull dozer. A tiny little grasshopper, as black as the Honda’s paintjob, leaps brazenly through Tom’s open window slapping its glittery purple wings in his face as it flies past to land on the dash board. The insect’s flight seems surreal and slow-motion to Tom who watches the dazzling purple wings with empty eyes. Anna screams and recoils. Tom snaps from his momentary stupor and laughs out loud at her reaction, but he catches sight of the man behind him and his laughter dies in his throat. The stone-faced man looks both worried and frightened; both emotions look foreign and uncomfortable on his shadowed face.
Anna reaches to her side for the copy of People Magazine she grabbed in Stillwater, keeping her eyes on the small oddly colored insect skittering around on the dash. She draws the magazine to her lap, and rolls it tightly with both hands. She brings her paper death tube down onto the unsuspecting grasshopper, convincingly squishing it and squirting orange innards halfway across the dashboard.
“Was that necessary?” Tom asks while looking at the orange mess smeared across the dash.
Without pause, Anna responds, “Absolutely. The chirping bastards kept me up all night, Tom. They damn near drove me insane.” Something in her tone tints the words with eeriness. She flinches with each tiny thud of a grasshopper throwing itself against the side of the Honda, her heart racing in rhythm with the soft thuds as it tries to crawl up her throat.
A scream cuts through the grasshoppers’ song, which swells and swallows the scream as it the insects meant to keep the scream a secret. Anna feels the blood flush from her face as she spins to Tom.
“Turn us around, Tom!” She yells louder than she means to.
He turns to look at her, but traffic gives a sudden lurch forward. The progress only lasts for a few feet before the line of vehicles comes to rapid stop again. Anna’s frightened eyes scan the traffic, but are drawn above it to the darkening sky. She screams without fully realizing it when she sees the swarm of giant black grasshoppers leaping towards them with glittery fans of vibrant purple reflecting the newly risen sun in terrible prisms as they move.
All hell breaks loose.
A short, stocky man wearing an orange hardhat and a green safety vest dashes into view next to the RV. He is swinging a SLOW/STOP sign at several dog-sized black grasshoppers hissing and jumping at him. The RV’s taillights flash bright red as it attempts to back up, but it smashes the silver Mustang’s front end and stops cold. The Mustang’s driver, a middle-aged man in Dockers and a brown and orange striped polo-shirt, stomps out of his car shaking his fists at the RV. Dockers takes a few long angry strides in the direction of the RV as if he is planning to march right up to the side door like it was a trailer in a trailer park. He takes a good three steps before he finally sees the road worker struggling against the big black hoppers. Dockers makes a funny face, and looks around, as if he expects to see a camera crew hidden in the shadows of the evergreens. Instead, Dockers watches the road worker slap one black grasshopper away with his sign, just as another leaps onto the man’s broad shoulders. Its mandibles tear through muscle and sinew to scrap against his collar bone. The man falls face forward onto the side of the road, fighting weakly against, not only the grasshopper which took him down, but, anther two which scamper onto him through the cloud of dust his tumble stirs.
As the dust clears Anna watches one of the black grasshoppers perched on the road worker’s back digging out his spine while keeping its insect eyes on her. Dockers watches the same thing, and his hand twitches slowly several inches from his door handle, but his numb legs are frozen in place and his reeling mind doesn’t think to lean over slightly to reach the handle. He begins screaming as a group of giant black grasshoppers charges him.
More screams erupt from the RV and the side of the road is suddenly crowded with people in tacky tourists clothing getting shredded by the attacking swarm. Anna watches a mother attempt to shield her daughter, only to get her arms eaten, and then watch her young daughter get decapitated by a black grasshopper the size of a bear. Anna can’t pull her eyes away from the scene, despite how horrendous it is. Each and every person who has tried to flee has been taken down by one or more giant grasshoppers and torn apart by twitching mandibles and barbed legs. Dockers unfreezes from his fear just as a sleek oil-backed grasshopper at long as he is tall tackles him to the ground. The man screams into the asphalt as the monster tears at his spine, pulling most of it away with one firm tug of its powerful mandibles. Anna turns away from the massacre to scream at her pale-faced boyfriend again.
“Tom, turn us around!” Anna screams the words and Tom shifts into reverse without taking his wide eyes off the carnage ahead of them. His muscles freeze after completing the initial shift, and he applies no pressure to the gas pedal to complete the retreat.
The roar of a bulldozer rivals that of the insectiod army as it rumbles into view on the opposite side of the RV as the slaughter, crushing orange cones as it rolls forward. The blue Chevy behind them jerks hard to the side and pulls around them, barely missing the Honda in its rush.
“Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” Anna repeats the modern trauma chant while Tom curses at the Chevy as it jerks past him, smashing over road cones and charging the bulldozer which just appeared. The stone-faced driver of the Chevy doesn’t have time to avoid the bulldozer as if he somehow missed its loud diesel-reeking appearance. The bulldozer’s large yellow blade tears through the Chevy’s front end like claws through flesh. The Chevy’s driver doesn’t scream as he truck is engulfed in flames and shoved into a grinding, smoking retreat by the bulldozer. After hitting the truck, the dozer changes direction and forces the flaming pickup into the woods on the opposite side of the road from Anna and Tom. As it rumbles past them, neither Tom nor Anna see a driver in the bulldozer, just several grasshoppers climbing all over the construction vehicle.
An old man clad in rags staggers alongside the RV. He drags his hand along the side of the RV leaving a smeared crimson handprint which stands out vividly against the RV’s bright white. The old man’s long face is streaked with the same crimson as his hands and his long tangled beard hanging down to his belly is a vibrant scarlet with weak streaks of gray. He looks at Tom and Anna, his eyes swirling rainbows of dark neon colors which chill them both deep in their souls.
“What is this all about?” Tom whispers his question to himself.
The traffic behind them surges forward in the wake of the pickup, effectively blocking Tom and Anna’s planned escape. A colossal grasshopper leaps from the trees and lands on the top of the RV, crushing the massive vehicle down a few feet and making it sway as it settles. The RV creaks loudly as it sways and comes within inches of hitting the bearded old man, who ignores both the swaying RV and gigantic grasshopper atop it. The sleek monster hisses and spits at the little Honda before jumping at it.
“Holy shit, get out!” Tom yells as he opens his door and throws himself onto the asphalt.
He lands elbows first, but lands with enough momentum to smack his chin on the highway before he rolls away from the car just as the grasshopper smashes it to shards of metal and plastic with its girth. Tom sees blood splattered across the wreckage of the flattened Honda after the massive hopper smashes the next car in line, and he knows Anna didn’t make it out in time. He has no time to mourn his lost love, because a dog-sized hopper pounces onto his chest almost immediately. The monster smashes his ribs, and drools black slime onto his pale-face. The mutant grasshopper has two rows of eyes, quickly clicking mandibles, and a circular mouth lined with rows of sharp teeth. Tom panics and smashes the grasshopper in its closest eye. The creature lurches away blinded from the lucky strike, but another uses Tom as a launch pad crushing any ribs not already destroyed as it leaps of off him.
The momentum of the grasshopper’s leap rolls Tom’s battered body on the highway like a rag doll. Tom raises his hand at the people behind him, he can’t draw a deep enough breath to scream. His eyes relay his panic and pain to the people in their cars and trucks as he reaches feebly for their help. The grasshopper he temporarily blinded crawls over him slowly, methodically, severing a limb at a time and tearing at his back with its barbed feet in the middle of the highway.
The man with the red face and beard stumbles up to Tom’s scattered remains. Both his eyes seem to be rolling different directions, but it is impossible to tell because of their wild rainbow hues. He yells something unintelligible and hundreds of normal grasshoppers converge on the severed limbs, avoiding the old man completely.
The stunned drivers behind the scene slam into each other in their panic as the swarm of grasshoppers overtakes them on its way into St. Jim’s.
Two leather-clad bikers run screaming for the safety rail only to be gutted and flayed before their abandoned motorcycles hit the ground.
A white-van full of juvenile delinquents and two probation officers locks the doors to no avail as bear-sized black grasshoppers smash themselves into the windshield until it shatters in. Hundreds of black grasshoppers swarm the jagged opening and the next instant arterial spray colors the unbroken windows.
A team of sheet-rockers exit their battered work-truck swinging their hammers like savages. Neither makes contact even once before they are attacked. The driver manages a frightful war cry before a hopper nearly as big as him leaps onto his back and bites off the top of his head. The other man watches his friend die, and decides to retreat. He reaches for the door handle stiff with fear. An eight-inch long grasshopper lands on the sheet-rocker’s outstretched arm and rips ravenously at the tender flesh of his wrist. Blood spurts to the blacktop with every beat of the man’s heart. Others smell the spilling blood and swarm the whimpering man.
Screams join in the grasshoppers’ song as the massacre concludes in violent bloody fashion leaving no survivors on the gore-stained highway. The old bearded man, the hermit known as The Corn Eater, waddles towards the town which he wandered away from so long ago, his bare feet slapping the concrete and flinging blood with every step. He sees through the eyes of the swarm, and back in the decrepit shack the Pulse in the Dark glows terrible neon colors pleased as it watches the swarm advance through his shimmering eyes.
Next 'episode' will be posted Tuesday, April 1st.
You can find more of my scribblings HERE.