6: Hell Hops into Town
St. Jim’s is a small town built at the base of the mountains at the north-eastern end of Hoo-Doo County. Early settlers to the region built homes and businesses along the popular trade route which followed the Merwin River down from the Hoo-Doo Mountains to where it meets the Palouse River. They used trees they logged from the unnaturally thick evergreen forest which grew up the side of the mountain range. As they clear cut their way up the side of the mountain people bought the cleared land at discount prices and built affordable housing to settle their families in. Within a few years the town reached up from the valley floor into a mushroom shaped cluster of houses and businesses all surrounded by the dense forest.
Gold, and all the promises its mere presence whispers, was discovered to the south, and the town’s population suffered accordingly. Those who stayed behind continued to farm the land and log the mountains but over time the region, and all the towns scattered throughout it, were rumored cursed after winters cold enough to freeze cattle to death in barns followed summers burning too hot and fast to produce valuable crops continually sent people fleeing.
After what is commonly referred to as the ‘Last Nasty Winter’ (the winter of 32, spring of 33) by locals and historians alike the quadruple average snow fall melted freakishly quick, forcing the Merwin to swell and flood the lower portion of St. Jim’s. The waters rose quickly overnight, drowning over one hundred people in the freezing snowmelt as the sun was rising. Eventually the flood waters receded leaving a devastated town in its wake. All of the buildings in lower St. Jim’s were damaged by the flood, those which didn’t crumble on their own where brought down by the cleanup crews from the local logging company Kambitch Brothers.
Again, the land was offered cheap, and, again, it was purchased and settled quickly. Rather than rebuild the lower half of the town farmers planted fields down the rolling foothills all the way to the banks of the murderous Merwin River. These new crops grew well enough to support the now smaller, easier to manage, town. Bold famers cut into the forests surrounding the town, finding the soil on the back side of several ridges to be very fertile and easy to farm. These successful farms brought more industry which in turn brought more people.
So came the second breath of life to the town.
Now, as the swarm darkens the sky it begins its second death rattle.
Moses Richardson is first to witness the swarm of mutant grasshoppers as he is perched at the highest point in the town, the top of the town hall tower, but as he is not the smartest or cleverest man at all he can’t think of a way to alert anyone of its arrival. The sky tints black with shimmering purple as the swarm descends, and Moses scampers back and forth on the tower’s small ledge panicking to his core. Moses doesn’t own a cell phone, or even a home phone for that matter, but he knows his boss Carl would know what to do and who to call. So Moses screams for his boss in as loud a voice as his husky vocal cords can muster. During his frightened excitement Moses inadvertently bumps the ladder he used to shimmy up to the tower. The ladder falls with a metallic clatter to the roof below him, and Moses bellows for Carl in a voice wet with fear.
Moses is older than Carl, he doesn’t know by how much because he doesn’t know how old he is. Carl is his boss and best friend. Carl runs the town’s maintenance crew, and Moses is his dedicated right hand man. What old Moses lacks in smarts, for he is certainly a simple man, he more than makes up for with his positive attitude, strong work ethic, and eagerness to please. Moses has known Carl for as long as he could remember, though his memories are always warped and unreliable, streaked with vibrant colors which frighten Moses and render recalling memories or engaging in deep thought strenuous and terrifying. Even now, Moses lives in a single-wide trailer Carl let him put down in the back end of his six hillside acres. Over his many years in the town of St. Jim’s a great deal of the families took him in from time to time, and he has spent his years repaying the town and its people for their kindness to him.
Moses’s daddy left the summer before the Last Bad Winter and the resulting murderous flood from its freeze. His momma swore up and down, and to Jesus and everything, that daddy done went of chasing gold in Californ-y streams. But Moses swore up and down, and to Jesus and everything, he watched his daddy wander off towards Tree Horn Ridge, which Mrs. Simpson from next door had kindly answered him when he asked, was not in the same direction as Californ-y. Moses knew the ridge because his daddy would take him hiking on it almost every day. Even as a small child the ridge, however beautiful and serene, filled Moses with a sense of dread which was near as strong as the wonderment his daddy felt for the mountainside. Moses used to be able to remember toddling after his daddy over and around logs, down slick narrow paths and up steep jagged cliff-sides chasing something his daddy could never really explain to his young simple son. His daddy would talk funny out on the ridge, non-sense and babble talk that Moses still hears in his frequent nightmares. Daddy would take little Moses camping along the ridge-line sometimes, staying out for days at a time and coming home to an irritated momma. It didn’t matter how mad momma got because daddy couldn’t stay away from the ridge, couldn’t let his search relent, and he would be gone again. Daddy said it was out there somewhere, and he’d find it one day and bask in a rainbow of powerful lights. Moses always figured daddy to be standing somewhere, smiling as colors wash over him instead of kneeling in a cold creek panning for gold. Still, when momma said daddy went chasing gold rush streams Moses kept his little opinion to himself for he loathed upsetting his momma.
His momma had a taste for a strong medicine she’d get from the Chinese who emptied the outhouses and ran the laundry. A taste so intense she imbibed heavily before, during and after her pregnancy with Moses. He couldn’t understand the ramifications of the liquid she’d drip into her water, and he though her dulled senses and glossy eyes her natural state of being. Her little amber-colored bottle was empty and Moses couldn’t wake her up where she slept pale-faced on the couch the morning of the Great Flood. Mr. Simpson from next door carried him out of the house over his broad shoulders, the tears leaking down the old lumberjack’s cheeks in no way born of the small boy’s fists and feet as he thrashed for his momma. Momma wouldn’t wake up and those freezing waters rose up and swallowed her while the kind loving Simpsons dragged him kicking and screaming to safety. They couldn’t bury momma because the receding waters took her away and left their old house empty and water-damaged beyond repair. Moses lived with the Simpsons until old-age claimed them both, and other families were always there to take him in when he needed a place to sleep and food in his belly. He was treated like a son the whole town shared, and loved despite his imbecilic nature. Over the years he has outlived all those who once knew first-hand of his sad past, until Moses became the oldest living person in St Jim’s and isn’t even aware of it.
Now, the spry old Moses has no other words other than Carl’s screeched name as he watches the swarm descend on the unsuspecting town as people bustle about. He slaps his leathery hands on the side of the wooden tower, and hears the heavy thudding echoing throughout the floor below. Moses can see four colossal black grasshoppers, each bigger than the work truck Moses and Carl spend their days in, and countless other black hoppers from the size of cats to the size of golf carts, crawling all over down below him while the air turns thick with an incredible number of the normal summer grasshoppers. The larger hoppers smash into cars and buildings, shattering windows with their hardened exoskeletons and allowing others to leap through. From all directions screams rise on the early morning air up to Moses’s ears.
From his precarious perch Moses watches a group of men in front of the hardware store do battle with a group of black grasshoppers with rakes and shovels. The young muscled clerk Moses recognizes as one of St Jim’s football heroes from a few years ago manages to impale a fiercely clicking hopper with a pitchfork. One prong still wrapped tin the manufacturer’ s sticker stabs through twitching insect dripping orange slime. Next to him, two other men beat a grasshopper nearly as big as them with a shovel and a gardening hoe until they smash through smooth black exoskeleton and splatter bright orange grasshopper guts all over themselves and the street they battle in. The tide turns in the blink of an eye when the ex-football hero is tackled into eternity by one of the colossal giants. The other men rally against the monster but are torn into bloody chunks by the smaller hoppers the moment they turn their attention to it.
A drunk man who Moses recognizes as Tanner Webber runs in an erratic zig-zag pattern down the middle of Main Street, fleeing a grasshopper the size of an elk and half blinded by the six-inch beasties chewing at his face. The milk delivery truck from Hopkin’s Dairy careens around the corner and Tanner is dragged under its wheels when their zig-zagging paths collide in the middle of the street. The truck bumps obscenely and leaves a wide bloody smear in its wake. Tanner’s mangled corpse flops away from the milk truck as it banks hard to the left and crashes into the post office where it explodes in grand fashion belching boiling milk and shards of glass onto the people standing nearby.
The four biggest black grasshoppers throw their heavy bodies against the buildings downtown, reducing the brick and wooden buildings to rubble. People try to flee the crumbling structures only to be violently devoured in the street by the other hoppers. The Main Street Bar begins crumbling and a flood of people who had sought refuse within scampers back out into the confusion and carnage. Moses watches a heavyset woman with bright blue curlers in her hair get torn in half by two six-foot grasshoppers in a primal display of greed which spills her sloppy innards all over the thousands of small hoppers crawling across the blood streaked asphalt. The smaller grasshoppers are scampering all over the ruins of the once fine buildings, feasting on survivors and leaving a multitude of tiny bloody tracks over the wreckage.
Moses watches another one of the four giants smash into a school bus, tipping it on its side and allowing the smaller hoppers to attack. Tears form and slip down his weathered cheeks as he hears thin, terrified, high-pitched screams cut short. Moses jerks his attention from the horrors of Main Street, and nearly swoons and slips from the tower when he realizes the carnage has already spread throughout town. He clutches tight to the tower, his eyes closed against the horrors below but the sounds of random gunfire, harrowing screams, tires screeching, vehicles colliding and exploding all still assault his ears as tears continue to stream down into his own bushy beard. He wagers a look back out over the town through blurry eyes and aside from the brilliant splashes of crimson coloring the street below he sees pillars of smoke are reaching into the morning sky from all over town. The people of St. Jim’s are dying terribly and there is nothing Moses can do to help them all.
The grasshoppers’ song rings through the air, muffling the screams, and Moses can’t help but think of his daddy, though he doesn’t know why now of all times the old scoundrel would enter his panicked thoughts. Before he has time to get lost in his jittery confusing memories Moses hears the familiar squeak of the window below signaling Carl’s return. Relief flushes Moses’s face and he slaps the wooden walls excitedly, unable to form words to express his rampaging emotions.
“What is all the racket out here, Moses?” Carl asks as he pops his round face out of the window below.
Moses finally finds another word. “Grasshoppers!”
“Jeez, old boy, I’m talking about all the crashing and booming and shooting I’m hearing not the insect situation!” Carl’s good-natured tone sounds a little shaky to Moses, the slight tremble in his tone still evident when he notices the ladder Moses tipped over. He wiggles his rotund form through the tower window to flop onto the easy sloped town hall roof top. He stands next to the ladder and looks up at Moses with a gentle smirk. “Holy shit, Moses, are you stuck up there?”
Moses leans over the edge to stare down at Carl with his bloodshot eyes and tear-dampened cheeks. Next to Carl is the ladder Moses tipped, and just behind Carl Moses sees the townspeople he so loves being slaughtered ruthlessly in the street and in their homes. His answer comes in a hot flood of shouted words and ends choked with emotion.
“I am stuck up here, Carl! But it don’t matter none, ‘cause giant grasshoppers are eating everyone in town! I know that sounds like crazy-people talk, but I been watching some terrible things, Carl.”
Carl looks up at Moses with a look of uncertainty shaping his jovial features. He opens his mouth to say something but a sudden loud, scraping, crash births a huge fireball above one of two of the gas stations in town. Carl curls into a ball at the force of the explosion and the sound reverberation that pounds the morning air and rattles his teeth. He slowly faces the direction of the explosion and sees the sky blackened above the flames consuming the east side of St. Jim’s. He steps on wobbly legs to edge of the roof top so he can look down at the carnage below for the first time.
People Carl has always known are be chased up the street and overtaken by the mutated grasshopper and torn to wet ribbons of quivering flesh. Buildings Carl remembers from his childhood have instantly been reduced to smoking, blood-smeared ruins lining the gore speckled road. Cars and trucks are colliding with each as they try to flee the carnage engulfing the town. Carl watches the bright yellow Toyota driven by one of the town mechanics, Stanley Ray, slam on its brakes right in the middle of Main Street when two of the giants block its path. Carl waves his arms over his head while screaming Stanley’s name, but before Stanley possibly has a chance to look up at his panicked friend a dozen giant black hoppers are crawling all over the truck and muffling the screams within.
Moses can’t handle watching Stanley’s terrible demise, so he turns away and looks away from town. His blurry eyes notice the shape of an old man walking down the road into town from the directions the grasshoppers came from. The old man’s beard is as long and gnarled as Moses’s childhood, and as crimson as the blood-stained road. The carnivorous grasshoppers leap all around him, but none attack him. Something stirs deep within Moses’s very core, when the old man begins shouting. The crimson-bearded interloper doesn’t manage any actual words, but the long-string of gibberish he screams at the grasshoppers echoes within Moses’s skull and injects his already rolling stomach with an eerie sense of dread. The sound of the ladder slamming against the ledge breaks Moses’s stare from the red-bearded old man and returns it to Carl’s pale frightened, pale face below.
“We gotta do something, Moses. It’s bad down there. Everyone I’ve ever known is being ate up by giant grasshoppers. Oh, no, Sadie and the girls…oh, Jesus…”
Moses reaches for the ladder, but it lifts away before he can grab it. He leans over the edge to see Carl put it back down where it was.
“Sorry, Moses, but you’ll be safe up there. Safest place in town. I gotta go get Sadie and the girls, and I’m bringing them back here. We’ll wait it out together, okay, Moses. Stay put, old fella.”
Before Moses can protest, Carl is ducked back through the window and running through town hall. The old man in the street shouts again, and even without facing him the gibberish rings within Moses’s head. The sensation is personal and offensive and draws his eyes back to the horrible scene below in the street.
The red-bearded old man points at a station wagon parked in front of the ruins of the bank while screaming his wild babble. A cluster of black hoppers leaps where he points, crawling over, under and into the vehicle. As the mutant insects go under the car two humans, a man and a woman, scamper out from hiding to escape them. A black hopper leaps from the dented crater it created on the car’s hood to the man’s chest. He huffs, red-faced, at it. It gnashes forward and rips his throat out with clicking mandibles. The woman turns on the red-bearded old man and screams at him.
Moses’s squinting eyes see a smile worm its way onto the old man’s oddly familiar face, and his eyes glow strange neon colors like a cartoon. A grasshopper the size of a bear leaps right past the old man and smashes the woman into the passenger-side of the station wagon she had been hiding under. With the force of impact bone cracks and splinters, glass shatters, metal creaks and bends. The giant hopper jumps away, leaving the woman to slip slowly to a heap in the street just barely obscured from Moses’s view. The red-bearded old man screams and points at her fallen body and more black hoppers respond. A fine mist of blood in the air and sprayed across the destroyed station wagon signals her end.
Moses throws up his breakfast over the edge of the tower, and has to hold tight and fight the sway he feels coming. He screams with all his will for Carl. The, he screams for his daddy without knowing why.
Far below him, the double doors at the rear of town hall are thrown open as Carl bolts through the parking lot towards his own town-issued work truck. Before he reaches it one of the four largest hoppers smashes it to shards of metal and plastic. The colossal monster hunches down and hisses at Carl.
“Run Carl!” Moses screams down at his dear friend.
Moses’s panicked cry breaks Carl from his fear-frozen state, and he darts around the side of town hall towards the Clem Chem Co. gas station across the street. As Carl runs black grasshoppers leap at him, but he ducks and rolls managing to only get a few deep, but not lethal scratches across his back and legs as he crosses the street. As he reaches the front row parking, the colossal hopper that destroyed Carl’s work truck smashes into a fully-loaded Kambitch Brothers Logging truck, forcing the eighteen-wheeler into the gas pumps. Carl sees a dozen pale faces staring at him from behind the plate glass seconds before fire erupts behind him and consumes him and everything in his world.
Moses watches the massive fireball swallow Carl, the group of black hoppers chasing him, and the crowded gas station in the time it takes for him to bellow Carl’s name one last time. Surely Carl couldn’t hear Moses’s bellowing through the roaring of the flames eating him, but the red-bearded old man turns his strange rainbow gaze up to Moses on his perch. Moses feels caught in the strange gaze as a whirlwind of blurry neon memories whiplashes his simple terrified mind. While staring down at the old man with the crimson beard tears start leaking down Moses’s cheeks again. He can’t pull his eyes away, and when the red-bearded old man starts whispering his odd gibberish again Moses hears it as if he is shouting it directly into his ears. The tears slipping down Moses’s cheek which don’t soak into the gray of his beard drip down to land on his hand clutched white-knuckle tight to the ledge. While Moses is in a fear trance, his trembling hand slips on the tear-slick wood.
With the red-bearded old man’s haunting babble echoing in his head, Moses pitches headfirst off of the ledge. He falls the seven feet to the roof and lands with a sickening crack. The last sensation Moses is aware of in his body is a tight painful pinching and then all-consuming numbness. His eyes dart back and forth as his limp body begins slipping down the roof’s slight incline. He whimpers weakly but can do nothing to slow his descent down the slope. He reaches the edge, and falls the three stories to the ground; a helpless blurry tumble ending in another hard awkward landing. Moses hears many of his bones break upon impact but he feels nothing below his neck. As simple as his mind may be, Moses knows his neck is broken and he knows what that means. Blood trickles of his nose when he exhales, and the smells of burning death and spilt blood reach up his nostrils and rape his dead gag reflex when he inhales.
Moses stares helplessly ahead as the red-bearded old man staggers into his line of sight. The old hermit points at Moses and screeches his gibberish in a tone which inflicts as my pain inside Moses’s head as the fall did to his body. A black grasshopper as big as Moses climbs on top of chest, chattering and clicking excitedly. Moses doesn’t feel anything, but as he body is jerked and shook by the beast he realizes with hellish clarity he is being eaten alive. His own warm sticky blood sprays Moses in his face but he can’t take his eyes of the red-bearded old man. As his life slips away Moses sees everything the Corn-Eater sees, he knows what happened to his long-lost daddy, and he weeps at the beauty of the rainbows his world explodes into.
Next 'episode' posts up Friday, April 4th
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