Updated: Nov 2, 2019
It started with a single insect, no bigger than a tic-tac. With wings tucked beneath an olive green shell, it marched haplessly across the counter towards me. Or, more accurately, towards the condensation ring around the half-melted Icee I’d forgotten on the counter. My mind registered the bug’s presence a full three seconds before the proper reaction set in. I looked down from the book I’d been reading all afternoon, noticed a viridescent ant-like creature, and looked back at my book.
Then, quite unexpectedly, a sense of panic roundhouse-kicked me in the face.
I screamed, slammed the book down on top of the insect, and shouted to my coworker, “Jerry! Code green! Get the kit!”
Jerry, who had spent the last two hours sitting on a milkcrate behind the counter watching clips from “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on his phone, suddenly sprang into action.
“I’m on it!” he yelled as he dove over the counter, taking the entire Powerball display with him and crashing onto the other side. He hit the ground, bounced back up, and sprinted into the dry storage room where I had painstakingly arranged a number of emergency kits for such an occasion as this.
For those of you new to this blog, I should probably take a second and explain a few things…
The gas station where Jerry and I work has been around for a long time. At least as long as the town it was built next to. It has a rich and complicated history that I won’t bore you with, but suffice to say that weird things happen here. More specifically, bad things happen here. I hate using the word “cursed,” but there have been so many deaths and dismemberments on company grounds that people around these parts refer to ambulances as “gas station wagons,” so I'll let you do the math.
The previous owners didn’t seem to care all that much about the tragic “accidents” that kept occurring under their watch. At times, I wondered if they were somehow in on it. If they were secretly observing the employees via hidden cameras like we were some kind of giant, messed up game of The Sims. Of course, things changed after the owners’ bodies were found a few miles down the road under what can best be described as “mysterious circumstances.”
With them out of the picture, the burden of safety somehow fell upon my shoulders. I was determined to make sure nobody else ended up like the owners if I could help it. (Admittedly, I may have dropped the ball a couple of times, but that’s a story for later.) I was determined to learn from past mistakes and spent several weeks and hundreds of overtime hours putting together the emergency response kits in the supply closet, each clearly marked for the type of scenario it was meant to maintain. Now, I was ready for almost anything the universe could throw at me.
There was a box for code blues (gasoline powered backup generator, CV radio, portable stove, blankets). I made a kit for code yellows (epipen, antivenom, celox powder, heavy duty zip ties). I hid a storage tub on the top shelf for any code pinks (bone saws, plastic drop cloths, contractor bags, disposable coveralls and goggles). And of course, should all hope finally be lost, there was a shoebox in there for code reds. God help us if it ever comes down to a code red…
Jerry ran out of the storage closet with the box labeled “Code Green: For Emergencies Only!” in his arms, nearly slamming into Mr. Abrahm along the way.
“Hey! What the hell?!” Abrahm grunted.
I met Jerry in the center of the room. “No time to explain!” I yelled, tearing into the box before he’d even dropped it to the floor. The first thing to come out was the bulk-sized roll of duct tape. I tossed it into Jerry’s arms and pointed at the front door. “Get the cracks, the vents, the window sills, the spider holes, anywhere we’re exposed to the outside. This place needs to be airtight!”
“Aye aye, captain!” he sang before rushing to work.
Abrahm shuffled up next to me with a frown and furrowed brow. “That kid almost made me spill my drink! What in the Sam Hill has gotten into you two?”
Mr. Abrahm was a regular at the gas station, a thick man with a smoker-stained yellow beard and aviator bifocals. He worked for the waste disposal company in town as senior garbage truck operator. Once a week, he’d stop by the gas station on his way to the landfill to fuel up and grab a cup of coffee and a porno magazine.
Time was precious, so I kept my answer brief. “I saw a mayfly.”
Abrahm dropped his coffee onto the floor and muttered quietly, “Mother of God...”
Maybe the little bastard hitched a ride in a customer’s hair or clothes. Maybe an errant wind current separated it from the rest of the flock. It didn’t really matter how it got here. All that mattered was that the infestation had begun. This was a harbinger of things to come, and time was not on our side.
With Jerry on crack duty (save your jokes), I raced to the back room and unlocked the circuit breaker box on the wall by the time clock. The sun hadn’t set. We were still ahead of the game. I killed all of the electricity to the gas station in one quick go.
The static hiss from the overhead fluorescents died with a soft whimper. Soon, the only light was what little spilled in from the evening sun, filtered through countless trees of the forest surrounding us on all sides. The illuminant was bare, but enough for us to continue the tasks at hand.
I returned to the code green box while Abrahm lamented loudly over our situation. “I can’t believe it’s already been five years! Are you sure? Are you sure it was a mayfly you saw and not just a leafhopper or something?”
I retrieved a can of bug spray and lighter from the emergency box, tucked them into my hoodie pocket, then pulled out the case of surgical masks. “It wasn’t a leafhopper. Trust me.” I equipped the mask and offered the case to Abrahm. He didn’t hesitate to pull one out for himself.
I was lucky he was a local. That meant I didn’t have to waste any precious time explaining what was going on, or why this was so urgent. He fumbled with the mask in his hands and worked his way through the denial stage of terror. “Could it have been a thrip or an aphid?”
“I know what I saw. I’m pretty observant.”
I should have known the universe wouldn’t let me get away with a statement like that.
“Excuse me.” The unexpected voice in my ear made me jump.
I spun around to see the dark shape of a person standing only a few inches away and blurted out the question, “Where did you come from?!”
She answered, “I’ve been here the whole time. What’s going on? Was there a power failure? Can I still check out?”
I bent down and grabbed one of the two emergency flashlights and flicked it on, casting the room in an eerie red glow. Now I could see exactly who or what I was talking to. She was my age, a couple inches shorter, with short blonde hair and at least ten piercings per ear. She had a black lace choker around her neck with a pentagram pendant dangling in front, and a leather jacket zipped all the way up. She also had orange and white stripes on her cheeks, a coal-black nose, two furry ears on top of her head, and fishnet stockings. Whoever she was, she definitely wasn’t a local.
I instinctively took a step back and gripped the flashlight tighter in case I was about to need to defend myself. But the young woman wasn’t attacking anyone. In fact, she looked as confused as I felt.
You know things are bad when your first assumption is that you’re being invaded by fox-people, but these days, I can’t really take any chances.
“Why do you look like that?” I asked before I had time to realize how rude that sounded.
“I’m on my way to a Halloween party. Why do you look like that?”
“There’s an emergency.”
She didn’t seem impressed. “What happened?”
“Nothing yet. But something’s about to happen.”
She crossed her arms and gave me a look that said I’m not buying it. “Well, in that case, I think I should be on my way.” She dropped the handful of groceries she’d been carrying onto the front counter and took a step for the door.
“Wait!” I called out.
She turned back to face me, but didn’t stop. She just took small steps backwards, ever closer to the where Jerry was busily running lines of tape and sealing up her intended exit.
“Whatever’s going on right now is not my kind of crazy. You guys have fun playing space doctor, but I’m gonna go.”
This next part went fast. Way too fast.
Abrahm rushed past me, reached out, and grabbed her by the arm.
“Hey!” she protested. “Let go of me, you creep!”
“Listen here, young lady. You’re not going anywhere. Now sit down and shut--”
In a flash, Jerry was at her side. I heard the thwack and saw Abrahm collapse onto the floor before I even realized that Jerry had headbutted the old man.
“She said leggo her eggo!”
Abrahm held his bleeding nose in one hand and broken glasses in the other. He spat out angry curses from the ground, but the young woman’s eyes were locked in wide-eyed amazement at Jerry. She rubbed her arm and said, “Thank you. That was... incredible. Did it hurt?”
Jerry answered, “Yeah, probably. Hey, old dude, did that hurt?”
“Fuck you!” Abrahm hissed. “I was just trying to stop her from going outside.”
She finally tore her gaze away from Jerry, looked down at the man, and asked, “Why?”
I answered for him. “It’s not safe out there. Something’s coming.”
She took a step away from everybody, but she didn’t make a break for the door. Jerry turned to her and said, “If you wanna go, we won’t stop ya. But if I were you, I’d listen to what Jack has to say. He’s usually right about this kind of thing.”
“Thanks,” I said.
She cut her eyes between the three of us, settling on me to ask, “Alright, doctor. What’s coming?”
I took a deep breath, then explained.
“In our town, once every five years, the bugs come. They swarm us by the millions, in clouds thick enough to block out the entire sky. They knock over trash cans, patio furniture, anything that isn’t bolted to the ground. It got so bad last time that cows literally choked to death trying to breath in the middle of it. It only lasts for one night before they all die. Tomorrow, the streets and yards will be covered in green slime like we were hit by a sherbert snowstorm.”
She turned to Jerry and asked, “Is he being serious?”
He answered, “Serious as a clown having a heart attack.”
Abrahm was on his feet now with the surgical mask over his face, a red spot growing around the nose area as he taped his glasses back into one piece. “I’ve seen ten swarms since I was a boy, and I swear to God it gets worse every time. I don’t know if it’s global warming or if it’s all the chemicals they keep dumping in our creek, but these sumbitches are getting stronger and meaner. Jack, are you absolutely certain it was a mayfly you saw?”
She laughed. “Wait, wait, what?! You guys are getting your panties into a bunch over mayflies?”
“It’s not really mayflies,” I explained. “That’s just what we call them.”
“It’s October. We couldn’t be any further from May. Why do you call them mayflies?”
She had a good point there. I took a second to reflect on this. Why did we all agree to use such obviously inaccurate nomenclature for this periodic shitstorm of biblical magnitude? Why didn’t we call them something more appropriate, like nightmarebugs? Or hellswarmers? Or dick-gnats?
I tried to think back to the first swarm I could remember. It was fifteen years earlier, I was a child, and some men in suits came and talked to our elementary school class the day after the swarm. They stuck around for the entire school day, but my memories from that far back are seldom precise and hardly reliable.
The only detail that really stuck with me was when the men insisted we shouldn’t talk about the mayflies. We shouldn’t mention them to anyone from out of town, not even family. They explained that it was extremely rude to discuss mayflies, and if we ever brought up mayflies with an adult, they would be very mad at us.
I might have dismissed those memories as having been mangled through the filters of childhood ignorance and time, but the men came back again five years later to talk to my high school class.
This time, they were less interested in intimidation tactics and more interested in data mining. They handed out survey forms with questions like “Did you see the swarm? Were you in the swarm? Were you bitten? Did the bite break skin? Did any of the mayfly remnants enter any orifice of your body? Do you know of any other residents who may have ingested mayfly remnants?” After collecting our answers, the men gave a short speech on mayfly safety (“Never drive in a swarm! Stay inside and turn off the lights! Do not touch or eat mayflies!"), then they reminded us to never discuss mayflies with anyone, ever.
As high schoolers, we had more important things to worry about than following up on mysterious bug experts, and at the time five years felt like such a long way off before the next swarm. I honestly thought I’d have moved away before the next swarm hit. But here I was, two swarms later, nearly as unprepared as ever.
The girl in the fox costume shook her head. “I feel like you guys are screwing with me.”
This had already taken up too much time. I needed to let everyone else know what was coming. I left Jerry in control of the conversation and went to grab the store phone. He was always better at talking to people than I was, anyway. While the rest of the room ping ponged between different versions of “I don’t believe it,” and “You better believe it,” I dialed the sheriff’s station, acutely aware of how sad it was that I already had the number memorized.
Our most recent gas station babysitter had recently suffered an attack of temporary insanity his first week on the job. Last I heard, they found his cruiser in Mexico a couple days after his "episode," and the deputy himself is still officially missing in action. Compared to some of the others, I’d say he got off easy.
The new sheriff was still searching for someone to replace him. In the meantime, I had to dial the station directly for any and all emergencies. I was convinced the woman in charge of answering phones hated me by now, and as it continued to ring, I had to wonder if she was screening the call, or if there was another reason nobody could pick up the phone.
Jerry slid up next to me and whispered, “Okay dude. I’ve been talking to Lucy, and I think I’ve convinced her to stick around for the rest of the night.”
I looked over to see Lucy wearing a doctor’s mask and holding the other emergency flashlight. She flicked it on and pointed the red light at the ceiling.
“Oh, cool. Good.”
“But listen, before things get any crazier, there’s something really important I need to tell you. And I hope you’re not going to be mad.” I hung up the phone. It had been ringing for over a minute without any answer.
“What’s up?” I asked, sensing that I wasn’t going to like the answer.
Right then, we heard the toilet flush. I pointed the red flashlight at the bathroom door as it creaked open, spilling a sliver of white light into the hallway. A moment later, a man emerged (without washing his hands, I might add), holding his phone in front of him with the bright, white flashlight turned on. “Hey, ya’ll. What happened to the power?.” He looked out at the room, then added, “Is this a costume party?”
He was thin, sporting blue jeans and a navy polo a couple sizes too big. He had dark skin and beard stubble, a confused expression on his face, and a nametag pinned over his chest that read “Bart.” It took me a second to recognize him as one of our alcohol vendors.
At first, I was annoyed. This guy’s presence meant I was going to have to explain the mayfly history to another out-of-towner. But that concern was quickly leapfrogged by another, more pressing issue--he was heading for the front door.
“Wait a second,” Abrahm said, trying to step into his path.
Bart sidestepped the old man with ease and grace like it was a rehearsed dance move, saying, “Sorry, I have to get back on the road.”
“Hang on!” I shouted. But he wasn’t slowing.
“I’m behind schedule and have three more stops to make tonight.”
“Wait!” I tried. But he was already at the door. He pushed it, but the locks stopped it from opening. In one last bout of desperation, I pointed at him and yelled, “Stop him!”
Jerry crossed the distance to where Bart was awkwardly peeling away strips of duct tape. With a running start, he plowed into the vendor and tackled him into a display of bagged pork rinds.
“Jesus!” screamed Abrahm.
I rushed over to Bart’s side as Jerry dusted the crumbs off of himself. “Why did you do that?!” I yelled.
“What? You told me to stop him. You didn’t give me any context. I thought maybe he was stealing or something.”
Bart, reasonably, hadn’t had the wherewithal to properly prepare for being knocked off his feet. He had hit his head against the ground hard enough to leave a lump and ring his bell, but he was conscious. Groaning and disoriented--but conscious.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” I asked.
After a moment, Bart stammered, “I… I don’t know… Oh God! I can’t see anything!”
That’s right. I forgot my flashlight next to the store phone. I found Bart’s cell phone underneath a pile of crushed pigskins and ripped bags, held my hand over his phone’s light, and tried again.
“How about now?”
“Th- Three? Three fingers?”
“That’s right,” I said before turning off his phone’s flashlight and stuffing it into my pocket. “You’re gonna be fine.”
“Hey!” he sputtered. “What are you doing?”
Abrahm answered for me, “Can’t let you turn on your phone. That goes for everybody. Y’all hear? No electronics. No Gameboys or gizmos. No flashlights but these. They’re attracted to white light.”
Bart, it seemed, was going to make it through without any lasting damage, so I turned my attention back to more important things. “I need to find a way to get in touch with the sheriff and let her know.”
Right then, we heard it. The low, piercing, continuous whine floating on the wind all the way from town. It sounded like the swan song of a dying titan. An eerie portent of things to come. No matter how many times I hear them, I will never get used to the tornado sirens.
Abrahm chuckled, “Sounds to me like she already knows. Damn. I was really hoping you were wrong about this.”
So was I.
“Sorry about Bill Goldberging you,” Jerry said, offering his hand to Bart. The man on the ground hesitantly took it and let Jerry pull him to his feet.
“I… I still-- I still have to deliver--”
Bart wobbled. Jerry grabbed him by both shoulders and stabilized him. “Wh-Wha-What happened? Wh-Why is she a fox? Why are you both doctors? What hit me? Is this pork rinds? What’s going on?”
I sighed, then started, “In our town, once every five years, the bugs come…”
By the time I finished explaining it all for the second and (hopefully) last time, the mood of the room had drastically changed. Lucy and Jerry were sitting at the booth by the window, sharing a six pack of White Claw. Abrahm was leaning against the counter, rolling himself a cigarette. And poor Bart was back on the ground, sitting cross-legged, holding an ice bag against the back of his head and staring out the taped-up window at his delivery van on the other side.
The only sound was the steady wailing of far-off tornado sirens and the occasional slurp of a drink. Nobody was looking in my direction, and part of me wondered if anyone had been listening at all, or if I’d just retold the whole story for nothing.
“Any questions?” I asked.
Lucy perked up like the idea that just struck her was electrified. “Oh my god! What about the trick-or-treaters?!”
“There aren’t any. Our town outlawed that a long time ago,” I answered.
“No offense,” said Bart. “But your town kinda sucks.”
“Look, if I don’t get these deliveries on time, I--” He didn’t finish his sentence. Something stopped him. It was subtle, nearly imperceptible at first. Abrahm put away his rolling tobacco. Jerry and Lucy looked up at me. There was another noise, growing louder. We could feel it. And it was moving. Fast. Coming for us.
The ground shook like this was some kind of earthquake, and we slowly, carefully, gravitated into a group by the front door. Morbid curiosity propelling us upstream against common sense and wisdom.
The sky outside was already dark, but whatever light remained disappeared like a candle flame being snuffed out. Lucy pressed her flashlight into the glass. I did the same. The parking lot out front was ominously still. A few gas pumps. A delivery van and garbage truck at the edge of the lot. A single car about ten feet away. All bathed in red light. And then, all of a sudden, the dam burst.
An enormous buck sprinted out of the woods and across the lot in front of us. It leapt over the hood of Lucy’s car and continued into the woods on the other side of the lot. Before we could react, two more deer sprinted into the lot, followed by four more. It was a stampede of them, running for deer life, trying to get away before it was too late.
The ground was vibrating now. Crashing noises like trees falling over drowned out the tornado sirens. There were booms and breaks, reverberations and tearing, and somewhere in the mix, animalistic screams. The edges of the glass door filled in like green ink spilling onto a glass table. The green skittered and flowed and combined and spread from one side to the other. Soon, the only space free of bugs was a hole in the center, the size of a beach ball. Then the size of a dinner plate. Then the size of a penny. Then, the entire door was covered by a solid wall of millions of crawling green legs.
Bart was right behind my shoulder when he whispered, “Give me my phone! I want to film this.”
Abrahm didn’t mince words. “I will kill you.”
Lucy pulled her flashlight away from the window, reached into her pocket, and retrieved her keys.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I want to check on something.”
She pressed a button on her car fob before we could stop her. The short beep-beep of her vehicle marked the explosion of bugs from the front of the door, all taking flight at the same time. With the glass clear, I immediately saw why.
She had used her key fob to remotely engage her car’s headlights, and for the briefest of moments, we all saw exactly how bad the swarm was. The worst blizzard in history had nothing on this. We were inside a green snowglobe inside a green duststorm inside a celestial haze of green and black television static. The insects flowed in pure chaos, churning like white-water rapids. The only organization being a general frenetic attraction to the car, and in a matter of seconds, they had smothered her vehicle in layers thick enough to be light impenetrable.
“Oh my god,” she said as the bugs returned to swallowing the glass door of the gas station. “Is it always like this?”
“No,” I said honestly. “This is much, much worse.”
We stared at the shrinking window to the chaotic outside. Soon, we would be under the green curtain again. Not like it mattered. The swarm was too thick to see anything. But still, we watched for as long as we could. We stood shoulder to shoulder and watched until the glass was nothing but a squirming, breathing mass of green legs.
We’re going to be okay, I told myself. We made it in time. The town was warned. All we have to do now--all we can do now--is wait it out.
Over the sound of the insect storm, I heard one more thing. It sounded almost like a voice. Like someone screaming.
A hand slammed into the other side of the door just as I realized what the voice was saying.
“Help! Open the door! Help us!”