Updated: Mar 7, 2020
All the voices came at once, crashing together in the chaos. I couldn’t distinguish one from the other. “Oh my God” “Shiiit!” “I don’t know, let them in!” “Get back!” “Who’s out there?!”
Jerry did what Jerry does--he sprung into action without thinking. As he lunged for the door locks, I reached into my hoodie pocket and pulled out the can of heavy-duty bug spray. I’d just found the trigger when the door burst open. I aimed for the dark green cloud flowing inside and let loose. More voices screaming over one another. “Turn that off!” “Are you okay” “Oh thank Jesus.” “Get the light!” “Wait!” “Who are you?!” “There’s someone else out there!”
Jerry shoved the door closed and swatted at his face while the clouds of bug spray and mayflies collided, raining tiny green twitching corpses all over us like snow flurries from hell. The live insects poured through the cracks in the door. I continued to spray, and they continued to die. More and more took their place in an endless stream. Why are they doing this? What are they after?
Then it hit me. The gas station was lit up! I kept my finger pressed down on the bug spray, firing blind long enough to look back and see the new face inside our store.
The stranger was tall and skinny, donned in all black. Tight pants and a turtleneck, an LED lantern in one hand, and a white unicorn mask surrounding the head. It all made sense now. The bugs weren’t after us. They were coming for that bright light. This unicorn had brought them here to our gas station like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. I added my voice to the chorus, “Turn off that lantern!”
The unicorn ripped off the mask, revealing a dark-haired woman with a face full of more annoyance than fear. She completely ignored my request and yelled in an impressively loud voice that surpassed all the others, “There was somebody behind me!”
Jerry responded, “Good somebody or bad somebody?”
Again, Jerry acted faster than I could stop him, unlocking and reopening the door. Another figure rushed inside, colliding with Bart and knocking the poor guy onto his back all over again. Amidst the mayhem, four more figures lunged past. They were knee-high, cannonballing into the safety of the store, darting between our legs and over Bart’s chest before vanishing into the shadows.
The last thing I needed right now was another raccoon blitzkrieg, but here we were.
Unicorn-woman still hadn’t extinguished her light, and the mayflies were flooding in, forming an enormous, swirling cyclone of green thick enough to send bags of food and candy flying from the top shelves. I grabbed the lamp and yanked as hard as I could, hard enough to free it from her grasp, and launched it through the opening. I felt the whoosh of air as the legion bugs in the store moved as one and chased the light outside milliseconds before Jerry closed the door and locked it all over again. “Are you okay?!” “Yeet!” “What the hell?!” “That was my light” “You idiots shut up!” “Did you see that!?”
I finally stopped blasting bug spray and went to try reapplying tattered strips of duct tape. There was no time to lose. I needed to secure the door, check on our new refugees, and track down the four bandit cats before they started setting traps.
I was surprised when Lucy knelt down next to me with the roll of tape. She started tearing new strips, holding the red flashlight in her mouth and pointing it at her work while I took the strips and covered the lines of the door. The old strips hung messily and uselessly, the exposed sticky side completely covered in green wings, legs, and still twitching bodies.
Jerry walked over a moment later with a broom and went to scooping the corpses into a mound in the corner right as Lucy and I finished up the door. Nothing quite like a crisis to bring out teamwork, I guess. With that out of the way, I turned to greet our newest guests.
Unicorn lady was picking bits of insect debris from her hair while the other figure stood still as a statue next to her. This one had a charcoal suit jacket and matching pants, with a face hidden inside a giant turkey. Specifically, a plucked and raw turkey with eye holes carved into the breast section. Despite the impressive quality, I was reasonably certain that this turkey was just another bizarre Halloween mask.
Like... sixty-percent sure.
“You two okay?” I asked.
Turkey-head asked in a muffled voice, “Vht thr frck wrst tht?!”
Unicorn grabbed him by a wing and said, “You can take that off now; we’re safe in here.”
With a quick yank, she de-turkeyed him, revealing the face of a handsome middle-aged man. He looked a little disheveled, glasses askew, hair a mess, but I could see that these were all products of the moment. Everything about Turkey-head screamed “rich businessman.” I automatically didn’t trust him.
Turkey-head readjusted his glasses, smoothed over his hair, and straightened his tie. In three easy steps, he already looked presentable enough to host a party at the yacht club. When he spoke, it was with a strong, sexy, leading-man voice. “I said, ‘what the fuck was that?’ Are we in the end times right now? Somebody please tell me what’s going on.”
Abrahm sized him up before answering, “Bugs were after your lamp-light. What were you two doing out there anyway?”
Unicorn answered, “I got off the interstate looking for gas, then these things started blobbing up all over my windshield, so I pulled over.”
Turkey-head added, “Same here. I was on my way to my partner’s Halloween ball when the green things started kamikazing all over my windshield. I saw Yen’s car off the shoulder and tried hitting the brakes, but I hydroplaned. There was enough of that green crap to slick the roads! I couldn’t stop!”
Jerry cupped the tip of his cigarette as he struck the lighter. After a quick puff, he asked, “You weren’t driving around with that turkey on your head, were you?”
“Of course not! And would you mind not smoking in front of me, please? This suit costs more than your gas station.”
Jerry didn’t answer out loud. The way he slowly puffed his smoke and blew it out his nostrils was answer enough.
Unicorn--who I surmised was actually the “Yen” being referred to--pointed out the obvious. “Unless your suit is supposed to have green polka dots, I don’t think it’s worth that much anymore.”
The man looked at his sleeves and erupted into a fit of furious expletives, finishing with “This had better come out, or else!”
Abrahm nudged Jerry and pointed at his pack. Jerry silently handed one over and lit it for him as Yen picked up the story, “We were exchanging insurance information when the swarm descended on us. I was on my way to a costume party at my clinic, and I had some masks in the back seat that I thought would come in handy. The turkey was the only one that would fit Owen’s big head.”
Lucy asked, “Why didn’t you just stay in your cars?”
“We heard someone.”
Owen interrupted, “You think.” He turned to me and reiterated his point. “She thinks she heard something. I’m still not convinced I heard anything.”
“Oh come on, Owen! You know you heard him too!”
For two people so recently thrust together by the whims of fate, Owen and Yen sure did sound like an old married couple. I scanned the area with my flashlight, hoping to spot a raccoon. When there were no signs, I accepted that the hunt was going to be an all-night affair, turned my attention back to my fellow bugswarm hostages, and asked, “What do you think you heard?”
Yen answered, “There was a man calling out. We were right around the bend down the street and heard him screaming for help. So I grabbed my lamp and went to check on him.”
Owen scoffed and gave me a look like he wanted me to tell her that was a stupid thing to do. “She didn’t even hesitate. Just plowed face-first into a swarm of green. Naturally, I couldn’t let a tiny thing like her go out on her own without any protection. You know how people around these parts can be. Especially on Halloween. Could have been a bunch of thugs and crackheads waiting for her. So I grabbed a mask to keep from breathing bugs and followed. We came around the bend but didn’t see anything.”
“That’s not true,” she corrected. “We didn’t see anyone. We did, however, see a motorcycle in the ditch.”
They went back and forth: “There’s no way of knowing how long it had been there.”
“I think the motorcyclist is still out in this swarm.”
“Well, if he had a helmet on--which is the law, by the way--then he’s probably fine. Laying low in the woods until the swarm is over.”
“You just don’t want to go looking for him!”
“You’re damn right I don’t! We barely made it here.”
I’d heard enough. “Okay guys, the important thing is that we’re safe. Let’s focus on that for now. We can hang out here, but no cell phones and no screens. By morning, those things will all be dead.”
“Morning!?” Owen exploded. “You expect me to stay here all night?!" He laughed derisively. "You must have lost your goddamn mind.” He brushed past me, saying, “I need to make a phone call.”
Abrahm and Bart walked back to the front door, where clusters of bugs were breaking loose, revealing spots big enough to offer a view of the outside. Yen took a seat at the booth table and crossed her arms, clearly agitated about something. Whether it was the bugs or Owen, I couldn’t tell, and didn’t particularly care. Lucy took the chance to have a private talk with her. As she offered Yen a White Claw, Jerry put an arm on my shoulder and whispered, “Dude, I need to talk to you.”
I looked around one last time for raccoons, but we seemed safe for now. “Okay,” I whispered. “What is it?”
Jerry licked his pointer finger and thumb, pinched out the cherry on his cigarette, and said, “I think there’s something wrong with Abrahm.” I looked at the back of Abrahm’s head, but Jerry stepped between us and said frantically, “No, don’t look at him! He’ll know if you’re looking at him.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“I can’t really explain it, but I need you to trust me. We’re not safe with him inside the store.”
“Because that isn’t really Abrahm anymore.”
A shiver of dread the size of Texas ran down my spine, but I tried to keep it on the down-low. I’ve suffered through enough robberies and other emergencies to know that outward panic rarely makes a situation better. “Okay. What are we dealing with this time? Shapeshifter? Plant people? Dopplegangers? Something else? I need to know exactly what it is so I can decide what emergency kit to grab.”
Lucy walked up to Jerry’s side, forcing us to put the conversation on hold for now.
“Hey guys,” she said. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”
“No,” I responded, searching for the right lie. “We were just talking about--” I hesitated a moment too long, but Jerry picked up the ball as soon as I dropped it.
“Oh, alright.” She seemed surprised, but not really surprised enough, in my opinion. If she had any misgivings, she quickly dismissed them and said with a friendly smile.“Well, if your convo has reached a good stopping point, Yen and I wanted to see if either of you felt like playing cards or something to pass the time. If we’re trapped here anyway, might as well make the most of it, right?”
Owen screamed like he’d just been bitten by a wild animal. Lucy and I pointed our flashlights at where he was standing at the other end of the room. He was doubled over, hugging his hand, and continuing to scream.
“What is it!?” Yen shouted.
“I’ve just been bitten by a wild animal!” he screamed. Ah, that explains it.
I had to prioritize my emergencies, and gas station raccoons are about two steps removed from dire wolves. For now, they had primacy. I crossed the room and circled to the employee side of the counter, asking as I went, “Which way did it go?”
“I don’t fucking know! But it bit me right in the arm!”
I found my trusty wooden baseball bat right where I left it--propped up next to the safe. Now equipped with a decent weapon, I felt like I might soon have control of the situation. When I heard the others screaming over each other again, I knew I was wrong. “Oh my God!” “Really, Owen?” “Where’d that come from?!” “Don’t point that thing at me!”
I kept the weapon low, hidden behind the counter until I could see what was going on.
What was going on was this: Owen had pulled a handgun and was waving it around all willy nilly. Lucy stepped forward and demanded he put the gun down. Owen escalated everything.
“Shut up and give me your flashlight!”
She stepped back and held the light behind her back, pointing it at the floor and turning herself into a black silhouette. “I’ll trade ya,” she offered. “Give me the gun first.”
“Don’t test me,” he growled. Something about his mood had changed. He was already an asshole, but now he was a wounded asshole with a gun. I could only see things getting worse if I didn’t get involved.
“Hey, Owen. Take mine.” He turned away from Lucy and eyed me incredulously. “It’s okay,” I said, holding it out like an olive branch. “I don’t need it. I know this place like the back of my hand. I could walk around here blindfolded if I needed to.”
He marched over to me, reached across the counter, and snatched the light. As soon as he had it in his hand, he aimed it at my face and barked, “When this is over, I’m going to sue the hell out of this place!”
Go ahead, I thought to myself. But there’s not really much hell left in this place to sue.
He shrank away from everyone and backed into the corner by the hotdog roller, gripping the gun and pointing it at the ceiling. When his ass finally hit the drink case, he shouted a warning for all of us to hear, “Nobody else come near me tonight, unless you feel like getting shot!”
This guy was on full tilt, boiling over with irrational fear-rage. With a little time, he might calm down and see how silly and assholish he was behaving. Or he might tick up a spot or two on my ever-growing mental list of pressing emergencies. Only time would tell.
For now, I needed to reach the outside world. I picked up the store phone and tried the sheriff again. This time, I dialed her cell phone directly and silently hoped that she was okay.
“Hello?” She answered! She actually answered!
“Hey Amy, it’s me.”
“I know who it is, Hoodie. I have caller ID. What’s going on?” I could hear voices in the background. Lots of them. They sounded like cries and screams.
“Are you okay? Where are you?”
“I’m at the church’s fall festival right now.” Those screams… they almost sounded like... laughter.
“Did everyone get inside in time?”
“In time for what?” I couldn’t believe how relaxed she sounded. Well, not relaxed. Quite annoyed, actually. But definitely not panicked.
“You mean those green bug things?”
“Look, Sleepy, it’s Halloween. This is the busiest night of the year for us. I’ve got pranksters tying up phone lines. Teenagers smashing pumpkins. Drunk drivers galore. We’re not exactly getting worked up over a bunch of bugs. I mean, yeah, they’re a little annoying. But--”
“You mean they’re not blocking out the sky and carrying away small children? Because that’s what’s happening over here at the gas station. Have you been outside recently?”
“I’m standing outside right now. Hang on, did you call me because there are a bunch of bugs at the gas station?”
“I don’t think you realize what I’m saying. It’s bad here. The swarm is so thick that our building is completely covered in a thick candy shell of the things.”
“Is anyone hurt?”
“One customer got bit by a racoon. And there might be a motorcyclist trapped out in this.”
“Okay. Do you want me to pull an officer to do a drive-by?”
“I literally don’t think you could get here if you tried.”
“Okay. Well in that case, why exactly are you really calling?”
“I told you! The bugs are swallowing the gas station!”
“Are you sure?”
“Are you sure you’re not just having another episode?”
I felt like someone had sucker-punched me in the gut. “I’m sure, Amy. You know, there was a time when you would have believed me right away.”
“Yeah, and there was a time when people believed the world was flat. Tell you what, I’ll send someone out first thing in the morning.”
I knew this was the best I could get. “Okay. But send the snowplow first. The roads are gonna be slick.”
With our conversation ended, I had a decision to make. Should I tell the others what I knew? That this monsoon of bugs was somehow isolated to our gas station and nowhere else in town? Something told me to keep this fact to myself for now. No reason to worry everyone. I looked out at the room and tried to get a head count, but it was nearly impossible to see anything.
Not surprisingly, Owen was a selfish light-bearer. Where Lucy and I had attempted to keep our flares steady against the floor or ceiling, the businessman was only interested in shining his light wherever he was looking, moving in a slow, steady sweeping motion from one end of the store to the other. It would seem he had refocused his energy and attention on the hunt for what bit him. I was going to have to figure out some way to find the raccoons first if I wanted to prevent any unnecessary gunfire. I knew from experience how much of a pain it was to patch bullet holes.
His erratic light job may have been annoying, but it left me with one clear advantage: I always knew when he was watching me, and when he wasn’t.
I took my baseball bat and snuck over to the only communal lightsource in the room, the booth table where Lucy and Yen were now seated. The second red flashlight was propped on the table between them, aimed straight up. I kept my voice low and asked, “Do you mind if I borrow the flashlight for a moment? I’ve got some experience with the raccoons. I might be able to herd them into a closet or something.”
Yen was quick to respond, “What about us? Are we supposed to just sit here in the dark while you go hunting?”
“I know it’s not ideal, but--”
Lucy made the decision for both of them. She grabbed the flashlight and handed it over. “Be careful. But also be quick.”
Yen scoffed, but by this point I didn’t particularly care about making new friends. Equipped with a flashlight and weapon in my inventory, I was ready to begin my search. First off, I needed to find Jerry. A quick scan of the tiny building showed no signs of him. Strange...
More unsettling, it showed no signs of Bart or Abrahm either. How long has it been since I saw any of them?
I had to stifle the completely irrational fear that perhaps the raccoons had already dissappeared them. As much as I wanted to keep it bottled up, the worry was bubbling over. Something isn’t right.
I entered the hallway leading towards the back room, keeping the red light trained in a tight circle in front of my feet and whispering Jerry’s name. Eventually, I came to the supply closet where I found the door cracked open a few inches. I aimed the light through the gap and saw Jerry sitting on the floor inside, resting with his back against the wall of shelves. I pushed the door open, stepped inside, and closed it behind me. He barely moved. A slight shift in his eyes was all that he did to acknowledge my presence. I could see that he had found himself a marker and drawn a glasgow smile onto his face mask, complete with triangle teeth and curled edges.
“Jerry, you okay?”
I crouched in front of him, but he no longer seemed to be aware that I was in the room. I slowly reached out and pulled off the mask. Underneath, he had a bizarre relaxed smile not unlike the one from his mask, like he was sitting at the beach on his first day of retirement. It was nirvana in the flesh. I was moderately concerned.
“What are you doing in here?”
“Being, existing, riding out the wave.”
His pupils were dilated to the point that he appeared to have solid black circles inside his eyes.
He kept those black eyes aimed forward and cocked his head. “Relax, Jack. It’ll all be over soon.”
I felt my skin erupt in goosebumps. This didn’t sound like the Jerry I knew. And considering what the Jerry I knew had told me moments earlier, I had to wonder if I was about to need to use my bat on some kind of imposter. Was this the same creature that Jerry intimated had replaced Abrahm? Was this something else? I needed to know.
“Jerry... you said something earlier. I think now’s probably a good time as any to follow up. You said there was something important that you needed to tell me.”
“I did. I do. There’s something I need to tell you, and it’s this: The universe isn’t a solid whole. It’s a broken, fluid arrangement of hyper-plasmic particles shaped like time. I thought space was fixed, but I’ve figured it out. It’s a vibration. Everything that’s going to happen tonight has already happened, and you and I are experiencing it in accordance with our life songs. Nothing is real, except for when it is, and it doesn’t have to be if you don’t want it to.” He wiped a tear from his eye. “Sorry, dude, I don’t mean to cry, but it’s so honking beautiful.”
I rose to my feet and took a step back, trying to calculate where this was going to fit into my mental list of pressing emergencies when I heard the bloodcurdling scream from the other side of the closet door. I gave Jerry one last check to make sure he was “okay” (he was still smiling, so... whatever, close enough), then I opened the door and stepped into the hallway.
Yen was on the floor next to the open bathroom, holding the other flashlight and screaming. Owen stood over her with his gun. The moment he saw me, he started screaming, too. “STOP RIGHT THERE. PUT DOWN THE WEAPON NOW!”
“What is it?” I asked.
Owen pulled back the hammer of the pistol as Yen’s screams weakened into a whimper. “I SAID DROP IT OR I WILL FUCKING SHOOT YOU!”
“Okay!” I said, complying as quickly as I could.
Lucy appeared from the darkness behind Owen. “What!?” she shouted. “What is it?” One look inside the bathroom was enough to make her gasp and recoil.
Owen bent over and took the light from Yen, then pointed it at me. “Where are the others?” he demanded. “I’m not playing around! Who did this?!”
“Who did what? What’s happening right now?”
Yen managed to catch her breath enough to say, “I needed to go to the bathroom. Owen let me borrow the light, but as soon as I went in there, I saw-- I saw--” She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence. She just pointed.
I kept my hands up and inched closer, hoping to keep my movements telegraphed and nonthreatening for the man with the gun. Eventually, I was close enough to see inside the bathroom, close enough to see the body slumped in the corner, surrounded by a pool of blood. In the red light, I recognized Abrahm. His dead eyes wide open, with the handle of a filet knife protruding from the center of his chest.