Luke took Patti way out into the desert because he wanted to talk. But in hindsight, he probably wanted to trap her a bit too until she told him what he wanted to hear. Even that was dishonest. Everything was always dishonest. And so it was like that. Same way it had always been between the two of them, really.
It was dark on the evening when they watched the comet fall from the sky. It was dark, but clear and cold out in the desert. Everything looked and felt sharp and focused like perfect cuts of crystal or ice.
They were sitting on the downed tailgate of Luke’s pickup truck with a couple of blankets and a case of beer. He’d been trying to talk it out with Patti for days and he thought that maybe bringing her out to look at the stars might help his case.
It didn’t seem to be working. That was, until a comet came by and gave him some hope. It was a lucky break and he saw his opening. So he spoke up: “That shooting star was just for us.”
But Patti just pulled the flannel coat she wore tighter around her body. It was like she just felt colder and she went for a beer from the half-empty box. “Didn’t look like one to me.”
They sat together in the dark quiet like that for a little longer. When she spoke again he thought that she’d be talking about them. But she wasn’t.
“Something moving in the dark over there, Luke.”
Maybe she had better eyesight or hearing than he did, because he sensed nothing. But there were dogs and coyotes on the outskirts of town, so he thought that maybe he should scare the animal away. Nobody needed to be bitten by a sick animal. Not that night.
He hopped down off the tailgate and went to the glove box at the front of the truck. There he found his revolver, so he tucked it down the front of his pants and went out into the dark with his pen flashlight to find out what it was that Patti saw out there.
The weak halo of light provided by the pen light wasn’t helping much. He could catch sight of a piece of scrub or a rock in its beam up close, but pointed further away and it would be eaten by the night.
Then he heard an indistinct noise that could have been anything. He shone the light ineffectually in its direction only to be confronted with more darkness.
He untucked the .38 just to be safe and thought about going back to Patti and the truck. He could tell her anything really. It was just a stray that ran the moment he put the flashlight on it. There were problems with lying to her of course. It was one of the big reasons that they were out there in the first place, his lies.
He stood in the dark and thought it over. He heard no more sound though, so he felt like a complete dummy. Moments later he was moving back towards the truck and thinking over the lines he was about to utter as not to kill the moment.
But when he got back to the truck he realized that something had been out there in the darkness all along. There was a giant insect, multi-legged and segmented. Its carapace was dun-colored like the desert rocks. Three mandibles jutted from its front end like the prongs of a jagged trident.
What it was doing to Patti was equally unimaginable, and Luke could barely comprehend its appearance or its unwholesome action. He had the gun, but he was so stunned that he raised the pen light and shone it upon the undulating spines across its back instead of shooting it.
It seemed to sense the light that fell across its back, and almost immediately uncoiled itself from Patti’s limp body to slither out of the truck bed and vanish back into the dark desert.
It left behind a foul scent like most insects did when they felt threatened. Only it was a larger and more powerful one, not unlike the bug itself.
Eventually, he dropped his light and fired one shot into the night in the direction of the S-marks left behind in the gritty sand. Then he dropped the gun too and went to see if Patti was okay. She was still alive, but she was not okay.
It had cut through all of her clothing so that she lay naked in a pile of razor-sliced tatters. So delicate and clean were the cuts that it looked like someone had done it with an X-Acto knife. There wasn’t a scratch on the freckled skin of her upper body.
Her lower half was a different story altogether. It had penetrated her and not gently. Worse, it had left something behind. A piece of itself still protruded from between her legs. It was long and made of the same thick carapace that covered the insect-thing’s back.
He didn’t want to move her, and found that he couldn’t touch her. So he fumbled with his keys and got back into the truck.
He drove both as quickly and as slowly as he could. That made no sense to him, but not much made sense to him anymore, all of a sudden. He wished he’d never brought them so far off the highway into the dark. The desert floor was rough and it made for a jarring drive back to the asphalt.
When he reached the highway, things were smoother. He drove as quickly as he could to get back into town.
He parked crooked at the entrance to the hospital emergency ward. It was a roundabout where only the ambulances were supposed to stop, but that didn’t matter much to Luke. Neither did his bad parking job.
A couple of paramedics, a security guard, and some other people from the lobby came outside to see what the commotion was all about. They discovered him standing at the back of the truck alone.
He looked towards the group of concerned hospital staff and they watched him with apprehensive curiosity.
“The tailgate’s still down. I forgot the tailgate.”
If he’d been a stronger man, or perhaps one who’d been more successful and fortunate in his life; and if the series of events leading up to this event had not been a series of let downs and mundane failures, especially with women, then the gun that was still jammed into his jeans pocket might not have ever occurred to him.
He had lost Patti over and over again. This time it was probable that he had lost her for good. It was time to man up, in other words, to the way things really should’ve been.
Before they could reach him, he took his pistol from his pocket and put the barrel in his mouth. Then he shot himself with the gun.
But Luke couldn’t do that right either, because he didn’t die. The bullet missed his brain and instead exited through his face, destroying it in the process. And he fell to the parking lot asphalt just as they got to him. Not in time to stop it.
He was alive. He wasn’t okay.
And so it was like that.
In the days that followed he was mostly unconscious. When he was awake he was struck with an agonizing and infinite headache. His whole skull felt like an open wound that was threatening to burst and spill forth from the bandages wound tightly around his skull.
After a long while, the pain and the headache remained, but the bouts of unconsciousness began to fade. As soon as he could communicate with hand gestures, he requested more drugs and they complied.
This didn’t actually help with anything. It just made everything seem a little more blurry and a little less focused than before. The pain remained the same.
It only subsided when they told him that they had found Patti in a ditch along the stretch of highway where he’d lost her.
The news was grim. There was a coma involved and some other concerns. She was still alive though, and it was almost enough for him.
They didn’t know what to do with her most obvious and grievous injury. If they removed it, she would die. The doctors told him that when he asked. They told him that she probably wouldn’t make it and it was really only a matter of time before they took her off of life support.
He wasn’t very mobile, especially with his head injury. But he was still determined to see her before she would be gone forever. Maybe, he thought, he would be able to stroke her smooth hand or her soft hair one last time – whisper something nice too. That was, if the bandages would allow him to form the words.
So he wobbled from his bed and used his IV drip to support himself. He wheeled crooked down the hallway until he arrived at the door to her room.
Here, he paused for a moment. Maybe it was because he was savoring the moment of truth that awaited him behind the door. Or maybe he was trying to think of what he was going to tell her.
The fluorescents strobed into existence and revealed that he was much, much too late. Patti was dead. Her corpse lay sprawling with her top half twisting from the bed to the floor. Her legs were still inside and tangled in the hospital sheets. It was like she’d tried to get out of bed and died in the process.
There was a splash pattern of blood and gore that seemed exploded across the floor from the place where she lay. Her stomach and chest cavity had disintegrated. And there were things moving along the floor tile towards him. Hundreds of sleek and wet centipede-type insects, miniature replicas of the thing they’d encountered in the desert.
He closed the door and watched the antenna-like feelers protrude from the crack at the bottom, like they were still trying to get at him.
He limped back down the hallway to his room and climbed back into bed. It was better forgotten than dealt with. He let the drugs do their work and soon he found himself in a fitful sleep. He was in the middle of a nightmare where the bugs fell endlessly from the night sky.
In the morning when his sleep wore off, he was momentarily confused by both his rattling headache and the dregs of his slumber to believe that all of it had been a dream. But he knew it wasn’t true when he saw one of the insect-things from the night before slide across the tiled floor to vanish into the hydraulics of his hospital bed.
He pushed all of the buttons on the console beside his bed. All of them, and the bed undulated beneath him until its mechanisms caught and crushed the thing hiding inside of them with a crunching sound. Some liquid, green and foul-smelling, sprayed the wall beside him to slowly eat away at the drywall like acid.
If they’d escaped from Patti’s room, then they would be everywhere and there would be more of them. As much as it pained him to move, he knew that he would need to escape the hospital before they did something terrible to him.
He got up and used the rolling IV drip as a crutch again to help him with walking. Out in the hallway at the foot of the elevators, there was the corpse of a security guard. The things that had come from Patti were swarming him and they were chewing at his flesh. They were eating him and Luke could have sworn he saw them growing before his eyes as they ripsawed through the body.
Instead of walking down the hallway in the opposite direction of the carnage, he found himself captivated by the scene at hand. It was, after all, a life form that existed only by preying on other life forms. There was no horseshit and no bullshit here. These things had no reason to be honest or lie. They only needed to fuck and feed. It was mesmerizing.
When they were done with the dead guard and he’d been reduced to little more than a pile of red bones and a miasma of entrails, the bugs dispersed. Thankfully, none of them came his way.
He saw the guard’s pistol where it lay among his remains, so Luke hobbled towards the corpse and picked it up again. He bet if he shot himself in the head again that it might just work. Second time was the charm, and all.
But he looked at the corpse at his feet and thought about Patti being dead too. There wasn’t a whole lot that was appealing about it. Worse, he didn’t want to be prey. He didn’t want to prey on himself or on anybody else for that matter. That was for the bugs. But he still needed to get out before he became lunch too.
He got into the elevator and took it down to the hospital lobby. The floor was empty and quiet, but it didn’t alarm him as it was so early in the morning. There was no one at the front reception. There was no insect brood either, though. So he walked right through the doors and stepped into the parking lot.
The early morning sky was on fire. It should have been dark outside but the empty street glowed in a luminous bath of scintillating green hues. And there were comets. All the comets that Luke could possibly ever want or need further lit the sky against its shifting green backdrop.
The shooting stars held a different meaning to him now.
And he was going to need a lot more guns.
He started to walk tipsy and wheeled his IV stand down the street, only because there was nothing to shoot at. The worst part of it was the fact that his painkilling drugs were beginning to wear off. That meant that he was going to be up for some explosive head pain and it would probably be so bad as to incapacitate him.
If it was some sort of alien invasion, and it sure looked like it was, he needed to find some help or some way to get the word out before it was too late. This line of thinking seemed odd to him though, now that it was actually happening and it wasn’t just in some movie he’d watched a thousand times before.
Surely the police or the military or the government already knew what was happening and they would deal with it. Luke? He decided that he would just have to get to safety before everything came falling apart around him or he passed out from the pain.
He worked at the radio station as a custodian, which wasn’t too far from the hospital. It had a punch code lock so he wouldn’t need his keys to get inside. If he applied some willpower to it and ignored both the skies overhead and the drone in his head, he thought he might be able to make it there and get inside safely.
When he reached the street where he could see the building that housed the radio station, he was blocked by one of the insects – one of the big ones – and it coiled around a little VW that was parked to the curb.
The weight of the thing’s bulky armor had crushed the hood of the vehicle and cracked its windshield. Inside, barely visible beneath the bug, Luke could see that people were trapped.
There was a steady sound like punching holes in sheet metal as something hard and pointed shot from its underbelly to pierce the car roof at a steady rhythm. It was the same kind of protrusion that the one from the desert had left inside of Patti.
As he took aim with his pistol, he became acutely aware that he wasn’t shooting it to save the woman in the car. It made him feel even worse than he already did to think that if he didn’t have the weapon at all, and a mad drive to kill the insects anyhow, he likely would have kept right on moving towards the radio station.
He pulled the trigger and hoped for the best. There were a shower of sparks from the creature as the bullet ricocheted away off its carapace. The bullet didn’t kill it. It didn’t even look to Luke like the bullet had hurt it. But the thing was obviously disturbed enough by the shot, and it slithered from the car to disappear crawling down a side street.
He made it over to the car door but she’d kept it locked. When he leaned over to peer inside she shook her head at him and mouthed the word “no” very seriously. He could tell by the look in her eyes that she was still scared, even though he had chased away the menace.
He realized then that with his gun and his IV drip and hospital gown, he must have looked as terrifying to her as the bug looked. Not to mention the fact that his head was a giant patchwork of bloodied bandages.
So what was he going to do? She was going to stay locked in that car for the next alien bug that showed up. He turned and walked away, continuing towards the radio station. When he got there, he managed to remember the code, punch it into the lock console, get inside, and re-lock the doors.
Moments later, his head turned into a twisted explosion of unmedicated agony as the last of the drugs wore off. He fell to the floor in a fit of passing out and suffered the same nightmare as he always did. He was safe from the insects, but not really.
He woke later. The pain was still in his head and roaring, but not enough to squeeze the consciousness out of him anymore.
Someone was banging on the door above him, calling to be let in.
He bet that it was the woman from the car, and that she didn’t even know that he was inside, but rather she’d just ran to the nearest building in a final panic. Either way, he didn’t want to let her in. She should have trusted him earlier. It was a branch of honesty and he didn’t need to let anybody who might be trouble inside of the radio station with him.
So he stayed perfectly still where he had slumped down the wall upon passing out. Sure enough, she left shortly thereafter and he got to his feet and went deeper into the building.
By the time on the clock and the fact that the station was still empty so late in the morning, he could tell that whatever carnage was going on outside had reached full tilt and that nobody was going to make it into work for that day.
He went into the radio booth and powered up the system. From here he supposed that he could broadcast for help, or organize the people of the town into some semblance of a resistance in order to match their alien invaders.
But it wasn’t a movie, was it? And there was really very little that he had to offer humanity.
Giant insects were falling from the sky. They were here to lay eggs in some people and then have their hatchling babies eat everybody else alive. And they were bulletproof.
Luke? What did he have besides a permanent disfigurement, a dead best girl, a splitting headache, and a handgun that couldn’t kill anything?
His eyes wandered across the radio booth to the stacks and stacks of records that lined the walls. The station had long ago switched out systems, but he thought that he could dig out the old equipment and everything would still work okay. He knew where it all was and how to set up and operate it.
When he was finished dragging everything out and setting it up, it was well past the afternoon. Occasionally, he heard people at the station doors clamoring to get inside. These, he ignored. He had already made a decision, after all.
Once everything was set up, he went to the first stack of records to pick the first record starting with ‘A’. ABBA – but it didn’t seem like such a bad choice that day. Nothing did.
He spun the record and started broadcasting. He guessed that there was enough food to last him two or three days at best, and he had tap water until that stopped working too. Then he had three days after that, probably.
It wasn’t a lot of time and he probably wouldn’t get from A – Z before something bad happened to him. But that was okay. He was fine with that.
There was a motivational poster that someone had tacked to the wall inside the radio booth. It had a funny, cute picture of some frolicking kittens with a caption below reading ‘Honesty – the best policy’.
He had his first chuckle in a long, long time and then tossed the handgun into the wastebasket.
Then he settled in to listen to the sound of the music and imagine the sounds of the screams from outside.
He slept eventually.
He did not dream of insects.
By Michael R. Colangelo