A Short Story By Alexander Wolfe
The battered, rusty, Chevy wheezed its way to a halt at the end of the cul de sac. The afternoon was bright, absolutely cloudless. The truck's occupants were sweaty. It was July, in Nebraska, and the temperature on every bank clock was at least 2 degrees over a hundred, and some went as high as 8 over.
Inside the truck, the two men took a moment to breathe. One, the passenger, took a swig of water from a battered bottle held between his thighs. Piss warm. This was Jaime, landscaper extraordinaire, and owner of the world's most underutilized business degree. He also thought he might be suffering from mild heat stroke, but was willing to suffer one more yard in exchange for post work beers, courtesy of The Boss.
The Boss sat next to him, no water in his hand, but a lukewarm can of soda, pulled from a battered case in the back, which had dwindled mightily since the morning. The Boss loved three things in this world. Work, women, and supermarket brand diet soda. His kids certainly fit into the top 10, his wife somewhere in the top 20, and he himself varied depending on the day, the situation, and the sobriety level.
Belching with the strength of a younger man, The Boss shot a glance and a word at his compatriot.
With a sigh, Jaime pulled the handle on the door and swung a leg out.
“Might as well, I suppose.”
If at all possible, the sun was even more relentless out in the yard. The truck had no air conditioning, but it made a bit of a breeze. Out here, at the ass end of the worlds most unattractive golf course, the air hung like a down comforter.
Jaime trudged behind his mower, his feet shifting in a complicated rhythm, developed new every day, that avoided stepping on the worst of the day's crop of blisters. The mower snarled, begging for oil that they just didn't have, and letting out the occasional bang, or crunch, as it hit a rock or stick, respectively.
Working the industrial machine without paying much attention, Jaime drifted into the practiced meditation of the blue collar physical labor employee. Having done the job for nigh on a decade, Jaime's particular brand of meditation was honed to a razors edge, and he dipped in and out moment by moment, only surfacing to weave his way around a particularly tricky bit of yard-edge.
The yard being worked on was owned by a Mr. Shelton, who owned a fairly profitable car dealership, and an absolutely mediocre chain of local fast food joints, which he had so modestly dubbed: “Shelt Shacks.” Just how he afforded the triple lot, pool, and tennis court, on this golf course was a matter of some speculation, but most people seemed to agree it was probably stocks. Or inheritance. Either way, he had it, and he wanted it taken care of his way. No questions, and no deviations.
One expectation or particular concern today was the mowing of the back lawn and trails, which was always done once a month, mid-month. (Weather permitting). This consisted of tackling an overgrown field dotted with pine and crabapple trees, as well as a series of trails that they had carved in a small acreage of trees , (at no little expense), during a week-long work-stravaganza 3 or 4 years earlier. To Jaime and the Boss' best knowledge and intelligence, the two of them were the only ones to ever set foot in them.
The mower grumbled like an unhappy yeti, belching foul, gasoline-scented, air into Jaime's face. Cancer. The word drifted, unbidden, from his mind, down in front of his eyes, hung there a moment, and then was lost in a spray of grass shavings as the wind turned. That word popped up more and more in Jaime's head every Summer, not so much a question of if as opposed to what? Would it be skin cancer on the back of the neck, courtesy of too many hours in that good ol' sunlight? Lung cancer from breathing in gas fumes all day? Or, coming up hot on the outside, some sort of wacky neurological disease, the special kind you only get from spraying a dozen types of herbicide out of a sprayer old enough to leak as much as it spit out?
Consumed with his own mortality, Jaime guided the mower through the winding paths, squinting behind his dirty sunglasses. The speckling effect of the leaves made it tough for his eyes to focus on anything in particular, his pupils contracting and expanding so much it was like they were breathing. And because of his near-blindness, coupled with the morbid direction his mind had taken, Jaime didn't see the branch until it jabbed him neatly in the forehead.
A jolt of pain cut through Jaime's head, causing him to let go of the controls with one hand, slapping at his face and imagining wasps the size of softballs, and he ran the mower neatly up the side of a tree stump, where it wedged itself, three tires off the ground, one digging a shallow hole in the dirt.
Jamie shut off the mower, turning the key with a shaking hand before letting loose a string of profanity that would have echoed off every house in the neighborhood had it not been blunted by the trees. He reached up and gingerly dabbed a finger at his forehead, locating and removing a splinter that seemed to be attached somewhere in the vicinity of his frontal lobe. As he extracted it, a small trickle of blood ran into his eyebrow, where it was directed down his cheek. All very dramatic.
Crisis averted for the moment, Jamie took a look at the mower. Not bad. The deck was a bit askew, and there was an unpleasant smell emanating from the muffler, but all the tires appeared full, and he thought he could reset that deck with a couple well-placed kicks.
Taking hold of the controls with one hand, Jamie turned the key with the other. A weak wheeze, groan, then nothing. He tried again. Just a series of clicks. Again. More clicks. The mower may as well have been communicating in Morse code: can't start – stop – can't start – stop – please stop – stop -
Closing his eyes and mentally counting to 10 to relax, Jaime quit turning the key. It wasn't a new predicament, not by a long shot, but that didn't make it any less unpleasant. He mentally prepared himself for the back pain he'd be feeling later that night, disengaged the break, and began to heave the mower off of the tree stump, the 600 pounds working against him any way it could. A trickle of sweat ran down his forehead, following the path cut by it's bloody predecessor. He had just gotten one blade free, he could feel the workload lighten, when a pain, not unlike being burnt by a match, began in his right foot, and moments later, his left. Well, not foot, exactly, more like, ankles.
Pausing in the battle with his equipment, Jaime took a look at his shoes, and for a moment, couldn't figure out what was happening. Everything from the knees of his filthy jeans to the ground had gone sort of...fuzzy. Like a bad picture on an old TV, or a really airbrushed photo. His mind was sure he had seen something like this before, but what the hell was it? Then the pain doubled, tripled, began to increase exponentially, his feet radiating with the fire of it, and his mind got ahold of the short word that it had been searching for.
The scream that ripped from Jaime's throat was high pitched and raspy, the type of scream that only only comes from real, immediate, terror. The mower, the job, the after work beer, all forgotten as Jaime took off down the path he had come from. As he ran, he began to almost skip, slapping at his legs where they still crawled, where they bit, where they burrowed. He could see them in his mind's eye, digging little holes into his skin, burrowing in deeper and deeper. Did ants burrow? He couldn't remember. Right now his brain had one command and one command only. Get them off.
Jaime burst from the path into the freshly mowed field, and threw himself on the ground, beating at his legs. He kicked off his shoes, flinging them a good distance where they first landed then swarmed. Breathlessly, panicked, Jaime fumbled with his belt, ripping it off along with half of the last two nails on his right hand. Quickly he shimmied out of his jeans, wiping at his legs as he got them off, noticing how many bites he already had. His skin was a mass of red bumps, some of the biters still attached.
Finally, as the leg wiping became less and less necessary, a bit of sanity returned to Jaime. He stopped brushing at his legs, although he still felt the phantom presence of the ants on his flesh. Breathing heavily, he backed away from his jeans and his shoes, both heavily infested, and began to wonder just where they had all come from. He hadn't seen a mound. One minute they weren't there, the next, a whole swarm. Almost as quickly, the answer popped out at him, simple as it was.
It was the tree stump. They were living in that dead tree stump.
Far from comforting him, the thought only brought up a cross section of that same stump, honeycombed with tunnels, and larders, and birthing rooms, and all of it, every inch, swarming with those black bodies.
A few minutes later, Jaime watched the Boss heave the mower off the stump, the ants having apparently quieted. Jaime had replaced his jeans with an extra pair of shorts from the truck, and the welts on his legs were red and weeping.
“Big ol' nest here, goddamn,” was all the Boss had to say as he poured a generous helping of gasoline over the stump.
Jaime tossed the Boss his lighter, and with a soft crackle, the stump was ablaze. Jaime and the Boss stodd side by side, and watched it burn. Squinting his eyes, Jaime could just make out what he took to be a line of ants, all exiting the same little hole before being consumed by the inferno.
Serves you right, little fuckers.
As much venom in his mind as in his legs, Jaime watched the stump burn until the Boss touched his shoulder, and he took the signal that it was time to return to work. All tiredness gone, Jaime quickly cut the rest of the trails, stopping by the stump once more on his way back to the truck. It must've been old, the fire had already reduced most of it to embers. One thing was certainly true though, there weren't any more goddamn ants inside it. That, he was sure of.
Later, as he drove himself back to his house, the stumps remnants having been put out with a can of beer, Jaime could almost feel bad for the little things. He hadn't meant to hit their house, sure,but they didn't know that. He couldn't blame them for doing what came naturally to them. That's just, well, nature. Most of the fear had left him, and a hint of shame was beginning to take its place. His head still ached dully, and his legs throbbed with a few different heartbeats.
Unsteadily turning the car onto his road, Jaime managed a halfway decent parking job, mentally giving thanks that no officers had thought to stop him and check his breath. The after work beers had been as much medicine as refreshment, and he had taken his medicine gladly. The door on his small car shutting behind him with a thud, Jaime walked up the path to his front porch. Glancing down, between his feet, his breath caught for a moment.
An anthill. A simple little anthill in the middle of the path. He gave it a good bit of space, his heart pumping faster than he would've liked it to. On the far side, he addressed the small lump of dirt.
“We've got no problems here, okay?”
His opinion thus stated, he went inside his house to shower off the day. It had been a long one.
That night, he dreamt. In his dream, he was small again, just coming out of childhood. Maybe 12. It was dark, the only light coming from slivers of moon, as well as the headlamp of somebody in front of him. Little Jaime was in a line of people, but back a ways. Trees pressed in close, the path barely visible underfoot. He was in the rainforest.
It was a night hike in Nicaragua, his family's vacation destination, circa summer of 2010. This was the final night, their two weeks' time in “paradise” ending the next morning as they headed back to their lives. So one more outing had been planned.
'See The Rainforest At Night!,' The pamphlet in the hotel lobby had said, 'Experience An Entirely New World, See Fantastic Creatures, Enjoy the REAL Rainforest!' It had sounded like an excellent way to cap off a trip, as well as something that might force them to actually sleep during the long flight home.
So here Jaime was, 12 years old, hiking through a rainforest in the middle of the night, hanging toward the back of the pack, and stumbling over every other tree root, or so it seemed. So far, the night hike had been a complete bust, seeing nothing more exciting than a snake curled up in a tree, but they trudged on resolutely, following the guide, and straining their eyes against the darkness.
The dream swirled and fogged, the trees blurring into each other. In his bed, Jaime twisted under the loose sheet.
The guide was stopping now, Jaime could see, stopping and pointing up ahead. Vaguely, he could hear gasps, and staggered muttering as the guide explained something he simply couldn't hear. The trees pressed in close, and there was no way Jaime was going to be able to get a view of whatever this was by staying on the path. He skirted around a tree, slid a bit in some mud, and made his way forward a couple feet from the path. Reaching a closer vantage point, Jamie followed the guide's gesturing hand, and glanced at the ground in front of him. At first he couldn't figure out what everybody was looking at, but moments later, the guide glanced down as well, and his headlamp illuminated the scene. Jaime's blood seemed to freeze in his veins, his whole body going cold, despite the tropical heat, as he stared with the rest of the group into the shallow pit.
In a rough circle, approximately 12 feet in diameter, the Earth had simply caved in under the weight and work of what seemed like an infinite supply of ants. The pit, at least 3 feet deep, was positively boiling with the creatures, squirming and climbing over each other in layers so deep that you couldn't even see the dirt at the bottom, nor the entrances to any of the tunnels.
As if from far away, Jaime could hear the guide saying something about colony size, and how the tunnel system was organized, communication with other ant species, but it all seemed very far away. They were leaf-cutter ants, Jaime observed. He had actually quite enjoyed watching this industrious little species during the daytime, as they carved little trails across the ground, returning to the colony with the small pieces of leaves that were their namesake. They had seemed very good natured, peaceful even. Gardener ants, that wouldn't hurt a fly.
Suddenly, Jaime noticed that the voice of the guide had stopped. Coming back to reality, Jaime glanced around, and saw everybody staring at him. The guide was holding out a hand toward him, his headlamp now pointed directly at Jaime's left foot. Jaime looked there too, and locked eyes with the thin snake that was making its way up his leg.
Jaime didn't scream, Jamie didn't jump, Jamie didn't panic. Jaime did everything exactly correct. Jaime stayed calm, and stepped to his right, intending to present the snake to the guide for removal. Unfortunately, Jaime stepped onto a rather weak spot near the hole, and very quickly, Jaime was in the pit.
To say that the snake was forgotten was an understatement. At the time, all those years ago, he might not have even felt any fear, there being so much shock, but reliving it now in this dream-memory, he felt fear. He felt a hell of a lot of it too. The sensation of the pit was unnervingly like being dropped into a bowl of TV static, where it seemed like every nerve was being jostled. Except, instead of electricity, it was millions upon millions of tiny little feet, tipped with minuscule claws.
He was probably only in the pit for about 10 seconds before the strong hand of the guide grabbed the back of his shirt and hauled him out, wiping and slapping at him, dousing him with water, and alternately yelling in very quick Spanish and very slow English. Crisis averted. Total time elapsed, probably not more than a minute all told.
Standing up under his own power, his mother holding on to him, his father standing nearby, Jaime reassured everybody that he was okay, no harm had been done, not even a bite, just a bit scared, when he felt a tap on the shoulder. Looking over, he made eye contact with their guide. The guide nodded his head toward the pit, shining the headlamp into it. Jaime approached, staying well back this time, only close enough to see what the guide wanted him to.
Apparently, the snake had not made it out. It had given a valiant effort, made it right to the edge of the pit, but that's as far as it could squirm. The ants, no longer startled by the 12 year old boy dropping in on their heads, were now looking for a place to vent their anger. The snake was just such a place.
With a look of revulsion on his face, but unable to even glance away, Jaime took in the carnage below him. At first there were only bites as the ants tried to painfully deter the snake, but the snake couldn't move. The wall of the pit was too steep, and covered with a living carpet of ants. There was simply no way it could get out, much to the anger of the ants.
Looking back on it, Jaime wasn't sure if he had actually seen the ant's simple emotional state turn from fear to anger, but at the time, he detected something. Not much, just a little ripple that passed through the colony as messages were relayed below and then back up above. Message received, the intruder must be destroyed. And suddenly the ants weren't biting anymore, they were burrowing. There were so many it was hard to tell, but already Jaime thought he could pick out small holes in the snakes scales. Direction had also changed. No longer were the ants jostling the snake as far from their home as possible, but now it seemed like they were actually dragging it back. The snake flung it's head up, no doubt overcome with pain and it's own, simpler, more visceral, brand of fear. The mouth of the snake opened wide, fangs glinting in the moonlight, scattered by the tropical leaves. And just before it was dragged down to a horror unimaginable, Jaime saw the worst thing so far. In the moment before the snake left the moonlight, he saw a river of angry ants erupt from that open mouth, having chewed their way in through some part of the body, and found the only exit they could.
That image. That river of ants flowing out of the snake's mouth like a bad vomit effect in a cheesy movie. That was the picture that seemed burned onto the inside of Jaime's forehead as he sat in bed, feeling his clammy sweat evaporate off of him, the nightmare fading, but slowly, too slowly, and never truly leaving. It had been a while since he had thought about the ants, hadn't it? But he hadn't forgotten, oh no, how could you forget something like that? It was like the first time watching a really big storm roll in during the summer, or the first time you stumbled across a relative's Playboy collection. It stuck around.
A month later, the battered, rusty, Chevy once again wheezed its way down to the end of the cul de sac, at the end of a long, hot, day, marking the end of a long hot week. One last yard. The afternoon was cloudy. The truck's occupants were sweaty. It was August, in Nebraska, and the temperature on every bank clock was at least 90, and some went as high as 95. That and the humidity made it feel like you were wearing a down comforter every time you stepped outside.
“Beer after this?” asked the Boss, breaking the silence, “I'll buy you a burger.”
“That doesn't sound too bad,” Jaime replied, taking a swig of water, “What do you think, half hour or so?”
“Make it an hour, we gotta hit the trails today.”
And then the Boss hopped out of the truck, shutting the door behind him with a thud. Jaime stayed in the truck a moment longer, suddenly finding himself on the verge of panic. For the last couple weeks, he had managed to put last month's incident out of his mind for the most part, and the nightmares had completely stopped. Yet somehow, with a single sentence, it was all back, and a wave of anxiety made his hand tremble in a way he didn't particularly enjoy as he opened his door and stepped back out into the soupy air.
Forty minutes later, he found himself parked at the entrance to the first trail, a yard of beautifully mowed grass left in his wake, courtesy of the extra time he had taken in an effort to prevent this moment for at least a bit. The situation was made all the worse by the fact that his conscious mind really knew, knew for a fact, that there was absolutely nothing to fear. The subconscious though, that bit of the mind connected directly to the lizard brain that sits right on the spine, that part of him was afraid, and it wasn't afraid to show it.
Five minutes later, he was tracing the edge of one of the first trails, and feeling better about things. He was uneasy, would be the whole time he was in here probably, but he was forging ahead nonetheless. This was what he did after all, and god dammit, he had done it since he was 14 years old. He cut grass. No ants were going to stop him from doing that. He was also self aware enough to recognize the oddity of using a misplaced sense of pride to bypass a fear, and was just contemplating that fact when he passed the trail that had definitely never been there before.
It took half a second to register, but register it did, and Jaime immediately tossed the mower into reverse, squeezing the handles and dragging the growling beast back a few feet, where it grumbled it's deafening growl at the entrance to the new trail.
Have you ever been moving through your house at night, going to the bathroom perhaps, when you suddenly whack your leg on something, or run into a wall you've never hit before? Your mental picture of where you are gets completely flipped on its head, and you have to fight through a wave of disorientation in order to find that porcelain throne and relieve yourself? That's probably the closest match to what Jaime felt looking at the path in front of him, very much sure that it was new, he had never seen it before, but entertaining a wriggling doubt that told him it had always been there, he had just lost too much water and was a bit confused.
As it often does when the afternoon grows long, and work has been happening since there was still dew on the grass that morning, the exhaustion made the decision for him, Jaime swung the mower down the path. It had obviously been there the whole time, for the love of god, if there had been a new trail cut, the Boss and him would've been the ones to cut it. They hadn't done anything like that in the past month, ergo, the path wasn't new.
Besides, Jaime thought, the mower tracking easily, spitting out torn grass pieces into the opposing trees, there's the tire tracks from the last time I was here. And indeed, there they were, a perfect honeycomb tread pattern in a patch of dried mud. A quick glance behind him told him that yes, it was indeed the same pattern he was leaving behind him today, though there wasn't much mud to speak of. It hadn't rained in a while. A long while.
Jaime's thoughts once again drifted inward, as he wondered about his ability to just forget something as obvious as the path he now walked. Something in his brain tossed up a phrase he had heard his Dad use, while the two of them were at a baseball game together, when he was young. The Yips. His Dad had been talking about Gardner Sampson, what passed for a power hitter on the double A farm team they went and cheered for occasionally. Sampson had been in a hell of a slump, going 2 for 20 in the last few games, and when he struck out yet again in front of a disappointed, though not surprised, crowd, his Dad had said,
“Dumbass has got the Yips, and he doesn't know what the hell to do about it.”
The Yips. Waking up one morning and simply being unable to hit a baseball. To make a jump shot. To tie your shoes. Overthinking something simple to the point that action just becomes impossible. Could that happen with landscaping, though? Jaime shook his head, attempting to shake out a bit of sense to wrap around this thought. He didn't think he'd ever just look at a yard and forget how to mow it, that was for sure, but little things like this bothered him. It was like when you were sitting in your car with the radio on, waiting for somebody to come out of the store, and you attempt to start your car, forgetting you actually started it back when you put the radio on, and you split the air with that wonderful grating screech that only comes from a car with an idiot inside it. Not only was there damage, there was also the embarrassment.
These thoughts preoccupied Jaime just long enough for the important question to be a bit late in coming, but come it did.
Hey, Jaime thought, coming back to the here and now, isn't this path kinda long?
It was. Not just kinda long, too long. He had been walking in the same general direction for almost 5 minutes now, when the longest path on the property only took him a couple minutes to trace out. That shouldn't be possible. Where the hell was he?
In an attempt to find an answer to this question, Jaime shoved the mower into neutral, let go of the handles, and turned around. He looked, and there was the path he had come in on, the bit he had already covered mowed down neatly, the other half waiting for the return journey, the sun creating speckles of light and darkness on the leaves and the grass. Everything seemed very normal.
A butterfly caught Jaime's attention, and he followed it with his eyes, his weary and dehydrated mind still putting everything together. The butterfly danced drunkenly in the air for a moment, then lighted on a speckled leaf, the speckles moving apart for it's landing, the leaf barely moving except for in the light breeze...
...the speckles moving apart for it's landing...
...the speckles moving...
And suddenly, it was as if a filter had been removed from Jaime's cheap sunglasses that he wore to work. The speckles weren't lights and shadows at all. They were ants. Thousands and thousands upon million of ants, all staying perfectly still, waiting. The more Jaime looked, the more Jaime saw. Not only the leaves, but the trucks of the trees, the stems of flowers, blades of grass, and, Jaime had no doubt in his mind whatsoever, the very ground itself was absolutely covered in ants. All completely still. In fact, it seemed like the one place there weren't any of the little creatures was directly in front of the mower.
Fighting to contain a terror that came on swiftly, and took a very deep hold inside his chest, Jaime put his hands back on the mower, took it out of neutral, and began to swing it around, intending to just leave the way he had come. As the iron beast roared it's way around, movement began on the ant's side as well. Some unknown leader, the queen directing her troops or just odd instinct, led the ants like a general cutting off a retreat. They piled on top of each other, a mound rising quickly in front of the mower, a living wall of squirming bodies, cutting off the escape.
For a moment, Jaime was tempted to just roll right over them, letting the blades on the mower do what they did best, scattering the bodies, killing millions in the process, but the ones not moving, the watching sentinels, made him hesitate. They had created a mound of themselves about two feet high, two feet wide, and right around a foot deep. The sheer number of ants needed to create a living, solid, structure like that was astronomical, and yet as Jaime looked at the plant life around him, he could see that the numbers surrounding him hadn't gone down in the least. Reinforcements, it seemed, would not be a problem for them.
His eyes darting side to side, sunglasses fogging in the damp heat around his body, Jaime saw his only option. The ants had left a path in their ranks just wide enough for a lawn mower and one frightened man to fit through. Slowly easing the throttle forward, Jaime started down the path, his skin riddled with goose-flesh despite the heat of the day and the sweat that poured off of him. Jaime barely noticed. He was focused on the memory of a snake, writhing in agony as the tiny creatures chewed their way into its body, exploding outward from the snake's mouth like living venom from a cobra. The ants closed in behind him, driving him ever forward.
In the distance Jaime saw the anthill. It's peak easily topped the trees. He saw the path leading to the top. And he wasn't quite sure, but he thought that there might be a hole at the top of that anthill. A hole big enough for a lawn mower, and one frightened man.