Authors: Gina Ranalli
Tags: #giant insects, #apocalypse, #monsters
FIRST DIGITAL EDITION
© 2011 by Gina Ranalli
Cover Artwork © 2011 by Daniele Serra
All Rights Reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
P.O. Box 338
North Webster, IN 46555
For Louise and Dave
The rain had fallen hard for six straight days and the muddy ground sucked at Rebecca Robinson’s boots as she approached the edge of her property calling for her dog.
The sky churned shades of gray that wrestled and rolled against each other like lovers, or maybe enemies.
“Lou!” she yelled, nearing the tree line that marked the beginning of 900 acres of wild forest.
Where has that dog gotten off to?
She stopped, frowning into the woods, listening for the sound of paws tramping through underbrush or distant teasing barks, but there was nothing.
No birdsong, no insect drone, not even the rustle of branches scraping back and forth against one another.
Glancing back up at the sky to ensure that she had indeed seen evidence of wind, a feeling of uneasiness began to creep around in her belly. Boiling clouds spun across the heavens, chased by others as far as the eye could see.
And yet, nothing moved on the ground. No leaves tumbled by, not a single blade of grass stirred, Rebecca’s long dark hair lay flat against her back, completely undisturbed.
Worried, she peered into the darkness of the forest, hoping for some glimpse of movement, a flash of white fur. “Lou?” she called again, hearing the nervousness in her voice. “Come on, boy. Time to eat.”
Above, the sky broke open again and she became immediately drenched to the skin. Cussing, she turned back to the house, hoping the dog might be back on the porch, having approached from a different direction, and sure enough, there he was, dripping wet, panting happily while eyeing her with what appeared to be amusement.
Cursing still, she started back to the house, thinking about starting a fire and boiling water for tea before peeling the soaked clothing from her skin. She kept her eyes on the ground, her boots sinking nearly ankle-deep into the muck that was her land. The land, the house and the dog were all she had to show for twenty years of marriage and one year of widowhood. The cancer that had taken her husband Glen at forty-two had torn her heart from her chest but had been unable to touch the more substantial objects of her world.
Fifty feet away, Lou barked suddenly, causing her to look up just as the ground beneath her feet gave way. Crying out, she leapt backwards as the ground collapsed in on itself, creating a sinkhole the size of a child’s swimming pool.
Recovering her balance, she back-peddled until the ground felt solid enough to stand on. From the porch, Lou continued to bark. Rainwater ran off the end of her nose as she cautiously approached the ragged edge of the hole, trying to see just how deep it went.
Small stones and mud slid down the sides of the 4x4 hole, slipping away into what appeared to be a bottomless pit. Squinting against the rain, she stepped closer to the edge and gasped when the ground gave way once more. Rebecca fell into a sitting position on the edge of the sinkhole, legs dangling down into the darkness, hands seeking purchase and coming back with fistfuls of mud.
The earth under her disappeared and she scrambled backwards like a desperate crab, the ground vanishing the moment her weight touched it.
, she thought frantically.
The earth is hollow and hungry and it means to swallow me alive.
Screaming was pointless. There was no one within miles to hear, but she found herself doing it just the same. Lou’s barking turned panicked and she was dimly aware of his presence, closer now, just on the other side of the ever-growing hole, and then the ground was solid again, firm enough to hold her weight as she leapt to her feet and skittered back towards the tree line. Only when she had reached the lip of the forest did she feel safe enough to stop. The house seemed miles away now and between her and it was a sinkhole large enough to swallow a car.
“Jesus Christ,” she panted, bent at the waist, hands on knees. Rain continued to pelt her and her hair stuck to her face in thin, tangled strands. The dog raced to her side and jumped up, leaving muddy paw prints on her thighs. Absently, she rubbed his wet head before nudging him away.
Straightening up, she saw just how filthy she was and groaned inwardly. Lou continued to yap at her as she turned her attention back to the sinkhole and shivered. To the best of her knowledge it was the first time the earth had opened up anywhere on her property and she couldn’t help but wonder just how much of the land was hollow. The thought made her queasy; if the land was unfit to build on, selling it would be difficult, if not impossible, unless she was prepared to take a pittance.
She sighed at the prospect of having to get an appraiser to come out, but decided she’d wait until after the rainy season had ended. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.
Glancing down at Lou, she said, “What do you say we get out of this rain, huh, boy?”
The dog wagged his bushy tail, happy despite looking like he’d been trudging up and down a muddy river. Rebecca imagined she looked even worse as they started back to the house, giving the sinkhole a wide berth.
There was a moment when the dog paused to stare at the hole, a low growl rumbling up from deep within his chest, but Rebecca called him on and he followed without hesitation.
Back inside, she toweled Lou off before running herself a steaming bath and scrubbing the mud and grime from her skin. Once clean, she felt a little better—less shaky from the close call with the sinkhole—and with every passing moment could see the absurdity in what had been sheer panic. Obviously, even if she’d fallen into the hole, it wouldn’t have been tragic. It’s not like she would have disappeared into the center of the Earth. Probably no more than six or seven feet at most and plenty easy enough to climb out. True, she would have emerged looking like some kind of mud monster, but she’d come pretty close to that anyway.
Sitting in her favorite recliner with a hot cup of tea, she chuckled at her own silliness. Just a middle-aged woman out in the boonies, scared of taking a little spill.
Shaking her head, she reached for the TV remote and pressed the power button, only to be greeted with white noise on every station. She turned it off again, frustrated but not particularly surprised. There was no cable out here and losing power was far from an unusual occurrence.
Lou looked up at Rebecca from his spot on an old braided rug by the fireplace, his brown eyes questioning.
“You look like you could use a bath too,” she told him. “Would have been nice if I’d thought to do it before you ran all over the house and—”
A tremendous crashing sound cut her off and caused the dog to leap to his feet, barking hysterically. The house shook; a framed photograph of her deceased husband, smiling in the long ago sunshine, tumbled from the mantle and shattered on the stone hearth.
Flinching, Rebecca’s first thought was that a bomb had exploded somewhere nearby, but a moment later she recognized the sound, though she’d never heard it amplified by what had to be times ten.
A falling tree.
But, no. Not this time. Not just one tree, but many, judging by the way the earth trembled beneath the force of God only knew how many tons of 100 foot pines. It had felt as though the house had been grasped by a great hand, lifted and then dropped again.
Moving to the front bay window, she stared out at the tree line, searching for—she didn’t know what. A wave of falling trees? She shook her head, feeling ridiculous, and turned back to the dog.
“One tree knocked down another,” she muttered. “Nothing unusual about that.”
Lou barked again, evidently disagreeing with her.
Her eyes fell to the unopened bottle of champagne still on the mantle, the first real reminder she’d had all morning that today was New Year’s Day. Suddenly she forgot all about the rain, the dog, the sinkhole and the falling trees.
She went to the old, over-stuffed sofa and sank down into it, part of her wishing she’d drank the bottle the night before, as she’d planned.
If I had, I wouldn’t be feeling this hollow ache right now, remembering that Glen had proposed to me on that snowy New Year’s Eve so many years before.
She had wanted to toast her dead husband, had bought the bottle for that very occasion, a desire to remember.
But in the end, she hadn’t been able to go through with it. She’d been a coward, afraid the memories would be painful instead of joyful.
Just a stupid, frightened woman, still scared of phantoms in places where there should have been only love.
Lou whined, nudging Rebecca’s hand with his muzzle.
She blinked. “Another year without Daddy,” she told the dog absently. “Can you believe it?”
Lou’s brown eyes watched her quizzically, his ears still twitching slightly at the word
and Rebecca felt her heart break all over again.
I should have just gotten shitfaced and slept through the day.
Another thud shook the house and both she and the dog cried out in alarm. Whatever it was, it sounded closer this time and Rebecca leapt to her feet.
Her closest neighbors, the Days, sometimes had better TV reception and she decided to give them a call. Crossing the house into the kitchen, Lou padded beside her, his tail tucked down between his legs. As she dialed, the dog growled softly, his eyes fixed on the back door.
“Shh,” she told him. “It’s okay.”
On the other end of the line, the Days phone rang six times and then an answering service clicked on. She waited through the out-going message and then said, “Hey, guys, it’s Rebecca. I guess you may have gone away for the holiday, but if you get this, can you give me a call? I keep hearing these loud thuds and I’m just wondering what’s going on. Now that I’m saying this out loud, it sounds pretty ridiculous.” She felt herself blushing, but soldiered on. “Anyway, I doubt it’s any kind of construction happening since it’s New Year’s morning, but, I don’t know. Give me a buzz, okay? Bye.”
She hung up, feeling like a complete fool. Looking down at Lou, she said, “Well, they’ll probably think I’m nuts now, huh?”
Then again, most people thought she was a tad peculiar these days, living out here by herself, with little to no contact with the rest of the world. No real friends to speak of, unless you counted the four-legged variety. But she’d learned the hard way—being close to people got you one thing, every time, without fail: hurt.
She was having none of that anymore.
Opening her mouth to say as much to the dog, she froze, wondering what that new sound was.
The clock above the stove ticked in time with her heart. She could hear nothing else.
The new sound was no sound at all.
The rain had stopped.
A beam of sunlight abruptly shot through the windows, blinding in its brightness. The clouds were parting and she smiled despite her bewilderment
“Happy New Year,” she said and the entire house lurched to one side, throwing her to the floor as cupboards opened and dishes, mugs and glasses flew out, shattering all around her. Rebecca lifted one arm to shield her face while instinctively attempting to cover the dog’s body with her own.
Things crashed in other parts of the house; furniture slid across floors and slammed into walls.
She bit back a scream, squeezed her eyes closed and waited for the world to stop careening.
And then it did.
They were left with the sound of tinkling glass and an occasional bang—maybe from a book falling from a shelf—but the house had gone still once more.
Opening her eyes, she saw that her house had pitched sideways and now rested at a 40 degree angle. Getting back to the living room would mean walking up a steep incline.
Lou whimpered beside her and she knew she had to get the dog out of there. Broken glass covered virtually every inch of the floor—there was no way she could let him walk around in it.
She knew what had happened now. It was another sinkhole. Had to be. There was no other explanation.
Struggling to her feet, she lifted the terrified dog in her arms and, glass crunching underfoot, made her way to the back door and into the sudden strange light of the New Year.
Three miles north, inside the Pinecone Cafe, Joe Morris had just finished prepping the grill when the world shook and almost caused him to lose his footing.
He turned and looked over the counter at Stacy who sat bleary-eyed, smoking a Pall Mall despite being three months pregnant. “What the hell was that?” she asked.
He shrugged. “Earthquake, I guess. Big one too.”
The frying pans hanging over the grill swung, clanking together loudly.
“Since when do we have big earthquakes?” Stacy asked.
“It’s been known to happen. Remember the one that hit Olympia a few years back?”
“That was nothing,” she said, mashing out her cigarette. “Not compared to the ones they get in other countries. Or even in California.”
Joe didn’t reply, his ear cocked. From the used car lot next door, an alarm was sounding. “Fuck,” he muttered. “If that’s one of the cars, who knows how long we’ll have to listen to it.”
“It’s one of the cars,” Stacy said. “Probably that yellow Ram. I think it’s the only one over there worth more than a couple grand.”
The used car lot was a bit of a joke to the locals. It went in and out of business every few months, always being bought by new owners and most people suspected it was a cover for drug dealers who were too stupid to realize there wasn’t much money to be made that way around here. Eventually, they learned and packed up and moved on, probably to the city.
Joe didn’t know if the drug dealer story was true or not. He just wished whoever bought the place last would stay in business for a while. Potential customers for them meant potential customers for him.
He reached up to steady the swinging pans, glancing around the kitchen area to be sure nothing had fallen to the floor.
“I can’t believe we’re even open today,” Stacy said, already uninterested in the earthquake. “Who the hell comes to a greasy spoon on New Year’s Day?”
“People still gotta eat, Stace,” Joe said.
“No doubt, but most of them will be either hung over and the thought of eating your eggs and bacon will make them puke or they’re having breakfast with their families, which is what we should be doing.”
Looking over his shoulder at her, Joe smiled. “You know you’re my only family.”
Stacy snorted. “Likewise. And how sad is that?”
“Pretty sad,” he agreed.
And it was too. At forty-five, Joe had been divorced for over seven years, never saw his three sons who’d moved out of state with their mom, and had lived alone ever since.
Stacy was in her mid-twenties and pregnant by some guy she’d met in a bar one night and never saw again. Her story was even more sad than Joe’s: family, including one sister, had been killed in a car wreck when she was fourteen and she’d pretty much been on her own ever since.
They were both loners, thrown together by circumstance—Joe owned the Pinecone Cafe and Stacy waitressed there full-time. He also employed a couple part-timers but they both had real lives and were spending the holiday elsewhere.
“Think we’ll actually get any customers today?” Stacy asked.
“Don’t know. Remember last year we got a few around noon and—”
The small building shook again. Light fixtures swung and salt and pepper shakers rattled against table tops. When it was over, Joe tried to hide his frazzled nerves and chuckled. “Aftershock, probably.”
Giving him a skeptical look, Stacy slid off the barstool and walked across the diner to peer out the window at the parking lot. “At least the rain stopped,” she said.
From her vantage point, she could see past their own lot to the one next door, which housed about two dozen storage units. Across the street was The Motorcycle Barn, where the local bikers tended to gather most weeknights when they ran out of drinking money.
“I bet you could hear a pin drop out there,” she said. “I haven’t seen a single car drive by.”
Turning back to the grill, Joe said, “Well, like you said, it’s New Year’s morning. Probably most folks ain’t even awake yet.” He paused, then asked, “You fill up those napkin dispensers yet?”
Facing him once more, Stacy said, “Was just gonna get to it after I finished my smoke.”
“Well, you’re finished. Hop to it, Missy.”
Stacy gave Joe’s back the finger, which he evidently knew she would because without bothering to glance at her, he said, “And fuck you too, Sunshine.”
A couple minutes later, Stacy emerged from the storage room carrying several stacks of bound paper napkins and Joe used the remote control to turn on the television suspended in a far corner of the dining area. He groaned when he could find nothing but static on any channel.
“Maybe the cable’s out,” Stacy offered without looking up from her task.
“You think so, Einstein?”
“Hey, don’t get bitchy with me, old man. You probably forgot to pay the bill with your Alzheimer’s setting in and all.”
The bell over the entrance door clanged and they both looked up to see a disheveled man stagger into the diner, drying blood caked in his hairline and trickling down his forehead. His clothes and hands were covered in mud and his eyes tore around the diner frantically.
“I need a phone,” the stranger gasped, stumbling forward towards where Stacy sat in one of the booths, a napkin dispenser open before her.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Joe quickly moved out of the kitchen and approached the man, holding out a hand. “You okay, partner? You wreck your car or something?”
The man regarded Joe briefly as if he were an alien, then he blurted out laughter. “Wreck my car?” he brayed. “My fucking car is gone, man.
. Swallowed by the fucking devil himself.” He laughed again, lost his balance and probably would have toppled over if Joe hadn’t reached out to steady him.
“He tried to eat me too,” the man continued. “But I got out. Fucking-A, I did. Fuck that shit. I’m not being swallowed alive.”
Joe and Stacy exchanged a glance before Joe said to the man, “Been out partying all night, huh? Well, why don’t you just sit down right here and I’ll get you a cup of coffee. Just brewed it and it’s good and hot. Fix you right up.”
Turning back to Stacy, he said, “Maybe you should get the sheriff on the phone, Stace. Hopefully this guy didn’t plow into anyone else when—”
The stranger pulled himself out of Joe’s grasp. “I didn’t wreck my car and I wasn’t out partying! I’m not drunk!”
Folding his arms across his chest, Joe said, “With all due respect, sir, you just told us the devil swallowed your car. No, maybe you’re not drunk, but either you’re on something or you’re a basket case.” He looked at Stacy, eyebrows raised. She got to her feet and started towards the kitchen area where the phone was.
opened up, man,” the muddied stranger insisted. “I was barely able to climb out of there! There’s a hole in the road big enough to swallow a fucking house! Didn’t you hear it?”
Joe frowned, glancing at the static on the television.
“I need to use your phone,” the man repeated. “Please! I have to call my wife!”
“Phone’s dead,” Stacy announced, coming back around the counter. “Weird, right?”
The crease between Joe’s brows deepened. “You have your cell phone on ya?”
Stacy shook her head. “It’s in my coat.”
She huffed. “Joe, you think I have the sheriff’s number on speed dial, for Christ’s sake?”
“We have a phone book in the kitchen somewhere. Look it up!”
Clearly annoyed, Stacy went to do what she was told while Joe continued to study the muddy, bleeding man.
“I need to call my wife,” the stranger repeated.
“You heard her,” Joe said. “The phone’s dead. Don’t you have a cell of your own?”
“It went down with my car, man! What the fuck is wrong with you? Why aren’t you listening to me?”
“Settle down,” Joe told him, his patience waning. “Why don’t you just have a seat and I’ll get you that coffee, okay? And maybe a Band-Aid for your head.”
The man reached up to touch his forehead and looked surprised when his fingers came away bloody.
“What’s your name, partner?” Joe asked.
“John,” he said, dejectedly as he slumped into the nearest booth. “John Ashland.”
“Nice to meet you, John. I’m Joe and that spitfire over there is Stacy.”
As if on cue, Stacy leaned over the counter from the kitchen and said, “Sheriff’s line is busy.”
“What the Christ?” Joe nearly shouted, throwing his hands up in frustration. “What? Is it the goddamn end of the world or what?”
Unintimidated by his outburst, Stacy shrugged. “It’s New Year’s Day, Joe. People have stuff to do.”
“Look at the damn TV,” he barked, gesturing towards it. “What’s up with that?”
“I told you,” Stacy said. “The cable’s probably out.”
“Bullshit.” Joe walked to the door and looked out. “It’s not even windy. The sky is blue.”
“Maybe it got knocked out last night,” Stacy said. “Christ, what’s the big deal?”
But, the truth was that Joe couldn’t really put into words what the big deal was. It was just a nagging sense of unease growing in the pit of his belly. Everything going out of whack at the same time and this John guy showing up, dirty and bleeding and talking nonsense.
Joe turned to face the others again. To John, he asked, “Where did you say your car got...uh...swallowed?”
“I didn’t,” John replied, holding a napkin to his head wound. “But not far from here. Less than a mile, probably.”
Pointing outside, Joe said, “On this road? Right on 99?”
“A hole big enough to swallow a house, you said.” He looked at Stacy. “Could have knocked out power lines. Phone lines too, probably.”
Stacy didn’t reply. Instead, she went back to sitting at the counter and lit up another smoke.
“Was anyone else on the road with you when the ground caved in?” Joe asked.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. It was pretty dead out there.”
“And what about when you were walking here? Did you see anyone?”
“Dude, I was running like the fucking wind. I wasn’t checking out the scenery. The only reason I came in here was because I saw cars in your parking lot and figured you might be open.”
Something thudded into the plate-glass window and the three of them jumped, looking up to see a creature clinging to the glass.
“Fuck!” John shouted, leaping to his feet and back-pedaling away from the front of the diner.
Joe briefly lost the ability to breathe.
The thing outside was clearly an insect—some kind of bee perhaps, but with the hard, black shell of a beetle—but that wasn’t the most alarming thing about it.
What really scared the occupants of the Pinecone Cafe was that the creature was roughly the size of a coffee-table.