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The dog was an Aussie, clean coat of black, muzzle of white. Charlie, the family had named it on adoption day. Once a tuft of dirty cotton, the animal was now some sixty pounds of rigid muscle—a fact the Bower boys often mentioned to their friends at school when dogs and ferocity was the topic.
“Put him inside,” Travis Troy told his kid brother.
“He hates that,” Ben said.
“I know it. But we can’t have him out here barkin’ like that. Neighbors’ll think we’re gettin’ murdered.”
Ben chased after the dog and hooked a small hand inside his grubby collar. “Come on, bud.” He walked the dog across the gravel lot to their uncle’s cream-colored trailer home. Ben ushered the animal inside and shut the door behind him.
“That ain’t gonna stop him,” Ben said.
The dog stood in the dirty window. Hackles raised, he barked mindlessly out at the woods beyond the trailer park.
“What’s he barking at?” Ben asked.
Travis Troy shrugged. “Deer out there, maybe? Elk?”
Ben was the youngest Bower at ten years old. Travis Troy was the authority by another four. They were to have had a baby sister once but Lily Anne arrived stillborn. Mother and father died together soon after in an auto accident not three blocks from the house. That was a few summers ago. Since then, they’d lived with Uncle Earl.
When the census man came by, he let the Bowers know that they were the only household in Egypt, Georgia to be populated entirely by men. That little detail struck Ben. Should he be proud of that? Ashamed?
“Damned summer heat,” Travis Troy said, cracking open a can of Budweiser.
“Get that beer outta your hand, Earl’ll kill you.”
“You hush and I’ll give you a sip.”
Travis Troy had long dark hair to go with the long muscles in his arms and neck.
Ben admired that. Ben was a short fat kid and he put out like the weight didn’t bother him but secretly he was crazy to be sleek and strong like Travis Troy. At night sometimes, in their bunk beds, Travis Troy spoke great and mysterious promises to Ben. Travis Troy said that all Ben’s baby fat would fall off when his balls dropped. Said that’s how it worked with Bower men. Top heavy at the front end of life—but went out rail thin, furious and coughing, like Grandpa.
It was ten in the morning and Uncle Earl didn’t get off work at the vitamin factory till six. They had the whole summer day to themselves. Travis Troy drained much of the beer can and handed it to his brother.
“You didn’t leave nothin’ in it,” Ben said.
“I left enough for you. Drink up, tough guy.”
Ben tilted the can and drank. The cold beer tasted of copper and snow. His eyes teared up a little and his chest felt as if it had just been inflated with a bike pump.
“Hey you pussies!” someone shouted from behind the hedge.
Ben panicked and bobbled the can. When it hit the gravel, Ben already stood behind Travis Troy.
“Aw, shut up, Knuckle,” Travis Troy said.
Knuckle, a ninth grader for the second time, stood tall and shaggy and shirtless in this sunlight. A nub of a cigarette burned in his lips. A bow and quiver hung strapped across his pale chest. Like a redneck Tarzan, Ben thought.
“Don’t leave that cigarette butt around the trailer,” Travis Troy warned.
“Cool your jets.” Knuckle sidestepped through the bushes, raking his bow across the limbs.
Knuckle and Travis Troy casually pounded their fists. Knuckle did not offer the gesture to Ben.
“What’s wrong with your dog?” Knuckle asked.
“Nothin’,” Travis Troy said. “What’s with the bow?”
“I bought it.”
“You stole it,” Ben guessed.
Knuckle looked at Travis Troy, “You think your brother’ll fit in the trash compactor?”
Travis Troy ignored him. “How many arrows you got?”
“Five. My old man’ll notice if any are missing, so we gotta account for all of ‘em.”
“Lemmie shoot it,” Ben said.
“I ain’t even gonna let you look at it. Turn your head,” Knuckle said.
“Want a beer?” Travis Troy asked Knuckle.
They left Charlie barking in the trailer and climbed down the cement development wall toward the river. Three boys and a bow. Hunters.
They tramped down into the cool bracken under the shade of yew trees at full bloom. The air hovered cold there, and the river babbled out beyond.
“I’m a shoot a fish,” Knuckle said.
“No you ain’t,” Travis Troy said.
“Cuz it ain’t that easy, dingus. Water causes refraction of the light. Makes it look like somethin’s there, when the fish is really half a foot to the left.”
Refraction, Ben thought. That was a ten dollar word. Travis Troy had a lot of those.
“Keep up, Ben,” Travis Troy said.
They hiked on for another twenty minutes, and then Knuckle raised his hand. “Stop,” he said.
“Why?” Travis Troy asked.
“I want to shoot your brother.” Knuckle unslung the bow from his shoulder and pulled a long aluminum arrow from the quiver.
“Don’t joke like that,” Travis Troy said.
“Who’s joking? You ever heard of William Tell?”
“You don’t have any idea who William Tell is,” Travis Troy said.
“Ben, go stand your fat ass against that tree,” Knuckle said.
Ben’s heart kicked up a little bit and began to buck in his chest. He knew Knuckle was a tricker but he also had an authentic streak of crazy running through him. Whole family did. Ask anyone in town. Knuckle was special trouble.
Knuckle fit an arrow in the string and pulled back. He aimed it at the dirt but he made full white-eye contact with Ben.
Ben looked to his brother.
“Don’t listen to him, Ben. Knuckle, I swear, you hush up.”
“I’ll shoot you too if I want.”
A deep croak burbled from the woods. Some kind of rough-bodied groan. But the sound stretched out like an insect’s long and tedious click.
“Hell was that?” Knuckle asked.
“Sounded like a cow,” Ben said, knowing as he spoke how dumb that made him sound.
“A cow,” Knuckle said.
“Come on,” Travis Troy led the way.
They skulked toward the noise. Leaves and bramble crunched beneath their sneakers. Travis Troy stopped them and they listened. Nothing. Just the lick-speak of the river.
It sounded again, this time like a screen-door peeling open. The sound rose and fell. Rose again and fell again.
It was right before them.
Travis pinned his back to a tree. Ben and Knuckle did the same.
“Oh . . .” Travis Troy whispered. “Oh, my . . .”
Ben peered around the tree. Travis Troy stared straight ahead into the woods.
“Travis Troy, what are you looking . . .” Ben’s eyes fell upon it.
Not twenty feet away, it crouched in the bramble.
Ben had seen praying mantises before. But this was not that. It wasn’t a cricket either. It had features of both, maybe, but never, never had he seen an insect this size. It trembled in the dirt and leaves, the size of a child. Not much smaller than himself, Ben guessed. It must have been injured for it made no move, even as it watched the boys.
Its antennae stood grotesquely long, six feet easy. Swaying and twitching, their hairy pads grazed across the forest floor. Eyes agog, shining black as tar, so large as though swollen with terror. Brisket full and round, all armored in dull green plates like tree bark. Six legs cocked and folded around the fat and fluted body. A set of big, sail-like wings folded across its back. Their surfaces rippled and glassy. The long boat of the abdomen spread back and ended in long, ropy tail, coiled like a scorpion’s.
Ben’s throat closed.
The insect croaked again, shrill and obscenely.
It looked at Ben and slowly lowered its triangular jaw. It screamed.
The scream lasted for full seconds.
Stop screaming, Ben thought. Please stop.
“Why won’t it move?” Knuckle stepped back.
Travis Troy shook his head slowly. “I think it’s hurt.”
“Is that a cricket?” Knuckle asked.
“Crickets don’t have long heads like that,” Ben whispered. “The antennae are similar, but that tail . . .”
“That thing must weigh fifty pounds. Who ever heard of a fifty-pound insect?” Knuckle asked.
“Shhh,” Travis Troy said. “Thing’s terrified.”
“I’m terrified,” Knuckle said.
Travis Troy turned to Ben. “Go home,” he said. “Call Uncle Earl at work—”
Knuckle loosed an arrow on the creature and the bolt sank halfway into its belly. The creature cranked its great head up and bellowed again, into the trees, into the sky.
Ben slapped his palms over his ears. Anything for it to stop.
The thing cast its head side to side, terrible wet mouth agape, openly screaming its grinding chords. The arrow shook and waved in its thorax. The insect looked at the boys and bleated, honked at them fiercely. It made no move save to pump its face in their direction, shrieking again and again at its murderers. Ben turned away. He nearly ran but he thought of his brother. Would he follow? Would Travis Troy call him a coward? The sound finally died and Ben hugged his chest. He glanced back towards his brother and tried not to look at the creature.
Travis Troy pushed Knuckle to the ground. The bow fell from Knuckle’s hands.
“Whut’d you do that for, ya psychopath!” Travis Troy hollered.
“Thing’s a monster!” Knuckle said. “I’m puttin’ it outta its misery. ‘Sides, we’ll be famous. Get our pictures on the news.”
Travis Troy shook his head and looked back at the bug.
The thing seemed to move slower now. Colorless fluid, thick as olive oil, dribbled from its wound. The insect dragged its face across the ground. Leaves caught on its eyes.
“See, I killed it,” Knuckle said.
Travis Troy looked at Ben. “Let’s get outta here,” he said. “Knuckle, go get your arrow if you want it.”
“I ain’t going near that thing,” Knuckle said, walking away from the monster.
Travis Troy took up the bow and the quiver, saying only, “You ain’t carryin’ this. You just lost the privilege.”
They walked and argued on their way back toward the house. Knuckle carried on about fame while Travis Troy told him he was an a-hole. Ben said not a word. Best to let these bigger kids have it out amongst themselves. Travis Troy had it under control anyway.
“You know what that was?” Knuckle asked no one. “It was a locust. God sent them before to devour the Earth and here they are again.”
Ben kept his head down and walked on until he bumped into Travis Troy.
“What’d you stop for?” he asked.
They’d all stopped.
There were four of them. All crouched and poised at the boys, like lion cubs ready to pounce. Their long forelegs bent under them in the dirt. Travis Troy put a flat hand on his brother’s belly. The locusts twitched their heads back and forth like they couldn’t control it. Severe shivers rattled the locusts’ spines; their brittle exoskeletons trembled with anticipation. Their bulbous black eyes rolled.
Simultaneously, the insects stood up on their spindly hind legs. They chittered as if in discussion. Their shining jaws looked as long and sharp as traps.
“Go,” Travis Troy said.
Ben thought Travis Troy had lost his mind and was speaking to the bugs as if they were pets, dogs. Go. Then Travis Troy gave a hard push on Ben’s belly and Ben realized he was speaking to him. Travis shouted: “Go!”
Ben twisted away and ran from the trees, toward the field of standing yellow cane bordering the river. Ben raised his hands and blocked his face with his forearms. Panicked, he plunged into the tall stalks. He ran and pushed forward. Tears streaked down his red face. He coughed and choked and forgot how to breathe. His mouth filled with cottonweed. Distantly, someone shouted his name. His brother shouted his name. Ben turned and was mauled by a locust.
Its heavy arms swatted at him, pulled him to the ground. Ben shrieked and cried and his brother repeated his name into his face, “Ben Ben Ben.”
Ben opened his eyes. It was Travis Troy. His brother had found him, had saved him. Travis Troy pinned him to the ground, knees on his chest.
“Be quiet, Ben. Hush.”
Ben quit sobbing and looked into his brother’s face.
“Where’s Knuckle?” Ben sniffed.
“I don’t know,” Travis Troy whispered. “Let’s get home.”
Travis Troy rolled off Ben and stood. Ben hauled himself up and held onto his brother’s hand.
“Travis!” Knuckle screamed from somewhere. “Travis!” It sounded as if Knuckle was bawling. His voice gurgled and pleaded, “Travis, they’re stinging me! Travis, they’re—”
The voice shut off.
Ben opened his eyes. A figure stepped through the cane toward them. It was Knuckle. He wore a locust on his back. It clung there between his shoulder blades, green forelegs scissoring tightly around Knuckle’s face. The tail wrapped around Knuckle’s throat, some kind of stinger implanted itself deep and clean into the skin of his throat.
Knuckle’s face swelled as he walked. Before Ben’s eyes, Knuckle became unrecognizable. Became a monster himself. The swelling closed Knuckle’s eyes and mouth. His cheeks puffed out to the point that they overcame and absorbed his nose. It looked like his own head was swallowing his face. His skull swelled to the size of a basketball and bigger. The pop of bones sounded like tree limbs snapping.
Knuckle’s arms waved as he stumbled about like a toddler. The hands, Ben noticed, were each swollen to the size of dinner plates. Fingers could not be distinguished.
Knuckle twisted and fell. He laid still and disfigured in the cane. The locust rattled and uncoiled its tail. They killed him. I have now seen someone be killed, Ben thought.
Travis Troy and Ben sprinted together through the cane. Travis Troy hauled Ben along. They stumbled into the river—the cold water suddenly up to Ben’s chest. Travis Troy pushed him forward, commanding him to swim. Ben quit thinking. He committed himself to the river and to the swiftness of the current. He let it take him. All he could try to do was keep his head above water.
River water filled his ears, clogged his senses. It filled his shoes and tried to pull him under like weights. He flailed and the river took him. His heartbeat shot up into his head, the blood pounded in his temples like hammer-strokes. This was panic. This was shock. His head filled with pressure and with pain. He tried to breathe but sucked in only another lungful of cold water. Something deep inside his brain knew what was happening. He realized he was only a moment from blacking out and disappearing forever. No oxygen, no brain, no life, no questions. Ben flapped his arms a final time and pushed his face from the water and inhaled as deep as he could. This was his final moment. He didn’t understand how it had happened so quickly. Why him? Why this day? He fell back into the water, choking, dying. His lungs filled with water and he sank.
The river consumed him and sucked him to the bottom.
A moment passed and Ben thought: Good. He knew that this was right. This was as it should be. It was right for Knuckle to die. Right for Ben to die as well. Travis Troy would survive. Travis Troy would go on. Ben accepted this and felt a kind of relief brew up in him as he drowned.
Ben shut his eyes and emptied his lungs.
The priest had closed out Ben’s little sister’s funeral by looking directly into Ben’s eyes and saying, “As you pray for Lily Anne, know that she is with God and she prays also for you.”
Ben liked that. He liked the idea of a little baby sister praying directly into God’s ear for Ben and Travis Troy.
Hands clamped around the hinges of Ben’s jaw and jerked his head up, trying to rip his head from his shoulders. Ben opened his eyes and saw the dark swimming shade of Travis Troy wrestling him up to the surface. Travis Troy tore at him and forced him upward.
Travis Troy wrapped his arms across his brother’s belly and hauled him toward the sunlight. Travis Troy kicked as though in a frenzy. They broke the surface screaming. Together they pushed toward the far side. They scrabbled and panted in the clay. Ben’s vision tuned in and out. He vomited water into the mud.
They lay on their backs, mouths open to God. Just two brothers on a river bank. Ben had never wanted more to fall asleep.
“Come on,” Travis Troy said, rolling onto his stomach. He pushed himself to his feet. His hands sank to the wrist in the mud.
The locusts clicked again. Buzzing from somewhere, everywhere. The sound filled the woods.
“Where are they?” Ben asked.
They looked back across the river at their homeland. The woods of west Georgia.
Together, hundreds of locusts leapt up into the air above the cane. A tide darkened the sky. Ben could not guess their number. All the size of dogs or bigger. The buzzing shook Ben’s skin and pierced his brain.
“Come on!” Travis Troy grabbed his brother and pushed him up and they ran into the hills.
They ran through the fields, the buzzing everywhere, only increasing in volume.
“Don’t look back!” Travis Troy shouted.
They ran up the undulations of green grass, Ben’s sopping blue jeans throwing water and piss.
They ran toward a long plain of grass and the empty interstate beyond that. The filling station stood old and abandoned a hundred yards away.
Ben followed Travis Troy.
The buzzing of the creatures rang out impossibly loud.
They reached the gas station and Travis Troy tore open the door.
Ben glanced backward and witnessed the great current of locusts. All in sizes comparable to himself. They swept down from the sky like black sand pouring from the sun. Their clacking and buzzing sounded to Ben as if a power line were running through his head.
A chestnut-colored yearling rolled and seized in the field, hooves aflutter. The horse battled with a trio of locusts that stabbed and pried at its back.
Travis Troy shut the door.
Abandoned, the interior of the filling station was stripped almost bare. The skeletal racks were empty, the counters clear. A layer of dust caked the floor.
The brothers crowded in the old bathroom and bolted the door shut. The bolt fell apart in Travis Troy’s hands.
Ben cried into his wrists. Travis Troy leaned against the door and slid down, panting hard.
At his parent’s funeral, Ben waited for the priest to say that his mother and father were in heaven praying for Ben. He never said it. The priest closed it out differently, in some other way Ben could not now remember. Afterward, Ben gathered the courage to approach the priest and ask him.
“Oh, yes,” the priest said. “All of our family members that have passed on pray to God on our behalf and He listens.”
All pray on our behalf. Ben imagined his whole line of mysterious ancestors all kneeling in Heaven, all praying for Ben and his brother. Does the plea of those that were closest to you carry more weight? Is the prayer of your mother worth more than the prayer of your grandmother? Is your number of dead proportionate to how blessed you become?
When Ben awoke on the bathroom floor, Travis Troy handed him the heavy porcelain lid from the toilet tank.
“Take this,” he said. “You swing it and bash ‘em if you need to.”
“Where are you going?” Ben grabbed his brother’s hands.
“Gonna try and find the office phone, call Uncle Earl. Even if I can just leave a message, he can come and find us. We can’t just stay here.”
“There ain’t gonna be a office phone,” Ben said.
“Maybe there will be.”
“Ain’t you scared?” Ben asked.
“Hell yes I am,” Travis Troy said. “But remember what John Wayne said.”
“Courage is being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.”
Ben burst into tears.
“I’m taking the bow,” Travis Troy rubbed his brother’s head. “I’ll be back real soon. Don’t open this door for nothin’. Understand?”
Travis Troy put his ear to the door.
“What do you hear?” Ben sniffled.
Travis Troy shook his head, “Nothin’.” He turned the knob and pulled the door open a crack. He peered out into the emptiness of the gas station. “I’ll be right back.” Travis Troy slid out the doorway and Ben shut it behind him.
Ben applied his shaking hands to the door and held it shut.
His chin trembled. He swallowed. Buck up. You’re with Travis Troy. You’re okay. Just count. Just count.
Ben began slowly, “One . . . two . . .”
He glanced back at the dark bathroom for something with which to bar the door. There was nothing. Filthy toilet, filthy floor. Old cigarettes and a plastic lighter lay in the dry sink.
When he made it to one hundred and fifty, something banged heavily outside the door, as if something large had crashed on the floor. Another crash.
Something pounded on the door. Ben screamed aloud.
“Ben! Open it up!” Travis Troy pushed on the door.
Ben stepped back and the door swung open. Travis Troy fell in and turned and slammed the door behind him. Travis Troy shook and trembled. Instantly, Ben knew he wasn’t right.
“What happened?” Ben took to shaking as well.
Dark red blood ran out of Travis Troy’s nose and ears in straight lines. He had neither the bow nor the quiver.
Travis Troy stared at his hands. His face began to purple. Terror rose in his eyes. His throat swelled as it were inflating. He screamed. He looked at Ben and screamed.
In the gas station bathroom, the brothers panicked together. They both knew Travis Troy had been stung and was now going to die.
Travis Troy convulsed. His chest pumped like a bellows. He looked as if he were straining his jaw. He locked his teeth and screamed as his face distorted. He tried to say his brother’s name, but his tongue filled his whole mouth.
Ben screamed manically. He clutched onto his brother and felt his brother’s swelling hands grab and pull at Ben’s face.
The older brother howled through his dislodged jaw. The bones in his face popped audibly. Travis Troy’s final moments would be grotesque and agonizing. This was not how Ben thought it would end. This was wrong. Travis Troy was no longer Travis Troy. He was a screaming deformity on a bathroom floor. Save him. Kill him. Save your brother. Give mercy. Kill your brother.
Ben took up the lid of the toilet tank and swung it down against Travis Troy’s skull. Travis Troy’s head spun a quarter turn and slammed against the floor. A handful of teeth skittered across the tile. Travis Troy screamed louder, his eyeballs about to burst.
Kill your brother. Even this, Ben could not do correctly. Ben swung the slab again and again until it shattered and Travis Troy lay on the ground, his massive head cracked inward. Ben fell onto his brother and clawed at his blood-soaked shirt. He struck his face against his dead brother’s chest and screamed and sobbed and wanted nothing more than to be dead with him, to go where he had gone.
The blood and the bathroom smelled of rust. Hours passed.
Ben, drenched in blood, sat against the bathroom door. He sat with his hands around his knees. His head hung forward sleepily.
Pray for me.
Ben shook awake. No light shown in the bathroom. The smell of thick and metallic blood filled his head.
He thought of Uncle Earl. He tried to imagine being rescued. But in the fantasy that played across his mind’s eye, it was not his uncle that kicked open the bathroom door to save him, it was his dog—Charlie. He imagined his great dog attacking the locusts, snapping and growling at them as he raced across the river to find his boys. If any dog could do such a thing, could brave such a hell, it would be . . . no. Ben could not finish the thought. Ben knew in his true heart that his simple, eager dog was still trapped in the trailer where he’d been left, barking helplessly, or dead somewhere, swollen up and broken—just like Travis Troy.
Ben stood and took slow cautious steps to the bathroom sink. He bumped into it and scraped his hand along the bowl. He rubbed the porcelain and found the old, dry cigarette butts and the rusty plastic lighter. He took it up and rubbed his thumb against the wheel. He’d seen Knuckle use a lighter before. How did it work? A flick of his—there, a spark. He flicked it again, and again, each time causing a stir of blue light. Finally, he flicked it and held the button. An inch of quivering flame stood from the mouth of the lighter.
In the mirror, Ben looked like a wild animal. His face was covered in dirt and blood and streaked with tears. It looked like war paint. He turned and cast the light onto his brother’s body—Travis Troy, helpless, for the first time ever. Ben looked away. The walls were filthy and blood-splattered. Graffiti was scrawled on the tiles, most of it illegible. Except for before him, at eye-level, someone had drawn the words: “You Go To Hell Hell Hell.”
You go to hell hell hell.
A sound like the buzz and snap of electricity rattled from the doorway. Something sharp and wiry brushed his cheek. Ben turned and dropped the lighter. In the last moment of light, he saw the long antennae questing through the cracked doorway. The thin door glided open.
Ben scurried backward on the floor. He crab-walked over his brother’s slick and stiffening body. His hands slipped on the heavy shards of porcelain that had once been the tank lid.
Ben backed up against the wall.
The locusts buzzed and clacked before him in the dark. He could not see, only guess how many crouched before him. His hands curled around two sharp chunks of porcelain.
Pray for me.
Like a tile puzzle being solved, the thought slid and locked into position in his head: You were made for this. This is you.
He’d never be his brother. Was never meant to. This was always his purpose. To be here, at this moment, with these creatures. It was as if a dam had broken within him. There is no future. That is your freedom.
Ben decided. He swallowed and spat, ready to run at the monsters. Ready to run after Travis Troy.
Ben stood and wielded the shards like gruesome and ancient knives.
You go to hell hell hell.