On a humid Memorial Day, a fat, hairy caterpillar crawled up a plum tree’s branch toward a lush, green leaf. The caterpillar had eaten a baker’s dozen of leaves earlier that morning, but this piece of emerald succulence, floating on a stem mere inches away, would be the coupe de grâce. His mouth salivated with anticipation, its tiny teeth clamping as the undulating segments of his orange and brown body stretched toward the divine verdancy.
Henry squished the fuzzy little bastard between his fingers and a burst of atomic ooze splattered across his hand. He’d long ago forced himself past any squeamishness or sense of empathy that the gypsy caterpillar’s guts may have conjured. They were invading soldiers and he had to protect his realm. Henry versus the evils of nature was how his wife Cate so succinctly put it. She may have initially found his quest amusing, even futile, but she hadn’t laughed when she found her flowerbed chewed to shreds and metric tons of small black shit balls covering her car. The nascent drop-drop-drop of fecal pellets rained down day and night as the caterpillars masticated the entire world to their hearts content.
It had been a dry spring and the demonic insects had come to feed across the northeast. Forests were bare and food sources were depleting as if they were all stuck in the dead of a long New England winter instead of the middle of spring. The naked trees called to mind the skeletal hands of Jack Frost looming over the horizon, ready to prey upon the landscape and bring a bitter end to the world. Pestilence, Henry thought, wasn’t that one of the four horsemen? His beloved fruit trees were the first victims of a new apocalypse.
But the war wasn’t lost yet.
Henry surveyed his plum tree. The fruit was just starting to flower. One branch was now caterpillar-free, but the crunches of their leaf snacking burned in his ears and he knew more of the furry buggers were hiding somewhere. He stalked round to the other side of the tree and spied a fat bastard munching away, absorbed in its life’s work of eating and shitting, eating and shitting. He plucked the fucker between his fingers and felt the soft fur of its pulsating body.
The tips of his fingers squeezed together and the caterpillar burst into a violent mist of green. Pus stuck between Henry’s fingers and coagulated in the hairs of his forearms. His clothes were ruined. Cate would make him change now, especially if he wanted to hold Abby. And he wanted to; he loved that first little grandchild. But she would be fine, six months old, putting every little thing in her mouth as it was and none the worse for it. And this was nature, right? So no harm, nothing toxic, all organic. None of the newspaper articles or online rants had mentioned anyone getting sick from caterpillar guts. He’d been squelching the little bastards all week and he’d never felt better, despite the rising humidity, despite the abundant pollen, despite the endless nature of his task. But still—he wouldn’t want to get any of that slime in his mouth, even if they weren’t poisonous. The thought of that putrid mess touching his lips, sticking to his teeth, swirling about his tongue, sinking down his throat—he practically gagged right then and there.
Cate had recently brought up the topic of pesticides, but Henry wouldn’t hear of it. No matter how awful the caterpillars were, he wouldn’t fathom covering his precious orchard with poison. Plus, Abby would surely be walking soon—did Cate want her granddaughter playing on grass covered in toxic waste? That was the end of it. Cate knew better than to argue, and Henry was certain he had made his point. He’d drive the gypsies off his land one-by-one no matter how long it took and no matter how much they fought back.
Now, standing there covered in caterpillar gore, Henry was determined to at least save this tree, on this day, before the inevitable signal came to get cleaned up. Pluck, pinch, squeeze, squelsh. Pluck, pinch, squeeze, squelsh. An explosion of liquid vegetation filled the air.
He was so absorbed in his quest that he didn’t notice Cate standing on the back deck and calling his name. “Alyssa, Brad and Abby are going to be here in half an hour,” she said
“Okay,” he replied automatically, his mind absorbed in rebuffing the invasion.
“Why don’t you take a shower?”
Cate watched him for a few minutes before heading inside to give the living room a fresh vacuum, making it immaculate for the baby. Henry, certain the tree was now clear, double and triple checked it before moving on, figuring he had time to attempt a save on the cherry tree. The branches shook as if the tree were battling for its life, the leaves’ putting up one last struggle against the chubby, chomping bastards. Henry would kill just enough so that he couldn’t notice the tree’s fraught shimmy from the deck while he was hanging out with his family.
Alyssa, Brad and baby Abby arrived by the time Henry had squeezed his two hundredth caterpillar of the day into oblivion. His fingers ached, his entire left arm was covered in caterpillar sludge, and Cate was as closed to pissed as she could ever get because he had forgotten to take a shower. He settled for a quick scrub down and a change into fresher clothes, and even with all that, he still had time to start the grill and play with Abby on the toxin-free grass before his other daughter Lucy and her fiancé arrived for dinner.
Henry went to bed knowing the caterpillars would be back the next day and therefore was hardly surprised when he woke to their incessant chewing. There was never any stopping them; every day there were scores more. He must have killed five hundred the day before, two thousand over the past week. And now here he was, out in the backyard before work once again, ridding his fruit trees of the demonic creatures. The plum tree, one hundred percent caterpillar-free as of yesterday afternoon, was now missing a quarter of its leaves. The cherry trees were nearly chewed to death, and the peach tree and blackberry bushes—well, it was best to save what he could. Pick, squeeze, squish. Squelch, squish, squelch. At least the bugs weren’t touching the flowers or budding fruits. Yet. Still, he needed to save the leaves if he was going to protect the blossoms from his other springtime nemesis, the squawking blue jay. Pick, squeeze, squish. Squelch, squish, squelch.
The mucus glowed green as it dribbled down his arms. He’d forgotten to wear gloves again. After wiping out dozens of the enemy once more, he washed his hands off at the hose and rolled up his shirtsleeves to hide the vomit-colored stains. He headed around front to set off for the office and immediately felt his temper flare. The driveway and his car were once again covered in hundreds of tiny little black shit balls, which meant that despite his labors, there were hundreds more lurking in the rafters, waiting for him to leave so they could swoop down and ravage his trees.
He called his office and said he had an emergency that needed sorting. He wasn’t resorting to pesticides—no, not yet; it would take a bit more before he crossed that boundary. But he was outnumbered and—he scratched his left arm—he needed a new line of resistance to protect the last vestiges of his failing empire.
Henry procured dozens of six-foot wooden stakes and what seemed like acres of industrial strength netting from the local hardware depot. It took him all afternoon to fasten the rigging and drape the finely-webbed nets, but he was confident he had outwitted the caterpillars this time, that none of the bastards would fall from the sky to wreak havoc on his trees anymore.
As the sun set red in the summer sky, he once again cleared the now-fully armored plum tree of the fuzzy invaders, his work clothes covered in dirt, sweat and the rotten stench of the ever omnipresent viridian mire.
Cate ate dinner alone then busied herself with her youngest daughter’s upcoming nuptials. At nine o’clock, when Henry finally emerged from a long overdue shower, she immediately noticed the burning red on his left arm.
“I just took a hot shower,” his voice brimmed with annoyance.
She looked at his face, red, but not nearly as atomic as his forearms, his palms, the glowing edges of his fingers. His body radiated heat. “I think you’re having an allergic reaction.”
“It’s nothing, Cate.” He waved a hand across the air, brushing her off.
“Look at your arm, Henry. You’re telling me that’s nothing?”
She didn’t assert herself too often, but she needed to now. She watched as he walked into the kitchen, found a bottle of red wine and poured himself a glass.
“The skin’s just irritated, that’s all,” he said. “It could be a sunburn too.”
“So you were out there all day, squishing those things—without gloves, once again—and then you admit you weren’t wearing sunblock either?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Cate.”
He stomped off into the living room but the drumming of her footsteps followed.
“They could be poisonous,” she threw at him.
“You don’t know.”
“I do know, Cate. They’re caterpillars. They’re just worse than they’ve been before. I’ll tell you what it is: global warming, all those pesticides everyone’s spraying.”
“I don’t want you squishing them anymore. You’re having an allergic reaction.”
The concern in her voice gave Henry a moment of pause.
“Don’t worry about it.” He scratched at his arm. “It’s just a little irritated. I’ll eat some beets and kale and blueberries and turmeric and it will be gone in a couple of days.”
“What about Abby? What if you spread it to her?”
Fine, he thought, go for the nuts. You win, Cate. “I’ll make sure I’m covered next time—head to foot.” He scratched his arm again—it really was annoying him, somewhere between burning and itching. “And, hey—I got those nets out there. They can’t get through. We should be all set, and they’ll probably end up all just dying off in a week or so anyway.”
None of his hopes came to fruition. He woke the next morning to a searing pain in his left arm and skin that had been scratched raw. Pustules crawled down his fingers and over the back of his hand. White-crowned bumps trailed into his palm and across his forearm. A few had broken, seeping out a fetid ooze that had stained his bed sheets pink. All of it hurt like hell, burning with irritation to the point that he couldn’t focus on pissing or shaving. He fought the urge to scratch and ran his hand under ice water, the numbness finally providing mild relief.
Feeling slightly better, Henry glared out the bathroom window to glimpse the status of his defensive netting.
He left the tap running as he raced out of the bathroom, still in his boxer shorts, his bare feet slapping against the wood of the hallway floor, the deck, across the dewy grass, littered with bits of leaves, caterpillar shit, a few of the bugs themselves squelching under his feet, iridescent guts splurting into the cracks between his toes.
The wooden framework of his defenses was still intact and at first thought he had made a mistake. But then he stepped closer and noticed the nylon strands dancing in the wind and the limp sections of netting where the monsters had eaten through. The blueberry bushes were all but bare. The cherry trees had maybe a few dozen leaves each. The plum tree was scarcely more than a naked skeleton.
He stood in disbelief, a fray of netting held in one hand while the other absently scratched at his arm, his fingernails turning the white bumps red, the red bumps bloody, pus secreting over his skin, congealing under his nails. Cate called to him from the deck and the avocado-like bug guts stuck between his toes, but all he could do was stare at his trees, listening to the sounds of crawling, chewing, and crunching as every single branch on every single one of his babies juddered with the ruinous mocking laughter of a thousand caterpillars.
Henry had been holding back, but he couldn’t anymore. He had to take the nuclear option. Skipping breakfast, he tossed on a sweatshirt and jeans to hide the pustules from Cate and headed out the front door.
By the time he hopped in his shit-covered Honda, his clothes where already drenched with sweat. Henry wiped his forehead and turned the key. The engine coughed but refused to turn over. He tried again only to rouse weak sputter. He removed the key, counted to ten, took a deep breath, inserted it back in the starter and cranked it hard, grinding the starter’s gears. The engine coughed and hacked, struggling to breathe before ultimately collapsing into silence.
A caterpillar crawled out of the nearest air vent. His anger bubbled as he realized a hoard of them must have been clogging the engine. He fought to remain calm, to not let the fuzzy little beasts get to him, but—goddammit—he smashed the lone caterpillar into pulp. He smiled as he wiped the bastard’s innards on his jeans, primed the gas pedal with two pumps, inhaled deeply, and turned the key. The engine sputtered and strained before roaring to life. He let it idle for a minute, listening as the relatively new engine, two years old, less than fifteen thousand miles, rattled like an old man.
He put the car into gear and tore out of the driveway, hoping he burnt more than a few of the bastards in a fiery hell as the engine roared along the road.
Standing in the lawn care aisle at the big-box hardware depot, Henry had briefly considered an array of organic insecticides, but the aching in his arms and insufferable itching between his toes drove his deliberations back to the kamikaze spray of green that erupted from the bastards as they continually fought to thwart him. There could be no remorse. He had to go all in. He chose a package covered with warnings and skulls and drove home with a dozen of the death-filled containers filling the backseat of his car.
Henry drowned the fruit trees with the poison, then doused the whole backyard. Cate, worried that her husband had gone mental in this reckless abandonment of his morals, asked if he was certain he wasn’t actually poisoning the two of them. “Keep the baby in the house,” was his only reply as he opened the fourth canister of the spray.
It wasn’t until after armageddon was unleashed that she saw his arm, festering with a viscous pus that had soured from pink to yellow. His forehead burned like a coal fire and Cate demanded that he go to the doctor’s; but Henry refused and she knew too well that he would have to be on his deathbed before he’d even consider it. She had to settle for wrapping his arms and fingers in gauze as her husband kept watch over his yard, waiting for the dead caterpillars to rain down as the poison took hold.
The gypsies disappeared and Henry’s yard eventually regained its silent composure, but not before Cate was forced to call in a professional exterminator to handle them all. It soured Henry to see some schmo in a hazmat suit walking around, spraying his yard, making money off him and probably hundreds of other people for something they had no control over, some satanic gag of Nature’s that was hell-bent on terrorizing them all. He was even more angry because he could have done it—should have done it—himself if he wasn’t on bed rest, by order of Cate and his daughters and the doctor that they forced him to see.
The doctor was worthless; after Henry’s visit, his fever only got worse. He returned home to get some rest but instead his mind wove in and out of consciousness. His body burned up as his temperature sunk low, shivering later on when his temperature peaked at one hundred and two, his skin burning and itching as he fought and lost the will to scratch it, clawing the scabs between his toes, bursting the pockmarks, releasing whatever poison was welling up inside him, all while the ghosts of those furry demons continued to scream in his head, incessantly chitter-chattering their teeth as they gorged themselves fat on his fruit trees. He dreamed in green, in verdant jade and emerald, the world slimed with digested vegetation, regurgitated leaves vomited up by dozens of caterpillars with skull like faces that swarmed over him, chewing at his trees, gnawing at his own visage, the toxic sludge of their saliva, their innards melting his skin, liquefying the tissue as their writhing forms emerged from his eyeless sockets, their chittering giving way to a flapping noise, a fluttering white veil of a bride, moving down the aisle, her dress flowing, floating in the air like ashen wings of a gypsy queen, carrying his desiccated skull like a bouquet as her larvae lay waiting inside ready to emerge from their cocoon.
When he woke from the agitated depths of his nightmares he had to remind himself that the infernal pests were long gone. Whether the caterpillars lay dead in foot deep mounds in his backyard or had dispersed back to whatever god-forsaken hellhole they had come from, he didn’t know. He only knew, as clarity and relief finally broke through the fever and pain, that they were definitively gone.
But he had to check. He had to be sure.
He struggled to his feet and gazed out across the vestiges of his once magnificent orchard.
A gust of hot air blew in through the open window.
Against the light of the moon, the back yard was still and stark as a winter’s night.
He shivered and went back to bed.
The warmth of the fever lingered for a few more days, but by the next Sunday’s family dinner, Henry was walking around and working the grill like a pro. Despite the protests that he needed his rest, Henry was determined to make up for lost time by making himself useful. He helped Cate, Lucy and Alyssa put the finishing touches on the wedding plans. He even took his soon-to-be son-in-law out for a round of drinks one afternoon (though, recovering, he didn’t partake himself). But his will was greater than his vigor, and by the time five o’clock rolled around, he usually had plopped himself in front of the television, watching news reports on the aftermath of the gypsy caterpillar invasion, switching to home and garden showcases of plush green lawns and flowering trees, before getting depressed, shutting the damn picture box off and struggling to relax in the warm silence and complete absence of chewing noises.
He slept often but his sleep was restless; each morning he awoke more tired than the last. The whole lead up to the wedding drifted by him in a blurry haze of multiple naps and sleepless nights, the ghostly echoes of tiny teeth crunching through his fruit trees, the hairy bugs scampering about his kitchen, wallowing in the sugar, pouring from the milk carton in a verdant goop of their own guts. He was afraid to close his eyes but he couldn’t keep them open.
The rash on his skin continued to itch to no end. His arm was wrapped in thick gauze, the flesh underneath a mess, scratched and fissured, the new tissue tender and pink. There would be scars, but the real kicker was when the doctor said Henry was lucky he hadn’t been paralyzed by the insects’ poison. All Henry could think about was how stupid he had been, how he had let the reckless madness consume him. His youngest daughter’s wedding was only days away and he had almost missed it because of some worthless fruit trees.
The day of the rehearsal came and Henry felt close to but not quite at one hundred percent. Despite his wife and daughters’ incessant protests that he relax, he continued to take charge of his usual chores, mowing the lawn in the morning and taking the refuse to the dump after lunch. Henry also insisted on helping Cate and Lucy set up for the wedding and rehearsal dinner. Cate ultimately relented on the condition that he took a nap beforehand and do nothing else during the remainder of the afternoon. Even then, he had to promise to take her cell phone and keep them updated on his travels.
After his wife and daughters left, Henry milled around the house, looking for some task to occupy his time. After attempting to start a couple of projects, he found himself stretched out on the couch, losing his fight to stave off sleep and the indelible crunch-crunch-crunch of his ghosts. But instead of the unremitting grinding of caterpillar teeth, an agreeably soft patter like the sound of summer showers filled his ears. A state of calmness washed over him as his eyelids fell and he slipped into a restful slumber.
A wet thud woke Henry. Something had smacked the bay window that stretched above his napping couch. He looked past the grey-white smear that now adorned the glass and out into a sunless dusk. Fearing he had overslept, Henry raced to the bedroom, putting his pants and shirt on without ironing them, flying about until he noticed the clock on the dresser, the red numbers glowing 4:52. He looked again at the darkened sky, and, yes, he could almost make out the sun, its extraordinary dimness barely registering through a haze of low-hanging clouds that fluttered across the horizon. He glanced once again at the clock—an hour until the rehearsal. He’d missed the set up but if he left shortly he could still make it on time without breaking any speed limits.
Henry brewed a cup of fresh coffee, and, finding no caterpillars in the milk or sugar, drank it down in two gulps. He finished getting dressed, practiced some phrases of something resembling a toast in the mirror, then headed out to his car, the hood still smudged with remnants of caterpillar shit despite the heavy rains of the past few days. Looking at the quivering greyness above, another storm seemed on its way. Or had it already rained? His mind raced back to the calming patter of his dreams. The ground appeared dry; no water pooled in the driveway sinkhole. But what about that dripping—no fluttering—sound that he had heard so faintly? Standing silently in the driveway, he heard it again and, looking back towards the house, realized it was the window air-conditioner. He ran back inside and shut it off.
The Honda started up fine; no caterpillar bodies clogged the engine. Pulling out of the driveway, he turned on the NPR, adjusted his headlights in the darkening sky, and roared onto a nearly empty Route 148. He looked at the dashboard clock: 5:25. He was on his way with plenty of time to spare.
He thought of giving Cate a call when a blast of static hissed over the radio. Figuring it must be the impending storm, he searched for a clearer station, but every preset was filled with cracking and popping. Henry shut off the radio, but the static continued, an almost fluttering, flapping, thwap, thwap, thwap, thwap, thwap—thud. A bug splattered the windshield. A big sucker, its pasty guts smeared grey, its large wings dusted across the glass. He turned on the wipers, the washer fluid rinsing the surface clean in time for another insect to splatter it. And another. Flutter, flutter, thud. Flutter, flutter, thud. They kept coming and coming and Henry realized those were not storm clouds hanging in the air but the spectres of his dreams. Hovering above the road, their relentless flapping was more maleficent than the chewing had ever been. Hundreds of moths danced about in the twin beams of the Honda’s headlights, pale beasts swooping out of the darkness, ceaselessly smacking into his windshield, the skull-like masks of their faces looming close before exploding into oblivion, determined to finish what the caterpillars had started, to kill all sense of life and hope. The windshield wipers struggled to keep up with the pulverizing assault of bodies, smearing their guts across the glass, forcing him to slow down, squint his eyes and probe through the spunk for the double yellow line that kept him on course. The fluttering monsters filled the air and their corpses littered the ground, quickly covering the road and its guiding lines. He thought of stopping, of waiting out the squall of pestilence. But he couldn’t let them beat him, and with each bend in the path he continued driving, hoping that the next corner would reveal clearer skies; it was like a flock of birds, or a raincloud—there needed to be some end to it.
There were probably warnings all over the news telling motorists to avoid Route 148 near Brookfield because of the gypsies, and he was the only one who didn’t get the memo, too busy napping and rushing out the door. Henry’s body temperature rose with his frustration; his face turned red and his scab-covered skin itched. He tried to—needed to—remain calm. He wasn’t going to let them get him again.
He punched the gas around the next turn. The right tires clunked off the road onto the dirt shoulder. Henry turned the wheel to the left and the Honda was back on the road, the rubber tires sliding through the dusty sludge of moth carcasses and caterpillar shit. He fought with the wheel, the tires, the momentum but the car kept spinning, three-sixty, seven-twenty, ten-eighty, his body fighting the centrifugal forces while the haunting faces of the moths exploded into the windshield one after another, covering his car in smears of thick ash, creating a world of grey as his vision clouded and he lost all sense of space, slamming the brakes, wrestling for control as the car spun one last time, spiraling off the road, crashing into a dead tree, his forehead bashing against the side window, red blood spraying against the opaque glass canvas as the flip-flapping moths encircled him, bursting through the vents as he swatted and fought to defend himself, the eight by five interior of the car swarmed with the fluttering demons, thrashing their wings against his face, crawling over his jacket, his shirt, his pants, his skin—biting him, tearing at him, flooding into his mouth as he choked and cried and gasped for his life, his throat and lungs constricting with terror as they drowned his world in darkness.
Henry’s body rested in his car, unrecognizable like so many of the others discovered months after the fluttering grey swarm finally departed the New England skies. The government had eventually been forced to drop pesticide bombs and the earth was littered with ashen moth carcasses. Rescue parties, sifting through piles of limply fluttering wings and antennae, described the ruins akin to the ravages of a wildfire: dust and slag blowing through the air, blackened trees stripped of bark and leaf, the haggard remains of life all but vanquished. There were few survivors, animal or human. Rare was the corpse not consumed by the gypsy inferno, the cadaver without the pusious skin, the body that hadn’t been burrowed into by those savage insects, furry parasites hoping for a magnanimous host, a cocoon of flesh and bone that would be buried deep below the earth, where the monsters’ long gestating eggs would eventually be reborn into larvae, into caterpillars that would ceaselessly hunger to taste the sweet leaves of a new spring.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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