Somewhere beyond the edge of camp, the things were waking up. Somebody had mentioned it would be better to adjust to their schedule: sleep during the day, be vigilant at night, stop being taken by surprise. That week’s leader had refused, every single time. They had made enough concessions.
The dusky purple of twilight settled over the treetops as people kicked dirt over the glowing embers of their dying fire. On top of everything else, it hadn’t rained in weeks, and the whole wood was as good as kindling. They had nearly finished setting up camp for the night, and as the dozen or so remaining campers settled in for what was sure to be an uneasy rest, they rolled dirty sleeping bags onto dusty piles of dirt and leaves in a poor attempt to soften the ground at their backs. It was nearly winter. Jem sat at the edge of the tent circle, fluffing what now passed for a pillow. She hadn’t slept soundly in days, and it wasn’t because of what lurked beyond the tree line. The wood was filled with a million unfamiliar sounds–was that an insect? Some kind of bird? What makes a buzzing sound and also scurries up and down the trees at all hours? She wondered in silence. There was nobody to complain to any more.
She watched as a few of the others went to bed. Floating through the spaces between the zipped flaps of tents came the murmurs of pillow talk and the occasional sigh of pleasure–not everything had changed. She longed for the life she was used to: a life of clean sheets and fresh fruit and meat that didn’t come from whatever was crawling around. As she pondered her fate, resigned to a life of sore muscles and aching vertebrae, someone tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up, her thoughts interrupted. Kelvin.
“You’re on watch with me, Jem,” he said, and stalked off to the edge of the clearing without waiting for a response.
Kelvin was, in every sense of the word, a redneck. Jem had never socialized with people like Kelvin before all this happened, and she thought it a particularly ironic twist of fate that they were the only ones likely to survive this hell. She found herself wishing she were a little more rough around the edges. Everyone at camp treated her like a burden, making a point of explaining every chore assigned to her as if she had never heard of washing clothes or boiling water. Instead of proving them wrong, she half-assed every responsibility they gave her. If they think I’m so useless, she thought, I’ll be useless. It occurred to her that sort of response was infantile, but Jem wasn’t particularly concerned with earning their good favor. She wasn’t here to make friends, now.
Jem groaned and followed him to the spot he had chosen. Leaning against the tree was the rifle, which she took, wrinkling her nose at its weight. She slid down to sit, facing the direction opposite her partner, and supporting herself against the trunk for a moment before it occurred to her that was probably the worst possible place to be if she wanted to avoid getting crawled on. She shuddered, and Kelvin snorted. Almost as if he had read her mind, he said,
“Tiny bugs’re the least of your problems. Look out o’er there,” he said, and pointed to a place between two trees, a few yards beyond the campsite. Stretched between their branches were thick strands of pinkish grey, and though she couldn’t make out much more than their color, she knew what the rope-like webbing meant.
Jem swallowed, grasping the rifle tighter. “They’re out here?”
Kelvin shrugged as he searched the forest floor, kicking over rotting leaves and disturbing tufts of dead grass.
“But that’s so close to camp!” she whispered, eyes darting back to the spot between the trees.
He picked up a stick then, reaching into his pocket and taking out a knife, and began whittling it down to size before responding, “We swept the area pretty thorough before settlin’ in. They may make their way over, but if they do… well, that’s why we’re on watch. So keep your pretty peepers peeled.”
“Hmm,” was Jem’s only response. A biting wind blew through the trees, and she pulled her jacket even tighter around her well-fed frame. Suddenly, she felt a little less irritated and a lot more anxious. She didn’t want to be responsible for the welfare of all these people. She barely wanted that responsibility over herself. She thought about the last time she was on watch. She remembered Henry.
He had been in the group from the start–the only one she’d really liked, even if he was a little gauche. Something about him had smitten her, and it wasn’t his good looks or even his strength. It was his attitude, she thought, and his unwillingness to bend. He was solid on all counts, and maybe even a little stuck in his ways. Henry had come from circumstances similar to Jem‘s, in “real life” as she now referred to it in her private thoughts. He hadn’t been so different from her. Henry hadn’t lasted too long.
“Have you ever…” she started to ask, and trailed off. Kelvin grunted. “Have you seen one? Up close, I mean,” she finished.
Kelvin stopped whittling and turned to face her, his nose inches from hers. “Are you kiddin’?” he asked, and she shook her head. “Miss, most anybody who sees one up close doesn’t come back to tell of it. Mostly.”
Jem nodded, but pressed on. “Mostly?”
Kelvin sighed and set down the knife and stick. “You ever see someone with a bite?”
Jem trembled again, and hugged the rifle to her chest, leaning against it for support. She hadn’t seen a bite.
“We had a guy a while back. Back when everything went to shit and we were still thinkin’ we could avoid ‘em if we holed up. Got bit by a little one, barely bigger’n you. Least that’s what he says. Said. Anywho,” Kelvin picked up the knife and went back to whittling before continuing his story.
“He got bit on the leg somethin’ awful–I mean, pus and gunk all runnin’ out, and… Sorry. You probably don’t want to hear about that. Anyway, he’d been close enough to get bit, and he got an eyeful and then some. He told me what it looked like but… I don’t know if he was right. In the head, I mean. By that time his fever was pretty high and most of what came out his mouth sounded nuts.”
Jem coughed and turned around again, staring out into the green-black of the nighttime forest. The wood was mostly quiet now, and she breathed in the silence for a while before she began to speak. She remembered Henry–his piercing blue eyes locked with hers as the thing dragged him away.
“What happened after he got bit?”
Kelvin paused and answered, “We didn’t stick around to find out. He lasted for a couple days and then he got so stiff he couldn‘t move, and his eyes wouldn’t stay open. And he smelled nasty. It was like he was rottin’ from the inside or somethin’. We got overrun around that time and had to leave him. Shit!”
Jem jumped up, rifle in hand, before Kelvin waved for her to sit back down.
“Just nicked my finger on the knife,” Kelvin explained, “Gotta grab a bandage. Sit tight for a second, will ya?”
“Alone?” she whispered, but he was already walking away. Jem took deep breaths, trying to calm her nerves. She would be fine, she told herself. He was coming right back. For a while she concentrated on her breathing, listening to the steady sound, in and out. And then she held her breath. For the past few weeks they had been wandering this forest, avoiding the enemy against what she perceived to be very narrow odds. She wondered if she had gotten used to the sounds somehow, after all this time. But it wasn’t familiarity tricking her senses–save for the rustling of leaves and the gentle snoring of Gina in her tent, there wasn’t a single sound. No scurrying creatures, no birds, no insects. The woods were silent.
Panicked, Jem’s eyes widened as the realization struck her. What could silence an entire forest? She supposed she knew, but it wasn’t until she turned to look towards Kelvin, returning with a fresh bandage, that she forced out the word: “Bugs!”
Kelvin’s eyes strayed up to the treetops as he stood frozen in place, his rifle several feet away. Lowering itself to the spot where he stood was one of them, pincers snapping and dripping with pink foam. Jem screamed, and the thing lurched forward, Kelvin’s shoulder now caught between its gleaming appendages. The camp awoke quickly, men and women leaping into action, as Kelvin thrashed in a feeble attempt to free himself.
Without thinking, Jem raised her rifle and fired into the thing’s back. It burst open with a fresh outpouring of grey-pink webbing, falling to the ground as it released its hold on Jem’s frightened partner. It dissolved there into a pile of foam, staining the ground as it sunk into the dirt. Kelvin’s face had been completely drained of color, save for a streak of red across his cheek. Hands quavering, she reached forward to wipe away the blood, followed it to the source, and felt the scratch on his shoulder. It was deep.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group was starting to gather around. They stood shoulder to shoulder in a circle, a wall of backs surrounding the two on the ground, eyes frantically searching the forest canopy for any sign of movement. Chests heaving. Legs quaking. Mouths exchanging panicked whispers.
“Do you see anything?”
“Where did it come from?”
“Are there more?”
“There’s never just one.”
Time ticked by at a snail’s pace, the moments stretching into what felt like an eternity, and still there was no indication of more of the bugs. They couldn’t be sure, but after fifteen minutes or so of standing at the ready, five of them broke off from the group to search the perimeter, leaving the rest behind to wring their hands and strain their ears for any change in their carefully placed footsteps. Jem sat, powerless to do anything. Coming back to herself for a moment, she hurriedly wiped the blood from her hands and onto the ground beside her, and brought a tentative hand to his wrist. There was a pulse–faint, but steady. Jem lowered her head to his chest and watched it rise and fall: slow, irregular. She didn’t know what any of it meant. The rest of the group returned. For now, it seemed, they were alone.