New York City
WINTER, KISS MY ASS, Jerrol Thomas cheerfully mused as he strolled out of the Harlem bodega and the late afternoon sun hit his face. It had been a frigid March and now the air was balmy and sweet. He smiled and counted his lottery tickets. April was his lucky month, so he was surprised to find a boy banging a rock against the lock of his new racing bike, denting the derailleur and chipping the paint.
“Shiiee, Malcolm! Who taught you how to gank a bike?” Jerrol was tall and broad-shouldered with a goatee and striking black eyes, and he towered over the twelve-year-old. “Ever hear of a hacksaw, you stupid ass? Get the hell away from my wheels!”
“I didn’t know it was yours, sir,” Malcolm said, and quickly sprinted down the sidewalk.
“It’s no wonder you’re failing my math class,” Jerrol yelled after him, but then walked away smiling. He crossed Amsterdam Avenue and opened the garden gate to the back of his building. His apartment was small but surrounded by the community garden. No one messed with the garden. The white picket fence was like a fortress in the neighborhood, which had its share of gangsters and social misfits who went around shoplifting, mugging and shooting each other, but no one would even think about picking a tomato. Jerrol liked that his front door faced the hydrangea, which were still standing brown and dry since the fall.
He strolled over to the patio and fiddled with his keys. There was a noise behind him and, without turning around, Jerrol knew it was a rat. Lately there had been a lot of rats, and they seemed to be acting strangely. Not lazily eating the foliage as they normally did, but zipping in frantic circles and rolling in the weeds. This rat seemed to be dancing on its hind legs. Its tiny arms waved as it swayed from side to side. Then it fell to the ground beneath the fence. Jerrol strained his neck to see that part of the animal’s back was gone. In place of fur were patches of bloody flesh, as if it had been skinned.
“Coming in?” a voice said from inside.
Jerrol looked at his wife standing in the doorway.
“Postpartum checkup, remember?”
Jerrol didn’t want her to see the bloody creature so he kissed her hard on the lips and pushed his way inside. “You be sure to ask the doctor when we can get back to business.”
“Now you’re talking.” She grabbed her purse and headed out. “I’ll be home late. Check on the baby. It’s almost suppertime.” As soon as the door shut, there was a shrill cry from the nursery. Jerrol went to the kitchenette, heated up a bottle in the microwave and headed down the hallway.
* * *
A few hours later, Jerrol was reading a book on the sofa in cut-off shorts and a Lakers T-shirt when he remembered the rat. He laid the book on the coffee table and went to the front door, flicked on the outside light and stepped into the chilly night air.
The patio light cast a shimmer on the concrete terrace and metal chairs. A few yards away, the garden was still visible under a three-quarter moon that shone down on rows of freshly tilled soil. Poppy plants swayed in a gentle breeze. There was nothing between the stakes of dried tomato vines, where the rat had expired. It was gone.
An orange-striped cat sprang to the top of the fence and Jerrol flinched, but then he smiled as the feral beast dropped to the other side with a dead thing in its mouth.
“Good going, Garfield,” he said.
Hanging from a leafless elm tree was a string of bamboo chimes that made a clattering sound. They fell silent as the wind died down. Jerrol noticed that the poppy plants continued to move. Dried stalks rustled and quivered in a peculiar way. Then, out of their shadows, a wide puddle emerged. It seeped across the ground like an oil leak, into the whiteness of moonlight. Immediately it was clear that this was not one entity but countless tiny forms.
Jerrol had seen a cluster of them scurrying through the garden last spring, moving as a unit just like these but in a much smaller group. The dense pool spread out and broke off into ravines, forming perfect rows twelve inches across. These ants were the biggest he’d ever seen, nearly an inch long. Jerrol observed their pageantry, curiously amused, but at the same time his nerve wrenched at the way they marched in formation like platoons of soldiers. It was a hauntingly familiar image.
They had been featured on a Discovery Channel special in one of the school classrooms—Killer Ants of the Congo, it was called. They were known to hunt in groups, attacking anything that breathed. But this was Harlem; you had to keep out the drugs, not the bugs.
The yard suddenly grew darker and Jerrol turned around, squinting at the patio fixture. Black splotches encased the glass ball, moving and blending together until the lamp disappeared and only the moon was left shining. In the shadows, millions of tiny agile bodies were forming bridges and ropes ten feet long, connecting bushes, flowerpots and lawn chairs.
Ants don’t do this, he thought and a shiver of impending doom ran up his spine. He blinked hard and refocused on the garden. Threads of black were linked like chains between gutters and trellises. They blanketed the ground and spilled over rocks and brush and newly sprouted greenery. They covered the barbecue grill, the lawnmower, a soccer ball, a wooden bench, the toolshed and every other surface on the property.
* * *
One exceedingly large ant lay motionless on a tree limb, watching Jerrol from the back of the yard. Her compound eyes lacked the sharp focus of human vision, but with thousands of tiny lenses she perceived movement and the slightest change in light more acutely, which allowed her to observe the man below whose form, shape and erratic movements all signaled prey. His scent, drifting in the wind, was detected between her antennae and made a clear confirmation.
Like cutting sheers, the sharp mandibles of the queen opened and closed with anxious clicks. Her brain was not capable of understanding the concept of time, but she had a keen sense of duty and purpose. As she watched the other ants move toward the target, her snaps became hurried like the fighting claws of a crab. On long, wiry legs she rose and the ants around her began to react with extreme agitation. The queen opened her large mandibles in a roar, but what she emitted from her mouth was far more powerful than any sound of alarm.
The ants rushed toward Jerrol from every direction.
“Sh-shit!” he cried out in panic, and braced for the onslaught, crouching with arms to his face in defense.
But the ants didn’t attack. The front lines reached a few inches from his sneakers and turned at a forty-five-degree angle in unison, circling him in a ring that was nearly the size of the yard itself. Alone in a four-foot patch of grass, the terrified man was completely surrounded by a colony of 22 million insects.
Jerrol began trembling feverishly. Cold sweat ran down his back and his shirt clung to his skin. He spun quickly in circles. There was no way out of the yard and no path back to the house. A sudden, unearthly sound resonated like waves of radio static, growing louder across the yard. With a whimper, he danced on his feet and stared eagerly at the door, where he could see the comforting blue pile carpet and the open book on the coffee table. More than anything, he wanted to be back in his living room.
Instinctively, he pulled a stake from the ground and swept it like a sword across the sea of insects, hoping to create a clear path to his door. Instead, fervor broke out among the ranks. The largest soldier ants surged toward him, flanking the lines with the speed of a creature ten thousand times their size, while the smaller ones ran center like chemically guided missiles.
As the swarm reached his sneakers he stomped down hard. The insects sprang upon his legs like splatters from a mud puddle, piercing skin and clamping tight. The pain of their stingers was fierce. Jerrol’s knees buckled and he collapsed to the ground as the army attacked full force.
A hundred collective stings sent him diving headfirst into the house, where he skidded across the rug and rolled on the carpet as if on fire. He slammed the door, shrieking and hugging his ragged shins that were covered in ant bites and erupting white pustules. He bit through his lip and crawled to the bathroom, leaving a thin red trail along the blue rug.
* * *
Cries of agony were muted behind the clear plastic shower curtain as Jerrol sat slumped at the bottom of the tub, groaning, in wet clothes and sneakers, as heavy steam engulfed the room. The insects held tight to his legs from toe to knee. Their three-hook claws pierced his shins, stinging again and again. The venom felt like razors through his veins and carried the toxin from limbs to torso, to every muscle and organ.
The pain of mandibles biting and filling their jaws with meat was excruciating. Jerrol hunched over his knees, digging fingernails deep and scratching away layers of flesh. A few ants spun down the drain in a river of bloody water, but most were burrowing farther into the wounds. Small knobby bumps moved under the skin of his kneecap where black tunnels of ants were visible as they fed and crawled freely about.
A searing heat pulsed from the side of his left foot where a tremendous amount of blood poured into the tub. He peeled back the top flap of his sock with frantic, shaking fingers. Underneath were the tattered remains of flesh and sinew, and a hole the size of a quarter where white ankle bone protruded from the center.
He was overcome with dizziness and nausea, his face sickly and swollen like a rubber Halloween mask. Jerrol fell back into an inch of vivid red water. Shock took over, the pain began to subside and a soothing numbness came to his body.
Jerrol curled up on his side and let the hot spray rain down on him. He thought he would pass out, wanted to pass out—when the cry of a baby cut through the steam.
Panic roused him with a burst of energy as he imagined ants crawling over his child. He clumsily flung himself out of the tub and stumbled like a rag doll down the hallway, bouncing off walls in a crooked path to the dark nursery.
He slapped on the light switch. The baby was alone. Not even a moth. She lay screaming on a Winnie the Pooh crib sheet. Her tiny body snuggled warmly in a green blanket surrounded by two blue bunnies, an orange whale, and spit-up from breakfast.
Jerrol was relieved but his heart was failing. He could barely suck in a breath. Dark footprints followed his path from the doorway to the crib, where he stood over the child, looking like a monster splattered with blood from head to foot. He turned to the window and parted the lacy curtains with trembling fingers that left streaks of red.
Below, the entire floor of the garden moved like a graceful undulating sea. Black armor gleamed in the moonlight. Then all at once, the armies began breaking up into geometric shapes that seemed to shrivel in size. Jerrol held his breath with a last bit of emotion as the puddles seeped into the ground. Then the remaining invaders crawled off his own body and fled toward the door. The ants were leaving.
The baby wailed as her father slowly twisted to face the door. He took two wobbly steps, sweating profusely from a 110 degree temperature. Then his eyes swelled shut, his head snapped back and he coughed up a spray of blood.
Jerrol fell to his knees, and then to the floor.
Copyright © 2012 by A. J. Colucci