by Simon McHardy
Susan Hasting always enjoyed her afternoons sitting on the back porch in the warm sun sipping a tall glass of gin and tonic. The air was thick with the scent of wild honeysuckle and jasmine and the sound of droning insects. She watched her daughter, Maude, play in the overgrown field which used to be planted with wheat but now that Tom was working as a mechanic in town their foray into farming had come to an end. She smiled as Maude waved and called to her, ‘Mummy I’m making a maze.’ Maude was slashing the grass in front of her with a stick, making little paths in the overgrown vegetation. With the hypnotic swaying of grass and the chirping of the crickets, Susan began to feel drowsy. ‘Mummy this cricket is so big,’ Maude shouted, the excitement evident in her voice.
‘Just leave it alone, dear, it won’t hurt you, it’s just a cricket,’ Susan replied. Her chin was resting on her chest now, her eyes closed, why were the crickets out during the day anyway, they should be…She did not get a chance to answer herself, the book she had been reading slid from her hand and landed with a muffled thud on the floor.
When she woke, the sun was dipping behind the trees beyond the field, it must be five o’clock, she thought, I’ve been asleep too long, too many gins again. Maude was not in the field; she could see where her daughter had been slashing the grass with her stick, the crickets were silent, there was only the rustling of the grass. ‘Maude honey, let’s go in now, you can help me fix dinner.’ She must be inside, Susan thought. The house was as quiet as the field, her daughter’s room empty. By seven o’clock when Tom, her husband, arrived home, Susan was hysterical. She ran to his car when it pulled into the driveway, ‘I can’t find Maude,' she yelled leaning in the car window, ‘she was playing in the field, I fell asleep.’ She didn’t want to mention the gins and tonics, Tom never approved of her drinking, she had had problems with alcohol before, it was best to keep it quiet for now.
‘Did you ring the William’s, she might have gone there?’ he suggested growing concerned.
‘I’ve done that already,' she sobbed, ‘they haven’t seen her all day.’
‘She must have gone on one of her adventures.’ Tom concluded stepping out of the car.
‘She never goes for long, Tom, and never at night, she’s still afraid of the dark, she’s only seven for god’s sake.’
Tom retrieved a torch from the back of the truck and strode into the field, trampling the long grass before him. Susan, walking in his wake, noticed how quiet it was, the crickets that had been so surprisingly noisy during the day were silent. 'Was this where she was playing?' Tom asked holding up a torn strip of fabric. She snatched the fabric from Tom’s hand and ran her fingers slowly over it; it was a piece of the yellow dress Maude had been wearing only a few hours before, she remembered how golden it had looked in the afternoon sun as she had slowly drifted off to sleep in her chair, awaking to a nightmare in which she found herself still trapped.
There was no other trace of Maude in the field, no trail of broken grass stems to follow into the nearby woods or the old shed which lay forgotten on the edge of the field like their farming dreams. Susan tried the shed door, it was padlocked, even if they had possessed the key the padlock was so rusted it would have been useless.
By dawn, Tom and Susan had extended their search into the nearby woods but it proved fruitless. The police and some concerned neighbours who were also scouring the district found no sign of the girl. In the ensuing months Maude’s disappearance became a central item of conversation in the small town. Ned Pole, who had been the town's tavern owner for fifty years, told a crowded bar, ‘I remember a plague of insects that once destroyed all the crops on Tom’s farm three years running. In lean times I’ve seen dead cattle stripped bare by a plague of grasshoppers, a little girl is not a dead steer, of course, but you never know what they will eat if they are hungry enough.’ The comment was met by an uncomfortable silence, more than one patron thinking that he would keep his kids indoors for a while.
Susan heard none of the talk, taking heavily to drink she sat on the porch listening to the crickets' song that had continued unabated since Maude’s disappearance. Tom attempted to get her back into the house, steer their lives to some semblance of normality but Susan refused, leaving the porch only briefly to pick up a bottle of gin on credit from the corner store, which Tom dutifully paid at the end of each month. ‘Why are you always out here?' he asked her one night, ‘She’s never coming back.’ He felt cruel saying the words but she had to hear the truth and accept it.
‘She never left, Tom, at night I can hear her singing to me from the field, her voice is beautiful,’ she said dreamily. Tom smiled and walked back into the house. The next morning he loaded his truck with a few possessions, kissed his wife and went south over the county line to begin a new life.
One winter morning a travelling salesman stopped at Susan’s farm. Receiving no answer from the front door he walked around to the back and found Susan sitting on the porch, her eyes fixed on an old shed, the suggestion of a smile upon her face. He laughed in a way of greeting and introduced himself, ‘A cold morning even for November,' he began, ' I suspect you are used to it though, I’m from Nevada, it’s far too cold for me here.’ He rubbed his hands briskly together to emphasise the point. ‘I’m Stephen', he announced, holding out his hand to be shaken. Susan did not move; she remained silently staring out at the old shed, the strange simper fixed on her face. Stephen took back his hand, something was not right, the old lady was not moving, no breath played on her lips. He reached down and took her hand, it was cold and stiff.
Derick Campbell had been looking for a small hobby farm, a healthy way to spend his spare time when he wasn’t sitting at his computer all day playing the share market. His family had resisted the idea at first but his wife, Anna, had finally consented, agreeing that it would be good for their two boys, Andrew and Ben.
The farm needed a great deal of work to get it back into working order; the old girl had really let it go over the years but that is why they had bought it so cheaply. The real estate agent had, of course, neglected to mention the tragic events at the farm but a neighbour had been more than happy to divulge all the details; the disappearance of the child and her mother pining away in her grief. The chair Susan died in was still on the porch, Derick made a mental note to chop it up for kindling the following day.
‘Tomorrow I am going to need some help clearing the field,’ Derick told the boys over dinner that night. ‘It’s going to be a lot of hard work.’ He sensed he had lost them once he had mentioned hard work so he hastily added, ‘Once it’s clear we can check out what’s in the old shed.’
‘What‘s this about a shed?’ Andrew and Ben asked simultaneously, perking up at the thought of rummaging through a possible cache of weapons and go-carts.
‘It’s at the back of the field near the woods. I went to have a look this afternoon but the grass is several feet tall and from the sound of it most of the local wildlife have made their home in there, sounds like some of them are big too. They better start packing because tomorrow morning they will have to find somewhere else to live.’
The boys peered curiously out of the window into the country- black night. As if on cue a brilliant harvest moon broke through the clouds and illuminated the overgrown field at the back of which was a wooden shed; its sides splashed with blue paint that had faded to the colour of an old pair of Levis. 'We should go and check out the shed before Dad does,’ Ben urged. The boys had been sent to bed after dinner, Derick telling them they needed a good sleep as tomorrow they would have to be up at dawn. ‘If he gets in there first we won’t get a thing; anything he thinks we will kill ourselves with will go to the tip.’
'Let’s get up a few hours early and take a look first then,' Andrew advised.
‘What about the creatures in the grass, especially the big ones Dad said he heard?' Ben’s voice quaked a little at the thought of some slavering beast waiting for dinner to stumble by.
Andrew laughed, ‘Dad is just trying to scare us, the biggest thing in that field is a rat, I’ll wake you up in a couple of hours when I’m sure Mum and Dad are asleep.'
‘Come on, Ben, wake up,' his neck flopped around like a bobble head, somebody was shaking him violently.
‘I’m awake, I’m awake,’ he yelled. ‘What time is it?'
‘Shhh, you will wake up Mum and Dad, it’s just after 1am', Andrew whispered, releasing the stranglehold he had on Ben’s tee-shirt.
They both dressed in tracksuits, it was September and the mornings were growing colder. The house was dark, their parents had stopped leaving on a night light for them a couple of years ago. Ben felt uneasy in the darkness of a house he did not know intimately; each shadow was menacing and each sound betrayed something sinister lurking in the darkness.
The backdoor opened on to the porch where Susan had died. Cricket song filled the night air drowning out all other nocturnal sounds. Its fervour startled the boys who, still drowsy from sleep, stood transfixed listening to the uproar before making their way across the grass to the field, a low lying mist snaking around their feet. In contrast to the cacophony of the crickets the field exuded a sense of calm, a soft night breeze inducing the long grass to ripple in gentle, amber waves.
The long blades of grass were wet and clung to the boys' faces as they made their way through the field. There were no paths and Andrew, who was in front in an oversized pair of rain boots, trampled down the grass. Ben followed in his wake, shivering as much from the cold night air as the growing sense of unease he was feeling. The disturbance to their habitat had hushed the crickets but was replaced by curious, thudding reverberations. It sounded to the boys as if something were hopping laboriously towards them.
‘What was that?’ Ben asked alarmed, he moved closer to his brother who was leading.
‘It sounds like a knot of big, fat toads,’ Andrew decided, resuming his walk at a quickened pace towards the shed.
‘Let’s go back, we will find out what’s in the shed in the morning anyway.' Ben was scared now and he didn’t mind if his brother knew it.
‘No way, we are so close, do you want Dad to take everything?’
Ben didn’t care anymore, he was starting to feel that this was a really bad idea, toads didn’t sound like that when they jumped, whatever was in the grass was several times heavier than a toad. The thudding sound was moving closer. Ben could hear the grass behind him being flattened. He reeled around and saw a shadowy shape in the air crash down; it was promptly joined by others. His pursuers squatted in a long line scrutinizing him. Ben, frozen in terror, returned their stare, he could see they were insects; their bodies, which were the size of large house cats, were broken up into three sections which were supported by six long legs. Their glossy black skins reflected the moon which was directly behind Ben. ‘Hello’, he croaked, waving hesitantly with his hand.
In reply to his greeting a single note resounded in the air, a prolonged chirp that felt like a dagger stabbing his ear drum. Effortlessly and all in tandem they launched themselves at him, Ben felt his brother’s hand upon his shirt, ‘Run,’ Andrew screamed, ‘to the shed.’
Ben didn’t need to be told twice, he turned and scrambled after his brother, the insects landing where he had stood only seconds before. There were more on either side of him, leaping above the grass eager to join in the pursuit. Though the distance to the shed was only twenty yards or fewer Ben was having increasing difficulty running, relying more and more on his brother's dragging him than his own legs. He felt as if he were in a dream, despite the urgent need to flee his legs were refusing to co-operate. They felt leaden and flailed around like some lunatic machine. Their refusal to work maddened him and he cried out as much from fear as frustration.
Gasping for breath Andrew dragged his sobbing brother to the shed door and dumped him unceremoniously before it. His heart sank when he saw the rusted, iron padlock. He jiggled it, despite its dilapidated state it held firm. He looked up at the roof; even if he managed to hoist Ben up there he doubted they would be safe, it was only about seven feet high and the insects were jumping twice that. Several insects had gathered around the shed now, seemingly content to delay attacking the boys until their numbers had increased. Ben was still lying at his brother’s feet, through the tears and snot he had wiped all over his face he noticed a loose panel in the shed wall, ‘Andrew look,’ he sniffled, prising up the wooden plank and squeezing into the dark beyond. Upon seeing one of the boys disappear into the shed the insects bounded forward forcing Andrew to leave the rusted lock he had been optimistically jiggling and scramble after his brother. Once through the gap he flung his weight against the panel and forced it back into place. The grating sound of wood being scratched could be heard above the commotion outside.
The shed was lit by a single window; the glass panel was coloured yellow casting a sickening light from the moon into the centre of the room, The rest of the shed was illuminated in parts by little flecks of light from the roof where the tin had rusted through. Andrew followed the flecks of light around the shed wondering if there were an old axe or sickle with which they could defend themselves but the only things he noticed were white, oblong shapes that lay in clumps on the floor and an unusually long foot, the yellow light making it look cadaverous. ‘Are we safe?’ Ben gasped. He hadn’t seen the foot and before Andrew had a chance to reply a voice from the corner of the shed where the light did not penetrate echoed,
‘Safe’, a faint clicking noise accompanied the drawn out word.
The boys started at the sound, pressing themselves tightly against the shed wall behind them and peering into the darkness.
‘Who said that?’ Ben gulped. He too had noticed the foot and was staring wide eyed at it.
‘Maude,’ the peculiar voice replied.
“What are you doing here?’ Andrew asked still straining into the darkness to see to whom the foot belonged.
Maude ignored the question, ‘Is my mother still on the porch?’
‘Your mother? This is our house now; Dad said the old lady who lived here died.' Andrew blurted out.
‘A neighbour had told him a salesman found her frozen to death on the porch, still sitting in her chair,’ Ben added helpfully. There was a loud bang on the roof, something was hopping across it. ‘What is up there?’ Ben screamed hysterically. Andrew found his brother's hand in the darkness and squeezed it tightly.
‘My mother’s dead.’ Maude said softly ignoring Ben’s last question.
‘Yes,’ answered Andrew trying to sound sympathetic.
‘It’s been so many years since I left, but I could never go back, not like this. I sang to her every night; I knew she could hear me. On starry nights I could see her sitting on the porch staring at the shed as she listened to my song. She knew not to come, to stay away.’
‘Why do you have stay in the shed?’ Andrew quizzed not wanting to know the answer. He was starting to feel as unsafe here as he had felt outside.
‘I have so much work to do, so many children to look after,’ Maude replied. The boys watched a long, pale arm snake out from shadows and caress one of the many white, oval shapes that lay around the ground.
‘Your children,’ exclaimed Ben, ‘these aren’t children.’ He gestured dismissively to the shapes on the ground.
Maude inched forward from the shadows, the flecks of light from the tin roof revealing a leg. The underside of the calf had a row of what looked like giant thorns protruding from it, the thigh was monstrous and taut with muscle all out of proportion. Revolted the boys edged away then clung to each other in terror as a fleshy tube came into view. Pale and streaked with purple, bulging veins it lay limp and quivering beside the leg.
‘Eggs,’ Maude grunted, her voice was laboured, from the tube another white oval shape appeared joining a cluster on the shed floor. Ben started to cry; Andrew tightened his grip on his brother’s hand and began quietly positioning himself near the loose panel on the wall.
‘Don’t you think the cricket song outside is wonderful?’ Maude simpered. The boys hadn’t noticed the loud chirping outside the shed. ‘The field is barren,' Maude continued, her voice barely audible above the din outside. Maude leaned into the fragmented light, her head came into view; a bulging, black pupilless eye fixed its gaze upon Ben. ‘I’m very hungry,’ she declared. Ben’s mouth opened in a silent scream. In his panic he jerked his hand from his brother and reached for the door, forgetting it was locked. With one short leap Maude was on his back, all six of her long legs wrapping around him, her weight forcing him to the ground. Powerless in her grasp Ben’s only objection to his fate was a pathetic shriek as Maude’s mandibles crushed his head.
Andrew attempted to assist his brother in his death struggle, raining blows upon Maude as she shattered his brother’s skull as if it were an eggshell. His attack was ineffectual and ignoring him Maude settled down to devour her prey. Realising his brother was dead and beyond help Andrew yanked aside the wooden plank and clambered through the gap. Maude did not move to stop him.
The night was quiet, the cricket song had stopped, but no sooner had he stood up he sank again on to his knees and let out a cry of despair, he was surrounded by Maude’s children, they clung to the side of the shed, perched on its roof and filled the field with their vast numbers. He turned around, preferring to take his chances with Maude in shed, maybe he could reason with her; promise to bring her food every day. Maude’s children were ravenous; they were on him before he was halfway back inside. As the first set of mandibles tore the flesh from his back Andrew began to scream.
The screams awoke Derick, Anna was still asleep, she had indulged in a bottle of red wine with dinner and would sleep until mid-morning, disorientated he stumbled from the bed to the window overlooking the field, the autumn moon illuminated a scene as savage as it was surreal, hundreds of giant crickets swarmed over a human corpse, gleaning the meat from its bones. On the shed roof the shape of a monstrous insect with the head and long hair of a woman was raised on its forelegs her face upturned to the moon, at the spectacle Derick staggered back from the window. He could hear his wife's gentle breathing and wondered if he had just woken from a nightmare. The night breeze stirred the flimsy curtains and the thin, high sounds of a tune drifted into the room. It was a mother singing a lullaby to her children.