"Hoo-whee, it's hotter than the Devil's ass-crack today." Lonnie removed his battered baseball cap and wiped his brow. Beside him, Jake panted and wagged his tail listlessly. "It must be a hundred and ten in the shade."
But it wasn't just the temperature that had Lonnie overheated: the plume of thick, black smoke drifting up from the heart of his woods didn't help.
The burning ban in Jericho County was in its third straight year, and it forced the local teens to hide their bonfires and beer drinking deeper and deeper into the woods. And now they must have moved onto his land. Worst of all, the smoke appeared to be from his favorite hunting spot, where he had shot a sixteen-point buck two years ago.
Lonnie readjusted the rifle slung across his back and stepped out of the woods, into the clearing. A long trench rimmed with black stubble scarred the length of the meadow. At the end of the trench, on the far side of the meadow, smoke curled into the air. The blackened grass crunched beneath his feet and stained his jeans. He hawked and spat to clear the sour taste of creosote from his mouth.
He turned to Jake, but the golden retriever had stopped and sat at the edge of the meadow. "Come on, dog."
Jake wagged his tail half-heartedly, stirring up small storms of ash.
"What's the matter?" Lonnie asked. "Smoke got you spooked?" Jake whined and dropped to his belly. Lonnie shrugged and went on without him.
The trench ended in a smoking hole rimmed with tossed-up dirt, like a giant, smoking gopher hole. Though he had never seen anything like it in real life, the sight did have a familiar ring.
He kept the television on at home all the time, mostly for company, though he did watch his fair share. Not long ago, he saw a program on meteors, and his meadow looked like the strike zones. He had seen a meteor shower two nights earlier, but a meteor-strike should have rattled the walls of his cabin down the hill. A man wouldn't sleep through that, would he?
"Jesus, I must be getting old." When he was younger, he'd snap awake at a cricket fart. Now an earthquake apparently couldn't rouse him.
He wanted to see what the meteor looked like, but the smoke was a sure sign it would be too hot to touch. He also knew simply being around it could be dangerous. The meteor had traveled millions of miles and come into contact with who knows what. The TV program said some scientists thought more than a meteor impact killed the dinosaurs; the meteor may have had germs on it, and those germs might have finished off the dinosaurs.
Jake barked, and Lonnie jumped.
"Damn, dog! You scared the Be-jeezus out of me." Jake didn't wag this time; he growled, throaty and deep. "What the hell is your problem?"
Jake barked again, a high, staccato yip Lonnie had never heard him make before. The dog pranced and yipped again. Lonnie narrowed his eyes and scanned the woods for whatever was making Jake so upset. Jake slunk into the woods toward the house, body almost scraping the ground, tail tucked between his legs.
"Jake," Lonnie yelled. "Get your ass back here!" The hair on the back of his neck prickled. A couple of years ago they had run into a bear while squirrel hunting. Jake had held off the bear until it decided to find easier pickings. Could whatever was out there now be worse than a bear?
Lonnie unslung his rifle, flicked the safety off, and scanned the shadowed woods for signs of movement. Maybe Jake had the right idea: leave the meteor investigating to the experts. After one last glance toward the smoking hole, he headed back toward his cabin.
After scolding Jake for abandoning him in the woods, he called the only place he could think of that might deal with germs: the Public Health Department. At first, the woman on the line kept insisting "space-germs" were not part of her jurisdiction, but when Lonnie told her about the TV program and the possible real reason behind the demise of the dinosaurs, she finally agreed it was worth checking out. She didn't want Jericho County to be ground zero for a pandemic that wiped out the world. She took his name and number and told him she'd call around and get back to him.
Nearly a week later, while he was arguing with the T.V. over the latest weather forecast, a chubby, balding man with a gray beard showed up at his door. Three younger men and a young woman stood in Lonnie's yard holding knapsacks and duffels.
"So you folks are from the CDC?" Lonnie eyed them suspiciously. The younger four didn't look like government researchers; they looked more like the sort who'd burn up a man's woods partying.
"No. We're from the University at Browery. We've come to collect specimens from the impact site." The man introduced himself as Dr. Marlow. He didn't bother introducing his students.
"What about the germs?" Lonnie asked. "Don't y'all think the CDC should be in on this?"
Marlow smirked. "It's highly unlikely any microbes survived the heat of atmospheric entry." He pulled a thin, paper surgical mask from the bag at his side. "But we are taking precautions." He paused. "Will you guide us to the impact site?"
Lonnie hesitated and eyed the mask. It was the same type of flimsy mask he'd used while spray-painting his mower. Not exactly high-tech, confidence-instilling equipment, but he really did want to see the meteor. He snatched the mask from Dr. Marlow's hands.
Halfway through the woods, Lonnie stopped and held up his hand. Everyone froze.
"What is it?" one of the students whispered, his eyes wide, his gaze darting around the shadow-filled woods.
"Hush." Lonnie cocked his head. A high-pitched, warbling trill echoed through the woods, followed by a rush of metallic clangs and scrapes, like pie tins banging together. The sound became a series of ticks, like hundreds of knitting needles clicking, then silence.
"What was that?" Marlow asked. The students jumped at the loudness of his voice in the sudden quiet.
"I don't know," Lonnie whispered. "Ain't never heard nothing like it before. Maybe somebody else spotted the smoke and came up to check it out." He pulled his rifle off his shoulder before they moved on again.
Lonnie led the way, rifle ready, eyes scanning the woods around them. The students bunched into a knot behind Marlow like frightened cattle. Lonnie stopped short and brought up his gun. Ahead, something half-hidden in the grass blocked their path. Lonnie relaxed and lowered the gun again. A dead deer blocked their path. Or what was left of a deer: a few scraps of hair stuck to dark-stained bones. The grass around the bones was black and sticky.
"What did that?" Marlow asked.
"I don't know." Lonnie squinted and studied the woods around them. He wished he hadn't left Jake tied up in the yard. Although, after the way the dog acted last time, he wasn't sure how much help Jake would be, anyway.
"Looks like the work of a mountain lion." Marlow glanced toward the meadow and his eyes lit up. "Is this the impact site?"
Lonnie nodded, still scanning the woods. "Yeah. This is the place."
"Excellent! Follow me!" Marlow rushed into the clearing. The students exchanged worried glances but dutifully followed.
Lonnie squatted beside the bones. The deer hadn't been there during his last visit, and there weren't any animals in his woods that would reduce a carcass to picked-clean bones without scattering it. Wolves and coyotes would fight and fuss over a carcass. Mountain lions usually dragged the carcass—or parts of it—away to snack on later, but the bones were all there. The deer had been devoured on the spot. He thought back to Jake's behavior and wondered if whatever had killed the deer had been in the woods, stalking them, that day.
In spite of the heat, his arms broke into goose bumps, and he glanced up uneasily. The university crew was already unpacking their gear by the hole. He sighed and joined them in the clearing.
While three of the students took samples of everything they could get their hands on, the other student stood at the edge of the hole next to Marlow. Three fire extinguishers sat in a neat row by their feet.
"Do you want me to hit it a few times, just in case?" The student gestured at the extinguishers.
"It's had ample time to cool," Marlow said. "So let's start with a few pictures."
Lonnie edged up beside them and peered into the hole. To his untrained eye, the hole held dirt and burned leaves—nothing worth taking pictures of. The student squatted and snapped pictures, and Lonnie followed the angle of the camera and finally spotted it: a rough, dark gray bowling ball, half buried, in the end wall of the trench.
"I'll be damned," Lonnie whistled. "I've never seen a real meteor before."
"Meteorite," Marlow chuckled. "Once they hit the ground, they're called meteorites."
Lonnie bristled at the pompous tone in Marlow's voice. He opened his mouth to say something, but the female student interrupted.
"We're ready," she said, her cheeks flushed with excitement. "Samples are all collected."
"All right," Dr. Marlow nodded, "start digging."
The three sample-collectors jumped into the hole and swept the meteorite with tiny brushes. The other student picked up his camera and snapped pictures of their progress. Even with three of them working, it took half an hour to dig the meteor out.
Lonnie fidgeted and watched the woods. He wished they'd hurry. Once, when he was a boy, he'd been stalked by a mountain lion while collecting firewood for Pop's old wood stove. That feeling of being watched—of being watched by something hungry—was exactly how he felt now.
"Okay, now what?" the picture-taking student asked, his voice trembling.
"This is your baby, Mike. Go ahead and crate it," Marlow said.
Mike grabbed a pair of silver oven mitts and jumped into the hole. Carefully, almost theatrically, he lifted the meteorite. Red sand poured from the bottom. He yelped and lowered the meteorite again. "What do I do?"
"Just let it run out," Marlow said, calmly.
Mike bit his lip, then lifted the meteorite and let the sand flow, careful not to let it run onto his sneakers.
"What the hell is that stuff?" Lonnie asked.
Marlow shrugged. "Some kind of mineral. Meteorites often have layers, like a hailstone. The mineral inside must be softer than the shell, and it scrambled on impact. We'll collect as much as we can for further examination."
The red sand flow slowed to a trickle, then stopped. "Okay," Mike said, "I think it's done."
"Bring it up," Marlow said.
Mike lifted the meteorite and placed it gently in a crate at the edge of the trench. While he shook red dust from his shirt, one of the other students used a trowel to shovel the sand into a specimen bag. Mike and Marlow put a lid on the crate and fastened it in place.
"I think this shirt is ruined." Mike tried to brush the remaining red dust from his shirt.
"All for a good cause," Marlow said.
Lonnie shifted his weight from one foot to the other, anxious for the whole thing to be over. He glanced into the woods. High in the trees, something metallic flashed. Another flash answered from a tree branch a short distance away, and then the treetops filled with flashing, like someone had strung the woods with mirrors twisting in the wind. The knitting needle noise returned.
"What the hell—" Lonnie began.
The air filled with a shimmering, clicking rain of silver dollars streaming toward Mike. The shivering silver cloud engulfed Mike. Then—as quickly as it came—the cloud broke up. What was left of Mike lay in a crumpled heap next to the trench.
The air around Lonnie filled with silver, and he swatted at the air with the knitting needle noise roaring in his ears. One of the things—a beetle—landed on his arm and plunged its mandibles into his flesh. He slapped it away as Marlow pushed past him, his entire body shimmering with an undulating wave of silver.
Marlow made it three more steps and tripped over one of the extinguishers. The nozzle broke off with a clang and he vanished in a dusty white cloud. A sudden high-pitched shriek came from every direction at once, and the knitting needle noise rose to a frenzy.
The beetles were gone. A fire extinguisher lay tangled in Marlow's feet, the spent extinguisher chemical around it streaked with red dust, like Mike's shirt had been. Marlow had been reduced to a side of raw meat wearing a pair of khakis. Two of the students lay nearby, chewed beyond recognition. There was no sign of the fourth student. Lonnie hoped he (or she) had run into the woods and made it away safe.
Two beetles, their shiny silver backs streaked rusty-red, crawled from beneath Marlow's legs and moved sluggishly toward Lonnie. Smoke rose from the back of the nearest beetle, where a drop of white extinguisher chemical shimmered in the sun. Impulsively, Lonnie grabbed one of the other extinguishers, pulled the pin, and shot a quick spray at the closest beetle. It shrieked and puffed into red dust. Lonnie shot the second beetle and it crumbled into red dust, too. He lifted the extinguisher and studied it. It was cold in his hands, the sides condensed with fine, white frost. The bugs must not be able to stand the cold, he thought.
The knitting needle noise returned. Lonnie shook the extinguisher. Almost full. He grabbed the other one and hoped enough remained between the two to get him back to the house. He set off at a loping run, scanning the trees for flashes of movement.
He ran through the woods, leaping over fallen logs and dodging briars, and down the hill toward his house. A shadow passed over him and he dropped into a crouch, extinguishers ready, but it was only a buzzard. Back up the hill, two more buzzards circled over the meadow. He shook his head. Circling what? There wasn't a lot left up there for them.
A metal wave rose out of the trees, split into two shimmering silver clouds, and met the buzzards. Seconds later, the clouds broke up and something—bones?—plummeted down into the trees. The two clouds regrouped into one giant cloud, and Lonnie began to run.
He neared the yard and Jake barked frantically, yanking against the tie-out chain, nearly hanging himself trying to break free. Lonnie cursed himself for tying the dog up. Poor Jake was a sitting duck.
Lonnie cast a glance over his shoulder. He still had a good head start on the beetles. He dropped the extinguishers and ran to Jake. He fell to his knees and fumbled with the clip on Jake's collar. Every time he almost had it, Jake would jerk away and the clip would slip from his sweaty hands.
"Damn it, Jake, hold still." A beetle landed on Lonnie's shoulder and the bolt of pain caused him to drop the clip. At the same time, a silver beetle buzzed past his nose and landed on Jake's rump. Jake yelped.
Lonnie's heart clutched and his vision swam with tears. He slapped the beetle off Jake, then yanked the beetle from his own back and flung it away. The pain had stunned Jake and he stopped struggling. Gently, Lonnie pushed the dog backward to create slack and freed the clip. He sprang to his feet and ducked as three more beetles dive-bombed his head. The main swarm rushed toward them.
"Come on!" Lonnie grabbed the closest fire extinguisher and they ran for the house.
Fifty feet from the house, the knitting needle noise grew louder. Lonnie pumped his legs, not daring to look back. Jake rushed past him, reached the door first, and flung himself against it. It flew open with a bang. Lonnie dashed in just ahead of the beetles and slammed the door closed behind him while Jake disappeared into the bedroom.
Outside, the swarm circled the yard. Several beetles had broken from the swarm to investigate Jake's tie-out chain. Not knowing what else to do, he grabbed the phone and punched 9-1-1.
A nasal voice answered. "What is the nature of your emergency?"
"You've gotta get someone out here right away. They're all dead." He peered out the window in the door. The swarm circled lazily, like pigeons looking for a roost.
"Sir, slow down. Who's dead?"
"The college kids and their professor. The beetles got them."
There was a pause. "Beetles?"
"The beetles from outer space. They must have been in the meteor."
Another pause. "Sir, making a false 9-1-1 call is a serious offense. You—"
"This ain't no joke! The college folks came for the meteor and the space beetles killed them."
"If you don't hang up right now, I'm sending the police."
"Good," Lonnie said. "And send the fire department—and all that cold fire stuff they can get their hands on!"
The line went dead. At first, he thought the beetles had chewed through the line, but then the dial tone kicked in. She had hung up on him.
He hung up the phone and looked out the window again. More beetles had broken away from the main swarm, and at least fifty crawled over his porch, exploring. He grabbed the extinguisher, gritted his teeth, and pushed the door open just enough to stick the nozzle out. He squeezed the trigger and growled as his porch disappeared in a white cloud.
When the stream ran out, he yanked the nozzle back inside and slammed the door. He peered out the window and smiled: the group on the porch had been reduced by half. The remaining beetles crawled through red drifts that used to be their kin. He ran to the stove and grabbed the small extinguisher beside it. He pulled the pin and squeezed the trigger; only air hissed out. The expiration date on the side said "6/15/2009." He snarled and flung it at the garbage can.
He leaned against the counter, wondering what to do next, when motion at the kitchen window caught his eye. A beetle strolled across the sun-streaked glass, leaving a trail of brown specks behind. It paused, rubbed one leg across its mouth parts, and flew off. But something other than heat waves still moved on the window. Lonnie leaned closer, a sinking feeling in his stomach. The brown specks squirmed. A tiny silver fleck pushed its way out of one of them.
Outside the window, a hundred yards from the house, sat the shed, where two more extinguishers were stored. If he could get to them. If they weren't just as dead as the one in the kitchen. One of Marlow's extinguishers still lay in the yard, but he wasn't sure how much was left in it.
Jake whined and peeked around the bedroom door.
"I know, boy. I gotta do something." Lonnie ran his hands through his hair.
Jake retreated again. His soft whimpers lilted from the bedroom like someone sobbing into their pillow. Lonnie held his breath, and he realized why he could suddenly hear Jake's whimpers: the knitting needle noise had stopped. He rushed to the door and peered out. The beetles on the porch were gone. He threw the door open. The swarm, now an indistinct gray cloud in the distance, soared toward town.
Now what, he thought. Who should he call? The police? They wouldn't believe him. The fire department? The television station?
In the silence, the television in the other room blared: “The hottest year on record! Some are blaming global warming and predicting it will only get worse. Get used to the heat, folks."
Another sound started in the fireplace, barely audible over the television: the clicking of hundreds of teeny, tiny knitting needles.