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Blood and Iron

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"Look, Oliver. See those beetles over there? For every fiber on a bird's feather, there are a thousand insects. Just beetles alone are so diverse there are more species than all other organisms on this earth.… We're outnumbered, son."

Beetle

Oliver lived in Keyport, New Jersey. He was glad when his parents bought the new house. It was far away from the rest of the city, so they had no neighbors. He only wished they lived closer to the ocean. He remembered Sandy Hook beach, which was only a few miles from their old New York home. He was relieved to be out of the city, though.

He was only six when his parents divorced. His dad, whom he favored, was the one to move out of the house. Then ugly Walter came along about two months later, when Oliver was still getting used to the change. Ugly Walter, who patted Oliver on the head and said, "Hiya, sonny," and went on walks with his mom. The next year, his title had changed to ugly stepdad Walter.

Oliver looked for every opportunity he could to spend time at his dad's. Dad gave him chores to do in the backyard, but Oliver liked them. Partly because his dad was always out there working with him, partly because anything was better than doing the dishes back at his mom's and watching ugly stepdad Walter kissing her. Walter would also sit on the couch and watch TV while asking mom for snacks.

One summer afternoon, Oliver, eight, was in his dad's car. They were going to dad's house because mom had to mop the hallway floor.

"So, Oliver, today, we're doing some yard work," said dad.

We always do that, Oliver thought. But he didn't mind. He couldn't stand another "Hiya, sonny" from Walter. "The grasshoppers have been mowing down the garden," dad continued, "so it's about time we began mowing them down instead."

"How will we do that, dad?" asked Oliver. The most he'd been involved with his dad's pest problem was plucking caterpillars and grasshoppers off the tomatoes and tossing them over the fence.

"I'll show you," replied dad. He pulled into his driveway and shut off his Subaru's engine. "Follow me." He led Oliver into the humongous backyard, where he had been cutting the tall grass all day. Rakes lay strewn about the ground. "The grasshoppers hide in the grass at night, eating my plants by day. I cut the grass, but they can still crawl into the masses of grass stubs that are left. That's why we are going to move the cut grass away from the stubs. When night falls, all the little hoppers are going to make for the stubs and get picked off by vinegaroons and other nocturnal predators."

Dad handed Oliver a rake. "I want all the grass piled up over there," he said, pointing at a cleared spot in the yard. As Oliver took the rake, he saw his dad's sleeve slide up an inch to reveal a red scrape that looked as if something had torn the skin with a pair of tweezers. It was partially scabbed, but still a bit shiny.

"Did your shoulder snag on the fence, dad?" Oliver asked.

Dad's eyes grew distant for a second, but he smiled and said, "That's right, son. The fence wouldn't even be barbed if those ranchers could control their cattle." Oliver remembered when the cows invaded their yard. Dad was furious because of the destruction to his crops. "Without further ado, let's get to work on this grass."

For about an hour, Oliver and his dad raked grass into a pile. It rose four feet into the air and was twice as wide. He could see the beady black eyes of grasshoppers, or some other insect, peering out of the grass pile. Oliver stared into them for a few seconds, then looked at his dad. "Are we done now?" he asked, sneaking another look at the staring eyes, but they had gone.

"Yep. I'd better drive you home now, Oliver. I expect Moira's finished mopping the floor by now," said dad. Oliver heard dad mutter "that damned cake-eater" under his breath. He would later learn that the muttered phrase was concerned with the reason Oliver was sent out of the house.

When Oliver was driven home by his dad, Walter came out to greet him. "Hiya, sonny," said Walter, ruffling Oliver's hair. I want you to go away, Oliver thought. He glanced back. Dad hadn't stepped out of the car, and his lips were moving in unspoken curses. "'Lo there, Robert!" called Walter. Dad forced a pained smile. At least someone shared Oliver's dislike of Walter. Ugly stepdad Walter.

Two days later, Oliver asked his mom if he could go to dad's place for a bit.

"You're spending more time there than at school these days," sighed mom, but she let him go. This time it was she who drove.

Today, they were picking caterpillars. "Remember, don’t squeeze them when you're pulling them from the plants or they'll vomit green juice all over you," said dad. He gave Oliver a milk jug with a few inches of water at the bottom. "That's where you'll put them. There's no point in throwing them over the fence now; they're just going to come right back. Fortunately, caterpillars can't swim, so you just have to drop them in the jug and let the water do the work. Got that, Oliver?"

But Oliver didn’t hear. "Dad!" he yelled. A shovel leaning against the shed had just wobbled. As if by its own will, it fell over, striking dad across the hip and knocking him to the ground.

"Shit," dad groaned. Oliver just stood there, frozen in shock. He glanced at his dad's hip. God, there was blood.

"Dad? Dad, are you okay?" said Oliver, starting to panic.

"It's fine, Oliver. I'm going to go put on some bandages. It's okay, it doesn’t hurt," said dad, his voice breathless from the pain in his hip. "Now Oliver, I want you to take this milk jug and find some caterpillars. I'm going to go inside and put some bandages on my hip. Got that? It's okay. I'll be right back. Collect a few caterpillars." He got up, winced, and began limping toward the house, using the very shovel that had hit him as a crutch. Oliver watched him reach the door and picked up his milk jug. He walked into the garden and spotted a fat green Tomato Hornworm. When he picked it up, he squeezed it uncontrollably and threw it on the ground as green and yellow fluid sprayed all over his arm. Then he noticed his hands were shaking. Calm down, he thought. Oliver didn’t like blood. He remembered his history teacher saying how Ulysses Grant would grow faint at the sight of blood. That's why Oliver did his report on him. He shuddered and tried to distract himself from the thought of his dad bleeding out in the bathroom, unapplied bandages in hand.

That day, mom picked Oliver up and drove dad to the hospital. He came back later saying that a nerve cluster had been severely damaged by the shovel. He was walking okay, but his leg would erupt into pain when it was overexerted. He would need Oliver's help more than usual when tending to his yard. Oliver felt some joy in this, but still wished his dad had never been hurt.

After dad stayed over for dinner (thin-lipped and looking anywhere but at Walter), he got in his car and said goodnight to Oliver, who had followed him out the door.

"Oliver?" dad said, leaning out of his car with a serious look on his face.

"Yeah?" replied Oliver.

"Make sure you close your window when you go to sleep tonight."

An hour later, Oliver obeyed his dad's command and sealed the window. Replays of the shovel falling entered his dreams, and something else… the shed wall was moving in all directions at once, like it was covered in thousands of black and red ants. It was an optical illusion that hurt his head and woke him up. He went back to sleep, though.

Just as dad had predicted, Oliver was helping him with his work much more often. Oliver began to forget the incident, and enjoyed himself over the next months. Until it became apparent that mom was pregnant.

"Isn't it great that you're finally going to have a little sibling? It's still a bit early for an ultrasound, but I hope it's a sister!" mom told him. Oliver felt that he already had a slight dislike for the unborn baby, knowing that it was Walter whose genes it would inherit. The baby was never born, though, because its mother would soon leave the world…

It happened about six months after the shovel incident. Mom dropped Oliver off at dad's, and stayed to tell dad about the ultrasound's results - it was a girl. He was nowhere to be found, at least in the house. She and Oliver tried opening his bedroom door, after their knocks and calls went unanswered. After some difficulty, it swung open to reveal a strange sight.

All the windows were closed, deadbolted, and sealed with putty. Borax was literally everywhere - the floor and shelves were coated with it. The bedposts were smeared with Vaseline. Bottles of bug spray numbered in the tens, piled on the dresser. Looking down, Oliver saw that the door had been taped to the wall and floor, hence the difficulty opening it. What they didn’t find in there was dad, and mom decided to call his cell. Oliver went outside, thinking he might be doing something in the yard.

Riiiiiiiing.

It was coming from the shed. Oliver stood confused for a moment, then realized that was his mom calling dad. He must be in there getting some tools. Oliver approached the shed, and for a second, the walls all crawled with ants. They disappeared as soon as Oliver double-took, though. Before he could call for dad:

"Oliver… don’t come in."

"Dad?" said Oliver. "Why not?"

"Just go get mom… tell her to call the poli--uugghhh...."

"Dad!?" shouted Oliver, positively scared. He had already been shaken by the weirdness of dad's room.

"Go. Uuugghhh…"

Oliver stomped his feet, torn between opening the door and obeying dad. In his indecision, a voice in his head said help your father.

When he opened the door, the overpowering stench was the second thing to hit him. The first was the flies. It was when he saw the source of both that he collapsed in a dead faint.


Oliver woke up. It was dark. Had he been out until nightfall? It was also damp and warm. He felt the moist earth beneath him, then bumped his head on the hard surface a foot above him. He was under the shed. Interrupting his thoughts came a wave of sickness. After a long and painful retch, Oliver looked around for the sliver of light that would lead him out from under the shed. Spotting it, he shuffled his way through the crawlspace and immediately stopped in shock. Something was moving beneath him. Through the faint light, he made out hundreds of fat beetle grubs thrashing and tossing in the ground.

He had been taught by dad not to be afraid of bugs. Oliver went forward, sweeping grubs out of the way with his hands. When he made it out, he felt blood dripping onto his back. He crawled all the way out and ran to the house without looking back. What he had seen in the shed…

Oliver still felt sick in the stomach as he opened the back door and called for mom. His voice felt distant and useless, but mom answered.

"Oliver? Where were you!?" she walked into the kitchen and stopped, mouth gaping. Oliver realized he must be covered in the squished bodies of June beetle larvae. "What's all that blood on your back from?" she asked.

"It's dad," replied Oliver faintly. "Call 911. He's…"

Mom didn’t pause to ask questions. She got on the phone and began speaking quickly to the police station. Oliver wasn’t listening to her, though. He saw his dad lying down in the shed, blood spilling on the floor. He was absolutely covered in insects - flies, carrion beetles, worms… even caterpillars, grasshoppers, and shield bugs. The few inches of skin that were exposed had nails, screws, and various hand tools stuck deep into the flesh.

"Oliver?" It was mom, still holding the phone. "What happened?"

"Dad's hurt and bleeding. There were lots of maggots. I think he's dead…" Oliver whimpered into mom's shoulder.

"Where, Oliver, where?" asked mom, her voice slightly shrill.

"In the shed. Don’t go in there," came Oliver's muffled voice.

It was as if mom couldn’t hear the last part. She opened the back door and tore down the yard, ignoring the pain in her swollen belly. When she reached the shed and flung open the door, the resulting heart attack would prove to be fatal in the next days of hospitalization. Oliver didn’t see it happen, though. He was in the kitchen, updating the police in the phone mom abandoned. He could barely hear what he was saying. Those beady black eyes, tiny but numerous, staring at him from the unlit area of the shed…

When the police arrived, they took mom to the hospital and dad to the morgue. When the autopsy was performed, the coroner announced that the ultimate cause of death was loss of blood, but a largely contributing factor was the larvae boring into the lower organs such as the liver. Oliver was sent to live with Walter.

He barely noticed Walter, because he was still thinking back to what they had said… that the killer had left no footprints or fingerprints, let alone a message. Oliver understood, though. Dad was the message.

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