Between the town of Prosperity and the city of Santa Fe is nothing but barren desert, miserable heat, and a single, lonely strip of cracked, under-maintained asphalt. The valley is surrounded by mountains that catch and strangle all radio signals: when anyone in Prosperity needs to send a message to Santa Fe, their only options are to drive or use smoke signals.
So far the road trip to Prosperity has nothing new to show Sgt. Ellison: a miserable panorama of dirt, dust, and nothingness. Throngs of ugly trees and bushes populate the landscape, twisted in permanent contortions of agony -- the way she might look if she dies out here.
Sgt. Ellison pines for her swimming pool back in Santa Fe and leans against the front of the patrol car, the white four-door Dodge Aspen whose engine had been vomiting steam like a geyser thirty minutes ago. She hears the sound again -- the strange, bird-like call -- rolling into the valley from over the distant mountains. She finally thinks of the word that had escaped her when she first heard it.
Sgt. Nash pokes his handsome head out the open driver's side door. "Whussat, Ellison?"
"It sounds like a kookaburra. That bird."
Nash rolls his eyes and ducks back into the squad car, radio in hand. "Ten-nine, Tom. Say again."
"I said you shoulda took auto shop instead o' wood shop in high school," crackles Tom the Dispatcher, leaving Nash to fill in the blanks where his voice cuts out. "It's just the radiator. Give it a little more time to cool off, it'll run like brand new."
"This heap can barely make it to the store for a pack o' smokes," says Nash, "nevermind a hundred miles across the desert. I'm no automotive genius, but I know that much."
Tom's reply is a garbled mess that leaves Nash cursing the desert, the mountains, and the department for sending him on this errand with the unapproachable Ellison in the first place. He hangs up the handset and gets out of the car, shaking the damp fabric of his shirt to get some circulation -- outside the four-wheeled oven is no better than inside. He could fry an egg on the hood. Not a merciful cloud in sight for miles, either: the valley probably hasn't seen rain since Wild Bill wore a badge.
"Prosperity's a nice name for a town," Ellison says listlessly, as a tumbleweed rolls lazily by like a drunken spider.
Nash scoffs. "The name's a joke. The mines ain't worth shit."
The bird call comes again. It's brief this time, first rolling its Rs, then bursting into laughter at the two dumb cops baking under the sun.
Then it's silent, except the low hum of the wind. Mountains the size of skyscrapers watch them from all directions.
Until today Ellison had regretted cutting her pretty hair short. She sighs and starts pacing back and forth across the desolate highway, remembering something her father had said about working outdoors in a desert state: keep moving to keep cool. Father had also said that police work was a man's job and that Gerald Ford would beat Jimmy Carter in the winter election, but every now and then he was right.
Another twenty minutes pass, with no sign of another car. She hears the bird call three times in the span of it, always to the right of the car, beyond the mountains a mile in the distance.
She stares down the road toward Prosperity, the mythical Old West town where Nash claimed to have spent so many summers policing the yokels and bedding bored farmer's daughters and god knows what else. The road melts into a shimmering river on the horizon and flows into infinity. The world outside the valley could end that very moment, and she wouldn't notice.
"Smoke?" says Nash.
Ellison glances back. He's leaning on the hood now, not even looking at her as he pinches a cigarette between his lips.
"I quit," she says.
Nash chuckles as he lights up. "So did I."
Ellison goes back to pacing across the highway.
"Wanna talk about it?" says Nash.
Something inside Ellison's gut squirms in pain. She says nothing.
"If he hadn't died, they wouldn'ta stuck you with me in the first place," says Nash. "Figure if this fuckin' heat doesn't melt your icy shell, maybe gettin' Petersen off your chest will."
"I got nothing to say to the counselor. Why would I talk to you?"
Nash shrugs. "'Cos I don't pretend to give a shit like she does."
"Yeah, well, I'm not thrilled to be your partner, either, so rest easy."
"How'd I get your panties in a twist?"
"It's no office secret you're a misogynist pig."
"Hey, when all the girls on the force look down their nose at a guy, thinkin' they got somethin' to prove all the time, it comes pretty easy." He grins. "But you look down your nose at everybody, so you're top drawer by comparison."
The bird laughs at her. She whistles back, bored talking to humans.
It laughs again, and this time another responds -- Ellison guesses three mountains away. They cackle madly back and forth for a full minute, briefly joined by a third. The conversation strikes her as malicious somehow, like gossiping sorority girls plotting to ruin her life. Then all at once they silence.
Ellison watches a single, solitary ant skitter along the side of the road, searching for anything edible. It probably wishes it was anywhere else, just like Ellison. She grants its request and trods on it with her shoe.
Nash finishes his cigarette with his second drag, drops it, smothers it under his heel before letting the last of the smoke out of his lungs. "Anyway, wasn't your fault he got killed," he says. "And I doubt they stuck us together for keeps. Just tryin' to help you take it easy for awhile, givin' you a cushy case your first day back. Ease ya back into regular, depressing police work."
"You'll like Prosperity. Nothin' to do but drink beer and occasionally break up fights between feudin' families. Three different feuds across two hundred people, goin' back about a hundred years. The summer heat gets everybody agitated, makes 'em fight over the slightest bullshit. More 'n usual, that is."
"What species is that?" says Ellison as if she hadn't heard him.
Nash gazes across the desert at the mountains from where the "bird" cackles yet again, this time unanswered. He shrugs. "Never heard a bird like that before."
Ellison squints at him. "You come out here all the time."
"Useta. Been over a year. Got no recollection o' cockatubas in the area."
"Musta moved in after my last visit. A lot can change in a year."
When the wind finally starts rolling up veils of desert dust, Nash climbs back into the Aspen and tries the engine again. After a cough, it purrs to life, as eager to escape the wasteland as its grinning driver.
He almost has to shout over the wind for Ellison to hear him -- it's the third dust storm in the past week, and picking up in an awful hurry.
Ellison doesn't hear him and continues staring at the mountains. The bird call is barely audible over the now howling wind, but it sounds like the three sorority sisters are gossiping again, this time with a fourth that cackles considerably closer -- maybe a good stone's throw away. If it weren't for the dust blurring the desert in every direction, she could finally see enough of the damn thing to identify it in her bird book.
"Ellison!" shouts Nash. "C'mon, 'fore she shits the bed again!"
Ellison jogs to the passenger side and gets in, brushing the dust from her hair.
"You shoulda gassed up before we left Santa Fe like I told you," she says.
"We got enough to make the trip," says Nash. "I'll gas up in town."
They don't drive another ten minutes before they find the red pickup on the side of the road, parked like it was headed toward Santa Fe when it stopped. Nash recognizes it as Ashton Tate's rig and flips a U-turn, parking in the dirt just behind it. The dust storm hasn't improved any and fills the officers' mouths with the grainy taste of desolation.
"Might be havin' the same trouble as us," says Nash when Ellison protests. "Least we can do is give him a lift."
Ellison wrinkles her nose as they approach the truck. "Fuck's sake," she hisses. "Does your friend always stink like cat piss?"
Nash sniffs the air. "You're high, Doll. I smell nothin'."
"You're high if you can't smell that!"
Nash and Ellison check in the truck, in the back, and underneath. They check every bush within twenty feet. Ol' Ashton isn't there.
Nash checks the driver's side door of the truck and finds it unlocked. He climbs inside, seeking shelter from the storm, his skin now coated in a thin layer of desert dust.
His knee bumps Ashton's plastic cactus keychain, dangling from the ignition switch.
He stares at the swaying keychain for a minute. He turns the key: the engine coughs a few times, then sputters to life. He switches it off and checks the back wall of the cab. A pair of prongs is welded to the metal, where the World War Two veteran was known to rack a thirty-thirty rifle.
Nash gets out, walks over to Ellison twenty feet from the truck. She squats near a bush like an Indian reading tracks.
"Key's in the ignition," he says. "His gun's gone."
Ellison is kneeling over a discarded "size twelve" army boot, the laces frayed, but tied. She picks it up, brushes a line of fat black ants off of it, watches them bounce on the hard earth and tumble in circles as they try to get their bearings. Her eyes follow a squirming column of the little creatures that marches off into the mountains like ant factoids into her brain.
Wingless cousins to the wasp. Explains why they're such assholes.
All of them are sterile females who only bring males into existence when it's time to breed. The idea of Nash only existing for a few passionate minutes is appealing enough, but not the idea of living in a giant sorority. She'd had enough of that in college.
They communicate by sound and smell. They use pheromones to leave trails to food sources, and to warn the nest of enemies. She reminds herself of this by crushing an ant beneath her thumb as it wanders off the trail: after one whiff of its death pheromones, all ants within three feet of the corpse go into a frenzy, angrily seeking the infidel who killed their sister.
She glances up at Nash, holds up the boot. Nash scratches his head.
Ellison tosses the boot back to the ants and stands. "He's the big yokel who came into town for the July shooting competition, yeah?"
"Yeah. He's got family in the city, too. Sometimes if Brenda or anyone else has something they need in Santa Fe, they just tell Ash to take care of it. He's the one told us about the two missing boys."
"Sure this is his truck?"
Nash shrugs. "I dunno. Looks big enough."
"He got a penchant for wandering out into the desert?"
"Hell no. He hates it here. He's always talkin' about how he's gonna move to Oregon someday."
Nash takes in a long, panoramic view of the surrounding desert, peering through the thick dust for signs of a human figure. He sees the twisted, unnerving shapes of desert trees standing like frozen, flailing souls in a portrait of hell.
The bird call briefly mocks them again.
"Let's get outta this shitstorm," says Ellison with a nauseated cough. She walks back to the patrol car with her nose pinched shut. "I'll call it in, tell the town sheriff. Maybe ask him to bring us some odor spray."
Nash bites his lip and worries about Ashton. He doesn't follow her at first.
"What's the frequency?" Ellison shouts over the storm.
"Twenty-two!" Nash shouts back, cutting in front of the pickup on his way back to the driver's side of the Aspen. "Sheriff Lang!"
Ellison parks herself in the passenger seat and speaks into the radio handset: "Sheriff Lang, this is Sgt. Ellison from Santa Fe. Come in."
No response. She tries again two more times, with similar results.
Nash suddenly opens her door. "Come and look at this," he says.
"He's asleep I guess," she says, waving the handset.
"Come and look."
Ellison sighs, hangs up the handset. She gets out and follows Nash around front of the truck.
The radiator and fender are smashed in, and spattered red.
The ants are swarming over the radiator to collect all they can of the gore. No telling how much had been stuck to the grill before they got to it. Ellison shivers and looks back at the mountains.
Nash shouts for Ashton over the sound of the storm.
"We'll never find him on our own," says Ellison. "He could be back in town for all we know. Let's get to Prosperity and talk to the Sheriff. Lazy hick won't answer his radio anyway."
Nash scratches the back of his head, still scanning the desert for signs of the old man. He sighs in defeat and walks back to the patrol car.
Ellison takes one last look at the ants swarming greedily over the red spattering on the radiator grill. She spits on them and plunges their disgusting, skittering formations into chaos before returning to the Aspen.
Fifteen minutes down the highway they pass a weathered sign welcoming them to the town of Prosperity, population two hundred seven. The sign reminds her of an old, forgotten grave marker as it stands tilted at an angle, nested in a cluster of dead weeds beside the road.
The road zig-zags between a collection of buildings that haven't yet realized the turn of the century already came and went. The Aspen passes a dusty wooden general store that might still sell fifty cent cigars; next door, a barbershop, red and white striped pole and all. At the first corner, where the road cuts to the right, stands a two-story saloon with a sleepy, smiling moon painted over the front doors, wearing an old fashioned pajama cap that makes Ellison think of Disney movies from the fifties. Here and there a dirty old pickup truck is parked along the side of the road, tilted awkwardly as the tires sink into the earth.
Nash parks in front of the saloon, and both officers climb out into the storm. Ellison wrinkles her nose, then glances at Nash and finds him doing the same. The smell is here, too, and it's stronger.
"See?" says Ellison. "You smell it now, right?"
"Yeah," says Nash. "Just a bit. This what you smelled back at Ashton's truck?"
Ellison walks to the middle of the road where it turns toward the center of town, and stares down the long line of wooden houses and store fronts. Two hundred yards out they become mere silhouettes in the dry khaki mists rolling across the valley -- a portrait of some post-apocalyptic settlement long after the extinction of the human race.
She hears the wind howl and hum as it rolls between the buildings, and now and then the cackle of the desert bird that seems to be stalking her. No human voices, no sounds of car engines. Feeling naked out in the street, Ellison follows Nash inside.
The floorboards are carpeted in an ominous shade of crimson, and the floor lamps and television set are distinctly 1976; but everything else screams Tombstone, right down to the old-timey circular tables and the player piano in the far back of the lobby, next to an out-of-place tropical plant. The shelves behind the bar are well stocked with tequila, mescal, and whiskey. Photographs decorate the walls, mostly depicting a pair of adorable little boys and a thirty-year-old mother whose figure hasn't lost a curve despite suffering childbirth twice. She always wears country dresses and always smiles at the camera like the model in a Sears catalog.
In one photo the pretty mom leans her head on a very young Nash's shoulder. He holds his arm around her waist the way a husband or sugar daddy would. The way he would hold the pretty, lonely woman who had brought him back to Prosperity again and again, the fingers having memorized the shape of her flesh.
Ellison would laugh except for the bloated red ant crawling out from under the picture frame. It skitters downward, toward the floor as if to greet her. She kicks it to oblivion with her boot.
"Fuckin' things are everywhere," she mutters.
Nash's voice startles her as it shatters the silence upstairs, calling Brenda and her two boys. A minute later he comes tromping down the stairs to the lobby. He's pale, and his forehead is sweatier than usual. He looks hopelessly to Ellison for an explanation.
"This place is a ghost town," she says.
Nash shakes his head. "Can't be. Two hundred seven people been livin' here all their lives. They're probably at the church up the road."
"On a Monday?"
"Sometimes they hold town meetings to settle affairs. The church is the only place big enough for everyone."
Ellison marches to the swinging doors. "Let's talk to the sheriff about your friend first. We got enough gas to make it around town?"
"Just barely, I guess. We can stop at Gonzo's place on the way."
The lobby is an L-shape with the bar hugging the corner. Left of the entrance it narrows to about ten feet wide and leads to two bathroom doors, a wall phone, and what appears to be a smoking lounge at the far end, just around the corner. The lounge tables and chairs are stacked against the wall, except for one that lays on its side in the middle of the floor. Ellison glances this way while she speaks, and happens to catch a glimpse of the lounge window curtains moving -- caressed by a draft.
A stronger draft than the one coming through the open saloon doors.
Ellison pauses. She walks past the bathrooms to the smoking lounge and stops. She stares. She calls Nash in a tone that makes his neck hairs stand on end. He swiftly joins her.
The back wall, around the corner and out of view from the lobby, has been bulldozed. It now yawns from floor to ceiling in a splintered wooden mouth, as if to scream at the distant mountains where the bird call continues to chatter. Nash stares at the wreckage, dumbfounded. Ellison steps through the hole and examines the splintered edges with her fingers.
She sees another hole just like it in the back of a house two blocks away. She points it out to Nash.
"Let's go to the church," he says. "Whatever's happened here, the sheriff already knows about it."
Nash drives slowly down the road as the dust thickens, to avoid crashing into anyone else who might be out driving. The Aspen passes by a squat building with two tall street lamps typically found in front of a police station. The door is open, and Nash can see the flicker of the sheriff's television set on the counter.
It takes them five minutes to reach the other side of Prosperity at their slow pace: during the tour they see no other persons on the street or in the windows.
"Fuck this," says Ellison, switching on the police lights.
She hits the siren off and on, giving the lifeless town a periodic burst of noise in the hope that someone will hear it and come to investigate. Only the malicious desert bird replies: it seems to jump around, sometimes calling from their left, sometimes from the right, the distance always alternating.
No one has come to greet them by the time the yawning doorway of the church peeks out of the dust storm, waiting to swallow the Aspen as it approaches. Nash parks in front of the tall building, on top of what turns out to be one of the front doors, torn from its hinges.
Nash leaps out of the car and leads Ellison inside, his .45 drawn and ready.
The dust in the air doesn't change when they cross the threshold: the storm has free reign of the building. Across a sea of broken and upturned pews, the back walls have been completely torn out.
Nash starts shouting names of townsfolk, but nobody replies. Ellison rights a few pews as she sifts through the rubble. Beneath one she finds the severed arm of what could have been a teddy bear. She offers it to Nash.
His eyes moisten at the sight of it, and he gingerly takes it from her hand. It seems to tell him a story only he can hear.
"Michael's," he finally says. "Brenda's youngest boy."
He steps through the open wall, out into the desert, and shouts the boy's name. Only the wind and the cackling bird call answer.
Ellison nudges him. "Look, there's nothing we can do here. Whatever happened, we missed it. Coulda happened days ago."
"I don't get it," says Nash. "They shoulda been waving at us when we first got here. There shoulda been kids playin' in the street. That damn Aussie shepherd chasin' the car, barkin' at us all the way to Brenda's. Even the fuckin' dog is gone. Where the hell did the dog go?"
"Let's gas up and get back to Santa Fe as soon as possible. We gotta report this."
Nash doesn't seem to hear her as he continues staring at the teddy bear arm in his hand. She shakes him out of it.
"Wake up!" she says.
"Yeah, yeah, got it. Back to Santa Fe." He sniffles. "Let's go."
He walks slowly back to the patrol car, shoulders slouched, a million terrible thoughts on an endless loop in his brain. Ellison stops him, takes the keys from his hand.
She speaks in her best approximation of tenderness. "I'll drive. Tell me where we're going."
"Gonzo's place," says Nash, trying to keep his voice from cracking. "Gas station back the way we came."
The car sputters to a stop just outside the sheriff's office with a hollow cough and a curse from Ellison.
"You said we had enough gas!" she says.
"We do," says Nash as the engine begins to vomit clouds of steam again. "Fuckin' radiator."
Ellison curses once more, tries the key again. The engine coughs loudly like an old man on its death bed.
Nash is already climbing out. The mocking laughter of the desert is more frequent now, and beginning to agitate him. "Put 'er in neutral and let's push. Town's only a mile long."
Ellison tries the engine one more time. It wheezes dryly in agony and still fails to start.
Nash and Ellison jump as the bird call responds to the engine only a stone's throw away, somewhere within the thick vale of airborne dust.
It hits them like machine gun fire, grating against their eardrums. Nash covers his ears and stumbles in a circle, trying to pinpoint the source.
He realizes it's behind him just as it leaps out of the dust storm and crashes against the back of the Aspen, close enough for him to reach out and touch. He whirls around and staggers, his mind reeling.
The thing is as big as the Aspen: a mass of spindly limbs and writhing feelers piggybacking on the car, rocking it on its axles as it digs its scissor-like jaws into the roof and slams its bulbous back end into the trunk again and again. Its abdomen stabs into the yielding metal with an obscene, twelve-inch retractable dagger that spatters noxious sputum onto the battered trunk hood with every thrust. Its hideous red flesh is like frosted glass, its pumping veins and pulsing organs visible for all to see.
Ellison is in the driver's seat, screaming at the top of her lungs, too afraid to get out of the car. The monster is tearing the roof back like a can opener, making the Aspen into a convertible.
Nash instinctively draws his pistol and pelts the thing with a salvo of heavy lead slugs that bury in its flesh like pellets from an Airsoft gun. It hisses and rolls off of the car; turns to face Nash with its head low and its abdomen raised high, a jungle cat ready to pounce. Its feelers point at him accusingly and its scissor-jaws gnash and drool. It assaults him with an overwhelming stink of cat piss that brings bile up into his throat.
He backpedals away from it with a scream, pumping four more shots into its face as it advances like an alligator. Dumb luck saves his life when he trips and falls, rolling out of its way as it lunges and buries its jaws into a telephone pole on the passenger's side of the Aspen. With a screech it wrenches left and right, and the pole breaks with a deafening crack and topples into the street, smashing the Aspen's engine hood inward.
Barely clinging to her sanity, Ellison yanks the keys from the ignition and scrambles around back of the Aspen, to the bashed-in trunk, babbling a desperate prayer under her breath. The prayer is answered as the hood springs open and reveals the police issue AR-15 nestled inside.
She grabs the rifle and shoulders it, flips the safety catch. The monster is in profile to her, clumsily scrambling onto the roof to get at Nash on the other side. He's taken his eyes off the thing to reload with trembling hands. He doesn't see its impending lunge. It'll scissor him in half.
The air shatters from the rifle's deafening roar on full auto, each blast carving a fist-sized hole through the monster's broad side. It shrieks and rolls down the Aspen's hood and onto the pavement in a slurry of raspberry jam. When the weapon clicks dry, the thing is no longer moving: it lies on its side, head and legs tucked inward as if in prayer, quivering now and again.
The acidic stench sucker-punches her in the stomach. Ellison doubles over and pukes her guts out.
Nash barely hears her retching over the roar of the wind. His chest heaving in terror, he cautiously approaches the dead thing on the pavement pistol-first, a mere twitch away from emptying the magazine into its unmoving head.
He has little to say besides, "What the fuck?" It comes out again and again in a shrill wheeze. He wants to check on Ellison, but can't find the courage to take his eyes off of the scissor-like jaws of the corpse: he imagines them latching around the back of his neck the moment his back is turned.
Ellison is beside him now, reloaded. Gagging, she prods the thing with the tip of the rifle barrel. It doesn't flinch. In its curled-up death posture it reminds her of--
"A bug," says Nash.
Ellison swallows. "An ant."
Nash looks at her. "Fuck you. No way."
"It's a goddamned fire ant. Look at it."
Nash does. He remembers the diagram on the wall in his eighth grade science teacher's classroom. The bisection of head, thorax, and abdomen is now sprawled on the asphalt before him, blown up to the size of a Buick.
"How the fuck did it get so big?" he says. "This can't be what... Brenda and her boys can't be..."
Ellison isn't looking at it anymore, nor at him. She is pointing the rifle in every direction like a soldier searching for Charlie in the 'Nam. The fear blazing in her red, bulging eyes is enough to run floods of goosebumps across Nash's skin.
Then he hears it: just behind the howl of the wind, the cackling call of the fire ant in the distance. He can't be sure how many are conversing. They sound angry.
"We have to go," says Ellison. "Before another one shows up."
"Brenda," says Nash. "We gotta find Brenda and the kids."
"They're dead. Everyone in this town is dead."
Nash spits as he shouts at her, "I'm not leavin' without Brenda!"
Ellison points to the carcass on the road. "Don't you get it? There's nothin' left of Brenda! We are the only human life in this valley! They got the rest! They tunneled into their homes and ate every last scrap! That's why there's no blood! No bodies!"
Nash begins kicking the giant carcass, spitting a string of obscenities at it. He tires after a minute and stands with his hands over his eyes, sobbing.
"Nash, snap out of it!" says Ellison, her voice trembling.
Hearing her stony manner suddenly soften takes Nash aback. He looks at her and finds her on the verge of crying, too, but somehow keeping her composure.
"Petersen died 'cos I couldn't hold it together," she says. "I need you to hold it together for me, okay? Please?"
Nash takes a deep breath, shakes the memory of Brenda's warm, soft skin from his mind. He sniffles and wipes his nose. He nods. "What the hell do we do now?"
"Get the camera outta the car and get some photos of that thing for evidence. Then we gas up the car and get outta Dodge. We gotta tell Santa Fe what's happened here. Tell 'em to send the army up here to set up a perimeter, just in case there's--"
The cackling is louder. And now that her adrenaline is beginning to wear off, she realizes it's drawing closer. Her head begins to ache from the constant, unbearable noise that seems to come from all around her.
It hits her like a medicine ball, and her blood goes very cold. She senses the dead thing on the pavement behind her: the thing that died shitting its pheromones all over the valley in the ultimate act of revenge. The thing that now laughs at her through the voices of its furious sisters.
She sees them now. An ocean of squirming feelers stirring up the dust clouds, a hundred paces in every direction and closing fast. The store fronts, mere silhouettes in the dust storm, come alive with movement: they explode with heads and appendages, waves of noxious life swarming over the rooftops and down to the streets. The cackling has become a hell of ear-shattering white noise.
Nash is shouting something, but Ellison can't hear him over the ringing in her skull. She wouldn't hear him anyway. Nothing registers in her brain except the image of an ant casually crushed by her thumb, and millions of its tiny sisters merging into a tsunami of vengeance. They would leave nothing left for the nest: they would rend, tear, and sting the murderer out of existence for her blasphemy.
The desert is an endless chorus of malignant laughter. Ellison joins it and fires wildly into the storm.
Written by Mike MacDee