There was frost on the ground, and it was too warm.
Looking out from the porch, Abigail saw every blade of grass standing up, white, rigid. There was no bite in the air, no taste of electricity. Something else, maybe, a nectar smell, but not the scent of frost. There were no whorls on the windows, no ferns of ice tracing over the glass.
The grass moved in the wind, short and shorn but rippling like wheat.
Abigail was an old woman, and the mornings seemed colder every day, but the sun had been out for too long already. The school buses had come and gone, and so had the paper, and, eventually, the mail. It was the last that she had come out for, and she was in only a bathrobe and slippers, and this, even, was stifling under the heat of the sun, not yet willing to give in to autumn, kind enough to let the tomatoes and the dandelions die out in peace.
But there were no dandelions.
There was the grass, and the grass was rippling, and there was no wind.
She walked down the steps.
Closer, on an even plane, she could see the peculiarity clearly. What had yesterday been a dense, yellowed lawn, tufted and sprawled in nature’s lax blueprint, was clinical today. Militant. She could see that what had looked like dying leaves in unkempt design was truly row after row of orderly blades pushing up from the dirt, even as teeth, rounded as rats’ tails.
Abigail saw a lot of things these days.
A cursory glance from side to side showed that the frost had not just touched her yard. It hadn’t inhabited every neat suburban lawn, but dotted from house to house, ignoring some, favoring others. Each house it had chosen had been completely retaken, filling every space where grass had been before. Where boundaries touched without fences, the lines ran straight, green and white as neatly divided as if with painter’s tape.
Each icy blade rippled. There was no wind.
Abigail wanted her mail.
She stepped into the yard, and it retreated around her foot. The frost tails, rat tails, would not be trod on, instead sinking noiselessly into the earth. When she lifted her foot, they rose again, inorganically, pegs out of holes.
Her footsteps were cautious at first, but it continued to cede to her, and she put it from her mind. She’d become very good at putting things from her mind. The pills helped, but she worked very hard at her own part of it, and she was proud of that, and she thought the doctors were, too. She wouldn’t put all her burden on the medicine; she would carry her own yoke like the Good Book said, and she would be blessed.
When she reached the mailbox, Abigail looked around again, resting against the wicker fence, hand on the wood. It was late afternoon, and soul unseen. Children in schoolhouses, men at work. Women at work. Old women like her, used up, at home, dozing through the heat of the day and huddling against the cold of the night. She hadn’t slept through the night for some years, and it hadn’t been any of the trouble that caused it, simply a lack of pressure. She slept and ate as she needed to, and the days evaporated.
Abigail opened the mailbox and sorted its contents. Catalogs, sweepstakes entries. Less each day.
She clutched it to her withered breast and returned to the yard, closing the gate behind her. The sea of blades gave way beneath her feet. She smiled faintly at that—she was a queen before her subjects, Moses parting the waters. Moving slowly, taking up a last draught of sunlight, Abigail went into her house and locked the door.
She was an old woman, and the pills dulled her senses. It wouldn’t be until she bathed that night that she noticed the scratch on her ankle.
The pain wasn’t bad that night, and neither was the TV. Abigail rarely paid much attention to what she watched anymore, but what was on was soothing. There were some shows about selling and buying strange old antiques, and those were the kind she liked best. It didn’t matter if you nodded in and out, and she enjoyed humoring silly fancies that they lighted in her, of her grandmother’s pochette being more than the junk metal she knew it to be, of selling it for six or seven hundred dollars and treating her grand-niece to something her mother would disapprove of. Something ridiculously lavish, a rocking horse from that fancy shop in New York City, or a teddy bear so enormous that the precious girl could sit in its lap and sleep in it.
She liked commercials, since they were short and easy to understand, and instead took the longer segments of the shows, where the staff pretended to be angry about made-up conflicts and yelled at each other, to cut at the worm. She didn’t like the yelling, she found it abrasive and tedious.
The worm, or what she supposed was a worm, was white like the rat-tail blades of the yard, but more complex, more sophisticated. It was about as thick and long as a child’s finger, and segmented, ending in a split portion like a snake’s tongue or a fly’s foot. It was rigid, skeletal, and dry except for where it emerged from the hole in her leg. The end curled in on itself just a little, fish-hooked, and she found herself idly dragging her fingertips over it when she tired of the yelling, letting it catch her skin just a little.
She had tried pulling it out when she first saw it, and there had been a feeling like a knot seizing up her nerves, a terrible sticky heaviness, and she had not tried that again. It was her fault, she supposed, for not dabbing it with iodine much earlier, but it did not hurt to dab it now, so she dutifully freshened up the hole whenever it felt dry, or else whenever she remembered. She had taken one of the few knives left from the kitchen and cut at it sporadically, but with the way her hands shook, she couldn’t keep at one place long enough to break it. Hard as teeth. Silent, still, soothing.
The doctor would come tomorrow, was scheduled for her regular visit, so it wouldn’t do to make a fuss. The pain wasn’t bad, although when she got up to take her pills, Abigail hobbled slightly, her leg feeling heavy, full of bone. She had known the nerves were going in her feet, and despite herself, the thought of complications frightened her. She had gone over once to bring a friend a comfort package and pray with her after her feet had gone bad, and hadn’t been ready to see poor Alice with her wound all packed with maggots—maggots, yellowed and squirming and stinking, and Alice had been in good spirits and teased her about how it tickled, but Abigail hadn’t been able to lay hands on her and had gone home sick that afternoon, and thought for as long as it was dark about her last childhood friend lying alone in bed, alone except for all of those worms, turning, turning, turning inside her.
She would go mad, she knew. She’d made a promise to herself the next day that if they ever tried to put maggots in her, she’d take an Ace bandage and a good, heavy axe and have her foot off, and rub it in dirt so they couldn’t sew it back on. They could try, but she wouldn’t let them.
It shamed her, a little. The doctors were kind, and she tried to be good for them. She took care of herself, she ate what they said, and she exercised. She got her own mail.
And now, she was taking care of herself. She was using iodine, and she was keeping her wound elevated, and if it started swelling, she would put ice on it. It would stay safe and still, never turning and turning like poor Alice’s maggots, this lonesome, orderly worm, gentle as a rocking chair. The doctors would be so proud.
They would be so proud.
Fire didn’t work. That hadn’t been their first solution to the polluted ground, they had tried industrial chemicals and pesticides and water and salt before someone suggested burning the damn things down, but it didn’t work. The rat-tails just retreated underground, and there wasn’t any digging them up. They just went deeper and deeper, and God only knew where they ended. Sonar showed forests of them thronging the earth, sliding through bedrock, source unseen. This was after some poor bastard had tried blowing them up, sending shards of the brittle stuff through the air, through Hazmat suits, into skin—some dozens in the trucks now, only to have the scientists show a day later that it would have been useless anyway.
They went deep. That was all anyone could say, after a while. They went deep. It was late on the fourth day of the quarantine that they reached the house with the wicker fence. The yard was infested, but the one next to it wasn’t, and the porch wrapped around to the side, making breaking in the sliding glass door a matter of little difficulty.
Flashlights swept the room, dark paneling, brown rug. One caught on the television set, casting a shadow over the thing on the couch, illuminating the edges of pins and needles, frost and bone on what was once a leg, an elegant hand, a scalp with a few strands of long silver hair still clinging to it.
There was a voice like rustling leaves.
“You weren’t worried, were you, Dr. Baxter?”
An oath, or a prayer, or a combination of the two, dropped from an agent’s lips, fell muffled into the confines of his suit, disappeared.
“An old woman can still take care of herself.”
There was clicking in the dark, endless clicking like chattering teeth, as the thing began to stand.
“I’ve even been taking my pi--“
There was a tedious, loud, abrasive sound, a flash of light, and Abigail’s body moved no more.
Her skin rippled.
There was no wind.