Phase II

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Folks up on Wheeler Mountain had their fair share of weird that winter. Bo Gifford claimed his prize heifer gave birth to a calf with two asses and Danny said there were a lot more shooting stars than normal. But I think things really started going downhill when my Ford pickup ate Richard Petty.

Little Dale found the old tomcat and named him in the tradition of our family (boys after NASCAR drivers and girls after country music songs). That orange-haired monster might have started life out as Fluffy, but he finished up as Richard Petty. Dale and the twins, Delia and Ruby, loved that mangy thing. Even Shelly doted on it and she wasn’t one to take a shine to neither man nor beast. Maybe there’s only so much love in the world to go around, because the more Shelly and the kids gave that cat the less they had for me.

It was February when it happened. I grabbed Richard Petty by the scruff of his neck and headed for the door.

“It’s too cold,” said Shelly. “He’s gonna freeze.”

“Where the hell you think it slept before we took it in?”

Shelly didn’t have an argument for that. Truth be told, it was too damn cold. The kind of cold that makes you slap a jock strap on your brass monkey. But I’d been getting peanut butter and jelly for lunch because the tuna I liked went into Petty’s bowl. I tossed that yowling son of a bitch into the yard like I was trying for a strike at the Bowl-a-Rama.

Let the little shit freeze.

The next morning, I staggered out to the truck after a quick breakfast of Sun Drop and cigarettes. I was thinking about my job—twelve hours on the factory floor screwing part A onto part B. Where Richard Petty spent the night didn’t cross my mind.

I started up the truck. The engine made a chunking sound and then whined into life. Petty’s final yowl filled the yard like a siren. Shelly and the kids poured out of the house in time to see the blood dripping off the hood as I looked down at the mess that had been their favorite pet.

“What the hell did you do, Lee?” Shelly screamed.

“Me, I didn’t do a thing. The damn cat crawled up under the hood. How was I supposed to know?”

“You put him out in the cold. You knew what would happen.”

It wasn’t true. I tried to explain. Critters were always getting under car hoods looking for a little warmth. Most times they just high tailed it out when the engine started. I didn’t plan it. I hated the cat, but no animal deserved what Richard Petty got. I would’ve never done such a thing on purpose. Hell, cleaning the engine would take me all day.

The kids didn’t say a word. They just looked at me.

I knew the family was upset, but I thought maybe, what with the cat gone, things might get better. They didn’t. I had been right about there only being so much love. When the Ford’s fan blade tore through all nine of Richard Petty’s lives the love died with him. There wasn’t anything but anger and blame left for old Lee Swafford Jr.

Shelly took the kids and left a few months later. She claimed I was spending all my time drinking with Danny, instead of looking for a new job after the factory let me go. That was true, but I blamed the damn cat.

I had a plan, though—a way to make some money and get Shelly and the kids to come home. Maybe I was fooling myself. I heard Shelly was dating Bob Gill, owner of Big Bob’s Boot Barn, and that little Dale and the girls already called him Daddy. But a man’s got to dream. And my dreams were fueled with propane.

Danny and I pulled into the Super Wal-Mart outside of Dayton around 2 a.m. We parked right up close to the long gray cage full of propane tanks. Construction sites went through that shit like a drunk through a case of High Life. It cost them thirty dollars a tank, but I’d sell it to them for half that and it was all profit.

Danny hopped out of the passenger seat. He already had the bolt cutters, what he called the “key to the city,” in his hand. The lock clanged on to the asphalt and in five minutes flat we had twenty-five tanks in the truck bed with a tarp over them.

I scanned the parking lot as I pulled out. There were only a few oldsters camping out in their RVs, on their way to see America one Wal-Mart at a time. I’d rubbed some mud on our license plate. The old folks couldn’t see worth a shit anyway.

Danny did the math, his eyes rolling up as if the answer was tattooed on the inside of his skull. “Another few weeks and we can go to Phase II,” he said.

Danny talked fancy, but I didn’t mind. He was the brains of the outfit. I’d been getting in trouble with Danny since the two of us were eight years old. He always had a scheme and there was always a Phase II. This time, Phase II was getting a flatbed truck we could paint up to look official and some uniforms with names on the pockets. We could triple the propane we carried and we’d look like delivery men, so nobody would suspect us. Problem was, we kept drinking up the profits.

Danny grabbed a beer from the cooler and handed it to me. He took a swig off his own can and stowed it between his legs.

“We’re on our way, Lee.”

He noticed me staring at the truck’s gauges.

“What’s wrong?”

I shook my head. “Not a thing.” That was what worried me. I loved that Ford, but it was an ornery machine. It burned through gas and oil like a fat man goes through fried chicken. When we started our little enterprise, I figured the first thing I’d need to spend the money on was tuning up the truck. But the thing purred like a kitten: no warning lights, no overheating. Stranger still, I hadn’t put gas in the beast for a couple weeks and it still read over half a tank.

The next morning—well, afternoon—I lay on the couch in the trailer, hung over and still worried. What if the gas gauge wasn’t working? It would not do to run out of gas with twenty tanks of stolen propane in the truck bed.

I pulled myself up and lit a cigarette to burn away the cobwebs. I was out of Sun Drop. Outside, the sun was high and sweat trickled down the back of my neck. I popped the hood on the Ford and looked inside.

I stood there unable to move for a good minute before I broke and ran. I was in the trailer before the hood clanged shut.

I pulled out another cigarette to replace the one that I’d dropped outside and grabbed a beer from the fridge. My hands shook so much it took three tries to light up. There was something on the truck’s engine.

Critters crawl up under truck hoods all the time. I’d told Shelly and the kids that, and it was true. But I’d never seen nothing like this. I closed my eyes and tried to make sense of it. The body had been long and rounded. Parts of it covered by some sort of hard shell but you could see the meat of the thing pressed up through the gaps, all grey and sick looking, like month-old bologna.

There wasn’t a head, just the body and at least a couple dozen legs sticking out every which way. Big fleshy sacks hung off the thing’s sides, more where the legs jointed up. The sacks would swell up like a bull frog about to croak and go flat again. The legs (I called them legs but they could have been arms or antennae for all I could figure), weren’t just holding on to the engine, they were poking right through the metal. Something like rubber cement sealed up the gaps. If there were ticks in Hell they would have looked like the thing under the hood of my Ford.

Two beers and half a dozen cigarettes didn’t bring me any closer to knowing what to do. I walked outside, picking up the hatchet that lay by the woodpile. I came at the Ford from the back. Squatted down and tried to see past the pair of shiny chromium “truck nuts” that little Dale had given me last Father’s day.

There it was, caked in a camouflage of mud and exhaust dirt. Thin legs, jointed every few inches, wrapped themselves around the exhaust pipe, packing the hole at the end. My brain made a connection. The car running so well, hardly using any gas—was this critter the cause?

The whole thing was bigger than I could think, so I called Danny. He said I was crazy, or still drunk. I didn’t blame him. When I told him about the truck not burning any gas he sounded a bit more interested.

He pulled up a half hour later.

“Well, let’s see your monster bug.”

I yanked open the hood, this time propping it. We stood and looked at the thing wrapped around my engine.

“Start her up,” Danny said.

With the engine running, the thing changed. The sacks went into high gear. You could tell there was something wet inside them getting pumped along. Where the legs poked into the engine, they glowed.

We shut her down and went inside for some brain fuel. I heated up a couple of pot pies in the microwave while Danny pulled the first Miller Lite from a fresh case he’d brought.

“So what do you think?” I said pulling the plastic back from the top of my pie.

Danny smiled. “I don’t know for sure yet, but this may be big. You mind if I sleep here on your couch tonight? I got some tests in mind.”

“Why don’t you take the bed? I don’t feel comfortable in it without Shelly.”

“Fuck Big Bill and his Boot Barn,” Danny said, lifting his beer.

“Amen.”

We kept drinking. Danny got up every so often and walked out to his truck with a flashlight. Things got blurry as the night went on. I was about asleep when Danny came through the doorway and gave a rebel yell that shook the windows.

“It did it,” he said. He dragged me out to the trucks. He’d moved his right next to mine and both the hoods were open. Danny shined the flashlight down on his engine and smiled.

“Look at that, Lee.”

There was another one. It was smaller. The gray, hard-looking limbs weren’t so dirty yet and the sacks didn’t swell as big. But the thing attached to Danny’s truck engine sure enough did look like the critter on mine.

Danny slapped me on the back, and let out another rebel yell. “You know what this means?” he asked.

Between the beer and not being the sharpest tool in God’s shed, I had to admit I didn’t.

“We can farm the goddamned things. People would pay a lot of money for their old clunkers to run better and use half as much gas. Hell, this thing is all-natural and organic. Them Hollywood liberals will be out here throwing bags of money at us in a week.”

I had questions, fuzzy and half formed. Danny didn’t give me a chance to ask them.

“Hop in. We’re taking a ride to celebrate.” I ran back to the house for a few more beers and we hit the road. The truth was, we weren’t anywhere near the road most of that drive. Danny had an idea to do what he called a “stress test” on the critter attached to his engine—see if it could hold on. We plowed down every back road and through every muddy field we could get to. When the beer ran out, we headed back.

Danny checked beneath the hood. The thing was still holding on and it had grown. Legs punctured the engine in a half dozen places, but nothing was leaking. There was a thick layer of greenish gunk where the bug and the engine connected. Danny touched the stuff.

“Hell,” he said. “It makes its own sealant.” He pinched off a bit and rolled it between his fingers. “This stuff alone will probably make us a fortune.”

I liked the sound of that. We went back in the trailer and I got out a bottle of thirty-dollar sipping whiskey I’d been saving for a special occasion.

When I came to, the house was empty. I staggered into the front yard, squinting against the sunlight. Danny’s truck was gone. That was okay. Danny was a good one. I wasn’t worried about him running off and making money without cutting me in. But him leaving did make me remember the question I’d wanted to ask last night. How did we keep the truck-bugs from spreading before people paid us?

I heard something above me. I turned and looked up at the trailer’s roof. I heard it again—a quick series of clicks and clacks, like a squirrel wearing tap shoes. I didn’t like that sound one bit. My ladder was still leaning up against the side of the porch from a few weeks before, when I’d nearly got up the gumption to clean the gutters. I climbed up slow and peeked my head over the edge.

It was a bug, smaller than the ones on the engines. About as big as a small dog. As I watched, one of the sacks hanging closest to me started to swell. I waited for it to shrink again, but it just got bigger. It burst with a wet tearing sound, and out came a bundle of stick-thin antennas dripping green slime. The thing rattled its legs on the roof, and those antennae reached toward me.

The damned thing scared me so bad my legs went out from under me. My ass landed hard in the dirt. That fall saved my life. The tap-shoe shuffle echoed on the roof and the thing leapt off the side right as I fell. It sailed over me, its sacks flattening and stretching, making the thing look like the scariest god-damned flying squirrel you ever saw. It landed five feet out in the yard.

Despite the pain in my ass, I was up and running before the bug-critter got its spindly legs up under itself. There was a rifle in the truck and a shotgun under my bed, but the hatchet was closest. I ran for the woodpile.

I got hold of the hatchet’s wooden handle just as something sharp stabbed into the back of my calf. I felt more needle jabs on my thigh and lower back. My leg went dead and I fell again. I turned as I went down and got the bug between my back and the rough-chopped cords of wood. There was a sound like a plate breaking and my back turned warm and wet.

I rolled and some of the bug rolled with me. Most of it still lay broken on the logs. One of its legs hung from my calf. I yanked it out and screamed. It came loose, but took a hunk of me with it. Blood ran down my leg.

The thing was still alive. The thick bunch of antennae snapped back and forth in the air. I brought the hatchet down into the middle of them and was rewarded with a meaty thunk and a burst of green blood. The thing wasn’t done yet. It had at least a dozen legs and most were moving. I swung at it again, but hit wood. The bug scrambled over the top of the woodpile and into the long grass behind.

I heard an engine coming up the drive and ran toward it.

“Danny, we got a problem,” was out of my mouth before I realized that it wasn’t Danny’s pickup but a late-model Lincoln pulling up the drive. I recognized the car and knew it must be Sunday.

The Reverend Archibald Snapp was a big man with a big voice. The kind of fellow who could make the church rafters ring with the good word. I hadn’t seen him in a few months, but he got around to everyone eventually—checking in, seeing why you hadn’t been to church.

He got out of his Lincoln looking like he’d just stepped from behind the pulpit. His suit coat and tie buttoned up tight despite the heat.

“Howdy Reverend.” My voice was ragged and high. I still held the hatchet, green goo smearing the blade. I moved so it was behind my leg.

“Lee,” the Reverend said right back. “Didn’t see you in church today.”

“No. It’s been a while. I can’t seem to get up the gumption since Shelly and the kids left.” I wanted to jump in the Lincoln and scream at the preacher to get me the hell out of there, but I didn’t. That bug had scared me half to death, but I could still hear Danny’s voice in my head telling me about all the money we’d make—the kind of money that would get Shelly and the kids back with me like they belonged. It might still happen. So the bugs were dangerous. So were deer if you weren’t prepared for them.

I just needed to get in the house, grab the shotgun and call Danny.

“Lee,” the preacher said. He’d been talking for a while, but his words had only just now gotten through the fog in my brain. “Do you mind if I use your bathroom?”

I thought that would be a pretty bad idea and said so. “You need to go, Reverend. I appreciate you coming by and all, but I’m a bit busy.” I looked over my shoulder, expecting to see a bug skittering over the grass any minute.

While I was looking, Reverend Snapp reached out and grabbed my collar. There was something in his other hand, something with a lot of legs.

The Reverend had played lineman for the Hope’s Rest Warriors back in high school, but I had the hatchet and was still full of fear and adrenaline.

I ignored the hand on my collar and brought the axe down on the bug. It cleaved in half and the grass was littered with green slime, bug parts, and the Reverend’s hacked off fingers.

The Reverend didn’t make a sound. I don’t know that he even felt the blade slice through his hand. He pulled me toward him by my collar and slammed his bleeding half hand into my gut. The air whistled out between my teeth, but I’d already swung the hatchet again and buried it in the side of Reverend Snapp’s knee. The big man of God went down like a felled tree. I hacked at the hand on my collar until the fingers loosened.

The Reverend was talking again. Not loud, just a chat between old friends.

“Haven’t seen you at church, lately. You ought to drop by for the covered dish supper this Wednesday. Haven’t seen you in church lately. You ought to . . .” He was on his knees swaying, the words still pouring from his lips. I stepped behind him and stared at the bunch of antenna, each one as thick as my finger. They rose just to the edge of his white collar before plunging into the skin of his neck. He started to stand, his one good leg shaking with the effort.

I swung the hatchet at where the bug pierced the preacher’s neck. I kept swinging, and the preacher kept moving. Each blow slowed him down a bit, like a wind-up toy coming to a stop. It took a good while. When it was done, I stood there covered in sweat and blood—both red and green. I stared at the bits and pieces of what had been Reverend Snapp and wondered what kind of hell you ended up in for hacking up a preacher. I had a sinking feeling I wasn’t going to get rich.

The bug wasn’t moving, but I didn’t trust that it was dead. I got the lighter fluid from the grill and set fire to the mess of flesh and bug that lay on the gravel. Smoke blew over me and I swear to God it reminded me of church barbecues when I was a kid. I dropped to my knees and vomited until I got down to the dry heaves.

I tried calling Danny, but he didn’t answer. So I called the sheriff’s office. I stood in the kids’ bedroom. It didn’t have any windows so I figured it was safest. The shotgun was in one hand and the cell phone in the other.

Sheriff Nipper picked up, which was strange. I’d expected a deputy on a Sunday, but I’d take him.

“I need to report a killing.”

“Do you indeed,” the sheriff said like a man who was in on a joke.

Fear rose up in my belly.

“You seen Danny Stokes today, Sheriff?”

“I did, Lee,” the sheriff said. “Picked him up this morning for drunk driving. Turned out he wasn’t so drunk after all. He showed me something damned interesting.”

“Did Danny visit the preacher, too, or was that you, Sheriff?” My legs started feeling weak and I sat down on little Dale’s race car-shaped bed.

“I never miss church, Lee. You know that.”

“Reverend Snapp is dead.”

“I thought he must be,” said the sheriff. “I tell you what, Lee. Why don’t you just open up a window in that trailer of yours, lay down and get yourself a little shut eye. Things don’t have to go hard.”

“I don’t think so. I’m not living out the rest of my life with bug legs shoved up my ass. I guess that’s your thing.”

“All right, Lee,” the sheriff said. The man’s temper was a town legend, but his voice didn’t rise one bit. “I’ll be up there pretty soon. We all will.”

I heard the click of the line dying and let my phone drop to the bed. I thought about calling Shelly, but what if her or one of the kids picked up and told me, “Just lay down, Daddy. It don’t have to go hard.”

I was trying to figure out a way to get to them—couldn’t drive the Ford—when I heard the sound of an engine in the distance. I’d have company soon. I got up.

It’s dark now. I boarded everything up. I didn’t think I’d have time. The cars and trucks showed up hours ago, but they don’t seem to be in a hurry. Waiting me out, I guess.

I can see them between the wood slats-seven vehicles, lights on, engines running. Danny’s truck is out there. So is the sheriff’s and some of the deputies’. I’m pretty sure that’s the mayor sitting in the blue Escalade.

I can hear the click-clack of bug legs clattering over the roof. So many it sounds like a hail storm. It would be enough to drive me to drink if there was any beer left. I keep wishing the bugs had gotten me first instead of Danny. Danny would have had a plan. All I got is propane.

I think them bugs aren’t as smart as all that, even hooked up to people’s brains. Because Danny knows I kept about ten tanks of propane to heat the trailer. Those tanks are all lined up along the front wall now. I get some road flares ready to light up, then I just fire a round off from the shotgun.

I keep thinking about what the sheriff said, “We’re all coming.” Wouldn’t that be something, if the people parked outside were all there were? Danny’s was the first brain the bugs got a hold of. Maybe they’re taking it slow; the bugs taking over the important people first. It sounds like something Danny would come up with. Shelly always said he was a little too smart for his own good.

I’d like that, if I could light up this propane and save the god damned world. Shelly and the kids would be proud.

The road flare lit up the trailer like the fourth of July. Look at them scramble out of the trucks. Danny must have seen the burst of light through the wooden slats on the windows. He must have remembered the propane. Thinks they can stop me.

“We killed the bugs,” Danny yells. “We were just waiting you out to see if they got you. Everything’s okay. Don’t do anything crazy.”

Even I’m not that stupid.

They ought to run. Wouldn’t matter, not with this much propane, but that would be the smarter play. Instead they rush the trailer. I guess the bugs do make you stupid.

The door won’t last long, but I don’t need much time. I’m glad Shelly and the kids left. Glad there’s a chance they might be safe. I guess killing Richard Petty was a blessing after all.

They’re almost through the door. The sheriff’s in front trying to kick through the boards I nailed up. I can see Danny’s face looking at me from the porch and tears come to my eyes. A board gives way beneath the sheriff’s boot with a crack. Gray bugs skitter through the opening.

Time’s up.

I love you Shelly.

I lay the shotgun’s barrels against the side of the closest propane tank.

“All right, you sons of bitches, here comes Phase II.”

end article

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Frank Oreto

About Frank Oreto

Frank Oreto is a stay-at-home dad living in Pittsburgh, PA. In between giving out hugs and lectures, he writes strange little stories like the one appearing here.

  • I always love Frank Oreto’s work. His stories pair creepy happenings with characters I always grow to care about.