A beetle the size of a battleship came out of the afternoon sky, its gargantuan wings buzzing like the drone of a thousand helicopters. It landed in a grove of oaks and elms beside the freeway and whole trees disappeared into the monster’s vast mandibles.
The beetle was miles away from the cabin and no danger at the moment. Watching it devour the small forest made Garrett aware of his own hunger. He looked away from the Godzilla-sized bug — an absurd spectacle all too common in what remained of the world — and walked back into the cabin. Deborah was waiting for him.
“Please don’t,” she said. One hand rested on the swell of her belly, the other on the Beretta M9 holstered at her hip. They both likely gave her some comfort.
Garrett moved past her and went to their bunk. He picked up his backpack and the shotgun. “Bill went to the food bank six hours ago. He was supposed to come back in three.” He turned around. “We need those supplies. That’s all there is to it.”
“We have enough — ”
“No,” he said. “We’re not going to make it more than a couple weeks, and there might be formula at the food bank for the baby.” He put his hands on her shoulders. Her deltoids were hard knots of muscle beneath her dingy fatigues. She’d been strong at Fort Meyer, she’d been strong when there had been nine of them instead of three, and she was strong still. “I suppose you could give me an order, Lieutenant,” he said.
She looked away, but he could see the hint of a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. He could also see tears in her eyes.
“Centralia is only three miles away,” he said. “I’ll be as quick as I can.” He pulled his wife into his arms. “Give me twenty-four hours.”
She let him hold her for a few moments and then pushed him away. “You have to come back. I won’t do this alone.” Her hand remained on the pistol at her hip.
He nodded, unable to give voice to the significance of their only other firearm.
The beetle was gone when he stepped outside. A graveyard of tree stumps remained in its wake. The sight of it made him hungrier.
As he neared Centralia, Garrett ignored the abandoned cars littering the highway. Some of them might run and make the trip easier, but the noise attracted the bugs, and the bugs ate anything that made noise.
When he reached the town, Garrett brought the shotgun up to his shoulder, scanning the alleys and the eaves of buildings for movement. He found the food bank easily enough, a simple square building in the middle of town. The double doors that led inside were open. Bill said it would be locked, so maybe he’d gotten at least this far.
Garrett sprinted across the parking lot and made it to the entrance without incident. Inside, the food bank was a mess of toppled shelves, shredded cans and boxes. Half a dozen corpses — reduced to withered dismembered skeletons — lay amid the trash. Garrett saw the dried husks of giant cockroaches as well, their carapaces holed by gunfire or chewed open — the bugs ate each other too.
Bill said the good stuff was in the pantry cellar, stores of canned food. Garrett moved further into the building, flicking on the small flashlight on the underside of the shotgun’s barrel. He found the cellar door in the back, open. Beyond lay stairs and darkness. Garrett aimed the shotgun and the flashlight into the gloom and saw boot prints in the dust on the steps. He recognized the tread: Bill’s Army boots.
Garrett moved onto the first step, then the second, and the third. Nothing came out of the darkness. He took the last few steps into the cellar. Bill had been right; hundreds of cans filled rows of tall shelves. His mouth watered — the thought of so much food was maddening, intoxicating.
Garrett rushed toward the unthinkable bounty, but terrible crunching noises from above stopped him in his tracks. A praying mantis the size of a Shetland pony clung to the ceiling. What remained of Bill dangled in its serrated claws. The corpse still twitched.
The mantis’ eyes, black dots in opaque green triangles, oriented on Garrett, and it lunged. The shotgun made a deafening thunderclap in the confined space, and the double-aught buck tore the mantis’ head off in a spray of ichor. As the monster’s limbs spasmed in death, he leapt back, but not fast enough. One of the mantis’ serrated killing arms slashed into his right leg, knocking him to the ground.
He screamed and tore free, blood splattering the dust. He pulled himself up, onto his good leg, using the shotgun as a brace. He put weight on the injured limb, and a bolt of agony sent him crashing to the ground again.
The blood he’d already lost made a scarlet pool beneath him, and he removed the flashlight from under the barrel of the shotgun and aimed it at his wound. The mantis had torn a ragged ten-inch gash in his thigh. It bled in spurts. His hands trembling with shock, he yanked off his belt and cinched it tight around his upper thigh. The bleeding slowed.
He glanced backward at the stocked shelves. He was mere feet from the food that would save Deborah and their child, but he couldn’t get it to them. He remembered her hand on the pistol before he left, how her eyes had shown with terrible will. His eyes fell on the shotgun beside him.
Above, on the main floor of the food bank, he heard the furtive scuttling of things with too many legs.
Aeryn Rudel is a freelance writer from Seattle, Washington. His second novel, Aftershock, was recently published by Privateer Press. Aeryn occasionally offers dubious advice on the subjects of writing and rejection (mostly rejection) on his blog at www.rejectomancy.com or on Twitter @Aeryn_Rudel.