Happy happy birthday, dear reader! To say thank you for being a newsletter subscriber and reader, I have a couple of birthday surprises for you. First, I made a couple of desktop backgrounds with favorite quotes. The first is a stock photo of the aurora borealis with a quote by Thomas Merton, who was a mystic in the 1960’s:
The second is a picture I took on a hike while in the North Georgia mountains with a Buddha quote:
I’ve got both of them set as shared files in Dropbox. The link will open a share page, so all you have to do is click on the box with the three dots at the top right and click download. To download the first one, the one with the Merton quote, click here or the picture itself. To download the second one, click here or click on the picture above.
And now for a bonus present – a short story! It’s a sort of long short story, but you can always come back with the link to this page and read it later. Those of you who have read A Perfect Man will recognize Foothills University. I had originally thought A Perfect Man might be a sci fi story, but I got about 40,000 words into it and nothing weird had happened, so it ended up being a contemporary romance. I’m planning to continue the Perfect books series in 2018. That said, in spite of the shared setting, this story and A Perfect Man are not connected at all.
So, without further ado, to entertain you on your most special of days, I bring you…
“Doctor Baker! Doctor Baker, wait up.”
Peter heard department secretary Marcus’ rapid footsteps behind him on the linoleum floor and cringed. Had he missed some all-important deadline or forgotten to turn a form in?
“What is it, Marcus?”
The young man stopped, his fair cheeks flushed from rushing to catch up with Peter’s long stride.
“Do you always walk in such a hurry?”
“I do when I’m late for something.” Peter hoped he’d take the hint. He was two minutes overdue to the lecture he did every year for the biology freshmen.
“I just wanted to give you this message. It’s from Doctor Light in the Psychology Department. She said for you to call as soon as you could.”
“Thank you.” Peter took the pink slip and hoped Marcus didn’t see his fingers shaking. He resumed his walk, his mind less on the lecture and mostly on the message. The delightfully named Kylie Light lived in the same apartment complex and had appeared at his door one night asking to borrow a can opener because hers had broken, and his was the only apartment with a light on, and please, she really needed to get the condensed milk open so she could make her cake for the department party the next day. He’d taken his clonazepam for sleep half an hour before and felt its languid relaxation seeping through his muscles, otherwise he would never have answered the door or been able to carry on a conversation with her. As it was, it turned out to be a better social lubricant than alcohol, and he’d agreed to a lunch date.
Of course he’d canceled it the next day after he woke up and realized what he’d done.
But Kylie wasn’t to be deterred, and in his more relaxed moments, Peter admitted he liked the attention. Now she wanted him to come talk about insect behavior to her research team, “just a few grad students and a handful of undergraduates,” she’d said in the first voicemail she left him. The message he held was the third time she’d contacted him about it.
He didn’t remember much of the lecture he gave on what it was like to be a research entomologist. Thankfully it was pretty much the same as every other year, and he used up all the time so the students wouldn’t ask him questions. He slipped out the side door before any of them could catch him. The interested ones would email him, and he could satisfy their curiosity with the comfort of a curtain of electrons and keyboard between him and them.
“Kylie is about the most harmless of all the psychologists at the university,” psychotherapist Luke Miller told Peter when he saw the message. “She somehow made it through school without getting cynical like the rest of us and still believes the best about everybody. She tends to attract students who are like her. This is the perfect opportunity for you to practice the skills we’ve been working on.”
“I’m just not there yet, Luke.” Peter looked at his hands. “I’m just getting comfortable talking to the people in my department, but to an attractive woman?” He shook his head. “Not now, not yet.”
“What if you talk to her first? Explain your situation. She’ll understand.”
Peter raised an eyebrow.
“Heck, I bet she already gets you. That’s why she invited you to talk to her team, not the entire department.”
“You’re not trying to fix me up, are you?”
Luke held up his hands. “Whoa, of course not. Yeah, I know Kylie, but I wouldn’t break our doctor-patient confidentiality. You got yourself into this one all on your own.”
“It was the clonazepam. It clouded my judgment.” Peter looked out the window and noted the wasp that crawled on the pane.
“And made you talk to a pretty girl…”
Peter stopped paying attention to the therapist. He got up and looked at the bug more closely, his fingertips against the windowpane. It had the waspish shape, “a bug made for evil” as his mentor had said, although he felt that they were misunderstood. It was the color –silver to the point that he almost couldn’t see it when it crawled high enough to be seen against the sky. He blinked, and it disappeared into the blue and white space above the earth. For a moment, he envied it.
“Oh, sorry Luke.” Peter sat back on the overstuffed sofa. “There was a bug.”
“I noticed, and so did you. Do you always get so distracted by them?”
“Only when they’re unusual.”
“Tell me about it.”
Peter recognized that Luke didn’t really care about the silver wasp, but he was trying to re-engage Peter in the conversation and therapeutic rapport. Peter had been in therapy for social anxiety most of his life and knew most of their tricks by now, but Luke was the psychologist he liked best so far.
“See, Peter?” Luke said when Peter had finished describing the wasp and its strange beauty. “You’re totally calm and confident when you talk about your work, your passion. Joseph Wolpe said we can’t feel anxious and relaxed simultaneously. That’s the feeling you need to pair with talking to people in general, and Kylie specifically.”
The only tense moments during Kylie’s research team meeting, where Peter talked to them about the basics of insect behavior, came when one of the graduate students had asked his opinion of the Insect Cult and when Kylie had asked him to join her for lunch afterward.
“I think the leader of the Insect Cult is exploiting insect imagery for his own twisted ends,” he’d told the students, “but his motivations are all human: greed and power.”
Luckily the graduate and undergraduate research team members were a chatty bunch among themselves, and as an aggression research lab, had plenty of opinions about the fringe group and its recent abduction of a teenager in North Georgia. Peter just let them talk until Kylie interrupted them and asked if there were any more questions.
“That was a great talk,” Kylie told him when they left the psychology building and walked over to the faculty lounge.
Luke had been right – after talking about his favorite topic, Peter felt more relaxed, and Kylie looked particularly attractive in a floral sundress and sandals. The royal blue in the dress highlighted her eyes, and he could see the freckles on her shoulders. One dark curl stuck out from its fellows. Peter resisted the urge to tuck it in with the rest.
A flash of silver caught the corner of his eye. A silver wasp landed on her sundress strap. It stood out against the blue, and Peter couldn’t help but stare. He felt his heart beat in his throat – could he get it off her before it stung?
“What is it?” asked Kylie.
“You have a bug on you.”
“Oh?” She looked at her shoulder, but it had moved too far toward her neck, and her curls covered it. “What kind of bug? And is it going to bite me, Professor? It tickles.”
“I don’t know. It’s a wasp.”
“Oh, I hate those!” She shook her head, curls flying, and then shuddered and stumbled. Peter caught her and helped her to sit on the grass by the sidewalk. He waved away concerned passers-by.
“Are you okay?” he asked. He lifted the curls at her neck, but the wasp was gone. He couldn’t see any bites.
“I just felt really cold for a second there and lost my balance. Is it gone?”
“I don’t see it, and I don’t see a bite. Are you sure you’re okay?”
She shrugged. “I’m sorry to worry you. Maybe my blood sugar is too low. ”
Peter didn’t know whether he believed that, but he helped her up. She chatted with him on the way to lunch and kept the conversation going while they ate, so he didn’t feel too nervous. He was even able to eat in front of her without thinking too much about it or worrying if he’d spill something or look stupid. They parted with a promise to meet up again, and Peter smiled to himself when he thought about giving the good report to Luke the following week. Even more, he was looking forward to seeing Kylie again.
When he got back to his office, Peter closed the door and looked up the news stories on the Insect Cult in case Kylie wanted to discuss it further. He could see how people would assume he’d know something about it, although he’d originally dismissed it as a human problem with an insect face. He found a video clip from a newscast the previous weekend.
A female anchor with a very serious expression read, “The infamous Insect Cult, a group operating out of the North Georgia mountains near Dahlonega, have been charged with the abduction of a fifteen-year-old boy. Although the youth testified that he went with them willingly, his parents are pressing charges, claiming that the group brainwashed the boy and caused permanent psychological damage.”
Peter scoffed. He knew about long-term psychological damage from bullying, but brainwashing? The clip finished with an on-location interview with a local, who commented on “those weird pseudo-religious types, and they better stay away from my boy!” Related topics popped up, and he clicked on one of them, “New Insect-Borne Illness in the Southeast.” He sighed and guessed it would lead to more use of insecticides, which would kill beneficial insects.
It was the same female anchor, but this time she had a male counterpart, who read, “Symptoms include shivering; pale clammy skin; difficulty staying awake; feelings of suffocation; and in later stages, an odd tint to the skin and strange behavior. So far, there have been very few cases, and there is no known cure.”
“What happens to the victims?” asked the female anchor. Peter could tell it was rehearsed. He felt sorry for the male newscaster – they always put the anxious ones on weekends.
“No one knows whether this disease is fatal because the advanced cases always disappear from the hospital before they die. Even with heightened security, they vanish. Concerned families are demanding explanations, but hospital officials are mystified.”
Now that’s odd. Peter found it much more fascinating than the Insect Cult and thought about Kylie’s shudder and collapse earlier that day. Could the insect have had something to do with it? There was something strange about it besides the color. For one thing, it had stayed on Kylie instead of flying off. Maybe it liked the smell of her shampoo? He certainly did.
He shook his head and decided to think about it later. He had a grant proposal to write, and he couldn’t let this become a distraction.
He got home around six-thirty after stopping by a florist to pick up a bouquet for Kylie. Not as a romantic gesture, he told himself, but to thank her for the opportunity to talk to her research team and for lunch, which she’d insisted on paying for.
“It’s on the department,” she’d said with a wink. “We treat all our special speakers.”
He put his bag in his apartment and checked his reflection in the mirror to make sure he looked okay. Once again, he wished he had more muscle, but he was built like a runner – lean and wiry. He chose an olive shirt that would bring out the green in his hazel eyes and brushed his teeth to get rid of the coffee breath from his midafternoon energy pickup. Grant proposals and the thought of strangers evaluating his work always made him nervous, but he pushed through with the help of the adrenaline and caffeine.
Peter had to run back up the stairs due to forgetting the bouquet the first time, and a small voice in his head told him to lock his door because he might be gone for a while. He smiled, appreciating the voice’s encouragement instead of its usual message of not good enough, she’s going to laugh at you… Sure, that was there in the background, but Luke had told him to focus on the positive aspects of the situation and to stay mindful because here he was, at her door, bouquet in hand.
The door was cracked open, and it swung inward when Peter knocked.
“Kylie?” he called. “Doctor Light?”
No answer. His heart had crawled into his throat again, and he forced himself to take a deep breath from his diaphragm.
“Kylie?” he said again and walked through the living room. Their apartments were the same layout, but mirror image, and he felt momentarily disoriented. All the lights were on, and he walked through the empty rooms, noting some mild clutter, but nothing too bad. He smiled at the office with its piles of student papers on the desk and jumble of books.
A rustling in the bedroom just beyond brought his attention back to the situation, and he noticed the flower stems had wilted from the crush and heat of his sweaty hand.
“Kylie?” he called softly and went into the dark bedroom. He flipped on the light and saw her on the bed, her eyes closed. He nudged her, and she didn’t wake. He tried to sit her up, but it felt like her bones were made of lead, and she was much heavier than her slight frame indicated. Her freckles stood out against her pale skin, which seemed to have lost its healthy pink undertones, and he could see the dark lines of her bones in her hands. He pulled out his phone to call 911, but he saw it: the silver wasp. It sat on the pillow by Kylie’s head and moved its wings back and forth in a mesmerizing motion.
“Put the phone away,” a sibilant voice behind Peter’s head said, and he wheeled around to see a man in a robe standing behind him. He smiled with white teeth in a silver face, and he looked at Peter with faceted black eyes.
Peter’s voice got stuck somewhere between his larynx and tonsils, and he held the flowers up like they would help him against this strange insect-person. The man slapped the phone away from Peter’s shaking hand, took the flowers, and laid them beside Kylie’s head on the pillow. The wasp crawled over them toward the top, and watching it calmed Peter.
“You’re George Francisco,” Peter said, recognizing traces of the man’s visage from the picture on the evening news. His voice shook.
The man inclined his head.
“What do you want with her?”
Francisco extended a gloved hand, palm upward, and sharply brought it back to himself with the fist closed. Peter interpreted the message: to take her into the cult.
“Stand aside, she is already lost to you.”
Silver insects came out of the man’s sleeves and swarmed Peter. The rational part of his mind labeled them, and the other part wanted to scream, but it was like he experienced one of those nightmares where he couldn’t move. He could feel them crawling up his pants and into his sleeves. They dug into his flesh with surprising pressure for such small creatures.
He forced his hand to rise and saw a beetle, its shell reflecting the cool greens and blues of Kylie’s room, crawling over his palm. It shimmered like a cohesive liquid metal like mercury, but denser. He watched in horrible fascination as it sank into his hand, emerged, sluggishly crawled over his pinkie finger, and plopped on the bed. Where the insect had been appeared white and bloodless.
The sensations of the bugs crawling over him and trying to go through him overwhelmed Peter, and he saw his horrified face with silver tears crawling over it reflected twenty times in Francisco’s eyes. Peter’s breath caught in his throat, and he sank to his knees beside the bed. His forehead touched something soft and cool: Kylie’s hand. He grabbed it to anchor himself to reality.
Peter opened one eye. Francisco loomed over him, but the insects had halted their assault.
“What prevents my insects from penetrating your skin?”
Peter looked at his hand clutching Kylie’s and noted that it had returned to its usual color, as had hers. He took a deep, shaky breath.
Francisco knocked him out of the way and picked Kylie up with no effort. “You are not worthy of us. I shall take this one as planned.”
The room went dark, as did the rest of the apartment. Peter stood on wobbly legs and turned the lights back on. He was alone, the flowers crushed on the pillow where Kylie’s head had lain. The silver wasp took flight and disappeared.
Instead of returning to his apartment, Peter drove to the Entomology Department at the university. He guessed that Francisco had taken Kylie to his lair in the North Georgia mountains, but he knew he couldn’t face him again unarmed.
What the hell are you doing? the little voice in his head said. They found you lacking. You’re not going to be able to pull this off. They’re going to laugh at you, then kill you.
Peter swallowed around the minty-coffee taste that danced at the back of his throat. He couldn’t just go into the nest, face a thousand inhuman cult members, and swoop in to rescue her.
Or could he? A shy boy with a fascination with bugs, he had lived in fear of human disapproval since sixth grade, when he was targeted by the class bully. Of course, Francisco wasn’t exactly human. Peter took a deep breath, put his shoulders back, and decided that he had to try. Something about him had attracted the cult to Kylie, and he couldn’t just leave her at the mercy of that madman.
The secret would be figuring out the man’s vulnerability, and as sensitive as he was to anxiety, Peter focused on the only time Francisco had shown uncertainty: when the insects couldn’t penetrate Peter’s skin.
“The relaxation exercises work because they turn on your parasympathetic nervous system, which turns off the fight or flight/sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system,” a therapist had told him long ago. “Panic attacks occur because your sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive.”
Peter had definitely been in sympathetic overdrive when he faced Francisco, which had flooded his body with epinephrine and cortisol. Contact with his sweaty hand had seemed to reverse the process that Kylie was undergoing, which he guessed was the slow conversion of metal in the body to its structure. The insects entered through the skin, settled in the bones, and drew the metals in the bloodstream such as iron. But what then? At some point, the carbon compounds must melt away until only the metal structure was left. How?
That’s what Francisco had taken Kylie to the compound for: to complete the transformation process. Peter was going to have to act quickly, and he needed to get something to act externally like the stress hormones. He smiled.
He had just the thing for this human problem with an insect face.
Peter almost missed the dirt road that led to the compound, but the large “No Trespassing” signs almost glowed in the dark. There was no barbed wire, but they didn’t need it: the trees and brush were so thick that he couldn’t maneuver his car more than a quarter of a mile off the small, winding county highway. He crawled through the window since he couldn’t get the door open, put on his camouflage jacket, and slung his forest-green book bag over his back. He pushed his way through the foliage and hoped he didn’t end up with poison ivy or oak. He wished several times he could ditch the heavy pack, but he knew he would need its contents.
The compound was more of a cave in the mountain, and Peter put on his night-vision goggles to find the entrance. It seemed to be unguarded until he stepped through, and a swarm of about thirty silvery wasps surrounded him. He pulled a large magnet out of an inside pocket, and the insects were drawn to his hand. They transmitted its charge to each other, and he tossed the roiling metal ball aside.
The complex was dark but warm, and it smelled of freshly turned clay and mildew. Peter’s sensitive nose also detected a faint chemical smell. According to the red view in the goggles, there was nothing in the corridor, but he stayed near the walls as he made his way down a steep incline. With every step, his heart beat faster in his ears. Although nothing aside from the bugs outside had reacted to him thus far, he felt watched. He noted little red lights in the wall and guessed that infrared cameras observed him. Sweat beaded on his brow, only half from the heat, and he imagined hostile faceted eyes watching him from the other end of the video feeds.
Something brushed against Peter’s ankle and latched on to his leg with sharp metal feet that pricked him through his jeans. The biggest silver insect yet, about a foot in length and resembling a giant cockroach, had wrapped itself around his left shin. Peter pulled thick rubber gloves from another pocket and reached for his pack, but stopped when he felt its weight increase and the straps pulling at his shoulders. He fought the compulsion to throw pack and insect away. A movement down the tunnel caught his attention, and he saw hundreds of them swarming toward him. He unshrugged his pack on one side, swung it around to the front, and looked into the beady eyes of a two-foot long beetle. He swallowed hard and knocked it off the pack. It tried to grab him, but he flung it away. It landed with a splat against the wall.
Peter pulled out a long metal tube attached to a hose that ran to a tank in his backpack. He’d filled the reservoir with a solution of chemicals extracted from real insects and spiders, mostly cholinergic agents like black widow venom. All of them would cause an exaggerated stress response with symptoms like muscle contraction and breathing difficulties in humans. A small squirt detached the giant roach from his leg, and it fell on its back, its legs wriggling in the air. He felt blood trickling down his leg, but it didn’t seem excessive.
The silver wave advancing on him halted when he aimed at them. The creature that had attached to his pack tried to drop from the ceiling on him, but he shot it down. He sprayed a little at a time in front of him to drive the swarm back, but sparingly.
The tunnel filled with dim light as he advanced, and he pulled a two-foot iron bar from his pack. He advanced toward the flickering green glow that made him feel disoriented, and he almost lost his footing on the tunnel’s steep grade. The chemical odor predominated, and he heard a pulsating whisper.
The floor leveled out, and Peter found himself on a balcony over a large subterranean chamber. Smaller silver insects flowed up and down the walls in streams, and Peter withdrew into the passage so he would not be seen by the cult members on the floor beneath him. Humanoid figures in grey robes and silver skeleton masks stood on one side of a round stone platform. The source of the light, a green flame about twelve feet high, burned in the center of the stage, and two robed silhouettes stood in front of it. Peter caught his breath when he recognized one of them – Kylie.
Francisco held her by both hands, but she turned away, and Peter saw she was restrained. He smiled. Her skin may have turned almost completely silver, but the essence of who she was remained, and she resisted their attempts to draw her into the cult.
Peter looked for a way to swoop down and rescue Kylie, but he didn’t see anything. He would have to go through the cult members or the insects. His heart skipped a beat when he thought about having to push through all those hostile faces, so he opted for the bugs. He looked down at his shaking hands and cursed his anxiety: real heroes didn’t tremble.
He turned around to go back up the passage and find an alternate way to the ground. He almost went into nightmare paralysis when he saw what moved toward him: an insect so big it took up the entire tunnel. As it got closer, he saw it was composed of the smaller ones, although together, they resembled a giant centipede with gnashing mandibles. The monster waved long antennae, ropes of smaller bugs, and its legs undulated in a smooth, dizzying motion.
Peter knew that if he didn’t get out of the way, it would annihilate him. This would take the rest of his solution, but he had no choice with the enormous centipede on one side and the thirty-foot drop on the other three. He sprayed the ground around him, planted his feet, bent his knees, and, at the last moment, sprayed the giant’s face and jumped so he landed on top of its head. The spray immobilized the insects in front, and its momentum carried it forward. Peter sprayed it down its length. The solution on the ground and on its back made the external insects sluggish, but the ones that composed its musculature were still fully mobile, if not aware. Peter teetered on the soft shell of immobilized insects and had to let go of the wand and grab one of the antennae when it went over the steeply sloped side. He brandished the iron bar in the other, Sir Entomologist riding in on a silver centipede to rescue his lady-love.
The insect, blinded but still moving, headed straight toward the flame. It slowed as the chemicals sank toward the middle, and Peter jumped off before he got sucked into the softening skin of his now sluggish mount. He tested the sprayer but had run out.
For a heartbeat, no one reacted. The walls of the cavern seemed to crumble when a million insects took flight in a silver avalanche. Peter threw aside the wand and swung the iron bar around his head. The insects, attracted to it as a food source, stuck to the metal. He tossed it in the air and heard it land somewhere above and behind him with a clang, but he still stood disoriented in a silver fog. He backed up until he found the edge of the stage.
Rough hands grabbed the straps of his backpack and hauled him up the side of the platform.
“Good show, Dr. Baker,” Francisco hissed at him, and the insects settled down on whatever surface was available.
The chemical fumes from the flame made Peter’s eyes sting. He couldn’t gaze directly into the cult leader’s expressionless face, so he looked at Kylie, who just stared right through him. He turned to the crowd, but the hostility emanating them physically knocked him backwards, and he staggered closer to the flame. For a second, he tried to wake up from this, his worst nightmare come true: Kylie didn’t seem to care he was there, and he was the focus of a thousand people’s hostile attention. He couldn’t get enough air, and his knees buckled. Francisco laughed, and the rasping sound went straight to the center of Peter’s chest.
“What’s wrong, Peter? Caterpillar got your tongue?” The whole cavern laughed, and Francisco hauled Peter to his feet. “You’ve provided a very entertaining prelude to this evening’s main attraction: the final metamorphosis of the one you call Kylie.”
“No.” Peter staggered but stayed on his feet. “I don’t care what you do to me, just let her go.”
“I would offer to let you join her in the flame, but without the right preparation, you would be annihilated. As you recall, the insects found you unworthy.”
“No,” Peter said with a wry smile, “they found me impossible to transform. What are you? Aliens?”
Francisco inclined his head. “In a way, we were born of the stars, for the metal we are made of isn’t found on Earth, but rather in the occasional asteroid. It took my genius to realize its potential and learn how to manipulate it. I was my own first subject, and Kylie won’t be my last.”
Peter lunged at the creature Francisco had become, but it easily knocked him aside.
“I’m glad you dropped by, Peter, for as an entomologist, you can appreciate my reason for using insects as the avatar for the miraculous compound.”
“Y-yes, I can see why all too well.” Motion behind Francisco caught his eye, but he forced himself not to break eye contact with the cult leader. “The world is full of cholinergic compounds, metals, and other magnets that will interfere with your minions.”
“True, but think of which class of multi-celled creature has been most successful on this planet. Humans battle them and lose, and the victors outnumber fleshly beings by millions.”
“So you’re after world domination. How cliché. But what does Kylie have to do with all of this?”
“You, an insect scientist, were interested in her, which meant we were.”
Francisco’s head exploded in a burst of silver, and Peter staggered back. The fragments flew to join their insect brethren on the walls, and the body collapsed in a metal puddle. Without the central mind, the cult members sat stunned, a thousand silver statues.
Kylie stood behind Francisco’s remains, a slight smile on her lips. She held in her bound hands the bar of iron that Peter had tossed away earlier. He untied her, took her in his arms, and kissed her. He ran his hands under her robe, and as his perspiration came in contact with her skin, she returned to normal. Soon, she was able to move her face, and she smiled at him.
“Peter! We’ve only had one date.”
He put a finger over her lips and pointed with the other hand. The cult members had started moving on their own, and he could sense their anger and confusion. He guessed that he and Kylie would be their targets.
“Wait, that was a date?” He shook his head. “Never mind that. Can you run?” he asked.
“I think so.” She flexed her fingers and bounced on the balls of her feet. “I had no idea you were such a good kisser.”
“Wait,” she said. “There’s a store of explosives behind the platform. We have to destroy this place. I’ve seen into his mind and those of his subjects, and killing him won’t be enough.”
Peter looked at the cult members. “But all those people…?”
Tears streaked Kylie’s cheeks. “They’re no longer people. Once they transformed, they were gone. One of them is going to take over the leadership.”
Peter nodded and picked up Francisco’s robe. They tore it into strips, tied them together, and laid them across the back of the stage between the flame and the boxes Peter hadn’t noticed before. He jumped off the stage and helped her down. Together, then pushed through the cult members. Some of them grabbed at the couple, but Peter evaded them easily. Kylie led him to a tunnel.
“This is the way he brought me in,” she said.
They ran uphill hand-in-hand, their hearts beating hard. An angry buzz behind them told Peter that a million wings stirred and took flight in pursuit. An explosion rocked the mountain and threw them to their knees.
“It worked,” Peter said.
They got up and scrambled out of the cave just before a glowing green fireball blasted out behind them. Peter threw Kylie to the ground, and it whistled over their heads and set the tops of some trees smoking. They half-tumbled, half-ran down the hill and came face-to-barrel with a sawed-off shotgun.
“What did you do?” The angry teen’s face contorted with rage and grief under the ragged bill of a red baseball cap. “Did you kill him?”
“Who are you?” asked Kylie.
“I was one of them.” The kid lowered the shotgun and looked at the hill, which continued to expel silver-green fireballs. Tears ran down his face. “I was supposed to be next.”
Peter recognized the kid from his picture on the news clip as has having been the one to be “kidnapped” and “brainwashed” by the cult. He remembered his own awkwardness as a younger teenager and understood how the cult would have been alluring to him, not to mention the ability to discorporate into a bunch of insects and re-form wherever you wanted.
“Hey, do you like bugs?” he asked the kid.
“Bugs. Not the silver kind, but regular ones.”
The kid looked at him through narrowed eyes, but he nodded.
“I’m Doctor Baker, and I’m with the Entomology program at Foothills University. Email me tomorrow, and we’ll figure out some way for you to help me out with my research.”
The boy didn’t say anything, but he handed Peter the shotgun.
“We should go,” Kylie said and squeezed his hand.
The sound of a helicopter startled Peter, and together, he, Kylie, and the teenager slipped away through the trees to his car.
Peter stretched out his arm and tossed the clonazepam pills into the trash. With the other, he clicked “Pause” on the internet news clip that showed the fire on the mountainside and the collapse of the cave with the cult inside. It was being ruled an accident, a combination of too many explosives and weird scientific experiments. The ruling speculation was that the cult was a cover for a meth lab. So far no one had connected him and Kylie to it, and he had a summer research internship position lined up for Matthew, the teenager who had, to his surprise, emailed him the day after the big rescue.
Twenty minutes later, he knocked at Kylie’s door. His heart skipped a beat when she opened it, but in a good way. He smiled and held out the bouquet of flowers, which he’d bought as a romantic gesture.
“Peter, how sweet. Thank you.” She took the bouquet and gestured for him to follow her in. He watched her lithe movements as she placed the dozen red roses in a vase with water.
“Where are we going tonight?” she asked after she locked her door. She placed a hand on his bicep and looked up at him with blue eyes flecked with silver.
“There’s a great little tapas place downtown.”
He leaned over, kissed her, and held the passenger side door open for her. If it hadn’t been for his comfort with her and the scratches on the car, he would have dismissed it all as a dream. He would never tell her, but her lips tasted a little metallic. Previously, he would have worried about the lingering effects of her almost-initiation into the Insect Cult, but he knew he could handle it, even without anxiety medication.
After all, he did specialize in insect behavior.
I hope you enjoyed the story! It was a lot of fun to write. Please feel free to email me at cecilia(at)ceciliadominic(dot)com to tell me what you think. Have a lovely day!