This story is by Rebecca Flansburg and was part of our 2018 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Scurrying. Tapping. Scuttling.
Sounds that were so etched into Cooper O’Shea’s psyche they jarred him awake instantly. He had to be on guard at all times. The compound was counting on his leadership and vigilance. The scratching noises could be as benign as a wind-stirred branch rubbing on metal, but it could also mean The Scuttlers were nearby.
Cooper pushed himself into a sitting position and listened. Even in the blackness, he could feel the presence of his sleeping family. Somewhere down the hall a child was whimpering in his sleep, obviously having a bad dream. But he knew there were no monsters under the bed inside their cramped quarters.
The monsters were outside.
Even in the pitch black of night, Cooper could visualize every inch of the conference room at City Hall that was serving as their main living quarters. Mayor Fern Davies had fancied herself a Joanna-Gaines-in-training when it came to interior design and her office once looked like something right out of Magnolia Farms magazine. She also didn’t hide the fact she had been inspired to turn the abandoned Forrester Feed Storage Silos into trendy city hall offices like the HGTV star as well.
But all of that was gone now including with the Mayor herself. The town leader, along with the majority of the community of Montrose, had been overtaken by the mysterious sickness that had been carried in on the legs of the mutated and rat-sized Woodboring Beetles.
The beetles had come seemingly from nowhere. Cooper vividly recalled falling into bed after a long day of working his fields only to wake up the next morning to every inch of ground, cement, and wood covered with abnormally large scurrying insects. There wasn’t enough bug spray in the world that could eradicate the onslaught of unwanted invaders.
People in the community soon began succumbing to high fevers and violent seizures that came on with no warning. Coming in contact with the massive insects, alive or dead, meant an instant poisoning that rarely ended well. If the affected person could survive the first 48 hours of The Sickness, they had a shot at living.
Most never made it to that milestone.
The O’Shea family of four had survived, but just barely. Their curly-haired toddler had been stricken in the early days of the invasion. It was only prayers and a bottle of liquid Tylenol bought from a stranger behind the empty town drug store that saved the little girl. Cooper suspected the bootleg medicine was not only past its expiration date, but was diluted with something not suitable for kids. Diminishing human kindness was another form of poisoning that the Woodborers had brought with them.
As waves of the unwanted guests, dubbed The Scuttlers, kept coming it became clear that their life cycle was not a short one. The O’Shea family and a handful of others had made a run for the Mayor’s “City Hall Silo”; a move that had proven to be a life-preserving one. The gleaming silo may have once been a tribute to creative restoration, but now its slippery metal sides were the only surface the crawling invaders couldn’t seem to get any traction on…or chew through.
They named their haven Coopersville Compound after their newly appointed leader. It was a role Cooper was certain he didn’t want. The retreat to City Hall had been his idea because his instincts had told him it was the only impenetrable place left in the city. Possibly even in the entire U.S. No one knew for sure since all electric, internet and satellite capabilities had been trampled or chewed into submission by the invading arthropods.
Scurrying. Tapping. Scuttling.
The sounds outside jarred him back to reality and made his skin crawl. He guessed it was after midnight; prime time for Scuttlers to be on the move. Even though a thick sheet of galvanized metal separated man and monster, Cooper could envision insect legs furiously spinning to get a grip on the shiny metal, pincers clacking together in frustration until they slid down in defeat. And they would keep trying.
The Scuttlers only knew three things; eat, breed, and infect.
Oddly, the Woodborers seemed repulsed by the sun. As long as it was hot and sunny out, it was marginally safe to venture out for supplies. Forced to flee their homes on short notice, survivors had brought only a few personal possessions along. A child’s blankie, a flashlight, a handful of canned goods; it all mattered in their new pseudo-community.
Two of the things that science-teacher-turned-silo-resident, John Shaw, brought with him was a battered science book and an outdated Farmer’s Almanac. At first, Cooper thought books were an idiotic choice when food or weapons would have been more beneficial, but both books were rapidly becoming keys to their chances for survival.
In his textbook research, John had discovered that the Scuttlers were in the Anobiidae family; also known as deathwatch beetles. The irony of the name was not lost on any of the silo survivors. The book also revealed that the adult Woodboring beetles communicated with each other by tapping their heads against wood, usually at night. It was also speculated that deathwatch beetles acquired their name during medieval times in Europe when people heard the tapping while sitting with a sick or dying person during the night. “Like the tapping of the grim reaper’s scythe,” John had solemnly added. In a time where books were their only source of information, Cooper pressed John to focus his efforts on a way to eradicate the mutated wood-eating arthropods. There had to be a way to squash, kill, or escape from these monsters.
Cooper sighed and tried to calm his racing pulse. He needed to stay strong even if it was only outwardly. He could hear the signature squeaky snore of his son, Maverick. It was Mav who had discovered within the pages of John’s science book that the Spring-laid larvae of Woodboring Beetles, once hatched, could feed on a wood source and continue to grow for years. They could torch everything for miles, but all it would take would be one missed stump and the nightmare would start all over again the following April. There were a few birds that were known to feed on beetles, but there weren’t enough lesser spotted woodpeckers in the world that could eliminate, much less swallow, the gargantuan Scuttlers.
That only left one thing; take the chance and run for another part of the U.S that may be safe from the infestation. The fierce heat of a Southern summer was not far off and Cooper knew that their steel sanctuary would soon bake them alive.
During his research, John had discovered that sodium borate was something that could kill Woodboring beetles. Sodium borate was originally obtained from saline lakes in Kashmir and Tibet. Since none of them had plans or means to get to Tibet, the next alternative was the borax crusts and brine from Searle’s Lake and the colemanite deposits from Death Valley. The theory was that, even if the whole U.S. was affected, the bugs would steer clear of the very thing that could snuff them out.
“We need to try to get to California,” Cooper had urged his wife, Lori. “It’s the only way to get away from…this. It’s do-able, we just need to make a plan.”
Lori hadn’t shared his enthusiasm for a cross-country trip with two kids and a handful of terrified adults. But as weeks became months and the incessant scratching of arthropods legs became almost too much to bear, she had agreed that Coopersville needed to find the collective courage to take a chance. Plus lack of supplies was as concerning as the rising temperatures.
Since the combination of daylight and sunny skies kept The Scuttlers in hiding, both would be a factor in determining when, or if, they could leave. Since Internet and satellite systems were gone, all they had to go by was the beat-up copy of the Farmer’s Almanac that predicted a five-day stretch of good weather coming within a few days. The Almanac touted the fact that, in past years, its weather predictions were “80% accurate.”
Cooper knew he had to decide if a 20% margin for error was worth putting human lives at risk.
Finding transportation wouldn’t be a problem; the streets were littered with abandoned vehicles. He had discovered an old RV stored in an empty garage not far from the silo, but not wanting to give away its location, he refrained from starting it. The keys were in the ignition and the tank was full of gas. To him, that was half the battle.
Though the odds were against them, Cooper knew that Death Valley may be their only chance to live. It was only a matter of time before the deathwatch beetles would be tapping out the signal to their demise and not even The City Hall Silo would be able to protect them.