On the last weekend before the world came to an end, Corey Union carefully lifted the shed door’s clasp and let it drop. It swung silently back and forth on a single remaining screw. The woods around him were thick with midsummer humidity, cooled only by puddles of shadow from the crowded canopy of mountain laurel and elms overhead. Corey wiped rust from his fingertips onto his jeans, then gripped the door handle. It had been in the sun and was hot against his palm. The air swarmed with gnats. No mosquitoes yet, though they’d be out in force later this evening when it cooled.
Why would anyone have a shed this far back on the property? According to the realtor, most of the six acres had never been used. The old man who’d sold them the land had another hundred acre parcel on the other side of town. Until the sale, he’d let both remain old growth – that term was used a lot in this town. Corey thought a better expression would be going to seed.
The door was twisted in its frame. He pulled gently. When it did not move, Corey stepped back and gave a quick, hard yank. It opened, the bottom dragging along the thick growth of green along the forest floor, hinges grinding and snapping in protest.
After opening the door a few inches he waited, listening for the sound of bees. He’d heard them earlier: a distant buzz, soundtrack to a life outside the city. No swarm came charging out so he pulled the door the rest of the way open, having to lift it and step down on the clumps of moss and teaberry to give it room.
He stood in the doorway, letting his vision adjust to the gloom inside. The shed was no bigger than a one-car garage, at least from what he could see through the mountain laurel rising on either side of the structure and hiding the back from view. A sheen of black mold grew over every board. No one had come back here in a long time.
The idea of bringing a flashlight in the middle of such a bright day had never occurred to him. Corey hadn’t been this far into the property before, but supposed since he now owned the land, the shed was his, too, and whatever might be inside. Old places begat old things, his wife Samantha would say.
His shadow stretched along a dull, gray dirt floor. Aside from an s-curve left by a snake at some point recently, no other prints, no other sign it had been disturbed for some time. Corey stepped further inside, moving slowly to avoid kicking up dust.
The interior was hot and stagnant, though an occasional wisp of air circulated through cracks and fissures in the walls and roof. A lone ceiling timber ran the length of the room. From this hung an old length of rope, like shed snakeskin, probably once used for hauling stuff to the sagging loft. Most of the room was lost in a dull charcoal murk while his vision adjusted. Corey He HehHcrouched, letting light spill in from outside.
The object was barely discernible, save a half inch of exposed metal reflecting back the light from the doorway. It could have been anything, a piece of half-buried rock, an old nail (though any nail in here, he reasoned, would have long rusted over). Corey rose slightly, still stooping to keep the object in the light. His crouching steps were silent on the dirt, small breaths of dust kicked up with each. He glanced to the right side of the shed. There must be a concrete foundation; otherwise the building would have long ago fallen in on itself. Hard to tell. He reached the object and crouched beside it.
A key. An old fashioned sort, judging from the long neck and ornate metal loop at the exposed end. He dug away at the dirt with two fingers, hoping it might be embedded in something... but no. Once enough gray earth had been cleared it fell soundlessly on its side to expose the two-pronged end.
He thought of his father’s ugly old clock, currently buried in one of the dozens of boxes yet to be unpacked in the basement. Corey picked up the key, brushed it clear. Some rust along the prongs and the handle. Nothing he couldn’t clean up. Once upon a time it might have fallen from someone’s pocket, but minor gusts blowing in from the cracks in the walls had long buried any tracks from its former owner.
Corey looked around from his new perspective, ignoring the growing ache in his ankles. His pupils were probably so dilated he’d have to shield his eyes when he stepped back outside, but the shed’s interior had finally begun to reveal itself. Empty, no treasure chest or Pandora’s Box which might be opened with the key which he held in his palm. Heavy. Cast iron? He thought again about the silent, old clock in his basement. The odds of the key fitting were so astronomical he almost let it drop back onto the dirt.
In that moment, the wasps chose to announce themselves. Corey looked up at the ceiling. Nothing but the single beam and dead rope, lines of sunlight peppered with motes of snowy dust, swaying green shade beyond. Still, the unmistakable whirring of a nest. He looked around with only with his eyes at first, then slowly turned his head from side to side. The sound was growing louder, filling the small room.
He thought, Shit, shit, shit....
Corey clenched the key into his right fist and moved only his feet, toes first then the heel, pivoting on the dirt floor until he faced back towards the door. He Corey raised his left hand to block out the light.
The edge of the nest was a massive growth pushing out of the wall two feet from where he’d stepped inside. It spread upward from the floor into the darkened eaves, then stretched back into the corner. The nest was taller than he was, and wider, filling the corner of the shed like a disease on the trunk of an old tree. There had been a window on the front wall, but Corey hadn’t been able to see through it when he’d arrived. What he’d mistaken for an old, opaque curtain had been a small fraction of this nest. Gray, papery, crawling now with tiny dark objects which had apparently waited until Corey moved as far into this damned place as possible before springing their trap.
Some of the wasps rose from the nest, tentative recon patrols of ten or twenty, drifting a few feet from the safety of the nest before returning, replaced by twenty or thirty more, back and forth like this until the bright, taunting daylight outside the doorway was dimmed with their presence. The lower half was still clear. Could he crawl out without being stung? Out to clean air, and maybe another forty years of breathing? He wasn’t allergic, but that wouldn’t matter with a hundred or a thousand tiny drops of poison flowing through his system.
He waited, heart pounding so hard he began to worry it might incite the swarm to attack, and tried to get a read on what type of wasp he was dealing with. Hard to tell in the gloom, but no yellow that he could see. That was good, wasn’t it? Did plain old black wasps have poison, or just a bad temper and painful bite?
A drone landed on the dirt in front of him. It skittered across the ground in a slow motion dance. Its fat, white-striped black body showed Corey just how screwed he was. Fucked Royally, as his coworker, Robert Schard, might say. The creature skittering along the dirt in front of him, an advanced scout most likely, was a Paper Wasp. Known for their aggressive, sting first and ask questions later attitude. He’d had a few run-ins with them in the past, most recently at the old house in Worcester when he was trimming the hedges. Get too close, they stung you. Simple as that. Left unchecked, their nests could swell to horrific sizes. This one had been unchecked for years.
The scout finally lifted off the floor and joined the growing swarm filling the upper half of the doorway and now the rafters. Like a blanket about to drop on top of him. So many of them, thousands! The sound of their anger became a roar, the pathetic label buzz long obsolete. A thousand pissed off lions pulling together into a ball, getting ready to explode over him like a thunderstorm.
Now or never, he decided. With the key digging into his palm – knowing it would be his only reward for the pain he was about to suffer – Corey rose again into a half crouch and ran directly into the cloud, trying to keep as low as possible.
The cloud lifted before he reached the door. Only the tap, tap of a few slow-movers bouncing off his forehead. Then he was through and running upright, watching the ground as the sun poured into his expanded pupils, casting everything in a wash of white and yellow. He’d caught them off guard. They were probably grouping themselves into a giant fist behind him like in those old cartoons. Corey jumped over, and sometimes through, the gauntlet of mountain laurel through which he’d come to reach the shed, praying that he wouldn’t miss the threadbare path he’d followed from the house to get here. He almost tripped when a branch grabbed his ankle. Instead of falling, he hopped on his free foot, keeping a jerky forward motion until the plant gave up the fight and released him.
Only when he found the path at the edge of the property did he risk stopping and turning, ready to sprint towards the house if even a single wasp gave chase.
A dark cloud circled the shed, but nothing followed.
He leaned forward and rested his clenched fists against his legs, trying to breathe the hot summer air. All the while he watched the shed. The wasps spread like ink across the front wall, covering the useless window, filling the door frame. But they traveled no further. Corey took another deep breath, tying to get his body to calm down. His face ran with sweat and his right hand hurt.
He opened his fists. The key had pressed so hard into his palm its impression remained when he plucked it away with his left. There was a small cut at the bottom of his hand, barely bleeding but enough to make him double check that it wasn’t from the rusty section. He opened and closed his hand, trying to work loose the impression in his palm while he tried, more successfully now, to slow his breathing.
His system was not yet ready to shut down the flight reflex which had probably just saved his life. Breathe in; hold it. No, can’t hold it, so just breathe out and try again. Slowly, slowly, his pulse calmed. The air drifted more leisurely into him instead of pouring like magma.
At some point, he’d closed his eyes. He opened them with a start. The wasps were gone. With the exception of the door which now hung drunkenly open, the shed looked much as it had when he’d first wandered back here to explore his new land.
Where the hell had they gone? He’d expected the wasps to linger after chasing a giant from their cave.
He took another long breath, let it out. Maybe he’d take a nap when he got back to the house. He’d had enough excitement for the day. Wishful thinking, since Sam had her Hundred Things To Do This Weekend list waiting for him when he returned, near death experience or not.
Corey stood up, keeping one eye on the shed, and stretched muscles that were now stiff with an over-abundance of adrenaline. He hoped the wasps had gone back inside and weren’t creeping through the underbrush, getting ready to spring on him while his guard was down.
That was stupid, but the image was enough to make him pocket the old key – he’d give it a better look when he got back to the house – and turn towards home. He glanced behind him, further down the path. It wound through the rest of the property and beyond. A roof and one white-shingled wall were visible through the foliage. Maybe his neighbors enjoyed walking through the woods. The path was overgrown enough to give him the sense it wasn’t a frequent occurrence. Did they know about the nest? He’d mention it if they ever got around to meeting. Hopefully they were decent people. With such a limited choice of neighbors, it took only a single crappy one to ruin your day for a long time.
Corey gave the shed one final glance then headed for home.
Hank Cowles enjoyed Saturday mornings, especially the hour just before noon. People-watching. An odd pastime for one of his ilk, but it gave him an ironic sense of belonging. Here he was, an old man, sitting in a wobbly folding chair on his front lawn, watching families scurry to the next big event in their vans and SUV’s and feeding his fascination. On occasion, Hank would attend Saint Malachy’s church, sometimes even served as usher. He loved that, passing the collection basket from one cheapskate to the next and watching them squirm when he lingered beside their pew after they dropped in a measly dollar or two. Not that he gave two shits about the church, he just liked screwing with the people inside.
“Fucking crow-bar wallet heads,” he muttered. Nurse Charles looked up from her spot beside the chair, decided he’d only been talking to himself and laid her small head back onto her paws.
Fucking crow-bar wallet heads, Hank thought, smiling. Amazing what nonsensical gibberish came out of his mouth when he wasn’t being careful. But he enjoyed the nuances of human language. Cursing, especially. Something therapeutic about telling a person to fuck off and get away with it for no other reason than that he was a doddering old man who probably didn’t have complete use of his faculties.
The sun was hot. Hank ran both hands over his face and balding head to wipe nonexistent sweat away. He did not perspire, not unless he chose to and as a rule he did not. Still, his palms were cool against his overheated scalp and he did enjoy touching himself. During these rare, hot, New England summer days someone invariably walked past on their way to the Greedy Grocer – one of six ridiculously small shops crowded together in Hillcrest’s only strip mall – and commented that perhaps he should spend a little less time in the sun. He particularly looked forward to that idiot Josh Everson who managed the Grocer. The kid would drive past on his way to check up on his unreliable employees. If Hank was out front, he’d stop his car dead center in the road (something only possible in a sleepy little town like this). The moron would wave, look at Nurse Charles and ask how Hank’s little “Shit Sue” was doing. He never spelled it out, but Hank heard it in his voice, in his mind. The kid was insatiably amused by the dog’s name, but made it a point never to ask how she got it. Hank would never tell him, anyway. Still, of all the assholes in town, Everson was OK. Nurse Charles wanted to rip his balls off with her little teeth, but she wouldn’t. Not if Hank didn’t want her to.
No sign of him this morning, and that was fine. Hank had other matters to ponder. The wasps kept zipping past, telling him over and over, ad fucking nauseam, that the game was afoot. The clock would soon be ticking. That probably meant Vanessa would be making an appearance soon. She always did. Key in hand, Corey Union would get things moving along quickly. No wasting time, putting off what could be done tomorrow, no, sir. He wasn’t that kind of guy.
Hank opened his eyes and laughed softly. Nurse Charles continued to lay on her paws and pretended to doze, dreaming of death and blood and pain and...
...and the same shit he, himself, had begun to dream. Last night, only a snatch of memory remaining of a bright white cloud burning into orange, then red. A close up of one child’s eye widening in wonder, then terror at the sight...
The Shih-Tzu growled.
“Yea, yea, fine,” Hank muttered. “What do you care?” He closed his eyes again and turned his face towards the sun. “It’s a beautiful summer day, Charlie, and hot. I’m allowed a little reflection.”
The dog did not reply.
Hank lowered his head, waved absently as Agnes Lewis drove by in her LeSabre. She didn’t see him, too intent was she on not quite remembering which side of the road to drive on. Looking at Nurse Charles, Hank decided, Tomorrow, maybe. Or the next day. They’d go for a walk across town and pay a visit to the nice family who had bought his property. Between the dog and the wasps, he’d keep tabs on them, including Vanessa, and make sure the clock was wound and kept on ticking....
Excerpt from the Destroyer of Worlds
© 2012 G. Daniel Gunn
Other Road Press
Available Here and wherever books are sold