30 Apr The Misfortune of an Unwanted Visitor
“The Misfortune of an Unwanted Visitor”Written by N.M. Brown Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by Otis Jiry
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 13 minutes
The carpet smells of decay and mud as I flatten my face against the floor in an attempt to hide under our queen-sized bed.
An incessant banging at the door resonates through my brain, feeling like I’m being impaled with an iron spike. Each knock slams it deeper into my throbbing temples.
“Mr. Hutchinson, are you home?” A voice inquires, yelling through the mail slot. I recognize it as my son’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Mason.
Dread grips my heart in cold, grey hands as I remember not closing the shade to the kids’ bedroom window. I wonder if she can see the red painting the walls, turning brown over time with oxygenation. Undoubtedly, I decide.
“Joseph hasn’t been to school for three days now.” Mrs. Mason continues. “We’ve been trying to call you. Is everything alright? Mrs. Howell says Courtney hasn’t been in either. Truancy is a very serious issue in our district. I know I don’t have to tell you that, Mr. Hutchinson. Please contact us immediately.”
Although irritating, the tone of her voice makes me thankful that she was Joseph’s teacher. She spoke with the perfect combination of care and assertiveness, a difficult thing to do. I wonder if she spoke to her husband and colleagues the way she spoke to me just now, like a child reminded to put their shoes away after coming in from play.
Mrs. Howell was our daughter’s fourth-grade teacher. A memory flashes through my mind’s eye of my wife Michele grabbing my hand as we were leaving the kid’s school. We had just walked out of the double doors, tunneling through swarms of parents as everyone tried to get to the parking lot. It was ‘Meet the Teacher Day’. Michele grabbed me, eyes alight with the prospect of a happy future for our kids.
“Oh my god Jake, I love her.” She beamed, relaxing her head against my chest. “I hope Joseph has her for fourth grade.” My wife brought a hand up lovingly to my face as we watched our kids. Courtney was giggling with her friends as Joseph searched the flower beds for grasshoppers.
Not that any of it matters now.
Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to explain. My family means more to me than anything else in life. That’s exactly why I had to do what I did – to protect them.
* * * * * *
It started when something crunched under my foot leaving a smattering of legs, antennae and white goo left behind in its wake.
Cockroaches, spiders and all sorts of other bugs, save for ticks and female mosquitoes, left behind black or white sludge. I questioned whether or not their bodies contained red blood like ours did. Maybe there was just too little of it to see with the plain, human eye.
Our son, Joseph, loved insects, grasshoppers especially. He must have brought one inside, despite Michele and I’s many lectures about not bringing any bugs home. He could touch them if they were safe, but he must always put them back where he found them. It disgusted my wife terribly. But kids will be kids. As long as he wasn’t hurting anything, I figured what was the harm?
Horror takes hold of my senses as I realize what type of insect it is that I’ve just killed. Not a grasshopper… but a cricket. My grandmother’s words rang through my ears at a deafening volume. “Never kill a cricket in your house, lest your family member meet the same fate.”
My breath hitched as I wrapped a wrinkled tissue around what was left of the creature to clean it off the floor. I remember feeling stupid for being frightened. I mean, it’s not like I did it on purpose.
Michele and the kids were visiting her parents, who lived about three hours away. They left earlier that morning and planned to be back by the end of the day. I took the opportunity to stay behind and make some repairs around the house. It was a lot easier and faster to get things done without little ones underfoot and Michele asking ‘how much longer I was going to be’ every ten minutes.
My hammer wasn’t in its usual spot in the hall closet, causing me to have to drop what I was doing and travel out to my shed. It was a broken-down, old thing. Years of laziness and neglect led it to the dilapidated state it was in now. Michele called it a forgotten wasteland, filled corner to corner with a menagerie of cast aside items.
The latest symptom of its failing form was a nickel-sized hole in the rear, left corner of the roof. That, as luck would have it, just so happened to be directly above where I’d last placed my old toolbox.
Rusted metal hinges creaked under the weight of the contents of the plastic box. I groaned as traces of water began to slosh out of the sides with each footstep towards the porch. Great. I’d be lucky if anything in here was salvageable. There had to be at least two hundred dollars’ worth of tools, if not more.
A sea of black greeted me as I bent down and opened up the lid. It was a chirping, skittering swarm of crickets. Millions of hairs on hundreds of sets of legs rubbed in unison as their antennae twitched with feverish anticipation.
Cacophonies of chirps echoed through the late afternoon air as they exploded out of the toolbox. My arms swung frantically as they tried to invade my eyes, nostrils and ears. I would have screamed if I hadn’t been so afraid to expose my open mouth.
Tiny drops of rain had started to fall. I dashed in the house, leaving the rusted tools to be discarded once more for life’s unexpected plans. Pieces of clothing were torn off one by one on my way to the bathroom, my arms still swatting at imaginary prickles on my twitching skin.
Freshly showered, and cricket free, I poured myself the largest tumbler of whiskey that I could find. I’d done enough for one day. The shelving in the kitchen had needed to be fixed for over ten months now. What’s one or two more in the grand scheme of things right?
Television had always been an ultimate source of comfort for me. I turned it on and flipped through the channels, sipping my drink with annoyance at how late it was getting. It didn’t do any good to get dinner started until I knew my wife and children were on their way. Michele hadn’t called so I assumed she hadn’t left her parents yet, and it was doubtful she would pick up something to eat on the way. Takeout was a luxury we could rarely afford.
* * * * * *
My impatience quickly morphed into alarming concern as my eyes snapped open. The sky was pitch dark outside of our living room window. I’d nodded off in my chair, slightly drowsy from the day’s mental efforts and lulled to sleep by the rain.
According to my phone, it was almost midnight. My family was supposed to be home hours ago. Calling my wife’s phone was no use. I was instantly greeted with a full voicemail message each time that I tried. When I called Michele’s parents, they awakened with a start and told me she’d left hours ago but not to worry. She likely pulled over due to the storm. I looked outside, noting it was barely even raining anymore.
Again, my late grandmother’s voice bellowed through my subconscious. “Never kill a cricket in your house, lest your family member meet the same fate.”
It couldn’t be. That’s just an old schoolyard rhyme. The ‘step on a crack, break your mother’s back’ of my grandmother’s generation.
I thought back to other superstitions I’d encountered over the years, and shuddered at their accuracy. I walked under a ladder the day my dog Rocko was killed on the road. One time, I was playing baseball outside and threw the ball through the living room window. It shattered my mother’s front mirror. Later that evening, my father was involved in a head-on collision on his way home from work. He survived, but devastating medical bills haunted our family that took seven years to pay off.
The mental dam of my rationale began to crumble, letting streams of doubt and intrusive thoughts trickle in one by one. Just as the bands of hope holding me together were about to snap, the glow of headlights illuminated my living room from the front drive.
Courtney burst through the front door in a distracted rush.
“Gotta pee!” she announced as she zipped past me into the dark house.
Michele trailed slowly behind her, holding a sleeping Joseph in her arms. Aggressive whispers left her lips, ordering Courtney to be quiet so she wouldn’t wake her brother up. She looked weary, stressed even.
“Hey babe, love you. Get a juice cup ready in case he wakes up okay?” She asked, briefly planting an exhausted kiss on my cheek on the way to our son’s room.
The moment he was settled, she leapt into my arms. “I’m so sorry we were late. My phone died and the charger cord I brought wasn’t working. There was a terrible accident in front of us on the way home. The other vehicle missed us by inches. It was a miracle we managed to avoid getting hit.”
I hugged her back tightly, thankful to have my wife and children home safe.
“That’s why we were so late,” she continued, her voice growing thick with emotion. “We stopped to give statements to the police. The driver of the car ahead of us didn’t make it. Jake, we could have been–” She didn’t finish her sentence, just collapsed into my arms in a heap of tears, overwhelmed with exhaustion from the day’s events. I offered her the rest of my whiskey and rubbed her back as she gulped it down.
A debilitating nightmare tortured me in my sleep. The kind that stays with your soul long after you’ve awakened. I remember entering the house alone in the middle of the night. Our living room was a sensory deprivation chamber of foreboding, black and soundless.
I stumbled blindly through my home, hands outstretched, desperately searching for something familiar. A single beam of light appeared under our children’s bedroom door. I used that light as a beacon and made my way forward. Towards light, towards hope, towards… my family.
A siren of chirps consumed the silent atmosphere the moment I opened their door. My wife and two children lay on the floor before me, slaughtered. Their lifeless bodies were bent at unnatural angles, eyes wide in shocked thousand-yard stares. Each mouth hung gaped open as crickets entered and exited them. All three sets of eyes rolled towards me as I started to scream. Their jaws began to open and close with each resounding chirp, still teaming with crickets.
I awoke with a start, sitting straight up in bed as I gasped for air. Michele lay beside me sleeping peacefully, blissfully unaware of the horrors my mind had just witnessed. The hem of her nightgown jittered and danced in the still, breezeless room. It wasn’t until she absentmindedly slapped her leg that I saw a tiny black head appear from underneath. The cricket skittered over her skin, making its way over to me as I jumped out of our bed.
“Jake, what’s wrong?” she mumbled groggily, rubbing the sleep from her golden eyes.
“There’s a damn cricket in the bed. It was trying to get fresh with you under your nightgown,” I feebly joked through clenched teeth.
To my utter revulsion, she simply plucked it off the bed, smashed it between her fingers, and threw it across the room, wiping her hand clean on the side of the bedsheet.
I didn’t need to hear my grandmother’s voice haunting me this time. I automatically said the words to myself internally. That’s two now, dead. Sure, I may have killed some from the toolbox earlier but that was outside the home.
A morbid thought flew in through the windows of my temporal lobe, clinging to the walls and spreading throughout my senses. Which one of my family members was I going to lose? Who would get to live and who would die?
Seeing as I was already awake, I decided to get up and check on Joseph and Courtney in their rooms. Their faces looked so angelic, so peaceful, as I watched them sleep. I couldn’t imagine one of them growing up without the other, couldn’t imagine my life without either of them. Favoritism doesn’t exist when it comes to losing a family member. I’d gladly sacrifice myself if I thought it would save them.
As I began to close the door, the sharp staccato of a cricket’s chirp pricked the periphery of my hearing. When I swung the door open again, there was nothing but an eerie silence.
I shook the rotted roots of death from my mind in an attempt to snap out of my macabre mental state. The rest of my sleep was restless, but uneventful.
When I went to wake up the kids the next morning, I hesitated before opening their door. My ear pressed firmly against it as I listened for a cricket’s call. After a few moments of silence, I entered their room. Courtney woke up right away but Joseph didn’t respond as I called his name.
He laid with his back to me, his little face pressed deeply into the upper corner of his mattress.
“Yo, Joe!” I said to him, shaking his shoulders gently. “You gotta get up, bud. It’s time to get ready for school.”
His skin was overwhelmingly warm. A human space heater, just like his mother. It was hard to cuddle her at night in the summer months because her body radiated heat when she slept. I smiled thinking about that. Everyone says both of our kids look like me but their personality and habits are all Michele’s.
I rolled him over to wake him, falling to my knees in terror at what I saw. My mouth filled with saliva as it readied to empty the contents of my stomach. The skin on my arms was riddled with goosebumps, making me painfully aware of every hair. Joseph’s mouth hung open in a silent scream as insects scurried in and out of his mouth. A baby cricket left his upper lip, making a pathway for his left nostril and that’s when I lost it.
Michele found me crouched on the floor screaming; the sheets of Joseph’s mattress had been shredded by my own two hands. The kids were huddled together on Courtney’s bed crying in terror. Their screams pulled me from my waking dream, and I flew to my feet, instantly running to my son. I checked his eyes, ears, nose and mouth for any sign of foreign object or parasite. Thankfully, there were none.
“I’m so sorry, buddy,” I said quietly, trying to ease his fear. “Daddy fell asleep on your floor and had a bad dream. I’m okay. Come here, Courtney.”
My little girl ran into my arms, drying her tears on my shirt sleeve. “Now my eye shadow is going to be ruined,” she whined.
“Eye shadow?!” I looked at my wife incredulously. The wry smile on her face let me know that this was something that had been going on for a while now. When did my little girl get so big?
“Go eat breakfast, kids. Then brush your teeth and get dressed,” she instructed. They both ran to the kitchen to follow her request.
“What the hell was that about, Jake? Are you alright?” Her golden eyes were wide with concern as she grabbed my face.
“Yeah. I’m sorry. I must have been sleepwalking, and dreamt I saw a bug in Joe’s bed.” I ran a hand through my hair and tried to muster the most sheepish expression that I could manage. I didn’t want her to think I was batshit crazy, though I certainly felt that way.
I drove to work in a haze, only subconsciously aware of what I was doing with my mind a million miles away. It seemed to take a third of the usual time to get to work. The air outside was thick and hot; I cringed as a grasshopper hopped across the pathway ahead. For Christ’s sake, Jake, it’s just a bug. I chastised myself.
My supervisor grabbed me towards the end of my shift, telling me I had an important telephone call.
“Hello?” I answered.
“Jake…” my wife sobbed. “There was a school bus accident. No one will tell us anything officially but I heard someone say the number 163. Some of the kids got really hurt.”
“Alright, honey, calm down and pray. Even if it’s not our kids’ bus, you need to pray. Call the school again, keep calling until you get through. The number for the bus depot is in my black address book in my nightstand. I’m leaving work now, okay? I’ll be right there,” I assured her before hanging up the phone.
When I turned down our street, I saw two vans in front of my house. The top of Michele’s head was visible above the second vehicle and it was obvious that she was crying. Horror gripped my heart and slowed to an almost lethal level by the thought of losing our children.
Relieved tears filled my eyes unexpectedly as she came into my unobstructed view. Courtney and Joseph stood, their faces pinned to her chest as she held them close. Each wore a confused and annoyed expression on their face.
“It wasn’t their bus!” She called out to me as soon as she saw my truck.
That night we ordered pizza, ate ice cream and watched a family movie. We all lavished the time spent together, healthy and alive.
* * * * * *
More nightmares plagued me throughout the next week, all scenes of the death of one of my family members. Sometimes it was Joseph, sometimes Courtney. Michele was always a constant victim. I saw her death in many scenarios, each more horrifying than the last. My family was cast in their own roles in the final destination movie inside of my head, and they had no idea. My family was dying every single second of every single day, and I felt powerless to stop it.
After three weeks of torture, medications, meditation and alcohol, I was blessed with an epiphany. I did have the power to stop it. In fact, I was the only one with the power to save my family from the threat they couldn’t seem to hear or see. I would destroy the bastards, one furry leg at a time.
Always chirping…taunting. They lured me from a sound sleep, one night I couldn’t take it anymore.
The whiskey was warm as it trickled down my welcoming throat, turning into a steel resolve once it hit my empty stomach. Tonight was the night I put an end to this, once and for all.
I’d kept a fly swatter by the bedside table in case any more of the fuckers decided to molest my wife. My hand closed around it, knuckles white with resolve as the chirp of a cricket reverberated through the dead of night. I charged through my kids’ bedroom door in a drunken stupor. A spatter of goo flew across the wall, signaled by the first cricket’s call as I decimated it with my fly swatter. Another echoed through my brain as one fell to the floor in eternal slumber, never to be harmed by bad luck or superstitions again. The third brought a barrage of blows as my grandmother’s voice echoed through my eardrums: “Never kill a cricket in your house, lest your family member meet the same fate.” By the fourth chirp, it was all over.
I was the only one left. Blood was… everywhere. As I looked to the fly swatter in my hand, I realized it wasn’t a swatter at all, but a bloodied hammer. There were no crickets, only bodies. I was alone to face the reality of what I’d done, what I thought I had to do.
* * * * * *
That brings us to the present. There has been complete silence since they’ve all been gone. The void, the sheer emptiness of silence taunts me. I supposed eventually there will be the buzzing of flies, though I won’t be around to hear it. The addition of my body to the massacre may very well be the one that attracts them, like buzzards to roadkill.
My ultimate plan is to join them. Guilt gnaws at my insides as my bloodied hands gather every prescription bottle that I can find. It doesn’t seem fair that I get to peacefully fade into death when my family met such a gratuitously violent end.
A metallic, bitter taste coats my tongue as I fill my mouth with pills, making sure to thank God for all of the good I’ve done and the Devil for all of the fun I’ve had. I know the weight of my actions will weigh against my damned soul when the time comes, and that’s okay. Wherever I end up, I can rest easy knowing I did everything in my power to protect my family. Nothing bad can ever befall any of them again.
N.M. Brown Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by Otis Jiry