Wednesday, June 22, 2011
The Mother of Crawly Things
Today is my friend Berkeley Hunt's birthday. As a writer, she is steeped in Star Trek and Lovecraft, and true crime and classic literature. The distillation of those influences is the essence of this incredibly creepy story, which originally ran in Astonishing Adventures Magazine.
Celebrate Berkeley's birthday by reading her story:
The Mother of Crawly Things
By Berkeley Hunt
Her brother Kevin could put curses on people. Maddie found this out when she was six and caught him eating the chocolate bunny out of her Easter basket. She hadn’t touched it herself because Kevin told her that if the real Easter Bunny saw her take so much as a bite, he would take back the basket and everything in it.
Their mom yelled at Kevin and held back his allowance. That was when he told Maddie he was an acolyte of the Devil and could put curses on people. At first Maddie thought he said “Coke Lite of the Devil,” and that didn’t sound scary at all. Besides, Kevin lied about lots of things. Like that he was the carnation of someone named Hitler and she should scream HEIL, which was German, when he said to. Mom had put a stop to that fast.
The curse Kevin put on her was that she wouldn't like any of Easter dinner. It was hard to believe. The smell of baking ham, sweet and smoky, already filled the dingy little house. It would come out of the oven glazed with yellow pineapple and be set on the table beside green beans in a nest of French’s Fried Onions, the yams she didn’t have to eat if she didn’t want to and all the crescent rolls she could eat. Best of all would be dessert, strawberry pie drowned in syrup redder than Christmas.
But Kevin was 14, a creature that lived in neither the child nor the grownup world but in the murk between. He shared his bedroom with resin monsters out of movies Mom wouldn't even let Maddie see: Alien and Predator and something that had bat wings and a beard and mustache made of twisting green tentacles. He could drive the car, too. Twice now he and his friends had backed it out of the garage and parked it around the corner to make Mom think it was stolen. When she called the police Kevin listened in on the other line and laughed so hard that snot shot out of his nose.
So when he cursed her she stood fast. He hogged the remote and sent her hate-stares all afternoon then did an about-face and let her have his Mountain Dew. He'd even remembered that her fingers weren’t very strong; when he handed it over the can was already open. Maybe the curse was already working, because the Mountain Dew didn’t taste as good as it usually did. And when she sat down to eat the food smells enveloped her like a giant, steamy fart. Her stomach turned itself inside-out and bile, thin and stinging, erupted from her throat and drenched the mashed potatoes.
That made Maddie a believer. Kevin began demanding her dollar-a-week allowance and taking her share of the candy and sodas Mom sometimes bought. By the time she was eight she was forking over all her desserts and doing most of his chores, too. When Mom wasn’t home he even made her mow the lawn with their bulky old mower, a machine whose rusted steel teeth could cut off a toe if she wasn’t careful. All this to keep him from cursing her with flunking a grade or being called a retard and getting beaten up after school every day for the rest of her life.
That was also the year that he totaled the car and Mom couldn't afford to get another one. After awhile she asked Maddie not to accept any more rides from her friends' moms and dads because there was no way to return the favor. Speaking very gently but very gravely too, Mom told her that it was better that Maddie not have anyone to sleep over, either.
Maddie didn’t dare ask why not. She knew it had something to do with the fact that Kevin was 16 now and had tried to give her a dollar if she’d walk around the house without even her panties on. Which meant Maddie couldn't stay at any of her friends' houses, either. No climbing into the other kids' SUVs for trips to the mall and no slumber parties. She might as well be a retard; by the time the year was up she'd be every bit as hated as one.
Even though he didn't curse her, Kevin didn't exactly leave her alone, either. Maddie had a pet snail she'd rescued from the poison in the neighbor-lady's garden and named Jasmine, after her favorite Disney princess. Right after she refused to take his dollar Kevin informed her--with a toothy grin-- that the French ate snails. After cooking them, of course. That's when he whipped his hand from behind his back. He was wearing a ratty old oven mitt and Jasmine was lying right in the center.
Her shell was caved in, her once-pale and glistening snail-skin red and black with angry lines from the old backyard barbecue grill. Maddie cried until her stomach roiled and she thought she might throw up, just like the Easter Sunday when Kevin first put a curse on her.
Mom grounded Kevin. The next day she bought Maddie an ant farm. The day after that, someone took the lid off the ant farm and the day after that ants were all over the kitchen, circling the sugar and flour canisters and tracking their way up the fridge. Naturally her brother was the one who ran for the Raid can and sprayed it everywhere.
The one thing Kevin couldn't stand was crawly things.
Maddie managed to save nine of the ants by inviting them to crawl their way onto her fingertips, then hurrying outside. Deep in the corner of the tiny backyard, behind the disassembled sides of a rusty dog crate and a rabbit hutch whose floor was a solid mass of prehistoric droppings she let them go, hoping that whatever watched over little crawly things would watch over them.
Hoping so hard and so desperately that it amounted to a prayer. One without words, almost without consciousness, fed by horror at what had been done to Jasmine and what was being done to her. To what god or devil, benevolent, malevolent or indifferent, Maddie didn't know. Not until later, after the shrieking stopped and the night was quiet again.
That was after midnight, when kids and grownups alike were supposed to be dead to the world. "Get out! Get OUT!" The screams were high and hysterical and thrilling, because the screams were Kevin's. Maddie ran to his room just as fast as she could, just in time to see the mother of all crawly things slice through the air over her brother’s bed. Big as a grapefruit, it paused as if deliberating. Then it strafed Kevin, just like one of the fighter planes in the Nazi movies he liked. Nose-first it went, right through his tousled, greasy hair.
"IS IT OFF-IS IT OFF-IS IT OFF?" His fingers did a frantic, combing dance and a ragged thumbnail opened up a pimple, ripe for the squeezing. It spat reddy-yellow pus and the Mother of Crawly Things left his hair for the shelf ruled by the bat-winged, tentacle-faced thing.
“KILL it, you stupid …!” Kevin shrilled. Maddie only stood, frozen not with fear but with fascination. The Mother of Crawly Things alighted atop Tentacle-Face, fixing her brother with eyes like round black stones.
Kevin rolled awkwardly out of bed, scooping up a pair of tighty not-so-whities from the floor. He let fly, snapping them the same way he used to snap towels at Maddie. This time all that happened was that Tentacle-Face hit the floor with a crunch and chunks of painted resin, big and small, shot away in all directions. Better yet, even though Kevin was now spewing the Ess-word—and the Eff-Word too—he sounded exactly like a third grader bawling on the playground.
That's when the Mother of Crawly Things took off for a leisurely circle of the room. Whether it really paused in the air in front of Maddie as if showing itself to her or whether Kevin's bawling somehow heightened Maddie's senses she could never afterwards remember. But what she did recall was that one instant it had the enormous white head and shark-like eyes of a potato bug, the next a pale, snaily face and eyes on stalks. Its body was worm-red and segmented, then an iridescent beetle green. It had no legs at all, then six, then hundreds and hundreds. In their moment of communion she thanked it with all her heart.
Then it was gone, sailing over Maddie’s head on wings that belonged now to a dragonfly, now to a moth. Gone, even though the neighborhood was a rough one and the window was shut and the metal bars that overlaid it locked against the night.
Kevin’s bawling had slowed to an irregular hitching and whimpering and still, somehow, their mother hadn’t heard and come running. His nose ran; spit and snot bubbled at the corners of his mouth. His pajama bottoms—none too clean when he first put them on—were wet with fresh pee. When Maddie left she made a point of looking him deliberately up and down, the look one gives a retard.
She woke the next morning to Mom singing in the kitchen. The air smelled like waffles and her choice of toppings: Blueberries or maple syrup and butter. Mere steps away, the door to Kevin’s room was ajar. Maddie gave a careful push and peered it.
The old shag carpet had been trampled flat, as if by millions and millions of tiny feet. A yellow garden spider with one leg missing was trying to extract itself from one of the worn loops. A furry black caterpillar used its many front legs to drag its mashed back end. The old barbecue grill lay across another patch of rug, one gooey as if from the progress of hundreds of snails. Bits of wing and carapace and jaw littered the bed, so many that Kevin’s empty pillow was smashed flat beneath their weight.
Maddie closed the door on the vacant room and headed for the kitchen. She loved waffles.
Photograph of stag beetle courtesy of Eyyedg.