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Mica Scotti Kole’s “Bug on Bug”

Mica Scotti Kole is a freelance developmental editor and winner of the international Writers of the Future award (2019). She enjoys homebrewing, overzealous gardening projects, Harrison Ford, engine-builder board games, and attempting to make vegetables palatable. During her Covid-19 self-isolation, she’s attempting (and failing) to put a dent in her enormous pile of craft projects. She writes science fiction and fantasy for YA and adult and runs DND games in her own invented worlds.

 

Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you her story:

 

Bug on Bug

by

Mica Scotti Kole

 

I’m checking the magazine of the 45-cal when Henson asks, “You ever had kids?”

I shake my head, and thank God for it too. It would have made all of this worse.

“You?” I ask him, sliding the mag back with a metal click. Two bullets for me, and two for him. This had better be worth it.

When Henson doesn’t respond, I look over at him, and he’s fingering a piece of paper in one hand and smoking with the other. Our shared riot shield–stolen off a looted police station–leans against the toppled trash bin beside us. It’s like we’re sitting inside a sepia photograph: the brown plastic bin, the dull reddish light, our hollow cheeks and his five-o-clock shadow. I can almost see the caption underneath Henson: Rover waiting for instruction, Food Crisis. Circa 2063.

My legs burn from squatting, so I sit on the curb, the concrete gritty beneath my threadbare jeans. I glance up the road; this neighborhood used to be nice, the sort of place where I could have been a good stout housewife if I’d found the right man. In another era, the garbage might have smelled overwhelming, but the trash has mostly petrified now. There hasn’t been waste management since the fifties–not even for the giant McMansion in front of us, the only one with its front door still closed.

Nodding past him, I say, “The others are in position.” I can see them kneeling behind more discarded bins up and down the quiet street. All the houses but this one have been turned out already, their doors smashed in, their windows shattered.

I rise into a squat again, eyeing the target. If the hoarders shoot at us now, the bullets would tear through the bins. Thus the riot shields.

Out of nowhere, Henson says, “Four.”

I turn back. “What?”

His eyes are wet. “Four kids,” he says.

“Jesus,” I tell him.

“I know.”

I shake my head. No wonder the world went to hell.

“Loved ‘em though,” he said. “They’re all gone now. Wife too.”

“Hell, man,” I say, because what else is there?

He crumples the piece of paper, slides it into a pocket. “You’re wondering why I’m still breathing,” he says.

I nod. I lost a couple of sisters to the Crisis, my dad to dehydration. He was too old to make the trip to a safe-water, and there was no gas left to get him there.

Our radio crackles. “Bin One to All Bins, in position? Over.”

I hold it to my mouth and press the button on the side. “Bin Two is a go, over.”

The others cycle through the motions, declaring they’re a go. Bin One pops back on.

“Lights in the study, upper West back.” I peer past the bins, but can’t see it; Bin One has another vantage. “Looks like motion-sensing lights all around. We’ll need a pop-in. How’s our climber?”

I thank our lucky stars he found those binoculars, or we’d never see tech hiding like that. Henson snags the radio from me and holds it to his mouth. “Bin Two, I’m a go. Over.”

Hefting the riot shield, I try to cover both of us as we rise into crouches–though I lean it more toward him than me. He’s had Marine Corps training, plus he used to go rock climbing for fun, back when the woods weren’t crawling with survivalists. If we lost our best climber, we were done for.

“Sounds good,” Bin One replied. “Wait for lights on, then all go. Over and out.”

I look up past the evenly-spaced maples, the streetlights still black between them. Like the plants in the clan garden, each of the trees looks healthier than the rest of us put together–though that isn’t saying much. It’s not as if they’re short on carbon dioxide, but the sunlight is poor, and I suspect the rain will turn against us all next. Met a guy up from Mexico, said the rainforests turned brown. Whatever the hell was left of them, anyway.

 “Couple minutes now,” I say. The sky is red, hazy, dimming. I used to see it like that on harvest moons or after the Fourth of July. Now it’s like this every day.

Movement catches my eye, the kind that makes your gut curdle; it’s a cockroach, because of course it’s a cockroach. It skitters across the back of Henson’s hand. He slaps his other hand over top of it.

“You want to know why I haven’t hung myself yet?” he asks, pulling his fingers together and holding up the insect. I watch its legs work, frantic for purchase; I remember college Bio, back before the schools closed. In one class we had to hold these giant hissing cockroaches–the kind that had their own little bug pals cleaning their legs, bug on bug. Once, during a lesson, the TA dropped one. He was a buff guy, and he yelped like a girl.

Now I’m wondering if Henson will eat it.            

Instead, he offers the thing to me. I take it and don’t think as I bite it in half. It took a while to get used to the crunch, but most of them taste fine enough. I remind myself that the trash it ate was probably once all-organic. Rich people dug that stuff.

“I want to mean something,” Henson says. He waves a hand at me. “Like you, with your bees.”

I lower the second half of the cockroach and look at it. The legs still reach toward the next step, the future.

“Yeah, well,” I say, “I’ll be eating the bees soon enough.”

“Don’t say that,” he tells me, but we both know it’s true. I lost one of my colonies over the summer, and the other two are starting to go. You lose one bee, it’s nothing. Ten bees, it’s something. Ten percent, and all the cards fall.

“You can cover us,” Henson whispers. “This year, at least.”

I grunt, because I know what he isn’t saying. Two colonies are enough to pollinate the clan garden. We have eight mouths to feed, and with planning, we’ll manage.

But what about the rest of the world?

I eat the rest of the cockroach. I’m thankful for it.

Above us, the streetlights come on.

We burst out of cover, shield first and guns ready as we round the trash bins and clear the low fencing. An alarm sounds even before we’ve reached the first patch of landscaping, a mound of dead dirt that might have once been a rose patch. Henson and I pelt toward the side of the building while the clan storms the front windows.

Shots ring out, too rhythmic, too many.

“Shields up!” Bin One shouts, behind us. I hope the order is redundant and that no one is dead. The wealthy all got the memo about the Crisis before we did, started setting up security before the axe fell. Machine guns, trip wires, even land mines. Always ahead of us, getting more than their share.

My stomach grumbles just thinking about it. Today, we take our share back.

True to his word, Henson sees a path first. He clambers onto a rusted A/C unit and leaps across to a drain pipe, which groans, but still holds him long enough for him to snag a second-floor window sill. He risks it, digging his shoes into the brick and scrabbling up just enough to get leverage on a window shutter, the useless kind that’s stuck to the wall.

Next he’s crouched in the window, silent, waiting to get shot from the other side. Most of these guys had teams of mercenaries at first. They used to watch all the entry points, top to bottom.

Stillness. Not this time.

He waves me up and starts climbing again. I hop onto the A/C unit and scan the quiet lawn around us, making sure we don’t have watchers. From here I see the bodies, scattered across the lawn like mislaid patio stones, old and far past stinking. This means we’re looking at professional hoarders; they know better than to come out in the open to bury their looters after a shootout.

Glass shatters around the side of the building, and I hear clicking for the first time over the yells and the shots. The small sound is close, and I’m clinging to the drainpipe when I turn to see a machine gun two feet away, pointed at me, a wire trailing its way from the barrel up to a blinking box. The gun twitches, clicking, and my heart seizes.

But even rich guys can run out of bullets.

Henson is on the third story now, standing on a decorative row of huge white brick that once screamed “moneyed” but now screams “bad idea.” I struggle to follow him, but I’m not half as fast as I grope past the austere, blacked-out windows, my palms scraping across angry brick.

All the same, he waits for me; two infiltrations give us twice the chance. When I reach the white brick ledge, I hear shouts again, muffled through the walls. The clan will be camping the first floor by now.

“These people know what they’re doing,” Henson says. “They’re going to have a gun trained on this window.”

I lean out a few inches to get a look at our ingress point, the window Bin One ordered us to get into. The light against the glass pane is flickering; they might have a fire burning. Even if the hoarders had a solar generator to use, I doubt they would waste it on light.

“Looks like Christmas,” Henson says, the flicker catching his eyes. It’s been a long time since I heard the word Christmas.

My stomach rumbles again as I remember the Christmas ham; then the rest of the holiday blots out the hunger. The warmth, the running water, the comfort of my family. My sister asking how my garden was doing, if my bees were dying “like they say in the news.” I told her they were struggling, that things weren’t good. She’d sipped her White Russian and said, “That’s too bad.”

“Let’s try the other windows,” Henson says, nodding past me, where two more arched windows loom like dark specters. “You take the far one, I’ll take the close one. We can get in the rooms, peek into the hallway. Follow the light.”

I nod and sidle along the white brick, tensing when I move past the first window. Once again, nothing happens–we’re lucky. Too lucky. I feel like a fly with a swatter trained on me. Eventually, the swatter won’t miss.

At the second window, I pull out my glass cutter. Henson takes off his jacket and wraps it around his fist. We both have our ways.

It’s grown quiet below; I hear thumping, like furniture getting dragged across old wooden floors. The stairs are probably barricaded, but the clan knows better than to go up–stairs are prime real estate for all kinds of booby traps.

Instead they’re making noise, a diversion. It’s up to us to eliminate the last threat.

A muffled shattering announces Henson; for my part, a tiny screeching as the dull blade makes its mark in the window. I have to take longer than Henson to get both of the latches.

Finally, I enter gun-first.

It’s a nursery, a girl’s room. I can see that from the start. The walls are painted what might be green and pink, and a butterfly mobile sags above the empty white crib. The bed is made up; the blanket reads Princess; toys sit primly on their shelves all around. A television hangs on the wall like a window to nowhere, and for an instant, I catch myself staring.

Then I pick up a stuffed elephant and think, this is all we have left. I look at the others, the tiger, the panda, leaning up against a vacant fish tank with a small sunken boat. I stare at the boat and wonder if they ate their own fish.

Then I think, what’s wrong with me, that I think that?

A gunshot sounds off and electricity surges through me, and I don’t think as I bust through the door. Down the hall, light spills onto a landing, a yellow square like a gateway to heaven. That’s our target’s room, and I hurtle toward it. We’re partners, he’s our climber, I can’t lose him–

Halfway there, my foot catches on a tripwire, but I’m moving so fast I’m propelled out of the damage as an old claymore detonates behind me. I hit the ground, my legs bleeding from splintered hardwood.

Henson shouts my name from inside the room.

I grit my teeth and stagger to my feet. My ears are both ringing, but I can still stand. I swing into the room, my gun raised to head level–

Instantly I gasp my relief. Henson’s holding the gun in one hand, the radio in the other; he’s standing over a woman with a hole in her throat.

Henson breathes out as he sees me, then speaks into the radio. I can barely hear him over the ringing as he asks, “Any casualties? Over.”

A buzz of feedback while I raise my gun to cover him, then Bin One says, “No. We’re all good down here. Just clearing the stairs. Over.”

I scan the room for hoarders, but there’s only the woman. She’s my age, in her thirties. She’s still alive, choking. She wears a green evening dress with gold embroidery and white pearls; a Beretta lies beside her open hand.

Henson lowers the radio and stares at her. I know it’s not his first.

“Behind the chair,” he says.

I look around and see it, the giant chaise lounge.

Then I see the little boy.

He stares at us from behind pointless throw pillows, cowering, his eyes green like his mother’s.

“But it was a girl’s room,” I whisper.

The woman falls silent and still, and Henson looks at me. He waves the gun at the boy.

“Take him to the others,” he says.

I stare. No. No, this is bad, very bad.

“You know I can’t,” I say. The clan has eight mouths to feed–eight. Henson knows that we can’t handle more.

But… there have never been children. “Oh God, Henson. They’ll make us leave him.”

I’m shaking, the skin on my arms is sweaty and cold. Outside, the red sky has faded to brown as the sun once again slips out of our reach. I think of the cockroach again, the legs rotating.

“Take care of your bees,” says Henson. He raises his gun.

And with his last bullet, he shoots himself in the head.

I watch him fall, the arc of spatter like the fins of a betta fish. I’ve seen it before, and I’ve seen it this close. But this time, I feel the bugs in my stomach.

I rush to the boy, grab him; he’s crying, he’s fighting; I race out of the room and onto the landing–

“Wire!” the boy screams, and I stop dead just in time. A trip wire gleams across the top of the stairs.

“Christ, this place is rigged up like a funhouse,” says the voice of Bin One from the landing below us. He meets my eyes and then frowns at the kid. “Henson said it was clear?” he says, like a question.

Tears rake down my cheeks, but I’m not sobbing, I’m staring. Because they’ve dropped a flashlamp in the foyer–I can see it past the chandelier. They’re putting together the provisions. The haul.

“Is that it?” I whisper. It’s three cans and one box.

Bin One shrugs. “Beans and rice. They were on their last legs.”

I think of the girl’s room. The boy sobs for his mother. Outside the front door, the streetlights sputter and fade, and the red moon rises to grin down on us all.

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