...“Lot of people live around here?” Josh asked.
“Few.” PawPaw whacked the TV with his fist, but the static remained. “Not too many.”
Josh felt something crawling under his collar; he reached back and dug out a locust.
“Things are hell, ain’t they?” PawPaw asked. “Get into everything they do. Been flyin’ out of the fields by the thousands for the last two, three days. Kinda peculiar.”
“Yeah.” Josh held the insect between his fingers and went to the screen door. He opened it and flicked the locust out; it whirled around his head for a couple of seconds, made a soft chirring noise and then flew toward the northwest.
A red Camaro suddenly pulled off the road, swerved around Josh’s sick Bonneville and halted at the pumps. “More customers,” Josh announced.
“Well, well. We got us a regular convention today, don’t we?” He came around the counter to stand beside Josh, barely the height of Josh’s breastbone. The doors of the Camaro opened, and a woman and a little blond-haired girl got out. “Hey!” the woman, who was squeezed into a red halter top and tight, uncomfortable-looking jeans, called toward the screen door. “Can I get some unleaded gas here?”
“Sure can!” PawPaw went outside to pump the gas for her. Josh finished his Coke, crumpled the can and dropped it into a wastebasket; when he looked through the screen door again, he saw that the child, who wore a little powder-blue jumpsuit, was standing right in the blazing sun, staring at the moving cloud of locusts. The woman, her poorly dyed blond hair tangled and wet with sweat, took the child’s hand and led her toward PawPaw’s place. Josh stepped aside as they entered, and the woman—who had a blackened right eye—shot Josh a distrustful glance and then stood before the fan to cool off.
The child stared up at Josh as if peering toward the highest branches of a redwood tree. She was a pretty little thing, Josh thought; her eyes were a soft, luminous shade of blue. The color reminded Josh of what the summer sky had looked like when he himself was a child, with all the tomorrows before him and no place to go in any particular hurry. The little girl’s face was heart-shaped and fragile-looking, her complexion almost translucent. She said, “Are you a giant?”
“Hush, Swan!” Darleen Prescott said. “We don’t talk to strangers!”
But the little girl continued to stare up at him, expecting an answer. Josh smiled. “I guess I am.”
“Sue Wanda!” Darleen grabbed Swan’s shoulder and turned her away from Josh.
“Hot day,” Josh said. “Where are you two heading?”
Darleen was silent for a moment, letting the cool air play over her face. “Anywhere but here,” she replied, her eyes closed and her head tilted upward to catch the air on her throat.
PawPaw returned, wiping the sweat from his forehead with a much-used handkerchief. “Gotcha filled up there, lady. Be fifteen dollars and seventy-five cents, please.”
Darleen dug in her pocket for the money, and Swan nudged her. “I need to go right now!” Swan whispered. Darleen laid a twenty dollar bill on the counter. “You got a ladies’ room, mister?”
“Nope,” he replied, and then he looked down at Swan—who was obviously in some discomfort—and shrugged. “Well, I reckon you can use my bathroom. Hold on a minute.” He reached down and pulled back the throw rug in front of the counter. Beneath it was a trapdoor. PawPaw threw back a bolt and lifted it. The aroma of rich, dark earth wafted from the open square, and a set of wooden steps descended into the basement. PawPaw went down a few steps, flicked on an overhanging light bulb and then came back up. “Bathroom’s through the little door on the right,” he told Swan. “Go ahead.”
She glanced at her mother, who shrugged and motioned her down, and Swan went through the trapdoor. The basement had walls of hard-packed dirt; the ceiling was crisscrossed with thick wooden beams. The floor was made of poured concrete, and the room—which was about twenty feet long, ten feet wide and seven or eight feet high—held a cot, a record player and radio, a shelf of dog-eared Louis L’Amour and Brett Halliday paperbacks, and had a poster of Dolly Parton on one wall. Swan found the door and entered a tiny cubicle that had a sink, a mirror and a toilet.
“Do you live down there?” Josh asked the old man as he peered through the trapdoor.
“Sure do. Used to live in a farmhouse a couple of miles east, but I sold that after the wife passed on. My boys helped me dig the basement out. It ain’t much, but it’s home.”
“Ugh!” Darleen wrinkled her nose. “It smells like a graveyard.”
“Why don’t you live with your sons?” Josh inquired.
PawPaw looked at him curiously, his brow knitting. “Sons? I ain’t got no sons.”
“I thought you said your boys helped you dig the basement out.”
“My boys did, yeah. The underground boys. They said they’d made me a real good place to live in. See, they come here all the time and stock up, ’cause I’m the closest store.”
Josh couldn’t make sense of what the old man was talking about. He tried once more: “Come here from where?”
“Underground,” PawPaw replied.
Josh shook his head. The old man was nuts. “Listen, could you take a look at my radiator now?”
“I reckon so. One minute, and we’ll go see what she wrote.” PawPaw went behind the counter, rang up Darleen’s gas purchase and gave her change from the twenty. Swan started coming up the basement steps. Josh braced himself for the stunning heat and went outside, walking toward his still-steaming Bonneville.
He had almost reached it when he felt the earth shake beneath his feet.
He stopped in his tracks. What was that? he wondered. An earthquake? Yeah, that would just about put the capper on the day!
The sun was brutal. The cloud of locusts was gone. Across the road, the huge cornfield was as still as a painting. The only sounds were the hissing of steam and the steady tick ... tick ... tick of the Pontiac’s fried engine.
Squinting in the harsh glare, Josh looked up at the sky. It was white and featureless, like a clouded mirror. His heart was beating harder. The screen door slammed behind him, and he jumped. Darleen and Swan had come out and were walking toward the Camaro. Suddenly Swan stopped, too, but Darleen walked on a few more paces before she realized the child was not beside her. “Come on! Let’s get on the road, hon!”
Swan’s gaze was directed at the sky. It’s so quiet, she thought. So quiet. The heavy air almost pressed her to her knees, and she was having trouble drawing a breath. All day long she’d noted huge flocks of birds in flight, horses running skittishly around their pastures and dogs baying at the sky. She sensed something about to happen—something very bad, just as she had last night when she’d seen the fireflies. But the feeling had gotten stronger all morning, ever since they’d left the motel outside Wichita, and now it made goose bumps break out on her arms and legs. She sensed danger in the air, danger in the earth, danger everywhere.
“Swan!” Darleen’s voice was both irritated and nervous. “Come on, now!”
The little girl stared into the brown cornfields that stretched to the horizon. Yes, she thought. And danger there, too. Especially there.
She sensed danger in the air, danger in the earth, danger everywhere.
The blood pounded in her veins, and an urge to cry almost overcame her. “Danger,” she whispered. “Danger ... in the corn ...”
The ground shook again beneath Josh’s feet, and he thought he heard a deep grinding growl like heavy machinery coming to life. Darleen shouted, “Swan! Come on!”
What the hell ... ? Josh thought.
And then there came a piercing, whining noise that grew louder and louder, and Josh put his hands to his ears and wondered if he was going to live to see his paycheck.
“God A’mighty!” PawPaw shouted, standing in the doorway.
A column of dirt shot up about four hundred yards into the cornfield to the northwest, and hundreds of cornstalks burst into flame. A spear of fire emerged, made a noise like bacon sizzling in a skillet as it sped upward several hundred feet, then arced dramatically to a northwesterly course and vanished in the haze. Another burning spear burst from the ground a half mile or so away, and this one followed the first. Further away, two more shot upward and climbed out of sight within two seconds; then the burning spears were coming up all over the cornfield, the nearest about three hundred yards away and the most distant fiery dots five or six miles across the fields. Geysers of dirt exploded as the things rose with incredible speed, their flaming trails leaving blue afterimages on Josh’s retinas. The corn was on fire, and the hot wind of the burning spears fanned the flames toward PawPaw’s place.
Waves of sickening heat washed over Josh, Darleen and Swan. Darleen was still screaming for Swan to get to the car. The child watched in horrified awe as dozens of burning spears continued to explode from the cornfield. The earth shuddered with shock waves under Josh’s feet. His senses reeling, he realized that the burning spears were missiles, roaring from their hidden silos in a Kansas cornfield in the middle of nowhere.
The underground boys, Josh thought—and he suddenly knew what PawPaw Briggs had meant.
PawPaw’s place stood on the edge of a camouflaged missile base, and the “underground boys” were the Air Force technicians who were now sitting in their bunkers and pressing the buttons.
“God A’mighty!” PawPaw shouted, his voice lost in the roar. “Look at ’em fly!”
Still the missiles were bursting from the cornfield, each one following the other into the northwest and vanishing in the rippling air. Russia, Josh thought. Oh, my God Jesus—they’re heading for Russia!
All the newscasts he’d heard and stories he’d read in the past few months came back to him, and in that awful instant he knew World War III had begun.
The swirling, scorched air was full of fiery corn, raining down on the road and on the roof of PawPaw’s place. The green canvas awning was smoking, and the canvas of the Conestoga wagon was already aflame. A storm of burning corn was advancing across the ravaged field, and as the shock waves collided in fifty-mile-an-hour winds the flames merged into a solid, rolling wall of fire twenty feet high.
“Come on!” Darleen shrieked, grabbing Swan up in her arms. The child’s blue eyes were wide and staring, hypnotized by the spectacle of fire. Darleen started running for her car with Swan in her arms, and as a shock wave knocked her flat the first red tendrils of flame began to reach toward the gas pumps.
Josh knew the fire was about to jump the road. The pumps were going to blow. And then he was back on the football field before a roaring Sunday afternoon crowd, and he was running for the downed woman and child like a human tank as the stadium clock ticked the seconds off. A shock wave hit him, threw him off balance, and burning corn swept over him; but then he was scooping the woman up with one thick arm around her waist. She clung to the child, whose face had frozen with terror. “Lemme go!” Darleen shrieked, but Josh whirled around and sprinted for the screen door, where PawPaw stood watching the flight of the burning spears in open-mouthed wonder.
Josh had almost reached it when there was an incandescent flash like a hundred million high-wattage bulbs going off at the same instant. Josh was looking away from the field, but he saw his shadow projected onto PawPaw Briggs—and in the space of a millisecond he saw PawPaw’s eyeballs burst into blue flame. The old man screamed, clawed at his face and fell backward into the screen door, tearing it off its hinges. “Oh God, oh Jesus, oh God!” Darleen was babbling. The child was silent.
The light got brighter still, and Josh felt a wash of heat on his back—gentle at first, like the sun on a nice summer day. But then the heat increased to the level of an oven, and before Josh could reach the door he heard the skin on his back and shoulders sizzling. The light was so intense he couldn’t see where he was going, and now his face was swelling so fast he feared it would explode like a beach ball. He stumbled forward, tripped over something—Paw-Paw’s body, writhing in agony in the doorway. Josh smelled burning hair and scorched flesh, and he thought crazily, I’m one barbecued sonofabitch!
He could still see through the slits of his swollen eyes; the world was an eerie blue-white, the color of ghosts. Ahead of him, the trapdoor yawned open. Josh reached down with his free hand, grabbed the old man’s arm and dragged him, along with the woman and child, toward the open square. An explosion sent shrapnel banging against the outside wall—the pumps, Josh knew—and a shard of hot metal flew past the right side of his head. Blood streamed down, but he had no time to think of anything but getting into that basement, for behind him he heard a wailing cacophony of wind like a symphony of fallen angels, and he dared not look back to see what was coming out of that cornfield. The whole building was shaking, cans and bottles jumping off the shelves. Josh flung PawPaw Briggs down the steps like a sack of grain and then leaped down himself, skinning his ass on the wood but still clinging to the woman and child. They rolled to the floor, the woman screaming in a broken, strangled voice. Josh scrambled back up to close the trapdoor.
And then he looked through the doorway and saw what was coming.
A tornado of fire.
It filled the sky, hurling off jagged spears of red and blue lightning and carrying with it tons of blackened earth gouged from the fields. He knew in that instant that the tornado of fire was advancing on PawPaw’s grocery store, bringing half the dirt from the field with it, and it would hit them within seconds.
And, simply, either they would live or they would die.
Josh reached up, slammed the trapdoor in place and jumped off the steps. He landed on his side on the concrete floor.
Come on! he thought, his teeth gritted and his hands over his head. Come on, damn it!
An unearthly commingling of the mighty roar of whirling wind, the crackle of fire and the bellowing crash of thunder filled the basement, forcing everything from Josh Hutchins’s mind but cold, stark terror.
The basement’s concrete floor suddenly shook—and then it lifted three feet and cracked apart like a dinner plate. It slammed down with brutal force. Pain pounded at Josh’s eardrums. He opened his mouth and knew he was screaming, but he couldn’t hear it.
And then the basement’s ceiling caved in, the beams cracking like bones in hungry hands. Josh was struck across the back of the head; he had the sensation of being lifted up and whirled in an airplane spin while his nostrils were smothered with thick, wet cotton, and all he wanted to do was get out of this damned wrestling ring and go home.
Then he knew no more.
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Featured photo: Cover of "Swan Song," 2009 edition