Harmless Beasts

a short story by Peter Palmieri

(This story was previously published in The Starship Logs Volume 2: Creatures by Telltale Press – 2020)

“Don’t eat too fast,” Mrs. Miller said as she popped the lid off the chicken-and-gravy jar, one of those with a wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked infant on its label. “You’ll get a tummy ache if you do.” The kitten mewed and nearly tripped her up as she tried to navigate her way across the front porch to a corner where a blue and white ceramic soup bowl lay toppled upside down on the cedar-planked deck.

The kitten erupted in a frenzy of purring and hissing while Mrs. Miller spooned the baby food into the bowl and, when finally given the chance, the cat attacked its breakfast with leonine ferocity. Mrs. Miller straightened, took a step back to admire her new pet with motherly pride. That’s when she heard that infernal sound.

Ka-click — ka-click — ka-click; the sound growing louder, repeating at regular intervals, like the monotone call of a menacing metallic insect.

She knew it was wrong, that it went against her strong Christian values, but every time she heard that noise it rubbed her the wrong way. It was so unnatural. She looked up the lane, over the growth of plum rhododendrons, and there he was: the neighbor’s blind boy, strolling up the sidewalk, his red-tipped walking cane perched on his shoulder giving him the air of a tiny Fred Astaire ready to break out in a dance number. He kept clicking that odious contraption with his chubby hand, tilting his head one way, then the other as he made his way closer. His parents, Josh and Rosalie Hastings, had explained it to her once. The boy had learned to use sound to see his way around, like some hideous bat maneuvering in a pitch black cave. If only the boy could be enticed to wear darkly tinted glasses, as proper blind children did, she wouldn’t have to see those tiny roving eyes circling round and round as if always zeroing in for a target.

“Good morning, Andy,” Mrs. Miller cried out.

“Good morning, Mrs. Miller.”

“Nice day for a walk.”

“A bit too bright, I think. I can’t be sure by the smell of it.”

Strange lad. Never made much sense. “I have a new friend,” she said. A feral kitten came and slept on my front porch last night. The little guy is starved.”

“Yeah, I know. He’s black with lemon eyes and has a small nick in his right ear.”

Mrs. Miller looked at the kitten, as if for confirmation. “How did you know that?”

“I dreamed of him last night.”

She stopped to consider this. As far as she knew, Andy had been blind from birth. She had never wondered whether blind people had the ability to dream.

“Well, maybe you can come up with a name for my new friend.”

The boy paused. “How about…  Beelzebub?”

The empty jar of baby food fell out of Mrs. Miller’s hands and clunked onto the porch, leaving a diamond-shaped dent in one of the recently stained wooden boards.

“I wouldn’t get too attached,” Andy said. “He’ll be dead soon.”

#

“So they’re hallucinations?” Josh Hastings said.

“A special type of hallucination, particular to individuals who are visually impaired,” Dr. Whittington said. “It’s called Charles Bonnet syndrome. It occurs more commonly in the elderly, but there are case reports of afflicted children.”

“Is it serious?” Rosalie Hastings asked.

“Are the visions distressing in any way?” Dr. Whittington said.

Josh Hastings shook his head. “They don’t seem to bother him. If anything, they puzzle him. They puzzle me. He says he sees sounds and smells. Maple syrup over melted butter evoked the image of a flock of birds.”

“Seagulls,” Rosalie corrected her husband.

The doctor sat back in his chair. “Synesthesia,” he said. “The bleeding of one sense modality into another.”

“Is that common?” Josh Hastings said.

“It’s not uncommon.” The use of the double negative was always a good hedge in these types of conversation. “Maybe this is a good time to bring him in so I can examine him.”

The boy remained cooperative throughout the neurologic exam and seemed unruffled by the doctor’s queries. He answered in a polite tone, seemingly enjoying the attention. The doctor seemed to be enjoying the exchange as well

Dr. Whittington turned to Josh and said, “I understand you’re a geologist.”

Josh said, “A soil scientist. My interest is saprophytes.”

“Bugs that grow on decaying material,” Dr. Whittington said.

“Though most of my time nowadays is spent looking at a single critter: Acanthamoeba Castelanii.”

“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Dr. Whittington said. “I must have been absent that day in medical school.” The doctor chuckled.

“Okay,” Andy said. “That just jarred something in my brain.”

“What do you mean?” his father asked.

“The doctor’s laugh; it made me see something,” Andy said.

“Really. What did you see?” Dr. Whittington asked.

“I saw a boy with red hair and lots of freckles on his nose, pulling a white hen in a red Radio Flyer wagon.”

Josh Hastings turned to Dr. Whittington with a see-what-I-mean grin and shrugged. The doctor turned pale.

“What color is the boy’s shirt?” Dr. Whittington asked.

“It’s blue, with a red ‘S’ on the chest,” Andy said. “It’s got a small red cape sewn into the shoulders.”

“Like a Superman costume?” Josh Hastings said.

Dr. Whittington nodded. He seemed lost in thought. The doctor instructed the parents to dress the boy, to make a follow-up appointment in two weeks and to let him know if there were any changes in the interim.

“Dr. Whittington,” Andy said as he was putting his t-shirt on. “Don’t drive home by the park today.”

    “I’m sorry?”

“Take another route.”

Dr. Whittington exited the exam room, retreated to his private office, and slumped into his padded desk chair. He kneaded his temple with his thumb and glanced across his desk to the framed picture of his wife embracing a boy with a smile so wide his eyes were tiny slits, his mop of red hair slicked and parted down the side for the portrait. How could Andy have known about Patrick? How could he have known about that day at the farm?

Dr. Whittington was still engrossed in thought on his drive home, coasting past Rosehaven Drive, approaching Winterfield Park when a soccer ball bounced across the street, twenty yards ahead. He followed the ball with his gaze, transfixed. Then he remembered Andy’s warning: “Don’t drive home by the park. Take another route.” He slammed on the brakes even before he caught sight of the boy in the bright green soccer jersey sprinting in the street right in front of his car.

#

Saturday morning, Rosalie Hastings was flipping pancakes while Andy drank chocolate milk through a straw, sitting on a barstool at the kitchen’s marble island, still in his jammies. Josh Hastings was slumped on a tan leather sofa in the family nook just past the kitchen watching Tottingham take on his beloved Chelsea.

“Mom, what do you make of the numbers thirteen and seventeen?” Andy said, out of the blue.

Rosalie smiled. “They’re both prime numbers.”

Andy giggled. “Correct.”

“Both are thought to connote bad luck in certain cultures.”

“Good one. Go on.”

“Hmm. I’m getting the feeling that you’re driving at something in particular.” Rosalie said. “Can you give me a hint?”

Andy flashed a broad grin. “Okay, say you have two periodic events, one that happens every thirteen years, the other, every seventeen years, how often will the two events coincide?”

Rosalie lifted a pancake from the skillet and plopped it on a plate. She said, “I see someone’s been reading about cicadas.”

Andy laughed and clapped his hands. “You got it mom — periodic cicadas, or Magicicadas if you like.”

“Because they’re magic?” Rosalie said.

“Come on, mom. That’s just their name. The idea is that different broods have different periods of dormancy, so they don’t all emerge at the same time. And the prime number periodicity is the most efficient way to ensure that they won’t emerge the same year as another brood. It makes them mathematically elusive to predators that have much shorter life cycles.”

“Wonderful,” Rosalie said. “Eat your pancake before it gets cold.”

“But you didn’t answer the key question. If one event takes place every thirteen years, and the other every seventeen years, every how many years do the two events coincide?”

“Every two-hundred and twenty-one years,” Rosalie said.

“Wow, mom. You still know your maths.”

He said “maths,” the British way. The boy was a huge fan of Bertrand Russell after all, just as she had been as a teenager. Rosalie poured maple syrup on Andy’s pancake. She had never regretted leaving graduate school to take care of Andy, still didn’t. “Eat your pancake, honey.”

The boy shoved a big chunk of pancake in his mouth. “And guess what year is year two-hundred and twenty-one for two of these broods?”

“Let me see, this year?” Rosalie said.

“Bingo.”

“I thought that buzzing was getting pretty loud at night.”

“Just think; millions of cicadas will be burrowing out of the ground in the next few weeks.”

“Don’t worry, honey,” Rosalie said. “They’re harmless beasts.”

“I know. They don’t have mandibles like locusts. Still, the sheer number… it’s a little unnerving.

“Let me make you another pancake,” Rosalie said. “You want more milk?”

“Penalty kick!” Andy shouted.

“How’s that?” Rosalie said.

“Penalty for Tottenham,” Andy said.

From the sofa, Josh glanced at his son a moment before returning his focus to the television screen. “No, Andy. Chelsea has the ball in their own half, completely in control.”

“Penalty kick!”

“Anything you say, son,” Josh said, without taking his eyes off the TV screen.

For a moment, no one spoke. The voice of the English sports announcer filled the kitchen as Andy wolfed down another big bite of pancake. Rosalie poured a circle of batter on the skillet. On the sofa, Josh started squirming. He scooted his body forward until he was sitting on the edge of his seat.

“Now that’s some sloppy passing by the Chelsea defense,” the TV announcer said, “They best be careful… Will you look at that! Chelsea’s lost the ball behind the midfield line! Chelsea on their heels now… Goodness! What a reckless challenge that was by the Chelsea defender and there’s no doubt in the referee’s mind this time: penalty awarded to Tottenham!”

Josh Hastings craned his neck to look at his son. Rosalie was also staring at the boy, standing motionless with a puzzled expression, the pancake spatula hanging from her limp hand. Andy said nothing, took a long sip of chocolate milk.

The doorbell rang.

Josh slowly got to his feet. “I got it,” he said. He walked to the front door, wondering how Andy could have guessed what was about to happen in a soccer game that was playing live.

The bell chimed again before he had a chance to open the door. Standing outside was their neighbor, Mrs. Miller, sobbing. She gritted her teeth. “Where is he?” she shouted.

“Mrs. Miller…”

“Where is he?”

“Who?”

“Who else? That… child of yours.”

“Is something the matter?” Josh asked.

“I know he did it!”

“Did what?”

“Killed my kitty.” She placed her hand on the door jamb to support her weight, her body quivering as she started sobbing again.

Rosalie came up behind Josh, placed a hand on his shoulder. “Mrs. Miller?” she said. “Would you like to come in?”

“No, I don’t want to come in. I want that boy to come here and tell me why…” she had to catch her breath, “… why he had to do such a cruel thing.”

“Mrs. Miller,” Josh said, “I’m sure there’s been some misunderstanding.”

“He said he was going to kill him. I heard him say it. And now the cat is dead.”

“I didn’t say I was going to kill the cat.” Andy had come in the vestibule. “I only said your cat was going to die soon. I didn’t kill your cat, Mrs. Miller.”

“If you didn’t do it, how could you possibly know?” Mrs. Miller shouted.

“When did it happen?” Josh asked.

“I found his little body this morning.”

“I’m so sorry about your cat,” Rosalie said. “But we were in Charlotte for medical appointments all day yesterday, got back late last night. And Andy hasn’t gone out at all this morning. He just got out of bed. Look, he’s still in his pajamas.”

“But he knew!” Mrs. Miller said.

Josh stepped out on the front porch. “Let me walk you home, Mrs. Miller. You can tell me more.” He shut the door behind him.

Rosalie looked down at her son. As if sensing her gaze, he said, “It was horrible, mom. The little kitten was strangled, hung from a branch of the sycamore in her back yard.”

“How do you know that?”

“I saw it in a dream.”

#

Sunday morning, Andy told his parents he had dreamed that it was snowing in Gastonia.

“Snow in North Carolina? In May?” Josh Hastings said. “I’d say the odds are very much against that. If anything, summer’s come early this year.”

“I saw it. The sun was out, but it was snowing, a real fine snow, like powdered sugar, and the streets were full of people, looking at the sky, taking pictures.”

“Just a dream,” Rosalie said.

That evening, Andy accompanied his mother to pick up take-out pizza.  Josh was watching the news, drinking beer from a tall-neck bottle.

“And now,” the dapper news anchor for WBTV-Charlotte said with a smile, “we turn to our very own Molly Devin who ventured to Gastonia this afternoon for a story that seems to come right out of a Stephen King novel.”

The shot cut to a perky brunette with smooth chestnut hair and beaming eyes. “That’s right Mike. We’re talking zombie insects and flesh-eating fungus. Cicadas are no strangers to Gaston County, in fact, they’re a regular occurrence here in the late spring. But this year the tiny critters will burrow out of the soil in record numbers, and some locals have noticed something very peculiar about some of these insects.”

A taped man-on-the-street interview started playing, featuring a gray-haired biker with gaunt cheeks and a thin goatee, wearing an opened black leather vest over a Jack Daniels t-shirt. “I’m walking my dog, you see, and I feel this thing popping right in my hair, and I’m like, ‘What was that?’  So I reach up and swat at the thing, but the little bugger’s stuck. So I have to, you know, yank it out. So I grab it with my fingers like this,” he paused to demonstrate the act of plucking something from the back of his head, “And I take a good look at it and well, I ain’t never seen nothing like it, but it’s a critter… with the whole back half of him missing. And he’s still alive, flapping his little wings like a son-of-a-gun.”

“It was a cicada?” Molly Devin’s voice could be heard off camera.

“Yeah, it was a cicada,” the man said. “At least a half a one!” The man laughed a wheezy laugh, exposing an incomplete set of crooked teeth.

The shot switched again, to a laboratory of some sort where a woman in a white coat was seated at a lab bench, peering in the eyepieces of a microscope, Molly Devin’s voice providing the voiceover.

“Researchers at the University of North Carolina say the cause of zombie cicadas is a fungus by the name of Massospora Cicadina. This fungus can infect the burrowing insects as they tunnel their way out of the earth. It replicates in the hindquarters of its host, eating away the cicada’s flesh until the insect’s tail end finally falls off, releasing fungal spores into the air in the form of a fine white powder. But the unfazed insect often will continue to fly, becoming – what one scientist here called, ‘flying saltshakers.’”

Josh took a swig of his beer. The TV screen now showed a street view of downtown Gastonia, passersby on the sidewalks taking photos of the sky with their cell phones. Molly Devin said, “And with the record number of cicadas this year, this white powder was so plentiful in Gastonia this afternoon that it looked like it was snowing in May.”

Back to the live view of Molly Devin — “Doctors say the powder is generally harmless, but people with allergies and respiratory ailments should stay indoors. Back to you Jack.”

In the studio, the anchorman was leaning an elbow on the glass news-desk, chuckling. “Flying saltshakers; that’s a phrase you don’t hear every day.”

Josh reached for the remote control and turned off the TV. He sat on the couch thinking. He set his beer down, pulled out his cell phone and scrolled down to his work contacts, selecting the top number on the list.

“Hello,” a voice answered.

“Did you see the evening news?” Josh asked.

“Flying saltshakers – Jesus.”

“Is this something we need to worry about?”

“Who knows, man; who knows?”

“You got the counts on the soil samples we took last week?”

“Up two ticks from the previous week.”

“Shit!” Josh said.

“As long as it’s in the soil and it’s not stirred up, there’s no reason to worry,” Josh’s co-worker said.

“Yeah,” Josh said. “As long as it stays in the soil.”

“You don’t think… hell, nothing like that’s been ever reported.”

“Yeah well, no one was looking two-hundred and twenty-one years ago.”

“What do we do?”

Josh said, “We take some samples tomorrow.”

“More soil samples?”

“No. We sample the cicadas.”

Josh hung up. Hesitated a moment, then pulled out a business card from his wallet and dialed a number on his cell phone. It took only five minutes for Dr. Whittington to answer his page.

“I was wondering if we could meet tomorrow morning,” Josh said.

“Are the hallucinations getting worse?” Dr. Whittington asked.

“You said to let you know if they were—“

“Distressing.”

“Right,” Josh said.

“Are they frightening him?”

“It’s not that,” Josh said. “I guess they’re starting to distress his mom.”

“And you,” Dr. Whittington said after a pause.

“You might say that.”

“Can you bring him to the outpatient clinic tomorrow afternoon?” Dr. Whittington said.

“Actually, I was hoping just the two of us could meet.”

#

The next morning, Josh Hastings and Dr. Whittington were sitting across each other in a booth at Stella’s Café sipping hot coffee.

“What has changed?” Dr. Whittington said.

Josh shrugged. “Maybe nothing. Andy’s mood is good; he seems pretty unfazed.”

“What’s bothering you?”

“These dreams,” Josh said, “Andy seems to think they’re like… premonitions.” Andy had never expressed that opinion, but Josh thought this was the best way to broach the subject.

Dr. Whittington brought his palms together. “I see.”

“I was surfing the internet,” Josh said. He let out a guilty chuckle. “You probably hate it when your patients utter those words.”

“No, it’s alright.”

“Well, I was wondering, could this be a form of temporal lobe epilepsy?”

Dr. Whittington rested his elbows on the table, leaned forward. “You remember at the last visit when he told me to stay away from the park, take a different route home? Well, I didn’t heed his warning. I drove right by Winterfield Park on my way home, as I always do. Then I started thinking about Andy, thinking about everything he had said during the office visit, and suddenly, it was as if a voice called out to me – maybe Andy’s voice, I can’t be sure; I didn’t hear it as much as I felt it,” Dr. Whittington placed a hand over his heart. “I slammed on the brakes, just as a little boy ran into the street right in front of my car.”

“Jeez! Was he hurt?” Josh said.

Dr. Whittington cupped his hands around his coffee, looked down and shook his head. “Thank God, no.”

“What are you saying? You think Andy forewarned you?” Josh said. “It sounds like a coincidence to me. Sounds like you’re trying to mold the facts to fit a narrative you’ve already convinced yourself of.”

“Are you a man of faith?” Dr. Whittington asked.

“I’m a scientist, Dr. Whittington.”

A faint smile surfaced on the doctor’s lips. He nodded. “My son, Patrick was six years old when he was diagnosed with aplastic anemia. When the hematologist told us about the bone marrow results, my wife said, ‘At least it’s not leukemia.’ I looked at Patrick’s doctor, looked in his eyes, and… well, we understood each other. Nine months later, Patrick died of a simple viral infection – a harmless bug his ravaged immune system couldn’t fight off.”

“I’m so sorry,” Josh said.

“That little boy was the joy of my life. The happiest memory I have of him, the one I always turn to when I’m a little down, was taking him to my uncle’s farm out by Newberry. He insisted on wearing his favorite shirt: this Superman shirt my wife had sewn a little red cape onto.” Dr. Whittington smiled wistfully. “I think it might have been the best day of his life. Well, at one point he grabbed hold of a hen, put it in his brand new Radio Flyer wagon and took it for a ride. Sound familiar at all?”

Josh rubbed his palms together. A few moments later he said, “I’d like him to have an MRI of the brain. There has to be a logical explanation.”

Dr. Whittington nodded, “Of course. I’m sure there is.”

#

Josh Hastings had instructed his co-worker, Roger, to bring haz-mat suits along with the usual respirators, goggles and protective gloves they routinely employed when collecting soil samples. They drove north to Lincolnton before heading west on highway 27, left the road on a gravel path, came to a stop and suited up before proceeding to the flat dirt field surrounded by razor wire which had been their outdoor laboratory for the last eighteen months. The gravel path was covered in cicadas; some dead, some crawling.

“Snap, crackle pop,” Roger murmured as he maneuvered the Jeep down the trail.

“Have you ever seen so many?” Josh said.

“Not me. Must be a bumper crop year. Least we won’t have trouble collecting specimens.”

That night, the song of the cicadas was deafening, and Josh lay in bed awake most of the night.

#

Two days later, Rosalie and Andy were eating breakfast at the kitchen bar. The TV was turned to the morning news. Josh walked into the kitchen in shirtsleeves, his sports coat folded over his arm. He tousled Andy’s hair as he went past him.

“Bacon and eggs?” Rosalie asked.

“Don’t bother. I’ll just butter up a slice of toast and chug a cup coffee. I’ve got a busy morning today,” Josh said.

“I had another dream last night,” Andy said.

“That’s nice,” Josh said. He turned his attention to the television, grabbed the remote and turned up the volume.”

“Want to hear about my dream?” Andy said.

“Wait a minute son,” Josh said.

The news reporter said, “And there is still no word on what might have caused the death of hundreds of migrating birds in a field a few miles outside of Lincolnton in the early morning hours. Investigators from the Environmental Protection Services have been called in to investigate.”

“Here’s your coffee,” Rosalie said.

“Wait!” Josh said without taking his eyes off the TV.

“Turning to the weather, it’s going to be warm and dry today, with the thermometer climbing into the mid-eighties by noon.  We’ll have strong wind gusts blowing from the northwest—“

Josh turned the TV off.

He walked to his son and put a hand on his shoulder. “Andy, tell me about your dream.”

Rosalie looked at her husband, still clutching his coffee mug.

“It was kind of boring,” Andy said.

“What was it about? What did you see?” Josh said.

“Well, it was kind of like the other one. You know, it was snowing in Gastonia.”

“And…”

“Well, that’s about it.”

“What else?” Josh squeezed his son’s shoulder. “Try to remember.”

“Josh?” Rosalie said. “Why don’t you come drink your coffee. You said you were in a rush to get to work today.”

“It was snowing in Gastonia,” Josh said. “Then what?”

“Nothing,” Andy said. “Except this time there was no one in the streets.”

Josh, released the grip on Andy’s shoulder, let his arm fall to his side. He looked out the window with a blank stare.

“Coffee’s getting cold,” Rosalie said.

Josh jerked, snatched the mug out of Rosalie’s hands and set it on the marble counter. “We have to go, now.”

“What?”

“Winds are blowing from the northwest. We have to head west. Forest City, you’ll be safe there.”

“We’re going to Forest City?” Rosalie said. “What on earth for?”

“There’s no time to explain. We have to hurry.”

“How many days should I pack for?”

“We’re not packing. We’re going now. Get your purse.” Josh rushed off to the bathroom, stuffed towels in the sink and let cold water run over them. For convenience, the respirator masks were stored in Roger’s jeep. He could have kicked himself for not keeping a few extras at home. Wet towels was the best alternative he could come up with. He ran back to the kitchen.

“Rosalie, Andy, listen carefully. We’re going to the garage now and get in the car. We don’t open the garage door until we’re safely in the car and the doors are all shut. And we don’t roll down the windows for any reason, okay? Now wrap these towels around your nose and mouth.”

They got in the car, sped down the street, Josh glancing up at the sky every so often.

“Looks like a perfectly lovely day,” Rosalie said. “Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”

“What do I do for a living?” Josh said.

Rosalie raised an eyebrow. “Seriously, Josh.”

“What do I do for a living?” Josh repeated.

“You better not tell me you work for the CIA. I’m in no mood for a laugh right now.”

Josh said, “Come on, Rosalie.”

“You’re a soil scientist,” Andy said from the back seat.

“And what, specifically, do I study?”

“An amoeba,” Rosalie said, a chill running down her spine.

“Acanthamoeba Castelanii,” Andy chimed in.

“Where does Acanthamoeba Castelanii live?” Josh asked.

“In the dirt,” Andy said.

“And why does the government pay me to study this specific amoeba?” Josh said.

“Well, that’s always been the biggest mystery of the world if you ask me,” Rosalie said.

“Something feeds off this amoeba,” Josh said.

“Like what?” Rosalie asked.

A fine white silt started falling, swirling and settling on the car’s windshield. Josh knew better than to turn on the windshield wipers. The less you stirred the stuff up, the better. His cell phone rang. He pulled the phone out of his breast pocket and tapped the screen with his thumb on the second ring. It was Roger, his voice booming from the car’s speakers. Josh tried to unlink the phone from the car’s Blue Tooth, but it was too late.

“Josh, it’s me,” Roger said. “Got a preliminary report on those critters we collected, and, well, the expression ‘jiminy cricket’ doesn’t even begin to cut it. It ain’t good, pal. Those cicadas we collected are chock-full of anthrax.”

“Yeah, I know,” Josh said.

“Lab called you too?” Roger said.

“No, I just knew,” Josh said. “Roger, listen to me. Get your family to a safe spot. I’m dropping off Rosalie and Andy in Forest City, then I’m heading back to Gastonia. Listen, use the respirators, okay?”

“Josh? That box of respirators is in my Jeep. You don’t have none, do you?”

“I’ll be okay.”

“These flying salt-shakers ain’t pouring salt, amigo. Comprende?”

“I’ll see you in a couple of hours.” Josh hung up. Glanced at Rosalie who was staring right back at him.

“Acanthamoeba Castelanii is anthrax grub,” Josh said.  “They just love the stuff. It’s like junk food: they can’t get enough of it.”

“Andy,” Rosalie called out. “You keep that towel wrapped around your mouth.”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t tell you,” Josh said. “The nature of my work is classified.”

“I still don’t understand,” Rosalie said. “What’s a soil scientist doing working with Anthrax?”

“Anthrax has been in the soil in these parts since forever,” Josh said. “As long as it’s not stirred up it won’t harm anyone. But the shifting weather pattern these last couple of years has caused the amoeba to grow out of hand, and with it, the soil anthrax counts have soared. We had a plan to get things back under control by the fall, but we weren’t counting on the doggone cicadas.”

“I don’t want you to leave us,” Rosalie said.  “We should stay together.”

“I got work to do here. You’ll be safer in Forest City,” Josh said. “We’ll be back together soon.”

“Yeah, mom,” Andy said. “It’ll be fine. We’ll all be together soon.”

Andy’s voice was so full of innocence. Rosalie had to wipe a tear from her cheek.

“Scroll through my contacts,” Josh said. “Look for Department of Health and Human Services. I have to instruct the director to order a mass evacuation before it’s too late.”

“This is bad,” Rosalie said as she tapped the screen of the smart-phone.  “This is really, really bad.”

“Don’t worry,” Andy said from the backseat. “Everything’s going to be fine. It’s beautiful where we’re going. I saw it in a dream.”

The car went silent. For a few moments, the only sound was the hum of tires on asphalt.

Rosalie turned in her seat. Josh eyed his son in the rear-view mirror. 

“You had a dream of Forest City?” Rosalie asked her son.

“No, mom,” Andy said. “I had a dream of heaven.”

THE END

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