“ru sure u dont mind?” Chele felt a little manipulative letting David take her to the airport. She and Jake had been dating for a while and it was going well. She always suspected that David liked her with the way he was always so helpful, a little too attentive to how she was doing behind the counter. But when Jake left for a two-week construction job and her best friend and fellow barista, Annette, got called in to cover an early shift, Chele casually dropped her lament into the shared barista group chat and waited for David to offer.
“Not at all. Happy to help.”
“ur the best! Thxxx!” She forwarded her flight info to him and they coordinated in a direct message what needed to happen. She was catching a 7:00am flight from San Jose. She’d have to be there no later than 5:30 for check-in and security, so they’d need to leave no later than 4am from her apartment in Monterey to get her there on time.
She was flying back to Georgia for her cousin’s wedding, and it was going to be fabulous. A week of spas, shopping, and girls’ nights before the big day, and then fly back to California in time for work on Monday. She was careful not to pack too heavily, considering the clothes, gifts, and other swag she was going to come home with. Regardless, she still had a large suitcase and a smaller carry-on to heft into the trunk of David’s aging Prius when he pulled up to her apartment door at 3:55. They pulled away at 4:05 after Chele ran back into her apartment twice for “one more thing” she forgot.
“I’m driving, so you control the music. Road trip rules.”
“You’re taking me to the airport,” she countered, “It’s hardly a road trip.”
“Alright, if you want to listen to 90’s boy bands and NOT have Corn Nuts and Twizzlers, so be it.” David revealed the snacks tucked away in the center console and tapped the pre-set button on his dashboard music controls, but Chele lightly smacked his hand away.
“No! Fine, it’s a road trip. And thanks again.” She scrolled through the saved music playlist options, settling on the Ladies of the Day, a blend of female-led power rock, pop, and hip-hop no older than the previous six months.
Taylor Swift, Doja Cat, and Dua Lipa escorted them through town until they reached Highway 101 leading north to San Jose. There were hardly any cars on the road at this early hour and once they got away from Monterey Bay, there was no fog to obscure their vision. Chele compulsively checked her phone, frequently exchanging messages with her cousin and other friends in Georgia. Three hours ahead of California in time zones, Georgia was just waking up. Between those spurts of chat, Chele and David made small talk. Rather, David asked polite questions about Chele’s trip, family, and what originally brought her out to California, and Chele rambled stream of consciousness answers to his queries. She never once asked David a question in return, but David didn’t mind. He liked the sound of her voice and enjoyed the time away from work with her, learning more about her as a person. He doubted it would ever lead to anything romantic, but time spent with a friend is never time wasted, right?
This one-sided exchange went on for 45 minutes before a wall of brakelights in the darkness indicated traffic had crawled to a stop. Emergency lights flashed up ahead, and Chele’s quick check on her phone’s maps app revealed an accident with multiple cars about half a mile down the road. David interrupted Chele’s nascent panic attack with calm assurance. “Relax, I grew up here and know these roads like the back of my mom’s hand. I’ll get you there on time.”
With doubt in her eyes, Chele watched David pull onto the wide highway shoulder and drive a quarter-mile to the first exit into the local farming community. The Salinas Valley is America’s salad bowl, with thousands of acres of farms producing lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, and countless other vegetables in neatly arranged rows and plots of land. The roads between them weren’t necessarily well-maintained, but they were lightly traveled and generally straight as an arrow.
Though the speed limit signs were set at 45 miles per hour, David raced between 50 and 60 miles per hour through the shadows, slowing only for the few curves he encountered. Chele was glued to her phone, warning her relations of the disaster befalling her until she suddenly popped her face up from her screen. “There’s no service out here!”
“Yeah, we’re in the farms. All the towers are along the highway. Don’t worry; we’ll get you back to civilization in no time. We just need to get around the accident.”
David’s headlights did a passable job of pushing through the morning haze but the road was beginning to roll like a gentle roller coaster. The rocks and gravel peppering the undercarriage of the hybrid-engine car was the only sound for a while. David was concentrating on driving through the pre-dawn darkness, and Chele was too freaked out about missing her plane to talk. When she finally spoke, it was a shriek.
What David had mistaken for a shadowy depression in the road Chele saw for the gaping hole it was. Big enough to swallow the car, a crack in the earth spanned the entire road in front of them. David swerved to the right, but the wheels lost traction on the loose dirt surface, sliding uncontrollably toward the pit. He let off the gas and yanked the wheel to control his drift, diverting the car from the chasm before them and directing it into the ditch beside the road. Meant for flood control as much as irrigation, the ditches through the farmlands were deep and wide, and David’s car went nose-first all the way to the bottom with its tail-end bumper barely remaining at the level of the road. Seat belts and airbags prevented significant injuries, but David wound up with a bloody nose, and they both had bruises they expected to feel later.
When the shock wore off and the airbags deflated enough for them to move, David opened his door and crawled out into the sandy ditch. An abundance of chemical fertilizers made grass, moss, and other greenery grow in the ditches, but years of drought had kept such wild plants in check. David wiped his nose and checked on Chele, who was struggling in her seat.
“Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong?! You’re driving like a lunatic, I can’t get my seatbelt off, and the damn door won’t open!” She thrashed against the canvas belt and pounded the aluminum door, but neither cared about her agitation.
“It’s going to be okay. Hold on.” David crawled back across his seat and triggered the emergency release of her seatbelt, and she had to catch herself with her hands against the dashboard to keep from falling into the cracked windshield. “Come out this way.”
He held her hand while she navigated the ruined passenger space, letting go only when she did, when her feet were on solid ground. She looked back into the car, spying her phone on the floorboard. “There’s no point in getting it with no signal out here.”
“Yeah, let’s get back on the road and see what’s going on.” David used his wrecked car as a ladder to scale the bank of the ditch, then turned to help Chele climb up. She didn’t need his help, but took his hand for the final pull onto the road anyway. One nameless farm looked like every other he had seen, and with no distant landmarks through the darkness, all David could tell was that they were east of the highway and south of their destination. More immediate, though, was the hole in the road which caused their current predicament.
Not five feet from where they went off the road, the hole seemed to be filled with the night sky itself. David pulled his phone from his pocket and switched on its flashlight. Unlike sinkholes he’d seen on television, this hole had every appearance of an excavation. Gouges and scrapes lined the walls which were almost perfectly perpendicular to the surface of the road. It went straight down maybe fifteen or twenty feet before joining underground tunnels crossing beneath the road, ditches, and the farms on either side.
“What the hell did that?” Chele asked from his side. Though she was mere feet away, David could hardly see Chele through the gloom.
“I couldn’t tell you. It almost looks like maybe they were doing utility work and forgot to block off the road.”
“Oh-ho! If the county did this, I’m going to sue the hell out of them! I won’t have to work for fifty years with what this is going to cost them! We almost died!”
“Yeah…where’s the dirt?”
“You can’t dig a hole without pulling dirt out. This is a big hole, so there should be a lot of dirt here somewhere. Where’s the dirt?”
Chele looked around and had to agree. There was no dirt.
“Well, whatever. Even if it’s a sinkhole or something, the county should have fixed this before it almost killed us. I’m going to miss my plane, and I’m going to sue. This is bullshit.”
“Yeah, I might have to agree with you there. You’re going to miss your plane. Sorry.”
Whatever acerbic retort Chele had ready was waylaid by an unexpected noise from the black gash in the earth before them. “What was that?!”
A scuttling, scraping sound emanated from the subterranean distance. David swished his phone’s light around and revealed nothing but darkness and dirt. “I have no idea. Maybe an animal fell in?”
The skritching became louder and more rhythmic, giving the pair the distinct and mutual impression of many inhuman feet running in their direction. “I don’t care what it is; let’s get back in the car.” David at last looked away from the hole and turned his light on Chele, shining it on her replica vintage Aerosmith t-shirt to avoid blinding her.
“Back in the car? Are you serious?” He directed his light at the absurd angle of the vehicle resting against the wall of the ditch.
“Yes! There are, like, coyotes and mountain lions out here, and I don’t wanna know what’s…” Chele looked back to the crack in the road, suddenly and fearfully aware that all sounds from the tunnels below had ceased. David turned with his light to follow her gaze, and she immediately wished he hadn’t.
It couldn’t be a locust, though that was the only frame of reference her mind allowed. Bulbous, segmented eyes on a triangular head the size of a trash can lid. Chomping mandibles that nearly severed David’s foot in one bite. Forelegs like a praying mantis that snatched David from the road and yanked him over the edge. Wings like a giant cockroach, fluttering, buzzing, and giving stability and thrust to pull its human meal down and away from her. David screamed and begged Chele for help as he kicked and bled, but it all happened so fast. Which is to say that as soon as the insectoid monstrosity appeared and attacked her friend-zoned coworker and chauffeur of convenience, she turned tail and ran, jumped the entire way down into the ditch, and dove into the car, slamming and locking the door behind her. She glanced over her shoulder briefly as she bolted, only to see David’s terrified face lit up by his phone’s flashlight like he was telling a ghost story around a campfire. Then he disappeared underground.
His screams and the maddening buzz of the creature’s wings were dampened by the car. Chele crawled into the backseat, squeezing herself onto the floorboard between the back and front seats, where she covered her ears and cried, “Nononononononononono!” When her throat became sore from swallowing tears and repeating her mantra of fear, she stopped and listened.
The silence around her seemed worse, somehow.
When moments became minutes and she could bear the uncertainty no more, Chele crept up from the floor and looked cautiously over the backseat. Through the rear window of the car she saw it, despite the darkness. It was larger than the biggest dog she’d ever seen. Chele couldn’t help but wonder if lions got that big. Was it as big as a lion? Maybe so. A goddamned locust bug thing the size of a goddamned lion ate David and now was five feet away from her, with only a sheet of safety glass between them.
Was it like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park where it couldn’t see her if she didn’t move? She remembered some friends telling her that was a load of crap and the dinosaur could totally see things standing still. How else would it keep from bumping into things like rocks and trees that never moved? Not like anyone had seen any real, live T-Rexes and gave them eye exams to find out. Chele stared at the beast, willing it to leave, to crawl back into its hole and leave her alone. In reply, the bug clicked its mandibles and twitched its wings, but didn’t move.
The clattering scrape of segmented legs on the body of the car told her why it didn’t move. Through the darkened windows Chele saw two, no, three more of these devil bugs crawling across the surface of the car. Up the sides, across the roof, down the hood, down one side, up the hood, back across the roof, and the whole time tapping, tapping, tapping with their enormous front claws.
“They’re looking for a way in,” Chele caught herself saying out loud. She clamped her mouth shut, still instinctively trying to hide and avoid drawing the bugs’ attention, though she knew damn good and well they already knew where she was. The windows weren’t broken, and they were all rolled up, so maybe if she waited the bugs out until sunrise they would go away on their own. That was only a few hours. That could work. That could work. That had to work.
Chele retreated to the floorboard once more, balling up like a child under her blanket to hide from the monster in her closet. Chele had no sense of curiosity about these murderous creatures, closing her eyes and covering her ears to muffle her awareness of the chitinous death crawling on the car all around her. She had no nursery rhymes to sing, no quaint poems or children’s prayers to recite to provide any solace from her nightmare. She rocked in the darkness, feeling every bit alone in the universe as she always had, sure there was no supernatural being to call upon for aid, but privately wishing now there were.
Chele didn’t own a watch, preferring to use the clock on her phone. That broken tether to society and safety remained on the floorboard at the front of the car, and she had no idea how much time had passed. She spied the faintest glow on the horizon, so she guessed it was maybe 6am. The bugs were gone, having retreated to places unknown. Chele didn’t dare go look for them. What was she going to do? Run down the road? Hike across a farm? No, she’d wait for sunrise and the hope the daylight would bring. It couldn’t be much longer.
While she watched the lightening sky and hoped for survival, Chele developed a strange, sinking feeling in her stomach. It was almost imperceptible in the dim dawn, but it seemed that the angle of the car was shifting. She looked the other way out of the car towards the farm and its fence posts for a point of reference. Yep, they were moving, for sure. No, the car was moving. The car was sinking in the ditch!
Struggling to shift her predominant fear from being eaten by giant bugs to being buried alive in a car, Chele jumped back and forth across the back seat, desperate to free herself from her imminent tomb and yet petrified of being pounced upon like David was. Whether her shifting weight expedited her descent she couldn’t be sure, but the car lurched deeper into the soil. She froze. It dropped again, and the ground outside was now up to the rear windows.
One more plummeting moment and the car crashed into the floor of a freshly dug tunnel. It didn’t bounce, the soft dirt cushioning the tires and undercarriage, muting the crunch of aluminum and plastic molding. Something in the dashboard must have been damaged in the descent, as the car’s hazard lights were now blinking in the darkness. Four orange lights, one at each corner of the car, flashing in split-second intervals.
Those half-seconds of darkness were Chele’s only solace in the pitch blackness of the tunnel. The half-seconds of orange illumination revealed just how many of these creatures worked together to bring her down here. Dozens of them crawled all over the tunnel walls, soccer ball eyes with thousands of lenses watching her, studying the car, planning how to open their canned food.
Chele had no last words.
Who would hear them?
The swarm moved over the car and began prying, clawing, and tearing into the seams of the windows, the doors, the hood, the trunk. They all began to give way under the assault. Chele counted down her final moments in split-second blinks of orange lights, and prayed for the first time in her life, and then only that she wouldn’t scream like David did.