Have You Seen This Bug?

Submitted into Contest #60 in response to: Write a post-apocalyptic story that features zombies.... view prompt


Adventure Mystery Thriller

There are dead lanternflies everywhere, and the kids are on high alert, ready to squash more. Sophie stamps on the ground and lifts her foot to scrape a severed wing from her sole. “Was that the last one?” she asks.

“No,” Kieran says, pointing to another tree. “Look.” Sophie looks at the dark streaks on its trunk and chewed-through leaves, and recoils when she sees them—a dense cluster of wings and red eyes, huddled near the roots.

“It doesn’t matter,” an older voice says, and the kids’ heads turn to look at Hattie, with her knotty braids, dirt-streaked face, and torn flannel tied protectively around her waist. Somehow, all of this makes her look authoritative. More so than she did at the beginning of the summer when she was a new counselor in her crisp staff shirt and making individual tags for their bunk beds. She’s still wearing the staff shirt, but its sleeves are gone and bottom half are gone, used to make bandages for the various injuries the kids have incurred.

“Hattie’s right,” Avi says, their voice grave as they examine the tree trunk. “We aren’t going to find anywhere without them. Let’s set up camp.”

At the beginning of the summer, most of these twelve-year-old city kids hadn’t even set foot in a cabin before, let alone pitched a tent or made a fire. Now, though, after weeks in the woods, setting up camp is the easiest part of their day. It’s become second nature to the point that Avi and Hattie barely need to assist them any longer. They stand to the side and watch, just in case.

“We’re running low on food,” Hattie murmurs to Avi, making sure to cover her mouth.

Her co-counselor nods. “I know.”

Avi and Hattie had both come to work at the camp because they needed a summer away before college. They needed something different, something stimulating and rewarding. And it had been, for the first week or so, until the counselors started to notice that the once bountiful meals were diminishing in both portion size and quality. After a dinner of celery soup, Hattie had been the one to sneak off to a spot with cell reception, about a mile beyond the campground. She powered on her phone for the first time since moving in, read the news, and when she came back, breathless from running, her face was grim. She took Avi aside to share what she’d learned. The world was rife with disaster—pestilence, plague, drought—and people were calling it an apocalypse. Crops were dying. The only signs inside their camp bubble were the dwindling food supplies and the rapid increase in bugs. The spotted lanternflies had been plaguing the state for a few years now, and it wasn’t uncommon to see them on the campground, but suddenly every tree was covered in them.

It wasn’t long after the celery soup that the kitchen staff, unauthorized by camp management, admitted that the food supplies were dangerously low, and that no more would be coming in. By then, the various camp groups had established both deep loyalties to their counselors and deep suspicions of one another, and the dining hall battle that ensued was fierce and bloody, with children wielding butter knives as the counselors, once friends, wrestled for food. Hattie recovered two full hiking packs of supplies from the closet where she’d hidden them as Avi filled a third bag in the kitchen. They gathered their campers, hoisted the lightest pack onto the tallest camper, and ran.

That was three weeks ago. They don’t know where the other groups are, if they are even still alive, but they try not to dwell on it. Hattie and Avi ignore the kids when they ask questions about the others, and finally they have stopped asking. Only at night, when they take watches, does Hattie allow herself to think about her other friends and their campers. Avi isn’t so sentimental, and the only thought they spare for the others is: what lengths will I go to if they find us?

But watch, and those thoughts, are still hours away, so Hattie and Avi drop their conversation about food rations and watch the campers set up. This is their favorite time of day. They watch as Sophie directs Kieran to set up the tents, keeping her voice calm when the poles slip from his blistered fingers. Ben collects firewood and kindling and passes it to Lola, who crouches near a ring of stones and carefully lays the sticks in a log cabin formation. Mina, Patrick, and Fitz huddle around one of the packs, taking out food and passing it to each other until they have arranged small portions for everyone.

It’s a shame they might have to kill and eat each other to survive. They work so well together.

When the fire is roaring and food has been distributed, everyone sits around the fire in a rough approximation of their former camp dinners. “All right,” Hattie says in what Avi calls her cheerful counselor voice. It’s strained these days, a little less sugar and a lot more sandpaper. “Highs and lows?” This, too, is a remnant of their early summer days, when highs and lows meant talking about rock climbing or going to the pool and not—

“My high was lighting the fire on my first match,” Lani says. “My low was getting stung by a yellowjacket.”

“Hey, you stole mine!” Patrick protests.

“Mine too!” chorus the others.

“We get it,” Avi says, rubbing the welt on his own arm. “We all got stung by yellowjackets.”

“Hattie didn’t.”

“Yes, Fitz, that’s true, but I did walk through poison ivy to avoid the nest. That’s my low, by the way,” Hattie says through a mouthful of granola bar.

Admittedly, they all might have been stung on a regular hike if they hadn’t fled camp, but now there was no nurse to administer Benadryl and ice, no anti-itch cream or extra dessert to appease the wounded. Now, there were only the sleeves of Hattie and Avi’s shirts, and if they were lucky, cool water from a stream.

“Okay,” Avi says. “Did anyone keep a tally today?”

“I did!” Sophie says excitedly, and the rest of them can almost pretend she’s about to share the details of an arts and crafts project, and not the gruesome details of their day. “Ten yellowjackets, still at large. One dead deer. Four fallen trees, stripped of branches and scraped of egg masses. I sort of lost count of the lanternflies, but roughly three hundred, I think. Two dead squirrels, now roasted.” She points to the fire, where Fitz is dutifully turning a spit. “Oh, and I almost forgot. One handful of berries, now in Ben’s stomach.”

All eyes snap to Ben. Hattie is the first to speak. “Ben, when did you find berries?”

Ben is as bright red as the secret berries. “Um, uh, it was right before the yellowjackets. I was going to tell you, I swear. But then we all got stung and I dropped some of them, and we couldn’t go back to the bush, so I thought it was better to not tell than to disappoint everyone.”

“No roast squirrel for Ben.”

“Avi!” Hattie scolds, but Avi’s hard expression doesn’t change.

“It’s only fair.”

Ben’s wide-set eyes well up and he presses his lips together, trying not to cry. Only Lola spares him a pitying look as the rest of them split their meager portion of squirrel meat.

When they are done chewing, Hattie glances up at the sky and says, “All right, the sun is setting. Anyone want to tell a story before bed?” She asks this every night, but no one has told a story in days now. Their energy is waning, their imaginations dulling as each day presents new horrors that make ghost stories feel trite. When no one speaks up, Hattie and Avi tell them it’s bedtime.

The first watch of the night is quiet. Leaning against the tree with the fewest lanternflies, Hattie whittles a stick with her knife to pass the time until Avi relieves her.

Avi appears, a silhouette in the dim moonlight, but relief does not, because about twenty feet behind Avi, in the air, Hattie sees movement. At first, she thinks it is only a shadow, or perhaps an extremely low hanging cloud, but as it follows Avi, she sees that it is a swarm, with hundreds of legs and red wings. Avi must feel it, because their pace quickens and soon they are next to Hattie, staring in terror as the swarm grows and comes closer.

“Flies?” Hattie whispers.

“Something’s wrong with them.”

They’re moving slowly, but closer now. Avi is right. Lanternflies don’t fly or swarm like this; mostly, they hang out on the trees and occasionally open their wings for a quick jump. These ones are hovering, suspended in the air, and Hattie suppresses a scream as she realizes that their wings are jutting out in all directions, their bodies smashed, some missing wings or legs. Avi must notice too, because they pull Hattie down to the ground and begin crawling towards the kids. They’re all sound asleep, and the co-counselors shake shoulders and whisper into ears, urging them to wake up. A bleary-eyed Mina asks, “What’s going on?” but Avi doesn’t answer, so she rolls over to wake Fitz before getting on her hands and knees to follow Avi. Hattie hangs back to take the rear.

A few feet above the ash in the makeshift firepit, the swarm is growing as more crushed insects join its ranks, drawn to their kin as if by a magnetic field. Hattie stops crawling and watches, captivated, as their numbers swell to well over a thousand. They come from all directions, but mostly from the north, the way they’ve traveled.

This is not random.

Hattie is rooted in place, too far back now for Avi to glance back and see her. Finally, she tears her eyes away and places hands and feet on the ground in front of her as quickly as she can. She does not look back to see if the swarm follows, but she can feel that it does.

The rest of the group finds their way to a cave and crawls inside, ducking their heads as they press against the damp walls. Avi counts and is nearly relieved until the realization comes: Hattie is not here. They sit in tense silence for several minutes, listening carefully. Droplets of water fall on Sophie’s head, but she does not flinch. None of them do.

Finally, a hand appears in the cave opening, and Hattie drags herself inside, covered in mud but apparently unharmed. “They’re still coming,” she says in a hushed, desperate voice.

“What are they?” a young voice asks in a whisper. In the dark, Hattie can’t tell who it is.

“The spotted lanternflies. All the ones we killed. And maybe some others.”

“You mean like…zombie bugs?” It’s the kind of question that would have made everyone giggle back at camp, but here, in the cave, after all they have endured, it is not a joke.

“Yeah,” Hattie says, and she sounds defeated. “Zombie bugs.”

“We’re running out of food, aren’t we?” asks another of the children, apparently unfazed by the undead insects.

“Yeah,” Hattie says again.

They cannot see one another’s faces well, but still they scan the circle, imagining expressions and recalling better times.

Mina looks at who she thinks is Sophie and thinks about the time she snuck her an extra cookie at dinner because she couldn’t eat the hamburgers they were served.

Ben wonders if Lola knows that he likes her, if she knows that he only climbed the rock wall so that she wouldn’t be scared.

Lola wonders if Ben knows that she only climbed the rock wall so that he wouldn’t be scared. She wishes she could have given him some of her dinner tonight. He must be so hungry, even more than the rest of them.

Kieran bumps his shoulder against who he hopes is Fitz and plans to tell him tomorrow that he’s thankful for their friendship.

Patrick thinks about the books he left at camp, and how Avi let him borrow their hammock to read them in.

But Avi knows that sentiment will not put food in their stomachs or save their lives. “We have enough for another few days. We’ll stay here until dawn, then get as far as we can. We won’t kill any more flies.”

“There are plenty of squirrels to eat,” Hattie adds.

“But we are going to run out eventually. Then what?” asks one of them, probably Sophie.

Avi looks in Hattie’s direction. If they could see clearly, they’d see the fear and desperation on Hattie’s face. But Avi can’t see Hattie, so Avi imagines her as she was during staff training: confident, bubbly, always sure of herself. That version of Hattie needs no consoling, so Avi only says, “We’ll figure it out. Tomorrow. Get some sleep.”

September 25, 2020 14:35

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Maggie Deese
16:16 Sep 25, 2020

Yikes! I am terrified of any kind of bug, so this story was especially terrifying for me. But like Kristin said, that means you did your job! Wonderfully written and I love the change of style in this from what you usually write. The characters were lovely and extremely intriguing. Well done!


17:40 Sep 25, 2020

Thank you Maggie! I wasn't sure I was going to write a story this week, but I figured it was good to write something in a different genre for once (all my recent stories have kind of blended together, even to me!). This was a fun one to write, and I had to stop myself from making it any longer.


Maggie Deese
17:45 Sep 25, 2020

I felt the same way! I'll be honest...I purposefully shied away from the prompts this week because I didn't think I could write anything good. But you're right--sometimes its good to explore outside your comfort zone!


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Kristin Neubauer
15:58 Sep 25, 2020

Zombie bugs! I love that. This whole story is so entertaining - like a cross between summer camp, Lord of the Flies and the Hunger Games. I also love how you have the counselors trying to maintain the camp structure and traditions amid the new paradigm. You built the suspense so well and your descriptions - fantastic. I was so grossed out by the bugs, which means you sure did your job. Great story!


17:38 Sep 25, 2020

Thanks Kristin! I was a camp counselor for a few summers, so like with many of my stories, I took that experience to the extreme. Most of the people I worked with were great at going with the flow and doing everything possible to keep the kids entertained, safe, and calm, even when they themselves had no clue what they were doing. And as for the bugs, the spotted lanternfly is a real invasive species plaguing Pennsylvania. I squished a lot of them this week, but fortunately none of them came back to haunt me (yet...)


Kristin Neubauer
18:05 Sep 25, 2020

Hah! It's only a matter of time once they get wind of your story! I love hearing about the inspiration and experiences behind your stories....they're already so good and it adds yet another level of delicious enrichment.


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