It’s late. Or early, depending on whether you’ve slept or not. Zander feels like he hasn’t slept at all. Of course, that’s an exaggeration. He’s slept at least 7 hours, fell into REM multiple times, and now lies in bed semi-conscious.
His alarm will go off soon and he’ll have to get to work.
This could be the start to a long day.
But his stomach churns. He wants to pass out, but he had a dream about a donut mansion and now his mind runs in circles imagining creeping down to the kitchen to get a taste. A taste of those moist, sugary, cream-filled circles he’s been trying so hard to resist since Val brought them home.
He’s in the kitchen now. The smell of fried dough fills his nostrils as he opens the cardboard box. There are four left. Perfect. He can eat one and save the rest for Val and the kids.
But he could.
Donut in hand, he walks over to a large panoramic window in the dining room. The sun implies itself just under the horizon. It’s saying, “How dare you wake up before me!”
Zander bites the donut in contempt. He doesn’t want the rotation of the earth controlling when he can or cannot eat a donut.
The sweetness is almost too much for him to handle this early in the morning. But he doesn’t care. He bites down again with a snarl, letting the airy dough and glaze melt on his tongue before swallowing.
He sighs and chews. Sighs and chews.
He stares out at his kingdom. Two-tiered. Green-grassed. Perfection. His kids’ playset stands on the upper tier like a sentinel guarding over the land.
Zander is proud. One day, when his kids graduate high school, get married, have their own children, he will not feel as proud as he does about his lawn. He’s spent endless time in the backyard, fighting against weeds, bagging grass clippings, and mixing his sweat into fertilizer.
And now, he can gaze upon his work with wonder.
A tear forms. Drops onto the kitchen floor. He wipes it with his holey sock and looks back up.
That’s when he sees it. The thing.
It’s a tiny shadow running along the rock wall in between the first and second tiers, barely visible in the rising sun. But Zander sees everything!
He drops the donut. No longer hungry.
“No,” he whispers. “No, no, no.”
Sprinting to the back door, he shoves it open, and runs to the spot of the devil.
But the devil has vanished. Zander spins around, searching his sacred turf.
Zander drops to his knees and searches the grass for any trace of the beast. He runs his shaking hands along the blades of grass, like a father counting fingers and toes on a newborn child.
What is that? His fingers inspect more closely.
A bald spot? Zander gasps in astonishment. There were no bald spots yesterday.
Zander pokes at the spot. He squats down closer and sees a chasm. A tiny hole, like an open mouth where once there was solid ground.
“No, no, no, no, no!”
Quickly, Zander rushes to his garage and grabs a bag of topsoil and a small garden shovel. He fills the hole with the mixture of dirt and pounds it with the flat end of the spade until the ground is solid.
Stepping back, he trembles. The blemish on his lawn is like a dark spot on his soul. And his work isn’t done yet.
Back inside the house, he searches the internet for pest control. Reads review after review. He must find the best no matter the cost.
That’s the one. He sets an appointment, then takes a shower in an attempt to wash away the evil that has penetrated his kingdom.
It doesn’t work. He tells Val when she wakes up. She comforts, but it doesn’t help. His sweet children’s smiles can’t replace the vision of the tiny devil. Even his coworkers, who are basically unaware of anything not involving a screen, can tell he is distraught. He’s weighed down by the events of the morning, and he only knows one way to make it better.
He must face the demon head on. He must destroy it before it destroys his kingdom.
“Yep, you got voles.”
“Plural?” Zander asks.
Mike, the supposedly best pest control guy around, just stares.
“Like more than one," Zander explains.
Mike chuckles. “When there’s one, there’s always others. Nasty thangs.”
Zander feels his nerves struggling to let loose.
Mike continues to talk, “One time I helped this couple with their own infestation. Their yard was riddled with the critters. Holes everywhere. Dead grass. By the time I was done, it was like a warzone. Carcasses everywhere. Rotted bodies piled high. The things even started eating each other. And the smell? It burned my nose hairs straight off.”
The image splays across Zander’s mind, but with his own lawn. He shutters.
“You were able to end the infestation?”
Mike shrugs and looks down. “Not exactly.”
“What does that mean?"
“Well, the thang is, voles are tricky creatures.”
“Did you or did you not get rid of the voles?” Zander demands.
Mike blinks slowly. Then again. Shame written all over his face. “I did not. But I think I would’ve if they hadn’t given up and moved.”
Mike nods. “Yeah, it got to be too much. They had a baby, and, well, they got scared.”
“Well thanks for sharing your failures. Good to know I’m in good hands.”
“Oh, you’re in the best hands. I guarantee that. That was just the worst case I’ve seen.” Mike laughs nervously. “Probably not the best story to tell, huh?”
Zander’s anger boils inside him. If this guy didn’t have the best reviews, Zander would dismiss him right away. But he tempers his emotions and let’s Mike get to work.
Mike sets poison stations all along the rock wall. He even pulls out this high-pitch sound emitter that somehow detracts pests.
Then Mike’s gone and Zander is left in his yard with a skeptical mind and a few hundred less in his bank account.
He walks the perimeter. Inspecting every inch of his oasis. The hole is still plugged up, but it’s a reminder that Zander must stay vigilant.
Back inside, he plays with his kids, eats dinner with Val, watches a show, and has one eye on the lawn at all times.
That is, until it’s time to put the kids to sleep.
He’s upstairs, reading bedtime stories.
Gives the kids goodnight kisses.
Grabs supplies from the bathroom. Pockets them and runs downstairs for a final inspection before bed. He’s got to be prepared for whatever he may find.
He makes it to the back door.
Squints, stares, and screams!
“Not tonight,” he mutters through gritted teeth.
Two devils run along the grass in the diminishing sunlight. Zander loses it.
He throws the door open, banging it against the frame, and shouts.
No real words come out, just gibberish. The kind of gibberish you’d expect a dictator to spew at his people. But Zander is no dictator. He’s a king, and this is his kingdom. He must protect it.
The voles scurry away from Zander’s stomping feet and demented yelps.
“Uggga goo, frow moooooo! Owwwwwwwwwwwooooooo!!!”
They flee like their lives depend on it. Because they do.
Zander sees where they’re headed. Right next to his makeshift patchwork is a new hole and a faint line of dead grass. A new disturbance.
Every vessel in Zander’s body pumps blood at a disturbing and unbelievable rate. His body burns with fury.
He dashes faster and leaps! High into the air.
As though time has slowed, Zander is able to watch the voles look back at him. Their tiny mouths agape. Their eyes riddled with fear. They know they’ve made a mistake.
They have caused their own demise.
Zander’s body plops on the ground. A sickening crunch beneath his chest.
Panting. Tears dripping. Zander pulls himself up onto his elbows. The small bodies, slick with blood, stick to his shirt.
Standing, he grabs the hem and bounces the bodies to the ground. They fall and land next to the new hole. He yanks his soiled shirt off with a shutter. Throwing it down, it lands on top of the monsters.
Shirtless and exhausted, he stares down, picturing what lies beneath the thin layer of cotton.
He slowly comes back to himself and shivers. A chill has fallen on his land.
But he does not regret his actions. It was a calculated, if somewhat overdramatic, use of force to show any remaining voles whose kingdom this really is.
The shirt shifts.
Zander jumps back.
It shifts again, like the ground beneath it is alive. It begins shrinking, disappearing. Falling underground.
Zander reacts as though this shirt is his most prized possession. Even though he bought it on clearance at Target for like four bucks. He grabs it with two hands and tugs with all he has. His muscles ache. They feel like they may rip.
His effort is in vain. The $4 graphic tee continues to slide farther and farther into the ground. Through the vole hole.
But it isn’t. Not anymore. The shirt is gone.
The bodies of the voles are gone too.
Zane collapses onto the grass. His eyes staring at the first stars appearing in the night sky. And he shrieks.
When his lungs give out, he lies there, motionless. Angry, frustrated. And a bit embarrassed.
He pulls himself up to a sitting position and stares into the middle distance, not looking at anything, until he notices movement. In front of him. To the left. The right. Up on the second tier. And hears tiny shrieks all around. Like miniature wolves howling in the night.
The movement shutters like waves, slowly getting closer to shore.
Zander’s the shore. And the voles are closing in.
His sweaty hands fumble into his pants pocket and pull out the supplies. An electric green lighter from the gas station and a bottle of Val’s good hairspray. He makes a mental note to buy her a new bottle before she notices.
He flicks his thumb and the little orange and red flame dances in front of his angry eyes. Holding it out in front of him like the curved edge of a bow, he pulls the arrow from its quiver. Smashing the top, hairspray streams through the air toward the flame.
An explosion of chemical fire shoots out toward the wave. They try to retreat, but the flame ignites the devil closest to Zander. It yelps and runs back to its army for safety, knocking into another vole. That vole, now a second ball of light, starts the process again. And again. And again.
Zander continues to spray the heat into the group. More and more creatures catch. The fire spreads through their ranks. The smell of burning fur fills the air. They run in all directions. Tiny fireballs hitting each other and multiplying.
Burning vole pinball.
The sky is falling.
And to Zander’s horror, his beautiful lawn cries in pain (not literally, that would be weird). Black smoke rises from her surface, forcing him to cough. With tears in his eyes, obviously from ash in the air, he drops his weapons and runs for the water hose. But it’s too late. The smoke gives way to flame. The flame spreads.
The voles have slowed down. Some have stopped all together. Others are fighting to dig holes in the soil, trying to escape. But they know they’ve lost.
Through clouded vision, Zander smiles. It wasn’t all in vain.
Crash! His kids’ playset burns and crumbles to the ground.
His smile fades.
“Honey, we have to get out of here!” Val’s voice screams from behind him.
He scans the yard. His kingdom.
It has fallen.
He runs to the back door, tears streaming down his ashen face. In the distance, sirens blare. The cavalry has come to salvage what’s left of the kingdom.
He shuts the door, staring at his sanctuary one last time.
In the distance, beyond the blaze, a piece of cloth blows against the wind. Hanging from a low branch. A piece of $4 cloth. And beneath it, an army of tiny, black silhouettes stare at it. They turn in unison and Zander swears they’re smiling.
He closes his eyes.
The coup has been successful.
The kingdom belongs to them now.