a short story by Matthew Tansek
The storm rose up from the landscape like some dreaded palisade and stretched in both directions as far as Wendy could see. Had she known that the storm was going to be so bad she might have opted not to make the drive, but as it was she had been speeding along for over an hour and wasn’t about to turn back now. Besides, a harrowing drive through a storm seemed preferable to another moment listening to her father preach from atop his favorite soapbox. She loved her father but, since moving out, her tolerance for that kind of thing had waned.
Taking a sip from the unsweetened iced tea beside her she narrowed her gaze on the approaching wall of clouds, considering her adversary. Something about the size of the clouds, especially such threatening ones, seemed surreal. It was as if she were heading into the violet landscape of some alien mountain range.
Wendy steeled herself against the maelstrom to come, checking the gauges on the dash and switching on her headlights in preparation. She felt like some sort of ancient gladiator preparing to step into the Coliseum; confident that she could handle anything that the storm threw at her.
The thundering mass boomed its challenge and peeled itself up from the horizon as her little car plunged fearlessly into its center. Immediately the rain began roaring hammer blows against the roof and hood, rendering Wendy almost blind in the wash of rippling water. Thrust and parry, Wendy thought switching her wipers to high. You’re going to have to do better than that. Above, a flickering web of lightning stretched across the bulging clouds and seemed for a moment to look like great fishing nets laden with squirming cargo. God it is hard to see, she thought swerving back into her lane as a pair of headlights appeared ahead of her. As they approached, she could see that they belonged to a mangled Honda Civic moving at dangerously fast speeds. Its horn called out as it raced by, the Doppler shift pulling it into a baritone wail as it did so. Idiot! You had to be nuts to go that fast in this weather.
A few miles further and the rain somehow worsened, falling in near opaque sheets that rendered the overtaxed windshield wipers nearly useless and forced Wendy’s speed to a crawl. So much spray was coming up from the road that it seemed more like piloting a boat rather than a car at times. She frowned at the continued no-signal status of her phone, which sat uselessly in the passenger seat beside her displaying a blank map. Wasn’t the worst supposed to be under the front edge of the storm? The fact that the weather hadn’t broken yet made her uneasy, and a creeping sensation of fear had started to wedge itself into the bulwark of her consciousness.
An instant of nerve-fraying confusion followed as something heavy crashed upon the hood of the car. Wendy let out a shriek and stared out through the bleary windshield at the cantaloupe sized crater just in front of the passenger seat. What the hell was that!? Hail? It seemed too dark in color to be hail.
Another crash and the shattering of the rear window sent Wendy into a panic. Her eyes, torn between looking behind her and keeping on the road, had caught a glimpse of something in the rear view mirror. In that fraction of a second she got a look at the object, and it certainly wasn’t hail. It was dark and smooth at the bottom with a grouping of spindly legs trailing behind it like the tail of a comet. Was it raining horseshoe crabs? She remembered footage she had seen online of a Australian water spout depositing creatures of all sorts on the roads and houses far inland. But her gut wasn’t accepting the straws her mind was grasping at.
Straining her eyes up ahead she spotted an overpass, with another set of headlights parked beneath it in the oncoming shoulder. Thank goodness, she thought as she pulled under the dark relief that the overpass afforded. Wendy needed a moment. Leaving the car running, she threw open her door and was hit by how cold and sour the air was outside. At the start of her journey the temperature was somewhere in the low 80’s, typical for August, but now the winds made it feel like half that. Wendy scanned the landscape in both directions hoping to see evidence of the things that had fallen from the sky onto her car. In one direction she could see some dark shapes on the ground out in the distance and in the other – My god, was that a person? Out in the storm she could see the clear outline of someone coming in her direction. Why would anyone be out in a storm like this?
Wendy turned to the other car pulled over in the underpass, a white old model Grand Marquis. The car was running but the windows were too steamed up to see anything through them. Hadn’t the driver seen me pull over and get out of the car? She knocked on the glass but the car just hummed there unresponsive. Looking back out towards the figure in the storm, it seemed no closer to her than before. Were they waving? A deafening peal of thunder shook through her as she reached down and wrenched open the door to the Grand Marquis. The familiar sour smell billowed out at her and a body of a person, it might have been a man, lay in the passenger seat. However, it wasn’t the body that shot a bolt of terror through her, but the two black shelled things that clung to the body’s chest and shoulder, picking strips of flesh away from the face the way a crab might feed at the edge of receding tide.
Wendy stumbled backward casting a glance back at the figure out in the storm. Why was the person still waving? No, not waving…pointing. Up. Her gaze now rose to the underside of the iron ribbed overpass. She had spent enough time in the gloom to see well now, and what she saw gripped and twisted at her insides. Shoulder to shoulder, like a great mass of cave crickets, danced hundreds more glistening black shells.
Each one scrabbled for a spot closer above her, with great ropey antennae and pincer-tipped arms flailing at the air just above her head. Wendy’s legs liquified. Rather than attempting to rise however, she frantically kicked and pulled backward toward her car immediately jumping in as soon as she reached it. Unfortunately the noise of her car door slamming shut seemed to trigger something in the things above her as suddenly they all began to detach from beneath the overpass and collide with reverberating thuds onto her car and the ground around it. Immediately the swarm acted against the car as countless little sharp pincers chewed against the glass and metal of the vehicle.
Wendy pushed her accelerator to the floor. With its shocks creaking in protest her car bounded over the domed exoskeletons and rocketed out into the blinding rain once more. Chattering little claws had rendered her wipers useless now and they jittered and bucked against the glass granting only fleeting moments of clarity. Wendy swerved, accelerated, and braked wildly, relieved to see the spiked feet of the animals floundering in their inability to hold firmly to the exterior of the vehicle.
Suddenly she felt a stroke on the back of her neck, rough like a cat’s tongue. The rearview mirror reflected a writhing antennae of the creature as it forced its way through the hole in the back window. Wendy braked hard and fumbled at the door latch determined to escape. She prepared to dive out, then stopped. The creature struggled pitifully for a moment then to her amazement was pulled back through the opening in which it had entered. Wendy blinked dumbly for a moment at the dribbling hole in her back window, only dimly aware of the blurred silhouette moving around to the passenger side of the car. The figure that had been waving! Wendy unlocked the doors and watched as a woman, dark-skinned and bleeding from her arm, clambered into the seat.
“Drive!” the woman shouted, but Wendy was already accelerating.