Eric lifted the wine bottle to his lips and took a long swallow. He’d dispensed with the glass after the first bottle. There was no point in formalities, no point in anything anymore. Pulling the curtains back, he looked out the front window. It was still there, perched on the fence, watching him, as he watched it. It was one of the bigger ones, almost four feet tall. Many of the others had gone dormant, spinning themselves into thick black cocoons that hung heavily from trees, lamp posts, the eaves of houses, anywhere and everywhere that held hanging possibilities.
The world, as they had known it, was over. He imagined there were a few left, like him and Rachel, holed up in their houses still. Every now and then he thought he saw the curtains twitch in the house across the street from them, but he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
Rachel was in Em’s bedroom. Eric could hear the creak of the rocking chair, the soft lilt of Rachel’s voice as she sang “Strawberry Fields”, Em’s favorite bedtime song. Rachel would sit in that room for hours, rocking back and forth, singing that song over and over until at last the silence would tell him she’d finally fallen asleep, and he’d tiptoe in, take the blanket wrapped pillow from his wife’s arms, lift her gaunt body into his arms, and carry her to bed.
He took another drink of the wine. It was a 2006 Stags Leap he’d originally bought as a splurge for their tenth anniversary, but it was unlikely they’d live to see that, so now was as good a time as any to drink it. He kept thinking about that day last year, the beginning of it all. If only they’d stayed inside. If only they’d left, thought where to, he had no idea. If only he’d gotten to Em earlier. If only, if only, if only. He put his face in his hands and wept.
“So, this is where all the forks went?” Eric stood just outside the back slider, squinting into the brightness of the early morning, watching Rachel as she crouched next to a hill of freshly turned dirt. Scattered around her, glinting silver in the sun, the aforementioned forks. And sitting on the ground next to her, a large mason jar filled with wine corks.
“Just the unmatched ones,” Rachel answered, the shade from her large straw hat cast a shadow over her eyes. “I’ve been wanting to get a new set anyway. And maybe new dishes too. You know, the kind real grown-ups have.”
“Is that what we’re calling ourselves now? Grown-ups?”
“Well, we are parents now after all. It doesn’t get any more grown up than that.”
“No, it doesn’t.” Eric’s eyes went to Em, sitting a few feet away, happily scooping dirt with a small plastic shovel onto her bare legs. She looked up at Eric, and beamed.
“Dah! Dah!” Her pudgy arms stretched towards him, and her little legs began to kick frantically. He reached down and pulled her up onto his hip. She was a chunk. Rachel always said that chubby babies were happy babies, and he agreed.
“Birby!” Em squealed, pointing to a butterfly that fluttered into view.
“No, Em. Not a birdie. That’s a butterfly,” said Eric. “Say it with me. Butter. Fly.”
Rachel laughed. “Anything that flies is a birby. We saw a plane go by earlier and she said the same thing.”
“What’s going on here anyway?” Eric nodded to the row of forks protruding from the ground, tines pointing upward like shiny claws reaching towards the sky.
“They’re plant markers. Watch.” Rachel pulled a wine cork out of the mason jar, uncapped a sharpie with her mouth, wrote the word BASIL on the cork, pushed the cork onto the tines of a fork and then pushed the fork handle into the ground.
“Ta-da,” She said, smiling. “I saw it on Pinterest. Now I know what you’re thinking but before you say anything —”
“Shhh,”Eric held up a finger to stop her. “Wait a minute. Do you hear that?”
“Hear what? No, I —”
Rachel cocked her head sideways, listening.
There was a slight buzzing, almost a whirring, like insect wings. Em had stopped digging and was looking around as if she heard it too. Eric looked up. The sky, which only minutes before had been nothing but blue for miles, had darkened. The air felt thick and heavy, as if it held an electric charge. Looking down, he saw the hair on arms standing on end. Em’s bonnet had fallen off, and her hair, thin wisps of strawberry blonde, stood straight up as if he’d just rubbed a balloon on her head.
“Eric, what’s happening?” Rachel was on her feet, her voice tinged with alarm.
Suddenly, a bright flash of white light filled the hazened sky. Eric blinked, thinking he’d imagined it, until seconds later another came, then another, and another. Clutching Em tightly to his side, he grabbed Rachel by the arm, and together they ran to the house, pulling the sliding glass door behind them just as a black hail began to fall from the sky.
But it wasn’t hail. And it wasn’t meteorite debris, as the local news stations had reported. The things that fell from the sky were shiny black, oblong and hard-shelled, approximately two inches wide and three inches long, all the exact same shape and size. Meteorite debris, my ass, Eric said out loud. He stood in his backyard, rake in hand, a green garbage can pulled from the front yard.
“Seeds. From China. That’s what they are.”
Eric looked up to see a shock of gray hair and a wrinkled face bobbing over the top of the side fence. Mrs. Begley, their neighbor.
“My sister in Albuquerque got a package in the mail from China last week,” she continued. “Labelled earrings. Except she didn’t order no earrings. And when she opened the package, guess what was inside. I’ll give you a hint, it wasn’t earrings.”
“Hmmm, let me guess.” Eric played along. “Seeds?”
“Ding-ding-ding. We got ourselves a winner folks.”
“Let’s just say you’re right. These are seeds from China. How do you think they got here? Dropped from invisible drones?”
The old woman’s mouth clamped down into a hard firm line.
“Smartass. You’ll be sorry when you find out I’m right.” Her head disappeared back below the fence line, and he heard her back door slam shut.
Eric looked at the object in his hand. It felt surprisingly light; possibly hollow.
Somehow, they reminded him of Mexican jumping beans. Once, when he was a kid, maybe ten years old, he’d gotten a prize from the quarter machine at the grocery store; a small red box with a sombrero-wearing cartoon bean on the front. Mexican Jumping Beans. They didn’t really jump, but when you held them in your hand, they would twitch back and forth. The novelty wore off in a few days, and forgotten in his nightstand drawer, he found them weeks later, having hatched and turned into moths.
He dropped the black seed to the ground, and gave it a hard stomp with his boot. Nothing happened except a sharp indentation in the bottom of his shoe. He grabbed a loose brick from the flower bed border, and slammed it as hard as he could down onto the seed. The brick broke in half, but the seed remained untouched. Not so much as a scratch.
It’s nothing, he told himself. Meteorite debris. Seeds from China. Mexican jumping beans. But he could not shake the feeling of unease that had crept into his stomach, and he spent the rest of the weekend sweeping and raking as much as he could into the garbage.
Em went from crawling to running, spending little time with the in-between walking stage. “She gets that from me.” Eric said, and when Em would inevitably lose her balance and crash to the ground, Rachel couldn’t resist poking fun. “She get that from you too?”
They bought a small plastic pool for Em to splash around in while Rachel worked in her garden. Eric enjoyed sitting on the back porch and watching them. He called them his “strawberry girls” because they both had the same ginger curls, and freckles.
Em’s newest, favorite thing to do was to take something that she knew wasn’t hers, and run away with it, with either Eric or Rachel giving chase. No sooner had Eric taken off his hat, and set it down on the table next to him then Em would waddle up, grab it mischievously, and run off in the opposite direction. This was his cue, and he jumped up, pretending to run but following at a leisurely pace. He didn’t want to catch her too soon and ruin the fun.
“I wonder what’s going on out there?” Rachel asked. “That’s the third siren I’ve heard in the past hour.”
“This heat makes people crazy.” Eric said, stopping. “On the way home from work there was this lunatic behind me, honking and screaming. He nearly—”
“Dah!” Em demanded his attention, and waved his hat at him. “I’ll tell you about it later.” He said, resuming chase.
As soon as he got close, Em let out a high pitched scream, flung his hat into the bushes, took a sharp and ran in the opposite direction. Eric ran after her, grabbed her up, and planted a loud raspberry on her stomach before setting her back down on the ground.
“I’m going to take a shower and start dinner. Keep an eye on Em.” Rachel said, disappearing into the house.
“Aye aye Captain,” Eric went to retrieve his hat from the bushes.
Reaching under the foliage, he felt something sharp scratch his arm. He lifted the leaves, and saw what appeared to be broken pieces of dark jagged glass. Lucky I found this before Em did, he thought, and reached back in to pull out the pieces. There were three of them, all covered with a green, oily film. He fit them together, like a puzzle, and they formed the shape of a black oblong egg. He’d seen that shape before, though these were much larger than the seeds that had fallen from the sky the previous year, but there was no mistaking it, they were the same. He walked around the opposite site of the bush and looked under and saw more of the jagged black pieces.
“Birby!” yelled Em. “Dah! Birby!”
“Yeah Em, hold on honey.” Eric reached under and pulled the pieces out, setting them to the side.
“Look Dah! Birby!”
“Yes, honey, where’s the birby?” Eric turned and looked. Em was standing near the back porch, her arm outstretched, and something, not a bird and not a butterfly, but something else entirely, was perched on her arm.
What is that? Eric squinted his eyes and walked towards her, the broken black shells that he pulled from under the bush forgotten.
“Em, honey, don’t move.”
What the fuck was that?
“Birby.” Em repeated.
It was bird-like, about six inches long, with small black wings, and six arms —or were those legs? Tentacles? They moved like tentacles. It had a slightly elongated snout, and where its eyes would have been were three glistening green orbs. As Eric neared, it opened its mouth (was that it’s mouth?) and revealed row upon row of sharp, needle-like teeth. It let out a loud, ear-piercing screech. Em screamed then, shaking her arm and the thing clamped its mouth down onto her, the tentacles wrapped tightly around, and it sank its teeth into her flesh.
Eric rushed to her, grabbed the thing, pulled on it. Now both he and Em were screaming. It was clamped down tightly, and he pulled and pulled, until finally it released its grip and came loose. Eric flung it to the ground, and grabbed Em, watching it as he backed away towards the house. Once again, the mouth opened, and it let out a horrible screeching before it flew off into the sky. Looking up after it, Eric saw the sky was black, thick with hundreds of them. Ems’ body stiffened in his arms, and he rushed inside.
Rachel was coming down the stairs just as Eric came in, carrying Em in his arms. How could he explain what had happened? He tried, but Rachel would not listen. She held Em in her arms, yelling over and over for him to call 911, but all of the emergency lines were busy. From outside they heard sirens, the high, ear-piercing screeches of the flying things, intermingled with the real screams of actual people. Em was gone within minutes. The venom was quick, of that Eric was thankful. Rachel would not stop screaming.
Eric jolted awake, his hand still clutching the wine bottle. He lifted it and tilted it to his lips, but nothing was left. Dropping it to the floor, he watched as it rolled and clattered against the others. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been asleep, but all he heard now was silence. Rachel had stopped singing, and she too, must have finally fallen asleep.
But, when he got to Em’s room, Rachel wasn’t there. He panicked, and ran from room to room, calling to her, but not getting any response. She wasn’t anywhere.
Then, looking out the back window he saw her, standing in the middle of the tangled, overgrown garden, barefoot, wearing nothing but her bathrobe, cradling the blanket bundle in her arms, rocking it side to side.
Slowly, silently, he opened the slider, stepped outside, and crept towards her, his eyes darting from the sky to the trees, then back to her.
“Rachel,” he whispered as loudly as he dared. “What are you doing out here, you know you can’t be out here. C’mon honey. Let’s get inside.” He reached his hand out to her.
“Eric!” Rachel said loudly, smiling. “It’s a beautiful day! And you know how Em loves the garden!” Eric cringed, rushing to grab her, when the sudden sound of flapping wings echoed through the air and he tripped, no, not tripped, he was pushed to the ground.
“Rachel, get in the house now!” he screamed, and was surprised to see her actually listen. She turned, still clutching the bundled blanket to her breast, and ran towards the house.
Eric scrambled forward, and suddenly it was on him, it’s needle-like teeth snapping, and a thick green oily ooze dripping from its jaws. Eric twisted underneath until he was on his back, then he pulled his legs up and kicked as hard as he could. He reached around for a rock, or for anything he might be able to use as a weapon, when he felt something sticking up from the ground beneath the bramble. One of Rachel’s plant markers. The cork had disintegrated, but the tines were still sharp and pointy. The thing’s face was inches away from his, and Eric grabbed the fork, lifted it into the air and brought it down hard into the thing’s middle eye. An oily, pungent green liquid sprayed his face. The thing screeched, its tentacles flailing in the air, then it rose up and flew away.
Eric raced towards the house, not bothering to look behind to see if it was following. Slamming the sliding door closed behind him, he grabbed a towel from the counter and wiped the putrid ooze from his face. He heard Rachel, from the bedroom, singing, starting in again on “Strawberry Fields.”
“For the love of God, Rachel,” he screamed. “Can you please sing something else? Anything else?”
She stopped abruptly, and was quiet. There was a sharp, sickening crack, like the sound of a melon splitting, and Rachel gasped. Then her voice, barely audible, began to sing again, but instead of Strawberry Fields, she began to sing Blackbird.
Eric staggered towards the bedroom, stopping abruptly as he felt his stomach lurch and heave. The burn of wine and bile rose in his throat, and he spewed it out of his mouth and onto the carpet. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve, then continued down the hallway.
Standing in the doorway, he saw Rachel sitting in the rocking chair, moving forward and back, forward and back, that familiar bundle in her arms. Only this time, it wasn’t a pillow wrapped in a baby blanket. It had a black, oily face, with three green globules for eyes and he could see the tentacles squirming beneath the blanket.
And its mouth, that gaping maw of razor sharp teeth, opened wide and screeched.