A Short Story by Christian Cantrell
“There’s certainly no shortage of brutality and deception among arthropods,” Laurel said, “but they’re predictable. Everything they do is about survival. They’re not vindictive or jealous or greedy. They don’t get power hungry. They take what they need, and that’s it. In some ways, they have more dignity and integrity than we do.”
Someone had dragged splintered ammunition crates and blue plastic barrels of thickened flamethrower petrol out onto the beach just above the range of high tide. The men sat on them in the mornings to smoke and talk and drink strong coffee while watching the calico sunrises above the distant wooded island on the horizon.
But it was afternoon now and Laurel sat alone against a rough pine plank stamped “7.62MM” in a big bold font. She watched a column of smoke and ash rise from the north side of the island and merge with the low grey clouds above the steely blue Atlantic. The eight days she spent alone on that island had sharpened her senses and she could feel footsteps grinding in the sand behind her. She knew without looking that it was Jeremy Barrett since none of the other men were capable of breaching military formality enough to even initiate a conversation, much less settle down on the sand and share a crate with her on the beach.
In the short time Laurel had been on the makeshift base, she and Barrett had already established the kind of relationship that allowed them to sit together in silence — something Laurel had never experienced before, and something she suspected was rare among any two people given all the personalities and idiosyncrasies and neuroses in the world. There was no need for pleasantries or small talk or even flirting.
They both looked out over the ocean at the green wooded island, but it was the incongruous column of smoke that held their attention. Instead of the soft bluish billow of wood smoke, it had the dark gritty caustic quality of something that wasn’t meant to burn.
Barrett looked over at Laurel, then back out at the island.
“How’s the arm?”
Laurel ran her fingers over the soft gauze dressing that covered her arm from wrist to elbow. “Itchy. I can’t wait to get the stitches out.”
“You’ll have quite a story to go along with that scar.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ll have to make something up that’s more believable. Something like a shark attack or a skydiving accident.”
Barrett smiled. “Listen, I apologize for the phone situation. We can’t allow any civilian wireless communication yet, but we’ll have the secure hard lines in place tomorrow.”
“It’s ok. No one to call, anyway.”
“You know you don’t have to stay here, right? I can take you anywhere you want to go.”
Laurel shook her head. “I don’t think I’m ready to leave yet. Honestly, I don’t even know where I’d go.”
“Well, you’re welcome to stay as long as you want,” Barrett told her, “at least while I’m in charge.”
Laurel wanted to lean toward the man beside her — to rest her temple against the course patch stitched to the shoulder of his fatigues — but she closed her eyes and kept herself still and just breathed in the salty smoky air coming off the water. “Thank you.”
Her dark hair blew across her face, but she let it go. They sat in silence for several minutes before Barrett spoke again.
“How long has the island been a nature preserve?”
“Almost thirteen years,” Laurel said. “It was purchased by a company called BGR as what we call a ‘PR diversion’.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means their main business is something the general public wouldn’t approve of so they occasionally set up a wildlife refuge, or build an orphanage, or dig a well somewhere to distract people from what they really do.”
“Which is what?”
“Who knows? As long as they left us alone, we never cared.”
“What was it before it was a wildlife refuge?”
“Privately owned. A race car tycoon bought it and stocked it with all kinds of game for him and his friends to shoot. Before that, it was owned by the federal government, and before that, it was one of the main hubs of the Atlantic slave trade.”
“That island was used for slave trading?”
“That’s how it got its name,” Laurel said. “Anansi is the name of the classic trickster in West African folklore. The slaves called it Anansi Island after realizing they’d been tricked by their own people and sold into slavery. Of course, the name is even more appropriate now.”
“Why? What does it mean?”
Laurel turned her head and looked at Barrett. She gathered her hair and pinned it back behind her ear. “Nobody told you what it means?”
She laughed uneasily. “Anansi usually appeared as a man in stories, but he was actually a spider. The literal name of that place is Spider Island.”
The last civilians to take the Croatan Ferry to Anansi Island were three classes of forth grade students from Pollocksville Elementary. Every year in early May, the Anansi Island State Park sponsored “Spider Night” in an attempt to instill some small appreciation of the miracles of nature in generations raised by iPhones, video games, and the internet. The students rotated between three stations: dinner (hot dogs, tubes of tofu, and warm wilted fruit salad served in the picnic area), Spider School (a melodramatic and sensational presentation on lycosidae, or wolf spiders), and the Spider Hunt (a competition to see which team could spot the most wolf spiders by the reflection of flashlight beams off their bulbous black eyes).
Laurel taught Spider School. The entire project had been her idea four years ago, and the only way she could get approval was by agreeing to do the work nobody else wanted to do which essentially amounted to anything that required interacting directly with the kids. Laurel discovered in her first few weeks on the island that her colleagues’ interest in the life sciences did not extend to the offspring of their own species.
She sat on the hearth of the old disused stone fireplace in the nature center with the last of the three classes planted cross-legged in a semi-circle in front of her, fidgeting and jostling and overstimulated by their unfamiliar surroundings. A sealed mason jar with a brown and black, inch-long arachnid propped against the side was being gingerly passed among pairs of small apprehensive hands.
“Oh-kay,” Laurel said with the exaggerated enthusiasm reserved for the young, “let’s see how much you guys already know. How many legs do wolf spiders have?”
The class responded with enthusiasm, but with an undertone of impatience at being asked such an inane question. After all, she wasn’t dealing with first graders here. “Eight!”
“Good. That was an easy one. How about eyes?”
“That’s right. Wolf spiders have eight eyes arranged in three rows.” She held up a laminated photograph of a round, hairy head. The top and bottom rows of eyes looked like little black licorice clippings, but the two eyes in the middle were like wide shimmering drops of oil. The spider’s powerful and overdeveloped mouthparts protruded absurdly like walrus tusks. “Wolf spiders have very good vision for hunting, and they can see much better in the dark than we can. In fact, that’s how we’re going to find them. They have these little layers of tissue at the back of their eyes called the tapetum lucidum which reflect light back through their retinas and lets their eyes gather more light than our eyes can. But it also creates something called eyeshine which means they’re easy to find in the dark.” Laurel paused to gauge the level of interest in her audience and decided to take a new direction. “OK, who can tell me how wolf spiders hunt? Do they catch their prey in webs?”
There was disagreement among the children. Most assumed that they did. Laurel picked out one of the dissenters and addressed her directly.
“That’s right, they don’t use webs to catch their prey. Wolf spiders got their name because they hunt more like wolves. They chase their prey — ” (she demonstrated with curled fingers) “ — crush it with their huge, powerful jaws, and inject it with venom and digestive enzymes.”
Many of the kids reacted with disgust at the vision Laurel had evoked, but she had their attention. She tried to maintain the momentum.
“Now, how many spiders do you think there are on this island?”
The children’s estimates ranged from a hundred to a million.
“We think there are probably around four million spiders on Anansi Island.”
Some of the kids were in disbelief while others either weren’t especially impressed, or weren’t capable of processing such a figure.
“So do you think spiders are good or bad?”
Most agreed that they were good.
“That’s right. Spiders are very helpful to the ecosystems they live in. Without spiders, we would be completely overrun by insects. In fact, the weight of all the insects consumed by all the spiders in the world every year is greater than the combined weight of the entire human population. That’s a pretty big appetite, isn’t it? Do any of you eat that much?”
Some of the boys claimed that they did, and a few even looked the part. Most of the children absently pondered the connection between the amount that spiders eat and human beings.
“So are you guys ready to go find some spiders?”
They were. But as they jumped to their feet, Laurel stopped them.
“Hold on, everyone. Let’s make sure everyone knows the rules first. Before we go outside, we’re going to break up into groups of four. Every group will be led by a parent or teacher who will be in charge of the flashlights and the counters. Each of you will get — ”
Laurel stopped at the sight of a park ranger standing in the back of the room trying to get her attention by frantically waving his hand in front of his throat.
“Class, I need you to sit back down for a minute while I go talk to the ranger.”
The kids begrudgingly collapsed back down on the hard carpet while Laurel picked a path through them to the back of the room. She thought she knew all the rangers on the island, and even everyone from Croatan and Hofmann Parks, but she didn’t recognize the man in the wide brimmed hat and short-sleeved button-down.
“What’s going on?”
“We’re canceling the rest of the evening,” the ranger told Laurel. “Someone’s lost.”
“Lost? One of the kids? What happened?”
“We don’t know. All we know is that there’s a little girl missing.”
“How can someone be missing? Wasn’t she with someone?”
“We don’t know the details yet, but we’re not taking any chances. We need to get these kids loaded onto the buses and get them back down to the dock. We’ve already radioed the ferry, and it’s on its way.”
“Do you think something happened to her? She’s probably just mixed in with another group.”
“Like I said,” the man told her, “we’re not taking any chances.”
Laurel helped herd the kids into lines which fed into the two old school buses they kept on the island for shuttling visitors around the park. The children picked up on the adults’ anxiety, and most withdrew into somber and stupefied moods. It took two trips to get everyone down to the dock at which point Laurel and the rest of park staff distributed themselves among search parties.
The parents of the little girl were kept at the ferry launch on the mainland. They were told to bring unwashed clothing of their daughter’s for the canine unit. Police boats brought the dogs and additional officers from New Bern and Swansboro, and one of the parents — a First Lieutenant from Camp Lejeune — promised additional vehicles and men if needed. A chopper was fueled and ready to go at first light, but as the sun came up, it was told to stand down.
Laurel was with the party that found the body in the early morning mist. It wasn’t far from the nature center, and in the light, it was hard to imagine how so many people had missed it. The child was lying facedown just off the path, and the little body was white and cold and stiff. Her shirt had rust colored stains on the back, and a trooper squatted down and slowly pulled it up. The wounds beneath were clean and decisive: two black holes in the pale skin just above the kidney. The body was partially covered in leaf litter, and there were bare patches of ground around her feet and dirty fingers where she had briefly dug for traction.
The sun set unceremoniously behind them, the colors muted by the low cloud cover and haze from the fires on the island. Barrett looked down and illuminated the face of his watch.
“It’s getting late. We should get inside.”
He climbed to his feet and offered Laurel his hand. She smiled as he pulled her up and toward him. They brushed themselves off in the breeze and started back to the camp.
“You don’t have dinner plans, do you?” he said.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to check my calendar.”
“Well, if you’re free, I have a surprise for you.”
They passed the mess tent and Barrett led her to one of the administrative trailers. He opened the door for her and stepped back. Laurel smelled garlic in the cool air conditioned breeze coming from inside.
“I hope you like Italian.”
“This doesn’t smell like heated rations or MREs.”
“I figured since you’re not quite ready to go back out into the world yet, I’d bring some of the outside world to you.”
Most of Barrett’s desk had been cleared to make room for several covered aluminum dishes, two paper plates, plastic cups, and a bottle of red wine. A bluish LED lantern glowed on its lowest setting in the middle of the desk.
“I couldn’t find any candles, so I had to improvise.”
“This is incredible,” Laurel said. She looked at him with eyes that shone in the dim blue light. The TV on the other side of the room was on, but muted. Laurel glanced back at it.
“I’m sorry, I have to keep an eye on the news.” He pulled out a plastic office chair for her, and she sat down. “Don’t take it personally.”
“At least it’s not a football game.” She watched Barrett sit down across from her and reach for the wine. “What’s the media saying, anyway?”
“Nothing new. The coroner is still insisting that the little girl died from an undetected heart abnormality, and any injuries were sustained after her death, probably as a result of scavengers.”
“Unbelievable,” Laurel said. She was shaking her head. “Who’s going to tell the real story of what happened out there?”
“We are,” Barrett said. He was using a multi-purpose tool to uncork the wine. “That’s what we’re here for. As soon as we figure what the hell happened, we’re going to make sure the world knows.”
“What if nobody believes us?”
“We’ll have proof.” He filled a plastic cup halfway with wine and offered it across the desk. “That’s why we’re keeping quiet for now. No one’s going to believe us at this point, but by the time we’re ready to take this public, we’ll have all the evidence we need.”
Laurel nodded. “I want to help,” she said.
Barrett filled his own cup. “Good. But I don’t want to rush you. We can take this at whatever pace you’re comfortable with. You don’t have to tell me anything until you’re ready.”
“It’s ok,” Laurel said. She tasted her wine. “I’m ready now.”
Barrett took a long sip from his cup, then reached for a covered dish. “In that case, let’s start with the first time you saw one of those things.”
According to the dispatches, the evacuation was purely precautionary. It was determined to everyone’s satisfaction that the little girl’s death was caused by an undiagnosed congenital heart condition called aortic stenosis, but there were still some questions as to what had happened to her body postmortem. So far, animal control officers and wildlife biologists were in agreement that the marks on her back were simply exploratory bites from a nocturnal scavenger who turned out not to have a taste for human flesh. But in the interests of caution, both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and the National Park Services, recommended that Anansi Island be closed until further notice. If it were possible to locate whatever had bitten the little girl, the safest thing to do would be to euthanize it.
Laurel had her radio turned off that morning, and by the time she heard the news, she only had forty-five minutes to get down to the dock. Nobody knew how long the island would be inaccessible, so Laurel told her supervisor that she would not leave until all the animals in her care had been fed. She was told to do whatever she had to do, but under no circumstances was she to miss that last ferry.
She usually fed the black rat snakes, king snakes, and corn snakes in the nature center individually, watching to make sure each one ate before moving on to the next. Trapping an aggressive and frightened rodent in a cage with a snake that is fasting before a shed or because she’s carrying eggs can result in the rat inflicting severe and sometimes even fatal bites on the snake. Laurel would have liked to use pre-killed prey, but most of the snakes in the center were wild-caught and would not eat anything they didn’t hunt and kill themselves, so she dropped one small live mouse into each cage and hoped for the best.
The fish were already overfed by visitors, so she skipped the terraced rows of aquariums. The rest of the reptiles and amphibians were given several dozen adult crickets or mealworms coated in vitamin supplement powder along with fresh water. She misted the cages of the animals requiring higher levels of humidity, then covered the mesh tops with sheets of plastic wrap to keep as much of the moisture in as possible. After double-checking heat lamp timers, she made a circuit around the entire center, poking her finger into each potted plant and moistening soil with an aluminum watering can wherever it came up dry.
All that was left was Stephanie.
Stephanie was a red-tailed hawk that had been found on the mainland with a broken wing caused by a collision with a power line. The rehabilitation aviaries at Croatan National Forest were full, so Anansi was asked to take her. Laurel’s aviaries were half a mile away from the nature center — far back from the trails in order to keep the birds from becoming too accustomed to people — so the only way to reach them was to walk straight back through the woods.
Laurel packed several mice in her leather game pouch and left through the back exit. She checked her watch and saw that she had thirty minutes before the ferry pulled away. After feeding Stephanie and giving her fresh water, she still needed to get back to her loft and pack a bag for herself. If she took her bike on the trails rather than using the electric cart on the roads, she could still reach the dock in plenty of time. She would radio the ferry building before she left to let them know she was on her way.
Her attention was divided between getting her hand into the thick cowhide glove she kept in her game bag and picking a path through the dense trees. She paused to find the old wooden deer blind she used as a landmark to indicate when to veer south when she was startled by movement on a branch beside her. Her eyes struggled to separate the well camouflaged disturbance from its background, and when she finally made sense of it, she was simultaneously fascinated and horrified by the size of the praying mantis. At close to eight inches long from bulging green eyes to the tip of its folded wings, it was one of the largest insects Laurel had ever seen.
It was easily coaxed onto her gloved hand, and then it moved hesitantly up her arm, swaying from side to side in order to help it distinguish nearby objects from objects further away. It’s two long whip-like antennae individually explored the air in front of Laurel’s face.
And then the mantis was gone, locked in the spiky vice of another mantis hanging upside down in the same tree Laurel had just reached for. It took Laurel a moment to grasp that the second mantis was several times larger than its prey. The smaller insect had already been torn apart, but it continued to twitch as it was cannibalized, the mandibles of the huge hunter deftly separating the soft innards from the exoskeleton. Laurel could feel warm blood running down her arm, and she could hear it splatter on the leaves by her feet as it dripped from her elbow.
Her eyes gradually separated the dozens of other mantises from the branches and leaves around her, several of which were easily as long as she was tall. The blood on her arm turned cold and thickened and the drops had slowed by the time she was able to move again. As she began to take a step back, the black pupils in the melon-sized eyes above her shifted and regarded her with a perception and intelligence that caught Laurel’s breath. It dropped the empty husk of the juvenile mantis, lifted its arms, and its massive body began to sway.
Laurel had barely retreated beyond what she judged was the insect’s range when she heard the horn signaling the last ferry’s departure.
“I have a bad habit,” Barrett said. The walkway between the administrative trailers and the living quarters was enclosed by an archway of heavy chain-link. The UV filters over the lamps above them made the artificial light soft and pink. Barrett had removed a long leather wallet from the pocket of his cargo pants and unzipped it into a cigar smoking kit. “Do you mind?”
“Are you kidding?” Laurel said. The bottle of wine was in her hand, swinging against her leg as she walked. It was partially re-corked and three-quarters empty. “My father used to smoke a cigar every night after work. I love the smell.”
“Really?” He used a guillotine-style cutter to clip off an end and let it fall to the oyster-shell path. “Most women find it offensive.”
“I guess you’re with the right girl,” Laurel said.
Barrett offered her the opened case. “Care for one yourself?”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” Laurel said. “I’ll just enjoy yours second-hand.”
They stopped walking while he applied a small butane torch to the foot of his cigar and rotated it as he sucked. “The smoke will keep the bugs away,” he said between draws.
“I could have used a few of those last week,” Laurel said.
Their pace slowed while Barrett smoked. He blew sweet thick clouds ahead of them which hung in the humid air. They couldn’t see the island in the dark, but they could hear the rhythmic cacophony emanating from its canopy of trees.
“Do you mind if I ask you something personal?” Barrett said. “Something not related to all this?”
Laurel was intrigued. “You may.”
Barrett wrapped an index finger around the cigar and took it away from his face. “How did you end up out there? Originally, I mean. Wasn’t it lonely? Didn’t you feel isolated?”
Laurel smiled as she thought about how to answer. “That was sort of the point.”
“I see,” Barrett said. He waited for her to continue.
“I got engaged in my last year of graduate school, but it didn’t exactly work out.”
“What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“He was a musician,” Laurel said, “and let’s just say he got lonely on the road.”
Laurel could see Barrett nodding deeply, his cigar slowly bobbing. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“So was I,” Laurel said. “Anyway, he ended up moving in with some painter in New York, and I took the most remote and isolated job I could find. I’m pretty sure Anansi is the last place on earth you can’t get a cell phone signal.”
“Do you think you’ll ever go back?”
She looked down at the cork and tried to force it further down into the bottle with her thumb. “No. It was time for a change, anyway. If there’s anything good to come out of all this, it’s that I needed something to give me a push. It was time for me to stop hiding.”
They were in front of Laurel’s trailer. The sides were plated with thick sheets of metal armor, and there were steel mesh panels welded over the windows.
“That’s not the only good thing,” Barrett said.
Laurel prompted him with an inquisitive look.
“You met me.”
She could feel her face flush as she looked up at him. She waited for him to lean toward her, but he didn’t.
“That’s true,” she finally said. “Anyway, to answer your question, yes, it was lonely. And yes, I did feel isolated. And yes, I was running away.”
“I guess that doesn’t surprise me,” Barrett said from around his cigar, his soft brown eyes smiling down at her, “since the first time I saw you out there, you were sure as hell running from something.”
The nature center and the loft above it weren’t safe. The flue damper didn’t fully close which meant there was no way to block off the old fireplace’s chimney, and when Laurel left candles and lanterns burning after the power went out on her first night alone on the island, most of the building’s windows had been smashed by heavy buzzing black masses. In the morning, she couldn’t find the tools or materials to board them up, so she filled a backpack with food, water, and whatever medical supplies she could find, clipped a radio to her belt, and walked into the woods.
There were deer blinds all over the island from before it was a refuge and she used them at night. Most of them still had small wooden doors which could be latched from the inside, and she coated any openings that couldn’t be blocked off with lemon eucalyptus oil. She had a bright LED lantern with fresh batteries suspended from her pack which she used at dusk while preparing her sleeping space, but it had to be off by sunset.
She did her best to get some sleep at night between the exploratory knocking and scratching of hooked legs against the wooden walls around her, and the interspersed rhythmic buzzes and screeches of mating calls. In the mornings, she changed the dressing on her arm and covered it with a thick layer of antibiotic cream. She knew she hadn’t gotten all the debris out of the fissure — probably remnants of insects the mantis had eaten — and the tissue around the wound continued to redden and streak. Before leaving her hide, she ate lightly, made sure she was hydrated, rubbed lemon eucalyptus oil into her skin, and waited for the sun to fully scale the tree line.
On the ground, there were dew-coated webs stretched between trees with giant curled husks and torn bloody hides wrapped and suspended and slowly rotating in the morning breeze. She broke through them with rocks and heavy sticks on her way down to the beach where she built fires, watched for boats, and used a piece of broken mirror from the nature center’s bathroom to flash patches of sunlight at the mainland. She allowed herself ten minutes out of every hour to listen on the radio and blindly broadcast her location.
On her eighth day, when the medical supplies were gone and her arm began to smell and produce pale yellow puss, she traveled east to explore the far side of island. She hadn’t seen a single boat in Bogue Sound all week, so she hoped to signal a tanker, freighter, or a trawler working beyond the quarantined waters in the Atlantic. As she was crossing what she judged to be roughly the center of the island, something hard caught her toe and she stumbled. She cleaned the obstruction off with her her boot, and when she found that it was metal, she got down on her knees and swept the surface clean with the palm of her good arm. Under the wet leaves was a heavy metal hatch, set askew on top of what looked like a giant concrete barnacle.
The hatch was heavy, but it lifted without resistance, and enough sunlight penetrated the tunnel to illuminate the top few rungs of a ladder bolted to the concrete. She expected the stagnant and pungent smells associated with utility access, but the air that rose from the hole was clean and dry and cool. She doubted she would find supplies down there, but at the very least, it might provide her with a safer place to sleep.
The lantern threw enough light down the tunnel that she could see the end of the shaft. The bottom looked clean and dry and flat — more like a floor than the bottom of a cylindrical pipe. She knew she should close the hatch behind her to keep anything from following her down, but the light it admitted into the underground passageway would be an effective beacon if she needed to get out quickly. She poured lemon eucalyptus oil around the perimeter of the opening, and left the hatch folded back on its hinge.
The floor was some sort of sandy stone block, continuing up the sides to her shoulders where it met an archway of corrugated metal. There was no moisture or moss or even mold between the stones, and the metal was free of corrosion. Whatever the structure was, it hadn’t been abandoned for long, and it had clearly been well maintained.
Laurel moved slowly and methodically through the tunnels, memorizing her turns and replaying them in reverse to keep herself calm. She found openings that led to living quarters which contained low springy cots and simple wooden shelves stacked with clean folded scrubs and gowns. The bathroom fixtures were stainless steel and connected to actual plumbing rather than chemical tanks. She tested the water in one of the tiny sinks, and found that it ran both hot and cold. The mirror above the faucet was warped polished metal and it distorted her pale and grimy face.
The hallway she followed opened into a space so large that the domed ceiling was supported at its center by a massive concrete block pillar. Her lantern couldn’t illuminate the entire space, so she walked slowly along the perimeter where there were workstations positioned against the walls interspersed with tall racks of neatly cabled servers. She followed the thick bundles of wires up and found that they ran along suspended metal catwalks toward the center of room like giant spokes. The machines were quiet and their LEDs were dark, their black metal surfaces cool to the touch.
She stopped at a workstation made up of three wide monitors in a half-hexagonal configuration surrounding a black keyboard, a large glass touchpad, and what she recognized from the labs at school as a digital chemical analysis scanner. She tested a few keys on the keyboard, but the monitors stayed dark.
There were steel doors in the walls with heavy metal latches and dark powerless keypads. The door beside her had the words “Lab 257” etched into its textured surface. She punched a few keys on the electronic lock, but there was no reaction. The latch levered toward her when she yanked it, and the underground space rang with the sound of a tight seal being broken. The heavy door swung surprisingly easily on its massive hinges, and the air behind it was warm and wet and had the unmistakable sweet and acrid essence of both living and decaying organic matter.
The room might have been as large as the cavern behind her, but with a low ceiling and a maze of glare from her light striking the surfaces of dozens of long aquariums arranged in rows of metal shelving. She approached the closest enclosure as she extended her lantern and peered at what looked like nothing but dark wet soil. She followed the length of the tank and stopped when her light caught fat purple rings of mucus pressed against the glass. Although she could only see a portion of the segmented body, she knew that the earthworm inside had the girth of a fully grown python.
The tank below it contained several spiky pieces of broken orange and black limbs. Laurel leaned down so she could see the top of the tank where there was a massive flat amber centipede with its dozens of needle-like legs clamped to the wire mesh lid. Its antennae twitched under Laurel’s gaze and she jerked away.
She held the light close to her injured arm and could see the pink fluid soaking through the gauze wrap and smell the fetid odor of infection. It throbbed all the way up to her shoulder, and she knew if she didn’t get the wound properly irrigated, she would start to feel the chill of fever soon as the infection became systemic. She needed a bottle of saline, iodine, alcohol, or hydrogen peroxide, and she needed tweezers and sterile dressings. If she was going to live long enough to get off the island, she needed the kinds of supplies generally stocked in a lab.
She couldn’t bring herself to walk between the rows of tanks, so she left her backpack on the floor by the door, pressed herself against the wall, and began skirting the perimeter of the room. The walls were concrete and she felt the cold, rough surface pick at her T-shirt as she moved. She turned the first corner and continued to shuffle, lifting her eyes only long enough to look for a cabinet or a supply closet and not allowing them to focus on the things inside the walls of tanks that were close enough in front of her to reach out and touch. The emerald green of stagnant, algae-filled water in a long tall tank finally caught her attention, and a wide glassy eye floating in the murkiness shifted and tilted as it watched her pass.
The shelves stopped and the room began to open up. She felt her back transition from concrete to a smooth wall of glass, but she didn’t turn to see what was behind her until she felt the surface begin to vibrate. When she swung around and lifted the lantern, she saw through the glare that the other side of the glass was covered with a moving gray patch which she rapidly separated into pairs of massive compound eyes and long complex twitching mouthparts and then the huge grey hunches of mosquitoes the size of crows. The insects were leaving the mounds of gaunt hoofed carcasses locked in the observation room with them and congregating on the glass, attracted by the warmth of living, circulating blood.
She backed slowly away from the window into the opening behind her and watched the furious vibrating shape dissipate as her heat signature faded from the glass, and then she stopped when she felt something stabbing at the back of her scalp. When she whirled around, some of her hair was still caught in the long stiff needles protruding from a thick jointed leg. The spider in front of her was obviously dead, lying on its back on a metal cart, its twisted gnarled legs curled up over its body and fat abdomen like a giant severed hand. There was movement in its appendages and she could see hundreds of tiny black mites swarming among the hairs and through pin-prick holes in the exoskeleton and into the tendons and rotting meat beneath. When she felt movement on her shin above her sock, she looked down and saw that the floor and her boots were swarming with thousands of the same black dots.
As soon as she began reflexively slapping at her legs, Laurel realized that she had released the lantern. She heard it hit the floor, and in the instant darkness, she heard the additional sounds of its components hitting and skidding across the concrete. She fell back in the blackness with her eyes opened wide and began kicking against the biting and pinching that had spread from her ankles up to her knees, and then she felt her foot connect with something that was at first solid, but then gave as the wheels of the cart skidded. The heavy mass on top of it fell and hit Laurel’s legs, and with the momentum of the cart being jerked out from under it, the hairy rotting carcass rolled up over her.
Laurel’s shrieks echoed in the dark. As she flailed and scrambled, she felt her feet connecting with shelves and heard the impact of shattering glass around her. The mites were on her hands and wrists and forearms now, and she whimpered as she slapped at her infected wound. Some part of her knew that she should try to recover the pieces of the lantern and get the batteries back in, but she couldn’t stop herself from scrambling away back toward the wall of mosquitoes and then crawling back down along the perimeter of the room where she felt for her backpack and then the metal door and finally the thick steel handle that levered into place and sealed everything inside.
Laurel didn’t know how much longer she was in the bunker, or how she navigated in the dark, but when she saw a sliver of white light a long way away from her at the end of what must have been a hallway, she pulled herself up and ran and pushed through the door and was blinded by the brightness of the sun. She could feel sand giving beneath her boots as she ran onto the beach, and then she heard shouting from all around her. When she felt someone grab her and hold her and tell her that everything was ok and that she was safe now, she pushed her head against him and screamed and sobbed into his chest.
Laurel found two small glasses in a cabinet in her trailer’s tiny kitchen and she divided the last of the wine. They sat behind the small square laminate table in the corner on built-in padded benches. The fluorescent white halo of light above them buzzed and ticked.
“There’s one more thing I need to ask you,” Barrett said. “I need to know about the bunker.”
Laurel looked down at the table and swished the wine around the inside of her glass. “Have your men gone down there yet?”
Barrett shook his head. “We’re not authorized. According to the DoD, it’s an old prototype fallout shelter built in the 50’s, and none of our concern.”
Laurel laughed without looking up. “It’s no fallout shelter,” she told Barrett. “And it certainly wasn’t built in the 50's.”
“I figured as much,” Barrett said. He waited for her to continue, but she didn’t. “What do you think it is?”
“It’s obviously a laboratory. A very modern one.”
Barrett took a spiral pad from the breast pocket of his fatigues and began writing. “How do you know that?”
“I have a degree in molecular biology,” Laurel said. “I know what a lab looks like.”
“Ok,” Barrett said. “What kind of a lab? Was it for studying the anomalies?”
“Not for studying them,” Laurel said. She looked up at Barrett. “For creating them.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because of the computers.”
“There are racks and racks of servers down there.”
“What does that mean?”
“I think it means they were doing genetic sequencing.”
“Did you see anything on the computers?”
“There wasn’t any power. Everything was shut down.”
“Did you see any other evidence? Any papers lying around, or any open file cabinets? Any name plates, logos, things like that?”
“No. Just computers and scanners. And the labs.”
“Did you see any evidence of specimens escaping?”
“I don’t think they escaped,” Laurel said. “I think just their DNA did.”
“What do you mean?”
Laurel moved her glass to the side and leaned forward. “In some ecosystems, you find different species that are genetically related, but that don’t form hybrids. They don’t mate. One of the ways we think their genes get combined is through parasites that target both species — specifically parasitic mites that can bore through exoskeletons. They take genetic material from one species and spread it to the other. I think whoever did this was careful enough not let any specimens escape, but not careful enough to contain the parasites. They probably carried them out themselves without even knowing it.”
Barrett stopped writing and looked up. “So containing the anomalies themselves might not be enough.”
“And it’s possible that the mites have already spread to the mainland.”
“Yes, it’s possible.”
“Jesus Christ,” Barrett said. He looked back down at his notebook and flipped to a new page. “What kind of expertise would it take to do something like this?”
“Arthropods have spent a lot more time on this planet being big than small. Whoever did this probably didn’t have to insert entirely new genes into their DNA, or even alter existing genes. All they had to do was isolate the genes responsible for restricting size and turn them off. Any decently trained geneticist with the right equipment and enough time could do it.” Laurel paused while Barrett scribbled. When he caught up, she said, “if you want to know who did this, why they did it, and how it was done, send your men down into that bunker and get those computers running.”
“That’s exactly what I intend to do,” Barrett said. “With or without permission.” He closed his notebook and worked it back down into his pocket. “I have to ask you one more thing.”
“How the hell did you survive out there so long?”
Laurel took a sip of her wine. “I survived because they’re predictable.”
Barrett took a slow sip from his glass and waited for her to continue.
“There’s certainly no shortage of brutality and deception among arthropods,” Laurel said, “but they’re predictable. Everything they do is about survival. They’re not vindictive or jealous or greedy. They don’t get power hungry. They take what they need, and that’s it. They compete, but they follow rules. As long as you know those rules, and as long as you follow them yourself, you’re fine.” She looked up at Barrett. “In some ways, they have more dignity and integrity than we do.”
“You’re an incredible girl,” Barrett said. He smiled at her and slid out from behind the table, and then he unclipped a thick rugged phone from his belt and flipped it open. “I need to make a call. I’m going to get my men down into that bunker right now and we’re going to figure this out.” He hesitated, watching Laurel for a moment before continuing. “Can I come back?”
Laurel smiled up at him. “The door will be open.”
“I’ll be right out front,” Barrett said. “Ten minutes, tops.”
“Ten minutes,” Laurel agreed. “Be careful out there.”
She watched him let himself out, and then she tilted her glass back and finished her wine. It occurred to her that she probably shouldn’t mix alcohol with the antibiotics she was taking, but tonight she didn’t care. Tonight she felt safe. She was warm, and she closed her eyes put her head back and took long deep breaths.
She was thinking about taking a shower before Barrett came back, but then she suddenly decided that she didn’t want to wait. She felt like she had spent her entire life waiting, but now she was alive and happy and he was just outside and she didn’t want to wait any longer. She listened for his voice on the phone through the walls of the trailer, but all she could hear was the rhythmic din of the island in the distance. She got out from behind the built-in table and crossed the room to the front door, but then she stopped when she reached for the small metal knob and found that it would not turn. From the sleeping space behind her, she heard the whisper of a metal door sliding slowly in its tracks, and then the trailer filled with the furious buzz of something huge and confused and trapped.