by Christopher Cornell
Daylight fell beneath the horizon before I reached the far end of the field. Soon they would gather to feed. Hell, they were probably already preparing a fresh onslaught. Each new dusk felt like the sun had given up on us, as if disgusted that we still didn’t have our shit together. I watched it abandon us again to fend for ourselves until its return.
They appeared on the farm sporadically during the day, of course. But during the waking hours they remained docile, mesmerized by some sense memory of their former lives: the surfer in a mangled wet suit, standing on his board in anticipation of a wave that would never come; the bespectacled tween scratching in vain on the dead screen of her tablet with a last, ragged nail; the street busker strumming absently on a demolished acoustic guitar, the broken strings winding around his rotting fingers and threatening to pull them from their sockets; the coffee house barista blankly miming the perfect cappuccino as noises gurgled from her lips.
Ed’s Caterpillar stood silent and ominous in the neighboring field. He had either given up the fight or succumbed to the horde. Ed couldn’t be faulted for enthusiasm, but never would be labeled a master strategist. Not like I hadn’t offered to join forces against this new threat. The old bastard deserved whatever fate he’d met. I climbed from the truck and sat on the hood, allowing my eyes to adapt to the loss of light as I watched for signs of their arrival. A faint ripple emerged from the gloom. Yes, there was movement now. They were coming. Last night they’d decimated Ed’s farm, and tonight they would arrive on my own soil.
This new wave bore little resemblance to the initial rush of risen dead, the brutal flesh-eaters that had stormed into the Grain Belt just as they had elsewhere. These were no carnivores that crept their way in from the coasts, though they were equally rapacious for a different kind of sustenance. Perhaps they had surrendered their animal instincts before this plague had repurposed their bodies. They didn’t care for brains, or arms or legs. Only ears.
They crossed the highway in halting droves now, breaching my field. Some in the advance spotted me but showed little interest in me or my truck. I calmed myself, watching with all the patience I could muster as they descended on those perfect rows, growling with lust as they tore into the greenery for the gold underneath.
I fought the urge to grab for my rifle as I watched them help themselves to my hard work. The Hansens up the road served as a reminder of the futility of assaulting them one by one. How many could I possibly pick off before the indignant mob descended? They seemed content to leave me be as long as I returned the favor. Like any threatened animal, however, they were capable of retaliation. Sweet Lord, I had witnessed that for myself. Better to leave them to their feeding frenzy without awakening the sleeping carnivores within.
Some, of course, made a case for abandoning our homes and surrendering our crops to these new relative pacifists. Surely our efforts were better focused on the more eminent peril of their flesh eating brethren. But what of our way of life and our future survival? Food from the earth seemed more important than ever now that Chinese takeout and bulk warehouse groceries were swept away with all the other trappings of modern society. A day would surely come when the surrender of our current fields was not enough, and not long in coming judging by the all-consuming banquet before my eyes. What then? Offer a fresh harvest barrier like some twisted sacrifice?
Stars began to poke holes in the sky by the time the orgy reached its apex. There were hundreds of them, maybe thousands, tearing away at the proud stalks and devouring their contents with reckless abandon. A nearby feaster glanced up at me in the moonlight, corn silks dripping from between his gnarled teeth. Then he returned to the work at hand. Within an hour the entire field bustled with the flailing of husks and the gnashing of rotted teeth. The reek of gasoline grew stronger as they trampled into the rows I had seeded with their destruction earlier in the afternoon. If the toxic brew spoiled their enjoyment of the ripe harvest, I saw no sign of it. I’d emptied my own storage tank as well as the pump up at the Hansens’. I liked to think the whole family would be happy to contribute to my vengeance, from wherever they’d landed in the next life. I continued to bide my time until they trampled every square inch of soaked earth in their gluttony. The blanket of destruction spread into the darkness until I could no longer distinguish its end.
It was time.
I swung into the cab and slammed the door, firing up the old pickup for one last field inspection. I searched for familiar faces as I pulled away, but the surfer and the busker and the barista had melded into the crowd in the growing darkness. Best not to dwell on such things, I supposed. I paused at the end of the makeshift irrigation canal I’d dug that morning, reached down to activate the cigarette lighter, my heart heavy in my chest. Ending the onslaught felt like small consolation for poisoning my own fields. At least Georgina had been spared this final, cruel scenario. For the first time, her early passing seemed like good fortune.
Let this be your last supper.
As the cigarette lighter popped from its holster, I held it high for a moment, staring into the angry coil. I allowed myself a quick glance behind as I flung it from the window and into the ditch. Then, as the night lit up behind me, I never looked back again.
This story originally appeared in Penumbra magazine, February 2013.