Luther stared through the windowpane, looking for the thing that hadn’t happened yet.
Pauline ignored her brother, and focused on her cross-stitch of a rooster.
“I know they talkin’ about me,” Luther said, voice rising and arms crossed.
“Uh-huh,” responded Pauline.
He walked into the kitchen, then immediately spun on his boot heel. Luther headed back to the front door and opened it to the hot Arkansas night. He flicked on the porch light and stared through the screen while rubbing the back of his neck. “I’m tellin’ you. They talkin’ again. I know it.”
Pauline did not look up from her needlework, and tipped the rocker gently with her foot. Her needle and thread moved like a pendulum—out, through the fabric, back, through the fabric, over and repeat.
“Can’t you hear that?” he finally asked his sister.
“Hear what?” asked Pauline as she stared at Luther’s back.
“Them crickets. The chirpin’s diff’rent.”
“Luther, I hear crickets all the time. We live on a cricket farm. If they ain’t clickin’ behind every door, they are gettin’ into something. My pantry, the closets, my sewing kit.” Pauline returned to her cross-stich and started a new row. “This bird is gonna look good when I’m done,” she said.
He paused then blurted, “I swear they talkin’ about me.”
“Luther! Lord help you. Crickets ain’t talkin’ about you. Maybe they know what one chirp versus two chirps mean, but they just bugs. They ain’t talking about nothing!”
“I’m gonna go see.”
“Suit yourself.” She rocked harder and ran the needle back through her piece.
The wooden screen smacked against the frame.
“Luther!” Pauline jerked. “Lord, no wonder your wife left you.” When he didn’t respond, she rose from the rocker and walked to the front door.
The night sounded like every other summer night in Albert County: loud clicks and burps and hoots, with the occasional howl of something that locals disputed as coyote or wolf or lost mountain lion. The porch light didn’t extend into the yard, where the moonless night swallowed the farm. She looked into the distance and watched a light wobble along a crooked path.
Luther disliked these liquid weeks with air that sank into his lungs and glued his clothes to his back. The darkness oozed like a thick fog rising from the river bottoms. Fortunately, the weeds along the path to the barn were beaten into submission by countless days and nights of walking and stomping and “killing rats”—as his daddy referred to every farm chore.
An awake, full night comforted Luther. He liked noise. But lately, the crickets had gotten to him. Luther hated silence. Quiet meant watching and fear and anticipation of a tornado touching down. The part in the movie before the wife tells her active military husband that she’s leaving him for his cousin. Before the monster eats the cheerleader’s brain, or when aliens abduct the farmer to probe him in the butt. Bad shit. But lately, the chirping worried him. It had a chatter with a different pattern, one that he recognized but couldn’t read. Luther could read livestock. His crickets, on the other hand, had started to communicate in a language as comprehensible as his paranoid ex-wife’s imagined telepathy. It didn’t help that a rather large cricket recently had not only bitten his hand, but broke his skin and drew blood. Crickets can’t do that. So he believed.
“They make good bait and pet food, though,” he muttered, then immediately felt guilty as the familiar purr-click sound of nearby crickets stopped at each footstep. He turned and pointed the light into the tuft of green to his right. Silent. It looked almost pale under the bright light of the flashlight. “You guys are creepy little buggers, you know?” he said as he scratched the faded bite mark on his hand.
Luther turned and headed for the barn. Although he couldn’t see it from the house, he knew the building was at the end of the path, just like he knew his hand was at the end of his arm.
As he reached old barn, Luther cut his flashlight and listened in the dark. After years of raising crickets, Luther learned the typical cricket songs: a loud one for calling, a quiet one for courting, the cricket “cigarette” for after sex, and then an aggressive loud one. Tonight was a mix. Luther could hear a chorus of loud chirps and, somewhere underneath, softer purring sounds. Ordinarily, it would be a typical hot night in the cricket barn. The back of his neck itched as he tried to pinpoint another clicking he heard in the background.
“Just like the honky tonk—fighting and wooing pussy,” muttered Luther. “Hell, maybe even a few queer ones just leaving the rainbow gym!” He snickered at his own joke then stopped. Could they hear his mocking? Luther nervously approached the door of the barn that pulsed with insects.
He breathed deep, put his hand on the latch and the lever opened, scratching against the wooden planks. He stepped into the smell of straw and feed and something fetid and strong. The barn chirping stopped. Almost instantly. “Motherfucker!” he sputtered as he clicked on the flashlight again and stretched his legs fast for the few steps to the side of the door. He switched on the overhead lights.
Luther shivered as if a hundred thousand pairs of black beady eyes stabbed him from behind. Luther spun around to face the tanks resting under warming lights, lids securely fastened, and shook off the tingle down his arms. The metal roof popped like arthritic joints as it released heat from the day. An isolated chirp echoed the otherwise stillness.
“Game warden’s here!” Luther shouted as he walked along the rows of large plastic tubs. “Interrupted your party, didn’t I?” He chuckled nervously as he inspected several storage tubs, housing thousands of crickets, each in different stages of development. He flicked a loose cricket from the table. Large black and brown six-legged critters crawled and hopped across the pebbly sand lining the bottom of the tubs. In one bin, a cluster tackled raw potato slices. In another, white and gray larvae waited for metamorphosis.
Luther leaned in close and tapped on the lid to the bin. The crickets inside stopped squirming. Two dropped from the tub walls.
“You fuckers better not be talking about me,” he whispered.
He looked down the row of other tubs full of black and brown and some reddish crickets. The lids were still fastened, yet another stray cricket scurried for a bin. Luther picked it up.
“And which one did you—dammit!” yelled Luther as he dropped the cricket. He looked at his finger as tiny droplet of blood seeped through a paper-cut break in the skin. “I can’t wait ‘til I ship you all off for feed!” he screamed and stepped on the offending cricket.
“Fuckers,” he muttered. He walked around the table and opened a large toolbox on the ground. Luther opened an old Folgers coffee can and glanced for the barn door. He fingered through some soft, damp pellets and removed a sticky Ziploc bag full of small chunky bits. Luther opened the bag then wiped his hand on his jeans. He gently shook several small opaque crystals into his open palm.
“Who wants candy?” Luther asked, walking along a table of bins.
“Nah, one of you bit me last week.” He peered into a bin at another table. The crickets squirmed away and he pushed his nose against the bin. “Yeah, you guys know who’s the boss. How about some treats from Tina?” Luther looked at the underside of the bin lid. “And got no hideaways, neither,” he said. The lid of the bid popped as Luther lifted a corner. As the crickets began to shuffle and move, he opened the lid and dropped the rocks into the bin before quickly snapping it shut again.
Luther looked through the side and chuckled as a small pile of crickets formed. “Party time, boys and girls,” he snickered, before returning to the Folgers can. He carefully sealed the Ziploc bag and held it up to the light, gently squeezing and crushing the golf-ball sized lump of crystals.
The tin roof popped and Luther jerked, forcing the bag back into the can and submerging it under the sticky cricket feed. His stash safely hidden, Luther spun on his boot heel and headed for the light switch. “Lights out, little buggers!” He paused before cutting the lights, and then bolted quickly out of the door, shining his light back at the tanks before exiting the barn into the muggy night.
The wooden door closed, flashlight in hand, and Luther waited a few moments until the chirping resumed its familiar pattern.
“Back to the chatter,” he said, comforted that their revenge was thwarted for the night. Still, he felt it in the back of his neck.
Maybe it was the drugs.
“He’s out there again, Mabel,” Pauline spoke into the phone as she stood at the screen door. A long black cord stretched from the handset toward an old rotary phone mounted on the wall across the living room. “Hell if I know. I swear, my brother is losing his mind.” She paused and picked at her teeth with a fingernail. “Right. Well, paranoid doesn’t even begin to describe—yes, I’m serious. He thinks them crickets is talking about him. Have you ever?” Pauline peered through the window screen. “No, I don’t know.”
She spoke in rushed loud whisper, “Think he’s using meth? I hear that puts holes in people’s brains. And he’s been spending a lot of time with that crowd across the river.”
Pauline ran her finger along the wire screen.
“Well, he doesn’t hit the bottle much and I hadn’t ever seen him use anything other than the one time he smoked a joint in high school and got green-as-gills and threw up all over the inside of Daddy’s truck.”
She paused and pulled lint from her housecoat.
“Ha! Yeah, he had a fine mess of a time explaining that—hold on, Mabel, I see his flashlight. I think he’s coming back. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Pauline stepped away from the screen and returned the telephone to the receiver between a cross-stitch of a cow and one of a chicken. She scurried for her rocker and waited for her brother.
“How are your little friends?” she turned to ask from her chair when she heard his steps on the porch.
Luther shot Pauline a look through the screen door as he toed off his crusty work boots, damp with night sweat. “Oh, just peachy—they said to tell you you’re next.” He pushed the shoes against the side of the house and opened the door.
“Funny. They told me you complain about their noise worse than Momma nagging to clean your room,” Pauline snapped back as she continued her cross-stitch.
“Mock me if you want. You’ll be sorry when you learn I’m right.”
“I hope you are right, Luther, ‘cause otherwise, you gonna need your head examined.” She put her work in her lap and stared at her brother as he passed through the living room and vanished into the kitchen. She blurted, “Are you high?”
“Jesus, Pauline, what kinda question is that?” he shouted from the other room.
Pauline could hear the refrigerator open.
“Well, shoot, I think it’s kinda normal to ask a grown man who stomps out into the night ‘cause he thinks the crickets he’s raising in the barn are talking about him!”
Luther popped open a tall can of beer and walked back into the living room. He dropped into an armchair like a thrown sack of feed.
Pauline watched in stern silence as he picked up a remote and turned on the television. She pursed her mouth into a straight line. Her brother glanced back.
“What?” he said.
“You just like Daddy.”
“Did you nag Sharon when you lived with her?”
“Don’t be an asshole,” Pauline snapped as she focused on cross-stitch.
“Who’s being the asshole, Pauly? You mocking me but I am telling you that they is up to something. Makes my skin crawl every time I go out there!”
“You didn’t have to bring her into this,” she sniffed.
“Fine, I won’t. Maybe you think I’m crazy, but something is diff’rent ‘bout them chirping. I don’t like it and I think they know I’m raising them for chicken feed.” Luther slugged back his beer.
“Luther,” Pauline said, dropping her voice. “They. Are. Bugs. They ain’t that smart. Of course they make your skin crawl: you never know when you’ll find one crawling around your socks!”
He raised his beer and pointed with his index finger. “I been raising them for nine years. They talk to each other. They know the difference between the times I’m just separating them into tanks and when I’m scooping them up to sell as bait. I’ve seen ‘em line up and help each other climb up the sides of tanks looking for a place to get out. So go ahead. Call ‘em stupid. They ain’t. It’s like ESP or something.”
“So is that how you know they talking about you?” Pauline asked. “EST?”
“It’s E-S-P,” Luther said, aiming the remote at the television again. The volume increased.
Pauline shook her head and returned to her pattern.
Luther glanced at his sister and then back at the television. After a few moments, Pauline noticed her brother turn in his chair to look out the open screen door. She kept her head down, focusing on each move and dot and line in the pattern of the stretched fabric. Luther lowered the volume of the television. He rose sharply and looked out of the screen door toward the barn. Pauline began humming softly to herself, trying to ignore her brother.
“Hey!” he shouted out the door.
“Ow!” flinched Pauline as she stabbed her finger with the needle. She sucked on her fingertip and looked at her brother.
“Hey!” he repeated louder and stepped onto the porch. The door popped against the jamb as he let it go.
“Luther! What the hell are you doing?” she said as she looked at a droplet of blood spreading along the grooves of her fingerprint. She put her finger back in her mouth.
Her brother did not answer. Satisfied her needlework was not yet bloodstained, she set it next to an ashtray on a stand and stood. She heard footsteps on the porch followed by a thump on the rocky soil. At the door, Pauline watched Luther’s back vanish into the night as the beam of his flashlight bounced and wobbled for the barn like the flight of a bee.
She licked her front tooth. When Luther’s light vanished, Pauline headed back for the telephone and dialed. “Mabel? Sorry about that. He came and now he’s gone again. He thinks them crickets is planning something. Yes. He just started hollering out the door and then ran off to the barn like his pants was on fire.”
Pauline sighed heavily and walked back across the living room, the long black cable trailing behind her.
“Mabel, I am not calling the preacher. He needs his head examined, not that babbling fool who makes us feel guilty for not walking on our knees all day begging for mercy. You can’t pray away crazy any more than I can pray for rain. No, ma’am. If that worked, then Sister Bethel Lou would have stopped looking for her lost tricycle forty years ago.”
Pauline peered out the door.
“I don’t know. Maybe I can get Doctor Cecil to come out here tomorrow. Hold on!” Pauline pulled the receiver from her head and listened. “Shhh,” she said into the handset. She whispered loudly, “I think Luther’s yelling in the barn. Yellin’ at the crickets.” She opened the screen and stepped onto the porch, the telephone cord pulling as it reached its limit. “Mabel, hold on. Imma gonna put the phone down. My brother is off his rocker. Don’t go nowhere in case I need ya.” She stepped back inside and put the handset on the table next to her grandmother’s divan and picked up another flashlight.
Pauline placed her hand on the door. “Black as tar out there,” she muttered. A sharp crack sounded in the distance, not quite like a wooden baseball bat, and not quite like firewood splitting. Not familiar or pretty, either way. She opened the door and stepped onto the porch. Light fell on the yard in bright squarish shapes. She remained at the top of the steps. Thin lines of light appeared in the distance.
“Luther!” she cried, hearing her own voice respond in a partial echo from the old barn. Another smack and muffled shout. “Lord, that boy better not have started cooking meth out in Pappy’s barn,” she said as she toed her foot further into her slipper.
“Lu-THER!” she said, using her girls’ basketball coach authority. She clicked the flashlight. It flickered. She smacked the head of the light against her palm. A steady beam shot into the night.
Another sharp whack came from the barn.
Pauline’s flashlight went out.
“Dammit,” she said as she put it on the porch. “Somebody oughta whip that boy, and that somebody might have to be me,” Pauline said to no one and headed for the dusty path. “I am not in the mood to deal with any shenanigans, no sir!” she asserted as the dark wrapped her like a cloak. “When I got to finish my pattern for the sewing club. Luther hadn’t been right since he got mixed up with that river crowd.” She stumbled on a dirt clod. “Trailer trash and floozies from Garland County,” she spat as she swatted at something on the back of her neck.
Pauline looked back at the house, the porch a bright island in the ocean of an overcast June night. Ahead, the lit square of the barn door seemed a painful distance full of sweat and, well, crickets, chirping and purring in the shadows, quieting briefly as her slippers went pit-pat-fwamp-fwamp on the hard dirt trail.
Luther yelled again.
“Dammit, what now?” Pauline said, glancing back at the house as if she needed to return.
A small flicker of light caught her eye and she looked up. The open barn door cast a dim thrust of light into the lot. In the frame, she saw her brother standing—or was he dancing?
“Get off! Get off!” her brother yelled, and the twisting shadow of a shape in the door briefly disappeared.
Pauline stopped. Footsteps in rapid thump thump thump thump thump succession came toward her.
“Ow! Off! Dammit! Motherfuckers! I’m gonna Raid every last one of you!” screamed Luther as he ran past Pauline, tearing at his clothes and hitting himself.
“LU-ther! Get back here! What in tarnation is wro—” She swatted at something that jumped on her and cupped her hand around it to look closer. A cricket. “Ugh!” she groaned and threw it into the deep shadowy grass.
Luther kept running and Pauline followed. He ran to the porch and jumped in circles, tearing off his shirt and then running off into the dark.
“Oh, Lord, he’s cuckoo,” said Pauline as she followed his screams around the back of the house. “Lu-THER! Get back on that porch raiht now or I’m gonna call somebody!” Luther’s cries faded as she passed the garden and headed for the front. She turned the corner of the house and, in a square of light in the yard, saw the rest of Luther’s clothes, torn and strewn as if whipped from a clothesline.
“Oh, my God, he’s nekkid,” she said as she followed the trail of clothes, picking up a shirt that looked as if it had been chewed.
Luther hollered again. “Get off! Put me do—”
Something whacked on the porch of the house, and the night fell quiet. Pauline turned around, trying to catch her breath.
“Finally,” she said, as she picked up her brother’s clothes and headed up the empty steps. “Luther, we need to talk!” she shouted at the screen door. Her voice echoed again in the stillness. The telephone receiver still rested on the table, cord stretched across the room. She reached for the door and a flutter caught her eye. Pauline turned and something flew at her face. She batted it and it flapped at her feet on the ground. Pauline paused, then lifted her dirty slipper and felt a crunch like popped popcorn when she stepped on the cricket.
A clear, loud chirp broke the quiet. Pauline turned to see hundreds of thousands of black and brown clusters staring at her. Everywhere. They fluttered into a chirping chattering cloud. The bare bulb of the porch light popped with a flash and Pauline screamed.
John W. Bateman is the first person in his family to leave the fly-over states in more than 200 years. He is currently finishing a Master’s in English with a Certificate in Innovative Writing from the University of Buffalo. His work has recently appeared online, in print, and on the silver screen. Influences include Eudora Welty, Duane Michals, comedian Bob Smith, and his fairy godmother. Occasionally, John climbs rocks and has a secret addiction to glitter. He has been glitter-free since last Sunday. You can find him at his website johnwbateman.tumblr.com and on Twitter @johnwbateman.