Arthur had never especially been in shape. As he approached forty, he felt himself slowing down, and in reaction he had bought the first pair of running shoes since he was a teenager. He knew it would be difficult to get into shape, especially at his age, but he forced himself to think about his father, dead at forty-four of a heart attack, and used that to fuel his newfound desire to lose thirty pounds.
The first few times around the neighborhood was, by turns, embarrassing and exhilarating. This didn’t help to make him feel like his heart was going to burst when he got to his porch, and it didn’t make it seem like he would sweat out a full liter of sweat as he cooled down in the bathroom before he showered off. Slowly but surely, he was getting better at it, and two months before his thirty-ninth birthday, he was able to run his first half marathon.
He had never been more proud of himself in his life when he finished, even though he did so in the top two hundred of five hundred participants. He refused to see it as anything but a win, especially since he had only signed up for the half marathon to see if he could even finish. So, when he laid in the shade of the park that he had finished in, he did so with a smile on his face.
Returning home, he saw that there was an email from the marathon organizers on his cell phone. He shrugged it off, knowing that there was no prize for two hundred and thirty-second place, and continued on home. He’d even forgotten the email until air-drying after his shower.
“Probably just a discount for next year.” He muttered to himself as he opened it up.
Instantly, the screen was filled with unintelligible letters, all of them disconnected with each other. He scanned through them all, just out of curiosity, and that’s when he saw it in the middle of the email’s body, in a font different from the rest of it all: WE COME WE SWARM WE DEVOUR. He stared at his phone’s screen until he realized that he had forgotten to breathe, and erased the email without a second thought. He would be lying if he said the email hadn’t left him rather shaken, though.
It had all but disappeared by the time he got into bed, too. His dreams were troubled, as they came to him. When they did, it was as if he was completely surrounded by cicadas. He’d always found their buzzing comforting, a reminder of summers past and all that came with him. But now, they were on all sides of him and getting closer. Even though he couldn’t see where he was, the only thought that could come to mind was to run, and so, he did.
Gratefully, the path ahead of him was clear and straight, with little in his way. That was, until he felt them. It was like he was running into a wall of them, though he did not know what they were. He ran over them, felt them squish under foot and between his toes. Slowly he came to the realization that they were insects by the hundreds and by the thousands. And every foot that he ran, there were more of them.
They were crawling all over his face and through his hair. He felt them crawl over his lips and over his eyes, and all he could do was run harder and faster. Gradually, his feet didn’t even make slapping noises from all of the insects that he was treading over. Gradually, he couldn’t even run because of them all.
He struggled to even walk as it seemed that every thing that crawled was coming to his location. When he fell to the ground, it was with resignation and a lurching, screaming terror. He knew that he was going to drown in a sea of insects, and there was nothing that he could do. He couldn’t even open his mouth to scream at the horror of it. All he could do was hit the crawling ground and surrender to the mass of them.
When Arthur awoke, the sheets he slept in were tangled all around him, and struggled so fervently and with such fear that he fell to the ground, still tangled in the sheets. His heart raced and he panted for air as he pulled himself from the sheets, but remained on the ground, allowing its cool surface to lower his body temperature. He couldn’t recall the last time he had a nightmare, and over the next few days, he could only think back to the worryingly distant memory of those days as the same nightmare played out, night after night.
Despite his nightmares, he never had any difficulty getting to sleep, and he found himself tired and willing to drift off at the end of every day. Every night, like clockwork, he found himself struggling to get out of bed and covered in sweat. This continued for a week, and finally stopped. It was like they had never been there in the first place when he had his first peaceful night’s sleep in days.
Finally able to have a peaceful night’s sleep again, he resumed his running as if he had never stopped, and soon the nightmares were a distant memory. The thought of telling a doctor had come to mind, but was immediately banished for lack of a reason to go, now that they had vanished and he was able to sleep soundly, and run every day as he had become accustomed.
The run he went out on the night before his thirty-ninth birthday started out like any other. It was a cool night, with a welcoming breeze that snaked through the trees that lined the housing tract that Arthur called home. He breathed slowly and easily as he warmed himself up, going at an easy pace before gradually speeding up. When he got into a comfortable pace, he was slightly disconcerted with one of the streetlights that had ceased to function.
It bothered him, and he couldn’t precisely put his finger on why it bothered him. The light had worked perfectly the night before, and the night before that. His regular route had been gone over so often that he could pluck out every single detail of it by memory. So, when he turned a corner and found two more dead streetlights, a cold shiver passed down and along his spine. He immediately resolved to not let this get to him, and continued down the path he was on. This is what he wanted to do, and he would be damned if he wasn’t going to enjoy one of his chief pleasures because the city had lapsed in its responsibilities. He’d simply write an email to the Public Works Department when he got back home.
It wasn’t until he passed under the third dead streetlight that the buzzing came to him. It wasn’t at all like a cicada. It was more akin to a drone, low and ominous in a way that he couldn’t define. The sound stirred distant and all but dead race memories in the back of his head, of vast harvests destroyed by a black blanket of insects whose only desire and only function was to eat. There was more to it than that, though. The thing that made his heart leap into his throat was the exact similarity to the sound that the insects had made in his sleep.
There was nothing else that he could do but run. He ran harder than he had at any time previously, and yet the droning continued to get louder and louder. He pumped his fists and his feet slapped on the sidewalk so fast and so hard that he didn’t even notice that the streetlights were now starting to shut off over his head. All he could concentrate on was continuing to run forward and to not even consider looking back at what he could only assume would be an enormous blanket of insects, so thick that light couldn’t even attempt to pass through.
He was only vaguely aware of the darkness that now surrounded him, and how he hadn’t seen a single soul or a passing car as he ran further up the street and made a turn out of muscle memory and desperation to get back to his home. So far, the insects hadn’t gained on him at all and for that, at least, he was grateful. This gratitude was replaced by a dull horror as he could tell that the insects were getting closer and closer with every footfall. He had never felt so far away from his home in his entire life, and when the buzzing slowly diminished, he knew that it would be replaced by something even worse.
All at once, as if they were a tidal wave, the insects fell on top of him. Great masses of them. He now knew that they were locusts, and his final thoughts were those of understanding. They weren’t buzzing. They weren’t droning. Their sound was that of a single word, said at a very low frequency.