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Salt the Earth

horror by Gerri Leen

They rise. All night and all day, they rise and I hunt.

It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t keep rising in the middle of my pa’s crops. He gets powerful angry every time I salt the earth behind the critters, but I told him I didn’t have a choice.

Which is worse, after all: no crops or no family?

‘Cause the critters would kill Ma and Sis and even little Jenny Jo, who I think is some kind of cousin. She does favor Pa, though, and Ma tends to treat her pretty unkindly. I’ve heard some gossipy folks wonder if maybe Jenny Jo isn’t Pa’s kid instead of his kin.

I can’t say I care. Maybe I would have before the critters, but now I’m just plumb exhausted, and those damn things show no sign of stopping. I beat ’em back just enough to give us all a breather. Enough to let us pick some fruit off the orchard trees or fish for the trout that fills the pond.

But the corn? That harvest is getting smaller and smaller each time I go out. Pa cuffed me the last time he caught me ruining his cornfield. Cuffed me hard, too. I couldn’t hear for a few days, which made it damned perilous to hunt.

But someone has to hunt. And I’m the only one who sees the critters, so it’s up to me.

They’re dark and sort of sluglike in appearance, but they can move powerful fast when they want to. I’ve pointed them out to Jenny Jo and Sis, but they act like there’s nothing there. I yelled at Pa to look up from his work to see one slithering down a fencepost next to him, but he just ignored me and the critter. I tried to get Ma to stop her churning long enough to see that she was in mortal danger.

Scared the hell out of her when I shot the thing off the chair next to her. She yelled and told me that if I didn’t wise up, I’d be sent to that home where the crazy folk live.

Like I’m the crazy one? I’m not the one churning while a critter is looming.

I’m gonna take me a walkaround now. Find out what the damn things are up to. I can see them oozing over the fences, crawling up from the roots of the corn.

I used to like corn. Used to love the sound it made when it was dry and the ears cut off. But now I hate corn since it shelters my enemy. I’d burn the whole damn field down if Pa hadn’t hidden all the matches from me.

Pa is no kind of ally in this fight against evil, but I talk to Doc Pritchett about the critters. He lets me go on and on, and he never tells me I’m crazy or dangerous or scary. He just asks me how the critters make me feel, and then he writes about it in this little notebook he has.

I know that if I die fighting the critters, Doc Pritchett will make sure my name lives on.

I turn to see Pa getting into the tractor, not even paying attention to the critter that’s reared up on the seat, waiting for him.

I run. I yell. I even fire the gun I’m not supposed to have in the air.

Pa sits on the critter.

That’s how they get in you. That’s how they make you evil. You gotta keep ’em off you. Can’t let ’em touch you.

“Pa?”

“Boy, what did I tell you about guns?” Pa looks different. Something in his eyes is all off. And the critter is gone. Went up into him when he sat on him.

It pains me to think of how it went up into him. Critters take the nearest hole.

“Pa, just calm down.” I love my pa. Even though he yells at me, and hits me sometimes, and pretty much always looks disappointed in me, I love my pa.

But he’s not my pa now. He’s something else.

He reaches for me and I fire. The body that was my pa’s falls, and I see the critter skitter out from under him, hiss at me, and then disappear under the corn.

Damn corn.

I root around in Pa’s pocket and find the lighter he uses to get his pipe going every evening. Pa liked to say we were descended from Vikings, and I read somewhere once that Vikings were burned when they died. So, I stomp the corn down and roll Pa onto it. Then I light it.

It takes forever to catch. It’s still young, not dry and a fire hazard the way the old corn would be. But it finally does catch, once I think to get some paper to start the flames.

The fire spreads, and it warms me as it blazes because I can hear critters screaming all over the cornfield. I’m killing more of them than I ever have with my normal hunts.

I back away, watch as Pa’s body burns and blackens, and I try not to cry at what those things did to him. I’m glad I’m killing so many of them. I’m glad I’m a hunter. I’ll keep my family safe.

Ma comes out of the house. Jenny Jo and Sis, too. Ma’s screaming and she’s got one of Pa’s rifles, even though she hates guns.

“It was the critters,” I say as I walk toward her. In the distance, I hear sirens. Ma called the fire department.

And maybe the sheriff.

“Ma. I had to do it.” I reach out to her, still holding my gun.

“Step away from us, boy.” Ma sounds wrong. And I see a critter skittering around in her mouth.

Just before I fire.

copyright 2010 by Gerri Leen

Gerri Leen lives in Northern Virginia, but originally hails from Seattle. You can find her stories in such places as: Sword and Sorceress XXIII, Return to Luna, Triangulation: Dark Glass, Footprints, Sails & Sorcery, Origins, Desolate Places, and GlassFire. Look for her upcoming collection of short stories, Life Without Crows, in early 2010 from Hadley Rille Books. She blogs about writing at Gerri Leen’s Virtual Abode.

[Return to the April 2010 stories]

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2 Responses

  1. […] Salt the Earth […]

  2. You had me from the second sentence. Great characters, visuals, and premise all culminating into a good end.

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