Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
My daughter Hannah had always had a fascination with bugs of all kinds. She collected them and kept them in a terrarium she insisted I buy for her when she was six. It was on a constant rotation as her interests changed; when she was younger, it was ladybugs and caterpillars. Now that she was a teenager, she got into more unusual things, like mantises and stick insects. Much of the time, I thought she related better to them than she did to me and her friends at school. Not that she had many of them, but she was never bullied; she just kept to herself. That’s probably my doing, though; my wife and unborn son were both lost in childbirth, and when I adopted Hannah, I never really tried giving her anything girly to do. So, her going out and doing things in the woods and collecting bugs never struck me as odd.
What did strike me as odd was her terrarium was currently empty; I found the shoebox and asked her about it, and all she said was that she was working on a project. And as she reminded me, they don’t have cocoons, they have “ootheca.” It was something that kind of looked like a cocoon, but sounded more like a Dr. Seuss creation than a real thing. Still, of all the bugs she found, mantises were the most interesting to me; the way they stood, with those close in the air. Hannah and I watched one on the front porch once, stock still, just waiting for something to walk by. She said they ate other bugs, and sometimes each other. I asked why they ate each other. Without missing a beat, she said that sometimes, the larger females would eat the smaller males after mating, or if unlucky, sometimes before, leaving nothing but wings and a few legs behind.
That was around the time I stopped asking her questions about insects.
Despite how odd the shoebox was, I put it out of my mind, because what was most important to me was the annual town chili cook-off. To close out the summer, our little town put on a big fall festival, and besides cider, donuts, and local bands who couldn’t make it big anywhere else, we had a chili cook-off. I knew this year was my chance to win something. I had never placed, but this year I had a recipe I was sure was going to make everyone stand up and take notice. I especially wanted to beat out Harris Bolls, if nothing else. Harris usually won first place, but got dethroned last year, and had spent the better part of the year telling the winner, Ellie Hopkins, that she cheated every chance he got. He tried to pass it off as joking, but everyone knew he was just being bitter and an ass about it.
As I worked on my recipe in secret every night, perfecting the recipe wherever I could, life in the house went on as usual, with Hannah taking her little trips out the woods to collect and catalog all her little specimens. Thing is, she would come in fairly late at night, mostly around dinner time, and except for the shoebox, I didn’t see her doing much of anything else.
I wasn’t completely stupid; I felt like there was more to it than she was letting on, but hey, at least studying bugs was a better hobby than smoking weed and skateboarding around town like most of the teenagers around here did. But I couldn’t help the feeling that she had found someone, and just didn’t want me to know who it was. She probably would think I didn’t approve, but hanging out with anyone was a step up in my book.
On the day of the festival, I was sure my recipe was going to be a winner. Harris would never even know what hit him. I got up around the crack of dawn, only to find Hannah was already up. Now that was certainly strange; she barely woke up at all unless I went in to get her. Still with that shoebox at her side.
“Hey, Dad, just wanted to tell you your chili tastes great. You should make sure you have some later.”
I was flattered that she even cared. But, despite her kind words, I had tried so much of my own chili trying to get it ready that, to be honest, I was kind of sick of eating the stuff. I didn’t say that to her, but I did thank her. Amazingly, she wanted me to give her a ride to the festival, when I didn’t even know she had planned go. I was so happy, I didn’t even remember to buckle my seatbelt on the way there.
I was actually one of the earliest, as more and more shuffled into the tent. Harris and Ellie were actually among the last to arrive, and gave each other dirty looks as they set up on opposite sides of the tent. I was just happy to see Hannah come in right when the tent opened.
She came by, smiling, and said, “I think the competition is going to be really fun this year. I’m really hoping you win.” With the shoebox still under her arm, she started going to all the other tables. I hoped she wouldn’t ruin her dinner trying absolutely everybody’s, but again, just the fact that she was here made me feel on the top of my game.
As the day wore on, I could swear most of the town came through. Most of them complimented my chili, but when the judges came by, they all wore their best stone faces. I couldn’t tell where I stood, but I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best. I just hoped that nobody cared that I went and got a couple of hot dogs from one of the food trucks outside for lunch. They were some kind of teriyaki/Korean barbecue-style things. Really wish I had thought of those; they were pretty good.
Finally, the time came when the judges reached their decision. Near the entrance flap, the judges stood up, and announced third place: Ellie Hopkins. There was a nice round of applause, and she took the award with a smile.
Then second place: Me. More applause, and I raised my arms in triumph. Sadly, though, even as I grinned and accepted my little silver cup, I felt a twinge as I could guess who the first place winner was.
I was right. Harris had claimed his crown once again. He acted as you might have expected a five-time champion with no sense of class would act, yelling like he was so surprised that it had happened and high-fiving everyone, even if they didn’t have their hands up. He took his gold trophy, cleared his throat, and began delivering his victory speech, which sounded like he had been practicing the night before.
He got three lines in when he cleared his throat again. He got one more line before he gave a horrendous cough, and then made a sound like his chili was coming up again.
It would’ve been hilarious, if everyone in the tent, other than myself, hadn’t started doing the same thing.
Harris clutched at his throat and retched one last time, and this time I could see his throat had something terribly wrong with it. It was swollen, and reddening with each passing second. His whole face was turning bright red, in fact.
I looked around for help, but the EMTs on hand in the tent were also grabbing at their throats and falling to the ground.
I ran to Harris and, assuming he was choking, got in place to give him the Heimlich. I gave one quick thrust.
It was the worst thing I could have done. In that moment, I felt something underneath Harris’ skin, at his stomach, squirming and wriggling, and when I applied that pressure, it made it all press up and out.
Something greenish fell from his mouth in a wave, and then his nose, and then his throat. It split open like a sausage that had been squeezed. The greenish wave, I saw, started writhing on the ground in a thick mass. I stepped away from Harris as his body fell to the ground, as more and more of those green things emerged from his throat and his mouth, and then, to my growing horror, his eyes.
I looked around the tent and saw that the same thing was happening to everyone else there; green insects forcing their way out of every hole imaginable, and when they couldn’t do that, made their own way out. Soon everything in the tent was covered in them.
Covered in small praying mantises. And then they started to feed on everyone they had landed on. If they hadn’t pushed their way out of the eyes already, that was what they went for first.
They even started coming for me. Some landed on my bare arms and started biting. I brushed them off, and heard crunching underfoot as I ran over and stomped as many as I could, escaping the den of horrors.
I ran from the tent and out into the open festival, gagging and wishing I had eaten something so I could throw up, but instead I saw people screaming as several people out in the festival were covered in mantises as well.
I looked for Hannah, remembering how she had been in the tent so early. I wanted to make sure she was okay. But I couldn’t find her. Even as more and more people started coughing up the little mantises, she wasn’t anywhere to be found. I tried calling her on her phone. No answer.
I then heard a strange, far off noise. It was a high-pitched whistling, like an emergency broadcast made with a defective dog whistle. A loud hum came from all around me, and I had to duck as every mantis in the place swarmed out of the tent and away from the fallen bodies. They scratched me as they passed, and then, suddenly, they were gone. I got up and saw the insect cloud flying off to the west.
I didn’t wait around. I ran as fast as I could to my car, to chase the cloud. I didn’t know what I thought I would do, having gotten such a late start trying to catch it, but I finally saw where it started to dissipate. I pulled my car up in my driveway as I saw the last hints of the cloud vanishing into the woods behind my house.
Weeks later, when the police sent me video someone had on their phone, catching Hannah pulling something from her shoebox and dropping it into a pot of chili in the cook-off, I can now say I was not surprised. I also wasn’t surprised when a noted entomologist stated that these things weren’t pure mantises, because mantis nymphs can’t fly. I can also say they’ll never catch Hannah. Because what I found in those woods, I haven’t revealed to anyone, until now.
In the woods, I came to a clearing. A few mantises were still fluttering around there, but thankfully they ignored me. I saw things carved into the trees. Some of them looked years old. There were weird shapes, like a hieroglyphic language, as well as images of an insect. It vaguely resembled a mantis, but I could see digits, like fingers. When I could see words I could read, I kept seeing the phrase “He Who Preys” written all over. It looked this thing was worshipped, like a god, or a leader. All of it was in Hannah’s handwriting. There were other phrases, too… “Coming of Age” came up a lot, as was “The Return.”
And then I saw a trail leading into the woods.
I followed discarded clothing. I picked them up. It was the clothes Hannah had been wearing that day.
They led to a large, brown, shape, attached to a tree. It looked like a sleeping bag, but larger, with a large hole in the middle, like it had split on the inside. Something ichorous dripped from it.
But there was something else inside. Something brittle. I pulled it out.
A skin. A shed skin, like a snake. But not a snake.
A human skin.
But there was more.
I followed a trail of strange footprints to another small clearing. And that was when I went to go get a lighter and some gasoline, to destroy everything in those unholy abominations of those clearings.
In that clearing was the largest set of wings I had ever seen. Along with several pairs of unnaturally large insect legs. They all looked like they had been chewed.