This is the story of an insect.
EIGHT YEARS AGO
BILL KRANG read the message written on the wall and stared in disbelief. The words, the message, spray-painted and running down the brick in long careless drips, seemed to sprout limbs, grab him by the arms, and stop him dead in his tracks, demanding to be seen. Other people walked by, fingering their cell phones, not even noticing its existence. Their ignorance, their complete disregard for the world around them, didn’t change the fact that the words were there, that they existed. And not only did they exist, they were commanding his attention.
The words stretched out across the front wall of an empty building that used to contain a pharmacy. The message was odd and didn’t make much sense to him at the time, but this wasn’t what initially caught his attention. He knew this message. Every word. He had heard it many times throughout his life, but this was the first time he had evidence that someone else had heard the message too. Krang pushed his fingers to the paint and when he pulled them away they were stained bright green. The paint was still wet, fresh. As he slid his thumb across the wetness of his fingertips, the thought occurred to him that this message was created. That only moments before someone was standing right where he was standing, someone who knew the same darkness, the same mysteries, that Krang had always thought were known only to him. These words were created by somebody, and that somebody was just here. The thought of another person like him, another hearer [a word he had always used to describe himself, with his gift, his curse], made his face go numb with excitement, with fear, with anxiety and paranoia.
Attached to the familiar message was a series of numbers he had never seen before. Ten numbers, to be exact. His first thought was that they were coordinates, but the numbers didn’t make much sense in that way. He continued to stare at the wall, the leaking neon letters, the seemingly random set of numbers attached at the bottom. The longer he stared, the more physically ill he became. His stomach churned and gargled loudly. He touched his hand to his lips, as if anticipating vomit to spew from between them. His breathing, his heartbeat, both steadily increasing. Steam rushed out his mouth and nostrils in short, quick repetitions, quickly dissipating, the heat of his breath almost immediately devoured by the cold.
He decided to sit, hoping this would help kill some of the anxiety he felt, or at least help settle his stomach. He leaned his back against the brick wall and took in slow, deep breaths. The sharp, chilled February air stung his lungs. People continued to walk by, either not noticing Krang in his sickly state, or not caring. Krang studied their faces, illuminated by their cell phones, as they walked by him, some even stepping over him. Their faces all looked the same. He couldn’t help but think of them as drones, worker bees, almost completely meaningless minions. The one reason they existed, their entire purpose of being, was to serve, and because of that, he pitied them. He knew he was no different from the rest of the world in that way either. He had to serve, just as others had to serve. It was the curse of being human. The curse of being an insect. The curse of living. And as meaningless as they all seemed to be, oddly enough every last one of them was essential. Essential for life to carry on, to prosper, so their children could all grow up to be followers, drones in the machine, and have children of their own that were exactly the same in every way, but who all thought they were different. If this cycle were ever to cease, human life would not exist. He continued studying their faces as his breath steadied.
They even looked like insects to him.
An idea sparked in his brain. Cell phones. The number written on the wall was a phone number. Ten digits. Had to be a phone number. He pulled himself to his feet. His knees cracked and popped as he straightened his legs. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his cell phone. His fingers were so cold he had to warm them in order for the touch screen to recognize them as flesh.
He began to dial the number. His fingers slowed the closer he got to the end. Anxiety crept in and suddenly he felt nauseous again. He had the feeling that once his fingers dialed the number, his life was going to change. Everything he ever thought he knew about everything was going to be wrong and he was finally going to be let in on the secret of this god-forsaken message he had been cursed to hear, slowly driving him mad, since the day he was born. This had to mean something. Surely this one phone call would change everything, he thought. He pressed the final number and pushed the phone to his ear.
Static, something like the crackling of a record playing on an old turntable, poured out of the earpiece and into his ear. The static instantly calmed him. It was an inviting and familiar sound. It reminded him of a time some twenty-odd years ago when he was a child, playing with his Talk Boy, a handheld audio recording device made for children. The static of the phone call morphed into the whirring of a cassette tape as visions in his memory began to override that of his surroundings. As a child he would often use his Talk Boy to try and record the sound, the constant humming he’d hear when he played outside, mostly during the summer months. The sound of insects, but not in the way most people heard them. He had always assumed everyone heard the same things he did, until the day of his eighth birthday, the day he asked his mother…
“Mommy, what does ‘rebirth’ mean?”
“Rebirth?” She was setting the table for the little guests of the party. They were expected to arrive sometime within the next hour. As an adult, Krang didn’t really remember this conversation with his mother so much as he had remembered hearing a recording of it. He had received the Talk Boy as an early birthday gift that year from his grandparents, and had been recording all his conversations for weeks at that point. As the static from the phone hissed in his ear, the conversation between him and his mother continued to play out inside his head perfectly, exactly the way it did on the cassette he had listened to time and time again in the years that followed.
“Yeah, what’s it mean?”
His mother laughed. “Billy, you’re much too young to know a word like that. Where’d you hear it?”
“It’s a curse word, Mommy?”
“No, not a curse word, just an adult word. Now are you going to answer me? Where’d you hear it?”
“The crickets say it all the time.”
“The crickets? You mean crickets… as in bugs?”
“Yes.” He looked up at her with wide, wet eyes.
She wrinkled her brow. “Insects say the word ‘rebirth’ to you?”
“Billy, come on now. You’re not in trouble. Just tell me the truth, where’d you hear it? I’m just curious, that’s all.”
“I told you. The bugs told me. They’re always saying it.”
She rolled her eyes and smiled. “Okay. Why don’t you tell me what else they say then…?” She continued to set the table. He had not picked up on it as a child, but over the years, after countless replays of the cassette, Krang sensed that his mother had lost interest at this point. Surely she had written it off to an overactive imagination brought on by too much sugar or something. It was his birthday, after all.
Young Bill Krang hopped down out of his chair and ran to the back of the house, down the long hallway leading to his bedroom.
“Billy? Hey, I was talking to you!” his mother yelled.
Moments later, he returned, holding a ripped out page from a coloring book. Scribbled across an uncolored illustration of Garfield were the words, “Ashok burn right hand of men. To Neptune, rebirth in blue fire.” His mother took the page from his tiny hands. He wasn’t sure exactly what she was thinking in that moment, but he had always assumed she didn’t know what to make of it. She didn’t know how to react.
“Billy, you wrote this?”
“I just wrote what they were saying.”
“What who was saying?”
“Oh, right. The bugs.”
She paused and studied the message, scribbled in blue crayon by the hand of her eight-year-old son, surely trying to make sense of it. Krang often thought of his mother’s reaction in this moment. He had come to realize the message didn’t seem to be something a child could come up with. It seemed too advanced for an eight-year-old, even for her eight-year-old, who was enrolled in the gifted program at his elementary school. Insects spoke these words to him, and as an adult, definitely as the mother of the child making such a ridiculous claim, that had to be a confusing, downright chilling revelation. She buried the page in the top desk drawer, surely hoping this would be the last he would ever mention it, but it wouldn’t be. It wasn’t until years later that she would admit to him the message had always frightened her. She hoped it meant nothing and that it would bring nothing.
The awkward silence was interrupted by the chiming of the doorbell. Guests were arriving early.
Inside his head, he heard the cassette tape clicking off.
Krang stood on the sidewalk. The cold and the shock of panic numbed his face until it felt as if his skin were a mask, that his real face was buried deep inside, somewhere below the surface. His right eye was starting to throb. He had trouble with it off and on all his life, but the pain had never been this severe before. Though this would normally be of concern to him, he hardly paid it any mind. His eyes remained glued to the graffiti, to the very same message he himself had scribbled across a page of his coloring book some twenty years previous.
Phone to ear, the crackling static transitioned into a high-pitched squeal, one that would startle and possibly even damage most ears, supposing they could even hear it at all, but to a hearer, immunity to the pain set in long ago. Though it wasn’t painful to him, he was still startled to hear the sound. It was a sound he found familiar, a sound similar to the high-pitched language of insects. Though this time, for the first time he’d ever experienced anyway, the insects had something else to say. All his life he had heard the language of insects, but they had always said the same twelve words over and over again: Ashok burn right hand of men. To Neptune, rebirth in blue fire. Ashok burn right hand of men. To Neptune, rebirth in blue fire. Ashok burn right hand of men… Always those twelve words, always in that order.
A loud clicking sound popped in his ear as the insects continued to chirp, causing memories of the cassette tape to come rushing back. This time the cassette played a conversation he had later that week, a few days after his eighth birthday, a time he was talking to a line of fire ants as they feasted on a dead cat somewhere along his street [he couldn’t remember the exact location, it was too long ago].
“I don’t think my mommy believes me,” young Billy said to the trail of marching fire ants as they crawled toward their meal. Even as they devoured the rotted flesh, their mouths full of putrid meat, they all continued to chant: Ashok burn right hand of men… Ashok burn right hand of men… Ashok burn right hand of men. To Neptune, rebirth in blue fire. Billy aimed the microphone end of his Talk Boy at the cat corpse and watched closely as the ants dined. Later that night Billy played back the recording, excited to discover he had captured the voices of the chanting insects on tape. He immediately ran into his parents’ bedroom to show his mother and father. When he told them the news, his mother looked over nervously at his father, who then appeared annoyed.
“Well, let us hear the tape, Billy,” his mother said. Billy nodded, wide-eyed and smiling. He pressed play. Sure enough, the insect chants were still there on tape, barking loudly from the speaker, “Ashok burn right hand of men. To Neptune, rebirth in blue fire.” But as the cassette played, his parents didn’t react in the way he thought they would. All they did was glance at each other, saying nothing at all.
“See? I told you they can talk,” he said.
His mother sighed. “Billy, using your imagination is okay. It’s normal. But I think you’re getting a little carried away here.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“I just don’t think you need to go on about this. It may sound silly to you, but the more you say these things, the more worried your father and I are about you. You seem to be using your imagination so much that you’re confusing it with what’s really going on around you.”
“But I’m not making it up! Listen, can’t you hear it?”
His mother looked back at his father.
“Billy, all I hear on that tape is the sound of you breathing into the microphone,” his father said.
“What?” Billy couldn’t believe it. They couldn’t hear the sound even though he had recorded it and played it for them himself. He rewound the tape and played it again. He heard the breathing sounds his father mentioned, but even louder and more pronounced was the sound of the insects. He didn’t understand why they couldn’t hear the same sounds he was hearing. “Listen, there it is! I recorded it! It’s real!”
“Billy, turn off that goddamn tape and go sit in your room,” his father commanded. Billy looked up at him, tears of frustration welling in his eyes. “Right now!”
He clicked off the tape and went into his room. For the next hour he recorded his parents arguing from down the hall. They were always fighting because of him. Afterwards his mother came in and talked to him just before tucking him in bed. She apologized for his father getting upset, something the man would never actually do himself, and told him it would be best not to mention “the bugs” anymore. Even though his curiosity of “the bugs” was only just beginning, he agreed and nodded his head. She kissed him goodnight. When she left the room, he pulled out his Talk Boy from beneath the blankets and rewound the tape. He listened to the recording of his parents’ argument until he fell asleep. Just before the end of the tape, the argument ended and there was a click, the sound of the microphone being turned off. For the last thirty seconds of tape, sounds of chanting insects and Billy’s breathing blared from the Talk Boy’s speakers. No one in the house seemed to notice.
Bill Krang breathed heavily into the receiver of his cell phone. The cryptic message silently shouted its coded demand from the brick wall behind him. A gust of cold wind nipped at his face, bringing the rotted stench of the alley dumpsters along with it. He hardly noticed. He was feeling even more anxious now. Hearing this voice on the phone, in the same way he had always heard insects speaking, brought him close to a full on panic attack. He felt he was finally going to get the answer he’d always been looking for, but somehow just the thought of knowing sickened him.
The voice instructed him to go to an address on the other side of town:
1780 YGGDRASIL LANE
PHILADELPHIA, PA 19145
He was also instructed to come alone.