Flash Fiction: Shaky Bones by James Cato

There’s one! Yes, the fairies are stunning. As infants, they’re cream-colored constellations with nimble legs, blood-orange as Bengal tigers. Once mature, they fly like velvet curtains, sunset highlights on their backs. This one is an adult and I kill it with a brick. Peace be with you, fucker.

The Woods Kids were the first to name them fairies. Others call them Spotted Lantern Flies. The Woods Kids hunt them all day in the glades of our nearby forest with surgical masks and weapons because they have nothing else but Zoom classes. I see them while walking my dog, Bunt, and they raise bb guns in the air like a salute. Noble warriors.

Whatever you call the fairies, they’re invasive insects deliquescing our local trees. To wage war, we all march in our stomping shoes armed to the molar. The Woods Kids shoot them and I use my handy brick. Ms. White swings a mallet and Ms. Bridges whips the flyswatter. Around my town I’ve also seen shovels, hammers, glue traps, hoses, a blowtorch.

You say your town but really it’s your parents’ town. You live in your childhood room writing hundreds of cover letters, four months unemployed, going on five. As a kid you adored the creased walls of this house, how the kitchen sweats on humid days, the crinkle in your carpet, the cartoon print-outs nailed like a mast over your bed. Now the house’s skin is wrinkly, the kitchen sweat is nervous, the cartoons better left to memory

There’s one!

Bunt leaps with two paws pressed together, crushing the fairy into asphalt. The old dog is arthritic but he smashes fairies with more vitriol than anyone. One kill, one biscuit, that’s the deal. I spot a gorgeous specimen testing her nacreous wings in the dew of a sugar maple. She has an elegant face, high cheekbones, a resigned expression. I wing the brick, blasting her flesh to bits. Bunt snorts, as if to say That’s How We Do It.

My grin fades, though. The sticky soot of fairy corpses dots the path like mulberries. My hands start shaking.

The world grows warmer and hungrier while farmers burn heaps of exsanguinated cows, pigs, and chickens, their meat worthless. You see friends across the street, across the river, across the screen. The venomous clock in your foyer drinks whole nights away. Your parents age with the house, minds developing long shadows. You join the protests in your city but few things change

“You’re Lois’ son! That you there, Bunt, old pup?”

It’s Mr. Segal, my neighbor. He beckons me over to an aquarium on his patio containing two striped snakes, shiny as ribbons. They’re mating. Shallow eyes glint up at nothing, intimate reptiles turned to a caduceus. “I’ve trained them,” Mr. Segal whispers gleefully. “They eat nothing but those fairies, now. No natural predators, my ass! I’ll train their offspring likewise. Bet you never saw a serpent get gravid before.”

It’s true. I haven’t.

“Funny how this onslaught of fairies exploded the same time as the virus,” he continues. “Don’t you just wish we could squelch it all? Crush the corona, hose away the system, stick the economy on double-sided tape? Ha. My wife isn’t doing too well boxed up like this. Her Parkinson’s judders the whole house at night. Terrible feeling, that quiver of the drywall, it prickles my skin. The old shaky bones. I leave to clear my head, drive back and forth in the driveway, slushing fairies.”

There’s nothing to say. I just appreciate that he doesn’t ask what I’m doing home after finishing grad school. Bunt and I bid him farewell and continue on home.

Later, I find myself lying on my bedroom carpet, counting the individual yarn bumps from corner to corner. After two hundred and ten I give up; the bumps begin to remind me of a terrible rash. I’m possessed with the urge to dig my fingers into this sea of soft carbuncles and pull, straining against the carpet crinkle. The wool groans as I imagine a new world underneath it, hoping for lacquered hardwood or quaint limestone tile or a tar pit sewn with the elegant bones of long-dead mammoths. Even clenched tight my fingers tremble.

Things are getting worse. Your friend died by suicide; you found out from a Facebook post. You were surprised, shocked, even, though in hindsight the despair is logical. Was it isolation? Joblessness? That uncertain oozing future? You’re like him, an actor without an audience, the uneasy lead teetering on his tiptoes, looking on empty bleachers

My boots slap along past sunset. I scour the earth for bright dots or a waxy shell. None appear. Desperately, I flip stones and climb a sugar maple, wedge myself in the canopy. None. Where have they gone? This beautiful clean tree, we must save it. I slide my hands around the circumference of each cratered branch, searching for a Tinkerbell to squeeze to death. I find nothing.

The bough snaps under my weight and I plummet. My hands find holds but my brick shatters below. I let my feet inch with gravity, knuckles grinding on dried sap, until I reach dirt and safety. The brick shards remain as a little monument. Plodding home, defeated, I find Mr. Segal stooped on the curb wearing nothing but pajama bottoms. A muffled voice howls within, the shutters fairly shuddering with each cry. He gives me a sad smile. “She’s got the shaky bones,” he says. “Nothing to do but wait for it to pass.”

As a child, James Cato ate a sweet potato that was actually sour and it changed his outlook in a big way. He has co-written a book, Litter of the Waste, with his oldest friend. He has previous or upcoming publications in Daily Science Fiction, The Molotov Cocktail, Gone Lawn, Atticus Review, and The Colored Lens, among others. He tweets humbly @the_sour_potato and his work lives on jamescatoauthor.com/fiction

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