Fiction: What’s For Dinner?
By Mark Mitchell
The wind slammed against Wayne’s back, pushing him toward the homestead. He ran at a frantic pace, slowed only by the constant looks behind him. He had a cloth wrapped around his head and he held one end over his mouth. Still sand got in everywhere. His nose, eyes, ears, and down his throat. The relentless wind would punish anyone foolish enough to venture out of doors.
With pinwheeling limbs he willed himself on. Each step closer to shelter took more out of him. He stumbled, falling to one knee. The breeze, as if seizing the opportunity, raised the top soil in a forceful gust. The tiny grains of rock pelted the young man. Any exposed skin felt the dozens of pinpricks as he gave an agonized grunt.
Tears welled in his eyes and made the sand sting that much more. Until he made it inside there was nothing he could do to protect himself.
He took another glance over his shoulder to remind himself why it was important for him to get up. He turned a shoulder and bowed his head away from the offending force until he had regained his footing. He dashed across the hardpan and lunged for the door.
His hands fumbled with the rusted latch. Sand tinkled against the wooden slats and the wind howled through the eaves. He had to let go of the cloth around his head to use both hands to open the door. The wind ripped the cloth from his head and it sailed through the air. Soon it could no longer be seen behind the wall of particles in the windstorm.
The latch popped open with a metallic screech and Wayne fell through the door. From his back he kicked the door shut and jumped to his feet to secure the lock. Once done, he leaned against the door, feeling it breathe as the wind caused it to buckle back and forth. He used the moment of calm to collect his own breath.
When he turned around he found his family all had fixed looks upon them. Four sets of wide eyes, none more so than his younger brother Patrick.
“What was out there?” Patrick said. “Is it coming?”
Before Wayne could answer, his father took hold of the conversation by saying, “Go get cleaned up. We’re about to have supper.”
Wayne took a step toward the table which dominated most of the available space in the homestead. The room served all functions. It was the dining room, kitchen, entertainment room, and bedrooms for all three kids - their lumpy mattresses were stacked during the day to provide more space. Only their parents had a separated room with a door that closed. Sand wafted from Wayne’s shoulders as he moved across the uneven floorboards.
He said, “Don’t you want to know about–”
“I said get cleaned up.” His father looked away, putting an end to any discussion.
Wayne pursed his lips with frustration. He appealed to his mother standing over the stove. She refused to meet her son’s worried face. Wayne knew it was useless to fight his father’s commands, but what he’d seen needed to be shared. He opened his mouth again to try and explain.
“Get going, boy,” his father said. “Your mother’s worked hard to provide a hot meal for us.”
Wayne slipped away to the corner of the room where a basin of water and a bar of soap were laid out for everyone to use. Being the last to arrive for supper, the water was already a filthy brown color. Wayne spent no more than a second before plunging a washcloth into the water and scrubbed the caked dirt from his face and neck. He then scooped up a handful to rinse the grit out of his mouth. He spit the dirty water back into the basin.
When he was as clean as he could get for the moment, Wayne took a seat at the table next to the youngest of the family. Maisy used several broken crayons - pure gold to the under ten crowd - to draw a picture of a fantasy life.
Wayne stole a peek at her work. Five figures - clearly the family - stood holding hands underneath a rainbow. Maisy was in the process of finishing the arching phenomenon with the limited colors at her disposal.
“You know,” Wayne said, “rainbows are no longer considered a sign of hope, right?”
Maisy set down the orange crayon and looked back at her brother. Wind slammed against the side of the house. It’s howling moved through the homestead.
“I think rainbows are pretty,” Maisy said.
“Yeah, well.” Wayne leaned in close. “They mean death now.”
“Wayne, stop trying to scare your sister.”
Wayne gave his father an incredulous stare. “Don’t you think she’s old enough to hear the truth? I mean, come on, it’s not like things are getting better out there.”
“One should always save room for hope,” his mom said. She placed a trivet on the table in preparation for the coming meal.
“I have a report to make.” Wayne held a stoic countenance as his eyes moved between his parents. “It’s important and I don’t think it should wait.”
“Well, it’ll have to.” His father stood and gathered up Maisy’s crayons and drawings, much to her disagreement. Wayne’s expression dropped into one of frustration, though he made sure not to let his father see it.
Their mother used some repurposed snow gloves to handle the hot dishes and brought them to the table, placing them on the prearranged trivets. Wayne felt his stomach gurgle. He had built up quite a hunger on his scouting mission, having no more than a couple nut bars - hard clusters of acorn held together with a sticky resin, which Wayne never bothered to ask where it came from - in his pockets to sustain him while trekking over the foothills. He grabbed his plate and reached out to the nearest dish to lift the lid off the top.
“Who’s turn is it?” His dad said before Wayne could liberate the lid. His father looked around the table for an answer. Wayne fell back into his seat and crossed his arms.
“It’s Patrick’s turn,” Maisy said. She pointed an excited finger at her older brother. Patrick folded his legs under him on his chair so that he could sit higher and assess the table.
“This is so stupid,” Wayne said under his breath, though in the small room it was easily heard by all. He fixed his gaze to the corner of the room where their beds were stacked.
“All right, Patrick,” their father said. He rubbed his hands together and placed them on his thighs. “The big question falls on you tonight: What’s for dinner?”
Patrick’s eyes grew wide as they moved from dish to dish. Their father shot Wayne a look after Wayne hurrumped his displeasure. The father then softened his expression when he faced his middle child.
“I think it’s going to be corn on the cob,” Maisy spoke out of turn. “And mashed potatoes, and…and…”
“Maisy,” father said, turning his face at an angle. “It’s your brother’s turn. He’s very capable of answering for himself.”
Maisy closed her open mouth, but showed no signs of diminished anticipation. Wayne took a peek at his mother who sat at the other end of the table from their father. Her face was placid and serene, but Wayne sensed a touch of sadness behind her eyes. As if he wasn’t the only one tormented by this game, though he’d never ask his mother what she thought of it. Wayne knew there were some things you just couldn’t talk about, and the “What’s for dinner?” game was one of them.
“Do you need a hint?” their mother said.
“I’m thinking,” Patrick said. “I’m thinking.” He tapped his thin finger against his lips.
Outside thunder rumbled in the distance. Wayne caught his parents looking at one another. His father’s jaw muscles clenched. He must have known the news Wayne had to report now.
“Go ahead, Patrick,” father said. “Before it gets cold.”
“It’s roast turkey,” Patrick said, “with all the trimmings. Roasted carrots swimming in a buttery glaze. Smashed sweet potatoes with a mound of toasted marshmallows on top.” With each side item, Patrick’s enthusiasm grew and his voice raised several octaves. “There’s cornbread dressing with diced celery and bits of italian sausage.”
Their father smacked his lips and rubbed his belly. “Is that all?” he asked.
Patrick shook his head. “There’s also homemade cranberry sauce and green beans with real strips of bacon. And ice cream for dessert.” He thrust his hand in the air, displaying his three middle digits. “Three different types. Strawberry. Coconut…”
He paused while he thought of the last flavor.
“And rocky road!”
The family clapped, all apparently on board with that night’s menu. Wayne took the opportunity to huff one final grunt of disapproval.
“Let’s see if you’re right,” their father said. “Who wants to do the honors?”
“Me!” Maisy jumped out of her seat and reached for the main dish. She raised the lid, releasing a pitiful cloud of steam.
What laid on the platter was not the extensive meal Patrick had dreamt up. Instead it was the same gray brick of meatloaf they had night after night. All of the excitement Patrick had instilled in the family was let out like air escaping from a balloon. With the fantasy over, reality settled in.
Wayne shook his head. “Why do you torment yourselves like this?”
No one ventured to respond. Mother sliced the brick into five equal shares and balanced each thin sliver on her fork and knife as she placed the “feast” onto each plate.
“I really thought I smelled turkey this time,” Patrick said. He wiped his nose from his elbow to wrist. His sunken eyes rested on the meager meal before him.
“You were close,” their mother said. She placed the last slice on her own plate and resumed her seat at the end of the table. “We’re having quail tonight.”
Maisy and Patrick groaned. They had voiced their displeasure with the gamey taste the last time their mother had prepared a meal out of quail.
“Don’t look so glum,” she said. She picked up her napkin and spread it across her lap. “Just be glad there’s some meat left to eat. We’ll have to wait for the next shipment to restock our supply.” She flicked her eyes at her husband before staring down at her calloused hands in her lap.
“The next shipment?” Wayne said. “Wasn’t the last shipment supposed to be here two weeks ago?” He looked back and forth at both his parents. Neither met his eyes.
Maisy used her fork to break off a piece of the meatloaf. It crumbled easily since there wasn’t much holding the loaf together.
“Is there gravy?” she asked.
Without looking up, their mother said, “There in front of you.”
Maisy lifted the lip on the smaller dish near her. She held up a spoonful and let the liquid fall back into the bowl. The contents resembled the gritty water they used to clean up more than it did an actual gravy.
“Don’t play with your food,” their father said. He forced another bite into his mouth and chomped down on something hard. The sound made everyone glance over. He pulled a small bone out of his mouth and held it up to the candlelight.
“Sorry.” Their mother’s face turned a shade darker as she blushed. “I thought I pulled out all the bones to make the gravy with.”
“Perfectly fine, my dear.” He placed the bone aside and wiped his fingers off on the front of his shirt. “It’s wonderful, otherwise.”
Wayne slammed his fork down and pushed his plate away.
“How can you call this wonderful?” he said. He stood up with such force, his chair clattered to the floor. “How can you call this a meal, huh? We’re left here on our own to eat scraps while they live in their houses eating extravagant meals every night. I’m sick of it.”
“Wayne, sit down.” Their father set his utensils down. His countenance firm, but not angry. Not yet.
“No,” Wayne said. “I won’t. Not this time.”
His father opened his mouth to speak, but Wayne cut him off.
“A storm’s coming,” he said. Three simple words, but enough to make everyone bristle.
“Mom?” Maisy said. Their mom patted her hand.
“It’s all right,” she said. “There hasn’t been a storm in many years, from before you were born. I’m sure there isn’t one now.”
As if to undercut her sentiment, another bout of thunder clashed outside. This time closer to the homestead.
“It’s coming,” Wayne said. He turned to his father. “You’ve taught me what to look for on the horizon, ok? The clouds are building. It isn’t some passing system with a few sprinkles. This is going to be a downpour. It’s going to awaken them.”
Maisy began to blubber. Their mother stood and ran to her. She picked Maisy up and held her in her arms, moving her away from the table. Wayne approached his father and leaned over the splintered wooden slab they used to serve their meals.
“You have to believe me,” Wayne said. “You have to get on the radio now.”
“Let’s just calm down,” his father said. “If in fact a storm is coming–”
Wayne slammed a fist down on the table. His father’s drinking glass bounced and rolled onto its side.
“There’s no time.”
Wayne kept an unblinking stare on his father, who didn’t respond. He seemed to be mulling over the information in his mind.
“Ok,” his father said finally and stood. “Show me.”
Wayne let out a sigh. A sign that his father was starting to believe him and to treat him like the man he was becoming.
“It’s big,” Wayne said and added, “massive.” His outstretched hands trembled with adrenaline. His father crossed to the hamper near the door. He fumbled inside until he came up with a pair of gloves and something to wrap around his head.
“Where’s your scarf?” he asked his eldest son. Wayne looked to the floor.
“It blew away.” Wayne looked up. His father rummaged around and gave him a third-hand sleeve that had been ripped from a larger shirt.
“This will have to do then.”
Wayne nodded his thanks and set to preparing to go back out into the wind. His father turned to his wife and other two children with their ashen faces.
“Stay inside until we come back.” He looped his own scarf around his head and said to his wife, “You might want to prep the radio.” He signaled for Wayne to open the door.
The second the latch had been lifted, a gale force wind invaded the house and blew a curtain of sand across their unfinished meal. Wayne ducked his shoulder and stepped through the threshold. His father not far behind.
The wind engulfed the homestead and proved to make their task difficult. Wayne tried to look at the horizon where earlier he had seen the beginnings of the thunderheads, but the blowing sand prevented him from doing so now.
“Come on,” his father said from somewhere inside the cloud of grit. “Follow me.”
They trudged ahead, making slow progress. Wayne stumbled over and over, but because of the harsh blowing, his father never got very far ahead. They made their way toward a copse of cottonwoods - some of the only trees out on the hardpan. With the infrequency of rainfall, hardly anything grew in the surrounding areas of the homestead.
Standing behind the trees, they were shielded from some of the barrage. The father covered his eyes with his hand and looked skyward.
“Oh my god,” he said.
Above them were layers of clouds, all of them a deep midnight charcoal. The entire landscape had muted colors from the lack of sunlight able to get through. A rumble sounded from the bowels of the swift moving mass. It appeared as if it could start pouring at any second.
“Was it like this when you were out here?”
Wayne craned his neck to look at the clouds overhead.
“No, this is new,” he said. “I swear. Otherwise I would have been more adamant about what I saw.” He pulled the top of his coat closer together. “What do you think it means?”
His father spit in a useless attempt to rid his mouth of sand.
“Nothing good,” he said. “Come on, we need to get back inside.”
The trek back to the homestead was made easier with the wind behind them. It took both of them to close the door and get it secure.
When they had got it closed, the mother jumped up from the chair in the corner of the room. In their absence she had uncovered the radio they used to report their findings and to make requests for the monthly drop offs.
“Is it…” She started to say.
“Did you get the radio working yet?” Father asked. She shook her head.
“I think there might be something wrong with the generator.” She looked from her husband to her son. Wayne turned his head to the side and shook the excess sand from his hair.
“Damn-it,” Father said after investigating the radio. “The genny must be filled with sand. We have to get it working somehow.”
“Let me,” Wayne said. He took a step further into the room and raised his head to his fullest height. “I know how to clean it out.”
A bout of lightning lit up the homestead for a brief moment and the thunder caused sand to waft down from the roof. The strike had been close.
“No,” his father said. His eyes focused on the non-working radio. “I don’t want you going back out there.”
“Someone has to,” Wayne said. When his father wouldn’t look at him, Wayne crossed to the hamper and dug out their box of tools. The rattling of the box’s contents altered his father to his actions.
“What do you think you’re doing?”
“My part,” Wayne said. And with that he opened the door, allowing a fresh barrage of sand into the homestead. His family ran over and secured the door behind him.
Through the haze, dancing flames ate away at the small copse of cottonwoods. The lightning must have struck them moments ago and set them ablaze. The heat burned Wayne’s eyes and singed his nostrils. He didn’t have time to worry about the fire or how to put it out, though he knew the wind could shift at any second and float the loose embers onto the homestead.
Wayne made his way around back where they kept the generator. The cover had long since blown off, which had allowed the sand to get inside. He dropped the box of tools and set to remove the front panel. He took apart the air filter and smacked it against his pant leg. A smaller cloud of dust joined the larger one sweeping across the hardpan.
With it as clean as he could get it, he replaced the filter and tried to start the generator. It hiccuped and sputtered, but wouldn’t catch. He would have to try something else.
Wayne reached into the box of tools until he found a small brush. The brush wasn’t much bigger than a toothbrush, and may even have been one in another lifetime. He used it to get into the hard-to-reach crevices of the machine and swept out as much of the sand as he could find. He worked with such intensity that he hardly noticed the wind had died down to little more than a light breeze. It wasn’t until a new fragrance, an intoxicating aroma, filled his nostrils that he looked up from his work.
Tiny splotches darkened the dry earth. The drops grew fatter and fell in greater frequency. Wayne barely had enough time to replace the filter and get the panel back into position before he found himself in a full-on downpour.
The water pelted his back and ran down his neck into his clothes. He tried the generator again. This time it caught. The generator coughed out a dry breath and grumbled into full operation. Wayne gathered his tools and lifted the box as he made his way back to the homestead. Before going through the door he noticed the rain had snuffed out the fire of the young cottonwoods.
“It’s working,” Wayne said as he came through the door. He removed his head covering and shook off the excess water. Neither of his parents had to ask where the water had come from.
His mom sat at the radio and flipped switches; turned dials to get it tuned. A constant static came from the small speaker until a jumbled voice called out of the white noise.
The mom pressed the com button and said, “This is forward position 236, we have a storm brewing here. Request immediate backup. Repeat a storm has moved overhead.”
“Come again…position…six. We didn’t…you.”
She fiddled with a knob. The light which meant the radio was on glowed from a faint yellow to a bright orange.
“This is forward position 236. We need air cover now.”
The voice on the other end broke up even more than before, disrupted by a thunderclap spreading over the homestead. The two youngest kids covered their ears and tried to crawl under the table for safety. Wayne sat with them and did his best to give a reassuring smile, though he was more interested in the conversation over the radio.
“Spearhead 236, state your business.”
Finally a clear voice. The mom leapt at the microphone and pressed the com button.
“This is forward position 236 requesting immediate aircover. Over.”
“What is the nature of the emergency?”
“We have a storm moving in…”
“It’s pouring now,” Wayne shouted out.
“...Heavy downpours and thunder,” his mom relayed. “We need assistance now.”
“236 hold tight.”
The line didn’t go dead, but nothing more came from the speaker other than a muted hum - the room tone of headquarters. Their mom tried to speak but her com button wouldn’t click. Whoever was working dispatch had left their mic on.
“Damn-it,” she said and tossed the mic down. She looked at her husband. He shrugged.
“Maybe they’re getting our coordinates?” he said.
They all listened to the radio. Mom turned the sound up to where they could hear voices talking, but they were too far away to be discernible over the mic.
Maisy shrieked and scattered out from under the table. She turned circles and jumped up and down.
“Get them off me,” she said. “Get them off.”
Wayne came to help her, unsure of what the problem was. Then he saw them. Beetles around the size of a half dollar were crawling from under the door and spreading out along the floor. Some of them had already reached his siblings and crept up Maisy’s backside, disappearing under her hair. She shook to get them off. They sounded like hail as they bounced on the wooden floor. The bugs rolled onto their backs until they could stand again and infiltrate the homestead.
“We have a problem here,” Wayne said over his shoulder.
He helped flick the beetles from his sister’s shoulders and arms. Wave upon wave of bugs continued to fill the homestead.
“We need to get out of here,” he said to his father who was crouched next to the radio.
Their father did a double take as the beetles approached him, moving across the floor as a solid black mass. He stood and bumped into the table the radio rested on. Mom reached out to keep the radio from tumbling to the ground and smashing any hopes they held of being rescued.
The family huddled together and braced themselves against the back wall, the furthest they could be from the door. Wayne stomped on some of the beetles to push them back. They crunched and spit out a gooey green slime. When he raised his boot, strings of the goop stretched out like melted cheese. The bugs were undeterred by his assault and more of them filled the vacancy of their fallen brethren.
“What do we do?” Wayne asked. It appeared they were trapped.
The rain had brought this plague upon them. Resting for decades under the ground, the beetles had waited patiently for a life renewing drink that would signal their resurgence to the surface to repopulate and feast. Now their harvest was upon them.
The beetles jaws clacked together in punchy clicks as they moved toward the cowering family.
“Any ideas?” Wayne said. His voice trembled more than he would have liked it to.
The radio hissed and the voice returned through the speaker, slightly muffled by the crawling bugs on it.
“Spearhead 236, we have aircover set for your sector. Can you confirm your coordinates? Over.”
Their mom stepped in the direction of the radio to answer, but her husband held her back. He shook his head at her.
“It’s too dangerous,” he said. “We don’t know their toxicity level.”
“I have to respond to them,” she said. “It’s our only chance.”
The radio buzzed. “236, do you copy? Over.”
She broke free from her husband’s hold and stomped across the carpet of bugs. Her footprints were captured in neon green outlines of dead beetles. She lunged for the radio com and pressed the button.
“This is 236,” she said. She grabbed a laminated collection of papers that hung on the wall above the radio and flipped them on the O ring that fastened them together. She found the sheet that listed their position and read the coordinates into the radio.
Distracted by her task, she failed to notice the beetles crawling up her legs. Hungry from decades of hibernation, the bugs sunk their jaws into her pliable skin. She screamed out and dropped the mic.
“We have to save her,” Wayne said.
“I’ll go,” his father said and prevented his son from running to her. “Find a way out.” He crunched his way over to his wife and swept her into his arms.
Wayne scanned the room. A forlorn rusted ax was propped up along one wall. Without losing the small amount of energy deciding what to do, he high-stepped his way over the carpet of beetles and lunged for the ax. A few of the bugs had crawled up the ax handle, but these were easily shaken loose. Wayne returned to his younger siblings who were now getting bugs of their own crawling on them.
Their father carried his wife across the mass of bugs just as Wayne set to create an exit for them all.
“Stand back,” Wayne said.
The wood siding of the homestead splintered apart as Wayne drove the ax repeatedly against it. Soon a hole developed for the younger kids to squeeze through. With them safe, Wayne continued to widen the hole till everyone could escape.
The family scrambled out and helped one another dislodge any stowaways that had joined them for the ride. The beetles hit the ground and scattered back toward the homestead, if only to get out of the rain.
Outside the structure there were fewer beetles running around. It was as if they had sensed the food source inside and had gravitated to the family for a long awaited snack. Wayne wondered how long it would be before they realized that the food source had escaped.
“Help me,” their father said.
Wayne took off his outer layer and spread it on the ground. His father laid his mother down. Her eyes were closed and she was unresponsive. They checked her arms and legs. Everywhere the bugs had bitten her were large red welts, a reaction from the toxin in the bugs’ venom.
“Will she be ok?” Patrick asked.
“We need to get her some medical treatment,” their father said. He looked up from his wife to Wayne. Tears welled in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have listened to you sooner. You were right about the storm.”
Wayne gave a half shrug. His own lip quivered, but he did his best to steel his resolve. He said, “Do you think the army will come?”
A loud rumbling cut off any answer his father might have given. Instead of thunder this time though, the sound came from the homestead itself. The structure caved in on itself as the ground around them vibrated. The beams of the roof snapped like twigs and the walls fell in one cacophonous belch.
“What’s happening?” Maisy cried.
A crack ran from the center of where the homestead had been standing moments ago. The ground opened up and a large black horn appeared. A beetle the size of the home itself rose up out of the ground.
“Back,” their father yelled as loud as he could. “Everyone get back!”
The family moved away. Wayne and his father dragged the mom on the jacket across the ground. The kids screamed with a gut wrenching vibrato.
The enormous beetle shook the clumps of earth from its body. Massive boulders of hard-packed soil landed all around the family. From its back the beetle’s wings fluttered, creating an ear-piercing buzz to intimidate its prey. Them.
The family huddled together to make themselves look as big as they could, but also for the comfort being as one provided them.
“Don’t look at it,” their father said. “Look at me. Look at me,” he said a second time and turned Patrick’s face toward his own. “I love you all.”
The beetle moved forward. Wayne felt the vibration from each of the beetle’s footfalls radiate from the soles of his shoes up through his teeth. He closed his eyes and tried to convince himself he would be at peace in what were most likely his final moments.
Then another unfamiliar sound came from behind the knot of family members. Like a sonic boom out of the heavens.
Wayne turned a hopeful eye to the far horizon where three gray dots grew in size.
“Look,” he said and jutted a finger toward the flying apparitions.
Three jets flew over the family and fired into the side of the enormous beetle. Neon green blood sprayed the landscape and oozed into the thirsty earth.
Mark Mitchell graduated from Cal State University Long Beach with a degree in Screenwriting and his short fiction will appear in an issue of Black Sheep: Unique Tales of Terror and Wonder due out later this year. Follow him on instagram @markmitchell.writer.