BY ANNA ROSE GREENBERG
Ever since Anthony had been in grade school, people had called him Ant. This originated when he stuck a piece of baloney on the ground, waited for ants to gather, and then ate it, relishing the tickle in his mouth even as the other children shrieked. Now the name is a little less visceral, given to him because he happens to be an entomologist. He still eats ants when no one is looking. Spiders too.
Anthony isn’t quite middle aged, but he is old enough that staying up all night is a struggle. He likes wearing shorts and sandals at any temperature above 40º, and his glasses are chosen for indestructability rather than fashion.
He is about to go out for a jog when his phone rings, ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ filling the air. (Though it isn’t ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home,’ it’s ‘The Ants Go Marching One By One;’ they just happen to share the same tune).
Noting the name of the caller Anthony says, “You’ve reached the voicemail of—”
“Ant, you’ve tried that the last two times I’ve called, and I didn’t fall for it the first time,” says James Kippler, Anthony’s boss at a research laboratory associated with Vineta University in Colorado.
“That’s because I laughed and gave it away,” says Anthony.
“I’m dead serious, if you keep up this sort of thing I will fire you and you’ll have to go live off grubs in the wilderness,” says James.
“Please, you’re just describing my dream vacation,” says Anthony. “Now what’s this all about?”
“Tell me, Ant… have you ever been east of Kansas?”
“Well, east of Kansas there are these little critters called fireflies.”
“Okay, I need to stop you there: ‘critters’ refers exclusively to mammals. ‘Creepy-crawlies’ is the correct terminology for insects,” says Anthony.
“Whatever. These little critters have been appearing en masse in a small town in Iowa called Lamplighter’s Landing,” says James.
“And you are going to go there and see what’s attracting them.”
“What do you want me to do when I find out?”
“Just research for now, but once you figure out what’s causing the swarm contact me and I’ll give you further instructions.”
“Splendid,” says Anthony. “I always wanted to go to a creepy town in the Midwest.”
“It’s not creepy, it just has an insect infestation,” says James. “Now get a move on, I sent you a flight itinerary. One of the locals will pick you up once you get to Des Moines.”
“Roger that, over and out,” says Anthony, and hangs up.
On the plane, Anthony sleeps, head lolling against the window. His dreams are turbulent, vivid:
He is trapped in a web of constellations and the spider is near. He screams and ants stream from his mouth, each carrying a fragment of his soul in their mandibles.
An hour-and-a-half later he stares bleary-eyed at the luggage carousel as it continues not to have his suitcase, circling round and round again. His bag is full of equipment for capturing and analysing insects, and his trip is useless without it. He has an electroantennogram for measuring pheromones; a microscope and slides; a dissecting kit; several tools for measuring enzymes that don’t have names much beyond ‘that blue tool on the table there’ or ‘the funny silver thing’; a retractable net; and of course, a killing jar. The paperwork to take the equipment into the field was hellish, and he can only imagine what will happen if he loses it.
Just as he is about to give up hope, the bag is regurgitated with a loud ‘thwump.’
A young man waits for Anthony, holding a sign that says ‘Anthony King’ in large, careful red letters. He is of average height, a little shorter than Anthony, with sandy brown hair. He wears navy pants, a grey-and-yellow striped button-down shirt, and a pair of aviator shades.
“Hello, Dr. King! I’m Felix, Felix Milton,” he says, eagerly shaking Anthony’s hand while somehow taking his luggage and not dropping the sign. “We’ve got a long drive ahead of us, so we’d better get going if we want to get there by dark.”
“Please, call me Anthony. Or Ant,” says Anthony.
“I think I’ll go with Anthony, if that’s all well and good.”
“Sure. Now where’s the car?”
Felix drives a car that looks old fashioned, with black enamel and an extended back, but Anthony doesn’t know enough about cars to name the make.
As he turns it on, an audio book starts playing:
“Hark! On Earth is Pandemonium! Heaven’s mirror, Hell’s symmetry. Under the Damocles Sword of night the beast howls with three mouths, judgment’s call watered down with cheap absinthe. It is blackened and gnarled and hungry and waiting. Let it wait.”
“What book is this?” asks Anthony.
“It’s required reading for a club I’m in. I don’t remember what it’s called,” says Felix, and turns it off.
Anthony gets the distinct impression that Felix is lying, although he can’t figure out why. He doesn’t seem like the type to be in a book club.
“I’ll bet you’ve never seen a town like Lamplighter’s Landing,” says Felix, changing the subject. “It’s small, but it’s really something special.”
Felix drives at a leisurely pace, exactly the speed limit. It frustrates Anthony, who wants to be at their destination already, and other cars swerve around them to go faster. Also infuriating is the utter lack of hills. The flat landscape seems to go on, and on, and on, and on. Most of the fields have already been harvested, so there’s just ugly stubble on the ground and not even majestic flowing wheat, or corn, or soybeans, or arugula.
“What makes Lamplighter’s Landing special?” asks Anthony.
“Oh, lots of things,” says Felix. “There’s a very colourful history-”
“‘Colourful’ as in ‘horrific murders’ or ‘colourful’ as in ‘historical battles?’” asks Anthony.
Felix laughs. “Neither. Lamplighter’s Landing was founded by a man known only as ‘The Lamplighter.’ He wired up the whole town back when electricity was still a rarity.” He seems to be about to add something else, but stops and adjusts his sunglasses instead.
Anthony doesn’t consider this particularly colourful or even interesting, but he keeps his mouth shut.
“What do you do for fun there?” he asks.
Felix shrugs. “Watch movies. Play sports. There’s an amateur theatre group that’s usually pretty popular. Speaking of movies, I hate Children of the Corn. I’m just going to put that out there right now.”
“Never seen that one. My favourite movie is Them!” says Anthony. It was impossible to go wrong with giant ants.
“That one gives me the creeps,” says Felix, shuddering. “Ants are bad enough when they’re small.”
“I love ants,” says Anthony. “They’re great. Did you know if you spray ants with the pheromone indicating they’re dead, the rest of the colony will drag them to the ant cemetery even as they desperately try to crawl back to the surface?”
“I didn’t want to know that. I don’t like thinking about them swarming like that, just hundreds of them.”
The thought of hundreds of ants makes Anthony’s mouth water. “How much longer do we have to go?”
“About three hours,” says Felix. “If you want to take a nap that’s fine.”
Anthony shrugs, then closes his eyes and tries to sleep. He’s too jittery after the flight, so he just lets his thoughts drift. He wonders what it would be like to be a bug. He imagines that he would quite enjoy it.
Before he knows it, they’ve arrived.
“We’re here,” says Felix, and Anthony peers out the window. He expects something out of small-town America, like in the movies. An old-fashioned pharmacy, a mom-and-pop store, that sort of thing. Instead, it is ultramodern, with innovative architecture and boutique shops. The buildings are composed of colourful stacked cubes, have spires like seashells, or are made of stained glass. Anthony thinks it’s a colossal eyesore.
“Lamplighter’s Landing. Population, 1,200,” says Felix proudly.
“Felix, you mentioned that this was the one of the first places to be electrically wired, but I don’t see any power plants anywhere near here,” said Anthony.
“It’s uh… all underground,” says Felix.
He must have forgotten that he is wearing sunglasses, since dusk is rapidly falling on the town. It is lit up brightly, with neon signs and ornamental baubles.
“We’ll get you all set up, and then you’ll want to see the fireflies, right?” asks Felix.
“Sounds like a plan to me,” says Anthony.
“We don’t have any hotels or anything in town so you’ll be staying with my family—is that okay with you?”
“You don’t have bedbugs, do you?”
“What? Of course not!”
“That’s a pity.”
Felix stares at Anthony like there’s a worm hanging out of his ear.
“It’s just a joke… I’m an entomologist. I like bugs,” says Anthony.
“Ah,” says Felix, looking unconvinced.
Felix lives with his parents and his grandmother in a roomy house that looks like it was plucked out of New England, down to little baskets of seashells placed on wicker tables. Anthony’s room is small, with rancid mustard coloured wallpaper, a huge mahogany dresser topped with another basket of seashells, and a portrait of someone Felix says is the Lamplighter. The portrait is a little off-putting, and the artist doesn’t seem to have a great grasp of anatomy. The arms are long, the jaw unhinged, but there’s no accounting for taste.
He unpacks, carefully checking all his equipment to make sure it wasn’t damaged during his flight. Everything seems to be in order.
Felix is in the living room, speaking in a hushed whisper with a woman who Anthony would guess to be his grandmother. She must be blind, as she’s wearing dark glasses.
“I know you did this dozens of times when you were my age, you don’t have to lecture me,” snaps Felix, “I know what I’m doing.”
“I’m just making sure,” says his grandmother. “Because if he figures it out—”
“He won’t,” says Felix, and turns to Anthony as he arrives.
“Good timing. The fireflies are out in force; you can even see them from here with all the light pollution. Let’s head out.”
Anthony brings with him only his killing jar and a small, fine net.
Felix is right; Anthony can see the cloud of fireflies from where he stands on the front stoop. It is like a glowing haze gathering on the fields at the outskirts of town. The greatest concentration is around a tree that stands alone in the centre of a field.
“Let’s go over there,” says Anthony.
“It’s not safe near the tree,” says Felix. “It’s old and rotten and could fall on us if we’re not careful.”
“So we’ll be careful.”
Felix frowns, but he follows Anthony.
Anthony has somehow never actually seen a firefly before, never been in the right place during the right season. He knows all about them, knows their biology and behavioural patterns, but has never encountered one in person. He can hardly believe his eyes, stunned by the Morse code flashing.
“You know, fireflies are the ghosts of lightning strikes,” says Felix pensively. “Every time lightning hits the ground a firefly is born.”
Anthony laughs. “That’s silly. Fireflies lay eggs like any other insect. Did you know the enzyme that makes them glow is called luciferase?”
Felix does not seem interested in this piece of information. Anthony is too polite to ask him if he has an eye condition that would lead to his wearing sunglasses at night.
Anthony catches fireflies in his net effortlessly, a dozen of them falling in with a single flick of the wrist. He shakes them into his killing jar, keeping a few in the net for live analysis. He should have brought a second jar, but it would have been hard to carry and even if they escaped from the net the fireflies would be harmless.
“Okay, I’m done here,” says Anthony. “Shall we head out?”
He has dinner with Felix’s family. Sweet corn, pork chops, wild rice, and string beans. It is not very good. Felix’s family says nothing. They don’t acknowledge Anthony’s presence at all. Anthony notices Felix doesn’t touch his food, doesn’t even push it around.
“Aren’t you hungry, Felix?” asks Anthony.
“I uh… ate at the airport,” says Felix.
After dinner, Anthony retreats to his room. He waits for a minute, and then locks the door. There’s something about this town that seems somehow off, though he can’t place his finger on what. It doesn’t matter. Finally, he can examine the insects he caught.
This is what he finds:
1. All his dead fireflies, the ones in the killing jar, have vanished. The live ones in his net are still there. When he touches them, he receives a small static shock.
2. The fireflies are secreting incredible amounts of pheromones.
3. None of the females have any eggs, fertilized or not.
4. The fireflies all have increased amounts of luciferase.
Where could his dead fireflies have gone? He feels a sinking in his stomach, a sensation that something is seriously wrong. Felix must have taken them as a joke, a trick on the big-city scientist.
He needs more samples, which he’ll have to get tomorrow. For now, he can do something he’s been wanting to try all night. He pops one of the fireflies into his mouth. It tastes bitter, chemical. When he sticks his tongue out in front of the mirror it glows.
It takes him a long time to fall asleep, and when he does his dreams are full of wasps, laying their eggs in unsuspecting caterpillars who will soon be devoured from the inside.
He wakes up, drenched in sweat. Breakfast is waiting for him, eggs and toast and fresh pastries from the bakery down the street.
“What are your plans for today?” asks Felix, appearing out of nowhere. He is wearing a different pair of sunglasses today, ones with white frames and multi-coloured lenses that make him look like an alien.
“I thought I’d look around the town a little and catch more specimens this evening. My results were inconclusive last night.”
“Okay. Stay away from the tree in the field, it really is dangerous.”
Someone knocks at the door. Felix races over to open it. Two other young adults stand on the stoop, a man and a woman. Both are wearing sunglasses.
“Felix!” says the man, slapping Felix on the back.
“Sam!” says Felix.
“Why weren’t you with us yesterday? We energized!”
Felix glances at Anthony.
“Ah-ha! We heard this one was coming,” says Sam.
“He’s nerdier than I thought he would be,” says the woman.
“He’s not deaf, Laura,” says Felix.
Anthony decides he doesn’t like Felix’s friends. He’s not Felix’s biggest fan either.
Laura laughs, her mouth open wide like a hungry snake.
Anthony sits down and starts to eat his breakfast.
“When?” asks Laura.
“Tomorrow night,” says Felix.
“What fun!” exclaims Sam.
“Why do you all wear sunglasses?” asks Anthony, examining a croissant. “It’s not that bright out.”
Felix and his friends look at each other.
“It’s fashion, darling,” says Laura. “Get with the times. Let’s go, Felix.”
They depart. Anthony finishes eating. He doesn’t have much of an appetite, though he pushes his eggs around a little.
Now that Felix is gone, he can get a good look at that tree. His theory is that the fireflies are laying massive quantities of eggs in the rotten wood. It doesn’t explain why the females are seemingly infertile, but it might provide some clues. He takes his equipment and furtively heads out across the field. There’s nowhere to hide, and the tree is visible from most of the town.
It’s pitch black, rotten to its core, twisting roots sprawling out from it like a spreading infection. It stands alone in the centre of the barren field, stark under the blue sky.
Anthony takes a razor blade and scrapes at some loose bark.
In black soil it spreads tainted divinity. It bleeds tarlike corruption that is eaten up by the land, slurped down like ambrosia. It is in agony, forever reliving its anti-Icarian fall. They tend to it the—
Anthony reels back, bark sample in hand. The summer heat must have got to him. He’ll head back into town, do his research, maybe catch a movie.
Anthony begins his tests. He expects the bark to be riddled with eggs, but it is completely barren. In fact, it doesn’t even seem like wood under his microscope. Not that he really knows wood all that well; he’s a bug guy. The back of the bark, the side that was touching the tree, is coated in luciferase.
Anthony scratches his head with a microscope slide. This is quite the conundrum. He doesn’t even have any theories at this point.
He texts James: Checking in. Never seen anything like this before. Not sure how much more I can do here.
James texts back almost immediately: Keep at it. If you can’t figure it out no one can. Also, all flights are full due to a comic book convention here. Can’t book a ticket home right now.
Good to know. Anthony might be here for a little while. He needs more specimens, so he’ll just have to wait until dusk.
Having nothing better to do, he goes to the movies. The place has marquee lights, flashy posters for the latest films, and the cleanest floors Anthony’s ever encountered in a movie theatre. He watches a movie about a spy from Mars, which is moderately interesting.
Felix is back when Anthony returns to the house. He’s on the phone, an old fashioned one, twirling the curly cable around his fingers while he speaks.
“Yes, James. I know. Thank you for sending him. But I thought he’d be stupider. Don’t correct my grammar; you’re my cousin, not my English teacher. I get it, he’s got the ‘spark’ we’re looking for. We’ll do it tomorrow night. It’s supposed to storm, you know. Yeah. Ye—” he spins around, clutching the handset to his chest.
“When did you get here?” Felix asks Anthony, and slams the handset down on the receiver.
“Just now,” says Anthony. “I’m going to head out to catch fireflies in a little bit. Who were you talking to?”
“No one you know, I’m sure. I’ll come with you. You shouldn’t be wandering alone at night.”
Anthony shrugs. “Suit yourself.”
Once again Anthony heads straight for the black tree where the fireflies are thickest. They swarm like gnats, creating glowing contrails.
Halfway there, Felix trips over an irregularity in the ground. His sunglasses go flying, clattering somewhere into the darkness. He scrambles to his feet, his hands pressed tightly over his eyes. “Give me my glasses,” he says, an edge of panic in his voice.
“I don’t see them,” says Anthony, glancing at the ground.
“Look harder!” snaps Felix.
Anthony wonders what this is about. Felix seems more worked up than he would be if they were just the fashion statement Laura had claimed them to be. He decides he’d rather see what this is about than find the glasses. “I still don’t see anything,” he says.
Felix exhales slowly. “Okay. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this. Anthony, I’m about to show you something, and I need you not to freak out. You see, there are a few of us in town descended directly from the Lamplighter. I am one of them. We have a few mutated genes… nothing major, but the result is that bioluminescent proteins express themselves in our eyes. It’s completely natural, just unusual. Did you get all that, Anthony?”
“Yes,” says Anthony. He holds his breath in anticipation.
Felix slowly lowers his hands. His eyes are bright yellow, the colour of a ‘yield’ sign under headlights.
Anthony gasps. He’s seen many strange and wonderful things, mostly in the insect kingdom, but this is something else entirely. He feels hunted; he feels the urge to run away from those glowing eyes as fast as he can. He shakes his head, and the feeling fades. It’s just a genetic mutation after all, like Felix said. Nothing to get worked up about.
“Now please collect your samples so we can go home,” says Felix.
Anthony dutifully collects fireflies, putting at least two dozen in his killing jar and more in his net.
When he arrives back at the house, the jar is empty.
Anthony attempts to quell his feeling of foreboding by immersing himself in his work. He takes a firefly from his net, pins it down, and inspects it. It has no internal organs—no heart, no stomach, no intestines. It has no brain. It’s just wings, an exoskeleton, and the bioluminescent systems.
The next firefly is the same, and the one after that.
Anthony puts down his tools, his heart racing. Something sinister is going on around here. His empty killing jar. The vestigial fireflies. He’ll fly out first thing tomorrow morning, bargain for a ticket if he has to, bring in a team of people who will know how to handle this sort of thing. Government people. He’s supposed to be the expert, but some things are just too much for a simple entomologist to handle. Someone else will solve this puzzle, and he’ll never step foot in Lamplighter’s Landing again.
With this soothing thought, he goes to bed.
He dreams of the thing hiding behind the shadow of the sun. He dreams of the slumberer in the ocean’s depths. He dreams of the generator in the earth—
He wakes up and leaps to his feet, dreams still lurking in his brain. He races to Felix’s room and bangs on the door.
After a few moments Felix opens the door, a sleep mask pushed halfway up his face, revealing one glowing yellow eye.
“What?” he mumbles.
“I need to borrow that book on tape we listened to in the car,” says Anthony.
“The audio book. I need it.”
“You don’t want to save it for the ride tomorrow?” asks Felix, even though Anthony is pretty sure he never mentioned wanting to leave tomorrow.
“No. Now,” says Anthony.
Felix grumbles something and rummages in his room, in the dark. He comes back holding a battered iPod, which he presents to Anthony.
The book, it turns out, is called The Lightning’s Hunger. Anthony finds where they were in the car, and listens.
“It fell through endless domains of night, darkness that snarled at the light, fell down and down until it could fall no further. It resided there, for a time, in that realm of nightmares manifest and crushing damnation, and then it clawed its way right back up, as far as it was able. It sunk its roots where the corn grew tall, and blighted it all with bounty. The Lamplighter came across it then, in his search for Arcadia, and it blessed him and his spawn, and they flourished. The lamps were lit. People were drawn to them like moths to a flame. Every few years, as part of their covenant-”
Felix’s iPod dies. Anthony lets out a grunt of frustration, and bangs on his door again.
“What?” growls Felix.
“Do you have a charger for this?”
“No, I usually charge it in the car. I lost the base a long time ago. Go to sleep, you can listen to it in the car tomorrow, like I said.”
Anthony sighs and returns to his room.
He doesn’t sleep. He buys plane tickets (he has no trouble getting one) and stares at the remaining fireflies until their lights wink out and the sun rises.
“My car won’t start,” says Felix the next morning.
“Can anyone else take me then?” asks Anthony.
“No. No one else wants to drive six hours round trip, no matter how much you pay them.”
“I’ll call a cab then.”
“Cabs don’t come out here. Again, six hours, not worth their time, and even if it were, it would be almost dark by the time it reached here.”
“So I’m stuck here?” asks Anthony, and he can feel tears of frustration welling up in his eyes.
“My car should be fixed by tomorrow,” says Felix. “It does this sometimes.”
Clouds hang ominously over the town, great dark storm clouds like dust bunnies in a haunted house. Some fireflies flicker out in the fields, fooled by the false darkness. Thunder grumbles.
“I’m just going to stay in my room today, I think,” says Anthony, and returns to the house.
Felix’s car is towed to the auto repair shop and Felix goes off somewhere. Anthony tries to call James over and over, but James isn’t picking up or answering any of his texts. All the fireflies Anthony has collected are gone. Someone’s rummaged through his suitcase and miscalibrated all his equipment by a tiny, tiny increment. Someone’s taken every piece of his clothing and set a single moth loose to eat holes in it.
Anthony can’t take being inside any longer. He’s going to find out how deep this—he’s not sure it’s even a conspiracy—goes.
“Excuse me, ma’am?” Anthony asks a little old lady on the street.
“Yes? Can I help you?” she replies.
“Do you know where this town gets its electricity?”
“I never really thought about it. I assume there’s a power plant somewhere?”
“There’s not. You can see for miles, there’s nothing there,” says Anthony.
“That’s peculiar,” says the old woman.
“What do you know about the Lamplighter?” asks Anthony.
“You know, it’s nice to have someone to talk to, but this is awfully unusual.”
“Please. It’s important that you answer my questions.”
“The Lamplighter founded our town. I never paid much attention in school, but I always assumed he was a puritan-like fellow.”
“We get our power from wherever everyone gets their power,” says a bored-looking teenager. “The Lamplighter’s just an urban legend. I hear if you break a streetlamp he’s supposed to eat your face or something. I don’t know.”
“I think we use clean energy here. Solar power mostly, maybe geothermal,” says a man wearing horn-rimmed glasses. “The Lamplighter’s just plain creepy. I think he’s a marketing ploy.”
“Dr. King, you certainly are asking a lot of questions,” says Felix’s friend, Sam.
Anthony runs into him near the main street while pursuing his inquiries.
“I think you should go home now… it’s going to get dark soon,” says Sam.
“Do the rest of the townspeople know about your eyes?” asks Anthony.
“Felix showed you, hm? Some know, some don’t.” Sam escorts Anthony back to the house.
Dusk falls. The fireflies emerge.
Anthony paces the small room. His suitcase lies packed on the bed, but he suspects that it won’t be coming with him. He’s turned the room upside down looking for something he can’t name. Under the bed he found some writing carved into the bedframe:
Now I lay me down to sleep
The fireflies my soul to keep
He hears voices down the hall. He can’t make out the words, but his sense of foreboding grows stronger. Quickly, he barricades the door, pushing the bed against it and leaning the heavy dresser over that. The doorknob wiggles, and Anthony’s breath catches in his chest.
“Anthony! Open up! They fixed my car early; we can go to the airport now, if you’d like.”
The door rattles.
Anthony opens the window as quietly as he can and squeezes out. He drops down onto the ground and begins to run.
He ran a marathon last year, but hasn’t trained heavily since then. He doesn’t know how long he’ll be able to keep up his current pace, and he knows full well his life depends on it. But where will he go? There’s nowhere to hide for miles. The corn that might have shielded him has all been harvested. He’ll just have to keep running and figure it out along the way. Besides, it’s growing dark and he’ll have to stop soon. He estimates he can get in three miles before the sun has totally set. A three-mile head start.
Anthony sees movement out of his peripheral vision. He continues to run, forces himself not to look back. Nothing good ever comes of looking back. Laughter accompanies the growling thunder, and despite himself Anthony turns. Felix and his friends are in pursuit. Their yellow eyes glow in the gloam. They eat up the ground like nightmares, quickly closing the distance.
Anthony gets the strong feeling that he’s merely running in place, and then he finds himself in front of the black tree, dazzled by fireflies. He would swear he was going in the opposite direction, but the black bark before him tells another story. He skids to a stop, staring with disbelief and horror at the crumbling wood.
“Okay, stop,” says Felix, pulling up next to Anthony. “We’ve got him.”
“Is that all? The last one kept us going for miles,” says Sam, wiping his brow.
“You could barely keep up,” says Laura.
The skies open. Rain pours down, a warm sticky summer torrent that does nothing to clear the air but leaves it hard to breathe.
Lightning strikes and strikes again.
And again, each time hitting the black tree with a sizzling, cracking sound. The smell of ozone and burning meat fills the air. With each strike, a shower of fireflies appears. They float with such density that Anthony, Felix and his friends, and the black tree are illuminated by their greenish-yellow light.
“Please… please…” says Anthony, tears catching in his throat, “I just wanted to look at bugs. That’s all I wanted. I’ll leave here and never speak a word of this to anyone, I swear.”
“We really don’t care,” says Sam. “You’ve got a soul and you won’t be missed, and that’s good enough for us.”
Felix leans into the black tree, his face almost touching its bark. He begins to whisper, words that Anthony can’t make out, but which grate on his brain like mosquito bites.
The streetlamps back in town flare up. The marquee lighting and neon signs grow brighter.
The black tree begins to move. It yanks free humungous roots, roots as thick around as a Roman column. It is a writhing mass of damp wood, and on top are three conical mouths full of sharp teeth. Electricity dances between its whipping tendrils. It howls, and the sound is enough to make Anthony drop to his knees before it.
“That’s right! Kneel!” laughs Sam.
“Let him have some respect,” says Felix. “We’ve already won. Do you have any last words, Anthony?”
Anthony had planned out an entire selection of last words during happier days, most of which involved bug puns, but he can’t think of a single one. “I don’t want to die,” he wails.
Felix sighs. “They never do. If it makes you feel any better, know that you’ll live on in the lights of Lamplighter’s Landing, your sacrifice keeping our town bright.”
This is not comforting at all for Anthony, who wishes the town would fall into eternal darkness, but he is well past confronting Felix on this point.
“Goodbye, Anthony,” says Felix.
The black tree places its three heads in front of Anthony and inhales sharply. Anthony feels something leave him, something more precious to him than anything else, though he hasn’t known it until then.
The lights flare again in the town, brighter this time.
Anthony feels himself shrinking. The raindrops seem bigger, the fireflies the size of his fist. His skin hardens, and his eyes turn compound. An extra set of limbs sprouts from his torso. He is an insect, a whole new classification. Genus Anthony.
Felix has brought the killing jar.