It started on the Winslow farm.
Bryan Turner came home to his wife just after dark. It was a cool evening, the blue sky over the beet fields mixed with pastel reds, like there were more beets over the horizon, big ones bursting with juice. June Turner received her husband quietly, took his hat and coat and hung them in the closet. Together, with delicate footsteps so as not to wake the children, they repaired to the kitchen.
He guided her to the kitchen table and set the lamp down on it. Then Bryan clasped his wife’s hands in his own. At first she’d reached to touch his fingers but he held her tight. Under the lamp’s dull, flickering yellow she saw the reason why. Her husband’s hands were pitted and torn. Blood ran from between his fingers, and where his knuckles bent new scabs cracked. The streaks on his wrists, what she had thought was wet dirt, were dried now. But at one point she saw he must have bled profusely. The backs of his hands were torn up like a field ravaged.
He forced her to silence with a single, haunted glare. “We went up there, June,” he said, and it was all she could do to keep from crying out. Her lips pressed together into a bloodless line. Bryan’s voice was as ragged as his hands now, unfamiliar. It was not the voice she’d loved and heard goodbye from this morning. He didn’t let go of her hands.
“We went up to Winslow’s place,” he said. He and the farmer’s association had driven up to Judd Winslow’s farm, the one furthest from the highway. Judd had kept a copse of woods on the edge of his property, said he used it for firewood, but the farms all around were wary of it. They heard strange noises from inside, a rustling and a chattering. It wasn’t so large, just a small cluster of green, leafy trees. Winslow always said, it’s my land, not your business.
“We went up there, June,” her husband said again. Her hands began to ache. He held them so tight she felt the heat of his veins. And a tickling movement, like small pebbles running under his skin.
“They were everywhere,” he said. His voice grew more hoarse. It squeezed out of him in disjointed pieces. Something in the bottom of his throat. “In the fields,” he said, “they were in the fields, on the corn, the dogs. Good God,” he said, “the dogs…”
The candle sputtered, and Bryan’s face seemed to shift. A trick of the light, the way his face bulged like that, the way the blood seemed to run from his ears. She told herself it was the hot crimson in the glass jar that painted his face into an ill-fitting mask. And when the flame settled, she knew her husband’s face would be familiar, the man she remembered.
She swallowed hard and forced herself to speak. “Judd…?” she asked. “And Tammy? What happened to them?”
Bryan swallowed too. She watched the bulge in his throat lower, and squirm. “Acariasis, June,” he said. “The ticks took everything. They took the crop. They took the house. And they took Judd.”
June tried to pull herself free of her husband’s bleeding hands. He wouldn’t let go.
His vacant eyes watched her face without pity. The light from the flame did not seem to touch them. They stared at her from deep inside the sockets. Until they tore like aqueous bags. June screamed as the blood gushed from his eyes and mouth. And up from the depths of his stuffed lungs, his last ragged breath terminated in the chittering of a thousand ticks. Their fat bellies bulged like overripe beets, leaping in the candle flame, pouring forth. They sliced their way out of Bryan’s fragile skin and bit through the ruined pulp of his nail beds. The shape of her husband sagged like a wet sack of rice. He slumped over her, and she screamed.
She would not stop screaming until the arachnids tunneled under her tongue. June choked on the bloated swarm, casting her hand aside to the lamp. It smashed to pieces against the wall. And the flame leaped. It slowly burned the wall and rose, higher, to the sturdy rafters of their ancient house, the rich scent of dirt drying up to be replaced by the cleansing panic of fire. And in her dying horror she twisted on the floor, buried under the wet skin of her husband and the thousand tearing mouths of Winslow’s harvest.