A YEAR AGO
Brad Smudge rested a hand on his daughter’s shoulder as they surveyed the rows of cannabis plants. The smell of ripe buds hung heavy in the greenhouse and some of the green leaves were turning yellow. Moisture dripped off the glass and sweat trickled down Cass's skin under her tank top.
The old farmer took a deep breath, “darlin, that there’s the smell of money.”
“It smells like skunk. Would this stuff survive outside?”
She raised her voice over the sound of rain pattering down on the glass roof. It was the end of August and thunder-stormed almost every day. Very atypical weather for the Greater Toronto Area.
“Mary Jane likes it warm with just the perfect bit of humidity, she doesn’t like to get her knickers damp. This dang summer’s been wetter than an otter’s pocket.”
Cass strolled down the rows of plants, the heads on them dark and turning a reddish color. Her father followed with a notepad, taking a final count of his inventory.
The greenhouse was the size of a large backyard pool and it took a second mortgage on the farm to build it. It had been nearly invisible at the rear of the property, until her dad had installed his LED grow lights. He’d put them in a couple weeks ago, complaining bitterly about the added cost and how, “the cussin’ clouds were stoppin’ the sun from doing its damn job.”
The farm was very private, being surrounded by several hectares of crown land. But now Brad Smudge’s Grow Op could be seen glowing at night. He’d hooked up a gas generator to power the lights and was bringing in fuel by the gallons.
If her mother was alive, she would have shut old Brad Smudge’s pot emporium down in a New York minute. Arlene Smudge had been a ferocious Métis woman and her French-Canadian spice, tempered with the farming wisdom from her indigenous heritage, kept the family firmly grounded. But now there was no one to harness Brad’s wild ideas and he was making some risky decisions.
“Didn’t Carl from across the road come tell you it was dangerous to grow this stuff? Wasn’t a Grow Op a few concessions over robbed?”
“Carl should mind his own damn business. Who takes advice from a guy trying to farm Buffalo meat? Just because he drives around on that rusty Harley Davidson, he thinks he’s some kind of criminal know-it-all.”
“I hear Buffalo is a great low-fat alternative, but Dad, back to what you’re trying to farm. Are you sure this is a legal grow? You’re not great at paperwork.”
“I already have a buyer for it. The Alcohol and Gaming Commission believe it or not. They are sending their inspector tomorrow and then it’s steak dinner for us!”
Her father was short and muscular with just a slight beer belly. His thick hair stuck out like a hockey player under his John Deere ball cap. Cass inherited his body shape, minus the stomach pot, with her own spectacular spill of long dark hair. Her light brown skin and sensible nature came from her mother. A sudden wave of love washed over her watching him tend his crop. After Arlette died of cancer last year, they’d learned to depend on each other, becoming very close. Her mom had used hash oil in her tea for nausea relief near the end.
“Look at these darn bugs,” he said, pulling a shiny green beetle out of the soil.
The bug crawled over his hand, trying to scuttle back to its dark spot, and Brad started as if stung, “Dang gone it, got me a bad feeling about these things. Your ma was the one for premonitions, but I think I’m havin’ one.” He shuddered. “I just imagined what would happen if a hundred of these critters hit my corn field. It’d look like a nuclear bomb hit it.”
He tried to squash the bug between two thick callused fingers, but it shot out of his hand unharmed and disappeared into the dirt.
“Can they ruin your sale?” Cass asked.
“Not if I have anything to do with it. I’ll scour each and every plant. Even if it takes till sun rise.”
“It’s already getting past seven Dad; you should get your rest.”
“Nope. A farmer tends to his crop. Now throw your rain jacket on and head out.”
Cass stepped into the deluge and ran towards the house. The corn plants on the rest of their acreage wilted under the rain, the stalks small from too much moisture. They wouldn’t even be able to harvest it this fall if the land didn’t dry up.
She hoped she’d get a good night’s sleep. It was a big day for her tomorrow. She was starting her internship at a local media company in Toronto, part of her film college program. Steven Spielberg -move over.
Cass banged through the screen door, peeling off her wet clothes and littering the hall. The decor of the farmhouse was simple and comfortable. She walked along the frayed carpet to the bathroom and drew herself a bath in the clawfoot tub. Pouring in some of her favorite bubble bath, she drifted off in the warm suds. Her eyes flew open when she heard what sounded like a gun.
She sat up quickly in the bath water, now cold. Who shot skeet at night? And hunting season wasn’t for months. She threw on a bathrobe, grabbed her cell phone, and charged out the door in her rubber boots. The trail was muddy; the sky black with clouds; the rain a light drizzle.
She stopped when she saw the headlights of several ATV’s with tow-behind trailers parked outside the greenhouse. Piles of plants were tossed haphazardly in the dump carts. Four dark forms moved among them. Her throat spasmed and Cass threw a hand up to her mouth to stop from calling out. Tucking herself behind one of the larger trees, she pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. A tear slid down her face, she couldn’t risk calling for help right now and draw attention to herself. She waited until she heard the ATV’s driving off through the bush towards the crown land.
When she was sure they were gone, she dialed 911 while slipping and scrambling through the mud to the greenhouse.
“Dad, are you okay,” she wrenched open the door with slippery hands.
Her dad was tied to a chair. Blood matting his thick dark hair where two bullets had torn through his head.
The shiny green beetle crawled off the backpack and onto the wide white desk. Multiple legs propelling it towards Cass's arm. Tentacles twice the size of its inch-long body gently probed her hand resting on the mouse. Her eyes teared as a vision of her father, though he was distorted and enormous, filled her mind. The image changed to a swarm of green bugs on a dune-filled landscape, scuttling over dead bent trees. Cass blinked, feeling a tickle on her right hand. One of those horrid bugs was on her pinky finger. She remembered her father finding a beetle the day he died. His killers hadn’t been caught and she phoned the police once a week looking for updates. She hadn’t had a good night sleep since the murder, trying to figure out why someone would kill her father over some stupid plants.
Now one of those beetles had hitched its way in with her to work. She grabbed a Kleenex and tried to crush it. Even though she gave it a good thump, it scurried away into the shadowy wires behind her monitor. She’d tell her boyfriend, an arborist specializing in invasive species, about the beetle later. Right now, she had a deadline to meet. Writing headlines for an agricultural website had to be done quickly to keep the “click rate” high. The more intriguing her line, the more people would click through to the full story, the more her company could charge advertisers.
Killer tomato blight creates huge market shortages
Cass tapped on her keyboard. She tugged on a strand of her black hair hard enough to hurt and hit delete.
Tomatoes die and farmers cry
Fries without ketchup? Say it isn’t so!
This line of copy would have to do.
The full news article talked about local restaurants forced to adjust their menus with a restricted supply of tomatoes. Not exactly the film career she’d hoped for, but she was lucky to have this job. When she lost her dad, she got enough in life insurance to pay off the debt on the farm, but not enough to keep herself in college.
Though devastated by his murder, she’d forced herself to drive to her internship the next day. And a good thing she did. When the marketing writer for the Farm News website went on maternity leave, Cass was in the right place at the right time. With global food insecurity becoming a thing, subscriber numbers were through the roof. Everyone wanted to know why grocery prices were so high. Most of her stories were about crop failures and infestations. The pictures were stomach churning. Black fruit, vegetables covered with fuzz, lots of those weird green bugs crawling everywhere in gloomy, rainy weather.
Heads sprout every twenty feet or so in the open concept plan at the office. It’s the human equivalent of an industrial chicken farm. Big TV screens broadcast the different channels originating from the building. She’d love to move from website writing to TV Production. One step closer to her film dreams.
A news report on the TV closest to her was broadcasting about the unusually rainy weather. More than a year of above average precipitation. The Toronto Islands were almost completely submerged and everyone who lived there evacuated to the mainland. The screen showed people canoeing down the bicycle paths with pets and carting bags of belongings. The show segued into a breaking news alert about crowds protesting the price of bread outside the Parliament buildings. Wheat crops suffered as much as corn this season.
Her work was on the shores of Lake Ontario, directly across from the Islands, and beside the Redpath Sugar factory. She had a good view of it from her desk. It was a huge brick building, with no windows and warehouse doors large enough for a transport truck. Water lapped at the concrete border, flooding the sidewalk with every wind surge. Sugar workers toiled diligently with sandbags to create a barrier.
She finished up the last headline and then packed her bag to go. Living on a farm; more than an hour away from work; made for a long and painful commute. Cass cranked up the radio, letting hard rock assault her eardrums. But the loud music didn’t stop visions of her Dad with the green ball cap blown off his head. Blood dripping down his thick arms. Why couldn’t the police find the scum-bastards who thought an addictive leaf was more valuable than her father’s life? She gripped her steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. She couldn’t let rage distract her from navigating the wet highway.
Cass pulled into her driveway and looked out at the sky. Was it clearing? The old farmhouse looked sunken and small, like it was also grieving the loss of Brad and Arlette. Sun broke through the clouds and she felt a bit of rare peace as the warm rays touched her cheek. She got out of her Subaru wagon and walked up the old wood steps through the front door. Navajo rugs added color to the small rooms and dated decor. Her mother had weaved them herself and were the most beautiful things in the house.
A big black pickup truck with rust on the side rattled into the driveway. Cass leaned out the front door and shouted at the tall skinny man who climbed out of the cab.
“Let’s have a picnic! I think it might actually be a clear evening.”
“Love of my life, anything for you” Devon said, “just let me change.”
He gave Cass a kiss on the cheek and dropped his yellow work overalls by her backpack. She went into the kitchen to make a basket of bologna, processed cheese, and rice cakes (pickings were slim at the grocery store). Devon lived with his parents up the road on a beef cattle farm. His day job was taking care of all the public park trees, keeping them trimmed and healthy. They’d been casually dating for a couple of years, but after Brad Smudge was murdered, he came by with flowers, beef pies, and a suitcase.
“I was going to propose before living together, but no way I’m leaving you alone now. The ring can come later,” he’d said.
She went out to his truck and put a couple quilts in the cargo bed then went back for the food. Devon, in jeans and a clean shirt, grabbed the picnic basket from her.
“Did you call the cops again today?” He asked as they drove to the back of the field where the view was most spectacular. Cass’s farm had a huge berm of cedar trees planted along the road for soil erosion. The barrier was also great for privacy. Devon had brought over some of his Angus cows to eat the corn left in the field. Almost no local farmer had bothered combining the rain-stunted silage. The black beasts scattered as the four-wheel drive tore through the mud.
“Yes. Still nothing,” she gestured to the bucking cattle. “I can’t believe people are trying to steal your cows off your family farm. At least you can’t see them from the road here. Plus, the standing corn isn’t going to waste.”
Devon smiled at her and parked on the highest point of the land. Both of them hopped into the back of the pickup truck. The view was spectacular. Pine trees and farm fields rolling as far as the eyes could see.
Cass reached into her wicker picnic basket and passed her boyfriend a beer.
“I found one of those green bugs in my backpack. Are they still spreading in the region?”
“Well, I saw some oak trees that didn’t look so good. Trees are dying faster than we can plant them.”
Cass took a sip of her drink, “and no one can identify them yet?”
“I bagged one of the buggers to send off to Pest Control Canada. But I figure it’s a new invasive species.”
“Just what we need, another evil breed of bug,” Cass took a cheese slice from the basket.
They ate and laid back on the blankets in companionable silence as the sky got darker. A few light trails shot across the sky.
“Did you see that! Was there supposed to be a meteor shower tonight?” Devon sat up quickly.
“Looks like it landed in the next field,” Cass said.
“Well, we don’t want to be conked on the head by a rock,” Devon joked, “Let’s head back.”
Cass noticed a glow coming from the other side of the field, “Why are the grow lights on in the greenhouse? I told you to stay out of there!”
“I’m getting tired of eating rice cakes babe. Your dad’s greenhouse is enormous. We could feed a family of eight for a year,” Devon’s face reddened as his voice rose.
“I’d rather starve. It’s full of bad memories,” she clenched her fists.
“Look, I wanna test a theory. I’ve noticed when I add more LED lights, the bugs scatter. I’m planting fruit and vegetables. Kale, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, and strawberries.”
“I swore I would never go back in there,” she softened a little.
She went to bed hungry every night. Her favorite jeans were swimming on her. Cass’s mouth salivated at the idea of fresh strawberries. The produce section was bare at the market. Arlette had taught her to make amazing strawberry pies, and she could sell them at the roadside, or give them away to hungry families.
“Whatever, do you what you need to do,” she muttered as they drove back up to the house.
She didn’t wake Devon up in the morning, quickly getting dressed and heading out the door. Normally she gave him a kiss, and but he had kept her up till midnight talking about his plans for the cursed greenhouse. She kept seeing her father’s bloody body, murdered for a plant. She plotted revenge instead of sleeping.
In the morning, she could swear she saw even more bugs than usual inching along the battered corn stalks, but it was hard to tell in the dim early morning light.
Cass drove exhausted to the city with waves of rain beating against the windshield. Last night’s clear skies seemed a dream. The slicing of the wipers was so loud she couldn’t even hear her rock music. The highway ditch was littered with hydroplaned cars, but she managed to get to work safely before the real rush-hour. Arriving early worked in Cass’s favor to find a premium outdoor parking spot. The underground parking lot was flooded.
She turned on her computer and the first story she had to write was depressing. Farmers committing suicide at an alarming rate. The piece explained crop failure, low yields and financial troubles were to blame. Cass tapped out quickly:
Why are our farmers dying?
Short and dramatic, good for “click through.” Some of her co-workers had been laid off as the economy slid into a depression, but the Farm website was growing in popularity. The public was trying to understand why they couldn’t buy fresh vegetables and food banks were running out of food. She looked out her window at the new sign posted on the flooded loading dock of The Sugar Factory.
Redpath is closed until further notice due to high water levels.
Cass noticed another green bug crawling on her desk. Instead of trying to smush it, she let it crawl onto her palm. A vision of her father tied in a chair, a man pointing a gun at him. She recognized the mutton chops and scarred face. Her neighbor Carl. She watched, horrified, as he fired. Her vision washed out in a sea of red.
“You were in the greenhouse, weren’t you?” she whispered, shaken by the revelation.
Gasping, she dropped the bug and charged out of the building. The drive home a blur as she kept seeing Carl shooting her father. Both men giants. The blood splashing onto the leaf she’s watching from.
Pulling into her driveway, the downpour exhausted itself into a persistent drizzle. She didn’t notice the black pickup truck in the driveway. Devon intercepted her mad dash down the hall with the tractor keys in his hand.
“What are you doing home?” She asked.
“My hours have been cut back, so I’m working in the greenhouse.”
She yanked the keys out of his hands, “We have to go over to Carl’s right now! I think he murdered Dad.”
“Slow down. Why would an old wanna-be biker kill Brad Smudge?”
Devon and Cass crossed the country concession from the far edge of their land to pass onto Carl’s land surreptitiously. He had a few Buffalo grazing his hay field with chain link fencing and signs posted every few feet.
Danger. Keep Out. Buffalo Pasture.
They clambered over the fence and dropped onto the grass.
“Sssh,” Devon said gesturing to a bull sleeping in the grass several feet away. His heavy head rested on the ground while his long damp fur stuck to the sides of his enormous torso. Long tapered horns framed the wide head. They walked quickly by him, the creature not even stirring. Two other buffalo, smaller than the bull, were at the back of the paddock, heads down nipping up alfalfa.
“What kind of Buffalo business survives with a herd of three?” Cass asked.
“A front organization, that’s what kind,” Devon said, his tall frame hunched as he ran along the edge of the fencing.
At the back of Carl’s property, there was a small stable and riding arena. It had seen better days, the paint peeling off the barn board. Trees surrounded the building, old oak and walnut half dead, and a back driveway accessed the cavernous riding area. A few Harleys, in far better shape than Carl’s, were parked near the roll-up door.
“Maybe Carl isn’t such a wanna be after all,” Devon crept up to an oil-streaked window.
Cass followed him and they peered into the arena. There were rows and rows of green plants hanging upside down in the ring. Wire was strung from one end of the 70’ by 130’ foot space to the other. A couple of rough looking men in leather jackets with some sort of patch on them were sitting in lawn chairs in the corner.
“Can you read the patch?” Cass asked, her face flushing with anger, “They must have killed my dad for his pot. They aren’t growing it. Just drying and selling it.”
“We don’t need to know which biker gang did this, let’s get out of here and call the cops,” Devon put a hand on Cass's back and hustled her through the buffalo paddock.
“Devon. I think one of those strange bugs telepathically showed me Dad getting shot,” tears gathered in her eyes and there was a strange sensation in her stomach. She didn’t know if it was relief, anger, or nausea.
“Really? Maybe those bugs could be useful after all,” he ran faster.
The large bull was awake and grazing when they scuttled by, but he ignored them. Jumping up onto the fence, the both of them clambered over, ran across the road, and flew into the farmhouse.
Cass pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. She called 911and reported the illegal operation across the road and her suspicions about the death of her father. She didn’t mention telepathic bugs. Devon went out into the struggling corn field and came back fifteen minutes later with two of the beetles in a mason jar.
They both cupped one in their hands. The little legs tickled Cass's hands as she felt the creature exploring her palm. No panic or attempt to escape. The same vision of a dune-filled landscape, with dead bent trees. She held the bug longer this time. Two moons were in the sky, and strange rock formations could be seen in the distance.
She opened her eyes and looked at Devon, sliding the bug back into the jar.
“What did you see?” she asked.
Devon also placed his bug back and closed the lid. The two green creatures roamed around the bottom of it, tentacles exploring the glass.
“I think I saw the prairies, but all the crops were gone. Just dirt and bugs everywhere,”
“I saw something similar, but I don’t think it was on Earth. It was like a planet that’d been completely devoured by bugs.”
They stared at each other, as sirens in the distance grew closer.
6 MONTHS LATER
Cass flicked on the news to get an update on the state of the world.
“Global flooding is the worst it has ever been. The constant rain has helped the “Yama Bug,” as scientists have dubbed it, decimate our crops.”
She clicked to another channel
“India is in crisis and the people are rioting, famine is a reality…”
“Food insecurity in the United States had led to civil unrest in the streets…”
“The Yama Bug, coined after the Hindu god of death, and we don’t know where the species originated from. Pesticides don’t kill them…
She turned off the television and turned to Devon.
“Is this how we go? Humanity gets taken out by the Bug Age?” Cass asked.
She looked out the window where a green beetle probed the glass with long tentacles. It looked perfectly content bathing in the sheets of rain lashing the house. Devon hiked around the property every morning and had some favorite bugs he visited. He would give them a quick touch to see if anyone was casing their farm. It took practice, but the both of them were learning how to tap into the beetle’s telepathy.
He had been laid off completely from his arborist job, but Cass was still writing her headlines (and even articles now) from home. As long as the power was still on, people wanted to keep tabs on agricultural news.
“If we can learn to work with the bugs, maybe the rest of the world can,” Devon pulled on his raincoat.
Cass slipped into galoshes and followed him out the door. The two of them walked to the back of the property where her father’s greenhouse sat, glowing with the extra generator-powered lights. There was a river at the back of the property and her boyfriend had figured out how to tap the water’s energy to run his generator. She followed Devon in through the door and breathed deeply. The smell of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries filled her lungs.
She could finally handle being in the place her dad died.
The bikers were convicted of drug trafficking, and Carl jailed for the murder of Brad Smudge. Carl had been the president of “Satan’s Sinners,” a small local biker gang, and the police found many weapons hidden in his barn, including the murder weapon. Carl’s oily fingerprints all over the rifle that killed her father. The bug’s vision had been bang-on.
She took out her iPhone and filmed Devon working on his plants and replacing LED bulbs. They had started up their own farming YouTube channel, called “Survive the Yama.” They were teaching families how to grow enough food in small greenhouses to last them at least a year. So far, having enough light seemed the best way to fight the beetles. They didn’t like the sun, bright light, or LED grow bulbs. Scientists were working around the clock figuring out how to disperse the cloud cover and let sunlight bathe the planet again. So many people were watching Cass and Devon’s videos, they sometimes crashed the site.
When she got enough footage, she pressed her nose up against the glass to look outside. She was finally a film maker and she silently thanked Brad Smudge for this greenhouse. It was their only hope for survival until they could figure out how to either stop the Yama beetle, or co-exist with them. So far, they had proven to be wonderful sentries. The world needed better communication. Perhaps telepathy was the answer?
She shuddered thinking about the dreadful dead landscapes in her early visions from the bugs. In the darkening evening she saw the bright glow of another meteor catapulting to earth. It tore a beautiful line of light through the cloudy sky.
What she didn’t see were the thousands of green bugs nestled within the silicon, iron, and nickel of the space rocks.