I liked ants when I was a kid. I remember I did a project on them in the fourth grade and for a year or so after I was full of ant facts that I would share with any adult willing to listen. They seemed like neat, industrious little insects. These days I’m more terrified than impressed.
Earlier this year I moved back to my childhood home, ostensibly to get some writing done. Since my late teens I’ve lived in the city and, sure I wrote, but not as much as I’d like to have done. I’m just too easily distracted, I guess. My dad’s place is in a small town on the Canadian east coast where, and I mean this in a good way, there’s nothing going on. At least that’s how I thought of it a year ago. I wanted fewer distractions and the small town I still occasionally called “back home” seemed like the ideal place.
My father was retired, but made it clear to me that he wasn’t lonely. He and his friends had active lives and he didn’t want his nerd daughter hanging around and cramping his style. He was kidding, of course, he was happy to have me home, but it was true that he was often away on trips with his hunting and camping buddies. I could go a week or two without seeing him sometimes, so I had the place mostly to myself.
It was indeed nice and quiet, but I’d be lying if I said I immediately set out to writing. Turns out I can get distracted anywhere. I’d arrived in town in the late Spring, so the weather was nice enough for me to begin a daily walking routine. Usually I’d spend about an hour just walking around town. I told myself I was using the time to observe the world, get ideas, and think. Really, It was procrastination, pure and simple.
I can tell I wasn’t paying especially close attention to the world because I like to think I could have noticed how eerie things were a lot sooner. There were definitely warning signs.
Most of what I’m about to tell, the early parts anyway, won’t be in accurate chronological order. I saw strange and confusing things, but didn’t make note of them. I didn’t mentally connect them all until later, looking back. But I’m still going to go into as much detail as I can manage. Here goes.
There’s something going on with the ants here. They’re up to something.
To begin with, there are just an awful lot of them around in general. Obviously I remember seeing ants when I was a kid, but they’re ubiquitous now. I couldn’t go two steps outside without seeing them bustling about. They were in the grass, on the driveway, on the trees, along the sides of the roads. Big ones. Small ones. All marching about for their mysterious purposes, day and night. I remember seeing a line of them climbing the outer walls of the bank on Main Street on a rainy day. On another day, I saw a group of them carrying a dozen or more dead spiders down the sidewalk. “They’re always up to something,” I said to myself that time.
I never saw any inside, though. Outside, they were everywhere. I couldn’t help but notice them. But once I was inside a building: none. I mean, that’s a good thing obviously, but it still mystified me. The gas station bathrooms with the door that’s always ajar? No ants. The filthy floor of the worst diner in town? No ants. My father’s garage? No ants.
So even though they were everywhere, I didn’t think too much about them. Occasionally when I was outside, I’d get an itchy feeling on my skin, but once I was back inside it was fine. They were out of sight, so I didn’t worry about it. It was probably like this always, I thought. I’d been in the city for so long I must have forgotten. When I mentioned it to Dad one time, he dismissed it.
I kept up my walks as we got into the summer. There’s a path through the woods that runs past my dad’s place. Taking the path makes it only about fifteen minutes to Main Street area. About halfway down that route there’s a decent-sized field that, as far as I know, isn’t a part of anyone’s property. This was just scenery to me until one day I happened upon three cats sitting in the field. I often see posters for missing animals around downtown, so I stopped to look. Though I probably would have stopped anyway. I like cats.
They sat in a semicircle, not far away from the path. I could have walked up to them with just a few paces, and I may have done so if I hadn’t noticed what they were seated around. There was an unassuming mound at the centre of their grouping. I could tell from where it was, it was an anthill. Presumably it had been there every time I’d walked past, but I had never had cause to notice it.
I watched the cats for a few moments, expecting them to attack the ants or something. Instead a fourth cat came trotting out of the woods at the far end of the field. I noticed it was holding something in its mouth. When it got close enough for me to make out, I determined that it was a dead squirrel.
The new cat hesitated, looked at me for a second, then came up to join its fellows. It walked closer to the anthill, dropped the squirrel, and backed off to join the others in the semicircle.
Instantly, ants coated the dead rodent. The cats sat there watching. The newcomer looked at me again and in a white spot on its face I saw a handful of ants walking over it. I opted to continue on my way home.
On another occasion, walking that same path, I noticed someone walking through the woods. It was nearing sunset, so I couldn’t make them out clearly, but they was wearing a bright white shirt and pants, which caught my eye even from a distance.
It was rare enough to encounter someone on the route, let alone someone making it harder for themselves by staying in the woods off the path. As far as I know there’s not much worth seeing out there and, given the uniform-like outfit, I thought maybe instead of a recreational hiker this was a forest ranger or something. I stood and watched long enough to see them pass by an clearing that left them silhouetted against the sky. There I noticed they were wearing some kind of headgear. At the time I thought it might be a novelty helmet with jokey antlers. But as I made my way home, I realized what they seemed closer to. Antennae.
Writing this all in one place here like it, it certainly makes it all seem related. I feel dumb for not getting curious sooner. But as single occurrences over the course of several months, I hadn’t lost any sleep over it.
Things got more personal for me about a week ago.
Dad was home one night and we were eating supper together in front of the television. He had just finished telling me some anecdote about what had happened on his latest trip when a commercial for a local extermination company came on. The exterminators on the screen were wearing white outfits similar to the one I’d seen on the guy in the woods that day however many weeks before. I said as much to Dad, adding “But the guy I saw had weird things on his head.” and made a little antenna motion with my fingers.
I’d thought he might have been mildly amused, but instead Dad got quiet. “Just a coincidence,” he said finally.
“I don’t know,” I said. “There’s an awful lot of ants out in that area. Maybe the exterminators were doing recon or something. Preparing for war.”
Again, he didn’t react like I’d hoped. “Maybe,” he said with a grunt. “Anyway, you should probably steer clear of the woods. In case they got chemicals out there or something.”
He changed the topic then, and I let him. There had been a sudden worry in his face that made him look so much older than usual. I wanted him to be happy again, so I let him control the flow of the conversation. But I didn’t forget it.
The next day I arranged to have lunch with my only real friend in town. Stella had gone to school with me, married her high school boyfriend, and was still living there. I often jokingly referred to her life as my idea of a living hell, but she was genuinely happy as far as I could tell.
As usual, I walked into town. I didn’t take the path, for the record. I met with Stella at a coffee shop near the post office, where she worked.
We had seen each other just a week before, so we had little catching up to do. As soon as we had received our drinks, I dove into the conversation about the anthill near the path and how I thought exterminators had been looking around the area and how my dad said their might be chemicals. She laughed.
“Well, I can assure you it isn’t that,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Just that you don’t have to worry about any exterminators gassing your field. It’s a sort of protected area.” She blew on her tea. “But you shouldn’t even be talking about it. It’s all fine. Just forget it. And don’t bring it up to anyone else.” Though spoken softly, that last thought carried the intonation of a warning more than simple friendly advice. After that I let another person change the topic on me. Soon her lunch break was over.
I began the walk home again. I wasn’t in the best mood, so I decided to stop into a nearby convenience store and gas station to grab some snacks.
On my way out of the store, I crossed the parking lot just as a car pulled in. It was bright yellow and, though I don’t know cars, I could tell it was expensive. He was obviously an out-of-towner who’d come off the highway. He pulled up to a pump and inserted a credit card. The car was clean and shiny, so it was easy for me to notice the line of ants crawling up the tire, onto the body, and disappearing into the crevice of the trunk.
I wish now that I’d told the man. At the time all I could do was watch, dumbfounded, pretending to tie my shoe and stretch before my walk. The entire time he filled his tank, his trunk was also being filled. When he replaced the gas pump into its holder, the stream of stowaways ceased and before I could understand it, he was driving off to parts unknown with a trunkful of ants.
I walked home, still avoiding the path. Dad was nowhere around. On a whim, I looked up the phone number for that extermination company and called. I gave them my address and said that I’d been seeing ants around the house and wanted them to come get rid of them.
“We don’t do ants,” the man on the phone said. I asked him what they did do. “Vermin. Rats, termites. That sort of thing.”
“Well actually, I think what I’ve got might be termites. I’m not an expert. Could you have someone come take a look?”
“We have no reports of termites at that address,” he said. I didn’t know how to reply to that and hesitated for a moment. The man, apparently accepting my silence as the final word, said “Have a good night.” He hung up.
I was stumped. I sat on the living room sofa, my mind crawling over various ideas but unable find the connective path that made sense of them. The sun set. Eventually I went to bed.
I don’t know what initially roused me, but once was awake I immediately started gagging. The air in my room was thick with an acidic odour. Moonlight was coming through from the edges of the curtains, but still the room seemed somehow darker than normal. I couldn’t tell why until I reached to my nightstand and turned on my lamp. My walls, usually white, seemed nearly pitch black.
They also seemed to be shimmering. Writhing. Teeming.
The walls were covered in ants.
I screamed. The wall of ants wriggled as if it was now aware I was awake.
I coughed and tried to catch my breath. I covered my mouth and nose with a blanket so I could breathe. Through watery eyes, I noticed that a part of the wall was brightening up. The ants were opening up a hole in their insectile mass through which I could see my wall. This white negative space was soon joined by other such holes. The ants were moving, making the holes into shapes.
After a moment, it was clear that the holes were making letters. A word.
After only a second, the ants began shifting again. They remade the negative space until it said: “TWO DAYS.” Then again they moved until it said: “NO MORE.” Finally, they resumed the first shape and the message was “LEAVE” again.
That held for a few moments before I noticed that the ants at the edges of the walls were trickling away. Through the cracks around the door, through the air vent in the ceiling, through the electrical outlets. They vanished. The line of ants surrounding the letters were the last to go.
I spent a few minutes sobbing. I don’t know how long. When I ran out of tears and worked up some nerve, I got out of bed, made my way to the bathroom and threw up. I opened a window to get some fresh air. My skin crawled. I washed my hands and face more than once. There were no ants on me, but I felt itchy.
When I left the bathroom, I found no ants anywhere else in the house. Believe me, I checked. In the kitchen, I found a piece of paper. It was an unsigned note with my father’s handwriting.
“Do as they say. They are only sparing you for my sake. I will miss you as best I can.”
And that was it.
Obviously I didn’t sleep again. I began packing. The ants gave me two days, but I wasn’t waiting around.
I knew this would be the last time I’d see this house. I’d probably, hopefully, never be in this town again. But I still packed as light as I could. Just enough clothes to get by. Some family mementos. My computer.
After a half hour or so of work, I was carrying an armful of books down the hall and nearly dropped them when I jumped in shock. I had heard a voice behind me.
I spun around, not sure what to expect. Had the ants changed their mind? The hall was empty.
But the bathroom window was still open. I could hear people outside.
I reached into the bathroom to turn the light off, made my way furtively into the room, and shut the door behind me. The moon was on the other side of the house, so there was near complete darkness. When my eyes had adjusted, I crept up to the window and peered out.
A line of people were marching by at the edge of the property, moving toward the path. Toward the field. Toward the anthill. Men, women, children. There were cats and dogs in the line too. They all moved in single file. The humans all wore white outfits and helmets with antennae on them.
This parade lasted for five or ten minutes. When they spoke, it was nothing consequential. “It’s going to rain on Monday,” I heard one woman say. Some of them were carrying things, including one old man who held a rifle. I’m certain that man was one of my father’s hunting friends.
I expected I’d see Dad in the line. I’m not sure if I hoped to see him or dreaded it. I feel like I’d probably have more closure if I had. I didn’t, though. The line eventually ended and there was silence outside.
I finished putting my stuff in my father’s car, checking the trunk for stowaway ants more than once. I didn’t open the garage door until I saw the first glimpse of daylight. I was speeding down the highway before the sun had finished rising.
I’m never going back there. But I’m definitely going to keep an eye on the ants in the city. And I suggest that you all do the same.