By Rex Burrows
I’ll admit that I didn’t notice the infestation until it came fluttering across the living room and landed on my glass.
The harbinger of disaster teetered on the rim for a precarious second and then fell into the whiskey below with a faint but audible plop. The insect was equipped with gossamer wings that seemed somewhat excessive in proportion to its body, which was about the size of a grain of rice. Wings aside, it looked vaguely ant-like, but compared to an ant’s pinched and fussy anatomy, this creature seemed…rudimentary, more like a child’s sloppy sketch of a bug than the genuine article.
Aside from mild annoyance at my ruined drink, I didn’t give the visitor much thought. The past few weeks had been unseasonably warm for October in Michigan. To avoid footing the bill for an extra month of air conditioning, I’d been leaving the windows open at night. The intruder had most likely made its way in through a gap in one of the screens.
While I was in the kitchen getting a fresh drink, I added “check window screens” to the list of household chores that had been accumulating for the better part of a year. My capacity for ignoring inconvenient problems had already been well developed when I’d married Stacy, and five years of marriage had only exacerbated the condition. I still contend that this was an unconscious habit on my part and not a deliberate strategy to shunt work on to my wife—most of the time, at least—but it’s undeniable that the consequences of my various inactions most frequently fell upon her. That probably goes a long way towards explaining why she’s now my ex-wife and no longer living here.
When I returned to the living room, I found two more of the insects circling in the airspace above the sofa. They were immediately joined by a companion; back-tracing its flight paths led me to a corner just above the bookcase where the ceiling met two interior walls. A fist-sized swarm occupied the space, one that was quickly growing larger as more individuals wriggled out through a small crack in the plaster and joined their fellows.
What’s the most appropriate response to finding a writhing ball of bugs in your home? Swatting might just scatter them, and there was the mess on the wall to consider. I vaguely recalled a can of insecticide squirreled away somewhere in the house, but I had no idea where. In the end, I just opened a window and popped out the screen. The insects, as if sensing the new point of egress from across the room, took wing and departed. The few remaining stragglers were easy enough to dispatch with a rolled-up magazine, and a strip of masking tape served to temporarily seal the crack from which they’d emerged.
Even I could I see that these were only stop-gap solutions, and an internet search yielded more bad news: the insects were definitely termites and the presence of the winged form suggested a well-established nest. My house, a venerable craftsman approaching the hundred-year mark, had likely been serving as a feeding ground for quite some time.
The website recommended immediate consultation with an exterminator, but that would have to wait until business hours. In the meantime, there was nothing to do but pour another drink and retire to the bedroom. I tried to step lightly as I climbed the stairs.
The inspector arrived at the exact time scheduled, 10:00 AM Saturday morning. He was a slightly built, middle aged man wearing glasses and a neatly pressed uniform. He introduced himself as Wilson without specifying whether that was his first name or last. By the time it occurred to me to ask, he’d already stepped inside and begun to pepper me with a long list of questions. When did I first notice the issue? How long had I lived in the house? How long had it been since my last pest treatment? And so on. He withheld any overt judgement of my responses, but the deepening furrow in his brow didn’t bode well.
Once he’d concluded his interview, Wilson asked if I had a specimen to show him. I did—the woman who I’d spoken to on the phone while scheduling the appointment had recommended capturing one, if possible. Three days had passed since my visitation by the swarm and I’d only seen a few more of the insects in the intervening period, but I’d managed to corral one into a jelly jar that I’d fished out of the recycling bin. Wilson held the container up to the light, turning it this way and that to get a better look at the single dead termite resting at the bottom. The wings had become detached from the body and tumbled back and forth with each movement.
“Reticulitermes flavipes. The Eastern Subterranean Termite. Very common in this part of the country.”
With that not-terribly-informative pronouncement out of the way, Wilson began his inspection of the house. Areas around sinks and bathtubs were poked, cracks and crevices were prodded, and exposed woodwork—door jambs, window frames, floorboards—were tapped and rapped upon. These last activities were conducted with one ear held close to the surface, reliably eliciting a disapproving tsk from the inspector. I help my tongue while we completed a full circuit of the first and second floors, eventually returning to the living room.
“What do you think?” I asked. The news couldn’t possibly be good, but I still held a small shred of hope that it wouldn’t be disastrously bad either.
“Well,” Wilson said, continuing to jot notes on his clipboard, “it’s clear that you have a fairly advanced infestation, but that much was obvious from the alates.”
“The flying termites that you’ve already seen. They’re the reproductive forms. They’re only produced when a colony has grown fairly large and needs to expand out into new territory. Based on what I’ve seen so far, this one is extensive.”
“But I haven’t even seen any damage!” I knew this was a pathetically weak defense, but I felt the need to offer it nonetheless.
“That’s not unusual. The workers are different than the alates, not built for life above ground. They dry out and die if they spend too much time in open air, so they tunnel through the wood and consume it from the inside out.” Wilson paused and—rather theatrically, I thought—knocked on the doorframe leading into the kitchen. “I’m hearing hollowed out areas throughout the house.”
“What kind of damage am I looking at? Is it treatable?”
“Let’s put a pin in that for now. I’ll need to inspect the rest of the property before I know what we’re dealing with. Let’s do the basement first.”
I led Wilson to the door at the back of the kitchen. It had become stuck in the frame and took a few firm tugs to open, the predictable result of not having been opened in months. The basement had never been finished and mainly served as a repository for junk deemed unfit to occupy the upper floors of the house. In the year since Stacy’s departure, I hadn’t bothered with dragging anything down the stairs. One small upside of a divorce is that it opens up a great deal of closet space.
I flipped on the light switch at the top of the stairs. Bare bulbs dangled from the ceiling, casting just enough feeble illumination to highlight the haphazard stacks of boxes and salt stains dappling the bare concrete walls. Wilson ignored the center of the space and moved to the perimeter, using a penlight to examine the foundations. He’d only inspected a short stretch at the back of the house when he stopped and beckoned me closer.
The wall looked as though it had improbably sprouted veins. A tracery of interconnected tubes spread across the surface, each the width of a soda straw and composed of some undefined gritty material. Wilson poked at one with his flashlight and it crumbled to the floor, shattering into small fragments. Tiny bodies were scattered among the pieces, individual termites struggling to set themselves right. They were similar in appearance to the alates, but lighter in color—nearly white—and lacking either wings or readily apparent eyes. A few of the larger specimens were armed with impressive jaws; these quickly formed up into a defensive perimeter surrounding their meeker companions.
“Workers and soldiers,” Wilson said. “I’m sure you can sort out which is which. A large colony can contain hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of individuals.”
“Jesus Christ.” I looked up at the floorboards hanging over heads, wondering at the raw mass of bugs hidden within.
“Don’t worry,” said Wilson, “the majority will be in the main nest nearby, somewhere down beneath the subsoil. They fan out through miles of underground tunnels in search of food. Your house is probably just one stop on a much larger buffet.”
“Why are they building these…tubes?” For some reason, I found the new extrusions adorning the walls even more unsettling than the termites themselves.
“Like I said, they can’t survive long in open air. They’re subterranean creatures—wherever they go, they bring the Earth with them.”
Wilson turned away and continued this work, periodically knocking loose sections of tubing and inspecting the remnants. As we circled back towards the stairs, we arrived at a stack of two by fours. I’d bought the lumber two years ago, planning to add a railing to the backyard patio in the backyard. The project predictably fell by the wayside, and I eventually admitted defeat and dragged the boards downstairs to await some future use. The termites had proven far more industrious than I’d been—the pile of boards was almost completely encrusted with their tubes.
Wilson shot me another judgmental look to which I could only raise my hands in a placating gesture. With some effort, he wrenched a board free from the top of the stack. Fragments of dirt and dislodged termites rained down on the concrete floor, but the inspector’s attention was focused on the section of their home that he’d pulled loose. The exposed underside of the board was speckled with small, hollowed out chambers, each an inch or two in diameter. These were arrayed in a semi-regular pattern and interconnected by a network of tunnels that spread across the wood in loops and arabesques. There was a surprising degree of symmetry on display, something more akin to the execution of a conscious design rather than the result of a random feeding process.
“This is…strange.” Wilson said, gently probing at an especially intricate section of tunneling. “I’ve been working in extermination for twenty years, and I’ve never seen termites do anything like this. And they’re working against the grain of the wood—they never do that.”
The inspector pried two more boards loose, ignoring the growing mess on the floor, and lined these up beside the first. A series of harsh flashes illuminated the basement as he used his phone to document what he’d uncovered. This went on for some time until I finally felt obligated to interrupt.
“I’m sorry, but what am I supposed to do about this? Will you need to tent the house?”
“Hmmm?” Wilson said, distracted, eyes still fixed on the insect’s baroque handiwork. “Oh, yes, treatment. Tenting won’t be necessary. That’s for termite species that nest within a structure, wouldn’t do any good in this case. I’ll send a team out tomorrow to spray inside the house and place bait traps around the rest of the property. The termites will take the pesticide down into the main body of the nest, pass it on to the queen and the king, and hopefully that will be that. Once the infestation is dealt with, I can recommend a few contractors who specialize in this dealing with this kind of structural damage.”
“Okay,” I said. This was followed by many more okays, each accompanied by my signature on one form or another as Wilson laid out various timelines for resolution, contingency plans, and escalating cost estimates. When the last of these had been signed, he shook my hand and offered a few not terribly convincing reassurances. I watched from the bay window as I walked down the driveway to his van, my spirits sinking down to my gnawed upon floorboards. I could only hope they’d be able to bear the added weight.
Wilson’s team of exterminators arrived early the next morning. Still dressed in my robe and slippers, I ushered them in and let them go about their work unencumbered by my presence. I waited in the kitchen, fortifying myself with approximately three times my normal coffee intake. I’d barely slept for the past few nights, and by this point caffeine was the only thing keeping me on my feet.
The work didn’t take long and the exterminators were finished within an hour, warning me not to interfere with the pesticide-laden stakes they’d driven into the ground around the exterior of the house. The treatment within the house, they suggested, would begin to take effect within a day or two. It would take longer for the poison to make its way throughout the larger colony though, and a follow-up inspection was arranged to determine whether it had been fully effective. I forgot the date and time of the appointment within minutes of having agreed to it.
For the next two weeks, I tried not to dwell on my unwanted housemates and the chemical warfare that had been unleashed upon them. This was largely successful during the days at my office, less so when I returned home at night. My sleep was still fitful and troubled by disquieting dreams, mostly disjointed images of caverns and tunnels. I locked the door to the basement; a return visit to that part of the house could wait until the termite problem had been fully resolved.
On Halloween, I locked the small gate at the sidewalk and turned out the lights. God forbid that a child should put their foot through the wooden stairs leading up to the porch, especially if said child was accompanied by litigious parents. November brought in more normal autumn weather, brisk and blustery days. The house had always emitted its share of creaks and groans on windy nights, but these complaints took on a new tone and timbre. Drafts snaked their way through rooms and down hallways, and thick sweaters became non-negotiable items of apparel.
Worries over the looming repair bills certainly contributed to my general state of anxiety, but those were just superficial elements set against a broader sense of mounting fear. The roots were amorphous and ill-defined, more in line with a haunting than a bug problem. Some essential element had been removed from my basic conception of my home, and it was impossible to maintain any sense of well-being there. I began to entertain the idea of just putting the house on the market as a fixer upper. It was too large for a single occupant anyway, and I couldn’t quite remember why it been so important for me to hang on to it during the divorce.
The rupture—no other word seems adequate to describe it—arrived in the middle of the month, in middle of the night, in the middle of an unpleasant dream. I was startled awake by series of sharp cracks that echoed throughout the house. These were quickly followed by a sickening lurch of motion emanating from somewhere below. In my confused state, my first thought was that we’d been struck by an earthquake, but that type of calamity didn’t seem terribly likely for the upper Midwest. Exiting the house as rapidly as possible, however, felt like the most advisable course of action. I pulled on a pair of pants and cautiously made my way out of the bedroom, heading down the hallway and towards the staircase.
It was there that the nature of the problem became clear, if not exactly comprehensible. Whatever poison the termites had been subjected to had failed, and in the weeks since its application, they’d apparently redoubled their efforts. A fundamental re-engineering had been underway, a reconfiguration of the entire structure along alien lines of reasoning.
The air was thick with sawdust and the floors were littered with detritus, bits of wood and chunks of plaster that had fallen away to reveal new shapes and forms that the insects had been sculpting just below the surface. A new biomorphic aesthetic had been imposed throughout the house, hard edges and right angles eliminated in favor gracefully tapered curves and elegant striations. The staircase and banister had been reworked into sinuously interlaced strands reminiscent of tangled lianas—I could awkwardly clamber down to the ground floor. The floorboards there were etched with the pattern I’d seen on the boards in the basement, here enacted at much grander scale. In some places, it resembled a dense, labyrinthine map and in others a complex circuit diagram for some bizarre piece of machinery.
The architects of change were visible everywhere, hordes of tiny white bodies flowing over radically altered surfaces and dripping onto the floors. I crept across the living towards the front door as carefully as possible, trying to avoid stepping on the larger clusters of insects. They were the incontrovertible winners of this contest, and it seemed prudent to show some modicum of respect during my retreat from the field of battle.
I’d nearly reached the door when the floor abruptly tilted beneath my feet. I fell, slamming my ribs into what had once been an oak coffee table but now bore a closer resemblance to some massive form of bracket fungi. The floorboards hung poised for a few pregnant seconds and then ceded their argument with gravity, sending the contents of the room—myself included—plummeting into the darkness below.
I don’t know how long I lay unconscious amidst the wreckage of my former life. Awareness eventually seeped in around the edges though, no doubt aided by the waves of pain radiating up the shattered bones of my left leg. It took me some time to recognize the chamber that I’m now lying in, unable to move more than a few feet in any direction. If the upper floors of the house had been transfigured, the basement was simply reclaimed. As Wilson said, when the termites come, they bring the earth with them.
The concrete walls have disappeared, entirely plastered over with fluted columns of clay that extend up into the spaces above. Scores of termites—the winged, alate form—are streaming up from some reservoir below, coating the walls in softly rustling masses. They almost look pretty in the moonlight shining down from above. Structural gaps have been opened all the way through the roof, and even from my presently sunken vantage point, I have a splendid view of the stars above.
The termites continue to stream up from below and a pungent, sickly-sweet aroma fills the subterranean chamber. Some deeply submerged, lizardy part of my consciousness senses a barely perceptible signal hanging in the air. The alates tentatively flex their wings and a ripple rolls out across the walls. Then, they explode en masse, taking flight and boiling up through the remains of my home. The air is transformed into a dense, humming fog and it’s all I can do to keep my airways clear of insect matter.
I claw fistfuls of tiny bodies away from my eyes in time to witness the vast cloud that fills the night sky and sends roiling tendrils extending out in all directions as the alates depart in search of new territories. The word migration seems woefully inadequate. This is a tipping point, a catalytic event, a fundamental change in the state of things, borne by millions upon millions of tiny wings.
Rex Burrows (he/him) is a writer primarily working in the weird fiction, horror, and dark fantasy subgenres. He also has a background in biological research and holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. His stories are often informed by his interests in science, nature, and history. Rex’s short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies including Weird Horror Magazine, 34 Orchard, and Horror Library Volume 7. He’s lived in lots of different places but now seems somewhat settled in Washington, DC. He can be found online at rexburrows.com