Invasive@Chuck Wendig

PART I

FORMICATION

formication (n)

1. the sensation that ants or other insects are crawling on one’s skin.

1

Terminal F at the Philadelphia International Airport is the end of the airport, but it feels like the end of the world. It’s a commuter terminal, mostly. Prop planes and jets hopping from hub to hub. The people here are well-worn and beaten down like the carpet underneath their feet.

Hannah’s hungry. A nervous stomach from giving a public talk means she hasn’t eaten since lunch, but the options here late at night—her flight is at 10:30 P.M.—are apocalyptic in their own right. Soft pretzels that look like they’ve been here since the Reagan administration. Egg or chicken salad sandwich triangles wrapped up in plastic. Sodas, but she never drinks her calories.

She’s pondering her choices—or lack thereof—when her phone rings.

“Hello, Agent Copper,” she says.

“Stander. Where are you?”

“The airport. Philly.” Uh-oh. “Why?”

“I need you to get here.”

“Where is ‘here’?”

He grunts. “Middle of nowhere, by my measure. Technically: Herkimer County, New York. Let me see.” Over his end comes the sound of uncrumpling papers. “Jerseyfield Lake. Not far from Little Hills. Wait. No! Little Falls.”

“I’m on a plane in—” She pulls her phone away from her ear to check the time. “Less than an hour. I’m going home.”

“How long’s it been?”

Too long. “What’s up in Little Falls?”

“That’s why I need you. Because I don’t know.”

“Can it wait?”

“It cannot.”

“Can you give me a hint? Is this another hacker thing?”

“No, not this time. This is something else. It may not even be something for you, but . . .” His voice trails off. “I’ll entice you: I’ve got a cabin on the lake with more than a thousand dead bodies in it.”

“A thousand dead bodies? That’s not possible.”

“Think of it like a riddle.”

She winces. “Nearest airport?”

“Syracuse.”

“Hold on.” She sidles over to one of the departure boards. There’s a flight leaving for Syracuse fifteen minutes later than the one leaving for Dayton—the one she’s supposed to get on. “I can do it. You owe me.”

“You’ll get paid. That’s the arrangement.”

She hangs up and goes to talk to an airline attendant.

Boarding. The phone’s at her ear once more, pinned there by her shoulder. It rings and rings. No reason to expect her to answer, but then—

“Hannah?”

“Hi, Mom.”

Everyone moves ahead toward the door. Hannah pulls her carry-on forward, the wheels squeaking. She almost loses the phone, but doesn’t.

“I wasn’t sure it was you.”

“You would be if you turned on caller ID.”

“It’s not my business who’s calling me.”

“Mom, it is exactly your business who’s calling you.”

“It’s fine, Hannah, I don’t need it.” Her mother sounds irritated. That’s her default state, so: situation normal. “Are you still coming in tonight?”

Hannah hesitates, and her mother seizes on it.

“Your father misses you. It’s been too long.”

“It’s a work thing. It’s just one night. I’ve rebooked my flight. I’ll be there tomorrow.”

“All right, Hannah.” In her voice, though: that unique signature of sheer dubiousness. Her mother doubts everything. As if anyone who doesn’t is a fawn: knock-kneed and wide-eyed and food for whatever larger thing comes creeping along. What’s upsetting is how often she’s proven right. Or how often she can change the narrative so that she’s proven right. “We will see you tomorrow.”

“Tell Dad good night for me.”

“He’s already asleep, Hannah.”

In flight the plane bumps and dips like a toy in the hand of a nervous child. Hannah isn’t bothered. Pilots avoid turbulence not because it’s dangerous, but because passengers find it frightening.

Her mind, instead, is focused on that singular conundrum: How can a cabin by the lake contain a thousand corpses?

The average human body is five eight in length. Two hundred pounds. Two feet across at the widest point. Rough guess: a human standing up would take up a single square foot. How big would a lake cabin be? Three hundred square feet? Three hundred corpses standing shoulder to shoulder. Though cording them like firewood would fill more space because you could go higher. To the rafters, even. Maybe you could fit a thousand that way . . .

She pulls out a notebook and paper, starts doodling some math.

But then it hits her: Hollis Copper was dangling a riddle in front of her.

Q: How do you fit a thousand dead bodies in a cabin by the lake?

A: They’re not human bodies.

2

She rents a little four-door Kia sedan just as the place is closing. Smells of cigarette smoke smothered under a blanket of Febreze.

It’s late April, and the drive to Little Falls is long and meandering, through thick pines