eight point four

[8.4]

[Garrett County Press]

Excerpt from
8.4
by Peter Hernon

BENTON, KENTUCKY
JANUARY 9
10:30 A.M.

JOHN ATKINS GOT OUT OF HIS MUD-CAKED GMC Jimmy and felt the wind slice through his parka. He'd pulled to the side of a country road twelve miles west of Benton, a small town in the extreme corner of southwestern Kentucky. Cornfields lined both sides of the single-lane gravel road. Left standing after the fall harvest, the dry stalks were as tall as a man.

Atkins was lost. Any other time it might have amused the seismologist, who'd made his reputation tracking killer earthquakes around the globe and had never gotten lost. But not when he was running late and it was his own damn fault. He knew he should have called ahead and gotten directions.

The night before, he'd flown into Memphis and rented the Jimmy. He'd driven 150 miles north through Tennessee and crossed the border into Kentucky earlier that morning. Later that day, if he could get his bearings, he planned to meet his old friend Walter Jacobs, head of the Center for Earthquake Studies at the University of Memphis.

He opened a folding map he'd bought at a gas station and laid it on the hood of the Jimmy, holding the corners down against the wind. The gravel road he'd been following for the last four miles wasn't even on the map, and he regretted he hadn't taken the time to pick up a good topographical one before he left Memphis.

Deciding to turn around, Atkins took a final look up the road, which continued on a straight, rutted line through the windblown fields. There was no sign of a house, turnoff, or barn.

Refolding the map, he heard a sharp, high-pitched sound. Coming from somewhere to his right, it was faint and almost inaudible, but as he listened the noise grew louder. There seemed to be two distinct sounds mixed together: one, soft like wind blowing through dried leaves; the other more shrill.

Atkins strained to hear. It sounded like insects, thousands of them. Maybe locusts. But not in the dead of winter. That was impossible.

Whatever was making the noise was moving fast. In a matter of seconds, the sound had increased in intensity.

Atkins climbed up on the hood of the Jimmy to try to get a better look. He didn't see anything unusual. The cornfields stretched for acres in either direction. The wind stung his eyes. He rubbed them and stared out across the fields, which gently sloped down from low, gray hills. The tops of the cornstalks rippled in the wind.

Difficult to pinpoint, the sounds seemed almost to surround him.

Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw movement in the field about forty yards from where he was parked. He stepped up on the roof of the Jimmy. Standing there, he watched in amazement as the tawny stalks of corn fell over. They were making the rustling sound he'd noticed. It was as if a huge blade were slashing through them at ground level.

Something was cutting a ragged swath ten feet wide through the middle of the field. And it was headed in his direction.

Transfixed, Atkins watched as row after row of cornstalks pitched forward.

Atkins thought about insects or birds. Thousands of small birds, chirping loudly. Maybe starlings. He'd heard flocks of starlings before. Their noisy chittering was similar to what he was hearing. And they liked to settle in cornfields and gorge themselves.

But how could birds make the stalks fall over in neat rows like that? It was baffling.

The moving furrow was thirty yards away and looked like it would cross the road directly in front of the Jimmy.

The wind shifted and the noise suddenly became clearer, more sharply focused. Atkins still couldn't place it, but decided to get back into the Jimmy and start the engine. He didn't want to meet whatever was going through that cornfield without some protection.

Atkins climbed down on the hood and jumped to the ground just as a gray rat ran out of the field and across the road.

It was the biggest field rat he'd ever seen. Two more rats charged across five feet in front of the Jimmy, disappearing in the cornstalks on the other side. Three others followed. All he saw were gray streaks.

Atkins watched, his revulsion mixed with fascination. During a trip to India a few years earlier, a rat had bitten him when he reached under a bed to find his shoes. It was a nasty wound that had become infected. He'd almost come down with tetanus.

More rats fled the cornfield in a panic. Something had to be chasing them.

But what?

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