Tom’s Own Little World

Microbiologist Tom Thornton leaned back, and took off his glasses. In a characteristic gesture he made a “Y” and ran his thumb under his right eye, his forefinger under his left. The color wasn’t right. And the trails made no sense at all.

It was late, the hum and busyness of the lab had long since lapsed into quiet. His co-workers had gone home to spouses and dinners hours ago. Having neither spouse nor dinner waiting, only Tom remained, working on a project he facetiously called Tom’s Own Little World.

It was silly, of course. He had anticipated that when he looked into the microscope Tom’s Own Little World would consist only of the usual bacteria one usually found under a microscope, and nothing more. The patterns, colors and movement of bacteria were boringly predictable.

Except…they weren’t.

Earlier that morning Tom had been out hiking in the woods behind his house. Shadow had run on ahead, chasing a squirrel most likely, and had suddenly stopped, yelped as if in terror, and ran. No amount of calling could induce Shadow to return, and Tom stared after the dog high-tailing it for home, howling.

Curious as to what on earth could have caused such a reaction in his usually calm and gentle Lab, Tom approached the area of Shadow’s dismay with caution. At first, there seemed nothing out of the ordinary. The natural landscape appeared undisturbed, save a few anthills. Perhaps Shadow had accidentally stumbled into a nest of red ants; that would certainly explain her reaction. But as Tom turned to leave, he drew back.

Something wasn’t right.

It took him a moment to figure out just what was wrong, and when he did, his heart began to beat a fast tattoo in his chest.

The ant hills had no ants, and there were hundreds of them, spaced so evenly apart they might have put in place with a ruler. Each hill looked to be exactly the same size; the same circumference, the same height. It was, as he said later, “downright spooky.”

Careful not to disturb the hills, Tom walked the perimeter of the “city,” for that is what he immediately took this settlement to be. It was a city, he thought, albeit an uninhabited one. Ten steps to the north he took, then ten to the east, ten to the south, and ten to the west. Absolutely square, with…Tom squinted as he counted the tiny hills…fifty hills in rows like a child’s “connect the dots” game.

Fifty times fifty.

Good Lord, Tom thought, twenty-five hundred deserted ant hills situated in military precision in a ten-foot square. Why? And what on earth could have done this? No ant, surely. At least, none that he knew of.

Slowly, as he pondered the mystery that lay before him, he became aware of a subtle vibration beneath his feet. It felt as though thousands, perhaps millions of tiny bodies were moving underground in a passage that mimicked the ant hills precise manner. Counter-clockwise the movement went, and if he squinted his eyes, Tom thought he could see the earth move.

Slowly, carefully, Tom backed away from the site, turned tail, and sprinted for home.
He dashed into the house and ran immediately to his office, where he obtained a few small sterile specimen bottles and tiny sterile spatulas wrapped in plastic. Shadow cowered in the corner and refused to come out.

“Fine,” said Tom, “but I’m going anyway.”

Once back at the Ant City, Tom carefully bent to his task. Extracting a bottle and spatula from his left pocket, he uncorked the bottle and took the plastic off the spatula. He gathered a specimen from the corner ant hill with the spatula, placed it in the bottle, corked and labeled it, and placed it in his right pocket.

He continued around the city, randomly taking samples of hills and the areas surrounding the hills, labeling each bottle. The movement beneath his feet seemed to grow more agitated, stronger, and Tom fancied he heard cries and weeping.

And now he sat in his chair, rubbing his eyes and thinking he really had gone off his rocker this time. For what he was seeing made no sense, no sense at all. With all the variations of bacteria, from the corkscrew Leptospira to the ribbon-like Cyanobacteria to Micrococcus that looked like little balls, he as yet had found none that were exactly and completely straight as well as being exactly and completely the same size, shape, and length.

It was like looking at small dashes in the microscope, each dash exactly the same, each spaced precisely the same distance from its fellows. No sense, it made no sense. Besides which, he told himself, it was impossible.

But, and here Tom shook his head, what was really impossible was that every single slide, no matter from where he had collected the specimen, every slide was exactly the same. Fifty tiny dashes, fifty tiny rows in all ten slides.

And one microbiologist ready for the funny farm, thought Tom.

He put his eye to the microscope again, and almost fell off his chair. The dashes had moved. Where once the dashes had been precisely vertical on the slide, now they were exactly horizontal. And as he looked, the dashes moved again, counter-clockwise, and looked like slashes, then vertical, then slashes, over and over in a movement that seemed as choreographed as any water ballet.

“Are you still here?”

Startled, Tom almost tipped over the microscope. Harrison Carter stood in the doorway, munching a bag of Fritos.

“Holy cow, Harry,” exclaimed Tom, “you about scared me to death!”

“What on earth could be so exciting that you’re still here at seven o’clock at night?”

Tom stood. “Oh, nothing really,” he said. “I guess the time just got away from me.”

“Well, all work and no play, you know,” Harry said. “Come on. I’m at loose ends myself tonight. Polly is at her mother’s with the kids and I still need to eat. You up for pizza?”

“Sure,” Tom said. “That sounds like an excellent idea. Let me just put my slides away and I’ll be right there.”

“Okay, I’ll wait for you in the lobby.”

When Harry left, Tom took another quick look in the microscope before putting the slide away. The dashes were completely still, looking for all the world like somebody had typed exactly fifty dashes in fifty rows on a piece of paper. There was no movement at all.

The next morning Tom arose early, showered, shaved and made coffee. Shadow was still in the corner and even her favorite breakfast of cooked liver and eggs couldn’t coax her from the spot.

Tom leaned down, waving the dish in front of her nose. “Come on, girl,” he said. “Come on and eat, honey.”

Shadow slowly inched from her corner, drawn finally by the aroma, but she crawled on her belly, submissive.

Tom reached to pet her, ran his hand across her head and down her side. She prickled as though she was carrying a million stickers. He looked more closely, but nothing could be seen. She whimpered a little, took a few bites, then went back to her corner where she put her head on her paws and went to sleep.

Odd, Tom thought. If she’s not better by tonight I’ll have to take her to the vet.

Tom gulped the last of his coffee, and then went to the shed where he retrieved a shovel and a five-gallon bucket.

Once at the site of Ant City Tom stopped and surveyed the settlement in amazement. Yesterday the hills had been in rows, militarily precise. Today they were in concentric circles, again precisely spaced, but fewer, and larger. If yesterday’s events made no sense, today’s made even less.

He straightened. Of course! Somebody is just playing some silly trick, like those guys in England who started the crop circle craze. But even as he thought it he knew that nobody could fake what he had seen in the microscope back at the lab.

Quickly, Tom placed the shovel in the middle of Ant City, put his right foot on it and dug in, bringing up a load of dirt and small stones. He dumped the contents into the bucket and gave it a quick look. It looked exactly like a load of dirt and small rocks. No mystery, no weirdness, no little green men, just dirt and rocks.

Silly, he thought. Silly.

But, silly or not, Tom planned to get to the bottom of the mystery. He took the bucket home, put it in the corner of the kitchen by the back door, and went to work.

Later he would remember that he had not washed his hands after petting the dog. And that explained a lot of what happened next.

“Donuts in the conference room,” Joanie said, sticking her head around the corner of Tom’s cubicle. Dutifully, Tom abandoned his normal work project and went to the morning meeting. Plucking a glazed donut out of the box and getting a fresh cup of coffee, he sat near the end of the long table, far away from the boss. This was one day he did not want to have to explain what he was working on!

It was the last bite of the donut that did it, the bit that his fingers had touched. Just as he put that last bite in his mouth he felt a searing, red-hot pain flood his mouth. Hotter than any habanero pepper, any Chinese mustard, any anything, Tom was totally incapacitated. He cried out in unbearable agony, reaching for his coffee. Quickly, he spat out the bit of donut and drank the last swig.

Worse! Worse! Oh, my God, WORSE!!!

The pain flooded his mouth, his throat, his esophagus, his stomach like a million red hot pokers. Gasping and wheezing, Tom retched and retched, his body totally rejecting whatever foreign substance he had ingested. His co-workers gathered around; someone called 911; another brought him a glass of plain water, which he drank.

Miraculously, the pain was gone. Eyes and face a most alarming red, Tom excused himself and stumbled to the bathroom. He washed his hands with the antibacterial soap provided and rinsed. Washed again. And again. Five times he washed his hands, clear up to the elbows. He dried them and attempted to calm himself.

He took off his glasses, made the “Y” and rubbed under his eyes. No prickling, no stinging. Whatever it was didn’t like water.

“You okay?” Harry stood at the door, concerned.

“Yeah,” Tom replied. “I think so.”

“Boss says you oughta go home.”

Tom replaced his glasses and straightened. “You know, I think I will,” he said, and then he did.

Shadow was dead.

At least, Shadow looked dead. Tom didn’t want to get close enough to find out, because in front of Shadow’s body, placed in military precision, were fifty tiny ant hills. And the bucket he had placed by the kitchen door was empty.

Anger, white hot and flaming, burst forth as an anguished cry from Tom’s lips. “You miserable, lousy, things!” He grabbed the bucket and stalked to the kitchen sink. “I’ll show you!” he cried. “I’ll show you!”

He filled the bucket with water, approached the line of hills and flung the water across the kitchen floor. Again and again and again he went to the sink and again and again and again he swooshed the water over the ant hills. The kitchen floor was a soggy mess, so Tom grabbed the broom and began to sweep the water across the kitchen floor and out the back door.

Carefully, he wrapped Shadow in an old sheet and took the Lab’s body outside. They won’t have you! Tom thought. I won’t let them have you! He took the hose and doused Shadow’s body with water, flooding the beautiful fur even as his eyes flooded with tears.

“You, you things,” he cried, incoherent with rage and grief.

Tom went back into the kitchen and made sure every single particle of dirt and every single stone had been washed out of his house. His back yard was a mud bog, and his faithful dog lay under the tree, drenched and still. Gingerly, Tom placed a bare finger into the mud. No stinging, no prickles. Apparently, whatever it was, was dead.

Grimly, Tom filled the bucket, and walked into the woods.

And Shadow raised herself, shook, and followed.

The End

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