… these gigantic bloodsuckers that grew twice the size of mooseflies, and well, everyone knows how big mooseflies get in Maine.
Uncle Ned was Right (aka The Bog-Hole) began as a story my dad wrote when I was a teenager growing up in Maine in the late ‘80s/early ’90s. Even after I rewrote it and lost it during high school, rewrote it and lost it again during college and finally rewrote it and just misplaced it five or six years ago, it still possesses the delightfully creepy sense of humor (which I’ve, according to my friends, inherited) that my father gave to it way back when he came up with the idea. It’s not my best writing, but it’s a tale I’ll always love to tell, so here it is after 20 years, 2,500 miles, 3 rewrites and a touchup:
“We gonna have to make out in the car again or are ya parents out for the evenin’?”
Tim Weeks squeezed his girlfriend’s thigh lewdly as he broke the driving silence. She giggled uneasily, but turned her body slightly toward him as she answered.
“Oh, I think they’re out tonight. But you never know, Tim. What’s the matter? Can’t wait?” She winked and arched her back slightly toward him.
Tim turned his eyes away from the road and eagerly traced Jessie’s oversize breasts. No, of course he couldn’t wait to see what she had on underneath that white knit sweater and those old, faded, deliciously tight jeans. Hell, the way she was making eyes at him now, that crooked smile surrounded by her dirty blonde stringy hair just about gave him a big bo-
Her scream slapped his eyes back to the road just in time to avoid a 10-foot snowpile where the road bent sharply to the right – a cold shot of adrenaline coursed through his chest, tightening his throat as he yanked the steering wheel toward the bend. The old Chevy Impala responded slowly but the front end pulled back toward the road ahead of them. The rear tires squealed helplessly as they shot across black ice, the car’s heavy rear-end yanking the car back toward the mountain of packed snow on the outside of the bend.
Tim’d rescued himself from worse ice spots before, he reasoned, steering the wheel in the other direction to counteract the fishtail. But the front wheels suddenly also reached black ice, the shrill scream of the tires instantly ended, and the car hurtled sideways and forward toward the other side of the road.
Jessie closed her eyes, frantically clawing at her unbuckled seatbelt as the car’s front driver side struck the snowbank with an uncommonly quiet thud, lifted off the ground and hurtled over the embankment. Frozen branches snapped like old bones before the car came to rest upside-down at the bottom of the small hill.
In the next few minutes, snow started to fall in complete silence, except the sound of a slight breeze brushing dry, cold snow against the crust of older snow.
“I appreciate your thinking of me, Officer Kent, but I don’t believe I can help any with an accident investigation. Unless giant bugs caused it…” Bill Gentry laughed, wondering why the state trooper called him on such a dreary night. He really half-hated winter, since he couldn’t be out studying his bugs. Maine, of course, provided ripe breeding ground for a plethora of species in the spring and summer, but its hard, bitter winters killed off all but the hardiest bugs. Usually he used the time to study specimens and to catch up on scholarly journals. This winter’s three bitter storms – and another one threatening this evening – had him, however, seriously considering a vacation to his aunt’s house in Florida.
“Caterpillars? I really doubt that – even if they were still alive, they’d probably be in some state of metamorphosis by now. And certainly not by the thou-
“Officer Kent, tonight’s a perfectly miserable night – I’m sure you know that already, but you’ve got me curious enough to venture out for a look. But have you got those kids’ bodies out of there? I don’t know if I can…” Bill grimaced as the trooper chuckled on the other end of the phone. He supposed the fact that he could deal with the creepiest of bugs but not the specter of human death did seem a little odd to some, but…
Bill rummaged around for his notebook and camera. If indeed these odd creatures that Officer Kent described were insects – though he doubted that – he wanted a chance to get a good look at them, perhaps even catch himself a live specimen.
“Damn… no film,” muttered Bill under his breath as he headed out the door, jingling his keys unconsciously. He shivered in the cold wind; the snow tumbled to the ground in clumps, wetter and heavier than an hour ago. He hoped the general store would be open and sell him some film.
“What’re you doin’ out in a storm like this, young man?” asked Uncle Ned, aging proprietor of the town’s old general store.
“I’m going out to Old Canard Road near the bog hole… there was an accident-“
“Oh ayuh, I heard about that on the radio. Two kids – they used to come in here all the time. Durn shame, I think. You the kerner or somethin?”
Bill furrowed his eyebrows for a moment… “A ‘coroner’? No… the police found some strange creatures out there near the accident and they think they might be insects – caterpillars.”
“What’s that got to do with you, though, sonny?”
“I’m an entomologist. A-“
Now Uncle Ned curled his mouth into a dry smile. “An en-dee-mall-uh-gist?”
“A bug doctor, sir.”
“Oh, ayuh. I nevah met a bug doctuh before. Coss, I nevah met anyone fool enough to be out in a stahm like this neither. I say just sit at home til it blows ovuh.”
Bill grabbed three rolls of film off the shelf and held them up to Uncle Ned, asking “If that’s so, why are you open now?”
Uncle Ned laughed heartily, his gravelly laughter spilling warm notes and the smell of coffee into the old store’s air. Of course everyone knew Uncle Ned practically lived at the store because he did live at the store – upstairs, in a cozy little apartment that suited him just fine. Martha had thought it a little small, but after she died, Uncle Ned couldn’t think of any place in this world he’d rather be but runnin’ the old store they’d run for so long. At least here he felt warm.
“Just in case, sonny,” laughed Ned, “just in case.”
Uncle Ned accompanied Bill out to the door, holding it open and standing between the hot air that billowed out into the ever-increasing snow. He clapped Bill on the shoulder. “Be careful, Bill. I seen lots of people go into that bog hole that ain’t nevah come out. Hell, I lost my favorite dog down theyah. Bad enough yer headin out in this stahm, but to go down to the bog hole in this weathuh?”
Bill thought he detected a shiver in the old man’s stony pose, but then Uncle Ned leaned over to Bill, warmly squeezing his shoulder. “If you get lost in theyah, there ain’t no way they’ll even be able to search fuh you before spring.”
With that, Uncle Ned turned and stepped back into the warmth of the store, slowly closing the door and waving at Bill.
I am a darn fool to be heading out in this weather. But imagine what this could mean – six-inch-long caterpillars that can survive the winter? None of the species Bill had ever studied even approached similarity to the trooper’s description.
But then, that’s the reason he studied bog holes in Maine. These peat bogs, squishy wet spongelike earth, provided some of the world’s best breeding ground for strange and unusual insects. One peculiar strain of mosquito, which the locals loved to bitch about: these gigantic bloodsuckers that grew twice the size of mooseflies, and well, everyone knows how big mooseflies get in Maine. Not only that, but these mosquitos’ proboscis hurt like hell when they needled you. And if you killed ‘em too slow they’d splash a thimbleful of blood all over you.
So when Officer Kent’s description of the strange creatures seemed insect-like, Bill figured he had to at least investigate. He wouldn’t mind studying creatures of the species Gentricus.
Kent approached Bill cordially and shook his hand as they both met on the side of the road above the accident. Kent shivered despite his heavy officer’s overcoat. “It’s damn cold out here tonight.”
“Sure is!” Bill strained past the trooper to see down into the ditch.
“Most of them that weren’t killed already when the cah burned seem to have died in the cold, Bill. Sorry about that. There are a few tracks headin’ deeper into the bog,” Kent motioned for Bill to follow him down toward the car. A few other young officers were spearing the burnt carcasses of the caterpillars and placing them into large garbage bags. “We’ll keep a few of those fuh ya, Bill, don’t worry. And we already got the kids headin’ back to the hospital, not that that’ll help now-”
Bill stood, transfixed by a bloodied spike of a tree trunk sticking out of the ground.
“Yeah. That’s where Mr. Weeks came down. Durn thing impaled him. He went flying out of the cah because he wasn’t wearin his seatbelt. Miss Jess was a little luckier, I suppose.. she had her seatbelt on.
“When the car went up in flames though…”
Bill shook suddenly, his knees releasing without warning and dropping him into the powdery snow. The flakes swirling around his head dizzied him and his stomach throbbed against his cheeks. He could see pink and red snow, ashes, the deep red of engine oil and the yellow of gasoline in a psychedelic paisley on the ground… and as far as the light from the police spotlight shone, the frozen or charred bodies of … caterpillars.
“Sorry about that, Bill. You’d said you couldn’t handle that… I should shut up sometimes, ayuh?” The trooper smiled thinly but with honest sympathy at Bill and helped him stand.
“Listen, Bill. There’s something strange about the bodies.. and I do need to ask you about it. You ok with that?”
Bill nodded, bile burning in his throat.
“The kids… even if they had survived…” Kent motioned to the wreckage. “When we found ‘em, they’d been…”
Now the trooper’s turn to stumble came.. Bill watched silently as the trooper’s face whitened in search of the right description.
“They’d been gnawed on, Bill. Et. Right down to the heart. Both of em. We thought maybe bear or coyote, but the bear are hibernating and there were no tracks anywhere… and…
“Well, the only damn tracks around here are ours and those damn caterpillar things.”
Bill understood the implicit question. “Many insects do feed on blood or meat, but I’ve never known them to be that voracious… or quick. In fact, most of the bugs around here are vegetarians, or they suck blood – like moosequitos.”
The trooper nodded solemnly. “We’ll take some of these back with us for testing – and you can take some and tell us what you find out, alright? Meanwhile, you best be headin’ back home for the night. Mighty big storm comin in, I imagine.”
Bill, however, had spotted a lone trail heading deeper into the bog, slightly obscured by the falling snow, but visible enough for him to follow. It curved left and right, similar to the others, but this track seemed thicker and deeper than the rest.
“Bill, I said you should be getting on home. Don’t want to get caught out here in the storm, do ya?”
Bill turned and waved Kent off. “I’ll be fine. I’ve got a flashlight and I can handle the cold. I just want to follow these tracks a few feet in and see if I can locate a live one.”
“T’ain’t smaht, but you’re the bug doctor!” Officer Kent shook his head. “Be careful, though. I’ll stop by your place tomorrow morning to check on you. I have to be heading back to the barracks to write up my report now, though.”
Bill nodded and waved at the trooper as the police car pulled slowly off, leaving him in complete darkness surrounded by a grisly scene of death picked over.
Branches cracked deep in the darkness beyond the roadside as Bill kneeled to run his glove through the powdery snow. Bill pulled the frozen carcass of one of the caterpillars and stroked its black fur thoughtfully. Never before had he seen something so beautiful, so perfectly…
The snow began to thicken, swirling around the bones of old trees in the night. I better get moving if I want to follow those tracks. Bill stood slowly, taking his first step into the bog hole since last summer. He spent almost all his waking hours there in the warm months, catching and studying the many unusual insects that spawned in its warm, damp marshy soil. Even some of the locals gawked at his prize find – a moosefly as big around as his big toe – as if it were a prize 4 pound bass in the ice fishing tournament on Sebago Lake.
Most of the time, however, townspeople avoided him. Most of them wondered why on earth a young man would have so much interest in something so plain annoying. Bugs were for slapping with the palm of your hand – or for squeezing the skin around their itchy little suckers ’til they explode. Definitely not for spending your working hours catching and poking with little pins!
On the other hand, the boy who delivered the newspaper every Sunday showed promise as a young entomologist; he’d stop in and gleefully identify as many of the bugs he could.. and each time he’d come, he’d get ten or twelve more right.
But as the cold crept into the pores of his skin, Bill realized just how quickly the road disappeared from view in the bog hole. Underneath his feet, some of the ground still sagged slightly where the water that filled the peat hadn’t quite frozen, and the bottom inch of snow had turned to a thin layer of ice.
Ahead, the trail wasn’t so clear – the settling snow had already begun to cover the track, only hours old. As he sped up his pace, the branches on the trees descended and the woods grew thicker. Bill turned briefly to look back toward the roadside… even shining his flashlight in its general direction, he could not see that far back through the snow and the thicket of trees.
Though his eyes teared from the blustering wind and the branches whipping his face, Bill followed the track deeper into the woods. As he stopped to catch his breath, Bill’s flashlight flickered twice and then faded to darkness.
Damn. Bill slammed the flashlight against his hand to no avail, and then angrily smashed it against a nearby tree. Quickly, he looked back in the direction from which he came, hoping he’d be able to see his footsteps. Only darkness greeted him. He looked around again in the direction of the track. Nothing.
Bill froze, thinking through his next action. He had little hope of finding the caterpillar he’d been tracking now, but his chances of finding his way back to the road before frostbite set in were close to nil as well. He dropped to his knees in the snow and looked for his footsteps behind him, determined to find his way back.
Bill, it’s so co-o-o-o-ld out here.
Leaping back to his feet, Bill cast his eyes about wildly, looking for the source of the voice. “Who said that?” he yelled out into the midnight.
Bill, over here… on the tree in front of you… please… it’s so cold…
Bill stumbled a few feet forward, his eyes suddenly focusing on two inky orisons on the bark ahead of him. With no moonlight to reflect off of them, its eyes still glowed very faintly. Bill pulled off his glove and reached out, his hands touching the same silky fur he saw on the dead caterpillar back at the scene of the accident.
That feels ni-i-i-ce, Bill, but I’m cold… please help me. I don’t want to freeze.
Bill stopped, momentarily motionless — he hadn’t heard these words aloud, they’d sounded inside his head: this creature was communicating with him! Bill allowed the caterpillar to drop into his hands, where it tried to crawl into a ball for warmth, and he noted how the creature’s body seemed stiffer than he expected, probably from the cold beginning to freeze the flesh.
Yes, Bill, yes! I’m freezing! Put me someplace warm!
Bill raised the creature toward his face. Such beautiful eyes, he thought, and this being, insect or not, was sentient! He couldn’t let it die. Larger and longer than the rest, it had probably survived because the cold took longer to penetrate to its core – but in this weather, even the hardiest insects faced certain death.
Bill blew warm air on the caterpillar and opened his jacket to place it in the inside pocket of his parka. Together, he thought, they could find the way back to his car, and he’d bring it back home and study it more.
No, Bill.. not there.. warmer.. I’m sooooo cold. I’m frozen most of the way through.. pleeeeeeeease put me closer.. closer to your heart where I’ll thaw out!
For a moment, his mind flashed back to the two teens in the accident – something the trooper said that he couldn’t quite remember, as if his memory failed from the cold. As he looked into its soft, pleading eyes, however, something so beautiful – so evolved – he forgot that he forgot.
Bill lifted the caterpillar from his pocket and unbuttoned a few of the buttons on his flannel shirt, wincing at the biting cold as it burned the heat out of his skin. Even this momentary exposure would probably give him frostbite.
The creature’s soft fur felt wonderful against his chest, and it quickly but gently grabbed onto the skin… Bill could feel how cold the creature was, but knew the heat from his body would give it adequate heat to thaw out.
The bug doctor buttoned his shirt back up and zipped up his parka. He donned his gloves and pulled his cap further down over his head, turning around toward the direction he believed he’d come.
Thank you, Bill. You’re so very warm. So warm indeed.
Bill smiled against the bleakness of his condition as the creature filled his mind with a sort of happy purring, and he took his first step back toward the road.
The storm subsided by the next morning, and small town life went on much as normal. At the local high school, friends and classmates of the two lost teens wept in groups over their loss. In driveways and on sidewalks across the town (where there were sidewalks) grownups grumbled and shoveled two feet of snow into five foot snowbanks. Uncle Ned sold a lot of salt and sand that winter, not to mention shovels. He’d long since given up shoveling by hand and used a month’s profit to buy a snowblower, but most of the townsfolk disdained that kind of gadgetry.
By late winter, by the time most everyone had forgotten about the deaths of the two teens, the big storm, the police towing away Bill Gentry’s car after it sat a week at the same bend where the teens had died, Uncle Ned offered two bets to any gambling man (or woman) who ventured in his store:
“I got two bets fuhya. Numbah one: When’s ice-out gonna be on Sebago Lake, and Numbah two: Whatcha bet they nevah find ol’ Bill Gentry’s body down theyah in the Bog Hole?”
Uncle Ned never lost a bet.