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As young Roger McGillicutty awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
Aw, jeez! he thought.
There was no mistaking it. Though the drapes in Roger's bedroom were closed, the Saturday morning sun shone brightly outside giving the drapes an orange glow and illuminating the room.
Roger stared at what used to be his hands. They'd been replaced by vicious-looking, yellow hook-like claws at the end of big, spiky green arms. Clumsily, he kicked off the covers using a lot more legs than he used to have and looked down at himself.
It was worse than he thought. Below his shoulders, his middle was now a hard, skinny green cylinder leading down to where four long, spindly-jointed legs wiggled aimlessly at the ceiling. Past the legs was a long, greenish-yellow wormy-looking thing that was apparently his butt.
Roger's freaked-out brain suddenly remembered that this was called an "abdomen" on an insect and that his middle part was called a "thorax." Stuff that was still stuck in his head from that insect segment last month in his hated science class. Well, at least "abdomen" was a better word than "butt." As Roger looked at his ... abdomen, it squirmed and bent as though it was just beginning to wake.
"Eww! Gross!" he said. His own voice startled him. It was a little buzzy, like his art teacher Mrs. Clancy, who talked through her nose.
Maybe this is a dream, Roger thought. He tried pinching his eyes shut. Nothing happened. He couldn't close his eyes, or even blink. It didn't seem to bother his eyes any, but if this was a dream he was still stuck in it, eyes open.
Roger looked around his room to see if anything else had changed besides him, but it all looked the same. Baseball pennants remained tacked to the wall, last year's 1976 Little League trophy sat atop his dresser, comic books he'd read the night before were still scattered all over the place, and his baseballs were on the shelf where they belonged. On the wall near the pennants hung his old framed poster of Reggie Jackson playing for Oakland. It wasn't autographed, and Jackson had just been traded to the Yankees, but it was still a favorite of his.
Though Roger's vision was a bit speckly, he could see quite clearly. In fact, more clearly than ever. He could easily read the word "Spalding" on one of the baseballs from here, and he couldn't do that before. He noticed his wrinkled T-shirt and blue jeans were hanging over the back of his chair right where he'd left them.
Last night, when he wasn't a bug.
Roger took a deep breath and let it out. It didn't go through his nose. He didn't seem to have a nose. Instead, with a gentle whistle, his breath went in and out through little holes in the side of his soft abdomen. He couldn't remember what the little holes were called, although he knew they had a name. Marlene would probably know. She got straight A's in everything, including science, and was still a great shortstop. Roger thought this was a bit unfair.
With some difficulty, Roger rolled out of bed. But instead of landing on his feet, he fell to the floor on his stomach, his four stick-like legs splaying in all directions and his big spiked forearms scrabbling for purchase. "Ow!" he said.
Eventually, he managed to work all his legs under him and stand up, although he was a bit wobbly. Standing up straight, he was somewhat taller than he had been as a boy. Roger turned his head and looked behind him. He saw a shiny green surface like a plastic cover over his creepy rear end, which stuck out almost four feet horizontally like a torpedo. He might not have been much taller, but he was a heck of a lot longer. Roger didn't know how he would keep from knocking things over every time he turned around. Well, at least his back looked better than his butt. Abdomen.
When Roger turned back around, his tiny clawed feet slipped on the polished wooden floor, and he fell down again. As he worked on getting back up, it reminded him of last winter when his dog Lou fell on the icy lake. It took Lou about five minutes to get his feet back under him, and it had been hilarious. Maybe if I was watching this, thought Roger, I'd think it was funny, too. Maybe.
Which also reminded Roger that good old Lou was probably sleeping right outside his door. Lou, a large, cheerful mutt, had been exiled from sleeping in Roger's room after demonstrating a taste for chewing baseball gloves and bats. Lou would probably take one look at him now and dive out a window. Or maybe even chew off one of Roger's skinny new bug legs! Slowly, carefully, and as quietly as possible, Roger staggered across the room to the mirror over his dresser.
As prepared as he was, it was still a shock. A triangular emerald-green head looked back at him, with two enormously round green compound eyes on either side. Two long, thin antennae stuck out of the top of his head. He could move them around if he tried, kind of like wiggling his ears (which he didn't have anymore and couldn't wiggle when he did). His mouth was ... he didn't know what the heck his mouth was. It was a weird mess of powerful-looking cutting and crunching things and some even weirder tentacle things. Roger wiggled the many separate bits around and then quickly stopped, deciding it wasn't quite as gross if he wasn't moving it.
He folded his arms tightly together in front of him, side by side. He had done it without really thinking about it, but his odd posture suddenly made him realize what he had become.
"I'm a praying mantis," he said in his new buzzy voice. "A big, frigging praying mantis." Roger couldn't believe it. He was green and weird just like the one he'd kept as a pet a couple of years ago. At least he wasn't a cockroach or a caterpillar or anything like that.
Jeez, he thought. What'll Mom and Dad say? What'll Mom and Dad do?
If his parents could see him now, would they wait long enough to find out he was really their kid before they ...? I don't even sound like me anymore, thought Roger.
Panic began to set in. He had to get out of the house before someone saw him and tried to poke him with sticks or something worse. He needed time to think.
If I can just sneak onto the upstairs balcony off Mom and Dad's room, he thought, I might be able to climb down the trellis to the backyard and get into the woods on the other side of the vacant lot. He had no idea what he'd do after that, but it would be a start.
Without thinking, Roger grabbed for his pants on the chair, hooking a belt loop on a forearm claw. Then he realized what he was doing. He stood there, his pants hanging off the claw. How was he supposed to put on pants? How was he supposed to leave the house without pants?
Did he need pants? Roger spent a couple of uncomfortable minutes trying to see his butt without falling over again. He didn't feel naked, at least not goose-bump-locker-room naked. He didn't seem to have anything embarrassing showing. It was more like he was wearing light baseball catcher's padding all over himself. He dropped the pants back onto the chair. For sure he wasn't going to figure out a way of putting them on anyway, so he decided not to think too much about the whole pants thing.
Roger walked awkwardly over to his bedroom door, trying not to make any more noise than he already had. His legs still wobbled a little, but he was getting the hang of walking with two extra legs. Roger reached for the doorknob with a foreclaw and then stopped.
I don't have hands anymore, he thought. There was something about not having hands that bothered him badly, but he was too frazzled to place it yet. He examined his claw more closely. Near the end of the claw was a thin stalk, a little less than a foot long, with lots of joints. It bent and curled like a very long, flexible finger. He had been standing on it a minute ago before he stood up, so it was strong, too. After some frustrating false starts, he managed to wrap it around the doorknob and grip it. Roger turned the knob as quietly as possible, and slowly pulled the door inward.
Aw, jeez. Lou.
Lou raised his head and looked at Roger. He gave a little yip and scrambled backwards into the hall where he stood for a moment, his head low and ears back, growling. Then Lou sniffed. His ears popped up, and he tilted his head. The dog trotted up and gave Roger a complete examination with his snuffling wet nose. Done with his inspection, Lou plopped down on the hall floor, his tongue hanging out and tail wagging, acting as though Roger turned into a giant mantis every morning.
"Good old Lou," said Roger, whispering as best as he could in his buzzy voice. "You know me, don't you, boy?" Even his bug voice didn't seem to bother the dog. Roger began to feel a little better.
He gingerly closed his bedroom door. With luck, his parents would think he was asleep if they passed by. Then, he sneaked into his parents' room and, after some fumbling, managed to slide open the glass door to the balcony overlooking the back yard.
Lou followed him then tilted his head as if to ask, what's next?
"Sorry, Lou," said Roger in a buzzy whisper. "I have to go. You know, like when I go to school? You're okay with that, right?"
Lou sighed and flopped down on the floor, putting his nose on his front paws. Normally Roger would have scratched behind his ears, but no way was he going to try that with his big spiny claw-hands.
Instead, he stepped out onto the balcony and slid the glass door shut again with Lou still inside, hoping the dog wouldn't change his mind and start raising a fuss. Roger looked over the edge of the balcony. There was nothing between his yard and the woods except a big vacant lot. His house was mostly off by itself at the edge of town, so at least he didn't have to worry about neighbors seeing him.
Just his parents.
Roger spent some scary minutes climbing off the balcony and down the side of the house undetected. Despite being kind of creaky, the trellis had served him well when sneaking in or out of the house. He wasn't sure if he was heavier or lighter than he used to be, but the trellis held. The real hassle was having four legs with some kind of weird little grabbers on the end, and two claws with a wiggly finger each, and trying to figure out what part of the trellis to grab or hook with what and how to do it. Despite all the things he had to hold on with, he almost fell twice, ending up hanging upside down one of the times.
Once he was safely on the lawn, Roger looked back at the house to make sure nobody but Lou had seen him leave. Then, still a bit unsteady on his many feet, he headed for the woods.CHAPTER 2
Roger crossed the vacant lot, passing the homemade baseball diamond he and his friends had practiced on so often. Jerry and Marlene were supposed to come over to his house later this morning to do just that, but that sure wasn't going to happen now!
The sun was low over the wooded hills ahead. With his new bug-eyed vision, everything looked a bit weird, and it made him a little dizzy.
He got to the short wooden fence between the vacant lot and the woods when it suddenly hit him — the thing that had been bothering him as he'd been trying to turn a doorknob. He turned toward where he'd spent so many hours practicing hitting, throwing, and catching with his friends. He looked at his claws and that one long stupid finger thing.
I don't have hands anymore, he thought again. How am I supposed to play baseball now? There was nothing in the world Roger loved as much as playing baseball. Even before he'd joined the Little League, he'd loved just playing with his friends. He was darn good at it, too. He played first base on the Falcons, was the best hitter on the team (only Marlene was a faster runner), and Roger had been the hero of a number of games.
When Roger got older, he'd planned on playing for his junior high and high school teams, and then there would be college teams, and someday his dearest ambition was to play for the state team in the pros. The cap his dad had given him from their pro team was one of his favorite possessions, next to the baseball that everyone on that team had autographed.
I can barely turn a doorknob! How will I grab a ball? Hold a bat? Wear a glove?
If Roger had woken up and found that his arms and legs were gone, it wouldn't have been much worse than this. And at least he'd have still been human.
Shaken even worse than he'd been before, it took some time for Roger to clamber four legs over the fence, but he managed it, and headed into the dense stand of trees on the other side. The woods to the east of town were the beginnings of a forested area that eventually became miles of rugged state wilderness, where even experienced campers and hikers often got lost. But the woods near the town were fairly tame, and Roger and his friends often went out there exploring. Walking through the trees on one of the familiar dirt paths, Roger remembered some of those explorations and how easily he had climbed over that stupid fence when he had been human.
I can't even do something as simple as that anymore, he thought miserably.
It was still sinking in what had happened to him. He needed to stop somewhere and figure out what to do. Outside of his own room, the clearing with the big maple tree was one of his favorite places to think, and it wasn't far from the vacant lot.
He walked into the clearing, only tripping on his new legs twice. How the heck does Lou ever manage working four feet at a time? The ancient maple tree stood in the middle of the clearing, surrounded by low grass and dead leaves. It was probably a hundred years old, with a thick, gnarly trunk and branches spreading in all directions. The tree looked spectacular in the fall, when the leaves changed colors, but now it was just a big canopy of green.
Roger had a favorite thinking spot; a soft patch of grass where he could just relax back into a smooth curve in the trunk that seemed made just for him. But when he tried to sit, he found he couldn't. His new body wouldn't bend itself into anything that looked like sitting, and he couldn't lean his back on the usual spot on the trunk.
After some very uncomfortable twisting and turning, Roger finally just splayed his legs out and dropped his body flat to the ground near the tree. It wasn't much more restful than just standing, but it was as close to sitting as he could manage now.
For a while, he just sat miserably, not thinking about anything in particular. Not wanting to. Under the shade of the old maple tree was also a good place for not thinking, especially when your head was kind of messed up, and Roger had a hard time remembering the last time his head had been messed up as badly as this.
The sun rose higher. Roger wasn't certain of the time, nor how long he'd been away from home. He looked at his new arms, curling and uncurling the useless fingers at the end of the big claws, and then opened and closed the claws which clamped up against his spiked forearms.
Eventually he started looking around at the woods, trying out his new eyes. He could see details on leaves that normally he would have needed to be a lot closer to see. He made out the details of tiny sticks on the far side of the clearing. There was a black bird sitting on a branch over there, with bright orange patches on its wings, and Roger could see it clearly enough to tell what kind of bird it was — if he'd actually known anything at all about birds. Roger also found out he could turn his head right around and look backwards, like an owl (he knew that much about birds). He spent a minute or two trying this out.
Then Roger saw a squirrel at the clearing's edge, mostly hidden by the leaves of trees and bushes that swayed in the light breeze. If he focused, his vision seemed to filter out all of the movement of the leaves and zero in on the tiny movements and bits that he somehow could identify as a squirrel. Roger stared at the squirrel, fascinated.
His predicament forgotten for the moment, Roger looked in another direction and spotted another squirrel not far from the first one. And there! That was a deer moving through the dappled underbrush up the hill! Jeez, it must have been almost a hundred yards away!
Then Roger turned in the direction of town. There was another animal coming toward him. This one was bigger than a squirrel but smaller than a deer, running fast. Roger recognized it immediately.
"Lou!" shouted Roger. "Lou!"
Lou bounded into the clearing and up to Roger, running around him in a couple of tight circles before sitting down in front of him. The dog dropped what he was carrying and barked, just once. Roger was so happy that Lou had followed him that he laughed out loud, and then laughed again at how weird his laugh sounded.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Roger Mantis"
Copyright © 2019 Tom Alan Brosz.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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