They roared, they sputtered, they rattled and clattered, and landed. One by one the rag-tag squadron of dust croppers touched down and taxied to a stop in front of Colonel Wilcox. The cheeky swagger of the finished line-up dared him to take command.
“Get those planes off my runway!” He screamed. His soldiers recalibrated their mortars off their target and faced the planes but the pilots ignored the massive firepower as they climbed out of their cockpits. They had all the self-assuredness of hard working farmers who knew who they were and why they were here.
A man separated from the group and ambled toward Wilcox. The soldiers eyed him through their sights, looking for signs of a subversive or rabid animal rights person. Instead they saw an old farmer with a curious tractor rhythm gait. “What’s he gonna do, throw manure?” A soldier muttered. The rest chuckled or laughed outright. Behind them a soft chewing sound rumbled.
Ten rows of five planes each. Wingtip to wingtip they crouched, ready to take off to rescue the world. The Colonel yelled again and the pilots broke out the lunches their wives, mothers and sweethearts had packed for them. It was going to be a long night and they might not get another meal until morning.
The Colonel wound up for another bout of screaming but Old Charlie didn’t break stride. His expletives hung, unuttered, at the back of his throat as the Elegant Widow Carlisle and Charlie’s twelve-year-old granddaughter, Lydia, joined the old man.
Charlie squinted up at the Colonel. “You the brass?” He asked.
“Get those planes off my runway!” Was the reply.
“That’s him, Grandpa.” Lydia tugged at Charlie’s suspenders. “I saw him on TV.”
Charlie looked past the apoplectic Colonel. Even at this distance, a full quarter of a mile away, the giant maggot he’d come to kill was impressive. His expression, however, remained impassive as he took in its massive bulk; four stories high, two city blocks wide and three quarters of a mile in length. Charlie nodded slowly, as if assessing the worth of a newborn calf, “Yup, he’s a big one alright.”
“Are you in charge of those toys?” The Colonel’s complexion was now purple and working on black as he gestured toward the planes.
Charlie ignored him, spat to the side and wrinkled his nose as he cocked his head to the side to stare at the worm. “TV didn’t say anything about the smell.”
“They found it in a compost heap, Grandpa.” Lydia spread her arms wide to indicate how big the maggot had been when it was first found, but she never took her eyes off the Colonel
“That is was, Grandbaby, that is was.” Charlie turned a red-rimmed eye on the Colonel, snapped to attention and saluted with all the smoothness of the old soldier he was. “Lieutenant Commander Charles Anthony Matthews, retired, reporting for active duty. SIR!”
Before the Colonel could recover, the old man forged ahead. “North Haywood County Crop Dusting Squadron assembled and ready for battle. SIR!”
The Colonel’s mouth hung slack. He looked over the fifty planes parked smartly on his runway.
At Charlie’s salute the other pilots stepped away from their planes and slammed to attention and saluted in their own fashion, from a Boy Scout s to an old navy salute. The intense pride of each pilot in his plane and his mission could be felt across the runway.
Some were old and rusty, other’s, like The Elegant Widow Carlisle’s, were new and sparkled in the afternoon sun.
“Ready for battle?” The Colonel whispered.
Widow Carlisle smiled at the Colonel and extended her hand, murmuring softly,
“Minerva Carlisle. Colonel Wilcox, it’s an honor to meet the man fighting to help the American farmer in this, our hour of desperate need.”
Lydia’s twelve-year-old budding female instincts made a mental note on “How to handle a difficult man of authority” and filed it away for future use.
Colonel Wilcox leaned forward to hear the widow’s soft words. “We are in your debt and at your service, sir.” She smiled and he melted like hot pork fat over a barbecue pit.
“She means we’ve come to help you kill that bugger.” Charlie sighed.
“Watch your mouth!” Colonel Wilcox protested. But Charlie didn’t like the way the Colonel looked at the widow. As members of the same farming community, he’d always kept an eye out for his old war-buddy’s widow.
“Minerva, back to your plane.” He ordered.
“Commander Matthews, I must protest!” Wilcox blustered.
Charlie managed not to preen. By addressing him by his title the Colonel acknowledged his rank, retired or not.
“Lady’s my second in command, Colonel. She leads the second wave.”
“The second wave of what?” The Colonel was all attention now. His disdainful glance at the raggedy crop dusting planes made the pilots lean forward, as if ready to rush him.
“Sir?” One of his aide’s tried to interrupt but was waved off.
“What in Alexander’s name can crop dusters do to that that army bombs can’t?” He flailed an arm at the worm behind him. “That thing is eating its way across the country and nothing we do stops it. Why do you think you can?”
“Excuse me, sir.” Lydia tried to imitate her grandfather’s salute. “But you’ve tried bombs, flame throwers, insecticide, mines and missiles, right?”
Colonel Wilcox glared down at her. “Everything short of the atom bomb.” His eyes stabbed back at Charlie. “I repeat, why do you think you can kill it?”
Charlie studied the giant worm again. The pinkish white mound of gelatinous flesh had stubby, flaccid legs unable to touch the ground. At the end of the waving stubs were three-clawed feet half the size of a one-car garage. Dirt, foliage, slime, hunks of metal and chunks of broken buildings were imbedded in its gooey folds. Charlie wasn’t positive, but he thought he saw the top of a set of golden arches disappear into the grime.
“Sir! It’s moving again!” A soldier cried out. Jeep engines rumbled and the mortars swung around to face the worm.
“Move back. Now! I can’t have civilians hurt.”
Charlie shook his head at the Colonel. “We’re here to stay, Sir.” Charlie saluted again. On the runway the pilots scrambled into their planes.
At the sound of trucks Wilcox’s head swung around in time to see fifty tanker trucks drive onto the runway. Puppies searching for their mother’s teats, each one went straight to a plane and prepared to fill its insecticide reservoirs.
The Colonel turned to Charlie. “I appreciate you’re coming, here, I really do. But if the United States Army, the Marines, the Navy and the Air Force can’t take care of this thing, no one can.”
Charlie cocked his head to the side again. “Drinkin’ man can, Colonel.”
The Colonel blinked at him and Charlie grinned. It was an “I know something you haven’t figured out yet” grin. It added an evil glint to his eyes.
“Think about it, sir. That thing was found in a fermenting compost heap. It’s eaten its way across hop fields, cornfields, and now it’s headed for the barely fields. What does that say to you?” He walked away, waving at the trucks.
“Say your prayers boys, we’re goin’ in.” He yelled at the pilots.
Wilcox turned to Widow Carlisle, at a loss for words. She smiled at him as she patted his arm. “When Charlie came to me with his idea, I thought he’d finally started drinking too much of his own brew.”
Widow Carlisle looked out at the dust crop fleet. “They’re not just farmers, Colonel, they’re moonshiners. Every one of them, except me. I run Carlisle Vineyards.”
“Your worm’s an alcoholic, Sir, looking for its next drink. We’re going to dump a cocktail of Everclear, corn likker, and an inferior Chardonnay onto it.” She looked down at Lydia and smiled.
“You know what to do, dear?”
“I’d rather come with you and Grandpa.” Lydia was anxious to see “real action.”
“I know, but someone has to ride shotgun down here. Give him his instructions.” She gestured at the Colonel and then kissed Lydia on the top of the head and walked to her plane.
Charlie waved at the stunned Colonel. “Shine’ll do one of two things to you, sir. It’ll make you stooped happy, or kill you dead. You watch after my Grandbaby.”
Lydia tugged at the Colonel’s sleeve. “Sir, I have to direct Grandpa from the ground. Can I have a Jeep please?”
For three hours the little planes dumped the cocktail on the giant worm. For three hours the Colonel and the little girl drove the length of it watching for signs of a breakdown; but noticed none. Lydia worked the Jeeps radio and relayed information to her Grandfather. The crop dusters dove to empty their payloads, landed, refilled and went up again.
The worm quivered with every hit, its massive folds jiggling and wriggling. It didn’t move. It didn’t die.
“We’ll never kill it.” The Colonel groaned. “Never.”
“Kinda looks that way, doesn’t it, Sir?” The Jeep’s driver said.
Lydia ignored them and kept instructing her Grandfather and Widow Carlisle. She tugged the Colonel’s jacket hem as she pulled the radio earphones aside. “Grandpa says to recon… recon…”
“Reconnoiter?” He asked gently.
“Yeah, on the runway. They’re all coming in for one last payload.” She smiled as the Jeeps took off at his wave. For all his bluster Colonel Wilcox was a lot like her Grandpa. She liked him for that.
Jeeps backed away from the worm and wound their way back to the runway. The planes landed, each one looking as haggard as their pilots. Tankers moved in to fill the reservoirs. Even the Elegant Widow Carlisle looked tired as she joined Lydia and the Colonel. Charlie just looked like Charlie as he ambled away from his plane.
Widow Carlisle sighed. “We’ve only got enough for one more pass, Colonel Wilcox.” She looked toward the worm quivering pinkly in the moonlight. “We were so sure.”
The Colonel patted her shoulder. “It was a good idea, based on facts that supported it.” He looked at Charlie. “You’ve done good work, and I appreciate it.”
Charlie rubbed his eyes. “Not good enough. Not hardly.” He finally looked tired.
“Extraordinary circumstances demand extraordinary solutions. Given that our standard attacks weren’t working, it was worth a try.”
“Sir!” The Jeep driver pointed at the worm. “What’s it doing, Sir?”
They spun around to look. The worm quivered and shuddered and rocked.
“Dang thing’s trying to move on” Charlie ran for his plane, Widow Carlisle behind him.
Lydia grabbed up the radio gear and Colonel Wilcox waved at the other Jeeps. Soldiers and Jeeps scattered, tankers rushed off the runway and the planes lined up for take off.
As they lifted off the tarmac the small planes headed high into the sky to their appointed position for their last pass at the heaving worm.
Little Lydia worked the radio. “Column One, GO!”
The first column buzzed the worm. Before the alcohol mist they’d dropped had a chance to land the next wave followed, then the next and the next and finally the last.
“Grandpa, Grandpa. It’s stopped.” Lydia spoke in a whisper.
Her Grandfather’s voice crackled back at her. “Stopped what, Grandbaby?”
“It’s not doing anything. It’s just sitting there.” She answered.
“Oh…my…God…” The Jeep driver whispered.
Colonel Wilcox grabbed the radio receiver. “Commander? Do you see that? Do you see…” He dropped the receiver and stared. His stomach twisted in on itself and tried to bore its way out his backbone.
“Get my Granddaughter out of there!” Charlie yelled. He looked out of his plane’s window as the giant worm’s front section slowly raised upward, its flaccid, useless legs waving in the air, its mouth open wide.
“Dear God in heaven.” Widow Carlisle’s voice whispered over the radio. “Charlie, what do we do now?”
On the ground Lydia yelped as she slipped and jostled around in the back seat of the Jeep. The Colonel grabbed her arm and tried to steady her as the driver gunned the engine to get away from the worm.
“Faster, man! Faster!” The Colonel yelled. “There’s no telling which way that damned thing will fall.”
Lydia screamed as she was tossed around in the bucking Jeep. “Watch those bumps!” Colonel Wilcox yelled.
“No bumps, Sir! That’s the ground. It must be an earthquake.” The Jeep Driver headed for the ridge, moving forward two feet for every four feet he slipped back.
Lydia pointed and it was then they realized that the worm – swaying back and forth – was losing the debris caught up in its folds. Every piece of building that fell, fell with the force of a mild explosion. Finally, free of the debris it stretched upward, toward the planes dousing it with the cocktail. Over the radio they could hear Charlie’s now frantic voice.
“Everyone, out of here. Save your planes, get out of here.”
In his plane Charlie watched at the maggot’s mouth open again. He grinned to himself and checked his instruments. His reservoirs were still full.
“You give me that target one more time you… just one more time’s all I want.” He growled at it.
“At three o’clock.” Widow Carlisle’s voice crackled over the radio. Charlie didn’t dare take his eyes off the maggot.
“Minerva, you get that fancy plane of yours back with the rest of the boys.”
“I’m your second in command, remember.”
Charlie growled in frustration. “You can’t do me any good up here. You get on the ground and take care of my Grandbaby.”
“No! Grandpa!” Lydia’s frantic scream made the radio falter.
“Don’t worry, Lydia. He’ll be down with you soon. Charlie, I didn’t dump all of my load in my last pass. You’re going for the mouth, aren’t you? We’ll do it together. Like that last run you made with Bob in ‘Nam.”
This time Charlie did glance out the cockpit window. Widow Carlisle gave him a smile, a wave and a thumb’s up. Just like his old war buddy had on their last run together.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll be coming back from this.”
“So will I.” Charlie agreed.
Below them on the ground the Colonel listened to the radio and stared at the two little planes. “Damn! What I could do with men like that in my unit!” He exclaimed.
The Jeep driver started to back up. “What are you doing?” The Colonel demanded.
“Backing up, sir. We don’t have any anti-flak jackets, sir. I want the ridge between us when they dump.”
The Colonel paused a moment. “Right. Lydia, you duck when I tell you to. No trying to see what’s going on, okay?”
“He’s my Grandpa!” she protested.
“He’s the best man I’ve got right now. You be the best girl.”
They looked to the sky as the planes flew overhead, directly at the opened mouth of the giant maggot.
Charlie felt one small drop of sweat move slowly down his back. He wanted to reach back and scratch at it, but he didn’t dare take his hands of the controls. The mouth before him grew larger and larger as he approached. “You okay, ‘Nerva?”
“Scared.” Was all she answered.
“Good.” He said back. In his mind he started to count, but soon his words were heard by everyone with a radio. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five… four… three… two…Lord, bless us all, NOW!”
He released his payload and pulled up and over. Up, up, over, over. The air behind him whooshed and battered his small plane. His seatbelt broke and he held on to the controls with every sinew in his body, and then he blacked out.
The worm took the double dose straight into its mouth. The thousands of gallons of the cocktail coated its teeth, bulbous tongue and rancid throat. For a moment the alcohol was the most wonderful thing it had ever tasted. It wanted more, it reached higher and higher opening its mouth wider and wider, and then the fire feeling deep in its gut began to rage.
The Colonel grabbed Lydia and tried to cover her from the sound. It was a primal scream of all the souls in hell crying out in pain. The Jeep driver writhed in the front seat, forgetting to back the Jeep down the ridge. Around him The Colonel saw people throwing themselves on the ground covering their heads, beating hands and feet against the ground trying to drown out the sound.
The earth heaved and shook and bounced as the giant maggot crashed down. The sound stopped. The earth stopped moving. The total silence of a ravaged land greeted the soldiers and pilots as they slowly stood to see the giant maggot dead.
“Grandpa?” Lydia asked.
The Colonel looked up, trying to find the two small planes, but the skies were empty.
“Mrs. Carlisle?” Lydia whispered into the radio. “Please, oh please, please answer me,” she begged.
“Hey, Grandbaby!” Charlie’s voice crackled loudly over the radio.
“There!” The Jeep driver pointed. Flying low, Charlie’s old beat up cropduster made its way toward them. Then, as the Widow Carlisle’s new plane, now looking very much like Charlies’, pulled along side of her friends, a cheer ripped through the crowd on the ground.
Lydia cried and cheered and cried again. The Jeep driver finally had to pull the radio out of her hands to answer its insistent crackle. He looked up in amazement and slowly handed the receiver to The Colonel.
“Sir? It’s the President. He wants to talk to Charlie, the Worm Killer, and his lady.”