Mika Johnson moved into her first ever rental house at the beginning of August. With the porch swing and the little maple tree in the front yard, it was the definition of cute. And only four blocks from campus!
True, living in a college neighborhood had its drawbacks: loud music at 2 a.m.; half-dressed frat boys staggering down the street; the ubiquitous scent of marijuana drifting in through open windows. Mika bought earplugs, closed the windows, and turned on the air conditioner. She dutifully picked up the beer cans—and stranger items—that showed up on her lawn each morning. By November, she would have told you she had seen everything.
The sun had just set on a short, crisp day when Mika looked out her front window and saw something new.
The object was sitting in the middle of the street. It appeared to be a three-foot cube of… something. She frowned. Unless the light deceived her, the cube was purple. Sliding into her jacket, she went to investigate.
Up close, she noticed three things: the object was purple, with a matte finish; a strong, gasoline-like odor surrounded it; and it had an opening in the top, rather like a mail slot—which was glowing. Glowing purple, as a matter of fact.
The box was warm to the touch.
Seeing no one to claim the mystery item, Mika decided to move it out of the street at least. Carefully she picked it up. It was awkward but not heavy. She stepped onto the curb and was about to set the box down when a glowing dot crawled out of the opening.
It was a bit smaller than a ladybug. Mika stared as it wandered across the top of the cube. It had to be some kind of insect; but it was no insect she had ever heard of. Its body emitted a bright purple light.
A second insect emerged from the slot and took flight with a soft humming sound. The first one reached the edge of the box, hesitated, and followed suit. Mika watched, transfixed. The creatures traced lazy arcs back and forth through the air. “Like tiny purple fireflies,” she thought—if the firefly’s whole body could glow bright as a Fourth of July sparkler. Their paths left curling afterimages across her vision.
She didn’t notice the next insect out of the box until it crawled onto her left thumb.
Mika yelped. The likeness to sparklers was closer than she had thought: the creature crawling on her felt like a burning match pressed into her skin. Without thinking, she shook her hand to get it off, and in so doing dropped the box.
The box started buzzing.
By the time Mika had taken three steps back, glowing insects were pouring out of the slot. Launching into the air, they clustered together six feet off the ground. Soon they were a seething purple cloud too bright to look at. A wave of gasoline odor rolled over her.
The insect that had burned her hand zoomed off to join the swarm. When it reached them, the buzzing went from loud to unbearable, and the whole mass came after her.
Mika gasped and ducked. Most of the insects flew over her, but spots of pain flared on her right hand and her cheek. Choking on the fumes, she stumbled to her feet, threw her arms over her head, and ran.
The swarm roared past her again, peppering the back of her neck with dozens of small burns. She careened up the steps, darted inside, and slammed the door.
Inside, the noise subsided to distant-freight-train levels. Mika patted her hair, which miraculously had not caught fire. She gingerly put a hand to her neck. “Ow!” That would need some burn cream. She stared at the reddening spots on her hands; then she turned and looked out the peephole.
The swarm circled the front yard, slower and slower. It hovered beside the tree, sending out little streams of scouts like tendrils—searching for her? At last it settled back onto the cube. Two minutes later, the last of the insects had disappeared inside the slot.
Cautiously, Mika opened the door, just enough to stick her head out. The yard was still. The gasoline stench lingered, gradually mingling with another smell. A smoky smell.
The maple tree was starting to burn.
She had to call 911. But the box was still there. How could she explain the box? The fire was small; she could put it out herself with the garden hose. Go get the hose, douse the tree. Put out the fire. Yes.
Yet she hesitated. Inside the house, it was safe. But out in the yard…
The large, foul-smelling purple object sat there on the ground, innocently.