pandemic tales from the dark side of dystopia

Garden of the Gods

Walking Toto turned into a hike. One after the other, Hank in the lead with a real compass he insisted on using, followed by Sam in adidas and a backpack full of sunscreen and water. Matty carried the load, lunch food and a first aid kit. 

Every turn yielded a panoramic view of red rocks and rainbows of formations—Garden of the Gods turned out to be a veritable Pirate’s treasure for land lovers unfolding its geological spectacles with stunning succession the further they trekked uphill.

Elaine brought up the rear with their scruffy new canine companion, Toto, who kept stopping for pee breaks and leading her off trail to follow his nose.

They marched. Follow the leader, from blacktop paved parking lot to red clay trails that swish tailed through rocky, cactus lined stairs to heaven uphill toward the spectacular god-worthy garden of sandstone formations that reached for the cobalt blue of the sky just outside of Colorado Springs.

After the blazing heat of Texas, the cool mountain breeze felt like paradise. No one wanted to cram back into the car anytime soon, so the pace was leisurely despite the heaviness the shooting had cast over them, nearly up-ending their urgent mission. They marched in formation, silently, until they found a lookout amongst the Rocky Mountain Junipers, Colorado Blue Spruces. One after the other, towing the line through cracks and crevices near the alcove they’d stopped at.

Matty unloaded sandwiches and snacks. They cobbed-a-squat overlooking unparalleled delights of geological splendor under a shady grove of trees. Elaine sat on her jacket feeding her lunch meat to Toto, their scruffy stray, freed from the gunman’s car in Texas. He’d adopted her as if he knew she was the one who’d found him. Matty had freed him from the abandoned, overpacked car at the gas station while Elaine told her story to the cops. By the time the authorities took possession of the unmanned vehicle, Toto had been safely ensconced in the Land Rover with the bumblebee tags.

Toto sniffed out the zombie ants before Elaine spotted the renegades amongst the ranks. Below lay prairie-grasslands, mountain shrub, but here, above trees there were cottonwood-willow, pinyon-juniper, ponderosa pine and quaking aspen.

At first, the renegade ants seemed like maybe a whole platoon gone AWOL, but they fragmented and diverged in an ungainly manner seemingly intent on a secret agenda, or several, involving plant life and ant specialized tree climbing fieldwork. But it soon became obvious they were not in control. No longer charting their own courses.

Elaine followed Toto, focused on these rebel ants meandering out from the park like zombies with secret subliminal calling. Each little soldier became intent on the nearby flora and fauna taking forest roots into the more densely verdant jungles between the sand and stone of the gods of the red garden.

The first one to divert took a path into the folds and vines of a nearby birch tree. Upon arriving at a juncture in the limbs, he did a bizarre dance that rendered him possessed and in thrall—a fiery kind of trance.

The ant stopped, flipped over on his back, and his head exploded. An arrow of green vine like a fiddlehead fern unfolding sprouted from the brain goop and unfurled itself like an alien tentacle attaching to the tree its limbs.

Toto barked. Elaine drew back. Eiww!

She thought she’d witnessed a freakish singular occurrence. It wasn’t long before Toto picked up the trail of another zombie ant. They followed this poor soldier to meet a similar fate in his alien brain exploding path of doom.

Elaine and Toto had wandered away from the group.

Matty being Matty kept his eyes on them. Hank and Sam took pics and vid of the Geo-formation sculpture of the gods, so he followed the girl and her dog into the nearby alcove of trees.

Birches and aspens rooted deep underground. “Did you know that deep underground aspens hold hands?” Matty asked.

“Well, no Mr. Science. I didn’t.” Elain turned quickly, distracted from the roadside kill of the poor ant mini-pandemic.

“It’s called a colony,” he said. “They seed underground, sending suckers to sprout a sister tree and that’s how they become Aspen Groves.”

“Like families?”

“Aspen Groves are among the oldest largest single organisms on earth.” Matty’s hand found Elaine’s.

She stood with her eyes closed, breathing gently, feet planted on the ground. Her shoulders relaxed for the first time in weeks, taking delight in the comforting pleasure of this connection, both tangible and whole.


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