August 13th, the third summer of the war.
“The grass got Earl last night.” The words came out matter-of-factly, in precisely the same way the barber might mention that rain was forecast, or perhaps that a new family had moved into town.
“You see it?”
“Nope. Heard about it, though.” Nate continued snipping as he talked. “Seems that he was having a late night over at The Copperhead, and when he comes out, he’s well, not walking too straight. Anyway, instead of keeping on the pavement, he somehow must have wandered out into the lot next door. That’s where they found him the next morning. Or what was left of him.”
“Maybe he was gonna take a piss”, Robbie said.
“If that was the case, I’d certainly hate to think about what got grabbed first.” The thought of Earl being pulled to the ground by his dick generated a spurt of laughter, and then an awkward, uncomfortable silence as the visual image ran to completion.
“Damned fool should’ve known better.” Harvey was saying the obvious, but mentioning it made everyone feel safer, thinking that only a dumbass like Earl could still get himself killed by the grass.
Getting killed by the grass, had, not that long ago, been a much more commonplace occurrence. It seemed as if everyday the newspaper had carried an article about human remains being discovered in a field, or a meadow somewhere or even in a median strip along the interstate.
Of course, the whole notion of a grass attack was unheard of as recently as three years ago. Then came that first miserable summer, when all hell broke loose.
According to the report on the television news, some genius had reseeded parts of his lawn with an ornamental African grass, not unlike the Buffelgrass or Lehmann lovegrass that has been imported to South Texas. This new import was identified as Shawaya Bobtail grass, which features tall flower stalks extending over six feet above the foliage, which is itself a handsome green mound. Almost immediately, however, the grass began demonstrating traits that had not been advertised.
A few weeks after the first shoots appeared where the Shawaya seeds had been dispersed, new shoots began popping up – everywhere. The Shawaya was in the flower beds, in remote parts of the yard, in sidewalk joints, even in places that had no dirt at all (those these dried up and blew away by the end of the day).
Soon neighbors began to see Shawaya in their lawns, and much to their dismay, all attempts at killing the stuff went for naught. First it was weed and feed mixtures, and then weed killer, and then herbicides, but even the most potent of the poisons were no match for the Shawaya. The herbicides were very effective, however, against every other form of plant life, so much so that in short order, the community’s grassy areas more closely resembled the sparse desolate plains of the African Savannah than anything seen in this hemisphere.
Lawsuits quickly followed, and local news reporters spent countless hours interviewing the victims, all of whom shared the same teary-eyed story of beauty destroyed and property value lost.
Eventually, the town called in scientists from the state college, who studied the grass and proposed the use of a highly toxic liquid that in more rational times would not be permitted within ten miles of residences. By the time the issue was put before the town council, fourteen blocks had come under Shawayan domination. At the meeting, a single voice of dissent, a local landscaper, calling the plan ‘the nuclear option”, went up against a panicked mob. With the onslaught continuing unabated, desperate officials sided with the mob.
Three days were allowed for the relocation of families, who were told to expect to be away from their homes for at least a week, or longer if the drought persisted. As the last car with refugees left on its way to the emergency Red Cross shelter, sixteen specially equipped tanker trucks rolled into the neighborhood, manned by technicians wearing protective gear that looked as if it might have come from NASA.
The day was brutally hot, as had been the recent pattern, and it caused the wearers of the protective suits to, from that day forward, look upon rotisserie chicken with new insight. But it was what happened when the work was done that would keep drivers and sprayers talking about that morning for the rest of their lives.
After the last yard was sprayed, and after the last sprayer was turned off, the trucks paused to communicate with their dispatchers, there being some question as to whether or not a second application would be required. As they waited, the trucks were shut down, and since the community was abandoned, there was no sound in the area at all. Or at least, there shouldn’t have been.
They heard it, at first between words spoken to each other, and then more completely, as one by one the conversations between truck mates died off, and heads turned to gaze upon the lots they had doused with acid. Rising from the rapidly browning Shawaya grass was what could be described as a high-pitched moan, or perhaps the combined whispered wails of a million burning stalks.
Spines became electrified with horror, and hearts sank with guilt as the grasses sang their death song to an audience of executioners. Gradually, the notes faded and drifted off into the breeze, and the men relaxed. It’s over, they thought.
It was not over. When crews returned a few days later to remove the carcasses, mayhem ensued. The workers had not so much as laid foot on the first property when they were set upon by the stalks of the Shawaya, which were in many cases taller than the men themselves. Those who were not yet within the reach of the grass leapt back into the street, becoming witnesses to a nightmare.
The shoots were as thin and of the same consistency as piano string, and cut skin just as easily. The plants wrapped themselves around the arms and legs of their prey, and while some stalks refused to let go, others pulled away with great force. Doing this made long and increasingly deep slices in the flesh of the victim, and just as quickly the stalks reattached themselves and renewed the assault.
Within seconds, human blood was spilling onto the grass, which only seemed to excite the Shawaya more, and the lightning quick movements of the stalks intensified. Soon the lashes were tearing at the throats of the unfortunate wretches, and jugular veins were severed. In the space of what could not have been more than two minutes, three strong, healthy young men lay dead, and were in the process of being dismembered.
“That damned stuff they sprayed ‘em with must of really pissed ‘em off,” Harvey had said at the time.
The police and fire department spent the rest of that day staring helplessly from the safety of asphalt as two police dogs, a stray cat and a rabbit were shredded by the Shawaya. By nightfall, the area had been cordoned off, and hundreds of bemused spectators wandered through the residential neighborhood. Every now and then, a false report of another attack on some adjoining street would send the crowd into a frenzy, and everyone would rush toward the new site, only to be disappointed.
Most people in town kept abreast of developments by watching the live remote broadcasts on TV, which for hours showed nothing more than a strange looking bush, at varying levels of magnification, illuminated by powerful lights, doing nothing.
Over the next few weeks, the war with the Shawaya had its ebbs and tides as authorities found fire to be an effective weapon against the renegade grass, and yet the grass kept spreading. On any given morning, one might step outside to retrieve the morning paper and find a half dozen new bunches of Shawaya on their property. The exterminators tried to keep up, but it was simply not possible.
Only an early frost and the onset of cold weather put an end to the bloodletting. The human death toll had risen to sixteen, five of whom were children. No one could estimate the number of missing pets, but it was easily in the hundreds. With the arrival of chilled air and the falling of the first snow, those who had lived in fear for the better part of three months, ordinary folks who were afraid to leave paved ground when walking outside, regained their love for life. Muscles relaxed, smiles returned and people started to talk about something other than the grass.
When spring arrived, it was absent the overblown tributes and hearty welcomes that had greeted it in previous years. Instead of looking forward to the warm breezes, people in town celebrated an unexpected Easter snowstorm. Rather than shoveling into the streets, residents had made a habit of shoveling onto the yards, burying everything as deeply as they could, in a vain attempt to subdue the seasons.
Despite their best efforts and most fervent prayers, the snow did melt, the flowers did bloom, and the grass got green. That winter, Department of the Environment crews had devoted themselves to eradicating the area of every stalk of the killer grass, and by the first of June, it looked as if the war with the Shawaya had been won.
A few weeks later, nature turned on its blast furnace, and local temperatures shot into the upper nineties. It was the fifth day of the heat wave when the first call came in to the police. The grass was back.
Within a month of the first complaint, a state of emergency was declared in the town, and the Shawaya was officially out of control again. In places where the grasses had been incinerated a week earlier, new Shawaya rose from the ashes, thicker and hardier than before. It now crossed highways, grew in gutters, stretched up through sewer grates, and undermined walls and foundations. Dozens of new victims were cut to pieces by the grass, their mangled remains testifying to their horrible fate. The town was close to being uninhabitable.
Some estimates placed the Shawaya’s lateral reach at over ten feet, and as a result, pedestrian traffic, even on paved surfaces, was made illegal within that distance of the plant. Nearby business districts were ghost towns, and the local economy reeled with the impact. Unemployment tripled, and homes were foreclosed upon by the dozens. Many residents simply packed up and moved away.
Just when the grass was on the verge of winning the war, the cavalry appeared, disguised as an Alberta Clipper, a Canadian cold front that heralded the end of that summer, and a temporary cessation in the Shawaya juggernaut.
With this temporary respite, the town fathers, making use of emergency federal aid money, devised an expensive plan whereby all non-paved surfaces, private and public, were to be concreted over at the earliest opportunity (weather permitting) and at breakneck speed. All applicable areas would be covered in heavy black plastic sheeting until such time arrived for their burial in concrete. A provision allowed property owners to apply for special low interest loans that could be used for the installation of green indoor/outdoor carpeting, which would become the new local grass.
The program, which seemed ridiculous to just about everyone not living near a Shawaya, progressed rapidly, and by the following May could report almost complete plastic sheeting coverage in the town, and ten percent concrete coverage. The grass however, remained unimpressed.
Once the summer heat took hold, the Shawaya went on the offensive again, poking holes in the plastic sheeting and pushing its way up to the surface. And in most places where the concrete had not yet been poured, there the Shawaya stood, proudly erect and unbeaten in fields of black plastic, defiant and taunting.
Still, deaths were much more of a rare event in this, the third summer of the war. People were smarter now, and the paving program was making slow but steady progress. Many of those living in town had already gotten their loan approvals, and a new industry had sprung up around the installation of artificial turf lawns.
“Pretty soon all of our yards will look like the Brady Bunch’s”, Robbie was fond of saying. “We’ll be the Brady Bunch town.”
“There you go again with the damned Brady Bunch,” Earl had always said. “Don’t you watch anything other than that?” Earl had hated the Brady Bunch. Earl had also hated artificial turf, not that it mattered anymore. The grass had seen to that.