Nine Panes of Glass

At first a bothersome thing, the bug noise became a lulling rhythm of nature for Pike Ansblath.
He accepted the ruffled whistle as part of summer.
One night, while lying on the couch, Pike tried to pin down what the noise sounded like.
It was, he determined, basically a whistle … with a little ripple effect.
A neighbor who overheard it one day likened the sound to a muted chirp.
Yeah, he could see that.
The sounds of summer insects always confused him, blurred into one hodgepodge … crickets, flies, bees, etc.
Who cared?
He got mad at himself for thinking about bugs so much.
There were other fish to fry — his love life, for instance, was motoring along quite swimmingly.
Rising from his long, cushy Ethan Allen sofa, Pike trekked up to the loft of his townhouse to shuffle through photos of his two most recent girlfriends.
He marveled at their cuteness.
Ah, Beatrice … a gem.
And Lara wasn’t far behind.
Both were known intimately.
He laughed to himself, then smiled.
Putting the photos away, Pike turned to head downstairs.
His tranquil state of mind was jarred by a shriek that knifed through the open loft window.
Gathering himself, he thought it sounded a like a higher-pitched version of the bug noise he’d been hearing.
Cautiously, Pike stepped up to the window and peered into the darkness at the rear of his townhouse.
He held his breath so that inhaling and exhaling would not disrupt his attempt to hear what was going on outside.
There was nothing but quiet.
It was hard to see anything except the silhouette of trees.
Leaning closer to the window, Pike caught sight of a firefly’s glow.
Closing his eyes to concentrate, he then heard what seemed like the rustling of bird wings — a small bird, at that.
For a few seconds, silence enveloped the black that blanketed the outside world.
Things were strange, Pike thought.
How could everything be so still?
He opened his eyes.
The shrieking noise that was heard must have been an aberration — a weird bit of audio from Mother Nature.
Insects, after all, create bizarre clicks, hums and God knows what else.
He let things be and went back downstairs to his sofa, where he often spent the night, rather than the bedroom.
When sleeping on the downstairs sofa during warm weather, the loft window and the window of his second-floor bedroom were left open for ventilation, but ground-level windows stayed shut.
Pike wasn’t overly cautious about crime, but his townhouse was, after all, out in the sticks, so to speak.
It was in a wooded subdivision on the outskirts of town.
But it was only a 15-minute drive to downtown, where the nightlife was … where civilization existed … where the girls were.
Returning his head to a couch cushion, Pike relaxed as he remembered meeting Lara at one of the bars in the business district.
It was summer, last year, and they had returned to his place to fool around on the same sofa where he now rested.
In between kisses, Pike had been distracted by the loud bugs that lay outside his open windows.
“Damn crickets,” he muttered to Lara.
She laughed.
“Those aren’t crickets, nature boy — they’re cicadas,” she giggled before planting another smooch on his lips.
“Cicadas? Huh, didn’t know that,” Pike had replied with only mild interest.
Lara smiled at his city-boy persona.
Pike’s remembrance of his conversation with Lara was interrupted by fluttering he heard.
It was coming from outside the loft window.
This time, Pike bounded upstairs — aggravated.
“Why are birds flying around my window this late?” he asked out loud.
Striding to the window, he pressed his forehead against the screen, trying to decipher what lay out there.
A car engine could be heard in the distance.
Then, it faded.
Maybe the fluttering he heard was a large moth.
In need of a pick-me-up, Pike went to the bathroom to check out his newly grown mustache.
Of all things, he had been inspired by the mustache Rock Hudson wore in a campy movie that was shown on cable TV.
It was called “Pretty Maids All In a Row,” an odd mishmash of swingin’ sex and serial killing that was released in 1971 — way before Pike had been born.
Pike dug the retro look of the star’s mustache.
It was thick, wide, virile — not overly bushy.
It drooped slightly at the corners of the mouth, but was no Fu Manchu.
Pike had tried out his new look a month before on Beatrice, his girlfriend at the time.
The unveiling came at Clyde’s — a trendy watering hole.
Striding up to the bar where she was sitting, Pike tapped her on the shoulder.
Beatrice spun around.
She chuckled.
“What’s that you got?” she asked while scoping out the new strip of hair.
“Like it?” Pike queried, playfully twiddling the edge of the mustache.
“Well, I don’t know. I guess I gotta let it grow on me.”
Pike was deflated a bit.
“You don’t think it’s cheesy, do you?” he asked with a tinge of concern.
“No, cheesy’s not the word,” she assured. “It’s just kind of ’70s, but maybe in a good way.”
“Maybe?” Pike asked teasingly.
Beatrice stood her ground: “Yep, have to go with maybe.”
A wicked little smile flashed across her face.
Pike liked her devilish spunk.
It had been his mission to get her back to his place that night.
But it didn’t happen until the next night.
Beatrice was dark-haired and dark in complexion. She looked perpetually tanned, even in winter.
Must be her Italian roots, Pike reasoned.
Pike had the same complexion, and had pitch-black hair and a wiry build — just like Beatrice.
They complemented each other.
Just a couple of attractive people.
They engaged in what Pike would later describe as “sloppy sex.”
The revelation was triumphantly made to a male friend over some beers.
Pike laughed about his sexcapade.
He told his pal of burping once too often from the microwave burrito — a big one — that he and Beatrice had split for dinner.
She salivated way too much when she French-kissed, he revealed to his buddy.
They both downed too much red wine.
Several days after the passion, he fell asleep on the sofa thinking about the delectable encounter.
It was 4:20 a.m. when he awoke to go to the bathroom.
But sounds emanating from upstairs sidetracked him.
Something seemed to be bumping against the window screen.
His brain was foggy, but he forced himself to check it out.
As he neared the open window, Pike saw something fluttering away from it.
“God, that’s pretty big!” he said out loud.
He thought it may have been a crow, or a large robin.
Then, he noticed a hole in the screen.
It was the size of a softball, with jagged borders.
“What the … ? Was something chewing on this?”
Flustered, Pike was talking to himself.
He looked around the floor to see if something had flown in through the window.
There was nothing.
He firmly shut the window to not let in bugs through the hole.
Pike allowed himself a minute to mull over the look of the window.
He liked it.
It opened up and down, like a normal window should.
Pike hated windows that jutted into the outside world by rotating a handle.
Additionally appealing were nine panes of glass, divided geometrically into three panes on three levels.
The wood between them was painted precisely in milk white; a classic look.
Later that day, Pike removed the screen. He’d get a new one.
For now, the window would remain closed to keep flying things out.
At his job that morning, Pike told Layla — an attractive co-worker — about the weird hole in his screen.
She thought it strange, but thought there was a reasonable explanation.
“A squirrel might have bitten through it,” she said while pouring a cup of coffee. “They chew on the legs of a plastic table I have on my patio.”
That made sense to Pike, although he found himself honing in on Layla’s bosom rather than her thoughts on the screen.
Pike and Layla were up-and-comers in the financial-planning world.
Both were in their late 20s.
They also were fairly rich.
Pike lusted for Layla Ruff.
She knew how to fill out a power suit.
He had never asked her out, but their talk about his window woes opened the door.
Layla agreed to after-work dinner that evening.
While dining at an Italian restaurant, Pike informed his date that he didn’t much like Facebook.
“It’s like seeing someone’s vacation pictures — multiplied by 10,” he lamented.
“Yeah, Facebook can be frivolous,” Layla opined, sipping on merlot.
After eating, it was back to his place while some daylight remained.
Pike had been hoping for a sexual rendezvous, but they merely chatted for 20 minutes.
She said she had a great time, and left.
Well, Pike thought, it wasn’t the best date ever, but it wasn’t bad.
Slowly edging into his consciousness was a sound from the loft.
It was that familiar rippled whistling.
This time, it was growing louder in a very unsettling way.
Pike reluctantly checked it out. He was beat.
In the window’s upper right-hand corner, something unmistakable was evident.
A big bug on the outside of the pane.
Pike cautiously stepped closer.
The wings were translucent and streaked with thin lines resembling veins.
The wings fanned out impressively, and were twice as long as the body.
The torso was thick, stout and a dark green; the eyes black.
They were large compound eyes.
Most compelling was its lengthy tail.
It was pointy and bore a slight curve.
Without thinking, Pike tapped on the pane to see if he could get the insect to move.
Instead of moving, the noise it made rose, evolving into a high-pitched bleating.
Poking his nose closer to the window, Pike noticed that the bug seemed to be swelling up.
As he stepped back, a clearer assessment could be made of its size.
Five inches, maybe, from eyes to tip of tail.
Pike tried to gather himself.
He drew closer to the visitor.
Barbs could be seen at intervals along the tail.
At one point, its head swiveled backward, as if the bug was looking at something to the rear.
Pike went downstairs for a break.
Bugs were freaking him out; he laughed as he opened a bottle of beer.
After a couple of swigs, he ventured back upstairs.
This time, the winged thing was in the center window pane, middle row.
Pike wondered if the bug would try to hopscotch to all nine panes.
Would the beast trespass on his coveted window, pane by pane?
A “world tour” of all nine panes?
Pike’s mind was speeding. Irritation grew.
Pike was tired of looking at the interloper.
He tapped hard on the window glass in an attempt to scare it off.
The insect flicked its wings, but didn’t budge.
A hard tap, again.
Still nothing.
However, the tail swung slightly from side to side.
Pike gave up, leaving the window.
The next morning, the bug was on the lower right pane.
It indeed seemed to be visiting all the panes.
Now, it was perfectly vertical, centered on the pane.
The eyes were like that of a fly, oversized, with a darkness that made the pest’s mood imperceptible — dangerous.
Putting down his cup of coffee, Pike moved closer, concentrating on the head.
There was something resembling two fangs.
The creature flexed them up and down.
Pike could see they were sharp.
“Bizarre,” Pike muttered.
Ever so slowly, the bug crawled from the pane to the outside sill.
Pike ran for his camera.
This, he thought, was the perfect time to snap a photo.
Holding his camera in one hand, he carefully raised the screen-less window with the other. To his delight, the thing didn’t fly away.
Opening the window not more than necessary, Pike tried to align his camera for a shot, but the bug’s hindquarters faced him.
Then, the bug slowly shuffled its legs around, and ended up resting horizontally in front of the photographer for an accommodating angle.
“You posing for me?” Pike asked.
Three photos were snapped and the window promptly shut.
The visitor flew off.
The captured images were transferred to Pike’s computer.
That night, Layla viewed them on the computer screen.
She was shocked by the size of the winged vision.
And the weird tail made the viewing a true revelation.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said with an audible gasp.
Pike related that the thing on the screen was probably the culprit making the whistling noise at night.
“Could be,” Layla said. “I don’t think it’s katydids.”
She suggested that Pike show his bug photos to an insect expert at one of the nearby universities.
One of the colleges had to have one, she said.
Pike heard her, barely. His focus was on the computer screen.
“It was weird how this bug was able to turn its head completely around,” he told Layla, marveling at its stocky noggin.
“I heard a praying mantis can swivel its head 180 degrees,” Layla offered.
“Nice to know,” said Pike, not diverting his attention.
He was so caught up in the bug dilemma that having Layla spend the night was ruled out.
That was indeed an unusual stance for Pike Ansblath.
When sleep finally came that night, it was the fitful variety.
He dreamt the insect was on the upper left-hand pane.
In the dream, that location of the bug inexplicably chilled him to the bone.
Somehow, some way, it was a harbinger that someone would die.
When he awoke around 3 a.m., that irrational omen was vividly lodged in his mind.
With couch pillow scrunched under his head, Pike finally drifted off to sleep.
Around dawn, there was a noticeable high-pitched clamor.
It was relentless.
Something tingled on his left arm.
A half-conscious stage still engulfed him.
He watched as the bug he knew so well inched up his forearm.
The tail was whipping about.
Pike sensed this really wasn’t happening, but panic grew.
He couldn’t rouse himself from his sleep.
He wanted to wake up, but couldn’t.
He was aware, but paralyzed.
The invader continued to walk up the arm, past the elbow and onto the upper arm.
It was now on the sleeve of the T-shirt.
The tail jerked forward — like a scorpion’s attack.
It didn’t make contact with Pike.
However, the bug’s head was burrowing into the T-shirt.
Fangs tore into the sleeve.
Pike tried to brush off the marauder, but couldn’t raise his right arm to do it.
It was dead weight … incredibly heavy.
The large insect was chewing … Pike felt the sting.
He tried to roll off the couch.
He couldn’t move.
He let out a whimpering yelp.
Finally, he opened his eyes — and there was rapid clarity.
He was able to move now.
Quickly checking the left arm, Pike raised the sleeve of his T-shirt, expecting to see ugly, broken skin.
But only a tiny red mark was visible — not even the size of a dime.
Up and down the arm he looked.
On the upper forearm, a tiny scratch was detectable.
But no blood.
His eyes darted around the floor, the couch, the walls — there was no big bug.
Did he dream that the thing was on his arm?
Pike tried to focus.
He must have dreamt it, but what were the marks on his arm?
Maybe he scratched himself during the night.
Pike resolved that the insect on his arm had been part of a dream.
He wasn’t entirely sure, but he badly needed to believe the “dream” theory.
He was scared.
Pike scrambled to the bathroom to splash water on his face.
He needed some company.
So he called Layla.
Pike related the bug-on-the-arm incident.
She was amazed Mr. Cool sounded so undone.
She said she would come over.
And she would know what to do.
Layla had looked up the name of a professor at Crasslock University who was an entomology expert.
“Email him a couple of photos of that bug. Let him see if he can identify it.”
Pike complied.
Pike and Layla got cups of coffee after the photos were emailed to professor Thomas Rezinski.
The email simply requested any information Rezinski could uncover about the bug.
“I’m just a city-boy financial planner who knows nothing about nature, but thought you could offer some insight,” Pike wrote the professor.
After Pike filled in Layla at the kitchen table about his unsettling moments on the couch, they returned to the computer in about a half-hour to see if Rezinski had responded.
There was, indeed, a message from him.
“He must have been right by his computer when we sent the email,” Layla said.
Opening the email, the message was short and to the point: “Thanks for sharing the images. It’s a curious-looking living thing. I’ll study it some more. I’ll get back to you — Thomas Rezinski, Associate Professor, Department of Entomology, Crasslock University.”
In reality, the reply to Pike and Layla didn’t convey the awe Rezinski experienced when setting eyes on the creature.
Rezinski had never seen anything like it.
That stingray-like tail was mystifying.
The torso resembled a cicada, but it wasn’t a cicada.
Rezinski took a swig of his espresso and peered more closely at the computer screen.
Perhaps it was a mutant.
Or maybe the photos were a hoax.
One of the two images provided a better angle of the hooked fangs.
Rezinski thought they resembled the imposing fangs of a wolf spider, but they did not appear to be part of any typical arachnid chelicerae, or jaws.
Rezinski knew the imposing wolf spider, for instance, had fang-tipped chelicerae.
The mouth on this bug seemed more reptilian.
The instructor thought this oddity in front of him partially resembled a cicada … something belonging to the Homoptera insect order.
Insects in that family have mouthparts that pierce and suck.
They feed on plants and trees, although Rezinski couldn’t be sure if this quirky oddball eschewed meat.
Rezinski knew it would be quite a while before he replied to the stranger who sent the photos.
Entomology had been Rezinski’s career for about 40 years, yet he was genuinely confounded about what to make of the bug.
A housefly could be seen in the corner of one photo.
Using the house fly for perspective on dimensions, Rezinski estimated that the curiosity was four inches long from head to tip of tail … maybe even closer to five inches.  
He urgently left his office to get a second opinion from a colleague.
Layla spent the day — a Saturday — with Pike.
They went to a fast-food place for lunch.
As she ate salad and he munched on a cheeseburger, Pike reassessed Layla as they dined, but did not speak for several minutes.
She was, indeed, cute, with shoulder-length auburn hair and rich brown eyes boasting large pupils that showed very little white — just like a baby’s.
For her part, Layla liked how Pike was relying on her during the rough stretch with the creepy-crawly.
It was dusk when Pike and Layla parted ways for the day.
Pike was settled down.
He merely wanted to relax and watch TV.
“Thanks for coming, and sorry I was so wigged out,” he told his new girlfriend as he planted a kiss on her cheek.
“Not a problem,” she smiled. “Can’t wait to hear what the professor says about it.”
Layla left with a good feeling.    
At work, she had always been leery of Pike’s Romeo persona, but this instance with the bug had made him seem more accessible.
The weather was also making her feel good.
It had been unseasonably cool that day, so she wore a light sweater vest over her blouse.
Layla didn’t mind cool temperatures; fall was to be relished.
She had to park her car a couple of blocks away from Pike’s place because the street in front of his home was being paved.
Stepping outside, she knew she wouldn’t mind the walk.
About to turn on the sidewalk in front of the townhouse, Layla noticed a dead bird on the grass, off to the side.
She bent down for a closer look. It was a sparrow.
Its chest cavity had been hollowed out. The hole in it was deep.
Gross, Layla thought,
Its feathers around the depression in the chest were matted and a dirty-red color.
Layla moved on.
Meanwhile, Professor Rezinski had made up his mind before going home for the night that he would contact the guy who sent him images of the strange winged thing. He wanted to pump the sender for more information.
Rezinski had almost convinced himself that the images were cleverly doctored, but something gnawed at him.
His instincts kept screaming that the insect was real.
A new species?
Rezinski had to know for sure. That would take more time.
He shut the light in his office and closed the door.
At Pike’s townhouse at the same time, the loft window was beckoning.
As soon as Layla left his home, Pike scrambled upstairs to see if the nemesis had returned.
There was little light left outside, but enough to get a decent look at the window.
Before seeing anything, Pike heard that chirping … that rippled whistling.
There it was, on the outside of the lower right-hand pane.
Then, its six legs began to skitter.
Across the three bottom panes it went, then on to the second row and to the right, across all three panes.
Then it dutifully marched up to the third row of panes and headed left.
Pike felt sick to his stomach.
It was headed to the upper left-hand pane — that godforsaken location he had dreamt of — that foretold something dire.
There it landed.
A wave of dread washed over Pike.
It was as if something very credible was foretelling the death of a loved one.
As if to hammer home its arrival at the upper left-hand pane, the insect flapped its wings furiously, violently.
What came next would change Pike’s life forever.
A starling had landed on the outside sill.
The bug flew to the bird in a second or two.
The attacker was a blur in flight.
Attaching itself to the starling’s back, it violently drove the starling downward into the wooden sill.
The starling madly cackled and screeched.
It flapped and writhed, then went limp.
The insect bore through the back of the bird.
Pulling itself out, the head of the insect was covered in bloody matter.
The killer flew away.
Pike opened the window and stuck his head out to better view the bird.
The hole in the bird was amazing.
“My God,” Pike said to himself.
At that precise moment, Layla was walking down an increasingly darkened sidewalk between a row of large pine trees on one side and a line of red maples on the other.
They allowed little light down to the sidewalk.
She emerged from the darkened sidewalk into the glow of a streetlight that had just come on near her parked car.
Two teenage boys riding past on bicycles noticed something clinging to the back of her sweater.
“Hey, is that a stick?” one boy asked the other.
Slowing down for a better look, the second boy got a better view.
“It looks like a big bug. It’s moving,” he laughed to his friend.
Layla did not hear any of it as she opened the car door. Her mind was elsewhere.
The boys rode off, laughing.
“That’s a big bug,” one of them exclaimed. “Hope it bites her.”
They laughed again and rode away — fast.

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