Cover for Drabblecast episode 303, Hero the Movie pt. 1, by Joe BotschThis romantic comedy begins where all low-budget ’50s creature-features ended: The mutant insects born of atom-bomb radiation (or invaders from space, or monsters from the sea, or fifty-foot women) have at last been defeated and our small-town hero, with girlfriend Janie or June or Betty at his side, must now face the rest of his life. Didn’t we wonder what his life would be like after the final credits rolled? After you save the world, what’s left? You can marry the Professor’s daughter, sure. You can sell the rights to your story. Be on national talk shows. Hold onto fame a little longer. But then what?




 Hero, the Movie

What’s Left When You’ve Already Saved the World?

Part One


“We’re in this together, aren’t we, Steve?”

—Janie, The Blob


“When man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world.   What we will eventually find in that new world nobody can predict. . . .”

—Dr. Medford, Them!


“An atom bomb couldn’t eradicate this thing.”

—Entomologist, on the new breed of fire ant,

National Geographic, February 1997


The Pitch


This romantic comedy begins where all low-budget ’50s creature-features ended: The mutant insects born of atom-bomb radiation (or invaders from space, or monsters from the sea, or fifty-foot women) have at last been defeated and our small-town hero, with girlfriend Janie or June or Betty at his side, must now face the rest of his life.  Didn’t we wonder what his life would be like after the final credits rolled?  After you save the world, what’s left?  You can marry the Professor’s daughter, sure.  You can sell the rights to your story.  Be on national talk shows.  Hold onto fame a little longer.  But then what?


The Backstory


The day the giant, angry, hungry locusts reached McCulloughville, Nevada (pop. 2000, Elks, Lions, VFW), Rick Rowe was twenty-one.  He’d never been to college, but that was okay.  He’d never even been to Reno, and that was okay, too.  He had a “gypsy red” ’57 Bel Air convertible he was proud of; and though he knew his parents disapproved, he liked drag racing it with his friends from high school.  He’d kissed a girl or two, sure, and even gotten to second base with them, but not without some guilt.  He was an upstanding hometown kid and everyone knew it.  After all, his parents were fine people.  Mr. Rowe was an officer at the McCulloughville Bank; Mrs. Rowe, a housewife.  If there was one thing to be said about McCulloughville in 2005, it was that it—and everyone in it—was trapped in the ’50s.  The golden-oldies stations that managed to reach the car radios played ’50s songs, and the parents still talked like Ward and June Cleaver.  It was a town ripe for ’50s mutant locusts.

Before the mutants ever showed their antennae in McCulloughville, Rick knew insects.  One of his responsibilities at the Grange—his job since high school—was to keep them out of the seed stores and to do it without pesticides that would poison the grain.  Livestock sometimes ate the grain.  Family pets sometimes did, too.  You couldn’t sell poisoned seed.  And locusts had always marched through the grass valleys of Northern Nevada.  Rick had, by necessity, become an “ecologist” when no one else in town knew what the word meant.  He’d talked to old-timers, read books, and knew what kinds of insects you could put in the grain to eat the insects that ate the grain.  Assassin bugs ate boll weevils.  Parasite wasps ate assassin bugs.  He knew about insect hunger, and when the locusts hatched like bulldozers from the soil of Duffer’s Dry Lake and flew the thirty miles to the ranches that surrounded McCulloughville, it didn’t actually surprise him.

He heard their wings that first night and somehow knew what it was even when others thought it was just the wind, or bad radio reception, or jets from Nellis.  Even when the locusts marched on the Grange itself and Rick barely escaped with his life, it all made sense.  They were hungry.  They were a whole lot bigger than they were supposed to be, but if you thought about it, that was reason enough to be hungry and angry.

They could fly.  The brown stuff they spit—the “tobacco”—was corrosive and so foul-smelling it was as effective as mustard gas.  Their chitinous exoskeletons were impervious to flamethrowers or armor-piercing, teflon-coated .357 magnum slugs in the hands of the State Police.  Their ganglia weren’t sophisticated enough to be bothered by the concussion grenades.  Fuel-air bombs and “daisy cutters” (ones dropped—thanks to a call from Nevada’s Governor—by aircraft from Nellis Airfield) killed hundreds, but hundreds more simply took flight to the next town, the next county and its ranches, the next Grange.  Towns were being trashed; the state economy was in tatters; and the locusts were about to deposit their titanic eggs in the endless stretches of dry Nevada soil.  Was the end of life as we know it near?

Hunger.  That was the word—the feeling, the thought—that haunted Rick day and night as the holocaust waxed.  A Professor Price from the big university in Reno had come with his daughter (who assisted him in his work) and had identified the species (Melanoplus spretus) and the source of the mutation (a fungus that was a mutant itself); but the Professor saw no solution.

Hunger.  Like an FBI psychopath-tracker trying to get inside his man, Rick got into hunger.  He ate.  He ate without utensils.  He ate a lot.  He made himself feel what they must have been feeling, which was: I am growing and no matter how much I eat, IT WILL NOT BE ENOUGH.  Monsters though they were, they were no different from the boll weevils and potato bugs and seed mites that plagued every Grange in Nevada and that Rick knew so well.  According to the Professor, each mutant would keep eating until it was 376 percent larger than it was now—at which point its exoskeleton would no longer be able to support it in Earth’s gravity.  But by then its progeny would be out in the world to continue the work—which was eating.

That night it came to him: “Can’t we make them eat each other?” he asked.

The Professor just stared at him.

“They are going to eat, whatever we do, Professor.  Can’t we make their very hunger our weapon?”

In a flash the Professor saw it.  “Yes! Pheromones!”

“I don’t understand, Professor.”

“Animals smell, Rick: They smell each other.  If the smell is right, they mate.  Another smell, and they eat.  They recognize their food by smell, Rick.”

“We can make the locusts smell like food?”


So it was that Rick—a red-blooded American kid who didn’t know any world other than his sharp Chevy and a hometown trapped in the ’50s—and a distinguished entomologist from a large university sat down to work out a way to stop the “McCulloughville Mutants”—namely, a modified pheromone based on sex hormones but read as “food” by the locusts and sprayed by aircraft on the marching, flying hordes.

It was destined to work, so of course it did.  The locusts fell upon one another, hunger insatiable, and those that escaped the original spraying were mopped up over the following weeks by more spraying.  The gargantuan eggs were never laid and Rick even got to save two little kids from a very irate locust, killing it with a heat-seeking, shoulder-launched Stinger missile.  He’d never been a hero before and it felt good.

The TV news footage (which we’ll see more than once in our story) shows this:

Rick and the Professor and his daughter, Janie Price, standing between them, the carapace of a giant locust out of focus behind them, the sound of jets above them, the sound of giant insect legs rubbing together but fading, and the TV reporter thrusting his mike into Rick’s face with the words: “You’re a hero, Mr. Rowe.  Tell us how you did it.  How did you stop those mutants when no one else—not even the State Police or the Army—could?  Your public wants to know.”


The Present


We open eighteen months later on a fine suburban home in southern California, 2005.  It’s Our Hero’s house, of course: His trophies and awards for saving his hometown, the State of Nevada, two little kids, probably the entire world, line the mantelpiece and wall above the fireplace, along with a framed front-page victory story, a wedding portrait of Rick and Janie, assorted pics of their honeymoon in Hawaii six months ago—leis and all.  He stopped the giant locusts, became famous, married the girl, sold his story for seven figures.  All is as it should be.  Or is it?

Rick and Janie are on their way out and we go with them—jet-skiing, para-sailing, and catamaranning in the bay, lunch with friends on a very buff power-yacht, romantic dinner in Beverly Hills.  He’s still our ’50s hero all right, but he’s somehow traveled to the new millennium.  Right after the defeat of the locusts, we learn, he sold the rights to his story to the nation’s favorite tabloid and he’s affluent now.  There’s even talk of a Rick Rowe Show.  But we see something in his expression as he plays with his toys and enjoys the good life that says he isn’t really happy.  He should be, but he’s not.

That night he can’t sleep.  We watch him toss, turn, get up.  We watch him pad his way over to the DVD player and sixty-three-inch Samsung plasma screen in the living room, insert a DVD, sit down on the Umbrian-modern sofa, and, yes, it’s the news footage of his McCulloughville exploits—in all their ’50s black-and-white glory.  He watches with a thousand-yard stare.  The footage ends.  He goes to the menu again, clicks on play, and as he does, Janie—who’s somehow still got that ’50s hair-and-nightgown look even in a house like this one—emerges sleepy-eyed from the bedroom.  “Come to bed, honey,” she says.  “Daddy wants you at the lab early tomorrow morning.  You don’t want to disappoint him, do you?”

Rick turns it off reluctantly.  He really would like to see the footage again, but she’s right—he’s got to get up at five o’clock and make the drive to UCLA, where Professor Price now has an endowed chair thanks to those seminal conference papers he delivered on “Pheromonal Response Confusion in Melanoplus spretus: A Food/Sex Model.”  Rick is his laboratory assistant, working once again—but at better pay and benefits—with insects.  He doesn’t need the job—the tabloid money is there—and he won’t need it later when the movie, book and a.m. talk show deals his agent’s pushing close.  But he’s doing it—working—for Janie.  He loves her, and she likes the idea of her “two favoritest people in the world” working together—loving father and famous hero-husband.

He goes to bed at last.  We hold on his eyes in the dark.  They’re open.  He’s haunted by something.


Where Rick’s Life Is Heading


It’s only a week later and Rick is lost.  The local press no longer wants follow-up stories.  The national press has stopped writing about him completely.  The movie has become a low-budget direct-to-video project with “life rights” sold for a paltry $50K, and the talk show has become, if he’s lucky, a gig as “The Bug Whisperer” for Animal Planet.  The fact is, Rick is old news, and we know what old news is.  He stands around at neighborhood barbecues like a zombie, sits for hours in his parked BMW Land Shark just staring through the glass, and at work is beginning to have “concentration problems.”  He doesn’t want to let the Professor down, but he can’t help it.  He just can’t seem to focus and his job performance is slipping.  He doesn’t know why all of this is happening, but we have our suspicions.  We’ve seen this before in trauma cases: inability to concentrate, problem with relationships, low-level depression . . . even flashbacks.  It’s the start of a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, of course, and Rick is about to develop a whopper.

The Professor gets cranky, Rick snaps back, leaves the lab early, and at home finds Janie gone, note on the fridge: Gone shopping with Babbs and Dottie.  Love, Janie.  He’s angry she’s not there, puts the DVD in again and is still watching it two hours later when Janie arrives, mall buys in hand.  She doesn’t like what she sees.  This isn’t what a hero does—watching old news footage for hours on end.  A hero goes out into the world, slays dragons, makes money, sires children, celebrates science and progress with Daddy at the laboratory, doesn’t he?  She loves him, sure, but all of this is very disappointing and she leaks her disapproval.  He leaks anger back.


That night they make up, try a passionate kiss, but she’s tired.  “You can wait, can’t you, honey?”  “Sure,” Rick says, but it’s the same message he’s getting everywhere.  When a guy makes love, he’s a hero—for a moment at least.  Ask any teenager.  But Rick isn’t going to get to be a hero tonight.  He’s peevish, feels bad about his peevishness, and gets even more peevish.  He looks up at her face in the faint light of the bedroom, and—

It’s the face of a locust, huge, mandibles grinding, the brown sludge on the lips wet and glistening, the antennae waving at him seductively, hideously.

He jumps back as if bitten.  It’s Janie’s face again, looking at him with concern.  He gets up, saying, “I don’t feel good.  Something I ate maybe. . . .”

He keeps looking back at her, ready to see her change again.  Even though she doesn’t, there’s something about her expression—her love, her expectations, her wanting him to be Someone—that fills him with horror.

What’s happening to me? he asks the world.


His full-blown PTSD has started and he’s scared out of his wits.  Why an insect?  Why would someone I love become an insect?  He’s walking the hallways of the dark house, wanting so much to watch that old footage again, but also not wanting to.  The thought of it scares him.  He falls asleep at last on the sofa, under the excellent taxidermy job that’s mounted on the wall above him: the giant locust’s head, the eyes, the antennae, the mandibles.  Another trophy to heroism lost.

His limbs are akimbo on the couch—like a child’s or a bum’s.  The great eyes on the wall regard him stonily in the darkness.  His eyes close.


The next few weeks have this in store for Rick:

He will become increasingly dysfunctional because of his syndrome.  He will have more hallucinations, more flashbacks, find himself able to concentrate less and less, and both his job and marriage will crash.  Janie’s father will ask him (“for Janie’s sake, Rick”) to seek out a man of the cloth—priest, rabbi, Lutheran minister, ayatollah, Tibetan monk—“I really don’t care who, son.  The problems of the soul are universal. . . .”  Rick will see a billboard on his way to work—the reverend firestone has answers—maybe he has yours—and it will remind him of McCulloughville, the church he went to as a child.  He will indeed seek Reverend Firestone’s counsel—only to find himself in a modern-day revival tent, the Reverend screaming about the End Days, the Seven Plagues, one of them locusts.  Rick will leave in a daze, one hundred dollars poorer and his soul no better off.

The best book deal his agent can get will be a print-on-demand publisher who wants a pre-order of three thousand copies, and even Animal Planet will fall through.  The movie based on his exploits will go into production suddenly and recklessly at the hands of an aging director and two leads with the acting ability of convenience-store clerks.  In a wonderfully hideous sequence Rick will get to watch the project implode before his very eyes as the actor playing him (an overweight thirty-five-year-old) gropes the actress playing Janie (a brunette floozie) and the locust—with creature effects from the Muppets studios—collapses on them both.  Lawsuit epithets flying, everyone leaves for lunch, and Rick is left standing alone on the set.

By this point Janie will be finding him less and less the hero she thought she’d married and will be unable to hide her frustration.  Professor Price, his patience at an end and concern for his daughter mounting, will come down on Rick like a hammer.  The inevitable occurs and Janie asks for a divorce: She has found someone else—a policeman, a wonderful guy straight from the ’50s who has recently received a city heroism award for saving a woman, her thirteen children, and their seven pets from a trailer fire started by a Little Mermaid nightlight.  The policeman, Frank Emerson, has a steady job, solid values, and, like Janie, wants progeny.

Rick loses his job at the laboratory, moves out on his own, and when he sneaks back into the house one night to retrieve his precious footage—his memories, his glory, the only thing he’s got now—he triggers the new My Safe Castle security system Frank Emerson has installed for his fiancée.  The police—all Emerson’s friends—converge on the house, handcuff Rick, and start talking heartily about the barbecue next weekend that Janie and Frank are hosting.  Emerson—with what looks like sincere compassion (after all, he is a wonderful guy)—puts his arm around the handcuffed Rick and says: “You need help, Rick—the professional kind.”

Rick takes the advice.  Goes to a shrink—a big, red-haired woman who’s as narcissistic as they come—and she tells him what we already know: he’s got a roaring Delayed Stress Syndrome.  What to do about it?  Three things, Mr. Rowe: (1) Join a veteran’s outreach group, where you’ll find people you can relate to and work through the problem with.  While you’re doing that, (2) offer your services to the community—schools, YMCAs, museums.  Every community needs a hero.  And (3) get a job that’s got some adrenaline to it, a thrill, one where you can feel that old Being Important rush—“getting back on the horse,” as they say.  She adds: “But get a haircut first, Mr. Rowe.  And a shave.  You look like a bum.”  And we cut to:


He’s gotten the haircut and the shave.  He’s talking to an elementary school class.  He’s got his news footage with him and he’s showing it to the kids, while the teacher stands in the back, hands on hips.  Kids are throwing spitballs and one hits him.  One kid has a “Barbie Warrior Princess” doll; another, a full-monty “Malibu Ken” with cute “Partner Brian”; and another, a radio-controlled “Homeland Security Force” action figure whose gender is impossible to determine.  They’re not impressed.  News video, after all, is news video.  They’ve seen everything on TV.  When the footage ends, he stands up in front of the class and a little girl says: “Why did you have to kill them, Mr. Rowe?  Animals are important.  They’re how Mother Nature tells us she loves us, aren’t they, Mrs. Spring?”  “We’ve been discussing endangered species, Mr. Rowe,” the teacher explains, while a boy says shrilly: “They were one of a kind, Mr. Rowe.  They were endangered and you killed them.  Why?  Why?”  The teacher’s face becomes a locust.  The kids become little locusts.  The sound of insect legs rubbing together builds.  The floor is the brown of the locust “tobacco.”  We hear the little girl saying, “I’m glad he’s not my daddy,” as we dissolve to:


A gigantic insect face being painted on the side of what we assume is an airplane fuselage—the way cartoon versions of tanks, planes, and/or blonde pinups were painted on the sides of WWII aircraft.  We pull back to see that it’s really a Ford E Series commercial van—ziplock exterminators in block letters on its side and two crudely constructed wire insect antennae on its roof—and it’s Rick painting carefully but badly the face of an oversized cockroach.  He’s painted other insects, too, on its side—all rendered terribly—things that look like pregnant ants and headless termites.  It’s his new job and he’s being as “heroic” as he can be.  We go with him to the next house on his list and the experience is brief and chilling: A pickup-on-the-dead-lawn stucco tract home with screaming children and a screaming man and woman and there in the darkness, when he squints, he can see the rug move.  He blinks, squints, and, yes, it is cockroaches.  There’s more insect life here than he ever saw in the Professor’s lab.  He stands frozen until the kids, sticky from too many soft drinks and unbathed body parts, are swarming around him, pulling him toward the squirming carpet.  Minutes later he’s spraying the house—the carpet, the sofa, the walls, the kids.

In rapid montage we go through his workday with him—termites, grease-eating ants, boring beetles, mice so filthy they look like insects.  Then a final shot of Rick painting a crude Charlie Brown on the side of his van—Xs for eyes—and we fade to:


Rick is at a community center that evening, making his first session of the veteran’s outreach group.  He couldn’t be more fish out of water.  These vets, not your average, are either enormous guys in denim overalls without shirts, birds of prey and women’s names and Semper Fi and Kill Them All and Let God Sort Them Out tattooed on every inch of them, or little wiry men with haunted eyes who look like serial killers.  They talk about “the horrors of the Nam” and the “the gasses of the Gulf” and “the caves of Afghanistan” and Rick, a young Tom Hanks expression on his face, feels like running for his life.  But it’s his turn now to speak, to share the horror, and all eyes are on him.  They’re waiting for him—aging boomers, bearded bikers, wiry paranoids—to speak.  When he does, he can’t help it.  He blurts out: “It wasn’t horrible for me.  I loved it.”  His eyes are tearing.  “Actually, I want it back.  I miss it.”

Suddenly everyone is crying.  They’re up, out of their seats, huddled around him, all of them crying.  Their great tattooed arms and their dark skinny arms are around him, suffocating him in a group hug, and they’re saying, “We know what you mean, Rick.  We miss it, too.”

When the meeting ends, Rick slips away, makes his way down the night street (his car has of course broken an axle), and hears someone coming after him.  It’s Chi Chi Escalante, one of those gaunt-eyed wiry paranoids from the group.  Worse, he’s Hispanic—something no all-American red-blooded boy from McCulloughville can possibly trust.  Chi Chi’s got a scar on his cheek and to make matters worse he’s grinning: He wants to be friends.  “How about a flick?” he says and Rick mumbles, keeps walking.  Chi Chi persists.  He knows a bro when he sees one.  “You’re that guy who whacked those bugs, right?”  Rick’s vanity sparks.  He stops walking.  “Must have been excellent,” Chi Chi says.  “Yes, I suppose it was,” Rick answers.  They walk, they talk.  “How about a flick?” Chi Chi asks again.

Why not? Rick thinks.  He doesn’t even have a DVD player anymore.  He can’t even watch the old footage.

Chi Chi driving, they go to a dark downtown movie theater—sticky floors, creepy customers, high ceiling with gargoyles glaring down—and it’s a Mexican horror movie, one about a human brain kept alive on a catering cart.  It’s in Spanish, no subtitles, and Chi Chi says: “Man, I grew up on this basura.”  Rick stares.  Strangely, he can relate.  The hero isn’t even Anglo; in fact, he’s not sure there is a hero; but for a moment he can imagine Chi Chi growing up on it and loving it.  But then the food—he hopes it’s food—that’s holding his shoes to the floor destroys the magic moment and he’s got to leave.

“How about a bubbly?” Chi Chi asks.  “I know this part of town like my girlfriend’s chi-chis.”  Rick shakes his head, breaks away, goes home, where he finds that Frank Emerson has—wonderful guy that he is—broken into his apartment and left a pile of his belongings: Mounted locust head, trophies, awards, wedding pics, belts, socks, cell phone, and keys to a pair of jet skis whose location Rick has forgotten.  And a note: Thought you might want these.  Frank.

The cell phone’s battery is dead, he doesn’t have a land line, and pay phones that work, he’s about to discover, are as rare as whooping cranes.  When he finds one three hours later, he calls Chi Chi.  “Yeah, I’d like a drink,” he says.  “I’d like one very much, amigo.”


They drink.  In fact, Chi Chi gets him plastered at an East L.A. bar and before we know it they’re staggering out of a tattoo parlor on Hollywood Boulevard and Rick’s got, on his forearm, a rather large bird of prey clutching what looks like a small fishing pole.

“A hero’s got to have a tattoo!” Rick announces shit-faced as we fade out and back in to:


Another montage, even quicker, of the next workday—the van, Rick’s tattooed arm painting another species of vermin on the side of the van, the houses he visits, the very real world of people and their insects.  When the montage stops this time, it’s in an old man’s vegetable garden . . . the grasshoppers that are eating his corn and lettuce.  We hold on Rick sitting cross-legged in the dirt, holding one of the little locusts as it kicks in his hand doing its best to live.  The old man comes out, looks confused, then angry.  Rick looks up with an expression like Christ’s: Suffer the little insects to come unto me.  “I’m sorry.  I just can’t do it,” he says, placing the creature gently back on a head of lettuce, gets up and leaves.  We jump to:


His company’s office, where Rick is quitting.  We don’t hear what they’re saying.  His boss is pissed and he’s pointing at Rick’s van.  Rick gets a can of turpentine and a rag and removes his artwork.  When he’s through, he looks terrible.  His hair has grown like hybrid grass.  He’s got a beard.  He does look like a bum.


But he’s got a DVD player now and a high-end camera phone—thanks to Chi Chi, who’s got street connections up the wazoo.  He doesn’t know how to work the camera, picture caller ID, Bluetooth® connectivity, or much else, but who cares?  He calls Janie and leaves his number and that evening gets a call: They’ve got vampire bats in Cleveland, the voice says—millions of them.  They know who he is—he’s the only one who can stop these things—and they need him right now.  The Mayor’s office, the National Guard, the Highway Patrol—they all need him.  His heart is racing.  He’s smiling like a kid.  It’s happening—finally happening.  He can feel the adrenaline, the thrill, the joy, the glory—how important he’s going to be in the universe again—but then it starts: the laughter on the other end.

It’s a joke, he realizes.  They’re Frank’s friends.  They’ve got to be.

He turns off the cell, feeling sick to his stomach.

He watches the old footage.  The mounted locust head, still lying in a corner of the room, stares up at him and his cell starts ringing again.  He’s chosen a chirpy bird song for the ring and regrets it.  He hesitates—but picks it up.  He can hope, can’t he?  This time the voice barely gets a sentence out before it cracks up.  It’s giant chickens in Duluth this time, but the voice—enjoying itself, other voices in the background enjoying themselves, too—can’t even get the next sentence out and Rick ends it, leaves and walks the streets, which are dark and haunting now.  We see tears in his eyes.


Rick and Chi Chi hang out.  More drunkenness.  Hitting on working girls, babes in singles bars, hotties with dates whose dates arrive late and surly.  Rick falls on his face in a stupor before anything—good or bad—can happen.  Close on his tattooed arm hanging in a gutter.  The eagle looks more like a parrot.


He keeps his cell off, but knows the messages will keep coming.  Frank’s friends, friends of friends, anyone who wants a laugh.  He stays away from his apartment as much as he can—even goes to more Mexican horror movies with Chi Chi—but in the end he still listens to the calls.

When he’s not with Chi Chi he walks the streets alone.  One night, bleary from drink, he sees a very attractive blonde being mugged by a street gang that’s so ethnically diverse it looks like a UNESCO poster.  He’s never seen a mugging before and it takes a moment before he realizes exactly what’s going on and why God must have led him here: His chance to be a hero.  He has righteousness on his side.  The gang will sense this.

But before Rick is halfway to her the young woman nails two of the gang with her purse.  Her wig flies off and it’s not a young woman at all but a very ticked-off transvestite who’s swinging a bag that weighs more than a basset hound.  He’s fast, hairy legs pumping as he disappears down an alley just as Rick arrives.  The gang turns to face him.

The gang’s feelings are hurt, it would seem.  They’ve been shamed and need to take their feelings out on somebody.  The leader of the gang explains this to Rick rather cheerfully.  The last shot we see is of a blue Dewey Dumpster in the alley, Rick’s head rising slowly out of it covered with ketchup, the insides of melons and other produce almost but not quite hiding his black eye.  We push in on all the flies swarming around him.  They make a halo around his head as we cut to:


Rick, despondent, phoning Chi Chi from his dark apartment, only to hear this: “Message for Pablo and Dennis and Maria and Reek.  Sorry, homies, but I can’t take this civilian sheet no more.  I re-upping today.”

His best friend has reenlisted, for Christ’s sake.  Rick looks down at the floor in the darkness.  Bugs—hundreds of dark, featureless bugs—scuttle across the linoleum.  Cut to:


Rick heading home at last—to McCulloughville—on a seedy Greyhound bus.  He can’t take it anymore and it’s only in McCulloughville, he tells himself, that he’ll be able to put the terrible realities of 2005 America behind him.  His bruises show.  His black eye makes him look like a raccoon.  His hair and beard seem to have grown at an inhuman rate.  As he gets closer to home, the billboards get older, some of the products no longer made: Ipana Toothpaste.  Carter’s Little Liver Pills.  Burma Shave.  Buick Roadmaster with Dynaflow.  The cars passing the bus get older too and the clothing of those driving warp back to the ’50s as well.  Rick Rowe is going home at last.

As the bus slides into the McCulloughville station, we see the town.  It hasn’t changed.  Rick may have saved it from the mutant locusts, but something else has saved it from the new millennium: It’s still the Small Town of The Blob, Them!, and all those other ’50s horror flicks, and it’s the only home Rick’s got.

A little museum has been built to commemorate him and he goes there first.  He remembers hearing about it.  The docent at the door—an old lady who’s not quite sure where she is, or who—doesn’t recognize him, and what he finds inside is a shock.  The two giant locusts that have been preserved, reassembled, and put on display are covered with dust.  The lighting in the place sucks.  There aren’t any school children or elderly couples on tour.  In fact, there isn’t anyone in the museum except a pair of teenagers—a boy with slicked-back hair and a girl with a mohair sweater—necking behind the left hind leg of the locust occupying the darkest corner of the room.  When they notice him, they laugh, he hears a word that sounds like “wino” and he realizes what he must look like.  He can’t let the town see him like this.  As he leaves he sees a portrait of himself under a burnt-out bulb: Someone has drawn a mustache on his upper lip and antennae on his head. . . .

He checks into the main hotel, signs in under “Smith,” and pays cash.  Somehow it’s still ten dollars—just what it used to cost in the ’50s.  He showers and shaves and as a haircut, settles for removing the hair from the back of his neck with a razor.  He puts on the one set of clothes he’s got in his bag, downs two cups of Folger’s coffee in the hotel’s bar, and in the mirror over the bar practices smiling.

He ambles down the street and it’s McCulloughville all right, town of his childhood, site of his glory, and the smile is for real now.  His eyes are wide and he’s happier than he’s been in a long time—

Until a couple passes him and the look they give him is deadly—as if he were diseased.  Maybe they don’t recognize him.  It’s a small town.  Maybe they think he’s a stranger and—

There, across the street, is Buddy Blaylock, his best friend from McCulloughville High School.  Rick moves toward him quickly, hand raised for the hello that’s about to come out of his mouth, and as Buddy Blaylock turns—

We see the same expression.  Daggers.

“Hello, Rick,” Buddy says.

Rick is ebullient: “Gee, it’s great to see you, Buddy.  Gee, you’re looking good.  How’s Spooky.  How’s the Ford?”

Buddy stares at him and it’s not friendly.  “How’s the big city, Rick?  Treatin’ you well?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Rick lies.

“Glad to hear that because some of us had to stay here in McCulloughville after you left—to keep things going.  Know what I mean?”

Rick doesn’t know what he means.  Patty Rippey, Buddy’s girlfriend, comes out of the market and stops, the same look on her face.  “Well, if it isn’t The Rick Rowe.”

“Yeah, if it isn’t,” Buddy says.

They’re looking at him like he’s a pedophile.  “It’s been great, Rick,” Buddy says suddenly, “but I need to get back to work now.  You know, work.  What people do on weekdays.  But you have fun now, hear?”

Rick is left standing in the street as the two drive away in Buddy’s blue-and-white ’56 Ford with tuck-and-roll.

Rick walks on.  He sees people working.  He sees men in pickup trucks working, men and women in stores working, secretaries in offices working, a covey of housewives shopping.  It’s McCulloughville, all right, but it’s the real world now, a McCulloughville he doesn’t remember.


Whatever happened (he asks himself) to the good old days of hotrodding and moonlight necking and Christmas trees where boys and girls opened their presents in their jammies and Dean Martin sang “White Christmas”—and everything else from a world where the aliens were aliens and you knew who you were?

It’s gone because you left it, Rick, a voice says, the one that always talks this way, because you became a Hero and left.


He walks on, finally finds himself before his parents’ house.  It looks the same.  The lawn, the trees.  The sunlight feels like the sunlight he remembers.  He rings the doorbell, running his fingers through his hair.  It’s Friday, the day his father often takes off from bank duties, and maybe he’ll be here.  His mother certainly will.  Mr. and Mrs. Rowe are inseparable.  The family—the three of them—were inseparable.

His father answers it in his suit and stands there in the doorway.  Rick can see a figure moving in the background and knows it’s his mother.

“Come in,” his father says.  That’s all.  Just “Come in.”

“Hello, Rick,” his mother says inside, and Rick blinks.  It’s dark.  He can’t see anything in this sudden change of light.  “Have a seat on the couch,” his father says.  Rick goes toward his mother to hug her but can’t see her, bumps into a table, and when his vision clears he sees it: Her face.  Her expression.  “It’s good to see you, Rick,” she says, but it’s just a courtesy.  She was always courteous to everyone.  “Yes, son, it is,” his father echoes.  “How is Los Angeles treating you, son?”

“Things could be better,” Rick says—wondering whether he should tell them.

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” his father says, and silence follows.  His father doesn’t ask what’s wrong.  His mother is sitting in the big stuffed chair opposite the sofa, where Rick is sitting, and his father doesn’t sit down.  “Is there anything we can do, son?” one of them asks—he’s not sure which—but it’s only a courtesy.

“How are you both?” Rick asks.  “I miss you,” he says.

“We miss you, too,” his mother says, robotic.

Then his father says it: “We’ve wondered about you and we’ve worried, as parents do.  We wouldn’t have worried so much, son—especially your mother—if you’d written to us or phoned us more. . . .”

Rick can’t believe it.  He did call them, he wants to say.  He did write.  At least at the beginning.  They’d come to his wedding.  They’d seen the house.  Maybe over the past few months, with everything so crazy, he’d neglected to stay in touch—but that was because he’d been embarrassed, because he didn’t want to burden them with his troubles.

He starts to explain all of this, to apologize, but the two of them—like cutouts, cardboard characters in some terrible ’50s Aliens-Among-Us movie—just stand there staring at him.

“I came because I wanted to see you,” he’s saying, but they don’t answer.  “I wanted to see if McCulloughville was the same.  I wanted to let you know that I think about you constantly, even if things have been pretty crazy and I haven’t had much chance to—”

“Is that a tattoo on your arm, son?” his father asks sternly.

Rick gets up.  He’s got to leave.  His father says more gently: “There’s a twenty-five-dollar savings bond . . .  We found it in the attic the other day.  If you need money, you could cash it.”

“No,” Rick tells him.  “I’d rather keep it here.  You know, knowing it’s here . . . in the house where I grew up. . . .”  Then his mother says: “You look terrible, Rick.  You wouldn’t look so terrible if you got a haircut.”


Rick is walking fast down the street, away from the house where he spent his childhood, turning once, despite himself, to wave at the two shadowy figures just inside the doorway.  And then he’s free—free from this new horror—and we cut to:


Rick returning to the Greyhound Bus Station, somewhere between McCulloughville, Year of Our Lord 1958, and southern California, 2005.  And we fade to:


Rick, at night, listening to his cell messages in the darkness of his apartment.  If it’s dark, he doesn’t have to look at the bugs so much.  There’s a message asking him to save San Francisco from bad Italian sopranos.  A call informing him that UFOs posing as convenience stores are kidnapping citizens in New Jersey.  A call about radioactive prostitutes in Chicago and one about little red crabs that have invaded a town in Florida.  Dissolve to:


Rick, the next day, trying to find the veteran’s outreach group—but it’s moved and no one knows where.


That evening, Rick’s cell has only one message: A man representing the Mayor of Corkscrew, Florida, saying that he called yesterday and would appreciate it if Mr. Rowe would call him back.  The man, very serious—somehow not laughing—keeps talking, and we hold on Rick’s eyes in the darkness—insectlike, faceted, despairing.  “Do you have a fax or email, Mr. Rowe?” the voice asks.

We see the horrific nightmare he has that night—a perfect amalgam of everything he’s gone through over the past few weeks: locusts, little kids spitting “tobacco,” Janie with thirteen children, his parents telling him, “Get a haircut—get a shave—you look like a bum.”  And then:


The sound of his cell chirping brings us out of the nightmare into the bleakness of his apartment.  At least the insects have returned to the walls for the day.  He struggles up, angry, ready to read the prankster the riot act if he can only get through the piles of dirty clothes and trophies to the cell in time.

“Mr. Rowe?”

“Now you listen to me—”

“I know it’s early, Mr. Rowe, but we have a problem down here—”

“If I ever find out who you are you—”

“The crabs are Gecarcoidea natalis, a nonnative species introduced by accident twenty years ago, and we’re having a hard time containing them.  We believe that you—given your experiences with Melanoplus spretus—may be able to help us.  We’d be willing to pay your airfare and expenses—and a respectable consultant’s fee—if you’ll visit us for a week.  Corkscrew is a gracious town and we can promise you our hospitality. . . .”

Rick stops.  Something about the voice. . . .

The man, the Floridian accent sounding real, keeps on talking and Rick finally gets it: It’s legit—there’s a REAL town with a REAL problem down there in Florida somewhere.  And they want his help…