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Buggy

scary bug 2

So I’ve had a problem with bugs ever since I moved into my apartment. The super insisted nothing was wrong, but of course he would, right? But the maintenance guy said the same thing, and Tony’s a pretty straight-up fella. I still saw bugs even after he looked around, but I thought, hey, he’s maintenance, not an exterminator. Can’t fault him when I ask him questions outside his field.

But then I called, like, three professionals, and they all said the same thing. No bugs here, man. Place is clean as a whistle. Not even a freakin’ mite, they told me, and they ran UV lights and shit over everything.

So, right, the exterminators tell me there’s no bugs here either. And admittedly, it’s not like they’re everywhere. They don’t pour out of my cabinets of clog the drain. They’re just always there, out of the corner of my eye, scurrying into some crack I can’t see before I turn around. But I always see them. They’ve gotta be stacked a foot deep behind these walls.

Anyway, I guess it’s not all bad. They don’t get into my food or anything, so that’s a plus. Still, I sleep better at night knowing there’s a can of Raid by the bed.

***

So it’s been three months, right? And every time I bring friends over, I always have to look around, feel through the couch cushions, because I’m afraid one of my cuter female friends is gonna reach for her drink and get a handful of bug.

I still can’t prove anything, but I know they’re here. Fuckin’ scurrying out of sight whenever I try to get a look at ‘em. Sometimes I get lucky, see one in retreat before it vanishes. Jesus, they’re ugly things.

They aren’t roaches. I…I really don’t know what the hell they are. They almost look like spiders, but I’m sure they have six legs, and spiders have more than that, right?

I know they have six legs ‘cause the fucking things are huge. Like pipe cleaners covered in rose thorns. Just big, gnarly, awful things, bright yellow with spots of…I dunno, green I think.

And sometimes I see antennas. I definitely see the antennas. Sometimes I’ll just look up and see ‘em wiggling over the edge of the cabinets, long, orange, just waving around like how you’d hang your arms if you were laying in a hammock.

But as soon as I get a magazine or something, they’re gone. I don’t know where. Seriously, I don’t even think there’s any cracked paint in here.

It pisses me off, but what am I going to do? Can’t knock a hole in the wall, not without voiding my lease anyway. Can’t ask the other neighbors if they have bugs ‘cause, well, I don’t know. Fuck the neighbors, really.

They still don’t seem to bother me much, but it’s hard to go about my day knowing they’re there. I hear them when I sit down to watch TV, and I have to turn the sound up sometimes just to drown them out.

***

Shit, it’s a real problem now. I woke up thirsty last night and thought I’d get a drink of water. Then I hit the light and there it is, on the foot of my bed, just walking around like it’s scoping out property.

I screamed like I was ten and kicked the sheets. That thing dropped to the carpet with a thud heavy enough to make me wonder what else I’d kicked off.

Then I grabbed a magazine even though now I wonder what I was thinking I’d do with it. Piss it off, I guess. But it was gone, like they always are.

I need all of these fucking things gone. Soon.

***

So they mostly stay out of sight, which is good, since me and this one girl are kinda getting serious now.

I like her. She’s got black hair and black eyes and she fucks me like a demon. Sometimes her legs wrap around me so hard I wonder if she’ll dislocate my thighs from my hip.

It’s good right now. It’s real good. She’s naked all the time when she’s over, and I love that.

I’m always looking over my shoulder, watching for those fucking things, but they stay hid out when we’re together.

Which is good for now, but I might want her to move in with me, and if I do that I’m gonna need to know these damn bugs aren’t going to be a problem.

***

So I was plucking my hairline, ‘cause I got some weird patchy widow’s peak that’s not sharp enough to be cool, and if you tell anyone I pluck I swear I’ll eat your mother. And I guess I haven’t been getting enough sleep because while I was yanking out one really thick and gnarly hair I passed out. Just…BOOM. Right to the floor.

But that’s not the important part, even though, yeah, I know, it should be, but look: when I came to, I didn’t see too clearly at first. Just a lot of blurry spots, wavering around like I had a bad drunk on. But then I finally blinked my vision clear, and when I did I saw them.

Just…fucking saw them. So many of them, just standing there, those gross legs bouncing up and down as they skittered around, waving those freaky orange antennas. They were everywhere.

And one really big one had a stinger.

I freaked the fuck out and kicked at that one, and it squealed and smacked the shower wall, and I grabbed my sneaker and swung at the others. I was knocking them everywhere, and they were making these weird squeals and ducking for cover. They hid really fast, just vanished into God knows where the fuck.

Anyway, they’re all gone now, even the one with the stinger, and that pisses me off because I kinda wanted to super-kill that one, but whatever.

What worries me now is this spot that looks like something stung me, right on the side of my neck. It’s not swollen, not like most stings are, but it’s red and there’s a hole in the center, and it’s got me worried. Real worried.

***

So I’m still alive, thank Christ. Place where it stung me didn’t even start to itch, though I’m pretty sure it’s what made me pass out, so I definitely don’t wanna get stung again.

Yeah, so I need to get these fuckers gone. My girl still hasn’t seen ‘em, so that’s good, but we’re talking about her moving in, and I kind of want to make it soon ‘cause her crazy-ass ex is starting to leave her threatening phone calls. I know I can’t take the fucker in a fight, but at least she’ll be somewhere where we can both lock the doors.

She doesn’t seem to hear them either, whenever she stays the night. I ask her sometimes if the noise at night ever bothers her, and she usually just gives me a weird look and goes “What noise?”

***

Nobody fucking hears them, which, I’m not gonna lie, has me a little worried.

I know crazy people say they see and hear bugs all the time. And my mom…my mom kinda had a little of that. She was able to keep it under control pretty well, but I remember her yelling about bugs whenever she forgot to take her meds.

So it’s got me a little worried that no one else seems to know they’re here. They never hear ‘em, and actually they always ask me why I have the TV so loud.

But I can’t help but gag when I see them shoveling handfuls of cereal in their mouths. I sometimes wonder if it’s right that I don’t tell them. Still, I can’t see how they don’t know already. I hear those things all the time. They’re so damn loud.

***

Her ex-boyfriend comes over. It’s her first night in, and already he’s freaking the fuck out. I don’t know how he found out our address, but he’s kicking on the door so hard I feel like he’s gonna dent the aluminum.

She’s curled up against me, scared and shaking and I wanna go out there and punch the guy, but we both know I’m not gonna hurt him like he can hurt me. The guy’s huge, bigger than both of us combined.

So we sit here, and she seems to like me holding her tight in my arms ‘cause soon she’s kissing the side of my neck, close to where I got stung, and I feel her tongue on my ear and she’s whispering these little sexy things and soon we’re fucking.

And I mean fucking hard. Her on top, holding her tits and yelling, him outside hearing everything and losing his fucking mind. I’m pretty sure it turns her on and I’m not gonna lie, I liked it more than a little bit.

Finally a neighbor says he’s gonna call the police, and the guy yells back at him, and the neighbor says he ain’t afraid of some punk ass, and they yell a little at each other before the boyfriend finally leaves. And through it all she’s whining and grinding and I’m moaning, and everybody’s making all kinds of noise.

Especially them. I hear them loudest of all, their squeals needling their way in my brain. Those hairs I plucked the other day are back, and at every squeak I feel them tingle.

***

I walk around at night, too keyed up to really sleep. She’s sound asleep, too spent to be bothered, I guess. But I’m up and looking in every nook and cranny I can find, spraying bug spray that I’m not entirely sure is legal for me to own.

I don’t see how they can get in or get out. There’s not a loose board in the place. But I hear them. I hear them everywhere I go in here. I can’t sleep, and I feel this weird pressure in my head. Like I’m going to pop.

That low squealing. It’s like I hear them whistling inside my skull.

***

A few days pass. Good days for us. Constructive days, ya know?

But soon he’s back, banging on the door and shit. It sounds like he gives up after a while, but later when I open the door to go get the mail he’s there. He throws his weight against the door and barges in. I’m almost thrown off my feet, but I stumble around till I’m steady.

He comes up to me, yelling and waving his arms and I get real tired of it, real fast. That weird, cross-eyed look he’s always got is getting to me. I’m already having a shitty day. My head’s been killing me all day, and my mood was already shot before this ass wipe dropped by.

He doesn’t care, of course, just pushes me so I stumble a little more and keeps yelling. “Where is she, you little shit?” And without even giving me any time to answer he rears back and comes at me.

Then he looks over my shoulder and screams.

I don’t really get why he’s screaming so much. She’s pretty safe, and it’s not like she can hurt him or anything. That cocoon’s, like, four inches thick, easy. She’s gonna sleep clear through the molting.

But he won’t stop screaming, and I can’t have him going ape shit all night, so I come up to him to ask him to keep it down. And he jumps back like I’m poisonous, which is silly but he does it anyway. And I have a feeling he wants to escape but he stumbles into the door and it closes against his weight, and he doesn’t seem to be in the right frame of mind for figuring out how to open it back up, especially after my jaw comes off.

Jesus, I can’t tell you how much better that feels. They’ve hollowed me out pretty good, but it’s still pretty crowded in here. With my jaw gone they can pour out a lot easier, and that cramped feeling in my head disappears. My antennas have grown pretty impressively, now that I’ve stopped plucking them. They twitch as the hive tells me they’ll take things from here.

They come spilling out, two, sometimes three at a time. And he covers his face with those heavy tattooed arms of his but really, what does he expect that to do? Not get him cocooned? Please.

He’ll be a good one. Lots of meat on this guy’s bones. I’m pretty sure we can eat around the tattooed parts if we have to.

Most of the hive is busy wrapping her ex, so I sit down to watch some TV. They’ll call me when they need help hoisting him to the ceiling. I’m pretty sure I can catch Weeds before I gotta do any heavy lifting, though.

I turn up the TV, and the hive does its best to keep it down while I watch, but I don’t mind the noise. I don’t really have that much of a problem with bugs.

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There Is No Moonlight

moonlight

 

June 1967

Gracie Ellington didn’t know she’d backed over the boy until she saw him twisted and wriggling before the nose of her car. She almost didn’t even see him then, with her tires kicking up the hot Alabama dust.

Nothing worked right for Gracie. The little boy had black hair and the kind of skin that looked like it never darkened, no matter how much summer sun it got. She hated the boy in the dust, the mangled little bully. There would be problems because of this. Gracie Ellington was a meek woman, and the world took notice when you didn’t bite back.

She hit her head on the horn a few times and started crying, huffing with frustration through her tears. She felt like she was drowning in them. They trickled over her lips and teeth and dripped down her mouth. She could feel them pooling up inside her. Nothing was on Gracie’s side.

The morning shopping never got done. Gracie was still crying and slapping the steering wheel when a passing trucker knocked on her window. The man was black, scared to be in the presence of white people experiencing tragedy. Such people had a habit of inventing blame to level against the blameless.

The black man eventually radioed for the police, and a trooper on his way to Birmingham came by near sunset. He scolded the trucker, saying if he’d known the man was calling on behalf of a white woman he’d have gotten there sooner. It was sundown before the cold boy was hauled away, in a white pickup the county used for dead bodies and hurt blacks. The trucker was given a citation for unlawful trespass.

Ms. Gracie was given a pill and driven to Doc Shore’s house. The doctor wasn’t there, but his wife gave Gracie some bourbon and another pill. It wasn’t until after ten when Gracie mentioned her husband wouldn’t be there to pick her up.

Gracie sat through the night on the doctor’s porch swing, drinking coffee with chicory. Her shaking hands made her slop a lot of it. By sunrise the dried coffee had formed thick stains on the whitewashed boards.

Doc Shore drove her home. They had to go through the side door so as not to cut through the police tape out front. Ed’s hand lingered on the side of her bottom after he’d gotten her into bed, and when he realized it was there he snatched it back with a jerk.

Later, the stains in the dirt driveway looked a lot to Gracie like coffee spilled on whitewashed wood.

June 2014

Delia is crying over the shriveled woman in the hospital bed. Gracie does her best to quiet her daughter. She can’t bear the idea of anyone morning the lifeless creature before them.

This dying thing corrupted Delia for ten years. There were nights where Gracie had been violently ill by the involuntary understanding of what her daughter did with Naomi. The woman was a predator, twenty years older than the girl she’d stolen. She’s defiled her in probably every way, tasting her and being tasted by her, a communion taken over the course of a decade.

Naomi is forty-seven, but the lymphoma has edged her closer to two hundred. Her skin is red and dry, peeling off in little square flakes, cracking wide wherever natural lines have formed. A little less than a dozen tough, wiry hairs are stuck across her head. Her eyes were closed long before the coma; it had been a hard fight before then just to keep them open.

The nurses come, and disconnect the machine that breathes for Naomi. The monitor records her slowing heartbeat. A doctor marks the time of death. Delia weeps in her shuddering mother’s arms.

“We did all we could,” she coos to her daughter. It was even easier than it’d been with Ed.

***

Children make faces as they pass Gracie’s house. Sometimes if they see her in the screened-in porch they’ll yell and call her “Murder Lady!”

In her kitchen, Gracie balances her checkbook, scribbling in the pink notepad she’s favored for two decades. Garish red and purple flowers overcrowd the cover, matching the rose vines etched in the heavy pen Ed gave her their first anniversary together.

The passing children throw rocks at a stray cat in Gracie’s yard. They think it belongs to the old woman. They’re excited by the excuse for cruelty.

The cat doesn’t run away. It hisses, charges, cuts a boy on the leg, and then darts into the woods. Later an angry mother pounds on Gracie’s door, yelling to the old woman to control the animals she doesn’t have.

“Do you want to kill the rest of the kids around here?” the middle-aged woman yells. Her slaps excite a yellow jacket resting on the doorframe, and it stings her above the ear. She flails her arms and runs back to the road.

***

Delia won’t stay with Gracie. She’s got her awful red cases packed inside the dead lesbian’s Volkswagen, red cases the lesbian bought for her. There’s almost nothing left of Delia that the dead woman’s lust didn’t conquer.

“You should stay,” Gracie begs. She was always short, but stooped as she is she could tumble into Delia’s chubby stomach.

“I can’t Mom. Naomi had affairs I said I’d settle…”

“Damn the affairs. What does she have left anymore?”

“Mom, I owe it to her.”

“You’re finally loose of her and you still can’t let anything of hers go.”

“I love you, Mom. I’ll call when I get there.”

“What kind of woman flees from family this way?”

Delia tries to kiss Gracie’s cheek, but her mother slaps at her, missing her with her palm but grazing her with stained nails. Red marks that will vanish in five minutes flare on her daughter’s cheek.

“I love you,” Delia reminds herself, and goes to the car. “I’ll call you soon.”

“You’d be better off dead!” Gracie shrieks. “For God’s sake baby, don’t you see…?”

The Volkswagen mutters to itself and bounces down the clay road. Gracie’s scared. She knows they give jobs to women up in Massachusetts, even those who submit to other women. Hell, she could get a job anywhere; things are different nowadays. Her ties won’t bind much longer. Gracie pulled her money from Delia’s college fund, but Delia graduated anyway. Soon it won’t matter how many dollars Gracie hides away behind invented shields of poverty.

***

There’s a nest of baby birds that won’t stop squalling, and Gracie takes Bobby’s air gun and shoots a pellet into the dark. There’s a squawk, and she hears wings flapping. The baby birds squall louder.

Gracie goes out. It’s after nine, during that summer hour when the sun fights with all it’s got to stay above the horizon. In the dim dusk Gracie sees a single wing slowly wave to her. A thrasher is on its side, its beak wide open. It doesn’t breathe. Something like water is spilling from its mouth, staining the concrete porch.

The other thrasher won’t go up to the nest when it returns. It flicks about, chirping and beating the dead bird with its wings. There’s a long moment when it bends down, like it’s listening for something. Gracie shoots it through the eye. The bird flops on its back, its legs making slow, swimming kicks while the rest of it lies prostrate and stiff.

The baby birds keep Gracie up all night. At some point she hears the growling of a cat and the hiss of a possum. In the morning the dead birds are still there.

***

Mothers pull their children away from Gracie while the old woman walks through the Food Tiger. A tall trooper with a skinny build and a lumpy gut comes up to her.

“How’re ya today, Ms. Gracie?”

“Can’t you people just leave me alone?” she begs, looking to the floor. She whispers it almost; any louder and she might cry.

“We won’t hurt you, Ms. Gracie,” the trooper tells her, almost like he’s sorry for her. He tips his hat and moves over to the meat cooler.

The cashier wrinkles her nose like Gracie smells bad, and practically throws her change to her. The trooper stands by the door while the bag boy loads the food into her car. On her way out of the parking lot she passes a red Impala. There’s a teenage boy behind the wheel, with a faint pink line on his cheek that was fresh about ten years before. He watches her as she turns onto Harris Road, and resists the urge to scratch the old scar. It only itches when he thinks about her.

Gracie unloads the groceries, yelling at the baby birds with every bag she brings in.

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” she screeches. The last bag contains the Tylenol she takes about ten times a day. She shoves one bottle in her purse, puts the other five behind the bathroom mirror, beside the old straight razor of Ed’s. She carried that razor for awhile after he and the kids left, but for the last decade it’s sat on the same dusty glass rack, the chrome blade stained an ugly spilled brown.

“It was only a dog,” she mutters. She shuts the mirror with a slam.

***

She puts crumpled flowers pulled from her backyard on Ed’s grave. Cancer’s convenient. All you have to do is pull away. There isn’t a simpler weapon in the world. Even the old razor was never that easy to use.

Bobby’s grave is next to Ed’s. The town keeps the marker shining like the day it was bought. Yellowing notes are staked to the ground. “You poor little lamb.” “God bless the blighted children.”

Her plot is marked beside Ed’s, her space on the stone still blank. The grass here is always dying, washed as it is in piss. Maybe she could bury the birds here.

When she gets home the baby birds are still crying. The carcasses of the parents are gone now, leaving only ruffled feathers and chewed bits of skin.

***

A dog is calling from down the road. Probably the mutt the Davisons keep for their screaming kids. Gracie has a steak in the freezer for the dog, one she’s never gotten around to preparing. The days are always so short.

It’s after nine and the baby birds in the old hickory tree won’t stop squealing. Something has to be done. Gracie stomps to the bathroom in her old pink slippers and fishes the straight razor out from behind the mirror. There’s a half-moon out, and it’s bright enough to see by. Gracie turns the bare porch light on anyways.

There’s a stump left over from an oak Ed cut down, back before he left. Gracie uses it to get a leg up, then steps onto the small, leaning trunk of the dehydrated hickory tree, using the knobby bark for footholds.

The razor glints in the moonlight. Bobby once told her there isn’t any moonlight, just sunlight reflected off the moon. Gracie must not think about that too long. Too much consideration and she’ll spin. Life must be a pliable thing.

The blade shines in the light despite the puppy’s brown blood. Ed had railed at her for that, grabbed her even. Then she’d put the razor to his shoulder and he’d let her go. He’d planned to take Bobby with him when he left the next day, but of course there was only Delia to take away afterward.

The Black-Eyed Susans still grow where they’d put the nipping puppy, though how much was left of it to grow on Gracie couldn’t imagine. Weren’t mummies made from hot, dry dust?

Gracie grips the razor like she did on that day ten years ago, when the ice cream truck had stopped by her car, and the children had been bumping against her. The razor had flashed like cold lightning against the boy’s cheek. Afterward, tenderness to women had delivered her back into her home, but the judge had warned her: “I think now we know the kind of woman you are.”

But that boy hadn’t even died. If he had they wouldn’t have let her keep the razor. People were so eager to condemn the meek. Angry tears come. The world is a creeping vine. All she left him with was a little pink line on the cheek. Was that worth so much?

She thinks of Bobby in the dust. In the sunlight afforded to us at night, incidents and accidents enjoy mixed company.

She’s looking down into the nest now, her old arms shaking as she fights to keep hold to the shaking branches. Her white hair hangs loose, and she tries to shake it over her shoulder. The motion throws her off-balance, but she finds a lump of bark and steps down on it.

Except it isn’t a lump of bark, just a sprig of leaves poking out from a budding new branch. They yield to her weight instantly. Gracie scrapes at the bark of the tree with the razor as she falls.

She hits her face against the oak stump, and lands on her side with a sound like a wet bag of rocks. Her hip actually does hit a rock, and there’s so much pain that for a second she panics, thinking she won’t be able to face it. But she lucks out. The pain disappears, replaced with a heavy feeling of icy cold.

The wires to the porch light aren’t great, and the bulb goes dark. The moon beholds her, but doesn’t care. That’s alright. The moonlight isn’t there. Its indifference doesn’t hurt.

The razor is stuck a little ways into the palm of her hand. It’s folded against the ground, the handle split down the middle from the impact. She’s surprised the cut isn’t bleeding much, so maybe it’s not too bad.

She gets sleepy, but never actually falls asleep. After a couple hours she feels cool, but she doesn’t shiver. The right side of her face is so puffy she practically has a pillow to rest her head upon.

Her phone begins to ring in the kitchen. Delia is back in Boston now.

The phone rings and rings, and then goes quiet. Half an hour later, it rings again. Gracie, feeling cool in the summer heat, is content to let it ring.

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Verse

old truck

 

The sign by the highway read: “HALLOWEEN IS THE ROAD DOWN WHICH SATAN WALKS.”

The sign a half-mile down added: “BY WHICH SIN WILL YOU TURN YOUR BACK ON GOD ALMIGHTY?”

Roadside Evangelical was little more than a white clapboard shack, too small now to hold the congregation it had grown. Most sermons these days were held in the field out back, beneath a blue tarp, in folding chairs that tested your faith. Today the chairs were replaced with plastic tables loaded with food. Children and their parents ran across the grass, alternately laughing and singing hymns. Short hayrides were punctuated with scripture quoted by those in the truck bed. Children bobbed for apples and were awarded pocket Bibles.

The door was open to Reverend Howell’s office, really just a trailer parked behind the church. The lights were off, and with the growing clouds it was hard to see inside. Scattered across the carpet were crudely scribbled Bible tracts, condemning the lust of homosexuals for God’s precious children and the urges of cross-dressers to peek into women’s toilets. In the far corner, the reverend’s chair was overturned.

They’d walked to the woods at such an angle that the church blocked them from the congregants’ view. Howell didn’t try to scream anymore for fear of choking on the torn shirt Lacey had jammed into his mouth. He could feel the fabric a hair away from creeping into his throat, and while the boys held his arms and legs he had no means of pulling the gag free.

They were strong, athletic kids, so they carried him a good ways through the pine trees. An old pickup, license plate removed, was parked about a couple miles in.

They threw Howell down, then picked him up on his feet and wrapped a heavy chrome chain tight around and between his wrists. Colt fastened one end to the truck bumper while Lacey and her brother pulled down his pants. Clint tore away at the reverend’s coat and shirt, utility knife in hand to sever the threads too thick and stubborn to yield to the tugs. Lacey pulled Howell’s pants so that his ankles were snatched from under him. He felt them pull his shoes away before finally pulling his pants loose. Someone snatched away his socks.

The rag had crept a little deeper down Howell’s mouth, and coughed as he fought his urge to gag. He was barely able to mumble “What are you all doing?”

Colt shrugged. “God’s work, I guess.”

“God’s work?” And Howell gagged again as the rag crept deeper down his throat. “How could this be God’s work?” he groaned, nearly unintelligible.

But Colt seemed to hear him. “You know about how my granddaddy was a code breaker after he got drafted? He always used to tell me that the secret of any code was figuring out what it was folks was trying not to say.”

Lacey propped herself up on the pickup’s tailgate. It was late October and cloudy, but the humidity was high and the temperature was in the low eighties. She was in small denim shorts, and she wore boots that hugged her calves. Howell looked away when he caught her catching him.

“Please!” he murmured. He tried to cough some of the rag clear, and felt bile rising in his throat. “There’s nothing Godly in this action!” Then he fell on back on the standby defense: “Look to His Word!”

“Codes always say one thing and mean another. And it’s not even so obvious as just sayin’ the opposite of what ya mean.” Colt flipped a pocket Bible through the air, one of a couple thousand Howell kept in boxes in his office. “You say He’s a God of love. If that’s the case, I ain’t so sure He’s the author.”

Howell’s blood was racing hot, and he tensed to keep from voiding his bladder. The pressure began to stiffen his prick. Lacey noticed and barked a little laugh, then reached out a leg and nudged it with the toe of her boot.

“Damn, reverend,” Clint said off to the side, “you sure have timing, don’t ya?”

A blond-headed boy Howell knew as Zach came out from behind him, stuffing Howell’s clothes into a nylon bag. He threw the torn suit into the truck bed before climbing into the cab and slamming the door shut. After a couple minutes Howell could hear the tinny sounds of country music from the radio.

“When you have us testify in town, you tell folks we’re witnessing before the Lord. I remember a lot of my granddaddy’s stories. That sounded a lot like code to me.”

“What…?” And Howell had to stop and fight back a convulsion in his stomach. He bit down on the shirt to keep from swallowing it. He felt his prick spasm and leap. Lacey watched it and laughed.

“My leg feels a lot better,” she told him then. “Nurse at school says I just strained it a little. Should be running track again in no time. I palmed one of them relaxers you said would help me and gave it to my sister. Put that little girl right to sleep.” She smirked and tossed her honey blond hair over one shoulder. “Just how relaxed were you wanting me to be that day, reverend?”

“They…they’re gonna find you!” Howell gagged.

“Maybe.” Colt shrugged. “Maybe not. If they do I guess that’s His will. Or, you know, somebody’s anyway.

Clint slapped the side of the truck. There was a clang from under the hood, and it lurched as Zach shifted gears. He opened the door and stuck a foot out, his boot digging into the dirt.

Colt clapped Howell’s shoulder. The sound of flesh smacking against flesh was intimate, violating.

“We’re just doing the best we can with what we can figure out.” He squeezed the pale skin of the man’s shoulder in an obscene gesture of comfort. “Plenty of snakes out here. You get a chance, let ’em tell ya a story.”

Zach stepped out, and the truck began to roll. It hit a sharp drop in the soil, and just as it began its descent its tires met an exposed oak root. The truck bucked and lurched, and Howell’s slow march turned to flight. He was slung through the air like the tip of a bullwhip. For a second the kids could hear his screams through the shirt, but he was quickly drowned out by the screeching of smashed steel and shattered glass.

When it was quiet they looked over the edge, and saw Howell lying fifty feet down. The truck he was still chained to stood on its nose, its roof propped against a pine sporting fresh scars. The old bald tires in back were still spinning.

Howell’s body jerked. None of them could tell if he was fighting to breathe or if it was just a muscle spasm. It wouldn’t matter soon.

“You all best get back to where you ought to be,” Colt told the others. “I’ll stick around to make sure it’s finished.”

They disappeared to the crunch of green twigs and the rustling of dry pine needles. Colt dipped some chew, and for good measure lit a cigarette. He sat on the edge of the drop-off, kicking down loose dirt with his boot heels. There was a faint pulse of light, and the distant growl of thunder. A few cool drops of water hit the back of Colt’s neck. He sat waiting until the rain came in force. Once he was cleansed, he would start the work again.

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The Sound of Hornets

hornet

 

It wasn’t summer for Nat until he heard the buzzing and the clinking. The air would get hot and everything would start feeling sticky, but it didn’t sound like summer until a hornet found its way into his basement and hovered around his work light. Even over the roar of tools and the rolling thunder of laundry, Nat could hear whether or not the hornets had come.

The clinking was more insistent than usual this morning. Contrary to his wife’s panic over finding one, Nat knew from experience that the insects tended to more towards calmness, almost to the point of laziness. When he found one hovering around the light bulb he felt sorry for it. They were often deeply hypnotized by the glow, smacking their armored heads into the glass with a slow, concentrated motion. In those moments Nat would cup his gloved hands around the bugs and toss them out the window.

This morning, it wasn’t one wasp around the light. It was four.

“It stinks down here.” Mattie muttered as she came down with the hamper. The smell was sharp and chemical, but not unpleasant. The varnish he’d layered on the door gave Nat’s work space a clean, scrubbed odor. “You might as well start smoking again.”

“Near’bout finished with the door for the kitchen.” Nat turned on a halogen and twisted it to the drying slab of oak. Mattie looked it over, shrugged, and unloaded the dryer.

“You’re drawing those damn hornets inside with all the shit,” she called back, her voice echoing inside the drum of the dryer. It must sound lovely in there to her.

“They aren’t comin’ after the varnish. Here, look.” Nat picked the varnish up from the bench and wafted it beneath the light. Immediately the hornets dispersed to the far corners of the basement, their flight swerving and unsteady. One bounced against Mattie’s temple and careened into the dryer. Mattie screamed and fell over, throwing hot bed sheets in front of her in case the hornet doubled back and came after her.

“Goddamnit, Nat! Shut that goddamn window! Get some spray and kill these fuckin’ things!” She got to her feet and hurried to the stairs. “And put that door back on its hinges soon! There’s somewhere on the screen door they’re gettin’ through upstairs.”

“Alright. Alright.”

“What’d you even take the door down for anyway? It wasn’t broken or anything.”

“I just…thought you’d like it if I fixed it up a little.”

A hornet whizzed by Mattie’s face. She ducked back, followed its path with a flailing palm. “Goddamn, Nat,” she muttered, and went back upstairs.

When Nat was done, he leaned the door against a cinder block wall and went up for lunch. Before he hit the lights, he counted two more hornets circling the bulb.

***

“Don’t swat at ’em! You’ll just rile ’em up!”

Nat ignored her and waved a lazy hand to shoo the hornets outside. Abby’d driven to school, and he scrubbed lazily at the morning dishes, killing time till he figured she’d had enough of a head start.

“Let the suds run off a little before you put ’em in rinse water, Nat. You’ll have ’em drying with a layer of soap on em otherwise.”

Nat was about to pull the drain plug and re-rinse the plates, but a hornet zipped in and out of the window, startling Mattie and backing her away from the sink.

“You’re gonna have to spray this place again pretty soon,” she moaned, but she left him to it. Once the dishes were rinsed and racked, Nat grabbed his keys, went out to his truck, and left for work.

Most of the students had already gone inside, but Nat stayed in this truck long enough to scan the parking lot for Abby and her friends. He couldn’t find them, and when it felt safe he got out and grabbed his lunch pail from the floorboard.

The wasps had spent the summer slowly invading the school, and Nat’s schedule that week consisted almost entirely of hunting down paper nests and drowning their builder’s in poison. When the wasps fell Nat watched their stingers slide in and out of their otherwise still bodies. He said a little prayer over every tiny carcass.

The nests soaked up the poison like sponges, and Nat had to collect them with rubber gloves before shoving them into trash bags. Those found in the crawl spaces took two hands to rip free. Those nests were so extensive the poison didn’t reach every grub. Nat would watch the few that shook loose, squirming blind on ceiling boards, before plucking them up and dropping them into the bag with their sisters.

Nat kept praying as the bags vaporized in the basement incinerator. He was grateful he couldn’t see the writhing grubs in the firelight.

***

“Aren’t ya hot?”

Nat wiped a rolled sleeve against his soaking eyebrows and looked over. Beyond the shade of the tree was a young woman, pale skin glowing in the sunlight. Her curly black hair billowed in the eddy that blew where the tree’s shadow met the heated noonday air.

She was young but she was dressed like a teacher, sleeveless button-up blouse, skirt with the hem down conservatively past her knees.

“Well, it’s hot work,” he told her, shrugging. “No real way around it.”

The yellowjackets had fallen like dry, brittle snow. Their yellow bodies sprinkled color across the gray dust between the oak tree’s roots.

“I don’t know how you stand it.” She was shielding her eyes with her hand. “Buy ya a Coke or somethin’?”

“Aw, naw, thank ya anyway.” He took out his handkerchief and wiped at his face. “I just got this to finish up and then it’s lunch time for me.” He smiled appreciatively, took of his cap to smooth out his hair. “You’re new, ain’t ya?”

“Yeah. Just started.” She looked over her shoulder to the kids eating in the courtyard. “I feel like I’m some kind of impostor. Most of these kids are almost my age.”

“Well, they give ya too hard a time, you can always hide out in the shed. Provided wasps don’t scare ya to much.”

He winked to let her know he was kidding. She had a big grin, almost bucktoothed. “What’s your name?”

Behind her, Nat could see Abby and her friends. The girl’s were watching him, pointing and laughing. Abby was hiding her face behind her hands.

“I’m Nat,” he told her.

“Hey, Nat.” She held out a small hand. Her nails were the same pale pink tone as her skin. “I’m Mary.”

In his hand, huge, dirty, rough, hers seemed like it would crumple like paper. He shook her hand and her arm moved almost without any effort on his part. He had an image of picking her up by the waist, just to lift her, hoisting her above his head with one hand. He  thought he could feel the light fabric of her skirt blow against his face.

“Good to meet ya,” he said. “Don’t burn up out here, now.”

***

Nat stayed in the workroom even as he heard Abby come in. He’d made himself a sandwich, and every few minutes a gnat would buzz around the half-eaten turkey and mayo. Mattie had complained about the dirty dish, asking him why he couldn’t just use a couple paper towels to eat it off of. He grabbed a beer before heading down, making sure to take a glass with him.

Upstairs Abby and Mattie were talking, but Nat couldn’t make out the words and didn’t care enough to try. He touched up the stainer on the kitchen door with a small brush and waved a hand lazily over his food.

It was an hour later before Mattie finally came down to check on him. She waved a hand in front of her face at the smell of the stainer.

“Goddamn, how can you breathe down here?” Mattie batted her eyes like they would water.

“Got a ventilator if the air gets too thick,” he told her. “Some goggles over there if you wanna wear ’em?”

She sighed. “I ain’t gonna stay down that long. I was just wondering if you were gonna come up for supper.”

“What time is it?”

“Near about five-thirty. I’m gonna have the food ready in about an hour. You need me to fix you a plate?”

Nat thought a moment, waved a hand over his food. “Yeah. You can just stick it in the firdge, though. I still got that sandwich to finish.”

“Just grab it and let me take the plate back then.”

Without saying anything, Nat picked up his food and set the empty plate on the table near Mattie. Mattie scooped it up.

“Wouldn’t kill you to eat with us, would it?”

“Well, I don’t know, Mattie.” He pulled the goggles up over his forehead and blinked away sweat before looking at his wife. “Would it kill you if I did?”

“Oh, don’t start.”

“I wasn’t planning to.”

She took his plate and left. Hornets buzzed by his face until the fumes of the stainer shooed them away. Nat turned and reached for his sandwich, and stopped when he saw a gnat skittering across the bread. It flitted to his hand worked its way between the beads of sweat on his knuckles. When it reached his fingertips he clenched his fist and crushed it, looking at its shredded body when he opened its hand. He would’ve let it be if it only hadn’t come for him.

***

“So how’d Week One go?”

Mary ate her tasteless chicken sandwich and studied the students in the courtyard. “Not too bad,” she told Nat. “They haven’t figured out I’m practically their age yet.”

Nat grinned while he replaced the bolt on a wobbly picnic table. “Well, just repeat everything your parents ever told ya and you should keep the wool over their eyes.”

He sat the picnic table right-side-up. Mary took a seat while he boxed up his tools. “Join me?”

“Left my lunch back in the workroom, but I guess a sit-down wouldn’t kill me.”

His hips and knees ached, or almost ached, in the good, tired way they did when he’d done what he considered “good work.” It’d been a light day, but a productive one, tightening loose bolts and replacing busted combination locks. He wasn’t grimy or even very sweaty, which he was grateful for as he sat next to Mary. Her forearms were still goose-pimpled from the A.C. inside. She smelled like vanilla, and beneath it cigarette smoke.

Two tables over, Abbie’s friends pointed at them and giggled. Nat made eye contact with his daughter, the look she gave him shooting ice into his spirit. She gave a disgusted sneer, grabbed her books, and stormed off to the tune of her friends’ cackling laughter.

Behind Mary there was whooping, and she and Nat turned to see two boys squaring off, chests and noses touching, fists clenched. “Oh, shit,” Mary grunted, leaping up to cool them down.

That night Nat fell asleep in the easy chair he’d lugged into his workshop a year prior. He dreamed about the hem of Mary’s purple floral dress, the black hem billowing between her ankles as she ran to break up the fight. In his dream, though, she didn’t run so much as she floated. He could see her bone-white flats hover a breath above the asphalt, toes down, the soles paddling gently against the air.

***

The kitchen door was dry, and Nat was busy re-installing it when Abbie came back home from Jen’s. “Hey, baby girl,” he called over his shoulder.

He didn’t get a reply, but then he wasn’t expecting one. But he could feel her standing in the kitchen, close behind him, and after a minute he looked over to her.

“I can’t believe you did that?”

He sighed. “You don’t like the door either?”

“At school. I can’t believe you flirted with Miss Mary like that.”

“That’s not flirting, Abbie. She just came over to talk.”

“I never see you smile that way around Mom.”

Another, deeper sigh. “Yeah. I guess it’s been awhile since I smiled like that around her.”

“You look like a dirty old man when you’re around Miss Mary.”

“You watch your mouth.” She was startled by the sharpness of his tone. “That woman’s barely any older than you are. I would never do anything like what you’re sayin’ I am. She just needs a talkin’ buddy. You got that?”

Abbie was quiet, her eyes narrowed.

“Your momma an’ me haven’t been okay in awhile, but I would never do what you think I’m doin’.” He turned back to the door. “Now buzz off.”

Abbie was quiet a little longer. “I don’t want you talking to her anymore. It’s embarassing. My friends won’t stop making fun of me.”

“Then I guess you can’t rightly call ’em your friends, huh?”

“If you don’t stop, I’ll tell Mom.”

“Tell her.” He waved he off. “There’s nothing to tell. Unless you’re a liar.” He looked over at her. “Are you a liar, Abbie?”

Abbie was quiet another moment, then stomped her feet and stormed off. Nat turned back to the door.

***

“How do you think that makes Abbie look? How do you think that makes me look?”

Mattie slapped the work table with each sentence. Loose bolts bounced with each blow.

“All we do is talk, Mattie! Why are so upset about this? It ain’t like I’ve never talked to any of the teachers before!”

“So why haven’t you mentioned her?”

“There’s nothing to mention! I’ve spoken to her three times when she’s on lunch duty. There ain’t nothin’ to it! Good God, she’s young enough to be my daughter!”

“That’s right, Nat! She is young enough to be your daughter! And you call holding hands with her nothing?”

“I told you we’ve never held hands!”

“Why would Abbie lie, Nat?”

“Are you really asking me why a teenager would lie to get what they want?”

“You’re pathetic.” She smacked at a hornet as it bounced against her face. The insect thumped against the cinder block wall and fell to the floor, stunned. “You hide in this hole and you chase the first pretty thing you see when you come out, like you and I haven’t been married twenty years.”

“Right, I’m pathetic.” Nat picked up his claw hammer and slammed it against the work table. “Your fat ass spends all day doing nothing in my house, badgering me over anything you can imagine, and I’m pathetic!” He slammed the hammer into the table again. “Get your ass out of my basement before I drag you out!”

She slammed the door twice to make a point, and once Nat’s heartbeat went down, the basement was quiet again.

Soon he could again hear the humming behind the wall.

***

Garrison Keillor was speaking softly on the radio as Nat slid the skill saw across the sheet rock. He worked a small sliver of drywall away and peered inside with a pen light.

The hornets were a soft, humming blanket of shining red and yellow. They twitched, cleaning antennae and walking over their sleepier sisters. Occasionally one would buzz by, fluttering across the beam of Nat’s flashlight to another section of the paper nest.

“Thank you, oh God,” Keillor said, “for this good life, and forgive us if we do not love it enough.”

Nat could see Mary’s bone-white flats, grinding the corpses of the yellowjackets into the dirt around the oak tree’s roots. She looked lighter than the air, but her footfalls came like hammer blows.

Nat could see himself sitting alone, sharing this house with the small guests who stayed tucked inside his walls. Out of his way, and he out of theirs.

But even in her kindness, Mary would come for them. Maybe more in fear than hate, but still she would wish them dead. Like Mattie would. Like Abbie. Simply because they were there.

“And it is enough,” Keillor whispered.

The hammer chewed through the drywall and its studs like fanged teeth, so that the basement coughed clouds of plaster into Nat’s face. The noise agitated the hornets.

“It…is enough,” Keillor finished with a sigh.

Nat’s arm burned, and then ached, and finally he could feel nothing at all. He swung again and again and again and…

“Nat!” he heard from upstairs. Mattie was stomping on the floor of the kitchen. The hornets could hear that too. “Nat, what are you doing down there?”

The wall studs shook and cracked against the hammer.

Mattie stomping on the floor again. Abbie asking: “What’s Dad doing?”

The hammer striking the awakening bed of hornets. Dozens flying away, higher up the wall, into the upper floors of the house.

The hammer killing, angering. Hornets finally buzzing out, trying to find the source of this sharp, sudden storm. Hornets pouring out.

Needles on his face and his neck. Needles by his ears. Needles that stuck, and stuck again.

Abbie upstairs: “Jesus, that’s the fifth one! Hasn’t Dad sprayed for these yet?”

Mattie stomping to the door. He hadn’t thought to lock it but the heated tide was too high behind his eyes, and he swung, feeling the hammer scrape against brick.

“Nat?” Mattie’s heavy steps, too fast for her to take proper stock of the cloud that grew in the room. “Nat, what are you-?”

“Mom!” Abbie started yelling. It sounded like she’d begun to stomp around as well. “Momma!”

Mattie was yelling too, now, but Nat could hardly hear her.

It…is enough.

The wall was now near totally evacuated. Nat felt the heat in his mind burn through his face. His flesh felt tight and puckered. The room was blurred by fluttering wings. He had to fight his arm to move it.

He thought to wonder if Mattie and Abbie were still screaming. Above his head now, he could only hear the sound of hornets.

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