I guess I should tell the story of the bees.
They weren’t really bees at all: carpenter ants. I felt like a real fuckin’ genius when that word came into my head. Nick and I had been running away from them, really freaked out, trying to figure out the number to dial for the exterminator—which was hard because I had a dumb-phone and there was no way in hell either of us were going back in there to get my computer, when we calmed down enough to ask, “Jesus, what was that?” And Nick said they had looked like bees, but both of us knew that they weren’t, and then I thought for a second and it just came into my head. “Carpenter ants,” I said. And man did I feel like a fuckin’ genius. And by the look on Nick’s face I’m pretty sure he thought I was a fuckin’ genius too.
My dad thinks they have something to do with my sex life. When I first started noticing them they didn’t have wings—they were just big black nasty bugs that crawled around the moldings where the wall met the carpet. It freaked me out a little bit, but not too much. There weren’t that many of them then, and I’d grown up relatively exposed to nature, so they didn’t bother me in that way. But I think what unnerved me most was how fast they moved. Like when I reached my hand out towards them, they darted away so quickly that I got that feeling you get when you’re on a roller coaster and suddenly your stomach drops out from under you. They kept pulling the rug out from under me, and I didn’t like it. Maybe it’s strange to be suspicious of the
intentions of insects, but all I can say is that that’s how it was. But it was just a suspicion, nothing major. So I didn’t do anything.
So obviously it kind of pissed me off when my dad insinuated what he did. Not that it hadn’t been in the back of my mind. I had mentioned the ants, just in passing, to my friend Anisha a few days after they started appearing. “What are you doing right now?” she asked. I was stalking pictures of my ex on Facebook. “I don’t know... nothing,” I said. I wondered if she could hear my mouse pad clicking on the other end of the phone line. “Do you think it would be weird if I went on a walk?” I continued, looking outside. No response, undoubtedly because it was pouring rain, gusting winds up to thirty miles per hour. “I’ve never been one to just go on walks, but maybe I will,” I said, in an I’m-absurd-and-cute chipper little voice I do, sometimes. Anisha paused on the other end of the line. “Okay, you do you,” she said—in a whatever-I- know-you’re-hung-up-on-something-you’re-not-talking-about voice she does, frequently. I slapped down the lid of my laptop. “Fuck it,” I said. “Maybe I’ll walk.” But I went outside and it turned out I didn’t like having my face all wet and cold. So I walked to Walgreens, bought a pair of nail clippers, and walked three blocks home.
There are one hundred thousand verbs in the English language: and any of them can be a coping mechanism. My dad’s verb is rationalism to the point of the eternal sunshine of blind reductionism. It’s so messed up it’s not even a verb. He would up and move to Belize for love. Personally, I don’t get it. I don’t get love. I don’t get any of that shit. No one believes me when I tell them I’m really seriously jaded on that kind of stuff. It’s probably because I dress too much like Zooey Deschanel.
“So how’s the love life going?” he asked. “Oh, you know, I don’t believe in it, so...”
“Well, you never know who might just pop up.”
“Heh, heh, yeah...” I stared out the car window. We passed a marsh. Or a bog. It was dead, but alive. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me.
“So I hear you’re having a bit of an infestation problem.” “Yep,” I said.
“Well, you know what they say...”
“Nope,” I said. At this point I was kind of staring at the sun. “Infestation means psychological laceration!”
“Thanks, Dad,” I said. He smiled to himself. He could have started whistling and I wouldn’t have been one fucking bit surprised.
All this started happening around the same time my brother was in the hospital. At that point he’d been there for about a month with regurgititus. It came on in all the usual ways, not significantly out of the blue, we assumed it was food poisoning at first, and progressed in all the usual ways, his vomiting periods becoming more and more consistent, more and more fluid, until we knew we had to do the partial hospitalization thing. My mom pulled out all the stops. She drew out of her retirement fund to put him in one of the nicest partial hospitalization locations in the area, right next to the public gardens. She suffers from serve-misplaced martyrdom.
I visited him there a couple times. He seemed happy. Then again, my brother almost always seemed happy in any situation. He seemed pale and weak, and thinner than I had seen him in a long time, but otherwise he just seemed like a more tired version of his usual self. We even went to a candy shop where we ate about a million different flavors of sour gummy worms together. That was the way with regurgititus: absolutely fine in appetite and metabolism until suddenly, at a specific time of day, nothing could stay down.
It was usually at night and started to come on in the evenings. I felt bad, because just the way my work schedule was, I always had to leave right as it started to come on. If he actually started vomiting while I was around, one of the caretakers would quickly usher me out of the house. Apparently they thought he didn’t want me to see him like that. But I knew Mark, and I knew he wouldn’t have minded. It always made me feel guilty that the caretakers assumed that he would care. But I think I felt worse, worried, that Mark thought I was leaving because of him—when really, I wasn’t. I thought about trying to move my work schedule around, so that I could be there for him when the sickness started to set in, but then decided it wasn’t worth the hassle. It made me angry with my parents for not giving more of a fuck. They could have moved their work schedules. It wouldn’t have been a hassle.
I only visited Mark once after the bugs started appearing. I didn’t bring them up. It just felt dumb. But my brother always has a way of subtly knowing things like that. There was just this look in his eye—and I knew he knew. I feel like it’s often like that with the sick. You’re the one who’s ashamed. They’re the ones with the dignity.
Nick and I hadn’t been friends for that long. I bet you’re expecting me to say that I met him at a self-help group for emotional masochists or something like that, but that just wouldn’t be true. My life isn’t romantic like that. I’d actually known him for a long time, but we just hadn’t been friends. He was friends with some friends of friends of mine, but since I changed jobs we realized we both took the same bus to and from work. So we met at the corner of King and Hauser every morning, and after work we usually hung around my apartment eating Trix and smoking weed. Sometimes I made grilled cheese. We talked about things, but nothing super important.
It was the week before Easter when I came home and the ground was completely covered. I’d heard stories about this kind of thing—people waking up in the middle of the night, wondering why their carpet had changed color and BAM, realized it was moving. But the thing I really couldn’t handle was that they were flying. Not all of them, just some of them. I think I would have been able to manage things if they had just stayed in one domain, land or sky, but there was something about the total ease and frequency of transition from one to the other that really freaked me out. They were on the counters, they were on the curtains. They flew out of the sink and landed on the television. “Ho-ly-shit,” Nick said, and we slammed the door.
We couldn’t get the number for the exterminator right away, so we called my dad instead. He laughed. “You should have taken care of things before!” he said. I was so angry I almost threw my phone out the window—even though I definitely called knowing what he was going to say. I think I just needed someone to be honest about it, as stupid as it was.
“You seriously think you know what this is about?” I spat. My dad just laughed some more.
“Of course I do. You’ve been taking walks in the rain. Doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.”
“Go back to Manner Place. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. But maybe it will. Besides, in the state you’re in, you’ll probably enjoy it!”
“Ha, ha, very funny,” I said.
“Infestation means...” I hung up before he could finish.
I took the bus. I always take the bus. I’m generally not inclined to believe that the
weather is ever indicative of anything, but it was turning pretty grey outside. When the bus to
Rippen Hollow pulled up there was a different driver. Of course there was. I wasn’t some fucking young lovebird anymore. I swiped my bus pass and it didn’t even get stuck. My pass is cracked, so it gets stuck a lot. The fact that it didn’t kind of took me by surprise.
There was only one other person on the bus—and old woman with this short-cropped curly grey hair. I walked over and sat on the opposite side of the bus, facing her, but a good five seats or so to her left. I looked at her and realized she wasn’t doing anything, just sitting there looking down at her hands. As the bus left the curb she looked up at me, and I saw she had the most clear blue innocent eyes. But then she smiled, and I saw the maggots crawling around her gums. I shuddered. But then I smiled back, gave her a curt nod—and quickly looked away.
Of all of the buses to Rippen Hollow, I would get stuck on the one with only one other person—and of course she would be a maggotted old broad. Thanks, Dad, I thought to myself. Way to put me on the bus to my fate, in more ways than just one...
To be honest, it’s just that maggotted people always make me feel so bad. It’s because I’m so young, and they’re so delusional about youth already, and they think you’re just the most wonderful thing for not having lived that long. It’s like walking by a homeless person. It’s like, you walk by, and you try to be as nice as you can, but you really can’t give them money because they’re going to drink it all anyway. I don’t know.
The bus pulled up at Tarrenfield Square and the woman stood up. As she walked by me she grinned and patted my knee. I looked up at her and watched the maggots squirm on her upper gum line. I grimaced.
“You got it, Sweetheart,” she said. Her blue eyes watered with joy. I watched as the doors swung shut behind her and she hobbled up onto the curb, smiling toothlessly to herself. I
wrenched my eyes away and stared out the opposite window. As the bus pulled back into the street, I started to feel a little queasy wondering exactly what “it” was.
The feeling of deja-vous as I swung the brass knocker was almost too much for me to handle. You know how sometimes, you have those moments when you’re doing something you’ve done a thousand times before, but you did that thing a thousand times before so long ago that all you can think about is how much better of a person you were when you used to do them than you are now? And it makes you want to go on a diet, or a juice cleanse, or something?
The super tacky butler finally came and ushered me through the foyer covered in light- blue shag carpeting. It pained me that I still thought this was pretty cool. I shook my head, forcing myself to look at the cracks in the paint on the walls. It’s all material, I told myself. It doesn’t mean anything anyway. And it’s all falling apart.
We reached his study and the butler knocked rapidly three times. I took a deep breath. The butler pushed open the heavy oak door, and there he was—looking just the way I had expected. Facebook hadn’t lied.
He sat in a big purple plush chair to match the purple plastic ring on his right hand. It was the princess kind you get in goody bags. But he pulled it off. That and the entirely black suit. He rocked that too. When he saw me he laughed and shook his head, just like the effortlessly goddam blinged-out cool that he was. And then I felt dumb, like a mousy librarian who insisted that the world was only in perfect harmony when there was dust and silence. I looked down at my beaten leather bag and my aiguille sweater. I felt myself graying in his presence. I didn’t say anything—because I couldn’t say anything. Although I had intended to. The whole purpose of coming was to talk to him. But I was there, and I felt too much like a piece of cardboard to say anything.
“So,” he said. “How have you been?”
“All right,” I said. I wasn’t saying anything about my brother. Because really I was all right—he was the one who wasn’t.
“Good to hear,” he said. A footman standing behind him bent down and offered him a cigar on an ornate silver tray. He took it, sniffed it by running the length of it below his nostrils, and put it in his mouth. The footman handed him a cheap corner store lighter. He took it, lit the cigar, and slapped it back on the silver tray without even turning his head.
“So, uh, you want something, right?” he said, after a pause in which he took the time to savor his first drag and subsequent exhale. He looked at me, resting his elbow on his knee. His gaze was too intense. I watched the smoke curl from the tip of his cigar and play around his fingertips.
“The bugs,” I said quietly, tearing my eyes away and looking at the floor.
He tilted is head back as if to roar in laughter, but simply chuckled quietly and exhaled forcefully through his nose. He shook his head, looking at me incredulously.
“I mean, like, do you really think that’s my problem?”
“I guess I don’t really know,” I said, fixing my gaze back on the oriental carpet. He ran his hand through his hair.
“Well, shit,” he said. “Seriously?” I didn’t say anything. “Jesus Christ,” he said, still shaking his head.
I guess I started to get a little pissed around that point. I think I was just frustrated at there being at an impasse. Fucking impasses. Everything was such a goddam impasse. Even light through a window. So I decided to look out it—the window, that is.
“You wanna hear a secret?” he asked. I noticed he was staring out the window too. I nodded.
“I’ve got bugs too.”
“Yeah?” I said. He nodded.
“Most people got’um. I dress like this so no one will notice.” I was surprised to hear him
say that, but it made sense.
“I can’t just start dressing better,” I said. He paused, thinking, then shrugged.
“Yeah, well...you do you, you know?” he said, relighting his cigar. He let out a puff of
smoke, and then shook his head. “It’s whatever...”
“You’re being a real helpful little bitch, ya know?” I said. I was sick of his smiling to
himself and shaking his head in clouds of smoke. He didn’t say anything, and continued to puff on his cigar and stare out the window. The sunlight was getting really damn bright. Probably because the sun was setting. Sun goes down, shit gets brighter.
I stood up and threw my bag over my shoulder.
“Well, you’re not really any help,” I said, looking down at him in his overstuffed chair. “I mean... yeah, whatever,” he said, not looking at me. I turned to leave and walked
across the room. Just as I put my hand on the tarnished doorknob, he called after me.
“What kind of bugs do you have?” he asked.
“Carpenter ants,” I said, refusing to turn around. He was silent. I turned to face him. The
sun lit him from behind—he looked like a grotesquely divine card shark. Blinged-out Jesus shook his head.
“It’s funny,” he said. “Those aren’t the ones I have.”
I shrugged, flipped him off, turned on my heel, and slammed the door behind me.
Once I got outside I pulled out my phone. I had a missed call from the number I recognized as the exterminator. I called him back immediately.
“Hey, I know I called earlier requesting your services, but you can forget about it. It’s fine.” I had the most wonderful fantasy of going home and lying down on my couch, letting them crawl all over me until I became a mosaic of ants—until I became one giant beautiful ant myself.
“Yeah, I was just calling to discuss your fee reduction, actually.” “What?” I said.
“Says here you ordered extermination, not clean out.”
“I still don’t understand.”
“Well, you’ve got a big mess of dead bugs here. Makes our job easier, that’s for sure, but—” I hung up before he could finish and highly considered chucking my phone across Jason’s perfectly manicured lawn. But instead I walked around to the back of the house, planted both feet squarely on the ground, and stared into the study window I had stared out only minutes before. I basically just ended up staring at myself because it was too bright outside for me to be able see anything inside, so the glass was just a sheen of black ice that miraged myself back to me. I stared for a while, I don’t know how long. Then I walked towards the widow, picked up one of the potted plants that lined the hedge beneath it, and threw it as hard as I could through the glass. It left a perfect circular hole. I heard it crash on the other side, but after the initial crash there was silence. Logically I knew I should assume that Jason had left the study, but I knew he hadn’t. I knew he was still in there, just sitting there, doing nothing. And then I screamed. I just screamed at him. I balled both of my hands into fists and screamed. When I ran out of breath the silence just came back again. Fuck him. He could die of pride for all I cared.
When I reached the end of the ornate gravel driveway I doubled over and vomited. I saw my stretched, distorted shadow as I heaved and retched and suddenly realized it was evening. Because it was sunset, and the sun sets in the evening.
I never went back to my apartment in person. I haven’t yet, at any rate. I’m still in the hospital. I remember waking up in a hospital bed, and there was a doctor standing there, checking my chart. I remember asking, “Is it...?” and he nodded. I stared up at the ceiling. I could smell the vomit in my hair. “Well,” said the doctor, snapping closed the plastic chart, “at least your bugs are dead.” Then I finally started to cry.
I’ve been here for about a week now. They’ll probably transfer me soon. I hope. I want them to put me somewhere cheap. God, the unforeseen expenses of procreation. I feel bad for my parents. Also, I think I saw the maggoty old woman in the food court the other day. But I might be wrong. I feel bad: these maggoty people all look the same to me. God, they just really freak me out.
Whenever I tell this story, I always talk about “the bees.” But like I said, they weren’t really bees at all. I’m not really sure why I do it. I think it’s because maybe part of me wishes they had been bees. But whatever the case, no one ever corrects me. Not even Mark, and he knows everything.