Fiction by Megan Fahey
The stinkbug trod along the baseboard—one slow, sure stick-leg in front of the other.
Jennifer clutched a towel to her breast and watched the insect closely.
She ran a hand through her hair, worried about the bugs that, at that moment, might have been burrowing deep down in her dark roots, or evolving with skeletal exo-highlights that matched the ones from the box she’d just finished applying in the bathtub.
For all she knew her very scalp had already morphed into a parasitic ecosystem. To think, after she’d salved and conditioned all these years to keep dandruff and itching at bay, here she was being prickled apart by the brown spindly legs of a stinkbug army who rifled down the bushwhacked path of her perfect part.
She scratched and scratched.
In the mornings before work, Jennifer swatted at phantom insects when they flittered too close to her periphery. She slapped at her thighs and the soft skin on the backs of her arms mistaking loose hairs and threads for bugs. She tried meditation, but that didn’t work since a moth had chewed a hole through the bag in which she kept her yoga mat and increased the problem twofold. Her mother had said that a spoonful of apple cider vinegar would do the trick, but vinegar was made from worms, and sometimes apples had worms, and the more she thought about it the more the whole thing just made her feel slimy.
Bathwater didn’t help. Even when she sat backward in the tub and creaked the cold faucet off. Even when it scalded a streak down her spine. Even when her nails raked her head and dug follicle by follicle in scrupulous rows. Even when her fingers flattened and scraped and scrubbed and teased and pulled until her hair looked matted and wild, and a few loose strands floated down to the sink. And a stinkbug crawled out of the drain.
Surprised, she grabbed the first blunt instrument she could find and stepped back a safe distance—raising her hands above her head in a warrior pose that came to her from some deep-buried instinct. Only her eyeballs flickered. Even her chest seemed to cease its consistent rise and fall as the stinkbug took its first flat step onto that Formica counter. And splat. Its mysterious expedition out of the drain and across the sink reached its dramatic end beneath the heavy, cold cylinder of Jennifer’s aerosol hairspray. She whispered neither prayer nor sentimental word as she scooped the thing into a gob of toilet paper and flushed. No struggle. No flailing little legs. Just a small brown body, no larger than a tiny leaf, swirling out of the world forever and leaving behind only the faintest scent of coriander.
The next morning, there were three stinkbugs in the bathroom, four on the TV during the weather report, one which scampered out from under the toaster while Jennifer sipped her coffee, and an audacious little rascal that clung to Jennifer’s blazer and rode with her all the way to the office before it worked up the moxie to crawl up the back of her neck. It died, dry and bloodless, when she tossed it to the pavement of the parking lot without regard and smashed it with the sole of her red wedge heel.
Way back, when the very first stinkbug crossed the border of Pennsylvania with its brown marble body, Jennifer’s mother didn’t smash it even when she woke up one morning to find it sharing her pillow. “I’ve heard about these,” she said. “They come from China.” So she pulled out the vacuum cleaner, unraveled the tidy cord, and sucked up the little beast. “You have to do it this way,” her mother said, “Otherwise, you’ll just attract more.”
That was an adventure of childhood. But, grown up and living alone, taking out the sweeper each time one spotted an insect was all so much tedium. Surely this technique was a habit of old wives—propaganda by the vacuum company to sell more bagless uprights. “Come one! Come all! And watch the bug as it meets the cyclone of its demise!”
Moreover, it was certainly a legend that murdered dead stinkbugs begat more stinkbugs with their posthumous odor. Wasn’t “stinkbug” a colloquial term anyway? Weren’t they insurgent creatures by nature? Wasn’t it just that time of the year? And just that temperature?
Perhaps that was true. Perhaps the temperature and the change of the seasons were enough to explain away the bug in the drain, and maybe enough for the one that tickled her neck in the parking lot, and maybe the one that sneaked out in fear when she pushed down the plunger to toast her bread. But it didn’t explain the fact that by the time the work day ended, a stinkbug family had taken up residential ceiling space in each room of her house, and more were outside: skittering along tan bricks, setting their perimeter, stinking up the place.
In her youth Jennifer had seen TV movies where exterminators were harsh, uneducated men who drove vans of white or yellow or green with giant plaster roaches perched on the roofs—as if the offending bugs might follow them out of town like some sort of twenty-first century pied pipers. Extermination companies had teams of marketing virtuosos, who drafted gaudy logos and clever business names like Critter Ridders and Pest Cemetery, as if somehow the bugs would reel in the face of such keen human intellect and exterminate themselves. Once, while vacationing in South Carolina, Jennifer spotted a pickup truck wrapped with a tessellated pattern of venomous snakes and black widow spiders as if somehow this camouflage might gain the insects’ trust and disguise the vehicle’s true identity: a four-wheeled agent of doom.
When Dave (from Dave’s) pulled up with his rusty, round sedan and his plain blue jumpsuit that said “Dave” on the patch, he looked so ordinary that Jennifer didn’t believe he was real.
“Are you Dave?” she said.
He laughed a little, and when he did, it was just enough to showcase that he still had all his original teeth—which relieved Jennifer in some small way. He yanked open the creaky back door of the round sedan, releasing a catastrophe of stainless steel bottles that clattered to the ground at his feet. Jennifer cupped a hand around her temple and untucked her hair from behind her ears to shield against the curiosity of her neighbors. Dave rustled around in the mess of equipment littered across the backseat, muttering and cursing to himself, until he returned to Jennifer and presented her with a neat plastic folder.
“Inside that folder,” he said, “You’ll find two years of pest control application notifications, two years’ worth of records of pesticide use, pesticide reports to the county agricultural commissioner’s office in Bedford County, written recommendations from the agricultural pest control adviser, and, if you do so desire, a valid journeyman pest control aircraft certificate with an FAA operating license in the event I am required to act as a commercial agricultural aircraft operator.”
“But I don’t think she’ll come to that,” the man said.
A teetering unmarked aerosol can clanked to the pavement as if to punctuate his sentence.
Jennifer scratched at the sides of her head and ruffled through the paperwork.
“Am I being silly?” she said aloud. “I mean—I didn’t bring all these things here, did I?”
He examined the house then examined the woman. The area near the garage droned with so much insect activity that when the sun passed over it the house seemed to transform into shimmering fish scales and took on an airy, animated look. Jennifer’s amber eyes were wet and buzzed about in their sockets. Dave reached toward Jennifer with his filthy, calloused hand, but she didn’t pull away, even when the swollen knuckle of his thumb grazed her neck and sent a chill down her back.
“Looks like you got yourself a case of BMSBs,” he said.
Jennifer winced when he pulled his hand back.
Dave held a bug by the thorax. Its legs wriggled wildly.
“Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs. Halyomorpha Halys. Whatever you want to call ‘em, you got ‘em.”
For a moment, she thought he might squish the thing right there between his fingers. Instead, he unzipped his coveralls and deposited it into a meshy vial, which he then returned to his inside pocket. “You been smooshin’ these things?” he said.
Jennifer lowered her head.
“About how many you smooshed?” he said.
“Not sure,” she said. “Twenty? Thirty?”
He tugged his zipper back up to his chin and inhaled deep. “Sounds like we got some work to do.”
Relief peeled in layers from Jennifer’s shoulders, slowly, as the process began. In the morning, on her daily commute to the office, her coffee tumbler felt lighter, even if only by an ounce, as she rolled the last drops in the bottom of her cup before sipping. Her car maneuvered into its parking spot with more ease than before, and the heels of her red wedge shoes clacked more quietly than usual as she entered the building.
She’d asked the man, Dave, would she need to find a place to put herself up for a few days? Would she need to pack a bag for all her things? Would he drape her house like a big top and burn the bugs with poison?
She’d asked the man then how did he plan to kill them?
But somehow, as she watched him handle the insects, careful not to risk tearing their fragile appendages, she knew the answer even before he’d said it.
“Kill them?” he’d said.
“You are an exterminator, aren’t you?”
“Killing’s got nothing to do with it. I get them out. You pay your bill. I go home.”
Alone in her office she laughed to herself at the simplicity of the thing—how easy it had been to decontaminate her life. And then she smiled, and it was one of those smiles drawn from a well of happiness sprung from somewhere deep, and she caught its reflection in the glassy dark of her computer monitor. Her skin, which had begun to wither and risked drying out, began to bloom again—especially in her cheeks and in her ears and at the base of her neck. And the amber marbles of her eyes regained their former sprightliness even if they were still a bit sunk in their pallid sockets.
It all came rushing back to her at once—the nights she tossed, awake; the worrying over the individual creases and folds of her comforter; the way she double and triple checked her cups after a flat bug body surfed a lemonade wave into the cove of her mouth and tickled her tongue; the meals she forgot to eat; the quarantine and sterility of the office; the chomping of her fingernails, the sleeplessness, the neuroses, the hunger. They multiplied together, factoring exponentially one day after the next, and their product was the exhaustion in her face and the buckets beneath her eyes.
If she could just find herself a decent meal, she thought: a celebratory meal, a balanced meal for restoring balance.
The courtyard outside the office hosted a convoy of food trucks each afternoon that sold everything from lettuce wraps and seltzer water to deep fried cheese with cheese sauce. She stepped to the window of the grimiest, filthiest food truck in the lot, and said, with her chest out and her chin held aloft, “I’d like a cheeseburger.”
“Six bucks,” said the voice of the cook.
Jennifer reached for the wallet she carried in the pocket of her loose-fitting skirt and spread its leather lips apart. A small brown bug—a baby, maybe—leapt from the wallet and landed softly on a sesame seed.
Jennifer left the burger on the ledge and the paperwork piled in her inbox. She charged as fast as her red wedge shoes would carry her to her car, which delivered her home recklessly but in one piece, despite the fact that she used her free hand for scratching and swatting instead of signaling as often as she could manage it. She was in such a mad dash to the front door, she never noticed that even the gray mortar lines between the tan bricks had been cleared of bugs, and so had the spot above the garage, and so had each room of the house. Meticulously.
The exterminator was waiting in the dining room. She stomped toward him, stretching out her shouting finger and taking vexatious breaths. But when she saw the huge terrarium, the size of the hutch and just adjacent, filled with moss and rocks and orchids and all the bugs that had been transplanted, she forgot what had made her so huffy in the first place. She watched the stink bugs float weightlessly upon the leaves and consume them bite by bite. She watched them climb the grid of the terrarium screen and hang upside-down and fall to the ground noiselessly and painlessly. She watched them disappear beneath the carpet of leaves and dead grass. So enraptured was she that she screamed when Dave, from Dave’s, said, “I thought you might like to see them.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck.
“Thank you,” she said, “Oh, thank you! This is marvelous.”
“I’ll take it with me when I go,” he said. “But before that, there’s just the little matter of the, uh—” He rubbed two fingers against his thumb, which made the faintest sound.
“Oh right,” Jennifer said. “But before you go. I found a bug in my wallet earlier.”
She took it from her handbag and held it open under his chin. A second stinkbug wriggled around inside.
Dave stepped closer, eliminating the space between them, breathing, for a moment, the same air Jennifer exhaled. With his eyes locked on hers, he clasped the bug with a pair of metal tweezers and dropped it into the terrarium.
“I—I’ll write you a check,” Jennifer said. She walked into the living room and took the checkbook from an end table drawer.
“Well, now wait a second,” said Dave. “I couldn’t help but notice you’ve got a few cobwebs in the basement. I was thinking I should probably check ‘em out before I go. Stinkbugs are one thing, but you don’t want to mess around with spiders.”
“Oh sure,” Jennifer folded the slip at the perforation but still ripped the check when she tried to separate it. “Maybe you can come back tomorrow?”
“Thing is—” the man said. “Spiders are nocturnal. I won’t get a real good look at ‘em until nighttime.” He walked into the living room where he plunged back onto the couch and propped his boots on the glass top of the coffee table. “I was thinking I’d just wait here.”
He stayed the rest of the afternoon. When he was hungry, he helped himself to the refrigerator and rummaged through the crisper.
“Have whatever you want,” Jennifer said. “But when you’re done eating I think you should leave.”
The sun set and still the man sat.
“It’s getting pretty late. Are you going to get started soon?”
“Ain’t time yet,” the man said. “Gotta be good and dark.”
Though Jennifer had known Dave only a few hours, there was something harmless about him—something warm and homey that blended in with the furniture. So instead of calling the cops or shouting him out on the street, Jennifer made up a bed for him there on the couch, tucked a sheet under the cushions, and fluffed a set of spare pillows with mismatched cases.
She trusted him because he kept his distance—because of his quiet, even breathing; because when she said good night and slipped into the bedroom he never even looked at her. But she still turned the small doorknob lock quietly when she got inside. She sat on the edge of the bed and smiled as she smoothed down the covers, disinfected as they were. She let herself fall backward with her arms spread wide. She breathed deep and fresh. She spread her arms and fanned them, making something like a blanket angel.
Beside her the bed creaked and sagged under the weight of a body. Her mother. She shared Jennifer’s pillow, and held the sealed plastic dust bin of a vacuum cleaner as if she were holding her own ashes.
“Mom?” Jennifer said.
Her mother had the same amber eyes, but they were blank and lifeless as they turned toward Jennifer and stared. She shook the dust bin, rattling the corpses of a thousand insects inside. “You’ll just attract more,” she whispered.
Jennifer’s eyes shot open. Hours had passed. The room was pitch dark except a faint white light which creeped in around the door jamb, and a high buzzing noise—the sound of a bright blue television with the volume turned low. The padding beneath her carpet rustled like tissue paper when her feet pressed into it, but she moved slowly and lightly until the sounds her footsteps made were no louder than the sound of the buzzing. She took a full minute to turn the doorknob to the unlock position and another minute to crack the door just enough to see into the living room where the man, Dave, from Dave’s, was sitting cross-legged, directly in front of the TV, hypnotized.
“Dave?” she whispered. “Dave?”
He shifted to his knees and brought his face even closer to the blue screen. The small hairs along his chin stood on end.
“Dave, are you all right?”
He raised his hands to the screen, arms bent at the elbows, like a cactus. Static crackled the hairs on his forearm. On TV a charismatic salesman in a suit gestured madly. A studio audience laughed.
Jennifer snatched the remote control from the end table and turned off the television. In a dark second, Dave was upright and standing in front of her, looming. In the dim glow of the street lights coming through the window, his body was cast in an orange glow and his form took shape before her. Jennifer’s whole body trembled.
She gulped hard.
“You need to go,” she said. “Or I’m calling the police.”
The man craned his head left, then right, but showed no signs of leaving.
Jennifer marched to the front door and held it open.
“Now,” she said.
She didn’t wait for him to get in his car before she slammed the door behind him and locked it, and locked the deadbolt, and slid the chain into its holder, and stood with her back against it and all her weight pressed in. She heard the sound of an engine turn over, and a creaky belt squeaking under a hood, and tires rolling farther and farther down the pavement. She breathed deeply and smoothed back the hair on her head. She tugged at the bottom of her loose-fitting skirt which she hadn’t changed out of since returning from work.
She took off her top and threw it in the hamper on her way to the shower. She flipped the switches for the light and for the vent, and set her rings and bracelets in the soap dish beside the sink. She loosened the skirt button and the zipper from her hips. She draped her towel over the shower rod, and when she pulled back the curtain, a man in a blue jumpsuit was curled up with his knees to his chest, sitting on the drain.
She covered herself with one hand while the other turned on the hot water.
The man hollered and leapt from the tub. Jennifer backed into the sink where her rings and bracelets fell off the soap dish, and the aerosol hair spray clanked to the countertop. She scrambled for it and sprayed the man in his eyes and mouth. He continued to wail.
He followed Jennifer into the bedroom where she picked up her wedge shoes and struck him repeatedly with the thick ends.
“Get out,” she yelled. “Get out!”
He lunged out of the room. Jennifer followed him out the door and into the living room, but she couldn’t find him anywhere. She crawled quietly to the coffee table with the phone and took it from the cradle. She wrapped the receiver in her towel to muffle the sounds of the numbers as she dialed them.
“Hello?” she said, “Hello, I have an emergency!”
But there was no answer on the other end—just a low, metallic scratching.
She crawled to the front door and looked out the peephole. Dave stood on her welcome mat in his blue jumpsuit with one hand scraping across the screen door.
“Please go away,” she said.
She ran to the back door in a mad panic, but there were three men in blue jumpsuits there running their fingernails across the metal mesh. And men in blue jumpsuits getting closer as they navigated the ducts of her air conditioning. And blue jumpsuits on the windows, scratching at the screens.