Killing the Bug by Timothy James Brearton
I was laying out on the floating dock, the sun shining and the breeze blowing, when the bug bit me on the ball of my foot.
I’d been remembering the last group of essays that I had published – an eclectic assortment on angels, the automobile culture, zombie films, and the end of the world as we knew it. It was July 3rd, the day before Independence Day. It was almost twenty-five years after Obama had first taken office. I could never have predicted that bug was going to bite me or what it was going to do to me, any more than I could have predicted what the world was going to look like twenty-four and a half years after our first black President.
After the bug bit me, I sat up from the way I’d been laying there, just taking in the perfect afternoon and trying to relax. I watched as the insect buzzed back and forth, alighting on me again. It made me think of those pests (if you could call them that, which might be laughable) getting into what was left of my garden. I swung at it in the air. I waited until it landed on my foot again. A deer fly, I thought. Or a horse fly. I could never really tell the difference between the two. It had marvelous markings. Amber colored patterns, symmetrical on its wings. I let it stay there between my big toe and second toe, and then I swatted it. I killed it. I flicked its small carcass off the dock raft and looked out over the water.
Twenty-five years before, and the lake would have been full of people and boats. Boats bouncing around in the chop, pulling lazy tubes with more people jouncing along, flesh and rubber rippling. Jet skis would have been wasping about, making frothy white circles. This day there was no one. I had the lake almost completely to myself. Almost.
I missed my wife. I missed her so much, and I missed my sons. I couldn’t imagine a life without them – even allowing my thoughts in that direction threatened to drag me off into a dark abyss, to whirl me into an eddy of roiling black, boiling waters. I chose instead to stay fixed on the hope that I would be reunited with them soon enough. That no matter what it took, I would be with them once more. And I knew it was possible, too – it wasn’t just a dream. People had done it before me; people would do it again. We didn’t need GPS or special phones, MDTs or artificial intelligence. We needed to once again put our trust in the spirit of life, in nature, in what I’d come to know as God. We needed to trust ourselves, to go with what we had left of our instincts. That thing which had been so neglected, our intuition, would once again be more instrumental to us than any sort of global positioning or mobile data. We had been so sophisticated, and the birth of true AI, conflating with EyeReal, these things marked the pinnacle of technology, while all else was in spiraling decline. We just didn’t want to see it.
Oh, you can remember how it was talked about, you can remember the green movement – you can even remember your urban homestead neighbor gardening on his roof, your uncle accepting the contract for a wind turbine on his farm in the North Country, and you yourself likely had books on sustainable living and how to Turn Green Into Gold. But, what you also know is that we were doomed. Seed sterility, the end of oil, and the coastal floods weren’t even the real kick in the collective guts. But I don’t have to remind you what the worst was, do I? It’s best that we just leave that for now. It will keep, I’m sure you can agree. We didn’t want to upset the apple cart then, and I suppose we can sit and make peace together, for a time, in the shadow of the What Happened. Can’t we? Just for a moment, we can pretend, like I was pretending, that I would see my wife and sons again soon. Like I was seeing phantom boats charting the waves, towing well-fed white-skinned people to and fro, tugging them through the chop, engines burbling, voices high and echoing off the distant cliffs.
I watched those silent cliffs now and I thought I felt the itching at my foot was spreading. It seemed to be everywhere. The locus of the bite was non-existent – my foot itched from the tips of the toes to the arch, and I sat there, scratching, thinking about my wife’s brown eyes, and my two sons, standing side by side and making their muscles, arms out at their sides, crooked at the elbows, both of them grinning through their lips. The last picture, I think, the last one I ever printed out, anyway. What happened to all those other pictures? Thousands of them, at least. Probably like yours. Probably like most everyone’s – all our videos and music and memories. The digital photo albums. As if the internet cloud was somehow a real space. And, well, maybe it was. Maybe there was some physicality to it that I never understood, even after What Happened. Servers were physical. Machines did contain all of the data. But that’s venturing into that territory I said I’d spare us from.
It seems impossible, doesn’t it? It’s everywhere. You just have to drift for a while, and you start getting caught by the thrall of that whirlpool there in the lake, spinning things round in its dark cyclone, heating it all up, emulsifying and pulverizing. You could lose hope in a place like that. You would get thrashed inside of it – broken up in a worm hole to be reconstituted somewhere else. I remember how we used to joke about my Aunt Penny’s purse like that. It was this huge purse and we used to say how it was like a black hole. Things that got lost in there would pop up in some other universe, and shine a different color, or be turned inside out. They would function, though, in that other universe, because that would be one of the laws of that far place – it would have an inside-out law, or a backwards law. People would speak in reverse, and it would be normal. These were the things we joked about when I was a kid, in that short time before we had no worries. Before the tanks rolled through town. Before the internet TVs winked off, all at once, just that little paff of light, and then…gone.
See, I can’t stay out of that draw into the drink. I have to swim away. Come, swim away with me now…
I’ll say that I lay there, itching my foot, and I decided to get off the dock. To jump into the lake and swim the twenty yards back to shore. I’ll tell you that I stood there for a moment, my toes hanging over the edge of the old weatherbeaten wood, looking down into the bright, sky-reflected water. I turned, too, and took a look at those distant cliffs. They were the color of red clay from here, tinged with orange. I looked and then when I turned back I dove into the water, my mind on my wife, on my sons. How could it not have been? All I could see was their faces. Even as I cut through the water, even as I held my breath as long as I could, hoping to make the shore without coming up for air, wondering if I even should come up for air. I stroked through that darkness until my lungs hurt – I was never any pro swimmer. I’d gotten better – you had to, if you wanted to ford some of the rivers in the region where the bridges had given out – but I still had some shape left to get into. So I swam, and I saw their faces, and I heard their voices, I heard my wife calling my name – Jody – and then I broke the surface.
– 2 –
The next morning, dawn came early. I awoke to birds tweeting and squirrels nattering. I swung my legs off of the hammock and stepped down. Instantly I was aware – my foot was red and swollen to twice the size.
As I stretched down to reach it and probed gingerly around with my fingers, I realized something else – I couldn’t remember anything of the night before. When had I climbed into the hammock? I investigated the back of my mind for the last thing I could recall – jumping off the dock and swimming to shore.
I inventoried my foot, pressing gently here and there. Fluid surrounded my toes, arch, heel, and ankle. The red was creeping up towards the calf of my leg, it seemed. My body felt cold, and I discovered I was shivering. As if I had early stage hypothermia, I felt cold and shaky. I stood slowly, and watched a swarm of fireflies dance around my field of vision. For a moment, I was sure I was going to pass out. Somehow I managed to stay conscious. I gradually brought my hands up and felt my face, neck, and forehead.
I was hot, running a fever no doubt. Whatever had bit me had infected me with something. Years before, antibiotics would have been the answer. I knew there was some Ibuprofen in the house – an old case of bottles, dating back at least a dozen years. My foot started to throb as I stood there, and so I slowly sat down, sliding my legs out in front of me. There I sat, like a pouting child. My foot pulsed with each beat of my heart. My head swam in a hot bath. I was going to have to crawl inside on my knees, if I could.
We called it The Compound. Four acres of lakeside woods just outside the Adirondacks in northern New York. I was 39 when we finished it – though a project like ours was never really “finished.” Even after they were gone, I kept tinkering, though mostly with the garden. There was a main house, two bunk houses, a green house, a garden, a workshop, and a mobile home. The bunk houses had been built mostly out of larch, a type of pine wood that gets real knotty and has shaky grain. The grain will burst right out of a cut in the wood, and usually the wood isn’t used for anything other than flower boxes fence posts, maybe some small furniture. When I’d learned that the old Tug Hill plantation house had been built out of larch, though, I decided to build the bunk houses that way. The shaky wood had come apart in several places, and both small buildings had a character that I loved – they bulged and twisted to the keen eye. The door frames and window casings were built out of white pine, and they stayed square as the house twisted and turned, like a slow acid trip over the years. 39 years old when the garden was finished and fenced in at last, 39 when we had a working septic system. That was three years ago.
I moved slowly off of the deck into the main house. The second floor contained the bedroom I’d shared with my wife until those three years before. The morning sun dappled the waves in a trail, just as it had every morning the clouds were sparse. And after all the errant weather of the early part of the century, we’d had some pristine days. The waves lapped against the barrels beneath the docks, making tympanic, kettle drum sounds. For some reason it made me think of the street drummers I’d grown up near, and I briefly heard a trumpeting flurry of steel calypso in my head.
I struggled to stay conscious. I tried to remember my son – our youngest, Gabe – making the bed for us in the morning when he was six. Unprompted, for a period of about two weeks the last summer we were all together, Gabe would walk round and round the bed, tucking corners and pulling the top sheet and bedspread this way and that, trying to get it symmetrical, trying to get it just right. I’d watched him one morning from the outside deck, where I was coming in from now – the same sliding door I was pushing open (it had gotten rusty along the track, and the glass was opaque from half a year going unwashed) – and saw how he worked at it, making the bed, to step back satisfied despite those ridges that remained, the rumpled hills he’d been unable to smooth out. Or just didn’t see.
I focused on that and pulled myself in through the door. There was a painful moment when – though I’d tried to avoid it – my knee came down and crunched on the bottom track of the sliding door. Once inside, though, I swung my legs away and slid the door shut again, cutting off the sound of those drums, drums keeping the rhythm of my throbbing, pulsing foot, and I lay there on my back.
The canoes, I thought. They left in the canoes.
Gabe was born in the middle of a thunderstorm. By the time he was two, he was a force of nature. The last day I saw him, paddling away down the lake, he was going on nine years old. He’d looked to me like a young man, and nothing like a boy.
We tried to keep a childhood for them, my wife and me. We tried to keep play. But with so many people at the Compound in those first few years – from the time I was twenty-six until I was in my mid-thirties, I guess – there had been always so much to do. My wife mostly kept the garden. After Arlen and Gabe, the garden was like her third child. We’d finally finished that fence after battling the critters for years, from woodchucks and moles to something worse, and I think she’d found some sense of security at last.
Those other critters though, they were getting in now. I was glad my sweet wife didn’t know.
It was a good thing, finding security, even if it was in small measure. After what had happened to the world we’d grown up knowing…well, I don’t have to tell you, do I? Or, I promised I would hold off. But what’s the point of that? Telling somebody not to think about something is ridiculous. They end up thinking about it and feeling guilty for thinking about it. So let’s just air out our dirty laundry as I finish this, shall we? Let’s just be friends, and have no secrets among us.
I saw the animal coming toward me, its head low and shoulders arched. Its gums were rolled back, revealing its sharp little teeth. It was a fox. A red fox, but with black markings on it, I saw, markings that looked like soot. Probably the fox had gotten into some of the tires that were used for burning as fuel oil. A tire contained about five or six gallons of oil. People who’d been trying to keep up the status quo had taken up the practice of burning tires for heat and fuel. The fox population had exploded over the past couple decades, for reasons unknown to me (I was a school teacher in my former life, not a wildlife biologist) but I thought it had something to do with a displaced rodent population. So the foxes had flourished and everywhere people had razed the land to find things to burn and create energy, like tires. They streamed down from Tug Hill where the old man who claimed to have invented an energy fusion device somehow working off a wood-fired boiler gave up when it failed to work and he took his life. That plantation house had burned for a day and two nights, pluming a column of black smoke that smelled of singed vermin.
Food had become scarce for the animals. The fox was hungry. Rabies was a problem, too – there had been no Veterinarians I knew of for at least ten years. I saw the frothy saliva at the corners of its long, blacktar lips. Its eyes were glassy and cold. Its hind legs were stiff, its hips high; the front legs were bent so that it crouched forward as it walked, ready to strike.
Suddenly, its head snapped to the side, as if it had caught the scent of something.
The voice startled me and I actually cried out. My first utterance made no sense – it was just a high, cracked yell. The fox darted away, out the back door from whence it came.
I worked to get my voice under control. I felt hot all over – I seemed to have tiny insects with burning feet crawling all over my skin in swirling swarms. My infected foot no longer itched, or merely throbbed. It ached to the bone, the way falling from a roof might ache, I thought. The bones in my ankle and foot threatened to splinter apart. Something drilled at the marrow from within, and jackhammered the joints.
“In here!” I croaked. Had I imagined the voice? No – something had startled the fox. They were still afraid of people – they had that much instinct left despite their sudden local dominance, their rabies brains, cooked like scrambled eggs on a griddle.
A moment later, I saw someone standing in the sliding door port I had just dragged myself through.
I blinked, taking in the shape of the figure there. Had someone slipped me an EyeReal contact lens when I was passed out? Was this just virtual reality?
All those things were gone, though, of course. We can admit it to one another now, can’t we? We can just come out and acknowledge the elephant in the room. We’d come to rely on technology not just to provide entertainment, or even for our work lives, but for everything. Everything electronic. From utilities paid online to trips to the doctor done over the internet, we’d at last become completely technology dependent. How could we not? It was beautiful, these things. Smart matter we were learning to shape with EyeReal – you look at a lump of the stuff through your lenses and think chair, and with a few waves of your hand in the air that corresponded to the smart matter programming, you built a chair in two seconds. Doctors delivering babies from afar? What did people think would happen? That the President of the United States could somehow remain safe below Cheyenne Mountain? With its four-foot-thick steel blast doors, what was safe in a world completely connected by fiber cable and wireless signal? What security was there with people chip-implanted?
The air. As that inimical figure had rose in the Middle East, long after Osama, long after Mohammed Gamesh, he had risen in control of the air. The air. The very air. A nuclear bomb? No. Now, you know it, so just say it with me. That man, with his perfect skin and those uncanny green eyes (like a picture I remember seeing from National Geographic when I was a kid – the issue was even an antique then – though it was a woman, yes) that man had wielded a neutrino bomb. Here we’d worried about cosmic radiation in space – tiny particles punching holes in the hull of spacecraft – and all the while we’d been becoming more vulnerable to it right here.
Well, I hadn’t taken the mark of the beast, so to speak. No chip for me, thanks. And, if you’re reading this, neither have you. So, I want you to know how proud I am of you for that. And to show you that there’s still hope, I’ll tell you what’s next:
The figure in that doorway called my name.
I heard some commotion out on the deck, and I saw the figure turn to look. It was a woman, and she was watching something. A second later, I heard a shot, as if from a rifle. I imagined that bullet slapping a groove in the air. I pictured it punching into the side of that rabid fox.
And then the woman turned back to me, and a second later, a young man came through the door behind her, stepping over the bottom track of the sliding door casing, holding the rifle in one hand, stepping past the woman.
“Pop? Pop, you all right? Jesus, mom. Look at his foot. Look at his leg!”
“Arlen. Language.” I saw the woman glance sideways and stern at the boy. Had he just called me Pop? No one had called me Pop for a long time. Was I hallucinating? If not EyeReal, was this a delusion? Was I dying?
The woman got down beside me on one knee. Her face was oval, luminous, glowing like the Virgin Mary above me. “Honey,” she said. I tried to speak, but all that came out was air. I had used up the last little bit of vocal chords, apparently, when I’d cried out before.
“Shhh,” she said.
I looked at the young man, making my eyes wide, trying to communicate with her.
“I know,” she said. “He’s gotten so big.”
I let it sink in. I tried to believe it, tried to be convinced that the woman speaking to me was my wife. She gazed down at me, her brown hair hanging around her cheekbones. If she was my wife, and the tall young man was my son, Arlen… I blinked at her, darting my eyes around, trying to convey something. Where’s his brother? Where’s Gabe?
She just looked at me, her eyes moving all over my face, my body. She either didn’t know what I was trying to ask, or didn’t want to answer.
At last she looked down at my foot. She repositioned her body and reached out and began to softly touch and examine it. It seemed like her face was out of my view for a long time. Too long. Just when I thought I couldn’t take it any longer, she came back.
She smiled. She had some crow’s feet around her eyes, I saw. She was beautiful. Her eyes were the same brown eyes I’d looked into the day we’d met. In those days I’d been writing essays. Essays on angels, on marriage, on alternative fuel, you name it. I had some advertising and a website with consistent and climbing hits. She was a physical therapist specializing in sports medicine. Arlen had been born less than two years after we’d met. And then the world had died.
He stood looking down at me.
“Hi Pop,” he said.
I managed, only whispering, “Hi.”
The two of them, looking down at me. Tires burning somewhere as people struggled to keep alive the dead dream. Insects that had somehow mutated into – what, I didn’t know. Enough to take a man down. Would I survive? I didn’t know that either. I knew about the larch-built home on Tug Hill, and the man who’d killed himself and his family there, when he just couldn’t take it anymore. Some people, they couldn’t survive the transition. But you, you’re reading this, so, my praises to you.
Those foxes, skulking through the overgrowth. Cracked macadam, wild with weeds and ravens. The silence over everything, the white noise of the cicadas, and the bent and blowing stalks of grass gone to seed, everywhere; all over. No phones, no internet TV, no EyeReal, no artificial intelligence. The succession of mankind. Just the wind flowing through the maples and spruce and larch.
My wife and son, looking down at me.
I couldn’t have been happier.
This is a part of our Summer 2013 theme: Love
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Fantasy in C Major Op.15 D.760 ‘Wanderer’ – II. Adagio by Franz Schubert
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