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Fiction by David James Keaton
Two-legged creatures we are supposed to love as we love ourselves.
The four-legged, also, can come to seem pretty important.
But six legs are too many from the human standpoint.
–Joseph W. Krutch
Where’d you go?
The drive to the video store will start off bad. Cars honking as I’m white-knuckling the wrong way up the last one-way street rather than driving all the way around the block. And I’ll be messing with the broken phone the whole time, still thinking that if I keep enough pieces together when I open it, maybe it’ll flicker on for just an instant and I can get that number out of it.
I’ll pull in, drop the movies into the slot, then stop to look at a sign in the vestibule. It’ll say, “This Could Happen To You!” and nailed under this warning will be a melted videotape. I’ll scoff like I always do.
, I’ll think to myself. They did that with a blowtorch just to scare people.
And I’ll be walking back to my car with my head down when I see it.
A huge praying mantis, almost three feet long, slowly marching towards the glowing white monolith, a beacon so bright I could see it from my apartment across the river, a blazing lighthouse cutting through a mile of river fog. I’ll stare up at the video store sign and the mad collision of bugs buzzing around it and wonder what kind of creature would want to climb into that hurricane of webs, wings and stingers. I’ll start to get nervous watching the mantis creep across the parking lot, even though I’ll swear later I saw the damn thing look both ways for oncoming traffic.
I’ll get close and wonder if it’s the culprit that fucks with their letters all the time, changing “Destroy All Monsters” to “Rodents Smell A Story” or whatnot (“Some Bug?”).
I’ll get closer and be shocked to see its head spin all the way around to look at me, fully expecting its neck to suddenly snap back forward like a spring. I’ll think about how I haven’t seen one in a decade, then snicker and decide that maybe the female’s habit of eating her suitor’s head while he’s banging away on her shiny green ass doesn’t help improve their numbers.
But God damn
, that thing will be moving like no other bug I’ve ever seen, with weight, with sound.
Or maybe it’ll be the size of it that will be so strange. Maybe it will be the only bug I’ve ever seen with a neck. Maybe I’ll never really have seen one this close. Maybe it’s what happens to me earlier or what’s gonna happen later that night.
I’ll get closer, staring at its feet, watching the way it tests the concrete like a child dipping a toe into the deep end of the pool. Its body will look too heavy for a bug, more like an animal. Even more like those vegetables that win awards. So big I will actually hear it taking steps. So big that I’ll start wondering if it could scream. I’ll watch its torso move independent of its legs, as if four bugs were broken in a child’s careless hands, and then the wrong parts were glued back together. And the thorny claws that give the creature its religious name will lend it more human movements than any insect should have. And that strange head? There will be more intelligence in those eyes than most cats. And it will look
like a cat, even act like a cat. As I watch, it will clean its face like a cat.
I’ll stop at the tips of its antennae waving toward me like feet in the deep end, treading water above my head when I desperately need to surface.
I won’t get any closer.
Then the antennae will move even faster, smelling my breath now or hearing my voice or whatever the hell they do, and I’ll take a step back. It’ll walk on, low to the ground (like our cat when it was scared). It’ll remind me of a hand cut off at the wrist, walking on its fingers, stump angled in the air.
And while I’m trying to remember the Greek word for “hand” and why that suddenly seems so important, I’ll finally realize what it really looks like, what it is that makes these bugs such a shock to see.
It’s half horse, half cat, half bug, half us. An impossible centaur.
the ravioli incident
“Where’d you go?”
“Nowhere,” she lied.
“Just tell me the truth.”
I looked away from her and picked up the antenna to try to bend it back into shape.
I tried to screw it back into the top of the phone, as if that was enough to make it work again, even with a shattered screen and a battery bobbing in a nearby mud puddle. I sighed and held out an open hand and thought about last summer, when the phone we shared died and I decided to delete all the numbers, how she took out the phone that day, saw all her friends and family erased, and whispered almost to herself, “Where’d I go?”
, I asked myself. That’s all I’ll really want to know
“Then just give me my fucking key back,” I said.
“No. Everything I own is in there.”
“I don’t give a shit. If you’re leaving me, then really leave this time.”
“I am, trust me.”
She shook her head and turned away. I tried to think of everything I’d been meaning to say. Then her ride was there, and she was gone, and I was still sitting in the street trying to put my phone back together. I fished the battery out of the puddle while I watched them drive off. I should have known it would be her “best friend” coming to pick her up. That’s the last number she called before she broke my phone, not the number I was worried about. I wondered who else she’d called on my phone that night.
Guess that’s why she broke it, I thought. Unbelievable. Her best friend shows up to get her before the fight really picks up steam. This was the friend that got hit. And even though I secretly thought that if any girl deserved to get hit, it was her, I was still
ready to defend her.
Out loud I said the usual: “Don’t let me ever see him around,” and “I always knew he was a pussy who hit girls.”
But then my girlfriend started saying it wasn’t really a punch. More of a backhand, she mumbled. Almost an after-thought, she explained. Half-hearted, she pleaded. Didn’t even feel it, she shrugged. Who slowed down the videotape to make that ruling? I asked. But she just stomped her foot and told me to stop worrying about it. Said it had nothing at all
to do with me.
I asked her if she saw it. She did.
“It was more like a swat.”
That’s the word she used. That’s the nonsense they both tried to sell me.
“Like when I knocked your cat off my ravioli?”
“Please, I just don’t want to talk about it anymore,” she begged.
She left then like she always did, and I sat in a mud puddle with mosquito eggs and soggy candy wrappers and oil slicks of dog piss, trying to solve a phone in six moves or less.
After ten minutes, my impossible praying mantis will be safely across the parking lot and starting up the pole to that buzzing, blinding white sign. It will tap at the smooth metal pole with a claw, and I’ll start thinking there’s no way it’s gonna get up there without a little grappling hook, some sunglasses, and some appropriate action-movie theme music. Then suddenly it will start to climb, holding onto nothing that I can see. This will make me smile for the first time since she left. I’ll turn to go back to my car and almost run into about five people watching me watching that bug. Head down again, I’ll walk quickly through them all, bumping shoulders with a woman wearing a bright green shirt. It’ll be the same kind of crazy green that means “don't eat me” in the insect world, and it’ll make me blink. No wonder I bumped into her, I’ll think. Her disguise was perfect. All she needs are the big fake eye spots on her back, like caterpillars have to fool the birds into thinking they’re snakes. When we clap shoulders like boys refusing to clap hands after the baseball game, she’ll squawk like an animal and drop her copy of Godzilla 1985
to the concrete in front of her feet, then almost trip over it. One of her kids will quickly retrieve it while I keep moving, waiting for her to make another unexpected noise. Once inside my car, I’ll wait to start then engine when I hear someone finally spot the bug.
One of her boys will see it first.
It’s not an “ug,”
I’ll fight the urge to tell him. It’s a bug, stupid
She’ll squawk, and he’ll grunt, and I’ll wonder if this family uses any words to communicate.
Then I’ll start thinking harder. What if, because I drew this crowd, one of them ends up killing it? How long will they watch it climb before someone takes off a shoe? Is it too cold outside for someone to take off a shoe? How many shoes would it take?
And why doesn’t anyone think a three-foot mantis is unusual?
I’ll stop at the parking lot exit and idle, watching even more people gather around the base of that sign. Look at these clowns, I’ll scoff. I never should have stopped to look. I’m like motherfucking Tom Sawyer white-washing that fence. People driving by are gonna think that “Used Movies For $9.95!” is the best deal ever.
Finally, everyone will walk away, except for the green woman and her two little boys. I’ll start to ease out into traffic, heart just beginning to slow, and that’s when I’ll see the blur of motion in my rearview mirror. Of course it will be the woman in green, swinging at the pole with her videotape. My heart will downshift again, and I’ll be so angry that I’ll punch the dashboard hard enough to crack something deep in the car, possibly my hand.
You fucking bitch
, I’ll hiss. Did you just kill it? Why the hell would you kill it? Could you kill it? Was it climbing too slow for you?
Wait, maybe she missed, I’ll tell myself. I’ll be back at the bridge near my apartment before I want to be, eager to turn around and see for sure, but the memory of all those fucking one-way streets will be in my way. In the corner of my eye, I’ll think I see a cop, but then he’ll be gone. To get back, I’d have to do a U-turn, cross the bridge, do two more U-turns, then circle the block. I’ll do it.
I’ll turn and turn and turn and think the only thing that separates rats from cats is the fact that cats actually look into your eyes. They seem to know what eyes are for, just like that bug. Then I’ll contemplate chewing on my steering wheel and asking anyone in earshot why the hell every road in this town seems to anticipate the direction I need to go and place an arrow, red light, or dead-end in my way.
That’s when the cop will pop back out of the glow of the fog to nail me for those illegal turns. His flashers will fill my car with color and confusion. He’ll walk up and shine a flashlight in my eyes and ask what I’m doing, and through the glare I’ll see that he’s really a she. I’ll tell her I’m taking back some videotapes and I need to get there before midnight or they’ll be late again. For a second, she’ll seem like she’s gonna let me go. Then she’ll say, “Show me the movies,” and, of course, I can’t. She’ll stand there shaking her head and chewing on her upper lip as she writes the ticket, while I babble on about one-way streets and bugs and bright green shirts and videos as weapons, not realizing what it must sound like out loud. She’ll interrupt me by ripping the ticket from the book less than three inches from my face.
“Right there’s the court date if you want to dispute anything.”
And then she’ll vanish into the fog. I’ll laugh and imagine myself explaining everything to a judge.
Now I definitely got to go back
, I’ll think as I read the numbers on the ticket. Now that bug’s life is worth a hundred and sixty bucks
When I’m finally back at the video store and running towards that screaming white pillar, I’ll discover the praying mantis made it about five feet up the pole. The top half of the bug, the human half, will still be intact but hanging onto nothing, head still staring at the last thing it saw, antenna still pulsing, a thorny, hooked claw still twitching in the night air like a fresh-picked rose stem twirling between a lover’s fingertips. The bottom half, the animal half, the heavy-as-a-vegetable half, will be detonated below this, a green comet streak and gallons of gore and legs trailing down and around the pole and out of sight. I’ll grind my teeth so hard I’ll worry they’ll explode.
You dumb cunt
, I’ll wanna whisper. It would make sense to no one but me, but I’d punch you square in the face right now. How did you do that? Did you do that with a movie? It was too big. If I could, I’d grab your eyes and mouth like a bowling ball and drag you back to the scene of your crime. If I did that kind of thing, I mean. Which I don’t
But something should be done, I’ll decide. Something should be said. If I had to, how could I find her? I should never have left the parking lot in the first place.
Then I’ll remember. She rented Godzilla 1985
. I’ll drive straight to a 24-hour store and scrounge through the bins for a copy.
Turns out it should be called Godzilla $19.95
, because that’s how much the piece of shit costs. Now we’re up to one hundred eighty bucks and climbing, climbing.
The next day, I’ll park my car in direct sunlight, roll up my windows, and place my shiny, brand-new movie on my dusty, cracked dashboard. So this is how a dog feels, I’ll think as sweat rolls down my nose. I’ll stare at the videotape, wondering if it will really melt.
I’ll be shocked to discover that the videotape does
melt. It will take almost eight hours, and when asked about it later, I’ll swear I never blinked the entire time. When someone asks why, I’ll say I had to so that no one could sneak in a blowtorch. At least eight hours, and it will actually melt as I watch. Could have been the heat stroke, but I’ll swear I saw it happen.
I could have watched a traffic signal flashing like a strobe light, or a tree straining for the sun, or a bowl of fruit shrinking into mold while it’s being painted, or a swing-set being constructed around a child by its father, or a bird’s nest being built from plastic bags and gas station receipts, or a flower closing around a dying, broken ant, or her dead cat curling into a rising boil of maggots under my bed, or a drive-in screen slumping toward the rotating army of cars on the ground during a thousand drive-in movies.
For hours after the controversy when I smacked her cat on the nose with a fly swatter when it was being all sneaky and trying to lick my goddamn ravioli, I desperately tried to explain the physics of a fly swatter and why it actually wasn’t my fault that it hit her cat so hard. I looked it up online. I went to the library. I pulled out a tape measure and a bathroom scale. I reenacted the crime with a stuffed animal. I called the cat as a witness. I drew her a diagram in the tomato sauce. She wasn’t buying it.
She would wave that swatter with the price tag still on it and scream that I could never tell her one single thing that I loved about her. And I would swear that I had a list somewhere if she’d just give me a fucking minute to think.
“I wished you’d make eye contact more,” I joked half-heartedly. Then she was glaring at me and I changed my mind.
“Okay. Seriously. The top of your head always smells good,” I offered.
“That’s it?” She waited for more.
I just stood there. At that moment she hated me, and I deserved it.
That night, I sat in the dark alone and stared out the window, watching for any headlights to hit the trees at the end of our street.
Eight hours in a car. Doesn’t sound too crazy? Try it without driving. Now add some direct sunlight. I’ll check the rearview mirror, and even though my eye didn’t suddenly go black, I will understand that I’m not coming out of the car the same way I went in.
For a second, I’ll be upset that I wasted my day. I’ll think about how I could have done anything with those eight hours, and instead spent all that time watching the sunlight twist a videotape into a lump over the course of a typical workday. I’ll imagine the sign in the vestibule changing to “It Happened To Me!” and under it will be a picture of yours truly, ten pounds lighter, covered in sweat, forcing a grin, like a wrestler who just made weight but knows he’s too tired to fight because of it. I’ll remember my driving instructor telling me that brain cells die at 107 degrees Fahrenheit, and that the average dog’s body temperature is dangerously close to that even when he’s not in a car. And I’ll have absolutely no idea how hot it got that day and how many multiplication tables, piano lessons, nursery rhymes, squirrel-chasing memories, obedience classes, or “fetch” commands were forever lost to the heat. But when I think about it all later, I’ll start to wonder if I just ended up squeezing that movie in my fists or smashing it into the dashboard to twist it like that. I mean, who the hell would sit in a car for eight hours to watch a videotape melt?
Then I’ll defiantly walk into that video store and tell the 12-year-old manager that my girlfriend left this movie in my car, and could I pay for it, please? Some number will still be visible on a twisted sticker among the melted ruins of the movie, and he’ll sigh and look it up on the computer.
“Nineteen ninety-five...plus tax,” he’ll say.
“Of course it is,” I’ll laugh.
Actually, it’s over two hundred bucks, I’ll almost tell him. And climbing.
Instead, I’ll tell him I need a receipt. He’ll sigh again and print one out, ripping it off the machine and flinging it my way just like the cop did with the ticket. I’ll study this slip of paper, and just like I prayed (something I never did before and haven’t done since) there will be the glorious rental history of the masterpiece Godzilla $19.9
5 and a long, beautiful list of names and numbers, naughty and nice. I’ll match her name up with the night she left me. But suddenly I’ll see another name I’m looking for on the bottom left-hand corner of the page. That’s her name? Weird, I’ll shrug. Could have sworn I knew her. Then I’ll squint until it’s gone.
I’ll find an address.
They shouldn’t give this out to just anyone
, I’ll think to myself.
I will be distracted by the rustling of something above my head. I will be relieved to see that it is a robin. Then I’ll see something else.
At first, I’ll think the robin is pulling a balloon behind it. Then the red mass will overtake the bird easily and drive it tumbling into the grass near the dumpster. I’ll walk close and see that it is a ladybug about the size of a large pizza. A pizza with black olives and a mouth I will hear clicking from ten feet away.
The robin will flutter helplessly under its weight, while the ladybug moves towards the fluffy apple of its chest, pinning it down easily with its front legs. The black clockwork of its mandibles will begin to knead and drum the feathers, brushing them aside easily. Then its jaws will sink into the bird’s body with alarming ease, like a child’s nervous hand playing in oatmeal.
I once read that scientists prefer the name “ladybird” since they’re not true bugs at all. At the time I thought, “Well, they sure the fuck aren’t birds.”
But now I will be convinced they were onto something after all.
Seeing a second insect of impossible size, I will realize what happened.
I was with her for too long. And we were wasting time. And wasting time is more serious than you think. If you do this, you won’t notice things changing. Until it’s over. Then everything might be different, including the wildlife.
Have you ever run into a friend after a year or so and blurted, “Holy shit, your beard is huge!” That same beard goes unnoticed by people that see him every day, even if it grew right over their knees while they were watching TV and spiders started to nest.
I will hear the sound of a scratching and clicking in the nearby dumpster, and I will wonder how long the world has been dealing with insects the size of our heads.
My first clue should have been how I was able to kill a cat with a fucking flyswatter. Since when was it necessary to make them the size of tennis rackets? Or out of metal?
woulda shoulda coulda
She might come to the door and stare at me. My eyes could have trouble focusing on her face through the metal screen, and I probably won’t be able to tell her why I’m there, even though I’ll have a whole speech ready. I could ask her if she thought those bugs could sting. I could ask her if that’s why she thought she had to kill it. I could explain that it couldn’t have hurt her, that they actually devour much more harmful insects, things that can sting you, that she didn’t need to kill it just ‘cause it was moving slow enough for her to catch, that it’s not okay to kill something just ‘cause it can’t make any noise, that she’s teaching her two boys not to respect life, that they’ll end up abusing women when they’re older if she continues to step on every creature slower than her.
And I could ask her if she noticed that it was as big as a child.
I might say none of this, even though I should. I could just ask her one question instead. And she might be as confused as I was when my girlfriend said almost those exact same words to an empty phone.
Where’d you go?
She probably won’t answer, even though she should. Chances are, she won’t come out or let me inside. She would be standing on the other side of her screen door, thinking about the question instead of the answer. And I would be looking at her through that screen door, thinking about the ravioli incident with the cat and the physics of a fly swatter. I might remember reading something out loud to my girlfriend about how a solid object like a hand can always be sensed and easily avoided by an insect. How it’s that screen on the end of a plastic stick that does all the apparent magic. How it’s that screen that makes it possible for the fly not to see it coming.
And even though I’ve never hit a girl in my life, that’s when the fist from my bad hand would shoot out and plow through her screen door, my knuckles disappearing halfway into her mouth, the heat of her breath that fogs my fingernails loaded with the words and rationalizations she won’t get the chance to use.
Behind me, ants would begin crawling up the drain pipes to avoid the rain, and their weight would strip the gutters from the roof like the fat lips of icing off the edges of a birthday cake.
This is not something that I do, I could think to myself, would think to myself, should think to myself. Never before and never again. And it won’t be a swat, not a slap or that backhand that you always see in the movies. It would be a full-tilt right-cross to the teeth that will send her spinning around on one foot, her hands flailing and ripping down the hole in the screen door to keep herself standing. I would turn the knob and push her back to pry the door open with my foot. She’ll more than likely struggle hard to keep me outside, and I could try stepping through the hole she’ll tear in the door and start wiggling my way in. I think she would run away. And once I’m inside the house, it would be dark and smell like warm laundry and candles. I would turn and see those two boys of hers finally coming around the corner, eyes wide in shock at the sight of me squeezing through the hole, wincing like a bloody barnyard animal being born.
For some reason, I’m pretty sure they would come running straight at me. And I would get them both into headlocks and pick them up off the ground easier than I would think was possible. The kids would start choking, and the woman would start screaming and fumbling with the phone while her mouth bleeds down her hand, streaming through the black curls of cord tangled around her arm.
The boys would start biting me, but luckily they’ll be too young to have stingers. I should feel their tiny fists on my forearms, their sticky, candy-covered fingers pinching my skin, the dirt under their nails autographing my skin, but I won’t. I would lean down and smell their thick hair steaming with the memories of how hard they played that day. And I would know that if I was an insect, if half of my body was just a hand I should easily balance upon, if I really did these kinds of things, before or since, I could eat their fucking heads they smell so good.
David James Keaton's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Pure Slush
, Dark Sky
, Burnt Bridge
, and The Safety Pin Review
, among others. He is also the Editor-In-Chief of Flywheel Magazine
. He once had a pet praying mantis named Mr. Orange, although the name "Mrs. Green" would have made a lot more sense. Everyone can be found at davidjameskeaton.com
Volume 1, Issue 7
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