by Dominique K. Pierce
skitters under the couch, away from her.
Ana doesn’t make a sound, since no one is around to hear
it. Fear is always
part performance—if she was in the office, she’d let out an appropriate squeak,
maybe jump a little, something to let the others know there was danger. It’s a
neat evolutionary tick, keeping the herd safe. In the office, she would call up
the janitor or ask Dave for help; this is called differentiation, specializing
in tasks or abilities for efficiency. But Ana is alone in her apartment and she
has killed by herself before, when she needs to.
With a folded piece
of paper towel in one hand, Ana uses the other to tilt up the couch. The cockroach,
suddenly exposed, scuttles in
one frantic circle before her hand comes down on it. It crunches, a small spot
of dampness soaking through the paper towel.
Revolting, Ana thinks, her
expression placid. In the office, she would scrunch up her nose to signal her
disgust to others, maybe stick out her tongue.
She carries the dead
cockroach over to the trash—it’s not quite the
size of her palm, but she’s always had large hands for a woman. Her sisters
teased her about it growing up, and the joke caught on with her friends, as
these things do. In public, she still walks with her hands curled into tight
dainty fists or hides them in the pockets of jackets and skirts. It’s difficult
for her to touch people, which is a bad handicap for a group-animal. Just look
at the word. Handicap.
It occurs to her
that cockroaches are also group animals. This doesn’t mean they are social animals; there’s a difference, Anna knows
that well. She holds her breath,
listening for any sound of skittering movement but only hears the distant sound
of cars, the air conditioner, her heartbeat—which becomes louder as the
pressure in her throat builds. Eventually, she is forced to inhale.
Ana returns to her
desk. Her phone call is still on hold. The musical jingle cuts out
occasionally, reverting to static. She sits, crosses her legs, uncrosses them.
The latest research shows that sitting with crossed legs for extended periods
of time is detrimental to the lower back. Half-formed dust-mites cling to the
bottom of her pant leg from moving the couch and she brushes them away. Her
leg jitters momentarily, uncomfortable
and exposed. She crosses them again, feeling like her mother. Her mother had
great posture. Her mother is dead now, but not because of that.
You are a valued customer, we apologize for the inconvenience and
will be with you shortly. The jingle repeats.
Her desk is a lone
island in a sea of boxes, most of which are still taped tightly shut. She can’t remember which one contains her box cutters,
a mistake she will
not make again. A shadow from the corner of one eye distracts her but when she
turns to look, it disappears. Movement flickers under the couch, or maybe an
errand shadow. Ana resolves to get box cutters and insect repellant spray at
the hardware store before dinner.
She’s meeting a man tonight for the ninth time, the same man for the
ninth time. She crosses and uncrosses her legs, practicing her excuses. Oh,
I couldn’t possibly show you the place until I’ve unpacked.
This is called
natural selection. The man doesn’t know it yet, but
he is like the dead cockroach in the trash.
Ana checks her empty
poison trap again. She brings it right up to her nose, looking for signs of life,
or rather, signs of death—a broken off leg
maybe, a smear of roach blood. Her hands are shaky as she places the unmarred
trap back in the gap between the oven and the wall, rattling loudly against the
drywall until she drops it. She is beginning to pay for her caffeine debt.
She’s hardly slept. The cheap window blinds that came with the
apartment let in too much light from the street; not static light, but chaotic
moving city light full of car headlights, changing streetlamps, blinking antennae
and storefronts, which tease her with flashes of skittering shapes, jerking her
out of confused dreams in which the phone is always ringing from somewhere
inside the fresh painted drywall but no matter how closely she follows the
sound, how many holes she cuts open, she can never find the source.
We are experiencing a higher than average wait time. Please stay on
the line to speak with the first available representative.
Ana turns her phone
on speaker, places it on the counter beside the sink and dons the stretchy blue
gloves she bought along with her new box cutter and the half dozen gallon jugs
of battery acid from the local hardware shop, now mostly empty.
She hates seeing
them like this, but can’t afford to look
away as she pours. Frustrated with how weak and ineffective the store-bought
liquid was, Ana had forgone trying to sleep last night in favor of making a
sulfuric acid concentrate, boiling the water out of the battery acid over the
stove, a shirt tied over her nose and mouth for protection. Her small studio
had immediately filled with fumes, burning the vulnerable mucus membrane of her
nose and mouth, continually filling her eyes up with a protective film of tears
but she had refused to open the windows. Maybe the fumes would do what the
poison traps and draino couldn’t, and besides, she didn’t want any of her
neighbors to come knocking.
That was one of her
first lessons. Don’t alert the neighbors.
Your call will be answered in the order received. Thank you for
Her hands spasm,
splattering acid across the bottom of the kitchen sink. It hisses on contact,
mixing with the puddles of soggy food scraps, bubbling up with a pungent sour
odor. The area around the drain begins to deform but she keeps pouring.
During the day,
cockroaches haunt the moist drain pipes of infected apartments, hundreds or
thousands of dark scuttling bodies crawling over each other, fighting,
breeding, eating their own dead, waiting for the temperature to drop, for the
quiet of night. She’s heard them down
there, her ear pressed to the sink, heard them moving around, heard their
They’re in the walls too; she’s followed the sound of them,
crisscrossing the apartment, her ear and an acid-soaked rag pressed close. It
leaves charred streaks, stripping paint and drywall to expose the guts of the
building. Occasional potholes mar the trails where she’d jabbed inward with a
bare elbow or knee, certain of catching one but they were learning, keeping one
step ahead of her.
She’s grateful that she doesn’t have to worry about calling in to work
on top of everything else. The human brain, despite two hundred thousand years
of evolution, is a sequential processing machine; multitasking is a myth. For
optimal results, the human animal must do one thing at a time. In her head, she
apologizes for the scene she made on her way out of the office, it really was
the best for everyone.
We apologize for the—the words are
interrupted by a shrill ringing. The man is calling her again. The unexpected
sound startles her, sending flecks of acid across the linoleum countertops
which chew through the plastic with a sizzle, leaving uneven dime-sized holes.
The burnt smell makes her mouth flood with saliva, her stomach twisting into
Days ago, in a
thrown away all her food in an attempt to starve the roaches out. Ana realizes
now that she will starve before they do, but it’s too late. She can’t leave her
apartment anymore. They would take the chance to flood out, finding new
weak-points to saturate, multiply in. They would run through her sheets with
their thread-thin legs, pushing through the mismatched crevice of her dresser
which won’t fully close anymore to wriggle through the folds of her panties,
slick outer shell rubbing up against the fabric. No, she won’t let them. They
are trapped here, together, until she wins, until she forces them out.
You’ve got to kill them all at once, she knows. They re-populate. She
can’t let even one of them escape to carry away the imprint of the whole
family, the saga, the sin of them, a thread of DNA winding them together like
garrote wire—not one of us ever
quite scrubbed clean.
Not even Ana, in her
apartment, who carries the ghost of her mother around.
The ringing cuts
off, the static-y
hold music mutes.
Her ears ache in the sudden silence. The incoming call must’ve cancelled her
ongoing one and she knows she should feel angry about having to phone in again,
about getting back at the end of the line but it’s difficult to remember what
was so important with the fumes making her vision shudder and swim. Only the
insects feel real, a mass of heaving chitin shell, vestigial wings, flickering
antenna somewhere beneath her.
Ana upends the rest
of the acid, watching in satisfaction as the drain crumples, weakened,
collapsing in on itself.
That should do it.
get her now.
Ana stands naked
before her mirror, her reflection contorting, trying to see everything at once.
She can feel them, their bristle legs prickling against the back of her neck,
through her hair, always just out of reach, always half a breath ahead.
Everywhere she can’t see, she feels them.
She can hear them,
the clack-clack of their pointed feet on exposed floor now that she’s pulled up the carpet. The sound merges with the ringing of the
phone, the occasional pre-recorded message. Thank you for your patience.
She should turn it off, the better to hear them, to track them, but something,
something she can no longer remember stays her hand. The phone call is
important, she needs to get through. Is it the exterminator? No, she was
calling her mother. Wasn’t she?
wavers, re-directed by the sudden crawling sensation between her shoulder
blades. She arches, back straining, arm twisting, claw-like, to rake across her
back. Her nails, blunt and mannish, dig welts into the already raw skin but the
insects evade her groping fingers.
Her stomach heaves,
a horrible sickening lurch.
Ana freezes, looking
at herself in the mirror.
Of course. It all
makes sense. It’s
the only place
left for them to hide; they must’ve come out in the night, when the
sleep-deprivation and hunger made her black out for seconds or days, unknowable
lost stretches of time. She laughs, the laughter making her stomach twist and
shudder with their fear. They should be afraid. Ana unscrews the last bottle of
sulfuric acid. Her reflection’s arms tremble with excitement, her body
glistening with anticipatory sweat.
I’ve got you, she whispers to
them and then drinks.
She drinks as her
teeth dissolve into stubs, her burnt plastic lips dripping down her face, her
laughter becoming wet bubbles as holes open up along her throat—but she drinks. Doesn’t even feel the pain of it, too giddy,
triumphant. Because as it eats through the lining of her stomach, acid tearing
her to shreds, they pour out. Thousands of burnt convulsing corpses. Thousands
delicious; her stomach gurgles with a last shudder of hunger, spilling
twitching bodies out onto the floor around her in spasms, a flood of soft
impacts, like snowfall, a gentle waterfall of the dead.
We apologize for the—“Hello, this is
Jefferson Public Hospital. My name is Linda, thank you for waiting, how may I
Ana reaches for the
phone, a sigh of relief whistling through her lungs. It’s okay now, she tries to say. I’m
okay now. Tiny bubbles of blood and spittle pop and trickle down her
exposed chest. Ana smiles with her ruined mouth. In the mirror, she realizes she
can hardly keep her eyes open.
suddenly how tired she is, lays what’s left of her body
among the piles of the dead, adding one more thrawn shape to the uneven sea,
and presses her skin to the cool bathroom tiles. She can no longer see.
“He-lloooo?” An impatient pause, and then click.
Ana closes her eyes, and lets the threads of
Dominique K. Pierce is a
queer German-American writer, filmmaker, and literary agent based in Seattle,
WA. Her work has been featured in The Malahat Review, The WHL Review, The
Bombay Gin, Stone Canoe, Miracle Monocle, and on KVCM radio. Her screenplay
“Film School Musical” has won nine awards, including the Platinum Remi Award at