A week after the man broke up with his girlfriend – after he had mailed her son a model airplane, but before he could change his phone number – he started to see the bugs. He saw them for the first time one evening on his way home from work. He noticed a few on his forearms, then a few more on his shoes. He shook them off. A few days later, when he was taking his dog for a walk, he saw some more on the porch. They resembled mini cockroaches and crawled in an orderly line up the porch’s wooden steps from the garden beyond. The man sprayed his porch with insecticide and didn’t give them another thought.
The following week, there were more. This time, some of them flew. He sprayed more insecticide, but the reprieve was temporary. One day soon after, they grouped and flew behind him at a respectful distance when he left for work. That was when he decided to document their arrival. He knew that at least some of the bugs were brought to him by people who had no clue of their roles as carriers. They would walk into his office, not thinking to shake off the insects from their shirtsleeves or trouser legs. The man would smile to himself at their ignorance. These people were being used by the bugs, but didn’t know of it.
“What are you looking at?” someone would ask.
He would shrug and remain silent.
The boy called him one night. “So are you never coming back then? You’re really gone forever and ever? Want to come and see me play with the plane? I really like the throttle,” he spoke in his habitual non-sequiturs. The man had encountered few nine year-olds with the boy’s vocabulary. He didn’t want a conversation with him, on this day of all days.
“Yes, I really am gone,” he answered. He could hear a crackle and a buzz outside his window. He thought about the boy, and how such a phone call from him could be possible. He was a child forgotten in the largeness of his mother. She was a woman who needed supreme control of everything. She planned every aspect of the boy’s life, and she ran his days to a near military schedule. Right now, the boy should have been in bed, reading ‘Treasure Island’.
“Why? You said we were friends. We should stay friends. My mom says you’re messed up but she used the f-word for mess but I don’t mind if you are messed up. I don’t like her new boyfriend. He drives an SVU. My teacher says those people should be arrested.”
“It’s an SUV. And your teacher’s wrong. Listen,” the man paused to clear his voice. “I can’t see you anymore. Your mother won’t like it. Can you understand that?” He glanced at the window and started. A few bugs had managed to get through a small crack near the window. He jumped to grab a newspaper and swatted them as hard as he could. He then stuffed the paper in the crack. It took him a few minutes to realize that the boy had hung up the phone.
The next day, the bugs got close enough to lay eggs on his forearm; and he started scratching. He spent an entire day scratching bugs on his skin. He scratched until his bone started to show. Then he stopped. Seeing the white of his bone under the mess of flesh and blood scared him. He went to the doctor who told him there were no bugs on his body. She said there was nothing wrong with him, but he had to stop the drugs. If he didn’t stop taking illicit substances, the doctor said, the scratching would only get worse. The man protested. He had taken nothing stronger than antibiotics over the past seven years. She shook her head as if she knew he was lying, then recommended he see a psychiatrist or check himself into a rehabilitation facility. He ignored her.
Over the next few weeks, he cleaned his house and kept to himself. He took all of the vacation days allotted to him at work, and showered five times a day. He stocked up on groceries and other necessities. He filled his cabinets with odorless skin lotion and his refrigerator with plenty of liquids. He had a theory that dehydration was causing the scratching. But that theory couldn’t explain the bugs he saw and felt with every breath he took.
The dog presented a problem. Oddly enough, it seemed to be the only thing in his house that wasn’t infested with bugs. But he couldn’t keep it locked in the house with him. And he didn’t want to hire a walker. Strangers, especially now, weren’t welcome anywhere near his house. So he kept the dog in his backyard during the day and forced himself to walk it twice a day. He’d layer his clothes heavily before going out, and wear a scarf around his mouth and nose. He’d hold the dog’s leash with one gloved hand, and walk as fast as he could. Sometimes he’d run. He didn’t know why but he found that the bugs had less access to him when he moved fast. On his second day of walking the dog, he heard his neighbor’s children call him summer ninja. Aside from taking his dog out daily, the man stayed inside the house with all the windows and doors shut.
The first few days were stellar. The bug population around his house decreased. And he enjoyed those days as he had never enjoyed a holiday before. He woke up early every morning, made big breakfasts for himself, jogged with the dog, and spent the rest of the day at home, reading. At first he limited his reading to skin-crawling bugs and bug related activities. He later branched out to other subjects.
On the fifth day of his vacation, when he was reading about monkeys and how they treated removing fleas from each other as a social activity, the doorbell rang. He opened the door with the safety chain on. The boy stood outside with the model airplane in one hand. He stood in that odd, stiff manner he always stood in, in his clothes. All of the boy’s clothes were grown in nature. His mother did not like him to wear anything synthetic.
“I brought you the plane! See? Can I come in to show you how to fly it? Where’s your dog? Can I play with her too?” he raised his left hand, which held the airplane, and extended the right one simultaneously.
The man shook his head. “You can’t be here. I’m sick. I’m very, very sick. I have a bug infestation. You should go home,” his voice cracked and he realized how thirsty he was. He had not had anything to drink in hours. Prolonged dehydration was an invitation to the bugs.
“Can I at least see your dog? You promised I could visit her,” the boy’s eyes were big and shiny as new pennies.
“You can’t be here,” he repeated the statement with a firmness he didn’t feel. “I mean it. You have to leave before you catch what I have. I can’t see you anymore.” He was breathing harshly. It took effort to speak to this child he had never thought to see again.
The minute the boy left, the man shut the door behind him, and placed his head on the back of the door. He leaped back immediately. The door was crawling with the infernal things. Not just the small, cockroach-type bugs he was used to. These were all kinds of new bugs he hadn’t seen before. Some of them were eggplant purple, and others were in un-nameable colors. They flew gracefully like condors, rainbowing his ceiling and the space around his head. A few had already started crawling on his forehead. He slapped his forehead with his palm several times. He ran into his bathroom and grabbed a towel. He didn’t think about the boy now. Only his own self, and his vital, demanding, terrible, urgent needs. Everything else would have to wait. He wet the towel in warm water and rubbed his face raw. His face turned red and his eyes stung. He felt better.
He went into his closet to search for his ceramic clogs. He’d bought them during a long ago trip, and they’d been pushed all the way to the back. When he found them, a bright red pair with pictures of happy children dancing, he put them on, grabbed a new canister of insecticide and walked back to the living room.
A few large bugs were crawling on the wooden floor. He’d removed the carpet two weeks ago, as it was a haven for the critters to hide in. He walked about his living room, stomping wildly with his clogs and spraying poison in every corner and towards the roof. After about half an hour of this, he could breathe again, though only figuratively. The place was noxious with fumes. He went back to the bathroom for a new wet towel. This one he would keep over his nose and mouth in order to breathe for the rest of the day.
The next morning, his dog disappeared. The dog had had a kind of immunity to the bugs that he had both envied and been proud of. Though he saw bugs in and around everyone he ran into, his dog had been safe. Now the dog was gone. Its collar lay on the floor next to the empty kennel. The man stood in his yard, shaking with bitter anger. He didn’t deserve this. But there was nothing to do but look for his dog.
The only photograph he had of it was one in which it wore a sombrero. It was taken long ago at a birthday party/barbecue, and the dog looked slightly constipated. He copied that photo and stapled it to trees and lampposts around his neighborhood. He left his phone number on the pages and promised a reward. He would search for hours in the morning and come home to eat lunch and check his messages. He’d then go back out in the afternoon.
He tacked up a large map of his neighborhood to the refrigerator. He traced all the jogging paths in which he had taken his dog. He then ran by them every day. After he had run a particular path twice, he’d mark it on the map. He then studied the map for other places the dog might have gone to. He hadn’t known that his neighborhood was so big. There were streets and side streets he’d never heard of. But he felt heartened by that. Surely, a neighborhood as big as that would have a place for his dog.
Throughout it all, the bugs began to slowly leave his home. Their disappearance was as gradual and mystifying as their appearance. He saw fewer and fewer of them in his house until there were none left. They went to the garden to die. He spent an entire afternoon shoveling heaps of dead bugs into a hole in the ground. One morning he saw a couple of live ones in the garden, but they had vanished completely by that afternoon. That was that. His red clogs returned to their place in the back of his closet, and though he couldn’t bring himself to rid his home of all the canisters of insecticide, he threw away most of them.
On one of the last of his vacation days, he jogged a new path in the park. It was a bright, hot day and the sweat poured down his face like tears. As he turned a corner, he saw the boy and his mother. They were walking by a pond, and the boy held a kite. But the kite had nowhere to go on that almost breeze-less day, and the boy seemed more interested in feeding the ducks.
“Hello,” the man paused and nodded at them both. The woman acknowledged him and moved forward, but the boy remained where he was.
He and the woman spoke brief niceties to each other. He asked her how her day had been. She began by telling him what time she had woken up that morning, what the weather had been like, and how it had differed from the weather report she’d heard the night before. Her day at the office hadn’t been a picnic either. She told him of her car ride into work; about the horrendous traffic. Her morning coffee break, and the internet news stories she’d read. The man hated to hear the woman speak. He wanted her to go on infinitely. She told him what she’d eaten for lunch and whom she’d had lunch with.
“Oh, and by the way,” she said at the end of her monologue, “that was a rotten trick you pulled. Giving him your dog as a going away present. You know how I feel about him having pets.”
“You have my dog?” He turned quickly to look at the boy who turned his head away to throw more breadcrumbs at the ducks.
“Of course not. I could never stand a fleabag like that in my house. I made him give it away.”
The man stood staring. The sun beat a steady thrum in his head and sweat now trickled into his eyes and stung. He was nearly motionless. The wind shifted the hair on his head subtly. He couldn’t speak or form a coherent thought.
Then suddenly, they heard a loud honk and saw a black, hearse-like vehicle pull up to the curb. The woman wished to leave immediately. Her boyfriend was picking them up, she said. He knew how she didn’t like to keep anyone waiting, she said. She took her son’s hand and they walked together towards a car parked at the edge of the trees. She spoke a few more things to the man as she said good-bye. The woman and the boy then got into the SUV and drove away. The man stood behind with the ducks, staring at the trail of dust.
For years afterwards, he would see versions of the boy at a distance. He would be standing across the street, or laughing with other children at a carnival. But just as the man started after him, the boy would be replaced by some other small person with dark, curly hair. And even though the man might have been happier not to have seen the boy, he’d suddenly remember those few weeks one summer when his home and body were infested with bugs, and he would feel grief.
Priya has an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, and has previously been published in The Dubliner magazine in Ireland.