Robert Long ForemanFiction / Number 92
One of the first things I did, when I moved my family to this old town that’s new to us, was to find a new primary care doctor and schedule a physical. I don’t like taking chances, health chances least of all, what with cancer rates spiking all over and the atomic fringe growing nearer all the time.
My appointment was with Dr. Morris, a general practitioner with white hair who looked like he had seen many things.
He asked if I had kids. Yes, two, I said, though I started to say no, that I didn’t have kids. I don’t know why that was.
Morris asked if I kept guns in the house.
I laughed at his question. He didn’t laugh.
Of course not, I said. I don’t want to shoot anything.
He nodded and typed something into his computer.
No guns, he probably typed.
Without looking up, he asked, What about the Jackbeetle?
What about it?
Have you seen him? he asked, still not looking up.
Never lie to a doctor, I thought.
Yes, I said.
In how many rooms have you encountered him? he said.
I could feel my face get red.
Five rooms, I said.
Now he looked at me. I didn’t like the look on his face.
How many times has he struck you? he asked.
I did not want to answer his question.
Take off your shirt, he said.
I didn’t want to take off my shirt, and not only because while I’ve retained the good looks of my youth above the neck, it is just below my neck that my decline, my physical unfitness, is most evident. But he was the doctor, so I obeyed his command.
He didn’t gasp. He was a professional.
It wasn’t my torso that would have made him gasp, with its evidence that I had not been to a gym in a long time, and its further evidence that I like eating pastries and have a hard time stopping once I start. I almost never walk, or do anything physical.
It was the bites and welts that would have made him gasp, had he gasped, were Dr. Morris not such a pro. He put a mask on, over his nose and mouth, and donned a brand of smartglasses I had not seen before, which were probably connected to the internet with Bluetooth technology. He used a metal stick to probe the bites on my back, my arms, and my neck. It hurt. There were a lot of bites.
I had started getting bitten not long after I moved into the new house, in this town where we moved, my family and I, for my job. We were there no more than a week when the Jackbeetle began his campaign of biting and stinging me, without mercy and often.
I hadn’t heard of him before we moved there, but it seemed like, prior to our first meeting, he had heard of me. He seemed to know me very well already. He knew my weaknesses. He knew when I let my guard down, knew how to read me. It was as if with a sixth sense he could determine exactly when I was not paying attention, when he could strike with impunity.
That assumes, of course, that like the rest of us he had only five other senses, that he did not perceive things that were well out of the range of our feeling.
I told the doctor, as he probed, that my ordeal with the Jackbeetle had started just as I was told it would, by an old woman at the general store whom I did not at the time take seriously.
I told her I had bought a nearby house. She asked what house I had bought. When I told her what house she sucked in her breath and squinted.
Beware Jackbeetle, she said.
What? I said.
Is that a disease?
Like Cat Scratch Fever?
She shook her head. I said Jackbeetle, she said.
I looked around. I looked back at her.
Are you insured against him? she said.
I don’t know, I said. My insurance is bundled. I have flood insurance.
You must beware, repeated the cashier, of Jackbeetle.
I said, Do you mean the Jackbeetle?
I mean precisely what I say, she said, turning again to the register and ringing up my groceries, which was only one grocery, really. It was salt, and it wasn’t even organic. It was the only thing they sold that was on my shopping list.
They didn’t even carry arugula. I wished I had gone to the supermarket.
You will know soon of whom I speak, said the cashier without looking at me. You will know him when you see him. You will know his jaws when they meet your tender flesh.
What are you even saying? I laughed.
You will know soon enough, she said, seeming to want to get through with my one grocery and move on.
I wanted to humor her, though. In her apron and bottle-thick glasses, she looked like someone from another era, someone I should humor. I said, Tell me more about this Beetle. What is his provenance? Is he man or beast?
He is an insidious beast, said the woman, with another man beside her now. The man was younger. He may have been her son. He bagged my groceries and listened.
Insidious how? I said.
The old woman didn’t answer my question. Other customers walked the aisles within earshot, silent and attentive.
At last my salt was rung up and bagged. I didn’t know why it had taken her so long; I was only buying one thing. I paid for it with cash.
I knew the woman had more to say. I don’t know how I knew. I stood before her and waited.
As if she were some misplaced oracle, ejected from her temple and relocated here behind the register, she then said, The first time you encounter Jackbeetle will be in an article of your clothing. You will have left it on the floor. It is how he finds his way in. You will leave it out and he will crawl there. He will strike when you put it on.
All right, I said. I’ve heard enough. I came here to buy local tomatoes.
We don’t carry local tomatoes, said the man bagging groceries.
I know, I said. This is a disappointing store.
I took my bag of one grocery, which I didn’t even want anymore, and walked out.
I knew the woman watched me go. Of course she did. There was nothing else to look at in there.
Outside, an old man stood beside my car, blocking the door.
Excuse me, I said.
She’s right, you know, he said.
Come on, I said. He stepped aside as I climbed into the car and drove away.
He watched me go. He must have had nothing to do but watch me go.
It was the next morning that I felt the first bite, or sting, or whatever it was the Jackbeetle did to me. As soon as I pulled my jeans on I felt what had been prophesied at the general store: a sting the likes of which I had not felt before. It ran from the surface of my skin down to the bone, like a spike had been driven into my leg.
I cried out.
My older daughter Jane rushed in from the bathroom, where she had been brushing her teeth, to see me tear my jeans off. That villain, the Jackbeetle, was across the room already, making his way into a crack in the wall he must have discovered long before we bought this house.
Jane did not know what to make of me, standing with my back to her, looking down at my legs, pants around my ankles. I watched as the flesh he had bitten swelled before my eyes. It puffed with blood, pink and raw.
I pulled my pants on and put on a natural face, for Jane’s sake.
It’s nothing, I said. Just a spider bite.
A spider? she asked, astonished, still not reconciled to the spiders that inhabit our world with us, sometimes in close proximity to us. I sent her away.
It could be that the Jackbeetle was feeling me out, that morning, with that bite, that he was testing me, and that I only made my suffering far worse when I told Jane he was a spider.
He must have heard what I said. If he had pride, it may have wounded his pride, to be called an arachnid. With my words I may have invited his campaign against me.
More bites ensued. In the evening that followed the morning of his first attack, when the swelling had mostly gone down, he came into my bed and struck under my left arm as I rolled onto him in my sleep.
I wonder if he knew that the placement of that bite would make it nearly impossible for me to apply deodorant under that particular arm.
I wonder if he knew with the attacks to follow that he would make it impossible for me to bare my skin to Janet, to let her see how he had turned my hide into a swollen landscape. I could not make love to her, for fear she might see what had become of my body. I couldn’t let her press her hand against me and feel the older bites of his, which as days passed turned into something like shingles. After days of itching and stinging each one would heal, but until it did it was unbearable.
Every day he bit me in another part of myself. Every time, somehow, he took me by surprise.
On the fifth morning, I failed to look for him under the toilet seat. He crawled out from under it to sting me on the underside of my leg. I jumped, and he flew away, into the vent above my head.
It was then that I put down glue traps in the basement, and in the steel vents I knew he used as corridors to travel from room to room, watching me, looking for another chance to glide down and get me.
I think he must have watched me put down the traps, from what vantage I know not. He knew where they were. He knew to avoid them. If he could laugh, he must have laughed as he watched me leave them in their places.
To reach the vents and install the traps, I had to climb a ladder. The vents were high up.
The Jackbeetle needed no ladder to reach the vents. With his wings and sticky claws, he could go where he wanted.
He was fast. He had venom. He had a plan. He had so many advantages over me.
I sprayed Raid, but he must have been resistant to Raid. It did not kill him. That which did not kill him made him stronger. It was what his Wikipedia page said, anyway.
The internet was where I turned for information, after returning to the general store, my skin swollen in half a dozen places under my clothes, to ask the old woman what more she knew about my tormentor, to ask what I could do.
The young woman at the register said the old woman had died. She said that she herself was the new minister of the general store. She didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.
I don’t have a clue about this, she said, walking away.
I didn’t believe her. But what could I do?
Some of these bites look almost necrotic, said the doctor, finally.
I know, I said. I read online that it can look like that. It’s not necrotic, though, right?
He didn’t answer. I guessed he was busy.
I had looked in the mirror, at my lower back, just that morning, to see how the skin had turned so deeply red that it was almost black. It had begun to flake away in pieces too large and deep to be rightly called flakes.
I was reassured, when I read on Medicine.com, with its intrusive advertising, that the Jackbeetle cannot cause necrosis, that he had not gained that ability just yet. The effects of his bites were limited to swelling and false necrosis.
Soon the effects would wear off. My skin would return to normal. Or whatever passes for normal with my skin, which dries easily.
Medicine.com said also that the numbness would wear off, that once he stopped biting then all functions would be restored to me.
But when would he stop biting?
Would it ever stop?
A Google search returned no results.
The full feeling of my extremities might return someday, but I knew there was something I would never get back.
What was it?
I didn’t even know what it was anymore.
It may have been a sense of security, a feeling of safety in my own home, the knowledge that I could safely put on a shirt or step groggily into the bathroom, sliding my feet across the floor; that I could reach my hand behind the mayonnaise in one of the obscurer regions of the refrigerator without jerking my hand back and cursing from the searing pain of another sting of the Jackbeetle.
I might never again be free, I thought, from having to lie to Janet about what he was doing to me.
I made excuses for him, covered for him, pretended he had not just struck again, pretended he had not struck at all.
What replaced my sense of security was a sense of shame, for the facts seemed to indicate that it was in large part my fault that I was being stung like I was.
I read online that the Jackbeetle has weak jaws. They’re not strong enough to break my skin by his will alone, and so I must apply an equal force whenever he bites. He needs me to press down as he presses in, to participate, if unwittingly, in the puncturing of my skin. It was at least half my fault, I read, that I kept getting stung like I did.
It could be why the doctor had so little to say as he examined me. I began to think, in the silence, that he must have blamed me for my condition, that he was embarrassed on my behalf.
He hadn’t said anything in a long time, and so I continued talking.
I don’t know what to do, I said. I can’t tell my wife what’s been going on, it’s gone on too long. She’ll ask why I kept all this a secret. She won’t understand.
Do you think this has to do with fracking? I asked. The job I moved here for is fracking-related. I know the Jackbeetle doesn’t like fracking. Maybe this is revenge for that.
But it’s not like I’m doing all the fracking myself. It’s nothing personal.
Dr. Morris said nothing. I turned to ask him something else, something more private. The Jackbeetle had bitten me on the scrotum, and I wanted to know what it might mean for my scrotum.
The doctor was gone. I hadn’t seen or heard him go. I was alone.
Eventually, a nurse came in and jumped at the sight of my near-necrotic back, which had faced the door, thanks to how the doctor had directed me to sit.
The nurse said she thought I had already gone. She said I should probably go.
I left, and returned to work, where no one knew what had become of my body, what was being done to me when I wasn’t there.
When it was time, I went home, to the house I dreaded, where I knew the next assault was imminent.
When I drove, I always listened to the local NPR station, and not because I liked it—I didn’t like it. It’s so stupid, but I hoped that someone would talk about the Jackbeetle on the radio. I hoped someone would tell me what to do about him. There were no solutions available online to the problem he posed, only symptoms that bespoke the problem, and accounts and photos of what he had done to other bodies that came before mine, before I entered what he must have felt was his territory.
I read that he hasn’t always lived here, that climate change brought him north from Mexico, the warming of the region enabling his passage up the river valleys to my house.
I got home before Janet did. I usually got home first. The girls would arrive with Janet, and it was often before they arrived that the Jackbeetle would strike. He knew there would be no witnesses.
Maybe he bit me then and not later because he wanted to preserve the girls’ feelings, to protect them from the sight of their father suffering wounds they couldn’t protect him from.
Sometimes I would linger outside my house, delaying my entry inside, making it look like I was checking the gutter for fallen leaves. I was really trying to prevent him from biting me, praying in silence that the rest of my family would come home before I had to go inside. But then he once bit me outside the house, as I loitered like that. I leaned against our tree, and didn’t see that he was there, on the bark of the tree, with his jaws open, knowing exactly which way I would lean.
Sometimes I thought in passing that the Jackbeetle needed me at that house, that he couldn’t live without me. I wondered if he liked me in his own way, if the only way for him to express affection was to torment me, if, when I suffered another bite, I was being told that I was loved in the only language my lover understood, if every bite meant he could not live without me, so please, Roger, don’t go. Please stay. He had no tongue in his mandible to shape words, and so he spoke with his jaws, the words forming just under the surface of my itching flesh where I could not see to read them.
For whatever reason, he left me alone on the day of my visit to the doctor. I didn’t see or hear him, outside the house or in. He didn’t strike. I couldn’t hear him patter his wings in the vents, like I did so often at night when I tried to sleep.
I had to go out of town, the next morning. It wasn’t because of him I had to go. It was for work.
In the days leading up to my departure, in which Jack left me alone—I’ll never know why—I did what I could to keep Janet from mentioning my upcoming journey. I didn’t want him to overhear. When she mentioned the trip to me, I would leave the room abruptly. She took offense.
I couldn’t tell her why I refused to speak to her of my leaving. If I explained that I didn’t want Jack stowing away in the pocket of a pair of my pants, she would think I had lost my mind.
Maybe I had lost my mind.
I didn’t want Jack to know I was going, to follow me onto the plane and assault me on the plane, or in my hotel room, as punishment for going somewhere.
My evasion of Janet only made things worse between us, far worse even than they were before.
We had not been intimate in over a month. We had grown far apart.
Most of the time, when we were both at home, we weren’t even in the room together. I could not bring myself to stay in a room with her for very long.
I didn’t want Jack to come creeping after me, and bite me where she could see. I didn’t want her to see him come swooping from the crack in the ceiling in the kitchen he would sometimes emerge from. I didn’t want her to hear me cry out at the sight of him.
I didn’t want to feel the shame I knew I would feel if she saw him reach down to me like an evil spirit and sting the back of my neck.
While I was away, I had to find a way to thwart him. I would find a way. I would ask around at the conference.
In the car, and on the plane, I thought my thoughts at regular volume, certain I had left the Jackbeetle behind. I often thought I had to think quietly, at home, for fear that the Jackbeetle might hear.
In the three days of the conference I asked only one other man if he’d ever heard of the Jackbeetle. It was late, and we’d both been drinking with a group of guys who seemed fine and safe. They had all gone back to their rooms, leaving us stragglers at the bar. When I asked him the question I’d had on the end of my tongue since I left home, he turned to me slowly and gave me a look I had not seen someone give in I don’t know how long.
You’re asking me this? he said. Right here?
I didn’t know what to say.
Had I known what to say, he would not have let me say it.
He looked at me hard, and said, You need to take a long time-out and reread the Universal Primer on Propriety. Read up, sir, on what to say and not to say in situations like this situation.
He turned away, with his drink. He went across the room and sat and watched me while he finished it. I looked away.
I glanced back, eventually, a few times, to see him still sitting there the whole time, watching me and drinking, before I finally returned to my room to inspect my Jack bites. They were fading, which I was thankful for, though I could only assume I would be given a fresh serving when I returned.
He would come at me with a vengeance, I knew. He would teach me to go away from him, and be gone for days on end like I was not coming back at all, for all he knew. He might show me how he felt about my leaving by laying into Janet—who, when I returned home, actually smiled at me.
She welcomed me home. The girls were happy, too, but that wasn’t out of the ordinary. The girls and I had not been trapped under an iceberg together. Janet and I had.
Things felt different, now. The iceberg, it seemed, had been lifted from us.
Jack didn’t bite me on the afternoon of my return, nor on that evening.
I was intimate with Janet, that night. We dared to be intimate.
I was terrified that Jack would choose to insert himself between our bodies as we rubbed against one another, that my retribution would be the reveal of my suffering to Janet, or Janet’s inclusion in my suffering. But Jack did not do that, and for that I was grateful to him.
When I woke the next morning I found I had not been bitten in the night, as I so often was. When I inspected my skin in the mirror I found it was still clear, as free of insect bites as the skin of a baby who has just been born and wasn’t placed on a pile of bugs as soon as it was born.
Janet was up. The girls were up. Janet had made coffee.
I went into the kitchen and poured myself some coffee. It was Sunday, I remember. Janet and the kids were playing Operation at the kitchen table. It was a game that unnerved me, for the sound of the tweezers lighting up the electric board, making it vibrate, sounded like the electric football table my brother used to turn on to mask the sound of me crying when he would stick me with sewing needles. He was nine. I was four. It was a science experiment, he reassured me, for the weeks that I was his test subject. He told me not to cry, that crying wasn’t part of his hypothesis. He was caught and sent to live somewhere else, eventually.
The sound of Operation sounded, too, like the sound Jack’s wings made when he buzzed down at me from one of the steel vents.
I leaned against the counter and watched the family, my family. I feared the worst. I thought the sound of Operation would no doubt attract Jack, if my presence there had not done so already. It was a matter of time. I thought if I stayed in the room with them long enough then Jack would attack in front of them. They would see what I’d been living with, what I dreaded coming home to, what I dreaded still, until Janet said, without looking up from the funny bone she was trying to extract, Oh, that’s right, I forgot to tell you.
She didn’t talk for another second. She was concentrating on the operation at hand.
What didn’t you tell me? I said.
She shook her head. She said, You should have seen what that came crawling out of the washing machine last night.
I looked at her over the rim of my mug that read World’s Best Fracking Engineer. I had looked, before pouring coffee into it, to ensure that Jack wasn’t waiting inside the mug, looking to climb down my throat and tunnel out of me later through the lining of my stomach.
If he did, I would go to the hospital. I would be patched up. He would find me again when I recovered.
I was taking a load of dark colors out of the washing machine, said Janet. Your pants were in it, that you said you were going to take on the trip? That I said you shouldn’t take?
I thought I packed those, I said. Did you take them out of my suitcase?
She paused. That’s not important, she said.
You did take them out.
She did, said Jane. I saw her put them in the hamper.
Jane looked at Janet. Janet looked at Jane.
My mind raced.
Janet had put my pants in the hamper, the pants I had said I was going to take with me, practically announcing it to the house so that Jack could hear.
The hamper shuts tight. It has no openings.
If Jack, I realized as my heart rate increased, had stowed away in those pants, knowing I planned to take them with me on the trip, because he wanted to come with me and torment me elsewhere, he would have been trapped in the hamper with the clothes.
Janet got some Operation money to give to Jane, who had just extracted the broken heart from the poor Operation patient.
What did he do? I said.
What did who do? said Janet.
The animal, I said.
The thing you saw. In the washing machine.
It wasn’t an animal.
What was it?
More like a bug.
It wasn’t him, I thought.
Not just any bug, though, said Janet.
Maybe it was him, I thought.
It was like a bug mutation, Janet said. It had too many legs. Its wings were too big for its body.
She should watch her tone, I thought, uncertain how this story would end.
It just slumped out of the washer, said Janet. It was all wet. I think its wings were wet. I thought they were wings.
What did they look like? I asked.
Janet shrugged. I didn’t get a sense of the particulars. The whole thing was like a demented praying mantis, with a personality disorder. It sat still there for a few seconds, and I watched it sit. I felt like it was about to introduce itself to me. Why are you looking at me like that?
What happened? I said. Where did it go?
She didn’t answer just yet. She seemed to be surprised by the intensity of my interest in her story.
Both of the girls had ceased operating. They watched me.
Did it say anything? I said.
Say anything? Roger, what kind of question is that?
Sorry, I said into my coffee. I had a dream.
I stepped on it, she said. Twice. Hard. It was disgusting. It exploded, with all this red blood everywhere. It was full of little, squirming larvae.
My face must have turned white.
Jesus, she said. Don’t worry. I cleaned it up.
Cleaned it up how? I said.
Bleach, she said. Paper towels. Then the vacuum cleaner. Why?
No reason, I said.
Janet was a thorough cleaner of messes.
That sounds weird, I said, lost in thought.
Jack was dead. Gone for good.
It sounded as if he had been storing my blood in his body, filling himself with me.
And to what end? Did he think he could become me? That by filling himself with my blood he could become enough like me that he could replace me?
Did he think Janet would fall in love with him? That he could take my place as the man of my house?
Jack was dead, and I still lived.
As thorough a job as it sounded like Janet had done, of cleaning up Jack, I had to investigate the scene of his death. I had to see for myself that he was gone, though I knew it meant that where he had been I would see nothing. I left my coffee half-finished and went to the laundry room.
There wasn’t a trace of him on the floor, where Janet said she had crushed him. That only meant what I knew already: Janet cleans thoroughly, when she is the one who cleans.
I pulled back the rug we keep there and found nothing. I looked under the metal table where we fold laundry: still nothing. I lifted one end of the dryer and saw two worm-like figures writhing on the concrete floor, looking like they were trying to move, to make their way to greater safety.
My thorough wife had missed these little creatures, two pieces of evidence that confirmed the speculation I had read online: that Jack, though male, had developed the capacity to reproduce asexually. It couldn’t be confirmed, by the authors of the study I read, because there was only one of him. He couldn’t be found, he couldn’t be killed—except, apparently, by Janet—and so he could not be dissected and better understood.
It seemed plain enough to me, though, that the scientists were right. He could reproduce without a mate, at least without a mate from his own species.
In order to form his offspring, he had used my blood. With it, he had made more of himself.
Why else would he be so gorged with my blood that when Janet crushed him it sprayed out like it had? Why else would he have targeted me and only me?
Unless he had used my sperm to make more of himself, extracting it from my scrotum when he bit me there. It could have been what he was looking for, with all the previous bites. It could be that all he’d wanted all along was sperm. He could recognize a human male but didn’t know the scrotum’s location in our species. He probed me, bite after bite, until he found it, and when he did he took what he needed and began to reproduce.
Was it possible?
Of course it was.
The previous month was starting to make sense.
If I was right to think what I thought, it meant these larvae were Jane and Hazel’s half-siblings. It was no wonder, then, that Janet had so immediately crushed them to death. It was perhaps as much an act of jealousy as it was one of cleanliness, even if she didn’t know it.
I had moved the dryer aside, now. I watched the larvae squirm, going nowhere. I doubted they knew I was there with them. I doubted they knew anything.
I crushed one with my shoe, scraping it along the floor so that it smeared as it died. Her sister I placed in an empty glass jar that was meant for spices, which once held cumin, if I remember right.
We save everything, Janet and I. We always have. We can’t get rid of anything, even when we relocate long distances. Hence, the presence of the used spice jar in our new basement.
So that the larva could breathe, I fastened to the top of the jar the plastic lid, full of holes, that came with the jar (we even saved the lid). The larva could not get out.
If the infant Jackbeetle grew to be as large as her father, then I would have to transfer her to a bigger container. For now, this would have to work.
I considered killing this last remaining member of the Jackbeetle family, but as wise as that would seem to be I thought it would be wiser to have a hostage on hand, in case the original Jackbeetle came back. It may seem absurd to think such a thing, but there was so much he was capable of, so much that science didn’t know. What if a sliver of his body had survived his destruction under the heel of Janet? What if that was enough for him to form a new body, a unique organism that retained, somehow, the memory of me and the taste of my blood? What if the new creature was stronger than the last? What if it was bigger? The size of a car, and not a fist?
I was not about to take chances. I was not about to let him regain the upper hand.
I put the spice jar in a cupboard in the utility room, where no one would find it, where I could retain the larva, keep her alive, and keep her safe in the name of insurance.
I don’t know how long I’ll let her live, or even—my goodness—if she is a she after all.
She has been growing for a week. She is getting bigger. When I hold the spice jar up to my eye, I can see she is growing a mouth. If it’s anything like mine I’ll teach her how to talk.
When I come near, her body pulsates faster. It is how I know she knows me.
I don’t know if she pulsates out of love or out of hate. I think I will know soon enough.
Robert Long Foreman’s work has appeared most recently in Laurel Review, Barrelhouse, Copper Nickel, and Electric Literature. His first book, Among Other Things, a collection of essays, was published by Pleiades Press in early 2017. He lives in Kansas City.Image by asoggetti