They came out of nowhere, and everywhere at once, an explosion of shimmering wings and soft bodies. Since moving into the old house, I had learned to live with the sound of cockroaches and palmetto bugs squeaking and scuttling in the walled-up fireplace, mostly because they hardly ever came out, and they were easy to kill when they did. I could almost pretend that the chittering and squeaking inside the walls was really the sound of some new sort of bird that liked to live trapped in walls and under doorframes, a flock of albino humming birds that never, ever slept. Perhaps that was the reason the fireplace had been cordoned off, the fact that cockroaches had taken to it so. No, it was the birds. Birds lived in the chimney. Birds that knew their place, birds that knew we could coexist so long as they didn’t disturb us.
But these new things, this swarm of flittering winged worms, flying ants, these white bodied things with black eyes and silvery antennae that constantly twitched as though looking for something specific, they had no respect for the people lived in the house. They had no respect for the house at all. They came in gigantic explosions of sawdust and pine splinters, broke from the hundred-year-old wooden supports and windowsills and even the ceiling as though they meant to take the whole place down. They came in swarms that numbered thousands and thousands, all at once, filled the house, my house, with clouds of flying bodies. When they first came, I just ran out of the bedroom, unthinking, feeling the cold, slithering bodies against my bare flesh, in my hair, on my face. The man I shared my bed with back then swore, and threw things, and opened windows.
“It’s the cat box, isn’t it?” he yelled over the shrieking, the baby crying, the sound of wings clicking, tiny bodies bumping into the bare light bulbs and falling to the ground. “I told you to take that damned cat box out. Fucking maggots.”
“Maggots don’t fly,” I yelled back. “They’re not coming out of the cat box!” I ran to the nursery and to the crib and picked up the baby, who was crying and crying and had to be held. “I’ve got you,” I whispered, pressing his soft, warm head against my chest, wrapping my arms around the back of his lightly-furred head. “I’ve got you.”
I ran back to my bedroom to where the baby’s father stood on the bed, swinging a pillow about his head, trying to beat away the swarms of tiny insect bodies. I turned on the light and the room was gray with beating wings, there were so many of them, a glittering shroud that threatened to cover and smother everything. The floor was crawling with tiny little worms, the air was full of the same worms with wings. I watched as the wings fell off one flying thing and it dropped to the ground, wriggling obscenely before disappearing into a crack between the floorboards.
“What the hell are these things?” I asked my baby’s father. “Have you ever seen anything like these before?”
It’s just something that comes with summer, I told myself as I slowly walked from one room to the other, squirting rubbing alcohol into the gaping new holes that marred the wooden doorsills and window frames. Inside each splintery, fist-sized hole were hundreds of tiny holes, drilled perfectly circular, straight in. The big holes were where they came out, the tiny holes were where they crawled back in. I made sure that each hole was coated fully with the rubbing alcohol, that the wood was completely saturated all the way to whatever was hiding inside. All around me, the walls chattered and squeaked and rustled as though my hummingbirds were being pushed aside by some new horrible force. “It’s just summer,” I said aloud to myself, to them. “It’s an old house.”
Finally satisfied, I went into the kitchen and got the broom. There were thousands and thousands of silver wings piled in dunes on the floor, pressed against the wall, covering the furniture, and nothing else. They had dropped their wings and disappeared completely. I filled dustpan after dustpan with wings, only wings, no sign or clue of what exactly had left them behind.
“Shh, it’s okay,” I said to the baby stirring in the painted wooden crib in the corner as I came into the nursery to clean. “Mommy’s almost done.” I began sweeping the floor under the crib, dragging more piles of silvery fairy wings out into the open with each pull of the handle. The beautiful old wooden floor that we had been meaning to recondition and varnish for the past year was speckled with tiny holes, as though someone had crawled about on the floor with a very tiny awl and drilled hole after hole in succession. They were going to come out through the floor tonight, I realized. I had to kill them before sunset, kill them before they could wake and come out.
But first, I had to sweep. There was a holocaust of body parts in the hallway, in the linen closet, under the bed I shared with my son’s father, beneath the sink. The baby watched me through eyes half-open, curious. I smiled at the baby, my baby, and he yawned, closed his eyes and went back to sleep. Wonderful baby, I thought. Such a good little boy. I swept the pile of wings into a pan and dumped them into the waiting trashcan. I put the can by the door for the man who lived there with me to take out when he woke up and got the mop out. I sprinkled a whole bottle of rubbing alcohol out onto the floor and spread it around, covering all the little holes I could see. The room stunk, but it was clean.
When I was done, I washed my hands carefully and went to pick up the baby. The baby smiled and cooed and did everything he was supposed to, because he was smart and perfect and wonderful and smelled like warm air. I took him downstairs and stood in the patch of sunlight that poured in through the living room window. I held the baby tight against my chest, closed my eyes and reveled in his wonderfulness. Perfect baby. There had never been such a perfect baby.
The man who lived there with me, the baby’s father, the man I slept with most nights, came out of the bedroom, black circles under his eyes, he was tired.
“You’re up early,” he yawned, and walked off to the kitchen. He came back a few minutes later and sat down on the couch next to me. “What a night,” he said. “What the hell were those things?”
“There’s a trash can full of what’s left of them if you want to take a closer look,” I answered, nodding towards the trash bag by the front door. “I think I got them all.”
“Your hands stink,” said the man, smiling groggily. “You should have got me up. I could have helped.” He put his arms around me and kissed the top of my head, and I still remember how much I loved him right at that moment, remember so vividly it makes my chest hurt, even now. He drew back suddenly, repulsion on his face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, sad that the moment was over so soon. “Does my hair stink, too?”
“They’re in your hair,” he said, backing away. “You should take a shower. Here, do I have any?” He bent over for me to look.
His hair was short but very thick. I carefully ran my fingers through his dark hair and saw only his white scalp. “Nothing but dandruff,” I said. I ran one hand through my hair and pulled it out quickly, because I could feel tiny knots up there where the hair was beginning to wrap around twitching things trapped against my scalp. My stomach clenched. I handed the baby to his father. “Oh, God,” I said, trying not to cry. “Oh, it’s so disgusting.”
In the bathroom, I saw more of the things had been in there, whole bodies of those who had either died trying to dig through the tile after losing their wings, as well as dozens of pinholes in the soft wood of the wall above the bathtub. “I’m coming back with the alcohol,” I said aloud to the holes as I scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed in the shower. “As soon as I get these things out of my hair.”
Just after sunset, the baby started wailing, a horrible, gurgling wail that climbed in volume and pitch until I could hear nothing else. I jumped up off the edge of the bed and ran, ran through the doorway of my room and down the short hallway and up the stairs and into the baby’s room. Upstairs was full of insects, and I screamed, “Jay! Get up here!” and the man came up the stairs, two at a time, bugs in the air. He swatted at them with his hands and elbows and pushed past me in the doorway of our son’s bedroom.
“Christ!” he shouted. “Christ! I thought you cleaned in here!”
“I did!” I cried, swatting and swinging and trying to clear just one patch of air in front of me that was not filled with tiny bodies and buzzing wings. I pushed past my almost-husband and ran to the baby’s crib, where our baby lay, screaming, covered in crawling things. They dropped their wings in the air over the crib in a silvery rain and fell onto his tiny screaming body, just fell there and twisted and twitched horribly against his bright pink skin. I scooped the screaming baby up in my arms and ran out of the room, away from the flock of angry angels. The baby’s father, the man I wanted desperately to be with me forever and ever, stayed behind, flailing his shirt around his body, knocking out swarms of the insects, stamping on the ground where they landed.
“It’s okay it’s okay it’s okay,” I soothed the baby in a mindless coo. I ran into the bathroom and filled the sink with water. I put the baby in the basin and began splashing water over his body, pulling his nightshirt and diaper off as I did so, hurling the bug-filled clothes away from me in quick disgust. “It’s okay it’s okay it’s okay.”
“Did you forget to do the baby’s room?” asked Jay in blatant accusation. He stood in the doorway of the bathroom and stood there, face red, clenching and unclenching his fists. “There aren’t any bugs down here. Did you forget the baby’s room?”
“Of course I didn’t forget the baby’s room,” I said, trying not to raise my own voice, trying to stay calm so that the baby would stay calm. “It’s okay it’s okay it’s okay. I’m not an idiot. It’s the first room I did. Corner to corner. Can’t you smell the alcohol in there? It smells like a hospital in there, everywhere. It should have worked. It worked down here.”
The baby’s screaming finally slowed to whispering, shaking cries, and I lifted him from the water. The sink was full of dying insects, their floating bodies struggling on the surface of the water. I reached down through the hordes and pulled the drain. When the sink was empty, I rinsed it, filled it again, and lowered the baby back into the lukewarm water.
“I think they bit him,” I said, trying to keep my voice soft as feathers, rubbing soap on my son’s red speckled arms and legs and chest. “Or stung him. Poor baby,” I soothed, rinsing, soaping, and rinsing again. “There, there, little guy. There, there.”
In the other room, Jay was on the phone. “What do you think these things are?” he called out, receiver muffled against his chest. “Some kind of termite? Some kind of termite,” he said into the phone without waiting for me to answer. He came back to the bathroom a few moments later. “The nurse said termites don’t bite. She says maybe he has a heat rash or something.”
“It’s not a heat rash,” I answered grimly, wrapping the sobbing baby in a towel.
I woke up to find myself running to the baby’s room, summoned in my sleep by fire-engine cries of pain or terror or both or neither. I ran as fast as I could in my bare feet on the slippery, heat-slicked floor until I reached his room, flicked the light on and threw the thin blankets off his body. There was nothing under the blankets but him, nothing on him at all, but his skin looked scaly and dry and was mottled pink and white. I picked him up and held his tiny, hot body in my arms, held him so tight, so tight, willing the screaming to stop, willing whatever was making him scream to stop, just stop, just leave him alone. “Leave him alone!” I whispered again and again against his dry, too-dry skin, wishing I knew what to do.
Jay was already filling the tub in the bathroom, testing the water with his hand to make sure the water wasn’t too hot. “The first bath seemed to calm him down,” he said as I came into the room, my arms wrapped around the shrieking baby. “Maybe he itches. We don’t know what those things did to him. Here, let me help,” he said, and he took our son from me, his hands shaking as though he was trying not to tear the screaming baby from my arms, I was holding the screaming baby so tightly it was like we were wrestling. Then I let go.
“I don’t know what to do,” I whispered as Jay rubbed soap over the baby’s pink, thrashing body. The baby quieted a little, then started screaming again. “We have to do something,” I said. “I’ll call the nurse again. We have to do something. We need to talk to a doctor. Something. Anything.”
I picked up the phone and dialed. “Yes, I’ve fed him,” I said. “Yes, I’ve changed him. No, he’s not running a temperature. He’s been up all night. Yes, I know, I know,” I shouted against the stream of condescension coming at me through the phone line. “Yes, I know how to take care of a baby. Okay,” I finished, quietly hanging up the phone. “If he’s still crying like this tomorrow, or if he runs a temperature, we can take him in,” I told Jay. He wrapped the baby in a towel and handed him to me. The baby was quiet, awake, black eyes wide and staring at the two of us, at mommy, at daddy.
Jay looked old and tired. He had dark circles around his beautiful blue eyes, like someone had punched him repeatedly in the face in just those two spots. “I have to go to work,” he said. “I should call in. Damn, I should call in.”
“No, no, go to work.” I took the sobbing baby into the bedroom and sat down on the bed with him. The baby began to nurse. “I’ll take care of him. I’ll call you if he gets worse. Or better.” I made a smile. “Go to work.”
And then I was alone with the baby, my poor, exhausted baby, nursing so weakly I couldn’t tell he if was getting anything from me. His wide black eyes were closing, and it looked like sleep. I waited, holding my breath. “Shhh,” I whispered, running my fingers gently over the top of his thinly-furred head. His eyes closed, stayed closed. I waited a moment, then laid him on the bed next to me and pulled the edge of the cotton sheet up over his tiny body. “Shhh.” I carefully stretched out beside him, put my arm around him as softly and gently as I could manage. It looked like sleep. He was so quiet and warm it looked like sleep.
I lay there for several minutes, waiting to fall asleep myself. When it didn’t happen, I amused myself by studying the walls and floor of the bedroom from where I lay. In this room, at least, the ministrations of the previous nights appeared to have worked. Here and there were tiny holes in the walls and floors, but no new gigantic rips through the door or window frames could be seen. I sighed and rolled off the edge of the bed, dropping to the floor quietly. Might as well hit the house one more time, while they were asleep, I thought. I went into the bathroom and got my two remaining bottles of rubbing alcohol. In each and every room, I poured rubbing alcohol along the windows and doors, the baseboards and in between the slats of the wooden floor, everywhere that looked vulnerable, all along the floor molding.
When I had finished, the baby was still asleep. I looked in and watched his tiny chest rise and fall, rise and fall. I called Jay at work and let him know that the baby had been asleep nearly all day, not a peep.
“Oh, thank God,” he said. “You, you should sleep, too.”
“It’s so quiet,” I said, half-giggling in delirium, in relief. “I don’t know if I can sleep. I just want to sit and enjoy this quiet.” I pressed the phone against my ear and closed my eyes. “Can you hear that?” I asked after a moment. “Nothing at all.”
I hung up the phone and just sat there for a moment, listening to myself breathe. After a while, I got up and went into the bedroom to check on the baby. He looked faded, somehow, too pale, too thin. His skin looked flaky and paper-thin, his face pinched and wizened as if he was having a dream about what things would be like when he was very, very old. I felt his forehead. Still cool. His breathing was regular. I lay down on the bed next to him once more and forced myself to close my eyes, pulling the blankets up around the two of us.
When I opened my eyes, it was to the smell of food. Someone was in the kitchen cooking something that smelled fantastic. I slipped out from beneath the blankets and crept out of the room, the baby sleeping peacefully in the in the exact center of the bed, his tiny snores rattling softly in the dark.
Jay smiled at me from where he stood at the kitchen stove, clumsily stirring something in a large iron skillet with a pancake spatula. “I didn’t want to wake you,” he said softly. “You two looked so peaceful, I didn’t want to wake you.”
“Did you come home from work early?” I asked, yawning. I peered out the window, saw the sun was beginning to set. “We slept all day.”
“You were up all night.” Jay pulled two plates down from the cupboard, winced as they clattered against one another noisily on the way down to the table. “Poor thing. He must have been exhausted.” He carefully scooped a mix of eggs and chopped ham and cheese onto one plate with the spatula, pushed it towards me. I picked up my fork and took a bite. It was wonderful.
And then we were running. Through the walls came our son’s shrieking piercing screaming screaming screaming, and we were running and running to stop the screams, the continuous stream of screams that ran into one another impossibly, as though our son didn’t need to breathe between screams, as though he was deflating in agony. We pushed open the bedroom door and stopped. The scream stopped. Time stopped. Time just stopped. And there was no reason for it to ever start up again.
The baby, my baby, our son, lay on the bed where I’d left him, his perfect little fuzz-dappled head shattered open with firecracker efficiency. There were little flying things in the air, little wingless wormy things crawling on his body, more things crawling out of his emptied head and leaping into the air, leaving his body a hollow, dry husk in their wake. They circled around for a few minutes before falling to the floor to dig into whatever gave way.
“He couldn’t brush them off,” I heard my voice say from far, far away, listened in horror as my own voice delivered the terrible verdict in a cold, robotic, passionless voice. What a horrible person, what horrible words, I thought as I heard myself speak. That woman, she should stop talking. She should just shut up. “He’s just a baby. They ate right through him, and he didn’t know to brush them away.” And then I was quiet. Everything was finally quiet.
BIO: Holly Day was born in Hereford, Texas, “The Town Without a Toothache.” She and her family currently live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she teaches writing classes at the Loft Literary Center. Her published books include the nonfiction books Music Theory for Dummies, Music Composition for Dummies, and Guitar All-in-One for Dummies, and the poetry books “Late-Night Reading for Hardworking Construction Men” (The Moon Publishing) and “The Smell of Snow” (ELJ Publications).