Pop. 2 By David Massengill

Once again, Frank checked his exterminator’s suit for insects. That was how the redbugs got you. They landed on your clothing or your skin, and within 24 hours the poison on their legs and feelers ruined you. Rash, fever, seizures, skin necrosis, death.

Of course, the government had designed the suits—a white weave of cotton, polybenzimidazole, and Kevlar—to be impervious to redbugs. If they weren’t, Frank and the rest of his extermination team would have been charred-looking corpses by now, just like the residents of this Eastern Washington town.

Frank glanced at his map. He’d come along Pioneer Way from the town square, where he’d sprayed four public benches and a statue of a Native American woman holding forth some sort of basket. He’d only seen one redbug in the town square. It was in the intersection of the cement walkways, motionless in the sunlight. He sprayed it before it could fly or scuttle away, and then he stomped on it with a boot. He stared at the glittering, roach-sized exoskeleton and its ooze of yellow guts, and he mused over how such a small creature could decimate all populations from Spokane to the foothills of the Cascades.

He didn’t think about it for long, though, because he wanted to finish his work. He just had to spray the gravestones in the veterans cemetery, and then he could meet the rest of the team and get the hell out of the quarantine zone.

Not that he had much waiting for him back in Tacoma. A small, gray-walled apartment overlooking a car impound lot. Financial debt that was daunting enough after a couple years of unemployment to make him take the Homeland exterminator position. His 45th birthday.

Three months ago—just after his second tour of extermination duty—his girlfriend had left him. Cindi said she knew he was never going to seek help for his night terrors. She told him she could no longer tolerate the chemical taste on his lips. She admitted she’d fallen for her dentist.

“I like that he helps people for a living,” she’d explained.

“I help people, too.”

She nodded once and said, “But mostly you just kill bugs.”

Frank heard the familiar humming sound that always signaled a swarm’s approach. He hurried across the street to the front porch of an apartment building. He tried calming himself by reminding himself he was encased in a suit and helmet, but that didn’t ease his anxiety.

The humming grew louder, and he backed up against a screen door. Now sweating, he looked along the stretch of street leading in the direction of the cemetery. He saw a shady, tree-lined sidewalk and a corner drug store with a window sign advertising lemon soda. The marigolds in the flowerpot outside the store were still blooming. This town and others Frank had toured showed few signs of devastation. They all had a Sunday afternoon feel to them thanks to everyone being dead or too afraid to loot.

Frank gasped when he saw the metallic-looking swarm rounding the corner in his direction, its thousands of beating wings causing the drug store’s awning to flutter. He turned to the screen door and yanked on its handle in a panic.

It didn’t open.

Frank glanced toward the swarm again, and his eyes widened.

A woman stood at the end of the porch, facing the approaching insects. She had straight auburn hair spanning the length of her back. She wore a pink tanktop and denim shorts and no shoes.

“Get inside!” Frank shouted. “The bugs are coming.”

His words were too late. The swarm blew through the woman’s hair with the power of a storm wind.

The woman turned a lovely, pale face toward Frank, and he saw that she was smiling. The smile remained after the redbugs passed. “Come inside,” the woman said. “I’m Anastasia.”

“Frank,” Frank muttered. He was still stunned by what had occurred. He followed the woman into a green-wallpapered apartment that wasn’t much larger than his own home. There was a living room with a crimson couch, a circular coffee table, and an outdated television. To the left of the living room was a tiny open kitchen with jars stacked on one counter, and to the right was a doorway that must have led to a bedroom. An intense yet pleasant syrupy smell pervaded the apartment.

The woman sat on one end of the couch and patted the cushion beside her. “Please sit,” she said. “I’m grateful to actually have a guest.”

Frank set his extermination hose on the carpet. He felt awkward sitting beside this woman in his suit and helmet, but he’d heard stories of foolish exterminators who’d unzipped because they assumed they were safe inside an abandoned house or a grocery store bathroom. Redbugs always appeared in the unlikeliest of places.

“What the-?” Frank shot up from the couch when he saw the necklace of insects on the coffee table. Someone had glued redbug exoskeletons over small chunks of turquoise.

“I made that,” Anastasia said. “Insects are a lot prettier when you’re not afraid of them.”

“I don’t understand how you-,” Frank said. “They’ve killed everyone.”

Anastasia nodded gently. “They’ve arranged passages for people,” she said. “That’s how I like to think of it.” She rose from the couch and walked to the kitchen, where she retrieved one of the jars from the counter.

“Don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I thought it was horrible at first. I went into my neighbors’ homes and found their bodies in chairs or on beds. They looked like statues made of ash.” She unscrewed the lid of the jar. “I cried non-stop for about a month.”

She came near the couch and dipped her fingers in the jar. “But I’ve always been familiar with nature,” she said, “and how you need to go with it rather than fight it. I once spent a year studying to be a naturopath.”

Frank saw the yellow goo covering her fingers, and he grimaced as he thought of the bug guts from the public square.

Anastasia grinned. “You recognize this,” she said. “Well, you are their destroyer, aren’t you?”

“I don’t enjoy doing it,” Frank said. He was surprised by the defensiveness in his voice. “It pays the bills.”

“I don’t get bills anymore,” Anastasia said, slathering the bug guts on one arm. “Now that I have a whole town to myself.” She began to rub the substance into her cheeks with small circular motions.

Frank realized the origin of the syrupy odor. Weirdly, he found himself wanting Anastasia despite her oddness and her layer of grotesque body lotion.

She held out the jar to him. “Will you try it, Frank? Pharmaceutical companies will eventually push all kinds of vaccines and drugs on the dying, but this is the only antidote.”

“I should go,” Frank said, glancing at the digital clock embedded in the sleeve of his suit.

“Where to?” Anastasia said. “Last week the insects reached Seattle. Today they’re in San Francisco.” She turned on the TV. Frank saw the fuzzy image of hordes of people pushing against a quarantine fence manned by police.

Frank wondered why his captain wouldn’t have told the team. If the bugs took Seattle then surely they’d infested Tacoma. He thought how the exterminators were restricted from borrowing their hoses.

Anastasia turned off the TV. “You could stay in the apartment next door,” she said. “I have a clean set of sheets.”

“That I can die in?” Frank asked, his voice cracking. He suddenly felt claustrophobic in his suit and helmet.

“You don’t have to die.”

Frank heard a humming outside.

“They’ll be by in a few minutes,” Anastasia said. “They can show you I’m right.” She brought the jar closer to him, and her eyes met his. “Do you really think I’d want to kill you? I’ve seen enough death.”

Frank slowly unlocked his helmet and lifted it from his head. He set it on the couch before unzipping the upper part of his suit. The puffy material moved away from his torso like a used cocoon.

His hand trembled as he applied the goo to his arms, his neck, and finally his face. His skin tingled.

Anastasia opened the front door and led him onto the porch. When the humming intensified, Frank almost retreated inside.

Anastasia stood beside him at the top of the stairs. “You’re going to be fine,” she said. “Just close your eyes, and keep them shut even when the sound of the insects is all around you. It’ll remind you of what it feels like to be alive.”

With his eyes shut, Frank could picture the swarm approaching. The blur of their brown, translucent wings. The searching movement of their furry-looking legs. The long, bending feelers that protruded from their heads.

Frank almost cried out when he felt something on his cheek. He recognized the touch as a kiss, and he opened his eyes to see Anastasia’s face close to his.

He was about to reach for her when he saw the redbug resting on the back of his hand.

*

David Massengill is only slightly revolted by cockroaches, but he deeply fears bed bugs.  He is the author of Fragments of a Journal Salvaged from a Charred House in Germany, 1816 and other stories (Hammer & Anvil Books).  His short works of horror and literary fiction have appeared in dozens of literary journals, including Pulp Metal Magazine, Danse Macabre, Yellow Mama, and Eclectica Magazine, among others.  Read more of his work at www.davidmassengillfiction.com.

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