The first roach appears in the sink, mahogany-dark and glossy against the stainless steel. Jessie grabs a sponge and slams it down, listens for the crunch of wings.
The second roach is in the living room, crawling along the molding. Jessie waits with the vacuum until it’s close enough that she can suck it up. Just before it disappears into the hose, she sees it spread its wings and point its antennae backwards like it’s offended.
For a minute she thinks about calling her father, but she knows how he feels about her living alone in a city so far away, and he’d have no sympathy. She feels like a kid for even thinking about it. It’s just a bug.
She tapes over the nozzle, calls Bridget, goes out.
“I have roaches,” says Jessie when they’re at the bar.
Bridget makes a face, says, “No kidding, in that shithole where you live. Oh my god, I told you about Jason, right? He had to move out for like, two weeks when he got bedbugs. Gross.”
Jessie thinks Jason just wanted to stay in Bridget’s place during the soccer playoffs. Bridget has extended cable.
In the bar mirror, her reflection is serene, her pale hair spreading over her shoulders and her bra strap showing. She tucks it in.
“You need an exterminator,” Bridget says.
The Jack and Coke is way too sweet (this place skimps on drinks), and temps don’t get paid much, and Jessie should really just call her father and ask about their old house in Arizona with all the scorpions in the backyard, and what he did to get rid of them.
“Don’t wait,” Bridget warns her. “Those things spread.”
She turns the vacuum on again the next morning, just to make sure the roach is dead.
The third roach, a week later, crawls out of her bathtub drain. She’s got water in her eyes, doesn’t notice it until it skitters across her foot.
The exterminator peers into all her kitchen cabinets, but they’re as empty as the day she moved in, and he sets some traps and sprays something out of his Ghostbusters backpack and stands, yanking his pants up by the belt loops.
“Not sure where they’re coming from,” he says. “Do you keep windows open?”
They walk down the hall into the living room.
“They really like clutter,” he says, in the same accusatory tone she hears all the time from her mom.
The room is a little tight; there’s the couch, the TV, the armchair that’s been with her since college, her computer, her postcards tacked up on the wall (no nails allowed, she uses blue putty). But it’s clean, except for a little dust. There’s nothing here for them.
He pokes around her DVDs, checks the tangle of wires under her desk, peers behind her TV bench.
“Yeah,” he says after a minute, pulls at the brim of his red cap, “not sure where they’re coming from.”
Seven more that week, one every night: on the TV; the kitchen counter; the wall above her pillow. She starts sleeping with a can of Raid next to her alarm clock, gets to be a pretty good shot.
On her way home from work Friday she calls her father, tells him what’s happening.
“Well, you live in an old building.”
He sounds distracted, and when she says, “But this isn’t normal,” he’s already saying, “Everyone has a few roaches, honey. Don’t turn into a princess over this.”
She flinches. These roaches aren’t a few mindless foragers, though, she knows. These roaches are messengers. “It’s not like that, Dad.”
“Sure, sure,” he mumbles over the rustle of paper.
She tries not to sound demanding—he hates that, nothing shuts him down faster.
“Dad, just—what did you use, do you remember?”
“I don’t—something from the hardware store, something-something-Matic.” She hears the trunk of a car thump shut. “I’ve got to go, Jessie. Just keep it together for once. It can’t be that bad.”
When Jessie opens the door to her apartment, dozens of roaches are lined up on either side of her hallway like an honor guard.
“Okay, honey, gotta go,” her dad says, and she hears the click of the phone, the shrill dial tone, the dull hum of a hundred antennae waving.
At the hardware store, the first guy asks what room she’s remodeling before she has a chance to talk, and the second guy asks if she’s looking for the garden department. Maybe they do this to all the girls, she thinks; she’s never been to the hardware store without Dad.
The third guy is younger than she is, and as soon as she sees him, she blurts out, “I’m being infested with roaches.”
He makes a face. “Like, how many?”
“There were about a hundred in my hallway just now.”
The kid laughs. “So what, like, three or four?”
“Like, a hundred.”
The kid sighs, disappears into the aisles and comes back with Bomb-A-Matic, Roach Motels, industrial spray (Twenty-Foot Range!), plastic sheets, blue tape.
“This is for a hundred roaches,” he says, half-smiling, setting down the things in a row like she’ll need him to point and explain.
She pays for it out of her new-fall-boots money and takes a cab home because she doesn’t want the roaches in the subway to spread the word that she’s coming.
They climb the walls when she comes into the apartment, following her like trails of smog, and she makes quick work of the plastic wrap. The chair gets the barest drape—she’ll be throwing it out as soon as they’re gone. Her dad thinks she should never even have brought it, and she’s beginning to agree.
She shakes three roaches out of her duffel and manages to stomp two of them. The third skitters under the bed.
Good luck, sucker, she thinks.
Jessie lays down the motels and sets the bombs and calls Bridget.
That night she falls asleep on Bridget’s couch and dreams that they march across her body, their shadows passing in front of her closed eyes, feathery feet dancing over her mouth.
The stench of the bombs is just as nasty as she expected, but it’s a small price to pay for a clean apartment. She opens up the windows in the kitchen and the living room to air the place out, and she’s planning a movie night until she sees the roaches on her bed.
Some of them are upturned, their legs twitching, and some are just the hard brown shell, and they’ve formed the lazy, rounded S of a human body in the bed.
They were waiting for her to come home, she realizes, and her bag falls to the floor with a bang.
The exterminator’s on her speed dial.
“I’m telling you I don’t see it,” the exterminator says. His eyes are chemical-green, like her father’s, and when he frowns they become two crescents of skin. “There’s nowhere they could be coming from.”
“No, I know, I know,” he says, doesn’t quite look at her. He’s seen the bed. “I’ll definitely try some of the stronger chemicals. You don’t eat much in this kitchen, right?”
“No,” she says. She’s lost her appetite.
“No rotting fabric?”
“You live alone?”
He looks at her hair, a blonde braid that she’s winding tighter and tighter against her head as if it will keep them out, and shrugs. “I’d say you should move.”
She’s left five messages with her dad. No answer yet.
“Can you do something here anyway?”
“Sure, sure,” he says, “I’ll set up some of the industrial bombs to go off tonight. Monday you can call me and I’ll stop by and see how it went, but you really don’t want to be here when these things go off.”
She’s got no sense of smell left; everything smells like Raid.
“Okay,” she says.
Her father leaves a voice message while she’s putting on mascara, and she plays it twice, staring at her face in the mirror, her lashes getting darker one shaky stroke at a time.
“Hope you’ve stopped panicking about the roaches, Princess. I’d like to be proud of you up there. I’ll call you soon. Love you.”
Bridget’s so sorry, but Jason wants to get serious, so this weekend is out after all.
“Next week, though, sleepover,” Bridget says.
Next week Jessie will be living on the street, because no way is she staying here. “It’s fine. I’ll call you Monday?”
“Monday we’re on,” Bridget says, and Jessie pulls her armchair into the center of the room, so she can see them coming.
That night she goes out drinking until the bars close, goes home with the guy who paid for last call.
“I’m being smoked out,” she tells him, “for roaches. They’re everywhere.”
“No problem,” he says, “we can go to my place,” wraps an arm around her waist.
He’s still asleep in the morning, and she gets her things and heads to the nearest diner, nurses her hangover with coffee and pancakes.
When she goes home the bomb smell has faded, enough so she can breathe, anyway, and there’s not a roach in the place.
She showers in a roach-free tub and climbs into her chair, feet tucked under her knees, half-watching TV, scanning the room. She’s not supposed to be here, but if they’re gone, maybe, maybe . . .
She breathes through her nose, and her head fills with the acrid tang of the spray. It’s become a pretty comforting smell. It smelled the same when her father got rid of those scorpions in Arizona; she remembers now.
One call to her dad to leave a message that the bugs are gone, and one more just to listen to his phone ringing like it’s Morse code. It’s comforting to think she’s calling him with a success story; it’s calming just to feel his number under her fingers.
She gets coffee around the corner and by the time she gets back she’s decided to call her father again; she needs him to apologize for being such a coward that he can’t answer his phone when she calls.
(“Sometimes people lose reception,” he says, if she ever brings it up. “You have to stop taking everything so personally, Princess.”)
She thinks about him on the phone with her, ignoring her questions, shoving things into the trunk of his car for a quick getaway.
She hopes he apologizes. She hopes he answers. She misses him.
She left the cell on the chair in the living room when she went out, but she can see the telltale flash of blue through a knot of roaches under her kitchen table, shoving the phone by inches out of the way.
Jessie walks quickly for the living room chair, dives for the nest of blankets, and turns the TV on maximum volume like it will drown them out.
The action movie fills the room with gunfire and curses, and she watches the whole thing, hates her father for his silence.
Jessie has her three fingers of Jack Daniels that night, and then three more, and she finally manages to fall asleep.
In her dreams there’s a crunch of glass, a scream, a cold draft, but when she opens her eyes it’s just the Three Stooges hitting each other in black and white, and she’s too exhausted to even turn it off.
She pulls the blanket around her, drifts back to sleep.
Sunday morning she wakes up and it’s still cold. She wraps the blanket around herself, slides on her thick loafers, and checks the kitchen; if they’ve opened the window somehow, she’s moving out, she doesn’t care what happens.
The kitchen is empty and still—too still, it’s been six weeks since she could go in there without hearing the little whirr of bodies moving just behind the cabinet doors.
Where are they?
She has to call her father, has to call him now; she fishes out the phone from under the table, flips it open, thumbs his number on the keypad, but before she can call him she feels a shadow behind her and turns.
The bedroom door is nearly shut, but not quite, and inside it’s way too dark for this time of day.
She pushes the door open with one finger.
They’ve swarmed the floor, waves on top of one another, and it takes her too long to realize there’s a red exterminator’s baseball cap on the floor, to see a glimpse of an eye, chemical-green, before it’s swallowed up.
He told her to go to a friend’s over the weekend, and he’s seen her TV and her computer and everything else worth stealing, and of course he’s not afraid of the bugs.
The mass lurches, and for one queasy moment she wonders if he’s still alive before she sees it’s just a new shift coming from under her bed to take over for the tired ones.
It’s hard to see, her eyes are tearing up (it’s hard to breathe suddenly), and when she looks at the window to clear her vision she sees how he broke the window with his crowbar; almost all the glass from the lower frame is missing, and a hundred roaches are clustered over the hole, throwing the room into twilight. Two or three have impaled themselves on the jagged edges to make a more stable base for the others.
She thinks about the flickering black-and-white on her television, about the muffled scream she heard, thinks how fast it must have been that the one sound was all he had time for.
They must have swarmed his mouth first.
The wind taps against the upper pane, and a dozen roaches rush up the wall to their comrades, the trembling bodies locked into place.
A buffer against the wind, so she wouldn’t be cold.
She stands in the doorway for a long time, watches the carpet of roaches as they eat the intruder, their antennae genially waving.
She staggers back into the chair and tries to hit the number to call her father, to call the police (to call her father), but a roach flies across the room and lands square on her mouth, six feathery feet pressing against her lips.
One of them crawls into her hair, and then there are five more, and she feels the tugs as they comb out her pale braid with their spindle-thin legs, their little mouths.
It felt the same in Arizona; now she remembers the little dancing scorpions (they were beautiful, how had she forgotten?), her father’s open hands as he showed her the first one that had crawled out of the wood and died.
“Sorry I missed your call,” the phone is saying. His voice is tinny, far away.
The phone slides out of her hands and clatters to the floor; she watches numbly as they converge on it, little pallbearers nudging it into place under the table, where his voice can’t reach her.
After a moment the roach sighs, drops away from her lips like a petal falling.
When she closes her eyes, six of the biggest and darkest skitter across her eyelids and wrap themselves like a circlet in the corona of her hair.