I was crouched down in the corner of my bedroom watching an earwig crawl up the side of my dresser when I heard my mother’s ear shattering scream from the kitchen. I jumped up and ran to see what was wrong and found her backed into a corner, both hands over her mouth just staring. Her eyes were so wide I thought they’d fall out of her head. There, on the cheap linoleum floor, the cordless phone laid cracked open, a dozen earwigs spilled out around it. Most of them were dead, but a few writhed around on the bodies of their former comrades.
Dad said he’d get some spray from the hardware store the next day. “Just some damn pincer bugs, Alice. It’s not the end of the world.”
I didn’t tell them about the shoebox under my bed, filled with wet leaves and mulch from Mom’s flower garden. I went back to my room, shut the door behind me, and pulled out my box. When it started, it was four earwigs I had found under a damp towel I had left out all night, but after reading up on the creatures, I set up an earwig’s paradise. Wet, cool organic matter in a dark spot, with a small collection of penlights spread under there to draw them in. The mulch box was a writhing mess of dirt, leaves, and reddish brown bodies slipping in and around the dirt, pincers to the sky. I admired them for a moment, then put my finger close to the box, waiting for the nearest earwig to sense me. She arched her back toward me and I put my finger down. I bit my lip and she gave me a gentle pinch.
I stuck my finger in my mouth and sucked until the sting wore off. My face hot, I watched them crawl around the box, trying to count the males and the females, wondering if they would reproduce. The thought of it caused a buzzing in my stomach and I had to push the box back under the bed to collect myself. I pulled it out again, and then felt around for the penlights. I turned them on and placed them at the corners of the bed, beam out. I held the box in my lap and watched the earwigs a bit longer. Counting them, using my pinky finger to stroke them, letting them pinch me. I slid the box under the bed and opened the door.
“Mom, Dad—I’m getting to bed early tonight. I don’t feel well.”
“Oh,” Mom said, “Do you want some chamomile?”
“Nah,” I said. “I just have a headache. I think I need sleep.”
I rolled a towel up and put it under the door, blocking the light from my parents’ sight then I pulled a larger flashlight from my dresser and brought the mulch box onto my bed. I pulled out a sandwich baggie with a brown, soggy banana peel I saved from my lunch. They would love this treat. I grinned and dropped it in. Hopefully the banana peel would lure more into the mulch box tonight. If Dad was coming home with spray, I had to formulate a plan. I put them back under the bed and laid back, staring at the ceiling. I had to protect them. They were my responsibility.
I lay on my belly and hung my hand down over the side of the bed, finally dozing off with the beginnings of a plan in mind. I woke early, made my bed, brought in the vacuum and straightened my room. I knew if Mom came into clean, she’d find my mulch box, and my pets would be destroyed, I’d be grounded, and I might have to see that awful school psychologist with the mole on his chin again. So I kept it clean. I took a shower and washed my hair, even brushed my teeth. If I met my parents’, the school’s, expectations, I could pretty much do as I pleased. No one worries about you when you’re clean and make your own bed.
I ate breakfast and talked to my mom about an English assignment. Then I went back to my room, pulled out the box, and got a pinch-kiss from one of my babies before running out the door to school. I spent the day going through the details in my head. I would go home and clean up all the penlights. I’d pull the mulch box out, top on, and lower it out my window to the ground. Then I would tell my mom I was going over to Ben’s house. It makes her so happy when I play with other kids she won’t even ask what for. I’d take the mulch box on my bike and ride it out the river, stick it in the little rock formation high up on the bank. I might even end up with other bugs, and that was fine. I just needed to protect my earwigs from my father’s spray. I figured I’d have to keep them away from the house for two days, just to be safe. I didn’t like it. I’d lose whatever wigs weren’t in the box when I left, and I’d probably lose any that went out exploring, but it was the only way.
The walk home from school was torture. I knew if I ran, I’d get home red and panting and Mom would want to know if the Karawoski brothers had been chasing me again, but walking wasted precious moments before Dad got home with the bug spray. So I walked as fast as I could, brushing past Jenny Anderson, the pretty blonde girl a year ahead of me that always made a face when I came into her line of sight. I didn’t even bother saying, “excuse me.” I forced myself to walk at a normal pace for the last block, licking my lips in anticipation and controlling my breathing as I got closer to the house.
I opened the door and hollered to let Mom know I was home, then slipped into my room and shut the door. I climbed onto the bed and pushed up on the window slowly, making sure there were no loud or sudden noises to bring Mom into my room nosing around. I pulled the mulch box from under the bed and put my finger in one last time before the big escape. A little nip. I didn’t suck the injured finger, there was no time. I put the top on the shoebox and taped it down—I couldn’t risk them getting out. I held the box in both hands and slithered out the window, anchoring myself with my knees on the other side. The sill dug into my guts, and I held my breath as I lowered the box to the ground beneath. Then I pushed up and shoved myself back into the bedroom, pulling the window closed. I lay back on my bed letting my heart slow down, staring up at the white ceiling.
I got up and went into the kitchen where Mom was cursing under her breath and stomping earwigs under her Reeboks. I held my face solid, straight, not letting her see how each time she stomped one of the “goddam pincer bugs” it felt like a hot poker in my guts.
She turned to me, her curly brunette hair falling in her face. “Yes, James?”
I swallowed hard. If I screwed this up, if she said no—my whole plan was ruined. “Can I go over to Ben’s house? He got a new lizard and he said I could come over after school to check it out.”
“Do you have any homework?”
“Nope.” I lied.
“Okay, just be home for dinner. Six thirty is dinner, okay?”
“Sure, Mom!” I passed her to go out the back door and get my bike from the garage. I watched her through the windows as I walked my bike to the front of the house, making sure she was staying in the kitchen. I laid my bike down in the grass and picked up my box. I tucked it under my arm like a football and rode as fast as I could to the river, climbed up the back to the rock formation, nestled the box in, and covered it with leaves. Then I rode my bike back home nice and slow.
Two days later, I rode back, and brought the box back. I didn’t even open it, afraid my earwigs had died or gotten loose—I sat it outside my window and waited for the right moment to bring it back in.
For a few weeks, everything was fine.
I was sitting in my room with my mulch box on my lap, letting the bugs pinch at my fingers when I heard Mom shout.
“Goddammit, Hank! Those fucking earwigs are back! They’re all over the kitchen!”
“Ah Christ,” I heard Dad say.
My heart started thumping in my chest and I hid the box under the bed, waiting to hear if there was any more discussion. If Dad was going to bring the spray back, I had to know. I had to save my wigs. I sat on the floor, ear pressed against the door taking in deep, shaking breaths, but it didn’t sound like they were talking about the earwigs anymore. I sat by the door even after I said I was going to bed, listening to canned laughter on Letterman, listening to them pad their way into the bedroom. Listening to muffled conversation I couldn’t make out, then finally, listening to the silent house.
I crawled across the floor and put a penlight under the bed. “Don’t worry, babies. We’ll be fine. We’ll be okay.” I flicked off the light and lay in bed. I didn’t sleep.
I didn’t hear Mom or Dad talk about spraying the earwigs again. Mom cursed them under her breath, and Dad said “They’re just pincer bugs, Alice.” And that’s how Monday went. Tuesday, Mom seemed like she was in a good mood. Maybe she had finally accepted that they were harmless and fine. Maybe she wouldn’t smash them under her feet anymore. Wednesday, as I was leaving for school, Mom stopped me on my way out the door.
“Make sure you rush home from school today, okay? We’re spending the night at Aunt Linda’s.”
I nodded, and went to school. I raced home, hoping I could drop my backpack off and sneak a quick visit with my wigs in. I didn’t have to worry about being red faced or out of breath, because Mom had told me to rush. I turned the corner to our street and stopped dead in my tracks. Our house was covered in a bright yellow and blue tent, Mom was sitting in the car, waiting for me. I made my legs move, and walked to the house. The sign on the tent said “BOB’S PEST CONTROL”.
The air went out of my lungs and I felt my legs go out from under me. When I woke up, Mom was standing over me asking if I was all right. I couldn’t tell her the truth. I couldn’t tell her that BOB had killed my wigs. I couldn’t tell her they were my friends and I let them pinch my fingers. So I lied. I said I didn’t drink any water and ran all the way home. I got in the car and sucked on my lower lip the whole ride to Aunt Linda’s. Mom and Aunt Linda were so caught up gossiping they didn’t notice that I had been “reading” the same page of my book for two hours. When Dad joined us, he was hungry and moved straight from dinner to beers with Aunt Linda’s boyfriend, Gary. No one seemed to notice that I hadn’t spoken a word since we left the house.
The next morning Mom dropped me at school with a smile, saying, “We’ll be able to go back to the house after school.”
I nodded, holding in a sob that burst through my tight lips the second I turned around. I waited for her car to turn the corner, and walked away from the school. I couldn’t be around them, they couldn’t understand. I walked down to the river, and climbed up the bank to the rock formation where I had brought the wigs to save them. Where, if I had been smarter, I would have let them free. It was damp and cool, and full of dead leaves. It would have been paradise for them. But I had been so selfish. So wrong. I picked at the leaves and hoped maybe I would see a wig. Maybe some of mine had gotten loose, and were here, waiting for me.
I didn’t see any.
I walked home, my feet weighing as much as my heart, trying to keep a brave face. Mom had all the windows open and was in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher. I slunk into my room, closed the door, and stared at the bed. I knew they were dead. I knew it was over. But I had to see for myself. Maybe I would take the box up to the river where I should have left them in the first place. Or maybe I could get away with burying them somewhere. But it had to be dealt with.
I reached under the bed, pulled out my mulch box, and hands shaking, ran my fingers through the dirt. All my wigs. The males, the females…stiff, breaking apart. Unable to pinch. Then, I saw movement. I moved the mulch about until I saw him, a male earwig, still alive. Weak, but alive. A smile broke across my face and I dumped my backpack out, pulling the small Tupperware container my lunch had been in. I picked him up gently, and placed him inside. I dug around some more, gently, looking for movement—and there she was. A female. A strong female that had survived the gassing. I put her in the box with her new husband, closed the top, and dropped it out my window.
We would begin again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Renee Asher Pickup is a mellowed out punk rocker and writer living in the Southern California desert. Her fiction has been published in places like Alliterati Magazine and Solarcide.com. She writes a monthly column at Revolt Daily and hosts a weekly podcast called Books and Booze. You can find out more here: www.reneeasherpickup.com