Peeved and Prickled by David Calbert


Bugs, Victor thought as he floored the van’s gas pedal, my life is nothing but one long series of bugs. 

He was late. Long shadows began to drag across the cracked tar of the road. The client’s address was a few miles from the suburbs where he usually worked, past the manicured green lawns to the rolling farmland and dense copses of Florida elms with thick grey beards of Spanish moss.

Victor began to sweat. His van held onto the summer heat, and the air conditioning had been broken for months. He rolled down the window and was assailed by a rush of swampy air that did nothing to cool his flushed face. The ubiquitous shrill of crickets, cicadas, and other insect chatter, what his Mimaw had called “critter song,” poured in through the open window, carried over from the swampland. 

Some people liked critter song, mostly city folk who’d never experienced real quiet. They found the white noise comforting. But it made Victor nervous.

He’d spent every summer as a kid at his Mimaw’s ramshackle ranch house in Glades County. Out there in the sticks, you didn’t just hear critter song, you had to deal with the critters themselves. If you ever got up in the night and went to the kitchen for a glass of water, a platoon of greasy shelled roaches would scatter when you turned on the light. The wasp nest beneath the eaves seemed to wax and wane like the moon, destroyed by Mimaw’s broom and rebuilt again the next morning. Wispy streaks of silverfish skated around the porcelain sink, disappearing down the drain if you got too close.

Other than the occasional wasp sting, these bands of critters left you alone. But there were others, things that had evolved to hunt children as they ran through the backfields. Ticks that would drill into the hidden places, your armpits or the backs of your knees, and then swell like a balloon with stolen blood. Or chiggers, which looked like eight-legged rubies if you were lucky enough to catch sight of one before it burrowed beneath your skin and pockmarked you with painful red bumps full of eggs.

After a few summers of that, critter song stopped sounding like music to Victor. It became conspiratorial chitter, hissed and clicked stratagems dreamt up behind unblinking compound eyes. Conspiring bugs trying to find their way inside. 

The house Victor’s GPS brought him to looked eerily like his Mimaw’s, an old ranch-style home set back from the main road by a long gravel driveway. Vines grew up the sides, and a tattered American flag hung above the porch. As Victor eased the van up the uneven road, he glanced at the fields on either side. He could just make out the familiar black piles of cow shit dotting the grass in all directions—though, he noted with some surprise, not a single cow.

Victor parked the van, stepped out and clipped his utility belt around his considerable midsection. Years carrying tanks of insecticide spray, offset by the fast food diet and stress drinking of the perpetually broke, had made Victor a broad but bottom-heavy man. He slipped the straps of the sprayer over his shoulders and its contents sloshed dully. Putting it on was the best part of the job; it made Victor feel like one of those flame troopers in the black-and-white newsreel footage of war, off to fight for God and country. But he had no patriotic swell of music, just the DILBERT’S PEST CONTROL sign printed on the side of his van.

He heard the hinges of the porch door shriek and looked up. For a moment, Victor thought that his Mimaw had somehow slipped from his daydreams and into the real world. The woman who stood on the front steps, looking down at him with her arms crossed, was tall and thin. Her denim dress seemed to bulge and dip in irregular places. But unlike his dearly departed grandmother, who had rinsed and curled the wisps of her hair daily, this woman let her thick gray hair go wild.

“Mrs. McCormick?”

“You’re late.”

“I know. I’m sorry, there was—”

“Come on inside then.” She held open the screen door. Victor hesitated. 

He’d gone inside customer’s houses before, following a trail of ants to a nest in a crawl space or, once, an oozing rivulet of honey to a hive of bees behind some poor bastard’s wall. But something about this house and this bony old woman, both of which seemed plucked from the crawling days of his youthful summers, made him want to get in his van and go. 

“Ma’am,” Victor mumbled, “we typically just spray around the perimeter of the house.”

Mrs. McCormick fixed Victor with hard eyes, the whites of which had turned yellow round the edges, like ancient scrolls of paper.

“They’re not out here,” she hissed. “They’re inside.”

She turned away without waiting for a response, leaving the door open behind her. Again, Victor hesitated. But his sense of professionalism, and the increasingly dire state of his finances, got the better of him.

He went inside.

It smelled like a hothouse full of dead and dying plants. Curtains blackened with what Victor could only hope was years of cigarette smoke were pulled against the last rays of daylight. Mrs. McCormick led Victor through the living room, the furniture reduced to lumpy shapes in the house’s gloom.

Passing through a hall, she came to stop outside a closed door.

“It’s down there,” she said, pointing with one long finger. Victor saw that she was missing a fingernail and the fingertip was the color and texture of raw coal. He hoped she had smashed it between a door and wasn’t suffering from some catching disease. 

Eager to be done with the job, he pushed open the door. Stairs led down into an unfinished basement.

“You’re all so loud,” McCormick whispered over Victor’s shoulder, addressing whatever pests waiting for him down there. “It’s enough to drive a body crazy.”

Deciding that Mrs. McCormick was indeed crazy, and the only way out of this was through, Victor took the first step into the basement. To his dismay, the old lady followed.

Victor heard nothing but silence as he hunched under the house’s wooden foundation. Dust rose from the dirt floor and choking, moldy air clawed at the back of his throat. A naked lightbulb hung like a shattered moon, swinging in darkness. Mrs. McCormick huddled behind Victor like an unwanted shadow.

“It’s there,” she hissed, pointing toward the back wall with a hand that bore fingers just as black and shriveled as the first Victor had seen. He struggled to keep his own hands from trembling as he took out his flashlight and clicked it on. The beam shone on a deep groove in the earthen floor, as wide as a man. Holding the spray nozzle at the ready, Victor shuffled forward.

“Even out here,” Mrs. McCormick said, picking up the threads of a one-sided conversation, “we can hear all your noise. We can’t sleep at night. It makes us itch under our shells.”

But Victor wasn’t listening. His flashlight beam had landed on something big and round and white jutting up from the dirt. Something with horns and flat, cud-chewing teeth and holes where placid eyes had once roamed over green fields.

The flashlight found a dozen more. They were piled high against the far wall, picked clean of flesh. Even in his terror, Victor’s trained eye noticed the unnatural lack of flies.  

Victor gripped his sprayer tightly, feeling the same terror that must have pumped through those long ago soldiers. 

He turned, ready to bowl past the old woman if he had to. But she was no longer standing behind him. Mrs. McCormick lay on the ground, melted like a great fleshy puddle, spilling out of her denim dress. Above her, buzzing and vibrating in the dark, was a swarm of something Victor didn’t have words to describe. It held its human shape a moment, like a sandcastle before a crashing wave, then it unleashed itself.

Victor tried to spray, but they were on him in a moment, crying their fury into his eyes and ears and down his throat.

It wasn’t long before they found their way inside.   


David Calbert is a graduate of the UCLA Screenwriting MFA program. His fiction has been published in The Berkeley Fiction Review and Horrified Magazine. He lives in Los Angeles. 

Published 5/6/21

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