Like the sound of soft fingers on skin, green palm fronds whispered amongst themselves. Their soft breath caressed his cheek as he listened for the slight scratching of frond cilia against stiff palm trunks.
“Sam.” The breeze was stronger, the fronds closer. He could almost feel them tickling his face.
“Sam. You’ll be late for work.” He stirred, allowed the cold waves to sift sand from underneath him. Gently, that was the way, no quick… A huge wave sucked him into the chilling surf.
“Give back the comforter.” He opened his eyes, saw one vagrant palm frond floating nearby. It looked darker in the water. He reached out for it.
“Ow! Let go,” she cried in pain. “Thank you. Now come on, get up.”
Sam sat up, hugging his arms to his chest. “Sorry, hon. Thought you were a palm frond.” The cold seeped in, forcing him to stand and head for the warm shower.
“Did you, now?” She smiled. “Agree to go to Jamaica for Christmas and I’ll be a whole palm tree. But we’re not going anywhere unless we both get paychecks. So get moving, or I’ll abduct you as is.”
Sam, already in the shower and turning the valve, ignored the threat. As the cold water struck, he forgot it entirely.
Cough. “Thanks, Franz.” Sam coughed again as he took the proffered lozenge.
“No problem, Mr. Gregson. Always have a cough drop or two for just this purpose. NyQuil, DayQuil, aspirin, …. You got a cold, I’m your man.”
Sam sucked the menthol-laced candy with relief, and looked over at the chubby night guard in his black and yellow sweater. “I appreciate it, Franz, I really do. Funny, though. Felt fine the whole damn day, then bang! The minute I’m ready to go home, I start coughing like crazy.”
“Allergic to your wife?” Franz waggled fuzzy eyebrows to make clear that this was a joke. “Don’t tell her I said that.” The man bobbed from side to side as he chuckled.
Sam coughed. So much for trying to laugh. “Oh, I will. She’ll probably come right down and stomp the life out of you. She’s a vicious woman. Like a preying mantis.” Sam smiled as he wrapped his scarf around his neck, though it was true that she was a little controlling. “Probably just cockroach dust, though. They’re all over our building. Scared to death of the things myself.” He offered his best self-deprecating grin.
“Oh, sure,” smiled Franz. “Got them all over the city. Good thing this building has centipedes instead.” He laughed.
“I’ll see you, Franz. Thanks for the cough drop.”
“No problem, Mr. Gregson. Wouldn’t want you getting sick again, after all.”
Sam pushed his way through the revolving door, steeling himself for the chilly night air. Like leaving your shell, he always thought. You go from the soft cozy cocoon of your bed to the hard warm casing of the office, then back again through intemperate climes between. Over and over, like an indecisive hermit crab, scuttling over the sand between homes. Eventually, the waves were bound to separate the choices too far, and you’d get washed away by the cold tide. One of your more evolved hermit crabs here, he thought, watching dark cars creep down the street, their glowing eye stalks waving slowly back and forth. Next shell, please!
He stumbled aboard a commuter bus. Did it seem like the steps were lower than they should be? Nothing had felt quite right recently. Ever since that flu episode last month; barely conscious for two days, all sorts of weird dreams, and he still felt disoriented. No depth of field, he decided, focusing on the window across the aisle. That beetle-browed black man in the tan suit, for example. He was in focus, when Sam looked just above him. They avoided eye contact. Like all good commuters, he thought, since the first trilobites lined up to crawl down the beach. The man was clear enough, but the woman beside him,… What color was her clothing, green? Grey, he saw, shifting his gaze nearer to her. Grey like a chrysalis. But now the black man looked kind of beige. He was wearing a tan suit, of course. Maybe it was nothing.
He’d have his eyes checked, Sam decided. Could the flu do something to your eyes? Probably. Viruses. Little aliens crawling inside your body. Talk about probing. But did they come in little UFOs? Was that how they got past security? All that hand cleanser being sold, and here little virus saucers were just flying right up your nostrils. He wrinkled his nose. No way to really get them closed. He was defenseless, he thought with a thrill. And loopy. Never really recovered from that flu, and now it had gone to his brain. Have to take some time off, recuperate.
When his stop came, he leapt off the bus. More aliens in a crowd, he thought. More chance of abduction. Best to steer clear of the teeming hordes. He watched the glowing tail of the bus roll out of sight. Must be the season. You only got that effect in the spring, when the buses were attracting mates.
As Sam walked slowly up the dark stairs to his flat, a door opened beside him. “Nice hat, Ms. Gordon,” he called out as went past. Weird old thing. Always seemed to wrap up in grey fringe, like a moth. A gypsy moth, he thought with a giggle. Was he wrong, or had hats with big dangly feathers not gone out of style years ago? And she was so pale all the time. Needed makeup – a little cochineal red lipstick, maybe. Except wasn’t it made from crushed insects? Disgusting thought, putting that near your mouth.
He stopped in front of his own door. Alright, Sam. Time to get it together. In control. Serious, sober, successful, that’s the way to go. A man’s home is his shell. He dug in his pocket for a key, and opened the door.
“Honey, I’m home!” He stepped into the hall, coughing again. It always seemed to smell a little off in this apartment. Have to save up for a bigger place. “Where are you, my little nymph?” He hung up his coat and hat.
“Oh!” he cried, as something touched him on the shoulder. He stepped back, rubbing his eyes. “Startled me for a minute.” Was it his imagination, or was she wearing a dark, stiff suit, and a hat? Maybe feathers were back in style after all. And was there something different about her face? He shook his head, containing a sneeze.
“Oh, darling, you’re sick again.” She rubbed soft feelers down his cheek, and he flinched. “Come in and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea.”
“Sorry, honey,” he said, opening his eyes again. She looked down at him with eyes so bright he could see his reflections in them. “Just a mite tired.” He glanced at her shiny brown tunic. Some sort of synthetic, he supposed. “Thought you were wearing a suit of armor there for a minute.”
“Armor? Were you going to attack me?” She twisted her thorax demurely.
“No. No, of course not. I just… I don’t know.” He smiled wanly. “I think I will take that tea. Maybe a hot bath, too.”
“Like to be in hot water, do you?” Her spiracles winked as she laughed.
“There’s something warming about it.” It was a weak effort, but the best he could do. Definitely needed that time off. Best to raise it right away.
“Come on, then.” She led the way to the kitchen, cerci waggling appealingly.
Cerci, he thought, following. Strange word for legs. A lot like “Circe”. Wasn’t she the one who’d turned Odysseus into a pig, or something? Not quite right, but something about transformation, anyway.
“Have a seat, while I get your tea ready.” Her segments crinkled as she bent over an electric kettle.
He sat. “May be safer not to drink anything,” he offered. “Don’t want to turn into a pig.”
“A pig? You really are sick.” She turned to face him, a worried look on her face, and a teabag in each gripper. “Maybe something herbal? I’m pretty sure it’ll just make you sleepy, not turn you into anything.”
He gathered his resolve. “Honey, I’ve been thinking.”
“Oh, I’m proud. You know how excited I get when you do that. And with you not feeling well!”
It stung, but he bored on relentlessly. “Let’s take that vacation now. Let’s get away from all this. From this city, this apartment. Somewhere different, … Clean.”
“Sam. You know we can’t do that. We don’t have the money. And I just took on this new research job at the lab. If I get it done quickly, they may promote me!”
“I just… I’m feeling strange, lately. Not myself.”
“Don’t be silly, honey. Who else would you be?”
“No, not… I mean, I’m starting to see things differently. They’re not what they seem. Or, they are, but they seem like they’re something different.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“It’s hard to explain.”
She brought over a steaming cup. “Have some tea. I’m sure it’ll all be clear in the morning, when you’re rested. Probably just a midlife crisis.” She flashed her maxillae. “Next thing you’ll be working late with Jeannie in accounting. I hope it’s Jeannie; she has such nice legs.” She extended her own.
Hairy, he noted; thick black hairs. Strange how he hadn’t noticed her having that unshaven look before. Not really to his taste, he decided. Time to put his foot down, to show who was in charge here.
“Well, we’re going.” He put as much determination as he could into the declaration. “We’re going, and that’s that.”
Tea spilled as the saucer shook, and she quickly set it down before him. Her mouthparts worked rapidly.
The tension grew, and Sam felt himself weakening. It was important to hold on, he told himself. To stand up for himself. For himself, and for all men. At this crucial time, at this epochal moment, he must stand firm, forsake creature comforts (he looked longingly at the steaming tea) in favor of principle. The principle, he reminded himself, of self-determination. Of freedom. Of vacation.
But then her antennae drooped, and he felt his resolve slipping away, the moment fading. The cool breeze from her wings wafted a delightful scent his way.
“Sam, …” She sniffed. “I’ve worked so hard for this opportunity; there’s so much riding on this. Please. I’ll finish this one project. Then we’ll go wherever you want. But I have to finish this work; it means a lot to me. To both of us. Please.”
She never pleaded, he thought. The scent of her was almost overpowering now, like a heady mix of nutmeg and ginger; and something more primal. He looked into her soft eyes, their facets glowing with concern, and gave up the fight for mankind. “I guess I’ll have some of that tea,” he conceded.
“I’ll go start your bath.”
Heck of a good wife really. He took a sip of chamomile. He’d been wrong about the tunic, too. That glossy brown really brought out her mandibles.
He drifted off quickly after his bath. His dreams featured ants and grasshoppers massing for battle. But then they just formed into a choir and a marching band, and deep sleep came at last.
Green palm fronds sighed with contentment. A little like a wing. A cricket wing. The palm fronds tickled his skin again, and the sound of crickets grew louder. Annoying things, he thought. And the noise! Not quite cricket, he smiled. That sound they make. Strai… strei… stridulation! He woke suddenly.
She stood beside the bed. Funny, he thought. Funny that I know it’s her, when she’s dressed up as a giant cockroach. Doesn’t look like her at all, really. An angry buzz sounded by the bed as the cockroach rubbed two forelimbs together. “Yes, honey, I’m getting up.” Do cockroaches stand on their back legs? I thought there was more scuttling involved. Like ships. Flying saucers.
“Get up,” she cried. “You’ve overslept again. You’re ruining my results!”
He blinked his eyes. She still looked like a cockroach, and an angry one at that.
With a violent motion, the giant bug ripped the covers off the bed. Exposed, he woke completely. He was on his bed, naked, with a monster cockroach leaning over him, mouthparts working side to side. Yellow slime dripped onto the bed by his side. It burned as it seeped into the sheet under his leg. With agility born of terror, he leapt from a supine position to a full sprint, heading for the bedroom door. His feet had barely touched ground when something long and sticky wrapped around his waist and brought him down. As his head slammed into the hardwood floor, he saw bugs of all sizes crawling from under the bed, from behind ceiling panels, behind outlets. Overwhelmed, his mind gave up its hold at last, and dropped him into a bottomless pit.
Beneath the tall palm trees, piles of dry fronds rustled in a fetid breeze smelling of decaying seaweed and coconut shells. The sound drowned out the voices of two sand fleas arguing over a piece of flotsam.
“Its health is good, and the filters are back in place.”
The larger flea prodded at the flotsam with a stiff foreleg. “You must be more careful. This is our only specimen. We paid dearly for it!”
Silly, thought Sam. Since when did beachcombers pay for flotsam? Of course, fleas might have different rules.
The small flea stiffened. “The nature of research is experimentation. I could not have anticipated that the sedative would counteract the sensory filters. But even this near-failure has taught us a great deal about human defenses.”
The incoming tide, warm and salty, lifted the flotsam briefly before sucking sand out from under him as it pulled away.
“Very well,” said the large flea at last. “Your data is crucial to the effort. But you could have set our plans back considerably. Penance is required.”
“I will eat a hundred of my young.”
“At least a hundred.” The large flea paused. “Perhaps… Let me show you something. Our scouts get little information. But what little we have is frightening. The problem of scale, …” It began to dig industriously, setting off a murmuring cascade of sand. They watched it fall. “You see? We must take them by surprise.”
The fleas hopped up the beach as a tiny wall of white sea-foam washed over the sand. Like a bubble bath, thought Sam as the crinkle of popping bubbles drowned out the conversation. As the foam receded, the fleas were only faintly audible.
“I appreciate your trust. I will not disappoint you.” The small flea folded its top arms in respect. “I will find a weapon.”
“I hope so.” The large flea shook its bristles free of sand. “You are dismissed.”
“Thank you. May your eggs always have a warm depository.” As the smaller flea passed near, Sam could hear her muttering “… clearly a virus won’t work. Maybe a sterilant rather than a straight pesticide?”
Good choice, agreed Sam as soft waves pulled him slowly out to sea. More humane that way. Any further thoughts melted away in the warm salt water as a sea spider gently inserted its proboscis into a vein.