It was a small apartment in a large old house. A gorgeous Victorian, that was expensive to upkeep and too big for one family. It had been cut up into five, well, six if you count the owner’s space, into six apartments. At least that’s what it looked like from the buzzers Aimee saw at the front gate.
Aimee’s place was on the ground floor, with its own entrance at the back of the house. She liked it that way. More private. Although she wished the walkway to the back had some lights on at night. But, that was something Aimee hadn’t noticed in the daylight when she saw the place. “Live and learn and carry a flashlight,” she told herself.
It didn’t take long to put the furniture in place and unpack her stuff. With all the traveling she had done for work, Aimee knew how to make do with the essentials. But, that was behind her now. With her recent promotion, she worked at the head office and wouldn’t have to be running to an airport and living out of a suitcase in a second class hotel. Aimee thought she was going to love coming home to find things exactly as she’d left them. No more cleaning up before “Housekeeping’ saw the mess she’d made in her room.
As Aimee unpacked her brand new pots and pans that she had ordered from Amazon the day before, she fantasized not only about learning how to cook something, anything, but about dinner parties she could have with her guests dining by candlelight in the communal backyard. She hoped her new neighbors were friendly, although she didn’t see many lights turned on in the old house, and wondered if all the places were even rented although she had heard some sort of singing or chanting coming from one of the windows. It sounded like a small chorus repeating the singer. It was an oddly pleasant sound.
“There you are!! Over here!” A woman’s voice called to Aimee and she saw the landlady, who she assumed owned the place, waving to her from the walkway near the front of the house. “What was her name?” Aimee tried to remember but all that came to mind was Aimee’s pet name for her: Our Lady of the Apron. Between seeing the apartment and signing the lease, Aimee had never seen the woman without that weird multi-pocketed apron. As she walked over to greet the woman her name popped into Aimee’s mouth. “Marge! How are you?”
“Settling in OK?”, asked Marge. “Do you need anything? Not that I could be a whole lot of help, because…well…you know…” said Marge as she looked down at her leg wrapped in a worn walking boot held together with ratty velcro. “I tripped and tore one of those tendons at the back of my ankle. It’s been wonky ever since.”
Aimee glanced at the old boot, thinking maybe it was a great excuse for a handicapped parking tag but that tendon really wasn’t the issue anymore. She was surprised when Marge shoved a covered plate into Aimee’s hands. “I made you some peanut butter cookies. Hope you like peanut butter.”
“Thank you. That was very kind. I love, uh, peanut butter cookies.” The plate felt greasy on the underside and the foil covering the plate had already lived its best life.
“Keep them in the fridge, ok honey? Don’t want to give bugs any reason to visit, do we?” said Marge, raising one eyebrow, in a ‘you-know-what – I’m-talking about” way. “Once the bugs know they can find something to eat, you can never get rid of them. Although live and let live, I always say,” said Marge as she absentmindedly fondled the little bulges in the various pockets on her apron.
“Is Our Lady massaging her used tissues in that apron? God, that is gross!’ said the voice inside Aimee’s head.
“Oh, I’m very clean,” Aimee assured Marge while thinking of her nearly empty cabinets and her freezer with just a small tray of ice cubes.
“I really need to go grocery shopping at some point.” thought Aimee as she waved to Marge while pulling out her phone to look at her food delivery apps to see what she was going to have for dinner. “Damn, cell service sucks back here. I need to get the Wi-Fi hooked up sooner than later.” Aimee walked back to the front of the house, sat on the porch step and ordered fried chicken for dinner. She gave herself a short break from unpacking to watch the people on the street and to listen to that strange chanting singing. Fried chicken was her absolute favorite, and for her first night in her new apartment, she felt entitled to treat herself.
Aimee went back to her place as she waited for the delivery, set the plate of cookies on the counter, and promptly forgot about them. She was thinking about how to organize her drawers.
Absorbed with carefully folding her panties and bras into neat piles, a loud buzzer shocked her heart into a full gallop. There was no way to let the delivery man into her place, so she walked back down the walkway to the street to claim her chicken dinner. The delivery dude had left the bag right outside the gate, on the sidewalk. “No tip for you buddy. At least make eye contact before you leave the bag.” Aimee muttered to herself as she trudged back to her kitchen. “At least I’ll get my 10,000 steps in living here. Another thing I should have thought about before I rented.” Aimee walked right by a couple of black beetle-type bugs standing on the edge of the walkway. She never noticed them at all.
The fried chicken dinner was delicious, everything she wanted it to be, including the spicy collard greens and the mashed potatoes with the weird beige gravy. “Hmm…add garbage bags to the grocery list.” Aimee made a mental note on her imaginary grocery list. Not being a seasoned grocery shopper, Aimee didn’t realize that grocery lists needed to be on paper or they vanished like the memory of a dream in the morning.
It took her three days before she finally made it to a grocery store and remembered the garbage bags, along with coffee (but forgot the milk), sugar, toast (but no jam or butter.) As long as she kept ordering from Food4You she didn’t have to bother with vegetables or meat. One day she was going to break out those new pots. One day real soon, she promised herself. Although she did buy some curry paste and was sure she could find a recipe on the internet. “How hard can it be to cook some curry? Maybe I should check with Mom? Yeah, but her claim to fame is not scorching a pan of boxed mac and cheese.” Aimee felt overwhelmed by all the choices at the grocery store. Who knew potatoes came in colors?? Clearly, there was a learning curve to stocking a kitchen and cooking, but Aimee was pretty much, almost, nearly up to taking on the challenge.
She set about cleaning up the mess she’d made over the past few days: takeout containers half filled with fried rice, the remnants of butter chicken sauce that had spilled and congealed on the counter.
“This will not do!” Aimee scolded herself and gamely tried to use some flimsy takeout napkins to wipe up the countertop.
She did her best to clean up, dumping everything into an open garbage bag, and promising herself that she would figure out the garbage pickup days. Another thing to add to the To Do list.
Feeling a little hungry after her attempt at cleaning, she remembered the plate of peanut butter cookies that had been sitting on her kitchen counter for nearly a week, but surely peanut butter cookies didn’t go bad, right?
Overcoming her squeamishness about touching the obviously used tinfoil, she peeled back the cover, anticipating some nice, home-baked cookies. The cookies were there alright, but so was a large, round, black, beetle-y shaped bug with googly yellow eyes and an improbable green racing stripe down its back. It was concentrating on stuffing a large crumb into its mouth with its front pincer claws. The bug didn’t seem at all concerned about the appearance of Aimee, but the same could not be said of Aimee as she let out a glass-shattering shriek and backed away from the counter and stumbled against the kitchen table, badly stubbing her toe on a chair.
The bug finally noticed there was a disturbance and scuttled away off the counter and under the sealed door that was at the far side of the kitchen. “What the fuck?”, gasped Aimee as she tried to catch her breath, rubbing her bruised toe and examing that weird locked door, all at the same time.
She thought back to Marge’s warning about putting food away, and realized she had left out an entire Smorgasburg for that bug. “Dear God, let it be one lonesome bug…not one with a family and friends.”
With a very renewed sense of purpose, Aimee tied up the garbage bag, took it outside, and added some paper towels, sponges, and Windex to her mental grocery list. Sitting at her little kitchen table, she took the time to fully examine that door near the fridge. It was locked, she had already checked that and assumed it must lead into another part of the house. It’s like an adjoining door in a hotel, Aimee thought when she moved in, but she hadn’t really given it a second thought until now.
It was a basic wooden door, but it had heavy-duty spongy wind stripping taped all around the door edge so no air, or hopefully, bugs could penetrate. But, if that was the case, where did that beetley roachy thing go? Or come from, for that matter? Aimee wondered if Marge had a regular exterminator come to the house, it seemed like that would be a good idea and Aimee added it to her growing mental lists of things To Do. But, this was Friday night, after a hectic first week at work, and having a glass of wine and putting her feet up until the delivery guy arrived was all that Aimee could think about. Thank God, I got the wifi working, it is a Netflix night for sure!
A just reward for the first week in her new position and her new apartment.
Later that night, her belly full of Thai food, Aimee stumbled into bed. A little groggy from the wine, and a lot tired from the week, she passed out without thinking of those little sauce containers she’d left on the counter. Around 2:00 am, Aimee’s dreams drifted unpleasantly as vague sounds, like dry fingernails scratching on a board, led her from sleep to resentfully awake. She realized the sounds had followed her from her bad dream and were still happening. “What the hell is that noise?” Aimee muttered, with the covers pulled up tight around her neck. It didn’t sound like anyone was actually breaking into the apartment, so Aimee rolled over and packed the pillow over her head, and tried to go back to sleep. Maybe it was her imagination, but she could still hear that dry scratchy sound, but at least it stayed in the kitchen.
Saturday morning came alive, all bright and shiny with birds singing. Aimee made her way into the kitchen and blinked a few times trying to clear her vision. What exactly was she seeing? The floor was littered with the little sauce containers from last night’s Thai food, only all the containers were open with colorful traces of tamarind and sweet chile sauce smeared across the floor, pointing towards that locked door.
“God damn it!! Those bugs have to go! I cannot live with this! ” Aimee stamped her foot down, full of fury, and plopped it right into a small mound of pad thai noodles that must have fallen off her plate last night. At the same time, she smacked her hand down hard on the countertop as she tried to regain her balance, grabbing for an unused napkin to wipe the noodle sauce from between her toes. Aimee wished for a hotel manager or someone who would run right over and fix her bug problem. This adjustment to living in her own apartment was not going as planned. Her palm throbbing, she had to make Marge get an exterminator over here NOW.
Aimee marched to the front porch of the house and rang Marge’s bell with her injured right hand. She could hear that same dry scratchy sound inside the house as she waited for Marge. A few moments later, Marge’s head, covered in greasy gray curls appeared at a second-floor window. “Whash da’ matter, dear?” Marge hadn’t put her teeth in yet, so she was a little hard to understand.
“Marge, I need an exterminator. NOW! Can you call whatever company you use? Please? I really need some help here.”
Marge looked at Aimee who looked back at Marge. Both of them were confounded by the other’s response. Aimee thought she had made a reasonable request. Marge was insulted by this outrageous demand.
“One schecond,” said Marge as her head disappeared and then reappeared a few moments later, this time with her teeth mostly in place. “Oh no, deary. I do not use an exterminator. They K-I-L-L the bugs.” She’d spelled out the word KILL sotto voce as if the bugs could hear her. “I did tell you to be neat and clean, Deary,” Marge added helpfully.
Aimee looked at Marge as if the woman had suddenly sprouted antennas along with this nonsense about not killing bugs. Rendered speechless, Aimee spun about on her heel and marched back down the walk to her apartment.
The door was slightly ajar when Aimee furiously pushed it open; she saw movement on the floor near the fridge, on the counter, and on the kitchen table. There were small groups of the loathsome bugs all over the kitchen and they all turned simultaneously to face her as she burst into the kitchen. The sound coming out of Aimee was equal parts rage, fear, and disgust. She backed out and slammed the door shut. Her phone in hand, she started googling up exterminators.
“You want how much to come out on a Saturday?” she found herself asking each of the services who even bothered to answer the phone. By now, she was googling up the nearest hardware store and would go get whatever the hell she needed to K-I-L-L every last bug in that entire bug-infested house.
She came home with a shopping bag filled with insect bombs, boric acid, roach traps, mouse traps, and weed killer just for good measure. Before she could work up the courage to open the door, she spied one of the beasties on the windowsill by the door, watching her, waiting.
Aimee’s courage nearly deserted her, but glancing at her comforting bag of insect destruction, she put the key in the lock, closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and stepped inside the kitchen.
Opening her eyes, she let out a shriek. Standing right there, not two inches from her face was Marge. And Marge was staring at her shopping bag.
“Aimee! I’m so sorry I scared you! How awful of me. I just thought I could come to clean up a bit and help you out with your, uh, problem. You seemed so upset this morning.” Marge had on that same pocketed apron over her faded and dirty dress and she was holding a filthy yellow rag in one hand and a mop in the other. Even in her shocked state, Aimee saw the new weatherstripping plastered with fresh duct tape onto the locked door.
“Thank you, Marge, but I’ll take it from here. I really appreciate you trying to help, but next time could you let me know if you are planning to come into my place? You scared me to death!”
“Aimee, what’s in the bag? You weren’t planning on using that poison in my house, were you? I simply cannot permit that,” before Aimee could react, Marge snatched the bag from her, inspected the contents, and handed her the weed killer. “You keep that. I’ll keep the rest. No poison in my house.” Marge walked out the door with the bag of insecticides held at arm’s length.
Aimee was literally stuttering with rage, but she had to admit, after looking around, there were no beasties to be seen. Marge had done a damn good job of sealing up those scuttle bugs. That’s what they were, they scuttled around, making noises and making a mess and if she had to put up more duct tape every day, then that’s what she would do.
Breathing somewhat easier after her kitchen inspection hadn’t turned up a single invader, Aimee decided to keep her plans to meet some work friends for drinks and maybe dinner.
A few hours later, tipsy and tired, Aimee was home, safely tucked in her bed, and she never saw the two scuttlebugs that were perched on her footboard, watching her sleep.
Aimee woke to sunlight and a banging sound, “Good God, what fresh hell of a hangover is this?” She opened her eyes and realized the sound was coming from her front door, not from inside her head. Someone was pounding hard on the door.
“Aimee? Aimee! Are you in there? Are you OK? I heard you come in so late last night I could barely sleep for worrying about you.” yelled Marge.
“Good God…this is worse than living back at home with my parents. I rented an apartment, not a freaking chaperone,” muttered Aimee pulling on whatever clothes were closest to the bed.
Aimee shambled through the kitchen to the door, “Marge, I’m fine. I’ll see you later, ok?”
“I made you a lasagna. I’ll just leave it here on the doorstep. Hope you feel better. Drink lots of water, ok dear?”Aimee could hear a plate clattering on the doorstep and then Marge with her tattered velcro boot, shuffling away.
“This has got to stop. I had more peace and privacy with 3 roommates than I have with this woman.” Aimee did a mental calculation, two months’ rent and one month security equals not being able to move for at least three months. “Surely, you can put up with some cookies, lasagna, and constant hovering for three months, right?”, she asked herself. And the voice inside her head said “Yeah, well what about three months of bugs everywhere? Can you handle that?”
“I can handle anything after I’ve had some coffee.” Aimee put her little Moka pot on the stove, waiting to hear the beloved sound of the coffee pushing its way up into the pot. She poured the coffee into a waiting mug and absent-mindedly reached out for the lid on the sugar bowl when her hand settled on a large scuttlebug sitting on top of the lid. Her first instinct was to scream, but it was beginning to dawn on Aimee that there was a war going on. Her, versus this little army of black racing striped invaders, and there was no way in hell that the bugs were going to win.
Aimee looked the bug square in its yellow googly eyes and hissed at it, figuring a good hiss would scare it. Then the bug hissed back. And that is when Aimee did scream. The bug reared up on its back legs and screamed right back.
“You will NOT scare me anymore. But you will NOT be living here anymore either, so this is officially war.” “OK, this is utterly ridiculous”, thought Aimee “I think I’m hearing bugs and they’re talking back to me. I need to get out of here…after I’ve had my coffee!” Aimee grabbed an Athleta catalog off the counter, rolled it up, and prepared to swat the insolent bug, but by then the bug had scuttled away and was gone. “Ha! Score one for Aimee and coffee!”
Aimee finished her breakfast, scrupulously washed her dishes, and headed into the bedroom to get dressed when she remembered the damn lasagna was still at the back door. A medium-sized glass baking dish, with sauce and cheese scorched on the sides and a carbonized top layer waited at the doorstep. She nearly stepped on it, and the thought of what lay under the blackened top of the lasagna made Aimee gag. She brought it into the kitchen and watched as not one, but two of the scuttlebugs ran across the kitchen floor and stopped at her feet as if waiting for instructions.
“What is going on? Are you begging for lasagna? So bad for your waistline. Oh wait, you don’t have a waist – do you?” Amy found herself discussing dietary choices with two scuttlebugs and realized she was entirely losing her grip on reality.
“I hope to God Marge is home. She needs to refund my money and I need to get out of here right now. This cannot continue.” Aimee fumed as she marched down the walkway to the front of the house. She could hear Marge inside, singing, but someone or somethings were singing along with Marge. “No. No. No! It cannot be! I am imagining this. Get a grip on yourself. Bugs do NOT sing. They do NOT ask for lasagna.” Aimee’s hand paused in mid-air as she stood debating with herself if she should ring the bell or just run away. “Buck up Buttercup,” she told herself and leaned hard on the bell.
The singing stopped and within a few moments, Marge, in her apron, opened the door with a big smile on her face. “Did you enjoy the lasagna, Deary? It’s one of my specialties.”
“Marge, we have to talk. I can’t live with the bugs. I can’t stand bugs. I hate bugs. I need to move out and I need you to refund my rent money. I have to get out of here.”
Marge’s smile fell from her face like a cliffside giving way in a storm as one huge tear welled up and began to trickle down her face. Four of the bugs scuttled over to the doorway and stood near Marge’s feet. Aimee watched in disbelief as the bug’s eyes also filled with tears.
Marge looked down at the bugs and said “I’m so sorry. I thought she would be friendly. I thought for sure she would come to love you guys. I really tried with this one, but it looks like we’ve made an enemy. We’re going to have to take care of this, ok?” Marge patted a few of the pockets on her apron and black bugs stuck their heads out of the pockets and looked up at Marge.
As Marge was speaking, Aimee saw more bugs coming down the steps inside the house. She could hear that dry scratchy sound getting louder, thousands of little bug feet on the wooden floor. In fact, they were literally streaming out of the house now and headed right toward Aimee. “Are you sure you don’t want to be friends, Deary?” Marge asked while sadly shaking her head.
Aimee turned to run out into the street, but it was too late. The bugs had streamed around her feet, cutting off her escape, and they were starting to make their way up her legs. By the time Aimee opened her mouth to start screaming, the bugs had made it up to her neck and were angling for space to get into her mouth. In her terror, she started batting the bugs away from her mouth and eyes, but there were too many of them and they were using their pincers to claw at her flesh. Aimee felt Marge grasp her arm and pull her into the house and shut the door. The bugs streamed back into the house and for awhile you could hear Aimee’s cries, which the bugs echoed in waves until finally, all was quiet.
The next morning, the room for rent sign was back up in the front window.