“The Life Expectancy of Cockroaches” by Michelle Muenzler
At 3:47 a.m., Celia’s high-pitched shriek pierced my skull. If I hadn’t already been awake and trying my hardest to swallow down the crawlies prickling my throat, I’d have probably fallen out of bed.
“Get them out, Delly! Get them out!” Celia shrieked again, this time tumbling off her side of the bed in a tangle of sheets as she swatted at her hair. She hit the floor with a thud, knocking over a stack of medical textbooks she’d spent half the night poring over.
She saw me struggling to keep my mouth closed, and in an instant her shrieking stopped and her face turned pale.
“No, Delly.” She scrambled backward into the wall, away from my inevitable spew. “Don’t don’t don’t. Not now, oh God, not now.”
I tried to hold them in. I really did.
But then one tickled the wrong spot, activating my gag reflex, and they all came out – a mass of cockroaches, wet with saliva. They stretched their wings against the fresh air and skittered toward Celia.
Celia hunched over and barfed. Several of the cockroaches in her hair, the ones that had escaped hours ago and woken her up, tumbled free.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to. You just looked so…so beautiful there.”
“Don’t,” she said. She refused to look at me now, and the dread I’d felt a hundred times before swallowed the faint tickling growing in my gut. “I can’t do this anymore. I just…can’t.”
I knew better than to argue. Every relationship had a half life, an inevitable point of decay where two deteriorated into one. My half-lives were just a lot shorter than everyone else’s.
I dragged my suitcase out from under the bed. Just last week Celia had teased me for not unpacking; she’d said she could handle a few bugs. But they never could, not when things turned serious enough for the cockroaches to come in waves.
Still, it was hard not to love them for trying.
From the floor, I picked up yesterday’s yoga pants and a sports bra and slipped them on. Between us, the cockroaches wavered uncertainly.
“You made it longer than most,” I said as I opened the front door of her efficiency apartment, suitcase rolling behind me. “I’ll always–”
She was right. Already the tickling had started anew in my throat, the cockroaches struggling to show her how much I cared.
And that was the end of Celia and me, the door closing behind me with a quiet click and the methodical thump of cockroaches being smashed on the other side. I coughed one last crawly up, this time a butterfly to match the tears building behind my eyes, and headed down the stairwell.
“The slugs are the worst,” I said, sucking the last of my Denny’s freshly squeezed orange juice through a straw and wondering if my waitress would slide by anytime soon. She was pretty cute, in that older woman sort of way. A touch frumpy, but it just made me want to kiss her more.
The suit and tie guy seated next to me at the counter stared at his scrambled eggs, his hand stuck midway between plate and mouth.
“Oh, no,” I laughed. “Not because of the texture or anything. But because they’re so slow coming up. That’s why I don’t drink anymore – not alcohol, at least. It’s always slugs with a hangover. And the flu. God, I hate flu season.”
His face turned a bit green, and he carefully set the fork back on his plate. “I have to, uh, go to the bathroom,” he said, and tossed two fives on the counter. I didn’t have to turn around to know he was on his way out the front door.
I went back to noisily sucking the last drops of juice from the bottom of my cup and trying not to giggle. I suppose I could have talked about something else, but I needed something bad to laugh at or else I’d start crying again. I’d already spent half the morning swatting swarms of butterflies.
The more I thought about the guy’s face as he stumbled out of his seat, the more my throat tickled. I didn’t bother holding it back this time.
Mayflies poured free, translucent green and impossibly thin. They circled in a cloud above me, an undulating wave tuned to my laughter.
“Ma’am,” my waitress said, coming up from behind and tapping me on the shoulder, “I think it’s best you leave now.”
And like that my laughter stopped. Ah well, I thought as I dug out Celia’s credit card from where I’d stashed it last minute in the side of my sock. Nothing lasts forever.
Ever since I was twelve and the crawlies started, I’d grown increasingly in love with baths. There was something calming about submerging in a tub of water, like drowning, but without all the screaming and useless flailing.
I lounged in the tub of my motel bathroom, fluorescent lights buzzing overhead and my suitcase open in the next room with its contents flung about as though I’d lived there forever.
The water had turned cold an hour ago, but the pond skimmers didn’t mind. They continued skating in stately circles atop the water’s surface while I submerged again and again and blew bubbles into their formations. I thought they liked it, but as with most of the crawlies, I couldn’t tell for sure.
When the knock sounded on my door, though, I pulled the plug without a pause. “Just a sec!”
The knocking continued, but I ignored it and watched the pond skimmers drain with the water in one last spiraling dance. A few escapees clung to the tub’s sides, and I wished them luck. They’d have been better off joining the rest.
I pulled on some fresh clothes, threw everything else I owned back into my suitcase, and opened the door. Two police officers stood in the hallway.
It hadn’t taken Celia nearly as long as I’d thought it would to notice her credit card was missing.
“You get one phone call,” the officer said in a near monotone. She smelled like Old Spice. In a good way. I think her last name was Charmand, or maybe Charming. I preferred Charming.
“Thanks,” I said, and dialed a number under her steady gaze.
The phone rang seven times before picking up. “Hello?”
“Hey, Dad, I need a–”
I stared at the peeling paint on the wall a few moments before carefully setting the receiver back in place.
“Well,” I said, struggling against the furious itching in my throat, “I guess that’s my phone call.”
We made it halfway back to the holding cell before the first butterfly came. I tried to hold it in my mouth, but my eyes hurt from squeezing back the pain in my chest, and with a single muffled sob, the butterfly burst free.
Officer Charming pulled me to a stop. I waited for the rationalization. Or the freak-out. Or the derision. There were so many reactions to choose from, I didn’t know how most people managed to pick only one. But she just watched the butterfly flutter about our heads for a moment before it set off down the corridor, back toward the phones.
Another officer rounded the corner with a stack of papers in his hands and paused at the butterfly. “Huh, look at that,” he said. “Poor guy must’ve snuck in through whatever hole those birds have been using.” He glanced down the hall at Officer Charming. “Hey, Jules, think you can whisper out butterflies as well as you do those birds?”
After a moment’s uncomfortable silence, she nodded. He laughed and continued down the hall past us and around the corner, whistling.
“Sorry about that,” I said, trying not to sob. Two more butterflies sputtered free with my words.
When she finally spoke, it was with the same matter-of-fact voice she’d taken me out of the cell with. “Let’s get you back to holding.”
Officer Charming – Jules – showed up again the next morning, after a long night that several officers passing by my holding cell termed the strangest station-wide cricket invasion ever. I tried not to let the crickets out, but it was hard not to be scared, locked away like that and trying to hold everything in. I missed my pond skimmers.
Charming slid the cell door open, still smelling of Old Spice and speaking in her familiar monotone. “Charges have been dropped. A friend’s waiting for you outside.”
My heartbeat quickened. It had to be Celia. Even now, I could feel the cockroaches tumbling around in my stomach, ready to burst free at the sight of her.
Charming led me through the paperwork, handed me back my suitcase which they’d taken to check against any other stolen item claims, then pointed my way out of the station. She said nothing more than what was necessary the entire time. I tried not to let her smell distract me – I was having enough trouble keeping the cockroaches contained as it was. A couple of mayflies managed to sneak out, though.
Outside the station, seated halfway down the steps, was Celia.
“Hey,” I said, and at the word, three cockroaches escaped onto the concrete.
Celia blanched, but didn’t smash them. I sat down beside her, suitcase resting behind me like a wall and my gut roiling. I really wanted to let all the cockroaches out so Celia would know how much I’d missed her – what better symbol of love than the eternal cockroach? – but the look on her face said she’d leave if even one more sputtered free. So I held them in, fighting against their desire for freedom. After a few minutes of sitting, I reached for her hand.
She pulled it away. “I didn’t come to take you back.”
“Oh,” I said. The cockroaches in my stomach quieted, and something else fluttered within. Butterflies, crickets. Maybe a slug or two, judging by the queasiness in my stomach.
We sat awkwardly for a moment, then she brushed the dust off her jeans and rose. “Consider this my apology for how things ended. I could have handled it better. We both could have, I think.”
She tapped one foot nervously before starting down the steps. “I’ll see you around then.”
“Sure,” I said, knowing we would never cross paths again.
A small swarm of butterflies pushed from my throat, followed by a handful of crickets and the slow crawl of a lone slug. I remained sitting on the steps while the butterflies and crickets disappeared around the corner with Celia.
As for the slug, I crushed it so I wouldn’t have to watch its slow exit.
I stayed on the police station steps all day, unable to move and with nowhere to go, really. Yet every time the doors opened, I found myself glancing up and my heart racing just a bit. Usually it was clerks passing in and out, visitors, and an occasional officer. But three times it was Charming, a tiny finch cupped in her hand. She whispered something to the finches each time, holding them close to her lips before opening her hands just enough to set them free.
They didn’t always want to go.
The third time, I smiled at her. She turned abruptly and went back inside.
The fourth time she opened the front doors, she didn’t have a bird with her. She walked down the steps, stopping when she reached me, and sat down a few feet away.
I stared at her while she gazed fixedly ahead, her mouth a tight line.
We sat for a while, saying nothing until I couldn’t take the silence anymore. “So,” I said, tapping at my throat, “birds?”
I know she saw my gesture because her gaze darted away. But she tentatively nodded.
I swallowed back the lump in my throat. I’d never met anyone like me before, and while I knew the feel of the crawlies clambering up my throat, I couldn’t quite imagine what it must be like with birds.
“I like birds,” I said. “They’re cute. Fluffy, sort of, in that bird kind of way.” I smiled at her.
She started to smile back, but caught herself before the smile could fully unfold. It was a pretty smile, what I saw of it. The kind of shy smile I hoped stayed on her face when she was sleeping.
“So,” I asked, breaking the new silence between us, “what do you think about cockroaches?”
She took a moment to think, then stood. Head low, she shambled up the steps. A familiar ache started up in my chest, and I could feel the butterflies pressing against my throat.
At the top of the stairs, she paused. “I’m off in an hour.” She started smiling again before catching herself. Only the red flush on her cheeks gave her away as she headed inside.
In my stomach, the butterflies dissipated, and the quiet tickle of the first cockroach of love touched my throat. I had a good feeling about Charming. A very good feeling indeed.
About the Author
Michelle Muenzler’s goal in life is to bring forth the bunny apocalypse and bury the earth with furry-soft goodness. When not working toward this goal, she experiments on her husband with new recipes and builds blockades around her NetBook to protect it from her cats. Her fiction leans toward dark fantasy with a twist of new weird, and if nobody dies in a story, then it probably wasn’t written by her (though this story is obviously one of those rare exceptions). You can find her most recent fiction at magazines such as Daily Science Fiction, Electric Velocipede, and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.