The first one comes from beneath the refrigerator: antennae probing, underbelly of its exoskeleton scrubbing against the dusty linoleum, its compressed body—near invulnerable to squashing—scuttling into the light.
“Fucking roaches,” he yells.
A second, then a third reddish-brown critter scurries across the floor as he rocks the appliance.
“This is your fault,” he says. “You’re a slob. Look at this place.” Crumbs crunch underfoot as he works the fridge from its nook. Scores of insects scatter.
“Damnit.” He whacks a yogurt container—the foil lid half-peeled—as his hands knife the air, sending key lime parfait splattering onto the cabinets. “Don’t you ever pick up your mess?” Anger sloshes over him in waves. “I want this place clean before I get home.”
She maneuvers to the sink, taking a path of avoidance around the island. With her fingernails she gouges the dried food from the surface of the porcelain as the warm water cascades across her skin.
Over her shoulder his anger sags. He resembles a deflated balloon. Under the faint light of the moon the dishes clink against themselves like delicate bones.
“I’m moving out. You don’t appreciate me,” she says. “Do you understand? I’m leaving.” She gathers and repeats. “I’m moving out!” Her face uncoils in the mirror before she flops on the twist of the unmade bed. “Who I am kidding,” she mutters.
As the morning sun divides the room, a roach scurries across the lace of her panties which lay at the base of her dresser. Its movements are erratic; it’s skittering fast and showing no fear.
When he isn’t angry or yelling or demeaning, she finds him distasteful.
Tonight he’s digging beneath the kitchen sink like a dog for a bone. Window cleaner, a box of stainless scrubbers, and automatic detergent spill onto the floor. He locates the can of Raid—shakes it—then tosses everything back. Except the insecticide.
She watches him lay on the floor—his paunchy belly girdled by his jeans—directing a stream of Raid, in a most cheerful state, beneath the fridge. He coughs from the spatter, smearing a thin strand of snot across his face. Then he shuffles on his back using his shoulders and legs, repeating the heavy-handed fumigation into every nook until the kitchen lies in a chemical fog and the can knocks with emptiness.
The toxin rouses more roaches from their nest. Bunches scatter to the fringes: antennae flailing, wings unfolding, torsos spinning in frenzied figure-of-eights. The neurotoxin insisting on their demise as they buck on their backs in defective spasm, tightening into a coil until death.
The slaughtered roaches overtake her sleep.
Beside her, the doughy flesh of his double chin, his fat loach of a tongue occluding his trachea, choking him until stimulated by the primal drive to breathe it resonates with a deep snort as she heads to the kitchen for mint ice cream.
There’s a peacefulness without his presence. She runs a finger along the cool granite, into the empty sink. The ghost of his words still echoing in the quiet space.
A handful of insects lay prostrate on the floor, counter and one in the drain. Half-in, half-out. Movement from behind the paper towels catches her attention as she tosses not one but two scoops into the bowl because there’s no one awake to criticize her weight.
She crinkles her nose as a monstrous roach emerges from beneath the clutter. Its movements are deliberate. Its antennae bobbing. She brushes a finger against its polished, mahogany-colored shell before flicking it away. It skitters across the counter then returns, its head raised, wings spread. She places her hand on the granite surface and the bug crawls across her skin. There’s an electric pricking sensation from its stiff claws that pulses beneath her flesh.
An hour later she’s collected a dozen refugees in a Pyrex dish: bloated, lustrous and the color of slick sewage. The bottom of their glass enclosure blemished with feces and regurgitate. Their antennae wagging as they navigate their ordered confines. She can hear them, the quiet friction of their spiny feet and their hissing, a summons to proliferate.
In the morning he’s cheerful. He drinks his coffee and scours the kitchen for survivors. When he’s satisfied, and the full weight of the coffee has kicked in, he heads to the bathroom. Grunts erupt from the porcelain, escaping the shortcomings of his slack jaw, and through a crack in the door. Guttural, disgusting, the toilet flushes. There’s no gurgle—a typical sound caused by their old plumping—as the bowl drains. Instead he howls as water sloshes over the rim of the toilet.
“Motherfucker,” he yells. “You clogged the toilet again!” He storms from the bathroom, the slosh from his wet socks slapping the floor, and grabs her by the wrist. His repossession is violent. She’s on her hands and knees—he’s standing over her with his foot buried in her buttocks— as she sops up the stool-colored water with hand towels.
She spends weeks with her specimens: studying their behavior, developing a deep affection for their smell, their lewd cacophony.
Her most prized possession, the dominant female, growing larger as the others procreate. She moves her assemblage from the Pyrex to an empty twenty-gallon fish tank in the garage. Paper egg cartons and food scraps fill a quarter of the tank. An old lamp light warms the surface.
She stirs the nesting with her fingers. A handful of roaches writhe to the surface, offering a soft, collective chirp to her presence. She dips her hand to the wrist and emerges with a writhing layer of organisms. Their antennae vibrating against her skin en masse. Her insides buzzing with gratification.
The large female pushes to the fore. Over the top of the lesser order males. She raises her wings and exposes her glands in the calling posture of courtship, arching her abdomen against her finger. Beneath her the collective trills.
The female judders, leaving behind a viscous, colorless fluid and chalk-white residue. There’s a tingle below her waist as the volatile attractants spike.
“Your problem is you don’t obey me,” he says with a chuckle. There’s no hint of conciliation as he slaps her ass with an open hand.
She knows what has “flipped his mood”: the act of eradicating a weaker entity. His dominance over the invaders. The presence of reclaimed manhood flowing through his machinery. He’s risen from the couch to say goodnight, which means he wants sex.
On these nights there are no tirades: for her alleged insubordination, for her stupidity, for her lack of cleanliness, for her overwhelming failure as a wife.
His insignificant manhood slides against the insides of her dry vagina, his dull moan leaking between the thin walls. He believes she owes him this moment, to make him happy as the object of his power and control.
When he’s finished he snores.
She rises above him to straddle his naked, limp unpalatable flesh with hers. Expanding her arms like ethereal wings and staring downwards, trying to remember why she ever loved him.
With her mouth full of quiet, she lowers her lips upon his, resting on his parched flesh for a moment before releasing the roach. It arises from her silent scream into his throat, past his pharynx, and nestles in his trachea. Its wings unfolding; its body a defensive shield.
Within minutes it returns to the surface unharmed, his breath now absent.
She slides off him and, laying side-by-side, opens herself in pleasure, taking the roach inside to nest.
R.E. Hengsterman is an award-winning writer and photographer. He lives in North Carolina with his family and sometimes wears pants. His work can be found at rehengsterman.com and in the occasional tweet @robhengsterman.