ROACH NO MORE
|by Irette Patterson|
surveyed the conference room, searching for trouble; she found it in
the first row. There, in front of the screen, John and Pam sat next
to each other. John gestured with his hands, occasionally hopping
out of his chair, Pam's forehead wrinkled in agreement. Marilyn separated
their thoughts from the background rumblings she'd met since arriving at
work that night. Their thoughts both centered on the upcoming Friends
of Limeys meeting. Her headache would definitely come from one or
both of them.
Marilyn slipped into a seat in the back. Her hand dug into her front pocket for the aspirin she'd stashed there. The voices and thoughts calmed as the room darkened. A man with gray hair and a stocky build appeared on the screen wearing a tie a little too bright and a suit a little too small. She expected to see him, Mr. O'Meara, Southeast District Supervisor. She didn't expect to see the Limey beside him dressed in plain denim clothing. Its height reached to just under O'Meara's chin. It hunched over, his head down so as to have his antennae almost to his knees. These new regulations were not going to be good if O'Meara needed a yes-bug to calm the masses. The background thought hum worked its way up a notch to murmurs.
She popped two pills into her mouth, the bitterness drawing her attention from the screen. Poor buggers. They had to pay the rent like everyone else. Now, she didn't love bugs, or anything like that. Heaven knows she'd been trying to get rid of the cockroaches infesting her apartment. Limeys, though, just had the bad luck to have ancestors with no political skills. O'Meara's smile broadened. It appeared their luck was about to get worse.
She imagined her mind as a steel ball, thoughts bouncing off it. Confidence, Darryl told her, was all there was to it. The murmurs trickled to a background hum. She could block out the voices this time. I am strong, she chanted to herself. I am strong. The hum faded into silence. She heard only O'Meara's voice. She allowed possibilities to mingle with that one voice: working during the day, moving to a town with a Wal-Mart and maybe even driving during rush hour.
* * *
She smiled. The introductions finished, he moved to the new "protective covenants." All she felt afterwards was the pounding of thoughts, curling her body over onto her lap. She'd miscalculated. Only Pam and John were supposed to cry out against the new restrictions; instead half the people in the room stewed inside themselves, where only she could hear them.
Maybe everyone actually spoke the words, she thought. She raised her face, outlining the backs of heads in the darkness. She glanced at the people beside her. No lips moved. She had failed again.
The screen bleeped off, lights displaying the clean faces as they filed out of the room. Marilyn popped the two aspirin into her mouth. She'd be able to move in a little while. Why did they need two Limey advocates in the unit stirring up trouble? No one else cared before, just a j-o-b. That essay the two posted must have started folk thinking. She stood up, then caught herself before she stumbled back into the chair. Her desk was the next corridor over; Interplanetary Affairs didn't believe in walls.
She wished she was at home in her first-floor apartment. Moosehead, Georgia was 20 minutes up empty interstate. No one lived there, anymore. A couple of months ago Childress Imaging planned to open a factory there. One call to her cousin, Darryl, and Childress decided on another site, closer to the metro area. Sometimes Marilyn felt guilty about the call. Department meetings, however, reassured her she'd done the right thing for herself. Everyone else in the family used their assets.
She pushed on towards her desk; time to get back to work. The hum of caseworkers interviewing clients she'd learned to ignore. She couldn't hear Limeys at all. Reaching the small desk covered with white paper, her eyes gravitated to the only touch of color. The box sat on the corner of her desktop wrapped in plain brown paper with her name and Interplanetary Affairs typed on the label. At first glance, she thought it was another present from her father. Last week, he'd sent that turquoise and amethyst brooch. She picked it up, leaning back in her chair. In the bottom right hand corner were the initials, "RK". Something, one thing would go right tonight.
Her hand reached for her letter opener, then stopped. It was possible a client might recognize the unit. No, she corrected herself, it was probable. Limeys had been exiled from their home four generations ago because of an ancestor's political leanings. It wasn't a far leap for them to assume that their caseworker might be trying to maim them. The one command to humans before Limeys were dumped was that a human could not murder a Limey. Of course, that left plenty of room for damage. She dropped the package into her briefcase. Best to forget about that package and concentrate on work.
So, she'd listened to her clients, nodding as they fidgeting their wings, their high-pitched voices squeaking in protest. She'd even agreed that yes, it was a shame they were treated like garbage and no, it didn't appear their lobbying efforts held much hope. She only called the security guard once, when the antennae of one of her clients flattened against its head. When quitting time arrived at 4 a.m., all she wanted to do was go home and try out her new toy.
Marilyn probed the house for occupants outside the front door. The woman who lived upstairs wasn't around, again. Thank God for small miracles. Well, according to family legend she should be thanking someone else.
* * *
She entered, kicked her apartment door shut and leaned on it with her back. How long before the thoughts began to filter through her block tonight? Two hours maybe? Even in a dead town, people still came within listening distance. Focus on things you can change, she told herself, reaching into her briefcase to extract the package. Be glad for the two hours and get into bed where it doesn't matter. She tossed the package in the air, then caught it.
One sharp fingernail ripped it open. The unit hiding beneath the tissue paper looked like a battery recharger only completely closed. Its cover read, "Ro-Kill. Guaranteed to eradicate roaches within a thousand feet radius. Warning: do not use within LimeyTown."
She crouched to match the three-prong socket to ease it flush into the plate. The red glow pulsed, activated. It was guaranteed to drive those roaches away. Nothing else had worked, the spray or the bomb. The buggers just kept coming back for more punishment.
She straightened, sloughing off her jacket. The dumbbells she'd bought sat in the corner collecting dust. She should use them. It probably wouldn't help. Everyone in the family shared the same frame: large trunk and puny limbs. What had Darla compared her to? A spider. Like a spider, Darla had said, but then Darla began having those headaches. Marilyn chuckled.
She padded to the dumbbells, ignoring the creaking of the stairs. No one was in the house; she would have sensed it. Suddenly, her door banged against the far wall.
There in her doorway stood a mass of chins and fat covered by pasty skin and a flowing lime muumuu. DoubleChin shook the floor as she waddled to the Ro-Kill. Marilyn gripped the heaviest dumbbell, hoisting it above her head as the invader yanked out her roach zapper. She reared back, about to bring it down, when the thing spun facing her.
"I could break your little chicken legs in two."
Marilyn probed into her mind and came up with nothing. Nothing? It wasn't even a shield like her cousin Darryl. She could never read him. It was like she wasn't even there. Like. Damn.
Marilyn backed up towards the phone on her end table. In that instant, she knew what was before her and could have figured it out before if she hadn't been so happy to have found the perfect place to live. The thing was bluffing, bluffing because it wasn't even real -- just a holoprojected image. A Limey.
DoubleChin held her stare for a couple of seconds longer and then shrugged, dropping the unit on the kitchen floor, "That's not such a good thing to have," she said, pointing to the floor. "Someone might get hurt."
Marilyn began punching in the code to Interplanetary Affairs. No wonder she couldn't get rid of the bugs.
The image dissolved into a giant cockroach, its antennae flat against its head. This time, though, there was not a security guard to call for help.
"I know things Marilyn Anderson. Or does your family still call you Maisy?"
Her finger hovered over the last digit. No one had called her Maisy since she was little, playing down the dirt roads in South Carolina. There was only family back then, before Granddad made the decision that they were too noticeable and that they would have to split up: one family per city.
She pressed the final number. Interplanetary Affairs' menu chirped in her ear, "Welcome. Please press 1 for services, 2 for unauthorized guests in your area, 3 for ..." Marilyn pressed 2, waiting silently.
"I've got a good job now, not one of your leftovers. You're not going to ruin it."
"Guest Services," Marilyn heard in her ear. She kept her eyes on the smirking thing. How much did it know? How much could it know? Granddad Anderson called it a deal with the devil, their telepathy. Her family certainly benefited from it: Aunt Flo headed her own consulting firm in Philly, her father traveled the world freeloading off anyone who showed a tinge of compassion or money and Darryl had steadily worked his way up through Childress from a file clerk. She was the only one who got splitting headaches, the only one in the family not to master blocking the voices.
"Hello," the voice in her ear asked, bringing her back to the present.
"No problem. Sorry." Marilyn said, setting it down in its cradle.
It smiled. Marilyn guessed it was a smile. "You remember I know about you and all you Andersons and if you notify anyone, I can make things happen."
It threw up the image again, sauntering into the hall. Marilyn followed it, slamming the door shut. That thing knew her name. Not the one printed on her birth certificate, but her family name. Her fingernails dug into her cuticles, picking at them until she drew blood. She looked at the red smear against the pad of her index finger and laughed at herself. Did she really believe someone could control her life just because it knew what her family called her? She might as well start thinking there was something to the "deal with the devil" business, too. What a bunch of nonsense, she told herself, shaking her head.
After three weeks, though, she wasn't sure. Her ATM card was stolen, she got reassigned to O'Meara's personal staff and her car broke down on I-285 during rush hour. A deal with the devil? She'd have to go see Granddad about this one. Oh joy.
She waited inside the rental car while her cousin Bud rounded up the guard dogs. She wondered if it was true that dogs could smell fear. It was pretty irrelevant because even if they couldn't she was pretty sure her great-grandfather could. Somehow, Granddad got willed the land he owned by a Colonel Roland. She didn't ask how he got the land. She didn't want to know.
Bud led her through the mud, over the rotted steps to the wooden shack. There inside he sat in his rocking chair surrounded by a wood burning stove and a pink chenille-covered king bed. The single bulb reflected in his glasses covered his face like aviator goggles. The plaid flannel shirt hung off his arms and overalls fit his chest.
"... 'bout time you came for a visit," he gummed. She sat on the bed so that she could understand him better. Must be enjoying this if he actually stooped to using his mouth, she thought. The whining of the fan didn't make it easier to hear either.
"How are you," she asked, wiping the sweat off her forehead. The fan didn't provide any relief from the heat; it only circulated the hot air.
"Can't complain. Can't complain. You one of Leonard's kids." He took out a fat peppermint stick to suck on.
"Yes. I'm Maisy."
They sat there in the silence, Marilyn attempting to block him out. The man was so old he could snatch something without her even knowing it, especially since she was the weakest one in the family. She'd actually had to resort to earning a degree to survive.
* * *
Marilyn sighed. "Someone has found out my true name."
"Granddad," she inhaled deeply, then exhaled, "didn't you always tell us to keep our true names secret? Didn't you say that once someone has your name ..."
"Name means nothing," he cut her off, "just a bit of mumbo jumbo to keep the family together. Sort of like a passcode, know who to trust." His lips wrapped around the peppermint and each time it emerged the tip was a bit thinner. "If'n you'd been around more you'd know."
"Then how could one of those overgrown roaches get my name?"
"Guessin' cuz they're family."
"What?" She almost fell off the bed she was perched on.
"How do you think we call talk to each other and feel each other's thoughts? We was like an experiment. They was playing around and wanted to see how something would work out. Using, 'course, part of themselves as a blueprint."
She hardly heard herself over the fan. "I'm part bug."
"They didn't know we'd turn out with our gifts," her grandfather continued. "Not like they can do the things we can."
Her legs slid to the floor. In one step she hovered above her grandfather. She steadied the rocker with her hands on each arm of the chair, bending down to meet his face. She worked with these things, chased their miniatures out of her apartment and now she was part of it. She hesitantly asked the question aloud already formed in her mind, "This experiment, this was a one-time deal, right?"
"Just fine tunin' every now and then. Like the set."
She snatched her hands from the rocker, "No wonder I couldn't get those roaches out of my apartment. Between me and DoubleChin they must have felt like it was some kind of family reunion," she reviewed to her grandfather the thick torso and weak limbs and that Darla had called her a spider but what she really looked like was, "a roach," the words slipped out.
"Yep," she heard the weathered voice. She felt lightheaded like she wasn't there and a circle appeared in her gaze, "but all Anderson."
She wouldn't faint. She wouldn't faint. Her family called her weak and even this Limey mistook her for someone that could easily be led, easily threatened. She, however, refused to back down. Those roaches had to go. She raised her head from her hands, straightening to look her grandfather in the eye.
"How did you get this land, anyway?"
"Same way you gonna get it straightened out with your neighbor. You just gotta let folks know it's not in their best interest to piss you off."
Marilyn adjusted the pizza on the plate standing before the door directly above her apartment. She figured DoubleChin would like it because a client mentioned it was one of its favorite meals.
"Peace offering?" she tilted her head raising the plate with her right hand when the door opened. The thing stepped back, letting her into the apartment.
"Learning how to creep."
Marilyn ignored the insult, setting the plate on a table. She glanced at the bare apartment -- only a couple of chairs and a floor lamp. She didn't want to think of how the place really looked. This had to be an illusion, like the person before her.
"I think we ought to cooperate. Got a deal for you. I feed them and you keep them up here away from my place. I start having problems, they're fair game. Deal?"
"I'm already feeding them. And I don't like you. Maybe I don't take your deal."
"Caseworker 258 is the reason you're going to take it. That's your caseworker, isn't it? With these new regulations from Interplanetary Affairs she has spot checks to make sure you're not in any unauthorized zones. I can get assigned your case or make sure," her eyes narrowed, "you're slated for the next experiment in pest control."
"Lot of trouble to get rid of a roach problem."
"Dumb is just an act for you, isn't it?" Marilyn took the slice off the plate, biting into it. "I have this feeling that my family can do more than telepathy or inducing headaches. And you're going to teach me."
"I could still turn you in."
"You'd still be living in LimeyTown but even famous so that they'd be extra special to watch over you."
She dumped the slice cheese-side down onto the plate, turned, and stepped into the hallway. Yep, she thought, there was more than one way to get rid of a roach problem. *
copyright ©1998 by Irette Patterson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Illustration copyright ©1998 by Romeo Esparrago <email@example.com>