by H. Pueyo
03:17 AM. If the screaming goes on for any longer, I’m leaving. It’s dark outside, and I can barely see more than a shadow of my car, even from the first floor. Daiane and her mother are yelling at the top of their lungs, voices similar both in pitch and irritation, acting like the building is empty and her dad and I aren’t uncomfortably staring at the walls. A buzzing sound next to my ear distracts me from their words — “Your father and I work so hard to give you everything, and you’re irresponsible, selfish, ungrat– …!” — as I slap the right side of my head, attempting to kill the bug.
03:18 AM. The dead mosquito stares at me from the light beige of my palm, splashing droplets of blood in the braided dark lines crossing my hand. It’s the windows, wide open since we got here, because Daiane was hyperventilating after a few drinks. Mosquitoes the size of my nails fly around like birds of prey, attracted by the artificial light of the bulbs.
03:19 AM. I’m ready to leave. If I knew Daiane had lied about her parents being okay with her bringing friends over, and that their two-day interstate trip would be canceled midway, I would have never accepted her invitation to come. Our college’s typical June Festival party for St. John’s Day is not worth the trouble, I should have known that. Close to her computer, another fat mosquito awaits, probably eager for some me-flavored food. “I’ll tell her, okay, I’ll…” I hear her shriek, clutching the car keys inside of my oversized jeans jacket. The purple plastic dragon hanging from the key chain brightens up and screams the moment Daiane walks in.
03:20 AM. “Sorry,” she says, not sounding sorry at all, and I already know what her tear-stained, swollen expression means. Mom wants her to kick me out, no matter it’s three in the morning, no matter I couldn’t know she was grounded at the age of nineteen. “You need to go…”
“I know,” my answer is drier than I expected, and the spot behind my ear lobe begins to itch. “Yeah, I’m going.”
My limbs move without rational command, following her to the living room. Suddenly aware of the multipatterned backpack hanging from my shoulder, I feel unwelcome in the monochrome, traditional middle-class environment surrounding me. My strawberry earrings are too glittery, and my cloth sneakers are too pink, so I go even faster. Daiane’s mom is as red in the face as her daughter, and sports the same dirty blonde hair and thin lips. Now, she’s lashing at the father, who is doing a great job at pretending to be part of the furniture.
“Good night, bye,” I say awkwardly to the woman, my box braids swishing against my back as I walk. When I get to the corridor, I run down the stairs, before they throw another fit.
03:22 AM. One step outside, and I realize the obvious: Leaving was a terrible idea. I’m alone and shivering. I scratch my arms, looking around compulsively: The idea of someone dangerous appearing unsettles every fiber of my being. My mom would throw a fit if she knew a friend kicked me out at this hour, in a place like this… But no one is here, especially not her, and I don’t dare to search for the phone, so I just hurry back to the car.
My turquoise Fusca reacts to the key, the little Beetle I inherited and revamped with such effort, and my heart races when the purple dragon yells again. Damn toy, I hurry, my hands now trembling while I try to identify each key in the darkness. I can barely see my fingers, or the blue, cracked nail polish. Instead, I just see ten short shadows struggling against each other, like the paws of a black spider.
Finally. Already inside, I throw my backpack to the other seat. The lights of the car are the only sign of life in the street, despite Friday night being a common day for people to be out this late. My bony knees are compressed by the tight space of the car, and I have to breathe deeply and calm down to realize I have no reason to be worried.
I’m in a relatively safe neighborhood, after all.
03:26 AM. Florianópolis looks like a graveyard. By day, the city shifts from bright sunlight to heavy rainstorms, but with no help of artificial lights, the buildings look like ghosts, and the heavy figure of the mangrove creeps in the sides like a massive creature. Another mosquito bites me, and a grunt escapes my throat. This is weird, I realize, not remembering one time that everything was so dark. Maybe it’s a blackout, or maybe it’s the general drowsiness numbing part of my head. Even though we’re in the middle of winter, I open both windows, also curious by the warmth of the weather as of late. Bugs are rejoicing, apparently, as what looks like a terrifying amount of Aedes aegypti specimens fly with the chilly sea breeze.
Outside the car, I can hear the chirrup of crickets as well, all coming from the mangrove near the state university. The streets are definitely deserted, and the thought calms me down for a minute, but I’m still not driving. All my effort is focused on trying to turn on the music player I just bought. After fiddling for a while, I’m able to connect to the only available radio station and start the car.
03:28 AM. “… As my grandma always says: the night is only a child, and I’m sure the after hours audience will…” goes the soothing voice of the broadcaster. I fix my round horn-rimmed glasses to my nose, take the braids out of the grasp of the security belt, and look at my sides with my hands on the wheel. The chirping continues outside, and inside plays the slow, haunting beginning of a ‘40s song.
Another bug brushes my ear, behind the curtain of hair, and I jump in my seat. The sudden brake makes a loud noise, and I stick my neck outside to check if someone else noticed. Nah, still no one around.
Maybe I’m drunk, I consider, ignoring the fact that I only drank half a glass of mulled wine four hours ago. Breathing slowly, I shake my head to check if the bug is still crawling in my hair, but it’s easy to see that, whatever it was, it’s already gone.
03:30 AM. Now that’s great. As a lamenting male voice continues to sing, and the chirp chirp gets only more distressing, the car is as good as dead. It’s stuck in the middle of the street, close to the mangrove, to the dark leaf wall close to a bus stop with a bench, making me wonder what the odds are of a girl being killed right in front of this place.
The buildings, like in the rest of the city, are mostly small. It’s rare to see one without a condominium, but they are as tall as four floors, sometimes three. The same can be said about the commercial apartments, all bicolor, beige and brown, green and gray, yellow and red. A prick on my middle finger tells me another mosquito was there, and the bite becomes a big, round bruise. I scratch, but it only makes it worse, the most superficial layer of skin torn apart, and the brown color turning auburn.
“I just want to go home, leave me alone,” I say out loud, smashing another bug against the door. But I can’t — I have to find an open gas station for refill, and my annoyance at the Daiane fiasco only grows. I was so sure I had a full tank I didn’t try to bargain my stay, but it seems the nervousness of being around other people’s parents fighting made me overlook something so basic.
03:32 AM. I’m getting used to the idea that I’ll be dead by the morning and no one will ever find my body when the car obeys my attempt to start it again, and — lucky me, I guess, all bitten, irritated, and scared — I see neon pointing me to what I need. There is a gas station, of course, how could I forget that? I’m not completely lost, and I won’t have to sleep in the middle of the road. Besides, the place is fairly illuminated with a blinking orange sign:
24 HS. SERVICES AND FOOD.
I park at a pump, squeezing the keys between my fingers so hard that the dragon screams again, but I don’t care.
“Um, hi?” I try, sticking my head in the convenience store. The strong air conditioner makes the hair in my arms stand on end, and my big eyes blink repeatedly at me in the reflection of the door, now very awake. “Hi? Anyone?”
But the station is as empty as the streets. A large bug walks between my legs, close to my right foot, and I jump, thinking it was a cockroach. It’s not, but it looks like one, enormous, ugly and elongated, with two long antennae sticking out.
Now I want to scream, but first I need gas. I’ll scream as much as I want when I’m back to the safety of my flat, so I just run inside the store. Shelves, self-service stands, and a few balloons decorate the place, and the shininess still hurts.
03:33 AM. “Hi?” I yell. “I need help!”
Nothing. The song playing in the background is the same I was listening to the car, and I walk around the shiny metal chairs, trying to hide from whatever is coming for me. Chirp chirp, I hear again, chirp chirp. This is inside the store, not in the middle of the trees, and I start inspecting the whole place. When the person in charge is back from the bathroom or wherever they are, I’m going to point out there are lots of bugs here.
Kneeling down, I see a moving shadow, and I squint my eyes to see, blaming my poor vision on the stress I’m having with all of this.
03:34 AM. Most definitely not just a shadow, a large menacing cricket looks up at me. Now I understand why I confused it with a cockroach; the ones darker in color are quite similar, with a hard shell and six straggly legs, two of them hairy. It’s disturbing how big it is, and how clearly I can see its beady black eyes, how the antennae are standing in the air, as if prepared to attack.
Chirp chirp. Moving seems to be a wild concept for my jelly legs, and I stare right into its bug eyes, but the cricket seems to be staring somewhere else.
Chirp. The song is louder, the chirping, I mean, not the music still playing, now more distant than ever. I’m convinced that the thing is longer than my open hand, and I wonder how normal — or possible — this is. Were crickets always this big?
“Hey!” I scream as loud as I can after running to the cashier, trying to sound confident. “Can someone please help me?”
03:35 AM. The only sound besides the chirping and the music is a muffled noise behind my back. Thud. There is a blow, but it doesn’t hurt, and I can’t quite grasp the form or texture through the denim of my jacket. I freeze, also noticing the crawling, the soft touching of paws walking up my back and between my hair…
With another hop, I jerk my body, hands shaking again, searching through the braids, trying to separate myself from whatever bug is over my body now. “Out, out, out,” I yell, and—
I’m feeling it clearly now.
03:35 AM. My hand is covering the cricket, hidden carefully under the stiff collar of my jacket. The song is over, and I hear: chirp, chirp, chirp…
“… A little treat for the night owls… A very vivacious song, that some of you might even remember. It was a hit in the late ‘50s…”
For the split second I was paralyzed, the giant cricket dug her sharp paws in the skin of my neck, not enough to hurt, but enough to bring me to my senses again. I grab it, and throw it against the glass, as hard as I can.
Another noise, and the bug falls to the floor.
“What…” I hear myself say, and my own breath before the next song begins, now an ancient rock one. Chirp, chirp, chirp…
I stare at my shaky hand. I could be sure the thing was drinking something from me, but it wasn’t blood, like the mosquitoes, and it didn’t hurt. Slowly, I raise my arm again to touch the back of my neck, feeling drops of cold sweat.
I regret this moment very quickly, as two other crickets jump to my bare leg, uncovered by the denim shorts.
03:37 AM. I’ll kill you, I think, but I don’t. Slapping them away from me is effective, and it doesn’t force me to crush such large creatures under my shoe. They attempt to fly away when I hit them, clumsy and confused, slamming their bodies against the walls. They’re so odd that my fear starts dying away, and I only remember I was scared of being alone because a little voice inside my head keeps reminding me how dangerous my situation is.
Looking around to see if the employee is coming, or if there is anyone outside, I decide to kneel down. The crickets are still singing, and now I realize there are lots of them, hiding behind plastic packets of crackers and salty snacks. Others are under the shelves, or climbing the walls, and I’m not as freaked out as before when I realize the whole store is infested.
Chirp, chirp… The first cricket is the size of a small mammal, like a big rat, or a squirrel. Looking closely, this one is hurt, probably from the blow, and the paw is twisted to an unnatural angle. Chirp, chirp…
“Hi,” I say, as if talking to a puppy. I should probably run away from there and sleep on the car, but the image of this oversized cricket lying against the wall forces me to stay still.
03:38 AM. “Hi,” I repeat softly. The other crickets are watching me. My hand tries to reach her, and I touch the hard exoskeleton with a fingertip. My chipped nail polish looks bluer under the white light, and the bug doesn’t look as scary as it did before. I pet her again.
The antennae tickle, but I don’t stop. She probably can’t walk or fly, now that I think of it. I caress her back, and she moves her flat head, touching me with something that looks like an insect mouth.
03:40 AM. Not only the first one, but other three crickets are close to me. It all looks surreal, the lights bright and constant, the music faraway, mixed with the chirping, the wind hitting the door. The one on the floor is licking — if they have anything such as a tongue — the skin of my hand, and the other three are doing the same to my leg. Calming down, I realize it doesn’t hurt, or scare me anymore.
On the contrary; the sounds and colors are making me very sleepy, but calmer than before. They seem to be rejoicing on absorbing sweat or dead skin with their mouths, and don’t even move much.
“Enough for today, friend,” I say to them, and look around again. No one is here, besides me and the crickets. “I’m leaving.”
I get up, fix my jacket, and ask for someone one more time, but there is no response, so I leave the store and go to my car. I consider sleeping there because it’s better than being alone outside when I realize the tank was full from the start, and my exhausted eyes must have mistook the numbers.
04:20 AM. Home, I think, kicking my shoes. The purple shaggy rug almost causes me to slip, but my body responds automatically to its environment, wanting only to get to bed. The windows are all shut, and the house smells slightly like mold — a downside of living in such a rainy island — and my lids are drooping behind my glasses. In the bedroom, I consider searching for my pajamas, but I’m too lazy. Instead, I fall face down over the messy covers, pulling the thickest one over my back.
And I’m almost there, almost sleeping, when a familiar feeling brushes the hair of my arm. Softly, six legs crawl down to my wrist. My instinct is moving to take it off, but I wait to see what happens. The cricket makes an effort to pull the jeans aside, trying to release herself from my sleeve, and then I see the peanut-colored head, and two long antennae…
04:21 AM. Chirp. Chirp. The crooked leg tells me it’s the first cricket, and I look at her attentively, still lying on the bed. She looks back, comfortable on the back of my hand. “Well,” I whisper, too tired to change my tone. “If you’re still here in the morning, I’ll keep you, okay?”
Naturally, she doesn’t answer, and I put her on the bedside, next to my glasses. If she’s still here, I’m really keeping her, I think again, now only to myself, as my eyelids close, and I can no longer think.
Copyright © 2016 by H. Pueyo