Beetles litter the carpet this morning, as always. During the cold Vermont nights, the insects crawl through the windows, the cracks in the door frame, the invisible holes all over the house. When they can’t find their way out again they burrow into the shag carpet of the bedroom and die between the fibers.
Every morning, the two of them put on slippers with thick rubber soles and step carefully out of bed, watching for the bodies. Sometimes it’s unavoidable; the lined treads of their slippers are caked with beetle parts. She used to squeal when they crunched, but now she doesn’t, just lets the shudder ride through her. They’re already dead, she reminds herself. They’re already dead, usually. He doesn’t squeal and never did, but feels the same twinge in his gut when he hears one under his foot. A quick tremor of loathing and something that feels like disappointment. This morning, as the sun glows orange in the frosted windows, she slips on her shoes and sits on the side of the bed with her legs crossed, preparing.
We should replace the carpet, she whispers. The man groans and rolls over in bed. There have got to be a million carcasses in there, she whispers.
Every morning, they collect as many beetles as they can with tissues to flush down the toilet. They would hire an exterminator, but the shame of the situation is too much for her now. They let it get this bad; they would have to fix it themselves. But after so many winters, she can feel herself trying less and less each morning. There are fewer tissues. There are more beetles. The man still has not sat up.
Come on. One more morning. One more time. A lie. They say it every morning. It was once a joke.
I can’t, he says. I can’t. Not again. One more will kill me.
Okay, she says. Okay. So we stay here today. So what. We’ll stay in bed.
Now they have nothing to do. It is a purposeful act of dormancy—radical, even. She is surprised. He is always the first one up, tissues in hand. He is never stubborn and she is relieved to give in. She pulls her slippers off and lets them drop to the carpet. From her position, she can see five or so beetles on the carpet. Some dead, some crawling. There are dozens more, deep within the carpet and hidden from view.
On the other side of the bed, next to the man, a brown beetle is crawling up the wall. It has long legs and it moves with precision and purpose. She watches it. She realizes suddenly that after all these years, she has never seen a beetle escape the carpet. It is moving slowly toward the return vent near the ceiling, lifting a leg, feeling the wall in front of it, placing it down. Pulls up. Adjusts. Lifts another leg. Again.
We should move, the man says suddenly.
We should get a new carpet, she says.
We could go south. Or west. I mean—honestly, anywhere. Anywhere.
I’m sick of shag.
The beetle has made it a quarter of the way up the wall, but suddenly slips and drops to the carpet, its wings slapping the yellow wallpaper as it falls. She lets out a sharp shriek of surprise, then covers her mouth. Sorry, sorry.
I have cousins in England. How would you feel about living in the UK?
Yeah, why not? He sits up, eyes bright. Why not? We could get new—better—jobs out there. We could do new things every day. We could walk around normally in our own house. No more beetles.
As long as there’s no shag. The beetle has won against the carpet once more and is again visible on the wall, moving faster this time, antennae grazing back and forth, one leg at a time. The heat kicks on and the beetle climbs faster still, motivated by the movement of the air.
Of course. We’ll have hardwood if we want. Anything. We can move by next month. Or before, even.
She does not respond. There is a small pockmark on the wall from a nail hole that had been painted over, years ago, when there were picture frames. The beetle is unknowingly moving toward it. She does not think they will be able to move to England in a month.
Imagine, honey, he says, imagine us in England. We could wake up and wear socks to the kitchen, and I could make you eggs, and you could make me coffee. Then we’d read the newspaper or watch TV—I don’t know anything about British television—and we’d have a dog, of course, so we’d feed it before leaving for work.
The beetle hits the pit, slips, and falls to the ground again with a sharp buzzing sound. She sucks in a breath but does not scream. He mistakes her reaction for excitement. I know! he says. I know! Imagine it.
A dog, she says, and the image of it comes to her like something out of a movie; they will have a dog, and they will have plants, and hardwood flooring, and an exterminator. Every week, the exterminator will come and look at the walls and the floors and say, Nope, no beetles here, one hundred percent beetle-free, and they will feel the smooth floor under their bare toes and say, Yes, that’s what we expected.
A month? she asks.
A month! Why not?
…And they can have picture frames on the walls again once they have things to fill them with, memories and photographs of the dog and the two of them at Big Ben. Perhaps (and she almost dares not think it, as if thinking it would will it away, as if straying too far with her thoughts would leave her stranded in the cold), perhaps a photograph of a child between them. They had hung a few frames once but they were only placeholders. They kept saying they would fill them, but when they finally pulled the frames from the wall, a torrent of dried husks came spilling out from behind them.
As she looks at him now, there is something in his eyes she has not seen in so long, this new excitement. As if he is not seeing her, not seeing their room, but a version of it, lit up with color and good news. They are in London. Why not? She can’t seem to think of a reason.
Why not, honey? he says. I’m sure we can figure out a way to afford it. I can meet with someone today to talk about it.
Behind him, the beetle tries again, mounts the wall and takes off with visible determination. It is moving faster now than she has ever seen a bug move, practically running. It will get to the vent. It will get outside. It will fly until it reaches the Thames.
She still has not responded and that angers him, suddenly. He’s fiery for a fight for the first time in his life. He wants her to be ecstatic, or otherwise angry at him. The beetles have taken their normalcy—he will not let them take what passion he has left. Why not? He demands. Tell me, tell me, why not? What’s going to stop us?
Perhaps London is right outside of the house, and if that was the case, she would take a hammer to their yellow walls and rip up the graveyard carpet. But every inch of this house has become a hiding place, no corner untouched by wings and spindle feet, not the carpet, the bathroom, the attic, not their bookshelves or their staircase. They have worked themselves into the routine, the very breath, of the house. How many insects have lived and died within these thin walls? How many would crash over them in a wave as the drywall came down?
Because, she says, there’s too much to do. It’s gotten too bad.
So what? So what?
We have to get up.
The beetle has reached the pit and moves past it, still running, fixated on the return vent where escape eagerly waits. We have to get up now, we have to clean up the carpet. We have to do it again. Tomorrow too. And every day after. And the ones that are hiding all over the house. The beetles will not wait for us.
He opens his mouth to say something but suddenly seems to understand what she’s saying. He sees the small room again, the dull walls, the old shag carpet full of husks, and he sees her, sitting on the bed with her bare feet tucked up against her, cringing from the ground and from him, from his hope and his anger. It’s just gotten too bad.
Behind him, the beetle pauses just shy of the vent and dies. Rattles as it falls.Emma Campbell is an undergraduate at Franklin & Marshall College where she studies Biology and English. Her work has been previously published in the Oakland Arts Review and will soon be featured in 3:AM Magazine.