It was during the interim summer phase, the period of night silence, the gap between Spring peepers and August crickets, that Dog began to hear the ants. At first, he wasn’t sure what he was hearing. The sound was subtle, almost imperceptible, and he decided to dismiss it as the phantom echoes emitted by his own body: the rustle of his hair against the pillow, the soft plop of wax falling from inner to outer ear, the throb of blood in his temples. This rationalization was less worrisome to him than the manner in which his subconscious interpreted the sounds: movement, scratchings, whispers. From within the walls, specifically the wall right behind his bed, where he lay his head each and every night. It was something he really didn’t want to think about, and so he slept in denial for many nights, continuing to satisfy his uneasy mind with a litany of explanations. Leaves in the gutter. Air trapped behind a loose flap of vapour-barrier. The hair in his nose, which he knew was in bad need of trimming. Dew settling on the clapboard siding. The sound his eyelashes made as he blinked repeatedly before settling into blissful, ignorant sleep.
But finally, late one particularly quiet night, he was forced to admit to himself that it was none of these things, that the whispery sound was indeed coming from within the wall, right behind his head. So he rose from the musky sheets, stood pole-straight beside his bed, waiting, listening. Eventually bent his upper body toward the wall. Pressed his ear gently against the sheetrock and paint.
He listened for several seconds, methodically filtering out the sounds of his own body: the blood pulsing through his earlobe, breath rasping softly in and out of his lungs, the tiny wet smack his lips made when he parted them, until he heard the right sound –heard them— much louder and more distinctly than he had heard from the bed. It was a hiss, a sibilant clicking, like wheat moving in a night breeze. Sand grains spilling through the funnel of an hourglass. Hollow. Dry. Insectile, Dog realized. Exoskeletal.
He had the distinct impression of something –several somethings– moving through the space behind his ear, and he jerked himself away from the wall in disgust, a shiver shimmying down through his trunk and limbs. Ants, he thought. No. Maybe not ants. Wasps. Hornets. Well, maybe an animal after all. Bats? Birds? Swallowing, he put his ear back to the wall and its sounds of scurrying activity, of nocturnal life separated from his flesh by only half an inch of wallboard. It definitely sounded like insects. If it were bats or birds, or squirrels –or mice, he thought, don’t forget mice– if it were any of these animals, the sounds they were making were far too creepy to instil any sort of reassurance. No, it was insects, and probably ants. He hated ants, so it was most likely that was what they were. He shivered again and closed his eyes. Even the terms they conjured in his mind made him feel ill. Antennae. Eggs. Nest. Larvae. Thorax. Thorax.
Dog crossed the room in jumping strides, feet coming up from under him as if he at any moment expected to step on a rusty, errant razor blade. He flicked the switch for the overhead fixture, forced his eyes to adjust to the sudden blaze of light, and then proceeded to examine the floor, the baseboards, the curtains, the little table next to his bed and the books piled upon it, and most importantly, his bed. He found no ants, but though the light helped to dispel the horror of the sounds –these sounds that lived, as did the creatures who made them, on the dim edge of human perception– he still decided he’d spend the rest of the night on the sofa, safe within another room. Not sleeping against an outer wall. And where he wouldn’t be tortured by dreams of segmented bodies boring through the wall above him in unholy birth, pouring out through the tiny hole by the squirming thousands into his dark room, his bed, his snoring, open mouth.
He grabbed his pillow and shook it vigorously, intent on examining every little fold for anything he might have missed during his previous inspection, anything that might be able to hitch a ride to the sofa. As his fingers tugged shakily at the pillowcase, the sensation of movement to his left made him jump and cry out, jerked his eyes to the bedroom window, where he expected he’d find his imagined nightmare already beginning to unfold.
There was only his reflection staring back at him, the face hollow and somehow blank against the inky blue backdrop of the night. He looked slumped, spectral. A character in a shadow play. Yet with loathing and the early sheen of all-out panic clearly evident in the eyes. It was an image that had become familiar to him, and with it the notion that his father had been wrong to cast aspirations upon the name he’d chosen for his son. The old man had told him to always remember what D-O-G was when spelled backward, because every time he looked at his reflection in a mirror he was going to see himself reversed, which meant God would be looking back at him, and he should meet that look with square shoulders and proud eyes. But Dog knew then, as now, that his father was wrong. There was nothing holy to be found in his reflection. The father, the son and the ghost of both, perhaps. But not much else.
He fled the room with his pillow. In the morning, he’d call someone who deals with this sort of thing. A bug man. An exterminator. In the meantime, he’d see what was on the late show.
The exterminator arrived at one p.m. sharp, just as he’d said he would on the phone that morning. Dog noticed there was no company logo or identifying credential of any sort on the exterminator’s pickup truck. Discretion, he guessed. Your client’s social embarrassment would be an important business consideration in such a line of work. He had few neighbours to spot the strange truck in his driveway, but still he felt grateful for the anonymity. Assumptions could be damning.
He showed the exterminator to his bedroom, where he’d already helpfully pulled his bed away from the wall and into the centre of the room. The exterminator had a little black case. Just like a doctor’s case, Dog thought, and then this illusion was completed as the exterminator snapped open the hasps of the case and pulled from within it a long, snaking stethoscope. He put the hooked ends into his ears, lifted the disc and held it against the wall. Dog peeked into the open case while the exterminator was listening to the wall. The case was empty. There was nothing else in it. Not even a can of Raid.
“Hmm,” said the exterminator, as he moved the little disc across various spots on the wall. “Yeah. Oh, yeah. Yup. Uh-huh.”
Was it ants, Dog wanted to know.
“Yup,” repeated the exterminator. “Ants. Carpenter ants, I’d say. I’m no myrmecologist, mind you, but I do know my pests. Big nest, too. Not as destructive as termites. More an annoyance than anything. Big annoyance, though. You got access to the attic?”
Dog showed him the trapdoor in the ceiling, inside the bedroom closet.
“You got a ladder?” asked the exterminator. “Like to get up there, see what we’re dealing with.”
Dog asked him if he thought they were in the attic too.
“Well, they’re up at the top of the wall. Most likely travelling in through the attic. Should look and see.”
Dog cleared a space in the closet while the exterminator went out to his truck and prepared his gear. He moved his few clothes out of the way and then went down to the basement to fetch the stepladder. The stepladder was old. It had belonged to his father. It was made of wood and creaked badly whenever someone stood on it. A couple of the rungs sagged alarmingly. He hoped the exterminator wouldn’t fall and break something and sue him.
The exterminator returned clad in a grey coverall. He had on a large leather tool belt, from which dangled several utensils with attachments and nozzles, their potential purposes mystifying. A large, rubber-gripped flashlight was also clipped to his belt. His eyes were now capped by milky goggles and he had concealed his hair beneath a slick, plastic cap. Thick gloves covered his hands. In his left he held a small canister that looked like it contained compressed gas of some sort. In his right there was a bigger, shiny cylinder that looked to Dog like an old-fashioned fire extinguisher, hose and spraying wand extending from its side, and pump-handle locked into place on top. The gear looked heavy. In his bulky coverall, the exterminator looked very heavy. Dog began to think it would be an extremely bad idea for the exterminator to get onto that rickety ladder.
“Got a smoke?” the exterminator asked him. Dog did not. “Damn,” said the exterminator. He unclipped his flashlight, stepped into the closet and clambered up the ladder, not seeming to notice as it sagged beneath his weight. As he pulled himself off it and stepped onto the attic joists, the top rung of the ladder let go with an explosive crack. Dog attempted to warn the exterminator, but the man merely assured him he would avoid the snapped rung when he came back down from the attic.
From within the closet, he listened to the dull sounds of the exterminator’s boots making their way across the joists, heading for the western end of the house and the wall where Dog’s bed usually sat. “Oh yeah,” came the muffled and distant voice of the exterminator. “Yeah. Oh, ayup. There they are. Ants. Hey, fellas.” Dog resisted the urge to climb the ladder himself and see the ants. He tried to ignore the imagery now flitting through his mind…sheets of squirming black ants undulating in a single mass across the angled interior of his roof. Armies of attackers that would come pouring down through the attic trapdoor as soon as the exterminator began spraying his poisons up there. And then, as if on cue, he heard a soft, short hiss, repeated in staccato pulses, and braced himself for the torrent of insectile panic he was sure was going to come next.
But nothing happened. There were more hissings, as the exterminator sprayed god-knew-what into the recesses of the attic, and then the man reappeared above the trapdoor opening, needlessly turning the powerful beam of his flashlight down onto Dog, who still waited below in the lighted closet. “Coming down,” the exterminator warned, and Dog stepped out of his way. He was sure the ladder would collapse this time, but it held the weight of the exterminator –who, as he had promised, carefully avoided the broken rung– with no problem at all.
Was that it, asked Dog. It sure didn’t seem like much to him.
“Nope,” said the exterminator. “I’ll do a perimeter spray around the foundation. That should take care of them getting in. That and the spray above will hopefully take care of them for good. Otherwise, we’d have to cut holes in your wall there, and I don’t like cutting holes in people’s walls unless I have to.”
He wanted to tell the exterminator to go ahead and cut his holes. To rip the goddamned wallboard right off the studs if he so wished. To torch that entire end of the house, if need be. Anything to get rid of the ants. He would even provide the chainsaw, if the exterminator wanted him to. Anything. But instead he nodded and followed the exterminator outside.
He accompanied the exterminator around the perimeter of his house, watching as the man sprayed a milky, sweet-smelling liquid from his shiny cylinder onto the foundation and walkways. The exterminator would pump the handle periodically, restoring the pressure inside the device and keeping his spray fan consistent and even. The exterminator was talkative, and he kept up a constant blur of chatter that made Dog feel a little bit dizzy. He jumped around from topic to topic, not seeming to notice that Dog said little to nothing in response.
“The government,” said the exterminator. And “taxes,” he said. “Crime rate.” “A man’s got a right,” he told Dog. Dog agreed with everything the exterminator said, responding for the most part in single-word sentences. He hoped the exterminator didn’t think that he was boring Dog, though in truth, he was.
The exterminator asked him if “Dog” was some kind of nickname. Dog told him it wasn’t, and explained the story of his father’s lifelong love of alcohol, his reasoning behind naming his son “Dog” and his adamant expectation of reflected divinity.
“And is that what you see when you look in the mirror?” the exterminator asked him. “What do you see?” He sounded very interested. He had put down his sprayer while Dog told the story, and was now studying him with sharp and curious eyes.
Dog shrugged and told the exterminator he saw only himself whenever he looked in the mirror.
The exterminator seemed disappointed. He pumped the handle of the cylinder, his eyes fixed on the treeline behind Dog’s property, and then he returned to his spraying.
“You know,” he said. “I’m always trying to keep busy. In the winter, it’s kinda the off-season for me. And if I don’t have something to occupy my mind, I tend to get, you know–” he paused and looked first over his shoulder, and then up at Dog “–depressed,” he finished, voice suddenly hushed. “But if I keep myself busy, I keep myself active, then it gets me through the rough months. A man needs to have a project. Something to focus his thought and energy on. But what am I supposed to do in the winter, right? Me, an exterminator? And I ain’t much of a hobbyist, if you know what I mean. Seems it would be hard to find something to focus on, right?”
Dog agreed with the exterminator that it seemed so.
“Well, that’s what I thought too. But then I got this idea, see? I decided I would make a project for myself…I’d pick something, someone who needed something done that seemed really impossible, and I’d make that my primary focus for the winter months, you see?”
He didn’t see, but he told the exterminator he did. The exterminator kept spraying. They had almost circled the entire house now, and Dog was anxious to get this finished. The fumes from the milky liquid were giving him a headache. Lots of things gave him a headache, but this one was beginning to feel really strange. He wished he had stayed in the house and let the exterminator finish this stage of the ant-eradication on his own.
“Like, this past winter, I read in the paper about this fellow whose son was going to be competing in the Olympics, but this guy couldn’t afford to go and see his son perform, because it’s halfway around the world, of course, and the family has had some hardship. Well, I decided to make him my winter’s project, to do everything I could to get that fellow the tickets –through no expense of my own, mind you, because that’s part of the deal I make with myself, I can’t spend any of my own money. So, I started by calling the…” and the exterminator then proceeded to tell Dog, in immense detail, how he had succeeded in securing the distraught father spectator’s seats at the Olympics so he could watch his son perform, despite all the seemingly impossible barriers he had encountered while trying to do so. “Perhaps you read about it in the paper,” he said. Dog had not.
The exterminator then told him about his previous winters’ projects, again in exhausting detail. There was the pair of middle-aged twin brothers who had been separated at birth that he’d reunited. There was the inventor of a plastic bag closure device for whom he’d helped secure developmental funding, after all hope had seemingly been lost. “It’s pretty common. You probably have one in your kitchen drawer,” the exterminator told him. Dog did not.
And there were several other laudable humanitarian efforts that Dog admittedly tuned out. It was July, and the afternoon sun was very hot, and the fumes from the chemicals were really starting to make his head throb with pain. He noticed the exterminator paused in his spraying more and more as he spoke, despite the fact that they were almost finished. Dog was beginning to feel faint, insubstantial. A brass rubbing of words eroded by time.
“And it is such a wonderful feeling,” the exterminator was telling him, “to have helped all these people, especially against such odds. And that, more than anything, I have to tell you, that is what keeps the–” he looked quickly over his shoulder again and then directly at Dog “–depression away. You know what I mean?”
Dog nodded. Now his eyes had begun to itch. He was sure they must be bulging madly in their sockets. And he had no idea why the exterminator was telling him these things. He just wanted the ants dead, that was all.
The exterminator applied one last little squirt from his cylinder around the edge of Dog’s rotting back steps and announced that he was finished. The air was thick and heavy with shimmering fumes, and Dog thought he might drop to his knees and retch his guts out onto the ground. But instead he nodded and followed the exterminator back to the front of the house. The exterminator repacked his gear into his truck and wrote up Dog’s bill with a splintered, blue plastic stick pen. “One hundred eighty-seven sixty-five,” he told Dog. Dog asked him if he took Mastercard, and the exterminator said “with pleasure.” As Dog was pulling out his wallet, the exterminator glanced around the front yard. “Ya know,” he said, “I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but your grass is pretty long. You might want to cut it. Long grass attracts insects, and, well, that’s probably why you got ants.”
Dog nodded again, and handed the exterminator his credit card.
The exterminator had said it would take several days, maybe as long as a week, before they could be sure that the ants were all dead. If he noticed them after this time had passed, heard the same sounds, he could call the exterminator and he’d make a return visit, no charge.
Dog heard them in the wall the first night. He slept on the sofa again, told himself to give it time, that he would have to wait for them to encounter the residual spray awaiting them around the perimeter of the house if they attempted to leave the nest. For several days he diligently checked the outside of the western wall, but saw no ants. Each day he went outdoors expecting to find a little pile of black corpses, but there was nothing.
Seven days passed and he could still hear the ants. He called the exterminator and asked him to come back and drill the holes, do whatever he had to do to get rid of them forever.
The exterminator pulled into the driveway the next morning, unpacked his gear and dragged everything into Dog’s bedroom. The exterminator wasted no time talking this visit. He was all business as he took a flat, black prybar and used it to lever the baseboards away from Dog’s bedroom wall. He pulled the mouldings off around the window. He tapped at the wall with a tiny hammer to determine where the studs were, and then took a measuring tape and blue chalk and marked the distance between them. Then he took a big drill and began drilling the holes in Dog’s wall, spaced evenly with the gaps between the studs.
Dog watched nervously from the bedroom doorway. Each time the exterminator pulled the whirling drill bit from the hole in a burst of gypsum dust, Dog expected his nightmare to come true: ants pouring in a mad torrent from the wall. But nothing happened. No ants came squirming out, and soon enough there were eight identical holes arranged in a rectangular pattern on the wall above Dog’s bed. The exterminator pointed at the holes. “I’m going to inject the emulsifier into each of these holes. Then in along the open seam at the window frame and the baseboard. This’ll kill them instantly, sure enough. It smells kinda strong, so you may want to close the door there, and wait outside.”
Dog closed the door, noticing as he did so that the exterminator was preparing to don a face mask with two large filter discs on either side. He tried not to think about the toxic chemicals that might be remaining in his wall after this ordeal was over, not to mention the thousands of ant corpses.
Ten minutes later, it was all over. The exterminator left after instructing Dog to wait two hours before returning to his bedroom. When the allotted time had passed, he opened the bedroom door and cautiously sniffed the air. Nothing. He crossed to the window and opened it, letting in the fresh summer breeze, reminding himself it was better to be safe than sorry. He approached the wall with trepidation, eyeing the little black holes –one of which had a long, thin stain seeping into the paint below it, where the liquid poison had obviously dripped. Dog hesitated, then stepped closer to the wall. He bent forward and, taking care to avoid the stain, pressed his ear once more against the nubby paint. Silence. The subsonic hum of electricity coursing through wires. The ants were dead.
Afterward, Dog found the whole thing had left him feeling satisfied yet vaguely disturbed. He would be hard-pressed to define it. But it was like grocery day, when there was nothing to eat in the house and he was forced to make a meal out of the previous night’s spaghetti, the last two slices of sandwich ham, and the dry-toasted heels of bread two days past its due date: it tasted okay and it filled the gap, but there was still something depressing about it. And there was the inevitable realization that finishing it left him unprepared for the next day, that he would have to make plans for grocery shopping, make a list. Dog hated lists. Nothing made his head hurt more than a list. Yet he knew that once the groceries were purchased and stashed, once he was prepared for another week, he’d be able to relax, at least for a little while. Until he was scraping together leftovers again to make his supper.
And this feeling was exactly like that one. He wasn’t sure why. It didn’t make much sense that he would feel this way, being that the ants were dead and, unlike the groceries, there was no need to replenish them. Quite the opposite in fact. But the uneasiness persisted. Quivering below the surface tension of his tenuous relief. A tremor in the guts. Hunger maybe, thought Dog. He decided to make some tea and toast, maybe even treat himself and sprinkle a few bacon-bits on the melted butter. Yes, that sounded good. He’d make tea and bacon toast, and tomorrow he’d plug up those goddamned holes above his bed, and that would be the end of it.
This story appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Grain Magazine. © 2011 David Michael Drew