When I saw him, I knew I had to kill him.
I crept up from the darkness. I stuck to the gloom — so that I didn’t reveal my location with a misplaced shadow. I took my time, moved with grace. No flurry of movement, no loud swishes of cloth. I swam through treacle, breath all but held, chest tight, hands wet with sweat.
Not a big deal, most people would have done the same. It wouldn’t register a blip on the radar of the average mind. Wouldn’t weigh on a normal citizen’s conscience. It’s not like I stopped and debated it for a long time, weighed up the pros and cons, tore myself up inside. I decided in the blink of an eye, acted, cleaned up, then carried on with the rest of my morning. And made a mental note to seal up any snacks or bits of food.
I doubt the cockroach ever saw it coming.
I mean, I had to choose between kill or capture. I thought, for a brief moment, I could slam a glass down over the top of him. A transparent prison. Then, I’d slide a piece of cardboard — the thicker the better — beneath his fat and segmented body. But when I sized him up, I realised he’d be too big for any of my cups or mugs. Meatier and longer than my thumb. About ten centimetres, if I had to guess. Ugly thing.
If I tried to catch him, I could end up decapitating him. Which I imagined would not be pleasant — could cockroaches bleed? It would be rather cruel, too. His death might not be instantaneous. Either that or I’d succeed in neither assassination nor entrapment. He might escape and scuttle off for the shadows. And that made me shiver. I didn’t want him there when I came home from work, a lurker on the wall next to the light switch. A cockroach-free home, that’s all I asked for.
So, no. I came to my choice in seconds. I’d kill the bugger. Save him from a tortured, prolonged death. I’d make it quick and painless. No stress for me, no agony for him. Win-win. Sort of. And it’s not like I’d enter myself into history’s annals of actual murders. Who’d judge me for splatting one measly cockroach? I doubt anyone would hold it against me — least of all the cockroaches. They come from a world of Kill or Be Killed. Survival of the fittest, evolution, nature. It’s how they did things, down on the plane of not-quite-microscopic life. Plus, they don’t have the brains to remember such an event. Not like us humans.
Down came the newspaper. Rolled tight into a baton. The strike and the strength would have bruised the skin of a human. More than enough to crack the cockroach’s brittle exoskeleton.
Bits of dark-brown fragments scattered in a rough circle around the point of impact.
I held the newspaper in place and pressed down — on the off chance that Mr Roach survived the initial strike. I applied pressure until the newspaper tube began to bend under the stress. I rotated the weapon, forwards and backwards. A soft grinding, like the rasp of sandpaper.
And then I pulled away.
Strings of goo came away from the paper, bits of the insect’s thorax and abdomen stuck to the side. A squished mess of internal organs and muscles hung, glued to the wall like some obscene art piece. Mr Roach lost a couple of legs in the process, along with some of his paper-thin, membranous wings. Torn like a tissue.
With the paper as a trowel of sorts, I scraped his remains from my wall. Pried him off, a bit of old gum. A red-brown stain marked the paint. I grimaced and dropped the soiled newspaper into the bin, the mangled carcass of the bug skewered on the end. The world’s most perverse shishkebab. A wet wipe took most of the gunk from the wall, but a shadow of the crime hovered there — the ghost of a roach. Before I could put some elbow grease into it, my watch bleated its daily whine. Leave now for the office, or risk a tongue-lashing from Mr Fennimore.
I didn’t even have time to finish my coffee, all thanks to Mr Roach. I shoved my over-burnt and over-buttered piece of cold toast into my mouth and headed for the door. I left the crumb-covered plate on the counter. Streaks of jam stained the porcelain, like splatters of blood. I snatched my keys and thumped through the door, out into the greyness of the day.
I reminded myself to pick up one of those touch-up paint pens from the DIY shop on the way home from work.
* * *
I loosed a sigh as I started down the path to my front door.
Another day down. Another inch closer to that two-day reprieve known as the weekend. Only a few more nine-to-fives to go. I could make it. For one more week, at least. It’s how I lived my life — I clung on by the skin of my teeth, clawed at existence with a white-knuckle grip. Every 24 hours a battle, every return home a victory. Each Monday that came around, I thought: This could be it. And each time it turned out not to be. I somehow made the deadline for life with seconds to spare — over and over and over again.
I paused, one foot above the next wonky tile. They jutted like the teeth of meth addicts from the overgrown jungle of my garden. You had to lift your feet on this path, or you risked a face-plant into the concrete. Or worse, a sideways tumble into the overgrowth. Despite its thickness, the greenery had nothing healthy-looking about it. More like cancer, which proliferates and multiplies out of control.
A frown wormed its way onto my face. My breath stopped in my throat, a jacket caught on a thorn.
I thought — for one flutter of a heartbeat — I saw movement behind the blinds.
I brought my foot down and stared through the gloom at the white lace. Of course, I couldn’t make out anything behind the lace — the reason why I’d bought them in the first place. I liked my privacy.
Stillness. No breaths stirred the cloth.
I squinted, allowed my eyes to focus, then blur beyond normal function. If anyone looked out, they’d see my concentration face. Eyebrows smushed together, tongue stuck out.
Nothing. No shadows shifted, no blur beyond the blinds’ obfuscation.
My frown deepened. I’d always suspected I dangled from the precipice of madness. In truth, a part of me believed I’d already stumbled over the edge. They say that people are good at hiding it. Could I hide it from myself?
I released my pent-up breath and made my way down the uneven grey slabs to the front door. The house key slid into the lock. A brief moment of resistance in the motion. A sense of something falling, and a small, meaty thump upon the carpet. Not quite audible. I felt it in my gut.
I shivered and shook off the sensation. Paranoia. Insanity. All the above.
The door pushed open with a bristled swish.
The microseconds tick-tick-ticked out into infinity.
Inside, the tenebrosity lingered. Darkness pooled like spilled puddles of ink. Eyes from the shadows — black as coal — stared out at me. Angry, distrustful. Seething. Loathing.
A moment passed.
The undeniable sensation of things running from the open door. Away from the intrusive light. Away from the alien in their midst. A vertiginous wave of disorientation rippled through me, and I stumbled up the step.
In the darkness, something scuttled.
I landed on my hands and knees. Beneath me, the hard laminate floor had turned into something soft and crunchy. Something that throbbed and rippled.
I reached for the wall. It hummed with activity. My hand crawled along — a tarantula in the dusk. My fingers knocked something from its place, sent it in a cascade to the floor. Something else scuttled down my wrist, up the sleeve.
A flicker of something. A million tiny movements across my skin.
My fingers closed on the hard plastic of the switch and hit it.
An irritated buzz. Up close and aggressive.
Behind me, the door thumped to a close of its own accord. Shut by itself, even though it had never done so in the seven years I’d lived there. It thudded like a newspaper tube upon my skull.
I blinked away the shock as vision swam back into my eyes. My mouth opened into a scream. Before any sounds could escape, a flood of exoskeletons washed down my throat. Legs writhed. Segmented bodies twitched and squirmed. Spiracles and facial mandibles mewled. Wings fluttered, chittered, hummed.
I tried to breathe, but the space between thoraxes and carapaces allowed no air to squeeze by. I succeeded only in inhaling a chosen few. They clawed and scrambled against my windpipe, as they dropped down into my lungs and stomach. I felt their movements all the way down.
And then some.
In the end, I could hardly blame them. When dealing with something so much bigger, it’s not a question of kill or capture. As my vision darkened, I thought one thing: This is their version of cruelty-free. A rolled-up newspaper for those who have no thumbs.
Be thankful they chose empathy.