In honor of MG Press’ debut publication, the collection This Jealous Earth by Scott Dominick Carpenter, we’re excited to bring you an excerpt from the book, the story “Field Notes.”
For information on This Jealous Earth, including how to pre-order a copy for only $1, click here.
I WAS ELEVEN THE SUMMER we drove to Arizona, the five of us jittering through fifteen hundred miles in an overloaded Town & Country station wagon with failing air conditioning. At fourteen, Neil was too sullen to complain, but if Willy or I piped up from the back, bleating about our boredom or our bladders, or if Willy rammed his bony elbow into my side, working it like the claw of a crowbar until I cried out, Dad was ready with the usual refrain. “Is it killing you?” he’d call back over his shoulder. He loved to ask if things were death threats, which was the threshold for taking action. And when our silence allowed how it wasn’t, he’d follow up with: “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!”
“Terrific,” Mom muttered once into the window while a bead of sweat dribbled down her temple. “Maybe I’ll just go for that first option.”
During the drive she eyed each passing Holiday Inn with theatrical emphasis: those oases sported restaurants with waitresses and pools with chaises longues. Instead, our fate was a housekeeping cabin in a tourist park at the edge of Sedona, where fifteen or twenty cottages were rounded up like Conestoga wagons. Ours was a two-bedroom model, so full of houseflies that complimentary strips of flypaper had been offered by the management, the way a fancier outfit might place mints on your pillow. That first evening, while Dad drank Grain Belt out on the porch, Mom wrestled open a jar of spaghetti sauce and slopped the contents over a matted mound of boiled noodles. Blackened toast, caked with garlic butter, gave our meal that European je ne sais quoi. After dinner, Neil, Willy and I bolted from the table to play Frisbee and freeze tag with the other kids, and Mom’s voice rang out behind us: “Well, I’m sure glad somebody’s getting a vacation here!”
Neil didn’t really play Frisbee. He lingered in the shadows between cabins, lighting stolen cigarettes that he pretended to smoke, flicking back his long hair as he ignored our games, fascinating a certain class of girl.
See the country, that’s what Dad wanted. Mom would have settled for a glimpse of the inside of a spa. Me, I was after black rattlesnakes, blond tarantulas, giant desert centipedes—all creatures that, to capture Dad’s phrase, really could kill you, if you gave them half a chance. I’d come equipped with The Young Person’s Guide to the Desert Southwest, a book teeming with tongue-twisting names like Cerapachys augustae, Centruroides sculpturatus, Crotalus cerastes. There were full-color illustrations of deadly insects and spiders—weird animals that wore their bones on the outside, shielding their tender bits from attack. The cover displayed a scorpion, a javelina and a Gambel’s quail. The name of the author—Foster R. Stevens—evoked a different age.
Printed on cottony paper, the field guide was my first book with an index, and I scribbled what passed for field notes in the blank pages at the back. Often I strayed from the subject. Sometimes I wrote about Jennifer Sung, a deer-like girl from my fifth-grade class that I’d observed with extra care before school let out.
Lizards and flies abounded in the tourist park, but more venomous fare kept strangely out of view. I sensed their presence, as though the creatures were lying low, watching us from the weeds, waiting to make their move.
Although seven years old, Willy started having relapses in the bedwetting department. It began with the first night in our new lodging, and during breakfast Dad launched into a scolding lecture about urination that made the orange juice on the table much less appealing.
“That doesn’t help, you know,” Mom said to him.
“What do you want me to do? Compliment the kid?”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“We’re supposed to pretend it didn’t happen?”
While they argued, Willy shrank by increments in his chair, his head sinking toward his heaving chest. Neil leaned over to offer his own input. “Swift, kiddo,” he breathed. “Real swift.” And while our brother stifled his sobs, Neil shot a look of complicity in my direction, to which I replied with a forced grin, feeling sorry for Willy, but not quite sorry enough that I’d stand up for him. While our parents wrangled about the best cures for bed-wetting—none of which included debating the issue in front of the offender—Neil excused himself and headed for his first shower of the day, where he’d exhaust our morning allotment of hot water.
After breakfast I found Mom kneeling down inside the front door, lifting up the tongues of our tennis shoes with a kitchen fork as she peered inside, a bludgeon of newspaper in her other hand. Someone had warned her to check our shoes each morning, in case there were bugs.
“Insects?” I pressed. “Or spiders?”
“Don’t worry about it, honey.” You could tell from her eyes that whatever she was looking for wouldn’t have been found in a Holiday Inn.
I pulled out the field guide. Brown recluse spiders (Loxosceles reclusa) were to be found in the area, along with fire ants, wolf spiders and bark scorpions. None of them included tennis shoes as native habitat, but I made a decision to get up early each morning, replacing Mom’s club of newspaper with the empty spaghetti sauce jar I’d fished out of the trash.
Neil spent most of the day with the headphones of his Sony Walkman clamped over his ears, tight little parentheses separating him from the rest of the family. They endowed him with the refined powers of observation and gesture usually associated with the deaf, whose ranks Mom asserted he was soon to join. That afternoon, while I studied a rock lizard outside our cabin, Neil nudged me with the toe of his Keds. He pointed toward the parking lot by the main office, where Mom and Dad stood next to a dumpster, she with her palms planted on her hips, he reaching up with a half-closed hand as if to shake the air between them, both of them speaking with animation. They were out of earshot, but we didn’t need subtitles. Neil raised his eyebrows at me and clunked together the knuckles of his fists.
That night Willy kept shifting in his bed, each adjustment crinkling the garbage bag Mom had laid out beneath his sheets.
“Can’t get to sleep?” I whispered across the dark.
“I wanna stay awake.” There was a silence. “I don’t wanna do it again.”
I understood. The human body was such a puzzle. What made a person want to pee, after all? I’d felt that way once before going on stage for the school play. And then again the day I got called into the principal’s office.
“Don’t worry about it,” I told him. “It can’t happen two nights in a row. Everybody knows that.”
Neil called out from the bed on the other side. “You girls just about done over there? I’m trying to get some shut-eye.”
Not long after, both my brothers were rasping out deep and rhythmic breaths. Only I was left awake, wondering if, after all that talk, I didn’t feel a certain pressure, a tingling below my belly—and if it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to trot along the hallway to the bathroom, just to be on the safe side.
The next morning I crept out to the line of shoes in the living room, spaghetti sauce jar at the ready. I lifted up the tongues and probed with the fork, but it seemed unlikely that any living creature could survive the stench of those insoles.
While waiting for others to wake, I curled up on the sofa with my book. The Young Person’s Guide opened with a preface where Foster R. Stevens spoke plainly about the adventures awaiting young readers as they studied the hidden populations of the small. Above all, he said, don’t worry about trying to check off all the species. Instead, grow familiar with the creatures you do encounter. Learn how they live and communicate. Be gentle: no matter how fierce or how timid, each animal has a right to its place on this planet. Most of all, be alert, he advised. The weapon of the weak is subtlety: the less an animal can claim to be strong, the more it aims for invisibility.
And finally, this hard idea, softened by words: All creatures eventually become food for others. It’s the chain of nature. There’s nothing you can or should do to stop that.
Foster R. Stevens knew how to reach me, understood me better than I did myself. Sitting on that sofa, I lingered over the pages of the preface, forming the words silently on my lips as the soothing voice of my mentor echoed in my mind.
In the empty pages at the back, I recorded my unsuccessful hunt from the morning: Shoes, empty. And since that didn’t take so long, I tried my hand at another description, detailing the features of Jennifer Sung. In Mr. Severson’s class, her straight black hair would move like a living creature each time she whirled around in her desk to glare at me with her chocolaty eyes. Best of all was Jennifer Sung’s nose—a pert little accessory that worked like a weather gauge, the flare of her delicate nostrils reflecting the measure of her irritation.
* * *
Most days we went on hikes at places with strange names—Coffeepot Rock, Boynton Vista, Courthouse Butte. They all looked pretty much the same: reddish rocks formed into Martian landscapes, sometimes rising high up in the hills, from which you could view other reddish outcroppings off in the distance. My hunt for local wildlife turned up no more than a molted snakeskin and a piece of bone, neither of which I was allowed to keep. Lizards were too numerous to interest me for long. Other animals knew how to keep their distance.
In the afternoon, back at the tourist park, the three of us would sometimes splash in the raised swimming pool. Other kids played Marco Polo, but the three of us were into dunking. Once, after Neil had stood on me under water until I came up gagging, I activated the nuclear option, sprinting across the spiky grass in my swimsuit to tell Mom and Dad, my eyes blurred by chlorine and tears, orienting myself more by sound than vision. Children’s squeals called out from the pool behind. In the distance, a dog barked. From the parking lot an engine revved, slowed, then revved again. There came more voices: people chatting on a porch, and from somewhere else an angry man’s voice spilled out through a screen window, answered urgently by a plaintive woman. I rubbed at my eyes with the flat of my palms, bringing the cabins into focus and finding my target. When I burst through the front door, Mom and Dad were there in the front room, standing just feet apart, like actors in a play, their scene interrupted by my surprise entrance. Mom wiped at her face and turned away, and Dad’s arced arms straightened at his sides. I could still hear the revving engine and the dog outside, but the angry voices had stopped. Where had they gone?
“What do you want,” Dad said. “Jesus! You’re dripping water everywhere.”
“Let me just…,” Mom began before disappearing down the hallway. I shared a long silence with Dad until he looked away, and a moment later Mom re-emerged with a towel in hand, wrapping it around my shuddering shoulders and pulling it tight. When I looked up in shivering gratitude, I saw how red her eyes were, as though she, too, had been swimming in an overly chlorinated pool. “Let us be alone for a bit, will you?” she whispered. “Go back and play with Willy and Neil.”
I’d happened upon something I wasn’t meant to see, and I didn’t know what to do with this special knowledge. I didn’t return to the pool. Instead I strolled in the grassy area by the parking lot, prodding the dirt with a stick while the dog continued to yip in the distance.
Until that summer I’d never thought of our parents as unhappy. But all you had to do was compare us with the other families here, crowded around their identical picnic tables next to their kettle grills outside their gray cottages, barbecuing hamburgers and calling out jokes. The greasy-haired man in the cabin to our left was fat and he drank a lot of beer, but when he swatted his wife on the butt, you could tell by the way she laughed that she liked it. Mom and Dad were almost another species. I had a threadbare recollection of a scene from years earlier—when I was about Willy’s age. It must have been Christmas. Mom sat on Dad’s lap in a red and green plaid skirt, her arm around his neck. They wore easy, broad smiles on their faces. In the whole album of my memory, that was the one picture where you could write something like “The Happy Couple” underneath.
I didn’t tell Neil and Willy about what I’d seen. Would they even care? That evening, from my bed, I watched the flypaper dangling from the fixture in the bedroom. A few representatives of Musca domestica eddied about the strip, and every time one of them swooped in for a good sniff, it caught fast and started to flutter. Poor things. Once their feet were mired in the glue, there was nothing for them to do but cast mournful compound glances at their buddies.
From the living room, I could hear Mom and Dad, something clenched in their voices, which the long silences didn’t relax. After a while the screen door slapped closed: Dad had gone out to the porch to smoke his pipe. In our bedroom we didn’t talk. Willy just crawled under his covers, grimacing as the sheet crinkled beneath him, fearing that he’d wake up in a shallow pool of urine. Neil clamped on his headphones and cranked up the volume. As for me, I turned to the preface of the field guide and lulled myself to sleep with the incantatory words of Foster R. Stevens.
The next morning, like a trapper checking his snares, I did my rounds of the shoes, spaghetti sauce jar in hand. Neil caught me and demanded an explanation. “Interesting,” he said, stroking his chin. “Useful.”
“Of course, you’ll have to do it.”
“Do what? Why me?”
“Because if it was me, Dumbo,” he said, rolling his eyes, “Willy would never believe it.”
“I’m not going to lie to him.”
He gave me a hard stare. “Maybe you’d rather talk about Jennifer Sung’s nose?”
I squinted. How on earth did Neil even know about her? I’d never once given voice to my feelings, and my thoughts had been enshrined only in the secret pages of the field guide, as private as a diary. My ears began to burn and my hands clenched into fists. But there was no way I could take him.
Neil laid out his plan, which was to start at bedtime.
That day we piled back in the car for another outing, one Mom had arranged. A woman dressed in a leather tunic rimmed with Indian beads gave us a tour of an energy vortex—a rock formation mostly notable for the number of empty beer cans it had attracted. At one point I thought I could hear the hum of secret voices, but it turned out to be a bit of Queen leaking from Neil’s headphones. In the car afterward, Dad imitated the woman’s syrupy voice, mocking her claims about magical forces. He called her a fraud. Mom didn’t call her anything.
We stopped at a tourist store filled with postcards and bumper stickers, polished rocks and plastic Navajo figurines. Neil urged me to buy a rubber rattlesnake, arguing that it would make a nice surprise for Willy at bedtime. Instead, I shelled out eleven dollars for a flashlight called the ScorpioScope. See the invisible! it announced on the side. Tiny rays appeared around the words black light.
Like most impulse purchases, it was an immediate disappointment. I’d never heard of black light, and I didn’t know how it worked. If a normal flashlight illuminated objects hidden in the dark, surely black light should reveal secrets by day? But it was all false advertising. The ScorpioScope did the same thing a much cheaper unit would have done, producing a soupy beam you could barely make out in daylight. On the drive to the cottage I focused it on the floor of the car, on the back of Mom’s head, and even in Willy’s ear. Nothing unusual appeared. It occurred to me I might not be using it right. But who needs instructions for a flashlight?
That evening, as Willy and I pulled on our pajamas, Neil nudged me hard and made a show of leaving the room. Reluctantly, I began to recite the tale. Stammering through the first lines, I warmed up, getting into the swing of it, hooting and waving my arms as I wowed Willy with a story of Arizona spirits, as powerful as Indian totems. They could travel through walls, I said, and could see your thoughts. Sometimes—and this was the important bit—they left small treasures in the shoes of good children.
“Like the tooth fairy?” Willy asked, breathless.
“That’s right,” I nodded. “Or the Easter Bunny.”
“What kind of treasures?”
“Good luck charms. Ones that will grant any wish.”
Willy turned serious. He had an ardent hope at the ready—the desire not to wake up drenched and smelling of ammonia.
They came at night, I explained, and only the first one up in the morning could find their treats.
“How come Mom didn’t tell me?”
“Because this is just for kids. Grown-ups don’t even know.”
It was a stupid thing to say. Deep down I wanted Willy to see through it. A speck of skepticism would have kept him out of harm’s way, but he was a kid born under the star of gullibility. You could cry wolf all day long, and he’d whirl around just as fast the fiftieth time as the first.
In bed that night he tossed and turned with excitement, each creak of the box spring sounding like a machine I couldn’t stop. The words of Foster R. Stevens rang in my ears: Every creature has its place on this planet. Didn’t that go for my little brother too?
“Philip,” Willy whispered through the dark.
“Do you think they’ll come tonight?”
A word stuck in my craw, but I finally hawked it up. “Maybe.”
The next morning, Willy hopped out of bed, padding barefoot into the living room while I lay clenched under the covers, waiting for the shriek. But he returned as round-shouldered as an unlucky fisherman. The next day, though, he discovered a piece of cheese in one of Dad’s hiking shoes, and this struck him as a first and promising marvel. I knew better. These cubes of cheddar had come from the previous night’s dinner. Neil was seeking to nudge the hand of fate. He just didn’t know what bait to use.
Of all the advice from Foster R. Stevens, the lesson of patience was the hardest. We were more than halfway through our stay in Arizona, and my most interesting wildlife sightings had come in the form of the armadillos and snakes that littered the shoulders of the road—as still as stones or lengths of old hose. We did a day trip to the Grand Canyon, and while everyone else stared down, I gazed up, following the noble flight of condors—Gymnogyps californianus, according to the field guide.
One evening near the end of our vacation Mom placed in the center of the table a vat of macaroni and cheese with little frankfurters mixed in, the size and color of pinkie fingers. Dad greeted this dish with a minced oath, and she shot back with how, if he didn’t like it, maybe we should go out for a meal. Well, maybe he would go to a restaurant, he allowed, if that’s what it took to get a decent meal around here. Conversation lulled after that. Forks clinked against the bowls, accompanied by the sound of five jaws laboring at undercooked pasta.
Above my bed that night I made out the dark outline of the ribbon of flypaper as it twisted slowly on its string. Several black dots showed dimly, one of them still budging. I imagined myself in the fly’s situation—only able to raise one foot by pushing down and sticking the other. There was no way out of glue like that. He was a goner, fully exposed on the strip of tan paper, not even able to turn invisible.
An animal crooned in the distance outside, and a flap of metal creaked in the wind. Willy wheezed in the bed to my left, and Neil’s deep breaths rumbled in the dark to my right. Something was different, a hint of atmospheric disturbance, as though the barometric pressure had plummeted and a storm was brewing.
I found myself yearning for the companionship of Foster R. Stevens. The field guide lay on the night table, and all I needed to read it was a light. Although the ScorpioScope had failed in its primary task, maybe it could illuminate a page.
With the first click I understood that I’d given up on the device too soon. In the dark bedroom it didn’t merely produce the standard white beam, but rather a silvery blue one with a magical hue. When I ran it across the words of Foster R. Stevens, the snowy page glowed like a living thing. I swept the shaft of light over the bed, making an edge of sheet flash bright. Socks and underwear on the floor flared. Everything white turned phosphorescent.
The back of my neck prickled. I played the light over Willy’s face, his mouth gaping, his teeth gleaming. At the head of the other bed an ear stuck out from a mound of hair: Neil.
Creeping out to the living room, I approached the row of shoes by the front door. The tennies shimmered in the black light, glowing with promise. I lifted each tongue with my fingertips and peered inside the canvas grottos—as empty as always. Maybe I was too early. Maybe I was rushing it. Be patient, the guide had said.
So I settled onto the sofa and waited, playing the light across the room, struggling against the heaviness in my eyelids, jerking awake whenever the house issued a groan. I checked the shoes twice more, staggering with fatigue, still without success. Before returning to bed, wary of Willy’s fate, I decided to make a stop in the bathroom, trailing a hand against the wall while guiding myself with the ScorpioScope—past our room, past Mom’s and Dad’s, the floor squeaking with each step.
In the dark bathroom, I dawdled on the toilet, which was always the best place to philosophize. How long would we torture Willy, I wondered. Yes, he could be a pest, but in fact it was Neil who got under my skin. And what about Mom and Dad? It was as if they’d been copying us, tormenting each other.
When a pittering noise sounded not far from my feet, I listened and waited till it came again. Snatching up the pajamas draped about my ankles, I fumbled for the ScorpioScope in the pocket, turned it on, and swooshed the narrow beam across the vinyl tiles. There, not two feet away, a creature glowed. I rubbed my eyes with the back of my fist, then focused again.
The scorpion was smaller than I expected, its body only as big as my thumb. The armor of its top was ribbed like the wrinkles of a finger. From each side, spidery legs arched out, the back ones lanky and mechanical-looking, all of them rimmed with dark hairs. Two pincers emerged from the chest, and a black dot sat in the middle of its forehead, flanked by pin-prick eyes. Then came that odd tail, crimping upward at its knuckles and curling over the back, with a hook shaped like a cat’s claw sticking from the bulb at the end.
It moved forward, its legs rippling, never crossing, advancing two inches, three. Then it stopped and waited. My breath faint, I kept the light riveted on this beautiful specter. There was a wrongness to its body, to the way things bent, to the way it moved, to the strange luminescence that emanated from its insides. A sour taste rose in my throat.
It stared into the beam of light, its tail arched over its back, the pointed black tip twitching.
Scorpions don’t scuttle as fast as you might think, and catching them turns out to be easy. You trap them under a plastic container, slip a piece of cardboard underneath, lift them up, and voilà. Then you deposit your prey wherever you want—for instance, in an empty spaghetti sauce jar.
And the fact was, my new friend had company. People are probably a lot happier not knowing what crawls around their home at night, especially in Arizona, but the black light made scorpions shine like little moons. They didn’t care so much for the shoes by the front door after all—cheese or not—but they sure liked rooms with moisture. One skulked under the toe kick of the kitchen cabinets. I found another one (just a little guy, a scorpling) glowing in the laundry room. They seemed happy in their glass cell, the metal lid perforated by a can opener for air holes. Three scorpions, just like the three of us—Neil, Willy, and me.
I didn’t share my pets. Surrendering them to Neil would have been my feudal duty, but every so often a serf gets an idea of his own. The mere thought of my spaghetti jar menagerie gave me a feeling of power, a flush of confidence.
The next day we had another excursion—a hike in a canyon outside of town. Mom and Dad had left us by the trailhead at the top of the ridge, and they’d gone hunting for the ranger office where the maps would be. I was squatting at the end of the dirt parking lot, guiding an injured termite with a stick. To the right a path led to an elevated lookout point where a bench stood next to a trash can formed of wire mesh. Willy trotted bare-chested along the rim of the shallow canyon, each step scuffing up a haze of dust.
The termite was in trouble. Somehow he’d lost two and a half legs, and he could barely inch himself forward. Soon a forager ant came roaming by and discovered this pale intruder, after which it recoiled and scurried off for help. I considered intervening, but then remembered Foster R. Stevens. It’s the chain of nature. There’s nothing you can or should do to stop that.
Soon more ants appeared. While I watched, breathless, they corralled the limping termite, blocking his attempts at escape. After parleying with their feelers, they moved in, swarming the blond monster, curling around its struggling body, applying both mandibles and stings. It didn’t take long. Soon the beast lay motionless. Lapping up the juices that leaked from his pale abdomen, the ants delighted in their feeding.
A hiss came from Neil. He was leaning against the fender of the station wagon, his hands shoved into the pockets of his cutoffs, the headphones clamped over his ears. He tipped his head toward the rim of the gorge, where Willy stood several feet back from the railing, craning his neck to peer over the edge, his hands tightened into fists.
Keeping his eyes blank, Neil drew his hands from his pockets. Raising his open palms, he pantomimed a push.
My temples throbbed. Yes, a misstep could be arranged. But what about the cruelty of it? Willy was such a chicken about everything: bugs, spiders, loud noises, sudden noises, weird noises, broccoli, too many people. And heights were the worst, the pinnacle of his fear.
Neil’s eyes had narrowed to slits. Well? his eyebrows asked. Well? While I delayed, he lifted his index finger and scrunched the middle of his nose. How far would I go to protect the honor of Jennifer Sung?
I rose to my feet, leaving the ants to their lonely feast.
The moan of the wind covered the sound of my footsteps as I approached my brother from behind. While Willy craned his neck to look over the edge, I raised my hands behind his naked shoulder blades, gritted my teeth, and shoved.
Down he went, palms out, knees plowing into the gravel.
A howl of terror rose up from his gut. Mom and Dad materialized, but not before I’d undergone my own metamorphosis, turning into the hero, helping a little boy to his feet, dusting him off, patting his back.
The strange thing was how Willy clung to me, as though I were a tree or a buoy—a savior.
“What happened?” Mom cried.
“He skinned his knee,” I said. “But he’s OK.”
“Jesus Christ,” Dad sputtered, his voice high. “Didn’t you see how close to the edge you were? Do you want to get yourself killed?”
Mom chimed in. “Your father’s right! My God. Use your head!”
Willy’s body shuddered against my own while he sobbed. I told myself to be tough, but it was hard to resist the tide of guilt.
During the return to Sedona, the three of us crammed in the back of the station wagon, Willy fell asleep, exhausted from his brush with death. As his body relaxed and he slumped against me, a pearl of drool formed on his lower lip. He had a right to this place, I told myself, in this car, now, embraced by sleep. I felt an urge to stroke his blond nap of hair, but worried that Neil would see.
Then it occurred to me. So what? So what if Neil saw? What did I care? I owned three scorpions, and I could stroke Willy’s hair if I wanted to.
As we rode, I wondered about Mom’s strange words: Your father’s right, she had yelled. So there still existed one thing our parents could agree on: just how stupid we kids had turned out to be.
During the next day Neil urged me to perpetrate new horrors on Willy, but I shrugged and stalled, ignoring his threats. Let him tell the world about Jennifer Sung. Being the secret master of scorpions gave me an inner strength. After all, I’d met the challenge of patience set by Foster R. Stevens—I’d lived up to his standards—and the threat of Neil’s sting no longer mattered.
Eventually, he stopped insisting. Then, the next afternoon, while supposedly telling me a secret, he reached forward and shoved me in the chest, tumbling me backwards over a mass that hadn’t been behind my legs a moment ago. I landed so hard that my teeth clattered, and as I picked myself up, there was Willy, rising from his hands and knees, stepping to Neil’s side, a grin on his face.
I didn’t care. In fact, over the previous two nights I’d added two more scorpions to my stash, each one a jewel. Foster R. Stevens would have been proud. Now five of the creatures clambered about the base of the jar. I’d dribbled a little water in, even added a beetle I found.
That poor fellow didn’t last long.
The spaghetti jar was turning into a kind of piggy bank, growing heavier every day. But how do you spend a treasure like this? To what use do you put it? Imagine someone gives you a superpower, but it can be used only once. What do you do?
* * *
On the last evening we went to a restaurant. Maybe it was a peace offering by Dad. Maybe Mom had made an ultimatum. Neither of them seemed very happy about it. People at other tables enjoyed themselves, but we were like a collection of strangers seated together for convenience. Dad put away four margaritas and Mom complained about the food. Neil snapped his headphones on halfway through dinner and turned his chair away. Willy kicked at my shins.
On the drive home after dinner, I tried to ignore Willy as he jabbed me with his elbow. Up front Mom was telling Dad which way to turn, but he scoffed: he knew the route perfectly well, thank you. She insisted, and his barbed reply came back. Then, like a lost vehicle itself, their exchange veered off in some other direction, swerving into bickering I didn’t understand.
Now Willy’s jabs had turned into tickling. His fingers prowled over the side of my stomach, producing contortions I couldn’t control. “Knock it off,” I told him.
I issued a second warning, but when Willy ignored it, I did try to make him, which resulted in a series of squeals.
“Mom,” Neil called out without even lifting off his headphones. “Philip’s hurting Willy.”
But the voices from the front seat had grown louder, were drowning out our own. Willy continued to poke while I swatted his hands away. Suddenly the car was coming to a stop, so fast that I strained against the seatbelt. Dad’s voice had grown loud and menacing. I realized that this was it: he was going to pull over and haul me out of the car and spank me—or worse. Maybe this was the end: the thing that would finally kill me instead of making me stronger.
“What’s the matter?” Mom barked at him. “What are you doing?”
We screeched to a stop, right in a lane of traffic. Behind us a car flashed its lights.
And Dad yelled without even turning around. “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about!” he said.
My mouth was dry. I had no answer. I didn’t even know what he meant.
Mom’s voice went shrill. “What gives you the right—?”
“Give it a rest, will you! You have no fucking idea what you’re talking about.”
Then I realized he was addressing her. They didn’t even know what had been going on in the back.
The three of us shrank into the seat, hoping to be absorbed by the upholstery. We had no fucking idea what Mom had been talking about, either. We had no fucking idea about much of anything. The only fucking idea we had was to make ourselves as small as possible, to disappear.
Foster R. Stevens came to mind: Aim for invisible.
The car from behind peeled around, blasting its horn. There was a heavy silence in the station wagon—the kind where you’re not quite sure if the battle is over, or if it’s only a lull while the troops reload. The three of us exchanged glances in the back. After a long moment, Dad shifted into gear and the station wagon lurched forward. As we headed back to the cottage, the blacktop made the wheels hum. At every turn, the suspension creaked.
We sat on our beds while Mom and Dad shouted in their bedroom. Her voice rose and fell, sometimes angry, sometimes almost wailing. His baritone swelled and contracted, a deep rumble. We caught only snatches—a cascade of words about cooking and bugs and money and whether or not he even cared or she even tried.
“I wish they wouldn’t do that,” Willy whispered, giving voice to what Neil and I were too old to say. Yes, I thought: if only we could rub a magic lamp and make it all change. But how do you produce a genie like that? Where do you find that kind of power?
And yet, I did possess a genie. Five of them, in fact. Perhaps, it occurred to me, they could be used for good. We’d already seen how Mom and Dad could be united by a common enemy—the three of us. Why not these? While my brothers watched, I crouched by the bed and withdrew the spaghetti jar, exhibiting for them the churning treasures within. Willy pulled his fists toward his chest as he looked, and he issued a squeak. Neil’s mouth gaped.
We implemented the plan without speaking. After they completed their admiration of my collection, we tiptoed across the shadowed hallway toward the wedge of light where their bedroom door stood ajar. While the crossfire of angry shouts continued within, I tipped it down, spilling out the living contents onto the carpet while Neil guided our troops forward with the metal lid.
Then we huddled together on my bed, the middle one, with playing cards clutched in our hands to simulate a scene of normalcy. Plausible deniability. I felt a tingle in my gut. Willy’s eyes darted between Neil and me, and the little O of his mouth slowly widened into a grin. Next it was my turn. Soon even Neil was grinning, snorting. We choked the laughter back, holding our breath, waiting for the angry voices in the other room to turn to shrieks and yells. But minutes passed, and the snarling droned on and on, as if nothing had changed, as if the scorpions were just egging them along, enjoying the show, as if Mom and Dad wouldn’t stop, or couldn’t, no matter what the threat.
When the first shriek came, it was closer than I expected. Willy was on top of me, clawing and scrambling. Then it was Neil, his voice high like a girl’s. The bed bounded with clambering bodies. When I finally I freed my face from Willy’s fingers, I saw three of the scorpions moving on our floor, approaching the bed. Perhaps they had been chased this way, out-poisoned by our parent’s cries. Or they had a homing instinct for the spaghetti jar. Either way, they were on the move, advancing like a platoon toward an edge of bedspread that trailed on the floor. As Neil lunged to pull the fabric up, the whole bed listed, nearly tossing us overboard.
I saw no reason to panic—until I did the math. Two of the scorpions were unaccounted for. And as the avid student of Foster R. Stevens, I knew what excellent climbers they could be.
Now three of us stood on that soft and springy mattress, the twin bed pitching right and left with our shifting weight. Willy screamed and danced, trying to keep his feet in the air. As Neil flailed to catch his balance, his hand ripped the flypaper from its string, and as the insect cemetery floated down, it unfurled over his hair and face, cementing its ribbon of corpses over his eye and cheek like a freckled mask. We hopped and jumped and screamed, clinging to each other, keeping one another from falling, waiting for Mom and Dad to burst into the room to save us.
* * *
Months later it would be the memory of that flypaper that endured most of all. All those evenings I had watched from my bed while the ribboned trap twisted slyly overhead, drawing new prey into its glue. No creature could ever escape on its own. But it occurred to me that if a few of them came together, they could lend each other a hand, and bit by bit they just might pull one another free, rise out of that gummy paste, and return to flight.
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