The Flotsam Collection:
"The Elite Thirteen"
"Love as Infestation"
Love as Infestation
by Andrew Kozma
The honey bee bounced from the window again and again, only
mildly frustrated by the lack of breeze and the invisible wall
protecting the flowers beyond. Alex tried reading through the
soft smack of chitin on glass, but he found himself looking up
to watch the epic struggle taking place above his head. He kept
hoping the hapless insect would miraculously discover the open
door a few window panes to the right. The furred black and honey-yellow
body swung in its repetitive pattern like a stage hypnotist's
gold watch, ticking the time closer to when it would fall, dead
of its own stubborn accord. A glance under the table confirmed
what Alex always suspected about the shadow-filled coffeehouse.
An open graveyard of the bee's fellows decorated the floor in
various stages of hollowing.
It was the memory of shooting down wasps and hornets from his
parent's front porch with a water gun that made him move, reach
out and lay his hand, palm up, on the glass next to where the
bee hovered. He said, "Calm down. Come with me." He
walked over to the door and opened it. The bee left his hand,
left him standing, staring after it, the imprint of its feet
on his skin still visible to his nerves. It was only then, as
he charted its progress, that he thought to be astonished.
"Alex," Jan called from behind the counter, "are
"Sure. I'm fine. Did you see that?"
"See what? That'll be three seventy-five, sir." Jan's
statements were punctuated by the soft jingle of money dropping
into palms and the rhythmic clicking of the register. "See
"How I saved that bee."
"Sure, you're a real humanitarian, Alex. Two-fifty. That's
right, two-fifty 'cause tax."
Humanitarian. Insectarian. Insectitarian. Insect lover, helper,
freedom fighter. The last time Alex killed a bug was, well, it
was this morning. Damn ants infesting his kitchen again. He had-
"Hey, buddy, could you move, please?" A customer woke
Alex from his reverie, and he moved aside to let the big man
pass. He watched the ants and other bugs crawling around the
sidewalk beyond the door and knew that the man never saw them,
never realized there were tiny civilizations upon which his huge
foot came crushing down.
Back at the table it was quiet, but the morgue below his feet,
that was what kept him from reading now. Alex could hear the
breeze blowing through the insect shells, a low keening, and
the words in the book before him kept repeating in his head,
meaningless. He bolted his coffee, gathered his things, and stood.
"See you for dinner, Jan."
She laughed. "Yeah, sure, Alex. Can I help you, sir?"
Every city, every town, must be constructing, repairing, tearing
down; it must be changing or it's dead. The ants in Alex's kitchen
were building nests in the cracks in the floor, blithely ignorant
of the annoyed footsteps falling so near them. He'd tried to
follow their trail many times, but he always lost them past the
threshold of the back door, where they vanished under the gray
wood of his sullen back porch. Once, with a spray bottle of poison,
Alex went underneath the back porch, dirtying his hands, knees,
shirt, pants, crawling into darkness to search for the nest.
He was stopped about halfway under the porch by a loud, hollow
ticking sound, as though he'd tripped an alarm. It sounded to
Alex like a giant ant clicking its mandibles. Or thousands of
ants clicking their mandibles all at once. He scrambled out backwards
as fast as he could, tearing his shirt on a loose nail, and breathed
deeply when he was back in the sun-warmed air. Alex swore to
himself that he would go back once he got hold of a flashlight,
but he didn't search too hard for one.
One morning in the shower, as he washed the shampoo from his
hair, he saw a few dozen ant heads poking under the shower curtain.
Water shattered against the porcelain and drops fell on the ants
like an unexpected tide, trying to drag them to the drain, swallow
them up in drainpipe darkness, but they stayed fast. He was not
reassured when, after the water stopped, the ants marched out
from their cover and began to suck down the water, ignoring him.
One evening, eating in the dining room, there were no ants in
sight. None, that is, until a crumb of chicken slipped from his
fork onto the table. Immediately, a black troop of them erupted
onto the table and sped to the stray food, which they promptly,
skillfully, hefted and took away.
Alex leaned over to follow the ants' path over the edge of the
table, and found a lost tribe darkening the underside, waiting
patiently for the food it had faith would appear. He watched
as half a dozen split away and carried the chicken down the table's
center leg and marched into the kitchen.
A minute or so later his spill was purposeful: two gravy-touched
grains of rice. Instantly the ants were back. They picked up
the rice and walked away, ignoring the larger presence at the
scene, the fork hovering over them, motionless.
The rest of the meal, and his meals since, Alex was amazed by
the actions of the ants. He wondered why they didn't react to
his movements, didn't shy away when he tapped the table with
his fork or when his hand pattered along beside them on two fingertips
like a shepherd. How did they know when the scraps were dropped,
exactly? Did they sense the vibrations through the table? Could
they tell by observing him, his reaction to some previous spill?
Was a scout posted, unseen, somewhere else on the table or in
the room, giving a secret signal, inaudible, unsensable to him?
Once Alex retrieved a bit of meatloaf just before the ants reached
it. They stopped at the spot where it had been, making a few
tentative circles, searching for its spoor, the smell surely
still lingering for them. One ant separated from the others and
headed directly for Alex, its antennae and head pointing at his
face. It seemed to stare at him, waiting patiently, unmoving,
and, at that moment, he knew it knew. He dropped the food back
over the waiting ants, a black mass, an insatiable hole, and
they took it, all confusion gone.
This became his daily dream, because when he was away from home,
not eating at his table, he could not believe any of this had
happened, or that it would happen again. But it did.
Thursday night Alex opened his front door and Jan strode into
his living room. She stopped cold after a moment and looked around,
expression inscrutable. He began to sweat.
"Everything is spotless! How do you manage this?" Jan
was excited and, so, Alex was as well, his pulse speeding as
she danced quick movements around the room.
"I don't know." And he didn't. He spent most of his
time away from this house, except to eat and sleep, certainly
didn't waste time picking up after himself, and now he realized
Jan was right. His house was clean.
"Stop being modest, Alex. I can't believe you did all this
for me. You didn't have to, you know. I don't care what your
place looks like." She glowed.
"It was nothing." It was the ants. It had to be. He
wondered how many it must have taken to move his dirty clothing.
He didn't want to know.
"Why don't we have dinner here instead of going out?"
"That wouldn't be the best idea. I don't really have anything
in the kitchen."
"That's no problem." She smiled. "I can make virtually
anything from scratch."
"We already have reservations."
"I really think we should go out."
"Do you not want to spend time with me, Alex?" Jan
smiled again, tongue slipping out from behind her teeth as she
talked. "Are you afraid of being alone with me?"
"God, no, but I really want to eat out. I eat in this house
every night and I'm sick of it."
Alex thought he heard a rustling after he turned out the lights.
He whispered thanks to the darkness as he shut the door, and
"So, have you been an editor long?" Jan said.
"About three years. Not that long, but-"
There was a fly in his soup.
"You were saying?" she said.
"Just that it's been long enough as an assistant editor.
I'm tired of it."
Alex looked at Jan, who was eyeing her chicken caesar salad,
carefully separating the chicken from the salad, and then turned
back to his soup. He took one of the spoons, dessert, he thought,
and tried to scoop the fly out. It dodged, and he realized that
it was circling tightly above the soup, and had never actually
been in it.
"Tired of being told what to do, having no control, right?"
she said. "I know what you mean."
"Well, it's not actually that bad."
Alex smirked, almost laughed at the sudden recovery of his appetizer.
He took up what he believed to be the soup spoon and dipped it
in the soup, a beef barley mixture with a multitude of dark vegetables
he hadn't bothered to ponder. The fly was still buzzing around,
but he ignored it. An insect at the table no longer possessed
the ability to phase him. In fact, it made him feel more at home.
He didn't notice that the fly was in his mouth until the spoon
had almost touched his lips. He didn't move, at first, fighting
back the inclination to spit. The fly might fly deeper in if
he did that.
Glancing across the table he saw Jan looking at him, smiling.
She mouthed, "This isn't any good. How's yours?"
Alex shrugged, fly still in his mouth, and tried to smile, but
by that time Jan had returned to picking at her food. Slowly,
gently, he took the spoon away from his mouth and, before he
could exhale to blow the fly out, the fly followed the spoon,
hovering directly over it.
The fly moved away once the spoon returned to the bowl, but it
sprung back when Alex raised the spoon again, always over the
soup in the spoon, as if infatuated with its reflection. Alex
tried to trick the fly with quick movements, first one way, then
another, but all he succeeded in doing was spilling soup on the
tablecloth. An attempt at drinking straight from the bowl brought
Alex face to face with his deterrent, its impassive faceted eyes
giving a stern impression of disapproval.
"What are you doing?"
"What does it look like I'm doing?"
"Staring down your soup. Is there something wrong with it?"
"I don't like the taste," he said, which mollified
The fly disappeared soon after the soup was taken away and no
other bugs appeared to direct his diet. He looked carefully,
anyway, expecting one at any moment. A weevil in the roll. Potato
bugs around their mashed namesake. Aphids on the flowers.
The attic was not a place Alex regularly visited. He always
thought "attic" was a misnomer generously bestowed
by the real estate agent who had rented him the house. It was
actually a hole in the wall haphazardly covered up by a door;
but it was storage space Alex badly needed. It contained all
of his books that wouldn't fit in the two bookcases he owned,
which meant nearly his entire collection, including the complete
set of Time-Life World of Insects books he'd received and read
as a child.
He wasn't a frequent visitor to this part of the house, mainly
because of how difficult the door was to open. It was the kind
of door that made Alex think he was rooming with the forty thieves
and they'd updated their security. But he was braving this muscle-pulling
experience in order to get those insect books. He remembered
how interesting, how informative, how mind-numbingly fact-filled
they were and he knew that if ever in his life he was going to
use that information it would be now.
The door opened on darkness, the peculiar geometry of the apartment
allowing this hole to escape light, even that of the room on
which it opened. Alex reached in to take hold of the string for
the interior light and tugged, then gasped when light touched
the attic. His hand and arm were surrounded by webs, thick with
trussed-up insect bodies, some shriveled, some still struggling.
Miraculously, his arm had not disturbed any of the sticky strands.
The spiders were there as well, all at attention, octets of eyes
aimed at Alex. His heart throbbed loud in his ears and, although
scared, he did not feel threatened; the spiders hadn't moved.
Instead of searching for the books, Alex turned out the light
and removed his arm, directly, slowly.
He closed the door and went to the kitchen to get a beer.
Alex started into his morning eggs and unrolled the Saturday
edition with his left hand. He stopped chewing as his eyes skittered
over the front page, and he put down his fork so that his shaking
hand didn't deposit eggs on his table. Some egg that had already
fallen was quickly swept up by a clot of ants.
The lead story was on an epidemic of food poisoning caused by
the restaurant Jan and he had been at the night before. Remains
of crushed roaches, dozens of them, were found in the tureens
of soup held in the kitchen. The place was shut down.
Jan was coming over tonight and Alex no longer felt she should.
He phoned her.
"Why would tomorrow night be better?"
He couldn't come up with a single plausible reason and so said
"Then tonight will be fine," she said.
They had planned on this; they had been eager, and she still
was. She talked to fill the silence, what they were going to
cook, the movie they would rent, the wine they would drink, pointing
out indirectly the long night ahead of them.
"It feels like a storm on the horizon," Alex told
Jan when she arrived, dressed in a gown more fitting for a fashion
model than a chef. His own suit and tie were out of place as
well. They were not dressed to cook, to make a messy dinner from
scratch, to enjoy the sweat and heat of a kitchen fully lit.
No, they were dressed for a night out, a gala, a ball where the
important people never showed up but nobody cared. And here they
were, in his house.
"I feel it, too," Jan said, again admiring the place
with her eyes and her hands. "Something's going to happen.
It's like the build-up to lightning. A matter of pressure in
"Do you want a drink?"
"Sure, let's start with the cooking wine," she said,
and they laughed.
He had aprons for both of them, huge white ones, old and dusty;
they crackled as their bodies moved under them. The two of them
were ludicrous, felt it as much as saw it in each other, and
could not stop laughing, especially when Alex's pants deftly
intercepted a stain meant for the apron.
The kitchen was a mess after fifteen minutes, a war zone by the
time an hour had passed, but most of the cooking was on its own
by then, needing only to be periodically checked, coddled and
kept quiet. There was a thin layer of wine left in the bottom
of the Merlot bottle and he poured it into Jan's glass, then
walked to the other side of the kitchen to lay the bottle in
the recycling bin.
"Do you have roaches?"
"No. Never. Why?"
"I thought I saw one. Maybe I shouldn't be finishing this
glass," Jan said with a smirk.
Alex led her to the dining room and pulled a chair out for her.
He lit the candles as she watched, silent, and dimmed the lights
as he returned to the kitchen.
"Where are you going?"
"Just getting another bottle. I'll be back in a moment."
The door to the basement opened and he heard a faint noise, a
rustling, a very low crackling. Alex walked down the wooden stairs
heavily, a foreboding bringing his intoxication to the fore,
thoughts unable to move fast enough. Halfway down he reached
the first light and pulled its string. It was a weak light, only
enough illumination for the stairs and the edge of the basement,
but enough for him to reach the next light. He could see its
string, the next stopping point on his way to the wine. But before
he had gotten that far Alex noticed a bottle standing by his
feet. He crouched and picked it up. His favorite wine. Looking
up, he noticed the floor awash in tiny dark bodies, tumbling
over each other in a mad dance. Something bit his hand. A large
beetle, grooved shell, horns wicked in the light. He flicked
it off into the mass on the basement floor and stood, backing
up a step.
A hundred wingbeats and he turned to see the light swallowed
up in a cloak of bodies, a fluttering cloud leaving only a dim
trickle from the low kitchen lights. There was buzzing all around,
the fierce clacking of shell against shell, and Alex stumbled
carefully up the stairs, afraid to lay his hand on the wall or
the railing. He felt a crunch underfoot twice, but ignored it.
Things touched his face, arms, legs, but they were torn away
as soon as they landed. The darkness was alive with noise, with
presence, and he sprinted the last few steps. A moth fluttered
though the doorway as he closed the door. For a moment it fluttered
toward the kitchen light, then it turned around and shot toward
his face. A bee darted out from behind the counter and hit the
moth to the wall, and they fell, disappearing behind the radiator.
Alex walked to the doorway and gave a smile to Jan. She was beautiful,
wonderful, perfectly fine.
"I got the wine. Are you ready to eat?"
There were some things you didn't tell someone, especially on
a second date.
He had a clear view of the kitchen while they ate, having
made sure as well that Jan's back was to it. It was a conundrum,
at first, how to move her from her established seat, but his
addled mind came up with feng shui as an explanation, and her
addled mind kindly accepted it.
She claimed dinner was delicious and Alex supposed it was, but
his mind was otherwise occupied. He couldn't be bothered to taste
it. There was a war going on beneath their feet and he was sure
he could hear the sounds of battle, the cracking, snapping, buzzing,
all reminiscent of static, interference. All the insects he killed
over his lifetime had returned for vengeance.
When he was ten he had melted roly-polys. Over at his friend
Chris' house, in the front yard, they built a small fire around
an empty soup can. They'd stripped the label off the day before,
shined the aluminum, not knowing why. They collected the bugs
and threw them into the can. The gray insects didn't run, just
rolled up into an easy to grab ball, let Alex and Chris pick
them up without reaction, without protest.
All he could remember now was the crackling sound, a quick glimpse
into the can after the fire had burned for a while, an indistinguishable
mass, gray and black. Alex ran when Chris returned smiling with
more gray pellets in his hand, ran home and dreamt the roly-poly
king was going to come for him, giant vengeance with a dozen
legs and no eyes.
Every so often, as he took a bite of chicken or bread, a cockroach
would stumble into view covered with ants, or a beetle and a
spider would struggle, jerking their way across the kitchen floor.
They left no trace. No corpses littered the white tiles.
"What are you thinking? You're so quiet."
"Are you a pacifist?"
"Would you hurt a fly?"
Jan shook her head and a smile, sensual in its confusion, toyed
with her mouth. She shook her head again and drank some wine.
"Sometimes," she said, "you just make me laugh."
Dinner was done, plates spotted with unwanted remains, the
second wine bottle more than half empty. The candles dominated
the table and their flames kept attracting Alex's eyes. He caught
Jan staring at them, too, and soon they stared at each other.
He heard no more sounds of fighting insects as he walked around
to her side of the table and offered his hand.
Jan took it, reaching more toward his forearm, and his body tensed.
Desire, and Alex could feel it mirrored in her face, her breathing,
the way she rose to stand, facing him.
A wasp flew in from the kitchen and his stomach fell. Everything
was still as it was before and he needed to get Jan out of the
house. He directed her to the front door, moving slowly, and
his peripheral vision caught a thousand shapes in the kitchen.
"It's time to go home, don't you think, Jan?"
She laughed. "You're so funny, Alex. I'm drunk. I can't
drive." A slight push of her hands and she went away from
him, slid over onto his couch. "Besides, I don't want
There were a few seconds of absolute peace as he closed his eyes.
He wasn't thinking straight, he knew that, but there was nothing
he could do about it. He heard the clatter, the pinpricking footsteps
on the kitchen tiles. Across from him, against the wall, a group
of moths buffeted a fly.
Alex came around the couch and paused. Jan jokingly leered at
him and he smiled in spite of himself. From a chest near the
TV he pulled a blanket, knitted like thick mosquito netting.
"Do you even know what you're doing, Jan?"
"I know exactly."
A dark flood staggered in from the kitchen, stopping and starting
erratically, and Alex grinned to match Jan's bravado and climbed
onto the couch with her, opening the blanket behind him as a
cloak to cover them. He was face to face with her, on top of
her on his narrow couch, though he hadn't meant to be, and his
body was fighting with his mind. It was impossible to ignore
the small noises. He felt strange pressures through the blanket.
They might have been caused by the fan overhead, then again...
"Are you going to kiss me or are we in this delectable set-up
to discuss philosophy?"
"How are you on Descartes?"
"I'm better under him."
She kissed him and he brought the blanket more firmly over their
heads, tucking it in as much as possible around their bodies,
his movements disguised as foreplay.
More and more the wine caught up with him and caught him up in
Jan's body, close and responsive, instigating even, and he worried
that he should keep aware, separate himself from these actions
and be ready. Alex didn't dare let himself go, the vision in
his mind of an insect carpet too much a horror.
"What's the matter?"
"Do you not want this? Just tell me if you don't."
"No, I do. I do. I-"
"Then why aren't you acting that way?"
"It's just... I'm afraid."
"Are you afraid of insects?"
Jan's laughter was a single joyous fiddle and it filled his ears,
her mouth so close, and his body rocked with her quick breathing.
He couldn't hear anything but her laugh and, after it trickled
away, her breath.