The elected officials gave the township only 24-hour notice. They delineated the plan at a press conference to the small but feisty babel of reporters on the town hall beat, to the all-seeing cameras. The front-and-center spokesman addressed the crowd in an unnerved tenor, fielded questions. The suit had hair that wasn’t hair but a brown tsunami combed left to right, and he flashed his beacon smile and told them all about “aerial larviciding.” West Nile mosquitoes were breeding like winged rabbits, and their virulent blood-borne illness had started to appear along the old canal that used to shuttle mule-drawn barges between Bristol and Easton.
It had been overcast the whole week preceding the announcement, the sky smothering the neighborhood like a murderer’s pillow, but a break came in the cloud cover. The brain trust in charge of public health convened, and they quickly conscripted a few barn-storming Cessnas and Piper Cubs. Their job was to gas the vampire insects with snot-colored smog. If common sense wasn’t enough, people were advised to stay in their houses.
This was unfortunate for Judy Fox as it left her with even fewer diversions than usual. She couldn’t go outside, walk around the block, or stroll along the canal where the arched tree branches dunked their leaves in the motionless, algal water. She couldn’t weed the sidewalk cracks, hose off the front steps, or sit on her screened porch and watch the transit of the sun across the sky.
Judy would’ve pulled out the newspaper, but there was nothing quite like current events to make her blood moil, instigating a migraine. She would’ve begun one of her to-be-read novels from the stack beside the davenport, but the plankton-like floaters in her eye—another reason she didn’t read the paper—had multiplied of late, made it impossible to concentrate, and discouraged her from even touching a book let alone receiving its words. Her ophthalmologist assured her she didn’t have a detached retina, but what did he know? And Judy already absorbed dangerous amounts of TV at ever-increasing volumes. It was as if the set was being tugged away from her. She made herself get a measuring tape and check if, in fact, it had moved. It hadn’t. No, it was just her haywire ears dealing her hunched body yet another blow.
Not that there was anything good on TV anyway. It was intelligence-killing as far as Judy was concerned, but she invariably channeled her way to the Home Shopping Network. Those clucking charlatans comforted her with their oh-lordy prattle. They hawked junk like it was leprechaun gold, and it could be hers—hers!—for five easy payments of her life savings, firstborn child, deed to her house, an arm, a leg, and whatever she could forage from between the seat cushions to cover shipping and handling. The answer to all her woes was a 1-800 call away, could be boxed and mailed to her door.
Did they think she was that stupid? But Judy watched because it was nice to have voices fill the house. Ever since Patrick had entered the cold, dark ground ten years ago, Judy had lived alone. The earth was never satisfied with the bodies it had. It needed more. Patrick’s doctors—those six- and seven-figure deities—did the best they could. Never once was the care subpar. Yet after all their grease monkey tinkering and poking around, Patrick’s breath clawed at the hospital room like talons, then not at all. His silence was buried beneath a high-pitched flatline. Judy remembered how she thought she’d crack when the elevator landed and discharged her into the lobby.
Patrick had fought in Korea, had lost something over there. He used to say it wasn’t the fear of dying that was so scary, it was the fear of killing. It was his only war story, and Judy had to take his word for it. He’d been a good husband, a kind father, a dependable provider, could’ve been slimmer—looked about ten months pregnant up until the end—but Patrick was gone, their daughter, too. Not dead, but she might as well have been dead for all the phone calls Judy received from her only child. Zero. Zero was the number of phone calls she got from Jess. Judy knew love kept no record of wrongs, but it was hard to be so magnanimous. Then again, the phone did work both ways.
Jess, mincing, bright-eyed Jess, lived in West Philadelphia, taught at the kind of public school she should wear a flak jacket to every day. The kids would sooner pick her pocket than hold the door open for her—and those were the nice ones. Judy once visited her daughter, and on the way stopped at a convenience store for something. The lady at the register harangued her over her money, something about counterfeit bills.
So the cashier held Judy’s currency to the light like a poultry farmer candling an egg, and Judy should’ve kept her mouth shut, but she said under her breath, “Stupid ass.” The cashier’s hands curled into knuckle-cracking fists, her reddish eyes flamed brighter, and Judy abandoned her items on the counter—along with her perfectly legit money—and hauled out of there as fast as her spider-veined hocks could carry her.
She thought a blood-in-the-streets riot would spill out behind her, a torch-lit, pitchfork-wielding rabble whooping her name, but where did she think she was? At any rate, that neighborhood was no good, not safe. Not a month after the convenience store debacle, someone scared the bejesus out of Jess when they firebombed her car, spiked a Molotov cocktail through the windshield—shock-and-awe at four in the morning.
Judy entered her turquoise Fiesta-tiled kitchen and sat on one of the chairs with the butt-shaped scoop sculpted out of the seat. She thought about calling one of her neighbors to keep her company before the bug holocaust began. She wove her fingers through the coiled cable linking the receiver to the wall mount. She looped the cord, doubling the thing. The plastic was sticky, had developed a tacky film with the heat.
Who to call? The simple answer: no one. There was no one to call. On her left was Ian and Sylvia Gilchrist, the young couple with the weather-beaten gazebo out back. The shingled, fossilized grotto bordered a cesspool packed with rotting vegetation and raccoon feces. They called it a “pond.”
Ian walked around as if in a perpetual trance, his snake-like mandible unhinged to swallow large prey. Sylvia wore Mennonite dresses and had a Hershey’s kiss mole above her lip that marred what beauty still gathered on her face after two children. Sylvia said she would’ve removed it years ago if not for someone she knew—a woman—who’d had an operation on a similar mole. As it turned out, the thing had roots that ran throughout her face, and her doctors carved her up like a spiral-cut ham.
The Gilchrists bought Mr. Garland’s old house after Alzheimer’s gummed the works with plaque and caused him to drive his car into a tree. It was a cozy house, two stories, slate-roofed, set back from the street, an ivy-sheathed lamppost, and a winding driveway with a breakaway footpath that bent toward the door. The second they moved in, the lawn was littered with tricycles and a swing set.
Earlier that summer, Judy discovered a flier in her mailbox saying the Gilchrists were going to open a lemonade stand for some cancer foundation. Ian carpentered and painted the setup, and there was even a sign, the word “lemonade” spelled with clunky, childish letters. Judy walked down for the grand opening, was the only customer. She waved to Sylvia who was busy wrangling a muddy, freckled boy. Meanwhile, a girl no more than four years old manned the stand.
Judy asked her name. It was Lucy. Judy pitied her, gave the kid a ten and got a cup of sun-warmed acid. Judy sipped, and Lucy smiled. Judy said how pretty Lucy was, and Sylvia wrestled her son into a hug to keep him from sprinting into the street. Lucy stared at Judy, her eyes as fiery as her red, springy hair. She stared and screwed up her face and said, “You’re old.” Sucker-punched, Judy laughed, said she wasn’t old—which was news to Medicare and Social Security.
It was then that Sylvia approached the stand, introduced herself, her son, Eric, hooked around her arm like an orangutan. Judy minted some choice neighborly hogwash and then excused herself. As she left, Lucy said, “Have a rotten day!” Sylvia scolded her daughter, told her that she’d been warned not to say that anymore, but Judy kept walking even thought the little girl’s ruthlessness had sucked the stamina right out of her.
The heat. The heat, the heat. It wasn’t even noon and Judy was bathed in sweat. Her clothes stuck to her skin, chafed like 600-grit sandpaper. Because of the larviciding, air conditioners had to remain off, windows closed. Hatches battened, wagons circled, Judy waited, and greenhouse moisture collected on the windows.
Then Judy heard a steady, grinding drone, like a lawnmower—or several. It was the planes, a squadron of fixed-wing aircraft soaring above the neighborhood’s roofs, its chimneys, its trees. The hum grew only that much louder as the machines gnawed and chewed through clouds, propellers dicing the air like an oversized food processor. There was also a hiss—imagined perhaps—of poison misting down, displacing air, ending life in a soundless, bloodless shower.
Judy mulled calling Andrea Wolff, her on-again-off-again neighbor friend. She lived in the house on Judy’s right, was a health freak. She practically galloped down the street, a fair-weather walker, had a treadmill for the rainy days. Judy watched Andrea rocket around the block five, six, seven times, expected sparks to fly off her heels and ignite the bone-dry lawns. Her feet—obscured by a slope of ivy—seemed nonexistent, and she glided by, hovering toward fitness.
Andrea was also one of those long-story-short talkers who made it sound like she was wrapping it up when her anecdote was nowhere near complete. Her favorite topic was illness, and she was obsessed with how everything from soda and charred hamburger to power lines and shampoo was carcinogenic. She was probably having a field day with the mosquito campaign.
Andrea’s well-being fixation only worsened after she joined the widows’ club when her husband, John, croaked. He died of a pulmonary embolism while gardening. The one-time corporate lawyer had been arranging eggshells and banana peels to fertilize his tomato plants when suddenly he floundered to the ground, huffing, sinking into the wet, troweled soil. Judy watched as he was strapped to a gurney and loaded onto the hospital-bound ambulance—a dead man rolling.
Judy looked around her house, conscious of the sneeze-worthy inch of dust everywhere, grimaced at the sight of catalogues and magazines and coupons strewn across the floor, cluttering the end tables. Did she want Andrea to see her house like this? Judy knew she wouldn’t call Andrea, or the Gilchrists, or even Jess. It was too late now. For any of them.
Judy stood up slowly, a jolt burning along her sciatic nerve. She slapped a hand to her lower back, braced herself for another spasm, but there was only the one. The heat had flushed her skin the color of semi-raw chicken. Perspiration wormed its way between her doughy skin folds, and part of her wanted to bite off the sink’s faucet and guzzle the pressurized spray. She mopped her forehead with a dishtowel from the drain rack, smeared the beads of sweat into a thin, syrupy coating.
Judy opened her freezer, listened to the digestive rumbled of its compressor, felt Old Man Winter’s breath numb her skin. She groped some ice cubes from between the rimed bags of broccoli and half-gallons of Breyers. One slithered out of her hand and voyaged underneath a radiator to melt and evaporate.
She marshaled herself out of the kitchen and into the living room, passed Patrick’s wingback Naugahyde chair. Her mantis arms were tucked close, holding herself together, and she spread her bulk across the sofa and sighed. Judy swallowed once, twice, three times, her throat undulating. She brushed a stray eyelash from the tip of her nose, forgot to make a wish. She sucked on the ice, bit into it, and ground it to slush with her teeth.
The deathly silence transmitted the snort of an airplane. It was only a furious buzz at first, but it grew louder, and louder. The jalousies shook like maracas, and the house pitched side-to-side as though it were gripped by an enormous, angry hand. The other tremor had been a warm-up, a near-miss, but this time the convulsions went straight to the foundations of the house, rocked the Venetian blinds. They quivered up and down, let in and then cut off the light from outside like an Aldis lamp flashing code at sea.
The unrelenting growl ripened, never stopping, endless, never dropping back. The howling motor smashed the vial of adrenaline in Judy’s brain, and it poured through her body unimpeded. Her heart skipped faster and faster to keep pace, and she genuflected even though she hadn’t been to Sunday service in years and had forgotten the words of the doxology. The path outside was sure to be littered with winged bodies the size of button cell batteries. But then the hoarse, dopplering voice of the engine labored on and away, echoing off into uncharted sky. The trembling subsided, retreated—a spray of sound, nothing.
Judy fanned herself in the gloomy living room. The incident scattered the strange heaviness that often roosted in her chest. She felt as light as one of those mutilated clouds the plane had passed through, and yet she still did not know how to face the rest of that day or any of the days that were to come.
Spencer Hayes lives and writes in Philadelphia. His stories have appeared in Bluestem Magazine, Word Riot, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere.