by Headley Hauser
Its appeal was strong. Something in the smell, a sweet, almost enchanting fragrance, like an open can of peas, compelling him to enter. Over the last few days, everyone else had gone in. He hadn’t seen any come out. Now he was alone, alone with the box.
Why hadn’t he followed all the others? It wasn’t as if he missed them. He was small, and they always picked on him. The others kept him from food, banning him from the prime spots under the refrigerator and stove. No female ever invited him to mate. Not a single roach cared for him.
He wasn’t sorry to see them go. Now he could wander under the refrigerator to his heart’s content. He was number one! Of course there was no number two or three, but that made him more special.
He was the only roach left.
Why did he spend so much time staring at this box? There was… something – something he couldn’t explain – that warned him of danger. Could there be a killer in the box? Perhaps some great beetle lurked inside. Maybe it killed all the others and ate them slowly. Only Roach’s antennae twitched involuntarily. No, it wasn’t a great beetle, but that was close enough. There was danger and death in the box, he was sure of it. He longed for whatever made the sweet scent, but now he could ignore it. He could resist the scent. He wasn’t going to die in the box.
He rummaged beneath the refrigerator and then under the stove. Food was everywhere, far more than he could eat. He was in paradise, if it weren’t for this odd feeling. Maybe… he should travel? A roach never travels when he has all he could want right in front of him.
Again, that feeling…
He decided to travel, though he didn’t understand why. He thought there was another tribe somewhere in the house. The other tribe would kill him, just as his tribe killed strangers. Well, they used to kill strangers. Only Roach was his own tribe now, and he didn’t feel like killing strangers.
He also wasn’t about to talk himself out of this nonsensical urge to wander. He set out.
For the first time in his life, Only Roach moved off the smooth ground – no, not ground… tile floor, and onto the high grass – no, not grass… carpet. It was harder walking on carpet than on tile, but he could climb it. He had plenty of legs, more than humans or dogs, not so many as centipedes, but these legs were good for climbing. He even liked climbing.
Then he saw something really worth climbing.
Several hills lay stacked on each other – not hills… stairs. He could climb up the wood part as long as it ran straight up, but each stair had a lip that blocked his way. Carefully he scaled the back and sides of the… carpet runner. If the light came on, he knew this was a place where humans step. It was a foolish risk, but everything he’d been doing seemed foolish. Was he any more foolish than the other roaches? After all, he was the only one left alive.
At the top of the stairs was an open area ringed with… doorways. The carpet had an old, musty scent. The smells spoke of the journeys of many roaches, but none from his tribe. Ahead loomed a small room with tile on the floor… a bathroom. All signs pointed to this room being the home of a mighty tribe. Even though he was afraid, he crossed the carpet to the cold floor beyond.
The bathroom had thousands of scents: some subtle, some strong. One scent, coming from a piece of plastic struck in the wall, was so strong and shrill it was difficult to appreciate the softer sweeter aromas.
He hadn’t been attacked. Even more surprising, all the tribe traces here in the bathroom were nearly as old as those in the carpet outside. Where were they?
There was the scent again, like an open can of peas, the same as in the kitchen. Following the scent was easy, almost as if it wanted to be followed. The box looked just the same, though it was at a different angle from the wall. The drawing power was strong. He wanted to go in the box. He knew it was death, yet the only thing he wanted was to go in the box.
The box must have killed this tribe just as the box downstairs had killed his own. Maybe there were no more roaches, only him. Why was he the one to survive? What was so special about him?
Maybe the tribe’s death was a mistake. Maybe his survival was the mistake. He wanted to know, but whom could he ask? Lately words popped into his head when he thought about places and objects, but the words didn’t answer questions. What would he do if there were no way to ask?
Asking wasn’t what was important; living was important.
Suddenly he felt powerful – a new sensation for him, and he liked it! He needed to leave traces in every room in the house. He was Only Roach, and leaving his trace mattered.
He scurried across the carpet and into the room to the left of the stairs.
The room had a large padded platform jutting out from the wall on the right, a… bed. A smaller, firmer platform, a… table, with a… chair stood to the left. There was also a… dresser in the far corner and several boxes scattered about the floor. To the far left of the doorway was a… closet, and though there was something intriguing about the closet, the room as a whole smelled dry and uninteresting. A spider hung from a web behind the door. The spider eyed him hungrily, but the web was high up and easy to avoid.
Moving back to the hall, he felt disappointed. He hoped the rest of the house had more to offer. There was light from under the door at the end of the hall. Since light meant danger, he crawled under the door at the near end.
This was more like it! Right by the door stood a… diaper pail, and if he didn’t have so much to explore, he would have crawled inside for the rest of the night!
There was a small bed across the room. It was higher than the last bed and had rails on each side. The infant human’s chest was rising and falling as he slept. Such an aromatic creature! Urine and mucus were the predominant scents, but he could also smell perspiration and even some excrement. There were also unnatural scents, which were less pleasant. There was a painful, piercing smell from a box of wet clothes and a dry, mind-numbing fragrance from a bottle of powder that had somehow spilled all over the infant and much of the bed clothing.
He hoped the powder didn’t harm the little human. He didn’t know why he should care, but there was something appealing about the way the creature slept so peacefully. Should he crawl up and remove the powder? He could work all night and not get it all. There were other places to explore.
“I wish you well, human infant,” he sent across his antennae toward the baby. The baby’s lips twitched, and he let out a sigh as Only Roach left the room.
Three doors remained unexplored on the other side of the stairs. Light shone from the middle door, so he chose the one to the right. This room was small, crowded, and dark. It had no… windows. It looked like Only Roach was in a closet. Most of the smells in here were unpleasant, more powder and soap, and two of those plastic things that hung from the bathroom wall. There were pieces of dead roaches sifted into the carpet. He was in a death place.
Was he in a death box? He couldn’t smell anything like canned peas. He wandered to the back of the closet, and his leg caught in something springy. He tried to move his leg away, but the springy thing moved with him. It wouldn’t let go. There was some sort of cord traveling up from the floor to the back wall of the closet. He sensed movement. Above him two clusters of luminous facets sparkled. The clusters moved towards him.
A spider! A large spider was coming to eat him, and he couldn’t break free from its web. He could feel his leg begin to loosen but he needed more time; the spider was too close. If only… a sparrow would come and eat the spider. He didn’t think sparrows visited dark closets, but he pictured the sparrow anyway as he worked to free his leg.
“The sparrow is scanning the web, looking for his supper. He knows that where there are webs, there are usually fat tasty spiders.”
The roach looked up and saw that the spider’s eyes were dimming as it retreated to the back of the web. Giving another tug, Only Roach’s leg came free of the web. He scampered under the closet door and out into the hall.
He had made the spider see a sparrow that wasn’t there! But many roaches had died in that closet. Why hadn’t any of those roaches made the spider see a sparrow? He couldn’t remember a roach from his tribe doing anything like that.
“Is that why I’m alive?” he wondered.
Two rooms remained. He took the darker one that was now straight ahead of him.
This room was larger than either the empty bedroom or the baby’s room. A large bed framed by two windows stuck out from the far wall. To the left of the bed was another closet with its own window. Against the right wall was a long dresser under yet another window.
It took him a moment to realize that two humans were lying in the bed. He wondered if each knew the other was there? Surely this warranted some closer investigation.
A thick comforter made an easy path to the top of the bed. From there Only Roach could see that they must be aware of each other because the man’s arm was resting on the woman’s shoulder. Both were asleep, though neither as soundlessly as the baby down the hall. They had escaped the powder that covered the baby. Each had mostly pleasant, natural smells, though the female had a faint artificial flowery scent coming from spots around her neck.
The female’s eye flickered, and suddenly the comforter erupted, landing tangled on the floor.
“Get it!” the woman screamed. There was now more light poking through the folds of the comforter.
“Get what?” the male groaned.
“A roach! He was up here on the bed.”
“I don’t see him.”
Only Roach knew he had to get out of the room. He zipped through the folds of the comforter, found the carpet, and ran as fast as he could toward the hallway.
“There he is!” the woman shouted.
Only Roach couldn’t understand why the woman hated him so. Seeing a doorway a little to his right, he scrambled through.
He wasn’t in the hall. The screaming and getting tangled in the comforter had thrown off his sense of direction. There were boxes and shoes and a hamper of laundry. He was in another closet. He felt a towering presence looming behind him. He wanted to get in the hamper, but he knew the male would get him before he was halfway up the side. One pair of shoes smelled especially good, but they were too far away. He ran around the box in front of him and crawled in from the other side.
Outside the box he heard things moving around. Then the box started spinning. For a second or two he felt like he had wings, but he couldn’t control where he was flying. The box crashed into something and fell to the carpet upside down. The box lid was knocked ajar. Only Roach fell out of the box and onto the carpet. Quickly he climbed back onto the lid and the box’s side as high as he could go. He wedged himself in where one piece of cardboard flapped over another.
“Don’t look in the shoebox!” he wished as hard as he could. He heard things flying around outside. The box was jostled again, but this time it didn’t fly. “Don’t look in the shoebox, don’t look in the shoebox, don’t look in the shoebox!”
The rustling outside the box stopped. “I’m not going to find it honey, let’s get back to sleep.”
“I’m not about to sleep after that! Besides, it’s almost six o’clock.”
There was a clicking sound, and suddenly there were other voices in the room. The voices changed frequently, and with them music and sounds that didn’t belong in a human bedroom. Only Roach recognized that he was hearing another of the talking picture boxes, a…TV, like the one in the kitchen.
Only Roach cowered in the shoebox and wondered. Did the adult male forget to look in the shoebox, or was he wished away? Antennae nervously twitching, Only Roach decided not to leave the safety of the shoebox until the humans were gone.
Finally the TV and other people sounds stopped. Just to be sure, Only Roach waited in the shoebox until he saw patterns of sunlight illumine the carpet by the box’s edge.
Cautiously he made his way down the stairs and returned to the familiar sights and smells of the kitchen.
Three humans were in the kitchen, the adult female, the infant male, and the female child. The adult female was attempting to manipulate food into the infant. The female child noticed Only Roach and shouted, “Bug!” The adult was too concerned with the infant to notice.
The infant was a symphony of brown. Having the good sense of the human young, he hadn’t sent his excrement cascading down a toilet, but wore it within easy access in his diaper.
Still, it wasn’t his diaper that drew Only Roach’s attention. The baby was eating some soft brown goo that looked a lot like excrement but smelled much sweeter… pudding. The mother was spooning the pudding into the infant’s mouth. Each spoonful was enough to bathe in! This was opportunity that couldn’t be ignored! He had to take a chance. He had to try to send a wish to the infant.
“Throw the pudding!” The words fizzled across his antennae. “Throw the pudding!”
The baby became noticeably more restless. His legs pounded the high chair as his arms flailed. Even the mother seemed distracted. Could he be reaching her as well?
Splat! A puddle of pudding appeared a few steps from where Only Roach stood. More pudding fell to his left and right. The infant giggled as the woman sighed.
Only Roach ran through one of the smaller puddles, dipping his thorax into the goo as deeply as he dared. He wasn’t stupid, like a fly. He knew better than to get stuck.
Again the female child spotted Only Roach and this time got up from her chair and approached Only Roach in an unsteady hurried gate.
Quickly Only Roach ran beneath the refrigerator.
“Mommy, buggy unda here!”
“Move away, honey, Mommy’s going to move the refrigerator.”
Only Roach was cornered. If he ran, the humans would spot him, and he was much slower now, weighed down with pudding. “Don’t look under the refrigerator, don’t look under the refrigerator.” Somehow he knew that wishing wasn’t going to work this time.
What else could he do? Could he make the mother see an enemy like he had done with the spider? What beast could possibly be big enough to threaten a human? He might be able to distract the child, but what good would that do? It was the woman who was the real threat, and there was something immovable about the way she was thinking.
Above him the refrigerator rocked. There was only the mother, the child, and the infant. They had no enemies; he had no allies. Or did he? With the same intensity he had used with the adult male earlier, he wished to the infant. “You’re very bored, you’re very sleepy, you’re very cranky… that’s it! You’re very cranky! You’re very cranky!
The infant erupted into the squeals of the most beautiful music Only Roach had ever heard. Suddenly the woman’s mind wasn’t so immovable. “You should check the baby, you should check the baby!” Only Roach felt the mother’s resolve crumble and then fall away. The refrigerator stopped rocking.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart? Is your world coming apart? Ewww! I see what’s wrong. Let’s go upstairs and change that right now.”
As the mother carried the infant up the stairs, Only Roach peaked out from under the refrigerator. Staring down on him was the child… Cassie.
“Hello, Cassie,” Only Roach wished at her.
“’Lo Buggy,” the child replied. If she thought it was strange to be talking to a roach, she didn’t show it.
“You almost got me squished.”
“No, I want to play.” The girl looked sorry.
Only Roach studied the girl in front of him. She was enormous, but she was tender and little inside. It surprised him that he liked the little girl, just as he liked her little brother. Even the adults were better than most of the roaches he’d met – if you get past them trying to kill you all the time. It was as if a space had opened inside Only Roach allowing Cassie and her family to move in.
“Hey, Cassie,” Only Roach wished, “can you find me some cookie crumbs to go with this pudding?”