Thursday, September 13, 2018

THE WASP: a short story

(Note: This tale is from my short story collection: HAY MOON AND OTHER STORIES.)

"God made the bee, but the Devil made the wasp." - German proverb

Leo hated summer.
He did not mind the long, humid days of summer. He did not mind the simmering mornings, the sluggish, gnatty evenings, or the scorching afternoons. Nor was he particularly fond of the colder months of the year, with their short, overcast days, chilly rains, and finally their ice and snow.
Leo hated summer because summer was the season of wasps. 
He sat behind the walls of his cubicle at work one day in August, stealing glances out the large, floor-to-ceiling window near his desk. Sure enough: they were there: The distinctive outlines of their tiny bodies were stuck to the glass. There were three of them today. They were no more than an inch long; but their razor-edged stingers could deliver enough venom to paralyze a victim with agony.

Leo rolled his chair forward so he was hidden within his cubicle. If they saw him looking it would only make things worse. You had to stay one step ahead of the wasps, and you could never forget that their microscopic brains thrummed with evil intent. Not for the first time, Leo recalled that old German proverb: “God made the bee, but the Devil made the wasp.”
At noon he removed a brown paper bag from the bottom drawer of his desk. The bag contained a peanut butter sandwich and an apple. Although Leo had been eating peanut butter sandwiches everyday since late May, he was not about to venture out for lunch. Insects were ectotherms, and the hot afternoon hours belonged to them. He would have to leave the building at five o’clock. And that would be risky enough.
As he was about to bite into his sandwich, his boss spoke up behind him:
“Hey, Leo.”
Leo swiveled around and faced his boss. He already knew what this visit was about.
“Anyway, Leo, we’re a little behind. I’m going to need you to pull a Saturday this week.” 
Leo felt his frustration rise but he kept his voice flat. “But I worked last Saturday. And every Saturday last month, too.”
“Yes….And I’m asking you to work this Saturday as well.”
“But I’m the only one in the department who has to work Saturdays. Why is that?”
“Well, Jim’s kids have little league on Saturdays all summer long. Marcy is getting married in October, and she still doesn’t have all her wedding arrangements straight. And Craig—”
“I know,” Leo cut in. “Craig is going out of town with his new girlfriend again.”
“When you think about it, Leo, I’m doing you a favor. I’m giving you something to occupy yourself with while everyone else is busy with a life.”
And then Leo’s boss simply stood there, regarding him with a barely masked expression of disdain. Leo was going to protest further, and say that his boss knew nothing about his life. He simply kept himself to himself, that was all.
But he knew that any argument along that line would merely be answered with more disdain. His boss was likely in league with them. Leo had held this suspicion for months.
“I can count on you, then?” his boss said. When Leo did not respond the boss laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes. Good man. Be a good man, and they won’t have to sting you.”
A lump of ice settled abruptly in Leo’s stomach. “What did you say?
“A figure of speech,” Leo’s boss said dismissively as he departed.
Leo swiveled back around into his cubicle and tried to steady himself. His boss had finally shown his hand. Leo seriously doubted that he was actually one of them. (Leo knew the telltale signs of an insect in human disguise; and so far his boss had shown none of them.) But there could be little doubt that the boss was working closely with the wasps.
After the initial shock wore off, Leo found that he was actually able to take courage from the revelation. The battle lines were being drawn, and some sort of a final showdown was approaching. 
He had been preparing for this showdown his whole life. He decided that he should do something brave to get himself in the proper frame of mind for what lay ahead.
Amy Nelson’s phone number was scribbled on the Post-It pad beside his desk phone. Amy was a blind date that Leo’s cousin had arranged several weeks ago.
During their one “date”, Amy had not seemed to enjoy his company very much. Since then, she had ignored the two messages he had left in her voicemail. It didn’t matter. Women routinely ignored him. For all Leo knew, some of them might be in cahoots with the wasps, too.
He abruptly decided that he would not call Amy again. If she did not have the courtesy to return his calls, then he would not humiliate himself with endless supplications. He tore the top sheet of paper from the Post-It pad—the one that contained her telephone number—and threw it into the wastebasket beneath his desk. Have a nice life, Amy, he thought.
Leo knew that his newfound resolve would likely be temporary. Throwing away a woman’s phone number was one thing—dealing with them was another. 
And it only took one more glance out the window to cast him back into a pit of utter self-doubt.
The window that had previously been occupied by only three wasps was now covered by more than a dozen black, shiny insects. He had never counted more than four of them at this location. 
Despite his fear, Leo felt a certain sense of satisfaction. However the situation played out, it would be over soon. His hands shaking, he finally took the first bite of his sandwich. 
Before Leo shut down his computer later that afternoon he sent the boss a terse email: “Ask someone else to work this Saturday. I’ve got plans.” 
Then he added a final line: “And I’m not afraid of being stung.” 


The distance between Leo and his car seemed to span miles, though he knew he could cover it in a short sprint. 
Leo stood in the glass-enclosed foyer of the office building, oblivious to the five o’clock flow of his coworkers around him. Most people simply stepped around Leo; but there were a few aggravated grunts, and at least one speculative remark about the state of Leo’s sanity.
Leo did not care. His coworkers could afford to be blithe and carefree, their minds occupied by thoughts of evening television programs, and meals with children and spouses. They did not have to concern themselves with the wasps. 
Seeing no sign of his enemies around the front entrance, Leo finally joined the flow and pushed his way through the pneumatic double doors. There were titters and more stares as he bolted free from the crowd, his legs pumping madly until his hand gripped the driver’s side door handle of his car. He yanked open the door (he had left it unlocked) and threw himself inside. Sweat coursed down his ribs inside his shirt and dampened his collar. Leo loosened his tie and exhaled. He closed his eyes and gave himself a few moments to savor this small victory. But his sense of calm well-being did not last for long. He opened his eyes when the buzzing became too loud to ignore.
The windshield was filling up with wasps.
There were more than twenty of them milling about on the glass, only inches from his face. He had beaten them to the car by a narrow margin; he had been in more danger than he had imagined.
Leo fished his keys out of his pocket and started the car. As soon as the engine was running he turned on the windshield wipers. See how they like that, he thought. The wipers initially caused all the wasps to scatter; but they did not go far, swarming and buzzing in a cloud above the hood. Then some of them began to attach themselves to the side windows. Leo looked in the rearview mirror and saw others crawling across the back window.
He drove off; he had been through this before. By the time the car reached the highway, the force of the wind was sufficient to dislodge all of the wasps.


Once inside his house, Leo obsessed about the structure’s openings. The doors and the windows were shut tight, of course. Nor did he worry about the chimney. After five wasps had worked their way down the chimney a few months ago, Leo had placed an airtight seal across the damper. He would need to remove the seal in November; but by then all the wasps would be killed off by the colder weather.
What he worried about now, as he sat in a lumpy recliner in his living room, were the openings he had missed. He knew that no residential building was completely airtight. If mice could work their way into tiny openings in the walls of houses, then it should be an easy task for wasps. 
He sat still, and listened intently for any sound of buzzing.
Instead he heard the doorbell ring. The doorbell rang twice. Then there was a knocking, scratching sound against the front door.
Leo’s first inclination was to remain silent and let his visitor conclude that no one was home. He wasn’t afraid of any human visitor. He was afraid of opening the door because of the wasps that would be waiting outside.
His visitor, however, wasn’t going away. There were more rings of the doorbell, more knocks and scratching.
“Open the door,” a reedy voice cried from outside. “I know you’re in there.”
Leo tiptoed to the front door and peered through the peephole. His visitor wore dark glasses, an overcoat, and a fedora. He seemed to have some sort of a skin ailment. His cheeks were covered with a scaly covering that reminded Leo of a scab from a particularly nasty burn. 
“I see you in there,” the man said. He brought his face closer to the peephole, giving Leo a close-up view. The man lifted his glasses. 
He had large, compound eyes—just like an insect 
Leo leapt back from the door, and the man taunted him from the front porch.
“Come on, Leo!” the unwanted caller shouted. When he raised his voice, Leo could detect a buzzing tone intermingled in the sounds of the words, so his last utterance came out, “Comz on Leozz…
A man who has taken on the characteristics of a wasp, or a wasp who has taken on the characteristics of a man? Leo wondered. 
Not that this distinction mattered at the moment. The question was little more than academic, in fact. The sharp scraping sounds resumed on the front door. Leo had no trouble imagining the source. The limbs of a wasp were tipped not with hands and feet—but with hooklike structures known as tarsal claws. And how big would these claws be, for a wasp the size of a man?
“You’d better let me in!” the thing shouted. “Or I won’t make this quick!” 
The progression of recent events suddenly became clear to Leo. The wasps had been amassing their strength. They were feeling more confident. Why else would his boss have risked an overt reference to stinging
And then he had sent that terse, defiant email to his boss. Perhaps his boss had taken his revenge by telling them that now was the time. Tonight.
“Just a minute!” Leo shouted. “I’ll be right there!”
Before he opened the door, Leo ducked down the side hall and briefly entered the house’s utility room. Next he went into the kitchen and removed a large ice pick from the drawer beside the stove. He slid the ice pick into the rear loops of his pants, wedging it against his belt.
And then he opened the front door. 
The first thing that struck Leo’s senses was a smell like rotten meat. (Wasps were predatory insects, after all. And what would be suitable prey for a wasp that size?) Then he heard a buzzing that reverberated through the bones in his skull. 
It pushed its way into Leo’s house, leaving him sprawled out on the living room carpet. 
Rapid wing beats blew putrid air down on Leo’s face. It hovered and appraised Leo. Antennae probed the space around its bullet-shaped head. The head tapered to a set of mandibles that looked easily capable of gutting a full-grown man.   
But what terrified Leo most was the stinger. This took the form of a long, black lance at the tip of the creature’s abdomen. As the wasp shifted its position above Leo, it bared the obscenely long stinger. Drops of venom dribbled onto the carpet. 
And then it was just a man again, although a horribly disfigured one that bore the outward signs of its dual nature. The edges of the complex eyes were visible behind the dark glasses. He kept his hands thrust in his pockets, to avoid revealing his claws. An insectile abdomen shifted beneath the tail of the overcoat.
“Well, Leo,” he said in that reedy, high-pitched voice of his. “I would give you a hand; but maybe it would be easier if you helped yourself up.” 
Leo clambered to his feet, noting with relief that the ice pick was still lodged in the loops of his belt. Without asking permission, he walked over to the front door, which was still ajar.
“Don’t try to run,” the intruder warned. “I can easily run you down. Then I’ll disembowel you in your front yard.”
“I’m only shutting the door,” Leo said. Turning back to face the man-wasp, he asked, “What do you want?”
“Well, that should be obvious, don’t you think?” The man smiled, and for a second his jaw turned into the mandible of an insect. “I want to humiliate you. I want to make you beg for your life.”
“And?” Leo said.
“And then I plan to kill you.”
They stood facing each other across the small space of the living room, Leo and the wasp-man. Leo felt prickly gooseflesh break out on his bare arms as a blast of cool air filled the room, flooding out from the air vents. The air conditioner hummed loudly. 
“But first I get to ask a few questions, don’t I?” Leo asked. “Isn’t that the way this sort of thing works?”
The wasp man paused to consider this. “Maybe just one.” he finally said. “What do you want to know?”
“I won’t ask exactly what you are,” Leo said. “Or how this is even possible. I’ll only ask the most important question: Why are you here? Why me?”
“Because you invited me here,” the wasp-man said. “You’ve been inviting me—inviting us—all your life.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Sure it does,” the wasp man said. “Think back to grade school. Remember little Jimmy Breslin?”
Of course Leo remembered Jimmy Breslin. Thirty years ago Jimmy Breslin, the class bully, had been the bane of Leo’s existence. 
“Do you remember what Jimmy Breslin used to do to you?” the wasp-man asked. Leo noticed that the wasp-man was metamorphosing back into a full wasp again. The compound eyes were pulsing, growing larger. The dark glasses fell onto the carpet. Its lips shriveled back against its jawbone; and the jawbone dissolved into a set of mandibles. 
Leo didn’t need this creature to tell him about Jimmy Breslin, though. Jimmy Breslin had regularly made Leo walk through piles of dog dung at recess. Then Leo would spend the rest of the day as the butt of his classmates’ jokes: little girls holding their noses and boys making barking sounds like dogs. On several occasions, the teachers had sent Leo home to clean up, and then he had caught hell from his parents, too.
“You took it, Leo,” the wasp-man said. “Like prey should. And we saw you. Oh yes, we did. We had many nests beneath the eaves of your elementary school. Perhaps you noticed them.”
The mandibles of the wasp were moving back and forth now: it was salivating. The overcoat had fallen away and its wings were out.
Leo nodded. He remembered that wasps had been a constant nuisance at the Brantner Street Elementary School during the warmer months. Sometimes they even invaded classrooms, buzzing near the ceiling most of the time, occasionally diving low enough to be threatening. When a wasp was in the room, Leo recalled, it was impossible to focus on anything else.
“Our scouts used to watch you,” the wasp continued. “We’re patient. We knew that one day you’d be easy prey for us. We only had to wait until you were ready.” 
The wasp was partially right, Leo knew. He had submitted when Jimmy Breslin had made him walk through the dog dung. He had submitted many times over the years: too many to count, in fact. 
But the wasp was partially wrong, too. After a lifetime of submission, Leo was tired of being prey. Tired of running from the wasps. 
The air conditioner clattered in the opposite end of the house as a fresh wave of cold air filled the room. Leo wondered how low the temperature had fallen. It was now uncomfortably cold even for him.
And even more uncomfortable for the wasp. The wasp was beginning to slow down. Its wingbeats slowed. The diaphanous structures might have been attached to weights. 
The wasp’s mandibles stopped moving. The wings came to halt.
Now was as good a time as any.
Leo removed the ice pick from his belt and plunged it into the wasp’s thorax. There was an audible crunch as the metal instrument penetrated the hard exoskeleton. Leo pulled out the ice pick and a dark brown liquid began to poor from the hole. 
The wasp let out a shriek of rage that dissolved into a roaring buzz.
And now it was Leo’s turn to do the taunting. He knew it was petty and ultimately pointless; but he could not help himself: “You weren’t expecting that, were you? Do you still think I’m easy prey?”
The wasp summoned a final burst of strength and swung its stinger at Leo. Venom spurted onto the leg of Leo’s pants as the stinger missed his knee by mere inches. Leo sidestepped the stinger and stabbed the wasp again. And again. 
The wasp collapsed onto the carpet, knocking over a floor lamp in the process. The man-sized insect convulsed, emitted a final loud buzz, and was dead.
Leo dropped the ice pick and bent over, his head suddenly woozy with shock. He willed himself to stand up again: I will not pass out. I will not pass out.
When he stood erect again, he noticed that the wasp had changed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of tiny wasp bodies littered the floor where the single large wasp had fallen. They were all dead, dried husks of exoskeleton. 
First Leo walked into the utility room and adjusted the thermostat back to the temperature it had been before the wasp had arrived. Once back in the living room, Leo dropped to his hands and knees and began methodically pounding the dead wasps to dust with his fists. 
Afterward, he wiped his hands clean on a towel from the bathroom and set about the cleanup. He emptied the vacuum cleaner out three times before the last traces of the wasps were gone.

 The sun had begun to set when he was done. It was Friday night, and Leo contemplated the vista of time that stretched out ahead of him. He turned off the air conditioner, opened the windows, and enjoyed the evening breeze, which was cool for a change. Tomorrow was Saturday, and the entire day would be his.

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