All right. It’s been a ride. I do hope you’ve enjoyed this sudden and unexpected descent into short story madness. For all your trouble, you’ve done it. You’ve reached the end. The sixth and final portion of “All the Crawling Beetles.” Comments/critiques greatly appreciated. You’re the first to see this, so…well, if something is off base, let me know.
For you late arrivals, here are the links that have come before:
Now, the end. Feels good to say that, huh? THE END.
All the Crawling Beetles, Part 6 and FINAL
The Saturday before the magnolia tree, I shook Emma by the shoulders, but she didn’t budge. “Emma!” I hissed, because I didn’t want the whole party to know I was leaving. I was trying to be sneaky about it, but of course, Emma was unconscious, and I couldn’t leave her. Plus she was sitting straight up, passed out, beer in hand, and I was afraid she was going to mess up the new dress she’d bought for Tom’s going away party.
I could hear things escalating out on Tom’s front porch. Things had been civil at first, but that had been six hours ago. Our group had agreed to dinner down the street at Basil—a Thai restaurant with twenty tables too few where there was always a wait and always stupendous Pad Thai. Then, we’d taken the party across the street to the downtown dive. In the crowds of college students and dirty old men who love them, our group had separated a half-dozen times. Each time we separated and met again, the drunken level would increase. I knew things were going downhill when Tom started putting his arm around my shoulders. I knew I was on a slippery slope when I realized I didn’t mind.
So when it was suggested we traverse two blocks to Tom’s house for after-hours, I should have gone home. Then, there had been Emma, and Emma didn’t want me to go home. She wanted me to stay and play.
Of course, by 3 AM, she was passed out, and I was her ride.
“Emma,” I said, pulling the beer from her limp palm and setting it on the sticky table next to Tom’s dusty leather couch. “Damn it.”
My head popped up, and I looked toward the front door. “Hey,” I said.
“What are you doing in here?” Tom asked. He stepped inside and closed the front door behind him. The floor in the old plantation home creaked beneath his weight, and for a moment, I felt ghosts of Victorian women in gowns floating between us.
“I’m trying to wake Emma,” I said, looking down at her frowning face.
“I don’t think she’s moving,” he said. He put his hand on my lower back, and even though I was drunk, my shoulders tensed. “Come back outside.”
“I want to go home.”
“You’re not going home. It’s my going away party.”
“I’ve been drinking all night.”
“Then, you shouldn’t be driving.”
“Well, I’m not staying here.”
“Why not?” he asked.
The look was back—the I’m-trying-to-sleep-with-you look I’d recognized on Cinco de Mayo and seen before when we’d first had sex. He looked as he had when I’d first met him and he’d told me I wasn’t going to like him—with a clean shave, wearing a button down that made him resemble a frat boy from the College of Charleston. He smelled the same, too, like weed, beer, and aftershave.
I watched my hand reach out and take hold of the fabric of his shirt, right above his bellybutton. We didn’t move closer for a moment. I was trying to make a decision, but the Van Gogh vodka shots from earlier were making it difficult. Tom had already made his decision, but he was hesitant—as he had been for our first kiss on the same couch where our unconscious friend snored.
He put his beer down, and I didn’t dare look up into his brown eyes. He put his palm on my cheek, and his long fingers took hold of the hair that had been stylish and curly earlier—limp now, thanks to the dancing and drinking at the bars. My mouth opened to him when he kissed me, and it felt familiar, even though our lips hadn’t touched in months.
It felt good—warm and wet—but it also felt wrong. It felt wrong. I pushed him away.
“No,” I said, shaking my head and taking a step back. I almost fell over Emma’s discarded shoe.
“What? What does it matter? I’m leaving soon. It’s not like we haven’t had sex before.”
I felt sick, but it wasn’t the booze. “Jesus, Tom.” I shook my head. “What am I doing here?” I looked around, but I couldn’t find my damn purse.
“Why are you freaking out?” He was following me around the room, and I wanted to touch him again. I kept moving, desperate to find my keys. “Sara. Stop.”
“What?” I stopped and faced him.
“Just stay the night. We like each other. Why not?”
I had more than liked Tom once upon a time. Once upon a time, while in the haze of our one night stand, I’d almost loved him. Even recently, it still hurt to look at him and remember the way he had once made me feel—wonderful and then terrible. He’d made me feel worthless, just another girl on his list of so many girls. And there we were, in that same stupid living room, and he was making me feel terrible all over again.
“No, I can’t stay. It’s wrong for me to stay.”
“Why? No strings. Don’t you want to get laid?”
Of course I wanted to get laid. I was drunk, and Tom was the best looking man I’d ever slept with. I wanted to sleep with him again, but I knew what would happen if I did. I would wake up in his arms, and I would feel like I had with Aidan in those last precious weeks before “the break up.” I would delude myself into thinking that sex meant love—that all the wrong could be made right. But wrong can never be made right, no matter how many times I may have tried.
“You have to move to San Francisco, Tom. And I have to go home. And not be your friend anymore.”
“Jesus,” he said, reaching for his beer. “Fine. Whatever.”
“Where’s my beer?” Emma sat up suddenly on the couch, and Tom’s beverage fell out of his hand.
“Whoa. Emma,” he said, moving past me and toward the paper towels in his kitchen. “We thought you were dead.”
“Where’s my beer?” she asked again, blue eyes at half-mast.
“It’s gone,” I said, as Tom started sopping up the spilled beer on his hardwood floors.
“Just like Tommy,” Emma sputtered and burst into tears.
I took a seat next to her on the couch, and I chuckled despite her sobs. “Just like Tommy,” I said, and he looked up from his puddle on the floor.
They all go away someday.
– – –
The old woman’s house smells like rain and yesterday’s eggs.
Once she managed to get me down from her tree, the storm arrived in earnest. It’s pouring outside, and lightning strikes like camera flashes on her dining room floor. Her house is filled with plants. It’s like a damn jungle in there, and I keep eyeing this one vicious thing in the corner, à la Little Shop of Horrors.
I’m sipping tea out of china that probably costs more than my salary. It isn’t good tea. It tastes old and stale, like she’s been saving it since her wedding day.
I take another sip and nod at her. I’ve plastered a polite smile on my face, but I can feel mascara caked on my cheeks from the bawl fest I had a half hour before.
“Is it good?” she asks.
“Yes, thank you.”
There are photos all over her house of two people—young, attractive, and dressed like characters in Casablanca. I assume it is the old woman and her dead husband, but I can’t tell with her wrinkles and white hair. Sometimes it’s so easy to forget that old people were once young, and young people will one day be old.
“So,” she says from across the dining room table. She puts her wrists on the white, lace tablecloth and smiles at me. “Are you all right, honey?”
I’m surprised she calls me “honey,” considering she called me “bitch” earlier. “Not really,” I say, and I wonder why I’m telling her.
“What’s the matter, dear?”
“Bad break up.” Then, I add a hissing sound at the end when I realize breakup should have been plural.
“I’m sorry. What did he do?”
“I don’t think they did anything,” I say. “I think I did it to myself.”
“Sounds like they weren’t right for you.”
I don’t want to answer, so I look at one of the many pictures on her wall. “How did you meet your husband?”
This makes her smile. Her eyes glaze over, and I can see her going back in time. “We met at a picnic, in Battery Park. He was here on leave from the Navy. We had one month together before he was sent out to sea. I waited for him to return. I would have waited forever.”
“Why would you have waited?”
She smiled, and her old-lady eyes crinkled to invisibility. “I knew.”
“How did you know?”
Her boney shoulders hopped. “When it’s right, it’s right. It’s not forced. It’s not complicated.”
“He was at sea. How is that not complicated?”
“Those are simple complications.”
“Oh.” She was right.
“Why were you in my magnolia tree?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you do know.”
“Well, do you know?”
“No.” She smiled. “Why were you in my magnolia tree?”
“I didn’t want to be on the ground anymore,” I said. “It was starting to hurt.”
The old lady pursed her thin lips together. Her eyebrows came together in the middle as she watched me sip my tea. “Do you know what I do for a living?” she asked, lifting her personal frailty from the table.
“Save women in trees?”
“No,” she said, and she touched the scary plant in the corner. “I’m a horticulturalist. I study how plants behave—how they survive. Did you know there is fossilized evidence of magnolia blossoms dating back 20 million years?”
“The magnolia tree evolved before bees,” she said, petting the plant that could have bitten off a hand. “Instead, pollination occurred by beetles.”
“The magnolia carpel—or female reproductive part of the flower—developed strength to protect itself from the beetles. It made itself strong to survive the damage from the crawling. Twenty million years of surviving is a long time,” she said, looking out into her flooded front yard. “Don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” I said.
Slowly, carefully, she shuffled back to the dining room table. She sat down across from me and folded her hands. “I’d say we can survive just a little bit longer. Wouldn’t you?”
The outsides of my mouth turned up at the corners. I nodded and looked down at my tea. It was bitter and lukewarm, but I finished the cup.
Thanks for stopping in for a read.