by Gerry Sonnenschein
The fast-moving water formed a whirlpool as it reached the bathtub drain. An orange ladybug swam furiously to avoid being sucked into the vortex. Reaching the water's edge, it began to climb up the porcelain wall to safety. Its success was cut short as I flicked it back into the swirling eddy with a snap of my finger.
"What are you doing, Leslie?" Marie asked suspiciously. Marie was a fellow graduate student who rented an old one-story house with me.
"Trying to wash a pest down the drain," I said.
Marie moved closer to see. "Leslie! How could you? That's a ladybug!" She slid her hand under the beetle and gently lifted it.
I groaned and turned off the water. "Don't blame me when it bites you."
"Ladybugs don't bite." As Marie rested her hand flat on the bathroom counter, the beetle crawled off and slipped through a crack in the caulking around the sink.
"These aren't your grandmother's sweet red ladybugs," I insisted. "Haven't you heard? Asian ladybug beetles have invaded our country. Harmonia axyridis. They're multiplying rapidly since they have no natural predators here."
"Since when are you a ladybug expert?"
"Since last night. I was taking a break from my paper and researched them on the Internet. I knew there was something odd about these bugs."
Marie shook her head, making her dark ponytail sway. She considered herself the bug expert for three all-too-familiar reasons. First, her graduate field was biochemistry, which meant her knowledge of anything biological had to be superior to that of a lowly medieval studies type like me. Second, she had this bizarre compassion for insects. Marie was the kind of person who, after a rainstorm, would pick worms up off the sidewalk and put them on the grass to make sure they didn't get squished.
The third and most important explanation for Marie's attitude was that she came from a family with a weird tradition of ladybug mania. Her French-born grandmother had been certain that ladybugs brought good luck and had filled her house with ladybug kitsch. In honor of her grandmother's obsession, Marie had painted a wooden sign for her. The words "La Coccinelle" (French for "the ladybug") were printed across the board in black italic letters and on each side of the title, there was a picture of a black-spotted red ladybug. When her grandmother passed away, Marie inherited the sign and hung it on her bedroom door.
"Okay, I admit these orange ones are not traditional domestic red ladybugs," Marie said as she wiped perspiration from her face. Our low-rent house lacked A/C and it was miserably hot. "But they won't hurt you. They're only seeking shelter from the cold."
"Yeah, it's really cold, right," I said sarcastically. I knew what she meant, but I didn't feel like being agreeable. It was October and there had already been one hard freeze. At that time, the bugs had taken refuge or died. Now the weather had zigzagged back to record heat and insects had reappeared, especially ladybugs. Those little nuisances had returned with a vengeance and were bent on driving me crazy. A cold front was due later today and I couldn't wait for it to be freezing cold again.
"I still say you don't know much about ladybugs," she huffed.
"Actually, you'd be surprised how much I learned. I even discovered that these annoying insects have a connection to my specialty. In the Middle Ages, the ladybug beetles ate aphids and other pests that could damage crops such as grapevines. Since they protected the plants and, best of all, saved the wine, they were rewarded with the holy name 'Our Lady'. Of course, those were well-mannered red ladybugs. These orange Asian ones are another story. They can ruin wine, give off smelly orange goo and cause allergic reactions in sensitive people. Plus, they do bite, even if you don't think so. Worst of all, their population is exploding. Before you know it, they'll take over the world."
Marie rolled her eyes. "You're definitely crankier than usual. Did you get any sleep last night?"
"No, but I got my paper done. I produced a magnificent treatise on the use of weapon imagery in fourteenth century English literature."
"Great, I'm so impressed. Are you still going to the party at Kay's place this evening? You're supposed to bring a dip to go with the chips."
"Yeah, I'm cutting my early classes so I can crash for a couple of hours. Don't worry, I've already bought the dip. I'll get it to Kay's, provided these stupid bugs don't find it first. Maybe I should cut a few up and add them to the dip. It would be perfect if I had one of those medieval swords to slice them with...."
"That's not funny." Marie stared at me intently. Her pupils dilated, making her blue-gray eyes appear black. "You mustn't hurt those beetles. They'll move elsewhere soon. If they're really bothering you that much, I'll capture them and transfer them to a safe spot outside."
"I can help with that," I said with a sly grin.
"No! You can't! Don't touch them, got it?"
Marie stomped out of the bathroom. Relieved to be alone, I regarded my bleak reflection in the mirror. The dark circles under my bloodshot eyes and the frizzy brown disaster that was my hair reminded me that it was hard being a grad student. Of course, Marie thought that only science grad students had a tough time, with their brainy courses and long hours in the lab. She had no concept of how challenging medieval studies could be. I had to be expert in a wide range of subjects and master both ancient and modern languages. The only advantage, if I could call it that, was that I had more control over my schedule and could often work from home. Of course, the ability to concentrate at home had been hampered by the orange invasion.
When I finally emerged from the bathroom, I found Marie in the kitchen getting ready to go.
"I'm sorry if I sounded too excited," Marie said. "But you know how I feel about ladybugs."
I shrugged. I was too tired to complain anymore. "No problem. Just try to remember you're not the only one capable of spouting scientific trivia."
"You're not the only one who knows about the Middle Ages. You should ask me about my family history some time," Marie said earnestly.
The idea of learning more about Marie's family and her take on medieval times appalled me but I tried not to show it. "Sure, some other time. All I know right now is that I'm exhausted and I cannot coexist with these bugs."
"It'll resolve itself," Marie said. "Natural balance is always restored." She glanced at her watch. "I've got to get to a biochem lab. Hey, don't forget about the storm. I've closed my window, but you need to close the rest before you leave. And leave the ladybugs alone!"
"I'll be good. Promise." I sighed, resigned.
Marie smiled. "Thanks. See you at the party."
Once Marie was gone, I went to bed. Despite my exhaustion, it wasn't easy falling asleep. The hot, humid air was oppressive. I tossed and turned, my clammy legs sticking to the sheets and my arms thrashing at the lumpy pillow. Sounds of traffic formed white noise in the background, punctuated by an irregular tapping. A glance at the window made me groan - ladybugs were bumping against the screen. I buried my head in the pillow. My mind floated between conscious thoughts and pieces of dreams.
I found myself rereading my report. The title had become "Insect Imagery in Fourteenth Century English Literature". No, this was all wrong, I thought, it was supposed to be "Weapon Imagery". I scrutinized the paper and found an illustration of an orange beetle wielding a miniature sword. "You stupid bug. You cannot beat me! I am much stronger than you," I proclaimed as I ripped the picture to shreds.
The ringing phone woke me from my nightmare. Sweaty and not entirely alert, I stumbled out of bed to answer it. Along the way, I checked a clock. It was mid-afternoon but darker than normal.
"Hello," I said as I grabbed the receiver.
"Hi, Leslie," Marie said. "Wow, you're still home! I'm glad I caught you. Did you know there's a severe weather warning for our area?"
"This is serious. In addition to a thunderstorm warning, there's a tornado watch. You should stay put until the front passes."
"We never get tornadoes at this time of year."
"Tornadoes can happen at any time if the conditions are right."
"If you say so," I responded. There was no point in arguing. Marie always had to be right. I glanced out the window. Dark, ominous clouds filled the sky, but it wasn't raining yet. "Look, I've got to get this report turned in. Don't worry. I'll beat the storm and be on campus soon."
"Remember the windows! All but my room."
"Okay, enough already. You sound like my mother. Bye."
I hung up and took a quick shower. Refreshed, I dressed and gathered items to go into my backpack, including the party dip and my report. I decided to review the report one last time before leaving. After all, it was important to avoid careless mistakes.
The thunderstorm had arrived. Blasts of thunder rumbled through the walls while I sat at the desk and checked my manuscript. It no longer sounded quite as brilliant as it had at five a.m. Oh well, my professor cared more about looks than content, and my report looked good.
Good, that is, up until page eight. I found a ladybug had wedged itself between pages nine and ten and two more were crawling down page twelve. As I brushed them off, they left streams of orange goo on the pages.
Frustrated, I shook the report and in the process creased it. Now there was no other choice. I needed to print out a fresh copy. Unfortunately, I had apparently neglected to save that final version completed in the early morning hours.
My fury reached the stage where my cheeks were flushed and my head was pounding. I took a deep breath and held it while deciding what to do. Exhaling slowly, I knew. It was time to strike back. I pulled the canister vacuum cleaner out of the closet, attached the long plastic wand to the hose and went from room to room, searching for ladybugs. One after another, they popped into the wand as I exposed them to the unrelenting suction.
While I worked, I was consumed by the question: what did the bugs experience as the mighty power caught them? I wondered if they suffocated immediately or if they were pulled apart first? Whatever the answer, I hoped their experience was excruciating.
Finally, only one room remained that I hadn't checked: Marie's room. I hesitated before entering. Our bedrooms were off-limits to each other, barring an extreme situation. Not to mention the fact that the two ladybugs on her "La Coccinelle" sign were staring at me with an amazing intensity, considering they were only drawings. Well, too bad, I decided. If Marie was harboring those miserable creatures, then this constituted an emergency and required immediate action.
While I expected to see some bugs, I was shocked by what I found in her room. There were ladybugs everywhere, too many to count. They crawled in formation along the edges where the walls met the ceiling. Masses of them hovered near the window, along its wood frame, between the glass pane and the screen and on the curtains. High concentrations also congregated around closet doors, near light fixtures and behind furniture.
In addition to the huge quantity, there was an impressive variety. Most were orange but a few were red. There were spotless bugs, those with a smaller number of spots and some with enough markings that the black specks blurred together into one big smudge. I marveled at the sights as I vacuumed them up. I opened the window briefly to make sure that I got all the bugs futilely clinging to the screen. Not even the less despised red ladybugs were spared from my ruthless assault.
Even though my rampage didn't answer the question about the bugs' journey into the vacuum and it certainly didn't fix my damaged report, it did elevate my mood enough that I was ready to move on. I set the vacuum cleaner back in the closet, placed the crumpled, stained report in my backpack, put on a rain poncho and headed out into the storm. It was a forty-five minute walk to the campus, but it could be shortened to thirty minutes by cutting through the forest and the soccer field. Head down and eyes narrowed, I ran through the driving rain.
Normally the thick canopy of trees offered some protection, but not this time. The leaves were saturated from the heavy downpour and water cascaded over me. A crescendo of thunder dogged my footsteps.
I was relieved to reach the end of the woods and the beginning of the soccer field. Between the torrential rain and darkness, I couldn't see the far end of the field, but knew I would reach it if I continued in a straight line. I ran through huge puddles and across spongy grass.
The roar of the thunder took on a different tone, more like the sound of an approaching freight train. I recalled what Marie had said, but thought no, it couldn't be, it couldn't happen at this time of year. I sprinted as fast as I could.
Leaves, twigs and other small debris pelted me. As the wind rapidly strengthened, I found it difficult to breathe and was knocked to the ground. Pressed against the grass, I was shocked to see an orange ladybug, just millimeters away from my nose. Its shell parted, exposing its wings, and it edged toward me. Afraid it would hit my face, I flinched. Instead, it closed its shell and scurried down into a muddy divot, protected from the rain and wind.
Suddenly, I was caught by an overpowering force and yanked into the air. I finally had the answer to my question - what it felt like to be in the vortex - right before everything went black.
© 2007 Gerry Sonnenschein
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Gerry Sonnenschein is an aspiring science fiction writer. She won AlienSkin Magazine's Good Science Fiction Writing Contest in December 2006 and had both the winning story and a second flash fiction published online in AlienSkin. Gerry’s haiku’s have also been featured in USA Today. For more of her stories, visit here.
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