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[Her] Pre-existing Condition, Part ii
by Lindsay Parnell

Roach, foulest of creatures, 
who attacks with yellow teeth
and an army of cousins big as shoes,
you are lumps of coal that are mechanized
and when I turn on the light you scuttle
into the corners and there is this hiss upon the land.
Yet I know you are only the common angel
turned into, by way of enchantment, the ugliest.

 “Cockroach” by Anne Sexton

 

On 12th and Market at midnight it touches her everywhere before she felt it at all. Climbing higher to her hip with limbs closer to her flesh than sweat. She’ll sweep her hand towards the ground before her brain tells her to. Well before it hits the pavement, hissing, and scurries to the sewer grates it touched her all at once then not at all.

Her train runs the northeast route from first light to last and back again. She requires an invitation to board even though he was the one who gave her gonorrhea twice. It is with a ticket and no luggage that she’ll belong to him in short minutes in public bathrooms and on the hotel mattresses his wife would never touch. Before his call she’ll spot its shell, dark like gun metal and just as hard, hugging the wall nearest the toilets, dodging rolling luggage and waves of rush-hour commuters. Undetected by most it covers the length of a human’s stride in seconds.

Without lenses she thought it a discarded sock, a piece of trash, the bathtub’s linoleum finally subsiding to rot. She steadies herself with the shower rod while it shutters on its back, writhing and protesting aside her foot. She’ll douse it in bleach because she tells herself bleach is all she needs. It will writhe long after dying so she’ll sleep with the lights on tonight because there is never just one.

The next one is motionless when she first eyes it next the shelves of stacked paperbacks. She figures it died in daylight, brave and alone and without guilt. It died on its back with legs frozen and folded beneath itself just like how all the others soon will. She read it’s because commonly used insecticides attack the nervous system which causes the roach to experience muscular spasms. This assault is followed by the general loss the motor coordination and specifically the use of their legs which often double and are rendered useless above its inverted body. It’s when she’s on her back that it’s too late – a transposal of the body to and balance is nearly impossible to regain by her own accord. She figured the roaches were female until she knew the roaches are female.

She’ll soon learn that after birth and wingless they will harden. Their blood is first without color and it is the females that are easily injured after molting but quickly sprout a late season’s armor. Centipedes are known to eat cockroach nymphs; glue boards are recommended by many exterminators because when the roaches are caught, with nymph sacs on their backs, the mother will release the children in her fright and they will all die together on a small patch of cement. She thinks about the babies and how nobody has ever once asked to be born. Not even Jesus. She’ll pick the glue boards from the floor and toss them down the trash chute until she doesn’t hear the fall at all.

At night she is stalked. Her borders have betrayed her. There are others unseen but the tally is now five: one in the bathtub, one by the bookshelf, the three that went together in a triangle by her desk. She read that they are social, communal species and so she knows there is never just one so she’ll sit at attention in bed until tomorrow. Scanning the lamp-lit ceiling she’ll flinch when her arm brushes a blanket, anticipating the touch of that which is of her and that which is not.

If she’s not careful she’ll die of thirst and without a head. In light she fears the movement of others, so she stirs at the breath and glance of strangers. Her skull tilts downward and her hands will not steady but they are hungry for groping and grasping and she no longer sleeps so she reads at night to coax herself calm and untouched. Wasps can use the bodies of roaches as incubators for their own eggs. A surrogate pest. Some roaches who are mothers and mothers who are roaches hide or bury their eggs before abandoning their offspring permanently. Some do and some don’t, the specific circumstances correlated with each scenario are yet to be confirmed.

The coffee makes her heart race. Her flesh flushes and her mind spins so she promises herself she’ll switch to tea. The kettles leaks and is water stained, loose in its base and tired. It taunts her while boiling and boils before dying as it slips from the kettle’s spigot into her mug. The corpse is fat and flutters and it will not drown. She’ll pray before placing it on her tongue so it did not die in vain.

With her back to the bed and breathing through all the holes God gave her she summons them while naked. This is not a cocoon but her second skin, this legion of hissing bodies and writhing limbs that will shield her flesh. She receives them until she knows no separation between their appendages and her own. She too is now without bones but she will not survive another winter here. The train it seems has stopped its routes so she’ll birth the roaches and then go south.

 

Lindsay Parnell‘s short fiction has appeared in 3AM Magazine, Honest Ulsterman, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Underground Voices, and others. Her debut novel DOGWOOD is out with Linen Press. She lives in Atlanta and shares a birthday with her president, Meryl Streep.

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