The first time Silvia saw the waterbug on the wall of her living room, she yelped (a ridiculous sound, but she couldn't help it), ran into the next room and stood for a moment, trembling and trying to control her panic.
It was freaking embarrassing. Normally, there was very little that Sylvia was afraid of. She had grown up in a not-that-great section of Brooklyn and had an attitude (and accent) to match. She knew how to handle pushy sales staff and overbearing car mechanics, and had once slugged a guy who slipped his hand between her legs on a subway station (the commuters around her broke into applause while the man ran off, clutching his jaw).
But Sylvia didn’t like insects. She especially didn’t like large, hard-shelled, difficult-to-kill insects. When she saw one, she reacted with all the revulsion and fear that a human was capable of; when she first read George Orwell’s 1984 in high school, she knew immediately that the thing O’Brien would have used to break her in Room 101 would have been a huge, nasty bug.
A few months ago, her husband Peter would have taken care of it. As soon as she saw that shiny reddish-brown insect clinging to the wall just above her old stereo system, she would have run into the tiny bedroom Peter used as an office and uttered the magic phrase, “Waterbug!”
A few months ago, her husband Peter would have taken care of it.
Peter would have sighed and explained patiently (yet again) that it wasn't technically a waterbug but was actually something called an American cockroach and completely harmless. Then, in response to her offended glare, he would have pulled his not inconsiderable bulk from his chair, taken an old shoe from the closet, and gone in search of it while Sylvia stood waiting, refusing to move until the insect had been killed, wrapped in two plastic bags and pushed to the bottom of the kitchen garbage.
But Peter was no longer there to kill bugs, or cook his famous three-meat lasagna, or curse at the computer when it crashed. He wasn’t there to take care of those tasks ― or the hundreds of others that had been part of their lives for so many years. He was in hospice, unreachable in a haze of pain medication, in the last stages of stage 4 liver cancer.
Sylvia took several deep breaths and considered. She had to get to the hospice as early as possible, and to do that, she had to catch an express bus that ran only once an hour. She hated the idea of walking out of the house and leaving a large, nasty waterbug loose and possibly finding its way into the kitchen sink (or worse, the bed). For a moment, she considered taking a minute or two to grab a broom, knock the hideous thing to the floor and then, hopefully, find something really heavy to drop on it.
But there wasn’t even time for that now. So she simply shivered, went back into the living room and took her coat and pocketbook from the coatrack by the door, watching the insect carefully to make sure it didn’t make any sudden moves.
Just as she was closing her front door, she said to it loudly, “I’ll take care of you when I get home.” It made her feel better. But really, Sylvia hoped that the waterbug would be gone when she got home; that it would have returned back through whatever drain it came from and gone to bother somebody else.
The day went the way most days went ― Peter lay quiescent, stupefied by painkillers and antidepressants, while Sylvia questioned doctors and nurses, yelled at attendants who didn't come soon enough, chatted to her husband about family and friends, and read him snippets from the day's news together with her own commentary. “He's doing as well as can be expected," the nurse said, changing the bag that dripped fluids into his arm. “He's not in pain, which is a very great thing at this point."
It's not enough, Sylvia wanted to snap back. But she just smiled, and held Peter's hand.
That evening, when she got home, tired and emotionally drained, she hung up her coat and pocketbook and headed for the kitchen. And stopped short, her breath caught in her throat. The waterbug was still there.
“You son of a bitch!" she yelled at it, and went to the kitchen for the bug spray. But although she pulled out everything in the cabinet below the sink (including some old sponges and shelf liners that she couldn’t remember buying), Sylvia couldn’t find it. She finally sat on the kitchen floor, still in her good jeans and white blouse, the detritus all around her, and tried very hard not to cry. Across the apartment, she could see the waterbug clinging patiently to the living room wall.
She finally sat on the kitchen floor ... and tried very hard not to cry.
She stared at it in mixed horror and fascination. “Go away!” she finally screamed from the floor. “Go away and leave me alone!” she sobbed amidst bottles of Lysol and Murphy’s Oil Soap.
After several minutes, Sylvia was able to calm down a bit. She grabbed a couple of paper towels and blew her nose, then threw all the stuff on the floor back into the cabinet (not paying much attention to where each bottle landed). When she was finished, she made a sandwich and poured herself a large helping of bourbon.
“Screw you,” she told the waterbug. She went into the bedroom, closed the door and stuffed a towel under it so the bug couldn’t get in. She'd call a friend tomorrow, somebody who wasn’t squeamish about insects, and ask them to get rid of it.
The next morning, perhaps because of the bourbon, Sylvia slept later than she had meant to. She didn’t even have time to make herself coffee; instead, she showered (first checking the bathtub carefully for any straying insects), dressed and left for the hospice. As she headed out the door, she gave the wall a glance. The waterbug was still where it had been the previous evening.
“If anyone calls,” Sylvia yelled to it as she passed, “tell them I’ll be back before dinner.”
She wasn’t home for dinner. She didn't get back until the next day. That afternoon, Peter lapsed into a coma, and the doctors told her that he might not last the night, so Sylvia stayed in his room. He died about 6 a.m.
When she got home the following afternoon, she was dry-eyed and numb. She didn’t look at the waterbug; she dropped the bag with Peter’s few belongings just inside the door and went directly to the kitchen, where the bourbon still sat on the counter. She poured a generous helping into a coffee cup, went into the living room, put on the television set, and sat gulping down the alcohol as tears streamed down her face.
She wasn't quite sure what to do next. Sylvia had been so focused on taking care of the living Peter that, at first, she was a little dazed by the idea that her life was no longer going to consist mainly of hospital visits and medical consultations. After his diagnosis, Peter had been very careful about making sure that Sylvia would have as little trouble as possible: he had used the paperwork and legal documents necessary to settle his affairs as a way to concentrate his mind away from the fact of his impending death. So the funeral home had already been chosen and the gravesite had been paid for, and it only took a single email (which Sylvia had sent from the hospital) onto a pre-chosen website to notify all their friends and relatives.
She wasn't quite sure what to do next.
Even so, Sylvia felt as though she had just stepped off a cliff, falling toward some strange new (and not necessarily better) world. “And that world,” she suddenly said out loud, “does not include great, huge, ugly waterbugs.”
She pulled off her shoe, stood and walked quickly (if somewhat unsteadily) to where the waterbug was, still clutching the side of the wall, still alive. While Peter was dead.
“How dare you!” Sylvia pulled back her arm, ready to let go, no longer caring about anything except her anger at the insect, at the world and at Peter, when the doorbell rang.
She stopped in mid swing. She couldn’t go through the messy process of killing the insect and cleaning it up, with somebody ― probably several somebodies ― waiting outside.
But she didn’t want them to see the waterbug sitting on her wall ― it would look like, Sylvia thought, she wasn’t taking care of her house, that she wasn’t perfectly all right. “Just a minute, I’ll be right there!” she yelled in the general direction of the door.
She put her shoe back on and looked around desperately ― and then, with sudden inspiration, took hold of a small table that sat on one side of the side of the couch and dragged it to the wall just below where the waterbug was. She pulled a large framed poster from a music festival that Peter and she had attended at Cape Cod (how many years ago?) off the wall. She put one end of the frame on the table and carefully leaned it against the wall, ready to bolt if the waterbug moved. It didn’t, and when she was finished, it was effectively hidden behind the poster.
“Don’t move,” she instructed the insect, and ran to answer the door.
That night, after everyone had gone and the food they brought was wrapped up and stored in the refrigerator, Sylvia cautiously moved the poster from its position against the wall, checking carefully first to make sure the insect hadn’t moved to the back of the poster. But no ― the waterbug was still on the wall, exactly in the same position.
Maybe, Sylvia thought, it was actually dead, and just sticking to the wall because of some natural adhesive. She found a flyswatter, took a deep breath and, wincing, carefully touched the waterbug at the lowest point to see if it would react. One antenna twitched slightly and the bug moved a quarter of an inch up the wall.
Sylvia yelped and jumped back. Still alive, dammit.
She sat on the couch against the opposite wall and stared at the thing. “How can you be alive?” she asked it, almost desperately. “When was the last time you ate anything? Aren’t you bored? Do waterbugs get bored?”
For the first time, Sylvia really looked at the waterbug. She stared at it with a sort of fascination, almost memorizing it: the segmented head with its two long antennae, the gleaming brown body, the six bent legs with their tiny hairs. If you looked at it scientifically, she thought, like an interesting member of the animal kingdom, perhaps it wasn’t so hideous.
For the first time, Sylvia really looked at the waterbug.
The waterbug shifted sideways and Sylvia jumped up and ran into the dining room, all her old revulsion back again. She edged back and looked cautiously at the wall. It had moved about an inch.
Once she could breathe again, Sylvia went into the kitchen, poured herself a large glass of wine (she had used up the bourbon and well-meaning friends had brought only wine), picked up her e-reader and started going through a list of free books. “Here it is,” she finally said, and downloaded a copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
She took another drink of the wine, sat back and began to read. After a moment, though, Sylvia looked up at the waterbug. “Are you interested?” she asked. “After all, it is about one of your relatives. Sort of.”
She walked back into the living room with the wine glass and the e-reader, settled herself on the couch with her legs folded underneath her, and started again, this time out loud. “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect. …”
The next week was one of the longest in Sylvia’s life. She had to get through the funeral and the after-funeral visits, all the while wishing desperately that life could go back to normal ― or at least as normal as it could be now. People were constantly in and out of the house, bringing food, offering advice and constantly, repetitively, always asking if she were all right. Sylvia would nod and smile and chat, and assure them that yes, she was very sad but she would be fine.
Every evening, once the last solicitous friend was out of the house, she would pour herself a glass of whatever alcohol was handy, bring over a bowl of chips or grapes or some other snack, and read to the waterbug. After she finished The Metamorphosis, she found a copy of Alice in Wonderland and read Alice’s conversation with the caterpillar. That wasn’t very satisfactory ― and anyway, a caterpillar wasn’t anything like a waterbug. She went looking for something more appropriate, and found a copy of Don Marquis’ Archie and Mehitabel, which she ― and, she presumed, the waterbug ― enjoyed thoroughly.
After that first, wrenching week was over and all the people stopped coming, Sylvia's life took on a new, if different, normality.
She called the communications firm she worked for ― she had taken a long leave of absence from her job as office manager for the sales department ― and told them she'd be back at work the next Monday.
She went through Peter’s belongings, put all his clothes in green trash bags and called the local Goodwill to pick it up.
She sent a box of photos and memorabilia to his sister, who had come from Seattle for the funeral and had flown back the next day, and whom Sylvia expected never to see again.
She finished going through all the insurance forms and hospital bills.
She notified all the various agencies that needed to be notified, and switched all the services to her name.
She learned how to deal with the cable and the wi-fi and the mobile phone.
But one thing didn't change: her new evening ritual. It sometimes took a bit of work to find suitable fiction to read, and her choices occasionally went far afield. A story called “The Blue Cockroach” turned out to be a tale of lost love from just after World War I; it was quaint, but not at all insect-centric. James and the Giant Peach came closer, as did Charlotte’s Web. (“You don’t mind a story about a spider?” she asked. “I don’t think you’re the kind of insects they actually eat.” The waterbug didn’t seem to mind at all.)
But one thing didn't change: her new evening ritual.
She glanced at the waterbug every once in a while, and thought that sometimes it quivered a bit when she got to a particularly exciting or sad point. Once it actually ran two inches up the wall, and then back down again. But usually, it simply sat where it always had.
Life continued. Occasionally, Sylvia would go out with friends to a movie or to dinner, but she had never been a very social person ― Peter had been the popular one ― and slowly, the invitations ceased. Then one day, she looked at her rent check and wondered why she was paying so much for an apartment that was way too big for one person.
The search for a new place to live took shorter than she’d thought it would. She found a small one-bedroom across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey, only a couple of trains stops from Manhattan ― but costing nearly half the rent.
She didn’t tell any of her remaining friends ― she didn’t want any arguments, or congratulations on getting on with her life, or any comments whatsoever. She bought several more boxes of trash bags and was ruthless about getting rid of anything from her past life that she no longer needed. Anything that she wasn't sure about she put into storage. The rest ― a few pieces of furniture, her clothes, and some of her own keepsakes ― she packed to take with her.
The movers came early in the morning. If any of them noticed the waterbug, they didn’t mention it; they just carried out her boxes and furniture and left.
Sylvia walked slowly through the empty apartment. This was, she thought, the end of the Sylvia who had shared her life with Peter all those years. That Sylvia had also gone into hospice when Peter did, and had died when Peter died. This was her funeral.
She took one more look around. She swallowed past the obstruction in her throat and opened the front door for the last time.
And stopped. And turned back.
“So?” she asked quietly. “Do you want to stay here and meet the new tenants, or do you want to come with me?”
The waterbug sat for a moment then lifted its head and stared at her.
“I thought so,” said Sylvia.
She went over to the waterbug, gently pulled it off the wall and placed it carefully on her shoulder. It clung there, its antennae brushing gently against her neck. She stroked its smooth, hard back and smiled.
“Let's go," she said, and strode briskly out, shutting the door firmly behind her.
Barbara Krasnoff 's short fiction has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Crossed Genres, Clockwork Phoenix 4, Subversion, Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, Electric Velocipede, and Space and Time, among others. She earns her living as senior reviews editor for Computerworld, is a member of the NYC writers group Tabula Rasa, and lives in Brooklyn, NY. You can find a full list of stories, and links to those available online, at BrooklynWriter.com.
Translation of The Metamorphosis taken from The Kafka Project website.