Estimated reading time — 7 minutes
Scratching an itch on my back, I found a hollow the size of a tack head. At my bathroom mirror I rolled my shoulder forward. Next to my shoulder blade, on my upper middle back, was a tiny hole. No plug, like a normal blackhead, but a deep hole. I watched my finger in the mirror, prodding it.
I dug my fingernail in but could only force the tip. As I massaged the cavity, yellow mucus discharged onto my finger. From the top shelf of the hallway closet, I took a small flashlight. Watching the mirror, I shone light into the hole. It went deep. Hopping onto the edge of the sink, I twisted my body and tried to see if there was a bottom. But inside the hole, as far as I could tell, there was only darkness.
Later, walking down the hall of my apartment, something stopped me. A faint buzzing. I scanned up and down the hall. There. Walking along the top of the wall. It was a wasp. The wasp was alone, walking serpentine, seemingly, in no direction in particular.
I considered whether to kill it. I had bug spray in the hall closet but hated the smell. Especially when I was about to eat. I decided to deal with it later and went to the kitchen.
As I finished my meal, the itch on my back worsened. Scratching it only strengthened the burning, making my shoulder twitch. I went to the bathroom mirror, removed my t-shirt and rolled my shoulder forward.
Holes. Five of them. They were perfectly circular and of equal size, clustered together at the edge of my shoulder blade. I prodded the centre and it crumpled inward, like paper. When I pressed harder I felt resistance.
I stared at the holes for a long time, waiting for them to do something. But nothing happened. I considered splashing on some water but the burning had subsided. A rash, I thought. Maybe the shirt pissed it off.
* * * * *
I couldn’t sleep. Splayed on my front, drool pasted my mouth to the sheets. My shoulder throbbed. I couldn’t help but reach around and scratch. My fingers dug into skin that felt deeply cracked and flaky.
My hand recoiled.
I swung off the sheets and went to the bathroom mirror.
A grey mound had formed across my back, riddled with holes. I suddenly found it difficult to breath. I sat on the sink, body twisted, staring at the holes. Each one was well defined. At the edges of the shapeless growth, my skin was puffy and red. I poked it. It was tender. Puss must have been pooling underneath.
Then I felt something move.
The thing, small and black, covered in red mucus, emerged from a hole in the centre cluster.
It was an insect’s head, twitching.
As it wriggled out, blood seeped from the hole and drew a red line down my back. A wasp. Blood soaked. It fanned its wings. Using its front legs, it cleared the mucus from its head. Then the wasp walked across the holes, paused, and scurried into one, disappearing.
My heart hammered. My hands were moist. I got off the sink and stood before the mirror. My chest rose and fell.
I cupped cold water in my hands and splashed my face. My back itched so badly.
Baring my teeth like an animal, I scratched the nest, digging with my nails, and shaved paper from the holes. Grey flecks floated to the floor.
A sharp sting jerked my whole body. It came from inside me.
Another sting, deep inside my abdomen, somewhere amid vital organs. It stole my breath. Doubled over, I gripped the edge of the sink, eyes pushed out, weeping.
Breathe, I thought. Don’t panic.
With effort, gradually, I filled my lungs, rose and looked in the mirror.
Half a dozen wasps hovered around me. As if patrolling their territory, they circled me.
I covered my ears against the biting hum.
* * * * *
I met my twin sister at a local café. Acutely aware of the nest, I leant forward in the booth and held that posture so as not to cause more stinging. I wore a light black cotton shirt. The wasps seemed to accept it, only having stung my insides once so far.
As I sipped my coffee she arrived, wearing a long white collared shirt and black tights. Her hair was jet black, like mine; we had the same pallid skin and were both thin and small framed. She gave me a half-smile and went for a hug.
“No.” I guarded with a hand. “I can’t.”
Sliding her eyes to the side, she withdrew and sat down. Sighing, she rested one hand over the other and examined them, then started picking at a nail.
“How are you holding up?” she said.
She sighed again. “Dad said you’re not answering his calls. Or his emails.” She finally looked up. Her hands covered her mouth. “Oh God…”
I glanced at my shoulder then downturned my eyes.
“You look awful,” she said.
I didn’t respond.
“Have you been eating?”
I nodded and sipped my coffee, considering whether or not to tell her about the wasps. They were moving throughout my chest cavity, navigating between organs, reinforcing the walls of their nest with more regurgitated pulp. Some inched their way to the surface of my back, annoyed, I sensed, at being closed off by the shirt.
“I need you to do something for me,” I said in a weak voice.
My sister shook her head. “No way.”
“What?” I said.
“I’m not talking to Dad for you.”
A wasp nudged the inside of my shirt. Over my shoulder I saw a moving lump.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing.” I clasped a hand over the bump. A sharp sting made me wince my eyes shut.
“I’m fine. I’ve… just got a rash on my back. It itches.”
“Let me see.”
Just in time, the waiter arrived with her coffee.
“Really, I’m fine.” When I glanced over my shoulder again there were at least ten bumps across my back. “Shit.”
“Will you tell Dad I’m fine. Tell him you saw me.”
“I said no. Are you still seeing the psychologist?”
I didn’t reply.
“You need to talk to someone. It’s been over a month.”
My sister went to sip her coffee and as the cup met her mouth her entire body jolted. The cup clattered on to the saucer, breaking in half. In all directions brown liquid spread across the table.
A wasp floated up.
“Jesus. A wasp.” She stood, brushing herself off.
I stood too. “You okay?”
“God, that hurts.” She rubbed a spot on her leg.
“I have to go.”
“Right no-” she was cut off by another jolt. Her arm. Rasping curses, she swatted at the bug.
Everyone in the café had turned towards us.
I cut through their stares and left, piled into my Volvo, removed my shirt and drove home. By the time I got there, the car was full of wasps. They’d stung several times during the drive.
Entering the house, I paced my living room.
Staring at the ceiling, I shut my eyes, dug my fingernails in, clenched my teeth, and ripped open the nest. Inside my rib cage the wasps stirred into a wild frenzy. They stung me mercilessly. I screamed. The pain was excruciating. In a rage I ripped and tore at the nest. Chunks of outer crust broke off. The wasps attacked my hand, jutting their stingers in like needles, again and again.
Nerves hot, my mind swam in pain.
At the end of the living room stood a partitioning wall of exposed brown brick. I sprinted headlong into it.
* * * * *
My twin sister and I stood beneath the enormous gnarled Face Tree. That’s what we used to call it. It was long dead, well before we were kids etching our names into it with a Swiss Army knife. The hollowed out centre yawned open like a shrieking mouth, and above were two thin gashes for eyes where the bark had rotted away, leaving smooth discoloured wood. Deep in the forest, the sky overcast, the air cold, she tended to the pile of sticks and logs, averting her gaze from my body.
Severely hunched, I was angled against the tree, taking protracted, strained, intakes of air. But I could view what she was doing through one weeping eye – a cluster of egg filled holes closed over the other. Thousands of wasps droned over me, climbed over me, into me and through me.
“Quick,” I said to my sister weakly.
She scrunched the newspaper into balls and shoved them beneath the kindling. “This can’t be the only way,” she said, rubbing a tear with her wrist. “You need to see a doctor.”
I didn’t have the energy to answer, but I’d looked it up online, and knew this was the only method to displace the colony without angering them.
My body was a raw husk of throbbing pain, my skin a seeping landscape of welts. Another round of stinging would kill me.
She lit the fire. When it grew strong enough, she piled on the dry leaves and grass she’d collected and smoke began to billow. Using a picnic blanket, she fanned the smoke towards me. The wasps stirred. As they scurried to the surface of my body, I wondered whether I could survive without them.
Some must have dislodged from deep within my viscera, because they emerged from the holes sticky with pink mucus. As my body emptied of the bugs, like fluid aspirated from a painful cyst, I felt tremendous relief. I was suddenly lighter. A crack echoed throughout the woods as I straightened my back. It was the nest, breaking.
I could breathe normally again. I’m alive, I thought. Now, all I have to do is get this dead nest removed.
A scream severed my thoughts and sent my flesh crawling.
I turned toward the noise.
No. My sister. She was running from a flying mass. The wasps were descending upon her.
I ran toward her, yelling.
The black mass enveloped her. She stopped running, beating at them, screaming maniacally.
“Get away from her!” I cried, but my voice was lost in a deafening hum so loud it seemed to vibrate the earth.
Every trace of my sister was gone. In her place, an oblong vortex of black swirled viciously. As I approached, I beat at them with my hands, crying for my sister.
Oddly, they weren’t stinging me. No matter how hard I swatted, forcing myself towards the centre of the vortex, the wasps wouldn’t attack me.
When I reached into the centre of the flurry, I felt something hard. A shoulder, then an arm.
“GET AWAY FROM HER!” I screamed.
The volume of the buzzing weakened. The wasps were gradually dissipating, and the shape of my sister was revealed. She lay in my arms. The last few bugs rose from her body, and what they left behind sent me into shock.
They had gorged on her. Her clothes, her hair…her skin – the wasps had devoured it all. Chunks of flesh were gouged out. The sockets of her eyes had been hollowed through.
Wailing, I held my face against the wreckage. My tears leaked into her. My mind split to pieces.
Now, a safe distance from the smoke, the wasps returned to their nest, landing on me and wriggling into their holes.
“No,” I said, whimpering, “…oh please God…no…”
Indifferent, the colony regurgitated her soft tissue and used it to repair cracks in the nest.