Sir Reginald F. Grump XXIII presents...
The journal of unlikely entomology
"The snow is made of bugs," said Caden.
I leaned against the kitchen counter beside my firstborn, the kindergarten king, who was sleepily trying to put peanut-butter crackers into his mouth and mostly missing. He watched the window like he listened to lullabies. The heat of the kitchen turned his cheeks red and made his eyelids droop. My unpredictable angel.
"Who told you that?" I asked.
"I saw it." He put a cracker up to my face and I took a messy bite. "Little white bugs."
I wiped off my face on my wrist. I would smell like snack time all day. But so what? At that moment I wanted nothing more than to eat peanut butter in a warm kitchen with a little boy who thought that snow was made of bugs.
"Those are called snowflakes," I said. "Like you made in class. Remember?"
He grew thoughtful. "I did mine wrong," he confessed at last. "Mrs. Feaster hung them all up on the wall anyway. Even Martin's and he didn't listen to the directions. So his is in half." He flapped his hands to signify two halves of a snowflake forever divided by a kindergartener who couldn't pay attention.
"Did you do it wrong like Martin?"
"No." Tones of scandal and scorn.
"Maybe Mrs. Feaster will let you try again."
"No, we have to make snowmen now."
"Oh, okay, snowmen. That sounds like fun."
I put my arm around his shoulders and he let me, which was no longer a guarantee. The curve of his head burrowed into my side, soft and insistent, an echo of our union before birth. Now there was peanut butter on my shirt and I couldn't care less. The cold outside brought us closer inside. The snow lulled us to love.
"Are snowmen made of bugs?" he said.
I held him tighter. "You tell me."
"I hope not."
He sat still for almost a minute before he squeezed out of my arms and ran away.
Mrs. Feaster called the next day, before the three of us were quite finished eating dinner. She had the calm, cheery voice of a teacher of the young, and she kept it up even as she was telling me there had been "an incident in the classroom" and she "thought I should be informed."
"Of course," I said, ducking behind a corner so that, if necessary, I could become furious in private. "What happened?"
"Caden went to the cork board and started drawing on other children's snowflakes," she said. "I spoke with him about only touching his own things, but I thought you might want to reinforce the lesson at home."
I felt embarrassed, partly because I had birthed a vandal, partly because I had tried something similar with paper pilgrim hats when I was five and still remembered the shame. "I'm glad you told me. I'm so sorry—"
"No permanent damage," she said cheerfully. "We flipped them around and they were as good as new. Thanks for your cooperation. Caden's a joy. He's never done anything destructive like this before."
I swore on my honor that he never would again, and returned to the table.
He looked guilty. He knew I knew. "That was Mrs. Feaster," I told my husband Bryant: a roundabout way of telling Caden.
"What did she want?" said Bryant. He directed the question to me but watched our son the graffitist while he said it.
I sprung the trap. "Caden? Do you know why she called me?"
He frowned deeply at the table and whispered, "I got in trouble."
"Oh yeah?" Bryant, like Mrs. Feaster, had the superpower of keeping his voice light and friendly no matter what he was saying. I did not. "For what?"
"For fixing the snowflakes."
Bryant's eyebrows floated higher. "'Fixing' them?"
He nodded. "They did it wrong."
I had to jump in: "You told me only Martin did it wrong."
He wagged his head in a dogged 'no'. "Everybody did it wrong. They didn't have any eyes."
They didn't have any eyes? Our conversation from the previous afternoon came back to my mind. "Caden told me yesterday that he thought that snowflakes looked like bugs," I said to Bryant, who bit back a laugh. "Is that what you were doing, Caden? Drawing on eyes so they looked more like bugs?"
I wasn't sure what part of his thinking to correct first, so I chose science. "Honey, snowflakes don't have eyes. They just look like bugs because they're small and have little branches that look like legs. Everyone made them just fine." On to the ethics. "You can't draw on other people's snowflakes, even if you think they made them wrong, because they don't belong to you. You can only draw on yours. Nobody else's."
The next day, he brought home his snowflake, crayoned on both sides with eyes and antennae and little claws on the end of each branch, and proudly told me he didn't fix anyone else's this time, just his own. I asked whether everyone had brought home their snowflakes. He ran off without answering. I never found out whether the snowflakes had been sent home to make way for snowmen, or whether Mrs. Feaster found his toothed, taloned snow-bug grotesque amid the pure white paper snow.
He came in from the Saturday snow as quickly as he had gone out into it. What I could see of his face past the snow suit was red.
"The snow bugs bit me," he said, and burst into tears.
I dropped to my knees. Two stiff little marshmallow-arms tried to hug me; the clammy, snotty face pressed into my neck. I knelt in the melting snow and said "Shhhh" until my clothes were soaked. "It's okay, it's okay. It's not bugs, honey, you're just cold. Snowflakes are made of ice. Sometimes they hurt." That didn't seem to comfort him, so I went back to "Shhhh."
When our body temperatures equalized he pulled away. He still had a blush of red across his nose and both cheeks. I took a closer look. What I had taken for chilly skin was a rash of tiny pink bumps, spaced like stars on his face. I extracted him from the snow suit. He had more where his right mitten met his sleeve.
"What were you doing?" I said carefully, expecting to hear about neighborhood pets or winter-stripped bushes.
"I was outside," he said. His lips trembled again. "I said no."
"I don't want to go with them, Mommy."
I don't want to go with them.
Fear froze my chest like the wet snow never could. I had been watching through the window. We lived on a quiet street. But had I turned away at the wrong moment? Had someone slipped into our yard just quickly enough to ask of Caden a terrifying favor? How close had we come to the worst day of our lives?
We did not go back outside. The falling snow made a curtain between us and the world.
By the time Bryant came home, the tiny bumps on Caden's face had vanished. My fears had not. The twin panaceas of hot chocolate and cartoons calmed him but were less effective on me. Caden wouldn't give me a straight answer about who had asked him to come with them, so I took Bryant aside to explain the situation and then sent in Daddy. He returned looking puzzled.
"He said the snow bugs wanted him to come with them."
I slumped. "He came in with some kind of rash on his face," I said. "He thought the snow bugs bit him. Maybe he put the two things together in his mind."
"Maybe," said Bryant. He took off his tie, slung it across a chair. "Look, he's fine. He's here. I'll call a couple of the neighbors, see if anyone saw anything. Snow bugs," he added, with an aren't-we-adults look. "Maybe he made it all up."
"You didn't see him crying," I said. But as the scents of dinner filled the house and Caden's laughter grew in gales under Bryant's watch, I came to believe Caden must have invented the situation — or at least, escalated it from something benign.
He must have.
The alternative was unbearable.
Caden refused to go to church.
"Come on, buddy, you love Mr. Ai's class," Bryant said, when Caden announced this at breakfast.
"I am not going," said the apple of my eye.
"Oh, yes you are," I lovingly rejoined.
Bryant, the bargainer, said, "Why not?"
"I don't wanna go outside." Petulance slurred his words. "It's snowing."
Bryant and I exchanged a look. "Maybe we could skip once," he said to me, in a soft adult voice meant to bounce past Caden. "In the light of, you know, yesterday."
I shook my head and brought the volume of the conversation back to Caden level. "In this house," I said, "we go to church or we are carried to church."
"Just like the cavemen did," said Bryant, with a wink.
"You're not helping," I informed him.
"I don't want to go to church and YOU CAN'T MAKE ME," said Caden, before he wiggled off his chair and ran upstairs with shirttails flying.
He proved to be incorrect on that point. But he shouted "NO" the entire trip, and although he settled down immediately upon being dropped in the vestry, I whispered an apology to Bryant during the sermon. The looks we would have gotten for skipping church were nothing compared to the ones he got for showing up with a screaming child across his shoulder.
During the walk home, clusters of bumps appeared on Caden's hands and face. I made Bryant examine them while I made a blitzkrieg search of the Internet. The Internet, according to its ways, turned up everything from Lyme disease to an allergy to water.
("That's not possible," said Bryant. I said, "It is, there's a girl in England," and even when I showed him the news article he insisted it was faked.)
The bumps faded before we decided whether to take Caden to the emergency room or not. He hunched on the sofa with a read-along book and a mask of bitter resignation. My heart went out to him. What a thing it is, to be five years old: to be so small that you can be carried where you do not want to go, to be so tender that snowflakes bite like insects. He had entrusted his fears to his mother and I had dismissed them.
What a betrayal.
I crouched before the sofa so that his feet were level with my face. "Hey," I said. "Why don't we go play outside?"
His eyes grew enormous. "No no no. It's snowing."
"I know," I said, "the snow bugs." That caught his attention. "Snow can be a little scary, can't it? But I bet you and me can make it okay."
I smiled. "Why don't you go ask him?"
He leapt to the floor and dashed to the kitchen. I followed to listen in, and to insinuate silently that Bryant would say yes if he knew what was good for him. He earned his good-husband badge. While Caden was scrambling to get his snow gear, he slid up to me and said, in that adult undertone, "Are you sure about this? Don't you think something outside might've caused those bumps?"
"Maybe," I said. "But if it happens again we'll know exactly what he got into. We can get him into the car right away. This is bigger than bumps."
He nodded thoughtfully. "Our kid's afraid of snow, and it's only November."
Bless him, he understood. "I have a feeling the rash might be psychosomatic," I said. "And I have a feeling that mom and dad might be able to chase away the snow bugs."
I kissed him for luck. Then Caden stomped in singing "PUT ON YOUR BOOTS, PUT ON YOUR BOOTS" in a bellow, wearing his own boots on his hands, and we began the long, hilarious ritual of suiting up to face the snow. Usually, it reminded me of harried NASA scientists packing an eager astronaut into his equipment. Today it felt more like dressing for war.
The snow fell in clumps rather than flakes: a chilled manna. Caden clung to our hands. We stood under the porch roof for a moment, sizing things up, warriors evaluating the whites of our enemies' eyes; then Bryant and I nodded at each other, and we stepped as a unified front line into the snowy yard.
Caden's feet sank into the snow to the ankle. He tightened his hold on us. I watched his face; he seemed to be holding his breath. With great reluctance, he turned his cherubic face up and up until it tilted toward the sky. Clustered snowflakes found his eyelashes, his lips. I held my breath too.
My son's snow-frosted lips parted. "They're not biting me." He beamed up at me, radiating relief and joy. "They're not biting me!" He roped his arms around my leg. "Mommy, it's okay!" Then he bounded away in big clumsy giant-steps through the snow.
Bryant and I mirrored each other's open-mouthed bemusement. "It's okay," he repeated, eyebrows scrunched.
I sagged. "It's okay."
A badly-packed snowball glanced off my arm. The culprit put his mittens over his face and giggled insanely. He launched himself to the ground to gather more anti-mother missiles.
I screamed because that's what he wanted, and crouched to make my own snowballs. Bryant got there faster, scooping up ammunition one-handed, and retaliated. Caden shrieked with laughter and tossed out an armful of snow, two-handed, back at him. My boys: fully devoted to mutually assured destruction.
I closed my eyes and let the cold crystals come to rest like butterflies on my upturned face. Everything felt warm. This was wonder. This was joy.
He's going to smack me in the face with a snowball while I'm not looking, I thought. He'll play a prank on his mom, thoughtless and heartless, and I'll love it — because he loves me so much that he wants to make me laugh, and he knows I love him so much he can get away with it. I'll take a snowball to the face for you, Caden. Or a fist or a bullet. No prerequisites at all.
The snowball did not come.
Bryant touched my arm; through his glove and my coat I felt only the vague warm pressure. "Honey, did you see—?"
I opened my eyes. "What, see what?"
"See where Caden went."
My stomach began to sink like boots in deep snow, like stones in water. "Isn't he just—" I gestured across the yard. His imprint remained where he had stood: my unpredictable snow-angel. Nothing more.
"Caden?" Bryant raised his voice, and deepened it at the same time: an injection of fatherly authority. I followed:
"Caden, come out now."
Silence and snow.
"Caden!" Something cluttered my throat — I tried to shout past it, but squeaked instead. "Bryant, follow his tracks."
"There are no tracks." He was grave and detached, all business. I hated him suddenly. "Caden—? Look, only ones leading here. Not away."
"Then he went back the same—"
"I'm going around the back," he said. I saw then how white his face had grown, white from brow to chin, with red spots of cold on either cheek. His dark eyes swam deep beneath the white brow. "Stay here."
The snow fell harder. Manna turned to ice. My husband strode through the unbroken snow, leaving a man-sized trail where there was no trail the size of a little boy. I was alone.
I went to the last imprint of my son. "Ca—"
The name dried to a rasp in my mouth. The falling snow blinded me, weighed me down. Every flake stung. I swatted at the air with my bare hand, trying to get them away from my face, but they swarmed down my arm, piling into dunes on my fingers, icy and hard. My hand began to ache.
I stared at the space between my fingers. Tiny bumps rose in the soft wells of skin.
I don't want to go with them.
It's made of bugs.
"It's made of bugs," I whispered. I stared at my hands. The stinging Braille rash rose before my eyes. "Bryant, it's made of bugs. Bryant, the snow is made of bugs." I heard him call back to me, but he sounded very, very far away. The noise and pain increased together. Snowflakes grew fingers, and fingers grew talons, and their pinprick faces leered as they hurled past my eyes. "Bryant, they took him, they took him! It's made of bugs! The snow is made of bugs!"
I could not hear his answer over my screams. I stared into the falling white sky, a soft ceiling crashing down to smother me, and the bugs swirled and laughed and showed their black crayon teeth, and the wind pushed drifts into Caden's tracks until they filled with laughing snow bugs — and vanished.
First published in Shock Totem #3
Snow Bugs © Natasha T-Z. P.