Sir Reginald F. Grump XXIII presents...
The journal of unlikely entomology
Bea's small kitchen was over-hot with people, and I could feel a prickle of sweat starting at my hairline. By the table, a loud and slightly obnoxious banker friend of Bea's was making the inevitable semi-lethal punch. I nearly hadn't come to the party. Bea threw it every year, and every year I dutifully showed up then spent the evening trying to make polite conversation with strangers who always excused themselves the moment they decently could. But I knew if I tried to bow out Bea would only persuade me into it; it was easier just to show up. I sipped at my plastic cup of white wine, not as nice as the bottle I'd brought myself and then immediately lost track of, and wondered how soon I could reasonably leave.
"Hitch-hiking, Rachel?" the banker asked a girl leaning against the fridge. He tasted a bit of the punch and made a face. "Isn't that a bit dangerous these days?"
Rachel laughed, twirling her nearly-empty glass between her fingers. "Not hitch-hiking like with your thumb out on the side of the road," she said. "It's this really new technique, right, and in London we're totally at the head of the game just now." She was gesturing with both hands, the wine splashing against the side of her glass. "Basically, you can get right inside, ride in something else's head. You see what they see, hear what they hear. It's incredible."
She had short bleach-blond hair, spiked in all directions, and a ring through her lip, and a bright pink T-shirt with the name of some band I didn't know. But it was her energy, more than her looks, that caught my attention. I found myself leaning slightly towards her.
The banker looked shocked. "What, other people?"
"God, no." She pulled a face. "I mean, there's the ethical issues, obviously, but really it's just way too complicated. Lab animals. Rats and so on. Dogs. I mean, we're still in the really early stages, of course." She drained her glass, looked around, and caught sight of me. "Oh, hey, could you top me up?" She nodded at the half-full bottle of wine next to me, and smiled, turning to cut the banker off. I filled her glass, scrabbling in my mind for something to keep her talking.
"So, what, you work at this institute?" I asked as I handed the glass back.
She grimaced. "Unfortunately not, no. It's a hobby. They need a few more testers than just themselves. It's just so fascinating to be involved with, though, such an amazing advance. I mean, haven't you always wondered what it's like to be a cat, say?" Her eyes were wide.
I nodded, and smiled back at her, and watched how the light reflected off the side of her face. I could feel the energy crackling off her, and I wondered what it would be like to be closer to all that enthusiasm. We talked for longer than I'd dared hope, and afterwards, I got her email address from Bea. I spent a week trying to work myself up to sending something, knowing all the time that I wouldn't, that I'd just let her slip away. I couldn't believe my luck when she phoned me instead.
The first time I came home to find her flat out on the bed, I panicked. The room was dim, the curtains drawn, and she didn't respond at all when I called her name. There was a slight, strange smell in the air, almost medicinal. I couldn't work out what had happened. Had she hit her head and lain down for a bit and fallen asleep? Oh god, what about concussion? I touched her gently, then shook her. I suppose it can only have been a few seconds, but it felt like forever before she opened her eyes. She blinked at me for a moment as I babbled questions, then relaxed and smiled cheerfully up at me.
"Oh! No, no, I'm fine. Nothing like that. I was just out exploring, that's all. I'm sorry, I should have said something."
She sat up and unhooked the thin collar from around her neck, pulling it out from under the necklace she always wore. I hadn't noticed it in the dim light.
She talked about the research institute, of course, all the time, and I listened with most of my attention, the way you do when your lover talks about their hobby. From what she said, she was one of their main testers, even if it was next to unpaid. But I'd assumed that it was just at the institute that she did her hitch-hiking. Safely, under controlled conditions.
Wincing slightly, she tugged the patches away from the base of her skull. The remnants of the glue coated the fine hairs at the nape of her neck, that place that made her shiver when I stroked it.
"Oh, but Alisha, it was wonderful. It's the first time I've tried it... with..." She blinked again as she stalled for a moment, then carried on without acknowledging the gap. "An animal that wasn't in the lab. Next-door's cat." She smiled happily at me. "So much more interesting, with all the things outside, all the things, all the things..." She trailed off again, staring wide-eyed at a point somewhere between us.
"You rode along in the head of next door's cat," I said. "Is that — is it safe?"
She shrugged and waved a hand, straight back to herself again. "Oh, it's fine. I knew where I was. And the cat doesn't feel anything, we're sure of that. Oh, this is a massive step forward, they're going to be so pleased at the lab."
I'd met the people at the lab, once, at the pub one evening. They'd all seemed nice enough, but I'd felt uncomfortable, out of place. I hadn't been since, though Rachel kept inviting me. I didn't need to be out at places with her. It was more than enough just to have her with me when we were both at home. More than I'd ever expected.
She tucked the equipment into a box and slung it casually under the bed, like something she'd done often before. She swung her feet round off the bed and jumped up, extending her hand to me. "Hey, do you fancy takeout tonight?"
I allowed her to tow me down the stairs, and to order pizza for us both, and I didn't ask any more questions, even when she lost another sentence halfway through. I stroked the nape of her neck, and ignored the slight tackiness under my fingers as she nuzzled into me. And the week after, when I found a note on the kitchen table when I got in, I stayed downstairs and watched reality TV until she came down, flushed and shiny-eyed. I didn't say anything when she stopped and stared at me as if I were a stranger. She snapped out of it quickly enough, after all. She was still here with me.
We had roaches that summer. Not many, not a proper infestation, but enough that I wanted to deal with them before it got worse. I was unpacking the supermarket bags, and Rachel was sitting on the edge of the counter, drinking orange juice. We went through a lot of orange juice. She picked up the packet of borax powder, and waved it at me.
"What's this for, then?"
I turned round from the fridge. "Oh. I've seen a couple of roaches. I looked it up on the internet. Apparently borax powder will get rid of them."
Rachel frowned, still holding the packet. "Oh. I'd kind of rather we left them alone, really."
Rachel was a vegetarian, sure, but she wasn't usually all that fussed about insect life. I looked at her for a moment, then felt my stomach turn slightly with one of those sudden uncomfortable flashes of realisation.
"You're not thinking of..."
"No, no," she said, too fast. "They're far too small. Too different — it doesn't work with just anything. You wouldn't be able to parse the experience. John managed to hitch with a bat, once, but he was really out of it afterwards. He said no way he'd want to do it again."
Her eyes rested on the skirting board for a moment, then she carefully put the packet back down beside her. She smiled brightly at me and asked what I wanted for lunch. The borax powder sat on the counter while we were eating, neither of us looking at it, while Rachel told me a convoluted story about a friend of hers who played bass in some band, and I pretended I was listening and tried to laugh in the right places. Later, I put the box away at the back of the cupboard under the sink, still sealed. Roaches aren't that bad, not really. There were only a few of them.
Two weeks later, I came home early from dinner with an old school friend, thinking that Rachel and I could maybe watch a DVD together. She'd been out the last few evenings, and I'd missed her. The house was dark when I got in, and the heating was ramped right up. No note, but I went upstairs and saw her on the bed, breathing shallowly. I went back downstairs, made myself a cup of tea, and curled up on the sofa with my laptop. My feet, tucked underneath me, felt cold, despite the heating. But everyone has their hobbies, don't they? And she hadn't known I'd be back early. She'd be with me later.
She came downstairs after maybe an hour, looking almost drunk, and stared at me for a moment, her head wobbling slightly.
"Alisha!" she said, slurring. "We didn't — I didn't — are you..." She paused, obviously tried to regroup. "I saw you!" she declared triumphantly, then frowned, and wobbled again. "Did I see? You?"
I got her to sit down, gave her a glass of cold water. She stared at it for a while, holding it carefully, watching the little patches of condensation form around her fingers. I didn't know what had happened, but I remembered a housemate at college who'd looked like that once when he took too much acid. I started talking, gently, rambling about my day, about anything normal I could think of. Concentrating on tone rather than content, like calming a nervous dog. Whenever I leant towards her, I caught a smell of sweat and of the patch-glue she used. I didn't dare touch her. Slowly -- really slowly -- she came back to herself, and eventually I asked her, gently, where she'd been this time. What she'd been.
"Oh!" Her eyes shone. "So much for, for... For Sophie saying that insects aren't, that they... too different." She stopped for a moment, her eyes sliding upwards a little and glazing, and I bit at my fingernail and wondered if I should ask again.
"Cockroaches, Alisha!" she said, before I could decide, her head nodding sharply forwards as her eyes cleared again.
"Cockroaches?" I asked.
"I know! It's amazing, isn't it? So fascinating — such different minds, such a different way of experiencing the world." She sounded awestruck, exhilarated. "I didn't even realise — we, I saw you. Well. It, they experienced you, but it took me ages to work out what it was, because it's not seeing, they don't really see, it's..."
She trailed off. Her gaze wandered again, and she blinked a few times. It seemed to last longer this time. I breathed in and felt my spine lock up. Should I do something, call someone?
"We could learn so much!" she said suddenly. "Anyway, I knew... I think I knew you were back? So I stopped." She shook her head. "God, though, John was right about the hangover."
"It looked like being on a bad trip — out of touch with the world," I said carefully. Out of touch with herself. Not here, not with me, anymore.
Rachel laughed cheerfully. "Oh, it wears off a lot faster than that, though. I'm feeling fine now. In fact..."
She put her hand on my face, pulled me in for a kiss, and slid her other arm around me. I shut my eyes and concentrated on the feel of my lover's skin against mine, pushing away the thought of glossy brown carapaces and spindly antennae, and trying not to wonder where she was, really, now.
I shouldn't have been surprised. She's lying there now, in our room. I've been sleeping in the spare room. I can't cope with being there next to her. Next to her? It's not her. I don't think it's her.
I tried to wake her up, to get her back to herself. To bring her back here. I shook her and shook her, but nothing happened. After twenty-four hours, I went through her phone, and found the number for Sophie at the lab. She came round straight away, with one of their doctors, and made reassuring noises at me. Just give it time, she said, she'll be fine.
The doctor put a drip in. Just to keep her body going, to give her more time.
"Has anyone ever done this before?" I demanded. "Has anyone ever done this and come back?"
Their eyes slid away from mine.
Sophie offered to help me move her to the spare room, so I could sleep in my own bed. But if I move her, she won't know where to come back to, will she? She'll be lost. I can't lose her.
I stopped answering the phone on Monday. Someone came round on Tuesday, but the doorbell stopped ringing after five minutes or so. My boss thinks I've got the flu. It might even be true. I keep shivering, even though I turned the heating up.
There was a spider this morning, spinning its web between Rachel's shoulder and her ear. I sat by the bed and watched it for hours. After a while it felt like it was spinning the web on me, too, tickling at my ear. I kept checking, but there was nothing there.
The spider was gone by the evening, but Rachel still wasn't back.
I took the drip out two days ago. Sophie said there's still a connection with the body. That time with the cat, I shook her and she felt it. She came back to me. I shook her and shook her this time, I shook her and shook her and she didn't come back, but maybe she needs more than that, this time. Maybe she needs something that she'll feel more strongly, wherever she is.
It's dark now, and I've turned the lights off. I can hear, I think I can hear, skitterings in the corners. Maybe she went back to visit the cockroaches. Maybe it was ants this time. Maybe it really was that spider and she just wasn't quite ready to come back to me then, but she will be now.
I rest my head on her chest — it's not her, but it will be again, it will be her — and I stare into the blackness moving in the corners of the room. I think her breathing's shallower now. That's good. She just needs her body to pull her back harder, that's all. I close my eyes and listen to the noises.
When I wake up tomorrow she'll be back.
Tarakan ©Svetlana Sukhorukova