Talia usually saw the pregnant woman walking along the beach where the government workers had piled all the bodies. But today the young woman was coming out of Islanders Market with a bag of groceries in one hand. She had sky-blue eyes and wavy black hair that nearly reached her waist.
And she was no longer pregnant.
“Hello,” Talia called from across the street. She felt a pang of guilt because she’d assured her husband, Frank, that she’d never speak to any of the nest people they’d seen on the island.
The woman turned toward her, surprising Talia. Usually, the nest people remained in dazed states due to the insects living inside their heads. They continued their daily routines as much as possible, yet they seemed oblivious to all that had occurred in the last 10 months. The destruction of the island’s population by poisonous, roach-like insects that killed you just by landing on your skin. The government’s evacuation of the survivors who were willing to trade their homes for a refugee center in Seattle. Talia and Frank were certain the nest people weren’t aware of the bugs inside their heads. After all, how could they go about their lives with such knowledge?
“It’s a lovely morning,” the woman called. She was looking past Talia at Seal Bay. Talia glanced behind her at the cloudy sky, the gray water, and the wreckage of the military plane that had crashed months ago on the adjacent island.
“Yes,” Talia lied. “Beautiful.” She started across the street toward the woman, and she glanced down at her wrists to make sure there was no exposed skin between her sleeves and her gloves. Frank had constructed her “body suit” out of a hooded blue tracksuit and a thick sheet of plastic that shielded her face and neck. Frank didn’t like her leaving the house for her solitary Sunday walks, but she told him she needed the alone time and exercise to keep her sanity. She didn’t mention she’d been keeping track of a pregnant nest person she’d spotted around town.
“My name’s Talia,” she said. She extended her hand, which was trembling. “I’ve seen you before, but we’ve never met.”
The woman gave her an empty look and said, “I’m Mary Beth. I come to town once a week to run errands.”
Talia smiled as she discreetly looked for the scab or scar that would confirm that Mary Beth was a nest person. She remembered watching a news program about nest people when there was still TV and the redbug attacks were limited to Eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana. The commentator said it was unknown why the insects nested inside certain people. Some left their hosts without harming them while others immediately triggered death by poisoning. The one common denominator was that each nest person had an entrance wound on his or her face or neck.
Talia saw a dark red mark beneath Mary Beth’s pale chin. “Did you have your baby?” she asked. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t be so bold in her questioning, but she needed to know what happened to the child.
“The baby’s at home,” Mary Beth said, her face brightening. She looked almost fully conscious. “We chose the name Sarah.”
“So you live with your husband,” Talia said. She hoped her voice didn’t reveal her disappointment. But if Mary Beth had a healthy husband then Talia’s plan had gone to rot.
“My husband?” Mary Beth asked. She gave a distant look, and then there was a flash of terror in her eyes, as if she recalled something horrible. Her daze returned and she repeated, “We chose the name Sarah. Do you have any children?”
“No,” Talia said. Her response was barely more than a whisper. “My husband and I have been trying.”
She remembered how she and Frank had moved to the San Juan Islands two years ago to start their family. The move was just after her 37th birthday. She’d been certain that the stress of her paralegal job in Seattle was preventing a pregnancy. Frank didn’t mind that she wanted to give notice at work, and he was open to relocating because he could conduct his software design business anywhere. But he did suggest they stay in their condo on Queen Anne for another year.
“I feel like we need to get away from the city and all its distractions now,” Talia had said. She didn’t mention that she wanted to separate herself from her three closest friends, all of whom were new mothers who talked ceaselessly about their babies.
After the redbugs infested the island and the government workers came to collect the survivors, Frank asked Talia if she wanted to return to the city. She knew she’d never reproduce if they were confined to some cramped and stinking refugee center. She figured that with most of the residents deceased or evacuated, this gorgeous, forested island would be their private utopia. And their child’s as well.
“We’re resourceful people,” Talia had told Frank. “We’ve managed so far, and we’ll continue to do so.”
But they still hadn’t managed to make a baby.
“I wish you and your husband the best of luck,” Mary Beth said. She smiled robotically and started to walk away.
“Wait!” Talia said, suddenly terrified she’d lose this opportunity.
Mary Beth looked back at her with those expressionless eyes.
“We haven’t exchanged addresses,” Talia said. “I think we few people left on the island need to watch out for each other. I haven’t seen any swarms lately, but as you know the insects can come out of nowhere.”
“Insects?” Mary Beth asked. “I saw honeybees on my walk into town. It’s a lovely morning.”
“Where do you live?” Talia asked. She knew she sounded aggressive, but she didn’t care. She guessed Mary Beth wouldn’t either.
“Our house is a 10-minute walk from town,” Mary Beth said, “near the woods. Would you like to see it?”
“Please,” Talia said. She knew Frank would be expecting her return soon. But first she had to see the baby.
They walked to the house without speaking, and Mary Beth remained a few steps in front of Talia the entire time. Talia was going to try some small talk, but then Mary Beth began humming a monotonous, slightly eerie tune.
The house wasn’t near the woods so much as it was engulfed by them. Talia peered past trunks of evergreens and massive, flowering shrubs to see a small structure with peeling white paint. Surrounding the house was a picket fence with various gaps in it. Dry pine needles littered the ground.
Everyone’s yards had taken on wild qualities after the redbug attacks, but this property looked as if it were on the verge of becoming a ruin.
“Welcome to our home,” Mary Beth said before heading between the trees.
Talia followed until she saw the tree trunks that were closest to the house. Her heartbeat quickened.
Hundreds of redbugs speckled the bark, their crimson exoskeletons gleaming in the morning light. None of the insects moved. They appeared to be waiting and watching for something.
Mary Beth continued past them nonchalantly.
“Be careful of the insects,” Talia whispered.
Mary Beth looked back at her without alarm. “I saw honeybees on my walk into town,” she said in a flat voice. “A cluster of baby spiders, too.”
Talia also walked past the trees. She thought she saw a redbug’s feelers point in her direction, and she hurried toward the front door.
Entering a dim living room, she smelled something both sweet and decaying, and she tried not to retch. A ripped bag of diapers sat on a couch and a tipped-over baby bottle leaked milk on a coffee table. Facing the couch was a muted television showing static on its screen. In one corner of the room was a tangle of bloodstained sheets.
Talia heard a baby’s gurgle in another room. Mary Beth walked toward the sound, which originated from a dim bedroom that was connected to the living room.
Talia was about to follow her when she glanced inside the kitchen. It appeared to be the only room with a view of the forest. Talia noticed that the window above the sink was wide open, and she thought of all those redbugs that could fly inside. She moved to close the window, and that was when she saw the corpse lying on the kitchen floor, beneath a table covered with cans of baby sauce.
Talia knew the young man had been a victim of the redbugs. He had the ashen skin and bulging eyes of so many other corpses she’d seen around town after the attacks. Frank had once told her that fever cooked the victims’ brains.
“I thought you wanted to see the baby.”
Talia was startled by the voice. She turned around and saw Mary Beth standing directly behind her, staring at her coldly. Mary Beth didn’t look at the man’s body.
Talia slowly pointed at the corpse and asked, “Is that your husband?”
Mary Beth continued with the creepy stare. “We chose the name Sarah.”
“Yes,” Talia said, trying to shake off her horror. “The baby.”
As they walked toward the bedroom, Talia decided that she and Frank would never be able to take Mary Beth into their home. The woman had obviously lost her mind to the insect inside her head. Talia was originally going to suggest that Mary Beth and the baby live in the guest bedroom. Now she knew that if Mary Beth didn’t surrender the baby she would steal it. She was certain she could outrun the nest person if she had to.
The crib was beside an unmade double bed. Talia noticed dark yellow stains on the bed’s rumpled comforter. The stains reminded her of the squashed redbugs she’d seen around town after the government workers’ brief occupation.
Mary Beth walked to the crib and leaned over its railing to reach for the infant.
Talia suddenly dreaded that something was wrong with the baby. After all, the mother was a nest person with apparent brain damage. But what if the baby were healthy? Talia imagined teaching her child to walk on the back lawn, which Frank had sealed off with Plexiglas. She and her daughter could learn to sew sweaters and make blackberry jam to store for the upcoming winters.
“This is Sarah,” Mary Beth said.
Talia beamed when Mary Beth turned around. The adorable, pink-faced baby in her arms was swaddled in a fuchsia blanket, and she wore a little knit cap on her head. Her eyes were closed, but she didn’t seem to be asleep. Her lips moved as if she were mouthing words.
“I think she’s trying to say something to me,” Talia said. “May I hold her?”
Mary Beth nodded and handed her the baby.
Talia held the child close to her chest and sang, “Sarah, Sarah….”
She patted the top of the baby’s head, and then her hand froze. She felt bumps beneath the cap. She pulled the wool above the forehead and saw two repulsive stubs protruding from where the baby’s hairline would be.
The thing in Talia’s arms was growing antennae.
“I want to put her down,” Talia said in a frightened voice. She held the baby away from her, and Mary Beth received the bundle.
Talia saw the baby’s eyes open and stare at her. They resembled spheres of coal.
Panic made Talia flee from the bedroom and rush toward the front door. She swore to herself she’d apologize to Frank if she ever made it home again. She’d been so foolish, so selfish.
She cracked open the door, and a cooing sound came from behind her. Talia turned when she heard what sounded like “Mama.”
BIO: David Massengill lives in Seattle. His short stories and works of flash fiction have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Eclectica Magazine, Word Riot, 3 A.M. Magazine, Pulp Metal Magazine, Yellow Mama, Tainted Tea, and The New Flesh. Read more of his fiction at www.davidmassengillfiction.com.