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art by Eleanor Bennett

An Exodus of Wings

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam lives in Denton, Texas, with her partner and two literarily-named cats--Gimli and Don Quixote. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Clarkesworld, Expanded Horizons, Strange Horizons, and Goblin Fruit. Visit her website at bonniejostufflebeam.com.

***Editor's Note: Adult story, complete with adult language***
The Shower
Before Heidi came along, Michael did everything he could to keep the damn faeries out of his apartment. Every night he washed and dried his dishes, never left one dripping in the drying rack. Always fished the food particles from the drain, took the trash out, sealed his cereal in glass jars.
But then he met her. Heidi, her name was, as she told him through hair that kept blowing over her mouth--such long hair, too long, always in the way. Once she became a permanent fixture in his apartment, he lost the drive to keep clean. Love does that. Makes you forget the rigorous regime of your single life, the boring ritual that once kept you busy enough to not feel alone with the TV and your thoughts. And once Michael ceased his diligent cleaning, let the dishes pile in the sink in leaning towers, let the old rice grains and botamochi crumbs rot in the drain, the faeries took over.
They found their way in through the pipes and the hole in his pantry wall. At first, just a handful. Then more. Soon any time Michael and Heidi returned from a silent dinner or flipped on the kitchen light after emerging from the bedroom for some amanatto or chocolate peanut butter, they were greeted by a flurry of wings and flailing limbs the same checked pattern of his dinner plates--a camouflage--as the faeries scattered.
When Heidi wasn't around, Michael made a game of chasing the faeries with a fly swatter through his overcrowded living room, dodging his oversized computer station; the pillows his mother had shipped him from Japan to liven up what she considered a dump; and his life-size poster of Michael Jackson, his American namesake. After his rampage he sprayed the walls with vinegar and scrubbed away their blue-green blood, peeled their flattened bodies off and tossed them out into the community compost bin. But he'd noticed how Heidi's eyes followed the faeries as they collected around the faucet water any time he turned it on, and he hadn't dared harm them in her presence. She was so difficult to understand that he clung to this little way to please her like he did to her hand in the night. Some women, he knew, went gooey even for pests, like those teenage girls in the subway who fed the rats.
He didn't worry so much about the faeries when in her company, anyhow, partly because Michael and Heidi spent most of their days between the sheets. Lying beside her in a room lit only by the humming street lights outside his window, which extended the shadows across his puny abdomen and under her narrow eyes, he would run his hand along her belly and shiver against her skin, smooth as stone. When making love she was like stone, cold and still, but deep beneath he felt her buzz, as if she wanted to burst apart and scatter her pieces across his Iron Man bedspread.
After a haze of three weeks with little effort on Michael's part to eliminate the pest problem--and the faeries were a problem, breaking into his packets of dry noodles and scattering them across the kitchen floor, teaching themselves how to turn the faucet on when Michael wasn't home so that his water bill appeared in the triple digits, depositing their pellet scat on his kitchen counters--the faeries migrated to the bathroom. There were so many of them now that they couldn't fit in all their kitchen hiding places anymore, and no longer did they scatter in the light or at the sound of footsteps, as they had realized that they were in no danger as long as Heidi was around, which was nearly always. Now when Michael showered--alone, as Heidi refused to shower with anyone--the faeries danced through the water spray, the beat of their wings like a fleet of tiny helicopters. In bed Heidi was a welcome hiatus from the frantic flapping. Even though he knew her silence was troubled, forced, it still comforted him to be able to not speak. He could count the conversations they'd had on two hands; her presence was more to him than words, a comfort like a heating pad, a child's stuffed bear, these youthful traditions matured into a woman he wanted to crack so he could keep her. But she was solid all the way through.
Then one night he woke to a single laugh like a brief night song, muffled. The space beside him empty, he rose and padded into the hall, his slippers thudding against the carpet. Steamy light leaked from the cracks around the door. He heard shower water falling. He opened the door. The curtain was closed. He pulled it back.
Heidi stood beneath the stream with her head dropped back, her hair stringy wet. She must have sensed him there, for eventually her head jerked to the side, but it felt as though time had stopped, and he stared at her for what, looking back, seemed too long a time for her to have remained oblivious to him. Later he wondered if he really had taken in all the detail he remembered, or if he had made it up, dreamt it, if he had only seen a glimpse before she noticed him and wrapped her arms around her chest. Nevertheless, he couldn't forget how she looked.
Faeries balanced on her shoulders, digging into her skin with their toes. They wove in and out of her hair, sliding down strands until they dropped to the bottom of the tub, changing color from the reflectionless black of her hair to the stark white of the tub as soon as their feet landed against its surface. Two of them perched on her stiff brown nipples so that it appeared her breasts had gone misshapen in the night. She wore a closed-mouth smile that spoke of something he would never understand, an eyes-closed kind of feeling he had never felt, would never feel. It was then he knew that he would lose her.
Puck's Pest Control
I can always tell an asshole just from where they live. The last night on the job, I was going to meet this guy I'd already diagnosed as such. He lived over off Bluestone in these trashy apartments that had been built for rich white dickheads. When he opened the door, I was surprised to see that he wasn't, in fact, the white I'd thought he would be. He was paler white, my white, the white of those crazy beech mushrooms my immigrant great-grandfather used to cook up all the time. I didn't revise my judgment. Probably he was already judging my appearance; dreadlocks and a parka and my decidedly western gut. Probably he took one look at my name tag--Akira--and sneered at the fact that I clearly speak little of the language.
Soon as he opened the door, the skunk smell of weed upheaved me. I coughed. I knew his type. Never grew up, too sheltered by his frightened parents to notice that life is supposed to change once you're out on your own. Probably he'd been blowing his smoke on the faeries, making them loopy. Probably he thought it was funny to torture the poor things like that. I mean, I enjoy a toke every now and again, but I wouldn't dream of inflicting a helpless animal, unaware of what's coming up at him like the harmless clouds outside, with a surprise stoning.
"They're all over," he said, motioning around the kitchen. His apartment was pretty clean for how infested it was. Eyes peered from the cracks in the cabinet doors, and wings glinted from the top of the refrigerator. All I saw in terms of a mess was a single coffee mug in the sink, filled with water. It was the only target I had for him.
"Can't leave stuff like that," I said, dumping the water. "They don't need a lot to live off."
"Doesn't matter. They've figured out how to turn on the faucets."
I wanted to smile but stopped myself. Clever buggers.
"How'd it get so infested? Looks like you're a pretty clean dude."
The guy shrugged, looked at the floor. "None of your business," he said, and I could tell from how he said it that there was a girl involved somehow. Or a guy, whatever. He did have a Michael Jackson cut-out in the next room. "I'm paying you to get rid of them. So just do it, already."
I nodded. "Gotta bomb the place. Best if you get gone for a while. Come back in two hours. Got somewhere to go?"
The dude huffed. "I'm not paying you until they're gone."
Why not? I thought. Can't waste daddy's small change? But I waved him on, 'cause I couldn't stand the smell of him anymore, like mothballs. When he left, I realized it wasn't him, just the apartment. Even so the next part was my favorite. I lay on his Iron Man bed, looked in his bedside drawers full of condoms, sat in front of the computer that took the place where a television should be. In his bathroom a faerie family hovered around his bathtub. In his trashcan, I found a new-looking toothbrush and a near-full bottle of women's shampoo.
Thirty minutes before he was due to come back, I lugged a huge crate from the truck up the stairs to his apartment. I opened the crate's gate, and the honey sugar smell filled the room. The faeries emerged from hiding, an exodus of wings. As they disappeared into the honey crate, their skin changed from cabinet white to wood brown. They were too busy licking the honey off their fingers to realize that their feet were stuck in the honey goo that coated the crate floor. Then I did the bathroom.
"The fuck is that?" the dude asked when he returned reeking of scotch, his face red. It surprised me that he wasn't a beer drinker, as I would have guessed.
"For the bodies," I said.
For a minute, I thought I saw his humanity in a quiver of his lips, but he turned away too fast to be sure, fished around in the cabinet above the sink, pulled down a checkbook.
"Thank you," he said, gripping my scarred hand as he handed me a check a hundred dollars over my quoted price. His name was on the top left corner--Michael, also a surprise, not even a traditional name--and below that, the paper claimed he owned a website design company. I felt red in the cheeks for a second, afraid to look him in the face, having been so wrong about him. I folded and pocketed the check, then hauled the crate back to the truck. I felt the warmth of his touch even later, in my own duplex apartment, on the couch where I watched the faeries unfurl from the honey and crawl their way from the crate.
Beside me sat the book I was trying to convince myself to read--the solitary activity only ever fed my loneliness, as I knew I would have no one to share the book with once I reached the last page--and I had stuffed the book with the pink eviction notices my landlord had been peppering my door with for the past week. The woman never liked me, and then she found an excuse; on a routine inspection, she discovered my free-loading roommates gathered around the sink, sipping from the water bowl I left for them.
Once free, the faeries scurried up into the rafters. Some of them needed me to wipe the honey from them, the ones who accidentally stuck their legs together. I helped these emerge from the crate, and with a damp cloth cleaned them down. They nipped at my skin. My hands were already covered in circular bite marks the size of aphids; my hands will always be clouded blue and purple, monster hands.
If I shone a flashlight into the ceiling, I would see a pattern that at first might appear to be a million tiny dolls on the beams, dangling their feet. The wooden floor of my apartment was always dirty with specks of feces and urine, and even though I cleaned nightly, I guess it was still a reason to kick someone out of their home. I'd trained a lot of them to use the toilet, as they loved watching the water swirl down the bowl, but it took time, and the newer ones had yet to learn.
I didn't know what to do with them all. If I left them, the landlord would bomb the place for sure. And I couldn't take them with me. Couldn't keep living under their shadows, waking in the night to their dance across the mountain of my stomach, couldn't keep buying pounds of bread just to feed house guests who would have been happier on their own. They deserved the air, the sun, real clouds. A new beginning, a clean floor.
Out of Your Body and Into the Next
You found yourself sitting on a rock beside a lake in a park. The sun glared, but you'd covered yourself in an emotional shell so thick that not even the sun, so much harsher these days, could get through. You had just left a man's apartment for the final time, a last swan song. You had broken it off with him a week ago, but then you had gone back. You told yourself it was to see the faeries. You could have been lying, because when you got there and the faeries were gone--he said he'd lured them away with sugar water--you fell into his bed anyway as if his touch would make them return. Afterward you came to the park because of the water. You loved the water. You loved the way it listened. How when you stuck your finger into the chill, ripples radiated from that single point of your intrusion all the way to the other shore.
Michael did not listen that way. He tried, but failed. He did not listen to you because you did not talk, and he was foolish enough to believe that talking is the only way to see into someone. Because he felt this way, you talked to him as little as you could.
Ripples rolled in from a faerie landing on the other side of the shore. You wondered what the faerie wanted to say to the lake. You wanted to swim across the way and find it, let it know that you know there are many ways to communicate, that even faeries and people can tell each other secrets. You'd seen it happen. Had marks like little bruises on your shoulders for proof. You stood, bent to grab your purse. That was when you saw the faerie on the rock, smashed flat where you sat on it.
Suddenly you felt too large to live. You wanted to jump out of your body and into the next. There was a feeling in your stomach like a rock you might have swallowed. You looked around. The next body turned out to be a fat Japanese man with dreadlocks on a bench only a few feet from you, wearing a wool parka despite the sun. Your ex was of Japanese descent, and perhaps this is why you couldn't stop looking at the man on the bench. You no longer wanted to be in the next body you saw. The man had a huge wooden crate beside him.
He looked up at you. He nodded.
"I've killed it," you cried, because it felt like you had to tell someone or it would be in vain, the faerie's death. "I sat on it and killed it."
The man looked away, then back. You wondered if this was because he found you attractive, as you'd been told you weren't bad on the eyes. Then he walked toward you, his steps wide and unsure. When he got to you, he peered down at the faerie. By then you'd forgotten about the one across the lake.
"So what?" he said. "I killed hundreds before. Own a company, or used to, I guess. I did it for money, which is worse."
You remembered being a kid, eyes in the dark under your childhood bed, the kiss of wings against your cheeks as you slept. In the morning you used to wake with welts; your parents thought you had caused them yourself and dragged you to the doctor again and again. Once you were older, you no longer heard the songs. Now you only dreamt them, and you felt like you'd lost more than the song that used to cover your parents' fighting, the sounds of love souring like milk in the fridge.
"Before?" you said. "Before what?"
He shrugged. "Before I lost the stomach for it." You stared into the dirt, disappointed. You'd hoped for something more profound.
"Wanna see something?" he asked.
The man showed you a world of golden lava floors and faeries posed like dolls inside the crate. Only they weren't posed, you realized as the light trickled in on them, but posing. Eyes closed, leaning against each other and the walls and the floor, playing dead. You knew they were only playing because one of them opened an eye, and then shut it again.
"They're alive," you said.
"Of course they are," he said. "I have to let them go."
"What's stopping you?" you asked, but he didn't hear you and you didn't have to know the answer to know the answer. Throughout your life you'd also had a hard time keeping friends, keeping people around. The man looked out at the water and you wanted him to understand without you saying that the lake was a kind of friend that would never leave. Instead you reached over and grabbed his hand and squeezed. His hand was like a purple catcher's mitt, but it didn't scare you. Together you knelt at the lake shore beside a sign which read Do Not Feed the Faeries, and you pulled each faerie from the honey and dipped its feet in the water. They bit you, and you winced and squeezed your eyes shut but did not stop, did not stop, did not stop until all of them were free.
You sat with him on the bench and your purple hands touched only at the sides and you didn't feel romantic, not sure if you ever would, but he felt like a puzzle and the faeries thick as a cloud across the sky could be pieces. You buried the dead one in a grave you dug with your aching hands. Afterward you washed your hands in the water fountain. You swore that this time you would keep them clean, that you wouldn't go back to that apartment where you no longer belonged.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, May 24th, 2013

Author Comments

In June of 2012, my partner and I moved back to Texas from our two-year residency in Oregon. In Oregon, the main pests we had to watch out for were ants and spiders, but the duplex we moved into in Texas was infested with roaches. My bug experiences gave rise to this story, in which I wanted to explore three characters and how they each struggle to communicate. One of the lines came to me one morning, and I wrote the whole story that day.

- Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
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