Fiction · 02/17/2021

Everyone Must Leave Something Behind

I spy the insect as I prepare for bed.

I am in my office, leaning across my desk to extinguish the small green lamp that tints the baby blue walls emerald, when a flutter of black from below catches my eye. My gaze dips, and there, atop an unopened yellow four-pack of moisturizing lip balms, I see the rove beetle: about the length of a thumbnail, spaghetti thin with eyelash legs.

“Oh, hello,” I say.

The insect silently curls its torso in my direction as greeting. It does this because it knows it is in a safe zone, knows that my great uncle was André Delambre, who is something of a folk hero to all insects and bugs: the scientist who famously fused his atoms with those of a common housefly over half a century ago. The only person to experience sensations similar to their own: flight, seeing the world via compound eyes, fearing the giant appendages of man.

Insects and bugs arrive at my home because they want to hear stories about my great uncle. They want to keep his spirit alive beyond the old movie adaptations of his experiment and have been making these treks for decades. Seeking out all of Andre’s relatives. Hoping to learn more. Not that I have anything to do with teleportation devices. Or science at all, for that matter. I schlep packages for a living. I never met my great uncle André. My dad moved my mother from André’s home of Canada to the United States before I was born.

But the work of a storyteller eventually finds all of my great uncle’s kin. It started for me around the time my wife and I first married. Out of the blue, pilgrimages arrived regularly at my home. Two, three times a week. Turns out an aunt died in a car crash outside Montreal. How the insects knew my address is anyone’s guess. I felt bad for my wife, who tonight is already in bed upstairs. She was aware of my family lineage. That the duty of entertaining André’s fandom would eventually fall to me. But there’s knowing your husband’s dead relative turned himself into a fly, and then there’s walking into your kitchen to see forty stink bugs standing in formation on your countertop.

Of course, my wife eventually came to see the visits as a sign of respect. Of love, I suppose. Plus, outside of a few bad apple ants who dug through a sack of brown sugar, our tourists are extremely respectful of our property, so it is hard to complain.

Still, after all these years, I get tired of the lack of privacy.

Envision a neighbor knocking on your door at eleven p.m. just to say hi, and because your car is in the driveway, you know that they know that you’re inside. You’re trapped. Expected to perform like a trained monkey, or to mimic the famous, “Help me! Help me!” line André shouts in the movie version of his life.

Nobody likes that feeling.

Take this black rove beetle on my desk. It seems harmless enough, and the fact is, tourists are somewhat sporadic these days. I can only assume my great uncle’s fame has faded. So I should be happy about the beetle’s presence, that André still matters, yet all I want is to join my wife in bed and fall asleep. My body aches with exhaustion after a long day of yard work under a hot sun, of gardening and trimming the grass and keeping up with the Joneses. Do you know how long it takes to manicure a lawn while you’re trying to avoid ants and other bugs?

But I remind myself that the rove beetle came all this way. Figured out a method of getting in despite the closed windows and doors. Somehow avoided the wrath of our cat, Goblin. Knew to wait for me on my desk, where I would spot it on my way to bed. And because I am either a sucker or a softie, I put on my kindness and perform a quick version of the dog and pony show. I show the insect the tattered white lab coat. I point out the glass case of rusted metal coils recovered from great-uncle André’s machine. I pose for photos, though I am in my pajamas and my hair is a matted mess from wearing a ballcap all day.

I even say, “Help me!” in a high pitch in case it wants a recording, my eyes hovering at half-mast.

In the end, I keep André alive for another night. I do the right thing. And once I feel I have given the insect enough of my time, I thank it for coming and walk the package of moisturizing lip balms to the window. Slide up the pane. Shake the package into the night as humid air tumbles inside.

The stairs creak as I climb and join my softly snoring wife in our bedroom. Her open novel rests on her chest; her booklight’s twisted neck casts a spotlight on the ceiling. I don’t bother to wake her. I slide the book from under her limp hands and place it on my nightstand. Fiddle with the plastic clip light until the spotlight dies out.

The only sound challenging my wife’s purr is the tick of my alarm clock.

And lying here now, the worst part of these visits, worse than the obligation, the thing that truly haunts me every time I entertain an insect or bug, comes to mind and won’t let me slumber: I know my Great-Uncle André is a fictional character created by George Langelaan. I know that Langelaan’s short story, “The Fly,” first appeared in Playboy magazine in June of 1957, though I have never read it. That the original film version from 1958 starred David Hedison as André and shifted André’s home from France to Canada. That Vincent Price played my Uncle François. I know that David Cronenberg and co-writer Charles Edward Pogue changed André’s name to Seth in the 1986 Jeff Goldblum remake.

I know that none of this is real, and that insects probably do not actively seek out the relatives of science fiction characters. That they don’t pose for photos or carry sound recorders.

Since I know all of this, then, these visits always remind me that I, too, am not real.

My cat Goblin is not real. My sleeping wife is not real. She doesn’t even have a name, as far as I know. We — Goblin, my wife, myself — are a different kind of hybrid, one that does not involve a botched teleportation device but requires instead written words and a reader’s imagination. A fusion of atoms. Of ideas. My face exists because you, the reader, decide it exists. The book my wife fell asleep reading is whatever you invent.

Every item I own is a product of your mind, and it is scary as hell to know that my life ends with these final sentences. That I am forever stuck in my current position. Eternally bound to the printed word. Like André at the end of the movie, here I am: a fly in a web, wanting more, desperate, screaming into the darkness for freedom, but with a feeble voice that cannot be heard by the human ear.

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Benjamin Woodard lives and teaches in Connecticut. His recent fiction can be found in F®iction, Joyland, HAD, and other journals. Some of his microfiction has appeared in the 2019 and 2021 editions of Best Microfiction. Find him at benjaminjwoodard.com or on Twitter @woodardwriter.