Fiction · 04/18/2018

The Moths

Ed had too many problems to go on living the way he was, so he moved again and started over in a new city, one with cheaper rents and fewer cars. He got along for awhile. Everyone waved to him and said hello. He learned how to wave back.

After he moved into his new home, a sublet basement apartment he rented from a couple about his age, he saw a moth the size of a quarter on his kitchen faucet. He stared until it flew away.

His new landlords, Paige and Alan, lived upstairs. He asked them about the moth.

“They’re harmless,” said Paige. “If you ever have a problem with them, let us know. But they shouldn’t bother you.”

Paige was a photographer who ran a successful studio. Alan was a law student in his final year and hated every second of it. He and Paige had been living together for almost two years. He had mounted two authentic replica medieval swords above the fireplace.

“Never used,” he said. He was secretly a history major but didn’t find enough work in that field. Ed wasn’t sure about him. He found Alan sometimes staring at the swords in silence, as if he was watching them through a window from next door.

Ed found work at a copy shop where he helped customers with self-service. He didn’t mind the work. He was thankful for the slowness, the boredom of it. There was another copy shop directly across the street from his. Looking at it frustrated him.

Whenever Paige or Alan asked Ed what he used to do, he gave the vaguest possible answer he could think of. He learned which words seemed to say something but actually didn’t, that were only sounds to make while thinking of something else.

Other than his job at the copy shop and browsing the internet in his room, he didn’t feel he had a lot to do. There wasn’t much going on in town. The flatness pushed down on him. Sometimes he would go to the backyard and lie down, looking out into the sky that never had any clouds. He thought he could see the point where the sky curved. He knew it was a trick, but he liked it.

+

Ed kept seeing the moths. They were always on his kitchen faucet. He began to think that his faucet was made of moths, that they continually spawned there. He wondered if there were any moths in his landlord’s rooms.

One day Paige came into the copy shop. “I need thirty of these,” she said, handing Ed fliers for a garage sale.

He walked her over to the self-service copier, and asked her how she and Alan had met.

“One of those things,” she said, and the vagueness was so familiar to Ed that he laughed.

He decided that he liked her.

+

Every other day he would see a moth. Always on his faucet. He didn’t have the heart to push them away. He remembered how his mother would never swat a moth, or a spider, or a fly—she would always catch it, and free it outside. Ed decided to let it be. He figured nature had better ideas than him.

Alan threw a party when he finished his midterms. Their house filled with people Ed had never seen before, but Alan said they were friends of his and Paige’s. In a short time Alan got trashed. Ed had never seen him like this. Singing songs, flirting with some of the women in his class, putting his arm around them. Paige didn’t seem to mind. She stepped out onto the patio, saying she was going to get some air, and Ed followed her.

“Fun, huh?” he heard himself say.

“I’m having a good time,” she said, and Ed couldn’t tell if she was lying. “How about you?”

“Sure,” he said.

“I’ll be glad when he graduates,” she said. “Then we can move away.”

“Why would you want to do that?”

She shrugged. “You ever live in a place for too long? Then you feel like, well, I guess I’ll just leave and never come back. But then you do come back? ‘Cause you have to?” She looked up at the light hanging from the side of the house. “It’s like that.”

He gazed at her. He had no intention of ever going back to where he came from, and told her so.

“Wherever that is,” she said. “The big mystery. Where are you from?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “Where are you from?”

She laughed, shook her head and said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Without thinking he kissed her on the lips. He wasn’t exactly sure why.

“What are you doing?” she said. He couldn’t answer. She shrugged, and then kissed him again.

+

The next day he saw two moths on his kitchen faucet. He flicked them away. A chunk of the faucet flew up and out the window. He looked closer at what was left, and saw the wings quivering, silver and brown. He stood there staring at them, and finally waved his whole hand through. The faucet broke into a thousand pieces that lifted and flew away. Ed ducked. They made straight for the window. He looked at his sink. It was like he had never had a faucet.

He wondered if he should see his landlords about this, and decided to tell Alan. He didn’t want to see Paige anymore—he was having trouble making eye contact with her. Alan came by that afternoon to check out the problem.

“Huh,” he said, “Just disappeared?”

“Yup.”

“Well,” he said, putting his hands on the counter. “I guess we’ll have to get you a new one.”

“Is that, uh, covered in the lease?” Ed hadn’t read it.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. Just be more careful.”

Ed didn’t know what that meant. But a new faucet was there the next day.

+

Ed soon found his tolerance for soul-crushing work did indeed have a limit. He was found asleep at his job. His manager told him that he was fired, but he talked his way into a pay cut instead.

He was bored and unfocused. On days off, he would nap for hours. He found different TV shows and would watch a whole season in two days. He passed this off as being culturally literate. He tried reading books, but couldn’t find any that grabbed his interest. He wondered if it was time for another move.

One weekend there was another garage sale, and Ed put out stuff that he thought he didn’t need anymore. An old briefcase and bland cassettes. They wouldn’t give any hint to who he was. What his life had been like. A few people came by, and some even bought things. Eventually Ed’s items disappeared. He forgot to count how much money he made.

Alan and Paige were there. Paige looked at him, and he looked away. He felt bad about what he’d done. He didn’t know what it said about him as a person.

After the garage sale was over he went to his room and slumped onto his couch. He opened his eyes and looked for moths on the ceiling, but couldn’t find any. He fell asleep.

+

Paige came over the next day. “Look,” she said. “We should talk.”

He paused the TV and looked up at her. “Why?” he said.

“‘Cause we’re friends? I thought?”

“Okay.” He sat up. He had to rub his eyes to get the full picture of her. She sat down on the couch.

“We’re good friends,” she said. “But nothing more than that. I’m sorry for what happened at the party. But you don’t have to keep avoiding me like I’m a stray dog.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“I’m not in love with Alan,” she said. “But I’m with him.”

Ed said he didn’t understand.

“I didn’t expect you to.” She got up and walked towards the door, then turned back around and sat next to Ed. “I hope this helps,” she said, and put her arms around him.

+

He was fired from his job a second time, and this time it stuck. He had no income now. He asked Alan what he should do.

“Go to law school?” Alan shrugged. He was finishing up and would be graduating soon. “Debt’s not so bad when you get used to it.”

Ed spent more and more time in his basement room, sometimes not leaving for days. Paige came over every few nights. Each time he wasn’t sure if she would ever come back. Alan didn’t seem to notice, or in any case was too distracted by his upcoming exams.

In the mornings, Ed watched the moths that gathered on his faucet. He wondered how many there were, what it would take to make such a pattern. He wanted to show Paige, but he never did. It was like a song he forgot and remembered the next day. Or more like he remembered the melody of a song, but not the actual song itself.

He moved his hand through the faucet and saw the moths again take flight up and out the window. It wasn’t until later that he realized the window was closed.

+

Alan finally graduated, drank an entire bottle of red wine, and passed out on the couch. A party was gathered but, sensing that something unpleasant might happen, everyone quietly dispersed. Ed was drunk as well. He sat on the patio looking at the overhead light.

“What am I doing,” he said to himself.

“I wonder,” said Paige. Ed hadn’t noticed she was there. He started up, but she told him to sit down. “I just need to tell you that we’re leaving. Probably in the morning.”

“Wait,” he said. “What?”

“I had fun,” she said. “But it’s time to move on. I suggest you do, too.”

He wanted to argue, to yell something loud and obscene, but when he stood up, he tripped on a board and fell unconscious right there on the patio.

+

When Ed woke it was daylight, and he wasn’t ready for it. His head hurt, and he hoped he didn’t remember what he was remembering.

Inside, Alan and Paige were standing together. Ed couldn’t focus. His vision was blurry, and the edge of his sight was moving in and out.

“It’s all right,” said Alan. “Paige told me everything.”

Ed froze. He tried to say something, to apologize, but he couldn’t speak. The colors were running, circling his friends.

“It’s okay. I hope it works out better for you next time.” Then Alan exploded, and bits of him flew up and out through the roof. Ed looked around and saw millions of wings, brown and red and green and white, fluttering towards the sky, taking with them the roof, the walls, the floor, and the furniture, which all broke apart in the air and flew away.

Ed looked at Paige, who was floating.

“What?” she said, shaking her head. “I thought you knew. I really did.” Then she was gone.

Ed stood alone in an empty grass lot next to a hole in the ground where the house used to be. He put his hands up to his face. He felt a tickle on his forehead. He jerked his arms away and looked down at his hands. A small speck of his skin lifted and flew away, wings fluttering, like a scrap of paper caught in a strong breeze.

+++

Dan Schwartz is a managing editor of Four Chambers. He has an MFA from the University of British Columbia and has been published in Joyland and Stylus. He is from Washington, DC and lives in Phoenix.