“The Living Dead” by John Short

I opened my eyes, emerging from a dream but couldn’t remember anything at all. Shame really because I’d always considered dream space a bit like going to the cinema without having to pay and I didn’t like not being able to recall the movie. Then, as I lay there trying to surface, there was a vague flashback of a figure with many legs, lurking at the end of a corridor, but it was impossible to hold the image and it soon slipped back into oblivion. Shit, I’m even dreaming about them now, I thought as I sat up.

The long hard war of attrition against the cockroaches had dragged on all summer, and it was as yet unclear what the outcome would be. I was still sane though, and they’d taken many casualties, but their numbers seemed infinite. What could one person do against an endless army? Probably at some point in the future, after the demise of the human animal, the cockaroocho would inherit the earth.

After two years of living with them I’d seen everything and reckoned myself an expert. One night, for instance, I came home in the small hours, flicked on the kitchen light and found two copulating on the worktop while a third raced around the pair in frantic circles. Another time I got back to Athens from a trip overseas, to discover about 300 of them having a wild party in the living room. How many entomologists could claim to have witnessed such a scene? I can tell you there was some carnage that afternoon – the famous battle of August 2003, which I won.     

“Get a spray from the supermarket,” my landlord said, when I broached the subject again. “It kills them instantly … only don’t get the one marked iptamena, that means flying, you need the other bottle, the green one.”

“I don’t think you realise the extent of the problem, Mr Analitis,” I said. “It’s more like we need a complete fumigation.”

“Well how about buying a spray for now and I’ll try and sort something out when I get back from my break.”

Evasive bastard, I thought, examining various bottles of poison on the top floor of the supermarket. They all had pictures of insects on the back so it was easy enough to pick the right one, but there were so many different brands. It was anyone’s guess which would be the most effective.

When Leonidas came round for our evening chess game he said: “Christ, what’s that awful smell? You been spraying insecticide?”

“I had to do something,” I said. “I’m really fed up of splatting them against the walls.”

“It works by attacking their nervous system but it might kill you too. I read somewhere that the stuff they put in those sprays is carcinogenic.”

“That’s just great … all I needed to know.”

“You should get your landlord to call a bug outfit. After all, it’s his job to see that the place is fit to live in.”

I said nothing and just concentrated on the match. I built up a strong defence; dug in my heels and played a waiting game. I was good at that. Eventually he lost his patience and defeated himself.

*                      

The next morning I sat on my bed in the small white room. The French doors were open and hammering sounds drifted in from the half-built block of flats opposite. They sent out the first scout from their base under the sink and I instinctively reached for the battered old slipper but when the scout got halfway along the corridor it keeled over and started kicking its legs in the air.

“First blood to me,” I said to myself.

They sent out a second scout and the same thing happened. As soon as it ran into the poison it flipped on its back and began the dance of death. By midday, as I sat there drinking tea, the corridor was littered with them. They’re not so smart after all, I decided. But they still have the advantage of numbers.

For about a week I didn’t see any, which gave me a chance to relax, but I knew they were just re-grouping in preparation for another offensive, and that when this happened I’d be forced to go mad with the spray can, asphyxiating myself in the process. On Friday, well after midnight, I was walking home from my job at the souvlaki shop and when I reached the corner of our road I noticed an open manhole with the cover lying next to it. I moved closer and could just make out an iron ladder going down into the murky depths. I thought it must have been some kids messing around and pushed the thing back into position before walking away towards the communal front door.

I went into my flat and cautiously switched on the kitchen light. All was quiet so I got a beer from the fridge and then fell into the armchair in the living room. I was just about nodding off when there was a ring on the doorbell. Strange, I thought. Who could it be at this hour? When I opened the door I nearly pissed myself – standing in front of me was a six-foot tall cockroach with a pair of humanoid legs as well as two  pairs of insect ones. “May I come in?” it said. “I think we need to talk.”

I would have made a run through the French doors and out into the yard only I knew that the back wall was too high to get over. Frozen by fear and unable to say a word, I gestured mechanically for it to enter.

“How did you get into the building?” I stammered.

“I had to climb up the outside wall and come down, of course.”

“So that terrace door was open again.”

“You’ve killed many of our brothers and sisters, and whenever there is death on this scale, their poor extinguished souls are reincarnated as one of me. This slaughter can’t go on. Either you stop or I will be forced to take drastic measures.”

I needed to play for time in order to think what to do. I offered a cigarette which it accepted, and then, exhaling smoke from somewhere behind its antennae, it reclined in the chair that I’d recently vacated and scrutinized me with alien compound eyes while I just stood there awkward in the middle of the room.

“Which are you lot?” I asked, nervously. “Blatta orientalis?”

Periplaneta americana,” it said. “Haven’t noticed the wing size? But we digress. Let me get to the point. If you don’t agree to leave us alone, I will have no choice but to return and eat you.”

“I think I need a drink…excuse me a minute.”

I edged into the kitchen and called Analitis on my cell phone. He’d be home by now and he only lived in the next street. The number rang through a few times and then a grumpy voice said: “What the hell are you playing at? It’s nearly one in the bloody morning.”

“You have to come immediately. It’s an emergency,” I said. “There’s a huge  problem here…don’t ring the bell, just let yourself in”

I had no idea why I’d called him. Back in the living room, the creature was examining the green bottle on the table, next to the chess set.

“So this is what you use on us,” it said. “You humans should be ashamed. We have to anticipate a certain amount of violence but these rising cases of chemical genocide are really pushing it.”

“If they confined themselves to the yard and the bathroom, and left the living room and kitchen to me,” I said, “wouldn’t that be a fair compromise?”

It looked at me thoughtfully and its mandibles began to twitch. “Seems fair enough,” it answered, at last. “After all, I’m a reasonable bug …”

Suddenly, Analitis burst into the room – and turned white.

The creature spun round to face him and in the precise second of its distraction I grabbed the bottle from the table and sprayed hard. It fell to the floor and began screaming and convulsing in agony. Analitis stepped back neatly. I darted into the yard for the axe that I used for chopping barbeque faggots, then ran back in and with one lucky swing, decapitated the monster. For a minute or so its various limbs kicked about in all directions and a trail of familiar green slime seeped from the severed head onto the faded linoleum.

When I looked at Analitis, his eyes had glazed over.

“This is all your fault,” I said.

 


John Short grew up in Liverpool (UK) and studied comparative religion at Leeds University. Later he spent some years in the south of Europe, finally settling  in Athens. His stories and poems have appeared in various magazines such as Barcelona Ink, The Delinquent, Orbis, The Frogmore Papers, Obsessed with Pipework and Under the Fable.

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