Taylor Lauren Ross
The stacks of banker boxes reached the ceiling. Erin’s aunt must have climbed a ladder to get the last ones on top. Or maybe she used the other boxes like stairs. Erin pulled the lid from the nearest box and discovered a drawing: stick-figure Erin on a swing set and her aunt, the pusher, behind. Spots of mold dotted the crayoned sky like green clouds. Erin found the days of the week underwear she’d taken such pleasure in donning on the correct day, the elastic now so worn it emitted a crunching sound and refused to cling back to shape, and chipped misshapen glass sculptures her aunt had loved.
“It’s like a time capsule,” Erin said.
“It’s like a pile of junk,” her boyfriend said. He grabbed a souvenir snow globe from Seattle out of a box, jiggled it—glitter swirled around the plastic Space Needle—and tossed it back in.
“Let’s just throw it all out.”
“Let’s see what’s here,” Erin said. She cradled the sparkly stuffed unicorn she’d kept at her aunt’s for sleepovers, the “I Can Read” books her aunt had helped her practice with, the sets of ornate chopsticks her aunt had worn in her hair.
Craig left her pawing through what remained of her aunt and went to a nearby bar.
Lifting the last layer of boxes in the bedroom revealed a silver puddle, which shrank as if flowing down a drain in the floor. Erin leaned closer. The puddle wasn’t a puddle at all, but a mass of insects. Tiny holes dotted the hardwood. The bottoms of the nearest boxes had been gnawed away.
When Craig returned he looked once and backed out of the room. “Makes my beer want to come up,” he said, massaging his throat as he Googled them: subterranean termites. A mature colony could forage over areas the size of a football field and consume as much as thirteen ounces of wood per day—and eat through anything from plaster to copper sheet metal.
Craig wanted to get a hotel room and call an exterminator in the morning. Erin wanted to sleep there. “It’s our house now. It’s just not clean yet,” she said. “They won’t bother us.”
All through the night they heard nibbling. A faint, interminable sound like running a fingernail over the edge of corrugated cardboard, lightly, forever.
“Don’t call,” Erin said in the morning. “Not yet.”
To put off moving the termites’ supper, Erin tried to clean other rooms. She found herself shifting items from one corner to another, unable to let go of anything. Her aunt’s shoes, for example. Erin had always marveled at the way her aunt’s faux snakeskin flats never seemed to be dirty. Now, she discovered a closet overflowing with pair upon pair of the same pristine shoes nestled in tissue paper in matching shoeboxes.
Each morning Craig threatened to call and Erin begged him for more time. Each day she refused to throw anything out. And each night the nibbling went on.
“You can’t keep it all,” Craig finally said. “You can’t keep them.”
He called an exterminator. Erin refused to let the man in the house.
In the foyer, Craig stared at her like she was the broken vase she’d found in a corner of the bathroom—even if he wanted to, he couldn’t put her back together. The pieces didn’t fit. “This was a mistake.”
Then he followed the exterminator out the front door. Craig got into his car—his few pairs of jeans, thrift-store shirts, and the one Armani suit from his father sprawled across the backseat—and drove away.
The termites’ munching kept Erin company while she explored.
Arranging piles into new stacks, Erin told them about how she used to sleepover in the house, and she and her aunt had made giant forts together, and her aunt hadn’t made her clean them up.
Sometimes they would even sleep in them. Her aunt used to bake apple turnovers in the mornings, before the kitchen got too full.
Erin opened boxes, pressed the items into her palms, and put them back. The masses in the house didn’t diminish, only shifted.
Except for the bedroom. When the sun rose, she watched the undulating puddle from the doorway. Around it boxes disappeared.
In the living room, Erin discovered faded paintings of fruit in ceramic bowls, which reminded her of Cézanne. She and her aunt had conferred over his paintings in whispers at the museum. Then they ran around the park releasing pent-up energy in whoops and howls.
Taking the canvases off the wooden stretching frames, Erin walked into the bedroom. The termites fled her footsteps, their glistening translucent bodies disappearing into the floor. She set the frames down near their holes. The next morning, she found the frames half gone.
Searching through the house, Erin discovered coffee table books of glamorous Hollywood actresses, which the termites gulped down, and sets of pristine wooden pencils, yellow with green bands near the bottom—the termites left only the graphite and pink erasers, rolling around on the floor. Then they took those too.
Erin brought them her aunt’s delicious antique furniture. An oak boudoir, a cherry chestnut dresser, a set of birch side tables. No longer shy of her, they swarmed over the teak armoire, the cedar nightstand, the maple desk.
Lurching from room to room, Erin ripped the covers from boxes. The termites engulfed travel-sized packages of tissues, the plastic crinkling as it vanished. They devoured square picture frames and the images they housed: shiny, black-and-white seller photos of smiling models. They ravaged squeaky toys meant for the pit mix her aunt had kept insisting she’d rescue.
Erin stumbled, hauling stacks of kitchen towels patterned in Christmas trees, decks of tarot cards with heavily-antlered moose, and armfuls of garden tools, the pointed cultivators digging into her skin.
The house emptied.
She cried, and the termites crawled up the bed and ate her tears.
Taylor Lauren Ross is a writer, editor, and book group facilitator based in Los Angeles. She holds a BA in English from UCLA, and her short stories have appeared in Glass Mountain, Westwind, TulipTree Review, and others. She was an AWP Writer to Writer mentee and the managing editor of The Riding Light Review. Visit her at taylorlaurenross.com.
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