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Authors: Margaret Willey

Beetle Boy

Text copyright © 2014 by Margaret Willey

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Cover and interior designs © Laura Otto Rinne

Main body text set in Janson Text LT Std 10/14.
Typeface provided by Linotype AG.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Willey, Margaret.

Beetle Boy / by Margaret Willey.
     pages cm.

Summary: Terrible memories resurface when Charlie's girlfriend asks questions about his childhood.

ISBN 978–1–4677–2639–9 (trade hard cover: alk. paper)

ISBN 978–1–4677–4626–7 (eBook)

[1. Emotional problems—Fiction.  2. Family problems—Fiction.  3. Dating (Social customs)—Fiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.W65548Be 2014
[Fic]—dc23

2013036853

Manufactured in the United States of America
1 – BP – 7/15/14
eISBN: 978-1-4677-4626-7 (pdf)
eISBN: 978-1-4677-6591-6 (ePub)
eISBN: 978-1-4677-6589-3 (mobi)

For Richard Joanisse

ONE

I am hanging by my fingers out of an open window in the bedroom I once shared with my little brother. There is a horrifying distance between my dangling feet and the dark street below. I want to cry for help, but I don't want to wake up my dad; he hates being woken up; he'll be furious. Instead, I call pleadingly to my brother. “
Li-am! Li-am!

The name becomes its own soft scream.

I strain my neck to see what is happening inside my room. I see a thin shadow appear on the water-stained wall, followed closely by a long black rod. Oh God. A gigantic insect has come into my room; it is moving across the floor to the window. I hear the clicking of its claws on the linoleum floor and another sound—a kind of whirring, menacing sound, although its wings are still. One of the beetle's legs is longer than the other five; this is the leg that probes its way to the windowsill as I watch helplessly. Then I see the dark underside of the beetle at the window; it is standing up like a bear; I see its fuzzy, segmented abdomen and where the lower legs are connected to the thorax. The longest leg comes slowly out the window, spiked with coarse hair, the shiny claw passing my hands and my head and still descending—down and down it comes, and the whirring grows louder—until the claw is poised beside my dangling leg. The right leg. It grabs me there, just above the heel of my foot, and the pain is dull but inescapable. I can't get away. I am begging now, crying louder to my brother to help me. “Liam!”

Charlie, you're dreaming again. Wake up! Wake up!

I am awake, struggling to sit up, waving my arms, stuck on my back in the middle of the mattress. Clara has rushed from her bedroom into the living room, where I sleep on her sleeper sofa. She sits on one of the bottom corners of the tangled bed and puts a comforting hand on my good leg. The other leg is in a cast, and it is throbbing.

Another nightmare, Charlie?

“It's the meds,” I groan. “Sorry I woke you up again.”

You were calling your brother's name. I heard you say “Liam.” Your voice sounded like you were strangling.

“God. Sorry.”

Liam was in your dream?

“No. No, I was … I was just calling him.”

Were you looking for him?

“No. No. It wasn't … no. It was hallucinatory, Clara. Can you reach the Percodan for me please?”

Which she does, frowning. Then hands me a glass of water.

My girlfriend has made a little invalid station for me beside the sleeper sofa. On the side table there is a lamp with a clicker I can reach easily if I want to stare at the walls; a clock so I can see what hour of the night I'm still awake at; a full glass of water; Tylenol; and the prescription bottle of my new friend, Percodan.

Clara watches me swallow the pill and drink the water. She crosses her bare legs. She takes the glass, sets it on the bedside, still frowning. She is beginning to suspect that something is very wrong inside my head, even though I keep insisting it's the meds. The nights are getting worse, and I often wake her without meaning to. How can she stand it? I lie back and close my eyes and pretend to be falling back to sleep.

Everything okay now, Charlie?

I make a humming sound. Soon I hear her pad away. I promise myself I won't wake her up again. I lay awake for hours. The pain fades and then comes back again around 3 a.m., but I don't call for her. I won't wake her. I let her sleep.

In the morning, she wants to hear more about the Liam dream. It surprised her that I would cry out for a brother I never talk about. She is calling out questions to me from the kitchen, where she is making eggs and bacon for me before she heads off to the Rite Aid. She's a pharmacist's assistant. She wears a lab coat and a badge. She has a long shift today; I will be alone for many hours in her tiny house, a house that is the perfect size for her but challenging for me with my crutches, my cast, and my haunted nights.

I just don't get it, Charlie. I mean, you hardly ever say a word about your brother. You say there's nothing to say, but then I hear you screaming his name in the middle of the night!

The kitchen has a wide entryway, and I can see her at the stove from where I am still on my back, propped up with pillows. “I wasn't screaming,” I say. “Don't exaggerate.” She leans back from the stove so that I can more clearly see her face, and she gives me a look that says she knows she wasn't exaggerating.

“You'll be late for work if you don't move it,” I point out, and it's true. She brings a plate of eggs to the bedside table and crosses the room to where her bedroom is. At night, after I am settled in, she sleeps by herself in a double bed from her childhood with a padded white headboard with rainbow peace decals on it. I can't see her dressing, but I hear her; she is rushing, hangers are scraping, clothes are flying, and I am overcome with guilt. What a wreck of a boyfriend I am, literally. When she comes back into the living room, the hub of her house, she is dressed in a red blouse with puffy sleeves and black pants and her hair is piled on top of her head with one of those gigantic plastic clips. I think she is coming over to kiss me good-bye, and I feel a rush of lust for her, lust and remorse, but she doesn't kiss me. Instead, she takes the empty plate from my lap, puts it back on the bedside table, and sits down beside me, straight-backed, all business now.

I know I've asked you this before, but could you please just explain again why you're not in contact with anyone in your family?

“Clara, I don't want to make you late for work.”

It is now five minutes past when she usually leaves. She grimaces in frustration at the bedside clock.

Okay, but do you promise we'll talk about this later, Charlie?

I promise we will. My current life is a series of promises, postponements, and escalating nightmares.
Just leave,
I'm thinking. But then she kisses me good-bye with her lips warm and slightly minty and suddenly I don't want her to leave.

I can't explain my nightmares to her. Just like I can't explain what's happening inside my head when I'm awake. I have functioned for over a year without explaining anything important to anyone. But my girlfriend sees herself as a scientist. She collects facts. She requires backstory. She needs to know who and what she's dealing with. She is forming hypotheses and getting worried.

This is the downside of having a girlfriend who apparently, unbelievably, loves me.

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