Human and Insect

by Brooks Sterritt

A young man twitches on the floor, concussed from a pistol-whipping. The pistol-whipper wears a black balaclava and has not raised his voice during the robbery of the convenience store. He steps over the twitching man. He asks the clerk if he can move faster than the guy on the ground. He says he wants to be in and out like the Orkin Man, that he doesn't want to spray anyone.

The clerk, who is 76 and has not neglected to take his vitamins that morning, says he will cooperate—uses the word sir—then says something very different as he pulls his 12-gauge from under the counter for the third time in forty years and fires with only one barrel, though that is sufficient. He tells police it was self-defense, that he was afraid for his life. He says the robber was loud and aggressive, had identified himself as the "Orkin Man" and threatened to spray everybody.

An ambulance takes the robber, whose name is Carl, and the pistol-whippee to the hospital. Both victims are unconscious: one near waking, one much farther away. They do not share a room at the hospital, though that would make things interesting.

Carl's mother initially refuses to visit him because he stole from her in the past, but the words "critical condition" persuade her. She arrives, makes a scene, sits in the hospital waiting room sobbing over paperwork. She calls her other son Bradley, an exterminator, and asks him to come be with her.

She thinks about her children. One is steadily employed and visits her often. Then there is Carl. She realizes she loves them both, if not equally anymore. Bradley arrives and comforts her, helps her with the papers. He is wearing a white uniform with his name in blue at the breast pocket. He thinks about vermin, both human and insect. He tells her they always knew big trouble would come Carl's way, that he'll either pull through and learn his lesson, or he'll be gone.

When Bradley steps outside to smoke a cigarette, a nervous-looking man approaches him and asks if he smokes grass. Bradley looks at him for a few moments before saying yes. The nervous-looking man says he's going into detox in thirty minutes and needs to take the edge off. His name is Nate. He says for a donut and a coffee, he'll share his joint. This sounds reasonable to Bradley, though the donut part of the bargain makes him briefly suspect a sting operation. He's back from the coffee shop in five minutes, and they smoke the joint down to a nub.

Nate asks where Bradley works, then jokes that he should keep the roach. Nate won't have any use for it in detox. He makes the donut disappear in three bites and swallows the coffee. He says he feels ready, says that after today things are going to change.

Fiction by Brooks Sterritt has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, Barrelhouse, Wigleaf, Gigantic, etc. He's the fiction editor of Redivider and a reader for Ploughshares. He lives in Boston and maintains the website