Billy was a good Christian as he walked to school. Billy had been a good Christian all weekend and for the last four years since his mom let him get baptized at the tender age of 7. He was glad to have direction in his life and he carried God’s love with him like an omnipresent security blanket. It made him a bit of a prick but Billy had enough friends for a sixth grader. His favorite subject was science. He didn’t dwell much on the contradictions between his pastor’s lectures and Mrs. Simmons’ geology lessons. He liked to picture dinosaurs roaming the earth and leaving huge paw prints behind; he didn’t care how long ago it happened.
Today, Mrs. Simmons wasn’t in. There was a substitute with square black glasses and a ponytail.
“Hello, my name is Mr. Fowler.” Billy didn’t like substitutes. Billy didn’t like watching videos or Bill Nye the Science Guy or change. “Mrs. Simmons will be out for a while. She’s on something called ‘administrative leave.’ She was trying to unionize. Not but be confused with un-ionize!” Mr. Fowler laughed. The children were dumbfounded.
“Now, I know when you all saw me, you were looking forward to a day of watching videos, but we’re going to be together for a while, so I want to jump right back into what you’ve been studying!” A ray of hope, Billy thought, a substitute who isn’t a layabout! “According to Mrs. Simmons’ syllabus, you’ve been studying taxonomy, the different kinds of plants and animals.”
“And bugs!” cried Sam, the redhead who Billy hated in a stare-at-him-all-class sort of way.
Mr. Fowler asked for Sam’s name, then asked the difference between animals and bugs.
“Bugs have exoskeletons!”
“That’s very true.” Mr. Fowler said. “They have exoskeletons, but they’re still animals. They’re a kind of invertebrate.” He wrote ‘invertebrate’ on the board. “What are some other kinds of animals?” Hands shot up.
Reptiles, Billy thought. He’d read the entire D.K. Animal Encyclopedia so he felt like his input would be cheating.
“Great! Let’s look at some of the categories we already have: Birds, insects, mammals, and snakes. What sets them apart from each other?” No hands shot up this time, so after a few moments, Billy raised his.
“Mammals and birds are warm-blooded. Snakes are reptiles, so they’re cold-blooded. Insects don’t really have blood.”
“That’s a good start. What else?” Billy didn’t realize the question was for the whole class, not just him, so he kept talking.
“Mammals give live birth. Birds and reptiles lay eggs that are already fertized—”
“Fertilized! Good.” Billy would never forgive him now.
“Insects I guess spray their eggs and stuff all around like fish.”
“Insects are very diverse and reproduce in a number of strange ways. Do you know what my favorite insects to study are, kids?” How could we possibly know that, you fool, thought Billy. “My favorites are bedbugs.” The kids all said ‘eww’ with exaggeration. “Yes, they’re nasty and they’ve become hard to kill because we’ve been trying to kill them for so long. But the way they breed is the most interesting thing about them. Male bedbugs use a specialized sex organ to mate and sometime females don’t get to use theirs at all. Instead, the males clobber their way in any old place in the female’s exoskeleton, and shoot their gametes into their hemolymph.” These last two science words, he over-annunciated but didn’t bother putting on the board. The class sat in stunned silence. Billy gingerly raised his hand.
“Does it…does it hurt them?”
“Oh yes! They run from it. Some of them die from infections in the wounds, especially if they’ve had multiple partners.”
“Why don’t they do it like normal bugs?”
“We don’t know. They have sex organs like other animals, but somewhere down the line it became easier for them to survive if they did it this way. It’s how they evolved.”
Yes, Billy thought, this is evolution’s fault, not God’s. Mr. Fowler moved on to talking about bees and ants. Billy clammed up for the rest of class. He clammed up during lunch, during math and Spanish classes, too. He only opened his mouth for chorus class because he knew his fellow tenors were counting on him. Billy’s peers in chorus, however, would probably have agreed on one thing: Billy’s voice was like an unpopped popcorn kernel: utterly impossible to ignore and absolutely unwanted.
The final bell rang. Billy, unlike most middle schoolers, lived close enough to school to walk. Normally, he lamented missing out on the chance to socialize on the bus, but on days like today when his mind has something to chew on, it was good to be walking alone.
He came home. He microwaved a snack and ate it. He spread his homework out in front of him. His father came home, said hello, and ordered dinner. His mother came home. They ate together. His parents asked about school. Billy told them about the new song they learned in chorus. They watched TV together for an hour or so after dinner. They all went to bed.
This is when Billy was seized by the fear. God had built a creature that stabs its partner to make more. Or, he let evolution run so far off course that they popped out on their own. Billy wasn’t sure which was worse. Billy wondered what God had in store for humans. He also wondered if he had bedbugs. He had never even seen one. He sat up and turned to look at his sheets. It was too dark to see anything. He couldn’t turn on the light or his father would yell. He remembered the streetlight. It shined so brightly into his room that his father had put up a blackout curtain. Billy pulled back that curtain but now that he needed it, the light seemed dimmer than before. Still, it was bright enough to make out the creases and folds of his sheets. He didn’t see anything moving around, so he tousled his sheets as quietly as he could to see if he could scare something into moving. He didn’t see anything. Are they microscopic? Could they be on me already? Billy thought not, since he didn’t have any irregular itching. He left the curtain open and got back into bed. He kept peeking down at the sheets until he drifted off to sleep.
The sound of a great windstorm rattling the siding of the house roused Billy from some deep dream. The whole house creaked but the power lines and trees outside were still. Then, a dark but shiny mass appeared in the window. A huge insectoid leg tapped on the window, then struck it hard enough to shatter the glass. Billy shivered as the shards sprayed across his room. The creature blocked out the light as it squeezed its body through the window. Its inflexible carapace tore away first the glass remaining in the frame and then the frame itself and the wall surrounding as it pulled itself in. It took a painfully long time, but Billy was paralyzed with fear, not even able to call out to his parents or God. Certainly not God, who Billy was certain had sent this beast against him for questioning the divine plan. Just as Billy had let the devil into his thoughts, so the creator had let this monster into his room.
The light from outside returned at the insect’s body plunked to the floor. Its antennae swayed back and forth like divining rods. Billy hoped that since he couldn’t move the bug might just ignore him, but it moved right away towards the bed. Its foreleg cracked the footboard as it got on the bed. Billy now saw what swung between its hind legs: a coarse, spike-covered club, a genital perfectly evolved for bashing in an exoskeleton and probably pretty darn effective at bashing in something soft like, for instance, human flesh. The insect leaned forward and the club swung down on the bed, tearing up the bedsheets. Please, don’t let it realize it missed, thought Billy, still unable to speak or move. The insect seemed to sense his fear and pulled out. It took a few steps forward, then struck again, this time hitting Billy square in the belly. The pain was crushing. Billy couldn’t scream if he wanted to now because his lungs couldn’t inflate, his diaphragm was now punctured by the monster and slowly being pumped with some kind of fluid. It wants to fertilize my hemolymph, thought Billy, but I haven’t got any. As the pressure increased, so did the searing pain in Billy’s body cavity. Soon he had no room for any thoughts at all. The animal retracted itself and blood started pumping out of the wound. The monster began to shrink, first from the size of the bed to the size of a pillow, then to the size of Billy’s palm, then the size of a grain of rice, and then it fell and burrowed into the bedsheets. Billy lay with the hot burning all inside of him. Still unable to breathe, he was crying silently. God must be very mad at me, Billy thought, just before passing out.
When he woke up, the first thing he noticed was not the absence of pain, but the absence of wind. The window was still intact. He sat up in bed. The wound was gone. He thought it was all a terrible dream, but as he looked to inspect his footboard he instead saw that a large plant had sprung up from between his legs. He was attached to it by a small root that led up somewhere inside of his bum. A bright yellow light illuminated the stalk from the hole the plant had punched in the ceiling. Billy was afraid of the root that attached him to the plant, but as he moved, he couldn’t feel it at all. He took a deep breath and pulled it free from the plant. As soon as he did, it withered away as if set on fire.
Well, I suppose I ought to climb, thought Billy, and ask whoever planted this thing to get rid of it and fix the hole in the ceiling. The plant was studded all over with young branches, which made it easy climbing for Billy. As soon as his feet were off his bed, the plant began to grow again. It shot him up out of his bedroom before he could jump off. He passed the broken drywall of his ceiling, then the insulation in the attic and the shingles of the roof. His house shrank away from him as his neighborhood came into view. It was nearly dawn and the eastern sky was bright with the sun hiding just around the corner. The light above Billy was even brighter, though, and Billy still couldn’t see the source. The plant grew so high that Billy crashed into the cloud line and then he couldn’t see much. He had the distinct feeling of being underwater and on instinct held his breath. After a few seconds, he felt himself surfacing. He took a breath, opened his eyes, and saw before him a vast cloudscape. Suddenly the plant became too weak to hold him and wilted over, depositing him on the surface of clouds. Billy wasn’t too surprised that they had a surface. He’d spent a lot of time picturing heaven with the help of the paintings at church. The light that had illuminated the plant down on earth was hidden behind a castle-like pillar of cloud in front of him.
Rounding the corner, Billy struggled to take in what he saw: gold rings of light swirling with each other, spinning and orbiting some imperceptible point in their middle. Each ring was studded all over with pairs of eyes with black square-rimmed glasses. Their spinning was chaotic. The light was brighter than the sun but it didn’t hurt Billy’s eyes, which was good because the light was inescapable and cast no shadows.
“Step forward, child.” Despite its volume, the voice was warm and inviting.
“G-G-God?” Billy stuttered in awe.
“Shame on you, that your faith is so weak you would mistake the Lord itself for a mere agent.”
“I’m sorry. Do you have a name?”
“But what’s your real name?” A gust of hot wind emanated from the center of the angel. It made Billy’s skin feel hot and dry.
“Oh, like, I can’t pronounce it, because I’m human?”
“No. That was your warning for asking rude questions. My only name is Pravuil.”
“I’m sorry.” Billy imagined this was what being pulled into the principal’s office felt like.
“You were brought here that you might better understand the nature of God.”
“But the nature of God is love.”
“God has no use for love.”
“That’s an awful thing to say. Everybody needs love. That’s why we have God.” Billy was starting not to trust this angel. Billy worried, is distrusting an angel the same as distrusting God?
“God does not answer to your needs. God creates your ability to need.”
“Did god create bed bugs the way they are, too?”
“God is the vacuum they filled by evolving.” Billy turned this over in his mind.
“So God carved a space for them to fill and let them grow into it?”
“God is the absence that allows for your presence.”
“God is….absence?” That didn’t sit right with Billy. By his pastor’s reckoning, God was presence, not absence, since he was everywhere. God is omni-present, not omni-absent.
“God is the infinite void into which your chaos spills.”
“Chaos? We’ve got all kinds of order! Like DNA! It’s rewriting itself all the time.”
“And yet it gave you bedbugs.” Billy was stumped, and a little disgusted to have to keep talking about them.
“Well, they’re only like that because they’re coded that way.”
“The bedbugs are self-replicating chaos.” Billy was beginning to feel for the little bugs. It wasn’t their fault they mate the way they mate. It wasn’t fair for this awful, immaterial entity to say mean things about all of those burdened with bodies.
“Well so I am! I’m chaos too!” Billy charged for the center of the angel. Pravuil’s rings all aligned to form a large disc and from the center came an expansive void that enveloped Billy. From the intense light, he was plunged directly into an endless darkness. Billy felt himself still moving in the direction he had been running, but there were no stars or other lights to refer to. It was awfully cold, so cold that Billy had a hard time remembering what it was ever like to be warm. Am I dying? Billy thought. The bedbug killed me and I failed the angel’s test so it threw me out into this void to float forever. Billy wished he could apologize to God. Billy had expected fire and shackles and cackling demons with spears and whips. That all seemed exciting. Awful and painful yes but still, it was something to see. In this hell, Billy was alone with his thoughts and the darkness and the cold.
Just as Billy’s spirit was hitting rock bottom, a point of light shone in the darkness. For a long time, it was no bigger than a star in the night sky, but after a little while longer of floating, Billy came upon it. It was only a few millimeters long, but the light shining from it was so bright and so perfect that Billy could make out every detail of its carapace, the margins of its exoskeleton, the sections of its antennae, right down to the spines along its tiny legs. It was a bedbug, and it was perfect. This is much nicer than the angel, Billy thought. Why didn’t this thing come say hi to me instead? Staring into the bedbug’s light, Billy could see everything. He saw his own birth and a small rodent giving birth to its small litter. He saw man’s first step on the moon and some alien species stepping off an alien rocket onto an alien moon. He saw a first kiss, an envelope drop into a mailbox, a tree explode with lightning deep in a forest, a thousand families sitting down to television, a million farmers pulling roots from the earth, and the endless mechanizations of the heavens churning throughout time. Billy understood now. The void was what let the light in. Everything that tended to make more of itself ended up doing so until another part of the chaos swallowed it up. The void got bigger and bigger as the chaos did. The void would always be enough for us. This was the infinity of God’s power in action. Billy cried tears of joy. He wanted to reach out and embrace the luminescent bug, but as he tried, he realized he was already in contact with it. He began to descend, carrying its light with him.
He fell for a while through blackness lit only by the insect, then nothing at all, then, slowly, stars populated the void. Eventually the earth, opulent in green and blue, appeared below. Under the swirls of clouds, he could make out North America as he hurtled towards it. This must be my town coming towards me, thought Billy. Just as he was able to make out his house, he crashed through his roof and into his bed. The heat and light of God still radiated off of him.
When he woke, he felt perfectly well rested. The holes in his roof and wall were repaired, as was his bed frame and sheets. His mother was knocking on the door, saying he was late for school. He blushed as he noticed a mess in his pants.
Robert Torres is a writer and performer based in Portland, Oregon who has worked with Monkey with a Hat On, Fuse Theatre Ensemble, and Twilight Theater Company, and has been published by Entropy, Nailed Magazine, 1001 Journal, Spider Web Salon, and others. They worked for three years as a bookseller at Black Hat Books in Portland. Their work explores anxiety, delusion, revolution, and the conundrum of having a body whether you like it or not.