Twenty four years of marriage, the house to themselves for two years now, nothing to do, nowhere to go in this lockdown, he ate low fat, he worked out three times a week in the basement, yet here he was, alone on the bed, his laptop baking his junk. The closest he was going to get to some sweet, sweet loving was virtual bystander.
“Arthur! We’ve got ants in the kitchen. They’re in the cat bowl, the dog bowl, the sugar bowl, the cookie jar…”
The listing of ant infestation locations continued, a strident catalogue of every open container, every holder of food or crumbs in the kitchen that a tiny ant could penetrate.
“…the fruit bowl, the bread box. Oh, dammit, they’re in the spilled sugar in the pantry, all over the honey. They’re in the dog food bag. We’re going to need dog food!”
Helen was harder to hear with her head in the pantry, but Arthur wasn’t really listening anymore. He was scrolling, looking for a thumbnail that triggered something, anything.
“We need an exterminator, Arthur. Are exterminators working during the lockdown? I’ve never seen so many ants. Get off my legs. Ow. They bite!”
Arthur slipped on headphones and plugged them in. He glanced at the open door, adjusted the back of the laptop, pushed it towards his knees and kept scrolling.
Helen stepped out of the pantry, slamming the door shut, brushing the black ants off her bare legs and her feet and her slippers. Her skin still crawled after all the ants were off. They hadn’t climbed past her knees, but she felt disturbing tickles, phantom twinges, running up her thighs, into her shorts, and had to keep checking and brushing. An ant bit the back of her right hand. She brushed it off and stepped on it. It had to be the very last one. She rubbed her hands together, rubbed her wrists, her bare forearms, slapped at an ancient freckle.
Ants on the counter were flowing in a line down the drawers to the floor and towards the pantry, while a line of ants grew out from underneath the pantry door and headed towards the counter. Helen grabbed the broom and started sweeping them towards the back door. Hundreds of their little bodies were smeared or left broken and curled by the fibres of the broom, but it was like sweeping a puddle. More ants rushed to take the place of those swept away. She moved the broom faster. Ants branched off from the lines and spread out, rushing towards her feet. She jumped and swept, tangled her legs around the broom and fell onto her side on top of the ants.
There was movement in the doorway, pulling Arthur’s attention away from the screen. Helen stepped into the room. She was naked and seemed a little unsteady.
“Honey,” she said, letting the word trail off in a husky whisper.
“Baby!” said Arthur. He pushed the laptop to the floor, pulled his shorts the rest of the way off. He hadn’t seen Helen naked for who knows how long. She looked a bit lumpy, the woman refuses to exercise, but who was he to complain? She had that glazed look in her eyes she used to get when she was drunk and horny. Had she been hooking into the vodka?
“Baby! Come here!”
Her legs hit the bed and she faltered, falling forward onto her hands, then crawled up the bed on all fours right over his body.
Arthur grabbed her hips.
“Baby. Sweetie. It’s been so long.”
Arthur put on coffee. Helen was still naked. He could live with that. In fact, he could live a long time with this naked, quiet Helen. Even if he did have to make his own coffee. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth. Her kisses had tasted like cilantro.
“Baby,” he said and squeezed her bare shoulder from behind. She was so soft. Had she lost all muscle tone? He looked around the kitchen. There was no sign of the ants she was yelling about earlier.
“Feed me, honey.”
He laughed. “Sure. What do you want? I could microwave you some hot pockets. Or scramble some eggs.”
“Honey. Feed me honey. Sugar.”
“Are you having some kind of low blood sugar crash?”
Her answer might have been a “Yes” if the “Ye” didn’t make it out and all she managed was the “sssss”. He went to the pantry and pulled out the tub of honey. There were no ants in there either. He grabbed a spoon from the drawer, put the tub in front of her, peeled off the lid and held out the spoon.
“Honey,” she said, but didn’t move to take it. Fine. He dipped the spoon in the honey, twirled it as he brought it out so it wouldn’t drip and said, “Open wide.”
Helen tilted her head back and her mouth fell open. It was black inside. Remarkably black. Black yet sparkling. Arthur let the honey run off the spoon and where it hit the inside of her mouth it became tangled, spotted, with the blackness. She reached up and took the spoon from him. He sat in the chair on the other side of the table and watched her while he drank his coffee.
She worked her way through the tub of honey. The glazed look in her eyes had been replaced by a dimness. Arthur sucked air through his teeth. He went and stood over her, looking down into her face as she dribbled honey into her black mouth. She didn’t blink. He grabbed her sunglasses from their little shelf by the backdoor and put them on her. She didn’t resist as he slid them on, and he couldn’t help but notice in her eyes black threads that seemed to race and twist.
“Sugar,” she said when the honey was gone.
“Baby,” he replied, but his heart wasn’t in it.
“Dog food,” she said.
“Uh, yep,” he said. “Uh yep uh yep uh yep.”
His phone started ringing upstairs in the bedroom. He reached it before it went to voicemail. It was their oldest, Sam.
“Son,” he said as he answered.
Sam could hear something in his voice. “Everything okay, Dad?”
Arthur sat on the unmade bed.
“It’s your mother,” he said. He flicked an ant off the bedsheets and onto the floor. “She’s not well. And to tell you the truth, I don’t feel so great either.”
He flicked another ant off the bed and shivered.