I want to preface this by saying that scorpions have never really killed anyone. At least, not in Arizona. Not since the forties. And even then, there were probably other complications. I mean, I don’t know the specifics. I don’t even know if it was a man or a woman. But it’s easy to imagine. Sick, dehydrated. Probably got stung while out hiking. Inexperienced traveler, and all that. The kind that thinks you can climb South Mountain, no sweat, with no training and a small bottle of water. My dad used to call them “hippie climbers,” the ones who say your body is the source of all energy and a man can climb Olympus as soon as a tree in his own backyard.
My sister latches on to this last reference. “Exactly,” she says. “Hippie climbers. How do you know we’re not turning into hippie climbers?”
Because, I say. These scorpions are in your own backyard. I’m a little thrown by her hesitation. We grew up with scorpions. June and July are Scorpion High Season but we’re trained to react any time of the year, really, turn on a dime when we see the tail tucked up like a dog’s and the two wide pincers and the small pinpoint black eyes and the yellow-brown splay of its eight legs (scorpions are arachnids, I have to tell people out East. Not insects. Also, not lizards. I’ve gotten that before. It’s the tail.). I haven’t lived in Arizona for years now but I haven’t lost the instinct; a well-shaped piece of lint or a curl of rubber on the floor of the garage starts me up every time. But not because scorpions are particularly dangerous. I honestly can’t imagine anyone dying by scorpion unless they swallowed the thing and it stung the shit out of their stomach or something. Or maybe if it were a baby. And there were other factors. Lung trouble.
My point is, they aren’t killers and my sister should know that. We just vacuum the suckers up. I’ve used overturned glass jars, slippers, books, a chair, a hammer, pretty much anything to smash scorpions, or to trap them until I can get back with something that will. She’s done the same. It isn’t anything to holler about, because scorpions come with the territory. We grew up with them the way most people grow up with Velcro or Lunchables. And we rarely miss.
There isn’t anything a hospital can really do for scorpion stings, but I say this as a comforting thing. I mean that most people do just fine without any help at all. A nurse will tell you to drink some fluids and maybe, if you’re elderly, put you on watch, but otherwise they turn you loose right away. Most of the sharper pain that comes with the sting goes away after twenty-four hours. The muscle spasms and tremors stop after about ten, and are more annoying than they are anything else. The rest is an achy soreness that rides itself out in a few days. I’ve heard some people say there are experimental antidotes now, that they’ve administered them in extreme cases. Wimps.
My sister lives right up against a mountain range. The desert practically spills into her backyard. She’s had snakes, javelinas, raccoons, the works. It’s what happens when your lawn makes up a majority of the greenery within a ten-mile radius. Most folks might be surprised to find that scorpions are the real trouble. You can keep the rest out with a good fence and wire. She’s getting three, four scorpions a week in the house now. Like I said. High season.
We aren’t that close, to tell the truth. She called me up a few months ago, something about she heard it was a hard winter. It was March, and we were coming out of it, so it’d been a little odd. She said what did I use, antifreeze? Did the street plows make it to my neighborhood? I said my fireplace had crapped out but we’d made it through okay. It was the first time we’d talked in a year. Then she called in April, said that we both knew summer wasn’t the best time but did I want to come home. She called again the week after, said I could come anytime, really, she and Todd didn’t have any plans. I took the hint. What the hell. We’re family.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been back. The airport’s changed a lot. They’ve gotten rid of the old carpet with the pixelated phoenixes and put in a nice tiled vinyl floor. New murals, too, with accents in hard red and blue glass and the typical desert fanfare, pastel sunscapes, that kind of thing. Still, the first thing I notice is the way the air hits you, stepping onto the jetway. It even smells hot, suffocating in that way that you start to feel under your armpits, anywhere where skin touches skin, really. Dry enough that you can look out at any yellow, brittle excuse for a lawn and feel the life withering. Every building, every street, every sign becomes a reflector for the sun, another surface of heat and light. Can’t say I miss it.
The people look washed out, too, even my sister. Her hair and eyes are dull and she’s skinny, not in a good way. She’s always been the skinny one but this, this isn’t a good look for her. I wonder if it was high school when we started being less. When she and her killer legs and her sheer enthusiasm had gotten her any boy she wanted. I had been tall, but that was all, just tall, and occasionally athletic. It hadn’t felt so long ago, but seeing her here now it suddenly does.
She pulls me into a hug and plants a weak kiss on my cheek. I hold her tight, then tighter. She likes hugs, I remember that.
“Todd couldn’t make it,” she says. “Something came up at work. As usual.”
“You can catch up at dinner.”
“No problem,” I say.
“Luggage?” she says. We make our way down the escalators to the baggage claim. She isn’t talkative. I can’t remember if that’s a new thing.
“So what’s new?”
She shrugs. “Everything’s pretty much the same.” She shoots me a quick look. “I missed you.”
“Love you, too,” I say.
She smiles a little at that. “How long since the last time you were here?”
“I’ve been trying to figure that out too. Four years, maybe?”
“Longer than that,” she says. “It was before Todd switched jobs.”
I don’t know what to say to that because I honestly have no idea. I spot my suitcase and haul it off the carousel, and then we head to the parking lot. The air hits me again when the doors slide open. God, it’s hot. “It’s getting to be bad out,” Jess says apologetically.
“I remember,” I say, even though I don’t feel like I do. I don’t remember having to cope. It just was the way things were. A hundred and fifteen degrees out, and rising. No big. Keep the AC cranked up. Park in the shade. It suddenly hits me that I’ve never invited her East. Not recently. “You should come visit,” I say. “Escape the heat.”
She just nods. I wonder if I’ve offended her somehow. Like she thinks I only offered because she did first. She did choose to stay, after all, all those years ago. Arizona’s always been her home. But seriously. It doesn’t mean she can’t travel.
“Next summer,” I say. “June. July. When it feels like this.”
“That’d be nice. I’ll ask Todd.”
Her car is tan, and a Toyota. She’s so predictable.
“I’ll help you make dinner,” I say.
“Now?” she checks her watch. “It’s four.”
I shrug. “Then we’ll make a big dinner.”
“There are only three of us,” she says, but it’s half-hearted.
“Jess,” I say. “We should celebrate. It’s been four years.”
“Longer,” she says.
She’s a little livelier in the kitchen, which is a relief. Jess got more than just the looks in our family. She got most of the skills. Cooking included.
“Do you remember,” she says, “when you made Mom scrambled eggs in bed for the first time? And you didn’t know how they got scrambled, even though it was the easiest thing ever, so you fried an egg normal and then ripped it up into little pieces?”
I do. Mom had been recovering from strep. She’d laughed so hard she’d practically hacked up a lung. She said it was like me, to think of a difficult solution to any problem, no matter how easy.
Jessica goes into the pantry, then pauses. “Kate, will you get the vacuum? It’s in the closet by the stairs.”
I feel that familiar twinge of adrenaline. Just enough to get your heart to pick up the pace a little. When I return with the vacuum I peer over her shoulder (I am still tall) at the bent legs and the fat, yellow body. It moves suddenly, runs along the baseboard with the tail straightened behind it. The vacuum slurps it up.
There was a time when we’d used a modified vacuum, specially designed for this express purpose. It was called the Bug Sucker, and it had a clear, hollow, triangular foot you could use to trap whatever bug you wanted before you switched the suction on. Inside was a tiny mesh cartridge with a one-way door. Once we were good at the trapping and sucking on our own, though, we swapped the Bug Sucker out for a regular vacuum. You didn’t have to change the cartridges as often.
“We don’t get those on the East Coast, you know.” “Still gets you going, huh?”
“’Course. Doesn’t matter how long it’s been.”
Jess puts away the vacuum. “They’re getting worse.” “It’s July.”
“Still. I think there’s an infestation or something.”
The door opens and Todd comes in, throwing his keys into a crystal bowl by the door. I sent them that bowl for their wedding.
“Hey,” he says.
“Hey,” Jess says. “You’re home early.”
“Meeting got cancelled. Hey, Kate. Sorry I couldn’t come meet you.” He comes over and gives me a hug. He smells faintly of cigarettes.
“We’re having a big dinner,” Jess says, putting her hands in a mixing bowl. She kneads, hard.
“Great. I’m gonna get washed up, and then I’ll help.”
“No, don’t worry about it. I can manage.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I want to.”
Jess watches him go, her hands still in the bowl. She rests her wrists on the edge, her fingers in the dough.
“You didn’t tell me Todd smokes now,” I say, to fill the silence. “Doesn’t that drive you crazy?”
“He doesn’t smoke,” she says, but her brow furrows and she looks faded. Like the art projects we used to make in elementary school out of construction paper. Our teacher would hang them in the window, and in a couple of weeks you could flip them over and see the color the paper used to be. Those windows were tinted, too.
Todd yells from the next room and we both jump.
“Coming,” Jess sighs. She wipes her hands on a towel and heads for the closet.
“You gotta do something about them, Jess,” I say, following. “Call the Terminator.” Our little joke, when we were kids.
“You mean the exterminator.” Jess doesn’t remember. “Todd doesn’t want to spend the money. It’s not a big deal, it happens all the time.”
“You said yourself there might be an infestation. And as for the money—” I shrug. “Do it yourself. I’ll help you.”
“With what?” she’s exasperated now. “We’re thinking about getting a puppy. I don’t want poison all over the yard.”
“Jess!” Todd yells, and Jess moves a little faster.
“I’m coming! I’m coming!”
“Too late.” He comes out into the hallway, his tie undone. “I lost it somewhere under the bed. Christ, Jess.”
“Todd’s from Chicago, you know,” Jess says. “I don’t think he’s used to it yet.”
“Can’t you call someone?” Todd yanks on one end of the tie and it slips out of the collar in a whiz of silk.
“What about the dog?”
They stare at each other a moment.
“Yeah,” Todd mumbles. “The puppy. Right.” He turns back into his room and closes the door.
Jess lets out a breath, then nudges me gently into the kitchen.
“Todd’s been a little stressed lately,” she says.
"I get it,” I say. She starts to knead again, and I pull up a stool at the island, facing her. It’s silent, except for the smack-smack of the dough against the sides of the bowl and the distant hiss of the shower. Her hands press, press, the tendons standing out, knuckles rising and sinking under her tan skin.
Todd was the reason Jess stayed, and part of the reason I left. Our mom used to worry because I had never been in a relationship longer than a handful of months. “Love will settle her,” she kept saying to our dad. Todd was everything I was afraid of. I’m no rocket scientist or New York exec, but at least I don’t live here.
“Jess, let’s do it,” I say. “The scorpions. It’ll give me something to do.”
Scorpions, as with most desert life, are nocturnal. No surprise there. We go out back after dinner with a flashlight and a couple of slippers, the wine warm in our bellies. The night is a different rendition of heat. Duller, worn, like a tired argument. I go up to the edge of the dying grass, scan the yard. There’s a bed of gravel in the back, butting up against the low brick wall that runs around the house. Along the top of the wall stands a standard metal fence with vertical bars every five or six inches, and Jess has boarded up or run wire tight through the gaps where it meets the brick. I flash the light down the sides of the house, which are lined with stones, turn it towards the edge of the pool, shine it on the grill. We take a few steps towards the barbecue, crouch down on the concrete. We’ve only been out a few minutes, and already I can feel the sweat pooling in the dips behind my knees.
Jess’s hand flashes out with the slipper and smacks down hard on the cement. She’s almost pulled back before I hear the soft crack, and my light refocuses on the juicy cud, tail twitching, a couple of the legs waving slowly. The tail keeps going even after the rest of the body stops. That’s the thing with the tail. When I was in middle school my friend’s mom smashed a scorpion with a textbook, and got most of the body, though she missed the stinger. When she lifted the book off, the tail got her in the wrist. She had a numb arm for a week.
I nudge it with my slipper and it flips over, leaving a dark smear. “Nice work, Jess. Got it in one.”
“I wish they weren’t so hard to find,” Jess says, peering around her feet. “They’re never around when you want them. Watch your ankles.”
“Babies, too. They’re everywhere.”
The babies look exactly like adults, only in miniature, and are a lot lighter in color. Some are even orange, the color and translucency of an overripe cantaloupe. They ride in a cluster on the mother’s back, sometimes stacked three deep, and they’re always falling off. Usually you find one, you watch out for more.
I shift uncomfortably on the balls of my feet.
“So you’re thinking of getting a dog, huh?”
“Maybe. Why are you so surprised?”
I shrug. “You didn’t like our dog all that much, when we had one.”
“It wasn’t that I didn’t like him,” Jess laughs. “It’s that he was always messing up our fun.”
There had been a lot of fun. We looked forward to every spring, however brief, when our mom trimmed the garden. We had huge rose bushes, though most of the flowers died, of course, even as early as April. But when the heavy heads of petals were still soft and full, we stole the pruned branches and cut off the thorns, then shaved the green skin off with a knife. Then we sparred with what was left. Our dog, Bungee, tended to gnaw on the weapons a little, especially when we left them out in the sun. For curing.
Before that, we had played with Legos. We each had our own house. Her people were the Maytrees. Mine were the Momdads. I could still name the people. The engineering twins, Eugene and Genette. The ambitious pianist, Eliza, and the Jedi wannabe, Obi-Now. There was the failed robotic experiment and exercise in artificial intelligence, Bozo, and the runt of the family, Wimpy. He’d met his end in an appropriately stupid manner when Jess had taken Wimpy and Obi-Now outside in their van. I’d discovered Wimpy’s shiny yellow head and parts of the van in one of Bungee’s deposits on the lawn the next day. Obi-Now had never been found.
She knows what I’m thinking and gives me a shit-eating grin that I remember from high school. It’s true, what people say about being happy. For that one second, she looks younger.
I find another scorpion on the side of the barbecue and strike at it with the flip-flop. I miss and it falls to the concrete, stunned until I hit again. This time, I feel the sweet press of it under the sole before my hand rises and comes down one more time for good measure. The hand of God, striking it down.
It goes on like this for a few more nights, though we only find a couple each time. Jess looses the bloodlust another night in, and I feel like some kind of soldier general at breakfast trying to get her to agree to one more sweep. Todd is oddly silent on the issue, and though Jess doesn’t say anything I can tell she thinks he isn’t taking our actions seriously. I don’t blame him. At two or three a night we’re hardly wiping out a nest, and we’re still finding ones in the house.
Jess glances at Todd when he comes out for breakfast. His suit is pressed, and his shoes have been buffed. He wants my opinion on the tie he’s chosen.
“You look sharp,” Jess says, then adds, “For someone boarding a plane.”
“Well, it’s San Francisco, they have standards there.” He whistles while he pours himself a cup of coffee and scoops Jess’s famous scrambled eggs onto a plate.
“I don’t see what the point is if you’re just going to change.”
“I’m going straight to the conference.”
“Todd has had a lot of out-of-town conferences recently,” Jess says to me, but her eyes are fixed on Todd. “I hope they realize it. How hard you’re working.”
“Well,” he says, “Maybe I’ll get promoted.”
He shovels the eggs down and goes to retrieve his briefcase.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you?” Jess says.
“No. Thanks,” he brushes past her and gives her a quick kiss. “Don’t bother. I got a cab. See you, Kate.”
It’s Jed, one of our mutual friends from high school, who mentions the blacklight trick when we meet to catch up over lunch and mention we’re becoming proficient in scorpicide. Jess and I head down to a hardware store right after and ask someone in the front. It’s no urban myth, apparently.
I’m surprised you didn’t know,” the store clerk says, and looks over at Jess. “You’ve been living here how long?”
Jess manages to look appropriately abashed.
“The scorpions light up like a sick Christmas tree. It’ll scare the crap out of you, first couple times you do it. Did me.”
“Blacklight? As in, fly traps? And the eighties?” I envision Jess erecting a neon display in the backyard. “Yeah. You can get it in a flashlight. Here, we’ve got an easy display. Show you what I mean.”
He leads us towards the back to a counter, where they’ve got a couple of scorpions along with a rock and some sand in a glass jar. One rests uncomfortably up against the curved slope of the wall, like it started on the offensive and lost the will to go on. I’ve never seen the underside of a scorpion before. I feel a little sick looking at the mechanics of the jointed legs, how they plug into the segmented abdomen like piping.
“It’s quite the demo,” he says, reaching for a flashlight. The bulb flashes on, tinting the shelf and the sand in a familiar, boozy glow. Jess leans in closer, the white accents in her shirt standing out. There’s no mistaking it. The scorpions brighten into a low acid green.
“What the hell,” I say.
“Wanna give it a try?” he passes the light to me, and I bring it in. Brighter. Greener. One of the scorpions raises its tail hesitatingly.
“Do they all look like this?” Jess asks.
“Well, living here you’ve got yourself sixty different species, but none of the blue-turning ones. They’re black, normally. Emperor scorps. Whole different classification. We don’t have them in AZ, you know.” He says the letters, ay-zee. People do that here.
At the checkout counter, he bags the light with a few batteries and a heavy-duty localized-only spray. “Don’t look into the light,” he winks. “Seriously, though, you’ll go blind. Good luck, ladies. Happy hunting.”
Todd’s still away on business, so I accompany Jess to the mall for a movie and whatever else she feels like. I sip a soda slowly while she runs her hands up and down some dress shirts, trying to decide green or blue for Todd. She says he complains a lot about his clothes, these days. That they’re all old. She doesn’t put in her usual effort and ends up asking the saleslady which men’s shirt is the most popular. When they don’t have Todd’s size, we leave.
There’s not much in the way of fun in Arizona. Most outdoor activities you can scratch right off the list. You could go hiking, though you’d need to be up at the crack of dawn for it not to be a suicide mis- sion. You could listen to the world’s worst city orchestra if you were one of Arizona’s rich. Just imagine a school band gone pro. Halloween, walk a desert trail populated with luminaries. Or luminarias, as the Jo-Ann Etc. crowd call them. And Christmas: lights with the family at the local Mormon temple. Some might be surprised to discover you can ski in Arizona, December through March. That’s right. Flagstaff is just a four-hour drive from Phoenix. Though that might be changing, too, with the new highway they’re setting up. I guess even Phoenix has to start speeding up, like the rest of us.
People visit, they keep saying there’s got to be more. And they’re right. There’s probably a hole-in- the-wall Peruvian restaurant somewhere next to a laundromat. People would probably get up to more crime here, if the heat didn’t sap even the will to live. It’s an exciting day if you run into someone with an unusual name, like Bryan or Siobhan.
Arizona’s genuine, though, even if it is in a backwoods, cowboyin’, rodeo kind of way. I’ll give it that much. They name streets and neighborhoods with the same kind of come-from pride that D.C. does. Only, instead of district blocks of presidents, we’ve got Hohokam. Ahwatukee. The Superstition Free- way. Some people like the idea of driving around in their air-conditioned cars and looking out over the fenced-off Indian reserves, feeling like maybe some of that tradition still applies. They like the atmosphere. Still, names only go so far, and we haven’t got enough atmosphere to get a plane off a runway. The scorpion light thing is probably the highlight of Jess’s summer.
When we go out that night, though, even I have to admit that the blacklight is more than I expected. Jess switches it on way in the back and outright screams. In the dark the effect is the store demo times ten. Each scorpion—and there are twenty, thirty at least—is like a little scurrying light, brighter than a glo-stick. Bright enough to convince you they’re lighting up from the inside. There are whole clusters of them with chalky, neon-green tails and pincers, curling up, scuttling left and right in the purple-washed dark. The sand throws up freckles of purple light, and highlights from the flashlight flare in thin reflections along the metal bars, along the shiny hood of Todd’s grill.
“I wish Todd could see this,” Jess whispers.
One crawls a little closer along the wall towards us and she backs into me, so I take the light from her, raise the shoe in my right hand and crush it. It drops to the stones below, bouncing like a rubber imitation. That starts them all up and it’s a sudden free-for-all. There’s a part of me that enjoys this, a twisted game of whack-a-mole that gets Jess a cleaner house, but as I lay into a fourth scorpion I realize my hands are clawed. Fighting off Arizona, one scorpion at a time.
Jess is freaking. Really, truly freaking. “Shine it over here! Shine it over here!” she shrieks, and she raises the spray bottle and starts squeezing off rounds into the oleander bushes, where scorpions hang on the low branches and exposed roots like some kind of alien fruit. “Over here, Kate! I can’t see!”
I wish we had two flashlights. I wish there were about four more people here smashing away.
“Oh my God. Oh my God,” Jess keeps saying, her hands fumbling with the spray. “Kate! Kate!”
I feel the drops on my leg and shriek, “What? What is it?
“It got me! It got me!”
Jess is clutching her ankle.
“You need to lie down!” I shout at her. “Go inside!”
“What the hell!” she screams at the ground. She hobbles around, stomping on the scorpions by her feet. I have to grab her arms, and both of us nearly fall over with the effort.
“Inside, Jess! Stop it!”
“You’re not the boss of me!” She lets go, drops the spray, then the slipper. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I didn’t mean it.” She lets me run an arm under her shoulders and keeps whispering apologies as we stagger across her lawn.
Inside, I lay her down on the floor and run to grab her a glass of water. She’s still whispering apologies, only now it’s so faint I can’t make out the words.
“Shut up,” I grit my teeth, and she stops with a surprised look on her face, like she didn’t know she was still talking. By the time I kneel next to her with the glass, the sweats have already started, and her leg is doing little tremors. The muscles in her neck twitch.
“It’s fast,” she says, almost in awe. “Did you know it was this fast?” “You’re gonna be fine. Do you want to go to the hospital?” “What for?” she says.
“Nothing. How’s your breathing?”
“Fine,” she says, calmer now. Her leg jerks up and down. “I’m good.”
I get her another glass, lean up against the island while she downs it. When she’s done I lay down on the floor next to her, put my ear to her chest.
“I’m still fine.” It sounds fuzzy to me, though, and the two of us fall silent, listening to the rasp of her lungs.
“There’s an antidote now,” she says suddenly. “The FDA approved it. It was in the news last week.” “Do you want it?”
“It’s for extreme cases.”
“Mine’s not extreme,” she clarifies, like I didn’t know.
“Do you want me to call Todd?”
“No. Shut up.” Then she says, “Get me a pen.”
I get on my knees and feel around the countertop for a Bic. Then I crawl back to her. She sits up and draws an uneven line a few inches above her ankle.
“What time is it?”
I tell her. She writes it next to the line. Then she lies back down, still holding the pen.
Ten minutes later, she asks again. She prods at her leg like it’s some kind of meat and draws another line an inch higher. Marking the numbness. The numbers are backwards, facing her.
“Shut up,” she says, when I open my mouth to speak. We lie there for another ten minutes, then twenty. Her hands are crossed over her stomach, the pen uncapped in them.
“Todd’s not away on business,” she says to the ceiling. “He’s having an affair. What time is it?”
I tell her. She draws another line.
We end up sleeping on the kitchen floor. I wake up every half hour and check her breathing, but it’s relatively smooth. Her leg dances every now and then, but for the most part it lays flat. The lines go half- way up her thigh now, though she lost interest an hour or so in, and the numbness had slowed by then anyway. We try meat tenderizer, the kind with papaya extract it in, and make it into a little paste for the puncture wound, to help break down some of the proteins in the venom. She makes me take pictures, then sniffs at it tenderly.
“My leg smells like a chemical hazard,” she says.
She starts to talk about Todd, how over the course of three months he’d been really attentive and then been sullen and reserved and then been irritable and called her suffocating, and how she should’ve figured it out. How she’d called the office for some reason or another when he was gone once and found out there wasn’t any conference in LA. How much the co-worker on the other end of the line had pitied her. How she’d noticed the cigarette thing, too.
Her breathing gets worse, then, and so instead we talk about how the last time we’d fallen asleep together in our house she’d been four and wet my bed and I’d refused to let her sleep there ever again. How when she was older I still hated sharing a bed with her on family vacations, because she kicked in her sleep. How she was always getting into trouble, how in elementary school she’d hacked into the school server once and found the full names of all her classmates and pulled all three names on anyone who messed with her. How they’d had no idea how she knew these things, were even awed, and the principal had to tell her to stop. He’d also asked her to stop trying to catch birds in the parking lot for class pets.
“You were so smart, Jess,” I say finally. “And so funny. You were snatching birds. And hacking into computers.”
“I told you, it was an accident.”
“You middle-named kids. That’s kind of manipulative.”
“You say that like it’s a good thing.”
“You were smart. Really smart.”
She narrows her eyes at me. “Not everyone wants the same things,” she says, but it’s half-hearted.
I get it. It’s the difficulty of freedom. The taxonomy of living.
“You know, Arizona isn’t this awful place you make it out to be,” Jess says. “I don’t think you hate Arizona. I think you hate us. The people in it. For not thinking big, like you.”
“Look,” Jess says. “Some things find you. It doesn’t really matter where you are. Look at me and Todd. I was mad at her, at first. I wanted something bad to happen to her, something really bad, and for a while I thought about finding out who she was. But then I realized it wasn’t about her. It was Todd. The jackass.”
By then she is exhausted and a couple of Advil have dulled the pain enough for her to finally doze off, the sweat drying on her brow. Her eyes spin erratically under the lids. I keep checking her fever, and every time I check I wake her up, until she finally snaps at me to cut it out. We lay there together, drifting in and out. Her leg jerks and she kicks me in my sleep.
In the morning, she makes me take a nap while she showers, her leg mostly under control. I wake up with her bent over me, her hair fresh and her eyes puffy but lucid.
“Before we kill all the scorpions,” she says. “Let’s catch some.”
The ants have carried away most of the dead, though there are a few bodies tossed brokenly in the gravel, like this is some mob dumpsite for scorpion killers. Their bodies have already shriveled in the heat; the stringy gristle left behind is testament to a sun that never ends. I remember learning in the third grade that the sun would give out one day like an old man’s back, and thinking at recess while we fought for the shade that my teacher couldn’t have meant our sun, the same one that beat down and first made people restless and then filled them up heavy with its exhaustion. Scorpions can survive minutes in a microwave, hours underwater, even months without food. But Arizona always gets the last say. In the end, all anything ever is here is dead, then dried, then dust. Sometimes before the next sun even rises.
Jess stands in the lawn, keeps weight off her right leg. She watches as I flip the discarded sandals over in the dirt with a nudge of my foot, make sure there’s nothing living underneath. Same with the spray can, which goes flying. Guess Jess used more than we thought. We spend the rest of the day indoors, organizing old photos while watching television. Jess doesn’t even get off the couch for lunch, so I bring her some canned soup heated in a bowl. Todd calls sometime in the afternoon and I turn down the volume on the TV. Jess sounds tired but even. Doesn’t mention last night. She rallies a little at the end, asks him how San Francisco is. If the weather’s nicer. I hear him say something about low seventies and a jacket at night and she rolls her eyes at me, mouths the word jackass.
“I almost asked him to bring me something back,” she says when she hangs up. “But I thought that might be too obvious. God, is television this bad everywhere?”
She’s picked out a jar, drilled some holes in the lid with a spare nail, rummaged in a drawer of kitchen serving spoons and salad tossers and cheese graters until she’s found a couple of tongs. She sees my face and calls me a wuss. It’s not the same, though. Tongs mean prolonged contact. I like the hit and run version better. She gets the light and limps outside and I follow, picking up our old hunting equipment.
There are still about thirty scorpions, two or three clustered around the grill, which we dispatch from the get, the rest scattered along the back wall. Jess pinches with the tongs, picks up the fibrous pulp of the leftovers in the gravel and drops them into the jar. You can see the shriveled tails flopping when she bounces the jar on the palm of her hand, the wrinkled segments worse than raisins.
Even the dried scorpion mush lights up under the blacklight. That and some of the withered oleander flowers that have dropped, though the reflection’s dimmer. Doesn’t stop us from reacting, though. Anything glowing out here is suspect. Jess gets in the fray, baring her teeth with disgust. The tongs might be a foot long but you can feel the teeth grip the scorpion wriggling at the end from the pressure. Like spearing crawdads. We get maybe fifteen and then she can’t take it and screws the lid shut and rolls it away into the grass, scorpions whirling like hell inside. We knock out the rest of them with the slippers and spray, smacking hard to stomp out the feeling that’s crawled up inside our throats.
The jar sits in the kitchen next to the toaster for two days. At first she put it in the middle of the island like a jar for change until breakfast, when I refused to eat with her if she didn’t move it. Her display has a time limit, though. Turns out, scorpions love eating other scorpions.
Jess doesn’t want to talk about confrontation or divorce, or counseling. She just sits with the jar, keeps tapping the glass, trying to figure out how many of the scorpions are still alive. She works from home, but now she brings her laptop and all the papers and spreadsheets out into the kitchen and uses the jar as a paperweight. Every few minutes, her eyes drift over.
She starts to bring it everywhere. Into the bedroom with her at night, when she leaves it on the night- stand by Todd’s side of the bed. Into her study, when she has to make work-related calls. She leaves it on the floor by her feet when she watches television in the living room, by the sink when she does the dishes, on top of the ironing board when she folds her clothes. Sometimes, she shines the blacklight on them, which turns the whole thing into a lamp a twelve-year-old boy would probably trade his right arm for. She gets an almost zoned-out look on her face when she studies it, the kind a kid has when he watches a fish tank. Not that the scorpions move much. They get restless when she takes them someplace else, but once she’s set them down they settle in, too.
The morning Todd comes home I wake up and the jar is gone. I guess Jess finally realized how morbid it is, keeping them around like that. For one thing, it’s like cockfighting, but with scorpions. There was one big one that had been dominating for a few days, enough that she’d named him Champ. He was missing a leg but that didn’t stop him. For another thing, the jar is glass, which means that visually, they aren’t caged at all. It’s hard to relax when you can see them all rolling over one another smushed together a couple feet away.
Jess comes in, hair wet, looking for her keys. “I gotta pick Todd up,” she says, digging through her purse. She fishes out her sunglasses and snaps them on. “Can you mail some things for me before I get back? They need to get out before the truck comes to pick them up. You can take Todd’s car. The mail- box’s still at that place. Across from the gym.”
There’s a stack of letters on the table by the door: a couple of bills, from the look of it, plus a package in one of those standard USPS boxes. Jess gives me a quick kiss in thanks as she darts past, then I hear the slam of the car door and the rumble of the garage.
After a shower and breakfast, I gather up the mail, tucking the letters into my purse and balancing the package under my arm. The weight inside isn’t even; I can feel something rolling around and the shift of sparse, Styrofoam peanuts. I freeze in the doorway and lift the package, press my ear to it.
I can almost hear the sudden scratch and rustle of something moving on glass, panicked, disturbed, the shredded scramble of legs. The soft, juicy thickness of bodies tumbling up against the sides. The sounds of hunger and consumption.