The exterminator was late. Max waited for him, pacing the living room with a cup of coffee that he gripped like a shipwreck survivor clinging to the last buoyant piece of his boat. It was a light green mug, with that crackle glazing that Leona was so fond of, and he had laced it with whiskey to give him the strength that he needed.

Finally the doorbell rang, and Max scurried to answer it. Once inside, the exterminator - backpack sprayer in the left hand, bucket of tools in the right, Joe embroidered on his coverall - quickly began a survey of the house. His disapproval was clear. Even before he saw the kitchen he was muttering complaints.

"It's no wonder you got roaches, buddy."

The 'buddy' grated on Max's already overwrought nerves, and the effort of maintaining his smile made his fingers grip the coffee cup even tighter.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Well, you know, I don't want to tell you how to live your life, but this..." he gestured vaguely, as if to convey the impossibility of finding any specific place to point.

He tried again. "Bachelor pads are almost always a mess - I seen enough of them - but this is worse than usual. You keep the place like this, it's like hanging out a sign, says 'Roaches Wanted' on it. You gotta clean the place up a little, you won't have so many problems."

Max's smile felt like it was stapled in place. "I don't know what you're talking about. My wife is away on business. I let the place go wild a little while she's gone. Can you take care of them?"

"The roaches? Sure, buddy. But you'll get more if you don't clean the house up." He looked doubtful, and his nostrils wrinkled as he hunted for insects. Max followed close behind him, listening.

"She been gone a long time?"

"She's working overseas. Would you like to see the kitchen? That's where most of them are."

"Sure, yeah. That way?" Without waiting for a confirmation, the exterminator walked towards the kitchen. As he passed the bathroom, he poked his head in for a quick look. Max joined him, already feeling defensive.

Of course, he had left the toilet seat up. A habit he had never been able to break, and one Leona had never managed to get used to. If she had even tried.

While the exterminator poked around the baseboards, an inch-long roach popped out from behind the overflowing wicker trash basket and waggled its antennae at Max.

"This isn't going to help, you know. You're ours now, Max."

"Like hell I am," he hissed. "We're going to get rid of you and all your little brothers and sisters right now," Max hissed.

The exterminator looked up. "You say something?"

"Just talking to myself."

The bug man tsked. "Bad habit. Well, you got a few crawlies in here, for sure. Let's see that kitchen now."

He left the bathroom. As Max followed, the roach in the bathroom uttered a little whistling laugh.

"You're ours, Max."

Joe stopped in the doorway, one foot halfway onto a dingy white tile. Max almost bumped into him, and swore quietly as his drink sloshed over the sleeve of his bathrobe.

The exterminator's eyes were wide with horror. He had found the source of the smell that pervaded the whole house. His hand moved instinctively towards the rubber gloves in the bucket.

"How long has it been since you cleaned this place?" he whispered to Max.

A fetor of spoilage hung in the air.

Empty beer and wine bottles stood in ranks on the counter. The once-yellow linoleum floor was stained with scum like algae on a shark-infested ocean. It was especially dark around the sink and the basement door. Dishes towered in crazy piles in and around the sink. The trash can in the corner was an anchor for a forest of plastic bags, some tied, most not.

Bugs were everywhere. Cobwebs swayed in the corner, thick with mummified flies. More flies buzzed at the filthy glass of the windows over the sink, while others dove into the open trash bags and emerged washing their eyes. And the roaches....

Roaches swarmed giddily over and around everything, running fearless across the spattered floor. They crawled up the table legs in convoys, dined in parties of ten at pizza boxes and takeaway containers that might have been piling up for months, ran supply lines under the basement door, watched the intruders from every surface in the kitchen.

The kitchen looked like a crack house. How could anyone live like this?

It was not the cleanest it had ever been, Max had to admit that. He should have washed up some of the dishes piled in the sink, maybe cleaned up some of the grimy spots on the floor. He hated to let a stranger see his kitchen in such a state. But that was no excuse for the expression on the exterminator's face, a grimace that wavered between fear and disgust, mingled with accusation.

Didn't he understand how hard it was to clean up, day after day after tedious, lonely day? Didn't he know how pointless it was to keep on trying to fight it? Every day, mopping the floor, picking up garbage, taking it out, washing dishes - and for what? It wasn't like Max did a lot of entertaining.

Where did the man get off looking at Max like that?

The roaches tittered.

"You're ours now, Max."

Max bit his lip, fighting back a wave of despair that climbed up from the lump in his throat. It was all he could do to keep standing.

"This isn't going to work, Max," said a baby roach as it climbed onto his Tweety Bird slipper. Leona's Tweety Bird slipper, rather. She would be coming to get them any day now.

"Yes it is!" he spat. She was coming. She was. "We're getting rid of you bastards right now."

She had to come.

There had to be more to life than this.

"We're not going to let you do that," said the baby roach.

"You're not talking to the bugs, are you?" the exterminator asked him, trying to make it sound like a joke.

"They don't want you here," Max told him. "They don't want me to get on with my life."

The exterminator nodded understandingly. "Take it easy, buddy. Maybe you should sit down. Jesus, you look terrible." He reached out and grasped Max's arm comfortingly, and guided him back down the hall to the living room, where the smell was not so overpowering and there weren't roaches on every available surface.

"Listen, I want to help you. Okay, buddy? I guess I know what happened here. A guy's wife leaves him, it's hard to take. Lots of guys fall apart when their girls move out. Hell, if my wife ever left me, I'd fall apart too. But you gotta get on with your life, just like you said. I'll do my job, maybe that'll help you get started. Gonna have to charge you a little extra, cause you're gonna need spray bombs, but I'll get rid of the bugs. But you - listen to me! You have got to clean up your house. A guy can't live like this. Are you listening?"

"There's a roach on your shoulder," Max told him.

The bug man grunted in surprise and twisted his head around, knocking the roach away with a gloved hand. As it somersaulted into the corner, it wailed piteously.

"Don't let him do this, Max!"

"All right, sit there for a few minutes. I'm gonna look around in the basement, then I'll start spraying. You want to clean the place up a little before I use the spray bombs? So these guys have less places to hide? I can give you a couple of days, come back with the bombs on Wednesday."

"It's our house, Max," said an enormous roach lumbering across the floor.

"Don't let him do this, Max," said a spider dangling from the ceiling a few feet away.

A spider? Max recoiled and blinked. They had never talked to him before.

"You never called an exterminator before," said a fly.

"I'm afraid you're trying to do something that might spoil our relationship." Max shivered and cringed, thinking the couch itself was talking to him. But, of course, it was only a roach. He snarled at it.

"We don't have a fucking relationship!"

"You mean, not yet," laughed another bug. The whole chorus tittered unnervingly.

"Buddy, calm down. You look like you're gonna have a heart attack." He had forgotten the exterminator was still there. The man was looking at him with a mixture of sadness and repugnance, the same look he might use for an especially juicy piece of roadkill that was surprisingly not quite dead.

"You know," he told Max quietly, "I ought to leave this place right now. Tell you the truth, this house makes me sick, and you're starting to give me the creeps too. You want to sit here in your own filth and talk to bugs, I shouldn't even care. But I'm still going to try to help you. My wife is always telling me I should do more to help people, so I'm going to go ahead and spray in your basement and kitchen. Then I'm out of here."

He paused for a moment, then continued. "But I swear to God, buddy, I think you need serious help - and I don't mean an exterminator. If I was you, I'd think about calling a shrink."

He was off again, striding towards the basement door, strapping on the backpack sprayer on the way.

"Did you hear that?" a roach asked in an outraged tone. "Who does he think he is?"

"Listen to Mister Helpful!"

"He thinks he's better than you, Max. Did you hear all that stuff about his wife?"

"That's exactly the kind of guy that stole Leona away from you, Max."


"Nobody stole Leona!" Max blurted.

"Don't be stupid, Max. Even you must realise by now that she's not going to come back. And you know why? Because of dumb guys like that, pretending to be better than you."

It wasn't true.

"Yes, it is."

There was a whole family of roaches sitting around Max's feet, looking up at him and babbling ceaselessly, their voices getting louder and shriller by the second.

"Go get him, Max."

"We'll help you."

He whimpered.

It was even worse in the basement. Even through the face mask, Joe thought he could smell that sick rotting stench. He countered it with the smell of poison, the hiss of the sprayer not quite drowning out the whisper of wings and the heavy thuds of two-inchers falling to the floor. He started at the foot of the stairs and worked his way around the dim basement, probing under things with the nozzle of his spray gun, and already the roach corpses were beyond counting.

He shook his head and mumbled, his expression unreadable behind the face mask. This was without a doubt the worst infestation he had ever seen. More than that, the customer was beginning to freak him out. This house wasn't just dirty. It seemed to have gone rotten. But he fought to bury his doubts, determined to finish the job. He knew the guy needed more help than he could give him, but he would do whatever he could. Aiming the sprayer this way and that, he resolutely continued his circuit of the basement like a soldier on patrol.

Until he came to the work bench. And saw the seething mass of roaches on the pile of old clothes. And the arm.

He began to shake. Kneeling, he batted roaches away with the nozzle of the sprayer. He prodded the stiff fingers, knocking at a roach that had its mouthparts under a broken fingernail. He gagged and tore the mask away before he vomited into it. Suddenly the smell was a hundred times worse.

He stood up quickly, backing away, and his mumbling grew to a babble of horror and dismay.

"What did you do, you sick bastard? Jesus Christ, what did you do?"

"This," said Max, right behind him. The exterminator whirled and raised his hands protectively, way too late. The knife went in unprofessionally, but it did what it was meant to do.

"I can't believe you're going to stay here after you found all this out," said Marie. Her eyes were wide, and she sat tensely, with a death grip on the undrunk coffee cup Jane had given her half an hour ago. She had not moved since Jane began her story.

"If it was me, I wouldn't stay another night in this place. I'd be packing my bags while I called my lawyer."

Jane shrugged, looking out the window at the gorgeous maple tree that was just beginning to put on its autumn colours. "I just finished moving in. I don't want to start packing up all over again. Besides, I love this place. And where am I going to find another decent house for what I paid?"

"They ripped you off, Jane. They probably couldn't get half that money if they told people what happened here."

"Well, the law says they don't have to. And why should they? A guy murders his wife and an exterminator. It's sick, but it isn't catching. No reason why that should make a house cost less."

"You don't believe that. And he killed himself, too, don't forget."

"So what? Come on, Marie. I know it's creepy, and it might have been nice to know before I bought the place, but in the end it's just a crazy thing that happened in the past. I mean, it was almost two years ago, and I was living a hundred miles away when it happened. I'm not going to let it run me out of my new house.

"It's my first real house, Marie! With a fireplace, and a room for my studio and everything! I'm going to plant some vegetables in the back yard, paint the whole place, put up hummingbird feeders. When winter comes, I'm going to light up that fireplace. And I'm going to play my music as loud as I can, every single day until I go deaf. No more neighbors to complain, no more landlords. It's my house. Be happy for me, wouldja?"

Her outburst had taken Marie by surprise. She nodded as if she was agreeing, but Jane could tell she didn't understand. Marie was such a superstitious little wimp. Jane was relieved when she finally left and the house was silent again.

She thought about putting on some loud music, like she had said she would. But it was more relaxing to just sit for a while and enjoy the silence. That was what she really wanted, quiet and solitude, and time to relax in her beautiful, quiet house. Later, there would be time for music and painting and fixing things up. It was, after all, an old house, and there were lots of things that had to be repaired or replaced.

The kitchen linoleum, for one thing. It was impossible to keep clean. Jane had scrubbed and polished it four times already, but no matter what she used to clean it, the second she turned her back it turned dull and murky again, with a particularly ugly dark stain radiating out from the cellar door. As soon as she had time to start major projects, she would rip it up.

And that would kill two birds with one stone, because she wanted to see what the floor was like under the linoleum. The house inspector had not mentioned any kind of vermin in his buyer's report, but she had seen roaches in the kitchen when she came down for a glass of water at night, skittering under the basement door as soon as she turned the lights on.

She sat there, and imagined she could hear their faint scrabbling patter echoing through the house, as if they and the house were holding a whispered conversation that she could almost understand.

Probably complaining about Marie, Jane mused. She couldn't blame them. The woman had been so insulting! Where did she get off, talking about their house like that?

Her house, she meant. Jane smiled at her mental slip of the tongue.

And sat.

And listened.

(A flat-text version of this story previously appeared online in New Camp Horror ( ), August 2004.)

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