Illustration by Pedro Gomes

They waited among the bushes in black masks and black hoodies. It had been ten minutes. It had been almost two months. Ladybugs alit and then rose from their shoulders. Late fall. An hour was more than enough time for either of them to reconsider. Opt out. But they’d decided two months ago. At the height of their plans, silence. Black hoodies, black masks and silence.

Almost fifteen minutes. Then the rasp of sneakers against macadam. The mucky outline of a figure. Topher’s six-three lurch. Sahara jumped first. Then Declan.

* * *

Declan’s first original idea did not come until the middle of second semester sophomore year. He had an Irish Catholic name, but he’d been raised First-Generation American Hippie. The “Readings of Genesis” class fulfilled a requirement. The book was a revelation. Weird to be twenty and never to have read the Ten Commandments. Halfway knew them but never read them. Never had an original idea. It arrived all at once. He raised his hand reflexively. Like he’d seen so many people do in his years of schooling.

“Future tense,” he said.

Half the class turned to look at him. It was a seminar, so half the class was eight people. When Declan talked, people listened. Until now, he’d been expert at repetition of facts. Now he had an actual idea.

“The whole thing is written in the future tense,” Declan said. “You think of it as a command at first—a commandment. Like it’s telling you what to do. ‘Don’t kill people.’ But it isn’t. That’s not literally what it says. It’s telling you what you are going to do. Or not do. ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ In the future, you will not kill people. It’s stated as fact. There’s no wiggle room. In the tense.”

The professor just stood with his mouth open. Declan understood. Usually he fulfilled the task. Read closely and repeated language.

“Tense,” a girl in the front row said.

Sahara was staring at Topher.

“Felon,” Sahara said.

Professor Hurkenmuller didn’t hear her and asked her what she’d said.

“Nothing,” Sahara said. Then she got up and left the room. “Absolute nothing.”

“OK,” Professor Hurkenmuller said. “Huh. Back to Declan. Deck. That is honestly genius. Never heard it put that way before.”

All at once Declan felt proud and ashamed, and wished he’d never raised his hand.

* * *

In the deep nightblooming woods to the south of campus: a temple. Really, a two-story hollowed-out former place of worship. The small rural Jewish community had fled fifty years ago. The Omegas bought it and turned it into a weekend party temple. The Omega Temple. Declan and Sahara had been there more times than they could count.

They took Topher there. It wasn’t the way a movie would portray it. They didn’t have a gun. Topher was drunk. They weren’t. Sahara had a hunting knife and she showed it to Topher, so Topher walked. Declan’s hand was slick against his own hunting knife.

In the deep nightblooming woods between main campus and the Omega Temple, the terrain dipped into the turbid Ohio hills. Topher kept stumbling. Declan put his hand into his pocket, where he felt the papery crumbling yellow husks of ladybugs that had months ago landed there.

“Get him on his feet,” Sahara said. Declan walked next to him and grabbed his arm. Topher tried to shrug him off, so Declan jabbed him hard in the ribs with the handle of his bat. One of those novelty baseball bats they give out at Indians games. Long and spindly as an ulna.

Topher got to his feet. They could see the Omega Temple. It was Tuesday night. All their friends were in the library. No one came out into the nightblooming woods on a weeknight, and nobody came out to the Omega Temple when there wasn’t a party. Not even to clean.

* * *

The long central Ohio autumns and winters lent no respite. No light. Little opportunity to leave the dorms or apartments. Not even an insect could survive February cold out of doors. Freshman year, maybe seven people from each freshman hall would turn a little grey, blue at the lips, transfer home.

Topher looked like one of those kids freshman year. Then he joined the Omegas. It was like there was sun on him. One night Declan saw him out on campus, drunk out of his head and puking red into the white snow. It looked like blood. When Topher came to back at the dorm he said, “Kool Aid. Kool and Stoli,” and rolled over laughing. Declan laughed too, until he saw that Topher had his dick out, hard as a rock, his hand moving up and down.

* * *

Inside the Omega Temple, it was all Friday night smell. A Friday night seventy-three years ago. Beer mold cigarettes bong water and bile. One time, Declan picked up a Coke bottle and took a swig before realizing it was full of cigarettes and ladybugs and ash, and his nose tasted like that now.

“You know what we’re going to do,” Sahara said. “What your father should’ve done, and your sister. What Hannah’s father should do, and her brother. Only she won’t tell them, so he won’t have anything to do. So, it’s on us.”

“I know who you are,” Topher said. “Both of you. You don’t need a mask.”

“The mask isn’t for you,” Sahara said.

Declan still hadn’t said anything.

“Give me the bag.”

Declan didn’t move at first. He handed Sahara the bag.

“You pinned her arms over her head, so we’re going to do the same to you.” Sahara took a bike chain out of the bag. She took duct tape out of the bag. She leaned the shovels in the corner. She peeled the mask off her chin and put her knife in her mouth like a commando.

* * *

In the nightblooming woods of central Ohio, deer romped free as the mind of God until hunters stopped them dead with the thump of a shell. Sahara and her father took Declan out mid-winter freshman year. He’d been raised listening to “Masters of War.” They came to pick him up.

The first shell that struck home and dropped a buck hit its heart like hitting his own. Electricity ran through Declan’s body as he stood over the creature. Puffs of condensation huffed from its nose. Then stopped. Did not start again. Sahara showed him how to clean it.

“You shoot so that you don’t make any of the meat rancid,” Sahara’s father said. His voice like the Bostonians Declan had only heard in movies about war or mob violence. They were from New Hampshire. Their car said “Live Free. Or, Die.” He had wispy white eyebrows that covered the lower part of his forehead. Glistened slow and sparking in the late afternoon semblance of sun.

They let Declan make the cut to the gut. He noted the absence of blood. The heft of the body. The way each organ was a discreet thing. It was not some jiggling mass of waste like he’d always pictured. The overwhelming sameness in their gray naked revelation to the air. The lungs were almost dry to the touch. Kidneys. Heart and stomach. A collection of discrete parts, each firm under fingers. Only when knife’s serrated edge touched bone did it rasp his nerves like lightning.

* * *

The incision of the knife into human orifice was like the incision of knife into human flesh. Topher’s opening puckered like the underside of a starfish.

“And when you entered her it was like this,” Sahara said.

Topher could not hear it. Declan knew that much. He hadn’t so much as flinched in five minutes.

Declan did not know if it was his hand, or his friend’s. When Sahara first broached the idea, she was pushing pushing pushing for it. She could see in Declan’s ratiocination. But a week, later roles had switched. Sahara now thought a court should take care of it.

“The college kangaroo court,” Declan said. He was done thinking about it. “Professor Lemrich runs the show. He’s a fucking entomologist. What does he know. This one is on us. Otherwise nothing will happen at all.”

“Who would ever have thought,” Sahara said. “Hannah. I was literally her first kiss. She had no interest in boys. Enough keg beer and that was it. You know I’d thought it before. Every time I read about it I was just like, Where are all the fathers, all the brothers and sisters and daughters and sons and their sons who could cut the fucking limbs off a motherfucker? Well, now that could be us,” Sahara said. “We’re the mothers and fathers. We could be the sisters and sons.”

The feel of the serrated edge against the sinew of sphincter. You’d think there would be regret. You’d think it wouldn’t carry the catharsis of every assaulted daughter sister mother on the planet.

* * *

Late fall of freshman year there was an infestation of ladybugs in the dorms. This wasn’t a thing they knew could happen. An infestation of ladybugs. It started the way an infestation starts: one ladybug. Not an infestation. A ladybug landing on a Coke can. A ladybug flying across the room, landing on an arm, revealing the strange insectness of its nature in a papery wing that wouldn’t return under its shell on landing. Its body surprisingly yellow, not the red of the insect in cartoons.

Then, weeks in, ladybugs by the dozen in dorm rooms. Calls to security: “There are. There are…There are a lot of ladybugs.” Not the kind of thing security responded to. Security didn’t even respond to worse. They couldn’t respond at all the third week of school, when Hannah told Sahara what had happened with Topher. And Sahara told Declan.

Then one day in mid-October, unseasonably warm, eighty-three degrees the week of Halloween. Freshmen dressed as sexy ladybugs, ladybugs drawn on t-shirts, the rainy-day affectation of ladybug rubber rainboots on twenty-year-old feet. On the side of Singler Dorm, a writhing mass of ladybugs. Guess how many in the jar—a million? A million million? Quantitative estimation was not the strength of small liberal arts school students. Sahara got in on the strength of being able to identify the relationship of adjectives to other adjectives to other adjectives. Being a woman who had won a junior biathlon. Declan, on the quality of his working memory, being able to take a test. And atop the pale brown bricks of Singler Dorm, now, a writhing mass of ladybugs like a second skin, squirming and flicking against the tepid autumn wind like horseskin flicking flies of its own. On windowsills inside, the yellow of hemolymph, yellow crusted insect blood like a rime of bile. Ladybugs dead and crusted over all along walls inside, motionless and pale pumpkin-orange instead of living red. Ladybugs in piles on floors, ladybugs with papery wings stuck outside of shells. Writhing, writhing on the outer dorm walls.

Then Sahara herself found Professor Heimrich’s dog outside the door, drool seeping from his jowls. Come here boy, over here, and there it was: all along the roof of his mouth, the bulbous round backs of ladybugs secreting yellow blood. Declan turned his head away. Hannah and Sahara looked it all square in the saliva, beetles attached among the pink wavelike humps inside the dog’s mouth. Hannah ran inside and called.

Security finally saw it with their own eyes. Evacuated the dorms. They were beetles after all, red and black or otherwise. Attracted to a contrast of dark on light or light on dark, white shutters against the dorm’s red brick. Sought warmth for winter inside. Wasn’t all that rare. Rare to see this many, sure. But not rare rare. It took only twenty-four hours of pesticide to kill them all. The town veterinarian told Professor Heimrich that the bugs could be removed with a toothpick. It was not all that uncommon. It would take much longer to clean up all the crusted husks of their demise. People found them weeks later, crunching on toothbrushes, scattered on closet floors, crunching deep in jacket pockets. The residue of it. The infinitesimally small hidden wings.

* * *

When Sahara came to him and told Declan that Hannah had been raped, he couldn’t believe it could be true, having seen Hannah the morning after, seeing that she was quiet, thinking that her quiet was just a hangover of the variety they’d all had every Thursday morning since they first got to campus, the fact that Declan had been sleeping in their suite after coming home with Thessaly, leaving him there, witnessing her blanched face, only learning from Sahara a week later what had happened.

“Fucking Topher Black,” Sahara said. “She was so drunk that night she didn’t know what she was doing. You know how she gets when doesn’t have anything to eat before drinking.”

“Jesus,” Declan said.

All at once he understood why Sahara had stormed out of Readings of Genesis that afternoon when he’d had his first-ever idea, regretted raising his hand, regretted not following Hannah around more closely that night since he was basically just pursuing Thessaly, not saying anything to Hannah that morning, thinking she was just hung over, a week passing before he got an email from Sahara that said “Meet me over at my place,” that was when Sahara suggested it and at first Declan thought he was in because Sahara was his friend, because Hannah was his friend, because no matter how fucked up he got on Wednesday nights he’d prided himself for as long as he could remember as being moral, a good friend, his friend looked him in the eyes and suggested Topher get what he deserved so right away Declan was in, he was in for everything Sahara had put in front of him since the day they met, suspecting it was that when a North Carolinian like him was faced with a New Hampshire native like Sahara with her words, her libertarianism, her conviction. Her biathlon marksmanship. Her ready aim. Her fire.

But as days passed it stopped being because of Sahara, stopped really even being about Hannah if he was being honest, became about him, became about the world, became about a thought he’d had when he’d first read about all the cases all the cases all the cases going on in all the world around him of motherfuckers taking advantage, pinning arms above heads, pushing fourth and eighth and thirteenth drinks on girls, dropping pills into drinks, so it was his speech that Sahara would have in mind not Sahara’s when they saw each other the morning before the night and Declan said:

“You know I’ve been thinking about it every day, every moment since we talked. I just think, fuck it. I mean, I know it sounds like jungle logic, but every time I think about one of those stories. How in every one of those stories he’s assaulted like six, eight, ten girls. I think, Where were those girls’ fathers? Where were their sisters buying train tickets from whatever distant college they were at coming to do something about it. Where were their sons years later tracking the guy down in whatever finance job he’s gone on to. Finding him in the street. How many of those instances would it take to put an end to it once and for all, for the next one to think, I don’t want what Topher got?

Sahara’s face was blanched like Hannah’s had been that morning, the more Declan talked the more his cheeks ruddied, they knew. Some time in their future Declan would be in a corner of the Omega Temple washing his hands while Sahara got out the lye and fertilizer and shovels, Declan could look forward, he could see already the handcuffs, the headlines, the kangaroo courts at the college superseded by the real courts, the real local officials who would respond to murder if not sexual assault, then the crowds, the riots, the mobs of college students from all over the country who could come, roar in their defense, in the sense that the self-defense of what they’d done, the way they’d done it, the brazenness with which they’d taken their charge, disposed of the body but did not deny it unless they needed, did not say anything, they knew what they were doing, Topher had gotten what he deserved, the conversation needed to change, they were there to change the conversation. And if it was blood on their hands that would get them there they would do it, they had done it, they would be the ones to do it.

* * *

The basement of the Omega Temple. It wasn’t worth risking leaving. At the top of the stairs a large wooden door locked. A rusted old padlock.

* * *

By the third time they met Declan made a rule. “No discussions of Beyond Good and Evil. No ideas, period. Action.”

Sahara made a rule back: “No talk until after the third drink.”

After the third drink they would take turns not being the one to want it.

“I thought maybe Olympics, the biathlon,” Sahara said. “But I have to confess something different. One long-term dream. Opening up one of those butterfly gardens. The ones with some tarantulas or African cockroaches or golden skinks on the first floor to entice. Then you get to the back and it’s just a big open shed, not a museum, but privately owned. All the kids from all over come to let them land on you.”

It was the first he’d ever heard Sahara mention anything like it.

“This doesn’t seem like a choice,” Declan said. “We’ll get found out or we won’t. I don’t know how we would. Has anyone ever even been in that basement? That big wooden door.”

“Rusted padlock,” Sahara said. “The only thing is not to be seen. Not to be followed. That part is easy enough.”

By then the ladybugs flicked and popped in the room like kernels in the first ten seconds on a hot stove. The crust of yellow on rugs and blankets might have been mucus. A little cooled-over yolk. Declan noticed that if a single bug landed on your hand and you put it out the window, your fingers were left smelling like battery acid. How it must’ve tasted in a dog’s mouth.

* * *

Sahara finished cleaning in the corner. Sawzall. Parts distributed to bags. Shovels they’d brought in case. He watched Sahara in the nightwrithing dark. She handed him the bolt cutters. The rusted-out padlock was his to cut.

“Now you’re a killer,” Declan said.

“You too,” Sahara said.

Declan had looked up murder. Second-degree murder. Depraved indifference to human life. Just being there, no matter who struck the blow. It was being there that had been the decision. It was no decision at all.

It was too dark for them to see each other’s faces.

It took a dozen or more squeezes to clip the finger-wide metal, years of rust and all. The door took two slams of a shoulder, coughed open. Before going down, Declan walked out into the nightblooming dark. Sahara didn’t want to join him. He ambled to a nearby tree and made water. The echoing snap of a branch. Coo of an owl. That was all. On his way back into the temple he noticed the crusted outline of a mezuzah on the doorway that had never been replaced. Crust all around it gray on black in the nightwrithing room and just the shape of the thing.

The heavy wood door was all the way open when he reached it. He’d left it only half. Declan could see the landing atop the stairs from where he stood. He heard as the last of the bags thudded each stair then stopped. There was a window in the passageway down to the Omega Temple basement. Moonlight filtered in like a particle on the mucky space below.

“You down there,” Declan said.

From the back of the room he heard Sahara’s voice. He called out what, couldn’t hear what she said again, descended. Again he asked what.

“I said, It wasn’t just Hannah,” Sahara said.

She was already knee-deep in the crunching mass on the basement floor. Declan could not see Torahs. He could not see much of anything. They’d agreed, no iPhone flashlights. They left their phones in the dorms. Couldn’t be tracked. No flashlights at all. He lit a match. Crouched. All around his feet and halfway up his calves a mass of ladybug carcasses. Light effaced in front of him. The mass began to writhe. In front of him the mass was knee-deep. Alive with ladybug infestation. Burgeoning.

At the back of it, Sahara. The match died. It took five, ten seconds for the thin sift of moonlight to overtake what he’d seen. The whole basement returned to grayscale. Declan was about to speak when Sahara spoke first.

“I said it wasn’t just Hannah,” Sahara said. “It’s never just one.” In the nightwrithing dark a tiny black speck flew out of her open mouth. Three more. A line of dozens. One flitted across the room and landed on Declan’s hand. He swiped it. Put his hand to his nose. Smell of battery acid.

Now a wide line of bugs was streaming from Sahara’s pale open mouth. Microweisenae scymniea scarabeid. Cocinellidae transversalis. Coleoptera.

Declan fumbled and lit a match again. He could feel the tiny flick flick flick of ladybug bodies as they landed on his hands, on his head, his shoulders. In his ears. Caked his ears. He was deep enough in the room now, he could see all around the room’s outer walls the shapes of bodies, ladybug skin writhing atop them, into mouths, forming a second skin like the dorm’s facade. He looked down. His match gave its last flick, and sizzle, and hush. He could see the infestation as it climbed his legs, reached his waist, writhed and sagged and pulled him to the floor. Filled his ears until there was nothing but the sound of legs wings empty shell and in his mouth the acrid stench of bug. He never got the chance to say: Master’s in Divinity. Victim’s advocate. Maybe a JD, work for the DA. Something to make it better. With every ounce of blood in my body make it right.

Daniel Torday

Daniel Torday’s most recent novel, Boomer1, is out now in paperback from Picador. A two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, and winner of the Sami Rohr Choice Prize, he serves as director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College.

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