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The Adventure of the Shield Bug with Nikki and Trey


by Devon Pitlor

...The
purpose of man's life...is to become an abject zombie who serves a
purpose he does not know, for reasons he is not to question. --Ayn
Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 1957

I. The return of Toby Dasher

After the disappearance of the destroyer asteroid Ilystra Damals, the


world, as we all know, regained its usual composure, and no one,
including myself as you shall see, seemed hardly much improved by it.
Whatever forces had threatened mankind for those three weeks in
November of the dismal year 2010 must have just decided to go
elsewhere and wreak havoc because no great lessons seemed to have
been acquired among the warring tribes of Earth, which continued as
always the animosity they have always borne toward one another.
Life went on. People and things recovered..

And one of them was television.


Nikki Barazan, my lifelong soul mate, and I watched very little
television, but sometimes it was just impossible to miss. We lived in a
basement apartment in Nikki's mother's house for very minimal rent.
Tracy Barazan, now divorced from Nikki's father Erv, busied herself
intruding with a dust cloth into our lives whenever she could and
mostly whenever she was tipsy on vodka and wanted to snoop or chat.
When she came downstairs, she always switched on our otherwise
rarely used television, and on the day I am pinpointing in this memoir,
she stood back from the television and said "Um..um...um" as if in a
perfect imitation of some cloned African-American woman she had
once passed in the supermarket.

The object of her admiration was the very, very pretty Toby Dasher,
Nikki's short-lasted husband of the previous year. Toby had been a
media intern on the Weather Channel for some time before the
coming of Ilystra Damals, and now he was of all things grinning wide
into the camera and chopping meat and shallots. Somehow Toby had
moved from weather to cooking and boasted his own show now.

Though Tracy Barazan and I were far from amicable, we stood side
by side for a moment as I waited for the usual Toby-praise to spill
from her slurring mouth. And, on cue, it came: "Um..um..um...That
boy sure was cute, and I bet he makes good money too and could pay
me a lot more than you two. Instead, I get the boy next door who
crawled around in the same mud as my daughter and who has been
like a puppy in the closet all our lives. Your mother, may her soul rest
in peace, and I were pregnant around the same time and you were
born only four weeks ahead of Nikki. The two of you haven't been
outside of one another's sight since then. Trey Agremont, something
told me you would amount to very little."

"You mean like a big television star like Toby?"

"Something like that," slurred Tracy, taking another gulp of her


ubiquitous clinking drink. "Do you have my rent by any chance? I
have bills to pay, and Erv is off somewhere biking with that bimbo
and doesn't contribute a thing."

I handed Tracy a pre-counted wad of twenties for the monthly rent.

"Nikki's money, of course," she sneered. "Always Nikki's money.


When are you going to find some work?"
"Never," I said, pretending to be involved with Toby's cooking prattle.
Suddenly, Toby cut his finger with the chopping knife and sucked the
blood. "Add blood," he said with a sickening smile into the camera.
"It adds a certain rough flavor. Ha. Ha."

"Disgusting," I muttered. "Who wants to eat something laced with


Toby's blood? Clumsy motherfucker, isn't he?"

"I wouldn't know," said Tracy dusting around the television cabinet.
"At least he has a job. You've got my daughter out pimping for
you..."

I shot Tracy a look of contempt and switched off the television, left the
basement and walked into the yard. As I passed up the stairwell, I
spied yet another one of the myriad shield bugs that had taken to
infesting Tracy's house that spring. As with all shield bugs, it did not
even notice me or a make any pretense to move. Immobile sons of
bitches, I thought. Every other bug in the insect kingdom scurries as
fast as it can away from humans, but not shield bugs. They just sit
there. You can kill them, and they don't even seem to care.

Then I realized that my entire solvency at that time depended on a


shield bug and its perfect willingness to sit indefinitely in one place for
days.

I think that is the story I want to tell first. It is the part that makes
me less angry.

II. The stink bug

Shield bugs of the genus Halyomorpha are often called stink bugs
because they produce an unpleasant odor, but the ones which literally
infested Tracy Barazan's ill-kept house had never done anything of
the kind. The brown, shield-shaped things just sat around on the
curtains and chairs until someone either killed them or flicked them
away. Nikki, however, put one on the back of her hand one day and
admired its color and shape. "The don't move," she said musingly.
"They must know something we don't. Anyway, I'm going to paint
this one and hang the picture in Ursula's gallery. Ursula likes unusual
paintings, and she has some of the most unusual clients in the world."

Nikki, who was becoming an accomplished artist, had already sold


several of her pictures via Ursula and her kinky gallery on Rehobkin
Street in Marstown. That was, of course, how I was "pimping" her
and where we got the money for our rent and groceries. So putting
the stink bug on a cushion in her makeshift studio behind a hanging
sheet in our tiny quarters, she set to work, obsessively I might note.
Nikki was and is the most important person in my life, and if she
wanted to paint an immobile bug, that was her business, but I did
wonder at her sheer frenzied application to the task. I had been
looking for work for a long time without success, so I never questioned
Nikki's choice of art subjects, nor the strangely frenetic ardor with
which she painted.

And for those who may have followed our story in previous memoirs,
let me remind you that it was, in my sincerest belief, one of Nikki's
paintings that saved the world from the asteroid Ilystra Damals, but
that is another story, and you will just have to find it and read it if you
want to know how or why.

Anyway, as always Nikki divided her time between painting and me.
Our lovemaking and intimacy, if anything else, had become more
intense and had solidified into something larger than either of our
lives would have ever produced separately.

Scratching on the stretched canvas for hours, she painted the patient
bug in such detail that I was dumfounded to gaze on her finished
work. The bug looked more alive and real than its model, which still
had not moved from the cushion on which Nikki placed it. The
painting was finished and hanging in Ursula's when Tracy, drunk as
usual, had come down and smashed it with the palm of her hand. She
had been killing shield bugs for weeks. In fact, she admitted that she
enjoyed killing them because it gave her something "easy" to do.
Tracy was always looking for some easy activity. Without a second
thought, therefore, she killed our innocent model and the provider of
our current subsistence.

An odd buyer of art called Ronan Bax had begun bidding with Ursula
on the painting. Ursula, always a keen one for art bargaining,
managed to bring him to the shocking level of fifteen thousand dollars
when the bidding was done. Ursula had taken five thousand and
given us ten. And that was the extent of my pimping. One of the
strange things that came of this sale was that Ursula, who had been in
the art sales business for years, later decided that she could have
gotten considerably more for Nikki’s portrait of a shield bug than she
did.

Nikki laughed at her when she mentioned it. “It was just a bug,” she
said. “Trey and I have to find some real work or go somewhere else.
This will tide us over for a while.”

But Ursula persisted. Ronan Bax was both spooky and loaded with
money. Maybe Nikki could paint something else for him. Asking for
fifty thousand would be no big deal. Bax owned some kind of a
company and had a chain of restaurants on the side. He could
probably make available some kind of employment for Trey (me, etc.)
Ursula talked on until Nikki agreed to meet Bax the next day at the
gallery. I decided to hang around like Nikki’s doppelganger, which is
about all I was anyway, but always very content to be so.

And sure enough, the following day a lurchingly tall, lecherous


looking guy wearing a striped suit shows up with a briefcase
padlocked to his wrist, which made me assume it carried mostly cash.
Bax sized Nikki up from head to toe and arched his eyebrow at Ursula
in some kind of approval. “The artist is beautiful,” he said at length.
“I never expected such beauty.” I was completely ignored, but by this
time I was quite used to that. Nikki’s crushing, radiant glow arrested
everyone’s attention, and I was all too content to simply be her
disregarded appendage.
“I’ll paint you another bug,” said Nikki briskly, taking my hand and
going toward the door.

“I’m sure you will,” said Bax, “and I’ll buy it too.” But then he slid a
very slim envelope out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Nikki.
"Open this later," he said. "I would like it to be your next subject
rather than some bug."

“Let’s get out of here,” Nikki whispered in my ear. “The guy gives me
the crawling willies.”

Once in the street, Nikki told me that she wasn’t going to paint any
more bugs and that she wasn’t going to take any of Bax’s money
either. “He’s after me,” she said firmly, “like some kind of
acquisition. He’s not going to get me either.”

“Why not?” I joked. Nikki and I were well past the point of being
jealous of one another. After twenty-two years of life together, we
trusted one another implicitly and indeed felt the other’s heart beat
and read their thoughts. It is impossible to describe just how
intimately the two kids who grew up next door to one another were
soldered together and cemented, but we knew it was for life, and we
didn’t need to discuss it or worry about it. Nikki’s divorce from Toby
Dasher was final now, and there was nothing, except perhaps the
intrusion of Nikki’s mother, that could wedge us apart. Tracy really
was no big deal either because we planned to move out as soon as
possible. Nothing would ever stand between Nikki Barazan and
myself again. Especially not a creepy, androgynous scarecrow like
Bax.

And that is why her response shocked me a little: Without joking, she
looked at me soberly and said: “He wants me and he is going to do
everything in his power to get me. I am afraid, maybe for the first
time in my life.” It was uncharacteristic of Nikki to know fear, but I
saw it in her eyes.

“Care to explain?” I asked.

“Not right now,” she said, opening the passenger door of her truck for
me. “Let’s just go. We have not seen the last of that vile man.” Then
she added almost as an afterthought “Or his money.”

III. A shock in the kitchen


It was late afternoon when we finished our rounds in town and got
back to Tracy’s house. An unfamiliar car was in the driveway. Nikki,
always curious, wanted to know who her mother was entertaining and
pulled me into the side door of the house. She put a finger over her
lips, bidding me to be quiet, and we crept around to the kitchen and
looked in from an invisible vantage point.

In the kitchen was none other than Toby Dasher, wearing only his red-
checked boxer shorts, feverishly chopping stuff on the counter cutting
board. Tracy was nowhere to be seen.

Nikki breezed into the kitchen. “What’s up, Toby?” she snickered.
“Have you decided to do a show from our house?”

Shocked and redfaced, Toby blurted “I thought you two lived in the
basement?”

“We do, but we come up for air now and then,” laughed Nikki.

Just then, Tracy bounced in from the side bedroom where she slept.
She was wearing only her panties and a skimpy torn tee shirt which
barely covered her somewhat pendulous breasts. It was clear that she
and Toby had already spent an undisclosed amount of time together in
the bedroom.

She offered no apology for either’s underwear. Staring with some sort
of blatant pride at us both, she announced “Toby has come over to
cook for me….if you two don’t mind, and we would like a little
privacy.”

“Oh sure,” giggled Nikki. “We have stuff to do downstairs anyway.


Don’t cut yourself, Toby. And Mom, you really do need some firmer
support in the balcony if you catch my drift.”

Tracy grumbled something unintelligible at her cute daughter and


wound an arm over Toby's bare shoulder. Toby pretended to be
distracted by his cooking and hummed a few disjointed bars of
something that wasn't even a tune. Just as we left, Tracy kissed him
behind the ear. Or rather she bit him. But it really doesn't matter.
Both of us laughed about it once in the basement. "Mom has really
been going wild lately. We need to split soon."

"We will," I promised eagerly. "We have scarcely lived anywhere else
but in the subdivision all our lives. It creeps me out to see my family's
old house next door empty."

"In this economy, it is going to stay empty for a long time too. Too
bad so much of it is owed to the bank. We could have..."

"No way. I've spent all my life next to your mother. Had enough."

"Did you fuck her once too?"

"Almost. She would have liked that. I was fourteen. She came onto
me. I know I told you about it."

"Yeah, I remember. She just liked to one-up me. I'm sure you would
have been let down."

Then she sat down on the arm of the only chair we had in the
makeshift dwelling and cupped her head in her hands. Something
was really wrong. I could see it as well as sense it. Despite our
constant proximity, Nikki and I did have secrets that we deliberately
kept from one another in order to give our individual selves a small
amount of privacy. I knew this dark mood had something to do with
one of those secrets.
"My father was such a wimp," she said. "Mom always ruled this
house...and tried to rule me. But you saved me all my life from that.
Playing every day outdoors with you, finding one new adventure after
another, that's what kept me out of her clutches."

"Clutches...?"

"Yes, she had other plans for me. And she probably still does. I even
worry about you every day because now that she's alone, she could
turn crazy just like that."

"I'm a big boy..."

"I know, I know. And you can take care of yourself. But don't eat or
drink anything she serves you from now on. I'm serious."

"I've eaten her food and drunk her juices all my life."

"Yeah, but you never know. This whole thing with Toby is probably
to spite me."
Another easygoing shield bug had crawled up on a window ledge close
to Nikki's armrest seat. It sat patiently waiting for whatever it is that
shield bugs wait for. I squinted at it in the failing afternoon light.

"Damn bugs," said Nikki sullenly. "Why in the fuck don't they fly or
run away? They trust us far too much. They must think they are pets
or whatever."

"The last one earned us ten thousand dollars."

"No! That's not true, Trey. I earned us ten thousand dollars. I made
that bug better and more detailed than his little model. I put my
entire soul into that painting. I always do. You know that. I become
obsessed, and something inside of me just takes over. The bug was
only a model. It was what I brought to the painting that made it what
it was. There are no stink bugs on earth as lovely as my painting of
that one was. It just comes over me."

"One of your paintings may have saved the world."

"Let's not discuss that anymore now. I have something else to tell
you."
Nikki erected her supple frame from the arm of the chair and pulled
off her tight-fitting black tee shirt. As usual, she wore no bra. Her
breasts were as firm and frisky as they had been at sixteen. "Let's get
naked," she said. "That is how we always liked to talk. I don't know
why. I suppose we just like looking at one another."

I willingly pulled off my clothes and went to squeeze Nikki around her
slim, taut waist.

"Not now," she said. "This is talking naked time. Not fucking naked
time. Let's get in bed."

Though bursting with the usual passion that Nikki provoked in me, I
simply slid down beside her in bed. It was indeed a habit we had
developed as early teens, even before we had first had sex. We liked to
look at one another undressed when we discussed something of
concern to one or the other. I propped my head up on my palm and
waited for whatever it was Nikki was trying to say. Then it came:

"That guy, Bax. He was here before. It was a little over ten years ago.
I...we...were twelve. Do you remember what we both used to do every
Wednesday when we were twelve?"

"Well, it wasn't fuck," I chuckled, trying to lighten the mood.

"No, we hadn't messed that part up yet," continued Nikki. "Think


hard. Wednesdays after school for about a year."

I remembered, of course. I remember my entire life with Nikki


Barazan, so why should I not have remembered this? Nothing in our
saga was ever lost on me. "We used to walk, and sometimes...often
hand in hand when they weren't looking, down to the park and to the
free art classes for kids they had at the little YMCA. You would paint,
and I would scribble and watch you paint. And you became an
artist."

"And you became an artist's lover."

"And that's about it. You had a lot of talent. Water colors, wasn't
it?"

"Yep. And one Wednesday when you weren't there, when you and
your family were vacationing in Yellowstone..."
"I remember that! All I could think about was you."

"That one Wednesday my father was off somewhere too, somewhere


for his company. Mom had that guy in the house, Bax, I mean. He
looked then just like he looks now. He had no age then and has no age
now. Like a fucking vampire. Except this one is a vampire of souls.
Mom knew him from somewhere. Maybe he was someone she met
while shopping with me in the grocery store. Anyway, she called me
out of my room and told me to bring my water color paintings with
me, the ones from the Y. I obeyed, and here was this strange,
alabaster-skinned man sitting at the table piercing me with his eyes.
My mother introduced me to him by name, Ronan, just like Ursula
did. Then she told me to give him my paintings. I didn't want to but
she insisted. He looked at each one of them and kept glancing back up
at me. God, he was fearsome. Then, you know what?, my mother told
me to go into the bathroom and take off everything but my trainer
and panties. I was shocked."

"You never told me," I cried, suddenly annoyed that my lifelong


playmate had been exposed to a strange adult when we were twelve.
"I came back out into the living room, and he was paying Mom for the
paintings. She later gave me most of the money, which I just saved.
But he wanted to see me in my underwear. He never touched me or
made any lewd suggestions. He just motioned for me to pirouette
around like a ballerina and then shook his head in approval and
gestured for me to go and get re-dressed, which I did."

"Weird," I said. I glanced back up at the shield bug which was still
immobilized on the window sill. It occurred to me that the shield bug
too had now seen Nikki unclothed. I became slightly jealous, both of a
mysterious stranger from ten years back and a ridiculous bug that
refused to move for days at a time. I looked at Nikki's smooth and
pleasing naked torso and wondered if there were any more to this
story. Both Nikki and I had been with others, and Nikki had of course
been briefly married to Toby Dasher... But a kind of nascent
possessiveness was slowly unfurling in my mind of late.

Then just as I was thinking about Toby, Nikki, once again reading my
thoughts, broke in: "Yep, Toby. This freak was there at the wedding
too. You were with our Turkish friend who saved me from the
demon..."
"I saved you from the demon..."

"With his help."

"Okay, so I didn't notice. There were lots of people there. I was


distraught. Why was he at the wedding?"

"Well, it wasn't to buy any more of my art because I wasn't painting


in those days."

"Then why?"

"I'm not sure. I have a theory, however. I think it was about some
kind of deal he made with my mother. A deal regarding me. I know
that money changed hands between them. In fact, my mother slipped
him a huge amount of cash that night. I saw it but never said
anything. And he left before the rest of us. Now my mother is broke,
and he reappears. I think I have an idea why."

"Care to share it?"

Nikki got up and slipped across the room and found a pack of
cigarettes that she rarely touched. She lit one up and slid it into my
mouth and then back into hers. "I wish we had a joint," she sighed.

"What about Bax? You're telling me that it is no coincidence that he


went to Ursula's studio and bought the bug?"

"I'm sure my mother told him about it. She had been spying on my
artwork for days before I took the finished painting to Ursula. What I
think is that on that day over ten years ago, when my wimp of a father
was away and when my next door boyfriend was absent on a family
vacation, in the very living room above us now, I think that...that..."

Nikki buried her face again in her palms, but her slight tears were
more the tears of fury than sadness. She continued, talking into her
hands: "I think...that in this very house that day...right here after I
put my jeans and shirt on again and went back to my room to wait for
you...I think that...

"For chrissakes Nikki...what?"

"I think that my mother sold me!!"


Nikki went on to explain that her mother had a private safe that even
her father refused to go near and that on numerous occasions she had
seen Tracy putting sheaves of paper into it. But the most shocking
thing was that Tracy also had a private bank account, and that from
that day on, she never seemed to have any money worries. "Even
when my father's business failed during the recession," she said, "my
mother kept us afloat. She seemed to have endless funds. My father
never asked any questions."

But then, Nikki explained, "Toby happened." Nikki had never been
quite able to figure out her attraction to the overly ginger and pretty
Toby Dasher in the first place, but she had just resigned herself to
marrying him. It appeared to her that her mother needed to return
some funds to Bax after that, and she did it right at the wedding
reception under everyone's nose. "And she was broke from that night
onward," concluded Nikki.

Then Nikki rolled over and kissed me. "Let's do something physical
to get my mind off this," she said.

And finding the familiar holds, we did.


IV. One week later: The mortgage burning party

I awoke the following Saturday to not only the sound of Nikki’s


mysterious and unseen brushstrokes against her hidden canvas, but
also the very familiar sound of the Barazan’s ancient lawnmower,
which had been in the family for as long as I could remember. I
bounded out of bed, up the stairs and onto the lawn, where a lanky,
longhaired kid, embroidered with multiple tattoos was pushing the
chugging relic over the grass. “Hey, I thought that was my job,” I
shouted above the roar of the struggling gas engine. The kid looked at
me and shrugged his shoulders. He mouthed something over the din
about “the lady” and continued with the grass.

Still wearing only my shorts and bare-chested, I walked into Tracy’s


kitchen to see why I had been replaced. Tracy was still in her
bathrobe and sitting at the table drinking a black coffee no doubt
spiked with the usual vodka. “Morning Trey Agremont,” she said
wearily, paying me very little attention. For years, she had
customarily used both of my names in addressing me. It was Tracy’s
way of telling me that she was tired of me and wished I would go
away, but she knew I would not. I was a fixture. That always merited
two names.
“Who’s the kid? Why is he doing the lawn instead of me? I thought
that was part of our agreement.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Tracy languidly and with great
disinterest. “Go on back down to your sweetheart and plan out your
day. I’m sure you two have a lot to do as usual. What is she painting
this time, another bug?”

“I don’t know. She keeps her painting private, and I respect that.
Obviously you don’t.”

“It’s my basement, and I look at anything I please, including your


stuff, Trey Agremont. Oh, and when I say it’s my basement now, I
really mean that. I want to talk to you and Nikki this morning about
the mortgage. It’s paid off now. Erv is totally out of the picture.”

Tracy had gone from broke to solvent in one week. I thought about
whatever deal she had once had with Ronan Bax. I immediately
suspected the later as the source of her sudden wealth. Tracy
continued to look out the window as she spoke. I realized that she was
eyeing the boy mowing her lawn.
She spoke in a monotonic patter, never taking her eyes off the kid.
“I’m free now. Divorced from Erv. No more house payments and a
little cash in my pocket. In fact, you and Nikki don’t even have to
worry about next month’s rent because I’m going to let you stay one
more month for free. Then I want you out. Understand?”

I grunted that I did.

“The kid is from the half-way house. He’s only seventeen, but he used
to be in prison for robbery. A friend of mine over there sent him to
me to do odd jobs during the day. They have to go back in at night.
And he wears an ankle bracelet. He has to stay here until they come
for him. I need to keep him busy.”

Tracy said her last words with a kind of lazy indolence that
immediately suggested to me that she had ways other than odd jobs to
keep the boy busy.

“Go and get Nikki,” she said at length, still staring out of the window
at the trim muscular juvenile felon. “I have an announcement.”
By the time Nikki and I got fully dressed in our jeans and black tee
shirt uniforms, Tracy was starting to show her Saturday tipsy. She
had not bothered to change out of her robe and was clinking some ice
around in a rocks glass full of vodka. Nikki looked at her mother
disapprovingly. “I hate coming up here,” she said audibly enough into
my ear.

Tracy motioned for us to sit down on the couch and steadied herself in
front of us. She repeated what she had already told me about paying
off the mortgage and the free rent and the eviction. Nikki took it all in
with as much suspicion as I did. When Tracy darted off to pee,
promising to be right back, Nikki whispered in my ear that Ronan
Bax was behind this sudden wealth, and that she was getting seriously
disturbed.

Tracy came back with a smile on her face and a refill in her glass.
“Some friends and I are having a burn the mortgage party tomorrow
afternoon, and I want you two to be there. I have very little family.
We are all meeting at the Reload House off exit 25 on the interstate
near Bridgerton Hill.”

“The Reload House?” said Nikki rolling her eyes. “It sounds like a
gun joint.”

“It’s really nice,” continued Tracy. “A close friend of mine owns it.
He was the one who suggested the mortgage burning party there. It’s
an all you can eat buffet that specializes in huge hamburgers. I mean
really huge. Reload House….get it? You can reload as much as you
want. Of course, I don’t eat all that much, you know, but maybe some
of the others will. They have acres of fries too. Like a standing five
foot glass case of them….” Tracy’s voice trailed off as the vodka
started to mess with her thoughts. “Anyway, be there tomorrow at
three PM….or ….or….”

“Or?”

“No free month of May before you leave.”

Nikki scowled and agreed for both of us that we would be there. I


realized that something bigger than a mortgage burning party was
going down, but, as with all things, Nikki would get around to
explaining it to me in her own time.

We went back downstairs and made fervent love for an hour, then got
redressed and ready to go out driving to some stores and just
“around,” as Nikki always called it.

As we left, we both caught sight of the skinny, tattooed kid. He was


buck naked and standing up, spread-eagle looking out of Tracy’s
bedroom window. He made no attempt to hide his nudity as we
passed, but rather stuck up a thumb as if to tell us that he had scored
with Tracy, but we both knew that anyway. It was of no matter.

V. The Reload House

Nikki knew it was true before we even arrived: Ronan Bax was the
owner and general manager of the Reload House. His restaurant
supervisor was an enormous fat man named Guy Harley, who, not
unpredictably, had the words "Harley Guy" unprofessionally
scribbled in uneven ink over the pudgy girth of his bulging right
forearm. He pointed to it proudly as he shook Nikki's hand. Nikki,
amused, traced her finger over the quotation marks and said "Oh
then, you're not really a Harley Guy, but something else entirely?"
Guy Harley gaped at her in the most abject incomprehension, then
shook his head, smiled and went back to emptying huge bags of white,
anaemic-looking, uncooked frenchfries into a vat of bubbling oil
several times larger than a standard bathtub. One of his assistants
had what looked for all the world like a huge fishnet on the other side
and was scooping out immense loads of cooked fries and dumping
them into a glass case the size of a large refrigerator box. The fries
were, moreover, disappearing fast. They seemed to be a big favorite
with the customers, who waddled up to the fry case with deep plastic
mixing bowls to reload. "They're reloading, " said Nikki under her
breath. "This is the Reload House." I smacked her on her tight butt
as if to say shut up. The customers were also reloading on titanic
mounds of billowy mashed potatoes, upon which they drizzled
cascades of some sort of brown lumpy fluid, presumably gravy, from a
huge dispenser hanging overhead. But the pièce de résistance must
have been the hamburgers. Tossed out across a warming shelf, they
resembled huge frisbees. Under them were towering stacks of equally
gargantuan buns. "Where on Earth do they find these flying
saucers?" whispered Nikki, still feigning innocent ignorance.

Ronan Bax, who had been pre-occupied with Tracy and a few of
Tracy's companions, stepped forth, almost filling the body space
between Nikki and myself with his six-foot something frame and
insufferably confident manner. He was still wearing the same striped
suit, or one like it, that he had worn the day at Ursula's." My
restaurants are a hit with big eaters," he said, raising a hand to point
out some of the hugest people I had ever seen squeezed into some seats
before us. "We're going to all eat over here in the wing room. Would
you like a hamburger?"

"Which one of us do you mean?" said Nikki coldly. "Your back is


turned to Trey."

"Oh Trey, for sure," said Bax turning around to shake my hand. "I
remember Trey."

"I remember him too," said Nikki, "and more often than you do
probably."

Bax frowned at the remark. "Well, just help yourselves. The party
starts soon. Ask Guy Harley if you need anything."

Nikki glanced at Guy Harley who was twisting off the top of what was
literally a full-sized plastic barrel of ketchup, which sat next to the
vast hamburger warming trays.

"Everything here is super-sized," said Nikki to no one in particular.


"And my mother is still friends with Bax, as you can see. Bax, who
I'm sure tried to buy me once."

Then she fell silent. As before, I could see that something was
definitely wrong with the girl I had known since my earliest
recollection. Something was preoccupying her mind, and I wanted
her to tell me what it was, but Nikki being Nikki, I realized that it
would only come when she was so inclined. "Let's not eat," she said.
"The sight of all these mountains of brown food is making me sick.
God only knows what he puts in those burgers to make them so big..."

"Textured vegetable protein and olean," said Guy Harley overhearing


us and coming up from behind. "It really stretches the meat, and we
can sell them for cheap. Some of our customers eat seven or eight at a
sitting."

"And probably don't shit for a week," rejoined Nikki. "That TVP can
plug you up for good."

"FDA approved," snapped Guy as he went back into the kitchen and
began stirring a huge caldron of stew with what looked like the oar of
a rowboat.
"I can just imagine what is in that stew," said Nikki. "It is making me
nauseas. We need to congratulate Mom and get out of here. I'm
feeling faint."

And then suddenly again without warning, Nikki glazed into a


faraway look and said “Okay.” I realized there was no use asking
okay what? “I need to go to the bathroom,” she said, putting a weak
hand on my shoulder.

“Do you want me to go with you?”

“Definitely not,” she replied with an unaccustomed rigidity that set off
more alarms in my mind, as she drifted listlessly off toward the
bathroom.

Tracy, meanwhile, was sitting at a front table encircled by several


woman that I had occasionally seen in her house. They were buzzing
about something womanish when Ronan Dax stood up and banged a
spoon on a glass. “Attention everyone,” he said. “We have come to
celebrate Tracy’s freedom, not only from a stifling marriage but from
a mortgage that she could no longer pay and which now, in agreement
for some small private services, my company has definitively
amortized.” He then clapped his hands vigorously and glared his eyes
at all present to do the same. After a small but uncomfortable silence,
a general uproar began.

Small private services, I thought. What were they? And how was it
that a leering fiend like Bax was so involved in Tracy’s life?

On cue, Toby Dasher arrived solo and pushed his way into an empty
chair close to Tracy. He put his arm around her neck and grasped her
hand. “Sorry I’m late,” he said with his usual syrupy charm, “and
congratulations.”

Guy Harley ambled out of the kitchen with a huge chafing dish in his
hands. He placed it on the table in front of Tracy, who was glowing
with delight. On one side of her sat pretty, pretty Toby Dasher and on
the other was the darkly dominant lurching Bax. Tracy reached into
her handbag and pulled out some stapled papers, presumably the
mortgage, and crumpled them into the chafing dish. As she did so, a
lacquered lock of her long, gray-streaked hair plummeted down out of
its tower formation across her forehead and dangled near the chafing
dish. Guy Harley approached with a butane torch and lit the papers
on fire. Unfortunately, Tracy’s lock of unruly hair was also caught in
the flame and fired up like a flare until Bax gallantly smothered the
flame with his huge hand. The mortgage burst into flames and then
died. Once again, Bax glowered at the guests and called for applause,
which came after a couple of seconds of hesitation. Then he motioned
for Tracy to stand up and speak. Already tipsy from her morning
drinking, Tracy found unsteady traction and rose to her feet.

“I will always honor my contract,” she stammered. “Mr. Bax has


changed my life because…” Bax shook his head vehemently and cut
her off. Tracy looked confused but then smiled and sat down.
“Everyone eat,” she shouted. “The food is on Ronan.” Bax shook his
head favorably, and Tracy’s small group of guests, none of which
bears much description here, began approaching the huge buffet with
oversized dishes outstretched in their hands. As none of them were
any more overweight than Tracy, they seem dwarfed not only by the
other customers with whom they were forced to mingle but by the
lofty pyramids of food arrayed on the various buffets before them.
Most of the other customers, the fat ones, carried large plastic bowls
to capture the mashed potatoes, stew and french fries, but Tracy’s
friends only used the dishes, which were still too large for the small
portions they chose from the gigantic display.
As I watched the guests and customers mingle at the buffet, I
suddenly caught Toby Dasher’s eye watching me. He smiled warmly
and raised his hands as if to ask “Where is she?” It flashed
immediately through my mind that Nikki had spent an exceptionally
long time in the bathroom. I jumped up in fear and ran directly to the
women’s room at the rear of the restaurant. In front of the closed
door was planted a woman with cascading braids who must have
easily weighed in at four hundred pounds. “Someone is in there,” she
said angrily, “and I have to go.” I noted that the woman had brought
an entire loaf of rather doughy-looking bread with her and was
gnawing off the end it as she waited. I pushed past her and threw
open the bathroom door. “Hey, you can’t do that,” grunted the
elephantine woman. “You’re a man.” “I remember,” I said, pulling
the door shut behind me. On the single toilet seat with her pants
pulled totally up before me sat Nikki, eyes glazed over and staring
woodenly at me as if I were a total stranger. “Come on,” I shouted to
her. “We need to get you out of here. Something is really wrong.”

“I can’t,” mumbled Nikki. “Not until he lets me. I have no will. I


can’t even stand up until he says. It’s the bug. He’s used the bug.”
Then, without warning, Nikki came to her senses. Her eyes
brightened, and she jumped off the toilet. “Let’s go and go fast,” she
screamed. “He has just released me. Run for the truck.”

Pushing past the hippo lady who was still munching on her bread, we
did just that. Running out the back door we must have escaped the
detection of Tracy, Bax and the others. Nikki punched the accelerator
of her pickup truck and blasted off down the road.

After a time, she turned to me and said “His mind control or whatever
it is that takes away your will doesn’t work after you get some
distance away from him. I can’t hear his voice in my mind anymore,
so we must be beyond it.”

We continued down the expressway and purposely bypassed


Marstown. Then Nikki pulled off at a rest stop and jumped out of the
truck. “Let’s sit down on the grass,” she said. “We are well out of his
range.”

VI. Canyon Callaguey

Nikki explained to me that Ronan Bax had the power to turn people
into virtual zombies but only if he had a wedge to pry himself into
their souls. "He got the start of that wedge years ago with the water
colors," she said. "And then he had a contract with my mother. I'm
sure that was what she kept in the safe. She put his money in a bank
account, however" said Nikki with a certain calculation in her eye.
"Then came Toby and my craziness. She had to pay him back his
money, and she did it at my wedding. Then came the divorce, you,
our living arrangements. And the bug."

"What could the bug possibly have had to do with it?" I inquired.

Nikki gave me an annoyed look, the sort of grimace that I recognized


from our earliest childhood, an expression which meant that I had
missed something important that she didn't think she needed to say.
"Figure it out," she said.

"I can't."

"Okay, I'll sketch it out for you. Ever since we were kids, I put my
heart and soul into my painting. You know that. Because of my
obsession with art and what it produces in me, a part of my will is
transferred to everything I create. It is that part that Bax is able to
latch onto. When he got the bug, he had enough to control me. If I
get close enough to him, he can make me stay in one place until he
releases me like he did on the toilet of his restaurant. I totally lose my
will. I belong to him, and I'm paid for."

"Another contract. That is what your Mom was starting to talk about
when he cut her short."

"Yep, and I would love to see it. It's gotta be in her safe. But what I
want to know is how much money she has left over after paying the
mortgage and, above all, where she keeps it."

"Do you have a way of getting into that safe?"

"Sure do," winked Nikki. Then she pulled up her black teeshirt
revealing once again her firm and perky set of breasts, breasts which I
had watched grow over the years from bee stings into stunning female
accessories which galvanized the vision of any man who looked at her.

"You're going to break the lock with your pretty tits?" I laughed.

"No, I'm going to break a pretty boy with my pretty tits," she said
almost gleefully. "His name is Canyon Callaguey, and you have
already met him."

"The kid from the detention center?"

"Yep, he's a born safe cracker. Learned it from his uncle. He claims
to have a true talent. When my mother goes out tomorrow, and I
think it is going to be with Bax, Canyon promised me to crack that
safe as he says "in an instant."

"And then you're going to fuck him?"

"Naw. I'll get out of that. So stop worrying. I can string him along
for as long as I want."

The next day around 9 am, a white van with a state seal on it arrived
in Tracy's driveway and deposited seventeen year old Canyon
Callaguey, complete with his ankle tracking bracelet, in front of the
house. Canyon shot an evil glance in my direction and proceeded to
undress Nikki with his eyes. Tracy had already left for a time, and
Nikki knew it was with Ronan Bax. "He left me a little message," she
said. "He can do that. He's telling me not to plan much for today
because I belong to him and he might be collecting soon."

Canyon walked boldly up to Nikki and started to put his hands on her
butt. He seemed to slather out of the sides of his mouth. The kid was
one pulsating hormone.

"Not yet," said Nikki, twisting away. "We have something to do


first."

She led Canyon, who totally ignored me, into the utility room of
Tracy's house and pointed to the safe, which was bolted to the floor.
"Go for it," she said. "Then you'll have anything you want. Trey and
I will just stand back and watch until you have it open."

Canyon dropped to his knees and put his cheek up against the side of
the safe and spun the dial. "I knew a guy in the house," he said, "who
used the head of his cock for this. That was his most sensitive area.
For me, it's my cheek." Canyon spun the dial first one way, then
another.

"Say the numbers out loud," said Nikki with a kind of sexy
insouciance. "I may need to go back."
Canyon, absorbed in his safecracking, found the first stop and said
"twenty-three." This was eventually followed by four other numbers.
Within minutes, he swung the door of the safe open and jumped to his
feet standing back admiring his quick work. "Let's do it now, baby!"
he said, again overlooking me completely.

Nikki massaged his muscular shoulder and slid down to the level of
the safe. She pulled out a small, paperclipped bundle of typed papers.
"The contract," she sneered. I sat down beside her as she paged
through the sheets, skimming the words. "I'm worth sixty-two
thousand dollars," she said, "plus the extra thirty-eight for the
balance of the mortgage. It's all here. Nice to know what one is worth
to one's mother, huh?"

"I would have paid more," was my response. In effect, it was a type
of crude contract which stipulated that Nikki would "belong" to
Ronan Bax upon payment of the money. There was no way it could be
legal, but Bax had the document full of warnings about his powers of
mind control. There was also a paragraph detailing how he would
reduce Tracy to a vegetable if she reneged this time on the contract.
Under the papers was an open envelope marked only with an address.
Nikki quickly glanced at its contents and replaced both the envelope
and the contents back into the safe exactly where they had been.

She looked at me and smiled. "It's precisely what I thought it would


be," she said. "The plastic pass key of a storage locker right here in
town. That is where her payment for my ass is."

Canyon moved closer as Nikki closed the safe door and spun the lock.
"I've already done paid for your ass," he chortled. "Let's get down to
it." He made a move to grab Nikki around the waist, and I started to
move in. "Relax," Nikki told me. "Mr. Canyon is going to have to
worry about his own ass here now."

"My ass?" said Canyon quizzically.

"Your ass," rejoined Nikki, staring at his ankle bracelet. Then she
jumped up and darted to my side, pulling her cell phone from her side
pocket. She brandished the phone in front of his astonished eyes. "It's
all here, Mr. Canyon. A little slide show record of you breaking into
my mother's safe. Your pretty cheek against the side and saying the
numbers. My guess is that in jail your ass was frequently visited
by...well...let's just say it was visited. And if you try anything, I'll run
faster than you can catch me to my truck and hand this over to your
keepers. It ought to be good for at least another year of
incarceration."

Canyon looked crestfallen and deflated. He held out his hands and
started to protest. Nikki cut him off sharply. "And if you say a word
about this to anyone, I give them this video. I'll copy the fucking
thing....your beautiful safecracking...onto the Internet and send it to
everyone everywhere."

Canyon seemed to know when he was beaten. He shrugged his


shoulders and said "Fuck" and slouched out of the house. We later
saw him sleeping under a tree in Tracy's backyard. Nikki's threat was
apparently enough to get him off her case.

Nikki took my hand and led me to the basement. "Read a book or


something, Trey. I have some painting to do." And she disappeared
behind her hanging sheet and set to work on yet another unseen
masterpiece.

Later that day, we heard the sound of a large car in the driveway and
doors opening and closing. It was Tracy and Bax. They went into the
house and steered straight for the bedroom. We crept upstairs to the
muffled sounds of Tracy screaming in burbling ecstasy. Bax was
clearly satisfying her in bed. "Let's wait until they are finished,"
Nikki said to me, gripping my wrist. "Then I don't want you to do a
damn thing regardless of what I say or do or how I act. Okay, Trey?"

I looked at Nikki bewildered as usual and agreed.

By two o'clock both Bax and Tracy were fully dressed and sitting on
the patio drinking from tall plastic glasses. Nikki pulled me behind
her and we went up to greet them.

VII. Nikki's strange behavior

Bax seemed surprised to see Nikki coming so close to him. Like


everyone else, he ignored me completely and focused his attention on
her. He asked if she was ready to join him with his small group of
friends. "You will never want for anything another day in your life,"
he said.

"I'm ready," said Nikki in a lackluster monotone. "I have a little


work left to do on the portrait, but I am ready, Ronan. I am tired of
thinking. I am tired of making decisions. I know you own me now. I
am ready to be yours and gratify you in any way I can."

"You'll have to lose your boyfriend," said Bax taking a deep sip of his
drink.

"Trey can stay with me," said Tracy raking her eyes over my body.
"There are things he can do for me now that that kid is gone back to
his keepers."

"I'm sure there are," said Bax.

Bax, still wearing his striped suit and tie, stood up and reached for
Nikki's hand. She put it in his willingly. I wondered if he was
exercising the mind control. Something mechanical in Nikki's
mannerisms told me he was not because he knew he didn't have to.
But there was no way I could be sure. "Get in my car," he said, "and
wait." Then he pulled a wad of bills out of his pocket and tossed them
to me. "Get lost forever," he smirked. I grabbed the bills, which must
have totaled several hundred and backed away. Nikki had warned me
not to intervene or protest. All I could do was follow her instructions.
My deepest soul mate and the object of my life slunk away and slid
into the front seat of Bax's huge Mercedes. She closed the door and
powered up the tinted glass windows without a further glance at me. I
felt hollow, powerless and lost.

Bax exchanged a few more words with Tracy and walked out to his
car. Without a backward look, he drove off with Nikki obediently
sitting in the front seat. I wondered sadly whether I would ever see
her again. The impetus to follow the car and rip Nikki out of it was
pounding in my head, but I respected her command of the situation
and the directions she had given me. I hunched over and sat down
beside Tracy and poured myself a huge glass of straight vodka without
asking.

"He's a potent man," said Tracy. And the sun gave signs of setting.
My heart churned with fears of what might happen that night.
Jealousy had finally had its way with me. I couldn't bear the thought
of Nikki with another man.

Tracy put a sinewy hand with purple colored nails on my wrist.


"Everything will be all right," she whispered. "Let's go watch us
some television."
It took a lot of feinting and parrying, but I managed to make it only
television until Tracy grew weary of my dodges and drank herself into
an uneasy and somewhat snorting slumber.

VIII. Nikki returns

I awoke in my own bed the next day to the sound of Nikki swearing to
herself behind the sheet barrier which divided her from the rest of the
basement. She was slashing bristles against canvas and repeating
words like motherfucker and son of a bitch. It was totally out of
character for Nikki to use a lot of gratuitous vulgarity. I wondered
through an immense hangover exactly what Bax had done to her.

"He didn't do a damn thing," she blurted, coming out from behind
the sheet blotched with oil paint. "I didn't let him. I told him I
wanted to make it special since he had waited all this time for me. I
said I was totally his, but to wait. At one point I blew it and he started
his mental crap. You know what? We were touring his so-called
factory, where they mold all those plastic dishes for the Reload Houses
and put together those huge cases for the french fries. He caught me
faking it a little and started to use his mind muscles. A bunch of iron
pieces flew up from an assembly table and stuck to his temples and
forehead. The guy is magnetic in more ways than one."

Nikki's tone seemed almost jovial.

"Of course, he could have taken away my will just like he did in the
restroom of his restaurant, but he didn't. I had him believing I was
resigned to be his concubine for life, and, by the way, he has a few
other ones....girls... They work there, winding metal pieces together or
molding plastic. Not one of them can think for herself. They are all
under his control. He has a guard watching them. Wanna know
why?"

"Why?"

"Because if they take their eyes off of these girls, they bite one
another."

"Bite?"

"Yeah, like zombies. Like in the movies. Like the demon who bit me
once. They want to eat each other. Bax's hired hands have to keep
them apart. They sleep like firewood stacked into the back of a
tractor trailer when they are not working, each divided from the other
by a slat. Let them get close to one another, and it's chow time. No
kidding."

"True zombies," I said. "And you're about to become one of them."

"Not until he pleases himself and drains the last bit of volition he can
out of me. I figure that will take about ten sexual episodes before he
gets jaded and just slides me on the production line with the others.
But first, he has to have his fun."

"Why not last night? Apparently he didn't even need to get into your
mind. I mean you are so willing."

"Are you kidding? He's an ancient creep of some sort. His skin is like
alabaster coated with plastic. That is why he never smiles much. He
can crease himself to look like a rubber mannequin. His face is like a
fright mask. God only knows how old he is."

Nikki went on to say that she was meeting him in no less than twenty-
four hours. "I'm going to pack a few clothes and go live in his house
for a while. Then I suppose my mind will be porked out and I'll be
sleeping in a truck trailer like the others. Right now I have the
advantage."

I told Nikki that it seemed strange that he hadn't pounced on her all
at once. After all, he had waited almost thirteen years and Nikki was
at the pinnacle of her astounding pulchritude. Why did he even let her
come back to me?

"Because I have a project to finish," she said with the sort of


determined finality that precluded further questioning.

About that time, Tracy came down with her dust cloth and spray and
started cleaning up wherever she claimed to see grease or dust. "Back
so soon?" she said. Nikki told her approximately what she had
explained to me but added that she was totally within his sway. She
had never liked deciding when to get up in the morning, when to eat,
when to kiss me, when to get dressed, when to go upstairs. Ronan was
relieving her of all that. It was going to be "wonderful." Tracy
smiled. "I knew you would like it. We all have too many decisions to
make in this life. Being a part of Ronan, you won't ever have to think
again. You'll get over Trey too."
"I'm already over Trey," she said with blank indifference, pushing me
aside like a piece of furniture.

As usual, our basement quarters, like the house above, were infested
by the slow moving, innocuous stink bugs that never stank. They
perched everywhere as if they were waiting for us to entertain them.
"Never have I seen insects so stupid," said Tracy, smashing two of
them under her thumb.

"One request, Mom, before I go to live with Ronan. Stop killing the
shield bugs. They are totally harmless, and as you saw in my painting,
they can be beautiful. I painted that one the way I did because I came
to truly love it, its intricacy, its subtle colors and marbled veins. I like
they way they glow from rich brown to deep orange, and I love their
tiny red eyes."

"Sure, sure," grumbled Tracy. "You and your fifteen thousand dollar
bugs."

"I love them, Mom, and if I ever see you kill another one, I may kill
you."
"Sure...sure," Tracy mumbled sidling out of the basement. Upstairs
Canyon, already undressed, was waiting in her bed watching
television. He had already called down the stairs several times telling
her to hurry up. Canyon had totally disregarded me since Nikki's
threat of exposing his safecracking and was undoubtedly content just
to satisfy himself with Tracy now.

After Tracy walked upstairs, Nikki looked at me and said "That, Trey
Agremont, is probably the first and last time in your life that you will
ever hear me tell my mom the truth."

"About what?"

"About the shield bugs. I really do love them. Their lassitude, their
lack of fear. Their complexity. Their colors. The gentle grace with
which they move their symmetrical legs and wave their delicate
antennae. They have brought me closer to believing there is a Grand
Designer than anything I have ever seen in the universe. And, of
course, it was my fondness and admiration for one of them that got
me in this trouble now. It is, you know, possible to pass your very life
force, volition and affection into a painting, providing you have the
right subject."
"You never painted me."

"Because I didn't want to take anything away from you. You are
more than my lover. You are my other part. If I had done for you
what was in my heart, what I did in small measure for our friend the
stink bug, I could have crippled you for life. You see, I want you
whole. I want Trey and Nikki to be two equal units in one awesome
fighting machine pitted against the world. I don't want you to be a
drooping tail. I want you to be a thrusting horn."

"Speaking of thrusting horns," I said. "I suppose we don't have very


much time for that left before you start drawing metal filings and
bolts up onto your head."

"Hardly any," cooed Nikki, smoothly stripping off her jeans and tee
shirt, rubbing the full blossom of her hard torso against mine.
"Hardly any."

IX. Nikki back at work and then gone

When our fiery union was once again spent, Nikki Barazan
immediately jumped up, threw on a paint stained pair of boxer shorts
and without bothering to cover her chest dashed behind her curtain.
The rich odor of oil paints once again filled the room as I lay a few
minutes longer on our disheveled bed basking in what few terminal
moments of primal ecstasy I could exact from our last coupling. The
scene had unfolded many times before, but something was drastically
different this time. Nikki was literally slashing her brushes against
the coarse canvas in strokes far to furious to convey anything but
anger and portray anything but base hideousness. Again she swore
audibly as she worked, long venomous phrases that sounded as would
a talking cobra spitting strings of expletives at its mesmerizing
trainer: "motherfucking freak of goddamn nature, demented evil
malevolent son of a bitch, morbid ugly filth of the underworld, a
putrid, stinking pile of rotting fucking excrement..." She swore on
and on until at length I could not restrain myself from shouting over
the curtain "What on earth are you painting? Another bug?"

"Yeah, a cockroach this time. I hate fucking goddamn cockroaches.


And this one is the ugliest one ever, a freaking monstrosity from hell.
But don't come in. This is one bug you don't want to see. This
cockroach."
I remembered solemnly that both Nikki and I had always hated
cockroaches. Nikki's benevolent love for the shield bugs had never
catechized the cockroach or any of the spider species. I rolled over in
bed wondering in deep dejection what my future would hold minus
Nikki in less than twenty-four hours. The mere thought of this
vacancy put me into a kind of motionless catatonic stupor from which
I emerged only with great difficulty the next morning. Looking at my
haggard face in the mirror, I seemed much older than twenty three.
My life seemed drained away, and my lips were shrunken and almost
white. A lump rose from the bottom of my throat, and I vomited a
ball of partly congealed blood into the sink. I would not have the
courage to say goodbye to Nikki that evening, and I knew it.
Thoughts of returning to the streets raced through my head. After all,
I had been there once before. But this time I would go the whole way
without being rescued by Nikki. My destiny once again was framed as
a slow, deliberate suicide in a strange and empty place. 'No Nikki...No
Trey' became the litany that burned a torrid circuit through the
chambers of my mind.

Arriving upstairs, I spied a half gallon of Tracy's vodka which had


been left on the patio table. I poured myself a huge glass, the first of
many I would quaff that horrible day which was projected to be the
worst in my life.

Ronan Bax, still attired in his striped suit stood alongside of Tracy in
the middle of the family room. Nikki, a blank look of lifelessness
painted over her face, stood erect before them. It was clear that
Ronan was communicating orders to her mentally. Though the man
made not a sound, Nikki would raise one arm then another and let
them drop to her sides. Then she bent her knees and kicked forward.
Then she touched her toes like a young gymnast. Bax seemed pleased.
"Obedience," he whispered to Tracy. "It will make her totally free."

Nikki spoke several words without being asked. "Okay. I will. I


understand. Forever. You are my master. I serve only you. Things
were meant to be that way." Then drifting like a soul-less waif she
transitioned once again into the front seat of Bax's huge Mercedes and
powered up the window. Her exquisite face disappearing behind the
smoked glass was the last vision I would ever have of her. I wanted to
rush into the driveway and throw myself down in front of the car as
Bax drove off. He had by the agency of Nikki's love for the beauty of
an insect removed her from the world of free will and individual
volition, and she was prepared to enter a vale of shadows darker than
any imaginable in the gloomy realms of Earth as we know it.
I stood immobilized in the driveway, unable to move a muscle. In my
head was the vision of a cabinet in the den. In it was, I knew, Erv's
old 45 caliber, and it would be loaded. I would use it first on Tracy
and then turn it on myself. That was my plan.

Bax's Mercedes, carrying the only thing of value in my entire life,


turned a brisk corner and was seen no more. Tracy took a swallow of
her vodka drink and smiled at me seductively. "Wanna play
around?" she asked blatantly ogling my crotch.

At that moment my feet took hold of the ground beneath me and I


ran. I ran for the dark and muddy retention ponds which encircled
our childhood subdivision, for the reedy muck where only three years
before Nikki and I had unearthed a veritable ogre buried in the Earth,
a monster which stole Nikki for a time until I managed to get her
back. But this time, a thing beyond normal belief and description had
her mind, and had paid hard cash for it to boot. I fell face down in the
wet black retention pond soil and screamed in anguish into the deaf
and unyielding Earth.

X. Conclusion
I was still catatonic and face down in the muck as the blackness of the
early morning hours filled the subdivision of my youth with the
sounds of strange animal noises and insect chirpings. I was dampened
to the core by the wet soil and had some trouble pulling my body away
from its dank suction, when I felt a sharp kick to my ribs.

"Get up," whispered a familiar voice. "We have to move fast." It was
Nikki, of course. She must have come to me in a dream, but no, it was
not a dream. It was the real Nikki. She was wearing only a white bra
and panties which gave me the only real clue of her whereabouts in
the bleak murkiness of the early May night. The white bra and
panties jogged off in front of me a few yards and then stopped.
"Come on, I said." It was a harsh, unwavering whisper. I stumbled
up to where Nikki was waiting, barefooted and almost totally invisible
in the dark. "Don't ask questions," she said with determination.

Approaching her mother's house, Nikki stealthed her way around to a


side window by Erv's old bedroom, pushed it open and slipped in,
beckoning me to follow. We crept down the bedroom hallway using
only the vague glow of distant street lamps to illuminate our path, but
we both knew the house well. As we passed Tracy's bedroom, we saw
that a faint bedside light was on. Tracy was totally naked and
enwrapped in the arms of what looked to be the boy who lived across
the street, a kid of about fourteen who had started doing odd jobs
after Canyon's sudden absence. He too was naked. Tracy tried to roll
a bleary eye in our direction, but we passed quicker than her sodden
brain could assemble an image of exactly who we were. We went
straight to the safe, used Canyon's combination, which Nikki had
memorized, and pulled out the contract and the envelope beneath it.
Then we bolted for the door. The only way to reach the locked
basement would be from the outside entry in the lower yard, a door
which Nikki had always left open and which Tracy never noticed.
Suddenly, the huge headlights of a big car swung into the driveway. It
was Bax, and close enough we knew to exercise his mind control. For
a minute, Nikki froze in place in front of the unopened basement door.
Her eyes became as wide as a cat's and reflected the beams of
headlight which broke over the surface of the driveway above. "Yes,"
she mumbled mechanically. "I will." Then just as suddenly, she
screamed "Push me through the door, Trey!! Push me hard."

I shoved Nikki through the rotting wooden side door and onto the
basement floor, where she crawled behind her hanging sheet curtain
and grabbed her latest painting from the easel where it rested.
Frantically, she thrust it before her body and ran back outside and up
the hill toward Bax's car. I followed weakly behind. By this time
Nikki's skimpy bra had been torn from her bosom and she stood
barechested in the blinding headlights of the Mercedes. Bax stood at
the driver's side and began twisting his face into contortions that
seemed more synthetic than human. A large chunk of some metallic
part flew out from under the hood of his car and stuck itself into his
side. Then a sliver of flame from the dying engine flashed forth and
raged like a torch over the side of his body. In seconds, Ronan Bax
was roofed in flames and flattened on the driveway writhing in pain.
With his every move, steel parts dislodged themselves from the car
and spiked either against or into his body. Nikki continued to hold the
painting in front of her until she was sure that Bax was either dead or
disabled. Then she grabbed me, the painting, the contract and the
envelope containing the plastic storage locker key and blasted off,
steering her truck around the fiery ruin of Bax's Mercedes and down
into the street. The commotion had already summoned a firetruck
and a howling ambulance, but Nikki managed to slide past them and
onto the highway before anyone could stop her.

Morning found us in Steelsboro, a full two hundred miles from


Marstown. Nikki with only a car rag wrapped around her chest, sat
on the edge of a bed in a motel room and counted the money she had
taken by night from the storage locker. It was all there sixty-two
thousand dollars. And then there was a contract too. Signed almost
thirteen years before by Tracy Barazan. It sold her daughter Nikki
for the sum of one hundred thousand. Though it would never stand
up in any court of law, it was, in effect, the most bizarre thing we had
ever seen. It was something to keep. A spine-chilling souvenir.

And as day came finally, we made plans for me this time to go clothes
shopping for Nikki. "No more white underwear," she told me as I
made a list. "And make sure you get me jeans that fit."

The picture. The cockroach. It had released her from Bax's hold. It
had released her because it had been conceived and executed
according to the exact reverse process from that of the shield bug.
Whereas the shield bug had been painted with all the love and
emotion Nikki Barazan could muster from the bottomless reserves of
her immense soul, the second picture---the cockroach---had been
conceived in hate, an execration so deep that it not only shielded Nikki
from the loving part of her soul which Bax had stolen and
commandeered, but struck out violently against its subject to the
point---we found out later---of wounding it mortally.
"It must have been some cockroach," I said stretched alongside of
Nikki on the motel bed. "I really want to see that."

"You can," said Nikki, "but don't look at it too long. Even you don't
want to digest too much of my hatred."

Nikki rose from the bed and turned the picture toward me. I had, of
course, been expecting a cockroach, but instead I got....well, you have
probably guessed it.....Ronan Bax. The painting was a horrible and
grotesque rendition of the small photo he had slipped Nikki that day
at Ursula's. His pride had dictated that she paint a portrait of him,
and so she did. But she did not do it with anything close to love. Her
love was reserved for me and, naturally, for a patient little stupid bug
that didn't have the sense to flee.

__________________________________

Devon Pitlor September, 2010

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