A Quiet Decimation
Darren John Travers
I’m woken by a phone call at 7.02 a.m. It’s my manager JJ. Come to the shop ASAP, Ewelina is fired, you do her shift today.
The sun feels hotter than any day before.
I arrive and JJ’s saying, What do you think I am, a bloody tour guide? at a worried-looking tourist family through the screen at the front of the kiosk. The father shakes his head and leads his wife and daughters into the train station. Ignorant, JJ says, wiping his forehead dry with his hand.
I go quietly through the open side door and clear my throat to let him know I’m here. He turns and glances over me with dislike. A sticky black comb-over bridges the top of his bald head. Why you always take so long?
I don’t answer.
Delivery, he says, nodding at a pile of unopened chocolate boxes in the corner.
What happened with Ewelina? I ask, squeezing past him to get to them.
She doesn’t belong here, he says with a wave of his hand, I send her back home. Then he goes to his chair in the tiny storeroom at the back to study the horses.
Ewelina worked the twelve-hour shift just yesterday, I think but don’t say.
Using a scissors blade, I open the first box on the pile and it’s filled with melted Mars bars. To bring this to JJ’s attention would be like a confession, he would blame me, so I save the trouble and stock them anyway.
A wasp buzzes through the screen. It flies into the glass a few times and comes at my face. I squirm out of its way, knocking a hanging card of scampi fries from the side wall. The wasp lands on the rim of the penny-sweet bins behind me, pauses, selects the white bonbons. Standing atop the mound of little dusty balls, it rubs its front legs together as if in delight. A shiver goes through my jaw. I grab a newspaper from the stand beside the screen, wave it above the bonbons, and the wasp shoots back outside. I suck in air involuntarily. I must have stopped breathing. It seems unfair that the wasp can leave.
Glancing over the words on the front of the newspaper in my hand, I read:
LETHAL CONTROL “ETHICAL” IN
FIGHT AGAINST INVASIVE SPECIES
I try to read it again, but behind me JJ announces suddenly he’s leaving. He must go to the police station ASAP because he witnessed a crime on his way to work and the police need him for their report. He heard screaming under a canal bridge, ran to see what was happening, and frightened off an African man who was holding a blade to an old lady’s neck. She was so grateful there might even be a reward, he says. And while he’s gone, I am to unpack the rest of the boxes ASAP because a delivery of fags is due – the customer always has money for fags.
The tension in my body eases, but his lingering sweat scent clings to my skin and clothes as I do the task. I struggle to imagine ever freeing myself of it.
Working on autopilot, I scan the past. I remember the time we lived in a tent on a hidden bend on the Liffey when I was a kid. We’d wake up drenched and dehydrated in the summer, and the only thing to do was dunk ourselves in the river and try to catch fish until Wisdom arrived in his van to take us begging in the city centre.
Be grateful for the job and always show respect to Mr JJ, my mother says.
When I finish unpacking, I’m as sweaty as him. I open the lid on the slush machine behind the door and put my face inside. Cold, sweet-cherry-flavoured relief. I picture putting all my head in and my brains blending perfectly with the red slosh.
Two wasps enter the kiosk. I wait for the right moment, making myself stay as still as I can. One lands on the counter. I hold a chocolate box over it and let it drop. This sends the other into a frenzy and it crashes and crashes against the screen. I lift the box envisioning the first flying out and stinging me in the eye, but it’s crushed to death. Quickly I roll up the newspaper to whack the other, but it escapes.
There’s a man on the other side of the screen. He has his shirt off and the Virgin Mary tattooed on his chest. Do ye sell drink in here? he asks with a hard-to-understand Dublin accent.
I point to the fridge with the cans of soda.
For fuck’s sake, he says, I’m talkin about bleedin drink.
I tell him no and he shouts, Bollix, and moves away.
I focus on my jumping heart and notice more wasps flying past the screen as if a nest has formed nearby overnight. A buzz of chatter starts up and people rush from the station. A train must have pulled in. Workers in matching uniforms, their scary bulging eyes black and greedy. They operate at a pace that communicates a willingness to sting for the slightest irritation. Anger one of them and I sense the desire to attack would spread through the others like a chain reaction. I urge them to come in. I imagine decimating their whole colony and leaving their body parts scattered over JJ’s chair, then going away forever.
My phone rings and it’s him. I hear horse-race commentary and hoarse men roaring in the background. He tells me he’s held up at the police station because his description of the African man matches that of a wanted murderer and it’s important he cooperates fully with the investigation. He’ll be back ASAP but won’t make it in time for the delivery man with the fags. So I must explain to him in detail the reason for this and tell him he would see him next time. Also, I must not take any produce from the shop without paying.
I get down on the floor and crawl into the dark cave beneath the counter. I stay here for as long as I can. The time between now and when my shift ends at 7 p.m. feels like forever. I want to cry. Endless voices and sirens pass by outside, all unaware of what is behind this thin wall.
I hear the van pull onto the pathway beside the kiosk and stand up, panicked to see it’s the new man JJ uses. He’s very fat and his van is old and rusty. I watch him yelling on the phone for a few minutes before he gets out. He pants as he slides open the side door of the van and throws boxes from the back onto the path. I go out to meet him.
You again, he says. That boss of yours better be around this time.
I shake my head and pick up the first three boxes and bring them inside. I open one on the counter to busy myself with something. Through the screen, I watch him grumbling to himself and trying to phone JJ. After four or five attempts, he gives up and goes around the side of the kiosk saying, Here you. He squeezes through the door, blocking the sun. I feel the floor crunch like brittle exoskeleton under my feet. My eyes adjust to the new light and I see he’s covered head to toe in wasps. I’m too frightened to move, but his enormous crawling mass forces me against the back wall. Fucken spoofers, he says. He pulls a handkerchief from his breast pocket and pats the small bit of his face left visible by the wasps. Do you lot think I’m an eejit or what? Yis still owe me for last time, so if ye think I’m leaving here today without me money ye must be outta yer fucken minds.
I try to explain that JJ had to go to the police station, but my mouth can’t form the sounds, only a string of whimpers.
He steps towards me, reaching out his forearm. I flinch. The drone of the insects grows louder. His clammy palm claps against the back of my neck and sticks like a magnet. I wince at the sensation of hundreds of tiny legs moving across my skin and vomit a little, swallow it. He directs me towards the till, instructing me to open it. I do as he asks and he takes out all of the notes. I don’t know how things are done where you lot are from, he says, but a word of advice: in this country we pay people what they’re owed. He laughs. What are ye crying for? Christ, he says, you’re shaking! He pats me on the cheek. Man up, would ye, it’s not as if I’m going to box the head off ye. I know you’re only following orders. He takes a twenty euro note from the pile in his hand and stuffs it into my pocket with a wink. Tell Boss I’ll be back for more if he gives ye the sack for this, he says, and backs out of the kiosk.
I collapse against the side of the coffee machine, shielding my face and gnawing on my finger. A tickle runs across my spine and my teeth break the skin. I flail, pulling at my t-shirt, and a wasp flies out, past my ear, and starts tapping the inside of the glass. Furious, I pick up the newspaper, crack it, and it goes into death throes on the counter. Its wings work and work but it can only manage to roll from side to side until getting stuck on its back. It spasms and curls into a ball, appearing to sting itself in its surprisingly hairy head. Then its back half starts twitching and pulsating like a whole separate creature – a black and yellow grub attempting to burrow into the counter to get away from the rest of its body, or from the gravity of its situation. Abruptly the wings stop and the front right leg taps the counter as if in submission, fast at first but getting slower.
Oi, mister, give’s a pack of fags, a child’s voice says through the screen, taking me away from the wasp. He has a shaved head and freckles and is pink with sunburn. I can’t see any adults with him.
You’re too young.
Ah, come on, mister, he says, I can see a whole box sittin right there. Give’s one. I shake my head and he reaches for them through the hole. Just one, ye stingy Romanian bastard!
I grab his wrist and force his hand onto the wasp. He yelps and yanks it away, staring at me in shock. He looks down confused at the swelling pain in his palm and tears flood his eyes.
Darren John Travers lives in Co. Kildare, Ireland and writes fiction. He has previously been published in The Cabinet of Heed and A New Ulster. Currently he is working on his first collection of short stories.