When Benjamin was a little boy he painted things. Mostly small things. Like tiny houses. Or dinosaur kits. Or invisible men. He liked using the small brushes. Painting tiny, intricate details.
His hand would cramp up by the end of the day. Painful. Claw shaped. He liked the way this felt. It felt like a good day’s work. He would line up his tiny pieces of art and look at them. Hand clawed up. Smiling. His room smelling of paint fumes.
He didn’t have any friends. He didn’t like to read, watch television, play video games. In school he daydreamed about painting. His teachers thought he was slow. He didn’t go near anyone. Could not relate to them.
His mind focused on his hobby. It was all consuming.
You would think that an older Benjamin would be different. That he would work, joke around with colleagues. Go to the bar after a hard day at the office. Hit on the waitresses. Make jokes. Get married, even. Have a few kids, even. Forget all about painting.
It actually got worse. His mother died. Cancer. Isn’t it always? After that he got the house. All paid off. He only worked when he needed food. And that he bought in cans by the truckload.
He rarely had to work. Instead, he painted. His obsession had gotten more distinct. More of a laser point in the darkness. Ants.
At first he bought model kits through the mail. Ordered them on the internet. That wasn’t enough. He began to make his own. Taking apart pieces of his house. Tearing off chunks of wall. Chiseling off chunks of concrete steps. Making little ant bodies, little ant heads. His fingers cramping. Always cramping. As he molded. As he painted.
He would sit in his basement. A can of fruit open on his lap. A spoon resting plainly. Fine and tiny brush pushed into cramped claw fingers. Painting. Intricate designs. War ants. Love ants. Fire ants. Firefighter ants. Giant ants. Tiny ants. Shaman ants. God of the ants.
The basement was filled with ants. It was like his own ant farm. Made large.
He made highways for them. Byways for them. All the while not noticing that the plants grew outside of his basement window. Not noticing the yellow spores covering it. Tapping against it. Like fingers. Rat-tat tapping.
He built ant houses. Ant shrines. Ant cities on an ant hill. Ant bonfires. Ant beaches. And ant graveyards for those who died during the great ant civil war.
Eventually, he had to go upstairs and find supplies. To make more ants. To make more houses, homes, tunnels. To enhance the life of those he created. He was a good god. A good maker. A benign and loving deity. Whenever an ant died, he wept. They died frequently. Of war, of plague. The ant doctors and the ant scientists tried to stop it. To hold back death.
Not even he could do that. Not even the ant maker could hold off death.
There was a girl. Isn’t there always? She was eighteen when he first met her. She moved in. Next door. With her husband, Gary. Gary drove a truck. Ate baked beans from a can. She was pregnant. Always pregnant. Although they never seemed to have any kids.
Benjamin knows he would’ve noticed kids. Kids are loud. Kids destroy. They would’ve gotten into his house. Gotten to his ants and killed them. Killed them all. He would’ve had to make a mass grave. One the size of his whole backyard.
Thankfully, they did not have kids.
The girl’s name was Emily. She had short black hair. Benjamin thought she was pretty. Every once in a while, she would be bored. Come over and try to talk to him. To make conversation. Benjamin wasn’t good at conversation.
All he wanted to do was talk about his ants. She didn’t seem to mind. And she was pretty. Benjamin liked her.
He didn’t like Gary. Her husband drank. A lot. Called Benjamin “That fucking ’tard monkey next door.” He would pat his round stomach. Scratch his bearded face. Belch. Laugh.
No, no. Benjamin didn’t like him.
Benjamin liked lists. Lists and ants and Emily. Lists were perfect. Were cathartic. They helped him organize. He had boxes of lists. Shoved throughout the house.
One list he had was very important. It was a daily list. Each day, marked down. Day, month, year. And beside it was an observation. One that bothered Benjamin.
The plants were growing.
It bothered him so much that he only took notice of it once a day. First thing in the morning. Before the sun came up. When the plants were still sleeping. He would look out the windows. Measure them with his eyes. Mark down their height on his list.
Then he would be back making ants.
Emily was a gardener. When she would stop by to talk to Benjamin she would have dirt on her hands. Under her nails. Sweat on her brow. Sometimes, she would bring him food. Garlic. Things of that sort. Grown in the garden.
Benjamin kept a list of what she brought over. Kept a list of the days she dropped by. He checked the list yesterday. It had been two weeks.
That made Benjamin sad. That made Benjamin worry. It didn’t last long. He added new notes to the lists. Put them in their shoe boxes. Shelved them away. Began working on the ants.
Something smelled funny in the air. He pulled out a box of allergy masks he kept in the basement. Next to the lists. And the dead ants. Strapped it to his face. Breathed easier.
Back to work.
Emily dropped by. But this time it wasn’t Emily. But it was. She was very pregnant. Yet she wasn’t. Her eyes were full of green fluid. Leaking onto her cheek. Her face was spotted. Cracking. Her hair had vines wrapped up in the blonde curls. When she smiled, Benjamin saw leaves behind her teeth.
They talked like they usually did. About the usual things. Benjamin talked about ants. She talked about gardening. About having a baby. A boy, this time. She was sure of it. Maybe Gary would let this one live? She didn’t know. Won’t know until afterward.
Benjamin felt like something was off. Something was different about her. She was pretty, still, yes. But she was greener. And smelled of wet earth and mushrooms growing in a cave.
When she left Benjamin was sad. He hadn’t been sad since his mom had died. Cancer.
The ants weren’t coming together. They were falling apart. Each piece, sliding. Damn it. He slammed them. Broke the pieces. This wasn’t going right. He took his brush. Walked out of the basement. Upstairs.
This wasn’t going right at all. He felt dizzy. His hands shook. A yellow pollen fluttered in the air. Like a mist. In his living room. He looked around. Saw that his living room had changed.
No, no, no. Not today. Why did this have to happen today? He wasn’t finished yet. Not yet. Why couldn’t this wait until he was finished?
He made a list of things wrong with the living room.
The television is dead. Spiders in it.
Vines on the ceiling. Floor.
Plants burst through windows. Bushes.
Red berries on the bushes. Poisonous?
Ceiling covered in bugs.
Door is gone. Replaced by wall of roses.
Thorns on roses. Ouch. Blood.
He wore his allergy mask. It helped him breathe better. Now that he could breathe he could work. Still dizzy, just not so much. Made more ants. They needed an ant army. Invaders. Plant invaders. Coming. Attacking.
We need a militia. Seven thousand strong. Will have to recruit civilians. Shamans. Priests. Firefighters. Ant families and ant children. This was a call of duty. A call to honor.
He fell asleep. Paintbrush in hand. Army at the ready.
Doorbell. Woke him. Stumbled upstairs. Paint covered hands. Clawed. Allergy mask on. Looked like survivor. Wanted to survive. The pollen was still there. Made walking hard. Like swimming.
He answered the rosebush. Ouch! Thorns. Forgot about those. It was Emily. Beautiful. Skin greenish blue. Eyes no longer leaking. But blossoming. Two flowers for eyes. Leaves sticking out of her hair. When she talked her voice sounded burbly. Like she was underwater. Or lungs full of water. Or drowning. Benjamin did not know which.
“Come outside,” she said. “See the sun.”
Benjamin looked behind her. There was no sun. Just pollen blotting it out. The world was a haze of yellow. Plants were everywhere. Pushing through concrete. Covering houses. Buildings. Cars.
“No thank you,” he said. “I don’t like the sun.”
She smiled. So pretty.
“Come on, we can play. We can sing, we can dance. You can help me garden. We can catch bees and pollinate ourselves. Doesn’t that sound nice?”
Benjamin liked that. Wanted that. But the ants were not finished. The army was not finished. He could not forget about the invasion. It was important. He shook his head. “The army needs me,” he said. “My children need me.”
She parted her lips. Like plums. “You can kiss me,” she said. “I know you would like that. Come on, kiss me. Take that mask off. Kiss me. You can even cop a feel if you’d like. Gary wouldn’t mind. Just take the mask off. Kiss me.”
Benjamin began to pull the mask down. Was leaning in. Almost taken off. When he saw a yellow spider crawl out from between her lips. Scale up her face. Make a web between her two eye flowers.
He kept his mask on. This isn’t Emily, he thought. Emily did not have spiders inside of her. Baby, yes. Spiders, no.
“Fine,” she said. “I’ll send Gary around. Maybe he can talk some sense into you.”
Benjamin didn’t like that. She slammed the rosebushes in his face. Stormed off. Even though she wasn’t Emily he still didn’t like making her sad. Or mad. It didn’t sit well with him.
Depressed, he went back inside. Went downstairs. Continued to work.
There is never an entry for 13. It is unlucky.
The ant army was close to being finished. But not just yet. His hand cramped. He needed to hurry. The basement was the only room in the house still safe. Still uninfected. His hand itched as it clawed up. Itch, itch, itch. Felt like something crawling, growing under his skin.
He took some medicine. But the itch did not stop. The pain did not stop. He would have to be done painting for now. Building for now. He couldn’t work. Not like this.
The rooms in the house infected with the garden:
No room to walk anymore
Even the floor is covered in weeds
Stove is now a rhododendron
Lilacs in the Frigidaire
Ceiling fan filled with vines
Second Floor Bedrooms
Beds are trees. Cracking through ceiling.
Floor is moss. Green. Fuzzy.
Bookshelves are moldy.
Books are gone. Eaten by insects.
No more attic. Just lattice of branches
There was a scratching at his basement window. Like a cat wanting to come in. Benjamin looked up. Saw a branch. Scratch, scratch, scratch. The doorbell rang.
Damn it, he thought. Almost finished. If only his hand had stopped itching. Stopped hurting. Stopped moving on its own. And now, now. His arm itched. His eyes itched. His lips and mouth itched.
He scratched, scratched, scratched. Even though it hurt. I don’t want to answer the door, he thought. I don’t want to prick myself on the rosebushes again.
It rang, it rang. Maybe it was Emily. He would like to see her again. Sigh. Scratch, scratch, scratch. He hoped she was all right.
He opened the rosebushes. Gary stood there. His skin was orange. He had flowers in his hair. In his neck. Poking through skin. His fingers were wrapped tightly with vines. His hands tensing. Clenching. Green knuckled. His eyes leaked onto his face. Two buds sticking out. Waiting to blossom.
“Hey, you. Fuckwad. My wife wants you outside. Enjoy the sunlight. Right? Come on. Get out. And take off that fucking mask. It makes you look stupid.”
Benjamin looked at him. Gary. Shook his head. “No, no, I don’t think so. I like it inside. I like my ants. I need to go and paint some more. Before my hand stops working.”
“Come on. Get outside. Fucking idiot.”
Hand lashed out, grabbed onto Benjamin’s shoulder. Fingers dug deep into shoulder blade. Dragged him outside. Others on the street. Staring. Green skinned. Spider infested. The air wanted to choke him. Even with the allergy mask on.
“Come on, pansy. Take off the fucking mask already. Or do I have to take it off for you?”
Benjamin moved back, shoved Gary’s hand off him. Skin was brittle, broke. Bones broke. Smell of rot. Spores flew out from the broken skin. Infecting the air. Little yellow things. Pollen. Dancing.
Beneath his broken skin was vegetation, curled up around bone. Benjamin leaned over. Tried not to vomit. Dry heaved. He looked back up. Gary laughed at him.
“Take off the mask. Or I’ll take it off for you.”
Benjamin saw a shovel in Gary’s hand. Saw it rise up. Going to hit him. Going to hurt him. He moved out of the way. Shovel hit ground. Stuck into it. Gary’s skin cracked, broke a little. Vines and leaves peaked out. Pollen spread out.
Benjamin screamed. Ran inside. The others on the street turned. Looked at him. Followed with Gary. Even after Benjamin had slammed the rosebush shut. Even after he had run downstairs. Locked the basement door. Locked himself in.
He had enough canned food to last him a little while. Enough time to make his army. To make a stand against the invasion.
Nineteen left to go. Itch, itch. Scratch, scratch. Skin broke. Saw bits of leaves beneath. No, no, he thought. Can’t be happening. He kept his mask on. Just in case.
Dizzy. Dizzy. Needed to finish.
A loud bang. On basement window.
He turned. He looked.
No. No. No.
Emily’s face. Cold, white, pale. Porcelain. Like a doll. Her teeth parted. Leaves behind them. Leaf tongue. Leaf lips. Leaf uvula. Spiders ran over her face. She was on the ground.
More banging. On the basement door.
No. No. No.
Let them come. His army was ready. He was ready. He scratched. Itchity itch itch. It hurt. So much hurt. The army was poised. Ready. Set into fighting formation.
He had a list in his hand. Of all the things he wanted to do before the world died. Kiss a girl. Kiss the sun. Swallow the moon. Go fishing. Become a fish. Not die. Die over and over again. Live. Have something nice for dinner. Have someone nice for to dinner. To breathe again. To be again. Whole again. To raise a family. To raise the dead. To sing one last time. To have a sandwich. To try witchcraft. To burn the world. To be burned. To love. To live. To make something work. Just once. To make it work.
Breathe. Breathe. It felt so good to breathe without the mask on. Like breathing underwater. Walking like swimming. He no longer itched. It no longer hurt to paint. To do anything. Pain was distant. A memory. Like his childhood.
He leaned over. Kissed the glass. Where Emily’s face was. Smiled. Her head burst. Blood. Pollen. And insects. Inside of her head was a tiny baby. An infant. Made of coiled up vines, and a face that was a flower blossoming. Two tiny eyes stared at him. Was it a boy? Benjamin hoped so. Emily would’ve been happy if it was a boy.
It crawled up to the window. Placed a hand against it. Benjamin felt connected to it. Wanted to take care of it. Felt something in his own mind. Growing.
He smashed the window. His basement door burst open. Now was the time for war. Now was the time to defend his lists. His sanctuary. His love.