Tyler ate fire ants. He didn’t eat them out of hunger, and he didn’t eat them often. But when he did, he made sure no one knew. On any given blade of grass, he would find the ants slowly crawling their way up and over and around. He would uproot them. Take the blade, with the ants circling and circling, and he would shove it in his mouth. If anyone asked him how they tasted, he wouldn’t be able to say exactly. Maybe something like a lemon — sour in the back of his throat, coupled with a slight burn. He’d gotten used to it, after all. But now, when he chewed, he mostly tasted grass. And grass wasn’t too bad because it was dry, and it tasted just how it smelled. Everyone liked to say that Tyler was strange. Too strange. Like he was faded around the edges. When he was younger, he was notorious for being able to eat anything. From worms to mixed garbage to rotten fruits. It was a simple process really. Someone would make some concoction maybe milk and gravy with some peas and the leftover lunch meat. He ate it. Meaning: enter, chew, swallow, gulp. It really wasn’t too bad. Tyler learned to take things inside of him. Some things he learned — To just take them. Endure them. Pretend it wasn’t that bad. It could have always been worse.
Everybody knew Tyler was a good kid. He loved his Mom. And without fail, everyday at 7:00 am, he would take out the trash. She never asked him to. He would move across the lawn with the recycling bin pinned against his hip, shading his eyes from the early sun. He would assess the mess: soda cans littered everywhere, half-eaten pizza, soiled paper plates. The ants would come out then, a black-red tidal wave at the ready. They would take the plates, cover them with their rounded bodies always moving. Tyler would pick up these plates. He would try to shake them off. His fingers pinching the edges and his wrists angled just so. At best, the ants overcame him. They would move up his fingers frantically as they tried to take more and more of him. They never made it to his knuckles. He would release the plate, dump them all into the trash bag.
From the backyard he could see into the garage, where his father was still asleep on a greasy, pull-out couch. His Mom said that he was never coming back. And yet, there he was. At first, they were careful, so careful, that Tyler could pretend he wasn’t there. At first, it was quiet footsteps in the middle of the night. Footfalls so soft they could’ve been the ants creeping in the attic. But soon, they grew careless. He’d be there in the morning pouring his coffee, always stuffed with sugar. He did love his sweets. Had a tooth so rotten, Tyler wondered why it didn’t fall out. It was the kind of cavity that grew from the center and kept going, and one day, he wouldn’t be able to eat anymore. It was a thought — something that Tyler could hold onto. Before the split, every morning would be the same. Tyler with his trash. His father at the table. Coffee in one hand, his mouth full of rotten teeth, a smug, knowing kind of smile set on his face. A face that had charmed well with age, but still potted with so many holes. Tyler wondered if all the dirt and the dust in their house could turn his face black. And all those potholes would be seen by everyone. They wouldn’t have to get as close to him as he did. Wouldn’t fall for his blue eyes — everyone said they sparkled. And maybe that was why he was here. His eyes. And the way they crinkled with laughter lines. A nice guy. A good guy. A family man who played catch in the backyard. The type of dad who never missed a birthday, who came home in a suit and tie. Some days, he would even bring home a rose for Mom even when it wasn’t their anniversary. He’d knock on the door, as if he was a mysterious stranger, rose in hand. Said it was so that he could re-meet her over and over again. Because he never wanted to stop knowing her, and she would stare up at him with wonder filling her shining eyes, blushing madly. Her hands clasped together. She never noticed the little red ants climbing up the thorns circling around and around. She never noticed that he never smiled with his teeth, always closed lipped, some sunken in dimple. So maybe that was why he was here, sitting across from Tyler. Mom threw him out. She promised. He was never coming back. But they were growing more and more public, and sure, he still kept his apartment that was 10 minutes away. But he was never there. But she promised.
Freshman year, Tyler cried in Mrs. Krause’s fourth period chem class during a lecture on acid-base titration. It was a quiet cry. The tears ran down his face, mostly silent, and everyone pretended not to see. He remembered, the first time, how sour those ants tasted.
“When you’re titrating strong acids with weak bases you add more, so it forms a buffer. Because eventually, you’ll reach an equivalence point.”
He never thought he would reach that point. When he was seven, he remembered sitting amongst the ant holes sprouting from his yard. Those exploding volcanoes. He didn’t care about how they nibbled at his ankles, thought maybe it was better that way. Thought how those ants, bright and angry, would shine brighter than he ever would. He fell asleep like that. With the ants smeared and stained in the inside of his cheek, he couldn’t help but hope that maybe if he ate enough, he would be colored with something new. His skin, red and fresh-slapped. His father said that he looked better that way.
Nobody was surprised when his father let him throw a party. He was the cool dad. The kind of man that had a “no drinking policy with a wink,” so he would leave beer kegs where Tyler and his friends could find them. And after four hours of Metro with the beers untouched, it was time for snacks. Tyler would bring in the silverware meant just for this occasion; the bowls were always clear as if to say they were a family with nothing to hide. He’d come in balancing them in his hands filled with Doritos and chips. Adam, Kevin, Tom, and Jill would howl in excitement, drumming their fingers against the table.
“Hey, we didn’t even have to chip in!” Tom guffawed. With Adam screaming,
“Makes me even chipper!”
Tom and Adam fist bumped.
Everything was better this way, with his parents gone, and the house just to themselves. And for a while, the ants left too. Mom had gone over to Adam’s house for some wine drinking and his father left to visit some bar for a good game of poker or something like that. He wasn’t really sure, but he was glad because the boys (and Jill) were over and they could eat on the living room floor and his friends were sprawled across the couch gorging themselves like pigs.
“Dude, where’s the guac?” Jill asked, eyeing the bowl through the curtain of her blue hair.
“You know it”
And so he’d pull out the guac and the sour cream from the fridge, packed and ready-made by his Mom. He’d slide into the living room floor on both knees, the bowl of guac cradled to his chest. Pretended, he was a rockstar at his encore the bowl raised over his head in delivery.
“Your loyal servant”
“Oh, shut up” and Jill would take the bowl and hold it to her chest.
While Kevin stared at her, his eyes glossing over as if guac was suddenly the most fascinating thing in the world.
“Hey, buddy, eyes up here!” hollered Adam. He’d smirk while tapping his chest and then smacking himself with both hands twice at his temples.
“Hey, fuck off.”
Beet red, Kevin grabbed one of the beer bottles, and before Tyler could groan,
“Let’s play spin the bottle!”
And of course, they howled in agreement (neglecting the fact that there was only one girl). And of course, it was Kevin, who wanted to play.
The bottle glinted under the flashing screen with you died still splattered across the television — some bloody font meant to appeal to the supposed carnal nature of teen boys (and Jill). It spun round and round, and the boys waited with bated breaths for it to slow down (while Jill, arms folded, waited in exasperation). With the bottle reaching its last wobble,
“And… it’s Kevin!”
“With the lamp!”
The boys rolled over laughing, their hands clutching their stomachs, while Kevin unfolded his legs bravely and went up to the lamp. He grabbed it by its neck and in a single movement had it tipped towards the ground. His body arched in a dramatic flourish, and with the lightbulb jiggling at the sudden action, he planted a sloppy loud kiss on the shade of the lamp. Everyone hollered. They banged their fists against the ground, stamping their approval. And for the rest of the night the bottle would spin and spin, always landing on some inanimate object or boy, never once touching Jill. The night went on with more cheek kisses and dramatic make-out sessions with the sofa, the TV, and the curtains. Along with wistful glances towards Jill from Kevin, who was growing more desperate at the closing notes of a dying game. Yet, the bottle landed over and over again on anything or anyone who wasn’t her and Kevin sat, eyes filled with sadness and longing. Tom nudged Tyler in the shoulder and whispered in his ear,
“He’s so fuckin whipped,”
and Tyler could feel his eyes crinkling, couldn’t help the laughter building up inside of him. And for the first time in a long while, he felt the need for something to come out. He supreseed his laughter with a stifled snort and swiped his fingers in the guac. And in one swift movement turned to face Tom. His fingers dancing in front of Tom’s eyes. His eyebrows wiggling in the partly dimmed room.
He most definitely would have. But before he could, Tom tackled him to the ground. Tilted his head towards him and pinned his arms to the floor. And Tyler traced his eyes, the soft slope of his mouth, a bed of plum trees. He focused on the red splotches crawling up his neck; he’s ridiculous. With one hand raised over his head, the guac at the ready. He’s gonna give me a facial. Tyler grinned, staring up at him. Tom pushed back his sticky hair lifted his eyes to him, lazy and careless, undeniably him. He bent closer, and suddenly the weight became something familiar. Something heavy. And Tyler couldn’t shake the sinking dread that settled over him. His eyes, startled, big-eyed, blinking blankly at the ceiling. He could see the ants returning. They came in through the cracks. Then the floorboards, a visiting sea of smashed berries, squirming. He felt them now. The way they came in through his sleeves. Into his pant legs. Itch. They stung and burned relentlessly. Itch. The fire ant venom, a cocktail of at least 46 proteins, had reached his sides. Itch. They made their way across his face over his nose. Itch. A thousand pinches at his temples. Itch. They began to fill his ears.
In biology, Tyler learned that infected ants were pumped swollen, disguising themselves as ripe. They could hardly control it. The parasites would come in and then that would be it. Tyler was already infected. He knew this. He could feel it in the way his father called him useless, with his arms wrapped around him. He held him to his chest. Watched as the endless stream of ants clambered up their legs, their arms.
Sometimes when Tyler looked in the mirror, he couldn’t find his reflection, and when that happened, he’d have to rely on touch. He’d feel for his left hip with his right fingers, they were all there, all five of them, and he’d drag them across the bumps on his skin. After making sure that his left hip was there and his right fingers were touching them, he’d lose one of his earlobes or his whole nose. He was constantly looking for parts of himself. He felt them disappearing. Almost as if they didn’t belong to him. They probably didn’t. The ants probably took most of him. He tried not to think about it.
But he did think about, how later that night, when all his friends left, he would be alone with the ants again. How, one day, Jill will decide to dye her hair red, and Kevin will find some other blue haired girl to love. And Tom will cut his chin trying to shave, while Adam will try stand-up, get booed off the stage. He thought about how they would all be moving forward once things got started. And how he was stuck. And how he couldn’t really explain to his Mom, him kneeling, sick and shirtless by his father. Couldn’t tell her why, when he whipped around, mouth-sticky. The ants dripping out.