A Slight Exaggeration of an Otherwise
Faithfully laid down by Ellie Adgwick
Late spring in northern Utah County is magical. The mornings are bright and peaceful, cotton-tuft snowstorms drift in the afternoon breezes, and the sunsets paint the valley pink, orange, and gold. On one especially glorious June evening, the sky was so clear it made the mountains look like cardboard cutouts and the air was rich with the promise of summer. It seemed like half the neighborhood was outside, making the most of the comfortable weather. I propped the back door open to let in that breath of perfection while I puttered around the kitchen making dinner.
The front door swished open in the other room and the tail end of a friendly conversation drifted through the hall. Soft laughter, a quick goodbye, and the click of the lock when the door closed again. I held my breath and concentrated intently on a small pot of water as footsteps approached. Aunt Frances sidled around the corner.
“Hey Ellie, whatcha making?” Her voice was tight and she bounced the words up and down in a condescending sing-song.
“Oh, just some soup.” I shot her a smile then turned back to the stove. Maybe if I didn’t engage in the conversation, she’d just leave a note on my bed or send me a passive-aggressive email or, better yet, forget whatever it was she was about to reprimand me for.
“What didja do today?”
“Well, I went to work, then I took a nap, then I cleaned my room, and now I’m making dinner.” Okay, so the nap had consisted of watching half a cycle of Project Runway and reading through all my old blog posts, and unless you count moving a pile of laundry from the bed to the floor as cleaning, I hadn’t really cleaned my room. But when Frances is angry, the only thing that seems to placate her is house work; I thought nap-taking and room-cleaning might give me a leg up in the impending argument.
Her green eyes glinted in the light pouring in through the kitchen windows. A hint of danger crept into her smile. “That sure sounds like a productive day. Hey, I was just out talking to Mrs. Natham, and I couldn’t help but notice that the flower beds haven’t been tended in a while. . .”
“Oh. . .”
“Yeah, do you remember that you’re supposed to do the yard work?”
“I mowed the lawn last week.”
“Yes I know, and thank you, but you need to weed the garden. I can’t do it. Part of our agreement is that you help out around the house.” Her smile disappeared as she folded her arms.
It was true that I was in charge of maintaining the yard—Frances was giving me free rent in exchange for physical labor, and I knew I hadn’t been keeping my end of the bargain.
The water in the pot started to boil. I fumbled with a package of Ramen and tried to explain why I hadn’t tended the garden yet. “I started to weed yesterday when I got home from work. . .”
“But. . . ?”
“But I. . .didn’t finish.”
The package tore down one side and noodles flew everywhere. I clenched the mostly-empty wrapper in my fist and turned slowly to face my aunt. She raised her thin eyebrows expectantly. I studied the freckles on her forehead as I mumbled, “There are earwigs.”
“There are earwigs.”
She stared at me.
Somewhere outside a dog barked.
The neighborhood basketball team shrieked and hollered friendly insults.
I fidgeted with a hole in my t-shirt.
“Get it done tomorrow after work.”
“I don’t work tomorrow,” I said, flicking noodles off the counter.
“Good. You can start first thing in the morning.” She left the room with a triumphant swagger and I wept softly over my Ramen.
The Very Next Day
“Frances, I don’t think you understand,” I said as she handed me a spade and a plastic bucket.
“Wear gloves if the bugs bother you so much.” She tossed a pair at me.
“It’s not bugs, it’s earwigs. And they don’t bother me, we’re mortal enemies! Nemeses, even!” My cries echoed faintly in the bleak garage.
“Stop being dramatic and pull some weeds.” She pointed a severe finger at the driveway. I stepped out onto the concrete and watched her feet disappear an inch at a time under the monstrous garage door. As soon as the coast was clear, I pulled out my phone and tweeted, “If you never hear from me again, the earwigs got me. #gross #mybiggestfear #wellitwasabeautifulday.”
About a second later, my friend Morgan replied, “@SmellieEllie Go get those creepy bastards. Step on a few for me! #youcantakeem #seriouslythoughthatsgross.”
I laughed in spite of myself. Morgan is the most adorable, bubbly, contagiously happy person I know, and when she swears, she giggles. The juxtaposition is always funny, even filtered through social media.
I was about to respond when Aunt Frances opened the front door with startling ferocity. She didn’t say anything, but somehow I knew she was planning a slow and painful death for me. Saluting her with my phone, I took a few steps toward the office window, where I would be shielded from view.
It was time.
I knelt in the grass in front of the rose bushes, though it felt much more like kneeling before the guillotine. My fingers trembled inside my thick canvas gloves, but I managed to wield a spade, which turned out to be ideal for carefully parting branches and vines before plunging my hands into the ground to pull up the weeds—this was my safeguard against accidentally touching anything that was alive and potentially evil.
After twenty minutes of tremendously cautious gardening, I began to relax. The sun had crested Mount Timpanogos and its rays were slowly warming the brisk morning air, but more importantly, there had been no sign of earwigs. Maybe I had been overreacting. Maybe they wouldn’t be a problem during the day, and I did actually enjoy yard work.
I could handle this.
I hummed a little ditty and set in on a stubborn milkweed.
Just When I Thought Things Would Be Fine
The flowerbed was perfect, like something out of Better Homes and Gardens: sweet little rows of pansies and those flowery ground cover plants, a range of stately irises, carefully trimmed marigolds, artfully tamed bushes of hydrangea and wild roses, all in a bed of completely weed- and grass-free earth. I sat back on my heels to admire the garden, wiping my forehead with the back of my hand and tossing the last stray twig toward the overflowing bucket.
With a satisfied sigh, I began peeling the gloves off my sweaty hands. Then. As I reached for my phone to tweet about my success. A huge earwig raced out from under my left thumb and danced over my forearm. I shrieked, flailed, hurled my phone, leapt up, stomped in a frantic circle, and shrieked some more. When I regained some semblance of composure, I found the bug’s carcass schmeared on the curb, one leg waving a feeble farewell to this cruel, cruel world.
“Eeeew.” I shuddered. The only thing worse than an earwig is a schmearedwig. (That might be the dumbest thing I’ve ever written, but I stand by it—I have nightmares about schmearedwigs.) As I looked around for something I could scrape him off the curb with, a movement in the freshly overturned soil caught my eye: another earwig emerged and squirmed its way over to the first. It scuttled back and forth along the cracked screen of my phone, apparently distressed at the carnage. Finally, it paused at what used to be the dead earwig’s head. I could have sworn I heard a mournful chant as it waved its feelers over the body in a minuscule shaman ritual.
“At Smellie Ellie!” it cried, pointing at me with its foreleg. “I challenge thee!”
Bewildered and a little bit terrified, I took a step back. My foot went straight through a hole in the grass, and I fell, hands slapping the ground, earth crumbing beneath me. I tumbled down through the air, blinded by dirt, the wind in my ears like the rush of a thousand people calling my name.
The next thing I knew
I was propped up against a boulder in a dark, rocky tunnel. I don’t know where I was, how I got there, or when I passed out. All I know is that when I woke up, I could hardly move. The right side of my body felt like it had been through a woodchipper, and from what I could see, it looked like it had. Biting back a moan, I rolled carefully onto my left side and used my good arm to drag myself to my feet. Thankfully, my right leg didn’t seem to be broken. It was scratched to hell and bruised pretty badly, but I could put my weight on it. Of course, that didn’t matter when I edged my way around the boulder. The tunnel opened up into a monstrous cavern, ten or fifteen stories tall, about as long as a football field, ringed with jagged coliseum tiers, every inch crawling with earwigs.
My legs gave out.
I sat there, clinging to the boulder, tears streaming down my face, fighting back a surge of hysteria, trying to ignore the dancing torchlight (wherever that was coming from) and the crisp whisper of a millionmillion legs.
A curiously fat bug slithered out from the crowd and perched on my knee. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn he was one of those underworld bugs from Anastasia.
“Silence!” he cried. His voice was not a high-pitched squeak like you would imagine, but deep and commanding. He held up three chubby legs and everything went still.
“At Smellie Ellie, you stand accused of the murder and defamation of the most honorable Emperor Bohdan. Through despicable and depraved acts of violence, you mutilated the emperor’s remains and slandered his good name and the name of all who proudly call themselves euborellia annulipes! What say you to this?”
I couldn’t move. I stared at the Spokesbug, all thoughts of reason and common sense gone, and sobbed.
“The accused does not deny her guilt! At Smellie Ellie! You are hereby challenged to a fight to the death by the slain earwig’s brother, the illustrious Lord Borys. By earwig law, he is permitted to call upon the aid of all his living relatives”—which, as you can imagine, was quite a few bugs. A mass of earwigs on the wall ahead of me reared up and picked up the chant Borys had used over his brother’s body. Spokesbug didn’t try to stop them. He raised his voice and continued in a counter-rhythm: “You are permitted to call upon the aid of any gods you worship and the mercy they see fit to send you.”
The crowd went wild. Bugs teemed and writhed and yelled unintelligible insults, the combined sound of bodies and voices deafening. The still-chanting relatives of the emperor marched down off the wall and across the ground toward me. An endless stream of earwigs filled the empty space as soon as it appeared. The mini army halted in the center of the arena.
Borys, a thin and especially crispy-looking earwig, took a few steps forward. “Bohdan shall be avenged!”
“At Smellie Ellie,” said Spokesbug, “let your death be a lesson to all humans who dare to usurp euborellia annulipine authority! Borys!”
But Borys had already begun his charge. By the time Spokesbug finished his speech, I was clawing my way up the boulder to escape Borys and company. They swarmed out of the ground, scurried up my legs, teemed over my chest, surged onto my head. I tried to scream, but I was suffocating on bugs, tried to run, but couldn’t tell where my limbs ended and the bugs began. Then I was falling again, off the boulder, into the pincers of countless murderous earwigs, into my worst nightmare. I landed with an almighty crash that shook the cavern walls, sent dirt and rocks and bugs raining down from the ceiling. But the ground didn’t stop shaking. It rumbled and shuddered, louder and faster, until the wall above me exploded. Bugs scattered in every direction and I could breathe again. Blinding light poured in through the hole in the wall. I shielded my head from falling rubble.
I bolted upright, my heart pounding in my ears. That sounded like. . .
“Ellie! Hop on, quick.”
“Morgan!” I struggled to my feet. She had driven a backhoe through the cavern wall and was currently wielding an industrial-sized jug of insecticide. Earwigs scurried away from her, over the lip of the tier, down into the entrance tunnel. She was about twenty feet above me. “How do I get up there? I only have one good arm.”
“Hang on.” She ran to the backhoe and pulled out a duffel bag. “Here!” She tossed me a can of insecticide. It hit me square in the right shoulder. I yelled and fell to my knees, almost getting swept away by a swarm of bugs as they headed for the tunnel.
“Sorry! Hang on, I have a rope in here somewhere.”
But I just couldn’t get my feet back under me. Waves of earwigs scrabbled over my arms and back, and the fresh pain in my shoulder was making it hard to breathe, much less stay upright.
“Morgan,” I gasped. Then louder, “Morgan!”
“Here!” She held up the rope. “Hey! I’m going to make a seat for you. Hold on just a minute!” She looped the rope through the shoulder strap of the duffel bag and tied it off in a complicated knot. With an impressive war cry (“FOR NARNIA!”), she tossed the bag down to me. I caught it and wiggled into the makeshift seat, praying that the knot would hold.
“Ready!” I said.
Morgan scrambled into the driver’s seat and slammed the backhoe into gear. If it had been a car, the tires would have squealed and spewed smoke as it tore away into the sunset. Since it was a huge piece of construction machinery, it lumbered forward at an excruciatingly slow pace. I pressed against the wall with my feet like a rock climber repelling down a mountain and walked toward the tier. Not exactly the world’s most climactic rescue, but it was a whole heck of a lot better than being eaten alive by Satan’s favorite insect.
About four feet from the landing, I yelled for Morgan to stop and come help me up. She must not have heard me because we kept crawling forward. I yelled again, still no response. I tried to find hand and footholds, but I couldn’t let go of the rope for fear of slipping out of the seat and plummeting to my death. So I was scraped along the jagged lip, new gashes tearing up my left side. This time, Morgan heard me yelling.
“I’m so sorry, Ellie!” she said as she helped my to my feet and slid the duffel bag over my head. “Are you okay?”
“I will be. Just get me out of here.”
She helped me up into the backhoe and gave me another can of insecticide. “If you can figure out how to work the scooper, go for it. In the meantime, there’s this.”
“Thanks. How did you know to look for me?”
“Your tweet,” Morgan said, swerving to crush a patch of bugs that were scurrying for cover. “You said if you didn’t come back, the earwigs got you. When you didn’t respond to any of my texts and your aunt was ranting about how you’d torn a hole in the lawn and taken off, I figured they really had you. So I rented a backhoe and here we are.”
“Where’s Zack? I thought he never missed an opportunity to play the knight in shining armor.”
She smiled at the mention of her husband. “He couldn’t get work off, but I promised I’d smash a bug in his name. FOR ZACHARY!” And she accelerated toward another patch of bugs.
That’s when I lost it. Despite the fact that I was covered in blood, dirt, and bug guts, probably had a broken arm, and would definitely need to hire me a good therapist, I roared with laughter. Insane, maniacal, uncontrollable laughter. I laughed all the way up the winding entrance Morgan had dug. I laughed when I saw the look on Frances’s face. I laughed when I saw my reflection in the mirror, looking like someone who’d survived two years in the jungle with only a sharp stick and a book of matches.
I only stopped laughing when, at about the two-hour mark of my post-ordeal shower, an earwig carcass fell out of my hair and landed with a soft thunk on the floor. I didn’t have to get a closer look to recognize Borys. I nudged him with my toe. He half rolled onto his side in a noncommittal, “I’m dead” sort of way. I looked around for something I could pick him up off the floor with, then changed my mind and lifted my foot above his head.