By V. S. Mukund
My brother always had too much self-respect for his own good, and it killed him.
“This is our home,” he’d said that night. “This is where we’ve always been, where we belong. And yet, they treat us like we’re the intruders. Like we’re the criminals. Like somehow we deserve death just for existing. Well, I can’t take it anymore. I can’t take the notion that I can’t walk ten steps in broad daylight in my own fucking home.”
We watched from our hole in the wall as he strode out into the light, the waves of white and pale gold flickering off his back in sheens far too heroic and true to belong to one of us. There was an inimitable grace in the way he walked. Six black-brown legs clicking boldly at the joints, sharp staccato notes on hardwood that said, “I’m here, motherfuckers, and I ain’t going anywhere else.”
I wish I could say that we tried to stop him. That we did the responsible thing. But the truth is, we were afraid. My brother had more courage than anyone I’d ever known, the kind of courage that simultaneously freezes your lymph and starts a fire in the pit of your gut. He’d scarcely walked ten feet across the hardwood plain when we heard rumblings—gigantically loud plodding sounds that could only mean doom.
“AAAAAAAAHHH!!!!! Cockroach!!!” came the antenna-shattering shriek.
My brother ran. He darted in between chairs and under tables, challenging the titans above him with his speed, his brazenness. He was faster than them, but their strides were long. His wings fluttered, faster and faster and faster, and suddenly—for one insane moment—he was up in the air.
Then came another scream. It exploded through the room, caught in the chitin of his wings, threw him off balance. He fell to the floor. A shoe followed not long afterwards.
And just like that, he was gone.
Yesterday, three days after my brother’s passing, one of the younger roaches brought back a cracker crumb that was coated in a sticky, shiny, amber-brown gel.
“Mmm,” he purred between hurried mouthfuls. “Come on, you’ve all got to try this. I
swear, it’s like nothing I’ve ever tasted.”
The other roaches moved near, mandibles salivating. But I held back. I recognized the strange amber gel he held. Immediately, my stomach clenched, and I pushed myself to the front of the pack. I kicked the crumb away, out of his hands and onto the floor.
“You take that crumb, and you throw it away, where no one will ever find it. You hear me?” I told that upstart fool.
“You hear me?” I pressed again.
He made some muffled protests and curled his antennae contemptuously. But eventually, he did as I told him. The other roaches in the colony may not have liked me, but they knew better than to ignore the words of one who had lived as long as I had.
There’s this bizarre memory I have, possibly apocryphal, of my mother bringing a whole chocolate chip cookie into our den when I was a nymph. It was a massive, sugary monster of a disk, almost bigger than all of us piling on top of it, and it was the sweetest thing I ever remember tasting. My mother had done her best to lap up the amber gel slicking its sides, though you could still see some of it glistening in the powdery crags and crevices. In those final days of her life, when that amber poison wormed its way deep into her brain, she would say the craziest things.
“You know, son, some day it won’t be like this. Some day, we’ll be able to eat chocolate chip cookies whenever we want, however we want, right inside the jar. And we won’t have to worry about getting sprayed or poisoned or stepped on neither, because they’ll be our cookies, our jar. Our very own place. A home to call our own.”
It was an odd thing to say to a nymph so young and thoughtless, and yet somehow I never forgot it. That’s the thing about a good lie. It sticks to you. And sometimes, when I think of that mother now, I curse her. Curse her for her certainty, for that belief—for feeding us the kind of sweet, sticky hope that gives you wings and makes you think you can fly.