Patrick Donovan lives near a swamp and studies writing at UL Lafayette where he is an assistant fiction editor at Rougarou. His work is forthcoming in Literary Orphans and has previously appeared in Chrome Baby, Intellectual Refuge, Circa | A Journal of Historical Fiction, and the bicycle review.
At the edge of the bonfire, during a ghost story at summer camp in Maine, a blister beetle flew inside my ear. I felt something pass the threshold of my meatus and stuck my pinky in after it, grazing the beetle’s tail with my fingertip before it scurried brainward. A touch so slight I thought I had imagined it. But ghost stories made me tense. And bugs only invade us in ghost stories, where spider eggs are laid and the mind is taken over. Worried, I turned my attention back to the bonfire. Ten minutes passed, and the ghost story neared its climax. Suddenly
the still air lifted; an inescapable, painful wind in my ear canal drowned out the story and sounds of the night. I started screaming that something was in my ear.
In the infirmary, the nurse poured isopropyl down my canal, promising me it would kill anything there, and promising me that it was just an ear infection from swimming in the lake after dinner. The next morning, the nurse drove me to a doctor’s office in town where they took one look with an otoscope and flushed out the brown blister beetle. I had assumed that was the end of it. Just a little hearing loss and a great story to tell as a kid.
How surprised we both were when our paths crossed again. She had brown hair, eyes, and skin now, and much later I wondered what would have happened if she had been a green blister beetle, or one spotted with orange. She knew instantly who I was, but it took me a while because I’m dumb like that. There had been some strange exchange of DNA between us—bits jostled loose by the shivers of Chernobyl and the bright smile of every atom bomb tested since my birth. We met twenty years after the bonfire in a bar in Phoenix, brought back together by the magic of science, some neutrino-ridden mixture of entanglement and the placebo effect. So once upon a time, before one day waking in a woman’s body, she had been a blister beetle stuck in my earwax, suffocated, beating her wings against my drum.
She came in while I hunched at the bar, enveloped by a book and the contents of my empty glass. She sat next to me, ordering a vodka tonic and a bourbon, and I kept reading. She settled herself in with her own copy of The Tunnel, the same book as mine. When I still had not noticed her, she leaned in close to my ear and gave me the breathy whisper of a hi. So before I knew it, she was back inside of me. Some thunder in her voice must have struck the battered drum just right, echoed in an old way, because my body, my primal juice, my pagan core knew then who and what she was. But the I in me took longer to catch on.
“Would you like a shot,” I said. Oafish. She slid over the bourbon she had ordered for me and then took a sip of her tonic. Her eyelids fluttered, I remember, like wings.
“My name is Ruby.”
“Or is that your smile?”
I thanked her for the drink. She smiled and put her lips to her glass. I smiled back because I could not think of what next to say. I took a drink. She watched me. I scratched my ear, and it probably seemed to her like the mossy underground.
Finally, it came to me: “Are you enjoying the book?” I nodded at her copy of The Tunnel, then glanced at mine.
“You might not remember me,” she said, “but I bit you once.” She picked up the book and flipped to her bookmark. “I’m too close to finishing it to tell yet anymore. How are you liking it?”
When she looked at me for an answer, there was something about her eyes—the dilation, the amount of moisture, the steadiness in her gaze that could quell a dust devil. I felt that she actually, desperately, wanted to know. I could not fathom what to do with that. Had she breathed yet since she asked?
“When did it happen?” I said. The I in me could not realize it yet because he was still processing that Ruby had once been the bug, but Ruby and I were falling in love. Maybe it was the softness in her eyes that told me I was hers, she, mine; clouds and sky and rain for the earth. She knew all of this already. It was really just me now falling in love. “When did you bite me?”
“A long time ago, when we were kids.” She sipped her drink. “I did not expect to see you tonight.”
“But here you are.”
It was then that I finally realized this was all very strange. Some timbre deep inside of me said hush now, so I took a drink and numbed the thought. Ruby stayed quiet, and I stayed dumb. The crest of her eyebrows, the slack in the taut of her smile, all the wet gloss on her eyes told whichever part inside of me that understood what was happening we did not have to talk.
So I blurted out, “I don’t know what to say.”
Ruby furrowed her eyebrows and looked away, down at her book. “Then tell me a story.”
“When I was a kid, I got a bug stuck in my ear.”
She looked up and smiled. “I’ve heard that one before. Tell me all about after.”
We ordered another round of drinks and I told her how I would tell about the bug, attempts at suspense, attempts to appease, to tell something interesting. Ruby said this was a terrible story, which it was, all things considered. We went outside so that she could have a cigarette. She wanted me to smoke one too, even though I hate the things, but I did it anyways.
Once I got done coughing, Ruby said, “The Spanish Fly is an aphrodisiac, toxic in too high a dose. A blister beetle, just like from your ear. Do you believe in aphrodisiacs?”
“I guess, yeah—I mean, love is chemical. I’m pretty sure they finally proved that.”
“Was it really just some experience for you, back then, in Maine—something to entertain others?”
“Are you kidding?” I started coughing again. “It was the coolest thing to happen to me as a kid.” I composed myself. “Well I mean, I don’t usually talk about it anymore.” But I kept saying all the wrong things—I could see it on her face. My brain was in a bourbon jacuzzi and the strong tobacco like bubble jets. Ruby stared off—drag, exhale, hollowish clink of the ice in her glass. “Look, I’m struggling on the word-front here. I don’t know why I brought the bug thing up when you’re talking to me and quite clearly the most beautiful woman for miles, probably for the whole state, or the world, for all I know, and you’re still talking to me and I don’t want to press my luck and say something else that makes you frown because your smile is too too pretty to see it drop.”
“You need to hush.”
We each took a drag. Her face remained cool, mouth flat, eyes unwavering. I coughed a little. Then I said, “My story about telling stories was pretty awful, sure, but I’ll buy the night’s drinks if you tell me one better.”
“I liked it, but you should have told me more about you.” Ruby swallowed the rest of her vodka, then said, “Go get us those drinks. My story will be better.”
When I returned, she had lit up again but didn’t offer me another. We were the sole two on the patio. Cicadas singing out the night. Freeway traffic, silenced by miles. A gust of wind so slight and steady it could only have come from insect wings. Ruby had closed her eyes. Eventually she spoke.
“There was a story I once heard, and the details need to be fudged a bit, and we can’t worry so much about the mechanics. But once upon a time a man gave rise to a woman, even though it’s usually the other way around. She made some choices in her life without him, they loved each other despite all the complications, and, in their way, they lived happily ever after.”
I thought for a moment. “Did you just summarize Adam and Eve?”
“I may have lightly referenced it. You know how stories go.”
The I in me was almost there, but it still had some chugging to do, so I kept smiling at Ruby. She threw her hands up and called me an idiot. I agreed, and she kissed me. Despite all my ineptitude, she kissed me.
“Don’t you remember me yet, you jerk?”
And finally I did. I kissed her hard, cleared our tabs, and we headed out together for what ended up being, psychologically, the weirdest sex ever—but it was all-in-all pretty groovy. Every morning now I wake up to the sun and the brittlebush blossoms.