When Rory burst into our lives, he was an angry pink and already knew how to complain. I should have smothered him right there, taken a pillow from behind Mum’s matted wet hair, saving us all. And I would have, had she ever left his side. Instead I was forced to endure him, to direct my hatred instead toward the blowflies buzzing inside the window ledge, while she repeated over and over, ‘Isn’t he the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?’
How I made my mother so incomplete that she would need a second child, I would never understand. The sleepless nights, the clotheslines full of tiny socks and singlets, were forms of torture. I overheard her confess to Dad one night, as she sat on the porch fanning herself with some junk-mail while trying to get a grip on the breeze, that our lives had been ruined by another baby. But I never felt vindicated. By then it was too late. Rory had enmeshed himself into the fabric of our family, his image dominating our walls as well as all forms of thought and conversation. Yet still, no amount of attention would be enough for my little brother.
When Rory grew older things got worse. Placed in my room so Mum could rest, his preparations for the invasion began. He baited me. Left Lego where he knew I would tread. Ran fingers of snot across my things before letting his spiny leaf insect loose in my drawers to drop its seed-like eggs in my underwear. Then he would absorb my fury, using it to amplify his signal. Wriggling around and snorting late at night, he would raise his bum in the air to transmit: putting his call out to Them.
He had Mum and Dad completely fooled. They were like moths to his blue flame of deception. Distracted by his poor eyesight, Mum spent her time chasing him around, trying to stick a neoprene patch over one of his eyes. He kept Dad busy by not speaking properly. His attack on our language would ring out every evening, as Dad pored over speech manuals while trying to get him to pronounce each of his syllables ‘exactly right’. Rory was a master—he kept their focus exactly where he needed it to be. Only I saw him for what he really was. I kept far, far away, holding onto my sanity by burying myself in a world filled with music.
On my tenth birthday, I took the cards I’d been dealt and chose to buy a recorder. My cherished weapon of choice was robust, reliable, and never far from my grasp. I transformed the cubby-house into my rehearsal space, drilling a lock up high and stapling an egg carton to the wall every Wednesday. After four months it was soundproof and I proclaimed it my sanctuary, practising every second while wishing for Rory to disappear. I waited for my opportunity to shine.
Naturally Rory stomped further into the limelight well before I did. Hitting the right frequency with his bottom, his homing beacon began to work. His call was answered that summer and they arrived in the thousands.
Or was it the millions?
A thousand, million, squillion butterflies, beetles and bugs.
Most had six legs. Others ambled with a furry count of eight. Hundreds and thousands of tiny wire appendages bristling up and down as they approached in waves. The surrounding air rippled with velvet and lace, humming and strumming with stridulation. There was clicking and popping as they squirmed up our narrow driveway. Hissing and ticking as they squeezed under our wooden door and bored through our flimsy flywire, advancing into the kitchen where they sat around our dinner table watching us eat lunch while deciding who would take the first bite.
Mum told us to ignore them. She kept insisting our eco-friendly lifestyle didn’t mean we were dirty, and that eventually they would simply go away. Even so, she raced around oiling the house with peppermint and tea-tree, before spritzing with chamomile, shaking borax, and adding in her squeezes of lemon and pinches of salt. At first her efforts made the bugs hesitant. But then they got accustomed to the smell and by the end of the first week we were head-to-toe in welts. The big ones were so pus-filled they sent stinky spores into the air and we took to wearing pegs on our noses. But it was the miniscule, niggly bites that were worse. Within days our blood-caked fingernails were worn down to the nailbed, Mum’s neat, buffed nails no longer practical. Dad put up with it until Sunday, when he returned from the shops with his arms full of Ant-Rid and Mortein.
Mum went nuts of course, claiming he was killing us. I’d never seen my father flip out before. Scratching the bleeding bites on his arms, he swatted a Christmas beetle into the Christmas tree before slamming the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica down on a bulgy-eyed, faith-filled mantis and his congregation of ladybirds. ‘Why don’t you see what these critters are doing to us instead?’
When Mum got bitten by a white-tail later that night (it crawled up the toilet bowl striking just before bed), her cries woke the whole neighbourhood, alerting them to what was going on behind our closed doors. Mrs Petrovski was first on the scene after waddling over at a cracking pace, hoping to bear witness to Mum finally sacrificing us kids. Dad ushered her wide girth from the porch, placating her whispers that the bugs were a sign from God—‘undeniable evidence’ Mum worshipped the Devil. He confessed that, sure, Mum read tarot cards and had belonged to a coven during Uni, but reassured her that these days she only smiled at the moon. Still, Mrs Petrovski gave Dad, who was a believer in pure science, all the ammo he needed to take charge. For the next seven days van after van of strange, coveralled-men rocked up at our house with their spray guns cocked and loaded. Our pegs were exchanged for gas masks. But after making my asthma worse and Rory’s psoriasis flare up in the spaces between his bites, even Dad had to concede we were attracting more crawling-creepies than ever.
Unable to take any more, I moved to the cubby, where I would practise with my recorder while the heat and itching kept me awake. Unlike Mum, who continued calling each spider a ‘traitor’, I turned our bad luck into a positive. So, while moths whisked shadow puppets across my sheet music and mosquitoes chorused along in the air, I composed a symphony. When I was playing, I was happy. The music transported me to the only place I didn’t notice them bite.
By the third week of the school holidays the continuing heatwave meant no-one was sleeping. We sidestepped duelling rhino beetles, shuffling our zombie feet from one hotbox room to another, as we picked at our skin for relief. Calamine baths did little to soothe. A hysterical Rory sat sobbing in the milky water while cockchafer beetles dive-bombed around him into the pink. If it hadn’t been his fault, I might have felt sorry for him. But my resentment was fuelled by what was occurring in my hair. Mum tried every nit solution—from plant-based through to as toxic as they come—and still our heads seethed with nits, nymphs and lice. Within days of the new school year, she slumped down into her car seat at drop-off to avoid the other mothers’ comments. Not even Lucinda, my best friend since second grade, would come anywhere near me. Forced to sit alone at my sweltering desk, I scratched and yawned and hated Rory even more, each time my classmates so much as glanced my way.
But salvation came as a date for the ‘First Term All School Talent Show’ was announced. I knew if I could perform, play my symphony on stage beneath the dazzle of the golden lights in the school hall, that people would flock to sit next to me even while I scratched. So I rehearsed beneath the pitched roof of my cubby-house till callouses formed on my fingers, with beetles flitting and lace-wings spinning around me, tootling above the cicadas who were tapping their feet along to the beat.
All was going to plan until the endless humidity broke one week out from the show. A determined north wind had battled its way through, swirling hot dust about the house before lashing the roof off my refuge. Like all our bug intruders I was forced inside, where I watched as they, like my parents, now focused all their attention on my little brother.
That night Mum interrupted my couch-based slumber with yet another of her blood-curdling screams. When the hall light exploded on, it wasn’t until she came into focus that I saw her face streaming with tears. ‘The bugs!’ she said, ‘They’re swarming him!’
And sure enough, as I peered into my old room where Rory now slept, armies of ants steered up his feet. Battle-tank beetles led cockroaches, spitfire caterpillars and Portuguese millipedes through the trenches of his cast-iron bed, before heaving up onto his sheets. Cabbage-moths and iridescent long wings hovered in his armpits, pre-empting the blanketing assault of fruit flies, hornets and rapid-fire wasps that advanced through the air. We listened to the roar with our mouths agape, watching in silence as the flies charged across him while dropping their offspring landmines along the way.
Dad ran to get the fly spray.
But by morning Rory as we knew him had all but disappeared. He lay somewhere beneath a flexing brown crust, barking orders with a lisp out of the small hole near his mouth. I was so incensed I nearly dropped my recorder. My annoying, attention seeking brat of a little brother had finally taken the cake by morphing into a giant, pulsating, stench-filled scab.
Because Rory was glued to the bed, the ambulance that came couldn’t take him away. It wasn’t long before the CDC, in their rustling crumpled paper suits and Ned Kelly space masks, cordoned off our house with glad wrap so they could stick needles in all of us. Aside from a large array of insect bites, Mum, Dad and I were fine. Still, quarantine was necessary until they could determine why our family specifically had been ‘chosen’ by the bugs.
‘You have until Thursday,’ I told them, shoving my face against the plastic of their makeshift laboratory until one of them agreed to phone the school to let them know I could still perform in the show.
During our isolation Mum read Rory the classics, while the nurses funnelled in chocolate milk through a straw. Dad would sit for hours, animated as he discussed physics and chemistry and biology with the doctors who walked in and out of our airlock. Sometimes they let him fiddle with the machines Rory was hooked up to and wheeled in their microscopes to show him their latest development. I’d never seen Dad’s face glow with such delight. When I was allowed in to Rory’s room I found him in good spirits too. I played him my set knowing he wouldn’t be allowed out like the rest of us to see the show.
‘That’s amazing, Janey,’ he said, his voice tinny as it echoed around inside the scab. ‘I can just imagine you up there on stage, shining beneath those lights.’
I had to admit, my brother knew good music when he heard it.
Waltzing past his window, I was about to launch into the second movement when my recorder let out a stunned shriek. Camera crews were amassing on our front lawn, along with an unruly rabble. All eyes were locked on our window. On me! There were bulbs flashing, camera lights blinding my eyes, still I managed to smile and wave. It all died the instant I heard their shouts. ‘Show us the amazing Scab-Boy!’ they cried.
Mrs Petrovski was taking up most of the front row, placarding that Rory was an abomination. When Mum poked her head out to take a look, Mrs P. wasted no time informing her God was taking her first-born son. But not all of Mum’s values had been eroded by the insect invasion. She yelled back that the Lord shouldn’t be sexist: if He was going to take anyone, it should really be me. Standing behind her in support, I shot daggers into the crowd while trumpeting ‘The Lord Is My Shepherd’ as loudly as I could.
Still, our front lawn remained occupied.
But by the dawn of the Talent Show all became quiet. An eerie silence prevailed. Not even the birds in the front tree who battled my morning-song gave a cheep as I breathed out the dewy promise of success. When my fingers dallied across the recorder shaft, my only competition came from a droning voice blaring out of the monitors—the Prime Minister was on the TV. Weaving through the HAZMAT-suited scientists forming clusters in front, my eyes widened at the scrolling news ticker.
A giant solar flare had erupted. Its destination: Earth. No-one knew exactly what it would do, but annihilation was likely. Then, as news readers abandoned their desks leaving the information to roll on repeat, the scientists left one by one. Our full-to-the-brim house lay empty. My path to the Talent Show was now clear.
The world panicked around me, but I refused to be rattled. Changing into the shiny blue taffeta dress Mum had sewn for my performance, I grabbed my recorder and asked her to do my hair. Distracted, she stared at Rory’s big round shape while she brushed. ‘I’m sorry, sweetheart. Looks like we won’t be making the show after all.’
With that one long brushstroke my violin-heart-strings snapped. I glanced at my hateful brother, turned my back on my treacherous family and ran.
Pushing past the placarded-lunatics, I slammed aside a man claiming my brother was the Anti-Christ. I screamed at Mrs Petrovski, who was clinging to her rosary beads while chanting Rory had brought about the end of the world. In truth, as I glowered at them with my own eyes bulging, I couldn’t have agreed with them more.
My legs shook as I took my recorder down our tree-lined street. I thudded up another and another before turning the corner to see the cyclone-wire school gate glinting in the reddening sun. But looking around, I noticed there was no lolly-pop man out on the road holding up his stop sign. No horns were honking. There were no cars humming, waiting to snaffle a park. With each step my stomach wound tighter. White-knuckled, I gripped my recorder. Then I saw it. Written in hideous black Texta across both front doors: TALENT SHOW CANCELLED INDEFINTELY.
When my sandals struck our front porch my mother and father didn’t even notice I was there. They were too busy sobbing with their arms around each other, watching the angry sun set. Behind me the protestors’ voices were closing in. They sang praises to the southern lights electrifying our now fluorescent sky.
Stepping through our empty house with my back to the solar breeze, I found Rory alone. His rancid smelling husk was creaking. It pushed upwards, crushing the paper-lantern chandelier Dad gave me last birthday. He was throbbing and buzzing so much I could hardly hear his voice. He had to repeat himself. ‘Janey, I’m thirsty. Can you please get me a drink?’
I bent down to pick up the large straw tube next to him. But as the planet-sized symphony around me shuddered, my fingers reached for my recorder instead. Running my hand along its sleek, rounded length, the bone-white plastic was smooth and easy to insert. It plugged the hole perfectly. Placing my fingers over each of the indents, with my thumb to the back, my lips went down to block the final hole.
By the time the world realised it hadn’t ended—that it was only insect exoskeletons flittering across the world’s surface like dust—it was too late to stop me. And when the scab surrounding my brother cracked open, (like they did around others we refer to these days as ‘the Arks’) it was clear I’d been given a second chance.
One week after the skies cleared to a pristine blue, the most glorious rainbow of swallowtails, damselflies, leaf mimics, and blue banded bees broke their way back into the world through my bedroom window. And the miracle, the papers still say, was that the hosts inside the Arks survived. That is all bar one: my little brother Rory.
Why the insects chose who they chose is unclear. Mrs Petrovski claims it was an Act of God and is still petitioning the Church to give Rory a sainthood. But only I know the truth behind my little brother becoming a global hero. He had planned every damned second of it.
I stand on the front porch; the early evening light illuminating my face, as my parents sway softly behind me. The cameras are rolling, and candles flicker over the sea of flowers and teddy-bears by our front gate. In my hands is my recorder.
A hush spreads across the crowd as I begin to play.
Jem Tyley-Miller is a crime writer from Bacchus Marsh who sees life through a magical realist lens. A 2018 Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow, Jem works casually directing extras to fund her very serious writing habit and co-organises the Peter Carey Short Story Award in her spare time.