The Insect Parade
by Roberta Kwok
When his daughter Lucy left for college, Marvin turned to his insects.
He dragged the green tin box labeled "BUGS" from the upper garage shelf, where it was sandwiched between an old Chinese checkers board and a decaying atlas, and eased himself onto the dusty floor with the corners balanced on his knees. He paused a moment before pulling open the latches on either side. Marvin hadn't thought about his insect collection since he had packed that box in the garage ten years earlier. But then, he reflected, being retired gave you all kinds of time to think about things that you thought you had forgotten. As the dusty lid swung back, the glossy wings of butterflies winked out at him as good as new. He breathed a little sigh of relief, snapped the box shut, and carried it back to his desk where the dog wouldn't get it.
One of the first things people noticed about Marvin was that he looked like his dog. Their names, too, were similar: Marvin and Murf. Ms. Jenkins, the old lady next door, referred to them fondly as "Murfin." (The neighborhood children referred to them, not as fondly but no less creatively, as "Barfin" and "Burp.") On the days when he combed it, Marvin's hair was slightly less unruly than Murf's, but not by much. On the days when he had spent the night before poring over his microscope, it was far worse. Dog and man asleep on the couch were difficult to distinguish, corduroy limbs mingling with dusty paws against the yellow waffled cushions. Frequently, Marvin awoke and was unable to tell whether the drool on his cheek belonged to him or Murf. The days outside were clear and cold, but in the low brown walls of his duplex, the scent of fur, unshaven beard, and damp sweater fluff all mingled in an ever-present fog.
Strictly speaking, Marvin wasn't completely retired. He had started working part-time at an unfashionable ladies' shoe store in the Hawthorne district, a withering neighborhood of old brick and elderly pedestrians whom one was forever having to brake for at crosswalks. Marvin hadn't sought out the job; it was all his sister Doris's doing. Now that Lucy was gone, Doris felt obligated to make sure that Marvin didn't fall in with hobos or wild raccoons.
"Marvin, I'm not going to clean your house," Doris said the last time she visited him. She had followed him outside to the yard and was picking her way stiffly through the overgrown grass. "I'm not going to do your laundry or cook you beef stews to freeze in Tupperware."
"I know how to do laundry, Doris," said Marvin. He tried to focus on raking leaves.
"I'm also not going to tell you what to wear," continued Doris, averting her eyes from Marvin's dubious-looking sweatpants.
"Not needed, surely," said Marvin, flinching as the rake slipped over the dirt and caught on the toe of his slipper. He propped the handle against his shoulder and surveyed the yard. Badminton birdies were scattered over the grass amid the red leaves and broken twigs. Lucy had developed a mania for badminton in her last year of high school and spent endless weekend afternoons thwacking birdies around the yard until the feathers were bent and the rubber noses cracked and bruised. "Get it before Murf does!" she would call as the birdie sailed high and Marvin struggled to zero in with his racket, Murf barking wildly all the while.
"But," said Doris, "I am going to make sure that you can support yourself and don't spend all day alone in that godforsaken garage."
"Teach a man to fish," Marvin agreed, then regretted it. He didn't want to start a political argument.
Doris ignored the proverb. "Janice is doing me a big favor, Marvin. She's taking my word on faith. She could've given this job to her niece's friend, that nice girl who baby-sits her kids."
"Yes," said Marvin vaguely. He wondered why his sister and her friends all had similar names. Doris, Janice, Eunice. There was probably a Bernice lurking in there somewhere that he didn't know about yet. He amused himself by assigning insect names to them: Libellula doris, Zelus janus, Aedes communis. Libellula doris was a dragonfly larvae, fossilized. Aedes communis had long, rust-colored gills; they liked to lay their eggs under the surface of deep snowpools in the mountain forests. A common New Jersey mosquito. Then there was Zelus janus. The assassin bug.
Marvin mulled over these thoughts again as he sorted through the insects on his desk. "Aha," he said out loud, and held up a particularly vicious-looking arthropod to the light. This species had an unnerving habit of lying in ambush, leaping onto its prey to inject a lethal toxin that dissolved the tissue. He thought of Janice's long skinny arms, which looked remarkably like waving pincers. During his morning shift at the shoe store, she had tried to coax Marvin into accompanying her to ballet class at a studio downtown. Janice was in her fifties but still wore legwarmers on a regular basis. "They have all kinds of classes there," she told him. "You could take tap, yoga, interpretive dance....There are men in those classes," she added with a meaningful look, as if to say that his masculinity was in question for being too insecure to throw on legwarmers and join in the fun. Marvin wondered what Lucy would have said about Janice and her ballet lessons. Probably the same thing she said about all of Doris's friends. "Basketcases, Dad," she'd say, and thwack the badminton birdie over the fence.
Lucy called him that evening and asked him how his day went.
"Got out my old bug collection," said Marvin. "Read the paper, took Murf for a walk. I repotted the miniature bonsai tree and untangled all the roots. That took awhile."
"Hazel's old bonsai tree," said Lucy. "The one she got at the Japanese market and forgot to water for a month."
"Right," said Marvin, shifting in his chair.
"Do you remember that?" asked Lucy. "First she dehydrated it. Then she accidentally left it outside and the wind came and blew all the dried-up fruit off the branches during the night. In the morning, it looked like a little naked Christmas tree that had lost its ornaments."
"I remember," said Marvin. He paused.
"So you repotted the tree this morning?" prompted Lucy.
"Well, actually I was at work in the morning," said Marvin.
"Work? What work?" Marvin could hear faint alarm in her voice.
"Well, I started working a bit again," he said.
"Oh Dad, they're not making you go back and help at the library again, are they?"
"Not exactly," said Marvin.
"Where are you working then?"
"Oh, just something to help out your Aunt Doris's friend...."
"Aunt Doris?" Lucy's voice took on an apprehensive tone. "Which friend? Not the weird hairdresser with all the wigs, I hope."
"No, not that one," said Marvin. "This one has a shoe store."
"A shoe store?" Lucy was flabbergasted. "Dad, why on earth? What shoe store?"
"You know, the one on Glenmore Avenue, by the nursing home...."
"You mean Smart Feet?" said Lucy. "I've been there. Their shoes are about ninety years out of style. Oh, Dad!" She was really feeling the gravity of the situation now.
"It's really not that bad," said Marvin. "If you ever need shoes—" but then he remembered that Lucy liked her shoes to be stylish. Her last purchase had been a pair of glossy dark brown heels with teardrops cut into the sides. They made a sound like marbles clacking against each other when she walked.
Lucy seemed to sense his depression. "Well, at least you're getting out of the house," she said. "And talking to people. That's good, Dad."
"Actually there aren't that many people who come into the store," said Marvin. His words sounded contrary. "Maybe I'd better go to bed now."
"Okay," said Lucy. "I didn't really mean what I said about the shoes there, Dad."
"No offense taken," said Marvin.
That night, Marvin dreamed that he was sitting in a black-and-white movie theater. They were showing an old sci-fi movie on the crackling screen and the rest of the seats were empty. Grainy aliens jabbered at each other in an unintelligible tongue. As he reached into his popcorn he saw—no, felt—the Zelus janus scuttling across the kernels. Marvin flung the popcorn box away, but the insect, improbably enlarged, scuttled right back over the red plush seat cushions. Marvin threw everything he could at it—a Coke can, old newspapers, his shoe—without avail. Finally he picked up a huge cement block and dropped it right on top of the bloated insect as it was charging up the aisle toward him. It fell with a clang and the theater was silent. Marvin felt a flush of relief before suddenly wondering in horror whether the Zelus janus was actually Janice. Had he committed murder? He woke up with his stomach clenched and the sheets tangled around his ankles.
Marvin hauled himself out of bed in one galumphing motion and stumbled into the kitchen to make himself a fried egg. It was four AM, but the thought of going back to his bed was giving him a crawly feeling. The gas flint sparked blue in the darkness as he heated a pat of butter and cracked one egg, then two, into the pan. Suddenly, he was starving. Into the toaster went two pieces of bread with another chunk of butter at the ready. When the edges of the egg whites began to crisp, he slid them onto a plate and, after hesitating a moment, poured little rivulets of soy sauce over the yolks.
He almost wished Hazel was there to berate him. He thought of her light gray eyes squinting at him from under her cropped gray hair. Marvin still remembered their conversation, eighteen months ago, on the day she told him that she wanted to take a job in South America. She had mentioned the possibility of going on an archaeological dig sometime, but it never occurred to him that she'd actually abandon the civilized world for some caves in Peru. It was only a few weeks before their fifth wedding anniversary.
"It's crazy at your age," he protested. "What are you going to be doing, wandering the jungle—swinging on vines and catching malaria? Why can't you do the same work here?"
"My age, thank you for mentioning it, is only fifty-two," she said. "And I'm sure no one catches malaria these days."
"How do you know that?" He struggled to remember if there was a cure for malaria. He was sure he would have read about it in the paper. "And you didn't answer my question. Why do you need to go all the way to South America?"
"Well, there aren't any caves around here, Marvin," said Hazel. "It's only for a year. And the dean thinks it's a wonderful opportunity for a woman."
"Oh, for a woman," said Marvin. "Well, that justifies everything then."
"Marvin, don't be sexist," said Hazel.
"And why does the dean know about this already? When did you talk to her?"
"Oh, I don't know, around the beginning of the semester...."
"In January?" Marvin suddenly felt the sides of his brain contract. "You knew about this? In January?"
"Marvin, if I had told you earlier, you would have tried to talk me out of it!"
"Well, that's just selfish," said Marvin. "That's the most selfish thing I've ever heard."
Hazel sat down and closed her eyes. Marvin sat opposite her looking at the circles above her cheeks, dark half-moons reflected by her eyebrows. He waited for her to retaliate, but she only blew air through her teeth.
"Marvin, I'm not needed here," said Hazel. "My students don't need me. The college doesn't need me."
Marvin waited for her to continue. "I need you," he said cautiously.
Hazel smiled. "Yes," she said. "But you have Lucy."
A ker-chunk from the toaster brought him back into the present. The smell of burnt toast filled the kitchen and reminded him of Sunday mornings past.
Later that morning, a kid was crouching on the stoop as Marvin drove up to the shoe store in his Camry. He must have been about nine, and his oversized red parka made him look like an exotic mushroom that had popped up from the sidewalk overnight. The sight of anyone under sixty in this neighborhood was so uncommon that Marvin couldn't help staring a little, especially since this particular kid seemed to have his eyes zeroed right back at him. He parked the car, bumping against the curb twice, and finally left it skewed at an angle. The kid jumped up from the sidewalk and followed him to the door.
"Do you work here?" he asked Marvin.
"Yes," said Marvin, unwilling to offer more information. He was still unnerved that his parallel parking concentration had been thrown out of whack by the kid's stare.
"I'm Daniel," said the kid. "Don't you live on my street?"
"I don't think so," said Marvin. He unlocked the door and started to close it behind him, but the kid followed him right in.
Daniel squinted at him. "You live in the brown house next to Ms. Jenkins," he said. "Your dog ate my mom's tulips once."
"I don't remember anything like that," said Marvin. He started straightening the shoe racks.
"My mom said you were a librarian," said Daniel. "Why are you working here now? Did you get fired?"
"No," said Marvin. "I retired. That's different." The tulip incident was starting to come back to him now. The mother had run outside in a green bathrobe and cursed at Murf like a sailor.
The kid rolled his eyes. "I know the difference," he said. "But when you retire, you're supposed to stop working. So why're you working at a shoe store?"
"Are you here to buy shoes?" said Marvin.
Daniel took this as an admission of victory. Marvin could just see him making the chalk marks in his head. "For my grandma," he said. "She needs a new pair but she's too old and sick to come get them herself."
"Oh," said Marvin.
"Nina Hamilton, size nine and a half," said Daniel.
"Your grandmother's name is Nina?"
"No, that's the name of the shoe," said Daniel. He was rolling his eyes again. "You know, like a designer?"
"I know what a designer is," said Marvin.
"Just asking," said Daniel. "I have a checkbook. Do you take checks?"
"You have your own bank account?"
"Are you kidding?" said Daniel. "I'm only ten. It's my mom's, I just sign the checks when she's not here."
"Well, you can't do that," said Marvin, hearing the stuffy note in his voice.
Daniel gave him an exasperated look. "I've done it a million times," he said. "Here, I'll show you." He grabbed a pen from the counter, hunched over the checkbook, and scrawled a mass of spikes and curlicues in black ink. "See?"
"That's not what I meant," said Marvin. "I mean it's illegal."
Daniel checked his watch. "I have to go to school soon," he said. "Are you gonna give me the shoes or not?"
Marvin pictured Janice's reaction. "Don't let any of those delinquents into the store," she had told him. "They'll rip you off with stolen credit cards and the next thing you know you're up to your armpits in paperwork from MasterCard just to get back fifty bucks." She had nodded knowingly. This kid didn't look like a delinquent though. And really, Marvin wondered, why would anyone try to rip off old ladies' shoes? Janice was just being paranoid.
"Tell you what," he said. "I'll take your check if you give me something to hold in return."
Daniel scowled. "I'm already paying for the shoes," he said. "Why do I have to give you something?"
"Because you could be a dangerous criminal," said Marvin. "I'll give it back to you after I cash the check. You know, like collateral?" He could tell Daniel didn't know what collateral meant.
"I don't have anything," said Daniel.
"What about that?" said Marvin, pointing at Daniel's backpack strap. A silver pendant was clipped to the zipper. It was shaped like a tiny old-fashioned bicycle with a clock face embedded in the wheel spokes.
Daniel's scowl deepened. "How do I know you're gonna give it back?"
"You don't," said Marvin. Then, feeling a little sorry at the look on Daniel's face, he added, "I live half a block away. I'm not going to run off with it."
Daniel looked at the clock again. His left foot was tapping an erratic pattern against the bench. "I might get in trouble," he said finally.
"Same here," said Marvin.
"Fine," said Daniel. "But I want it back tomorrow."
"You'll have to wait till next week," said Marvin.
"That's too long," said Daniel. "I'll keep missing my bus if I don't have a watch."
"Then tell your mom to come get the shoes herself," said Marvin.
Daniel heaved a sigh. It was the sigh of a hundred-year-old man. "Okay," he said finally. He unclipped the clock from his backpack and dropped it into Marvin's palm. "Here."
"Good," said Marvin. "Wait here while I get the shoes." He snapped his pen shut, patted it into his pocket, and went into the storage room. "Which color?" he called out.
"Doesn't matter, she can't see that well," came the reply.
Marvin pulled out a box marked "TAN", came back into the front store, and dropped it next to Daniel. "That'll be fifty-two dollars," he said.
Daniel scribbled the figures onto the check, expertly loosened the carbon copy, and ripped along the perforation with a flourish. "Here," he said, pushing it into Marvin's hands. "Thanks for the shoes, I have to go now." He hopped off the bench and trotted toward the door with the box under his arm.
"You're welcome," said Marvin to the door as it creaked shut. Daniel's red parka bobbed down the street until it rounded a corner and disappeared from view. Marvin held the silver bicycle between his thumb and forefinger and gave the front wheel a little spin.
When Marvin came home, he found Doris waiting for him on the stoop. She was holding a pot of white, heavy-lidded flowers wrapped in silver foil. "Evening, Marvin," she said. "Just stopping by to wish you an early happy birthday. I'm going out of town tomorrow."
His birthday. He had forgotten all about it. What had he done last year? Lucy had baked him a pie, he remembered with a pang. Her heroic, and ultimately tearful, efforts had ended with strawberry juice dribbling onto the kitchen mats and Murf gnawing contentedly on waylaid rhubarb stalks.
"Henry and I are going to the coast to get some fresh sea air," said Doris. "His knees haven't been so good lately." She handed over the pot.
"Thanks, Doris," said Marvin. He sniffed the petals. "Don't white flowers stand for death?"
"Don't be ridiculous," said Doris. "If anyone's near death it's me. I've been working myself to the bone at the office all week. Now, I don't want you sitting home alone on your birthday. So I told Janice you'd go to her salsa party at that dance studio downtown."
Marvin looked up from the flower pot with alarm. "Salsa? I haven't salsa-ed a day in my life."
"Don't you think I thought of that?" said Doris. "There's a beginners' lesson before the party. Eunice will be there too, so there's nothing to be afraid of. I'm sure every man at the party will be stumbling over his feet and you won't be any worse."
Marvin turned to the mailbox and started shuffling through the letters. "I can manage my birthday on my own, Doris," he said, then suddenly stopped at a letter with a pale blue envelope. The edges were creased with dark smudges of ink, and a wild array of colored stamps was affixed to the corner. Hazel Marbridge. Marvin felt a chill settle on his skin as fresh as a layer of morning dew.
Doris followed his eyes down to the envelope. "Oh good Lord," she said.
"Now don't overreact," said Marvin.
"She's using her maiden name?" said Doris. "That's a bad sign, Marvin. Can't you see that's a bad sign?"
Marvin could see it was a bad sign, but he didn't see why he had to discuss it with Doris. "Good-bye, Doris," he said. "I'll see you when you get back. Have a nice trip." He clutched the flower pot to his chest, marched into the house, and shut the door.
"Janice is coming tomorrow at seven!" he heard her voice call from outside.
He sat down on a chair in the kitchen with a heavy and painful breath. The blue envelope sat on the top of the mail pile, bright and shining as a flag. The Persians used to poison their enemies with letters, Marvin remembered. He imagined himself opening the seal and cutting his finger on the razor-thin paper. The arsenic would creep into his bloodstream until he was numbed, immobile, and finally defeated, his body sprawled over the kitchen table with Doris's prophetic flowers at his feet. Who would find him? Janice, expecting a salsa partner and getting a nasty surprise instead? Daniel, crossly knocking at the door and demanding the return of his bicycle clock? Or Ms. Jenkins, noticing the grass growing long as spring approached?
"This is ridiculous," said Marvin out loud. Steadying the flower pot between his knees, he picked up the envelope and propped it up in front of him. Marvin felt its thinness between his thumb and forefinger. Like a diver about to plunge off the high board he took a deep breath and opened it.
It was a card, plain and white. Hazel, he knew, had always laughed at sentimental greeting cards and their flowered scripts. Inside were a few lines of her quick, crabbed handwriting.
Happy birthday from the Andes.
Marvin read the first line again. Happy birthday from the Andes. He felt the first prick of anger.
I hope you and Lucy are doing well. I've found some good skeletons here. No telephone right now but working on it. Don't let Murf get in trouble.
That was all. He had swallowed the words as quickly as a thimbleful of water.
Marvin put the card down and forced himself to sort through the rest of the mail. Electricity bill, coupons for the grocery store. A postcard reminder for a dentist appointment, with dancing molars on the front. He read through every word, down to the disclaimer on the coupons, and organized the papers into neat piles on the table. Finally, when there were no more words to read, he pulled himself out of the chair, trudged up the stairs, and lay heavily on his bed.
It occurred to Marvin that he had done things in the wrong order. If only he had married Hazel first and had Lucy later, surely he wouldn't be in this situation. Surely they would be eating breakfast together every Sunday, taking Murf on walks, having normal conversations over the newspaper. It was a source of wonder that he, Marvin, who had been pretty consistently ignored by women all his life, would at the age of sixty-five have two females battling for his attention. And in the end they had both left. The fact was, he thought drearily, his whole life had been a series of mix-ups and missed opportunities. It was all about timing, really. He had timed everything wrong and now he was stuck on the eve of his sixty-seventh birthday with no one to celebrate with except Janice and her salsa teacher, nothing to show for it except for a dusty insect collection and a bicycle clock that he had basically stolen from a neighbor's kid. He spent his days talking to dead bugs. He had a wife who preferred the company of skeletons to him and a daughter whose absence echoed in every corner of the house.
When the bedside clock read 3:21 AM, Marvin suddenly sat up and blinked. His mind was wide awake. He packed a bag and made one phone call. His feet pattered lightly and swiftly around the house. He filled Murf's bowl with kibble and left a note on the door. Three hours later he was on a train with his gray hair neatly combed and Hazel's letter in his suit pocket.
He arrived at Lucy's dormitory a little after noon. Standing before the red brick building with students whizzing by on their bikes, he suddenly felt foolish. He was reminded of the frailty of his body. Surely if some freshman athlete were to come barreling down the sidewalk and knock him over, his hip would be broken. Wasn't that what always happened to men over sixty? If you hadn't been careful about calcium intake in your youth, you were subject to all kinds of cracking and shattering at the slightest bump.
Shivering, Marvin pulled his jacket around his shoulders and dialed the telephone outside the dorm entrance. It rang once and a girl with an unfamiliar voice picked up.
"Hello?" said Marvin. "I'm looking for Lucy. Is this her roommate?"
"She went to the beach," came the answer.
"The beach?" Marvin looked around. The sky was stone gray and the first autumn leaves were skittering across the sidewalks.
"Yeah," said the girl. "By the lighthouse, you know?"
She seemed to be waiting for a confirmation. "Right," said Marvin.
"Who is this? Paul?"
"No," said Marvin. Who was Paul? "I'll come back later."
"No problem," said the girl, and the line clicked dead.
Marvin looked around. The campus was abuzz with students hurrying to and from class, backpacks hunched over their shoulders, indistinguishable in their sweatshirts and sneakers. What had he been thinking, believing that he could show up and find Lucy in this throng? He thought of the summer that he had taken her to Sea World, seven years ago when she was only eleven. Lucy had got lost amid the crowds by the dolphin tank, and Marvin had spent twenty panicked minutes calling her name, already convinced in his heart that she had been picked off by a devious kidnapper. He was only able to find her at last because she was wearing Doris's enormous orange straw hat, which he glimpsed drifting through the crowds like a wayward lily pad.
Well, if he could find her then, he could find her now. Marvin picked up his valise and started looking for signs to the beach.
He found Lucy on a deck perched at the edge of the lighthouse bluff, wrapped in a red windbreaker, bright against the sea. The wind was whipping her ponytail from side to side. Her eyes opened wide when she saw Marvin approaching.
"Dad?" she said. "What are you doing here?"
He struggled up the gravel path and laid his bag at his feet.
"Well," said Marvin. "It's my birthday." He stood there blinking in the wind.
Lucy stared back wide-eyed.
Marvin shifted his feet. "So how about taking me out for a steak dinner tonight?"
To his horror, Lucy began to cry. Tears ran out of the corners of her eyes and skidded across her cheeks. "Oh Dad," she said. "I was going to call you later."
"It's okay," said Marvin. "I didn't think you'd forget." He patted her sleeve.
"I wouldn't," insisted Lucy. She wiped her eyes and hiccuped. "I could use a good steak."
"Is this about Paul?" asked Marvin.
Lucy looked up in surprise. "Who's that?" Suddenly she laughed through her tears. "Oh no," she said. "No."
"Okay," said Marvin. "Just wondering."
"I didn't make the badminton team," she told him.
"Ah," said Marvin.
"They said my backhand wasn't strong enough," Lucy said. "Or my forehand. Or anything, I guess."
Marvin thought piteously of her backyard badminton practices, her small hands clutching the racket, her mad rushes for the birdie. "Your Aunt Doris tried to make me go to a salsa party," he said.
"Oh no," said Lucy.
"Yes," said Marvin. "It was a narrow escape."
"What's in the bag?" she asked.
Marvin knelt down and took out the green tin box. "I was going to give this to you," he said.
"On your birthday?" said Lucy. "I should be giving something to you."
"The other way around is just as good," said Marvin. He carefully pried open the latches on the sides.
"What is it?"
Just as he was about to say "my insect collection," a gust of wind whipped across the deck, flinging open the lid of the box with a clang. Lucy shrieked and Marvin stood stock still as his specimens flew out in a hurricane of wings and furry legs and pins, red butterflies and green caterpillars, ants and dragonflies and baby tarantulas, their white paper backings propelling them as surely as airplane wings toward the sea.
"Oh no," said Marvin.
Lucy yelped again as a preserved spider smacked against her cheek before launching itself merrily over the edge of the deck.
"Oh no," said Marvin again. "Are you okay?"
"Your bugs, Dad," said Lucy. "You lost all your bugs." She dropped to her knees to rescue a lone moth, struggling gamely on the gravel to join its companions.
"Well," said Marvin. "I didn't really need them anymore." He pulled her to her feet. "Don't worry, honey." Lucy dropped the moth and let the wind whisk it toward the water.
They stood for awhile at the edge of the bluff, watching the doomed insects floating on the surface of the water. Finally Marvin spoke.
"I don't think Hazel is coming back," he said.
Lucy looked over quickly.
"I got a letter from her," said Marvin. He pulled the card out of his pocket. "She found some new skeletons."
Lucy laughed and then stopped. "I'm sorry, Dad," she said. "It just sounded funny."
"It's okay," said Marvin. "I know you never really liked her."
"I did," protested Lucy. "Sometimes," she added.
Marvin patted her shoulder.
Lucy shielded her eyes against the glare of the clouds. "Sometimes you can see whales here," she said. "That's why I came out today. You can see them spouting water from their backs. If you're really lucky you can see their tails come out of the water. I saw one last week and everyone on the deck whooped like crazy."
"Whale tails?" said Marvin. "I don't believe it."
Lucy laughed. "I'm serious, Dad," she said. "I saw it with my own eyes."
After Lucy left for class, Marvin stayed by the lighthouse alone. His cheeks were prickling with the cold, but it felt good. He liked the changing of the seasons; it kept you fresh, he thought. Pretty soon it would be winter and Lucy would be home for Christmas holidays. Maybe this year he would teach her how to cook a turkey.
As he stooped to pick up his bag, he noticed a pair of spiny black pincers clutching the seam of his jacket. They were joined to a narrow orange shell speckled with patches of black. The Zelus bilobus, he realized; not janus, but a close relative. It had lodged itself in the crook between his elbow and his side. Marvin gingerly plucked it out by the corner of the paper backing and contemplated the creature's beady eyes. He wondered if the body would still contain poison after all this time. Lifting a forefinger gently under the insect's abdomen, he tapped it lightly against the curved beak.
"Ouch," said Marvin. The Zelus bilobus stared expressionlessly back at him.
Well, it was no use keeping this one around, Marvin decided. He propped it up neatly on the top of the railing, picked up his bag, and started trudging down the gravel path. When he looked back after a minute, the wind still hadn't knocked it over. It was crouched in readiness—antennae waving, pincers alert—as if poised to jump on its next prey.
Roberta Kwok graduated from Stanford University with a degree in biology. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, she now lives in San Francisco and works in the biotech field.