The Beetle and the Stones
It had been a hard day: dull meetings with clients and contractors, reams of paperwork; a long afternoon spent debating the pros and cons of switching the current IT support contract to a new company. Paul was tired. All he wanted was a large whisky, a small sandwich, and a long film in the Blu-ray player.
He parked the car, traipsed along the drive, unlocked the door to his house, and almost collapsed into the cramped hallway. Hung his coat on the hook, ran a hand through his greasy hair, and headed into the small living room.
Something was different. Something was wrong. He didn’t fully correlate the information at first, but then his brain caught up with the situation and he registered it.
“Oh,” he said.
There was a huge black beetle sitting on the sofa. It had six legs; two of them were propped up on the coffee table. Its shiny antennae twitched.
“Oh,” he said again.
The beetle just sat there, its black compound eyes catching the light and glittering like jewels.
It didn’t look like any insect he’d ever seen before. Apart from its sheer size, the thing didn’t resemble anything he’d seen on television or photographs. It was more like someone’s idea of a beetle than an actual beetle: clearly an invertebrate, three pairs of segmented legs, a three-part body (head, thorax, abdomen), a set of mandibles, a pair of antennae, and those strange, dead compound eyes. As it shifted on the sofa, he saw that it also possessed folded chitin wing cases but no wings.
“Hello,” said the beetle, taking him off-guard.
“I’m sorry for the intrusion.” It had a nice voice: soft, well spoken, middle-class English but of an indeterminate gender. “I seem to have found myself stuck here for a little while, but I’m not sure why.”
Paul cleared his throat. “Is this a dream? I mean, am I asleep?”
“No,” the beetle waved one of its forelegs. “I thought the same at first, but this is real. I’m real. I suppose that means you are too. But, if you don’t mind me saying, you’re awfully small.”
“And you’re awfully large.” Paul blinked a few times, then became very aware that he was blinking, and began to feel self-conscious about it; but he found that he couldn’t stop blinking, no matter how hard he tried.
“You blink a lot,” said the beetle.
“I’m sorry,” said Paul. “I’m not sure why I’m doing that. Nervous, I guess.”
A thought struck him: “Just to backtrack a little…do insects dream?”
“Good question. I’m not sure. I suppose we must, mustn’t we? I mean, if I thought this was a dream initially, dreaming must be something I do.”
The beetle’s jaw twitched; its mouth shifted. “That’s a smile,” it said. “Just to be clear.”
“To be clear?”
“Yes, clear. I’d hate for you to be afraid. To think I was going to…eat you, or something.”
“Eat me?” said Paul.
“Eat you,” said the beetle. “I’d never do that.”
“I need a drink.” Paul moved slowly to the cabinet where he kept the whisky, took out a bottle and a glass, and poured a hefty shot of double malt. He downed the drink in one and then poured another.
“Would you like one?” he said without turning around.
“No thanks,” said the beetle. “I’m teetotal. At least, I think I am.”
Paul fought the urge to laugh. If he started, he might never be able to stop.
“I hope I won’t be here long,” said the beetle. “I think I’m waiting for someone.”
Paul turned, sipped his whisky, and tried not to stare too hard at his unwelcome visitor. “Any idea how long? I mean, will you be leaving soon? I find you…I find your presence…well, unnerving.”
“I know. I’m sorry. One minute, there I was scuttling about on a rubbish tip eating rotten fruit, and then – bang! – all of a sudden, I’m here. In your home. I have no idea what’s going on.”
“I see,” said Paul, not seeing at all. “So, you could be here for quite some time?”
“I suppose,” said the beetle. “There’s no way of knowing, not really. Until whoever it is I think I’m waiting for turns up.”
Paul set down his glass on the window sill and looked out into the front garden. “Waiting…there’s a thing.”
“Indeed,” said the beetle. “I feel like I’m waiting, so I must be.”
“Okay. Wait here,” said Paul. “I have something to show you.”
The beetle did not respond.
Paul went through into the kitchen, opened the back door, and walked out into the little back garden he’d been trying to get into shape since last summer. He grabbed the wheelbarrow and pushed it to where he’d demolished the old stone shed. Rolling up his sleeves, he set to work picking up rocks from the rubble pile. It didn’t take him long to fill the wheelbarrow; in a matter of minutes it was piled high with rocks of assorted shapes and sizes.
Straining, he hefted the weight and pushed the wheelbarrow into the house, through the kitchen, and into the living room.
“What do you have there?” said the beetle, crossing its lower legs. They made a whispering sound. Paul thought it was creepy.
“You’ll see,” said Paul, bending to pick up a rock, a nice heavy one with sharp edges.
“Oh,” said the beetle, just before the first of the jagged projectiles hit and cracked its shell.
“No,” it said, folding its limbs and trying to curl up into a ball on the sofa.
The beetle didn’t say anything more, not in terms of actual words, but it did make a lot of high-pitched squeaking sounds. Then there was squelching. After a while, the beetle went quiet and still.
When he was done, Paul was sweating. His arms ached. There was a pile of yellowy mush on the sofa that was beginning to stink. There were crisp black pieces of shell mixed in with the pungent gunge. He backed away, as if suddenly realising what he had done and what it might mean about him that he’d gone to such extremes. He went to the cabinet and poured another drink. It tasted odd. Something had changed.
There was a noise from upstairs: a kind of slithering sound from the master bedroom followed by a series of short bumping noises that came to a halt at the top of the stairs. He put down his drink and went out into the hallway, stood at the bottom of the stairs. He was blinking again. He couldn’t stop blinking.
A smaller beetle was standing on the top step, looking down. This one was roughly half the size of the one he’d just killed, but resembled it in every other way. Its mandibles slid sideways as it spoke:
“Mummy,” said the beetle. “Where’s my mummy?”
Paul turned away in disgust. He walked through the living room, not even glancing at the wheelbarrow; moving quickly past the soft wreckage on the sofa, and stumbling into the kitchen. He sat down on the floor and put his head in his hands. Still blinking.
He wasn’t sure if he was going to laugh or cry until the tears came. Then the sobs; long, wet and heaving. He sat like that for a very long time, weeping uncontrollably, like a lost child.
Then something touched him softly on the arm and sat down next to him. It moved in close, hugging him with its jointed limbs and chittering to him mournfully in a language that he knew he might eventually come to understand.
© Gary McMahon, 2022