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Silverfish by Christina Perez Brubaker


Christina Perez Brubaker’s “Silverfish” is a story exploring subtle shifts in marriage power dynamics with no tidy “good” or “bad” characters. Our often-unlikeable narrator (see the author’s note for an exploration of this idea) is paired with his often-unlikable wife as two perfectly flawed characters in a failing marriage—failing in a way that is unique and interesting—within a story strong in character, concept, and conceit. With well-rendered, realistic dialogue furthering the characterization of James and Lauren, and variable sentence structure helping with pace, the elements of craft do heavy lifting here. The tension and conflict are rich on the macro and character levels: James gets a thrill from noticing his wife’s aging body; he undermines her. Come for the mystery of the bloody sidewalk; stay for Lauren’s reaction to being undermined, for her growing obsession with wellness, for her earned shift in character, to learn what she is capable of.  —CRAFT


 

When James’s wife, Lauren, discovered two silverfish in their seven-year-old daughter’s bed, she’d placed the insects in a jelly jar. They waited on the counter beside his morning cup of coffee. Prehistoric, she called them, and he had to laugh. On close inspection they were hideous. Slender, wingless bodies. Gray, shiny scales. In addition to six legs, they had two long antennae and a tail with appendages sticking out. Three twitchy prongs.

Their movements were quick. A slick side to side that made even his skin crawl.

“I’ll call an exterminator,” he said. His keys in one hand, his wallet and cell phone in the other, he kissed her goodbye on the side of her head.

“No,” she said. She picked up the jar and held it up, peering at them through the glass. “I’ll take care of it. Au naturel.” She smiled.

That night, when James got home from work, the house reeked. A scent that was both pungent and familiar. “Cedar chips,” Lauren said. She’d spread them in every corner; still, the silverfish descended in waves.

They came at night. Closets. Kitchen drawers. The pantry. The showers. The tub. They crawled down the hanging, mid-century lights in the hall and in the bathrooms, fell inside the glass bowls of the fixtures. Trapped and turned to dust by the heat of the lightbulbs.

“We need a professional,” he said, standing beside her in the hall looking up at the new batch frantically crawling all over each other. All over the dead.

“Absolutely not,” Lauren said. “The chips take time. Give them a chance.”

He agreed, but a week later when she began to read into the situation—Why our house? What if it’s something we’ve done?—imagined mystical connections he once found endearing but now, after fifteen years of marriage, made him anxious, James decided enough was enough.


As a favor, the exterminator he used for work agreed to come over on a Saturday while Lauren was out. Victor was younger, early twenties with slicked black hair and a perfect side part, tattoos and a thick neck. He laughed at the sound of their dog, Daisy, going nuts in her kennel down the hall. “Chihuahua?” he asked with a sudden accent and James, annoyed he’d showed up twenty-five minutes late, corrected him, “pug.”

When he climbed down the ladder from the crawl space above the hallway, Victor’s face was covered in a sheen of sweat he wiped away with a blue bandana pulled from the pocket of his black Dickies pants. An infestation he called it.

“What does that mean?” James said, instead of: No shit. Which was what he was thinking.

Silverfish loved moisture and it was damp as hell up there. Victor looked into the laundry room where the paint on the ceiling was peeling in parts, but James stepped in front of him and closed the laundry room door, harder than he intended. “Can you treat it or not?” Smiling to coverup the edge in his voice.

“Sure,” Victor said, “but it’ll take more than one treatment.”

“Fine.”

“Two, at least, prob—”

“Great.” Lauren had taken Porter to ballet then the farmer’s market. James didn’t have time for unsolicited renovation advice. “Go ahead and get started.”

Victor looked at him with narrowed dark eyes. “Yes sir,” he said, standing a little taller. “But the fish may be a sign of a bigger—”

“Got it,” James said, a solid pat of the hand against Victor’s back, he guided the shorter man towards the front door. Through various windows he watched him. Victor wore a gas mask, a white plastic one-piece suit, and elbow-length rubber gloves. With a long wand attached to a plastic jug filled with yellowish liquid he soaked the property.

When Lauren got home, she stood in the living room, nose in the air. “Do you smell that?”

“Smell what?” James said. The chemicals swishing around in Victor’s plastic vat had no scent whatsoever. Behind her back he stuck his tongue out at Porter.

“Yeah, Mommy!” she said. “Smell what?”


Before getting pregnant with Porter, Lauren had worked as an occupational therapist. She held two degrees in child development, was paid to play with children, though she hated when he explained it that way. The same way she hated when he called her semi-retired. Buttons he’d promised to stop pressing.

She was concerned with issues James didn’t have the bandwidth to think about. The treatment of the cows they ate, stress hormones transferred. The conditions under which the chicken who laid their breakfast lived. Caged or free to forage. Does it really matter? he complained, but secretly he liked it. The research. The strict shopping list. Organic. Grass fed. Wild caught. Non-GMO. While he hoped it all meant he’d get to live longer, it had begun to wear on him. Watching her spin.

After Porter was born, a perilous delivery that ended in a hysterectomy, Lauren’s preoccupation with wellness widened. She replaced plastic water bottles and storage containers with glass. Filtration systems were put in, for the air and the water. The interior of the house repainted. Non-VOC to protect a baby’s developing brain.

James stayed out of her way, working in the family real estate business that had awarded him a promotion and a down payment on their house. He liked coming in at the end of one of Lauren’s projects. Signing the check. The kind of man who wasn’t concerned with the number of zeros on a bill.

When the silverfish invasion slowed, Lauren accused James of doing something. Spraying Raid or laying poisonous traps, which he denied. He hugged her from behind, swayed back and forth. “Maybe your chips are finally working.”

During Victor’s second visit Lauren came home unexpectedly. Porter, in a fuchsia tutu, ran through the living room clutching her crotch. “I drank too much kombucha!”

Through the front windows James saw Lauren standing in the driveway. Vibrating with anger. Her canvas shopping bag clutched to her chest. Victor, in his NASA gear, spraying cracks in their home’s foundation.

Lauren refused to speak to James. She swept up the cedar chips, long precise strokes with a black metal brush into a black metal pan into a clear compostable bag.

Normally, Lauren hated the silent treatment, preferring to discuss—sometimes ad nauseum. However, at 10:30 p.m., James, still flipping TV channels in the living room, heard her begin her nightly routine. Washing her face. Brushing her teeth. After which, instead of coming out—We need to talk—she closed their bedroom door with a finality that irked him.


James fell asleep imagining an existence without her. Less rules. Less fighting. More sex. Thoughts which, when they began as a trickle several years ago, made him feel guilty. Traitorous, even. He worried about Porter, but he also worried about the thinning patch of hair on the back of his head. It wasn’t getting any smaller. His abs, his arms, any firmer. If he waited too long, who else would have him?

And when he noticed the sagging skin above Lauren’s eyes, he experienced a tiny thrill. Who would have her?


Lauren never let James sleep on the couch. She didn’t like the message it might send to Porter if she found him there, so it was odd to find himself still on the sofa the next morning. An ache spreading from his shoulder up his neck. After another day of Lauren going about her business as if her husband didn’t exist, the silence had become deafening.

“So, what? You’re never going to speak to me?” he said, startled when she took him, not so gently, by the wrist and pulled him from the kitchen into the backyard, to the farthest point from Porter’s bedroom, where—lit by the pool lights—she yelled at him. Not about the silverfish, the chemicals, but about him. Their marriage. “You don’t care what I think. How I feel. It’s always about you.”

“Come on. That’s not true.”

“Oh yeah?” She pointed to the opposite side of the pool where Daisy was busy running in circles, nipping at the air, probably at an insect, though from their viewpoint it looked as if she were lunging at nothing. “What about her?”

“What about her?” James said confused. “You wanted a pet.”

“I wanted a cat.” This she screamed, her hands on the side of her head in a manner that was almost frightening. Unhinged, he thought. “But it’s always what you want. Except you pretend it’s not. That’s the worst part. You’re sneaky. Underhanded. Incapable of honesty.” She accused him of something her therapist called gaslighting, of which he pretended to know the meaning.

“That’s ridiculous.” He laughed, which only infuriated her more. “Listen,” he said, speaking over her, loud but calm, a tone he meant as consoling. “You need to relax. They’re bugs. Now they’re gone. That’s it. Nothing devious going on. No master plan against you. There was a problem and I took care of it. End of story.”

She looked at him a moment, wide-eyed, mouth slack. Then, as if to prove his point, she squeezed her eyes closed and covered her ears with her hands so that James had to practically shout to ensure she could hear him.

“You need to stop,” he said. “You’re acting crazy.”


Lauren and Porter had wanted a cat. They’d begun their campaign, in earnest, a year ago, but James hated cats. Each time Lauren brought up adopting one, James had insisted: cats are creepy, and they shit in a box. But she’d grown up with them, a long list of names like Princess and Mr. Fluff ’n’ Stuff. She and Porter liked to lie in bed watching cat videos on Lauren’s phone.

Look Daddy, look how sweet! Adorable, he’d say, pretending to watch while shaking his head at Lauren. He swore he saw something sly in her smile, beneath which, he knew, ran rivulets of anger. Misplaced. Always mad at him for something. A disposition he blamed on motherhood, on age, the things that’d hijacked the woman he married.

Without telling Lauren, he took Porter to the animal shelter. There, Daisy was cute. Unique. She leaned her little body against the bars, looking up at him. Ears down. Eyes wide. Shaking. Not a whiff of the terror she’d become.

In their living room, however—Surprise, Mommy!—under Lauren’s critical gaze, she was a funny looking dog. She had a small head and a thick body with stubby, outturned legs and a curly tail. Virtual stitch marks between her foreign parts. Chihuahua, pug, wiener dog mix.

Despite the doggy door and two walks a day, Daisy urinated and defecated all over the house, a reaction triggered by fear after getting caught for some other misdeed. She dug up houseplants, consumed portions of shoes, toys, and wallets. Gnawed holes in blankets and pillows. When someone had the nerve to walk past their house, Daisy went ballistic; hair on end she ran back and forth in front of the windows barking. She’d bite any family member who tried to intervene—even Porter, her favorite person.

If she were a bigger dog, Lauren said they’d have to put her down. It was a leap said out of anger, but Porter began to cry, and James defended Daisy. Called her part of the family. But Lauren had already left the room. He could hear her opening and closing drawers in their bedroom. He pictured a suitcase flopped open on the bed and his heart began to race.

He couldn’t pinpoint when he’d started playing this game. A form of chicken, seeing how far he could push Lauren; punishment, some remote part of him knew, for how he felt she treated him. Maybe, with Daisy, he’d finally gone too far. Excitement that turned to dread followed by a wave of relief when he found her, instead of packing, putting away his neatly folded shirts.

What? she said, without looking up. Nothing, he said, turning on his heel, cooling the heat in his chest with a deep breath.


After their fight by the pool, James spent a second night on the couch. This one marred by a growing unease. In all his imagined scenarios of how their marriage might end, Lauren still wanted him. So, he was shocked when, right before the timer on the pool lights clicked off and the backyard was plunged into darkness, she’d cried, I can’t do this anymore! A confession they each ignored. Choosing instead to retreat. James to a bed on the sofa. Lauren to their bedroom.

When he spotted the bloodstains dotting the sidewalk the next morning—half-inch droplets set a foot apart—he assumed they were paint. Bright red finger paint, he thought, though it made little sense.

It was Monday morning, 7:45 a.m. He stood on the sidewalk. Left, the concrete slabs were clear. Right, the red stains seemed to stretch the length of the street. He pulled at his pant legs to squat down and inspect one, maybe drag a thumb through it. Porter appeared on the porch. “Mom says we’re gonna be late!” she sang.

James stood.

She was dressed for school in striped leggings and high-top sneakers. Once short and pudgy, now, in second grade, she was all teeth arms and legs as she ran down the driveway. Lauren, barefoot and still in her pajamas, carrying Porter’s backpack, followed close behind.

“What’s that?” Porter said.

Suddenly, the three of them looking down, it was obvious. He didn’t need to touch one to know it was sticky. Coagulating as they stood there.

“It’s blood,” he said, “I think.”

“No way!” Porter dropped to one knee, but before she could extend a finger, Lauren pulled her up by the arm.

“Don’t touch it,” she said. Then to James, her voice unusual. Urgent. “Where’d it come from?”

He guessed one of the neighbor’s cats had gotten lucky.

“Lucky how?” Porter wanted to know

“Caught something yummy.” He patted his stomach and winked.

A dead anything would’ve sent a younger Porter into a fit of tears, but now she looked down at the blood, then across the street. “I bet it was Taco.” She pointed to a striped cat lying in their neighbor’s yard.

He couldn’t imagine that fat cat doing anything more than licking its privates, and while it was painful not saying so, he shrugged. “Could be.”

Porter tugged at him, pointing in the direction of school, in the direction of the blood. “I wanna see what happened.”

“Then let’s go.”

“James…” Lauren said. The voice she used when Porter was about to make a poor decision.

“Don’t worry, Mommy,” he said, taking Porter’s backpack, holding out the straps so she could slip it on. “We can handle—”

“Wait,” Porter shouted, bouncing to adjust her bag. She’d forgotten to say goodbye to Daisy. At Lauren’s insistence, the pooch slept in a kennel Porter called her apartment.

“It’s too late,” Lauren snapped. “You’ll miss the bell.” She stepped closer, but instead of a kiss goodbye, she whispered, “If it’s something bad make sure she doesn’t see it.”

It was a strange request, some part of him knew, but he was caught up in the sensation of her hand on him. Squeezing. Her lips, wet against his ear. He held her close. Kissed the hollow space below her cheekbone, letting go before she could pull away. Before she tried, again, to ruin their fun.


It would occur to James only later—after discovering it was Daisy’s remains they were trailing—how morbid it was, this morning endeavor. Porter jumping from one foot to the other, touching each red splat with the tip of her tennis shoe. “Twelve… thirteen,” she counted.

When something ahead caught James’s eye, he thought, Mystery solved.

Twenty yards before the stop sign, lying motionless on its side in the middle of the sidewalk, was what looked like a large mouse or rat, but on second, squinted look, the object was flat. Flush with the ground. A dark red puddle.

He’d seen the adjacent homeowners’ black Mercedes coming and going, but he’d never met them. Now, a bald man appeared in his yard dragging something. A garden hose. When he saw James, he signaled for him to come over, but when he noticed Porter trailing behind, he dropped the hose and shook his hands in front of his chest. No. No. No.

James’s heart quickened.

“Come on,” he said, turning to take Porter by the wrist. Veering off the sidewalk, off the curb and into the empty street. “It’s quicker if we cross here.”

“Wait—” she said, leaning back, trying to change directions. “You said—”

“We’re late. The bell’s about to ring.”

“But you’re hurting me.”

He pulled her closer, put his arm around her shoulders. “Sorry, kid.” When he kissed the top of her head he could feel his pulse in his lips. Over his shoulder, the neighbor, a sudden comrade, stood on guard in front of the blood stain. His arms crossed over his chest.


After depositing Porter in her classroom, James found his neighbor waiting for him. His hands in the pockets of his khaki shorts, the buttons of his whitewashed Hawaiian print shirt struggling against the weight of his belly.

“Sorry about that,” he called out as James jogged across the street. “I didn’t think you’d want her to see this.” He held his trash bin open. “Found it this morning. Ki-yotes, I’m assuming.” They’d been known to come up from the Back Bay, an estuary of the Pacific Ocean less than half a mile away, but since the drought they’d been seen trolling neighborhoods in broad daylight. “It’s yours, right?” The man said. “I’ve seen your wife walking him. Or rather him walking her. Dog was a bit of a rascal.”

There, sitting on top of a cardboard box neatly folded to fit in the bin—Amazon-blue printed tape—sat Daisy’s head. Eyes closed, tongue out. Distorted slightly by a thick clear plastic bag and the bright morning sun. His back, underarms, forehead, and neck prickled with sweat. “Fuck,” he said, then apologized for his language.

“No need, certainly worthy.”

James didn’t understand. “Daisy sleeps in a cage,” he said. Then, hearing Lauren’s voice in his head—Don’t say that, we sound like beasts—he corrected himself. “I mean she sleeps in a kennel.”

“Head was on the sidewalk.” The man gestured to the puddle with his chin. “I checked my yard, but I didn’t find any other…” he stopped, looking for the right word. “Parts,” he said finally. He let the blue lid fall closed and, despite his shock, James couldn’t help but notice how clean the trash bin was. He pictured theirs, crusty and covered in cobwebs. He thought of the pressure washer, still in the box, Lauren had given him for Father’s Day. Now he tried to remember where in the garage he’d put it.

“Do you want to take it?” he asked, and when James looked at him confused, he rapped his knuckles against the lid. “Your dog,” he said gently. “Do you want what’s left?”

“No,” he said, then thought of Lauren. Would she? Would Porter? Should they bury it? A funeral. He saw them in their yard. All in black. The head in a shoebox or maybe a coffee can. Poor Daisy only weighed twelve pounds. “No,” he said again, firmly. “I have to get to the wife. Break the news. You know, figure out how to tell my daughter. She’s going to be upset.”

The neighbor whistled. “Man, I don’t envy you.”


He expected to find Lauren in the kitchen cleaning, still prickling, but the room was silent. Remnants from the morning rush. An open bag of bread. A jar of sunflower butter—knife sticking out—beside a jar of strawberry jam sweating on the kitchen island.

In the hall, he stopped outside the office door. For a second, he thought he heard a jingle. Daisy’s collar. He imagined her, hungry and pissed off, biting the thin bars of her kennel: Feed me, fucker! He smiled at the thought, but the office was still. Her cage door closed. Her blanket folded neatly on top of the black metal grates.

In their bedroom he found Lauren standing, rigid. “Anything?”

“Daisy,” he said, and she closed her eyes. “The neighbor at the corner found her. Coyotes we think.”

“Did Porter see?”

“No.”

“Thank god.”

It was weird. Her reaction. She didn’t seem the least bit surprised and James wanted to know what the hell was going on.

“I let her out.”

“You what?”

“Last night. While you were asleep. I let Daisy out.”

“What do you mean you let her out?”

“I mean,” she shooed the air in front of her with both hands. “Out-out. As in I let her go. Set her free.”

“Free? She’s not a fucking hostage. She’s our dog.”

“Do not yell at me,” she said, jabbing the air with one finger.

“I’m not yelling,” he yelled. Then pressed his thumbs against his temples. “What were you thinking?”

“She wasn’t wearing a collar. I thought some nice person might pick her up, you know, take her home.” Her eyes were unnaturally round, her hands shaking. “I’d let her out as usual, in the backyard before bed, but she disappeared. I found her, finally, behind the trees.” She flung her hand in the direction of the leafy podocarpus that lined their property. “She was stuck under the fence, her tail in our yard, head in the neighbor’s, but when I pulled her out—you know to save her—she fucking bit me. Hard. Broke the skin.” She held up her fist, but James couldn’t make out any marks. “Then, she wouldn’t come in. She had me chasing her. It was late. I was exhausted, so I opened the front gate almost as a joke, you know? To lure her. I didn’t think she’d run. Not like that.” She insisted she went after her. “But she was gone.

She paced. Back and forth between their unmade bed and the French doors. Strong strides he felt as if he were chasing.

“Stop!” He said. “You’re making me dizzy.”

But she ignored him. She had it all figured out. He didn’t have to do anything. Yes, the coyotes were a sad turn of events. She hadn’t wished Daisy dead. Here is where he thought she’d crack, this new, self-possessed version of his wife. Dead, he could hear the tears, but she kept moving. “I swore I heard her. Scratching at the door. I got up three times, but there was nothing. I even went out to the street. No Daisy. No coyote. No blood. Nothing.”

“Which door?” he asked. Their house was only sixteen hundred square feet. At night, from their bedroom he could hear Porter snoring.

“What?” she said, finally stopping.

“The scratching. Was it the front door?”

She nodded and he massaged his sore neck. “So, you walked by me that many times and didn’t think to wake me up?”

She bent down to make the bed. “I turned off the television,” she offered, disappearing behind a billow of white sheets.


Porter reacted to Daisy’s death exactly how he’d expected, deep sobs that tore at his insides. However, it was Lauren he watched, transfixed, as she doled out carefully measured lies.

“Remember the man from the other day? The exterminator?”

On Saturday, after using the restroom, Porter had played in her room, but she said she remembered the tan man with super white teeth.

“He used the side gate, the one at the end of Daisy’s run. He didn’t mean to leave it open. He liked Daisy. Said she was cute.”

“She didn’t attack him?”

“No,” Lauren laughed. Wistful. “She liked him too. He carried treats in his pockets. Said he meets a lot of protective dogs.”

“She was a great watchdog.”

“The best.” Lauren stroked Porter’s hair.

“Are you crying?” James said, but Lauren—tears puddled on her lower lashes—ignored him.

“I forgot to put her in her kennel last night,” she continued. “I didn’t know the gate wasn’t latched.”

Porter buried her face in Lauren’s chest. “It’s okay, Mommy! It’s not your fault.”

James couldn’t take anymore. He had to move. He’d come home early so he could be there when Porter got home from school, but now, at 3:55 p.m., the day felt impossibly long. He thought of Victor, an unwitting accessory, to what? Murder? Dog-slaughter?

In the garage he pulled out the pressure washer. Busied himself blasting the sidewalk in front of their house where the red droplets had turned dark brown. Then the trash bins. Then the green hose coiled up against the fence like a snake.

At times he’d secretly wished Lauren less virtuous, but this made him feel weird, like the ground beneath him was shifting. What else was this Lauren capable of? He imagined a team of divorce lawyers. Himself, alone, in a beige windowless apartment. A sick feeling turning his stomach.

When he returned to the house, he found Porter and Lauren sitting on stools in the kitchen. Lauren’s laptop glowing on the counter in front of them. Porter’s eyes were red and puffy, but whatever pain she’d been feeling had subsided, leaving her almost peaceful, tired.

He stood beside her. “Feeling better, kid?”

“It’s not the coyote’s fault.”

“Really?” He looked at Lauren. “Then whose fault is it?”

“The drought,” Porter said. “Those poor animals are starving.”

 


CHRISTINA PEREZ BRUBAKER is a fellowship recipient from Chapman University, where she graduated with an MFA in creative writing. Born in New York, she now lives with her husband and two daughters in Costa Mesa, California and teaches creative writing at Orange County School of the Arts. Her work has appeared in The Writers Studio at 30, an anthology published by Epiphany Magazine, as well as Coast Magazine and Fourteen Hills.

 

Author’s Note

In grad school I wrote a short story about a father who, upon discovering a trail of blood outside his home, took his daughter on a short quest to discover its origins. During my workshop, Richard Bausch at the helm, I remember my face lighting on fire when a cohort asked the table, What kind of parent would do that?

When my two daughters and I found bloodstains on the sidewalk on our walk to school we followed them until they disappeared into our neighbor’s grass half a block away. The remainder of our commute was spent waging guesses as to what had happened. We named crows and cats as perpetrators. Mice, rats, and hummingbirds as victims, however, I’d later discover the blood was from a lizard I’d accidently maimed opening our front gate the day before. His half-eaten body in a gully surrounding a different neighbor’s sprinkler head. His insides and spine exposed. A disgusting, yet strangely fascinating sight.

I wrote about the experience in a personal essay for Samantha Dunn, another influential teacher of mine. Still, as a fiction writer, I couldn’t shake the events of that morning.

What if what we’d trailed had been something far worse?

While “Silverfish” sprung from this more recent incident, the character of James first emerged in 2012, when my family and I were living in Brooklyn, and I was a student of The Writers Studio. In a fragment of a story he was a man at a party discontent with his current relationship. Discontent with his life. Later, he appeared again in my grad-school writing, this time as a divorced father attempting to connect with his young daughter. And again, in his darkest form, as a man struggling with his affinity for incapacitated women.

Each iteration possessed different levels of unsavory traits—from benign to despicable—still, not one of them was wholly bad. Something I find myself grappling with in my writing. Right and wrong as slippery concepts dependent on point of view.

After eight years of trying to figure James out, it’s easy for me to see the connection between the earlier versions and the James who appears here in “Silverfish.” A small section of his larger story.

I used to waste a lot of time berating myself, wishing I had more control. That I wasn’t so dependent on exploring and discovering as I write, connecting threads months, sometimes years later, but the longer I work at it, the easier I find it is to embrace my process instead of cursing it.

 


CHRISTINA PEREZ BRUBAKER is a fellowship recipient from Chapman University, where she graduated with an MFA in creative writing. Born in New York, she now lives with her husband and two daughters in Costa Mesa, California and teaches creative writing at Orange County School of the Arts. Her work has appeared in The Writers Studio at 30, an anthology published by Epiphany Magazine, as well as Coast Magazine and Fourteen Hills.