We are the boys, we are the big boys
We're so strong, we're so pure
— Nitzer Ebb
Violent Playground

HARRY HAD A PEST PROBLEM. He had them in the walls and he had them in the floorboards, in all of the rooms and all of the furniture, in the rafters and in the foundation. They were burrowing under the baseboards and into the hollow space of the modern crown molding, casting crawling shadows in the built-in ambient lighting. They were in every crack and every crevice, every square inch just outside of his sight. At night he could hear the noise of all their wriggling and he woke up with a filthy, itchy feeling in his skin. They darted by the corners of his eyes too swiftly for him to see, but they were everywhere, and Harry was starting to lose his grip.

Harry drove his lifted Ford down to the hardware store, exclusively California stopping at the stop signs in his way. He purchased six canisters of aerosol roach spray and even more of the powder, nine tubes of cheap silicone caulk, an impressive array of mouse and rat traps—all different brands and varieties, making sure to get the ones that snap because they felt righteous, and classic—a pack of liquid ant traps, two gallons of flea killer, and a Coca-Cola. Then he went to Scheels and bought a handgun out of a locked case like it was a condom at the drugstore. It wasn’t related to his pest problem, or it was but only indirectly; Harry just needed to hold a gun right now.

His new boss called him as he was leaving the parking lot. He couldn’t deal with the bitch, not while his home was teeming with vermin, so he let it go to voicemail. Then she kept calling and the vibrating started to really get on his nerves. He bit the inside of his cheek raw to stop himself from punching the dash or rear-ending the lime green sedan in front of him, seemingly moving slower than any car had ever moved in the history of mankind.

Harry disliked women, though he was not gay and historically was bothered by any such implication. He knew well enough not to say it out loud, but he considered women to be generally stupid people. Though he also believed it wasn’t their fault how they were, and so he sort of felt bad for them in that way. It was only biological.

The issue was that women didn’t appear to like him much either, and he often found himself in his steely en suite staring down his reflection with perplexing dissatisfaction. He was still young, and had an objectively handsome face; a hairstyle—the hairstyle really, chosen following extensive online study and experimentation; a tight and chiseled body that he agonized over, sweat and starved to maintain; and a completely normal and adequate penis which he always shaved bare in attempt to make look bigger. He trimmed his nails short, washed himself as frequently as he could be expected to, and tried to act the way attractive, powerful men acted. He was a perfect male specimen—so why didn’t women like him?

The most logical answer he could come up with was that they were stupid. Most people Harry met were inferior to him, women just especially so. Besides for sex he didn’t see much use in them, and he didn’t like being around them. So when his boss at the ad agency got canned for emailing out these absurd jokes some of which Harry thought were pretty good (Q: What does a blonde put behind her ears to make her hotter? A: Her ankles) and they shuffled in this strident, harsh, terribly unsexy woman barely out of grad school with a face and mouth like a mean dog, Harry knew it would be a difficult adjustment. He hadn’t known it would be this hard.

He snatched up his still-vibrating phone from the passenger seat and put it on do not disturb mode. He needed to focus on the things that mattered like bugs, or rats, or whatever the fuck they were. Once he had his house back, there would be all the time in the world for damage control at the agency. But suddenly he felt superstitious and went back to the hardware store to buy one more can of Raid.

Near the on-ramp he drove past a very dark-skinned man holding a cardboard sign and thought something uncharitable. Harry also disliked Black people, though his assessment of them was less formulated and far less explored than his of women. It was a simple vitriol, one he was almost unaware of. Usually their existences seemed so unimportant compared to his own. This was not entirely specific to Black people; Harry’s ultimate asset in personal and professional life was his inability to perceive others as actual people with complex, individualized selves. He had always been very unburdened.

Until now, lugging so many bags full of traps and pesticides, all kinds of jagged black-and-yellow edges bursting through the thin plastic, into the home he felt newly displaced within. He became itchy almost immediately, shuddering as he slammed the bags on the pale marble countertop. The house was Harry’s ultramodern city upon a hill. It was enormous and had been given to him by his father, though neither had called it that or would have admitted to it. An interlocking mass of cubes with black slatted walls and huge, spotless windows, it sat secluded on a kempt little cul-de-sac with other similarly sleek homes a respectable distance away. His front lawn was landscaped with white stones and foliage he didn’t concern himself with, and mowed in tidy green stripes. In the big sloping backyard there was a koi pond, but it had never been filled with fish or water. Harry had sprung for it only to realize he didn’t care for animals or any design choices that felt too Japanese. He still appreciated the pond though, because like the rest of the house, it was his. It was all beautiful and it belonged to him—not to anyone or anything else.

He wouldn’t let the little fuckers have it.

It hadn’t started with the itching, or the gnaw marks in the rugs and stark-white upholstery, or the meandering trails of grease along the walls and floor. It started with a feeling. Harry didn’t know when it began exactly—if it appeared, or if it had been there all along and he was only now becoming aware of it—but an unease began to creep into him. At night he locked his doors three times over and he started to watch the people around him deeply, inspecting them for something he wasn’t sure of, seeking something integral but out of his grasp. He was paranoid. Something was out to get him. Everything was wrong.

For a while Harry thought he was safe inside, but that quickly changed. His house began to smell sweet and pungent like rotten fruit. He fired his housekeeper and hired a new one, and then he fired that one too. He bought a new refrigerator thinking something had irreversibly fouled the old one, but the smell didn’t go away. He examined all six-thousand square feet of the property: every crevice, every drain, unused guest bedrooms, empty trash cans, sterile white toilets and sparkling tubs. He pulled the sheets from every mattress and washed them over and over, emptied everything from the kitchen cabinets and threw it all away, even took all the vent covers off and stuck his head inside the ducts searching for mold, of which there was none. The stench had no apparent source.

He called an exterminator immediately when he started to hear scurrying in the walls, but the guy turned out to be an idiot. Less than an hour into the inspection he said there was absolutely nothing wrong as if he couldn’t smell the ever-worsening stench in the air or hear the maddening clicking, buzzing, scratching in the walls. No matter, Harry thought, but then the next exterminator said the same thing. He didn’t hear a thing inside the walls, thought the house smelled fine, and noted the lack of droppings anywhere. To which Harry said who fucking cared if the things weren’t actively shitting on the floor, they were there. He kept trying, but things only got worse. He began to itch and shadows of rats danced around in his peripheral vision. The last straw came when one of the exterminators asked gently if Harry had ever heard of something called delusional parasitosis, and it took everything in him not to punch the guy in the mouth.

So people, Harry had found, also had something wrong with them. They couldn’t be trusted. They were wrong or they were stupid or they were liars. He could only rely on himself, and that made sense to him. He’d always known that to be true somehow.

He did a lot of research online about different kinds of pests, but he didn’t know how to narrow down his results. Since he had no clue what manner of intrusion he was dealing with, he resolved to simply try everything. This led him to the hardware store, to the bursting bags of pesticides, and to the handgun he was pulling out his coat pocket. Harry was disappointed; it didn’t make him feel powerful like it was supposed to. He let it clatter on the counter. Where to start?

First, he filled the gray kitchen drawers and cabinets with roach powder until they were pure white. Then he moved from one end of the house to the other, opening the windows and spraying every soft surface with flea killer. The extensive label on the jug said he should stay out of the treated area for at least two hours, so he set a timer on his phone and went into the backyard. He tried to enjoy the view of the sun setting pink and orange over the distant city, but he was nervous and extremely bored and ended up pacing for most of the two hours. For the rest of it, he just stared as the timer ticked down on his phone. His hand was already on the doorknob when it finally went off.

It seemed a little better inside; the acrid chemical aroma covered up the sickly, moist smell. Harry went through the house again and sprayed crevices and suspicious holes with roach killer, and he laid traps of all kinds at the base of the walls and in other opportune locations. He tried to think like a creature, considering the best places for each trap, but ultimately he had no clue what creatures thought because he wasn’t one.

The entire process took hours. Harry was very tired when it was done, but he walked proudly through the thoroughly booby-trapped halls to his bedroom, openly admiring his handiwork. He complimented himself out loud. He was the Kevin McCallister of rats.

Falling asleep, he felt good. His bed was soft and comfortable. Nothing itched, and the walls were silent. Everything would work out in his favor. It always did.

When he woke, he thought he had dreamt the crash downstairs. It was still nighttime; his phone said 3:36 AM and the moon shone cold light into his room through the massive window. He was almost asleep again when he heard another crash, and then he jolted upright. It was real. He rose quickly and rushed down the dark hallway to the staircase. They were real and he was going to catch them. It was happening so fast, he still almost didn’t believe it.

The stairs overlooked the kitchen where the sound was coming from. Harry crept down silently, listening intently and watching for movement. There was some kind of animal noise for sure, but it was unlike anything he’d heard before. It made a quiet buzz but it didn’t sound like an insect. He could hear it skittering around intermittently, and then there was near-inaudible mammalian chittering with a strange, alien tone to it. It sounded like too many of them at once. Then it skittered around again, then silence.

It must have been behind the kitchen island, just out of his view. It occurred to him that he should have grabbed a baseball bat, but he would crush the thing in his fists if he had to. For all it had put him through, Harry decided he would prefer that.

As he stepped off the staircase, agony shot through his left leg and nearly blinded him. Something was trying to tear his foot off. He kicked and shouted but it wouldn’t let go. Its teeth dug into him, and Harry felt the wet warmth of blood running down his toes. He dropped to the floor, lifting his leg up and grabbing the creature by the jaw. It was completely unrelenting, and the surface of it was smooth and cold and hard. Harry paused for a moment, trying to process in spite of the pain.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” he screamed.

He had stepped in a rat trap, one of the big ones with sharp black teeth all around its maw. It had been one of his favorites and now its teeth were buried halfway into his bare foot, one of them splitting the nail of his big toe clean in half. He grabbed it and, wincing, released the trap. His foot was still stuck to the top jaw and he had to use his hands to pull its teeth from his soft flesh.

He threw the trap aside and hobbled into the kitchen. Hands outstretched and shaking with adrenaline, he turned the corner of the island, prepared to throttle whatever thing had been scurrying around.

But there was nothing there, not even a trace. He must have scared it off with his howling. Or…

That trap had not been there before; he was dead certain of it. Why would he put a rat trap at the bottom of the stairs? No, something else was going on here, and the thought of it chilled him. He hadn’t laid a trap there; they had. Either the creatures were larger than he’d thought or they were capable of cooperating, and both were bad. They had moved the trap there, then one of them had gone and made some noise, acting as bait while it was still dark enough that Harry wouldn’t see the trap before it was too late. Even in his own head it sounded insane, but it was the only explanation. These were not regular pests. There was a calculated plot against him in his own house.

A low buzzing noise emanated from somewhere. Harry moved toward the open living room, and the noise grew louder. Pressing his ear to the wall he heard the awful sound clearly, their squirming bodies pressed up against one another, legs clicking together, forms moist and alien. Rage possessed him and he scanned the room, settling on a can of Raid and a heavy, cylindrical table lamp with a hard metal base. He grabbed both and attacked the wall with the lamp, letting out an involuntary cry of battle. One of the hits lodged it in and Harry brought it violently downward, ripping a huge hole into the wall and shattering the lamp’s pale frosted glass. He filled the hole with Raid triumphantly, refusing to stop even when he began to choke on it.

When the cloud of poison cleared, there was only a dark and empty space. There were no creatures alive or dead. Harry tore off chunks of drywall and peered into the hollow, but there was nothing to see. Only their buzzing still, surrounding him completely in that dark space. They were laughing at him.

He went out and sat on the floor, bleeding and dusty with broken glass sprinkled around him, until the sun rose. It cast glowing rays through the windows and illuminated the demolished wall with gold.

For a while, Harry was defeated. He worked on sealing each exterior gap in the house with caulk but gave up less than halfway through. The creatures were already inside, so it seemed pointless. The roach powder didn’t work and neither did the flea killer, or the aerosol roach killer, or the ant, mouse, and rat traps. He kept the gun loaded. He slept outside in the empty koi pond, even though summer was ending and it was getting cold at night. At work he used his swollen, bandaged foot and slight limp as part of his excuse, saying he had taken a bad fall and gone to the emergency room. It was close enough to the truth that he didn’t even feel like he was lying. He went through his days on autopilot. Everybody around him seemed extraneous and faraway. His eyes glazed over and he thought only about vermin. He imagined them building nests and breeding in his walls; his head filled with vulgar, writhing images.

And his house was getting worse. The noise of them was deafening at times, and Harry’s skin was red and raw from all his scratching. Even worse, the giant hole he had torn in the living room wall began to look strange. A pitchy, fleshlike substance stretched across it like a web or a membrane. He tried to ignore it at first but more and more it reminded him of placenta in an unnerving way, so one night out of curiosity and horror he pierced its surface with a kitchen knife. Viscous black fluid seeped from it, and Harry swore he saw something thick and wormlike moving inside.

He took photos and posted them on the Internet asking for help, but the few comments he received were confused and claiming to see nothing unusual in the images, or irrelevantly referencing the post history he’d meant to delete in which he left jeering comments on the profiles of pornographic actresses.

He called his father. He explained everything.

“Just come down here, just come see.” he pleaded over the phone.

“Not that I’d expect you to understand, but I’m busy. I can’t drop everything and fly across the country to deal with your bug problem.” his father said. His voice was static.

“They’re not bugs. Everybody’s acting fucking crazy.”

“Don’t talk to me like that. If the exterminator said there’s not a problem, I don’t see what you expect me to do about it.”

Harry didn’t know what to say. He started to cry.

“Get your shit together, Harold.” his father said, and hung up the phone.

Harry called again to no answer. He typed a long, expletive-heavy text message and pressed send, but it didn’t deliver. His number had been blocked.

Two days later he drove to the gas station, bought a bright red five-gallon gasoline can for $16.98, and filled it up. He paid in cash. Then he drove some distance away to another gas station where he bought two more, and filled them both as well. Then he did it again, and again. He drove for miles, amassing containers of gasoline and tucking them into the covered matte bed of his truck. The cashiers stared too hard into his eyes and made him paranoid—they knew his plan, he was sure—until they all blended together and ceased to be people in his mind, and then he was relieved.

Pulling into his attached garage, he had around sixty gallons of gasoline hidden in his truck bed. He unloaded the containers into the foyer and surveyed them. They looked like they would be enough even on their own, but Harry wasn’t going to take any chances. The stove in the kitchen was electric, but in the far wing of the house there was an incongruous kitchenette with a gas range. The range was a terrible eyesore, and it was ancient compared to everything else in the house. Harry had meant to replace it, but somehow it had gotten away from him. Now he was glad to have it. It was fate.

In the living room, the placental structure had hardened over the hole in the wall, and begun to spread past it. Beating black tendrils stretched outwards like the gnarled roots of old trees, and the entire room seemed soggy somehow. Harry had made peace with what he had to do. They couldn’t have his house.

He made a mental path, deciding to start with his bedroom and move backward, covering every section of the house, then out the north exit near the kitchenette. That would minimize the amount of time he had to spend inside once he turned the gas on. He would pour a trail until he was a safe distance away, and then it was showtime. If somebody tried to stop him, he was prepared to subdue them with force. All he needed was the courage to begin.

He had finished drenching the top floor of the house in gasoline when there was a loud knock at the door.

Ice ran through Harry’s body. It was the police. He had given himself away somehow, and somebody had reported him. What would happen? Would he go to prison? He stood there frozen until they knocked again. They weren’t leaving.

Harry told himself to relax, that there was no reason to believe the police were at his door. He hadn’t done anything yet. Still, he circled around the corridor and retrieved the handgun where it had come to rest half-buried beneath a pile of trash on the bathroom floor. He tucked it into the back of his pants like he’d seen people do in movies, and realized only when he was already opening the front door that he hadn’t checked the safety catch. In fact, he didn’t really know how to. He had never fired a gun before. He’d only just learned to load it by watching half of a YouTube video.

On the front steps, there was a bored-looking young man in a FedEx uniform who appeared to be turning around to leave just as Harry made his presence known. Harry cursed silently—if he had waited only a second more.

“Need you to sign for this,” the young man said, gesturing with his handheld to a comically tiny brown parcel in his other hand.

“I didn’t order anything.” Harry said.

“Harold Meyer? Grove Circle?”

“Yes, but… Fine, whatever. I’m in a hurry, give it.” Harry reached for the device, but the delivery man no longer seemed to be paying attention. He was looking past Harry, into the living room.

“What’s that on your wall?”

Harry stopped, did a double take. The wall was bulging veiny flesh. A huge, repulsive bubble.

“You can see it?” Harry replied, incredulous.

“Of course I can. What is it?”

That was difficult to say. It was a question Harry had been unable to answer himself.

“I don’t know. Something different.” he said finally.

“Can I come in?”

The young man came in anyway before Harry answered. He approached the blighted wall with strange adoration and Harry watched from a few feet away, slightly leery. What did this mean? This changed everything, didn’t it? It suddenly seemed that Harry had options beside his last resort.

Then Harry began to cry standing there, watching the delivery man marvel at the grotesque pustule of nesting vermin bursting from his living room wall. He couldn’t believe just how relieved he actually was. He hadn’t realized how alone he had felt. But now this man, this unexpected visitor—he could see it, too. Harry had been right all along. It was all real. The delivery man turned around, and Harry pulled him into an embrace. Finally. Finally.

There was a loud, metallic clang as the gun hit the tile floor, lodged loose from Harry's waistband.

The delivery man pulled away from Harry. His eyes went from Harry’s face to the gun on the floor, then back to Harry’s face. His expression didn’t change. He remained smiling.

Then his face erupted into rats.

Leaping, squirming rats like mutant things. Pale, grublike bodies with rows and rows of fat legs outstretched, ending in sticky claws. They disappeared and reappeared among one another in the writhing sea of themselves. There were legions of them. Harry recoiled instinctively, hardly understanding. Where the delivery man had stood moments before, there was now chaos and vermin and an empty FedEx uniform crumpling to the floor.

The bubble on the wall popped, and even more creatures poured out, spreading fast throughout the room. Harry screamed. Everything was crumbling right in front of him. He had to act fast.

He ran for the foyer and wrenched the lids from two containers of gasoline with shaking hands. The top floor was already done, so that brought reassurance, but he still needed to be thorough; even one of these things left alive was too many. Around him, they swarmed. The house was covered in them, and Harry couldn’t hear anything but their shrieking trill.

Five gallons of gasoline in either hand, he started his route. He ran clumsily, and splashed gasoline in all directions. He ducked into one of the main floor guest bedrooms, and the entire room was black and squirming. The creatures seemed to react when the gasoline was thrown upon them, but Harry couldn’t really tell since the individuals were almost impossible to discern through the crowd. If the gasoline made them writhe, so did everything else. He stayed focused. He covered both guest bedrooms and an en suite, the long hallway connecting the wings of the house, one bathroom and then another. He doused his beautiful mahogany study that he never used, doused its tall bookshelves full of acclaimed, classic works that he had never read.

Back in the hallway, the house seemed to be at capacity. Harry could no longer see the floor or the walls, only creatures. There was still a storeroom and another looping corridor to wet, but there was no more time. It was becoming hard to breathe. Now or never, Harry thought, as he kicked his way through the ocean of vermin to the kitchenette.

The words and phrases fumes, vapor, flash point, or even simply flammable somehow never once crossed Harry’s mind as he reached for the dial on the timeworn gas range. He thought only of vengeance. Even inhaling the stench of the gasoline, Harry was not concerned when he turned the dial to light, intending to only pass over it and start the gas flow with no active flame. After he did that, he could pour himself a fuse with the remaining gasoline and safely ignite the house from afar.

Harry had an average, rudimentary understanding of chemistry. It was, like most things, something he had never needed to worry about. Harry had done well in school because he cheated, and he was an exceptional businessman because he lacked morals. Harry had no close friends not because he was of a higher echelon than most, but because nobody could stand to be around him. Harry hated women because they wouldn’t fuck him. Harry hated Black people because he greatly valued being white. Harry hated academics because they made him feel stupid, unless he agreed with them, in which case he loved them because he enjoyed being reminded that he was always correct. Other things Harry loved were America because it made him feel special, and polo shirts because he liked the way his biceps looked in them. He found that all to be very reasonable. Harry didn’t know why everybody couldn’t be like him.

Harry also didn’t know that, even at very low temperatures, gasoline emitted highly flammable vapors.

The pilot light sparked.

And Harry was made of fire.

Everything was fire. The air was burning. Harry’s baby-blue polo shirt fused to his skin. His flesh melted and sloughed off him in large, blackened sheets, and his lips hardened in the shape of an endless scream. His eyeballs became wet white puddles and dribbled backwards into his skull. His intestines ruptured and filled his gut with boiling shit.

Curled up on the searing linoleum, Harry died.

After the gas main was cut and the fire put out, when there was nothing left where the house had stood but a black stain, and the ruined scraps of Harry’s body had been identified and retrieved from the charred rubble, the cul-de-sac was completely quiet. First responders had isolated the surrounding flames before there was any real danger to the neighboring houses. Harry’s home was now a lone shadow branded upon the suburb.

When he got the news, Harry’s father—also named Harry—caught the first flight he could. He knew he should have been in shambles; his only son was dead, not to mention the way things had gone in what turned out to be their last conversation together. Yet, he didn’t feel especially emotional. Instead, a cold disquiet tugged at him. They’re not bugs, Harry had said. And now this.

Harry Sr. arrived at dawn to the blackened remains of the house he had purchased for his son. For his own peace of mind, he needed to see it. He needed to check. He walked through, recalling the floorplan—here had been the kitchen. Here was the hall, and here the kitchenette. The place seemed very small now. He trudged through the ashes, moving the burnt corpses of furniture, checking under piles of debris, unsure what exactly he was looking for.

In the end, he found nothing of note. His son had simply been insane.

There was nothing else to do, so he flew back to New York. He had a big house in Syracuse that he lived in with his current girlfriend, a 21-year old with red hair and big breasts that he was getting vaguely bored of. He made mediocre love to her that night, then he told her she should probably start looking for another place to live.

In the morning, he awoke feeling slightly itchy.


House Memory
Castor's Walk