Effi and the Instar

Effi wakes to the violent ringing of an old telephone layered over the sound of the television that has been left on whirring and mumbling since last night. Rolling over with dread, she looks to the table by the window where the phone rests and screams. It's off the hook, but it keeps ringing. It's unplugged from the jack, but it keeps ringing. The old box of a phone looks like it belongs in a cheap hotel room. A small red square light pulses like a scab every time it rings.
Effi buries her head under yellowed pillows for what feels like a long time. The calls come cycling through intervals of ten rings followed by a cruel pause where she's tricked into thinking that it might finally end, and then a renewed set of rings, and so on.
She feels like she's made of stone under her blankets, a familiar paralysis. A type of illness.
"Elijah, please stop," she says out loud to a cluttered bedroom.
She has to pee and finally wills herself out of bed, about to burst. Her head leaning against the cool tile of the bathroom wall, she can hear the relentless crying of the phone. As she washes her hands, she looks at herself in the mirror. Her eyes are red and tired. Her head throbs in perfect time with the ringing of the phone.
"Elijah, no. Not today. Please stop."
Effi takes a seat at the table by the window, and the light cutting through the slits in the drawn blinds puts a tightness in her chest. She watches the glowing red square as she lights up her second to last cigarette. She exhales slowly and picks up the receiver.
"Elijah, I don't believe you . . .No. . .your Instar or whatever isn't real . . .I don't care!," her voice leaps out of her throat trying to rally some authority. She watchesd the long tail of ash fall onto the yellowed table cloth and feels the crack-shake of her voice, "Elijah, why are you doing this? Elijah, please don't shout. Why would you do such a thing? Why can't you tell me what's wrong?"
She tries not to cry.
"You are lying! You are not real!" She throws the phone away from her as though it were burning her hand, and the rest of the box is dragged to the floor by the coiled phone cord that her mother used to loop around her fingers while talking to whatever stranger.
Effi feels like she's not underwater as she walks through the automatic sliding doors of the supermarket, pushing herself against a current with every step. She can practically feel a change of pressure in her ears as she contemplates pale fruit under fluorescent lights.
A smell wafting from the supermarket bakery sends a shiver up her spine. A fly lands on an orange and she realizes that it's happening. Elijah was right about the second Instar. She screams louder than anyone could ever scream voluntarily, but doesn't know for sure whether anyone heard her. It doesn’t seem like anyone heard her. She feels the vibration, the textured, heavy humming coming closer and closer. She rushes through the sliding doors to her car under a blackened sky. In the parking lot, cars are being pelted with grasshoppers falling from the sky, their trajectory splintering the air. She gets in the car and locks the doors and windows with a few clicks and fumbles with the too many old keys on her ridiculous keychain.
They start to come heavier and harder, just like the progression of any other kind of storm. They accumulate rapidly on the windshield as she peels out of the parking lot. Eventually the glass is completely smeared with the opaque liquid of smashed grasshoppers. The jagged legs and wings have built up so much that the windshield wipers don’t move anymore.
She pulls over to the side of the road. They start pushing themselves through the air vents. She can barely see, but her body knows where she is, and knows what she must do. She reaches to the cluttered back seat, full of trash and crumpled laundry. She pulls on her father's light blue wool sweater, and then an ex-boyfriend's oversized university sweatshirt. She stuffs herself into her winter coat that has been there since march. She pulls up the hood of the sweatshirt and leaves the car, slamming the door behind her.
She runs across the street with her forearm covering her face. The hood isn't tight enough and and they gather around her face and neck, getting hung up in her hair.
The abandoned shopping mall stands like a fortress in the empty parking lot. The swarm seems to have lightened to a carpet of hoppers springing up from the pavement all around her. Something inside her knows the doors will be unlocked. She pulls open the large glass doors that open to the shadowy food court. Small grasshoppers that have infiltrated the only decades old compound jump from dusty surface to dusty surface. Empty chair to empty table to overturned trashcan to gutted cash register.
She passes a set of stopped escalators and reaches the open cave of what used to be a high-end clothing store with red carpeting and an emptied aquarium full of dried corals.
Something in her knows to walk to the back of the store. On her way across the floor she catches herself in a large tri fold mirror, and stops to move the panels back and forth, and see all sides of herself, unsettled by her profile. She finds the door to the basement and stands at the threshold and looks down the barely visible staircase. She can’t see the bottom for the blackness. She notes a large panel of industrial looking light switches. Some of them have masking tape labels next to them, but she can’t make out the the faded writing. She flips them all, looking back to the retail floor to see if it lights up at all. No lights. She reaches the bottom of the panel and ignites a soft, welcoming yellow light at the bottom of the stairs. She feels prickling sharp grasshopper legs on the back of her neck and slaps her hand back to pick it off. She can’t get a grasp of it, and figures it’s hidden in the folds of her many layers.
She quietly descends the staircase and arrives at a chaotic interior graveyard of headless upholstered mannequins, old desks, turned over chairs. She cautiously traverses a path that has been forged through the tangle that opens onto a warm living room.
A decrepit orange cat is curled on a yellow felted chair. A 1970s floral couch shows wear, and a long wooden coffee table is covered with notebooks, National Geographic Magazines, and a large, skinny pair of silver scissors. There are three kinds of tape on a dresser, all lined up, and a ream of thick brown paper is bolted to the wall. Against the adjacent wall there is a desk. She walks over to it and opens the center drawer. There are paint brushes, some expensive looking marbled fountain pens, and a blue feather with dark gray stripes. “The tail feather of a blue jay,” she whispers to herself. There are also some small yellow legal pads, pencils so old and soft that they feel like suede, a watercolor set, and a large gum eraser.
The wall that holds these two sides together supports and old, turned off TV with impressive antennae, and another arm chair. Effi hears a door open and turns her head to see that there is a woman standing behind her. How long had she been there? Where was that door? The woman is older, and looks like an uncanny composite of her maternal aunts and her paternal aunts. She’s wearing a big red sweater and has frizzy, curly hair. She has a glass of water in one hand and a tall, empty jar in the crook of the other arm.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” she says warmly. “Please, drink this water.”
“We?,” asks Effi.
“Right, Morris and myself,” she gestures to the cat on the chair.
Effi realizes that she’s dying of thirst and gulps it down. She went to put it on the coffee table.
“Make sure you use a coaster!,” the woman says with neurotic urgency. Effi notices that the tabletop is already covered with rings, but she complies and sets it the water glass on a cork coaster.
“Take off all those layers. You look like you’re about to go whale hunting!”
“I wanted to protect myself from the hoppers!,” Effie replies, and her eyes begin to water and her chin begins to quiver.
“Oh yes, the hoppers. They’re small, though. They’ll be dead little nuggets on the ground, and they’ll be swept away. They won’t hurt you.”
“I couldn’t see! They will hurt! Elijah said he was making a bomb, and those were it! He calls it the Instar!”
“Elijah is angry, and says angry things, and makes up angry lies just to scare you.”
“I don’t know how he keeps finding me. The phone is always there, always ringing. I unplug it, I throw it out, but it’s always there. Do you have a phone? Unplug it! He’ll find me here, and the calls will start!”
“There won’t be any phonecalls. Here, let’s go over by the mannequins, and take off those layers. I don’t want the bugs on my carpet.”
Aunts follows her through the narrow path back to the junk pile, with the big empty pickle jar. The jar that has a strong smelling cotton ball at the bottom of it.
Effi takes off her jacket.
“Shake it out really good.” G,” instructs the woman and grasshoppers come falling to the ground. Some of them are already dead, some of them appear stunned, some of them are very much awake and begin to jump. Aunts laughs joyfully as she scrambles to pick them all up, putting them into the killing jar where they try in vain to crawl up the sides until they die.
Effi realizes she is very tired as she peels off the other layers., as Aunts scrambles after all the hoppers.
“Instar, huh,” Aunts says nonplussed.
“Elijah calls and tells me that it’s the first Instar, that it’s the second Instar, that it’s coming, that the bomb is ready. Usually nothing happens, but today it actually happened. Today he finally did it,” Effi answers with a trembling voice.
“Elijah is so angry. What do you think made him so angry.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I did. Whatever I did, I’m sorry.”
“Who said you’ve done anything? We’ve all done things. I know all the things you have done, good and bad, and none of them are unforgivable. It’s good to forgive yourself.”
“Why does he tell me that I’m guilty? That the Instar is my fault?”
“He lies. He wants to hold you back, but you can’t let him. You have to know the best way to ignore him, to fight him, to love him. Do you know what ‘instar’ actually means?”
“Let’s go back, and I’ll get them out of your hair.
Aunts sits down on the couch, pushes the coffee table forward so that Effi can sit on the floor in front of her. She begins to go through Effi’s hair strand by strand, dropping the hoppers into the jar. Some of the spring away, getting the attention of the cat.
“It’s alright,” Aunts says. “Between Morris and the spiders, they’ll get taken care of. An instar, Effi, if you look in one of those National Geographics, is the molting phase of growing, baby grasshoppers, when they come out of their skin because it doesn’t fit them anymore. After the second or so instar, they become . . .what is the word? ‘Gregarious.’ That means they all start to make friends and come together, like the pieces of a story before all the thoughts agglomerate into a cohesive work of art. One day, a switch gets flipped in all of their heads at more or less the same time, and all the bug brains flood with serotonin at the same time. And that’s when they swarm, like pieces of an idea that changes everything. When you have an idea, Effi, something is always destroyed, but not necessarily in a bad way. There’s a clearing. Doors unlock all by themselves. People change.”
Effi is silent, listening while flipping through the magazines, only looking at the pictures. She likes the feeling of Aunts’ fingers in her hair. It feels like when her mother used to roll her hair up in velcro curlers while they watched TV on school nights.
“Now, do you think Elijah has found a way to get into all those grasshopper brains? Since the beginning of time? And makes them do what they always already naturally do on their own?”
“It’s not impossible! Maybe he uses a chemical!”
“Oh hush. Elijah may know grasshoppers backward and forward, but could never tell them what to do. Elijah is not so smart as he makes himself out to be. He lies. I know he lies.”
“Can I stay here for a while?,” asks Effi.
“You know that this is a place inside of you. You are always welcome here. We are always waiting, wishing you would come by.”
Effi looks around her. That cat has wandered off.
“I am everyone you have ever met, everyone you have ever loved, every place you’ve ever been, everyone who has ever noted the sweetness of your voice. We have all the colors you have ever seen. I . . .We are always here for you. This basement has always been here. How did your body know to take you here? All the way to the staircase?”
“Inside of me? I’ve never been here before.”
“Yes you have, you just can’t remember. We have always been here,” Aunts says softly. She stands up and walks to the desk drawer, and takes out one of those marbled pens and a notepad. She returns and hands it to Effi.
“Anytime you need us, we will be here, so long as you write about us - all of us, every fiber, every thread, in whatever order, in whatever color - you will be able to get to us. We are your inkwell, even the parts of us you can’t remember.”
“But Elijah. . .”
“Yes, Elijah. Do not be afraid of him. He will always be around, but if you accept him and love him in just the right way he will stop calling you. And when he does call, you just have to remember, he LIES.”
Effi sets the notepad on the coffee table and tests the ink. It’s there, thick and black. Sort of sticky.
“We have always been here, inside of you, through all the instars, under all the layers.”

Pinker Days

Theo coughed on the bus on his way downtown. Across the aisle a child was dragging her finger on the frosted window. His throat felt desperately dry. His body noticed the change in the air long before anyone else did. Nearly a year before the stain, the red flecks were still practically invisible to the naked eye, just another residue on the surface of the city. His eyes watered as he pulled his scarf tighter around his neck. The little girl turned from the window and stared as he pulled a metallic inhaler out of the breast pocket of his very heavy coat and pulled on it deeply, making a bubbling sound. With a dusty exhalation he felt the muscles in his face relax as he was finally able to breathe smoothly. He had to make it last. He tucked the inhaler into his pocket and pulled out a surgical mask. The little girl had turned back to the window as he adjusted the mask over his face.
He was allowed a free transfer to the train. Fellow commuters beat invisible paths on the sidewalks, down the stairs to the platform.
High above the city, a woman dressed in white looks down onto the early winter street, watching all of tiny people in their urban traversal. With a sharp, bewildered eye she notices that the squares and rectangles of the roofs of lower buildings had become more vibrant, pinker every day as the weather changed.
Theo's mask didn't draw many stares on the train. This was nearly two years before the elaborate and expensive vacuum and filtration systems that would cause a drastic increase in fares while providing a welcome relief from the red conditions above ground. Theo slumped down into an open seat the first chance he got. He clutched his hands around the buttons of his coat and regarded his fellow passengers through crusted eyes. There was a cough here, a sneeze there, but everyone appeared generally dead eyed and comfortable. Men in black suits hung from the hand rails, ties loosened around their necks, coats open to allow some circulation of air around the body.
He watched with disgust a teenage boy offer his seat to an old woman in a long fur coat. She was ancient but perfectly able to stand on her own. She didn't mind at all that every breath she took tasted like cigarettes. She was somehow able to navigate the dark underground transit system wearing cartoonish dark sunglasses. He wondered whether they were glued to her face, chuckling to himself. His face twisted as he saw her pull a pair of ivory colored gloves over her old hands. "White gloves in this city! As though she never had to touch anything!" His laughter gave way to violent coughing, the expulsion filling his mask and stifling him. He pulled his mask down, gasping. A little boy recoiled into his mother's shoulder as she produced a weathered packet of facial tissue from her bag.
"Your nose is bleeding. Are you alright? Maybe you should go up for some air, get a glass of water. You shouldn't take the train if you're sick. What if you're cont--"
"Thank you," he said, accepting the tissue, "I'm getting off at the next stop."
The inside of his mask was speckled with tiny red flecks as he pulled it back up over his face. He stemmed the flow from his nose and felt very weak as he got up to get off the train.
High above the city, a woman dressed in white hears the sound of a vacuum sealed door open into her sterile living room. A man enclosed in a white suit, covering his whole body, addresses the woman through the transparent material of his hood.
"There is a meeting scheduled for two o'clock, ma'am. Should I prepare your lenses?"
"I'd like to wear my vision on top of my face today. I'll attend through the glass."
"Very well," he says as he turns toward the door.
On the street, Theo pulled heavily on his inhaler before wrapping his scarf tightly around his face up to the eyes. His eyes were watering at a gush and clutched the buttons of his coat as trudged through the sidewalk. Finally he turned the key at his destination. He walked down several, increasingly dark staircases until he found the room, glowing red. There was a heavy buzz of insects and electricity. A series of glass tanks were lined up on a stainless steel table, purchased from a restaurant supply store. A man was hunched over one of them, his back to Theo, with his hands submerged into opaque red liquid.
"Welcome home, Theo. You've traveled a long way."
"Yes, Theo. Hello. It's very cold outside."
"Pinker though, right Theo?"
"Yes, Theo, the cold will be good for us as long as we stay warm down here. We don't want to freeze with so much work to do!"
Theo and Theo laughed together as Theo removed his heavy coat.
"I'm going to use the bath, Theo. The drain stop?"
"Yes, Theo, the seal has been replaced. Enjoy."
Theo stood in the bath and disrobed, throwing the suit on the floor. He closed the glass door that encased the bath and heard the splash of his dissolution. As he returned to his liquid state, he was able to relax as he felt himself conform to shape of his container, coat the surface area of the tub, becoming a pool within the white basin.
Three years later, high above the city, a woman takes the delicate, beeping eyeglasses from her suited assistant. "The glass is easier for the tears," she says as she clears her throat to address the virtual conference room She looks through her lensed colleagues transparently superimposed over her large penthouse window. She suppresses her panic and tries to speak, staring miserably at the gentle, hazy red rain falling in a mist over Central Park.