Timothy’s mother was as anxious as he was about the prospect of him being on anti-depressants for some indefinite period. However, she was also troubled by the various difficulties into which he got himself because of his violent temper, and her fear of that, her fear for him because of that, was greater than her fear of the medicine. She filled the prescription, the copay for which was tolerable, and brought it home after work two days after Timothy’s appointment. He was to start taking it the following morning.
When he broke the small tablet in half on the score-line next morning, an easy thing to do, Timothy felt almost as though he were some mad scientist in a horror comic. It felt so strange for him to be taking a medicine that was normally used by adults. He swallowed the half pill with a glass of water just before he brushed his teeth that morning. He half-expected an immediate and powerful reaction, but this was not the case. As far as he could tell in the time immediately following, he might as well have taken a sugar pill.
This lack of response didn’t last for very long, though most of the effects brought about by the medicine were slow, subtle, and gradual in development.
The first effect that he noticed, though, was not subtle, and it was only barely tolerable. About two hours after taking the half-pill that morning, while still in early classes, Timothy began to feel a strange queasiness. His stomach churned a bit, as though rebelling against his small breakfast. He wondered whether he might have eaten a bad egg. An unpleasant bit of sweat developed to go along with his nausea, and more than one person asked him if he felt okay.
He responded that he thought he might have eaten something that didn’t agree with him.
This stomach upset lasted less than an hour, thankfully, and Timothy thought nothing further of it for the rest of the day. If he felt slightly more at ease in his skin than usual, this seemed likely to be due to the joy of having gotten past that bout of ickiness. Or so he assumed.
When his nausea recurred the next day at roughly the same time, Timothy decided that he wasn’t going to eat eggs in the morning anymore. Thankfully, this bout lasted no longer than the previous one, and afterward he felt slightly giddier than he had the day before. This was not to say that he was giggly or especially cheerful, nor that he started conversations readily. But he did pay more attention to the antics of the people around him, interactions which he normally more or less shut out of his awareness as irrelevant to him.
He realized that he was not wrong to have done so. He didn’t think he’d ever noticed before how pathetic and contemptible were the things with which his fellow high-school students concerned themselves. These were the early days of Facebook; Twitter and the iPhone were practically neonates, and though the neighborhood in which Timothy lived was not wealthy enough to have any students who owned one of the first-gen smartphones, they were still the talk of the school, as were YouTube and Facebook. People worried so much about how many “likes” some pointless picture got, or what mean things someone might have said in a comment about something they had posted.
God, they were disgusting.
What was wrong with people? Was it just because they were teenagers that they were all so vacuous and stupid, or were adults that way as well? Timothy had his suspicions about the answer to that question, and they did not reflect well on his opinion of the human race.
On his third morning of nausea, after he’d had as mild a breakfast as he could take without going hungry—which was a problem, because he felt a bit more appetite than usual—Timothy finally started to recognize that this nausea was probably a side-effect of the generic Paxil he was taking. This realization made him feel very foolish indeed, for he’d read the list of potential side-effects, and had even been slightly leery of the prospect of nausea when he’d read about it, yet even so, when he actually felt the sensation, he failed to put two and two together.
He shook his head at himself in his early class, mopping the slight sweat from his brow with the back of his hand as he did so. It was pathetic. He’d always thought of himself as at least reasonably smart—no genius, but clever enough to get good grades if he worked hard—but now he saw the glaring deficiency in his own logical processes. He was only barely less contemptible than the idiots around him with their social cliques, and their fake online personas, and their sheep-like trendiness.
At least he had the good sense to recognize how stupid he was. That had to count for something, at least. Also, now that he recognized that his queasiness must be due to the medicine and not to anything that he ate, Timothy figured he could go back to eating what he wanted in the morning. In fact, he thought he might celebrate by having a couple of blueberry waffles with loads of butter and syrup the next morning.
Later that afternoon, in geometry class, Timothy surprised himself by snorting—borderline quietly at least—in derision as one of his fellow students asked what he thought was a moronic question about a very simple geometric proof the teacher was demonstrating.
Though the snort was relatively quiet, so was the room, and both the teacher and the student at whom the snort was directed heard the noise. The teacher said nothing, but she looked out over the classroom to try to catch sight of who had made the disrespectful exhalation. Timothy felt no guilt, but he betrayed nothing on his face, nor did he own up to having done anything wrong, even in the silence of his own mind. The student at whom he had snorted, meanwhile, flushed red and lowered his head a bit, his embarrassment and shame painfully plain.
The teacher shook her head ruefully, with plain disapproval, and then returned to her answer to the student’s question, being even more patient and careful that she had been before.
Timothy recognized her behavior, and he found it almost as weak and laughable as the question had been. Then, another student caught his eye, smirking and rolling his eyes and head in a very subtle “do you believe this guy?” nod toward the boy who had asked the question.
Timothy felt a strange thrill to be sharing his contempt of the stupid student with someone else who also realized how pathetic was that boy’s inability to grasp such basic, straightforward, painfully logical concepts. Maybe not everyone was a hopeless case. Maybe there were other people like him who could at least recognize how pathetic everyone was. He didn’t talk with the boy who’d shared his sense of scorn, but he made a mental note of the boy’s face and tried to recall his name. If circumstances presented the chance, he might just try to make friends.
By next morning, Timothy had more or less forgotten his waffle urge, but he did take a few Pop-Tarts out of the cupboard in the morning, as well as some cookies—there was usually a box of Chips Ahoy in the fridge, which tended to last quite a while, since neither Timothy nor his mother ever usually ate more than one or two cookies at any time. That day, though, he took five of them as a garnish to his two full—untoasted—Pop-Tarts and washed them down with a full glass of milk before leaving for school.
He felt pleasantly full and realized that he’d also been sleeping much better, and enjoying it more, over the previous few nights. Maybe this antidepressant stuff really was the right choice for him.
His nausea that day was less than before, which was a hopeful sign. However, with the purely physical queasiness tapering off, his more ethereal sense of disgust seemed to be growing in compensation. In the break period between second and third hour, he heard a nearby girl bemoaning—in all melodramatic seriousness—the breakup of some boy band. Perhaps it was just one of the members of the group leaving, Timothy wasn’t quite sure. In any case, the girl’s eyes were actually damp with tears as she shared her dismay with two friends, both of whom seemed almost as devastated as she was.
When the girl said, “I don’t know how I can live after this,” in a whiny wail, Timothy could hold his tongue no longer.
“Well, let’s all hope that you don’t,” he snapped, quite plainly.
The girls, clearly recognizing that Timothy was responding to their conversation, looked at him with puzzlement. Perhaps they hadn’t followed the sense of his comment, or perhaps they were just too surprised that their usually taciturn classmate was jumping into their interaction.
“What?” the girl said, her already mournful expression making her look sub humanly stupid.
“I said, let’s hope that you don’t,” Timothy replied, only too happy to clarify. “Live after this, I mean. Let’s all hope that you don’t live after this.”
The girl now seemed to recognize that she was being insulted, as did her friends. There were many girls in the school who would immediately have responded in kind, throwing barbs back with great relish, or becoming indignant and haughty. Some would even have threatened violence as readily as any belligerent boy. These girls, perhaps because of their grief, however banal, were in a different mode. One of the two friends of the first girl said, “That’s not very nice.”
Timothy sneered and said, “Why should it be nice? I mean have you heard of the Darwin Awards? They’re these joke awards that are given for people who do the rest of the world a favor by getting themselves killed because of their stupidity before they have a chance to reproduce. I was just thinking it’d be really good for the rest of the world if you…” He nodded toward the first girl. “…really can’t find a way to live after this, and just die. I mean, we’d be better off without you, if this sort of bullshit really gets you this upset. Fucking cockroaches make more sense than you do. In fact, if you were shrunk down to the size of a cockroach and put next to one on the floor, I’d step on you and let the cockroach go on about its business. And I’d be right to do it.”
Timothy made his minor speech quickly and intensely, and he was so clearly completely serious, so obviously not joking in anything he said, that the three girls were more flabbergasted—perhaps even frightened—than they were offended. Nearby students also turned to look, a few with wide eyes. Some might have considered intervening, shooting harsh words back Timothy’s way, but if so, when they saw him, they thought better of it.
Timothy couldn’t know it, but his own eyes were intensely wide as he spoke to and regarded the bereft girl, his pupils dilated so widely that his irises looked almost completely black; with the right lighting, one could probably have seen the reflection of his retina in his gaze, a real-time version of photographic red eye. His whole body was tense but still, the demeanor of a jaguar about to leap from a high branch onto the back of a jungle explorer, to crush the skull in its powerful jaws. His lips were drawn back from his canine teeth and his nostrils were flared.
He didn’t really think about it, but if he’d been handed a gun at that moment, he could easily have shot the poor moaning girl in the head without qualm, and he would have felt that he’d done the world a service.
The three girls’ faces paled, and they shared nervous glances with each other, before the first one, the to whose comment Timothy had reacted, quietly said, “Sorry.” The three girls broke up their conversation, two heading to their seats and the third staying where she’d been seated. If Timothy’s reputation had not already been one of a scary recluse who could be violent, it would have become so at that moment. As it was, that reputation merely worsened and gained new inflection because of that interaction.
As the next class began, Timothy privately reveled in the sense of accomplishment over having shown the girl how pathetic her reactions to such trivialities were, and how trivial her own life was as well. It occurred to him, far in the back of his mind, that his own existence was every bit as trivial as hers was, but that at least he recognized the fact, and thus had intellectual and moral advantages over her, and over billions like her.
The rest of that school day passed without incident. Timothy had no other classes with that girl or her friends, so there was no chance for any awkwardness or confrontation. He strolled home with a kind of tense energy, more than ready—indeed, almost eager—to face anyone who was prone to give him any shit. No such person appeared, however.
Not even recognizing his own disappointment at the lack of conflict, Timothy went home and stowed his jacket, tossed his backpack on his bed, then went into the kitchen to have lunch. He opted for the last pouch of Pop-Tarts in the box, eschewing healthier options in the fridge. When he threw the box, and the two-tart wrapper into the kitchen garbage—he decided to toast the pastries this time—he realized that the kitchen bag was all but overflowing. His mother would be irritated if she came home and found it in such a state; this was rarely an issue, since Timothy was generally quite responsible with household chores, spending most afternoons at home alone before his mother arrived from work. It was with only the mildest sense of irritation that Timothy tugged the bag out of the garbage can, tied it shut, and pulled out a replacement, as he waited for his Tarts to Pop. Once they did, and he was sure therefore that they weren’t somehow stuck in the toaster where they might burn or even catch fire, he picked up the tied-off garbage bag and headed outside.
Timothy and his mother lived in the ground-floor unit of a two-unit dwelling. It was a thoroughly unimaginative building design, being an almost perfect rectangular prism of a brick building, in a neighborhood overflowing with similar structures, but it was pleasant enough of the inside, and it even had a yard of sorts, with a concrete patio in the rear. It was here that the larger garbage cans and recycling bins were kept, and Timothy toted the white plastic bag from the kitchen easily, swinging it into the large garbage receptacle and flipping the lid back shut.
A loud and threatening buzz suddenly passed by his left ear, startling him. He jumped in place and backpedaled, looking around and spotting the large, dark brown shape that had done its flyby of his head. It was a good-sized paper wasp, reddish brown and sleek, and it had probably been near the garbage, perhaps investigating it for possible food. Timothy, his heart racing with startlement and fear, and with anger at that fear, followed the thing’s flight and saw it land on what must have been a fairly new nest which stuck out from the side of the building, just under a brick protuberance that went all the way around the building, marking the separation between first and second floors.
The nest was remarkably big for something that must have been begun sometime in the last week, at least since the last time Timothy had taken out the garbage. It was one of the open-plan paper wasp nests, in which the individual cells, facing more or less downward, were freely visible to any passerby. Timothy had occasionally wondered how such nests handled heavy rain, since they were, supposedly, made of actual paper. At other times, he’d seen nascent nests more sensibly placed under the small, charcoal grill that was slowly rusting nearby on the patio, but which was occasionally used either by Timothy and his mother or by their upstairs neighbor. These, of course, were addressed rather easily and quickly. Maybe their placement wasn’t so sensible after all.
He didn’t waste too much time pondering nesting site choices, however. His mood was dominated by alarm and hostility, and as he watched the wasp crawling on the surface of the nest—there was another, identical wasp already puttering about there—he thought to himself that he was fortunate that it hadn’t been yellowjackets hanging around the garbage. Yellowjackets, the prime assholes of the insect kingdom, tended to sting first and show curiosity later. These wasps, though, were more than potentially aggressive enough, especially if their nest were allowed to grow, and any offspring within it were reared to adulthood.
As he watched the two forms move over the nest, their inactive wings forming dark Vs above their bodies, Timothy felt both disgust and fascination. He’d always thought it amusing that so many people were terrified of spiders, a feeling for which he had no sympathy. Spiders were just vaguely interesting and generally inconsequential to humans, at least in any direct sense. If a spider bit you, it was usually because you had all but forced it to do so.
Wasps, on the other hand—especially those dark brown, dark-winged paper-wasps, that some people called hornets—looked like the earthly incarnation of evil itself and deserved that impression far more than spiders ever could. Unlike honeybees, they could sting with impunity, and so were far more likely to do so. As far as Timothy knew, they didn’t do any significant pollination, and they certainly didn’t make honey or any other useful or positive thing from a human point of view. Many wasps, he’d seen in nature documentaries, were parasites. Some of them even had horrifying lifestyles in which they would paralyze some insect or caterpillar, and lay their eggs on the living host, to let their larvae eat the poor creature alive when they hatched.
No, wasps were surely evil, or at least they looked it. Timothy had read—and seen—The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and he’d occasionally thought that Tolkien should have discarded his apparent obsession with spiders, and also that he could have terrified his readers far more by having the Ringwraiths fly upon giant wasps or hornets, rather than dragonish lizards. That would surely have stricken greater fear into their prey, at the very least.
These were ordinary, inch-or-so-long wasps, but they were more than trouble enough. Though Timothy recognized that their nest was not constructed with ill intent, he nevertheless felt a deep affront at the creatures’ audacity in daring to forge a home on the building in which he and his mother lived. Such impudence could not go unpunished.
He strode back into the house, his startlement and fear having sublimated fully into a mixture of hatred and glee; he was looking forward to this. He opened the cupboard under the sink in the kitchen, and he saw there a can of ant and roach spray, as well as a slightly larger can of flying insect spray. He picked this last can up and pondered it. It seemed to be made more for killing flies and isolated insects inside the house than for assailing wasps in their nests. He looked deeper under the cupboard to see if there was any of the long-range, nest-targeting, wasp-killing spray that he knew he’d seen in the stores before.
He didn’t find any of that spray, but he did see something that struck him as even better. Smiling coldly to himself, he put the bug spray down and grabbed hold of this other stuff. To use it, he would need one more item, and this he took from a higher kitchen cabinet, above the stove, after closing the cupboard under the sink. He strode back outside, noticing out of the corner of his eye that the lady who lived upstairs was just getting home from work, pulling her car into a street space in front of the building. He didn’t wave or make any other greeting, too fixated on his goal for such distractions.
He rounded the back of the building with grim determination, looking up to see that both wasps were still present. Holding his second item in his left hand, he was still able to use his left thumb to pop open the top of the bottle of charcoal lighter fluid he held in his right hand. He couldn’t recall the last time he and his mother had cooked out on the puny little grill, but as far as he knew, lighter fluid didn’t go bad. He took aim at the wasp nest and squeezed the bottle vigorously.
It was nearly full, having perhaps only been used once, and judiciously at that. The stream surprised Timothy by slightly overshooting the wasp nest, but he corrected his aim easily and soon the two wasps were startled and took brief flight as the liquid doused their nest.
Timothy knew that not much fluid would probably be needed. The nest was paper, after all. Still, he wanted to be sure—and he anticipated a nice spectacle—so he maintained his squirt on the nest until he was nervous that the wasps might think to follow the liquid stream to its source and attack. He finished by making a trail of lighter fluid down the brick side of the building to the corner near him. He would need a fuse of sorts, not wanting to have to try to reach up to the nest to light it.
The wasps, after initially having been startled off their nest, now landed again, their movements somewhat agitated. He wondered what they thought in what passed for their tiny little, pathetic brains. Were they just as clueless as the idiot girls in his class? Did they have any inkling of what a threat this new liquid posed? Or were they simply puzzled, wondering why this odd-smelling rain had fallen onto their new nest from below?
Well, if wasps were stupid, at least they had an excuse. They were tiny, and their brains were comparably tiny. How much could they be expected to understand? In fact, their priorities were probably much more sensible, given what they were, than those of the horde of imbeciles who populated his school. Neither the wasps, nor their larvae, would be worried about some insect equivalent of a boy band, or some micro-world version of Facebook. Their decisions were surely all focused narrowly on life versus death. That they were unable to recognize the impending doom that the lighter fluid represented was no indictment of their attitude; there was simply no way for them to know.
This wouldn’t save them, of course. Just as they would have tried to sting him if he’d come too close to their nest, so they were invading his and his mother’s living space. The fact that they surely meant no harm and posed no real threat wasn’t relevant. The law of the jungle applied, and they would surely—if they had been capable of such thoughts—have expected nothing different.
Still, as he slid open the big box of kitchen matches, having put the lighter fluid bottle on the ground, Timothy felt a slight pang, wishing he could have squirted the idiot girls in his class with the fluid he was about to ignite, rather than the wasps. They would have deserved it more.
Taking two matches from the box before sliding it closed, Timothy held them parallel, their heads paired together, and struck them on the side of the box. They were high quality matches, and they flared instantly alight with one strike. Timothy had been careful not to get any of the lighter fluid on himself, so he wasn’t worried about any spreading of the flame. He took a small step closer to the building and touched the lit heads to the nearest portion of the trail of lighter fluid he’d sprayed.
It lit easily; it seemed he was right about such fluid not going bad very quickly. Stepping back, he watched with joy as the bright orange flames climbed up the trail he’d made on the wall. They moved down a bit, too, but he wasn’t paying any attention to that. There was only concrete below. The garbage cans were not close enough to be in any danger, and there was no grass other than a weed or two that sprung from cracks in the pavement. These would be a loss to no one even if they were burned, but Timothy knew that wasn’t going to happen. He had been reasonably careful.
The fire licked its way up the path he’d given it in seconds, and suddenly the wasps’ nest was engulfed in a tiny inferno. At least one of the wasps hadn’t noticed the danger fast enough to avoid it, and Timothy grinned as he saw it twitch and writhe, its wings shriveled and consumed before anything else, as lighter fluid it had been investigating burst into easy flame. Timothy hoped this was the one that had buzzed by his ear and frightened him. Such was the fate he wished he could deliver to anything and anyone who made him feel afraid, even for a second.
The other wasp took off quickly enough, but it didn’t fly far. It hovered over the area as the nest burned, blackening and shriveling in place, even as the first wasp—which somehow was still holding on—was consumed by the flames. Possibly there were eggs in some of the cells of the nest. Maybe there were even larvae, which the surviving wasp hoped to be able to free from their flames. Timothy hoped so. He hoped that the larvae were cooking in their paper cells, and that their mother, or father, or whatever that other wasp was would feel a heroic urge and would try to get them out, burning itself alive in the bargain.
He glanced down then back up. The nest was burning nicely, as was the lighter fluid that remained on the side of the building, blackening the brick in a long streak, a thin tentacle of which reached down to the pavement below, where it stopped.
He wondered, if he timed things just right, and waited for the still-flying wasp to get close enough, and if he squirted some extra lighter fluid right near where it was hovering, if he might be able to catch it in a new burst of flame. He thought he had a pretty good idea of how the squirt of the fluid would fly now, having just used it seconds before. He thought he could judge it well enough to make the attempt.
He reached down to pick up the bottle, popping the cap again and looking back up. The flames were not as fierce, the lighter fluid was burning off rapidly, but the nest was well lit and, true to its papery nature, burned steadily. Timothy wasn’t sure where the first wasp was in the blackening mess. The other, however, was flying about madly three or four feet away. It wasn’t close enough for his plan to work. He held the bottle of lighter fluid pointed generally toward the burning nest and waited for the right moment.
“What are you doing!?”
A loud, strident shriek only feet from his right ear made Timothy jump in place. He had the presence of mind not to squeeze the lighter fluid bottle as he spun to the right and saw his upstairs neighbor, whose name he couldn’t recall for the moment, gaping in horror, a plastic grocery bag filled with garbage dangling from her right hand. Her wide-eyed, wide-mouthed look took in the burning on the wall of the building as well as Timothy with his lighter fluid in hand.
Caught very much off-guard and flustered—though not ashamed or embarrassed—Timothy stammered, “I’m…the wasps. There’s a nest.”
The neighbor was not listening. She dropped her groceries and sped back around the side of the building. There, Timothy knew, was a spigot, attached to which was a moldy old, still-serviceable garden hose.
In seconds, the woman came back around the bend, tugging along with her the hose, from which spewed a limp-looking stream of water.
“Wait,” Timothy said. “We need to get the other wasp first.”
The neighbor ignored him. Lifting the hose, she placed a thumb over its end, partly blocking the stream and increasing its pressure. This new, more directed jet spewed out much straighter; some of it scattered onto the woman’s work clothes, with traces of it wetting Timothy’s pants, not that he cared. The woman brought her water stream, much as Timothy had done to the lighter fluid, first up to the nest itself and just past it, dousing it and almost instantly extinguishing its flames. Then she washed down the streak on the wall, which had mostly gone out already anyway. Timothy had half a thought that she’d started high because that was closer to her apartment. He couldn’t imagine that she really cared about extinguishing a wasp’s nest.
When it was clear that the flames were all out, the woman lowered her hand and the hose, the water flow returning to a rather lame splash that wet the pavement more locally near her feet. She wore athletic shoes that had long since seen better days, and she obviously wasn’t worried about them getting wet. Timothy, after glancing at the water, looked back up to the nest. The surviving wasp circled the largely blackened, soggy remains of its home, finally landing on a relatively stable portion near the top. He could make nothing out of any remains of the other wasp, nor could he see if there were any squirming, partly baked larvae.
“What were you doing?” the upstairs neighbor woman asked. “Are you trying to burn down the building?”
Timothy turned to regard her drawn, ashen, flabbergasted face with honest puzzlement. “What do you mean?” he asked. “It’s a brick building. It’s not gonna burn. Not from that.”
The neighbor seemed stunned by what Timothy thought was an unassailable argument. He exerted tremendous self-control to keep from rolling his eyes. This woman didn’t seem much sharper than the girls in his school who had so bewailed the fortunes of their favorite boy band.
“What if something caught on the ground?” the woman asked—grasping at straws, so Timothy thought. “What if you were just wrong about the building not burning?”
Timothy shrugged. He didn’t see how he could have been wrong about the flammability of brick, and experience had just demonstrated that he was correct. Rather than point that out, though, he gestured toward the hose that continued to splatter water at the woman’s feet, creating a widening area of wet, dark pavement in the brighter patio. A good portion of the water flowed off the side of the concrete, probably a welcome treat for the bedraggled grass around its edge.
“I’d just have grabbed the hose, like you did,” Timothy said. “It’s no big deal.” He looked back up at the nest, where the plainly confused, still-living wasp took off and landed repetitively, as if not quite able to process what had happened or to decide what to do. He wondered whether it had any notion of attachment to the other wasp and whatever eggs or larvae had died with the nest. He wondered if it felt grief. He hoped that it did, but he suspected that it would probably forget that either the other wasp, or eggs, or the nest, had ever existed. Who knew, perhaps even at that moment it was thinking the waspy equivalent of, “Wait, what was I just doing? Why did I come here?”
The human neighbor, meanwhile, perhaps exasperated by the fact that she’d been unable to catch Timothy in any logical errors, said, “Well, what about the marks on the wall, here? What about that? There’s a big burn mark all up the wall!”
Timothy thought she was exaggerating a bit, but there was a diagonal streak of brownish-black discoloration where his pseudo-fuse had been, culminating in the larger splotch of black surrounding the remains of the wasps’ nest. He shrugged again and said, “It’s not like it’s facing the street or anything. And it’s not like the building’s that much to look at in the first place, anyway.”
The woman’s mouth dropped open more widely than before, and Timothy had to exert a substantial effort of will to keep from snorting in amusement. As it was, he didn’t think he was completely successful in suppressing a smirk.
“You…look, this is my home, too,” she finally said, “and I’m not going to have it burned down—or even just burned—because you want to get rid of a wasp’s nest. Why didn’t you get some bug spray?”
At least this was a reasonable question, Timothy had to admit, so he pushed away his momentary amusement and admitted, “Well…we didn’t have the right kind of spray, so I figured this’d work better. And it’s more fun.”
The woman’s eyes widened. She looked strange to Timothy now; he thought there was some new revelation or realization in her expression, though he couldn’t have imagined what it might be. Honestly, most other people were so stupid and useless sometimes.
“More fun,” she said quietly, half to herself. Since she didn’t seem to be inviting a response, Timothy regarded her silently. Finally, trying to make her expression stern, the neighbor said, “Well, I don’t want you to have any more of this kind of fun today. I live here, and it makes me very nervous…and I don’t like how it looks, even if it’s in the back of the building. So put away your…your charcoal lighter stuff and put away your matches.” Then, as an afterthought, she added, “And I’m going to be speaking with your mother when she gets home from work.”
Timothy didn’t quite understand the significance of this last comment, but he said, “Okay. I’ll put it away. I didn’t get the other wasp, anyway, so maybe the spray would have worked better. But this way’s more…I don’t know. Anyway. I’ll put it away.” He didn’t feel guilty or ashamed, and he honestly felt no anxiety whatsoever about his mother learning of his little adventure. His mother was certainly no fan of wasps. She might well have thought he was foolish in choosing to fight them with fire rather than asking her to pick up some wasp spray on her way home—and he’d have to concede such an argument if it were made—but he didn’t see her being particularly upset. Why would she be? She hardly ever used the patio in the rear of the building. It wasn’t as though she sunbathed or anything, and there wasn’t much else to do back there. The surroundings consisted mainly of the rears of other buildings next door and one street over, some of them even less beautiful than their own.
Giving a quick nod—a courtesy granted more out of habit than out of any recognition that respect was due—Timothy walked past the neighbor and back around to the front of the building, going inside and locking the door behind him. He didn’t particularly want to encourage the woman to follow him inside in case she got it into her head that he needed more berating.
Although, if push came to shove, it might not have been such a shame if she tried to muscle her way into the apartment. Then he’d have every excuse to treat her in some analogous way to how he’d treated the wasps. That might be even more enjoyable.
Shrugging, deciding that concern wasn’t really important or necessary, Timothy stowed the lighter fluid carefully under the sink after replacing its cap, then put the kitchen matches back in the higher cabinet. Then he went to his room, bringing his cooling Pop-tarts with him, where he got started on the modest amount of homework he had to do.
His mother got home about an hour and a half later.
He knew when she got home because her car—which needed a new muffler—made a very characteristic noise, and Timothy’s room was nearer the front of the building than the rear, where his mother’s master bedroom was. In the back of his mind, he heard that, before his mother was able to get to the front door and let herself in, the neighbor accosted her. Apparently, she could also hear, and also recognized, the sound of Timothy’s mother’s car. He was done with his homework by then, and was watching a video on his computer, a collection of “epic fails,” in which people did various injudicious things and met with outcomes that were violent and looked painful because of their foolishness.
As he watched, snickering at the more intense catastrophes, Timothy thought about what he’d said to the girls in school that day, about the notion of the Darwin Awards. Though he didn’t think anyone in the video he was watching had died—he thought that the sharers would probably have considered it in poor taste to spread such imagery, and it might even have been against the YouTube rules, whatever they were—he thought that it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the human race as a whole, and for the progress of civilization, if they did. He was grateful, at one level, that these people had lived, because their antics gave him a real-life slapstick comedy source, and that was pleasant enough. But on the other hand—and this was a much larger hand—there was little doubt that removing these people and culling from the gene pool whatever attributes made them so stupid, might well be a good thing in the long run.
He’d be willing to forego a little amusement to see that happen.
He didn’t pay any significant attention to his mother’s interaction with the upstairs neighbor, and he certainly couldn’t hear their words. He also wasn’t really curious, barely even recalling the neighbor’s stated intention to tell his mother about his wasp burning activities. He paid only vague attention when he finally heard his mother unlock and then open the front door of the apartment. It was the sort of thing that happened every day and was hardly worth noticing.
Once she came in though, his mother didn’t stay in the kitchen, nor did she head to her bedroom to change out of her work clothes. Instead, to Timothy’s mild surprise, she walked over to the door of his room, which was slightly ajar, and pushed it open without knocking.
Her push was not violent, nor was it ominous, nor was it in any other way threatening. Timothy looked up and around from where he sat at his small desk, wondering what his mother might want. Some little bit of the back of his brain, recalling aspects of the earlier interaction with the neighbor, thought that his mother might just be coming to give him some choice words, the proverbial piece of her mind.
He was surprised, almost to the point of being unnerved, by the fact that she stood in his doorway for what felt like a very long time, just staring at him. The look on her face was difficult to read, but it clearly wasn’t anger, not in any usual parental, disciplinary sense. To a stranger, in fact, her expression would probably have looked blank, a nearly ideal poker face. Timothy, though, thought he saw competing, deep, and subtle emotions playing around her eyes. She looked sad; indeed, she seemed almost on the verge of heartbreak. She also looked afraid, but it was a strange, subtle kind of fear. She looked resigned, practically to the point of despair.
And for some reason, he thought she looked protective. If she had told him that she had just slapped their neighbor for daring to criticize her son, Timothy would have been surprised…but not very surprised.
Above all else, his mother looked capable of terrible deeds.
Finally, she broke the silence, asking, “Where are your pills?”
Timothy was briefly wrong-footed by the question, but a second’s thought made clear what she must mean. He didn’t so much as take a daily multivitamin, so there was only one item that met the description “pills” in his room.
“They’re right here,” he said, reaching out to where, next to his desk lamp, a small, translucent brown cylinder with a white cap and a printed label sat. He held the bottle up as proof.
“Give them here,” his mother said.
Timothy wondered why she wanted them, but he saw no reason not to obey her. She was the one who paid for them—at least, she was the one who got the insurance that paid for them, as part of the benefits of her employment. He put the bottle into her hand, which she outstretched, taking a step into the room to get close enough to receive them.
She looked at the bottle for a second, then back up and Timothy and said, “Come with me,” nodding her head in the direction to her left and rear. Now Timothy felt a bit like questioning her, wondering what she needed from him that he should follow her. Something about her face, though, that weird combination of looks that combined to give a superficial semblance of blankness, made him feel that he shouldn’t push his luck by giving her any trouble.
It was cliché but was also a simple fact that Mrs. Outlaw had not raised any stupid children, and Timothy proved this in his choice simply to push his chair back and rise from his seat, following his mother as she stepped back, turned to her left, and walked down the tiny stretch of hallway to the bathroom. She pushed its door wide and turned the light on.
Timothy, having been raised almost exclusively by his mother, always put the seat and the lid down on the toilet after every use. He had done so since he could remember first using the bathroom on his own, and it was not so much a rule of the house as a law of nature, a fact about him that was nearly as innate as his right-handedness. On entering the bathroom, once the light was on, Timothy’s mother reached down and raised the lid and the seat. Then, to Timothy’s mild astonishment, she popped open the bottle of paroxetine, from which no more than three full pills had been used, and she poured its contents into the toilet.
“Wha…” he muttered, but his mother glanced at him, and he said nothing more for the time being.
His mother looked into the bottle as though trying to ascertain that there was no possibility that any pills had been left behind. Of course, none had. When apparently convinced of this fact, she reached out and flushed the toilet, its crashing, watery sound almost cacophonic in the quiet apartment. She watched the water go down, apparently wanting to make sure that all the pills had been flushed successfully, presumably so that none remained to be fished out and taken.
Timothy tried to imagine a circumstance in which he, or anyone else, would do such a thing to take a dose of generic Paxil. Nothing came to mind.
His mother closed the toilet seat and lid in one motion, then she tossed the now-empty prescription bottle into the bathroom garbage before turning and facing Timothy. They were very close together in the small bathroom, and though Timothy was roughly his mother’s height—he would soon be taller than she, though she was rather tall for a woman—he felt intimidated by her presence. He did not, however, draw away. She didn’t seem threatening, and if she was angry, it was not directed at him.
Even so, her voice was stern and harsh as she said, “Listen to me. You’re not going to be taking any more of those pills, you understand? No more Paxil, no more anything else like them. No antidepressants, and no…I don’t know what else the doctor might want to put you on. He’s going to have to find some other answer. Do you understand?”
Puzzled by her intensity, but not for an instant doubting her seriousness, Timothy said, “Sure.” He felt a mild pang of disappointment, having felt a guarded optimism about the usefulness of the medicine, but it had only been a few days, after all.
“I’m serious,” his mother said, her gaze so unblinking that his own eyes burned in sympathy. “I don’t want you taking any of those medicines, not while I’m around. If…if you and Dr. Putnam decide to put you on anything and you go buy it behind my back…if I find out you’re taking anything like that…you can get out of my house and go live by yourself somewhere, do you understand?”
Timothy’s mouth dropped open a bit. “Huh?” he said.
His mother’s mouth closed into a tight, severe line and then, barely opening it, she said, “Look, I don’t know what it is, but those pills…whatever they do, it isn’t good. Not for you. Maybe for other people, I don’t know, but it’s not good for you. They don’t help you. They make it worse.”
Now Timothy was supremely confused. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I haven’t gotten in any fights or broken anything or whatever. I mean, I got in a little argument with these dumb girls at school today, but it wasn’t anything violent. They were just being stupid, and I told them so.”
His mother continued to regard him implacably. She cocked her head in a fashion that reminded Timothy somehow of a curious dog or cat, but her look was clearly not so much puzzled as contemplative. After another, brief pause, she said, “Think about it again in a few days. If you want to talk to me about it then, you can. Right now, I just want you to go to your room and relax. I’ll call you when dinner’s ready.”
Timothy was mightily confused now, but he wasn’t sure even what question to ask. He opened his mouth the speak, but since he couldn’t figure out what to say, he shut it again.
His mother, who was farther inside the bathroom than Timothy was, said, “Go on. I can’t get out of the bathroom with you standing there.”
Blinking stupidly, feeling embarrassed by his own confusion, Timothy said, “Okay.” He turned and shuffled back to his room, wanting to feel disgruntled over his mother’s refusal to explain herself, but not really all that bothered by it. He returned to his room, shut the door—leaving it just barely ajar, as a nearly unconscious gesture to show his mother that he had nothing to hide—and went back to his computer. His mother apparently knew him well enough to have recognized that she didn’t need to remind him about his homework.