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by Amber Burke

My locker in the locker room in the basement of MacKenzie Pestaway is cleaner than it’s ever been, and empty. I look around for a practical joker and instead see a notice about a locker inspection on the bulletin board I tend not to look at.

“Janine!”

I walk into Mr. MacKenzie’s office across the hall. He’s sitting behind his metal desk. On it, there’s a box of stuff that used to be in my locker. I suddenly notice I have a heart that beats.

“Sit,” Mr. MacKenzie says.

I sit on the folding chair across from him, plopping my backpack on the floor. We face each other in our blue jumpsuits. Mine has an ironed-on oval patch that says “Janine” in red cursive. His says “Mr. Mac.”

Mr. MacKenzie looks at me, then looks at the box, like he is trying to fit me into it. He says, “Everyone told me, Mac, you’re an idiot. You should know better than to hire a juvenile delinquent. People don’t change.”

“That was two years ago,” I say in self-defense. When I was sixteen, I was arrested for destruction of property. After that, I lived in a group home until I finished school. I was one-hundred percent reformed and doing nothing but working at Chick-fil-A when Mr. MacKenzie took me under his wing in Baltimore’s top exterminating business.

Mr. MacKenzie isn’t listening. He’s gesturing at the box. “We get complaints, Janine, we get a lawsuit, then I find this. Just why do it, is what I want to know. What were you thinking?”

“I dunno,” I say.

“Cut the crap, Janine.”

He’s right. I know why I do everything I do.

“For you,” I say.

“For me.” The way he says it, with his eyebrows way up, sounds like “yeah, right.”

“You’re like a father to me.” He is. My real father was a lightbulb salesman in Baltimore. He left my mother and me when business was bad; he said he’d be able to sell more lightbulbs in New York. He sent letters with money, then letters with no money, then no letters and no money.

Mr. MacKenzie looks at me like one big blank, so I say it straight-out: “Bedbugs are the future, you told me.”

I thought if he ever found out, he would thank me. But what he says is, “Go home. Don’t come back.” His eyes draw back in his head, somewhere dark and away from me.

It takes me a minute to get up. I’m not trying to argue. It just takes me a minute. The rectangular window behind Mr. MacKenzie skims the sidewalk. If you can judge from the atmosphere around people’s ankles, it looks like it might rain.

Mr. MacKenzie says, “Today.”

I stand up and open my backpack so I can push in the former contents of my former locker. Without thinking, I grab the plastic bag full of pinhead-sized lumps. Each lump is the cloudy color of uncooked rice, red at the center.

“Idiot,” he usually says with affection, but not today. “Not those. Give me those.”

I give him the bag of bedbug eggs. He handles it gingerly. He’s more squeamish than you’d think, and uptight about certain sanitation procedures. He’ll freeze the eggs I’ve been scattering in handfuls over movie theater floors. Tipped out of my pockets in the lobbies of doorman buildings, embedded in the crevices where the seats meet the seatbacks of the booths at Angelo’s Pizza. At the big house I exterminated for cockroaches, where attitudes were not-so-great, I tossed them down the plushly carpeted stairs.

I’m leaving. He stops me. I turn hopefully.

“Your uniform.”

I have real clothes on underneath, so I take my jumpsuit off right there. Mr. MacKenzie looks away. I throw it across his desk.

“Next time, no sir, I will not trust some girl who used to go around breaking things for no good reason.” He shakes his head at himself, or at me.

I walk outside. The clouds above me are about to burst. I feel the way I felt when my father left, and I very deliberately tried to break every lightbulb in the city of Baltimore.


Amber Burke is a graduate of Yale and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars; her stories and essays have been published in The Sun, The Michigan Quarterly Review, The Raleigh Review, Essays and Fictions, and The Pinch, among others. She has recently been devoting herself to writing her own fiction on a small horse farm in Coyote, New Mexico.

 

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