As we watched Fallout on a lazy Sunday afternoon
hundreds of winged insects spilled out of the living room wall
like the punchline of a cosmic joke.   

You said, “Oh, my word,” sounding like an old woman clutching her pearls.
Laughing, I said, “Grandma? That you?”

We spent the next hour combating the endless tide of termites with 
the business end of a Shop-Vac.
We laughed about our unlikely weapon of choice against the
Biblical plague.

Then I started to feel sorry for the swarming horde
as they fought tooth and nail to escape their confinement of drywall and paint
only to be sucked into the belly of a beast. 
This prison, far worse than the last,
with nothing to eat and no way out.

For hours—days—weeks, I thought of them there. Trapped.
I think of them still. 
Long after the exterminator told me that the swarmers only live a day 
as he injected poison into the wall. 

Now, termites crawl through my mind,
like tiny ghosts tickling long-forgotten things with their wings,
memories that I’d rather keep buried:

The corpse of the cat that you found in the shed.
Trapped when one of us closed the door
without knowing a stray had slunk inside to search for shelter,
finding its tomb instead.
Did it cry for help, hoping someone would hear? 
Or did it accept its fate and curl up to die?
Alone in the dark.
At least the termites had company.

My grandfather, resting in a steel casket within a steel vault
because he couldn’t stand the thought of bugs feasting on his flesh. 
I’d shushed him when he’d warned me that his time was running out,
told him not to be silly, that the open-heart surgery had been a success.
Then his skin turned yellow, alerting the doctors to what they’d missed—
the cancer that had destroyed his liver.
He died a few days later, taking everyone by surprise. 
Except for him.

Does he look now like he did at the funeral,
when strangers wrapped their arms around me, filling my nostrils with cheap perfume
and cigarette smoke, saying, “He looks so good,”
while I clenched my fists until my fingernails drew tiny crescents of blood
and bit my tongue until it bled, too?
Or does he look like the stray cat,
nothing left but hair and bone?

And I stare at the Shop-Vac in the corner of the room,
filled with so much guilt and so many regrets,
wanting to scream about the unfairness of it all—
of this whole damnable world that’s perched on the precipice of destruction 
while we snuggle on the couch and watch TV shows about apocalypses.

But I know you’ll say what you always do—
That I’m time traveling again
to the past where nothing can be changed
and to a future that may never happen.
And I wish my brain worked liked yours
and wonder when you’ll tire of my melancholy
and find someone more like yourself.

And my thoughts spiral
down, down, down
into the abyss
like termites in a vacuum
with no means of escape.