Short Story // The Light at the End of the Pail
Jennie hasn’t left her apartment since the ex moved out, which doesn’t seem like a big issue now that the rest of the world is staying in too. She feels okay about it. They still talk all the time. When the ex left, he took only his toothbrush and a small overnight bag, remarkably little to show for a six year relationship.
“Why are you leaving?” Jennie had asked.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he replied, “I think.” She tried to process this but failed, and when she looked up he was still there.
“Are you leaving?” What she had meant to say was, are you leaving me? But Jennie was bad at confrontation. She withdrew into herself, making herself as insignificant as possible, until she didn’t matter anymore.
“Yes,” the ex said, and walked out.
Jennie watched him go. When the door clicked shut, she turned and went straight to the bed, got in, and henceforth operated from there. It wasn’t hard. Her office had been slowly shifting to a work from home model, and didn’t mind her calling in sick as long as she kept on top of her deadlines. The delivery services were still going. She had no desire to change out of her pajamas, and left the bed only to relieve herself. Ten days after that, New York City declared a state of emergency, and went into lockdown. Staying in was no longer a unique cause for worry. In fact, it brought her comfort. It felt like the city was commiserating with her.
The ex didn’t take it as well. A few days into the lockdown, he started calling.
“I’m going crazy,” he said. He’d been crashing at his parents’, temporarily, when the lockdown started and it became illegal to move. “Six years. Did we make a mistake?”
“Do you want to come back?”
“No.” He hung up.
He’s been calling ever since.
The ex calls at irregular timings, sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the late afternoon, sometimes in the middle of the night, when he can't sleep. Occasionally Jennie doesn't hear the phone ring, but when she returns his calls, they go straight to voicemail. Then, her phone invariably pings with a text. Don’t.
In the newly freed up space on her bed, Jennie sets up an extension cord where her laptop and phone are plugged in and always charging. When she goes to sleep, she curls up around the bundle of electronics, and when she wakes, it is usually to the vibration of her phone. In addition to the ex, her parents have started calling too. They live halfway across the world, in Singapore, and Jennie has traditionally handled them on a need-to-know basis. They call to deliver updates on the pandemic pertinent to New York City, just in case she’s not reading the news. They’ve been doing this for two months, since the lockdown started. Singapore and New York are on a 12 hour time difference, so in between their calls and the ex’s, Jennie spends most of her days now in a foggy blur, tethered to the buzz of her phone, sleeping in catnappy spurts.
The rain started a week ago. An unnatural rain for May, coming down aggressively in sheets, something she dutifully reports over the phone. The ex says: “We need to stop talking. It’s not healthy.” Her mother says: “Good. Virus can’t survive in the rain. Rain wash away everything.” She is wrong. When the rain stops, the flying ants move in. Jennie wakes one afternoon to a different kind of buzz, and sees a swarm of winged ants amassing around the ceiling lamp above her bed. The next time her parents call, she tells them about the ants. This time, her father speaks. “We have them here too. You don’t remember? You used to be terrified of them, as a child.” It feels like an attack. When the ex hears this, he says: “Those aren’t ants. They’re termites. They’re mating. You don’t want them to lay eggs in the house. Jesus. Jen. You can’t just live with these things.”
One of the sexually active termites lands on her laptop as she’s working. It stumbles around on her keyboard, confused, flies into her computer screen, then rejoins the orgy happening above her bed. Jennie sleeps with the light on now. The one time she turned it off, they swarmed to the next available source of light, her phone. She had been stalking the ex. Within seconds, the ex’s face was covered in flickering black bodies. Jennie was struck with the sudden fear that one of the potentially pregnant termites might rupture and spill baby termites all over the ex’s face, so she shut the phone off and turned the bedroom light back on. It’s been on ever since.
“You need to drown them,” her mother tells her. “Take a bucket of water and put it directly under the light. The termites think it is the moon, fly there instead, and die.” Jennie says she can’t put a pail of water under the light, her bed is under the light. There are electronics all over the bed. “Move them, then.” Her mother doesn’t understand. Jennie cannot just move her things. She curls up next to her extension cord and tries to sleep.
Maybe they’ll just go away by themselves. Maybe they’ll lose interest in Jennie, and the sexually active termites will fly out of the window and out of her life forever. When looking for a new home to settle in, she thinks, termites seek somewhere warm and damp. There’s nothing like that in her apartment. Nothing that might induce them to stay and nest. Maybe Jennie does not need to take action.
She will tell the ex the next time he calls. Any moment now, the phone will ring.
Jemimah Wei is a writer and host based in Singapore and New York. She’s a Singapore National Arts Council Scholar and was recently named a 2020 Felipe De Alba Fellow at Columbia University. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, X-R-A-Y Literary magazine, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, and Math Paper Press anthology "From the Belly of the Cat", amongst others. She is a columnist for No Contact magazine and is presently at work on a novel and several television projects.