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Growing up, summers for Jeremiah West meant long car rides into the country with an agitated father and his wife who humored his temper. His parents left him with his grandparents from June to August as it was the only time of the year he saw his grandparents other than Christmas.
There were things Jeremiah loved about the country; Long, sprawling fields, the way they came alive at night with a thousand different voices, the hummingbirds and dragonflies, the money he earned from his grandfather for plowing, planting and trap setting. The visits, however, had one hideous drawback that caused him to swear every year upon returning home that he would never again return.
It was the creature that lurked over a certain threshold just between the pantry door and the cubby hole under the attic stairs. He could always tell of the creature’s arrival because of the sulfurous scent that peppered the air and the rhythms of the adults’ conversations would shift into a strange stop-and-go cadence.
Then, the creature would burst quietly into the room. Sometimes, he crawled down the wall. Others, he popped out of the oven, regardless of whether or not there was anything cooking. Mostly, he liked to appear behind an old crocheted quilt of a golden manned lion, and rise up through the handmade fibers like fish cutting through eddying pools of water.
He always introduced himself as ‘Slippery Stan’ because of the wet trail his pus filled, sore covered feet left where he walked. He stayed only a few minutes and toyed with Jeremiah by suggesting new hiding places where he wouldn’t find him next time. Jeremiah’s grandparents played along the first few years before advising him to stop watching monsters movies too late.
When Jeremiah was 13, Stan’s visits became more frequent and aggressive. He would wake up with unexplained welts and bruises at night. His grandfather told him to stop roughhousing with the dogs so much.
On one graying summer evening, as torrents of cool air battered the sun broached acreage, Jeremiah decided to take his stand against Slippery Stan. He had captured a locust in a jar and displayed it proudly to his grandparents as they played cards at the dining room table. They ate dinner without incident, but it was while Jeremiah ate his dessert of homemade cookie dough ice cream that he noticed the timbre of his grandparents’ discussion change to a flat meandering only to rise up once again.
“You know…” said his grandmother, “I think I’ll… go… fish…”
“Careful now… with the ice cream, son…” his grandfather said, “Don’t want an ice… cream headache!”
Jeremiah darted under the table as quickly as he could. His nostrils filled with that odor of sulfur, that aromatic crackle that foretold always of his impending doom.
"Say ‘Welcome home’ to Slippery Stan, Jeremiah!” the creature shouted kicking open the pantry door and collapsing dramatically to one knee to peer at the boy. Jeremiah cried out to his grandparents for help but knew they would do nothing. He was right. They went on with their card game as he battled for his life. Grandpa even suggested that he would eventually tire himself out with his theatrics and go to bed.
Slippery Stan’s neck stretched like elastic to join Jeremiah under the table. He gnashed his jagged nails of teeth at Jeremiah. His face was a mask of malice that soon gave way to a new mood as he beheld the jar that had slipped off the table. Jeremiah saw Slippery Stan afraid for the first time.
“You room with insects, boy?” hissed Slippery Stan, as he moved away from the table. Jeremiah picked up the jar containing the locust and came out from under the table holding it before him to act as a repellent, all the while shaking violently at the knees.
“About time you came out from under there!” said Grandma.
“That’s right, Stan! And there’s more where he came from!” Jeremiah loosed the lid on the jar and removed the locust. It flittered and buzzed uncomfortably in his hand, threatening to get away, but Jeremiah clutched his new weapon firmly. He had Stan running scared now. Slippery Stan stumbled backward, knocking a broom onto his gaping wound of a foot.
Suddenly, Jeremiah’s grandmother knocked the locust from his hand and stomped it under her slipper.
“Jeremiah West, clean this mess up and get up to bed!” said Grandma.
Slippery Stan regained his composure and carefully slithered upward until he was back on his feet. He craned his head and stared intently at Jeremiah so the whites of his eyes were more visible than his jet black pupils.
“The next time you see me, boy, you won’t be quite so lucky as you have been tonight! There will be
gnashing of teeth and a sustained agony you have earned by consorting with vermin!”
With that, Stan was gone. But his warning was enough to keep Jeremiah from sleeping for long periods. He began to arm himself for battle.
The next day, he went deep into the fields with a bag of jars, containers and bug barns. He caught all manner of bugs and insects. Vermin was what Slippery Stan called them. It was obviously a weakness of his, possibly the only one, but it was enough for Jeremiah to exploit. It gave him the hope he had wished for in previous summers.
He went about plucking grasshoppers from tobacco leaves, scraping slugs off the davenport, toppling ants from their hills of empires, catching junebugs and Japanese beetles. He even procured some hornets from a nest and a preying mantis perched on a porchlight. Most of all, he made sure to capture every one of the plentiful locusts he came across until he probably had a swarm of them. He arranged the jars and containers around his bed in a cautious symmetry. The ones that were left, he placed on top of the television, night stand and windowsill.
A scream sliced through the night time silence. It came from his grandparents’ room down the hall. He threw back the covers and leapt from bed, tripping over three of the jars. He heard one shatter against the floor and another roll under his bed. He rushed down the hall grasping as many as he could.
At the threshold of the bedroom, he saw the slick, scaly visage of Slippery Stan daring his grandfather to run at him. For the first time, they could see him too.
“Jeremiah!” squeaked Grandpa, “Get grandma’s pills! She’s having an attack and needs her pills! Top drawer, nightstand!”
“Hello, old friend!” said Slippery Stan, beckoning Jeremiah to come closer. Jeremiah raised up one of the bug jars and displayed it to Stan, who hissed with contempt. Grandpa ripped a golf club loose from his caddy bag and brought it down with a wind-whooshing thwack across Stan’s head and shoulders. The putting end was embedded in the back of Stan’s head, yet his hideousness lived on.
With Stan distracted, Jeremiah threw the ammunition of jars at him, breaking them in a succession of three right at his feet. Locusts flew over broken glass like buzzing ships sailing over broken tides. They swarmed up his knees, knocking him flat on his back in screaming hysterics. The hornets in another jar weren’t too far behind, burying their stingers in him from his left shoulder down to his pectoral region. The preying mantis also left its mark. Stan was well and truly powerless to fight these tiny hostilities which had taken hold of him. He rolled on the floor as if on fire, then darted to his feet into the hallway. He slipped over his own slimy trail and collided head first with a lamp in the hallway. Stan willed himself onto his aching knees and found himself staring into the segmented back of a cockroach. He howled in terror, and Jeremiah recognized it as the sound he used to make.
Jeremiah quickly fetched his grandmother’s pills and handed them to grandpa.
“Where do you think you’re going, son?” asked Grandpa as he coaxed two tablets into his wife’s mouth.
“That’s the same son of a bitch I’ve been seeing for years now, and you finally see him too! Now I know I’m not crazy! I’m going to finish him off forever!” Jeremiah said, rushing down the hallway, leaping over Stan’s trembling husk and retrieving the rest of the bug jars from his room.
“How would you like some junebugs in July, Stan?” taunted Jeremiah as he hurled the jar at him, shattering it against his forehead. Stan fell backwards, knocking his head against a hall closet door which collapsed under his weight.
“Thought you might have some fun with these too!” he shouted as he dropped a handful of grasshoppers on Stan, causing him to shriek inwardly like a child. With his mouth wide open, Jeremiah opened a jar filled with slugs and snails and poured them down his vulnerable gullet.
“Here’s some gastropods to wash it all down!”
He broke another jar against the wall as ants rained down on the beast.
“They say ants can carry fifty times their own weight! Let’s see if they can carry you away, Stanley!”
The insects were crawling everywhere now, leaving their marks all over his sensitive skin. Jeremiah knew Stan was dying.
“I brought your favorite for dessert!”
Jeremiah brought out the last one, a Tupperware container filled with twelve locusts.
“No! Wait!” negotiated Stan, “I can give you power! Don’t send me back! They do things there are no words for!”
“Do it, Jeremiah! Don’t listen to evil’s words!”
“What did that power get you? You’re like a little girl, jumping at every bug you see! Even I’m not afraid of a grasshopper or a locust!”
“Jeremiah, there are thresholds in this world you will never cross! GET THEM OFF ME!”
The vermin were very insistent on remaining where they were. There was something about Stan that attracted them. With a decisive motion, Jeremiah released the swarm of locusts on Stan and went to join his grandparents, who had aged considerably more that night.
“Next time, hide in the basement!” cried Jeremiah through tears, remembering all the times Stan strung him along, waiting to be killed. This night, he had won.
Jeremiah and his grandparents didn’t talk about that night for the rest of the summer. It eventually receded into his memory like a vivid dream. When he turned fourteen, his parents decided he was old enough to stay home for the summer if he wanted to, but he was anxious to get back to his grandparents to see if he had really imagined it.
His grandfather had found an old trunk in the basement filled with objects from the past; A coin collection, a blued bayonet, sea shells, old newspaper clippings. He showed Jeremiah one about a man named Stanley Daly who had died alone as an old eccentric in the house. It said he would make frequent calls to the exterminator, sometimes as much as three a month to take care of several problems from termites to roaches, ants, spiders and even bedbugs. It also mentioned in passing the rumors of Stanley Daly’s immense interest in the occult, and how he often spent hours at the library looking up “things no real Christian ought to be messing with” according to the librarian.
Jeremiah’s bedroom became an entomologist’s dream. He slept with all sorts of bugs, rodents and reptiles in cages which his grandparents would always make him turn loose at the end of summer. He sometimes thought of the old saying ‘Don’t let the bedbugs bite’ and realized if that was the worst thing that happened to him, he’d be okay for the rest of his life.