Illustrated by Katiana Robles
After a summer of record-setting heat, Carissa longed for the day when she could ride her bicycle to work again. She stood in her red, sweat-stained uniform under the overhang of Prime Foods and squinted across the parking lot in search of her fiancé’s truck. He’d offered to pick up her bike at the repair shop and swing by at the end of her shift. She loved how he remembered the name of her bike, Pearl, dubbed for its milky white frame and saddle, and that he treated it with as much devotion as a man his age would a hot rod. He loved it just because she loved it.
Her cell phone buzzed in her purse: I need to see u. Can I come over tonight?
Carissa rolled her eyes. Brad. She’d blocked his number a dozen times since they broke up two years ago. But he always demanded her attention as soon as she thought herself free.
Cars at the edge of the parking lot seemed to float along in phantom pools, reflective mirages of sky that cut apart the pavement, as if Prime Foods was nestled along the Florida shoreline and a slow, crawling tide was about to come in.
Darius’s truck emerged from that tide as Carissa slid the phone back into her purse. She waved as he pulled up beside her.
The truck looked covered in fleas, but it was the lovebugs. Hundreds of tiny, black, two-by-two bodies smashed against the grill, with their dull, yellow guts streaked across the truck’s shiny paint. Carissa peered into the back. Pearl had been stowed away from the threat of the lovebugs, her pristine white coat still as fresh as fallen snow.
Carissa opened the door and climbed into the chassis beside Darius.
“I’m gonna need to wash her down again when we get home,” Darius told her. “Doesn’t matter which road I choose. They’re everywhere.”
Carissa nodded. “It’s May. Lovebug season in Florida. Sorry, babe. I should have warned you.”
Darius cupped her hand in his and pulled the truck out of the parking lot and onto the road.
He’d uprooted his life in Oklahoma after they were engaged in the spring, moving to the Lake Okeechobee house Carissa inherited from her grandmother. It was the first time any man had moved anywhere for Carissa. This and Darius’s calm in the face of summer threats new to him—heatwaves, hurricanes, and lovebugs—meant he must truly be the one.
Carissa let this thought ease her mind as the air conditioning cooled her skin and blew her worries about Brad’s message into their rear view. She freed her ponytail and erased her lipstick in the mirror with a napkin, then unpinned the name badge from her chest.
“Better,” she sighed.
The Florida sunshine glimmered against her engagement ring. A small but proud round diamond, with a gold band.
“Still like it?” Darius asked, noticing her noticing the ring.
“I love it,” she said. “And the man who gave it to me, of course.”
“Must be an awesome guy,” he teased.
They switched the radio to a local news station, where the hosts talked about the fishing forecast, the enduring presence of mosquitoes, and the return of the lovebugs.
“You know,” he said, “I heard from some guy at the gas station that those things were created at the University of Florida. Said it was a botched experiment, trying to create sterile females to mate with the male mosquitoes.”
Carissa chuckled. “That’s not true. I don’t know why people still believe that.”
“Can’t really be sure, though. Can we?” asked Darius. “Only the bugs know the truth.”
She was sure.
She glanced out her window at the brown-baked yards passing beside them. Deteriorating trailers. Roadkill. Weeds. She could be sure, because Brad had worked as an entomologist with the University of Florida before he was fired and forced to take a part-time job as a cashier at Prime Foods. When she’d met his friends, former colleagues, they’d assured her the lovebugs weren’t an invention of the faculty.
Carissa couldn’t tell Darius this. For him, Brad didn’t exist, and she liked it that way. If Brad didn’t exist, then all the things he’d done to hurt her didn’t exist either. How, in front of customers, he once told her if she ever left, he’d kill them both. How, after he was fired from Prime Foods and they broke up, he kept trying to intercept her at her car at the end of her shift. How she still occasionally found voice messages left by an unfamiliar number, with Brad’s breath reverberating in her ear.
Within the first year apart, she was certain he’d planted a scorpion in her mailbox and a black widow spider on the bike rack outside of Prime Foods, right next to Pearl’s lock. She slowly began to learn that whenever something felt out of place, Brad was nearby.
When Darius offered to move in with her, she was relieved. No creatures except the usual Florida pests had appeared since he’d moved in.
As they pulled into the driveway, Carissa felt phone vibrations in her purse again. She slipped a hand into the folds to mute it.
The truck braked in the middle of the drive instead of pulling up to the garage. “What the hell?” Darius said, peering past her and out the window.
Scattered beside their front door and the small staircase leading to it were the remains of the house number tiles, once cemented to the concrete block exterior. Whatever removed it had also sheared the colonial blue paint off the side of the house.
They got out of the truck and paced around the front entrance. Carissa noticed a gas can was resting on top of the bushes against the house, spout down and emptied. Darius smelled it first. He quickly covered his mouth and nose, then she smelled it, too.
“Someone seriously poured gas on the bushes all around your grandma’s house?” he muttered through his fingers. “What did they think they were going to do—light concrete blocks on fire?”
At the end of the block, tires squealed, and a car bolted from down the road. She felt a lump fill her throat as the car sped out of sight.
Darius turned to her. “All these plants are going to die now. I’m sorry, hun.”
She shook her head and told him she wanted to go inside. They climbed back into the truck and closed the garage door behind them.
Darius unloaded her bike while she excused herself to the bathroom. The minute she closed the bathroom door, she pulled out her phone.
Brad texted: I got u some new lights for ur bike.
Why aren’t u responding? What are u hiding?
Do u think u can get rid of me that easy?
U never appreciated me. Just text back.
And so on. She pieced together a plot suited to Brad. At the height of his anger, he must have driven to her house and vandalized the house number and poured the gasoline. She wondered if he knew about Darius and the engagement, wondered how many times he had driven by the house since Darius had moved in.
The summer afternoon rains poured all the way into the night. She told Darius the thunder put her on edge when he asked why she kept checking her phone. But even after the thunder stopped, she jumped each time a twig snapped or an animal cried through the darkness outside. Carissa didn’t know what to expect next. Brad tapping a finger against her window? Him showing up at her doorstep with a match?
Darius hugged her tight as they snuggled into bed. He was usually snoring before she finished brushing her teeth. “The vandalism got you shook up, sweetie? Everything okay?”
She shook her head yes and watched him turn out the light. As the snoring began, Carissa stared wide-eyed through the bedroom window, through sheets of rain, waiting for the shadow of Brad to materialize.
Carissa woke the next morning to an empty bed, the smell of coffee, and a note from Darius beside the coffee pot: Went to work early, then the farmer’s market to get that honey you like. Cooler this morning after the rain. Perfect for a bike ride. I’ll pick you and Pearl up if you girls need it.
She retrieved her helmet from a pile in the corner of the garage and set it on the table beside her coffee. But a stench that seemed to seep through the kitchen windows killed her appetite. After dressing into her uniform, she stepped outside. The putrid gas smell from last night persisted, in spite of the rain. Death marked the hedges and flower beds, curled and browned as if the summer heat had wilted them. She covered her nose with both her hands and walked back inside.
Darius was right about the morning ride. With overcast clouds blocking the sun and the dew of last night’s rain still cooling every surface, Carissa rode Pearl the fifteen minutes to work without breaking a sweat. But by the middle of the day, the story had changed. Heat simmered on the ground and threatened to suffocate every living thing as it clawed its way up. A blanket of gray still covered the sky.
Just as Carissa clocked out for lunch, Darius texted her: Check the news if you can. She greeted a few coworkers in the breakroom and found them surrounding the one small television in the corner. The farmer’s market was in the middle of the screen. White tents in narrow rows covered in millions of black specks. The lovebugs fluttered across the screen as if the cameraman had walked into a swarm of bees. One or two people rushed between the tents and tried to take video footage with their phones, hands waving and arms smacking in front of their faces. Every piece of jewelry, jar of honey, framed photo, and trash can was dotted with lovebugs.
The footage ended when a blurry oval body entered the edge of the screen, followed by another and another, until the screen went black.
Her phone buzzed again: Got your honey. But they’re shutting down the market and half of downtown until this stops.
The news report switched to a story about a driver who lost control of his car along the highway. Lovebugs were to blame. Witnesses said they struggled to see the road after the swarm descended.
Are you home yet? Carissa texted back. They’re causing accidents.
She finished a last, nervous bite of her sandwich when Darius texted back: Safe at home.
Carissa breathed a sigh of relief.
For the rest of her shift, the lovebug infestation was the talk of every grocery shopper. One manager let the staff know that toilet paper and eggs were being purchased in large quantities. If she was low at home, she needed to grab some now. But her grandmother, raised during the Depression, had enough storage space built into the house that Carissa felt obligated to keep the shelves stocked.
Then the manager ordered them to close the store. The swarm was headed to their part of town, and it might be dangerous for them to drive home if they waited much longer.
Carissa texted Darius that she was on her way. He offered to come pick her up, but she insisted on biking. The last thing she wanted was an injured or stranded fiancé because of the swarm, and she knew the route better than him.
She clipped on her helmet and popped up the kickstand, only to hear another text ding on her phone: This has gone on long enough. I can’t live without u. I’m at the edge of the parking lot. Plz come talk.
Carissa crouched down and rolled her bike backward into the shadow of the Prime Foods overhang. She imagined him circling his parked vehicle like a buzzard killing time. When the sliding doors reopened, she slid back inside the store. She waved to her manager on her way toward the back exit, but he was preoccupied with wrapping up deli meats.
She rounded the building and pedaled toward the side road, picking up her pace. A cloud of black loomed along the horizon behind her, ready to overtake the shadowy sky.
Small batches of lovebugs already floated through the path back home. Carissa knew they didn’t bite or sting. But the sheer number of them smothering full-stop traffic along the road and forcing people to abandon their cars frightened her. She witnessed one man, his figure overtaken by an animated swarm, drop to his knees and fight against them.
Carissa switched gears and peddled through the cloud of bugs as fast as Pearl and her legs would let her.
At the house only a few pests littered the mailbox and driveway concrete. Darius had left the garage door open for her. Once inside, she ran for the switch to close it. She was breathless by the time she reached the living room, where Darius sat, transfixed by the television.
“They nearly got a news reporter,” he said, not even turning toward her. “Covered his neck and started crawling in his mouth, until someone pulled him inside the news van.”
Carissa gulped. She couldn’t tell Darius she saw a man nearly buried in lovebugs back on the highway.
He turned to Carissa then, his eyes framed by tired wrinkles and his brow furrowed in worry. “They said we aren’t allowed to leave our homes. Is this normal?”
Carissa shook her head and eased onto the couch beside him.
When the news went to a commercial break, she slipped into the bathroom and changed out of her work clothes. Sweat stains lined the middle of the back and formed a ring around the collar. The pale smell of gasoline had latched onto the wet fabric. Carissa pressed the shirt against her nostrils and almost gagged.
When she glanced down at her phone, she saw more texts from Brad.
I know u still love me. Why’d u leave? I come to rescue u from the lovebugs, and this is what I get?
Another lump caught in her throat. She remembered the myth about the lovebugs’ origin and his time at the University of Florida, how he was fired for some undisclosed problem—and, in retrospect, she had just assumed it was stalking another ex.
She messaged him: Did you have something to do with this?
The ellipsis on the screen indicated he was responding for several minutes. Then it stopped. Maybe. Maybe not.
She threw the phone onto the floor, then cupped her face in her hands. If she told Darius everything about Brad now, she didn’t know how he would react.
“You okay?” Darius breathed through the bathroom door. “Been in there a while.”
“I’ll be out in a minute,” she said. She could practically taste the gasoline in her mouth.
The infestation grew throughout the afternoon. More reports of fleeing, more accidents, even a witness who claimed to see the bugs kill someone. Carissa and Darius made dinner for themselves but couldn’t finish.
Outside, against the windows facing the street, they noticed the dull black flecks gathering. A random film across the glass at first. Then they overflowed the gutters above, until one of the frailer connectors collapsed. Water and leaves crashed onto the lawn. The lovebugs covered that, too.
Carissa remembered what Brad said about lovebugs one summer when they were still together, why the bugs thrived in southern states like Florida. The dampness and decaying plant matter made for a perfect meal. This was also why they congregated along the highways, where the smell of gasoline exhaust mimicked the smell of decay.
Gasoline. Carissa leaned her head against the windowpane of the living room. Below, every bush butting up against the house was covered, abuzz with double heads and legs stepping over each other. She glanced across the street to find her neighbor’s front door and windows covered as well. All that remained of their mailbox, shaped like a dolphin, was its silhouette. Even the ground below it pooled with lovebugs.
A car crept into view and inched into her neighbor’s driveway, spewing a trail of exhaust behind it. The red brake lights beamed through the hail of lovebugs, then flashed off into park. But after a few more moments, she watched the car navigate a turnaround and park once again at the end of the drive, facing her property this time.
The insects whirred around the car, sank onto the hood and sacrificed their bellies to the brightness and warmth of the headlights. The driver cut the engine.
Carissa waited for one of her neighbors to evacuate the vehicle, to run, hands waving through the air. She waited for them to keep their mouths and eyes shielded from the storm of bugs. But no one appeared.
She squinted, and through the sea of legs and wings, she caught the glimpse of a man seated at the wheel. Dark eyes behind thick, rectangular glasses. A slim beard along his chin. Brad.
She gasped and hid beneath the window frame. Darius immediately ran to her side.
He placed his palm against her back. “The gas smell got you sick? Just stay back from the window. Over here.”
He started standing, but Carissa grabbed him by the collar, pulling him down on top of her.
“Don’t. Just don’t look out there,” she whispered. “Please. Help me close all of the window blinds.”
Darius was confused, but he helped her crawl along the living room carpet and grasp the plastic knobs at the end of each cord to pull the blinds shut.
The room went dark except for the glow of the television screen. Darius stood again. But Carissa remained on the floor, her hands visibly shaking. Every time the engagement ring caught the light of the screen, it seemed to flash an SOS.
Darius recognized her fear and bent down again, hugging her until the shaking slowed. “He’s here,” she whispered through her tears. “He’s here.”
Darius released her from his embrace. “Outside? In this? But why?”
She freed every detail of the past in breathless sentences—the texts, the threats, the stalking. How Brad felt she owed him another chance and wouldn’t stop until she gave it to him. How he may have something to do with the lovebugs.
“At the very least, Brad knew they were coming,” she told him. “He wasn’t trying to burn down the house yesterday. He was trying to kill all of our plants. The lovebugs are attracted to the smell of gas and decay.”
Darius remained calm. “Do you think we can still make a run for it? The news said it’s not happening anywhere but Okeechobee.”
She shook her head. “You saw the reports. It’s too dangerous. We shouldn’t leave the house.”
Darius nodded, but as he turned toward the windows again, his lower jaw clenched. “Think it’s at least safe enough to go out there and rip your ex’s head off?”
“I’m hoping, now that he can’t see us, he’ll go away.”
They turned their attention back to the house, devising ways to fortify it from the lovebugs. They were small enough to wiggle into the crawl space beneath or attic above, but she doubted they could get through the vents.
“They could also cut off the air conditioning unit outside. But they’d have to—”
As the last word fell from her mouth, a loud sputter rang from outside. The air handler hiccupped and died.
“Shit,” Carissa hissed.
Two taps sounded at their front door. They both jumped, then Darius put a finger to his lips. She tiptoed to the window again and made a narrow slit between the blinds. A figure dressed in white stood on the front porch steps. At first it looked like an astronaut. But as Carissa blinked, the helmet morphed into a mesh veil with zippers securing it to the neck. A beekeeper’s suit. Flocks of lovebugs buzzed around and landed on the suit. But they never overwhelmed it.
The figure knocked on the door again, more insistent this time. Through the mesh she saw the beard and glasses.
“It’s him. Oh, God,” she said, stepping back. “He’s at the front door. Why can’t he just leave me alone?”
Darius rolled up his sleeves and grabbed the door handle.
“No!” she screamed.
“Lock this door behind me—and don’t open it again until I’ve beat the shit out of him. Understand?”
Carissa didn’t have time to respond. Darius bolted onto the porch. Then the door slammed shut behind him, and she lunged forward to twist the deadbolt. Some lovebugs infiltrated in the commotion. They fluttered around her face and landed on the walls. She reached for the fly swatter and struck every pair she could find.
Outside, the sound of shouts and fists pounding echoed. Someone slammed into the door with such force, she thought it might break open. Then everything quieted to the dull rhythm of the lovebugs beating against the house.
“Darius?” she said, her cheek pressed against the door. “Darius?”
She scurried to the window and looked through the blinds. Someone lay crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, covered in bugs, a tar-like mound. Carissa couldn’t even make out the color of his hair, the shade of his eyes, his shape.
Then something moved in her peripheral vision, just in front of the door. The beekeeper’s suit raised its hand and knocked twice more.
She covered her mouth in horror. The black mound was Darius. Lovebugs, drilling into his ear canals. Lovebugs, covering his eyes until he couldn’t see to strike. Lovebugs, crawling into his mouth and nose until they cornered him into his last breath. She wanted to tear through the door and cover his body with her own.
Her head spun. She closed her eyes and pressed her shoulder against the wall, where the smell of gas threatened to take her own breath away. “Darius,” she cried out, and when silence answered, she screamed louder. “Darius!”
Carissa didn’t know when Brad returned to his car, when the sun set, when she stopped screaming. But her voice, hoarse and raw, eventually gave up and left the shell of her body behind. The summer heat trapped inside the house matted her hair against her scalp. Another shirt soaked. But this time, she couldn’t tell if it was sweat or tears.
It was hard to sleep that night, between the heat and the thoughts throbbing inside her head. What if she kept her past with Brad a secret? Or what if she’d mentioned him sooner? Would Darius still be here, safe beside her? Would Brad have been scared off so long ago that the lovebugs never manifested? Either fate was preferable to this one. She could have made that choice. She should have.
At one point before dawn, her cell phone lost its signal, and the texts from Brad stopped. But he persisted. Each time she glanced out the door’s peephole, she saw the car still parked in the neighbor’s driveway. Every few hours, knocks came at the door, and she would cover her ears until he stopped. She lost track of time and days as the dark circles beneath her eyes grew darker. She wished for sleep only so she could wake up from this nightmare. More than anything, she shuddered at the thought of Brad stepping over Darius’s body—that Darius’s body was even out there.
She woke one morning to find notes plastered across the living room windows. Hearts with her and Brad’s initials in thick, black, permanent marker. You still love me. It was fate that your fiancé died. Now we can be together. The paper pieces were like fat exclamation marks drawn across a black chalkboard. She felt the darkened walls and ceilings and floors begin to close on her. She grabbed a figurine off a nearby bookshelf just in case.
A noise came from down the hallway, closer to the bedroom. If Brad had made it into the house, she would be ready for him. She tiptoed past the couches and toward the hallway. Along the ceiling, near the opening to the attic, a dozen lovebug pairs swarmed. She batted them away with her hands and spit at any that neared her mouth. But they kept leaking out of the edges of the attic door as if it were a faucet. When the stream became too much to hold back, Carissa backed away toward the living room again.
Slowly, a pair floated past her face, one of the lovebugs awkwardly dragging the other behind it, still attached but lifeless. She remembered Brad once told her how the mating of the lovebugs ends. The male dies, but he refuses to let go. His body clings to the female until she’s ready to lay eggs. Then they detach, and she dies as well.
The pair piloted their jagged and clumsy path toward the garage door and landed there. Carissa opened the door and watched as the pair spun circles in the air, then fluttered down to the black handlebars of her bike. Except for the tiny red thoraxes at each end, the pair seemed to disappear into the grip. She placed her hand beside them and the female crawled onto Carissa’s ring finger. The proud, round diamond still shone brightly through their dark bodies.
She lifted the kickstand and pressed the button to open the garage door, letting the flood of bugs enter the house. She wheeled Pearl forward carefully and sat on the saddle. Across the street was Brad in his beekeeper suit, just exiting his car again.
As Brad watched the garage door raise, his eyes widened, and the edges of his beard lifted. He jogged across the street toward the house, toward her, his arms outstretched. But the joy on his face turned to anguish as the bugs covered Carissa’s legs. They climbed her torso and neck, swept their black bodies across her lips. He froze and lifted his hands to his mouth, forgetting about the suit. She smiled. Then Brad and the gasoline odor and everything disappeared.
As the lovebugs enveloped her, Carissa remembered the first morning she woke up beside Darius. That warm cocoon of his arms around her, hands tickling, buried beneath their sheets. His kisses landed on every inch of her body until her skin felt alive.