Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Collector, E. Flanigan

Megan had already found a bee, a ladybug, a sulphur butterfly, and a grasshopper. She really wanted to make honor roll this semester.

Mr. Gunson had handed out the list of required bugs in 3rd period. "You must include one of each insect on the list to earn an 'A' on this assignment. Don't tell me you can't hurt a butterfly. This is 7th grade, people, and I expect 7th grade work."

That evening, Megan stalked the fields behind her house with her brother's old butterfly net in one hand and a mason jar in the other. A backpack over her shoulder hid the implements used for the actual killing: her mom's nail polish remover and a bag of cotton balls from under the sink.

She repeated the same steps each time she caught something in the net. Transfer bug from net to jar, add toxic cotton ball, wait.

It was usually over pretty fast, but this time was different — the lubber grasshopper was taking a lot longer to die than the other insects had. He was desperate to get out, jumping against the jar lid mightily and persistently.

Megan was captivated by the sight and sound of it, the futile industry, his tenacious grip on life. His large stony eyes seemed surprisingly full of pathos; she kept wishing for him to die so it would be over.

"Whatcha got in the jar, a leprechaun?" Megan sat up with a start to see her neighbor Allan standing only an arm's length away with Nugget on a leash by his side. Allan was smiling.

"Oh, no. It's just a, just a school thing." Megan reached out to stroke Nugget, keeping her eyes on his soft muzzle, his little pink tongue. "I have to collect bugs for Mr. Gunson's class."

"You're too pretty to be collecting bugs." He looked at her with dark, shiny eyes. Megan felt her face flush.

Allan stood silently watching her pet Nugget, and Megan felt stupid for having been so engrossed, for having looked startled in front of him.

She forced her mouth to work, forced herself to think of something to say. "Does Nugget need another bath? Because I could get the hose ...."

"Nah, not today. She hasn't been out much lately, thanks to the old nine-to-five that turned into a seven-to-seven."

Megan had no idea what that meant, and instead turned her attention back to the grasshopper still clink-clinking against the jar.

"You know, Megan, you're too good to me and Nugget," Allan continued. "You're an angel. Your family doesn't tell you that enough." He brushed his thick, dark hair out of his eyes.

Megan felt warm all over and yet frozen, too embarrassed to look at him. "This grasshopper was easy to catch. He just sat there on that railroad tie." She pointed to a two-by-four on the ground ten feet away.

Allan smiled but didn't correct her. "Isn't it funny? He's trapped in a jar and he doesn't even know he's been caught."

Nugget, tired of Megan, began sniffing her backpack instead. Megan glanced over, then turned back to see Allan's lanky frame leaning down to where she crouched. He was reaching a hand to her hair.

Megan stood up abruptly.

Allan laughed. "A leaf, silly." He held a little leaf between his thumb and a long, thickly jointed forefinger.

Megan laughed too, absently running her hand through her own hair now. "Maybe I'm the one who needs a bath."

"Hey, I was just thinking," Allan said. "What would Mr. G think of an orb spider? Are they on your list?"

"Um, I don't think so," Megan said. "Spiders aren't insects."

Allan smiled. "Good point. Smart girl."

She beamed inside.

"I know a nature preserve where there are thousands of orb spiders. When you look up through the trees, you can see layer upon layer of them, right within reach. Ripe for the picking. It would make for some spectacular extra credit."

Megan considered this for a moment. Extra credit would be nice, but her mom wasn't likely to take her to a park just for extra credit. "Do any of those spiders live around here?"

"No big ones," Allan shook his head sadly. "This neighborhood is too young for good tree cover. All we have is saplings. Maybe your mom or dad could take you Saturday."

At this, Megan's eyes teared a little. She blinked quickly and bit the edge of her thumbnail.

Allan suddenly brightened. "Hey, I could take you over there some time .... I mean if that's not too weird."

"Oh, um ... maybe," Megan faltered.

He playfully poked her in the side. "What, you don't trust me?"

Megan giggled. "No, I mean, I think that would be fun."

Allan put an arm around her shoulder. "I know things have been hard, Meg."

She felt excited to be so close to him. She could smell his aftershave. "Would an orb spider be hard to catch?"

"No, they stay still most of the time. But when they find something to eat, they creep, creep, creep up to it." Megan felt something brushing along her collarbone lightly. "Then they POUNCE!" Allan's hand bounced off her shoulder.

He gave her a little tickle and burst out laughing.

Megan laughed too. She looked down at the jar and realized the grasshopper had stopped moving. She picked it up, studied him through the thick glass.

"Do you think he's dead, or did he just give up on the idea of getting away?" Megan asked.

Allan considered the jar for a moment. "What's the real difference? Once you're in the jar, it's just a question of time."

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is all kinds of creepy. Nicely done. The only thing I wondered was how old Allan was. When you intro him, all you mentions is he's her neighbor. Only later, due to the situation, did I assume he was older. Otherwise, I really liked it. Hits you on multiple levels.

PM

Jude Hardin said...

Creepy indeed. Nice job!

I too would have liked to know how old Allan is, though, and if much older--as he seems--why she is attracted to him. I didn't really buy her being excited about being close to him and smelling his aftershave and all.

Melanie Avila said...

I don't know if it was your intention, but I kept waiting for him to do something to her. His comment about the grasshopper not knowing it was captured totally freaked me out -- like he has her trapped and she doesn't know it yet.

This is chilling. Well done.

E. Flanigan said...

PM and Jude, thanks for the input about Allan's age. I tried to address that with Allan's comment about work (the "9 to 5 turning into a 7 to 7" thing) .... I had hoped that would let the reader know he's an adult. But with several of you having the same question, I can see I need to do more to clarify the age difference.

Jude, as far as whether Megan would feel the way she does in the story, I can only say that being an adolescent or pre-adolescent can be confusing — especially when it comes to who is safe to be attracted to and to trust.

Melanie, yes it was my intention that you see Megan as both "the collector" and as the one being collected.

Thanks for the comments!

Jude Hardin said...

I think it was the word "excited" that threw me most, implying some sort of sexual attraction.

LurkerMonkey said...

E,

Nice job ... When I first read this, I was a little surprised by the ... what's the word I'm looking for ... the "normality" of the subject matter. I think the creepiest thing about the story is the banality of it, the sense of commonplace. We all know this scene is replayed a hundred times a day, with often tragic endings. So it's a little like watching a traffic accident in progress.

I actually thought it was appropriate that she would feel some kind of sexual attraction for this guy--except for a girl that age, she's not thinking of it as a "sexual attraction." At that age, she's imagining her wedding day, her dress, getting married, romance, yadda yadda yadda. What happens afterward is hazy, exciting and terrifying all at once. The thing that gets me—and the thing that especially gets me as a man—is when that sort of starry-eyed, adolescent romanticism is used by older men who prey on girls.

Girls like Megan are never prepared for the plans of men like Allan.

Melanie Avila said...

Um... Lurker? I thought about sex non-stop in seventh grade. That didn't mean I acted on it, but it was definitely on my mind. And I had crushes on my adult neighbors. Just saying.

Carry on... :)

LurkerMonkey said...

Melanie,

lol. Well, me too ... and I don't want to get into it, but I have a young son and I know a lot of girls around that age. It's true that they're exposed to a lot of sexual content, and they're familiar with it, but I still think there's a big leap from thinking about it as a 12-year-old—or even some minor smooching—to what an experienced, adult male has in mind.

Anonymous said...

E—
By the (the "9 to 5 turning into a 7 to 7" thing) I did realize he was older and that's what made the story disturbing. It made me stop, though, cause when I read it the first time, I had to go back to when she first sees him (and spends time petting his dog) to see if I missed something. Maybe a simple Allan got home from work kinda thing. One line, very easy fix if you're so inclined.
PM

Jude Hardin said...

I guess I tend to forget that girls that age do think about sex and do have crushes on older guys.

We even see girls that age come in pregnant from their boyfriends sometimes at the hospital where I work, Jon, so I'm afraid there's a little more than minor smooching going on.

LurkerMonkey said...

Jude,

That's tragic. I wonder how many of those girls have an Allan in their backgrounds ...

Melanie Avila said...

I do agree it's super creepy that the adult neighbor is focusing on her though.

Erica Orloff said...

OMG, this gave me chills. Well-done!!!!

E