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art by Eleanor Bennett


K. S. O'Neill teaches math at a small college on the Texas coast. In his spare time he designs and builds oddball sailboats, teaches fencing, and in other imaginative ways avoids doing any writing. He and his lovely wife live with two cats, one of which is perfectly normal.

Batboy Pregnant!
Is the President
Actually a Midget?
This Summer's Greatest
Bikini Mistakes!
Ugh. I crumple the paper and toss it onto the pile on the floor. I've been trying to write a poem based on late twentieth-century tabloid headlines, but I can't get the tone. And I have a dance piece due in a week I need to get to work on, a tricky bit of classical ballet on the rise and fall of antibiotics.
I close my notebook and reach out to my sister, who sits in front of me in our sloppy, comfortable den. She murmurs and folds back into my lap without looking up from her reading, and I ruffle my hands through her thick hair.
She is teeming with lice. My fingers move happily, grooming gently through her hair, a game older than the pyramids.
My history lectures echo in my head; humans have groomed for lice since, well, since before we were humans. Our nails evolved to do this, to help control the things when they were parasites. I gently fold another lock of hair across to expose a bare line of scalp, see movement; without thinking my fingers deftly catch a fat one and tug it loose. I examine it wriggling for a moment, then pop it between my teeth.
Contentment floods through me, and a tiny taste of blood. Waves of chemical data hit my jaw, my taste buds, my throat.
She's fine. I stroke her hair, and she shifts a little in my lap. I know things now; she's calm, she's not in love. She's not sick. She's not on her period. There's a little acrid bite to it, a little memory of thin and bitter.
"You forgot to eat yesterday," I tell her. "Again."
She twists her head to give me half a mild glare that tells me to stop fussing, then turns back to her book. I'm glad to know she's all right. I get up and go to the kitchen for a snack.
My little brother Aiden is under the table again. My mother shakes her head at me.
"He won't do his work! June, talk to him."
I stick my head under the table to face him eye to eye. He gazes back at me earnestly.
"Aiden," I say. "This is very serious." We both break into giggles.
"Let me ask you one!"
I sigh, theatrically. "One."
"OK..." He writes a second order differential equation on his tablet on the floor. I roll my eyes at him and start to write a line after his.
"You just have to solve the quadratic!" he says, the end of the sentence disappearing in more giggles. His laughter is infectious. I abandon him and return to my mother and the top of the table.
"It's all he wants to do! And he has a raku pot due tomorrow, he hasn't even asked me to start the kiln. That stuff is going to--"
"Rot his brain?" I finish for her. She glares at me, eyes narrowing, and I look down and take her hand and fiddle with her fingers. "I did a lot of math too, when I was his age," I remind her.
Her hands are long and worn. Little flea bites scatter up her arm to her shoulder, a reminder of her trip to Florida last month. When she got back we all sat and groomed her for a day, hoping for a taste of a favorite relative before our native lice killed off all the hitchhiker fleas. My grandfather is coppery and harsh; my cousin Claire is pregnant and happy and full of hormones.
She sees me looking at the bites.
"A heavier touch," she says. "They have Ebola and malaria to manage, the lice won't do it."
"I know," I tell her. But I'm glad we have our lice, with their nice light touch engineered in. One more reason not to live in the south.
I wander to the front room to watch my father and brothers wrestle on the yard in the long grass and thick cover of dead leaves. The boys are getting stronger, but my father still tosses them like gangly half-mature puppies, and like puppies they run after him down the lane.
I worry that Aiden has not joined them. My father is a serious man, a strong poet and a wild artist. By the time they were Aiden's age my brothers were charging him like little bulls, fighting each other and climbing his legs like trees.
Now they are maturing; their verses are dense and complicated and they spend days in the woods drawing and sleeping under the canopy of branches and the night sky. At this rate they will be men soon, and he will throw them out, and they will wander a time in the world. I will miss them, my smelly brothers.
Aiden is a little fey. To still be so wrapped up in math at his age... I worry that he will dive ever deeper into it, that he will never turn his mind to something less frivolous.
I feel his hand on my leg and turn around. Gravely, he is holding a pinched forefinger and thumb towards me.
"Are you all right?" I ask him. "Are you sick?"
"It's not from me," he tells me, and I notice he has a twist of paper in his other hand; he has brought it home from school folded in the paper to give to me. "Do you remember Lissa? In my class?"
"I remember her. Do you like her?" I ask him. He nods, and holds his pinched fingers out to me. I take the louse from him, still a little puzzled.
I bite. She is: well fed, healthy, a little obsessive, not yet sexually mature. She has a slight cold. And also...
"What is that?" I ask my brother. He looks at me in triumph.
"Algebraic topology." Happiness beams out of him.
I laugh at him and pick him up and carry him under my arm to the kitchen for a cookie and his pottery homework. He squirms loose, but his feet barely hit the floor before he leaps onto me again, his fingers clutching my clothing, climbing my leg like it's a tree.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Author Comments

This came out of a number of things bumping around in my head; I like the idea of a "tamed" parasite; I think it evokes a nice mix of emotions. Extermination seems such a crude response to me; if you really control something, you don't destroy it, you play with it. You use it.

So that was in the back of my head when I happened to read a string of stories from different sources, all with various kinds of bugs in them; the stories were all very different, but the bugs were uniformly horrible and nasty and awful, and so of course I wanted to cut against that somewhat.

And I had a good math student a few years ago who would come in day after day to a calculus class I was teaching and complain that he'd only got a "check" instead of a "check plus" in his drawing class that morning.

That all cooked for a while, and then one day this popped out.

- K. S. O'Neill
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