Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

The Nest

The walls were filled with ants—a seething, burrowing mass of them.

“Come in, come in!” the man said, sitting like a god in the middle of the room, grinning at me through broken teeth. He levered himself out of his chair, breathing heavily, and then tottered over to the wall and pressed hard against it. Under his hand, ants scurried frantically through their tunnels. “It’s quite safe. Two solid sheets of Perspex, each over an inch thick, layered over the original house’s walls. They’ve got a gap of about four inches between them, for the dirt, but the whole thing is completely sealed. There’s no chance of them escaping.”

I slowly inched my way further into the house, stifling a scream when I looked up and saw that the ceiling was part of the nest as well. There was an industrious hum in the background, almost a whispering; thousands upon thousands of living organisms working towards a goal. If that goal was to terrify anyone who was foolish enough to enter their domain—well, it was working.

“Are you Mr. Marsden?”

He snorted, and gestured around him. “I don’t know. Do I fit the description? Crazy old man, lives in a giant ant’s nest?”

I had to concede that there weren’t many other plausible candidates.

“You’d be the girl from the real estate agency then? Here to see about the house?”

After we had ascertained that, indeed, I was the girl from the real estate agency, and that I was here to see about the house, Mr. Marsden led me on a full tour of what he fondly referred to as “The Nest.”

This was his home, and he wanted me to tell him how much it was worth.

Shit.

***

I had only been working a few months at my job. My pencil skirt was always neatly ironed, my buttons always undone to reveal just the right amount of cleavage. My boss had insisted that I take this home valuation, emphasising how Mr. Marsden was a valued and loyal client.

But, as I got further and further into the house, I had a sneaking suspicion that this was the real estate equivalent of a hazing ritual.

According to Mr. Marsden, “The Nest” had been under construction for over twenty years, and the original house had been gutted long ago. Only the walls and some of the kitchen and bathroom fixtures remained. In each room, the walls had been layered with two giant pieces of clear Perspex about four inches apart and filled almost completely with dirt. Large plastic tubes ran haphazardly from one room to the next. At the edge of the walls, where the Perspex met the plaster, there were thick lines of sealant.

And everywhere I looked—sealed up within every wall—crawled the ants. And while I tried to tune it out, under our conversation, disconcertingly, there remained that soft whispering, that pervasive sound of the ants in their nest.

I’d already been to quite a few house valuations, and I was getting used to how nervous people are; the covert glances at cracks in the walls, covered haphazardly with plaster, the assurances that their small, humble house normally looks a lot better than this.

This man wasn’t nervous, though. He practically burst with pride as he led me from room to room in the small house, pointing out various interesting nest formations in the walls, or a particularly clever piece of mechanical ingenuity. In fact, he seemed to enjoy how I stayed half-crouched, terrified of the weight of the dirt above my head, and the ants that scurried within it.

Perhaps I was overwhelmed by the house, by the magnitude of The Nest, but I would swear that the ants followed us as we toured through—a murmurous rush of activity that poured into the walls of each room. They seemed small, malevolent entities, tracking us, and I felt judged and observed as I had never felt before. I somehow knew that The Nest itself was looking at me, and had found me wanting.

But then, I always do this.

I had realized early in my life that I had a tendency to become painfully anthropomorphic, assigning excessive personality to animals or things that wasn’t there in reality. It was why I still had a collection of over fifty soft toys, packaged up in my basement. I kept even the most battered ones, the ones that should have been thrown away long ago.

And as I toured through this small, strange house, I knew that this was why I couldn’t help myself, that this was why I gave this collective group of insects a personality.

But still, even knowing that it wasn’t real, I could feel it. I could feel the weight of The Nest’s mind upon me.

Judging me.

***

The Nest was huge, almost two hundred thousand individuals, Mr. Marsden estimated, although it was impossible to know how many there were exactly. The entire house was kept purposefully dark for the ants to function properly, but there were small, muted lights in each room, which gave me just enough light to inspect everything. The walls seemed solid, as far as I could tell, and there was minimal furniture; just the walls, filled with tiny bodies moving constantly. There was haphazard electrical wiring throughout the house, going around doorways and through holes, following a logic that only this madman—presumably—knew.

It was like nothing I’ve ever seen, before or since then.

Mr. Marsden seemed to enjoy showing off his house and its small inhabitants, and he had a well-rehearsed patter, spouting off interesting facts and bits of information about ants. He was surprisingly articulate, and I gradually felt myself relaxing as I listened to him.

“Each room acts as a different part of the normal structure of an ant nest,” he explained, his fingers pointing to hollows within the walls. “There are several main chambers that we can see, and some we can’t. Somewhere, deep within The Nest, is the Queen’s chamber, where she lies, producing a seemingly endless supply of eggs.” He grinned at this, and I found his eyes staring at me intently, his large frame filling up the room, his pale skin almost luminescent in the dim light. I had the urge to do up the buttons on my shirt; even tasteful cleavage suddenly seemed like too much.

Inside the Perspex, the material of The Nest was layered, beginning with large granules at the bottom, a mixture of sand and dirt for the main part of the nest, and then, right at the top, a section that was left to act as a pretend “topsoil.” It gave each room a strange appearance, almost as if it was part of a living painting: a strange thesis about modernity, nature, and life.

The Nest had been built haphazardly, and Mr. Marsden had worked around the light switches and pipes, cutting and sealing the Perspex with precision. A labour of obsessive love, his work was impressive in its thoroughness, as well as its complete impracticality.

It was hard to look at the features that I would normally focus on for a valuation: size and functionality of the dwelling, the acreage and location of the land. This clearly wasn’t going to be a normal job where I was in and out in twenty minutes. I considered stopping it then; telling him that this wasn’t worth my time, and leaving, going back out into the bright daylight, and relieved to be out of that strange place.

But my professionalism won out.

Well, that, and my crippling fear of failing this arcane rite of passage. I would not be known forever as the real estate agent that had cracked and fled screaming from the crazy old man who lived in a nest.

He took me down to the basement, where, bizarrely, it was lit up as bright as day. There were two large tanks on the floor, made of glass, that looked like aquariums. They had plants and rocks in them, and several pipes led down from the main nest into each of them.

“This room acts as the “surface” for the ants,” he said, pulling on a pair of work gloves. “I put food into these tanks, and they forage along the ground and bring it back to the nest, like they would in the wild.”

He opened up one of the tanks, and gently brushed the ground with his fingers, allowing several ants to crawl onto his gloves.

Solenopsis invicta. More commonly known as fire ants. Their sting feels as if your skin is on fire. They can sting smaller mammals to death, and carry their bodies back to their nests, piece by piece.” I stared, horrified at the tiny creatures on his finger tips, and he laughed. “A fully grown human would be able to get away well before they were stung to death, unless they were sick or allergic to their venom. Or unless they were caught in a swarm of them, defending their nest.” He opened the lid of the glass tank again, and gently blew the ants off his hand, and back into their enclosure. “See? They’re perfectly safe.”

“And you’re allowed to have these?”

He paused. “I’ve got all the correct permits for them.” It had the sound of a lie, and wanting to break the suddenly awkward silence, I looked around the room for something innocuous to discuss. “Why are there two of these tanks? Wouldn’t you only need one feeding enclosure?”

He looked at me, surprised. “Not many people notice that.” Lowering his voice, he asked, “Want to know a secret?”

I hate secrets between strangers. It breeds forced camaraderie, a sharing of something exclusive. He took my silence for assent though, and gestured to one tank and then the other. “The name “The Nest” is actually a misnomer. The house actually contains two nests; rival nests, in fact.”

“There are two different types of ants in here?”

“No, no, they’re the same species. They’re both fire ant nests. But they’re rival nests, with two different queens. That’s why I have to have two separate feeding enclosures. When they encounter an ant from the other nest, they fight.”

We watched the ants forage peacefully in their tiny habitats for a while, and then he led me back up into the main house, saying cheerfully, “There’s just one more room to see now.”

I felt as if the ants watched from all sides, wondering what I was doing here with him, with their emperor-god. I kept straining to hear what they were saying, even though I knew the whispers were just them moving, burrowing through the dirt. I could feel them around me, stronger than before, and I knew I wasn’t imagining it as they swarmed from room to room, following us.

As he pushed open the final door, I prepared for the worst; perhaps the bodies of women from other real estate companies, who had been foolish enough to come here alone.

But it was just his bedroom.

There was a sad mattress on the floor, and almost no other furniture, except for the mess of wiring near the headboard of his bed. There were various switches and levers, and it looked as if he had rigged up a rudimentary climate control system. The walls on either side of his bed were part of The Nest, filled in with dirt and humming with activity, but the wall that faced the bed directly was empty; the only empty wall in the house. There was a small hatch in the middle of the wall, with a handle on it.

He said, “I don’t usually take people in here. This room is the dividing line between the two nests.” He looked over at me. “Maybe, next time, I’ll show you why this room is so special.”

This was exactly why I didn’t like people sharing their secrets.

***

The tour complete, we went back to the living room. Mr. Marsden sat back down heavily in his chair and put his feet up, gesturing to the flat-screen TV in front of him, inviting me to look closer. It was made up of regular lines of white and black sand, with the ants burrowing through to create “static.” He laughed and said, “Whenever I turn it on, it seems to be showing the same program.” It had the feel of a well-worn joke, and I laughed politely.

“So, Mr. Marsden, you’re interested in a full valuation of your current property. Is this with a view to eventually selling?”

“No, no, I’d never leave. This is my home. I’ve finally got the decor just how I like it,” he said, laughing wheezily. “When I started, it was just a small nest in the basement, more of a hobby than anything else, really. I just like to get an update occasionally, check how much it’s worth.” He leaned forward, eyes intent on my face and said sharply, “It’s priceless, you understand? There will never be another house like this.”

I smiled reassuringly at him, and nodded carefully. I was on firmer ground here. This part of the conversation was the same as all the other valuations I had done. They wanted reassurance. Reassurance that the place that they lived in, that they had put so much time into, that it was worth something. That they were worth something.

“It certainly is an amazing house. I’ll have to do some further research, if that’s all right with you? Just to get a better idea of the house’s value, in light of its . . . unique characteristics.”

He nodded and settled back into his chair again, the sharpness in his eyes disappearing as if it had never been there, the genial-yet-creepy uncle once more. Clasping his hands over his large stomach, he asked, “Did you ever keep ants? When you were a child?”

“My brother did. Just one of those little farms, two clear bits of plastic, with some gel inside. You could light it up. We captured some ants from the garden and put them in, and they burrowed through the gel, making little tunnels.”

As I spoke, his hands drifted down from his stomach to the front of his groin, scratching slowly. I looked away, but he didn’t seem embarrassed at all.

“And the ants. How many days until they died?”

“They . . . they only lasted about five days. Will, my brother, was inconsolable. He thought he had done something wrong.”

He snorted. “Little death camps, those plastic sets are. The ants have no way to nest, nowhere to go, no chambers, no rooms, the light burning them. They just burrow through the gel, eating it until they reach the edge. Then they die. No fun at all, them dying that way.”

There was an awkward silence. In my head, I saw the ants, burrowing to nowhere, dying at the end of their small, sad tunnels. It was definitely time to leave.

I stood up, brushed off my skirt, and turned on my real estate charm. “Thank you so much for your time, and the tour. I’ll be in touch next week.” As I left, he handed me a small book, with the words Facts YOU didn’t KNOW about ANTS!!!! on the cover. It had the feel of a vanity press book: all ugly fonts and cheap paper.

“Take this. It’s all my own work. It might be good for research on The Nest.”

Never question where they live, or how they live, my boss always said. That’s not your job. Your job is to tell them how much their house is worth, and then to try and sell them a new house.

But it never was that simple. Just by being there, in dilapidated houses and small apartments, I was judging their lives, telling them their worth. And I had never been in a place that was so inherently personal as this house; this shrine to the many. I paused at the doorway.

“Why ants?”

He shrugged. “I just like them, I guess. Always have. Ants are just . . . ants.”

I plastered a smile on my face and shook his hand, promising I would be in touch within the next few weeks.

***

I had no fucking idea how much this house was worth.

I did all my normal due diligence. Even if it was just a hazing ritual, I was determined to treat it like a real job for a real client. I researched how much the house had sold for previously, before it had metamorphosed into The Nest. I checked average property prices in the area, and what schools were nearby. Were there shops in the neighbourhood? A mall? What were the crime rates like?

But it was all pointless, really. Essentially, the question I was asking was: What was the value of a habitable roadside attraction?

I couldn’t find any other houses made of ants. Or any other houses that were made of living organisms. There were Scandinavian turf houses that used grass as insulation, but they seemed sensible in comparison. There was a house in New York that had been nicknamed “The Mushroom House,” but this just referred to the shape, and I found that I was disappointed when I realized that mushrooms didn’t sprout from the walls.

There was nothing like The Nest. It was unique.

Although I hadn’t planned on it, I read the book about ants Marsden had given me. I had hoped to get some insight into what had possessed someone to turn their house into a giant nest, but was disappointed. However, as promised, I did learn a lot of facts about ants. No one could accuse the title of being misleading.

There were nests in South America that were thought to stretch over several miles, thriving metropolises that made The Nest seem like a small village. I wondered if that was what he was trying to recreate, that god-like feeling of enormity. All those tiny lives dependent on him.

Ants emigrated from these nests, travelling across countries to create new outposts. Fascinatingly, ants from these new nests that were captured and reintroduced to the “mother” nest by scientists weren’t attacked by the other ants; their scent smelled right, even if they had never been to that nest before. But, there were ants that lived within the same ten meter stretch that would attack each other instantly, simply because the other ant smelled like the wrong nest.

I continued to research The Nest for a few more weeks, and then told my boss I was going back.

“I thought you finished that job ages ago,” he said, looking surprised. “Just do what we all did—tell him it’s worth the average in the area. And next time he calls up, we’ll give him to that new girl, what’s her name? Sheryl? Sharee?”

But I was a professional. I was a realist.

I knew what it was worth.

***

Like before, he greeted me from his chair, wheezing heavily from the darkness. I attempted to get straight into business, but he insisted on showing me something first.

“I promised last time. And I never break a promise to a pretty lady,” he said, going to the kitchen and returning with a bucket of rancid meat. The smell was overwhelming. He held it awkwardly in one hand. “This way.”

The ants were as busy as last time, and each room almost boiled over with activity as we walked through. The whispering was louder than ever, and I found myself listening for words again, trying to piece them together.

“Do you hear it?” I asked.

“Hear what?”

“Nothing,” I said, and he gave me a strange look.

It’s never good when a man who lives in an ant’s nest thinks you’re the strange one.

This time, we skipped the full tour, and he took me straight to the bedroom. He gestured for me to sit on the mattress, but I politely refused. There were overtones and undertones to sitting on his bed that I didn’t want to encourage, and, more importantly, there was no way that I was touching those sheets. He shrugged, seemingly unperturbed, and then walked over to the blank wall. As the only section of The Nest that had been left hollow, it seemed to hold some special significance, but I had no idea what it could be. He opened the small hatch in the wall, and tipped the rancid meat inside, before sealing it shut again.

“I haven’t fed them in a few days now. I never do, before one of my private shows. Didn’t think it would be for an audience of two, though,” he said, winking at me.

He walked over to one of the many plastic tubes that were installed around the house, that acted as walkways for the ants between different parts of their nests. It led from one of the walls of the nest to the blank, empty wall in front of him, but there were no ants crawling inside it. He pulled up a small barrier within the tube, and I saw ants suddenly emerge into the small plastic tunnel, pouring into it rapidly. He did the same thing to the tube on the other side of the room, and then walked slowly back to the mattress, half-collapsing onto it, his eyes avidly watching the wall in front of him.

Nothing seemed to happen at first, but then I realized what he had done. Those two tubes meant that ants from both nests were now enclosed in the same area.

The wall in front of me was a battleground.

It began slowly at first. Foragers from each nest navigated along the sides of the glass, meandering slowly along the surface of the Perspex. The horrible significance of the blank wall was explained, and I saw now that the lack of dirt inside was to allow him to see this; to allow him to see the battle that he had orchestrated—an emperor on his throne.

I felt sick.

Soon enough, ants from both nests found the meat, and began to cluster over it. He pointed to a few specific ants, who had left the food, and were hastily navigating their way back to their respective nests.

“They’re going back to warn their comrades, to tell them that the nest is in danger. Reinforcements will be sent, both to fight and to gather the food. Ants fight by wrestling each other, and they can cut each other in half with their jaws alone.” He stretched back on the bed, the grin wide on his face. “Thousands of ants will arrive within the minute, the emergency signal spreading throughout the nest from individual to individual. Isn’t it marvellous?”

I tore my eyes away from the mass of ants, my heart beating erratically. This wasn’t why I was here; viewing this wasn’t what I had come to do, but it was hard to think about house prices when such a stark struggle played out before me. The ants no longer frightened me, and their whispering no longer seemed menacing. Instead, I now felt almost crippling sympathy for them and their war, orchestrated by a manipulative god.

He watched silently for the next few minutes, his eyes darting from spot to spot on the wall. From where he sat, they were just a swarming mass of tiny moving bodies, and I realized he didn’t view the ants within as significant at all, just toys to play with and break.

He didn’t seem to hear the whispering.

Eventually, he reluctantly pushed himself up from the mattress. “I suppose we better get down to business then. Although, I do love a good show.”

He gestured for me to go ahead of him through the door, but I paused and looked back at the wall, which was now almost black with tiny ant bodies, battling desperately for the food that would ensure the survival of their nest. There was a column, stretching all the way down to the base of the glass, a battleline of ants defending their territory. It seemed as if there was a particularly fierce battle right at the sealant at the base of the glass, ants from both nests swarming frantically.

“You’re not going to . . . stop this? While we’re gone?”

He looked back at the wall and shrugged. “It won’t make much of a difference. One nest always invades the other nest through the tubes, then I seal the invading party in there. But I guess I can speed it up a bit.” He walked over to each of the tubes, and pushed the small barriers over the entrance, completely sealing off the nests from each other once again. The ants still in the battleground were now on their own.

I watched in horror, suddenly unable to detach from their tiny lives, as he pushed a button next to his bed, and a stream of water came down from the top of the wall, washing away all the ants, as well as the meat, into a drain at the bottom.

It was clean again; pristine. As if it had never happened.

As I stood there, staring at the now empty wall, I noticed something strange. Right where the ants had swarmed at the base of the glass, there was a tiny drop of water that had seeped through, that must have come from the deluge that had just washed the ants away. The drop would evaporate within a minute or two, but before then, I should show him, tell him that there might be a crack forming in The Nest’s walls.

Maybe it was because of what I had just witnessed, or maybe it was the whispering that still softly hummed through my head, but for whatever reason, I didn’t say a thing.

***

I was tense when we sat back down in the lounge room, but he was relaxed in his chair, his face expectant and anticipatory. He waited to be told that his house was one of a kind, that my research had showed that it would go for millions, a priceless gem of natural architecture.

But unlike every agent before me, I planned on telling him the truth.

“The Nest is worth nothing,” I said. “The only value of the property is the price that the land alone would bring, if the house was razed clean.” His eyes bulged, and I could see him drawing breath to protest, but I carried on. “This entire structure is inherently unstable. You’re subjecting the walls to intense amounts of pressure, and none of your ‘modifications’ would be attractive to potential buyers. The Nest has no value as an exhibit or otherwise, and the original house has been modified so heavily that it would be impossible to resell.”

His face reddened with rage, and his hand raised from his side as if to strike, an unthinking gesture of anger, before he lowered it jerkily. I could see him struggling to choke words through his windpipe, his throat closed by the force of his denial. When he finally spoke, it was in a stream of invective. “You’re wrong, absolutely wrong, you don’t know anything about value or houses or worth, The Nest is priceless, I can’t believe you’d even think to . . .”

I left him there, sitting in his chair saying the most horrible things, and was perversely happy. It felt like I had scored a victory somehow, struck a blow in the war against tyranny, although if you asked me to specify how exactly, I would not have been able to tell you.

As I left, the whispering of the ants seemed to follow me out the door and onto the sidewalk, from the dark cool of the house, into the hot summer sun. But it had a different tone now, and I imagined that it was a friendly one.

***

The destruction of The Nest wasn’t long after that.

It had been declared a threat to public health and safety, an aberration in the suburban ecosystem that surrounded it. The council had hired exterminators from several different companies to help, due to the threat of the fire ants escaping during the demolition process. Mr. Marsden remained in the house, his last-minute appeal working its way through the courts, convinced of his invulnerability until the end.

I had heard about the planned demolition on the news and through the local real estate grapevine. It was the end of an era, the agents said. I was one of the last people to get hazed in The Nest, and the only one that had ever gone back there a second time. I wondered if he had shown anyone else the blank wall and the ants fighting within it, or if it was a sacred thing.

The day before it was scheduled to be destroyed, I visited for the third and final time, as dusk fell. I couldn’t tell you why I went there. Something to do with the whispering I heard wherever I went, just at the edge of hearing.

He opened the door suspiciously, frowning as he recognised me.

“I just want to see the ants,” I said quickly, before he slammed the door in my face. I looked at his impassive expression, and, realizing that more grovelling was required, added, “I was wrong about The Nest and your house. It’s priceless.”

His face cleared somewhat, and he stepped back, gesturing for me to come in.

“Are you getting ready to move them?” I asked, looking around. Nothing seemed different. I had expected insect containers, some way to transport the ants to their new home, but everything was the same.

“They’re not moving anywhere,” he said, shortly. “If the government thinks they can do this to me, they’ve got another thing coming. I’ve got rights. The second appeal will go through, you’ll see.”

“But, what if it doesn’t go through? The ants . . . they’ll all die.”

“They won’t. I’m never leaving this house, and the ants aren’t ever leaving, either,” he said. “Not now, not ever.”

I thought about the exterminator trucks that would arrive in the morning to kill his subjects, and the earth-movers that would knock down the borders of his empire. While he was an emperor in here, outside this house he was a peasant. A peasant with delusions of grandeur.

He would stay until the very end.

The ants didn’t follow us from room to room this time. In fact, the walls were almost completely empty of any movement. As we entered the bedroom, I saw where the ants had all gone. They were here, and each wall of the walls on either side of the bed was thick with activity.

“I haven’t fed them in weeks,” he said, looking around. “I’ve shut off the tubes down to the feeding area. They know that this is their best shot of getting food.”

The whispering was rising to a crescendo, and I wondered again how he couldn’t hear it. It was hard to focus on what he saying, and I felt as if I could almost make out the words, if I strained hard enough. As he walked over to the small hatch in the blank wall, my eyes darted from side to side, looking at the ants swarming in the walls. It would be a massacre, the entirety of each nest fighting the other for the meat.

He tipped the meat out into the hatch, closed it, and then opened up each of the tunnels. He then walked to his bed, and lay back upon it, watching intently. His position on the bed was the same as before, and I wondered how many times he had done this, how many battles he had staged for his own amusement.

“Should be a good one this time,” he said, his eyes bright. “I’ve never seem them as riled up as this before.”

But, as the floodgates opened, the ants from both nests then did something strange. Instead of swarming towards the meat, they all poured down towards the bottom of the wall, where the Perspex met the floor.

To where I had seen the crack.

“What the hell . . .” he muttered. “One of the foragers must have left a trail for them to that point. But why would they ignore the meat?”

It was only as the ants from both nests rushed out of the gap in the battle wall, through the gap in the sealant that they must have expanded incrementally each time they fought, that Mr. Marsden must have realized the answer to his question, and tried to rise, to flee.

Before he could even get off the bed, the ants swarmed over him, stinging and biting and fighting, crawling from the inside out, fighting over his meat: their emperor, their god.

I suspect it was then, for the first and last time, that he heard their whispering. That he heard what they had been planning all along.

I stood next to his bed, remaining very still. He must have been stung hundreds of times within the first few seconds, and when he lifted his hand off the bed, pleading for help, I stepped back slightly, not saying a word. Eventually, he stopped moving.

The ants from each nest didn’t seem to be fighting each other, I thought, and it was clear why. They had been united against a common enemy, and as the first of the scouts reached my legs, I realized that I was probably an enemy too. A collaborator.

As the ants swarmed up my body, I tensed and stood very still, waiting for the stings to begin. But there were none, just the dry tickling of hundreds of ants crawling all over me, a dress of moving black bodies. They crawled inside my nose and ears, and I think they told me secrets then, messages from their queens, messages just for me.

It all seemed so clear, and with this strange garment over me, I slowly walked to the front door of the house, which had been sealed shut, and opened it.

And then, they were gone.

They poured off me, shedding like a second skin, and under the cover of darkness, they disappeared into the suburbia that surrounded The Nest. After I was sure that they were gone, I walked back through the house to his bedroom, and took one last look at his body. I then slowly walked back out, closing the front door and locking it behind me, leaving no sign that I had ever been there.

I think of that night as a revelation; as a benediction.

The news had been much more dry: “Man found stung to death, in bizarre ‘Nest House’ enclosure. More at eight.”

***

A few weeks after his death, the bulldozers and the exterminators came to destroy The Nest completely. It had been delayed during the police investigation, but once the scene was photographed, there was no reason to delay it any longer. I went to watch, and it had the atmosphere of a carnival, people gathered up and down the street, waiting for the big machines to do their work.

In the end it was strangely anti-climatic; most of the ants had escaped on the night of his death, and there were only a few left inside. They had plugged up the hole once they found it, near his body, but it had been too late. The local animal control was still hunting for the new nest, but so far, it had eluded them.

The bulldozers knocked down the Perspex covered walls, and suddenly that was it. The Nest was no more.

But it stayed with me.

I watched and read commentary on the incident every day, finding out obscure facts about ants in forums or enthusiast sites, applying the same dedication that I had previously applied to my job.

I felt a small, almost electric shock, when I read something deep in the comment threads of a particular forum, that Solenopsis invicta means “The Unvanquished” in Latin. I wondered for days if he had known the secret behind their name, if that had been part of their allure, part of his desire to capture and control them.

I wondered if the ants from each of the nests still smelled wrong to each other, if they had formed one nest or two wherever they had escaped to; if the alliance between the two warring tribes had lasted beyond the confines of their jail.

I hoped it had.

I thought I might be going mad, thinking about the ants this way. They were just ants. Mr. Marsden had been able to see that clearer than me.

But I find it so hard to think these days, to remember through the sound. Whenever I go into a new house, to try and evaluate its worth, all I can do is look at the walls, and think how bare they look.

And then I start to hear it again, no matter how much I try to drown it out.

I hear that whispering.

© 2013 by C. S. McMullen.

C.S. McMullen

C. S. McMullenCatherine S. McMullen is a lifelong genre nerd, enjoying books, TV, movies and games indiscriminately, especially if they’re about robots, zombies, or dragons (or possibly robotic zombie-dragons). She is the equal youngest person to sell a story to a professional science-fiction magazine, selling to Interzone at age 10, and has sold nine stories professionally, although “The Nest” is her first horror story. She graduated in 2011 with an Arts/Law degree from the University of Melbourne, and currently works for Matchbox Pictures, an Australian film and television production company.