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The Shells of 1988


Jax Rerun

My sister Hannah stands in her ivory, cream and tan living room before a group of women: her fellow West Jet accountants, car dealers from her husband’s firm, and me and Mom. She lifts a clear satchel of white and gold tubes and runs her hand, Vanna White style, underneath it while announcing: “The Satin Hands Gift Pack.” The women laugh and nod as they clasp their freshly scrubbed and moisturized hands. Hannah sells Mary Kay products part time; it's a "little extra spending money." Her cheeks are buffed and bronzed and dusted with pink powder. A thin black line runs above her thick eyelashes and pale purple eye shadow arcs across her eyelids like butterfly wings. Purple eye shadow has made a comeback.

Hannah was sixteen the first time purple eye shadow passed through our lives. She had brown crimped hair streaked with blonde, and wore tight acid-washed jeans. She never left the house without her white satin jacket with gold words stitched on the back: Memorial Composite High School Cheer Squad. I was ten years old and knew nothing about the outside world's perception of cheerleaders. All I knew was that my sister played cool music and taught me new dance steps. Hannah doesn't dance anymore; she blew out her knee while line dancing with her husband a few years ago. But she still takes good care of herself. She walks to the park with her son, prepares her own low-fat meals, and uses gentle herbal shampoos.

Hannah shows her co-worker Marilyn how to rub toner up and out so that it cleanses the pores. Marilyn runs a cotton pad up her cheek and out to the temple. Hannah smiles. The outer shell of a Juniper cone clings to her shirt sleeve; it dangles up and then out as Hannah demonstrates the cleansing technique to another coworker on the couch. Her arm brushes against her waist and the Juniper shell tumbles and lands near my foot. Its transparent brown scales seem alien in this world of plush white carpet lightly scented with rosewater. It conjures images of a dark thing shedding its skin and slipping through the shadows to slink under the over-stuffed couches of this suburban paradise.

I move my sandal away from the Juniper shell. Hannah's sales pitch fades into the background as I'm drawn through memories into the basement of our old Stony Plain house. That was the first time I ever had my own room. Hannah and I moved out of Mayerthorpe’s small, dark green room and into Stony Plain's freshly painted, eggshell-white rooms with lush white carpeting.

Hannah's room was smaller than mine but had a window. Under the window was her water bed: skirted with deep blue cotton and topped with a white goose-down comforter. She had one white dresser decorated with Blue Rodeo, Duran Duran, and Madonna stickers. The floor was uncluttered except for one stack of small teddy bears from Walter, or Marc, or Dez, or Chad.

My floor had one patch of open space where I practiced the dance moves Hannah taught me. The rest of the floor was covered in rolled up blankets, hardcover books, crumpled clothes, plush dolls, yellow Tonka trucks, play dough accessories, and construction-paper puppets. My mom had tried every tactic in the parental handbook to get me to keep my room clean, but she eventually concluded it was a stage I was going through, and let my mess grow into a comfortable nest.

The basement had its own bathroom which Hannah and I claimed as "our bathroom." That was where I first saw the shells. I had no idea what they were. I held one up to the bathroom light; it was similar to the skin of a popcorn kernel but long and cylindrical. Its transparent skin was grooved at regular intervals, and when I squeezed my fingers together the shell crumbled into sharp bits of dust. It was meaningless dust and my curiosity was outweighed by my sister's insistent need to use the washroom. Every night she filled the tub with warm water and splashed Poison, a deep purple perfume, into the water. The reek of it spread through the basement and made me sneeze, until I stomped up the stairs to finish my homework at the kitchen table. I hated that perfume. My mom simply laughed and said I'd be a teenager soon: then I'd see. One day, fed up, I dumped the entire bottle of Poison into her underwear drawer while Hannah was at cheer practice . The overpowering stench made me retch but at least the bottle was empty. Mom assumed the loosely-lidded bottle fell off the dresser and spilled into the drawer, and told Hannah she should be more careful with her stuff. Hannah sat silent, scowling at me.

More of the weird, hollow shells appeared in the bathroom and hallway by our bedrooms. Dad was watching a Dukes of Hazzard rerun in the family room, so I showed him one of the strange, crispy shells. He knew what it was. “That's skin,” he said. I squinted at his face searching for the tell-tale signs of a lie or a joke. He ruffled my hair and explained that it was from a centipede; they shed their skin just like snakes. It was nothing to worry about. I grew up playing with bugs: chasing cabbage moths out of the garden, letting daddy-long-legs tickle my bare arms, and catching caterpillars to raise in my Fisher Price barn. I was not afraid of bugs, although I didn't know what a centipede looked like.

Nobody seemed concerned about the centipede shells. Mom and Dad worked, Hannah and I attended school, and our little brother Kyle went to daycare. Days passed, and Centipede skins continued to collect in the hall between the bathroom our bedrooms. Soon there were too many to ignore. I wanted to see one of the skin-sloughing insects. Mom wanted to see one too. In fact, she wanted to see them all so that she could find their "nest" and stop the infestation.

Mom had one very strict rule about our bedrooms: no food. I always broke rules. I let my friends Gary and Nikki copy my homework, I stole sips of Dad's beer when he wasn't looking, and I ate in my bedroom. Mom eyed my messy room with suspicion.

I finally saw one of the centipedes; it crawled along the floorboard between my room and Hannah's. It was an oily, black, mechanical thing. Its body had too many segments, too many legs, and two curving fangs that twitched as it scuttled back and forth. When I crunched it against my shoe, it released no juices. It was a shell-creature -- no guts -- and I despised it.

I pulled the covers up to my neck that night, and I lay there trying not to imagine myself in the paralysis of sleep: thick black centipedes slinking up my nose and into my ear to investigate my brain. Later that night I jerked awake, and I saw a memory instead of reality. The walls of my room were too close and too dark -- I was seeing my old Mayerthorpe room. I knew that I was in Stony Plain, knew that the walls were farther away, knew it was an illusion; I rubbed my eyes but still could not see reality. I got out of bed and ran my hands along the wall, searching for the light switch. I swept my arms up and down -- searching, searching. The room refused to change. I managed to croak out "Hannah." I yelled her name again, louder. She flicked on the light and snapped: "What?" I tried to tell her about the walls but she said it was only a dream, though she couldn't explain why I wasn't in bed if it was only a dream. She told me to go back! to sleep. I made her wait outside the bathroom while I peed and glared at the fresh pile of centipede shells on the bathroom's linoleum.

The black centipedes got braver and crawled all over the basement. Everyone saw them. Mom hated them, Hannah hated them, and Kyle would cry whenever he saw one. Finally, Mom pulled out a box of big green garbage bags and marched downstairs. Sensing impending doom, I began crying before she crossed my bedroom's threshold. She stuffed my Popples and Barbies into a bag, then handfuls of books and Archie comics, then Legos and Hot Wheels. My closet was emptied into another plastic jail cell. She took a hockey stick and slid all the papers out from under my bed and dumped them. I sobbed and sobbed as my precious treasures were banished into trash bags. And yet, the centipede nest was not found. My mom gestured to the overstuffed, green bags, and told me I had three days to organize my junk, or she'd throw it all away.

She left the house, and came back two hours later with a large box containing a new shelving system and a Preemie Cabbage Patch Kid that she had just happened to find at a garage sale on the way back home from the hardware store. We knelt on the floor and built the shelves together, then carefully arranged each toy, book, and doll upon it. That night I shut my bedroom door and slept: knowing that my room was centipede free.

The next evening Hannah came into my room wearing her blue terrycloth robe with a large “H” embroidered in gold over her heart. Her hair was wet and she smelled like Oscar de la Renta: her new bath perfume. She was silent and paced for a moment. I felt like demanding “what do you want,” but didn't dare to upset her. At last, she turned to me and said, “Come here.” I eyed her with suspicion. “Just come“ she ordered, and I followed her into her bedroom. She sprawled across her white blanket and lifted the water bed's blue skirt. I lay down beside her and craned my neck to peer under the bed. It was dark and appeared empty until my eyes adjusted, and I could make out the brown edges of a half eaten apple – surrounded by a squirming ball of black centipedes. Bile pushed at the back of my throat. Hannah looked away and let the bed skirt fall back into place.

Neither of us wanted to touch the ball of centipedes, not even with gloves. I snuck up to the kitchen and grabbed a green bottle of Raid, and Hannah sprayed and sprayed the swarm until we choked on the fumes, and the centipedes scrambled around and around, but would not die. I told her she had to tell Mom, but she refused. I told her she had to get rid of it, and she agreed. We had a serious problem: how to do it?

My new shelf provided the answer. Hannah ripped its large, cardboard box into two wedges; then she slid one half under the nest and clamped the other down on top of it. She stood in the center of her room with the teeming nest sandwiched between the cardboard wedges. She held her arms straight out in front of her, as her eyes frantically searched for a safe place to put the angry mass of centipedes. Two slick, black centipedes fell to the floor. “The toilet, the toilet,” I shrieked. She ran into the bathroom trailing centipedes behind her. The toilet was a stupid idea: an apple would never flush.

Instead, Hannah dropped the cardboard into the bathtub and cranked on the hot water. The waterspout immediately pinned one end of the cardboard lid to the bottom of the tub. The other end of the cardboard sprung up in the air and formed a slanted roof that sheltered the centipedes from the water. The swarm spread over the bottom of the tub: thick black bodies slinking over and under one another. Their tiny clawed feet clicked against the porcelain. The centipedes advanced as a wave, pushing against the side of the tub and rising towards me and Hannah. Hannah tried to grab the cardboard roof but a centipede brushed against her and she yanked her hand back in panic. Her hands fluttered over the tub: unsure what to do. The centipedes scuttled up the side of the tub. Desperate now, I grabbed a bottle of papaya shampoo and smashed the closest centipede. Its body crackled under the plastic. Hannah grasped a bottle of raspberry conditioner and ! slammed it into a pile of centipedes. She twisted its base and their bodies snapped beneath it. Still the black wave advanced. We jerked the bottles up and down: thunk, twist, crackle, and thunk, twist, crackle, and thunk, twist, crackle. Hannah's bottle split down the side and pink creamy liquid oozed onto the corpses – their crisp black fragments became a sickly grey paste that splattered against the white porcelain and up into our faces with each bash of the bottle.

We did not stop until the tub was half full of murky water. The cardboard wedges floated next to the broken bodies of the centipedes. Hannah closed her eyes, and plunged her hand into the tub to pull the rotten apple out of the plugged hole. At last, the limp centipedes disappeared down the drain. We sat down panting: breathing in steam with the gentle scent of raspberries.

We never told Mom what really happened to the centipedes that infested the basement that summer. She eventually concluded that an early frost must have killed them off. She also concluded that my month-long refusal to bathe in the basement bathroom was just another stage I was going through.

I look over at my mom, comfortably seated on Hannah's cream and tan rocker, she admires her new “Autumn Mist” lips in a small mirror. The coworker Marilyn sits on my sister's couch, examining beads of jasmine bath oil. Hannah signals for their attention as she holds a wide-based bottle of eucalyptus shampoo high above her head. I nod politely along with the other women, as my sandal slowly grinds the crisp, transparent Juniper shell into the clean, white carpet.

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