Fiction 2013 / flash fiction / Volume 43

Termites — Diane Constantine

I stood in the basement, looking up at the floor joist with a flashlight. A small brown tunnel bulged discreetly downward, against the grain of the wood like half of a dun-colored soda-straw. It blended so that if I hadn’t looked for it, I wouldn’t have seen it.

My husband is home late from work. His shirt and pants are rumpled. I follow him into the bedroom to ask how his day has been. He stands in front of the mirror and pulls at his tie, tugging the knot from side to side until it slides mid-way down his chest. He looks at my reflection in the mirror looking back at him and states, “We need to talk.”

The tunnel is deceptive with inactivity. I pulled a ladder over and climbed it cautiously while carrying a flashlight in one hand and a screwdriver in the other. Up close, my head tucked uncomfortably between two dusty and cobwebby joists, I inspected the wood closer. It’s old, one hundred years or more; surely it has petrified, but I poke at it with the Philips-head.

I stare into the mirror into my husband’s eyes. I’ve never noticed the lines that slide off the outer corners, fanning like little skin eyelashes. The over-head light hits them just right so they look like the first cautious chiseling of a master marble sculptor, unrefined and just beginning but still hard. His eyes are gray like granite and cold as ice-age glaciers.

The wood was not petrified. The Philips-head slid softly into ancient oak, which was apathetic in its pithiness. A chunk of joist disintegrated and fell lightly to the floor. Underneath sat a network of empty veins that bore air but no visible life. I knew what had once coursed along those paths, silently eating away the cohesiveness of the wood; unseen, unheard, but terminally damaging nonetheless.

I hear a rushing in my ears like great waves crashing to a sandy beach and I am blind. Dusk has grayed the late afternoon early and as I feel my head, my thoughts begin to float lightly and disjointedly a hard painful crack to my knees parts the fog. A more distant crack sounds below me and I feel the floorboards bow ever so slightly under my weight. The room is empty but for me; I hear the garage door slam and an engine rev. A hollowness slowly gnaws into my stomach, my chest and my brain.

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