The Tick Wars

A Short Story by Dann Hazel

The blond bitch next door purchased a Dalmatian puppy for her young daughter. Then, when the dog was fully grown and her daughter living in Wisconsin with her dad, the woman’s handy new dick built a small enclosure of steel and wire. It was the worst kind of doggie prison. Which was not only cruel, since the bitch next door never exercised the dog and only sporadically fed and watered her, but personally annoying. I’ll tell you why. After months of defecation, urination, and steam heat, the poor dog’s smelly living area would take your breath away. I shit you not. Worse, the prison stood adjacent to my neighbor’s side of my privacy fence, next to the patio, where I used to enjoy an occasional barbecue.
            The poor dog is not to blame, of course. I blame the blond bitch next door. Blame grew into livid outrage.
            Finally, I called Animal Control to report her blatant cruelty.
            But first, I needed a closer look.
            One fence board, warped at the bottom, hung loose. With one hand, I pulled the board toward me, while in the other hand I held a large, plastic bowl filled with water. By now, I had heard the blond bitch call the dog “Fancy,” so we were on first name terms. Anyhow, Fancy managed to get her snout far enough through the opening to drink. I thought she’d tear off my hand, her thirst was so insatiable.
            Then, when I filled the bowl with kibble, she gobbled the crunchy pellets as though they were choice cuts of beef. As she ate, I saw, in horror and disgust (but mostly disgust), clusters of gray, bloated nodules all about her ears, nose, and neck. Filthy, feasting ticks, their bodies engorged with blood. Fancy’s blood. The animal had been purchased for a little girl, now hundreds of miles from the pet she proudly presented to me a year ago, while I washed my car myself, rather than hiring a neighborhood teenager. I’m cheap that way.
            Such a lively, spirited pooch! Scores of black polka dots in a sea of soft, white fur, and a tail wagging incessantly. Why this bitch that was my neighbor had to destroy a dog’s beautiful spirit I will never ever know. Perhaps it was an insult beyond tolerance that a mother would lose her only daughter, so young at that, to a vile creature she once referred to as her husband. Perhaps something snapped, filling her with vengefulness; she would have to capitulate because of the courts. But the dog was another way to get even.
            Animal Control accomplished very little. I should have known. City services often suck. Two men in a pickup truck stopped by. I watched from my living room window. Watched, as they rang the bitch’s doorbell. She was never home during the day. I could’ve told them that. In fact, I think I did tell them when I called. Still, the men, their embittered faces drawn by an endless routine of capturing and killing unwanted animals, must have called her, because she finally cleared the weeds from Fancy’s prison.
            Later, after the tongue-lashing from Animal Control (with relish, I heard most of it), she poured kibble in a bowl. The dog was excited, and when dogs are excited, they often bark. That’s what dogs do.
            “Shut up, Fancy!” she screamed so loudly that I hoped and prayed her lungs would burst.
            Poor Fancy, who never enjoyed human contact after her little master moved away. Now she wanted just a little love from a woman who had no love to give, and probably never did. After all, what mother loses custody to a child’s father?
            I heard her while lingering in the backyard with my miniature schnauzer, on her last potty break before climbing into bed for the night. “Do you have to pee, Abby?” I’d say to her in my kindest voice. She would break into a ritual dance, circling round and round in front of me, madly, dizzyingly, until she sometimes bumped into the patio door. Whenever I tossed Abby’s rubber ball for her to fetch, Fancy would howl, the sound elegiac, and therefore maddening. Abby would freeze, glance first in Fancy’s direction, and then in mine, imploring me to rescue this pitiful member of her noble species.
            But I’d done all I could. Which was, of course, not enough. Each time I heard poor Fancy cry, my heart sank, and I vowed I would confront the blond bitch, knowing all the time my resolve was a fucking lie. But I had a speech ready—one that I would eventually type, then mail to her—a speech to point out that her mistreatment of Fancy indicated a far more serious flaw in her character.
            Now, Abby straddled the back of the Heppelwhite sofa while I napped. Once, a door slammed across the street, and I was startled awake. I thought of other closed doors. I attempted to sleep again, but sleeping was not possible. Abby crawled onto my chest and licked my face. She’s very affectionate like that. And I stroked her cool, smooth back, and thought of yet another episode in my past.
            I took the boy—did I say boy? He was twenty-one, and a genius, and I only a couple of years older—I took the boy in because his father told him never to return home, now that he was a man, and a bad influence on his brother and sister. Most of the time, having no place to call home made little difference, but on weekends and during summer vacation, a military cadet would like a change of scene. He would like a life outside the school’s iron gates.
            Besides, he was cute. And did I say he was a genius?
            I met him in the library. I was working on my master’s degree in the evening program while he pursued his bachelor’s degree in political science. Intimacy was instant. When I bumped into him at the reference desk, he smiled, and asked what I was working on. In an hour, we were sitting together in the canteen, drinking decaffeinated coffee, while he told me his life story. He told me what a son-of-a-bitch his father was, a man, when inebriated, who would sometimes hold a pistol to his son’s head, threatening to kill him if he moved. A prisoner, Doug would have to stay, until his father passed out, or the terror in Doug’s eyes faded away, and his father grew bored. I felt sorry for him, as I was intended to, and felt, too, I might learn something from him. I even thought we could be friends.
            But a friend doesn’t exploit a friend, not the way he exploited me.
            When he lived with me during the summer, he often called a woman in Pennsylvania—a young woman who no longer liked him, who begged him to leave her the fuck along, he was too intense, she said, stop calling me, please, Doug, I beg you, don’t call me anymore, I panic every God damn time the phone rings.
            Secretly, despite her pleas, he continued to call, accumulating over two hundred dollars’ worth of long distance telephone calls. Doug wasn’t good for a cent, even though he held a summer job, even though he attended school on an Air Force scholarship. But Doug knew how to keep me hanging on; he knew how to charm and tease. He knew how to have his way with me.
            Whenever he changed clothes in my three-room apartment, he stood before me, gracefully, seductively pulling off his clothes, then pretending to have misplaced his running shorts. Naked, he might wander around the apartment for five or ten minutes before he “found” his pants, and by then, I would have memorized his genitalia for future reference—usually while he ran five miles through the streets of Charleston.
            “Oh, did I tell you about that time I participated in a ménage a trois?” he asked once, while searching for his briefs.
            “Two women?” I asked, from the bed, where I pretended to read the newspaper. I could hardly wait for him to run.
            “No. A man and a woman.”
            He said these things to make me think I had a chance.
            Once, when I invited several friends over to watch a porno flick I’d purchased at Le Chateau, the sleazy bookstore out on Dorchester Road, I invited him to join us. He knew I was being catty. His reply: “I don’t think so. I might enjoy the film too much.” Then, he smiled, and slipped away, into our bedroom, my face burning.
            I was in love with him, possessed by him, and he knew.
            Finally, I confessed. Put my feelings into words so they could be used as weapons against me. My parents, dead a year, and I an only child, had left me a secure inheritance. But each time I inspected a new bank statement, I saw the damage he had done. There is no such thing as perpetual security. There can never be enough money.
            I confessed my love. His voice full of resignation, he told me, as we sat at the table together, eating the dinner I’d cooked: “I am not gay. You know that. You’ve known that all along. I have no desire to be intimate with a man.”
            “But what about the threesome?” I asked pathetically.
            “I never said where I touched him. Or even if I did. Did I?”
            I shook my head.
            “I like you, of course. But you must understand. I like you as a friend. There is no possibility of us ever being more than that.”
            “Since the library, Doug, you have intentionally led me on. You suspected, even then, and you’ve used your knowledge to your benefit. Just like you’ve used me.”
            “When have I ever lied to you?” he demanded angrily. “Have I ever been anything less than honest?”
            “But you’ve taken advantage of me. I seldom go out anymore. I don’t meet new people. Because I thought—I hoped—”
            His cerulean eyes grew wide, incredulous. “I never stopped you from going out. I never stood in the way of your meeting new people. I wouldn’t have cared. I don’t care now.”
            “You spend my money as though it will never run out.”
            His palm landed hard on the table. The dishes danced, then crashed against the wooden surface. “You never seemed to mind! I have no time to work during the academic year. Still, I must have spending money. My father’s never going to turn loose of a nickel. That’s why I have a bullshit job, working with grimy, stupid hicks. I have to save, save, save. Charleston blue blood doesn’t run through my veins. I don’t hold that against you, but you don’t understand what it means to be anxious about money. I appreciate what you’re doing for me. I thought you knew that. But all I can do is say thanks.”
            Blushing, I glanced at the telephone. “What about those phone calls? Hundreds of dollars’ worth. That’s an expense you can control. And maybe I wouldn’t feel so resentful.”
            I saw his tears before he turned away. When he looked back, his eyes were red and dry, but his face was sad and drawn. “I’m a tortured man,” he said.
            Suddenly, I knew I was drawn as much to his passion as to his good looks. “I can’t flush her out of my system. She drives me crazy, even though I know it’s hopeless. She wants to be free of me. She’s threatened to have me arrested. But I can’t just give up. I can’t just let her go. I want to win her back. I think I can, because she doesn’t really know what she wants. God! If she could spend one night with me….”
            It all sounded so familiar, and maybe we were fellow inmates because of our torment. We shared a tiny prison, bumping into each other, treading on each other. We shared the same bed, the only bed I had, the only bed for which I had space. He always slept with his back toward me, and I, sleepless and agonized, stared at the ceiling, wanting him, wanting more than him. He was so much to be disgusted by, but I could appreciate his vulnerability and heavy load. He suffered an assiduous sadness I wanted to touch, but he would never let me. Some weakness inside wanted me to help him, to be his savior, wanted me to make him well, and perhaps, perhaps even I could be cured in the effort. If he could love me, then I would have my proof that bodies never matter. When we fall in love, it is the soul at work. The soul gives us beauty, and not that boy’s piercing eyes, or his solid runner’s physique, or the blond hair he twisted into knots as he read Tolstoy and Dostoevski and the other masters. And he mastered me. He stole my soul away until I felt a scaling back, a shrinking into nothing more than a driven man—no, nothing more than a drive. Could I feel this much love for him, and he not feel a taste of love for me? I could no longer believe the lesson I’d learned long ago, that love’s power moved mountains and yet, my love could not move him.
            Then, one day, it happened. The day I most feared. I knew he must come back, because all his clothes, his uniforms for the fall, were stored in boxes I’d pushed into corners.
            Another day passed. Not even the courtesy of a phone call. Finally, I dialed the contractor’s office. A brisk-voiced woman said he’d called in sick for the rest of the week. I was tempted to call his father. I was that desperate to apprehend him.
            Then, I remembered a heated argument between them that stopped me cold. Doug had called to speak to his brother at a prearranged time. Instead, his father picked up the extension. I could hear his angry voice several feet away. Doug’s free hand clenched into a fist, and he yelled back.
            “Yes, we do! So what? What does that mean?”
            He waited for his father’s answer, his forehead glistening with perspiration.
            “Just because we sleep in the same bed doesn’t mean squat—you can fucking believe whatever you want, you dumb shit!”
            And then, he slammed the phone against the cradle.
            Three days passed. My loneliness stretched to unscalable heights. I was drawn back into the night. I drank gin and vodka like water, and thought I was getting over him. But I would know the error of that assumption when, in the arms of other men, I thought of only him. The cocks I stroked and sucked, the ones up my ass, the assholes I penetrated, they all belonged to Doug. At night, Doug was always my sober truth, a fleeting truth, and I stayed drunk most of the time. By day, Doug was hurt, or lying unconscious in a ditch or a ravine. My fantasies were outrageous, my needs insufferable. Several times, I got into my car, and searched three counties, looking for bodies in wooded areas and abandoned buildings. If I found his, I swore I would fall on my knife beside him.
            I should have known better. Doug would suffer over the bitch in Pennsylvania, but never over me. I believed in love’s power to move mountains. I believed the larger my love grew, the more irresistible it would finally be. Hadn’t I already proved the sacrifices I would make for him?
            Unlucky at the bar, I returned to my apartment alone. My head spun from the gin. Popping a button from my shirt, I tore off my clothes, then fell into bed. The unanticipated warm body was, of course, Doug, and my heart leaped at the notion of normalcy again. He muttered a greeting, and asked if I had a good time. I answered with an indecipherable grumble, then my shoulder touched his back and I realized he was sleeping the way he always did—a clean pair of gym shorts and nothing more. A hint of the smell of his underwear lingered in my memory. On the second day of his absence, I pressed to my nose a pair of his worn briefs left in the middle of the bathroom floor. I closed my eyes, imagining him in my arms, and finally, calling my name in urgent desire as I touched every inch of his thin, brown body. And it would be wonderful even if he only passively clasped his fingers behind his head as I took his cock into my mouth, feeling its swollen, sweet texture against my tongue and the back of my throat. As he began to snore, I moved my foot against his leg. He didn’t move; so, braver now, I pressed my arm against his back and held my breath, because I knew he could kill me easily. But Doug snored on, mellifluously, and I closed my eyes and sank into the sound of his gentle, wavering breath. I longed to place my lips against his and explore the inside of his mouth with my tongue, and touch the soft tissue at the back of his throat.
        But the most I dared was to wrap my arm around his chest, then kiss his shoulder.
       “Good night,” I whispered.
       He choked awake. Suddenly, he was straddling me, his face in mine, demanding to know what I was doing, his strong hands around my neck, and I intensely aware of the callouses on those hands.
       “I’m sorry!” I managed to gurgle through a half-constricted throat.
       Then, Doug burst into laughter. He fell to his pillow, then raised his right arm to his forehead. His face looked pale in the security light, seeping through the curtains that had always been too thin. He turned his head into his pillow, and continued to laugh. He pounded his fists and kicked his legs against the mattress. I was hurt, offended, that my feelings he should find so laughable, so comical. I sat up, on my knees, watching him, waiting for silence. My offense turned to anger, because I was no more than a joke to him.
       Hell, I was a joke to myself.
       Soon, my anger subsided, and compassion took its place. He must be laughing because he’d finally seen the truth, and had accepted the love he’d always felt for me. I wanted to touch him again, but the possibility for another misinterpretation occluded fantasy. I kept my hands flat and numb against my thigh.
       Finally, his laughter died, and he sat up. His face was wet in the subtle light. He looked at me, almost gently, then said: “Don’t worry about it, Troy. You were drunk. I know how drunks are. I will never put a bottle in control of my life, but I don’t judge you because you do.”
       I wanted to strike him. I could easily have watched him die. Without thinking, I walked outside, wearing only my bikini briefs, and dove into the pool. I swam seven laps before I heard voices outside the pool gate. Apprehensively, I approached the gate, noticing the sign reminding swimmers of the pool’s operating hours. Carefully, I pushed the gate forward, feeling my underwear shrinking against me. Then, I sighed with relief, because the voices belonged to a couple who stood outside the young man’s car. Holding hands, they faced one another, their pelvises touching, then separating gently, rhythmically, in a familiar, innocent parody of fucking.
       When I returned to bed, Doug was already asleep. After finding dry clothes, I crawled in beside him, feeling nothing but forgiveness.
       The next morning, I cooked breakfast for him, a customary duty before he left for work. But this particular morning, he announced he wasn’t going back. School would begin in two weeks anyway.
       Then, almost sheepishly, he confessed he’d met an English teacher last Monday, during lunch hour, while he finished a construction job in the historic district.
       “A Greek,” he said. “We spent the last five days together, sacked up in a room at the Mills House.”
       “The Mills House?”
       “We screwed several times a day. Jesus, her appetite was insatiable! We did it so many times, my dick is raw. Literally raw! But God! That woman was hot!”
       “So much for a teacher’s responsibility to uphold community standards.”
       He glared at me. “Cut the pompous bullshit. I don’t like criticism of her. She’s a wonderful woman. Besides, she’s helping me get over Angel. You do want me to stop obsessing about her, don’t you?”
       I changed tact. “How can a teacher afford the Mills? Or did you pay, with the money you had to save for school?”
       He ignored my sarcasm. “She was in town for an educators’ conference,” he said as he ripped a piece of toast apart with his teeth. He grinned. “I don’t think she attended a single meeting.”
       Then, he told me she’d invited him to visit her in Macon. She wanted him to meet her husband.
       It was my turn to laugh. “The woman you fucked all week long wants to introduce you to her old man?”
       One corner of his mouth turned up, his eyes twinkling. “It’s hard for me to believe, too, but I think he wants to watch,” he explained. “They’re Greeks, you know.”
       Three days later, I drove him to the bus depot. Before he boarded, he pressed a one-hundred dollar bill into my hand, instead of hugging me. He had purchased a one-way ticket, and left me with instructions not to worry. “I’ll be back before school starts, or when they tell me I have to go,” he said. “I’ll definitely be back in time for school.”
       My world became real again when, in memory, I dumped his things in the garbage bin. Abby still slept in the same place, her hind legs stretched across my stomach, her eyelids twitching in dream time. She growled once, in her sleep, and I wondered at her dreams. I smiled, both at Abby, and at my own chutzpah back then, to discard all he’d left behind, thinking foolishly that eliminating the physical evidence, even the smell of him, could ever make me forget. I missed him all the more. I pined away, like a schoolgirl, for a phone call. I ached to know how he could sever our connection so completely, so callously.
       Suddenly, I felt a tingling sensation on the calf of my leg. Abby opened her eyes and stared at me, without budging.
       All at once, I saw a tiny dark spot moving up my leg, toward my thigh. I pulled it off, a brown tick, kicking aimlessly, between my thumb and index finger.
       “Damn that bitch!” I muttered, then glanced at Abby, whose eyes darted guiltily from side to side before jumping to the floor.
       “No, not you, baby. I mean the bitch next door,” I murmured comfortingly. Her little stump of a tail wagged furiously.
       I carried the tick to the bathroom, with Abby yapping at my heels. I threw the parasite into the toilet bowl, then knelt beside it, watching the pest skim across the water’s surface membrane. Abby stood on her hind legs, beside me, her front paws supporting her body against the rim, as I flushed it into oblivion.
       I lifted my salt-and-pepper pet into my arms, then carried her back into the living room. I sat, Indian-style, on the floor, and gently lay her on her back against the gray carpet. Right away, I noticed several smallish blemishes on her stomach—baby ticks, they were, and I raced again to the bathroom for Kleenex and my blunt-nose tweezers I often use to pluck bothersome hairs away. I extricated eight ticks from various places on Abby’s coat, and held each one between menacing tweezers. Then, I pressed the tweezers against the tissue and squeezed, squeezed until the tick’s body popped, and all that was left was a tiny splotch of blood on the tissue and the translucent dead body of the tick. I placed one of the exoskeletons on my fingertip, amazed how, once the blood was extracted, the arachnid looked like creamy plastic. I hated them now, passionately, consummately, hated them, knowing with the vague certainty of past learning the only way they survive was by sucking the blood from their host. That they died quickly was no consolation to me; parasites eat to breed, breed to eat, their lives reduced to destructive cycles and meaninglessness.
       My dreams fatigued me—I fatigue easily these days—so I went to bed and read of gender roles throughout the centuries. Those ubiquitous descriptive theories lulled me to sleep. A small chunk of time had already passed when my eyes, automatically, opened wide.
       A tingling once more, at the entrance to my ear canal, drew my finger toward it. As I feared—as I knew—a tick was attempting to force an entry. I rolled out of bed with a loud, angry yell, and raced for my tweezers.
       “Son of a bitch!” Confused, Abby cowered atop my pillow, and watched me disappear into the bathroom.
       With a particular vengeance, I squeezed the blood from this brazen creature, which exploded with a soft pop. I wondered if a tick could, through the ear, gain access to the brain, and I wondered if it was my brain this parasite was after—perhaps thinking it might breed a bigger tick.
       I climbed back into bed and turned off the bedside lamp. Abby waited patiently for me to assume my customary nocturnal position. Then, she circled twice, plopped beside me with a canine sigh, her strong, smooth back pressed against my stomach. It was her favorite bedtime position since I purchased her as a young puppy. I became her mother, and like other disturbing symbionts, she’d never outgrown her need to sleep against me. It made her secure—and me, as well.
       I tossed and turned, punched my pillows, caressed Abby’s soft, warm belly to relax. But each time I felt a hair move, or an itch, I’d turn on the light. For two hours, sleep eluded me. I waited and watched for other assaults that never came. Finally, Abby stood, stared into my face, licked my nose once, then retired to the foot of the bed with a huffy sigh. “Sorry,” she seemed to say. “This arrangement isn’t going to work. I’ve got to have some sleep.”
       And so did I. But only three hours. I woke up shortly after the sun rose, scratching furiously at the inside of my thigh. I pulled off my shorts, then sat on the edge of the bed.
       A tick had fastened itself to a tender spot. Its body was twice as fat, twice as bloated with blood, as the marauder I’d pulled out of my ear.
       Carefully, I pulled at the tick, which held my skin tight in its mouth. I kept pulling, until the tick knew to let go, or decapitation would be its fate. I’d read of the danger of pulling this way. If a tick’s head is left buried beneath the host’s skin, it can continue to feed.
       Finally, the tick surrendered. I held the little bastard inches from my eyes; I could see its tiny head. In the kitchen, I placed the tick on a paper towel. Then, I folded it carefully inside. I opened the drawer beside the sink, and pulled out the hammer I often used to hang artwork. I knelt on the floor. Then, I smashed the hammer repeatedly against the folded paper towel, until a blotch of blood—my blood—appeared among the blue, floral designs. When I looked up, Abby cowered in the kitchen doorway. When I stood, she ran away. I found her, hiding, beneath the dining room table. She rolled over, on her back, in a submissive position, when I tried to pet her. She was, for a moment, afraid of me.
       The day of the invasion arrived. Sitting on the sofa, channel-surfing from televangelist to armchair shrink, from talk show host to shop-at-home salesman, I felt a depressingly familiar creeping sensation along my forearm. With a guttural yet ambiguous sound that brought Abby’s cropped ears to attention, I pinched the tick between my fingers, then delivered it to the bathroom, where my gold-plated tweezers awaited me. After transferring the tick from fingertip to tweezertip, I squeezed—squeezed—until a small stream of blood trickled down the tweezer tongs. I wrapped the tick and wiped the blood into a piece of toilet tissue, dropped the stained ball of tissue into the toilet, and flushed.
       Upon returning to the den, I found Abby running in frenetic circles, chasing a tail she sacrificed to the pedigree goddess. With some effort, I managed to stop her. I coddled her, relaxed her, then peeked at her anus. Another tick vigorously sought attachment there. It glided gracefully on eight legs toward the anal opening, which Abby squeezed so tight, she could have broken a pencil in half.
       “Stay!” I commanded, knowing my voice was too harsh.
       I ran for the tweezers, then returned to subdue Abby, who, wild-eyed, watched as I probed at the tick with the tweezers. Twice, the tick slid out of the tweezer pincers; Abby jumped, then whined, at the cold metal against her sensitive flesh. Finally, on the third attempt, my grasp was good. I carried the kicking parasite out of the room for the ritual of which I was quickly tiring. Abby followed, looking confused and ashamed.
       “It’s okay, baby,” I whispered soothingly. “It’s not your fault. We’ll do something so they won’t bother you anymore.”
       Once again, I inspected every inch of her body, and found two small creatures attached to fine, layered hair on her chest. Then, recalling the hideous, growing globules about Fancy’s face and ears, I searched frantically through her whiskers and eyebrows, where a single tick was able to attach itself above her left eye.
       I was crazed. Mad. Insane. These conscienceless ticks had no shame, no sensitivity to viscous membranes or the evil damage they could spread with their filth and invisible disease. I wanted to destroy every tick in the world; I wasn’t sure how to begin. Every follicle in my skin tingled. I pulled off my clothes, and searched my own body. I turned my back to the full-length mirror, and looked over my left shoulder.
       A dark splotch, on my lower back!
       When I grabbed at it with the tweezers, I painfully realized it wasn’t a tick at all, but a tiny mole.
       I began dressing. As I stepped into my white underwear, I saw the crawling thing waiting in the crotch of the fabric. I had to take dramatic action, or reserve a padded room somewhere.
       Coming from the next room, I heard Abby’s pitiful whining. Dreading the worst, I stepped inside. I watched her swatting her ear with her paw. I grabbed her, kissed the top of her head, then inspected each ear. A fatter tick fed in the creviced, tender areas of her right ear. They were, I realized, determined to destroy us both! They were determined to feed until not a drop of our blood was left for them.
       I pinned Abby’s head against the carpeted floor, and talked to her in soft, comforting tones. As deep as I had to insert the tweezers into her ear, one quick move might mean ripping her fragile ear apart. Uncannily, she remained death-still, her eyes rolled back in fear. After four canal entries, I finally clamped down on the tick, and extricated it from soft tissue that oozed blood from the bite. Abby yelped in pain. I hated the nasty creature kicking its legs hysterically, drunk on Abby’s blood. This big one I squeezed between my fingers, I had so tight a grasp. How easily it exploded, Abby’s blood splattering against my face, and the tick’s filthy body collapsing over my finger like a tiny, slimy balloon.
       Ranting, raving, and weeping, I dropped the tick into the toilet. I started the shower. My quest would begin right now. Victory would belong to me. If I had to transform my environment into a toxic wasteland, I would, if I could only drive these pests away. I showered quickly, then carefully dressed in my disguise. Smiling, I glanced at the calendar. I would have to wear it only a few months longer.
       In less than an hour, I returned, with a collar I’d purchased from the vet for Abby, guaranteed to kill any tick on her body for up to four months. I connected the Ortho flea and tick lawn treatment to the garden hose, and sprayed the mixture over the entire lawn and every shrub, with fleeting remorse that the spray might kill a bird or two.
       Then, I carried Abby to my car, parked inside the garage, and started the engine. I turned on the air conditioner. Abby must be removed during treatment of the Third Zone—my house. Direct inhalation of the mixture could be fatal. I sprayed the chairs, the bed itself, the sofa, every inch of carpet. I drove Abby all over town, killing time while the chemical killed the ticks. After two hours, we returned home. She was as energetic as ever before, tossing her rubber ball, until I rose from the sofa—when was I going to feel like moving again?—and led her outside, where I threw the ball to her. Each time, she swiped it from the air, like a graceful outfielder.
       For days, I was tentative about victory. Then, after several nights of uninterrupted sleep, and skin that no longer responded to phantom touches, I lived in my dear, dead parents’ house with confidence.
       I thought of Doug, whom I hadn’t seen in years. He’d raised hell about his uniforms. I told him someone had broken into the apartment. He calmed down quickly when I asked him the amount for which to write the check for replacements. There have been other men since Doug, but my relationships with them were dismal failures. I never feel quite the same passion. Even therapy has no answers. If I’m inebriated, a gay man is an adequate diversion; upon sobriety, I feel a sense of lying, of falseness, of betraying myself. What I’ve had could never be that good for me. What I want, I can never have.
       But I am nothing if not stubborn.
       I’ve met another man now. His marriage is on the brink of failure. And I wonder.
       I wonder.
       I’ve taken small yet significant steps. If I could name my sacrifice, he might re-evaluate the sour world. The drugs, the hormones, the therapy—I’ve had it all. I must learn new ways of moving mountains. I dream of a real man’s arms around me; I dream of his lips against mine. I dream of high fashion and the best parties, of being his pride, his joy, the envy of every woman, the desire of every man. I know it can happen, with determination. I killed the ticks, didn’t I? I killed them, every one.
       Name the sacrifice, by God; I’ll make it. Sacrifice requires ingenuity and determination, and I’ve had thirty years of that.
       The third stage begins soon. I’ve been told it feels like a blow torch aimed, full-blast, between your legs. But I’m no stranger to pain. It will mean whatever it means, and I will learn to live with it—rather, without it, it would be less misleading to say.

       I am so impatient with the waiting!
       I asked what they did with it. My surgeon told me it is useless, most of it. Some of the flesh is salvaged—for the sensations. But I don’t care. I’m already feeling sensations I’ve never felt before. Up here, inside my head, my husband squirms in pleasure, and I am the cause.

       Soon, the scarves, dresses and pumps I wear will be so much more than a disguise.

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