Ants

by Jacqueline Lydon, age 16
Ants

“The queen died last night. The colony is in a fervor. They look lost. Each wanders the tunnels they made, like aliens. The dirt and glass, that used to wrap them in warmth and keep them safe, now feel like a maze with no end or prize for solving. They don’t eat or sleep.”

The queen died last night. The colony is in a fervor. They look lost. Each wanders the tunnels they made, like aliens. The dirt and glass, that used to wrap them in warmth and keep them safe, now feel like a maze with no end or prize for solving. They don’t eat or sleep. Ants are strong creatures, but without direction, it doesn’t matter that they can carry twenty times their own weight. Once there’s no one left to protect, it doesn’t matter that they can fight to the death to protect their colony.

He could wait for the last eggs to hatch, but thinks he’d rather not trust his luck. He’ll have to find another queen outside later.

He sighs and sits back from the desk where his ant farm rests. Even from back here, he can see their movement, like rocks tumbling through kaleidoscopes, jumbled and directionless. He drops in some food, but knows it won’t make a difference.

The desk is empty of anything important besides his ants. He used to do homework here. Schoolwork stays on his bed now; clutter has seeped into the rest of his room like mold. The sparse sunlight, coming through his window, does little to drive it out.

After one last check on the ants, he grabs his backpack and heads out to walk the three blocks to school. It’s bright out, the kind of bright where you can’t see anything, but it doesn’t feel like seeing matters much when no one can. The dry, dusty air doesn’t help. He heads to his first class, biology, and sits in his usual seat in the back, two seats behind that girl: the mayor’s kid, who always writes down the answers, but doesn’t raise her hand and always seems to get her hair caught on the nails on the back of her chair.

He saw the mayor last fall, when she gave her annual speech at graduation. Though she probably doesn’t have much better to do, he muses, taking care of a town like this, with as many stop lights as they have water fountains. It’s three, not that he’s counting. Seems like she couldn’t take care of her family too well either, with all that he’s heard about her. He thinks the girl is lonely. At least, he hasn’t seen her talk to anyone, and she walks through the hallways as if, despite her years here, she’s never seen them before.

He lets out a breath and takes out his books. Maybe he was too loud; she turns around. She’s never done that before.

“Will you quit staring at me?”

He stops for a second. “What?”

She’s already turned back, and maybe she heard, but she might not have; class is starting. It’s another lesson on macromolecules.

He taps his fingers one by one on the top of the desk, almost feeling the vibrations. He imagines all the bugs, the bacteria and parasites, and all the little creatures that live beneath his feet. He feels like he’s in a million pieces, a million tiny things swimming around in space that, when looked at from far away enough, happen to resemble one being. For some reason, the more he tries to understand, the worse it gets. So he looks at the grayed whiteboard, streaked with faint lines of different colors from where lines have been drawn and erased, drawn and erased. The ceiling is falling in, the drooping panels pretending that instead of metal bars, they’re hanging by a thread. The lab desks are painted black, but those are chipping too.

From back here, the kids are just hair, a motley of dull brown and black. Not a large enough group for a single redhead. He thought middle school would be bigger than this, with looming lecture halls steep enough to slide down, so they can fit all the kids. There are twenty-three kids here, and he knows each of their names and their parents. It’s easy to look down on them, knowing they’ll be stuck here forever, first at the college, then as workers in the electrical plant or the grocery store, and he will have escaped.

He blinks back to the lesson and tries to remember that even in a place like this, there’s something alive. It’s just too small to see.

When class is over, the girl walks out, not quite rushing, so he takes that as a good sign and jogs to catch up.

“Hey, wait.”

It almost looks like she’s walking faster, but it’s hard to tell. Someone bumps into him and while he’s distracted, she slips away.

He walks home on the same route he’s been walking most of his life. He thought he would be out of here, going to the elite boarding school two towns over. But when the money fell through, he found there weren’t too many scholarships available for ant enthusiasts. He supposes the town owes it to him, owes him good education, or at least a chance. The college is the only thing keeping this place on its feet, but it doesn’t seem that different from the rest of the town.

A car drives by, kicking up dust and dirt. He starts to cough. It’s the first car he’s seen today, but the dust doesn’t make his eyes water like it used to.

He stops by his house to grab some supplies and heads down to the only park in town, which is less of a park and more of a field. Grass and trees don’t live long in the desert. As the sand and dirt and dust came in, so did the ants. Now there’s hardly a place you can walk without stepping on one.

He crouches down by a tree near the entrance. Here, ants have nestled their homes, between the thick roots that bend through the dirt like tentacles. In order for the queen to be ready for a new colony, it must be hatched and mated, but not yet bonded with her colony. There are several colonies here, so at least one should have an extra queen. He keeps track of the ants here passively, just in case something should go wrong. He takes out his container. Lays down a trap.

The queen is coming for it. He just has to wait.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees something.

The girl is standing there. Looking down at him. And there he is, playing in the dirt.

“Boo.” She doesn’t sound like she’s trying too hard to scare him. “What are you doing?”

“Oh, uh, nothing.”  

“Just hanging out?” She sounds incredulous, but almost smiles, as if this is a perfectly plausible excuse.

He tries to swallow and sighs instead. “I need an ant queen. For my ant farm?”

“Oh, right, your ant farm. You know, I forgot about the ant thing, from the science fair in third grade? Nice to know some things never change.”

He shrugs, not able to do much else. “Why are you here, then?”

“I just had to get out for a bit.” He can’t tell if she means her house or all of this, but it makes sense.

Her hands jammed in her pockets, her eyes shift across the landscape. “See you later, ant guy. If I can’t avoid it.”

He turns back to find his ant prize all wrapped up for him, but he leaves confused.

Introducing a new ant queen to a colony takes meticulous time. A single worker must be removed, refrigerated to make it less aggressive, and then placed next to the queen. She has to prove her dominance on the worker, and the worker must get used to the queen’s scent. Then, another worker is refrigerated and added, then another, over the course of days or even weeks. The queen has to win them over one by one, though the first is always the hardest.  

People always used to tell him that when he got older and got a job, he would get caught in the grind of life, waking up early every morning and completing whatever slack-jawed job he was assigned until he went to bed. Maybe it will happen one day, but for now, his life isn’t like that. Not just because his schoolwork doesn’t occupy all his time, but because the time he wasn’t working, he spent on something he’s actually enjoying: his ant farm. People could talk, but it didn’t bother him when he knew he had at least made meaning in a life where everything seemed to be working against just that.

When he introduces the first worker, it keeps its distance. Maybe he didn’t wait long enough. It still seems stuck on its old queen. It’s aggressive towards the new one.

Ants fighting those from other colonies often battle to the death, and he doesn’t know how far this one will go. He leaves them alone and hopes for the best.

The problem with people is that they can’t be kept isolated or refrigerated to make them docile.

In his next biology class, she’s missing. Absent, unexcused. First time this year.

On his desk is a pencil-sketched picture of an ant.

***

A week later, more worker ants have been added to the mix. There’s fighting still, with the queen and each other. He should have waited longer, but now, he just follows the process, adding one ant a day.

She still hasn’t shown up to class. He thinks about looking for her and tries going to that spot in the park again, but finds nothing.  

He starts to worry about her. Something had to have happened. People don’t just disappear, especially in a town where it’s hard enough to leave by normal methods.

There’s a species of ants in the Amazon that build elaborate traps out of plant fiber. They fill it with holes, and each wait beneath one, and when an insect comes on top, every ant reaches through the hole and grabs the insect with their jaws. They’re predators, sometimes even to other ants.

The ground has been feeling pretty thin to him lately.

***

It takes a month for him to incorporate the rest of the worker ants with the queen. From their eyes, it must be a massive crowd. It would be hard to find a spot where your antennas weren’t bumping into anyone. Some of them climb over each other, and though there isn’t much fighting, there’s tension in the container. A queen is a queen, and while they know they need her, they don’t bow to her. He starts to incorporate them back into the ant farm, though this is a first for the new queen. It seems to reinvigorate her; in her own domain, with her special chambers, she begins to take control.

He starts to anticipate biology class; now there’s a black hole in the room bigger than the lab desk and two spots farther away. He feels like the jellyfish used for DNA splicing — some strange thought is now part of him, and there’s no way to get it out. He wonders if anyone else notices her absence. Are they looking for her? Are the police looking for her? What if she was murdered, or kidnapped?

When his curiosity gets the better of him, he asks the teacher, who shrugs, then the kids who sit next to her chair, who do the same. It’s not that no one noticed, but no one seems personally invested enough to try and do anything. He isn’t either, but the more he learns of others’ negligence, the more he wants himself to care.

So after another week, when his ants have settled and he has nothing he can distract himself with, he heads down to the mayor’s house.

It’s taller than the other houses on the block, but not imposing. It has a porch, tall windows, gray walls. The driveway holds a single car, pointing outwards.

He’s seen the mayor before, up on stage and in pictures in the town hall. He’d been in there a couple times, for his fifth grade piano recital before he quit, and then for graduation. He often wonders if she knows him, if she remembers the names of most of the citizens, or if she just directs from afar. Ant queens use chemical signals to direct different workers, and he wonders how much of her job is behind the scenes.

He looks at the doorbell, the creaky steps, and covered windows. The chipping, cesious paint on the doorframe reminds him of the biology desks. The door, however, looks freshly painted, so he can tell someone is trying to keep up appearances. The windows are dusty, so he imagines if they spend time looking out across the town, it would be on this porch, on the couch, and scattered chairs. There’s a deck of cards on the table in the middle, and he wonders if they spend a lot of time out here.

He decides to go in the back way instead.

There’s a shed with the door open, so filled as to make the place unusable, yet still somewhat organized. Bikes are in their slots on the back wall, posters for a Girl Scout cookie booth on the walls, tennis rackets in a pile next to the balls, and portable net. There’s a life here, a childhood. Nothing too recent, though.

He heads in the back door. He’s been here twice before, once for her birthday party, once for an invitation to “hang out.” He thought they had fun, but she didn’t really talk to him or invite him over after that.

He wonders if the mayor is home. He hasn’t seen her lately, but she must be around, attending to the town or something. He wonders if she’s been looking for her daughter, if she knows where she went.

It’s a little familiar, and he figures out where to turn to go up one flight of stairs, and then another. He glances into the rooms he passes: a bright kitchen, a formal living room, rows of bedrooms ready for use. There are lots of signs and crochet pillows with sayings like No Place Like Home and Love This Place.

When each of the rooms turn up empty, he heads up to the attic.

It’s strange to think of the deadness he’s seen in this place for so long as contentment. Do people really choose to live here? The mayor must. But looking around, her attic is empty, except for dust bunnies and a few boxes on the sides and in the corner. There are ants living in almost any climate, even the tundra, but he doubts his ants would like it up here, in the dry heat and stale air. He supposes for once, he’s grateful he’s not an ant.

There’s a small, square window in the center. He pushes aside the curtain and stops to look out.

It’s getting late, and he can see the sun passing over the horizon. A first star looks down. When he thinks about solar systems, it’s easy to imagine ours as an atom, one cog in a massive machine beyond human comprehension. It’s nice, for once, to imagine himself as part of something greater.

From here, he can see everything: the paths of the school, the buildings and streets, the hospital he was born in, the ice cream place he used to walk to from his house. The lined passageways don’t make a matrix, they make sense: a thousand weaving roads each leading to another, all centered around this house. There are dozens of people out, some driving on the roads, others walking through the park or standing in their lawns. Only ants have to follow the passageways they build.

Looking out, he can’t think of where she would have gone. He used to think he was stuck here, but now it seems like the only thing keeping him here was himself.

Out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees her car, a black dot, speeding away like she’s being chased.

 

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