At three in the morning, the phone beeped—my brother Darren.

“I have work tomorrow,” I said.

“It’s tomorrow now, little man.” 

He’d recently left prison and lived at a half-way house in Cambridge. It was the fifth call in four days.

“You need money?” I said.

A few seconds of wheezing. “Didn’t ask for money,” Darren said. “I wanted to speak to my brother. About a venture.”

“Why me?”

“The other brother’s dead. Asshole.”

It was true. Our father had bludgeoned Frank and told the police he fell down the stairs. An accident. Darren corroborated the statements. Back then, we were six and seven—Irish twins.

Now Darren said his friend Murdo worked at the airport


Right away, he rang back. 

I turned off the phone.


I was a social worker, driving out to projects in Southie, Roxbury, Charlestown. At a complex like Orchard Grove, the dirtiest units had bedbugs. I kept a crowbar and protective kit in the trunk: boots, tape, wet wipes, coveralls, folding chair, latex gloves, contractor bags. Most valuable was the icing spatula, which flattened the bastards against the wall. 

One morning I traveled to meet new clients—the Walshes—who had reported an infestation. In those places, the first thing you noticed was the smell: ashtrays, cat piss, and rancid butter. 

“You the doctor?” Robert Walsh said.

“No,” I said, holding a metal clipboard. “I’m here to take pictures and report to housing.”

“About what?”

“Concerns you might have.”

“Concerns,” Walsh said. He sank back into the fake leather chair. “My wife’s mail keeps getting stolen. And the doc’s supposed to give her a new script.”

“What illness?”

“Heart murmur,” he said. “Replaced one of her valves. That’s why she can’t work no more.”

“Do you work, Mister Walsh?”

“Here and there,” he said. “I have friends. What you can show housing,” he said, pointing to the wall, “is that.”

Beside the door was a large spot of crushed bedbugs. A boy stood next to the wall, bitemarks on his wrists and the left side of his neck. 

“How long has he stood there?” I said.

“All morning,” Walsh said. “Brian, show the man.”

Brian slapped his palm against the dried blood and made circles, as though he were buffing cars. 

“Is he your son?”

“My wife’s,” Walsh said. “All I can do is feed him.”

I asked where he’d seen insects.

“Front room, halls, bedrooms…”

“More than one?” I said. “The apartment’s listed as a single.”

He shrugged. “We sort of improvised.”

“Where does the boy sleep?”

“In my room.” The voice belonged to a young woman, who looked more like a college student than she did an Orchard tenant. Below her long brown hair, she wore jeans and a cream cardigan.

“What’s your name?” I said. 


“My stepdaughter,” Walsh said. “Moved back when her ma got sick.”

“Where’d you live?”

“Springfield,” she said. 

Rose brought me to the bedroom. I noticed scuff marks on the floor, an arc from doorway to dresser.

“What were you doing in Springfield?” I said.

“Living with a guy.”

“Do you feel safe here?”

“My mom needs me.”

“You need that dresser,” I said. “Why was it pressed against the door?”

Rose lounged on the comforter. I squatted in front of her, clipboard across my lap. “Does your stepfather drink?”

“Every night.”

“How much?”

“Robert’s always been this way,” she said. “It’s his smack my mother bought. Blew out her heart.”

“What about your brother?”

Outside her mother coughed and coughed. Brian squealed.

Walsh pounded on the door. 

“My card,” I told Rose. “Call if it gets worse.”


Darren sounded like he’d been awake all week.


“What is it?” I said.

“They’re letting the men inside,” he said. “At night.”


“Little men with red hair. Red faces. When they get angry, they shed their skins. I threw one out the window.”

I yawned. “But why’d you call?”

“Listen, you prick—I got something to say.”

“Like what?”

“I’m out.”

I got up and went to the window. “Where are you?”

“Here, there,” he said. “I’m on a venture.”

From the alley, I heard barks and a chain rattle against the fence. Then it sounded over the line.

“Don’t be stupid,” I said. “Go back to the house.”

“Burned it down.”


Another bark.

“Those aren’t your dogs,” I said. 

“It’s my goddamn money,” Darren said, “when I sell them. Know what real breeders charge?”

Keep watching from the window.

I wasn’t sure if I’d said it, or Darren. 


Something smelled rotten above the office at Orchard Grove. When the manager opened the apartment door, I covered my nose and hustled downstairs to the street. 

The body was a retired nurse’s—a hoarder who died under a pile of phonebooks. The medics said her face melted in the heat. At first, it had been impossible to tell if the corpse was male or female.

That night I drank two bottles of wine: one for the nurse, one for her face. 

At midnight, I received a call. 

“Mister McCarthy?” Rose said. “I was hoping you could help me.”

Once she stopped crying, I said I’d visit the building with a police officer.

“No,” she said. “They’ll stick Brian in foster care. I know what it’s like.”

In the morning, we met at a café downtown. Rose arrived late, dragging a tattered umbrella. Her hair and cardigan were wet.

“I never leave Orchard Grove,” she said.

“Less than you should.” 

I ordered coffee; Rose, nothing. When she wept, I offered a napkin. Rose reached over the table and grasped my sleeve.

“It’s not company rules,” I said, “but if you need a place to stay…”

“You mean it?”

I placed my other hand on hers.

We spent the day around the city. I looked like a Tremont Street john as we strolled by the Common. “Does your stepdad get out?” 

“Beer and scratch tickets,” Rose said. “Robert can’t drive. He’d never walk this far from the courtyard.”

We went to my place, where I gave her an oversized black t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. She rolled them above her knees.

“You don’t do drugs,” she said. “Do you?”

I shook my head.


“Sometimes,” I said.

“Anything here?”

In the cabinet was a bottle of Gran Marnier, unopened and coated in a film of dust. We sat on the couch sipping it at room temperature.  

“Can I smoke?” 

“It isn’t allowed,” I said. “The clerk is nosy. He gawked at you downstairs.”

“Reminds me of Robert,” she said. “Loaded every night. He watches porn loud enough for the neighbors.”

“Then he creeps to your room?”

“He used to stand outside and sing. Disgusting songs… When mom got sick, he said I was the woman of the house. I had responsibilities.”

I asked if he’d hurt her. 

“Springfield was worse,” she said. “I can’t remember the last time someone was nice to me.”

 “I’m different.”

“You must see horrible things.”

“Most of the time,” I said, “it doesn’t feel like I help anyone. Like making an endless snuff film.”

 “I’m not dying,” Rose said. She downed her glass. “Neither are you.”


The bedbugs multiplied at Orchard Grove.

“Goddamn trash piles,” the manager said, waving at the mounds of garbage around the dumpster. “Some are from the residents. Some are from guys in shades and thousand-dollar jackets.” 

After lunch, I discovered a client’s laundry bag under my backseat. I snapped on latex gloves and cut it open. Among the hair-covered blouses and soiled underwear were three small dots. I crushed the bugs with a wet wipe. Afterwards, I collected feces and molted nymph skins. Any relief I felt left during self-inspection: below my ear were another two.


There was a guest at my place. He shook hands with a pubic hair in his hangnail.

Rose said, “This is Gavin.”

“From Springfield?” I asked.

They were high school friends, hadn’t seen each other in years.

I made an excuse and went to the bathtub, where I scoured my neck and legs with steel wool. Over the running water, Rose giggled. The front door slammed. 

“Let me know,” I told her, “if you plan on having people over. This apartment—”

“Might be infested,” she said. “Did you think about me? About bringing me here?”

“You’re clean.”

“How would you know?”

I’d meant to buy wine. The bottle of Gran Marnier was half-full.

“Let me look,” she said, turning down my shirt collar. “Nothing here.”

Rose kissed me and placed my hand on her breast. 


I picked up the phone at quarter to three—low moans.

“I know it’s you,” I told Darren. “Speak.”

My calves and armpits itched. I flung the blanket across Rose’s hip. “Don’t you know what to do?” I whispered. “One thing left.”

The moaning stopped.

“Kill yourself,” I said. “What’s keeping you?”


“Not anymore. Since when did we care about each other?”

Darren said, “I didn’t kill Frank.”

“How old was he?”


“And what happened?”

“He fell down a flight of stairs,” Darren said.

“You were always a bastard,” I said. “You’ve gotten worse.”

That afternoon I bought a bottle of merlot, only to find Rose had been drinking for hours. On the table was a pint of vodka and several half-smoked joints. I wrapped them in a paper towel. “These from Gavin?”

“Thought you wanted to help.”

While I poured vodka in a coffee mug, she grabbed the wine: “We’ll need it.”

I settled down at the table—chipped IKEA. If Rose was going to stay, we’d need a nicer set.

“You’re good to me,” she said. “Why?”


“Because of Frank?”

“You heard all that”

“Some,” she said. 

The merlot put me to sleep. Sometime around three, a light beamed in from the hall. There were two voices: one was Rose’s. 

I got up. From behind the doorway, someone hit my head with a claw hammer. I dropped down as blood poured between my fingers. 

What seemed like hours later, the clerk poked my ribs.

“All right?” Selinger said.

I groaned and tapped the floor.

“Should I call an ambulance?”


“Would you mind going inside?”

Selinger pulled me into the living room, where I was dropped on the sofa. I heard him scrubbing up the blood. At one point, he kicked over the bucket and cursed. Soapy water ran under the door as I drifted off.


I taped my forehead with gauze and scanned the apartment for bedbugs. Below the window were several—I crushed them with the spatula. When I returned to wipe up the shit and molted skins, they had jumped to the wall. I scraped them off with my bare hands and ate them.

The next few days were spent in bed. Then came a knock.


“It’s open,” I croaked. 

 Footsteps of three men swept over the entrance—one of them, judging by the cobbled wingtips, was Selinger.

“That’s him,” he said. “In and out, he brings women. Some kind of pimp.”

The inspector dragged a chair. “Spoke to your brother recently?”


“You were named,” he said, “in Darren’s suicide note. Did he mention harming himself?”


“Nothing at all?”

“I mentioned it,” I said. “I told Darren to blow his brains out.”

This startled the inspector. For some reason, I laughed.

“That’s a serious admission,” he said.

“Don’t believe this pimp,” said Selinger. “His women bring strange men. I refuse to work a desk in Gomorrah.”

I laughed even louder as they left.

Now bugs were everywhere: floor, ceiling, carpet, cushions. When I brandished the spatula, they scattered. What could I do but toss my belongings? Blankets and cushions were sealed in bin liners and launched from the window. Chairs went, as well as bookshelves and the chipped IKEA. The sofa was too big. I gave up and visited the Walshes.


Robert Walsh, sitting with a Coors, watched his horse race. 

I hoisted the crowbar. “Where’s Rose?”

With his white tongue, Walsh said, “She’s not here. If she walked through that door, I’d give it to her.”

“That’s why she came to me.”


I had a three-foot reach advantage and used it on Walsh’s shoulders, knees, skull. Blood bubbled and dribbled from his nostrils as he tried to crawl away. 

In the silverware drawer, I found a .38. “You were going to shoot me?” I said. “For killing your fucking pests?”

The moronic titter was Brian’s. He opened his hand, caked with bug guts. “Want some?” he said. “They’re free.”

My stomach was sick; I turned to the sink.

Brian said, “She’s hiding.”

“In her room?”

He rubbed his hand against his shorts as I entered the hall. Beyond Rose’s door, bedsprings creaked. “Your stepdad,” I said, “is flesh and blood. Not all of him’s left.”

On my third attempt, the dresser crashed to the floor. 

Rose said, “You weren’t invited.” 

I dropped the crowbar. “That was the point,” I said. “He’s dead. He can’t hurt you anymore.”

“Is that what you thought?”

She knocked away my hand.

“Don’t,” she said. “I can’t stand when you touch me.”

I went back to the living room. Brian stared at Walsh’s battered face.

“Is he hungry?” the boy asked. 

I held the revolver and looked at my left hand. Eight shots in the cylinder: I could even miss.

My thumb went easy. 


After a month at Lemuel Shattuck, I was arraigned and jailed at South Bay. 

One day—Rose. 

We met behind glass in the visitation room. She wore knee boots and a green jacket with plaid lining. Next to her stood Brian, so clean as to be unrecognizable.

“Get me out of here,” I said. “Tell them what happened.”

“My mother died.”

I restrained myself. “Sorry for your loss.”

“Are you?” Rose said. “She died in pain. More than you’ll ever know.”

I raised my stump of a hand. “The police said you contradicted me.”

“With the truth.”

Like a child, I broke down. The first time I’d cried in front of Rose.

“I came to say thanks,” she continued. “Because of you, we’re free.”

Gavin entered the room. Brian sprinted over and hugged him.

“I have to go,” Rose said. 

Spots formed on the glass. She kissed Gavin on the cheek. I tried gripping the receiver with my withered lump. 

My time was up.

I didn’t kill Frank, I heard. 

I wasn’t sure if it was me or Darren.

— Max Thrax is fiction editor of APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL. His novel God Is A Killer is available from Close To The Bone.

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