01 Feb Zach had maggots coming out of his eyes.
They were alive and, yes, so was he.
The day we spoke for the first time was cloudy and gray. I was carrying the compost bucket from lunch through the schoolyard to where the garden was, way in the back. The gravel path and shrubbery leading up to it was largely ignored by my classmates, a place meant to look pretty but less entertaining to middle schoolers than the mini soccer field and the swing set. When I slowly lugged the bucket down the path, the squealing and laughing of lunch recess would diminish into background noise behind me.
It was on this path in the little corner by the chicken coop that I ran into Zach. I knew little about him other than that he was a quiet kid who sat in the back of the classroom and that Rex the seventh-grade bully called him a freak in the hallways. Maybe Rex had gotten to him again, because he was sitting on the side of the path in the shadow of the chicken coop and cradling a bruise on the side of his face.
I wouldn’t have noticed the maggots if I hadn’t given his face a second glance. At first I thought he was crying, but his tears were moving up and down his cheeks.
When he noticed me, he hugged his knees tightly and stared up at me frozen like a statue, like he had never expected anyone to come down here. What I now realized were little white larvae wormed their way around his pale cheeks. Four, five of them. As I stared back at him, another one crawled out of the edge of his left eye, from between the eyeball and the soft part of the eyelid.
I saw his throat bob. The toes of his sneakers fidgeted.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
Zach blinked. The maggots crawled down his cheeks. He raised his hand to flick them away, like he perhaps thought I was blind or somehow hadn’t noticed.
He was lucky I had been the one to find him that day. As I discovered later in life, most boys grew out of their absolute fascination with bugs by middle school. Fortunately for Zach, I wasn’t like most boys.
I crouched down quickly and caught his hand before he could swat at the maggots.
“Don’t do that,” I said. “You’re going to crush them.”
He inhaled sharply. I did too, without knowing. His hand was strangely soft and cold to the touch. I quickly let it go.
“Bugs- bugs are living things too,” I stammered. Then I cleared my throat and straightened up.
“All life is precious. It’s what my dad told me.”
Zach stared at me. Then, against all odds, he broke into a small smile.
“You’re the pastor’s son, right?”
His voice rustled like a breeze through dry leaves. I had never before heard him speak. Or maybe I had just never bothered to listen.
“Yeah,” I said. “You know me?”
“I think I’ve seen you with him, a long time ago.”
The maggots slowly wormed their way down his chin and neck. Zach didn’t seem bothered by them. If their little winding trails tickled, he didn’t show it. I watched, strangely transfixed, until the tiny white insects disappeared down his collar. Then I stood up and hefted the compost bucket.
“Where are you going?”
“To feed the worms,” I said, jabbing my thumb at the garden. “Wanna come see?”
He smiled, a little wider this time. As he pulled himself to his feet, I thought I saw several small and black shapes scurry in the gravel at his feet.
We walked into the garden, opened up the wooden trough of the worm farm, and dumped the bucket into it. The worms poked their slimy heads out of their spongy, earthy-smelling holes and crawled onto the leftover salads and apple cores. I put down the empty bucket and watched them with a small sense of pride.
“You like bugs too,” Zach said quietly.
“Yeah,” I replied, closing up the trough again. “Bugs are cool. I have a giant ant farm at home, and some beetles I keep secret from my dad.”
Without another word, Zach turned to me and held out his hand. The sleeve of his button-down shirt shifted, and a black-and-red beetle the size of my thumb crawled onto the open palm of his hand. I stared down in awe at the shine of its elytra and the fine fuzz of hair on its legs. The way it moved, the delicate plates of its carapace sliding in perfect sync with each other.
“It’s beautiful,” I muttered. “Where did you find it?”
“Bugs are my friends,” Zach said simply. He tilted his hand and the beetle climbed up onto his index finger, where it spread its translucent yellow wings and flew away.
I waited for him to tell me more, but he turned on his heels in the garden dirt and that was that.
Zach revealed his secrets to me quietly, one by one.
We now sat in the dirt behind the chicken coop during lunch recess, tucked away from wandering eyes so that I could watch Zach work his magic. He had been telling the truth; everything creeping and crawling in the yellow grass and coarse dirt was his friend. Scarab beetles crawled out of the loose soil and onto his sleeves. Long-legged spiders rappelled down from this collar. One time a giant centipede emerged from in between the buttons of his shirt. I cried out in alarm and Zach laughed. His laughter rustled like his voice and a pair of white-and-brown moths fluttered out of his mouth.
Once I was aware of Zach, I couldn’t become unaware. There was a mysterious way he kept people from looking his way; he sat quietly at the back of the classroom and the teacher would sort of see through him, like he wasn’t there. The crowds in the hallways after class parted naturally for him, but no one ever talked to him. Here I realized that Zach didn’t have any friends.
Rex the seventh-grade bully picked on him regularly. Sometimes people watched. Zach took it all without a word, the pushes and shoves and the occasional blow to his chest or the side of his face as Rex grew enraged by his silence. As he stood there he held parts of his clothes gently, and I knew it was so that the tiny creatures in his pockets wouldn’t be crushed.
Zach walked home with me every day, though my house was closer and I never learned where he lived. One time when my father wasn’t home I invited him to my room and showed him my beetles.
“They look happy,” he said, peering into the plastic bottles.
“You think so?”
“Bugs are simple,” he said. “If you give them food and a cozy place to stay, they’re happy. If you care about them they’ll be your friend.”
A millipede crawled along the snug cranny between his hair and the curved back of his ear. I wondered how he could tell my beetles looked happy.
Even as the millipede slowly slithered into his ear like it was burrowing into the ground, that was the only thing I really wondered about Zach.
One day after school he quietly took me to the old town cemetery. I followed him through the yellowed grass until we stopped at the foot of a small granite gravestone. I stepped up beside Zach and read the thin white inscriptions.
05.03.1999 – 08.17.2010
A heart of gold and the voice of an angel
I looked back at Zach. His smile trembled. He looked nervous. I waited for him to say something, but he held onto his silence.
“Is this you?” I carefully asked, unable to come up with anything better.
He nodded curtly.
I reached out and touched his shoulder, just to make sure that I could. The folds of his shirt, the cool skin underneath. Once I was absolutely sure he was there, I let out a small laugh.
“Why do you look so nervous?”
Zach’s eyes flooded with relief and he smiled again, his real smile.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know.”
For the rest of the afternoon we sat in the graveyard dirt and played with the roly-poly bugs that crawled on Zach’s grave. As the sun dipped and our shadows grew, Zach took in a small breath and began to sing.
A gentle chill went through me as I recognized the song, one of the hymns the boys’ choir at my father’s church would often sing. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see.
If someone told me that was the voice of an angel, I would have believed him.
When I went home that day I waylaid my father on his way to his basement study and asked him where little boys went when they died. Bittersweet smile lines crinkled around his eyes and he told me that good little boys went to Heaven to meet God.
I asked him if God ever let the little boys go back home. My father said Heaven was their home.
That next Monday Rex the bully wrestled me down to the floor of the hallway for looking at Kate Michaels the wrong way. As the grimy bottom of his shoe ground painfully into my chest, I spotted Zach standing amongst the crowd. He stared down at me and then took a step back as if he anticipated something.
The next moment, hundreds of round black cockroaches swarmed out from underneath the lockers and scurried up Rex’s leg. His face blanched and he screamed, and all the kids in the hallway watching us screamed too. Rex kicked his legs and shuddered in his gym shorts and bolted down the hallway sobbing. The swarm of cockroaches streamed after him.
Zach peeked his head out from around the lockers and smiled. His eyes glittered with mischief.
That evening as we made dinner my father asked me where I had gotten the bottom-of-a-shoe-shaped smudge on my shirt. I told him Rex had pushed me down in the hallway. Then I asked if Rex would go Hell for that. My father said he had better seek forgiveness.
“I should forgive him?”
“It would be very brave of you,” my father said. “You would be giving Rex an opportunity to become a better person.”
We ate dinner and my father brought me orange juice and I drank it as he looked at the old photo of my mother in the way that he sometimes did.
I was particularly tired that day and my father tucked me into bed early.
Tuesday morning, Rex didn’t show up to school.
Zach and I joked that he was still running from the cockroaches. Zach laughed and quickly covered his mouth before Kate Michaels in her passing could see the moth fluttering on his tongue.
Rex still didn’t show up on Wednesday, nor on Thursday.
And then on Friday morning his face was in the newspaper under the Missing Children section.
I thought maybe Zach had something to do with it, but he told me he hadn’t seen Rex since the cockroach incident. He looked troubled when I told him Rex was missing.
“I hope someone finds him,” I muttered.
Zach smiled slightly. “Even after what he did to you?”
“My dad says forgiveness gives him an opportunity to become a better person. It’s a brave thing, to forgive.”
Last winter a few kids had gone missing and there had been rumors about everything from kidnappers to mountain lions. The same had happened a couple of years back. By now parents were easily scared. So on Saturday the sidewalks outside felt a little emptier.
“I’m sure the police are looking for Rex,” my father said. “Let’s pray that they can find him soon.”
We spent the afternoon playing checkers at the kitchen table. We were on our third or fourth game when the doorbell rang. I went to open the door and was surprised to find Zach standing there.
“Zach,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“Is Pastor Nick home?” he quietly asked.
“My dad? Why?”
“I need to see him.”
I turned to look at my father, and Zach squeezed past me through the doorway.
My father looked up from the checkerboard. And then, in an instant, his eyes widened and his face turned white as a sheet.
His lips trembled, but no words came out.
“It’s good to see you again,” Zach said softly.
My father bolted to his feet, sending his stool clattering across the hardwood floor.
“Y-you,” he stammered. “How…”
Zach tilted his head. “Wasn’t it you who always told us there is life after death?”
In all my life I had never seen my father afraid, not even when we had forgotten the turkey in the oven last Thanksgiving and the whole kitchen got engulfed in flames. But now he was afraid, as Zach walked closer to him, step by step.
“Why didn’t I make it to Heaven, Pastor?”
My father pressed his back against the kitchen table and whimpered something that died at the back of his throat.
Zach gazed up at him steadily as he slowly undid the buttons on his cuffs.
“Maybe God couldn’t recognize me anymore,” he said quietly. “Not after what you did to me.”
He pulled up his sleeves and I gasped. Deep gashes circled his wrists and his forearms, white cuts oozing old purple blood like someone had carved his arms into little pieces and then messily stuck them back together. His skin was gray around the wounds and pockmarked with red craters. As I watched in horror, maggots and beetles crawled out of the holes and crept along the open seams of his flesh.
They were all his friends, I knew.
As I stood there frozen and my father gasped for breath, Zach reached his hand up to his mouth and made a small sound, somewhere between a cough and a choking noise. I saw the soft skin of his throat tremble, and then a giant brown scorpion crawled out from between his open lips and onto the palm of his hand.
“Tell me,” Zach muttered as the scorpion raised its tail, tipped with a wicked black stinger the size of my thumbnail. “Rex is in there right now, isn’t he?”
My father cried and pleaded for mercy. I watched numbly.
“He deserves forgiveness,” Zach said. “Just like you told your son. But you, Pastor Nick, you are a pitiful hypocrite.”
He lifted his hand and the scorpion leaped onto my father. My father screamed and clawed at his shirt, but all that was needed was a single swipe, a flash of the stinger. The scorpion rolled onto the floor at the same time that my father’s knees buckled.
Zach quickly knelt down and scooped up the scorpion in his hands as my father slammed onto the floor, twisting spastically.
My friend gazed down sadly at the scorpion’s crushed carapace and flailing legs.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “You were so brave.”
He gently cradled the dying creature and looked up at me.
“Rex is in the basement,” he said, a sad smile in his eyes. “When you find him, will you let him know that I forgive him too?”
I stared down at my father, shivering on the floor with his eyes rolled back in his head, choking and fighting for his breath. At Zach, who slowly slumped back against the kitchen table and closed his eyes.
“It’s been nice,” he whispered. “It was nice, having friends again.”
The scorpion wriggled weakly in his hands. Zach smiled. The rise and fall of his chest grew shallow and his face began to turn pale. The purple blood on his arms turned black. The earthy scent of decay filled the room, like the smell that came up from the worm farm.
When the scorpion stopped moving, I slowly turned around, walked into the living room, picked up the phone, and dialed 911.
Once I finished talking to the dispatcher and turned back around, Zach was gone. A small swarm of white-and-brown moths fluttered against the light of the kitchen window. I opened the window and they flew into the sky.
The police found Rex tied up and drugged in the basement, where there used to be a storage space adjacent to the study before it was stripped bare and the door concealed using a bookshelf. The emergency medical technicians monitored my father until he woke up and then promptly put him under arrest. Six counts of murder, they said.
I told the officers what happened, but of course, no one believed me. I moved to my aunt and uncle’s house in the city and was enrolled into a new school.
I would never get to learn if Rex ever went back to school.
One day I took a bus to the downtown library and sifted through the newspaper archives until I found Zach’s photo, from all the way back in 2010 under the Missing Children section. He was smiling in the photo, and wearing the white-and-brown robe of the boys’ choir at my father’s church.
It crossed my mind that someone must have found his body for him to be declared dead and given a burial, but I decided not to look for those papers.
My aunt and uncle hate bugs more than most things, and things like blowflies and moths usually don’t last a minute. But sometimes I spot the bugs before they do and, if I’m lucky, I can scoop them into a jar unnoticed and let them go outside.
Sometimes I hope Zach finally made it to Heaven. I pray for him on lonely nights, when I remember to pray without my father reminding me.
And sometimes I look out my window and listen for soft voices in the wind, secretly wishing Zach is still out there, laughing and singing to the small, creeping creatures hidden underneath the earth.