by Sheila Burpee Duncan
In the darkness, Ella swats the side of her head before lifting it from the pillow. “Fucking ants,” she says and fumbles for the switch. Bedside lamplight blinds her, but soon she can see that the dog on the floor beside her is awake—alert and ready to do whatever is needed. Maybe that’s where the ant landed.
His back to her, her husband mutters, “Wha…”
There’s the ant. On the duvet pulled up over her husband’s shoulder. It’s a big one. Four front legs drag a mutilated abdomen. Ella pats the scar on her belly.
Being awake in the middle of the night still makes her feel uncomfortable. Her thoughts tend to the negative—like how bad luck comes in threes, but she’s already up to four. Not counting the ant infestation. That’s a mere nuisance.
Her cancer is the fourth. Did that reset the counter? Does she still have two more bad lucks to go? The rift with Hannah, her adult daughter from her first marriage, had been the third. They haven’t spoken in two years. Before that was the death of her last dog. Cancer there, too, but in his case they didn’t go for the chemo. “It’s poison,” Ella had said. A deceptively easy choice given how often she later regretted it.
“Weren’t you supposed to spray for those fucking ants?” she asks her sleeping husband. “There was one on my head.” She rubs her downy stubble, only a few weeks old.
He flops over to face her, eyes closed, and the ant is catapulted to Ella’s side. It tries to scale the cliff of the cotton comforter cover but falls back each time. Reversing course, it heads towards Ella’s husband. He doesn’t know. She doesn’t mention.
He smiles, throws off his covers, rolls out of bed, and plods to the ensuite.
The ant is gone. Ella can’t see where it went. The dog rises and plunks his chin on the mattress beside her, wanting something—a pat, a pee, attention. She ruffles his caramel coat, looking for the ant, and his tail wags rhythmically against the bed. He’s huge, though not full-grown, and relatively easy to please.
Ella surveys the bed covers and the carpeting. The ant is somewhere around here. Around her. She whisper-shouts, “Bring me a Kleenex, when you come back . . . please.”
Her husband returns. The tissue he hands her bears a moist imprint. “It’s wet,” she says and drops it instinctively.
“I washed my hands,” he says. Ella can’t remember if she heard the tap running.
The dog is asleep again. He snores. At least her husband doesn’t. Her mother used to when she’d had too much to drink and fell asleep on the couch. Young Ella, those times when she’d gotten up in the night for a pee, had only studied her slumbering mother in disgust. She wasn’t the kind of kid to throw a blanket over a drunk parent.
“You didn’t spray for ants.”
“Well, that wouldn’t really be for them, would it?” He smiles. She doesn’t.
“You told me not to use anything that might kill the dog,” he says. The dog’s ears perk up; his eyes stay closed.
“Should I have to say that?” she asks. The dog’s ears relax.
Her husband had started the bad luck count when Ella’s mother died. Just a throwaway remark, perhaps meant to communicate a mix of regret and inevitability. “Bad luck, sweetie,” he’d said when she got off the phone with the nursing home. He seemed to understand by her silence what she had learned. But such an odd way to put it, something her mother might have said. Maybe he had meant it as subtle mockery. He’d hugged her then, but she didn’t reciprocate.
“Oh, that is bad luck,” he said to the vet months later when they got the diagnosis, before they knew the treatment option.
“Bad luck comes in threes,” he said, almost cheerfully, as if there couldn’t be any more, back when Ella told him about the argument with Hannah. It has been two years since her daughter accused her of being heartless—of not loving Hannah’s beloved Granny, or the family dog, enough to save them. Ella couldn’t be blamed for her mother’s death; that was a lifestyle choice.
“You didn’t even tell me when they got sick,” Hannah had said and threatened to never to speak to her mother again. That seemed overly dramatic. Ella was only trying to protect her.
“Can’t you use vinegar or something?” Ella asks, still looking for the damaged ant.
Her phone buzzes. At this time of the morning?
Ella reaches towards the bedside table. Next to her phone she sees the ant, spotlighted like a celebrity, performing an awkward soft-shoe across the cover of an unread novel. She searches for the tissue.
“I have to use poison to kill the queen,” her husband explains.
Another ant, this one intact, rushes to the scene and proceeds to support its mate, half-carrying, half-nudging it across the stage. Two for one, Ella thinks, as the buzz sounds again. She grabs her phone and sees a message from Hannah: “Up early. Miss u. Breakfast?”
Ella flashes the phone screen to her husband. “Ha. I’m back to three.”
“Three?” he asks as he reads the message.
“Bad luck. You said it comes in threes.”
“Did I? I don’t remember.” He doesn’t seem to be joking. He nods towards Ella’s phone. “But good luck we were up early. Wouldn’t want to miss that.”
“Thing,” she says. “Good thing we were up early.”
She turns to the bedside table. The ants are gone. She didn’t want to kill them anyway. That’s her husband’s job. He’ll take care of it.
Ella is typing her reply to Hannah when he says, “’Course, now you’ll have to tell her.”