Garrett Rowlan

The November Editor's Pick Writer is Garrett Rowlan

Feel free to email Garrett at: garrettrowlan@att.net


by Garrett Rowlan

It began several weeks ago. I stood at his bedside and took a couple of minutes to process the event: the inert body that didn’t respond to my prods. It was the death of my older brother who was my tormenter and ironically, the source of my admiration. It was four days before Christmas.

Up until then everything was fine—or at least manageable. There were no cockroaches in the house. There was just Greg to worry about. Greg was a lifelong go-getter whose health had declined over the last half-dozen years. I devoted myself to his care.

Greg had ceded the house to me in his will, so there was every reason to be on his good side, which wasn’t easy. He could be nasty.

Still, I had fond memories of him as a young man, and he was my last connection to our parents. In a way, and it was what I said at the funeral service: he defined my existence and created a space for it. I was the things he wasn’t and didn’t want to be. He was a businessman and I was a dreamer. He thrived and I survived.

I lived in the other room and tended increasingly to his needs.

“It’s got to be hard on you,” Linda McNeil, the woman who lived next door, once told me.

And now it was the new year. The funeral had ended. The Living Trust was being seamlessly unraveled. The Christmas present I’d bought for my brother, I’d opened myself.

“We’ve all got our burdens,” I told Linda, remembering how I had heard her argue with her husband the night before, who was a type-A asshole named Reed McNeil. 


One night in late January, I woke in the early morning and went to the kitchen and turned on the light, and when I did I shrieked. Scuttling on the old Formica counter were cockroaches: where I’d left the pizza, inside the sink with its dregs of dinner, and atop the half-drunk can of beer.

There were at least a dozen cockroaches going over, under, and sideways down the two slices of the pizza and the greasy box that held it. One roach waved its feelers in a mocking semaphore before slithering away, quick as lightning. In a split second, all of the roaches swarmed into cracks in the cabinets and disappeared.

Once my heart slowed down, I felt disgusted with myself as much as with the cockroaches, for I saw the sloth I’d fallen into. I grabbed the pizza box and threw it in the outside garbage can.

I wiped the counter clean and did the dishes and thought that was the end of it.

But it was only the beginning of the invasion.

They came by night. After a while, I knew they would be there. I would turn on the light and charge into the kitchen or bathroom, a newspaper or swatter lifted. They heard me coming. They scuttled under a crack or a drain or an unwashed dish or a wrapper I hadn’t yet tossed.

It started to become a kind of game.

And strangely enough, I began to have feelings toward the roaches—curiosity, even respect. They were tough. If you didn’t land a direct hit, they would sprint to the juncture of wall and sink and head for safety.

Multiple strikes were required. They were smart. They played dead. When I caught on, I would nudge them with my finger or, if I were in a mood, the flame of a match.

Later, they invaded the bathroom. I went to brush my teeth and from the tube of toothpaste there was one riding sidesaddle. I crushed him but others ran down the sink and into the cracks. One I found swimming in the bathtub that in my drunkenness I had forgotten to pull the plug. It wiggled there, born aloft on the water’s surface, until it reached the shore and headed to safety where I killed it.

They were not only in the kitchen and bathroom—they were in my head. They became all I could think about. At night, I heard them crawling, cutting pathways behind the walls. And when they were silent and I slept, the dreams were even worse, a labyrinth of bugs, black and swarming, their feelers waving, almost jeering. Worse were my imaginings of a cockroach crawling inside me while I was sleeping in the bed where Greg had died.


“You don’t look like you’re sleeping too good,” Reed McNeil said over the fence one morning.

“It’s a big change,” I said, “not having Greg to look after.” 

“I slept like a bomb,” he said. “Got back from shooting guns in the desert and crawled into the sack with the wife and you know what happened next.” He smiled lewdly. “Best thing for a good night’s sleep.” He pointed up above me. “Hey, when are you going to get that crap out of your gutters?”

“Soon,” I said.

There were decisions to be made about the house and my finances and how to spend my time, which without Greg’s needs to worry about, had begun to weigh upon me. I thought maybe I should get a job, but Greg had the nose for business and making money. I had never worked, had never left my parent’s home. Taking care of my parents first, then after they died, taking care of Greg was all I knew.

I took up exercise, because I had put on weight these years of caretaking, which included a lot of TV with Gregory. And our diets weren’t always the best.

“Hello,” I called to Linda, noticing her on the other side of the chain link gate that led to the back part of their house with the swimming pool. She was wearing sunglasses though it was a cloudy February day in LA.

“You’re losing weight,” Linda said.

“Walking,” I said. I didn’t tell her about my troubles sleeping. “What’s new?”

“Nothing,” she said. “I have to get inside.”

As she turned, I saw the bruise under one eye, visible beyond the rim of her sunglasses


The days and nights passed. I didn’t call an exterminator. Something held me back. Fighting the roaches with boiling water and a swatter and my hands seemed like a combat that ennobled me somehow—a Samurai warrior whose trials contained the gem of a spiritual insight.

Once I was sweeping them from under the microwave and the coffee maker into the sink when I heard a noise from next door. Linda was shouting and running outside.

I ran to the back and slipped quietly outside.

“I’m sorry, baby,” Reed McNeil was saying. “When I drink, these demons come up.”

“Like another woman’s phone number in your pocket,” she said, sobbing. She was standing out by the pool. I saw the blonde of her hair between the gaps in the wooden fence that separated our properties.

“I deal with things in my own way.”

“What does that supposed to mean?”

“Come inside,” he said, his voice getting a military tone. “It’s cold.”

And it was. I heard her footsteps as she went inside as if returning to a cell.

On the next night, I charged into the kitchen with the flyswatter lifted and turned on the light. Instead of the usual swarm. I only saw one cockroach. It was an albino, white as ice, facing me and reclining so that its feelers were like antenna sending signals. Seeing it was like watching that old horror movie where the alien boss only moves his tentacles to send out instructions.

I heard the words, like skywriting in the inside of my head. Hello Dare, the cockroach said. Miss me?

“Dare” had been Greg’s way of saying my name, a contraction of “Darren.” The voice and the whiteness of the cockroach’s carapace sounded like the rattle of cracked bells.

I don’t know why, but I experienced no surprise. “Actually, I don’t miss you,” I said. The answer surprised me, but there it was: no cleaning or bathing him or bringing Greg food, and no bedside recriminations or his insults of old enemies long dead.

He laughed. The sound clicked like rattling castanets. Maybe so, but you still need me. I’m everything you wanted to be.

It was true. I had admired him growing up and for the things he’d done: taken risks, had adventures, made money. I knew, too, what a shit he could be.

By the way, I don’t like the way you run this place. It’s a dump.

“Said the cockroach.” I had to admit I enjoyed this. I did miss this about him. Conversations with Greg were like no other.

Either fix it up or dump it. As for the cockroach thing, do you remember the cleaning lady we had, Juanita? Well, she dabbled in spiritualism on the side. When I loaned, well, gave her son money, she did me a solid. A sort of spell, but I could return to the living as a lower life form.

“So do I get three wishes?”

Maybe one, if you put it like that. I owe you. If there’s something I can help you with. Don’t wish for money, I have none, as you know. What is it you want?

Of course, there was a part of me saying, What am I doing, talking to an albino cockroach? And yet increasingly I believed. Somehow this was the spirit of my brother coming through, the can-do person of his maturity, not the complaining invalid of his dotage.

“I want Linda McNeil,” I said. “Reed doesn’t treat her right.”

The white feelers moved back and forth as if in thought. I’m on it, he said. But there’s something you have to do. Eat me. Chew me and swallow me. I need to get inside you for that to work.

I hesitated.

Or I go down that drain and you blew your chance. Listen Dare, admit it to yourself. You don’t have the balls to get what you want. I do. You need me.

Sad but true, I thought. I extended my hand and he alighted. I brought him next to my mouth.

Go ahead. I’m not going to bite. You are.

I put him in my mouth and brought my teeth together and I felt him cracking, falling apart. And then I swallowed.


“Insects don’t have politics.”

It was one of my favorite film quotes, spoken by Jeff Goldblum to Geena Davis in the 1986 film The Fly, about his own conversion from mild-mannered scientist to killer bug.

It was a truth I began to live after that first light when I swallowed the albino cockroach and spent the night in feverish agony, at last sleeping. When I felt better, I knew one thing. In the matter of Reed McNeil there was no time for politics, for reasoning with the man, though I tried.

“Maybe you should take an anger management class,” I told Reed. “I hear some shouting over there.”

“Maybe you should mind your own business,” he said. “Rake your filthy yard.”

I heard Linda speaking to someone on her cell phone and she didn’t know I was listening on the other side of the wooden fence. “But he’s the father of my child. And I’ll never have another one. I’m too old.”

I didn’t get it. Her one son (sullen and silent: I had seen him for a couple of years after they moved in) had graduated high school and was a freshman in another state. No, there was more to her staying with Reed, some kind of mind game, a Stockholm syndrome or something that kept her from leaving him. But then, she didn’t work, had some kind of disability, and maybe the house was in his name.

Meanwhile, my relationship with the cockroaches changed. We reached a sort of treaty, maybe a symbiosis. I was learning something from them: the absence of politics, and a ruthlessness. Or maybe that was from Greg, the cockroach inside me. Oh, I could feel him there, tipping the scales, mocking my pointless attempts to be “humane.”

You’d be doing her a favor, he would whisper in the middle of the night when I would fall asleep and sometimes wake to feel something crawling around my ear.

Meanwhile, I leveled the playing field in my war on cockroaches. I stopped using even the boiling water and the flyswatter. I fought them with honor, mano a mano, my fingers slapping them, squashing them, and sometimes eating them, if they had splattered in an enticing way. I found, too, that my food tasted better if I let it marinate (for the days were starting to get warm) in the trash.

Next door, Linda’s son Eric had come home for spring break, and he’d sat around the pool with Reed while she brought them beer and cleaned up the empties, which weren’t always so empty that I couldn’t sip a little from the dregs in the trash, the liquid starting to warm and putrefy enticingly. 

My body started to change. I had already practiced crawling on all fours, the elbows and knees bent inward so that my head hovered a few inches above the carpet. In this manner I had travelled around the house until my neck got tired and I had to quit.

Then a breakthrough: the leg physically changed into a tentacle, a frayed wire extending from my hips. Doing good, Dare, I heard Greg inside me. Now let’s work on those arms.

The question became not if but how to kill Reed without being caught or charged. The Fly couldn’t help me there.

Spring eased toward summer. The answer came hours after I bathed and again forgot to pull the drain plug. Looking down, I saw how a cockroach swam, its legs making tiny ripples until it reached land, and then I killed it. It had nothing more to teach me.

One night in June, the change was complete. I dreamed I had crawled on the ceiling and when I woke I was on the ceiling, looking down on my sleeping body. I was an astro-projection or something. I was an insect, a cockroach—a large one.

I crawled to the kitchen and drank from the sink water I didn’t drain. I heard a noise from next door.

“Fuck off!” I heard Reed shout behind him as he went outside. I thought I was going to hear his car door slam as he went away, as he’d done before, but all I heard was the rattle of a glass and the sound of a body easing into the water. I thought of the swimming cockroach.

It was time. My insect form was large enough that I could reach up and slowly open the back door.

I scuttled outside, and through the spaces between the wooden cracks, I saw Reed paddle back and forth. I crawled up the fence and peeking I saw Linda looking out from a back window as Reed reached out for the whiskey bottle he had placed beside the pool. She turned away and the light went off. A curtain closed.

That’s when I descended. I scurried down the fence and sat by the pool. Reed, once he had swum leisurely to the deep end, turned and saw me in the glow of the underwater lights. His eyes widened with fright, and he made some kind of utterance I didn’t want to have become a shout.
I slipped into the pool and like the cockroach had done in my bath I moved on tiny tendrils moving rapidly, steering me toward him.

He was absolutely frozen in fright, and I must have made quite a sight, the lights illuminating this large beanbag of a nearing cockroach.

By the time he unstuck himself and tried to vault out of the pool, he was too drunk and too out of shape to only lift himself a little before plunging back in. That’s when I put my wire legs on his head and held him under.

Later, I returned to my house and crawled back to fuse with my body on the ceiling. In the morning, I woke in bed, human again, and with the most wonderful dream still in my head.


I didn’t really meet the son until late that summer. I had seen him at Reed’s funeral service, but I was still filled with remorse over killing his father to have much of an opinion of him. Maybe “filled with remorse” wasn’t the right phrase. It was more like a sodden amazement at what I had done.

Eric had hugged his mother and went away, first back to college and then summer school. Luckily, he didn’t feel like hanging around and comforting Linda in the days that followed. Without knowing it, he left that to me.

My body was changing. It was something I learned to control, to turn on and off. It took concentration, insect concentration, a narrowing of things to the smallest, utilitarian units of perception. The albino cockroach, I knew him by now, settled inside me like a holstered weapon. 

Of course, I didn’t tell Linda any of that in the weeks that followed the funeral, the shy meeting over coffee, another, holding hands and a first kiss. 

We’ve achieved a lot, Greg whispered in my ear one night. There’s more to do.

“More?” I asked aloud.

“What did you say?” Linda asked beside me in her bed.

“Nothing,” I said. I put a hand on her hip. “Go back to sleep.”

Yes, more to do, I thought, looking at Eric, her son, when he returned home briefly before heading off to his sophomore year of college. I saw now how much Eric resembled his father. The same features, the eyes like poor healed incisions, the blunt chin. He’d spent the summer at a school back east.

“Party central,” Eric said when his mother had left the room. “You wouldn’t believe the women there.”

“I’m afraid he’s going to turn out like his father,” Linda told me the first time we slept together.

He’s going to make some woman miserable, I thought, as Linda came back in the room with the beers.

“So are you fucking her?” Eric asked after we’d had a few and Linda went to make hotdogs.

“No,” I said. A cockroach wouldn’t lie, but my human side, the side of myself and Greg, in there somewhere, did it easily. “She still misses your father,” which I knew wasn’t true, and less so every day. “I wouldn’t think Reed would have a heart attack so young,” I added.

“He was pretty drunk,” Eric said. He frowned, maybe suspecting something but not knowing what. It was like the reptilian brain trying to do math.

He’s only eighteen, I thought. There would be time. And later that night, once I had been exiled back to my own house—for Eric was settling in for a few days—I nodded to myself. With the son gone, we could sell both houses to a developer…after all, Greg promised me I’d have Linda. He never said I’d have to share her; that was not part of the deal.

It all came together at that moment. I felt the cockroach and the brother and the man I was—and was becoming—all joining inside of me. For practice, I stuck out my arm and watched it change into something else.

Garrett Rowlan is a retired Los Angeles teacher and the author of two published novels and many published short stories.

His website is: garrettrowlan.com