Exoskeleton

By Joe Baumann

From his bedroom, Troy Geddleston heard his parents’ annual August barbecue getting underway.  As guests arrived, their voices floated down the hall, muddled like they were underwater.  When enough of them had rang the doorbell, the wives decided to play beer pong.  While the husbands congregated on the back porch, grunting out approval as Bill Geddleston tossed steaks onto the grill, the women tramped down to the basement and slipped into the unfinished side, where never-unpacked boxes and old, abandoned televisions surrounded the ping pong table.  The women’s voices floated up through his heating vent to Troy’s ear, so the noise sounded like a shitty, crackling radio, interrupted and blurred by the blasting cold air.  He could hear his mother Judy fling down a sleeve of unopened red plastic cups.

     “Shit,” he heard her yell.  “We have an odd number of people.”

     The doorbell rang.  The men were all outside, so Troy took it as his duty to play doorman.  Standing on the front porch, each holding a six-pack of some kind of fancy beer, were Ricky Parker and Padraic O’Brien.  Maybe they were married by now and one had taken the other’s name, or maybe they’d hyphenated, or maybe they weren’t wed at all.  Troy didn’t catch a glimpse of their hands.  He gestured toward the back porch.  As he let Ricky and Padraic pass, the basement door opened, and Troy’s mother crowed up the stairs: “Which of you is better at throwing a ping pong ball?”

      Troy watched Ricky and Padraic negotiate, and a few seconds later Padraic passed his six-pack off to Ricky, who departed toward the back deck.  Padraic trundled down the steps.

     “Good luck,” Troy said to no one.

*

     Three days before his parents’ party, gargantuan insect carapaces appeared along the US coasts, several thousand miles away.  Troy flicked through images of the bugs online.  They were the size of small sedans, eyes prismatic and wings like thin slabs of stained glass.  The pictures, according to bloggers and reporters who had made the sojourns to Jersey Shore and Myrtle Beach and Mendocino and the Gulf of Mexico, did not do the bugs justice; in person, Troy read, they elicited a combination of awe and fear, so real and gigantic that the very idea that they might stir to life left visitors’ hearts pumping fast, sweat drizzling against their hairlines and lower backs.  Authorities weren’t sure what to do about the insects, so they cordoned them off while government officials raced to find entomologists who could study them. 

     Troy clicked on his favorite: a humongous red-hued dragonfly tilting in the sand in Presidio.  It stood as if by magic, its four thin legs hooked against the white beach, spindles thinner than curtain rods, the rest of the body parallel to the land, the gossamer-wispy wings collecting afternoon light, peerless white and sapphire blues filtering through the shimmering glassiness.

      One theory claimed that they were art, a massive conspiratorial project like crop circles or the various works of Banksy.  Some said there was no way anyone could haul that many bugs—there were hundreds, thousands—to all edges of the continent and keep it quiet.  Plus, after the first expert managed to pull a teeny tiny bit of arachnoid claw from an onyx scorpion, testing proved that the bugs were not made of glass.  They were made of bug.

     Judy’s voice filtered up through the vent; she was screeching out rules for the beer pong tournament.  Troy’s face flushed.  Whose mother, on the cusp of forty, hosted a beer pong tournament?

     His hands went to his cell phone.  Troy’s parents had given him the green light to invite his friends over later, after the adults had slouched home.  They’d lamented, over dinner last night, that each year the barbecue became bereft of guests earlier and earlier.  Troy had sat in silence, picking at his potatoes and meatballs, until Judy slugged him in the shoulder and told him to drag his own cavalry over to take the partying helm once she and his father’s posse was down for the count.  He’d nodded an Okay but hadn’t done anything about it.

     He did so now, corralling the phone numbers of half a dozen of his friends into a group message.  After a moment’s debate he added Nate, whom he’d tried to help understand Algebra II the week before, to minimal success (in Troy’s mind) and a C+ on the most recent quiz (a grand success, in Nate’s).  Troy had sweated through the two tutoring sessions, unable to decide if Nate’s ankle clacking three, four times against his was incidental or some kind of code. 

     He sent the text.  It wobbled up on screen in a green haze.  He leaned back on his bed and stared at the ceiling while the insect on his computer screen stared at him, the glass bubbles of its eyes catching the beach light and scooping it in his direction.  Troy rubbed at his temples, wondering if he could peel off his topmost layer of skin and find something else new and special beneath.

*

     When his bedroom door unexpectedly popped open, Troy sat up.  Padraic was standing in the doorway at an awkward tilt, one hand on the knob.

     “Sorry, sorry,” Padraic said.  He was tall, dirty blond, somewhere between meathead and intellectual.  “I was looking for the bathroom.”  He tried to offer a toothy, pathetic grin.  “Too much beer, I think.”  He frowned.  “I probably shouldn’t have said that.”  Padraic cleared his throat and pointed to the computer screen, where the dragonfly was still enlarged.  “Got any theories on those guys?”

     “The bugs?”  Troy looked toward his laptop.  “Not really.  I just think they look interesting.”

     “They’re certainly something.  Mysterious.”

     “Yeah.”

 

     “Not that we need more mysteries to boggle our minds, do we?”

 

     Troy didn’t know what to say to that, so he nodded.  H was saved by shouting that echoed down the hall, his mother calling for her beer pong partner.

 

     “Gotta go,” Padraic said.  “Haven’t even used the restroom yet.  Remind me which door is the right one?”

 

     “The next one.”

 

     “Ah.  Missed it by that much.”  Padraic paused.  “Thanks.”

 

     “You’re welcome.”

 

     Padraic offered a wobbling salute and pulled the door shut.  Not until he was out of sight did Troy wave and say, “Goodbye.”

 

*

 

    Troy’s phone buzzed.  He looked down and was unsurprised to see that the first response to his invitation was a rejection, something hazy and indecisive, making a general claim about parents being lame and demanding a family movie night.  Troy swiped it off-screen, not bothering to reply.  This had become de rigueur with his friends: invite them to something too early, and they refused to commit.  Invite them too late, and they already had plans.  He’d yet to find the balanced equation, the perfect sweet spot, for success.  More declined invites would roll his way, he knew.

 

    Troy tossed himself out of his desk chair and pulled open his bedroom door.  He could still hear the buzz of noise from the basement, periodic screeches of success.  Shouldn’t he be the one throwing back beers in someone’s soggy, decrepit basement?  He knew kids at school that drank, some of them even showing up to first period stinking of well whiskey or vodka, their eyes glossy and hair tousled from a night of partying.  The jocks threw keggers all the time, playing spin the bottle and strip poker with their cheerleader or dance squad girlfriends in houses full of thumping music and no parents.  Troy was never invited to these shindigs, but word of their rowdiness had certainly reached his ears; they sounded like something out of the movies.

  

   The noise of the beer pong tournament flushed up the stairs as he walked past.  Troy could see his father manning the grill, clouds of steam and smoke pouring into the sky.  The other men were in scattered clusters, fists curled around amber beer bottles.  Their noise was muffled by the thick doors leading outside to the back deck that got little use except for when Bill got up the gumption to plaster pork chops with his homemade barbecue sauce that Troy had to admit was better than anything he’d eaten at any restaurant in his life.  His father had taught him the secret recipe more than once, but Troy always forgot.

 

     He tossed himself onto the living room couch and plucked up the X-box One controller splayed next to the remote.  For ages his mother and father had locked horns over where to keep the video game console, Judy arguing that it was tacky and ill-fashioned for such a thing to take up space in the family room, Bill countering by asking what better way was there to keep Troy from becoming a basement-dwelling weirdo than by keeping his favorite things on the main floor.  Bill won.

  

   Troy kept getting himself killed, his digitized super-soldier with impossible bowling-ball-sized shoulders getting mown down by mysterious gun fire when he approached a series of abandoned cars along a blitzed highway.

   

  “Tough time?”

 

    Troy looked up.  Standing behind him, beer bottle cocked against his hip, stood Ricky Parker.

 

    “Hi,” Troy said, trying not to mumble or stutter.  He pressed the pause button and left his soldier idling at the same save point he’d come back to life at over and over.  “Yeah, I guess.”

 

     “I haven’t played this one yet,” Ricky said, “or I’d offer what would surely be useless advice.”  He tapped his beer bottle and took a sip.

 

     Troy caught a glance at Ricky’s fingers: bare.  No rings, no emblems.  He wanted, desperately, to ask Ricky how he’d known that Padraic would want him—not just want, really, but like, even love—when there was so much danger in the not being sure.  There was so much that could have happened if he had been wrong.  How did he know to take the risk?  How did anyone?

  

   But before he could bring himself to say anything, a burst of noise broke from the basement: the door opening, a stampede of women ascending the stairs.  Troy sat up and swung from the couch.  Ricky started to say something but Troy was gone, hopping past him down the hallway.  The last thing he wanted was to get caught up in explaining his summer activities or his non-existent love life to his mother’s cadre of friends, answering their questions about whether he had a girlfriend yet.  He heard Judy yell something at Ricky about Padraic being a great beer pong partner, and Troy felt a strange flash of embarrassment on everyone’s behalf.  His gut roiled as he slid into his bedroom, shutting the door.  Like a despondent, worried character in a movie, he leaned against it, ramming his head and letting out a long, sorry breath.

 

*

 

     Nate’s text appeared on Troy’s screen.  It began: Sorry, man.  Troy swiped it away.

 

    The party had moved into the living room.  He could hear his mother whooping about her victory in the beer pong tournament, Padraic her stupendous—her word, slurred and gummy in her drunken mouth—partner.  Troy pictured him and Ricky standing idly, perhaps sheepishly, caught in the spotlight of his mom’s obnoxious celebration.

  

   He googled the bugs again.  Troy couldn’t put into words why he was so piqued by them, addicted, almost, to looking at their glassy bodies shining against beachfront, tiny legs like syringes plunged into the sand and majestically, magically, keeping their exoskeletons afloat. 

 

    One of the bugs, he read, had broken open.

  

   A caterpillar, massive and segmented, each one of its fuzzy hairs a tiny glassy spike sharp enough to draw blood, had cracked along its spine, a furrow like a split in asphalt.  No one was quite sure why or how the crack had appeared; the bugs on the beach in Atlantic City had been cordoned off, patrolled by officers from the CDC who took their job overly seriously.  The crack, one article said, was not wide enough to allow anyone to peer inside the caterpillar, not even for an endoscope to be shoved inside.  But it was noticeable and real, shimmying down the bug’s back in a jagged line.

 

      Well, Troy thought, caterpillars do change.

 

     He imagined the bug turning to slop inside a cocoon, but maybe these bugs did away with transitional phases and went straight from child to adult, larvae to monarch, bypassing the dormancy and difficulty of the muddy, goopy middle.

 

*

 

     Troy thought the knock on his door, gentle, as though coming from a skittish animal, might be Padraic or Ricky, rounding in to say goodbye.  It was, instead, his dad, beer-eyed and tight-lipped, wanting to let Troy know that there was plenty of leftover food.

 

     “If you’re hungry.”

 

     “Okay.”

 

     “Or for your friends.”

 

     “Okay.”  He did not tell his father that all of his friends had declined his invitation, a spool of shitty reasons, short, chirpy texts.  Instead of bothering with replies he kept reading about the bugs.  No updates on the caterpillar that had split.  Someone had wrangled a way to set up a live feed of the carapace, which sat stone-still on the sand.  The camera was zoomed in on the crack, sharp and jagged like the skin had been cut through with a dull bread knife.  The line was dark and thick. 

 

    His father’s eyes were glassy.  The living room was still pulsing with voices, but they were hushed, fewer.  The front door had opened and closed several times, cars growling to life and squealing away into the encroaching summer twilight.

 

     “You alright, bud?”  Bill’s mouth twisted into a half-grin that was meant to be inviting but looked like something from a horrible circus clown.

 

     “Yeah.  Why?”

 

     “You’ve been quiet.”

 

     Troy shrugged.  “It’s not my party.”

 

     “Of course it is.  It’s your house.  It’s your party.”

 

     Troy looked at his father.  One time, Bill caught him looking at pictures of male underwear models on his computer.  Troy was listening to music—a YouTube playlist of Kansas, Boston, all those old bands named for cities and states—and had forgotten to lock the door.  He’d been sussing out a sudoku puzzle and scrolling through a Tumblr page that collected photos of fit, attractive men in tight, skimpy PUMP briefs and UNICO trunks.  He’d heard his father start to speak, something about laundry, but Troy didn’t turn around.  Nor did he try to hide what was on his computer screen.  He kept humming along to “Carry On My Wayward Son” and filling in numbers, pretending he had no idea his father was there.  Bill hovered, his presence obvious like a sulfurous cloud, but he eventually backed away, shutting the door with a soft tink of the knob, and came back twenty minutes later, announcing his presence with a loud knock. 

 

     Troy wondered when his father would say something.  He still hadn’t, months later.

 

     Bill cleared his throat.  “Well, the last of our friends should be out of here in no time.  Tell your friends they’re welcome whenever, okay?”

 

     “Okay.”

 

     “Great.”

 

     “Great.”

 

     His father raised his hand and spun around like a child doing some silly, unfettered dance.  He slunk back down the hall.  Troy shut the door.

 

*

 

     The hot, expansive night waited for him.  Troy slipped from his room and watched as Ricky dragged a blitzed Padraic from the living room couch; he and Judy’s victory had come at the expense of any last glimmers of sobriety for either.  Once Ricky and Padraic and another couple that Troy didn’t recognize had gone, Bill started cleaning up, plopping beer cans and bottles into a trash bag and gathering up smeary paper plates.  His mother sequestered herself in the master bedroom, running a bath.  Not long thereafter his father, giving up on his efforts to tidy the place up, entombed himself there too, shutting the door like he was sealing up a vault.

 

     Troy ducked behind the bar and pulled a random bottle of beer from a cooler where they bobbed like buoys.  He looked down at the label: a blond girl in lederhosen held a frothy mug in each hand.  She smiled.  He could almost see his own reflection in the dark glass.  Troy grabbed a second bottle and clinked them together, giving himself a solitary toast.

 

     Troy took the bottles into his bedroom, twisted one open, and took a shallow sip, the taste stinging his tongue.  He forced it down.  Then he opened his internet browser in search of any news about the bugs.  Nothing urgent or breaking.  He took another sip of beer, this one easier, smoother.  He felt it gurgle into his stomach, a warm percolation like coffee roasting. 

 

*

 

     After the first two beers, Troy went back and pulled three more, this time cans of the cheap stuff his mother and her cohort had been slucking down in the basement.  They all tasted the same to Troy, sour and slightly metallic, as though nickels had sat soaking in the fermenter vats.  His parents were deeply asleep, the sound of his father’s buzz-saw snoring escaping through their bedroom door.  Troy relished the way the beers made the world tilt and spin.  On his computer, the bugs gyrated slightly in his wobbling vision.

 

     After tucking himself into bed, following a teetered journey to the bathroom to brush his teeth, he stared up at the ceiling, thinking about Ricky and Padraic.  He imagined them lying in bed, temperate and satisfied in the simple fact of their togetherness. While he hummed along to the music still pumping out of his computer, the volume dialed to a low whisper, Troy tried to ignore the fact that he should have been sitting in his basement, friends laughing and joking as they watched TV and talked about girls.  Maybe they’d have unplugged the X-box and brought it downstairs to murder one another on-screen.  One of them might offer a spliff of weed, which he would insist they take outside to smoke, the microwave oven heat of the summer night rolling over them.  Maybe he and Nate would find themselves sitting next to one another in the cubby-hole of a patio buried beneath the back deck and their feet would clack together.  Like something out of a romantic comedy their hands would eventually bop together, too, and, if Troy was lucky, a kiss would bloom between them.

 

     He pictured Ricky and Padraic as they drove home, stopping at a red light, Padraic looking out the passenger-side window.  Troy imagined Padraic’s gaze as he watched a frozen custard place, bustling with activity, kids in jean shorts and tank tops clustered around cement benches and shellack-wired tables, laughing and joking and threatening to smear dairy product on one another’s noses.  Troy could see boys snaking their arms around girls’ narrow shoulders under the sodium lights, families of five crossing the street, kids’ hands clenching dripping cones: life spinning about, the mid-summer night churning with laughter and sweat.  Troy pictured Ricky pulling into an upscale apartment complex, three stories high and built like it belonged on a Parisian arrondissement.  He watched them shuck their shoes and plunge into bed, rolling toward one another for a goodnight kiss.

 

     Then he pictured the insects: the caterpillar finally cracking open, reconstituted as a monarch butterfly, its glass wings creaking and bending the light in a kaleidoscope of color.  And the dragonfly, taking off, its fragile legs tucking up as it ascended, disappearing into the gathered sunset.

 

     He shucked off the top sheet and felt the cool, conditioned air on his bare legs.  Troy went to the window, slicing open the Venetian blinds with his fingers so moonlight spilled across his chest like a tireless white laser.  Somewhere out there, he told himself, was a future, desirable and plump and forgiving.  Somewhere was someone who would touch him and hold him and glance at him like he imagined Ricky and Padraic did one another.  How would he wander through the maze of the world to find that someone was a mystery.  Troy felt a fishhook through his lungs.  People found their way to one another all the time.  Why not him?  If his parents and his parents’ goofy friends, why not Troy Geddleston?  Beer thrummed in his blood.  He shut his eyes and let his body sway as the music on his computer came to a juddering transition—from “Separate Ways” to “You’re the Inspiration”—and told himself he wouldn’t open them until morning, until a week had passed, until years were gone by, as if in darkness he could travel through time to a new place, a new world, where life was simple and direct and love was everywhere.

©2020 by Variant Literature Inc.