by Jennifer Moore

“Go on, dear,” urges Janice, pushing her through the door of the First Contact Community Centre. “Trust me. This is exactly what you need.”

Maya’s not so sure. What she really needs is an evening away from her problems. All those hundreds and thousands of problems scurrying through her cupboards and burrowing under her carpets. Who’d have guessed an alien invasion would have quite so many legs? She shudders, sitting down beside an embarrassed looking lady with thick rimmed glasses and braids, and tries her best to look invisible.

“Welcome,” says the man from the newly formed Inpestation Information Board. “Thank you for coming.”

“Of course I’m not here for me,” Janice tells the people in the next row. Just loudly enough for the entire room to hear. “Maya’s the one with the horrible creatures.”

The Inpestation man fixes them with a steely glare. “Firstly, I’d like to start by saying you’re not alone. This is a problem facing our entire country,” he says. “Our entire planet. And let me assure you that the government agencies are working round the clock to find a solution. But in the meantime …”

Maya’s hardly listening. Why did she let Janice talk her into this? There’s nothing they can do. Nothing new they can tell her. She stares at the dark spot by her feet, waiting for it to grow legs and move. They always do. Oh, the shame of it all. Why her house? Why not the rest of the street? Why not Janice’s place?

“… and to remind you that an inpestation is in no way a sign of poor cleanliness or bad housekeeping …” drones the man.

Janice snorts. “Hah! What else could it be? Not that you don’t try your best, of course. We all know that. I was only saying to the church ladies on Sunday, Maya Prince keeps a lovely clean house on the surface.”

“I told you in confidence,” says Maya, who’s been regretting it ever since. No wonder she had an entire pew to herself this week.

“Nonsense. A problem shared is a problem halved.”

Maya sighs. Her problem’s multiplying with each passing minute, growing new legs at a ferocious rate.

“Besides, having an inpestation doesn’t make you a bad person,” says Janice. No one’s judging you.”

Right. Apart from you, thinks Maya.

* * *

By the end of the evening Maya’s learned everything there is to learn about interplanetary migration patterns and extra-terrestrial resistance to Earth insecticides. She’s quite the expert, now, when it comes to inpestation breeding patterns, and the small-minded, back-stabbing qualities of her so-called friend.

“At least you haven’t got space-rats,” Janice says on the ride home, devouring her own Living with Our Alien Visitors leaflet with ill-concealed glee. “Or solar-cockroaches. Can you imagine?”

“I’d rather not.”

“What about these ten-eyed bed bugs? I’d just die if I found one of those on my mattress.”

Die? thinks Maya. If only. “Please, Janice. I’d rather not talk about them right now.” She doesn’t even want to think about them. It’s bad enough as it is—those fat hyphens scuttling through her dreams each night—without inviting all their weird and wonderful friends into her subconscious too.

“Of course. I forget how upsetting this must be for you. I can’t even begin to imagine how you’re feeling. A stray bluebottle’s bad enough, let alone great armies of extra-terrestrial beetles scuttling through your cupboards, laying their nasty green eggs in your flour bags …”

“Stop it,” says Maya. “Just stop it.”

“There’s no need to be like that, now. I was just trying to empathise. It’s not a situation I’ve ever found myself in, obviously.” Janice snorts gracelessly. “I’d like to meet a bug that could make it through my disinfectant defences.”

Maya bites her lip, refusing to be drawn.

“And as for this nonsense everyone talks about dirt being good for the immune system,” Janice says, dragging the conversation off sideways in order to mount her favourite hobbyhorse. “What a load of bull. I mean, look at me. Spotless, my house is—everyone says so—and I haven’t had so much as a sniffle in years.”

“Careful,” mutters Maya. “You don’t want to tempt fate.” There might be any number of interplanetary nasties out there, just waiting to bring Janice down. Something rashy and pustulent preferably.

“In fact I might give the kitchen a quick once over before bed. You can never be too clean, can you?”

“No,” agrees Maya. “Apparently not.”

* * *

By the following morning Maya’s feeling much better disposed towards her unwanted visitors. Perhaps, in a funny way, Janice was right—a problem shared really is a problem halved. It’s certainly good to know how many other people are going through the same thing. That’s it’s the same story all over the planet. And none of it’s her fault—that’s the main thing to remember. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Maya puts down her coffee to watch a line of shiny brown invaders trickling slowly up the kitchen door.

“And where do you think you’re off to?” she says, reaching for the empty jam jar and her Inpestation Identification leaflet. A deft flick of her wrist and the slowest one’s lying on his back at the bottom of the jar. She screws the lid on tight and holds it up for closer inspection.

“Don’t worry,” Maya tells him, “I’ll find you some friends to keep you company. The more the merrier, yes?” Twenty ought to do it.

* * *

“Maya,” says Janice, with a look of genuine surprise. “I’d ask you in but …”

“Don’t worry, I’m not stopping,” Maya tells her, handing over the potted cyclamen. “I just wanted to drop this off, to say thank you for last night. I feel much better knowing how many people out there are in the same boat. To know it could happen to anyone. Even you.”

“Huh,” sniffs Janice. “I’d like to see them try.”

Maya smiles sweetly, thinking of those twenty soil-coloured backs hunkering down beneath the mottled cyclamen leaves. It’s practically an open invitation.

Notes …

‘Inpestation’ was inspired by the unwelcome arrival of some tiny six-legged visitors in an old cupboard one summer—an advance party, perhaps?

Jennifer’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications on both sides of the Atlantic, including The GuardianMslexia, Daily Science Fiction and The First Line.  She is a previous winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition and the author of two children’s space adventure chapter books (writing as Jaye Seymour).


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