short fiction

Mason Jar

Carmen Price

Technically, the rules of social distancing didn’t apply to Dandelion. She couldn’t carry a virus, just a parasite—maybe—and that would only be a problem if Lily ate her, which Lily would never do.

Lily preferred eating other things, and she left crumbs everywhere she went, especially in bed, where lately she’d spent most of her time reading The Division of Labor in Society for pleasure. Lily had quit her MA program. She wasn’t going to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars from the government to sit in Zoom meetings several times a week. She was an autodidact now. Fuck grad school.

Her ocelli inky and wide, Dandelion watched Lily from the windowsill. Dandelion wasn’t allowed in Lily’s room—her mother had been very clear. She didn’t want Dandelion socializing with autodidacts, or women with pineapple slices tattooed all up and down the back of their legs. Tattoos were tacky and a woman without institutional affiliation was dangerous.

Dandelion rested her head on twenty-six of her legs. The sun melted into a pool of pink outside the window behind her and Dandelion considered how she was generally very good at listening to her mother. She’d always wanted to make her mother happy. But she was an adult now and all she wanted to do was to get close to Lily. Dandelion crawled towards Lily. The thrill of risk coursed through her flattened, segmented body. She never did things she wasn’t supposed to do. It felt good. Risk. Taking a risk on an autodidact with pineapple slice tattoos. Her flattened, segmented body crept closer to Lily, almost hovering with excitement, her flattened, segmented body—

Onto which her mother clung. Literally. With her hundreds of legs and thousands of judgments, and before she could do a fucking thing about it, they were tumbling around in a cold, hard place, hundreds of legs and thousands of judgments akimbo suddenly trapped inside a Mason jar.

Lily, for her part, wasn’t particularly bothered by centipedes. When her brothers urged her to smash and obliterate and squelch a large centipede in their basement with a hammer all those years ago, she’d told them to fuck off and carried the little creature to the safety of the ripe raspberry bushes embracing their back porch. And yet now, her first instinct was to crush Dandelion and her mother between her index finger and thumb. But she was lonely and didn’t want to be alone anymore.

She really didn’t want to be alone.

“I’m not a confident person, but I’m the best person for the job,” Lily said. On the other side of the screen, a bespectacled woman asked Lily to elaborate, her gaze focused on notes she’d been taking in green ink. Lily breathed in, exhaled, and then fake-calmly stated that she’d always been terrified of being banished, but that if she banished herself (with the bespectacled woman’s help) there would be nothing for her to be afraid of anymore. “You know, like a preemptive strike on my anxiety,” Lily concluded.

The bespectacled woman bit her top lip, which was crimson and smooth, and nodded even though she was irked by the way Lily had said “my anxiety” like it was an award to be placed in the most prominent position of a high school trophy case that hadn’t had its lightbulbs changed since 1986.

“You’re hired,” the bespectacled woman said, looking up and smiling for the first time since the interview began. Lily’s nerves went cold and then hot. It was a lot to take in—that the bespectacled woman, with her credentials and apple-shiny hair, would want someone like Lily to be on the team.

The bespectacled woman suppressed a yawn. She’d eaten two slices of avocado sprinkled with Stevia for breakfast and was considering smoking a cigarette for lunch. “I take it that’s a yes?” she asked, eyebrows raised and thick. Lily nodded—up and down, up and down.

Later that evening, as she walked nowhere in particular through dark streets smeared with October, Lily avoided looking up at the plump yellow moon and tried to remember the last time she’d held hands with someone without anything else to think about other than a stolen moment of skin-to-skin.

No pets in the workspace was the official company policy, but Lily had convinced the bespectacled woman that centipedes in a Mason jar shouldn’t count; they were lives in biological dimension only. Nothing social, nothing political. “They can’t even get me sick,” Lily had stressed.

The bespectacled woman knew that HR wouldn’t care about two centipedes in a glass jar, so she allowed Lily her pets. They’d be dead soon anyways. This was what you got when you funded things for which only weirdos would sign up. Weirdos had quirks. She’d figured there were worse quirks in the weirdo universe than non-negotiable pet centipedes.

Dandelion, for her part, was not keen to go on Lily’s workspace adventure. She just wanted out of the goddamn fucking jar. She was over Lily. Whatever. She’d been trapped in close quarters with her mother for weeks—her mother, who’d taken to quoting the King James Bible between chewing on the bits of worm Lily sprinkled down on them every other day. Didn’t Lily know they were predators? They didn’t want to be fed dead insects—they wanted to hunt. If you’re going to keep pets then do your homework. Dandelion was so fucking annoyed. She clicked her pincers without rhythm. This was not her vision of individuation. Arthropods could potentially live more than a year and she’d already been alive for eight months. She was more than an adult and she was supposed to be off doing something and being someone—all by herself, or not, but not with her mother.

“And I will give him the morning star,” Dandelion’s mother said authoritatively and she burrowed beneath a Maple leaf split at its midrib. She began to cry, but when Dandelion’s mother cried, it was never more than a whimper that functioned as a signal: she wanted something. Or needed something. And Dandelion couldn’t even be mad about it—she was the one who’d gotten them into this mess.

Dandelion crawled over to her mother to see if there was anything she could do, but her mother rebuffed her mid-way across the jar.

The bespectacled woman told Lily that she should under no circumstances leave the workspace (barring a legitimate medical emergency of course). Lily could go out on the tiny balcony for fresh air, but not outside. That wasn’t necessary. Everything she needed was in the workspace.

The workspace’s walls were painted pink—the kind of pink, Lily noted on the day she moved in, that people who were very interested in career advancement liked to slather on stylish office walls. But it didn’t bother her, though. There was a bed and a shower and a kitchenette and a couch and no sharp angles. There wasn’t a TV in the workspace. “Just use your laptop,” the bespectacled woman had shrugged.

Lily needed to understand that this was all very cutting-edge. And the bespectacled woman, on behalf of wherever the money came from, was thrilled that Lily wanted to be a part of the future. “Work from home and work at whatever time suits you best,” the bespectacled woman had said. “It’s rent-free. Paid benefits. Well…no sick leave, but in the workspace you don’t have to take off work when you’re sick—barring a legitimate medical emergency of course.” Money wasn’t something Lily would have to think about, either. If she wanted something, then she could just order it. “It’ll be there,” the bespectacled woman had said, “no problem.”

The details of the work itself were unimportant to the bespectacled woman’s mind. Just tasks that needed to be done online, no big deal, Lily could do them whenever she wanted. 2 pm or 2 am. It didn’t matter. And if she wanted to sleep for a couple of hours in a row, that was fine, too. It was all her choice. For six months, and then, if she did a good enough job, maybe six more.

“Just don’t forget to log your hours, and do the online stuff, and use the mood-tracking app-thingy daily,” the bespectacled woman had said, “that’s really all we require.”

Mood-tracking app-thingy? What the fuck is wrong with humans? Dandelion thought as she watched Lily put a Ficus altissima in the sole square window of the workspace. Lily unpacked her suitcase, hummed, left a big box of books in the corner. There wasn’t a bookshelf.

“I was right about her,” Dandelion’s mother volunteered as she slowly chewed her way through some bits of dead worm. “She’s attached to nothing and no one. And now we’re stuck in the void with her. Want to pray?”

“OK,” Dandelion said. She scuttled across the Mason jar towards her mother’s Maple leaf abode, but at the halfway point, her mother mentioned that she’d rather take a nap instead.

The bespectacled woman and Lily had agreed to a morning meeting on Zoom. Neither really knew what they were going to discuss other than the fact that things had been going pretty OK in the workspace. The online stuff was getting done and the app was getting updated. Things were getting ordered and delivered and Lily was sleeping, but not too much.

At 10 am Lily logged onto Zoom and the bespectacled woman logged on at 10:01. The bespectacled woman asked Lily how she was doing, and Lily said she was fine, and the bespectacled woman then said that she was happy that the mood app-thingy had been reporting that Lily’s frame of mind had been very stable over the past few weeks. “Cool,” Lily said, and beyond her round face, which took up most of the screen, the bespectacled woman could just make out the Mason jar on Lily’s bedside table.

“Are they still alive?” The bespectacled woman asked. It had been three months since Lily had moved into the workspace. Centipedes couldn’t possibly live that long.

“They’re still alive,” Lily shrugged. “Weird, huh?” The bespectacled woman nodded and wanted to suggest that Lily throw the centipedes away, but she stopped herself, biting her crimson lip. “I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Lily continued semi-out of the blue, “and this has totally nothing to do with anything, but…when was the last time you touched someone’s hand? Skin-to-skin?”

The bespectacled woman didn’t know how to answer that question and didn’t want to dwell on it. Instead, she couldn’t think of anything at all and then rather unexpectedly, she raised her hand to the screen and pressed against it, hard, as if pressing hard would push her hand through the screen to the realness of Lily. Why not? Lily thought. She pressed her hand against her screen, too. Hard.

Dandelion, who had watched every single one of Lily and the bespectacled woman’s Zoom meetings, pressed all twenty-six of her legs against the Mason jar’s glass. Hard. With strength she didn’t know she had. The Mason jar tipped over and cracked in half, Dandelion and her mother’s habitat spilling onto the sticky-slick vinyl floor. Startled, Lily turned and saw Dandelion scuttling across the debris, and in that moment, the reality of a centipede, and its squirmy-living body and thousands of legs, filled Lily with a heavy sense of fear that weighed her heart down until it beat very slowly, which stunted her breath and sharpened her focus. There was only one thing to be done and she had to do it. A deep and dark instinct kicked in—the instinct to kill. Without saying another word to the bespectacled woman, Lily closed her laptop.

Dandelion—disoriented and covered in pine needles and dirt—frantically called out for her mother. Silence. Dandelion’s mandibles chattered; she shook all over. When she saw her mother stretched out beneath her favorite Maple leaf, Dandelion was sure that she was dead. She called out to her: “Mom!”

“I’m taking a nap,” Dandelion’s mother replied.

Lily’s footsteps were quiet and deliberate. Dandelion didn’t see her coming until she was caught, almost tenderly, between Lily’s index finger and thumb. Lily’s warmth spread throughout each segment of Dandelion’s body, but somewhere inside, Dandelion knew what was happening. She cried out for help. She cried out and cried out while Lily slowly pressed her fingers together as hard as she could.

Lily went to the sink in the kitchenette and washed Dandelion from her hands with lemon soap. Her heartbeat returned to its normal state, and she half-grinned at the realization that she wasn’t frightened anymore.

Dandelion’s mother remained asleep under the Maple leaf.