You want to be careful when using curses and general ill-wishing spells against people in a workplace environment, because of HR. HR is never there when someone has his hand on your ass when you’re stocking shelves, Kent, they think it’s a he-said-she-said when someone talks about how your tits will help with your promotion, Kent, but the minute you send a two-headed razor-hoofed demon goat after someone, you’ve got an appointment with HR and you’re the problem somehow.
I calculated that giant gnats would split the difference. Gnats gave a certain air of plausibility when you’re sitting in the chair of someone with an official nameplate talking about what exactly has happened to Kent and how you personally were not there. And yet in the moment, is there any doubt in his mind what he is experiencing and why? Does he ever have any thoughts that this might be random?
He does not. No, no, Kent does not indeed.
I did not really reckon on the gnats coming round for coffee afterward.
They were giant—that much worked exactly according to my great-aunt Jennie’s grimoire. But they were giant for gnats, so: still small enough to fit through the hole in the window screen that the super should have had fixed a year ago. Which they did.
“Hello,” hummed the gnats, forming up their swarm in the kitchen chair opposite mine. “I took care of Kent.”
I dropped my spoon into my cornflakes, and for a full minute I could say nothing at all. After that I said, “Holy shit,” and only after that did I manage, “I thought you would…I thought you would disperse. When you had done that.”
The swarm of giant gnats waited. Each gnat was the size of a blueberry.
“…Was there…something you…”
“This was very satisfying work.”
“…thanks?” I made myself pick my spoon up and take another bite of cornflakes. It wasn’t a gourmet treat, but it was the dinner I had in front of me, and it was not going to improve with a longer marinade time.
“Do you have anything else for me?”
I had not expected to be hit up for another gig. It wasn’t like I didn’t have a list. Who doesn’t? People who would be better off attacked by a swarm of giant gnats for their misdeeds: yeah, we all know those. But actually being in the moment was different. Harder. Filled with the sort of buzzing that felt dizzy, unreal, except that there they were.
They should have been satisfied, satiated by Kent. “You’re sure you handled him?”
That was amusement.
I wondered if each gnat was amused individually or only their gestalt. Or both. Anyway, if I was going to have a swarm of giant gnats around, at least they had a sense of humor.
I looked around my studio apartment: tiny square kitchen table and two chairs, futon, Ikea dresser, bathroom. I knew people who shared as much space with a human roommate. “You can stick around here while I figure it out, but let’s try to stay out of each other’s way. I bet you’ll like the bathroom—the tap leaks. But let’s take turns separately, okay? Not both of us in there at once.”
The gnats were better than most human roommates I’d had about giving me my space to get ready in the morning. I barely knew they were there, except for the buzzing. When I got to work, I was one hundred percent sure that Kent was there, though. You couldn’t miss him. His face and neck were covered with welts nearly the same color as our bright red uniform polo shirt. His forehead was stamped with a rectangular gash.
“Kent oh my God Kent,” said Marty, my co-worker, “what happened to you?”
Kent could not meet my eyes. “Ran into a post getting away from some dang gnats,” he said.
The fact that Kent would say “tits” to me in a work context but not “damn” made it all even more satisfying somehow.
“That looks like it really hurts, Kent, ” I said.
He grunted, still not looking at me. I went back to stocking shelves so as not to draw too much attention to it. He could just live with the itching, stinging, and whatever other gifts my swarm of friends had left him.
I mulled over what other work they could do. There was a customer who routinely harassed half the employees on my shift. Maybe he was a good place to start. And Larry from Corporate—he only came down from on high quarterly, but all of us felt like hosing the entire place down with bleach when he did.
“Okay,” I told the swarm of giant gnats when I got home. “Larry from Corporate. You understand what proportional response is.”
I wouldn’t see Larry from Corporate right away. I wouldn’t count his welts personally. That was okay; it was kind of gross. But the gnats hummed happily around the apartment, and I knew they’d met Larry.
There were all sorts of cautionary tales about witches who tried things like this, how they grew mad with power and went too far. That sounded exhausting to me. The whole thing was exhausting. I had spent too much time thinking about it even before they’d shown up to help. The giant gnats were pretty good roommates, and what I really wanted was for them to let me spend less time thinking about the swarms of giant jackasses I was otherwise powerless to stop. So when I caught myself being fixated and frustrated, I just…dispatched the gnats, and let it go.
Otherwise we watched anime together. The gnats were particularly fascinated with the one where the characters are cells in the human body, I think because gnat bodies have different cells than that, or maybe because it represented a swarm of sorts. We listened to music together, and the gnats tried to hum along. (That was not great, but sometimes you let your buddies do what they need to do.)
With caution, I introduced the swarm to some of my human friends. This was great for everybody, because then when I was actually able to have a few weeks when nobody harassed me, I didn’t have to worry about feeding the swarm. Someone else always could.
Kent came up to me one day in the stockroom. I still flinched, instinctively. The swarm wasn’t with me at every moment. I still have those reactions hardwired in. Kent said, in a low voice, “I know it was you.”
“I didn’t eat your lunch, Kent,” I said, even though I knew what he meant. “You wrote your name on it. I knew it was yours.”
“The gnats. I know about the giant gnats, Sarah.”
I thought about playing dumb, but I’ve had enough of that kind of games to last me a lifetime, so I just went with it. “I know about the giant gnats, too, Kent. I know more about them than you do. I know their favorite flavor of Pringles. It’s sour cream and onion.”
That’s pretty inconvenient because I like cheddar, but you stock the pantry for your friends. And not always with the blood of jerks, either. In fact mostly not with the blood of jerks—I tried to remember that last part.
“I don’t know how you did it, but I know it was you,” he continued.
“So Kent. If you know that I have—” I made my voice low and growly. “—An unusual relationship with a swarm of giant gnats. Why exactly are you bothering me now?”
Kent decided that he definitely was not bothering me now.
Kent transferred to the Cleveland store, where he hoped nobody knew any insects of any size personally.
The gnats checked on him there a couple of times. The employees in Cleveland seemed to be doing okay, but we like to make sure.
Honestly I don’t have a very unusual relationship with the swarm of giant gnats—it’s a pretty normal friendship. We look out for each other. We hang out and talk about random life things. We remember each other’s birthdays. Mine is March 16. Theirs is June 19, the day that I used Aunt Jennie’s grimoire to summon them to deal with Kent for me. And we keep an eye on each other to make sure this “going mad with power” thing isn’t popping up. So far so good.
Which is more than we could have said for Larry from Corporate before we showed up. We really think power madness is more a Larry from Corporate problem.
Marissa Lingen is the author of many, many works of short science fiction and fantasy. She has recently branched out into essays and poetry. She lives in the Minneapolis area with her family.