When he meets his new lab partner for the first time, he tries not to look directly at her. Snatched glimpses prove she’s pretty, but his account is by necessity piecemeal, a view as if through compound eyes. For instance, her brows arch like the raptorial legs of a mantis and are brown like her hair, which is wavy and curls around her chin, which has a small mole on it like a black garden ant that’s lost its colony.
“Hello,” she says. “My name’s Kendra. Do you care which desk I use?”
He does care. “No, nope, up to you,” he mutters. He doesn’t want to scare her off when she’s only just appeared.
“Okay then,” she says, hefting a backpack full of supplies on top of the not his desk—a lucky guess—then pulls out a tissue-pack and commences dusting off her new digs, exactly as he had. He can feel himself grinning, catches himself, flits his gaze to the tiled floor.
“What’s your name?”
“As in philodendron, nice. I own a heart-leaf one that attracts wicked fungus gnats.” She flicks a dusty tissue into the waste bin. “So, tell me about you. What do you do for fun?”
He doesn’t do anything for fun, really, besides reading science-fiction novels and mountain biking and the occasional restaurant review written for the local paper, oh and he also takes care of his parents’ rose garden, though they’re getting on in years—his parents and the roses—his father recently suffered a mild stroke, and . . . His past hopes and current research interests spill out of him, pitched to a mumble. She might’ve given away her life story right then, if only he’d been braver, dared to test out her methods, asked ever so casually what she did for fun. Instead, he folds his awkwardness around him like a pair of flightless wings and hunches over a microscope to hide his blush.
For a year they work alongside one another in silence, until, over a tray of Halyomorpha halys, he finally chirps out other words, these ones rehearsed for months: “Might you want to grab some dinner?”
“I thought you’d never ask. But I actually have plans tonight,” she says, smiling to take the sting away. “Open ballroom; I go every week. Hey, you should come with me. We love new people.”
She slicks off her lab coat and throws it over a chair. Beneath, she’s wearing a fancy dress of some glossy, dark green material he doesn’t recognize. He’d spent so long planning his words, he hadn’t even considered his wardrobe; his baggy jeans reek of stinkbug.
“Don’t mind me; there’s no dress code,” she promises him. “I just like playing the part every now and again.” She clasps a choker of interlocked grasshoppers about her neck.
He takes the free intro lesson with her, but he’s lousy at it; afterward, she dances with everyone but him while he clings to the back wall, trying to camouflage himself. He’d wanted to talk to her—hopefully kiss her—but nothing he’d rehearsed had prepared him for this particular set of humiliations. Finally she begs off a tall man in tails who’s monopolized her much of the evening in order to make her way over to him.
“Sorry about that! Ira’s a pest. May I have this dance?” A waltz drifts over the speakers and Phil spins her around the floor. He can only execute a few basic steps, but he’s surprised to find himself leading her into graceful turns and promenades; with her in his arms, he’s a much better dancer than he’d realized.
He’s staring half-focused at her long neck as it arches away from him when one of the grasshoppers at her throat flexes a slender tibia, gathers itself, and leaps onto his exposed arm. He stiffens but keeps shuffling in time with the rise and fall of the music. Then the other five insects stir, antennae twitching, and begin to crawl along her skin, or spring upward to coil in her hair.
She presses closer. Beneath his hand, the one caressing her shoulder, his palm rests on a crush of insect bodies. The shimmering fabric of her dress is the linked carapaces of thousands of grasshoppers come to life, preening, parading, a few jumping drunkenly from her skirt to his sleeve, down to his jeans and escape. How had he not noticed sooner? Order Caelifera, mandibles for tearing, wings for flight. Those that change color and travel in sky-obliterating clouds bear the common name of locust and devour crops, grassland, everything, leaving desolation in their wake. The song winds down, and she gathers up the insectile folds of her gown to curtsey. He bows in return, awkwardly, the unfamiliar gesture discomfiting; a small rain of displaced hoppers patters to the floor.
“That was the last song,” she says. “Now they kick us out.” As he walks her to her car, he can see right through her dress, grasshoppers leaping desperately like they want to get away from one another, or her, or him. She offers him a sweet smile that conceals more than it exposes; she seems oblivious to her living gown, to how much of herself she’s revealed.
At work it’s like the date never happened; she’s even more distant. He can’t think of a single question that wouldn’t make him seem like a jerk. Did your dress turn to bugs, or was it just me? Are grasshoppers your area of expertise? Why did you invite me along if you didn’t plan on dancing with only me?
One evening, weeks later, she asks to leave work early. “I can cover for you,” he says immediately, then regrets it, sure he’s come off as overeager. “Why?”
“Blind date. I’m dreading it.” She’s donned a slinky red dress, a single scorpion dangling from a chain around her neck.
“Give me another chance,” he blurts out. “Let me pick the place this time. No one will notice if we close the lab early.”
She looks askance. “I’ll have to text and cancel. It’s a little last minute . . . ”
He’s not sure what changes her mind, but he’s ecstatic when she hops into his car. He takes her for Italian, manicotti and merlot, a place he gave four-and-a-half stars to a few months back. Her scorpion pendant catches light; he asks about it.
“My last boyfriend, he was very into pain. I miss it sometimes, although I don’t miss him.” She twirls her wineglass and changes subjects, but it’s the most he’s gotten from her yet.
They go back to his place and it’s just as he’d imagined it would be. At first her mouth is pliant beneath his, and then a fierce tingling numbs the tip of his tongue. He jerks away, and a tiny scorpion flees from between her parted lips, Centruroides sculpturatus, poisonous enough to kill. The dress, when he slides it off her shoulders and to the floor, scatters, sending dark bodies skittering toward darkened corners and beneath furniture. All over his body stinging points of pain bloom where she’s touched him.
They drive to the laboratory separately the next morning. As they work side by side, a familiar silence flutters between them.
“I—” he tries, but the words are a thousand claws scrabbling in his throat. She’s collating files at her desk; he imagines her inattention is deliberate and shoves specimens to the back of the freezer with increasing ferocity. Lucky insects. These would expire in their sleep as the cold claimed them. No more worries about flight, escape, finding a mate. Whatever’s wrong with him—whatever pheromone he fails to send out, whatever marking he doesn’t possess—she won’t tell him, but he knows when to take a hint.
They never discuss the scorpions, just keep on keeping on, each day arriving to work at the same time, collecting data together peaceably enough. Until the morning he arrives at the lab to find her in tears over an overdue report. She’s wearing a black mourning dress, and tucked into the curls of her hair, a veil of finest spiderweb. Her father passed away the night before, unexpectedly. Phil measures his response, gathers each word to him, pinning them in his mind so none can escape. “I know there’s nothing I can do, but I’d like to go with you. If I can be a help.”
The entire life cycle of a mayfly passes before she answers. “Sure,” she says. “I’d like that.”
At the funeral he meets her remaining family—a brother, two aunts. Kendra doesn’t say much, just leans on his arm, perched delicate as a butterfly. When he asks how she’s holding up, she snorts.
“Aunt Joan’s a wreck; Johnny’s taking her home.” Phil notes that she hasn’t answered his question, but doesn’t press her. Mourners drift toward the parking lot until at last it’s him and Kendra surrounded by dead things, same as usual. He’s unwilling to leave her alone.
“I have an hypothesis about your dress,” he says. “Do you mind if I test it?”
Her eyes dart warily to her gown, thousands of miniature spiders that have latticed her in web, a cocoon to protect her from harm. He can’t place the species, no way to tell if they’re venomous. “Be my guest,” she says.
He takes her hand, sets it against his shoulder, and she falls into position as naturally as a grasshopper settles its wings. Slowly he dances her around the graveyard, waiting for the taxonomy of words to organize themselves in his mind: order, family, genus, species. Her tears wet through the fabric of his jacket like there’s nothing there.
“When did you learn how to dance?” she asks, not lifting her head from his shoulder.
“I took some lessons.”
“I thought I could understand you better.”
“That was your hypothesis?” She pulls away, narrowing one eye; he wonders if he’s offended her, if she thinks he learned dance as an attempt to capture her or manipulate her.
“Not quite. See, when I first started out studying insects,” he begins, “I went on a research trip upstate. We were out at night with headlamps, nocturnal beetling, and I netted a Nicophorus americanus.”
She starts in his arms. “The most recent known sighting was in, what, the fifties?”
“It had the right markings, anyway. Six scalloped red spots.”
“What did you do?”
He leads her into a turn so that he doesn’t have to see her expression. “I let it go.”
“I don’t know. I wanted it to find another of its kind.” He spins her back in to him. “Didn’t want it to spend its life in a case. Which I guess makes me a lousy entomologist.”
His sleeves, jacket, and pants dissolve into tiger-striped beetles, the click of chitinous legs and unfurled wings rustling in the dark.
“Nicrophorus investigator.” She smiles. “Burying beetles. Family Silphidae, same as your rarity.” One alights on her hand; the rest flit away, and he’s left naked in her arms.
Brooke Wonders’ fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Daily Science Fiction, and Monkeybicycle, among others. She is a graduate of Clarion 2011 and a current PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She blogs at girlwonders.com.