Life Cycle by Adam Phillips


    Mica wedged himself through the huddle of children, stepping on feet and shoving, craning to see what everyone else was looking at.  At the center of the throng was a leaf, and undulating on the leaf was a turgid, shiny brown caterpillar. Mica pushed to the front of the group, bending closer, squinting.  

    On the caterpillar’s rear end, waving in the air, was a cluster of vivid markings creating a perfectly rendered clown’s face, replete with blue eyes, bright red nose, and an arc of pink lips.  The face bobbed and swayed as if greeting them to a party.   

    “I bet nobody’s ever seen one like that,” said a girl, ogling in wonder.  

     “No one ever has,” said a boy.  “I’ve got a bug book, at home?  And that thing’s sure as hell not in there.”  

    An argument broke out as to who was going to trap it, in what, to whom they would take it to verify their discovery, and who had seen it first thus earning the right to name it-

    The children flinched as Mica lunged forward, skewering the evanescent creature on his pocket knife.  A few of the kids, groaning, crying out, began to say something, but stopped themselves.  They moved away as the boy produced a lighter from his pocket and, holding the knife to his face began to burn the writhing insect, deeply inhaling the smoke.  


    From the end of the long dirt driveway, Mica saw his dad sitting just inside the open doorway, slouched in a kitchen chair.  The boy stopped uneasily, struck with the disconcerting impression that the house and the man were deteriorating commensurately.  The moldy shingles slid off the roof leaving wet rotten-looking spots and clusters of ruptured blood vessels appeared in his father’s cheeks.  The foundation cracked and the old man limped back and forth between his chair and the refrigerator.           

    Things hadn’t always been like this.  They’d moved to Priest River for a fresh start.  His father had found work painting houses, and Mica…much to his incredulity, the other kids had liked him.  He was the novelty, the new game in town, the only city kid in the entire school.  And if he seemed to be a little different, well then it was only because they did things a little differently in Seattle.  

    He remembered, that first spring, watching a butterfly in the backyard squirm its way, wet and awkward, out of its chrysalis and thinking That’s us.  Me and dad.  

    But, within a year, all of that erumpent opportunity had been squandered.

    Both father and son had fallen back upon their customary antisocial habits.  The old man had started fighting in bars, following women home, spending nights in jail, and the boy…

    The boy had been unable to keep his true nature swallowed up, and before long his new classmates had recognized something far more unsavory than the eccentricities of the urbanite.         

    Sweating onto the dusty driveway, watching the house and the slumping man, the boy encountered another unpleasant thought.  In many ways, Mica was just like his father.  Everyone said so.  The same big ears and high forehead.  The same short arms and large hands.  The same tendency to grit his teeth and clench his fists when he got frustrated.  The same lack of self-control…

    And there sits my future, thought the boy, watching the mashed shape in the doorway.       

    Against his will, Mica incorporated himself into the vision of the decaying, collapsing house. He felt his body coming apart as beams and slabs of sheetrock crashed down all around him, the parts of the boy and the house and the parts of the father contracting into one vast festering heap.   

    Shaking the image from his mind, Mica stepped off the driveway into the woods, creeping around the side of the house.  


    Phil kept sneaking glances at his wife as she sat looking out the car window wanly, until Katy, without turning towards him, said “I see you looking at me.  Stop it.  I’m fine.  Just watch the road.”  

    “Sorry, I just…”  He leaned forward, concentrating on the endless strip of wet blacktop.  

    “I know you’re just trying to help, and I’m being difficult, but I sort of just need to let myself feel however I’m going to feel.  Okay?”


    She gave him a strained smile, and returned to the window.    

    This three thousand mile pilgrimage, Boston to northern Idaho, had been conceived a year earlier, after Phil had proposed, and Katy, shockingly, had said no.  During the aftermath, the fallout, Katy had come to realize, after counseling and much self-reflection, that she’d refused out of a reluctance to move into adulthood.  Because, in her experience of the world, adults failed at everything they attempted.  Adults lied, and beat each other up, and abused drugs.  Adults allowed their children to live in squalor until the state interceded, taking those children, shipping them hundreds of miles away to live in one negligent foster home after another…

    As soon as she had recognized the source of this anxiety, she’d begun to appreciate the pernicious toll it had exacted on her life.  Over the years she had refused promotions, continued cohabitating with shitty roommates, and most recently, nearly driven away the man she loved, all out of a subconscious fear of adulthood.  

    So she and her therapist had devised a plan.  In order to confront and conquer the demons of her childhood, the specifics of which she had suppressed and could recall only vaguely, she would spend the summer revisiting all the places she’d lived.  

    The trip would culminate with the house in the woods outside Priest River, Idaho, where she had spent the longest, and most difficult, period of her childhood.  Then, with her catharsis complete, she could return to Boston and marry Phil, begin her new job, buy a house…

    So far, the plan had been a success.  They’d visited the Minneapolis neighborhood where she’d last lived with her parents, as a six-year-old.  Stepping out of the car, facing the dilapidated apartment building, all the memories had come flooding back: the neglect, the terror of living amongst erratic  strangers, the filth and darkness…After a night spent cursing her parents and crying, she’d awoken purged, and returned to the freeway, traveling west.  

    On to a well-meaning but abusive-for-Christ aunt and uncle in Mason City, from whom she’d been taken after the school nurse had pulled up her shirt to hear a cough and gasped at the purple and yellow thatching created by her aunt’s belt.  On to a drunken grandmother in Norman, Oklahoma, who had burned down the house cooking, a foster family in Denver who, called to change the world, had taken in a half-dozen kids all at once and given them all back two weeks later…

    At every stop, Katy had broken down, vented anger, and left lighter, relieved of another burden.    

    Now, with no further stops before Priest River, no lesser emotional hurdles to focus on, she was beginning to wish they had never come.  


    Standing in the backyard, with the events of the afternoon spreading out before him, Mica felt better.  Grass twitched with the movements of insects and small animals, and the air crackled with the warm buzzing of tiny wings.  After he had memorized each detail, a living picture in his brain, he went quietly into the house, retrieving a sack of sugar from the kitchen cupboard.  His father yelled something as Mica slipped back outside.  

    He dumped the sugar into a bucket and filled the bucket with water.  Slowly, carefully, he poured the sugarwater in an arc around the back of the house, and returned to the stoop.  

    It didn’t take them long to come.  

    Mica watched the vanguard of scouts tentatively tapping at the wet grass with their antennae, freezing in disbelief before scrabbling back to their hills bearing word of the miraculous manna.  As the ants accumulated, Mica rose from the stoop, carefully hopping over the living stripe, en route to the shed.  

    He returned with a red plastic gas can and leaning close to the ground delicately poured a thin stream just inside the crawling parabola.  Then he retraced his steps, trailing gas on the other side of the roiling ants.  With the same lighter he’d used to fire up the rare caterpillar an hour earlier, he lit the twin trails.  Flames sprung, clashing and mingling like saw teeth.  He heard the small bodies popping and smelled the peppery smoke and saw the minute beads of liquid boiling up through the exoskeletons and he thought he sensed, on some sub-audible level, a chorus of high-pitched keening shrieks.  

    Tracking the frantic survivors to their hill, he widened the arterial tunnel with a stick, filled it with gas, and lit it.  Flame regurgitated in a hissing blue-white jet, singeing his eyebrows and eyelashes and bangs, chapping the skin of his face.  Looking over the scorched earth, Mica felt the poisonous cloud of anxiety that had plagued him all day at school abating, replaced by a blossom of demulcent calm blooming within his chest, radiating outward.  Returning to the shed, he traded the gas for a pair of aerosol cans he kept stashed behind his father’s painting tarps, and set off into the forest.  

    Creeping to the wasps’ nest, he fired the hair spray over the lighter’s flame to produce a blow torch, then as the crepe paper of the nest caught flame, he dropped the hair spray, switching cans to shoot pesticide at the fleeing insects so that they dropped, convulsing, their wings aflame and nervous systems burnt out, shutting down…

    Hurling themselves at the source of their pain two dozen wasps stung him, but Mica felt only a crackling of nerve endings, a surge of exhilaration within his general sense of vivacity and well-being.  

    With the nest fallen, burnt to sheets of disintegrating ash, he began to hunt piecemeal, picking through the smoldering, apocalyptic scene, stomping, crushing the frangible bodies with his hands.  

    At dusk, chapped and singed, his red flesh pocked with weeping white lumps pinching the stingers, Mica went up to his room, exhausted.  

    Healthy and happy.       


    Basking in the triumphant afterglow of the day’s work, Mica pulled the shoebox out from under the bed, and arranged his trophies on the windowsill.  

     Reverently, hands trembling with pride and excitement, he placed the praying mantis skewered with the sewing needle, its head thrown back and arms flung up in shock and agony; the carpenter ant with its head spattered in a spray and the rest of its body perfectly intact; pregnant spiders and rearing centipedes and vicious termites perpetually frozen in lacquer…

    Mica looked at this world he had created and his mind cleared peacefully.  

    If only, he had frequently thought, there were a way to make this feeling last.  To take it outside of this room, into the real world.  

    But every morning, the moment Mica stepped out the door for school, the congenital dread and shame would return, heavy and hobbling, until he made it back home to his sugar water and aerosol cans…

    Recently, Mica had experimented with raising the stakes in the hope of producing a more enduring ameliorant for his affliction.  One evening, waiting until his father had weaved upstairs to bed, Mica had taken the old man’s twenty-two out of the coat closet and waited on the back stoop until a squirrel had come chattering into the yard.  Mica shot and the squirrel’s head exploded.  Standing over the carcass…Mica had felt nothing.  Maybe a mild twinge of disgust.           

    The next day, it had occurred to Mica that perhaps the lack of satisfaction had been due to the impersonal method with which he’d gone about his business.  So he’d sat in the woods, still as a stone, for over an hour until a squirrel had come sniffing right up to the peanuts in his hand, and his other hand had descended with a fishing net.  This time, Mica had intended to get as personally, intimately involved as possible.  

    Donning a pair of heavy leather work gloves he’d squeezed the creature until things had popped inside of it and a disproportionately voluminous quantity of blood had spewed from its orifices.  Looking at the ruined ragged thing at his feet, smelling it, Mica had felt vague annoyance at its weakness, nothing else.    

    He’d been just about to abandon the experiment when that evening it had occurred to him that perhaps a more significant target would be more likely to enact the desired effect.  Squirrels, after all, were so ubiquitous that their lives didn’t have much value, and it was impossible to tell one from another.  

    Mica had taken a handful of hamburger from the fridge and gone out walking.  

    An hour later he’d returned with the black lab from the farmhouse at the edge of town.  Leading it into the shed he’d fired his father’s nailgun into the top of its skull.  Instead of dying the dog had begun to spin, staggering in a seemingly endless circle, upsetting coffee cans full of nails.  Mica had leapt onto the dog’s back and beat it to death with a shovel.  

    He’d stood over the dog, breathing heavily, pitching aside the bloody tool, waiting.  


    That night, burying the dog in the woods, Mica had officially declared animal-killing of no use to him.    

    He appreciated the wry humor in this.  How this act, the putative precursor to serial killing, the provenance of the Satan-worshipper, struck him as bland and petulant.  An impotent idiot’s childish revenge on a cruel world.  Too obvious to mean anything.  Too brutal to be evil.  

     But with the fields of insects dying at his feet…  

    That was what made Mica feel like a world maker.  World breaker.  That felt like communion with the submerged, dark elements of the universe.   After all, he thought, Satan is Lord of the Flies, not Lord of the Dogs.     

    And whereas killing a cat might get him evaluated and institutionalized, slaughtering bugs had simply made him an outcast.  The boys, realizing he was too big to bully, had ostracized him.  And the the girls…

    Mica had never gotten along with girls.  With one partial exception.  

     Getting into bed, pleasantly sated from the afternoon’s events, his thoughts turned to Skylar Garcia.

     Skylar, Mica’s desk mate due to alphabetical proximity during grades one through six, had been the ultimate champion of the underdog.  She had routinely saved scabrous stray animals and vanquished bullies, and she had befriended Mica.  

    As Mica’s fascination with dismembering insects on the schoolyard had grown more pronounced and disconcerting, while the other kids had simply forced him away, she had made it her full time business to try and stop him.  If he picked a worm out of the mud she would try to knock it from his hands.  If his lighter and aerosol can went missing, she would confess to throwing them into the canal…

    Following an incident when Mica, overwhelmed with the need to destroy, had shoved her on the ground to get at a patch of dirt crawling with doodlebugs, ashamed at his own aggression, he had screamed at her “Why do you care so much about these stupid bugs!”   

    “I don’t even care about the bugs,” she’d said, crying softly.  “I care about you.”  

    “What?  You think I want you following me around, bothering me all the time?”

    “No.  I know you don’t now.


    “It’s called karma.  Everything you do, whether it’s good or bad, is going to happen to you too.”

    This had struck him silent.  

    “You have to stop,” she’d whispered.  “Everything you do, comes back to you.  The earth, the universe, protects itself.”

    He had helped her up, walked her home.  

    And while her words that day hadn’t necessarily saved the life of a single insect or annelid or arachnid, he’d continued to hear her voice, throughout the years.  

    He heard it now, drifting off to sleep.  


    As the wheels of the car came off the cracked blacktop, crunching onto the long dirt driveway Katy suddenly grabbed Phil’s arm, looking wildly out the window as if she expected someone or something to come bursting out of the forest.  “Nope nope, turn around, not tonight.  We’ll come back tomorrow, in the daylight.”



    Mica snapped awake and sat up with the feeling that someone else was in the room with him.    “Dad…” he said softly.  It wasn’t uncommon for the old man to miss a turn en route to his own room after a long day and night of drinking beer in the doorway.  In the past, Mica had been awakened by the sound of a body hitting the floor or a cracked voice soliloquizing, or both.  He’d gotten up to piss in the night and bumped into the old man standing in the center of the room breathing heavily, staring off into God knows what.  

    But this was not his father.  In the pitch black room Mica had the impression of vast occupied space, as if the darkness had turned solid.  And as he concentrated into the silence, he could feel…not breathing, exactly, but voluminous respiration, as if all of the air in the room was being rhythmically consumed and expelled.  

    Then Mica’s eyes adjusted.  

    Millions of unctuous, vitreous glints appeared, filling the darkness.

    He heard the rustling of course hairs, the clicking of chitin.  

    And then they were upon him.

    Ants, spiders, wasps, centipedes, a roiling mass heaped floor to ceiling, breaking like a wave…

    As the flood flattened him against the bed Mica crushed them in his hands until his fingers, riddled with stingers, bitten, turgid with poison, swelled to soft fleshy appendages unable even to offer that token resistance.  They chewed away his eyelids and lips, pushed open his jaw and packed his throat so dense that the rising vomit struck their barrier and stopped, and the boy convulsed, realizing with the plucking of his flesh that he would feel himself reduced to bone before completely dying.  

    His father began to shriek downstairs.

    The window above his bed shattered, and he heard the beams above him creaking, the ceiling cracking, sheets of plaster crashing down.  

    The sky opened, with a shriek of metal and splintering wood as if the world was caving in on itself, and then he was falling.  

    Lying amongst the rubble, Mica saw that his ravaged body had broken into segments.  Everything he’d glimpsed in the nightmare daydream was coming true.

    He heard termites chewing the wood.  He heard beetles digging, and the appliances and furniture tumbling into the holes.    

    And the last thing the boy ever saw, lidless eyes pointed at the night sky, were the clouds of flies draining down to pick the flesh, and the microscopic gnats, dense in their billions, come to eat the bones.



    Phil glanced over at his wife and set his hand on her leg.  “We’re not in any hurry, you know.  There’s always tomorrow.”   

    She nodded, sighed through her nose.  “I’m doing alright.  I guess, now that we’re actually here…”  Her eyes drifted away from him, out the window to the morning sun breaking through the trees.

    She shut her eyes, willing both peaceful calm and steel resolve.  She felt the gravel of the driveway, the car slowing, stopping.  She took a final deep breath and opened her eyes…    

    Her brain floundered to grasp the impossible reality of what she saw.  

    Or rather didn’t see.  It was utterly gone.  The house, the shed.  All that remained to indicate that anyone had ever occupied this space was a clearing of dark tilled earth.  

    Phil watched his wife closely.  His hand rose to touch her, and retreated.  He opened his mouth to speak but remained silent.  Katy’s eyes stretched wide, as if by doing so she might find the missing buildings.  Deliberately, stiffly, as if moving underwater, she let herself out of the car and walked to the center of the clearing, Phil following at a slight distance.  

    Katy walked the perimeter, looking into the trees, looking at the ground.  When she turned to face him, there were tears dangling from her jawline.  “Whoever…The demolition…Look at this.  There isn’t a fucking splinter or a nail left behind…”

    “We can find out who…I know they usually take pictures before, at least…”

    “This is…”  Katy shook her head.  Her face fell apart.  “…this is so much better.”  She took Phil’s hand.  “Oh, God.”  She dug the tears away with her fingertips.  “It’s gone.  All of it’s gone.  I’m done with it.”  She laughed through the residual sobbing.  “Let’s go get married.”  

    Phil laughed, crying a little, too.  As they stood looking over the clearing, heads pressed together, several birds that had been flushed by their arrival returned to the clearing.  As they watched the birds waddling, staggering, pushing their beaks into the loam, it struck both of them that these were the fattest birds they had ever seen, nearly headless with their swollen bulk, walking with difficulty.  And the birds continued to eat well, snatching ants and centipedes up out of the mud.  

    There was something unsettling about the spectacle of the gorging birds, antithetical to the moment they’d been having, and with a light frown Katy had just turned to Phil, intending to say “Let’s get out of here, go back into town to celebrate,” when a huge rust-colored barn cat jumped from the weeds pinning a bird beneath her claws and biting into its midsection, rearing up with the bird’s intestines dangling from her jaws.  

    “…Christ…”  They backed to the car as the cat tore the bird to pieces, then leapt upon another that had been too immobile to flee the slaughter.  

    Pale, silent, they backed down the driveway, flipping onto the asphalt just as the fox slid from the weeds like liquid, ripping out the cat’s throat while the cat continued chewing.  


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