by Leo David Orionis

OK, maybe we were a little loud. Yeah, sure, we were a little drunk and rowdy, too.

But is that any reason to destroy the world?

A bunch of us are down at Tony's, which was a bar over by the wharfs—not the tourist piers, the real wharfs, where the workin' ships came in. Not that the distinction matters any more. And the bar itself is gone now, of course.

Anyway, we're sittin' there, knockin' back the drinks and shootin' the bull, when the Dude lets out a shriek. "A roach!" he says, pointin'.

Sure enough, there's a big ol' roach, maybe an inch long, sittin' on the pretzels and wavin' his feelers like he's sayin', "Well?  What are you lookin' at, asshole?"  And gettin' away with it, too, because no one wants to touch the filthy thing, and of course you can't just hit it with a shoe up on the bar in the middle of everyone's drinks and stuff.

So everybody's reactin'—Big Tom's makin' some joke, Dave's askin' Tony what kinda place he's runnin' here, Al—well, never mind. It says somethin' if I tell you it was the biggest excitement we'd had all night. It's not like roaches were rare at Tony's, or anywhere in dockside, come to that.

So I figure if I'm fast I can grab the dish, dump the whole thin' on the floor, stomp the bug, then pick up afterwards. I've just about worked up the nerve to do it, too (what if the thing runs up my sleeve?) when a voice says, " 'Scuse me," and a stranger reaches past me and grabs the roach with thumb and forefinger.

Everything stops. We all sit or stand frozen lookin' at this guy holdin' the roach in his bare hand like it's nothin', like he'd picked up a nickel or a beer nut. After lookin' at it a moment he shrugs and flips it over his shoulder, not botherin' to squash it or even lookin' to see where he's throwin' it. It lands on a table and skitters away, and you'd best believe the sailors sittin' there aren't pleased. They all swear, and one of them's gonna come over and punch out the stranger, only his buddies stop him.

The stranger doesn't look around or say "Sorry" or anything, he just picks up his beer and drinks some. Tony's busy throwin' out the pretzels and puttin' the dish in with the glasses to be washed, so I say to the stranger, "Don't you think you should wash your hands?"

The guy looks at me and for a second I think he's gonna get mad, then he turns it off and says, "Yeah, I guess," and puts his drink down, and goes into the john. The sailor who'd come closest to havin' the roach land in his beer stands up, and rounds up two of his buddies by eye, then Tony says, "Hey." They look at him, and he shakes his head, and tells them, "Not in my place."

Now Tony's not a big guy, but he's got some heft to him. He's not fat or anything (people could get fat back in those days), but he's got some weight if he wants to throw it around. Besides that he's both the bartender and the owner, and there weren't too many places a sailor could have a quiet drink without bein' overcharged or treated like shit. So the sailor just says "Fuck," in a disgusted voice, and he and his buddies leave.

So Mack and Tom and Dave and Al and I, who are thinkin' we'll have to rescue the guy, all relax; and when he comes out of the john Al says to him, as he picks up his drink again, "Hey. You got a name?"

The stranger looks at Al the way he shoulda been lookin' at the roach, and says, "Yeah, I got a name," and goes back to his drink. So I'm thinkin', yeah, this guy is real good at gettin' into fights, and this time I'm gonna let him get what he's lookin' for. Al is no giant, but he's tough and he's mean and he's damn good with his fists, and I'm thinkin' this guy deserves to find out just how good.

But Tony says, "Hey, mister," and tells him how the sailor and his buddies were gonna go kick the crap out of him in the john, and how Al and the rest of us were gonna stop them.

"So?" says the stranger, not mean, like "So what?", but friendlier, like "Really?" and holds his hand out to Al. "Call me Steve," he says, and they shake. And it turns out Steve used to be a merchie, only he's retired now.

"Comp?" says Tom, meanin' was he injured and livin' on a disability pension, and I'm thinkin' the same thing and lookin' him over, but seein' nothing.

"No," says Steve. "It's hard to explain—I sort of won a lottery. Anyway, I don't hafta work now, so," and he shrugs, and I find myself noddin'. If you don't hafta, why would you? Especially a rough job like the merchant marine?

"So you just wander into bars and throw bugs around?" the Dude says.

Steve shrugs again, a bit cool; maybe he's picked up that the Dude's no good in a fight, and wouldn't have been any help with the sailors. He's right, but still. Anyway, he just says, "Roaches don't bother me."

"Brother, they sure bother me!" the Dude says with a shudder. "How could you just pick it up like that with your bare hand?"

"They don't bother me," the stranger, Steve, says again. "I just wanted t' see what all the fuss was about." He takes a swallow of his drink. "Just a bug," he says after a minute. Then he tells us why they don't bother him.

"See, where I come from, we didn't have roaches," Steve says, and everybody wants to know where that is so they can move there. So he tells us, and Big Tom says he knows damn well they have roaches there.

"Sure, now they do," Steve says. "You wanna hear this story or not?"

"So anyway, we didn't have roaches," he goes on. "We had blerchies, which were a hundred times worse. A thousand!" And he shudders, and finishes his drink, and orders another.

"Worse how?" demands Al. Steve waves his hands, tryin' to find the words to describe the horror of a blerchy (blerchie? blerch?), and I come to see for the first time this guy was already pretty drunk when we first noticed him, only he holds it well. But now he's well down the road to pie-eyed.

"Just take my word for it," he says finally, takin' his drink from Tony. "Everybody, but everybody, hated blerchies the way this guy" he said, noddin' at the Dude, "hates roaches. But there was nothin' you could do about them. The filthy little stinkers were everywhere, they bred faster than the birds and the rats could eat them, they laughed at poison, and the big ones could turn your ankle if you stepped on them wrong."

"I was a merchie, so I knew they were everywhere. Every ship had 'em, and every port had its own breed. They'd been around since before the dinosaurs, the eggheads said, and if we had an atomic war, they'd be the only things left in the fallout."

"Never heard of 'em. Whaddaya mean, everywhere?" Dave said.

"Yeah, I know," Steve says, and by the time I figure out that he means I know you never heard of them, he's sayin':

"So I was in—Qatar?  Yemen?  Abu Dhabi?  I forget. One of those little sandbox countries, anyway, and I was looking at the tourist crap in the market, when I saw this little vase, or bottle, maybe three inches tall. Nothing special, but at least it looked old, and didn't say Coca-Cola on the side, or Hecho en Mexico on the bottom. So I bought it, thinking I might get something for it back in the States."

"So you pulled the stopper, and a genie came out?" Mack says, smilin'.

"Wasn't any stopper," Steve says, "not even a cork. You could look inside, and you could see there wasn't anything in it but some dust in the bottom."

"Only I started having these dreams. Every time, I'd be standing in a dark room, and there'd be something behind me. And I was scared to death, but I didn't dare turn around. And this cold, cold voice, like something dead and in its grave for hundreds of years, kept saying, 'Free me, o man'." Then I'd wake up, scared spitless."

"Now, we were in that shithole a week, on account of the starboard engine quit on us right before we docked, and the captain and the owners are firing telegrams back and forth, trying to get the engine fixed, or a new one shipped, or I don't know what—no one asked me. A week of hanging around waiting to see if and when we're shipping out again, and that same miserable dream eating at me every night."

"Hell!" says Al.

Steve nods. "You got that right, buddy. Hell is exactly what it was. On top of the dreams, the local kind of blerchies was going through a population boom, and they were crawling on and under everything. You couldn't eat without shaking the damn things off your food, and if you put down a drink you'd find one of 'em swimming in it when you picked it up."

"So I figured, nothing I can do about the ship or the blerchies, but I'm gonna get rid of the dreams or else throw away that bottle. So there I was sitting in my room, saying 'Come forth!  I command you to come forth!  I set you free!' and things like that."

"Nothing happened."

"So then I thought, maybe I need some authority here, and I tried again, only I also said things like 'By the will of Allah!' and 'In Christ's name!' and so forth. And one of them worked—never mind which one."

"The bottle fell over, and something black and unspeakable began to pry itself out, with noises worse than a woman makes having a baby. You know how, in the movies, the smoke just billows out, smooth and even and easy?  This was nothing like that. It was ugly, and it hurt to see it. Hurt t'hear it, too."

"But finally there was this black horror standing in front of me, and I don't mean African, I mean black like ink. And it bowed, and sure enough, I got three wishes."

The rest of us are sittin' around listenin' to the guy's story, and I have to admit, he almost has me believin' him. I look at Mack and I wink, and he shakes his head, admirin' Steve's story.

"I asked the thing if I had to make all my wishes at once, and it said no, I could take as long as I liked. So I decided to make one wish and see how it went. I wished for enough money every month to do whatever I wanted, and I named the figure."

"DONE," said the thing in a voice like thunder, and it disappeared. I didn't have any bad dreams that night, and the next day the captain called us all in and said that the owners were scrapping the ship. We all let out a groan, and he said, but, they've decided to pension off the crew, which had us all picking our jaws up off the floor—they never do that, as I guess you guys know."

"Damn straight," says Al. "Since when do the owners care about the crews?"

"But the captain named a figure," Steve says, noddin' his agreement, "and it's the same amount I told the thing from the bottle! Only how come, I asked it later, when I called it and it came, the whole crew got it?"

"What care you?" it said. Which is better—that I bend your wish to benefit the many, or that I twist it to cheat you?" And I hafta admit, it had a point."

"I opened my mouth to say so, and a damn blerchy flies into it, which makes me want to vomit. I spit it out, and stomped on it, and pointed to it, and said, 'Blerchies! I hate them! Get rid of them! All of them, you hear me?' "

"DONE," it said, and I never saw any blerchies again. In fact, I guess it made them so they never was, because no one's ever heard of them. Instead we have roaches now. I guess we had to have something," he says.

"Ecology," Dave says. "If you wipe out something, something else takes its place."

"I guess," Steve says, and finishes his drink. "Anyway, roaches don't bother me."

"What about your third wish?" I say. "What did you use it for?"

"Oh, I haven't used it yet," says Steve. "I'm waiting for something special. I've got money, and if you've got enough money…"

"Women?" says Dave.

"I do all right," Steve says.

"You bastard!" shouts the Dude.

Steve turns and looks down the bar at him. "What's your problem, mister?"

"Yeah, Dude, cool it," Tony says. "It's not like you to pick a fight."

"Pick a fight?  Don't you get it?  Don't you see?" the Dude pleads. He looks around at all of us. "This guy's saying it's his fault there are roaches!"

Well, that stops us in our tracks for a moment.

"Ah, so what?" Steve says. "Count your blessings, guy. You think roaches are bad? Blerchies were lots worse."

"Blerchies stank!" he says. "They were ugly; a squashed roach looks better than a live blerchy! They carried diseases, some of them fatal, some of them disfiguring."

"So you say," Al says.

"Come on, guys," I say. "Don't get so worked up. It's only a story, for god's sake."

Steve looks at me. "Are you calling me a liar?" he says.

"No, no," I say. "It's a great story. It needs a punch line, though. Maybe you should figure out what to do with that third wish."

"Dammit," Steve says, and now he's really mad. "You jerks don't know how easy you've got it! When the blerchies had population booms, suddenly there'd be zillions of 'em, and they'd eat their way through everything in sight!"

"Like army ants?" Tom says.

"There weren't any army ants before I made my wish," Steve says. "Blerchies did that, and they did it regularly, and they did it everywhere in the world! You got no idea how easy you've got it," he says again.

"So you say," Al repeats. Then the Dude chimes in with, "I don't care what your blerchies are like, I hate roaches more than anything."

Steve's in a towering rage. "Damn it!" he shouts. "You don't know what you're talking about! I'd rather there were a billion billion times as many roaches as there are, than even one blerchy!"

DONE, says a voice like thunder.

We're all frozen in place for a moment. That voice, that huge inhuman voice out of nowhere, wipes out all our doubts. We hear it, and we know that Steve's been telling us the absolute truth.

Al reacts first. He pulls his knife from his boot, steps up to Steve, and almost takes his head off. Steve falls down with blood spurting from the new mouth under his chin, and dies, staring up at Al.

The Dude shrieks. Al kicks him in the crotch. "Shaddap!" he says. "This is your fault, too."

"Al," I say, "What?"

"You killed him!" Mack says.

"And a damn sight easier than he deserved," Al says. "But we're gonna be too busy staying alive to mess around."

"Guys, listen," Big Tom says. "Do you hear a funny noise?"

We listen. It sounds like nothing I ever heard before; like bacon in a frying pan but not quite; like gravel in a truck bed; a dry, scrapy, skittery sound.

"A billion billion times as many roaches as there already were," Tony says. "What will they all eat?"

"Everything," Al says. "What you gotta ask is, what'll we eat?"  And he gives Steve's body a savage kick.

"Come on," he says, and we follow him out the back, each of us kicking the body as he passes it.

Outside, the screaming and the dying have already started.

This story is Copyright © 2005 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.