My ex, Mark, calls me at two in the morning to tell me he’s figured out what’s causing his problems. He says there’s this fungus, in Brazil, in rainforests. Ants get spores on their backs. Then it takes over their minds. It tells them to leave home, tells them to walk to cold, wet spots in the forest, places where a fungus can thrive. It coaxes them to bite into the vein of an overhanging leaf and to dangle by their mandibles in its shadows until they starve.
Mark says he watched a documentary on Animal Planet. “That’s my problem,” he says, “Never doing things I ought to do, never saying things I want to say. There’s been something else inside me the whole time. It’s zombie ant fungus, Nikki, and I got it bad.”
He asks if he can come over. It would be a lot easier to talk about this whole zombie ant fungus situation if we could just talk in person.
I’m gearing up to tell him off when something odd happens. Something else does the speaking. It’s like I’m a ventriloquist’s dummy. I say “Go to hell, Mark.” Only I don’t. I say, “Okay.”
I’m not even sure at first if it’s my own voice. I do a double-take. Who said that?
Mark says, “I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
As soon as I get off the phone I rush to the bathroom to inspect myself in the medicine cabinet’s mirror. Mark said something about the dorsal neck region—that’s where ants get infected. I hoist my sweater, scrunchie my hair. No fungus on my neck. I start to undress but I’m not sure what zombie ant fungus looks like. I picture bread mold, the surface of coffee when I forget to wash to wash out a mug. Mostly, I imagine zombie ants, dead-eyed, marching like ants in an M. C. Escher drawing along the ribbon of a Moebius strip. I can almost feel them inside, in my belly, under my skin. I keep peeling back my eyelids, expecting to see ant antennae poking out from under my eyes.
I give my reflection a stern look. “Trust us,” she says, and gives us a wink.
The phone rings. It’s Mark. He says he stopped at a bodega to get coffee. He asks if he can buy me something, anything. A slushy? Some flowers? Air deodorizer? He was thinking of me. He wants to bring a gift.
“A silver flute,” I say.
It’s a strange request. Where is Mark going to get a flute at two in the morning? Not a bodega. Also, it’s not me doing the talking. I wanted to say “No, thanks. I’m good.” Instead, out comes a request for a flute. But the strangest thing is that that isn’t true. I didn’t want to say “No, thanks.” It’s what I would have said if I was talking. But it’s not what I wanted to say. All my life I’ve longed for a boy who would present me with a silver flute.
My sister had one for about a year when I was five, until my father refused to rent it from the local music shop when Lizzy refused to practice. I never had any interest either. But opening it up was magic. It came in a tiny briefcase, something a spy might use to carry a silencer for her pistol. There was the confident snap the buckles made when unlatched. The treasure-chest moment of lifting the lid and discovering three silver pieces nested in velvet. Then: assembling it, threading them together, all those levers, cups, and keys. A flute seemed to me like something an alien race would bestow on a person who deserves to be more than human—a wand you could use to fly across time if only you knew which keys to tap.
I’d dreamt of meeting a boy who would give me one. A silly thought, but precious, and unspoken. Until now.
Mark says, “No problem.” He says, “Nikki. Can I tell you something?”
He puts me on speakerphone. I hear a cashier announce the cost of a transaction, the voice garbled. Then I hear Mark bellow, “Friends, I want her to be queen!” Someone tells him to shut the fuck up.
I yell back, “I want to be queen!”
Mark laughs, takes me off speaker phone. He tells me how he has always wanted to say that, how he read it in a poem once. I want you to be my queen. He says he’ll be over soon.
“Don’t forget the flute.”
My reflection flashes an I-told-you-so look. “Trust us,” she says, “We’re good at this.”
“Saying what you always wanted to say.”
Mark shows up an hour later, no flute, but carrying a bouquet of helium balloons. He looks tired. His eyes are sunken, darkly circled. The balloons are an odd shade of black, a tarry-grey. If they were a crayon, they’d be labeled “glum.”
I kiss him in the doorway, as long and passionate as I can muster. Zombie ants crawl across our tongues, mingling, like citizens of a country divided too long, racing to embrace as a border falls. His zombie ant fungus talks to mine. “We thought it would be romantic,” it says, “to go up on the rooftop, release these, watch them drift. Maybe sink our teeth into the sky?” His zombie ant fungus sounds weary, like it’s reading lines from a play it is tired of rehearsing. My zombie ant fungus says, “Fine.”
She is thinking: We’ve been here before, haven’t we?
As our lips part, I smell the alcohol on Mark’s breath.
“Did you smell that?” I ask my zombie ant fungus.
She is thinking: Maybe this was a mistake.