by Shauna Shiff

The van squealed its high-pitched whine as it turned onto Magnolia Drive, the only sound on the silent, tree-lined street. Todd scanned the houses hopefully, but it was as he suspected: his call at 3241 was a house he had visited many times. Chad’s house. Todd sighed and slowed the van to stop in front of a slip of a tree that was littering white blooms across the road. 

All the houses in this neighborhood were a variation on the same design: two stories with brick or stone façade, oversized windows, and a perfectly straight rectangle for a front lawn, but the homeowners did what they could to differentiate. Todd noticed the new flagstone pattern on the patio that the neighbors didn’t yet have. Straightening his shoulders, Todd rang the doorbell and stood still as the chime sounded throughout the house.

Mr. Davidson, Chad’s father, answered, shooing back Jackson, their white Westie, with his foot. If Jackson weren’t so heavy, he’d be jumping with excitement, but as it was, he could only bounce on his fat paws and yip his shrill bark. Mr. Davidson struggled to push Jackson back into the house and grunted in frustration. He looked up finally, red faced, to greet his visitor, and a quick look of shock crossed over him, but he smoothly hid it, returning his features to a blank mask. Todd glanced down at his clipboard, embarrassed to be recognized. He knew he’d run into people from this neighborhood eventually. He had asked to be assigned to any other area, not the division he grew up in, but the office told him to go where he was told.


Todd had spent the past few months in what felt like slow starvation. Instead of leaving the uneaten Kraft macaroni and cheese to mold in the sink as he normally would, Todd put what remained in the refrigerator, where it developed an unappetizing hard shell. But he ate it anyway. He had been running out of money for weeks and was beginning to count change to buy the boxes of pasta.

His roommate, Paul, didn’t have that problem. His parents paid half his share of the rent, and he had a food allowance too, so Paul feasted on frozen pizza and taquitos. The smell of meat made Todd’s mouth water, but Paul kept his eyes fixed on the TV, on oversized wrestlers who jumped off the rails and pounded each other, and ate his meal in rapt silence, shoveling one bite after another into his mouth. Todd had to leave the room before he’d break down and asked for a piece. 

It was hunger that finally drove Todd to shave and go door to door at the industrial complex downtown, asking for applications. Paul was already home when he returned, sitting on the couch his parents had given them for their first apartment, inhaling from the glass bong that was permanently on the end table. He exhaled violently, seized by a fit of laughter. 

“Bro, look at this slogan!”

Todd looked at the application Paul had picked up. The logo written across it in bold italics read We Do Bugs. . . So You Don’t Have To! 

Paul bent over, holding his ribs. “Dude, you HAVE to work here! Do bugs. Get it?”

Todd grimaced at the sexual innuendo but didn’t comment back; instead, he stared fixedly at the paperwork in front of him. Paul worked at a used bookstore where he drank coffee behind the counter and flirted with the girls who came in. There was no embarrassing, ill-thought-out slogan splashed across the front door. When Paul didn’t feel like going in, he called out sick. 

Todd returned all the applications the next day and, having no money and no place to be, returned to the empty apartment. Paul was in class and wouldn’t be home till the afternoon. Todd couldn’t sit still, found the silence and the lack of a schedule unnerving. It was a relief when the phone finally rang, but he groaned inwardly when the caller identified himself. It was the manager of Pesticide Plus, offering him work. At his interview, Todd learned he’d be driving most of the day to houses on a route, and he’d spray the house perimeter and yard with a toxin that killed insects. 

Paul couldn’t believe he’d taken it. “The environment, man. You’d be, like, contributing to the destruction.”

Todd didn’t need Paul to tell him that. In high school where he was funneled from gifted and talented into rigorous honors classes, ecology had been a constant conversation. Such high-achieving students loved to debate, and all were concerned about the environment and derisive of those who weren’t. But Todd noticed that many of his friends who advocated passionately didn’t recycle, smashing their Coke cans and tossing them overhead into the nearest trash can, not caring if they missed. Paul left the lights on and the water running in their apartment and used paper plates to avoid doing the dishes. But Todd didn’t say any of that. He also didn’t say that he didn’t have the luxury to say no to a paycheck.

Unlike Paul, who was happily trudging his way through an accounting degree, Todd had dropped out of college. His mother was disappointed, but his father thought it was inevitable, seeing as how Todd had changed majors three times (undecided first, followed by a semester of business, then two semesters of philosophy). He had performed dismally in all courses. He’d always start the class with an A, and then one day, realizing that he could, he’d leave midway through the lecture. Soon after, he’d stop going entirely, and the zeros would begin to pile up. His dad determined he had no sense of direction and mentioned this each time he spoke to Todd.

It was true, Todd supposed, he didn’t have direction. He couldn’t see himself wanting his parent’s life. Every class he took felt like a stranglehold upon him, cinching him closer and closer to the suburban days of his childhood. His parents worked late hours, so Todd had lived off of frozen bean burritos and chicken pot pie. But each Sunday, without fail, his mother made a roast, and his father commented tender after the first bite. All through school, he had been led to believe that his intelligence was a magic key that would open doors for him. Todd always felt as if he were waiting to burst into the world, that there was more out there than house after identical house. It was in college when he realized the only adventure that he’d ever have would be frat parties followed by a desk job, that someday he would be his parents, murmuring praise about the moistness of meat. 

So this, Todd realized, is where his wish for originality had led him: back to his old neighborhood. As he sprayed the forsythia bushes and low-hanging branches with poison, his thoughts turned to Chad. He and Chad had been in the same advanced classes, and after school, they played hoops together in this very driveway. His only interaction with Mr. Davidson was rushing with Chad to get out of the way so his father could pull into the garage. The garage door would slide back down, and the boys would listen for the weary thud of the car door before they began dribbling again. 

Chad had been the star quarterback. On game days, he wore his team jersey, shouting and slapping the palms of other boys in the hall. Networking, Chad had called it. Chad had been brilliant at convincing teachers to extend deadlines and give him more points on his essays, at finding older siblings to buy kegs, at scoring invites to the best parties. 

In biology, junior year, Chad had given a presentation on pesticides. He had stood easily in front of the class, loose limbed and confident, raising his hand carelessly to point the remote to click through images on his PowerPoint. Chad had cited evidence that said farms were wrongly accused of being the source of the damage the world suffered when it came to pesticide use when, in fact, suburban homes sprayed more per square inch than large working farms. Remembering this, Todd made wide sweeping motions, spraying the liquid over the lawn, and wondered if Chad knew his parents had a monthly appointment to kill all insects on their property, and if he did, if he would ever protest to his parents. Todd doubted it. He imagined that, by this point, Chad was morphing into his father: his face filled out just short of fleshy, a bright polo instead of a t-shirt, the same derisive manner.

Finished, Todd rang the bell again. Mr. Davidson answered, showing no sign of recognition. Todd reminded him that the lawn was unfit for any animal or person for at least half an hour till the poison dried. He mentioned the Davidsons’ dog, Jackson, by name, and Mr. Davidson smiled quickly and said they’d keep the little scamp inside.

“I thought I recognized you!” Mr. Davidson said heartily. “I don’t think I’ve seen you since graduation. Chad’s studying history at The University of Virginia. Wants to go on to law school. And how about you? Where did you end up?”

“University of Maryland, but I’m taking a break, temporarily.” Todd knew this would get back to Chad. Chad always liked to win, to be on top. They used to compete over test grades, and Chad would sulk when Todd scored higher, would want to look at Todd’s test to be sure there was no bias, that the teacher didn’t make a mistake.

Mr. Davidson nodded and moved to shut the door. “Well, be sure to give your folks my best.” Todd pictured his mother: her face freezing temporarily when a neighbor asked her if it was her son driving that loud van down the street before quickly admitting that, yes, Todd wanted to discover the real world. Todd knew she’d deftly change the topic to safer ground: whose yard could use sprucing was a favorite of hers. His mother held out hope that he would return to college and had slipped him money with words of encouragement to return to the right track. His dad had found out about the help his mother was giving him and put a stop to it. The world is harder than you think, Todd. It’s time you learned that. 

 Todd was learning that. He knew he’d be short with rent again this month. Pesticide Plus encouraged upselling and offered employees thirty percent of all add-on sales. He hesitated, then asked if he could assist with the spiders that were making webs in the eave of the entryway. Mr. Davidson looked up warily. Todd began to explain the extra charge. Mr. Davidson interrupted and said that would be fine, for fifty percent less than the quote Todd had given. Todd recognized Mr. Davidson’s expression. It was the same self-satisfied look Chad wore when he finally scored higher than Todd on an exam. The face of a winner. Todd felt heat creep up his neck. He swallowed the rebuttal that threatened to erupt, acquiesced, and Mr. Davidson shut the door, more firmly than was necessary. 

The spiders curled under the spray, their legs coiling tightly into their body, and dropped to the limestone entryway. Todd looked for one moment at the small balls that were, moments ago, living, rushing instinctively away to the corners to hide from Todd’s hose. With his boot, he gently scraped the dead bodies into the mulch where they disappeared from view.

Finished, Todd heaved himself up into the van, pulling his hat off his head. He sat; hands gripped tight on the steering wheel. The key needed to be turned twice before the ignition caught, and he stayed longer than was appropriate for a work vehicle, as if he had the same right to be there as anyone else. Blossoms had blown off the tree and now covered his window, so he flicked on his windshield wipers and watched them scatter to the ground. Todd imagined the petals crushing beneath the tires as he pulled away from 3241 Magnolia Drive to finish the rest of his route.

Shauna Shiff is an English teacher in Virginia, a mother, wife, and textiles artist. Her poems and short stories can be found in Stoneboat Literary Journal, Atticus Review, Whale Road Review, Rock Salt Journal, Cola, and upcoming in others. In 2022, she was nominated for Best of the Net.