“Mathematics of the Chosen.”
by Jason Andrew
“In this country, son, the poor are poor because they choose to be,” Michael Wells explained. “Your grandfather was a hard worker, don’t get me wrong. He worked his fingers to the bone in that factory. He was a good family man. He taught me a lot of good values by his example. During his off hours, he spent his time drinking, gambling, and watching sports. If he had taken advantage of his brain, took a night class or two, he would have owned that company. At the end of the month, he would actually be surprised that he was having trouble paying for the bills. If he had cut down his drinking, his smoking, and gambling, he could have had his own business. Or invested in his education.”
Over the years, he had memorized his father’s various lectures. They all had the same highlights, but varied depending upon his father’s mood and Neil’s current level of success. When he was summoned to his father’s office, he never knew which one he was going to receive. This lecture was titled “you have great potential, and you should utilize it to your greatest advantage.” Michael Wells had received his son’s report card to discover that Neil had managed to achieve A’s in all of his freshman classes and made the Dean’s list. “Dad, I’m very grateful that you worked hard enough to put me through school. I really am.”
“I know that son,” Michael said proudly. “Unlike your worthless sisters, you understand the value of money and hard work. You really impressed your Statistics professor. She said it was a shame that you weren’t an economics major.”
“You talked to Doctor Robinson?”
Michael laughed. It was a self-effacing belly-laugh. “Well, son, I’m paying more for your fancy education than I did my first house. I have to know that my investment is going well. I’m investing in the future of our family, you know. I’m getting old, Neil. Sooner than you think, you’re going to be the man of the family.”
Neil regarded his father. It was like looking into an evil funhouse mirror that made you fatter, older, and covered with wrinkles. Michael was still a good looking man, even at sixty. He had an authoritative face, someone that looked like he knew was he was doing at all time. His eyes were light green eyes were attentive and always looking around, as though he were afraid that he would miss anything. His hair had been red and bushy, like Neil’s, but now was white, thin, and cut short. If his family hadn’t emigrated from Ireland, Neil could imagine Michael sitting in on a barstool in a pub somewhere toasting the Queen. The only time Michael acknowledged his roots was when his Irish brogue could charm a woman or his heritage could secure a business deal. “Dad, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. But shouldn’t Ashley and Brittney be able to take care of themselves? They are two years older than me,” Neil said, feeling a little resentful.
“Bah! If it weren’t for their mother, they’d be eating out of garbage cans. That is when they bother to eat. In the old days, I could marry them off and get decent sons in return. That’s what I get for marrying a trophy wife. I love your mother with all my heart, but she is pretty useless,” Michael grumbled.
Rich groaned. “They have brains, but you’ve never made them use it. You kept rescuing them.”
Michael chuckled, as if to say, what can I do? “Well, it’s too late for them now. It would be like taking birds out of a nest. My smell’s on them and they’re mother would never take them back.”
“Is that why they are with Mom on that cruise?” Neil asked, a little hurt.
“Well yeah,” Michael answered. “The gift I’m giving you is far greater than a summer cruise.”
Neil snorted like his old man was crazy. “You call cleaning out old apartments in a tenement building a gift?”
“Working for your tuition will make you appreciate the education. Make sure you know that you are making the right choice going into animal husbandry,” his father said dryly.
Neil sighed. “Biology, Dad. It’s called Biology. I told you that I’m not sure what field I want to go into from there.”
“I’m sure there’s a big reward for doctors that study bugs,” the old man added.
This was an old argument. Michael had long been disappointed that Neil did not choose business as a career. Frustrated, Neil glanced around the office. It was designed to intimidate and impress clients and his enemies. There were dozens of family portraits mixed in with pictures of the old man shaking hands with presidents, celebrities, and important men of industry. “Dad, entomology can be very rewarding. We learn a lot about ourselves and our biology from studying insects.”
“I’m sure we do,” Michael said sharply. “And it’s good for a sideline, but you need to make sure that you can make money. Once you have enough money, you can indulge yourself with hobbies. And that is why I’m giving you a head start. If you clean up those apartments and get people in there, I’ll sign over the deed to you.”
“What? That building is huge! Didn’t you say it had fifteen levels! What am I going to do with it?”
The old man smiled and lit his cigar. “I can afford this cigar because I worked hard when I was young and sacrificed. You could be on a beach somewhere chasing hot, young girls. Or you can take this job and earn a secure future. The building is convenient for you while going to school. You can get there quickly by taking the El train to the north side and getting off at Cabrini-Green. My first building was nearby.”
“North side? Isn’t that the slums?” Neil asked, nervous.
“Hell, boy, how do you think I got my start? The slums are where we’re from. Used to be the Irish and the Italians were there. Now it’s the Blacks. In a few years, it’ll be the Mexicans or some new group. Some will rise above the rest, others won’t,” Michael bellowed. “Before you seal yourself in the ivory tower, I want to see you sweat boy. You’ll need an income while you study because I’m not going to play for your doctorate and besides, you like bugs right? This building is infested with them.”
“I thought places like that didn’t make much money.”
Michael laughed. “Well, the returns a little less, but you get enough tax breaks that it’s completely worth it. If you work it right, it’s almost free money. All you need is a little sweat.”
* * * *
Neil had never been to the North side of Chicago, much less to the infamous Cabrini-Green. Stepping off the train, it felt as though he had been teleported to another world, from another time. Broken bottles, trash, and occasionally an abandoned car lined the streets. The neighborhood was divided by large brick buildings on one side and white apartments on the other. To the east, he could see large, posh high-rises. His father owned two of those buildings, Neil realized.
Unreadable gang graffiti marked the street signs, bus benches, and every other possible sign or place a person might look. Neil could identify some of the letters and occasionally a word, but it was a completely foreign language. Men and women, of various ages and races, occasionally passed by Neil with amused expressions. He suddenly felt very afraid and guilty, but didn’t know why. Five black kids strolled past him dressed in sweats and Chicago Bulls jerseys. “I’m very glad it’s daylight,” Neil thought.
He spent the next two blocks thinking the same thought over and over. “I’m not a racist.”
Neil was relieved to see that his potential new building looked like the best on the block. The front stoop appeared to be clean of garbage and freshly painted. It was an odd looking, fifteen story off-white building. There were several boarded up windows and two burned out areas on the façade. He scouted around the building looking for a manager’s office. When he discovered it, he set down his backpack and rang the door bell. It didn’t work so he knocked on the door loudly.
A fat, oily white man dressed in a stained undershirt answered the door. “Yeah. . .”
“I’m Neil Willis. My father told me he called you.”
“Oh yeah,” the manager replied. He wiped his hand on his pants and then extended it. “I’m Rick. I collect the rent checks around here. I hear you’re my new boss.”
“If I can get this place running again,” Neil replied.
Rick rolled his eyes. “Listen kid, you guys have a good racket going here. Government pays a lot of the rents for the lowlifes and we don’t have a lot of expenses. But you can’t change the nature of the beast. These Blacks ain’t wired like you and I. They ain’t fit for civilized society. Hell, they get baked and then set fucking fires to their own places.”
“You can’t fire me kid. I work for the old man,” Rick protested.
Neil whipped out his cell phone and speed dialed his father. His secretary answered. “Nancy, this is Neil. Can I talk to my dad? This is important.”
She quickly transferred him. “Neil! I was just talking to the Henderson’s. Their eldest daughter is your age. . .”
“Dad,” Neil whined. “The manager here is racist. And a slob. No wonder nothing gets done here.”
“He was all I could get,” Michael explained.
“Fire him and I’ll take his place for the summer. We’ll hire someone,” Neil offered.
“The building is yours for the summer, son. Do what you think is best. But if it doesn’t show a profit, I’m not paying for school,” Michael warned.
“Cool beans, Dad,” Neil said. He took his mouth away from the cell phone and then snapped at the manager. “Get your stuff and get out, you fat fuck!”
Neil chatted with his father about the Henderson’s daughter while Rick the ex-manager packed his extra porn magazines, cigarettes, and portable TV into a milk crate and then waddled out of the building. There was some yelling in the hallway as Rick screamed at various residents while exiting the building. “Thanks, Dad. If it means that much to you I’ll take her out, but if she’s a dog I’m not kissing her.”
“That’s my boy,” Michael replied.
Neil’s next comment was interrupted by a knock at the door. “Someone’s at the door, Dad. I’ll call you later.”
“Be careful, son. That’s a dangerous neighborhood. Full of surprises.”
“Will do, Dad,” Neil said.
He slipped the cell-phone into his pocket and opened the door. An old, black woman stood, leaning on an old brown cane, waiting patiently. “I’m Mrs. Ashanti,” She said formally.
“I’m Neil,” he said, offering to shake her hand.
She took the hand warmly. “Are you the new manager?”
“I guess I am, for a while. I’m supposed to clean up the empty apartments,” Neil replied.
“We have a list of complaints. Don’t mean to jump on you the first day, but better you know everything up front,” Mrs. Ashanti explained, handing a neatly printed list.
Neil read through the list. Some of the fixes on here were minor, such as cleaning the carpets. Some of them were major like the broken elevators and cockroaches. “I’ll try to fix as many of these as I can, Mrs. Ashanti, but I’m only one man.”
“You look like a good boy. I know that you’ll try,” She replied.
“Do you think that the residents would help me?” Neil asked.
Offended, she put her hands on her hips. “They pay you the rent. You expect them to do your job?”
“No, of course not,” Neil said. “But I’ve seen other places where you can fix up a place and take the costs off your rent.”
“You mean I fix up something and take it out of rent?” She asked, concerned.
“Well yeah, you do us a favor in cutting costs and increasing the property value,” Neil explained. “I’m thinking of buying the building. As an investment, if I can make enough improvements.”
He didn’t want her to know that his father was going to just give him the building. He was suddenly embarrassed that he had been lucky and this woman had not. “I’ve lived in this building for forty years. Raised five kids and three grandkids here. This used to be a good neighborhood, tough but good. Now people disappear in the middle of the night for no reason. Gangs going crazy. You think you can fix all of that?”
“Of course not,” Neil said. “But maybe I can make this building a little nicer.”
The old woman snorted. She had seen many white liberals, the federal government, and the city of Chicago try to clean up this area for decades. A skinny, rich Irish kid wasn’t going to make a difference, except maybe get himself killed.
The next morning, Neil arrived to find his papers in a mess on the desk in the manager’s office. There was single note written in jagged letters. NEIL GO HOME.
Undaunted, Neil surveyed the building. The hallways smelled of urine and sour milk. Several of the apartments on the top three floors had been abandoned and reeked of rotten food and abandoned garbage. Two of the apartments had been burned out. This building could be really nice, Neil decided. Why were there steel bars over the terraces? How had things come to this?
At the end of the day, Neil found that Mrs. Ashanti’s list was correct, except for the cockroaches. In an urban setting, with the rotted food, Neil presumed that there must be cockroaches, but had yet to find a single one. He was too busy to be curious. He typed a letter detailing his plan for rent reduction in exchange for improvements on the building and got it approved by Michael. It required two extra dates with Barbara, but Neil agreed to suffer through it even though her voice was akin to broken glass.
His budget was very limited, but Neil figured that fixing the elevators would be the first big step that everyone could benefit from. He has several months to consider what to do about the heat. While the repair crew worked down the shaft, Neil and two kids he hired from the third floor started on the top floor.
“Hey Neil, can I have this?” Taylor, one of the kids asked.
Neil stopped stuff garbage into a thick, black plastic hand and removed his work gloves to look at what the kid was holding. It was a portable DVD player and expensive. He looked around the bedroom, still furnished with a bed, dresser, and posters of dead rappers. “Well, yeah, I guess. The apartments been empty for months. I guess consider it a bonus,” Neil answered.
The boys quickly found other interesting things like expensive running shoes, leather jackets, and a gold watch. “Who lived here before?” Neil asked, suspicious.
“Some guy sold drugs. Just disappeared one day. Grandma didn’t let us hang with him,” Taylor explained.
A chilling scream from the kitchen startled Neil. It felt as though his heart was going to force itself through his throat like vomit. He and Taylor rushed into the kitchen to see Jerome sitting on the chipped tiled floor, shivering. “What happened?”
“The fucking cockroaches, man!” the kid muttered. “I picked up a bag of potatoes and it started to move. Move. I heard little clicks, like they were singing to me and moving those little antenna. Like they were saying, come to us Jermone!”
Neil looked under the sink, surprised. He sniffed. There was definitely an odor he associated with bugs. Strange, he had been looking for signs of cockroaches as he was curious which species had infested the building. It was almost as though they were hiding from him. ”Hey guys, if you find cockroaches, I’d love a couple of samples,” He told the boys.
“They ain’t that hard to find,” Jerome said, still not wanting look under the kitchen sink.
Neil looked again under the sink and then in the cupboards. “It’s weird. It’s like they’re hiding from me or something.”
The boys just nodded as though they thought Neil was crazy, but it was best to just agree with him. They continued to clean and repaint the apartment over the next two days. Neil couldn’t get over how someone could leave their clothing, valuables, and furniture and just leave. It was as though someone snatched them from the apartment. Was this a gang murder?
At the end of the day, Neil checked the manager’s office and found another note on his desk. GO AWAY NEIL. OR U DIE! Someone must have a key to the office, he decided. He had locked the door this time, he was certain of it. While he was trying to figure out how the note got on his desk, Jerome knocked on the opened door and handed Neil a clear jar with a metal lid with several holes punctured in it. Inside the jar was the oddest Periplaneta americana, or American cockroach, that Neil had ever seen. According to his measuring tape, it was three inches long, which was almost twice the size of a normal cockroach. Its head was fattier and swiveled as Neil examined it, like it was watching him. He set the jar on his desk and decided to look it up in the library this weekend.
The next morning, the jar was on the desk, but the cockroach was missing. The lid was screwed on. He looked around for evidence that someone else had entered the office, but it was exactly as he left it. He decided that he must have forgotten to put the Periplaneta americana away and turned to the day’s work.
Neil was disappointed to see that only Taylor arrived to help. “Where’s the guys? I was going to order pizza today,” Neil asked.
“They couldn’t come.”
Taylor wouldn’t look him in the eye, which concerned Neil. “Some of the neighborhood’s been talking,” He finally said. “Some don’t like you. But I do. And Grandma said they wouldn’t really do anything since you’re fixing things.”
“Do something? To me?” Neil said, trying to pry more information from this kid.
“Just some people saying you get uppity. That’s all,” Taylor explained.
Neil didn’t feel any relief, but he didn’t want to just quit either. The two of them went to the burned out apartment and started collecting the excess garbage and plywood. “The paper work says it was arson. Looks like someone still lived here,” Neil replied casually, hoping Taylor would fill in some details.
He was a good worker, but in general a quiet, polite kid. At lunch, he excused himself quietly and then disappeared. Neil sat in the rubble wondering why someone would set fire to their own apartment when the newly installed apartment door creaked open.
A tall, lanky black teenager stood in the doorway. He wore knee length black shorts and a sports jersey. Neil might have been a couple years older, but he was a lot shorter and unsure of himself. “You Neil?”
“Yes. Who are you?” Neil asked, extending his hand.
“It’s not important,” he said, lifting his shirt so that Neil could see the handle of his pistol. ‘You need to come with me to see the boss, or I’ll thug you.”
Neil certainly didn’t want to see the boss, but he also didn’t want to get shot and couldn’t figure out a way to do one without also getting the other. He dropped the burned board he was holding and slowly walked towards the door. The thug stepped back and let Neil exit the apartment and herded him towards the elevator. “He’s done this before,” Neil thought.
Once Neil was in the elevator, the thug followed, gripping the pistol with one hand. He stepped inside closer to Neil and grinned. “Third floor.”
Neil obeyed and pressed the large oval button adorned with the number three. “Man,” the Thug replied. “I have to thank you for getting this old thing fixed.”
“No problem,” Neil said, his voice cracking. “Just doing my job.”
The door slid close, clanking together like a coffin. “The repairman promised to fix that,” Neil added.
The noise of gears and wheels turning echoed in the small metal room. Every bump scratched metal against metal. The elevator was sturdy, the repairman promised, but a little fussy and noisy. As they descended, the light flickered.
The bulb shattered. Gears ground to a halt. “What’s going on?” the Thug asked, angry.
“I don’t know,” Neil cried, terrified.
“What the fuck is that? Shit!” the Thug cried.
He fired two shots into the opposing wall. Flashes of gunpowder burned Neil’s eyes. The shots pummeled his ears. Neil fell to the floor covering his face with his arms. Once he could hear again, there was a faint echo as though someone had turned a giant television to a static channel. Thousands of clicks, scratches, and snaps surrounded him.
He reached out on the floor in the darkness. The thug was gone. He pressed a few of the buttons hoping one of them would reactivate the lift. The bottom button must have connected some circuit because as soon as he pressed it, the elevator whirled into motion and then descended several floors.
The doors slid open, lighting the small elevator. It was the basement. Neil stepped out onto the concrete floor and felt the cool rock walls. Perched on the wall was a single cockroach that seemed to be staring at him. Neil was too glad to be alive to worry about a bug. How did the kid get out of the elevator?
It might have been his imagination, but the cockroach’s antenna seemed to wave at him. Curious, Neil waved back.
The cockroach started crawling along the wall away from the elevator, deeper into the basement. It stopped, turned around, and then beckoned Neil with its antenna. Neil thought for a moment he was seeing things from shock, but the bug again beckoned him and then scurried further into the basement.
There was a door in the floor of the basement. Likely a root cellar, Neil realized. The cockroach circled the rusted metal door and slipped through a crack. He doubted that the door could be opened, but Neil gripped the handle and attempt to slide the door open. It took three pulls, but the metal bent just a little and the rust flecked off the hinges, opening the door.
Wooden steps descending into utter darkness. Neil looked around for a flashlight when a small light flicked on in the darkness. It was a child’s flashlight at the base of the wooden steps. Neil stepped down onto the dirt floor and grabbed the flashlight.
As a kid, Neil went to the ocean with his family and instead of swimming, he built a sand castle. He was never comfortable with the idea of water so deep he couldn’t see the bottom. He spent hours designing the sand castle until he noticed a low level hum. The sounds of the waves grew more potent until he couldn’t hear anything else.
The wave of clicks and screeches startled Neil. He pivoted to face the stairs to discover that he was surrounded by cockroaches. They covered the stairs, the walls, and the floor around him. Frantic, he stomped down upon them. They hissed and leapt upon him, covering him from his feet to his head. Wiping them out of his mouth, he tried to scream. The cockroaches near his face sprayed a mist into his mouth and his nose. The smell reminded him of the time he accidentally mixed ammonia and bleach. The room seemed to topple and his knees buckled. He tried to hold himself against the side of the wall, but slipped, knocking his head against the concrete.
* * * *
The dirt was soft, moist, and balmy. It was comforting for a moment, like being in the womb. Sweat dripped into his eyes. He tried to move his hand to wipe his brow and discovered to his terror that his arms were tied down. “Help!”
NO HELP COMING.
They weren’t words exactly. Not sounds. It was as though a radio had beamed a message directly into his skull. “Help!”
ENVOY. HEED MESSAGE.
“I don’t understand. It’s dark. I can’t see,” Neil muttered.
ENVOY SPEAKS TO QUEEN.
“Queen?” Neil asked. “Of the cockroaches?”
“Why do you call me the Envoy?” He asked.
SCENT DIFFERENT. HATCHLING OF KING. INFORMED ME YOU WOULD COME.
“King? Dad. You know my Dad?”
The flashlight flicked on. Its dome of light covered Neil’s torso. The Queen rested regally upon his chest. She was almost five inches long, with a large head that almost seemed to gaze upon with respect. His arms and chest were tied down with think strands of wire and fishing line. “I hit my head, and now I’m dreaming a cracked filled version of Gulliver’s Travels. . .”
“Will you please let me go?”
ENVOY HURT HATCHLINGS.
“I panicked. I’m sorry I won’t do it again.”
GOOD. WILL RELEASE. HUMAN HATCHLINGS CULLED. WILL NOT HURT ENVOY.
At the command of the Queen, the lesser cockroaches swirled around his body loosening the wires and lines binding him to the ground. Once free, Neil wiped his face with his grimy, sweaty hand. “I don’t want to hurt you. Can you move so I can sit up?”
The Queen leapt off Neil’s chest and flapped its tiny wings. It felt across the room and landed upon the wooden stairs. It turned and perched on the edge. Assuming that this wasn’t a dream, Neil realized that he had to show the Queen respect. Queens of incest colonies held the power of life and death. The others would swarm and kill him with her slightest command. “Thank you, Queen. What did you mean before?’
HUMAN HATCHLINGS ATTACK ENVOY. CULLED HUMAN HATCHLINGS.
Neil grabbed the flashlight and held it up to illuminate the room. “It was you in the elevator.”
“You made a deal with my dad to protect me,” Neil said.
“Why didn’t he tell me?”
“What happened to the human in the elevator?”
HATCHLING’S HARVESTING BRAIN.
Neil felt his stomach tense. He used the flashlight to scan the area. Piles of shredded discarded clothing had been used to build a nest. Human heads with mouths opened as though ready to scream lined the rim of the nest, their eyes poked out. Cockroaches used the eye sockets as tunnels into the back of the brain. Within the nest were several torsos, all women, slit up to their wombs. The cockroaches were harvesting human ovaries. Neil cried as he realized that their nest was a city of human flesh and suffering. “You can’t do that!”
“I don’t. . .”
KING ALLOWS CULLING HUMAN HATCLINGS THAT THREATEN HERD. MAKES HATCHLINGS STRONGER. SMARTER. PROTECT BUILDING.
“You’re speaking in some sort of telepathy. How long have you been able to talk like this?”
MANY LIVES. OLD QUEENS LEARN. HIVE PROTECTS BUILDING. CULLINGS WEAK HUMANS.
Neil got to his knees and rubbed his arms. “You can’t just kill humans!”
The horde of cockroaches hissed at the tone of his voice. Some of them flapped their wings, angry. CALM! CALM! ENVOY!
His father’s protection only went so far, Neil realized. “It’s wrong to hurt thinking creatures.”
HUMANS CULL WEAK HIVES.
“Most hives aren’t like yours,” Neil argued. “Kill is wrong.”
CULL TO SURVIVE. LEARN FROM HUMANS. ENVOY CONTROL BUILDING. ENVOY CHOOSES WEAK.
“You expect me to pick the humans you get to eat?”
ENVOY CHOOSES WEAK. BUILDING IS PROTECTED. OTHER HUMANS SAFE.
“That’s why that junkie set fire to that apartment. He was afraid of you,” Neil said.
HUMAN WAS CHOSEN. ENVOY CHOOSE.
This is what his father was trying to tell him, Neil decided. People make choices and accept the consequences. Michael Wells had incredible luck as a business man and a land developer. How much of his success was because of the Hive? How many had fallen victim to their culling? He thought of calling the police, but they’d never believe him. Neil wasn’t certain that he believed what was happening. If he proved their existence, would they be destroyed?
He could refuse to choose any more of the humans, but the hive would either move to another building or kill the kids or maybe Mrs. Ashanti. If he said no, would his family be safe? Would they turn on his father?
His decision made, Neil calculated the mental mathematics of the chosen to decide who would live and who would die.