I was always good at hide and seek. While being small for my age sucked most of the time, it was one of my biggest assets when hiding. Combine that with my flexibility I’d developed from being in gymnastics classes since I was four, everyone wanted me on their team when we played. Keep in mind this was before kids had video games and cell phones; if it sounds like we played a lot of hide and seek and that seems weird, well, maybe now it is. Back then, though, we didn’t have anything else to do.
Maggie’s family didn’t have much money and they lived a few blocks away from the junkyard. When the wind blew in a certain direction, their house smelled pretty bad. We got used to it, though, and we still liked hanging out there. Her parents were nice and always gave us chips and soda. I think they were happy Maggie had friends and wanted to make sure we kept visiting her. That didn’t cross my mind at the time, though. All I cared about were the chips and soda. I liked Maggie; don’t get me wrong, but chips and soda were chips and soda.
During the summer months, despite being told not to, our small group would hop the fence of the junkyard and play hide and seek amidst the piles of old cars and dishwashers and microwave ovens. The one guy who worked there, Luis, didn’t seem to care. “Don’t do anything stupid,” he’d tell us, before retreating back to the little shed that housed his television and beer.
On Maggie’s birthday in August, her parents threw a surprise party. All in all, about 20 kids showed up. She had a great time and I was pleased that the wind wasn’t blowing the smell of garbage into the party. A lot of the kids hadn’t been there before and I didn’t want them to be mean to Maggie or her parents if the place stunk. After cake and an impromptu water fight, a few kids left but about 14 of us remained to play hide and seek. For such a big game, we split into two teams – creatively named the Hiders and the Seekers. I was a Hider.
The whole neighborhood was fair game. The only catch was we weren’t allowed to hide in someone’s house. The Hiders would have ten minutes to hide before the Seekers would come out of Maggie’s living room and go looking for them. The penalty for being found was a water balloon to the face. If the Seekers couldn’t find everyone from the other team in an hour, all the Seekers would get water ballooned. I didn’t want to be found. I really, really wanted to be the one to throw a water balloon in Javier’s face. Javier was a dick.
The moment our team was told to go hide, I took off like a shot for the junkyard. The other day when we were hanging around in there, I saw the perfect hiding spot for the next time we were going to play. As I ran, I saw a few kids jumping in bushes or climbing way up into trees. I remember thinking how great the trees were for hiding. The leaves were so thick you couldn’t even see the individual branches. I was really excited for my team to win, even if I ended up getting found.
Once I hopped the fence to the junkyard, I made a beeline for that perfect hiding spot. An old refrigerator. I was moderately dismayed when I opened the door and there was still some gross, rotting food in there. I pulled it out as quick as I could, hid the stuff on the other side of a crumpled car, and jumped inside. Now, keep in mind even though I was young, I wasn’t completely stupid. The fridge had a couple holes in the side that were probably from whatever piece of machinery had moved it. I knew I’d be able to breathe without a problem. So, I situated myself at the bottom of the compartment, tucked my legs to my chest, and closed myself in using the shelf in the door.
It was dark, smelly, and hot. None of it mattered, though. I was giddy with the anticipation of potentially being the only one left unfound; the one who’d win the Hiders the opportunity to give the Seekers a good soaking. Especially Javier. Time went by and I started getting a little sleepy. I might have dozed off for a minute or two, but I awoke with a start to the sound of a loud clattering. Before I could register concern or fear, something smashed into the back of the refrigerator, pitching it down on its front side. I smacked my head hard as it fell and might have lost consciousness for a little while.
When I came to my senses, I panicked. Whatever had fallen from the pile of junk to knock over my hiding spot must’ve ended up partially resting on the fridge. It wouldn’t budge. I screamed and yelled for Luis, hoping he’d hear me. I thrashed around in the confined space, my limbs getting tangled in the wire racks of the remaining shelves which had been dislodged in the fall. I tried to straighten my legs, but they were too cramped against the sides and tangled in the racks to move more than a few inches. I was face down against the immovable door of the refrigerator.
I noticed an intensely putrid smell coming from the area of the freezer near the top of my head. Something wet was spreading around my head and neck. Whatever had been in the freezer must’ve gotten broken or unsealed by the impact. Then I felt something pinch my right earlobe. Hard. I yelped and tried to smack away whatever was biting me, but my arm was too tangled up. I pushed my shoulder up to my ear and hear a loud crunch as I killed it. It took me a second before I remembered what it was; I’d seen a couple earwigs in the fridge before I hid inside. I thought I’d gotten them out when I threw out the food, but apparently I’d missed one.
I kept yelling and trying to get someone’s attention. Another pinch, this time on the other side of my head. There was nothing I could do about it. Not from the position I was in. I felt it again on the top of my head. I pushed my legs against the sides of the fridge hard and forced my head against the plastic in front of me. As I felt the bug crunch against my scalp, a rush of the foul liquid escaped the cracked freezer compartment. I realized pushing my head against the freezer had only made the crack worse, and I gagged as the stuff touched my lips.
The odor and nausea was forgotten quickly, though, as I felt pinches on my head, face, and neck. I felt the earwigs crawling on me, making their way down my shirt and toward my legs. I exploded with as much motion as I could muster, cutting my arms and legs on the wire racks that were trapping them and doing anything I could to slap the biting, pinching things off me.
In the distance, I heard sirens. They were getting closer. Part of me was hoping they’d be coming to my rescue, but I knew there was no way they could’ve known I was trapped. If Luis hadn’t noticed, no one would notice. As the insects crawled over my trapped, contorted body and I struggled and screamed with no effect, I realized for the first time that I might die in there if no one found me. My hope was resting on Luis hearing me scream and the Seekers, even stupid Javier, thinking I might be hiding somewhere in the junkyard.
The sirens kept getting closer. It almost sounded like they were right across the street. I screamed as loud as my already-damaged vocal cords would allow. Then one of the insects crawled directly into my right ear.
I made a sound I never knew could come out of my mouth. I tried to jam my shoulder against my ear again, praying I could kill the thing before it went any deeper. I was unsuccessful. I heard, with terrifying volume, its hard body squeezing through the warm, tight canal. The scratching sound was worse than the countless sets of pincers still sinking into me as I flailed. I heard and felt the thing going deeper – so deep its mere presence was causing pain deep in my head – and with a violent scratching sound so loud it drowned out my screams, I knew it was up against my eardrum.
The sirens had stopped, but my screaming had not. More of the earwigs were seeking a warm, safe place where they could hide. As the one inside my head continued scratching at my eardrum, I felt at least two moving up the leg of my shorts. In any other situation, that would’ve been enough to get me to strip out of my clothes, no matter where I was or who was around. At that point, though, I was just grateful they weren’t biting.
I’d been trapped for about a half hour. My voice was raspy and my throat hurt worse than it had when I caught strep in the winter. The shriek of the sirens started up again and I jumped, sending the earwigs into attack mode again. I felt their pincers lock on my scalp, back, neck, and perineum. The one inside my ear pinched the wall of the canal. It sounded like the loudest “click” you can imagine and stars exploded in my vision from the pain. More sounds of abject terror and misery escaped my mouth.
More time went by. The fluid coating my body had begun to dry and turn tacky. Whenever I tried to lift my face from the surface it was resting on, my skin stuck to it. I had to jerk my head to free it, which only aggravated the earwigs. I wailed and sobbed for a while, knowing I’d be found dead in a month with my body as rotten as the food I’d pulled out to fit myself in the fridge.
An enormous crash made me jump and set off the bugs again. This time, I heard another person yelling. It was Luis. He was trying to get me to talk and say I was still okay. He’d heard me. I screamed that I was trapped and stuck and I needed help. Another crash – this time the world spun as the refrigerator was flipped onto its back and the doors were flung open. The light of the late afternoon blinded me and I felt strong hands pulling me up by my shirt. My eyes adjusted and I saw the face of Luis studying me before he started slapping me all over, crushing or pushing off the bugs covering me. I looked down at myself – there were hundreds of them coating my sticky clothes and skin. They covered me in a reddish brown mosaic, all of them attacking me with their long pincers as they panicked at the violence and light they’d been introduced to.
I pulled off my shirt and threw it on the ground and joined Luis in brushing the remaining earwigs off me. In my head, the one by my eardrum squirmed and pinched over and over. I screamed and Luis, concerned for my safety, picked me up under his arm and ran toward Maggie’s house. He’d seen me coming from there earlier before getting involved in whatever afternoon television he was watching. Apparently after realizing he hadn’t seen me leave, he decided to look around to make sure I was okay. And I wasn’t.
When we got to the house, Luis just said “call 911” to Maggie’s parents and left to go back to work. I wondered where all the kids were, but only for about five seconds – that was the amount of time the earwig gave me before it started moving and pinching inside my ear.
Ten minutes and countless inner-ear pinches later, a paramedic was using a pair of forceps to pull the thing out of my head. He showed it to me as it writhed the metal that was squeezing it. It was so much smaller than it felt. Welts had started to rise from a few of the parts of me that had been bitten multiple times. Mom arrived right around then, and at the request of the EMT, she was going to drive me to the hospital to get checked out. While we were walking out to the car, Maggie told me Ron had fallen out of the tree where he was hiding and broke his leg really badly. Those were the sirens I’d heard.
As I gingerly eased my shirtless, sore, and sticky body in the car, praying the earwig hadn’t laid eggs inside my head, I was drenched by an explosion of water that soaked not only me, but the inside of Mom’s car. One of the balloons. “Nice nipples, asshole!,” Javier yelled over his shoulder as he ran away with Mom screaming at him. Such a dick.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.