Her mother’s house was situated between two broad-fenced fields. She had bought the trailer after her husband had died six years ago, and she talked constantly about what a relief it was not to have to worry about her neighbors. She always talked about rescuing horses, but hadn’t gotten around to it yet- instead, her three shaggy dogs rushed to the fence as the women walked up to the front porch, barking loudly and excitedly. Michelle’s hand hadn’t even touched the screen door before her mother opened it.
“Well, well, what’s this?” she said, voice lilting in mock surprise. “Nicole, sweetheart, come here! How are you doing?”
Michelle observed them impatiently and said nothing while her mother took her partner by the upper arms and smiled up at her. She was a small woman, shorter and thinner than Michelle, with the same dark eyes and hair tied back whenever she could. When it wasn’t, she was complaining about it or putting it up. She was in her sixties, but was still very pretty, and took pleasure in turning down people in town who asked her on dates. Nicole had only brought it up once, and her mother had taken her least-favorite tone in response: “I have all the company I need in your aunts and uncles,” she had sniffed, “But you could always visit more often, if you’re so worried.”
She never talked about her late husband, and Michelle, being an only child, was never sure how to bring it up.
“I got your call about your-” she made a curious face- “bug problem?”
“Yeah,” said Nicole as she brought them inside. Her living room was meticulously clean as always, and she steered Michelle by her arm into the kitchen. Nicole could smell the coffee on the hotplate, and although she disagreed with her mother’s habits of leaving it on for as long as it was liquid, she wouldn’t dare turn it down.
“I know it probably sounds crazy, but we’ve really tried everything we could, and I figured we might as well ask you.”
“About your ladybug ghosts?” She laughed as she pulled three coffee mugs from the cabinet in one hand, holding the handles together tightly with her dark, thin hands. World’s Greatest Grandma was written on one in thick black writing on a gross pink heart. Nicole eyed it with distaste.
“I don’t care if it’s true or not, but if it’s enough to get my daughter to make the trip out, I’m more than willing to have a chat.”
“Really? I thought you wouldn’t be all that interested,” Michelle said incredulously. She had expected her mother to have second-guessed all her efforts, like she had just somehow screwed up and not noticed something totally obvious that would explain everything and show it was totally mundane. Her mom shot her a look that was somehow both offended and derisive.
“Of course I’m interested. If it turns out to be true, it will be a great story. If it isn’t, then too bad. Sweetheart, give me your cup,” she said, and poured Nicole her coffee before sitting down. Nicole thanked her and smiled.
“So we’ve tried a few things- most of the stuff we’ve found online about getting rid of them. They were supposed to just leave in the spring but obviously, that didn’t happen.”
She continued her story, telling Michelle’s mother about the candles and herbs and other tricks they had tried, the foiled efforts of the bug guys, the horrible scrapbook, the Mormons, and the cup and paper incident, and everything else that had happened.
“It sounds like you two have had quite a time.”
“Yeah, we have. Nicole thought you might have some advice,” said Michelle.
Her mother slid into the space behind her chair and fluffed her curled hair.
“I like your highlights.”
“Really? Thanks.” Michelle was surprised. “So what do you think?”
“Your bug haunting?”
“Well, I don’t know, baby. Maybe you’re thinking too much about what we would want.”
She twisted Nicole’s hair around her fingers idly.
“Yeah, well, mom, there’s not really a ladybug funeral I can attend.”
“I know. It was only a thought.”
She felt her mother’s fingers pulling firmly as they sorted through her hair. Although she felt comforted by her mother’s presence, she still felt the residual bitterness of the chronically mistreated. She wanted to be calm, to be happy at the fact that for once they were getting along, but she wasn’t able to let it go.
They didn’t achieve much more that afternoon and the drive home was quiet. Nicole hummed along to the radio as Michelle quietly simmered on her feelings. It was dark when they came home and stepped carefully through the dark doorway.
“Maybe we could call a psychic,” Nicole suggested.
“Yeah, or a florist for a hundred flytraps.”
Nicole smiled at her sarcasm and squeezed her hand.
“Buy a cage and a bunch of birds.”
“Just burn the whole thing down for the insurance money.”
“I’ve heard Catholic exorcisms can take a while.”
“I’m tired of this,” Michelle said, trying to be angry, though it just sounded disappointed.
“I know,” Nicole said gently. “Maybe we should do what your mom said.”
“Maybe we should,” she sighed. Who cared, after all, at this point? But then again, how were they supposed to figure out what the hell a ladybug would want for its last rites?
“So what would you want if you were a ladybug ghost?”
“I don’t know. They don’t usually stay inside in winter… maybe I’d just want to be back in a garden, maybe with some flowers.”
Michelle nodded. “All right. We’ll do that. We’ll bury them tomorrow, so no birds get them.”
Michelle put the scrapbook back on the counter and resolved to try it the next morning. Michelle barely even shuddered when they came into the kitchen the next morning and saw it covered in resting ladybugs that scattered when they approached. They had woken up early, and the morning was still cool when they started their work.
They sat together in the garden with a pencil and a razor, cutting the bugs carefully free from the paper and glue and burying them in holes they poked through the topsoil. They worked through that evening until it grew too dark to see and drivers on the road slowed down as they passed the house. When they went back in, they went to bed, and in the morning they repeated the process until the scrapbook was filled with holes but devoid of ladybugs. The garden was filled with tiny mounds where the glued bodies were buried.
“I hope this doesn’t mess up the soil,” Nicole sighed.
“I think it’ll be okay.”
The evening after that seemed to take a long time to turn from the liquid blue of early twilight into night. They considered trying to figure out some kind of funeral rite to say, but eventually decided there wasn’t much of a point, so they stood there silently for awhile. All they could do was hope, and when they finally went tentatively back into the house, it took them a while to start to look at the walls and corners where the ladybugs had normally clung. There were fewer that morning and even fewer by the next night, and three days later all of the ladybugs had disappeared.
After it was all over, they saw the ladybugs patrolling stalks of young basil, flowers, and foliage in the gardens, and occasionally they startled Michelle by landing on her books as she read in her backyard. Still, even through the winter they never swarmed their house.
Nicole and Michelle tried to resume their life as normal, but normal felt unusual after their insect haunting escapade. Michelle joked about contacting someone from TLC about a miniseries, but for some reason, it never panned out. The only person who knew about their struggle was Michelle’s mother, who thought it was all pretty funny, and in retelling the story to her friends, did so playfully, but with the utmost conviction that it was all true- and for what it was worth, their garden flourished.