by Steven C. Levi
“Well, HEY!, it’s Ki, Ki, Ki, Kid Cockroach!”
Billy was yelling in my ear so loud I couldn’t hear what the rest of the kids were saying. That’s the way Billy was. He was the class bully, a son-of-a-beef farmer. There weren’t too many of them left. It just took much land to raise beef. Chickens were better. They ate more things that were cheaper to buy, lived in a smaller area and could be butchered every six weeks. Only rich people ate beef; that’s the only reason beef farmers were still in business.
My dad raised chickens. Giant chickens. Not those 30-pounders like they did back in 2015 but big ones, close to 120 pounds. Big enough to fight an ostrich for feed corn. That’s why we had to use zebu cockroaches to herd them. You need an animal that’s quick and so large that chickens won’t eat it.
A 120-pound chicken will eat anything it can catch. But it won’t eat a 100-pound cockroach. Chickens are actually frightened of the giant bugs. That’s why we use the zebu. They’re quick enough to out-maneuver chickens and keep them in a herd. A lot of times, all zebu have to do gnash their huge mandibles and the grating noise will keep the chickens packed tight.
You can’t ride a cockroach like a horse. They can’t be saddled. You just climb aboard and lock your legs around the insect’s body and then you steer them with your electrode boots. A little electric shock on their right side gets them to turn left. You stop them by squeezing with both knees. It takes practice. I should know. I’ve been riding cockroaches and herding chickens for the past 12 years — since I was a kid.
There is a real rivalry between the beef herders and the chicken ranchers. The kids feel that rivalry too, particularly at school. The school I’m going to is no exception. It’s one of those schools without walls, basically a ceiling held aloft by a force field.
Billy is the biggest kid in school and he has a bad attitude when it comes to chicken ranching. He pushed me back against the force field of the school’s west “wall.”
“What’s the matter, Kid? Scared? I guess a punk like you’s gotta ride scared. Takes a man to ride a horse; you have to be a punk to ride a ech, ech, ech, cockroach!” Billy cleared his throat before he said cockroach, like he was going to spit.
I stay quiet when Billy’s threatening. He’s bigger than I am and he hit me once. Knocked me flat on the ground. I told my dad about it and he told me to hit back.
“But Billy’s bigger than me!”
Dad just said, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall.” I’m not sure I know what that means. Whenever Billy gets nasty, I just stay quiet. Or walk away.
“Hey, Kid Cockroach,” Billy snarled at me as I left school that afternoon, his taunting words following me down the road between the rows of fruit trees. “You ain’t got the guts to fight a real kid. A kid like me who rides horses. If you ain’t gonna fight, don’t you come to school no more.”
Mom didn’t think much of Billy and she didn’t tell me what to do about him. She just said, “Why don’t you take a zebu to school with you?” That wasn’t a bad idea. But it sure wouldn’t shut Billy up and that was my problem right then.
I tried to play sick the next morning. Claimed I had Venetian gout. Mom said she’d never heard of it and sent me to school anyway.
That morning I showed up riding a cucaracha zebu, the largest insect hybrid and a real mandible-gnasher if ever there was one. Billy came to school on his horse every day but he wouldn’t let anyone ride it. But I had never brought a zebu to school. They’re nervous around jumpy people, and a lot of people get very nervous around cockroaches the size of a man.
By the time I made it to end of the fruit tree lane, the rest of the kids could see me coming on the zebu. Billy was sitting on his horse when I rode up. The horse kind of stepped back from the zebu and I decided to take a chance. Giving the zebu a hard right electrode shock, I spun it left and charged straight at the force field wall. When the zebu hit the force field, it went straight up the wall without stopping. Force field walls were impossible for a human to scale, but that didn’t bother the zebu.
It was six feet off the ground when I turned it to the left and then it ran the length of the school building before I brought it back down. The rest of the kids were wowing and oohing.
I jumped off the zebu and was going to face-down Billy. But Billy didn’t seem to see me. He rode up and dismounted. His horse backstepped away from the zebu and Billy pushed his way through the gaggle of kids standing around the cockroach.
“Riding one of these things is easy!” he snarled and before I could stop him, Billy was on the zebu’s back.
But Billy didn’t know how to ride a cockroach and he didn’t have electrode boots. He just jumped aboard and squeezed his legs around the zebu’s carapace.
Startled, the cockroach jumped up and sideways at the same time. Unfortunately it also jumped through the entrance into the school without walls. It landed sideways on the interior side of the force field wall and ran upwards at an angle, its antennae flailing behind it like ribbons in the wind.
Billy let out a shriek, and when the zebu began running along the ceiling upside-down, Billy fell off. Only his catching hold of one antenna kept him from free falling the full 10 feet to the ground. He landed with a thud, his hand antennae burned from the scales sliding on his palms.
The jerk on the antenna upset the cockroach something fierce. It came boiling down the wall and charged Billy.
Now if you know cockroaches, you just stand up to them. They can’t hurt you. But Billy didn’t know that. He had just started to stand up when the cockroach was on him. Down he went, the cockroach dancing on his back in insect anger and gnashing its mandibles. Billy started shrieking in terror.
I knocked the zebu sideways, leaped on its back and gave it a full blast of both electrodes. There was a slight pop and an ozone smell. Feeling the electrodes, the zebu knew a professional was astride and stopped moving instantly.
“Don’t worry!” I yelled at Billy as he slowly got up off the ground, his eyes glassy from shock. “These guys can’t hurt you. You’ve got to learn to ride them before you try to jump aboard.”
Billy didn’t talk to anyone until fourth period. That’s when everyone stopped laughing at him. Then he only said a few words, like “caught me by surprise” or “could’a done it if...”
But Billy didn’t bother me any more after that day. In fact, he became a friend of sorts. He even shared his beef burgers sandwiches. I didn’t get any beef at home so that was a real treat to me. I offered to teach him to ride the zebu but he was shy on cockroach riding. Said it was “hard on his hands and seat.” We both thought that was real funny.
Copyright © 2006 by Steven C. Levi