This page contains:
- Body transformation
- Drug use
The girls of our town float down the middle of the street, cheap fabric wings pinned to their clothes. I watch them walk, hobbled by coat hanger curves that refuse to bend with the bow of their backs. I see Min towards the back. She’s been doing this for a decade now, and even though the orange and black of her wings have dulled with age, she still looks more beautiful than anyone else.
Usually, Main Street would be covered in fabric flowers, and the sidewalks speckled with fluorescent paint. Stands would sell pieces of ribbon tied to dowel rods, and paper cutouts of butterflies, bees, and flowers would litter the ground. But it’s quieter this year. The wind storms are getting worse, food is growing scarce, and people are giving up on the bees.
There’s a single peddler set up down the street. He bikes in every Bee Season, pulling a rust-colored wagon behind him piled high with salvaged wood and bits of scrap metal. Used to be he’d get so surrounded during the parade, you’d have to force your way through to get one of the little honey-colored candies he always had. Now only a few stragglers remain. I want to walk over, but my Pa’s standing next to me, face etched in a deep scowl. The peddler’s got other stuff sometimes, secret stuff, the sort of stuff my Pa doesn’t want me anywhere near.
A ghostly hum starts next to me as people begin to buzz. I pick it up, pitching my voice low. The sound tickles in my throat. Pa does not call to the bees like we do. He’s here for me, and I know it hurts him, but it hurts me that he won’t let me put on wings. It hurts me that he’s willing to settle for a dying town—that he’s willing to give up hope.
Min passes close by and grins at me. I catch her eye, then flick my gaze towards the peddler. She gives me a little nod and keeps walking, following the wraith-like procession of pollinators.
I’m jealous. She says sometimes if you're lucky, the wind blows, kicks up enough dirt to make the whole town start to sneeze but also causes the fabric wings to billow. That’s when you close your eyes. That’s when you pretend you know how to fly.
Pa reaches over and takes my hand. His grip tightens as though there’s a chance I might pull free, join the parade, disappear into the swarm of dirty, misshapen forms. “Ash,” he murmurs.
I smile. I have a good name. A bee’s name. You hear the hiss at the end, that shhhhhh? Almost sounds like a buzz.
When we get back home, there’s a bee crawling on the sagging step of our porch.
My father freezes, body tense, fists clenched tight at his sides. I quietly move to the tub of mason jars sitting near the steps, carefully sifting through 'til I find one that’s not cracked.
“Ash,” my father warns.
I don’t answer. I’m completely focused on the curve of the bee’s shape. The tiny hairs of its abdomen are lit up by the small pool of flickering orange from the single bulb we’ve got in the floodlight. It’s crawling along the wood, legs carefully brushing against the grain. I barely breathe as I approach. My fingers tighten and my nail catches on the lip of the jar for just a second. A shard of blue sparkle nail polish flicks off and lands in the dust at my feet. I take another step forward.
My father smacks his hands together, a crack of sound reverberates through the night, and the bee flies.
I don’t catch it.
Fury boils through my blood, but I force it all down. “The peddler will take them. Could get us money for food, for—”
“We don’t need anything from that man.”
I blink. His voice is tight, but it’s not anger. It’s fear. I think about Min, about her smile, about our plan. My eyes drop to the rotting slats of the porch.
“Ash…” He falters, one hand going to the back of his neck, scratching.
“I need to go help Min out of her wings,” I say, even though I don’t.
Pa sighs. The skin around his eyes is crinkled with exhaustion. “Alright,” he says.
That means, Don’t you dare stay up with Min all night, and get drunk on her Daddy’s stash of booze, and try on her wings, and run off somewhere else, and leave me, and leave me, and leave me.
It means, stay safe.
His eyes flick down to the steps again, to where the bee had been crawling. “Be careful.”
“Always,” I say, waving him off. He climbs the steps and disappears inside the belly of our crumbling home. I wait until I hear the plastic frame of our front door slam shut.
Then I pull out my phone and text Min.
It’s only a moment before my phone vibrates in response.
The cemetery is a barren stretch of land that used to sit against the edge of town before the bees left and we crumpled inward. There’s a road that leads away, but no one ever travels it. No one ever leaves. We are the skin of a dried apple husk, desperately sucking for moisture, crinkling ever closer to the core.
It’s a good thirty-minute walk over parched and cracked earth, but I make it easily, picking my way over the rotting wood and rusting spokes of the train track. It’s dark—a new moon night, perfect for ritual.
I see Min before she sees me—huddled between a circle of worn gravestones, jet black of her short hair disappearing against the moonless sky. I helped her hack it all off last week. It’s all uneven in the back now, but she doesn’t care. Says she’s freer now. Lighter. She’s always wanted to fly.
My hair’s a tangled nest of tight curls all the way down to the small of my back. Pa won’t let me cut it because he says it looks like my mom’s, and I know he misses her, so I go along with it, even though sometimes Apollo Higgins from two houses down catches me behind the portable at school, and presses me against the hot siding, and rubs his thumb against the shell of my ear, and gets so close that I can smell the cinnamon gum he’s chewing, and tells me how pretty my hair is. I smile when he does, even though I can also smell his sweat.
“Yo,” Min says, not looking up from the patch of dirt she’s kneeling in. Her fingers are caked with dust. “Grab the jar.”
I pick up the mason jar sitting on top of the nearest stone. It’s got a crack running from top to bottom but as long as we’re careful, it won’t shatter.
She pulls something out of the dirt and holds it on the palm of her hand for me to see.
Big enough to lay across the entire length of her life line. Little pincher claws pulled up tight to its chest. Eyes not the black of a living creature, but faded to the muddy brown of everything else around us. The wind picks up for just a second and the exoskeleton shakes in her hand, then falls back down to the dirt.
“Shit,” Min says. She kneels back down again and gently feels around for it. I kneel too. If we’re lucky, we’ll find dozens out here. She’ll take them home, paint them in as many coats of nail polish as their shells can hold, and string them all over her room.
“Gotcha, sucker,” Min says, finger closing around the shell again.
I hold out the jar. She drops the shell inside. It hits the bottom with a small tink. I want to ask her about the peddler but I’m nervous. My mouth’s all dry. She moves away and all I can think about is the curve of her collarbone and the little shudder she made last week when I kissed the divot of her neck.
Min tucks a stray piece of hacked off hair behind her ear. Her throat moves as she swallows. “I brought it,” she says quietly.
My knee bangs against a stone. There’s a flower carved next to a faded name. I think it’s a rose.
She forces a hand in her pocket then pulls out a tiny jar. It’s no bigger than the circle my thumb and forefinger make when they touch. Something milky white is inside.
“What were you expecting?”
“He said there’s fewer and fewer hosts. The Gardens might fail.”
Makes sense. Earth isn’t such a habitable place these days for humans or for bees. We’re trying to make amends, but no one wants to see their child taken by a Queen.
“Saw a bee tonight,” I say. I’m nervous. I think I’m trying to change the subject.
Her head cocks. She sits back on her heels. “You sure?”
“You catch it?”
I shake my head. “Tried. Pa scared it off. Don’t know where it came from.”
She considers this for a long moment. She’s nervous too.
I comb my fingers through new dirt. I scare up a spider, but no more shells.
“Someone has to try,” she finally murmurs, settling next to me, close enough that our arms brush. She’s got the sleeves of her t-shirt rolled up to the tops of her shoulders. There’s a long scrape down the side of one forearm, still scabbed over from last week when we’d performed a blood ritual, the kind that bound us for life, the kind that didn’t require jars of milky white, just unwavering loyalty.
Min carefully unscrews the lid and holds it towards me. “Spit,” she commands.
“Spit?” I’ve got a scab that runs the length of my inner forearm just like Min. I rub at it, working a fingernail underneath the edge of it, tugging just enough to feel the pull of my skin.
“Not that much. Enough to make a paste.”
Min just clears her throat and hocks into the pot. I watch a bubble of spit catch on the ledge, then slide down to the bottom, mixing with the smudge of white.
“Your turn.” She holds out the jar.
I press my tongue to the roof of my mouth, swish as much as I can. Then I spit too.
We take turns another three times before she pulls a pencil from behind her ear and sticks it into the jar, eraser end first, to mix it all together.
“What is it?”
She shrugs. “That’s what the peddler said. Said they need a place to live. To grow. To learn how to fly. The spit activates them. Gives them a part of the host. I don’t know, there were a lot more science words involved. Point is, they’re eggs.”
It’s getting sticky the more she stirs. After about a minute, she stops and scoops a finger into the thick paste and pulls out a wad. “Bottoms up,” she grins, then pushes her fingers into her mouth, swallowing around them.
I shudder. “This better work.”
Wincing, she pulls her fingers out with a pop. “It’s surprisingly not awful,” she says. “Bad, but not awful.”
My stomach’s doing awful flip things. This is for the bees. We’re nothing without them, and the adults have given up. But I’m still nervous as hell.
“Do you trust me?”
“Good answer.” She holds the jar out to me.
I dab a finger in, pull out another glob, then swallow it down. She’s right. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be. A piece of eraser grit gets stuck in my back molar and I tongue at it, trying to work it free.
“Buzz,” she says, throwing her head back and grinning.
“Buzz,” I repeat.
A couple of the girls are still wearing their wings the next morning. I settle next to Min at one of the tables that are pockmarked with age. She picks at an enormous graphite cock penciled into the space next to me. The world is nothing but dust, but dick jokes never die. I watch Apollo snag a glittery pair of antennae off of another girl’s head and force it onto his own. His dirty blond hair catches in the fuzz of the pipe cleaners. He looks dumb.
“Hey, Ashley!” Apollo calls. “Ashley, baby, you comin’ to the Barns on Sunday?”
It’s Easter on Sunday. There’s no parade like there is for Bee Season, but the church still holds a celebration. All the church kids dress up and make these flowers called lilies out of white paper. They don’t look anything like the lilies I’ve seen in books. The petals are too crinkled, stained with dusty fingerprints.
All the sinners will go to the Barns.
“Ashley, Ashley, Ashley,” Apollo yells. “You know I love you, babe!”
Min flips him off. I reach out and force her hand down, color rising to my cheeks.
“Asshole,” Min mutters.
Apollo’s still watching me. I give him a smile that I hope looks more like maybe than it looks like yes.
The next week, I hand in a hastily written paper on the Capitalist Collapse, and force my eyes open through a stunningly boring math class. We see a video in science about The Gardens, the place where bees still live, the tiny oasis some people are trying to coax back into existence. A scientist says, “They are dying. Soon they will no longer exist.”
I’m going to be sick.
“Ash!” Min calls after me, but I wave her off and barely make it outside the lunch portable. I wipe my mouth after, press my open palm against my nose and breathe in the smell of my own skin as deeply as I can. There’s a sticky pile of bile at my feet. I can see a single white worm squirming, stuck to the dirt with my own stomach acid.
There’s another bee on our porch.
Pa loses it. Comes barreling out of the door with the kitchen broom, smacking it all over the place. Hits the floodlight and glass shatters everywhere. I’m yelling, and he’s yelling, and the bee takes off, coming close enough that I can hear the buzz in my ear. I press two fingers against my jaw and open my mouth.
The bee lands on my lower lip. I can feel the vibrations from its legs all the way down to my chest.
Pa’s face falls. He’s still holding tight to the broom. The coarse, uneven bristles poke up towards the stormy grey sky. “What did you do?” he asks, voice shaky and so, so sad.
I poke out my tongue. The bee crawls forward. I close my mouth and feel it crawl down the back of my throat. The hairs on my arms prickle with electric air, and I turn around. Glass crunches under my tennis shoes as I walk away.
“Ash, please,” he says.
Something twists hard inside of me but I force myself to keep going, hold my head high, and walk towards the street, towards Min’s house, refusing to look back.
“There’s four life stages,” Min says. “Egg, larva, pupa, and adult.” The book is splayed across her lap. She’s got one finger holding a spot at the back and another finger tracing the lines her eyes track as she reads. There’s another pile of books near me that I’m supposed to be reading, but I can’t bring myself to crack open a single spine. I’m exhausted. The glands at the sides of my neck are swollen so big it hurts to swallow, and every inch of my body aches.
“Duh,” I respond.
Min’s nose wrinkles. “I’m trying to help.”
“Then read something that might actually be useful. Everyone knows there’s four life stages.”
She looks back down and flips to the next page. “You’re cranky. Alright, fine, it takes twenty-four days to hatch a drone, twenty-one days for a worker. Sixteen for a Queen. You’re almost there.”
“Almost,” I say, even though I half think that festival peddler was full of shit and told Min he sold her eggs when he’d actually sold her poison that’s slowly devouring me from the inside out, and in another two days I’ll just be dead, a dumbass corpse who was trying to get to paradise but turned to rot instead.
I tell Min that. She swats at my arm and tells me to pay attention.
Honeybee larvae eat 1,300 meals a day.
Honeybees prefer to nest at higher rather than ground level.
Honeybees prefer a natural cavity small enough to keep intruders out, yet large enough to allow the inhabitants free movement. A natural cavity like human nostrils, ears, and mouths.
Within five days, they can grow up to 1,570 times larger than their original size. At that point, they are sealed into their cells.
I feel sealed into my own cell. I scratch at the scab on my wrist and peel it away. It doesn’t bleed. It leaks something golden.
“Damn,” Min says in awe. “You’re so fucking lucky.”
I dip my finger in the sticky liquid, press it to my lips. It’s sweet.
We’re going to try again. Min’s Daddy is drunk as usual and gets nasty if you make noise, so we’re at my house. Next to me I’ve got an open can of Chef Boyardee ravioli only three years expired, and Min’s got blue nail polish out and my hand in her lap. She’s repainting my nails, blowing on each one as she goes. With every breath, she leans closer and closer.
“Only a teaspoon left,” she whispers, ’cause my Pa’s asleep in the other room.
Her voice puffs against the shell of my ear. I don’t answer, just pull a greasy piece of pasta out of the can and chew. The smell of acetate is making me sick.
She takes out the jar. There’s only a little bit of white residue left, plastered to the side of the glass. A teaspoon is generous. She unscrews the lid and hands it to me. “Spit.”
“’Cause it worked for you. Ergo, your spit is more valuable. Don’t worry, I’ll do it too.”
It’s hard to work up enough saliva. My throat’s so sore all the time, and all the dust the wind is kicking up outside doesn’t do anything to help. I manage to get a small gob in there. She’s satisfied enough—she takes the jar back and spits, then swishes it all around. “Wish me luck!”
I flash her a thumbs up. Everything is the bad sort of spinny, and now the ravioli doesn’t smell good either. Clenching my teeth, I look away as she drinks down the rest of the milky white substance.
She grimaces when she’s done. “Do you think they’ll have peaches in The Gardens?”
“I’ve always wondered what they taste like.” She tucks the glass back into her backpack and shoves it out of the way, lying down on her back. Her eyes flick up, where a giant crack runs from the floor, up the wall, across the middle of the plaster ceiling. Pa says it’s gonna cave in someday. We’ll probably die first, though.
I don’t know if they have peaches. I don’t even know if they exist—at least, not the way we’ve been led to believe. A small patch of life on our dying Earth, an oasis of hope, a promise of renewal. Humanity’s second chance.
Sounds an awful lot like the stories that Pa’s church preaches. Even if they are a second chance, I’m not sure we deserve it.
Min’s always been more optimistic than me. “I bet they’ll have peaches,” I muse, looking down at her.
Min’s hair is spiky all around her face and she blinks up at me with chocolate eyes. I don’t think she knows how beautiful she is. I don’t think she knows that even with a body full of bees, she’ll never be more vibrant than she is right now, on the floor of my crumbling house, with her blue sparkle nails, and her jet black hair, and her jagged scab on the inside of her forearm.
I lean down to kiss her. Open my mouth.
A bee flies out.
Min closes her eyes. The house has gone so eerily silent that we can hear the bee’s hum as it flies.
It still doesn’t take.
I hold Min as she cries. Her tears soak the front of my cotton t-shirt, and they’re warm, like her, while I’m getting colder and colder because the thousands of tiny pupa are sucking every bit of marrow they can from my bones, and honeybee wax is only malleable at 85 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m changing.
She pulls away. Her Daddy is passed out in his chair, and she grabs the bottle of whiskey from between his fat fingers, then sucks as much of it down as she can hold.
All Min wants is to change. To escape. All she wants is a chance to see green. She’s still got hope that we can change this.
All I want is to see her smile.
“Monarch,” I whisper, trying so hard to direct her attention anywhere but liquor. There’s a discarded pair of orange and black wings at the corner of her living room that I nod towards. They’re what she’s worn every year for Bee Season. The gauze has stretched so thin over the coat hangers that it’s torn in places, and the thick acrylic orange paint is peeling off.
She laughs. Throws her head back and sucks down more whiskey, then hurls the empty bottle at the wall. It hits, but doesn’t break. Just rolls down the uneven slope of the rotting wood boards to collect with the other empties that her Daddy’s been hoarding.
She reaches for the wings and forces them around her shoulders.
I try to smile, but honey slicks over my teeth and it takes too much work to crack the hardened shell of my face.
The Barns are on the other end of town from the cemetery. A long time ago, the four buildings held actual cows. Now there’s no cows—there’s barely any of the structures left after the roofs rotted straight through and came crashing down. Only thing that remains are the cadaverous innards, jagged silhouettes lit by the slice of moon in the sky.
I didn’t want to come, but Min dragged me with her.
A rusted-out pickup truck sits in the dirt, and someone’s hooked up wires wrapped in electrical tape to the battery, coaxing an old stereo to life. A couple dozen teenagers mill around an old oil drum. Bathtub gin—Apollo’s specialty.
Min heads straight for it. She shoves everyone aside, grabs a red plastic cup, and dunks it straight in.
“Damn, girl,” someone says.
She flashes a barbed grin towards the entire group before crawling up over the fallen debris and disappearing inside.
I watch her. The bees inside of me are angry, buzzing so loudly I’m afraid to open my mouth.
“What’s up, Ash?” a couple of the girls chirp at me. Another blinks drunkenly at me, then leans over the side of the fence and hurls.
I wonder if they’ve ever dreamed of The Gardens the way Min does. I wonder if they’ve dreamed of their bodies changing, of growing wax, and comb, and hive.
Someone offers me a cup. I shake my head and wander towards the building.
People wearing wings are everywhere, brightly colored paint splotches of dots, speckles, and stripes moving with the beat of the music. Buzz, someone shouts, and someone else takes up the call, and the beat drops, and the mass of people start to jump, and it’s all I can hear, buzz, buzz, buzz.
It takes me a long time to locate Min. I find her because I find Apollo, the fluorescent smears of color painted all over his body glowing bright in the dark corner of the barn. He’s got her held up against a wall and she’s pressed against him, one hand wrapped round the back of his neck, fingernails clutching so tight they’re pressing divots into the bright white of the fluorescent pink stripe painted around his throat.
I push through the bodies and reach them. “Min!” I yell. There’s a bee beneath my tongue, so I shut my mouth quickly before it can escape.
She sneaks her head underneath the curve of his chin and glares at me. “What’s the point?” she growls back. “This is life, right? No escape for me.”
“Come on, Ash,” he leers at me, then grinds against her again. “Always got room for one more!”
She laughs. It sounds so horribly lost that I try to reach out and grab her arm, but she twists out of my grip.
It wasn’t worth it. Losing her wasn’t worth it.
I force my way back outside again. I think I’m crying. It’s sticky.
I can’t swallow anymore. I can barely suck in a breath through airways that are clogged with comb. I feel movement everywhere, little legs, tiny wings that long to beat in the air. When I open my mouth, bees fly out and in. I can’t sit still. I buzz wherever I go.
Pa won’t look at me. Easter’s over, Christ is Risen, they take down all the decorations at the church, but he brings home the paper lilies. Hundreds of them. He sits in the chair at night and picks them apart, strewing crumpled tissue paper petals all across our living room. I don’t know what to say to make it better. All I know is I almost feel like I can fly. There’s a constant tug inside of me now, the bees almost ready. Things are changing, and he owes me this.
He owes me a chance.
The bees are desperate. They’re pushing against my insides so hard I have no choice but to follow. The buzzing in my head has grown so loud I can barely think my own thoughts. I can feel them crawling behind my eyes, up in my nose, in the deep canals of my ears. I’m always itching in places I can’t scratch.
I take out my phone and text Min.
It takes a while for her to answer, and when she does, it’s only
I frown. It’s not fair, but nothing is fair—nothing’s been fair for our entire lives. But this was her dream, and I’m not leaving without her.
Burial grounds, I text.
She doesn’t answer.
The blue polish on my fingernails has chipped down to the cuticles. Honey seeps from under my nail beds. I leave sticky fingerprints on everything I touch. I don’t know what to bring with me. I don’t know how far we’ll be walking, how long it might take us to reach a place that may no longer exist. I don’t know what we’ll need.
I don’t know if Min’ll come.
Pa is sleeping in the chair downstairs, so in the end, I decide on efficiency and only grab my sweatshirt and my backpack stuffed full of Chef Boyardee and bottles of water. I creep downstairs. The floorboard by the front door squeals when I step on it. I’ve done it intentionally—I want to say goodbye, but he doesn’t wake up and I don’t have the nerve for anything more tangible.
I bend over and pick up a single lily whose petals somehow avoided his wrath. I tuck it carefully in my pocket. Then I step outside into the night.
The moon is waning, but it’s far more light than we had just three weeks ago. Min’s shadow is crouched over the slumped stone of a grave, and relief courses through me.
“Yo,” she says, slowly standing up. Her hair is a spiky mess, her eyes are red, her nails are perfect, sparkling blue.
“Yo,” I repeat, shaking three honeybees loose beneath my tongue. They tangle around my hair for a moment, getting lost in the curls. Their tiny bodies thrum with possibility. They buzz.
It sounds like a hiss, like a shhhhhh, like my name.
“The Gardens?” I ask.
The buzzing inside of me intensifies, and suddenly they’re pouring out, flying from my nose, my ears, my mouth. Min sucks in a deep breath, then holds out her hand.
I thread my fingers through hers and pull her past the cemetery, out onto the broken road, following the lines of bees.