When I was young, I knew Aunt Alice was sick. Mother said so and I could see the mania that crept behind her eyes in the pages of old photo albums. When mother died, Alice was our only family. By default I was sent to live with her. I was seven. She was much worse than I’d been told.
I never knew her condition by name, and she never sought professional help. There was nothing to curb her wild delusions or compulsive lies.
Aunt Alice referred to herself in the plural—the “royal we”—it’s a habit I’ve always hated.
‘We’ watched a movie today.
‘We’ read the most interesting article about crystals.
I imagined she kept a tiny friend inside her pocketbook wherever she went.
Unpredictable mood swings happened daily. She claimed a myriad of imagined illnesses and phobias. Narcissism, delusions of grandeur and her covetous hypochondria made my childhood a living hell.
“I contracted ebola for three days.” she claimed. I never told her that was not how ebola worked.
“August,” she said one morning. My name was Aaron but she called me whatever she felt like calling me on any given day. I was crunching mouthfuls of cereal as she ripped the pages of the morning paper into small, nickel size shreds, lining them in a semicircle on the table around her in a delicate fan. With a dramatic air, she touched the gauze wrapped densely around her forearms, “You’ll have to excuse our bandages this morning,” a Seagram’s-logged slur lurked in her words, “We were shaving our legs and slipped. Just a mistake. I’m fearful of blood you see. Somehow I lost consciousness and woke like this.”
I glanced up at her for a bit too long.
“That’s right you little shit. We had a mistake. An accident. Like we had last time –that time– that was your fault.”
I’d learned long ago to avoid correcting her or speaking out of turn, so I quietly stared into the rainbow colored milk and shoveled a mouthful of breakfast down to avoid another punishment. You didn’t correct Alice Hawthorne.
For her previous ‘mistake,’ I’d received a terrible beating. I accidentally walked in on her. That time she sat, naked, straddling the open toilet seat, digging the lines of ‘mistakes’ into her skin with a small, square blade. Seven slices, dotted haphazardly in a line along her ribs. They traced the grimace of a smile. It was still drooling blood even as she hit me with the plunger until the wooden handle splintered apart.
“How dare you walk in on us! You made us slip!”
She’d cut herself so many times below her naked breast, she said, all because I’d surprised her.
“You did this to us!”
Most of her “allergies” were also fabrications.
She spent one week trying to convince me that she was allergic to the color blue. Another time it was beans. She said they’d make her die, but she ate hummus obsessively. I can still hear the snap of the carrots and the sloppy, nauseating open-mouthed chewing. I pointed out, at the height of her fixation, that she couldn’t possibly be allergic to beans. She was easily consuming a dozen containers of a product made of them per week and little else. I was sent to my room for days. A padlock kept me there until I was starving and severely dehydrated.
“Lazy good for nothing!” she declared one afternoon as I watched an interior makeover show. “How dare you insult us like this! After all we’ve done for you, this place isn’t good enough?”
Where we lived was not good enough. It was dilapidated and cramped. Outside was a large two story colonial cracking and crumbling with disrepair. Paths inside traced like ant farm mazes, room to room through piles of discarded soup tins, broken toys and moldering periodicals. Orange peels and the remains of shredded paperbacks lay everywhere.
“You’re an ungrateful greedy leech,” she told me. Yet I asked for nothing, least of all the misery of her guardianship. One day, the things I watched proved too much disrespect and in one swift motion, she swiped the television from its stand in a fury. It crashed face forward onto the heap below where it remained for years to come, added to the piles of errant stereo parts and empty Chinese take-outs that made up the floor. She ripped the cord from the wall and pulled the other end, like taffy, from the broken set and used it to beat me with indiscretion until the world went dark.
Aunt Alice’s moods weren’t always violent. At times she would be fun and spontaneous. More than once, I came home to a tunnel built from couch cushions or blanket forts. To new paths cut through our bio-hazardous abode to delightful surprises. A red velvet cake; my favorite. Another time a pile of books by an author I liked…yet another time, a puppy.
His life was short-lived. I don’t know why she did it. I buried him in the yard. It’s best not to describe how I found him but in retrospect, I know this to be my breaking point. Reviling her, I felt powerless to continue to survive her.
Every night I dreamt of different ways to find myself free. Alice lying dead while fire burned this moldering pit down around her.
Of the bullshit webs she’d weaved of her phobias and allergies, I knew only these to be true: Alice was trypophobic. Small, symmetrical holes would trigger her into legitimate hysterics. Holes in innocuous, mundane things: patterns in wire fencing, coral… once she even broke down while passing a set of rattan patio furniture in the hardware store. One look at the rich brown backing of tightly woven hexagons turned her to stone as she descended into a quiet shock. She was unable to move until a man came up to us.
“Ma’am are you alright?”
Snatching my hand she snapped, “Piss off. Our nephew and we are fine. Come, Abraham.”
Alice’s only allergy that was not based in fantasy revealed itself when I was thirteen. She was hospitalized. That night, I remember looking to the sky and wishing she would die. I wished on those stars for this moment so many times, and here it was, within my grasp. But she was not a generous woman and neither was fate. She’d been digging through the tool-shed searching through piles for some hubcaps that would complete some project she’d imagined in one of her manic states. Haphazardly she’d thrown old bed-springs and rusted cookware aside, and inadvertently crushed a small hive of three or four or seven thousand bees.
I always knew, no matter what she told me, I wasn’t lazy, lustful, prideful or any of the other ‘deadlies’ that she attempted to weaponize and diminish my resolve to endure. I asked for nothing and Aunt Alice and the mouse-in-her-pocket delivered it in abundance.
I worked hard and earned every accolade and accomplishment of my youth on my own. I learned to escape her at school and buried myself in books long after being released for the day. I was second in my class when I graduated.
At 17, I finally moved out and away from the abusive nest she hatefully created. According to her, I ruined her life, transforming her into the angry magpie builder who curated the den of shiny garbage for the two of us to smother in over the last decade.
After I left, I resolved to never speak to her again. I had no need or reason to. When I enrolled in college, I’d earned enough scholarships to pay my way. I didn’t know it at the time; I thought I was simply following an interest that fascinated me for a number of years. You have to believe that I didn’t realize what I was doing then—I know now.
I was plotting my revenge.
I was going to kill her.
I’d chosen the university I did because they were one of the few colleges I’d applied to with an entomology program. I wanted to study insects; specifically the sociobiology and the behavior of honeybees.
This degree is specialized and proceeded to be a lot of work to attain, but I graduated with honors and quickly found a job in the biology department of a large agricultural company. Our main product and income revolved around pollination. Specifically, we rented and transported thousands of beehives to work on farms throughout the continental United States.
Our “product,” if you will, is greatly responsible for most of the country’s agriculture. From almonds to avocados, the bees spend several months pollinating in California, after that they’re shipped to Washington for the apple blossoms, then millions are sent to Maine for blueberry season. This is a multi-billion dollar industry and with the decline in sustainability, our fees have skyrocketed.
In a way, one thing keeps them from escaping in swarms across the roadway: luck.
You’ll need your luck every day. The bees will only need their luck once. Hopefully, yours will keep you safe.
One careless move by you or someone else on the road could spell disaster for the entire highway. Before you make an aggressive swerve around an eighteen-wheeler moving a bit too slow, ask yourself, ‘could this be one of the ones stacked floor to ceiling with crates of live bees?’ They’re everywhere you know. Don’t believe me? Google it. At any given time, thousands of drivers could be one abrupt lane change away from being trapped in their cars while a jackknifed semi-truck’s cargo of a hundred thousand angry insects swarm in clouds of punishment around them. They’ll be looking for ways to defend themselves; for ways in–to bypass your air filters–emerge in your car–to sting you through your vents. It happens.
But it happens.
You may have read or heard that bee populations across the world are dying off. Part of that is due to their transport from coast to coast. A great deal of the other news you’ve heard is sensationalism. They are dying, yes, but they’re not endangered. Weather changes, pesticides, and disease kill them along with the estimated 25 to 30% of our hives that die yearly. Our company is making great headway in the field to change those statistics.
I’d learned most of what I knew about bee breeding by observing the work done by Dr. Abeille. One day, the world will know her name and she’ll be recognized for her brilliant research and dedication in the field. She is the solution to ending colony collapse disorder. I am fortunate enough to have her as my mentor.
Our facility is state of the art. There’s not another research lab quite like ours in the country. Occasionally, we lead groups through the expansive greenhouses to explain the expense of the research. Dr. Abeille’s beauty, knowledge and charisma is justification for the exorbitant cost of this facility by the end of one of her tours.
“Zee research we do is zimple,” Her tone was as rich as the scent of honey that hung in the air. Her accent, French and as exotic as the range of flowers that grow everywhere around us “Zimple, and not zimple at zee same time.”
The noon sky blazed high overhead, refracting down in rainbows through the angled prisms of glass above. The air hummed with the songs of bees as they ignored us, busying themselves about their work. A few of the shareholders glanced nervously around. I accompanied her on these tours to dissuade them from swatting. Bees are nice–until you’re not…
Most of them.
The air smelled sweet with orange blossoms and mint, “hybridization can occur naturally, but we zimply do not have time to allow nature to take zee course. Zeese insect, zay are crucial to zee food production.”
“Zere may be a few of you, who recall zose stories from zee news. About zee killer Africanized bees, no?” She looked around and many of them were nodding.
“Zis species will swarm and attack unprovoked. Zey are problematic for zee North American species for zey are hartier zan zee others. Zey are not natural, oui? Genetic mutations, mixing with zee other bees. Zey kill zee healthy colonies. We are researching here, zo zat we can beat mozer nature at zee game. Oui?”
The antechamber door slid closed behind the group and a fine mist begins to spray from overhead. One of the shareholders screwed his face curiously from behind the protective netting of his headgear.
I moved closer to him and whispered: “the ones we are about to show you are aggressive, but not to worry, the mist contains pheromones. It basically makes us invisible to them.”
He turned as pale as a sheet. “I think I’ll stay here.” He said.
Dr. Abeille chuckled. She lifted one of the many canisters that hung on the far wall and took a moment to get it working. Before long, wisps of smoke were expelling from within. She quietly opened the second set of doors to the chamber that housed one of our mutated hybrid colonies.
With her voice lowered to a whisper, she continued. “We need to refrain from causing zeese bees from becoming alarmed. Oui? If zere is anyone uncomfortable, please feel free to wait in zee antechamber with zee other man.” No one made a move to turn back.
“Our success,” she whispered, “depends on curating zee best traits into a new species, zo we are breeding zee violent genes out. Our hybrids are resilient, but zey are still too aggressive.”
She pressed the nozzle of the canister against the lower side of the nearest crate and began to pump the bellows until the smoke forced into the hive spewed from the seams in thick clouds. She lifted the lid and removed one of the combs revealing hundreds of enormous bees lethargically fanning their wings.
“Zey are aggressive but less so than other attempts. We are headed along zee right path.” Dr. Abielle whispered, “see here, zee abdomen is zee size of zee average bumblebee, but zese are different species, oui? Very large honeybees. Zey are faster, more efficient pollinators and zey make double zee honey. A few of our new colonies look like zis. Zis was zee first we successfully engineered with zee science we are doing here.” she paused, admiring them ruefully as they twitched.
“Unfortunately, we zimply don’t have zee space in zis facility, so zis colony is going to be destroyed and we continue to move closer towards our goal. Aaron will see to zat,” she said winking at me, “zis way gentlemen as we continue our tour.”
When a colony is destroyed, there is paperwork. The paperwork is all lies. We couldn’t do it. Dr. Abeille and I—it was wrong. So the bee boxes we burned were empty, and I relocated the full ones far away in the woods. We’d been doing it for months.
What if Leonardo burned the Mona Lisa? The hybrids were our masterpiece. I loaded the crates into the company van instead of the incinerator, draped heavily in several layers of linen and left for the day.
The perfect place to relocate this hive was just a few hours south.
I did not find Alice at home when I arrived. This was convenient because I hoped not to. Though the top-layer of garbage was new the house was the same. I knew somewhere beneath the fossilized stratum of composting apple-cores, my boyhood trauma remained. It called me back to orchestrate this. My magnum opus.
Using smoke to subdue them, I went quickly to work. I placed the honeycombs throughout the piles of broken garbage in the shitty house, then went outside. The backyard was an unkempt forest of dandelions and uncut grass. I spent the rest of the afternoon digging. Hours passed before I heard her return. I don’t know what she thought of the van parked in her driveway, if she’d thought anything of it at all.
I watched through a window as she entered. Wading through mountains of trash, her arms brimmed with more garbage for her rotten nest. She’d probably spent her day sifting through the bins of the neighborhood as I’d been outside in my bee suit, digging her grave.
When the bees swarmed her, she dropped most of her treasures and began swatting at them in the air. She held a broken china doll, clutched it by its arm. Swinging it to and fro, she smashed it into walls and furniture, sending clouds of porcelain shards and a fine dust off white into the air. The droning of the swarm grew louder as they darted undeterred around her swings. They landed on her by the thousands, ripping their barbed stingers away. Some died as others dug holes into her flesh. They stung her and buried themselves beneath her skin. Tiny living lumps, crawling through her face by way of their holes. By way of her mouth and ears. They squirmed beneath her eyelids. She spat and clawed at her body and battered her eyes until they were hollow beneath and began to leak something viscous and milky.
I still felt empty. Hollow. Wondering when the tide of satisfaction would rise within. It never came.
Alice beat her face, blindly clutching at the piles of garbage for something hard enough to swat with. Finally grasping a plank of wood. She continued to beat her face until all that remained of her jaw was ruined lumps. Battered beyond recognition, the anaphylaxis twisted her bloated tongue as her throat tightened. She grew puffy and red–then burgundy–yet somehow she still managed to die screaming.
I waited for the wails of agony to stop and reentered. With cold sterility, I dragged her corpse outside. The skin was riddled with holes; a fascinatingly curious symmetry to them. Raw and bloodless, like the entrance wounds of a thousand tiny bullets overfull and weeping through her clothing with the satisfying blend of puss and venom of my long awaited victory. She twitched and writhed turning from red to purple in the growing twilight as I pulled her foot-first through the chest high stalks of weeds overcrowding the path that led to my pit. She spasmed and squirmed, as though she were not quite done living while I carelessly heaved her down and I didn’t care.
The sound of my shovel slicing and the soft thud of its dirt were the only sounds that sang with the crickets in the darkness. It was well past midnight when I tamped the last load down. Exhaustion came over me then and I decided I’d nap in the van before heading home.
I awoke to the drone of bees.
I thought it was a dream. The buzzing, far off in the dark beyond the windshield. Something was moving in the moonlight through the open gate of the backyard. I observed a figure shambling and crouching amongst the overgrown weeds. It pulled a patch of dandelions from the ground and stuffed them up into the open mouth, but the jaw was a disfigured pulp, and the flowers scattered to the ground. It tried again, and again.
And then … it noticed me.
A rhythmic steady rumbling buzz building in crescendo and pitch swarmed the darkness as it approached. Desperately, I tried to bring the engine to life. Over and over I turned the ignition but it sputtered in spite, eventually reduced to useless clicks as the battery died completely.
Fear glued me to the spot as my sticky eyes gulped the sight of honeyed horror that was the stumbling corpse of Aunt Alice. She reached the van. She vibrated through the open passenger window as though beneath her skin a trapped electricity impulsed her to motion; sending her out from beneath the ground and beckoning her toward where I lay sleeping. Her skin rippled and thrummed with them. The ends of her fingers, like sharpened barbs, reached out to me and as I began to scream, a thousand of my bees swarmed in unison from her body, and into my mouth and made a home.
For at least a month now, we’ve begun each new day here in Aunt Alice’s house. We follow the rising sun down the gravel drive away from our collapsing french colonial hive and into the neighboring yards. We ate Mrs. Harris’s prized roses first. After that headed south to feast on Mr. Graham’s begonias. We swallowed them petal, pistil and stamen, whole. Next were the orange blossoms and clovers of homes we did not know. We ate them greedily, hungrily and brought them back inside of me. Back inside to make the honey for the hive.
We used our hands to pound and rip patterns in the drywall, wide cavities that we filled with our excrement. A nectar so vile, no one dare harvest and steal away. Honey so putrid and sickly sweet that only we would want to eat. We stored it for the day that the flowers went away. It wouldn’t take long before they were all gone. We ripped them up with greedy hands from ground and tree, from decorative pots, from shrubbery. We brought the flowers home inside of me, and oozed them out, shoveling them away and away and away filling the holes for another day. At night we didn’t sleep, resting wide awake, surviving on small rations from the shit-smeared holes in the wall we’d make.
When we returned today, we…No. I…I did it. It was a mistake, but I did it.—I bumped the lamp that stood in the entry. The lamp that ended in a naked bulb and landed on a stack of Aunt Alice’s copies of Good Housekeeping and Vogue. They didn’t notice, or maybe they didn’t know what it meant when the stack began to smoke. For a month, they’ve crawled around inside, plucking at my brain and pulling synapses. Making me move–making me eat their shit honey. Making me do what they do. I felt myself regain control as the house began to fill with smoke.
How fitting. I’ve dreamt of burning this place to the ground with her dead body inside for decades. Staring into the mirror, I could see Alice lying dead on the couch in the room beyond. A final proof that dark dreams really do come true.
There was such rage and mania in my reflection as I began to understand. It ebbed and fell away impotent and unimportant as I gazed at myself in the mirror. I thought I understood now. I realized this was okay. I could see them, a dozen or so, just past my pupils, deep inside. The rage wanned, docile like the bees asleep inside my brain. The rest of the hive were someplace deeper. I could feel them moving beneath my skin, fanning their lethargic wings.
In the mirror the fire raged and the house began to fall to flames…the hot tongues of it lapped away the peeling wrappers of the broken walls and my lungs began to ache. Around me the room filled with smoke but I never panicked.
I hoped nobody would send for help. I hoped the fire would take everything. When they find us, they’ll want to know. Maybe they’ll see I made no move to leave, that I wanted to let the fire have us. My last hope that remained was it would run its course. I longed for it to lick the walls and peel the skin and boil my blood and consume my flesh. Eat every piece of me whole, and then eat the bees, and then eat Alice until all that remains of us is ash.
Poetic justice sweetens the honey of revenge. I came here for her and it’s taken us both instead.