Around me, the fire is raging. Around me the house is crumbling to ash as flames lick the peeling wrappers of broken walls and lungs begin to ache. Around me the room is filling with smoke and I’m not panicking. I’m not bothered. I’m calm. In a way, this fire began years ago when I was just a kid. It’s only fitting that this is how it ends. I know now that everything lead to this, I did this. I let her make me this. It’s my fault. Please don’t send help.
It must end here.
When I was seven years old, I knew Aunt Alice was sick. Mother had told me. Even if nobody had, any child could see the mania creeping darkly behind her eyes in the pages of mother’s old photo albums. Aunt Alice and mother hadn’t spoken in nearly five years. When I was seven years old, Mother was killed by a drunk driver. His car threw her 200 yards from the crosswalk. She never made it to the bus stop. Or home. She didn’t even make it to the hospital. When I was seven years old, I went to live with Aunt Alice.
Alice was so much worse than I’d been told. She was an abusive monster. A vampire that sucked the life and happiness from the souls of everyone who knew her. A miserable borderline personality who fed on me until I became the miserable company she’d always longed for. Aunt Alice never had any children of her own—nor a husband—nor even love.
She referred to herself in the plural—the “royal we”—a ridiculous habit that I have always hated. Plagued by unpredictable mood swings and a myriad of imagined allergies and phobias, Aunt Alice suffered delusions of grandeur and a peculiar sort of covetous hypochondria.
Once she’d told me she was hemophobic: afraid of blood.
“August,” she began one morning. I was about eleven years old here. We sat at the table: I crunched mouthfuls of cereal as she ripped the pages of the morning paper into small, nickle size shreds, lining them in a semicircle on the table around her in a delicate fan. With an air of the dramatic, she touched the gauze wrapped densely around her forearms, “You’ll have to excuse our bandages this morning,” a Seagram’s-logged slur lurking in her words most mornings, “We were shaving our legs and slipped. Just a mistake.”
I glanced up at her for a bit too long and it was perceived an affront: “That’s right you little shit. We had a mistake. An accident. Like we had last time, that time though, that was your fault.”
My name was Aaron, but she called me whatever she felt like calling me any given day. I’d learned long ago to avoid correcting her. In order to avoid yet another beating, I shoveled mouthful of breakfast from the bowl. One did not simply correct Alice Hawthorne.
From her previous ‘mistake,’ as she’d called it. I’d received a terrible punishment for accidentally walking in on her. That time she sat, naked, straddling the open toilet seat. She was digging the scars–the ‘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 forced smile. It was still drooling blood even as she hit me with the plunger until the wooden handle splintered in half.
“How dare you walk in on us!” she’d shouted, “You made us slip!” She’d cut herself so many times below her naked breast all because I’d surprised her.
“You did this to us!”
Most of her “allergies” were likewise, fabrications.
Once she’d spent a week trying to convince me that she was allergic to the color blue. Another time it was beans—the food.
“We can’t have them at all. We’ll die. Not boiled, baked, pinto, garbanzo…they’ll kill us.”
Aunt Alice ate hummus obsessively. Even years later, I can still hear the snap of the carrots and the sloppy, nauseating sound of her open-mouth chewing. I pointed out to her once, at the height of her fixation, that she couldn’t possibly be allergic to beans. She was easily consuming a dozen containers in the span of a week, and little else. This insolence was punished in my room behind a locked door for days. Here, I stifled my complaints and protests unwilling to satisfy her thirst to drink them in. When I was finally released, I hadn’t eaten for a week and was severely dehydrated.
Once she’d beat me for watching too much HGtv. “You’re lazy good for nothing garbage!” she’d declared, then accusing me coveting the homes, which were so much unlike our own. “How dare you insult us like this! After all we’ve done for you, our home isn’t good enough?”
Where we lived was dilapidated and cramped. Outside was a large two story colonial cracking and crumbling with disrepair. Inside paths were traced like mazes from room to room through piles of discarded soup tins, broken toys and moldering stacks of periodicals. Here and there lie the spines and the shredded remains of paperback books. According to Alice, I was an “ungrateful, greedy leech,” though I had asked her for nothing, least of all to have befallen the misery of her guardianship. One day, the things I’d been watching had proven too much of a disrespect to her and in one swift motion, the television was swiped with casual grace, face forward where its shattered screen and broken plastic form added to the piles of errant stereo parts and emptied Chinese take-outs littering the floor. That day, she ripped the cord from the wall and pulled the other end, like taffy, from the broken television; a whip that she’d used to beat me with indiscretion until the world around me went dark.
Aunt Alice’s moods were always unpredictable. At times she would be fun and spontaneous. More than once, I came home to a tunnel built from couch cushions or blankets, following the walking paths cut through our bio-hazardous space to some delightful surprise. A red velvet cake; my favorite flavor. Another time a pile of books by an author that I’d mentioned I had enjoyed; and yet another time, a puppy.
The puppy’s life was short-lived. I don’t know why she did it, but I buried him in the yard. It’s best not to describe the scene where I found him but I know now, in retrospect, that this was my breaking point. Feeling powerless to continue to survive her. Reviling her.
Every night I would dream of different ways to find myself where I now sit. Alice dead while a fire burned this pit of mold down around her.
Of the bullshit webs she’d weaved about her phobias and allergies, I knew only these to be true: Alice was trypophobic. This fear refers specifically to small, symmetrical holes. It can be triggered by innocuous, mundane things; patterns in wire fencing, coral, once she even had a breakdown while passing a set of rattan patio furniture in the hardware store; the rich brown backing of tightly woven hexagons sent her 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. We and our nephew are fine. Come, Abraham.”
Alice’s only allergy that was not based in fantasy had revealed itself when I was thirteen and she’d been hospitalized. That night, I remember looking to the sky and wishing she would die. But she was not a generous woman and nor was fate. She’d been digging through the tool-shed searching through piles for a set of hubcaps that would complete some project she’d imagined in one of her manic states. Haphazardly she thrown old bed-springs and rusted cookware stored there aside, and inadvertently crushed a small hive of three or four or seven thousand bees.
But, if you believe this much of my story (as elaborately cruel as it may seem) then you understand: I wasn’t lazy, lustful, prideful or any of the other ‘deadlies’ that she poorly attempted to weaponize. Trend-words; attempts to diminish my resolve to endure. I had asked for nothing and Aunt Alice and the mouse-in-her-pocket had 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 had hatefully created. According to her, I’d ruined her life, transforming her into the angry magpie who’d built a den of shiny garbage for the two of us to smother in over the last decade.
After I left, I’d 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 had 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.
The university I’d chosen was 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.
Such a specialized degree is a lot of work, 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 the rental and transport of thousands of hives to farms throughout the country.
In a way, the only thing keeping them from escaping in swarms across the roadway is luck.
Hopefully, luck 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?’ At any given time, thousands of drivers could be one abrupt lane change away from being trapped in their cars while a jackknifed cargo of a hundred thousand angry insects swarm around them. They’ll be looking for ways to defend themselves; for ways in–to bypass your air filters, emerge and sting you through your vents. It happens.
But it happens.
Our “product,” if you will, is greatly responsible for most of the country’s agriculture. From almonds to avocados, they spend several months pollinating for California, after that 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.
You may have read or heard that bee populations across the world are dying off. Part of that is due to sensationalism. They are dying, yes, but they’re not endangered. Weather changes, pesticides, disease and don’t forget being trapped in transit for days on end–we estimate anywhere from 25 to 30% of our hives die yearly. We are working to change those statistics.
Much of what I’d learned on improving genomes and breeding was acquired by observing the work done by our department chief, Dr. Abeille. Dr. Abeille is a brilliant scientist who’s research and dedication will one day be the solution to ending colony collapse disorder.
Our breeding facility of is state of the art. There’s not another research lab quite like it in the country. Occasionally, we’d lead shareholders in groups through the expansive greenhouses to explain the expense of the research. Dr. Abeille’s charisma and experience was usually justification enough for the spending by the end of the tours.
“The research we are doing is simple,” she informed them, “but it is complicated at the same time.”
The noon sky blazed high overhead, refracting down through the angled prisms of glass above. The air hummed with the as the bees set about their work, smelling sweet with Orange blossoms and mint blooms, “hybridization can occur naturally, but we simply do not have time to allow nature to take it’s course. These insects are crucial to food production.”
She lead them to a sliding door which opened automatically into an antechamber with a wave of her badge, “If you recall the Africanized genus, this species not only swarms and attacks people unprovoked, they also invade healthy colonies and kill them off.” the door slid closed behind the group and a fine mist began to spray overhead. One of the shareholders screwed his face curiously from behind the protective netting of his headgear.
“The ones we are about to show you are aggressive. Not to worry,” I explained, “the pheromones being sprayed at the moment will basically make us invisible to them.”
The man turned as pale as the white protective suit he wore, “I think I’ll stay here.”
Dr. Abeille chuckled quietly opening the second set of doors to one of the segregated colonies, “People get scared, they use pesticides and pesticides don’t care if a bee is aggressive or not. The future for these creatures is going to be found in making them less threatening to the population. In our work to develop a more hearty, passive breed, our success as a company will depend on curating the best traits into a new species and then breeding them en masse. By introducing the breeding offspring of some of the less aggressive to those species that are naturally more resilient to environmental changes, the hope is to breed the less desirable traits out of them all together.”
She held in her hand a small bellow equipped canister that was releasing small quantities of smoke, She pressed the nozzle of this against the lower side of the nearest wooden crate and began to pump, causing the smoke to be forced into the hive until thick clouds of dense black seeped from the crate’s seams. Once the hive was subdued, she lifted the lid and removed one of the side panels. “This is one of the new products of our research, they are aggressive but less so than our attempts before, so we are still headed along the right path. As you can see here, the carapace and abdomen are the size of your average bumblebee, but these are actually very large honeybees and—now this is strange because I haven’t seen anything quite like it before these—the comb formations you’ll note, are almost the size of a nickle; it’s incredible. Much larger than naturally occurring counterparts. They’re faster, more efficient for pollination and they make double the honey. A few of our new colonies look like this. This was the first.” she paused here, admiring them ruefully as they twitched their wings lethargically.
“Unfortunately, we simply don’t have the test space in this facility, so this research colony is going to be destroyed as we continue to move closer towards our goal. My assistant Aaron will see to that,” she said winking at me, “this way gentlemen as we continue our tour.”
Each time we destroyed a test colony we had to fill out unnecessary paperwork as dictated by the men in charge. In the notes, I’d indicate the number we’d given to the colony. The date and time that the colony was destroyed. It was lies. Always lies. We couldn’t do that, Dr. Abeille and I—it was wrong somehow. So the bee boxes we burned were empty ones, and I relocated the full. The colonies were never destroyed. Usually I took them as far out into the woods as I could manage.
After the crates had been loaded into the plain windowless company van, draped heavily in several layers of breathable linen fabric, I left for the day.
I knew the perfect place to relocate this hive and it was just a few hours south.
I did not find Alice at home when I’d arrived which was convenient because I had hoped not to. The house was in much the same condition that I’d seen it last. Though the top-layer of garbage was new, I knew that somewhere beneath were the fossilized stratum of composting apple-cores and boyhood trauma that had called me back here to orchestrate her undoing—and ultimately, my own.
Smoking the bees into dormancy, I went quickly to work, removing section after section of the over-sized honeycomb clusters and placing them throughout the piles of knickknacks and garbage of the shitty house. In her backyard, deep within the overgrown forest of uncut grass, I spent the rest of the afternoon digging. She returned in the evening just as I felt my hole was deep enough. I don’t know what she thought of the strange unmarked van parked in her driveway…if she’d thought anything at all.
As the anaphylaxis twisted her bloated tongue through her quickly tightening airway, Aunt Alice—puffy and red—remarkably somehow was able to die screaming.
Once the screaming stopped, I reentered the house, donned in my protective suit doused with the masking pheromones and dragged her by her lifeless ankles outside. Her skin was riddled with holes. A fascinating and curious symmetry to them; raw and bloodless, like the entrance wounds of a thousand tiny bullets overfull and weeping through her clothing with a satisfying blend of puss and venom and my long awaited victory. She twitched and writhed turning from red to purple in the dwindling twilight as I pulled her foot-first through the chest high stalks of weeds overcrowding the backyard.
I’m not quite sure she was done dying by the time I’d gotten her into the hole, spasming and squirming the way she did. It didn’t matter, really at the time.
When I’d finished refilling the hole, it was well past midnight and thoroughly exhausted, I decided to sleep it off in the van before heading home.
I awoke to the drone of bees.
A rhythmic steady rumbling buzz building in crescendo and pitch swarmed the darkness of the van surrounding me in my muddled haze. Unable to move, my sticky eyes, gulped the sight of honeyed horror that was the corpse of Aunt Alice. She vibrated through the open passenger window as though beneath her skin a trapped electricity had impulsed her to motion; sending her out from beneath the ground and beckoning her toward the van 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.
We lived like this for at least a month: We began each new day following 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 we would head south to feast on Mr. Graham’s begonias swallowing them petal, pistil and stamen, whole. 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, foul and sickly sweet that only we would want to eat. A honey so vile that no one dare harvest and steal away. We stored it for the day that the flowers were gone. It wouldn’t take long. We ripped them by the handful from the ground and the trees, from decorative pots, from shrubbery. We brought the flowers home inside of me, where we oozed them out of ourselves and shoveled them away and away and away filling the holes for another day. At night we rested but still awake in the shit-smeared holes in the wall we’d make.
When they brought me back here today, we—No. I did it. It was a mistake, but I did it.—I bumped the lamp that stood in the entry. The lamp ended in a naked bulb. It landed on the stack of Aunt Alice’s garbage. As they—the hive—they were moving me. I didn’t want to, but they were making me. This whole time, you see…the hivemind. They crawled around inside of me plucking at my brain—pulling at synapses—making me do what they do. They made me shovel my shit into the walls. My God. They didn’t see it, they didn’t know, but the house slowly began to fill with smoke.
This is fitting. I’ve been dreaming of burning this place to the ground with her inside of it for decades. I’m staring into the mirror now Alice is dead on the couch behind me. I can see so much rage and mania creeping darkly behind my eyes—quietly buzzing away—and I can see them too. A dozen or so of them. They’re in there—docile now. Asleep in my brain. The rest are someplace deeper. They went to sleep and let me back and I can see them. Slowly fanning lethargic wings as the house around me falls in flames.
If you’re reading this, don’t send help. Stay away. I’ve taken my last few minutes to explain what happened. When they find us, they’ll want to know. But, for now, let the fire have us. Let it lick the walls and peel the skin and eat me and them and her and us until all that’s left is ash…
The colony must be destroyed.
It must end here.
We must end here.
If you enjoyed this story, I have two others that you might be interested in reading: