Mid-summer, Luke Crawford took his family to a small woodland cottage to ride out the virus. He and his wife Ashley developed blisters working in the garden while their two boys held batting practice with the swarming beetles using wood planks from a rotting fence. In the evenings, they educated the children with picture books and avoided the nightly news. Casey had turned two that spring and was eager to mimic new words said by his brother Jacob, who was five. At bedtime, after being tucked in, the boys were permitted to talk openly about their hopes and dreams. Jacob spoke of a towering grapevine that would grow from their garden. Casey pointed at the moon through the window, which he did every time that beacon appeared through the trees. They kept the hall light burning all night and the boys’ bedroom door cracked open.
In full sun those long days took the sap from them slowly, especially the boys who idled in the backyard with reddened cheeks and sunburns. They played near the house while Mom and Dad pulled weeds into disarray. The earth cracked like parched lips beneath their feet; Mom stumbled while watching the sky for rain that wouldn’t come. Sometimes black snakes with silver bellies slithered out of the woods, they took turns tossing fence pieces to chase them away. A few striped bees hovered at the back of the house, above the uncovered concrete slab they called the porch, some aluminum chairs, an old mug stained to the brim in what was once coffee and rainwater, the stairs warped, its railing broken. Luke pointed out the bees to Jacob while checking the eaves for a potential nest. The boy knew his dad was allergic by the word, he’d heard Mom say it before and was a collector of such strange words, but he didn’t know what it meant to be that. “Am I allergic?” he asked. “Is Casey allergic?” Luke told him they didn’t know yet.
While following the bees they stumbled across a patch of sumac that had smoldered unprotested near the corner of the house. Luke chopped at it with the shears and ended up ripping it from the ground with his bare hands, spilling flies, smashing its remains back into the earth until it resembled burnt clay. Jacob watched. He saw his dad in a posture that was uncharacteristically aggressive. Later, he questioned their attempts to frighten away the snakes. “You said if we leave them alone, they’ll leave us alone.”
Luke recalled he had said something like that once, specifically about the bees that would buzz around them between the flowers. When they come sniffing you, it’s better not to swat at them. Don’t run from them. Just leave them alone and they won’t bother you. He was surprised, even touched, that his son had remembered his words. “It’s important to allow nature to be itself, you’re right. But it’s just as important to protect our family from it.”
At the center of the garden, to which it owed all inspiration, was the great blueberry bush in bloom. The tilled earth surrounding what had become its temple seemed feeble by comparison, sprouting from their hard work in emaciated arms, through the puddles of water they left for it. Partitioned squares of mud where they envisioned green peppers slowly reddening to sweetness and bright tomatoes rising as if by alchemy. The blueberries on the eastern side, facing the forest, were beginning to plump. Though not yet ripe, the family took turns tasting the berries for their sour juice, spitting out the skins. As these began to turn color, Luke and Ashley stood on the concealed side watching the boys through the weaving stems and picked as many as would fit in their bowls.
“Look at this,” Ashley said. “These beetles are becoming a real problem.”
Up close they saw the leaves spotted with holes that had been chewed into patterns, light coming through the frayed edges, among which once healthy berries shriveled into surrender. The beetles only
ate the leaves, the fruit remained untouched, but seemed coaxed into dying at the insistence of its life source in mock reciprocity. “We need to do something about it or we’ll lose the bush.”
Luke felt the same way about the property itself, as each morning he stood with his heels to the house and cut down bushels of briar and thistle weed, a human scythe to hold the encroaching world at bay. It exhausted him, a life struggling with weeds and poisons, and now an outbreak of beetles that seemed to double and treble against them every time they turned their backs. At one in the morning Luke came into the kitchen to the sound of boiling water on the stove. Ashley was awake, bent over the counter flipping through one of her reference books in the dark. By the light of the refrigerator he saw green jalapenos roiling in the pot. Her intentions were to make a hot spray that would dissuade the Japanese beetles from eating their stock.
“Will it kill weeds?” he asked. Of course it wouldn’t kill anything, she said.
He could never fall asleep at night because they were alone. They had no immediate family in the vicinity, no neighboring houses but through hordes of wood and insects and weeds. It was the four of them, fresh from the city in retreat, whose patriarch had only scant memories of a childhood in the country to draw upon for their survival. First generation gardening, without the depth of family lessons passed down or old hands learned the hard way, comes from a deep love for the land and for the body and leads to starvation. Idealism motivated them in this new world, what had been a transplantation of all life’s possibilities into a meager backyard with a few tilted posts. Yet they were propelled by the sanctimony of this life, getting down in the dirt and coaxing its yield by the same passions they poured into it, their land surrounded by forests that were free from disease, from the spores in the air that were sent to kill all things. They made trampled paths around their property in protest and hot pepper sprays against it. They loved their children and believed that good fortune was bound to them for this love.
So it was early August when Luke stood in the backyard with the boys while his wife applied her home remedy to the leaves. Jacob had climbed the wood stairs onto the concrete slab and asked his dad to stand back a certain distance from the edge, a precise distance only the boy could determine by correcting him into the proper place. Then he ran and jumped from the edge as if toward a hanging vine lowered out of the jungles of his imagination, where Luke caught him at his peak and swung him out over the precipice of all things he was afraid of, now far beneath his feet. Casey laughed at the whooshing sound they made and was coming for his turn at the vine. He needed help getting up the warped steps, so Luke stood at the railing and held him by the back of the arm. About the third step up, Luke had turned to Ashely to tell her something, he could never remember what, and came back to wild movement at his son’s legs. There the disturbed bees had risen from beneath the stairs a black swarm whereupon stood his child with large eyes afraid though he was still smiling. Luke called out, “Hornets!” and lifted Case and called for the others to run, a shrill command which seemed to signal the crying, the culmination of their running. He remembered looking down at the legs where a couple striped bees engorged with venom fell from the jostling as they ran, the small hairless legs that hung loosely over the ground. They ran over the stone path toward the front of the house. He could only trust that Jacob followed close behind him, or was in his mother’s arms, because he never looked back. Not until he reached the front steps and scaled them two at a time, and turned to find that no hornets had followed them, did he think: these are the moments one remembers from childhood forever, being attacked by bees for no reason and the thrill of the escape. Casey was bellowing now in his arms, a visible welt on his leg, and Luke thought maybe they had outrun the worst of it. But when he saw Jacob rounding the corner, brimming with pain and fear, he knew that a greater number of strikes had befallen them, the blood on his son’s arms, his wife clutching her shoulder, knew he had failed to protect them.
In the kitchen with the frantic clamoring of the moment, Luke said he knew what to do. He worked quickly to apply baking soda and water to their wounds, trying to count the stings before concealing them with the paste. He apologized as if it were his fault, as the intervening years had washed away motes of old truths, memories of his grandmother. On Jacob’s arms he counted seven blistering stings. For Casey’s legs it was two or three. Ashley refused to count hers in front of the children. He tended to them and felt bitterness, especially for Jacob, who had done nothing wrong and for it had received the worst of the attack. Slowly he realized, in the heat of the moment, that he could still breathe. He was the only one of his family to have been spared. “I wish they had only come for me,” he told Jacob, who would not stop crying silently in their arms, from mother to him and back again, long into the day after the pain had subsided and Casey was back to playing with his toys and the baking soda flaked in great peels from the swollen lumps on his legs. For Jacob, it was less about his injures and more for the fact that he had not swatted at them, he had not run. It was a betrayal of what his dad had told him, and he cried long for it.
Ashley woke in the night to her husband shaking her, saying Jacob had a fever. They didn’t own a thermometer so he couldn’t be sure. She came out into the living room as if entering a vigil: the boy lay on the couch under dim lights while his dad knelt by his side. She agreed that he felt warm. The boy opened his eyes slightly to regard her but was mostly asleep. “Remember, he’s had a rough day,” she whispered. “I think he’s just exhausted.”
Throughout the night Jacob felt the cool washrag reapplied to his dripping forehead and occasionally listened while his dad spoke openly about better times in the backyard, memories out in the world together: saw him waving through the fence of the playground at school, and in the soccer field where the boys without dads watched in envy. He had stopped crying in his sleep. Luke studied the pallid features more closely. He was just a boy, no longer wise beyond his years, just a fragile body that refused to move, to be touched, as if the mere contact would echo each violent sting back into being.
“I should have known better,” he said to Ashley after she had come out to watch the dawn.
“What do you mean?”
“I saw a few of them the other day. I should have known there was a nest around.”
“I think you’re overreacting.” She took a long sip of coffee.
“But I shouldn’t be so oblivious – I grew up getting stung. You’re right, it wasn’t the end of the world. But remember when we were kids and they told us the killer bees were coming, that damn film they made us watch in school. If anyone should have been over-prepared, it’s me. Why didn’t I look harder?”
Jacob woke to his parents sitting around him on the couch. Water from the rag had soaked the cushion beneath his cheek. He told them he felt fine. But there proved to be a paralysis of spirit that was worse, whose needles ran deeper. He decided the outside world was no longer safe. He spent much of the day in his bedroom, standing at the window where he could see the backyard and a corner of the concrete slab, from which sprung legions of drones with angular bodies, prickled into points and dedicated in long lines of command. He watched them come and go in armies, buzzing he could hear through the wall. Later in the afternoon his parents talked about going outside and suddenly his arms involuntarily flexed and he cried out in phantom pain and wouldn’t move. His dad had to lift him off the floor.
That night, Luke and Ashley took turns answering his cries. She disappeared into the boys’ room for an hour or so while Luke slept, then suddenly crashed into bed and asked him to take her place. He came back shortly and said he thought Jacob would sleep now, since he’d promised in the morning to find the nest and kill it. She rolled over to look at him. “That’s a rash idea,” she said. “For multiple reasons. One, we don’t have any poison to kill them with. Two, if you got stung, what would we do? Carry you to the car?”
“What do you suggest?”
“I think if we’re cautious, and just stay away from the back steps, we can still do our gardening. The boys can play in the front yard. We’ll be fine.”
Luke dismissed her because it wasn’t enough. Consider what was happening in the cities, to the people beyond the trees; now think of the son who no longer feels safe in his own home. He would risk getting stung if it meant restoring Jacob’s faith in the life they were attempting to carve for him here. He would risk more than that.
It was comforting to recall those summer days in childhood when he had come here to stay with his grandmother, how hornets’ nests were as much a part of country life as mud stains or fire. Sometimes he got stung, sometimes he got burned. Yet growing up with these dangers, with allergies that grew likewise dangerously inside his body, he had fond memories sitting on the sink watching her wax the baking soda over his stings. She used to tell him stories to calm his breathing, stories from when she was a little girl and hid in Daddy’s barn with pantyhose over her arms and believed it made her impenetrable to bees, allowing her to handle their paper nests, passing them back and forth between her and her sisters behind the hay bales. “And we never got stung. It was silly of us to think we were invisible but that’s just how kids are, and we never got stung, not once.”
Luke’s eyes opened. Jacob was calling him.
“Your turn,” his wife said and went back to sleep.
He stumbled into the bedroom with eyes yet to adjust, the blue nightlight having burned out, and sat at the edge of Jacob’s bed. The boy lay awake but said nothing. Casey, despite the commotion, was still sleeping, one hand hanging through the bars of his crib. Together they listened without speaking to things hitting off the window, buzzing things cracking against the glass. These could not have been hornets, since bees don’t remain active after dark; yet for a long time they listened to small things, whatever they were, battering against the side of the house. “Do you want to sleep in our room?” Luke finally asked, and in response Jacob leaped into his arms and was carried out of darkness and nuzzled into a warmer place between his parents.
It was an exceptionally hot morning when Luke ventured around back of the house to locate the nest. His plan was to observe it from a distance, to find its multiple openings beneath the stairs, so that he could return in the night to put an end to it by means he had not yet conceived. Rounding the stone path was like stepping onto a crime scene: the garden shears on the slab, a child’s shoe overturned. He stepped against many arms of sumac that had multiplied from the burnt earth, counting them as he went and losing count at seven, past their poisonous leaves into the fringes of the garden. Here he was suddenly enveloped by the encroaching forest, great arms of briars that reached to embrace all life to lifelessness. Alarmed that the garden had been so quickly overwhelmed, he turned, crouching, toward a
multitude of hornets that crossed his face like a draped cloth, signifying a profit of endeavor he hadn’t anticipated – there were hundreds of them, enough to overtake the property. He came down onto his hands and tried to see beneath the stairs. Inching forward over crumbling dirt and weeds for a better view. He couldn’t find a nest; yet the concrete seemed to move. A congregation of yellow bodies with black slashes lurched in union. They disappeared and reemerged from two large cracks in the slab.
“I don’t know what to do,” he told Ashley, out of breath in the kitchen. “If they’re in the foundation, how will I get at them?” Emasculated, hiding his family from the nightly news and now this. Comparatively, it seemed such a minor obstacle, a bees’ nest, a baby tooth among fangs of a greater hunger. But if the hornets had nested in the house itself, then he could not foresee a way to get rid of them. The lasting vision was of himself alone, sitting feeble at the back steps, wearing a hooded sweatshirt despite the heat and holding a homemade remedy whose concoction was gleaned from a book on the kitchen counter, spraying it into the cracks believing it would be lethal enough to kill on contact, lethal enough to kill them all, stirring the nest, the country they had invaded to no avail, while his family watched helpless from the bedroom window.
A Film: How to Survive a Killer Bee Attack (1991)
Squirrels and bees have coexisted for over a thousand years. Sometimes a hungry squirrel will venture into a beehive to eat the larvae. Sometimes that squirrel gets stung in return. A painful inconvenience for an afternoon snack, wouldn’t you say? But this is nothing compared to a new menace that is traveling up the coast as we speak. Watch as our curious squirrel is suddenly swarmed by a new breed: the aggressive Africanized bee, also known as the Killer Bee. Quickly our squirrel is surrounded. How can he protect himself against this unprovoked attack? Let’s watch. First, he runs – leaping from branch to branch and using the obstacles of his environment, such as heavy foliage, to his advantage. Next, he hides. Squirrels have a natural camouflage that helps this little guy blend into the bark of those trees. Look, the Killer Bees can’t find him. There they go, giving up the chase.
Be sure to remember this, friends: Run and Hide.
Miss Gretchen’s 2nd grade class are practicing this drill at recess. Just as many schools all across Texas have similar trainings for their young ones to learn. And soon, your school will too.
Now, let’s understand that bees are generally good. They help to keep bug populations down. They help beautiful flowers to grow. And some even make that delicious honey we love to eat. But this is the Killer Bee – it does none of those things. It was made in a laboratory by irresponsible scientists, who couldn’t control their murderous new pet, and so the bees escaped. Now they roam the countryside of Central America in a constant swarm of attack. They build outposts and expand their territory. Why, just last year, nests began turning up across South Texas, and our bee scientists – known as Entomologists – tell us they will continue to move north, adapting to the colder climate as they go. In fact, these Entomologists predict that Killer Bees could overspread [your town] by the year 1995!
But it is important not to panic. Just think, there are many other dangers we live with every day. Take fire, for instance. You know what to do if you ever caught on fire, right? Stop, Drop, and Roll. And what about when Mr. Dealer comes to your playground with that stick-on tattoo? Just Say No. That’s good. Now there is a new danger, and we must prepare for it in the same way. So let’s go over the rules.
Whenever you see or hear the swarm approaching – it will look like a thunder cloud and sound like a roaring locomotive – do what Miss Gretchen’s class does: first, they run in the opposite direction of the swarm. See how they don’t waste time? But they won’t be able to outrun the bees. So next, they hide. Against the macadam here, or beneath that slide over there – they use their surroundings to their advantage, just like the curious squirrel. Camouflage yourself as best you can. Wearing dark colored clothing will make it easier for you to hide. Killer bees have poor eyesight – they see in bright colors and contrasts. The better you can blend into your environment, the safer you will be.
Don’t swing your arms! Don’t swat at them! This will only draw attention to yourself as an enemy.
So remember, friends: when it comes to Killer Bees, first run, then hide. Run and Hide. It could save your life.
Just like it did for our little friend the squirrel, who is back to his old tricks. Won’t he ever learn?
By the end of August they had forfeited the yard. Local exterminators in nearby towns had packed up due to the virus. Supplies were short. After a few phone calls, Ashley had found a grocery store willing to deliver to the woods. They rarely left the house now. Mostly she kept an eye on her husband who was falling apart: whose moods routinely swung between irritable, claustrophobic, and annoyingly self-disparaging. He had made promises and failed to keep them; so she made her own looking out her sons’ bedroom window, where she watched all they had worked for fall to disrepair. It was up to her now.
Luke agreed, after a bout of uninspired arguing, to cook the boys lunch while she sneaked into the backyard to salvage the food from their garden. He tried to prevent her from going but not really. Truthfully, he was glad to be off the hook. He took the boys into the kitchen and boiled water on the stove. The brothers crouched on the cool linoleum and spoke to each other in whispers. They watched him work the can opener aggressively, pour the contents of the can into bubbling water. Stirred the slop with a wooden spoon. Suddenly the front door slammed and the boys leapt to their feet in alarm. They turned to find Mom with tears in her eyes, hugging them, not letting go. Walls of them, she said, coming out of the back of the house. Murderous hornets that caught up in her sleeves, biting her arms, her hands. Walls of them between the woods and us. Her cheek was flushed in rosy hue which at first Luke mistook for embarrassment. Then he saw the welt, the trickle of blood. He rushed to the front door to make sure it was latched. Everything seemed secure. Through the high window of the heavy door he watched them crawling at the corners. They were buzzing in droves against the glass.
That Friday they watched at the door for the delivery boy. He must’ve had trouble finding the place, which did not help their anxieties in debating how to handle the situation. “We have to warn him, legally, right?” Ashely asked. But Luke said nothing, peeling back the curtain to where he envisioned a busted milk carton bubbling on the stones. But when a young man finally pulled up the long gravel drive, his masked face weary behind the windshield, they did nothing to stop him; and when he came knocking at their door, he did so in the midst of no perceivable crisis, and Luke cautiously addressed him through the door. “Money’s on the porch. Keep the change.” The kid set down the bags, took the cash, and was gone.
There was no more garden. No more work or afternoon walks. Jacob and Casey took turns watching the backyard grow over in vines. Dad said not to worry, winter would kill everything. They had returned to sleeping in their own room, sharing conversations from the bed to the crib, and the familiarity helped to nudge the elusive sense of normalcy into momentum. Tucking them in at night, the parents remained
bedside for a long time and like the previous months spoke of their plans once the crisis was over. Jacob told them about his dream of going to the beach, standing in the ocean for the first time. Casey said, “Moon” and pointed out the window. Sure enough it was there, high between the outlined peaks of the pines. The parents knelt and watched from a two-year-old’s vantage the fully sated glow that seemed to always watch them back. “Moon outside,” Casey concluded. They huddled together and followed it behind the trees.
Luke and Ashley woke to both sons screaming. Luke was first into their bedroom, moving toward feeble voices head-first into the swarm. The shock of hornets in his hair and eyes dropped him to the floor, turned him small, smaller even than the kids who cried his name. Looking up into immeasurable dark that moved with bees in centrifugal frenzy, their movements widened from a source near the top corner of the wall. He clapped his hands wildly near Jacob’s legs, killed a few at the expense of his numbed palms, and moved to face Casey through the bars of his crib that now crawled with them. Ashley struggled at the doorway, reaching for her babies and begging him to do something. He must do something, otherwise his family was not meant to survive. The terrible thought that his boys had been born for nothing.
Luke rose into the swarm. He lifted Jacob out of bed with one arm and scooped Casey from his crib with the other. The toddler covered his ears against the persistent buzzing while his brother punched at them out of anger and fear. After Mom took Casey into her arms, the four of them ran down the hall and found hornets emerging from other cracks in the house. Luke called out to her against the head-on locomotive to “run to the woods.” Pinning Jacob tightly to his chest, he followed while broken stingers half-embedded in his neck turned to fire. He felt the heat sluggishly through his circulatory workings and soon he was stumbling. Behind them bees poured from holes in the plaster, out of the boys’ bedroom, parts of the hall that now dripped in pulp and corrugation into deeper levels of glistening comb. Within these pulsed the queen, to which all held singular dedication and would die.
The Crawford family burst from the front of the house and ran down the driveway toward the line of trees. “Hide, hide,” Luke instructed. Ashley and Jacob pressed down against the jutting roots while he and Casey sunk to the ground as if capable of disappearing into weeds. The hornets funneled from their home and spread cloud-like over their domain. Drones found the family by the pheromones that spread dramatically through their rapid breathing, where they were descended upon, the over-contraction of muscles causing beestings to feel like gunshots. The children were screaming. Luke pushed his family out of hiding and commanded them to run, run, don’t look back. His wife, with their children, disappeared into the forest dark. He tried to follow but couldn’t move, fell to his knees blistering at every end, no longer able to hear their buzzing, and crashed to the ground in a crumpled way that left him facing the cottage. The place that was supposed to have saved them. The hall light still burned, illuminating rooms within, depths turned papery that twitched and dripped. When his throat finally closed, the rest of him sunk into the damp earth where he stayed and dreamed that his family had broken through the forest into a better, brighter world. The virus had faded to nothing. There was clean air to breathe. He was with them somehow, having caught up in spectacular reunion, and helped his boys remove their masks and embrace this new life.
In reality his body had already been hollowed and colonized, since that’s what motivates killer bees to begin with.
BIO: Jay Charles is a writer out of rural Pennsylvania. He won multiple awards for his undergraduate writing at Penn State University. Post-academic stories concern the speculative and the horror found in chilling regularity throughout history. His work has appeared in Kalliope and will be featured in the upcoming Medium Chill 7.