When I was four or five years old, I stepped on a bee. I had been running around the pool at my grandparents’ house in Arizona, exactly as all kids are told not to do, and I crushed a dead bee with my chubby little bare foot. The little bastard stung me from beyond the grave, rearing up to inflict pain and psychological damage long after its last gasps of ridiculously hot desert air. It was probably bitter about the heat. Arizona is a special kind of hot.
Anyway, as my mother tried to calm my gulping sobs, treating my swelling sting with baking soda, cooing, and promises of ice cream, I remember thinking that this was profoundly unfair. What kind of creature can hurt you after they die? Thus began my bee phobia, my apiphobia, according to Google.
Fast forward to Florida where the air teems with insects and one’s twitchiness caused by buzzing, flying things can really blossom. All those orange groves have beehives set up to pollinate the sunshine fruit, so when riding horses or minibikes, one needs to take care not to end up in a cloud of angry, armed, flying fuzzballs. Combine that with a movie about killer bees, a proliferation of wasps and “mud daubers” with their dangly legs and rampant house building skills, and my nerves were always on edge while out-of-doors.
Aside from one incident with a hornet that stung me through my leather gardening gloves (I sobbed in the fetal position on my living room floor for fifteen minutes), I had few direct interactions with the flying pests. But the buzzing, the threat, always triggered a physical response.
During a volunteering day at Give Kids the World, I was painting the side of one of the administration buildings alongside friends and colleagues, hip deep in hedges when I heard that familiar, horrifying sound. In seconds, I had leapt from the bushes, arms flailing, face contorted in terror, screaming like a sorority girl in a slasher movie. Once out of the danger zone, I looked up to see my team, my friends, doubled over in laughter.
“Did you see that dance?”
“That was a bee dance!”
“Buzz, buzz! What’s that by your shoulder?”
Unfortunately, that bee dance has been repeated many, many times while mowing the yard, hiking local trails, chilling at the pool, even walking across the parking lot to Publix. There was a particularly horrifying incident outside a Sam’s Club once when I discovered a wasp nest up in the handle of the tailgate of my Mom’s pickup truck where my fingers had been. But patio furniture, pool chairs, long wooden docks, and all those places you would expect to relax are like Disneyland for flying, stinging things. Wasps love water parks, by the way. Seriously, just look up while you wait in line for that flume ride. Wasp nest city.
When I get caught in full freakout mode, the question is always the same. Are you allergic?
Um, no, I’m just fucking terrified. Does it diminish my panic that only pain, not anaphylactic shock, is coming at my face via airmail? Nope. Avoidance of pain seems like a completely legitimate and logical effort to me.
And, by the way, bear maulings can’t be fixed with an Epi-Pen, which is just as well since no one can afford those anymore. Nor can they soothe the anxiety that descends like that paper dentist bib at the sight of the silvery metal torture tools next to the spit bowl. At that critical moment, when it’s just you and a flying thing that could be a brain eating wasp or merely a ladybug, we have only our own defense mechanisms, no matter how ridiculous they look to others.
It turns out that bee dances are really a thing. Bees communicate with each other, so beekeepers would have us believe, by using a series of “dances,” the most famous being the “waggle dance” which seems to be a butt-shaking figure-eight, not unlike what one might see at the club. Presumably, these bees can share details about the location of food, taking into consideration the distance, angle of the sun, and line of flight. Seriously. Buzzaboutbees.net even has a video of this spectacle, though I could not bring myself to watch it, as I had no Xanax on hand. And, honestly, I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with the idea that my lifelong foe is capable of GPS targeting. Are they just messing with me? Throwing in a little fly-by on the way back to the hive for kicks? Gathering with each other for a little pollen and some bee-sized guffaws at my distress?
I’m no longer that child in bare feet, but I find that as a grown-up, I’m still watching where I step, lest something seemingly harmless might come at me with poisoned barbs. I’m listening carefully when I enter a room of chatting humans for any warning buzzes that I should avoid, especially around politics. You might not see the sting coming, but you will often hear the thrumming warning hum. I cannot seem to control my facial contortions in response to bullshit, though arm flailing is infrequent at professional events. My bee dancing is happening all the time in degrees, though not usually in a figure eight. The waggling, I’m afraid, is merely a result of a slower metabolism. I wish that I was just sharing the location of leftover meeting brownies down the hall, but it’s more likely a manifestation of other fleeting things that might hurt us, though they appear harmless.
“So, we’re all good then?” Beezer asked, like he always did.
Lisa got to her feet and brushed red dust from her clothes and hair. Her limbs all appeared to work normally, but she knew she would bruise where her hip had struck the ground after her Huffy spilled her into the rutted clay road.
“You are a stupidhead,” she said back to him, her standard reply. She gulped the last part, still fighting to catch her breath and not willing to drop the attitude that clung to her thirteen–year-old self like the rust colored earth staining her Keds.
Beezer smiled his gap-toothed grin and Lisa smiled back. After all, it had been as much her fault as his. She’d agreed to sit upon the handlebars as he steered her pink beach cruiser down the steep switchbacks. Turns out, this made maneuvering difficult and the incline did the rest. Beezer had dumped them both over to prevent the bike from careening completely off the road. He’d gotten the worst of it, not from the wreck, but from the removal of the bike from the thorny blackberry bushes growing wild in the ditch. Beezer’s close-cropped blond hair and Ron Jon t-shirt were wet from the Georgia summer heat and his efforts to tug the bicycle back to the road. Lisa took a moment to straighten the barrettes that struggled to contain her insubordinate wavy brown hair. Neither of them wanted questions from the parentals. For insurance, they picked enough blackberries for a cobbler, wrapping them carefully in Beezer’s shirt, before returning to the cabin. The diversion worked long enough to get them inside and upstairs, but five minutes later they heard Beezer’s mom call from the kitchen.
“Benjamin Zachariah Ross! Did you intentionally ruin this shirt?”
Lisa snorted with laughter.
“Goofball,” Beezer said.
“Stupidhead,” Lisa replied.
At least there wouldn’t be stitches this time. The waterbed adventure at the lake three weeks earlier had earned Lisa nine. Filling the patched-up mattress with air and jumping on it from the pier had seemed like an awesome way to pass a hot afternoon. However, seven minutes in, Lisa had been catapulted with impressive height into the closest splintery piling. When she had sputtered back to the surface, blood coursed down her face from a cut at her hairline. Beezer had fished her out of the water and pressed a wet beach towel to her face. Soon, both the towel and Lisa’s freckled face were streaked with watery red. Lisa had joked, “Good thing there are no sharks in the lake or we’d really be in trouble.” This had gotten a laugh from Beezer. He’d looked a little worried.
The parentals had gone berserk. Well, the ones who were still around had. Beezer’s mom and Lisa’s dad were sister and brother. Every summer the families gathered at Pop-Pop’s cabin. While sister and brother complained about their lives over beers and barbecue, Lisa and Beezer played in the woods around the lake, not wanting to hear anymore about illness or affairs or heartbreak or divorce. They already knew the ways parents could leave.
Each summer meant elaborate adventures, mostly of Beezer’s invention. As the older cousin by a full year, he became the coordinator for their summer shenanigans. They improvised parachutes of bed sheets and leapt off the roof. Luckily, there were no broken bones, but both agreed it would be best not to tell the parentals. When Beezer wanted to catch a Sasquatch, they dug a hole so big it took them a week before they covered the opening with tree limbs and set up surveillance. They checked it every morning for six days. No Sasquatch. They searched for treasure and buried some of their own – just stones, an arrowhead, a metal Corvette toy, and other stuff in a cardboard shoebox, the location carefully marked with an X on a bona fide map. They built a make-shift tree house with some old two-by-fours and plywood scraps once Beezer was old enough to use Pop Pop’s drill. They played Hunger Games. Although Lisa had agreed that real bows and arrows were probably not safe, she fell while fleeing Katniss-style into the old Sasquatch trap. In the darkness of the pit, the wind knocked from her lungs, she managed to gasp, “Beezer, you stupidhead.”
Their last summer together at the cabin had been before Beezer went away to college. He played football, channeling his toughness into the game. After graduation, he became a coach at a high school in Florida. Last Christmas, Lisa had teased him in front of his boys about the trouble he’d gotten them in as kids. He’d laughed in a way that made Lisa suspect that he had pulled off a few adventures with his little guys. Lisa had punched his arm and complained that he always seemed to get away with everything.
“Not true!” He’d laughed, showing that same gapped grin.
And he was right. In the end, it was cancer that caught up with him, not his reckless spirit. Lisa ran her thumb over the raised lettering on the funeral program, while the pastor lead the congregation in prayer, blinking back hot tears before whispering, “Stupidhead.”
Carolyn Eichhorn completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Tampa where she won the Plant Hall Spooky Story contest in 2015. She's had stories published by Oscillate Wildly Press, ScrawlBrawl, and the Baltimore County Library Foundation and is currently shopping her mystery novel, Murder in the Mix. Carolyn teaches writing and writes twisty fiction in Baltimore, Maryland. You can check out her blog at: https://groundsforsuspicion.blogspot.com/.