Bees Are Attracted to the Breath
Lisa Marie Keene
On the drive back, the whippoorwills hooted louder, the crickets echoed. I could feel my heart thumping in my ears. I was sweating but felt cold and clammy. I asked Tanda, “What are you gonna do? You gonna tell Nan?” She said, “Naw. I don’t guess. She’d probably poison his dinner.” Then we didn’t look at each other. I knew she was lying. Tanda was afraid of getting more bruises than she was already hiding. When she asked me to go back to her house and watch X-Files, I was thankful. I didn’t want to go home and lie sweating in my bed all night thinking about what had just transpired.
The kitchen at Tanda’s was lemon yellow. Even in the dead of night it felt wide awake unlike the other dormant rooms in the house. The room felt like a microphone for the sounds we tried not to make tip-toeing around putting together snacks.
“My nerves just went through a cheese grater,” I said.
“Shut up. I prefer to not have the wrath of Nan descend upon me tonight.”
Tanda opened the fridge door so slowly that it peeled away like tape. Her moving containers around on the shelves was the sound of sandpaper against glass. While Tanda fixed her sandwich, my mind wandered. Will Mama discover I was not in my bed all night? If so will I be washing baseboards for the next year, or will she make me quit the flag squad?
I stood with the fridge door propped open staring at its contents hoping they would morph into something more appetizing. I asked Tanda, “You need anything else? I think I’m gonna have some pickles.”
“Good God, you scared me,” Tanda said dropping the butter knife.
We froze for a moment and listened. No sound of Nan. Hurriedly, we finished making the snacks. Tanda completed the slicing of her cucumbers and pouring dollops of ranch dressing. We scurried to her bedroom, me transporting Goldfish Crackers in the hem of my shirt, the bottom edge lifted to cradle them.
I sprawled out on the bed while Tanda fiddled with the rabbit ears on the small black-and-white TV. Tanda's dad felt that she should focus more on God and less on the sinful world so he refused to buy her an up-to-date TV. Channel 20 wasn’t coming in and we settled with Friends.
Tanda rested her head on my stomach. “I can hear you digest,” Tanda said.
“Ugh that’s gross. Stop listening,” I shoved Tanda’s shoulder but kept sorting through her curls.
“You’ve got a lotta knots in here. A real rat’s nest,” I said.
Tanda asked, “Hey what did you do with that condom wrapper? I wanna show it to Dad and tell him for sixty boxes of these he could buy me a better TV.”
“Gross, it’s probably still in the floorboard. I can’t believe that you touched that. I mean it goes on his penis.”
Tanda said, “Eww don’t say penis. Especially when my dad is in the same sentence.” We kept horsing around. I taunted her, repeating,“Perry’s penis, Perry’s penis,” until Tanda pushed me too close to the edge of the bed and I fell off with a thud.
Right away I knew we were in for it. Shortly, footsteps slapped down the hall. Nan flung open the door and switched on the lights. “Why are y'all up at this hour on a school night?” Then it came to her that I shouldn't be there anyway trying to be as small as possible crouched at the foot of the bed. Nan had been looking after me since I was “knee high to a grasshopper” as she'd say. She had no more qualms pulling me up by the ear than she did with Tanda and I feared she would if I didn't act quick like.
“Tanda can explain,” I said.
I hoped Tanda understood that I put it on her because I suck at lying. Tanda explained to Nan, “Nikki came over in the middle of the night without telling her parents because I dared her to.” For a moment, it looked as though she bought it. Nan knows that I'm a chicken and her daughter, no matter how unruly, would never self-incriminate. She looked at me with a wary eye and told me that she was taking me back to my folks. When we were putting on our shoes, Nan noticed something stuck to the sole of my boot. “Nikki, give me that shoe.” She held out her palm. Peeling of the condom wrapper, I feared she might think Tanda was sleeping around, which she was, but not tonight. Without thinking I piped up, “No, no. You don’t understand.”
“What exactly do I not understand?” Nan asked, hand on hip. Tanda looked at me like she'd kill me if I kept up this diarrhea of the mouth. Nan had more follow through on minor threats to one's person.
After I spilled the beans, Nan pulled Tanda up by her shirt. “You will take me to where that son of a bitch is or you can say goodbye to Lula.” Tanda caved, saying she'd try. She was tough until it came to her heifer. Nan escorted us, prison guard style, palms on our lower back, to her large beige sedan.
Tanda led her mother to the wrong housing development first, one several miles up from where her father, Perry, was philandering around. Twenty minutes and still Tanda was still “unable” to find the house. We both could see that Nan was about to explode. Tanda tried wailing, “I don’t remember, Mama. Really, I don’t.” Her mother's Look of Death pulled the truth out in a whisper. “I may have made a mistake.”
Hale Plantation was the nicer of the town’s two subdivisions. It was fully paved and was complete with street signs. I told Nan that the house was purple thinking that people in this neighborhood would have good enough taste to not paint their house purple. I was wrong. When Nan spotted a purple house on McKoy Street, Tanda turned to look at me in the backseat. Her stare asked me, “next move?”
Nan sped up to the house and jumped out leaving the door hanging open. She pounded the door until a small, scared woman appeared holding a little purse gun.
The woman said in a wavering voice, “I will shoot you. I will not lose another item to hooligans.”
“Honey, I ain't scared of you.” Nan pushed her way in the house. “But you better hand over my husband.”
When the little woman hollered after Nan, “I don’t know your husband.” Tanda interfered but I missed what she said to call down her mama. Nan's posture deflated. “Hey aren’t you little Johnny’s teacher?” Nan touched her hair. Half was matted down and half was sticking up. She smoothed her housedress and looked down at her bare feet. Backing toward the car she said, “I’m real sorry Mrs. Mrs. Um Johnny’s mom.”
In the car, we waited for her to light into us. Instead she said, “Your father should get home at about five to feed the cows. We need to get up in the rafters and take down the coin collection he thinks I don’t know about. Clean out the safe. Tanda, you watch the side door and don’t you dare let him in. Nikki, you will watch the living room windows ‘cause he can break into those.”
Back at the house, I watched Nan remove the large Brahma bull painting hanging in the living room. Perry had said it’s better to hide things in plain sight because people expect that the least. Several turns of the dial and the open safe revealed only an empty cash bag. With Tanda making her way toward the side door and Nan’s focus on the task at hand, I left my post and stole through the back door.
I slinked off to the apiary. Standing at the wood-framed hut on the far corner of their land I took three deep breaths. Through the apiary screened door, I could see the bees buzzing. I heard in my head what Perry had said a year ago, “If you’re calm the bees won’t bother you.” Testing my faith is how he explained it. “Believe you’ll be safe and you will be.” I was stung fifteen times before I could force the door open. Still, I had to go in. I pulled up the collar of my shirt to cover my face and neck. It was transparent enough so I could make out the wood boxes. Everything was tinged blue through the cloth. My blue hand reached and pulled open the first drawer. The bags of meth were sealed in pickling jars. Removing one mason jar at a time and placing them just outside the door, I gained confidence. Next, arm fulls at a time, I hid them behind the compost pile. After they were all moved, I thanked the bees and went to the spigot to rinse off.
Sure as the sun rises, I heard Perry's old pickup putter in at daybreak. From my station, I watched him stop in the fields and tend the animals. Nan waited for him framed in the front doorway. A pair of sewing shears raised should he come close enough.
When he came in ear shot she hollered, “You better take care of those damn cows! They’re the only ones that love you. Or does your new heifer? Tell me, does she know?”
Perry approached hands up, “Don’t do anything rash now, Nan. Besides, God don't mind if I make a little money. Those junkies are going to hell one way or another.” She only glared at him.
“Baby, now you know I love you. It’s always been you, only you. I was just out for a drive, baby.”
“Come any closer and I will slit you neck to nuts.”
Hands held up, he said, “Gotta get a few things then I’ll be on my way. Promise.”
Perry walked around the house too close to the bush I was crouching behind. Strands of my hair were plastered to my cheeks like hard plastic but I dared not move. He entered the bee house without the gauze mask as always. Roughing each wooden drawer open, he lifted the honey combs finding the spaces beneath them empty. Backtracking, he opened each box and left them hanging like lolling tongues. From behind the holly, I couldn't see his face, but I knew he was clenching his jaw. He left the apiary, walked around in circles staring at the ground, winding up at the compost pile. My thudding heart jumped, corking my throat.
Perry kicked the pile. He retraced his steps to the apiary. As he strew the boxes around, the bees began to get worked up. I remembered what Nan said earlier, “Insanity is the act of doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.” In my mind, I saw myself when I crawled out a window and walked home so I didn't have to watch Perry rage at Tanda or when I pretended ignorance when tooth-rotted people rang the bell and asked for him.
He was busy slamming the box covers so he couldn't hear me slip up to the apiary's door. Perry was on his knees digging at the earth under the shelf of empty Mason jars. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, he rose and began kicking the boxes. He didn't notice me slip the little metal hook on the door into its eye fastened to the wall. The bees swirled, a black cloud. I watched them cover his eyes, neck. They poured into his swearing mouth, hushing him.
Lisa Marie Keene is a Master's of Fine Arts candidate at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She graduated from Florida State University with a bachelor's degree in Creative Writing. “2 a.m.,” her flash fiction piece, has recently been published in the literary journal Ekakshara.
Lisa Marie Keene