Aphelion Issue 234, Volume 22
November 2018
 
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Desert Dwellers

by Verona Jones




Only the soft sound of conversation drifted in the room. The room where Matt Bodine was trying not to squirm uncomfortably on the hard leather chair. He was watching one Mr. Thomas Bartlett leaf through his portfolio, as Matt sat on the other side of the antique Chippendale desk. Matt couldn’t help, but admire the fine workmanship of the desk, as he waited impatiently for Bartlett’s decision. Thomas Bartlett was the presiding editor of the Sun Valley Newspaper where Matt was trying to get hired as a writer. So, here he was. Sitting in this sweaty leather chair as the man pored over the binder that contained Matt’s entire life as a writer.

He squashed another urge to squirm as he waited it seemed an eternity, before Mr. Bartlett stopped shifting papers. Folding his hands in front of him he locked eyes with Matt. “I am impressed with your writing young man, but you didn’t do your homework now did you?”

Bartlett lifted one arm and pointed to a wall to his left. Matt’s eyes followed the arm towards the wall and his stomach dropped. On the wall were certificates and awards Mr. Bartlett earned for his work and contributions to the environment. Matt felt sick. He knew what Bartlett didn’t find in his portfolio. It wasn’t that Matt didn’t believe in issues such as Global warming or the thinning ozone layer or the environment; it was just that he felt most of the news concerning those issues were over-dramatized.

Matt’s eyes came back to Bartlett’s and he knew … just knew, what was coming next. Bartlett continued. “You have some fine work in this binder young man, but this newspaper believes in the environment and believes in contributing to the community to try and make the world a better place for the generations that follow. I don’t see that belief in this binder”, his fingers tapping the gray book lightly as if to emphasize his words. “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you would be a good fit for this newspaper.” Bartlett rose from behind the desk holding his hand out as he stood. “You are a good writer, young man, I have no doubt you will find a position at another newspaper.”

Matt had risen too, reaching for the out stretched hand as his world fell apart around him. He had already applied to every major newspaper in Tucson, and received pretty much one excuse or another as to why he wasn’t being hired. The Sun Valley was the last newspaper, and Matt didn’t know where to go next. Meanwhile his bills were piling up, and he knew Bartlett didn’t care about Matt’s unpaid bills or even where Matt would get his next meal. With as much dignity as he could, he shook Bartlett’s hand and from a distance, heard himself say “ thank you for seeing me”, then left the office.

He didn’t remember walking to the garage where he parked, nor did he remember getting in and starting the car. It was the soft buzzing sound that pulled him back from where ever his mind had gone, to deal with the crushing disappointment. The buzzing sound was getting louder, and Matt finally noticed he wasn’t alone in the car. There were two honey bees flying around the interior.

Matt remembered then, that he’d left the front windows cracked open, hoping that would keep the Arizona summer heat from turning his vehicle into an oven. He’d read somewhere that Honey bees were disappearing, but here there were two of them flying around him. In a spurt of anger, Matt slammed his hand on the bee nearest him, smashing it against the steering wheel, then swatted the other one now agitated, flying around his head.

When Matt struck it, pain exploded in his palm. A feeling of intense satisfaction filtered through the pain. The damn bee was going to die now that it lost its stinger, and he smiled watching it fly out the window and into the August heat. Matt felt better, as he entertained several scenarios of the bee’s demise. Would it die before being scorched by the triple digit heat? He idly thought about the bees’ death as he put the Toyota Corolla in gear and headed home.

Home was a two-bedroom apartment he was sharing with his long-time friend, Sylvia Goodwin. He had met Sylvia in 4th grade at Horace Mann elementary in Old Mrs. Barron’s math class. Mrs. Barron was old school and liked using a ruler on the kids that acted up in class. Matt was one of the kid’s that Mrs. Barron loved to use the ruler on, and one day during one of her tender ministrations Sylvia screamed at Mrs. Barron that she was a mean old goat, and Sylvia was going to report her to the principal.

The class went silent in astonishment. Sylvia had been a shy sweet kid. She hardly ever said more than a word or two to anyone, so for her to yell at Mrs. Barron like that was a major change in personality. Matt didn’t care. He loved her from that point on and became like her big brother from elementary to college. They talked and laughed over the years since elementary and all through college.

Sylvia was the first person he thought of to share his life with, both good and bad. She in turn always called him as well, but they never thought of each other in a romantic way. He’d asked her about that one day. Why their friendship never developed past just being friends. Her reply made him laugh.

“Ewwwww … that would be so gross. That would be like dating my brother” Nose all puckered up.

“Yeah … Yeah … Yeah” He had to admit though, he felt the same way about her. Sylvia was his sister and he couldn’t see her as anything else, but his sister.

So, when Matt learned that Sylvia was also going through a nasty divorce, he took that as a sign, that this was the time to start over and work on their dream of writing. In college, they had discovered a mutual love for writing. He wanted to write that great American novel, but life kept interfering with that dream, so Matt shelved it. He eventually got a job as a writer for a local newspaper as the sports writer. It paid the bills and he enjoyed it. Sylvia had gotten a job with a magazine writing for the lifestyle section. They kept in touch once a month or tried too as their perspective lives took off.

Matt met Rachael and fell head over heels in love, as corny as that sounded; and his life couldn’t be any better. He had a great job and was making good money, and most importantly married to the most wonderful woman he knew. Ten years later, he came home early to surprise Rachael on their wedding anniversary, only to discover her in bed with Frankie Longee; his newspaper’s editor. The prick wasn’t even that great looking.

“What the fuck?” He’d remembered yelling.

Everything after that was rather foggy from the combination of overwhelming hurt followed by waves of anger that hit him from seeing the two of them intertwined in his bed. There had been a lot of screaming and yelling. A lot of name calling and accusations. Matt couldn’t stand it anymore and just walked out of the house never looking back. When he learned that Sylvia’s marriage had also fell apart, he took it as a sign that now was the time to start over. Time to really start working on his novel.

He had talked Sylvia in to moving to Tucson, and getting a apartment together, but now the two of them were having trouble finding jobs. Now this rejection. Matt wasn’t sure if he’d made the right decision after all. Worse … he had dragged Sylvia into this mess with him.

Entering the apartment, he found Sylvia sitting on the couch reading a book, which she immediately put down as soon as Matt walked in.

“Well?”

“Nope. Just another you’re a good writer, but we don’t believe you’re a good fit for the newspaper.”

Matt felt the disappointment again seeing Sylvia’s face fall. There was sort of an unspoken superstition between them that if one got work, then soon after the other would too. At least that was what they thought. He understood how she felt, because he had felt the same way the numerous times she came home without a job.

It didn’t matter if they were reaching or grasping straws, as long as they stayed motivated to keep trying. There were times, he wondered if it was worth it. He wondered if maybe he should just call it quits and go where? That was the question. If he gave up, where would he go? Everything he owned was in this apartment, so he flopped on the couch next to Sylvia.

“We will make it. We will both get great jobs, and our lives will get better,” he quietly said.

“I believe you, Matt. I have an interview tomorrow, so cross your fingers. Once, I get my job, then you will get yours. I just know it.”

Matt wasn’t so sure, but he put on his happy face and made dinner for them both. He made Sylvia’s favorite; spaghetti with breadsticks washed down with a decent bottle of Yellow Tail red wine. After dinner, he checked his hand. It hadn’t really bothered him until he did the dishes. Seeing the redness around the slight puffiness of the sting got Matt pissed off all over again.

“I hope you died a very painful death” he muttered. Opening the medicine cabinet found a tube of antibiotic ointment and rubbed it over the sting. The coolness felt great against the heat of the sore. Matt, put a band aid over the wound, then climbed into bed. Laying there, hands behind his head, he sent a hope filled prayer out to the universe that he would find a job. An eternity later, he finally slept.

September arrived, and the Arizona heat was finally leaving. The welcomed cooler temps of fall slowly made its arrival, and everyone was truly reveling in the respite from the heat. Even Matt was enjoying the gorgeous autumn day while the lyrics of the goofy song Everything was coming up Roses was swirling through his head.

Life was finally going great. Sylvia had gotten a job, two weeks earlier, and now today, Matt finally got one too. It was a writing position, just not with a major newspaper, but he didn’t care. He had a steady income now, and had his foot in the door for future job growth. This was it, there was no where to go now, but up. Matt stopped at Frye’s on the way home, picking up a couple of rib-eye steaks and bottle of Korbel champagne. Him and Sylvia were going to celebrate tonight.

Pulling into the parking lot, Matt was still hearing that stupid song, when he entered the apartment and froze. His mind not comprehending what his eyes were seeing. The living room looked as if a fight had taken place. Pillows were strewn on the rug, books and papers laying scattered across the floor, and Sylvia lying still in the middle of the mess. Her face and body covered in red swollen bumps. He rushed to her side “Sylvia?” No response. He tried to find her pulse. Nothing. “Sylvia?” More urgently. Still no response. He got up, reached for the phone and dialed 9-1-1. Waiting for the emergency services to answer, a noise finally penetrated. A low buzzing sound, he quickly turned towards the noise and froze. Fear rising in the pit of his stomach. On the dining room window was a huge bee, and it looked like it was cleaning its wings. How the Hell? None of the windows were open.

Matt heard a voice on the other side. “Please state your emergency”

My room mate Sylvia looks like she has been stung multiple times by bees. She isn’t moving and I can’t find a pulse.” Not taking his eyes off the bee. He gave his name, their address and received assurance that emergency services would be there immediately. Hanging up, he walked towards the bee. Another one joined the first, and with each step Matt took towards the window, another bee joined the others until less than a foot away, Matt stopped. There were at least a dozen bees sitting on the window sill, and it seemed as if they were all staring at him. Waiting.

“Impossible” he whispered. They couldn’t really be sitting there quietly staring at him. Could they?

Hesitantly, he took another step forward. More bees joined the ones on the sill. Now it seemed as if there were dozens of bees staring at him. He had no idea where the others were coming from.

Silence. Matt just stood where he was staring at bees that were staring back at him. His mind couldn’t comprehend that he was involved in a stare-down with a bunch of stupid bees. This couldn’t be happening. Time slowed until it was just him and the bees frozen. The sound of the approaching sirens broke the standoff, and he turned his head towards the door. The EMS people were piling in quickly. He led them to Sylvia still lying lifeless on the carpeted floor.

He looked back to the bees. Shock shook him. They were all gone. Not one bee was on the window sill. Matt didn’t understand what was going on, but he swallowed his fear and rushed back to Sylvia, as the EMS fought to keep her alive.

They got her on a stretcher and rushed her out to the ambulance. Matt following them out, getting into his Corolla, and as the ambulance sped off to the hospital, he followed matching their urgency. Matt and the ambulance both raced down the street at breaking speed limits to get Sylvia to the hospital. Arriving at the emergency room, they hurriedly rushed the stretcher down through the hallways and to the awaiting doctor.

All Matt could do was watch as the doctor tried to save his friend. He was too out of it to totally follow what the doctor was telling him. He heard them discussing her chances through the fog that was his brain. Sylvia’s throat had closed shut and they were going to do a tracheotomy to try and get air in her lungs.

Later the doctor came up to Matt who was in the waiting room trying not to think the worse about Sylvia. He stood up not able to tell by the expression on the doctors’ face what Sylvia’s condition was. “Your friend is going to be alright” and Matt slumped to the chair in visible relief, tears welling in his eyes as the doctor continued.

“She’s a lucky lady, being allergic to bees and surviving multiple stings” the doctor continued.

“Allergic?”

“You didn’t know she was allergic to bees?”

Matt stammered. “No, she never said a word to me that she was.”

“Well she is. Her throat swelled shut. There is swelling all over her body from where she was stung, and there is fluid in her lungs, that we are still concerned about. We are going to keep her here for a few days to make that the fluid in your friends’ lungs doesn’t develop into pneumonia.”

Matt was sleeping in the chair next to Sylvia’s hospital bed, when he heard her stir, which woke him up. He jerked upright. Looked over the bed at her seeing that her color was better, and the swelling had gone down considerably.

“Hey” he said softly. “How you feeling?”

“Hey back” Sylvia whispered. “I hurt all over, but it’s bearable.”

“What happened?”

Sylvia looked down at the blanket held tightly in her grip “You won’t believe me”

Matt hesitated. Licked his lips, and decided to forge ahead no matter how impossible it would sound to her.

“When I came home and saw you lifeless on the floor, I just about died. Then, I heard buzzing and following the sound, I saw over three dozen bees on the window sill. I know this is going to sound crazy, Sylvia, but I could swear they were all staring at me. Then when the EMS guys showed up, they were all gone. I don’t know how they got in, and I sure as Hell, don’t know how they all got out without anyone seeing them go.”

Sylvia moved restlessly in the bed. She finally lifted her head to look at him. Barely audible, she said “You saw them too?”

Just as quietly he responded. “yes”

She nodded. “I came home from work. Unlocked the door, walked into the living room and they were just there. You think you’re crazy? I could have sworn they were waiting for me to come home, because as soon as I walked in and closed the door behind me, they flew at me stinging my body. I tried to run, but there were so many of them, that I couldn’t move and when I tried to escape? They covered my eyes that I couldn’t see. I’m afraid I don’t remember very much after that. Matt, you don’t think I’m crazy do you? That I believe bees could be stalking me and then deliberately attacking?

“No I don’t think you’re crazy. I might have, if I hadn’t seen them on the window sill looking like they were actually waiting for me to come in.” Matt looked up to meet her eyes. “I mean, that’s what we’re talking about here right? bees that can think and plan premeditated attacks?”

“It does sound crazy doesn’t it? Except you saw them too … right?”

“Yeah, I saw them too.” Matt stood up, leaning over the bed kissed Sylvia on the forehead. “You get some rest. I’m going home and think about what our next move is, especially if we both think that bees are stalking us. We can’t go to the police that’s for damn sure” he said chuckling a little. “They would lock us up and throw away the key”

Sylvia laughed lightly. “Yeah they would.” Looking up at him, Matt saw the fear reflected in her soft grey eyes. “You be careful, Matt … Okay?” she pleaded.

“I will” he promised. “And I will see you in the morning, so get some sleep”

She gave a wan smile “I will.”

Matt cautiously opened the apartment door, sticking his head in first and quickly looked around for bees. He didn’t see any, as he walked the rest of the way in through the door into the living room. Nothing. He gradually let out the breath he was holding as he found no sign of any bees in the rooms he methodically checked. The turmoil in his gut lessoned. Maybe he was overreacting. He laughed nervously. Yeah right, intelligent bees were stalking him and Sylvia.

Leaving his bedroom, he moved back in to the living room and froze. On the coffee table was a bee and it was watching him. Worse, the living room window which had been moment earlier clear, was now blanketed in bees. Matt could hear the steady buzzing of their wings as they moved around on the glass pane.

Matt swallowed and took a step back until he noticed that it was agitating the bees on the window. He stopped, and the bees stilled. He glanced over at the huge bee on the coffee table, and a chill ran down his back. It was staring directly at him. He swallowed again. The steady black gaze was un-nerving and fear filled him. He was afraid of that bee, he didn’t know why, but he was. It was as if it knew every thought that went through his head.

Suddenly, comprehension swept through him. “You’re here because of the other bees in my car?” he whispered.

The bees on the window became agitated, and the buzzing got louder. Matt watched in fear and amazement as the bees moved eventually forming a word … KILLER. Fear just about overwhelmed him.

“I’m sorry” he said still whispering. Sweat was beginning to form on his forehead as he continued looking at the bee staring back at him with black orbs unblinking. “Please” Matt said. Not sure what he was asking of the bee, but the word was torn from his throat. He knew he was dead. Knew no matter how impossible the situation was, these bees were sentient, and they were going to kill him. “Please” he said again.

The bees on the window moved to form another word … NO. They swarmed at him. Matt shocked out of his fear, moving quickly ran towards his bedroom. Slammed the door shut, grabbed the bedspread off the bed, stuffing it quickly under the door to keep them out. Stepping back, he waited.

The buzzing got louder and louder, but it was coming from inside the room not outside, Matt whirled around and saw them flying in from the ventilation system, but instead of attacking him the room just continued to fill with bees until the whole room was filled with the buzzing monsters. They had somehow maneuvered him in to the center of the room surrounding him with thousands of bees swirling around him. They had corralled him in his bedroom, and he knew he couldn’t escape. They would be on him instantly if he moved.

Matt was rooted to the floor. He couldn’t move. He didn’t want to die by being stung to death. That would be an excruciating painful way to go. He tried pleading with the flying circling mass again.

“Please … I truly am sorry”

A group of bees broke away from the mass, flying to the vanity and landing on the mirror. Moving in unison they formed once again Killer. They swarmed him and covered Matt head to toe in wiggling brown and black bodies, burying him under the weight of their furry bodies. Matt could feel the transparent wings buzzing on his bare skin. He opened his mouth to scream and they filled his mouth and throat. They didn’t sting him, but feeling the tickling like sensation of their feet as they crawled around his mouth and down his throat choking him, nearing drove him insane. He couldn’t breathe and his lungs fought for air that wasn’t coming, everything around him slowly fading then turning black.

On the dresser a large bee sat watching Matt fight to breathe, watched the slowing struggles. It continued to watch until eventually Matt stopped moving and went limp. It stirred then. Did a dance on the dresser that the other bees responded to, by flying off Matt’s lifeless body and back up into the ventilation system. The larger bee paused. It seemed to check Matt’s body before it too flew into the ventilation system with the others.

Seconds, then minutes passed before Matt’s body jerked upright frantically waving his arms and hands trying to swat away the bees, before realizing they were not on him. He frantically searched the room trying to find them while coughing and choking as his lungs fought for air. The room was empty. How the hell were they getting in and out of the apartment and why was he still alive? The ringing phone interrupted his thoughts. Answering, it turned out to be the doctor.

“I’m really sorry to inform you that your friend, Sylvia passed away.”

“What?” Shocked. “You said she was going to be alright. What happened?”

“I understand your confusion, Mr. Bodine. I was surprised as well. Ms. Goodwin was doing extremely well. The fluid in her lungs went away, and the stings were shrinking in size. Ms. Goodwin was doing remarkably well, and we were highly confident she would make a full recovery.”

“Then what the hell happened?”

Long pause. “I don’t know. The night nurse was on her way to Ms. Goodwin’s room to administer her meds for the night when the alarms went off on the machine monitoring her vitals. The nurse stated when she entered the room, Ms. Goodwin had passed away. We don’t know why. Nothing was out of the ordinary, except …”

“Except what?” Matt asked as the empty air continued.

“Well … A dead bee was lodged in her air wave”. Matt froze in disbelief as the doctor continued. “There were no additional stings on her body and no other sign of bees being in the room – just that one dead one that somehow wound up in her throat. I’m very sorry Mr. Bodine, I truly am.”

He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Matt had no doubt what happened, but he knew the doctor wouldn’t buy into his story of bees getting revenge by killing Sylvia. “Thanks doc.”

The next couple of weeks flew by. Matt called Sylvia’s family in Colorado and informed them of her death. They flew out the next day. He helped pick out the coffin and arranged the final burial details. The weather cooperated and the day was picture perfect with crisp fall temps and nice pleasant breeze that wiped the tears from his face as they fell unabashedly over his best friends’ death.

The weeks following Sylvia’s death nearly drove Matt nuts. He would go home from work expecting to see Sylvia at home waiting curled up on the couch reading one of her god- awful Harlequin Romances. He had never understood how such an intelligent woman like Sylvia could read trash like that.

Instead, it was always to an empty apartment. Matt would be happy with just seeing her reading one of her books once more. He could still smell her perfume, even after getting rid of her things. Sylvia’s mother took what personal items she wanted. The rest Matt gave to goodwill and the place felt so empty without her stuff. He missed her bubbly personality. She always made laugh.

He walked listlessly through the apartment as memories of their friendship flooded his mind. Sylvia reading on the couch, throwing ice cubes at him, turning off the bathroom light while he was taking a shower. That memory brought a smile to his face. She was always playing pranks on him. Once she’d even thrown a cup of ice water on him while in the shower.

Matt had let out a bellow that he was sure had woken up the neighbors and she was bent over at the waist laughing her ass off. He hadn’t been happy. He didn’t talk to her for three days, and all she did was smile at him every time he entered the living room.

He opened the patio door and went outside. Sat down in the chair and stared out at the courtyard with unseeing eyes. Slight movement to his left caught his attention, interrupting his memories of Sylvia. There again, another movement. Matt realized it was bees flying. He followed their movement to see where they went, and saw the hive hanging hidden in the leaves of the Palo Verde tree, on a lower branch.

Rage flooded his body. Matt got up, entering the apartment walked to the hallway closet, grabbed a can of lighter fluid and matches, walking determinedly out of the apartment and down the stairs towards the tree where the hive was swinging slightly in the breeze. He made sure he had gloves on his hands and a knitted cap fitted over his face and head. Matt wasn’t getting stung this time.

Reaching the tree, noted with grim satisfaction the bees were getting agitated. Ignoring their frantic charges, Matt squirted the hive with lighter fluid until it dripped with fluid. Pulling out the packet of matches, lit one and when the flame was burning steadily, he flicked it at the hive. The agitated bees flying at Matt became even more aggressive and swarmed out of the hive at him. The makeshift protective suit he made shielded his body from attack, as he watched the hive burn and hiss. Soldier bees frantically trying to stop the fire’s spread up the hive, but they died in the flames, small fire bombs going up in flames. Matt watched the hive burn to a crisp, but sprayed it with water when the fire threatened to engulf the tree as well.

“That’s for you Sylvia” Turning away to head back to the apartment, he felt immense satisfaction burning that hive. It helped alleviate much of the guilt he felt. After all Matt couldn’t forget that he had caused this horror in the first place when he killed that goddamn bee on that horrible day in his car. To be fair, he wasn’t totally aware of his surroundings and reeling from his latest rejection was feeling some serious anger. The bees unfortunately, were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Collateral damage from his anger. It hadn’t helped that Matt didn’t like bees. Stepping on a Hornets nest buried in the ground, when he was 10 cured him of that sentiment.

It didn’t matter to Matt one damn bit that it was Hornets and not bees that stung him. He hated them equally. Matt had just passed the giant pine tree that provided the shade for the BBQ pit that he had planned to grill the celebratory steaks on. The sight caused another rush of anger to flood through his body, when he suddenly came to complete stop in shock.

There were bees on every tree, shrub, and bush lining the path between him and the apartment. On the metal table at the BBQ pit sat the huge bee waiting until Matt noticed it. A maelstrom of emotions like a tornado whirled through Matt in that moment. Regret. Sorrow. Anger. The unfairness of it all. Staring at the huge bee with the lifeless eyes. Rage became the primary emotion.

Nodding at it. “Fine you son of bitch. You win” At once every bee swarmed him, the buzzing deafening as the cloud of bees blanketed his body.

Witnesses would later say that Matt looked like a human hive covered in layers upon layers of bees. Not a bare spot of skin showing through the swarming mass of brown and black bodies clinging to him.



THE END


2018 Verona Jones

Bio: Verona Jones currently resides in Tucson, Arizona. Where with the help of her three furry critics, she's happily writing stories that make her readers hide under the bed covers.

Website: Verona Jones

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