May 19, 2021KR OnlineFiction

Dry Socket

I was with my sister when we saw our first bee swarm. We were fresh out of the dentist’s office from having our wisdom teeth extracted, an unadvisable thing to do since I was in my thirties and Ginny was on the cusp at twenty-nine. We were outside waiting for a stranger to come pick us up, even though I couldn’t recall handing my phone to the receptionist and telling her to “tweedledee a pickup for the twins,” but every visit since, the staff has been happy to remind me of my euphoric drug persona, the fact that we are not twins, and their delight at the small jig I performed to prove that we were “just fine” to make it home postsedation.

The office was in a small, two-story office complex, unremarkable for San Diego in the ways that beauty can become pedestrian. A severe drought held grip over California in those days, creating a vacuum in which every day was sunny, optimistic, and oppressively so. But as we emerged from the office, every detail held new potential in our medicated aura. Birds of paradise, those sharp imposter flowers, tilted toward the sky in a way that felt like they were originals: fire-colored birds, not just poised in perpetual flight, but ready to take off into the soft, May afternoon. The sun rested behind the palms that framed the parking lot, and a slight breeze rustled the fronds, producing a pleasant rush that mingled with the chaos of high tide a block away. Just beyond the confines of the parking lot, the Pacific stretched out in a long, unbroken line. As we waited in this splendor for a man named Seamus in his kelly-green Acura, it was inconceivable that we would feel the white-hot power of a dry socket in just a matter of days, miserable at the prospect of simple tasks, the joy of eating so stilted that a true misery vibrated between us.

Ginny, cheeks stuffed with cotton, mouth bearing the signs of a battle, beamed at me as we stood waiting next to a magnolia. Dried blood crusted the corners of her lips, and a thin line of saliva moved gently down her chin. I touched my own chin in curiosity and felt only my fingers searching across a smooth, unresponsive surface. She had the smaller mouth between us, and hers, they later told us, had been a particularly brutal extraction. For now, I smiled back because, like her, I felt nothing, saw only blooming hibiscus, the euphoric sense of each flower, brilliant and tropical—filled with a purpose that seemed connected to us. We stayed like that, giggling, pleased. A bee flew between us.

“Do you think Seamus is a leprechaun?” she said.

I looked at my phone, tracking his little green car moving on a grid ten minutes away. “I hope so,” I said.

Another bee came by, and then another.

That’s when I realized the parking lot was filled with bees, their wings glinting in the sun like small, airborne window panes, looping drunkenly in large circles over the parked cars as if they were lost. I thought maybe my vision had doubled as the sheer magnitude of bees snapped into focus, but Ginny must have realized it at the same time because she grabbed my arm.

“Are we dreaming?” she asked.

It was as though we’d been looking at a 3-D painting and a Tyrannosaurus rex had just emerged from the background.

“No,” I said, and held my hand to my chest because that’s where it felt like they were, all those bees, thrumming in the darkness.

A large woman with an uncomfortable smile came out of the chiropractor’s office next door. She looked at the parking lot and then back to us, stricken.

“Are those bees?” she said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Are you waiting there for safety?” she asked.

“No,” I said solemnly. “For Seamus.”

We watched as she wrapped a cardigan around her head and ran to her car much faster than I thought her capable. The same thing happened with an older man emerging from the marketing firm a few doors down. He used the file folders in his hand as a large swatter, though I thought that a bit dramatic.

“Look,” Ginny whispered. She pointed above our heads to a branch on the magnolia tree where a cluster of bees the size of a basketball swarmed together. The mass of bodies formed a teardrop shape, alive and writhing, the sound of their buzzing a low static that hummed with a note not unlike the breakers, like the rupture of an avalanche, or the way thunder can splinter across a valley. It was the sound of something that did not care about wisdom teeth or parking limits. It was beyond all that: from a different time and place, a reality where instinct was the only currency.

“I feel it in my bones,” Ginny said. She released my arm and inched closer to the tree.

By now, several people were peering out their tinted windows. Some stood, arms crossed, by their doors. One woman in business slacks eyed Ginny moving toward the cluster on the tree.

“Be careful,” she said. “You might be allergic.”

Ginny moved, unperturbed, picking over ferns and large, perfunctory shrubs until she was at the base of the tree, only a few feet beneath the swarm, staring up. The sight was something else, all those bees whizzing around as she looked at me and cracked a demonic smile, jowls engorged, the dull gloss of anesthetic in her eyes.

“We should call the superintendent. We should close the building,” the woman said, to no one in particular. “This is a hazard. This is dangerous. Someone could be allergic. Someone could die.”

Another man, who had emerged from the marketing agency, grunted. He wore shoes with tassels on them, which fluttered as he went back inside, unamused. There were, I guess, more important things in the day, though all I had to do was look at Ginny’s unhinged elation to know there really weren’t.

An Acura the color of a shamrock pulled into the lot. Seamus rolled down his window, cherub-cheeked and cordial. “Samantha?” A few bees flew into his window. He swatted at them and squinted through the windshield at the massive swarm of bodies. “Shit,” he said. “I’m allergic. We gotta scoot.”

“Ginny, let’s roll,” I said.

“Where’d they come from?” the anxious woman asked Ginny as she walked by.

Ginny looked at her, a restrained smirk on her face. “Fresno,” she said.

The woman looked at me.

I nodded in agreement.

 

The next morning, sober and suffering, I wondered why we couldn’t keep those extra teeth. I thought about it as I longingly thinned out a pot of instant potatoes, weary of the work day ahead. It felt like a jackhammer had moved through my head, my mouth an excavation site, and I could feel the gaping holes in the back of my mouth, hot and pulsing. I tasted blood.

“Why couldn’t we just stay unevolved?” I asked Ginny. “Let our ancient, useless teeth stay where they were?”

“Because of crowding?” she mumbled, as she tried to unscrew the top off a bottle of teriyaki sauce.

I was glad she didn’t know either, but the more I thought about it, the more it scared me. How liberating it had sounded, the shedding of outdated teeth—a new start, even though I should have known that there are never new starts without first traversing a gauntlet of agony.

Ginny looked how I felt. The swelling hadn’t gone down, and she had the exhaustion of a prizefighter about her, the bloom of bruises around the jaw, a hangdog expression of weariness, circles as wide as quarters beneath her eyes. It was hunger and mild sleep deprivation, but also a reduction. I knew because I felt it too—a narrowing down of the self. I felt stripped to the basics: hunger and pain. Oh, the pain. A shooting, enervating sensation deep in my jaw that electrified my skull and drowned out only but the most essential of thoughts. Most of which included humility. I used to be invincible. I used to heal. I added more butter to the mashed potatoes.

“Vanity,” I said. “This is what vanity feels like. We should have known.”

“Known what?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I was quiet, stirring the potatoes into smoothie consistency. “Dr. Hasselhoff,” I said.

“Hasselhoff,” she echoed wistfully.

Our dentist was named Dr. Hassleton, but we called him Hasselhoff because when he wasn’t wrenching the rooted tendrils of teeth from gums with his tanned and massive forearms, he was out in the breakers, surfing. He had a set of baby blues that you liked to see close to your face and the genuine smile of a man who knew he was handsome. He spent his charisma well. We were devoted to our dental hygiene because of this, despite its being a fiscal extravagance.

“I listened to him,” I said, realizing maybe I hadn’t. Maybe I had been staring at his evenly symmetrical face, the dimple in his chin while Ocean Beach shimmered in the background and flags fluttered on the offshores, all reflecting the light and illuminating Hasselhoff in a primal way that made my head jerk in agreement. Maybe I was too fixated on his smile as he told me his opinion. Maybe I nodded because that is what he wanted me to do. “Maybe…” he said, his eyebrows raising, “we could get both of you in here. Both sisters.” He rifled through a file and looked up. “Ginny’s due for hers to come out as well. At least she was, the last time I saw her.” He snapped the file shut. “It will save you both possible problems down the line.” So, I told my sister everything he said. We weren’t getting any younger, we needed these teeth out. There could be complications later. The time was now.

“I can’t afford it,” she said, even though she could. She was saving for a trip around the world, a journey whose departure was unknown but always felt imminent.

“I’ll pay for it,” I said, not because I could afford it, but because I wanted to help her.

Now, as I spooned potatoes into two bowls, I was a little horrified of how easily I’d gone along with something that felt, in hindsight, ruefully elective.

“I don’t care what you do,” Ginny said out of nowhere, giving up on the sauce and throwing the whole bottle in the trash. “I’m taking Vicodin before work.” She walked out of the kitchen.

I stared willfully out the window, wishing for three weeks of sick leave so I could cower in the darkness as the pain gnashed around in my mouth. That way, I might also silence the hot thrum of regret I felt for my part in this, responsible, in some way, for her pain.

 

I maintained my “no drugs at work” policy until the third day, when the electricity of my exposed nerves began to feel like it could reach my feet. Hasselhoff had warned us about this: dry socket, the uprooting of fragile nerves that should be kept below the surface. Drugs didn’t help it. Nothing did. It made me angry. I begrudged anyone free of pain even though I was no stranger to it. In college and for years after, I played rugby. I suffered heinous injuries back then—head staples, stiches, separated shoulders. I bruised and bled and broke. And I loved it. That sort of brutality held a high that was hard to forget. A reckoning with your physical body that made it impossible to not feel alive. During a game about a year ago, I got kicked in the eye by a bruiser from the Midwest who wore metal cleats. She fractured my orbital socket and slightly detached my retina. After surgery, my vision doubled, I retired to the life of mortals, where Ginny secured me a minimum wage job working with her at a catalog company for athletic women’s wear. I was buying time until I my vision got better, until the debts became bearable, and I could pursue something—anything—else. I tried not to think about it—my rising misery as I spent my days in the phone dungeon (yes, they called it that) getting yelled at by housewives because their orders were delivered late or contained the wrong sports bra, while above ground, Ginny toiled in the warehouse with a bunch of stoned pickers who spent their days riding around on foot scooters between the enormous aisles, shoving the wrong bras and jogging pants into bags and sending them out late.

The warehouse was always more fun than the call center, and I loved taking my lunches there, even if the metal scaffolding that held the boxes of clothes triggered a mild vertigo. Our company occupied an old warehouse near the airport that used to make warships. It had high, lofted windows, an eagle’s nest in the northwest vent, and the nutty smell of ancient oil in the walls. On the hottest days, it still felt like an ice truck inside. I liked it in there because it felt like an escape. Sometimes, I’d eat outside on the harbor, but most days it was so beautiful, so bright, so sunny, that my inability to make my mood match the weather depressed me even more. Inside the warehouse, the foot scooters had a way of making you feel free, even if you weren’t. Now, as I sought out Ginny for her stash of drugs, I examined the pile of orphaned scooters and picked one with calaca skulls adorning the basket. I briefly fantasized about scooting out of there, down the running path that hugged the marina, all the way to Tijuana, where I could disappear into a life that looked vastly different from this moment, starting with the ability to eat taco after taco.

I found Ginny in a row of cutely named sports bras: the “boulder smasher,” the “big bomber,” and my favorite, the “squiggle squeezer.” She was leaning against the cool metal of the shelving unit, slouched and still. She had a slighter figure than I, a graceful neck and bird bones for legs. She looked like a heron, frozen in a postindustrial wasteland. She never played rugby. She lacked a fundamental belief in the benefits of pain. “I feel alive already,” she’d say to me when I would try and get her to come to a practice.

I approached slowly and put my hand on her shoulder. “You should go home.”

“I feel,” she paused and put a hand to her chest, “inconsequential.”

“Get a milkshake. Take some Vicodin. Repeat positive mantras.”

“I can’t escape the pain at home.”

“But you can watch ‘The Real Housewives.’”

“Why aren’t I a real housewife?” she whined. “They feel nothing.”

“That’s not true,” I said, rubbing her back. “They feel spite.

“And besides, their existence is pain,” I said. “Just look at us. There’s no way we’d be able to handle all those plastic surgeries.”

She licked her lips, scaly and chapped. “I just feel humbled,” she said. “Is this what rugby felt like?”

The answer was no and yes and sort of. I remember waking up after my first game feeling like I’d been in a car wreck. I couldn’t move without soreness. The space between my ribs hurt. The tendons in my neck. The sinew of my hands. But it was an earthly hurt, a satisfying hurt. It was a hurt that took away all the noise of my days and muted them. And from then on, every day was like moving through life underwater—in weightless, noiseless, pleasant slow motion.

“No,” I said. “This feels like we’re being punished.”

“But what about your eye?”

I rubbed her back in small, searching circles, deliberating what to tell her about the depths of pain, remembering how I woke up in the hospital after surgery, one eye open to my mother’s face bearing a look of sustained worry.

“Please tell me you will give this up,” my mother said.

“How’d the surgery go?” I asked.

My mother pursed her lips. “It went well. The retina’s attached, but it’s going to be a while. You might have double vision, but the doctor said it will fade over time. He’ll explain it all to you,” she said. She was mad. I could tell by the way she was forcing the words out of her mouth. “The surgery,” she said, “was very expensive.”

I closed my good eye.

“How could you?” she said. “How could you play without insurance?”

How to tell her the answer was so simple that it might kill her? My insurance after college expired. And I simply did nothing. I didn’t even think about it. I just moved forward. It was expensive, and so was rugby—the plane flights and the hotels and the tournaments. We were women on a mission, and I never questioned the debts that came with my allegiance to the sport. Plus: how many times had I seen an injury like mine? Never. I made just enough for rent, minimum payments on the Master Cards, and some food. I couldn’t afford insurance, even if I wanted it. My mother looked at me now, eyes filled with disappointment. She’d never liked the sport, the tattooed women, the way we used the weight of our bodies against each other. I knew if she thought hard enough, she could admit she knew what it was like to feel the pull of something you didn’t completely understand. But, like any love, there were limits to the depths she was willing to mine to understand my existence.

“Why did you do that?” my mother asked again, this time pressing into my shoulder with her finger, as if I were a button.

“I was in thrall,” I mumbled.

“In thrall to what? Stupidity? For a game?” She shook her head and looked off. “A goddamned game for your eyesight, Sam? Your vision?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” was all I could muster. But in that moment, I knew she did, in some small way, the gloss in her eyes conjuring an old anger that was pure and immune to reason. Imagine this: my mother, standing between me and my sister, wooden spoon in hand, searching our faces for which one of us to whoop. I was the culprit: a large lipstick stain the color of a certain shade of ruby red grapefruit on my mother’s antique chair. I’d dropped it while smearing it on my lips in front of her mirror. I was guilty of many illicit acts. The chair had been my grandmother’s, a fragile heirloom, and even though my mother didn’t really like her mother, that was not the point. That I’d ruined the upholstery was not the point either. The point was something mysterious to me and my sister, a certain feminine fidelity to a story from the past that had not yet held us in its grip. The ventriloquism of a forced narrative of love that would, one day, come for us as surely as the spoon came for my sister for no reason other than I was older and knew to produce an alibi.

“The eye wasn’t painful,” I told Ginny now. “I was in shock.”

She looked at me and grimaced, her mouth twisted, “You were always tougher,” she said.

“That’s not true,” I said. Physically, maybe, I’d grown into something, a conditioning, but that wasn’t what she was talking about. People just look at me and they see something I can’t: a look in my face, some internal steeling, and they assume I can take anything. But I’m not impervious. Even though I had resolve in some ways, I still felt things.

“I’m fine because I have to be. What other option is there?”

“It’s not such a bad thing to always be fine.”

I handed her the car keys and told her I’d scoot home. She nodded weakly and walked away, shoulders slumped, a slight drunkard sway to her gait. I took her foot scooter, three naked trolls with tie-dyed hair on the basket, and scooted back to the call center, my vision dipping and swaying as I passed the towering rows of boxes.

 

When I got home, Ginny was not there. She was, at best, a reluctant roommate. Even when she was home she rarely acknowledged me from the cave of her room. I secretly hoped she’d gone to the store to get us liquor, but I had only a voicemail from our parents in Florida, calling reliably sloshed from cocktail hour at their retirement village. A life of good choices behind them allowed them the freedom of martinis over the pleasantly murky waters of the Gulf as twilight faded to darkness. Sunsets and the comfort of mutual funds. A life they held as their own now, distant from us, ignorant to the tender feelings of inadequacy that dental surgery had manifested. I sent Ginny a text asking where she was, saliva flooding my mouth with pavlovian instinct as I opened the fridge and pulled out the mashed potatoes. I loaded up a spoonful and licked it carefully, steering the potatoes away from the abyss in the posterior of my mouth. I kept this up, watching my phone, until I overestimated and potato filled the hole where my back-right wisdom tooth used to sit. I winced.

Ginny replied. At Hasselhoff’s.

Bee watching?

It’s comforting. Distracting. You should come.

I thought this odd, but also hadn’t given much thought to anything outside myself since we got home. The bees were extraordinary—a memory to keep. I’d heard of them settling in walls and chimneys. But the pure force of their bodies was the interesting part—the wildness of them, the unpredictability. Seeing them felt like hearing one of Odysseus’s sirens. And how lucky we’d been to witness it. I licked my spoon. The more I thought about it, they felt like an omen, an old scroll emerging from biblical times to declare something.

Ask Hasselhoff if he can help us. I wrote.

Already did. We have appointment tomorrow to get our sockets packed.

Sounds sexy.

She replied with a barf emoji.

I went to the bathroom and opened my mouth in front of the mirror. My jaw muscles were still sore, my lips swollen. I could feel food lodged in the craters, but it sickened me to think about it. As much as I wanted it out, I also couldn’t bear to touch it in any way. Instead, I thought about Ginny, communing with the bees, her tired body buzzing, her frayed nerves soothed, preoccupied by their power. She’d always been the gentle one between us. I used to beat up on her when we were kids. My mother disliked me for it, which I found ironic, but I was never the favorite. Something I emitted seemed to harden people against me whereas Ginny elicited sympathy. I took my beatings with indignation. I can still remember the moment when it occurred to me that my mother, as hard as she hit, could not hurt me. I simply wouldn’t let her. Ginny, she could wound with a look.

I never beat up on Ginny for revenge, or even out of animosity. I guess I wanted, very simply, to destroy things, and I did not care what they were. Once, at a birthday party for a cousin, I took one of the newly opened presents—a softball bat, and was trying to hit a golf ball I’d found—smack it out of the park like a grand slam. We were down by the water, a long lagoon stretched out before the picnic tables, and something in me desperately wanted to see that ball splash in the green water, to feel the thrill of connection. I was throwing it in the air, alone, for probably five minutes. My sister came over and wanted a turn, which of course, I didn’t want to give her. I was ten. I told her after one more try, I would turn over the bat. Once the swing was over, I quickly packed another in, but instead of hitting the ball, I accidentally whacked Ginny in the forehead with my best Barry Bonds. We went to the emergency room. She was fine. Physically. Betrayed however, perhaps in perpetuity.

I like to think I grew out of it, but it was an itch that never truly extinguished itself because then rugby came along, a seemingly proper outlet. Instead of diminishing my recklessness, however, it became enhanced, and my desire to annihilate something—to set fire to a perfectly fine building just for the sake of feeling the heat on my cheek—was unquenchable. Until now. Now all I had was a lazy eye and cavernous gums packed with potato.

I tongued my hole. I swished some salt water, gagged a little, then did it again. The taste of blood filled my mouth, and my eyes watered. I check my phone again, hoping to commiserate with Ginny. I asked her when she was coming home and set the phone down when a wave of nausea hit.

I couldn’t throw up; it would be too painful. I started to cry a little, overwhelmed with the pain and the emptiness of the apartment and hunger and the misery of an impending Tuesday. I’d felt like this only one other time, several years ago at Easter. I was wearing rabbit ears, being lighthearted, fun me, popping jelly beans. The jasmine had bloomed, filling our parents’ house with cloying sweetness. I had been teasing Ginny and said something about her last boyfriend being a loser. Before I knew it, she had me by the throat in the hallway. We weren’t six and ten any more. We were in our mid-twenties. Adults. Capable of controlling our emotions, or so I thought when she started to squeeze. But she didn’t stop, and soon I felt it: the death shock, unmistakable, inching up my spine. Seconds ticked by, my hands on her hands, and with the remaining air I had, I whispered, “You’re killing me.” She did not let up. She held me there, in a pastel polo, ketchup smeared on the collar like an old wound, blinded by not just momentary rage, but what I knew to be decades of it, confirmed by a strange look on her face that I had been waiting our whole lives to manifest. Now, I saw my mother in my sister, holding my throat, a look of deeply murderous intent on her face, layers of memories and buried slights that would never, could never, penetrate real words between us. No one saw; the house was filled with family members occupied by ham rolls. When she released me, she walked wordlessly away, and I went outside coughing, my trachea burning, consumed with a repeating thought: she hated me. She hated me enough to possibly kill me. She wanted to. In the moment, she wanted to.

The food was stuck in my gums. Ginny was radio silent. I wandered to bed exhausted.

 

The next afternoon, sun high, we each had our sockets packed with minty cool stuffing. Marla, the dental assistant, performed the procedure with a blissfully gentle touch. “This will come out on its own, but it should relieve some of the aching,” she said to both of us. “And you’ll be back to your jigs in no time.”

I nodded in relief and once again, we emptied into the parking lot. Everything had calmed down considerably since the initial swarm, and now the bees seemed almost peaceful. Ginny looked downcast.

“A man is coming this afternoon to collect the swarm.”

“That’s good for them, right?”

She squinted in the sun. “I don’t know.”

“They can’t live here,” I said. “Something so wild lurking in a parking lot.”

“No one’s been stung yet,” she said.

“I don’t know. Little kids see Hasselhoff every day,” I said.

“I know it’s not rational,” she said. “But it feels like they’re removing a part of me.”

“No,” I said. “That’s not rational.”

She looked at me, her brows knitted into a single line. “I wish we could take them. Put them on the roof or a corner of the balcony.”

Our balcony was the size of a ping-pong table. Our apartment building had multiple families in it. We were as industrial and urban as they come. Prohibitively so.

“It makes me want a life where it’s possible,” she said. “I’m not afraid of them. I think other people are afraid of them because they’re afraid of losing their neat piles of shit. Their safety, their comfort.” She sat down on the curb beneath the magnolia and stared at the concrete.

“You’ll have those things one day,” I said. “A yard, I mean. I’ll buy you a hive. Or we can go to the Balkans on vacation. They still scoop honey from trees there.”

This was the first time she’d ever talked about what she wanted, even though I knew it was there, agitating between us—the closed doors and shitty jobs and distant parents. She, at least, had no debt, no medical bills, and was staring down a life of adventure and travel. Or was she? I thought I knew her, but since the Easter incident, I understood that even though I wanted to, I probably didn’t know her. I never would.

“Maybe everyone’s just afraid of getting stung,” I said.

“No,” she said firmly. “It’s deeper than that. It’s what’s holding them back in their lives.” Her mouth was still swollen, and the words came out angry but also very funny. “Fear.”

I nodded deeply. “Hey,” I said and rubbed her kneecap. “It’s OK. Are you maybe a little hungry?”

She shook her head and didn’t stop shaking it. She wrapped her arms around her knees. “It’s what’s keeping us at the warehouse,” she said.

“But you’re not afraid of leaving the warehouse,” I said.

“No,” she said slowly. “I’m not.”

What could I do? Tell her I wasn’t afraid either? That this was all temporary until we became something, the thing we kept locked away in our hearts? “Let’s stay then,” I said. “Let’s wait for the bee removal man. Let’s stay with the bees and be with them while we can.”

She nodded listlessly. For the next hour we sat on the curb beneath the swarm, among the birds of paradise, listening to the rise and fall of the breakers.

• •

Edgar pulled up in a work van painted to look like a giant bee. It was saccharine and lovely and Edgar himself seemed a gentle man, clearly a bee enthusiast, outfitted with a terrifyingly common set of extraction tools. The man had a shop vac and some duct tape. He pulled out his materials, gazed up at the swarm and smiled broadly, his cheeks erupting with deep, honeycombed dimples. “A beauty,” he said to us, and winked theatrically as he went off in search of the building manager.

Ginny sighed. She was still holding herself in a way that seemed self-soothing. Her hair was a little greasy and she’d begun to burn on her nose.

“Wanna get a smoothie after this?” I said.

“Maybe,” she said, and stood quickly, walking over to inspect the van.

It was neat and orderly inside. How a swarm would fit in there was a mystery.

Edgar emerged alone from the building, zipped up his canvas onesie, and pulled the ladder from the top of his van. Once he was set up, he turned to Ginny. “I’m going to have to ask you to go inside,” he said.

Ginny stood, a bird against the light. “I don’t work here. I want to watch you.”

“It’s really not safe,” he said.

“I’m not afraid.”

“I can see that,” he said. “But I don’t want to get in trouble if you have to go to the hospital. Swarms can be unpredictable.”

I could tell he was amused, that he’d never had to have this talk before. And I admired Ginny in this moment, driven by some strange instinct.

“How about we watch from the car?” I said.

“That would be good,” Edgar said.

“We’ll pull the car close then,” Ginny said, walking away.

I shrugged at Edgar and he laughed. “We need to get that girl a suit,” he said, and started to wind duct tape between his gloves and sleeves.

 

Edgar wasn’t without art as he smoked around the tree, then gently sucked the entire swarm into his vacuum. The bees behaved more like fabric than beings, coaxed inexplicably down in fluid movements, like a snake sloughing off skin. Ginny sat in the passenger seat, face pressed to the window. The whole process took fifteen minutes. He transferred the hive to a five-gallon bucket from Home Depot and signaled the OK.

Ginny jumped out of the car and knelt by the bucket. She placed her hand on the lid as if feeling the heartbeat of a giant, tranquilized animal. She looked up. “Where do you take them from here?”

Edgar de-robed. “My shop out in Vista. I have a farm, other hives. I place them and sell them to apiaries and farmers and people who want them.”

“You get a lot of calls like this?”

“You wouldn’t believe it. People freak out. I wasn’t joking about needing an assistant.”

Ginny stood. “Can I apply?”

Edgar paused. “You know anything about bees?”

“I know how to manage a shop vac, if that’s what you’re asking.”

He laughed. “Well, I got a job in Oceanside after this.”

I swallowed.

“Can I come?” she said.

Edgar looked at me as if I held an answer.

“Gin, you sure you want to do this?”

She swiveled around, her movement triggering my double vision, and two Ginnys floated through my sight as if riding the surface of a soap bubble. I’d touched a nerve.

“You’re not the only one who gets to do whatever you want,” she said.

“I don’t do what I want,” I said, the words tumbling out of my mouth so fast I wasn’t sure if they made sense. “You’re just tired.”

“Don’t tell me what I am,” she said. Edgar started to quietly tidy up his van, the potency between us more menacing than a swarm.

How I longed to pick something up and throw it. How I wanted to tackle my sister. Push her face in the mulch. But I didn’t because something inside me twisted with visions of the inevitable: No matter how nice, no matter how gentle or caring, she would always get to push me away, because of some silent way of the world.

“I thought you liked the warehouse,” I said feebly.

She turned toward Edgar. “What do you pay?”

“Minimum wage?” he said, as if it were a question.

“Health care?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Great,” she said. “I’ll be making a perfectly good lateral move.” She looked at me, cheeks puffed, arms crossed, as if baiting me to say something, as if she knew what she was doing, picking the scab on what I thought was a tentative truce between us.

“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” I said. The truth was I understood this move completely. I saw her and knew her with complete clarity, the way a sibling is the only person who understands the tiniest fraction of the way you see the world. I was with her in this: the bees, the longing, the way their appearance triggered an intense feeling of being trapped. I wanted to go with her. I wanted to shed myself completely and be made over and yet, there didn’t seem to be enough room for both of us in this fantasy. The moment was sweet and sharp, like seeing a school of fish shimmer in a wave, and when it left, I don’t know what was worse: the fact that she could so easily leave me, or that I was stuck where I was, saddled with who I was.

My vision tilted up like a circus ride then coalesced, and the two Ginnys merged into one as she got into the van and headed toward Oceanside. The palm fronds in the parking lot were silent, the gravel a muted gray. It smelled of hot leaves, the magnolia absorbing the sun, distant honeysuckle, and the faint odor of tar. There was no noise except the distant crash of the breakers, that anonymous metronomic roil. It should have made me feel better to hear it: indifferent, powerful, and unresponsive to anything except the weight of our shared gravity. But it didn’t, because a few abandoned bees still circled the parking lot in bereft circles.