Keeper of the Bees – Meg Kassel

I can’t tell you how many cities, towns, villages I have passed through. I stopped caring about their names long ago. I can tell you that this town is flat and dusty and utterly uninteresting. It’s somewhere in the Midwest, surrounded by miles of farmland. It’s a mystery why people live here, although most of the places I visit are worse. Not that it matters. This town is marked. Harbingers of death have chosen to settle here for a time, which means in less than a month a good number of residents will be dead, and I will have moved on. The park I walk through is thickly wooded, divided by winding footpaths. The trees offer shade from the blazing summer sun, but no one is here. They are all indoors, bodies by their air-conditioner vents, eyes on their televisions, and minds on absolutely nothing at all. I suppose I am fortunate that I don’t feel the heat. Or the cold. Or anything. Yes.

So terribly fortunate. I keep a slow pace, waiting for the sense, the knowing that a dark, unsettled person is nearby. Inside my chest, a hive of bees roils, restless with their long confinement. Soon, I think to them. Very soon. The bees can read my emotions well. They should, considering how long we’ve been bound together. We’ve grown ancient, the bees and I—unchanging relics of an era long erased from history. Finally, I sense it, a prickling on the skin and a sharpening of my senses. A familiar surge of anticipation quickens my breath.

There is a person nearby who interests my bees. I can feel my target as a human can feel the rain on their face. I walk faster. The bees hum louder. They pile into my sinuses, clog my throat. I pull in a great, sharp breath, sending them tumbling back into my chest. Control yourselves! my thoughts snarl, not that the bees understand the exact words. Not that they would care if they could. I find myself in a well-tended, perfectly square clearing. It’s a playground, complete with slides, swings, and a colorful jungle gym.

It’s deserted except for a teenage girl. Pale hair hangs around her face, unbrushed. She sways idly in a swing, wearing jean shorts and a flimsy top. Her bare feet scratch up the dusty ground. She holds an animated conversation with her kneecaps. I lean against one of the few trees lining this parched square of earth and watch her. She’s different from the people my bees usually prefer, who are full of hatred and savagery and wrath. Their anger hits me like needles, blades. Sharp tacks driven deep. This girl, however, does not have a dark mind.

She looks to be around seventeen. Not much younger than I was, when I was human. Her energy is light, effervescent, and feels like bubbles popping all over my skin. She is as harmless as a broken doll. It’s too bad for her that I encountered her now, when I am burning from the inside with the need to release my bees. I don’t have time to find another target. She is alone. This would matter if I had the sort of face someone might try to describe to authorities, but I’m the closest thing to invisible. A shadow. An impression of a young man that the typical human mind turns away from before features can be registered.

“Just a guy” is how I’m usually described. It’s one of the brilliant details of the curse I’m saddled with. The curse of the beekeeper ensures that my face is rarely actually seen. It’s certainly not a face anyone would want to see. One determined bee crawls up my throat and into my nose. He sits in my left nostril, waiting to be released. Brazen little bastard. Fine, I’ll let that one go, then. The young woman stops swinging. Her head tilts up, and her gaze locks on me.

She spots me, finally. I pause, bee hanging on my nostril like a buzzing nose ring. Wait. I inhale sharply, dragging the bee back inside my nose. It buzzes a noisy objection but holds still. The young woman cocks her head to the side and stares at me. What she sees is anyone’s guess. It could be the bland, nondescript countenance caught on photos, or the grotesque, shifting array of features that even I can’t endure the sight of. More than likely, she’s seeing something entirely of her own imagination. Her mind works on a unique frequency, after all.

I wouldn’t have been drawn to her, otherwise. She points at me. Her light blue eyes are incredulous. Her mouth, a circle of awe. My chest constricts with the knowledge that she is seeing me. Me. My horrific face. And she’s not screaming. She bursts into laughter, and I start with surprise. It’s a high, fractured sound.

Poor girl. She’ll feel the bee sting but won’t realize her last shreds of sanity are gone until she’s fallen over the edge. And maybe not even then. She sees me. How unusual. It’s a spark of something interesting in my unvarying, monotone life. I push off from the tree and walk toward her. I’m curious. How close can I get before she screams? She continues to stare at me, even when I stop right in front of her. Pale eyes gaze up, fearless, fascinated.

I watch her reach into her pocket and pull out a plastic baggie with tiny balls inside. She extracts one and pops it in her mouth. Drugs, I assume. For reasons unknown, I’m pinched with disappointment. But then, she crunches the thing between her teeth, and the air between us bursts with the bright smell of pepper. Another surprise. Her eyes water. She blinks rapidly, then frowns. “You’re still here?” “Apparently. Why are you chewing peppercorns?” The girl shrugs.

“I see things that aren’t there. Pepper makes them go away long enough so I can tell what’s real and what’s not.” She gives me an accusatory look. “Most of the time.” Fascinating or not, I should walk away. Now. “So you don’t think I’m real?” “How can you be?” She spits the chewed-up bits of peppercorn on the ground. “Your face changes like a kaleidoscope. Dr. Roberts would tell me that’s not really real.

” She leans forward conspiratorially. “But you know what? Sometimes I think Dr. Roberts isn’t real. Last week at our session, he had a forked tongue and he kept flicking it at me.” She demonstrates with her first two fingers. “He wasn’t happy when I pointed it out.” Good Lord, maybe stinging this girl will be a kindness. “In this case, your Dr. Roberts would be incorrect.” Her eyes go wide.

“You’re real?” “I’m afraid so.” She smiles, shakes her head. “Of course you’d say that. No one wants to be someone else’s delusion.” She points at my face again. “Does it hurt when it changes like that?” An odd question. “Yes, but not terribly.” “Can you make it stop?” she asks. “Can’t you just pick one face?” “No and no.” For the life of me, I don’t understand why I’m still standing here.

Am I so desperate for conversation? She cocks her head. “Which of those faces is yours?” “None of them,” I say with a twinge of…regret, maybe. An unnameable something, vicious and long repressed, twists my stomach. I angle my face, giving her a full view of my horrible features. Bees roar in my throat. I’m sure she can hear them. I’m taunting her, pushing. Trying to make her recoil in fear like she should. “They’re the faces of all the people I’ve killed.” She raises one eyebrow, seemingly unimpressed.

“Are you planning to kill me?” I am a monster. A beast. Lying about it would be pointless. “Yes.” 2 Essie my pretty delusions Oh, I like this boy. I do. I like his long bones and ragged voice and how he smells like fresh honey. I like his pretty, pretty face, with all those slowly shifting features. It’s like poetry, like a thousand people are crammed inside him, each taking turns pushing through. I like him despite what he said about him killing me.

Perhaps we can work on that. Or not. It hardly matters, because despite his claims, he’s notnot-not real. I’m full of cracks right now, so I see things all over the place that aren’t real. I know I’m on my way to an episode when hallucinations talk to me, and most of them want to kill me. They never do, though. The boy emits a whirring hum, kind of like a blender. The sound comes from his chest. Is he even aware of it? I look up and give him my best smile. The one showing all my teeth.

“My name is Essie. Essie Roane.” The eyebrows shift from bushy red to thick brown and draw fiercely together. “Why would you tell me that?” “You should know the name of a person, if you want to kill them,” I say. “But you don’t want to hurt me, do you, silly boy?” I laugh, sending lovely pink bubbles floating out of my mouth. His gaze does not drop to the bubbles, and I fiercely remind myself that I’m the only one who sees them. I fish out another peppercorn, crunch it between my teeth. It’s godawful, but the bubbles disappear. The boy with the shifting face remains. A sad smile pulls at his lips.

“You really are out of your mind.” “Oh yes.” I nod emphatically. “No one ever lets me forget that.” “I’m Dresden,” he says with a sigh. “You should know the name of a person, if they intend to kill you.” My heart races. I like his name, too. “Dresden like the German city?” “No, not at all like the city.” “Oh.

Okay anyway. You’re terribly pretty, Dresden. I could stare at you all day long.” He blinks rapidly, then lets out a sound that is either choking or a laugh. I can’t tell which. “You think I’m…pretty?” he asks. “Of course.” Irritation sharpens my voice. “All those lovely faces, coming and going like slow waves of an ocean—not that I’ve seen the ocean in person.” Or ever will.

Concordia is my home, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever journey far from it. St. Louis is an hour by car, and the farthest I’ve traveled. “I wish you were real. Dr. Roberts tells me every week how the things that don’t look like they belong in this world are not real. You definitely do not look like you belong in this world.” His faces darken. “I don’t belong in this world.” A bee appears between his lips, just briefly, before he moves a hand over his mouth and takes a step back.

He smooths a hand over his throat. When he looks at me again, he looks regretful. “It’s the bees.” He says it through closed teeth. “They want to hurt you. They’re screaming to be released.” I look down, unreasonably flattered. “Thank you for holding them back.” “I won’t be able to forever.” I reach for his hand, but he snatches his arm away.

I try another smile, not so big this time. “There’s no such thing as forever.” “Believe me, there is.” He turns toward the path, tugging his baseball cap low over his face. “It was a pleasure, Essie,” he says, surprising me with a formal bow. Then he walks quickly away and seems to disappear down the path. Gone. Just like that. I launch out of the swing to follow but stop when I hear Aunt Bel calling my name. She’s jogging up the path toward me, panting like a puppy.

“Es-Essie,” she puffs. She stops, leans against a tree, and draws in deep breaths. I hurry to her side, fan her cherry-red face with my hands. “Why are you running? Are you being chased by an animal?” “No, of…course not.” Her gaze moves to the path opposite her, the way Dresden left. “Who… who was that boy?” I stagger back a pace. “What boy?” There’s no way. He’s not real. Impatience flashes in her eyes. “That boy,” she repeats.

“I saw you talking to him. I didn’t get a good look at his face, but he didn’t remind me of anyone from town.” Her eyes narrow to slits. “Did he try any funny business with you? Or try to sell you drugs?” “No, he didn’t. I thought…” My voice fades off. My skin goes clammy, despite the day’s heat. “You thought what?” my aunt asks. “I thought he wasn’t real.” “Oh, my sweet lamb.” She huffs out a great breath and pulls me against her great, baby-powderscented bosom.

“My poor dear. Of course you’d think that. I saw him, though, so he must be real.” A firm arm curls around my waist. She casts a hooded glance backward, then guides me from the playground. “Let’s get you home. I shouldn’t have left you alone to run my errands when I know you’re not feeling right,” she chastises herself. “You’re a pretty girl, you know. You’re going to attract boys who may not know of your condition. Some people are not good people.

” My heart races. I can’t stop blinking my eyes. Aunt Bel saw Dresden. So either Aunt Bel is seeing things too, or he is real. I don’t think she is seeing things, which means he is real. But he did things real people can’t do. Or maybe Dresden is real, but our conversation wasn’t. Maybe he was asking me for something ordinary and innocent, like directions, and I was asking him whether or not he was there to kill me. Confusion warps my mind like hot plastic. Sweat breaks out on my palms.

I look down. The sweat turns black and oozes from the lines in my palm like streaming black ink. No, no, no! My breath hitches as the black stuff flows down the front of me and Aunt Bel. I whimper and tuck my fists under my armpits. We’re leaving sloppy black footprints on the path. Not real, not real, not real . I squeeze my eyes shut, but black stuff still flows down my sides, making my shorts stick to my legs. I can’t unclench my fists to reach for my peppercorns. The differences between reality and the products of my inventive mind fall around me like a rain of tinkling glass. My vision narrows down to a distant point, then grays out entirely.

I begin to hum a discordant, comforting tune and lean into Aunt Bel’s softness. “It’s not him, it’s the bees,” I whisper urgently into Aunt Bel’s ear. She’s got to understand. “The bees are the ones who want to hurt me, not him. Not him.” She shudders and pulls me closer. “It’s okay, dear,” she replies gently. “We’ll get you home. Soon enough you’ll be right as rain.” She says that often—that I’ll be “right as rain,” but I never am.

I never will be.

.

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