JOEL JACKSON

Memory of the Hive

Desperate for summer weather, the girls had their white bellies exposed from the hems of their skimpy shirts to the tops of their jeans. Between downpours, the night air was humid.

By Candace Allan

Having dealt with the wasp sting, Jill found refuge on the living room sofa, where the kids’ music boomed up from the basement. It was a song from the seventies, Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow. She didn’t want to think about tomorrow. She wanted only to think of yesterday, when she was still one of them.

Occasionally a couple of the teens would come up from the basement, or in off the deck, and speak to her. “Thanks for having us,” they’d say, or, “I like the way you’ve decorated your house.” Now they were coming to ask if Tyler was okay.

“He’s fine,” she kept telling them. “A little swollen under his eye, but he’ll be fine.” Tyler was the guy her daughter, Sara, had been dating for two years. Minutes after he arrived for the party a wasp had flown across the deck and stung his cheek. It appeared to be an odd, unprovoked attack. Jill and Sara had given him ice and an antihistamine and he was nursing his wound on a damp lawn chair.

The screen door slammed. One of Sara’s girlfriends stood before Jill with a plate of spring rolls she’d brought from her parents’ restaurant. “I think it’s going to rain again. Crazy, hey? But you’re so cool, Mrs. Winters. I wish my mom was as cool as you. My parents would never let me have this many people over.” The girl was being called away by hungry guests. “Later,” she said, backing out of the room.

So she was cool, Jill thought. Of course, there weren’t supposed to be this many kids. It was never supposed to be this many. And if the skies opened up again they’d all be crammed inside. It was her 17-year-old son Mac’s party. She’d told him 10 close friends, knowing 10 would be interpreted as 15. Of course, 20-year-old Sara felt obliged to invite a few girlfriends, and even Jill’s youngest, 14-year-old Amber, was sitting in the shadows of the teenage party with a friend.

It suddenly came to Jill that she hadn’t noticed any smell. The first time they’d allowed Sara to host a cast party for the high school play, Jill and Gary had been overwhelmed by the odour. Another parent had educated them.

“Hormones,” she said. “And you know something else?” she added conspiratorially. “They’re also detecting each other’s pheromones. Scientists knew moths had them, and mice, but now they say humans release them too.”

“What for?” asked Gary.

“To communicate with members of the opposite sex. Crazy, eh? We’re really just animals, aren’t we?”

Now with her kids filling the yard with frenzied teenage friends, revving up after a dull day of studies for term finals, Jill was certain the rain showers had been replaced by a steady sprinkling of the invisible potent chemicals. It had been Calgary’s wettest June ever and the girls, desperate for summer weather, exposed their white bellies from the hems of their skimpy shirts to the tops of their jeans. Between downpours, the night air was humid, and a couple of the boys had their shirts off.

After Tyler got stung she directed Mac to hose down the nest a swarm of determined wasps had rebuilt above the back door in a dry area sheltered from the rain. She had no sympathy for the wasps. Four days ago Sara was stung on the thigh. Early the next morning, before boarding a plane for a convention in Houston, Gary had washed down the entire nest, swishing bits of the ashy material across the garden. But the wasps appeared unable to give up the memory of the hive.

The downpours were making headlines as the rivers overran their banks and the city’s dam threatened to spill over. But every time the showers let up Jill noticed the wasps were back, crawling along the grey outline where the hive had stained the overhang. She watched perplexed, trying to understand the workings of the insect mind.

After taking out the nest, the boys had stripped to their boxers and turned the hose on each other. Jill yelled at them to stop. Water use was tightly restricted because of the strain on the treatment plant to keep the flood water clean. Extra bylaw officers had been hired to report on irresponsible water use. Would they understand her need to rid her family of wasps in the monsoons?

She wondered if the boys had gotten dressed. Did she have to tell them to do that? She sniffed the air as if she might detect the lustful, though odourless, pheromones and contemplated what the other parents expected of her in her assumed role as chaperone. She’d been frightened at that first party, but alert too, ready to prevent an outburst of something, though she wasn’t exactly sure what. Gary and Jill’s much-discussed tactic was that they would be a visible presence, working the room, shaking hands, guarding against any misdemeanours. There was to be no drinking or smoking. Sex was out of the question.

An indignant Mac had ratted Sara out at one of his much rowdier parties. A buddy of his had been dumb enough to light a joint in the furnace room and when Jill had tracked down that aroma—too familiar from her own misspent youth—she’d discovered a teenage couple fully clothed but dry humping on her freezer. She didn’t want to bring her husband down from their bedroom, where he was immersed in watching The Graduate. Rather than adapting to the house filling up with teens, Gary had grown increasingly nervous and alarmed. Jill preferred to patrol alone now, assuring him up in their bedroom sanctuary that all was well. I don’t want to bring your dad down here, she’d warned Mac. He looked properly contrite, but they both regretted the exchange that followed.

“Why do your friends have to push everything to the limit? Your sister’s friends had a good time without breaking all the rules.”

“Oh God, Mom. You still believe those drama nerds were wholesome? Didn’t you notice how many of them walked in the door with Slurpees. Their Slurpees were full of vodka. And if sex bugs you….”

Stop, she’d told him. Stop right now.

After that she demanded that her three kids tell their friends there were new regulations in place. Jill told the kids’ close friends herself. They nodded and told her only a few kids were out of line, but they still thought she was a cool mom. Dumb, she thought back at them. You think I’m a dumb mom.

The rules were simple. No smoking anything. No under- age drinking. If you do drink, don’t drive. Despite  designated drivers this meant teenagers often slept in the basement. Therefore rule number three was—no sleeping in the same room as members of the opposite sex. Rule number three generated the most debate. The kids thought they should be able to fall asleep in cozy heaps, like puppies curled up against each other. Yet, despite the seductive power of pheromones, Jill surmised they were as scared as previous generations of actually doing it. She also knew that many were on the edge of bravely abandoning that fear.

“Hey, Momsey.” Amber danced into the room in tune to the hip hop music playing downstairs. Her hands were cupped together in offering. “I have something sad to show you.” She gently deposited her gift on the coffee table.

“Oooh, Amber. What is it? Yuck, it looks awful.”

“Relax, Mom.”  Looking closer, Jill understood what she was seeing. Her daughter had carried in bits of the watery nest with the white larvae still attached, each one wrapped in its own bundle of papery silver.

Jill was repulsed by the fleshy larvae. “Please, Amber, I don’t want that in the house. I mean it. What if they’re somehow born in the night?”

It was because of Amber that they hadn’t used a poisoning spray on the nest. She clamoured on about it being bad for all of them. “Mom, I googled it. Water works. They’re saturated. They can’t come back to life. You killed them.” No longer bouncing to the music, she stared, still and serious, at her mom.

“The boys did it,” said Jill.

“You told them to, Mom.”

“Amber, this is ridiculous. They’re wasps. We can’t be Buddhist about wasps. Both Sara and Tyler have been stung.” Amber was the sort to swish mosquitoes off her arm. “Please,

Yet, despite the seductive power of pheromones, Jill surmised they were as scared as previous generations of actually doing it. She also knew that many were on the edge of bravely abandoning that fear.

honey, put that larva guck in something and take it outside. What’s going on downstairs? Should I go down there?”

“Everything’s okay, Mom. Chill.” She slid her wet papery- wrapped treasure into her palm and slipped out of the room.

Jill felt guilty for exposing her youngest to her siblings’ den of iniquity. It wasn’t that Jill needed to chill. If she weren’t so chilled already, the party wouldn’t be taking place. Theirs would be one of the houses where kids never congregated. Her children would be hanging out at someone else’s shady place.

She considered making the kids nachos. It was good to divert their energy toward eating. She didn’t actually resent the teens’ presence. It was true what they say—at least she knew where her kids were. But the kids and the never-ending rain were making her feel melancholy, especially with Gary away. His absence no doubt contributed to the higher-octane energy in the house. She worried that she could be so susceptible, so childish, to want nothing more than to be part of it.

The screen door slammed. A bunch of them were trooping downstairs. “Mom.” It was Mac. “Mom, we need Band-Aids. Or a towel or something.”

She rushed to the back door to find Mac with blood on his hands and shirt, and a thin, pale girl limping behind him, leaving a trail of red splashes on the tile.

“Don’t freak out, Mom. She’s okay.”

“I’m okay,” the girl said, leaning on Mac, though her hand was shaking as she reached down to hold her bleeding foot. Just then a clap of thunder startled them all.

“What happened, Mac?”

“The wind blew a glass onto the deck—Kelsey was picking up the broken pieces.”

“I guess I stepped on it,” said Kelsey, sitting on the floor.

Amber had gathered washcloths and Band-Aids.

Jill stepped outside to survey the accident scene. One of the girls was sweeping up the glass while a couple of boys prepared to wash the blood off  the deck. Bylaw officers wouldn’t have a problem with that, would they? “Do you need a flashlight?” Jill asked. The sky lit up with a sheet of lightning.

“There’s enough light,” they told her. It was true. A few days after the longest day of the year, at 10 p.m. it was still dusk. The nearly full moon was visible, along with the setting sun, through the persistent clouds. Jill felt tired thinking of the teens’ energy, like the June light, continuing on and on. It was then, on the deck, that she thought she actually detected the pheromones, unseen waves of desire blowing in the wind, where so many of them had gathered before the threat of more bad weather and the broken glass had sent them downstairs. God, she longed to be young. To have her bare belly exposed, to be slightly drunk on vodka carried in her purse and slipped into a cup of pop, to be nervously summoning some boy to her side through telepathic messages of longing.

The three who’d been cleaning now lay on top of the picnic table, watching the sky for lightning, waiting for Jill to go away. If she were young she would stay outside like them, lying out under the heavy moon, in the electric summer night, hoping the boy she liked would stay with her.

She returned to the kitchen to find only Mac and the girl sporting Amber’s eager first aid job. Mac directed his distressed damsel to lean on him while he walked her downstairs to the new party core. Jill took a cooler she’d hidden in the fridge and climbed upstairs to collect herself in her bedroom. She knew the wasps, the chaotic youth, another threatening storm and the broken glass would have made that vein in Gary’s neck beat wildly—if he were there.

Jill had just settled on a TV program.

“Mom. Mom.” The door opened and her Sara was standing in the hallway wiping away tears and hyperventilating. Sara never cried. Never was a crier.

“My God, Sara, what’s wrong?” Tears rolled down Sara’s face and she stood there letting them slide over her lips, holding her arms in a tight hug around her hiccupping body. “What is it? Tell me.”

“I think,” she choked, “I think Tyler is trying to break up with me.”

Jill stepped up to hold her daughter tight. Sara didn’t stop hugging herself, but leaned against her mother, sobbing.

“What happened, honey? What did he say? What do you mean, you think?”

Sara inhaled deeply and spoke against her mom’s shoulder, her breath warming a spot there. “He was acting weird since he got here tonight. Quiet. He’s never quiet. And then after the wasp stung him we were, you know, kissing…” The memory of that brought more sobs.

“Okay. You were kissing…”

“No, Mom. I was kissing him. That’s what it was like. And then he was just staring at me.” She shook in her mom’s arms, quivering as if it was cold rather than humid and sticky. Jill stepped back. “Ah, baby, don’t cry. You’re working yourself up. Maybe for nothing.”

Sara escaped the hug, moving into the room to sit on the bed, her long brown legs pulled up tight. “I hate this summer. Yesterday, on our soaking wet bike ride, he rode way ahead of me. I couldn’t keep up.”

“But Sara, he probably just wanted to get out of the rain.” “No, Mom. He’s never like that. We’ve held hands on bikes

before.”

“Sara, that’s dangerous.”

“Mom.”

“So he didn’t actually say he wants to break up with you?”

“He doesn’t have to.”

Jill watched her daughter rub her eyes so hard that she wanted to pull her daughter’s hands away. Outside, the lilac bushes were being whacked against the window by a heavy wind. Jill could hear rain pinging off the metal barbecue. “Besides, I don’t think he’d break up. He’d make me do it.”

Then don’t, Jill thought, afraid suddenly of how strange life without Tyler around might be. People said they were too young for such togetherness, but still it happened. Jill was no example; she and Gary had also met in high school. Would there really be no Tyler at their table for every other meal? God, she actually bought some of the groceries because he liked them—maple leaf cookies and hot salsa—they preferred mild, Chinese dumplings and mango juice. Would her dreams no longer be disturbed by Tyler sneaking out of Sara’s room late at night? Jill felt her own heartbeat quicken. “Sara, you’ll just have to speak to him.”

“I’m afraid, Mom.”

“It could be something else.”

Sara swung her feet to the floor, gathering resolve. “But what if it’s not anything else?” She lay back on the bed. “He’s acting so weird. Sitting alone in the garage.”

Thunder cracked and they jerked forward. “Maybe it’s the wasp bite, Sara.”

“Do wasp bites make you weird?”

Should she be giving her daughter such excuses for callous behaviour? Sara sat up. Together they were silent, each listening to the wind and the lilac bushes and the rolling thunder. “Storms can make people different. You know, the electricity.”

Sara stood taking a deep breath. “I’m going to go out there.”

“Be careful.”

“Of what?” Sara sounded exasperated with her mother now, already finished with this uncharacteristic display of dependence.

“Of the lightning,” Jill answered, but thought be careful of the lies I might be telling you concerning wasp stings and storms.

Next, Amber trailed up from the basement and implored her mother to come out in the car with her. She’d just earned her learner’s driver’s licence and felt safest practising on the empty residential streets at night. Jill tried to explain that she’d had enough, but Amber always had a way with her mom. “It might relax you, Mom. I’ll drive slowly. We can watch lightning. You like watching lightning. Don’t tell them you’re going. They’ll think you’re still up here.”

Jill did feel a release being part of the moonlit night, the wind carrying leaves into the path of the car’s headlights. She allowed Amber to drive five blocks, her hands tight on the steering wheel at 10 and 2 o’clock, as she eased the car up to the curb alongside Fish Creek Park. A deer had wandered into the city and stood several yards off, shock still in the car’s headlights. Jill knew that in the valley below, the creek’s banks were washed away and forever altered by the erratic weather.

Amber spoke, but not about the deer, “Mom, I don’t think I’m ever going to get married and have kids.”

“Ah, sweetie, why not?”

“I just don’t know if I believe in marriage. I guess it’s good if you have kids, but I don’t think I want to have kids.” They both focused on the glistening-wet deer moving away into the trees.

Jill cringed to hear this child she had coddled say she didn’t want motherhood.

“I think I’d be an awful mom. You’re cool, Mom. You are. But I wouldn’t want my kids to touch my stuff, or use my car.”

Jill didn’t know why she felt compelled to argue. Why couldn’t she tell Amber she could be free of all parental duties? “You’ll surprise yourself. In fact, someday it will seem like your stuff is their stuff.”

“Nope. I just can’t see it.” Amber revved the engine too high and startled both of them. “I think I’d be a bitchy mom.”

“Will you take me home?” Jill asked her daughter and felt at once overwhelmed by the asking. “You don’t have to be a mom, honey.”

“I know. But I probably will be one. And the thought of that is sort of depressing.”

Amber let her mom out into a misty rain, staying behind to listen to a favourite song. Sara and Tyler were on the steps leaning up against each other, their hair dripping wet. As Jill climbed the walk, Tyler pulled off his t-shirt and wrapped it around Sara’s shoulders in a soppy display of chivalry.

Jill attempted to sound neutral. “Are you two okay?”

“Sure. Yeah.” They both laughed, in a way that left her out.

“How’s the sting?”

“Better now.” Tyler kissed Sara. Jill walked into the house alone.

Inside, the phone was ringing. Jill moved past the clamour of teens leaving to make their curfews. Mac was on the couch with the injured-foot girl, stroking her thin arm. Jill picked up the phone in the kitchen. It was Gary.

“Hey, hon, how are things?”

She had never mentioned the party, not wanting the vein in his neck to react to the imagined problems.

“Has it stopped raining? It’s making the news down here. Don’t tell me you’ve got more rain?”

“It stormed again, but it’s blowing over now.”

“And what about the wasps? Did they come back?”

Jill spied a cereal bowl on the counter with the wet ashy covered larvae clinging to its bottom. She thought she saw something pulpy and white move inside the bowl. “They’re back,” she said. “They’re definitely back.”

Candace Allan’s award-winning stories have been published in a variety of literary and commercial magazines, including The Windsor Review, Canadian Living and Alberta Views. Her humorous view of parenting was also heard in a series of essays recorded for CBC’s Richardson’s Roundup.

 

RELATED POSTS

The Sicilian Wife

Edmonton writer Caterina Edwards’s latest book is both an intriguing mystery and a sharp critique of how men often expect women to behave. As a mystery, The Sicilian Wife is a departure from Edwards’s previous work—the award-winning memoir, Finding Rosa, as well as a novel, short stories and a play—but ...

Spirit-in-Stone

As the priest stood in the wind, struggling to nail that bit of paper to his church door, Spirit-in-Stone thought he looked more than ever like a flightless crow. “What are you nailing up there, No-Fly-Crow?” she called in Cree. His other name was Father Gerald but no one ever called him ...

Northern Vegas

Five thirty a.m. I run a palm over my eyes, my scalp, my chin. I’m growing out the stubble for when minus 40 hits. The broadcaster has a honey-soft voice I like even when the radio’s cranked up loud and fuzzy. She swims over the freezing rain outside and stirs me ...