|A Bee Charmer’s Heart
by Nina de Gramont
| Whenever Rebecca and Lane left town, the neighborhood boys broke into their house.
“Let’s go,” Lane urged anyway. She squeezed Rebecca’s elbow. “It’ll be fun.”
Rebecca gently moved out from her roommate’s grasp. She wrung a wet, soapy sponge over the kitchen counter and scrubbed at a hardened splotch of soy sauce. Despite some misgivings about the trip, Rebecca knew that eventually she’d relent, and she felt a strange obligation to leave the place clean.
Adam had been asking Rebecca to go to Ione for weeks. His father was Assistant Warden at a correctional facility for juvenile offenders, and lived on prison grounds. “I know it sounds weird,” Adam told Rebecca, “but it’s really beautiful, very rural, with rolling hills. There’s a lake we can hike to. It’s maximum security, so you’ll be totally safe. And Fall is the best time there.”
The prison didn’t bother Rebecca. In fact, she found it the most interesting thing about Adam, who courted her with an earnestness that was far too passive and accommodating. They’d gone out numerous time over the last few months, but barely touched; Rebecca concentrated on sending out demure but definite “do not kiss me” vibes, which Adam obeyed stringently. She suspected the trip to Ione would occasion his big, breakthrough move. He’d only invited Lane along because Rebecca hadn’t wanted to leave her alone. “I’d feel awful,” she told Adam, “if those teenagers broke in while I gone.”
“We’ll bring Lane with us,” Adam offered, gallant as usual. He always had generous but annoying solutions to Rebecca’s excuses. A few weeks ago, she’d come down with a bad cold and cancelled a date. Over the phone Adam took the news well, then showed up on their doorstep with a carton of orange juice and a can of chicken soup. He spent the evening perched on Rebecca’s bed, handing her tissues and taking her temperature with the flat of his palm, obliging her to sit up and look appreciative while Lane tiptoed, smiling, through the hallway.
“The one good thing about being sick was not having to go out with him,” Rebecca said now, recalling the incident as a reason not to go to Ione. “Then he shows up, all solicitous.”
“I thought that was sweet,” Lane said. Lane admitted to a mild crush on Adam, and claimed not to understand Rebecca’s ambivalence. “Anyway,” Lane continued, “we’ve only got three more weeks left in this nightmare. I’d like to spend as much time away from here as possible.”
Rebecca had wanted to stand their ground and stay in the small, two bedroom house, which wouldn’t be affordable in any other neighborhood. But Lane had talked her into moving. The first of next month would find them in a cramped apartment close to Lake Merritt. They planned to hang a bedspread over the archway to the diningroom and use it as a bedroom for Rebecca, who’d lost the coin toss.
“Don’t you think it’s rude,” Rebecca said, “accepting on such short notice?” The clock over the kitchen stove read nine pm. Adam wanted to leave immediately after work tomorrow, Friday.
“Please,” Lane said. “He’d be on his way to Nome within the hour, if you called him.”
“Fine,” Rebecca said. “We’ll spend the weekend at a maximum security prison, if that’s what makes you happy.”
That night Rebecca woke to a tapping on the front door. She strained her ears in the dark, rearranging dreams and night noises before she could be certain someone was really knocking. Worried that Lane would wake up and be afraid, she got out of bed and whispered from the other side of the door: “Who is it?”
When they’d first rented this house, the landlady assured them the neighborhood was low-income but safe. Lots of Asians, lots of mixed couples. Almost entirely families. The cultural diversity had appealed to Rebecca and Lane. Every morning when Rebecca ran, she smiled and waved hello to neighbors on their early, scowling way to work. But she and Lane hadn’t anticipated what a novelty they would be: two young women, living alone amidst these struggling parents and children, framed prints and dried flowers visible through half-drawn curtains.
One night Rebecca and Lane had returned home from a party to find the house not damaged, but clearly used. Three glasses piled in the sink. A bottle of wine taken from the kitchen counter, a bottle of Absolut missing from the freezer.
“Damn,” Lane said. “They went through everything.” They had played CDs, but not stolen any. Rebecca’s silk panties were scattered fervently across the top of her dresser. The last of Lane’s Ambien prescription was gone, along with Rebecca’s two modest marijuana buds, which had been hidden under the good lingerie: a theft they’d omitted when reporting the incident to the police and landlady.
“It’s Kenny,” a young, male voice whispered back now, from the other side of the door. “Is Joe there?”
Rebecca squinted through the peep-hole. A gangly kid, tall but distinctly non-adult, with his hands in his pockets and a wool cap pulled over his eyebrows.
“There’s no Joe here,” Rebecca said, trying to make her voice sound deep and authoritative. She thought about saying she had a gun, but decided that would only serve as further enticement for breaking and entering this weekend. “You’d better leave,” she said instead, “before my husband wakes up.”
The kid, Kenny, laughed – knowing perfectly well she had no husband. Rebecca couldn’t help herself. She laughed, too. Then she moved to the window, drawing the curtain aside, and watched as Kenny stood for a few seconds, undecided, before ambling off their porch and down the sidewalk. The one working streetlight illuminated his demeanor, which struck Rebecca as childlike, at loose-ends, and faintly dejected.
“They’re all exactly the same,” Adam explained, on the drive up to Ione. “They’re not allowed to part their hair on different sides, or cuff their pants or sleeves. Nothing that could indicate gang affiliation.”
“Do you see much of them?” Lane asked. To Adam’s probable disappointment, Lane rode in the passenger seat while Rebecca stretched her legs in back.
“I see them on work detail,” Adam said, “doing yard work on the grounds, and things like that. But I’ve never been inside the prison.”
“It’s just kids, right?” Lane asked.
“Older kids,” Adam said. “Teenagers, and some twenty and twenty-one year olds who’re finishing up juvenile sentences.”
“So they’re behind a fence or something, on work detail?”
“Yeah,” Adam said. “Electric. Barbed wire. The whole deal.”
“Like a zoo,” Rebecca said.
“Yeah,” Adam admitted. “It’s pretty weird.”
They arrived at Ione after dark. It felt like a hundred other country homes Rebecca had visited: the car door slamming while crickets chirped, the smell of freshly cut grass mingling with pine and gin-scented juniper.
Adam’s father and stepmother ushered them inside for a spaghetti dinner. Lane seemed especially chatty, hovering close by Adam’s elbow, so that his parents assumed she was his date and treated her with particular interest. The house itself felt homey, filled with knickknacks and potted plants. Nothing to indicate the proximity of incarcerated juveniles other than an elaborate alarm system: a thick metal box affixed to the diningroom wall, with light bulbs to indicate various areas of the prison. In the middle of the night, on her way to the bathroom, Rebecca stopped for a while to gaze at the contraption, meticulously labeled and comfortingly unlit.
In the morning Rebecca woke just as the dew was lifting. She got up quietly, careful not to wake the still-snoozing Lane, and dressed to go for a run.
“I like to see an early riser,” Adam’s father said, wearing a suit coat and pouring himself a cup of coffee in the kitchen.
“It must be nice,” Rebecca said, “not having to commute.” He smiled in agreement.
Rebecca ran down the dusty, dirt driveway and out toward the road. The fence, which had been obscured by darkness when they arrived, loomed large and foreboding along the surrounding hills.
At the bottom of the road she turned onto what looked like a promising trail, winding and surrounded by wild growth – sage brush and assorted tall weeds. Sweat poured down her forehead and dampened her eyelashes. Just ahead, she saw a tall pile of gray boxes – resting on a faint, unnatural swell of sand. A cloud of dust rose around the stack, dappling in the strengthening sun, and Rebecca imagined some sort of hidden stash: treasures waiting, for young but resourceful escaped convicts.
She ran directly into the cloud to discover it wasn’t dust at all but bees. Hundreds of them, buzzing and swarming around her. She froze for a moment, careful not to change her breath, composed enough to marvel at her own lack of fear. Then, very slowly, she started moving again – mimicking the same strides of her run, the circular motion of her arms that had gained her unharmed entrance into the swarm.
Within seconds Rebecca emerged into clear air: not stung, not affected. Sweating and breathing in the blinding new light.
At the house, Adam’s was the only car in the driveway. He and Lane sat out back in lawn chairs, passing a joint. As Rebecca approached, Adam laughed and reached out to touch Lane’s arm. When he saw Rebecca, he drew back his hand.
Lane offered her the joint. “No thanks,” Rebecca said. She shaded her eyes and looked up toward the hill. Behind the fence stood a group of young men on work detail. It seemed to Rebecca they were lined up, various yard implements in hand, staring down the hillside at Adam, Lane, and Rebecca. All wearing identical orange jumpsuits, nothing cuffed, their hair shorn close to the scalp. They looked much thicker, more imposing, then Kenny – the boy who’d knocked on their door the other night.
Only a few years later, Rebecca’s memory would rearrange itself in conscious inaccuracy. She would recall this moment taking place in late afternoon, the three of them drinking martinis around a swimming pool, Lane and Rebecca in bikinis. But in fact it was only dusty, sun-soaked morning: Rebecca wearing a sweaty t-shirt, Lane still in a tank top and baggy pajama pants, Adam cupping his palm to hide the joint. There was no pool, just a dried and crackling expanse of cut grass.
Lane followed Rebecca’s gaze. “They don’t look like kids,” she said. “They look grown up. I wonder what they did.”
“You name it,” Adam said. He dropped the joint and ground it out with the toe of his sneaker. “Murder. Rape. Armed robbery.”
“Still,” Rebecca said. She looked resolutely upward as one young man turned away, returning to work as if the sight of their luxury was too much to bear. “It’s so sad.”
Lane and Adam nodded politely, not so much agreeing but wanting to continue, unfettered, with the coming day. “We’ll walk out to the lake after breakfast,” Adam said. For one strange moment Rebecca thought he meant all of them: herself, Lane, and Adam – followed by the orange-clad multitude, rakes and shovels discarded.
“It’ll be fun,” Lane said, and they all nodded, the morning brilliance fading to matte, the watchful eyes above them transforming into a simple quirk of the landscape, not at all eerie, but usual and harmless.
“It will,” Rebecca agreed, and walked inside to shower and change – aware of the eyes on her departure as if she held them, laden, in her arms.