The rock underneath her worn fingertips still held the warmth of the sunrise. Maggie’s legs were quivering from exhaustion and adrenaline. The nearest handhold was only a few inches away, and from below her Neil called up.
“Yo, Mags, you got it. Just smear, and reach.”
“You should really be wearing a helmet, you know,” said Maggie.
“Just don’t drop any rocks and we’ll be good,” said Neil, absently scooting the rope out from under him with his foot. She let out a deep breath and felt her legs steady, then smeared her left foot against the stone, and grabbed a jutting rock above her.
“Got—,” She felt her fingers grasp the rock and slide off, tearing at her skin. As she fell to the ground, the rope suddenly grew taut, jerking her body up, then plunging her down into darkness. She heard buzzing all around her and the tickle of insect legs on her face, and then nothing at all.
Trees rolled by the car window, breaking the sunrays into harsh bolts that hurt her eyes. Bright lights were still painful sometimes. She had been in the hospital for weeks, unaware of the broken bones that were reset or deep cuts that needed to be cleaned and sewn shut. After she woke from the coma and learned that Neil was dead, his skull crushed by falling rocks, the scene around her became intolerable. As soon as the release forms were signed, Maggie packed her things into her car and drove until she couldn’t hear beeping hospital machines or the fizzle of fluorescent lights.
“Pretty, idn’ it?” said Erik. He caught Maggie’s eyes in the rearview mirror.
“It is. How much further?”
“We’re here! See it’s only about 15 minutes out of town.”
The car pulled into a narrow dirt road, tall trees bordering on either side, a temporary relief from the harsh sunlight. The shiny black sedan bumped up and down the road, sending clouds of dust up on either side. A tall white structure loomed beyond the clouds of rust-colored dust. The car came to a sudden stop and Maggie, with her mouth gaping wide, hit her head on the window.
“Now this house, I think, will be right up your alley,” said Erik, rolling onto the balls of his feet, his hands fondling the spare change in his pockets.
“It’s been empty for a few years, eight to be exact. It needs a little bit of work, but it fits into your budget. You like it?”
“Why’s it been empty for so long?”
“Oh, people get spooked easy. The last owner lived in this place his entire life and he died here too of old age. Ain’t nothing to be scared of though. It’s just well loved,” Erik said.
“I love it,” Maggie whispered, “How much?”
“Don’t ya want to see the inside?”
“I don’t need to,” she said. Erik squinted at her, the sun in his eyes, “Alright. It’s yours then.”
As she slipped into her sleeping bag in the middle of the living room floor that night, the gentle chirping of crickets and bullfrog song lulled her to sleep, more peaceful than any hospital bed.
The eastern sun streamed through the old sagging windows of the living room. Maggie propped herself up on her elbows to admire the bleary new world rising in front of her. She creaked open the door and stood on the porch admiring the dewy sparkle of the grass.
It’s so beautiful here. A bird twittered nearby, its song carried on a small breeze. Maggie shivered and rubbed her hands up and down her arms and went back inside to start the day.
Luckily the previous owners had left behind a kettle, but the water still wasn’t turned on, so Maggie headed outside to an old water pump that she hoped still worked. With a rusty cry and a few hefty up and down motions, water poured out of the faucet. When she looked up, she saw a man standing in tall grasses, staring at her. He seemed large and barrel chested and was wearing old overalls. She jumped back, tripped over the pump handle spilling her water everywhere as she fell. When Maggie looked up again, the man was gone. Chills crept up her arm despite the quickly warming air.
It was nothing. I’m just seeing things. The doctors said there would be side effects of the coma.
Despite her attempts to reassure herself, Maggie rushed inside and turned on her phone. Thank god there’s still battery life left. The electricity still wasn’t turned on. That’ll have to be a number one priority today.
“Hey. It’s me, Maggie.”
“Oh hi. Is everything okay? Please don’t tell me you’re thinking about backing out.”
“No, not at all. I just—” Maggie hesitated. “Um, well, I thought I saw someone in the back field today.” It sounded crazy.
“Do you want me to come out and take a look around?”
“You know, I’m just tired. I bet it’s nothing. I’m sorry to bother you.”
“It’s alright. I don’t blame you for being a little spooked living out there all by yourself.”
She felt her uneasiness lifted and dissipate at the sound of his laughter.
“You know what? I’ll come out there tomorrow and take a look around. I bet everything’s fine, but I feel better knowing that you’re not having any regrets.”
Maggie hung up the phone embarrassed, but relieved. She looked out the window to the spot where the man had appeared. Just to be safe, I should take a look around while it’s light out.
She slid on some boots to wade through the sea of grass. As she got closer, she could see the top of something white and solid. At first she thought it was tonitis, another symptom to add to the growing list, but the buzzing became louder and filled the air with furious echos of beating wings. The sound was coming from several commercial bee hives. She stopped suddenly as the realization hit her, but she heard Neil’s voice in her head from the previous summer in the garden, You’re both just gardeners doing your jobs.
She approached the closest box to her and rested her hand gently on top. It was warm beneath her hands. The vibrations went up her arm, leaving a trail of goosebumps. Remembering she’d left the kettle on the stove, she ran back to the house, the whistle calling her. The drone of wings followed close behind.
The only thing Maggie didn’t love about her new lonely fortress was the lack of air conditioning. She stood at the sink looking out the window, sweat rolling down her face as she held a bag of ice to her neck.
Outside, the cicadas clicked and whirred ominously. The tall grass swayed in the wind. Maggie had spent nearly every hour of the last few days outside clearing brush, attempting to tame the ten acres she’d purchased. So far, she’d managed to push the line of wildness several feet away from the house. She discovered raised beds, sprinkler attachments for the hose, and an assortment of farming tools. Next up: tackling those vegetable gardens.
She knelt down in the dirt next to the wooden edging of the raised bed and began pulling at dead leaves and stalks. In the corner of her eye, she caught the yellow and black blur of a bee. It buzzed past her head and out of sight. Then there was another which landed on her knuckle. Curious and unafraid, Maggie lifted her hand to her face and looked into the glistening black eyes of her new friend.
A slight breeze lifted the strands of hair off her face and when she looked up, she saw a dark cloud darting toward her. The swarm hovered over her and seemed to stay there. Not menacing, just watching.
She began to indiscriminately pick at the patch of weeds again. She reached for a tall, woody stalk when a group of bees dove at her. Maggie screamed and shielded herself ready for a hundred stings that would surely come, but they did not. They circled the plant she was going to rip out seconds ago, and they seemed to say, Not this one.
Maggie approached the raised bed again and moved her hand nervously to a vine with thick heart-shaped leaves. The bees made no move toward her. She pulled at it. More bees came down from the cloud and began circling around a few other odd stalks and clumps. Maggie simply picked around them. They seemed to approve of her.
That’s ridiculous, she thought, and yet she was glad to have the company.
Her fingernails started to gather grit and the occasional thorn in her hand made her wince. As she reached in to grapple with a particularly deep-rooted weed, her hand brushed something rubbery and thinking it was a hose, she pulled it up. Maggie held in her hand a small shoe covered in black earth. She tossed it aside and began digging again and soon appeared another sneaker under her hands. And another and another. She piled them beside the raised bed and soon stopped. It was a garden filled with shoes and questions that Maggie was afraid to ask. The air went still. Her winged friends had vanished.
The following day, Maggie heard the familiar roar of a car engine and the accompanying crunch of gravel approaching the house. Erik had dropped by unexpectedly a couple times before just to check up on her. After the first time, she’d appreciated him coming by, but now it made her uncomfortable. She’d already purchased the house; Erik had already received his commission. How did he benefit from continuing the relationship?
Maggie sighed and left her post at the sink and headed to the front porch. Erik emerged from his car, hands shielding his eyes from the midday sun.
“I see you’re still doin’ okay out here on your own.”
“You want to come inside for some tea? Watch your step here,” said Maggie, pointing to a rogue floorboard she knew to be bowing under the weight of years of shoes. “That thing’ll snap soon.”
“So you’re figuring out the old place, huh?”
“Did you see what I managed to do out back? I found some old vegetable gardens.”
“Great! You should pick up some seeds at the feed store in town.”
“Yeah, I think I’ll do that,” said Maggie. “So I’ve been wondering about this old place…”
“Oh no, what cropped up now? A stranger’s face in the window? A call from inside the house?”
“Ha, no, nothing like that. I was just wondering who used to own this place.”
“Just an old man who was born here and then died here.”
“Nothing unusual about him? I mean, was he crazy or senile?”
“Probably a bit of both. Folks in town will tell stories about him, but it’s mostly a bunch of hullabaloo.”
“What do they say?”
“He was an awful, hot-tempered old man, but now he’s gone and you have his house.”
Erik sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “Alright. Fine. A few decades ago there was a spate of missing kids. Boys mostly. It was terrible. Our parents kept us locked up all the time and police were tailin’ everybody.”
“Are you saying that he kidnapped kids from town?”
“No, no, no. Years later they arrested some drifter for it. Crazy coot confessed to the whole thing. He died later in jail. Somebody jumped him.”
A spike like an icicle went through her despite the sweat on her brow. Shoes. They were children’s shoes. Suddenly she wasn’t so sure she liked that condescending laugh or the unsurprised look on his face when she asked about the previous owner who was also a suspected murderer.
“Alright well I gotta get back ‘fore my boss comes looking for me,” said Erik as he descended the porch stairs. The wood groaned in warning beneath his foot before cracking loudly and sending him knee deep in the porch.
“Gotdammit. Maggie, I’m so sorry. I’ll have someone come out and take care of this.”
“It’s alright! I should have warned you again. Are you okay?” said Maggie as she helped him out of the hole.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he said, dusting off his pant legs.
Maggie waved at him as he drove away, then turned away and dropped the smile from her face. As she ascended the stairs, she glanced into the hole that would now need repairs, and caught a glint of white. Her breath left her and the hair on her neck stood up. She ran into the house, grabbed her flashlight from next to her sleeping bag and ran back to the hole. Please, no.
The light beam caught nothing but dark soil at first, but then the gleam of white bone shone back up at her. First one skull, then two, then five. There were more that she couldn’t see, but knew were there. Just like she knew the man was standing in the front yard before she saw him.
She ran through the house and out the back door to the field as fast as she could toward the white hives. But the man was already there.
He stood still sneering at her and soon the buzzing and whirring became so loud, Maggie clapped her hands to her ears. She felt the tingle of a million legs treading over the softest parts of skin. The small of her back, her neck, and the backs of her hands, where bees traced the outline of her veins. Maggie willed herself to stay still, to not slap at the creeping insects.
The tickling legs of bees tangled with her eyelashes and hair. The buzzing intensified and grew louder, becoming one, traveling on one frequency.
She opened her eyes to see the mass of yellow and black fuzz and wings form the outline of a man. There was another sound now. Familiar. An engine.
No, not him. Maggie’s insides screamed and recoiled in horror. It was like her guts were turning her inside out attempting to run away. A hollow opened up in the bee man where a mouth should have been. The sound that came rang out in tinny vibrations. The sound collapsed her knees. The bees ceased buzzing for the purposes of flight and began to buzz to form speech. The sound of the engine came closer too.
“Let them sting. Let them crawl. Let me in.”
“No!” she shouted.
“Maggie. It will be easier this way. You stop feeling them after the first dozen.”
“I’m sorry, but if it’s not you, it’s me. He needs your body to live again and you were so willing to open yourself up to this house.”
A sting burned the back of her hand, another on her neck. A third and fourth and fifth on her legs. It took everything in her not to slap at the bees, her friends.
“Please! Stop!” she screamed. “Don’t let him do this!”
But the insects only came closer and soon covered her completely, stinging every inch of available skin. She could feel herself leaving her body, getting cooler and lighter as the venom streamed through her veins. The drone of wings became quieter and soon disappeared completely.
The next morning was cool and the dew collected on her skin, glowing in the sunlight. With a jolting breath, she lifted her head to look around. The sky was still faintly purple and orange around the horizon. She lifted her arms and pushed herself upright and on her feet. She breathed in the sweet air and began walking back to the house where Maggie had once lived, but did not live anymore.