Jerri and Katrina sat on Jerri’s cool concrete front porch. The house was raised from the street, the skeletons of a vegetable garden, moldy tomatoes and overgrown kale with thick mint trunks, layered between the girls and the sidewalk. Entering her late 20’s, Jerri liked to make empty self-improvement claims, so talked often about how she should replant it. Katrina would like to hack at the kale trunk with a baby axe.
They sat, butts resting on the ledge of the front door. It was January and cold in Los Angeles and they didn’t have good jackets. Jerri held a fleece blanket around her shoulders, the end draped over Katrina’s knees. Katrina had tucked her wiry orange hair into the neck of her sweatshirt and pressed her hands between her warm thighs. At first, they tried to be nonchalant about the bee carcasses surrounding them in a fine black lace. They’d had two beers, a third in hand.
“In 2017, we’ll look death in the eyes,” Katrina said. “Sit right in it.”
Jerri laughed and took in the metaphor like she drinks tequila shots, not blinking and suddenly relating all the aspects of her life in a forced and manic way.
“Relationship death,” Jerri said.
“Which relationship?” Katrina said, too soon. She should have allowed Jerri to elaborate. She was over having any influence on her friend.
“I guess that’s the question,” Jerri said, her voice dark. She was in love with a hippy paleontologist. She admitted that she might love him because he was so different from her boyfriend of six years, Neale: two alternate lives served up on a platter. Neale wore a sharp trench coat and a single gold chain to his planning job at City Hall. The paleontologist wore dirty overalls to collect yard snails he ate with full-fat butter.
“But isn’t that what you said about open relationships?” Jerri said. “They force you to look your relationship straight in the eyes?”
“Yeah,” Katrina said. “It’s brave.”
She bit her tongue again. Jerri had used Katrina and Anthony’s open relationship as a model when she talked Neale into letting her make out with the paleontologist. Whenever Jerri talked about it, she got pretty morose, like it was a tragedy in motion. This annoyed Katrina. She never thought her own relationship was bound for failure. She simply woke up one morning no longer in love with anyone.
“I don’t feel very brave,” Jerri said.
Katrina started flicking the dead bees across the porch. She enjoyed the even strength of her long fingernail, which sent them all towards a single cluster.
“How can you touch them?” Jerri said. “I can’t even sweep them up.”
“It’s satisfying,” Katrina said.
“Look inside one,” Jerri said.
Katrina put a bee in the center of her palm and dug a fingernail into it. She picked at the exoskeleton. Jerri craned over it.
“Nothing,” Jerri said, disappointed. “Ok, I’ve made people do this so many times before and never seen anything. But I want to see the moth! I dream of seeing the moth.”
It had been three months since Jerri first noticed the bees flying around the porch light at night. One week later, they’d all dropped to the ground. Within a month, a buzzing halo had returned to the porch light. The cycle continued like that.
It was the paleontologist who first texted Jerri a link in explanation: zombie bees. They were a thing. The bees ate moth larvae, which sprouted inside them, eventually killing them and inhabiting their bodies. These were not really bees at all, but moths in bee’s clothing. The paleontologist put Jerri’s house on an online database dedicated to tracking zombie bees. Jerri added this to the evidence that he was a clearly a man she needed in her life.
Neale appeared on the sidewalk below. In the blue light of the gate keypad, he typed his entry.
“Ok,” Jerri said, leaping up before Neale opened the gate. “Come inside.”
Katrina followed her to the kitchen, where Jerri poured a tall glass of water.
“Can you not tell Neale you broke up with Anthony?” Jerri said.
“What about the chairs?” Katrina said. The two vintage armchairs were the only pieces of furniture she took from her and Anthony’s apartment. Currently, they were wedged together in her car at the foot of Jerri’s garden. They’d belonged to Katrina’s grandfather, and if it weren’t for the need to store them, she wouldn’t be here.
“Tell him you guys are moving. That you don’t have enough space for them.”
It was the kind of lie that Katrina could see herself intentionally forgetting, or the kind of hidden truth that, with one more beer, Katrina might intentionally spill. Neale, who allowed Jerri openness, but said he didn’t need it for himself, always seemed suspicious of Katrina, like she was corrupting his girlfriend. He deserved the lie.
Neale came up behind Jerri and kissed her hair. Jerri took a big swig of water and smiled sideways at him with a mouth she’d made too full to kiss.
“Hey Katrina,” Neale said. He put some Tupperware from his stylish leather tote into the sink. He usually seemed rather stiff, but tonight moved with loose energy. “I just went to a great new bar downtown in the back of a bookstore, like a speakeasy.”
He said this more to Katrina than to Jerri. His warmth made her uncomfortable.
“Neale, will you help us move some chairs from Kat’s car to the living room? Remember, I told you her and Anthony might store some stuff here?”
“Sure. Where’d you guys move?”
“Mid City,” Katrina said.
“Let’s do it now,” Jerri said.
Katrina opened her trunk and Jerri stepped right up.
“We got it,” she said, pulling the first chair out by its wooden feet. She gestured to Neale to take the other side.
“These are beautiful,” he said.
“You stay here, Kat. We’ll come back for the other,” Jerri said. Her eyes were focused on the pea green upholstery of the chair back.
Katrina watched them balance the chair between them up the stairs. Jerri made Neale walk backwards. He told Jerri to slow down, once, and waffled a few times. Katrina knew the chair wasn’t heavy, but it was hard to walk backwards and Jerri did seem to be moving too fast.
Jerri had asked Katrina many times if she really thought open relationships worked.
“If you’re actually open with each other,” Katrina had said.
“I told Neale a long time ago that our sex drives are mismatched,” Jerri’d said. “I need to have more sex than him. I also need to flirt. I feel like myself when I flirt.”
“So you tell him whenever stuff happens with your scientist?”
“No, he doesn’t want to hear about it. You and Anthony talk details?”
“Yeah,” Katrina had said. “We find it fun. It turns us on.”
Alone, Katrina felt sure of her decisions. Here, though, she was embarrassed, dampened by the kind of shame she thought an outspoken religious person might feel after they lost God. Not that she was converted.
The couple reached the porch. They slowed down, walking lightly across it, considering the bee/moth bodies under their feet.
“So they were your grandparents’?” Neale asked, when the chairs were situated in the living room, facing the couch.
Katrina let Neale sit in the chair with the taller back and an ottoman. He put his feet up. She offered Jerri the other chair, so she could sit beside her boyfriend, but Jerri jumped onto the couch. She laid on her back with her phone above her face, texting.
“You seem different,” Neale said to Katrina. “Distracted?”
He’d never reached out to her in this way before, his dark, focused eyes and dense lashes poking deliberately across shared space into her brain. When he did, Katrina could see why Jerri loved him. Or at least why she couldn’t let him go. Katrina wondered what he knew about Jerri that Jerri didn’t know he knew.
“She’s tired,” Jerri said.
“Tired,” Neale said. “Aren’t we all?”
Katrina felt like she couldn’t shift in her seat without drawing attention to her body.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t put the chairs upstairs?” Jerri said.
“I like them here,” Neale said. “Don’t you, Kat?”
“Let’s go look upstairs,” Jerri said, dropping her phone onto her belly. “Maybe it’d be better.”
They climbed the stairs to their bedroom, Jerri first, then Katrina, then Neale.
“I have to pee,” Jerri said.
Katrina followed Neale into the large bedroom because there was nowhere else to go on the top floor besides a walk-in closet. He gestured to a spot by the window.
“I guess they could go there,” he said. He did a charade of a proper old man sitting on one side of the window and then the other side. He now seemed drunk.
Katrina was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the couple’s considerations of the chairs in their home. She wanted to remind them that they were hers, though she didn’t know when she’d be back to get them. She was staying at a temporary sublet that required her to split her stuff up between her friends’ homes. It didn’t destabilize her in the way she thought it might. She felt lighter, in fact, until now.
“Do you guys hang out up here much, though?” Katrina said, making a jab at their sex life without meaning to.
“I guess not,” Neale said. “We should. Look at the view.”
She didn’t know they had a view of anything. From the porch, you could only see the street. From the window, their neighborhood stretched out under cotton candy light pollution, the skyline of downtown in the distance.
“Nice,” Katrina said.
“You’re nice,” Neale said, stepping closer to her. “To let us borrow your chairs.”
His face wasn’t too close, but he reached his hand out and tucked Katrina’s hair behind her ear. He looked into her eyes and then to the window and back with more intention. She almost gasped. She should have expected this – Neale viewing her as the easy option, as something owed.
“Is Anthony OK with this?” he said.
She should have gawked at his question, but instead she wondered what she’d done with her eyes or her hands in her hair that had suggested she was OK with this.
“I’m going to smoke,” Katrina said.
She passed Jerri kissing at herself in the bathroom mirror, door wide open. Her phone camera was raised to shoulder-height, her lips dabbed with a matte coating of dark red-brown lipstick. They’d discussed before that this shade looks sexy, but if you kiss with it, your lover will look like they have chocolate all over their face.
“I’m going to smoke,” Katrina said again. She hated that she felt the pressure to offer explanations, always, but it was what it was. Jerri usually smoked with her. Jerri nodded, smiling down at her phone, at her selfie sent, and then went into the bedroom.
On the porch, Katrina crouched down and started to fill her palm with dead bees. She wanted a whole handful. She wanted depth. She wanted the soft skin of her hand to disappear completely. One at a time, she moved bees into the pile, thankful for her long nails that lifted them without squishing. It was quiet on the street.
She liked the feeling of wanting to close her fist and crush them, but deciding not to. With this thought, though, she wanted to say aloud, that self-control is not the virtue people make it out to be. Each of her actions now seemed to need a value-statement caption. This exhausted her, almost as much as being misread. She would bring her hand to her mouth and swallow all the zombie bees, if it would mean she could stop feeling shame. She doesn’t even believe in it.
She looked in the window to see Jerri straddle Neale in the armchair. He pressed his head against the back of the chair. Katrina realized she didn’t need to go back inside for anything. She had her keys and her phone in her pocket. It’s harder to leave, when you have nowhere specific to go, but Katrina could do it. She’d done it before.
She considered throwing the dead bees into the dead vegetable garden. They’d probably act as a fertilizer or creep Jerri out in a different way – bodies raised from the earth. Instead, she scattered them back onto the porch, making sure they coated every corner, so Jerri and Neale would continue to tiptoe uncomfortably, together and apart. Quiet boldness was not an overrated virtue. It was one Katrina depended on, found life in, encouraged of Jerri, but the couple did not deserve it.
Originally from rural Oregon, Kelly Thomas lives in Los Angeles. Her stories have been included in Chicago’s Second Floor Rear festival, San Francisco’s Bang Out Reading Series, Be About It Zine, Rivet, Metazen and Our Portland Story, Volume 2.