The automaton workman belched steam from its brass mouth slit and drooped against the tree branch, unmoving.
“Great.” Sam punched the green button on his remote control. The automaton remained still, slumped against the last tree branch it had surmounted, glittering in the sun. “Just great.” The day had dawned perfect. His last bottle of orange juice had spoiled, a pile of old coats tumbled out of the closet to land on his head, now his workman gave up the ghost. Just perfect.
A few of the tree’s blackened and crumpled leaves dropped, the old bark flaked off the branches, floating to the ground. The generators’ steamy exhaust took a toll on the poor thing. He wondered how long it would last. Maybe he should tear it out.
The scent of dried pine pitch and rotted leaves filled his nose. He set the hoist in motion and lowered the clockwork gardener to the ground, opened its hand, and removed the shears.
He’d have to finish the work himself. Sam’s chest tightened as he peered through the tree’s dying leaves.
What a shame. The world’s scientists desperately scouted grain fields for any kind of new bud. Their successes grew further between. This shouldn’t be happening. He didn’t want to hear the final trumpets yet. It was far too soon.
Something flitted past his face, and he sat back, wide-eyed. Was that—
No, it couldn’t be!
The tiny thing zipped past his ear, buzzing. He turned his head, catching a glimpse. A blurred trail of yellow. The blur sped back and forth before his eyes. Finally, the busy, noisy thing alighted on his hand.
He gasped. A bee!
Sam froze, afraid it might dart away.
So, they hadn’t died out completely!
Afraid to move, he settled against the tree trunk and watched the creature pad across his hand. He slid off his left glove and coaxed the bee inside. Clamping the glove tight, he ran for the Corner Mart’s back door.
A blast of steam shot up from the store’s generators, surprising him, and he stumbled. He dropped the glove onto the generator grate and as Sam watched in horror, the glove ignited. He grabbed a stick and swiped the burning glove to the ground, and stomped the flames out. When he peeked inside the charred remains, he found the glove wasn’t the only thing the grate had fried. The bee was dead.
Steam and black soot filled the air from the energy grids in the center of town, but it didn’t seem enough. The whole city had moved to steam power, burning everything flammable. Dead trees, trash, the last of the world’s coal deposits. Rumor was, they even burned human corpses. Civilization broke down around him. People struggled to survive anyway they could now. What happened with the remains didn’t matter. If only the crops would grow…but without more bees, it seemed hopeless.
Frustrated, Sam looked to the sky. Send me another one, please?
No immediate answers to his query came.
He sighed and turned to the store’s back door.
The Corner Mart stood busy as a hive. Hundreds of men, women, of all ages, some hanging onto children, stood antsy by the doors. Others moved through the store, picking out their groceries and wares. No fist fights yet that he could see; but the crowd teetered on the edge of frustration.
All around, the shoppers picked their wares, some the last bits out of the world’s remaining factories. Sam weaved through the aisles to the counter at the far end of the store.
A brass automaton waited behind the counter, tending to each patron in turn. “Next.”
He moved behind the counter into the small pharmacy workroom and extracted the glove from his belt.
A raspy voice drew his attention from his task and he peered into the store. A scarecrow of a woman approached. Sam wondered what the automaton would think of her. He knew what he thought.
To get a better look, he plucked the half empty trash bag from the small garbage can by the desk. He pushed out the door.
“—about royal jelly? Someone told me you have a supply. Is it true? I’ve run low.”
“I’m sorry, miss. We don’t have any.”
“No?” The woman frowned but held to her spot. Sam drew nearer, listening to the two. “I thought I saw you hand a jar to that woman.” She pointed over her shoulder and Sam watched her through suspicious eyes. Thin, haggard, her straw hat askew, her voice crackled with mischief. “What of honeycomb lip balm?”
Sam reached into his pocket, tightening a hand around his gun. Leave. Go on. You’re not wanted here.
“We’re out. Sorry,” the automaton intoned. With gleaming fingers, the automaton held the woman’s money out to her and called the next customer. “Next.”
The woman persisted. “Bee butter lotion?”
“No ma’am,” the answer rang from the automaton’s brass throat. “Please move along.”
The woman took her money, a smirk curving her cracked lips. “Fine way to draw in the customers.”
She slid sunglasses on and pushed past Sam. Sam studied her through narrowed eyes. The woman looked sickly, her skin cracked and dry, her cheeks hollowed out. Bees butter and royal jelly was the least of what the woman needed.
“You know what they say, it’s easier to catch flies with honey.”
“If you’re the fly, I’d rather save my supply,” Sam grumbled. The door closed behind the cantankerous customer and Sam bent and pulled the garbage bag from a second trash can, and pushed out the back door, watching her climb onto a motorcycle parked in the employee parking lot.
She parked here to annoy him, Sam was sure.
Thick, dark exhaust spewed out the exhaust pipe as she started the motorcycle’s engine. Sam coughed.
“You need to learn how to address a queen,” she said.
Sam’s lip curled. “Not a queen like you. Get off my property!” He didn’t want to call any woman a bitch, but this one tried his patience.
“We’ll see.” The woman laughed and flipped him off as she rode by.
Sam snorted and flopped the trash into the bin and hoped the government hadn’t decided to slash garbage pickup overnight. He also hoped he never saw that woman again. One of Sam’s constant headaches that she was, it wasn’t likely.
A pained groan from behind the store’s generator interrupted his mental rant, and he stretched and peeked around the generator’s side. A naked woman sprawled behind the wide metal case. Wary, ready to strike back if she attacked—one never knew, these days. People had done weirder things—Sam cleared his throat to speak, “What are you doing back there?”
She spun to face him and Sam saw what her yellow hair hid. Behind the drawn-down brows, the wrinkled nose, and the quirk of annoyance to her lips, beyond her nakedness, her pretty features, a gold ring glinted around her neck.
She looked from him, to the tree nearby. Then she sneezed and drew a hand up to her face—and froze mid-gesture. “Is this a joke?”
“It’s an intrusion is what it is. Go on home, you.”
He frowned. Was she homeless? She wouldn’t be the first, lately. “You can’t stay here between my generator and my wall.” He tightened his grip on the gun. “Go on, now, and find some place else to sleep.”
The woman turned in the small space and kicked the generator; the sound rang through the quiet morning. She placed her hand against the steel, steadied herself to her knees. Her legs proved wobbly. Sam sighed, reached a hand out to the woman, and helped her to her feet. “Are you drunk?”
“On what, I’d like to know? No, I fell.”
The woman closed her eyes, and shook her head. She wriggled out of his grip, her gaze moved to the tree and back to him. “You can understand me?”
Frustrated he too wanted to kick something. This conversation had devolved to one he’d have with a child. “Of course I can.”
“You couldn’t earlier.”
His brow drew down in confusion. When had he seen this woman before? “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“When we spoke earlier, I was surprised to see you, I must say. I thought you were happy to—” She paused, frowned. “I don’t understand.” She ran a hand over the gold torc around her throat. “Dear gods!”
“What’s wrong?” She looked him up and down and back to the tree. Sam glanced over his shoulder, wondering what she sought. “You misunderstand. The gods have left us, of late.”
The woman licked her lips, still fondling the torc. “But you can understand me.”
“Why shouldn’t I?”
She shivered, took a step and wobbled again. Sam caught her arm, and tucked the ends of the glove into his waistband, hoping not to crush the bee’s remains. He would help this stranger get on her way, then take a look at that poor bee’s carcass. “Come on, let’s get you inside.”
He settled her into a chair in the store’s private consult room and headed to his office where he kept a crate of goods for the Salvation Army. The collection yielded an old flannel shirt and jeans. He entered the office and offered her the clothes. “The bathroom’s that way.” He pointed to the hall. “Put these on before you freeze.”
She took the outfit from his hands and peered down the hall. Hesitantly, she smiled at him. “I’m not used to this.”
“Neither am I,” he said as she trotted to the bathroom.
Sam poured her a cup of tea and hesitated, wondering if he should share his supply of honey. On second thought, he decided it charitable to share even at his loss.
She spoke close to his ear. “Things would be better if the bees returned.”
He whipped around to stare at her. He hadn’t heard her approach. “How do you know about the bees?”
She shook her head. She looked uncomfortable in the flannel. “I think I used to be one.”
It couldn’t be true! He took a deep breath. Wait, Sam, just wait. “Start from the beginning. How did you get here?”
“I was flitting around, searching for a good flower—and finding nothing in the vicinity mind you.”
Sam snorted. “Tell me something I don’t know.”
“I haven’t been feeling well,” she said. “I smacked into your fence twice because of it. You climbed up my tree and the next thing I know, it’s dark and I’m plummeting to the ground. Now—” She shrugged. “Here I am.”
He placed his hands on her cheeks. A faint scent of honey surrounded her.
What did she know? What didn’t she know? “What do you do when you’re not sleeping in other people’s parking lots?”
“I . . .” She looked lost, perplexed. “Flowers,” she said.
“Flowers.” The girl must be crazy. Poor thing. “You’re not going to find many here,” Sam said. He gazed out the window. “Rumor is, the crops won’t sustain even the east coast of England, let alone all of Europe. I haven’t had a good drink of milk in six months. The honey—sometimes it’s the only thing that keeps me going. With the bees dying, I don’t know what we’ll do.
“The bee population is dying and the scientists can’t figure it out. I found one in my tree this morning.” His eyes widened and he drooped. “Oh! That was you, wasn’t it?” Please gods, let her say otherwise.
Her eyes widened in shock. “What are you, Sam? How do you know all this?”
He didn’t answer; instead, he offered her the tea. “Speaking of honey, how much do you take?”
He opened the honey cabinet. He heard his guest gasp and looked over his shoulder. Her amber eyes widened in surprise. “What’s wrong?”
She half-rose, wobbled, and leaned against the table. “Where did you get all the honey?”
He glanced to the cabinet. Three jars remained. Shame. “We have a trademeet at the market once a month.” He nodded toward the far door to indicate the store. “Since the majority of the city’s markets shut down, we barter for everything: food, tools, medicine, expertise, honey.”
“Honey? But you’re not a—” She clapped her mouth shut and regained her seat.
Sam spooned the honey into a mug. “Not a what?”
“Never mind. May I have a taste?”
She nodded to the honey jar in his hands. “Sure.” He held out the spoon; the woman snatched the full jar from his hands. Sam watched in astonishment as she chugged at the amber liquid as if it were water.
“Hey!” He snatched the empty jar away. “Honey’s a precious commodity, don’t hog it.”
“I know.” The draught perked her up like a potion. The glaze cleared from her eyes, her shoulders squared, and she sat up straighter. “The goddess doesn’t take kindly to the way you’ve taken it for granted.”
What’d she say? “What’s your name?”
He knelt down before her. “Melissa, I don’t want you to worry. I’m going to take care of you.”
How could he explain? “I did a little of everything when I was younger.” He pointed to the degrees gracing the wall in black frames. “I spent a year or two in pharmacy school. Another few years pursuing a nursing degree.” He shrugged. “These days, any expertise is welcome in the community. People know and come to me, when they need anything—from cough syrup to any kind of diagnosis.”
“There aren’t more of you around?” She peered at the degree. “Nursings?” she said.
Sam eyed her curiously. She’s never heard the title nurse? “The next physician that I know of lives about forty miles away,” he said. “So, I do what I can to help ease his load.” He didn’t tell her, though, of what that job sometimes consisted.
“Keeps you busy,” she guessed.
He nodded. “I don’t mind.”
He got out stethoscopes and other assorted diagnostic tools and checked the woman over, poked and prodded her until it seemed Melissa wanted to sting him.
She might be able to. It was exactly as he guessed. She was a bee.
He stepped back from his microscopes. “I can’t make sense of it. You still carry the virus, my girl. I don’t know why it’s not currently affecting your mind.”
Sam paced the room. The generators blasted and Melissa gasped in surprise, her gaze going to the windows, narrowing at the steam plume.
“It’s nothing to be afraid of,” he assured her.
Sam frowned. “How so?”
A wary quirk to her lips she looked back to the generator. “It breathes too hot.”
“Breathes.” Had she gotten too close to the generators once? Thinking over what she’d said about his fence, her statement seemed to make a weird kind of sense. “It won’t harm you now.” She peered up at him, hope in her amber eyes. Sam smiled. “I promise.”
Outside his window, cars filled the store’s parking lot. More people waited in line. “You don’t mind large crowds, do you?”
Melissa shook her head. “We are several hundred strong—were, I should say. You probably think I’m mad.”
What would she think when she learned his secret?
Scrutinizing the microscope, he thought she’d probably think nothing of it.
“No.” He’d read hundreds of articles, worked dozens of rituals seeking a solution for the bee deaths, modified each time nothing happened. He searched the archives for information, but IPs dwindled day by day as the governments grew more paranoid. What searches he’d made before the access became too expensive, proved useless.
He led her deeper into the store, checking the condiment aisle for more honey. Nothing. He led her into the storeroom, hoping to find a jar. “Not at all. I’ve been studying the bee deaths since 2012.”
She looked down at her hands. “You know what happened to me.”
Sixteen years, and yet now things began to get worse. Sam nodded. “I wasn’t sure, until you confirmed my guess.”
“Can you see them, then? The other bees?”
He peered down the nearest aisle, searching person by person. He saw no bees flitting anywhere. “Where are these other bees?” he asked.
Melissa laid a warm hand on Sam’s arm and pulled him into the next aisle. A little thrill ran through him, but surprise soon covered it when she pointed to several people on this side of the pharmacy counter. “The woman there, and that young man, and the old, fat fellow.”
“The ones with a few items in their carts?” Sam peered into the plastic baskets. “Mostly the jars of honey?” Melissa nodded, an enthusiastic bob of her head. “What about them?”
“They’re all bees.” She shook her head and watching the crowd, chose another man. “The aura’s unmistakable. He’s a bee.” She kept moving and followed a second man. “Him too.”
“You’ve got to be joking.”
“No.” She took his arm and pointed again. “See the ones with multiple jars of honey? That’s one clue.”
“Lots of people like honey.”
“These crave it. Like I do.” Melissa nodded. “There’s your difference. I don’t understand.” Sadness filled Melissa’s eyes as she looked up at him. “Do you think the illness is affecting their minds? The bee illness. They have it. They must.”
“You can see them?” Sam scanned the shoppers. Perhaps he did see something there, a vague outline of wings. The shimmering contours seemed to clear. He slapped his forehead. “Dear gods! All the time, right here.”
“I don’t know how you could’ve known. You’re not one of us.” She ran a hand across her torc. “I never noticed before, myself. But my mind’s not as fuzzy as it was this morning. I think I’m getting better.”
“Are you sure about these people?”
She nodded to a woman in a print dress. “The woman in the flowered dress, especially. She’s from my hive.”
Sam studied the woman. Hive? What on earth? “What do you mean?
“She’s my sister.”
“Your sister?” She nodded. She was absolutely convinced she knew this woman. Sam approached the lady and coaxed her to let him run a few preliminary tests. Nothing out of the ordinary, he assured her as he pricked her finger. He slid the blood sample into his microscope. What he found astounded him. To keep her from worrying, he gave the woman a prescription. Sugar pills, cough drops. Nothing she couldn’t use later when needed.
“What did you give her?” Melissa asked.
“Nothing important. You on the other hand, have shown me something quite interesting. You’re right. That woman carries the bee virus.”
* * * *
The scarecrow woman lowered her hand from her eyes as she studied the crop. The brown grass, the dead cornstalks, the abandoned scarecrow, as far as she could see, death and decay reigned supreme. She turned her steps down a row of pumpkins and kicked at the stems. They crumbled on impact. Only a matter of time before the rest of the crops followed in its wake. Those rain clouds overhead might slow the inevitable, but she wasn’t worried.
She climbed onto her motorcycle and drove down the M-1 motorway toward another open field. There, abandoned bee colonies stacked one on top of the other stood in decaying rows. She climbed over the fence and approached the colonies. She jiggled a box or two to be sure. No buzzing, no movement sounded therein.
A caw sounded overhead. She looked up, and spied a crow. Just for fun, she poisoned its prey. The crow caught the mouse mid-run and swallowed it down. A few minutes later, the crow dropped from the sky, dead. The woman smiled.
Now to check on Sam’s tree.
She pulled into the Corner Mart parking lot. Aside from one or two stragglers, the lot was emptying out for the evening. She hopped off the cycle and peeked in the store windows, but couldn’t see Sam anywhere. Where’d the pest go off to now?
It didn’t matter. Her cousin was incidental. The bees were all that matter, and all looked well there, by her estimation.
It’s only a matter of time. And Time always wins.
Let Sam try all he could to save them. His efforts would come to naught. A Pest would have its field day.
* * * *
We were several hundred strong, she’d said.
Sam ran his finger around the edge of the honey jar, stealing a drop. Melissa sucked at yet another jar of the sweet elixir. Maybe she really was a bee—and that woman from the store. They carried the DNA; it couldn’t be coincidence. How many others were out there? How could he help them?
He had to do something, but what? He couldn’t sit around and wait for the end.
Melissa finished off another jar of honey and followed him outside. He had to do something with her, but what? “Do you have a home?”
“All gone,” she said. “I’m the only one left.”
Surely she couldn’t sleep in the parking lot. The sun dropped past its zenith, and Sam shaded his eyes from the glare. “You can stay the night with me, if you need to. We’ll find you some place more permanent tomorrow.” He hoped. “We’ve a small apartment upstairs. You can stay there tonight.” Where he’d sleep if she took his bed, he wasn’t sure though. The office chair might have to do. It wouldn’t be the first night he’d spent here.
“I have to check something,” he said, ducking out the back door. He turned to the left, toward the small patch of nature that surrounded the Tree.
Melissa timidly followed. Her eyes went wide. “Oh my!”
Sam nodded, eyeing the brittle leaves and flaking bark. “Yeah. You should’ve seen it a year ago.”
Once the small raised garden he’d built here flourished. Now he fought a losing battle to keep it alive. The grass had gone brown in patches, the vegetables gasped in the heat seeking nutrients unfound in the dying soil. His wasn’t the only drying tree in town, but arguably, the most important.
Sam sighed and went to the circle of bee boxes he kept there. Nothing had come to visit. He cursed the timetable he fought against, picked up pens and candles, and set to work.
As the sun inched below the horizon, he tinkered and chanted in the center of the stack of empty bee boxes. Melissa sat on the sandy ground, back against a dead tree stump, watching him draw his circles and sigils on the boxes. He couldn’t see how this evening could be any different than the others. How many spells had he attempted? How many failures? How could this be any different?
He picked up a matchbox, rattled the matches as he pulled one free, and struck it against the side and tossed it into the small pot on the box beside him.
Melissa’s question drew his attention away from his work. “What’s all this about?”
“See the tree?” He pointed into its branches high above. “It’s not doing so hot. This is going to help.” I think.
“And if it doesn’t?”
He didn’t want to consider that.
“What will you do then?”
“We’ll think of something. The best minds are trying for the solution.”
“Those things, then?”
“The man. The one who works inside.” She tapped the ring around her neck. “He looks like this: metal-like.”
Sam looked to the shed in the corner. She’d be surprised to learn the store wasn’t the only home for the workers, he supposed. For what good the workers seemed to do.
“Those are special friends. Automatons, we call them.”
“And they do what?”
“Help around the shop, at home. Wherever we need an extra hand.”
“You trade them too?”
“From time to time,” Sam said, “or fix them for each other, whatever.”
“Will you trade me when we’re finished?”
Sam scoffed. “Of course not.”
“Not even for honey?”
“No.” He ran a hand down the tree’s dry trunk. “Come, we’ve work to do.” He stepped back and raised his arms to the sky. Melissa rose and came to his side, poking through the boxes. He cleared his throat. “Ready?”
Melissa’s brow quirked. “For what?”
Sam nudged her fondly. “Do what I do. Raise your hands like this.” He lowered, then raised his arms and she did likewise. “Good girl.” He circled the tree once, and the woman followed. “I call on ye spirits to witness our work. And blessed Earth Mother—”
Melissa paused and knelt at the foot of the tree and plucked the last lone flower—or weed, really—away from its trunk. After a moment, she looked up at him and smiled. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to distract you.” She tucked the flower behind her ear, took her spot beside him and raised her arms. “Like this?”
“Yes,” he said. She was rather cute, following him, and mimicking his moves, he thought. He could get used to having someone like her around.
Sam blinked the thought away, going back to his work, rounding the tree to the north. He raised his arms again and she followed likewise.
“And blessed Earth Mother protect this Tree as you have for millennia. Spare it from all ill effects. Bring its guardians back to it, as you always have.”
He faced Melissa.
She studied the tree, the path he’d taken, an innocent, yet quizzical look on her face. “Is that all it takes?”
“No.” He held out a hand. “Now, I have to ask something you may think silly.”
He cocked a brow. “Are you sure? You don’t know what I’m about to request.”
Melissa nodded. “It’s not like you’re going to make me cluck like a chicken, Sam. Just ask.”
He bit back a laugh. “All right.” He crossed back to the Tree’s base. Would the bee be there? If this gal was the bee, he already had his answer.
He stopped mid-step and stared at the store. Did he hear footsteps? Was it an animal foraging for food? Or something else?
“I want you to dance with me,” he said. A high-pitched guffaw escaped her lips, and Sam smiled. “I told you it would sound silly.”
She was already smiling. “Is that the best you can do?”
“You’re the expert at this.”
She tucked her long hair behind her ear. “What are you an expert at, Sam?” she asked.
You don’t want to know. “We’ll talk about it later.” He spun her around once and pulled her close. “Maybe you’d better show me how to do this?”
She swallowed the next guffaw. “I’d be charmed.” Her dainty foot tapped against the ground and she began skipping around the tree. She laughed and bounced away.
Steam wafted on the cool breeze, curled around them and seemed to wrap them in a lazy blanket. The worry and the fear he’d carried the last few years floated away. This was why the gods had created him. He was meant for this, he realized, this ultimate dance of life. The ultimate anticipation of the end of the dance.
For a moment, the draw to stamp the life out of everything welled up in him along with a stab of fear. Something more than the power of the tree and the life around them flowed from her. He wondered, did she even know the power she held? Sam realized he couldn’t think of another time, another nymph he’d ever lament losing. This one, however—Melissa—she was different. To steal the life from her felt the same as if he contemplated stealing the life of the Universal Tree itself.
He broke his hold, stepping back. He was used to what he brought to others, Death, plain and simple; he couldn’t change what the gods created him for. But for some reason, for this one—nymph, woman, bee, whatever she may be—he couldn’t allow that power to touch her. No, he thought, reining his gift in, pushing it in the opposite direction. Life, damn it. Life!
Melissa tripped into him, slid her arms around him and kissed him.
The world seemed to wobble under Sam’s feet. The gods had never meant him to fall in love with humanity. With one woman.
“Well, well. The mighty have fallen.”
Sam broke the kiss, whipped his gaze to the gate. The scarecrow woman stood there, a wicked smile quirking her lips. Sam noticed the vines clinging to the gate seemed to droop. Oh, hell no. Not Nicnevin. Not now.
Nicnevin glanced at her cracked nails. “I guess you’re not fit for the job, after all.”
Sam stepped in front of Melissa. “What do you want?”
“I wanted to see it for myself. Astounding. I never would’ve believed it, but apparently, it’s true. Isn’t that sweet? You even gave her your ring.”
Sam glanced down at his hand to find she was right. The gold ring he usually wore was gone. He peered at Melissa’s necklet. As if he needed more evidence of her transformation. Oh…The gods had some hand in the day’s going’s-on, for sure.
Nicnevin tsked. “I suppose that explains why you favor him. You’re not getting enough oxygen to your brain.”
Sam scrutinized the ring. Yes, it shared the same markings with the one he’d lost. To see it now, on her eased his mind about its whereabouts; more he suspected it had a very different effect than Nicnevin supposed. Was it, after all, protecting Melissa? Was that how she’d survived the virus?
“Or is it some kind of promise token?” Nicnevin asked. “Is that it?”
He was more interested in getting the ring off. If he cut it off, would the poison overtake Melissa’s mind again?
“My, my,” Nicnevin said, bringing his attention back. “Even Death can fall. Who would’ve thought it?”
Melissa’s voice caressed his ear. “Death?”
Sam closed his eyes. For a moment, his stomach grew queasy thinking of what they’d made of him.
“Didn’t he tell you, sweetheart?” Nicnevin taunted. “Now me. You’ll never see me debasing myself for some skirt, cousin.”
“What do you want?” Sam hissed.
“You know.” Nicnevin scanned Melissa up and down, and opened the gate, sauntering down the path as if she owned this garden. “It’s time to get to work.”
“I think not.” I hope not.
She scuffed a boot as she halted within arm’s reach.
Melissa drooped beside Sam and he tightened his grip on her hand. Not your time yet. Breathe. “I’ve told you before, we can find better things to do with our time.”
“When this is what they made us for?” Nicnevin poked Sam in the chest. “You forget, cousin. We’ve got a job to do.”
Melissa seemed to perk up. Sam stifled the urge to show his relief. His cousin didn’t hold as many cards as she thought. “You seem to forget it’s not your place,” he said.
“To what? Do my job?” Nicnevin stepped back and crossed to the tree, looking it up and down as she’d studied Melissa. The tree trunk blackened, the roots shifted beneath their feet. “Come, Samiel.” She turned her scrutiny back on Melissa. “You’re the one who’s forgotten your job.”
Sam narrowed his eyes, and in that split second, Nicnevin raised her hand to strike. The blow came down, but Sam leaped back. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“It’s about time someone else replaced you.” Nicnevin’s lips twisted in rage. “If you can’t do the job assigned to you, maybe I can.”
He chanced a glance at Melissa. “Not now, my girl.”
“But Sam—” She pointed to the intruder. “—she’s the one!”
“She’s the one what?”
“She’s the one who’s been luring my siblings away from our tree, the last few months.”
Sam looked to Nicnevin as if seeing her for the first time in forever. “Are you sure?”
Melissa nodded. “I think she’s the one who made them ill.”
“Makes sense, now you think about it, doesn’t it?” Nicnevin’s lip curled a little, an amused smile, the poison she spread evident in the evil glint in her eye. “Apparently the animal kingdom isn’t dumb after all. On the other hand, she is with you.”
“As you said, the animal kingdom isn’t stupid,” Sam said.
Nicnevin took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Fog curled around them.
Melissa coughed hard, great gasping blasts that shook her delicate body.
“Won’t matter soon,” Nicnevin said.
Sam gave the fog a steely stare. “Be gone.”
The fog undulated and thickened. Nicnevin smiled. “You’ll have to do better than that.” She reached into her pocket and brought forth two syringes.
Sam scoffed. “By the gods, you are so predictable.”
“Well,” she said, “we all have our tools. You’ve just forgotten how to use yours.”
She flicked the needles outward, the needles extended to the length of short swords. She whirled them in the air, inches from Sam’s head. Close up, he wondered, were they really as deadly dirty as they looked? He would hardly expect her to do something that would keep disease from spreading.
Wary of her weapons, Sam ducked and steadying his stance, realized he stepped on a small foot. Melissa rocked forward and he caught her in his arms. “You okay?”
She blinked her amber eyes, narrowed them, trying to see through the fog. He wondered if it filled her head as well as the space around them. “I think not so much.”
“You’d better get out of here while you can.”
“No. You should leave.” She pushed away from him and glared at Nicnevin. “You can’t defeat her.”
“I’ve had lots of practice,” Sam said. “I’ll manage.”
“I know what she is.” He pushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. “I won’t run from my home. Nor will I have you hurt. Go, I’ll be fine.”
Melissa turned; a whirr filled the air. Hot steam belched from the generators. He lost sight of the women. But he could hear Nicnevin speaking to Melissa and followed that beacon. “I don’t think so, love. You wouldn’t want to miss the dance, would you?”
Sam’s vision settled on them and his heart slowed. Nicnevin had her grubby paws on Melissa but Melissa still breathed. Sam grasped her wrist in an iron-tight grip. Melissa squealed as he jerked her behind him. “Leave her alone, Nicnevin!”
“Why?” his cousin asked. “Why should you have all the fun?”
“I know what you have in mind. And you’ve no power here, your Majesty.”
The Queen of Elphame circled him and jerked the girl back to her—hard. Melissa cried out again. Sam stumbled as his hold broke. Damn.
“Of course you do,” Nicnevin said. “Because you’re thinking the same thing.”
Sam narrowed his eyes. “This is my home. You won’t desecrate it with your filth!” He placed his hands on his cousin’s chest and shoved her away. She flew across the edge of their circular workspace and Sam raised his hand, calling the gods to lock it down. The outline shimmered gold and a shot of steam spiraled from its four quarters. His automatons whirled at the circle’s border, smashing into an unseen barrier as they tried to assist their master. Their presence only added to the clamor.
Nicnevin, caught in the blast, snarled.
“Did I do better this time?” Sam teased.
“This isn’t over!”
Though Nicnevin’s skin showed the burns of hitting steam and circle’s perimeter, she charged, aiming for Melissa. Melissa raised her right hand, pointing, and Nicnevin hit her straight on.
Sam caught them as they stumbled into him. Nicnevin’s eyes went wide and grew glassy as a lake, Sam looked down to see Melissa’s fingernail, like a stinger, embedded in her chest.
“What the hell?” Nicnevin blinked. She shuddered and tried to dislodge Melissa’s nail. She couldn’t. Her lips started to swell, her eyes. “What are you?” Nicnevin asked, her breathing labored. She looked at Sam. “What is she?”
Good question, Sam thought.
Melissa pushed, digging her nail in a little deeper. “You’ll never understand. Go back where you belong, demon!”
“Silly girl, we’re not demons.”
“I don’t care what you call yourself. Harming my loved ones makes you a demon.” She tugged her nail free, causing Nicnevin to yowl in pain. “Be gone!” Melissa said.
Nicnevin stumbled and plopped to the ground, breaking the circle.
Sam knelt and put a hand on Nicnevin’s chest finding her skin heated, slick and sweaty. His fingers soaked in blood. “Go, and tell them I say the time is not yet.”
Nicnevin opened and shut her mouth. “Hell will have its day.”
“I know, but I’ve won. Remind them, I have the final say.” Sam ran his bloody finger in a small spiraling symbol. “Leave it for a while.”
“You can’t keep me away,” Nicnevin said, her tongue thick, marring her pronunciation.
“Yes, I can,” Sam said. Another squiggle and Nicnevin’s eyes fluttered shut and her breathing slowed. Sam guided her gently to the grass and whispered, “No one will find your family, will they? No one will claim you. You’ll be just another nameless Jane in the hospital.”
He smiled. “Do you think I’d let you die, cousin? Not yet.”
“I’ll be a burden. You’ll never afford it.”
“I will.” Ward of the state, hooked up to machines for the rest of her life—for the life of the world. Sam wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of allowing her to die. “I promise, you won’t die. You will be attended to.”
He whistled; the steam sank to the ground and the automatons sped to his side. “She needs medical assistance.”
They beeped and bleeped and soon, one of the automatons spoke, “An ambulance is on its way, Sam.”
Melissa cried out and rushed him. Sam caught her in his arms. She kissed him and he found he hadn’t imagined it: she indeed tasted of honey.
“You’re okay,” he said. “It’s over. But I think I need you to do that again.”
Instead of obliging him, she cocked her head, listening. “Wait,” she said. “They’re coming.”
He peered into the Eastern sky. He couldn’t hear or see anything beyond the siren’s scream, and the blat of the generators, like off-key steam-filled trumpets. Gotta fix those.
Melissa looked up at him. “They’re here.”
“Who are?” Sam asked.
A low buzz filled the quiet. A dark wave rushed them. Bees. Thousands of them. Sam wrapped his arms around Melissa’s head and hid his face in her hair.
The buzzing noise softened and Sam opened one eye. They hovered in the air before them.
Melissa wiggled in his arms and pulled away. The bees converged on her.
Sam cried out and reached for her but she disappeared under a cloak of squirming, buzzing black. He tried to bat the bees away, he commanded them to leave, but still, they stayed. Sam stopped his ears in a vain attempt to shut his mind against the pain he knew she must feel.
The bees rose then and Sam rubbed his eyes to see Melissa moving upward with them—not her soul, but her body rose and hovered in the air as the bees lifted her as if they formed a living pedestal. They moved up, over the store, and Sam ran after them, skidding to a stop in the deserted street.
Bees and woman spun slowly once then Melissa opened her eyes. They pushed her form upright. She threw one hand to the east, one to the west. Two columns of bees broke away going in opposite directions, shooting off like missiles to the empty fields. No matter how far they flew the droning buzz remained in his ears.
Sam clapped a hand over his mouth, holding back surprise and joy to see the bees descending on the fields. Bees! Even when he closed his eyes the amazing sight remained. Little bees flitted here and there through his thoughts, kissing every flower, tree and passerby with their honeyed blessings.
“The trouble you foresaw.” Melissa snapped her fingers. “Forget it. We’ve no need to follow your cousin’s plan.”
Sam opened his eyes to see her floating, watching him. Her blonde hair now streaked with black, like a bee’s coat, her amber eyes gleamed in a soft sheen, like their eyes. Sweet, soft light surrounded her. A goddess on the wing. The Melissae embodied.
Sam wanted to kick himself. He’d recognized something special, something kindred in her. But why had he not seen the truth?
He sniffled. “No. No we don’t need to follow through.”
Melissa studied him for another moment, and spoke again, “Go now,” she said, “and take care of your people.”
Sam laid a hand to his heart. “I shall. And never forget.”
She moved closer, hovering over him. She bent and kissed his forehead and met his eyes a moment later. She smiled. “Nor I you.” She dropped his ring into his hand, touched his cheek once more and faded into the sun. Sam bowed to it.
The ambulance screeched to a halt and he pointed the paramedics to the back yard. Before following them, he slipped the ring onto his finger and sauntered to the edge of the field. There, he watched bees happily going about their work and knew soon life would return to the dying Earth.
[Juli D. Revezzo has long been in love with writing, a love built by devouring everything from the Arthurian legends, to the works of Michael Moorcock, and the classics and has a soft spot for classic the “Goths” of the 19th century. Her short fiction has been published in Dark Things II: Cat Crimes, The Scribing Ibis, Eternal Haunted Summer, Twisted Dreams Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, and Crossed Genres‘ “Posted stories for Haiti relief” project, while her non-fiction has been included in The Scarlet Letter. She has also, on occasion, edited the popular e-zine Nolan’s Pop Culture Review… But her heart lies in the storytelling. She is a member of the Indie Author Network. Her debut novel, The Artist’s Inheritance was recently released. Visit her here.]
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