Every day after school, I visit the nest. I walk a hundred feet out the back door, then under a thick awning of evergreens, crushing milkweed and wildflowers and mushrooms under my deteriorating, off-brand sneakers.
There is a rock with a flat spot I sit on. Sometimes I bring a bit of lunchmeat.
No one in my current family is aware of this ritual. Tina and her husband Dave have their hands full with four-year-old twins Mabel and Mary, whose real mom is an imprisoned arsonist and dad is a crackhead. It’s hard to believe such adorable little girls could burst out of an evil pair like that – worse, at least on paper, than my own parents had been.
Sun shines horizontally through the trees, low now that it’s mid-September.
The first yellowjacket crawls from its hole in the ground. There are thousands more in the subterranean nest, buzzing and crawling over each other like an orgy. I Googled yellow jackets a couple weeks ago, when they became my coping mechanism.
A single queen, called a foundress starts the nest, which sometimes grows as large as a basketball. She lays eggs cared for by sterile daughter offspring.
Male drones hatch from unfertilized eggs and can’t sting.
I imagine I hear the high-pitched hiss of the colony several inches beneath me. I lower myself to the spongy ground, pressing bits of turkey strategically to my stomach and upper thighs where I can hide the welts. I wait, staring up at the golden sky.
A lone yellow jacket lands on my wrist. Her tiny feet tickle as she taps across my skin. Then, a fierce sting. I yelp. I think about nothing but the pain shooting through the layers of me and it is a relief.
More wasps (I call them wasps because yellow jackets are actually predatory social wasps of the genera Vespula and Dolichovespula) find me. They scurry around, eating the meat and every minute or two sinking their stingers into my flesh, freeing my mind.
Dad, who disappeared when I was two, down to Florida I heard, to get rich in some way that didn’t involve kids. Zapped.
My photographer wannabe mom who died trying to get a shot of an oncoming train when I was nine. Gone.
Dion, my brother, adopted by a family in New Hampshire who didn’t want an older girl. A static screen of nothing.
The family that took me in after Mom died, who went on vacations with their biological children and left me behind, then eventually moved to a different state. Zzzzt.
I imagine I’m watching myself from a tree branch – a fourteen-year-old girl lying in the weeds, eyes closed and a small smile on her face as she’s injected with tiny amounts of venom over and over.
Once the meat is gone and the yellow jackets tire of me, I roll onto my side and sit up. A few red welts dot my torso like measles. They itch, too. I stand and walk home, scratching.
Tina cuts organic apples for the twins, both in their wooden booster chairs. She’s too distracted to notice how I look.
I find baking soda in the cupboard and take it to my room, which is a walled alcove containing a twin bed and a small dresser. I sit on the mattress and make a paste in a Dixie cup. I’m so itchy I’m tempted to roll around on the floor, but I don’t. I close my eyes and look up at the popcorn ceiling, waiting for the baking soda to take effect, which it never really does.
It’s odd how the raw prickling sensation doesn’t bring relief like the pain.
I crawl under my sheet and blanket and lie there until darkness descends and Dave’s truck rumbles into the driveway and I know I have to help Tina with dinner.
The next morning, as I eat breakfast, Dave clomps in from outside. He hasn’t yet gone into the specialty butcher shop where he carves up sides of beef and makes jerky and cleans chickens. “There’s a big ass hornet’s nest out there.”
I stiffen, but pretend not to. I take a bite of oatmeal.
“They stung me. Twice.” At the sink, he splashes water on his neck where they must have gotten him. “Goddamn hornets.”
Tina flutters, reaching in the cupboard, presumably for baking soda, but it is in my closet waiting for future stings. Her brow furrows. “I’ll get the calamine.”
Once she leaves the room, I say, “They’re yellow-jackets.”
Dave looks at me, water dripping off his chin. “What?”
“They’re yellow jackets. Hornets’ nests are above ground.”
“If you knew they were out there, why didn’t you tell me?”
I shrug, feeling a little bad he was stung, but not bad enough to reveal my secret.
One of the twins cries from her bed. It’s Mabel, who still won’t get up by herself. She sits, rumpled and upset. I scoop her into my arms and ask if she had a nightmare. She starts to whimper again, so I carry her out to the kitchen where Tina rubs the smelly pink cream on the back of Dave’s neck.
“I’ll get peppermint soap on my way home,” Dave says as if he’s super-efficient, as if the yellow jackets have already been exterminated. He ducks away from Tina’s anemone fingers. “They hate that shit. I can smother them with it.”Of course, he would use something natural. Dave and Tina are not into poison. They are hippies.
Stuffing Mabel into her booster seat, I say, “Can’t you just, like, avoid that area? They’re not hurting anyone.” I swallow and add, “Not really.”
He comes close to me and eyes my cheek where a rogue wasp got me despite my carefully placed protein. “Then what is that thing?”
I shrug again, scoop up my backpack and pull on my coat. “I have to retake an Algebra test. Better get going.” Before I make it out of the house, Dave and Tina exchange a concerned look I’ve seen other foster parents exchange before. Keep me, I think, then stride down the oiled dirt road to my bus stop.
It took years to figure out how to avoid bullying at school. The key, I finally realized, is to wear bland clothes and eat bland food for lunch (no tuna or eggs) and otherwise fade into the white boards. One day, the morning after I’d been fingered by a man two foster-dads before Dave, I sat up straight in all my classes (but not too straight), and took notes like I always do and never once let my eyes fill with tears. No matter what, I could not draw attention. Since discovering this formula, school has become bearable.
Today, though, I can’t concentrate on a single theorem or poem. How will I keep Dave from killing the yellow jackets?
I am scheming and absently scratching my arms in Biology when Madison Kruger squints at me, like she’s noticing I exist for the first time. Brief sunlight pelts through the window, warming my scalp and bleaching out her face so she looks like a blank paper doll asking, “Do you have any idea how annoying that is?” She mimics me by making a rasping sound in her throat.
I jump. I’m not used to being talked to at school. “Sorry.” I fold my arms across my chest, shocked that I broke my own rule, however briefly, and emerged from the woodwork.
We are supposed to be prepping our dissection trays before Mr. Anderson brings out the fetal pigs we’ll slice open.
“You’re so weird.” She stabs her t-pins into the bottom of the plastic pan. “What’s even wrong with you?”
I look down at myself, at five-foot-three of skinny, hairy limbs, biodegrading shoes, a boyish striped t-shirt and baggy jeans. My nose is big, my brown hair hanging in barely brushed cords over my shoulders. What isn’t wrong with me?
After school, I leap off the bus and run toward the back lot behind the house, hoping to God Dave didn’t leave work early and beat me here.
The yellow jackets still buzz, still live their small lives.
I don’t have lunch meat, but maybe they will smell residue from the fetal pigs and land on me anyway. I roll up the cuffs of my bad jeans and take off my corduroy jacket. The grass is damp, the ground rubbery, but I lie down anyway.
They hum like machines near my ears for a half hour or more without touching down. I groan, frustrated. This is worse than a sneeze that refuses to come.
Heavy clouds move in: the Olympic Peninsula’s natural state. I tiptoe into the house, relieved Tina and the girls aren’t around, find a few crumbles of cheddar on one of the twin’s plates and take it back outside.
I disperse the cheese and close my eyes. It takes no time at all for the stingers to sink into my flesh, for the nothingness to descend.
I’m lying in a stupor, damp and itching, thinking this must be how it feels to get drunk or have an orgasm. There is a rustling behind the shed where Dave keeps a wheelbarrow, rakes, and jugs of vinegar for killing weeds.
Voices rise from the trees, first Tina’s and then the chatter of the twins. They are on one of their nature walks.
“Look at this leaf,” she says. “See the little holes? Those were made by insects. Probably beetles.”
Tina and the girls round the corner. Mabel shouts, “Ally is dead!”She pounds toward me. Then there is the swish of Tina and Mary following.
“Ally?” Tina nudges me with her foot. She is a blur of blond hair and purple poncho. Her voice sounds like it comes through the paper towel tubes Dion and I used to play with, shouting through them as if they were high-tech megaphones.
The next time Tina says my name, she is yelling it over and over.
I am warm and dry and violently awake, sitting inside a one-story building we pass on the way to Grocery Outlet or the community center where the twins take a dance class. The child psychologist’s small, arched brows, like mini rainbows, never move. Botox, I think unkindly.
She asks why I haven’t been here before. She believes my social worker should’ve referred me to a “mental health professional” long ago.
“How am I supposed to know?” I ask, picking at one of my pink bumps that has begun to crust.
Looking down at her notepad, she says, “So, how long have you been involved in self harm?”
“I’m not involved in self harm.” I’ve never thought of what I do with the wasps as self-harm.
“What do you think purposely letting wasps sting you is, then?”
Dave waits for me in a chocolate colored leather chair. His face is the front end of a wrecked car. “I’m sorry I didn’t kill those bastards earlier.”
“No. It isn’t.” He looks at his shoes. “They’re gone now.”
A peculiar grief pimples my skin and I rub my arms as if I’m cold.
“Problem solved,” he says.
I nod. I imagine the yellow jackets curling into balls and dying, turning to crisp pellets. Because of me.
They are only bugs. There are other ways to get the zzzt. At least that’s what I tell myself.
On the way home, Dave talks about the moss he needs to power wash off the driveway and firewood he should be stacking.
I find that he has done a bang-up job rendering The Nest uninhabitable. The blue tarp he trapped them under still lays there, its corner fluttering in the wet breeze. Not so much as a murmur rises from the dark earth.
I drop to a crouch, wishing I was capable of crying. Most of my welts have dried to pinpoint scabs I can flick off with no effort at all. My physical distractions have vanished. What am I going to do?
In school, I hear about girls who cut themselves. They discuss it in the bathrooms and flash purple scars on their thighs and soft forearms. I don’t want to be one of them, though. I don’t want kids seeing those same slashes on my arms and legs and thinking I’m an imitator.
I feel like I should mark this spot where the yellow jackets died. They deserve a memorial. I gather some flat stones and stack them the way Tina once taught me on a hike out near La Push, where waves mixed with rain as they crashed against the sea stacks. It takes several tries to balance them, but I finally do it, finishing a five-rock cairn, brushing off my hands and standing back to look at it. Mabel or Mary will probably knock it down within the hour.
I discover fire by accident. A matchbook lies on the back of the toilet and as I sit there, thinking how disgusting I am, how disgusting humans are in general, I pick it up and light one with a scratch and flare. The flame quivers, its sulfur smell filling the bathroom. I hold my palm over it, lowering my hand until the snap of heat causes me to yelp and yank it away. I light another match, then another, until I can endure the sear for several seconds. I’m so engulfed in my experiment that, when Tina knocks on the door and calls that dinner is ready, I jump, almost toppling to the floor.
She looks at me funny when I emerge, her nose twitching. I skulk past her, the book of matches folded under my fingers. I bite back a grin.
By the next day I’ve used all the matches and I buy a green lighter at a gas station near school. Over and over I reach into my pocket and roll the spark wheel slowly. Even that small motion makes me feel better. I miss the interactive nature of the yellow jackets, how I depended on them for my high, but this is second best. Fire. Right here in my hand.
I am a week into my new habit, blisters bubbling over my stomach and inside my wrists, when Tina corners me in the kitchen and turns my hand over.
“What are you doing?” she asks, her hazel eyes fierce.
“Getting a glass of orange juice,” I say, pretending I don’t know what she means. I whip my arm like a jump rope so she has to let go.
“And you’re moving funny. Do I need to take you to the doctor?”
I hate going to the doctor and she knows it. I can’t stand being touched. Even by medical professionals.
I shake my head. “Nope.”
Tina’s voice floats to a whisper. “You need help. Let us help you.”
My eyes are dry as stones, my body robotic as I storm through her self-made barricade and slam into my room.
That night I hear Tina and Dave talking through the thin 1970s walls of this house. Dave, in particular, is incapable of lowering his voice. He says, “hates herself” and “take her back to the shrink?” and “A lot of money.” I can’t hear everything they say even though I lie still as an oyster, listening.
Tina has a one-hour meeting at the food co-op where she works every other Saturday afternoon and she asked me to watch Mabel and Mary. She must be desperate because she’s never asked me to babysit before, which I always assumed meant she didn’t trust me. Maybe she has some dumb idea about building my self-esteem by increasing my responsibilities.
Doc McStuffins is on TV and the girls glance at it while dancing around the coffee table and eating yogurt out of tubes. Their attention spans are short and Mary can only focus for a few minutes before she runs and jumps and colors on a piece of paper with a turquoise crayon. Strawberry glop surrounds her lips.
During a dog food commercial, Mabel grabs Mary’s preferred crayon. Mary shrieks. Mabel holds the crayon like she’s the villain in a CSI episode and pretends to stab her thigh. “Ow! Ow! Ow!” She screams. “I be Ally. I be you, Ally. See? Ow! Ow!”
I gape at her. I try to chuckle, though my eyes burn with shame. “How is that me?”
“Ow!” Mabel yells, drops the crayon and runs to the other side of the room where she flops onto the recliner and sucks her yogurt.
Horrified, I take short, hitching breaths. I clearly haven’t hidden my hobby from them as well as I thought. They are going to think older kids are supposed to stab themselves with crayons or lure yellow jackets to sting them or melt their own skin with flames.
“How is that me?” I ask Mabel again.
Mary tiptoes to the garbage can and deposits her wrapper like Tina taught her, then twirls to me and pats my arm. I resist wrenching away. “You sad, so you get hurt then get fixed up. I fix you like Doc McStuffins.” She pretends to wrap a bandage around my whole body, including my head.
I feel the light sweep of yellow jacket legs on my cheek. The tickle, though, doesn’t come from a bug. I touch my face and find actual tears, warm and tingling and sliding. I say, “Thanks for patching me up.”
Though I’m not fixed. Not at all. Maybe I can be one day. It won’t be as easy as winding gauze around my brain, though.
For the first time, I wonder if I’d be hurting myself if Dion were here to witness it. And can I stop for the girls? Can I protect them in the way I wish I’d been protected at their age?
Mabel plops her warm, small body onto my lap. Her hair smells like lavender shampoo. She breathes loudly through her mouth, her ribcage spreading and shrinking as she stares at the cartoon on TV. There is nothing in this physical contact that requires something of me or demands I resist.
So, I let her stay. And we watch TV, Mabel acting like I’m someone she could sit with indefinitely, me draped in imaginary bandages that hang to the floor like closed, translucent wasp’s wings.