By Andrea Salvador
I can trace it to the night she first slept over at my house. We turned my meager twin bed into a fort, whispering about our classmates when angry shouts seeped through our house’s thin walls. These shouts rose from a sea of murmurs that started half an hour ago. Someone had reached their breaking point.
“Don’t mind it,” I cut her off, words toppling out of my mouth before she got curious. “It’s just my brother. He must’ve said something stupid.”
The flashlight propped between us illuminated the thick hairs of her wrinkling brows, disrupting the smoothness of her skin. “If you say so,” she replied tentatively. I nodded, exhaling when she launched into her story like nothing had happened.
We spent the next few hours in deep discussion. There was a segment on Crystal’s new haircut, Jasmine skipping school to go abroad, and even our adviser Mr. Dela Cruz purportedly being an atheist. Now and then, a harsh sound would wrench us from our conversation. I winced, conjuring images of our dining table being shoved, a chair thrown to the floor, and even plates shattering.
Thankfully, she fell asleep. I did, once she did. The sounds of the house eventually turned to static, ringing dully in my ears.
The following weekend, she came over without prior announcement. She stood on my porch, leaning over the wooden, white-washed railings. The aftermath of a drizzle weighed on her; her clothes were damp, a tinge darker than they usually were. Her backpack, hanging on one shoulder, dripped tap-tap onto the wooden floor. Her sneakers were streaked with spots of mud.
“You didn’t say you’d come,” I said, my chest clenching with panic. It warred with my
instinct for politeness. No doubt this would become a topic of stiff discussion over my family’s dinner, assuming she would be gone by then. My parents would want to know why she’d come unbidden, and then twist my words into something else entirely.
She shrugged, reaching into her backpack. She pulled out a crumpled paper bag and handed it to me. “I just wanted to give you this.”
I took the offered bag, my hand dropping with the unexpected weight. It was curved, shaped by an item inside. I stuck my other hand in and produced a gleaming glass jar. Its lid was poked through, a constellation of toothpick-sized holes. Inside was a single bee, buzzing around, clearly alive.
“Thanks?” I tried, disbelief and confusion turning my voice thick. The trapped bee
skittered towards where my fingers held the jar.
I looked up, but her faint outline atop of her yellow bicycle was already turning away from the street’s bend.
Her name was Amelia. Sometimes, she went by the name Elise or Sandra – it kept everyone on their toes, she said. She had ebony black hair in thick strands that poured down to her waist. Her face was an oval. She kept her nose turned up, especially when we passed by open garbage cans on the short bike ride from school to home. We gravitated towards each other the year she moved to our town. Without words, we’d pair up for different activities in school. I guess that meant friendship.
The first time she invited me to her house, I couldn’t stop myself from snooping. Amelia excused herself to feed her cat, and I marveled at the grandeur of her house. Despite just moving here, her house achieved the timeless look my parents were taking a decade to perfect: golden picture frames, floor-to-ceiling textured wallpaper, and marble countertops.
I reached the end of the hallway, which Amelia told me was her father’s workroom. The door was ajar. Through the small gap, I noticed a flurry of yellow and black movement. Inching closer, my ear caught the steady whine that accompanied the movement like a choreographed dance. Then Amelia called me to her room, and I turned away.
I let the bee loose inside my room because that very night Amelia called to tell me to do so. I’d expected the bee to dart towards me threateningly but it simply whirred around in a curious, detached flight.
That night, I slept without tossing. It was the first time in weeks that I’d stored more than four hours of sleep in me. I hadn’t expected it – a small foreign, flying creature infiltrating a room shouldn’t lull anyone to sleep. I woke up after my alarm had beeped for a solid minute. The bee had landed on my pillowcase, a few inches away from my knotted hair. It was dead.
I picked it up, wrapped it inside a tissue, and put it in the trash can.
Amelia smiled when she saw me in the morning. I picked her up on our way to school; she lived three blocks away from its chaos and noise. “You look good,” she noted.
On the way home, she gave me another bee. She’d stored it in her backpack the whole day and I hadn’t noticed.
That night, I released it in my brother’s room. He’d come home through his window,
propped open by CD stacks. Just as I was about to sleep, he stormed into my room and hissed at me as to why a bee occupying his room. I told him not to kill it.
The following morning, we all gathered for breakfast at five-thirty. My parents nodded at my brother and asked him if he needed money for his commute to the university.
He was incredulous – all year long, they had snapped at him for wasting his life away on a gaming design course, predicting he would drop out – and I mouthed I told you so.
Amelia moved away and she never explained why. Everyone in school asked me about it in passing, feigning interest. They concluded her disappearance was because of a fall-out between us when I couldn’t give a straight answer. Most of the time, I mumbled it was her father’s job.
I found a tiny box on my doorstep months after Amelia left. The cardboard was moist with water, and it had holes poked on each side. I opened it on the porch, and fragments of glass glittered up at me. It must have been tossed to and fro on its journey to my house.
The bee inside it was dead, its little wings curled up towards the sky. Its fur was limp and its limbs stuck out.
I buried it under the carpet of our house. That night, my parents put on a show for my brother and I. We played their wedding song on the speakers, and without fighting our request, they danced. My mother led my father to the carpet, and they swayed and leaned into each other.
They were happy.
Amelia never reached out to me again, but she didn’t need to.
The desire to escape: this was the theme my entrance essay into university revolved around. I went off the charts, releasing my pent-up aggression that consisted of isolation and ridicule following Amelia’s departure and the arrival of the honey bees. My words must have struck a chord with the school, which proclaimed it would be a haven for scholars from ‘all walks of life’. Perhaps I fulfilled some kind of niche with my story.
I took my acceptance letter, and thanks to the honey bees, walked out of the door
It was a conscious decision to move into the dorm room before my roommate arrived. I already had people sneaking glances at my row on the bus, coaxing me to take the taxi for the final leg of my trip to the university. It turns out I didn’t need to; she only moved in after the second week of classes. I had even begun to think that I wasn’t going to have a roommate.
“I’m Christine,” my roommate said. I jumped from inside the shell of the dorm’s
kitchenette. I’d just come home from a two-hour lecture that creeped into the night, making a beeline for my refrigerated leftovers.
“Hi,” I finally managed to say, clamping down my surprise. I was focused on not spilling my Tupperware’s contents that her features barely registered. As the days went by, though, I came to admire her soft eyes that contrasted with her jagged, blue hair. Her fingerless gloves that highlighted her glossy, manicured nails. The tinkling piano music that played in her room behind a closed door, and the heavy metal she blared in the living room.
Christine was an enigma, but at least she didn’t hide it.
After that encounter, Christine and I settled into an easy routine. Following a week of one- sided conversations, she came to accept my silence, providing chatter I don’t mind listening to. So far, I have gleaned detailed accounts of her parents’ separation, her three near-death experiences, and her fight out of the university’s waitlist. Each time, I bite my tongue from telling her about the honey bees and how they could have saved her.
One particular Wednesday, she clung to me, grasping my arm like a sticky-footed lizard. “You going out?” Christine asked, eyeing the canvas bag slung over my shoulder and my figure darting through the living room. Saying yes cemented my fate.
The whole walk to the shopping complex felt like a log ride, sweat blooming from my temples in trepidation. Christine didn’t notice, though. She droned on about paying our smart block mate for philosophy quiz answers, barred by the moral quandary it posed. As she continued to
share her problem, I made a split-second decision, answering my own, private dilemma I’d been juggling since Christine latched onto me: I went for it. I marched towards the post office stall, handed the cashier a pre-filled address form, and a honey bee inside a jar, bagged and wrapped in newspaper.
To anyone else – the cashier, deliverymen, and customers around me – the newspaper bag would not have incited interest. To Christine, it did. For the first time since the walk, she closed her mouth, inspecting the faint shadows the bee created through the blotted paper.
“That one of your bees?”
I froze. Christine, however, carried on. “When I moved in, I saw your bees. It’s going to die, you know. No matter where you’re sending it to. Processing packs a punch.”
I knew that, of course. Up to now, my brother called me every Saturday he received them, saying he was sick of receiving dead insects in the mail. “If this is some cry for help, I swear,” he breathed out in our last call. “You just have to say.” Since I have chosen the role of the better sibling, each time I have refrained from reminding him that the bees are the reason he still hasn’t been kicked out of our parents’ home yet. Especially given the fact he’s three years out of college. Even more so that he’s currently unemployed.
“Okay,” I told Christine in a clipped voice, unable to mask my irritation – and fear? “I
didn’t ask for your opinion. I also didn’t ask you to go inside my room.”
It was an unfair thing to say. If Christine felt that way, she didn’t express it. “That’s true,” my roommate conceded, her pale cheeks reddening. “Sorry.” She remained silent as I finished my transaction with the cashier.
What I admire about Christine, though, is that she’s a quick learner. She never mentioned my honey bees after witnessing this. She also never returned to my room. I’m not sure what I appreciate more.
Christine and I read the prompt off her laptop. The words are in bold red in a sea of black text: Write about an experience that has shaped your life. Dr. Del Rosario, our professor, urges us to be as detailed as possible. He doesn’t care, apparently, if the experience is cliché like a first kiss or mundane like a trip to the mall.
“Just one experience?” Christine asks, incredulous.
“Just one,” I confirm, rereading the prompt. Already, like it’s an engraved, unopposable fact, I know which experience I’ll be writing about.
“Good luck to us,” Christine groans. I don’t need it, but I thank her.
My roommate’s fingers are already flying on the keyboard, no doubt listing a jumble of experiences. I expect I’ll help her pick these experiences apart in the next few days.
Accompanied by the clacking keyboard sounds into the kitchen, I pour a small dilution of sugar and water into a mug. Christine thinks I drink it, calling me crazy (“You can have iced tea or soft drinks, you know. I bet that’s nasty.”) and I haven’t bothered correcting her.
“Dinner out?” Christine asks as I emerge from the kitchen.
“Sure,” I say, ignoring how my hands instinctively close around the mug, shielding it from her eyes. But my roommate isn’t even looking. I slip into my room and set the mug down on my desk, directly below a hanging, wooden hexagon frame. A cleaning drawer protrudes from its bottom, shiny silver tools crammed in cotton
towels. On top is a feeder, a wire mesh locked by a latch. It is still moist from the previous day’s pouring. Inside is a colony of bees, sealed behind a glass plate. They swarm and buzz and flap their wings ever so softly.
Andrea Salvador lives somewhere in Asia, specifically a country with thousands of islands and constantly humid weather. Her work has been recognized by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Columbia College Chicago, Trinity College - University of Melbourne, and Interlochen Arts Academy.