Hornets and Others
by Al Sarrantonio
Too warm for late October.
Staring out through the open door of his house, Peter Kerlan loosened the top two buttons of his flannel shirt, then finished the job, leaving the shirt open to reveal a gray athletic tee-shirt underneath. Across the street the Meyer kids were re-arranging their newly purchased pumpkins on their front stoop — first the bigger of the three on the top step, then the middle step, then the lower. They were jacketless, and the youngest was dressed in shorts. Their lawn was covered, as was Kerlan’s, with brilliantly colored leaves: yellow, orange, a dry brown. The neighborhood trees were mostly shorn, showing the skeleton fingers of their branches; the sky was a sharp deep blue. Everything said Halloween was coming — except for the temperature.
Jeez, it’s almost hot!
Behind him, out through the sliding screen door that led to the back yard, Peter could hear Ginny moving around, making an attempt at early Sunday gardening.
Maybe it’s cold after all.
He opened the front screen door, retrieved the morning newspaper he had come for, and turned back into the house, unfolding the paper as he went.
In the kitchen, he sat down at the breakfast table and studied the front page.
The usual assortment of local mayhem — a robbery, vandalism at the junior high school, a teacher at that same school suspended for drug use.
In the back, Ginny cursed angrily; there was the sound of something being knocked against something else.
“Peter!” she called out.
He pretended not to hear her for a moment, then answered, “I’m eating breakfast!” and began to study the paper much more closely then it deserved.
On the second page, more local mayhem, along with the weather — sunny and unseasonably warm for at least the next three days — as well as a capsule listing of the rest of the news, which he scanned with near boredom.
Something caught his eye, and he gave an involuntary shiver as he turned to the page indicated next to the summary and found the headline:
Hornets Attack Pre-schoolers
Another shiver caught him as he noted the picture embedded in the story — a man clothed in mosquito netting and a pith helmet holding up the remains of a huge papery nest; one side of the structure was caved in and within he could make out the clumped remains of dead insects—
Again he gave an involuntary shiver, but went on to the story:
(Parkerton, Special to the Herald, Oct. 24) Scores of pre-schoolers were treated today for stings after a small group of the children inadvertently stirred up a hornets nest which had been constructed in a hollow log. The nest, which contained hundreds of angry hornets, was disturbed when a kickball rolled into it. When one of the children went to retrieve the ball, the insects, according to witnesses, “attacked and kept attacking.”
Twenty eight children in all were treated for stings, and the Klingerman Pre-School was closed for the rest of the day.
The nest was removed by local bee-keeper Floyd Willims, who said this kind of attack is very common. “The nests are mature this time of year, and can hold up to five hundred drones, along with the Queen. Actually, new drones are maturing all the time, and can do so until well into fall. With the warm weather this year, their season is extended, probably well into November. The first real cold snap will kill them off.”
Willims continued, “Everyone thinks that yellow jackets are bees, but they’re not. They’re hornets, and can get pretty mean when the nest is threatened. At the end of the season, next year’s Queens will leave the nest, and winter in a safe spot, before laying eggs and starting the whole process over again with a new nest.”
As of last night, none of the hornet stings had proved dangerous, and Klingerman Pre- School will reopen tomorrow.
Peter finished the story, looked at the picture again — the bee-keeper holding the dead nest up with a triumphant grin on his face — and gave a third involuntary shiver.
At that moment Ginny appeared at the back sliding door, staring in through the screen. He looked up at her angry face.
“I can’t get that damned shed door open!” she announced. “Can you help me please?”
“After I finish my breakfast—”
Huffing a breath, she turned and stormed off.
“Aren’t you going to eat with me?” he called after her, hoping she wouldn’t turn around.
She stopped and came back. “Not when you talk to me with that tone in your voice.”
“What tone?” he protested, already knowing that today’s version of ‘the fight’ was coming.
She turned and gave him a stare — her huge dark eyes as flat as stones. She was as beautiful as she had ever been, with her close cropped blonde hair and anything but boyish looks. “Are we going to start again?”
“Only if you want to,” he said.
“I never want to. But I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
“How much more of what?”
She stalked off, leaving the door open. After a moment, Peter threw down the paper and followed her, closing the sliding screen door behind him and dismounting the steps of the small deck. She was in front of the garden shed, a narrow, four foot deep, one story-high structure attached to the house to the right of his basement office window.
“Well, I’m here,” he said, not at all surprised that she momentarily ignored him.
Jeez, it is hot! he thought, looking up at a sun that looked summer-bright, and then surveying the back yard. The colored leaves fallen from the tall oaks that bordered the back yard looked incongruous, theatrical. There was an uncarved pumpkin on the deck of the house behind theirs; it looked out of place in the heat.
Peter turned to stare at Ginny’s little garden, to the right of the shed, which displayed late annuals; they were a riot of summer color which normally would have been gone by this time of year, killed by the first frost which had yet to come.
“I’ve been weeding by hand,” she explained, “but I’d like to get some of the tools out and get ready for next spring. I’ve been having trouble with the shed door again.”
He stepped around her, pulled at the structure’s wooden door, which gave an angry creak but didn’t move.
“Heat’s got the wood expanded; I’ll have a look at it when I get a chance.” He gave it a firmer pull, satisfied that it wouldn’t move.
“Isn’t there anything you can do about it now?”
“No.” He knew he sounded nasty, but didn’t care.
She reddened with anger, then brought herself under control. “Peter, I’m going to try again. We’ve been through this fifty times. You’re punishing me, and there isn’t any reason. I know it’s been rocky between us lately. But I don’t want it to be like that! Can’t you just meet me halfway on this?”
“Halfway to hell?”
She was quiet for a moment. “I love you,” she said, “but I just can’t live like this.”
“Like what?” he answered, angry and frustrated.
“No matter what I do you find something wrong with it — all you do is criticize!”
“I…don’t,” he said, knowing as it came out that it wasn’t true.
She took a tentative step forward, reached out a hand still covered in garden loam. She let the hand fall to her side.
“Look, Peter,” she said slowly, eyes downward. “I know things haven’t been going well for you with your writing, believe me I do. But you can’t take it out on me. It’s just not fair.”
Male pride fought with truth. He took a deep breath, looking at her, as beautiful as the day he met her — he was driving her away and didn’t know how to stop.
“I…know I’ve been difficult—” he began.
She laughed. “Difficult? You’ve been a monster. You’ve frozen me out of every corner of your life. We used to talk, Peter; we used to try to work things out together. You’ve gone through these periods before and we’ve always gotten through them together. Now…” She let the last word hang.
He was powerless to tell her how he felt, the incomprehensible frustration and impotence he felt. “It’s like I’m dry inside. Hollow…”
“Peter,” she said, and then she did put a dirt-gloved hand on his arm. “Peter, talk to me.”
He opened his mouth then, wanting it to be like it had been when they first met, when he had poured his heart out to her, telling her about the things he had inside that he wanted to get out, the great things he wanted to write about, his ambition, his longings — she had been the only woman he ever met who would listen to it, really listen to it. He had a sixth sense that if he did the wrong thing now it would mean the end, that he had driven her as far away as he dared, and that if he pushed her a half step farther she would not return.
He said, “Why bother?”
Again she reddened with anger, and secretly he was enjoying it.
“I’m going out for the day. We’ll talk about this later.”
“Whatever you say.” He gave her a thin smile.
She turned away angrily, and after a moment he heard the screen door slide shut loudly, the front door slam, and the muted roar of her car as she left.
Why did you do that? he asked himself.
And a moment later he answered: Because I wanted to.