by Lynn Beighley
The newspaper story about the overturned truck carrying bees caught Jane’s eye. It mentioned a tractor-trailer, that was the first thing. And bees, they were interesting to her too, she knew a thing or two about bees. They were being shipped from Iowa to Wisconsin.
The accident released 25 million bees. Jane tried to picture that, but the closest she could manage was to imagine all those hives, 500 of them, with an almost solid cloud of bees swarming around them. She thought about those wooden hives, toppled over, with millions of bees trying to escape and yet at the same time reluctant to leave home. The slow ones would be left unable to fly around in the cloud of other bees. The ones nearest the crumpled pile of hives would bump into each other. Would they sting each other? She imagined that in the confusion that would be their automatic reaction. Blindly bumping into each other, stinging, ultimately dying. Honeybees really did die after stinging. She knew that because she’d been stung plenty by the bees from the hives her dad kept. She’d pulled stingers out of her own bruised young arms and those of her ungrateful sister, Nancy, who would squirm and complain, and then run back outside, never offering a word of thanks, never offering to reciprocate. Sometimes Jane would find the dying bee on the ground. Usually she would crush it with her heel rather than watch it squirm in the dirt.
Jane folded her newspaper when Susie, the truck stop waitress, showed her to her booth. Susie knew Jane well enough to seat her in the back booth, off in a quiet corner.
When she returned to take Jane’s order, Jane didn’t need to look at the menu; she’d stopped here often enough to know that she wanted the pancakes, a side of bacon, and orange juice. Susie wrote Jane’s order without ever looking at her; instead she kept glancing over at a nearby booth. Jane followed her gaze and saw a little girl, alone and crying. Great, she thought.
She opened up the paper and read more. The article said that they would probably manage to get 80 or 90 percent of the bees. That meant that a few million bees would be left behind. Jane wondered what bees do when they have no home anymore. Surely there would be some queens left behind and new hives could form. Still, some of the bees would remain unattached. What did a homeless bee do? Would she try to fly home? Did she feed herself, now that she was alone? Jane hoped so. And yet, if she spent the summer eating, would she know that she needed to build a tiny honeycomb to survive the winter?
Jane felt something small and warm bump into her. The little brown haired girl in a pink dress was pressing herself into Jane’s side. The girl’s face was flushed. Her eyes, red from crying, were wide open. Jane guessed she was about five years old, not that she knew anything about kids. The girl wore a soiled and torn yellow dress. She stared up at Jane and Jane stared back at her. Apparently the girl couldn’t sense the panic that kids made Jane feel, because she smiled and showed Jane her stuffed animal. Jane, feeling awkward, asked her, “What’s your name?”
“Emlee,” came back the tiny voice. For whatever reason, this little girl felt comfortable next to Jane. She guessed this must be Susie’s kid. Besides Susie, Jane was the only other female in the truck stop. There weren’t very many female truck drivers. She had met only a handful in her career. She thought that most women weren’t able to handle the loneliness. And it could be a scary thing to be a woman alone, stopping in places dominated by rough-edged men. Jane never had any trouble, but then she never acted frightened. She wasn’t exactly a cute young thing. Jane was a tall woman with big bones, and she carried herself in a way that made her seem invulnerable. She walked into truck stops as if she belonged there, which she did. Her size wasn’t intimidating to this girl, though. Normally little kids tended to avoid her. It seemed that Susie’s offspring had inherited her taste for large trucker types. Damn, she thought, she just wanted a quiet breakfast.
Jane held herself still, hoping the girl would leave. Susie returned, staring at the girl. Before Jane could ask her to kindly remove her kid, thank you very much, Susie asked Jane if the girl was hers, if someone had left the girl there for Jane to pick up. Jane shouted “NO” so violently, the girl jerked away. Jane looked at Susie’s sad, shocked face, and knew that they both were thinking the same thing. This kid, this five-year old girl had been left in a truck stop.
Susie said, “Should we call the p-o-l-i-c-e?”
Jane nodded, and thought it was pretty unlikely that Emily would have been alarmed by the word “police.” Still, you never knew. If her family deliberately abandoned her, her home may very well have been visited by the police a few times.
Jane felt she didn’t have much choice but to tolerate the girl’s presence until the police arrived. The kid was looking sleepy, so Jane scooted as far into the booth as she could, hoping the girl would lie down on the seat and nap. Jane stiffened when the girl scooted over, nestling into her side once again.
Jane glanced down at her paper and wished she could eat her breakfast and read her paper undisturbed. She tried to read another article, but instead Jane thought about the bees that were left behind. They didn’t fly away, the article said. They were crawling in the grass near the accident site. Millions of bees, staying put.
Susie came back with Jane’s pancakes and bacon. She nodded to Jane, clearly indicating that the phone call had been made. She also had a doughnut for the girl, but the kid wouldn’t take it, she just shook her head and pushed herself harder into Jane’s side. Jane told Susie to leave it. Susie seemed a little taken aback. She must be used to dealing with kids. She’d certainly be welcome to deal with this one, but Jane seemed stuck with her.
“Hey kid,” Jane said, “Emily. Don’t you want this doughnut?” Emily didn’t answer and just gave her a sleepy stare. Jane shrugged and began eating her breakfast. A few minutes later, a small, sticky hand reached up towards the bacon. Jane sighed and handed her a piece.
The bell on the door jingled and a young cop came in. He was tall and thin, with silky hair, a big nose, and large brown eyes. Jane was glad; she had expected the usual small town cop to arrive, thick-waisted, balding, opinionated. Not that there was anything wrong with having opinions, as long as they were the right opinions.
The cop spotted them, but didn’t walk over. She wondered what he was up to. She really wanted the little girl to be gone. Jane’s side had begun sweating from the heat she was giving off.
The cop moved slowly over to the open area near the counter and faced them. It afforded Jane and the little girl a good view. He had a faint smile on his clean-shaven young face. Jane realized she was smiling back at him when his eyes met hers.
Why didn’t he come over? Jane sighed. The cop reached into his pocket and pulled out something small and thin and red. Jane thought maybe it was candy as he brought it to his mouth. Instead of eating it, though, that crazy cop was blowing up a balloon. She supposed he’d make a balloon animal out of it. The little girl thought so too, she was clearly fascinated. For the first time since she had attached herself to Jane, her tiny muscles began to loosen and she slid over on the seat to get a clearer view. Jane felt her muscles relaxing as the girl moved away from her.
The cop’s cheeks puffed out and turned red. He blew it nearly all the way and then let it go. Emily laughed as it flew around the room. He slumped, pulling his dark blue shirt tight across his shoulders. He sighed and pulled out another balloon. This time he blew it up and tied the end. He started bending it a little and looking confused, as if he were trying to figure out what to do next. The little girl couldn’t fight it any more. She squealed, “Make a puppy!”
“Oh, you want me to make a horse? I can do that!” he said.
“No, a puppy!” she said.
The cop and the little girl talked their way through a variety of different balloon shapes. He ended up making quite a few. Finally the girl got brave enough to run over to the pile of animals, grab the one that was presumably a puppy, and return to the booth. The cop picked up the rest of them and walked over. Jane watched the cop slide into the booth across from her. The girl retracted again and clenched up like a fist against Jane’s side.
The cop pretended to recognize Jane. “I thought that was you! It’s me, Dan! How you doing, um… Candy? Or was it, Sugar? Pancake? I mean Pepper? Bacon! No, Doughnut? Wait, Molasses!” Dan was clearly deranged. The little girl was eating it up, though. Dan looked at Jane expectantly, as though they were old friends. Jane took his cue.
“Dan, how many times do I have to tell you not to call me Molasses? I may be slow, but I’m not that sweet. I’m Jane, remember? Say it with me, Jane. Jaaaaaaane.” She drawled out her name.
“Of course! Jane who is anything but plain.” Dan reached over with a balloon sword and tapped her on the head with it. Jane laughed and then stiffened, annoyed that she was amused by his idiotic act. It was probably just relief that he was here to take the kid away that she was feeling.
Dan focused on the little girl. He started calling her various animals and making animal noises. He got her full name from her, Emily Jensen. Jane wasn’t surprised; he had a way about him.
“I can tell fortunes, you want me to tell yours?” he asked Emily. He leaned way over the booth to reach her hand. After making up various absurd predictions, he told her he’d fix her hand up for her. He pulled out a pen and started drawing on her palm, talking to her in his calm amused voice the entire time. Finally he declared her fortune fixed. Jane could see that he’d drawn a cartoon dog on her hand.
“Now you’ll have a puppy in your future,” he said.
“Do Jane’s! Tell Jane’s fortune!” the girl squealed.
Jane let Dan tug her arm. She felt his pen tickle her palm as he prognosticated.
“A very long life line, good, very good. And a deep heart line, always like to see that. But what’s this?” he said.
“What?” she said.
“Your love line. It’s incomplete. Don’t panic, Jane, it can be fixed.”
Dan drew something on her hand. When he was finished, he closed her fingers over her palm. Jane pulled her arm back off the table. She supposed he had drawn a cartoon in her hand. She’d check later.
A social worker arrived to take Emily away. Like Jane’s sister, her name was Nancy, but this Nancy was nothing at all like the other Nancy. This Nancy wore Birkenstocks. She was short, with long lank hair and a peace sign necklace. Jane knew what she’d be like just by looking at her. Nancy made loud sighing noises as Jane told her what little she knew about the girl. Nancy looked ready to burst into tears, and wanted to talk about the “poor little thing’s” feelings. Jane didn’t care and asked if Nancy was finished talking to her. Nancy, clearly shocked that Jane didn’t want to stand around and conjecture about the girl’s terrible life, nodded. Jane watched her swoop down on Emily and turned away. Behind her, she heard Emily say, “Bye Jane.” Jane didn’t turn around. The bell on the front door rang as they left. Emily was taken care of, so Jane would spend no more time thinking about her.
Jane decided she would forget the episode ever happened and get back to her life. She ordered a hamburger to go. As she was waiting for it, she and Dan chatted about trucks and truck stops and nothing in particular. He finally had to leave. As he was walking away, he turned and gave her a clearly appreciative last look.
Jane looked at her hand where Dan had written his name and number. She glanced down at her paper and finally read the last part of the bee article. Apparently the bees that were left behind, the ones crawling around in the grass, were going to be drowned. They were going to be killed so they wouldn’t pose a threat to the people living nearby. She hoped that some of them managed to get away and form some new hives. Then again, it hardly mattered; there were enough bees left in the world to pollinate plants, to make honey, to sting and die.
Jane rubbed at her palm with her thumb and smudged the numbers until they were unreadable. Her food arrived and she paid and left the diner.