Michael Webster Thompson Yellow Jackets

Yellow jackets have dug a nest at the base of the low stonewall that edges the field across the street from the boy’s home. He’s known about the nest for weeks now, but today is the day he decides to attack it. Mr. Bruno, who owns the field, as it is technically part of his yard, left early this morning on a salmon fishing trip and won’t return until Monday. He told the boy about the trip while they changed the oil on his vintage Mustang last week, the boy holding the drip pan.

Mr. Bruno is a nice man, but boring, always fixing up his house and working on his car. He helps everyone with their lawns, fertilizing and edging them, making them nice and green. The boy regrets that Mr. Bruno saw his parents fighting and it makes him feel uncomfortable that Mr. Bruno told him he could come over anytime, if he needed a “safe place.”

The boy crosses the small suburban asphalt street. The newly laid crack-filling tar, melting in the late summer sun, sticks to the bottom of his sandals and suctions them briefly to the street before they slap up and hit his heels. Heat emanations wiggle in the air like transparent smoke trails. The boy considers scrounging for change in the couch cushions to buy a Mr. Misty at the DQ after he’s done with the nest.

On the rise above the stonewall pink and white peonies teem with ants seeking the sticky clear fluid that drips down their stems. The boy hates these flowers, thinks they smell like sugary sweat socks. He wishes he could rip them all out of the ground, but he tried that once; his hands got all gummed up and he hated that more than the flowers.

So for now, they live. Maybe I’ll come back with a bat, he thinks, or a tennis racket. A tennis racket would be perfect.

But today is for the wasps.

In the evergreens near Mr. Bruno’s house the boy finds a stick about the length of his arm. He bends it over his knee, gently at first, then harder. It is strong.

The boy knows quite a bit about yellow jackets, as well as other wasps and bees. He had, the summer before, accidentally stepped on a mud wasp nest during a game of Capture the Flag at day camp. The swollen red stings dotting his legs intrigued him. For Christmas, his mother bought him The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Insects.

The underground nest is most likely larger than a gallon milk jug this late in the summer. Yellow jackets are not only one of the most aggressive wasp species, but are also most aggressive in late summer and early autumn. Unlike bees, yellow jackets only infrequently lose their unbarbed stinger, which allows them to attack again and again.

From above the hole, he watches the yellow jackets fly in and out. They leave the nest in zooming diagonals, and return vacuumed back on the same erratic paths. Before leaving they look around as if the light blinds them and they need to get their bearings. They pause in a similar fashion when returning, letting their eyes adjust to the dark. Although the boy knows the wasps’ eyes don’t adjust to light, he likes thinking that they do, that the wasps are more like him.

The boy sits near the hole silently, listening to the yellow jackets zip past his head, imagining he can feel the vibration of the hive through the earth. The sun burns the back of his neck and his muscles begin to ache. He needs to move.

He stretches out his left leg and then his right, trying not to draw attention to himself. The act of slowly standing brings a rush of blood to his head. He tastes the metallic taste and his neck clenches. When the rush passes, he leans over the hole in the dirt.

With the stick he draws large circles around the hole. None of the wasps take notice and he begins to spiral in closer. As he approaches the nest entrance he begins to lose his nerve. Shivers run up his arms despite the heat.

Quit being such a pussy, he says to himself.

The boy wakes to the sound of glass breaking in the kitchen. He smells his sweat sunk into the mattress when he wakes. He flips his damp pillow. The humid breeze lifts his curtains but brings little relief. Normally, he would lie there and wait for it to be over, sometimes wrapping his pillow around his head to drown out the sound, kicking his heels into the mattress, listening for his dad’s car to peel out of the driveway, or for his mother to lock herself in the bedroom and his dad to creak onto the couch.

But this fight is louder, more urgent, and he emerges from his bedroom and is embarrassed to be wearing only briefs and a t-shirt. Although his dad often walks around the house in his underwear, the boy doesn’t want either of his parents to see him so uncovered.

“Get. Back. In bed,” his dad says.

The boy just stands there, transfixed, unable to move.

His mother takes a few steps towards his dad. She shoves her index finger in his face. Her long hair thrashes as she speaks. Her voice, despite her trembling, remains calm.

“He doesn’t have to listen to you. No one fucking listens to you, Randy.”

His dad, equally calm, says, “I could kill you both right now, you know? I could burn this goddamn house down and sit in it laughing myself to death.”

His mother moves in very close, so close his parents’ noses almost touch. The boy backs into the corner between his and his parents’ bedrooms.

She whispers, “If you had the balls to do that, which you don’t, but if you did, maybe you wouldn’t be such a fucking loser.”

She spits in his face and some of the saliva clings to the end of his nose.

Slow motion. His dad grabs his mom by the shoulders and her eyes grow wide. Her feet leave the floor, his father’s hands hooked under her armpits; he spins and tosses her through the full-length screen front door, the screen cracking loose from the doorframe and clanging on the concrete stoop.

Seconds later, she plunges back though the hole. His dad sulks, looks off into the kitchen. He doesn’t see it coming. But the boy does. He sees her cock her fist, grab his father’s shoulder, spin him around and punch him in the face.

A deep split gapes beneath his eye, disappearing as it fills with blood. His mother runs into the kitchen. His dad touches his hand to his face and a trail of red runs down his fingers and onto his arm. His mother returns and hands his dad a terrycloth towel.

“I didn’t mean to,” his mother mumbles. “This fucking ring.” She takes off her engagement ring and places it on top of the television.

She approaches the boy, who is quivering in the corner, half-sitting like the endurance tests he does in gym.

“Put some pants on, baby, we gotta take Daddy to the hospital.”

She tries to hug him but he curls up tightly into himself, wedging into the corner. He smells the red wine smell on her breath. He squeezes against the wall, crab walks past her legs, and goes to his dresser for sweatpants. Catching a glimpse of himself crying in the window reflection, he wipes his tears. Then, for strength, he touches his fist to the warping Darth Vader poster taped on the wall.

He pushes dirt into the hole. A wasp comes out, looks confused, like a dog climbing out of water, shaking itself off. When that wasp leaves he pokes more dirt into the hole. Five or six yellow jackets fly out at once and swarm his face. He runs in zigzags towards the shade of the pines, pin wheels his arms, slaps at himself.

In the trees he loses them. He inspects himself and finds a sting on his forearm. Not bad. He examines the bump for a stinger. Not finding one he spits on the sting and rubs dirt in the saliva. He waits there in the relative cool for the wet dirt to dry on the sting and heal it.

He decides that the sting wasn’t worth merely agitating the wasps. The wasps deserve to be punished. What he needs to do is destroy the nest, so that he won’t get stung again. To protect the neighborhood, to do something good.

At the very least, he should cover the mouth of the nest with enough dirt to make it a pain in the ass for the yellow jackets to dig themselves out.

Emboldened, he walks back across the grass.

His mother drives to the hospital quickly. Too quickly. The Explorer teeters around corners, at times it seems only two wheels are on the ground.

“Cool it, Sheila. Slow down. You’re gonna kill the three of us.”

“What would you care, Randy?”

“Just slow down.” His father leans towards his mother, bloody towel wad pressed on his face, and though his teeth, says, “You’re drunk.”

“So the fuck what?” She jams down on the gas, powering through a yellow light by the Jewel/Osco. “You’re bleeding your face off and I want you out of this car.”

His dad just stares out the window.

The boy knows about driving drunk. He remembers a party at his Aunt and Uncle’s apartment. He was little then. Three or four. Throughout the party, he stayed with his cousins in a back bedroom watching Disney movies and eating microwave popcorn. All of the adults in the place were drunk and stumbling by the time they left. His dad drove home, using the curb to guide the car, his mother yelling at him the whole way: You’re crazy, Randy! You’ll get us all killed!

His mother navigates the Explorer towards the large red E hospital entrance.

“Get out”, she says.

“Love you, too, honey.” His dad slams the car door behind him.

“Dad,” the boy cries, opening his door. His dad leans in to the backseat to hug him before turning and walking through the automatic doors. The boy pulls the car door shut.

“I’m sorry for this, baby. All of it.” She reaches back and runs her fingers through his hair. “Do you want to sit up front?”

The boy climbs over the storage console between the front seats and sits down, buckles the belt. Something cool touches his left thigh. He pulls at his sweatpants. There is a small crescent bloodstain. His father’s blood.

His mother notices. “Don’t worry. I can get that out,” she says. They glide back home in the cooling late night air, windows down, listening to the oldies.

When they get home Mr. Bruno is working at their front door. The screen insert reattached to the frame, he duct tapes the torn bottom corner of the screen back into place. The boy watches Mr. Bruno pull one last length of tape from the roll and gently apply it to the screen.

“Why is Mr. Bruno up so late, Mom?”

“I don’t know, honey. He’s a strange man. Always trying to fix everything,” she says, and he knows it’s true. Mr. Bruno has a tool for every job. He helped his neighbors put up matching fences.

They get out of the car. “Everything okay, Sheila?” Mr. Bruno calls down the side of the house.

“Go home, Harry! It’s goddamn midnight!” she yells back.

Mr. Bruno nods to himself, admiring his work, before switching off his utility light, picking up his toolbox and walking back to his house.

As the boy is about to jam the stick into the nest’s opening, he pauses. He tells himself that this will end badly, that no good can come of it. But then he jabs the stick into the nest anyway, not destroying the opening, but opening it wider. Yellow jackets pour out. He knows he has been marked, that now every wasp in the nest will be after him.

He retreats, alternating between pulling at his clothes and waving his arms around his head. The yellow jackets fly into his shirt. They sting his neck. They burrow into his hair.

He runs away in zigzags, pulling his shirt off and over his head while crossing the street, blind to traffic. He trips over the curb and falls into his front yard by the maple. Dozens of wasps circle him and dive in to sting the bare flesh of his back and neck. They don’t even hurt anymore; there are too many.

He pulls himself up and stumbles through the duct tape repaired screen door.

“Mom!”

“What is it?” she calls from her bedroom. Probably watching her stupid game shows, half asleep.

“Mom!” he yells louder, almost screams, his voice breaking.

Her bed creaks and she comes running out. “What’s the matter? What happened?”

“Yellow jackets. They got me.”

He stands shirtless, a few yellow jackets fly in circles around him. She grabs a magazine off the coffee table and swipes at him, brushing away the wasps.

“They’re in my hair.”

“What?” She pushes her own mussed hair down, using her free hand to try to work one side flat.

“The wasps.”

“Come here. Come here. Sit down.” She guides him to the kitchen table. “I’ll be right back,” she says, jogging away. “How did this happen?” she yells back.

He rests his head on the cool tile table, tracing the flowery pattern on the corner with his finger, like he did the night before while his mother and father told him they were separating. He had gone to bed and tried to cry, couldn’t sleep, started fake crying. His mother told him to be quiet and go to sleep.

Sometimes he hates how well his parents know him and wishes he were more mysterious.

Life isn’t fair. His dad always says that.

His mother returns with a brush and calamine. She scrapes the brush through his hair, pulls out a few yellow jackets that limp around slowly, unable to take flight, half dead on the tiles. The boy puts his thumb on the abdomen of a wounded wasp near his face and pushes down. The stinger and some greenish yellow guts squeeze out onto the white tile.

“Don’t do that,” his mother says, applying calamine to his stings.

“They fucking deserve it,” he says, knowing he’s crossed a line. He pushes down again, but the carcass is empty.

“What was that, Mister?”

“They. Deserve. It.” He lifts his head from the table and stares at his mother angrily, but then looks away. He feels heat come to his face. His eyes burn and he knows he is going to cry.

“Baby,” his mother says and leans down to hug him. He pushes her away. She grabs his arm and hugs him hard. His breathing strains under the pressure. He begins to sob, unable to catch his breath.

She kisses his hair where the wasps used to be. “They do deserve it, honey,” she says. “I know they do.”

But she doesn’t know anything about yellow jackets.


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