Ella had been holed up inside of her too-small apartment for the last week. Surviving on tea leaves, stale bread, and bits of cheese, she spent most of her time sitting in her bedroom window watching the cars pass by. Each and every head bounced down the broken sidewalk, some holding hands and others bundled up to their eyes. She appreciated the peacefulness of the subtle rain shower now falling. The weatherman had predicted it turning to snow by dusk and she eagerly anticipated this.
If she were honest with herself, the snow signaled an end for her. It left a bittersweet taste on the back of her tongue, which she had been trying to burn off with scalding coffee and tea for the past two hours. It would purify the filth left behind from the weeks of dried up, molding leaves on the sidewalks, or at least cover it up. It would be enough, for now. What she craved was fire.
As she left the window, she paid close attention to the number of steps it took to reach the coffee pot in her kitchen downstairs. Each step was a little extra push from within. She was exhausted. Her large, wool socks slumped over her ankles making them look swollen. She winced. She would need to purge her drawers of all wool socks later. For now, she would focus on the task at hand: forgetting.
The call had come early on a Sunday. She had still been in bed, wrapped in her warmest comforter. The night before had been spent idly and she had fallen asleep lazily having accomplished nothing. She felt relaxed and new. When the phone rang, she contemplated letting it go but something nagged at her. She felt dread rising from her gut into her chest, twisting and dancing like thick smoke. Slowly, she reached for the phone as her eyes began to water. A piece of her already knew she was gone. Her best friend had been gone for a long time. She felt guilty for the immediate sense of peace she felt knowing whatever pain Margot had silently suffered was now over. She hung up the phone and rolled back over in bed.
Ella allowed herself the luxury of going into auto-pilot for the next two days. There were flowers to order, funeral clothes to purchase, and hymns to choose. She was aware that her best friend’s family would be there, though none of them truly knew what had happened. Ella knew and it haunted her. It clung to her back, digging its claws deep in her shoulder blades and making it uncomfortable to breathe. She caught herself gasping for air every so often, usually as she pulled herself back up to surface. It was all too much and had been for a very long time.
Margot. They had been inseparable for most of their teens. Ella found that Margot’s personality complimented hers in that she helped her be invisible. Ella acted as a comparison, making Margot shine. With her brunette curls and chocolate brown eyes, Margot was classically eye catching. Her cheeks were always rosy and her lips maintained a smile. The only thing Margot truly lacked was Ella’s eyes, which were as round as planets and just as big. Ella held all the innocence in her eyes. Margot’s couldn’t hide what she’d seen, at least not well. They were striking in a social setting, one smiling and the other hiding within her fleece turtleneck.
She came to her as a bee. The day had been unseasonably warm and Ella had been able to wear a light dress with her hair down for the funeral. The graveside service had been lovelier than she could have imagined, with bouquets of tiger lilies and bright bows. She was thankful for some cheer in what she imagined was a private hell for Margot’s family. Ella wasn’t quite ready to admit that for herself. She had taken extra time outside on her steps before going back in. The breeze felt nice and the sun was comforting. She had worn a pair of tights Margot had gotten her that Christmas. They were covered in small bows and kittens and Ella was admiring them in the sunlight. By the steps were various flowers and some ferns. Some lilac had been planted along the sidewalk, mostly to attract butterflies. Ella noticed the awkward bee immediately.
It walked crookedly, as if it hadn’t been used to its legs for very long. Ella saw that it was having a difficult time taking off as well. After finding a stick, she put it down and let the bee climb up. The wings looked somewhat bent and sad. Ella ran her finger across the fuzzy body and smiled. Something about the bee felt familiar.
She took the bee inside and placed it on the counter top. After feeding it sugar water, she sat it down in front of her on the kitchen table and poured herself a glass of wine. The bee seemed to be trying to get her attention. She watched as it wobbled closer to her fingers. Was it possible the bee was blind? It made little sense that this creature would be so brave as to risk human hands. After a few glasses of wine, Ella placed the bee on a plate with more sugar water and retired for the night.
She had expected to find the bee dead by morning, or at least gone, but found that it had slept on the table by the plate. It hobbled around playfully while Ella made some breakfast.
For the rest of the day, Ella kept the bee close by. When it wasn’t sitting near her, it was resting on her shoulder. She read out loud to the bee, fed the bee, and even took a walk with the bee resting in her hand. She found herself whispering, then chattering, and then talking about all the things Margot had been and liked and done. She listed off all the colors that had looked best on her, her favorite dresses Margot had worn, as well as how her face had always looked perfectly put together.
"You know,” Ella said, petting the bee, “I think that’s why no one ever knew. I think that she had fooled everyone as well as herself. She left me her diary. I haven’t opened it yet but I imagine she wouldn’t have left it if she hadn’t intended for me to read it.
What do you think?” Ella could have sworn she heard the bee agree.
It was an unremarkable notebook, black and worn. There was a tattered ribbon marking the last page, which was dated just a few weeks ago. Ella’s heart hurt to know Margot had shut out even herself. The handwriting was erratic and looked nothing like the neat script Margot had practiced most of her life. Ella remembered Margot remarking on Ella’s own messy handwriting and short hand note taking. For a brief second, Ella wondered if she had grabbed the right journal. Flipping through the pages, she saw that Margot hadn’t always been so rushed. There were drawings and poems and even some entries. Closer to the end, Ella found letters. She ran her hand over the pages and felt sadness, though she wasn’t sure if it was strictly hers or that of the book’s.
The last entry happened to be a letter. It was what caught Ella’s eye first that made her heart sink. Scanning over the paragraphs, she felt herself grow sicker with each word. Every muscle in her body grew tense and she held her breath until the very last sentence, which wished her luck and love. Margot had signed it with a small heart. Tears were streaming down Ella’s face. She slammed the diary shut and sat down at the table, grabbing for more wine.
The bee gently landed by Ella’s hand. It waddled closely and nuzzled her wrist. Ella let out a pained sob. The bee crawled up the side of her hand and rested in the crook of her thumb. Ella petted it absentmindedly. Her mind was numb but moved quicker than she could cope with. She was unsure of what to do next. Most of the options available to her were void now that Margot had been buried. She wasn’t entirely sure contacting her parents was the best decision, either. Margot had apparently kept a great deal from them.
Ella wanted to scream. She could feel her hair sticking to her cheeks and neck. She was left with accepting what had happened or fighting it. She had to consider what Margot would have wanted and accept it as well. Ella knew what Ella wanted.
The next day or so was spent weighing the consequences. One choice would leave everything alone, buried with Margot, and the other would bring to light what Margot had struggled with all this time. One choice would allow Ella to remain invisible and the other would raise awareness that could potentially allow other invisibles the chance for redemption as well. One was selfish and the other was horrifying. Ella could neither hold this in nor deal with it alone but that was what she was now.
Except for this bee, which had remained in her apartment, sleeping and eating near the plate she’d provided days before.
Margot had loved bees. Margot taught her that if she were to ever find a tired bee or one that seemed dead, to always offer it sugar water first. Ella had seen Margot bring many bees back to life by simply offering a spoonful of sugar water and keeping it safe from any stomping feet. Sometimes Margot would even name the bees and keep them close, planting them in the flowers near her own doorstep. The inside of Margot’s apartment was like a hive, with bee patterned pillows and curtains and blankets. Margot worn a bee costume almost every Halloween.
Ella wondered if the bee was Margot. She rushed to the kitchen and sat down by the plate, nudging the bee awake. She watched it wake and hobble towards her hands sleepily. She knew this was irrational but she had to know. She felt feverish, with her wild hair and set jaw.
"Margot,” she whispered. The bee sat still in her hand. “Margot, if that’s you, let me know.” She watched carefully as the bee flopped down in her palm. “Margot, please, I need to know if it’s you. Can you flap your wings or fly or something just to say it is?” The bee stretched its wings. Ella held her breath. She watched the bee walk towards her wrist, flap its wings, and glide down to the plate. It landed on the edge and stayed there.
Ella was stunned. She gasped for air and ran her fingers through her hair. This couldn’t be true. Maybe she’d been in the apartment too long. This seemed surreal. She sat back in the chair and closed her eyes. Silent tears streamed down her face. She was delusional.
"Why?” she whispered, “Why would I ever think she would come back as a bee?” She felt something tickle her nose and opened her eyes. It was situated in the middle of her face. She jumped and screamed, making the bee take off and land back on the plate. Ella held her face in her hands and began to cry.
The bee jumped down to the table and walked slowly to Ella’s elbow. She could hear it buzz every few seconds or so. She felt angry towards it for tricking her into believing Margot was back. She felt completely cheated. She knew it was unreasonable but she didn’t care. Nothing had been normal in a long time. The loneliness she’d been ignoring settled deep in her chest and she knew she had no choice except to accept it.
“I thought, maybe, you were Margot,” she whispered.
The bee buzzed and flew to her hand. Ella let go of her head and watched quietly as the bee walked up her arm to her shoulder. Something in her felt calm. She felt her jaw drop as she saw what the bee was doing. It was wrapping itself in her hair. It was twirling the bottom strands of her hair. Margot had always twirled her hair. Tears sprang to her eyes and she laughed.
“I knew it,” she cried. “I knew it was you!” She lifted the bee from her hair and pointed to the diary at the other end of the table. “What do you want me to do, Margot? How can I help you?”
Sunlight was starting to stream through the windows. Ella watched as the bee flew to the diary and landed gently. It hit her that a bee lacked the faculties to respond. She grabbed a pen and a piece of paper and wrote down basic answers in her messy scrawl. Motioning at the paper, she nudged the bee and placed in the center.
“Do you want me to tell someone?” She bit the pen and watched. The bee walked towards Yes. “Do I tell your mother?” The bee walked over to No. “Well, who am I supposed to tell?” She was being difficult. Margot had always been difficult. “Do I tell him?” The bee stayed still. Ella worried she had asked the wrong thing. “Margot, please, you can’t tell me something like this and expect me to know what to do.” The bee flew over to Yes. “Do I tell him what you said in the letter to me? Wouldn’t he already know?” The bee buzzed angrily at her and sat back down. Ella took a deep breath.
She was talking to a bee. One of the last bees on earth, one of the few she had seen all summer and she was talking to it. She passed her hand over her eyes and groaned. The clear answer was to report what she had read and hope that it was taken care of quietly. She wanted justice for Margot but she wanted to remain invisible while doing it. The bee buzzed again and waddled closer to the edge of the paper. Ella eyed it and looked down.
“I’m talking to a bee,” she said sadly. “I’m taking answers from a bee. You’re not Margot at all.” The bee flew directly at her, landing on her arm. It crawled up to her shoulder and rose up to her ear, where it seemed to float. Ella heard a low hum and closed her eyes. She felt a chill down her spine and a sudden calm in her stomach. She nodded her head and offered the bee her finger. The bee accepted and settled.
This was how Ella found herself standing in her kitchen in her too big wool socks holding a scalding cup of coffee and listening to the rain outside. The bee was gone. She had released it the day before. It had been more than tearful and the bee seemed hesitant at first, but Ella promised it she would do as it had asked. She still felt the tickle of the whisper in her ear. Secretly, she hoped the bee would return. Realistically, she knew it wouldn’t.
The diary lay on the kitchen table. It had every description, detail, and time documented of every case of violence Margot had experienced. Ella was faced with an incredibly ugly challenge. It was one thing to mourn the loss of someone closer than a sister. It was another thing to memorialize the pain and loss she had endured silently at the hands of someone they had trusted. In that one beat up notebook, Margot had legitimized everything she had ever fought for by constantly smiling and treating each person with dignity and kindness. What Ella had on her table was leather bound dynamite.
Ella sat down with a pen and notebook to take notes. It would take time she felt she did not have. She would need to pen painful words like bruise, cover up, and fear. She would be painting a picture not even Margot’s parents had seen. Instead of smiles and laughter, she would be describing a disease so terrible it brought Margot down to her own grave.
She remembered all the key signs now. All the times Margot seemed unable to sit comfortably and wore long sleeves when it was the dead of summer. She remembered watching Margot wither away with illness and lack of food. She had felt so helpless as she saw Margot shut everyone out except for him. She had given up when Margot refused medical treatment. It was all because of one man, one year of hidden cruelty, and one disease that ate at her and him alike.
This would be it. This would be the one thing to shake others from their complacency. This would be what would tear the curtain back. She hoped it would be, anyway. She worked fervently for hours, cataloging everything. She created a timeline of each event and symptom. She wrote it all down as neatly as possible, remembering how Margot would have fussed at the scrawl. She had cup after cup of coffee to keep her mind buzzing and numb. She knew if she slowed down she would never begin again.
The finished product was a great deal darker than Ella knew how to handle. She spent the next day wrapped in her own blanket, watching the snow fall. What she would do with it, she wasn’t quite sure. She had options, none of which were easy. She wasn’t a wordsmith, like Margot. She wasn’t a painter or artist. She couldn’t speak well in front of others. What she had were the words of a dead girl displayed in diagrams. She knew what she had wouldn’t be enough in the form it was.
She watched children sled down the hill on the sidewalk. School had been cancelled and she enjoyed the bright laughter and screams. It helped her smile. There were so many possible Margot’s below her. All the young boys and girls who could all easily fall into the same situation as Margot had. She thought of what each one could be. One girl could be a doctor and one of the boys would be a pilot. The twins down the street could easily be models. One of the girls stood at the top, shouting orders. Ella knew she would be a great leader.
They needed to know. They all deserved to know. Ella stood up and starred hard at the snow in the road. She knew what she needed to do. She knew what was right.
LAUREN HAMM is a writer from Kentucky, US with a BA in English Literature. She enjoys books, silence, and her two cat babies. She's previously been published in Persephone's Daughters.