The girl lived in the basement where the air was cool and damp and quiet. Company was coming over tonight, her mother had said, so the girl had better make sure her room was spotless. She gave the girl a dull knife to scrape the gobs of candle wax from the dresser and night stand, and she took it back after. She brought down the vacuum so the girl could suck the dust and dead bugs from the lampshades and corners. And she gave the girl a bucket of soapy water to scrub the dirt from the walls and floor. No matter how often the girl cleaned, there always seemed to be more dust. And the bed had to be made too, the corners creased like ironed shirts, and the four pillows propped in alternating colors against the headboard. The girl didn’t need to be reminded. Mother was always this fastidious when they were having company.
When the girl’s room was as close to shining as it would be under the dull florescent lights, the girl scrubbed herself twice as hard in the basement shower. “You’re filthy, filthy!” Mother would say, so the girl made sure, just like her room, to clean all her corners, even though she could never reach all her dirty spots.
When she came out, her skin was pink and flush and she had goose-pimples. She combed and tousled and blew-dry her hair, misted herself with candy-scented perfume, and put on a nice dress with sequins and silk ribbons that her mother had bought her. She fastened a patent leather belt around her waist, tightening it to the farthest hole her mother had made especially for her, even though the belt pressed into her ribs when she sat down, and made it hard for her to breathe. Then the girl sat on the bed and waited until Mother came down to inspect her work. Mother walked around the room and silently pointed under the dresser, where a crumb had fallen, and the girl jumped to pick it up. Then Mother spat into a handkerchief and used it to clean a spot of smeared lipstick on the girl’s cheek. Finally, Mother crept back up the stairs where Father’s silhouetted face peered down from the open doorway.
The door closed with a click.
* * * *
The girl was terribly sick. She had been born with a disease which would kill her if she stepped out into the sunlight, even for a second. The basement windows had to be painted black, and three layers of curtains drawn across them. And Mother made sure that the girl took her medicine every night. It was the only thing keeping her alive. Mother put three drops into a glass of warm soy milk and watched to make sure the girl drank every last ounce. The medicine always made the girl very sleepy, and Mother would have her lie under the covers while she told long stories until the girl fell fast asleep. The stories were always about good little girls, girls who kept themselves groomed, who cleaned up after themselves, girls who treasured what God had given them.
“The difference between a man and a beast,” Mother said, “is a bar of soap.”
One time the girl awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of her mother’s voice, but there was no one else in the room. The girl thought it was a ghost and screamed and thrashed about the dark room, knocking over the lamp and candles, until she found a small tape player under her pillow. The little gray plastic thing speaking in her mother’s voice angered her so much, though she wasn’t exactly sure why, that she flung it against the wall. When mother came down and found the tape recorder in a dozen pieces on the floor, she hit the girl so hard that the girl had to eat through a straw for three days.
“I’m sorry,” Mother said later. “But you need to learn that selfishness has consequences. I won’t let my daughter behave like the fools outside.” Mother cried and held the girl’s hand, and wouldn’t leave the basement until the girl forgave her. And after that, Mother’s recorded voice came from some place above the rafters in the ceiling, out of the girl’s reach.
* * * *
Company tonight was a professional named Jim, friend of the family. He wore a black suit, was a little overweight, and his hands shook. His hands were sweaty too, and cold, and his glasses hung at an odd angle from his nose. He never touched his tea. When he spoke, lines of saliva stretched from lip to lip like prison bars, and his breath was foul. He said she was the prettiest girl he had ever seen, and she averted her eyes and smiled as Mother had taught her to.
He forgot his lighter on the table, a heavy, brass thing with engraved initials. The girl took the lighter and hid it behind a piece of loose wainscoting, where she kept all of her private things. She had more items than she could count.
The next morning, no matter how many times she brushed her teeth, she couldn’t remove the sour taste of his breath from her mouth.
* * * *
The girl couldn’t remember if she had ever been outside. Sometimes, she thought she remembered traveling on a bus late at night, with dead trees whisking by under the stars, children crying. Maybe she was crying with them. She remembered an old house in the country, and miles and miles of dusty fields. She thought she remembered a very thin and mangy stray dog that smelled like cheese and whimpered when she petted him, until he vanished one day. But those memories might have been dreams.
Sometimes she imagined herself queen of the world, in a palace at the top of a huge tree. The palace had a thousand different rooms, each on a different branch, so she would never get bored. And all of the rooms were windowless so the sun could never hurt her. She’d have a room just for things she’d collected, its teetering pile reaching all the way to the ceiling. Servants would clean her palace every day from top to bottom. She’d never have to lift a hand. And her arms would be made of rubber, could grow extra long so she could clean all her hard-to-reach dirty spots, turning inside out too, to wash her insides.
Other times she imagined letting the palace get dirty, letting the dust and dead insects collect in the corners, letting her body grow filthy and rank. That made her giggle uncontrollably. Sometimes she giggled so hard she threw up. She made sure to clean up the mess before mother came down.
One day she dreamed she had told the sun to set and never come up again. The sun was so scared of her it went away forever. Her body felt hot in strange places and her hands shook like the basement radiator in winter. When Mother came down that night to give the girl her daily medicine, the girl said, “Go away, Mother, and never come back again!” When she said it, her whole body shook wonderfully.
Instead of retreating like the sun, Mother kicked the girl in the ribs.
“I’m sorry,” Mother said later, stroking the girl’s hair as the girl lay in bed moaning. “But I’m the one who brought you into this world. I’m the one who gave you life, who keeps you alive.” She kicked the basement floor with her sandal. “Without me, you’re dust.”
The girl’s rib mended slowly, over several months, and company didn’t visit for a while. But when they did finally return, Mother had to make a new notch in the girl’s belt because her waist had shrunk.
* * * *
Mother had always wanted another daughter. She said so when she drank. She cried and looked through the girl and said, “I was supposed to have another. You’d have a sister, a girl, someone to play with.” And the girl wanted a sister too. Sometimes, she pretended she had one, and she spoke to her in her dreams.
Her sister would say, “Why don’t you let me entertain the company tonight? You’re sore, and you need the rest.” The girl loved her dream sister.
* * * *
Theodore was a nice man, another friend of the family. He was in banking, he said, and the girl had the same color eyes as his late wife, “God bless her immortal soul.” He smelled like soap and old wool and spoke very slowly, like there was molasses in his mouth. A brown button had fallen from his suit jacket, and the girl put it behind the wainscoting with all the other things.
Sometimes she wished she could put herself there, in the secret place behind the wall, and never come out. Other times she apologized to the wall for putting things inside of it without its permission.
“I’m sorry if it hurts when I open you wide,” she said. “But you’re a very pretty wall.”
* * * *
“Why can’t I go outside at night?” the girl asked. “When the sun isn’t up?”
“Because of the insects,” Mother said. “One sting from a bee, and you’ll die in minutes.”
The girl knew bees flew really fast and made bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt sounds when they swept past you.
“It’s not fair,” she said.
“Of course it isn’t! It isn’t fair that Father and I can’t find work! It isn’t fair that we have to take care of you and your special needs with no money! You have more than most people. You have food, a roof over your head, parents who do everything for you. Always remember that.”
And she did. But she still wanted to go outside.
* * * *
Once, when the girl was still in bed, an insect landed on her face. It made a horrible bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt sound, and she screamed and leaped into the closet to hide.
“The freezer broke down again,” Mother said later, standing outside the closet. “Father put the spoiled meat in the garbage and the flies got to it. It was a fly you saw, not a bee, darling. They’re everywhere. They’re disgusting insects—filthy, filthy—but they can’t hurt you.”
Nevertheless, the girl sat in the closet for a full day, drying the tears from her cheek. From then on, the girl would sit on the edge of her bed and listen to the room for hours to make sure there weren’t any bees waiting to sting her.
* * * *
On a shelf under the stairs was a rack of old books. They were dusty and smelled like mold, and many of their images were faded. But she loved them like the sister she’d never had. Sometimes she hugged and kissed the books and spoke to them and slept with them beside her on her pillow. Sometimes she picked a random book from the rack and read it aloud to her imaginary sister, using different voices. She couldn’t understand all of the words—mother had stopped teaching her letters a long time ago—but the books with pictures and bright colors made sense all on their own.
One book frightened her. She didn’t like to open it, but sometimes she couldn’t stop herself. She turned to page sixteen, a picture of a bee. It was black and yellow and had huuuuuuuuuge wings. She shivered as she studied the image and read the words. With each second, she became less afraid.
* * * *
Something smelled delicious upstairs. It must be Sunday, the girl thought, because we always have steak on Sunday, not that awful oatmeal paste Mother serves the rest of the week.
She grew excited because Father came down to the basement on Sundays. Even though he never said much, she liked his calming presence. Father’s breath smelled sweet and he seemed a giant under the low ceiling. She wanted to hug him, to rub her cheek against his sandpaper beard, but Father didn’t like that. On a small circular table, the three of them held hands and said a prayer. Father’s hands were large and calloused, and he never gripped hers as firmly as she liked to hold his.
“Be thankful for what your father does for us,” Mother said. “We survive because of his hard work.” After the prayer, Mother drank. Mother always drank on Sunday. And the bottles were different and dusty. They smelled like rusty cans of turpentine, or nail polish remover, or facial cleanser. The girl loved it when Mother drank because Mother talked about the outside.
After Mother had finished her third glass, the girl asked, “Where did you and Father used to live?”
“Was your house big?”
“No. Not really.”
“Did you go outside a lot?”
“Every day. I had a garden in the back.”
“Really? With flowers?”
“No. I grew vegetables.”
“Did you eat them?”
“Of course. I was a vegetarian.”
“What’s a ‘veg-et-arian?’”
“It means I didn’t eat meat.”
“But you eat meat now.”
“You eat what you have before you.”
“Did you own a car?”
“We had a little Honda. Your father could barely fit into it.”
“Why didn’t you get a bigger one?”
“Because we couldn’t afford it.”
“Did you drive it to the Mall and go shopping and see movies?”
“Gas was too expensive.”
“But you liked it there, in Lehigh, Pennsylvania?”
“I loved it there.”
“So why did you move here?”
Mother stared into her glass.
“That’s enough talk,” Father said sternly. “Things are better now. We have a house and we have food and we have each other. That’s all we need.”
He sliced his steak and chewed in silence while the girl snuck glances at his strong arms. Father never looked at her or at Mother. He seemed to stare at nothing at all. He had bruises on the inside of his forearms and cuts all over his hands.
“What are those bruises from?” the girl asked.
“A raccoon in the trash again,” Father said. “From the meat we threw out last week.”
“Was it a big raccoon?”
“Really? Were you scared?”
Father put down his fork.
“Eat your dinner,” Mother said. “And let Father be.”
And the girl did eat, and enjoyed herself, and the food was delicious. She loved how the tines of the fork tickled her lips and how the knife reflected a spot of light on the wall. She wanted to keep the utensils, but Mother collected every piece when she cleared the table. Mother took the dishes and tablecloth upstairs, while Father and the girl sat quietly together.
He turned to face her, staring with big gray orbs the color of the walls. Their corners were red and wet and he looked like he was going to throw up. He said, “I’m sorry, honey. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
Then he followed Mother up the stairs and closed the door.
The girl searched under the table and all around it, but Mother and Father had left nothing behind for her to keep.
* * * *
The basement was decorated with pictures on the walls of ‘ladies from the Victorian age.’ The women wore giant dresses and carried umbrellas even though the sun was out. Maybe they had the same disease she had, she wondered, and needed to protect themselves from the sun with umbrellas and heavy clothing, though the girl wondered how they survived the summers in those huge dresses without melting. Perhaps, she thought, if she had a dress and umbrella like that she could go outside whenever she wanted.
* * * *
Danny was the youngest of all her parents’ friends. He seemed hardly older than her. But his eyes were wild, as if he didn’t know where to look. And he said almost nothing except, “I have to go now or I’ll be in trouble.” When he sat down, change fell out of his pockets. The girl didn’t know how much it was, but she put it in her secret place anyway.
The girl didn’t like Danny because he pushed too hard and dug his fingers into her back. The next morning, Mother cried because she said she pitied him.
* * * *
When Mother came down to give the girl her medicine one night, the girl said, “Bees use the sun to find their way home. They sleep at night because otherwise they’d get lost.”
“Who told you that?”
“I read it in a book.”
Slowly, Mother said, “Which book?”
“Why can’t I go outside at night when there are no bees?”
Mother’s lips curled into a tight ‘o’ and she said nothing more. She mixed the girl’s medicine and tucked her into bed, and the girl fell into a deep sleep which lasted ages. When she awoke, the rack with all its wonderful books was gone, and Mother, no matter how many times the girl asked, wouldn’t speak of it.
The girl cried for a week and couldn’t get out of bed and promised herself to never, ever mention her secret place behind the wainscoting to anyone. She would never let Mother take that away.
* * * *
Check-up came once per month. She couldn’t go outside to a doctor, and with Father’s poor income, they couldn’t afford to bring one to the house. So mother, who once was a nurse, performed the check-up herself.
The girl opened her mouth, said ‘ahhhhh!’, and had a light shone into her orifices. She had her blood pressure checked, and Mother stuck a small white pen between her legs. It tickled and hurt, and afterwards Mother would look at the pen and sigh as if disappointed.
Then Mother would bathe her and cut her hair, above and below. “You’re not taking care of your body!” she exclaimed. “When are you going to respect what God has given to you?” Lastly, Mother cut her toenails, buffed and painted the girl’s fingernails, and plucked stray hairs from her nose and eyebrows.
When she was done, she had the girl do Yoga poses, mainly positions that stretched her hips and pelvis.
“No, no, keep your thighs level!” she admonished.
“Mother,” the girl said, “I don’t feel well.”
“I’ve just checked you,” Mother said. “You’re in perfect health.”
“Are you sure?”
“But I feel sick.”
“Yes,” the girl said.
Mother ran upstairs and came back with another white pen.
“Sit back honey, and spread your legs.”
“Not again,” the girl said. She crossed her legs. “It hurts.”
“It’s only for a second!”
“No. I’m not doing that anymore. I hate that!”
“Sit back and spread your legs!”
“I will only if you give me my books back!”
“You don’t make demands of me, girl!”
“Give me my books back!” the girl shouted. She stared into Mother’s eyes and felt her body start to tremble.
“There are no more books! I burned them! Now open your goddamned legs!”
“You burned them?” the girl said, crying.
“This is your last warning!” Mother lifted her hand.
“Go ahead! Hit me!” the girl screamed. “I don’t care anymore. I hate you! I hate this basement!”
Mother’s face grew red and the girl expected pain at any moment, but Mother burst into tears and ran up the stairs. “You little brat!” she sobbed. “You selfish little brat!”
The girl trembled and felt guilty and strangely powerful, and noticed that Mother had forgotten her scissors on the bed. The girl snatched them and hid them behind the wainscoting. Then she practiced lying to her mother over and over again, like the painful Yoga poses.
“What scissors, Mother? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
* * * *
Susie looked like a boy. She had short hair and a man’s jaw, but she spoke with a woman’s voice. She smoked Lucky Strikes and smelled like onions and kept apologizing even though the girl didn’t see what she was doing wrong. The girl took one of her cigarettes and hid that too.
Mother said that Susie was a “waste of time, and the worst kind of sinner” but Father had invited her over anyway. After they were done, Susie just lay next to her, running her fingers along the girl’s arm until Mother stormed down the steps and made Susie leave. The girl heard crying upstairs. It wasn’t Mother’s voice.
* * * *
“We won’t be having company for a while,” Mother said.
“Why not?” the girl said.
“Father’s lost his job. He’s looking for work elsewhere.”
“I thought Father didn’t have a job.”
“It’s complicated. We may have to move.”
“Then I’ll have to go outside, won’t I?”
“Yes. But it’ll be dangerous. We’ll have to cover you.”
“I don’t care! I want to go outside! I want to climb a tree!”
“Have you seen my scissors?” Mother asked.
“What scissors?” the girl said. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
* * * *
“The money has run out,” Father said on Sunday, “and this is the last steak we’ll be having for a while.”
“What’ll we eat?” the girl asked. “That oatmeal paste is awful. Where will we go? Are we going to a new town?”
“Yes,” Father said. “But the time has to be right.”
“Oh, I can’t wait to see the trees and the stars and an automobile and a shopping mall—”
“Eat your goddamned steak!” Mother said.
And the girl obeyed, but she was so excited she could hardly swallow.
* * * *
Mother came downstairs. “Clean your room and put on your dress.”
“Are we leaving?” the girl said.
“No. Company’s coming over.”
“But I thought you said that—”
“I know what I said. Now, clean up this room and put on your dress!”
It couldn’t be true. No! They had to be leaving. They had to! With a heavy heart, the girl scrubbed the basement. In the shower, she could barely lift her hands. She slid into her dress, but when she grabbed the patent belt she felt sick, so she threw it across the room. It fell at the base of the stairs.
Mother came down for inspection.
“Why haven’t you finished getting dressed?”
“I don’t want to!”
“There’s no time for this! Company’s waiting!”
Mother’s face grew red. “I’m going to count to ten and go upstairs. When I return, you’d better be perfect, or I’ll—”
“I thought we were going outside!”
“Keep this up and you’ll never go outside!”
Mother’s words were so cruel that the girl burst into tears. No, she was going to go outside and go outside now. But she needed supplies. When Mother ascended the stairs, the girl bent down and pulled the wainscoting aside. She retrieved her collection: a Lucky Strike cigarette, an engraved lighter, some change, a money clip, a gold ring, a photo of a woman, pocket dental floss, a business card that read ‘Michael Brukowski, Family Dentist,’ a pair of scissors. She wished she had an umbrella.
“What the hell is that?” Mother snapped. She was standing on the stairs. “Where did you get all that stuff? You dirty little devil! Look at what you’ve been hiding from me! If you’re not dressed in thirty seconds I’m going to burn all that stuff too!”
“No!” the girl screamed. “You can’t!” She grabbed the closest thing to her hand. “These are mine! Mine!” She lunged at her mother and stabbed her in the face with the scissors. “I’m going outside!” she shouted. Mother screamed and swung at the girl, and the girl shoved her back. The back of Mother’s head slammed into the wall. Her eyes crossed and looked funny, and the girl kept stabbing and stabbing.
An awful color spilled from Mother’s cheeks. She threw up her hands to block the jabs. Then she fell onto her back at the bottom of the stairs. The belt lay next to her head and the girl wrapped it around Mother’s neck.
“Get dressed, darling,” the girl said. “Company’s coming over. You must be perfect for our guests.” She pulled the belt taut around Mother’s neck.
Mother gasped and spat blood.
“No, no, tighter, dear. Tighter! But it hurts, mommy! You have to be perfect for our guests! But mommy, I don’t want to! Shut your trap, you selfish little bitch, and do what I say!” The girl pulled the belt as tight as it would go. Mother’s face turned purple. Blood spilled into little pools onto the floor from her cheeks and eyes.
It would take so much cleaning, the girl thought, to get the stains out.
Mother looked like she was going to sleep. She stopped struggling.
“Oh my God!” a strange voice said from the top of the steps. A man, with a gray beard stared, wide-eyed. As he ran down the stairs, the girl pushed him aside with all her strength. He fell into the banister, and toppled with a crash.
The basement door was open. She ran to the top of the stairs.
“What the hell is going on down here?” Father said from the doorway.
She wanted to run, crying, into his arms, but when he said, “What are you doing up here? Get your ass back down into the basement!” she lifted the scissors and swung as hard as she could. She wasn’t going back. The point jabbed into his neck, and out gushed a stream of blood, spurting with his pulse. He fell to the ground, and his weight pushed the door completely open.
She climbed over him and looked around. All the windows were covered with thick curtains.
She heard a voice in the basement. And her father was gurgling for help. She got scared. What had she done? She needed to get outside. To run away. But she hadn’t been upstairs in ages, and nothing here was familiar. She ran into the next room. She opened a door, and cold air spilled onto her feet. This wasn’t a room, but a freezer, and inside were a few small pieces of meat. In the next room was a table with a coffee pot and several steaming cups. A cigarette burned in an ashtray. She knocked it over, looking for a way out.
There was a tall window. It had no curtains. Yellow light streaked onto the floor. It was—no—it couldn’t be.
Sunlight. It was daytime.
On the other side of the window, an unknown distance away, was a large tree. She wanted to climb it, to die up in its branches, her own palace. She sprinted toward it. The sun would kill her, she knew. It didn’t matter. She just wanted to be outside.
But she had forgotten about the glass. It had been so long since she had looked through a window. The pane shattered like a broken plate, cutting her all over. Her whole body stung as she stumbled forward. And the light was killing her. She felt it. But she didn’t care.
She got up now, bleeding, and stared at the landscape. All around her were fields of red dust; nothing much of anything except the house and the tree. And the sky. So blue—oh God in Heaven, so blue—and above the horizon was a huge orange ball that warmed her skin. She had never imagined the sun was so large. She would die in a minute, but she didn’t care. There were buzzing things everywhere in the air, swarming her, and there was so much open space, but she was suddenly not afraid anymore because she knew it would end.
She ran toward the tree, past a giant mound of dirt. Next to it was a gaping hole filled with bones and white powder. Flying things swarmed above it. Bees, maybe. She didn’t care. She kept running toward the tree. It didn’t have any leaves. Maybe it was dead. It didn’t matter. She just wanted to climb it.
A black and white car approached the house, trailing a cloud of dust. Two more followed, then a third, and the air howled with an awful whine. Perhaps a bee had stung her. Perhaps this was the sound of death.
She reached the base of the tree and leaped into its branches. The smaller ones snapped off in her hands. The sun was so bright, so blinding. She climbed and climbed as men from the cars rushed into the house. The bearded man she had pushed off the steps limped out of the door with two men and pointed toward her. The men came to the base of the tree and shouted up to her. They all wore the same dark blue uniforms, silver stars on their chest. “It’s okay up there. It’s all over now,” the policeman said.
And the girl said, “I know,” and put her face into the sun.
* * * *
She did not die. They took her down from the tree and lifted her into a car, and drove past miles of empty fields. “I’m going to die,” she said. But she did not. “I’m allergic to bees and to the sun.” And still she did not die.
They bandaged her wounds and injected her with needles, and as they drove she stared out the windows. It seemed as if the whole world was dust, so much dust to clean. And still she did not die.
The sun was going down, and they brought her into a large building with many rooms filled with sick and dying people. They put her in bed next to a window that looked out at sky filled with a thousand stars. She stared for hours, mesmerized, waiting for death. But still did not die.
“The antibodies came back negative,” a tried-looking man, dressed in a white coat, told her. “You’re not allergic to the sun, or to bees, or to anything that we tested for.”
“Of course I am,” the girl said. “I’m going to die.”
“Try to sleep now,” he said.
She was tired, but she couldn’t sleep. She missed her parents. She wanted to hear her Mother’s voice, to take her evening medicine.
The light grew in phases outside. The sun was rising. She crawled to the floor, out of its path, but as with the book with the picture of the bee, she felt compelled to look. She peered above the window ledge and saw the world.
A large, rotted tree leaned just outside the window, like the dead tree in her yard. Beyond that was an endless landscape of dirt, of dead things.
“Hello,” someone said, and she turned to see the man with the gray beard who she had thrown down the stairs. His knee was bandaged and there was a cut above his eyebrow. He held a stubby cigarette in his hand. “You’re not going to push me again, are you?”
She didn’t answer, and so he walked over to the window and closed the blinds. The room fell into shadow. “There,” he said. “Is that better?”
“Yes,” she said, climbing into bed. She leaned against the pillows and opened her legs, and the man looked at her funnily.
“That’s not what I’m here for,” he said. “My name’s Detective Gerber. A police officer. I just want to talk.”
“What happened to the world?” she said. “Where are all the trees and the flowers and the shopping malls?”
He frowned. “Your parents kept a lot from you.”
“I kept secrets too,” she said, thinking of her stash behind the wainscoting. “I was a bad girl.”
“No. Your parents were the monsters here—”
“Are they okay?”
“Your father, he lost a lot of blood, but he’s going to be fine. But your Mother…”
The girl hugged herself and looked at her painted toenails.
The white-coated man poked his head into the room, and he and Detective Gerber stepped into the hallway. They whispered to each other, but she heard them just fine.
“We completed the autopsy on the mother,” the doctor said. “She had a 51-B tubal ligation, standard for all women with one or more children. And I pulled her medicals. She was given a third-trimester abortion at the same time.”
“My God,” Detective Gerber said. “They took her baby and sterilized her at the same time?”
“That’s why she was prostituting the daughter. She was trying to get her pregnant, to have the child that was taken from her.”
“I always wanted a sister,” the girl blurted.
The men turned to her, surprised that she had heard. The doctor frowned, patted the detective on the shoulder, and walked away.
“I’m hungry,” she said to the detective. “Do you have any steak?”
“Steak?” the detective said. “No. We have grain paste. That’s all we have. That’s all we ever have. There is no meat. Not anymore.”
“But I ate meat. I ate it every Sunday.”
“Do you know what you were eating?”
“It wasn’t steak. Steak comes from cows. There aren’t any more cows.”
“Then what was it from?”
The man frowned. “Get some rest. You’ve had a long day.”
* * * *
When it was dark and the building’s sickly residents went to sleep, the girl crawled out of bed. She didn’t like it here. It was dirty and crowded and smelled like pee. She opened the window, swung out onto the dead tree branch, and carefully climbed down onto the dirt. It felt strange and cool on her bare feet.
Above her shone the stars. They twinkled so beautifully that she felt like crying. And all around her was space, unlimited open space. Her knees felt weak as she walked. In the basement, she could never walk more than ten steps before turning. Here, the world was endless. She followed a road into the darkness. There were a few houses in the distance, but not much else. A small car stopped and a young man asked if she needed help. But she ran from him into the darkness. She was cold and hungry and she kept walking. Sharp stones stabbed her feet, but she didn’t care. It was night, and she was awake, and all around her was silence. It was wonderful.
The sun came up behind her. It felt hot and painful on her skin. She wished she had an umbrella, maybe a Victorian dress to protect her from the sun. She found a small stream in a ditch trickling with cloudy water, and she watched the reflection of the sky in it. Something went bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt by her head, and she felt a rush of fear. A black and yellow insect fluttered before a tiny blue flower, growing just beside the water. A bee.
There were no other flowers or plants of any kind that she could see, but somehow this bee had found this tiny flower in a field of nothing. Its legs were clumpy with yellow powder; perhaps there were more flowers hidden from view. And the girl remembered how bees used the sun to find their way home. And she remembered where the sun was when she’d climbed the tree in her yard and she remembered how the sun shone through the windows of the car that had taken her away to the building with all those sick people.
* * * *
She turned so that the sun warmed the opposite side of her face and walked for hours. When the sun dipped below the hills and everything grew dark, she saw a house in the distance. It had a huge dead tree and a mound of dirt beside it. Her house.
Insects buzzed as she approached, not bees, but flies. She thought she heard her mother’s voice whispering among them. She wasn’t afraid anymore. She was a bee, returning home. The house was wrapped in yellow ribbons, but she tore through them and went inside. There were red stains at the top of the stairs and footprints everywhere. She went down into the basement. There was another stain on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. And everything in the basement had been moved. The dresser drawers were open, and her desk had been emptied. She looked behind the wainscoting, but there was nothing there. She went into the bathroom and got a sponge, then kneeled before her mother’s stain at the bottom of the stairs and sighed deeply. “What a mess,” she said as she began to scrub the blood from the floor. “What a filthy, filthy mess. It’s going to take forever to clean this up.”