Alijah Hill

He looked like he was maybe still half alive. Or she. I think most bees are Hes if they aren’t the queen, and God, I hoped this wasn’t the queen; the queen of bees going out alone, limp on the concrete. There would be no reason. So I convinced myself it was a He, but then I had to convince myself He was alive. Wake up! I screamed without opening my mouth. Come on, get up, I said without touching him.  

It was gray out, and it was probably warm because it was July. I was wearing three-day-old pajamas, the navy blue windbreaker that Simon always kept right by the door, and a matted mess of neon red hair that I molded into something that almost resembled a bun. I remember not wearing lace-up shoes– though I couldn’t tell you what shoes– I just remember I didn’t want to waste time getting out the door. 

I stared at the laceless shoes as I lay parallel to the bee on the sidewalk, cheek pressed to the concrete, grinding my teeth. I dug my hands in my pockets– my fingers in a desperate search my mind couldn’t process. How does one bring back the dead? 

A bottle cap. A bottle cap to put some water in and watch him drink it up, his wings perk up, his antenna flutter like in some cartoon, and then fly away. I owe you my life! I imagined him saying in his little bee brain, returning to tell his queen of his good fortune. A banquet in his honor. A documentary about his miraculous survival. A child named after me. A tale passed down through all the short but lively bee generations about the mysterious God that ascended upon the lost soul in his time of need. 

But there was no bottle cap in my pocket. And I didn’t dare touch him. So I laid there, accompanying him in his final moments even though his final moments had undoubtedly passed.

I heard a car horn. I didn’t get up at first. These weren’t my neighbors, and I didn’t care if they thought I was drunk or homeless. Even if they were my neighbors, I still wouldn’t get up. How could I deny this bee the respect he deserves, lying here on this sidewalk? 

“Bea?” a distant voice called out. 

“Yeah. I think he might be dead.” I replied, impossibly audible to this far away speaker.

“What? No. No, Bea, I just talked with the nurse. He’s still here.” 

“A bee nurse?” They have those? 

“Bea. Come on. We gotta go.” 

Simon picked me up, despite my silent protest, with ease. His grip was firm on my shoulders while he walked me to the car, leaving behind the body. Betrayal. I begged for the queen’s forgiveness while cursing her for leaving her loyal subject to die. The passenger side door to the car was already open, and I must have stopped fighting–or maybe I just wasn’t strong enough– because he sat me down and buckled my seat for me. I cursed him, too. 

 We drove for some time. I tried to close my eyes and focus on the scent of those little tree air fresheners you get from the gas station, covering the faint smell of 

“Slims?” I ask, breaking the silence. Simon didn’t respond immediately. Instead, he checked his blind spot before changing lanes.

“Parliaments.” he finally answered, the same way you answer when you get called on in class and don’t really know the answer. “I read last night that it has charcoal filters–they filter out more carbon and keep your lungs cleaner. Or something.” 

“That makes sense.” 

“I’m not going back, though, you know. I still quit. I just bought it on my way here. I only smoked one. I’m throwing the pack away after today.”

I couldn’t respond. The silence was heavy but a featherweight compared to the concrete pillar on my chest. The rebar cut through my sternum, and my lungs, and totally destroyed my vocal cords. So I just nodded and looked out the window. 

I knew we were approaching our destination as there was a notable shift in the usual horticulture– dry, wild grass and milk thistle slowly shifted into pots and flowerbeds of curated bunches of bright and bountiful blossoms like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Oranges, yellows, purples, trellises of bright greens that were undoubtedly planted there by man and nowhere near what God intended to grow in this climate. Each ornamental display rivaled the next until we reached a pair of enormous glass double doors with gold hardware, equally as ornate as the garden. 

“Wow, This place has a grand entrance, huh?” Simon said, likely avoiding my eye contact like I was avoiding his. With my injuries from the invisible rebar unattended to, I felt I would surely cough up blood if I responded.

“I wonder what the exit looks like. They probably don’t let you see that.” I couldn’t tell if my reply was sarcastic or just apathetic. Simon probably couldn’t, either. The silence was thicker than any blood I could have coughed up. 

“I’m gonna go find parking, so I’ll meet you inside. I figure you’ve done enough walking.”

“Oh. Right. Inside.” I thought about the little bee, the guilt leadened my stomach. Or maybe that was bile. I could make a break for it again– return, this time with a bottle cap or even a whole bottle of water. But Simon would find me and we would have to drive past the pansy procession, and I couldn’t stand to be mocked like that again. 

The doors were heavy– this was no surprise to me or anyone else who opened them. The inside was far less colorful. The walls were a warm beige. The doors mahogany. It almost felt homey, but the intentional lack of decor reminded me again of its inevitable establishments—no art, no paintings, abstract or otherwise. I wondered if it was because anything could be offensive to anyone at any time, so it was just better to put nothing at all. Is it worse to offend a few people with a print of a horse in a field than to possibly comfort the masses of people whiplashed from walking through Eden into this too-warm, beige halfway space? Probably. 

“Hi honey, how can I help you?” a woman with a rather long face piped up from behind the receptionist counter– another thing homes don’t tend to have. I had to look past the obnoxiously colorful collection of The End of Life, A Guideline Series fanned out on the counter to reply to her.

“Haddon. Chandler Haddon.”

She typed a bit and read something on her screen before finally looking me up and down. I was busy avoiding staring at the purple book of the collection, The Eleventh Hour, so I made eye contact with her. Can’t avoid looking at two things at once. So young. Too young, her eyes said to me. But instead, her mouth told me it would be the first door on the left, just down the hall. I don’t even know why I bothered checking in. Who was the check-in for? Keeping a log to track down thieves when something is stolen? I thought about the ridiculousness of sneaking out with a comically large burglar bag filled with grief pamphlets and imaginary artwork. 

Mahogany door. Twice as small as the glass ones and twice as heavy. Too heavy. I couldn’t pull it open. I retreated to the common area filled with gray upholstered chairs to wait for Simon, thinking maybe he could open the door. I eyed the coffee stirrers and I gave into the urge to grab a few and use them to push back my cuticles as I sat longways in an armchair, feet hanging off one side. Looking out at the garden, I caught a glimpse of my reflection. It wasn’t nearly as startling as the one I saw this morning. 

I had looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, standing in my pajamas. I looked at myself, and I couldn’t believe it was me. I turned to the side and then to the other side. And I turned around one more time. I looked at myself as I brushed the red frizz out of my face, my hands smoothing the line of demarcation of my brown roots. Darker than I remembered. 

I told myself last night while I was sleeping, someone must have come into my room and dirtied all my clothes. Dyed my hair, left the roots. But there was no altercation of the sort. No incident, no unknown perpetrator, no mystery. I did this to myself. A long session over several months of minimal and nearly unnoticeable acts of torture, increasing intensity, all in my pajamas. I felt guilt, an overwhelming guilt, because of what I had done to my Dad’s little girl. I splashed water on my face, with the same success as putting a bandaid on a gunshot wound.

I couldn’t believe–though I think part of me didn’t want to– that I had battered myself so unrecognizable since the last time I looked in the mirror. Surely, the dark, deep circles underneath my eyes did not carve themselves overnight, nor did the sharp edges of my cheekbones just begin to pop out in the last couple of days. There was an old, stale film of exhaustion over my eyes, like cataracts that developed over decades.

I couldn’t believe it, but when I tried to retrace my steps I couldn’t even remember the last time I looked at myself in the mirror. Simon and I only had the one over the sink that was so dirty and cracked it was barely utilitarian–Lord knows when the last time was that either of us cleaned it. I stopped cleaning at least two months ago, and Simon never cleaned. At least not properly.

“Clean!” he would groan, emerging from the bathroom with his t-shirt soaked, wearing my pink rubber gloves on the wrong hands. “I think I might have mixed some chemicals I wasn’t supposed to, so we might want to open up the windows.”

That was the whole reason we worked so well together, me and Simon. He hated cleaning, I hated cooking. I always burned the food, or myself, or both. He hated the dishes, and I hated the laundry. I, or at least at least a different version of me than the one staring at me in the mirror, loved gardening. I grew tomatoes and herbs in our little plastic bookshelf greenhouse, a flimsy, cheap little thing from Ikea. I cultivated a small but mighty garden, farm fresh produce for Simon’s Bistro, ran out of our kitchen. I was his sole, devoted customer. His favorite regular. He always played music, when he was cooking, on that old record player he picked up from Goodwill, back when we were both in college. That old record player neither of us could believe was still spinning our shared collection smoother than any Crosley or other high-end player we tried upgrading to. The grass is always greener, until it isn’t, and you have to find the receipt. 

So I did the cleaning, and Simon did the laundry and both of us ate and laughed at dinner. We played a game called almost-charades, where talking and impressions were encouraged. One of us had to guess, based on the other’s reenactment, which coworker said or did whatever outrageous thing that would be rather mundane and unamusing to anyone else but us. But we laughed until our stomachs hurt, until the laughter came out silent. And then my dad got sick and the house stopped being clean and the herb garden died and Simon stopped cooking. No more laughter. No more music. And it was all my fault. I ruined us just like I ruined myself. 

“Don’t say that. I hurt when you hurt. That’s love. But it is not your fault, Bea, I’m the one who loves you.” He told me after I emerged from the bathroom in tears. 

I shouted at him that he was stupid. Stupid for loving me so much. Stupid for suffering with me. Why couldn’t he just leave me? It was selfish. It was selfish to love me to the point of suffering. I called him vulgar for speaking about love that way. I spit out my words like oil from a frying pan, and he stood silently, taking it all. He didn’t even try and run the sink under cold water. I hated myself more with every word that came out of my mouth, but I couldn’t stop the grease fire. I only paused when I got the phone call. I hung up the phone when I heard the nurse say a few days, not a few weeks. I grabbed the windbreaker, slipped on the shoes, ignored Simon’s questions, and attempted to walk the ten miles to the Hospice center, and that’s where I found the bee.

For a while, I was alone in this room with a ridiculous amount of seating. All the kinds you would find in a three to four-star hotel. The thought of each of these chairs being filled made my stomach bubble. I hoped there was never the occasion, but I’m sure there was once the occasion. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be this many chairs in the first place. This one (as I am sure the rest of its identical brothers and sisters were) was overstuffed. They don’t want you getting too comfortable in this place. 

A 40-something-year-old woman walked into the room of infinite chairs. She had a red nose and puffy eyes held up by a pair of deep purple eye bags. She wore an almost-blue sweater, looking more gray because of the cat fur it was drowning in. Her hands were a little shaky as she refilled her styrofoam coffee cup— black coffee— and she stumbled over to the armchair next to mine and melted into it, avoiding my eyes. I could smell her coffee from here– a little sharper than coffee should smell.

“How long are you in for?”  she asked. Her voice matched the coffee. I thought about a reply.

“I don’t know.” I finally answered, shifting to an upright position. Her informality made me hate my own. She nodded and took another long sip of coffee. I imagined building a fort from all the chairs in this room — my Couch Kingdom. My own Sofa State. My Papasan Principality— so that this woman would have to cross my moat of stale, burned coffee and conquer my army of stirrers before she could infiltrate my personal life— my chambers— the way she attacked me right now. My hands dove into my pockets, reaching around in a desperate grid search for something to alleviate the pressure in my stomach. The search and recovery team came up with a single receipt– CVS. Manic Panic Classic Color Vampire Red. 13.99. I started folding it into the tiniest square I could. 

“What about you?” I asked.

“Six months. Maybe less. Probably less from the way she looks right now.” She cracked a smile. “She sent me out to go get some coffee for myself. Always worrying about me.” 

I nodded like I understood, but I couldn’t. I replied in the worst possible way but the only way that you could. 

“I’m sorry.” 

“I’m not,” she said, standing up to refill her cup. I looked up at her, and she was still smiling. Was this some kind of sick joke? I was searching for the fire to ignite that spitting oil again and leave her with second-degree burns, but she got to it first. 

“It’s been a long fight. But it’s been an even longer time since I’ve seen her this happy,” she explained, this time stirring in half and half and a packet of Raw.

 “When we first got married, she was always getting sick. She would get all excited and make plans for us, and I would take off work, and then she wouldn’t even be able to get out of bed come the day we were supposed to be on some plane or hop in the car or walk to the park or watch our favorite show on the couch. So, she stopped making plans altogether. She just cried because she always felt so guilty. She never stopped apologizing. The word ‘sorry’ was starting to make me sick.” 

I unfolded the paper and started ripping it into tiny pieces. How selfish. I wanted to scream at her that she was no better than the bee queen.

“So what changed?” I asked, biting my tongue. I was trying to mask my anger, give her a chance to plead her case before the Futon Forum.

She stirred her coffee for a bit and sighed. It sounded like a sigh of relief. 

“You can yell at me if you want,” she said. “I get it. I probably deserve to be yelled at.” 

She clocked me, but of course she did. There’s a certain kind of silence anger always has that’s impossible not to hear. I didn’t know what to say now that I was caught in the act. 

“But I’m still not sorry. In a strange, fucked up way, having the answers was better than having none at all, even if we didn’t like the answer.” She finally took a sip of her over-stirred coffee, “and in an even more fucked up way, I’m glad there’s a finish line for her suffering.” 

I didn’t look up from my paper. I had crumpled all the torn-up pieces into a ball. It was unrecognizable from its former receipt form. I felt a horrible overflowing of bile inside me again. I couldn’t contain the sputum from pouring out of my mouth.

“It’s like they have the easy job,” I said, my voice hoarse, “we’re the ones stuck here, still bearing all that pain and sickness when they’re free.” She looked taken aback by my sudden outburst. I was equally shocked. It must have been my reflection speaking, the one in the window. But we both just stared at each other. This time really getting a good look. 

I saw past the cocoon of cat fur; the exhaustion permanently worked into her face. I erased the dark circles in my mind, and I envisioned her smiling as she did on her wedding day– and I realized her smile earlier was blurred by a sfumato of guilt. I saw her dressed in a beautiful white flowing gown, floating like an angel with a blinding smile. Like the most regal princess you could ever find in a story book. Her bangs were pinned elegantly to the side with the hydrangea barrette her mother gave her as her “something blue.” I saw her laughing with her wife cutting their cake– strawberry since it was her wife’s favorite–and tenderly feeding each other a piece, oblivious to everyone else in the room cheering them on. Eyes glued on each other– held together by the strongest bonding agent you could never find at a Home Depot.

I could tell she was looking past me, too, and peeling off the layers of grief that weighed down my own face, the red rage that had soiled my hair. The lived in pajamas. The toxins brewing in my stomach that ate away at my body mass. She looked at me instead like I was a little girl again with a full face, curly pigtails tied up with ribbons. The brand new jean jacket that Daddy got me and Mama ironed My Little Pony patches on. Still small enough to fit in the baby seat on the back of his bike. Still young enough to watch Sunday Morning cartoons while I sat on his back as my dad practiced his pushups. Singing a comically heartbreaking ballad about my lost pet rock while he followed along on his guitar– meeting my crescendos with each pick of the string. 

We sat there–this little girl and this beautiful bride–we sat there and enjoyed the silence together. The room full of armchairs and nothingness let us play pretend for a little while until we had to cover up our costumes, put on our heavy coats, and go back out into the cold. 

After the shortest eternity in the history of man, I heard a voice from behind me. 

“Bea, I’m so sorry I couldn’t find a place to park anywhere, and then your Mom called about her flight getting delayed and needed help rebooking, and I couldn’t remember your Dad’s last name and—” I interrupted him by wrapping my arms around his neck. I didn’t even realize I was crying until I saw the wet spots forming on his shoulder. My whole body ached, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I am so sorry. But I stopped myself.

 “Thank you,” I said, still buried in his chest. He finally hugged me back. 

“It’s okay,” he replied. 

We both stood there for a moment before I took his hand. I had almost forgotten how small my hand felt in his, running my thumb over his callouses. And warm. It’s funny how much you can miss something you didn’t know was gone.

 I started walking toward the first door on the left, just down the hall, but I turned back to look towards the lady. She was in the process of pulling out a little plastic bottle from her purse and pouring it into her coffee, but we locked eyes again, and she nodded. 

The door. Did it get bigger? No. Thats ridiculous. I just felt smaller. I was ridiculous. Ridiculous for how afraid I was of this stupid door when what was inside was so much scarier. A gruesome monster with distorted limbs and purple flesh oozing a putrid toxic gas. With horrible fangs, dripping blood. Tucked into the hospice bed. Wearing a too-small hospital gown that barely ties in the back. It’s not growling, though, just emitting a really low buzzing sound getting louder and louder in my ear– 

“Bea? Are you okay?” The buzzing said. I looked up at Simon. He looked nervous–and guilty–and I felt even more ridiculous. What in the world does he have to feel guilty for? I’m the one making myself sick outside because I can’t face my dying dad. 

“I’m scared Si,” I said, looking him right in the eyes. “I’m scared, and I’m angry, and that makes me more scared.” 

“It’s okay to be scared.” 

“Is it?” I said, instinctually jerking away but still not letting go of his hand. His grip was firm.

I would be scared if you weren’t. Your dad is dying, Bea.” 

He said it. Dying. A word conveniently absent from The End of Life, A Guideline Series. Only “passing on,” “not long for this world,” “in the process of departure.” A word conveniently restricted from my vocabulary. A word everyone else avoided, too. A word I had feared for so long, but I had never realized the taxation of its avoidance. Hearing this one stupid word, those two syllables, those five simple letters come out of Simon’s mouth right now, I almost laughed; amusement overpowered that sick feeling in my stomach. The word always existed, like a horrible splinter I could feel but couldn’t see, and it was like Simon just held up a magnifying glass so I could finally pick it out.

I looked at Simon, and for the first time, I saw fear in his eyes hiding behind the guilt. It looked well worn, not something new. The magnifying glass finally let me see that, too. 

“My dad is dying Simon,” I said, holding firm on his hand. 

“Your dad is dying, Bea,” he said. And his voice was full of love. 

I was tired of being afraid of fear, so I pushed the door open for the both of us. 

He looked like he was dead. Maybe half-alive. A nurse was just finishing changing his bedding when she looked not-startled at the sight of the most panicked expression of horror she had seen countless times.

“He’s just sleeping,” she said very quickly. “But he hasn’t been too responsive.” She gave me the same look the woman at the front desk gave me before telling me she would give us some space. 

In the bed where the horrid creature was supposed to be laid my dad, curled up in a ball, small and swaddled like a baby. With my free hand, I held on to the doorknob so hard my knuckles were gripped white. My dad, who used to beat me in races, now with swollen ankles poking out the tops of his grippy socks. I took a step towards the bed. My dad, with the most beautiful red curly hair I could only assume was gone underneath the cap they gave him. I thought if I took another step toward him, I would die of heartbreak, so I took two more. 

My dad, with the tired eyes so perfectly masked by laughter lines, now not opening them. With a laugh that could rival any church organ’s rendition of Amazing Grace, now only uttering guttural wheezes. The death shake, the nurse called it on the phone. I got to the edge of the bed and collapsed onto my knees, I was still holding Simon’s hand, who fought against his own weak knees to be the anchor to keep me from melting into the floor altogether. 

“Daddy, Daddy.” I cried through heavy sobs, each exhale cut deep into my stomach. I ripped my hand away from Simon, and he gripped my shoulders without missing a beat, still standing even though I could feel him shaking. I didn’t dare look up to see him fighting back tears. Instead, my hands clawed at the sheets, searching for a hand. I found it and held it twice as tight as the doorknob, but the hand never held me back. I desperately opened his palm and laid my head into it. 

We stayed like that–me and Simon and my dad—we stayed in that position, like a Renaissance painting, for forever. I cried and cried. Daddy, I love you. Daddy, I need you. Daddy, you can’t go. Daddy, you can’t leave me. Say something. Simon held my shoulders and cried silently beside me, firm and tall. My dad’s palm filled with tears. I tried desperately to decode the secret messages he was sending me through the labored wheezing, but I never studied the language. I couldn’t believe my dad’s last words were about to be lost in translation.

I almost missed it, under the bed. I almost missed it, but the corner stuck out just enough for the little light on the bedside table to reflect off the gold hardware. I pulled out the leather-bound book and stared at it.

“Is that his?” Simon asked. 

“What if it is?” I replied. I felt my hands shaking.

“What if it is?” he said, nudging me off the cliff of anticipation. I opened the first page. It was titled “I’m Dying” by C. Haddon. He said it. I almost dropped the book because it burned hot in my hands. It burned with a white-hot anger. I felt like if I turned the page my heart would shatter, so I turned two. I could feel Simon reading silently over my shoulder. 

“Read it to him, Bea.” 

Pages and pages of journal entries, song lyrics, miscellaneous thoughts, recipes; the most beautiful chaos I have ever read. His hopes, fears, dreams, ratings of the decaf coffee they gave him every morning– averaging about an 8.5 weekly. He spoke of the different nurses, all of whom he knew by name. He talked about a woman down the hall whose wife–he nick-named her “Cat Lady”– would sneak him little shooters on weekends when the nurses weren’t looking. He wrote poems about all the flowers he could see from his double doors– several revisions of a song titled Dessert Daisy. Some days, he wrote less than others. Sunday, September 13th read: I am tired today.

At some point, a nurse must have brought in extra armchairs for the two of us. Wednesday, April 8th: The pain is much today. Sometimes, I would get too choked up, and Simon would take over. I held my Dad’s hand, and Simon held mine, and we traded off the book with the other– it became almost a game of go-fish. After a while, it didn’t matter who read it. My voice and Simon’s were indistinguishable– it was only my Dad’s voice. He wrote once about how his medicine tasted like berries, and later he remarked that it tasted like bananas. He joked that meant he was probably getting better. May 15th: They let me water the garden, my favorite shoes got ruined, and I was glad. He wondered about peace. Does it always come at a cost? Does the price make it worth it?

We read through the whole night: every page, every word. Ignoring the nurses’ offers of water and blankets, then ignoring the nurses altogether. He would dance to the music the cleaning ladies played on Sunday mornings, one time falling right on his ass. The nurses rushed in to see him laughing and chuckled a little before scolding him. I could see it all in this room– the dancing and his red face. I saw him over at the corner desk with his favorite pen, laughing at his jokes as he wrote. I saw him singing on the balcony, with his jean jacket over his hospital gown. Simon and I did two entries each, and traded off. We laughed. We cried. We cried while laughing and laughed while crying. In the middle of his turn, Simon stopped and handed me the book. 

“His last entry,” he said. The sun was starting to rise. 

In shaky script, the title read: A message for my Bumble Bea. He had drawn a little bee doing loop-de-loops in the shape of a heart. Simon looked like he was expecting me to lose it, and I think I was too. But the Sun was starting to rise, and it was beautiful. I felt a twitch of my dad’s hand, and maybe it was sleep deprivation, but I could have sworn I saw him smile.  

My little Bumble Bea. I read. Do not fear the pain. Do not leave it in the cold. Bring it inside and put on a pot of coffee.

It will take as long as it takes.

Alijah Hill is a member of the Northwestern University class of 2025.