I was almost home. An involuntary shiver ran down my back. I rolled my head, hoping the cracking of my neck would quell my rapidly beating heart. It didn’t.
‘Press your ear against the earth, my sweet boy. If you listen closely, you can hear the buzzing. That’s us, all of us as a Community. All little bees working towards the Greater Good.’
Static rose from the speakers, slow and unsettling. Underneath it, that thick, sickening buzz. My stomach tightened. The road before me laid a tight line across the sprawling red desert. On the right side of Route 26 a giant, bone cross loomed. Behind it, a wooden sign asking, ‘Have YOU Been Saved?’ I didn’t want to think of how many people had been saved already. Hell is real, that I know. Sister Gardner brews it in the still behind her shed and trades it for apples the color and size of hearts.
I was nervous, there was no denying it. When they saw me, they would know and be on guard. In my mind, I was returning to the bubble, returning to the safety of home. To The Community, I was an outsider stained with stale cigarette smoke and fucks and Vegas and a tattoo, holding a pin to their thin plastic protection. The small scar on my wrist prickled. I pressed my thumb into it.
It’s just for the weekend, I reminded myself. I took a deep breath, but could not stop my chest from tightening. Just long enough to find Boomer.
It was Tuesday when my finally ordinary life had hit a road block. Boomer, my best friend, until I’d up and left in the middle of the night at least, had called. I wondered if I’d be allowed to leave again, or if I’d have to revisit my 3am escape route. This time, I wouldn’t-couldn’t leave him behind.
How he got my number, well fuck knows. But instead of his perpetually peppy voice on the other end, his sounded smoky and rough. He wheezed, and I could hear a crackling in the background. My heart was racing, trying to understand the words being pushed through the receiver. The only thing I had made out was, ‘They’re coming.’ Dead line. I called back. No answer. I called back. No answer. I called back. Straight to voicemail. I loaded up Sadie, my Civic, and headed home.
Ahead, a bright, white patch to the left of the road caught my eye. I realized it was Brother Branson’s cotton field. A strange patch of unnerving, clean white fluff, stark against the ever reddening desert sand. It had seemed normal as a kid, everyone grew cotton. It wasn’t until I left that I realized cotton didn’t grow in the middle of the desert. As I passed it, it seemed to be moving, blinking at me, measuring my sins. I gripped the steering wheel tight and snapped my head back to the road.
The darkness from the Wah Wah Mountains was creeping over the dirt, filling in the cracks with an unnatural silence. The buzzing in the static grew louder and I hit the power button as my headlights hit the sign, ‘Welcome to Utah: The Beehive State!’
The buzzing remained, ever so faintly, nestled between my ears as it always had.
The door to his shed was propped open. I figured I’d knock again, and then head around to see if Brother Bennet was back there. I had spent the last few minutes pounding on Boomer’s door; my sweatshirt that covered my sins was dripping with sweat in the sun. No answer. Someone in the family was home. I could see the shadow, pacing behind the curtains. Sister Bennet, Boomer’s mother, by the looks of the outline. His sister, Camille, had never been one for the fundie dresses. I had a feeling she wasn’t going to answer. The Bennets had always been kind to me before I’d left and become an outcast, an outsider. I understood. It wasn’t safe for them to speak with me, someone might see. But I needed to find Boomer.
‘Sister. Bennet!’ I pounded.
‘Sister Bennet, I know you’re there!’ No answer. I turned on my heel to head round the back of the home. Well fuck. The whole situation was a bad idea. I had known that from the start, and if no one was around, I’d have to do what I’d been avoiding-visit my parents. I wasn’t so sure they’d be happy to see the son who’d climbed from his window at 3am, stolen Sadie, and took off for California. I was lucky I hadn’t been burned at the stake this far into town as it was. If they’d talk to me, they’d know the situation with the Bennets and they’d let me know what was going on with Boomer.
A whisper. ‘Simon.’
I stopped at the bottom of the porch, and turned. Sister Bennet, eyes wide and full of fear was peering through the cracked door.
‘Sister Bennet, I was just wond-’ I trailed off as she shook her head.
‘Don’t speak, too dangerous. They’ll hear.’ Her eyes darted wildly. My heart lurched. I nodded. I was right, I was being shunned. She disappeared behind the door.
‘Please, wait-’ as I got within arm’s reach, a long, thin, cold yellow package was thrust towards me.
‘For you. The shed.’ The whisper was urgent, but nearly silent. I nodded.
I held the waxy package in one hand and walked the dirt drive to the shed. Boomer and I had played back here as boys, sitting a little too close on the tin roof and braiding cornstalks into friendship bracelets. The door was sharp, jagged metal that creaked as I gave it a shove the rest of the way open.
‘What the fuck.’ My stomach found my throat and I took a step back.
Snakes. Hundreds of snakes hanging from the ceiling, braided like a thick rope. Some still hissed and tried to struggle their way free, others were clearly dead. At the bottom of the braid, a corn stalk bracelet hung. The smell of death and rotting carcasses hung heavy in the air.
My hand shook as I raised the cold package Sister Bennet had given me. I slid one finger under the seam, loosening the tape and flipped the paper like a page. Wasps. I dropped the package and their dead bodies spread across the dirt. In the center, I could see the braided end of a bracelet.
Snakes and wasps. Boomer, the serpent, coiling his arms around me in the shed and slithering into my bed on muddy summer nights. Myself, once a honeybee having given into temptation, now being exposed to the wasps in The Community. The ground had been cleansed and consecrated. I needed to find Boomer and leave before we were next.
Sadie sputtered slowly down the street. Even after all these years she still knew where she was going; all I had to do was push my foot to the pedal. I rolled down Main Street slow and steady, my eyes focused solely on the road. I knew this place like the back of my hand, and I had no desire to see what the town had become in the year I’d been gone. People here say the devil burns hot, but I’ve always thought this town burned hotter.
Generations ago, we settled in the desert. We ignored the warnings and pleadings of the Native Tribes, settled, bred, and we’ve paid for our foolishness tenfold. The devil is here, whispering on the wind that blows the dust through the cotton, staining gravestones with the hearts and feet of men-the only part he couldn’t burn, crawling in the cracked dirt, burning and laughing as men loaded their rifles with more rounds. Tough luck, you can’t kill the darkness.
We bred men who snarled at animals. We bred women who were more witch than otherwise. We bred Members, each twisted, a little madder than the last with solitude and incest seeping in. All we had was each other; all we knew was the devil’s breath on our shoulders, and the rattles in the bushes.
As I headed west, towards the farmlands my parents resided on, unwelcome memories flooded my mind. Past Main Street to the suburbs with pastel homes: Clean, manicured lawns. Heaven help you if your grass gets a little long and the neighbor comes to mow. Everyone smiles. The neighbors smile. The pedestrians smile. The children, cleansed from Baptisms absolving them of sins, yet somehow still grimy, smile as they whisper curses ending in, ‘Bless your heart’. Even the graffiti on the stop sign tells you to smile. I’d long stopped wondering what happens to those who don’t grin back.
Past the suburbs to the houses on the outside of town: Neighbors who bring casseroles and melons when you’re sick. They creep inside and rummage through your freezer. ‘Shouldn’t have to cook for yourself when you’re ill.’ They say, sliding the casserole into the ice box and smiling, showing too many teeth. They bought the melons special, from the produce stands on the side of the road. ‘Sister Wayment swears by these.’ They say. ‘Something in the ground here makes their insides a little juicier, a little more red.’ When you thank them, they respond, ‘It’s what any good neighbor would do.’ Their eyes linger on you for a moment too long, and then shuffle their children from your home. In the depths of the night, just before it turns into morning, you dump the freezer meal in the garbage disposal. You know these meals will only make you sicker.
After the suburbs: Scrub brush. It lines the fences and the roads and the creeks and crawls its way up to houses. The desert is a country of madness, no one was ever meant to live here. Behind the brush, corn. Great fields of dry green, dusty corn that grow against all odds, rising over a man’s head and the hushing of stalks rippling on the wind, the sound of things growing.
As a boy, Boomer and I visited these fields when they were turned into corn mazes every fall, flashlights held tightly in our fists. During the day, it was safe. We’d run through the maze with friends, racing through for the best times, taking exceptional care to avoid stepping on a rogue ear. We’d find a hidden spot in the depths of the maze, whispering secrets and touching lips. At night, when we were older and more foolish, we’d fill our pockets with salt and tiptoe through, eyes on the ground and breath hot on the back of our necks, careful not to piss anything off.
Out farther, to the desert: The Hives. Great stone kilns built by our settlers’ generation; originally ovens to cook the stone that built the town, but they continued to stand long afterwards. Though everyone said they were no longer used, some nights as a boy I would peer out my window. I could see the smoke rising in the darkness, and hear the screams wafting over the hills, see the dancing in the red sand.
My parents’ house sat surrounded by corn, save for the yard that bordered the road. A two story front gabled home, the house had a cold, distinct feeling from the street. I knew I was never truly welcome there. My grandfather had built the narrow home, its roof peaks stretching high into the heavens, though not higher than that of the church he used to say. No one wanted to anger God; we had already angered the devil.
I stepped from the car, inhaling the copper scent streaming off the farmlands. It was nearing twilight, and though my legs longed to stretch from hours in the car, the stillness of the evening crept up my spine and I knew after what happened at Boomer’s, I would be safer inside.
The house loomed over me, angry, threatening. The door would be unlocked. All doors in the town were left unlocked. Small children tend to disappear when doors are unlocked, but The Community is too nice for locked doors. Instead of deadbolts, we have lamb’s blood, red, wet, and dripping from the door frame. The boy scouts come around in the summertime and take orders to paint houses once a week. Our blood was dry, cracked, and flaking. I guessed my parents didn’t need the blood sacrifice since I was gone. I knocked.
No answer, no movement, no shuffling of feet or calling of my mother’s voice. I knocked again. Nothing. I pulled the handle. Locked. Locked? Nothing was ever locked in the town. I wandered along the wooden porch, and tried to peer through the window. The curtains were drawn, but behind the curtain, something I would have noticed immediately in daylight-boards. Wooden two by fours lined the inside of the window. I walked around the house, disturbing the wet grass. Each window, boarded. Each door, locked.
The darkness had settled in, and the corn started to whisper. I realized the crickets had stopped chirping. I stepped along the side of the house, but a snapping stalk halted me. The corn rusted, but no other noise. An animal, I thought. I stepped back into Sadie, locking my door. I flipped the switch for my brights. I squinted, and peered closer at the house.
The grass was overgrown. The plants were dead, the paint on the house peeling. Even the corn that bordered the home was yellowed like straw and cracked at odd angles. Boomer missing, now my parents….
BAM! My heart jumped to my throat and I let out a yell. Outside my window, a figure nearly toppled over, laughing. A girl. She righted herself, and waved.
‘Open up.’ Her voice was muffled through the glass. She looked familiar; I only cracked my window a bit, just in case.
‘Camille.’ She smiled. ‘You used to hang around my brother, Boomer?’
Camille. I remembered. Small, scrawny Camille who used to eat pill bugs, or potato bugs, or whatever the fuck they’re called as a kid. She used to stick their rolled bodies between her front teeth so we could hear the crunch. Camille as a teen who had wandered into the shed as Boomer and I were getting close, but kept our secret. Camille was safe. I rolled my window down.
‘Oh hey. I was just at your house. Your parents are-‘
‘Still fucking weird man, I know. Ignore them. You looking for yours?’ She leaned her arms on my window, and flashed me a smile.
‘Yeah. Hey what’s going on with Boomer? I was at your house and this weird…’ I trailed off as she shook her head.
‘Everything is fucking weird here, you should know that.’ Another smile. More teeth this time.
‘Yeah. My parents?’
‘Bonfire season. Everyone’s down by the creek.’
I looked back to the house. ‘But the boards?’
Camille furrowed her brow and gave a small shake of her head. ‘The dust is killer this year. They’ve done it to all the stores on Main, didn’t you see the signs?’
I hadn’t seen. I hadn’t seen because I was too fucking scared to look at anything but the road. I felt my face flush.
‘No, I didn’t. I must not have been paying attention.’ I gave a shaky laugh, tried to hide my embarrassment.
‘Sometimes it’s better to not pay too much attention.’ She winked. ‘I’d walk you down to the fire, but everyone’s pretty pissed at you. I don’t think it’s a good idea.’
‘Yeah I know. Listen, I just came here to find your brother. He’d called me and it seemed like he was in trouble and…’ I trailed off, the grin had fallen off her face and confusion set in.
‘He’s not here. He left just a week or so after you. We thought you guys had some kind of plan. We all thought he was with you.’ I was shocked. Boomer, leave The Community?
‘Wait,’ I opened the door and stepped out to face her in the high beams. ‘Wait, he left?’
‘Yeah he left. You left in the middle of the night. You left him behind. What the fuck did you think he was going to do? Sit around and wait for you to come back?’ Her eyes narrowed, but her tone was surprisingly calm.
‘I didn’t think he’d want to go so I didn’t tell him. I thought he’d want to stay with you and your family. You know how shit goes here. “Where nature is cruel, men will always be crueler.” and all that. He never talked about leaving.’
‘But you did.’ Her tone had gone flat. I wasn’t sure if her words were a measure of disbelief, or just a statement.
‘Lots of people leave.’ I shrugged. In truth, a lot of people didn’t leave. No one left. As far as I knew, I was the first.
She stepped forward, her face inches away from mine. ‘You left The Community. Confess.’ I took a step back.
‘Of course I left. I had to get out. I couldn’t stay here. I didn’t know about Boomer-’
‘You joined Us as a child, did you not?’
‘Wait, what? Everyone gets baptized. But we aren’t old enough to know what it means.’
‘You joined Us.’
‘Yes, but not-‘
‘You joined Us, took part in the Law of Consecration.’
‘Your calling was made sure. You atoned for your sins with your own blood.’ My scar prickled again. The corn rustled, and around us people emerged, locking us in a circle.
‘What the fuck? What the fuck is this?’ I spun around. No one spoke. They had to have been there the whole time I was trying to get in, the whole time we were talking. Since I got back to town, waiting for me.
‘You participated in unnatural sin with my brother, yes?’ Camille prompted. I turned back to her. Her face was hard.
‘You denied your part in The Community. Denying The Community is denying God.’
‘Wait, wait, wait. I never denied The Community, I never denied God. My parents-ask them. They’ll tell you.’ I scanned the people in the circle, silently pleading for someone, anyone to step forward and speak for me.
‘Your parents raised a child who questioned.’ Her voice was louder now, booming in the night. ‘They failed. You denied your part in The Community. You denied your Destiny. You denied God. For this, you must atone.’
‘I-Please. Please, let’s talk about this. I can help. I can come back. I didn’t deny. I just needed some time, some space. I want to come back. Please.’
I dropped to my knees and buried my face in my hands. Tears welled in my eyes, sobs scratched at my chest, begging to be released. I shouldn’t have left. I shouldn’t have left and I was stupid to come back. I was given a slip of paper and pen. A last wish, a secret, a plea to be laid under the pillow of the executioner. The ghosts of Pony Express would come at night and whisk it away, my mother had said. I wondered what hers had said. I wondered what Boomer’s had said. I penned mine, ink running from the tears, and handed it to The Community.
‘To the Hives.’