It was a daisy that killed the Vanterbombs. Prized from the Earth, stolen from its home, it had lived just long enough to bring down the house around it before it withered and faded. As for the family, they woke up one morning dead, with their legs in the air and their faces in the carpet. The neighborhood watched from the street as the paramedics wheeled the entire family out. One. Three. Seven. Every member was accounted for, concealed beneath sheer plastic of black body bags. As the ambulance drove away, and the droves returned to their own houses, it occurred to me just how small the youngest one’s had been. But it wasn’t Olivia, or even my best friend Lee, who I thought of as I sat with my father in the backyard. It was those hands, the ones which had sewn that black material together; did they know what would fill the object of their creation, or had they thought that a bag’s only use was to carry candy, or groceries, or garbage?
To this day, I no longer take any bags at the supermarket.
I was much younger then, not yet sixteen, and things were different on Wild Manswood Drive. The neighborhood was different, and the houses too, not the least of which being the Vanterbombs’. It was a Second Empire, three stories tall, with a garden of stone and rock. Nearly a hundred windows, each fitted with an empty flower box, covered each side so the walls were more glass than anything else. They were gorgeous panes, too, all stained glass and done by hand. Mrs. Vanterbomb, a devout Christian, was something of an artisan too– she had done them all herself, composing scenes of Eden and Saint Francis and the Madonna and Child. Her house was a little Bible– when the light came in from the East, it glittered and shone like a jewel.
But those days are gone. They live now in stories and faded photographs that mold in old books. The memories of that house wander the ruins that are left. It’s a tragedy to see what has become of that place. The Vanterbombs’ bodies hadn’t grown cold before some local teens entertained themselves by throwing stones. Liquid-sapphire waters froze over and shattered like glass. Burning tongues of ruby flame extinguished from a single, well-aimed rock. There’s nothing left of it now to suggest the magnificence of the house that once stood there, except the bare stone fireplaces with edges worn away by wind and rain. And the walls too, or what’s left of them; they stick out of the Earth now like the ribs of an elephant, cold and hard like bones. That’s all that’s left of the Vanterbombs and their home– just the bones. And the bees.
Looking at it now, it makes you wonder: could the house every truly have been so grand? Once a beacon of the town’s prosperity, all that’s left now is permanent eyesore protected by the damned Antiquities Act of 1906. But it’s the story of the family that lived there, the story of the Vanterbombs, that’s the real mystery. The explanation too, if you know where to look. Theirs is the story that tells us why what is, is. Only those that knew them, us ones who played with their children, are left to remember them now. How the man, Richard Vanterbomb, showed up one day with nothing but the title to the land. A banker with a sharp mind and sharper tongue, he had made a killing in the stock market and pulled the funds before the crash. It was his wife, Enid, who decided to buy the house. Together with their three children, they built it up to the height of its glory and lived there as a family. Happy, for a time.
That was before they invited the old man to stay with them. Urman was a shut-in, a mean and angry thing. He might have been his relation, or maybe hers; he might not have been either, as neither seemed to like him much.They never tried to hide it either, even with company over. Many a time I had sat at their dinner table, hands clasped in prayer, while the family interceded with God and the angels to bless Urman with a quick and painless death. His wife, Fleur, seemed to be counting the days down to singledom. The family stuck him in the attic, far from the rest of the household. He emerged no more than twice a day, summoned to his spot at the table by the chime of a bell. Besides that, they didn’t speak to him much or call up to his room.
I couldn’t blame them, though. During mealtimes, he was a cruel and heartless thing. He hated loud noises and detested laughter. He took great pleasure in calling the children names until the older ones snapped back, or the younger ones cried. Once or twice, even I felt the sting of Urman’s barbed tongue and went home trying to suck out the poison. Every word he spoke was a needle, honed sharp and meant to harm; with it, he wore away at the tapestry of their family until it was naught but wisps of thread. With time, the whole thing began to unravel.
But not before a sickness had taken hold of Urman– it sprouted up within him and grew like a weed, burrowing deep into the shallows of his mind. He developed a ravenous, insatiable hunger which the family failed to sate. Rhubarb pies, roast quail, vats of cloud-like mashed potatoes whipped by hand. What they presented, he devoured. But still, he demanded more. He would stick out his tongue, roll his eyes until they were all whites, and twist his face into such grotesque shapes it was a wonder if the man was still human.
The final straw came one day over the rump of a wild turkey. I had been invited to dinner, to bear witness to the madness, so I saw the whole thing. How Urman pushed up his plate, empty but for the bones. How his face twisted up like a demon and his tongue slithered out, eyes narrowed as he expressed his distaste for the meal. Then the husband’s hand, produced from thin air, slamming down on the table. The children’s voices, raised above the rattle of dishes, hurling insults and freeing themselves of the weight of a thousand insults left unaddressed. Then the wives, both Urman’s and Mr. Vanterbomb’s, refused to cook his food any longer.
“Learn to cook,” Enid sneered, her teeth bared, “or die hungry, old man.”
Now, every man and his mother’s got a theory about how the end of that family came to be. Through threads of broken history and bits of fragmented memories, each weapes a rope to wrap around that family’s neck to explain their demise. They claim it was an accident, an unfortunate result of an old family’s odd collection. Or that it was done with intention, out of anger or spite. Some say there was no reason at all, really, for the night that the ambulance came up Wild Manswood Drive empty and left with seven body bags, filled to the brim. But as I was there, I knew better. It was precisely that moment, when Urman was faced with the prospect of preparing his own meals, that spelled out the beginning of the end for the Vanterbombs.
That, and the daisy of course, were they things that killed them.
It’s important to understand that, related or not, Urman was deathly allergic to bees. All of the Vanterbombs were. For a family of money and power, it’s ironic that something so small as a bee could have stolen it all. Just one sting and the game was over. That was the reason they had ripped up the garden on the day they moved in, although we hadn’t known it at the time. They never told anyone, not their friends or even relatives. Not even Lee, who was my best friend at the time, had thought to reveal his family’s secret to me. But I learned it just the same one day. From Urman, as a matter of fact.
It was the day of the daisy, the one when everything changed. I was sitting on Lee’s bed, shuffling through baseball cards, when I heard the old man’s shout. My friend was in the kitchen, sneaking up beers from the refrigerator; I could hear him laughing loudly, distracting his mother from the tink of contraband glass. Urman shouted again, a little louder this time. As I climbed slowly up the stairs, all I could think was that God had finally granted the Vanterbombs their dearest wish.
But I found nobody on the floor when I poked my head into the attic. In fact, Urman was standing upright, stiff as a board, hand extended outward as he waved me quietly to the window. There, on his desk, stood the daisy, a brilliant yellow bloom floating on water. I followed his finger to a second cup, this one turned upside down, holding a bee. It stood stock-still, trapped beneath the glass, flexing its stinger in and out. In and out. I stared at it, and then at Urman, whose face had grown starch white. I crouched lower, eye level with the desk, and moved to touch the glass.
“Don’t, you damned fool,” Urman hissed, slapping my hand, “or you’ll kill us all.”
I straightened my back, wringing out my hand.
“I caught the little devil,” he croaked, color returning to his face. He eyed the glass warily. “Heard it buzzing about before he landed here on the desk.”
I stepped forward, cautiously this time, until I stood beside the old man once more.
“What’ll you do with it?”
“Do with it? I’ll kill the bastard before he kills me!”
“Just one sting. That’s all it takes.”
I grabbed a piece of paper and slid it beneath the glass. To Urman’s delight, I showed him how the glass could now be moved. I can still remember his face, his eyes hard and squinting, mouth set in a wicked smile, when I offered to dispose of the bee for him.
“No,” he said gruffly, “I’ll do it myself. You’ll just rob me of the pleasure.”
Just then, Lee came in. Like the bee, he had been drawn to the attic by mistake. He could hardly hide his disappointment when he saw Urman standing there, alive as ever. But that soon turned to confusion, and quickly to fear, at the moment he came forward to see what Urman had trapped on the desk.
“A bee? Get that damned thing out of here, you stupid old man!”
I tried to speak up, to explain the old man’s intentions, but the sound of feet stopped me. The rest of the Vanterbombs filled the attic. The vein in Mr. Vanterbomb’s neck pulsed dangerously.
“Didn’t you hear him, Urman? You get that damned thing out of my house!”
“You old fool,” his wife spat, “are you trying to kill us all?”
This was the way that they spoke to each other, Urman and the family. It’s not like you and I, who do things in the proper way. To the Vanterbombs, this was normal. So it wasn’t the insults that got to Urman. Oh no, it certainly wasn’t the words. If there was one thing that the old man didn’t like, it was being told what to do. Especially if it was something he had already meant to do. In cases like those, if you told him when he already meant to, then he simply wouldn’t do it.
“Oh yes,” came Urman’s silky reply, “I’ve decided to keep him as a pet.”
For the next hour, Urman stood between his family and the bee, refusing to bend beneath the onslaught of their words. Each member of the family offered their argument, pleaded with Urman to listen, or threatened to remove the bee themselves. But every time someone moved toward him, Urman would reach for the glass and lift it; without fail, the family would freeze, words falling dead in their open mouths. They gave up eventually, leaving Urman alone with his deadly new companion. He had named it Alamo, referred to it lovingly as his “little soldier.” He did not leave his attic room, as the bell no longer rang to summon him for dinner. Instead, he made his presence known by singing songs from the top of the stairs, all of which centered around Alamo’s exploits. Set in the same tuneless melody, the lyrics only differed in whose room the bee would find himself in by the time Urman finished the song.
Before long, the family had lost their patience. Their fear, left to simmer, boiled over into anger. They banged pots in the kitchen whenever the song broke out or shouted louder, singing songs of their own. Mrs. Vanterbomb cooked dishes, so seasoned and burdened with flavor, that the old man’s mouth watered in vain. So did the rest of us on Wild Manswood Drive, who wished now more than ever to be invited to dinner at the Vanterbomb’s home. But still, Urman sang his songs, subsisting on nothing but spam and spite.
Nearly a week after Alamo’s appearance, the Vanterbombs took things a step further. One night, on his way to the bathroom, Urman nearly broke his neck tripping over a crystal bell jar. Inside it, a pair of bees bumped stupidly against the glass. Written across the top of it in dark, red marker were the words:
Medicine for Urman
“Take two, you old fool,” came a snicker from the dark hall. “Doctors orders.”For the next three days, nothing happened. Urman had stopped singing. The sound of his footsteps disappeared from upstairs. No one saw him leave, not even to use the bathroom. But he must have left, slipped silently from the house sometime with no one noticing. Where he went, I cannot say. I only know that one warm night in June, while the Vanterbombs were sleeping, their oldest daughter woke up to buzzing. It came from her nightstand, beside her glasses, which she reached for but found a small, mesh cage. Her scream woke the rest of the family, each of whom found a similar box buzzing loudly on his or her bedside table. Their hearts raced, first with fear (then with anger) as they read the large, neat writing:
Thanks for the gift. Love, Urman.
I liked to imagine afterward what might have happened if the family had only taken a moment– just one, to stop and collect themselves. To think first, before they acted. A moment where Richard Vanterbomb might have processed his shock at seeing those bees and then given Urman a chance to explain himself. Urman might have complied, if given the opportunity: after all, he really didn’t want the thing either. Perhaps Enid might have shown the old man that soft, maternal affection she reserved only for her own children. She would make dinner, and rung the bell, an unassuming olive branch for Urman to come join them. The children, Lee and Emma and Olivia too, might greet him. Or offer up a roll. He would be reserved, even awkward, at having gone so long without speech or company; but with his wife’s prompting, he would smile and greet them back. And the Vanterbombs could have found happiness once again.
It’s a thought that passes through my mind every time I walk down Wild Manswood Drive to see that once-grand house abandoned. Or when a cell phone buzzes against an old, oak table. I think of that moment when things might have been different, when every one of them might have been saved, if only one had chosen to swallow his pride and give in. I realize now, as their house grows more and more decrypt with each passing year, that the fate of the Vanterbombs couldn’t be stopped. No more than the fate of their house, whose walls shrink each year as the honeycombs grow larger. From the moment that the first bee touched down on Urman’s desk, they were all doomed. Their anger and their vengefulness grew, stronger and more powerful than Urman’s own sickness.
And their “collection” grew larger still. Where they obtained them, no one knew. How they kept them alive remains shrouded in mystery. With each passing day, the number of bees that lived within their walls doubled. Tripled. By July, their collection grew so numerous that there was no space left, be it shelf or surface, which did not play host to a vessel of Vanterbomb bees.
Yet the family all agreed, mutually, that they would have certainly been happier without the bees. But as everyone else had them, Lee explained to me the day before he died, it simply wasn’t fair that he shouldn’t have some too. Besides, he kept his only as insurance, as the Vanterbombs now began using their bees to settle petty arguments. If one didn’t want to do the dishes, she need only to threaten to lift the lid of a single glass. If one had done another wrong, he need only offer up some “medicine” to avoid retaliation. The arguments grew worse as the number of bees grew larger.
The buzzing grew louder still.
No one knows who did it, really. There are rumors, still, to this day. And stories–wild speculations as to who had done it and why. Some say it was Lee who first got the notion to test the tensile strength of flimsy, hand-brushed steel. He was always a wild card when I knew him, with a head full of empty, idle buzzing long before the bees. He was stronger than most, just a little different; he enjoyed poking and prodding things just to see what would give. More than one of those painted glass panes was broken in from Lee trying to test which was stronger, his finger or the glass.
But Emma was prone to clumsiness. Enid had always been rash. And there was Olivia, ever curious. Or Richard, ruled by rage, and his mother whose blood ran the same, hot and thick. Heavy too. And Urman, of course, whose actions were done in an eagerness to spite them all. It might have been any, or all, of them. Each had their reasons. Any one might have lifted a latch or broken the glass. The family was an odd one, after all.
If you ask me, I don’t agree with the stories. It was an accident, I think. A hand stretched out for a sip of midnight water but lifting a jar instead. Or a cage, shifted over without thinking, that fell from its place on a windowsill to burst open at the floor. Whatever it is, however it is, it doesn’t really matter. It was and that’s all there was to it. It could have been any of them. In the end, it only took one for them. One wrong move for the lid to come off, for the family to be laid out like boards upon the floor. In a single second the beating of human hearts within the walls of that house had vanished, drowned out in a sea of droning from the Vanterbomb bees.
The rooms are empty now, every shelf and surface laid bare. The once-strong walls grow thinner with each winter, paper peeling off beneath the scratch of a million fuzzy feet. They cover the place like paint, lead black, electric yellow. They crawl over the bodies of their dead. The air is filled with a constant humming, low and full, which vibrates deep enough to penetrate your bones. If you listen closely, you can hear it even now, all the way out here.
So it started from a daisy and one, single bee. Though small, their power was so great it managed to erase the house’s memory and all those who lived within it. Nothing is left now save for the rotted frames The garden, still dead, sprouts flowerless thorns which climb a rusted gate, whose top stands frayed and sharp like barbed wire. Light from the West pours in from empty windows to fall upon threadbare floors, carpet faded to brown by years of violent weather. As the days grow warmer, the house’s color fades. After it rains, the scent of mold lingers. The Vanterbomb bees are all that’s left of the house that once was– many generations have been born and died since the days of those who came first. The ones contained safely within polished, crystal jars. Nothing of what was then remains now, aside from faded photographs and the memories of this old and aging man.
Nothing now is as it was before.
And the Vanterbombs?