Stung by Bethany Wiggins

Page 23

  Another reporter chimed in, “Well, that’s okay, right? As long as they reprod—”

  “They’re the cause of the flu,” the man blurted.

  “What?” Lis said, dropping my hand. “How can bees be causing the flu?”

  The reporters burst into a flood of questions, raising their hands, trying to be heard over each other.

  The man in the gray suit coughed into his balled fist before saying, “We genetically modified the bees’ sting to be more powerful, more deadly to its predators. Unfortunately, we discovered that when a human being is stung, the bee’s venom causes flu-like symptoms, followed by aggressive behavior and then death. The bee flu is highly contagious, spreading through bodily fluids—something as simple as a cough makes the germs airborne. ”

  Jonah’s face drained of color. “The bees? That’s why so many people have died? Because of your stupid bees?” he yelled at the television. Lis grabbed my hand once more, holding it tight.

  The man, his face turning a sickly shade of green, tugged on the collar of his shirt again and pointed to a reporter who stood frantically waving his hand. The reporter tore the surgical mask from his mouth. “So kill them! Exterminate them!” he cried, his voice rising to near panic.

  “We tried,” the man muttered, eyes full of misery, shoulders slumped.

  “And?”

  He looked right into the camera again. Right into the eyes of America. “We modified them to withstand all known pesticides. We have come up with a new pesticide that kills them, but it is worse than the bee flu—a last resort. We’re not sure if anything will survive its effects. ”

  “They’re going to kill the whole country,” Dad whispered, knuckles white from his grip on his wheelchair wheels.

  “Use the pesticide!” a reporter yelled. More join in, chanting, “Pest-i-cide! Pest-i-cide!”

  “Wait!” The man at the podium raised his hands over his head. “There’s hope. We’ve manufactured a vaccine, a sort of antivenin derived from the bees. There’s only a limited supply, so …”

  Chapter 23

  “Fo?” Bowen is in front of me, his hand shaking my arm. “Are you all right?”

  I blink away the memory and look at him. “The bees?” I whisper.

  “Bees? What about them?”

  “Are they dead?”

  Bowen nods. “Yeah. They used some newly invented heavy-duty pesticide after they realized the vaccine was worse than the flu. Only problem was, it killed everything—bugs, birds, cattle, small animals, trees, grass, crops, even some people. That’s why everything is dead. ”

  My brain starts to freak out and I begin to tremble. My eyes search for a distraction, anything to take my mind off the bees, and lock on the piano. “I played the piano,” I whisper, staring at the grand piano, swaying with the remembered pulse of music.

  “I know,” Bowen says, his voice drawing my gaze to his face. His eyes grow far away, clouded over with memory. “I could hear you from my bedroom if I opened the window. That’s why I was always sick in the winter. My window was always open. And on summer nights when my dad was home yelling at my mom, I’d get my sleeping bag and pillow and put them on top of his semi, so I could fall asleep to your music. Remember in third grade? You hit me in the face with your backpack when we were walking home from school?”

  A smile tugs at the corners of my mouth. “Yeah. I remember you called me Fotard and said playing the piano was stupid. So I stomped on your foot and then hit you. ”

  He smiles. “Your mom made you write an apology letter to me, but you were too scared to deliver it, so you had Jonah bring it to my house. It said something like, ‘I’m sorry I hit you, but if you don’t stop teasing me about piano, I’ll hit you again. ’ Did you know that when Jonah delivered the note he told me if I ever talked to you again, he and his friends would beat the crap out of me?”

  My mouth falls open in surprise. “My brother stood up for me? Is that why you never talked to me again? Because of Jonah?”

  He shrugs. “That and you were always walking around with your nose in the air, always acting better than everyone else. ”

  “I was not!” I snap, indignant.

  He takes a step closer to me, so that there are only a couple of inches of air separating us. “The only reason I teased you in the first place …” He pauses, brushes my bangs out of my eyes, and I am painfully aware of the lack of space between us. “I teased you because I didn’t know how else to talk to you. ”

  “Oh,” I whisper, at a loss for words.

  He grins and puts a finger to his lips, nods toward a door at the far end of the lobby.

  We pass the piano, and I reach toward the dusty keys.

  Bowen’s hand clamps around my wrist. “No. We don’t know if this place is safe. Come on. ” He slides his fingers from my wrist to my hand and loops them in mine.

  With my hand in his, held safe, it seems like everything will be okay. I tighten my fingers in his, and we cross the silent lobby to a stairwell filled with sunlit windows and littered with dead mice and bugs, which crunch beneath my shoes. We go up and up and up, my legs growing weaker and weaker with each step. When we get to level fifteen, Bowen pauses, letting go of my hand. There’s a little window on the door leading to floor fifteen. Bowen peers through it and puts his hand on the doorknob.

  “Don’t make a sound,” he whispers, and turns the knob, slipping through to the fifteenth floor. I follow and we creep down the dim hallway, past door after door—all closed—until we come to one that is barely cracked open, number 1513. Bowen presses his ear to the metal and closes his eyes. I count to thirty before his eyes open. He shakes his head and goes to the next door, 1515, also open a crack, and presses his ear to it. I wait again, adrenaline pumping, and after a solid sixty seconds, he pushes the door. It swings silently open with a breeze of warm air. Before the door comes to a stop the gun is on his shoulder, pointing into the bright room.

  “Wait here,” he whispers, and walks into the room. Balanced on the balls of his feet, he swings his gun from side to side, finger on the trigger. Poised for attack.

  A sickening panic settles over me as I watch him disappear around a corner. He’s not wearing a Kevlar vest, yet he’s the one at risk. The seconds draw out as I wait for him to come back. Or get attacked. Or shot. As I wait to lose the only familiar thing in this world, I can’t breathe.

  He steps back into view and motions me in as he sets his gun on a mattress hanging halfway off a box spring. I step inside, but instead of shutting the door behind me, I stride over to Bowen and throw my arms around his neck, holding him close and pressing my face into his shoulder. He stiffens beneath my touch, and I remember.

  I am his greatest fear.

  But then his arm loops around me, backpack and all, and he turns his face into the side of my neck, his breath on my skin, his touch leeching the panic from my muscles.

  After a long minute he pulls away and looks at me, his eyes devouring mine. Without taking my arms from his neck I stare up at him.

  “What was that for?” he asks.

  “Watching you walk into the room, I thought of how I would feel if anything happened to you. ” My voice trembles.

  Bowen studies my face, his eyes moving from my eyes to my mouth and back again. “How would you feel?” he asks, his voice a whisper.

  “I’ve already lost everything that I love. You’re all I have left. ” My face starts to burn as I realize what I’ve almost said. That I love him. I hide my face against his shoulder, too embarrassed to meet his eyes.

  “You’re just tired. ” He gently pries my arms from his neck. “You’ll feel different after some sleep,” he adds without meeting my eyes.

  I know sleep won’t make a difference, but I don’t tell him. He steps from me and pushes the bare mattress back onto the box spring.

  The room is covered in a layer of dust. The window is broken, and the curtains that
once covered it are in a mouse-eaten pile on the floor. Bowen slips his arms out of his backpack and sets it beside the bed. I do the same, dropping my backpack to the floor with a clunk, and stretch my tight shoulders.

  “Sleep,” Bowen says, taking the sleeping bag from my backpack and unzipping it. “I’ll keep watch. ” He spreads it over the mattress, and I lie down. Next, he riffles through his backpack and brings out a can of something and a water bottle, then steps in front of a mirror affixed to the wall above a dust-coated dresser. Opening the water bottle, he splashes the left side of his head, the side with four vertical lines shaved into it. Next he squirts mint-green gel out of the can and rubs it over the four lines until it turns white and foamy. From his belt he takes a knife and drags it through the foam. The knife leaves bald skin in its wake.

  “What are you doing?” I ask, climbing from the bed to stand beside him, staring with fascination.

  “Shaving,” he answers, never taking his eyes from his reflection.

  “I see that, but why?”

  “I’m not part of the militia anymore. I’m on their most-wanted list, right up there with the raiders. ” He looks at me and touches his injured shoulder. “I’m on the shoot-to-kill list. I can’t go back. ”

  “Well, then, what are you going to do?” I ask, wondering if he can hear the hope in my voice. If he can’t go back, maybe he’ll run. I want to run with him. And never come back. And be with him forever.

  He sighs and splashes water over the pale bald patch above his ear. “After I get you safely to the lab, I’ll try to survive on my own. Try to make it to Wyoming. ”

  Mention of the lab makes my hope turn hard and cold, makes the soft flesh in the creases of my elbows hurt. I fold my arms, pressing on the fading bruises. “I don’t want to be the lab’s guinea pig. Let me come with you. We’ll survive together,” I plead, my voice quiet with desperation. “I’m good with a gun. I’ll learn to keep up. I’ll help you survive, become your ally. ”
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