Sting Me Breathless
We, little girls in ballet slippers, brushed hordes of dead bees out the open church doors. Magazines, dustpans, spare shoes, all transformed to brooms at the start of class. Bee carcasses crunched under little feet. Legs and wings clung to pink and tan tights to help jumps take flight. They buzzed overhead, a low drum bass against the pointed scalp of Saint Joseph’s church. Exterminators came and went, spraying the walls with death that never seemed to take. They died on their own terms, raining from the rafters in a light spattering whenever their time was up. We didn’t want to be there, but the school had nowhere else to put little girls in ballet slippers. Brick walls of this age didn’t allow for expansions, at least that’s what the budget said.
The inside the church was blue, cheap metal chairs and splintered pews against the walls, daring little girls to climb the mountains towards the sagging beams. We hung purple sequin skirts on the backs of music stands, tap our tap-tap-tap shoes where sermons once spoke above the wasps. But of all the colors old buildings were, this one was blue. Dusty, honey blue.
See us dancing, twirling under smoky stained saints pressed into the arch windows. The bees above aren’t bees, but wasps with stingers that never fall off. They tangle in our hairnets, pierce our leotards, and yet never touch us. Except once, when one of the dancers in the youngest class got stung and couldn’t breathe. The ambulance almost didn’t make it, because little girls in ballet slippers weren’t allowed to carry their own EpiPens and the nurse was off duty.
I’m not dead but I could be; at six-month’s old, I had a bad reaction to a newly released Rotavirus vaccine. My poor mother, exhausted from a sick infant, held me in the kitchen on her lap as I projectile-vomited out into the dining room. Doctors in white coats strapped me to a plastic board because I squirmed too much and my veins were too small to get good access. I only know these things because of my mother’s harrowing retellings. It’s not a coincidence, she says, because that vaccine was removed from every market just a few months following my brush with death. But this is not what I remember.
I remember my parents’ bedroom in our old house, our first house. My parents were on either side of me, radiating mountains of warmth that kept the bad things out and the good things in. The bed never ended, just faded into white light coming in from the window. Windows opened and curtains opened, an unbothered breeze came through the gap in the bottom. I logically know what is on the other side of the window, a green lawn confined by a road with a playground on the other side. But I don’t remember that. I remember my parents’ bedroom in our old house, our first house, and I could be dead but I’m not.
The Bloody Marys of Small Town Delaware
“Maggie, I have your baby.” That’s all you have to say.
There’s a bridge in Seaford on a road that no one really cares for. The road bends around a muddy runoff decorated with burst tires, lonely Walmart bags, and swampy waterlogged shoes. During the day, you wouldn’t know it was special—just another boring throughway between one place and another. At night, the road is eerie and alone. It’s just you and Maggie.
I first heard the stories of Maggie Bloxom and at a sleepover with older girls in my dance class. We were in someone’s living room—I don’t remember who—but all the furniture was pushed to the walls and the television had the annoyingly cheerful music of the Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader Wii game. I was proud of every answer I got correct because I wasn’t even in fifth grade yet. But after the game got boring and we all settled down, they turned the flashlights under their chins and told me the story of poor Maggie Bloxom.
Imagine: Maggie Bloxom, a 19th century girl, traveling down this road at night. Her buggy is warm but the night is cold, the breath of her horse billowing like smoke from her father’s pipe. She’s alone apart from her driver, a dangerous trip for a pretty young girl with an obvious pregnant belly under her shawl. The buggy begins to topple. The horses scream. The driver jumps from his raised seat, but Maggie and the buggy tip and fall into the water below. Half submerged and silent, the buggy’s wheels spun while the driver climbed down to find Maggie. He pried open the unsubmerged door and found Maggie wedged between the seat and the window of the carriage, with her own decapitated head in her lap.
Logically, I don’t know how Maggie’s head would’ve come off, or how she would’ve been holding it in her lap. But logic doesn’t matter to scared little girls.
The story of what Maggie does when you call her varies from person to person. Sometimes, if you call for her, she’ll come looking for whomever might have her baby, despite the impossibility of saving her unborn child from such an accident. Sometimes, she’ll come to you with her head in her arms and ask you to reattach it for her. Sometimes, she’ll just cry from somewhere far away.
“You’re such a baby,” Alexis said to me. She was the tall dancer, the ultimate sugar plum queen with black hair and a speech impediment that turned all of her r’s into w’s when she spoke.
“I’m not!” I said.
“Alexis, don’t be mean.” One of the other girls said to her.
“I’m not being mean,” Alexis said. “She wants to be in our grade, she’s gotta grow up and hear some spooky stories.”
There’s another bridge somewhere in Smyrna with a similar story: a woman, a baby, a bridge. Except in this story, the mother chucked the newborn over the edge and let it drown in the river before killing herself in the same water. No mother’s love to resurrect it in Hell, the baby kicks over trees with its little, chubby legs and cries in the late hours of the night. It also hates cars apparently: spontaneously locking doors, rolling windows up and down, rolling seemingly parked cars backward towards the water. The story is lacking the same details as Maggie Bloxom’s story, so the words to summon the baby are unagreed upon.
“Baby, I have your bottle.”
“Baby, where is your mama?”
“Baby, come out you dumb fuck.” This one is popular amongst the teenagers that graffiti the bridge and antagonize the unseen on late night jaunts.
Field Trip #2
We used to have these days when the school would assign us volunteer activities: trash cleanup, kitchen volunteering, stuff meant to acquaint us with a world outside of our khaki-pants-collared-polos kind of daily we had. The administration never came out and said it directly, but for the charter to receive funding we had to participate in some community enrichment activities. They framed it as “this thing you should do to be good people” despite the fact whether we accomplished whatever task we were set to do wasn’t tracked or enforced. Community Service Days were just an excuse to not be in class and that was enough for me.
Nursing homes were a popular choice for CSD, so when the field trip form listed a hospital, my parents and every other parent signed it without notice. The bus ride was short, suspiciously short. I recognized the McDonald’s, the gas station, the little colonial houses that decorate the town, and all the horses in the fields. However, I’d never seen this building. Three stories, chunky brick walls (not like the slim bricks in the school buildings), and bars on big windows from the first floor up. The grounds were alive, sure: trees branching out and bending under their own weight, hedges with fragrant flowers, even a little fountain in a manmade pond where duck families raised their fluffy yellow babies. But the place was tall, not just in height but in aura. It looked like an asylum I’d seen in movies. It looked like a place where little girls went to die.
“Welcome to the Hospital for the Chronically Ill,” said no one.
Instead, a nurse too busy for us waved us towards an open room to the left. My sneakers squeaked on the waxed floor as the herd of students moseyed into the game room. The ceiling felt low, like the floor above was heavy in the middle and weight down, with a squat chandelier hanging from the lowest point. Mix-and-match couches leaned against beige walls, plush chairs sat opposite each other around small, square tables, and bookshelves under the window overflowed with board games missing pieces. We were there for company, a backboard to talk about their youth and stimulate their memories. We didn’t know that then. Our part in this trip was never articulated, instead our teachers gave us a shrug and gestured vaguely towards the elderly around the room, seemingly to say go nuts.
It could’ve been wholesome, and for the most part, it probably was. Elementary school kids playing Candyland, cards, Hungry Hungry Hippos and sharing snacks with people sixty years older, laughing about the same things and telling stories. But I don’t remember holding a single game piece. Instead, I remember crying and covering my ears.
An old man towered over me, screaming and ranting at me about something. He was more like a cornered animal than a man, scared and lashing out with words and wild hands. I wouldn’t recognize this behavior until years later as a man with Alzheimer’s or Dementia, so in the moment I was just a little girl, scared of a stranger who was screaming at me for a reason no one bothered to explain.