Tina tore the notebook paper into strips and stacked the pile on the corner of her desk. She stuffed one in her mouth like a piece of chewing gum. Her back molars worked at the cud, grinding it into to a fine paste. Tonguing the wad, she chewed and prodded, prodded and chewed. After every other strip she switched sides to give her teeth a break, but it hardly mattered. She’d been chewing for over a month; even when she wasn’t chewing her mouth hurt. Her teeth felt ready to rattle free of her jaw.
The cud squelched. Her lips were wet and flecked with white. Spit slid down her throat and with it went bits of soggy paper. When the consistency felt right, she spit the wad into a red plastic beach bucket she’d once used to collect sand crabs with her mother. The bucket was half full of papery spit globs. Soon she’d be able to take it outside and add onto her project: an enormous wasp nest big enough to house a human body.
Overhead, the fan blades dipped down like wilting flower petals. They spun in squeaking, lazy circles. Tina tuned out the noise and focused on her chewing. She was well into the day’s second ream. Strips fluttered in the breeze and threatened to go sailing off her desk, but all the chewing made her sweaty so she left the fan running. When her father called from the other room, she placed a dictionary on top of the stack and went out to eat dinner.
They were sitting in the living room. Her father had brought out the TV trays: two in front of the couch, one in front of the oversized red leather recliner. Mason had taken the recliner and her father was sitting on the end of the couch, farthest from the television. Tina moved the tray out of her way and perched on the very edge of the sagging cushion. Their sofa was covered in a very itchy gray fabric that always gave Tina a rash on the back of her thighs.
“It’s corn chowder.” Her father pointed his spoon at the bowl in front of him. Soup dripped off the end and landed on his paper towel. “I made bread, but it got burned in the toaster oven. I think it’s broken.”
“It’s fine,” Tina replied. The soup was the color of bile, but she didn’t care. She was glad for a liquid dinner. Her jaw ached and her teeth felt very tender. The constant grinding had stripped away their protective enamel. She blew on her soup so the heat wouldn’t ignite any of the raw nerve endings.
Mason changed the channel to a show about sharks, then turned it to a movie on the Lifetime network where someone yelled into a cordless telephone. He left it there for a minute, scratched at himself aggressively through his bright blue gym shorts, and then flipped over to the news.
“How’s your burger?” her father asked him. “Rare enough?”
Mason grumbled into his bite and then took another, mouth still full from the first. There were two loaded burgers on his paper plate and a mountain of fries. Tina’s brother was on the weightlifting team and perpetually trying to bulk up. It seemed to Tina that he ate piggishly, as if attempting to bloat up instead of muscle out. His face was pockmarked and acne had broken out along his cheekbones and over his lip. His hair flopped in greasy stripes across his forehead. He wore t-shirts with fish on them from the Bass Pro shop, even though he had never been fishing in his life.
Mason stopped on a show about surgical procedures in the ER. A man was having a shard of glass removed from the sole of his foot. Then he clicked over to a movie on the SyFy network where a woman was being chased by a mutated shark with legs. He finally flipped to ESPN and threw down the remote in disgust.
“Nothing’s on,” he grumbled. “It’s fucking garbage.” When he burped, the smell of meat and pickles was so strong Tina could almost taste it.
Two years earlier their father might have said something about the swearing, but that was before their mother had run off with the guy who ran the homeowner’s association. Mason had outgrown her father by at least a foot in the past six months. Her father’s hair, which had always been thin, now sort of looked like the wispy bits of leftover cotton candy you find stuck to the sides of its plastic bag.
“Isn’t that game show on your sister likes? The one with the giant calculator?” There was soup in her father’s reedy mustache. It clung there in drips that quivered but refused to fall.
Mason finished his second burger and started on his third protein shake of the day. Though they came from the health food store, it seemed the powder’s only effect was to make her brother’s gut balloon into what resembled a pregnant Santa Claus belly. His arms and legs remained as thin as Tina’s, and she was nothing but skin stretched over bone.
“We’re watching this,” Mason said. After a minute he changed the channel back over to the news.
Chunks of potato floated in the soup. Their centers were still cold. Tina drank the yellow broth and took the rest into the kitchen. She dumped everything down the drain, took two ibuprofen, and after further contemplation took a third to try and dull the ache in her jaw. Then she stared out the window over the sink, looking up into the corner of the glass. A large nest full of thick-bodied wasps crawled over each other. The mass of them created a dull buzz that reminded Tina of the sound effects they put inside sleepy baby dolls. Wasps crept along the cinderblock and swarmed the sill.
“Pretty night, huh? Pinks and purples, like jewels.” Her father laid his hand on her shoulder and it hung there limply, the weight of it floppy and insignificant. Tina bit her cheek to stop from saying something needlessly mean. She felt the ringing pain from her gums all the way down into her neck.
The timer went off on the oven. Her father pulled out a Sara Lee chocolate lava cake using her mother’s favorite oven mitts – the ones shaped like dinosaurs. There was a T-Rex and a Brontosaurus. They bit into each end of the cake pan.
“Could you get out the ice cream for your brother,” he asked, sliding the still-warm cake into a mixing bowl.
There were tubs of Rocky Road and Tin Roof sundae. Tina handed both to her father and went back to her room to check the consistency of her paste. The mixture in the red bucket was beginning to harden. Her mother had always said the thing that made wasps hardier than bees was that once a bee stung you, it was a gone. They rip out their own insides to spite you. But wasps were different; they could sting an enemy over and over again. Perfect warriors. They never quit.
Tina stirred the clotted gunk with a plastic ruler and figured she’d test it out in the morning. It would probably be ready by the time she got home from school. A whole weekend free. There was nothing but time.
It looked like rain, but Tina ate lunch outside. She sat on a wooden bench sunk into a jasmine bush that curled around the entrance to the west hallway. Sometimes her friend Sarah sat with her, but Sarah said she didn’t want to get her shirt wet because it was white and might turn see-thru. Tina didn’t mind being alone. There was a humongous wasp nest built on the concrete wall between the clumps of fragrant brush. The buzzing soothed her. It was better than listening to her classmates scream over each other, a noise so abrasive it made Tina want to stuff sandwich bread into her ears.
She’d been stung a few times at school, but the pain wasn’t bad. The ones on campus were the smaller, fast-moving variety that incubated quickly. Tina knew the janitors cleared them out the best they could, but the smaller wasps were very resilient. Unlike bees, which traveled in clusters, wasps built alone and formed colonies from the ground up. Her mother had told her that a single wasp could build its own nest in the span of a week. Tina thought that was pretty efficient.
Mason walked out of the cafeteria with some of his weight lifting buddies. He had his arm around his girlfriend Janine’s neck. They gathered at one of the concrete tables with the mildewed umbrellas that wouldn’t open all the way. Janine sat on Mason’s lap, though she barely fit with his huge gut in the way. Her brother’s girlfriend was his exact opposite: extremely small and frightfully clean. Her brassy blonde hair was always done up in variety wildly intricate styles. She shaved her eyebrows and drew on her own with a black eyeliner pencil. They gave very specific expressions according to whatever she was feeling that morning. Today, Janine’s eyebrows looked incredulous. They arched up very high in the center and swept down in a flourish at either temple.
Her brother’s hands crept down the top of Janine’s blouse. Janine swatted him away and her eyebrows flew even higher on her painted doll face. Tina laughed and chewed her paper strips, hiding behind the heavy fall of jasmine. Every cud she deposited into the Tupperware made her feel better, like she was on the way to finishing something important. Once she was done with the model, she’d have a replica even better than the one her mother had made. It would be big enough to send into the newspaper. Everyone would see it.
When the bell rang, she waited until the others left before collecting her stuff. Her makeshift travel spittoon was very full and she wanted to seal it properly. A couple weeks earlier the top had come open in her back pack and most of the spit and paper and leaked out through the top, wetting the edges of her math book. By the time she’d realized what happened, the book was warped and she’d lost an entire day’s work.
A small wasp lit on her bare knee. She sat very still and let it buzz there, circling and dancing, tickling her skin until it took off and buzzed back behind the jasmine. It began to rain, fat drops that tapped her head like fingertips. Tina looped the straps of her backpack over her shoulders and carried it facing forward, over her stomach. Pressing her hands against the bulbous front, she smoothed her palms over the bulge where her paper stash sat percolating.
Sarah lay on a yellow plastic beach chair and talked to Tina through the opening in the playhouse door. She wanted to soak up the last of the sunshine, though there was nothing overhead but smudgy gray cloud cover. Tina didn’t care about getting tan. She sat inside the playhouse and assessed the damage to her nest from the afternoon rain. Before she’d left for school, she’d remembered to cover it with a plastic tarp, but there was a rip creasing one of the sides. Some of the work on the roof had gotten drippy. It slicked down into the interior from where she’d shaped it onto the plastic shingles. So far, the house had held the structure of the nest. It held the open cavities of the egg sacks, looking like a bunch of overlarge paper grapes. Tina hoped to eventually shape it into a proper wasp nest. Ideally, one that was taller than herself. The rain had flattened all of it considerably.
“This isn’t how I pictured spending my Friday night.”
Sarah had on a spangly pink bikini top that had once belonged to Tina’s mother and some khaki shorts she’d rolled up to her crotch. They were unbuttoned over her pale stomach. A few stray hairs stuck up wiry and black around her belly button.
Sighing, Tina poked at a mound of paper that had landed on the playhouse floor. “This is what I’m gonna being doing tonight, and tomorrow night, and the night after that.”
Leaning off the chair, Sarah stuck her face through the plastic doorway. Her aviators slid down her oily nose. Tina guessed there was enough sun to get a tan after all. She picked up another handful of notebook paste and slopped it onto the side of a pickle tub she’d acquired from a nearby dumpster. The tubs were the perfect shape to emulate the eggs placement in the nest. According to Tina’s mother, the larvae only took a couple weeks to form. If she could get five or six more chambers shaped and dried, she could begin stacking everything in a way that mimicked a realistic nest instead of just paper wads lumped onto a plastic house. Tina wasn’t too worried. Shaping took time.
“Aren’t we going to the game?”
Tina had never been to a football game in her life and didn’t see herself attending any time soon. “Why don’t you go with my dad?”
Overhead, the house shifted and let out a shuddering creak. Sarah slapped a palm against the roof. “Maybe I’ll head home now.” She stood up and turned to face the backyard, away from the house. “Don’t look, I’m changing.”
Sarah threw the suit and it landed just inside the playhouse doorway. Tina pulled it inside with one paper-caked finger. The bikini top had heart shaped rhinestones dotting the clasp that held it together. It was the exact kind of thing her mother had loved and left behind: all her swimsuits, all her beach stuff. She and the homeowner’s association guy had moved to Baltimore. Tina wondered if they even had wasps there; she was pretty sure the cold would kill them.
“I’m leaving,” Sarah announced, but Tina was too preoccupied to climb out and say goodbye. The sun had begun its lazy descent into the trees. There wasn’t a lot of natural light left for working. Soon she’d have to set up the Coleman lantern and hope the batteries wouldn’t burn out before she got done with the second layer.
Her father stuck his head through the sliding glass door and called her name.
“I’m dropping Sarah off and then I’m headed over to the high school. You coming?” He wore an old baseball cap with a picture of a cougar on the front. It even said that, COUGAR, spelled out in all caps under the picture of the animal. The high school’s mascot was a tiger. She looked at her father’s earnest face and wondered why he couldn’t realize how humiliating he was. Everything he attempted always felt like trying too hard for not enough reward. The fact that he’d show up for a game at their school as a form of support when neither of his kids would be there didn’t make Tina feel sad. It made her embarrassed. It made her aggravated at his continued displays of weakness. No wonder her mother had left. He was the kind of person who made you want to look at anybody else so you wouldn’t have to see his shame.
“I’m going to keep working.”
“Okay, if you’re sure.” He was still leaning through the glass, as if he thought she might change her mind. “I’ll bring you home something later for dinner. All that work’s gotta make you hungry.”
Tina’s jaws were so tender that even the thought of food made her teeth ache. She rested her molars delicately on the mouthful of paper chaw she was still working over. Most of the mashing was getting done by her tongue. “I’ll order a pizza,” she lied, ducking back inside.
Her mother had bought the playhouse for her sixth birthday. It was decorated like a birthday cake, the kind of dream house that resembled spun sugar. When she’d pulled off the bedsheet her father had draped over the top, the first thing Tina had done was take a big, long lick from the side. Her father had laughed, but her mother had seen the disappointed look on her face and crawled into the house with her. They’d eaten their birthday cake inside, icing smeared onto the plastic floor. There’d been bugs inside it for weeks after, even after they’d sprayed it out with the hose.
The floodlights over the back patio stuttered to life and illuminated the side of the plastic house a glowing, eerie pink. Tina plastered more paper gunk onto the side of the pickle tub. So far she’d only created four of the egg chambers, but after the night’s work dried there’d be three more ready to adhere to the roof. In old newspaper clippings, her mother’s replica had looked large, but it only held five egg chambers. It wouldn’t be nearly as tall as Tina’s or as authentically made. Her mother had used paper mache, but Tina had done everything just like the wasps. There was an overpowering smell attached to the paper, a sourness manufactured by her spit. Tina crawled across the floor of the plastic house, careful not to dislodge any of the wet paste on her hands, and looked at a tiny nest already forming in one of the egg chambers she’d thrown the week before.
A single yellow jacket lumbered across the papery surface of the comb. Already some of its chambers were filled with white larvae, still in its sac-like pupal state. Tina was careful not to breathe on the wasp while she leaned in to examine it further. Its body was tough, but still delicate. Wings jutted from its back and fluttered as it crawled and added to its mound.
“Let’s sit out here.”
“It’s too hot.”
“Come on, just for a minute.”
Tina poked her head through the door and yanked it right back in. Shuffling over on her butt, she pulled back the shutter on the house’s window, peering out at her brother and Janine through the warped plastic. They were standing beside the sliding glass door. Her brother had taken one of her father’s beers from the fridge and was pulling the label off in wet hunks, dropping the mess on the concrete.
“Sucks out here,” Mason grumbled. Janine rolled her eyes and shoved him down into one of the wicker patio chairs. The cushion made a loud squelching sound, still half-soaked from the afternoon rain storm.
“Just shut up. You complain about everything.”
Janine straddled his lap and sucked at his lip. Her brother growled, something he thought sounded sexy, but just made him sound constipated. The chair, not meant to hold someone of her brother’s bulk, creaked ominously below the two of them as they rutted against each other in a graceless frenzy.
Mason looked like a rubbery walrus, especially with his face all pink and sweaty from the heat. Whiskers dotted his jaw, what he’d been calling a “beard,” but looked more like the bristles on a toothbrush. He kissed Janine’s neck and then her ear. He made another growling noise and ripped her shirt off over her head. It was the kind with buttons at the collar and they got caught in the back of her coiled hair. Janine let loose a wild shriek. Instead of pulling the shirt back down, her brother tried to pull it further over Janine’s head, yanking it until the girl’s arms were trapped as well. Janine yelled again, this time slapping blindly at Mason’s face.
Tina stared out the plastic window with a hand clapped over her mouth. Paper smeared across her cheeks and dripped down her chin. She watched her brother flail on the chair, trying to distance himself from his girlfriend’s fingernails. Janine gave one strong shove and then she fell off his lap and landed hard on the patio, knocking her head into the table leg. It pushed over and knocked the bottle of beer on the concrete beside. Beer splattered everywhere and wet the seat of Janine’s shorts.
Mason looked horrified as his girlfriend rolled around on the ground in a tangle of limbs and stretched out shirt. Janine managed to rip herself loose after one huge yank, freeing quite a few strands of hair from her head in the process. The whole mess of it stood up from the crown of her head like the Bride of Frankenstein.
“Son of a bitch,” she yelled, wiping beer from her pants. Her eyebrows were smeared all the way into her hairline. She kicked Mason in the leg and twisted his nipple through his t-shirt. Mason yelped, a piggy noise that rose to a high pitched squeal.
Tina wasn’t sure when Janine left. When she was finally able to raise her head, Mason was alone. He got to his feet shakily and wiped a hand across his face. When he leaned over to right the table, Tina saw that his pants were completely soaked from all the rain that had accumulated in the chair cushion. Tina wheezed. She clutched her sides, feet kicking at the plastic walls of the miniature house until the whole thing trembled and shook.
“You’re a fucking pervert, you know that?” Mason reached in the playhouse and grabbed for her. Tina kicked and landed a blow on his forearm with the heel of her sneaker, rubber sole snagging the hair. When he pulled back his arm, howling, she slammed the plastic door closed. He tried to yank it open, but she pressed against it with the full strength of her legs.
“Go away,” she yelled. “Get away from me.”
He made a kind of grunting scream as he tried to jam his way through the little plastic door. It gave for a second, but then Tina locked her knees and pressed harder. The door stayed closed, though the whole house rocked back and forth as Mason beat on it.
The pounding stopped. He walked away, or seemed to – Tina could hear him stomping across the patio. Her breath was heavy and her head sweat so profusely that it dripped down her neck. She looked around in the gloomy confines of the playhouse and saw most of the plastering she’d done stayed stuck. Just like a real wasp’s nest, the rigidity of her own had maintained its integrity. Even her idiot brother beating on the roof couldn’t dislodge it. Her mother’s nest had crumbled after two months. The paper mache wasn’t strong enough to hold the structure together. If I were smart, I would have done it like the wasps, her mother had said. I would have used my own spit.
When the playhouse overturned, Tina fell into one of the pickle tubs and nearly lost her breath. Mason had flipped it until the door was suddenly where the floor had been. Tina rolled with the house and landed hard on the edge of the window so that the plastic shutter walloped her in the breastbone. “Stop it!” she yelled. “I’m gonna tell Dad.”
Even Tina knew that meant nothing. Her father with his fluffy smattering of hair and his steadily shrinking personality was no match for the hormone bomb of her brother: the oily, musk-dripping, caveman brow of a forehead brother who grunted instead of talking, who grabbed and took instead of asking. Her mother had always been the one who’d known how to handle him. Now there was no one to curb his behavior.
“Here we go,” Mason crowed. The playhouse scritch-scratched across the patio, wumphed down into the grass and dirt, and slid through the lumpy yard. Tina dug her hands into the paper models she’d built and felt them give under her sweaty palms. A huge, buzzing shriek filled her head. It felt like the noise and the rumbling and the jumbled movement would never stop, but then suddenly it did and there was nothing but Tina gasping for breath and the buzzing in her ears.
“Let me out,” Tina yelled, to the wall, then to the floor, then to the tiny chimney which now lay at her side. Most of the buzzing came from there. It was a strong, familiar hum.
“Maybe you should camp out here tonight with your buddies.”
Tina slammed her fists into the plastic wall. The playhouse was solid. There was no way to right it on her own. From how far Mason had pushed her, it seemed likely that he’d lodged the whole thing next to the wooden fence at the back of the yard. Either that, or slammed her up against the shed – an aluminum sided building partially obscured by weeds and an azalea bush so thick it covered half the yard.
She stared down at the playhouse door. Her own weight dug it into the dirt. She’d have to jump, make the whole house lump over onto its back to get out of it. That’s when she felt the spray. The wet, gushy thunk of paste as it flew through the opening in the plastic chimney.
“Work all night,” Mason said. “Make as many nests as you want.”
Spit and liquefied paper dripped down her front and coated her face. It slipped down the neck of her t-shirt. There was so much of it. She’d been preserving everything for weeks, making pounds of paste, endlessly chewing. It smelled sour and felt cold, despite the heat. The buzzing quieted for a second. Tina wondered if the paste had flown into her ears; that maybe she was temporarily deaf from it clogging up her ear canals, but then it swelled louder than ever. It came from the chimney.
There’d been a small nest in with her, but she hadn’t realized that a much larger one was housed up at the top of the plastic chimney. Its insides boiled with wasp bodies, thick drones, large ones that shrieked angrily and milled around the glop of papery goo.
Quietly, she leaned back against the far wall and let them fly. They crawled up her arms, swarmed her head. Landing in her hair, they perused the contours of her face. One dropped gently on the shell of her ear. That sting was the first. It hit powerfully, pain zipping through the cartilage and lodging behind her ear like a bolt of electricity. Tina bit her lip and let the wasp walk further along her ear, crawling down the line of her jaw. It disappeared into the neck of her t-shirt.
Tina remembered the first time she’d ever been stung. It was one of her first memories. They’d been on family vacation and had rented a cabin out of state. Tina was playing on the front porch with a little red truck that she’d found half buried in the red silty dirt of the driveway. As she’d pushed the truck beneath one of the porch’s rocking chairs, pain welled in her shoulder. It was so agonizing she hadn’t known she was yelling until her mother picked her up and carried her inside the cabin. Her arm swelled up, the skin around the sting puffy and tender. That’s when her mother had taken her back outside and shown her the nest.
See that one? Her mother pointed out the largest wasp hovering over the massive paper dome clinging to the side of the cabin. That’s the boss. She gets to choose who stays and who goes. She runs the household.
Tina and her mother watched the wasps, crawling and squirming over the papery cone. When one of them flew toward her, Tina didn’t flinch. She let it land on her arm and circle there before lifting off and flying away again.
In the playhouse, the wasps buzzed and crawled. They fluttered over her, their bodies weighted with poison. She wasn’t afraid. A sting in her neck. Another in the soft, fleshy patch above her elbow. Waves of pain rushed through her and radiated outward, vibrating through her skin. After a while, the cicadas started up their own angry, lonely swell. The wasps migrated back down the chimney and into their nest. Tina sat in her paste. It congealed, forming a snug shell around her flesh. She sat and let it tighten. Waited for the right time to emerge.
Tina walked through the house stiffly, her thin body coated with armor. Everyone was asleep. The lights were off as she moved through the living room, past the kitchen with its glowing blue nightlight shaped like a starfish. She floated past her bedroom, then her fathers, and approached the end of the hallway. Mason’s door was closed, but it wasn’t locked. It slid open easily.
Slipping across the carpet, she neatly avoided piles of dirty clothes and the stacked, dark mounds of his handheld weights. She carried the jar lightly in her hands. The lid barely touched the top, but she could feel the life inside it, already tapping against the glass.
She stood beside the bed and stared down at her brother. He slept sprawled in his oversized bed, taking up every corner of the mattress. The TV spazzed gently against the wall, putting out enough light to illuminate a poster of a woman in a string bikini, crouched on the hood of a car. In the fritzing glow of the television screen, the woman’s flesh looked white and cheesy, like a dead thing.
Mason’s mouth was open. He gave off an aroma like broth; a musky funk that reminded her of canned soup. One of his arms was up over his head and a tuft of armpit hair grazed the corner of his stained pillow. Tina couldn’t remember a time that he’d been other than this: a dumb, wild animal gone feral, without anybody to tame it.
Unscrewing the top of the jar, she gently shook the contents down into the hollow of his neck. The fat, sluggish bodies sat immobile for a moment, and then began to crawl across his chest and face.
Her brother didn’t move at first, but when one of them crept across his upper lip he drew down an arm. He scrubbed at the bristling growth of mustache and squashed the wasp against his mouth. It must have stung him then because a sound came from his chest, a hurt rumbling. His eyebrows drew together. His brow scrunched. His lips compressed.
Tina stepped back, but stayed close enough to watch the wasps crawl across Mason’s body. His left eye was already swollen shut from a sting laid on it by one of the largest drones. His yelp, high pitched and reedy, was enough to wake the dog next door. It howled plaintively. Sitting up, he pawed at his face, clawing madly at himself.
The light snapped on overhead. It blinded both of them for a second, but Mason was the one who screamed. He took one look at Tina, with her pasted white hair and body, and gargled a strangled yip. The one eye that was still open had a pupil so enlarged it looked like his whole eye had gone black.
“Tina?” her father whispered, quietly, carefully; as if to counteract the hugeness of her brother’s blundered shouting.
Tina turned to look at him. As he watched, she calmly tipped the jar and shook the remaining wasp body onto the bed. The largest one, the queen, landed on her brother’s chest and rolled down into the crease of the blankets.