The net didn’t bother her anymore. She had gotten used to the way the tan mesh obscured her vision and turned the world into an abstract painting. She liked the way it shielded the harsh sun. After a few years of wearing the protective suit, her eyes had become unaccustomed to the vibrant colors of the unshielded world and the bright light of the sun.
Most people felt this way, or had simply grown tired of complaining about the suits and had turned numb and quiet. No one spoke of the hassle of the protective suits anymore. Some, younger than Camellia, never knew anything different. They even cried when they were exposed to naked faces.
Camellia could faintly remember the time when the protective suit was not needed. She had been a child then. Some would say she was still a child now — only seventeen — but, life had caused her to become a hardened adult, prematurely.
She continued through the market, through the swarms, until she found her younger brother, Jackson, feebly trying to sell their small amount of produce that had survived the pestilence. She noticed that the same amount was still in his basket as had been there this morning. He had sold little to nothing. But this didn’t bother her today. She was in a good mood.
“Come on,” she yelled across the constant, loud hum.
Jackson looked up at her. Though he was unable to hear her yell from a few feet away, he could see her hand motioning him to follow her. She was actually smiling. This was rare.
When they were shoulder to shoulder, walking through the market, she spoke again.
“It’s going to rain,” Camellia beamed.
“Are you sure?” Jackson yelled back.
“Yes. I can smell it. The air is charged.”
This exchange of words caused their feet to move a little faster through the crowded market. It only rained one or two days a year. And when it did, the buzzing stopped. The excessive swarm of bees had to hide from the wet gifts of heaven, and for that small period of time, the people once again had freedom. They could run into grassy fields without protection, like free children. It was the happiest day of the year.
Camellia remembered the day when the bees took over. She was ten. Before then, the only thing she had heard about bees was that they were an endangered species and if they were to go extinct, so would human life. She hadn’t understood what they did, except that they were important. But mainly, they would cause her to run around her yard in fear if one ever got too close. Whenever that happened, her mom would tell her, “Don’t be afraid of the bees. They’re more afraid of you.”
Well, it sure didn’t seem like they were afraid of her anymore as they surrounded her entire body like a dark cloud. She felt constantly afraid and weak in their presence. Everyday her life consisted of figuring out how to survive. They were now the rulers of this land.
No one had ever talked about what would happen to life if the bees became too populated until The Day of the Swarm. The day that uprooted and changed the world seven years ago. The hum could be heard hours before the bees were seen. When they came into view on the horizon like a dust storm, her parents had shoved her and her younger brother into the basement before they, themselves, had been stung to death. Camellia couldn’t remember what happened after that, nor how she and her brother had survived. But they did survive and eventually protective suits were given to the small remainder of people.
No one was sure where the bees had suddenly come from, but conspiracy theories claimed that in an attempt to stop them from going extinct, government experiments had caused the opposite — making them overpopulate.
Now Camellia and her brother were orphans, and life was simply an exercise in survival. In this crisis, the world had reverted to uncivilized life. Everyone fended for themselves — aside from the market when people would exchange their goods — hoping to live another day.
But when it rained, the world felt like it used to feel. Normal. Camellia and Jackson, now outside the market, walked as fast as they could while wearing their heavy suits. If the bees weren’t weighing down their steps, they would have run, like children on a summer night. If the swarm wasn’t flying like a dark cloud over their heads, they would have seen the jacaranda trees, in full bloom and sprinkling purple petals every time a soft breeze came through. They would have seen the pond to their left, covered in lily pads. But they couldn’t enjoy nature anymore.
When they finally reached their small house, tucked away in the woods, they were out of breath and grinning. Above their heads and the swarm, a small grey cloud was growing on the horizon, and eventually, like a hungry monster, overtook the blue of the sky and struck lightning.
“Look,” Camellia pointed to the dispersing bees, moments before the first drop landed by her feet. The bees become agitated and searched for refuge underneath the large magnolia leaves. After a few moments Camellia spoke again.
“It’s time,” Camellia said as she stood. She and Jackson slowly took off their protective suits, revealing sweat-stained summer t-shirts and shorts.
“Let’s go!” Jackson shouted with glee.
They ran out from the protection of the porch and danced in the rain, free of bees. The wet grass felt foreign to their unprotected feet. Their bare skin drank in every drop of water.
“To the pond!!” Camellia shouted.
They sprinted to the small body of water and and jumped in, scattering the lily pads. Jackson grabbed hold of a slimy frog and brought it near Camellia’s cheek. This, of course, caused her to scream in terror and run out of the pond, further into the woods. Jackson chased her, cackling. They were too distracted — being kids enjoying a summer day — to think about where they were going. Suddenly out of nowhere, something like fire came up from the ground underneath and connected with the electricity striking down from the sky. Camellia and Jackson fell back, struck by lightning.
The first thing Camellia noticed when she woke up was that she was not wearing her protective suit. This would be normal if she were inside her home, behind the house’s double insulated nets. But she was not. She felt grass underneath her bare arms and legs. Panicked, she sat up and looked around. The rain had stopped and she and Jackson were indeed outside, unprotected.
“Jackson!” she shouted, not realizing a shout was unnecessary. Her words carried fine. That is when she noticed something was missing: the buzz.
Jackson sat up in a daze.
“What happened?” he asked.
“We’re outside, without our suits!” she yelled. This sentence fully wakened Jackson.
“But…how are we alive?” he asked, not expecting an answer. They looked around at their surroundings: a meadow encircled by trees.
“Where are we?” Jackson asked.
“I…I don’t know...the rain stopped…where are the bees…” Camellia said, trying to make sense of their circumstances.
“Maybe they haven’t returned since the rain.” Jackson noticed.
“Then we need to hurry home.” Camellia stood. She was still dizzy from the lightning hit but continued. As she walked toward the woods she heard a faint buzz that grew louder the closer she got to the trees. She tested this out on each side of the meadow, and the same thing happened. The meadow was surrounded by the hum of bees.
“I think we’re surrounded. But I don’t know why they don’t come here,” Camellia whispered, as if the bees could hear and understand her. Jackson’s eyes widened, the severity of the situation dawning upon him.
“How can we ever get out of here?”
“I don’t know.” Camellia sat down, overcome by the dizziness. They sat in silence for a few minutes or hours. Time is a hard thing to calculate when one feels like there is no way out.
Some would call what happened next a miracle. Out of nowhere, Camellia’s eyes spotted something pink in the distance. It looked familiar and gave her a sense of happy memories. She stood and walked toward the 6-foot bush filled with vibrant pink flowers.
“Camellias! I haven’t seen one of these for years,” she said to herself.
Camellia touched the pink flower for which she was named. The petals were soft and delicate, like her innocence before The Day of the Swarm — back when she had simply been a child with loving parents. She remembered a spring day when she and her mom had walked past a neighbor’s camellia bush. Her mom had smiled and said, “My favorite flowers. They are beautiful, but also powerful and resilient...and lethal when needed. Just like my favorite daughter.”
All of a sudden Camellia froze in fear. On one of the flowers was a lone bee. Somehow it had escaped the swarm. She watched this loner, partially out of fear of any movement, but mainly out of curiosity. How small these creatures seemed when alone. Nothing to be afraid of. Camellia wanted to laugh at this bug. She could squash it with her hands.
She continued to observe it. The bee began to pollinate the flower. Then something strange happened. After it drank from the flower’s nectar, it tried to fly away but couldn’t. It levitated an inch and then dropped dead. Camellia watched, shocked.
“Lethal when needed,” her mother’s words replayed in her mind. Camellia looked around the meadow again. She noticed four other camellia bushes at opposite ends of the meadow. She gasped.
“Jackson! I think I found the reason!” Jackson didn’t understand what she meant, but came running anyway to see what the commotion was about.
“I…I watched a bee die,” she stuttered. He looked back at her, confused, so she repeated herself. “I just watched a bee drink from the camellia flower and then drop dead. That’s why they’re not here. The camellia flowers keep them out!” She pointed to the bushes surrounding the meadow. Jackson’s eyes followed her pointing finger.
“But it could have been just the one bee.” Jackson said.
“Possibly. But it’s our only option.” she stated.
“What’s our only option?” Jackson worried. She didn’t respond. Instead, she began taking the flowers and rubbing them all over her skin.
“What are you doing?” Jackson asked.
“I’m going to test it out,” she replied.
Panicked, Jackson grabbed her arm and stopped her. “No! You can’t. They’ll kill you!”
Camellia paused and looked him in the eye. “What other option do we have? We can’t sit here forever. And I’m tired of them taking over our lives. It’s time we take back what’s ours,” Camellia said with a new strength that surprised even herself.
“I’ll go with you.” Jackson said and slowly began grabbing flowers.
“No,” Camellia said authoritatively. “I have to do this alone. I will come back for you.” Jackson knew there was no arguing with her, so he stepped back.
Camellia took some stems carrying multiple flowers and wrapped them around her head and all over her body. Tears stung Jackson’s eyes as he watched his sister, his only family, preparing for her death. She looked at him after she had completely covered herself with the flowers. Suddenly they both laughed. She did look ridiculous. The laugh gave her the strength to continue.
“I love you.” she said and stepped into the woods, allowing the buzzing to drown out Jackson’s response. As she walked deeper into the woods, she began to see the black swarm that looked like a storm cloud. Camellia took a deep breath and continued walking closer. She was now but a few feet from the swarm. A few feet from death or freedom.
She took another step. Something wonderful happened. As she stepped into the swarm, the bees scattered. It was as if she had a wall of at least five feet around her. Wherever she moved, the bees dispersed. Camellia began to laugh like a crazy woman; all the pent up emotions caused by these creatures burst out at once. After a few moments she became more intrepid and started darting in every direction. No matter where she went, the bees fled from her.
“We’re free!” she whispered as the truth dawned on her like the beginning of a sunrise. “We’re free!” Camellia screamed louder and louder. She could actually run — barefoot and unprotected!
With a new authority and boldness, Camellia walked back to the meadow to get Jackson. She looked below at the bold color of the green grass. She looked up at the blue sky and golden sun. The brightness didn’t bother her eyes anymore. She felt something soft land on her shoulder. A shower of violet petals floated down from the jacaranda tree, no longer hidden by the swarm. She wondered how she had ever endured life with a net over her eyes all these years.
“You’re done running our lives. We’re in charge now!” she declared to the fleeing bees.