Cass’s violin strings resonated. Tasting the anticipation building thick on her tongue like honey, she cleared her throat and checked her posture. With gentleness, she wielded her bow up and across her body. Her touch lighter than a breeze buzzed across the strings. She tilted her head as she adjusted her grip on the bow. The knobs creaked as she adjusted the tuning. Sound shook her shoulder and discharged a thrill into the pit of her stomach.
The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra sat behind her, and she looked out across the crowd. Her squinting eyes searched past the stage lights. Her eyes settled on an empty seat. A small white reservation sign sat there, undisturbed. She frowned and cleared her throat again, ripping her eyes away. Cass felt a slight lift in her stomach.
The second violin smiled at her, politely waiting for Cass to take the lead. Her fingers perfectly positioned over the strings to begin their plucking.
The crowd was now completely silent and leaned forward, waiting for the spell to begin. The public trained all their attention on the conductor. The conductor was still lower than the orchestra, dressed in all black and standing on a podium. He held his wand up.
Cass drew her bow with the first dip of the conductor’s wand. The silence shattered. “The Flight of the Bumblebee” broke over the silent crowd.
As she played, her heart beat fast, and with every pump through her veins, she felt more completely herself. In the intense lights of the stage, she was more authentic, more perfect than she ever felt off of the stage. Every second of this song was all her. The tempo barely tamed the music. It extended past the smooth fabric of her skin and lifted above everyone’s heads, every darkness and every light contained within her visible. Her soul undulated under the power of the tight turns of note and measure.
When the song subsided, and the rest of the orchestra shifted in their seat, all of them leafed through their music to the next song. Cass looked again at the empty seat in the crowd, and after a minor deflation, she looked at the second violin. Cass couldn’t help but share her smile with the second violin beamed at her.
After the performance, Cass put away her violin in its soft velvet bed in her case. Loud shouting echoed in the hallways, now empty of the attendees. She was just buttoning up her coat as her orchestra-mates shouted to her. ”Cass!” They poured into the room, surrounding her.
“Hey, guys.” Cass stifled a yawn and forced a small smile.
The second violin bounced toward her, “Fantastic job tonight. Miss Cass Touchstone, I think that was the best you’ve ever played! Why don’t you join us for a drink? Let’s celebrate the last concert of the year!”
Cass smiled and put on her pedestrian shoes, white new balances. “Oh, not tonight. You all go ahead and have a drink for me.”
“Why not?” the second violin probed.
“I’ve got an early start tomorrow. See you at practice on Monday.” Cass took a step toward the door, skirting around the edges of her orchestra mates.
“Well, alright. We’ll miss you. Drinks some other time, though, right?” The second violin peered into her face, searching for something.
“Yeah. See you.” Cass waved and exited. The cold winter air hit her face as she braved the winter Milwaukee air.
As she walked, her stomach churned. Her mind was obsessing, as usual, why hadn’t he come? He had said he would come to see her last performance of the year. He had promised her would come. Cass bit and picked at the sides of her nails. She stopped picking to take out her car keys and light up the ignition. The freezing steering wheel burned her palms, and she winced. Shivers racked her body as she frantically smacked the heater, willing her engine to warm.
As she turned the wheel onto 7th street, she felt something in her palm snag in the wheel’s groves. She squinted through the deep dark. The red stoplight illuminated her palm. There was a hard bump below her ring finger on her palm. She furrowed her brow and pressed on it. There was a sharp sting, and she winced. Pursing her lips into a frown, she sighed, thinking about the last time she had her previous check-up, almost more than a year ago. Her day job as a line cook at a small diner didn’t give her healthcare benefits, not that the COVID-19 Pandemic was any help getting her foot into the door as an uninsured person.
When she got home, Jasper was already asleep in bed. He was breathing softly.
Cass pushed down the urge to flip on the light and flip out on him. The words built in her chest. She counted in common time. As quietly as she could, she put her things away, got ready for bed, and then crawled in. She breathed in his scent.
He groaned and pulled her closer. He kissed her on the forehead. “Hey, Cass.”
“Hey.” Cass’s lips pulled to the side.
“How did it go?”
“Good.” She felt the pillow lining. “I missed you.” She whispered.
He pulled her closer. “I missed you too.”
“I love you.” Then why didn’t you come? I bought your ticket. I left it for you. I texted you twice about the time and the address. You promised you would come. It was the last day in over a year I would play again.
“I love you too.” He sighed into her hair. After a slow 60 seconds, he began snoring softly.
She pushed down her irritation. She wouldn’t say anything. She wouldn’t say anything. She couldn’t say anything that would make him upset with her. How could she ever stay mad at him? He had his own life, and of course, she had to respect that.
She woke up before him. Her body protested when she stood, cracking at her knees and her neck. She smoothed her hair into a ponytail and began making breakfast for the two of them. When he walked out, he pushed his hair out of his brown eyes and smiled, his two dimples showing off.
She stirred the eggs in the pan as he pressed himself into her and kissed her neck. She stiffened at first but then melted into him, lifting a hand and rubbing the stubble on his cheek. She giggled, feeling slack. “Good morning.”
“Good morning. It smells good.”
“Thanks, baby.” She looked at the empty Mr. Coffee in the corner of the room. If he didn’t come to my show, what was he doing? The question was on the tip of her tongue.
He sat down, watching her in an almost predatory way, that intense look in his eyes. God, how she loved that look.
She swallowed the question with a smile and then left the bacon on low heat to start the coffee. She grabbed two mismatched plates and two mismatched coffee mugs. “Would you like some water, baby?”
She smiled at him and set the table, grabbing silverware and getting a water glass for Jasper. The light from the window bent inside of the glass. A small vortex, a hurricane, spun in her hands. She placed the glass in front of him and moved to get to the bacon.
“Could I have some ice?” He smiled at her, grabbing her hand.
“Of course, baby.” She grabbed his water glass and put a couple of ice cubes in it. She placed it in front of him.
“Thank you.” He retook her hands and gave her a gentle kiss on the back of her hand.
She smiled. She felt the same tiny pinch in her skin as last night. The tight twist set her on edge. A soft buzzing sound began, so she rubbed the front of her ear as if she was trying to get rid of trapped water, waiting for the hot melting of release that didn’t come.
She placed his breakfast in front of him, filled his coffee cup and then filled her plate, and finally sat down.
“Thanks for breakfast, baby.” He smiled at her and then stood up.
“Where are you going?” Cass stared over her full plate at his empty one, which had nothing left but crumbs on it.
“I’ve got a game with the guys.” He gestured into the other room, where a blue light emanated from his desktop computer.
“I’m already late. Catch you later?”
“Sure.” She smiled. “I’ll just clean up.”
He brightened. “You’re the best.” He kissed her forehead.
She watched him leave. Then, she was alone in the kitchen. Her breakfast was still half-eaten. She finished it and downed the rest of her coffee.
The sound of his computer booted up in the other room as she reran the faucet, this time, she watched the water churn and disappear down the drain. The buzzing sound in her ears drowned out anything from Jasper’s room.
Plugging the drain, she put the dishes in the sink and squeezed the blue dishwashing liquid. It made streaks until the churning water obscured the bottom of the sink with suds. She knocked Jasper’s water glass over as she was washing the dishes. With a heart-stopping crash, it broke. She picked up the shattered pieces and then cut herself accidentally.
“Shit.” She sighed and washed the tiny wound.
She looked over at the empty doorway. Jasper had his giant headset on. He hadn’t even noticed the disturbance.
She rubbed her hands and saw another small bump crest her muscle and then disappear in her left wrist. She furrowed her brow and felt along the veins and bone and sinew of her wrist. Wincing, she felt a sharp pain again, just like last night. Her fingers searching over her skin, she tried to find it again, feeling over where the bump had appeared. It had already gone. She shook her head as if it would make her forget her phantom pains and then bandaged her cut finger. She took care of the broken glass, placing it carefully into a paper bag. She took her coat off of its hook and threw a hat on and a pair of brown boots. She took the paper bag filled with glass outside to the recycling with a careful heft.
When the sun touched her face, her brain became the fizz in a freshly opened soda bottle. The shadows had just begun to shorten, it being close to noon. She started walking despite the cold, sliding slightly on the ice on the sidewalks and sidestepping the puddles that trickled from the slush on this unseasonably warm winter day. She placed one foot in front of the other and didn’t stop until she got to a park.
The sun was in the center of the sky by then. The trees around her waved, and she heard the chirping of birds. The sound of traffic echoed in the background. The wind as always in Milwaukee cut through the fabric of her coat she had hurriedly tossed on. But away from the shadows and in the sun.
There was a homeless man, covered in blankets, to her left, despite it being warm for the season. His blankets bunched up around him and had quarter-sized holes in the fabric. Beside him was a ripped backpack. An empty water bottle sat at his feet. He coughed, and Cass maintained a wide berth.
After taking a couple of steps, she heard a buzzing sound. She shielded her eyes from the sun and looked up. This time, it wasn’t in her head.
A small papery wasp nest hung directly above her. The wiggling, thin-waisted bodies of the wasps flew in and out of the brown nest—what a strange way of moving they had. Every jerk of their legs and wings was unapologetic in their carnivorous movements. She felt a pinch on the back of her left hand so extreme she gasped a little. She looked down at her hand.
A series of bumps surfaced and disappeared like tiny whales cresting an ocean wave. Loud shouting disrupted Cass’s focus on her shifting skin.
A group of small boys ran by. “Hey, look at that!” One of the taller ones shouted and stopped short. He bent down and picked up a rock. The taller boy pitched the rock at the wasp’s nest and missed it, narrowly. The rest of the boys laughed and began pelting the nest with rocks.
The homeless man coughed again. He glared at the boys. “What do you think you are doing? Stop!”
“Shut up, you stupid old man!” The boys pointed their rocks toward him. As the rocks hit him, he stumbled back. He threw up his hands to protect his face.
Cass opened her mouth to say something, anything. She couldn’t hear anything over the loud buzzing. Her skin pinched in more and more places, moving away from her hands and wrists into her soft belly and thighs. Cass said nothing but balled her fists up. The wasps buzzed more and more angrily.
They threw rock after rock. The gray, salt-stained missiles sailed above the tree branches. As the rocks rocketed, she heard a soft papery rustle.
The wasp nest floated to the ground by the homeless man’s feet. The wasps, now angrily buzzing, left their destroyed home. They stormed out in a cloud and surrounded the homeless man. They stabbed their sharp stings into his face and hands. He cried out in pain and sat up like a shot. He popped up from his position and limped away from the nest. Pained groans were released from him. He tripped over one of the rocks scattered around the sidewalk. With a sharp crunch, his groans turned into screams of pain.
All the breath had left Cass’s lungs. Cass watched this all happen, her hand coving her mouth.
She barely registered it when the wasps went after the boys. They screeched and tore away from the park, leaving the limping man in the cloud of wasps.
The homeless man began wheezing. His face became red and his eyes puffy. With difficulty, he looked up at Cass. “Call 911.” The buzzing sound became a high-pitched whining.
She immediately shoved her hand in her pocket and drew out her phone, her fingers shaking as she dialed the emergency number. By the time the ambulance had come, the homeless man’s face was unrecognizable. They wheeled him into the ambulance, and the cold came back. She stayed until the shadows were long again, the police taking her statement.
“Can you hear that?” She stared at the empty wasp nest on the ground.
The cop looked at her strangely. “Hear what?’
“Oh, nothing. I think it’s just the traffic.”
“Will he be okay?”
“I can’t say for sure.”
It was as if her skin wasn’t her skin anymore. Her body pinched and plucked and stung with every new thought. She could’ve prevented this. The words were right there on the tip of her tongue, but she didn’t do anything. She couldn’t even stop boys from destroying that wasp nest. She did nothing to stop them from hurting the homeless man. All she did was call 911, and by then, it was too late.
She walked home. She looked behind her shoulder as if the wasps would still be after her. The door clicked behind her as Cass got home. The sun had set, and something had shifted inside of Cass.
She picked up her phone and found the second violin’s contact. She pressed the button, and the harsh ringing sounded.
“Hey Marsha, are you free tonight?”
“Yeah! I mean, yes, I am free tonight. What were you thinking?”
“Let’s get that drink.”
“Have you ever been here before? Marsha asked.
“No, never.” Cass forced a smile.
“Let’s get a table first.”
“No, let’s start with drinks.”
Marsha looked up in surprise. “Really?”
“What? Do you not want me to come with you?”
“I can get them.”
“I’ll come too.”
Marsha laughed and beamed at Cass, “No, of course, it’s just that I’ve never pegged you as the drinking type.”
The music was deafening in the bar, but at least she didn’t hear the buzzing anymore.
“What would you like?” The bartender asked
“I’d like anything with honey and tequila.”
“The honey bee it is.”
Cass smiled tightly, “Thanks.”
“So, what did you do today?” Marsha asked.
“I-” Her voice caught in her throat. “It was a tough day today.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
“No, not today.” Cass felt the buzzing begin again. “Actually, could we get a couple of shots.”
“Oooh, that bad, huh?” Marsha shrugged. “Fair enough.” She turned her attention to the bartender. “Two-shots, please.”
Cass cleared her throat. “Each.” Her voice was clear above the buzzing noise.
Marsha laughed and nodded. “We’re ubering home tonight!” She cheered as the bartender poured their shots.
Cass cheered with Marsha and took the two shots one after the other, hot bile rising in her throat as she pushed down the cheap liquor. She forced it down. After that, she felt warmer. The bar was crowded and loud with conversation, and Kendrick Lamar’s Humble blasted. It was as if she had been placed there by someone else.
Jasper was still playing video games. He didn’t look up when she walked in and sat on the couch. She stared at the takeout boxes next to him.
“You know how it’s funny. I’ve noticed that you never eat any food in the fridge unless it’s served to you. Or delivered or served at a restaurant.”
“What?” He looked at her.
“You never eat unless someone gives it to you already prepared.”
“What are you talking about?” He wrinkles his nose and pops one massive headphone to the side.
“You’ve never noticed that?”
“No,” He said and turned off his game.
“If there are ever any leftovers, you don’t eat them unless I heat them for you. You never cook any food for yourself. If food is your responsibility for the day, we always eat out.”
“Yeah, so? I’m not a good cook.”
“That’s just an excuse.”
He laughed. “I think you’re overthinking this.”
Cass laughed too, but her voice was high-pitch, nearly hysterical. Her face felt hot from the tequila. “Yeah, you are probably right.” Another bump raised on her thigh this time. She cleared her throat and pulled the blanket over her legs. “Do you hear that?”
“That buzzing sound.”
“You’re probably just practicing too much.”
“I have to practice, Jasper.”
“I know that.”
“Do you, Jasper?” She stood now, and she flinched as she heard her voice come out in a yell. “We’ve been dating almost two years now, and you’ve never been to a single one of my concerts.”
“And you never, never try to meet my needs. I deserve more. I deserve better.”
“No, I’m not. You’re being a total jerk right now.”
“Listen, your drunk. Let me get you a glass of water, and hopefully, that will help you to not be such a bitch.”
Cass’s jaw dropped. “I know you didn’t just say that to me.” She felt her skin pinch.
He held up his hands and shrugged.
Her eyes stopped working. She wasn’t sure if they were open or closed. All she could hear was the rushing of blood in her ears and that buzzing. That BUZZING. The next she could see was the tile on the bathroom floor. The door rattled behind her. She had locked it and slid to the floor.
“Cass, get a hold of yourself and come out of the bathroom.”
Cass didn’t answer and cowered on the floor. There was something inside of her. Somethings. Cass had bumps underneath her skin. She scratched and picked at her skin. Her throat was sore, and she realized she had been screaming.
She tried to shrug the bumps off, but they had collected upon her like flowers in the spring. Every time she bent over, she felt the hard penny-sized things underneath her flesh. As we age, when you feel those sorts of things become your body as your frail, you will live until after tomorrow (how arrogant we are sometimes) that something like god will ever exist in our lives.
You ever wonder, and that then you think, you, end up wondering too much, and that if you had wondered enough yet to cover every question regarding everything. You would like nothing more than a dry blanket and maybe a cool one on your forehead as you think too much and then get overstimulated and down on yourself. There is nothing wrong with experiencing everything. It’s just that. You know. That thing. What’s wrong with me and everyone else I am thinking of? It’s that we are always the good guys, the person who is setting out the rights like it’s a table, and we are all ready for dinner. It’s insane sometimes (And I wonder if I am not just simply delirious too I had never known doubt and then relief and anxiety and then death and that BUZZING.
“No,” Cass heard her voice pitch into a screech. Oh god, now I really sound like a psycho, she thought. “I told you to leave me alone. Leave me alone.”
Cass looked closer at her fingernail. Where she had ripped off a strip of skin beside her fingernail. Blood collected at its surface, and she saw, to her horror. A pair of tiny shimmering wings flutter up from it. All sounds were gone except for a high-pitched buzzing sound close to her ears. Actually, in her ears. The wings flapped once, and a leg appeared and then another, and then a slim-waisted wasp removed itself from her flesh.
One after another, they rushed out from her blood. They formed a cloud above her but did not sting her. All fear left her.