Originally published in Shock Totem #8.
Nolan found his wife crouched under the back deck, her swollen belly pressed against the soft dead leaves. He started to squat next to her but the sound of liquid pattering against the ground stopped him. For a frantic moment he thought her water had broken.
The smell hit him then, a heady sourness. Between Lily’s bare feet came a thin creek of urine, trickling over her toes. She lowered her arms and he saw bits of leaves on her skin. They moved down toward her elbows. Not leaves but wasps, a dozen or so exploring her.
“Lily?” Nolan tried to reach out but couldn’t. Panic surged over him, roaring in his ears vast and empty as the inside of a seashell. He was allergic to wasps and bees and all their kin. His EpiPen was in the upstairs bathroom but it was the phobia, its blind terror, that made him stagger back from her.
She shook her arms and the wasps lifted and vanished under the floor of the deck. Then she sidled out into the yard and stood, half-naked, rotted leaves clinging to the underside of her belly. She was due any day now. Their first child, at last, the name Elaine and her grandmother’s antique crib waiting for her.
He snatched Lily’s arms and searched for any lingering wasps. “You scared me,” he said. His fingers came away grainy and sticky. “Lil, did you put sugar on your skin?”
“They’re perfect creatures, really,” she said, looking back toward the deck. “Each child is a copy of its mother.”
“Did any get you?” He shook her, hated himself for it, but the panic was still close.
“Our baby should be perfect.”
“She will be. She already is, honey. Come inside.” He guided her up the deck steps. She remained pliant, like someone in shock, while he washed her and tucked her into bed.
He understood she was under a lot of pressure. They had struggled to get pregnant. But just as adoption had entered the vocabulary of their marriage, Lily had kindled. Her first two trimesters had been a smooth joy. Lily had a glow that drew smiles from strangers.
Before long she’d become a scholar of expectant motherhood, immersing herself with an intensity that might have seemed frightening to Nolan with any lesser ambition. She meditated. The house filled with organic cookbooks, Ashtanga yoga videos. Processed foods were verboten along with anything that dared to have gluten. Classical and ambient music drifted like clouds. Nolan cracked New Age and granola jokes.
But then she’d turned inward, distant and airy. She spoke of purity and perfection and didn’t like being touched as often. Nolan knew that her mother had a daughter before Lily, a sad thing who’d died of SIDS in her crib. He couldn’t get Lily to talk about it.
He waited until her breaths lengthened into what would eventually be her light whistling snores, then laid a hand on the globe of her belly. Elaine kicked his palm, eager to meet her papa. “A few more days, pumpkin,” he whispered, and kissed his wife’s hair.
He stood in the middle of the living room. Pärt’s Stabat Mater mourned from the entertainment center. It had been on repeat these last few days, straining the house with its slow, lovely ache. There was a violence to it. Voices lamenting the sorrows of Mary, according to the CD’s liner notes. And what more famous mother could there be, he asked himself, and shook the thought away.
Outside the light slipped into dusk. Nolan bent and with a flashlight swept the underside of the deck. The nest was the size of a small plate. A carpet of wasps shifted over it, sluggish with night. How could this happen? He was vigilant with the house, hiring an exterminator in the warm months.
He brushed at himself with a shudder. His skin crawled with phantom prickles.
He came home the next day and searched the house for Lily, finally finding her in the basement’s farthest corner, among cobwebs and the reek of urine. The doors of her mother’s china cabinet were open and she stood gazing into it, naked, her pale hair fanning across her shoulders. Small black shapes flitted through the gloom. A wasp passed in front of him and he shrieked, slapping at his face.
“Lily, get away from there,” he said, ashamed at the harsh tremble in his voice. The EpiPen had been in his back pocket all day but still he was frozen in place, unable to step near his wife. His mind funneled back to his sixth summer, a week in the hospital after digging near a yellow jacket nest. Thirty years and he still felt shaped by that day. He remembered how the ground had exhaled them in a great humming breath. There hadn’t even been time to stand up.
“Come and rescue me,” she called across to him. Her voice carried a lilt. “They really are perfect little things. Fearless.”
But he couldn’t. Another wasp droned past his ear. He fled upstairs and stuffed a towel under the basement door, shaking and cursing himself.
She went into labor two days early, soaking the mattress as dawn streaked the bedroom curtains. An overnight bag had been in the car since last week, and in two minutes he had her dressed and outside.
Wasps were everywhere. Saucers, bowls, coffee mugs sat on the steps and the porch railing, covered with the insects and smears of honey that caught the strengthening light.
“Why would you do this?” he whispered.
She didn’t answer. Nolan stood rooted in his fear through several of her contractions. The EpiPen was miles away in the bedroom. Spots swarmed in his vision. Lily groaned in pain. He bit his tongue and lifted her and tried not to fall down the steps.
A wasp landed on the back of his neck. He forced himself forward. By the time he reached the car it had flown away.
He could never have imagined a more beautiful thing than Elaine. Seven pounds, five ounces of wailing health, a bundle of heaven in his wife’s arms. Lily wouldn’t quite look at the baby, but she was smiling. If the smile was hesitant, it was because the labor had worn her out, that was all. Nolan took that smile and held it, almost like a second infant. He looked down at what they had made and felt himself fill with light.
As a gesture to Lily—that Elaine would have a brave father—he killed the wasps on his own rather than call the exterminator. He wrapped himself in winter clothes and scoured every nook and cranny. It took a couple of bug bombs and six cans of spray, but soon the house was ready for his family.
He slept little that first night with Elaine home. The baby fussed between them in the bed, and Lily turned away from her, facing the corner of the room. Nolan cooed to Elaine, whispering that Mama was just tuckered out from bringing her into the world.
It was worth every yawn the next day. The office was a sort of prison and his parole didn’t come through until after six. It seemed he caught every red light on the way home.
“How are my two girls doing?” he said the moment he stepped through the door. Lily sat in his recliner beneath a blanket. The Stabat Mater was just ending, fading within the speakers.
“Nothing’s perfect enough the first time.” She looked at him and something in her face made him step back. “You understand.”
“Where’s Elaine?” His throat dried up. “What did you do?”
“The next one will be just right. It’s not your fault you gave her your weakness.”
She pulled down a corner of the blanket. Nolan saw an arm, shiny and red and swollen. A wasp wandered up over the wrist and disappeared within the tiny fingers.