Reader Favorite Wednesday: The Daily Commute
Editor’s note(s): Because we’ve grown so much in the past year, we asked you, our readers, to let us know what your early favorite stories were, so we could share them with everyone during the months of November and December (and maybe a little beyond). We’re so pleased to share our next Readers Favorite Wednesday story (which ALSO contains Bees): Sarah Gailey’s “The Daily Commute” from July 2022. ~ Fran & Julian, November 23, 2022. (We’ll include our original editors’ note with each story as well.)
We love how Sarah Gailey’s story merges magic and public transport with a wonderful, wrenching effect. ~ Fran Wilde, July 10
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The Daily Commute
by Sarah Gailey
The bus is slowing down and the apiarist doesn’t seem to care at all.
This is a problem for us. We have to get to work and to school and to our appointments. But the apiarist doesn’t care about that. They don’t care about anything but the bees and the bus. It’s infuriating. We are infuriated.
The woman standing in the middle of the bus is named Lynda. Lynda is tired and she sways in time with us, her grip on the strap overhead automatic, her posture loose, her head bobbing on her neck as if heavy. We worry that she will doze off and fall over, but none of us offers her a seat. Lynda needs to get to a job interview early because if she doesn’t get to the job interview early, maybe she’ll be late, and if she’s late then maybe she won’t get the job, and if she doesn’t get the job then it’s entirely possible that Antonia will finally leave her. Antonia hasn’t said anything about wanting to leave, the two of them haven’t fought lately, they are happier than ever, but Lynda knows in her heart that it’s a matter of time before Antonia loses interest in her. This job might be the thing that saves them.
If she can just get to the interview early.
But the bus is slowing down. The endless stretch of lush green grass outside the windows was rushing past in a blur before, but now if we look out the windows we can see each individual blade waving in a gentle summer breeze. That means the bus is going very slowly indeed. We look to the apiarist, try to make them understand that we must go faster, but they don’t look back at us. They just sit there in their net-draped hat, humming. How can they just sit there?
Toulouse, sitting all the way at the back of the bus where he can feel the soft steady buzz of the engine, leans his head against the window. A few of us privately think that’s disgusting because who knows who else has leaned against that window, leaving behind an oily smudge? Marco, who sits across from Toulouse, thinks the opposite. He thinks that it’s romantic to lean your head against cool glass, knowing that it was warmed by someone else’s worry not so long ago.
Toulouse doesn’t realize that half of us are judging his head placement, though. He’s too busy thinking about the homework he didn’t do for his vermiculture class. He was supposed to study wormsong and write a thesis about why such solitary creatures would harmonize in their tiny subsonic voices, but instead he read a book about a fictional compost engineer who could speak to beetles.
Why did he do that, he’s asking himself, why did he do it? Why didn’t he do the assignment? If he keeps on like this, he’s going to fail the class and then he’ll fail out of university entirely, and then he’ll have to go back to work at his father’s silk-collection workshop in disgrace.
He could still do the assignment before class, he thinks as he listens to wormsong through his headphones and presses his shame-hot forehead against the cool glass of the window. But he’d need time in the lab to compose his thesis properly. He’ll have time if this bus arrives when it’s supposed to, just enough to do a mediocre job. A mediocre job is enough, especially if he rewrites the paper after class and then tells the professor tonight that he sent in the wrong draft and would she please look at this more current draft instead?
He can pull that off.
If the bus stops slowing down.
The apiarist reaches out a gloved hand and strokes the broad, sloping dashboard of the bus.
“Excuse me?” We startle and most of us glance to the man in the suit who sits in the front of the bus, his briefcase clutched in his lap. His name is Phillip but he thinks of himself as Mr. DeGaussier, so we will call him that. “Excuse me?” Mr. DeGaussier repeats himself more loudly this time. He is addressing the apiarist. Red splotches rise up from under his collar; Mr. DeGaussier is always prepared for a fight, but he is also afraid of violence—so he is in a complicated position, addressing the apiarist so rudely.
“Yes?” the apiarist replies without looking at Mr. DeGaussier. Several of us wince, knowing that a man who clutches his briefcase like that will expect to be addressed directly and respectfully. Others of our number have already stopped paying attention.
“The bus is slowing down,” Mr. DeGaussier says briskly. “Why is the bus slowing down?”
The apiarist strokes the dashboard again. “The bees are tired,” they say. “They’re taking it easy for a bit, is all.”
“Can’t you make them hurry up?” Mr. DeGaussier says this more like an insult than like a question. And then he adds, “Some of us have places to be. Can’t you do your job?”
Several of us were thinking similar things, wondering why the apiarist is here if not to make sure that the bus runs efficiently and on time. Still, we wouldn’t have said it like that.
“If the bees are tired, they need to rest.” The apiarist pulls a cord next to their seat, causing a series of bells to chime. “That’s not up to me.”
A few of us groan at the sound of the bells. The girl sitting behind Mr. DeGaussier kicks the back of his seat with one black-slippered foot, grumbling, “Why did you have to bother them?” This is also less of a question than an insult, but it’s one we approve of.
The apiarist stands up, stretching their back as the bus rolls to a gradual halt. Once the vehicle has stopped moving entirely, they turn to face us, their features obscured by the net that hangs from their hat. “The bees are resting,” they announce in a carrying voice. “If you want to go outside and stretch your legs, now’s the time.”
“How long will we be stuck here?” That’s Mirnah, the elderly woman who keeps glaring up at Lynda as if fatigue is not meant to be seen in public.
The apiarist shrugs. “I’m not sure. I’ll check on the bees while we’re waiting, make sure they’ve got everything they need. But they rest as long as they need to rest. Could be a few minutes, could be a few hours.”
The girl behind Mr. DeGaussier—she thinks of herself as Ty in quiet moments when no one is nearby—raises her hand like she’s in school. “They’re not hibernating, are they? Will we be stuck here for a whole season?”
The apiarist lets out a light laugh. “No, no. Step outside, feel how warm it is! Do you smell the apple blossoms on the breeze? It’s far from time for the bees to hibernate. They just need to rest, like anything else. Don’t worry,” they add warmly. “We’ll be on our way soon.”
“‘Soon’ doesn’t mean much,” Mr. DeGaussier growls.
The apiarist’s voice drains of warmth. “It means what it means,” they reply. And then they’re off the bus, striding slowly toward the back, where the engine idles.
A few of us follow them—not to the back of the bus, but outside. The grass stretches far as the eye can see in either direction, a well-wrapped gift bisected by the ribbon that is the road. Those of us who disembark wander into the grass a little ways, see how much of it is clover and alfalfa, feel how springy it is underfoot. It’s so green, and we breathe in the smell of apple blossoms from distant orchards just like the apiarist said, and we feel a little of the tension of the delay melt away. Not all of it. Just a little.
It’s nice to be outside.
Those who remain on the bus are less soothed.
“I need to get to work,” Mr. DeGaussier laments.
“I need to get to school,” Toulouse replies.
Marco looks over with interest, hoping to ask what classes Toulouse is taking. But then he thinks maybe it would be rude to ask, and then he thinks that maybe Toulouse is already dreading interacting with him because who would want to interact with a stranger? Marco wants to interact with a stranger, wants to befriend Toulouse, but maybe this is a sign of something broken inside of him.
Marco has just resolved to leave Toulouse alone, to leave everyone alone and live in isolation forever, when Mirnah chimes in. “I need to get to the market,” she says. Those of us who hear her think this is not as urgent as the things we need to do.
“I need to get to my stepfather’s birthday luncheon,” says Ty, who is secretly happy for the delay but dreading the consequences of it.
Lynda collapses into a newly vacated seat. “I’m going to lose everything,” she whispers, her head dropping into her hands. “She’s going to leave me. I know it. And then where will I go? What will I do?”
Those of us who are spread out in the grass look up as the door to the bus opens. Mr. DeGaussier stomps out, his briefcase still clutched to his chest. He strides toward the back of the bus, where the apiarist is working. He stops a meter or so away from them. The engine is open, and a few bees trace drowsy spirals through the air around the apiarist’s hat.
“Excuse me,” Mr. DeGaussier demands again in a carrying voice. “Excuse me! What is the update, please?” He adds the “please” specifically to emphasize how much he is being inconvenienced by this delay.
The only people who hear the apiarist’s response, besides the bees, are Mr. DeGaussier and Toulouse, who is seated directly above the engine block. “No update,” the apiarist murmurs. “But there’s quite a lot of honey in here. Would you like some?”
Mr. DeGaussier sputters, and inside the bus, Toulouse turns to Marco. “There’s honey,” he says with a soft smile.
Marco’s scalp prickles. Toulouse is talking to him and he’s afraid to mess it up with the wrong reply. “Cool,” he says, embarrassed at the sound of his own voice.
“I’ve never had bus honey. Let’s get some.” Toulouse is on his feet before Marco can reply, and so Marco follows. The two of them step out into the warmth of the day. Toulouse inhales the apple blossoms on the breeze and smiles a little, in spite of his worries about failing out of school. Marco squints at the intensity of the green, green grass.
The apiarist heard their conversation and has two tiny silver spoons out already by the time they get to the back of the bus. They hand the spoons over silently, each dripping with honey straight from the comb. Marco gets a little bit of wax in his, but he doesn’t mind.
“Listen.” Mr. DeGaussier tries a new tactic, one that has often served him well in the past. “I can pay you. What’ll it take to wake those things up so we can get moving?”
The apiarist laughs. “I told you, Mr. DeGaussier, the bees need to rest. But if you’re in such a rush, maybe we can figure something out.”
We did not realize that the apiarist and Mr. DeGaussier knew each other. And then we discover that they don’t know each other, because Mr. DeGaussier is frowning and loudly asking how the apiarist knows his name.
“I don’t,” the apiarist replies, seemingly unbothered. “The bees told me.”
The shouting that follows—from Mr. DeGaussier, and then from Marco, who steps between Mr. DeGaussier and the apiarist in a fit of adrenaline-fueled courage—draws us all out of the bus and off the grass. We gather around for reasons we don’t fully understand—do we want to see a fight? Do we want to prevent it? All we know is that something makes us collect around the calm, veiled apiarist and the red-faced businessman who is berating them.
“Enough of this nonsense!” Mr. DeGaussier is leaning around Marco, pointing a furious finger at the apiarist. “Enough! I’m in a hurry! Don’t you know who I work for? I could have this entire operation shut down!”
Marco puts a hand on Mr. DeGaussier’s chest and gives a gentle push, trying to get him to back up.
“Get your hands off me,” Mr. DeGaussier says. “Who do you think you are?”
“Everyone just calm down,” Lynda says wearily. “Please.”
Ty is standing at the edge of our group and she pipes up in a shaking voice: “Don’t fight.”
Mr. DeGaussier throws his hands into the air, nearly hitting Marco in the chin. “How can you all be so damned calm about this?!”
Of course, most of us are not feeling even a little calm. Most of us are thinking about how this will derail the whole day, the whole schedule, the whole plan. We can’t afford to stop, not when everything feels so tense and fraught and ripe for collapse.
We just don’t want to cause trouble.
It’s Mirnah who breaks Mr. DeGaussier. “Maybe you should just take a deep breath,” she ventures. She’s holding a small silver spoon, which she licked clean during Mr. DeGaussier’s tirade about his itinerary.
Mr. DeGaussier rounds on her. “Don’t you tell me,” he seethes, “to breathe.”
That’s when it happens. It looks like a wrinkle at first, a crease in his forehead that could easily be the result of his ferocious glower. But then the crease gets deeper and wider and longer and soon it doesn’t look like a wrinkle at all.
It looks like a seam.
“Aha,” the apiarist says softly. “I see.”
Mr. DeGaussier falters, looking at us. We are all staring at him. Some of us are covering our mouths in mute horror. “What?” The way he asks makes it easy to imagine him as a child. “What are you all looking at?”
Marco, who is closest to him, points. “Your head. You’ve got a . . . a crack, right there.”
Mr. DeGaussier reaches slowly for his head and there he feels it: a crack, just as Marco said, running across the breadth of his forehead. “What—no,” he says. “What is it? Is it bleeding?”
“No,” the apiarist says. “It’s not bleeding. May I?”
And before Mr. DeGaussier can say, No, you most certainly may not, the apiarist reaches out with one gloved hand and gently lifts the top of Mr. DeGaussier’s head.
It opens with a soft wet schlunp. The apiarist doesn’t lift it very far—we can’t see anything inside the shadowy crevice. A trickle of translucent golden liquid oozes very slowly down Mr. DeGaussier’s temple.
He does not move.
After a moment, several fat bees fly out through the crack in his head.
“Is that all of you?” the apiarist asks. We don’t hear a reply, but they give a satisfied nod and lower the top of Mr. DeGaussier’s skull back into place. They swipe at the honey that’s oozed out of the gap, and when they trace it across the crease in Mr. DeGaussier’s forehead, the skin becomes smooth once more.
“Oh.” Mr. DeGaussier’s shoulders fall. His grip on his briefcase loosens. “Oh, thank you.”
“That’s better, isn’t it?” The apiarist has a smile in their voice.
One by one, we all reach up and feel our own foreheads.
Marco’s fingers find it at his hairline; Lynda’s is behind the sweep of her fringe. Ty finds hers at her temple. Mirnah is the first to lift her own skull open, but it doesn’t take long for all of us to follow suit.
The bees emerge, some fast and loud, others slow and unsteady in their flight.
“It’s not my fault I have a hard time with deadlines,” Toulouse murmurs. “Maybe I can ask the school for a different course structure so I don’t have to feel so stressed all the time.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Marco says, because he is starting to think that maybe trying to make a new friend doesn’t have to be so scary. “Do you want to talk about it together on the way into town?”
Lynda massages the back of her neck. “Antonia loves me,” she says. “And she’s okay with supporting me while I find a job that won’t make me miserable.”
“If my stepdad yells at me for being late,” Ty says to Mirnah, “I’m leaving. He doesn’t get to treat me like that.”
“I think that’s an excellent plan,” Mirnah says, laying a hand on Ty’s arm. “I’m going to stop going to the market out of town just because I’m afraid of running into Gladys. She doesn’t get to treat me like that either.”
Mr. DeGaussier is leaning heavily against the side of the bus. “I’m sorry,” he whispers to the apiarist.
“It’s all right,” the apiarist says as the last of our bees disappear into the open engine. “Everyone needs a little help sometimes.”
“Are you going to keep them?” Toulouse asks, his eyes lingering on the engine, which is buzzing steadily now with the addition of all our bees.
The apiarist eases the lid to the engine shut. “That’s the job.” They walk past us, striding up the length of the bus as we all, in our own time, patch up the cracks in our skulls with honey. “Whenever you’re ready, we should be good to get going,” they call back. “The new additions are wide awake and ready to hit the road.”
Some of us get back onto the bus right away. Others linger, breathing in the apple blossoms and feeling the grass beneath our feet one last time before we reboard.
Nobody calls out for us to hurry. We know, now, that we will all get where we need to be eventually.
There’s no rush at all.
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