LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: HONEYBEES are nature’s first feminists.
I hold the hive frame up to my face, and scan the layer of fuzzy bees that cover the wax comb. After I track down the laying queen—the key indicator of a healthy colony—I set the frames back into the hive body. I give them a puff from the smoker to clear any bees off the tops of the frames, then lower the copper lid into place. A few girls fly onto the landing strip, their back legs swollen with pollen. They look like colorful balloon pants—white, red, yellow, purple, and gray blues.
Over the years I’ve learned everything about the ecosystem of the beehive. For instance, any honeybee out in the wild, climbing over flower petals collecting pollen or nectar, is female. I could go on about them for hours, but if you have to know one thing about honeybees (other than we’d die without them), know this: Male bees are drones, and drones either (a) die while mating with another hive’s queen or (b) get kicked out of the hive when winter comes. Sometimes the females chew off their wings so they can’t fly or return to the hive.
They’re an advanced society.
I step beneath the vine-covered archway and dump the smoker onto the bench, popping off the lid with my thumb. Dark tendrils curl into the air, the charred remains of twigs and fire-starter fibers turning to ash in the wind. My phone buzzes, but since it’s tucked into the back pocket of my shorts, I don’t bother to check it. My nitrile gloves don’t work on touch screens. Not like I need to look at the text to know it’s Nan prodding me with reminders.
Like I’d forget my own high school graduation.
Bail on it, play hooky? Sure. But my head’s not too far into the clouds to forget the actual ceremony. I snap off the gloves, sticky with strings of honey, and toss them in a sealed garbage bin beneath the table. Exhaling, I drag my fingers through my damp hair. Even without a protective bee suit, sweat rolls down my back, collecting in the waistband of my shorts. I lean against the workbench and take a moment.
Breathe. Listen to the slow, steady pound of my heart.
Out in the apiary, the worries of daily life fall away. I’m able to forget everything and focus on being present. Since my anxiety disorder isn’t going away anytime soon, I spend most of my free time out with the bees. More so when I’m stressing out about life, my future.
My phone buzzes again.
I push away from the workbench and force myself back toward our two-story renovated farmhouse. I slide my phone from my pocket and unlock the screen, scanning the text message.
NAN: Be there in fifteen!
ME: Okay, okay! Meet you out front
I tuck my phone back into my pocket and try to shake off the creeping unease clinging to my shoulders. My beekeeping- induced calm is slipping away, lessening with each step I take closer to the house.
“Josie!” Mom leans out the back patio door, waving me inside. “Isn’t Nan picking you up any minute?”
“Sorry, lost track of time,” I lie as I hop up the patio stairs. Before entering the house, I pat down my body, making sure a bee isn’t hitching a ride with me inside. All clear. I scoot past Mom and step over Ford, our ancient French bulldog who’s curled up at the base of the stairs, and run up to my bathroom.
No time to shower, so I roll on deodorant—real deodorant, not the hippie crystal stuff Mom stocks in my bathroom—swap my damp tank top for my Destroy the Patriarchy, Not the Planet tee, and attack my curls with a brush. Then frown and twist them back into a bun, securing the whole mess with an alligator clip. My graduation gown hangs from the second- story banister outside my bedroom, and I grab it on my way down.
“Text me if you forget anything.” Mom pulls me in for a hug, and I inhale her natural scent. We rarely wear perfume, since it attracts bees, so she smells like I do. Of clean smoke, of honey, of nature. “And I’ll see you there! Exciting!”
I force a smile and hoist my bag over one shoulder, the graduation gown dangling from my other hand. “Super exciting,” I say, infusing some enthusiasm into my words.
Mom smushes my face between her cheeks and rests her forehead on mine. “Proud of you, Bug.”
For a moment I squeeze my eyes shut and savor this. Pretend like I’m someone Mom would actually be proud of. Then a car horn blares outside and that brief moment of yearning shatters.
“Go, go,” Mom says with glassy eyes, shooing me out the door. “Don’t be late!”
“Bye!” I kiss her on the cheek and jog down the front porch steps to Nan’s waiting Mini Cooper, idling in our dirt-dusted parking circle. Music blasts from the rolled-down windows and I duck inside, instantly assaulted by Nan’s French perfume and twangy country-pop lyrics.
“Hey!” Nan squeals, and leans across the center console to hug me. Then she pulls back with a disapproving frown. “That’s what you’re wearing?”
“We’re all wearing these ugly-ass gowns. Does it matter what’s underneath?” I ask, dumping my stuff in her back seat. The car lurches as she shifts it into drive, and we’re off.
“Well.” Nan turns down the music a notch. “You could’ve at least done something with your hair. This is our high school graduation, Josie.”
“Exactly. I’m not there to impress anyone. And, I’ll have you know, I brushed my hair,” I say defensively, flattening my bangs with my palm. “I was out in the apiary. Lost track of time.” I don’t like lying to my mom or Nan, but they wouldn’t understand. Graduation—the ceremony, the implication of it all—makes me dizzy with anxiety, and beekeeping helps calm me down.
Nan’s sigh speaks volumes. “Getting out of this shit town will be the best thing that’s ever happened to you, Jos,” she says, her blinker clicking as we wait to turn left into Volana High School’s parking lot. “Trust me.”
I bristle. Then I wilt.
I’ve never been all that talented at standing up to Nan Johansen.
We park and Nan turns to me, a brilliant smile lighting up her face. Silken hair parted down the center, not a strand out of place. Sometimes my best friend is blinding, like the sun. So golden, so essential to my daily life and survival. But that doesn’t mean she can’t burn.
Despite it all, I love Nan. Every friendship has a balance, and Nan’s always had the bigger personality. She’s the more outspoken, divisive one. But I’ve never minded living in Nan’s shadow; it’s safe here.
“This is it,” Nan says, grasping my hands with hers. “Graduation. Then Los Angeles.”
“This is it,” I repeat, a lump forming in my throat. Tiny flecks of guilt collect like buildup on my heart. Clearing my throat, I smile. “Let’s go get ourselves graduated.”
School officially let out during the last week of May, and in the week since, the administration outfitted the quad with rows and rows of folding chairs and one of those portable stages. Families and students crowd the seats. There are balloons anchored to chair legs and dozens of floral arrangements turning the air sweet. It doesn’t resemble the school I dragged myself to five days a week for the past four years.
The graduating class sits together in the front rows. To my left is Olivia, one of my closest school friends. Olivia’s the type of friend you don’t invite for a sleepover because you’re not that close, but who you’re always relieved to see at school. Nan’s to my right, holding her pink note cards so close to her face I’m surprised she can even read them. Like the rest of us, she’s wearing an ugly navy graduation gown, but a golden sash cuts across her chest: VALEDICTORIAN.
“Did your mom do this?” Olivia asks, tapping the top of my head. She smacks gum nervously between her molars and keeps readjusting her dyed-blue curls. I don’t know what she’s so worried about. In the fall, she’s off to New York City to earn her bachelor of music and major in the violin. Following her dreams.
Since we keep our mortarboards, most graduates decorate them in some quippy or personal way. Mom decorated mine with a gigantic bedazzled honeybee. Olivia’s has a miniature violin glued to the base, and Nan’s simply states, in pink gemstones, BOSS BITCH.
I fiddle with the bobby pins precariously holding the mortarboard in place. “Yeah, she stole my cap last night,” I say, grinning. Not many things make sense in my life, but honeybees always do. My one constant.
“I love it,” Olivia says, and I kind of regret not making more of an effort with our friendship. But Nan was always quick to point out three’s a crowd whenever I suggested we invite Olivia to hang out with us.
“Don’t encourage her.” Nan shuffles her note cards together and tucks them into the pocket of her gown. “When we’re in Los Angeles, Josie isn’t going to have time for beekeeping.”
Olivia frowns, but our principal walks up the stage, tapping her forefinger to the mic. A screech of feedback resonates, and she adjusts the mic, beaming out at our class.
“Hello, graduates,” Principal Pedersen says, “and welcome, family and friends! This afternoon…”
I tune her out. Tune the entire graduation out. Because something barbed and panicked fills my chest. Not just the fact I’ll have to walk across the stage in front of everyone, although that does make me nauseous. No, it’s all the unknowns. The end of the first chapter of my life. The beginning of one still shrouded in mystery.
Nan squeezes my arm as she passes, headed to the stage to deliver her speech as Volana High School’s valedictorian. My best friend climbs the stairs and stands behind the podium. Despite everything, I’m proud of Nan. During our high school career, I’ve seen all the pain Nan’s endured to earn her title. Not like I’d ever dare ask her, but I can’t imagine it was worth it.
Resting her hands on the podium, Nan searches the crowd until our eyes lock. I give her a thumbs-up. She takes another deep breath and begins her speech. A speech she’s recited in front of me so many times I have it memorized. Fiery, full of Nan’s passion, with a few choice and clichéd Robert Frost quotes.
Except Nan never takes the road less traveled.
Standing up there, Nan is so happy, so confident, and excited about her one-size-fits-all future.
Two best friends on their own in Los Angeles.
Nan wants me to be more excited about all the unknowns ahead of us—me at Golden State University, her at UCLA. She has our entire next four years mapped out in her mind and on a shared Pinterest board. It’s a beautiful future. One of endless summers, palm trees, and delicate tan lines, of sun-bleached hair and boys with strong jawlines and salt water on their lips.
Except there’s one problem.
I’m not going.