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Domestic Labyrinth

Bethany Cutkomp

Old Ned from across the street carries a dented-up Wiffle ball bat on him. He drags that hunk of plastic beside him while grabbing the mail. Tucks it under his shoulder while bringing a six-pack out on the porch. Leans it against his lawn chair while watching me pull weeds.

After his grandchildren started Little League, I figured he kept the bat as a makeshift cane. Recent observation proves otherwise—the old man is hunting bees.

These aren’t the dainty honeybees that environmental activists print on graphic tees and bumper stickers. They’re larger, clumsier pollinators with territorial genes. Once the sun warms the morning, they materialize from the walls to piss off their human intruders. I respect the dedication, but consistent buzzing and head-orbiting wears on me after a while.

Ned takes the bait. He rises from his chair and whacks one straight out of the air. Wham! KO. The satisfying smack of insect on plastic carries all the way across the street. For as fragile as those bony limbs of his appear, the man’s got quite the aim and a hell of a swing.

“While you’re at it, you should take out those girthy beetles,” I say from my garden bed, taking a swig of water. “Y’know, the ones that swarm our porch lights at night.”

Ned squints at me and then turns away to spit a glob of tobacco in the grass.

“Those June bugs ain’t hurting nothing,” he says, poking at his kill. “It’s the wood bees you gotta worry about. Damn terrorists.”

I don’t like his tone. Thorough contemplation weighs down his statement, like he’s been chewing on this for weeks. I suppose living alone doesn’t give much enrichment to the mind, leaving ample time for rumination.

“Well, you are kind of provoking them.” I swing my water bottle like a bat. “I’d sting too if I were being attacked.”

Old Ned considers this for a moment.

“Casey, come on over here for a sec,” he says. “I have something to show ya.”

As I cross over through his overgrown yard, he wrestles a sweat-kissed beer from his six-pack and offers it to me. Normally I’d accept, but it’s not even noon. I see how fast he blows through those packs. It’s not my place to speak up about it, but part of me worries that he’s headed down a dangerous path without anyone to check up on him anymore. Just looking at his sagging trousers, I wonder if he even eats regularly.

Ned leads me to the nearest porch beam.

“You see these holes?” He runs his bat down a mini constellation of cavities dripping with pulp. “Wood bees did that. They don’t sting—they chew. Listen here.”

He has me press my ear against the splintered beam. Activity brews from within, a distinct munching that makes my skin itch.

I pull back. “Wait, that’s what that sound is? I thought there were squirrels in my gutters.”

“Naw, that’s the sound of your home being hollowed out. Only a matter of time before you won’t have a home no more.” He spits and pops open his beer. “Worst part is, they double each time you kill ‘em.”


“I kill one. Two come back. I kill those two, and four come back. Don’t believe me? Take a gander.”

Placing his warming beer in my hands, he hobbles inside and returns with an aerosol can of pyrethroid insecticide. He feeds the straw nozzle into a hole and douses the inside in lethal foam. Within seconds, a startled buzzing disturbs the substance. A froth-drunken bee drops out of its burrow and writhes.

“That’s terrible,” I say.

“Just wait a minute.” With the tip of his bat, Ned crushes the bee out of its misery. “He’ll be back . . . with a friend.”

I swipe a hand across my forehead and sigh. Ned has never struck me as one to succumb to delusion, but perhaps I just hadn’t caught onto the signs earlier on.

A buzz zips past our ears. The insect responsible goes in for a head-butt.

Ned makes a dry sound straddling a chuckle and a cough. “You see? They’re doubling, Casey. I swear to God.”

He taps the wood planks at our feet. Beside the flattened corpse, another bee has crept in to investigate. When it catches me staring, its disproportionately large eyes snap toward me. I shudder.

“You’ve probably got too many to keep track of,” I say.

“Try keeping track of a doubling population, kid. They won’t let me win. I hear ‘em in the walls. Munching away. They’re chewing my house apart from the inside out, and there ain’t nothing I can do about it. The Lord has damned me for the rest of my time on this Earth.”

Now stimulated, his so-called terrorists divebomb us. When Ned starts swinging at them, I excuse myself back to my own yard.

Back when his joints let him get around more, Ned would host barbeque potlucks for the whole street. In the front yard, I’d play catch with his two grandsons until dusk strained our eyes. Between socializing, Ned would correct our posture and aim. If I’m being honest, I miss that version of the old man—the lively one that wore a wrinkle-eyed grin instead of this perpetual grimace.

He’s losing himself. It’s a terrible thing to witness, and I fear this hysteria is only the beginning of a downward spiral. Once back in the comfort of my own air-conditioned home, I slip my phone out of my pocket and dial a number with grimy, soil-caked fingers.


The following week, I find carpenter bees floating in my mug of lukewarm coffee. Bees raving inside my washing machine. Bees squeezing through my sink drains.

Upon my girlfriend’s request, I scan the walls for cracks. Crevices. Any plausible access point for a bee that size to squeeze through. If I hadn’t been scrutinizing the place, I would have never noticed the hole, no larger than a dime, in my door frame. Placing my eye level with the hole, I find that its tunnel travels all the way through, letting in the light of day.

Ned is waiting for me on his porch when I stumble outside. We haven’t spoken to one another since I made that phone call last week, and I figure he’s been hiding from me. I get it. I’d hate me too if I were in his shoes.

“‘Bout time you came to your senses.” He turns and spits.

I barely register his voice over a dull buzz ingrained in my mind. This white noise has infiltrated my dreams. Killed my productivity. Fueled a kind of anger that took years of therapy to tame.

“What is happening?” I demand. “What did you do to my house?”

“I didn’t do nothing,” he says. “Maybe karma’s biting you in the rear for ratting me out to the police.”

I blanch. “I called for a wellness check. It wasn’t like they arrested you or anything.”

“Wellness check, my ass. Those cops don’t know nothing about wood bees. They say I need an exterminator and a trip to the psychiatrist. Ha!”

His screen door creaks open with the slightest nudge. The worn and warped framing near the lock no longer provides a secure hold. I make a mental note to call somebody to come look at that for him.

When I was younger, Ned’s place used to feel like a second home. Savory dishes used to waft from the kitchen, mingling with the radio broadcasting a game from the other room. Major league jerseys hung beside shelves of bobbleheads and autographed balls. The TV stand featured framed photos: his grandsons up to bat in tee ball, his daughter back when she crouched behind home plate, and even faded photographs of himself on the pitcher’s mound.

The comfort of that memory has been replaced with a disheveled scene. Piles of dishes spilling over the kitchen sink. Stacks of unopened mail clogging the coffee table. Wadded laundry thrown on the couch, squished flat in a butt-shaped imprint. A distinct stench of mildew seeps through the walls, which brings my attention to a larger issue.

Ned has stripped the wallpaper bare to expose hundreds of tiny holes chewed through the lumber foundation. The culprits pop in and out of burrows, congesting the room with a whir that grates my eardrums like sandpaper. My scalp itches. Every direction I glance is a casualty. Dining chairs sit lopsided from their legs being gnawed through. Heaps of memorabilia collect on the floor due to weakened shelves. The coffee table has a blanket thrown over it to cover the holes bored through its top.

I turn in a slow circle. “Christ, they’re turning your place into a giant nest.”

“A labyrinth,” Old Ned corrects. “They’re tunneling through the woodwork. Chewing a maze for me to lose myself in. One day, I worry I won’t be able to find my way out the front door.”

He sprays a dozen holes with pyrethroid foam. The second those downed bees hit the floor, I swear I hear it: the faintest of snaps like popcorn kernels. From those same targeted holes emerge brand new, unscathed insects that have skipped the larval stage.

There’s no way. “Why? Why are they doing this to you?”

He sighs. “It don’t really matter now, do it?”

Maybe it’s the sadness laced through his tone that convinces me that he’s right. Maybe it’s the insects respawning before my very eyes at an exponential rate. Maybe it’s my own defeat within, hatching from a repressed state of dormancy.

No matter what, my neighbor is doomed and I may as well be going down with him.

Ned catches me regarding the one stagnant variable of his entire household: those framed pictures of his family propped on the TV stand.

“They don’t come to see me no more,” he sighs. “Since my daughter and them moved out to California, it ain’t been easy keeping up with them. Now everything is through the Facebook, or whatever it’s called. Never understood it, damn thing.”

He opens his fridge and offers me a tall can of beer. A lone bee rests on the lip, chilled to paralysis. I shudder at its alien eyes blank with helplessness.

“Don’t you ever get lonely here?” I ask.

I know it’s likely rude of a question, but I can’t help but ask it. It never occurred to me until now why he sat out on the sweltering porch and watched me work myself sweaty. Even if no words were exchanged, perhaps the mere sight of another person was enough to satisfy a social longing.

For a heavy minute, Old Ned doesn’t answer. He turns toward the living room, eyes glued to those photographs of his loved ones.

“What nobody talks about is the silence of an empty home,” he finally says. “The silence is louder than a room packed with people.”

A collective drone of tiny wings drowns out the hush that follows.


Ned isn’t expecting me when I arrive on his porch the next day. I sling a bat bag swollen with equipment over my shoulder and adjust my grip on a full case of beer—Ned’s favorite, from recent observation. When I knock, the front door snaps from its hinges and lands with a crash. A thick cloud of bees burps out of his living room, followed by the bewildered old man.

“What the hell?” he exclaims.

Bees crawl across his weather-beaten face and down the front of his undershirt. He doesn’t even swat them away. We take a moment to regard the collapsed door he’s standing on. A beat passes. Two.

“Howdy neighbor,” I say, handing him a beer. “Figured we could go on a little bee hunt. End this thing once and for all.”

I unzip the bat bag and empty its contents at his feet. I’ve chosen my girlfriend’s softball bat as my weapon of choice—metal, and indestructible as far as wood-chewing bees are concerned. Last night I went and cleared the store shelves of lethal foaming spray.

When ringing me up, the cashier asked me, Whatever happened to saving the bees?

Fuck the bees, I said. The carpenter ones, that is.

Ned cracks open his can. “Hell, it’s worth a shot, ain’t it?”

“Damn right it is.” I wrestle a can of my own free and clink it with his. “And Ned? You’re welcome at my place whenever you’d like.”

My neighbor gives a dismissive wave. “Now I don’t need no pity invites.”

“Well, I need somebody to watch the playoffs with me. My girlfriend isn’t much of a sports gal, and she can only take me in doses.”

That gets a smile out of him, a thin-lipped one that splits into a sparse-toothed grin.

We step across the fallen door and into Ned’s labyrinth. I convince him to put on his favorite CD and down his first drink. A second drink. A third. I may have swallowed a bee somewhere during that ordeal. Once loosened with alcohol in our veins and classic melodies in our ears, we go to town on the pests.

We double-fist spray cans, targeting each hole twice over to lure out a mass quantity. Two, three, four bees a hole pour out and take flight, blurring our peripherals a grainy black.

My old neighbor swings his Wiffle ball bat with grace, taking out half a dozen bugs in one downstroke. I may be grown, but I still have a lot to learn from him. Following his lead, I swing at the maze of holes brimming with regenerated bees. I’ll take them out at the source. I aim for the abstract but strike the physical. The tip of my bat grazes weakened woodwork and tears out a chunk of the wall. Pulpy wood sprays back in our faces, but Ned yells at me to keep at it.

Keep at it. Follow through the swing, like this. That’s it, Case.

I remember his calloused hand on my bicep, the other guiding my bat through the basics of a proper swing. I couldn’t have been more than five at the time. Tee ball age. He taught me everything I know. Before I gave up the sport, Ned made it to more games than my father did.

A splintering deep within the foundation shocks me out of my trance. My neighbor yanks me by the sleeve as the ceiling fan crashes onto his bed. The bed frame collapses. Ned’s house is no longer a house. Misery has reduced it to a paper-thin nest too weak to hold its own weight.

Letting our bats clatter at our feet, we bolt around corners and back. The hallways are distorted with swarms of insects and a dense kind of loneliness that I choke on. I’ve lost track of which direction we’ve come from and where to go from here. Since Ned has stripped the walls of all distinguishing features, we may be running in circles.

Bees tickle my chest hair. My knuckles. My eye ducts. I skid to a halt, pressing my palms over my ears. If I curl in on myself and scream, they will find their way down my esophagus and burrow through my organs.

Bony fingers coil around my wrist. “This way, Case.”

Closing his eyes, Ned drags me through the maze by muscle memory alone. That ability stems from decades of raising a family within these very walls. We leave behind everything. All of the spray cans, the bats, the memorabilia. Even the beloved photographs. The least I can do is teach Ned how to navigate Facebook to access those memories once again.

We flock to my well-kempt garden as Ned’s home topples in on itself. The pests have chewed his walls so thin that it looks like pieces of cardboard coming down. The impact shakes the surrounding atmosphere with a crash that reverberates through our cores.

Among the debris, a massive puff of carpenter bees billows up and out, swallowing our sky above.

The neighbors don’t bat an eye. When have they ever?

“I’ll be damned,” Old Ned mutters beside me.

I shake my head, wishing I’d finished off the last of my beer.

“Come on inside,” I say. “Cubs are playing Cards today. We should be able to catch it.”

Ushering my neighbor to the dining room, I have him sit down and dial his daughter. She doesn’t answer her cell. Ned tries her work number.

“Casey?” he calls.

I put the ballgame on mute. “Hm?”

“Thanks, kid.”

We wait. The ringback on the other end of the line buzzes like a distant swarm of bees.

Bethany Cutkomp is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri. One day, she hopes to write YA novels and befriend the opossums under her porch. Her work appears in Mag 20/20, Split Rock Review, Heimat Review, Crab Apple Literary, oranges journal, and more.

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