Meryl knew that the old man ran his business out of his cabin. His name was Gregory and he lived on the outskirts of town, down a gravely private way that forked off a country road and snaked through towering pines. There was a lake next to his property. She had paddled a rowboat on it once a few years ago when she was still a teenager, accessing it from the town boat launch. This was back when her mother was still alive and everything was still a laugh. Bobbing on the open water, Meryl had just been able to glimpse his cabin with the brown shingled roof through the brush. She and the other girls in the boat, all wearing stringy bikini tops and tight cut-off shorts, had giggled nervously when they passed by. People were always pointing, whispering, wondering about him. Meryl had gazed, looking for a clue to help her understand the kind of girl who would willingly work for him, or what they actually did – because nobody ever talked about it. Not to her, anyway. That day, she thought she saw a shadow shift beyond the lilac bushes, but she couldn’t make out the shape before it faded away into nothing. She vowed never to be involved in something that was unspeakable.
Meryl had heard rumors of girls who worked for Gregory back then – everyone did – and she thought she knew a few who worked for him now. One girl she was sure of, called Kaia, who lived in her building but on the third floor, one level above Meryl. She was blunt, unabashed and lived alone, whereas Meryl had Leo, whose soft, sticky hand she could always feel tucked inside her own even when they were apart. But Kaia had a good smile, a trim figure, and seemed okay.
Until now, Meryl had never before been desperate enough to consider taking a job with Gregory herself, even though she knew the man indirectly. She knew he always carried a fat roll of cash. It bulged in his back pocket when she served him coffee and plated his full stack of pancakes at the diner where she worked. Where she had worked. His face was always stubbly, a few days overdue for a shave. But he had never squeezed her ass or peered down her cleavage when she cleared his table like some of the old guys did. She felt good about that. Still, she knew something about him, or about what he did, was unsavory and not quite right for her.
He tipped her too high.
She kept her distance.
Then the newschannel whisper of a novel virus morphed into a clamor, everything changed, everything closed, and suddenly, she had no job, no tips. Her last day at the diner, Al remembered about Leo and told Meryl to take whatever she wanted from the refrigerator and freezer. He wore a grey bandana draped over his face and when he pressed the fistful of to-go bags into her hands, they sounded like glass breaking in her palms. He said it would all spoil anyway. He looked sideways and told her he appreciated how she always split her tips with the bussers fairly and he hoped to hire her back soon. She wanted to tell him that this wasn’t his fault and he shouldn’t be embarrassed. But her throat was dry and thoughts of the new illness floating, invisible, through the air flooded her mind and made her breath come fast, so she just gathered the food and left.
Without any money to pay rent, she still had Leo who smiled and babbled as if nothing had changed. He still wanted to eat three times each day; dippy egg, as often as possible. He still needed the allergy spray squirted up his nostrils every morning. And he still padded into her bed most nights wearing just his crinkly diaper, where his plump, warm body would curl into hers like he was coming home, like he remembered his earliest moments of creation. His eyes would gently flutter beneath translucent lids, dreaming, Meryl hoped, of his newest passion – soaring on the swings. Higher mama, higher he would dare her with a blend of fear and glee audible in his voice. He tried to pump his chubby legs, but hadn’t mastered the rhythm quite yet. Meryl would watch him sleep, his thumb plugged into his mouth, even after his lips fell slack. She would comb his silken, baby curls with her fingers, breathe in his sweet, intoxicating scent. She would press her hand against his belly so she could feel it rise and fall, lay her cheek on his balmy forehead so she was touching as much of his body as possible.
She would do anything for Leo.
But Meryl wasn’t sure what her options were when she found herself sitting on the cement steps of her apartment building, sweat and pebbles clinging to the back of her thighs. She was smoking a cigarette when she wasn’t even a smoker. She was accepting a slip of paper with Gregory’s details from Kaia when she didn’t even want that kind of work.
“Don’t tell him I gave you his address,” Kaia said, peeling off the silver wrapper from a piece of gum. She held the yellow rectangle towards Meryl with her bare fingers. Meryl wondered if Kaia’s hands were clean, if the illness was clinging to them, but she accepted the gum anyway. She dropped her cigarette and pressed it with the toe of her sneaker, slid the sugary stick into her mouth. She began chewing and the burst of pineapple juice almost made her cry.
“You aren’t allergic to bees, are you?” Kaia asked, and Meryl shook her head.
“That’s good. Now, he’s private and he don’t like snitches,” Kaia said, writing his address on the white side of the wrapper. “Just say you always knew he was there.”
Meryl looked at the wrapper. She looked at Kaia who, like her, was not wearing a mask and who was not standing six feet away.
“That’s mostly true,” Meryl said.
The address was written in the prettiest script Meryl had ever seen. Each word slanted, the letters curled at the end. She didn’t think people wrote in cursive anymore.
“You shouldn’t smoke with the virus going around,” Kaia said, handing Meryl another stick of gum, this one wrapped. “For later,” she added, before walking away.
“Where’d you learn to write like this?” Meryl asked.
But Kaia was already too far gone to hear her. Meryl was pretty sure she’d have at least turned around if she’d known Meryl was talking to her. She seemed like that kind of girl.
* * *
Now Meryl was striding deliberately down a path carpeted in damp pine needles towards Gregory’s cabin, the gurgling brook that fed into the lake her only company. The ground flexed with each step and made her feel dizzy, like she was traveling across an earthen trampoline. She knew, loosely, what Gregory did, what his girls did. She knew it could be worse, and with the entire town shut down, she had nowhere else to go. But she didn’t understand how it all worked. Not exactly. Nobody ever discussed those details with her. She slid the stick of gum into her mouth and focused, waited for the citrus flavor to surprise her tongue. It never did.
When she reached his door and raised her fist, Meryl’s heart thumped heavily. There was no turning back once she knocked, that much she knew. But a humming sound distracted her and she turned, spotted a cluster of bees considering some pink bell shaped flowers and she never got to make the decision for herself. Meryl became mesmerized. The swarm buzzed, hesitated and floated in a giant cluster. She knew they were looking for pollen, she was sure that’s what bees did, yet they couldn’t seem to decide where to settle. Before she was able to make sense of this, before she directed her knuckles to meet the wooden door, it swung open, an invitation she somehow wasn’t expecting.
Gregory stood there smiling widely. He was fatter than she remembered.
“Welcome, Meryl,” he said. Her heartbeat steadied at the sound of her name. She was surprised that he knew it, that he remembered her at all. He looked over her shoulder, scanning his own yard quickly as if he suspected somebody else might be with her, before hurrying her inside.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said. “I’m against knocking on principle.” He coughed into his elbow and cleared his throat. Meryl pulled a mask out of her pocket, began looping it over her ears. He waved his hand. “Don’t bother with that. I trust you,” he said. Meryl paused, unsure how she could put it on now without seeming rude. She balled the mask in her palm.
* * *
Gregory eyed her up and down. He circled her like a sculptor examining his clay, like a lion sniffing his prey. His face, beneath the whiskers, was wrinkly. Oily hair grew curly over his ears. Meryl shifted her weight from one foot to the other and saw a room with a desk, its wall papered with pictures of girls. Their faces were arranged in the shape of a pyramid – a wall to wall row at the bottom, narrowing towards the top. They were young and attractive, their faces attached with red, yellow, and blue pushpins except for the spot at the very top, where a yellow pushpin held a sheet of black paper, a space holder for the next girl Gregory hired, she decided. Meryl scanned the faces looking for Kaia, worried that this was the kind of display serial killers created, then looked away. She reminded herself that Kaia was definitely still alive. She had seen her just that morning. Meryl wondered if the color of the push pins held any significance.
Gregory had begun asking her questions that she thought were illegal from employers. But judging from his honest tone, she guessed she must be wrong. She was able to provide him with her height: five foot, two inches. Her weight: one hundred and ten pounds. Number of children: one. But when he asked for her measurements, she stared at him, dumbly.
“Hip, waist, bust,” he said, clarifying.
Meryl shrugged. She didn’t see how that was important.
“Do you mind?” he asked. He pulled a vinyl tape measure out of the pocket of his shirt and dangled it in front of her. “I need them for the uniform.”
“It’s fine,” she said.
Meryl shut her eyes as he looped the length of vinyl around her hips, then her waist. She felt his breath, humid like sour milk, on her face. Standing this close, she could hear the air rattling in his lungs. She wished she had put on the mask. He pulled a stub of pencil from behind his ear and a notebook no bigger than a playing card from his back pocket and jotted something down. He began coughing again, hacking heavily, and he couldn’t seem to stop.
“Are you okay?” Meryl finally asked.
Gregory nodded, sweat beading up on his forehead. “Fine,” he spluttered. “Just an old smokers cough,” he said.
“Maybe you should quit,” Meryl suggested.
Gregory cleared his throat, wiped his forehead with his sleeve and shook his head. “No, no. I’ve never actually been a smoker,” he clarified. “And some work must go on even when there is illness in the world.”
Meryl’s eyes widened. Gregory ran his finger along the notations in his book.
“One more,” he said. He stepped in close, reached his arms around her back and pulled the tape across her chest, grazing her nipples. She held her breath and waited for something more. But that was all, just a graze. His fingers didn’t linger and then he backed away.
He added this measurement to his notebook.
“It smells like rain,” Meryl said, for no other reason than to break the silence that hung between them.
He stopped writing, held his pencil mid-air and looked at her.
“We don’t mind the weather here. You’re not afraid of a bit of wet, are you?”
“I’m not,” she said, shaking her head, realizing for the first time that this job was not hers for the asking, that she was being interviewed.
“You only want girls?” she asked, pointing to the wall of pictures.
He chuckled. “Customers have their own ideas,” he said. He pulled the door to his office shut, blocking her view of the all the pretty faces but not before Meryl saw a shiny industrial machine hunched on a table in the corner. The clear canister at the mouth of the silver funnel was half-filled with white powder. “It’s got nothing to do with what I want.”
She shrugged, not sure he understood her question. Not really.
He laid the notebook and pencil on a table, pulled up his sagging jeans.
“I need to see you get through the window,” he said.
Meryl looked at him, motionless. She tilted her head, unsure of what he meant.
“That one will do,” he said, pointing to the window nearest the front door.
“You want me to climb out?” she asked, laying her hand on the cool, glass pane.
Gregory shook his head. “I want you to go from the outside in.”
“Why?” Meryl asked.
Gregory pulled the door wide and glared at her. Meryl did as she was told. She went outside, lifted the window and hoisted herself onto the splintering sill. She slithered through on her stomach, one leg followed by the other before flipping onto her bottom. She entered in one motion, gracefully, and landed on her feet. She brushed pine needles and earth off her shoulders.
Gregory smiled brightly. His eyes were sparkling, alive. “Well done,” he said, nodding. “Now, let’s try the second floor. The window directly above the one you just entered. I’ll be waiting for you in my bed. Enter as silently as you can. Sneak over to me and try to remove something from beneath my pillow.” He turned and was gone.
So there it was. Meryl hadn’t thought she’d have to start today, not with him. It didn’t seem very professional. Her stomach clenched and she felt the bitter taste of bile gathering in the back of her throat. She swallowed it down and inhaled deeply.
What choice did she have?
Outside, Meryl sized up the logs and the spacing between the windows. She didn’t know how to climb a wall. She didn’t see the harm in just following him up the stairs. Perhaps this was meant to add to her humiliation.
Tears pricked her eyes and, through this watery blur, Meryl spotted a shed. She decided to see if there was anything useful there. As she made her way across the lawn, she heard droning and swatted at a few bees. Then a few more. With each step she took, the sound grew louder, until she felt it thrumming in her veins. When she reached the shed, she noticed a cloud of them hovering over a box. She guessed it was the same swarm she had seen earlier, at the front door. They quivered and began moving away, towards a lilac bush where they regrouped and paused. Meryl went inside the shed. She spotted a rusty ladder propped in the corner and when she left the shed noticed that the bees were still lingering over the lavender flowers. She carried the ladder effortlessly to the house and, with rungs to assist her, Meryl quickly climbed up. She was about to lay her hand on the window when she heard that sound again, buzz, buzz, buzz. She first saw, then felt a single bee land on the tip of her nose. It grew silent. She stood at the top of the ladder, motionless, afraid to breathe, afraid to swat it away. Meryl’s eyes crossed, and she said, “You’ve lost your way. Go back where you came from.” She felt the bee look her in the eye and size her up, before sweeping its wings back and forth and disappear into the glare.
Meryl took a deep breath. She noticed the air move gracefully in and out of her lungs. She could do this. She laid her hand on the window, eased it open, and crept inside just as she had done before. Gregory, as promised, was lying in bed. His eyes were closed, a yellow sheet pulled over his body up to his chin. Meryl tiptoed towards him and slipped her hand between the pillow and the mattress. She felt something paper like and removed it. It was a one-hundred-dollar bill.
Meryl had never held a one-hundred-dollar bill before. She stared at the money in her hand and fought against the impulse to dash out the door. She knew there was more where this came from, and that she would need more than just one-hundred-dollars to take care of Leo. One hundred dollars would only last so long.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Have you got it?”
“I’ve got the money, if that’s what you mean.”
Gregory’s eyes popped open and he sat up.
“I didn’t feel a thing,” he said. “Only heard the window at the top. You must open the window just wide enough to squeeze through. With your size, that shouldn’t be too wide. You have tiny feet to tread silently and your fingers are sapling branches, undetectable under a pillow. I saw how you pivot your hips, how you can squeeze through a tight spot.” His voice took on a raspy tone and he began coughing. “This job was made for you,” he said, gasping. He slapped his leg. “And don’t mind the wings. They’re flexible. They bend.” He was out of breath now and struggled to stand up.
“The wings?” Meryl repeated.
Gregory nodded. “Most important part of your uniform. Never, under any circumstances, are you to work without the wings. If you do, you will certainly fail.”
His eyes, fixed on her with effervescent enthusiasm, made the gooseflesh on her arms rise. Meryl averted her glance out his bedroom window and saw he had an unobstructed view of the lake. The water was a sheet of glistening diamonds in late afternoon sun with one dissonant spot, the floating dock off to the east. Meryl remembered the day she rowed out with those girls, how they had started daring each other. First easy things; run and jump off the dock. Then to untie their bikini tops and dance like they were on a certain kind of stage. By the end they were skinny dipping. All except for Meryl. Meryl’s body was already four months grown by then, but the girls didn’t know that. She was holding out for a miracle to mend her situation and in her naivety, she wasn’t even worried yet. Nine months seemed unimaginably remote. Still, she was afraid that without her shorts, the slight roundness of her belly would be noticed, that without her triangle top, the fullness of her breasts would be obvious. She didn’t want to explain herself. They called her prude and she sat on the edge of the dock, her legs dangling in the water, not minding their taunts at all. It was the last time she remembered feeling the pleasure of cool water on warm skin, the last time she lounged without a worry in the world.
That was three years ago. It was an eternity.
Meryl wondered if Gregory had watched her that day.
He was still talking when Meryl turned her attention back to him. He handed her a piece of paper and gestured for her to follow.
“These are your instructions and the addresses for this week. A few things to remember: don’t linger, don’t become selfish. Never take one hanging by a thread, even if it’s dangling out of the child’s mouth. I had one girl who would pull the wiggly ones. Caused me a world of trouble. You only take what’s beneath the pillow.”
Meryl scanned the sheet, a clear understanding of her responsibilities developing, finally, in her mind. She imagined someone like her but unknown, hesitating over Leo while he slept. She imagined this girl taking something that had grown inside of him, and therefore from inside of her, from beneath his sleeping head. This girl would be able to do anything to Leo, if she wanted. Meryl felt a flash of heat rush over her body.
“Every girl likes to think they are the only one,” Gregory continued. “But it’s not a job for one girl. No one person can do everything. Inform me if you can’t complete your list.”
“What if they wake up?” Meryl asked.
He gripped the handrail and stopped, looked up into Meryl’s eyes. “Do you believe in fairy tales?” he asked.
“No,” Meryl said, shaking her head.
“No?” he repeated.
Meryl bit the edge of her lip. “Yes?” she corrected, uncertain.
“Which is it?” Gregory pressed.
Meryl shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t see why it matters,” she mumbled.
Gregory began moving down the stairs again and led her to a large closet. Jewel-toned duffle bags filled the shelves and a single pair of gossamer wings hung on a peg.
“Let me help you,” Gregory said, picking through the bags. “You do believe in fairy tales. You believe because you are a fairy tale now. This is not a costume,” he said, handing Meryl a plush, purple duffle and the wings. “This is your uniform. It is what you wear because it is who you are. It doesn’t transform you. It reveals you, exposes what has always been inside. It means you will know what to do when you need to do it.”
Meryl took the bag, squinting. It was heavier than she anticipated.
“Okay,” she said, nodding.
He reached out and Meryl expected him to touch her shoulder, to rub her, and she cringed. But instead, he patted her head. With his other hand, he produced a jar of honey.
“For you,” he said. “Your little boy will like it.” He wrinkled his nose. “But I’ll need that bill back. You’ll get your first pay when you start producing, a one-hundred-dollar bill for each product you bring in.”
Meryl nodded and handed him the money, trying to hide her disappointment, wondering how he knew she had a son. She’d been intentionally vague about Leo.
* * *
In the bathroom, Meryl pulled the misty gauze stockings, cool as the sea, taut over her legs. The sequin leotard twinkled and the tulle skirt swished like leaves in the breeze when she twirled. They fit like they had been sewn onto her body. She held up the shimmering wings, visible only in a certain slant of light. Her body began to tingle when she fastened their clips under her arms.
Gregory waited for her in the hall.
“Just as I expected,” he said, glowing, when she emerged. He ran his finger over the edge of one wing. “Honey bee fur,” he said quietly, as if he was speaking to himself. Then he seemed to remember Meryl. “You could start right now if you wanted.”
They walked outside and Meryl lifted her chin. Fireflies danced in the yard, beyond Meryl’s reach. She had an unreasonable urge to join them, suspected that she might begin glowing too if only she shimmied her hips.
“But it’s not night. It’s still light out.”
“Just barely,” Gregory said. “Besides, it’s always nighttime somewhere.” He watched her steadily. Meryl nodded and started down the path.
“Meryl,” he called out. “Watch for the bees, they’ve been active. The Queen is on the move. It’s a recipe for stinging.”
She nodded, but she wasn’t concerned. In her uniform, she had energy, was alive, invincible. Besides, she’d already encountered the swarm. She stretched her arms out and realized her hand was still balled into a fist, noticed she was still clutching her mask.
They hadn’t discussed masks. Going into stranger’s homes in the dead of night, did that require a mask? Coming nose to nose with a breathing child while she slept seemed like it might. She knew the illness was invisible.
But she also knew that nobody expected to see her wearing a face covering. That wasn’t part of her uniform.
While pondering what to do about this, Meryl saw a flash of red in her peripheral. It was a canoe stretched out in a clearing. Crimson paint flaked from the hull. How hadn’t she noticed it on the way in? Meryl went to the boat, ran her finger along the deck. She could see the water through the trees and she took hold of the yoke, flipped the canoe over her shoulders and dragged it through the dim to the water’s edge. Once she righted it, she climbed inside and began rowing, her oars splashing and casting a ripple across the lake. It was the blue hour, the sky shone a deep lapis lazuli until it met the disappearing sun, an orange fringe in the distance. The color was almost as perfect as the blue of Leo’s eyes. She paddled intentionally. She knew exactly where she was going and what she was doing. When she reached the dock, she climbed up and looked towards Gregory’s cabin. She thought she saw him in his window, thought he gave her the thumbs up. But she couldn’t be sure. It was getting darker now.
Just before leaving, she’d asked Gregory a question. There was a cut glass bowl filled with tiny teeth she’d spotted in the hall after putting on her uniform.
“What do you do with them all?” she’d asked dipping her hand into the dish and scooping out a mountain of milky enamel squares, letting them clatter through her fingers.
“The less you know about that the better,” Gregory had said.
“I always thought they were bricks for fairy houses.”
He’d chuckled. “That’s what lots of them think. Bricks, jewelry, magical potions – that sneaks closer to the truth. It’s sweeter that way. But you don’t want to be involved in that part. A pretty girl like you should avoid it.”
Meryl suspected her job would get easier with time. With so much uncertainty, she was lucky that Gregory picked her. She was lucky she’d be able to take care of Leo. She stood on the edge of the dock and filled her lungs with air. If those girls asked her to skinny dip, she wouldn’t be afraid to strip down now. She could do it today. But she didn’t need to swim naked, now she needed to fly. She made sure her wings were snug around her shoulders and leaned back so she could take a running start. The bee fur buzzed until she felt her body singing along. She closed her eyes and sprinted across the floating wooden panels. When she reached the end of the dock, she leaned forward, leapt into the air, and soared. She opened her eyes and kept on breathing.
Stephanie Wheeler’s short stories have appeared in Natural Bridge, Hurricane Review, Front Range Review, Timber Journal, and The Saturday Evening Post. She has work forthcoming in the New Ohio Review. She holds a BA from Bucknell University and an MFA from Arizona State University. She lives in Massachusetts with her family.