Even in her sleep, the girl knew the wasps were back. She felt one land on her bare leg.
I must wake up, I must wake up, I must wake up.
Her fingertips grazed her eyelids. They refused to open. She thrashed and kicked and yelled until she willed her body to roll from the bed. When she hit the floor, her eyes flew open. Her fingers ran over the welt forming on her knee. Throbbing and already hard to the touch, the swell of it scared her almost as much as the buzzing she heard, somewhere far above her in the dark.
On shaking legs, she stood up. Switched on her lamp. Immediately, a wasp swooped down and flitted about beneath the shade, attracted by the light. The girl let out a small wail and fled from the room, taking the stairs two at a time. When she got to the bottom, she stopped. Her father was in his usual place—sitting on the sofa, watching TV in the dark. Yesterday’s newspaper was on his lap, folded in half. The girl moved toward him. Touched his shoulder.
“Dad?” No response.
“Dad?” she said again, louder this time, her hand no longer merely resting on his shoulder, but squeezing, imploring.
His lifeless voice made her ache. So did the way he didn’t look up from the rapidly changing images that danced before his eyes, a syndicated montage of talk shows and comedies, infomercials and game shows that made her dizzy. Since he’d become ill and her mother had left, he’d gotten into the habit of setting his remote on “search.”
“The wasps are back,” she said. “I think their nest is under the eaves. One of them got into my bed. Stung me. I screamed. Didn’t you hear?”
Slowly, her father turned his head. Her eyes met his muddled gaze.
“I heard you,” he said.
The girl bent down and touched her knee. It felt hot.
“You know I have trouble climbing the stairs.”
“But you didn’t even holler up to ask what happened.” The girl’s voice was stronger now. “You could have at least done that.” She stared at the black hollows beneath her father’s eyes and waited for him to say something, anything.
“Whatever it was, I knew you could handle it. You’re almost a grown-up now.”
“Almost a teenager,” he said. Then he began to cough, a drowning sound from deep inside his chest. He reached out. Grabbed her arm.
“Water,” he said, in between gasps, “please.”
She peeled her father’s fingers from her arm. Ran to the kitchen and grabbed a tall glass from the cupboard. In her rush to the sink, she banged her stung knee into an open drawer. In the other room, her father continued his frenzied coughing. Fire shot up her leg. Hand trembling, she filled the glass. She gritted her teeth and tried to ignore the pain, but she found she couldn’t. It was hers. And it was overwhelming.
The girl slammed the glass down on the counter. Remembering her mother’s remedy, she yanked open the spice cabinet and grabbed the baking soda, knocking over dusty containers of nutmeg, crushed red pepper and pumpkin spice in her haste. When she shook it into her open palm, the baking soda felt as cool and soothing as talcum powder. She went back to the sink and grabbed the glass. Taking a deep breath, she dribbled a few drops of water into her hand. With one finger, she blended the powder and liquid to make a paste and rubbed it onto the angry bump.
The throbbing subsided. She closed her eyes and thought of her mother’s touch, how soft it had felt against her skin, how gentle. The pain was finally gone. The girl opened her eyes. Her father was silent now. Walking back into the living room, she saw his attack had passed. She placed the water glass in his outstretched hand. For a moment he stared at her as she took the newspaper from his lap and placed it on the coffee table. Then she unfolded the afghan that was on the arm of the couch and spread it over him. As her father’s eyes drifted back to the TV, the girl picked up the newspaper and rolled it into a tight cylinder. Gripping it firmly in her fist, she turned and walked with purpose up the stairs.