"The End of Aaron," a Short Story From The Heaven of Animals Anthology
Aaron calls to say we’re running out of time, and I know that we’re going to have to do it all over again, the collecting, the hiding, the waiting to come out of the dark.
“Grace,” he says. “Where are you? Where are you right now?”
He’s got that warble in his voice, like he’s just swallowed a kazoo, that and the tone that means business, like in movies when the screen splits and we see the people on both ends of the line, the air traffic controller telling the twelve-year-old girl how to land the plane, or the hero asking the chief which color wire to cut.
“Publix,” I say. “I’m at Publix.”
“Perfect,” Aaron says. “I want you to get ten—twenty—gallons of water, eight rolls of duct tape, five pounds of jerky, and a pear.”
He still calls it duck tape, like the bird. Last time I corrected him, he didn’t talk to me for two days, so I let it go.
“Why the pear?” I ask.
“I like pears,” Aaron says, and it’s like he’s saying: Just because the world’s ending, I can’t get a pear, for God’s sake?
Except that, for Aaron, the world is always ending. It’s the third time this year, and it’s only July. I’m thinking last night’s fireworks set him off, but there has to be more to it. Probably he’s off his meds. Aaron loses it, and, nine out of ten times, it means he’s gone off his meds.
Used to be, he’d warn me. “I’m just going to try,” he’d say. “Just for a week or two.”
When I stopped supporting these experiments, he stopped telling me. Now, I have to guess, which isn’t hard given the things that come out of his mouth. The trick is figuring out how long he’s been off.
First day, he’ll feel nothing. By the end of the first week, he tends to claim a clarity and empathy he hasn’t felt in years. “I want to hump the world!” he’ll say, pulling me onto the bed.
Then, week two will hit, and like clockwork, or something more precise and calculating than clockwork, Aaron will start in on that year’s fear.
It wasn’t always the end of the world. For a while, Aaron was afraid to leave the house. Those weeks were okay. We’d lie in bed, snuggle, watch TV. One time, we watched Labyrinth three times in a row. By the third viewing, Aaron was sobbing. I shook the pills into his palm and he drank them down.
Then there was the year of the bees. Bumblebee or butterfly, it didn’t matter. Aaron would see a bug and freak out. When he was a child, a bee sting put him in the hospital for two days. Now, everywhere he goes, there’s an EpiPen in his pocket. Aaron gets stung, he has less than a minute to plunge the needle into his leg before his throat swells shut. It’s a fear I respect, a fear that makes sense when you’re all the time only seconds away from death.
He’s only been stung the one time, but twice he’s put himself back in the hospital. “I really thought there was a bee,” he’ll say, EpiPen empty in its little tan tube.
This year, though, it’s the apocalypse that’s got Aaron in handcuffs. Not the Rapture or any trumped-up Mayan stuff, but what Aaron calls the real deal. He doesn’t know how the world will end, only that it will be bad. He doesn’t know when, only that it will be soon.
“Won’t be long now,” he’ll say, canning fruit or sharpening the blade of a knife. “Won’t be long at all.”
I blame his parents. Not for the depression—I mean, maybe that’s their fault. Maybe there’s something messed up with their genes. I don’t know. I don’t know how DNA works. I only know that his folks bought into the whole Y2K thing, and Aaron’s never been the same since.
Imagine it: You’re eight years old, all of your friends are partying with their families or up late with other friends at New Year’s Eve sleepovers, and, instead of watching the ball drop with your parents, you’re huddled in the basement watching your mom cry. The basement is stocked with two years’ worth of water, batteries, and green beans. Upstairs, a TV’s been left on, and Dick Clark counts down. Downstairs, you shut your eyes and wait for the end of the world.
You could say Aaron’s been waiting ever since. I should know. I’ve known Aaron most of his life. In kindergarten he pulled my pigtails, and by high school I was letting him pull down my pants. Neither of us were college material, so, after graduation, he got a job at Arby’s and I got a job down the street at Payless shoes. Sometimes our lunch hours overlap, and we meet at McDonald’s. He smells like old beef and I smell like feet, and we eat our McNuggets and pretend that we’re better than this. Truth is, we’re twenty and we live with our parents, but that’s okay because we have each other, and I’ve come to believe that each other is enough.
Most nights I spend at Aaron’s. His parents call me the daughter they never had, which is sweet but also kind of messed up since they must know I’m sleeping with their son.
At Publix, I get everything off of Aaron’s list that will fit in the cart. I have a card from my parents to cover food, and, so long as I keep it under two hundred a month, Dad won’t yell. Most meals, I pay for myself so I can stock up on weeks Aaron goes a little crazy. His therapist calls this enabling. I call it love. She says I’m a problem, and I, for one, have agreed to disagree.
At home, I pop the trunk. It’s got a dozen gallons in it, and I grab the first two. I start up the front steps and almost kick over the jar. This I’m used to. Every few months, we find one, a mason jar fat with amber, lid collared by a yellow bow—a sort of thank-you for ignoring the bees.
A while back, the woman next door set up a hive. Generally, the bees stay on her side of the fence, though, from Aaron’s backyard, you can watch them rise, a fog of tiny helicopters circling the house. Aaron’s mom called the county, but it turns out there’s no law against keeping bees.
She petitioned the homeowners association to dub the neighborhood bee-free, but the beekeeper threatened litigation. In the end, the HOA let the lady keep her bees, provided no one got stung, and, in two years, no one has. The women settled their differences, and now we get honey.
Aaron meets me at the door.
“Sweet!” he says. He pulls the jar from my hand, leaving me to juggle the gallons.
“There’s more in the trunk,” I say.
“Those can wait,” Aaron says. “Get the pear.”
I go back to the car, get the pear, and find Aaron in the basement. This is where he lives. The place is spotless, the way it gets his first week off meds. First he cleans everything, then he lets everything go to hell. The clothes he has on are the clothes he wore yesterday, and I wonder how long it’s been since he slept.
“Come on, come on,” Aaron says.
The basement is two rooms. One’s a bedroom. The other’s been converted to a living-room-slash-kitchen. It’s all belowground, setup intended for the Y2K end that never came.
Aaron’s on the bed, honey jar open between his knees. He balances a plate on top of the jar, and I drop the pear onto it. Aaron likes knives, keeps knives all over the house, and now he pulls one from his pocket, a Swiss Army deal, and unfolds a long blade from the handle. He splits the pear, picks the seeds from the middle, and hands me the plate. Then I watch as he lowers the blade past the open mouth and deep into the jar’s gold, glorious middle.
The knife rises, and it’s gilded, honey-sheathed. I lift the plate and wait for the drizzle.
Listen: If your honey comes in a bear-shaped bottle, you’ve never had honey, and if you haven’t had honey, you haven’t lived. Real honey, honey fresh from the comb, is sweet, yes, but it also tastes like clover and sage, like cinnamon and lemon trees. I can’t explain it except to say that, before you die, you owe it to yourself to take a taste.
We eat the pears and make love, and, when we’re done, I run back to the car and unload the gallons, the rolls of tape, the jerky in its fat, five-pound bag.
I make half a dozen trips up and down the stairs, carrying water, and Aaron stocks the gallons in his pantry. What he’s got is an old wardrobe, converted, crowded with shelves. Together, we cut a hole in the drywall just big enough to tuck the wardrobe in. You can hardly tell it’s not a real pantry.
When Aaron gets scared, we stock up. When he comes out of it, we eat whatever we stocked up on.
I come down the stairs with the last gallon, and Aaron is crying.
“There’s no room,” he cries. The pantry is packed. “There’s no more room!” He screams it, then sobs.
I touch his shoulder and he turns, wild-eyed, like a dog touched at the food bowl.
I hold up the last gallon. “We can slide it under the bed,” I say. “We can put it anywhere.” I should know better. There’s no use reasoning with Aaron when he gets this way, and, today, for whatever reason, he’s decided the only food and water we can keep is what fits on the shelves.
“Take it away,” he says. “Give it to Mom and Dad. They’re going to need it.”
Early on in his delusions, this was a sticking point for us.
“People will want in,” Aaron will say, “but you’ve got to be ready. You have to be prepared to tell them no.”
“Even our parents?” I’ll ask.
And Aaron, without a trace of sympathy, will say, “Even them.”
“Okay,” I’ll say.
It bothers me, I’ll admit, imagining my mother and father wandering the bomb-scarred wasteland, scavenging for food while Aaron and I get fat on beef jerky and canned corn. But, then, the end isn’t coming, and so my agreeing with Aaron isn’t the biggest of concessions. Compromising your ethics is one thing. Compromising your hypothetical ethics is another. And so I say, “Okay.”
That okay, it’s like enabling—another word that, in my mouth, means love.
You want to know why I love Aaron. How, you’re wondering. How could she love a man who yells, who cries, who makes her carry jugs of water up and down the stairs? But you’re only seeing Aaron unwell. Aaron at his best is better than you or me, better than anyone I’ve ever known. He’s gentle. He’s kind. But those are just words. Here’s a story:
I’m twelve, and, one day, this girl, Mandy Templeton, she empties her carton of milk onto my tray and floods my lunch. “What’re you gonna do,” she says, “cry about it?” I stand, and she pushes me. She calls me names.
We’re at that age where, at lunch, boys sit with boys and girls sit with girls, but Aaron hears this and stands and walks over. He taps Mandy Templeton on the shoulder, and, when she turns, he punches her, hard as he can, right in the mouth. She hits the ground, screaming, spitting blood.
And even though she’s a girl and Aaron’s a boy and the rules of chivalry sort of demand things like this not be done, because Aaron’s so small, always getting picked on and never—I mean never—standing up for himself, and because Mandy’s known by students and teachers alike for her cruelty, Aaron gets ten days expulsion, and that’s it.
Mandy’s teeth never looked right afterward, and no one ever messed with Aaron again.
Here’s another story:
Junior year, Aaron takes me to prom. We dance. We kiss. That’s all we’ve ever done. The dance is over, and, instead of driving me home, Aaron surprises me with a hotel room.
We undress and get into bed. Then, just as we’re about to get started, I say, “Wait. I can’t. I’m not ready.” And, Aaron, he smiles. He strokes my cheek. He says, “Sure, Grace, okay,” and takes me home. No fight, no fuss, not one word meant to make me feel bad.
Most high school guys don’t work that way, but Aaron’s always worked that way. And if the trade-off is that, a few weeks a year, he goes cuckoo, then that’s a trade-off I’m willing to take.
Aaron’s therapist calls him a wounded bird, but, I ask you, who wouldn’t care for a wounded bird? What kind of person sees a bird with a broken wing, cat on the horizon, and walks on by?
And so I buy the water. I tape the windows. I hunker down with Aaron, and, when I can, I get him to take his medication, knowing that, in a few days, it will kick back in and the man I love will come bubbling up from the ocean floor. He’ll break the surface. Exhausted, he’ll rest his head on my shoulder and say that I deserve better, and I’ll tell him to shut up, and I’ll rub his back and he’ll sleep and I’ll watch.
I carry the extra gallon upstairs. It’s Thursday, our shared day off, but Aaron’s parents are at work. I wonder whether they’ve noticed the change. Most episodes, they don’t. When it comes to Aaron’s parents and Aaron’s illness, check the sand. That’s where you’ll find their heads.
I head back downstairs, and Aaron’s still trying to make room for the jug. Finally, he gives up. He pulls the honey jar down from the high shelf, uncaps it, and sticks a finger in. He puts the finger into his mouth. He does this a few more times. He doesn’t offer me any, and I don’t ask. Off his meds, Aaron can be thoughtless, but I try not to make him feel bad. Guilt’s not a motivator when he’s like this. Guilt only makes things worse.
He fastens the lid and returns the jar to its place on the shelf. He lies down on the bed, and I lie next to him. The sheets are musty, unwashed.
“It’s going to be tonight,” he says. He shudders. There’s a pillow under his head, and he pulls it up and over his face.
“How do you know?” I say. I may as well be asking a toddler how the spaghetti sauce got all over the walls, but I have to try.
“I can feel it,” Aaron says, voice thin through the pillow. “It’s here.”
“How does it happen?” I say.
Aaron is quiet so long, I nudge him just to make sure he hasn’t smothered himself. When he jumps, I realize I’ve woken him. He throws the pillow across the room. It hits the TV and falls to the floor.
Aaron pulls the remote from his pocket and turns the TV on. According to the news, there’s been a strike in Pakistan. Something to do with American missiles. Something to do with the threat of nuclear armament. The anchors theorize. Which countries have the bomb? Which don’t? Tune in at ten to find out—that sort of thing. It’s nothing you don’t see every few days, but it’s all the evidence Aaron needs.
“If there’s a detonation, even a hundred miles away, the fallout alone will keep us underground for ten years,” Aaron says.
That’s a lot of bottled water, I want to say. Instead, I tell him that it’s all right, that no bombs are falling, that I’m here.
I don’t know where Aaron gets his information. Maybe he makes stuff up. Maybe he’s trying to scare me, or maybe he believes what he says. Some of it he gets online. I know from his laptop’s browser history, which is mostly war and death.
“I love you,” I say.
Aaron changes the channel. More Middle East, more death.
The pill bottle is on the dresser by the bed. I reach it and uncap it. The next part, I have to be careful.
“How about some medicine, sweetie,” I say, and Aaron knocks the bottle from my hand.
I’m on my hands and knees, picking up the little white pills, when Aaron says the country’s started testing new poisons on its own people. “They drive them out to New Mexico and gas them,” he says.
“I’m sure that’s not true,” I say.
The first pill’s the hardest, but it’s only the beginning. They’re antipsychotics, not miracle drugs, and sometimes it’s a week before they kick in. Even if I can get this one into him, I have a long road ahead of me.
“It’s totally true,” Aaron says. “I saw footage.”
I let it go. I pick up the last pill.
“I’ll make it worth your while,” I say.
I stand, hands on my hips. Aaron pops the pill.
Do I feel bad? Bad for using my wiles to get a pill into Aaron’s gut? I do not.
After, I brush my teeth over the kitchen sink. When I move back to the bed, Aaron’s already asleep.
It’s almost midnight when he wakes. I’m watching a TV movie, and Aaron puts a hand on my leg.
“Not now, sweetie,” I say. I’m tired. I’m worried. I turn the TV off.
“For me?” he says.
I tell him to take another pill and we’ll talk.
He takes the pill and pulls down his pants.
I’m in no mood, but a deal’s a deal, and it turns out to take almost no time at all.
“I love you,” he says, and, from our bed, I hear him move to the pantry, hear the honey jar lid come unscrewed followed by a quiet, occasional slurping.
“Wake me up for the end of the world,” I say, and Aaron says, “Don’t worry, I will,” no trace of irony, sarcasm, any of it.
He’ll laugh when I tell him. When he’s well, we’ll have dinner someplace nice. We’ll celebrate another episode overcome. I’ll repeat the things he said, and he’ll shake his head, embarrassed, but also amazed.
“I don’t know,” he’ll say. “I don’t know what gets into me.” And he’ll reach across the table and take my hand and squeeze.
The TV comes on and Aaron turns the volume down low. I feel a hand on the back of my head, and I hope it’s not the one covered in honey. He smooths my hair, and I think how this is maybe going to be an easy one. In March, Aaron and I spent an afternoon under the bed. In May, he stayed in the basement, lights off, for a week. I’d leave for work and come home to cups brimming with piss. At the end of the week, it took a day’s worth of laxatives to empty him out.
In the morning, I’ll call Arby’s. Aaron’s boss knows the drill and, to date, has been surprisingly accommodating. Aaron has five days paid vacation left for the year, but I’m hoping to get him back to work in a day, hoping one of these years, by the end of the year, Aaron will have some days left and we’ll go somewhere the way people go places when they’re young and in love.
“Aaron,” I say. “I need you to take your medicine.”
“I will,” he says, but his hand stops smoothing my hair.
“Promise,” I say. “Promise me that in twelve hours you’ll take another pill.”
“I promise,” he says.
Here’s what I know: I know that, one of these times, it’s not going to be so easy. One of these days, no matter what I do, I won’t be able to get Aaron back on his meds. What I don’t know is what comes next. This is my fear, the fear of the unknown.
And, in this way, maybe Aaron and I aren’t so different—two people afraid of things beyond our control. Except that, in the end, I have a pretty good idea whose nightmare is destined to come true.
The mercury’s rising, ice caps flattening into the sea. We’ve got dams collapsing and power plants blowing sky-high, plus enough bombs to make the earth’s surface match the surface of the moon.
The end of the world? It could happen. No one’s denying that.
But it’s the end of Aaron that scares me.
I wake. I turn to put my arm around Aaron, but all I get is pillow. The TV’s off, the room dark. It’s still dark outside. I check under the bed. I check the cabinet below the kitchen sink. I check upstairs, then I go back to bed.
But I can’t sleep. Aaron doesn’t leave the basement, not when he’s like this. This is new, and new is scary, and, after a few minutes, I rise and turn on the lights. I move to his side of the bed. There’s a sock on his dresser, weirdly out of place. Beneath the sock, I find the pills, chalky, deformed, and I wonder how long each stayed tucked under his tongue before I looked away. This worries me, but not as much as what I see next, which is the honey jar empty, licked clean.
I tell myself no way could he be where I think he is, but, nights like this, I know better than to underestimate Aaron, and I don’t even bother to tie my shoes.
I’m up the stairs in seconds, out the door and running through the yard in a T-shirt and panties. My laces strike my ankles like the tongues of snakes. There’s a half-moon, and it slicks the driveway in a wet, ivory shine. The garage door is up and the lawn mower’s been pulled out. Gardening tools scatter the driveway like a tornado came and hit just the garage. I run faster, into the neighbor’s yard.
I’ve never seen her backyard, only the bees that rise from it. The perimeter is a fence of wood planks too high to climb, but an open gate tells me which way Aaron went. I pass through the gate and a floodlight flicks on.
And there, in the lamplight, is Aaron. And there is the hive. It’s just a white box, a white, wooden box half a coffin in length.
I don’t see any bees.
No, what I see is Aaron with a rake in his hands. He’s standing as far back from the box as he can, reaching with the rake in what I can only guess is an attempt to pry open the lid. The rake quivers in his hands and the wide metal fan combs the hive.
Also, he’s got an EpiPen in each leg. They bob from his thighs like banderillas from the back of a bull.
I don’t know what a jarful of honey and two shots of adrenaline do to a man, but Aaron doesn’t look good. He shakes, almost convulsing, back heaving with every breath.
I could call 911. I could run back to the house and pick up the phone, but by then it would be too late.
“Aaron,” I say, and he jumps.
“Stay back!” he says. “It’s not safe!” He turns, and his face glistens, soaked, like ten years’ worth of tears just poured out of his eyes.
I’m a few yards away, and I take a step closer. I don’t want to scare him. I don’t want him making any sudden moves.
“I wanted to surprise you,” he says.
“I’m surprised,” I say. “Please, sweetie. Come back to bed.”
“I’m not tired,” he says.
His arms tremble and the rake scrapes the box. From somewhere, a bee rises and swims, lazy, in the air around us.
“Aaron,” I say. “I want you to put the rake down. Now.”
Perhaps they’re sleeping, I think. Perhaps, at night, the bees go to bed and don’t fly and don’t sting. God, I want to believe it.
I take another step forward, and Aaron shrieks.
“Stop!” he says.
I hold up my hands like a bank teller on the wrong end of a gun.
“I just want to help you, Aaron,” I say.
Somewhere in the beekeeper’s house, a light comes on.
“I ate all the honey,” he says, fresh tears fattening his cheeks.
“I don’t care about that.”
“No,” he says. “It’s not fair. You didn’t get any.”
“I did,” I say. “Remember the pear? I had some. I’m fine. The rest was for you.” I take another step. “I don’t even like honey all that much.”
The rake slaps the hive and rattles the lid.
“Don’t lie to me. You love honey. I know it.”
A bee lands on the rake, then lifts back into the sky. Another circles Aaron’s head.
I take another step. I’m close. If I lunged, I could grab the rake, but I don’t know about Aaron. He’s little, and I’m thinking I could take him down, but I worry what it will mean if I’m wrong.
A window opens above us and a head pokes out.
“You kids crazy?” the woman calls. “Get away from there! Get away from there right now!”
A hum has started up in the box, and that can’t be good. It sounds the way a button sounds when it’s come loose from your shirt in the dryer, only multiplied by, like, a thousand.
“Call 911!” I yell, and the window slams shut.
“Aaron,” I say. “Aaron, I want you to put the rake down and come inside.”
He’s looking right at me, but it’s like he can’t hear me, can’t hear past the grim determination to do the thing he set out to do.
He looks at the hive, and a bee lands on his shoulder.
My own tears are coming now. I’m no crier, but I can’t help it. Because it’s my fault. Because I shouldn’t have slept except when he slept. Because, finding him missing, I can’t believe I went back to bed. Those five minutes, I think. In those five minutes, I might have found him, stopped him before he left the garage.
“Once the bombs fall, there won’t be any honey,” Aaron says, his voice garbled and faraway-seeming. There are bees in his hair, bees covering the lid of the box, a patina of bees with fat abdomens and bright wings. Their wings shine like diamonds in the security lights, and I give up the hope that Aaron hasn’t been stung.
When we were kids, our moms took us to play at a park with monkey bars and swings and a slide. On one side of the playground, a red pipe rose like a snorkel from the earth. It connected belowground to another pipe that rose from the other end of the park. Each pipe was fitted with a megaphone the shape and size of a showerhead and perforated by the same tiny, black holes. I’d stand at one end and Aaron would stand at the other, and, across the playground, we would throw our voices at each other. Our words came out cavernous, like shouts from behind closed doors. We giggled. We practiced cursing. We told dirty jokes. And, one day, Aaron said, “I love you.” I laughed, and Aaron said, “I do, Grace. I love you.” We were ten years old, and we’ve said it ever since.
“It’s for you,” he says now, and his voice arrives like an echo, like it used to when he told me he loved me before either of us knew what loving the other meant or what it would mean.
The first sting is in my side. I see the bee caught in my shirt. It wriggles, trying to get free.
“All of the honey,” he says. “For you.”
I leap. I knock Aaron to the ground and pry the rake from his hands. I fling it like a javelin across the yard, far from the hive, and I sit on Aaron’s chest, hands pinning his wrists to the lawn.
A door opens, and a storm trooper steps out. Or that’s what it looks like, our neighbor dressed in white, some kind of beekeeper’s suit and what looks like a watering can at her side.
Her face is hidden behind something like a mask made for fencing, but, when she speaks, her words pierce the mask, clear and unfiltered.
“I don’t know what you kids are up to,” she says, “but, for the love of God, please don’t move.”
They say that, with enough adrenaline, you can do anything. You hear stories of men wrestling torn arms back from alligators and mothers lifting cars off their kids. I’m on top of Aaron, but I see too late that the weight of my body is nothing compared to what courses through his veins, and I see that I’ve failed him again.
“Please,” I say, and then I’m in the air. I’m flying. I’m falling. I’m tumbling, and I hit something, hard. The hive comes apart, the buzz turns to roar, and the moon, like magic, goes out of the sky.
I hear grunting and turn to see Aaron dragging himself toward me on his elbows. He’s like a soldier passing beneath barbed wire. The woman in the bee suit stands over him, pumping a thin fog from her can into the air.
I feel a sting, then another. My legs are lightning, and, soon, I can’t even look at Aaron, who’s no longer crawling, but rolling, a man on fire.
I look up, into the night, into the heart of the pulsing, vibrating ceiling above.
And then the swarm descends, looking, for all the world, like the end of the world.
FROM THE HEAVEN OF ANIMALS BY DAVID JAMES POISSANT. COMPILATION © 2014 BY DAVID JAMES POISSANT. REPRINTED BY PERMISSION OF SIMON & SCHUSTER, INC.