When Beaufort County police picked up Everett Mead, he was naked, lost, and as worn down and empty as a man could be. Old Man Daggert had stumbled on him during his routine walk at dawn. He was sitting at the edge of Ridley’s Pond, close to Rural Road 37, a dried-out waterhole along the western boundary of Daggert’s farm. He appeared harmless, thin and ragged, forty-ish, with black matted hair and a thousand lines on his face. He remained unresponsive, as if Daggert wasn’t even there, muttering something of “the bees, the bees are gone,” over and over again.
The police officers gave Everett a blanket to wrap himself in, brought him without resistance to Beaufort’s modest police headquarters. They put him in a cell with nothing but a bench and the tiniest window. Only a blade of light stabbed in. He accepted a policeman’s offer of a pair of coveralls, but once dressed remained buried in the blanket, holding it high over his head like a cocoon. “They’re gone, forever, they’re gone,” he said.
There was nothing more police could do for him except keep him comfortable and await his transfer to St. Thomas Hospital. It would be hours before that could happen, so Chief Carver, whose gravitas and natural kindness often had a calming affect, sat with Everett. He made a mental note that the cell smelled too strongly of bleach, something to later tell his staff. Carver waited patiently for Everett to peer from his cocoon. When he finally did, Carver produced an ice-cold bottle of spring water, cracking open its plastic cap. Everett accepted it with a shaky hand, disappearing again, gulping fast.
Carver was the beacon of law and righteousness in Beaufort, and one of its most important landowners, the legacy of entrepreneurial forefathers, but it was the people of Beaufort that Carver cherished. He was unfamiliar with Everett or where he might have come from.
“Want to tell me what happened?”
Everett’s spiny fingers brought down the edge of the blanket, revealing bloodshot brown eyes. He produced the empty bottle and Carver took it. Everett stared back, recognizing in the veteran policeman’s expression something he had not seen in a long time. Empathy, perhaps respect.
“The bees are gone.”
“They took ‘em. That’s all there was.”
“Who took ‘em? Who did this to you?”
“You’re in a safe place now.”
“No, I’m not.” said Everett, exhausted, balling up in his blanket, pulling back in the shadows.
“It’s always about the bees,” said Mandy in a tone Everett recognized as more desperate than sad. “Your bees are all we have between us, only because we always argue about them. That’s just not enough anymore. It isn’t enough.” Mandy’s tone grew less sad, more solid and sure, as she made it clear she would be gone on his return.
Everett put his phone on the counter. He had pulled over to a truck stop, hoping to reach his precious Mandy, now so far away. When he finally did, while ordering lunch, the result was final and gut-wrenching. He had covered so much ground in the last months, zigzagging from farm to farm with his load of pollinating worker bees. He was so busy, one would think he was successful, but he was not, and his resources were spread thin. It was a difficult business, in fact more craft than business. His passion for beekeeping had consumed his life, but Mandy had other dreams, far less complicated.
When his plate came, Everett raised his coffee cup to hide his tears. The black-haired waitress noticed, but turned away. An unfamiliar voice offered comfort from two seats down.
“You okay, bud?” Everett’s nod was unconvincing. “Whatever it is, it’ll get better,” said the voice.
Everett gently pushed his plate away. His new “bud” introduced himself as Sam. He was of similar build to Everett but with an energetic shine in his eyes. His hair was black too, but tightly cropped and combed. He admired a rhinestone crest on Everett’s jacket, a confection of long ago by Mandy. He wore it every day.
“Worker bee,” explained Everett.
“Sweet,” said Sam.
Everett had a long drive ahead and Sam’s company, under the circumstances, was welcome. Being local, he could guide him through the circuitous roads of Beaufort County, where Everett had never been before, even if he usually had a knack for finding his way. The talking did him good too, if only a distraction from his pain. He had a job to do and it meant trucking his portable hives to a series of farms north of Beaufort. These were new clients, whose trust he had not yet earned, and Everett’s schedule was tight. The less time spent on the road between pollination sites, the better. Transport was not the best thing for his bees.
Sam told Everett hitchhiking was his usual way of getting around, ever since losing his truck to his ex-wife. Twenty minutes from the truck stop, Sam felt the need to urinate so Everett pulled over. They both urinated at the side of his rig as twilight settled over the countryside. He heard Sam whisper, “Yeah, go for it,” in the shadows. He hadn’t quite put himself back in his pants before he was hit hard across his back and pinned against the metal of his truck. He heard and felt the presence of at least two other men besides Sam.
“Take it easy, Bud,” said Sam. The bracing force from Sam’s partners, and the glimmer of a knife, emphasized to Everett he should listen.
“I want his jacket,” he heard Sam command, before it was pulled off him, “and his wallet’s in the cab, in the console!”
Sam swung the decorated jacket onto his shoulders, slipping-in his arms. “Hey, I’m a killer bee!”
“Worker bee,” thought Everett, watching Sam produce his cell phone from his jacket pocket, and throwing it deep into the woods.
“Whatever, Bud. Let’s go!” he barked.
Everett watched Sam drive his truck away, followed by a small rusted car that pulled out of the black edge of the forest.
Everett walked for hours along the dark road in the direction of the truck stop. Few vehicles came along, but those that did, would not stop. He had tried to find his cell phone in the woods, but with no luck. In the effort, he stumbled into a hole of soft mud and leaves. As he walked now, the mud caked and held unbelievable cold against his skin. The night and the woods could not be darker. The sky full of stars brought no guidance or inspiration, just a sense of how small he was in a massive world.
When he arrived at the truck stop, it was closed. He banged on a side door, waited and banged again. A light went on and the dark-haired waitress appeared in a robe, her make-up washed out from her stern expression. Everett’s face scared her. “What do you want?” she asked. Everett begged for help, and she finally acquiesced and brought him a phone. Everett quickly dialed the number he would always call when in trouble. When Mandy picked up and heard his weak, weeping voice, she immediately hung up. The black-haired waitress left him no time to absorb the meaning of the busy signal, snapped the phone from his hands and disappeared within.
Everett walked on the empty road again, in the direction from which he had come to Beaufort. Step after step he strode with no plan at all. He saw a shimmering point of light in the distance in a dark field. Perhaps his salvation. Devoid of strength, but compelled towards the orange glow, he walked on. As he approached, he heard the fire crackling, then voices and laughter.
Horror seized him. In the dancing flames, he recognized his truck. His hives were gutted by the intense heat. His passion, his livelihood, obliterated. The voices were of Sam and his partners. They mocked his arrival, as though an interruption of their sacred fireside ritual. They circled him, wild hyenas, closing in.
“Remember that eight-point buck we skinned,” Sam raged, “with the hook on the ATV? Cleaned it whole in one tug!” He was sweating with the heat of the fire and the alcohol and smashed a bottle on a rock.
Chief Carver drove Everett personally to St. Thomas Hospital. Neither man spoke much, staring out at the stark, dry fields. Carver couldn’t bear to hear of the glass and stones that were thrown at the defenseless out-of-towner. His shame was deep and he wished he could have prevented the incident. Looking at Everett, he saw not a man, but a delicate, frightened insect.
“Theory is,” said Everett, “pollinator bees have vanished because of CCD. Colony Collapse Disorder. Mine were the last. No bees… no more crops.”
“What’re you going to do?” asked Carver.
Everett sighed. “What’re we all going to do?”