Ash rained on the windshield, choked the wiper blades, and spilled out behind us in little black clouds. That liquid soap you spray to get rid of splattered bugs? I ran out of it forty miles ago.
"Stop!" Hannah slapped the window with her little hand. "Honey farm!"
I didn't even let up on the gas. "No way, kid. Your mom will kick my ass if I don't evacuate you past the smoke, like I promised."
"But the bees!"
Then I saw what Hannah saw: white crates in a lemon grove, next to a fruit stand where I had stopped with her, once, on the way home from a spelling bee that she lost by a single letter. I always tried to show Hannah that insects were animals, too — as worthy of compassion as the barnyard critters in her story books.
"Who'll take care of them?" she asked.
Anyone who worked at the fruit stand was long gone. Boxes of pears and apples and oranges lay buried in soot. The bees must have been pacified by all the smoke, and soon they were going to burn. I slowed down, rolled over the median, and made a careful U-turn on the deserted highway.
"We'll throw a wet tarp over them," I said. "And then we're out of here."
Hannah beamed at me.
I doused two handkerchiefs in bottled water and fastened hers first, like on a plane, when they tell you about the oxygen masks.
"Check on the bees," I said. "Make sure they're alive. I'll find a tarp."
She tugged the wet cloth that covered my nose and mouth. "You sound funny."
Hannah dashed to the first beehive, peeked inside the top drawer, and flashed me a thumbs up. I ransacked the fruit stand: wooden ladder, leaf-blower, garden hose. Nothing I could use. Was it foolish to hope for a blue tarp, the kind we used to go camping with, before Hannah learned to walk?
I found her by the lemon trees. "Sorry, kid."
"But they'll die!"
A siren blared on the highway: two police cruisers escorting a row of docile sedans. They kept their headlights on, even though it was noon. Black smoke, live embers, and torrents of dust filled the air.
I said, "We can take a couple of hives, but that's all."
Behind her red bandit mask, Hannah nodded. She opened the trunk, and I piled two crates inside, breathing from a shallow place in my chest. Back in the car, we sucked down the rest of our bottled water.
Squeezing my hand, she said in her most queenly voice: "On behalf of myself and all the bugs of the world, thank you."
And that's how — when I found the Interstate and merged with the evacuees, and I slowed down too fast, and a black Toyota truck slammed us from behind — a hundred thousand bees rose up in a shuddering column from my busted trunk, and flew as one toward the open sky.
Brian Hurley is a native of San Francisco and a resident of Brooklyn. His short fiction has appeared in
small spiral notebook and
The Furnace Review. He is writing a novel about an unwitting accomplice in the San Francisco City Hall murders of 1978. He blogs at thefictionadvocate.wordpress.com