William Cass has had over a hundred short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Conium Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.
"Another Thing May Not Happen," by William Cass
Another Thing May Not Happen
A bee stung the bottom of my foot one morning in late June while I was paying bills. Right beneath the third toe. A big bumblebee. How it got under the desk in my study, I have no idea. Initially, I felt a prick, and then a sharp pain followed. I jumped out of my chair thinking that perhaps it had been a spider or red ants. But there was the bumblebee, lying on its side beneath the chair, waving its legs weakly.
I ended its misery with the squish of an envelope, dropped it in the wastebasket, and then began to sweat, an anxiousness spreading up through my chest. The reason for this was that I’d been determined to be allergic to bee sting many years earlier when I was a teenager. The first instance occurred when I was stung at a golf course, and I broke out all over in hives. My mother had me lie in a bath of cold water and Epsom salts and gave me Benadryl; after an hour or so, the reaction eased. The second happened when I was working on a construction crew for a summer job in college. While jack hammering a patch of blacktop, a bee flew into my mouth and stung the back of it. I spat it out. The inside of my throat immediately began to swell, and my breathing constricted. The crew foreman drove me to a clinic nearby. By the time I got there, hives had begun to spread again, and I was laboring just to breathe shallowly through my nose. The doctor gave me a cortisone shot and calamine lotion for the hives. He had me wait in the examining room while he saw to other patients long enough to be sure the swelling in my throat had decreased and my airway had cleared. When they had, the foreman drove me home while another laborer followed in my car. But it scared me. And I stayed scared of bees from then on. Much later, after epi-pens were common, a girlfriend suggested that I get and carry one, but I never bothered doing that.
Somehow, more than forty years had passed without further bee incidents. So, I was unsure how my body would react to the bumblebee. I’d heard that allergies could change over time, but I had no way of knowing if that had been the case for me. And I wasn’t sure what the potency of a bumblebee’s sting was in comparison to other bees. The ache under my toes had intensified a bit and spread to the top of my foot, but I felt no itching yet, and my breathing seemed fine. So, I decided to drive down to the emergency department at our town’s little hospital and sit in their waiting room in case the reaction worsened; if it did, I could pursue immediate care there, and if it lessened, I could just leave.
Wearing flip-flops, I limped a little entering the small waiting room. There were only four other people inside: two border patrol agents and two young men who appeared to be of Mexican descent sitting forlornly across from them. One of the young men was taller than the other and wore high-top basketball shoes with no laces and the tongues hanging out; he had a bandage wrapped around his left wrist. The other held an icepack over the bridge of his nose. They both slumped in their chairs and wore jeans and T-shirts displaying Spanish words. Their faces and hair were scarred with dirt. The agents sat directly across from each of them, arms folded, murmuring over something that made them laugh. They wore identical uniforms, but the shorter, older one also had a ball cap with a border patrol insignia on the front. They had thick matching belts around their waists with holsters at each hip that held radios and pistols.
I sat down away from them and around a corner from the sliding glass window where the receptionist sat at her desk. Her head was down when I entered, and I don’t think she noticed me as I came in. There was a magazine about parenting on the next chair, so I picked that up and started flipping through it, glancing over on occasion at my waiting room companions. The top of my foot had begun to throb dully and a couple of the toes had swollen up, but that was all.
After a while, I heard the window slide at the receptionist’s desk, and she called out a Mexican name that I couldn’t understand. The agent closest to her stood up, reached across to the young man with the bandage, and led him by the elbow of his good arm just around the corner and out of sight from me to the window. They were almost of the same height.
The receptionist said, “This one has a problem with his arm?”
“Yes,” the agent said.
“They fell while fleeing from the back of a truck at the secondary inspection point at the Tijuana-San Ysidro border crossing. They’d been hiding under fishing gear and a tarp. I think that one over there may have a broken nose.”
“So, both undocumented then.”
There was a long pause before I heard her say, “So, you’re going to get them patched up and then deport them.”
“That’s the basic plan. Yes, ma'am.”
“What’s the problem with his arm?”
The agent said, “Show her”. There was the sound of the bandage being unwrapped. “He’s had some sort of recent surgery,” the agent said. “See the incision?”
“All right,” she said. A buzzer sounded at the door next to me that led to the examining rooms. “You can go in.”
The agent led the young man by the same elbow, the bandage now dangling from his injured wrist. When the agent opened the door, the buzzing stopped. He nodded the young man into the opening. The young man looked over at me as he entered the hallway, and I tried to give a small, encouraging smile, but he had no reaction. I wondered about how he had come to choose those particular shoes for what they’d planned to do earlier that morning.
Perhaps ten minutes passed before the same procedure was repeated for the second young man and the agent with the cap. They were buzzed through in exactly the same manner. Then I was alone in the waiting room. The pain in my foot remained about the same, and I heard a television that was mounted high on the wall on the other side playing a channel of continuous news. The volume was turned low, but as I flipped through the magazine, I was aware of reports on terrorism, stalled legislation on gun control and immigration, an encouraging jobs report, and a possible hurricane approaching the East coast.
After about a half-hour, an older woman in colorful scrubs came through the entrance. She stopped and looked at me. My recognition of her was vague, but I supposed she was probably the parent of one of the students I’d taught at the town’s elementary school many years before.
“Well,” she said. “Hello. Are you all right?”
I explained to her why I was there. She nodded when I’d finished and asked, “How does it feel now?”
“Not bad.” I wriggled the toes on the foot that had been stung. “Better actually.”
“That’s good.” She nodded some more. “Well, just ask for help if you need it. Nice to see you.”
“You, too.” Nodding myself, I watched her lift an identification badge attached to a lanyard around her neck up to the panel on the door that led to the examining room hallway. The same buzz as before followed, and she opened it. It closed slowly behind her.
After she’d left, I wriggled my toes some more and reached down to feel the swelling on top of my foot. The ache had diminished some, and the slight itch I felt seemed to have more to do with that ring of swelling lessening than anything more alarming. Outside the windows, the mid-morning was full of sunshine and a blue, cloudless sky over the housetops across the street.
Another twenty minutes or so passed while the pain continued to dissipate before I left. I’d parked my car as close to the entrance as possible and saw that it was directly across from the border patrol van, which I hadn’t noticed when I came in. I’d just started the engine and rolled down the windows to cool the interior when the agents and the young men came out of two double doors that opened directly into the examining room hallway. They walked in the same pairs, led identically by elbows to the back of the van, which the taller agent opened. The young man with the wrist injury had a new bandage wrapped around it and a soft blue splint of some kind over that. The other young man had gauze sticking out of both of his nostrils and held a different sort of icepack against one side of his nose; it seemed as if patches under both of his eyes had darkened a little where they met the bridge of his nose.
The agent with the ball cap climbed up first into the back of the van onto a bench seat, then the shorter of the two young men, and last, the taller one. They all fastened seat belts while the other agent spoke into his radio. The gaze of the taller young man passed me and fixed on something to my right. I followed where he was looking and saw a young Mexican woman standing in the shadow of a tree holding a baby boy against one hip. She raised the fingers on her free hand towards the young man, and he did the same in response. The attempt at a smile creased his lips before the taller agent closed and locked both of the van’s back doors. The agent went around to the driver’s side, the van started, and I watched it pull slowly away out of the parking lot and up the street towards the highway. I wondered how the young man had contacted her. He wasn’t handcuffed, so perhaps he’d managed a cell phone call or text. Or maybe one of the agents had simply agreed to do that for him.
When I looked back at the young woman, I saw that she’d begun to cry softly. Her baby pawed at her cheeks, and she took his tiny hand in hers and kissed it. She walked out of the shadow, across the parking lot, and around the corner of the building. Something spread up inside of me, as it had earlier that morning after the bee sting, but different. I thought about asking her if she needed a ride, but I had no baby seat in my car, and I guessed she’d made some sort of arrangements for wherever she was going. Sitting there blinking, I’d completely forgotten about my foot. I wished suddenly that I’d lifted that struggling bumblebee onto the envelope and set it outside to go about its own affairs. It might have lived; I had no way of knowing for sure.
Finally, I backed out and started towards home. I’d just retired the week before after thirty years of teaching, and so had no pressing plans. I thought I might pick up a sandwich and go down to the bay to eat it where I could watch the sailboats. Many people had asked me what I was going to do in retirement, and the truth was, I didn’t really know. That seemed an unacceptable answer, so I’d taken to replying something to the effect of “enjoying the fruits of my labors”. I realized then how ridiculous and trivial that sounded. I thought about life’s turns, its chapters and opportunities, what you can control in it, what you can’t.