content warning: sexual content, light body horror
“You’ll adore the distillery, my darling,” Magnus promises, and Catalina knows better than to trust the pretty words of lovesick, stupid boys.
(Should know better, anyway. Yet here she is.)
She does not, in fact, adore the distillery. It’s a grimy, hulking eyesore on the horizon; closer inspection fails to reveal any grander beauty, but has the delightful accompaniment of a strange, sickly odor in the air.
The Elwood manse sits at the junction of Middle and Nowhere, its gardens adorned with tumbleweeds, dirt and hay-starved horses. Sepulcro is fifty miles due east, Old Morty and The Dead Sea along with it, and her life before this mess fades into the honeyed sunset with whimpered fanfare.
Magnus brings her to her room. It’s a stately affair; there’s a large bay window, a four-poster bed, a well-worn armchair and a writing desk. He tells her not to stray too far from her room in her delicate condition. He follows this with a gentlemanly offer to escort her to the family dinner at seven sharp.
His eyes sweep over her dust-ridden clothes, lip curling in distaste at whatever he finds there. “I’ll send Minnie over to help you choose an outfit.”
Once he departs, Catalina abandons her trunk at the foot of the bed. She sits down in a nearby armchair with a decisively fed up: “Fuck.”
The swell of her belly looms under hesitant fingertips. Catalina consults the mirror, turning this way and that. Her baby, somewhere beyond muscle and skin, kicks lightly. Her mouth curves upward, unbidden. “Shush, little one.”
“You can feel the baby?” comes a query from the doorway.
Minerva Elwood swans into the room without waiting for an invitation; Catalina supposes she doesn’t need one. Minerva’s immaculate blonde curls flow in a pinned wave down her back, resting against soft pink fabric that must last all of two seconds out in this desert filth. A pale white hand covers rose-red lips. “Maggy never told me you’re so far along now. Goodness! When was the last time we went shopping together…?”
“A few months ago.” Catalina arches an eyebrow. “Maggy, is it?”
Minerva’s delicate features pull into a brilliant gleam. She shares her brother’s beauty, though she carries it with far less arrogance. “May I, Lina?”
She shrugs. “I warn you, he isn’t very cooperative.”
Minerva, with earnest reverence, presses a hand to Catalina’s stomach. The moment stretches long, the girl’s perfume filling the air between them. Lavender and honeysuckle. She meets Catalina’s eyes. “He?”
“Intuition,” Catalina explains, her voice gentling. “Or so my mother used to tell me.”
“I’m sure my parents will be delighted if it’s a little boy,” Minerva says wryly. “Say, I’m supposed to be finding you an outfit, but Maggy didn’t give me your measurements, and I daresay what I have won’t fit you now. Let’s see what we can rustle up, shall we?”
The pastel frills and lace on offer don’t suit her complexion, designed for Minerva Elwood’s milk-white skin—does the girl ever go outside, aside from sparing trips to Sepulcro’s market?—but Catalina is forced to make do with a virulently green swathe of taffeta and silk. It envelops the warm brown of her skin in disapproving capitulation.
It’s also several inches too short.
Minerva is too polite to say it looks awful, but instead offers an appraising: “It’s unique, isn’t it? Papa bought it for me, but he’s never perused a fashion magazine in his life.”
The house is cold, quiet. Murmurs of noise drift from downstairs as servants attend to their duties. Upstairs, on the other hand, is a wasteland.
“The women’s rooms are up here,” Minerva tells her. “The men’s are in the east wing, closer to the distillery. And Mama is often out travelling with Papa or Uncle Ford.”
“So it’s just you?” Catalina asks.
“And now you.” Minerva links an arm through hers. “My future sister-in-law, I suppose! And, in a few months, a squalling infant. I’m quite certain it will liven up the place.”
“I don’t believe that’s the arrangement.” Catalina lets an insincere smirk amble across her face. “Though I’ll sorely miss your company—may I call you Minnie now we’ll be living in close quarters?”
(A few months, and she’ll be back in Sepulcro. And her baby—
She lets the thought hang.)
Minerva’s cheeks color, her brow knitting. “Yes, you may.”
The Elwoods are as glacial as Catalina expects from a well-to-do family in the middle of New Mexico. Earl Elwood is typical patriarch stock, puffing at a cigar over dinner and talking shop with his brother, Ford, who slinks around like a man looking to thieve whatever isn’t nailed down. It’s surprising, since by all accounts, he grew up in the very lap of luxury, but Catalina supposes riches aren’t enough for some. Neither of them bother to introduce themselves.
Elora Elwood fusses over her and her belly, meanwhile, prescribing herbal remedies she swears by, and assuring her she’ll be well taken care of, and hasn’t she thought about what she’s going to do after this mess is—Elora lowers her voice—dealt with? Shouldn’t a nice girl like her settle down with a young man of her own station?
“Until the baby comes,” Elora says, patting Catalina’s hand and leaving her soup untouched. “Isn’t it better for you to be in the best possible hands? Sepulcro is an awful, lawless town.”
“Lina knows, Mother,” Magnus pipes up. “That’s why she agreed to come with me.”
(Like hell, Catalina thinks, and remembers Old Morty pressing a Derringer into her hands.
“If you need it,” he’d said. “No one’s hearing gunshots out in the desert, are they?”)
“Yes.” Catalina allows Magnus to take her other hand. “I’m grateful, Mrs Elwood. You’ve shown me great kindness, despite the difficult circumstances.” The words are ash in her mouth.
Minerva is quiet during all the fuss. She pushes her food around her plate, watching Catalina carefully while sipping at an amber-colored drink that fills everybody’s glasses except Catalina’s. She’s stuck with a horrendous herbal tea meant to be good for a baby’s growth, but it tastes the way a saloon’s outhouse smells.
“I hope you understand,” Elora continues, “there are certain expectations, and you and Magnus are so young. People will talk, my dear, and we absolutely wouldn’t want that to reflect poorly on you. So, we just don’t think—though I’m sure we can work out an arrangement for you to visit—”
“Mother,” Magnus interrupts, placing his cutlery down. “We’ve talked about this.”
Catalina is silent. From across the table, Minerva’s expression morphs from nettled to apoplectic. She stabs her fork viciously into her steak.
Elora is undeterred. “Magnus, sweetheart, you know your father’s thoughts.”
“I’ll marry her once I’m older,” Magnus says petulantly. “Once I’m in charge of the distillery.”
Earl Elwood is far too engaged in discussing the price of barley with his brother to be bothered with his wife and children. Ford glances sidelong at Elora for the briefest of moments, and the two share an expression of such naked heat that Catalina wonders if she isn’t the only one bringing mess and scandal to this family.
Maybe fucking your husband’s brother is acceptable scandal in these parts.
“Maggy.” Catalina squeezes his hand. “I wouldn’t want to come between you and your family.”
(He hasn’t discussed this with her, of course. The grand proclamations of a swept-off-her-feet romance grow more tiresome by the day.)
“Isn’t she such a sweet girl?” Elora croons. “If you want to be close to the child, dear, perhaps we could even find work for you here.”
“Her name is Catalina.” Minerva rushes to her feet, her chair scraping the hardwood floor. Her eyes blaze formidably. “If we’re going to be stealing a baby from its mother and employing her as a servant, at least have the decency to refer to her by name, Mama.”
“Minerva.” Elora stares at her, mouth agape. “Have some manners, won’t you?”
“Catalina looks tired,” Minerva announces. “She shouldn’t be staying up late. Come, Lina, I’ll walk you back to your room.”
Magnus’ anger spills between clenched fists and a taut jaw. But he’s nothing if not his parents’ obedient son—Catalina realized that swiftly—and so he acquiesces with moderate grace. “I’ll give you a proper tour of the estate tomorrow, my darling.”
Elora’s own grace is brittle. “Yes. Sleep well, dears.”
Minerva whisks her away from the table and its glacial welcome. They return to the quiet hallways, Minerva’s delicate hand pressed to the small of her back.
Her breath mists warm against Catalina’s cheek. The wind rattles the window panes. The gas lamps don’t extend all the way down the hallway; the women’s rooms are dark upon their return. Minerva hovers in the doorway, casting anxious glances at Catalina’s belly.
“You can stay,” Catalina offers, to which Minerva offers her a pallid, tentative smile.
She sits primly on the edge of the bed, hands folded in her lap. Her brow pulls together. “I can’t believe you let her speak about you like that.”
Catalina lets her shoes clatter unceremoniously to the floor. “The Elora Elwoods of the world don’t tend to appreciate backtalk.”
“But you’re—” Minerva shakes her head. “You’re so… free. Independent! How can you stand it?”
Every inch of allowance pinions her throat, but women wind up dead for less.)
“Not free enough to afford making enemies.” Catalina tilts her head. “How do you stand it?”
“Where would I go?” Minerva muses. “I guess I might eventually exchange my father’s rules for my husband’s.”
“Or,” Catalina says, “you could always run.”
Minerva frowns. “Run where, exactly? Sepulcro?”
Catalina laughs. “There’s an entire world beyond Sepulcro, you know.” She shimmies up to the headboard, patting the space next to her. “Here. You look like a jittery foal over there.”
“I certainly do not.” Still, Minerva obliges, settling in beside her. She pulls a flask from the voluminous pockets of her dress. She sips at it idly. “Where would you run to?”
“California,” Catalina replies. “Sand and sunshine. What is that, anyway?”
“This?” Minerva pauses, the flask held to her lips. “Well, it’s Ambruixa, of course.”
Catalina glances at her quizzically. “Do you mean ambrosia?”
“Ambruixa,” Minerva emphasizes. “What did you think the Elwood distillery specializes in?”
“I’ve never cared to think on it,” Catalina says. “I’ve had more pressing concerns.”
(Like lowlifes traipsing into The Dead Sea as if they own the place; gangs angling for a fight; Old Morty giving her messages to courier, scores to settle, enemies to talk down; blood that needs scrubbing from the saloon floor.
Magnus, later. The look in his eyes when he watched her perform.
The morning sickness, after that.)
“It’s sort of…” Minerva takes another sip. “The distillery makes a concentrated syrup to add to sarsaparilla, you know, to make it alcoholic. Papa’s also trialing a version with honey at the moment, like a sort of mead. Uncle Ford picked the name.”
“Let me have a sip.” Catalina holds her hand out. “I was stuck with that vile tea at dinner.”
“Mama said it might be bad for the baby.” Minerva hesitates. “But maybe just a sip…?”
Catalina leans in closer. “Please?”
A blush powdering her cheeks, Minerva offers up the flask as deferentially as one might offer a sacrifice to the gods. Catalina lets the amber liquid spill into her mouth. It brings a rush of heat with it, scalding her tongue.
Soon after, a pleasant buzz rings through her ears and reaches as far as her toes. Bright spots burst under her eyelids. She passes the flask back. “Sheesh, what’s in that?”
“Like I said.” Minerva’s blush darkens. “Mainly honey. And, er, a touch of alcohol.”
“No wonder people are eager for it,” Catalina marvels. “I’m glad The Dead Sea doesn’t stock it. We’d never get the regulars out.” She pauses. “Speaking of, you never did come to any of my performances. My invitation was supposed to be for you, not your brother.”
Minerva hiccups through her next sip. “I’m not allowed, am I? Sneaking out was no mean feat, you know, and that was just for the market. Maggy spoke highly of them, though. I wished…” She trails off. “I wanted to. But you seemed to enjoy Maggy’s company.” Her gaze falls to Catalina’s stomach.
That stings, just a little, but she laughs anyway. It’s fair, all things considered. “It’s complicated.”
“I’ll say,” Minerva almost huffs. “You’re in high demand.”
She notices the way Minerva leans into her, like a wilting plant struggling towards sunlight. “I’m here with you now, aren’t I?”
(It’s dangerous; ill-advised.
The stir of—something.
She’d tried to ignore it. And instead—)
“For now,” Minerva says. “Until you—”
Catalina takes Minerva’s chin between thumb and forefinger. “Let’s not worry about the ‘until’, Minnie. Can I call you that?”
“Of course,” Minerva breathes. “Oh, Lina, you really shouldn’t tease me.”
“I’m not teasing,” Catalina replies, and kisses her.
Minnie’s lips taste like lavender, honeysuckle and Ambruixa. A burning warmth spreads between them, flimsy as spun sugar, and all the more irresistible for its fragility. Minnie strains into the kiss, her hands curving gently around Catalina’s waist. She lets out the most diverting yelp when Catalina presses her back into the pillows.
“Lina—” She manages. “Should we?”
“I’d like to.” Catalina leaves a trail of kisses down Minnie’s neck and arms. “Before I swell up so much that I can’t entice you at all. Haven’t we dithered long enough?”
“That reasoning seems—” Minnie balls her hands in the silk of Catalina’s shift. “Absurd, but it makes a certain kind of sense. So—yes.”
“Then, may I?” Catalina looks up, waiting.
Catalina reaches Minnie’s thighs, pressing a kiss between them. Minnie gasps. “Oh.”
The night falls away to entwinement—Minnie’s hair tickling her cheek (and, later, her thighs). Minnie’s hands running over her body. The reverent treatment of Catalina’s stomach as the other girl presses gossamer kisses to it.
The slow-spun sugar melts to something fragile, inescapable, necessary.
They lie together, later. In sleep, Minnie’s expression smooths out.
Catalina sleeps poorly. Strange nightmares plague her, leaving sweat sticky on her skin, and a bone-deep exhaustion. In her dreams, gunshots ring out. Monsters howl and grab at her clothes; they push her down into dirt and dust. A crying baby is wrenched from her arms. Magnus’ face looms above her. He calls her darling and talks about how lovely it will be when they can run the distillery together, and she need never travel outside the estate again.
Minnie disappears over the horizon in a carriage, begging Catalina to save her. Catalina tries, but her hands are bound and mouth gagged. Elora repeats what a sweet girl she is over and over—
She wakes. The baby kicks.
(You’ll know a love like no other, her mother had said, when you hold your child in your arms.
So far, Catalina thinks, it’s brought her nothing but trouble, misery and kicks to the gut. Yet here she is.)
She abandons the idea of sleep, exchanging the comfort of Minnie’s arms for the chilled gloom of the darkened corridors. If she can’t sleep, she might as well explore.
She finds a servants’ staircase at the other end of the hallway; it leads into a rabbit’s warren of anterooms and corridors. Catalina picks at random, guided by sleeplessness and a strange, prickling foreboding.
The manse sprawls outwards with disregard for its inhabitants. The atmosphere is odd. Here, the wind’s howling spooks even Catalina, who’s slept under the stars more times than she can count. Here, it feels more like she’s stepped from New Mexico straight into Hell, with no coin to present to the ferryman.
She comes to what must be the men’s wing. Ornate double doors bar the way.
Down another corridor, a sickly-sweet smell assaults her senses, along with an undercurrent of chemicals and heat.
The distillery. A faded sign on the door reads: Authorized Access Only. Do NOT Trespass, By Order of Earl Elwood. Catalina pushes past the door; she’s carrying the man’s grandson, after all, and she’s also his semi-willing prisoner. She’s earned the right to snoop.
The smell is worse inside. If this is Ambruixa before it’s bottled, then God, it smells like shit. The baby kicks, as if in agreement.
“Come now,” Catalina murmurs. “You should be sleeping, little one.”
The baby doesn’t heed her, continuing to kick while she makes her way further into the distillery. Pale moonlight slanting in through the windows is all that guides her.
Tree branches scrape the glass. Floorboards creak. Everything rattles. The whole house feels like it’s braced for something.
As Catalina rounds a corner, she hears a distant, muffled scream.
She stops, waiting. Several seconds later—another scream. Louder, this time.
She half-shuffles, half-runs down the hallway, scrabbling for the gun in the pocket of her shift. A third scream emanates from behind the doors ahead. This scream is the loudest yet; after a moment, it truncates sharply. A heavy padlock hangs loosely on one of the doors. Another sign reads: Do NOT Trespass Under ANY Circumstance. Volatile Chemicals in Use.
Catalina reaches the doors, pulling them open with one hand while cocking her Derringer in the other.
The doors open into a cavernous room. The smell is overpowering. The room’s only partially lit, shadows stretching along the walls, and strange shapes rise up in the murk. While Catalina’s eyes adjust, she almost thinks she can hear a buzzing sound.
“Please,” a voice cries out. “Please, help me.”
Catalina steps into the room. “Hello? Where are you?”
(As Old Morty likes to say, she’s heedless: last time he’d said it, he’d cast his eyes over the emerging bump.)
The voice tries to answer. Instead, all they manage is a strange, horrific gurgling. Catalina hastens her pace. “Do you need help?”
She notices a figure prone on the ground. They’re dressed head-to-toe in apiarists’ clothes, but the clothes are ripped and torn, leaving patches of skin visible.
Catalina kneels next to them. Bile rises in her throat. Where the clothes are torn, weeping red pustules swell, leaking blood tinged with an amber fluid. The same sickly-sweet smell comes from the wounds, breaking a fresh wave of nausea over her.
The figure’s face is hidden by a veil. When they try to speak, their throat gurgles uselessly.
“Please—help—me.” Their body takes another shuddering, wet breath, then stills. They don’t move again.
“I…” Catalina feels her heart close up faster than a bear trap. In Sepulcro, there’s no use clinging to soft feelings. “I’m sorry.”
The buzzing noise grows louder. She looks up, trying to discern its source in the dimness. The mangled, disproportionate shape she’d seen in the doorway hangs above her. The buzzing grows louder and louder.
Something stings at her arm. “Shit.” Catalina bats at the pain.
A large bee falls to the ground, spasming for a few moments until it, too, stills. Its body is strangely elongated, almost distended. It’s completely black, as if it’s been leached of all color; its wings are spiked, its stinger long and sharp. Before her eyes, the skin of her forearm darkens to an angry red; a pustule starts forming.
Catalina staggers back to her feet. Something crunches underfoot. When she looks down, she sees that dozens of the bees litter the ground, their carcasses as dry as desert dust. They crumble to nothing when her slippers crush them. “What the…?”
The room sways; everything tilts perilously. She presses a hand to her arm and finds it clammy and warm. The gun hangs heavy in her other hand.
The buzz is deafening. Catalina looks up at the mangled shape again. It finally dawns on her.
It’s a fucking hive.
It isn’t like any hive she’s seen, but these sure as hell aren’t like any bees she’s seen, either. She backs up further, trying to ignore the way everything lists to the side, the way the world somersaults around her.
(The baby, she thinks.
She can’t let anything happen to—)
More bees emerge from the hive, and soon, a swarm of them buzz overhead. Catalina swallows, her mouth dry, her hands shaking.
“No,” she whispers. “No.”
She shoots at the hive. Once, twice, thrice. She barely feels herself load the gun, digging bullets from her pockets and loading, firing, reloading, firing again. The bees scatter, the buzzing roars in her ears, and she trips over a carpet of crumbling carcasses in her haste to get the fuck out of this room.
She runs out of bullets too soon. The bees are closer now, too close for comfort—the buzzing rings cacophonously in her ears. It’s too much. Catalina opens her mouth to scream and doesn’t stop screaming until she’s hoarse.
The bees swarm, close enough to brush skin, close enough to sting—
And then, mercifully, rough arms grab her from behind.
She’s pulled from the room. The doors are slammed shut. The world spins in a haze of colors, from red to green to purple to black. Catalina thinks she might be lying on the ground, or else everything’s turned suddenly horizontal.
“Stupid girl,” someone hisses. “Doesn’t she realize what she’s done? You don’t think she damaged it, do you?”
Another voice joins them. “What happened? We’ve told them time and time again not to go in alone for the collection, then they go and leave the bloody door unlocked—”
“Well, we can’t let her go now,” says the first voice. “Just one shouldn’t be fatal, but God knows.”
The second voice mumbles agreement. “She’ll tell somebody in Sepulcro, and then what will the Raiders do? Take her back to her room. We’ll speak with Magnus later.”
“In the meantime, organize for someone to clean up that damn body, will you?”
Somebody picks Catalina up, cradling her in their arms. They carry her up the staircase. She thinks it might be Ford Elwood. Elora Elwood’s severe expression drifts into view, her mouth pinched and eyes hard, but she soon turns on her heel and hurries off down the corridor. Catalina tries to speak; only gurgles limp their way out of her parched throat.
She hears Minnie cry out. “Lina? Uncle, what happened?”
“She’s ill,” he replies. “Bad fever. She must’ve collapsed. You’ll take care of her, won’t you, Minnie?”
Catalina thinks she’s carried to bed. She feels soft sheets, feels a damp cloth held to her forehead, a bandage placed cautiously around her arm. She hears the click of a lock as Ford Elwood departs. She hears Minnie try the door, sees her shoulders sag when realization sets in. Minnie returns to the bedside.
When she can finally speak, Catalina slurs: “They trapped us.”
“Oh, Lina.” Minnie’s eyes well with tears. “What did you do?”
“Bees,” Catalina forces out. “Why the—what the fuck are—the bees?”
“Bees?” Minnie shakes her head. “Do you mean the apiary? I’ve never been. It’s not allowed.” She bites her lip. “Did you break something in there? Uncle Ford was so angry. Mama, too.”
“I need—” Catalina tries to sit up. “Paper. Pen.”
“Catalina.” Minnie grasps at her hands. “They said they’re going to keep you in here. I’m sorry.”
(Like hell, she thinks.)
“Paper,” Catalina repeats. “Pen.”
Minnie reluctantly obliges. She searches until she finds some in the writing desk and brings it to her. Catalina’s hands shake too badly to manage anything legible. Eventually, Minnie prises the paper gently from her hands.
“Here,” she says. “Let me help you.”
“It’s to be addressed to Bonnie.” Catalina’s chest heaves from the effort of talking. The baby kicks—less insistent now, almost sluggish. “A friend of mine. Bonnie Steele.”
(As Old Morty likes to assure her, there’s no shame in asking for help.
Well, she can’t go to him. She owes him enough already.)
Minnie promises to try and sneak the letter out to a servant. At some point, Magnus stops by to check on her, but Elora and Ford intercept him. She hears Magnus’ affront from the other side of the door until he storms off; she’s glad for the reprieve.
Nobody comes to let Minnie back out, almost like they’ve forgotten her entirely. This arrangement seems to suit Minnie just fine. Still, Catalina notices the shadows darkening her eyes.
The fever persists. The room swims in and out of focus. Catalina chokes on the water every time Minnie offers her some. She still hears buzzing in her ears.
“Who’s Bonnie?” Minnie asks eventually.
“A friend,” Catalina says. She can tell Minnie doesn’t entirely believe her, but it’s the closest to the truth. Her life is a mess. “She has a horse. And a gun. Maybe she can help.”
“Lina.” Minnie frowns at her. “You need medicine, not horses and guns.”
Catalina doesn’t sleep. Nightmares plague her regardless; pustules all over her skin, bursting blood and bile and a sickly-sweet smell. Monsters claw at her neck and stomach. She holds her baby in her arms, its skin blue and body cold.
They bring a doctor, eventually. Catalina doesn’t know what day of the week it is. How many weeks it’s been, even. The doctor doesn’t seem to know shit, either, but he forces a medicine down her throat that makes her gag and splutter and nearly throw up on him. She wishes she had. The door is locked behind him.
At some point, Minnie sneaks the letter out. She changes the cloth, brings Catalina more water, feels for the baby and quietly assures her, “It’s all right, it’s all right, I can still feel him kicking. He’s a rowdy little thing, isn’t he?” She addresses the baby sternly. “You should really be letting your mama sleep.”
Catalina pulls her in for a desperate kiss.
Days pass like this; Catalina as prisoner, Minnie as imprisoned warden. The house is still quiet.
Ford occasionally comes to check on them. Earl and Elora Elwood are nowhere to be seen. Neither is Magnus. The hallucinations don’t stop. The nightmares worsen.
“It’s going to be just fine,” Minnie tells her. “You’re going to be fine, Lina.”
Catalina knows better than to trust the words of pretty, lovesick girls.
(Should know better, anyway. Yet here she is.)
“You’re lying,” she accuses.
“Well,” Minnie amends. “I want you to be fine.”
She does not, in fact, feel fine. The Elwood estate creaks and groans with age, with shadows, with silence. There’s nothing out the window but tumbleweeds and horses, and nothing nearby except dirt trails and, somewhere closer, a hive of fucked up bees.
What’s the point of wealth if it strands you between Middle and Nowhere like this?
Finally, Catalina asks, “Do you have any more Ambruixa?”
“A little,” Minnie says. “But I don’t know if it’s a good idea.”
“Nothing else has worked,” Catalina grinds out. “Let me try it. Please.”
Minnie lets her have some. It tastes like she remembers; warm, burning, overly sweet. Her muscles relax. Blessedly, the world stops oscillating. Her breathing evens.
“How do you feel?” Minnie asks, nervous.
“Strange,” Catalina replies. “A little better.”
For once, the nightmares leave her in peace. Minnie cuddles up next to her, her cornsilk curls sprayed across Catalina’s dark waves. For once, their evening is almost pleasant. The servants bring them more Ambruixa at Minnie’s request. The buzzing fades into harmless background noise. The house is brighter. The baby’s kick strengthens.
“You’re going to be fine,” Minnie repeats, and Catalina finds herself believing it.
As soon as Catalina’s strong enough not to wait around for Bonnie Steele, she doesn’t. Bonnie would give her shit for playing up the damsel angle, after all, and better to salt the earth than writhe with her nightmares, than submit to the heady peace of the Ambruixa.
(Even if her body craves it now; even if it aches badly in its absence.)
That night, Minnie sleeps softly. Catalina pads to the door, jostling the lock with an errant pin from one of her dresses. It isn’t quiet work, but the women’s wing is deserted, as always. The lock gives way to the shadow-bathed hallway.
She steps out. They might’ve taken her gun; still, Catalina has a few knives hidden in her shoes and underthings. They might think she’s a no-good floozy from a dead-end town—and sure, maybe that’s somewhat true—but they don’t really know her.
Catalina heads back towards the padlocked doors. She thinks she can hear the buzzing. It jolts in her bones.
“Darling?” Magnus’ voice strains behind her. “Whatever are you doing, wandering about in the middle of the night?”
“An evening constitutional,” Catalina replies. “The doctor recommended it.”
He doesn’t believe her. Nowadays, she knows better than to trust pretty, lovesick boys. When things fall into place, they use their power to cage.
(Pretty, lovesick girls, though—
Maybe they’re just as caged as she is.)
“Let’s get you back to your room.” Magnus tries to usher her. “We wouldn’t want you getting hurt, not with our baby on the way.”
“I’m not your prisoner,” Catalina says.
“Of course not!” Magnus laughs dismissively. “But this is better for the baby, for us. I’ve had a very long discussion with Uncle Ford about it. My parents are particular about keeping the operation of the distillery a secret, and they do worry that you’ll run and tell your little gang in Sepulcro everything. So, the longer you stay here, the more time I have to convince them that we must be married. It’s the best way forward for all of us.”
“My little gang,” Catalina repeats woodenly.
There’s a strange clunking from beyond the padlocked doors; Magnus pays it no mind. Footsteps sound on the stairs. Catalina presses a hand to her belly and grits her teeth.
Elora and Ford Elwood appear in the stairwell. There’s no sign of Earl, as per usual. Elora’s gaze meets Catalina’s. Her brows pinch and shoulders stiffen in disdain. Catalina sees the curve of her mouth, the shape of her dislike, and knows there’s no way in hell that Magnus is going to get the future he dreams of.
(She’d thought it was better for the baby not to fight.
She should’ve known better.)
Catalina slips the knife from her shoe. While Magnus turns to face his mother and uncle, she grabs him by the lapel and hauls him back, pressing the knife to his throat.
“L-Lina,” he stammers.
Elora gasps. “Unhand him!”
“If you step any closer,” Catalina says, oddly calm. “I’ll open his throat.”
“Now.” Magnus gulps. “I-I understand you’re upset, but there’s no need to—”
“Girl,” Ford cuts in gruffly. “You’re signing your own death warrant by harming a hair on that boy’s head.”
“Threaten me as much as you like.” She doesn’t want to kill him, not really, but if they think she’s a no-good brute from a gang-run town, then so be it. “You’re mistaken if you think it makes a damn difference.”
The strange clunking again. Closer, this time. The doors groan open behind Catalina.
“What are you doing?” Elora snaps, her ire suddenly drawn to something past Catalina’s shoulder. “We’ve told you not to open the doors without proper precautions, just look at what happened the last time—!”
Slow, thudding footsteps come to an abrupt standstill. Catalina backs up, hauling Magnus to get a better view. A lone distillery worker—an apiarist—is there, the doors swung wide, their veil pushed back from their face. They sway with discomfiting unsteadiness, their eyes dim in the gloom of the gas lamps, and simply stare. Catalina feels Magnus’ pulse quicken under her fingertips; she keeps the knife pressed to his jugular, her jaw set.
Ford makes a move towards the beekeeper. “Close the goddamn doors!”
The apiarist opens their mouth—a low, uncomfortable moan resonates from the depths of their throat. It makes every hair on Catalina’s arms stand on end. She shudders.
Then, with a terrible burbling, dark shapes emerge from the apiarists’ open mouth. They tumble out in a great swarm; a writhing buzz fills the air. It’s exactly how she remembers.
Catalina hears Ford curse, hears Elora scream, distantly feels Magnus stiffen and instinctively try to get the hell away from the greater danger. The knife leaves a thin trail of blood along his neck, but she’s too fixated on the apiarists’ moan; the bees; the streaming blood and gore that follows the bees from their mouth, causing them to choke.
She pushes Magnus into Ford and Elora; the three of them tumble to the ground. She sprints past them. Nobody stops her.
Elora’s no longer screaming by the time she reaches the women’s wing. Catalina doesn’t think about it. She cares about her baby’s safety more than Elora fucking Elwood’s.
Minnie, with a silk robe wrapped around a thin negligee, opens the door blearily. “What’s happening, Lina? There’s a lot of ruckus.”
“We need to leave.” Catalina grabs her arm. “Now.”
Minnie’s bleariness clears. “W-What? What’s going on?”
“Now,” Catalina repeats. “I’m going. Are you coming or not?”
Minnie hesitates on the landing. She tracks the blood-smeared knife in Catalina’s hand and the darkened path towards the distillery. She hesitates on whatever she finds in Catalina’s eyes, then nods tremulously. “Yes. I’m coming.”
They head down through the kitchens; Catalina brusquely informs a surprised cook and several sleepy chambermaids that they should leave, but they don’t seem to heed the warning. Well, she doesn’t have time to be a bleeding heart, so she leaves them to their confusion and drags Minnie out to the stables.
The hay-starved horses are penned up for the night. Minnie tries to make some sort of protest about the dangers of horse-riding while heavily pregnant, but Catalina goes to them regardless. “You’d prefer I walk to Sepulcro?”
Minnie just sighs. “Of course not. But you really aren’t good at saddling a horse—here, let me do it.”
Her blood thrums, her body aches with tension, and the baby kicks with unforgiving relent. Catalina presses a hand to her stomach. “Shush, little one. We’re going, we’re going.”
The Elwood manse is a hulking, grimy eyesore on the horizon as they depart. Catalina throws a cautious glance over her shoulder. A shiver trails her spine. At first, nothing looks amiss—but then, closer, she notices the distillery’s roof is covered in a haze of black. She can’t hear the buzzing from here, surely, but it jolts deep in her bones.
(Old Morty always tells her that fate is fickle; it’s no use concerning herself with anybody else’s. Her mother always told her she never learned.)
Catalina turns away. She pulls closer to Minnie, reaches for her fingers. “Let’s go.”
With dawn comes the sweltering heat. Catalina’s less troubled by that and more troubled by her trembling fingers—by the nausea, the sweats, the image of those fucked-up bees lurking in every shadow, every curve of scrub.
Her mouth is dry; instead of water, she thinks of Ambruixa. She’d kill for another taste of it, for the sickly sweet of it coating her mouth. She hears the buzzing again. It’s under her skin, between her teeth, as if the bees are about to come bursting from her own lips.
Minnie fares worse than Catalina. She’s probably been weaned on the stuff, by all accounts, and the craving goes deep. Her flask is empty. She’s barely able to stay upright on her horse, holding the reins with white-knuckled fists. She doesn’t ask about the bloody knife, about the urgency of their escape, about her family.
(A few more miles, and they’ll be back in Sepulcro.
But what if—
She lets the thought hang.)
They’re passing the broken wooden sign reading Sepulcro 2 Myles Yond’r! when Minnie slips from her horse. She tumbles to the ground, sending up a spurt of dust and dirt.
Catalina gingerly dismounts, kneeling at her side. “Minnie?”
“Oh, Lina,” Minnie breathes. “I’m having the strangest dreams.”
“You aren’t dreaming.” Catalina presses a kiss to her fevered brow. “Come on, we’re almost there. Old Morty will put us up at The Dead Sea. We’ll drink plain sarsaparilla and eat weeks-old bread with beans.”
“Oh dear.” Minnie’s eyes flutter open, her gaze—unfocused, Ambruixa-craved—meeting Catalina’s. “I really don’t know how to rough it, Lina.”
Catalina smiles despite herself. The buzzing echoes. The baby kicks. Everything’s going to hell, but they’ll rustle up some coins for the ferryman. “Then I’ll teach you.”
“Excuse me,” drawls a familiar voice. “I thought I was meant to be rescuing you from some ramshackle mansion.”
Bonnie Steele looks down at them from atop her well-fed, well-watered horse. Her snarl of red hair is so unkempt it’s distracting—she really never brushes it when Catalina’s away—and she makes no move to help them. The only glint of worry is the slant to her mouth in place of a usual smirk.
“Well.” Bonnie leans forward on her horse. “Good timing. Don’t you two look like total shit?”
“Angels these days,” Minnie murmurs, “wear such frightful clothing.”
Catalina laughs despite herself. She draws Minnie close.
(She should know better than to hope, she knows that, and yet—
Here she is.)
Maddie Bowen-Smyth is an indefatigable hunter of obscure historical facts and perpetually, endlessly tired. Her writing explores the lasting echoes of trauma and the power of bull-headed hope. In addition to Honey Trap, she has short fiction in The Birdseed, Quill & Crow’s Eros and Thanatos anthology, and Yuzu Press, as well as pieces forthcoming in Wrongdoing Magazine and the BONEMILK anthology from Gutslut Press. Born in Singapore, Maddie worked in Japan for several years and now lives in Australia with her wife. Check out her Twitter @calliopium and website www.journalistic.com.au for all the latest.
photo by JJ Jordan (via unsplash)