He was in today's newspaper. At least that's what the paperboy had told him. It was no surprise to him, he was barely able to pull himself out of bed all week. His canary died on Wednesday. Not that he had any personal relationship with the bird, but more it meant that his last bit of color was gone. He was grateful to have made it out unscathed, but without his job and the imminent threat of the approaching winter months, he was unsure how exactly he was going to keep his family fed. They weren't much, only his mother, sister and himself, but they were enough to cost more than they had, especially during the slow, cold season. The explosion wasn't nearly as big as some that he had seen before, but it was big enough to make the front page of the newspaper apparently. So there they stood in ink, covered in so much soot he couldn't tell where the black of one person ended and the next began. He had been starting at the same photo for ten minutes now.
It is me. It must be me.
The one on the far right? Somehow he didn't know.
Those eyes could've been anyones. His hair the exact same shade of steely gray, indistinguishable from the twelve other boys amongst him. A clique of his closest comrades, or at least that's what he thought, but even if you gave him their names he wouldn't have had a clue which short basic haircut to pair it with. Never really had he considered himself a separate identity, rather than a result of his own unfortunate situation. This fact was just now revealing itself to him.
Did he really not know himself?
Did he have a self?
Or is identity something that needs to be created? He supposed he never really did that, created himself. He merely got up one day, realized he had to work, and has never stopped working since.
The breeze from an open window fluttered a torn corner of the room's flowery wallpaper, freeing him from his depressive daze, but only for a moment. He remembered flowers like those from his yard in Oklahoma. Wild honeysuckle that blew like waves in the ocean, but not here. Here they were stiff and stale and stained with mildew. There, dew magnified the metallic hues of bees' wings that laced his memories with pink and yellow and mint green and made him ache for just one more drop of golden honey. There: That was him. Who he was. He had likes and dislikes, friends and school teachers, memories coated in sugar instead of soot. Here: He has no idea who that boy in the newspaper is.
Another memory threatened to surface. The first time he was stung by a bee. His fourth birthday party, where sugar fueled fits of laughter made him forget everything his mother once told him about startling them. Five stingers to the arm sure taught him a lesson she never could. He later found out that bees die after they sting something, and he very often pondered why they would risk themselves to protect a queen not even under attack. He wished the bees knew that he meant them no harm. Maybe they could have spared their lives.
He then realized that it was quite interesting how many things he knew about bees. It was just one of the things he had forgotten, as he had no real use for the minutiae of himself anymore. He knew how they would work their whole lives for their queen. How all of them had their own jobs. How they entered the hive fully grown and ready to work. They must be very smart to wake up one day and already be an adult he would think. perhaps that's why he felt so bad when one of them died in consequence of himself, or when they had to harvest the honey they all worked so hard to make. He remembered telling all of this to his mother.
Bees are smart she would say, but they can't think like us. They don't choose their actions, they jus' do what's gotta be done, and that’s why there ain't no such thing as a beekeeper with jus' a few bees. If a few go round stingin' somethin they shouldn't have, the rest of the hive can keep right on working. They don't mind it when we take the honey. They'll just keep right on makin' more.
She was boiling a pot of water on their kitchen stove as she watched him sit there on the floor, staring blankly at the wall. Thinking, thinking, but there was nothing to say so she kept quiet. Never had she seen him sit for this long.
Never had he sat for so long, just thinking about himself. At least as far as he can remember, but in this moment he felt entirely stuck to this place of rotting wood beams and floral wallpaper teeming with roaches and memories. He felt the need to move, always keep moving, but he realized he had nowhere to go. Moving, moving for so long that standing still felt surreal. Somehow it was like he had met someone new, or more like he went to visit an old friend. Somehow, through all of this, he was able to feel grateful for the gift of years being a child.
He has seen too many children enter the hive fully grown. He has seen the hive keep right on working without him.
He couldn't stop the constant flow of thoughts. Hundreds of questions littered a space in his psyche that had been locked away for longer than he cared to remember. How many others were like him? Unaware of themselves? Unaware that they are barely more than a vessel to carry organs and move limbs. No more than a machine created for the sole purpose of maintaining itself. What does it really mean to be human? To be sentient? He thought maybe he heard that from a teacher long ago.
He remembered the last time he was stung by a bee. The time they had to leave them behind, so he went to say goodbye, and the bees said goodbye the only way they knew how, or at least that's what he likes to think.
He forgot how much he likes to sit and think.