Wasp Box (excerpt) by Jason Ockert

Note: to read an interview with the author, click here.

Jason Ockert_1Speck holds his arms out to his sides and walks cautiously down the middle rail. Although the shade from the fir and maple feels refreshing there is no breeze and being exposed on the tracks causes sweat to bead along the boy’s neckline. The dogs prance at the forest edge with tongues sagging.

         Back home they don’t have pets unless you count the fish. His father bought a saltwater tank back when the boy was in first grade. This was something they tended together. Every few weeks Speck’s dad took his son to the pet store to buy whatever his son pointed to behind the streaky glass aquariums. To the father, it didn’t matter if the fish were compatible with the ones they already owned. The better part of the thrill was in the choosing and the anticipation that Speck expressed, at first, as he clutched the cinched plastic fishbag to his chest on the cab ride back home. When the boy let the fish loose into the tank his father hovered nearby and held his breath hoping there would be peace in the tank for a while. What the father never realized was that his son enjoyed watching the underwater battles. Sometimes at night when he couldn’t sleep Speck would stand in the tank-light making combat noises under his breath while the aggressive fish nipped the exhausted, bright, little guys.

         Now the tank holds two turtles the father bought Speck’s mother for their anniversary.

         A glint winking from the forest in the sunlight catches the boy’s attention. He investigates. There, half buried in the bushes, is a canteen. Speck holds it to his head and gives it a shake. Inside is nothing. He lets it drop. Deeper in the woods is a scrap of cloth. The boy weaves through the tangles. The dogs overtake him and forge a path for him to follow. Caught up in the low branches of a tree is a camouflaged backpack. This is something someone probably tossed from a train, Speck deduces. He’d like to know why. What makes the most sense is something illegal like drugs or weapons. To his dismay, the pack is empty. Ahead, Sultan has found something.

         Leaving the pack dangling in the tree, Speck trudges to the dog. Sultan licks the boy’s hand and then runs ahead to catch up with Pepper. On the ground in a bed of poison ivy Speck does not recognize is a black, leather-bound book. He crouches down and opens it, hoping that there is money tucked inside.

         The handwriting on the pages is organized beneath a date and time and written in cursive. Speck flips through and no bills flutter out. Before he has a chance to scrutinize any further he hears a whistle. Sliding the book under the waistband of his shorts, Speck retraces his steps back to the tracks.

         The train passes slower than Speck expects. He was hoping for the big rush of the locomotive. He wanted to feel a part of that power suck him away and into something new.

         What Speck got was a passenger train in no hurry. People at window seats made eye contact with the boy. Some of them nudged their companions so they could share in this discovery together—Look, a native child!—pointing and smudging the glass. Before the train was halfway gone Speck took out the pocketknife and carved his name into a telephone pole. Now, as the caboose makes its way along, he slips back into the cover of the forest to hunt for the dogs.

         Not far from the tracks is a stream, and that is where he finds Sultan and Pepper sniffing at something in the brush by the shore. When he tries to investigate Speck is surprised to see Sultan bare teeth.

         “Whoa, hey,” Speck says, backing off. “Have at it, brother.”

         Pepper, though, is more interested in playing with the boy. He lopes over. “Yeah, I like you much better,” the boy says petting the dog’s hot white fur. “Let’s get you cooled down.”

         Speck strips off his shirt, sets it with the diary and pocketknife on the bank, and removes his shoes and socks. Stepping cautiously in, he cups handfuls of water over his head and along Pepper’s back. The dog wades up to his knees and tries to nip the spray Speck splashes which is when the boy notices split pieces of two-by-fours spiked into an oak on the other shore. The steps lead to a hunter’s blind that nestles into a canopy of sturdy branches. If it weren’t for the chunks of wood jutting out from the trunk, Speck never would have spotted the blind.

         The stream is not deep. The water never reaches higher than his armpits as the boy sloshes across. Pepper hesitates. The dog is undecided, not willing to trust the boy entirely just yet. He stands in that indecision looking from the boy back to Sultan.

         Once ashore, Speck tries to shake himself dry. The soft underside of his feet is dotted with red indentations from the rocks. Wrapping his feet around the bottom step awkwardly, Speck tests the strength of the old wood affixed to the tree by a single rusty nail. He decides it will hold. By heaving himself up, Speck grabs a higher step and climbs up the rungs.

         The blind is high enough to survey a wide swatch of the stream. Speck has to bend through a clump of leaves in order to pull himself onto the planks of wood built securely around a forked split of thick branches. When he is situated above, the boy takes deep breathes and tries to calm the rattle in his chest. He stands with his legs apart and leans against a chest-high rail that has been built around the perimeter. Up here the air is cooler with a moist, mossy scent. From his vantage, looking in the opposite direction from which he came, Speck can see the top of a house. Upon further investigation, he spies several homes, and they all look new and uninhabited. A person could take a bath in the stream and never know how close they were to civilization. Speck wonders about the hunters who have stood here before. Someone with good aim could snipe a man mowing the lawn at one of the new houses, and the fool wouldn’t ever know what hit him. Just mowing along and, Pow, boom, dead!. Speck wonders how long the lawnmower would proceed after the dead man let it go. Likely, though, the hunters who stood here before had their eyes trained down below by the stream. The boy extends his right arm and holds it with his left hand up to his cheek, uses the knuckles in his fist as sights, and pretends that he’s got a rifle. He swings his arm around slowly until he spies the black German Shepherd still feverishly digging away under the elm. He holds his breath, steadies himself, and, without an ounce of remorse, squeezes the trigger.

         Speck imagines Sultan collapsing gracefully in a heap by the trunk of the tree, a kill shot. Whatever the dog has discovered, he is unrelenting about it. Pepper senses this and keeps his distance.

         A quick gust forces Speck to take hold of the plywood. The wind rolls above the stream and back into the forest across from the boy. For a moment the branches of a tree part, and Speck sees another blind. It is tucked away in the elm under which Sultan is flopping around on the ground in whatever mess he has discovered. In that brief moment when the wind exposes the blind, the boy sees movement. Something swift that’s gone swiftly. He’s sure of it. He freezes and stares. Waiting like this, Speck thinks of time. Surely, an hour has passed. His brother is probably worried by the tracks. It might just be a squirrel, not some deranged old war vet harboring resentment against young boys prying and snooping.

         To be on the safe side, Speck hurries down and fords the stream. Pepper is waiting—still caught there in the shallows—and is happy to greet the boy. Speck slides into his socks, shoes, and shirt, tucks the journal back into his waistband and the knife into his sock. Maybe his eyes were playing tricks on him. The tree is right there, after all, and he’s fine. He has not been sniped or jumped or shouted down. He leans his head closer to take a peek.

         Unlike the blind Speck climbed, this one does not have rungs. He is not exactly sure how a person could get up there without being able to climb like a monkey. The blind looks identical to the one across the stream. The hunter probably wanted to cover his bases or else shoot with a friend. Standing cautiously below and peering up, Speck hears a low buzzing sound over the stream before he actually sees what’s above. It takes the brain a few moments to comprehend.

         Teeming in the branches and covering the whole of the blind are wasps, Speck thinks, or else nasty-looking bees. He’s not exactly sure of the differences. The insects are red and black and, even from a distance, big. At first, as he squints, the boy thinks that the hunter has built another rudimentary plank in the branches above the blind. As he scrutinizes he realizes that it is an enormous, flat, nest, nothing like the beehive he discovered in the old outhouse earlier. Now that he’s under it, Speck can’t believe he hadn’t noticed the insects earlier. The entire tree seems to be infested and thrumming.

         Speck takes a step backwards and nearly trips over Pepper who has crept up behind him. Stumbling, the boy catches himself with one hand and goes down on a knee. “Whoa, boy, don’t sneak up on me like that.” Pepper’s ears are folded and his tail is creased between his hind legs. Sultan ceases rolling in the mess and, from his back, regards Pepper.

         “Hey, it’s all right,” Speck says, standing. The boy knows better than to touch the dog. Now that he has seen them, Pepper is locked in on the insects.

         “All right, boy,” Speck says wishing he could muster more authority, “let’s just…”

         Pepper starts barking. The noise is quick and serious, meant to warn. Speck glances up into the tree in time to see hundreds of the insects descend. They are on the dog in an instant. Speck bolts. He sprints to the tracks and covers his head and neck as best as he can. A cloud of wasps pursues the boy stinging the exposed pink of his arms.

         Pepper is blanketed—stunned into silence. He staggers, jaws snapping, back into the water. Sultan picks up barking where his brother left off. The wasps turn their attention to the sound and, in platoons, attack the black dog.

         Confused and disoriented, Pepper flaps across the water, fending for himself, and shakes off most of his attackers. He darts like a spooked buck through the trees.