Following Walls

by Chris Panatier

“Where are we going?” I ask, tumbling into the back seat after my brother with our hastily packed bags.

“Away, Lauren. Somewhere else. It doesn’t matter. It’s the walls again,” says Mom with a shudder. “They’re full of wasps.”

I can’t even roll my eyes before she puts the car into reverse and hits the gas. We shoot out of the driveway like we’re running from the law. She jams the shifter down and floors it. I glance at Jacob. He’s staring at me. We both turn and look out the back window as the house disappears.

She left the garage door open.

“Mom,” I say, making a gentle entreaty. “The garage door—”

“Let them have it. We aren’t going back.”

“Let who have it? Our lives are in that house,” I say, my voice going from diplomatic to angry. “This is the fourth move in like a year.”

“And we’ll keep moving until they stop following.”

She’s talking about the wasps. The ones she claims are inside the walls of every house we’ve ever lived in. She’ll swear to hearing them, yet when the bug guy comes, they’re miraculously gone. It’s gotten worse since dad left, no question about that. He heard things too.

“Am I going to be able to go back to school?” asks Jake, who is in fourth grade. “I just made a new best friend. Brett.”

Finding a break in her mania, Mom glances over her shoulder and softens. “Jake, baby. We’ve crisscrossed the state. It’s time to try somewhere else, okay? Higher altitude. Desert. Utah, maybe. I don’t think they have as many wasps.”

“Utah?” Jake cries.

I barely know where Utah is and I’m a high school junior. The middle-ish? I can’t get mad at it, really. It’s so bonkers that I actually have to hide my smirk.

We drive for days, stay in motels. Mom spends half the time with her ear to the cheap floral wallpaper that seems standard in motor lodges. When she fails to detect the telltale buzz, she tosses out the idea of becoming vagabonds, wandering from inn to inn, taking advantage of their silent drywall. I know it won’t last.

It’s early morning when we cross from southern Colorado into Utah’s southeastern corner. Mom wasn’t wrong, it’s high and dry. And there’s nothing around. We stop in the first place we come to on Highway 191, a nothing town called Bluff that looks one dust storm away from being scraped from the map. Jake isn’t impressed either. Mom, though, has that twinkle in her eye that she gets when she’s about to listen to her heart and ignore her head.

“No, Mom,” I say. “We just got into the state. Don’t you want to check it out?”

We pull into a gas station. She punches her door open and pops out, then trots in. We scramble from the car and follow. Inside, she’s sweeping up bags of chips and beef jerky, frozen pizza and a six pack of soda. With a big grin on her face, she dumps it all in front of a clerk. Bemused, he smiles back.

“Do you get wasps here?” she asks. “Hornets? Anything like that?”

The clerk actually looks at me and I shrug. You’re on your own, buddy.

“Well,” he answers. “You’re in about the only place in the state outside of Moab where they’re pretty controlled. Not a lot of water for them unless you get down by the San Juan, but they don’t venture far from the river. Further you go up the hill here,” he shoots his thumb at the wall behind him and presumably to the topography outside, “the less chance you’ll see them. This everything?”

“It is,” says Mom, cheerfully handing over her debit card.


Within days, she’s signed a lease on a tiny ranch-style place up the hill. I can literally see the roof of the convenience store from my bedroom window. But the guy had been right. No wasps. Mom is sleeping through the night now. Doesn’t even listen to the walls anymore. She got a job helping out at a rock shop. I’ve never seen her happier.

Not me though. The town is a shithole. It won’t do. The prospect of being stuck here…it’s too much. No.

One afternoon while Mom’s got Jake at the shop, I grab the long screwdriver with the red handle—Dad’s, the one I always use—from the toolbox in the car and drop it in a paper grocery bag like usual. I walk down the driveway past the gas station, take the underpass beneath 191, and head down a walking trail toward the river.

Up from the water is a shed of some type. I round it and find what I’m looking for on the last corner under an eave. And it’s glorious, the size of a sunflower, just loaded with eggs and covered in wasps tending them.

Standing on an overturned bucket, I steady myself. Slow. I remove the screwdriver and open the mouth of the bag good and wide, letting it balance on the palm of my hand a few inches below the nest. Having gotten pretty good at what I do, I don’t hesitate.

A quick swipe of the screwdriver breaks the thin stem that holds the nest to the eave, and it drops into the bag. I’ve rolled it up before the wasps have any idea what has happened.

By the time I reach the house, the bag is humming like a hair trimmer turned to eleven, the vibrating paper an amplifier for the wasps’ cage-rage. “Oh, I get it,” I mutter, setting them into an empty junction box embedded in the outer wall of the house—just behind Mom’s headboard.

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