"Frank they're wasps." As soon as she said it I knew we were in trouble. I stood there watching morning shadows retreat across the porch, listening to my messages. And I heard those words again. She sounded distracted.
"Frank. Frank, they're wasps."
The list of things she could mean by that was pretty long. Clarissa had a habit of providing the most relevant information first. It was something I'd always liked about her, one of a hundred little talents that had earned her a raise last season. Clarissa liked efficiency, and clockwork schedules. And that made me like Clarissa. But this business with the wasps must have meant more to her than it did to me, because she didn't explain much more than that. She started talking to someone else, likely the hotel's night manager, David.
The next message was time stamped 9:41 PM. This would have been about six minutes after I took my pills and laid in bed with the phone downstairs and on silent. I wouldn't have heard it over the bedroom's window unit anyway. It was Clarissa again.
"Frank, David says he'll open up room 102, but he won't do it without your approval. He doesn't believe me. The couple next door to them had to be moved to a different room. They said the tv static was too loud, but 102 is the honeymoon suite. It doesn't have a tv. Call me."
Four more unheard messages. Next message. 11:31 PM.
"David went home. He said he quits. The static went quiet about fifteen minutes ago and I - - look, I listened at the door to see if I could figure out what he saw. They were talking, but I couldn't understand them because one of them was laughing, that exhausted breathless kind of laughing like someone was tickling them. And when one stopped, another picked up right away. And there was another sound, like a balloon with a hundred tiny squeaking holes in it that had formed without popping it. I don't know what that was. It was a constant rush, just air forced through a perforated surface, but with so many different tones. I know how all of this must sound, but please come down right away."
Next message. 11:52 PM.
It sounded like she might have accidentally dialed my phone. Two people were casually talking in the background. An unlikely sound was growing, thousands of buzzing wings, millions, and the needle click of something tapping across the phone's receiver. The message ended at the two minute mark. I could have sworn one of the voices talking belonged to Clarissa. But she sounded calm, talkative, like she was at some kind of party.
Next message. 4:02 AM.
"This is Ben Davis. Sorry to call you so late, but I just walked in and no one's at the front desk. I've got one of the maintenance guys behind the counter. He says he's been holding the fort since midnight. I don't know where Clarissa or David have gone. Give me a call as soon as you get this, and sorry again about calling so late."
Next message. 8:09 AM.
"Frank, this is detective Ed Palmer. Please call your hotel the moment you get this. Thank you."
When I got to the hotel, the trench coat pointed at me. He was more the action figure of a detective than a person, complete with the styrofoam cup accessory kit and a badge hanging around his neck.
“Detective Palmer?” I said.
“Wrong,” the action figure in a tan coat said, “Palmer quit. I'm just watching the place 'til the CDC gets here. You sit over there.”
He motioned for me to sit in the lobby's waiting area. It was typically empty in the early hours, but there was a man in a white business shirt looking at a newspaper. The classifieds section.
Right when I sat down he nodded to himself, and said,
“I've got an uncle in Ohio that runs a construction company. Do construction guys get health insurance?”
“No,” I said, “Are you Palmer?”
“Yeah,” he said, eyes still on the paper.
“What happened?” I asked.
He looked at me, his mouth open, making a visible effort to make eye contact. He was trying to share something, but he couldn't get it out. There was a wall somewhere in him. Finally,
“You checked them in?”
“Big hats?” I said, “Sure I did.”
“Big hats,” he said folding the newspaper and putting it beside him, “Yeah. Those weren't hats, friend. We took one off, pulled it hard and it came apart – sang like a pumpkin ripping open.”
“And?” I said.
“And. Yeah and. And the sound lasted just a little bit too long. There were tunnels in those big hats. A whole city of tunnels. Like a hive. Just big holes in the meat of 'em, honeycombing all through like a-”
The detective turned to look over at the table near us. On it was an arrangement of potpourri, with a large black lotus seed pod resting at the top. Inside the pod were holes and little seeds peeking out from its black recessed pits. The detective didn't compare the two out loud, but he then looked away from the seed pod, and said,
“Fucking Christ. Twelve years from now I'll be able to forget. For me life starts again at 43.
“They say you never forget the rough stuff,” I said, dispensing the wisdom of a middle aged hotel manager. I don't know what I was trying to say. I wasn't exactly comforting him, but he looked like he'd seen a thing or two in his life. He shook his head, surprised at what I had just said.
“Oh no, you can. Just need time. Lots and lots of time. Enough time and you can forget anything.”
He reached over to where the lotus pod was in the potpourri arrangement and he closed his hand around it as hard as he could, his fist shaking as he crushed it into a fine dust, methodically sprinkling it over the rest of the dried flowers. Afterward, he looked at his hand and rubbed it on his pant leg,
“Smells nice,” he said, “Those holes ran pretty deep in them. I don't know how they weren't dead when they showed up. Bodies were ice cold, except in the holes. Those were hot. Was the guy with sunglasses there when they checked in?”
“Yeah,” I said, “He's the one I talked to.”
“Holes went to his eyes,” Palmer said. His tone had changed, like he was talking about an exhibit in a museum, “Had hundreds of em running out of the sockets. I think something tunneled in, or tunneled out.”
“Tunneled out?” I said.
“I had this idea,” he said, “It was weird. They had the wrong thoughts. That's how my brain explained it to me. Like it was a rule pulled from a dream. They thought the wrong thing and it made a body for itself in their heads. Abstract made concrete. A little wasp that grew and tunneled and bred until it didn't need them anymore. Don't know why they came here. Guess they wanted to talk. I kept thinking, 'we've all got little wasps in our heads.' Sure.”
There was a strange honesty in Palmer's voice. I may not be a detective, but I've met a lot of people. Something in his voice grabbed me – something I trusted.
“Sex cult,” the action figure said from behind us. He must have been watching the other detective for a while now, listening in on our conversation. I was surprised to see him so candid with the sensitive details of an ongoing investigation – but I don't think for a second that he was doing it to satisfy my curiosity. It was more useful for me to believe what he was saying. Sex cult was what the newspapers were going to say, if they said anything at all. I was sure of it.
“What about their heads?” Palmer said.
“CDC says sex cult. What about the heads? They had big hats with wasps in 'em and they glued those to their heads and died because – well, that's what happens.”
“There were tunnels,” Palmer said, “Networks running down through to the one guy's eyes. He knew it looked weird. That's why the sunglasses.”
“What do you want from me, Palmer?” the action figure said, “You just quit. Now button up or you're walking home.”
I stood up and walked over to the counter, leaving the two men to argue. We weren't going to see much business today. And sex cult suicide was a good headline, so maybe we'd never see normal business again.
“Dear god,” I said to myself as the phone rang for the first time that morning, “Don't be a reporter.”
I picked up the phone, but before I could introduce myself or the hotel, I could hear a tired familiar breath speaking in sultry tones,
“Beauty is long thin legs. Long thin legs tapping against glass like a whole family in a single body. Its eyes are lavender, seeing everything.”
“Clarissa,” I said, lowering my voice and ducking my head down. It was conspicuous, more-so than I could have afforded in a room full of cops, “What happened?”
“Frank,” she said, “You're not going to believe this. Listen carefully, hold it in your imagination as I describe it.”
“There are a bunch of dead people in room 102,” I said, “And there's cops all over.”
“Listen carefully, Frank,” I heard Clarissa say, “They're not people. They're wasps. Long thin legs. Long thin legs tapping against glass like a whole family in a single body. Its eyes are lavender, seeing-”
I could feel it. Something about what she was saying, the notes of her voice, the breath of it – it was more seductive than any Clarissa I had ever met.
“Clarissa,” I said, “I'm going to stop you right there. Did they tell you something?”
“They told me everything.”
“Are you trying to tell me everything?” I asked.
I hung up.
There's a sign next to the phone these days instructing employees to hang up the instant someone says the words 'Beauty is Long Thin Legs' on the line. Clarissa doesn't waste time, and she doesn't bother with introductions. She calls once a day at precisely 9:55 PM when the night shift staff is most likely to be by the phone. She's never visited, never called more than once per day. But wherever she goes, she's always by a phone at 9:55, calling us. Trying to tell us what beauty is. Trying to tell us what those wasps told her.
Odd the newspapers never picked up on the story. A brief local spot ran of a single man committing suicide in room 102 of our hotel, but no one was really interested in who did it, where they came from, or why. It just faded from memory almost as quickly as it appeared.
The CDC – or whoever they were - cleaned up really well, taking the carpet and everything else. Never heard from them again. Never talked to them at all, come to think of it.
Detective Palmer and I are still in touch. He still calls from Ohio. Says he has dreams sometimes about the hole babies. Years later he would tell me he had heard words crying from those split open hats – a chorus deep in the hive, all shrieking the same thing. I never asked him what they said.
I imagine it started with,