The bailiff held the door, and Millis shuffled through. He moved with little effort, having learned the precise gait the shackles allowed. The morning sun streamed through the windows and caused him to wince. Instinct raised his arm to block the bright light, but the restraints prevented the completion of his movement. The chains jerked, and everyone in his proximity moved into high alert.
Millis sat as instructed behind the plain wooden table and rested his elbows on the chair arms. He glanced over at the court-appointed attorney at his side. They locked eyes until the young, suit-clad man turned away and broke their connection.
The bailiff proceeded with the court’s Call to Order. The words faded into white noise as Millis appraised the attorney next to him. He noted the absence of gray hair, skin free of wrinkles, and an innocuous expression. To Millis, this meant only one thing: this fledgling was ill-prepared. Millis cocked his head and squinted as he wondered how much time had passed since law school graduation.
His attorney stood, reached over, and gave him a soft nudge.
“Millis Arduino, you must stand,” the judge said.
Millis pushed his chair back and rose. Never glancing up, he gazed down at the metal bands clamped around his wrists.
“Do you understand the criminal charges brought against you?”
No words left his mouth. Instead, he counted the flecks of gray on the tiled floor.
“He does,” his attorney said.
Millis wondered if his attorney believed a waif-like man such as himself took down a robust woman twice his size. Even if he didn’t, Millis supposed the man feared him the same.
“Your plea, Mr. Arduino?” The judge glared over his reading glasses and waited for the accused to respond as he rustled through a stack of papers, “Mr. Becker?”
“Yes, sir,” the defense attorney said.
“How does your client plead?”
“Not guilty,” he replied, but added, “by reason of insanity.”
Millis’s brows furrowed as he questioned Becker’s intentions and capabilities.
The courtroom mumbled, and the judge’s eyes grew wide. “Is this your answer, Mr. Arduino?”
“Judge Hastings,” the prosecutor said, “surely Mr. Becker is aware, success with a mental disorder defense is rare. Plus, no documentation exists of any psychiatric diagnosis.”
Millis moved his focus to this other lawyer, who now was visibly miffed.
“Um, temporary insanity,” Millis’s inexperienced attorney blurted.
“Which is it, Mr. Becker?” the judge asked.
Millis’s mind trailed to the morning in question.
He had slept late. It was eleven o’clock by the time he wandered into his kitchen and sat down with his coffee. Taped to the center of the table, he found a note from his wife. A “To Do” list which filled him with enormous anxiety.
Once married, Sue had become a demanding and critical nag. No matter how well or how quick he did her tasks, nothing was ever right.
He acquiesced to her mundane chores if only to spare himself an hour-long lecture prompted by incomplete jobs. So, he ate a bowl of cold cereal to save time. Next, he washed the dishes and vacuumed the carpets. Finally, he headed out back to mow the lawn. With this chore complete, a bit of time remained to do something to please himself before Sue returned.
“I can establish a history of emotional trauma. Mr. Arduino witnessed his mother’s death first-hand when he was a child,” Becker said.
The words plummeted Millis deeper into his past.
Millis’s father was a beekeeper by trade. He provided honey to the local markets within a fifty-mile radius of their country home. His mother always claimed Millis was allergic to bees, but he never recalled being stung. His father said his mother coddled him, and that this stunted his emotional growth. Nonetheless, whichever was true, Millis kept away from that part of the yard.
On the day of his mother’s untimely demise, Millis snuck outside. He hid behind the most massive tree and out of the line of sight of their kitchen window. The black locust stood fifteen feet away from the closest stand, a distance he considered safe, yet close enough to watch his father work the hives.
The colonies thrived under his father’s care, and the population’s growth required more honey supers with their removable frames of comb. These boxed additions formed crooked, beehive skyscrapers perched on rickety, hand-made stands.
His father checked for honey. Millis thought he looked like an astronaut in his white gloves and matching veil-and-blouse. The tiny dots of black around him seemed like distant stars set against the blue sky till Millis realized they were bees.
Get the smoker; it calms them down, his father ordered. Millis froze. The combined hive bodies had grown to sixty, seventy, maybe one hundred thousand in size. He wondered how many stings he would endure before he died.
His father’s voice grew louder, and Millis feared his wrath more than any potential bee attack. So he moved toward the structures.
Millis never noticed his mother outside with the laundry. He never heard her snap the wrinkles from the damp clothes or saw her pin the garments to the line. If he had, he would have never stepped out from the vast trunk and ran to his father’s aid.
Get the smoker his father repeated as he struggled to replace the pulled frame. Millis went to do as he was told, but caught the sun’s glint on the hive tool in the grass. His father always needed this and the brush next to it. He reached for them and spotted a pile of dead bees on the ground. If the bees run out of food, they’ll rob from the other hives. A nectar dearth, his father taught him, turned good bees bad.
Millis grabbed the tools and turned back to warn his father. His mother screamed. Startled, his father knocked the supers over, and a black cloud formed around his head. He thrashed his arms and swatted the insects away before he pulled off his veil. His mother continued to scream. Millis stood like a statue, frozen in space and time with the beehive scraper’s J-hook pointed out.
The next thing Millis remembered was being trapped under a surmountable weight. His lungs unable to draw oxygen, and his vision clouded and blurred. Bees buzzed around him. He was numb. He closed his eyes and prayed the roar in flight would end.
“Mr. Arduino? Answer the question. Were you responsible for your mother’s death?”
Millis’s eyes darted up, and he swallowed hard. He recalled being wet like a summer rain had fallen exclusively over him. He also recalled that his chest refused to inflate with each of his breaths.
“Judge Hasting, this event traumatized my client.”
The judge glared down at Becker.
“My client was crushed under his mother’s obese body after she tripped and fell. Her lung collapsed, impaled by the tool Mr. Arduino’s own father asked him to retrieve.”
That wasn’t exactly right. His father had asked for the smoker.
Millis rotated his hand upward and exposed the scar that marred the full length of his right palm. All these years later, she remained carved into his skin. The metal scraper, pinned against the ground, sliced through his clutched fist before it disappeared into her fleshy frame.
There was a sound he remembered, like a suck through a straw in an empty milk carton.
She grew heavier as she fell limp. Her blood saturated his blue, short sleeve shirt, the one he favored. These memories, paired with that noise were forever stamped in his brain and immortalized his mother.
“Judge, this arraignment isn’t about his mother’s death.” The prosecutor turned to face the defense. “A forty-year-old trauma didn’t result in insanity two days ago. Mr. Arduino murdered his wife in cold blood.”
An image flashed in Millis’s mind of Sue’s pudgy cheeks and her pin curled hair. Bees flittered around her face and accompanied her incessant prattle. He learned to tune them out, to ignore the random buzzes. But on her last day of life, her complaints culled the bees and they became even louder.
She had returned two hours earlier than planned. Convinced her actions were intentional, Millis became agitated by her presence. A bee flew in. Every item she listed, he completed, but still, she remained unsatisfied. Two more joined and circled her head. She faulted him for carelessness. If done correctly she said, he would still be occupied. A dozen or so specks darted in and out. Her lips grew dark, covered with these escaped pests.
Her dress matched the kitchen walls only brighter, and her thick ankles poured over her orthopedic shoes. Millis chuckled because she appeared somewhat like a bumblebee with her jet-black hair, yellow dress, and black, stump-like shoes. Sue asked what he found so funny, and a whole swarm soared in.
The cacophony of buzzing heralded in a flash of light, followed by a heaviness that weighed on his chest. His vision blurred. Millis allowed the cloud of smoke to roll in and silence the angry horde.
A wet pool, shiny and red, formed around her on the kitchen floor. The butcher knife in his hand dripped the same crimson liquid and held his fascination during the hours between her death and the knock at their door.
He never planned to hurt her, but the noise became impossible to ignore.
“Mr. Arduino,” the judge said, “do you have anything to say in your defense?”
Millis glanced up but said nothing.
He eyed the room and settled on the stenographer’s nails and their melodic click upon each key. He just needed Sue to be the hive and keep the bees away.
Millis returns in The Many Worlds of Mr. A. Skouandy, “Free of Bees” available Fall 2020