Kingdom of Bees

Four children and a playground game which is not quite make-believe. Published in Sixfold after placing 13th in its Winter 2020 Fiction competition.

You haven’t spoken to anyone besides your mom since the beginning of summer break. The friends you would normally see outside of school have moved away. So every day while your mom is at work, you bike aimlessly through the streets near the apartment complex where the two of you live. She works a lot, sometimes even at night—last year she told you that she had become a custodian, and to this day the best definition you have of that word is the way she avoided your eyes when she said it, the hesitation in her voice. Anyway, it has been a long two weeks, and at this point you are willing to investigate almost anything. You find yourself squeezing the worn handbrake on your bicycle while passing through the park when you notice movement in a grove of trees.

The local park is a regular stop on your daily route despite being outside your neighborhood; during hot summer days, water fountains and public restrooms have a special importance in your mental map of the world. You leave your bike against a fence circling the park’s playground, make a quick detour for water, and approach the grove cautiously.

Once, it was a sandy clearing surrounded by a ring of trees, with pristine wooden picnic tables in dappled shade. Inevitably, teenagers happened. Traces of their activities remain: crushed cans and miniature bottles kicked under prickly bushes, phrases carved into the table legs with a variety of tools. A large oak tree towers over its neighbors at the head of the grove. Several faded kites flap uselessly in its branches, their mangled frames sticking out at odd angles, their line weaving chaotic webs among the leaves. Below, a man and a girl surrounded by balloons are hanging a banner which reads, “NEIGHBORHOOD BBQ TONIGHT! ALL ARE WELCOME!” The picnic tables are covered in a plastic imitation of red gingham held in place by coolers of different sizes. Most of the trash has been swept into a neat pile in a corner of the grove, and two backpacks lie at the foot of a portable grill.

By the time you finish taking everything in, the banner has been hung, and both the man and the girl have noticed you. Before you can back away, the girl runs up to greet you, her dark pigtails bouncing behind her. The two of you are the same height. “Are you here for the barbeque?” she asks. “We’re organizing it for our whole neighborhood! But we’re not ready yet—Dad, when are we starting?”

The man checks his phone, running a hand through the graying stubble on his chin. “Uhh . . . I bet most people won’t show up until six or so.” He strolls over and crouches down next to the girl. “Hey there. What’s your name?”

You clear your throat and straighten up so you can look him in the eye. “Eddie.”

“I’m Hana!” the girl replies. “And this is my dad.”

Hana’s dad chuckles. “Nice to meet you. Do you live around here?”

Your view is obscured by trees, but you know that the edge of the park is lined by neat rows of wide roofs. You ride there when you’re in the mood for smooth roads. “Umm, sorta?” you say with a shrug.

“Well, you’re welcome to join us tonight. Bring your family and friends too—we can’t eat all this food by ourselves.” He gestures at the setup, looking almost apologetic.

Hana grins at you. Her smile is brilliant; it makes you feel like you’ve been friends for years. You swallow and nod, hoping she can’t tell how light your insides are. Then, you’re racing home on your bike at a speed you didn’t know you were capable of.

You wait outside your front door on a flight of steps overlooking your apartment complex’s parking lot. You can recognize the sputtering of your mom’s car before you see it, and when she arrives at her numbered spot, you are there to meet her. You knock at the driver’s window and hop around in anticipation until she rolls it down, and then you smother her with a hug and a flood of words. Your description of the interaction at the grove comes out jumbled even though you’ve rehearsed it over and over in your head—how could you possibly describe that smile? Still, she can sense your excitement, and when you tell her about the barbeque, she relents. “But only for a little while,” she says. “I have a night shift to get to.”

The grove is filled with chatter. The adults stand in small groups, eating delicately from paper plates while the younger children play tag at their feet. When you spot Hana’s dad, you break away from your mom and weave through the small crowd towards the grill. Hana is helping him serve hot dogs, her face illuminated by fairy lights. “Oh, it’s you!” she says when you reach her. “Here, how many do you want?”

“Where are you sitting?” you blurt out as you hold up two fingers.

She gives you two hot dogs on a plate and leads you to a nearby picnic table. A girl and a boy kneel on one of its benches, poring over a large notebook and eating in silence. They look strikingly similar in their matching uniforms, and the right sides of their collared shirts are marked with an unfamiliar logo. As Hana waves to them, the girl narrows her eyes at you and asks, “Who’s that?”

“Don’t be mean! We’re friends. Eddie, this is Claire and Connor. They’re twins! We go to the same elementary school.”

“Middle school,” Claire says.

“We just finished fifth grade,” Hana explains.

“Me too,” you say.

Connor acknowledges you with a sharp nod but is clearly more interested in the notebook. Claire continues to stare at you.

You point at the notebook and ask, “What’s that for?”

“It’s a secret,” she snaps, hovering over it protectively.

Hana rolls her eyes. “Let him see it, Claire. It’s not even your game.”

Claire frowns but moves aside to make space for you at the table. Hana flips through the notebook to a map drawn in colored pencil. In large letters at the bottom of the page are the words, “THE KINGDOM OF ETHER.”

“This is a story I created,” Hana says. “It takes place in space! See, this is our floating castle.” She places her finger on a familiar blue-and-yellow structure in the middle of the map.

“That’s the playground,” you say.

“Yeah, but imagine it’s a castle in space. And we all live here and play different characters—”

“I lead the space patrol and fight the Quasare dragons!” Connor says. At the edge of the map is a clump of trees labeled “DRAGON TERRITORY.” You look up at the branches hanging over the grove. Silhouetted against a darkening sky, the broken kites start to resemble pairs of outstretched wings.

“And I’m the queen.” Claire tosses her light curls.

Hana turns to you. “You should join! It’s better with more people, and I’m only partly playing because I have to keep track of everything that happens in the game. Dad, can Eddie play with us?”

“Sure . . . as long as his parents are okay with it.”

You realize that you’re still holding the food you meant to share with your mom. “Wait, let me go find her.”

She is standing right where you left her, watching the barbeque from the entrance of the grove. She turns to leave as you give her the plate with the remaining hot dog, but you tug at her hand and drag her over to the grill. Hana continues explaining the game once you return to the picnic table, but you keep glancing at your mom as she talks to Hana’s dad and an elegant woman who must be the twins’ mother. Your mom carries herself with dignity, but she looks small and stiff in her work clothes next to the elegant woman, who seems determined to outshine her. The woman is wearing all white, and the perfect waves in her hair cascade across her shoulders every time she laughs. When a bee circles your mom, trying to get to her food, the woman exclaims, “Oh, it likes you!” Your mom shrinks away from the bee with a nervous laugh. But when she notices you watching her, she flashes you an encouraging smile, and you can tell that she is providing you safe passage into the Kingdom of Ether.


Every Monday and Thursday after lunch, you meet Hana, Claire, and Connor at the playground with the supervision of Hana’s dad. In the first half of the afternoon, everyone goes about their normal routines. Claire, the queen, takes her place at the top of the castle and surveys her vast kingdom. Hana, the seer, performs scrying rituals in a shady chamber and reports her visions to Claire. Claire instructs Connor, the patrol leader, to keep the peace among the masses, or to investigate a disturbance at the border, depending on what Hana sees. Connor brings you scrap metal and debris from his expeditions, and you, the tinkerer, fashion weapons and armor in your workshop for him to use. You wish your role didn’t involve taking orders from Connor all the time. It’s hard to argue with Claire, though, so you take comfort in the possibility of proving yourself in other ways during the second half of the afternoon.

Today, while Connor is carrying out his patrol, Hana signals to him from the top of the castle. He marches over dramatically and says, “Queen Claire! We discovered a crashed spaceship at the border.”

“Take me there,” Claire says. “I want to question the captain.”

“Can I come with?” you ask.

“This has nothing to do with you. You stay here.”

Hana rushes to your defense. “But Eddie’s the tinkerer. I bet he would know a lot about the ship.”

Claire makes a face. “Okay, fine. Let’s go.”

You gather at the edge of dragon territory. “The captain of the ship says that she and her passengers came from a kingdom with a very cruel leader,” Hana reads from her notebook. “They stole a ship and ran away. But the Quasare dragons attacked them when they passed through here. They almost didn’t make it.”

“How do we know they’re not lying? They might still be dangerous,” Claire retorts. “We should just leave them here.”

“Does anyone on the ship understand how it works?” you ask, sensing an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.

Hana shakes her head. “Just the captain. And she only knows how to fly it.”

You turn to Connor. “What if I fix the ship, and you make sure they leave our kingdom afterwards? Then we don’t have to take them in, and they might help us in the future.”

“Oh, that’s smart,” he says. “What do you think, Claire?”

You hold your breath while Claire considers her options.

“Hmm . . . alright,” she says, putting on an authoritative tone. “Connor will guard the ship while Eddie makes his repairs.” Hana sees the triumph in your face and gives you a discreet thumbs-up before opening her notebook to record these changes under your character descriptions.

At 4:15, a white SUV pulls into the parking lot near the playground. The car’s shiny exterior is blinding in the afternoon sun. Through the windshield, you can see the elegant woman’s sunglasses against her pale face. Claire and Connor dash off together after saying a quick goodbye.

“Why are they in such a hurry?” you ask Hana.

“They have swim practice, or art class, or something like that. Their mom signs them up for stuff and doesn’t want them to be late,” she says. “She’s really strict.”

The two of you walk to the bench near the water fountain, where Hana’s dad has been reading and watching over your bike. “Do you need a ride home?” he asks, peering over his book as you reach for your helmet.

“No, I can bike,” you say, shaking your head vigorously.

“I know I’ve said this before but . . . if you ever do, just ask. It’s no problem at all.”

You and Hana wave at each other as they drive away, and then you head home.


On a humid day late in June, you find Hana and her dad alone at the park. “Claire and Connor’s mom told my dad weeks ago that they have a swim meet today, but he totally forgot until just now,” Hana says, opening her notebook as the two of you sit down at a picnic table in the grove. “I was running out of story anyway, though, so I was going to come up with some new things that might happen. Do you have any ideas?”

You both tap your fingernails against the table for a few minutes, trying to think. “What if the people living in the kingdom were unhappy and wanted a new leader?” you say.

“Ooh, because the dragons get too close and start destroying some of the towns?” Hana scribbles notes onto a blank page as she speaks.

“The commoners that survive come to the castle and ask Claire for help.”

“She sends Connor and his men to fight off the dragons, but it’s not enough. The commoners want a stronger leader and start planning a revolution.”

“Can I do it?”

“Do what?”

“The revolution.”

She stops writing and looks at you in surprise. “You mean, you want to replace Claire?”


“Well . . . it is more fair that way. Claire shouldn’t be telling us what to do all summer. But we have to plan it carefully. She won’t go along with it if you just bring it up.”

While you and Hana are writing out your revolution speech, there is a low rumble in the air. The branches above you begin to sway in the wind, and before Hana can close her notebook, the pages are covered in dark spots of rain. Hana’s dad appears at the entrance of the grove. “Come on!” he calls, gesturing towards the parking lot.

You scramble back to the playground to fetch your bike. Hana and her dad have almost reached his car when he realizes that you aren’t following them. “Eddie, I can’t let you bike home in a storm. Just come with us this time.”

He’s right. Your clothes are soaked through, and you’re shivering so much that you can’t hold the handlebars of your bike still. You climb into the back of his car with Hana. He loads your bike into the trunk before getting into the driver’s seat, and the three of you sit in silence, listening to the downpour outside.

“Alright, then,” he says to you after a minute, still cheerful despite the rain dripping from his chin. “Where are we going?”

“So if you go out this side of the parking lot and turn right . . .”

Your apartment complex is a five-minute drive from the park, but each pause between the directions you give to Hana’s dad feels unbearably long. Hana is staring out her window with a dazed expression, as if she didn’t expect a neighborhood like yours to exist so close to her own. When you make eye contact, she quickly looks down, twisting her hands together in her lap while her face turns red.


Over the next two weeks, Hana introduces the threat of the Quasare dragons and the growing unrest among the citizens of Ether. Claire and Connor are oblivious to your plan. Hana distracts them with visions of the dragons’ terrifying powers, and you practice your revolution speech while pretending to tinker away in your workshop. One day, she returns from a meeting in the grove with the twins and whispers, “It’s time!”

She leads you to the grove. “What’s happening?” Claire asks.

You take a deep breath. “For too long, the Qua—Quasare dragons have been allowed to destroy the homes of our citizens. Many are dead, and the others have nowhere to go. This cannot continue! The rev—revolutionaries have surrounded the castle and ap—appointed me as their leader. I demand an election to decide which one of us should rule this kingdom.”

You?” she scoffs. “No way. That wasn’t even your own speech.”

She wouldn’t be allowed to treat you like this if you were king. You feel yourself tensing up, and Hana grabs your wrist to hold you back.

“Besides,” Claire continues, “there’s only four of us, and I bet it’ll be a tie.” She shoots a meaningful glare at Hana’s hand.

Hana lets go of you abruptly. “I—I can flip a coin.”

“No. If you think you’re a better leader, Eddie, then prove it. Let’s have a contest. Whoever slays a dragon”—Claire points at the kites in the oak tree—“and brings it back first will rule the kingdom.”

This was not part of Hana’s plan. She turns to you and says quietly, “I don’t know what she’s doing, but it might be your best chance. If you want to do this, go before my dad sees us.”

You try to picture what your world would look like from the top of the oak tree. More certainty, more freedom, perhaps. No more tiptoeing around everyone else the way your mom did when she was here for the barbeque. Your heart rises in your chest, straining towards the kites fluttering high above you. “Okay,” you say. “I’ll do it.”

Connor goes to the base of the tree and uses a stick to draw a line in the sand. You and Claire take your positions behind it, and he says, “On your marks . . . get set . . . go!”

Claire is up over the first branch by the time you get a good foothold. The bark scrapes at your leg when you pull yourself up, but adrenaline reduces the pain to a warm pulse. As you climb towards a kite hanging on your side of the tree, you see that Claire is having trouble with hers; the line is so tangled that it can barely move. When she tugs at it, the frame flails in all directions, and she has to lean back to avoid getting scratched. You clamber onto a branch within arm’s reach of your kite, but as you try to pull it loose, there is a sharp, burning sensation near your wrist. An angry welt begins to form on your skin, and suddenly, over the rustling of all the foliage that Claire has displaced, you hear a buzzing sound. “Claire, look out!” you yell.

She whirls around, her face contorted with rage. “What? What do you want now?”

Connor also notices the swarm of bees above her. “Get out of the tree!” he shouts. “Bees!”

Claire screams and thrashes about, swatting at them with her arms, but as the buzzing intensifies, she gives up on the kite and starts lowering herself through the branches. Realizing that you are at an advantage, you seize the frame of your kite and try to free it from the branches so you can take it with you. But the bees sense your movements and surround you, stinging your arms and hands until you can no longer grip the kite. Refusing to leave it behind, you hug your swollen arms to your chest, curl up until your forehead rests against the branch you are sitting on, and squeeze your eyes shut.

“Eddie! Come down!”

You shake your head. There is some shuffling in the sand below you as Claire reaches the ground.

“Eddie, listen to me!” Hana is pleading with you. “This isn’t about the game anymore. We’ll say you won—you can be king—right?”

You open your eyes. Connor is nodding in agreement. Claire seems to be resisting the idea, but Hana elbows her hard, and reluctantly she nods at you as well. In that moment, you find yourself gazing down into the faces of three children, desperate and powerless after all.

“. . . Claaaaire, Connnnor, where are you?” a shrill voice calls from a distance.

The others spin around to face the entrance of the grove. You freeze and press yourself flat against the branch.

“There, under the big tree,” Hana’s dad answers. “Do you see them?”

The elegant woman walks into the clearing, removing her sunglasses and blinking to adjust her eyes to the shade. “What’s taking so long? We’re going to be late for—” she gasps when she sees Claire’s bee stings. “Baby, what happened to you?”

Claire points at your hiding spot in the tree as she tearfully recounts how you tricked her into disturbing the bees’ nest, her wails growing more and more incoherent.

“Connor, is that true?” the woman asks.

Connor gazes at Claire, then at Hana, and finally up at you. Slowly, he turns to his mother and nods.

“Unbelievable,” she says, the word dripping with disgust. To Hana’s dad, she continues, “I didn’t bring my children here so you could let them run around with any random kid off the street . . . ”

You want to scream at her, but your voice is choked with tears. You scramble out of the tree, run to your bike, and ride away before they can hear you cry.

“Looks like you’ve had a long day too,” your mom says when you arrive home later than usual. “Oh, did you get stung by something?”

“Yeah, I was at the park . . .”

“Come to the bathroom. Can I take a look?”

You sit on the sink counter and tell her what happened while she washes your face and cleans the stings with a towel. “You didn’t know the bees’ nest was there, right?” she says, handing you a pack of frozen peas for the swelling. “So it wasn’t your fault. Claire and Connor shouldn’t have lied about that. I bet they were scared of getting in trouble themselves. Press that where it hurts . . . I’ll grab another pack.” She smiles at you on her way out, but not before you notice the exhaustion in her eyes. You hold the frozen peas against your left arm and swing your legs in the air while thinking over her words.

The doorbell rings, and you hear your mom going to answer it. You stop fidgeting and listen to the muffled voices as they clash and recede, one slowly overpowering the other, but you can’t make out any of the words. Finally, the front door closes. When your mom doesn’t return, you jump off the counter and run to the window just in time to see the white SUV drive away down the street.

Your mom is leaning against the front door, her face pale. “How did she know we lived here?” she asks.

“I’m sorry—Hana’s dad drove me home once—it was raining—”

“No, it’s fine, I—I was just surprised. But . . . promise me you won’t go near them again?”

You nod. She pulls you in for a hug. “I wish there was more I could do, Eddie. You don’t deserve any of this.”

You hold each other for a while. Eventually, she sighs and says, “I’m going to be late for work. Dinner’s in the kitchen. Can you help me with the dishes after you eat?”


That night, you lie awake in bed for so long that you hear the front door unlock as she comes home from her night shift.


Lunchtime comes and goes. You should be at the playground by now. You watch the minutes tick by on the kitchen clock, feeling increasingly restless. This game had been the highlight of your summer, and now—

You bike to the edge of the park. When you see that the playground is empty except for Hana and her dad, you relax and approach. Hana sees you first and hurries over. “Eddie! I was scared you wouldn’t come. Are you okay?”

You tell her about the elegant woman showing up at your apartment.

She clutches at her head. “Oh no . . . my dad can be so clueless. I’m really sorry—I don’t think he would’ve told her your address if he knew she would do that.”

“So . . . what happens now?”

Hana glances towards the grove. A cloud of static still twists itself through the trees, buzzing faintly. “Well, Claire and Connor’s mom isn’t letting them play with us anymore. The game doesn’t really work with two people, but . . . we can still hang out if you want! You can come over, or—” she falters, “or something. I don’t know.”

This is not the kingdom you wanted to inherit. Hana seems to recognize this too. You both stare at the ground helplessly until Hana’s dad joins and says, “Hey, Eddie . . . uh . . . we have to go pretty soon. Hana has a dentist appointment today.”

“Oh. Um . . . bye, Hana.”

She gives you a weak wave as they leave but doesn’t look you in the eye. You watch their car until it disappears behind the neat rows of wide roofs.

In the grove, the bees are waiting for their king.
© 2024 Kathryn Li All Rights Reserved