In the beginning, June and Nat are best friends. June is not yet a swarm of honeybees and Nat is not yet a cloud of horseflies, and the king hasn’t yet decided that separating them into parts like this—June’s left pinky finger one bee, her left ring finger another—is the only surefire way to strip them of what they really are. Which, at least in the beginning, is best friends, living together on the outskirts of town, sharing a dresser full of secondhand band tees, squeezing lemon juice onto one another’s hair in the summer, then sitting together on the blacktop to wait.
In the beginning, the prince is more interested in mastering a fakie heelflip than meeting girls, but his father is insistent, and the prince knows he’s about one “Wrong attitude, son” away from not being allowed to stay in the castle rent-free anymore. So he says all right. All right to a casual barbecue or something, not, like, a whole thing. Not like that time the prince’s dad hijacked his birthday party and dragged everyone downstairs to see his collection of hunting rifles and showed the prince’s then love interest how to skin a deer. Without giving her an apron or anything, so deer blood got all over her yellow halter top. Even though nobody will admit it to his face, the prince knows everyone’s kind-of scared of his dad. Like the girl, she was all animal rights before then, dog rescues, vegan menus, “I am a life, not a lunch” bumper sticker on the back of her car.
In the beginning, June is not honeybees, Nat is not horseflies, and both score jobs at the dessert shop walking distance from their apartment, which in the summer sells ice cream and the rest of the year sells pies and still a little ice cream, for people who want it à la mode. June and Nat applied for this job because it’s the only one in town, apparently, that doesn’t require them to freeze their butts off wearing short skirts all day in an air-conditioned mall. Rumor has it that Rebecca, who played volleyball with them back in high school, wore leggings under her skirt one day and got fired on the spot. Besides, the dessert shop is one of those old-fashioned places that spells it with an extra P-E, and June and Nat have a lot of fun shouting “Shop-ee! Shop-ee!” while twirling their fake moustaches and straightening their fake double-breasted vests.
In the beginning, the prince’s dad was okay with him taking a gap year, but now it’s getting a little excessive. Now it’s getting a little “No son of mine.” So now, two years after walking the stage at graduation, it’s either go to college, Penn State preferably, and do something—clubs, grades—with your life there, or stay in town and do something—wife, kids—with your life here. The main point being, well, get on with it already. And if it’s the wife/kids route, that’s all right with the prince’s dad, who has always wanted to teach a little slugger the ways of the world. Who passed through the toy gun section at the big retail store the other day and there was this tiny rifle, with an orange tip and a camo strap, that made him soften a little, that made him think, huh, how about that, isn’t that cute?
In the beginning, when June and Nat find the invite to the barbecue stuffed in their mailbox alongside a random catalog, the kind that sells sensible women’s office fashions, and a bunch of other stuff they didn’t ask for, they struggle to remember who the prince is. Did they have homeroom with him? Or was he that one guy in that group of guys who always booed Mr. Lefkowitz at assembly? And does it really matter, they wonder, when clearly this invite went out to all the townies, the kids who stuck around, and they aren’t those, not really. Because June’s only here for as long as it takes to save up for X-ray technician school, and Nat’s only here as long as June is. Which isn’t long now, because they’re already talking about their apartment in the city, and how since there’s no way they’ll be able to afford anything bigger than a studio, it’ll feel like a sleepover all the time.
In the beginning, the prince is a little miffed that June and Nat don’t come to the barbecue, for which his father promised to supply venison burgers but otherwise stay more or less out of the way, and which is attended not only by girls, but, well, girls are kind of the point. And people do come, and they say nice things about the music and the decor and the food, and the prince even gets to show off the skate ramp he and his dad are building in the driveway. Which is pretty much his mom’s worst nightmare, but should she really get a say, considering she’s always up in her office at the tippy-top of the tallest turret, the prince thinks it’s called, day in and day out, doing people’s taxes or whatever? So the party’s a hit, Mary even makes it, and her hair looks good long, and it’s not a huge deal about June and Nat. Until the prince mentions it to his father.
In the beginning, before June is a swarm of honeybees, she still gravitates toward Nat like Nat’s the sweetest-smelling flower. And before Nat is a cloud of horseflies, she still charges anyone who’s even remotely unkind to June, totally ready to bite. Like the guy at the dessert shop who called June a bitch for not giving him her number, who rolled his chew around the inside of his mouth like a threat and knocked the tip jar over before walking out with his strawberry cone. Then Nat ran around the counter to pick up the change and swore to June the next time she would key the motherfucker’s car. And June, she wants to be an X-ray technician, right? She wants to go to school to learn to see through people. So once, when they’d had too much to drink during some TV marathon, Nat made a joke like June could practice on her if she wanted, like, Junie, bet you can see right through me. And June didn’t take her up on it or anything, but looked at her for a long time, kept looking even after Nat, cheeks beer-hot, looked away.
In the beginning, when the prince tells his dad, whatever, those girls are attached at the hip, and his dad says what do you mean, the prince doesn’t know what he means exactly. He means they’re best friends. Are they? Ever since I can remember. And they live together? On the south side. That so? And they do everything together. Everything? Everything. And before the prince can say anything more about it, like probably they were just busy working the same shift or something, or his dad is doing that thing again where he absolutely has to have his way, like with the forced vegan deer-skinning, his dad is out the door. With his 30-30 Winchester 94, which he’s nicknamed, so embarrassing, the Kingdom Defender.
In the beginning, it’s supposed to be a simple wave-it-in-their-faces, scare-’em-straight situation, make sure they never stand his son up like that ever again. But then Nat gets mega protective like she does, and also sometimes, honestly, she just hates this town so bad. The way her name tag at work has to say “Natasha” instead of just Nat, manager’s orders, and all the other ways she can’t be completely herself. So she launches herself at the king’s head in the middle of the dessert shop parking lot, June a few seconds too late out of the double doors, and wrestles him, limbs flying, to the ground. And what’s the king to do then? Royal decree number one is the right to self-defense.
When Nat comes apart, it begins at her chest, at the point where the bullet enters, then spreads throughout her entire body, a near-instant dissolution of hair, skin, gritted teeth, balled fists still in food-safety gloves into a hundred thousand furious horseflies. A hundred thousand pairs of membranous wings, compound eyes.
When June comes apart, it begins with her mouth, open in a soundless scream like that painting they both know, made replicas of during a wine-and-paint class they took once for Nat’s birthday. Then not soundless. Then thunderous buzzing, as the bees bloom out of her, through her, from her. Like her organs are the first to go. Like what happens when you die of heartbreak, inside-out.
Everybody talks about happy endings, like “And then all the many parts of them flew as one into the sunset,” which isn’t what happens at all. They don’t even recognize one another. Obviously. Of course. But no one talks about the other way around. How beginnings can be beautiful, something worth lingering and lingering in. How in the beginning, June and Nat are best friends, and the lemon juice works its magic and they both have blonde streaks for the summer. The blacktop is hot but not too hot. The future is bright and not yet impossible, and they think next time they’ll try fresh-squeezed lemons for a change, instead of the stuff that comes in the bottle.