Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Young Adult

Illustration by Claire Xu

Not The Unusual

by Claire Xu

Author Bio

Claire Xu is a sophomore at Gunn High School and lives in Palo Alto. As a writer, she hopes to use her stories as a way of conveying messages and starting conversations about issues that she cares about. Besides writing, Claire devotes her time to Gunn's clubs as an officer of Gunn Business, Green Team, and Science Olympiad. She also enjoys programming, playing music, and drawing.


The inspiration for this story came to me last April, when a hive of bees decided to move into the HVAC system of our house. I still remember pulling up the window shutters and just staring in awe at the swarm flying around our balcony. Of course we had to call in people to have them relocated, but instead of being relieved after the bees left, I found myself feeling a little sad, like I didn't want them to go. Eventually I decided to capture these emotions in a story and write about impermanence, as well as explore what it means to belong and have a home.

Judge Comments

In "Not the Unusual," two siblings, forever being moved from one home to another, find a fascinating comfort in a colony of bees. Strong, fresh prose and wonderful dialog bring Mags and Oleander alive and into our hearts.

— Meg Waite Clayton

"It started with bodies in the bathroom. Then, the humming began. Mags noticed it first, as she was the only one still fully awake. She sat at the desk with her chin propped up on her hand, reading the open pages of What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions while Oleander lay on the bed with a borrowed coding textbook, about to nod off.

The heaviness of summertime quarantining was upon them. It spilled in from the windowsill of their new apartment and pooled around their bodies, so thick and viscous that even lifting an arm became an arduous task. Oleander could feel the weight on his eyelids, and the book fell slack in his hands. He felt that he could finally rest without worrying, now that they had a place to stay.


Mag’s tone was urgent. It was the same voice that his parents used when ushering them out in the middle of night before the landlord came the next morning to demand the rent.

"Yeah? Did something happen?"

"Do you hear that?" asked Mags.

The world swam in front of him as he sat up, blood suddenly rushing out of his head. He tried to listen for it.

"Hear what?"

"That noise," she said. "Sounds like Dad’s old leaf blower."

As he sat up Oleander discerned it: a low, buzzing noise that seemed to rise and fall as it circled through crescendos and decrescendos. Its spontaneity indeed reminded him of the leaf blower his father had bought at a local flea market, back when they were living in their rental home in Oakland. Although the machine was quite old and practically falling apart, and it took several tugs on the cord just to get it to splutter to life, his father would still go out whenever he could to clean the leaves from the yellowing lawn in front of their house.

"You and Mags should have somewhere nice to play," he’d said as he stood hunched over, preparing to pull the cord again, "and it’s the least I can do to make our house look nice." Afterwards, he sat on the porch and watched as Oleander and Mags held fallen tree branches in their hands, pretending the chain link fence that surrounded them was a castle wall, and they were knights ordered to protect it. "Begone!" they shouted, brandishing their makeshift swords. "This is our home!"

It almost seemed to Oleander later on that they weren’t just playing, but were also trying to fend off the invisible enemy—unemployment and economic downturns—that would drag them away each time they settled into a new place. They were even more adamant in protecting that Oakland home, as it was the only "house" they’d ever lived in. In the past, they would just move from apartment to apartment, finding remnants of previous tenant’s lives stained into the carpet or etched on the wall, or left in forgotten tubes of toothpaste in the bathroom drawers. Nothing had ever felt like theirs until they rented that house, but even that was temporary.

"It’s definitely coming from outside," Oleander said, looking past Mags at the door of their second-story balcony. In the sunlight that spilled from underneath the fabric, he could see specks of shadows flickering wildly on the floor. The humming was louder than ever.

Mags nodded as they crossed the room to open the balcony door curtain. She gripped the curtain and yanked it back.

With wide eyes, they watched as black dots flitted dizzyingly across their faces.

"Oh, wow, look at that," she said breathlessly. "I’ve never seen so many in the city. What are they doing here?"

Oleander sighed. "I don’t know. But we’re going to have to tell Mom and Dad about this."

"Do we have to?"

Mag’s brows knitted together. "They’re not harming us," she said.

"Maybe they’re not right now," Oleander replied, closing the curtain, "but if we keep them here they'll make themselves at home inside some vent. Then our AC will be ruined. We actually have one for once so I don’t want it to stop working."

"I don’t either," Mags replied, "but they just want a place to live. We’d understand that, right?"

"Yeah," Oleander said quietly, "but they don’t belong in the city either."

"They don’t have anything better," Mags retorted. "Don’t you remember when we were living in Oakland? And the old little house that we loved, with the fence around it and the yard? Then the landlord booted us out after eight months because we couldn’t pay. Do you really want to do that to them?"

She gestured towards the door. When Oleander didn’t respond, she turned and reached for the door handle of the balcony.

"What are you doing?"

"Going out," she replied nonchalantly.

"With a million of those? Are you crazy?"

"There aren’t that many," she said, "but if I get stung, I’ll come back in."

He knew he couldn’t stop her. Mags was always the first to report a rodent infestation by holding a live mouse in her hand, or a cockroach problem by coming into the living room covered in them and laughing. "They’re Madagascar hissing cockroaches," she had giggled, almost proudly, as their mother frantically tugged her outside to smack off each bug one by one. There was simply no way to tell Mags what to do and what not to do: once she was set on doing something, she did it, no matter how many times Oleander pleaded otherwise.

Now, he watched as Mags shut the door and gazed up at the wall of fuzzy bodies, gold and brown stripes shimmering under glassy wings as they slipped into the hole in the side of their apartment. A few flew around her, but she didn’t seem to mind it at all, not even when one settled onto her outstretched palms, or when more landed on her bright yellow shirt. It was as if her fingers were the curled petals of a flower, and Mags a strange-looking plant, that the bees were drawn to. Oleander wanted to call out "We don’t even know if you’re allergic yet!" But, he only stood there silently as the bees gathered onto Mag’s shirt and hung in clumps from her hair, and she smiled when they realized she in fact was not a flower and began to fly off.

After she’d gently nudged the remaining few from her hand, she came inside.

"Somehow, you didn’t get stung," Oleander said, shutting the door behind her. "I thought they’d be mad at us for the dead ones in the bathroom."

"The bees that came in from the vent, got stuck, and then died because they couldn’t get out?"

"Yeah." He let out the breath he’d been holding. "Can bees be mad though? Do they have feelings?"

"Either way," said Mags, "we can’t let Mom and Dad find out. They’re our secret."

For the rest of the week, the bees were on their minds constantly. They kept the curtains open during the day but closed them immediately when their parents got home. But as long as the bees were there, and they could hear the faint buzzing in the background, they felt comforted.


The morning a week after their discovery, someone knocked at the door. Oleander awoke to the sound of voices down the hall. It wasn’t an unusual thing to wake up to. It was either his parents arguing over the bills they had to pay or a landlord giving them their last warning and rent. He got up quietly, trying not to wake Mags, and made his way to the living room, where his mother was standing in the doorway talking to a man dressed in a white beekeeper suit.

"What’s going on?"

His mother sighed. "We have a bee infestation."

Oleander feigned a look of surprise.

"The landlord called people over to remove them." she continued, "They’re here now to do that."

Mags emerged from the bedroom. When she saw the beekeeper, her face went white.

They watched as the beekeeper walked across their living room, his suit making a swishing sound and his equipment dragging behind him. He went onto the balcony to set things up, and before long, they could see him using his equipment to suck the bees into a container.

"I feel sick," Mags whispered.


"It feels like that time we went to Grandma’s place, and were waiting in the car while Dad talked to her. Do you remember the look on her face?"

"The second or the third time?"

"The time she wouldn’t let us stay," she said.


Once the hive was gone, a few stranglers still hung around the balcony, looking for the rest of the colony. They went outside and Mags let the last of them buzz around her, watching as they flew back and forth between her and the wall as if confused and asking where the hive was.

"Wonder where they are now," said Mags.

"The bee removers said they’re being relocated to a strawberry farm by the ocean," he replied.

They’d driven through there once while moving. It was a stretch of land between two large cities where virtually no one lived, except for the farmers that tended to the field of strawberries and artichokes. When they’d seen it in the morning the rows of plants had been covered in a layer of fog.

A brown speck on the ground caught her eye. Mags stooped down to take a closer look.


Mags was holding something in her hand.

"What is it?"

In her palm lay a bee on its back, with its legs in the air and its fuzzy underbelly exposed. Its wings were haphazardly folded underneath it, dull and crumpled.

"We should bury it," he said, taking the body from her hands.

"No, we’re keeping it."

She went inside and took the small jewelry gift box from the shelf beside their bed, motioning Oleander to put the bee inside. He took off the lid and laid it onto the foam pad. It slumped to the side, its legs curling inward. It looked as if it were just asleep.

He took the bee and opened the drawer where they kept the boxes of other things they had collected over the years. Dried flowers lay next to the pine cones and sticks from the Oakland house, bottle caps found in the backyard of Grandma’s were scattered amongst the rocks from the train tracks near their old school. Oleander placed the bee next to the box of flowers, already neatly packed in case they would have to move again.