Butterfly

Pa died first. Mama died two years after him. That morning, Leah was nowhere to be found. Henry knew she was probably fluttering around somewhere. He didn't care to find her. His sister always vanished when something scary happened. He found Mama in the kitchen, eyes wide open and sitting in her own filth. He called 911 to have them come and get her. After they left, Leah returned and called around about having Mama put in the same cheap mass grave as Pa. The plot was full now. Mama would have to be buried one county over. Leah paid the $40 for the burial out of tip money she'd made at the restaurant. Henry was fourteen, still a minor. Leah was appointed his official guardian, as she was his next of kin and already lived with him. Henry hated the idea. Leah was never good at taking care of anything, most of all herself. She always did whatever Pa said, and Mama when Pa wasn't around. He didn't want to take orders from someone who couldn't plan a week out. Leah and Henry were twelve years apart. She was twenty-six now, but to Henry, she sometimes acted more immature than him. It was as if she was stuck at twelve, he thought. Everything about their family seemed stuck in time. Their home had outdated phones from the 1960s. Pa saw no reason to update. The plumbing and electrical wiring needed to be redone. Pa refused to get a new TV. The one from 1965, Pa said, didn't need replacing with another color TV. About a year before Pa died, the old TV had started to buzz when it was off. Pa said he didn't hear anything. Henry eventually unplugged it at night. It died the same year Pa did. The front porch had long rotted away. Pa said he'd fix it one day with Henry when he had the time. Pa never fixed anything. The porch never had any work done on it. What was there when he bought the house stayed until it fell apart. Henry cleaned up the wood and put it in a pile. Pa beat him for tearing down the rotten mess. As Pa saw it, he could still use the wood for something, some distant plan in the future that would never come to be. Leah disappeared then. Mama didn't comfort him. She questioned why he touched it at all. The back porch had fallen apart before Henry was born. The beds he and Leah slept on were some of the same beds Pa's children by his first wife had used. His four children by his first wife all died young, as did she, and Mama and Pa had also lost a baby together. Through Pa, Henry had six siblings and five of them were in the backyard. For children so young, Pa didn't see a reason to pay for a burial at a cemetery. They were buried, along with his first wife, past the shed. According to Pa, the county told him it was legal. He wanted to be buried out there too, but Mama didn't like the idea. Mama was stuck in her ways too. She dressed in Pa's first wife's old clothes, and had Leah dress in some of them too once she was big enough to fit them. Henry and Leah's clothes when they were very small also used to belong to Pa's children by his first wife. Once they had outgrown those, Mama dressed them in clothes she had gotten from her own cousins and their children. Henry had never been bought new clothes. Leah had a set of new clothes for work that she wore as a uniform. Pa always questioned the clothes she wore to work, demanding to know why clothes from more than thirty years ago were not good enough for her various bosses. She was expected to wear those old clothes whenever she wasn't at work. Henry didn't understand why she never moved out. A week after Mama died, two days after she was put in the ground, Leah came back from the bank with a suitcase full of money. She said. "Pack your stuff. We're moving." "Moving? Where too?" Henry asked. "Out west, to California." She said with smile. Leah was dressed in clothes Henry had never seen before. She had bright red lipstick on, a forbidden item in their household. "California?! But what about school?" He asked. "It's the beginning of June. You don't go back till September. We got all summer to get situated." She counted some bills in her wallet. "We're leaving tonight. I already called ahead and got us a motel room." "How are we gonna get to California?" Henry asked. "We're goin' on a road trip." Leah smiled. She dropped the suitcase by the old, rotting sofa and went to their shared room to pack. Henry followed behind her. He didn't hate the idea of moving out of that town. Much like Pa and Mama, this place too was stuck in some other era. Every few years, the dwindling people of the town voted to prevent anything new from coming in while they complained about more of the recent adults vanishing off to cities nearby. Each school year, the amount of people in Henry's grade got smaller. Last year, his grade was so small they could all fit in one room. The town would die soon, he thought. Those of the young adults who didn't leave carried on their parents' mentality to a new extreme. When they went Church on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings, Henry always had the same prayer. He wished for wings to fly away from this place before it suffocated him. As much as he wished for it, he doubted Leah's abilities to keep them anywhere. He leaned against the doorframe. "Where did you get all that money?" "Mama's life insurance, and what was left of Pa's. It's ours now." Leah rummaged through her drawer, but packed nothing. "You know what, if you don't wany any of this stuff all that much, we can go now. We can buy anything we want." "Shouldn't we take a few things for now?" "Nah. There's clothing stores in every city. If we get to the motel early, we can go shopping and go out to eat. At a real restaurant! No more grits and pork chops!" "I want a haircut." Henry said. For all his life, Leah had cut his hair in whatever cut Pa wanted. "From a stylist, not a barber." "Oh, you want a fancy haircut?" "If I'm going to get it done professionally, I want more options than what a barber would do." Henry stretched. The thought of eating at a restaurant and new clothes sounded nice. He wanted to try some of the nice candy he saw on the commercials. "California...should we really go that far? It's expensive there, isn't it?" "There's a lot of money. I didn't take it all out. I opened a new bank account." She pulled a plastic card out of her pocket. "We also have this now." "Is that a credit card?" He asked. She put it away. "I have checks too. Had to go an hour out of town to find a bank that's got locations everywhere. The one here is only here. I got a debit card too." "What's a debit card?" "It lets us pull money out of the bank from one of those ATMs." "ATMs?" "There all over in the cities. We don't have any here." Leah pulled a box down from the closet. She packed its contents. "This is all we need. Our birth certificates and social secruity cards. I got the truck's title too now. That's already in the car." "We're keeping that?" Henry hated that truck. The inside smelled awful, and it was always hot. Something was usually wrong with it every few months too. After Pa died, he and Leah had to do all the repairs on it. Mama wouldn't let them spend money on a mechanic. "You think it'll make it to California?" "It's gonna have to. We'll get a new car after we find somewhere to live. I called around and there's some nice mobile homes we could get." Leah said. "A trailer?! What about tornados?!" "They don't have 'em like we do out there. The weather's different." She walked out of the room. Henry looked around. There really wasn't anything he wanted to take with him. Pa didn't let them buy much, and when he was gone, neither did Mama. There were few things in the house at all. Outside of pictures for school, Henry had only seen one other photo of himself. It was from when he was a baby. There was a photo of Leah as a baby too. Both were hung on the wall in the living room. There were no photos of Pa or Mama. Photos of the children who died stayed on the walls beside their baby photos. He saw on TV that people had cameras now that could spit out a photo instantly. There wasn't much he wanted to remember about this place, but he held a deep bitterness inside him that his family didn't record anything. Everything lingered on hazily, uncaptured and unmoving. He took the two baby photos down of Leah and himself. "I'm ready," he said. "That's what you're taking?" He nodded. "Do you know where they sell cameras?" "I don't know, but we could find out." "I want a Polaroid camera." Henry said. "Those ones that make instant photos." "Are you going to take pictures for our road trip?" Leah asked. "Yeah." Henry glanced over at the old clock on the wall, then looked away. After the grandfather clock broke, that was the only clock left in the house. It died a year ago. Mama kept saying she'd get a new battery for it, but she never did. "We should go ahead and go." Henry and Leah carried everything they wanted to leave with lightly in their hands. The suitcase of money was hidden behind the truck's seats. As always, the truck smelled awful. Despite all the time that had passed since Pa died, Henry could still smell Pa's dip, cigarettes, and cheap coffee baked into the cushions. He was at least grateful that now that there were only two of them, he didn't have to sit behind the seats. The space back there was a good amount for storage, but not for a person to sit in. When he was little, he sat in between Pa and Mama up front, squished in. Once he got bigger, he was pushed in the back with Leah. He'd asked why Pa didn't buy a truck with more seats, but Pa slapped him for it and asked him if he thought money grew on trees. The dash had long cracked open from years of summers beating down on it. Burn holes littered the driver's side. Henry rolled down the window. The handle had to be pushed against the door to keep it in place while he cranked it down. He leaned against the door, wondering if the old truck could live long enough to make it out of the state, much less across the country. The motel took an hour to get to. They checked in. Leah put the suitcase of money in a safe in the room, taking out a couple thousand for them to buy new things with. Leah drove them to the closest mall. Henry had seen malls before on TV, but never been in one himself. There were so many things around him, he didn't know what to focus on. Leah pulled him toward a specific location, a salon. "You wanted a haircut, right? Let's both get one." She said. Henry let her lead him along. His stomach turned. Everything around him was moving too fast. He wanted a haircut, but what was he going to ask for? Henry was glad for the long line he saw when they went in. He noticed magazines full of hair styles on a table beside some chairs. Henry picked up one and flipped through it. He couldn't believe how many different options there were. What would look right on him? He'd never given it thought before. His hair had grown out quite a bit recently. Leah had neglected to give him a haircut recently. When it was his turn, he still couldn't decide. Face red, he asked the stylist what was popular with boys his age and to give him that. He didn't hate the look, but he was initially shocked to see something different on himself. Leah's new look shocked him more. He'd never seen her with short hair before. She looked taller. Her face stood out more too, he thought. Before, her long, messy hair always seem to cover up much of her face. Though he knew they should share features as siblings, it was only now that he really noticed them. Her green eyes were the same as his, in shade and shape. The shape of her jaw and her nose, those too were the same, though, he thought, his own face had only begun to look like that recently. After his voice changed, he couldn't help but notice in the mirror, the obvious, tiny hairs coming in aside, that his facial features were becoming more defined, more adult-like. There was less baby fat in his cheeks too. He couldn't pass for an adult yet, but he didn't look quite like a child anymore either. Henry had wondered if he would grow to look like Pa eventually. Right then, while he could see himself in Leah, he couldn't recall as well what Pa's face actually looked like. Mama's face was fresh in his mind, but not as she used to be. He could only recall the strange, distorted face she had on when he found her in the kitchen that morning, jaw hung wide open and eyes empty. There were no photos to look back on. He reminded Leah of the Polaroid camera. After buying new clothes and shoes and getting food at the food court, they found their way over to an electronics store. One of the employees helped get him the camera along with a large amount of film. The salesman convinced the two of them to buy a camera case with a strap and a photo box to go along with it. "Is it your son's birthday?" The man asked. Leah and Henry both froze for a moment. Leah laughed. "It's a present for starting high school in the fall." "Oh, you're starting high school, young man? You know, we also have some clips for hanging photos in lockers. They're pretty inexpensive. Would you like to see them?" The man asked. Leah looked to Henry. Henry nodded. They ended up buying the clips and two watches the man talked them into getting. By now, they couldn't carry any more bags. They loaded up the truck and went out to eat at a steakhouse across from the mall. Looking at the menu, Henry could only hear Mama and Pa shrieking about the price in his head. Still overly excited from all the shopping earlier, Henry intentionally ordered one of the more expensive meals on the menu. He ordered a dessert after that too, despite already feeling full. They returned to the motel exhausted and stuffed, their bags of treasures scattered around the room. Henry put on his digital watch and set the time. There were working clocks everywhere when they went to the mall, but he felt giddy watching the seconds pass on his wrist. He grabbed the camera and loaded it with film. Henry snapped a photo of the window in the room. He watched the photograph slide out of the camera and waited for it to develop. The photo came out blurry and grainy, but he loved it. He took several more of nothing in particular. On his feet, he still had on the new sneakers he got earlier. Henry didn't want to take them off. For years, he'd only ever wore hand-me-down shoes with worn out soles. His feet always hurt at the end of the day. Only after wearing the new shoes did he realize how much his feet were hurting during the rest of the day. Wearing new shoes made him feel like he could defy gravity and fly. The shirt and shorts he was wearing actually fit. They didn't have any stains or holes, and didn't smell like anything strange. He felt over the back of his head. The stylist at the salon had washed his hair for him. She let him pick out the shampoo and conditioner from the ones on her shelf. The scent of the shampoo lingered on his hair. He fell asleep with his watch and shoes on, camera in hand. He got the best sleep he could remember ever getting. The motel beds were creaky, but newer than the one he had at the old house. When he woke and saw all the bags around him, his excitement from yesterday dwindled. They couldn't keep spending like this. He put the camera away in its case and hung it from his neck. Leah walked in through the door carrying a bag of fast food. "I got breakfast." Henry looked inside it. He wanted to say something about money, but his stomach was empty. He ate first. "Hey, um, what's going to happen to our old house?" Henry asked. "I already sold it back to the bank. They said it'll probably be demolished and they'll sell the land." She said. "Even with the graves on it?" "Uh huh. A lot of houses have parts of graveyards or are near them. They just have to tell the people interested in buying it that they're there." Leah didn't seem bothered by it. "Huh. For land. They won't build another house there?" "It'd be up to the buyer if they want to. They said a lot of the land is being bought up for one of those big farm companies. They'll probably put cows on it." Leah ate her breakfast as if she were starving. Her watch beeped. "Oh, we need to get going soon." "Where exactly are we going?" Leah opened up a map. "I had the agent I talked to on the phone help me draw out a route to get to the area we're going to look at trailers in." "Agent?" "Real estate agent. We won't be renting. I'm going to buy a brand new one." Leah said. "We might look at some really small houses too, but I'm probably going to buy a trailer." "Why a trailer?" Henry asked. "Because you can move them." Leah opened the purse she bought yesterday. She tossed a magazine to Henry. "What's this?" "Pick out a car. I already picked out mine." She said. "I can't drive yet. I'm fourteen." "You'll be old enough to get a permit soon." Henry sighed. He picked up the magazine and flipped through. He liked the idea of having his own car and never having to get in that nasty truck again. He pictured himself in a sports car with the windows down, the wind through his hair. Henry let his daydream drift from the car to somewhere else. California, he didn't know much about the state other than what he saw in movies. He doubted they'd have the money to live on the coast, but it might be close enough to drive to. He saw the car with the sea beside him and on the other side, he pictured a girl around his own age. When Mama and Pa were alive, he almost never got to leave the town. All the girls he knew either went to his school or were on TV. He pictured a girl with bleach blonde hair and tanned skin wearing a bikini top and cutoff shorts, flashy sunglasses resting on top of her head. His cheeks burned. It was a silly thought. Henry looked at the prices of the cars. "Are you sure we can afford to buy a home and two cars? That's a lot of money." Henry looked around the room at all the bags scattered on the floor. They had already spent so much money. He felt sick thinking about it. "It'll be fine. We have enough." She reassured him. Henry remained unconvinced. Leah had never had this much responsibility before. He'd only ever seen her take orders. Sometimes, even he could boss her around. Seeing her as capable of this journey was harder to picture than his brief fantasy by the sea. The truck sitting outside alone made him doubt they would make it. It had been a while since he last had to work on it. It was only a matter of time before something went wrong. Leah and Henry stuffed everything from the bags into suitcases that were then jammed in the space behind the seats in the truck. Henry wondered if the smell that lingered in the truck would stick to all the new things they bought. They drove for most of the day. Around seven, Leah pulled into a restaurant parking lot. "We'll eat here tonight." She said. Henry glanced at the rest of the parking lot. It was full. There was a line out the door. "Are you sure?" "There's a motel really close by. It'll be fine." Leah parked the car and got out. They ended up waiting an hour to be seated. Despite how packed it was, the place was messy. He stepped through peanuts and paper trash. The smell of alcohol and cigarette smoke lingered in the air. Groups of people were shouting at TVs with no sound on. Leah and Henry were tucked away in a corner. Leah sunk down in her seat. Henry rolled his eyes. "We should get out of here fast." Henry said. Leah's hands shook. "It looked nice from the outside. Why is everyone so loud?" As they waited for their food, a drunk man approached their table. He leaned over the table. "Hey gorgeous. Why don't you come over to my table? We've got an extra seat." The man said. Leah's entire body shook. She didn't speak. "What's wrong? Cat got your tongue?" The man got closer to her. Henry stood up. "Hey! Get lost! She doesn't want to talk to you." "Shut up, kid. This is a conversation between adults." The man glared at Henry. "Right, baby?" The man and Henry both looked at Leah, but no one was there. The drunk man looked all around. "What the hell? Where'd she go?" He looked under the table. "None of your business. Can you leave now?" Henry sat back down. "Whatever." The drunk man wandered off. Soon after, the waitress came over to their table. She smiled. "Sorry to keep you waiting. Oh, where's the lady at?" "Uh, she's in the bathroom." Henry said. "Oh, should I come back in a few minutes to take your order?" The waitress asked. "No, I know what she wants." The waitress got out a pad and a pen. She looked back at the table and narrowed her eyes. "Is that...a butterfly? How did that get in here?" Henry looked over. A butterfly rested on the part of the salt shaker. Its wings were black with red spots and white stripes on the bottom of its wings, and black with blue spots and white stripes on the top side. It fluttered down and crawled beside the napkin holder. "Must've come in through the door." Henry ignored it. "Would you like me to get rid of it?" "No, it's not bothering me." Henry said. After the waitress took their order, Henry played with his watch. The butterfly flew away from the table. Shortly before the food arrived, Leah returned to the table. They both ate quickly and left to the nearest motel. That night, Henry heard Leah whimpering in the bathroom around midnight. He ignored her cries and went to sleep, as he always did. They spent most of the following day driving again. Leah stopped at a grocery store along the way to pick foods to eat. She chose a fancy hotel for their next resting place. The hotel had a pool, and every room had cable TV, a mini fridge, and a microwave. Leah was happy with that until she heard the room options left. They only had two rooms available, both with only a king size bed. "Isn't there any rooms with two beds?" Leah asked. She gripped her purse straps as her hands shook. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but those are the only two rooms we have left. We're really booked tonight. There are several guests that should be checking out tomorrow though. If you'd like to stay more than one night, we could switch you to a different room after one of those guests checks out." The lady at the front desk offered. "We're traveling through. We only need a room for tonight. D-do you know if there are any other hotels nearby?" Leah asked. "Um...it's quite a ways to the next one, but that one usually fills up before we do. They're pretty popular with people vacationing in the area." The woman said. "Is it only the two of you? I'm sure you and your son should be able to fit in the bed together. It's a king size." "Y-yes!" Leah blurted out. Henry sighed. "We'll take the room." The lady handed the key over to Henry. He led Leah to the room. "Did you really need to make a scene like that?" "I wasn't trying to." Leah said. She looked desperately around the room for somewhere to be other than the bed. "For this price, why couldn't I get another bed? There's not anything else I could sleep on." "They don't usually expect someone to not want to sleep on a bed." Henry dropped his suitcase by the bed. He tossed his shirt off. Leah stayed by the door. "Why did you take your shirt off?" "I'm going to the pool." He walked up to her. Their eyes were on the same level. "Do you have a problem with that?" "I don't see why you need to go to a place like that, or why you can't wear your shirt." Henry rolled his eyes. "God, why are you always like this? I thought maybe things were gonna be different after that day you waltz in the house with all that money and new clothes, but you're the same as before." "I am not! You won't talk to me that way. I'm the one in charge of everything now!" "In charge? You nearly cried in front of the lady at the front desk because she said you had to share a bed with your brother. And now you're panicking because I don't have a shirt on. Guys don't usually wear shirts to go swimming, sorry." Henry raised his voice. "I am your brother, right? What are you so scared of will happen tonight?" "I don't know! Anything could happen!" "Buy me a car, buy me clothes, be my guardian. Am I a child or not?" Henry walked past her. "You didn't act like this around me last year. And if you keep acting like this, I'll disappear in four years." The room went silent. Henry looked back. Leah was gone again. He balled his fist and slammed the door shut. Henry walked out to the pool. There were a few people in it. He kept to himself at the edge of the pool, letting his legs hang over the side into the water. He kicked his feet back and forth. The three families in the pool looked so happy together. A mother was teaching her small child how to hold his breath under water. She held his hands and they went under. When they came back up, they both laughed. Henry tried to recall any time when his family had been like that, but everything from back then blurred together. He couldn't remember anyone ever smiling or laughing. He felt some jealousy rising in him at how happy the other children in the pool were with their parents. Henry wanted a mother, but Leah was still playing the role of sister. Ever since last year, she didn't act like that was true either. When he returned to the room, he didn't see Leah. Henry didn't care to wait up for her. He turned in for the night. As he drifted off to sleep, he saw something drift down on the pillow beside his. He forgot about it in the morning. The next morning, Leah's alarm woke him up early. She had gotten their breakfast ready and was rushing him out the door. They spent the entire day on the road, neither speaking much. Henry took blurry pictures of everything he saw out the window. He kept his window down the entire ride. The smell of the truck was suffocating. He could handle it more when they made frequent stops. Spending all day in the truck was making him sick. His stomach turned. He didn't know how he handled being in the vehicle before. Though he couldn't place why, the scents mixing together in the truck felt as if they were clinging to his skin. There was nothing there, but he could feel a grimy, thick layer of filth coating him. As he shifted in the truck, he couldn't get comfortable in any position. The air inside the truck, the texture of the seats and the doors, the cheap mats on the floor; everything around him felt like it was pressing up against him, crushing him. His chest tighetened, but Leah wouldn't stop anywhere. She kept on driving until long after sunset. That night, they stayed in a cheaper hotel after they stopped at three different, nicer hotels before that. That was the only one with a room that had two beds in it. Leah wouldn't accept anything else. Henry didn't bother fighting with her about it. He stayed out at the pool for hours, alone. This hotel didn't have many guests that night. The pool itself was small and the scenery around it wasn't very inviting. While the pool was clean, it was obvious the rest of hotel property hadn't been kept up or deeply cleaned in a long time. A trash can was on its side not far from the pool, overflowing with garbage. The bushes at the far end of the property were full of litter blown over from the highway. The paint of the building was faded, and parts of the walls appeared to be rotting away. He didn't really care. He kicked his feet back and forth, thinking of flying. This place wasn't any worse than where he came from. Back home, there weren't even hotels at all and his school was more run down than this place. Henry slipped into the water. He went under to the bottom. The pool had lights under the water. Down there, it was like he was somewhere else for a moment, somewhere floating in the sky. He recalled seeing at the other hotel a mother holding her young child's hands and sinking down with the child under the water. Their hands connected them as they floated somewhere hidden from the rest of the world. Henry reached out, but there was no one there to hold him in this watery sky. There had never been anyone to hold him or help him fly away to somewhere else for a moment. He was always in that place, going through each day in a daze. The only thing that embraced him was the hands of death at his back as he watched the world he'd always known, that tiny town, implode on itself into a land of dust and rusted metal. The sky was always changing above them, but nothing else did. He often reached for the shifting crystal blue back then too, wishing to float off the way the soap bubbles in the sink did when they managed to escape from that rotting place through the open window. As a child, he used to think those bubbles made it all the way to the stars, but he knew they didn't get much further than he did. Henry let his body float up to the surface. The night sky had the same amount of stars here. He once heard on TV it was possible to see more stars at the beach. When he asked Pa, Pa told him if he had time to count stars, he had time to do more chores. His teachers didn't care to answer his questions about the rest of the world either. They told him to worry more about passing his tests than about stars. Counting stars isn't a job, and school is for preparing to work. He wondered if what he heard was simply a fantastical invention of Hollywood, some kind of magical lie dreamed up in Los Angeles. He had no way of knowing until he found the sea. If Leah managed to get them to California and buy him a car, he could fly from there. He could drive himself down to the sea and count the stars for himself on his own time, and then he could keep driving on through the night. Henry returned to the hotel room around midnight. Leah was already in bed. She woke up when he came into the room. He showered, then went to bed. He could feel her eyes on him as he drifted into sleep. As he fell asleep, he felt himself floating again, drifting up and away from the hotel room. He was lifted away through the ceiling and through a sky of water. Leah was floating above him, higher and higher. Then, a loud ringing echoed around them. They both started falling. Henry reached out for Leah, but she reached out instead for the stars. He fell faster than her, falling through the water and clouds back into bed. There, he was unable to move. He saw the stars shift in and out of focus. Leah was gone, but not gone. He heard her voice everywhere. Henry couldn't move his body. The bed stopped him from falling further, but something heavy was pushing him down against the bed. The weight was so heavy he thought it would break him and the bed in half. With a loud creaking, something snapped inside him, but he couldn't place where. He woke in a cold sweat. Leah wasn't in the room. Henry's stomach hurt. He rushed to the bathroom to vomit. His heart pounded. With Leah nowhere to be found, Henry closed the bathroom door and cried silently. He washed his face off. Leah returned within an hour. She had another day of driving planned for them. Henry was getting tired of being on the road. He put on a hat to block out some of the bright sun. Henry rolled down the window, but the outdoor air wasn't enough to cover up the smell of Pa's nasty habits covering the seats. "Can't we do something else today? Isn't there a museum or a theater or something around here?" "We can go do those kinds of things once we get a home." "I'm tired." "You're not the one driving. I am. Why are you tired?" "Tired of being on the road. Tired of being in this damn truck." "Henry, watch your language." She said. "No." "What do you mean no?" "I said no. Hell no." Henry yelled at her. "What is your problem today?" She asked. "I want to get out of this truck." Henry said. "It's suffocating." "You're sitting up front. What more do you want?" "Can't we buy the new car now then? There's no way this piece of junk is going to get us to California." Henry kicked the glove compartment. "Stop that. It's gotten us this far." Leah said. "We've been lucky." Henry couldn't stop noticing the smell of the seats. He wanted to throw up again. "Pull over." "Why? We need to keep going." "Pull over. I'm going to throw up." "I can't right now." She reached for a bag of trash from behind the seat and handed it to him. "Here." Henry felt something coming up again. He didn't want to throw up, and he didn't want to be in a moving vehicle while he did it either. "Please, pull over." "You'll be fine. Just use the bag." "I need air." "You'll be fine." Henry fougth back the urge building in him. "Please, can't we rest for another day. I don't want to be on the road all day again." "We'll stop at a pharmacy when I see one." Henry rested his head against the dash. The cracked plastic was rouch against his skin. Henry noticed on the floor and on the dash ash left over from when Pa and Mama would smoke in the truck. Some of the ash had landed inside the cracks and filled the small ones up. His seatbelt felt too tight. The air was too heavy. He could smell the specific brand of coffee they always drank. His face burned hotly as a cold chill went through his body. "I don't want to do this. I want to stay in a hotel right now. Go to a park. Go to a grocery store. Go to a mall. Please, take me anywhere but here." "I know you want to, but we need to keep going." "Why? Because you said so?" "That's right. I'm the one in charge now. I make all the plans." Leah said. "Oh, so now you're gonna play Mom, huh? If you wanted to be my mom, you could've started acting like that when you gave birth to me!" Henry yelled. Leah froze, and then she vanished. A butterfly fluttered above the steering wheel. Henry grabbed the wheel with one hand and swerved the truck off the road. He used his other hand to catch the butterfly in his hat. Henry quickly rolled up the windows. The old truck's handles creaked as he turned each one. He sighed and slouched down in his seat. Henry looked down in his hat. A Starry Night Cracker butterfly rested there. He picked up the butterfly gently with his fingers and looked it in the eye. "Did you think I didn't know?" He asked. Henry put the butterfly down on the dash. He got out of the truck and leaned against it. The thick, disgusting smell of the truck lingered on his clothes. He slid down the truck and crouched down. He threw up. Tears fell from his face. His watch beeped several times. An alarm was going off, but Henry couldn't remember setting one. He turned it off and looked up. They were in front of a car dealership. The gaudy sign and shiny cars were so bright, they seemed to glitter in the sunlight. Cherry reds, sky blues, pearly whites, deep greens, every color looked as beautiful as a garden of flowers or a box of gems. The old truck's paint chipped more as he leaned against it. Part of his back was resting against rust. The prices, displayed on the windshields, enticed him more. Guilt swirled inside him, built up from some other time when he was denied something he needed or wanted. The sun, shifting through the passing clouds, danced beams down on the hoods of the cars, showing off their shimmering paint. Henry stood up, and, eyes wet, made one last plea to Leah. She was sitting in the driving seat, crying just as he was. Henry opened the door. "Mom, please buy us a new car." Leah looked past Henry to see the rows of cars. She wiped her face off. In a soft voice, she said. "Okay." Two hours later, they left the lot with a new car. Their suitcases were no longer squished behind their seats, but tucked away in the trunk. Leah picked out a sky blue sedan. The truck was left behind, traded in to become scrap metal. Leah drove them to a nearby hotel. "We can stay here for today. I'll ask the people up front if they know where the nearest pharmacy is." Henry nodded. He bit his lip. "I'm sorry." "You didn't do anything wrong." She said, her eyes still red from crying. Henry stayed in their hotel room while Leah went out. After she left, Henry cried again. She came back with a bag of medicine, a cassette player, headphones, and some cassettes. "What's that?" Henry asked. She handed the player to him. "They were on sale. Some of the songs on these were used in some of the shows you watch." Henry picked up one of the tapes. "I didn't know you paid attention to what I watch." "I always have." Leah measured out the stomach medicine into the tiny clear cup that came with it. "Here." Henry downed it, then gagged. "Uh, gross." She tossed him a soda. He drank it, but the medicine tasted stronger than the soda. Henry lay down on the bed. "Why didn't you say anything before?" "About what?" "You know." Leah turned away. "I wasn't allowed to." "After they died, you didn't say anything then either." Leah went quiet for a moment. "I'd been lying for so long, I didn't know how to say it, or when I should." Henry reached over and got out his camera. He snapped a picture of Leah from the side. She was startled by the flash. "What are you doing?" Henry shook the picture after it came out, impatiently hoping for it to develop faster than it could. He took a pen out of Leah's purse and wrote the date. Underneath it, he wrote "Mom". He handed the photo to Leah. She smiled. A single tear escaped her. Leah took the camera. "How do I take a picture with it?" Henry showed her. She snapped a photo of Henry. She wrote the date on it and above it, "My son, Henry". Henry took a nap shortly after, fatigued from the day. Leah watched over him. She went to put the camera away into the case, but then got an idea. She snapped a few photos of the hotel room, the cassette player, and Henry. She wrote notes on each photo and left them on the nightstand for Henry to read later. They went to the pool together later in the day, when Henry wasn't feeling sick anymore. Leah wore a sundress to swim in. Henry waited until the other guests left the pool, then he took hold of her hand. "Hey, I want to try something." Henry said. "What?" "Hold my hands." He pulled her under the water. They floated below the surface. The lights in the pool gave them a different sun than the one above. The water became their sky. Henry smiled at her. She smiled back. When they rose above the surface again, they both laughed. The two of them played around in the water for another hour, alone and undisturbed in that place no one else could see. They both turned in early for the night. Leah had decided they'd stay for another day and explore in town tomorrow. Henry had started feeling better since they got the new car. He didn't think he needed to rest any longer, but he was looking forward to sight seeing. That would give him another opportunity to take some photos. Thinking about that was making it hard for him to sleep. Henry looked over at Leah. He felt lighter now that the open secret was out, but there was still another holding onto him. He recalled a night when he was small and he saw the butterfly for the first time. It was nighttime then too. He and Leah had always shared a bedroom. It was the night before he started kindergarten, sometime around three in the morning. The old grandfather clock, still working then, rung three times. It's ringing always echoed through the house. He was still awake, lying in bed and counting the stars out his window. Pa came into the room. Henry closed his eyes to not get in trouble, but Pa didn't come over to his bed. He went to Leah's. Henry couldn't remember all of what he said to her, but the voice he used stayed stuck in his head. His stomach turned thinking about it. He heard the creaking of Leah's bed. Then, he heard his grandfather yelling. Henry opened his eyes and saw the blue butterfly land on the window pane. Henry got up and opened the window to let it out. Pa yelled at him for being awake, then ran outside. He ran around out there for hours, but the blue butterfly wasn't there. It had flew back into the room when Pa went out and sat on Leah's pillow. Once Pa gave up and went to bed, the butterfly changed shape. Leah rested in her bed, deep in sleep. Henry never said anything about it. No one did, but everyone knew. Any time something scary happened, Leah was gone and the butterfly was somewhere nearby. She lost several jobs after "disappearing" abruptly during a shift. She'd nearly wrecked many times, lucky that Pa's truck went off the road somewhere nearby. Pa used her "bad driving" as a reason she wasn't allowed to have her own car as an adult. When he was little, Henry often wondered when the butterfly first appeared. Now that he was older, he was certain he knew, but conjuring the words in his mind made him feel like he was in that truck again. Leah said nothing of it that day, nor the next morning. Henry wondered how long this secret would stay between them. Sooner than he expected, they were in California. Leah bought a new mobile home in a suburban area a good ways away from all the homes of Hollywood. It was much more expensive than where they lived before, Henry thought, but the city they moved into wasn't emptying out. It wasn't covered in rust and self-destruction, at least not as far as he could see. For now, it was a nice place. If that changed, Leah reminded him, they could take the house and leave. Leah got a job working the front desk at a hotel. She seemed content with that as far as Henry could tell. In two years, he planned on working himself after getting his driver's license. Since it was summer, he took care of the house and dinner while Leah was at work. They'd split the duties in the fall when the school year started. He'd be entering high school. None of the students there would know him or where he came from, and that suited him just fine. In the time since that day when they got the new car, Henry hadn't seen the butterfly once. While he waited for school to start again, he watched the other children in the neighborhood from the window and their tiny front yard. The girls around his age didn't look like the girls he saw in movies, nor did they look like the girls in the town he left. They wore a mix of cheap clothes and nicer ones, and they were more adventurous with their hair than the girls he was used to. They were too far from the sea to go out to the beach every day like in his fantasy. One of them, he overheard, had a pool. Leah reminded him he didn't have to wait for fall to start socializing with the people in the area, but Henry had already made up his mind he wanted to start over with everything on his first day of high school. For now, he was floating somewhere out of time and place, waiting patiently. One afternoon in late July, while Henry was reorganizing the living room area, Henry noticed something on one of the photos he hung up. He looked closely at the baby photo of Leah, then at present day Leah sitting at the table. "Why are your eyes green?" He asked, taking the photo down from the wall. "What kind of question is that? Yours are green too." She said. "Your baby photo...you have brown eyes." Henry said. Something else dawned on him. "Pa and Mama both had brown eyes." "I don't know how it happened." Leah put her hands together. "Are...are you someone else's child? Where is this baby?!" Henry asked, pointing at the baby in the photograph. "I don't know." Leah looked away. "I told you. I don't know what happened. They said I had brown eyes until they turned green." "What do you mean they turned green?" Henry sat down across from her at the table. He put the framed picture down face up between them. "When I was four, they said they found me outside playing on the back porch at sunrise. When they found me there, my eyes were green and my hair wasn't curly anymore." Leah's hands shook slightly. "I don't know if I'm that baby in the photo, or if I'm someone else. I don't have any memories that far back. But I don't think Pa thought I was his. Mama didn't think so either, but she didn't want him to be mad at her for losing another baby." "Losing? I thought their son got sick." "He did, but Pa wouldn't accept it. He blamed her for Tommy never getting better. He said she was making him sick to get revenge for them getting married." "Revenge? I don't understand." Leah looked away. "When Pa and Mama met, Mama was still in school. She got pregnant when she was thirteen. Pa and her parents made her get married and quit school. When she was fourteen, I was born and two years later, Tommy was born. He died when she was about eighteen. Pa thought because it happened when she was eighteen that it was part of some ploy to get out of the marriage somehow or that she killed Tommy out of revenge for having to be with him. Some paranoid idea he came up with." "Thirteen?! Can you really get married at thirteen? I thought you had to be eighteen." Henry said. Leah shook her head. "A lot of states let you marry younger if your parents agree to it. Mama's parents decided everything about the marriage for her. From what I heard from Mama, that happened with Pa's first wife too. She was sixteen when she got pregnant. She quit school too, her parents set up the marriage, and then the baby was born the next year." Henry tried to take in everything Leah said. He couldn't imagine being married so young. Henry hadn't had his first girlfriend yet. He couldn't drive. He'd never had a job. He didn't have a high school diploma. How could someone around his age be in a marriage? Another thought hit him. "Wait...wait, if his first wife was sixteen...and Mama was thirteen and his second wife...how old was Pa at both those weddings?!" "Pa was eighteen at his first wedding. He was forty for his second wedding." "Forty?!" Henry counted in his head. "But...that's older than you are now!" Leah nodded. Henry looked down at the baby photo again. "You were twelve when I was born. Does that mean you were eleven..." "I was twelve then too. We were born at the far ends of the year. I was twelve the entire time I was pregnant." Leah paused for a moment. "But I was eleven when that started. That's why...I don't think he ever thought I was his real daughter." "Is that when the butterfly showed up?" Henry asked. Leah shook her head. "No. If it was like that back then, you wouldn't have been born. That didn't happen until after you were born. I was fourteen then." "Why then?" "Because you could talk to me then." Leah said. "At least, that's what I always thought was why. You were looking at me and talking to me. You were starting to understand what was going on around you. We shared the same room. One night, Pa came into our room and I...all I could think about was you in the bed beside mine and the moon shining on us. I knew, if you woke up, you'd see and I didn't want you to understand that. I begged the sky itself to let me disappear and be far away like the moon, and then I floated away from him. Ever since that night, it kept happening when he'd come into our room. At first, if he caught me alone, I would stay the same. But then it happened when you weren't there, and it kept happening more and more until it happened any time I got scared of anything. I lost control." "Has it happened since we've been here? I haven't seen it." "It hasn't." Leah smiled slightly. "I don't know why, but it's stopped. Maybe it's this place, maybe it's that we're not there anymore. I don't...I don't think it'll happen anymore. And if it does, and I lose my job over it or we can't be here anymore..." "We can leave." Leah opened her mouth to say something. Her watch beeped at her. She turned off the alarm. "What was that?" Henry asked her. She laughed awkwardly. "Oh, there was a movie I was going to watch on TV. It doesn't matter. I've seen it before." "Oh. What were you saying?" Leah let go of one of the buttons on her wrist watch. She looked down at the screen. "I feel like I'm finally moving forward." "I feel the same." Henry said. "I don't think it's this place. It doesn't have to be here, but it has to be not there." "Yeah." Henry looked down at the baby photo once more. He tapped his fingers against the glass. "What do you think happened to this child?" "I don't know." "I know it's not...it's not like it really makes anything all that better, but I'm glad you told me all this. I wish what happened with Pa didn't, but...if you're not really his daughter...that makes it slightly better." "How so?" "Because it means you're only my mom, and not my mom and my sister." Henry winced. "I suppose that is slightly better than the other possibility." "Slightly." Henry turned the picture frame over. "It doesn't matter. You'd be my mom no matter what. You know, I thought...we wouldn't end up talking about this. I didn't think it would happen so easily." "I didn't think I could say any of that. I thought I'd change again, but even though I could feel the fear in me rising, it stayed inside. I guess it really is over then. No more wings." Leah put her hand on Henry's. "I'm sorry about Pa and Mama. No one wants to hear those things." "It's alright. It's not like I thought Pa was a really good person. I was always...afraid of him, and Mama." Henry's eyes watered. "I don't really feel sad that they're gone. I know I'm supposed to, but I don't...ever want to see them again." "You don't have to. They're gone." Leah said. "Let's keep moving on without them." Henry nodded his head. He wiped his eyes. "Hey, um, I was wondering...if we could, on one of your off nights...go to the beach. Tonight, I don't know..." "It's a little late to go now, isn't it?" "I wanted to go at night, to count the stars." Henry said. "I heard you can see more stars at the beach." "I've heard that too, but I don't know if it's true." Leah looked down at her watch and then at Henry. "I can't promise you it'll be what you're hoping for." "I know." "Then, put your shoes on. Let's go." Henry helped Leah with the map while they drove down the highway. They got lost a few times on the way there, but neither of them minded. There were so many places in the area they hadn't explored yet anyway. Henry took in everything, trying to engrave the images into his mind. His camera wasn't suited to capturing photos in such dimly lit settings. He snapped a lot of pictures anyway. When they finally reached the sea, Henry saw a sky that far exceeded anything he imagined. Stars lit up the darkness and danced on the waters. In the center of it all, reflected, a full moon shone brightly. Henry and Leah abandoned their shoes in the car and raced out to the waves. They splashed in the water for a while, then rested on the beach. Leah put a towel down for the both of them. Henry looked up at the sky and laughed. "There's too many to count." He said. "Millions and millions." She said. A warm breeze blew over them. Henry leaned back. "Hey, when you were in the air, how high did you go?" "The highest?" Leah looked up. "I touched a cloud once." "Really?" "No, I never went higher than the roof." Leah reached up at the moon. She tried to catch it in her hand. "But I wanted to." "Do you think we'll stay here for a while?" "I hope so." Henry got up and went back to the water. Leah dusted herself off. "Let's head back soon." "Kay." Henry stood with his feet in the waves. He stared out at the horizon. The smell of the sea surrounded him as the wind pushed against him. Henry stretched out his arms to catch more of the breeze. He closed his eyes and saw the same sky, but the sea was far beneath him. Leah watched him, keeping an eye on the waves. The wind skipped along the water's rising surface. A big wave crashed in, coming all the way to her feet and drenching their towel. She kept her eyes on Henry, who seemed unfazed by the water's motions. There, reflected below, she saw those wings again. But there was no butterfly here. The wings were tucked away against bare skin, almost ready to unfold. As briefly as the image came, it vanished underneath her son's feet as the water went back out. Henry turned around and smiled, unaware of what was beneath him. She smiled back, a little fear in her heart, and a little happiness too.
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