“You are an impossible girl, Sascha,” mom said, stroking the skin of my back.
Wrapped in the sticky fingers of a fever, I hugged the pillow to my face letting it pull some of the heat from my cheeks. I responded with a single drawn out syllable, “Mmmm.”
Mom laughed and danced her fingers over my shoulder blades. “How old are you, now? Seven? Eight?” She teased, trying to distract me from the roiling of my belly. I would not be budged. “Well, I can see that you are eight. Your wings are just beginning to show and what sort of wings do you think they are?”
I turned and pressed my head against her knee. I was too miserable to tell her I wasn’t interested in her ridiculous ramblings. Nothing would keep her from telling me what sort of wings I had, just like nothing could have stopped her from telling me I had a cricket where my heart should be and a lion’s roar where other people held their fear.
My sisters would say if mom’s imagination were a stone, it would grow flowers.
“They are butterfly wings, Sascha. And people will see you and they will love you. It is impossible not to.”
* * *
I saw them at Cara Phillip’s eleventh birthday sleepover. We were playing Bloody Mary and it was my turn in the stark black and white bathroom. It was unwelcoming even when the lights were on, so sightings of Bloody Mary were higher here than they were in bathrooms with pastel seashells or baby duckling themes. The single candle we lit cast sharp shadows and cinnamon scent into the corners.
It was impossible that she actually existed, but that was why she was so enticing. Stuffed with cookies and popcorn, having painted our nails and obsessed over the breasts we didn’t yet have, we all wanted to believe in impossible things.
The toilet had a loud flush that sounded like it was pulling all the extra noise from the world. My words were lost beneath its burbling as I turned slowly three times.
No matter how many times I’d done this without seeing the infamous woman, the moment just before I opened my eyes was my favorite. My breath quickened, my heart tapped a steady beat against my chest, and I felt hopeful and anxious, like the world was about the change, like I was about to change. I played the game for that moment, when every thing I wanted to happen, could happen.
I opened my eyes.
Candlelight flashed over the mirror, erratic and indifferent. I saw a slice of my face with bright color behind it and I screamed.
All nine girls pushed through the door at once saying my name, asking what I’d seen. Their voices were excited and eager, all of them wanting validation of the story we’d been telling each other.
Cara climbed into the tub behind me and wrapped her arms around my waist. “Did you see her?” She rested her sharp chin on my shoulder and watched my face in the mirror while everyone else watched her.
I couldn’t tell her what I’d actually seen, wings spreading out behind me in brilliant blues and golds. It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. It wasn’t what any of them wanted to hear, so I only nodded my head and said, “it was horrible.”
But I didn’t think that at all.
* * *
I looked for them after that. I tried to catch them in the mirror, looking through the corner of my eye or squinting to blur my vision. I tried imagining them full and spread out in the sunlight, real and bright. I tried to spot them anywhere my reflection might appear, windows, puddles, even in dark sunglasses.
It didn’t matter how hard I looked I couldn’t find them again.
* * *
“You only become more beautiful every day.” Mom pulled a brush through my hair and I dabbed gloss over my lips. It was the same gloss Cara used and I deferred to her on all matters of beauty. “And your wings are even more stunning than ever.”
Birds sang evening songs in the maple tree just outside my bedroom window, promising a perfect evening. I wanted to climb outside, into the tree and sing with them.
“Mom,” I complained. “Don’t you think I’m a little old for that sort of thing?”
“You will never outgrow your wings.” She twisted my hair into thick, dark ropes in her hands, following the style I’d picked out of a magazine. “It won’t be long before others see them, too.”
“Mmmm.” I twisted the cap of my gloss and dropped it into my purse. It matched my dress perfectly and I was more excited than mom knew to attend my first formal dance.
She pinned my hair in place, tucking little white and blue flowers into big curls. “Mmmm,” she said in response.
* * *
Cara announced there would be a Summer’s End party at the lake and so there was. We brought our bathing suits and beach towels, someone brought a cooler of beer, and we claimed a full half-mile of shore all to ourselves. That was the sort of power Cara had.
When the sun was gone entirely and we left the volleyball court for the bonfire. I don’t remember who saw them first. I was dancing with Cara and her entourage to a hyper song with more bass than anything that sounded like actual music when someone shouted my name and we all stopped.
“Sascha, whoa! Do you guys see that?” I couldn’t see through the light of the bonfire. The voice came out of the blackness behind it and though it sounded familiar, I couldn’t put a name to it. I didn’t answer. I didn’t need to. Everyone was staring and my name flew to me from all directions. Someone said, “She’s like a butterfly,” and I knew what they’d seen.
I wanted to see it, too. And I wanted to hide it from them before they’d seen too much. How could I share a piece of myself I hadn’t yet seen? It didn’t seem fair to catch descriptions, “blue” and “gold” and “impossible” and not know the shape of the thing they were carving out with their words.
“Are you all high?” Cara’s voice was a splash of cold water. “Think we’ve all had enough for tonight, don’t you?” She pushed the lid of the cooler down and stood before it like a Grecian statue, all impossible curves and power.
Around us, the mutterings became sharper with “bitch” dropped loudly enough for Cara to hear. She pretended not to and turned to me with a concerned smile. “People can be such freaks,” she said with emphasis, but her eyes jumped from my face to the space above my shoulder. When she looked back again there was an extra shadow in her light brown eyes.
* * *
The changes started slowly, but I noticed them right away because each one was more impossible than the last.
I was never alone – not in the hallway, not at lunch, not on my walk to the parking lot after school. Someone was always with me.
People asked my opinion before asking Cara’s.
Weekend plans started with me. If I said I was going to see the school play, everyone I knew went to see the school play.
Butterflies showed up everywhere. Butterfly stickers plastered my locker, girls wore butterfly print t-shirts, butterfly earrings, butterfly barrettes in their hair. My name became a dim memory, replaced with Butterfly or Mariposa or Papillon.
And Cara became quiet.
* * *
“Have you seen them, yet?” Mom sliced tomatoes and tossed them into five bowls of salad. I handed her another one and stirred the pasta. I shrugged, not only to answer her question, but hoping to feel something more than my shoulders move.
I didn’t feel anything.
She tossed more tomatoes and washed her hands. “You will. When the time is right, you will.”
It wasn’t easy to believe her and it wasn’t easy to accept that so many others had seen something about me that was so secret I couldn’t even choose to share it. It seemed that my wings belonged more to other people than to me.
Every day, I looked for them less.
* * *
Cara sent a text that said, sorry things have come to this, but it’s time to get out of the temple, little goddess.
The next day, the floor in front of my locker was littered with the wings of butterflies. They were so bright and beautiful it was as if someone had brought every color under the sun here to murder them.
I bent to collect them, my heart a trembling thing in my chest, and held them delicately in my hands. No one stopped to help me. They gave me a wide berth and did not step on any of the wings. I could pick no words out of their fearful whispers.
I didn’t cry until I was in my car and then I let my tears fall all the way to the lake. I carried the bundle of wings to the end of a long pier and sat with my legs folded beneath me. One by one, I dropped the wings into the water. They floated away from me in all directions, reaching up and out but not slipping beneath the dark water.
When the last one had flown from my fingertips, I closed my eyes.
Sunlight pulled the last of the tears from my skin. My shoulders rolled back and I felt the familiar stirring in my belly that the world was about to change, that I was about to change.
I opened my eyes and there in the water, drawn out in the colorful wings of Cara’s victims, were my own. Impossible and bright.
* * *
Check back on Wednesday for a complete short story from Valerie!
Image courtesy of e³°°° via Flickr Creative Commons.