Brach and Deana had a little girl named Grace. When she was twelve months old, she pointed to a shining white butterfly dancing over her mother’s head. “Pretty,” she said.
Deana glanced up, following her daughter’s chubby finger, but she saw nothing. “What’s pretty?” she asked.
Brach scooped Gracie into his arms. “Aw, she thinks her mommy’s pretty. I think so, too.” He kissed his daughter’s fat, dimpled cheek. Grace giggled, but her eyes never left the large white butterfly, dancing like a sunbeam over her mother’s head.
Two days later, Deana found out that she was pregnant. She and Brach stared down at the little white stick for an eternity.
“The kids will get along great. They’ll be like twins,” Brach said.
“We’ll never afford it,” Deana said.
“Then we’ll get help.”
“I don’t want to be a welfare mom.”
“Then we’ll win the lottery, and in the meantime I’ll get a second job.” Brach grabbed his wife and kissed her fiercely. “You’re not going to make me stop being happy about this, so knock it off.”
Deana laughed and kissed him back. Brach could make anything okay.
Four months later, Grace saw a large black butterfly flapping and hovering bear Deana’s shoulder. It lighted on her for a moment, then took off again. Grace followed her mother from room to room, watching the butterfly. It was big as a sparrow and dark as a shadow, and Grace was afraid of it. She tried to throw a ball at the butterfly, to make it run away like the cat did that one time, but Mommy caught the ball and scolded her.
“We don’t play catch in the house, Gracie Lynn. I’ll take you outside to play when I’m done cleaning.”
Grace plumped down on the floor and stared at the black butterfly. It sat on Mommy’s shoulder, and there it stayed as Mommy walked away.
A few days later, Brach and Deana were called into the obstetrician’s office. An abnormality had been discovered.
There was no question of the inevitable. The only choice they had was when it would happen.
Grace knew nothing of this. She only knew that Mommy went to the hospital, and Grace stayed with Grandma and watched cartoons all day. Mommy was gone all night and part of the next morning, and when she came back her tummy was flat again and she was covered in grey butterflies. Grace cried when she saw them. Grandma thought that she was crying out of relief at having her mother back.
Deana’s depression lasted for weeks. She hadn’t wanted the baby, hadn’t loved it enough, and God had punished her. She wanted to take it all back. She couldn’t take it back. Even God couldn’t take it back now. Grace was miserable. She followed Mommy everywhere, tugged at her legs, patted her head and shoulders to force the grey butterflies off of her body.
Eventually, her depression lifted. A combination of support, medication, and Grace’s constant cries for attention lifted Deana’s spirit and eventually she felt more like her old self again. Grace was relieved. Her mommy was back.
But Grace still saw butterflies; they were everywhere. Most were white or yellow, and they were happy butterflies that danced around like bits of sun and sky. Grace liked those butterflies, and she looked for them whenever she met someone new.
But she did not like the black ones.
She saw a black one sitting on the shoulder of a man at the bus stop, an old man with yellow skin and bleary eyes. The butterfly was enormous, and it cast his face in its shadow.
She saw one perched on the head of her daycare teacher, a middle-aged woman with four children of her own. It fanned its wings slowly as Ms Sue went about her routine of diapers, stories, meals and naps. All day long, the butterfly did not fly. It clung to the back of her head and fanned its wings. Grace cried all day long, miserable and frightened. Ms Sue rubbed her gums with teething gel and took her temperature.
The next day, Grace did not go to daycare. Mommy and Daddy stayed home and hugged her and fed her chicken nuggets and sweets. Grace enjoyed the fuss, though she did not understand. Grace did not watch the news, so she had no way of knowing that Susan Duffy, single mother of four, had been shot to death by her estranged ex-husband. Brach and Deana kept her home for a week, shaken and horrified.
When Grace went back to daycare, there was a new young teacher in her classroom, and the butterfly that danced around her head was a very pale grey. Ms Sue was gone. Grace thought that the black butterfly had eaten her.
When Grace was three, she tried to tell Mommy and Daddy about the butterflies. Mommy smiled and patted her, and she told all her friends about Grace’s wonderful imagination. Daddy shook his head and talked about therapy. Grace gave up. It was a hard lesson, one that all children learn eventually: Adults don’t listen.
When Grace was four, the family took a trip to Japan. Daddy’s work sent him there, and Mommy had saved enough extra money for everyone to go. Their hotel was on the ocean. Brach and Deana watched their daughter stare at the water, deep and blue as her eyes.
“She wants to go surfing,” Brach said.
“She’s watching for Godzilla,” Deana disagreed.
They watched her stand at the window, her face pressed against the glass. They did not see what she was watching.
Thousands of black butterflies, pouring in from the ocean, riding the blue waves to shore.
The air was thick with them; they blackened the pale, clear sky.
Reality Is Thin
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