The good, the bad, the in between
[THIS IS NOT THE LEDE BUT A FICTION PIECE AND IT IS VERY LONG]
I woke up to the sound of rain. It was late August and the air had a coolness to it. I looked at the clock and saw it was 7 a.m., unusually early for me.
But it didn’t matter, because today was a special day. I needed to prepare. I stretched from underneath my blankets, still warm from a good night’s rest, and stared up at the popcorn ceiling of my tiny blue room. The old dolls on top of my wardrobe were smiling at me as if they were also aware of the day’s importance.
I slid out from under the covers and the hair on my legs stood up. My bare feet hit the cold floorboards and a creak rang throughout the silent house. The baby wasn’t awake yet, I gathered, and I wanted to keep it that way. My baby cousin (who was living with us on account of my aunt having a nervous breakdown and fleeing to Europe) was staying in my room with me. I tiptoed to her and smiled at the peaceful, tiny person laying in my old baby cradle. I asked my mom why my aunt didn’t take her to Europe with her. She said my aunt could hardly take care of herself, let alone a child.
I lived in the countryside, near mountains and forests, but we were really just a hop away from Louisville. Usually, my mornings smelt like bonfire smoke from the neighbor’s yard along with the familiar air that could only be described as the scent of your own home. Now that my baby cousin was here, my room smelt more like baby powder.
I rubbed her head and slowly leapt across the creaky floorboards, straight into the hallway. My head ached a little, but I was sure it was just the weather. Sometimes my head ached when I was worried, but I had no reason to be worried. Not today.
I was convinced this day was going to be the best day of my life. Though in truth, my life had only consisted of 10 years so far. Not much had happened to me yet. I walked into the living room to see my father snoring on one side of the sectional and my two groggy dogs beginning to wake on the other. I quietly shuffled to the window and looked at the rain. It was definitely stopping soon.
I wondered when he would come over.
I could hear the floorboards creak and the washing machine buzzing. The house was waking up. My momma walked into the living room with a pot of coffee in one hand and my baby cousin in the other. She gave me a kiss on the forehead and sat next to my dad, who was now sitting up and shaking off the sleep. My parents both had those accents. My dad’s sounded like tobacco and my mom’s was like sweet tea. Neither me or any of my siblings had them like my parents did. And in the morning when they teased each other awake, their accents were thick.
“Oh, you made coffee already? That’s my job!” my dad sang as he heaved himself up off the couch and into the kitchen where the fresh pot of coffee awaited him.
“I was going to let you sleep in,” my mother shouted after him despite the fact a whisper could’ve been heard between our thin walls. My sister could be on the opposite end of the house, whispering something as quietly as she possibly could, and I would still make out almost every word. I knew this because we used to play this game to pass the time, back when my aunt was staying with us. Before she fled to Europe. We always had to play quiet games when Aunt Autumn was around, as to not “evoke her headaches.”
“Are you excited for today, Eve?” My mother pulled me down to sit beside her. She knew all about my plans.
“Yes! I am! He told me he’d come over as soon as he’s up, but he won’t come if it’s raining.”
“How come? He’s walked over in the rain plenty of times!”
“I know, but he told me kings can’t get wet on their coronation day or else it’s bad luck.”
“Well, the good news is it’s not supposed to rain for the rest of the day!” My dad came back in the room, sipping on his coffee. He sat right beside me, smooshing me in between my mom and him, “That Gavin boy is a quirky one, isn’t he?”
“Dad,” I nudged him over a little, “He’s not quirky! He’s creative!”
“Quirky isn’t a bad thing! Some of the best people in the world, you could say, are quirky.”
“I know, but the boys at school call him names like that.”
“What? Quirky?” My mother sat her coffee down as my baby cousin squirmed in her arms.
“I mean mostly they call him crazy. Or creepy.”
“Boys can be mean sometimes, can’t they?” my mother said.
“Don’t you go letting any boys call you names, now, you hear? I don’t want to have to deal with any …” My father chimed in.
“Oh, Todd, what would you do about it? Are you gonna go and fight some 11-year-old boys?”
“I mean I don’t want to, but if I HAD to …”
“I won’t let boys call me names, Daddy. I won’t let anyone call me anything! Queens don’t stand for that kind of nonsense!” I proclaimed, beaming.
My father cheered, “That’s my girl!”
My mother lay her head on my shoulder for a moment and giggled. There were mean kids at school who thought of me as “different,” too. Quirky, perhaps. But even at 10 years old, I knew I could tell my parents I was a queen and they would send me off to my coronation with love.
And a bologna sandwich.
“I’ll make one for Gavin, too, OK?” It was about eight o’clock now. My father was doing yard work and my mother was packing me snacks to take on my big adventure, “He likes bologna, right?”
“I’m sure he does.”
“I’m so glad some kids finally moved into the area. And one with an imagination like yours!”
Suddenly there was a knock at the front door. My dogs began to bark.
“I’ll get it!” I gasped, running towards the door. I pushed the dogs back and cracked the door open just enough so he could squeeze through. There he was. My partner in crime. He was long and thin as a stick, and he hunched a little like he wasn’t sure what he was growing into yet. He was wearing a black t-shirt with the sleeves rolled up and blue jeans cuffed at the ends. His typical attire. He was a bit too “Grease lightning” for the Vineyard Vines kids we went to school with, but I liked him that way. As always, he entered my home rather silently, but my mother knew I had let him in because the dogs stopped barking.
“Hello, Gavin!” She came around the corner holding a Kroger bag filled with snacks.
“Hello, ma’am. How’s your morning been?” His lanky arms swung a bit as he spoke.
“Very good, thank you,” my mother smiled. She liked how Gavin was so polite. I also think she felt a little bad for him. I didn’t know exactly why.
“Mom can we go now?” I took the Kroger bag and stuffed it in my backpack filled with miscellaneous objects — mason jars, a compass and keys that had lost their locks long ago.
“OK, but be home in a couple hours!”
“Coronations take a long time.”
“It’s OK. I gotta be home by two. I’ll get her back here,” Gavin grabbed my arm and I got goosebumps. The kind of goosebumps that at 10 years old feel comforting and electric. Definitely not cold.
“Bye, Mom. I love you!”
“Bye, be safe!”
I slammed the door shut and squealed, “It’s coronation day!”
Gavin laughed. We ran across the street into the neighbor’s yard and around back until we were in the woods. We made our way towards the creek's edge, skipping stones and listening to the sound of birds chirping and leaves rustling. The sun was shining through the tree limbs and Gavin and I were trampling over rocks and twigs. I was abundantly happy. My headache was dying down.
I was ready for a day of adventure and excitement. A day of me and him.
We approached our tree and at its base I pulled out a small box. Inside had two flower crowns. Gavin and I used to make them at school, until the other boys started to tease him. There were no mean boys here, though. This was our sanctuary.
“This is our KINGDOM!” I sang out.
“Not yet, Eve!” Gavin laughed at me as I spun around. Despite his laughter, he looked a little sad, but he always looked a little sad. Aunt Autumn always looked sad and my mother would say she’s depressed. The teachers at school said Gavin was depressed, too. "But it’s not an excuse for him to act out" they’d talk at recess when they thought no one was listening. I stared at him, now, as he solemnly placed the crown on his forehead.
“We have to start the ceremony.”
“Gavin, why can’t a king get wet on his coronation day?”
“I don’t know, really. I just heard that somewhere I think.”
“Is it because your mom gets mad when you come home after being out all day in the rain?”
“That might be why in our case, but it’s a superstition, I’m sure.”
“What does superstition mean again?”
“Like a belief in something other worldly.”
“Is Butterfly Valley a superstition?”
“Do you believe in it?”
“Do you believe you’re their Queen?”
“Then I guess so!”
Gavin and I decided to call our kingdom Butterfly Valley because the woods lined the edge of a small mountain and we liked to play there, down by the creek. We often played make-believe games with heroic endings and magic spells, but they always felt very real to me. One day after a long pirate adventure, we were skipping stones near the creek and found a large gathering of butterflies. There was one butterfly that was a soft blue and pink and he stuck out among the darker hues. He wasn’t flying as well as the others. Gavin had picked him up and stuck him in a mason jar.
“Wait! He won’t be able to breathe!”
“I’ll poke holes in it. I just want to take care of him until he gets better. Then I’ll bring him back.”
And then suddenly an idea came to me, “Wait, what’s that? He’s saying something. Oh Gavin …”
“What is it?”
“He said he’s the ruler of this kingdom. He says he watches over every deer and flower and raccoon …”
“And rock, and fish in the creek!”
“Yeah! And he told me something else.”
“What is it?”
“He says he was hurt in a war!” I felt a pain in my chest looking down at this injured butterfly. As a young girl, the things that came into my mind became so real to me, it could hurt. The only other kid who felt the same was Gavin.
“It’s OK. He’ll be OK. I won’t let anything else happen to him, Eve. I’m gonna take care of him.”
“Wait! He says … he says he wants US to take over the kingdom for him!”
“Like his advisers?”
“No. He … he wants us to become the king and queen!”
“What about when he gets better?”
“He says … he says he’s ready to retire. He’s getting too old.” I smiled at the little butterfly and his one wing fluttered, as if he understood and agreed, “He’s such a noble king. You can tell.”
“That’s amazing, Eve. That he’d trust us. Not all kings are so good.”
“He thinks you’ll be a good king, too, Gavin.”
“He says you’ll be a good queen,” he smiled at me and I quickly turned my attention to the butterfly king as heat rose to my cheeks.
“He doesn’t want to be a king anymore. He just wants to be a butterfly.”
“What's his name?”
“His name WAS King Earnest, but he wants a new name now. There are people who are after him. They can’t know he’s still alive.”
“We’ll give him a new life. We’ll give him a new name and everything. And I’ll take care of him.” Gavin grabbed in his bag for a pen and poked holes in the lid of the jar. It was as if I could see the butterfly gasp, as if new life had just been breathed into him.
“OK, but we can’t keep him too long. Butterflies aren’t meant to be in jars.”
“It’s OK! I’ll feed him and give him twigs to lay on and put him by my windowsill. And in a few days, for our coronation day, he’ll come back and have a fresh start.”
That happened weeks ago. Gavin and I hadn’t meant to make the day of our coronation so far from then, but his mother hadn’t let him come over to visit me for a while. Like my aunt, she didn’t always seem “all the way there” as my mother would say. Like Gavin, she seemed sad. Gavin didn’t talk about his mother much. He just said our Butterfly Valley was a sanctuary. Away from her, away from school, away from everything.
“Today is the day.” Gavin now put the flower crown on my head and brushed a hair away from my eyes. The day had finally come and we were going to rule the kingdom.
My red rain boots squeaked as I scratched the side of my leg awkwardly.
“What do we do first?”
“I think we need to do the stone ritual.”
I looked across the creek where the band of butterflies once was. By this time, all the other butterflies had flown away. Gavin said they’d be back. They were just off fighting another war. ‘When I’m officially queen, we won’t go to war as much’ I thought to myself, but didn’t share with Gavin. These were matters you don’t discuss until you’re Monarchs.
The stone ritual consisted of taking three of the flattest stones and skipping them across the creek while chanting, “Long live the King and Queen!”
The next step involved taking a long stick and knighting one another. I kneeled down while Gavin “hereby crowned me queen.” There was a rustling in the bushes and I saw a deer prance past across the creek.
“Look, Gavin! The animals are here to greet us!”
“Of course they are! It’s coronation day!”
“Speaking of animals, where is our butterfly? Did you forget him at home?”
“Oh, right …” his eyes widened and he stared blankly ahead, as if just remembering.
“Gavin … what’s wrong?” I stood up from kneeling. Gavin was rummaging through his bag and then he pulled out the mason jar.
He stood up and didn’t speak for what felt like an hour. He just stood there holding the jar.
“I’m sorry, Eve.”
Gavin opened the jar to reveal the dead butterfly. His wings were lifeless and flat and his colors looked muted now.
“What did you do to him?” I really thought I was hiding the look of complete and utter horror on my face.
“I had to. He was becoming trouble. Ready to overthrow the monarchy,” Gavin exhaled and dumped the butterfly body into his hand. He held it so gently I thought I was going to vomit.
“You did this on purpose? How could you?”
He rolled his eyes before landing them on me, “Of course not, Eve! Jesus!”
“Saying Jesus isn’t cursing. My mom says it all the time.”
“Why did you say you had to kill him then? Why did you lie about that?” My voice was shaky and soft.
His grew more defiant.
“Well … you were accusing me before I even could get a word out about it … I was just joking. Trying to lighten the mood.” Gavin grabbed my hand and I got goosebumps again, but this time they weren’t comforting. He dropped the butterfly in my hand. My head suddenly started to ache again as he spoke.
“Now do you see how silly it was to think I would hurt him?”
“What happened to him then?” Tears were swelling in my eyes and the little carcass looked more like a watercolor painting than a living thing. I guess because he wasn’t living anymore.
“I don’t know. I guess he suffocated. I poked holes in the jar, though. And I fed him every day, I promise,” he held the jar right in front of my face. He seemed defensive all of a sudden, but I tried to ignore this. Surely, he didn’t mean any harm.
And then, suddenly, I felt guilty. In the pit of my stomach. Like I always felt when Gavin did something wrong. Like when he got in trouble and the other kids laughed, or when he said nasty things under his breath that got him sent to the principal’s office. I always felt it in the pit of my stomach.
“I’m sorry …” I said, though I wasn’t sure why.
“I’m sorry too.” He grabbed my wrist lightly, forcing me to drop the butterfly body back into the jar.
“I never got to name him,” I choked back tears.
“We can name him now. We can give him a really proper funeral. Would that make you happy? Would that make you feel better?” He had set the jar down and started to hug me. I was stiff at first, but then I started to sob and soften into him, feeling a little powerless.
“Shh, it’s OK, Eve. We can sing him a song, or something, OK?”
“What kind of song?”
“That one you sing in church. The one I said I don’t like, ‘cause I don’t believe in God.”
“OK,” I watched as he grabbed a stick and dug a tiny hole to lay our friend in, “Before we do that, what are we going to call him?”
“How ‘bout Sebastian?”
“Like Sebastian from school? The deacon’s son?”
“Yeah,” he placed the butterfly into the hole and stared down at him, “Bye-bye, Sebastian.”
My head was aching a little worse now, but it sometimes did after I cried. I chimed in, “Rest in peace, Sebastian.”
Then we sang the song I loved from church. Only the first verse, because I didn’t know the rest and Gavin only knew what I knew of it. Gavin began to bury him as we sang, and by the end, Sebastian the butterfly was buried. We lay a few twigs on top, as if they were his tombstone and then we stood up. I don’t remember when we had gotten on our knees, but there was mud caked into my jeans and all over the tops of my rain boots.
“Pain doesn’t last, Eve,” I was turned away from Gavin as he spoke, “It always comes back, but it doesn’t last.”
“Why did you want to name him after the Deacon’s son?”
“Is it because he bullies you.”
“Is that why you don’t believe in God?”
“I don’t believe in God ‘cause bad stuff wouldn't happen to good people if there was a God,” he was turned away from me now and my head was throbbing, “Can we get back to what we came here for? I gotta be home by two.”
We continued with the coronation activities, which suddenly felt pointless and dumb to me. Why was I with this boy in the woods? I thought to myself. The boy who swore at kids on the playground and drew pictures in his notes that got him in trouble. The boy that my parents felt pity for and the boy who my teachers distrusted. The boy that girls whispered about in the bathroom. The boy that always made me excited and confused and scared and, in that moment, for the first time, angry.
And I became even more angry because I knew exactly why I was with this boy. I finally found someone who would play my ‘silly make-believe games’ and didn’t laugh when I said things I was thinking. I found someone who liked the clothes I wore and the way I did my hair. I found someone who needed a friend as much as I did. I thought I understood him. I was angry because, suddenly, I didn’t.
We were sitting at the edge of the creek, eating our bologna sandwiches and halfheartedly tossing our crust to the fish. I had taken off my boots and was about to dip my toes in the water.
“Wait! You can’t do that! You can’t get wet on your coronation day! It’s bad luck.”
I stared at him with a blank face and slowly pulled my legs back into my chest, “Isn’t that just a rule for kings? Because your mom doesn’t like washing your soggy clothes?”
“Well we need to make our rules consistent.”
He looked very stern. He seemed angry with me. As if I was the one who had wronged him. But I knew he was only acting angry because I got angry first.
“How’s your aunt?” He asked.
“She’s OK. She’s in Greece now, I think.”
I heard thunder in the distance.
“I hope she stays.”
“In Europe? What a mean thing to say.”
“No! I just mean for your cousin’s sake. Your aunt isn’t a bad person or anything, but she’s … ya know …”
“Crazy?” I stared up at the sky. The clouds were getting grey.
“Yeah, maybe. Anyways. Yeah …”
“I don’t think we should have another war. In our kingdom. We don’t want another incident like Sebastian.”
“Wars can be good though, Eve. Violence can be good sometimes.”
“I understand that, but if it can be helped …”
“Sometimes I don’t think it should be helped.”
My head was pounding like a drum. Lightning flashed miles away. I could see it through the trees. Thunder soon was followed.
“Gavin we should go back. I don’t want you to get wet.”
We both stood up and started collecting our things. This wasn’t how I had pictured today going.
“All I’m saying is … you remember that kid from Lake High two years back? He brought a gun to school.”
“Yes.” I winced for a second. My head felt like an overfilled balloon ready to pop.
“I’m not saying it was right of the kid to do it.”
“Of course it wasn’t, Gavin!”
“No, I KNOW! Let me talk.”
We were running through the woods now. Any second it was going to rain.
“I know it wasn’t right, but good and right can be two different things.”
We paused to catch our breaths. Gavin was bent over, hands on knees. I stood straight up, glaring down at him.
“It wasn't good, either, Gavin. Nothing about wanting to hurt people is good.”
Gavin looked up at me, throwing daggers with his eyes. “I know that better than most people do, Eve.” He stood up straight, trying to look taller than me despite the fact we were nearly the same height.
“I guess I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I’m saying I didn’t kill Sebastian. But if he had been a person and not a butterfly. If he had hurt me first, or put his hands on me …”
Thunder crashed so loud and I screamed a little. I could see rain in the distance like a sheer curtain coming over the mountain. We were standing in front of my yard now.
“Gavin, you need to get home before the rain gets you.”
His eyes looked sad again, but sadder than usual, as if he had just given up on something.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” I said.
“Yeah. Maybe. It depends on my mom.”
“Okay, well … bye.” I jerked myself forward and hugged him tight for no longer than a split second. He just stood there. When I stepped back, he was smiling. Putting on a good face behind his sad eyes. Then he gasped as if remembering something, and very clumsily took a bow.
“Bye, my queen,” I let out a lame laugh and watched him walk back up the road. I ran inside just before the rain started to fall. There was no way he made it home before it hit him.
I would have been a great queen.
When I arrived home, my siblings were playing a board game on the table and my mother was back on the couch, with my cousin in one arm and the telephone in the other. The only words I caught before she hung up was “come home.” When she saw me, she looked stunned, wiping a tear away.
“Hi honey! How was the coronation?”
“It was good!” I smiled through gritted teeth. It was as if the balloon had popped and my head was throbbing. I immediately went back into my room and lay on my bed, staring up at the popcorn ceiling. I didn’t know what time it was, but I wondered if Gavin had gotten home before two. I thought about Sebastian’s jar, realizing we had left it in the woods.
"I was convinced this day in time was going to be the best day of my life."
Whether or not it had been, I suddenly realized how lucky I was to be staring up at my popcorn ceiling, smelling bonfire smoke and baby powder. With good parents, and baby cousins, and troubled aunts far far away. Not everyone can be so at peace. I wondered if my aunt was more at peace in Greece than she was with us. I wondered if she had even been at peace. I wondered if Gavin ever would be.
I hummed the church song we sang at Sebastian’s funeral and closed my eyes, listening to the sound of rain.