For all of his eight years Neo has been trying to grow wings. He's mastered the egg, caterpillar, and pupal stages, but the emerging from chrysalis is suspended.
'Come on, freakamite, move it.' I yank off his covers. 'I'm getting the Raid.'
'I'll get him to the bus. You go ahead.'
And here's another freak, a sneaky freak. Gary's camouflaged to look like the faux-panelling so you never see him until he's right on you. I spin around, jabbing at him with my proboscis.
'Lyca, did you pierce your tongue? Let me check it's not infected.'
'Bite me.' I snag my gear, leaving Neo like an ectozoon on the bed.
Gary's solicitousness clings like wet cement to my boots as I launch off the porch. His voice drones from behind, 'Call if you're going to be late. Neo worries.'
It's true. The kid can't navigate a button to a hole. Hasn't the decency to wipe a booger hanging from his nose, but somehow he knows when it's 4:14 pm and will fracture the drywall if I'm not sitting on the red chair, nine graham crackers arranged on the table, eighteen Mini-Wheats counted out – the nine with frosted side up are mine for the six games of tick-tack-toe I have to endure before Neo eats them. Then his world is in order and he's free to preach interpretive scripture to the goldfish. 'For Dog so loved the squirrel, loved squirrel, squirrel ...'
On escape, my hair snaps like an ebony flag in the wind. Three Days Grace numbs my brain through tiny buds in my ears. Jonah, male of the species most like me, waits on the corner. His pale skin blooming scarlet when he takes in my face. I nestle under his arm to absorb his uncomplicated scents: peanut butter, dope, and baby powder.
'Hey, Ly, cool coat.'
'Shut it, freakwad.'
It's Gary's ancient trench coat and it stinks of earnestness.
Second period, Biology, Mr Munghal says, 'Congratulations on your mother's book, Lyca.' A Tiger-Swallowtail alighting on a fuchsia flower graces the glossy cover of Butterfly as Metaphor. 'Would you autograph it, posthumously?'
He extends a sleek silver ballpoint. I open to the dedication page and scrawl over Nova's inscription to Leroy.
Esteemed Educator: Don't believe the hype. Metamorphosis is not all it's cracked up to be. I have a red wiggler up my arse. Warmest regards, Dr Nova Reach.
I split without signing out. It's too bloody cold at the lake so I go back to Gary's. I sneak into his room and perch on the bed he shared with my mother for ten months. A beige room, from the Berber to bedding to bureau. Her green shawl still drapes the chair, its fringe weeping like Spanish moss over the side, reminding me of the months we spent chasing the Great Purple Hairstreak through the Okefenokee, Neo's small head topping the baby carrier like a lump of coal, one tiny hand escaping to clutch a wisp of Nova's hair.
Last week, I found a single strand of her hair caught in the frame of Gary's bed. I wrapped it around the end of my middle finger, turning it violet, then indigo. Munghal said that documenting the death of my fingertip was unacceptable as my life cycle assignment. It came away like a coiled snake when he threatened another trip to the guidance office. The flesh pinked-up around my raven polished nail as I raised it for his assessment. 'Does this ease your worries, sir?' I enmeshed the hair in Jonah's Juicy Fruit, chewed it until the flavour ran out, then stuck it on the underside of Munghal's chair.
On the nightstand is Gary's advance copy of Nova's book. His thumb slipping over her photograph has removed the shine from her face.
She gave all right for their first five months of wedded bliss. I could tell by the thickening fog of contentment around the pheromone intoxicated dolt. All her men had that look after butterfly sex with Nova. She abandoned her name, Julia, when Leroy told her Nova was the Hopi word for chases butterflies. Leroy might be Neo's father. My paper-whiteness suggests the entomologist from Ireland fertilised me. But who knows. Nova preferred mating midflight, so names and genetic identifiers were seldom collected.
It was different with Gary. She examined him like a specimen under her magnifier. As head of accounts for McGraw-Hill his pockets had attractive markings. But he was balding and alien thin. The puffs under his eyes and sundry skin-folds warned he'd age like a Shar Pei. I assumed he was being measured for a funding proposal, instead, Nova proposed marriage.
There were times in the early months when I entertained painting my room yellow and wearing red. We flew to Costa Rica so Nova could net her dream of discovering a new species. The entire flight, Gary's big hand, protecting Neo's ear from the engine noise. The kid, whimpering through the miles, 'Yea, though I fly through the valley of breath I will fear no weevils, eagles, beagles ...'
Most Thursdays we went to Fazooli's. They had square plates and square stuffed pasta. Neo sat quiet, arranging the thirty-six Benjamin Moore paint chips Gary had pilfered from Home Depot. Mom bit her words hard, 'Forgodsake, Neo, act normal.'
It was the first time I saw Gary spine-up a little. 'Nova, is the universe diminished any by Neo organising paint colours?'
'He does it just to spite me.'
'No, sweetheart, he does it because it's something he can control.'
She moved food around on her plate. 'No one controls anything.'
Neo hummed in a voice absent of music. 'In the beginning Dog ate gravity, ate gravity, gravity.'
'Bloody Christ, I never should've put him in that fucking mission school.'
I said, 'Maybe we should've sent you.'
We laughed, the way real people laugh, mouths opened, silver amalgams showing.
The following Thursday Nova had a headache. She took pills. Gary ordered in.
Soon after that, she rolled herself into white sheets, hooding them over her black hair and navy eyes. When I asked what was wrong, she said a parasitoid wasp had burrowed into her brain. She entered the pupal stage encased in morphine.
Fourteen years in the company of lepidopterists and a brother with fucked-up synapses had provided me scant experience with tears. The morning she died Gary was puddling in saltwater as he held her. She resembled a praying mantis with her skinny hands curled by her mouth.
I fired up a joint under the weeping willow while Neo recited the Ten Commandments to the koi, 'Thou shalt have no other Dogs before tea, tea. Honour your moths and feathers, feathers. Thou shalt not feel, not feel, feel ...'
I scramble to my room when I hear Gary's Buick pull in. The walls are white, my bed is white, my books are in three cartons and clothes are heaped in my suitcase. I packed after Nova's ashes were released to the wind eight months ago. Would've been in Mexico by now if I didn't have Rainboy holding me back.
The key scratches at the entrance, then Gary knocks on the bedroom door. 'Lyca, your teacher called. Are you okay? May I open the door?'
'It's your fucking house.'
He never takes a nibble at that worm. I hear domesticity in the kitchen and smell bacon sizzling, low sodium turkey bacon but still it wafts tolerable. He knocks again. 'BLT with cheese?'
'Whatever.' I make my way to the table covered with a brown checked cloth. Gary's penchant for white shirts and khaki pants makes him look like an anorexic potato slug. 'You really should wear black.'
'How about you take me shopping?' His eyes wax hopeful, like a basset hound in the presence of steak tartare.
'Maybe I can fit it in before I go.'
He steeps chai that makes me nostalgic for the pursuit of the declining High Brown Silver in the Himalayas. Nova left me in a hut with an Urdu speaking shepherd on that mission. Old, toothless Bahir, sharing his kangri and hookah to keep me warm. He taught me to carve a turtle from walnut wood.
'So, your mother's book is out.'
'It's your fault writers of academia get paid shit.' I excise a tomato clinging to its skin and knuckle it into my mouth. 'How am I going to get us out of your hair?'
'How much hair do I have for you to get out of?'
'Neo's school costs a bundle, doesn't it.'
'He's happy there.'
'He'd be happy in a cardboard box.'
Gary has this way of blowing then capturing tea with his upper lip, kind of like a giraffe plucking leaves. 'And what about you?'
I turn to the wall. Light refracted through the acrylic teapot shatters on the terra cotta paint. 'Did you know butterflies use light patterns as a compass?'
Butterflies drop their eggs then flutter away. Over the years Nova dumped us on other people's housekeepers, tutors, boarding schools ... five months with Leroy's Navajo speaking mother. On the flip side, Gary is a fucking mother kangaroo with separation anxiety: Where are you going? Call me if you need a ride. Be careful. Put a tissue in your pocket ... He looks up from the game he's playing with Neo and smiles at me garbed in his Zeppelin 69 Tour T-shirt. 'You look nice.'
I give my lips an extra swipe of Black Knight and widen the rips in my leggings.
'Home by ten-thirty.'
My eyes complete a 360. 'Later, spermatazoids.'
At the warehouse Jonah and I drop E. Within minutes my brain thuds behind my right eye. 'Jesus, Jonah, this is bad shit.'
Any and all shit makes Jonah horny. His hand slips under my shirt, then down my pants; his fingers playing me like his guitar. 'Your old man really see Led Zep?'
'Fuck off.' I push him hard.
'Told you, my 'Y' chromosome is from Castro.'
'Viva la Kooobaa.' He soft kisses, then pins me against the wall.
Technoshit is eating my frontal lobe. 'Bugger off.'
He flits to another flower.
My legs turn syrupy and I plunk on a half-filled carton of TP. My teeth hurt and my heart is bamming behind my eyes. Spattered boots, bigger than Jonah's, come into view, then blur into four. I smell wet dirt. A hawk sweeps down, eats me up then spits out the indigestible bits.
I ball inside Gary's coat, all parts of me folded tight. Muddied laughter slides off my shell. The Cure vibrates up through the floor.
I'm sleepfalling ... blessed wakedissolving, until ants unearth me in the corner. Poke, poke, poke with a broom. 'Beat it, kid, we don't need trouble.'
A worker says, 'Better dump her at emerg.'
I bolt, pain exploding with every step.
Mrs Arthur, the neighbour, snaps open Gary's door. 'Where have you been? It's four am. Gary is worried sick.'
For a second I wonder what it would feel like to be caught in her hammocky arms. 'Missed the bus.' I skud into the bathroom and lock the door.
Dead things peel away into a bloody pile on the floor. I tuck in the tub, shivering when I feel the front door open and close. Gary knocks, 'Lyca? Lyca, please answer. Say something or I'll have to unlock the door.'
'Sssommefuckingthing!' My knees receive my head, hair falling like a curtain as I wait for worms to come up through the drain and compost me.
'Talk to me, please.'
'Just leave me alone.'
The hot water runs out before the crawl under my skin. Four towels can't absorb my shivers. I ball up my clothes and aim for my room but can't dart around Gary pacing the hall. 'What happened?'
'Jonah had some crap wine.'
'I went to Jonah's.'
'You are not my fucking father! Stay the fuck out of my life!' Neo's head clunks the wall as my shriek breaks through his shell. I slam my door and swallow my remaining inheritance from Nova: two Oxycontins.
The clinic is at the mall. I sit outside, waiting until it opens, waiting for mourning-after pills to make last night go away. They swab orifices, suck blood from my arm, then probe with questions, rows and boxes of them. When the counsellor asks if it was my stepfather, I look down. It's a blink that causes suspicion and by the tick, tick, tick of the pencil I'm certain having a sub-normal brother will trump confidentiality. 'Lyca, did your stepfather hurt you?'
I collect the letters 'N' and 'O' in my head but my tongue sticks, head bobs to my knees. Flowers are closing, quickly, synchronistically. Speak, speak, before someone wearing polka dots takes Neo to one of those places. Speak. Retreat. A wind moves me further and further into shadow. Which butterfly can fly backwards? Which one?
Coiled on an orange pleather chair, my head aches from where I've hit the wall in echo to Neo's distant drumming. I know they've strapped him in a big helmet like all the other times. His pointer finger bleeding from tracing the tiles on the floor.
'Lyca, I'm Dr Fitzgerald.' She says my name with a hard 'c'. It should be soft. Soft like the 'c' in 'ice', which is odd, since ice cuts hard, breaks sharp. She drops like an apple released from the tree and lands on a chair. She's a woolly worm, not beautiful like Nova. But, then, no one could be. 'How about you and I get to know each other a little.' The vibrations of her voice brush by. I have no mouth, only big eyes escaping to the light outside the dirty window. 'It'll feel better to talk things out.' She touches my knee, waits for words, then leaves. I stare at the heatprint from her hand. I don't know these pants covering my legs, purple, with happy monkeys. I don't know my shirt, tired aquamarine, hospital washed a thousand times. It offers one loose thread. I pull and it unravels like Victoria Falls.
I'm tangled in seagrass. My breasts are toy boats, not perfect waves like Nova's. The blood in my mouth is warm and salty-sweet.
Nurse Anna searches behind the night table. 'Christ love us, page Dr Fitzgerald.'
Plucked from the corner. Their specimen caught. Pinned on the chair. The woolly worm coats me in a white blanket. 'Good girl, let's get it all out.' She peers in my mouth. 'Did you swallow anything, Lyca?'
Nurse Anna says, 'Looked like she was flossing with strings from her shirt when I found her.'
She weighs a handful of the jumbled threads. 'Why on earth, child?'
She doesn't understand our kind, Mummy. Words float on a sigh, 'A proboscis opens with blood.'
Nurse Anna wipes my face. 'What's that? You want a biscuit? We have some Arrowroots. Here, swish and rinse first.'
I spit red water into a turquoise basin. 'A Schaus Swallowtail.'
Dr Fitzgerald moves her ear close. 'Pardon, Lyca?'
'The Schaus Swallowtail. It can fly backwards.'
There's a prism suspended in the window projecting lightmaps on the wall. Gary sent it. Neo echoes through the shadow places, Forgive us our compasses as we forgive those who pass against us, us ...
A rainbow shimmers on Dr Fitzgerald's cheek. 'Can you tell me what happened, Lyca?'
I have no idea how long ago I swallowed my voice. Maybe it's been ten hours or fourteen years. 'I was high. I don't remember.'
'Do you remember where you were?'
'A rave. Downtown somewhere. Where's Neo?'
'Your neighbour, Mrs Arthur, is with him. Your stepdad thought it best to upset his routine as little as possible.'
'He's staying at his office until things are sorted out. He comes by every day to see how you're doing.' She leans forward. 'Did he ever hurt you or Neo?'
Fat dewy drops pool then snake down my cheek. My head nods without consent.
I pick at the stuffing poking through the arm of the chair. 'Acts against nature.'
'What does that mean?'
'He gets under our scales.'
She writes notes then studies my face, smiling a little. 'And that hurts?'
'If you touch a butterfly's wing it can't fly.'
'That's a myth.' I look up and she winks. 'Figured I'd better do my homework if we're going to get to know one another. Tell me about your mother.'
'I understand she died of a brain tumour.'
There are dots on the dingy ceiling tiles. If I squint I can see Richard Nixon fingering Jesus.
'Do you miss her?'
'Like the world misses the Xerces Blue.'
'So ... would that be more than we think and less than we know?'
I shrug. 'It's just gone and no one gives a fuck.'
She measures the length of her yellow pencil. 'Your stepfather seems to care very much about you and your brother.'
'He fusses over us like a fucking mother bear. How's a butterfly supposed to live like that?'
Gary presents neon coloured gerberas and whispers, 'How are you?'
'That doctor is an oligochaetologist.'
'She loves digging up fat ugly worms to poke at.'
'Brings some good earth to the surface.'
'Feels more like shit.' I look straight at his baggy face. 'Did you love her?'
'I did. Or – I loved something, but I'm not sure what.'
'A butterfly trick. Makes you think you're catching a Monarch but it turns out to be a Limenitis archippus.'
'A Viceroy. An imposter Monarch. She knew she was sick.'
'So did I.'
'Then... wh... I'll track down Leroy. Get us out of your hair.'
He inches closer, touching my fingers. 'Your mother spent her life searching for the beautiful, the undiscovered. Hers was a remarkable life, but she missed seeing that it was you, Lyca.' His big hand moves to my cheek, lifting my face. 'You are the incredible creation like none other.'
'God, you are such a fungus.'
He sinks into the chair, searching the trees outside the window, nodding a little like the breeze is penetrating the safety glass.
I nudge his knee with my big toe. 'You grow on things.'
He comes to pick me up dressed head to toe in black, nicely camouflaging the skin that's three sizes too big for his frame. I half-smile. 'Bitchin'. You go shopping by yourself?'
'No. You were chattering in my head.' He opens the Buick door, beetles around to the driver side and takes me back to the sprawling bungalow.
Neo is animated – almost. He kneels by a soft creature he's unafraid to touch.
'Whoa, who's this?'
'Dog is my shepherd, my shepherd, shepherd.'
'That's no shepherd, freakazoon. It's a retriever. Can I pat him?'
Neo does something he's never done before, walks his deity over to me. 'For Dog so loved the girl, the girl, girl, he gave light, gave light, light ...'
Gary says, 'He wants you to see your room.'
I open the door to suspended prisms splitting light on every surface. The walls are blue sky. Books are arranged on shelves with all my travel gewgaws. Clothes are put away. My woven blanket from Costa Rica is on the bed and a big mirror doubles the windowed sun. And that's where I spot it, reflected in the looking glass: Neo, in a red plaid shirt inclined toward Gary, me on the other side in a red hoodie. I inhale. 'Put up your arms.'
'Over your head.' Gary complies. 'Curve them out. Ball your fists.' We stare at the odd creature. 'Look, Nova got her wish.'
'Duh, papazoid, she discovered a new familia: the Lycaenindae Neopseustina Gary.'
Gary's arms fall, imperceptivity bolstering his lopsided wings. 'Amen.'
'A mend, mend, end.' Neo pops from foot to foot before flying into the presence of Dog.
'Butterfly as Metaphor' by Heather Tucker was commended in the 2015 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.