She cradles the boy in the butterfly shoppe, picking rosy glass from the seam of his scalp, lice-like. She’s careful as a surgeon, despite knowing she's already lost him. Around her, visitors continue to shriek, high-pitched and desperate, searching. They step over lifeless butterflies scattered across the floor, trapping orange wings in rubber soles. Danaus plexippus, she thinks reflexively. Milkweed reliant. Susceptible to the cold. They’d perish in a few weeks if they weren’t already gone. All parts of her usual sermon given to bored families and tourists, or anyone who happened to pass through the conservatory. Henry, her own little beauty boy, called her shoppe the Snow Globe House, referring to the 11,000 feet of reinforced glass that made up the dome of the building. Henry, he’d wonder why it was so warm inside whenever she brought him in with her.
They can’t survive in the snow, she’d say.
He’d ask then how can we.
The boy in her arms now loses warmth as more air seeps in through the cracks and holes above them, around. Who did he belong to? Apple-smooth skin that makes her aware of her own rough fingers. Brown eyes, even darker than Henry’s.
As the ground finally stops its shifting, she stands up and lays him out on a nearby bench — a single untouched thing. She motions to place a kiss on his head or to tuck hair behind his ear, but they’re not hers to give. Instead she reaches down and gathers a handful of debris: years reduced to leaf and glass in her palm. She smiles, wanting to laugh, but stops herself, acknowledging her selfish, misplaced interests.
When Henry was 3, she’d rest her hand on his forehead to coax him to sleep. After years of the same gesture, she became attuned to his natural temperature. It helped her to sleep too, but any fluctuation — whether too hot or too cold — would upset her. Couldn’t he just stay the same every night?
How are you feeling? she’d ask, and he’d roll over or mumble or already be asleep. Wake up, she’d say. Henry, wake up. But children, she knew, were unconcerned with people who closed their eyes after them.
Those earlier years, waking up was the hardest part — her first thoughts always about him, worry each time she picked him up, held him, that he’d look at her as he would a stranger. And eventually that’s what she convinced herself she was: a stranger raising a strange child. She tells herself now that the resentment later happened independently, but in her darkest moments, maybe her realest, it had been a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The butterfly shoppe, she realizes, had always held her heart.
She ignores her mounting pulse. The uninjured have all fled now, to safety or to somewhere else. She doesn’t know. The outside pollutants have contaminated the space around her, tainting the lemongrass dew, a scent she worries she’ll never experience in the same way again. Blood hides in places, she thinks, but less than could be expected, if you can expect something like that. She doesn’t know.
Then the red and blue lights, they bounce around the shattered dome, scattering over the scene: the red concealing, the blue exposing. She closes her eyes, listens instead to the repetitive screeching, somehow more tolerable.
One night when Henry’s cries woke her, she carried him into the kitchen to show him the progress of their in-house butterfly, then in a state of chrysalis in a small makeshift garden. It had started to hatch, she noticed, but became stuck within the hard shell — an unfortunate but natural part of the process if ideal conditions weren’t met. Its wings could still move in place, but that’s as far as it would get.
Is it coming out? Henry said. He touch-tapped his finger to the hard plastic as if to wake it.
She could have explained why it wasn’t using the jargon she reserved for visitors to the shoppe — its possible parasitization by the OE spore or the up-and-down temperature of the house — but instead: It will, she said. Eventually.
After putting Henry back down, she carefully removed the shell from the container and worked at it with a pair of tweezers, understanding that trying to aid it at this point could only do more harm — illogical actions just to show her son something nice in the morning. Maybe if she could do this, she thought, she wouldn’t wake up with flightless thoughts.
When the wings fell apart in her hands that night, she threw it all in the garbage, and Henry, he didn’t ask any questions the next day.
She opens her eyes now to a man in a white disposable suit. He stands across the room from her, calmly waving a gloved hand toward the exit. Someone pushes her, she thinks, or guides her, or else her body naturally floats toward him, her hands grazing fallen milkweed and bee balm and honeysuckle. The boy on the bench has been removed, she sees: a blip of the night.
When she gets to the other side of the shoppe, the man’s hand touches her shoulder reassuringly — she would have to go now, this meant. But before she can put up a fight, or demand to stay in place, she looks through the clear plastic face in front of her to see a Monarch — flittingly, impossibly — tickling the man’s face inside.