Despite what you’ve been told, butterflies are awfully ugly if you look at them up close. I know this for a fact because I spent an entire summer trying to catch as many as I could in some jam jars that I had stolen from my mother’s pantry. I accredit my crimes to the clock. The old grandfather clock in the corner of the kitchen made it its mission to vex me into all sorts of petty crimes. Vicious old thing, it’d tick me to insanity if I’d let it. Tick. Sigh. Tick. Yawn. Tick. Tick. Tick. Slow and excruciating, like beads of sweat running down a forehead.
Sneaking supplies out wasn’t a problem. Mom stopped paying attention to the things that went missing around the house after Georgia left for Tampa in her boyfriend’s bright blue pickup. It was fairly easy for me to slip away with some jars hidden under a puffy winter’s jacket from time to time. She asked me once what I was doing hauling my big red parka outside during summer and I told her that I was lending it to Julia for a school play about Eskimo people. I’d peeked out from behind that big lump of bright red nylon so she could see the sincerity in my eyes when I said it. I don’t even know a girl named Julia.
It didn’t really matter that I took the parka out far into the months when school was over. She always chose to believe me. She would turn and shrink back to the shadows where she came from, the soft-knuckled clutch of her blankets, the blinds sealed shut. When I heard the small click of the bedroom door closing behind her, I was off. I emptied the jars into a wheelbarrow lined with mismatched pillows and carted it slowly down the street. The path to Dead Man’s Meadow was five blocks from my house at a portion of the sidewalk that disappeared into forested ground, merging with a shabby dirt road. Nobody knows who carved out that old dirt road but when I was in third grade, Jerry Tomlin, the smartest boy in class, told us that a ghost did it.
"Why do you think they call it Dead Man's Meadow?" he asked on Halloween morning after we had finished eating the pumpkin cupcakes Teresa's mother had baked us. "It's because someone was murdered there."
Little Josephine, who didn't have the stomach to hear these kinds of things, excused herself to go to the restroom.
Jerry nodded gravely. "They found it in the stream."
“A corpse, he whispered, “They say his ghost roams the meadow at night, pacing back and forth between the same spots, carving out the dirt road bit by bit by bit."
The story scared us enough to not set foot near Dead Man's Meadow for almost an entire year, but when summer rolled around, I wasn't about to let some dumb ghost story keep me from making a fortune. When I did go, I usually left the wheelbarrow by the river and took one jar at a time, waiting, low to the ground, on my hands and knees, for a butterfly to nest itself in an optimal position and then I'd take a net and swoop it over that spot of grass close the top, flip it, and empty the bug into the jar. I'd catch a good three to five butterflies this way.
Dead Man's Meadow was beautiful in the way an empty-mansion is beautiful. Its sweeping, green carpet tickled the toes, puckering at the edges of the sloppy dirt trail. Expensive looking pines stood guard, boasting their impressive height. Spring had put the sound of a sugary river gargle atop a sky-blue polyphone and begun its waltz. But sometimes, something was a little off about the hue of the grass. There was a ghostly note in the music. The whisper of wind slipping through the pines was a little too breathy for comfort. I found myself singing church hymns too often for it to have been a coincidence. Other times, it was exciting, like I had wandered into an empty palace one day and, for a few hours, owned its grandeur by default. An exhilarating freedom.
But haunted or not, it wasn’t like I had much of a choice. The butterfly business was booming. When I caught my merchandise, I’d sell them to all the girls in the neighborhood at a little booth on the street corner. There were the regulars, red-faced Mary Jane, shy Teresa, and freckled Josephine, whose pockets always jingled with quarters when they skipped. Erica came by maybe once a month because she lived fifteen minutes away on roller skates and couldn’t be bothered to come every week. Then there were those who heard about the business by word of mouth and dropped by once or twice, but the one customer that I really cared about was Josie Pope. At eleven years old, she wasn’t much more than a year older than any of us. She had brown hair, brown eyes, and a brown wallet that never jingled when she skipped because it was filled with five dollar bills. Her dad was richer than all of ours combined. When she rounded the corner, it was going to be a good day. But Josie was a tough customer. She demanded the very best of my merchandise and I often withheld my most impressive catches from casual sales to prepare for her rare visits. We never talked much; ours was a silent camaraderie. I never felt the need to exchange empty pleasantries.
One day, after I had handed her a marmalade jar with a gorgeous swallowtail beating its wings furiously against the glass, I slipped her bill into my pocket and waved goodbye as she crossed the street. On her way across, she paused in the middle of the road and looked down to admire her purchase, oblivious to the road, fully distracted by the way her money could buy such a flutter. She looked back up at me, as if she needed to tell me something important. Her eyes glistened as she clutched her butterfly jar with two hands, the yellow swallowtail disappearing into her dress, save its black silhouette. Her white patent Mary Janes shone so brightly under the sun that they looked wet, and I admired them, jealous that she had such nice things. Her mouth parted slightly as she started to speak and a bright summer breeze tousled her blonde shoulder-length hair. A couple strands had finished flitting about the rosy flush of her cheeks when a bright blue pickup hit her at full speed. God stopped the clock for Josie’s ghost.
First there was a figure standing in the road, and then there wasn’t.
No figure. No scream. Only an unmistakable absence. Only a stunning silence, like the moments following a hard slap across the face.
Time eventually started again, slow and excruciating. Beads of blood running down a forehead. The bright blue pickup and its inhabitant sat solemnly in wait of their judgement day.
There goes the swallowtail. Look at its clock-hand wings ticking, frame by frame, up into that great big sky, rising and dissolving silently into the puddle of red ink spilling across its surface with every shudder.
A week after Josie’s funeral, Georgia went to jail. The funeral was solemn, the air thick with incense and the things unsaid, like how everyone blamed my sister for the cold body inside the casket. How everybody blamed my mother for the girl behind the bright blue pickup.
I went to Josie’s house once before this whole ordeal. We had lunch, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that stuck to the roof of our mouths, and she showed me her butterfly collection. All of her purchases had been lined up in calculated rows, pinned down and labeled by specimen, frozen corpses of the things that could have been. I could imagine them wriggling from their restraints and fluttering back to dead man’s meadow, dancing in their haunted ballroom. I couldn’t help but think of them when I saw her.
A month passed before I went to Dead Man’s Meadow to gather my thoughts. The meadow looked peaceful that day and I lay in the grass with my eyes closed, feeling the scratchy grass carve out gentle imprints in my calves. I thought about Georgia’s jail cell, about Mother’s shadowy room, about the winged ticket to heaven I had handed to Josie that day. Time’s hesitant waves ebbed and flowed, weathering away history’s sharp edge, as I waded through its waters, deciding which responsibilities were mine.
I must have fallen asleep because when I woke up, the sun was beginning to set. Across the grass, by the riverbank, I noticed a figure pacing back and forth, and I called across the field to him. When he turned towards me, I noticed a bullet wound in his chest, his tattered clothes framed a body grey and ghostly. I could imagine the headline above his nameless face—Man Murdered in Meadow—read aloud in Jerry Tomlin’s young voice. His face was disfigured, bruised with the phantom hits he had taken and blood trailed from his wound, down his stomach, down his leg. A figment of my imagination, I assumed. His face was pained, but gentle, and I had no fear of him. I called out to him across the meadow.
“Who did this to you?” I asked.
He didn’t answer, but a soft look of melancholy graced his face, a look of pity, of knowing that his journey had finished and mine was just beginning. He turned back towards his river, swallowed by the emerging darkness.
The past fogs my mind like warmth on winter glass and its shadowy characters tell their story. The dark of night delivers its message as I disappear quietly into its hands.
A familiar voice cuts through the haze.
“It’s a secret, alright?”
The cold laps greedily at our flesh. It was her idea to escape this early in the morning. Georgia swings the biggest purse she owns over one shoulder and its swings like a glistening pendulum. More unsaid words teeter on the tip of my tongue, falling back into my throat as I watch her smile, like the world is hers for the taking. I realize that I am holding her arm, tight, like an anchor tying a boat to shore. I let her go and watch as she slips away, feeling helpless as she drifts beyond my reach. I hear an engine in the distance. The car pulls up, and its bright white lights flood the meadow. She kisses me quickly on my forehead and the car door clicks open then closed. Then it starts off, its black wheels spinning carelessly into the future.
I hear laughing. Bright blue laughing. The wind ruffles its fingers through Georgia’s tousled hair as she sticks her head out the passenger window, arm extended, eyes closed in bliss, slender hand cutting through the air like an afterthought, her laugh blown away with the years.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.