Updated: 6 days ago
This story contains themes of racism
His most beautiful feature was the proboscis upon his face.
He wasn’t a man—at least, not in the sense people would usually think. Most would’ve called him a freak of nature, a cross between something that was real and wasn’t supposed to exist, but I didn’t care. All that mattered was that he was my friend.
El, he would say. Elrena.
The voice that I could hear only inside my head held my utmost attention as he approached my bedroom window. As he did every night—at exactly twelve-thirty AM, during which the moon would either be a blaze of glory of a dark pit of nothing—I would hear his approach by the sound of his fluttering wings, whose enigmatic presence was marked by a rhythmic sound like the revving rotors on a helicopter’s blades.
Until I first saw him, I’d never realized what a butterfly had sounded like.
Given how close we were to a base, no one would’ve ever expected that it was the butterfly man passing by and not a helicopter.
I watched his inbound approach like a spellbound child. Lowering with grace that I would’ve never imagined from such an awkward form, his tall, lithe frame descended much like a normal butterfly would and landed on the skirt of the roof. His wings, like daggers, caught the moonlight and reflected it back at me as they reacquainted themselves with their new position, made orbs of light along the glass windowpane that reminded me of headlights approaching in the darkness night. Then he did as he always did—approached my window until we were face-to-face.
Elrena, he said.
I’d never been able to get a true look at him. Without light to shine upon his face, I could only make out his more sensitive details—the proboscis, the antennae, the lupine face that was human in shape but probably not in nature. The rest of him was a complete representation of a man—from his five-foot-tall body to the lean frame that branched off in long arms and legs. He only occasionally reached forward to try and touch me, but each time was deterred by the glass.
His fingers were human.
He was not.
“Butterfly?” I asked, his moniker the one name I had given him. “What is it? What do you want?”
The faint flicker of his antennae always unnerved me. It didn’t seem predatory—unless I was just fooling myself, which could always be the case—but it was far more alien than anything I had ever encountered.
In moments like these, I wondered sometimes if he was judging me—if, within the shadows of the darkness, two big, black eyes were watching me, seeing me in a way that only he could.
The butterfly man’s wings shifted, flicking light off their reflective tips. Their piercing rays passed across my vision only briefly before he ceased his incessant movements.
Elrena, he replied. Love.
He pressed a hand to the glass.
It wasn’t hard to feel emotional when he said something like that. Here I was, the country girl who everyone hated, who at fourteen had never had a boyfriend and would probably never because I was nothing more than just a stupid farm girl, living in a house with no electricity on a plot of land where all my life amounted to was cows and sheep. A boy had never approached me, but him—he was something else. He’d sought me out from whatever place he’d come from to offer me hope that I would otherwise not have.
Of course, in the end, I was only really fooling myself.
What use was a girl to a man who wasn’t even a man?
Knowing that my lack of response might be seen as rude, I reached forward and pressed my hand to the windowpane.
Though our palms did not line up exactly, being within his shadow did all the more for me.
* * *
“There been someone up in your room last night?” Papa asked.
I lifted my head from my morning breakfast of dry cereal and eggs and frowned. “No,” I said. “Why would you think that?”
My father didn’t have to explain. We’d had this conversation before. The scuff marks on the outer windowsill, the occasional misshapen twig that he’d see the times he’d go into my room with fatherly intent—the deal breaker had been when one of the shingles had been mysteriously broken and I’d never been able to explain it, though my mother had passed it off as cats and nothing more.
Cats, my father had grumbled. More like dogs.
I lowered my eyes as he lifted his newspaper and returned to my breakfast, only turning my head when I saw my mother shift from the corner of my vision.
“Elrena?” she asked, pressing a hand to my upper back. “Did you study for your test last night?”
“Yes,” I said. God, how I wish she hadn’t reminded me.
“I know how hard those mathematics are for you, but I know you can do it. You’re a smart girl.”
“So don’t be scared. Everything’s going to be just okay.”
I swallowed a lump in my throat.
Little did she know.
* * *
I’d perfectly neglected to tell my mother that today was the school dance.
Already I was under scrutiny.
In the burgeoning little city that lay just beyond the outskirts of the farmlands I lived upon, the girls were pretty and weren’t afraid to show it. Though only my age, they possessed an uncanny ability to transform themselves into creatures that didn’t even appear human. High-dollar foundations and the sheerest of lipsticks lined their faces, mascaras that made their lashes appear twice as large adorned their eyes, earrings that may or may not have been real gemstones dangled from their ears. Their clothes were another thing entirely, and put my country-bumpkin self to shame, but I’d always tried to ignore that. On a day like this, though—when everyone was dressed up, including the ageless librarian Mrs. Craebey—it was hard to fall into the shadows.
“Hey Elrena!” one of the girls cried. “Elrena!”
Carlee Martinez’ voice was like needles gouging through my ears, so loud and recognizable that it probably could’ve drawn the attention of the entire state. Her crowd of cronies—which my mother liked to refer to as the ‘mean girls club,’ but whom I liked to call ‘the bitches’—instantly turned and offered me their full attention.
Though a seldom few made it a point to continue on and spare me the shame of public humiliation, most regarded Carlee’s words like the Ten Commandments.
I tried to move past the people gawking at me like birds on wire-rimmed cages.
No sooner than I approached, the Bitches blocked my path.
“You do know that today is the day of the dance?” Carlee’s other friend—a tall, skinny white girl named Whitney with some boobs and nothing else—said. “Right?”
“I know,” I replied.
“But where’s your dress?” Whitney’s twin, aptly named Britney, asked.
“Oh,” Carlee said. “Wait a minute… you don’t have a dress, do you? Bless your heart.”
The girls burst into laughter.
My anger was quelled only by the desire not to cry.
Carlee was the kind of girl you wanted to like. She seemed nice—at least, at a distance. She got along with all of the popular kids, made relatively good grades, was beautiful like a goddess with her lush olive skin and striking hazel eyes, but she was one of those girls who specialized in pulling the wool over the eyes of those she wanted on her side. The teachers never believed anyone when they said how horrible she was. They accused them of bullying, in the end, because why would good little Carlee Martinez ever do something to make someone else feel bad?
My usual lack of response goaded them for only a minute. They prodded me as I walked off, books in hand, mocking my lack of nice clothes, my ratty hair I tried so hard to maintain, the dirt I could never get out from under my fingernails.
In the end, I couldn’t bother with it.
This was my life.
There was nothing I could do.
* * *
The boy I secretly admired but whom I would never tell sat exactly two rows and three seats in front of me. Tall, dark-skinned, with a lean build which began with broad shoulders but tapered off at an incredibly trim waist—David Markan was a boy who got rap for his grades but who excelled in his place on the wrestling team. Most girls swooned. The majority wanted to date him. I often wondered if he was the reason why I could never concentrate in math class.
He does sit in plain view, I was always quick to remind myself, as with open seating and a small class there wasn’t much to block him from sight.
Mr. Abraham, the math teacher, reclined in his seat with his feet propped upon his desk reading what appeared to be National Geographic, though most everyone suspected otherwise. The biggest rumor about him, besides the fact that he had ears like a hawk, was that he snuck magazines onto the campus—magazines that had supposedly been discovered by Principal Montgomery when she’d come into his office after hours. Such paranoia prevented anyone without the trickiest of fingers from passing notes in class. There was a saying: Mr. Abraham heard all, saw all, then had you read it out loud.
Pulling my gaze away from David, I looked down at the test and felt instantly defeated.
The temptation to circle the letter was far greater than any inclination I’d ever had toward a boy.
With the knowledge that the period would soon be ending, I began to snowball and Christmas tree the test where it was needed. Most of it I knew, but a couple of the questions—which Mr. Abraham had conveniently marked with a high number of points—were ones I’d never been able to figure out.
It seemed like only a minute had passed when in reality the last third of the period had just ended.
Desperate to rise and turn in my test before lunch, I scrambled up front after most of the students on my side of the room had left, only to bump into David Markan so violently that he dropped his Algebra textbook on the ground.
The book hit a floor with a thud that shook the room.
Mr. Abraham’s resounding haruumph did nothing to console my embarrassment, though thankfully his attention did not stray from his magazine too long.
“David,” I said, gulping, looking down as he bent to grab his textbook. “I’m so—”
“Sorry?” he asked, smiling as he rose. “It’s cool. No worries. I wasn’t paying attention either. I think we all get a little unnerved when Mr. Abraham assigns a test.”
“As you should,” the teacher replied.
After I slid my paper into place on Mr. Abraham’s desk, David gestured me out into the hall, which was already empty given the mad rush to get a decent portion of lunch.
“How’ve things been?” David asked, completely jarring my attention as I realized he was following me to my locker.
“Fine,” I replied, trying my hardest to conceal a frown.
What use did David Markan have for me—Elrena Bobbet, the farm girl from the outskirts of town?
“Why do you ask?” I continued as I dialed my combination.
“Just wondering,” he said. “The dance is tonight, you know?”
He didn’t need to remind me. “I know,” I replied, with the hopes that the sting in my voice wasn’t as present as I thought it would be.
“Are you going with anyone?”
No. I couldn’t have just heard that.
I was getting far too ahead of myself.
Though I wouldn’t know if I didn’t ask, the most I could manage in response was a, “Huh?”
“The dance,” David repeated, drawing closer, his cologne thick and far too musky. “Are you going with anyone?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not.”
“Would you like to go with me?”
David’s smile was the sort that could melt anyone—particularly girls who had a crush on him. Me in particular, the girl who had never thought in a million years that I would be the object of any affection, could’ve turned to sludge right there, but since I couldn’t, I merely gave him an unwavering, probably-unblinking stare, which only prompted his smile to remain.
Once again, I asked, “Huh?”
“You’re cute,” he replied. “I’d like to get to know you more. Kinda hard to do, practice and all, and you not having… uh…”
“Power,” I said.
Thankfully, my giggle came naturally and didn’t sound like a stupid girl’s bad attempt to impress a boy.
“You game?” he asked.
“I guess,” she said. “I mean, if you can pick me up. Papa doesn’t like me driving into town by myself.”
“That’s cool,” David said, though didn’t keep eye contact.
I mentally kicked myself for bringing up my dad in front of him.
“It’s gonna be at the church,” the handsome boy said, then smiled, as if he’d completely forgotten my father’s racially-objective personality. “You know, the one on the other side of town? I know, I know—weird place. I thought the same. School thought it would be better, since our auditorium’s the size of a molehole.”
“You can barely play dodge-ball in there,” I replied.
“And don’t even try basketball.”
I laughed. “Yeah. Okay. Cool. Sounds good to me.”
“I’ll pick you up at… seven… ish? Will that give you enough time?”
“Yeah,” I said. I shut my locker with a resounding nod and gave him another smile. “Thanks, David.”
“No problem. I’m looking forward to it.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”
* * *
I dreaded even telling my parents about the dance.
Seated at the kitchen table exactly one hour after school had ended, I watched Papa tinker with the clock that normally hung over the threshold with a pair of pliers and a screwdriver while Mama poured the two of us tea. Biscuits spread out along the centerpiece, the common after-school snack, I waited for what felt like the right moment to spring the news to the two of them.
This would not be good.
“So,” Mama said, as if breaking the silence that hung in the air with a hammer. “How was school today?”
“Fine,” I replied, reaching for a biscuit to distract from my shaking hands.
“How did you do on your test?”
“I think I did okay.”
“Okay?” Papa asked.
I merely nodded. There was now a fifty-fifty chance that I would get the ‘you’re a freshman in high school and you have to make A’s to get into college otherwise you’re going to become a drug dealer on the street for the rest of your life’ talk.
“So,” my mother said, when she, like me, felt the talk would not come. “Anything else exciting happen today?”
Both my parents raised their heads. I couldn’t be sure whether it was the tone in my voice or the fact that I’d admitted to something exciting happening.
“I got asked to the school dance,” I said.
“By who?” Mama asked.
“That weasel,” Papa said.
I nearly knocked my tea over. “Daddy,” I sighed.
“You know how I feel about the Markams,” he replied, returning to the clock, but this time with much more aggression than before. “Always lying to get their discounts at the grocery store, stealing from the government, Medicaid, Welfare. The one brother’s in a gang, the father’s a dealer, and don’t get me started on his mother. Boy, if you ain’t seen a woman spread her legs before—“
“Arnold,” Mama snapped.
Papa didn’t raise his head. “You know how they are,” he replied.
The heated debate Mama and Papa proceeded into only made me think of how stupid it had been to say I was going out with a Markam boy. I’d thought about lying—because only God knows that my parents are not the most observant about current events, especially not my school—but I knew that if I tripped up I’d be in serious trouble. I couldn’t say I hadn’t expected it, though none of it was obviously true. Papa’d had a beef with David’s dad for as long as I could remember. Sadly, I knew it was only because of his skin color.
I only noticed the argument had ended when both of my parents were looking right at me.
“The answer’s no,” Papa said.
That sealed the deal.
I knew I couldn’t fight, couldn’t weasel my way out of it, even try to negotiate with him.
That didn’t matter though.
For the first time in my life a boy had asked me out.
Nothing was going to keep me from going to the dance.
* * *
Mama and Papa were early to bed, early to rise. After an early dinner, they retired at six to leave me to my own devices. This allowed me ample time to go through my closet.
The whole time I searched, I tried to imagine what a girl would wear to a high school dance.
Something pretty, I was inclined to think. Something that’s nice but not flashy.
In that regard, I had nothing to worry about. The best clothes I had were from discount stores selling last season’s brands. Compared to what some of the girls would be wearing, I’d look like Cinderella when the movie first started—in rags and scrubbing the floor on my hands and knees.
I eventually decided on a simple, dark-red blouse and a frilly black skirt. The skirt I’d never worn, since it was no use on the farm when I could trip on and land in a number of things, and for the shoes I’d just wear sneakers. I doubt anyone would care, and if they did, well… it’s not like I cared about what they said.
The early winter nights always started at seven.
By candlelight, I did my short hair in a ponytail, applied what little makeup I could to my eyes and lips, and settled into my clothes when I heard the familiar sound outside my window.
Thump thump thump… thump thump thump.
Shortly thereafter, the second noise came—the landing, mostly graceful but sometimes awkward—then the three taps upon the window. The name came next.
Elrena, he said. Elrena, Elrena. Love.
I didn’t turn to face him. In the mirror, he was more than present—his silhouette marked by the candlelight but his features obscured. He didn’t move—didn’t even so much as cock his head or reach forward to tap on the window again. Instead, he simply watched me, waiting, as if he knew that I could see his reflection.
“I can’t stay here tonight,” I said, not wanting to turn, but knowing that I would have to. “I have to go somewhere. With a friend. A boyfriend.”
Boyfriend. The name had slipped off my tongue so fast.
The butterfly man cocked his head to the side. His wings fluttered, as if he were ready to depart, but he used them to propel himself forward so he could be closer to the window.
Love, he said.
“I know,” I said. “And you’re my friend, but you have to let me go. This… this means a lot to me. More than anything.”
More, he said.