She calls her husband before dawn calls the sun.
“Hello?” he says. His voice is tired. She knows he’s been sleeping.
“Hi, honey.” Her voice is shaky from the caffeine. She normally doesn’t drink so much, but she can’t afford to sleep after her shift. She can’t risk oversleeping on a day like today. “Are you still going to work?”
“Yes,” he says. “I don’t have any time off.”
She frowns as she turns on the car. “I don’t like going alone, Matt.”
“I know you don’t,” he says. “I promise I’ll come next year.”
“I don’t want there to be a next year.” She can’t help that her eyes are wet as she says this. She’s worked too much and too hard with little sleep. “I hate that everyone else goes together.”
Matt sighs. “Liv, you can’t be the only one that goes alone.”
She bites the inside of her lip. Her heart hurts in a way he will never understand. “You don’t know that,” she finally manages to say. “You’ve never been.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” He pauses and she can hear as he shifts to sit up in their bed. “I have to get ready. I promise, Liv. I promise if you don’t find him I’ll come with next time. I promise, okay?”
“It’s been five years, Matt.”
Liv hangs up before he can say anything more and tosses the phone into the passenger seat. The interstate is laden with traffic. On any normal early morning the roads would be sparse, most working adults just rising for the day to take a shower and fulfill their morning routine. Today, though, is different. Today there are cars winding through the predawn elements, through the fog, through the dewy rain. Liv is one of them, barely able to merge behind a semi while the person behind her gives her the bird before throwing his vehicle to the left. She doesn’t look as the couple speeds on past.
After exiting the interstate Liv turns into the Walmart lot and parks in one of the many empty spaces towards the back. She grabs her phone from the passenger seat and opens up her Memorium app and begins sifting through pictures of her child. Her heart hurts looking at the weak and curled frame of her baby boy, the dried blood of the blanket that held his precious body so tight. She pushes her thumb on the same picture she’s pressed every year for five years, the same raw heartache flowing through her as her eyes burn with salt.
A moment later a whooshing noise confirms her payment and she sets her phone down carefully on the passenger seat, as though the picture of her son is still there.
The drive to FlyPrint is as long as it takes her to console herself, a few miles of backstreets and intersections. She knows to avoid the main road and she hates herself for waiting until the last minute to get the picture. Every year she tells herself that Matt can do it, an internal struggle that never quite comes to fruition. She hates the way it makes her feel. It’s as if the words and the feelings can never quite connect, organs and bones failing to work in tandem.
The lot is full. She knew it would be like this. The bright side is that she has given herself a few hours before the event. There should be enough time to get the picture and leave and still be on time.
Liv grabs her phone and opens the door, staring at the seemingly hundreds of cars in front of her. There are plenty of families around, some young and some old, big and small. She spots a young couple under the streetlight as they step out into the darkling morning together. She knows the isolation they feel. They wear it on their face and in their slump as their feet plod in unison towards the front. She hopes they find who they’re looking for. If not, she hopes they at least continue to look together.
The line is long and it winds out of the store and along the sidewalk. A confused light flickers above before going out forever. The line moves and stops and others file behind her. She tries not to overhear the others around. Every story is sad and fresh, save for the old ones that simply stink of rotted hope. When it’s her turn, an hour has passed.
“Number,” the man says, failing to meet her eyes. He’s callous and cold, which is mostly fine to her.
Liv pulls out her phone and reads the number below her picture. “SB-4-6-7-3-3.”
“Alright.” He crunches the numbers before looking at her. A moment later he says, “That’ll be forty-seven-fifty.”
“I thought it was forty-nine.”
The man sighs. “Discount for being with us for five years.”
“Oh,” she says, holding her phone up to the reader. “Thanks.”
Liv watches as he turns around and waits for the humming of the giant white printer to stop. When it does, she cringes as he carelessly grabs the picture and thrusts it in her direction. “Thanks,” he says, looking back at the computer. “Have a wonderful day.”
She leaves the store with the picture in hand, holding it close to her belly so that no one can see. It’s something she’s had to do for two years now, ever since an older couple scolded her on the way to her car.
Save room for those who actually lost someone, the old woman had told her. I had three of those. I moved on.
At the time she didn’t know how to respond. She still doesn’t know how to respond. She only knows to clutch the picture close to her stomach with as much tender and care as she can. Her eyes wander to the billboard above and she sees an advertisement for The Butterfly Field. There’s a picture of a middle aged couple holding a small monarch in their hands, smiles wide and eyes fresh with love and adoration. She looks down and takes a peek at her picture, biting her lips, trying not to cry.
She feels her phone vibrate in her pocket which releases her from her spell. She doesn’t need to check who it is. Only one person ever calls her every year on this day.
“Hi, dad,” Liv says. She’s holding the phone with her shoulder as she fumbles for the car keys, trying to keep the picture from folding too much.
“Hi, honey,” he says. “How are you?”
“I’m okay.” She pauses. “Are you coming today?”
He doesn’t say anything for a moment. She can hear his breath through the phone. Finally, he says, “No, Olivia. You know I don’t believe in that stuff.” A tinge of anger rides on his voice. “You didn’t print a picture, did you?”
“No, dad.” She sits down and turns on the car and carefully places the picture face down on the dashboard. “You asked me not to. But I just don’t see why you won’t try.” She sighs. “It’s been proven, dad. Multiple times. I’ve sent you the articles and the news reports. I wish you would just try.”
“It’s just too fresh, Livvy. I miss your mom. I do. I just don’t want to get my hopes up.”
“But what if she’s waiting for you?” She knows she shouldn’t have asked this. It’s too much to bear. She can hear him beginning to break on the other end. “I’m sorry, dad. I just meant to say that I miss her, too. I’m sorry.”
He takes a second to collect himself. Liv allows this by sitting in her car, playing with her hair, looking in the mirror. “Dad?” she says.
“Yes?” He says this with such painful inflection that it cuts her heart. “I love you. I have to go now.”
“Ok, honey. Let me know if you find him. Maybe I’ll try it if you do.”
She hangs up the phone after saying goodbye and looks out and into sky. The sun is rising and poking through the trees beyond the lot. Her eyes catch a glimpse of two birds as they chase one another for different horizons. Another deep breath later and she is winding through side streets towards the interstate.
Liv isn’t worried about the time. She has enough. It’s simply arriving to the field that causes her heart to spin. It’s the way she feels pulling onto the grass lot as others converge and begin to walk the forest trail, everyone having had lost someone they could touch and hold and speak to and love. It’s the incessant pain of shame. Shame that her body couldn’t do just one thing right and the shameful act of just not letting go of something so botched and unviable.
Not a someone, as the old woman said.
She arrives with plenty of time to spare and rolls onto the grass lot where everyone else is parked and unpacking for the day. All ages are represented, from babies to elders. Parents are already chasing young children due to their lack of understanding as bored, unbelieving teens look on, hoping to stay near the car.
After parking behind a large camper, she grabs the picture off the dashboard and moves to open the door. She stops, though, when she sees a man get out alone. He had just parked next to her and is now grabbing a small lawn chair from the front. He holds the picture of a young girl no older than three.
She looks at hers and fails to stop the tears from forming around her pupils. Everyone has such beautiful pictures. Brunette hair and hazel eyes, soft developed skin, captured moments of joy and forced smiles. She cries when she looks at hers, which is nothing more than red translucent skin and emaciated limbs, a head that looks much too large. And yet, it is everything to her and everything she has ever longed for. The perfect and only child she has ever loved.
A knock on her window startles her from this reverie. It’s the man with the picture of the little girl. He knocks again, his face calm and pleading for her to roll the window down. She does.
“Yes?” Liv says, wiping her eyes. She flips over the picture of her son so he can’t see.
She watches the man’s eyes as they fall to the flipped photographed. Everyone looks. She understands this. “I lost my brochure. Thought I brought it from home.” He pauses and an embarrassed look works over him. “Would you mind showing me where I need to sit?”
It’s his first year. Most people only need one year for their loved ones to find them. Five years, though, is mostly unheard of. Rarely does anyone come for more than three.
“Sure,” Liv says. “That’s fine. We’re in the same section anyways.”
He gives her a puzzled look.
“I’m sorry. I saw your picture. Is she three? Four?”
“Oh,” the man says. “Yeah. Three. He extends his hand. “I’m Will.”
“Liv,” she says, meeting his hand. “Just let me get my stuff.”
They walk side by side in silence, both with folding chairs and a picture in their hand. Liv looks up and to the morning sun and tries to let it warm her face. It’s a beautiful day, now. Different from the predawn chill and rain. The grass beneath her feet is wet and she can tell that the dew will soak through her shoes before they get to the clearing.
She tries to keep to herself as they walk and he’s socially aware enough to not ask any questions. The event is not a great time to get to know other people.
They converge into one single line with all the others that are pouring in from the lot. The trailhead isn’t particularly wide and doesn’t allow for anyone to stand side by side. She’s always happy for this. It’s a time for forced solitude as they make their way to the clearing, each person able to reflect and hope and think of those they loved and lost.
She’s still holding her picture close to her stomach so the others behind her can’t see. She doesn’t think Will would say anything, but also doesn’t want to risk it. She’d rather not be angry at others on a day like today.
A mile or so later there’s a break in the trees as a vast field meets them under open sky. A slight wind rolls through and rustles her pants before disappearing behind her forever. Liv watches as those ahead break left or right at the end of the trail, which is determined by a lone woman standing at the trail’s end, her fingers working furiously as she scans each barcoded picture to cross check with obituaries before pointing them along to their destination. Those looking for the elderly have to walk the farthest, which makes sense considering they’re the ones most content with landing among the flowers of the field, oblivious to the calls of family and loved ones.
When it’s her turn, she lifts the back of the picture towards the scanner and allows the woman to hover the device over it. She’s happy she doesn’t have to show.
Everyone else has beautiful pictures.
The woman points Liv off to the right uncaringly before waving Will forward. He steps forward as awkward as ever, umbling around the picture to try and be accommodating to the scanner. In the end it works just fine and he’s ushered off in the same direction.
“It’s very fast,” Will says after he’s caught up with Liv.
“It’s gotten faster,” she says. “The cross check even just a couple years ago wasn’t too great. Lot of waiting in line and frustrated people.”
Liv catches a frown on his face before she’s able to look away. “What’s wrong?”
He doesn’t answer. She can tell he’s thinking. They continue to wade through fresh smelling wet grass.
“I don’t know,” he finally says before looking at his picture. “I just thought life would be different. I never thought I’d be visiting her here.”
Liv nods her head and thinks back to when she was a child, visiting grandparents at stone graves and standing atop their dirt. She remembers laying flowers on the ground and eating chocolate pudding, waiting for her mother as she wept. “Yeah,” she says. “It’s strange how much we’ve learned about the world. Even in just the last ten years.”
Their section isn’t far from where they scanned and she points to the small, almost unnoticeable sheet of white paper nailed to a wooden stake. “We just can’t go past that marker. Five and up only.”
“Ok,” he says. “So I just sit right here?”
Liv looks around at all the others as they silently set up lawn chairs around them. It’s not a particularly busy section this year. She points forward a bit more. “I’d sit closer to the field. If you want to sit by me, that is.”
“Sure,” Will says. “I’ll sit by you.”
They walk together side by side and unfold their chairs right along the edge of the white chalk that marks where they are not allowed to cross. After they sit, Liv peers out over the clearing and can see the small shapes of every restless person. Everyone has formed a semicircle around the field, the open part stretching infinitely to her right and out of sight.
“What do we do?”
Liv looks over at Will, forgetting that he forgot his brochure. “We wait,” she says, looking down. “Where did you get your picture?”
“FlyPrint,” he says. “Is that okay? I read at home not to print your own. She won’t recognize it?”
“You’re right,” says Liv. But then she frowns, because for five years she hasn’t seen her son. “When they come just hold it on your lap. Make sure the picture faces the clearing.”
They say nothing more to one another, instead allowing the sun to climb high into the sky. It tickles their face with warmth, love, and for a moment, a brief moment, Liv forgets why she’s even there at all. Clouds roll over the clearing, some briefly providing cool shadows. These, though, pass and move to different skies as the sun climbs higher and higher and higher.
All are settled in, not a voice or whisper penetrates the sound of the wind as it gently flows through the grass. All eyes, including hers, are pointed toward the end of the clearing. Many have already propped up their pictures, as if it would help if they were early. Liv never does this. She feels uncomfortable. She’s happy that Will has followed her lead.
A couple of hours pass as the sun reaches its zenith. She can tell people are getting restless and it reminds her of the way anxious people fidget and shift right before a flight. This restlessness passes once the black cloud emerges from the open way of the clearing. It’s small at first, but grows steadily over seconds, moments, minutes. Soon after, the first joyful cry echoes from the end of the semicircle close to where the cloud first came. Then, others join in as the kaleidoscope of butterflies dissipates to the edges, each finding a parent, son, daughter, friend.
Liv can’t help the way her heart aches. Years of waiting to no avail have taught her to expect pain and disappointment. She tries not to feel so jealous of those just beyond her as they reunite with someone they lost. She’s happy for them, at least she thinks she is. It’s difficult to wade through the unfairness and confusion. It’s hard to start with joy.
She watches a small butterfly—a Western Pygmy Blue, she thinks—as it breaks from the cloud that is now rolling past her for the trailhead. She watches as this small, beautiful creature hovers over Will’s picture, as if it were studying a beautiful painting at a museum. She lands, then, atop the paper, and Liv can see the look of surprise and wonder on Will’s face. Tears form easily and fall helplessly to the ground. He reaches out and Liv knows he wants to squeeze his daughter so tight. Instead, he whispers something private and inaudible and it’s enough to make Liv look away.
All around her the once silent field echoes with the strange medley of grief stricken joy. Butterflies of all kinds pass by her for other pictures or none at all, many simply disappearing into the trees where they will land and enjoy the encroaching evening sky.
She doesn’t notice the others around her as they leave, folding chairs and picnic blankets. She almost doesn’t notice Will as he stands and stretches, eyes red and strained. “I could hear her,” Liv hears him say, though not to her. “I could really hear her.”
He packs and leaves without saying goodbye.
Soon she is alone with only the disappearing light of the sun to warm her. The field is empty save for the last straggling butterfly as it flaps its tiny wings for the forest beyond. She looks to the trees and wonders at the strange sight, a thousand pairs of wings as they open and close, each to the rhythm of their own heart.
Liv sighs and puts the picture face up on her lap. She stays this way for some minutes, not caring that her car is the only one left in the lot. Her eyes are still on the empty field and she determines right then and there that she will try again next year.
She isn’t looking when he comes, not flying, but crawling through the grass below her. His wings are wet, new, unusable. Each perfectly crafted leg works brilliantly with the other as he crawls up to rest on her belly.
As he always does.
Joshua Green is a husband, father, and speculative fiction writer with a Bachelor of Arts in Urban Studies. When not reading, writing, gaming, or chasing his two children around, you can find him outdoors disc golfing. For more information on previous and upcoming publications you can find him on Twitter at @byjoshuagreen.