Graduating college is different for everyone, I suppose—but for me—it was almost nothing. My only close friend, Grey, was so excited. When I looked into her eyes, I could see her future. A husband—handsome and kind just like she deserved—three kids, the damn works. When we stood with our caps and gowns, the crowd seemed to focus on her. A spotlight shined brightly on her, and she squealed in delight as they handed her a tiny statue of herself to wave proudly in my face. Maybe that didn’t actually happen, but feelings matter, ya know.
There would be a party for her the next night, but on this night, there was Hibachi, my treat. I hate to admit this, but it was like I was buying her dinner to celebrate her, on her special night, for her graduation. Yes, she offered to pay, and she insisted on making her party a celebration of both of us. And yes, I declined both offers and my bath of tears was drawn by myself alone.
As fire exploded around us, my heart raced a little, sizzling filled my ears and warmed my heart. Metal clanged as the chef mixed—steak for Grey, chicken for me—with freshly cracked eggs, some peppers, and all sorts of yumminess. The aroma felt like dancing barefoot as a little girl. Seriously, Hibachi is that damn good.
After a few mouthfuls of watered down sake and enough of our food to curb our ravenous appetite, Grey said, “I’m going to become a nurse and then either a nurse practitioner or a doctor.” I waited for more, but she simply scooped up a perfect mouthful with precise chopstick work and started munching.
I knew she wanted to be a nurse or whatever. Just didn’t know where this was going. Not knowing what to say, I tried to do the same as Grey, fumbling with my sticks until I decided, fuck it, and grabbed a fork. Grey was staring at me now. “Well, Evee, what are you going to do?”
My name is Evelyn, but a select special few people are allowed to call me Evee. Grey qualified with high marks. “I majored in liberal arts. I’m going to eat this tasty grub and then I’m going to work at McDonald’s.” I paused for effect. “Or become a stripper as long as red heads are still in style.”
Grey chuckled, though I wasn’t sure if she meant it. “I like your red hair.”
“That’ll be ten dollars, then.”
Grey didn’t laugh this time. “Evee, I’m serious. If you don’t care, why did you even go to college in the first place?”
I shrugged, feeling uncomfortable. “To get the fuck out of Oregon?” Grey chuckled for pity’s sake and I continued. “I used my sexual charms and c plus wit to get all the way out of Redwood, and now I’ll get out of the state with my charisma and prestigious Corban University diploma. Well, as long as I don’t lose it.”
“You’re always joking, Evee. You always deflect.”
She was right, but I wasn’t done yet.
“Majored in psychology now?”
“Just like that! You did it again. I want to speak with Serious George.”
I laughed. She always resorted to “Serious George” when I pushed her too far with my sarcasm. “Look, both my parents are dead, I don’t really have much to strive for. What, am I supposed to try out for the Olympics as a mediocre runner?” The uncomfortable talk and just my own mentioning of running made me yearn for it. It’s like a reboot for my brain.
“That’s the whole reason you should be trying to find something. Don’t you wonder about who you really are?”
The clatter of metal a table away, laughter of children and indistinguishable chatter faded—and for the first time in years, I let myself ruminate on that question. Not about who I am, but if I cared enough to wonder. Part of me honestly just wanted to read, watch tv, have sex with an average looking man who didn’t ask too many questions, and run both as a hobby and to keep my lazy ass from getting too fat. All these things are great activities, but alone, was that a life? Was I a person at all if I lived like that? If I never once bothered to help other people—to even include them? Or—to run forever. What if I just Forrest Gumped for the rest of my life; worked for him. But then, those people followed him. I didn’t want people following me.
In my fantasy, I didn’t want the man’s love, only sex. I wanted to hang with Grey, of course, but I wished she was less pushy. But if she isn’t pushy, is she even Grey anymore?
And that’s where it stopped—where my thoughts have always stopped in regards to who I am. I would never let myself get any further. It was as if something inside me feared what I really wanted—was terrified of my true desired relationship with other people. And perhaps, my aversion was warranted.
Just as I realized I was staring at nothing, I felt Grey’s hand on mine. She was the only person whose touch didn’t make me uncomfortable these days. “Evee, I don’t want graduation to be the end of us.”
I shrugged. “It won’t be.” Damn, I wanted to run. I could expand my lungs, feel the air whipping around my head, stop thinking.
“You don’t know that.” Her eyes glimmered with prenatal tears. Before they could fall from her eyes, she aborted them with a wipe of her hand. Not one for abortion myself, I fought my own tears from ever developing in the first place.
“I will always be your friend, but some space will be good for you. Grey, I hold you back.” The words tasted like bland earnestness, and I realized that they were true, despite how much I hated them.
“You don’t hold me back!” Exclaimed Grey as I fought back laughter and sobbing.
“Don’t bullshit me, Sugar Cube.” I used my first and least utilized nickname for her—the one she hated most—as a weapon of endearment in that moment. “I’m being serious with you, be honest with me.”
Grey fidgeted in her seat. “I am being honest with you. You’re just as smart as I am. Just as pretty; even prettier in my opinion. You have a huge heart, Evee.”
“No I don’t,” I said, colder than I’d intended. “You do. You have the huge heart. You help people, you love people. I just sit around, satisfying my own simple urges. It’s really all I do.”
“Why aren’t you confused?” I continued. “Why don’t you question whether you should be a nurse or not?”
“I do,” she interrupted.
“No you don’t! And you shouldn’t, Grey. Because you’re going to be the bombest nurse in the building. You won’t be perfect, but you’re going to do awesome, and you’ll truly care for your patients. You’ll have a great family, you’ll die old and still pretty. You don’t need me hanging on you.”
“Are you jealous, Evee?” She asked this as if the notion was the absurdist thing she’d ever heard.
I meant to say no, but instead said, “I am, but not of those things.” Having already started, I decided to continue. “I don’t even want any of those things. I just wish I felt sure about what I want.”
“I’m not always sure,” Grey said.
“Of course you are,” I countered. “You’re obnoxious, Grey. You expect the best for yourself and give your best in return. You want to be a nurse or a doctor. You want a family. You know your place in the world, and you deserve all of it. What do I deserve?”
I expected a fight to follow, but instead, she just stared at me—looked into my eyes. I could feel her searching them, trying to find the me she knew and loved. The little perfect red headed doll she hoped I would one day become. I still wonder if she ever found that little bitch in that moment. And I fear that she realized that there was nothing to find at all.
The party was lame. We both liked hardcore punk, but Grey played some upbeat pop songs I’d never heard of in order to appease her softer guests. There were too many people for my taste, dressed up more than me in fancy slacks, buttoned up shirts, dresses. Shyla, a girl I didn’t know very well and couldn’t decide if I liked, had on a low cut shirt to show off her ample ta tas, and a frilly short skirt. She did a lot of smiling and giggling for the boys as if she was on a mission to get—and I don’t mean to seem rude—any of them to have her for the evening. She might have been pushing for Asher, the only boy in the bunch I’d spent any time talking to, but she seemed to have her options open.
Grey wore an elegant silver dress, making her the absolute framed picture she was. My jeans and Severed Head of State t-shirt—a skeleton riding a skeletal horse—stuck out like a flare in a night’s sky. She did her best to keep me included, but I fought back too hard with scowls and a lack of eye contact. Pretty soon, no one paid any attention to me.
I stared out the overly clean window and I remember so clearly a little boy in a bright nearly neon green shirt chasing a moth around as the sun was almost down, lighting the street like a spotlight. I’d chased moths like this before when I was a kid, in the old apartment. As I stared out, feeling the setting sun depress me, I saw their faces more clearly than I saw the boy playing. Their deep red and black wings like capes on a flamboyant magician, their black eyes always pulled me in, forcing me to imagine secrets within them. They scared and compelled me when I was young. Mom had called them Cinnabar moths, said that they had been brought to Oregon to control a sort of weed back in the seventies. Didn’t explain why they hung around our shitty apartment.
A man’s voice tore through my thoughts. “Aiden, I told you to get back in the house!” The voice was quiet through the window—I would never have even heard it had I been paying attention at all to the party—but his angry bass-filled voice ripped through my body as if he were screaming into my ear. I’ll never forget the joy as it melted off of the boy’s startled face. His shoulders slumped, he walked in the direction of his home as though wearing weights on his shoulders. Selfish bitch that I was, I didn’t even feel for him, but for myself. I’d seen my mom’s face fade just like that.
And again, my thoughts went back to the old apartment as they always did. When we moved there, I could picture the grey sky, the fork in the rutty dirt road that at first only went left until I looked just so and could see the twisting path to the right.
There were never any kids out there when I would play or when we would pull up in the car. I could always hear playing and giggling when I would sit by the window. Sometimes I would even see them playing, but they were always too distracted to notice me—the weird red headed girl staring. I wanted to play with them, to hear my screaming voice harmonize with theirs, but I always played alone when we lived there.
Mom would sing punk songs—lighter than the ones I listen to—and she would dance. She always wore light sundresses, rain or shine. Her dark hair would whip around almost dangerously. Fuck, in that apartment it was dangerous—the dancing, I mean. There were holes in the floor below the old brown carpet. She would take me into her arms, dance all around the holes, and I would giggle until I hurt. Sometimes I would stare into her eyes, dark like a chalkboard and just as informative. She would point out little secrets in the home and explain to me why they were beautiful.
Dad would tell us to stop, that the holes would break our ankles. But then he would hold Mom and me in his strong arms and laugh with us. “Look at those fuggin’ holes, my girlies!” he would say. “Breag ya angles they will!” I hated his stupid fake accent back then, but as I stood alone at the party, I missed it so much.
He was right about dancing. The carpet, stale as if burnt by cigarettes without actually being burned, would sag into the holes—some just a few inches wide, others a whole foot. And sometimes the carpet seemed taut, enough to trick you, and you would stumble. It was almost like the carpet was alive, moving taut or hanging loose at its own will. I always believed that it was trying to trip us, but not to hurt us, only to play tricks—cheeky carpet.
That old place always smelled of chocolate, because Mom kept chocolate cosmos flowers around, her favorite flower. Sometimes even she would smell like chocolate, as if she’d been rolling around in them.
It was starting to rain outside the party—the kind of rain that only Oregon gets—the kind that tugs at your heart, or at least mine. And I remembered the moths. They would bounce playfully against the glass of our balcony. I would stare at them for hours sometimes, thinking they were like me staring at the children on the playground. They would stare back sometimes. “I wanna play with you, Evee,” they would say with their black eyes. And I would press my fingers to the glass.
Mom would come for a look too. We never said anything, just lost ourselves at the sight of them. Dad would look at us and roll his eyes. “Fuggin’ things are gross, girlies.” Mom would smile at me, her gorgeous face would wrinkle up around her eyes—and no matter how I felt—I would smile back.
Her joy faded along with her looks when she got sick. Sometimes I can only remember her beautiful smile, and other times only her coughing, eyes sunken, the dark light in them faded to ashy grey. The rattle in each exhale terrified me as a girl.
Asher ran his fingers through my hair and I gasped. I couldn’t believe he was touching me like that, it was surreal. And yet, my whole body prickled, it was hazy like a dream. The look on his face wasn’t predatory like a man looking for sex. He looked worried, caring, ready to protect me. And if I’m being completely honest, I felt safe with his touch. I yearned to be held by him.
“Please, dance with me,” he said, and I wanted to. Thinking back, that moment was a hidden crossroads for me, just like the one to the apartment. If I had squeezed his hand, let him guide me into the party, and danced my awkward ass off—then perhaps I would have fallen in love with him. I could have flashed Shyla a “loog at this, girlie” face. Would we have gotten married? Would we get jobs and get out of Oregon, away from that wretched apartment? Would I have forgotten it?
I had so many excuses. He was into classic rock music, liked to work out to AC/DC. He liked to read like a nerd, though I enjoyed the same sci/fi he did. But who reads? I did. He was halfway a jock, but he wasn’t an asshole like some were, and he was always sweet—not just to girls either—but to anyone who was genuine, whether they were popular or not. Maybe I should have said yes to him and I think the reason I didn’t, is only because that old apartment still had a hold over me.
I jerked away from him. I told him that I hated dancing. His face flashed confusion and worry, the kind of look only a sincere boy can pull off. Grey grabbed me by the arm and took me into her bedroom.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” she said.
I didn’t answer, thoughts swirled inside me, too fast to catch and turn into words for her. I was getting hot for some reason. My legs itched to run.
She was yelling at me. “Asher is nice. If you don’t want to dance, fine, but you can’t be rude to him! He doesn’t deserve that.”
Of course she was right, but I didn’t say a word. I was breathing hard. I was angry for some reason.
“Are you okay?” Grey asked.
And that’s when I erupted.
“No! I’m not okay!” I glared at her as if I wanted to tear her apart, and I have no idea why. “I don’t belong here with this shit music, with any of these people!”
Grey reached for me. “What are you—”
I cut her off by pulling away—and I ran. I felt eyes on me as I bursted out her door. Asher chased after me. So did Grey. But they couldn’t catch me. I ran and ran. It was dark now, a half moon, and I let the cool night air rush around me, the rain pelting. My lungs opened up, swallowing my thoughts, my feelings—until all I felt was my endorphins. I ran until I was in the woods. Trees whipped past me in a haze and all I could hear was the damned old apartment calling to me. I knew as I ran that I would have to go back. I would have to face it.
As I drove on the dirt road, the crumbling under my tires filled my ears, along with the whining of my old Dodge Neon, until I became tired of it and I blared some Black Flag to shut everything the fuck up except Greg Ginn’s hypnotic voice shouting, “I can’t think straight; my mind’s a mess. I can only see straight when I’m being led.” True fucking words. A few hours left to go, I screamed with Greg, our hearts becoming one.
I thought of Mom on her last day. She was wheezing worse than usual, but she’d made breakfast. It was something called splat—like a breakfast burrito without the tortilla—and bacon. The bacon had been fine, but the splat wasn’t seasoned right. Too much salt, not enough pepper, and the sausage wasn’t cut right. The chunks were too big. I had complained like a spoiled cunt that morning. Mom just smiled and apologized before coughing for minutes into the sleeve of her white robe—her only one—striped vertically with pretty colors. I remembered the blood that mixed with her spit; how it dribbled down her sleeve. It shut my stupid ass up quick.
“She thinks she’s getting better, but her conscience won’t let her!” screamed Greg as I drove, barely conscious of the road.
Dad knocked over his chair when he went to her. She wheezed some words I couldn’t understand. Tears were stinging my eyes. For a long time I hadn’t heard anything until the banging. I jerked my head toward the balcony. The moths—a black and red sea—were smashing against the glass—so hard that some of them crushed their heads and fell dead. I’d been mesmerized by them. As my dad held onto my mom, now on the floor, writhing, fighting for each breath, I ran to the balcony door. I remember screams coming from the moths, though I know that can’t be so. Maybe it was me, or Dad, or some horrible noise escaping my mom.
I jerked, startled to find Mom now standing behind me. She slammed her palms against the glass as she nearly fell into the door. The moths continued to crash against it, and Mom only stared as she stole air into her dead lungs.
Dad shouted, “Get back here!” And then he tripped over a hole in the floor, landed with a thud, and screamed curses.
“It hurts to be alone, when it hurts to be alone,” Greg said, filling my memories with his voice.
I pulled mom away from the door just long enough to open it. The moths flooded the living room, drawn to Mom as if hungry for her, and they swarmed. She remained standing, her body covered. It had looked like a dress, the moths all over her. Despite my feelings being razor blades ripping me apart, I’ll never forget how beautiful she looked with those moths smothering her.
Dad was standing now, screaming at the moths, worried they were ripping her apart or something, but something inside me didn’t feel that way. Dad pulled Mom to the ground shrieking nonsense at the moths, killing any in his way. “It’s okay,” he said to Mom through sobs. “Evelyn, close the fucking door!” he had screeched at me with no love in his tone. I remember that he’d called me Evelyn instead of Evee. It’s weird what we remember in moments like this.
I hadn’t obeyed his order. I simply stared at the moths as they swarmed. They wouldn’t leave Mom alone. They clung to her as if mourning, or trying to save her. Dad pounded his fists into the ground, squashing a few of the moths. I remember I cried for them when I saw their dead bodies twitching until still.
The heel of Dad’s hand was blue from the liquid that left their bodies. All I felt was sadness for the moths, for my mother, for all the world that my six year old mind could fathom.
Greg finalized my feelings as I drove. “She’s black, it’s out of my hands, everything I hate.”
When Mom went still, so did the moths. They stopped fluttering, no more panic. They paused, their wings tucked in, looking like little capes or dress tails, and stared, and I swear they were staring directly at me, into my burning teary eyes.
In small clutters, they flew away, but not out through the open glass door. Instead, they found spots all around the apartment to hide in—every crevice, every secret spot—each corner in the ceilings they hid away.
As I drove I remembered how Dad had called me Evelyn, and how he hadn’t hugged me. He’d cried, wailing in ways I hadn’t known he could. His moans filled my ears, tore into my heart, and shook my body. I’ll never forget how he sounded as he cried for my mother, and I’ll never forget how unmended I felt as I stood there sobbing, all alone.
When my attention finally snapped back to the road, I smashed the brake and slid on the loose dirt. My car skidded sideways, preventing me from hitting the old bitter cherry tree. As always, I almost missed the crossroads. But there it was, that old tangled path to the right. I eased my heart, slowed my breaths, corrected my car, and rolled slowly onto the road.
My Black Flag was finished playing—probably had been for awhile—and I didn’t bother playing any more music. For the rest of the way, I listened to only the Neon’s engine and the dirt.
When I arrived, I recall fretting, but once I nutted up and stepped out of the car, a sort of serenity washed over me—a calm I can’t explain. I hadn’t expected such a feeling when I came here to this place. I’d expected dread, anger, loathing, melancholy, anything but this.
There were cars parked, but I sensed that no one was actually here. It had often felt that way when I lived here. I remember hearing neighbors, but never really talking to them.
The lobby was dirty—and as always—empty. I realized that I couldn’t really tell if this place was abandoned or not.
The lobby door was tight as if locked, but with a bit of strength, I opened it. Musky dust assaulted my nostrils. It was always like this—had always been.
I stepped into the narrow hall, greeted by a familiar creaking under my feet. The fluorescent light—the same lamp as always—flickered. The dull green wallpaper was peeling just as badly as I remembered. I felt pleasure with each creaking step—and yet—I was timid. It reminded me of ice fishing with Dad the few times he’d taken me; the sweet smell of freezing dew, the shrinking steps of my feet against crackling ice. Even the chill was here—the type of cold that doesn’t sink into your bones—just keeps you awake and alert.
I faced the door the way I would face an enemy—as if we were about to duel. I was surprised when I noticed a fairly large rectangular hole in the door, framed by long strands of splintered wood. Had someone punched or kicked it? Was this recent?
As I peered inside, it seemed that almost nothing had changed. There were still divots where the carpet sunk into holes in the floor. Still there was a dining table in the corner of the living room, though it was a slightly different table. Our table had been small, brown, circular. This one was white and square. The walls were still dirty looking no matter what—a yellowish film over the original white. It no longer smelled of chocolate, but musky like the hallway.
I put my hand through the hole in order to turn myself at an angle to get a look at what else I might see. A hand grazed mine.
I pulled back and gasped. A child’s giggle didn’t put me at ease right away. She pressed her face into the hole—a little girl—and smiled.
“Hi,” I said as I caught my breath.
Her smile remained, but she said nothing.
I didn’t know what to do, so I said, “what’s your name?”
She said nothing. There was something white on her chin.
“What’s on your face?” I asked.
Her smile morphed into a shit eating grin. “Ice cweam.”
I chuckled and before I could say anything else, she opened the door. “Come in and play, girl with red hair.” I paused, but then did as she asked.
I marveled at the way so little had changed in the house. The walls were the same piss yellow, the furniture while different in design, were placed in the same places we had put ours. The ceiling fan still hung a tad tilted, each blade now caked in dust. Whoever was renting now must not clean like my mom had. The only window in the living room was now blocked by a rusted sheet of metal, and the glass door to the balcony was hidden by a dark red curtain.
There was beauty in this place, I could see it now—just how Mom had pictured it all those years ago. It was ugly and yet, it wrapped itself around you like a quilt. It was like a friend with a twisted face that you grow to love because they tell amazing jokes and always cheer you up when you’re down—until you begin to forget about what their face looks like—even begin to cherish it.
“My name is Evelyn,” I said, hoping this would prompt her to tell me her name.
“No it’s not,” she said. Her hair was a mess, she was dressed in dirty pajamas with unicorns on them—only not unicorns with rainbow colors or any bright colors at all—realistic looking unicorns with expressions on their faces that were almost angry. She looked to be about three years old.
“Oh yeah? If my name’s not Evelyn, what is it?” I asked with a chortle.
“It’s Evee,” she said, a bratty giggle of her own.
I froze. Why would she call me that? How would she know? I forced myself to consider it nothing.
“Did you know that some people do call me Evee?”
“I know lots of things,” she answered.
“I don’t believe you,” I said. “If you know so much, then what’s your name?”
She laughed quietly. “Ice cweam.” Her own words sent her into a fit of giggles, though she again kept them quiet.
“Alright, Ice Cream, where’s your parents?”
When she didn’t answer, I took a short tour. On top of the laminate counter there was a calendar—a year behind—and on top of it was a singular moth. It was more red than black, and the way it stood made it appear heart-shaped.
“Hey, Ice Cream, you get a lot of these moths around here?”
A girl’s voice answered, but it wasn’t Ice Cream. “We do.”
I turned quickly to find another little girl—older than Ice Cream—around five or six, the same age I was when I first lived here.
“Hi,” I said, beginning for the first time to feel like an intruder. “If she’s Ice Cream, are you Gumdrop?” I was still a cheeky bastard.
“I’m Katherine,” she said, but didn’t offer her hand. She seemed shy. Her hair wasn’t as messy as Ice Cream’s, but it was un-brushed; she too wore pajamas, plain blue and not so dirty.
“I’m Evelyn,” I said, not bothering to offer my hand. She was too nervous for that.
Blushing, she said, “she called you Evee, can I call you Evee too?”
I told her, “only if I can call you Katie,” then asked, “how long have you lived here?”
She shrugged right before a man’s voice screamed, “Katherine!”
The man emerged from the bedroom, torn forest green robe, bottle of liquor in his hand. The girls cowered, Katie held Ice Cream’s hand tightly.
He seemed not to notice me as he slammed his bottle down on the counter, squashing the moth in the process. I winced. It felt just as when Dad had killed them so long ago.
My sadness heated into a bit of anger. How could he care so little for life? And these girls, how could he be so calloused? They were so cute and innocent.
It’s so weird for me to think about now, but back then, I actually didn’t want any kids. And yet, still, I felt for them.
“Katherine! Why the fuck did you let someone in!”
The girls were trembling—and there was something about his voice that got to me as well.
I tried to apologize, tried to explain why I was here, but he just started sputtering, “get out!”
There was something odd in his tone. He was ferocious, but his tone was void of anger. Instead, his voice was soaked in fear, panic spraying out of him. He sounded like a little boy screaming at his abusive mother.
I didn’t say anything snarky, I promise; I just left. My chest was tight and I was shaking, but then I thought about Ice Cream and it eased my nerves. Her messy mouth and grin reminded me of how Dad really did try after Mom had died. There was a pathway I wasn’t familiar with—and ordinarily I wouldn’t have taken it—but a singular moth seemed to be hovering over it, inviting me.
As I walked in a daze, I recalled a day when Dad had really tried. He’d called me Evee that morning. Rather than comforting me, the word sounded foreign coming from his mouth, and it made me tense up. I was too young to recognize his effort.
The lulling inviting tune of the ice cream truck filled our apartment, and I didn’t even ask. I knew he wouldn’t let me, so I just stayed still. But then—with an awkward smile—he said, “let’s go,” and so we did.
Dad had always loved rocky road, but he ordered vanilla, as if his ice cream had to suit his mood. I tentatively asked for chocolate. I remember hoping to see the other kids around, waiting in line, but none were there and none came. As we ate, saying nothing, Dad’s forced smile became real. It reminded me of when Pinocchio went from wooden to flesh.
It seemed as though he was going to take me to the playground, maybe push me on the swingset like old times, until a moth started to circle Dad’s head and his mood instantly morphed. He threw his ice cream on the ground and frantically batted at his head until he finally hit his mark. The moth, now injured, spiraled to the ground. He didn’t say anything to me about it; I didn’t either. He just stared at me, half dead, half remorseful.
The unfamiliar path led me to the playground, only it was a little different. I paused. Children’s laughter surrounded me. The aroma of chocolate was everywhere. The beautiful deep red flowers surrounded the playground like a protective gate. How could this be? Mom had always loved chocolate cosmos because of her time in Mexico. She moved there for a year to get away from the pressures of college, and had fallen in love with the exclusive flower. The reason I’d grown up with them in our apartment was that she’d had them imported. They weren’t supposed to be growing here.
Watching the kids play warmed my heart. I never thought I would feel this way, seeing children. I’d always been calloused, always thought brats just weren’t for me, but in that moment, my ovaries fluttered like butterfly wings. I was almost horny as if I wanted to make children right then and there. It was like some animals when they go into heat anytime they’re in need of procreation. I tried to chalk it up to nostalgia. All my life, I’d wanted to play with the kids in this playground and I’d never been able to, and now here they all were—right in front of me—no glass barrier. But I know now that there was another reason.
Too busy in play, the kids paid me no attention. Squealing of the old metal merry-go-round and the pitter patter of their running feet harmonized with their laughter, and I watched. None of the children seemed to notice how dilapidated the equipment was—how the paint had mostly chipped off the metal structures, the sun’s rays bouncing brightly off the dull steel. It was full of sand instead of wood chips and I remembered how it felt when the sand would fill my shoes as I used to play carelessly. What I couldn’t remember was if there were always lush dark green plants all around. There was now—mossy looking things, almost like vines—twisted around a rusted chain link fence, and even seemed to be growing within the sand. The air felt damp, almost like a forest. Just like Katie and Ice Cream, the kids were all dirty, their clothing worn down, even torn.
Moths were scattered about, all facing the children, seemingly watching as well. I smiled at them as if we were all a bunch of soccer moms proudly gazing upon our chubby little brats.
When Katie and Ice Cream joined, I said, “I’m surprised your dad let you come out here.”
Ice Cream in her feral way, said, “he’s sleeping like he always does.”
Anger swirled in me. I envisioned him chugging another mouthful of liquor, slurring his words before falling over on the floor. I steeled myself and tried to make light of the situation. “You’re silly, Ice Cream.” She giggled.
I picked up Ice Cream and put her onto the crackling weather-beaten dark blue seat of a swing and started to push her gently. Katie leaned against the support structure. She shot me an adoring face and I blushed.
“I used to live here,” I told them. When they didn’t gasp in surprise, I added, “I actually sort of enjoyed the holes in the floor. Do they bother you?”
Ice Cream said, “shhh,” but then giggled.
Katie said, “it’s okay, we can talk to Evee. My sister likes to play in them. I hate them. I always forget to look and twist my ankle. I don’t know why the people at the office don’t fix em. Evee, I don’t like this place. I don’t like what it’s done to our dad. He used to tickle us and he was funny, but now he just yells and sleeps.”
I nodded, still pushing Ice Cream. “What about your mom?” I asked.
“Get away from them!” I turned sharply behind. Their dad was marching in a stagger toward us. “I told you to leave!” he screamed at me.
The power of the snark was strong with me. “I don’t take orders from geezers,” I snapped. I was so angry at that moment. “You don’t deserve these girls!”
Every single face was on him now; mine, all the children’s, the moths. He ignored us all and came close. His glare shot to Ice Cream. “What did I tell you about eating ice cream?” he said as if eating ice cream were tantamount to killing a baby.
“But daddy, I didn’t mean—”
“You didn’t mean to? Your face is covered in it, you filthy little brat!”
The way he said the word, “brat” made my blood run cold, and I decided right there at that moment that I would never use that word again.
Ice Cream cowered, trembling. Katie and I both stepped forward as he said, “I told you before not to eat that shit, and you didn’t listen.” He stared at each of his hands, then back at the little girl. “I will have to make you listen.” His voice was frosty, jagged, like a sharp icicle ready to impale Ice Cream’s heart.
Katie jumped in front of Ice Cream. “Don’t yell at her!” she screamed. “Yell at me. I’m the one who’s been telling Evee about the holes in our floor.”
I braced myself for his anger, but it dissolved instantly into fear as he turned to me. Tears streamed down his face. “This is your fault. You’re doing this! They were mad enough that I started drinking again. I told em that I was just trying to cope. I have to cope somehow, don’t I? But now they won’t get out of my head, and it’s because of you! The girls are telling you lies because you’re forcing them to. You’re soiling us. Get out. Get out! Get out!”
I honestly wasn’t sure if he was even still talking to me, or something inside his head.
The scent of alcohol mixed with the chocolate in the air filled my nostrils and black and red haze showered us as moths swarmed.
The girls’ dad shoved me with more force than I would have guessed and I fell to the ground. Anger and fear danced inside me, anger leading. He didn’t deserve these fucking amazing girls!
He turned to Ice Cream and Katie swooped to intervene. As he swatted at the moths, he struck Katie’s face, sending her screaming to the ground. He didn’t even seem to notice as he flailed within a mess of moths.
I was angry that he’d shoved me, that he’d struck Katie, but the static cold fury that gripped my heart in that moment wasn’t due to any of that. I realized that the reason I was so mad was that he was acting just like my own father. The smell of rain mixed with the chocolate of the flowers. Drops turned to pouring and I slowly stood.
The moths were now engulfing him, and he was pleading. “I’m so sorry!” he squealed pitifully. “I didn’t mean to, I just—”
His voice was muffled now. Inaudible screams drowned in a storm of moths. They formed around him, creating a shape like a cape—no—it was like a dress. The shape around him was femenine looking. His screams ceased, his frantic waving stilled. The moths and man moved as one, growing taller as more moths flocked to the group. It walked slowly, taking steps toward me until it was close enough that I could hear the fluttering of each set of wings. I was soaked and cold and wondered how the moths could still bat their wings against the heavy water falling on all of us.
The man full of moths fell to a knee and knelt before me, lowering his face to mine. Fluttering pounded in my ears. Behind the storm of red and black, there was a face, but it was no longer the face of a man, but of a woman. My mother’s face.
My anger turned to hatred.
When Dad died, he died screaming. We’d had a fight, one of many, he went outside for a smoke, which he’d just taken up, and waved his hands around at a bunch of moths and shot himself in the head. I froze for a long time before finally running outside. At some point, I called the police, and it seemed like forever before they showed up. He looked just like this father, panicking and screaming.
“You did this to him, didn’t you?” I said, coldly. “He called me Evelyn instead of Evee, or you saw him drinking, or smoking, or maybe he yelled at me, and you killed him, didn’t you?”
The giant monster in front of me—a fluttering mess of grotesque—somehow a reflection of my own mother, bowed her head. At that moment, I couldn’t stand the creature, couldn’t stand my mother.
“You drove him to it! You deemed him unworthy, but it was you who was driving him crazy! You put him through hell, and now look, look what you’ve created! I’m jaded, I’m alone, I haven’t the slightest clue who the fuck I am!”
Children formed a cluster behind the monster, faces full of protective fury. “Get away!” I screamed. “Get away from that monster!” None obeyed, all stayed standing still.
Moth Mom kept her head down, shaking left to right and I’d had it. “Look at me!” I screamed in agony. When she only shook harder, I pleaded, “look at me! I could have gotten married, could have had a career, could have known something of who I was, but now I’m lost, Mom. I’m lost! Look at what you’ve turned me into!”
I was sobbing now, convulsing. Whatever happened would happen and I would have no control over any of it.
She finally did look up, meeting my eyes. Moths fell from her eyes, a pile of dead moths forming on the grass at my feet. She twisted her head to the side, then more, until her head was completely upside down. Her face contorted, a screeching sound conveyed her pain until through fluttering—a voice similar to someone speaking into a fan, she said only two words. “I’m sorry.”
I sobbed for every second as one by one, moths fell to the ground—twitching or still—all dead. When every single one had died, I was on my knees shaking. All the flowers were dead along with the moths, and I noticed that all of the children were weeping with me. I expected their hatred to follow, to feel tiny fists battering my useless body. But instead, they came and held me, comforted me while we all wept.
I understood Mom then. I’d never known the love of children and so I dismissed them as brats. But now that they were consoling me, I understood just how potent this was. I craved their touch, their tears, their love.
I wiped my own tears and stared into the eyes of the children, Katie and Ice Cream amongst them. I had let their father die and killed my own mother with my hatred. These children who’d once spent their days playing and laughing amongst the moths who protected them, now stood alone just as I had for so long. I’d left them with nothing.
I kicked at the dead flowers—dry and brittle—they crumbled at my monster’s feet. I continued to kick and stomp, shouting obscenities at myself until I almost stomped on a living flower. I stopped myself. Perched on top was a cinnabar moth, still alive, looking at me curiously. So slowly I reached out and it tentatively crawled onto my hand. I brought it to my face.
“I’m so sorry,” I pleaded.
It shook a little and did something similar to coughing. Red human blood escaped its mouth—just a tiny drop—onto my hand.
“I love you,” I said as it then drank the blood back in.
Calming, my breaths slowing, I peered at the children as they began to surround me. And I smiled at them.
I wasn’t meant for Mcdonald’s or a strip club afterall. Now I have children who all love me. I never got married, but I know exactly who I am now, just like Grey. I never made it out of Oregon, but I suppose I was never meant to. If you ever wanna visit, there is an old bitter cherry tree. Perhaps you’ll see only a path to your left, or maybe you’ll see a fork and a twisted path to your right. Take the one to your right and wave a hello to this ole bitch. Just make sure you treat your children right while you’re here. I get dreadfully cranky if you don’t; me and my many friends.
Colt Fry, hailing from Colorado, fell in love with writing at the age of ten, when he tried to write the scariest book in the world. It was okay. He’s better now. He loves watching MMA and spending time with his beautiful wife and rowdy tike of a son.
If you liked this story, you may also like “Night” by Amita Basu.