The same spring that we released the butterflies, Danny Hetwell followed me behind the school and asked if he could see my breasts. Breasts, he said, not boobs or jugs or tits.
"Why?" I asked.
"Why'dya think?" He said.
"You can't tell anyone." But I would have done it anyway, even if he hadn't agreed not to tell—I was already lifting my shirt before he nodded yes. Danny was in the sixth grade with me but only because he'd been held back a year in kindergarten. Some days he got respect for that and other days he tried to strangle the kids who called him dumbass-Danny just loud enough so that he could hear but our teacher, Ms. Charles, couldn't. Or she pretended not to. But she always seemed to know exactly where in the room Danny and his anger were in relation to the rest of us.
The first bell had already rung by the time we were standing out in the back under the shadow of the building, my shirt pulled up so that he could see everything and so that my eyes were covered with fabric. When I lowered it enough to see him, he looked half shocked and half something else, I didn't know what. He whistled between his teeth and I wanted to stand there a little longer but the moment had passed. I wanted to tell him how unfair it is to be an older person stuck in a kid's body. I wanted to tell him I knew how it felt.
Danny stood there looking like the dumbass they said he was, eyes a little watery, always the tallest in the class and a little more filled out than the rest, never the bad-skinny that came with puberty and produced those narrow, whip-like boys. He always had a shaved head, never the gelled spikes that were popular at the time. Everyone said it was because he had lice that wouldn't go away, so his dad made him shave it.
Even then I understood that we weren't really friends. That we couldn't be. That Ms. Charles had sat me next to him because she thought I'd be a good influence on him, not because I was inherently good but because I was a girl and mostly quiet. She probably imagined me having a softening affect on him. Instead we spent most of the year drawing pictures of stick men dying in brutal and creative ways. A hacksaw through the ankles. Lava poured down the throat. Caught in a rainstorm where the rain was actually shards of broken glass. Falling into a pit of giant earwigs. He was left handed and dragged his fist so heavily against the paper that it always ended up ripping, which was fine because we'd just start over again. Once I drew the grim reaper sucking the stick man's heart out of his bellybutton and he scribbled COOL across the bottom of the page.
The second bell sounded and we turned on our heels and ran into the school through the gym entrance. Our sneakers squeaked and echoed off the hardwood floors and when we reached the door to the hallway he swung it open and said after you.
When I think about it now, the look was half shock and half grief—the kind that comes when you get what you want and then find that nothing's changed.
Danny lived with his dad in the trailer park that sat behind Wood Park. Earlier in the year, his older cousin got hit by a car. It happened on the road just outside the park. The driver didn't stop and since the street was all the way on the other side of the ravine and the river, no one found him for a while. The river level got pretty high in the winter, so if anyone heard him calling for help or moaning or dying, they mistook it for rushing water (for years after, everyone would do the opposite).
Danny was out of school for at least a month after that. I think we all expected him to be quiet and different when he got back, beaten into submission in some way or another by grief, but he was louder than ever. He talked over Ms. Charles and ignored her weak attempts at discipline. Sometimes he got up during class and walked out of the room without asking to leave. During silent reading, he told a group of us in a hushed voice about the video he'd seen online of a girl giving a blowjob to an old man. Once he put his headphones on and started singing along to a tape of Weird Al covering Coolio, singing louder and louder until Ms. Charles ripped the headphones off his head and threw them in the garbage. I wonder if a teacher would be allowed to do that now. Another time he turned to me in class and said Hey Allie, where did the little girl go during the bombing? He didn't wait for my response. Instead he stood up on his chair, shouted EVERYWHERE.
I didn't stay there after graduating high school, but who in their right mind wants to stay in the suburbs? I moved into the neighbouring city that was only big in relation to where we grew up, but it was somewhere different and getting serving jobs has always been easy enough. I live in a house on the east side of town that looks like it's two houses stacked on top of each other and either one or both of them is about to crumble into dust. I live in the attic. I get to my suite by first climbing up to the first porch and then taking the wooden ladder that's propped against the side of the house. I have a bed, a chair, a coffee pot, a bookshelf, a few plants. I eat out a lot and do my laundry at Lucky Laundromat on the east side. My ceilings are slanted and the eight or so other people that live in the house are mostly fine. I can tell they're the kind of people that I'll probably never see or think about again once I move out of here.
I started out serving but moved into a bartender position pretty quickly—better hours, more tips, all that. And I met another bartender who was part of this burlesque collective that I ended up joining and now a few years in, we get paid for shows every couple of months. I never really saw any of this as a possibility for myself but I'd say that altogether I'm pretty happy. I rarely go home to visit.
The other night I was walking home from the bar and I cut through the community garden across from my house. It's huge and wild looking for something so cultivated. I don't have a plot there because who has the time, but every once in a while I'll head over with the guy who lives on the main floor and we'll smoke a joint at the picnic table beside the greenhouse. Once, he suggested that we should sneak into the greenhouse and fuck and I laughed so hard I fell off the picnic bench. I get like that when I'm stoned, like a helium balloon set loose on the world. He hasn't really invited me to smoke since then.
Anyways, the night that I was walking home, there was this big fat moon so everything was lit up and I cut between a couple rows of green beans and I tripped on something and reached out for one of the bean trellises to catch myself. When I straightened myself out again I was standing in a cloud of butterflies—fucking butterflies! The orange and black kind, I think, but it was hard to tell even with the moonlight. Monarchs? I meant to look it up after, what they're called and why they'd be gathered in a cloud in the middle of the night in the garden next to my house but I forgot. But it got me thinking about Danny because we were paired up that year, both to sit next to each other and to clean the butterfly house twice a month.
We kept the butterflies in an old aquarium that one of our classmates had donated to the class after all her fish died. She said it was because her mom had gone crazy and poured bleach in the water, but Ms. Charles had laughed and cleared her throat and changed the subject to the caterpillars that she'd ordered for the class that we'd be hatching into butterflies and setting free before the end of the school year.
"Kind of symbolic, don't you think? We'll set them free and then you'll all continue on to the seventh grade."
"Everyone except Danny!" Someone shouted from the back.
"Hush," Ms. Charles said. She was nervous and red faced and had jumped from teaching kindergarten to teaching us, so she brought along her feeling charts and her butterfly colouring sheets, neither of which we really needed.
A couple days after I walked through the butterflies, I run into another guy from home. Jeff. I barely recognized him when he walked into the bar where I work. He used to be small and mousey but he'd grown into himself and offered to buy me a drink straight off the bat, which I accept even though I was technically still on shift. I pulled up a stool next to him and we proceeded to get really drunk on three-dollar Fireball shots. Somewhere around six shots in, I asked him if he ever thought about moving back.
"Not a fucking chance," he said. "And we made it out. Where's the profit in thinking about the past?" I can't remember what he said he does now, but I guess whatever it is pays well.
We stayed until after all the other patrons had been kicked out, then we followed one of the other bartenders into the walk-in cooler and did a few lines off the top of one of the kegs. As I bent over, Jeff rubbed the small of my back and when I looked up at him he said, "It's pretty cold in here, hey?" Which I thought was a wasteful use of words, but I invited him back to mine anyway.
It's strange having sex with someone you used to know as a child but not as an adult. It's like you're right back in this show me yours and I'll show you mine game. Like you're proving to each other you're adults now, like every person you've fucked over the past decade is standing beside the bed watching. Being high helped.
Afterwards in the dark of my bedroom I asked him whether he ever saw Danny when he went home to visit.
"Who?" He said, and I wished that I'd pushed the ladder away from the house while he was climbing up towards me.
Danny and I got to leave class early one day to help our class support worker move some things from the resource room. We were supposed to be clearing space for the three new TV's that someone had donated to the school. Ms. Charles insisted we got to help because she knew we didn't need the extra time to work on our butterfly posters, but I knew it was because she didn't want to risk any more outbursts from Danny so late in the year, like how the day before he'd put his hand up and asked with a perfectly straight face, "Where do the dude butterflies keep their dicks?" I got to go along so that it didn't look like she was singling him out.
The support worker was named Cora. She was probably around forty and had long, fire engine coloured hair. She wore short skirts and didn't have a husband or kids so we all thought she was a pariah. She was around to help a girl in our class who had ADHD—the girl alternated between falling asleep at her desk and slapping the kid in front of her on the back—but it seemed like all she ever did was give her Ritalin in the morning and then sit in her swivel chair in the back, turning back and forth just enough to make the damn thing creak all day long.
When we got to the resource room Cora flicked the lights on and asked us which one of us wanted to sort through the sports equipment.
"I think you should do it, Cora," Danny said.
"Oh, and why should I do it?"
"'Cause we're just kids and we might get rabies from touching that old shit, but you're older so it won't matter that much."
Cora ignored him and pulled the tub of mismatched hockey gear out into the middle of the room. With some people, silence is so much worse than anything else.
"Allie, take this," She said, holding out a hockey stick that was taped together in the middle. But by that point Danny was sitting with his feet up on the table in the center of the room and I didn't dare cross the line between them. So instead I pulled out a chair and sat down next to him.
She stood for a long time looking at us.
"Does your father let you put your feet on the furniture at home, Danny?"
"Yeah, he doesn't care."
"Really? I find that hard to believe."
"Well believe it, lady."
That was the turning point. Some people can feel it happening, crossing that fine line when suddenly you're fighting a battle that you shouldn't be fighting and that you can't possible win, but Cora wasn't one of those people. But I remember a lot of that from my time at school, the power struggle between adult and child that often happened just because the adult thought that it should, thought that the child shouldn't possibly be speaking out of turn or embodying whatever foul personality traits that everyone, every damn person on earth, has. I guess the adults that start those kind of fights with kids are the kind that adhere to that belief that kids are pure and innocent little beings that don't know shit about shit, and what they don't realize is that's not true at all, that everyone's born just the way they're going to be in this world. Danny was never a little boy is what she didn't realize, and so she stood with her hands on her hips and told him to put his feet down and stop speaking to her like that or she'd have to call his dad. If you knew Danny at all you'd probably know not to mention his dad.
So the rest of the story goes like this: Danny turned to me and said, "Hey Allie, wanna know why Cora's breath smells so bad?"
"Why?" I breathed.
"'Cause she eats dog food for breakfast."
Cora turned on her heel and closed the door firmly behind her. We sat in silence until her footsteps died down the hall and then we laughed until our stomachs hurt. Then Danny got up and started sorting through the hockey stuff and looking through some of the other boxes. He pocketed a couple things, some chalk and chalkboard erasers, a rubber hockey puck.
"Wanna come over to my house sometime?" He asked as he kicked an empty cardboard box against the wall. "I have two bikes and I live pretty close to 7-11."
"Okay," I said.
"Here, give me your phone number." He handed me a stub of a pencil he'd found in one of the bins, and I found a scrap of lined paper on the floor and wrote my phone number on it and handed it to him. He looked at it for a second, then folded the paper and put it in his pocket.
And then Cora returned with the principal and the principal took Danny to the office and Cora walked with me back to the classroom and I shoved my hands in my jean pockets to dry off the sweat.
When Danny wasn't in school the next day and everyone said that he had a two day suspension, I drew in a detailed picture of Cora getting eating by ten cats. They were starting at her fingers and her toes and she had speech bubble screams coming from her mouth. When I was satisfied, I folded it up and tucked it into his desk.
He'd invited me over to his house once or twice after that day in the resource room, calling my home phone and saying to my mother, "Hi Mrs. Dyer, this is Danny Hetwell, may I please speak to Allie?" For all his bravado in class, Danny's dad was ex-military and strict as hell, so he knew how to charm with manners when he needed to. My mom always said sure I could go over to his place but she wanted to talk to his dad on the phone first. Nothing ever came of it after that.
A few days after I kicked Jeff out of my bed in the middle of the night, I saw Danny in the crowd at a show. It's not uncommon for me to see people that I know or used to know while I'm performing. Sometimes they'll have seen my picture on a poster or sometimes it'll be a surprise for them, too. We put on shows all around the city—at dive bars and sometimes at higher-end places like the French movie theatre or else the late night stage at the local folk music festival. The crowd there—60-something white retirees—loves us.
The night I saw him was our Halloween show—Monster Party—and I was performing a number called Mummy Madness with another dancer. We took turns grabbing on to the ends of bits of linen fabric and then spinning away from each other until we were naked. We'd been practicing a lot because it's hard to spin like that and not fall over or want to vomit after, so I was focusing on a spot in the audience and then there he was, sitting at a table near the front. He looked the same but older, bigger. Still had a shaved head. He lifted his hand a little to wave at me. If he was surprised to see me, he didn't show it. So I thought maybe he'd sought me out, recognized my picture and saw my stage name above it—Bliss The Monarch.
I lost him in the crowd when the song faded off and everyone stood for a drunken applause. I gathered my mummy wrappings as fast as I could and got changed backstage and then went to look for him. I asked the bartender if she'd seen a tall guy with a shaved head. She hadn't, and I couldn't find him anywhere.
Just after I first moved to the city, someone attacked me when I was walking home. I had my headphones in. I was listening to a podcast about unsolved murder mysteries, and so when I saw his shadow and then felt him rushing towards me I wasn't sure what was real at first. It was like one of those dreams you have when you're falling asleep—you're falling off a cliff and scrambling to stay up and then suddenly you're in your bed tearing your sheets off the mattress. It felt like that. But he took me down and somehow my headphones didn't come out, but I screamed bloody fucking murder. He covered my mouth and he said quiet, an observation or a statement or a request. And I thought, this is it. What I'd always heard happened, what had happened to some of my friends. That horrible nightmare that everyone treated as an extreme illness at first and then eventually everyone forgot about and every once in a while you'd remember and think shit, I forgot that happened to her. And then I thought, probably like everyone else: I've been relatively good my whole life, and this fucking sucks.
But by some miracle I freed my hands, and I jabbed my thumbs into his eyeballs and kneed him in the groin as hard as I could, and when he rolled off of me and scrambled to his feet I threw my phone at him as hard as I could and it hit him in the head and I thought he'd fall forward but he didn't, he got away.
And I thought: Nothing is neat and tidy. No person, no place. In the end, obedience never got me anywhere safe. And I wanted to go back behind the school, lift my shirt again and again and again.
I'd heard that he was involved in some bad shit, and it never surprised me. After elementary school we went to different high schools so we didn't see much of each other, but my friend Jenny used to buy weed and ecstasy off him pretty regularly, and it was pretty clear that he wasn't just selling dime bags because he was always beefing with other dealers that were way older and way scarier than him. It was like he always wanted to be older and less human than he was—he knew how to be charming but he messed with people instead, he changed girlfriends every week, tiny dark-haired girls with belly button rings, and even when he'd gotten his growth spurt and started smoking cigarettes he still looked like a big kid, like his body was growing way too fast for his mind and mood to keep up. His eyes were still too expressive (the shock, the grief) and underneath his facial hair there was a thick layer of acne.
I think he dropped out somewhere around the tenth grade, but I could be wrong. I ran into him once in a while and he'd stop and give me a nod, what's up Allie, but it didn't go past that. We smoked a joint together at a party once, and I'd asked him what he was planning to do after high school, and he'd said he was planning to either be Prime Minister or else live forever. I laughed.
After that first time, he never asked me to lift up my shirt again. I almost asked him if he remembered that when I saw him, but in the end I didn't because I'd been a little drunk and I knew I'd regret it in the morning. I could anticipate his response, how he'd brush it off or worse, say he didn't remember it. I asked him if he remembered Ms. Charles' class and Cora and the butterflies. He'd said sure, sort of.
But I'd thought about it pretty often since then because it was the first time I'd ever felt anything like a sexual desire before. That night and countless nights after that I'd lay with my covers pulled up over my eyes and masturbate, thinking first about our hands taking turns with the same pencil, drawing certain death for each other, then thinking about the weight of our feet on the gravel and the length of our shadows against the exterior of our elementary school, then the breeze on my bare stomach and chest, then the fabric over my eyes. The whistle, our shoes on the hardwood. It's funny how before you've had any kind of sexual encounter, every little thing around you can become charged with sex. For years the sound of gravel under my feet made me wet. I almost told him that. Can you imagine?
We sat next to each other for the rest of the year. He never mentioned the drawing of Cora that I'd left for him in his desk, but we continued our bloodbath obsession and every time he pocketed one of the drawings, I felt a surge of electricity through my fingers. But every time I tried to get him alone at lunch, he seemed to get distracted, running off to kick over the garbage cans at the side of the field or challenging some of the grade sevens to fight him. Sometimes I spent the whole lunch hour just looping around the school, pausing and taking really small slow steps when I reached the gym entrance side where no one ever hung out. I'd look over my shoulder to see if I could spot him, and then if I did, I'd slow down even more and hunch my shoulders in and kick at the gravel just to try and make it more obvious that no one else was with me, but he never followed me over there again.
The last I'd heard wasn't good. Drug and assault charges, that kind of thing. A competing dealer had paid some guys to beat him up and drive him up the logging roads and tie him to a tree and leave him there to die. But he hadn't died and I thought it must have meant something, all of it. Him living, the butterflies.
Something I'd forgotten about until I saw him sitting in the front row—how he'd gotten revenge on Cora. She stood up from her swivel chair one day after lunch hour and her whole backside was covered in white powder. You could see a clear outline of her butt and thighs. Everyone called her powder ass for the rest of the year and no one ever really figured out who'd snuck into the classroom during lunch and neatly covered her things in a thick layer of chalk dust.
Usually when I walk home now, I pretend to have conversations with someone on my phone. Some phantom person who's expecting me home and knows my exact whereabouts, how long it will take me to reach them, that I'm taking the long route to avoid any stretch of street without lights. Yeah, I say, I'll be home any minute.
I got a crazy idea that night after the bar, that I'd call him and he'd answer and we'd chat on the phone for a while. Or maybe I'd try to add him on social media, but I couldn't find him anywhere. But I'd heard of people who knew each other as kids losing touch for years and then running into each other on the street as adults and becoming inseparable.
I'm not sure what I wanted for us. I don't think it was romantic. I think I wanted to be his friend. I wanted him to come out to the city to visit me and to sleep all curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor. I wanted him to wake me up in the middle of the night to tell me that he used to be bad and he used to do crazy things and he was so glad that we never knew each other during that and that he was better now and was still planning to live forever. Bliss, Bliss, Bliss, what if our twelve-year-old selves could see us now? We'd crouch near the window and smoke cigarettes. Bliss.
So I got out of bed one night and I turned on all the lights in my apartment and I managed to find an old friend's phone number—Jenny, who used to hang around with him—and I saved it in my phone for when the time was right.
Ms. Charles decided that we'd let our butterflies go on the gravel soccer field behind the school. It was late spring and we crowded around her until she told us to stand back. She put the aquarium down on the gravel. She'd picked names out of a hat to decide who would help lift the lid. Neither me nor Danny's names had been drawn. I expected that he'd want to hang out at the back of the crowd like he usually did, but he pushed up to the front.
Some shuffling and some arguing, and then there were butterflies pouring into the sky. They were all caught on the wind, scraps of paper. Everyone was yelling and cheering and jumping but I had my eyes on Danny, who wasn't looking at the sky, but down into the aquarium.
After everyone started wandering towards the school, Danny offered to carry the aquarium back. I hung around and waited to walk with him.
"Pretty cool, hey?" I say, once we're in stride with each other.
"I didn't know they were supposed to bleed."
"When they were flying away before, I wanted to see their little shell thingys so I was looking down and they were all bloody. Like there was blood dripping out of them."
Ms. Charles slows and turns around. "That wasn't blood. We covered that in class yesterday."
"If it looks like blood, it's probably fucking blood," he said under his breath before striding ahead of me. He hugged the aquarium firmly to his chest.
For a while I fantasize about taking him home. Not now, but when we were kids. After class I could have just grabbed his hand, pulled him the five blocks home to my house, hid him in my room and fed him leftovers. But I guess there's always people like me that fantasize shit like that about people like Danny. And it's probably almost worse to think that way. What's pity worth when you're hiding in a closet and the footsteps keep getting closer?
And then I had this thought: Maybe the only reason I wanted to talk to him was because he'd be someone I could call on my walk home. If anyone came up to me I could tell them that my friend was on the phone, and if they touched me he'd find them and he'd slit their fucking throat.
Finally, I decide to call Jenny during my break. I step out into the alley and lean against the brick wall and light a cigarette before trying her. Because it's a Saturday night around 10:30, I know there's a good chance she won't answer, and I'm delighted when after a few rings, she does. She's out at a party at someone's house who we used to go to high school with. I can hear guys talking over each other in the background and every once in a while a loud clapping laugh. She's drunk and happy to hear from me.
"Allie, no shit!" She says, and calls to some other people at the party to tell them who's calling. She asks if I wanted to talk to anyone but I said no, I won't keep her long.
"This is probably a weird question, but do you ever see Danny around anymore?"
She pauses. I imagined her taking a long drag from a can of Pilsner. "Danny Hetwell?"
"You didn't hear? He's missing."
"Missing? Missing how? Like he took-off?"
"No not took-off missing, presumed-dead-someone-killed-him kind of missing." Someone calls her name and she tells them to fuck off. She laughs and asks someone to grab her another beer. "Yeah it really sucks you know, like it seems like he just never really had a chance. His dad used to beat the shit out of him and then he got sucked into all that drug bullshit. Such a bummer."
"Yeah," I say. I prop the phone against my ear and pull another cigarette from my pack. "Is he really dead? They found his body?"
"Not yet," she says, like it's an inevitable thing. "Why're you asking, anyway?"
"I don't know. Was just wondering. Hadn't thought of him for a while."
We make small talk for a couple more minutes and then I tell her I have to get back to work.
"Come visit soon," she says.
I kill my cigarette and head back into the bar.
After we released them, I looked back to see if any of the butterflies were still around, whether any of them would stay in the little garden at the edge of the field, but they were all gone and the sky was so blue, so cloudless, it almost didn't look real.
What I wanted to say to Jenny was: But I just saw him. He was at my show. He sought me out. The other night I was walking through the garden across from my house and—
As if seeing someone recently proves they must still exist. As if death isn't a sucker punch.
I search his name on the Internet every day for a week and I think, he took his money and he ran. I think, he wouldn't have told Jenny or any of them. I think, he told me his plans to live forever, and so on. But then the papers pick it up.
Some kids found his body in the ravine behind the park where he grew up. The papers say that his body wasn't very hidden, and that the kids ran home and told their parents right away. What they don't say is that by the time the kids' parents called the cops and the cops and ambulances and fire trucks showed up, the sun was setting over the ravine and a small crowd of people from the trailer park had gathered at the top of the hill, but his dad had died a few years ago and so none of them were his people. A few of them were just there to complain about the noise. They called it a scene. What they say is that they are investigating what happened. What they don't say is that he was so severely beaten that when the kids found him they thought he didn't have a face, and that he was some kind of alien monster emerging from the soil of the ravine, and maybe he was and maybe we all were.
What they do say is that there has been a spike in drug-related violence in the area and that it has been steadily increasing over the past decade and that everyone should hold their children tight and that by next summer it will be okay to forget about this and swim in the river at the bottom of the ravine and that we ought to build a force field around the community to keep the bad things out, the gangsters and the fentanyl, and that we should ban all weapons that could be used against each other or ourselves, and so there will be no guns or knives or things to stoke your fireplace with.
They say that the officers involved were familiar with the victim and that an old classmate says the victim was a good guy who got mixed up in bad things but another old classmate says the victim wasn't really a victim at all and it's not surprising that they found him like that, faceless and bloody down there by the water. An anonymous source says he's relieved to be free of one more drug dealer and that the town used to be so safe, the kids used to stay down in that ravine after dark even. What they don't say is that he was so unrecognizable and unhuman that the cops visited Broken Heart Tattoos in town and the dentist's office, too. And in the end, it all came down to teeth and tattoos.
They say they have no leads, but when I close my eyes I can see a car driving off down the road where his cousin died, kicking up gravel as it goes.
At the end of the sixth grade when we were cleaning out our desks, I found a piece of paper from Danny. He was long gone by then, suspended for the remainder of the year for putting a snake in Cora's desk drawer.
I waited until I was alone in a bathroom stall before unfolding it, then I sat there until the last bell. Across the page, ripped at one corner, a stick man with a hundred butterflies exploding from his chest.
Gena Ellett's writing has previously appeared in EVENT and SubTerrain. She was nominated for a 2016 National Magazine Award in the category of Personal Journalism, and was awarded the 2015 EVENT Non-Fiction Prize. She currently lives and writes in Vancouver, BC.