"The Brutal Butterfly"



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Inside unit five of the motel called “Mitzie’s” on the east edge of the small logging town, a radio alarm blurted out the latest somebody-done-me-wrong song. Outside, sleet was smashing down on a foot or so of dirty snow, turning the late winter countryside into one hellishly sloppy, early morning mess. Struggling against a straitjacket of tangled bedding, Caleb finally broke free and shot bolt upright. Breathing fast and heavy he stared deep into the early morning darkness of the shabby room, his face a visual definition of the word - agony.

He soon had the shower turned on hot and full blast. He scrubbed his body vigorously from top to bottom and then scrubbed some more, trying to get rid of the misery that the dream always coated him in. He continued rinsing while the steam from the hot water gradually dissipated and he didn’t get out until he started shivering from the cold water that had turned his extremities numb.

After drying off he used the towel to rub the steam off of the old mirror above the mineral stained sink. The man in the mirror was looking back at him with haunted, deep set, gray eyes. He was husky with thick, unruly brown hair and a short beard. His nose was straight and his jaw square. “You still here?” he asked the man in the mirror.

He would tell Bree today. It couldn’t work out. Not with her. Not with anybody. Ever. He did love her, though. Shortness, freckles, auburn ponytail and all. Especially her eyes. They were the blue of a sunny, summer sky.

Why was he still here? On the silver chain hanging around his neck was the key to ending his misery, nesting close to his still beating heart - the key to the top drawer of the roll-top desk where he kept his handgun. He never took it off. Life would be unbearable without it.

“Coward!” challenged Bree when later that day Caleb told her it was over. “I know you love me. We could have a good life together. I know it’s what you want.”

“It’s not. It’s not what I want,” he said, his voice low. “It’s over.”

“You think because you say so, it's over? It's not even close to being over, Caleb.  What are you going to do? Leave town? Hide in the woods? Get a restraining order? You can’t get rid of me that easily.”

Caleb gave her a ferocious “if looks could kill” glare.

Bree defiantly matched his gaze in a stare down.  His face hardened into a steel scowl.  Then finally he turned away.

Bree continued, “I know you don’t mean to care, but you do.”

His voice hollow and monotone, he replied “I can’t do this.  Just leave me alone.”

“What? The big, bad cowboy can’t cope with what life has thrown his way? Something’s so unbearable in his past that he’s gonna just throw in the towel. Is that it, Caleb? Do you want to throw in the towel?”

Caleb turned back to face her, all fight drained out of him. 

“That is it, isn’t it? You’re ready to check out. Do you really believe that you are the only one who‘s ever had a rough time of it? Who’s ever suffered?”

“You don’t understand, Bree. I got caught up in the darkest nightmare you could ever possibly imagine.  It was a long time ago, but I never woke up. I won‘t ever wake up. God, I don’t even know why I’m still here. You have to go. You have let me go.”

“Bad dream? You - had a bad dream? Do you want to hear about my bad dream, Caleb? I know what. Let’s compare and see who’s nightmare is the most hideous. OK? Come on, let’s go for a walk.”

After several blocks of trudging through the slush in silence they came to a path that led into the woods. The pioneer scent of wood smoke from nearby chimneys filled the air. When they had gone far enough to reduce the chance of being interrupted, Bree stopped and turned towards Caleb. He just stood there, staring at the ground. Waiting.

Bree had come to town seven months earlier. She had gotten some sort of inheritance and had bought the small town’s Lumberjack Cafe. It had come with an attached apartment in the back. She had told the townsfolk that she had had enough of big city life. The local citizenry were always suspicious of newcomers but she had soon won them over with her unaffected manner and genuine interest in their lives. Except for Caleb. It took her a couple months to even get his attention. He was the quintessential brooding loner but eventually she had begun to win him over, too.

“My nightmare happened fourteen years ago when I was ten,” she began. “I had the cutest little sister. She was two years old and so amazing and full of life. I loved her completely. My mom, my little sister and I were going to go shopping together. We had gotten halfway down the sidewalk to the car when my mom remembered she’d left her purse inside the house. She asked me to watch Cozy while she ran back in to get it. It was such a glorious day, laced with sunshine and flowers. A powder blue butterfly floated by right in front of me. It was so exquisite. I watched as it fluttered across our lawn and out of sight behind our neighbor’s lilac bush. Then I turned to my sister. She had crossed our yard and walked into the driveway of our neighbor on the other side. It was his graduation day and he was anxious to get to the morning rehearsal on time. He glanced my way and gave me that dazzling smile of his as he began to back out of the driveway. He must have caught the look of horror in my eyes but it was too late to react because at that very moment he felt the bump as Cozy was crushed beneath the weight of his car’s back tire. There was such loud screaming. Mine, then my mom’s - and his. It wouldn’t stop. I’ve never quite shaken off the faint echo of those screams. It was my fault. My mother had left little Cozette in my care. It really was my fault. I used to be the best of friends with that young man next door. He was so much fun to be around. I was called Gabby back then, short for Gabrielle.”

Bree waited for his reaction. He wasn’t breathing. His eyes were open wide and not blinking. He looked like a dead man standing but the single tear streaming down his cheek betrayed his charade. He involuntarily gasped for air and exhaled shattered bits of nightmare. Then he doubled over, bracing himself hands on knees, and vomited up fourteen years of misery.

When he finally straightened back up he looked at Bree. “Gabby?” he said softly.

She smiled and nodded.

“Oh, God. You were standing there. I’m so sorry. I should have been more careful. I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry. Oh, God. I’m so sorry.”

“Stop, Caleb. It just happened. My mom forgot her purse, you were excited about graduation and a blue butterfly flew by. Things just happen sometimes. I figured out years ago that to honor my little sister’s short life I would need to first forgive myself and then embrace life. Besides, I’m sure that humans are more than just a physical body, Caleb. I don’t think death is really the end.”

Caleb understood. He’d always had the nagging suspicion that if he chose to end it all, the joke would be on him because he would still be around in some form or other.

“You told everyone here that your name is Bree Buchanan, not Hamilton.”

"My parents’ marriage disintegrated after the accident. When my mom remarried I took my step-dad’s last name. Last year my father died and left me a lot of money. I paid an internet website to locate you. Then I bought the Lumberjack Café and moved here. I knew it was what I had to do."

“Gabby had green eyes.”

“Contacts.”

He just stood there, stunned.

“Caleb, you’re awake now. The nightmare‘s over. I love you. I have since I was in kindergarten and your family moved in next door. You always treated me like an equal, even when I was five. You were so funny and never too busy to stop and listen to my tales of woe or my exclamations of joy over some insignificant accomplishment. You always managed to make everybody‘s day a bit brighter, Caleb. I can remember.”

She could tell that he was beginning to remember too - remember his true self.

Bree put her arms around him and whispered in his ear, “We will be happy together, big guy, no matter what life sends our way. I promise.”

As they hugged tightly beneath the low, winter sky they were gently caressed by the spirit of a small child who giggled merrily as she vanished into the lullaby which was now calling her home.