“Sometimes I dream of flying.”
When Pike was seven, his sister almost died. She was two years older than him and what the adults called “special” when they thought no children were paying attention. Her name was Butterfly and to him, she was beautiful.
On the first day of winter holidays, before the relatives had come to visit, their mother had been asleep and their father had been reading in the living room and she had gone to the attic window and opened it. Pike had followed her because he knew they were not allowed in the attic and his instinct as a younger sibling compelled him to come see. He remembered how she looked, framed against the pale winter sky with her black hair floating around her. She looked back and smiled, and then she jumped.
Later, in her hospital room, white amongst the white sheets, her face turned towards the window, she whispered (to him alone; their father had already pulled their mother from the room, sobbing and hysterical), “I thought maybe I could fly.”
Butterfly talked with her hands more than her words. Sometimes in the middle of a sentence she would trail off and simply gesture as if that alone could convey her thoughts. It made their mother upset–“Use your words,” she would say, thin-lipped and uneasy–but it was a habit she seemed disinterested in breaking. Sometimes she would stop completely and simply stare into space, her mouth open and her hand raised.
When she was ten, one year after the Incident From The Attic, Butterfly began seeing Doctor Carl. He was an old man with thick white eyebrows and thicker glasses and no hair at all. He spoke slowly and deliberately, and each word from his mouth was heavy and round, like old stones. Sometimes Pike came along when his mother dropped Butterfly off and picked her up, and Doctor Carl would have a sucker for him and a grave smile, like they were sharing a secret communication.
Every time Butterfly came home she would curl up on her bed and sleep for hours. All the yelling and shaking from both of their parents never seemed to reach her at all. Sometimes Pike went in to sit with her, and sometimes she slept through his visits, and sometimes she woke.
“I had a dream,” she told him once, but that was all she would say.
Pike enjoyed exploring the woods behind his house, playing catch with his dad, and gardening with his mom. Long after he should have outgrown the habit, he liked to hold his sister’s hand whenever they went out anywhere together. When his friends teased him he took it with good grace and kept his fingers laced together with hers.
Though no one ever asked him why, he would have said it was because he was afraid that she would simply float away if he wasn’t there to anchor her to earth.
“You have to be patient with your sister,” his father said once, as the two of them walked home from the park. “And your mother. They try very hard, you know.”
Pike nodded because his father’s voice was so serious, but if he was honest, he didn’t know. He saw his mother get upset and restless and his sister drift through life like she couldn’t quite figure out how to exist properly in the world. His father, on the other hand, remained solid and placid and unflappable; in all his life, Pike had never seen his father get angry. As he spoke his face was solemn and he was looking up at the dim sky overhead. He seemed to be searching the first evening stars for something, but after a moment gave up and looked down again. “Promise you’ll do your best for them.”
“I will,” Pike said.
If Butterfly wasn’t asleep, she was drawing. Her notebooks were filled, cover to cover, with intricate little designs and more elaborate sketches, of birds and winged people and her own namesake, all turned away and ready for flight. Pike thought she was very good. Sometimes, on a good day, she would point to one or another and tell him the stories for each. They all came to her when she dreamed, she said, and they always left when she woke. Though she tried and tried to follow when they floated off into the dawn, the pathway always eluded her.
But, she said, she was getting closer every day.
If his father was the earth, his mother was flash-fire: quick to rage and slow to fade, her face red and her voice cracking. Most of her temper used Butterfly as its target, though occasionally even Pike bore the brunt of her wrath.
Later though, she would creep back apologetically, demure and drained where before she had been snapping and fierce. She would sit by Butterfly’s bedside and stroke her hair, or touch Pike’s cheek with soft fingers. He disliked this intensely: there was always something sad in his mother’s eyes when she was tired, deep and old and inescapable. Sometimes he heard her crying at night, and he thought he’d rather her be angry–because at least then, she fought back. He could hear her rage and knew she hadn’t given up.
What she was fighting against, he didn’t know for certain, just that it had to do with Butterfly. For that alone he hoped for his mother’s rage–for her anger and her determination, because now, even with her hand firmly clasped in his, Pike didn’t think he could keep hold of his sister for much longer.
During the spring, Pike’s habit was to collect a handful of wildflowers every day as he walked home from school. He tried for a different type each day, clumped together into a fist. When he got home, he would go straight to Butterfly’s room first. If she was awake he would give her the flowers; if she was asleep, he would leave them on her pillow. She never thanked him, even when she was awake, but they would make her smile, and her eyes would focus on something immediate in the room, and to Pike, that was a victory.
There were drugs, when Butterfly was awake–prescribed by Doctor Carl, his leathery face radiating concern when he handed Pike’s mother the slip of paper. They were small and white and Butterfly took them obediently when prompted; whether they helped at all was hard to say. Butterfly slept and she drew and sometimes she seemed to actually see the faces of her family, but even then, her eyes were full of secrets.
When Pike was fourteen, his sister died.
Somehow, though the attic door had been locked for years, she’d found a way to jimmy it free and slipped inside. He had been walking up the driveway and happened to look up in time to see her, pale and tripping upon the rooftop of the house. For a moment he didn’t realize what he was seeing, and then it was too late.
For the rest of his life he remembered it–the way she spread her arms wide and the way her hair and her long sweater fluttered wildly in the wind, unfurling out behind her like wings–and the perfect moment after she jumped and seemed to hang suspended in the air, as if she would simply stay there forever, a girl stuck in that small piece of sky, her face turned upward and her arms outstretched as if to embrace the whole of the world.
“I am sick of dreaming.
“Today, I am going to wake up.”