Jeb Petersen discovers an inexplicable talent. Give him a few dried maple leaves, a bit of walnut shell, twigs and blades of grass and he can create a butterfly. But what gives his creations life?
When ten-year-old Katie trespasses on his farm her presence threatens his creations and the tie they give him with his son.
A story of love, loss, miracles and healing.
Jeb Petersen watched his property from Peter’s room on the second floor of his old, weathered gray farm house. He wasn’t watching the apples rotting on the trees in the orchard. Or the chickens scratching in their yard.
He was watching for the bald girl that had trespassed on his property. Twice!
Shaking his head, Jeb looked down at the desk. The same worn desk where Peter had done his school work, put right beneath the window so he could look outside. Sometimes Jeb had threatened to put the desk over in the corner if Peter couldn’t focus on his work. That boy loved being outside.
One finger stroked down the smooth spine of a dried apple leaf, carefully pressed so that it lay flat and brown beneath his finger. Each rib stood out. Beside it, another brown and pressed leaf. A matched set for the apple bug he was building.
Jeb pulled over a dried brown cigar-shaped piece of apple. It looked just about perfect. It took practice to carve the shape you wanted out of a fresh apple and know how it would look when the apple dried in the sun on the window sill. It felt tough and leathery beneath his finger.
Working carefully, Jeb picked up one of the leaves and studied the stem at the end. Out came his pocket knife and he carved off a couple woody slivers, leaving a sharp point at the end. He poked the end of his finger. Just about perfect, or as perfect as you got this side of the rainbow.
Jeb pressed the pointy end of the leaf stem into the flesh of the dried apple. It stuck nicely out at an angle. He picked up the next and carefully trimmed its stem down to a point, then stuck it into the apple as well. Two wings for the apple bug and they looked real good too.
He picked it up and gave it a good eyeballing. Even unfinished it looked like a bug, especially the way some bugs could mimic leaves or other parts of plants. But there was still work to get done.
Jeb put the unfinished apple bug down and picked up two apple seeds. They had to be small, not too big or they looked wrong. He shoved the pointy end into the apple bug’s head, first one than the other. Two black eyes glimmered up at him. All the other parts were laid out and ready, but they were delicate and easy to break.
A couple antenna from dandelion puffs.
Legs selected from tiny delicate twigs on the apple tree.
He was sticking on the fourth leg when he glanced up, looked out the window and there was the bald girl, just running behind the old oak tree out by the chicken coop! Jeb shook his head, but the hand holding the apple bug was steady.
Jeb had to work quickly now and sweat beaded on his brow. The last thing he wanted to do was mess up this bug. He got the fourth leg stuck on fine. The fifth was harder because he didn’t have much to hold on to and for the sixth he pinched the body of the apple bug with a pair of tweezers. That worked and he got the sixth leg stuck into the dried apple body.
His breath blew out and the wings rustled with the faint sound of falling leaves.
The bald girl was out there, getting into who knows what. Jeb put the apple bug down, gently, gently! It stood proudly on its six legs, one front leg raised as if caught taking a step.
He clutched the desk and waited. Come on!
Then the apple bug reached up and ran first one front leg, then the other across its antenna. The wings flexed, swung forward and back, then vibrated so fast that they made a faint humming sound. Its twiggy legs creaked as it crouched and then it sprang up into the air. The apple leaf wings beat rapidly, carrying it on up into the space above the room’s rafters.
Jeb jumped up and ran out of the room. He stopped in the doorway and looked back at the apple bug, now walking upside down along one of the rafters. His throat tightened.
“I’ll be right back. I’ve got to chase that trespassing girl off before she causes more trouble.”
The apple bug fluttered its wings. Jeb left.
Downstairs he banged out the screen door onto the wide wrap-around porch. His boots crunched on dried maple and oak leaves blown up on the porch during the storms. He kept meaning to get out with a broom. Ophelia wouldn’t like it, the place looking like this, but he thought that maybe she understood.
Jeb stomped out to the top of the steps. “Hey! I saw you! I’m going to call the police if you don’t get off my property!”
She popped out from behind the oak tree like a jack-in-the-box. A tiny wisp of a thing, not more than a couple turkey’s weight on her bones. She wore glasses with dark cat-eye frames. Not a bit of hair on her head. She had on a pair of worn blue jeans, frayed and holes in the knees, and a white t-shirt. A man’s t-shirt, much too large for her that it hung off one bony shoulder, and hung so low it almost reached her knees.
Jeb took a step down onto the middle of the three steps off the porch. He dug into his pocket and pulled out the cell phone. Damn thing wasn’t even charged but she didn’t have any way of knowing that. He waggled it in the air at her.
“I will. I’ve got my phone right here. I’ll call ‘em and press charges of trespassing. They’ll toss you in jail, child, so you’d better high-tail it on home before I stop being nice!”
The bald girl planted her hands on her hips. “Will not, ‘cause I’ll tell them about those bugs you’ve got.”
Jeb felt a knot in his stomach like he was going to be sick, but he knew kids. He had to stay firm. Make her go home and stay there before she ruined everything.
“And you know what else will happen then? CPS, you know what that is? Child protective services. You’ll get locked up as a trespasser and then they’ll come in with their social workers and their rules asking if your parents are really good parents or not. They might just decide that you have to be taken out of your house and given to a different family. One that will teach you manners, teach you to listen to your elders and not trespass on other people’s property!” That left Jeb feeling a bit dizzy and breathless but he held the phone up, flipped it open. “So what’s it going to be? You gonna get out of here and leave me alone or am I going to make that call?”
She crossed her arms and shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere. Call who you want, but they aren’t gonna do any of that to me.”
“No.” She said it so confidently Jeb felt like the time he had played poker in Las Vegas, only to realize that the other players at the table were taking him for everything that he had in his pockets.
“‘Cause I’m dying.” She said it so matter-of-factly, with a hint of regret, that Jeb believed her instantly.
All the wind went out of his sails. He sank down, reaching back as he sat on the edge of the porch, his hands draped over his knees holding the useless cell phone. “Oh child.”
Jeb heard a scratching noise and saw one of his spiders, made from dried melon rinds for the body and long willow twigs for the legs, crawling along the porch railing. It stopped for a minute and then crawled onward. Out in the yard the girl lowered her arms and took a few steps forward.
“So? Are you gonna tell on me? I just wanted to know about the bugs.”
Jeb rubbed his upper lip. His tongue felt thick, useless and he could taste a bit of the chicken that he had for lunch stuck to his teeth. A flutter of wings and a maple butterfly, its bright yellow wings made from pressed maple leaves, fluttered past his head as it flew around the porch. He watched it fly in a circle, then flutter off around the corner of the house. When he looked back into the yard the girl was closer, her eyes big as she watched the maple butterfly disappear around the corner.
“What’s your name, girl?”
Her name was Katie. Ten years old and bald because of the cancer treatments that didn’t work. She didn’t come closer than ten feet from the porch at first, as skittish as a feral cat, but that was okay with Jeb.
Just thinking about how Katie was going to get buried beneath the black earth made his head hurt so bad that all he wanted was to curl up on the couch and sleep with the afghan Ophelia had knitted. After Peter’s passing he had done a lot of that.
Jeb cleared his throat. “How —” His voice broke. He tried again. “How long?”
Katie shrugged her bare shoulder. “Any time, I guess. They don’t know. I have seizures. They say that one of these times my heart will just stop and I’ll go to heaven.”
Words escaped him. What did you say to a ten-year-old after that?
The girl edged a couple steps closer and he saw her watching one of his egg shell beetles trundle along through the leaf cover. Dry leaves tumbled out of its path as it clambered up and over obstacles. She reached out with her hands as if she could catch it, grab it —
Katie jerked, jumping in place.
I have seizures. Jeb heard her say it again and felt badly for barking at her. He forced himself to take a breath.
“They’re very fragile. It might break if you touch it.” Or worse, like the last time.
“I’m not going to try to break it. I just want to see.”
“You broke the last one.” The words came out harsher than Jeb intended. He didn’t shout, but the shout was buried there in his tone, ready to erupt again.
One of these times my heart will just stop. He knew how that felt. He still couldn’t understand why his heart hadn’t stopped yet.
“I didn’t!” Katie crossed her arms tightly, hugging her thin ribs. “I didn’t do anything to it, but it did something to me.”
“What’re you talking about?”
Her fingers brushed across her forearm. That’s right where he’d seen the hazelnut ant, three days ago when she’d first come onto his property. He’d come out back to check for the eggs and found her sitting on the porch with the hazelnut ant on her arm. She jumped up and the ant tumbled onto the porch and had broken apart, nothing but nuts and grass and twigs. She left him there staring at the pieces while she ran off.
“I had a bruise. I bruise easily. But I didn’t do anything to it, I just held out my hand and it crawled onto my arm. I just wanted to see it, I wasn’t trying to break it or anything. It got to my bruise and just stopped. Then you came out and scared me!”
“I wasn’t trying to scare you.”
“Well you did!” Katie rubbed her arm again. “I didn’t notice until I got home, but the bruise was gone. Just like magic. I kept coming back because I thought the ant might help me more, because I’m sick.”
Jeb saw that Katie was about to cry but he steeled himself against that. It wouldn’t work. Not with him. “Maybe you didn’t mean too, but you killed it. It fell down and just fell apart. And it was a piece of my son, a piece of Peter. That’s what they are, pieces of his soul. He makes them live and you took that away.”
“I didn’t take anything. It crawled onto me. I didn’t pick it up or anything!”
“It was still broken.” He’d taken the pieces and tried putting them back together again but it hadn’t worked. The hazelnut ant hadn’t moved again. It was still on top of his dresser. “That piece of his soul, it’s gone thanks to you.”
Tears glimmered in Katie’s eyes like drew drops on the grass. “It isn’t my fault.”
She jumped up and dragged an arm across her nose. Jeb couldn’t keep looking at her. He looked down at his hands. On the ground the egg shell beetle kept going on its way, exploring whatever there was to see down among the leaves.
It was Peter. He had loved being outside, and that love of the outdoors, that’s part of what kept the bugs going. Jeb knew it, he felt it down in his bones. Watching the bugs was like hearing Peter’s laughter on the wind or catching a glimpse of his reflection in the pond. He was gone but as long as the bugs were here part of him was still here, too.
The words stuck in his throat. He wanted to explain, make Katie understand but he heard leaves crunch underfoot and when he looked up she was running away.
Poor child. Any time, I guess.
“It isn’t my fault,” Jeb said. The egg shell beetle stopped. Two chicken feather antenna waved at him.
“It isn’t my fault,” Jeb whispered again. “And what am I supposed to do? I can’t lose you again.”
The beetle trundled on, pushing under the next leaf as Jeb lowered his head onto his arms. What could he do? The bugs were all he had left of Peter. He had to keep them safe. If she thought they could make her better, she might come back.
Jeb slid down off the porch, watching his feet, and crouched in front of the eggshell beetle. It crawled out from under the leaves. Ever so gently, as carefully as the first time he had held Peter after his birth, Jeb scooped up the eggshell beetle. He held it in his hands, twig legs scratching at his skin as it tried crawling up over his thumbs.
“I’ll keep you safe. Shhh. Don’t worry.” Jeb turned and carried the beetle back up into the house.
Gathering up the bugs took the rest of the afternoon ‘cause they kept finding ways to hide and then each time he tried bringing in another one into the house he had to watch out because the others kept trying to escape. The maple butterfly, oak-leaf moth and the new apple bug fluttered against the windows like a fall storm. The spiders and beetles and stick bugs crawled around the room scritching and scratching.
Jeb sat on the couch with his face in his hands.
This was as bad as the times he had to send Peter to his room for something or another. All that boy wanted to do was run and play out in the fields and woods. To be outside breathing fresh air. Locking him up was the worst punishment Jeb ever inflicted. He never raised a hand to the boy, never had to because mostly Peter was a good boy.
Wings and legs scrambled, seeking a way out.
Jeb rubbed his face, wiped his eyes and looked up where the bugs battered themselves against the windows. If they kept it up they’d break something. The egg shell beetle had tipped over and was kicking its legs in the air.
Peter couldn’t understand being punished now. The bugs held pieces of his soul. His laughter. His love of sunlight on fresh green leaves. The fun of twisting dried grass into new shapes. The joy of walking through dry leaves in the fall. The delight he had of snow on tree limbs. Everything that Peter had loved about being outside, that was in the bugs and here Jeb was, punishing him for it.
Outside the sun hadn’t quite set yet, in fact the sky was turning a lovely shade of red with the setting sun. It was going to be a real fine sunset. Jeb let out a breath he didn’t even know he was holding and choked back a sob that threatened to overwhelm him. He sniffled, rubbed his eyes again and stood up.
“Shhh.” He took a couple steps toward the door. The bugs kept trying to get out. “Shhh. It’s okay. Let’s go back out. I’m sorry. I didn’t —”
Jeb took a deep breath. “Let’s go see the sunset, okay?”
On the way to the door he righted the eggshell beetle and moved it aside so he could open the door. The apple bug, the newest one of the bugs, flew past his head. The others followed and Jeb stepped outside as they all flew and hopped and crawled out with him. The butterflies and moths flew in circles around him and the sound of their wings reminded him of Peter’s laughter.
He wasn’t even surprised to see Katie back. She came out from behind the oak tree. He saw her look at him, look at the bugs flying around him and she laughed and her laughter was clear and lively, the pure joy of a child. It made his heart feel good to hear.
Then the bugs left him. They flew and hopped and crawled toward Katie. The eggshell beetle stopped next to Jeb’s foot.
“It’s okay,” Jeb said, though the words threatened to stick in his throat. “You go on now.”
The eggshell beetle waved its feathers and then crawled off down from the porch.
Katie saw the bugs coming and she took a step back and raised her hands as if to ward them off.
“Don’t be afraid, child. They aren’t gonna hurt you,” Jeb called. “I think Peter wants to help you. I’m sorry I tried to stop him. I shouldn’t of done that.”
Katie lowered her arms, clasped her frail fingers together and watched the bugs with wide-eyed wonderment. The apple bug reached her first, fluttering around her head and then it settled gently on her bare shoulder where it stuck out of the too-large t-shirt.
The other bugs reached her and Katie carefully sat down on the ground and reached out her arms to them. She laughed when the melon-rind spider crawled up onto her hand. She giggled when the maple-leaf butterfly landed on her head. They all came, pushing through the leaves to reach her, crawling up on her faded jeans to settle on spots where she had worn holes in the knees.
Each one found a place of bare skin. The eggshell beetle reached her last and she cupped it gently in her hands while the others balanced on her arms.
She sat like that for a couple minutes and Jeb thought his heart would break from the beauty of it as she sat with the bugs beneath the oak tree and the brilliant red sky above. Then the sun slipped over the horizon. A wind came up, stirring the leaves in the yard and when it reached Katie the bugs just drifted apart. They floated away into all of the other leaves.
The wind died and the bugs were gone. Katie looked up at him and he could see her tears catching the fading light. She stood up and brushed off her pants.
“Thank you,” she said.
Jeb shook his head. “No need to thank me, child. That was Peter. I believe he wanted to help you. I don’t know if he did or not, but that was my son. He was the sweetest boy.”
Katie smiled a brilliant smile like a sunrise. “I know he helped me. I can tell.”
“That’s good, then.” Jeb’s throat tightened. “You’d best get home before your parents worry.”
“Okay.” She waved and then she was gone, sprinting off with the grace of a deer.
Jeb sat back down on the porch. He watched the wind blow the leaves and heard Peter’s laughter. He saw the stars come out and saw Peter’s bright smile.
This story is the 35th weekly short story release, written in November 2011, originally published under my pen name “Michael Burges.”
Eventually I’ll do a new e-book and print releases when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m also serializing novels now on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is the Halloween story Trick or Treat.