excerpt from "There, Right There" (short story)
THERE, RIGHT THERE
There was an outbreak.
Just think about that word for a moment.
Could have easily been the next album by Nirvana.
If Kurt Cobain hadn’t died from a “shotgun” of butterflies.
We could be singing their catchiest pop angst from our cherry-colored summer convertibles throughout the country.
A “case of the butterflies” used to be a reference to being afraid of speaking or performing in front of people. You were afraid to perform something in public, so you experienced a case of the butterflies.
Or you were afraid to ask someone the truth of what they thought.
To ask someone you really liked on a date.
To sing in public at a karaoke (if you didn’t have enough to drink beforehand.)
To perform in Hamlet on the first night of previews.
The butterflies became one of the leading symptoms of what we eventually knew to be Park Flu.
If you’re in or near a park, some of them have gardens, and those gardens have flowers, and near those flowers, a collection of butterflies.
If you’re not in the park, and you’re seeing and feeling butterflies, those are the early stages of Park Flu.
Park Flu starts in the corners of your eyes, where your aqueous fluid begins to separate instead of maintain its fluidity, which causes you to begin blinking to try and correct the inconsistency, but the eye doesn’t stop separating.
Eventually, the eyes start tingling.
Which develops into an itch.
You get what is essentially pink eye (which people originally started calling park eye.)
And the first time you scratch it, the butterflies spread.
Tiny little viral butterflies, which look quite pretty under a microscope.
First your eye juice.
Then your sinuses.
Then your blood.
Then your brain.
Knowledge is a weapon.
People say Cobain died by blasting a shotgun into his face at close range.
He was one of the earliest diagnoses.
No one knew what to do with the body.
Everyone knew what to do with the conspiracy theory.
Which reminds me: adults used to scare the shit out of me when they called pink eye “conjunctivitis.” Conjunctivitis sounds so much worse than pink eye. Conjunctivitis sounds like a condition where ones bones slowly dissolve after swimming in a river with browned, brackish waters, where tiny little bacteria live under the muddy floor, until passing motorboats manage to dig them from their bacteria-laden slumber long enough they swim closer to the surface, entering a swimmer’s body through every available hole water can enter.
There were images I can remember.
Moments where we didn’t have to worry as much.
Morning drip coffee with the newspaper; wearing brand new Warby Parkers while noshing on a local bakery’s almond croissant. Watching dogs play in the run across the street; the dog owners not having a care in the world.
There was the front porch where I was going to live. Somewhere in Montana. I don’t know why Montana. It was sunny, though. I had a family inside. Girls, all in dresses. One of them always woke up early and waited outside our bedroom, scratching at the bottom of the door, waiting for one of us to wake and play. Often, my wife was the first one up. She would yawn, pee, hug our youngest, and lead her down the wooden steps to the kitchen, where the youngest would watch her heat some water on the stove.
And there was a picnic bench under a healthy shade of tree. There was the open yard, which needed a hearty rainfall. And the long gravel driveway, leading up a small hill and through a thick cluster of trees, miles from civilization.
There was breathing. Lots of breathing. No one ever exhaled deeply, thinking of what used to be around them, or what could possibly happen. Was there hope? For some. We had water in certain areas. We had daylight. Trees. Birdsong. Though we were always skeptical of leaving wherever we put down stakes, believing the Good Places were few and far between. But there was more hope than hopelessness. There was wind.
There was the music I wanted to hear again, and the music I wished to play. Like my childhood neighbor, the sound of her piano keys tickling the evening stars. I always wanted to ask her, “Would you teach me some songs on the piano?” But never even asked her, “Would you show me how to play?” So yeah. There was the piano, and her fingers, which I can see stronger today than the hear the sound of the music she played.
I don’t remember when the sun and moon made their agreement to switch their course, or why the moon stayed out longer. Or why it always rained in the distance, and often stayed in the clouds, high enough we could see the rain, but never felt it. I heard stories of people who felt the rain. They supposedly lived on grassy mountainsides and wrote poetry and lived off of bugs and leaves. Their god is a horticulturalist named Wanda. I knew a girl named Wanda when I was very young. I remember her crying in the hallway at school between classes. She was upset about the day coming to an end. They spoke so much on the news about everyone needing to find shelter, protection, food and water and a group of trustworthy people, as no one knew what was going to happen once the moon flipped the sun, and I remember her standing in the middle of the hallway, her shoulders turned inward, head bowed, eyes closed, crying as her books barely clung to her side. No one helped her. We all just kept walking past her, distracted by our own uncertainty. Even the teachers were lost. Wanda. She lived around the corner from my best friend, a kid named Monty Cruise, who was the fastest kid in the neighborhood by a mile. I hated gambling, but I would place bets with other kids in town and have them put their lunch money on the ground (always the asphalt), and ask them to pick the fastest kid they know, and have Monty do a hundred-yard dash against their fastest kid. His only stipulation: they had to run on the grass. Monty ran barefoot and insisted the grass and his bare skin gave him better traction. To this day I don’t know why, even though I asked him countless times to explain. He never lost. Then, one day, I convinced him to run against a kid from a neighboring town who was talking too much shit, and the kid – an older, taller, bionic fuck – insisted we do the race on asphalt, and was goading Monty against his tried and true grass routine.
I somehow convinced my undefeated best friend that we could win no matter what, and being on grass or asphalt wasn’t the point, that he could beat anybody on earth.
So he raced, and lost by a mile.
There was that memory, hitting me on top of the Wanda one.
There are many memories like that, finding me in the most peculiar moments.
Gambling with uncertainty.
Crying our eyes out.
Running for our lives.
Hoping we never have to experience the unknown again.
Then, waking up, and realizing the dreams, nightmares and hopes were all materializing into the same living, breathing organism none of us could avoid.