Ethereal

By Lorie Leo, 2020 Write Now Winner

My bare fingers are freezing. I envy the cozy wedding guests inside. As I loosen screws on the soffit grate, a fierce wind gust makes the ladder wobble. I brace myself against it, the Thermos under my hoodie jabbing my ribs, reminding me of my mission. I can't look down. I want to look inconspicuous, like a guy who scampers around on ladders every day. Truth be told, it is only the bourbon that has gotten me up this high.

Butterfly Read more about author Lorie Leo.

I bought a potted plant at Lowe's last week. In January, everything in Iowa is dead and a begonia is cheaper than a plane ticket. It turns out I got more than a plant. A few days ago, believe it or not, a yellow butterfly emerged from the foliage and fluttered to the window. Initially, this unseasonal visitor was a treat, but every day since, I have grown uneasy. I hear the constant, dusty tap-tap-tapping as it hurls its feather-light self against the glass, determined and relentless. Let me out, it says. I belong out there. Be careful what you wish for, I think. It is 12 degrees outside.

My ex-girlfriend is getting married today. It's not prime wedding season, but this Darrin is apparently quite the practical sort. January fit his ever-so-busy work schedule, and the IMU Sunporch was available for their informal gathering. My RSVP was short: "Laurel, I just can't. Love, Will." Staring out my window, I raise another bourbon toast to her happiness, clinking against the windowpane before each gulp. All the while, my resident Lepidoptera works its way across the glass in a futile search pattern. I think of the euphoria it would feel to be free—right before freezing to death. Happiness, but at what cost? I mull this dilemma and wish I had a greenhouse to keep it alive and happy for its short life. Suddenly it dawns on me—the wedding!! If I know Laurel, that sun porch will be crammed with flowers.

In the five-block walk to the Union, I formulate no plan, except for one rule: I cannot be in that room. When I arrive, I scan the roofline on the west side and spot intermittent metal grates for ventilation access. Most of the floor-to-ceiling sun porch windows have unobstructed views of the river but in one section, the blinds are fully closed. That's where I prop my ladder, borrowed from the nearby construction site. The ladder barely reaches the roof, and here I am. With shaky hands fumbling the screwdriver, I eventually remove the grate and set it aside. Stepping up one more rung, I squeeze my upper body into the two-foot-high false ceiling of the sun porch interior. I'm in. I nudge the ceiling tile below me, just enough to see into the room.

A makeshift altar of flowers graces the windows down to my left. Guests mill around, gesturing with champagne flutes as they talk. I hear Laurel's voice above the others—not that she is at all loud but because I know that sound like my own pulse. The ceremony is about to start. The groom nervously fiddles with some sheets of paper. Really, Darrin, crib sheets for your vows? And have you italicized bullet points for proper emphasis?

I am directly above the trickling fountain sculpture, and I'm startled to see Laurel's eight-year-old nephew Jake right there, scrutinizing the naked lady parts of the bronze nymph testing the water with her toe.

"Hi Will," he says, surprised, but not as loud as I'd feared.

I put my finger to my lips, and give him a grinning, conspiratorial Shhh, like we have planned some great surprise together. He nods with enthusiasm. I uncap the Thermos. Jake's eyes widen as he tracks the flash of citron yellow down, down, into the room of well-wishers. It flits past the urns of lilies and chrysanthemums, drawn by inexplicable forces to the endless blue sky it knows is just beyond that bank of sunlit glass. It flutters to the window nearest the wedding party. Here, it alights for just a moment; its luminous wings spread flat, the perfect specimen.

"Oh!" Laurel leans in closer and softly coos, dazzled by this simple creature. After a moment, the butterfly resumes its relentless fluttering, undaunted in its attempt to break out. I see Darrin's arm snap out, his vows now tightly rolled into a paper tube that strikes the window with a startling THWACK. Laurel screams. The guests turn to see what has happened.

A foot-long smear of dusty yellow glitter is now spread across the window, punctuated with bits of wing, chunks of ghostly white thorax, and severed legs. Laurel turns to Darrin, her eyes searching his. With the tips of his vows, he scrapes the debris off the window, and flicks it onto the floor.

"What? It's a bug."

Before Laurel can speak, Jake's wail breaks the stillness.

"That was from Will, you big doofus!!"

All eyes turn his way. I wriggle backwards, desperate to flee. I start back down the ladder, but then Jake pulls the window shade cord, hand over hand, raising the giant blind until I am fully exposed; my entire body framed behind glass like some museum diorama. As I muster a sheepish wave to Laurel, my feet slip. The Thermos tumbles to the ground below. The crowd collectively gasps as I hang from the upper rung, frantic to regain my footing. Eventually I do. The guests look relieved.

Then I see Laurel start to laugh. That sweet, good-natured laugh! Hard enough to bring herself to tears. She wipes them away, oblivious to her makeup. Shoving her bouquet at her sister, she rushes to my window. Her palm is flat against the pane. I kiss my fingertips and touch them to hers, through the glass. Our eyes have a long conversation, rehashing the natural history of us, until someone, I cannot see who, comes and lowers the blinds.


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