the making of a monarch
Emily Pedroza | Art by Michelle Jiang
“I have to get going now, I’m scheduled in thirty. Yes, mom, . . .yes. I know, I’ll talk to him about the dose. . .yes, thank you. I’ll see you soon….I love you too,” I hold my breath, the handset presses against my collarbone.
Following Ma’s sigh, silence floods the line, the speakers spitting out a long, jarring ‘beep.’ The handset warms, turning clammy, as it clicks into the telephone base.
The topic of my medication has always been a place of conflict between us. Though I couldn’t blame her, of course. After all, who could, after what happened to my sister? The sharp echo of Ma’s paranoia slowly fades to a whisper, barely alive above the washing machine, its metal teetering against concrete.
My pulse hammers through my skull. From outside the windows, our lawn of weathered grass gleams–blades dull, but dappled in dew. Jie sits by the bush, arms tucked into her body. I have to remind myself that she’s not real. Back then, water was enough to feign the illusion of life.
The monarch butterflies descend, dancing as they dip into pollen. Their light dwindles slowly, though swathed in it, hungry shadows pin at their corners. Soon, they will start their migration. Do they know what happened here?
The clock’s ticks become more and more apparent, vicious. My eyes meet its hands, though they were barely visible under its plastic sheen. Paper crunches under my fingers. It’s time to go. No one was there to mourn my loss, steps silent as I crossed the ribbon that separated home and reality.
I never enjoyed long car rides, and neither did you. I would rest my head upon your shoulder, at first you would groan and try to shake me off. Eventually, you gave up, rolling your eyes and slouching deeper into leather.
Rain slumps against windows, glass reflecting the garish moon, its glow waning. Street lights flicker, red swathed by the cold, my breath morphing white. The wind is as sharp as any blade, it knocks down my throat, leaving nicks against my cheeks.
It stings, but I can only picture your eyes, horror-stricken and wide, as my hands tighten against the wheel.
When I told the counselor your shadow follows me, she told me writing it all down on paper would help.
I’m sorry, I couldn’t stop her.
Ma had wanted your grave hidden from the city, your name a bitter reminder of her mistakes. She could not bear the red stain on the cloth of our family and decided to cut it out entirely.
The night she found out you were gone, there was no dinner. I had just come from the hospital, tape itchy against my neck. I listened to our broken sink, each erratic patter of the droplets as they crashed against steel. Plink, plink, plink. The dent in our wall laid untouched. The telephone was in one hand, the other gripping the corner of our table, her fingers bleached white. There was only fear in her eyes, voice frantic when she spoke, “Away. I want it away.”
That night our neighbors knocked on our door, low murmurs and sympathy brimmed eyes. I think that’s what made Ma go insane. The drop from being admired to pitied was too large a margin. It left her toppled. Brain used to a sweet sensation that would never return. I will never forget how after they left, she shut the door. Her body crumpled, folding against carpet. Red welts formed along her forearms as she shook. She didn’t cry for you that day, she cried for herself.
Though, in a way, I was the same. The next day, Ma enrolled me in a boarding school. I was her last shot at success. I should have blamed her that day, but I didn’t. Instead, I blamed you.
The day you were released from rehab, it was my fifteenth birthday.
Ma was skeptical, but I reminded her that you were family, her eldest daughter.
Your hair was pinned back into a bun, reminding me of the women on magazines, composed with no loose strays. I stood there, astounded. You planted a kiss on my temple, your arms hot when they wrapped around me. Your fingers were clasped around a butterfly garden brochure.
In the car, I stared at you through the cracks of splayed sunlight, watched the shadows line your face, eyes shining like glass. Only a year from then, your fingers gripped my face, you led my head through our wall, broken plaster falling like snow. I could only see red on your hands when they slid across the wheel. You’d changed, but when I looked at you, I could only see a reflection of what you once were.
The guide told us as we entered, the process of metamorphosis.
As we walked, I couldn’t stop thinking about the pupa: how wings would later emerge. I stopped to watch the monarch butterflies, their amber wings rustling paths through canopies of hyacinths, blue blossoms quivering with each snap. They had returned from their thousand-mile journey.
You squeezed my hand. Maybe you were thinking about metamorphosis too. Though low and murmured, I could make out the words, “I’ll do better this time, I promise.”
I peeked at you from the corner of my eyes, life flooding your cheeks. I wanted to believe you so badly I brought your hand closer, clinging to the warmth.
Hours later, we’d exited the exhibition, bathing the sunset’s pink glow. By the door, a butterfly lay still, cased in glass.
You stopped mid-laughter, eyes flickering to the pinned wing. You froze, reeling back into me, eyes panicked and glazed. You stared at the taxidermy, the glass warping your face as you stared. Minutes passed, light fleeing. I tugged on your elbow.
Then, I didn’t think too much of your hesitation. Now I look back and realize you saw your past, how it stained black lines onto wings. You saw yourself trapped in glass. What awaited you was not freedom—instead, a future composed solely of yourself.
The whole time as we walked to the car, our shoes slapping against concrete, I couldn’t stop thinking of your eyes.
They reminded me of last summer: your body sprawled against the carpet, fingers clutching an orange plastic bottle, little circles of white littered against brown. When I shook your shoulders, through a slit, I could see your eyes. Though pink and glossed over, I knew you were there.
Bile crawled up my throat, I swallowed.
“Put on your seatbelt,” you told me, unlocking the car. Metal clicked into plastic.
We were waiting on a red light when you stared at me, through lidded eyes. You picked up the scent of fear I tried so hard to cover.
You said, “I’m never going to be good enough for you, am I,” words so soft they were almost a whisper.
I couldn’t say anything back. Words of reassurance glued to my tongue. I closed my mouth, staring into the window to my right.
Minutes slipped by. It was so dark I didn’t realize we were accelerating. I didn’t notice until it was too late, the sound of the engine swallowing us both.
I looked at your eyes, still glossy, pooling with something I swear was guilt.
After colliding, I can only remember a wave of pain— heat, and plastic pressing against my skin—and the sound of your body flinging against the wheel, only silence following.
Dr. Adam stares at me through circle glasses, eyes boring into mine. His hand clasps a white cup, black coffee. I can only see my face staring back, a warped girl with dark circles, scars running down her throat.
Last month, he instructed me to write a letter to you her. They say I have to remember she’s not here anymore. The papers are clamped between my fingers, knuckles white.
“Is the dosing of your current prescription too strong?” His voice is steady. I nod.
“Do you still experience frequent flashbacks?” he asks.
I shake my head, eyes shifting, “No. Not anymore.” My eyes meet hers, the shadow of her frame morphing with the potted olive tree, her warm breath behind my ear.
His words stretch, snagging against his office walls. He drones on about how I need to hold on, what my future awaits, how my wound will eventually heal.
I can’t bring myself to tell him I don’t believe it ever will.