Brandon could see clearly when he was four years old, with glasses. He remembered his fourth birthday. So, if was he was still a child, waking from a long dream, it was after that birthday, after the museum. That day the world was bright, clear, colorful, and the crispness of the memory was horrible, especially the butterfly. And, his mom’s hand.
He couldn’t see his mom’s hand, but could feel it. Its smoothness—against his skin. Its strength—around his hand. But, mostly its warmth. It was like his hand was in an oven and heat radiated out from it, filling him completely. He could feel it, but couldn’t see it, because he was looking ahead, not down at his hand in hers, he was looking at the butterfly in front of him. It wasn’t a real butterfly, he knew that even at four, it was better than real. It was glass—colored glass—shaped in three dimensions like a butterfly: the head was gray, torso red, the wings blue and green with sparkles of yellow, orange, and purple. The glass butterfly sat outside the Orkin Insect Zoo—at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History—on a pedestal. His mom brought him for his birthday. They’d walked to the Museum from their house. His mom pointed out famous buildings they passed: the Supreme Court, the Capitol, the Botanical Garden, and off in the distance the Washington Monument. He’d been pulling his mom forward, toward the Museum, past the hot dog cart, and popcorn vendor, through the Museum’s giant front doors, through the atrium, through the hum of people, toward spiders, and moths, and ants, toward everything he wanted to see, until he saw the butterfly. Then, he stopped, mouth open, and stared. He stared as sunlight filtered through colored glass and danced on the floor. He stared as dust motes sparkled like fireworks. He stared as the butterfly seemed to undulate on a current of color. His mom put her hands on his hips and raised him to eye level with the butterfly. It was beautiful. He reached to touch it, stretched his arm in front of him, torqued at the waist, tilted his ribcage, and reached. It was the happiest moment of his life. Just when his fingers were inches from a glass wing… his mom set him down.
“Go ahead, don’t let me hold you back.” She nudged him to the side and he started to circle the butterfly.
It was almost too much to take in, he felt lightheaded, so he focused on the red torso, looking right where he imagined its heart would be—did butterflies have hearts? He’d ask his mom. With each step—shuffle really, he was shuffling sideways so he didn’t have to take his eyes from it—the red changed hue, from light to dark, from rose to rust, from pinkish to crimson, from blood red to—on the far side, looking back toward where his mom had nudged him, the light behind him now—black. On the far side of the butterfly, it was dark, he couldn’t see his mom through the butterfly, but she would blend in, she was wearing a red coat, she always wore that coat, it had a belt thingy that went around it, he just couldn’t see her because her coat camouflaged her, like a praying mantis. He kept shuffling, eyes where he believed his mom was, would be—if he kept shuffling—should be—if he just kept going—but wasn’t.
He’d completed his circle, back where he started, his back to the butterfly, looking for his mom, maybe she went to the bathroom, looking for the red coat, maybe she went for ice cream, looking for any red coat, she’d come back with ice cream, when she came back, there was a red coat, but too small—a red jacket—if she came back, there was no ice cream allowed in the Museum, there was a red sweater, she’d gone to the bathroom right before they left home, there was a red purse, headed away from him, heading up stairs to the next floor, to a balcony, where he could look down at this floor, into the atrium, look for red coats.
The steps were wide. He took two steps on each before stepping up. On the second floor, balusters holding the balcony railing were wide—he could put a hand on balusters to either side, and lean forward, tilt forward, until he was looking down, until his head was almost through the balusters, until his temples hit the balusters and held him in place, kept him from falling. He looked for red coats, but it was hard to see anything, bodies below were a whirlwind of movement, darting to and fro, stopping and starting, swirling, swaying, swinging, until he was staggering, dizzy, stepping back from the banister, hands shaking, afraid to look down, afraid his mom was gone.
That’s when the first twinge hit. The first of several twinges that would sweep through him, starting at his toes and fingertips and sweeping inward in a tingle tsunami that left his palms sweaty. He was alone. His heart pounded. He remembered that twinge as well as his mom’s hand, as well as the butterfly, as well as the movements of Merlin’s pocket watch, as well as the glass enclosed cicada Samia had given him, as well as he remembered Samia.
Samia had dark, straight, jet hair down to her shoulders. Despite being black, it shone—like the butterfly—in sunlight. She had black eyes that sparkled, thin lips, cute ears—who else even had noticeable ears—light freckles that stood out when she was embarrassed, a tiny frame—5 feet, maybe, 100 pounds, maybe—that managed to be curvy despite being petite. And, her smile, it… it was… life changing. He remembered the first smile: in college. The last one: before he boarded the speedboat. He remembered them all. But, they were far into his future when he was four. Then, he didn’t see smiles, he saw blank faces, heard heavy feet on marble, was surrounded by people, a swarm, like cicadas, but was somehow alone. Surrounded—by people—but ALONE the twinge told him.
The second twinge hit as he went down the steps, holding the railing like it could replace his mom’s hand, feeling imperfections in marble—worn by so many other hands, but none alone like his. Not just alone, ABANDONED, the second twinge told him. What had his mom said: don’t let me hold you back. Now he knew that meant she’d abandoned him.
He stumbled into the atrium, planning to go to the information desk and tell them… he ended up in the middle of the atrium, avoided the desk because he didn’t know what he’d tell them, didn’t want to tell them he was alone, and abandoned, and… LOST, the third twinge told him. He couldn’t ask them to find his mom, she was gone. He couldn’t ask them for directions—he wasn’t that kind of lost. Directions only helped if you knew where you were going. He found himself slowly turning circles in the atrium, people circling him, dizzy, again, hands shaking, again, the world swirling—like ice cream, no, no ice cream here, someone bumped him, he fell, like ice cream knocked out of the cone, plopped, glasses sliding across the floor, the world blurry, hearing glasses skittering as people kicked them across marble. He stood. His glasses had abandoned him too. He looked up; he didn’t know why. He saw a hazy ceiling, its grayness making him dizzy again, seeming to move farther away the harder he stared, light glowing, orange light—like the dentist lamp above him—like heaven was just beyond the ceiling, but was moving away, until it was just a blur, until everything was just a blur.
He felt a breeze, not from heaven, but from the front doors. He could smell hot dogs and stumbled toward them. Someone held the door for him, someone pushed him through. The light was bright. He had to shield his eyes. How did that make sense? He couldn’t see, but had to shield his eyes? Eyes covered, he felt the day. It was hot. It was sticky. It felt like his mom… no, not her, she was gone, like someone had wrapped him in his Slip ‘N Slide and it was smothering him. It made him tired.
The fourth twinge told him there was nothing he could do about being alone, abandoned, and lost. That was it. The worst he ever felt. Helplessness, combined with hopelessness, was the worst feeling.