BUTTERFLY

By Michele Bardsley

MAXINE WALKED PAST the neon sign, “Lady Sarah’s Tattoo Parlor,” every day from her job as a grocery sacker. She had never dared to enter the place, but she liked the pretty pictures displayed on the window. Those silly butterflies and dragons reminded her of childhood times, in particular, when she had played hide-and-seek games with friends at dusk in the precious minutes before parents called their children inside for dinner. She remembered the butterflies and lightning bugs and the heavy smells of honeysuckle flowers.

A glance at her watch made Maxine spin around and run up the hill to the brick one-story home surrounded by a white picket fence. No time to tidy anything or fix her hair. Thomas would be home soon. “The clock must be wrong,” she whispered as she fixed the meatloaf.

Six o’clock. The table was set and the meatloaf, thankfully done on time, was ready when her husband of eleven years came home. He whistled as he hung his coat in the foyer’s closet.

“Hello, darling.” He nuzzled her neck, then kissed her.

“Would you like some wine?” she asked.

“I’ll take a glass at the table.” He sniffed and Maxine’s gaze was drawn to his slightly crooked nose. “Meatloaf?”

She nodded; the tea towel twisted in her hands.

“My favorite. You’re so good to me.”

Maxine poured a glass of wine and served it to her husband, then she fixed his plate precisely the way he liked it. He sampled each item and nodded approval; she took her place at the end of the table. Thomas talked about work, friends, and life, and Maxine nodded and thought about the tattoo parlor and the little yellow butterfly she’d noticed today.

“Too many onions, I think,” Thomas said suddenly. “How many times must I tell you that you use too many damn onions?”

“I’m sorry,” Maxine whispered. “I didn’t realize.”

“Of course you didn’t realize, Maxine. You’re stupid. All I expect from you is a decent meal—and I get garbage. Garbage!”

Thomas pushed his chair from the table. “Come here.”

Knowing hesitation would only worsen his temper, Maxine obeyed.

“Why did you feed me garbage? Did you empty the trashcan on my plate? Did you?”

She saw the anger glittering in his green eyes, the eyes she’d once compared to a mossy pond in a silly love poem she’d written to him. She said nothing and Thomas grabbed her arm, yanking it hard. “Did you feed me garbage?”

Maxine struggled for the right words, searching for the exact tone and phrase that would calm him and prevent what she knew was inevitable. She stared at his mottled face, the vein in his neck that always throbbed when he got upset; hot emotion speared her. Maxine thought of the colored pictures in the tattoo parlor, especially the butterfly she liked so well, even as fear warred with this new feeling. She was so tired of Thomas, of being afraid, of the emptiness in her heart.

She jerked her arm out of his grasp. “You liked the meal just fine before the last bite.” Her hand flew to her mouth. Oh dear God. Why had she said that?

Thomas’s mouth dropped open, but his surprise turned to fury in a matter of seconds. The blow sent her staggering and the next rapped her head against the wall. Her vision blurred as she slid down to the floor.

“Look what you made me do. If you would’ve have kept your mouth shut and just fixed my dinner the way I expect, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s your fault, Maxine.”

“It’s my fault,” she whispered, cradling her sore cheek. “I’m sorry.”

“I can’t stand it when you’re like this, Maxine.” She heard Thomas’s steps recede and knew he was in the foyer getting his coat. “And for God’s sake,” he yelled. “Clean up this mess.”

The door slammed shut.

Maxine curled into a ball and cried.

THOMAS WAS KIND to her during the next few days. He brought her gifts and took her out to dinner twice. This was the man she’d fallen in love with, the man who made rare appearances these days. Most of the time, she lived with the monster Thomas, the one she didn’t love, the one she feared.

“I’ll be going out of town,” Thomas announced on Thursday. “It’s a weekend business trip. You don’t work, do you?”

Maxine nodded. “Only on Saturday. One to five.”

“Can you switch the shift? I haven’t said anything, but ever since you took the job, your housework has suffered.”

She heard the warning, but the few hours of freedom was worth asking, “It’s just four hours, Thomas. I don’t mind working the shift. And I’ll work extra hard on the house. Please?”

Maxine’s heart thudded as she watched her husband’s brows draw together. Then he smiled indulgently. “What would they do without you? Of course you can work.”

On Friday afternoon Thomas called from the airport to check on her. He called again when he arrived at his hotel and once more at 3 a.m. Maxine was used to his paranoia, but late night phone calls were a small price. His absence from the house made the hours precious and sweet.

Saturday, she was ready for work by Noon. She didn’t dare leave yet, even though she itched to be out in the autumn sunshine. At 12:30 the phone trilled and she caught it on the first ring. She listened to Thomas tell her about the boring seminars, then he said, “I’ll call back at 5:15 p.m. I love you.”

The words nearly stuck in her throat, but she finally said, “I love you, too” before hanging up the receiver. She left, eager to be at work. She stopped to peruse the tattoo parlor’s pictures, looking until she found the small yellow butterfly. Delicate with pink swirls on its wings, it was freedom in motion.

“Trying to work up the nerve, huh?”

Startled, Maxine backed away from the window and looked at the gray-haired woman standing in the door. “No, no. I could never—”

“Of course you could, honey,” she said, flexing her tattoo-covered arms. “It’s art.”

Her brown gaze was friendly and Maxine relaxed a little. She stepped closer to see the unicorn on the woman’s shoulder.

“It’s very nice.” She paused. “I like the butterfly.”

“Good choice.” The woman held out her hand. “Sarah Brown. This is my shop.”

Maxine timidly shook her hand. “Maxine. It’s nice to meet you.”

Sarah’s gaze turned sharp as she gazed at Maxine’s face. Out of habit, Maxine bent her head even though the fading bruise was hidden by make-up.

“Looks like you know something about tattoos already.”

“I’ve never had a tattoo.”

“You live in that pretty house on Locus Hill, right? This is a small town, but I never see you anywhere but walking to work and back.”

Maxine felt the color drain from her face. “I have to go.”

“I know all about tattoos, honey. The ugly, hurtful kind is what made me open this place. I hid mine with pretty pictures.” Sarah leaned close, her eyes reflecting a kinship Maxine had never felt with another human being. “The best thing I ever did was leave the man who gave me those ugly tattoos.”

“I’ll be late for work.”

“You come back and I’ll do the butterfly for free.”

“Thank you, but I don’t think so.” Maxine hurried away, her insides queasy. Sarah Brown knew what Thomas did to her. Sarah Brown knew the pain and the humiliation. Maxine didn’t feel so alone anymore, and the thought almost made her cry.

At 4 p.m., the manager told Maxine to go home. She gathered her purse and coat, wondering what to with the hour she had left. Sixty minutes of time she didn’t have to account for—it felt like a Christmas present. Sarah’s offer intrigued her, but she didn’t dare get the butterfly. Still, she found herself in front of the parlor, her hand hovering above the door handle. What would it hurt to just look?

Maxine took a deep breath and opened the door. A bell tinkled, announcing her entrance. The place was small, but clean. Two couches faced each other in the center of the room. The walls were white and filled with hundreds of pictures. She looked toward the counter at the back of the room just as Sarah entered from a door marked Employees Only.

“Ready?” Sarah asked.

Maxine meant to say no, she was only going to look for a minute before going home. Instead, she found herself following Sarah around the counter and through the door.

Two pink chairs that looked like comfortable versions of a dentist’s, were long and slightly curved in the middle. Sarah patted the one on the right and Maxine found herself laying on it without protest.

“This is the one, right?”

The tiny yellow butterfly with pink swirls fluttered alone on a white sheet. “Yes, that’s it.”

“I’d suggest the inside of the ankle. You can always put a bandage on it and claim a scratch if you have to.”

“Fine.”

Sarah helped her shed the coat and took the purse, putting both onto a counter. Maxine felt calm, as if getting a tattoo were the most natural course to take. Strangely, she wanted the butterfly more than anything else in the world.

“Now I’m not going to kid you—this will hurt, especially on the ankle. There’s not a lot meat in that area, so it’s more sensitive.”

Maxine smiled. “I can handle a little pain.”

“Of course you can.” Sarah’s gaze was kind. “You’re sure about this?”

“No. But do it anyway.”

Maxine watched as Sarah put on latex gloves. Then she pressed a paper with the butterfly’s outline on the inside of Maxine’s left ankle. “First I’ll do the outside, then I’ll color it in. You want yellow and pink?”

“Yes.”

Sarah opened three small jars of ink and tore open a tiny plastic package. She took out a needle and inserted it into something that Maxine thought looked like a large metal electric toothbrush—without the toothbrush. When Sarah turned the device on, it even buzzed like an electric toothbrush.

The first touch of the needle felt like a hot scalpel slicing her skin. Maxine remembered when Thomas kicked her leg so hard, the calf turned black and blue. It knotted up every time she tried to walk. The prick of the needle didn’t hurt compared to that. She watched Sarah dip the needle in the black ink and then blot blood with a clean white towel.

Sarah finished outlining the butterfly, then she dipped the needle into a jar of clear liquid and into the yellow jar of ink. “When I’m finished, it’ll feel like a sunburn for awhile and be a mess for about ten days. Then the scab will fall off and you’ll be the proud owner of a pretty little butterfly.”

Within minutes, the tattoo was finished and Maxine looked down in amazement. The butterfly danced on her ankle. She laughed. “Oh, it’s beautiful!”

“Freedom’s a beautiful thing. And that butterfly is free. Just like you are, Maxine.”

Maxine’s joy faded. Free? What kind of life would she have without Thomas? Thomas loved her. He wasn’t perfect, but neither was she. She shook away the strange thoughts. What was she thinking? Thomas was her life. She would have nothing without him.

Sarah put a bandage across the tattoo and gave Maxine a small tube. “Take off the bandage in about two hours and use this on it frequently. Like I said, it should heal in about ten days.”

“Thank you.” Maxine took the tube and gathered her purse and coat. “This means a lot to me. I can’t believe I did it.”

“You have a lot of courage, honey.” Sarah hugged her fiercely and gave Maxine a measuring look. “You need somewhere to go—you come straight here. I live upstairs.”

Maxine nodded, glancing at the clock. 5:05 p.m. Thomas! She thanked Sarah again and ran all the way home. The telephone was ringing when she burst through the door and she grabbed the receiver. “Hello?”

“Where were you?”

“In the bathroom,” Maxine lied.

The silence ate away her newfound confidence and she bit her tongue to keep from filling up the endless pause with nervous words. Then Thomas laughed. “Nature’s call is more important than mine, huh?”

He uttered a few more words then hung up. Maxine expelled a nervous breath. She stared down at her ankle. Would she be able to hide the butterfly from him?

THREE WEEKS PASSED without incident. Thomas never noticed the bandage, especially since Maxine made sure she wore long pants and high socks. She knew the butterfly was there, though, fluttering on her ankle, happy and free. She felt like a naughty child keeping a secret and she began to enjoy having something only she knew about. For the first time in her life, she owned something.

Maxine had high hopes for the week. But on Tuesday night, Thomas came home in a surly mood. Dinner was a failure. He broke his plate then demanded she clean up the pieces. He wasn’t happy with what was on television and threw the remote at her. Then he dragged her into the bedroom and flipped on all the lights.

Maxine saw the edge of his temper and recoiled from the violence she saw in his face. She unbuttoned her blouse and allowed him to paw her breasts, while he pushed her onto the bed.

Thomas roughly tore off her clothes and entered her, grabbing her ankles and pushing her legs above her head. When he was done, he rolled off, heaving a breath. Maxine hoped sex had taken away his anger. She got out of bed and grabbed a gown.

“What’s wrong with your ankle?”

Maxine froze, her nightgown gaping open. “N-nothing.”

Thomas looked at her. “You have a bandage on.”

“It’s a scratch,” she said, buttoning the nightgown up to her chin.

“Let me see it.”

Maxine stared at him. He stretched lazily on the bed, but his gaze held a familiar glitter. He wanted to fight. She closed her eyes and heard Sarah say, “Freedom’s a beautiful thing.”

Opening her eyes, she lifted the gown and put her ankle on the bed. She ripped off the bandage. Thomas’s gaze lazily flicked down; he tensed.

“What the hell is that?”

“A butterfly,” Maxine said.

“You got a tattoo?”

“Y-yes.”

Thomas sat up, but Maxine moved her ankle before he could grab her.

“You dumb bitch. You’ve ruined your body.”

Emotion twisted endlessly inside her. “You ruined it first.”

Thomas blinked, his expression dumbfounded. Maxine left the bedroom and went into the kitchen. Seconds later, she heard Thomas’s footsteps. The glass of orange juice in her hand trembled and she choked on the tart drink.

She looked at his naked, hairy body and his ugly sneer. He was going to hurt her again. And he would keep hurting her. The monster Thomas would always be stronger than the man she fell in love with, the one who bought her chocolate and listened to her silly love poems and promised to protect her.

The slap knocked the glass out of her hand. Juice splattered everywhere as the glass shattered onto the floor. He hit her again and she lost her footing, landing on her hands and knees. Shards cut into her palms and her fingers curled around a large jagged piece. When he jerked her up by the shoulders, she pushed the sharp end against his throat.

“Let go of me.”

He squeezed her, his bony fingers digging into her flesh, and released her. Maxine stepped away, keeping the shard in front of her.

“You won’t hurt me. You’re my wife.” He reached forward and she slashed at him. The glass raked across the back of his hand.

“I don’t want to be your wife anymore.” Maxine backed out of the kitchen, holding the shard. Thomas watched her, his expression unreadable.

She hurried through the living room to the foyer where she unlocked the door and opened it. “And for God’s sake,” she shouted, “clean up that mess!”

Slamming the door shut, she dropped the glass and ran. The minutes stretched into forever as she ran to the tattoo parlor. She swore she heard Thomas’s footsteps pounding behind her, but even he wouldn’t run outdoors naked and bleeding.

She pounded on the tattoo parlor’s front door, relief flooding her as the lights came on. Maxine’s body trembled as she clutched the handle. Then the door opened and she saw Sarah’s concerned face.

“I left him,” she whispered.

Sarah ushered her to a couch and Maxine collapsed. The past few minutes had felt like a lifetime. She told Sarah everything, the story broken with laughter and tears.

“I can breathe better,” Maxine said. “Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve taken a full breath? Oh God.”

Sarah put a comforting around her. “You did good, butterfly. Let’s get you settled in for the night. Tomorrow we’ll see if you can use those wings.”

Freedom and hope intertwined; those strings of feelings bonded and tightened, giving Maxine something to grasp. She looked at Sarah and smiled. “I’m ready to fly.”

Photo by Clever Visuals on Unsplash

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