Lillian stood in the dark hallway, her bare feet sinking into the thick hush of the carpet. At the far end of the hall chilly light was seeping out from under the door to her mother’s room. To her right, a warmer glow came from her sister’s door, along with the muted buzzing of music. Lillian shifted from side to side a few times, then took a deep breath and went right. The dark rippled out behind her like a train.

She opened the door slowly, without knocking.

Andrea looked up from her textbook and pulled off her headphones. “What’s up, bug? Can’t sleep?”

Lillian nodded.

“Well, I can’t calculate this p-value. Want to trade?”

Lillian hung onto the doorknob and pitched back and forth, into the golden light of her sister’s room, then back into the yawning dark.

“Don’t pull on that, it’ll come loose. Do you want a story? Is Mom asleep?”

Lillian leaned back into the shadow. She shrugged.

“Well, I could use a break.” Andrea pushed her book aside and steered Lillian back to her own room.

The butterfly nightlight on the wall glowed gently; the pink butterfly sheets lay tangled at the foot of the bed; the real butterflies in the glass case that hung over the desk rested quietly beneath their pins. Lillian climbed into bed and pulled the sheets up to her chin.

Andrea stood next to the bookshelf for a while, then came and sat down on the bed. Lillian reached up for the frayed cuff of her sister’s sweatshirt and tugged at the loose threads.

“Mom’s just really tired,” Andrea said. “It’ll be like that until the baby comes. And after. But you don’t need to worry.”

Lillian drew her hand back and slipped it under the covers. “I’m not worried.”

“Good,” said Andrea, reaching over to switch on the bedside lamp. Backlit butterflies danced across the purple shade. “Makes one of us.”


The next day at recess Lillian sat in her usual place beneath the sycamore next to the soccer field. She leaned back against the trunk of the tree, watched the way the branches cut the sky into cold blue slivers.


Lillian sat up.

It was Beth. She was a year older than Lillian, and lived on the same street, and they had once been friends but no longer were.

“You guys are doing the caterpillar thing.”

Lillian nodded.

That morning Mrs. Taylor had held up a sheet of paper with a fuzzy photograph of a butterfly on it and announced, “Tiger swallowtail.” Then she taped the picture to the wall, so the caterpillar would know what to aim for. The whole class had helped make the cardboard box habitat, and then gathered grass and leaves and twigs to scatter inside the box. All morning Lillian had watched the caterpillar inch greenly up a stick, nodding its wide, blunt head.

“They do it every year. The second graders. You heard what happened to ours, right?”

Lillian shook her head.

“It turned into a wasp. We waited and waited and then one morning we came in and the cocoon was split open, and there was a huge brown wasp buzzing around in there, banging into the sides of the box. I wanted to swat it dead, but Mrs. Taylor made us let it go.”

Lillian’s eyes narrowed.

“You don’t believe me. It did, though. I mean, it didn’t turn into a wasp, exactly. What happened was a wasp laid an egg inside the caterpillar, before we found it. Then when the caterpillar made the cocoon, the egg hatched inside, and the wasp ate the butterfly. And came out instead.”

Lillian’s face was very still. Overhead the tree shook its branches, and the sky shook with it.

“I shouldn’t have told you,” Beth said, smiling. “I’m sure yours is fine. You shouldn’t worry.”

“I’m not worried,” Lillian whispered fiercely, long after Beth had turned on her heel and gone.


Sometime in the middle of the night Lillian woke up, like she always did. She shoved the sweat-damp butterfly sheets down to the bottom of the bed and sat up. Through the gap in the blinds she could see the streetlamp, silver head haloed with dark static, dozens of moths blotting out the weak light.

In the hallway, the carpet seemed to move under Lillian’s feet and carry her away from her own room. Andrea’s door stood half-open, the room dark. She was coming back from school for the weekend, but that was four days off. Lillian counted, tapping her thumb against each finger: one, two, three, four. Then she let the carpet sweep her toward the door at the end of the hall. She turned the knob silently and slipped in.

In the gray light Lillian could just see the mound under the dark bedspread, and the smaller mound protruding from it. She inched around to the far side of the bed and sat down. It was much taller than her bed; her feet didn’t reach the floor. From this side all she could see was her mother’s back, the gentle movement of her breath. Lillian pulled up her feet and lay down close enough to feel the heat coming off her mother’s body. She tugged the hanging edge of the blanket up over herself as far as it would go, and lay there with her eyes closed until her breath began to match her mother’s.

She was just teetering on the edge of sleep when her mother grunted, shoved the covers down, and rolled onto her back. Lillian jumped off the bed and stood with her hands held out from her sides, trembling. Her mother made a sort of whining noise. The mound, covered only by a thin nightshirt, shuddered. Something rippled through it, like a wave, and then the movement paused. For a moment everything was still. Then a single point on her mother’s belly began to pulse, steadily, something hammering hard on the wrong side of her skin.

Lillian backed away, feeling behind her until the cold hard doorknob found her hand.


For two days the caterpillar ate and ate. It left little hole-punches in the fresh leaves they dropped into the box, and after eating it deposited trails of tiny green spheres on the bottom of the box, and then it finally fastened itself to a stick with a few strands of silk. The next morning it was gone. Not gone—changed. The dark remnant of its old skin sat in a wrinkled wad on top of the chrysalis, which hung pale and still and armored from the stick.

Mrs. Taylor said they could touch it if they were very, very gentle.

Lillian shook her head.

“I know you love butterflies, Lillian.”

Lillian shook her head again, hard.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll be excited to see it when it comes out. I know I am. It’s such a pleasure, every single year.” Mrs. Taylor’s smile was brittle as a twig.

Lillian said nothing.

Before going out to recess, she doubled back to the empty classroom for her sweater. Then she sat for a long time under the sycamore, looking up at the sky.


When Lillian got off the bus she could see Andrea’s car in the driveway, though she wasn’t supposed to be home until Saturday. Lillian began to walk faster, and then, when she saw the dark mouth of the front door yawning open, to run.

“There you are!” Andrea cried. “Go get in the car, quick—the baby’s coming, it’s early—”

Lillian didn’t move. The sun was coming from behind her, October sun, low but blazing, and she couldn’t see past her sister into the house. But she could hear: a pinched wail, a pause for breath, a hoarse, full-throated moan. A thump like an open hand hitting a wall.

Andrea disappeared into the dark and a moment later emerged with something like Lillian’s mother. The two of them came lurching through the doorway like a single misshapen animal, both faces strained, both foreheads bright with sweat, her mother’s lips thinned to nothing around the fixed howl of her mouth.

Andrea caught Lillian’s wrist. “Come on—in the car!”

Lillian shook her head and wrenched her arm free. She dashed into the house and waited, panting, just on the other side of the threshold. Now Andrea was backlit, a dark shouting silhouette. “Are you kidding? Fine. Fine! You’re big enough to stay home. Get a snack, lock the door, I’ll call as soon as I can. Don’t worry!”

Lillian just stood there. She heard the slamming of car doors, the sputtering cough of the car starting, the whine of their departure.

“I’m not worried.”

She closed and locked the door.

She went upstairs to the bathroom and washed her hands and face, drying them thoroughly on her pink towel, never once looking up at the mirror. Then she went back downstairs and opened and closed the kitchen cabinets for a while. Eventually she took the block of cheddar out of the refrigerator and sliced off five neat pieces, her small hand white-knuckled on the knife. She got out some crackers and ate in slow, tiny bites.

The sun sank through the pink and gold clouds and was gone. Dark dropped like a curtain.

Lillian went upstairs. She stood before her desk and lifted the glass case of butterflies down from its hook on the wall. It was almost higher than she could reach, and almost heavier than she could hold. She slid the glass front out of its grooves and set it aside. One hand reached into the desk drawer as the other slipped into the pocket of her pleated skirt, came out a clenched fist.

The phone rang, but Lillian didn’t move. The ringing seemed very far away. Downstairs in the kitchen the answering machine clicked on, and Andrea’s voice drifted just out of hearing. Lillian picked up the pin and drove it through with one push, meeting hardly any resistance at all. In the half-light the chrysalis glowed milky green against the cork, still and whole and perfect.