An essay by Jeremy Kelsey, as provided by Megan Dorei
Art by Shannon Legler
Subject 42 is staring at me with greenhouse eyes, symmetrically accurate rainbow worlds suspended in crystal. They were brown when I met him, but the transmutation process liquefies ocular flesh, so I had to contain them in glass. The effect is mesmerizing, but it took quite a bit of work to fashion his new eyes, almost more than it took to create the being himself.
They match the lush tropics surrounding us, protected from the sheeting rain by a dome of tempered glass. By my calculations, it will turn to snow in a matter of hours.
We watch each other for a long time. His magnificent eyes are wide and lost, and he trembles. I can’t decide if he is cold or frightened. I feel a sharp urge to reach out and take him in my arms, to hold him till the shaking subsides, but I don’t. He is the only surviving member of his set, and I have no idea yet how he will react to human stimuli.
After a while, he holds his hands in front of his face. His fingers are skeletal, his skin so pale it’s almost translucent. The veins show through like rivers. His blood is gray.
Finally he looks at me.
“What … am I?”
I’m surprised by the question. I wasn’t expecting him to be quite so cognizant so soon after emerging from chrysalis.
“You are Subject 42 of the Lepidoptera series,” I say. “I created you.”
He frowns and edges away from me. “I don’t understand,” he says. His gaze darts back and forth, taking in the vivarium, the flowers and flitting creatures. “Everything is so bright.”
Slowly, I step forward. His gaze flickers back to me, his muscles tensing. “It’s okay,” I say. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
He tries to glare at me, but his attention does not hold for very long. The butterflies have appeared, surrounding him in a storm of color and the papery murmur of wings. After a brief examination, one of them lands on his arm.
He stares at it curiously. He reaches out to stroke it with one gentle finger.
His eyes widen, glistening.
“I can taste her.”
I smile, pleasantly surprised. “Butterflies hold their taste receptacles in their feet,” I say. “The data was against you inheriting this particular trait, but you seem to be defying all my predictions.”
“Is that good or bad?”
As though the first butterfly was a cue, one after another begin landing on 42’s pale, freckled skin. He stands motionless, watching them with eyes that betray an intelligence I wasn’t wholly confident would remain after chrysalis.
He glances at me. “They’re like me,” he says. Quiet, like the noise will disturb them.
“Yes,” I say. “To an extent.”
I wonder what, if anything, he remembers from before. Obviously communication and basic cognitive function seem intact, but what else has he retained from his human life?
“Do you remember anything?” I ask.
“I was here … before.” He frowns. “I remember you. And Seattle. I remember you asked me to have coffee with you …”
He trails off. Confusion pinches his brow.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “Your memories are unimportant right now. What matters is your progress.”
“What am I?” he asks. “Am I still … human?”
“Yes. I’ve just made some slight alterations to your genetic makeup.”
For a moment he eyes the butterflies; more of them have gathered, pulsating in circles around him. He is so thoughtful, so analytical, that I cannot imagine he isn’t as close to perfection as I am going to get.
“You made me,” he says finally.
“No, I enhanced you.”
“And this … this was necessary?”
I hesitate only slightly before I respond. I don’t think he catches it.
He is quiet for another heartbeat, and then he nods once. “I’m hungry,” he says.
I laugh. “C’mon, then,” I say, holding out my hand. He stares at it for a moment before taking it. His hand feels cool and brittle in mine. “Let’s see if we can’t scrounge you up something to eat.”
It is the end of trial week one. 42 is coming along nicely, with only minor hiccups along the way. He drinks the nectar that I milk from the vivarium flowers and insists on feeding with the rest of his flock. His appetite is growing steadily, however, and some days it’s hard to keep up. He accepts the sugar water mixture I make for him, but prefers to take sustenance from his flowers.
He does not respond well to the cold, which I was expecting, and I keep the vivarium and connecting house at a cozy eighty-eight degrees. He wonders at the snow swirling outside, but until I learn exactly how strong he will be, I cannot allow him outside.
He doesn’t remember much from his former life, except the most basic aspects–how to hold a spoon, how to write, how to speak. Things I couldn’t know for certain would remain intact through the transformation process.
He is beautiful, though, more beautiful than I imagined he would be. I find myself staring at him for long hours the way I used to observe the butterflies. Of all my specimens, he is the one I had most hoped would survive.
42 comes to me tonight after a particularly bad nightmare. For three days he’s had them, relentless, violent chimeras that hound him until he wakes up screaming. This is week two.
I let him crawl into bed with me. He doesn’t say anything; his shivering tells me all I need to know. He touches my bare chest, pressing his fingers right where my heart is. He likes the steady pulse. It calms him.
I watch him for a long time–his pale face, eyes closed, skin lit green by the glow of my alarm clock. I remember the first day I saw him, scrounging through a dumpster for his next meal. I could see it on his face, the way he buried his weakness under steely suspicion. I knew it was wrong to want to care for him when my intentions were unsavory at best, but the track marks on his arms convinced me.
He would have a better life. I would fashion it for him.
I remember all this in a dizzying rush as his face softens, soothed by my heartbeat.
I can’t help myself. I take his hand and kiss it.
His eyes flutter open. He stares at me in shock, but he doesn’t pull away, so I draw him closer to me in the dark. He gasps as our bodies brush together.
“Shh,” I say. “It’s okay.”
He nods, but his body starts trembling again. I run my hands through his hair. Desire surges in my veins, hot, impossible to resist.
We make love for the first time, but the sensations overload his nerve endings, and when we’ve finished, he curls into a ball under the covers, shivering.
I am sick with guilt. I apologize more than a dozen times, and he forgives me each of those dozen times, but I cannot stop my hands from shaking.
In the morning, I add “sexual easement” to our daily regimen.
42 has been responding well to sexual foreplay, but he will not allow me to finish the act. I tell myself to be patient, but since he’s taken to sleeping in my bed, it gets harder and harder each night to resist.
I’ve begun to notice hard lumps growing on either side of his spine. When I ask him if they hurt, he tells me a little, but only when he lies on his back.
I try not to let this worry me. A minor fault in the nuclease process, nothing more. There is something more certain, more immediate, that we will have to deal with first.
Noah and Charlotte come to visit in the middle of the third week via my own invitation. We meet them in the vivarium because 42 is most comfortable there. Still, he trembles and hides behind me, clutching the back of my shirt like a child. The butterflies surround him as they always do.
The vivarium doors slide open, admitting a gust of snow flurries and Noah and Charlotte. Noah looks wary but excited nonetheless. Charlotte just looks pissed. I sigh inwardly.
“Jeremy,” Noah says. “You asked us to come.”
I smile. “Yes, and I’m glad you found your way through all this snow. The road here is clandestine on the best of days, but it seems the mountains are trying to bury my humble abode.”
Charlotte scowls. “Could we cut it with the introductory crap?” she says. “Why did you want us to come?”
“Well, it seems you are under the impression that I murdered your brother.”
“What?” Charlotte’s eyes are black with hatred. “Under the impression? You fucking have the audacity to imply that we’re wrong? We’ve spent a year making trial dates and fighting off mobs of cameraman who think we fucking did it. Don’t call us down here to insult us, you bastard. You know damn well what we think!”
With every word, she leans closer till she looks like a predator about to make the killing strike. 42 quivers against my back.
“Perhaps, Charlotte, if you had simply avoided contacting the police as I’d advised you both, this could have been avoided.”
She looks ready to spit fire, but Noah lays a hand on her shoulder and steps forward.
“Did you really think that was likely?” he says. His voice is low and dangerous. “We’re talking about my brother here. You tell me that everything’s alright, everything’s going to be fine, and then a few days later he disappears and you disappear and all we know is that we just made some backhanded deal with an eccentric billionaire who claimed he could improve my brother’s life? What were we supposed to think?”
“Noah, please, have a little more faith. You did agree to this, after all. And when I said I would improve your brother’s life, I kept my promise.”
“You sick fucking bastard!” Charlotte says. “I swear, I’ll kill you, and they can fucking put me on trial for that.”
“Please, Charlotte,” I say. “Let me prove to you, once and for all, that I have done nothing iniquitous to your brother-in-law.”
At that point Noah gasps, his eyes fixed just past my arm. 42 has finally peeked out from behind me. His nails dig deep through the sleeve of my dress shirt, every muscle in his body rigid with stress. He glances up at me and I smile. Silently he steps from his hiding place to face our guests.
Noah’s throat moves like he’s going to be sick, but he never makes a sound. Even Charlotte is quiet now. After a moment, 42 cringes away from their expressions and I lay my hand on his shoulder to remind him I’m here.
“GET YOUR FUCKING HANDS OFF OF HIM, YOU LITTLE DICK NOBODY!”
She fights tooth and nail to get past Noah, who is only barely restraining her. His eyes are fixed on 42’s face.
“What have you done to him?” he whispers.
“I have made several significant alterations to his genome through biotechnological means. Don’t worry. His life is better now.”
Gently I take 42’s arm and show them the pale skin, the trackless skin. Neither of them says anything, so I continue.
“Noah, you told me yourself that you wished you could change your brother’s personality, that you thought he was too far gone to turn his life around. I’ve just taken that one step farther. By altering his entire genetic makeup, I’ve enabled the opportunity for advanced second stage learning development. A second chance, Noah. Rebirth.”
Noah stares at me now, and I can’t read his expression. Charlotte fumes in his arms. After a moment, he lets her go and steps toward us.
42 stiffens. I ball my hands into fists, but I don’t say anything.
His memories of his family are buried deep, I know that. If they weren’t, I never would have invited Noah and Charlotte to see him. Even so, when Noah stretches his arm out to his brother, I feel my throat tighten.
They watch each other for a long time. It reminds me of that first morning, after chrysalis.
“Todd,” Noah says again. Just that one word, and I can hear the fracture deep inside him.
Against my will, I pity him.
After a long, tense silence, 42 looks at me. “I wish to leave now,” he says. There is something to his quiet tone that sends a jagged edge of apprehension through my stomach, but I just smile.
“Of course, love. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
42 nods, casting one last look at Noah before disappearing deeper into the flora. I know where he will go. The oasis in the center of the vivarium can hold his attention for hours.
Noah is still standing with his arm outstretched. There is a void behind his eyes that wasn’t there before. Charlotte pulls him back, her eyes fixed on me with the blackest expression of hate.
“It’s for the best, Noah,” I say.
He stares at me with dead eyes. I swear I can almost see him aging where he stands.
“I never should have trusted you,” he rasps.
“Don’t say that, please. I have given him a better life. Although perhaps we should limit your interaction with him, to keep from upsetting his progress.”
“You son of a bitch,” Charlotte says. “You can’t keep us away. And everyone’s going to know what you’ve done.”
“Really?” I smile, but there is no humor to it. “And how do you figure that?”
“We fucking know where you live, asshole. Do you really think we’re going to stay quiet about this?”
“I should hope so, seeing as you paid me for my services. Not to mention that your brother signed a liability waiver. I wonder what those cameramen will do with a detail like that.”
Noah pales, his throat bobbing again. Charlotte wraps her arms around him and leans close to say, “Come on, let’s go home. We’ll figure this out, I swear.”
They turn to leave.
“Be sure to send my regards to Monica,” I say lightly. “Soften the blow for her before she comes out here.”
They both whip around at the same time.
“You didn’t,” Charlotte says.
“Well, I had to, didn’t I? Wouldn’t want her to continue to think that you two had any part in his death.”
She starts toward me, but Noah grabs her arm. “Don’t,” he says. His voice is hollow. “There’s nothing we can do.”
Charlotte opens her mouth to protest, but something in Noah’s face stops her. Instead, she fixes me with her scorching gaze.
“You’ll burn for this.”
They say nothing else. Once they’re gone, I follow 42 to the oasis.
In the middle of the night, approximately thirty-two hours after Noah and Charlotte’s visit, 42 wakes up covered in sweat. I lay a hand on his back until he stops hyperventilating.
“I thought these were over,” I murmur, pulling him close so that his ear rests against my chest.
He sighs. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize, love.” I run my fingers through his hair. “Would you like to talk about it?”
He hesitates. “I had a dream … about that man. Noah.”
I grow absolutely still. 42 looks up at me.
I tell myself to relax. Everything is fine. His memories are buried six feet under the surface.
“Nothing,” I say. “Go back to sleep. I’ll be right here next to you.”
He does, but I can’t.
Week four, and the lumps on his back have formed into identical ridges, one on either side of his spine. He says they don’t hurt but they look quite painful.
He is able to eat solid food now, but he mostly prefers to stick to sweets. On occasion he enjoys raw steak, and occasionally sips from mud puddles for extra salts and minerals.
He hasn’t had any nightmares since that night after Noah’s visit. I let myself be comforted by this.
Tonight, for the first time, I let 42 outside to observe the snow. He refuses to put on warmer clothes because he loathes feeling restricted, so I limit his exposure to one minute exactly.
His face lights up as his bare feet crunch through the snow. “Jeremy!” he says. “It tastes like the sky!”
I laugh and he laughs, too–another first. The look on his face makes me feel lighter than I have since Noah’s visit.
It isn’t quite a minute before he starts shivering, and I take him inside, but though he is reluctant, his eyes shine with wonder for the rest of the night.
Later, as we’re crawling into bed, he kisses me. Lightly, briefly, like a butterfly’s timid landing. I blink in amazement.
His gaze is more intense than I’ve ever seen it. “I … would like … to make love,” he says.
“Are you sure?”
So we make love. I am gentle with him, treating him as I would the most breakable glass, and though he trembles, he responds to me with delicate passion.
There are no nightmares that night. For either of us.
The next day, I receive a letter from Monica, saying that she has arranged to visit on Friday.
42 looks up from his bowl of Fruit Loops and cocks his head at my expression. “What’s wrong?” he asks.
I relax my jaw and flash him a smile. “Nothing, love.”
That night, I burn the letter in my bathroom sink.
I know it was my idea, but as the minutes count down to Monica’s arrival, I can’t help doubting the motivation behind inviting her. I wanted to prove something with Noah and Charlotte. I wanted to prove that 42 was mine, that the holds that tied him to his old life had been severed.
But Monica is different.
“Is everything okay?”
42 watches me from the edge of the fountain oasis, his fingers trailing lazily through the water. For a moment, I debate warning him, to lessen the blow, but I decide against it. If he knows that I’m worried about her arrival, he might start wondering why.
So I tell him, “Everything is perfect.”
A little while later Monica arrives, striding inside without hesitation. Snowflakes drift in around her like a flock of tiny white birds. She ignores me completely.
42 stands still, a man sculpted from ice. A pit of unease opens up in my stomach.
Monica doesn’t say anything, but her eyes burn into his. She does not look surprised. Only sad. Noah and Charlotte must have warned her.
42 doesn’t move, even as she closes the distance between them and takes his hands, and though he flinches from the sudden contact, he does not break it. It’s no longer unease I’m feeling, it’s fear.
Monica pulls him down to the floor and there they sit, cross-legged on the sandstone path, silent and unblinking. I don’t know what to do or say, but suddenly I am quivering with anxious energy.
Occasionally Monica reaches up to touch his face, and with each touch he closes his eyes. There are tears in her eyes, but they never fall. I feel guilty watching, intrusive, but I can’t look away. There is an irrational fear in me, that if I look away they will disappear, gone to a place that only they know of, a place imagined by the two of them.
An eternity later, Monica crawls to her feet. 42 holds onto her hand until the last possible moment, and the expression on his face as her fingers drift from his is something I will never forget.
She doesn’t say anything as she walks away.
42 stays where he is for a long time.
Later that night, after I’ve finally prodded him to go to bed, he asks me the question I hoped he never would.
“Was she my wife?”
I want to lie to him. Everything in me screams to tell him no.
He says nothing for the rest of the night. And I know he doesn’t sleep, because I don’t, either.
What have I done?
Week five is almost over. No nightmares, but also no sleep. I will wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares of my own to find him sitting against the headboard, knees drawn up to his chest, staring into the dark.
He eats very little. He’s back on his all-liquid diet. He still lets me touch him, but he doesn’t respond to it, either.
Every day it feels like there’s a weight on my lungs, growing heavier with the distance between us. I don’t know what to do.
I am terrified.
End of week six. Still no improvement in 42’s demeanor. Feel restless, drowsy all the time. Nightmares plague me. Fear keeps me awake the rest of the time.
The ridges on 42’s spine have split open, revealing silky storm systems in bright, rainbow hues. His eyes are so, so pale. Like the wings have leeched the color right out of them.
On the rare occasions he decides to speak without prompting, he tells me he has dreams of flying through the snow and disappearing into the sky.
42 is dying.
He refuses to eat, to sleep, to talk. He stays in the vivarium, surrounded by butterflies, and there is nothing I can do for him.
The wings, which I had thought the data did not support, have decayed inside his own body, never sprouted. I touch them sometimes when he’s not looking, hoping, stupidly, for some sort of change. Despite their vibrant colors, they feel like the dust of abandoned houses, and no matter how many times I wash my hands, I can’t get rid of the residue.
I am sitting next to him on the edge of the oasis, close enough to touch but not daring to. He stares into the water, fingers ghosting over the surface, sending out ripples.
They are fragile. They never last.
The butterflies whirl around us in a tempest of color, a good portion of them landing on his gaunt limbs. Outside, the snow turns to sleet and then to rain.
When his body drops into the water, the splash startles the butterflies. They erupt in a furious beating of wings, taking off for a less disruptive part of the vivarium. I wait and watch until the last one is gone.
Jeremy Kelsey was the son of former Congressman Thomas Kelsey. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in biochemistry and conducted groundbreaking research in genetic enhancement. When his father died of a drug overdose, he inherited his estate, the location of which he kept private. His disappearance in January still remains a mystery.
Megan Dorei lives in Lawrence, KS, with her fiancee and has been published in several anthologies. In between writing and thinking about writing, she enjoys long walks, summer nights, and contemplating how supermarkets could best be fortified in the likely event we piss off the extraterrestrials.
Shannon’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://shannonlegler.
“My Fragile Butterfly” is © 2017 Megan Dorei
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Shannon Legler