There are four stages to a butterfly's growth: egg, larva, pupa, adult. When presented scientifically so, they seem extraordinarily linear. Start here, end here. Mix this variable with that and the result is this.
According to such a formula, a small egg appears from nothingness. When the shell cracks, a furry, many-legged worm appears, poking its head around and wiggling uncertainly. If there are leaves, it will eat them, leaving messy holes where it has feasted. Eventually it will shed its outer layers and harden within a chrysalis—not a cocoon, as is often incorrectly assumed. Cloaked in a casing of its own design, the little larva resides there for several weeks, swelling with life and waiting for the moment when it can pierce through its shell to taste the sunlight. Wings folded and sticking to its back, the newly formed butterfly will burst from the brown wrap and display to the world its change: a painting of its own kind, made by its own body, right on its freshly minted wings.
The change is steady, slow, slogging even, yet when the butterfly emerges it is a spectacle like no other. Colorful, vibrant, magnificent, it flutters and dances and glides with no inhibitions. What creature in nature could suspect such a bedazzlement was secretly developing within that comb of dead-looking matter? Who among the bipedal, four-pawed, six-legged, or eight-tentacled could predict such an astounding phenomenon?
Time creates the deception. Stillness turns into stagnation. But underneath the surface, change is crackling, boiling, whistling, steaming, grinding, clattering away. Only when the wings of the creature spread and shower the earth with color will the illusion fade. Some butterflies will emerge after two weeks; others will go dormant for seasons. Initiative, birth, escape: ultimately, it is the creature which creates its change.
Higher and higher the smoke rose, billowing out in big puffs and seeping into the already gray sky. The swelling rise of ash and soot appeared like a bulging caterpillar, its burgeoning body emerging forth from the old apartment building and reaching up toward the strata of white clouds. This caterpillar was not turning into a butterfly, though. If its chrysalis were the house, the smoky insect was undergoing a bizarre, reverse transformation. Rather than gaining wings or antennae, as the orange flames continued licking away at the building's foundation, it only moved further and further outward into the atmosphere, eventually disappearing into invisible particles.
Below was a furious field of flame. Thick blades of fire, writhing and curling, wrapped around the smoldering planks of the building's framework. They ensnared the woodwork like vines and strangled them to pieces. Everyone standing around, from neighbors to fire fighters, could see the chunks of burnt wood flaking off and turning into black dust as they fell toward the ground. With a loud snap, another plank collapsed completely and splashed embers into the street.
"Stand back!" shouted one of the fire fighters, darting out and thrusting his arm protectively in front of the gathering. As they stepped back, he rushed forward with his hose and aimed at the burning cinders.
It wasn't very late in the afternoon, but a whole crowd of people had flocked to the sides of the street to watch the fire burn. Storekeepers pretended to be sweeping the pavement in front of their display windows. Neighbors, if they weren't already outdoors pressing their faces to the fences, were rolling up their blinds and peering through the shades. Passerby—dog walkers, post women, school kids—were balking at the scene of the fire and simply standing, staring, wavering with the heat.
For the most part, they were silent. A good apartment burning is an occasion which does not require much speech for people to understand the meaning behind it. Lookers look on without need for explanation. Time, however, is the one thing that can interrupt the silence. Even if gossipy neighbors keep their eyes on the flame, the heat requires speculation. What caused the fire? Who lived here? How would their lives be affected and how could this be faux-sympathized in polite conversation? It was no different for this fire.
"Knew this place was gonna burn down eventually," said a woman in a stained cotton tank top and polka-dotted shorts. "Oldest building in the neighborhood. You coulda dropped a match and the shack would've lit right up."
"Wasn't quite that bad," said an older gentleman through a cigarette. "My family's been livin in this neighborhood for generations. An old house is a credit to its carpenter. Not its fault electricity got invented."
"Nothing was wrong with the house circuitry," said another man, wearing a business suit and carrying a brief case. "An electrician can wire things properly, even in an old house. But a lot of older buildings do use gas heating… if the pilot's not lit properly, it can cause a lot of problems."
"What time did it start? I just got out of work."
"Not too long ago. Maybe an hour or two. The fire fighters got here a little slow, but that was okay."
"Everybody got out safely?"
"I don't know."
"Fires are terrible."
"Indeed. My aunt's factory had a fire not too long ago."
"Our kids almost set a fire at camp last summer when they forgot to dump water on the pit."
"It's more often an accident than not."
"Fire's just a bad thing, y'know."
"Hmph. It's a good thing this place finally burning," a woman in a frilly outfit suddenly said. She had her arms wrapped protectively around two children at her sides, and her voice was rather condescending. "It was a danger to the rest of us. I would have actually preferred it had been demolished, but this is just as well. At least no one was hurt."
"I suppose so."
"Yes, yes, that's true."
"What did you say?!"
The group of people glanced over at a new woman who had just appeared and had shouted very loudly. Her face was contorted with fury. She had wispy blonde hair streaked with gray, a blotchy red face, eyes watery from recent tears, and a deadly aura flickering brighter than even the flames consuming the old house.
Like a peacock ruffling its feathers, the woman shrugged, crinkled her nose, and pulled her lacy collar up her neck further. She even kicked at the pavement like the common zoo fowl, clearly indicating she was uninterested in interacting with this new woman on the scene. Only grudgingly did she respond.
"I said I am glad no one was hurt. Fires can be very dangerous, you see, and people can get injured in them if they're not put out properly. In this case though, the firemen arrived just on time and--I'll say it again-- thank goodness nobody was hurt."
"So no one was hurt, huh?"
The woman breathed so heavily through her nostrils they flared. Her brows furrowed warningly.
"Yes," the woman in the frilly outfit replied, the pitch of her voice rising as her distaste for the conversation rose as well. "So long as no one was hurt. I wouldn't be happy if the place had burned down and people had died… but as it was, like I said, it was a danger to other people in the neighborhood. I know for a fact they've been planning to renovate this area for a decade now, because my husband is part of the city commission. The problem is these tenants are very uncooperative. Even though other residents expressed concerns about the safety of the building, they refused to leave."
"Shut up!" the wispy-haired woman suddenly snarled, crinkling her nose at the woman in disgust. "You don't know shit, you fucking rich bitch! You don't know fucking shit. This was my house. My only house. And I know all about the goddamn city commission, and I didn't give a fuck cuz I didn't want to be homeless. But what about now? Where I gonna live now, huh? You gonna take me in your nice white picket fence home down the street? You gonna feed me your casserole dinners and espresso coffees? You gonna dress my kids in fancy school uniforms and put pearls on my neck? I don't think so. You ain't gonna do none of that shit. So where am I supposed to live, huh? Where am I supposed to live?"
An uncomfortable silence washed over the gathering. None of the neighbors responded. The woman in the frilly outfit merely looked affronted before quietly ushering her children away. Everyone else kept their eyes averted by looking at the fire.
Lauren couldn't muster the energy to yell at anyone else. When the gas pipe to the stove had burst and the a release of flame had spewed out, she had used just about all her energy to gather her and her children's most important belongings: Joey's prized transformable toy robot, Sara's diary with the padded cover and nickel lock, their family photo albums, and—more importantly—her wedding ring, her purse, and her mother's antique porcelain vase. While the first three items had sentimental value, Lauren had grabbed the last possessions to ensure she would be able to pawn something off for cash. She'd need it now that the house was gone.
Tears leaked from her eyes as she stared at the remaining smoke pouring out of the apartment windows. While her eyes were partially stinging from all the dust and heat in the air, they were also obediently expressing Lauren's inner emotions.
Everything she had just said to the frilly-dressed woman was true. When the city commission complained about the outdated buildings, she and the other tenants had refused to submit to demolition because they knew the commissioners in fact cared more about property values than people. While they would have gotten a decent compromise if they had sold, all of them agreed not to on principle. Letting those rich bastards have one more fancy condominium would have been like offering to shine the boot of a king after he'd kicked them in the collective arse. They were willing to live in the crummy, run-down building for the rest of their lives, despite the arbitrarily hot and cold showers, winter draft through duct-taped windows, and regurgitating kitchen sinks – so long as it meant leaving a single weedy patch of property in the otherwise primordial suburban neighborhood.
Yet here Lauren was, wishing she'd shined the king's boot and dry-cleaned his robe. As if working sixty hours a week at the dingy Laundromat down the block weren't enough… she'd probably be adding more now to make up for this major loss. Pressing the frilly frocks of suburban housewives. Oh joy.
As she was ruminating over her sarcastic thoughts, an elderly blue Impala rolled down the curb. Lauren realized who it was immediately.
"Anna," she muttered.