Monday, August 4, 2008

The Summer of the Butterfly and Lightning Bugs by Stef Kramer

Jenna sat on her front steps eating buttered toast and sipping coffee. A monarch butterfly was furiously flying around her. Its’ rapid movement caused her to flinch a few times.

“Aren’t you supposed to be a peaceful creature?”

Every morning in the summer Jenna went outside to pray before she went to work. Sometimes she forgot to pray. And sometimes she didn’t finish her breakfast there either.

The deep orange wings of the Monarch reminded her of something oriental. Although her only experience with the orient was an occasional meal at the local Chinese restaurant. She loved fried rice with the steamed vegetables.

Throwing her crust and the rest of her coffee on the ground, she took notice of her grass. “Tonight I must mow.” The one flower pot in front of her house needed to be tossed. The bright pink wave petunias that were sold at the grocery store had appealed to her so much that for a week she considered gardening as a hobby. But she kept forgetting to water the flowers and set them in a location that rarely saw the sun.

After setting her coffee mug back inside and quickly brushing her teeth, Jenna went to work. On her way she plotted out her day. Baths, haircuts, exercises. Lunch was hamburger gravy today. This afternoon she would help with a new admission. Jenna understood the daily routine of the nursing home so well that she could even predict when a resident was going to die.

She had been an aide for the past six years. Her wage was on the high end of the scale because she was skilled in her position, and she worked a lot -- signing up for additional shifts and covering for anyone who called in sick. She devoted herself completely to the job after her husband left her. After all, she needed something to occupy her time. Something different from drinking or doing drugs. Although it had only been six years, those days were now a distant memory. And so were a few friends who walked away during her transition from party girl to working girl. At least her family talked to her again.

“Good morning, Sandy!” Jenna greeted her manager brightly.

Sandy looked up soberly. “Hi Jenna. Come in and sit down a minute.” Sandy motioned Jenna into her office. Jenna felt a sense of panic. Had she done something wrong? What had she forgotten?

“Fred died. Sometime in the night.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in. “Fred? No! Not Fred. He was fine yesterday when I left. We had a long talk. He felt good!” Jenna put her head in her hands. Many residents had died during her time at the nursing home. Some saddened her. Some relieved her. But none had truly grieved her. Until now. She looked up at her boss.

“But I always know, Sandy. I always know when they’re going to go. I should’ve known if Fred was ready.”

Fred appeared to be a bitter man with a consistent scowl on his face. Jenna had become good friends with him because of her ability to combat his sharp tongue. She knew behind the critical façade was a gentle soul who never quite got over the death of his wife. They never had children and Fred never remarried.

“It was just his time, Sweetie. We can’t always tell.” Sandy rubbed the young lady’s back. “Hey. At least he died peacefully.”

Jenna wiped her eyes, stood up and said, “I gotta get to work.”

Sandy wanted to tell her to take the day off, but she needed her help too badly. Besides, how could she start letting her staff off for residents dying?

Jenna performed her duties the rest of the day solemnly and avoided Fred’s common hangout areas when possible. A few of the other aides and nurses offered words of consolation to Jenna, but she shrugged them off and responded, “We all gotta go sometime.”

Jenna went home that night and mowed, trimmed and watered her dead petunia. Maybe she could bring it back to life if she moved it into the sun. Instead of eating supper, she took a shower, curled into bed and thumbed through the local college’s course offerings for the fall semester. Fred had told her she should become a nurse.

“No money.”

“So! I’ll loan you some.”

“I’d never pay you back. Never loan money to your friends.”

“Who says you’re a friend?”

She liked the idea of being a nurse. An RN. It made her feel proud to wear scrubs and she wondered how many people assumed she was a nurse. Her mother and sister always called her for health advice. She spent a lot of time on the web researching medical conditions. Especially the long-term effect of drug abuse.

She turned off her reading lamp and watched outside the window. The summer evenings had been filled with lightning bugs, unlike any summer she could ever remember. She watched the glow of the insects flicker until she fell asleep.

She got ready for work in the same manner she did every other day. But as she ate her breakfast on the front steps, she noticed the butterfly was gone. And her petunia didn’t look any better.

When she arrived at work, Fred’s nephew was in the office paying a bill. She smiled politely at him as he passed her by. He didn’t really recognize her, or any of the aides in the building.

Jenna walked into Sandy’s office.

“Sandy?”

“Hey, Kiddo. Doing any better today?”

“I’m enrolling into the nursing program. Today. Is that okay with you?”

Sandy smiled, nervously. “Jenna. You’d make a wonderful nurse. Of course I’d support you.” She paused a moment. “Have you thought about how you’re going to finance it?”

“Yeah. I’ve got some resources.” Jenna had failed in many areas of her life, but she was good at saving money.

Sandy sighed. “I know you and Fred were close. But his nephew just informed us that Fred left everything to charity.”

“Good for Fred. He was a good man.” Then Jenna’s forehead creased. “Why did you tell me that anyway? Do you think I expected some of Fred’s money?” Jenna felt her blood start to boil.

“Hey -- don’t get cross with me. He talked many times about leaving you some. I just didn’t want you to be disappointed.”

Jenna started to cry. “The only thing that disappoints me is that I lost my friend yesterday. And I don’t have so many, you know.”

Sandy stood up and hugged her. “I’m your friend.”

Jenna backed away and wiped her nose. “Thanks.”

“Now, why don’t you take off and get yourself signed up for next semester. Before you change your mind.”

Jenna walked slowly out of the facility and took a deep breath. As she looked over the well-landscaped courtyard, she noticed a monarch butterfly feverishly flying toward her. She raised her arm, and the butterfly landed harshly on her hand. It fluttered twice then flew away. She waved and called out. “Hey! I’m on my way.”

And then Jenna went on to make her way.

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