At daycare, caterpillars cover the chain link fence surrounding the playground. I spend recess petting their soft bodies. Cover my hands like henna tattoos. Their little feet stick on my skin like miniature tentacles.
I love the caterpillars; I want to take them home and put them in jars on my windowsill so I can pet and feed them until they cocoon and become butterflies. One by one, I put them in the pockets of my overalls for safekeeping. Sometimes I reach in a pudgy hand and slide a finger across the back of a velvety squirm.
When Mom buckles me into my car seat in the back of her silver Mazda, I pull out my caterpillars to show them to her, but they are all dead or dying, slowly writhing in my sweaty palm.
“Why did you do that?” Mom asks, upset. But I protest the entire car ride home, holding them in cupped hands on my lap, telling her how much I love them, how soft and perfect they are, and how I will take care of them.
“Not everything is meant to be kept like that,” she says as we pull into the driveway. She unbuckles me from my seat and the herbal smell of her lotion lingers next to me as we walk up the concrete steps to our apartment. The last caterpillar is dying in the curl of my pinky.
“I don’t know what to do,” I say, sad I am not good enough to keep them alive.
Mom puts out her hand, and I silently dump the caterpillar carcasses into her palm. I follow her back outside to the edge of the woods, where she crouches and sprinkles them onto a tuft of leaves.
“We can’t just leave them here,” I whine, hoping Mom can cast some spell and bring them back to life.
“They deserve to be free and where they belong. You cannot keep things in your pockets and expect them to survive on your love alone.”
She walks me back inside and readies herself for her bartending shift. I watch from the couch as she brushes her hair and dabs her face with a hot washcloth. Sit and wait for my babysitter or dad to arrive. Whoever shows up first.
Paige Olivia Roberts has a degree in Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Henniker Review, Sidereal Magazine, and Rejection Letters. She has been nominated for a Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize. She lives in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Find her on Twitter @paige_por.