Rhea could feel it as her hand hovered over the doorknob. She sighed softly, So today was gonna be one of those days. Maybe if she backed away quickly enough, no one would notice. Maybe if she looked confused, no one would think anything about her running away from the house as if she were being chased by the devil. Maybe-
“So Rhea, can you ask your mom if she can make a batch of those awesome cookies? The party wouldn’t be the same without ‘em!”
Ah, that’s right, her friends. Today was one of the few days she had let them walk with her. Figures. “I’ll see what I can do,” Rhea answered, smiling at the twins. “Mom’s been busy for a while now, so I don’t know if she’ll have time. But I’m sure that she’ll find a way.”
“Of course she will! Your mom is, like, a real-live angel,” Jack said. He smiled back at Rhea, displaying a mouthful of blue-green braces.
Lily, his younger sister, nodded enthusiastically. “You’re so lucky, you know,” she sighed wistfully. “Your parents are so nice. They’re always so cheery and fun, and they don’t do embarrassing things like talk about your baby stories. Plus you guys have a lot of money. Can we please switch places? Pretty please?”
Rhea tightened her vise-like grip around the doorknob. “Oh, trust me, you don’t want to do that. Besides, your parents seem pretty cool. My family really isn’t any better.”
“If you say so,” Lily replied, shaking her head in disbelief. “See you tomorrow?”
“Sure!” Rhea watched until the siblings disappeared around the corner, her fingers clenched so hard they turned white. She opened the door and slipped inside, careful not to make any loud noises. She set her backpack on the wall by the door before venturing further into the house.
Making her way towards the kitchen, Rhea stopped when she saw her brother in the piano room. Reese was seven years old, barely in second grade, and yet he already insisted on being a manly man. And in Reese’s very informed opinion, manly men did not play the piano. So if he was practicing his music like the good little boy he most certainly was not, then something must be horribly wrong.
Rhea finally entered the kitchen, and her heart dropped through her feet at the sight that greeted her. At the counter, her father calmly chopped carrots into little orange medallions. He looked at peace, basking in the rays of sunlight as he wiped the sweat from his brow. But if her father was the one cooking, that could only mean one thing.
“Well look who’s back,” the man grinned, reaching over to ruffle Rhea’s hair. “We’re having beef stew tonight, so be sure not to eat too much before dinner.”
Rhea nodded, staring at her father’s other hand. He still hadn’t let go of the knife, and its wicked edge seemed to cry for blood. Silly, you know he won’t let it slip, she thought. She wasn’t sure if she was trying to reassure or convince herself.
Meanwhile, her father continued in his pleasant manner, oblivious of his daughter’s conflicted thoughts. “Maybe I should throw in some cauliflower,” he mused, returning to his carrots. “Since your mother won’t be eating with us anyway. She’s feeling a little sick, so she’ll be resting in her room tonight.”
Yeah, right. Who did he think he was kidding? Rhea had been alive long enough to know how her household worked. She knew without looking that her father’s knuckles were covered in bruises from punching the wall next to her mother’s head. She knew without looking that her mother was in the bathroom, crying bitterly and cursing the day she ignored her parents’ warnings to wait before marrying. But who could blame her? She had come from a traditional world, one where her level of education was more of a surprise than a right. The woman could have become something great, but her first priority had been the happiness of her family. And if that meant giving up her dreams and marrying a man she had never met, then so be it. How would she have known that her husband was only in love with control and power, the kind he felt as she screamed and cried? Rhea knew that if her mother, her strong-willed mother, couldn’t challenge their father, then neither could she. But as she heard her brother half-heartedly plunk on a single note, something inside her snapped.
“I want to go to the park.” Rhea’s father looked up in surprise at his daughter’s bold statement. “I finished all my homework, and Reese isn’t getting any real practice done.” Gritting her teeth, she added, “Please.”
Her father chuckled and slowly set down the knife. “That so? You know you can only go to the park on the weekends, Rhea.”
Rhea looked him straight in the eyes. “That’s not fair. It’s only five minutes away, and all my friends go whenever they have nothing to do. Why can’t we do the same? I’ll do anything, just please, let us go there whenever we want.”
“Anything?” Her father’s grin stretched. “Hmm, okay. Then I want you to catch me a butterfly. Not a moth, but an actual butterfly. If you can bring one home before the streetlights turn on, then I’ll let you go out whenever you like.”
Rhea couldn’t believe her ears. “For real?”
“For real. What, you don’t trust your old man?”
“Oh, thank you, thank you!”
Before her father could change his mind, she raced down the hall, grabbed Reese, and bolted towards the park. Her brother looked dazed at the sudden development, but didn’t pull away. Ignoring the curious onlookers, the two ran silently, an unspoken agreement resounding in each step they took.
When they finally reached the park, Rhea made a beeline for the flowerbeds as Reese flopped onto the grass. His face, normally so full of youthful energy, looked tired as he lay on his back. In that moment, Rhea hated their life more than she ever had before. She hated that her father didn’t care enough to keep his children out of his twisted pleasures.
She began to kneel down but stopped. “Reese, are you okay?”
Her brother shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
“You don’t look okay.”
Reese didn’t respond immediately, choosing to stare at the clouds instead. A stream of quiet tears flowed down his cheek. “They were supposed to be for my birthday.”
“The video games. They were supposed to be a surprise for my birthday next month, since all I’ve been talking about is the new Mario Kart. But Dad found out, and he’s mad. Something about wasting money behind his back when everyone else will get me gifts at my party anyways.” Reese sniffled. “If I hadn’t said anything, then Mommy…”
So that was why. Rhea fumed inwardly, getting down on her knees and searching through the flowers. What kind of messed-up control freak would beat his wife in front of their child for spending money on a present? She looked back at Reese. He looked so sad, so weak, so small.
“What’cha doin’?” Reese asked, finally lifting his head.
“Looking for butterflies.” As if on cue, a majestic monarch butterfly fluttered up from one of the daffodils. Rhea pounced on it, holding it between her cupped hands in triumph.
“Oh,” her brother said. Then, almost like an afterthought, he questioned, “What for?”
“Dad said that if I can catch a butterfly, we can come over to the park whenever we want.” Rhea opened her hands a crack to take a peek at the butterfly, only for it to slip between her fingers. “Shoot!”
“We’d be able to come whenever?”
“Sure,” Rhea responded, idly wondering if she looked crazy as she dove down..
“Even after school?”
“Even when it’s raining?”
“Don’t know why you’d want to, but yep.”
“Even when Mom and Dad are fighting?”
Rhea stopped, allowing the butterfly to rest on the edge of a tulip. “Yes, even then,” she assured her little brother.
Reese frowned. “But we’d still have to go back.”
“Of course,” Rhea replied. “We’ll always have to go back.”
“Then what’s the point?” Reese whined. “It’s not like anything will be different when we go home. They’ll still fight.”
“I know, Reese,” she said, bending down to scoop up the butterfly. “I know.”
Just as Rhea’s fingers brushed the butterfly’s wings, a gentle breeze pushed them open. Rhea watched the little insect glide upwards and out of reach, ready to live the rest of its days freely and without care. But she and her brother were stuck, chained to a weight far heavier than they should need to bear.
She let out a small sigh, gazing in the direction of her house as the street lights flickered to life. “Believe me, Reese, I know.”
Rhea glowered at the pepper shaker as her father walked in, carrying steaming bowls of stew. Oh, she realized, beef stew. Reese’s favorite dinner. Was this how their father would attempt to win forgiveness this time? She scowled at the thought.
“Come on, Sunshine,” Rhea father chuckled as his eyes rested on her. “What did pepper ever do to you?” He slid the porcelain dishes in front of his children, cocking an eyebrow when Reese dug in without a word. Rhea continued her staring contest with the condiment container.
“So grumpy,” her father commented. “I take it you weren’t able to catch anything?”
Rhea slumped against her chair.
“Thought so. It’s harder than it seems, right? Guess it turns out that butterflies don’t survive by just being pretty.”
She attempted to melt into the ground.
“Oh, don’t be like that. You’ve made it this long without going to the park after school, haven’t you?”
A sudden flutter caught their attention. In the corner, on top of the dying iris her mother had bought, a small butterfly rested its frail wings. Rhea watched, fascinated, as it shivered and climbed on top of the plant’s only unblemished petal. It tumbled off the plant and flew into the air, soaring towards them. Her father lifted his hand, watching as the butterfly danced around his fingers. His grin was predatory, almost maniacal. And then Rhea knew.
“It wouldn’t have mattered even if I caught it.”
“Oh?” He pinched his fingers together, catching the butterfly’s wings.
“Because you wouldn’t let us go anyway.” Because that was how he established his power. He showed them a sprout of hope and then crushed it before it could bloom.
Her father smiled, lifting the struggling insect to his face. He placed a gentle kiss on it.