By Adam Allegro
Morrison waited alone in the drizzling rain as the other girls huddled under an oversized, orange and black umbrella a few yards away. They were discussing Friday night plans between making mean jokes about “that backwoods girl” who “dressed like a worm” and giggling wildly. Mrs. Woolskin had already caught the girls teasing Morrison twice that day and now they seemed to be going out of their way to try and make her feel even worse. But, like water off a duck’s back or wind over a crane’s wings, the shy girl tuned most of it out, rode the air currents, shook her tail feathers. Try as they might, today was Morrison’s 10th birthday and something much more important than a few insecure jerks was just over the horizon. All day her constricting bathing suit was a reminder of what wonders awaited.
Lightning flashed far in the distance and thunder followed some seconds afterwards. The rain was picking up but the drops were still slow, and they slid off her worn, white, black, and yellow striped rain jacket that was at least a size too big. The sugar-sweet-pea-sized drops fell diagonally in the wind and tickled the tip of Morrison’s droopy nose, which she had inherited from her mother. She couldn’t tell where the raindrops stopped and her runny nose began, so she rubbed it all away, only to have it all stubbornly repeat seconds later. A sleek minivan made its way in the distance and eventually pulled itself up next to the catty group of girls, who impatiently climbed over each other and into the spacious compartment.
“See you later freak” snarled one of the girls from inside as the minivan closed its doors. Through the mostly-tinted windows, Morrison watched the girls smiling and laughing as they were whizzed away and felt some jealousy weigh on her, mostly because they would all be going home to fathers and mothers tonight. She looked around the school parking lot and realized she was truly alone now; just her and the persistent raindrops. She desperately tried to keep her spirits propped but the pylons were beginning to wobble. The grey in the sky intensified with the hidden sun’s retreat and Morrison shivered intensely for a few seconds in the biting cold.
“Where. Is. He?” she inquired aloud, silently to herself, stretching out each word with the wind. They hovered around her chest before they were devoured by passing gusts and fell on no ears, including Morrison’s own.
He was never late. Worry crept in and she pictured her dad and his stupid green truck upside down in a gnarled grove of forgotten almond trees, twisted metal among lifeless branches. She shook the image away and squinted hard at a speck in the distance. It was moving fast, growing in size and shape and color as it zoomed down the straight, country road towards the school. To call it green would be polite and technically accurate, but up close one could see the deep orange rust overtaking the paint until, eventually, the whole truck would be a uniform shade of textured occurrence. Morrison used to hate the truck since it was so old and all the other families had new, self-driving, electric cars, meaning she was the only one whose parent had to actually drive her around. The hate slowly evolved into a sense of pride, even if all the other kids made fun of her. She exhaled in relief when the rumbling truck gently came to a rest in front of her, then opened the angry door and climbed up into the passenger seat.
“Hey there, Mo.” There was an apology in those words somewhere, Morrison told herself.
“Hey dad. How was work?” She was happy to see him even though he was late. She knew his work was taking its toll on him but there weren’t any other options. The previous world was gone and those jobs weren’t coming back. Her dad would sometimes say it was only a matter of time until even farmers would be out of work; no way to keep pace with those corporate farms. Some said that was the only way to feed all these people in the world but Morrison’s father disagreed.
“Not our best day, Mo.” He answered after some thought, then kicked the trunk into gear and drove away from the empty school. He always took his time searching for an appropriate answer, but it normally fell short of expectations. Following up with more questions just lead to more questions, and even though she yearned for the interaction with her father, Morrison couldn’t get lost in one of those funhouse mirrored rooms today.
She had to keep telling herself that they would get to the Zenporium before it closed. She could deal with the disappointment later if they were too late, but if she didn’t keep up hope now, she would lose it. Her father turned on unfamiliar oldies and they sat in silence. He wasn’t the same since he came back. He was deployed for a year but it aged him ten. Now he barely spoke and mostly kept his thoughts to himself, alienating himself from his daughter. Sometimes, at night, Morrison heard her father cry from across the farmhouse. The one time she asked him about it, he became distant and changed the subject immediately.
“Might be some traffic further up Mo, but we’ll get there.” He looked forward as he spoke, not breaking eye contact from the road. Morrison focused on what was coming, the same thing she had daydreamed about for the last six months.
Earlier that summer, some time after her mother’s death, Morrison’s older cousin Danny told her about his experiences fluttering with the butterflies in wondrous detail, all while springing up and down on a giant blue trampoline. It was hot that week and the two bounced for quite a time, Danny reliving his life changing experience with unbridled vigor. He said it was only “ten and up” in the Zenporium, so she would need to wait. Ever since that sunny afternoon it was all Morrison could think about, and she cried a little less. She told her father about it just about every day and he finally promised he would take her to the city on her tenth birthday. Now that day was finally here and Morrison could hardly believe it.
The truck veered right from the rural road onto the highway and was met with an armada of red brake lights. Morrison noticed her dad clenching and relaxing his jaw, repeating the action. For the next 10 minutes the truck inched forward until they passed a vintage Porsche, totaled and smoking and occupying the two right lanes. Further ahead was another vintage car that Morrison didn’t recognize, mangled and distorted from flipping uncontrollably down the highway, also smoking. An ambulance had arrived and parked itself between the two broken vehicles, its lone paramedic and her two service bots now busily working an unmoving man on the pavement. Morrison noticed her father give one, serious look in the direction of the crash and shake his head. She tugged on her seatbelt, felt it catch, and the sudden resistance gave her some sense of security.
The old truck shot forward and after another twenty minutes of driving they pulled into a quickly emptying mall parking lot. Morrison opened her door and hopped down onto slippery, cracked cement, nearly losing her footing. Her father came around the front of the truck and the two walked briskly through the intensifying downpour towards the mall entrance.
Through the glass doors it was dry and the floor was squeaky under Morrison’s black rain boots. Families and couples and singles were filtering out of the mall and made her feel like a salmon swimming upstream.
A phoenix of sorts, bred out of the automobile, consumption, and noble intentions, and then murdered overnight by Internet shopping and next-day delivery, malls reemerged once more with an eye towards the future, the youth. Most things went virtual, where space became just a means of getting bodies to some far off, simulated place. Department stores were turned into video game arenas or barter centers, while the smaller clothing boutiques and jewelry stores became any number of VR halls, routine medical practices, self-help gurus, five minute therapy clinics, antique shops, dating centers and food courts. Physically, the dining areas were nothing impressive. but paired with VR glasses, the drab, fluorescent-lighted mess halls could transform into the base of the Eiffel Tower or the top of Machu Piccu. It was all a matter of perspective, and selling that perspective was the future.
An older woman gave Morrison a warm smile before disappearing behind the metal gate of a chain makeup store. Morrison’s father was moving quickly through the ever re-imagined space and Morrison struggled to keep up. The shutting gates zoomed by both sides of the wide court as they hurried on, panic creeping in more and more with each darkened storefront.
Through a hodgepodge group of false foliage, Morrison saw it. It was the only lighted sign in the hallway, which ended a few shops past. It was bright orange, flashy and screaming – ZENPORIUM – and then it was dark. Just as quickly as Morrison caught sight of her craving, it was snatched away from her, as if someone had been patiently waiting for this exact moment to ruin her birthday. Her heart plummeted, for she knew that they were too late.
As Morrison and her father came around the corner of the plastic plants, the Zenporium materialized in all its fading glory as multicolored, neon lights began going out in succession inside the hall. A boy bolted from the Zenporium’s entrance, the last customer of the day, and Morrison just caught a glimpse of the wondrous arcade for a fleeting moment. Maybe twenty, twenty-five egg-shaped pods were scattered around the space on a sloped, grated floor leading upwards, each a different color. There were even a few old-fashioned arcade cabinets in a quiet corner. Just as Morrison spotted the antique games through the entrance, the final lights cut out and the Zenporium was dark. An older man appeared in front of Morrison and her father and began to close the front doors, a mess of keys jingling at his side. He seemed tired and resigned, and looked on the out-of-breath pair with coral blue eyes.
“I’m sorry guys, we’re just closing. You can come back tomorrow morning after ten if you like. It shouldn’t be crowded then.”
Morrison knew that wouldn’t be an option. This really was the only time her father could get off the farm to take her to the city. Even though she wanted to run and cry, Morrison stood tall and accepted the situation, having already built in a certain expectation that this might happen. She watched her father tense up.
“Sir, isn’t there any way you would be willing to stay open just a little longer?” he asked, gently, knowing it futile. The older man looked down at Morrison and then back up at her father.
“Sorry mister. I have a few hours of maintenance here and then need to head home for supper. You’ll just have to come back tomorrow…” The man clearly took no pleasure in turning the pair away but was firm. Morrison’s father looked down at his daughter.
“Hey Mo, go wait over there.” He pointed towards a pair of bathrooms and a water fountain with yellow ‘out of order’ tape wrapped rashly around it. Morrison figured she could use the bathroom, as it had been hours since she last went, and walked in the left entrance, dreading the extra work of getting her bathing suit clear for the deed.
When she came out a few minutes later, she faced her father’s backside in front of the darkened Zenporium sign, still speaking with the older man. Morrison felt uneasy, as her dad was prone to argue and insert himself in certain circumstances of conflict, usually when he felt someone had been slighted or taken advantage of. She desperately hoped he wouldn’t start something now, make her utterly disappointing birthday even worse. She began daydreaming about fluttering and migrating and then her father was in front of her.
“I don’t know what to say, Mo… I… I’m… I think maybe we should get some food in you before our drive back to the farm.” His eyes were sad and heavy with guilt.
Morrison had grown up quickly in the time her father had been back. She watched him carefully, and even though she didn’t entirely understand his experiences, she understood that her father had was broken, and the only thing she could do to help him was to be patient and to love him and accept him.
“It’s OK, dad. We can always come back another time.” She said, and meant it. Her father looked at her with adoring eyes and all he needed to say was said in that subtle glance.
“How about some food? I know a place, its not too far away from here. They have your favorite.”
“Sounds good.” Morrison took her sadness and disappointment and swallowed it down deep, burying it for now. She was hungry and they were safe, unlike the drivers of those cars from earlier. The thought helped keep things in perspective.
The rest of the stores were closed now and only a few scattered groups of people remained. A security guardbot blared, “Have a fantastic day!” with contrived enthusiasm and Morrison and her father exited the mall. The rain was coming down in sheets and the old luminaire lights illuminated raindrops as if they were stars, falling from the heavens or performing for the masses. Rusty brown-orange leaked from the half-green truck as the pair sluggishly hopped in and left.
Morrison’s stomach roared forcefully and she yawned heavily. There was very little sleep the night before, due to the excitement and all, and her normal endless amount of energy was now dwindling. She thought about sleeping on the way home, a sad consolation.
A short time later the brakes screeched on the old truck as Morrison’s father pulled into the diner’s parking lot. It was one of those old retro, futuristic places, lit in bright, neon colors. Built a few decades ago, it was meant to evoke a sense of nostalgia, a time when The Jetsons seemed like a more realistic future than The Flintstones. When Morrison and her father walked into the diner, a tired, tattered server-host offered them any of the empty seats spread throughout the narrow diner. Her hair was pinned up but stubborn strands still hung from her head like long-forgotten cobwebs. No doubt she was younger than she appeared. The server-host was joined by a robot line cook, a dish distributer arm and a touchscreen at the tables for ordering. She spent most of her time ferrying plates back and forth from the counter to the customers, filling dishwashers, adjusting robots and brewing coffee.
Morrison and her father chose a booth halfway back and scrolled through menu items, neither speaking. She already knew what she wanted. The screen in the center of the table confirmed her ordering in a digitized, hippy voice.
“The original root beer flo - authentic beef burger with gruyere cheese, bacon, gril- savory sweet potato fries.” After she ordered, Morrison scooted back on the pleather cushion and stared out the window at the mostly empty parking lot and passing traffic beyond. Her father’s choices sounded off in the same lethargic voice from the other side of the screen as he tapped in his order.
“Water with ice, mouthwatering buttermilk flapjacks, coffee – black, home-style pumpkin pie with fresh whipped cream. . . Would you like anything else?” asked the screen. Morrison’s father tapped the ‘no’ tab with his index finger. “You’re total is. . . seventy-eight dollars and sixteen cents. Please pay now… Please pay now… Please pay now…”
Morrison’s father checked his jacket pocket for his cash, caught himself for some reason, then reluctantly pressed his right thumb on the screen’s ID box. His information came up and he selected his Basic Utility Government Subsidy account. There was an option for a tip even though there hadn’t been any food or service yet. He added fifteen dollars and finalized the payment with another tap.
“Groovy.” acknowledged the languid computer voice. “You’re food will be out shortly.”
Morrison looked at her father. He was clearly uncomfortable and more anxious than usual. He shot his daughter a quick smile that hovered somewhere over shame, sorrow, and reassurance simultaneously, then turned his head and focused on infinity outside the diner window. A sleek, black sedan materialized out of the darkened rain and swept its lights across their table, pulling into a parking space somewhere in the darkened area of the lot on the opposite side of the diner.
Without turning his head, Morrison’s father spoke to the window, addressing his own semitransparent reflection and the wet blackness beyond, the glass fogging with each word.
“I’m not very good at this, Mo… Things haven’t been the same since… It’s all so much, too much sometimes. I’m not sure how to… I’m trying–”. The words jumbled in his throat.
“Dad, its ok. You don’t have to say anything.” Morrison did understand, and a while ago she realized that she could be a jerk or she could accept her father for who he was, be patient and love him unconditionally. “I know you’re going through a lot. I’m here for you… I’ll always be. I love you daddy. ”
By this time Morrison’s father was looking at his perfect daughter, wise beyond her years and resilient beyond his. He was swelling with both pride and shame and began to feel tightness creep into his throat. His eyes swelled and turned glassy and a few tears started to stream down his weathered cheeks. It was the first time that Morrison could remember seeing her father cry, at least since he’d been back. The experience was foreign but she knew what she needed to do. She reached out her hand and placed it on top of her father’s, then squeezed. They looked at one another and then nothing else needed to be said. The newest tears came easier than the previous, seeping turning to weeping.
As if scripted, the server-host picked up a collection of plates and cups from the counter and walked it a few feet to their table. She had a warming smile on her face and she shared it with both of them, while Morrison’s father quickly wiped away his tears, unashamed but self-conscious nonetheless.
“Enjoy your meal you two. Just let the screen know if you need anything else.” With another quick smile she turned and went back to the front of the diner. Morrison and her father ate their meal in silence, but this silence was lighter, like a fluffy cloud or a mid-summer’s breeze. The previous chasm between them could now be a manageable canyon, unquestionably crossable with more bridge building.
The meal was satisfying for both Morrison and her father and they declined dessert because they were so full. They used to make faces at each other when Morrison was younger, before her father was thrust into his darkness. It was Morrison’s favorite game and it was just for the two of them, her mother uninterested in such childish things. Through tired eyes Morrison looked at her father, and when his gaze found hers she stuck out her tongue as far as she could and her eyes met above the bridge of her nose. It was her favorite face. It only took a second for Morrison’s father to catch on and he instinctively returned the challenge with a face of his own. He flipped his lower lip and then replaced his upper lip with his tongue, puffed out his cheeks and made his eyes big and surprised. It was a truly remarkable face, as if he had been saving it up for years. Morrison burst out laughing and in the following few moments everything in the world felt perfect.
“Alright kiddo, lets get on the road. It’s been a long day.”
The man and his daughter each slid out of the booth, triggering the screen’s tired hippy to spout a “Thanks for eating at Mona’s Diner. Come back again soon!”. Morrison walked in front on her father, waved goodbye to the smiling server-host, and pushed upon the glass doors into the cool autumn night. The rain had stopped and the air felt fresh and the world smelled of earth and o-zone. Morrison’s father climbed into his truck and reached over to open the passenger door for his daughter. She climbed up and got settled, then looked at her father, who put his right hand on her head and lightly stroked her hair for a moment. He smiled and tried starting the engine, which eventually caught on the fourth try. Morrison cranked down her window halfway so she could feel the wind. The cab’s rumble was soothing and she drifted off to the place between sleep and awake, the sounds of unfamiliar oldies lingering in the background. In her evening dream she was warm and snug in her cocoon, wiggling and writhing and growing, metamorphosis at scale. The reverie was vivid and convincing, and the transformation brought hints of a smile to the slumbering girl’s lips. All appeared to be satisfactory for the moment, and Morrison’s father beamed as he gazed at his dozing daughter, the one thing he loved in this world. His eyes welled up for the second time that evening as the fading green truck zipped on through the city night.
. . .
The engine cut off and Morrison opened her eyes, the familiar luminaire from earlier glaring through the passenger window. She felt like she had been encased for hours but it had only been about fifteen minutes. They were back at the mall. Before Morrison could ask what they were doing, her father was out of the truck and telling her “Mo, wait here a moment.” He had an oddly determined look on his face like there was something he had to do that moment.
She was confused and tired. Why were they back here? she wondered. Worry trickled into Morrison’s world once more and she spoke up.
“Dad, is everything ok? What are we doing here?”
“Everything’s fine, Mo. Give me a minute.” Her father shut the truck’s door and started off towards the darkened mall entrance.
Morrison watched her father through the passenger window, light glimmering off the wet pavement he walked on. When he reached the entrance, he waited. A minute went by. Another came and fled. They felt much longer to Morrison, as tends to happen during periods of uncertainty.
Well into the third minute, the girl caught a flash of white light from behind the secured glass entrance. It swept closer until a figure was standing opposite her father, inside the foyer. He unlocked a door and opened it and the two men exchanged some words. A moment later, her father turned and started walking back to the truck. When he was halfway, he whistled once loudly and raised his right arm, beckoning his daughter with his curling fingers. Confused, Morrison watched her father and sat for a few uncertain seconds before complying.
Shivering, Morrison reached her father and followed him to the mall entrance. When they arrived at the glass doors she discovered that the other man was the owner of the Zenporium. He smiled at Morrison with those same blue eyes as she passed him, emerging into a, dark, empty mall. The older man took the lead and they followed him through vacant expanse, Morrison’s rain boots squeaking like earlier.
It came slowly and then all at once. She knew what was going on now. Her father must have bribed the owner to let them in after hours, so that he could give his daughter the birthday experience she so desperately wanted. A number of tears formed in Morrison’s eyes and fell down her cheeks as she moved through the shadowed shopping mall. Everything from earlier made this surprise extra special, and Morrison was savoring every moment of it. She imagined their tired party as explorers, venturing through an uncharted cave to a secret valley where the extinct Monarch was reported to have been recently spotted.
They reached the phony group of flora, and through it Morrison caught a glimpse of the unlit sign in the ghostly shadows. ZENPORIUM. Standing here, now, was completely unexpected ten minutes prior, when Morrison was lost in her dreams, the cozy content of which had fizzled away moments after she woke up. The Zenporium owner walked ahead of them and inserted his key into its slot, opened the door, and then disappeared around the corner. There were buttons being pushed and then switches being switched and then the glorious hall illuminated, spilling rich, strident rays of light into the quiet expanse surrounding the arcade. The owner returned and motioned the father and daughter inside.
There were changing rooms and bathrooms to the left and a snack area to the right, next to a classic cash register and collection of flat screens. Unfolding in front of Morrison was a brilliant collection of colors and pictures painted on massive horizontal, oval chambers. They extended up towards the back of the hall in a sloped matter, each with its own separate platform. Every pod was its own experience, a fully imagined reality, immersive and real. The metal grating throughout the space was slotted to provide the greatest comfort on bare feet and necessary for drainage from all the dripping swimsuits. Contained in each pod was a pool of salt water in which users floated during their experience. A FlexVR hood was worn for the duration with the various neural manipulator points spaced inside the hood. It all magically worked to both dilate time and transform the reality of the user. It “hijacked” the brain, controlling the flow of all external stimuli, the isolating characteristic of the chamber facilitating the body accepting the fabricated input. The experience felt real.
“Happy birthday there. Morrison, is it?”
“Yes sir, it is,” she responded. “Thank you.”
“So… What do you want to be tonight, Morrison?”
“A butterfly!” she blurted out, her excitement now unable to be tamed.
“That old one? You sure you don’t want to be a beaver, or maybe a tarantula? Those pods are newer and are a little more exciting. I’m about the retire the ancient thing, maybe replace it with a medieval battle or space walk experience.”
Morrison didn’t budge. “I really just want to be a butterfly, sir.”
“Well then little lady, you’re about to fly with the Monarchs. Are you ready? You got your swimsuit on under that?” Morrison nodded excitedly, then stripped her clothes off right then, tossing items to her father one at a time. When she took off her rain boots she felt the metal grating hard on the bottom of her feet. Where some might feel discomfort with the acute pressure, Morrison only felt livelier. She stood proud in her brilliant orange, one-piece swimsuit.
“Ready!” she cried out.
The man chuckled and continued. “Alright then. I’ll have a towel ready for you when you’re done. Follow me.” Morrison looked at her father, who had been watching the short interaction with tactful joy, and both exchanged a quick smile. Morrison stuck her tongue out at her father and then turned to follow the older man, not waiting for his response.
The older man led the way to the left corner of the room, next to the bathrooms and past newer pods. There was a giant termite one and a red racecar one and then, there it was. In majestic, vivid green, a giant cocoon appeared in front of Morrison and her jaw dropped. There was a massive, orange butterfly painted on the green pod, magnificent and mysterious in its stature. With a mechanic’s efficiency, the Zenporium’s owner flipped a switch under the backside of the green pod and then adjusted some controls on the side, popping the upper half ajar. The hydraulics pushed against the man as he pushed the top until it stopped.
“Now, Morrsion, your dad told me this is going to be your first time. It’s really very simple. Once you crawl in and get yourself settled, I’ll hand you the hood for you to put on and I’ll plug you in. In no time you’ll be soaring!”
Exhilaration coursed through Morrison’s body and she was suddenly inexplicably nervous, the way she felt every time before jumping off the higher diving board at school. She would always end up jumping. She thrust her foot forward through the spontaneous, crippling uncertainty and into the lukewarm, salted water, settling into a comfortable seated position. The saturated water made her lighter, and she pictured herself an astronaut on the moon waiting for the butterflies to come. Like the moon, there were no more actual Monarch butterflies around anymore, or many others for that matter. She turned to the man and retrieved her mask, which somewhat resembled that of a deep-sea diver’s, with blackened lens and a life hose protruding from the back that carried information rather than oxygen.
“OK Morrison, when you put on the mask its going to be completely black for a moment. You can lay back at this point and you’ll begin floating. Once the hood recognizes that its being worn it will start to flash. The lights are there to help trick the brain and prepare it for the coming altered state. The real magic happens inside your mind. There’s a transition period that lasts a few moments. This is where your mind will begin to experience time differently, but you won’t register any of this. For you, it will feel like you are falling asleep and then simply existing. From out here you’ll only be in the pod for a couple minutes, but inside it will feel like days. All of this will be completely transparent to you, so you’re basically just there for the ride. You will wake up when the session is over and it will feel like waking up in the morning from a deep sleep. How does all that sound, Morrison. Are you ready?”
“I think so… Yes. I’m ready.” Without any more hesitation or deliberation, Morrison put on the hood and entered a world of blackness. She slowly straightened her body and after a wobbly transition was floating and weightless, as if she was being cradled high in the sky by a summer storm cloud.
“Here come the lights.”
They arrived suddenly, white flashes mixed with other shades – red, blue, green, then different combinations of the colors. There a untenable tingling from two points on either side of her forehead and she felt like she was shrinking and changing, then blackness. Then blinding, white light filled the world before everything gradually adjusted into clarity.
She was flying. She was also tired but something compelled her onward. It was a race against the coming cold and her species depended on it. The kaleidoscope of monarchs had been flying all day, stopping occasionally to sip nectar from wildflowers along their journeyed route and flapping their fragile wings five, ten times a second. She had an even tougher go of it. Inside she was swollen with 288 eggs, a modest amount, and she was almost ready to start laying them. As the sun lowered in the sky, the rabble began collectively searching for a place to rest. They found refuge in an apple tree orchard and began their quiescence for the night. Instead of sleeping, the monarchs clumped in groups to preserve what little warmth they produced, hanging upside down and with eyes open. The Monarch rested, finally, and felt a visceral sense of relief, animalistic and natural, like hunger satisfied or mating completed. She was one with the other monarchs, a collective unit. The idea of individuality was as foreign as valleys on the moon Enceladus. A light rain came upon the orchard in the night but the butterflies were protected under their leaves and branches, and when the sun rose in the misty morning, most were protected from hungry birds in search of an early, disappointing meal.
Once the fog cleared and the sun warmed their suspended bodies, the flutter of monarchs departed the trees like tiny bats from a cave at sundown, their fragile orange bodies contrasting deeply with the azure sky. She was somewhere towards the outside of a large group, constantly flapping and smelling and perceiving and reacting, propelled by a need to push her genes forward. There was no excitement, regret, ambition, sadness or happiness. There just was. The Monarch soared in her kaleidoscope with programed purpose, flowing with the collective. On instincts and reaction alone, she followed a group of sixty-three other butterflies as they peeled off and descended into a series of backyards, each unique in its layout and substance but all containing large quantities of milkweed. They modest crowd fell on the gardens like paratroopers, some to feed and some to lay their eggs. The Monarch found a particularly bountiful bed that was undoubtedly created to contribute in the group’s migration, and gracefully landed on the uppermost node of the largest Milkweed plant. She poked her skinny proboscis down into mess of a violet flowers and sucked the rich nectar out. It rejuvenated her and gave the world a marvelous sheen. She looked across to another plant and watched with 16,000 eyes as a caterpillar munched down on a Milkweed leaf. It wasn’t nostalgia she felt, but an echo of stenciled retention that was imprinted somewhere deep inside.
It was time. She looked around and sniffed for a suitable spot. Her senses led her to another Milkweed plant, and she landed low on its main stem. Lowering her head, the Monarch rubbed a leaf with its antennae, hopped around in a semi-circle, and then laid her first egg under the lowest leaf on the plant, adhering it with her secreted glue. It was another relief, primitive at its base, and became a stimulus for more. She flew to a different acceptable leaf and repeated the process. This would continue through the next hour until she was spooked away by a rambunctious child running after a yapping puppy. The Monarch took flight along with most of the other deserters, and flew to another backyard, this one different in every respect but still containing Milkweed. The butterflies landed and laid more eggs and munched down more Milkweed. This continued for the better part of the day until the sun commenced it retreat. The skies turned a violent shade of burgundy before easing into orange, then a yellowish green, then grey. The monarchs luckily managed to find a safe haven close by, an old red oak tree in an otherwise empty field. They were only forty-one now and they clumped together under the gnarled, shielding branches, preparing for the frosty night ahead. The Monarch felt lighter, freer. She was on the outside, a bit riskier, but had an unobstructed view of the stars extending downwards out of the horizon. Mosaicked and fragmented, they only registered as pinprick sources of light and spurred no contemplation or feeling. Still, she experienced something by staring out at them that she hadn’t the previous nights when she was nestled deep inside the massive herd.
In the early morning the darkness fell away and there was no fog. One by one the stiff butterflies began stretching and waking up their wings, glowing and vibrant in the rays of the warm, rising sun. Once they were ready, they departed and only four stayed behind. They had finished laying their eggs and had either died in the night or would die at some point during the day.
For the rest of the sunny day the Monarch bounced from leaf to leaf, garden to garden, laying eggs in all the best protective spots. As she laid her eggs she felt a certain life-force release from inside, a transference of sorts. By the time she was on her last couple of eggs, she was utterly drained, yet drunk with euphoria. The Monarch laid her last egg on a wild Milkweed plant on the edge of a clearing and then flew high into the trees of the halted woods. Up she flew over the tallest tree before fluttering down elegantly onto its tip. She looked out at the fragmented world of blue skies and treetops through thousands of blurring eyes and felt an overwhelming sense of peace and contentedness at what was, and what unknowingly will be. Perfection. The world gradually brightened like an overexposed negative until there was nothing but white. Then black for a moment, white. Flashing began and Morrison awoke, slightly jumbled as if waking into an unfamiliar place from the most vivid of dreams. She carefully sat up and then removed the hood. Standing in front of her was her father and the older man, both with looks of quiet anticipation plastered across their caring faces.
“Dad! I was a butterfly! It was unbelievable – I flew and I slept in a group of Monarchs and I laid so many eggs. I was a mom. And then I flew up to the top of a tree to die!” There was a massive grin forming on Morrison’s face as she climbed out of the pod and into the outstretched towel that her father carried. He hugged her and wrapped it around her shivering shoulders.
“That’s great Mo! Happy birthday sweetheart.”
Morrison looked at him and felt a profound sense of love and happiness. She was beaming, shivering less every second, water dripping from her hooked nose.
She looked around, still getting acquainted to being a person again. The sloping hall was dark save for the illumination over the butterfly pod and one more shell at the top of sloping metal floor. The color was a mix of blues and appeared to be an underwater experience of sorts. She could only make out the rough shape of a fin from her obstructed viewpoint. Morrison turned back around to the Zenporium owner. She pointed towards the back of the hall.
“What’s that one, mister?”
“Oh that one… That’s our newest experience – just came in last week. The kids and adults have been in it continuously ever since we installed it. It’s meant for older kids, fourteen years at least. You get to be a Whale Shark, and you have to be in a different way than you were as a butterfly. But, if your dad says it’s ok, I suppose we can fit in one more experience tonight, overlook that age requirement.” The man winked at her. It was all a welcomed surprise, and the newest opportunity sounded even more exciting and irresistible to Morrison. Now that she had been a butterfly she felt like she could do anything. The evening had been long, more roller coaster ride than a monorail trip, and this could throw the scale in favor of overall satisfaction, maybe even elation. Both Morrison and the older man looked at her father with hopefulness.
“If you feel up to it, Mo, then you got my blessing. Just remember, it’s meant for the older kids, so be ready for something new, different, maybe even scary.”
“That’s right,” agreed the older man. He turned to face Morrison. “You gotta be strong in there.”
“I will, sir,” she replied, respectively.
The trio walked around the front of the hall and ascended the metal stairs leading up to the back of the space. Morrison’s body was drying and only a handful of drips made their way through the grating to whatever was below. They reached the pod and its vivid shades were even grander up close. A massive whale shark had its mouth opened wide around schooling fish in a royal sea of blue. Morrison had never heard of this sea creature before.
“Is this thing real?” she asked the older man.
“Used to be. They’re gone now, along with all the other sharks. I saw one once, when I was a child around your age. That’s a story for another time. Now its your turn.”
The older man bent behind the pod and flipped a switch, then came back around and played with the controls on the side. The upper-half separated and a larger, sleeker chamber was revealed.
“Alright Morrison, this experience is a little… different. It might get intense in there, but I think you can handle it.” He motioned into the chamber with his left hand and Morrison started to crawl in. He continued. “Just to give you some comfort, there’s a failsafe built into the system. If the experience gets too intense for the specific user, the system will gently bring that user back to reality. So, what do ya say, Morrison, ready to swim with the sharks?”
After Morrison steadied herself in the warm, salty water, she turned to her father.
“Ready Mo? I’ll be right here waiting for you when you get out of there. Happy birthday little girl.” It didn’t feel like the weight of the galaxy was on his shoulders right then.
The words led a huge smile and then Morrison was back to the task at hand, taking the mask from the older man and pulling it down over her head, darkening her world once more. She slid back in the pod, sinking again into a pool of lukewarm water..
Flashes. White, then vivid red, blue and green, followed once more by all the shades between. Morrison felt her body growing, elongating, her skin hardening and her breathing… changing; tingling and sensation emanated throughout her pliable frame and all issues of identity vanished. Oblivion.
The world materialized in emerald blue and grey and turquoise, with sunlight just barely reaching this transition area, the edge of the world above and the dark, comforting chasm below. A school of Yellowfin darted in the distance to the left and the hum of a boat’s engine rumbled to the right, but the old whale shark was only interested in the massive swarm of krill straight ahead. She honed in on the group earlier in the day, just hours after giving birth to all two hundred, eighty-four of her young. While ascending from the depths, ripe with postpartum ecstasy and relief, she sensed the tiny invertebrates scampering about, revealing themselves from a great distance through their movement and scent. For a majority of the afternoon the great whale shark lumbered gracefully upwards from the deep.
At one hundred, twenty-six years old, she knew she was nearing the end. The marvelous creature lived a long life and birthed tens of thousands of children, most of whom didn’t even make it past infancy. Even though the number was massive and vast, the shark often thought about all her abandoned offspring and felt something akin to sadness. Somewhere deep down she understood that it was a natural part of a cycle, which yielded an embracing acceptance and peace, balancing the melancholy. As she left her new stipple of spawn earlier in the day, that familiar cocktail of feelings swirled around inside once more. She didn’t particularly want to do it, but didn’t have much say in the matter. Like the endless flow of water past her gills, she was compelled ever onward. If she stopped moving she’d drown.
Warmth. The wise old fish was closer to the surface and felt the krill sucking down phytoplankton with a primal drive. The motor was also closer, and after many previous close calls and a near catastrophe, including a propeller strike to the tail decades back, decapitating the tip of her top fin, the shark knew to keep her distance. The school of Yellowfin had turned away a few minutes prior. Once the whale shark fed, she would journey on, following her pre-programmed migratory pattern and leaving her vulnerable newborns to rely on each other to survive. There was no other option; it was the way things were.
In the majestic shark’s early years, the oceans were quieter, less chaotic. With increased shipping over the past century, the seas became busy with inorganic vessels. It affected her perception, and sometimes made it difficult to find food or navigate properly. Over the years the massive fish continued adapting, but she was older now and her senses were losing their edge. The boat on her right was just passing behind her now and she focuses her attention on the krill, noting the environment between.
The shark was nearly to the swarm, and anticipation of the overdue meal inspired broader, quicker strokes of her tail. She leveled off near the surface and basked in the waning heat of the late-afternoon sun. Just in front of her, two mammoth pinnacles jutted up from the depths and provided haven for vulnerable reef fauna. The krill were behind the farther one, just off to the right, and the whale shark sensed their growing frenzy, exciting her. When she inhaled the energetic krill, they tickled inside her gills and swam around in her belly. It made the shark giggly, in a way.
Past the second pinnacle the whale shark picked up speed. She was almost upon them. The krill appeared to be darting about like fireflies in the tropical water, bright and alive. The bottom materialized underneath her and something passed between her and the fading sun above. The waters warmed as she finally reached the swarm. She wasted no time, steadying on a general heading and opening her four-foot-wide mouth to its limits. The old shark inhaled and began to sense hundreds of tiny creatures squirming inside, wiggling as they were filtered into her stomach. She continued her run forward until the swarm was behind her and then resumed her normal breathing pattern. The experience was nourishing and she wanted more, so she made a slow, wide turn and readied herself for a second run. She opened her mouth wide and felt the gallons flow past her gills like wind and sensed another dip in light from above. Then, just as the spectacular creature reached the swarm again, the sea darkened far quicker that it should have and she felt like the world was pulling her downward. Malleable pressure pushed from above as the engrossing fishermen’s net draped around the whale shark. It stopped her swimming and weighed her down, and water stopped flowing past her gills. She began choking, gasping for air, but the movement she so desperately needed was unattainable. As the current of water stopped, the rush of panic set in, and the whale shark began thrusting wildly at first. She stopped a moment later, knowing she would need to conserve the oxygen already being pumped around her bloodstream. The world turned upside down and she was jerked towards the surface, disoriented and slowly drowning.
The gigantic, writhing shark broke the surface of the water and entered a foreign world. There was nothing she could do as she was pulled upwards except futilely struggle in the constricting net, water bucketing forth from her spotted, blue frame. The net swung around in a controlled, mechanical matter, the piercing sounds of the gears different and direct, a completely new and excruciating auditory experience for the shark. The net lowered over a substantial white deck and the suffocating shark felt heavy. When she touched down on the deck, the whale shark felt a deep pressure and strain, her insides crushing themselves without a ribbed frame for structural support.
As she gulped at stagnant, dry air, figures moved around her, barking brief and intense noises at one another. The sudden transition from normalcy to this caused a massive panic in the shark and she was terrified. Her leathery skin was drying and it felt like a shell was hardening around her. The sun was just at the horizon, threatening to dip any moment and envelope the world in a ghostly dusk. A spotlight illuminated the shark as she thrashed around moderately on the non-skid deck, a star on stage.
An explosion of pain gushed from her caudal fin, her main propeller, her legs. It was excruciating and of another world and it went back and forth forever. Then the fin was gone. Her feet were gone. She tried wiggling her fin’s upper lobe but the wires seemed crossed or disconnected, like nothing was on the other line. Figures appeared above her left pectoral fin and the agony returned, diminished slightly from the state of shock and chaos surrounding the petrified whale shark. The sawing began on her right pectoral fin moments later and then on her dorsal fin on top. The shark wriggled and spasmed at random intervals, shock having taken hold of her system. Her senses shot like fireworks.
The figures tossed her body parts into the large pile like trash bags and backed away from the sorry, mangled shark. Someone was hosing off the blood-soaked deck and hosed her down as well. It was a miniscule respite from the carnage and she grasped at the notion of home with the wet reminder. Blood continued to flow from her contorted stumps and the release was similar to what she felt earlier in the day when her own first poured out from inside.
The crane lifted the shark’s glistening, slumping torso off the deck, blood and freshwater mixing and dripping forth as it rotated her back around. Movement stopped and then there was swinging and then there was free-fall. Splash! The shark hit the water with a thud and at this point didn’t feel the pain of her organs being crushed inside her. She was on the verge of death as she slowly sunk, blood still coming forth from where her fins used to be. She jerked every few moments but her heart was slowing now, and the terror and pain had since vanished. She sunk deeper and landed gently on the bottom, sand radiating out like underwater dust. It mixed with the blood until the shark was surrounded in a maroon cloud. Her last thoughts were of her newly born children when her heart finally stopped.
White filled her world. Then black. Then the flashing commenced and Morrison returned, confused and scared and uncontrollably sobbing, unable to catch her breath. She just reacted. She tore off the hood and jumped out of the pod, bolting between her father and the older man next to him. She sprinted down the metal stairs and out the front of the Zenporium into the darkened mall, water dripping off of her little frame as she moved. More darkness. She wept as she ran, muddled and foggy from her experiences, fulfilling a need to flee. She tripped and fell once, landing hard on her knee, but no pain registered and the girl picked herself up and resumed her flight. The darkened storefronts and food courts whizzed by in the shadows and Morrison kept running.
She reached the mall entrance and pushed the glass doors open with purpose, exploding out into the frigid night. Under the luminaire sat the truck, surrounded by a soiled floor full of golf ball-sized hail. Morrison had never seen such a sight, and then noticed through blurry eyes that the marginally green truck was now almost completely orange, the rust and paint mixing and running with the melting hail underneath. There were little dents all over the truck and flecks of green paint and rust surrounding it, which now puddled with the melting hail on the battered concrete below. It was a sight that ingrained itself in her mind, and she still saw it as she ran off in the opposite direction, hail slushing under her naked feet.
Morrison veered with the sidewalk and came around a corner, a straight, paved path and empty parking lot unfolding in front of her. She bounded a few more steps and then was scooped up by a pair of protecting arms, pulled high into the air and then engulfed in caring warmth. Her father held her tight as she sobbed into his shoulder.
“Daddy, it was terrible. They caught me and then they cut off my fins and then tossed me back... and I died.” The words came slowly and with struggle, through gasps and swallows and tears.
“It’s ok Morrison, I’ve got you now. Everything is fine, baby girl.” He rubbed his daughters back with his left arm and supported her weight with his right.
“It felt… so real. I… I never should have been a whale shark. I don’t think I was ready.”
“Maybe not my sweet girl, but you got in the pod and tried. You faced something horrible and came out on the other end. Just remember, it wasn’t real.” He leaned his head back so he could look into Morrison’s eyes.
“You’re an amazing kid.”
Morrison hugged her dad tighter and felt like a different person from the one she was moments prior. She felt loved and alive. And she was starting to get cold, shivering moderately in her father’s embrace.
“What do you say we go back and grab your clothes, get out of here?”
“That sounds good. Thanks for rescuing me, daddy.”
“Whenever you need me, I’ll be there.” He kissed her on the forehead and looked back into her eyes. “I love you so much, Morrison. And I’m so proud of you.” The words were like a hug for her insides, and she felt warm again despite the cold.
Morrison’s father turned and carried his daughter back over the melting hail and past the altered truck that sat defeated and altered under the brilliant luminaire. Both Morrison and her father felt something new, something different and exciting. A metamorphosis had commenced.