The butterflies were in Anna’s head, not in her stomach — a swarm of glorious, golden images she couldn’t seem to suppress, even when she told herself to count sheep, or recite nonsense rhymes, to try and lull herself to sleep. She would get up to fourteen sheep, or two stanzas into The Walrus and the Carpenter, and then she would veer off again, imagining how warm the sand would be under her toes, how many handsome lifeguards she would meet, how many jugs of sangria she and Gemma would consume between them.
She wasn’t technically old enough to drink sangria, but they never checked in Spain. Gemma had been to Barcelona with the Drama Group last summer, and she said she had seen toddlers wandering about with their noses pressed into glasses of red wine.
This time, though, she and Gemma would be on their own — no Drama, no assignments, no teachers or curfews.
She was ready for it now, that was the cruellest thing. There was a kind of fizzing under her skin, in all her muscles. Lying still didn’t feel as good as discovering new, cooler sections of the duvet. And tomorrow, if she didn’t sleep, there would be no brilliant images fluttering behind her eyelids. She would have to drag her leaden limbs through the airport, stare uncomprehendingly at Spanish road-signs, keep her temper with the taxi drivers and the hotel staff. Her nerves would be like frayed wires wearing through her skin.
She got up, struggled into her too-hot dressing-gown, and went downstairs to get a drink. Once she had spent five minutes freezing in the kitchen under the fluorescent lights, she would appreciate the warmth and darkness of her bed.
But it was another light that caught her attention — the blinking red light of the answering machine in the hall. They must have called when she’d been drying her hair, and mum had been in the shower. It couldn’t have been Gemma; she would always text. Gemma texted even when she was standing right next to you. She texted ‘bless you’ when you sneezed.
For a moment, Anna watched the machine casting its intermittent red light in the hallway. Then she reached out and pressed the ‘Play’ button.
Auntie Mary’s voice, sounding taut and ragged:
“Helen, call me back. Mum’s had another stroke, she’s not — she’s probably not going to make it. Just get up here as soon as you can, okay? I need you.”
There was a sensation of shifting — of everything in the world resettling itself around this new fact. Anna thought about what it would mean before she could even bring herself to recognize what it was. She wouldn’t be able to go on holiday now, because Grandma was dying. That was awful — it wasn’t what she was supposed to think — but it was true. She knew exactly what mum would say:
“Family comes first, Popsicle. There’ll be other holidays, dozens of them — there’s only one Grandma Lily.”
The shifting sensation worked its way deeper — she felt as though its weight was stretching her stomach into a bottomless pit. She pictured Alice sinking through it on her way to Wonderland, buoyed up by her petticoats, wondering if she would fall through the centre of the earth and come out in the Antipodes.
Then she stretched out her hand mechanically and hit the button marked ‘Delete’.
Auntie Mary would call mum back — just after she had driven Anna to the airport. Mum would still get to the hospital eventually. And it was probably too late anyway.
Still, she felt the answering machine’s blinking light in the pit of her stomach all the way to the airport the next morning, flaring up and down again. It blinked through the terminal and onto the plane, it blinked through the safety announcements, it cast its light over the pages of the in-flight magazine.
Was it remorse? Was Grandma haunting her? Or had she been possessed by an answering machine?
She wasn’t really worried about getting into trouble. Auntie Mary was so scatter-brained, so useless with technology, that nobody would wonder why her message had gone astray. It was a miracle — some kind of awful, reverse-miracle — that she had managed to leave one in the first place.
After half a day — after her second jug of sangria, after Gemma had lost patience with her and gone to spend the evening with a German techno DJ — she realized that the blinking-light feeling was irresolution. She didn’t know whether Grandma was dead or alive. There was a message for her, somewhere in the universe, and it hadn’t been played.
Worse still, if Grandma was dead, it never would be played. There would be no closure, no goodbyes. The slim, sober part of her brain that had survived the sangria told her she was being stupid. If she wasn’t here, she would be in some hospital waiting room, drinking coffee out of a plastic cup, listening to mum sniffing stoically and trying not to cry. She never would have gotten to say goodbye to Grandma, not in a way Grandma would have understood. And people who’d suffered two strokes were seldom able to pass on important messages.
But still, the light blinked off and on, dyeing the hotel room red. It was a far cry from the golden butterflies, though in a way, it was the same feeling. She was waiting for something. It was just that, this time, she was fairly sure it would never come.
Lucy Stone is a freelance writer, lexicographer, and mother of one. Her work has appeared in Dreamforge Magazine, All Worlds Wayfarer, Electric Spec, BFS Horizons, Unfading Daydream, Every Day Fiction, Flash Fiction Magazine, Tigershark, and Between These Shores. She has also completed a lavish, meandering Harry Potter fanfic entitled Sympathetic Magic. Her major preoccupations are folklore, romance, and mental illness. Her stories contain many villains, but the ultimate one is usually despair, and she will fight it with every word she writes – even prepositions. She can be found on her website www.lucystonewriter.com, and on Twitter @LucyStoneWriter.