The boy comes home and his jeans are burnt. Aluminum is in his hair and eyebrows from the fires of the casting plant. He drags the giant Styrofoam cooler into the house to be filled again before the next twelve-hour shift. It is 7:00 am. Time for bed and he flops down, one arm round his little dog. Papillion, he named it, with ears like butterfly wings.
Papillion waits until the boy falls asleep. He jumps down to find the mother baking before the trailer heats up. The father leaves for work counting his change and dropping it into the coffee jar that gets them by one more day and one more day. He wears the same steel-toed boots the boy took off.
At the trailer door, no more shelter than sticks, Papillion chuffles softly and the father comes back, “Forgot to pet the dog,” he says.
The mother caresses her husband’s gray head. “We’ll be fine,” she says.
“It’ll be a hot one,” he says and he looks like he wants to ask Papillion why me, why us? But there’s no reason for any of it. “You’re smarter than me. Take care of Momma.” he tells the dog. And Papillion nuzzles against his hand.
The mother finishes her baking and turns on their fan long enough to dispel the heat. Papillion rests in her lap as she stares through a broken kitchen window. She watches her horse limp across the field and her body warms, begins to sweat. Papillion dreams of a big red dog.
The boy has wrecked their only car and is taken by helicopter into the city. “He has a broken neck,” the doctors say. All Papillion knows is that the boy is gone.
“I’ll stay with him tonight,” the mother says and she will not leave even when the nurses are rude and her eyes are drooping. She prays. She prays all night and no one can tell what she is mumbling. In the morning they come to take more x-rays.
“Someone got it wrong,” the doctors say. “His neck is fine.” And they want to fire somebody, their faces turning red. “Those technicians,” they say. “Can’t be trusted.”
“Looks broke on this one though,” a nurse says. She holds an x-ray up to the light and sees a white line at the third vertebrae.
“Whatever,” the doctor dismisses her with a wave.
Mother and son come home in two days. Papillion jumps up and paws at their knees. “Glad to see me, eh?” the boy says. “Did you watch out for Poppa?”
“What happened?” the father asks quietly, leaning into his wife, whispering into her ear.
“I did the thing,” she says. “Had to.” She puts her hand on her husband’s cheek. “I know we need things… but this was our son.”
“Ain’t saying a word, darling.” He points to the small kitchen sink. “Got some rabbits on my day off. We’ll eat good. Thanksgiving and all.”
“We’ll make the winter.”
“Winter,” the father says. “Hope we didn’t use up all our luck.” He looks like he’s struggling for air.
The mother puts her arms around his shoulders and watches her horse prance across the field.
The mother is ill, out of her head and she mumbles feverishly into the father’s shoulder. He holds her in the small bed, refusing to leave for work. The room is cold and he rubs her shoulders, her back.
The boy says, “You have to go. We need the money.”
”We need this woman.”
And the boy doesn’t answer. He looks at the floor. “I’ll hold her,” he says. He pulls at his father’s sleeve urging him to get up. “Won’t a doctor help?”
”Not with this.” He puts on the boots covered with silver dust.
“She’s weird,” the boy says. “Her whole family. Once I saw…”
“We don’t talk about it much,” the father says. “Take what God gives…”
And the boy puts Papillion in the bed to rest beside his mother. The dog wriggles telling her softly of things he’s seen.
They bury the mother in a grave they dug themselves out behind the one-horse barn and close to the oak tree she loved.
Papillion refuses to eat or drink and the father spends his evenings rubbing those butterfly ears.
Along about May, the mailman pulls his truck clear up their gravel drive. “Got some news!” he shouts and hands the boy an envelope with the university seal.
The father nods and spits onto the ground. He looks out across the field. Her horse is running, kicking up its heels and Papillion chases after.