Caterpillars rained from the sky that summer.
The sticky, squishy, hairy creatures destroyed trees and suffocated crops, crept up legs and crawled down necks. The lettuce in our garden fell victim to their hunger and the cornstalks wilted under their weight.
They survived the heat. They persevered through rain. They gripped on to life with astonishing strength against the constant threat of swinging brooms and stomping boots.
“Change is coming,” Grandma said, gently tugging a mottled orange string of fuzz from her shoulder and placing it on the porch rail.
“Moths are coming,” Grandpa responded, crushing a black and yellow beast that slunk from under his rocking chair.
I lounged on the bench swing and swatted at a tickle between my curls and my collar that turned out to be nothing more than a bead of sweat. My cotton dress clung to my new curves, helplessly sticky in the heavy humidity.
My brother, Mitch, was sprawled on his stomach, carelessly coloring without regard for the lines dictated by the book. Grandpa tapped him on the head with the ting of an empty can. “Go get your ol’ grandpa another cold beer,” he said, “It’s hotter than a horse’s fart out here.”
Grandma rolled her eyes and Mitch giggled, obediently abandoning his abstract masterpiece.
I casually followed him into the kitchen and hovered while he found a stool, clambered up to reach the handle, and searched the fridge for another Bud.
“Don’t worry, I know Grandpa wouldn’t like it,” he said, climbing down to face me, can in hand. “I won’t tell.”
“What about Jenny?”
“That you kiss her behind the barn.”
Jenny was lean and tall as a September sunflower, with corn silk hair and soft blushing skin. She smelled like rain that fell from a sunny sky and laughed like wind chimes on a starry night. We had been inseparable since swaddling, braiding daisy chains in the meadow, whispering dreams under the trees, and, eventually, kissing behind the barn.
“Just for practice,” she had said, clenching my hips and brushing my lips.
“For practice,” I had agreed, breathless and vibrating with a heart like thunder.
I clamped white knuckles on the back of a rickety kitchen chair. Hearing it out loud, even from the mouth of an indifferent six-year-old, made me dizzy with dread and delight. It was like acid in my throat and sugar on my tongue.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Mitch shrugged and ran back out to the porch with his delivery.
What started soft and tentative like cautious spring buds quickly grew bold and desperate like vibrant summer blooms. As the caterpillars stopped falling, we too disappeared into our own cocoon of sheltered shade every day, pressed together like petals between pages, the pretense of practice lost in lust.
Mitch paid us no mind.
Grandma gave us our space.
Grandpa stumped around blissfully blind.
Then, late one August evening, Jenny rolled away onto her back and sighed. I propped myself up on an elbow to admire the fan of white gold hair against the rich green grass that sparkled with diamond dew. I reached out to trace the shape of her lip with my finger, and instead she caught my hand in hers.
“I think you love me.” It was more a statement than a question, and she avoided my gaze in favor of that of the waning moon.
“Yes,” I answered without a thought.
She pressed the back of my hand to her cheek. “Bobby Teller asked me to be his girlfriend.”
My ever-thundering heart faded to a dull thud. “What did you say?”
“I told him I’d think about it.”
My unreciprocated declaration rose up between us like a ghost cloaked in Bobby Teller’s letterman jacket.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, a fat tear sliding from the corner of her eye.
“Don’t be.” I untangled my fingers from hers and wrapped my arms around my knees.
“He has some nice friends…”
Without another word, she curled up, cupped my cheek in brief farewell, and disappeared into the darkest part of the night.
I cuddled myself under the watchful eye of the hayloft door until dawn. A contingent of moths fluttered overhead as I tried to reverse the metamorphosis of my heart, attempting in vain to spool my woven silk back into the soft strands of girlhood.
I drowned in waves of shame.
I cringed at my foolishness.
I wept rivers for the wish that my shooting star could never give.
As the sun rose, I saw Grandpa limping around the corner, bow-legged and whiskery against the pale pink sky, completely unsurprised to find me huddled in a ball on the ground, eyes swollen, numb with cold and grief.
He didn’t say anything, just sat down beside me—which took no little effort on his part—and waited for the well of my tears to run dry.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I finally croaked out, smearing snot against the back of my hand.
“Me neither,” he said with gruff gratitude, patting my knee, “How ‘bout you help an old man up and we go and have some breakfast?”
We shuffled back up to the house and never spoke of it again, although every time Jenny’s name came up in passing over the years I noticed he would screw up his nose and spit—a gross but genuine gesture of love.
Mitch and I sit on the porch, clad in starched black. Frogs and crickets sing their twilight tune from the slough. A contingent of church-goers mill around a table of casseroles in the glow of the windows behind us. Grandma brings out two mugs of peppermint tea, pats us both on the cheek with a sad smile, and disappears back inside.
A light green caterpillar slinks up the railing beside Mitch’s hand. He lets it fold its way up onto his finger and holds it up with a grin.
“Change is coming,” he says.
“No,” I answer, “Moths.”