Dom mulls over the phone call made three days ago to his sister Erin.
‘As far as I know Mya’s free this Saturday,’ she had said, before adding, ‘but she’s seeing you whether she’s busy or not.’
Dom later found out that Mya had already made other plans to see a school friend; but as far as Erin was concerned, Mya has a duty to see her father. He’s still unsettled by the third party directing the relationship between father and daughter.
Dom is standing in the middle of the street, frowning every time the sharp heat of the sun bursts through the patchy cloud cover. Mya insisted on using public transport, so he made sure to get to the designated tram stop early – perhaps too early, as his knees ache from standing stationary.
Then he sees a flash of blood-coloured hair, tied loosely at the back with a black scrunchie, appear and vanish in the bustle of the other commuters filing on and off the latest tram. For one second, Dom wishes that his sister’s voice were on call, telling him to get a grip – offering advice as she always does, with a pressure that makes it not a recommendation but an irrevocable law.
‘Mya?’ he finally manages.
She is summoned from the crowd, as if she were at the beck and call of a voice she respects, rather than her father’s. The look in her eyes is nervous, but intense. How are those eyes different? Do they belong to the same girl who stared him down on that one night all those months ago, when she pushed him away as she pushed herself away, shining in the night with all her fury and all her thirteen year-old righteousness? Those eyes are like Erica come back to life, thinks Dom.
They both say hi; they speak at the same time and the voices blend together. Mya fidgets with her frock; simple and plain, a floral pattern stitched in a strip along the side, her thin pale legs poking through and ending in light blue slip-ons. All her colours are soft and neutral; Dom can only think of it as a disguise. He can see the mark on the side of her nose, where she’s removed a stud.
‘I thought you might like to go to the zoo,’ says Dom.
‘Yeah, sounds good.’
‘Do you have to be back at Erin’s by a certain time?’
‘It’s more like I have to be with you for a certain time,’ she says tersely, looking up as the sun vanishes behind another cloud.
He tries to tell her things as they approach the zoo. That he’s going to the gym again for the first time in four years; that there was a fire near his house the other day, and earned brownie points with his neighbour by calming the latter’s panicked dog; that he thinks TV isn’t what it used to be. She gathers his comments and stories with as much enthusiasm as a waiter collecting plates.
They turn through the tight aisles and push themselves into the zoo, and Mya breathes in the scene like a woman on expedition.
‘So where did you want to go?’ Dom asks.
‘Monkeys first. We gotta go see the monkeys first.’ The hair quivers and flickers like a candle fire.
Dom stumbles through the flow of people, with Mya trailblazing. She keeps pace ahead of him, and he wonders whether she’s deliberately putting distance between them or whether it’s just her natural impatience.
The monkeys pay them no attention, after all the walking they had to do to get there. Dom feels a little affronted. Sure, they’re not performing animals, but should there be some etiquette? Do they have to just sit around looking morose? Being in a cage this spacious surely wouldn’t be too bad.
‘I wish they’d move,’ he says finally, noting how childish he sounds.
Mya rolls her eyes. ‘I should be the one saying that.’
‘Well, value for money and everything.’
‘Stop feeling like you have to wow me. I’m still here, right?’
That’s a fair point. A walk-off would fit precedent.
They move on, and the monkeys do not wave them goodbye. They find their way to the open enclosures, watching the larger beasts go about their day surrounded by fences and gawking crowds. The animals stare mutely and munch on grass. Dom paces along the fences, and Mya follows with a screwed-up nose as he goes back and forth, moving for the sake of movement, murmuring about better views and bad glare from camera lenses.
Mya elbows him casually. ‘Dad, you gotta relax.’
‘Since when were you the voice of calm?’ he says, harsher than intended.
In a heartbeat Mya’s eyes become electric, stirred to life like metal fibres aroused by a magnet. ‘I wanted this to be a good day,’ she says at length.
‘So do I.’
‘I’m on my best behaviour.’
‘I noticed,’ says Dom, nodding like a fool.
‘And you didn’t say anything about it.’
‘What could I say?’
‘I’m trying here and you don’t care.’ She lingers on this last word, sharpening it like a weapon. Her eyes let him go as she looks away, staring onward at something, anything. She moves off, and Dom follows, entranced by the chimera he’s accompanying; a composite containing the vague traces of the young girl Mya once was, the uncompromising teenager and the emerging bud of Erica’s self-assured dignity.
She heads for the butterfly house as if it were a sanctuary, nearly tripping over an elderly tourist to get in before him. Dom follows, and slows his breathing as he’s immersed in the thick heat of the glasshouse. Mya, playing with a fern frond, pays no attention to him.
The butterflies come towards Dom in flitters, and move away when he tries to catch them. They remind him of something. Especially that one over there, the one with gem-blue wings that keep moving when at rest, rising up and down to the track of his own breathing.
Mya’s watching it too. Dom doesn’t know what kind of butterfly it is, but it flexes its wings with the confidence of something that knows perfectly well what it is.
‘So how’s school?’
‘Fine,’ she says.
Dom sneaks a sideways glance at her; her smooth, shining face reveals nothing. ‘And that means?’
‘It means you wouldn’t believe me if I said I never got into trouble.’
There’s that smile of hers again. Nothing major.
Mya moves off to the other end of the greenhouse. She stands in the middle of a small whirlpool of butterflies. The blue-winged butterfly returns, and Mya has lost sight of it. The butterfly arcs around to the back of her head like a hawk searching for prey, and finds her hair. Only then does Dom remember the hair-clip, except that in his mind’s eye the hair is slightly darker than Mya’s, and the butterfly’s wings are slightly more silvery-blue, like a moon crafted into a new shape. He hated that butterfly clip, but Erica loved it, and they had plenty of play fights every time Erica put it on.
He moves over to Mya, who pretends not to notice. ‘I miss her too,’ he says, ‘you should know that.’
Mya’s face hardens.
‘It’s not the same. But I’d like you to come home.’
The butterflies frame them, and he wants to bat them away. The one on Mya’s head has moved on, rising effortlessly, and it seems like a messenger, trying to bring father and daughter together to pick up the pieces. But Mya’s face says ‘not yet’.