When Bobby came into school dressed as a caterpillar, we never would have guessed what he’d grow up to be. It was World Book Day. His costume was a green pair of trousers, a bogey-coloured t-shirt and two toilet roll tubes taped to his head. We thought he was an alien. Or maybe he was a bog monster. He always had that smell about him. Whenever Bobby came up in conversations, our mothers used to whisper big words like ‘hygiene’ and ‘neglect.’ Bobby’s mum—they said—was a ‘heroin addict.’ She had needle marks all up her arm and, on the few occasions she came into school, she wore a grey beanie hat. Bobby’s dad sold defective DVDs out the back of his canary-coloured truck. The rest of the time he lounged around their council house which was on the estate our mother’s called the bad estate, the one that was flaxen and gloomy and serrated by more knives than people. Bobby couldn’t help living on the bad estate—this is what our mothers told us. They said we should be nice to Bobby, but not so nice we got invited for tea. They’d heard rumours that Bobby ate his tea from one of those free-with-a-coupon cereal bowls, shovelling it up with a plastic spork. His food was yellow food. It was oven chips and turkey twizzlers and singular sweetcorn kernels, certainly not apples and plums like the foods he described on World Book Day. His book was The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Listing all the foods the caterpillar ate, he went into great detail about the cloud-like softness of a watermelon and the symphonic sweetness of a Duchess pear. We were pretty sure Bobby didn’t know anything about watermelons or pears—and probably he was as ignorant as we were about the word ‘symphonic.’ The only reason he could describe those things was because he had an imagination that was as big as the oak on Rectory Green. Our mothers used to say his imagination was all he had. They used to say the sofa in Bobby’s front room pointed at a wall painted half Caramel Latte, half Banana Dream. The TV had been carted off in the same van that took his mum when she OD’d. Sometime after that, Bobby’s dad punched a hole in the Banana Dream side of the wall and made a bargain with the image of Jesus he claimed he could see on the Caramel Latte side. Of course, God didn’t listen, and Bobby became one of those kids whose eyes pointed inside himself. This was probably why he didn’t realise how ridiculous he looked on World Book Day. If you really want to be a caterpillar, we told him, you need to slide through the plant beds on your belly. We reckoned he would enjoy that. Bobby was a dirty child, after all. He always had dirt under his fingernails which was because he’d been helping with the marijuana plants his dad was growing in their attic. There was other dirt we couldn’t see—this is what our mothers said. He knew dirty words. He never had a shower. Whenever our teacher rearranged the seating plan, our mothers would march into school to ensure we were as far from Bobby as our twenty-eight-by-thirty-foot classroom would allow. They didn’t want us catching nits or scabies, which was something they’d drummed into us just enough that, when we told Bobby to wriggle around in the mud, we did it at a distance of twice the length of our eight-year-old arms. Bobby ignored us, at any rate, because Bobby had decided to hang from the climbing frame by his scrawny ankles and spin himself inside an imaginary cocoon. Later, our mothers said it was his dad who should have spun that cocoon. That is what parents did. They spun cocoons. Of course, the reality of our cocoons and the reality of Bobby’s cocoon wasn’t in any way the same thing. For example, in our cocoons, Bobby stayed off school the day after World Book Day because he had jaundice and, when he never came back to school, it was because his dad had been arrested and he’d been taken into care and this was all for the best because at least in care he might have the occasional vegetable and get to watch TV. And because we thought all that was true, it came as a shock last week when we saw him coming towards us down the street, arm in arm with his father. He’d grown up just as we had, but he’d also grown different. The way he moved was full of purpose. He had an aura. As we followed him from one street to the next, we saw the easiness of his smile, the way he stopped to fiddle with a plant pot or point at a flower. What’s he doing? we asked, and a woman who was standing nearby gestured to the trees and the well-cut lawns. This was down to Bobby, she explained. He was working with the council to improve the estate. The estate? we asked. That same estate of serrated knives we’d never been to when we were kids? That same estate where Bobby’s mum had got cancer and Bobby’s dad had grown a prize-winning turnip and heritage peas—because that is what happened. Not the rumours our mothers made up. Another shock was learning that Bobby had gone to Oxford and Bobby’s dad had set up a watermelon farm. But the biggest shock of all was in comparing ourselves to him. It was as though Bobby had metamorphosed from caterpillar to butterfly, and we’d done the same transformation in reverse. We’d been butterflies, but now we were tiny wrigglers hardly bigger than a nail, shrivelled and stunted through our childhood eating of vol-au-vents and Reblochon and other yellow things.
Orlando native Kaylan Stedman Friedman is an illustrator out of Torrance, California. With a Master’s in TESOL, she teaches English by day and pursues her passion for art and illustration at all other waking moments. For more art, peruse past Ghost Parachute issues, follow her Instagram, @k.s.illustrations, or support her on Etsy at www.etsy.com/shop/ksillustrationsstore.