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Which Way Car Wash

A monarch butterfly encounters many obstacles—pollution, cars, and predatory birds—on her migration route

Silver buildings gleamed in the distance. They rose high into the sky, blocking the view of it. Shorter buildings puffed out too much smoke, making it impossible for birds to fly over the area. Cars honked almost every second of the day, filling the city with sounds of car horns. Around the perimeter of the city was a row of trees too perfect to be anywhere near the new city. The sun looked like it was ready to cough out its sunlight through the smoke in the sky.

A small monarch looked out at the new city, afraid of the new obstacles in her way. She had not seen this city before and didn’t like how it was right in her migration path.

No other monarchs had made it this far yet, and she had been told by a ladybug that the only ones who had tried had gone in groups and come back with broken wings or had lost almost everyone in their group. This information scared the monarch, but she was determined to migrate to Mexico, only led by her instinctive compass and the warmth coming from the south.

The trees surrounding the perimeter of the city look safest at the moment for the monarch, so she makes her way over. From far away, there seem to be no animals perched in the tree. That’s strange, the monarch thinks. A tree like this is perfect for most animals who dwell near the city.

She lands on one of these trees and almost passes out from a strong smell that burns her small trachea. Now she understands clearly why not one creature dares use this tree. It is covered in a pesticide meant to repel only a few select insects. Humans thought they were warding off termites. They had really just made this tree uninhabitable for all creatures.

The monarch coughs and glides down to the smooth marble walkway. Her small feet slip on the floor because there’s no friction on the walkway. To get around, she must use her wings.

The monarch is in front of the first house and stops to take in the view. She has never seen a place so clean, so organized.

The house is modern, with three levels and a flat roof. The yard is filled with completely fake plants, with the exception of one small tree covered in pesticide. Children are playing inside, and they appear to be alone.

Then there is a light visible from one of the rooms. The monarch finds herself inching toward the light, entranced by the amazing creations of humanity. Then a small child runs up to the window, staring down at the monarch. He yells something to someone and disappears.

The monarch flutters to an upper room and can’t see anyone anymore. She hears a slight sliding sound, like wood against marble. Four children burst out of the door, yelling into the street that there is a butterfly.

The monarch disappears around the next corner, knowing that staying in that area would only mean death or a short life in a glass jar. The buildings are beginning to get shorter. There is no longer a chemical scent in the air. Here, it smells musty, and slightly of rotten things. Everything is covered in a thick layer of multicolored grime. A few starlings are poking at trash near a fast food restaurant. Not that many people are in sight. The walkway has also turned into gritty concrete, and the monarch guesses that this is part of a cheaper side of the city. All sorts of bad things happen in places like this. She doesn’t want to stay long but wants to visit the only animal she has seen since she started her journey through the city.

The monarch swoops down to the starlings, hoping to know what happened to the monarchs who did not come back from their migration. She also wants someone to talk to.

When she lands in the middle of a group of starlings, all of them turn to look at her.

“What is a monarch doin’ around here?”

The monarch is startled, and turns around quickly to see a big starling looking down at her. He cocks his head and puts his face very close to hers.

“I’m migrating through the city,” she answers confidently.

“Well, monarch, I wouldn’t keep on goin’. Most of your friends died when they got to that main road,” he said with a strange accent. The bird sounded British but the way that he slurred his words slightly led the monarch to believe he was from the city.

“Goodbye, bird,” the monarch said as she began to flutter off. They looked uninterested in her.

The bird said nothing and went back to picking at trash.

*          *          *

The majority of her journey along the walkway had been uneventful, with only the occasional distraction or stomping feet to interrupt the journey. It was noon now, and what would have been a relaxing evening of cricket chirps is now the loud honk of cars not that far away.

As the walkway continues, the honks get louder. Everything seems to be tainted with car oil, and the stink is beginning to make the monarch lightheaded. The monarch is coming near to the main road, which sits right at the edge of the city. It stretches on for miles, reaching seven main cities along the way. The road is four lanes wide. Each lane is large enough to fit an 18-wheel truck comfortably.

She shudders, afraid that one car going too fast could be the end of her dream to be the first monarch to reach Mexico.

The monarch reaches the edge of the road, and all of the determination drains out of her as fast as water going down a drain. She shudders, afraid that one car going too fast could be the end of her dream to be the first monarch to reach Mexico.

Even though there is no pattern of any type to the traffic, she does need to time when she will enter the road and plan how long to stay in certain areas. Most cars are high enough off the ground for her to fit underneath and maneuver her way past. But if one car has some wire sticking out, then it could catch on the monarch’s wings and drag her so fast that her legs would be shredded away.

Going above the cars could work, but if a truck comes, she will have to go high enough that the air could become poisonous from the amount of smoke. Trucks pass by often because of the rest stop that comes right before the monarch’s section of the road. I could walk to the truck stop and fly overhead, the monarch thinks. There has to be some way for me to go above.

Once she has observed the sky carefully, the monarch decides she wants to see for herself how bad the pollution in the air is. She cautiously flies up into the sky. The monarch stops below a cloud of smoke. From here, she can feel herself burning. There’s no way she would be able to survive that for more than a few seconds.

Deciding it’s the safest option, the monarch begins her journey underneath the cars. Sirens wail; the cars are forced to stop. Something has gone wrong up ahead. Everything is still, but it won’t stay this way for long. She flutters underneath one of the cars, a sleek white thing with no roof covering the driver’s head. The monarch doesn’t know why humans tend to do things this way. The car won’t be fully functional if rain comes.

Humans have always been strange, the monarch thinks. Maybe we have to be strange to understand them.

*          *          *

While the monarch is lost in thought, the cars begin to move again. The monarch flattens her wings down to the ground, hoping nothing will catch and tear them. Things come dangerously close to her head. Nothing has touched her yet, though. She inches toward the safe stretch of white paint separating the two lanes. The next car passing above the monarch seems to be going slightly slower than the others. The monarch hurls herself toward the white paint and just makes it as two monstrous wheels almost crush her.

There is a loud swooping sound, and then it stops. The monarch stops in her tracks. She’s unsure what the sound is. It’s there again, but closer now. A feeling of uneasiness fills the monarch.

“If it isn’t a monarch! Your friends were a rare treat. They tasted real nice.”

A small bird with a yellow stomach descends from above. He swoops the rest of the way down, landing close to the monarch. The monarch can tell that it’s the sound she heard before. The bird has a heavy Spanish accent, and that is enough information for the monarch to know what it is.

“You’re a black-backed oriole. One of the few animals that will eat monarchs,” she says back. This oriole is alone, but they are still dangerous. Other birds won’t eat monarchs because of the poison they carry. But two types of birds and one species of mouse are more immune than others. Since no other animals will eat monarchs, the species is an easy target as millions pass through to migrate.

“That is right, dear monarch. To make this easier, I would suggest that you stay still.” The oriole advances on the monarch, flaring his wings and pecking at the ground.

The monarch flies up into the sky, flapping as hard as she can. The oriole follows, then suddenly stops. He starts to choke and lets himself drop to the ground. The bird is overcome by wracking coughs.

The monarch feels safe and breathes in. Smoke fills her trachea instead of air. The monarch tries to breathe in again and again as she falls to the ground. She chokes on her own tongue and begins to lose consciousness. The world is spinning and continues to spin the more she tries to breathe.

From their cars, people see a small orange paper-like thing fall to the ground. No one takes much notice.

 Hhhuuuuuuaahhhhh

The sound is strange, but it escapes the monarch’s throat when she breathes in. Breathing in is a challenge, taking every ounce of strength from the monarch to get air into her body. Her mind is wandering, not aware that around her, cars are beginning to move. Not noticing that she is sprawled across the windshield of a car.

The windshield of a car of someone who cares nothing for wildlife.

*          *          *

“Eww, gross.”

“What is it this time?!”

“A bug died on our car. That’s bad karma, if you ask me.”

“Oh, just use the wipers! They invented them for a reason, you know . . .”

***

Big, black sticks push the monarch to the bottom of the car. Not enough air has reached her brain yet. She flops her head to one side, feeling exhausted after that simple movement.

“Help!” she screams, grabbing onto the car’s license plate.

“Hello?” she whispers into the air.

“Oh, monarch. Don’t waste your

breath.”

“Who is it?” she demands, with a stronger tone.

The voice doesn’t answer. The monarch feels alone now, even wishing the oriole could be here as company. Everything seemed so easy at first—just get through the city and fly to Mexico. But this whole trip, she has seen nothing but humans being cruel. Even now they don’t notice that a monarch is trying to make her way through. The monarch curls up at the bottom of the windshield, wishing that her journey could be over. A feeling of dread takes over. She is left with no fight in her, none of the fiery determination that got her this far.

“Don’t give up now, monarch.”

There is the voice again. It seems like someone who wants to help. The monarch extends her wings, filled with a new need to not let the mystery voice down. Whoever this is talking to the monarch, they want her to get through to Mexico.

So, she will get through to Mexico.

*          *          *

The monarch is far past the city. Cars travel fast, and the smoke from a new city is now in view. Things tend to be slower around cities. This city is set up differently from the other one. The main road crosses directly through the center of the city, not near the perimeter. Due to this set-up, there will be a small amount of city to cross before the monarch gets to the suburbs. But it will be easier to cross the main road.

The car the monarch is riding stops to let people through, and the monarch takes her chance. The two lanes ahead of her seem easy enough to get through, so she flutters past the car bumpers. The monarch makes it past the first lane easily. But at the second lane, the street empties of people. None of the other cars go yet except the one in front of the monarch.

The monarch freezes, stuck in place. She isn’t able to move up or down out of sheer terror: a car is about to hit her. The car is coming fast, and the monarch has nearly run out of time to move. She lets herself drop, but not before there is a sickening ripping sound, and a cry of pain only she can hear.

“Help!” she screams, grabbing onto the car’s license plate. Her wing is torn, and the excruciating pain from the small tear is already too much to bear.

The car is speeding fast, going so fast that the wind is keeping the monarch stuck to the car. The pressure is becoming too great. The city is gone now, leaving a big open road for cars to go as fast as they please. The wind presses the monarch into the car, flattening her wings so much they almost rip. The monarch is growing cold from the constant flow of wind. Her wings are numb, and she takes the few seconds she has to rip free the rest of her wing that’s stuck to the car. The pain makes her vision start to go black, but not before she tosses herself off of the main road. The monarch feels the sun warm her up before she goes to sleep.

*          *          *

Waking up is hard. The monarch wants neither to leave nor stay. The warmth of the sun and the soft grass remind her of her cocoon. But the pull of her migration instincts are enough to get the monarch on her feet again. Flying is impossible now that the monarch has only half a wing, but walking will do just fine. The monarch takes a second to go over the last few events.

She made it past the city. Maybe she will be the first monarch to reach Mexico. The monarch is filled with grief that future generations will have to go through the same experience as her. And that her friends will have to, too. But if one monarch can make it, then so can the rest.

The monarch looks into the horizon, thinking of what else she will have to undergo to get to Mexico. There is still a long way, and without half a wing, it will be hard. But she has passed the city. If she can do that, she can do anything.

Alexa Rivera Rockwood
Alexa Rivera Rockwood, 12
Potomac, MD

Nicholas Taplitz
Nicholas Taplitz, 13
Los Angeles, CA

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