• We are ephemeral, every one of us, thinks the caterpillar as she – he – they – admire the coils of precious smoke in the air. The place stinks of Opium poppy, and the caterpillar cannot say that they mind it. He has so few guests, nowadays. In its heyday, the Mushroom was quite the scene. Each night would be flooded in absinthe and heady smog, the customers always mercurial, strange creatures on the very cusp of reality. They were the fringe, and the Caterpillar only provided the pattern for them to wander. She was always there, languishing on her pedestal, to provide a fresh smoke, a drink laced with wormwood, a cosy little back room and a cosy little companion for the night.

    She smirked, and toyed idly with a strand of deep blue hair. Ephemeral… yes, they were all ephemeral, forever floating, never quite daring to touch down on earth. They didn’t live; they only completed a means to the end. The human experience was, she noted, like constant metamorphosis. Suddenly, footsteps. The caterpillar smirked, and checked her makeup in the reflection of the hookah she kept coiled around herself.
    “Who are you?” He hissed a customary greeting to the one constant in her life. They turned as one to examine the stranger, and were unpleasantly surprised to find that they weren’t the one they were expecting.

    Her first meeting with the stranger they knew had gone a little like this: it was the last proper night of the Mushroom’s short-lived fame. The lights were blue, low, a perfect contrast to the smart uniforms of the Cards. They’d swept in around a freckle past the mole, with their notions of ‘morality’ and ‘respectable establishments’ and ‘dens of iniquity’. By the time they’d gone, none of the remaining guests had wanted to stick around anyway. And so the caterpillar had sat and blown deep blue smoke rings, until a cough behind them prompted the age old question – but damn, damn, he’d missed the reply. Who was she? Who was the stranger-than-stranger in their midst?

    “Who are you?” She asked again, and the question was meant this time. Why – the girl who stood before them, for all her precocious high-headed play-acting was a child – and a child who looked as though she’d been dragged through a hedge backwards, at that. Or a rabbit hole. Perhaps she could have been drowned, as well. A bitter smell of salt filled the air, making the caterpillar wrinkle her nose. He ceased his musings, and forced himself to concentrate on the reply. No, it was gone again. Forget her, then, silly little girl. What was she doing in a den of iniquity anyway?

    Another smoke ring between friends. He called by regularly now, after those clingy nobodies had finally been shooed out of their seats. He was always the last one left, and after a while, the Caterpillar had learned to enjoy the companionship. She’d always been alone before, in her little cocoon of disaffected smoke. They developed a routine over a glass or five of absinthe.

    “How are the borograves, m’dear?” He’d ask, only half-jokingly as the green liquid ran through the spoon she held for him – he was too shaky, by this point, to have held it himself. The caterpillar would smile her painted smile and reply:
    “Mimsy, I should expect. Especially at this time of year, when they have so little time to be otherwise engaged.” Was it wit or the absinthe that caused his mirthless chuckling?
    “And why, pray tell, can they not love, and hold, and…” He smiled before his sentence had finished. Unspoken words hung in the air for a moment. His eyes were on her lips, and her eyes were fixed firmly on the wall behind him. This was neither the time nor place. She knew this without thinking, and momentarily the stranger knew it too.

    The girl was speaking again, the caterpillar noticed, much to their annoyance. He politely offered her a smoke, and was happy to note that she declined. The girl seemed to want something though, so the caterpillar threw herself over to the other side of her pedestal and blew away the smog to gain a better view.
    Yes… that had shocked her. And what a sight the caterpillar must have been, kingfisher brocade in tatters around the seams, stark blue hair at ragged angles… clothes that hadn’t been changed in weeks, out of apathy rather than poverty. Sunken lids, swollen lips, eyes half-blind with smoke. The girl stepped back. The caterpillar drew the curtains back around herself.
    “One side makes you smaller. The other makes you tall.” Now get out of my sight. He thought, returning to the miserable fugue they belonged in.

    One night, the stranger hadn’t arrived. Neither had any other customers, but the Caterpillar put that down to the winter chill, or the issue of cash. Or the riots. Fire sparked in the street, she knew, but as of yet her little Mushroom seemed exempt from the hysteria. She gave a smoky sigh and fanned herself with what was left of the lacy fan bequeathed to her by their friendly stranger. More than likely, they all believed her dead. Good. She remembered, with a shiver, the death-toll that rang in her head. Ephemeral. They were all ephemeral, she reminded himself – but he hadn’t expected them to fade away so soon.

    There was a strange sensation from somewhere above. A falling chandelier knocked the caterpillar on the shoulder, and she flinched in what she remembered must be pain. Annoyed, she glanced upwards – that meddling little brat, again! The ceiling was all but blasted apart, and in the back of his mind the Caterpillar knew that staying meant still greater discomfort. Plaster was sticking to his hair, her clothes, and their already fragile skin. Something told the Caterpillar to stay. Was living worth the effort of shifting an already fading body? More importantly, was there anybody else to live for?

    “No”, she replied aloud, twirling a fan in a weak, pale hand as the curtains pole crashed down around her, smothering him in a smoky, final embrace. They had never been living - this was metamorphosis.