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Chasing Butterflies by Jemma van de Nes
First prize - Charlotte Duncan Award 2014

There's a boy playing on the netball court.

I've been staying back after school every day for two weeks but I've never seen him before. And now, the final week before tryouts, he's using the whole court to dribble a stupid basketball.

He's also talking to himself.

'Thommo spins, he shoots ...' The ball thumps the backboard and spirals into the net, like water going down a drain. 'He scores! Thommo wins the game for his -'

He stops when he sees me and I can't help but smirk a little.

'Nice shot,' I say, tossing my ponytail over my shoulder like Sarah does. 'Can you do it without a backboard though?'

'Why would I want to?' he says. 'Netball's for girls.'

I watch him hurl the basketball past the footy goals and kick it along the ground until he disappears down the track on the far side of the oval.

I feel a little scared because, with a temper like that, he could be dangerous. And then I feel guilty because he seemed to be having fun until I came along.

But mostly I feel happy because now I have the court to myself.


Abbey and Zoe are on the division one netball team. Last year I was third division, but this year, my final year of primary school, I need to be on the number one team.

I've seen how playing division one has made Abbey and Zoe popular. At first they turned Sarah down when she asked them to sit with her. They'd look at me and then at each other and say, 'Sorry Sarah. We're just hanging with Millie today.'

I remember wondering where did the 'just' come from? We weren't 'just' friends - we were best friends. We spent lunchtimes chasing butterflies or squashed onto a beanbag, reading books in the library and we always worked on projects together after school.

But two weeks ago, Abbey and Zoe said yes to Sarah and lunchtimes filled with gossip ... to lunchtimes without me.


The next day, the boy is back.

'You again.' I stare at him with narrowed eyes, spinning my netball between my hands.

He looks over my shoulder. 'This is your school?' he asks.

I smooth my hands over my green uniform and roll my eyes. 'Obviously.'

'It's pretty old.' He tosses the ball high in the air and catches it again. 'And this court is lame. I mean, it's got basketball and netball lines on it. It's confusing.'

'It's an economical use of space.'

He stares at me like I'm speaking a foreign language. Then he shakes his head and walks to the other end of the court where he tugs the rope attached to the goal post so he can turn it to use the basketball ring.

I drop my bag and spin my netball three times for good luck. My first shot sails to the left, but only because of the breeze, which whips my hair against my face. My next shot bounces off the ring. I bite my bottom lip. My third shot hits the net and drops to the ground.

I really hope the boy isn't looking.

'You need to bend your knees!' There's laughter in his voice. 'And flick your wrists!'

'Who made you the expert?' I stand tall with the ball on my hip and glare at him.

He looks at the ground, scoops up his jumper and walks away.


I spend Wednesday lunchtime chasing a butterfly around the oval on my own. I run and run but I don't catch it. After school, I watch Zoe and Abbey leave with Sarah and then I head to the court.

I'm surprised when the boy comes over to talk to me as soon as I drop my things on the ground.

'What's that?' he asks, pointing to my science project.

'My egg baby carrier.'

'Your what?'

'My egg baby -'

'Yeah, I heard you, but what is it?'

'You've never seen an egg baby before?'

He shakes his head.

'Well,' I hold up the egg. 'This is the egg baby. We have to make a carrier for it for the week and then on Friday, we drop them off a ladder and see whose egg survives.' I'm beaming because I'm going to win. There's no way my interlocked triangles made with drinking straws will fail.

'Why'd you go with a triangular frame?' he asks.

'I thought it would be strongest.'

For the last year, Abbey, Zoe and I were like a triangle - an equilateral triangle to be exact. Three equal sides, three equal angles. Three best friends, equal distance apart. Now there's just a single line joining A to Z - Abbey to Zoe - and it passes me by.

I clear my throat. 'Most people just filled pretty boxes with cotton wool.' Over his shoulder I see Abbey and Zoe get into Sarah's mum's car.

'Sounds like fun.'

I choose to ignore his sarcastic tone ... and his lopsided grin and dimples.

I'd wanted to show Abbey and Zoe that I could do this project on my own, especially after seeing their matching boxes covered in butterfly stickers. I stayed up until midnight. I got superglue in my hair. It wasn't fun.

'So, what's your school like?' I ask. He doesn't wear a uniform, unless you count the boardies and weird band t-shirt he's been in every day this week.

'I don't go to school.'

I snort and hold the netball up to cover my face.

'I'm homeschooled by my parents.'

'Are they good teachers?'

'Obviously not,' he laughs, 'because I've never heard of egg babies before.'

I lower the netball. 'What's it like being in a class all by yourself?' I think how great it would be to be top of the class all the time.

He looks right through me and says, 'Lonely.'


On Thursday, I've made three out of twenty shots when he calls out, 'You need to follow through. Bend your wrists, like you're reaching into a cookie jar!'

He jogs down to my end of the court. 'My brother taught me that. He was the basketball star in our family.'

I notice he's using past tense.

'His name was Matt,' he says.

We're facing each other. We'd be the same height if he wasn't slouched forward, staring at the ground.

'What's your name?' I ask.

He looks up, startled. 'Ben.'

We shake hands. I've never touched a boy's hand before. His is cold and there are rough calluses on his palm.

'I'm Millie.'

He's still holding my hand when he says, 'Millie, can I please show you how to shoot properly? I mean ... watching you ... it's painful and well, you remind me of someone.'

'Who?' I ask.

'Me,' he says.


On Friday my netball swishes through the net on my first go!

'Millie shoots. She scores! She wins the division one grand-'

'Millie? What are you doing?'

I turn to face Abbey and Zoe. The ball rolls away.


'For division one?' Zoe asks. 'But Sarah and Abbey play goals. You'll never-'

'We need a reserve,' says Abbey, nudging Zoe in the side. 'A back up.'

'Oh yeah,' adds Zoe, smiling.

Is that what I am? A 'back up' friend who has to pass a test to be even that?

I hear Ben whistling as he walks towards us. He's got his basketball in one hand and my science project in the other.

'I might play basketball instead.'

'Whatever,' they say and walk away.


Ben doesn't ask why my project was in the bin so I don't tell him I was disqualified for using superglue. Or that Sarah won.

'I told mum about the egg baby thing and she's going to work it into my next science unit. We could have a competition of our own.' He squats to tie his shoelaces.

'Is that why you rescued my project? To copy it?'

'As if,' he says, laughing. 'I thought you might want to use it again.'

'I'm over triangles.'

Ben throws me the basketball. It's heavier than my netball but already I feel lighter, like I could float up high and make a slam dunk.

'Knees! Wrists! Cookie jar!' Ben shouts.

I make fifteen shots in a row. The thud of the ball against the backboard echoes the thud in my chest.

'Pretty cool, huh?' I jog over to get my drink bottle.

Ben catches me by the arm. We're standing in the centre circle. We started at opposite ends of the court but somehow, within five days, we've met in the middle. I want to believe I've found a new friend; a friend I didn't have to chase after or prove myself to, but Ben is looking over my shoulder, just like Abbey and Zoe always did, and I sense something there, like maybe his friends have arrived to laugh at me.

But then he says, 'Millie, there's a butterfly on your shoulder.'

Copyright © 2014. Jemma van de Nes