She watched cautiously to make sure she wasn’t followed to the taxidermy shop. She tried to walk slowly, so she didn’t arouse suspicion, but she was excited, and it was almost painful to keep from rushing.

She entered the store and a bell rang off in the distance. She was greeted with a sterile, plastic smell. These stuffed animals on the walls were fake. It was illegal to own a real animal, alive or dead, merely for pleasure. Only businesses for food were allowed, but most meat and dairy were synthetic these days. It was considered poor taste to have an artificial one, but she could see how one might be attracted to owning one of these creatures. They had a certain wildness to them that felt freeing.

She didn’t own one of these stuffed animals herself, but she figured that soon someone would notice if she was here often and didn’t appear to be a patron. But, truthfully, she was one of the shop’s best customers.

She walked up to the counter, her heart racing. She fidgeted with her buttons on her coat as she waited.

Terrance appeared moments later, smiling at her. “It’s good to see you, my dear.” He held out his hands, then took hers in his and kissed her knuckles. Even though he was much older than her, she’d always found her friend attractive. Seh knew it was dangerous to call people friends in this business. You made connections, but you had to be prepared to break from those connections without a second thought if you wanted to save yourself. But, friendliness made good business.

“Have they arrived?” she nearly squealed.

“Yes, yes, a new shipment came in. They’re getting harder to find, you know.” His voice had a hint of warning. “And you know that affects my prices.”

“I’m prepared to pay.” Her tone was firm, turning the conversation from friendly to pure business.

“Indeed.” He gave a quick nod. “Come with me.”

He took her to the back room and handed her a small, wooden box. Wood was a rare luxury, but Terrance always paid careful attention to detail for his clients. Her fingers itched to open it, her thumb running along the seam of the lid.

“You know the rules.” He put his hands over hers as if he knew her thoughts. “You can’t open it here. It’s not safe.”

“I’m afraid we’re not safe anywhere. I just have this bad feeling.”

“Regardless, I won’t have you opening it. Now, shoo you young thing! I expect the credits in my account in the morning.” He placed his hand on her lower back and moved her towards the door.

“Of course.” She didn’t say another word, her gaze focused on her prize. This time, she couldn’t resist her excitement and nearly ran home.

As she returned to her living unit, she locked the door behind her and sighed. Seh closed all the windows and went inside a small closet she’d converted into an office of sorts. It had a small desk made of steel, with drawers that were secured by biometric locks along with a complex code. She couldn’t take any chances.

She’d had to obtain the desk from less-than-reputable sources. If she bought the desk retail, it had a serial number linked to her name. They liked to keep a record of the people that might be hiding something.

Seh turned on the light and locked the deadbolt she’d had installed, sealing herself in the claustrophobic room.

She could hear her heart pumping blood through her veins as she held her breath and lifted the lid. It revealed a shallow, empty velvet-lined box.

She retrieved a small tool and held the box up to the light, searching for the small hold that should have been on the right side. She aligned the head of the pin tool to the hold and pressed gently, the box clicking. Seh set it down and lifted out the insert, which now had risen enough for her to slip a finger under the lip.

She gasped as she saw what lay beneath it. It was more beautiful than she had imagined. “Danaus plexippus,” she whispered. A true Monarch butterfly. They’d been extinct for over two hundred years like the rest of the butterflies. Her fingertips lightly stroked the glass that kept the pinned monarch safe. It was the pride of her collection. It saddened her to think of such a free and beautiful creature in a cage of glass. She longed to be free like her butterflies and fly in a world where few freedoms remained.

She heard a knock at her door. Strange, she thought. She wasn’t expecting anyone. She pressed her fingerprint to one of the drawers and then entered the code. She slipped the wooden box inside the drawer and then sealed it with a click.

She went to the front door, locking her closet behind her.

She checked the peephole and dread washed over her, bile rising in her throat. She did her best to remain composed and took a deep breath. She smoothed out her clothes nervously and opened the door. “Hello, officer. What can I do for you?” She tried to sound as innocent as possible without sounding too coy.

“We have reason to believe you’re in possession of illegal goods.” The office didn’t seem to be swayed by her attempt at charm. She didn’t think she was bad to look at either.

“Officer, I can assure you I’m not hiding anything.”

“Then you don’t mind if I search your home?”

She knew that she had the right to say no without a warrant, but resisting at all would tip him off. He knew this, too. There was no way out. She let the officer through to her living unit, preparing lies in her head and putting on a smile.

A single tear rolled down her cheek, and she swiped it away before the officer could see it. She felt a sense of horror thinking of her prized collection being confiscated if they found it. The beautiful creatures might be destroyed. No one would be able to enjoy their beauty again, and it would be all her fault.

How fitting, then, that she should end up just like her butterflies.

In a cage.

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