Thursday, November 1, 2018

Long summer nights

When I was a kid, I always enjoyed time with my family. I had three sisters and two brothers, and all six of us, along with mom and dad, would go camping in the woods every year. Dad would play guitar as we gathered round the fire. I remember the flame crackling in the night as we sang songs together. Mom was always a great singer, with Samantha, our eldest sister, sharing that gift with her. The middle siblings, Simon, Ashleigh and Tom, were always the more disruptive, but they always told the best ghost stories. Even though Jodie and I, the youngest two, were quite spooked by them most of the time, we still have nothing but fond memories left after that.

And fond memories are all we have. Gathered around our old fireplace at home, the six of us met once again for the first time in years. They’d all changed so much. Or maybe I was just remembering them differently. No one said anything. So many years had passed, and yet nobody had anything to say.

The only person who did talk to me was Jodie. We’d always been the closest. All of the others were quite a bit older than us, while she and I were just two years apart. She told me all about dad’s sudden illness, and she was the one to greet me home when I came over. Jodie was the only one who stayed behind.

My first night there, we sat in our PJs in the kitchen in the dead of night sipping hot cocoa. Neither of us could sleep. There was a vague sense of dread hanging in the house. She felt it too. She didn’t know why, but her theory involved a fleshgait.

“A what?” I asked.

“It’s a Native American thing, I think,” she explained. “Some sort of spirit that takes the form of an animal, perfectly mimicking them. They can even look and feel human. That’s how they get you – they make you lower your guard and then they eat you up, taking over your soul and body. That way they have more material for shapeshifting later on.”

“Well, dad is still alive in one piece. Physically, at least.”

“Exactly. But he’s not there in the head anymore.”

“I don’t see the connection.”

“Well, about the time he started to get sick, dad started collecting butterflies. Come on, I’ll show you.”

I followed her, still not sure how all this shapeshifter business related to dad’s condition and butterflies. She pointed to a display on the wall near the staircase. Sure enough, it was filled with some seriously beautiful insect, however haphazardly they were pinned to the canvass. In the very center of this chaotic piece was a majestic, large, sky-blue specimen I’d never seen before. Mesmerized, I couldn’t help but lean in closer and notice that the pattern on its wings resembled the outline of a human skull.

“This your fleshgait?” I snickered.

“Get this,” she said, her youthful face scarily serious. “I saw dad the day he caught the butterfly. He was crying as he held it in his hands. He said the butterfly promised him his dream would come true.”

“So he was probably already losing it.”

“Yeah, probably. But consider this. You’re here, and the others are coming too. What do you think dad’s biggest dream was for the past couple of years?”

“So you’re saying dad got his dream to come true for low price of his soul and sanity? That he made a deal with a fleshgait? Jodie,” I sighed, “mom’s right. You should get off the internet sometimes.”

When I did finally get to see my siblings and we all sat silently in the living room in the dim light of the fireplace, I couldn’t help but feel empty inside. I was sure we all had a valid reason to abandon dad. I can’t remember the exact cause – I’d always assumed it was all about the affair that dad had back in the day. Still, mom had forgiven him and they were still living together, so there must have been more to it than that. At some point, it all spiraled out of control, new reasons popped up, and we all went our separate ways. Until it started to look like we would be losing our dad for good pretty soon.

As we all made our way back to our bedrooms, I stopped near the butterfly display. My gaze fixed on the blue butterfly. Thinking back on what Jodie told me, a sudden thought got ahold of me. Dad’s last conscious wish was a failure. We were all back together, and yet we were all apart. There was no going back to what we had before.

I’d give everything I had to get all of that back.


On that night, I had trouble falling asleep. How empty my old room was certainly didn’t help matters. The butterfly was on my mind so much that when I did eventually fall asleep, it seemed like it was everything there was. If only it had stayed that way.

Suddenly, I was standing in a field, the wind howling around me, dead leaves and sticks crackling and crumbling as they flew past me. In the distance I saw a figure. It was moving towards me, but it didn’t appear to be walking. It was more of a fluid glide, with no leg movement discernable underneath its billowing azure cloak. Yet, even though the movements were so smooth, I could hear the sound of bones cracking more and more clearly as it got closer.

It was close enough that I could look inside its hood. It was a woman, with skin as smooth as silk Yet I couldn’t see her face, as the blue butterfly from dad’s display was covering her it. Unlike that butterfly, this one was very much alive, its wings slightly swaying as the figure approached me.

Transfixed, I stood there, unable to look away. The butterfly shifted both its wings to the left side of her face, causing my cheeks to flare up. I was stunned with the beauty in front of me,  her vivid blue eyes, her plump lips and perfect nose only reminded me how long it had been since I last got intimate with anyone. As if responding to my base desires, her lips curved into a mysterious smile as she reached her hand behind my neck and locked lips with me.

For a moment, I let myself go. The sensation was positively orgasmic. The bliss felt like it would last forever, but it was short-lived. At first I thought it was the heat from the kiss, but I soon realized something was very wrong with my gums. I could feel a distinct pull, then a puncture, and then a fiercer pull. I started to scream, but it came out muffled and silenced as her teeth dug deeper into my flesh. The warm, thick blood running down my chin made me feel sick, and yet I remained painfully lucid. Her blue eye drilled into mine as the woman smiled.

The sensation of sandpaper going down my throat is what finally pulled me out of that nightmare. Clutching my chest and heaving, my torso lifting and dropping rapidly, I sat on the bed. The taste of blood was still lingering in my mouth. But the figure was gone. I was safe. And yet something was off.

The sunlight seeping into the room didn’t feel like it belonged to a sunrise. A mix of orange and pink, it was definitely sunset. How long had I slept? That’s when I spotted it. In the corner of my eye, something flickered in the sunlight. My heart sank. The blue butterfly circled the room twice and flew out the door, down the hallway. My legs felt like they were moving on their own, carrying me down the butterfly’s path. The front door flew open, a cool wind hitting my cheeks.  I froze as I noticed where exactly the butterfly was heading.

Outside the front door was a thick forest. The smell of evergreens hit my nose like a truck, bringing with it a wave of nostalgia that almost masked the confusion and uneasiness that the sudden change in landscape brought with it.

It was far from the eeriest thing to happen, however. Samantha brushed past me, fully clothed with backpack in tow, happily skipping along into the woods. Tim, Ashleigh and Simon all followed suit, giggling. Mom was right behind them, carrying a basket filled with her special sandwiches. Jodie sprang by and waved at me to come along. Then I felt a familiar grasp on my shoulder. I took a look behind me, and there he was. Dad. Beaming and standing on his own two legs, and looking at me with lucidity I’d never thought I’d see again, he said: “Come on, son. Let’s go camping.”

And so we went camping.

The eight of us gathered round the fire, as we always have, with the flames crackling happily in the night.  With dad on the guitar, we were singing all our usual songs, laughing, talking, cherishing every moment together, acting like no time had passed since that was what it really felt like. Mom and Samantha sang their sweet duet, while Tim, Ashleigh and Simon were at their most playful, sharing funny anecdote after funny anecdote.

We took a small break from all the fun and games as Ashleigh had to use the bathroom. The singing and laughing soon resumed. I watched my marshmallow shrivel and burn slightly, but was suddenly startled with a loud rustle and a muffled scream from the woods.

“What was that?”

“Probably just the wind, honey,” said mom. “Don’t worry about it. We’re all here, let’s just enjoy this.”

She was right. We were finally all here. Everything was back to normal. It felt as if anything was possible. We could get back the time we’d lost away from each other. We’d be together forever now. All seven of us. Just like it always had been.

After a few solid portions of marshmallows and a couple beers, I went to take a leak, along with Simon. We talked for a second. The conversation we had made me remember I hadn’t seen his kid yet. I told him that I’d definitely come over whenever I had some more time and we could catch up. It would be like old times again.

Dad called me over. It was time for our camping game that we always played. Dad, Tim and I would always team up against mom and the girls and we’d always come close to beating them, but they always turned things around at the last second. On the way, I almost tripped over something. I hesitated for a second. It felt like it was the size and general shape of a pretty thick branch, but was somehow a bit softer and squishier. In the end, deciding it was unimportant, I ignored it. It was finally time for us to beat the girls.

Nobody knew what time it was. Nobody cared. The night still felt young, even though the darkness surrounding us appeared to grow thicker the more we hung around. Samantha leaned in to add wood to the fire.

“You know, as the only boy, you could at least take care of this.”

“But you’re the oldest.”

“Knock it off, you two,” said dad. He put his guitar down and started roasting some marshmallows of his own. “Look at all those stars.” Mom and Jodie both followed his lead and looked up. I followed too, but not until my gaze lingered for a bit on the empty space on mom’s right. I must be getting tired.

Now that I live in the city, I can barely see the stars at night. With so much light on the ground, it’s pretty much impossible to see what’s up above. So even though we know they’re there, we can’t see them. Thinking about it like that always made me a bit sad.

“I’m hungry,” I said, slightly too quietly, dad’s guitar drowning out my voice.

“Hm?” said Jodie.

“I said, I’m hungry.”

“Well, all we have is marshmallows.”

“Don’t we have sandwiches?”

“What, did you make any?”

“No, I didn’t. But didn’t,” I hesitated. What was I going to say.

Jodie handed me the marshmallow she’d been roasting. “Here. It’s not much, but it’s all I have. I’m not hungry anyway.”

Unceremoniously, I devoured the marshmallow, causing Jodie to chuckle. “Don’t ever change.”
I smiled back at her. Jodie’s smile had always been infectious. Wide, sincere, you couldn’t help but smile back in exactly the same way. Whenever I was feeling down, she was always there to cheer me up.

I blinked. I blinked again. She was gone. She was sitting right next to me just a second ago. And now she was gone. I stood up, a chill climbing up my spine, all the way to the nape of my neck.

She was gone. I was standing in complete silence with nothing but the crackling of the dying flame breaking it up.

Dad was still there. Barely visible, he looked red in the dying flame’s light. He was smiling, though I could see his cheeks glistening wet from his tears. His fingers were still strumming the guitar strings but no sound came. I could only stand and watch, but I felt that, on some level, this is how he wanted it. He mouthed something to me. I asked him to speak up but no sound came. He just mouthed it again. ‘Thank you.’

The flame died, the final echoes of my dad gone with it. All that was left were a couple flickering lights up above, and the blinding darkness of the forest. Then I heard a crack. For a split second, I thought it was the flame again, somehow, but that wasn’t it. I heard it again. And then I realized where I knew the sound from. The taste of blood returned.

The stars disappeared one by one, leaving behind a number that could be counted on one hand. I could almost feel the woman’s eerie glide, her billowing cloak brushing against my legs. I shut my eyes tight and clenched my teeth, praying to God that He’d let me wake up one more time. I regretted my wish. I just wanted to live.

You promised me everything in return. Her voice pierced my mind. It came from somewhere inside me. There was no escape. I tried to open my eyes but there was no difference. All the stars were gone. All I could see was the butterfly  peering from underneath her hood. It quivered and moved to the right side of her face. I gazed into the abyss and felt my stomach turn. I could feel my throat bleed from the effort to scream. But there was no sound. I was suspended in an unseeing, unhearing world. I was gone.

And take everything I shall.