The worst days are when the butterflies come through. There are thousands of them that cover the sky and block the sun. They are all brown, and black, orange and red. On the first three days of autumn, everyone locks themselves inside. There are orphans from the butterflies, widows and childless parents. The last days of summer are all spent outside, no matter what the weather. There are celebrations, not for what is to come, but because we need to forget the butterflies.
There are parties late into the night the butterflies come. There are two types of people in this town. Those who stay up late and drink too much, get caught in the butterflies and die choking on them. And those who go to bed early, kiss their families good night and wake up to a couple days stuck inside.
I am the late night, drink till I drop kinda guy. I don’t care if I die as long as I go out with a bang. My wife, Vanessa, preferred to stay up with me for a couple hours and go inside as soon as it got dark. I would stumble in later when I could hear the sound of wings, and watch the butterflies through the window.
Everyone’s back yard starts with at least 10 people. It doesn’t matter if you want them there or not. By the time you can hear wings, there will never be more than four or five. By the time the butterflies show up, never more than two. And by the fourth day of autumn, only a couple bodies sprawled on the lawn. I enjoyed sitting by the window as the butterflies came, lighting themselves on fire from the grills and battering themselves against the side of the house. The person or two still in my yard would either run towards the house and bang on the door, or laugh in the face of butterflies and accept their fate. Vanessa never allowed herself to get up and help anyone. I asked her if she thought it was cruel to leave them out there, but both of us knew if you opened the door, you died. If even one butterfly came in to your house, you were dead. No one how it worked. They were just butterflies. It made sense outside, you could suffocate, but the few that made it inside shouldn’t hurt. Nevertheless, there was always one house were everyone had died, because a single butterfly made it under the door or the slightly cracked basement window.
Vanessa would spend the last week or two of summer butterfly proofing the house. I loved her for it. I loved the way her hair stuck to her face when the air conditioning was down and she would collapse in an armchair with a Coke and swipe her arm across her forehead. I loved the way she would roll up her sleeves, even though she was wearing a t-shirt, and keep searching the house for duct tape.
No one understands why no one will leave. Sure, we all have plans to, but you don’t come into the town unless you are born into it, and you don’t leave unless you die. I don’t know what we’re all afraid of. As far as we know, there aren’t butterflies like ours in the rest of the world. We wouldn’t have to deal with the death, but for some reason, death is all we know and we wouldn’t know what to do without it.
Vanessa always made plans to leave. She would figure out budgets and transportation. She liked to find places for us to go and show me pictures on her laptop. I remember images of Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, and different mountainscapes hanging on our fridge. She would print them off like we had already been there. There was a map of the world in the bedroom with colored pins marking locations for us to visit. It was a fetish of hers, and I enjoyed the fantasy as well. It was a nice break from the hard three days at the beginning of fall.
Last year, Vanessa and I sat on the porch the last day of summer
, enjoying cold beers. My neighbor was grilling in my yard. His teenage son had kicked him out and was having a party with some of his friends from school. The plan was to spend the three days at someone’s house. Parents approve of things like that, friends getting together. It helps ward against the effect the butterflies have on people; the almost complete depression that comes with them. The time is better spent with people you care about.
Vanessa was talking about our travel plans that would never happen and the sun was just going down behind the houses. After a few minutes, she still had not left.
“Aren’t you going to go inside?” I asked.
“I think I’m going to sit outside with you a little longer.” she said and finished off her beer.
The thing is, the people who stay up drinking and barbecuing know when to go inside. I went to shower early that night and told Vanessa to come in soon. That year, the fact that we couldn’t leave was weighing on her and she was drinking a little bit more than usual. I didn’t realize that she just wanted a normal late night of drinking and talking about the things that would never happen. I should have told her to come in when she heard wings.
I walked out of the bathroom when I heard knocking on the door, expecting to see Vanessa in the bed with a pillow covering her ears. That was what happened most years. She couldn’t stand the sound of thousands of butterflies hitting the house and someone knocking fiercely on the door. I thought it was just my neighbor, stuck in the butterflies, until Vanessa wasn’t there and I heard two sets of fists on the door. I remember running to the front door and yanking it open. The glass door was closed and Vanessa was choking on butterflies her eyes wide and terrified. Her face was covered in the dust from their wings and her hands were pressed up against the glass door.
My hand reached for the handle and I pushed, but Vanessa was holding it shut, shaking her head. My neighbor was on the porch beside her, butterflies clotting his mouth. I could see him trying to scream and failing. He finally collapsed, momentarily knocking Vanessa off balance. I still couldn’t open the door. She opened her mouth, and I could pick out the last moment movie words: I love you. Then the butterflies attacked and I knew she was dead and it was no use trying to save her. I closed the door. I couldn’t watch it anymore.
This year, the butterflies are welcoming. I lost Vanessa. I am slowly losing my entire town, along with my mind. I sit outside, binge drinking whatever is in the house. It doesn’t matter. I am going to die tonight anyway. I can hear butterflies and I still don’t move. I can barely stand up and end up collapsing in the yard. I have never been this close to them, and I can feel them rushing over head like one giant demon instead of thousands of small ones. I lie there, wondering when they will kill me. I don’t know how much time passes, but I throw up on the grass and feel a little better. I think I can stand up, but I don’t want to, so I turn over on my back and look up. I fall asleep at some point and wake up again, still not dead. It occurs to me numbly that I’m hungry, but I don’t want to eat anything, so I keep watching the butterflies until I fall asleep again. When I wake up, they are gone, and it occurs to me: the butterflies don’t care about the ones who have nothing to lose.
Sawyer Carlson is a teenager finding his way through life. When he is not with his dog, he enjoys sketching, writing, and playing guitar. Sawyer is a well meaning wallflower who overthinks things, but still seems to follow his gut. He dedicates all of his work to his best friends.