Thomas rested his aching head against his palms, willing the headache to go away. It was only three a.m. in the morning and he already knew that it would be one of those increasingly frequent bad days. A cup of coffee that he’d brewed for himself lay abandoned beside an assortment of white pills on his kitchen counter. Thomas knew those medications wouldn’t work, tried to convince his wife of that, but she never budged. And in a way, it gave him comfort. Taking pills let him pretend that he was in control of his body and mind. But the fantasy never lasted, because two hours later the pain would return twofold and bring him to his knees. It had gotten so bad that he’d taken medical leave from work for more than two months. Thomas had hoped that the pain would go away, that the need would fade over time…but it had only gotten worse. He had a feeling that he would never be able to go back to work again.
Thomas slowly made his way to the balcony of his apartment, careful not to wake up his wife and son. As he watched the silent road below, he thought about the time before it had happened. Thomas had been a different person then. Naïve, trusting, stupid.
The warm summer air brought him back to that night, and his head began to pound with an intensity that brought tears to his eyes. In perfect irony, a black butterfly flew by him as he sunk to his knees. It taunted him with its seemingly delicate beauty and harmless disposition. It knew as well as Thomas what was happening to him. Even three thousand miles away, the hole still lingered in his chest, yearning to be filled.
Voices whispered sweet nothings in his head, telling him the same words he’d heard for seven years over and over and over…
“Can you keep a secret?”
Thomas nodded, his easy smile not fading in the slightest as he took in the nighttime forest. The fireflies were bursts of light against the darkness that enshrouded the trees. Canopies of leaves scattered the moonlight into intricate patterns that shined like diamonds of various shapes and sizes. Woodland critters scampered across the grass, and cicadas played their music for the young couple sitting on a rustic old porch.
His breath caught when her vibrant emerald eyes met his. They were iridescent, the color changing from a delicate turquoise to a stormy jade as she moved out from the moonlight. Her voice darkened into a whisper as she leaned in, her breath tickling the side of his neck.
“There’s this beautiful place right by the riverside that I haven’t shown to anyone yet…but you’re special. I want you to be the first.”
“When do we go? Now?”
Vanessa laughed quietly, a soft breathy sound that disappeared in the wind. She gestured at the star-lit summer sky and dark forest that surrounded the cozy home that Thomas’s family lived in.
“It’s past midnight.”
Everyone inside had been asleep for hours, but the two had refused to retire to bed so early on a Friday night…especially with college starting soon. Instead, Thomas had suggested sitting outside, where they’d not disturb his parents or older brother.
A spark of adrenaline rushed through him for a moment.
“So? What’s life without a little danger? If you love that place so much, then we can go there day or night, whenever you want.”
Vanessa fixed her intense gaze on him. A few golden curls fell on her face, and his fingers twitched with the urge to move them aside.
“Listen, Tom. If I take you there, you need to promise not to share this place with anyone else.”
Thomas narrowed his brows in confusion. “Why would I tell anyone anyway?”
“Just promise me you won’t tell anyone else, no matter how much you may want to.”
She rolled her eyes, a ghost of a smile playing on her full lips.
She glared at him, and it took all of Thomas’s self-control not to laugh. “Just say it.”
“Ooh, I love it when you take control.”
“Thomas!” He rolled his eyes back at her, exaggerating the gesture good-humoredly.
“Fine, I promise. Scout’s honor. Now can you tell me why you’re making me do this?”
Vanessa moved away from him and opened her arms invitingly. Thomas laid his head on her lap, sighing happily as she brushed her hands through his dark locks.
“We can talk about it in the morning. How about you get in bed? I’ll text you when I get home.”
Thomas frowned and reached a hand out to touch her pale cheek.
“But it’s too dark right now. You can take my bed…I can sleep on the floor?”
Vanessa shook her head with a soft smile. “Go to bed, love.”
He pouted, scowling as his girlfriend laughed at his disappointment.
“Five more minutes?”
She looked down at him with her luminescent eyes, and her soft curls fell across his face when she kissed him fondly.
“Five more minutes.”
They’d started the seven hour hike early in the morning.
Vanessa buzzed with energy, always moving to touch the wildflowers or brush her hand along a rigid trunk. Thomas instead admired from afar, taking in the vibrant shades of green and brown, the little animals running about, and the sound of a river roaring behind the trees.
Thomas didn’t only admire the forest. His gaze always returned to the beautiful girl in front of him, who had a lightness to her step that he’d never seen before. She had the happiness of someone who’d finally found where they belonged.
“We’ve made it!”, she called.
“About damn time!”
Thomas pushed through the dangling vines and underbrush with renewed vigor and burst into an open clearing. He was about to complain about his aching legs, but the words never came.
“What the -”
There were wildflowers everywhere, practically glowing under the evening sun. Rings of effervescent purple, blue, and maroon circled the most beautiful tree he’d ever seen. It stretched towards the stars, adorned with blood red fruit.
Hundreds of butterflies swirled around its branches. They were as vibrant as the assortment of wildflowers that surrounded them, a gorgeous mix of fiery color. Delicate wings fluttered silently as they danced around the tree, and the sun set a portion of them aflame while the others were almost black under the canopy’s shade. Thomas tore his eyes away to meet Vanessa’s soft gaze.
“How is this possible? How are there so many…”
Vanessa placed a gentle finger on his lips. “Follow my lead.”
She took off then, tearing through the overgrown grass and leaping over the flowers. Thomas watched in awe as butterflies lifted into the sky, hundreds of wings rising from the tree. The girl he loved called to him from the center of the chaos, hidden behind a wall of black and gold.
He snapped out of his awe and sprinted to join her.
There was a part of him that couldn’t comprehend what was happening, and that told him to take a step back. But another part of him was reckless, excited, and so full of love that he felt like he’d never stop smiling.
Thomas paused just outside the butterfly frenzy, a few stray monarchs brushing past him. He froze as he saw Vanessa, standing perfectly still in juxtaposition to the movement around her. She looked ethereal, a golden haze of sunlight surrounding her like she was glowing from the inside out.
Her emerald eyes were tinted red, reflecting the butterflies’ color as they passed her by. Thomas stepped closer to her and gasped lightly as a few butterflies landed on his arms.
He watched their soft wings flutter gently.
There was something magical about how they flew as though they were finally free. As though every weight they’d once carried had been lifted.
Thomas watched as his girl’s face tilted towards the heavens, as her lips curved into a secretive smile when she found him staring, and as she fixed her intense red-tinted gaze on him to make him shiver.
He suddenly knew exactly how the butterflies felt.
“I can’t believe you didn’t bring me here sooner.”
Vanessa sat across from him, legs folded as she roasted a marshmallow over their campfire.
“I’m guessing you enjoyed yourself?”
Thomas leaned back into his sleeping bag with a quiet sigh. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. How were there so many of them?”
She shrugged, her fingers playing with the grass beside them.
“It’s their home.”
He propped himself up on his elbow to face Vanessa, the firelight casting a dark shadow over her.
“How did you find this place?”
Vanessa’s face fell instantly, but she quickly plastered on a smile that didn’t quite meet her eyes.
“Did I ever tell you about my dad?”
His eyes widened in surprise and he shook his head. She’d never talked about her father, and Thomas had always just assumed he’d left her family when she was young.
“He always loved nature, and a friend who’d found this place shared it with him. My dad came home that day saying that he’d never been anywhere more beautiful. I remember wanting to go so bad that I’d ask him every day to take me, to show me what he’d seen. And one day, he finally said yes.”
It could’ve been a happy memory, but something in her tone told Thomas otherwise. There was a bitterness in her voice that didn’t match her words.
“That evening was the last time I ever saw him.”
His heart dropped.
“My dad disappeared the next day. Everything was fine the night we reached home; he tucked me in, told me he loved me and…then in the morning he was gone. No trace of him anywhere.”
Thomas reached out to touch her cheek, wiping away a stray tear.
“Did he leave?”, he asked softly.
Vanessa laughed, a wrecked, bitter sound that broke his heart.
“God, no. He loved me and my mom. He never would’ve left us.”
Thomas frowned. “But how could he have just disappeared?”
Vanessa handed him the toasted marshmallow before hugging her knees to her chest.
“I wasn’t going to tell you, wasn’t going to put you in harm’s way, but I couldn’t fight it anymore. You have to understand...today is the first day in years that I’ve truly been able to breathe.”
Thomas put his hands up to stop her. “What? You’re losing me here, Nessa.”
“When my dad went missing, it wasn’t like he’d just up and left. It was as if he’d never existed. His own wife didn’t remember his name, he disappeared from every picture we ever had with him, and all his records were erased.”
Thomas rubbed his eyes wearily. “What are you saying?”
“He never existed, Tom. It took me years to figure out what’d happened. I was sitting in my room one day with this ache in my head, and then I heard something. Something that told me exactly what I needed to do to get rid of the pain.”
Vanessa looked past him, a small smile on her face as she watched the leaves dance with the wind. Her eyes took on that same red-tint he’d seen earlier, but this time there were no butterflies reflecting the color into her eyes.
Chills rippled down his spine.
“I’d told him yes, just like you did for me. I hadn’t known that he would bring me here only to ease his own suffering. I hadn’t known that he’d want to die like that.”
Suddenly her red-tinted eyes met his, and he didn’t understand the nostalgia or sympathy written on her features. He didn’t understand any of this.
“I hated him for so long after I figured out what he’d done to me. But as the years passed, I felt every ounce of pain he’d felt. Never-ending headaches, a void that could never be filled, this pressing pain in my chest...and now that I’ve finally given in, I understand why he did this to me.”
Her pale hand reached out and rested on his own shaking one and he unconsciously curled his fingers around hers, a gesture he’d done a thousand times.
Vanessa leaned forward on her knees, now just a few inches away from his face. Shadows took over her features as she moved away from the firelight, and there was a slight gleam of euphoria in her tinted eyes.
She was enjoying this.
Thomas tore his hand away from hers as though she’d burned him.
“Even after a few years, I couldn’t forget the night my dad and I had spent here. I did some research on the friend who’d brought him to this place, and it turned out that he’d vanished too. My dad had told me his name and how they’d met in a community college downtown, but when I looked for him in the college’s records, I could find nothing on him. I combed through every state, hospital, and school record, but still nothing. He’d vanished just like my father had.”
Thomas ground his teeth, his confusion quickly morphing into anger. What was she trying to do?
“You’re not making any sense! People don’t just stop existing! And what does any of this have to do with me?”
“Everything. Because I’m doing to you what my dad did me, and his friend did to him.”
Her eyes glazed over as she looked right through him and into the forest, and the sudden tranquility on her face scared him more than he’d care to admit.
“This place used to haunt me in my sleep, you know? I was terrified of disappearing like him. But now that I’ve shared this burden with you, I’m finally free. It doesn’t scare me anymore. I know it doesn’t make sense right now, darling, but it will soon enough.”
She turned her head slowly with a peaceful smile and leaned in close enough to brush his lips with her own. Thomas was too shocked to move.
As soon as their lips touched, a serenity washed through his veins like a drug, and his limbs felt heavier than stone. He shook his head, trying to get away, but his body wasn’t working. Gentle arms circled him in an embrace and lowered him down onto the sleeping bag. Vanessa’s sweet and loving smile was highlighted by the fire as she brushed a lone tear from his cheek and his eyes fluttered closed.
“Thank you, love.”
Thomas watched as the black butterfly innocently landed on his small balcony, glowing under the moonlight. The hole in his chest grew by the second as the secret ate away at him. How long would he keep this inside him? How long would he suffer alone?
After that night, he’d woken up to a downpour of rain. He’d shivered as he’d stood, soaked, and had looked for Vanessa.
He didn’t find her.
Thomas had hoped that it was all a dream, a nightmare brought on by sleeping in a foreign place. But when he’d shouted for her, screamed until his voice gave out and his throat ached, he’d realized that she was gone. Thomas had fallen to his knees then, his cheeks streaked with tears, as he’d tried to make sense of everything that had happened.
Before he called his parents, he’d glimpsed something on the ground where her sleeping bag lay abandoned. It was small enough that he easily could’ve missed it. It was a dark butterfly, patterned on the back with two large emerald circles tinted red with a black center.
Thomas’s heart stopped as the butterfly flapped its soaked wings miserably, the resemblance of its pattern to the eyes of the girl he’d loved paralyzing him. It’d all clicked then. The swarm of butterflies, the never-ending cycle of people bringing their loved ones to this haunted hell, the happiness in her eyes as she’d finally told him about this beautiful place that had trapped her for so long. As she’d finally given him her secret.
He realized then that there was something terrible in the blood-red fruit on that strong dark tree, something strange in the exquisitely vibrant color of the wildflowers, something broken in the butterflies that’d flocked around the tree as though they couldn't bear to leave.
Thomas shook off the memories, instead watching as the butterfly landed on his arm. Instantly, the pain disappeared as though it’d never been there at all.
He gasped and reached for the delicate creature, cradling it in his hand. Serenity washed over him just like it had that night, except instead of weighing him down, it made him feel like he was flying. The relief was so immediate, so sudden, that when the butterfly left his hand and it went away, he felt something inside him break. He wanted nothing more in that moment than to jump onto the road below.
But dying wasn’t enough…he had to fulfill the cycle.
And suddenly he knew what he had to do.
He felt like a bystander as his body made its way into his son’s room. It shook the little boy, no emotion on its face as he murmured, “Dad? What’s going on?”
His son’s soft hazel eyes looked up at him with concern, his long lashes dusting his flushed cheeks. His crumpled auburn hair was messy, barely brushing his narrow shoulders.
“Daddy? Are you okay?”
It smiled heinously as his son tiredly rubbed his eyes with a hand in his sleeve.
“Yes, sweetheart. I just wanted to tell you something.”
The child gazed at him with sweet, curious eyes. “What is it?”
It leaned in, a hand placed on top of his son’s, and whispered into the boy’s innocent ear...
“Can you keep a secret?”