Submitted into Contest #149 in response to: Start your story with the flickering of a light.... view prompt


Horror Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Freya winced as she sat down. She set an overfilled glass of merlot onto her windowsill, and looked out at the moonlit courtyard of the Berkshire Apartments. Wine glasses clinked behind her. As they rang out, darkened light posts constellated throughout the courtyard flickered on then off in unison, revealing a glimpse of a well-manicured landscape covered in hundreds of monarch butterflies. 

Strange, she thought. Not about the butterflies, or even the lights; in fact, she hardly noticed them. She was transfixed on the motions of her boyfriend Maddox and their friendly neighbor Christine reflected in the window pane. That they were enjoying each other’s company was obvious — but they all enjoyed each other’s company, and had since the first time they’d met at the Berkshire community pool a couple years back.  It was Christine’s hand, resting near Maddox’s arm, that caught Freya’s attention. As they spoke, she placed it just close enough that she could lift her fingers and surreptitiously brush his arm with her fingertips. Freya watched as the pair undulated in and out of each other’s personal space, laughing at whatever inane story Maddox was telling, and every time Christine laughed she leaned in and her fingers lifted to brush his arm. Every time. 

After the third touch, Freya took an elongated sip of her wine. Then she quickly set down her drink (sending red liquid running down the edge of her wine glass), stood, and turned toward the pair. 

“I think I’m going to go get some fresh air,” she said. Maddox stood and walked toward Freya. For a moment, her heart warmed when she realized he was going to walk with her. Then, instead, he gave her a perfunctory peck on the cheek. 

“Everything alright?” he asked.

“Yep, just drank a little too much I think. I’m going to see if I can walk it off.”

“Okay. Don’t stay gone too long,” he paused, then added meekly, “I’ll miss you.” Freya cracked a brittle smile and turned to leave the apartment. Behind her, she heard more wine warbling into a glass like drowned laughter.

Freya walked out into a brisk autumn breeze. The door must’ve caught suction from it, because it slammed behind her harder than she intended to close it. As it rattled in the frame, a dense plume of monarchs scattered off of her entry lamp. Freya watched them jitter away like electricity into the courtyard. 

The butterflies are still here, huh? She staggered after them, her thoughts zig-zagging in kind.

First, she reflected on the contradiction of her home. The Berkshire Apartments were known for two things: butterflies, and hauntings. That they came to be known for butterflies was a happy accident. The complex happened to be built along the path migrating monarchs took each year at the turn of autumn to escape the harsh cold of Vermont’s winter. Residents could count on awakening one day out of each autumn to an ethereal landscape of hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies taking refuge and gathering their strength for the next stage of their long flight.  In violet dawnlight they could be seen flickering like orange sparks against dark flint, flowing like curtains through open balconies and courtyards, tottering across rails and tree bark, clambering over one another as blades of grass and long-stalked flowers drooped beneath their weight. The butterflies brought with them a fragrance that was earthen, yet sweet, almost like honeysuckle, but not quite.

As Freya entered the courtyard, the lights flickered again, but this time they stayed on, blanketing the courtyard in gentle light. Weird, she thought, did they install motion sensors or something? It was nearly 2am, but the courtyard scuttled and stirred. Butterflies linked like scales along the trunks of various oaks and pines, giving them the appearance of great cobras, poised, watching, waiting. The butterflies seem restless, Freya thought. Perhaps they would ascend soon, twisting through the air like shed skin, leaving the courtyard refreshed and thrumming with their memory while around it the apartments themselves collapsed into a rigid, inert husk of brick and shingle. 

Yet, something would remain in the husk.

Residents joked that the hauntings were originally brought by the butterflies. That as they swelled down their migratory channel, ghosts were swept up like debris and deposited like sediment wherever they landed. Whether or not this was true, there was no denying that the monarchs’ departure always coincided with paranormal activity in the complex for a few weeks to a month afterward. Some residents reported instances of objects going missing, only to turn up in unexpected places; others heard strange noises or murmurs coming from inside walls and cabinets; but most consistently, someone would catch sight of a man. 

Freya’s reverie was interrupted; she had walked a full lap of the courtyard, and stood now outside her window. She could see that the scene inside was just as she left it: Christine and Maddox, laughing and talking. 

She turned her gaze to something, anything else. She took stock of the light posts pincushioned across the soft green courtyard. She thought they were ugly, out of place, off balance. She walked on past the window, committing her attention to figuring out just what it was about those light posts that troubled her. They were gaudy and pretentious; playing at beauty with overly-ornate bronze scrolling which curled above the fixtures, braiding into something resembling crossed fingers; champagne glass paneled each of their four sides and cast a duplicitous glow across the grass and shrubs below. The light was friendly and warm, as though these little faux-suns could cover up the fact that they were intruding on the landscape, feigning starlight with an empty sheen, standing tall and haughty as they bore down with mechanical conceit upon what was actually alive. 

Back in the apartment, Christine laughed, Maddox drank; and Freya hated the way the cold, black, corrugated aluminum poles stabbed mercilessly into the gentle, giving ground, again, and again, and again. She continued walking, and thinking.

It was said the ghost of the man who appeared after the butterflies’ departure had been stabbed to death by his wife. Brutally, in fact — she had done it with the claw of a hammer while he slept. Over the years, the description of that man remained constant: a tarnished blue mechanic’s jumpsuit with dark stains smudged across the torso, steel-toed boots nearly worn apart, and long, scraggly hair which framed and shadowed his face from view. Seeing him was considered an ill-omen. Supposedly, one resident’s dog was run over the following day. Another resident’s apartment caught fire. Another passed in her sleep. And so on, the stories accumulated over the years, and there were enough that not even the tenured office staff knew exactly which were true, hyperbole, or just plain fiction. One thing was agreed upon, however: the butterflies were a portent. Freya always found it frightening that something so beautiful and so tragic could exist in the same space — wandering through the courtyard, listening to the rustle of wings, she wondered: was there any beauty that could be relied upon to maintain, and not eventually give way to ghosts?

Her and Maddox’s relationship was beautiful. At least it had been; Freya wasn’t so sure anymore. What had she missed? Christine and Maddox, could they…no, there was no way. Maddox wouldn’t do that to her. Christine may, but Maddox wouldn’t. But Christine was beautiful. Classically beautiful, in fact, with an elegance that drew people to her without their realizing, and a lightness that kept them from feeling burdened by her beauty. Maybe that’s why Freya never felt threatened by her…she seemed so aloof, so disinterested, like a beauty in a renaissance painting. It was though if one were to rip her open expecting to find blood and bone, you’d simply find the dull thud of the wall upon which she was framed. Freya had dimensionality, complexity; she was full and alive, and she thought Maddox loved her for it. But tonight, there was the way Maddox looked at Christine…or was Freya just imagining it? Maybe she was. But the touches, the laughter, the wine — maybe they were simply loose from the alcohol. That had to be it. Nothing fermenting under the surface, just a casual flirtation sprouted from the wine. Freya strode through the courtyard feeling secure after wrapping herself up in this conclusion; but after a few moments it felt precarious, trembling as though hung on a single silken thread.

The light posts flickered again, sending a flush of butterflies rippling out through the yard. Freya frowned; for a moment, she swore she saw a person standing next to one of the posts across the yard. A masculine silhouette. She blinked hard, and let her eyes refocus. Nothing was there. She turned to look behind her and saw dim light still shining through her first floor window from across the courtyard. She was at too much of an angle to see what was going on inside…no, she didn’t need to look. She trusted them, after all. Right?

Then, the silk thread suspending Freya’s conclusion snapped, dropping down, down…she couldn’t help herself. She was going back to look in the window. Best case scenario, they’re just sitting there, drinking and laughing and talking like they were last time she passed. Worst case…worst case…Freya rounded a large oak covered in butterflies opening and closing their like eyelids shaking off sleep. Around the oak should’ve been a clear sightline into her window; but something blocked her view. No, not something, someone in the shadows. Freya felt her throat constrict. The lamp posts flickered, became dazzlingly bright for a moment, then shut off completely. In the light, Freya saw all she needed to affirm her dread: she was looking at the man in the blue jumpsuit.

Freya froze. Cold moonlight illuminated the sidewalk between her and the man like a sheet of ice. He took a step toward her, then another. His boot breached the moonlit sidewalk, and Freya heard a crack — was it really ice? No, those were her teeth grinding as he took another step closer, now fully visible in the light. He was translucent, but the edges of his body shimmered hazily, like they were made of static. His boots were frayed and mossed over with time. His jumpsuit covered his body, and Freya realized with horror that moonbeams were shining through the places where blood stained his suit. His hair was a matted mess which hung over his slumped shoulders, and his face was dark and featureless, like it was sculpted from shadow.  

Freya tried to scream, but when she opened her mouth she felt all of the air sucked out of her lungs, as though she were in a vacuum. She tried to look away from the apparition, but her eyes wouldn’t move. The world around her began to rattle and shift. She watched the lamp posts, the trees, the grass, the sky, everything melt away into darkness. The rattling grew into a roaring rasp, as though thousands of whispers surrounded her all at once. She couldn’t hear anything else. She couldn’t see anything else. All that existed now were her and the ghost, marooned upon a slab of concrete. Her eyes widened. 

Where were Maddox and Christine? Couldn’t they see what was happening? Couldn’t they help her? Why weren’t they watching?

Freya’s tears ran thick and warm down her cheeks as a butterfly brushed past her ear, landing on the apparition’s chest. It flexed its wings languidly before spreading them to rest where the man’s heart would be, beautiful in repose. The whispers silenced themselves. Freya felt her breath return to her. She inhaled, then exhaled. As she did, another butterfly fluttered past her and attached itself to the ghost — then another, and a few more, then suddenly the whispers returned, louder this time, and the light posts, the trees, the grass, all began shaping back into view. Freya realized she and the ghost had been cocooned by the monarchs, but now all of them were swarming toward a single point: the man in the blue jumpsuit. 

He was engulfed by myriad fluttering wings. He stood there like a shimmering flame, orange and black in the pale moonlight. Freya felt herself drawn like a moth toward him. Her legs moved without her control, stepping her closer and closer until she could smell the honeysuckle fragrance of the butterflies, and feel the soft gusts from their wings against her skin. Then, they parted like a robe, revealing emptiness. The apparition was gone; Freya stepped forward and was encased.

She felt the tickle of the monarchs’ legs over every fiber of her being. She felt electric, she felt alive, she felt — loved. She inhaled the honeysuckle fragrance and felt her lungs replete with the spirit of fall, laden with a sense of acceptance for the somber steadiness of change. Freya smiled, and as she did so, the butterflies began to ascend, spiraling up and out, and she followed their trail with her eyes as they disappeared over the charcoal line of her apartment rooftops.

The lamp posts flickered back on. Freya drew her gaze from the sky, looking into her apartment window. Christine and Maddox both emerged from the hallway, and slunk quickly back into their seats. Maddox glanced out the window, and his eyes met Freya’s. Still smiling, she walked back toward the apartment.

When she opened the door, both Christine and Maddox stiffened. 

“How was the walk?” Maddox asked, abashedly. 

“Was it cold out there?” Christine followed, stepping on the end of his words.

Freya said nothing. She walked into the bedroom and tossed her purse and some clothes into a duffel bag. Maddox and Christine were whispering frantically in the other room. Freya chuckled; they sounded so much like butterfly wings. She reached up and grabbed a hammer from the toolbag her and Maddox kept in their closet. Then, she walked back into the living room, duffel bag over one shoulder, clutching the hammer at her side, but in reverse so that the claw faced outward. Maddox leapt to his feet and began crying, while Christine screamed and ran into the bathroom, locking the door. 

Freya wondered what their blood would smell like. Would it be like what she inhaled in the courtyard? Would it feel the same way her tears did as they ran down her face? She raised the hammer and moved toward Maddox, who had drunkenly stumbled onto the ground in front of the windowsill. Then, above him, Freya saw the light posts flicker once more. She looked up, and saw the man in the blue jumpsuit standing underneath one, watching her, urging her. Freya remembered the horror of the moonlight as it poured through his wounds. She remembered the pain of the courtyard, impaled by the light posts. She remembered the sharp wounds she suffered with every gentle touch between Christine and Maddox. Lastly, she remembered the beauty and freedom of the butterflies. And without saying a word, she lowered the hammer. Maddox whimpered on the floor as Freya grabbed her car keys from the hook by the door, and walked outside. She entered the courtyard, walked up to the closest lamp post she could find, and smashed its lantern apart with the hammer. Then, she dropped the hammer, letting it clatter amidst so many shards of broken glass. She turned and left the Berkshire Apartments for the last time, the lamp post sputtering and sparking behind her.

June 10, 2022 23:46

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Kendra Nash
00:20 Jun 17, 2022

I really enjoyed reading this story and you described the setting so well. I loved how you integrated Monarch butterflies into the story. I also thought the stabbing metaphors were clever. At first, I thought the flickering lights were just a small detail of the story, but then you gradually made it bigger as you went along, which was brilliant. It just all tied together really well. The only two notes I would have is there may be a couple of run-on sentences and a few places that would need proof-reading, but both of those are easily fixed....


Kris Hawkins
18:19 Jun 17, 2022

Thanks Kendra, I appreciate the feedback :)


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Richard Tallman
18:45 Jun 16, 2022

Very imaginative, in a convoluted way. I liked the increasing reference to flickering lamp posts and Monarch butterflies, and the very dark image that revealed itself to Freya. Like Dracula doing his will with her and leaving her with a smile as the hammer came down.


Kris Hawkins
18:21 Jun 17, 2022

Oh I didn't even consider the Dracula reference...I like that though. Thanks for reading, and for the feedback!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Katy B
23:27 Jun 14, 2022

This may be my favorite that I've read so far. Simply gorgeous, all around, and of course I love that it has something of a happy ending ;) the descriptions of the butterflies were truly incredible. Thank you for sharing!


Kris Hawkins
18:21 Jun 17, 2022

Aw, thanks Katy! Thank you for reading!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | We made a writing app for you (photo) | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.