Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash.
I wrote this story almost nine years ago for a class on children’s literature. This story was inspired by an exercise we did, involving sets of cards with characters, locations, and objects. I was a freshman in college then and didn’t know what kind of thing I wanted to write or how to write it.
Once upon a time, on an island called the Isle of Somnys, there lived a boy who was heir to the magic of butterflies. His name was Sam. His father was the greatest Keeper since his great-grandfather, and he alone held the secrets of the magic. This magic protected the whole Isle and kept the forgotten dreams and remnants of nightmares where they belonged. But one day, long ago, evil infested the Isle of Somnys. A strange and deadly Slime began to feed on the dreams and bits of nightmare and suck the life of the island away. It fed on the flesh of anything that touched it. And so the island began to fade. But Sam was ready to be a Keeper like his father.
At the same time there lived a girl in a pleasant house in a pleasant town. Her family loved her and everything was nice and normal. But it wasn’t enough. Her family loved her, and she loved them, even her brother Robert who had recently gotten married. But ordinary everyday love wasn’t enough either. And that is where it all began.
It started on a day of rain, when long rivulets seemed to melt the window glass and everything was relentlessly grey. Luna Lytle sat curled up in a ball in one corner of the old armchair in the kitchen. She twisted one of her brown braids around her fingers, gazing absently out the kitchen window. Rain had been falling nearly all week and it was growing decidedly boring. Beyond boring. And another thing: Rob wasn’t there. Of course he hadn’t been there for months now—was it really almost nine?—but she still hadn’t grown used to his absence. Not that I mind Marie, she told herself. But Rob’s my brother, after all. I wish he would come back.
“I wish Rob would come back,” she said aloud, breaking the relative quiet of the kitchen. Her mother, right in the middle of preparing pot roast, only half-heard her.
“Rob. I wish he were here.”
“Darling, so do I. Very much.” Her mother looked up briefly and caught Luna’s eyes. A half-sad smile tugged at her lips.
Luna sighed. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she went on, not really expecting her mother to listen but talking all the same. “Discontentment I suppose. But I’m not sure. I’m not really sure of anything anymore. I mean, I love you and Dad and Rob and all, but I feel like there ought to be more. I know there is. But where?”
Her mother set the pot of roast down on the stovetop with a satisfying clunk. “Honey, what a question. I’m afraid I can’t answer you either. You have to find it for yourself. And you will, I’m sure of it.” Turning the gas down she turned to the oven. Aromas of blackberry pie drifted out.
Luna ignored them. “But how do you know?”
“How do I know? Because I asked the same question when I was your age. And I did find it.”
Luna’s father materialized in the door way, smelling the warm air hungrily. “Dinner ready yet? You’re positively killing me with beautiful smells, Jenny. I hope you know that.” He sidled over to the counter and gently brushed the strands of hair from her face.
“So I do,” she replied, sneaking a kiss at him from the side. “Well, it’s ready now. Is the table set?”
It was. They sat down.
After dinner the rain was still streaming down the windows in torrents, so instead of going out on the roof garden Luna wandered out to the living room. Though the day was grey the stained glass windows here still glowed. Luna loved these windows. I’m going to have stained glass windows in my own house when I grow up, she’d told herself since she was five. The next best thing about them was that they kept going. There were some at the end of the long third-floor corridor and even one or two in the spare room at that end.
Luna’s feet led her there now. Not looking where she was going she wandered through the living room, up the wide winding oak staircase to the second floor and then to the third.
Her parents’ voices faded away. It was very quiet up here. Luna heard the strange almost purring noise silence makes when it’s been undisturbed for a while. The third floor was like that. She and her parents—and Rob, when he was there, but that was long ago now—all slept on the second floor and used the third one mainly for guest rooms and other infrequent uses.
Today the purring was even louder. Luna meandered down the corridor to the room at the end. The door creaked. A thin coating of dust lay on the door knob.
This room was so quiet and yet it wasn’t. It made goosebumps rise on her skin. But the silence was not the only thing that did it.
On the south wall two long high stained glass windows shone timidly bright. But there was a third. A third?
Luna blinked dumbfounded a few times and stared. Yes. There it was. And what a window! Its many panes shone with the colors of a monarch butterfly: black, orange, white. Luna gasped. Her footsteps were painfully hollow on the floor. Her fingers outstretched to touch the glass. The silence grew louder.
As her fingers brushed the gorgeous panes a sudden thrumming filled the room. It’s the storm, she assured her speeding heartbeat. It must have broken again. The glass seemed to melt together with the rain.
No. It wasn’t the rain. The colors were melting onto her hands.
Suddenly there was a tremendous crash. Something reached out and enveloped Luna in a powerful embrace. She couldn’t breathe. Black wings and orange glass and copper sparks flew past her.
Blinded and gasping she felt herself land on something that poked and rustled. Leaves. Branches thick with crisp leaves. What? Then complete darkness fell.
Out of the corner of his eye Sam noticed the coppery sun sinking lower over the hills, but he kept running. The butterfly was always just ahead of him.
It seemed like hours ago that the butterfly had fluttered out of the Observatory beyond the reach of either him or his father. He saw his father’s startled face in his mind. The loss of a butterfly, especially a monarch, meant the magic was incomplete. It was missing a part. If he did not catch it soon, he didn’t know what might happen, but it wouldn’t be good. I must catch it, I must, he whispered breathlessly. I’ve got to. Come on, you. Stop. Stop!
His feet pounded the brackeny ground and it was all he could do to keep from tripping. Already he had a number of scratches from where vines and briars had snapped at him. He took his eyes off the fluttering creature for a moment to see how far he had run.
His breath caught. The woods before him were grey. That could only mean…the Slime would be lurking there. But he had to go on.
The butterfly swooped a few times, cavorting in midair like a whirligig, then entered the grey woods. Sam ran on into the dimness, his heart pounding as hard as his feet. He saw the butterfly land on a rock.
Silently, slowly, he crept up. He clenched the net in his hands. Closer… closer…
With a swift thwop he brought the net down. But the thing slipped out.
Then a hiss sounded from the ground.
Underneath the rock, overturned when Sam hit it with the net, the Slime had gathered. It thickened and brooded in itself until now it oozed from the once darkness. Hissing it curled and writhed in the dead leaves. Sam leapt back. His foot caught on a dead log. He fell straight back, his eyes wide. His hands plunged into—
Slime. It lay beneath the overturned log and underneath him. With a cry of pain and anger Sam struggled up, but the Slime clung to his hands. Sam felt his strength ebbing, his life flowing into the Slime, making it stronger, more powerful…suddenly he could barely move his own limbs. The Slime was taking control of them.
Painfully, agonizingly, he staggered to the brook and plunged his burning hands in the water. The Slime hissed in anger, then slowly peeled off and sank to the bottom.
Sam gasped. It was over. He could move again. He saw the butterfly bobbing a little ways away…
With dripping hands Sam jerked around. A little ways away lay a heap of what looked like—clothing. And hair. And a hand flung out in the dirt.
Quietly he picked his way through the brush. It was a girl. He bent down, peering curiously at her face, or what he could see of it. She was slightly freckled and fair-skinned, and her hair, as he had thought, was braided in two thick brown plaits. Her arm, resting lightly on the dead leaves, was cut and dirty.
Sam didn’t speak. He knelt silently at the girl’s head, watching her. His hands still stung, but that wasn’t important anymore. He didn’t move.
Suddenly the girl’s eyes flickered, her hand stirred, and she tried to sit up. Sam sprung to her side. He slipped an arm behind her back.
“What—what happened?” she gasped. “Who are you?” She stood indignantly, and swayed.
“Steady, steady,” said Sam, catching her. “Sam. I’m Sam. Who are you?”
“My name’s Luna. Where am I? Why are your hands like that?”
Sam looked down at his hands. They looked dead. He hadn’t noticed them since he plunged them in the stream. The pain suddenly came back. He glanced at the ground a little ways away, then looked back at Luna. “We have to get out of here. You’ll have to follow me. I can’t take your hand. It hurts too much.”
He was about to trudge off. The monarch appeared in front of him. It landed on his right hand.
“Luna,” he whispered. “Stay. Watch.”
A stream of magic flowed into his skin. Luna stared, mesmerized. The thing flickered and beat its wings for a moment, then lifted and moved to his other hand. The flesh of his right was perfectly alive and well again. Like nothing had ever happened.
Sam burst in at the door of the House. “Father, come quick! Where are you?”
“Here, Sam! What is it?” He strode in from the corridor leading off to the Observatory.
“The Slime is spreading,” Sam announced. “I fell in some. And I found—her. Luna, her name is.” He looked at Luna. She squirmed under his gaze.
His father turned away a moment. His brows contracted and he seemed to withdraw inside himself. But he turned abruptly round again.
“Welcome, Luna, my dear. What happened to you? Your arms…” He took one of them gently, then let her go and touched his son’s shoulder. “Sam, come with me. Luna, go into the kitchen. My wife will take care of you.” He urged her off.
“Sam, what is this?” his father asked as soon as they entered his great study at the back of the house. “The slime is spreading? How do you know? Where did you see it?”
“I chased the butterfly into the woods, father. I tried to catch it with the net, but I overturned a rock… and the Slime lay beneath it. Then I fell into a patch of it…and then I found Luna.”
“The Slime has spread far,” said Bill gravely. “Very far. That means…the dreams and nightmares are growing thicker. There are more of them than ever before.”
“What can we do, father?”
“The only thing we can do, Sam. Send out the butterflies. Only they can destroy the Slime. And you and I will lead them.”
“But what about Luna?”
“She will stay with us. I cannot investigate her appearance now. There isn’t time. We must go tomorrow.”
Sam and his father stood at the edge of the grey woods. A swarm of butterflies followed them, fluttering and circling and filling the misty air with silver sparks of magic. Ahead of them the wood loomed dark.
“Come, Sam,” Bill said.
The butterflies teemed ahead of them as they entered the wood. With a swift motion of his hand Bill sent a flock of them toward the bed of leaves where Sam had fallen. They descended on the Slime. He sent another group hurtling towards the rocks. Another he sent farther into the trees.
“Sam! Send more!” he called to Sam.
The boy cast both his palms to the swarm. Two large groups of flickering creatures flew off. Then two more. And two more. Everywhere rocks were being overturned, leaves cast up, and fallen bits of branches swept aside. Hissing sounded on every side. The Slime was being vanquished. The greyness began to disappear. Green returned to the grass, the trees, everything.
Luna’s voice. Sam twisted around.
“Luna! You shouldn’t be here! Go!”
“No! You’re my friend! I am not going!”
He left the swarm. His hands glowed with the magic pulsing through them. He took Luna’s cold ones.
“Listen to me…”
“No, I won’t! You’re the only friend I’ve got! You’re the best friend I’ve ever known!”
Sam grinned. “What?”
“Yes!” Luna shouted. “You are! You are! I’m not going!”
Sam squeezed her hands hard for a second, then let go. “All right, then. Stay. Only don’t come any closer. I don’t know where the Slime may still be hiding, and if you touched any…” His face grew dark. He bit his lip. “Well…if you did…I’d miss you. I’ve never had a friend like you either.” He stared hard at his feet. Then he met Luna’s eyes with his own grey ones. The flecks of green stood out more than ever. “So stay away!” He ran back.
The Slime had extended farther than either of them imagined. Swarm after swarm of butterflies they sent wheeling to destroy the Slime, but it kept appearing. Bits of nightmare floated about, dark and ragged like distorted bats. Sam’s magic was weakening. Once or twice he narrowly avoided stepping in Slime.
“Sam! Go!” Bill shouted. “I don’t want anything to happen to you!”
“No, I’m staying!” Sam called back. “I can do this!”
He sent a group of monarchs veering toward the largest patch of Slime, but stumbled. He caught himself against a tree. Bill hurried toward him. Sam cast another cluster veering away. But those were not enough. There was too much of It.
Suddenly the Slime uncurled Itself from the ground and reared up in the boy’s face. He ran straight into it. He could not stop himself.
Luna, watching from a distance away, saw him fall. She took off running, unheeding Bill’s cry of warning. She fell to her knees beside him.
The Slime was gone. The butterflies had finally destroyed It. Bill stood breathing heavily beside Luna. Sam’s skin was grey.
“Sam! You told me not to get hurt, and now look what you’ve done!” Luna cried. “Stupid!”
“I told him…” said Bill. “I told him to go. He would not listen to me.”
Sam gasped. His eyes were heavy. Sweat beaded his forehead. His curly hair was filled with dirt.
“No, I didn’t, father,” he said. A grin spread across his face. “But we did it. We destroyed the Slime.” He gasped again. “Luna…”
“Oh, Mr. Vistica, can we do anything for him?”
“The butterflies, Luna. The butterflies.” Bill looked around. A flock of monarchs fluttered nearby. With a swift gesture he called them. They came.
In one movement they descended on Sam. They covered his face and his hands, his arms, his chest. Fluttering and flickering they settled. Magic flowed from them. The wood was filled with glowing sparks of black and orange and copper. Green returned to the trees and grass. A fresh breeze ruffled Sam’s hair. It lifted Luna’s now undone braids. She watched, entranced. The flickering of wings drew her in. She could not look away. Her vision was filled with the colors of monarchs.
She landed on hard wood somewhere with a loud thump. It was the floor of the extra room at the end of the hall. Cool smoothness met her fingertips. The air, instead of breezy, was close and dusty. The stained-glass window, the one with the colors of monarchs, was still there.
Luna sat stunned. She was back. She had been gone for days and days. Her parents must be terrified by now. And of course Rob would know.
But the window gleamed before her. It had really happened. Sam was out there somewhere. She had had a best friend for a little time.
“Will I ever see him again?” she asked the empty room.
Suddenly she jumped up and fled down the stairs, leaving the monarch window behind.
Her parents were sitting where they had been, in the living room. A lazy newspaper lay in her father’s lap. Her mother clicked knitting needles quietly. Obviously they were not worrying.
“Dad! Mom!” She burst into the room, her cheeks flushed, panting. “What? Aren’t you worried? I’ve been gone for—for days!”
“No you haven’t.” A voice came from the other end of the room. It was Rob.
“ROB!” Luna flung herself on him. “What are you doing here? When did you get here? Oh, Rob, oh Rob!”
Luna couldn’t sleep that night. The next day, riding the noisy bus to school, she stared out the window. The earth was unnaturally green after the rain. Sunlight streamed from behind the last of the clouds. It almost looked like the Isle of Somnys. Except—it wasn’t.
Luna slipped into her seat in the back row. The back of the head in front of her—she had never seen it before. He must be new.
Something about the hair made her breath catch in her throat. It looked like Sam’s hair. It curled just like his. Luna’s heart pounded. She had to stop thinking about it all. She could never get any schoolwork done this way.
The teacher walked to the front of the classroom.
“Good morning, people,” she said, smiling the same smile Luna saw every day. “Before we start, I want to introduce a new student to you.” She gestured to the boy in front of Luna. “He’s just moved from—I forget where you said it was, Sam.”
That name. It couldn’t be. Luna clenched the side of her seat, not daring to hope…
The boy stood up. “You wouldn’t know it. Let’s just say—it’s pretty far away.”
And he turned around.
A huge grin spread over his whole face. His curly hair brushed the collar of his white shirt at the neck. A pair of grey eyes flecked with green twinkled at Luna.
Then he sat down.
No could understand afterward how they could possibly become friends so quickly. But they did. And they were friends for a very, very long time.