Discover the first chapters of Butterfly in Amber by Camilla Monk. 🙂
Butterfly in Hell
He’ll go against mountains and cross rivers,
he’ll tread a pathway through heaped-up snows,
he’ll set sail, neither fearing Eurus’s raging east winds,
nor waiting for stars propitious for his voyage.
Who but a soldier or lover could endure the chill of night,
and torrents of mingled snow and rain?
—Ovid, Amores, Elegy IX: Of Love and War
Leaning against the wall, his arms crossed, his captor had yet to speak. Instead, he observed through tranquil icy blue eyes that gave no signs of impatience or even anger. The man people called Auben knew better. The plastic sheeting covering every surface of the empty and windowless room spoke louder than any threat to come.
A soft patter somewhere above him caught Auben’s attention. A butterfly had managed to get trapped in hell with him, drawn by the single lamp hanging from the ceiling. It kept hitting the scalding glass desperately, eager for the light to consume it. He willed his body to relax in the ropes holding his four limbs tightly strapped to a steel chair. Bolted to the floor. Auben recognized the eye for detail of a consummate professional. He drew a steady breath. Death he did not fear. It was part of the job, both the sentence and the reward, a leap into blessed darkness. Everything in between now and death . . . was another matter.
As he had been taught, he closed his eyes and mentally let go of his body. There was only so much pain the flesh could take, and he knew—or rather trusted—that beyond that threshold would come a sense of numbness. It would help. He repeated in his head, like a mantra, that he had led a good life, all forty years of it, that whatever his executioner sliced, broke, or tore would be useless meat scraped from a body that was already dead.
After a prolonged silence, spit-shined brogues shifted on the plastic. The man came out of the shadows and walked across the room, his stride slow, predatory. He went to open a black suitcase resting on an instruments tray, a few feet from the chair.
“I heard you were dead,” Auben remarked, his tone cordial even as a drop of sweat burned its way down his temple.
His host never stopped searching the case, moving aside a compartment where two semiautomatics and their suppressors lay encased in foam. “You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, broer.”
Auben managed a chuckle, even as nausea lapped at the back of his throat. “You know I can’t tell you anything.”
“You won’t. But you can, and I’ll make you.”
The case snapped shut. Auben caught the menacing glint of a pair of pruners in the man’s latex-gloved hand.
Now came the moment to breathe, to let go, despite every single muscle contracting in his limbs, the stifling weight of fear crushing his chest. The sleeve of a navy jacket brushed his arm, carrying in its wake a clean, almost medical scent, like those hand sanitizers they sold everywhere these days. Seconds after, hands gripped his left thumb and forced it into the cool embrace of the pruners’ blades. Through the blood roaring in his ears, Auben had to remind himself over and over that this body was dead already. It didn’t matter that he lost the use of his hand. It was a transitional state. It meant nothing.
“My apologies,” the man said evenly. “I’d usually start with something more . . . benign, but I’m in a bit of a hurry. I’ve heard you recently came back from a mission in Finland. Can you perhaps share some of the details with me?”
Auben gritted his teeth and breathed hard, fast through his nose. He looked up at the blinding orb of the lightbulb above him to find the butterfly gone. In a single snap, agony shot through his hand, thundered all the way up to his shoulder. He bit back a howl, tasting blood in his mouth. Years of training had him able to ride the waves of pain flowing from the wound, but no amount of past fractures could have prepared him for the horrific awareness of the missing finger, the odd weight of his hand, the sudden absence.
Auben watched, in a state of shock that overrode the pain itself, as his captor dropped the bloodied thumb in a plastic bag filled with crushed ice and sealed the package in a cooler waiting under the steel tray.
With absolute detachment, the man glanced down at the box at his feet. “You have four hours to tell me where she is. We’ll be moving on to the right hand, so please be ready.”
1 – The Glass Doll
I didn’t mean to, but I just dropped my glass again. It still happens—less than it used to. From time to time, my hands will shake uncontrollably, and whatever I’m holding will go crash, splatter, scatter on the floor, for Stiles to pick and clean up, as always.
“I’m sorry,” I say, without looking at him.
As he carefully mops the purple mess of broken glass and grape juice on the tiling, he smiles that sweet, empty smile he always gives me. Faded, like his baby blue eyes. “It’s all right; we’re good. That marble has seen worse.”
I mumble another apology, gazing past him and through the bay window, at the ghostly silhouettes of the snow-covered pines surrounding the castle. You can’t see the Baltic Sea, but it’s there, beyond the trees, encircling the island. My father sent me here to rest because he says it’s quiet; it’ll help me find myself again. “An island for Island,” he said, and it made him chuckle. When I’m depressed though, which is more often than I like to admit, I think my world has shrunk to a mile-long rock.
“Island, are you still with me?”
I look up at Stiles and nod automatically, but in truth, for a second I didn’t recognize him. I mean, I did, but it’s his voice or, rather, his accent. He told me once that he was born in a place called Denton, in Georgia, where time trickled slowly and people squeezed their pennies so hard the eagle screamed. He said he spent sixteen years there, hunting quail, skipping church, and waiting for something to happen—according to him, the rest of the town is still waiting. All he kept from his hometown is a soft drawl that will occasionally weigh on his vowels. There’s nothing wrong with that, but every time he opens his mouth, it’s like my brain is expecting something more, someone else, until the feeling is gone, and I remember that it’s only Stiles.
I don’t know; it’s just one of the many things that are wrong with me. I guess I’m still pretty messed up since my accident. I feel slow, confused most of the time. Everybody tells me it’s normal, that eight months is not much to recover from the kind of trauma I went through, that maybe it’ll take years. I hope not. I turned twenty-six in September, and I’d rather not stay a convalescent child for the rest of my life.
Once he’s done wiping the last pinkish smear, Stiles wastes no time crossing the kitchen and opening the fridge to grab the bottle of juice again. He reminds me of a big robot: The man is cut like a Terminator, and he never gives up, never gets distracted. I drop the glass where he put my meds? He’ll fetch another one. I never tried, but I’m pretty sure that if I dropped it ten times, he’d fix it all over again ten times too. Always the same gray dress pants, white shirt, and black tie every day, always the same blond crew cut I suspect never grows. I could complain he also looks forty every day, but that’d be unfair: it’s not like I’ve known him for so long.
My heart skips a beat at the distressing thought. I have. I’ve known him almost all my life, since the day my father hired him to take care of me. Bodyguard, nanny, nurse . . . friend, maybe?
How could I know? I don’t remember any of that.
Stiles is always here, through good and bad. When I wake up at night, screaming because I think we’re still in April and I’m drowning in the dark waters of the Pacific, he’s at my side. He was there too in the very beginning, when a helicopter brought me to Ingolvinlinna, my head still bandaged after the cranial surgery that saved my life, my left wrist shattered so bad they had to put a plate in it.
In many ways, it was the first day of my life, or rather the first I remember. I don’t like to think about it; there’s no word that could possibly describe how it felt, blinking awake in a bed one morning in that white hospital room, with my long-term memory entirely flushed down the drain. “Lost” isn’t even close.
But how I acquired those motor skills and procedural knowledge, my job or my years of college in New York, the childhood I spent traveling the world and learning those languages with my mom before she died and I went to live with my dad, past lovers, forgotten friends . . . all of that is lost. I am a territory whose map is blank. I know only what I’ve been told by my father or Stiles. And so, day after day, I collect each memory, each passing mention of past events, like pearls on a string, to reclaim my life.
That being said, Stiles is also in for the good times, and I’d say today is good enough: It’ll be Christmas in a couple of weeks, my mind is clear, and my legs are steady. I think I’m getting better.
Sitting cross-legged on an antique red brocade sofa in the salon, I go through the cardboard box he went to fetch from the attic. You gotta be kidding me . . . I hold the ratty silver garland in front of me with a frown. There’s also a grand total of seven worn golden balls and one angel figurine whose wig and wings fell off at some point over the past forty years and who now looks like a cancer patient with its white shirt.
I cringe. “That’s it?”
He responds with an apologetic wince. “I think one of the men in the security team has a mini plastic tree in his room too.”
“Aw, come on . . .”
I blame it all on Stiles. He’s the one who said, “Hey, let’s decorate a Christmas tree,” and I said, “Okay.” But as it turned out, my father and I never celebrated Christmas here at Ingolvinlinna. You’d think it was the perfect place for that, but apparently no one ever told him Santa himself lives in Finland: Nineteen rooms and no trace of any ornaments. No mysterious box long forgotten in a dusty attic, zip, nada. I’m disappointed, but I can’t say I’m surprised. My father isn’t what you might call the fun type . . .
So here we are standing in the salon, going through our options over Stiles’s meager loot. I like this room, the dark wood paneling, the way everything is steeped in a rich, smoky scent coming from an enormous fireplace. Most of the castle dates back to the seventeenth century, and everything inside has been carefully preserved, from the tapestries covering the walls to the soft brocade wing chairs. As the flames consume a log in the hearth with soft cracks and pops, Stiles’s usual smile has been replaced by pursed lips. Annoyance? A rather extreme emotion coming from him.
He sighs. “Island, your idea with the toilet paper and the aluminum foil . . . I’m not sure about that.”
“But you’re the one who came up with the Christmas tree idea,” I counter.
He crosses his arms over today’s black tie. “Well here’s a better one: I’ll send someone to town to find ornaments.”
I know what he’s going to say next, but I jump at the occasion anyway. “Then why don’t you just take me there so I can choose myself? I need some fresh air.”
Before I’m even done talking, his lips part to form the word No.
This time, I decide, I won’t step down. “I’d like to discuss this with my father. I get that you have instructions, but I’d like to remind you that I’m an adult.”
Stiles gives me the softest smile . . . and shakes his head. “Island, you know what Dr. Bentsen said about taking it slow.” He pauses with a long sigh. “I honestly don’t want to see you come apart in the middle of a Christmas market.”
“But you say that for everything,” I snap back. “It’s always too early for . . . for everything, and I’m wilting in here.” The frustration and resentment I try to keep at bay all the time swells, and I struggle to plead my case calmly. “I need to see people. I’m spinning around in circles, I don’t have any friends, no one called me after my accident, no one gave a damn!”
He draws a sorrowful sigh. “Do you miss Joy?”
I don’t think he does it on purpose, but he can be cruel sometimes. It’s like he unconsciously knows which button to push to make me come apart. I try to take the hit and keep my composure, but I can feel my face bunching already, and tears blur my vision.
“I don’t even remember her . . .” I sob.
And it’d make no difference, since she’s dead.
Joy, my roommate and best friend back in New York. Perhaps my only friend, since everyone else seems to have abandoned me. We met in college, lived together, did everything together. Like going on a vacation to the Poseidon Dome, a dream-like tropical resort in French Polynesia. Under a magnificent glass dome . . . which collapsed, bombed by some crazy terrorist guy whose name I’ve forgotten again. I’ll have to ask Stiles.
I don’t remember any of it, just bits, flashes, senseless dreams reminding me that it’s real, even if all that’s left to hold on to are blurry shapes undulating in the fog of my mind. I know Joy is blond, and that the dome collapsed in April. To me, these do not come across as factual truths but rather sensory experiences, things engraved in my heart, in my bones. Notes of Mozart’s Magic Flute I perhaps listened to back then, the screams and my terror when the glass cracked. I can still hear them, feel it.
I have no memory of what happened before that. Joy’s face is an abstract construct in my mind, based on photos my father showed me. He told me about the week she and I spent together at the dome. He had pictures of me too, but I didn’t recognize myself. I still don’t: I avoid mirrors because the girl looking back at me unsettles me. Barely reaching Stiles’s shoulder, she looks younger than twenty-six, which had me wondering about my own age in my worst moments of confusion. Pale, gaunt, with a gap tooth and round hazel eyes I find too big—probably because of the dark circles under them. The only thing reconciling us is the auburn waves falling on her shoulders. I feel their weight on mine too; I can actually look down at my own chest and see loose curls clinging to my wool dress.
That way I know who I am, which I should be grateful for, since according to the MRI Dr. Bentsen showed me, my medial temporal lobe is now made of sponge cake and confetti.
I look down at my hands. I thought I was doing well, but now I’m desperately trying to remember Joy’s face, and they’re shaking again, wet from the tears I just wiped.
Stiles’s palm glides down my back, leaving a trail of shivers in its wake. On a conscious level, I recognize that his touch is gentle, inoffensive, but my distress knows no other outlet than anger: I shove him away weakly. He barely moves, his solid frame wedged into the marble floor. “It’s okay, Island . . .” He reaches for me again, more cautiously this time. His voice envelops me like a warm blanket, numbs me. This time, I allow his arm to wrap around my shoulders, maybe because I know there’s no point in fighting him. “Come here. I’ll give you something so you can rest a little before lunch.”