If you were to look for Butterfly Lane in any map, the chances are that you wouldn’t be able to find it. Butterfly Lane is neither a suburb nor a lane, but a tiny, tiny town in Oregon with a population of eighty-five people. And the reason it is called Butterfly Lane, is, because on the first day of every summer thousands of butterflies descend upon this tiny place, only to pass through it, using it much like a lane to get to somewhere else, for they disappear within a day of their arrival.
The first time I heard the name Butterfly Lane mentioned was the day Mom was looking into properties that were in remote and quiet places. You see, Mom was an artist and Dad a writer and both were looking for a quiet place to live and work. So when Mom saw an ad for a five-bedroom house on sale in Butterfly Lane at a price next to nothing, she could hardly let it go. We were, after all, living in a rented house.
‘But what about school?’ I asked. I was fourteen and I wasn’t sure how I would feel to live in isolation in a small town which may or may not have a school. As it turned out it did not have a school.
‘Homeschooling,’ Mom suggested easily. And Dad agreed. Jimmy and Amy, my younger brother and sister, aged seven and five respectively, were too young to express their views, if they had any, on the matter.
It was two weeks before the start of summer when the removalists came and we packed up to go and live in Butterfly Lane. We wanted to get there in time to see the butterflies.
It is no exaggeration to say that the town was as pretty as a picture on a postcard. Cottage style houses with beautiful green lawns and white picket fences, a few mom-and-pop shops dotted here and there, and streets that were lined up with trees. As we drove through this quaint little place I expected to see its people dress like the Amish, but no, everyone was dressed normally, though not quite in line with the latest fashion of the seventies.
When the time came for the butterflies to pay the town a visit, everyone gathered to watch them, and it was then that we met the townsfolk for the first time. Most of them were elderly people and there were but a handful of children between the ages of five and ten.
‘So, you are Mr and Mrs Williams, the new owners of Joe’s old house?’ said an elderly man upon approaching us.
Dad smiled. ‘I see that news travels fast round here.’
‘’Tis a small town. I’m Harry. Harry Stokes,’ the old man introduced himself, as he extended his hand to shake hands with Mom and Dad.
‘Nice to meet you, Mr Stokes.’
‘Call me Bob.’
‘Linda,’ Mom said, with a warm smile and went to introduce us kids.
‘So, Harry, whereabouts do you live?’ Dad asked.
‘Right above my shop.’
‘Ah!’ Dad exclaimed in a moment of realisation. ‘Harry’s! You are the owner of the hardware store!’
‘Sure am,’ Harry said, with a wide grin. ‘Settling in okay in your new home? Nothing unusual?’
‘Unusual?’ Dad gave a puzzled frown. ‘Should we expect anything unusual?’
Harry shrugged his lips. ‘Just wondering if nothing’s been disturbing you good folks at night?’
‘Nothing that comes to mind. Why?’
‘Some of the folks round here are a bit superstitious, that’s all.’ Then briefly glancing at us, he added ‘I suppose you know that there are no schools in this town?’
‘Yes, we do,’ Mum said. ‘We’re planning on homeschooling our children.’
‘Ah! Right! Well, if you ever need any help with that, see Miss Edna Pickering about it. She tutors some of the youngsters here in her home. She’s supposed to be a scholar. Apparently she used to teach philosophy at some university in Georgia before retiring and moving here.’
‘Is she here?’ Mom asked.
‘Nope. She doesn’t care much for butterflies or crowds for that matter,’ Harry said.
‘Whereabouts does she live?’ Mom asked.
‘Bloom street. Her house is a big old colonial house that you can’t miss.’
The conversation ended when the children began to squeal at the sight of the arrival of thousands of butterflies.
‘Take some pictures, Bob,’ Mom said to Dad.
Never before had I seen so many beautiful butterflies in one place. I could see then that this town, despite its quiet nature, was not void of expression. It had character, charm, and a twist of mystery.
The next day Mom wrote a note, asking Miss Pickering if she’d be willing to help with tutoring us, and gave it to me to drop it in her mailbox. When Miss Pickering failed to answer the note, Mom took us and went to see her at her house, but Miss Pickering wouldn’t open the door. Mom knocked, but no response came from within. Miss Pickering pretended she wasn’t home. Well, maybe she wasn’t and there was no pretending.
Mom wasn’t too disappointed though. After all, she hadn’t planned on getting any help with tutoring when she made the decision to homeschool us.
The first three months of us living there was quite uneventful, except for the fact that Dad got his inspiration for a new novel. It was to be a murder mystery happening in a small country town. So, we rarely saw our father, as he sat busily at his typewriter, typing his new novel.
It was not until the end of summer that Dad emerged from what Mom called his den to tell us that he had finished his novel and was ready to send it to his agent. By this time, Mom had started us on our homeschooling program too, and as a part of my homework she gave me an assignment to do. I was to write an essay no shorter than one thousand words on the history of Butterfly Lane. She gave me this project because she knew that my desire in life was to one day become an investigative reporter. And this project required some investigating, since there was not a whole lot known about this town.
My first thought was to see Harry about it, since he seemed to know everyone in town, so off I went to his hardware store.
‘Hello, Mr Stokes.
‘Call me Harry,’ Harry said, touching the tip of his wide brimmed straw hat. ‘What can I do for you, Natalie?’
‘I’m doing a project on this town’s history. I was wondering if you could tell me something about it.
With his hands on his hips, Harry thought for a moment, then shrugged. ‘Not much to tell. This town isn’t that old. Was built only sixty years ago.’
‘Oh, yes. This entire area’ —he made a sweeping gesture— ‘used to belong to a man named Isaac Robertson. When he died, his sons parcelled out the land in small blocks and sold them.’
‘And that’s it?’
‘That’s it. You can consult Miss Pickering about it. She is the grand-niece of the old man.’
The following morning, I headed for Miss Pickering’s house, even though I was quite nervous about it. I guess one could say that Miss Pickering excited my nerves. It didn’t help that I didn’t know what she looked like, which conjured up all sorts of gloomy images in the labyrinth of my mind. And then of course, there was the matter of her quite possibly not opening the door to me. But being an investigative reporter that I considered myself to be in a not so distant future, I braved the elements, so to speak, and headed for the unknown. I was determined to talk to Miss Pickering, one way or another.
I think it was my persistence at knocking that made Miss Pickering open the door to me. And when she did, she did not let those gloomy images down. Miss Pickering, a tall bony woman with wiry iron-grey hair, wearing glasses as thick as goggles, all dressed in black, looked every bit an old crone that I thought she would be. And she was not happy to see me.
‘Miss Pickering, I am—’
‘I know who you are,’ she interrupted snappishly. ‘I have no room for more students.’
‘Ma’am, I am not here for that—’
‘Then what do you want?’ she barked, with a frightful frown.
‘Mom wants me to write an essay on the history of this town.’
‘History?’ Her eyes squinted through her thick glasses. ‘History of this town?’ she shrilled.
‘Yes, Mr Harry Stokes told me that you are the grand-niece of the owner of the land that this town was built upon.’
‘There is nothing more to be said about it,’ she said in a very no-nonsense tone. ‘Why don’t you write about the history of your house?’
I frowned. ‘Our house?’
‘Yes. It has more history than this town.’
My eyes widened in surprise. ‘Really?’ I said, recalling to my mind all those weird questions that Harry had asked Dad about how were we settling in our new home.
‘Why did you people move into this godforsaken place? A place with no schools! There is nothing out here,’ she shrieked.
‘That’s why my parents came here.’
‘What, to be cut off from the world?’
‘My mom and dad like quiet places to do their work,’ I said nervously. ‘Dad is a writer—’
‘A writer?’ she interrupted. ‘What does he write about?’
‘He writes mystery novels.’
‘So he is a novelist, is he?’ she said less gruffly, as if she had suddenly found a new respect for my family on account of my father being a writer.
‘Come in,’ she said, opening the door wider to let me in. ‘Let’s go to my study.’ She led me through her house, a very dusty and gloomy old house, to an even dustier and gloomier room with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with dusty old books.
‘So your parents bought this house from old Joe,’ she said with a humph, as she sat behind her dusty old desk and gestured for me to sit across from her on a dusty old chair.
‘How much do you know about Joe?’ she asked.
‘All I know is his name … Joseph Fitzpatrick,’ I said, as my eyes wandered over by the window to see a black cat, with gleaming yellow eyes, sitting on the windowsill.
‘She is my cat,’ Miss Pickering said, with such softness in her voice that it took me by surprise. Miss Pickering was anything but soft.
‘What’s her name?’ I asked, thinking that all Miss Pickering needed now was a black cone hat to complete the image of a witch and her cat.
How I controlled my laughter, I don’t know, but somehow I did. And if truth be told, I have no idea why I wanted to laugh. Maybe it was the name, or, maybe it was the image of a witch and her cat, or, even my own youthful ignorance.
She went and took Cleopatra into her arms, then came and sat down again, with Cleopatra purring on her lap. ‘Where were we?’ she said gruffly, gently patting Cleopatra.
‘We were talking about Mr Fitzpatrick,’ I said, eyeing the cat.
‘Oh yes,’ she said, as she continued patting Cleopatra. ‘What about your parents? How much do they know about him?’
‘Not much. What about you? How much do you know about him?’ I asked, curious.
‘I have known him for a long time now,’ she said, with a shrug.
‘Is he a nice guy?’ I asked, in the absence of a better question coming to my mind.
‘Nice enough. But his niceness is not the question. I don’t think it was a good idea for him to sell that house,’ she said, lowering Cleopatra onto the floor.
‘Why?’ I asked, watching Cleopatra as she left the room.
She tossed her head to one side and glared. ‘Why? I tell you why. Eleven years ago, Mason, Joe’s elder brother and the then owner of the house you live in now, went crazy one day, got a gun and shot his entire family dead, then turned the gun on himself.’
‘Oh!’ I gasped, quite unprepared for such a gruesome revelation. And once again I recalled to my mind Harry’s weird questions, so I asked if she thought the house was haunted by their ghosts.
‘Not just them; other ghosts too!’
My eyes widened. ‘Other ghosts?’ Now I was intrigued.
‘Eight years prior to Mason and his family moving into that house, the house belonged to a couple by the name of Anderson. Julia Anderson was quite a beautiful woman who ended up having an affair, albeit a very brief affair, with a drifter who came into this town one summer to see the butterflies pass through. Now her husband, Raymond, who was twenty years her senior, found out about the affair and went right out of his mind. He strangled Julia and then hanged himself. Mason in killing his wife and children, so everybody round here believes, was possessed by the spirit of Raymond Anderson. It was Keith, Julia’s brother, who put up the house for sale and that is when Mason came into the picture…’
I remained silent for a few short minutes, not sure of what to say, then asked her how could she believe in ghosts when she was a scholar.
She humphed. ‘There are things in life that neither philosophy nor science can explain.’
I put no stock in what she said about our house being haunted. We had been living in it for three months and none of us had experienced anything strange. But since I didn’t want to come across as rude in rejecting what she was saying, I delicately steered the conversation back to the original owner of the land. Miss Pickering didn’t have a whole lot to say about her grand-uncle, except that the house in which she now lived was the same house that Isaac Robertson lived during the last years of his life.
I could see that my project had to change. I had nothing regarding the town, or not much that was worth one thousand words, but I had spooky stories about our house. A week later, right after breakfast, when Jimmy and Amy went out to play, I handed my altered assignment to Mom.
‘What’s this?’ Dad asked, nodding at my paper.
‘The assignment I gave her to write on the history of this town,’ Mom informed Dad.
‘As it turned out, it is a history of this house,’ I proceeded to explain. ‘It seems there is more history or mystery surrounding this house than this town.’
‘Let me see,’ Dad said, and took my assignment to read. After he finished reading it, he first looked at me, then at Mom, and then he frowned, looking troubled.
‘What?’ Mom said.
‘That’s damn strange,’ Dad said.
‘What’s strange?’ Mom and I cried in unison.
‘The story! It is identical to my novel. Different names, but it is the same story.’
Coincidences are strange phenomena. Some people believe that there is no such thing as a coincidence, while others believe the opposite. I can’t be sure to which camp my parents belonged, but it was after this episode that Mom and Dad decided to move out of Butterfly Lane. Not that they said they believed in the house being haunted or the possibility of what happened to Mason and his family could ever happen to us. They said that they simply weren’t comfortable living in a house where murders and suicides had happened to two families. And since no other house in Butterfly Lane was up either for sale or rent, they had no choice but to leave the town.
So an ad was placed in the paper, extolling not so much the virtues of the house, but the town. Response was not immediate. Late in March, nearly six months after the ad was placed, a buyer contacted Dad. He wanted to buy our house as a holiday home, but the price he was offering was less than what we had asked for. Dad didn’t reject it. He knew that his advance was on its way – his agent was in the middle of a negotiation with a publisher. So the house was immediately sold, but we stayed until Dad could receive his money.
It was exactly one week before the start of summer, when Dad’s agent contacted him with a contract for two hundred thousand dollars for his novel. It was like winning a lottery. Dad had to go and meet his agent in New York, and he decided to take us with him, so we could all go and shop for a new house.
‘We’ll miss the butterflies,’ Amy whined.
‘No, we won’t,’ Dad assured. ‘We’ll see the butterflies on the way out.’
On the morning of the arrival of the butterflies we got into Dad’s car and started to drive out of Butterfly Lane, seeing the butterflies on the way.
As we passed the Butterfly Lane signpost, a cougar out of nowhere suddenly jumped in front of our car. I don’t remember much after that. My only memory of that fateful day is that I was covered by hundreds of butterflies, if not thousands. My physical injuries were not substantial, but my grief…
I lost Mom and Dad, Jimmy and Amy, all in a blink of an eye. How does one cope with the enormity of such a loss?
That was forty years ago. I never became an investigative reporter, nor did I ever leave Butterfly Lane. After the car accident I went to live with Miss Pickering, since I didn’t have any relatives. Miss Pickering, despite her harsh manner, was in fact a very generous and kind woman who saw to my education and was very supportive of my dream of becoming an investigative reporter. And this could have happened, had it not been for the fact that if I leave Butterfly Lane I will die.
It was two years after the car accident that I found out about this. I wanted to go to college but I couldn’t make up my mind which one I preferred. So I asked Miss Pickering if she could come with me and visit some of the college campuses to help me choose one. And she agreed. So one morning we got into her car and she drove out of Butterfly Lane, but as she did so a strange phenomenon happened – I ceased to exist.
‘Looks like you are trapped in this town, my girl,’ Miss Pickering said, on driving back to town.
‘What happened?’ I ask, rubbing my eyes and trying to focus, as if I had just woken up from a deep sleep.
‘As soon as we put Butterfly Lane behind us, you started to fade away…’
‘Fade away? But … but people don’t fade away as if they were a puff of smoke,’ I said, not believing.
‘Be that as it may, that is what happened. You can’t leave Butterfly Lane,’ Miss Pickering informed me in her usual no-nonsense tone.
‘It is this place and those damn butterflies,’ cried Joe Fitzpatrick, when he got wind of what happened to me upon leaving the town.
‘What on earth are you on about, Joe?’ Miss Pickering shrieked.
‘I’ve always known that this town was weird and those damn butterflies even weirder,’ Joe went on. ‘I mean, where do they go from here? Other people in other towns don’t see them. Think about it! No one sees them. It is as if they pass through here to go to another dimension. So, my opinion is that they did something to Natalie…’
‘Like what?’ Miss Pickering cried.
‘Like she can only function as a living person if she stays put in this town. Do you get my meaning?’
‘No, I am sure I don’t,’ Miss Pickering answered gruffly.
‘Edna, Edna, Edna,’ cried Joe, throwing his hands up in the air, ‘open your eyes.’
‘The butterflies had nothing to do with it. They are just harmless little insects.’
‘Harmless! Those butterflies do something to people here. They make you see things and do things that normally you’d never do. Those butterflies’ —Joe tapped the side of his head— ‘control the mind and the spirit. In fact, I think they are spirits themselves. Spirits of the dead.’
‘Oh, that’s just absurd,’ Miss Pickering said dismissively.
‘Then how do you explain Natalie? Natalie herself told us that when the accident happened she was covered by hundreds if not thousands of butterflies.’
‘Butterflies are insects, not magicians,’ Miss Pickering retorted.
It was a hopeless argument that went nowhere. Joe firmly held to his beliefs and Miss Pickering firmly held to hers. It was not until years later that I came to the realisation that Joe was right. And this came about when I noticed I wasn’t aging.
In my younger years, I didn’t pay much attention to how young I looked. I supposed that I had very good genes and very good skin. Certainly, Miss Pickering never mentioned anything about my youthful appearance. After all, as a fourteen-year-old, I was a tall girl with a well-developed body, so why would I look any different at the age of twenty or twenty-five or even thirty.
But when you are thirty-five, good genes and good skin are not sufficient explanation for you looking the way you did when you were fourteen. Now by this time Miss Pickering and her beloved cat, Cleopatra, had been dead for nine years and very few of the original townsfolk were left. The older ones had died, the younger ones had moved out, and new people had moved in. And the new people found my presence disturbing. To them I was an oddity – I was the girl who never grew old.
You would think that this should have engaged their interest. After all, isn’t everyone after eternal youth? Well, apparently not, because the new people were wary of me, which made me wary of myself. It was then that I came to believe Joe was right. Since I could find no logical explanation for me not aging, butterflies were my only answer, and by the same logic I concluded that it was on their account that I was alive, provided, as Joe said, I stayed in Butterfly Lane.
Now I was staring directly into the abyss of immortality itself, for indeed to me it was an abyss. Immortality is only a wonderful thing when you are able to travel the world and do all the things that one lifetime is simply not enough to accommodate. But immortality is a dark prospect when one is trapped forever in a tiny town with nothing to do and no one to talk to.
I suppose that I could have just left the town and let myself fade away, but I think I was never brave enough to do it. For to do that, it meant that I had to allow myself to die. How many people of sound mind and body would willingly embrace death? My guess is that not too many. We never walk towards death; death walks towards us. But in my case, since death does not walk towards me, I am the one who has to do the walking, and this is not an easy thing to do. Now, I am not saying that I will never do it; all I am saying is that I am not there yet…
‘Mom, mom,’ Jeremy cried.
‘What is it?’ his mother answered, rushing to the room.
‘Look, there is a girl there.’
‘Over by the window,’ Jeremy said excitedly, pointing to the window.
‘There is no one there.’
‘She is outside, pressing her face against the window.’
‘Darling, there is no one there.’
‘But she is there, she is there,’ Jeremy persisted, pointing to the window again.
‘Honey, there is no one there. Now, I have to go. There are a lot of boxes that still need to be unpacked,’ his mother said, on leaving the room.
‘Hello,’ Jeremy said, walking up to the window.
‘Let me in,’ cried the girl, tapping on the window.
Jeremy nodded and opened the window.
‘This was my room, you know,’ the girl said, glancing round, as she stepped over the ledge. ‘And this used to be our house—a long time ago.’
‘We moved in just last week,’ Jeremy announced.
‘I know. That’s why I came here today to see who is living in our old house. So what made your parents move into this town?’
‘My dad bought a hardware store here,’ Jeremy explained.
‘You mean Harry’s?’
‘Yeah, that’s the one. But my dad’s going to change its name. He’s going to call it after himself – Tony’s.’
‘I knew Harry senior, the original owner of Harry’s,’ the girl said. ‘When he died, his daughter came down here for a little while to run the store, before her son, Harry junior, took over. He died two years ago, so your father must’ve bought the shop from his son, the great-grandson of Harry senior.’
‘You know a lot,’ Jeremy said, smiling.
‘About this town? You bet.’
‘Where do you live?’ Jeremy asked.
‘Over at Bloom street.’
Jeremy gasped. ‘You mean you live in that big old haunted house?’
‘Who told you it was haunted?’ asked the girl, frowning.
‘Everybody. Everybody says it is. And people are really scared of that house. We saw the house just the other day. It looks scary.’
‘Oh, it’s not scary. That’s nonsense. It’s my house. I’ve been living in it for over forty years now. Okay, maybe it’s a bit old and run-down and the plumping needs some work, but I can assure you that it’s not haunted. I’d know if it was.’
‘Course. Come and visit me one day and then you can see for yourself that it’s not haunted.’
‘And if it is?’
‘Then I chase the ghost away,’ cried the girl, jerking one foot forward and stamping it hard upon the ground to demonstrate the fright she would cause the ghost. She then smiled and asked how old he was.
‘Seven, but soon I’ll be eight.’
‘I had a brother about your age,’ she said in a subdued tone.
‘Yeah. He died a long time ago. What’s your name?’
‘It was nice meeting you, Jeremy. Well, I’d better go,’ the girl said, as she stepped over the ledge.
‘Wait! What’s your name? You didn’t tell me your name.’
‘Natalie. Natalie Williams.’
‘Mom, Mom,’ Jeremy cried, as he ran through the house in search of his mother.
‘I am here in the kitchen, darling.’
‘Guess who I just met?’ Jeremy said, opening the door to the kitchen.
‘I met Natalie. Natalie Williams, the ghost everyone talks about, except that she doesn’t know she is a ghost…’