Coming Soon: The Butterfly Jar & Other Tales

Next week will see the launch of Volume 5 of The Singles Collection. This time around, the stories are loosely science fiction, though purists will probably insist that they're borderline science fantasy. Whatever the case, if your tastes run to the dystopian or post-apocalyptic portion of the genre-fiction spectrum, this group of stories will probably be right up your alley.

As a teaser and to whet your appetite, here's an excerpt from the lead story in The Butterfly Jar & Other Tales...

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Excerpt from The Butterfly Jar

 

Dana burst from the tall grass, a whirlwind of pale, awkward limbs and a pink plastic net. She leapt, arms raised high above her head, her teeth bared in a savage smile as she brought the net crashing down on a patch of violet wildflowers.

She crept forward—keeping the pink net pressed firmly against the ground—and an exultant smile began to spread across her face. Her prey, its blue wings so pale they might have been white, fluttered beneath the mesh. Carefully, Dana twisted the netting around the frame, her eyes never leaving the trapped butterfly. She stared at it for a long time before standing to pick her way back through the grasping claws of half-dead shrubs to where her bicycle lay abandoned by the side of the desolate highway.

Dana knelt beside the scratched and dented frame of the old bike and rummaged blindly through her bag with one hand, keeping her eyes fixed on the butterfly. Her fingers brushed against the cool glass of a Mason jar and she pulled it free. Wedging it between her knees, she twisted the dull silver cap off and bunched the netting around the butterfly, transferring her prey to its new home.

She screwed the cap into place and held the jar up to catch the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun. It was a beautiful specimen. The wings held the light, glowing as they flapped slowly within the glass prison. Dana watched the butterfly for a long time as the shadows lengthened across the quiet, windless plain.  

Finally, she set the jar down and pulled a ragged road map from a bag so covered in a motley of butterfly patches that its original yellow barely peeked through. She traced the thick yellow line of the highway toward Springfield—toward Grandma Sylvie’s house. Then she stuffed both map and jar back into the bag with a rueful sigh as the butterfly disappeared from view. 

Sliding the bag up onto her back, Dana tightened the frayed straps and walked the ancient bicycle out to the center of the bare expanse of cracked, gray asphalt. She paused, aligning the bike with the fading yellow lines that ran down the center of the road, and then she was off, pedaling down the empty highway toward a low line of dark hills in the distance. A piece of plastic fixed to the bicycle’s frame thwack, thwack, thwacked a lonely staccato against the spokes in a vain attempt to drive back the surrounding silence.   

Weeds pierced the cracks in the road and grew up around the rusted hulks scattered along the berm, mostly obscuring them, hiding any bodies that might be entombed within. Dana ignored the dead vehicles and kept her eyes locked on the far-off hills as she began to drift back and forth across the yellow lines that marked the way to her grandmother’s house. 

Back and forth, back and forth, Dana wove her way into the dusk, her mind wandering into the past.

*

The lawnmower was acting up again, its guidance program crashing hard. The flattened orange cylinder darted erratically about the tiny emerald patch of lawn as the housebot loped along in pursuit. One of the housebot’s glossy black limbs shot out and upended the little mower, leaving it to spiral wildly on its back, an orange plastic turtle desperately trying to right itself as its blades whirled and gnashed at the sky above. Finally, a small puff of black smoke billowed from the mower’s underbelly and the blades spun to a halt. The housebot reached it in two long strides and gave it a kick.  

Dana’s laughter ended in a fit of coughing. Her throat burned as she pulled the covers tighter around her, staring out the window at the squabbling robots in the front yard. Three days on the couch and she was still sick and miserable. Her eyes shifted to the driveway, where her parents were saying their goodbyes. It was Dad’s turn to stay home with her today, and she watched him give a slight wave as her mom disappeared into the sleek silver car crouched at the curb.

She sank further into the pile of blankets and called up a display from the house computer, deciding to skip yesterday’s math lesson for now. Mr. Muncy’s droning monotone would just put her to sleep again. Dana brushed at the icons suspended in the air before her, navigating away from the familiar confines of grade six mathematics and scrolling up toward the great unknown of high school. She had noticed a lecture on butterflies in an advanced biology class during a series of bored searches yesterday. Finding the class directory, she retrieved the lecture from the archive, and a female teacher’s voice, high and marvelously accented, filled her earphones, enveloping her in an aural cocoon.  

Dana smiled weakly at her father as he came back into the house accompanied by the housebot, the forlorn little orange mower cradled in its arms. Her father pantomimed to her that he was going to make breakfast, and she nodded as giant holographic butterflies began to flutter around the couch. After a minute or so, she nudged the volume down to a background hum and just watched the panoply of wings flapping about her. One by one, the insects were frozen and expanded as distinctive wing markings were highlighted and identified. Her head nodded and she drifted off to the droning buzz of the lecture.

A crash from the kitchen woke her suddenly, and Dana twisted her head around to see her father’s back, his spine rigid. A shattered plate and cracked ceramic mug lay on the tile at his feet and she could see that he was staring intently at the speaker embedded in the face of the small silver oven. He raised a tentative hand toward it and then lowered it again, leaning in toward whatever he was listening to. The scene stretched and twisted before her.

Then, as suddenly as it had come, the stillness was broken.

Her father scrambled to the back door and looked out at the horizon, then turned and grabbed the house phone from the counter, his fingers stabbing the buttons as he hurried back toward Dana. The look in his eyes was frightening, and her hands shook as she pulled out her earphones. He muttered under his breath as he strode into the swirling mass of butterflies that surrounded the couch, the telephone pressed firmly to his ear, his forehead creased. Standing over her, he paused for a long moment before tossing the phone aside with a hissed curse.

“Dana honey, can you walk?”

His voice came out high and thin, and his face was ashen.  She nodded and struggled to her feet as he turned to the housebot.

“Power up the shelter and gather as many fruits and vegetables as you can carry.”

The bot’s face flashed green in acknowledgment, then it spun and sped off to its tasks.

Dana took a few faltering steps on slippered feet before she collapsed. But her father was there to catch her, and she could feel his heart beating rapidly beneath the thin fabric of his white cotton undershirt as he lifted her. They were barely through the back door when the phone began to ring behind them. Her father stopped suddenly and whispered, “Laura.” The housebot dodged past them, heavy canvas bags full of produce draped over its thin arms.  It paused, face flashing yellow in confusion as her father grabbed its plastic shoulder.

The sky was gray and cloudy behind her father’s face as he placed her gently in the mechanical arms of the housebot. The smell of ripening fruit drifted up to her from the bags it carried. Again the phone chimed faintly from within the house.  

“That might be your mother,” he said, and gave her a stubbly smile, tussling her short hair before ordering the housebot to get her to the shelter and keep her safe.

Then he was gone, racing back into the house in search of the telephone.

---end excerpt---

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The Butterfly Jar & Other Tales will be available in electronic format for Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and iBooks. If you don't want to miss the launch next week, your best bet is to subscribe to my newsletter. Email not your thing? Follow me on Facebook or Twitter or watch this space...