Butterfly in Amber – Camilla Monk

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 latexgloved 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?” No. 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.” ONE 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. I know my name, I can brush my teeth, I know what matricial calculus and JavaScript are, like I know the difference between a strawberry and a mushroom, and I can understand many languages, among which are bits of Finnish, but also French, Afrikaans, or even Japanese—found out about that one a few weeks ago when reading the label of a box of matcha in the kitchen.

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.” TWO THE KNIFE “How do you feel today, Island?” Like crap. “Great.” I know Dr. Bentsen doesn’t buy it, not even with the smile I muster. That’s why she’ll remain silent for a minute or so to give me the opportunity to elaborate on this statement. Spoiler alert: I won’t. She leans back in the delicate armchair facing the sofa I’m sitting on. We always meet in the music room when she visits me: she once said that it’s because it’s brighter, cozier than the rest of the castle, and so she thinks it’ll affect my mood accordingly. Possible—I’m not sure.

I do agree that the atmosphere here is different from the rest of the building. The windows are much larger, and the pastel blues of the floral toile covering the furniture speak of a time when a certain art-de-vivre took over the necessity of fending off enemies and keeping halberds in every corner in case you needed to skewer someone . Bentsen combs back a long, sleek lock of silver hair behind her ear. She must flatiron. There’s no way her hair is naturally that smooth. Her smile reminds me of Stiles’s: soft, patient—inescapable. “Mr. Stiles told me you were upset a few days ago. Is it something you want to talk about?” Upset. Her favorite euphemism.

Upset like when I woke up in her clinic in Helsinki, terrified, disoriented, and surrounded by complete strangers. My father, Stiles, her . they’d try to talk to me, show me faces and ask if I recognized them, over and over. To me, it was nothing more than words piling up meaninglessly, questions I couldn’t answer, recounting of events that might just as well have been someone else’s life. She doesn’t need to remind me how it was, how the fear and the emptiness quickly degenerated into rage and paranoia. Most of the time, I do a good job putting a lid on those memories, and lie to myself that I’m taking meds because I had brain injury and that’s going to help, somehow. But of course, things look a little different from Bentsen’s perspective, who received a glass full of water and pills in her face—more than once—and who had to call in a bunch of male nurses to strap me to my bed a few times because I was so sure she wanted to kill me that I decided to strike first—with a fork and a plate of green beans. It’s the only thing I don’t want to remember, those hours spent screaming at no one in particular, the despair and the exhaustion afterward . I shift in my armchair, unable to meet her eyes. “It wasn’t like that.

I wasn’t angry or anything. I just . I was frustrated that Stiles wouldn’t let me out, and it all kind of . bubbled up.” “When Mr. Stiles mentioned Joy.” I look through the window. I want out, away. “Island?” she probes gently. “Yes.

Yes, I lost it, okay?” I snap. “I know it sounds bad, but I do feel better. It’s like you’re holding it against me.” Her voice is warm, gooey honey as she tries to get through to me. “No one is holding anything against you, Island. We only want to make sure you’re safe. We’re all worried about you.” “Then why don’t you let me go back to New York? I don’t need people to worry about me; I need fresh air.” It would probably take a lot more than a saucy attitude to make the slightest dent in Dr. Bentsen’s super-psychologist armor.

She all but ignores my irritation and keeps going, as if this were a conversation between friends. “You told me the same thing during our last session. What do you miss in New York, Island?” She’s trapping me. She knows I can’t answer that, at least not really. What do I miss? Joy? Joy is gone, along with my memories of her. All there’s left of her is an indistinct ache, a void inside me. My other friends, my colleagues? They’re just names, smudges in my mind that could be faces. My job? Apparently I worked in IT, but I got fired not long before I took that vacation to the Poseidon Dome. In truth, everything that held my life together snapped when that dome collapsed, like dozens of frail strings. And yet .

“My apartment . I’d like to return there. I think it’d jog my memory,” I say, truthfully. That seems to catch Bentsen’s interest. “Is there anything you remember specifically from your apartment, Island? Objects, maybe?” “We have . I had a pink vegetable knife. I’m sure of that.” I close my eyes. What I see, who I see, the faceless, broad-shouldered silhouette standing in what I believe to be my living room, holding the knife . I can’t tell Dr.

Bentsen, not when I’m not even sure if it’s a memory at all. Bentsen warned me a few times that my brain might be sorely tempted to make up its own stories to fill the blanks. Horror vacui and all that. You’re where my tape starts. “Island? Island?” My head snaps up. The moment I realize I zoned out, I have this irrational burst of fear and guilt in my chest, like I got caught . doing what, exactly? It’s not like I’m under some sort of obligation to let everyone know every single thought that’s going on in my mind at all times. I need time to make sense of whatever shreds of memory I grasp at. I straighten in my armchair and force myself to meet Dr. Bentsen’s soft, querying gaze.

“I’m sorry. I was just trying to visualize my kitchen, see if I remembered it.” “Do you?” “No. Only the knife. Maybe it’s because of the flashy color.” She seems satisfied with my answer. I breathe out. We’re almost done. “Your father will be here by the end of the week.” Something flickers in her gray-blue irises as she says this, hesitation maybe.

“I’ll call him then. I’m thinking we could try a different approach . give you some space to heal on your own terms.” I sit perfectly still, even as an uncontrollable feeling of freedom sends my pulse to a frenzy. On my lap, my fists curl, bunching the material of my sweater in a supreme effort not to jump from my armchair. From a purely rational point of view, it’s a tiny step. All it means for now is that I’ll likely win the Christmas-ornaments battle. But it’s a start: with some luck, maybe Bentsen will eventually deem me stable enough to go face the chaos of modern civilization and get my life back, dammit! I hold back the grin I feel tug at my cheeks, schooling it into a meek smile. “Yes, I’d like that. Thank you.

” She nods. Outside, the snow has started falling again; fat snowflakes drift past the windows, shrouding the castle’s park in a pearly fog. Dr. Bentsen checks her watch. This time, we’re done. When she opens the music room’s heavy doors, Stiles is here, waiting in the hallway, as usual. For once, though, I greet him with a beaming face. He cocks an eyebrow in question. I’ll tell him later. ••• “Slice the banana, and arrange the strawberries on top.

” A monotone male voice rises from Stiles’s tablet’s speaker and resonates in the vast kitchen, to dictate precise cooking instructions. His tongue darts between his lips in a frown of intense concentration as he fixes us an elaborate fruit carpaccio for afternoon snack. We do have a chef, French and all—Gwennaël. My mother was French too, so I like to chat with him when he’s here. She died more than ten years ago in a car accident, and I can’t remember anything about her, not even the fiery-red curls cascading down her shoulders in my father’s pictures. I find comfort in the simple knowledge that I haven’t forgotten the language though, its odd combination of soft sonorities. It makes me feel like there’s a part of her inside me, something that transcends memory. So yes, there’s a chef. But Stiles likes to cook, or, to be precise, Stiles loves to cook with stepby-step videos—and that’s not even his weirdest hobby . I watch him rummage through a massive fridge.

The voice orders him to squeeze lime juice over his creation. “Do you really feel ready for that?” he eventually asks. “Going out on your own?” “Yes.” My head bobs up and down like a rear-shelf dog’s. “It’s just not working, being here, resting all the time. So my entire adult life got flushed down the drain, and I’ll have to live with brain injury. Tough hand, but okay, fine. I’ll just have to build a new life. But I can’t do that if I stay here. I need, um”—I ball my fists—“to, like, get back on the ring.

And my meds are making me slow; I can’t focus. I need to ease up on those too.” In Stiles’s hand, a long Japanese knife stops halfway in the middle of the lime. “Maybe it’s a bit early for that.” “Dad”—my voice catches on the word. Somehow, it still won’t come out easily even after eight months—“Dad would tell you that’s Dr. Bentsen’s call,” I say warily. He sighs and finishes cutting the fruit. When he’s done with his carpaccio, and he’s about to put the knife away in the sink, he does that thing, spinning it in his hand. I have no idea how he does that; I can’t even follow the movement of his fingers.

Amazing. The knife clanks in the sink. “If you say so.” We eat in silence. I know Stiles disapproves of Dr. Bentsen’s project to open the doors to my cage, but it’s Stiles; he’s not gonna throw a tantrum about it. He’s not going to say anything, actually. I get that he worries though and that he’s responsible for me on a professional level too. If I lose my mind and somehow fall off a cliff, he’ll have to answer to my father for it, and getting fired will be the least of his problems. Honestly, my father is no worse than, say, Anna Wintour.

I suspect he intentionally cultivates this cliché of the unfunny billionaire who’ll pink-slip your ass in a heartbeat and sue your underwear off on top of it—the other day, I overheard a security guard hiss to another that “Mr. Keasler doesn’t tolerate failure,” like the guy would get thrown into a shark pool James Bond-style or something . The bottom line is that my father goes to great lengths to protect his private life—me included—because the world is full of people willing to kidnap a wealthy man’s offspring and send him a big toe in guise of an invoice. And, yes, fed up as I am to convalesce here, I do understand that I and my fickle brain make an easy target. “You know, I’m not gonna run off naked in the woods or something,” I joke, playing with a slice of banana on my plate. Stiles chuckles. “Please put on pants if you’re gonna do that.” “We can find a middle ground,” I add, in a more serious tone. “I need to stretch my wings. But I can definitely do with some help.

Up to a point.” He raises a blond eyebrow. “Up to a point?” As if to answer his question, a tremor shakes my hand when I raise my fork to eat. He sees it, and I can tell he’ll be on his feet in an instant if needed. I shake my head negatively. “When my hands do that, for example, I don’t want you to help me, because if you do, I’ll never learn to live with it.” I gobble the piece of fruit, my gaze firmly planted on his. He gives a nod of understanding and stands to pick up our now-empty plates. Moments later, I see him open the fridge and reach for a bottle of apple juice. Knots form in my stomach.

I stare down at the ashen veins running across the marble tiles, unnerved by the sloshing sounds of juice being poured in a heavy crystal glass. Stiles reaches in his pocket for the pillbox that never leaves him, where each dose is ready. When he hands me the pair of white pills, I bite my lower lip, aware of the blood pounding in my neck. “No, I’m good. I think we can skip them for today.” I register the faintest click of his tongue. “Island. I’m not sure we can find any . middle ground if you don’t take your treatment.” “I want to see how I fare without the pills, just for a few days.

I’ll take them if I don’t feel well.” Stiles takes a step forward, concern and some degree of annoyance wrinkling his brow. “Island, you’re putting me in a tough spot.” I shake my head obstinately. He won’t force me; I can’t believe he would. Yet he takes another step, and I find him uncomfortably close. Stiles has touched me, carried me before, in the first months of my recovery, when my legs would sometimes betray me, but I’ve never experienced any real sense of threat at his proximity—except for the early days, when confusion and paranoia got the best of me. At the moment, however, he’s towering over me, dwarfing me with his brawny build, and I’m acutely aware of the difference in physical strength between us. There’s no detectable anger in his gaze as he studies me but rather an odd tenderness. He’s so close I can smell the notes of aftershave and some woody cologne, see each line of his face.

I can’t help but flinch when his left hand moves. Slowly, carefully, the back of his knuckles graze my cheek. I gasp, his hand drops, and it’s over within seconds, before I can even process what happened. “You were always trouble,” he says, his baritone down to a thrumming whisper. Was I? I don’t know what to make of that. I don’t think there’s anything romantic about his gesture. I mean, if Stiles was interested, considering all the time we’ve spent alone together since I arrived at Ingolvinlinna, he’d have . Yeah. No. This is about control.

The realization seems to pop out from a part of my brain I didn’t even know still worked. I’m proven right when he reaches for the glass, now fully expecting me to submit. ••• There’s a rumor among the personnel that my father pays Stiles like Ronaldo to watch me 24/7. I have no idea whether this is true—I certainly hope so for him, since we’re talking two grand an hour. There are nonetheless levels of debasement no amounts of soccer money can buy. For example, Stiles never follows me to the bathroom. Well, almost never, if we take into account that time when I caught some kind of stomach bug three months ago. It was sad, ugly, and mildly traumatizing. The toilet bowl still remembers as Stiles held my hair while I threw up. He has made a point never to get directly involved with my bodily functions since.

Can’t blame him. Barely ten minutes after lunch is over, I stand alone in front of the bathroom mirror, surrounded by the many shades of blue in the kaleidoscopic Moroccan tiling. I’m thinking that what Stiles doesn’t know can’t hurt him. This time, I need no help kneeling in front of the bowl. I stick my fingers down my throat, careful to stifle any undignified noises, even as my stomach starts heaving. And up goes the apple juice, along with Dr. Bentsen’s med cocktail.

.

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