Lord of the Butterflies: Chapter 1
An optimistic retelling of Lord of the Flies in the Time of Coronavirus
The place they normally went for coffee was closed. A handwritten note stenciled CLOSED FOR CORONAVIRUS with a tiny purple heart punctuated next to it. Was that supposed to make people feel better, the stress-doodled heart? Or was it just the mindless scrawl of an anxious employee who didn’t know what to do other than close during a pandemic that was killing her coworkers? Star’s hands were red with cold and she blew on them even though all the social workers had told her not to touch her face.
“Where are we gonna find food?” Mo whined.
“Yeah, everything is closed. Even the shelter because all the staff are sick,” Waldo worried.
“I don’t know,” Star said. “We’ll find something to eat. Somewhere.”
They continued walking, trudging up the steep Denny Way hill.
“Can you imagine what this used to be like, a hundred years ago? To be a horse, slipping in the mud up this hill?” Waldo mused. Star shivered. Those poor horses in the Seattle rain. She pictured their hooves slipping in the mud as they carried Seattle’s lumber baron aristocracy up First Hill. Yesterday, before the library shuttered for the pandemic quarantine, Star had read that Trump’s grandfather earned much of his fortune in the restaurant industry in Seattle and Alaska during the gold rush, but she wasn’t sure how true that was. She loved spending the entire day there, sepulchered deep inside the glass fortress of the downtown central library. When you were reading, you could ignore feeling hungry. She was allergic to most of the food that she could get from the soup kitchen in Pioneer Square anyway and it was a long walk to the homeless youth center. Plus, she didn’t really want to live, so eating didn’t make much sense. Instead of the swaying dizziness of her hunger , Star focused on thinking about Koolhaus’s design, a building structured from glass and steel where it housed the paper fibres of books. Shimmering up from the street like a giant matrixed stack of books, its cold exterior warmed by the busy biology of people studying its contents. Sitting lower than its neighboring buildings like a transparent UFO, the library crouched as though preparing to leap up and fly away from the oppressive density of Seattle’s downtown financial district. A forest of phallic capitalism. Star hated how tall and overbearing the buildings were. When it got to be too much, she’d slip into the oasis of Freeway Park and climb atop the concrete blocks where parkour punks hung out. They laughed and yelled as they scaled the walls and flipped stunts. Sometimes, she missed the forest. Other times, she missed the open plains of California and Arizona where she had ridden freight trains. Seattle’s harbor was only a few blocks from the library, but unless you were walking west, downhill toward Puget Sound, it was easy to forget that you lived in a port city. The sea obscured from view. The library’s tenth floor provided a beautiful view that made her feel like a pigeon, roosting high in the eaves. She missed it now that most of the city had been shut down for the COVID-19 virus. Saint John, Star’s street dad, had always warned that martial law was on the horizon. And now it was here. Saint John had died a year before he saw his premonition come true. Star had struggled to inhale enough to give him CPR. He wasn’t breathing but he still felt warm in his mummy bag. He couldn’t have died all that long ago, she hoped. The staccato of cars commuting upon the bridge above their camp picked up tempo as the sun began to rise. Someone else in the camp dialed 911 and stuttered as they tried to describe where John lay dying beneath the bridge, next to The Hatter’s red Coleman tent, between two streets that they couldn’t remember the names of.
After Saint John died, Star was on her own again. The weather had turned cold, so she began hiding in the basement of the University of Washington library. She could pass for a young-looking, frazzled freshman. When a security guard asked for her student ID at the entrance, she explained that she had forgotten it in her dorm and she really needed to study. Hiding in the stacks at night, she cuddled with books that reminded her of happier times and places. The Narnia Tales, Moby-Dick, botany textbooks because plants are always good listeners and she wanted to return the favor. Star liked the library because it was warm, safe, and she could read about all the things she didn’t know. Last week, she had read that South Lake Union used to be a hill. Before the Great Depression’s stock market crash, the Denny Regrade had demolished and redistributed Denny Hill’s soil to what is now SoDo, creating Harbor Island and what is now the foundation for Alaska Way. Star wondered if that’s why it took so long to dig the new tunnel after the viaduct was torn down last year. Was the soil not secure enough? How long would it take for a moved mountain of earth to become stable, she wondered. She was not an engineer, but it would probably more than a century, she was certain. She wondered if all the geoducks and salmon in Elliott Bay had died in the Denny Regrade. She wondered if the cops back then were nicer to all the people they forced to move in sweeps like they had when they tore down the viaduct. She read that back then, they had public restrooms for the homeless. She wished that she could take a shower, wash her hands, pluck her eyebrows. It was a pandemic, afterall.
“Do you think it’s a bad idea to dumpster dive?” Mo asked. “I don’t want to catch the ‘Rona but I’m so hungry.” Star shook her head. She wasn’t sure. No one seemed certain of anything anymore. The most frightening thing was watching all the rich people be scared for once. She saw them running into their cozy quarantine Craftsman barracks. Mountains of toilet paper teetering as they darted from their car to the front door with their loot. Since the shelter had closed two days ago, the kids had been squatting in a house in Capitol Hill, kept company by a gray cat they had named Gandalf. The kids had followed Gandalf through a hole in the chainlink fence outside perimeter of the house. The metal fence rattled and blackberry bushes snagged their faces as they pushed through. Gandalf waited patiently for them on the other side of the fence, his tail twitching on the grass. With the grace of an Olympic diver, he leapt through an open basement window. They hesitated for a moment, looking at one another for a suggestion on what to do next.
Star shrugged, “What would Alice do?”
Mo laughed, “She’d follow the white rabbit or the gray cat.” Carefully, they helped each other shimmy down through the window, uncertain of what they might find inside. Hopefully no one else was camping here already. Meth heads can be very volatile if you wake them.
“Hello?” they called out cautiously. Other than their shaking breath, the only sound was a rhythmic drip of water somewhere in the basement’s corner.
“We can all have our own room!” Waldo exclaimed. “I’ve never had a room.” His face illuminated in the blue hue of his phone as he looked up the real estate listing. “One-million-nine-hundred and ninety-five dollars. That’s how much our new home costs. We’re millionaires!”
“Why don’t you just say two mil?” Mo said. “After taxes, it’s more than that.”
“What do you know about taxes?” Waldo laughed. “You’ve never even had money to be taxed.”
“Guys, let’s look upstairs. We can all pick out a room,” Star suggested. Star darted up the stairs, holding her breath to ignore her worries about what might be on the other side of the door. She pushed away paranoia that one of the creaking steps might break as she bounded up toward the threshold’s slit of light. Star did not like basements. Before her mother had kicked her out, her parents used to locked her in the basement. She wasn’t afraid of the dark. She wasn’t afraid of falling. She was afraid of being trapped underground. She was afraid of who might be on the other side of a basement door.
Star’s body slammed against the door, propelled by her fear that this basement, like the basements of her childhood would have a lock on it. Or a cruel adult. Or both. The door splintered, its thin wood shattering with the impact of her shoulder. Waldo and Mo doubled over laughing at her from the bottom of the basement’s staircase.
“What?” Star called back down. “Why are you laughing at me?”
“The doorknob,” they shrieked in unison. Star looked down at her hand. There, glistening in the sunlight of the living room, an antique crystal doorknob’s prism cast rainbows across her face. Still laughing, Waldo and Mo climbed the staircase and teased her for her overwhelming fear of basements. Gandalf sat perched in the frame of the bay window, purring in the warmth of the afternoon sun. The three kids hugged, laughing. They had found a home. Star raised the glass crystal knob above them like a victorious sceptre. A gust of wind blew through the room and three butterflies landed gently upon the prism, their wings fluttering softly. Star slowly lowered the crystal and they gazed at the tiny delicate creatures. The butterflies rubbed their legs together like violinists playing an instrument on a frequency they couldn’t hear.
“Wow,” Mo breathed.
“You’re the Lord of the Butterflies,” Waldo told Star.
“Yeah,” agreed Mo. “Just like the book.”
“Lord of the Flies, you mean?” Star smiled.
“Yeah, but you’re not cruel like them. And you’re a total plant nerd. So you’re the Lord of the Butterflies.” Waldo decreed.
“Okay, if you say so,” she giggled and lifted the crystal doorknob with its butterflies above her head. Gandalf mewed from his lookout post at the window. “We should feed him. We should find food for all of us before it gets dark.”
Chapter 2 will be published on Sunday, March 29, 2020.