Greetings boils, ghouls, and other creatures of the night!
A warm welcome back to Night Terror Novels’ ongoing flash fiction series, The Theatre Phantasmagoria, and to our Flash Fiction Fridays—where we bring you fresh dark fiction of 2,000 words or less at the end of every week.
With The Theatre Phantasmagoria, a new theme is announced each month, and by the end of said month, four stories are selected from our call for submissions to be featured here on the site in a Friday post. These pieces will also be published in a “wrap-up” anthology at the start of 2023, showcasing the original works that debut here at Night Terror Novels throughout 2022. If you’re an author yourself and this has piqued your interest, please find details regarding the flash fiction theme for our September submission window here.
The theme for August’s submissions was “Innocence Lost”: horror-themed coming-of-age tales set during those long summer months of childhood, young adult-grade stories that explore the universally-relatable trials and tribulations of those transformative years, or similar horror stories along these lines. Our eighth month commences this evening with “It Flutters in the Family”, an original approach to the coming-of-age narrative that marries maturation rites with Lepidoptera, brought to us by new Theatre contributor A. R. Frederiksen. You can find out more about the author featured in today’s post down below, including links on where to find them elsewhere.
We here at Night Terror Novels hope that you enjoy today’s terrifying tale, and remember to check back in on Fridays for future showings in The Theatre Phantasmagoria …
Welcome to …
The Theatre Phantasmagoria
‘Pamela’s daughter had her first flutter last week, did you hear?’
I squinted into the midday sun, my phone hot against my ear and my gardening gloves crumpled in one hand. ‘No. I didn’t hear. Is that why you called?’
‘She’s only six,’ Annette’s voice trilled. ‘Isn’t that amazing?’
Pamela’s daughter was a foul little overachiever, but I couldn’t say that to Annette who’d run straight to Pamela. ‘Yes. Amazing. Is that why you called?’
‘How’s your Caroline doing?’ A pause. ‘How much older is she than Pamela’s—’
‘I’m sorry, but I’m in the middle of gardening, and I’d love to get the last of these weeds out before the sun gets any higher. I have to go. Do you mind?’
I pocketed my phone and promptly balled up my gardening gloves with both hands. Lifting them to my face, I smelled the baked earth and mealy insects from the flowerbeds I’d been weeding all morning. Between one breath and another, the tension from Annette’s call was replaced with a different sort of buzz, one that sent phantom convulsions up my throat.
That was how my daughter found me.
‘Can I be done reading about moths now?’ she asked, standing on her tiptoes with her arms behind her back, swaying back and forth ever so slightly.
‘Don’t be picky, Linniebug. This is as much a part of your homeschooling as math.’
‘But math isn’t reading, and I don’t like reading.’ Caroline threw her arms out to her sides, as if visualising how much she loved math over moths. ‘But I do like math.’
I rubbed my brow and pulled off my sunhat. ‘You can take a break, then.’
Her eyes blew wide, ringed black and golden by the sun. ‘Can I go to the greenhouse, please? I promise I’ll only look. Not touch. I haven’t been there in days.’
‘Since yesterday, you mean.’ I gestured to the patio with a flick of my hand. ‘Clean up your textbooks first. The patio is a mess. Then we’ll go to the greenhouse together.’
By the time she was done cleaning up, her lips had twisted into a definite pout. When she returned to me, it was with the barbed words, ‘You don’t trust me.’
I considered that for a second, compelled by that ferocious stare, but then disregarded it with a shake of my head. ‘I trust you perfectly well, bug, which is why I’d like to talk to you about what happens after this stage. And what better time and place to do that, yeah?’
Greenhouses salivated greenery at this time of summer. This greenhouse was no different, frothing blue-green at the edges, nectar and juices staining the glass panels with splashes of colours both vivid and translucent beneath the exploitative glare of the sun.
Caroline’s caterpillars had pupated one week ago.
Their jade and gold chrysalides were art to behold. At this stage, the cocooned caterpillars hung from a gnarly vine enclosed by thin netting in one corner of the greenhouse.
‘Careful,’ I reminded Caroline. ‘Or they’ll fall off.’
‘But I can put them back if they do.’ Her eyes never left the chrysalides, save for the millisecond that it took for her to shoot me a self-satisfied look. ‘I read about it, mommy.’
I fluffed her hair. ‘Come sit with me on the bench for a minute.’
Once relocated to the bench, I said, ‘Tell me what comes next. After the chrysalis.’
Caroline shoved her hands beneath her thighs and leaned forward, perching on the edge of the bench as she visibly ransacked her brain. ‘They’ll have wonky wings.’
I swallowed a laugh. ‘Crumpled, you mean. Use the right word.’
‘They’ll have crumpled wings. And they need to dry them before they can fly, so they have to sit and wait for hours after they’ve left their cocoon. It sounds very boring.’
‘Maybe, maybe not,’ I deflected easily, ‘but how do you know when they’re about to emerge from their cocoon? Do you remember?’
She kicked her legs back and forth, body still dangling on the edge of the bench. ‘The chrysalis goes all’—she pursed her lips—‘see-throughy the day before.’
‘Transparent, bug. Not see-throughy. Use the right words, please.’
She jumped off the bench. ‘But you know what I mean, so why does it matter?’
‘But it won’t be only me at the next swarm,’ I reminded her, crossing one leg over the other. ‘Or the ones after. And be careful. Don’t spin around in here. This isn’t a playground.’
The efforts of our small community hadn’t always been a local conservation project as it was now, intent on providing an alternative to meat consumption until lab-grown meat became a reality. One day, we’d go public. Full news coverage. Clinical studies. Climate conferences. I didn’t want much beyond a full belly and a mouth full of flutter. My daughter was much the same, I suspected.
I stood up from the bench. ‘Hold on. We’re not done. What will you be doing in the hours that it takes for the wings to dry? Right after you’ve alerted me, of course.’
A wide grin wormed across Caroline’s face. ‘I’ll be doing the pinning.’
I matched her grin with my own. ‘And I can’t wait to see it.’
Partaking in my daughter’s first flutter was an honour that sat on the tip of my tongue like the rarest of wood whites. Decadent. Delicate. Damned good.
The chrysalides grew transparent one week later, showing the spindly shapes within.
Caroline, of course, was equal parts exalted and terrified. She had a responsibility now. If she failed it, the next swarm would see us as a laughingstock. She would have botched the most formative of milestones. A first flutter was nothing if it didn’t turn out tasteful. Caroline knew this. She was cleverer than Pamela’s foul little overachiever, but nerves got the better of everyone. Even my Caroline. She’d always struggled with Christmas, too.
‘Linniebug,’ I asked her, ‘How about we invite your granny for your flutter?’
My mother had pulled back from the community in her older age. Most did, with dietary issues to blame, but this was a special occasion, and so when my mother rang the doorbell half an hour later, Caroline was determined to have a tasteful first flutter. She had dressed up in the gown we’d bought for the occasion, a ruffled red piece with black contours, and her cheeks were as ruddy as the dress.
My mother barely got in a greeting, much less a foot inside the door, before Caroline said in a voice too loud for her body, ‘I’ve done my best. My very, very best.’
‘You certainly have, dearest.’ Resting a ringed hand on top of Caroline’s head, my mother sent me a look that was both approval and disapproval rolled up into one. It was an entirely motherly look. I shrugged, which was an entirely daughterly response.
I had changed into a blue gown of my own and had asked for my mother to arrive in one as well. She hadn’t needed the reminder. This was the oldest of our procedures, after all. The foundation of what we were. The first practice that had bound the founding families together once upon a time. It had been no conservation project back then, and my mother still wasn’t fully on board with that development, but the maturation rite hadn’t changed.
Except for one thing.
With modern technology, first flutters no longer needed to be witnessed during an annual assembly, but could be done comfortably at home with everybody else watching from afar. I had watched Pamela’s livestream last week, but I hadn’t been about to tell Annette.
‘I’ll be livestreaming the whole time,’ I told my mother. ‘Don’t forget.’
The sun lay low as Caroline herded us out to the greenhouse in our gowns and coiffed hair, our heels digging into the lukewarm soil. The light would last for hours at this time of the year, making it ideal for a first flutter. Long enough for us to enjoy a pleasant meal.
Inside the greenhouse, Caroline had set the dining table to perfection.
The first thing I did as I stepped inside was to start the livestream on my phone and angle the camera to have a full view of the table as it stood backdropped by weeping, wet green. Several participants were already queued up, their cameras off. With that duty out of the way, I could step back to fully admire the efforts of my daughter.
She had set a splendid table in the middle of the greenhouse, complete with fine silverware and candelabras to match our fine gowns. A round glass display sat proudly in the middle of the table, easily accessible from all angles.
Our dinner was behind that delicate glass.
My stomach furled and unfurled at the sight, spit pooling beneath my tongue.
For Caroline’s first flutter, she had chosen monarchs.
I had advised her to go for viceroys or admirals. Not monarchs. They had a superior taste to monarchs. And she should certainly never go for moths. They were no good at all. But she was free to make her own call, which was seemingly what she’d done.
‘I thought you wanted to pin them,’ I said as we took our seats at the table, one by one, and placed our napkins in our laps. ‘Not capture them.’
Caroline looked between my mother and I. ‘This is more fun, right?’
Pamela liked to play with her food. She had taught her little overachiever the same. During their livestream last week, they’d stripped the wings from the butterflies first, one by one, addicted to the frantic flutter as it danced across their nose, eyes, lips—but I wasn’t teaching my daughter that. That was Pamela’s thing.
‘Remember,’ I told Caroline, ‘that we don’t just do this because it’s fun.’
‘We do it because we’re saving the planet.’ Caroline’s eyes sparkled.
I smiled and sat up straighter in my chair. ‘That’s right, bug.’
‘Who gets the first bite, then?’ my mother asked Caroline.
Caroline pretended to think it over. ‘Mommy goes first.’
I caught my mother’s eye. She knew I’d never liked monarchs, and her face told me as much. I slanted my brow so she’d understand I wasn’t so much of a fool that I’d say this aloud during the livestream of my daughter’s maturation rite.
Monarchs or not, I’d accept the honour of the first bite.
I tilted the glass display enough for my hand to slip through the crack. The initial whisper of wings against my searching hand sent a serrated jolt through my body. My scalp tingled, every individual hair follicle teased to a point.
I had eyes for one of the critters in particular.
Having just left their chrysalides, all of the monarchs moved sluggishly, but one of them was more alert than the rest, avoiding my worming fingers.
‘It’s fun, isn’t it, mommy?’ Caroline’s voice prodded at me.
‘Shush, dearie,’ my mother told Caroline. ‘Wait your turn quietly.’
When I finally caught the critter, my heart surged up my throat and pressed against the backs of my eyes, throbbing so hard I was afraid I’d pop an eye straight into the display, shattering glass and shredded wings everywhere.
Plucking the single monarch from its lethargic companions, I pinched its powdery wings between my forefinger and thumb. Caroline’s sharp intake of air sent my head spinning. My mother’s rings clanked against her plate.
Then sound disappeared.
It all disappeared.
I closed my eyes and brought the monarch up to my mouth. Spindly legs scampered across my mouth. Parting my lips, I bared my teeth, waited one heartbeat, and bit down. Gently tugging on a leg, I felt it split from the body and slip into my mouth.
A mouthful of flutter was a mouthful of family.
About the Author
A. R. FREDERIKSEN is a Danish writer of English speculative fiction with an MA in English and Cultural Studies. Her day job is split between teaching creative writing and cooking seafood dishes. She will be published in Phantom House Press’ anthology, Exquisite Poison, and Band of Bards’ digital charity e-zine, The Dark Side of Purity. She is found online as @ARFrederiksen.
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