Juan Pablo lives in El Rosario, Mexico’s butterfly sanctuary, where millions of winged creatures gather together in one magical place. It is his home, his life.
He loves his music, the butterflies, and his grandmother, who has fallen fatally ill—which is why he can’t leave, even when a nefarious drug cartel overtakes the town. But the threat of the cartel becomes ever more menacing, finally endangering the life of his best friend Rocio, the girl he loves. In a heroic act of desperation to save her, Juan Pablo poisons eight members of the cartel.
Together, Juan Pablo and Rocio flee, following the instructions his grandmother gave before she took her last breath: Follow the migration of the butterflies, where someone will be waiting for you.
But are they following the wings of freedom? Or death?
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Machine gun fire!
Juan Pablo cracked open the door of his modest home and peered down the darkened street. The bratatat sounded louder than the blaring music and a furious rev of engines. Like a hammer to glass, the onslaught of noise destroyed the quiet of the butterfly sanctuary. Headlights swept El Rosario's plaza as several trucks and an SUV circled the cobblestone square. Armed men hung off the side of the trucks and the relentless barrage of their machine guns filled the star-filled night.
Narco-traffickers. Here in El Rosario, home to a billion monarch butterflies and the two dozen families who loved them. Juan Pablo slammed the brightly painted front door with the rainbow-colored welcome! sign. For the first time in his life, he found the rusty old lock and bolted it. He rushed to switch off the lamp at his abuela's bedside before collapsing to the floor. He finished his ninth desperate text to the Novedades de México, the major newspaper for Mexico City.
Help! Narco-traffickers are shooting up the plaza in El Rosario. No one is left but our neighbors Mario and Rocio Ruiz and my abuela, Dr. Elena Venesa. She is unconscious with a fever — we need a doctor. Please send help.
After hitting send, he texted Rocio, who was hiding in the cantina:
Juan Pablo: They're here.
Juan Pablo: Can u get here?
Rocio: Too late. Under the bed. Scared. Praying. You? Elena?
Juan Pablo: Same. She is so still.
Rocio: Abuelo will request an ambulance for her.
Juan Pablo: Be safe, Rocio. Don't come out until they are gone. Promise me.
Rocio: I promise.
Juan Pablo stared with horror at his shaking hands. His violinist's fingers, long, calloused, agile and strong, had never failed him before. He clasped them tight, and made his way to the door to listen.
Last week a large black, red, and white banner sporting a menacing el diablo with sinister eyes and a leering grin stretched across the sole road into their sleepy town. This was how the drug cartel marked a territory and warned the people that the police could not protect them now. The tourists had departed with most of the butterflies nearly a month before. Of the locals, everyone with relatives in Mexico City, Guadalajara, or anywhere with a larger population and so somewhat safer, had packed up and left. Everyone promised to send help back to save the old lady they all loved, but no help ever came. No ambulance dared pass these murderous gangs.
Machine gun fire cracked like thunder and lightning into the sky.
Would Rocio be safe under the bed?
Born auspiciously one year, one month, one day apart from him, Rocio was his best friend in this life. (Even though she was bossy and they spent half the time arguing with each other, like two puppies roughhousing, his abuela said more than once. You, Juan Pablo, such a know-it-all, and Rocio, always so bossy, this great cosmic dance between you two is hilarious already ...) He closed his eyes, conjuring Rocio's waist-length dark hair and bright, teasing eyes, her skinny legs, and big feet.
Rocio's uncle in La Peñita de Jaltemba, just north of Puerto Vallarta, begged them to leave before it was too late, but both Mario and Rocio had refused. They would not leave either him or his abuela. "Even if my abuelo could bear to lose the cantina to the banditos, how could we possibly leave Elena and you, JP?"
Mario had agreed with his granddaughter. "Elena saved my beautiful wife's life. She saw my daughter into this world and then Leonardo and Rocio. She taught Leonardo all she knows about the herbs and potions and helped him become a doctor too, bless her." Rocio's mother worked as a nurse in Arizona, helping to pay for Leonardo's medical school in Puerto Rico and she was now very close to becoming a U.S. citizen. "We owe everything to Elena; we all do," Mario added. "Besides, Rocio would never forgive me if anything happened to you, Juan Pablo."
You could sometimes reason with these modern-day monsters, Mario had heard. Wasn't it rumored that they sometimes paved a road or built a school or gave money to an orphanage? Mario planned to beg them to let an ambulance through for an old woman. "We will pay whatever they ask. Even the worse banditos would not let an abuela die for no good reason. And since no one is here but us and the butterflies, they will soon tire of El Rosario and be gone."
Juan Pablo's hands combed back his long hair, as if this would help him think. Just keep Rocio safe — that's all he knew. They wouldn't hurt her, would they?
She was just a girl, only fourteen.
The relentless gunfire and booming music snatched the hope, replacing it with an escalating fear as Juan Pablo thought of the hundreds of stories of the narco-traffickers brutality and viciousness. Like a deadly virus consuming my beloved country. His abuela had shaken her head helplessly, knowing of no medicine or magic with which to save Mexico from this terrible plague. Everyone had at least one relative, often more, who had lost their life's savings, died, disappeared, or lived in fear of dying and disappearing. This army of the devil shot people for no reason anyone knew, and like demons from hell, they often tortured them first. They were known to disappear whole families, killing those police that they couldn't bribe, and taking over whole towns before stealing everyone's money. They recruited boys even younger than him, forcing them to rob, hide drugs, kill, or be killed. His abuela always imagined El Rosario, their tiny portion of paradise, was at least safe, that the mountains and the butterflies themselves would always protect them. But this was not so anymore.
The gunfire and rev of engines abruptly ceased.
Unlatching the rusty lock, Juan Pablo cautiously cracked the door an inch in order to better hear. A man shouted orders, his loud demands rising above the noise of drunken laughter. Tajo, Rocio's dog, barked frantically at the commotion.
Gunfire sounded again, followed by Tajo's surprised yelp. "No, no. Dios mío," Mario cried out, this barely audible.
Juan Pablo's brows drew a sharp line above his green eyes.
Did they shoot Tajo? Why would they shoot a little dog?
Sweet, friendly Tajo, their town's mascot. Tajo, whose wagging tail greeted the tourist buses, who followed them up to the meadow in the afternoons. Tajo, who loved his violin's music, Mario's leftover uchepos, and Rocio's gentle hands. If they killed a small dog, what else could they do? Would they let an ambulance through to aid an old lady? Would they leave a young girl unharmed?
The answer ricocheted through his mind, but how could he stop them? He was just a teenager, tall maybe, but skinny too. He had no gun, power, and worse, no courage. He might love superheroes, but he was not one of them. All he knew was music and books; he was the exact opposite of an action hero.
He shut the door again, bolting it again.
His gaze found his abuela's still form on the small cot. How could the old woman fall ill now, when they needed her most?
His abuela was both a real doctor and the local curandera. The old ways had been passed down to her and after absorbing this ancient wisdom, she had gone on to attend Mexico City's medical school. She had wanted to make sure she knew every aspect of healing.
Still, it was the old woman's shamanic powers that were a good deal more popular than her famous doctoring skill. Nothing made his abuela happier than taking away people's aches and pains, their troubles and struggles. She took away the pain of childbirth as well as the opposite, the struggle of transitioning. She cured little Jose's poor hearing, but also his mother's gambling problem, Ms. Sanchez's strange rash, but also her husband's infidelity, Mr. Hernandez's high blood pressure, but also his depression. Occasionally she worked miracles, curing dementia, diabetes, and even many different cancers. People sought her out from hundreds of miles away.
Now, of all times, for the very first time, she was the one who needed help.
The old woman might imagine she was connected to the spirit realm, but if he could not get her to a hospital, she would be living in this strange and magical place, a place the old woman maintained was as real as life on earth. Life, all of it, according to his abuela, was a manifestation of the spiritual; when the body died, the soul shot straight to the spiritual realm to become one with the Sky People.
Who are the sky people? he must have first asked long ago, realizing his abuela felt a connection to people he did not see.
You once lived in the sky, Juan Pablo. Don't you remember? When he shook his head, he received a tsk, tsk, finished with a smile. Now you live in this skin bound to the earth. But all the souls that love you, and there are more of them than you will ever know here, live in the sky.
Well, for instance, your mother, Julieta. Your other abuelos and their parents. The souls of everyone who has ever lived. The Sky People.
Like Rocio's heaven and angels?
People who think of heaven don't realize that the spiritual realm and our material world on earth are not separated by death, but rather they interact with each other in powerful, important ways. The two realms act more as mirrors reflecting each other ... The closer you are to the Sky People, the more the separation blurs.
Still later, as doubts grew with his age, he finally said, Scientists would say the Sky People live only in your imagination.
Ah, she nodded. This is true. The imagination is how the Sky People talk to us.
Pacing now, he covered his ears to escape the distant drum of the ugly music. Before this invasión his biggest problem had been finding good Wi-Fi for his violin lessons, perfecting Bach's Allegro, and whether he should read the last Harry Potter book in his beloved Spanish or in the sometimes more difficult English.
Seeking the old woman's familiar comfort, he approached the cot and stared down at her small brown head peeking out from her favorite orange blanket. The blanket formed the shape of a colorful kite, her long gray braid its tail, as if waiting for a wind to carry her up.
For several minutes, he closed his eyes, willing her to wake.
His eyes flew open to the miracle. The old woman's soft brown eyes stared back. "Abuela, you're awake! You've been asleep so long ..."
She shook her head and closed her eyes again as if pained. "It is time."
"Time?" he repeated before starting to explain the dangerous siege taking place outside their door.
She stopped him with a slight shake of her head. "It is time for you to make the journey north. To follow the butterflies."
"Follow the butterflies? North?"
"Sí, to America."
He tried to make sense of this, but couldn't. Her illness must be speaking.
"Take your violin, of course, and the seeds. Use them to make your way."
The townspeople sold packets of milkweed seeds to the tourists. Milkweed fed the butterflies on their perilous journey from El Rosario to the great lands of North America. It took four generations of butterflies traveling 4,200 kilometers to make the mystical pilgrimage, a journey that ended with their return to the ancient forested mountains of Sierra Madre. Tourists came to their small town from all over America to see the millions of winged creatures together in one magical place. During the winter months, as the butterflies' numbers grew and grew, these winged creatures swallowed up the whole of the blue sky. Other times they appeared as a colorful stream riding an invisible river of wind above. The delicate beings clustered so thick on the trees, it was not uncommon for branches to break off, sending thousands of orange and black butterflies into the air with a cacophony of sound and color.
The butterflies sustained the people of El Rosario.
"Be generous with our seeds," his abuela continued, unaware of the emergency just down the street in the square, or even her grandson's desperation. "And always follow the butterflies' path; they will not steer you wrong."
He glanced anxiously at the door, as if the banditos might be bursting through any minute.
"Cross the Sea of Cortez to Baja, and continue north. I think you should pass over the invisible line separating our two lands in Tijuana. This might be difficult, but you are clever. You will find a way. Follow the ocean's shore north, just like our butterflies."
All he could think of was get the idea out of her mind. "Abuela, you don't understand. Banditos, here, in Rosario —"
Yet the old woman was not listening. She reached for his hand, as if needing more of his wide-eyed attention. "To save a life and slay a beast. This is your journey, your transformación. Promise me," she said with sudden intensity before she remembered. "You must reach Pacific Grove before summer's end. In August, late August ..."
Pacific Grove? This was another butterfly sanctuary, he knew, but one far away in California, the golden land of dreams: Hollywood, Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Disneyland. (Since they were small, he and Rocio dreamed of visiting the Magic Kingdom, and sometimes he could even cajole Rocio into pretending they were in Disneyland.) There was also the Golden Gate Bridge that spanned the beautiful city by the bay. Beyond San Francisco stretched the land of the magnificent redwoods, trees taller than the tallest buildings. (His abuela had always dreamed of touching a redwood tree in the north and "looking up to see how small I am.") California, this golden land, more than a thousand miles away, but might as well be a million miles away, for he could never reach it. He had no car, no money, and most of all, no papers.
"Promise me," she demanded again.
"Sí, sí," he had finally relented to ease her worry, stealing another anxious glance at the door.
"Remember, the sky people will always be with you ..."
A large butterfly floated in from the tiny kitchen off to the side.
He stared in wonder at the miracle as the winged creature drew close and began circling his abuela's cot.
The wrinkled face changed with a smile, despite her illness and fever, and a twinkle lit her strange amber eyes. "A good omen, that."
"Impossible ..." Juan Pablo managed the single word. Butterflies cannot fly at night. The sun fueled their flight.
Without the warmth of the sun, there could be no flying.
Butterflies, according to his abuela, were the living symbols of spirit energy in the material world, a reminder to all souls of a transcendent purpose.
He watched as the butterfly floated out of sight again. Never, in all his life, had he seen a butterfly fly at night.
He was about to give it chase, to set it safely in a tree, but his abuela's eyes closed again and she muttered her last words, the strangest of all. "He will be waiting for you in the sanctuary at Pacific Grove, Juan Pablo."
"Quién, Abuela? Who will be waiting for me?"
She sounded far away. "I see it Juan Pablo. I will be there, too, listening when you play. All the Sky People will be listening."
"Abuela, you cannot go. We cannot go ..."
Yet, just like that, she went very still, lifeless once more.
They needed an ambulance to get her to the hospital. The old lady was all he had in this world.
She was exactly half of what he loved. The other half was made up of music, the butterflies, and Rocio. Every year fewer of the colorful winged creatures returned to El Rosario, and this year, in alarmingly diminished numbers, they had left for North America early. That his abuela would begin fading with the butterflies seemed like a coincidence, but she always said coincidences were no more than an awakening to the miracle of life.
Dropping to the floor, he hung his head helplessly between his knees.
Clear as stars in a cloudless night sky, a voice sounded in his mind, "Save Rocio."
His head shot up and he scrambled to his feet. "Abuela?"
The slightest rise of her chest triggered a relieved gasp.
He was going loco. He must have only imagined those words. He did not have to wonder why. Rocio might not be safe if these banditos found her. He found his iPad:
JP: Are you okay?
As he waited for Rocio's response, and the seconds ticked off, his tension mounted. He stared at the screen until it blurred. He needed to get Rocio back here. They would lock the door and keep the lights off, hiding until the banditos left.
He thought of the superheroes he loved: Spider-Man, Batman, Harry Potter. They knew fear, but ignored it. Fear never stopped them from acting. Nothing that could happen to him would be worse than someone hurting Rocio.
Moving to the door, he slowly opened it again. Men's voices rose against the screaming backdrop of shrieking music. The booming, rhythmic thud of their music was worse than the machine gun fire to his sensitive ears. The cars were parked strategically between the Cantina where Rocio hid in the family's apartment above, Carlo's souvenir shop, the café, and the petro station.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Juan Pablo and the Butterflies"
Copyright © 2017 JJ Flowers.
Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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