“Go away, I’m studying!”
Djibril groans when the knocks at his door resume. Probably his sister, pestering him again.
He’s pushing aside his math notes as the door creaks open.
A gap-toothed grin on her lips and eyes glinting with mischief, Yacine hops in.
“Oh, sorry,” Djibril smiles at his favorite person. “Is it starting?”
She nods. “Come!”
His chair grinds against the floor, study session forgotten. He stops, arms dangling. “Wait. Pa’s home?”
That couldn’t be good. If it depended on Pa, he’d be studying from dawn to dusk. Merge with the paper, even. Doesn’t matter if this is their first week of school, no distractions would be allowed at this hour. Certainly not that distraction.
“Don’t worry. Pa’s asleep.”
He follows her reluctantly, hands buried in his jeans’ pockets. The corridor is dark and the door to their parents’ room shut. Djibril shivers, equally drawn between running back to his lessons and following his sister. Timis was fifteen minutes ago, and his father must’ve fallen asleep waiting for the last prayer of the day. That means they have around half an hour.
“What do you think is gonna happen after that ending?” his sister asks, her footsteps a whisper as they enter the living room. The lights are off, the TV sparkling light upon the walls. There’s a family portrait from last year, paintings his mother likes — silhouettes of women wearing traditional indigo gowns.
“No idea. I can’t believe they did that.”
“Right? Imagine if — ”
She stops, runs for the remote, and cranks up the volume as the opening credits start.
The Butterfly Wars, or the best animated show ever created. Djibril would fight people on this.
He already has.
As the episode begins, Djibril thinks about how people teased him, starting with his brother.
Watching a bunch of girls riding butterflies and doing flower magic, when football games exist. You’re an idiot, Assane always said.
Well, a bunch of guys sprinted after a ball during those games. Seemed sweaty and loud, especially when Pa and Assane were catching one on TV.
“See,” he explains as one of the main characters rescues an injured mandrill, “Fatima’s character is inspired by the showrunner’s daughter.”
“And she’s hijabi like Ma!” Yacine laughs. “How do you know?”
Djibril shrugs, “I’ve been researching while waiting for the new episode, so — ”
“Research, huh. Ain’t you supposed to be studying?”
The voice startles them, Djibril’s heartbeat flying over the roof as Assane walks in.
Djibril stares at the screen, ignoring his brother’s observation and stinking football equipment. He must’ve come back from a game, the sand on his feet soiling the entrance. Djibril would have to clean up after him. Again.
“Taking a break,” he mutters.
Assane cackles and goes to his room. The idiot knows Pa is a light sleeper — he did it on purpose.
“What are you doing?”
They turn towards Pa, eyes like hunted gazelles. The tasbih in Pa’s hand looks heavier, and he’s wrenching the beads.
Djibril smashes the red button, darkness taking back its rights. Throat burning as he passes at his father’s sides, he returns to his desk.
“Ah, you know that’s wrong,” Pa smiles. Following him, he gives Djibril a gentle nudge of the ebony beads in his hand. “Seriously, son. I’m not breaking my old bones at work for you to watch girl shows.”
“But — ”
A stare stops him. The stare.
Taking in Pa’s wrinkled jellaba and tired eyes, he falls silent.
“Keep studying, Djibril.”
Pa glances at him like he’s about to say something. His phone rings, and he clenches his jaw as he peeks at his screen. “My boss. Sorry, I have to take this. Get the best grade tomorrow, okay?”
Djibril nods as his father picks up with a fake, upbeat tone. He’s trying to read equations, but his mind drifts towards the show. Previously, the Butterfly Riders were captured on a mission, and the mysterious antagonist of Season 2 was getting busted when Pa interrupted them.
Focusing on his work, he bites the inside of his cheek. How many formulas or French definitions would he have to memorize, for Pa to finally deem him worthy? He always said, “You can do better.” No displayed pride, never.
“Dinner’s ready,” Yacine yells, storming past his door. Djibril stretches as he follows, head buzzing with equations.
Ma is home, her sandals trailing across the floor. She lays the steaming bowl on the plastic mat, and everyone grabs a spoon and a slice of bread. It’s his favorite — tomato sauce beans, spicier than hellfire.
“Aleykum Salaam, my angel,” she smiles, cupping his cheeks. Her hands are ashy from all that scrubbing. It’s been shift after shift at the hospital, where she works as a nurse.
“How are the math revisions?”
“Progressing,” Djibril says between mouthfuls. Basil and mutton mix divinely, imbued with that unique mom touch.
“Your son was watching TV instead of studying,” Pa says, cutting his bread. The food turns to ash, disappointment burgeoning in his mother’s eyes.
“Is that true?”
Assane throws in his two cents, “It was that butterfly show.”
All eyes turn on Djibril, except Yacine’s. She wanted him to catch the episode, and that girl is now too busy stuffing her mouth.
It’s not like she dragged you by your feet. This is on you.
He scowls at Assane, trying to make his voice as even as possible. “Yes, I was watching TBW. But I’ve studied during the school break, so I was just going through stuff I already knew.”
“And math?” Ma asks.
“Mr. Sagna said it’ll be a piece of cake for me.”
Ma nods. Mr. Sagna was his professor last year too, she trusts his opinion. “Alright.”
A smile spreads on Djibril’s lips before his brother scuffs, throwing his spoon aside and leaving.
“What’s his deal?”
“You’re too soft with the boy. He shouldn’t be getting a pass for everything he does.”
Frowning, Ma throws a look at Djibril. “As long as he maintains his grades up, he can watch cartoons sometimes.”
“That’s the problem. He — ”
Djibril crushes the piece of bread in his palm, eyes seeing red.
“There’s nothing wrong with me, Pa,” he hisses. “If that’s your opinion, then you’re the problem.”
His father’s eyes grow wide, but Djibril doesn’t wait for his reaction. Like Assane, he strides away, heart thundering in his chest as Pa calls after him.
Talking to his father like that was . . . liberating. But the adrenaline dries up when he hears his parents arguing.
“It’s your fault, Alimatou. See how your son talks to me? Hm?”
“My fault? You never encourage him — ”
The words fade with his door locked. Spraying perfume he “borrowed” from Pa’s reserve on himself, Djibril performs the last prayer of the day. The emptiness in his chest warms up every time his brow kisses the soft mat, and he slides under the blanket with a quieter mind.
Djibril whispers prayers to Allah. For his father not to be cold anymore, to see him as a son worthy of his love.
Because he doesn’t think Pa loves him.
Djibril sighs, his lip trembling. Pa’s having a bad day, that’s all. Tomorrow would be better. Hopefully.
He turns towards his clock — midnight. And what he sees chills him to the bone.
“What in Allah’s name…”
That’s a cat. Looks like a cat.
The creature trails from the shadows, meowing at Djibril’s feet.
Its fur is the color of ash, rough under Djibril’s touch. It has landed on his lap, and Djibril isn’t afraid. Not by the cold body pressed against his, or the smell of wildfire.
Not by the pair of distorted limbs sprouting from its back.
“Hey, little fella. You lost?”
The creature looks up, amber eyes riveted on his. This is no regular cat, but it scratches his hand and meows just like one.
“You hungry?” he asks, twisting the limbs between his fingers. They seem made of bone — frail and broken in every direction. Yacine would’ve found this creepy, like a villain’s familiar in TBW.
Djibril slithers out of his room into the kitchen, making sure the creature stays back. He opens the fridge, his breath quickening. After today’s drama, he’d be toast if Pa caught him.
What does a cat-spider thingy eat, anyway?
Djibril yanks a bottle of sweet detar juice — his favorite — and slinks back into his room.
“Here you go, bud.” Djibril pours half of it in a bowl and sips the other.
It slides down, drinking the green juice. Those things on his back, are they deformities he was born with? Something else?
Every time its eyes meet Djibril’s, his blood chills. They’re vibrant, reflecting a soul he can almost touch.
“That’s what I’ll call you,” he says, wiping the mustache of juice atop his lip. The creature lies at his side, staring. “Soul.”
No sign of agreement — can’t expect a response, right?
“With how different you look, you probably don’t have many friends, huh?”
His hand on Soul’s back, Djibril stares through the window. Music creeps in — some love song he didn’t care about. “My best friend is a seven-year-old, and my crushes are fictional flower magicians. Guess I’m weird too.”
He laughs, hugging Soul closer. Djibril sees himself within those yellow eyes. Acceptance, and laughter as Soul wiggles between his hands.
The doorknob twists and Ma peeks her head through. Her brown eyes are flaring with suspicion.
“Who are you talking to?”
Djibril gasps, his stomach a serpent’s nest. No Soul in sight, thank Allah.
“Ma! Why didn’t you knock?”
Her mouth curves into a grin. “Knock? How do you think you came into this world? These hands have changed countless diapers — ”
She laughs, scanning the corners of his room. How will he explain Soul’s presence if she finds it?
“You look wonderful tonight, did I tell you that?”
“Thank you, angel,” she chuckles.
Hands scratching the back of his neck, he smiles as heat erupts through his cheeks. She’s inside, sitting at his right when Soul is huddled at his left.
“Why aren’t you sleeping?” Djibril asks, throwing a pillow over the white feline.
“I was checking if the front door was locked. You?”
His gaze shifts to the side, before focusing on Ma again.
“Are you hiding something?”
Ma narrows her eyes, and sweat sticks to his palms. “Nah. Just going over my formulas out loud.”
She takes his hand, intertwining their fingers like she always did when he was little. “Don’t be angry at your father. His job is . . . exhausting.”
“Yours is hard too. And you’re not acting like him.”
“Fair.” Ma smiles, the corridor light illuminating her rich black skin.
“Why isn’t he hard on Assane? It’s always me!”
“Assane is a grown-up. He knows right from wrong. You’re still a child.”
Ma snickers, mimicking the deep voice he tried to force. “Yeah, Djibril is a big man.”
“Sorry,” she says with a grin, echoing his. “Your Pa . . . He doesn’t mean to hurt you. He only wants to bring out the best in you.”
Beneath the pillows, Soul sneezes. One eyebrow lifted, Ma tries to see past Djibril. “What’s that?”
“Nothing!” he squeaks. “I . . . I farted.”
She tries to hold back a smile. “The beans, I guess.”
“Uh-huh.” Can embarrassment kill me already?
With a hug, she stands up to leave. “Get some sleep, angel.”
“I will. Goodnight.”
Djibril closes the door behind her and crashes on his bed. Soul is as he left it, snout rummaging in his pillow. “Alright, bedtime.”
Eyelids heavy, he caresses Soul’s fur. It’s like the creature radiates calming waves, tempering his anger. Engulfing him in a cocoon he never wants to leave.
“Stay with me. Us weirdos stick together, right?”
Soul nudges him, and with a touch of white on his forehead, Djibril sleeps.
The next day passes like a blur. His test, as expected, was easy.
“What?” his friend Lindor says when Djibril tells him about the test. “That was some eighth-grade level, especially the last exercise!”
“Lindor. There’s a similar exercise in our textbook. From our first-day homework.”
“How was I supposed to know?”
Glancing at the students in their blue uniforms, Djibril shrugs.
“Gotta go,” Djibril says, yawning. “See you tomorrow?”
“Oh, you have to catch that show you like?”
No judgment in his voice. Only good-old, innocent curiosity. Even if you were a three-headed djinn, Lindor would still roll with it and talk video games. That’s why he was the only classmate Djibril spoke to.
Soul would like him.
“Yeah, sort of.”
Lindor shrugs and waves at him before their ways split. The streets are crowded with people enjoying the evening breeze. On the sidewalk, fruit merchants have installed their stalls. It’s peanut and corn season, roasted at every street corner. Cars and motorbikes are bellowing, their drivers eager to return to their families.
I have a new family member to take care of, too.
He stops by a grocery store, spending all his savings — not much — on canned tuna. Djibril runs back home. Now that he’s done with his test, he can spend time with Soul, get to know the strange creature. Djibril grins — this is like an episode of TBW. One weird human and his companion, the only thing missing is a villain.
When Djibril gets home, he sprints past his parents seated in the living room. Absently waving at them, he barges into his room with a grin.
His brother is standing before his bed, a hand holding Soul by its neck.
“Assane. What are you doing?”
Djibril’s smile fades. He’s taking deep breaths, fingers clutched on the tuna can.
Stay calm. You must stay calm.
He doesn’t like what he’s seeing in Assane’s eyes. Not at all.
“Yo, what is this thing? It looks sick.”
“It’s . . . a cat.”
“Lies. This ain’t no cat. See what’s on its back?”
Dropping his backpack, Djibril raises his hands. “Look, I just fed it last night. And I was gonna release it today.”
“It ain’t safe. This thing looks disease-filled!”
Soul lets out a weak meow, its eyes never leaving Djibril.
Clearing his throat, Assane opens the window. “Best I get rid of it.”
The gesture plays in slow motion, and Djibril’s heart sinks in his chest.
“Get rid — ” Djibril croaks as a crack shatters the air.
Soul is . . . dead?
His fingers numb, Djibril jumps through the window. Soul lies here, in the middle of Ma’s mint plants.
Djibril sobs, trembling hands touching those eyes forever closed. They’re all here, Pa hobbling across the veranda with worried eyes, Ma trying to calm him down. Yacine is crying too — because that’s how she is.
Soul’s body is slowly burning away, all Djibril’s newfound hopes with it. Yesterday he felt like Soul was the only one who understood him — all of him. The nerd, the angry, and the soft. The one who just wanted a friend.
Now Soul is gone, and there’s a ghost.
A black cat, with large paws and glorious wings sprouting from its back. Raven feathers, their tips dipped in moonlight.
Yellow eyes, even in this ethereal form, are shimmering.
“Soul?” Djibril asks as he wipes his nose, chest burning with hope.
“Love is closer than you think, Djibril.”
As sweet as a mother’s touch, a feminine voice slips through his mind. “You’re not alone.”
Soul looks up to Djibril’s family standing behind him, stunned by the apparition. Do they hear the voice too?
Wings flapping, it comes close to him, their foreheads touching. It smells like Pa’s perfume and Ma’s favorite incense. Like his sister’s laugh and his brother’s stupid jokes.
It smells like home.
Soul has vanished into thin air, and his family is hugging him. Assane whispers how sorry he is, imprisoning him in a bear embrace. Djibril knows Soul has forgiven him, so he does too.
Pa is staring at Djibril, shying away from his glance when Djibril notices.
Appearing at his sides, Ma lays a hand on his father’s shoulders and whispers in his ear. She smiles, kissing him on the cheek, before going back inside the house.
Regret is flashing in Pa’s eyes when he joins Djibril, giving him a long hug. “Sorry about what I said yesterday, son. I know I’m pushing you too hard, but I only want what’s best for you.”
“I’m sorry too,” Djibril answers, his voice quivering.
Pa waves it off, staring at the sunset with a crooked smile. “You know I . . . didn’t do well in school when I was your age. I don’t want you to make the same mistakes and get stuck with a job you don’t like.”
“I’ll do better. Promise.”
“You already are.” Pa lays a hand on his head, “I love you, son.”
“Love you too, Pa.”
“Hurry guys, it’s starting!”
Yacine is glued to the screen, and Ma is telling her to pull away when Djibril arrives. She blows him a kiss, getting back to her reading. Teasing their younger sister like he always did, Assane winks at him.
“Alright, what are we watching?”
His father sits next to him, nudging him as he does.
“We binged TBW last month,” Djibril answers. “This is the spin-off with a new generation of Butterfly Warriors.”
“Is it good?” Pa asks, his brow furrowed.
“It’s just the first episode, silly,” Yacine laughs, the beads in her braids jingling.
Drumbeats seep through the speakers, and the opening credits start. They’re all silent — even Assane, pretending to text on his phone, has one eye focused on the screen.
The new Butterfly Riders are led by a boy. One with black skin and a bright smile, riding a winged black cat.
The last frame is centered on amber eyes and the spin-off’s title.