Haven’t you ever wanted something so badly, that you knew having it would change your life forever? That happened to Grant a few years ago, shortly after Summer and Lina moved underground into the barrio he and his mother live in.
A short from the world of The 7th Judge
It was, as far as anyone knew, the very last firefly.
Summer had shown him a picture of a tiny beetle with a glowing behind in one of her mother’s fairytale books, and he’d been captivated. Since then, half of her art had been populated by swarms of the little lights, and together they wondered what it must have been like to seem the lights dancing around them in the old days. Grant couldn’t read, and Summer’s mother was the only survivor he knew personally who could. That made research tough, but he started by asking question of the old folks.
“Yes, I remember fireflies. No, we called them lightning bugs. We used to drive upstate to see swarms of them hiding in the low hanging branches of the willows. We’d fly through the the velvet dark in bare feet and catch them in our fingers. We let them go right away of course.”
“Firefly? My pa bought me one, but I broke it only a week later. He ‘bout killed me.”
“We smushed them against the pavement to make a glowy goo.”
“If you watched one in your hand, it had a kind of Morse code. It was calling to its friends to come and save it.”
“We caught a million of them in ball jars to make lanterns for the tree house.”
“My neighbor had three of them, and she let me borrow one, on its chain. My uncle caught me with the light on and I had to give it back, but it was worth it.”
All Grant could tell for sure was what he and Summer had learned from the book – they were bugs. And they had lights in their bums. It wasn’t much to go on. It sounded like they had once flocked out in the country, but people must have domesticated them or androidized them or something. He got the best description from Jerky Joe – it was he who had broken his within a week of purchase, but he remembered it in great detail. Jerky Joe was only in his fifties and he always had the best memories of the world before. He described the silver filigree and the swamp green light. He told Grant how he trained it to follow him around in the woods and it helped him light his way home. His face lit up while he was speaking, as if the memory of the firefly was casting its warmth over his countenance even now.
Grant had to find one. Had to. He was tired of traipsing through shadowy tunnels, pointing the assist light of his pod into spidery corners, never knowing for sure what was crawling around his feet. He loved exploring, but he hated the dark.
So he started asking around about a little velvet box with a winged lightbulb on the outside. No one had seen one. He bribed a few of the urchins with a pouch of Joe’s jerky and a handful of shinies to start scouting around in some of the apartment buildings. He picked the richest apartment building that had big enough places that kids might’ve lived there once, and he started looking. This particular building hadn’t been cleared yet. The prospect of searching it was gruesome but full of promise. For every bed with a skeleton about the same size as him, his chances of finding a firefly increased.
In the meantime, he was finding good stuff. Great stuff, trade-able stuff. Christmas? Done. Art supplies for Summer, a couple of still-legible books for Mrs. Layce, a beautiful cameo brooch for mom. When he had to sell the brooch to feed the family for a month when mom was laid up with a stomach sickness, it didn’t even phase him.
And then he found it. He hadn’t really believed he would, certainly not in the first building that he tried. And even if he did, he didn’t believe it would still work after sitting in a box (or worse – around the neck of it’s owner) for thirty years. But now he held it in his hands. He loosened it from the clasp and it hovered in the air before him. He took a step away and it followed him. He wanted to dance. He wanted to leap. Instead, he scrambled down eight flights of stairs – the firefly hot on his heels, the black velvet box clutched in his fingers – and flew toward the subway tunnel. He took the stairs two, three at a time. He slowed to a fast walk and the firefly caught up with him. It passed in front of him, about three feet, at eye level. His pod was tucked safely into his pocket. The glow of the firefly was twice as bright as the assist light and he didn’t need to point it. When he made a turn, he simply had to quietly direct it with his voice. It obeyed him better than that mutt he’d taken care of last year. He made it home in half the time. He ran his fingers along the dull stone wall to find the end of the door. He tapped the safety knock – four short taps then a slow slide. He almost didn’t bother, he just wanted to bust in and show his mom what he had found. But he didn’t want to give her a heart attack, so he knocked.
He tapped again.
He pushed the door open, jiggling it slightly to get over the rough patch of carpet. Mom wasn’t in the livingroom. He walked through the archway into the dark bedroom. The firefly followed ahead of him and lit the whole room.
“Grant…” she said. She was laying on her fleece on the ground. She hadn’t covered up with the blanket, and her nightgown was scrunched all around her as though she were tossing and turning. The swampy light of the firefly cast death shadows over the contours of her face.
“Mom, why aren’t you up?”
“I – I get Lina.”
He put the firefly away under his pillow. Mrs. Layce was fetched and herbs were administered, but the fever didn’t go down. There was nothing else for it. Mom needed antibiotics and she needed them fast. They hauled her up to the city hospital. Medicine was administered immediately – no one in the Bronx would ever be turned away due to lack of coin – but she wouldn’t be allowed to leave without paying. Or being sealed into employment. And Mom was so proud of her unbranded arm.
It didn’t take long to find a buyer for the firefly. A rich guy paid him enough coin to get Mom out of the hospital and home with a month’s worth of medicine that would clear the sickness right out of her body. Everything would be fine. There was enough left to buy a sack of colorful beads for Summer and a new pod for himself – one with a better assist light. He bought a better dog, too, one that would chase ahead of him and keep spiders away.
Summer took the beads and gave him the warmest of hugs. He couldn’t bring himself to tell her about the firefly – how he’d been so close to having one for himself. Maybe she would have understood. Maybe she would’ve helped him search another building. There were always more apartment buildings. Some were cleaned out, some were just as full of promise as that one had been. But he just didn’t have the heart. Besides, he had to do a lot more work with Mom recovering. Somebody had to keep food on the table. She fussed at him to get out and have fun more often, but as long as Summer traveled with him, hunting for food was fun enough, anyway. Always had been, always would be.
At Christmastime, Summer presented him with a gift – a loose bundle wrapped in brown paper and secured with twine. He pulled it out and gasped. It was a beautiful wool-lined cloak – the kind you really needed to be treasure-hunting in January in the Bronx. And Summer had decorated it all over with beautiful silver and green beads in the shape of tiny fireflies.
She passed him a little folded piece of paper. He opened it. It was a picture she had drawn of the two of them, walking through some dark tunnel – it could have been any tunnel, really, dark and mysterious. He was wearing the cloak, she was standing beside him holding her pod and pointing the assist light into the darkness. The light was pointed at a box with the lid open just the tiniest bit. You couldn’t see what was in the box – but that was the point, wasn’t it?
He squeezed her hand. “Want to go looking for treasure?”
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