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The light glimmered within the depths of the glass. I brought my face close to the old jam jar and my breath clouded it. Had I really captured one? The light winked off and my breath caught. Did it escape? I felt my throat tighten. Oh! There it was again – my firefly, its yellow-green light floating around my jar as it searched fruitlessly for an escape.
“I got one!” I shrieked. “I got one, Sherry!” There was no answer. Perhaps my sister was in hot pursuit of her own bug. I ran off to find her, the jar with its treasure clasped tightly in my sweaty little hand.
My feet made small thudding sounds as they pounded the grassless dirt in our back yard. I pushed the forsythia bush’s branches out of my way and made for the rickety steps. I burst into the driveway where the adults sat around the grill, baking their faces in the last remnants of heat from the glowing coals. Mommy, Daddy, Aunt Nina … no Sherry.
“What, dear?” my mother asked. Twigs were caught in my hair from crouching in the bushes waiting patiently (and sometimes not so patiently) for the lightning bugs to flash and give themselves away.
“Was that you I heard bawling?” my aunt asked teasingly. “Wailing that you couldn’t do it?”
I stuck my tongue out and the adults laughed. “Sherry showed me how.”
“Did you catch one?”
“Uh-huh.” I nodded vigorously and proudly held up my jar. “Where’s Sherry?”
It was Sherry who had taught me the proper technique of lying in wait, and then pouncing and clapping the cap on, her deft eight-year-old fingers twisting it quickly shut, something my chubby fingers could not manage as well. None of the adults had come to answer my wails of frustration, but my sister had put her jar down (a jar with an impressive three fireflies trapped inside) and come running over. She had looked at me sympathetically, the tears running down my face, the jar hurled in frustration now lying, unbroken, on a patch of moss.
“It’s hard, I know,” she’d said, patting my back. “Try one more time. I’ll show you how.”
Now that her strategy had proved successful, I was looking for her to show off my prize. I gazed into the jar, tuning out the adults who were talking about where Sherry had gone. The bug’s light turned on, a glow so sparkly, so iridescent, that I was sure I had caught a queen, or a princess at the very least. Status in firefly society is measured by the brightness of its light, Sherry had said. Only royalty live a long time and they have the very best lights. She had brought her jar over, pointing out an especially large bug. “That’s a prince,” she’d announced proudly.
“Do you think mine’s a princess?” I interrupted the chatter, which had drifted away from Sherry.
“A princess?” My mother looked puzzled, then the slow light of understanding dawned on her face as she recognized what must be one of Sherry’s fantasies. “I don’t know, dear, ask Sherry.”
I turned to go to the back yard, then remembered my mission. “Where’s Sherry?”
“Oh, Larry called her in the house a few minutes before you came up,” Aunt Nina said.
“That’s right!” my mother exclaimed. “I’d completely forgotten. Why don’t you run in and find her, honey?”
I checked to make sure my firefly was still burning. I wanted Sherry to see her at the very brightest, sparkliest, yellow-greenest she could possibly be. I pushed open the screen door, the air in the house just as humid as the summer night outside. Inside, the smell of dirt and coals and dark nights
full of stars vanished, giving way to the scent of damp wallpaper paste and narrow, musty hallways. My bare feet left dirty prints on the hardwood floor as I passed through the kitchen.
The house was quiet, the silence broken only by occasional alcohol-mellowed laughter from outside. I was halfway up the stairs, the golden runner carpet prickling my toes, before I heard Uncle Larry’s voice.
“Don’t tell, Sherry. Auntie Nina would be mad at you. Mommy would be, too.”
Some instinct prompted me to stop. I pressed against the blue and white wallpaper that clashed with the carpet. Had Sherry done something wrong? Sherry, who made me tell Mommy the time I threw the potato skin on the floor on purpose so I wouldn’t have to eat it? I heard Sherry sniffle. Maybe she’d broken the vase on Mommy’s dresser, the one we were forbidden to touch. I sidled up the stairs, wanting to peek into my mother’s bedroom to see if I was right.
“I don’t want to touch it.” Sherry’s voice broke with a hiccuping sob. Maybe Uncle Larry was trying to get her to clean up the broken pieces. Mommy told us never to touch broken glass.
“C’mon,” low and pleadingly, from Uncle Larry.
“I don’t want to!” Sherry’s voice rose, and instantly Uncle Larry’s voice broke in, anxious and trying to be reassuring.
“Shh, Sherry, it’s okay. You don’t have to. Just be quiet, for God’s sake!” I heard my sister swallowing her hiccup-sobs. “It’s okay, honey. Come sit on my lap, Sherry.”
I peered around the door. Uncle Larry pulled my sister onto his lap, and cradled her against his meaty chest. He stroked her head, patted at her nose and eyes with tissues until her sobs quieted. He kissed the top of her head, ran his hand over her fine, wispy, brown hair, rubbed her back. “There, there.”
The vase sat on my mother’s dresser, china blue and porcelain white, perfect and smooth.
“Better now?” asked Uncle Larry tenderly. Sherry sniffled and nodded her head against his chest. He rubbed her lower back again, then slid his hand under her bottom. Sherry stiffened.
“Relax, honey, I’m not going to hurt you,” murmured Uncle Larry. “You’re just so pretty I can’t help myself.” He put his hand under her shirt, kissed the top of her head again. “Just so sweet and pretty,” he whispered into her hair. He moved his hand back under her bottom and shifted her weight. With a start, I saw his pants were unzipped. He took her hand and pushed it down to the unzipped fly. The light pink paint was chipping off her nails.
I drew away from the door. I backed toward the stairs, my forgotten firefly in the jar clutched tightly in my hand. I hurried on tiptoes down the stairs and out the back door, my throat tight.
I plopped down heavily on the back steps, leaned my forehead against my jam jar and closed my eyes, breathing deeply the reassuring summer night smells. An outburst of well-fed, amused grown-ups drifted on the night again. I lifted my head, my throat loosening. Fireflies’ lights danced among the quince and forsythia bushes, bright and tempting. I lifted my jar to look at my princess firefly again.
At the bottom of the jar, dark and unlit, the forlorn body of my firefly lay, never to sparkle again.