Fireflies

By , Narnia, NC
They came to our house at night, when I was lying in bed trying to sleep.


They came armed with all their weapons of infamy, their greedy cameras and microphones and those huge lights that transformed our house into a stage set for showtime.


A dull roar of media coverage lapped at the walls. I rolled out of bed and padded out into the hallway, where the faint green glow told me that Dad was still up, guarding the rest of us as he always did.


He was standing at the front door, watching the horde of paparazzi through the shield of the curtain. He glanced at me as I drew nearer.


“You should be in bed. Don’t worry about them. It’s started to snow now. They’ll go away.”


“Will they?”


He didn’t look at me again. “Go to bed, Andie.”


“I can’t sleep.”


“Still?”


I wrapped my arms, luminescent even under my flannel reindeer pajamas, around myself and felt smaller than usual. “It’s been getting a lot worse.”


My father sighed. He glowed even brighter than I did, and the light had been blooming more and more intensely under my skin for the last year. Just this past week I could have sworn it had increased by a watt or four. I wondered if the reporters could see us even through the curtain, if they were capturing the dim green outline of our bodies on film.


“I’d try to help, but I know there isn’t anything that really will. You did the blindfold?”


“Yes,” I said, throat tightening, “but it only makes it harder.” Blindfolds, sleep masks, sunglasses – all they did for me was trap my own light and make it more concentrated around my eyes. I’d given all the traditional cures for insomnia a go, with no results. Only one possibility remained and it wasn’t even a possibility for me. I couldn’t take sleeping pills, or medicine of any kind, because of the weird reaction they’d have with the radiation that imbued my entire body. The one time I took an aspirin I broke out in lightless patches that scared Mom so badly that she took me to the emergency room. All they could think to do was run me through a few routine X-rays and sure enough, that did the trick. It cost a small fortune but Mom couldn’t stand the thought of the pox eternally marring my luster, and Dad had just gotten a raise at the law firm, so we could afford it.


“Well, at least I’ll have some company from now on,” Dad joked.


Tears pricked my eyes, and one got loose and ran down my cheek. I wiped it away quickly, before my father could notice, and looked down at my palm, whose original glow was now decorated with a salty, radioactive curlicue.


“Night, Dad,” I said. It wasn’t helping. Standing here watching our audience wasn’t going to put me to sleep. I trudged back down the hallway in the direction of my room. The walls were inky black, the door to my room a dark void. We never needed lights on at night. We saved a lot of money on electricity bills around here.


“Night, Andie,” Dad called after me. “I hope you can get some sleep.”


I looked back over my shoulder and smiled wanly.



When morning had finished its creeping march I had already showered and uniformed. I was tucking into a bowl of Lucky Charms when I heard the telltale swell of activity from the paparazzi still camping on my doorstep, and the putter of an engine.



“Andie!”



My little brother barreled into the kitchen, fresh with the scent of toothpaste. At seven he had only a faint tinge of emerald yet. Mom promised him that one day he’d get as bright as me – he was always trying to compete.


“Andie, Andie, the bus is here,” said Leo, chestnut hair flopping over his eyes. He’d made his usual half-hearted effort to slick it back as school regulations required. My mouth couldn’t help but twitch into a smile at the sight of him.


“You got your homework?” I asked before shoveling down a couple more spoonfuls of cereal.


With pride he thrust his Transformers backpack into the air. “Math, science, and English,” he told me.


“English, even?” I said, feigning disbelief. “I thought you swore never to lay eyes on another chapter of Maniac Magee again.”


“I never said that!”


“All right, all right. But don’t you think you’re forgetting something, mister?”


Leo tilted his head as if I was a blurry photograph, and if he came at me from a different angle I would become clear. He obviously had no idea what I was talking about, so I tugged at an invisible rope around my neck before turning it into a noose and crossing my eyes. My antics earned two giggles and one little-boy epiphany. Leo dashed off to fetch his tie.


Dad found his way into the room, sipping at the dregs of his coffee.


“Is Mom going to see us off?” I asked him, already knowing the answer.


His mouth turned downward. “She’s just not feeling up to it, glowbug.”


Before I could make a snide remark, Leo bounced back in, announcing, “I’m ready!” I looked at him sadly as our father helped him don his heavy coat. He hadn’t even asked about Mom, but I knew he missed her. Neither of us had seen her for days. She wouldn’t let us.


At last it was time to make the trek to the bus. As soon as we crossed the threshold of our front door, the wolves descended.


“Miss Irving,” came the chorus, “Mr. Irving.” Reporters clustered about me and my brother, brandishing their microphones. Their coats and hats were layered with half an inch of snow that had fallen in the night and was still coming. My grip on Leo’s shoulder was iron as I attempted to muscle through the sea of suits and video recorders. Most of our assailants reluctantly moved aside to let us pass.


But there was always a stubborn one. A newswoman planted herself directly in front of us, refusing to budge. I could see the bus waiting just a dozen feet behind her, its yellow hull gleaming in the winter morning.


“Miss Irving,” the newswoman said to me, pupils wide as she leaned in closer. “The nation is dying to know. What’s the latest update from the doctors?”


“No comment,” I said, and made to guide Leo around her right.


She stepped in front of us again, and a waft of something that smelled like warm wax made my nose crinkle.


“Just give the public one detail. Is your mother going to recover fully?”


“She said no comment!” Leo piped up. This was strictly against the rules. Both my dad and I had told Leo in no uncertain terms that he was to remain silent at all times near the paparazzi. But now that it came to it, I wasn’t mad. I looked at my brother’s fierce expression and could feel only pride.


The newswoman was taken slightly aback and I seized my chance. I feinted right, and when she moved to block me I dragged Leo to the left, and we cleared the line of reporters and pitched ourselves onto the bus.


“Hey, Andie,” said the bus driver, a plump woman I never saw without a smile and a baseball cap. “Hi, Leo.”


“Hi Brenda!” Leo said cheerfully. Brenda pulled the bus away from our house, leaving the reporters ready to turn on each other. Leo led me to a vacant seat about halfway back, across from Christina, a redhead with a face full of freckles that I was on friendly terms with.


“Andie, how’s your mom?” she said.


I offered an apologetic smile. “Sorry, but I’m really not supposed to talk about her to anyone.”


She nodded and left us alone after that.


I deflected similarly-themed questions at school throughout the entire day. Most of my friends merely acted sympathetic, but Dad had made me swear up and down that I wouldn’t give anything away to anyone. I couldn’t even talk about it to my best friends, who I didn’t see till lunchtime, where they offered me concern and Christmas cookies from home. I was hesitant to let Leo out of my sight when we had to part ways for class, in case he slipped up on his own, but I didn’t have much of a choice. I sat, bone-tired as usual, through six periods of lessons I had little interest in.


In seventh period, World History, my teacher decided now would be a good time to show a movie on ancient Egypt. I groaned inwardly as she hit the lights, the classroom darkened and I lit up like a neon sign on a liquor store in the middle of nowhere. The tights, pleated skirt and long-sleeved button-down did little to cover me up.


My teacher paused, her eyes on me, and then proceeded to start the movie. For about five minutes we attempted to watch an archaeologist with a pith helmet monologue about the Pyramids at Giza, but the screen was faded because I was sitting front and center. Finally the teacher paused the film.


“Andromeda,” she said, not unkindly, “I hate to ask you this again, but do you think you could go to the library this period? Perhaps do some reading of your own to make up for missing the movie?”


I nodded. There were always the teachers who would never send me out of the room until they’d given it the old college try. I gathered my things as she wrote me a library pass and ejected me into the hallway, closing the door once I was out.


But I had no intention of going to the library. I knew enough about the Pyramids. Instead I took my pass outside, to the kinder-garden where in the warm months the younger students learned about plants and insects and such. The garden took up a small courtyard surrounded by windows that lined the hallways, so anyone could look out and see that I was skipping – well, sort of skipping. I didn’t care. Getting in trouble with the school authorities was the least of my worries.


Outside the snow fell relentlessly. Already a couple inches had settled on the dormant garden. I cleared a space on a wrought-iron bench and perched on the cold metal, dropping my backpack into a snowdrift. The world was hushed – for once. For a few minutes I simply sat there, watching my breath escape me in faint green puffs. At least out here, my color was greatly dimmed.


I nearly jumped out of my skin when I heard a rap on the glass behind me. I turned my head to see Jay Clarke waving at me from inside the hall. As soon as our eyes met, I felt a warm blush brighten my face, and I wondered if he could see it even in the daytime.


Please don’t come out here, I begged him silently. I had no choice but to smile when he pushed open the door and entered my snowy sanctuary.


Jay was two years older than me and the boy that every girl in school wanted to go out with. He was cute enough, I supposed, with his black hair and eyes like summer. Okay, so he was really cute. I just didn’t want to talk to him.


But he wasn’t giving me any say in the matter. He brushed off the rest of the bench and plopped down next to me with a smile.


“Hi, Andie.”


“Hey, Jay.” I stumbled over even the easiest words. Ever since our failed date two months ago, I’d been unable to even look at him without getting flustered. And he was always so unbearably gracious about what had happened.


“I heard your mom’s sick. I’m so sorry. Is she going to be okay?”


She’s not sick, I almost said before stopping myself. My mom was just being a brat because she was losing the one thing she thought made her spectacular, and I was tired of the attention it earned her.


“I can’t talk about it,” I said. The curtness of my response didn’t seem to perturb Jay, who simply brushed a lock of hair behind his ear and made a sympathetic face.


“I get it. So, you’re skipping, huh?”


I shrugged. “We were watching a movie in class.”


“Of course you were,” he said with a laugh.


“What’s that supposed to mean?”


“I didn’t mean anything by it, Andie,” he said quickly. I relaxed, knowing he at least was telling the truth. But I couldn’t help but think about that night in October. He’d asked me to go out with him one day in class, to the entire school’s shock, and to my mother’s delight. She had spent hours helping me get ready, and couldn’t stop carrying on about how beautiful and lucky her shining star was. I’d been nervous and excited, and had had a wonderful time with Jay, until after dinner when he took me to the bowling alley, only to discover it was glow-bowling night. It was an activity I’d always avoided, and with good reason. I stuck out like a sore thumb, and I hated the attention. I was sure that Jay had meant to humiliate me, so I ditched. The next day he called me and assured me he had no idea it was going to be glow-bowling that night, and would never have taken me there if he had known. I believed him, but I was so embarrassed that I’d avoided him ever since.


My mother had been furious at me. “Our glow’s what makes us special,” she said. “It’s probably why he asked you out in the first place! You’re so beautiful when you shine, Andromeda. You should show it off!”


“If you say so,” I’d answered.


“Do you think we could hang out sometime over Christmas break?” Jay said presently, and I felt myself blush harder.


“I – I don’t know,” I said.


“It doesn’t have to be a date,” he said. “We could just get coffee or something, you know? Can you drink coffee?”


Despite myself, I laughed. “Of course I can drink coffee. What kind of question is that?”


Jay grinned. “A stupid one, I guess.”


Just then the bell rang, piercing our quiet conversation. As I stood to leave, Jay said, “So, coffee, yes?”


I looked down at him and saw no trace of teasing in his expression. So I nodded. “Sure. Coffee. Yes.”


“Great! I’ll text you.”


Feeling strangely bubbly, I went to meet Leo outside his classroom. He bounded over to me, already bundled up for the cold.


“Andie, Andie, look what I made!” he said, holding out a reindeer made of clothespins. “See his nose, Andie?” He had hot-glued an oversized red puffball on what was supposed to be the head. “He’s Rudolph. His nose glows. Just like ours, right? He glows just like we do, doesn’t he?”


I giggled. “You’re right, Leo,” I said. I reached out and grabbed his nose, making his face scrunch up. “He glows just like we do.”


At home the reporters had set up two pavilions to keep out of the snow. This time no one stopped us as we made our way to the house, because Brenda walked us to the door, glowering at any newsperson that came too close. We stomped our boots against the bristly welcome mat and ducked into the house, where Dad was waiting for us. Leo greeted him with a generous hug and showed him his reindeer before asking, “Where’s Mom? I want to show Mom Rudolph too!”


“Your mother’s still not feeling too well, buddy,” Dad said to him. “You think you could show her another time?”


“I guess so,” Leo said.


“How about a snack?” I said, my heart constricting at his disappointment. “Want to make Rice Krispy treats?” It was something we usually did as a family, taking the time to dye the cereal red and green and shape it into wreaths or Christmas trees. I realized now that Mom wouldn’t be leading our holiday activities this year as she normally did, so I’d have to take over. We had a tree in the family room, but nobody had decorated it, and no gifts sat under it.


¬At my suggestion Leo brightened, quite literally, ¬¬and we were still hard at work making edible wreaths when the latest wave of doctors came and went. Dad spoke with them in low tones and saw them out. Once they were gone, he collapsed on the couch. I left Leo to his own devices for a moment and went into the living room, where the television was playing an interview with Brenda, who must have gotten caught in the reporters’ web after she’d delivered us to our doorstep. She was in the middle of saying what good kids we were. I planted my hands on my hips and stared at Dad.


“What did the doctors have to say? Is she really going to lose her glow?” I said.


“Sweetheart . . . I think you should go talk to your mother.”


“Will she even let me see her beautiful face?” I said.



“Andromeda Marie Irving,” Dad snapped. “I’ve had it up to here with you. Your mother –” He cut himself off abruptly, then leaned forward with his head in his hands. A prickling sensation of unease crept over my skin. “She wants to see you. Just go talk to her. Okay?” I nodded, suddenly feeling small again, and then turned to go down the hall to my parents’ bedroom door. I hadn’t been in this room in a week.


I lifted my hand and knocked lightly on the door. No answer came. After a breath I tried the knob and entered my parents’ room without permission, something I’d rarely done.



Fear raced through my veins at the sight of the pitch blackness that waited behind the door. I have never been afraid of the dark. I’ve never had a reason to be. But this scared me more than anything. All the curtains in the room were drawn, blocking out the muted daylight, and not even a bedside lamp provided warmth to the blackness. It wasn’t just that, though. I couldn’t see my mother. She should have been a shining beacon, but it took me several moments to make out the dimmest of green outlines where she lay in her bed.


“Mommy?” My voice was ragged.


“Andie?” Hers was even more so. “Come here, baby.”



I moved to obey, the door falling shut behind me. “Mom, your – your light . . .” I wandered over to the bed, guided my own inner light, which seemed blinding in comparison to her weak little glow. I hadn’t seen my mother for days. I certainly hadn’t believed that she could possibly be telling the truth. Seeing her in this darkness, which looked so unnatural to me, made my heart shudder.



“I know. It’s almost gone now. It’ll only be a couple more days before I . . . I go back to normal.” Normal. The word was a curse when she said it. Mom turned over and tried to meet my gaze. Her heart-shaped face seemed thin, her usually-bright eyes glassy and pale.


“It’s not the end of the world. So you look like everyone else again. So what? You’re still my mother. And you’re still Leo’s mother too. He really needs you,” I said with more urgency. “It’s almost Christmas, and –”


“Andromeda.” The way she said my name made me go quiet. “The doctors don’t know what will happen – they don’t think that I’ll . . . well . . .”


“Well? Well what?” I prompted.


“Well, the fact of the matter is, I haven’t bought a single Christmas present yet. You and your brother expect presents, I know. And who wouldn’t? It’s Christmas, for God’s sake. But I just haven’t gotten the chance to go shopping yet. It’s not that I don’t want to. I just haven’t found the time for it.”


“Mom, no one cares about the presents,” I said. Anxiety was building in my chest.


“Of course they do. Everyone cares about presents.”


“You’re not really sick, Mom,” I said.


“I might as well be,” she said. But she stopped rambling and instead laid her head back against the pillow and closed her eyes.


Instead of the usual irritation at her melodrama, I brimmed with disquiet. Right now my mother seemed a child to me, in need of comfort and not necessarily the truth.


“Are you tired?” I said.


“So tired,” she whispered.
On instinct I lay down beside her, cuddling the way I used to when I was younger and had nightmares that people would try to catch me and stow me in jars, like little kids do with lightning bugs. She would enfold me in her arms then, holding me close and promising me she wouldn’t let anyone hurt me. Today I was the one enfolding her, but what do you promise a firefly whose fire is dying?


“Just sleep,” I said softly in her ear. I closed my eyes and together my mother and I fell fast asleep, sharing the light between us.





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