All of us kids from the neighborhood were out in my front yard sitting and talking. Laughing and waiting. All but Gresh that is. He, more than anybody, celebrated that first night of summer when the fireflies returned.
He howled as he ran in the yard. His bare feet smashed into the muddy puddles. Before even the tips of his toes could dry, he plowed into the rows of dandelions, pretending the white floaties were fireflies. Then, he fell into the dewy grass and the pieces of the world covered his body.
When they finally arrived, they bypassed the rest of us. Some of the younger kids called out and chased them, with their Mason jars clanking against their stubby, damp fingers. The rest of us already knew even if we wished we didn’t.
The fireflies went toward Gresh. Their tiny bodies spun and sped. Flicked and glowed. Their lights were like a silent symphony—synchronized perfectly to create just what they’d intended.
Gresh didn’t get up. He didn’t speak. He didn’t welcome them in any way. He just opened his mouth, and they found their way inside.
I couldn’t watch for long. I said goodnight and went inside.
The others’ voices followed me until I closed the door behind me, but they still played over in my head.
I peaked from my bedroom curtain one last time after I turned off my lamp. He was still out there. Glowing amidst all that darkness.
He sat at his little desk in silence most days, staring off into the sky. When the rest of us went swimming at the pool, he said he had important things to do if we asked if he wanted to go. But when night approached, he grew anxious. He tapped his feet against the wooden floor, and he rocked back and forth in his chair. He slowly pecked at the window with his bitten fingernails. All he did revolved around them.
When they inevitably returned each night, he yelled and took off into the yard.
It was bad enough that I had a brother who housed thousands of bugs. It was even worse that he glowed. The worst, though, was how he sat in the front yard in the mornings with his little notebook and wrote away with nothing but the tips of his glowing fingers. The neighbors used to call all the time and tell us about Gresh. He scared their kids, they said. Really, though, he scared them.
Mom constantly asked him what he was doing. He would always say the same thing: “Important stuff.” When Dad asked him: “Important stuff.” Me: “Important stuff.” None of us knew what to say, so we didn’t say anything.
One night when he was out illuminating the neighborhood, I went to his room and opened the notebook he’d been working on all season. But, of course, there was nothing there.
By the end of summer, I needed sunglasses if I was in the same room as Gresh. It wasn’t just the tips of his fingers either; it was all of him. Even from underneath his clothes you could see his bright body trying to find its place in a world it couldn’t ever really belong.
His eyes were heavy, too, and although he glowed, he still looked dark around his eyes. He didn’t eat during the day. Mom and Dad worked. I played with my friends. He sat around and waited on his “friends” as he called them.
Only a few fireflies remained on the night Gresh came to my bedroom and dropped the notebook on my bed. “Goodbye,” he said. I nodded at him as I smirked.
I eventually looked out to see what he was doing–to see how many fireflies would find their way inside him–but when I opened my curtains, I couldn’t see a thing. All of the light was gone.
Even if I close my eyes and focus, I can’t remember the way he smelled or the sound of his voice. But, I can remember moments. There was that one day when his arm rubbed against me on his way to meet them one evening. He wasn’t hot. He wasn’t even warm. It was like that time he sliced his finger on the cover of one of my books he was returning, and he bled actual crimson blood. Honestly, I expected light. Bright, burning light.
We still wait on their annual return. No one mentions Gresh to me, but I hear his name echoed in the soft breeze. The name engulfs and suffocates me. We all have Mason jars now. There’s really not that much difference from the young and the old. We all want.
One of the kids trips over his shoelaces and falls. He rests on the ground and stares up at what surrounds him. He is quiet. It’s like he’s a part of a different world. It’s brief, but it’s gorgeous. I wonder if that’s what Gresh felt all the time.
It really was beautiful if you think about it. The way these tiny, mysterious bugs flew to him with no effort on his part, and he allowed them inside him. To protect them. To comfort them. To befriend them. I just wish I knew why.
I wake up some mornings and wonder if Gresh was just a dream–if he was just someone we all made up in order to have something special in our lives. Then, I remember the laughter and the names. Some things can’t be made up.
My parents are asleep, and my friends are at home. I peak outside from my window to watch them. It’s what I do a lot of nights when I can’t stop thinking about Gresh. Tonight, it’s like I’m lost in space. The stars are twinkling. Bright then dark. Here then not. It’s my whole unknown universe.
A firefly lands on my window, and its light dies.
I grab his notebook, and I go outside. The grass is cool when I sit down. The pages of his notebook float in the nighttime air. Unlike that night when I looked at the pages in his bedroom, there are words now. Or one word written over and over. Gresh’s handwriting is heavy, frantic. “HELP!” There’s something on one of my cheeks. Maybe it’s a firefly. Maybe it’s a tear.
I call his name. My voice is quiet at first, but it grows. “Gresh! Gresh!” The name feels strange coming from my mouth. I doubt I’ve said my brother’s name more than a handful of times throughout my whole life, but it finds its place as I cry louder and louder.
I fall into the grass and look up at the bright dots burning above me. It’s hard to focus. I can’t tell the stars from the fireflies. I just know it’s light. As long as it’s here, I won’t stop. I open my mouth and I wait. I feel something on my lips. I can only hope I’m not too late.
But it hits me. He was writing to them.
BRADLEY SIDES is a writer and English instructor. His work appears at the Chicago Review of Books, Electric Literature, The Millions, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He is at work on his debut collection of short stories. For more, visit bradley-sides.com