Home > The Light of the Fireflies(6)

The Light of the Fireflies(6)
Paul Pen

He disappeared down the hall, dragging his brown slippers along the floor.

Lots of cold slime ran down my palm until the orange clot hit the floor. I stared at it blankly. Mom’s nose whistled. She knelt down. I felt the damp cloth on my hand before I saw it. My eyes were fixed on the puddle of shell and death at my feet. Mom wiped my hand, working each finger. The smell of ammonia made me cough.

Her eyes moistened.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“It’s the ammonia,” she replied.

“My eyes aren’t crying.”

Mom’s shoulders slumped.

“I was remembering something,” she said.

“Something from outside?”

She nodded.

I kissed her rough cheek.

“Don’t be sad,” I said. “The basement’s much better than out there.”

Her nose whistled. Then she whispered in my ear: “Any place where you are is much better than anywhere else.”

My shoulder tickled and I wriggled away.

Mom let the cloth fall onto the floor, cleaned up the remains of the chick that never was, and went back to her work at the kitchen sink. I stood next to her, watching the damp patch that the cloth left behind shrink. Until it disappeared.

On the way to my bedroom, Mom called out my name. She asked me to come over to her. She crouched down in a very similar way to how Dad had done.

“Here.” She opened my hand. “Put it away and keep it warm. That’s what it needs to hatch.”

“And what Dad said?”

“You just keep it warm.”

I ran to my room holding the egg in both hands against my bare tummy.

My brother was sitting on his bunk, his feet hanging a yard and a half from the ground. He could spend hours there, his pajama bottoms tucked into his slippers, shaking his head and moving his feet and hands as if he was walking through a cornfield that didn’t exist. He would also whistle a tune, though the result wasn’t perfect since his bottom lip was split in half because of the fire. For a long time Mom and Dad didn’t understand what his trance meant. Then one afternoon, when we couldn’t get him to talk or stop smiling at nothing, my sister came into the room. She picked up a book from the shelf. You read it to him when he was little, she said, showing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to my parents. It’s as though you’ve already forgotten we had a life outside, she added. Since then, every time my brother traveled to that other world, there was only one way to communicate with him.

“Scarecrow, you haven’t seen anything,” I said. “And ask the Lion and the Tin Man to keep quiet, too.”

My brother saw the egg in my hands, but he soon resumed his imperfect whistling.

I picked up a dirty T-shirt from the floor and wrapped the egg in it, in the best imitation of a nest I was able to make. Afterward I put everything in the drawer of the one piece of furniture I didn’t share with my brother. The cabinet was at the foot of my bed. It had just two sections. Enough for my cactus, my crayons, and the insect and spy books that Dad gave me on cake days. I perfected the nest beside my jar of crayons.

I sat cross-legged in front of the cabinet and took out How to Be a Spy Kid. It was my grandmother and mother who’d taught me to read and write. There was plenty of time for it in the basement. The book contained tricks for children to learn. It taught me how to use lemon juice as invisible ink, writing secret messages that could then be read under a light. The first time I tried the trick I asked Mom to hold the piece of paper near one of the bulbs hanging from the ceiling in the living room. She had squeezed the lemon for me while I explained what I was going to do, following the instructions in the book. She doubted it was going to work, but she took the piece of paper anyway and held it near the glass bubble.

“There’s nothing on here,” she said, “and there won’t be anything however close I hold it to the light.”

Then, some brown lines began to appear on the sheet. Mom moved it around so the heat would spread evenly across its surface. New brown stains gradually emerged everywhere I’d applied the lemon juice. Finally, the secret message was visible: I TOLD YOU I WAS A SPY. Mom smiled as she read it. Her nose whistled.

“So you were right,” she said.

Sitting now in front of the cabinet with the book on my legs, I was looking for a particular page. I went over the sequences of dots and dashes. With the nail of my forefinger I tapped the shell four times in quick succession. Then twice more, as the book instructed.

I held my ear to the egg.

Not a sound.

“It’s Morse code,” I told the chick.

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