“Fireflies and Friends,” Friend, Aug. 1999, 32
Charles’s favorite time of the year was firefly season.
On firefly nights, he ran barefoot over his grassy yard, pausing only long enough to listen to the cheerful greeting of crickets.
Sometimes when he reached toward a twinkling light, his hand would come back empty. Then, far beyond his fingertips, a star would wink at him. Charles only laughed at his mistake. He kept running and reaching out toward flittering lights.
Most of the time he guessed right: the light would belong to a firefly, not a star. At those times, Charles gently closed his hand, being careful not to crush the firefly or damage its wings. He put dozens of fireflies in a large glass jar with a lid with holes in it. After he watched their glorious light show—accompanied by the crickets’ songs—for a while, he unscrewed the lid and watched the fireflies crawl to the rim of the jar and fly away.
He would much rather run beneath the stars on those firefly evenings than sit inside the house. If his mother had been home during the evenings, she would have been catching fireflies with him. But she worked at the hospital until late each night. The only other person in Charles’s house each evening was his sitter. He had invited her several times to catch fireflies with him.
“Catch fireflies?” she had said. “I’m too old for that. Besides, my favorite TV show is on.”
So Charles always chased fireflies by himself.
Until one night.
Charles was chasing an especially tricky firefly through the yard. Just when he was positive that it wouldn’t escape him, it turned off its light and blended with the evening blackness. Then, a few feet away, it lit up again as if to say, “Fooled you! Here I am!” Charles chased it, grabbed, missed. Chased, grabbed, and missed again.
“Got it!” boomed a familiar voice.
Charles knew at once that it was Brother Ralph, Mom’s and his home teacher. Brother Ralph lived down the street and frequently stopped by to ask about his day. Charles always enjoyed talking with him.
Brother Ralph held out his open hand, palm up. A dot of light walked across it and lit the palm’s wrinkles like a moon lights a rock-strewn valley. “Here,” he said.
Charles reached for the light. He lifted it from Brother Ralph’s hand and dropped it into his jar with the rest of the light-show cast.
“Quite a collection,” Brother Ralph said as he bent over the jar.
“Yes,” Charles said proudly. “I want to catch a lot more, though.”
“Mind if I help? I’ve always been pretty good at catching fireflies.”
“Sure. I’d like you to help.”
The two of them scurried around Charles’s big yard. Charles was the faster of the two, one hand carrying his jar, the other hand reaching out toward dots of light. Brother Ralph moved more slowly, but his hands snatched fireflies from the sky as deftly as a magician plucks quarters from behind someone’s ear.
When the jar was brimming with neon flickerings, Charles and Brother Ralph sat on the front porch and listened to the crickets’ summer concert. They sat silently and watched the fireflies and the stars.
Before the time came for Charles to go inside, they opened the jar together, allowing the fireflies to sprinkle into the freedom of the night sky.
“It’s quite a sight,” Brother Ralph said.
“Yes,” Charles agreed, “it is.”
For several nights after that, Brother Ralph returned to catch fireflies with Charles. They always sat on Charles’ front steps and listened to nature’s concert while enjoying the firefly light show.
One night Brother Ralph did not come. Charles waited in his yard until the sitter’s television program ended and she called him in for bed.
His mother told him the news the next day: Brother Ralph had died in his sleep during the night.
“Did he hurt a lot?” Charles asked.
“No, dear,” his mother said. “Brother Ralph died peacefully.”
Later, during a twinkling firefly evening, as Brother Ralph’s house sat empty and dark, Charles walked to Brother Ralph’s front door.
He knelt and placed a jar of fireflies on the front step. “These are for you, Brother Ralph.”
He unscrewed the jar’s lid so that the fireflies, whenever they wished, could fly from the jar and mingle with the stars above Brother Ralph’s house. Maybe they would let Brother Ralph know how much Charles missed him.