The Lost Lightning Bug

Part 1: Abigail

Gail was bored. It was still only July, and (as crazy as this sounds) she was already beginning to look forward to sixth grade. Not that she minded school so much, really. It’s just that she had expected more from summer. What had she done last year? Gail couldn’t seem to remember exactly what she did, but she’d had fun, she was sure of it. Yes, there was the county fair. It was coming up sometime (soon?) And there were few trips to the cousins, a tradition which was about the same this year as last. Yet Gail still felt that this was the slowest, emptiest, boringest summer ever. She just wanted it to be over.

The sun had set, and Gail decided to go out to the pond. Perhaps the fireflies would be out – in fact they probably would be. She packed a basket with provisions: a few cookies, a small mason jar of milk, her flashlight, and a shawl. There was an old wooden bench by the placid water, where she sat down to have her snacks. Sure enough, the lightning bugs were flitting about in the reeds along the shore. Believing the house was far out of earshot, Gail began to sing to the tiny glowing insects. Made up songs full of flowers and honey, cookies and milk, Spring and Fall.

As she sang, she unconsciously began flicking the button on the flashlight, keeping the rhythm to her mildly silly verse. This went on for several minutes. Singing softly, flashing the light, in a sort of soporific meditation in the diminishing warmth of the post-twilight summer evening. After a while, Gail noticed that a few of the fireflies had flown over to her. They were quite near, in fact. This was something new! As an experiment, the girl turned the flashlight completely off, and watched. The lightning bugs slowly meandered away, back to their grassy homes.

How interesting! Gail began flashing the light again. Several fireflies, indeed, made their way in her direction once more. After a few more experiments, it was clear that this was a thing: the bugs were attracted to the glow. It was a very short leap of logic to reach the conclusion that, if these things were easily called, they could be easily caught, as well. A few minutes later, Gail had determined that she could coax a firefly to land on her shawl (now draped over her arm) and from there it was a simple matter of scooping it up in the mason jar.

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” She had abandoned everything at the bench and was running to the house with the jar. “I’ve got a lightning bug! I got one, I GOT one!” Dad was already at the back door, holding it open for her as she blazed through the pantry into the kitchen. “I’m naming him ‘Rodney’,” she announced, her face beaming in obvious joy, “but we can call him ‘Rod’,” pausing, “Lightning Rod, get it?”

Dad laughed at the joke, and admitted it was a fine name. “We need to poke some holes in the top, so it has some air, ok?” About that time, mom came on the scene, wondering what the commotion was about. She stood assessing the situation for a moment.

“Abigail,” mom began, “are you sure you are ready to keep a pet? Do you know how to take care of a glow worm?” Gail stopped what she was doing for a moment, and said, “First, Rod is a lightning bug, not any kind of worm. Also, he isn’t a pet – he’s my friend! And I think Rod and I can figure it out.” She turned to dad. “I’m calling Kelli – can Kelli come over?”

Thus began an impromptu sleepover, with Gail’s best friend Kellianne. Really, Kelli was the only school friend she’d seen during the summer, on account of the fact that she was the only one who lived close by. The two girls disappeared into Gail’s room and were not heard from again that night. After breakfast, Kelli stayed around most of the morning. There was talk of catching more fireflies, but Gail was set on having only Rod, and Kelli would have to find her own.

Three days later, tragedy struck: Rodney was missing.

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” Gail came bursting into the kitchen, empty jar tenuously held in emotionally drained fingers, “Rodney is MISSING!”

“Oh, no!” Dad was visibly concerned, “What happened?”

Mom was at the table, as well. “When did you last see him?”

“Well,” sobbed Gail, “Rod was tired, so we went to bed early. This morning, he was GONE!”

There was a bit of a pause. Mom and dad looked at each other for a long moment.  Then dad responded, “Perhaps he got up early?” Gail nodded, willing to accept any explanation. Dad continued, “Yes. That’s probably it. Was there food in the jar?”

Gail seemed surprised at the question. “Food?”

“Well, ya. A guy’s gotta eat, you know? Perhaps Ron went looking for something to munch on.”

More tears were starting to gush, when mom interjected, “He meant Rod, honey.” Then turning to dad with a stern glare that was somehow starkly impassive, “Daddy meant Rod.”

“Of course,” dad continued, sheepish, “Rodney! I meant Rod.” Fewer tears now. “Perhaps he was just hungry, and got lost on his way back from the, err, garden?”

“So he’s lost!!!” Gail was in full cry, at this point. “He’s goooonnnne!”

“Hang on, honey,” dad had his arm around Gail’s shoulder by now. “I think I know how to get Rodney home.”

“Hmw?” The question was slightly muffled, as Gail was wiping her nose on dad’s shoulder.

“Well, I happen to know that fireflies love apples. Perhaps, if we were to put a bit of apple in the jar, your friend will find his way home!”

Mom jumped in again, saying, “Holes. We will need to fix the holes in the lid so he can’t get out again.”

Dad nodded. “Yes! Rodney obviously got out because the holes were too big. We’ll replace the lid, too – with smaller holes in it.”

Gail was satisfied with this plan. So much, so, in fact, that she immediately wriggled out of dad’s hug and ran to the counter, picking through the apples for the very best, ripest, tastiest looking apple she could find.

Part 2: Alec[Author’s note: Please imagine rewinding sounds as we back up three days.]

Gail was bored. Just by looking at his daughter, Alec could tell that she was sad and frustrated. The troubling thing was, why? They were doing all the same fun stuff they always had done – trips to the river, new summer clothes, sleepovers with Kelli, family picnics, watching the off-season practices at the college field – none of it was working. The county fair was coming up this weekend, but Gail just didn’t seem to be excited about it. Not like last year, anyway. This summer was packed with all of the usual activities, yet Alec was watching his little girl mope about as though there was nothing at all to do.

Even now, from the kitchen window, Alec could see the slumped shoulders and bowed head, as her feet swung gently beneath the bench at the pond. The shawl he’d put in her basket lay next to her, along with the now empty jar and the cookie plate. Gail was singing softly to herself. Alec could almost hear the words, but not quite. He was sure she was making it up as she went, though. That would be just like her, using her creativity to keep herself occupied. Yet, somehow, dad knew it wasn’t enough.

Gail was flicking the flashlight off and on now. “What in the heck is she doing?” Alec thought. He smiled, and continued to watch, entranced at the inscrutable activities of his child. After some time, the singing stopped, and no light. Then, the flashing beam skipped across the pond again for a minute or so. Then it stopped. Clearly, she was up to something. Was she trying to scare off a racoon, or perhaps a skunk? No, that wouldn’t be it. Gail knew how to calmly move away from wild animals. His fatherly amusement grew as the cycle of flashing light and darkness continued.

He was wiping down the kitchen counter, and putting away the last remaining evidence of dinner, when Gail’s raised voice commanded his attention. “Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” She had abandoned everything at the bench and was running to the house with the jar. “I’ve got a lightning bug! I got one, I GOT one!”

Alec met his daughter at the back door, a brief spike in adrenaline already fading as he saw she was ok. She held up the mason jar, which, in addition to traces of milk, contained the insect.

“I’m naming him ‘Rodney’,” Gail continued, “but we can call him ‘Rod’,” pausing, “Lightning Rod, get it?”

Alec had to stifle a snort as he laughed. Clever Gail! Of course, she would come up with a catchy name! He nodded his head merrily in agreement and said, “Yes, honey, I think that’s a fine name! We need to poke some holes in the top, so it has some air, ok?”

Marche walked briskly through the kitchen door, slowing her pace as she saw the work that Alec and Gail were doing to fix up the jar. Her look turned to one of mild concern. “Abigail,” she began, “are you sure you are ready to keep a pet? Do you know how to take care of a glow worm?

Gail stopped what she was doing for a moment, heaved a dramatic sigh and said, “First, Rod is a lightning bug, not any kind of worm.” She rolled her eyes emphatically and continued. “Also, he isn’t a pet – he’s my friend!” Indignant look, hands on her hips now. “And I think Rod and I can figure it out.” She turned back to Alec. “I’m calling Kelli – can Kelli come over?”

There was nothing else for it. By the time Kelli showed up, Gail had Rodney’s glass home enshrined atop her dresser, surrounded with decorations and a few flowers picked from the planter by the front door. Alec and Marche left the girls alone (or perhaps the girls deserted the adults – it’s a matter of perspective.) Before bed, Marche asked, “Are you going to tuck Abigail in? You usually do, even when Kelli’s here.”

“I was debating that very question,” Alec answered. “It kinda feels like I shouldn’t. I don’t know, it’s like I’ve been replaced by a lampyrid.”

“Perhaps you have!” Marche laughed, Alec joining in with only a slight delay.

Two days later, tragedy struck: Rodney was dead.

It was late at night. Alec was standing in the bedroom doorway. He held out the jar, now sporting a ribbon and several stickers, for Marche to examine. He said, “I’m going to replace him tonight, before she wakes up. I’m getting my shoes on and going out to catch another one right now.”

Marche rolled her eyes, and said, “Oh my god, Alec!” She was simultaneously laughing and looking annoyed. “You can’t protect her from her own mistakes! She decided she could handle this all on her own, and didn’t want to talk it through. She didn’t feed the thing, now it’s dead. She’s got to learn from that.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Alec was torn. “I mean, it’s just a bug, after all. How sad could she get, really? She’ll forget about it by the time we go to the fair on Saturday.”

For a moment, Marche chuckled, but it was a dry laugh and she was more serious when she answered. “No, Alec. She won’t. She’ll be very sad, and probably for a while. She’ll feel a twang of guilt every time she sees a mason jar, and that will certainly last for weeks. Maybe longer. She’ll probably want to get him a Christmas card and mail it to heaven.” She added with another dry chuckle.

“So… I’m confused. You make it sound bad.” He paused. Marche said nothing, so he went on. “I know she’ll be really bummed out. I can fix this. I’m going out to the pond!”

“Alec,” Marche sighed deeply, “you can’t always fix things for Abigail.” She shifted to a lighter tone. “Yes, she’s very attached to that stupid bug. It’s hard to explain, but you need to let her go through this.”

“You mean the grieving process.” It was a statement.

“No. Well, yes.” She slowed down a bit, picking her words. “Your daughter is shedding her tiny childhood feelings and starting to experience big ones. Like losing your baby teeth – it takes time.”

Alec was silent.

“She needs to learn how to chew on her adult emotions. You can’t take that from her.”

Alec had been sitting on the corner of the bed, examining the jar. “Fine, then,” he said, standing. “Rodney escaped.” With that, he opened the jar, dumped the dead bug into the wastebasket, and went to put the jar back in Gail’s room.

The next morning, Marche and Alec were silently drinking coffee. There was an unspoken question waiting patiently with them, like an invisible cat coiling its legs to pounce. Alec knew Marche was right; Marche was certain Alec could not maintain the charade; both of them wondered how Alec’s little “escaped bug” compromise would work out. The little bird entered the room and scared the cat away.

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” Gail came bursting into the kitchen, empty jar tenuously held in her limp, emotionally drained fingers, “Rodney is MISSING!”

There were looks back and forth. For a fleeting second, Marche thought about responding with something like, “I’m sorry honey. Here, have some toast and jam.” Or maybe adopt a sardonic attitude and say, “Oh, wow! Perhaps you should have been more thorough in locking up your victim!” But she refrained, and she waited, with her eye on Alec and his suddenly pale complexion.

“Oh, no!” Alec was visibly concerned, “What happened?”

Marche played along. “When did you last see him?” she asked.

“Well,” Gail was sobbing now. Alec reached out to take the jar, thinking the girl would drop it – but she clung it to her breast and continued, “Rod was tired, so we went to bed early. This morning, he was GONE!”

There was a bit of a pause. Marche and Alec had talked about this. The plan was to offer comfort and move on as quickly as possible. Alec ventured a postulation. “Perhaps he got up early?” Gail nodded. She was clearly brightening up with this idea, so Alec continued, “Yes. That’s probably it. Was there food in the jar?”

Gail seemed surprised at the question. “Food?”

Marche could almost feel the moment when Alec’s resolve came crashing down. She watched as Alec unfolded a plan to set out some food, and she knew – without any doubt – that Rodney would indeed return that night.

Epilogue

Sure enough, the next day, Rodney was back. Gail never asked him where he had been, or what he had been doing. It’s not that she didn’t care, either. Gail felt that, deep down, she already knew the answer. It turned out that Rodney actually did like bits of freshly cut apple, and he fared quite well for some time. A couple of nights later, Kelli caught a firefly, too. His name turned out to be “Sparky,” and he never wandered off.

After a few weeks, Gail and Kelli decided that their tiny friends would probably be happier back at the pond, with all of the other lightning bugs – Sparky and Rodney’s own friends and family. As the summer had worn on, there were becoming noticeably fewer lights among the reeds and over the water. It was definitely time. So in the late August twilight, there stood mom, dad, Gail, Kelli and about a dozen toy bears, dogs and unicorns. All were gathered around the bench by the pond to open the jars and release the lightning bugs. Gail hushed them all and paused for a few words.

“Rodney,” she said, “the once lost lightning bug, and Sparky, the brightest firefly we’ve ever known,” she stopped, reaching down into the basket for a paper plate that mom and dad hadn’t yet noticed. It had writing on it, and it was taped to what looked like a single chopstick, probably pilfered from a kitchen drawer. Gail and Kelli walked the few steps to the edge of the water, and together they ceremoniously stuck it in the ground, like a small signpost.

Gail started her little speech over from the beginning. “Rodney,” she said, “the lost lightning bug, who returned to us, and Sparky, the brightest firefly we’ve ever known,” she paused for effect, “we now mem… memory…”

“Memorialize…?” said dad.

“Yes. That. We memorialize your names with the declaration that this is to be known as the ‘Lightning Rod and Sparky Pond,’ to forever remind us of our most enjoyable friendship this summer!” The two girls opened the jars. The fireflies flew out and, as best as Alec could tell, turned to wave goodbye before buzzing off over the swampy shore.

The deed was done. The stuffed animals were gathered. Everyone headed back to the house.

“So, you know school starts Monday, right?” asked Alec as they walked.

“Ya,” said Gail. “When is that, exactly?”

“That’s three days.”

“Wow,” said Gail. “Summer went by so fast!”