The boy and his parents sat on the steps of their front porch watching fireflies rise from the grass like tiny holes in darkness. It had been a hot humid day, but the night coming on was sweet, full of mimosa and mountain gusts tinged with ice. An approaching storm made the family feel vivacious and alert. No three people could have been more content. Flashes of heat lightning ignited the entire sky and pugnacious gusts raked the sturdy young elm growing beside the front window as the boy sat playing with an old battered puppet and pointing to the fireflies. He was sleepy, but his parents wanted him with them for a little while longer to savor the evening.
Suddenly, voices from across the street broke the family's bubble of lazy enchantment. They could make out two people walking past the house, each holding something that glowed green, sticks or batons. When they waved the father thought he recognized one of them.
"Hallooo, Kurt," he called. It was too dark to recognize faces, but the stranger bore himself like Kurt with his lanky, awkward gait. Kurt approached other people as if he were attacking them, although no gentler soul could be imagined.
"Hey," the man replied, edging toward the curb, watching for cars. Then he and his companion crossed over, lumbered up the steep stone steps and approached the porch. It was indeed Kurt, with Sondra, which surprised the father a little, considering the hour. He almost asked, "Where's Rennie?" but checked himself. Rennie was Kurt's wife. Both Kurt and Sondra taught at the college in different departments. The father suspected nothing illicit Kurt was famous for wandering about in a daze and showing up at odd places and times nor could he imagine Sondra, who had acquired a "reputation," attracted to genderless Kurt. He wondered why the thought of intrigue had even remotely crossed his mind.
Kurt and Sondra had concealed the strange glowing things behind their backs, apparently planning to surprise the family.
"Look what we've got!" Kurt abruptly cried. At once they whipped forth the luminous sticks. "Boo!"
The last thing Kurt would have intended was terrifying anyone, the mother would say later, but the boy did shriek and shimmied on his behind to a dark corner of the porch where he huddled. Both the father and mother rushed after him, thinking an insect or even the dog had bitten him.
"I guess the stick scared him," Kurt called defensively. "I'm sorry. We found them in the street. Somebody threw them out of a car while we were walking."
The boy allowed himself to be consoled but could not stop shuddering. The mother smiled goodbyes and led him inside with the intention of putting him to bed. She was not angry, only bewildered. Moments before she had felt a rare ease; her ceaseless worries had briefly subsided and she had allowed herself the luxury of repose. Now she scolded herself: if only she'd paid more attention she would not be scurrying her child off to bed in such a state.
"Kids, you never know," said the father, worried about his son but feeling obliged to prattle for a while. "Let me see that thing," he said, flicking his cigarette onto the lawn.
Kurt passed the stick to him. "You can have it. We've got two. I want to take one home to Scottie."
The "stick" turned out to be a plastic tube filled with green liquid that emitted light. Its ends were sealed, and the tube was flexible enough to bend when waved. He realized you could buy such things at K-Mart and such places "glow sticks" but he'd never examined one close up. As they talked his gaze remained upon the liquid flowing from one side of the tube to the other. Each wave made a different formation, and when shaken the liquid became a hive of tiny bubbles. The light was not intense, but it coated their faces with an eerie patina. At one point the father looked up to see Kurt and Sondra glaring at him, their faces grotesque caricatures of shadow and phosphorescence.
"It's some sort of chemical reaction," Sondra said. "You hit it on something and it starts glowing."
"I love it," said the father. "I've got to have it."
"I already gave it to you," Kurt laughed.
"Oh, come on, I can't take this. You found it."
"I insist," said Kurt. "I've got this other one for Scottie."
Socttie was Kurt's son, an angelic blond-haired boy three years younger than the father's child. Scottie was adorable, everyone agreed, but when talk at faculty parties turned to him the father felt uncomfortable and went to refill his glass or comb his hair.
"I'm really sorry we scared him," Kurt said. "We're on a hike and have to get going. Do you think we ought to stay?"
"Nahhh," the father waved. "He'll be ok. Too sleepy maybe. It was such a great night we let him stay up late."
The father, now leaning against a porch post, did want to get inside to check on his son. He fretted over him too much. The boy seemed frail and jittery. He liked music and books rather than sports, which did not bother the father, who also liked music and books, but he knew from experience that boys who played baseball and the rest of it seemed less vulnerable than those who did not. And he felt guilty that he had never attempted to teach his son how to throw a ball much less catch one.
The friends shook hands and the father went inside, locking the door behind him. He noted one last firefly floating near the top of the massive oak tree across the street. The night now seemed too dark.
He found his wife on the sofa in a dark living room staring at the television with the volume turned to mute. An old black and white movie was on. He knew the movie and suddenly realized all of its stars were dead. He made a point of turning on one of the standing lamps.
"How is he?" he asked, sinking into a battered old armchair that had belonged to his grandmother. He remembered her reading stories to him in the chair when he was hardly more than four or five years old. He remembered how the light congealed in her silver hair, her soft voice, the bulging veins in her twig-like arms that both fascinated and terrified him.
His wife had put her finger across her lips. "I'm listening to see if he's fallen asleep."
They listened together for a while and heard no rustlings no calls. The boy usually fell asleep instantly.
"That damned stick you've got in your hand," she said. "It scared him."
The father looked at the tube, watched the wave inside flow from end to end. "But why? This thing is harmless. Kids play with them."
"Well, he doesn't," she said, not accusingly but with some exasperation that the toy they assumed it was a toy had ever materialized.
"Kurt said somebody threw it from a car," the father said meekly.
That night the mother awoke from deep sleep with a start. She sensed someone else in the house was also awake. She squinted at the father as she groped for her glasses on the night stand. He snored and seemed profoundly unconscious. She pulled on her satin robe and tiptoed down the stairs, calling softly to her son. Her robe whisked loudly as she descended.
She found him in the front foyer sitting cross-legged and erectly on the floor staring at the green stick as it lay on the table where the father had left it. Without thinking he had set it down as he followed his wife up to bed. It would not have occurred to him to throw it away. It flashed through the mother's mind that she would have thrown it away, although she too had forgotten about it. The boy had an unusual glaze in his eyes and at first she believed he was still asleep, but he had never walked in his sleep before so it seemed unlikely. He was probably in a kind of trance, she assumed with some alarm when he did not respond to his name. He seemed entirely transfixed by the glowing green tube as if it were an object of reverence. Yet he did not protest or fight her when she pulled him up and led him back up the stairs to bed. He merely whimpered a little as she tucked him in. She inhaled the fresh starched smell of newly washed sheets and felt relieved, although the strange new stiffness of her son's body puzzled her. He felt unnaturally rigid and slightly too cool to the touch. The mother had had her frights in the past, when the boy came down with scarlet fever or ear infections, so she allowed her maternal instinct to prevail, to tell her all would be well. When she finally slid into bed she felt herself tumble into sleep as if she were loose bricks spilling into an endless pit. By this time the husband had groggily awaked. "Whaswrong?" he mumbled. Within seconds he was snoring again.
The boy died precisely at noon two days later. His third grade class was about to break for lunch when he suddenly lurched forward in his desk, cried aloud and collapsed onto the floor. The other children screamed. Their teacher realized the extent of the trouble and sought the principal's permission to dismiss them for the rest of the day. The police and an ambulance were called first, then the parents, who both worked. They arrived at the school in separate cars only to find that the ambulance had already left for a nearby hospital. The mother abandoned her car and allowed her husband to drive at breakneck speed to the emergency room. Usually she had to admonish him to slow down. He always drove too fast, which was why she often sat in the back seat with the boy.
The attending physician, a grizzled, sleepless man whose lower lip sagged, could only express his condolences. No cause of death was immediately discernible, and the physician seemed genuinely mystified. He dismissed epilepsy, given the teacher's report, and merely shrugged and shook his head. The teacher was on hand as well, weeping and hugging the mother. The father thought he was going to lose control and hurl himself at someone or throw chairs through windows or rush into the streets screaming. He could not stay still. He wanted to see his son. His son could not be dead. They'd been so happy, so lucky, so healthy. How could his son be dead? There was some mistake. No one was dead. Everyone was dead, but not his son. The mother and teacher wept. The physician sighed and stammered. Nurses offered coffee and soft drinks. They heard the word "autopsy." The boy was only eight years old.
The father tore off his necktie and threw it onto the floor, kicked at it with his shoe. Sweat had gathered at his temples. He was on fire. He was going to pass out. He pressed his back against a wall of lime green construction blocks and panted. He saw the physician's lower lip sag further and wanted to tear out his tongue.
The trip home seemed to pass in slow motion. The father stared ahead, wordless, while the mother gazed at trees and telephone poles floating by silently as clouds.
When they got home the first thing he saw on the foyer table was the green tube. It had not been touched since he'd set it there, mainly because everybody had been too busy to remember it. He seized the thing, noticing it had practically lost its glow, and rushed to the back yard to hurl it with all his strength into the wooded lot behind their house. He sank to the ground and howled. The mother had gone directly up to bed, although she knew she wouldn't sleep. She had to lie and think and sort things out, to fathom this new immensity. "So this is how it comes," she repeated to herself as she tried to find a comfortable position. Yet for all her need to understand, she found she could not concentrate. Her thoughts raced ahead of each other and collided in some murky abyss where nothing made any sense. She tried to form an image of her son's face but no image came.
During the months that followed the father and mother rarely discussed the boy. Nor had the doctors found any convincing cause of death despite some talk of a brain virus. The mother welcomed friends and sympathy but the father refused to see anyone, took leave from his job and indulged himself in long solitary walks through the neighborhood park. He refused to let his wife clear out the child's room as she had planned, it seemed to him, almost immediately. He insisted the room remain exactly as it was, and he padlocked it to make sure it would. The mother never asked for the key. He even heard her laugh on occasion with friends or on the telephone. He refused to allow her to attend to any insurance or routine police matters concerning the boy's death; these he took upon himself, ponderously, with an almost religious zeal. It was as if he had assumed the death his personal and private loss. In darker moments he spoke to the dead boy and promised that he would keep his room clean.
The mother started going out with friends, volunteering her spare time to work with patients at the Children's Hospital and, in general, getting on with life. She even found herself flirting with some men she worked with. She entertained the prospect of a brief affair. She rarely thought about her son and would not look at pictures in the family album, which the father looked at every night. It occurred to her that time had stopped for him, that he would always think of their son as only recently dead, that his own life had become a kind of shrine to the boy. It seemed that the father was untouchable in his grief. Only rarely would he speak; nor would he answer the telephone or letters piling up urgently on his desk.
Six months later, after the mother had her affair and found a better job, which was imperative since the father never returned to his, she came home early one afternoon to run some errands. The day before she had gone to a salon and paid handsomely for a complete facial; she had also trimmed her hair. She gazed at her new image in the mirror, pleased with herself, when she realized that the father was not puttering around the house as usual. It dawned on her that she was no longer a mother or wife. The shock sent her spiraling about the house in search of her husband. She wanted to shake him, scream at him, threaten him, give an ultimatum. She was in love with another man. The past did not exist.
She thought he might be out in the back yard where he had begun a small flower garden, but she could not find him. She called; there was no response. Then she thought she saw a white patch of his shirt in the back lot, an abandoned place overgrown with weeds and bushes. She crept silently toward the shirt and saw the father on his knees mumbling incoherently. She remembered the same look in her son. He did not seem to notice her, so she moved closer until she was practically upon him. He was arranging small stones in a circle around the plastic glow stick, which had been thrust into the ground vertically so that it rose up as a kind of obelisk. She could distinguish their son's name in his mumbling. Rather than make a scene, she stole silently away. What she had seen had made her queasy. She threw up several times before sliding into bed and burying herself under the covers.
Later that night, equipped with flashlight and shovel, she made her way cautiously toward the indecent memorial. She balanced the flashlight on a nearby rock and began to scatter the pebbles the father had so meticulously arranged. She too was now on her knees before the demonic tube. The face of her son suddenly appeared to her and tears swelled her eyes. It was the first time since his death that she could picture him so clearly. She stroked the damp earth surrounding the tube and wiped it onto her face.
"Forgive me," she implored as the image of the boy began to recede. She seized the tube and inserted it down her blouse until it rested full length against her chest.
"Mine," she groaned, "mine."
She rocked slowly as she kneeled, humming an old song she'd learned from her grandmother. The full moon made her new face glow. A minstrelsy of insects screeched in the background. The shadows of dark, foreboding trees reminded her of ancient spirits returning for homage.
In her distraction she had failed to hear the father's footsteps approaching, and when she turned to meet his empty, violent, terrible eyes, it was already too late.