PHOTURIS

by Gail Aronson

ISSUE ELEVEN | FALL 2018

The same summer Bug disappeared, I grew a firefly under my tongue. Roundish and roughly the size of a bottle cap, it saturated itself slowly—its light a little more yellow each night.

 

My brother Bug and I live on a gravel road. When I jump on the trampoline, I see only woods. There are a few other mobile homes scattered near us before the road meets the quarry, but no streetlights and lots of stars. Sweltering afternoons, I paced around the quarry’s aggregate edges calling Bug, Bug, Bug, the crater’s void gathering dust in the light. I stood before the woods. I waited. A graveyard of car skeletons rusted on a field beyond the stone, their bodies housing wild weeds and their snakes.

 

Even before Bug disappeared, Mom laid buried in bed most days. Sometimes I’d sit on the trampoline in the yard near her window, balancing on a pool of elastic black, listening to her groan. She had been changing for some time but not physically. She drank caffeine-free diet sodas and watched reruns all night. It stays sticky hot even at night, even in our house but she slept wrapped in her sheets, anyway. Washing the sheets for her every week with Bug’s and mine, they always smelled of must, dampened, something natural and human and untouched by soap or chemical. She kissed my cheeks when I came to her and said, Thank you for helping your brother this week. I just needed a break. I told her I know even though I didn’t understand.

 

It went like this:

 

Before Bug disappeared from his bed, I played the news while I made us dinner. On screen, fires blazed through miles of forestland on a faraway coast as I brought canned vegetable soup to a boil on the stove. The firefly under my tongue, more yellow than canned corn, brightest thing in the room. Still attached to the smooth underside of my gums, it felt like a giant canker sore, though it lit up, woke up only at night. I bent the tip of my tongue to feel its wings. Gently, I chewed soft foods to keep this part of my mouth fluttering. I didn’t know what it was when it was covered in its pupa, ready to hatch. I only knew when the wings came and its light lit up on the black net of the trampoline. I held my compact to my mouth, which I’d just started to carry with me, so I could powder my nose in the bathroom before Biology class. It lit up so dim at first I thought I was growing an extra tooth, already plague-ridden, until the wings cracked open.

 

Before Bug disappeared from his bed, humidity swallowed us fully in the afternoons when I walked to the elementary school to pick him up. His real name is Blake, but he’s had that nickname since he lost his attention in Little League T-ball, crouched down in the outfield as the softball flew by him, too busy finding ladybugs in the grass to catch. When the ball dropped and the other boys yelled Blake!, he stood up covered in ladybugs. They flew off his arms like trained birds, circling on command.

 

Before Bug disappeared from his bed, I listened to Jin and Bethany and Taylor put on lipstick in front of the mirror. Jin lives by the quarry, too, and we used to be best friends. Sometimes they smoke in the bathroom between classes or apply their makeup. That day we’d watched Fantastic Voyage and talked about the human body as a machine, or something. I listened to the fluorescent lights buzz. Machine, too. Jin and Bethany and Taylor giggled above the hum and I knocked one of my broad shoulders against the doorframe. The firefly under my tongue quivered.

 

Who’s there? Next thing I knew, Jin called my name. I see your feet under there, Eugenia.

 

I pushed the door open and Bethany pulled me near her. She looked at me for too long. Then, all three of them laughed together, as if there was some joke I wasn’t in on. Try this, she said, handing me a tube of bright red lipstick. I turned around to remain out of sight, but under the harsh fluorescence and next to the wall-length mirror, Taylor saw the smallest flutter inside my mouth. I’d thought the firefly would be asleep during the day, but something about being there with those three made the small fly wake.

 

Let us see, Jin said, and I hovered with my head down but Bethany got my mouth pried. I knew it! The girls stared at me different than before. Looked at each other and at me. Opened their mouths, too. Bug would disappear later that night, but I didn’t know this yet. We made a plan to meet at Jin’s house after dinner.

 

After school I walked to the elementary school to pick up Bug. Bug had been noticing colors lately. He ran to me, his teacher watching from the front doors. His teacher is such a teacher it is almost unreal. Like when you look at a scene in nature that is so beautiful you might as well be looking at the postcard version—you are desensitized, somewhere else. Bug and I might have this in common; we drift off into the thick air, into the woods of our thoughts. She wore a teacher dress and gave a teacher wave. Bye teacher.

 

You look nice today, like a clown. Thanks a lot, I said, touching my fingers to my lips and smearing some on his cheek. Along the gravel and the subtropical brush of a Southern summer, we passed a taxi still yellow in its rust. That car is the color of a banana. Bug always made me see what he saw. Not a dead car at all. Yellow is the color of optimism but it is also the color of decay. I wish that life made more sense. How about hot dogs tonight? With relish?

 

I watched Bug jump on the trampoline as I boiled the hot dogs, mine so extra soft it was basically mush, and thought about what my teacher had told us. The earth was dying and the fires weren’t far away and we were the lucky ones and the heat wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.

 

I put Bug to bed early that evening. I didn’t want him to see that I was becoming a bug, too. I just wanted him to sleep. I’m hot, he said, but this, I already knew. I’m sorry, dude. I brought him ice water and turned on the window fan. I’ve been dreaming of a man who follows me in the woods. He hides behind every tree, then flies and hangs onto the branches.

 

Who is this man? I asked him, because it sounded like a thing Bug would say about another thing he said; that car is a banana and bananas hang from trees and I dreamed of a man who plucked bananas from the treetops for me. That was Bug. Always imagining. You know there are no more bananas left, I told him.

 

Bananas?

 

I wiped the sweat from his forehead and told him that someday we will move someplace colder.

 

Like Antarctica?

 

I reminded him that Antarctica is melting and we’d get lonely out there.

 

Maybe Boston. Maybe Minnesota.

 

I hated to lie to him but I wanted this to be true, too.  

 

Asleep with the fan on, I left Bug to dream and got to Jin’s just a little bit late. Bethany and Taylor were there already. The three of them sat inside Jin’s backyard tent, mouths aglow. I think they’re aliens.

 

Bethany stopped eating her fruit roll-up. Taylor, you don’t know that. They look like regular fireflies to me. All I could think about was how Bethany could eat something so sticky with a thing growing in her mouth.

 

Aren’t you afraid you’re going to hurt it? I asked, but Bethany just shrugged.

 

No harm yet.

 

Jin, who’d stopped talking to me as soon as she became friends with the other girls who lived in nicer houses and started dating boys, stuck her finger in her mouth and tried to pick the thing out, but it stayed right there, aglow. Remember when we used to stamp out fireflies with our feet?

 

I had to remind her that I never did that.

 

Yeah I guess. It was fun, catching them in jars.

 

It was this night we went to the woods together; we sat in a circle; we howled; we scorched and sweated; we splintered our fingers; the light of our mouths guided us; the leaves shook; the language of emerging summer spoke; the air spoke; the wind winded; it was hot; it was hot air and we were lifting, levitating with just our voices the voices of night crawlers; we, adults; our mouths catacombs, hot and dark caves for the still-living bugs.

 

The thing is this:

 

I swear, that night, we really did levitate. In a circle: the trees, the leaves, the stars. The fireflies came out and our own mouths blinked. Just laughing and talking biology class and about the hair on our legs—we lifted. We floated in the air and spun together as if chasing one another in a swarm, though our wingless bodies stayed stiff, our arms at our sides.

 

As we sat on the ground, still coming down even as we touched dirt and leaves, the swarm of fireflies above us turned the forest air golden, blinking. We held hands. We stared. When we lifted our palms,, the fireflies rose into the treetops. When we lowered them, they covered the forest floor, painting a golden road in the black night.

 

Not that I had to, but I snuck back into bed quietly. When I woke up, Bug was gone.

 

After Bug disappeared, mom woke up and walked the house, fires still blazing on the news. She wore a robe and slippers and her hair in curlers. Dark circles and deep lines drew her face. Zombie walking, maybe, but there was no mistaking her for anything but real. Not the postcard version, no mom in an apron whipping up pancakes. I answered the police’s questions and they kept searching the roads and the woods and the quarry.

 

Jin started to come around more. Bethany and Taylor came around, too. We four sat on the trampoline’s black pool and thought about how much we missed bananas and a long, meandering autumn. It had been one week of waiting and answering every unknown caller on the family cell. Before Bethany and Taylor arrived, Jin and I compared fireflies. We opened our mouths wide.

 

What does mine look like? I talked like my mouth was full, fast and embarrassed, cupping my hand over my lips slightly.

 

It looks bright. Mine?

 

They were the same.

 

You know, I really am sorry. About Bug. About everything. You know that, right?

 

I didn’t but nodded anyway. Jin’s mouth blinked light faster when she leaned in closer and put her lips to mine. Softness with the warmth of breath and the constant air made me feel as though I could overheat, as though I was leaving my body altogether, levitating again. Wings tipped on our gums. It didn’t last long, stopped abruptly. Something came out from the woods. Jin thought she saw a man behind the trees, his mouth alight, too.

 

None of us dared to ask anyone else at school about the fireflies, but Bethany swore when Joey Kanodie tried to kiss her that she could see inside his mouth. I didn’t open mine, but I saw inside of his. There was nothing. Other girls we weren’t as sure about, but Taylor said her sister’s mouth was clear as could be.

 

It felt like we were together more than not. That’s how summer goes. I could barely remember anything from those last days of school—all flashes, a movie reel of travels inside our skin: the body is made of nothing but meat and machinery.

 

Already, we were practiced in making the whole forest rise and fall with light. It didn’t occur to us the woods could be dangerous. We could control it. It didn’t occur to us until we saw him.

 

And then, it went like this:

 

We all saw him, a man behind the trees. Bug was right, only it turned out, he wasn’t a man at all. He dodged from tree to tree and it was so dark and mixed up I’d started to feel that sense of everything blurring together again, as if he was just another trunk in the distance. Jin and I held hands and hers began to tremble. For the first time since the firefly grew under my tongue, I felt a loss of control.

 

When the man came near us, we floated, the wings in our mouths at our sides. The man, winged too, approached us in the darkness. Though we couldn’t speak, we understood his desire to be with us. He fluttered closer, hesitantly. It was then that we swooped in together, and though we refused his desire, we still ate him alive. It happened so fast and effortlessly, he didn’t make a sound.

 

After we finished our meal, we returned to the ground. Ladybugs landed on our arms, and with the ladybugs emerged Bug. He wiped his eyes as if he’d been sleeping the whole time.

 

That summer we watched movies about monsters of the past. Human monsters. Werewolves, Frankenstein, vampires. If the world was to be new, we would be its monsters.

 

The fireflies left us, but we all wondered if they would return next summer or full moon. We had this feeling that we knew they would, we just had yet to know when, to know how. Some nights on the trampoline jumping, we swore we rose so high we could see beyond the trees and straight into the clouds. My mom was so happy to have Bug home she became more and more like a mom mom, the kind who hangs sheets on the clotheslines. Bug and I helped her, and then we made hot dogs together with crushed potato chips in the buns, even though my hunger had lessened significantly since our feast in the woods. Bug often asked me what happened exactly and I told him I’m not sure, though I still remember it all perfectly clear.

And one last thing:

 

If the earth is dying like the teachers tell us, we would hold each other even in the hottest summers. It’s almost like we want to be here, I told Bug as he named the colors he saw, as we walked the gravel around the quarry’s deep void and the gutted cars empty and forever asleep, sweating and together, just like this.

 

Gail Aronson is a fiction editor for Omnidawn Publishing, and her work has recently appeared in The Adroit Journal, The Offing, Midwestern Gothic, Gigantic Sequins, and elsewhere. She lives and works in Pittsburgh.

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