A handful of fireflies were gathered at the square window in the front door. He watched one pull away before flying back toward, and into, the glass.
Tic, tac, tic.
The bug, lightly tapping before settling back down.
A few more fireflies joined, clustering around one another – each glowing an ethereal green. Ghost lights squirming against the black.
Nate was surprised. He didn’t remember fireflies being out this late in the season. Summer had just ended. But it was still hot out.
Maybe their season had changed – climate change had gone and borked everything up, hadn’t it? The seasons weren’t really the seasons anymore.
He took a few steps closer until he was right at the door. This close, the firefly glow illuminated the actual insects themselves – their little long bodies crawling this way and that.
Nate put a finger on this side of the glass. He wasn’t sure why he did it, but something compelled him to. Pressing his finger pad against the window, he watched as they began to line up – No. And slowly spiral around it in a winding carousel of glowing insects.
Around and around they went. Some would take momentary flight, as if trying to escape the vortex of their brethren – but then they’d settle right back down in line, orbiting the tip of Nate’s finger pressed on the other side of the door.
Ants and deer and maggots.
And now, lightning bugs.
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He snatched up the pistol inside – an old Browning Hi-Power 9mm – and snapped the magazine into the underside of the grip before he hurried downstairs again on the balls of his feet.
Nate eased open the front door, pistol in hand.
He walked out onto the cracked stone steps.
The figure was still there.
As if waiting for him.
Just a deer. Just a deer.
He scanned the margins of the yard, looking for antlers, or for the rest of the animal to manifest – four legs, not two, maybe the flash of a tail – but he found no such thing. He swallowed hard and called out: “Hey!”
A moment passed.
Then the figure turned to run.
Nate’s heart was fast out of the gate, urging him to move, move, move – so he bounded across the leaf-strewn lawn, snapping back the action of the pistol. He saw the shadow crashing through the trees, deeper into the woods, and he, in bare feet, followed. Nate leapt down off a shelf of earth, tearing through a tangle of dry thorn.
His eyes adjusted as he strode the paths of moonlight, chasing after the presence, who loped ahead of him in long-limbed strides.
Branches cut across Nate’s cheeks and forehead. He nearly stumbled across a leaf-covered ditch between trees – a place where a log once lay, but was now rotted into mulch. Pain tweaked through his ankle, up his calf, but he kept going.
It occurred to him: We’re heading toward the park. Toward Ramble Rocks. Toward the place in his dream.
Suddenly he was crashing through a tree line, and onto soft grass. Ahead, in a shaft of moonlight, stood a man. As if trapped there, pinned by the spear of light.
The figure was scarecrow tall and prisoner thin. A long, raggedy rat’s nest beard hung down his bare chest. A pouch of belly hung over the hem of his rotten jeans, and Nate saw sores marking the man’s skin – sores like little bite marks, like welts.
Nate skidded to a halt, and brought the gun up, pointing it at him.
“You. Who are you. You were outside my house—”
It was then he saw the stranger’s face. It was crawling.
Something moved over it, black dots, squirming in the light. Shiny and twitching. Twitch, twitch.
He heard the fly-wing buzz – flies, he realized. Horseflies, maybe, or deer flies. Then they lit up in a ghoulish glow: fireflies.
“Who. Are. You.”
The man’s mouth opened wide, too wide, showing a set of bony teeth and a pale, wriggling tongue. Then the mouth kept going, crack, crackle, snap – and it suddenly cracked hard as if something inside had broken, though the skin had not, leaving the jaw hanging there loose in the thatch of beard like a broken porch swing. The man began to keen, a long, mournful wail – and then all the world lit up, lights blinding out the darkness, a silent thunderclap of air slamming Nate in the chest. The light ripped through the stranger, washing it all out, erasing him.
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Illustration: Alexandra Francis for Penguin