One summer night on the family farm, in 1975, a lightning bug followed us inside. My mother switched off the overhead light so my two brothers and I could see the firefly better. Mesmerized, we crouched to watch the insect walk across the brown carpet as the tip of its body blinked a random sequence. Exhausted, it strained and curled from the effort.
Mother asked, “Should we put her outside?”
“No,” we answered. We wanted to keep it.
“I bet she misses her family. They’ve no idea where she’s gone.”
After rummaging through her purse, my mother produced a Kleenex, shook it, then knelt to press it flat against the rug. The firefly hesitated before crawling across the white surface. My mother lifted it with both hands until the beetle, as if riding a magic carpet, rose above my head.
I looked up and the tissue glowed like a paper lantern. Mother’s eyes reflected a tiny dot of beetle light. Then my mother turned toward the door, stepped outside and waved the Kleenex in surrender. The insect took to the sky and flew into the welcome embrace of a flickering congregation.
For several nights afterward my brothers and I looked for our lightning bug, convinced it outshone all the others.
After my family moved to the city, I never saw another firefly. They became extinct for all I knew – mythical. After graduation, I took a marketing job with a telecommunications firm and began an intense career. At forty-seven, still single and feeling unrooted, I adopted a fawn- colored greyhound, a rescue, named, Dylan.
Dylan’s alert eyes followed anything that moved. Outside, he stalked every squirrel, rabbit or wandering cat, but humans interested him most. He’d spot them before they entered the park, then pull on his leash until he was within sniffing range. After processing their scent, he expected to be petted.That’s how I met Jillian, a divorced woman devastated by the recent loss of her Great Dane. She lived two blocks over and may have been more interested in Dylan than me. Jillian and I married within a year.
The greyhound often stared at things I couldn’t see, not even when I pressed one knee to the ground and surveyed the park from his level.
“What is it?” I’d ask, wondering whether rustling leaves caught his attention. Or was he trying to spot the cardinal whose lyrical song made his ears spike higher?
Jillian believed those bright red birds embodied the spirit of her father.
“Any time I see a cardinal, I know Dad’s checking up on me.” She embraced the supernatural and convinced me greyhounds could see ghosts.
“Their hearts are larger,” she said, “their senses a hundred times stronger, and they have no filters telling them to dismiss the irrational.”
I recalled her words each time Dylan’s ears perked up and his big, round eyes traced invisible movement across the living room. He’d rise and follow the unseen being to the bedroom and stand there, staring at nothing.
“See? Dylan loves all people, living or dead,” my wife explained. “He’s as loyal to spirits as he is to you and me.”
My wife never feared the apparitions Dylan befriended. “Ghosts need something from us,” she used to say. “They live on energy left behind by love.”
Later, she said I was too consumed with my job to pay her any attention. I applied for early retirement, but we separated before it took effect.
On a recent late evening in July, I took Dylan for a walk through the park and noticed a mysterious light, twinkling like a star, as if the beam of a faraway porch light glistened on a wet leaf, swaying in the breeze. A second spark followed. Another flash appeared on my left, then one on the right. Then four microscopic lamps appeared at once, dead ahead but at different distances, like a string of blinking Christmas lights.
“They’re fireflies, Dylan. Lightning bugs. Don’t you see?” I jiggled Dylan’s leash but he continued sniffing the ground. “You’re missing the show, buddy.”
A trace of blue lingered in the sky, puffy clouds floated overhead, but it was darker beneath the canopy of leaves, where glowing insects were more abundant. Still, under Jillian’s influence, I was ready to believe anything about the flashing spectacle: fairies, angels, Morse code from the gods, or prayers from the dead, but Dylan remained oblivious and continued sniffing tree trunks.
The dog’s head lifted and his tags jangled when he turned toward a distant light, hovering above the ground. Larger and slower than the other minuscule lamps, its brightness flickered like a television screen. It bounced and tottered in our direction. I wondered if there was such a thing as a Queen Firefly.
“What is it, Dylan?”
He soon lost interest and lowered his nose to the ground. He’d have approached a phantom but I couldn’t shake the idea of a floating spirit. The haunting radiance edged closer. Perhaps Jillian’s father, having traded the cardinal’s red feathery form for an ominous light, had come to ask why I’d disappointed his daughter.
The ghost hovered above the park’s lone path. As it drew nearer, a dark shape formed behind the mysterious glow. Breath escaped my lungs. I swallowed and swore I’d change – then I recognized some kid holding a smartphone.
I should have identified the light sooner, having spent the last two decades helping make cellphones as common as fingernails.
Lightning bugs continued flashing as the boy walked past without raising his head. I felt sorry for him, wandering alone, staring at his tiny screen. The device linked him to a digital galaxy but disconnected him from the surrounding magic.
Dylan, who never ignored anyone, dismissed the cellphone bearer as neither dead nor living. I said, “Good boy,” to the dog, then found myself hoping the kid had witnessed fireflies as a child.
I prayed he’d see them again one day.
Dave Gregory is a Canadian writer who worked on cruise ships and sailed the world for nearly two decades. He is an associate editor with the Los Angeles-based Exposition Review. His work has most recently appeared in After the Pause, Pulp Literature, & Bandit Fiction.