Henry and Laura collapsed on the nearest boulder. They were panting and baked in the day’s sweat. Their lungs burned with a day of running and climbing and laughing. They kept a six pack of cream sodas cool in the stream. They hadn’t noticed the vast network of branches gradually swallow the sun. When these last streaks of misty pink light gave way to a blanket of inky blue they settled on the boulder. They exchanged nervous small talk as he passed Laura a wet can.
“You think anyone else is still out here?” Henry sipped, arching his head to the sky. He tried to accentuate his adam’s apple. “Not at this hour, I think we have the woods to ourselves. I bet all those hikers and dog walkers are back in the warm now, watching TV.” Laura laughed, although nothing was funny. “Yeah. I bet.” Laura gasped.
Suspended in the black thicket of flora and shadow, a faint green light flickered gradually in and out of existence. Laura pointed and Henry gasped too. Then another briefly illuminated the nearby branches and shrubs. Then another. They faintly advertised their location before fading and reappearing a few metres away. Soon they were everywhere. Faint glimmers that danced in the periphery of every direction. Their silent shared awe had replaced the trivial conversation. It was as though the trees where echoing the stars and they sat cradled in the centre of the cosmos. The nearby stream reflected the darting embers and cast a shimmering reply. It was firefly mating season and Henry and Laura had found themselves in the heart of nature’s sweetest ritual. Henry felt Laura shimmying conspicuously closer. His heart accelerated with every unspoken inch.He felt the approaching warmth, he smelled the sugar on her breath. Then she faced him. Her big brown eyes mirrored the phosphorescent forest. He watched the precious moment dissipate. It was the last day of summer and they’d both have waiting mothers to answer to. Then Laura craned her head and made the decision for him. There in the centre of the cosmos they shared their first kiss. It tasted like cream soda.
“You know you tell me that story at least once a month.” Simon said. Henry was yanked away from the tender memory and addressed his brother. “So what?” “It’s been years. Years and years. I see you pass her in the hall every day and say what? Diddly squat.” “Something might happen. I bet she remembers too.” “Maybe. But she’s been going with Bill for a while now. You better not let him hear you tell that story.” Henry scratched the back of his neck and pretended to read the yellowed pages of his chemistry set. “Yeah, I know.” “God, I hope I kiss more girls than you when I’m older.” Simon said. “You know how you know when you’ve peaked?” Henry looked up and waited for the answer. “You tell the same story over and over.” Henry grabbed the closest thing to hand, a miniature plastic Yoda and threw it at his brother’s head. Simon reached down from the side of his bed. “Oh, Dad said to show you this. Guess he thought a dweeb like you would enjoy it.”
He tossed the newspaper and Henry caught it. The sheets scrunched loudly in his fist.
A corner was folded on one of the pages. The article was titled Gene Splicing: Shock Docs Play God. Henry looked up from the paper and watched his brother’s sea monkeys darting in their tank. Housed in a plastic astronaut, the microscopic creatures swam the extremities. He idly scratched his chin and watched them fill the helmet, the boots, the gloves.
Henry and Simon sat cramped together with their parents. Henry tugged the bottom of his gown from under Simon’s feet and showed him the incriminating muddy prints. “Well done, dick head. I might lose my deposit now.” Their Dad leaned forward to see the commotion. His belly folded and hid his belt.
“Your deposit?” “Boys!” Mrs.Beecher thwacked the back of Henry’s head with a rolled up prospectus. “Can’t we go now? He’s got his little scroll, can’t we just go home? We don’t even know this lot.”
“Just shut up.” She said. Another name was called. Another graduate got their scroll and bowed to the indifferent sea of parents. A wave of weary applause followed. Laura’s name was called and Henry heard it louder than all the others. An effervescent sensation plumed in his chest. It felt like queueing for a rollercoaster. His polite smile followed every gracious step. He tasted cream soda. He clapped along with everyone else in case she looked his way. She never did. He could feel Simon smirking up at him and for the twelfth time that day wanted to kill him. He watched her return to her seat next to Bill and their parents.
At the end of the ceremony graduates and parents stood gathered in the field. Clusters of gowns hugged or laughed or cried. Henry had only his family for company. His dad shook his hand. “Well done, son.”
“Yeah, well done, numb nuts.” Mrs. Beecher clipped Simon around the ear before grasping Henry’s shoulders. Tears began to pool in her eyes. “I can’t believe it.” “Mum.” “All grown up.” “Not really.” “Yes, really. My baby’s grown up and he’s leaving us.” “I’ll be back before you know it. The first term’s only -” “Oh, shut up.” She pulled him clumsily towards her and squeezed. “Mum -” “Shut up. We’re so proud.” Over his mother’s bobbing head he watched Bill shaking hands with Laura’s father. It was the kind of intrinsically grown up moment that reeked of permanence. “So proud.” She said.
Tinny music hissed out of his earbuds. Henry was lit only by the glow of his laptop. The small desk was littered with papers, journals, books. It had been an unremarkable few years. The only time he spent with his peers was in lecture halls or the library. He missed sharing a room with Simon, as hard as that was to believe. He missed having someone to confide in at any given hour, someone to swap stories or jokes or insults with. Now he only told the crystallised story of the woods to himself, the infinite tiny details compressed into something more like a feeling than a memory.
His isolated years had not been wasted. He had impressed more than one lecturer. They’d commented on his bright future, they had friends he just had to meet. Here in the cluttered room he watched the blinking cursor and begged for inspiration. It lingered after the title of his dissertation. Unnatural Selection: The potential for gene splicing to accelerate evolution. He’d just finished the section on ethics. He hated the title.
Henry leaned back in his chair and scanned his room for an answer. The glass jars filled with bugs. The fish tank writhing with sea monkeys. The various vats and beakers. Petri dishes filled with enzymes and moulds. His housemates had discussed him in hushed tones. They were concerned by the mix of glass tubes and stoic isolation. When Henry had come home with a box full of syringes they called the landlord. When he arrived to confront Henry he took one look at the room and decided to leave him to it.
Henry closed the document. He opened new tabs next to the twenty seven open peer reviewed articles and opened up the socials. Simon was online. He could hardly recognise his brother in the little circular image. He was wearing Henry’s old clothes and they looked inexplicably cooler. He’d shot up and filled out. He was laughing surrounded by friends Henry had never met. He went to message him when he saw that Simon had left him on read. He closed the chat and idly scrolled. Then Laura slid into view. Her fingers. A close up of the back of her hand. The diamond ring. Underneath she’d written “I said yes!”
Henry tortured himself with the photo album. Her kissing Bill in profile on a bridge in Paris. Bill’s shirt tucked in, scarcely containing his torso. The two of them stood side by side, her slender fingers outstretched displaying the ring again. Henry closed the laptop and looked around his room. He felt numb. When he stood he felt dizzy. He hurried all his equipment into his bag. Something faintly glowed through the hastily assembled pile.
The suitcases from Paris were still next to the door when she signed for it. Her name was handwritten, no return address. Bill was visiting his parents. Assuming it was an engagement gift she eagerly tore away at the card. A blinking glow emitted through the gaps. As she pulled the jar out from the frayed box she screamed and nearly dropped it. Inside were dozens of fireflies, and the dark living room throbbed in the flickering light. She placed them on the coffee table and watched them appear and disappear. She smiled and indulged in the little sparks, throbbing in different rhythms. A dormant memory glimmered. She tasted cream soda and wasn’t sure why. She returned to the box and pulled out a large folded sheet. She unwrapped it until it covered the table. It was a map of the town. In the upper right corner was a post-it note. Scrawled words read: Laura. 7 o’clock, Saturday. Underneath was a circle drawn in black ink around the centre of the woods. She’d kept the map hidden from Bill, but when an ominous green radiated from her closet he climbed out of bed and found its source. When Laura couldn’t give an answer he’d liked he tossed the jar out of the window. Like a phosphorous grenade the lights exploded from the shattered glass and spread into the street.
Simon isn’t sure if he’s dreaming. He’s sprawled in bed, the ashy, earthy taste of weed soaked into his tongue. He’d enjoyed having the room to himself these last few years. He’d pulled Henry’s old single bed over and made a makeshift double. He’d sporadically shared it with girls he’d snuck past his parents. He’s spent the last ten minutes motionless, watching a faint radiant green permeate the curtains. His tired brain is conjuring loose possibilities. It’s the flashing lights of a police car, filtered through the leaves of a tree. Walkie talkies are confirming the smell drifting from his window. It’s a low flying UFO looking for an abductee. They’re just waiting for the first person stupid enough to crawl out of bed and open the curtains. He’s tiptoeing across the floor. He’s trying to remember which floorboards have creaked and betrayed him before. He crouches down as he peels back an inch of fabric. He’s sure he can see something in the front garden.
A slender tree, flashing in faint neon. Its narrow branches outstretched. He’s sure it’s floating. He crawls back into bed and giggles through the hollow dread knotted through his muscles.
Mrs. Beecher was at the stove, frying bacon. Her husband sat with a newspaper at the kitchen table, his toes traced the cracks in the tiles as he read. Simon made his way down the stairs, his hair a wild, tangled mass. “Sleep alright, Si?” She didn’t turn from the stove.
Simon took a seat next to his father. “Yeah, not bad. I think I had a dream about a Christmas tree.” His parents exchanged a stern look. They wouldn’t speak of the man that had crawled into their bed weeping last night. The glittering shape that burned their eyes.
He was disappointed at how much smaller it all seemed. It hadn’t taken long to map the interlocking paths and trails that snaked through the trees and around the stream. In the short time since Henry had last played there and dragged his bike over tangled roots, someone had built and abandoned a small cabin. Henry set up his equipment in the modest living room. He placed the various jars and petri dishes across the mantel. He retrieved the syringes from his bag and lay them out on the coffee table. Little cinders bobbed in the fluid, flashing at different intervals like a coiled chain of fairy lights.
He wouldn’t miss his flatmates but he would miss the lab. He’d spent most of free his time there, surrounded by eggs and larva. He’d bring specimens from the tank in his room. The first year was selective breeding. The short lifespan was a gift. Each cycle he’d learned and experimented. Each generation was smaller. Then it was splicing. He isolated the desired traits from both the fireflies and the brine shrimp. Eventually he’d cracked the formula. His babies could not just survive but thrive underwater. Their lifespan had been extended. The last batch lasted almost a year. He lined up the syringes on the table. In the darkness of the cabin they looked like a row of glow sticks. His sodden eyes reflected the pattern.
Laura made her excuses. She told Bill she was going out with the girls. She sat in front of the mirror and applied blue eyeshadow. She had already misted her collarbone and wrists with the perfume from the airport in Paris. Bill leaned in the doorway and watched her.
“I don’t know why you have to get all dressed up like that.” She watched her reflection apply the lipstick and pout. “Because it’s nice.” “So what if it’s nice? You don’t see me getting all dressed up to meet Nick or Ronnie, do you?” “Well if you wanted to that’d be fine.” She said. “God, does Ronnie even own a suit? I can’t wait to see that.”
“He had that court thing, remember? I think he wore a suit anyway.” “Well tell the boys they’re not coming to my wedding without a suit.” Bill tutted and shook his head. “Your wedding isn’t it? That’s how you see it.” He said. “And I’m just lucky enough to see it.” She turned.
“Bill!” “Oh, and pay for it. Let’s not forget about that.” She shoved the lipstick in her bag. It landed in a fold of the map. “Is this what I have to look forward to? What is with you lately?” “Me? What’s with me? You hate this town and all of a sudden you can’t wait to see your girls? It’s not me keeping bugs in the damn house.”
“I told you, I saw them in the yard and I thought it would be a nice thing to do.” “Oh, yeah. That’s right, you thought it would be nice to shove them in the closet.” She sighed and returned to the mirror. Bill lumbered back to the TV. He nursed a beer in the white flashing glow as she slammed the door.
Henry checked his watch. Not long now. He watched the boulder from across the stream. If she followed the map he would see her first. He’d used one of the syringes an hour before. He was used to the constant itch. The newest batch darted inside and followed the natural current. He placed his binoculars on the ground and began to undress.
Laura clambered through the woods, wishing she’d picked shoes for comfort over glamour. Though this would’ve only flared Bill’s suspicions further. She used her phone as a torch and maneuvered around overgrown roots and fallen trees. It had been years since she’d walked these paths as a girl. Even in the dark she felt a strange nostalgia, knowing this wasn’t the first time she’d navigated the messy labyrinth. A tiny flare sailed lazily past her and a wave of memory flooded back. There was a sugary taste on her tongue. There was a boy. The smell of a childhood summer. Her heart raced as the warm pieces came back. More sparks of gold and green emerged from the trees. Their precious signal beckoned her into the heart of the forest. She couldn’t fight her smile as she climbed. In the breathing network of light the flickering silhouette of a boulder simmered. The boy’s name was Henry.
Henry hesitated. The time had come to show her his work. The binoculars trembled in his hand. The wind scolded his naked skin. He heard the the weakness in his voice. “Laura.” The wet soil formed ridges between his toes as he stepped. She squinted through the darkness as he waded through the stream. The fireflies illuminated his billowing reflection.
Laura felt her body clench up as she heard her name. Somewhere from the darkness a man had called to her. She could hear the little lapping waves approaching but couldn’t see anyone. Just the darting cloud of beacons. “Hello?” She peered into the darkness. A strange formation was circling amongst them. They moved in complex repeating patterns. They almost took the shape of a tree. Then it spoke. “Laura. I can’t believe you came. It’s me. Do...do you remember when we were last here?” The splashing stumbled closer. “Where are you?” “Do you know how many times we’ve been here in my head?” The flickering lights pulsed in the shape of lips. Then she comprehended the shape before her. It wasn’t the shape of a tree. They weren’t branches. They were veins. The glimmers gushed around the the arteries. They shone through the muscles in his face. They sprinted to the tips of his fingers and rounded corners in his feet. They filled the blood capillaries in his eyes. His heart rate soared at the sight of her and sent the quivering insects faster on their circuit. Flashes carved his anxious expression into the dark. “Laura, it’s me.” Shallow breaths caught in her throat. She watched the green outline of his brain bleed through the skin. The pumping heart flashed, floating amongst the trees. She wretched as the eyes widened. The narrow pathways in the eyelids squirmed apart. “Do...do you like it?”
In a numb gesture of disbelief she reached out. She wanted to touch the gruesome hallucination before she could process it. She felt the skin she couldn’t see. She saw the blinking glow light up her nails. Her hand slid over his chest.
Henry savoured the moment. It was the culmination of all his decisions since they were last here. That Christmas he asked his parents for a chemistry set. Through flickering eyes he watched her hand on his chest. The fleeting sensation so undeniably real that it dwarfed the years that preceded it. His heart beat faster. The blinking circuitry whirred with more urgency. She pulled her hand away and gasped. She looked through him. He felt the blood surge south. It was the nerves. It was seeing her. It was her hand.
Laura recoiled as the twinkling lights rushed to his groin. The other parts grew dimmer. The sporadic flashes thinned out. Throbbing veins pulsed in a violent light show. Faced with a glowing erection she finally found the buried reserve to scream. She threw her bag at the neon arteries and fled.
Word travelled fast. A glowing penis monster had attacked Laura. Half the town had heard how she screamed all the way from the woods to Oak Street. Bill was going door to door and lugging a baseball bat over his shoulder. A trail of men followed and waited on the pavement as he explained to each household. Then the trail grew bigger. They carried wrenches and crow bars. They murmured and shouted as they walked. Each step anchored with purpose. They would slay a monster tonight. Teenagers heard the rumours and followed the crowd, hoping for a glimpse of something evil. Simon and his friends walked their bikes behind the mob.
The forest felt emptier than before. The sun bleached memories faded into the present. The black landscape revealed it’s harsh form. The sharp barbs and knotted branches. The unrelenting cold. All the muck soaked litter and cragged edges. Henry lit all the grim details as he paced by the boulder. He could see the grim reality of the creatures now. The legs that scuttled and made your skin crawl. The grotesque interlocking pieces of the thorax. He watched them course the arteries in his hand. Then he noticed other lights approaching. Harsh white squares bobbed through the trees. The thick mass of voices converged into a deep rumble. The harsh glare of a flashlight bobbed around the boulder and robbed the flies of their glow. Before he could run the light focused on Henry’s naked body.
Everyone in the crowd gradually saw it. The pool of light. The floating circuitry flickering at its edges. Bill stepped forward and his fingers fidgeted around the handle of the bat. “Beecher?” Henry shivered and sent the glow into a frantic warble.
Simon watched from the back of the crowd as his friends shot smirks to one another. Bill lumbered forward and swung the bat. It whipped across Henry’s face and the metallic ringing sound spread through the forest. As Henry fell a burst of radiant blood lingered. The flickering green cloud hovered as if draped from the branches before dispersing. Bill loomed over him, the blood spreading behind his head like a halo. He arched back and began swinging. He screamed with every exertion. “You. Stay. Away. From. My. God. Damn. Wife.” The shocked crowd watched the series of bursts float up into the branches and smear on the bat. “Freak. God. Damn. Freak.” The bat dangled from his hand as he turned to the crowd. “What the hell are you looking at? Help.” The crowd didn’t budge. Errant coughs and whispers flittered through the trees. They silently agreed to a collective sympathy for the strangely beautiful creature that crawled through the mud. He coughed up smatterings of light. Neon streaks smeared from his nostrils and marked his teeth. They’d grown up with Henry. They taught him. Worked with his father. Attended his mother’s tupperware parties. They shared a room with him and heard the story of Laura and the fireflies a thousand times. They turned their backs and began the hike home.
“What, are you scared of him? He’s down. Look at him. He’s pathetic.” Bill waved his bat at the receding town. “This creep attacked Laura, don’t you care?” The bat fell on the ground with a dull thud as Bill fell to his knees. Henry dragged his aching body through the leaves.
It wasn’t until she started school that Anya noticed her mother’s strange ritual. Every Friday she would come home from work and shower. She would meticulously style her hair in to loose, flowing curls. She wore the perfume that smelt unfamiliar and wrong. She’d smile into the mirror as she applied her lipstick. Then she’d slink into the sparkly cocktail dress and lace up the hiking boots. Her parents never exchanged a word as she placed her wedding ring on the mantel and left. Every Saturday morning she returned giddy and radiant. She sang as she cooked everyone breakfast.
Anya didn’t know the miraculous handful of moonlit hours that happened in between. She didn’t know how her mother bounded over fallen trees and through the stream. She didn’t know that Henry set up the generator and speakers next to the boulder. She didn’t know how the flickering lights pulsed through her mothers hands when they danced. How they would cradle each other on a boulder drenched in history. Of all the fanciful scenarios Anya imagined, not once did she picture her mother naked in the mud with the glowing man holding hands, and every time her mother says: It’s like making love to the stars.