Joey woke up crying in his new bedroom. It was the first night in the new house, and his nightmares were worse than ever. Even worse, the nightlight went out. In the near blackness, the layout of the dark basement room was daunting and unfamiliar. He could just make out the outlines of cardboard moving boxes piled in the middle of the floor in a squat, misshapen tower. The walls and ceiling of the room were obscured in an impenetrable umbra, creating an illusion of infinite space.
In his dream, something had been chasing Joey through an overgrown forest. It was right behind him as he fled, so close he could smell the primal stink of it. The roots and branches of the surrounding trees ripped and tore at his clothes, slowing him down until the beast was right on top of him. He’d awoken just as he felt himself grabbed up into the creature’s sharp talons.
The dream was over, but his heart kept pounding inside his frail, bird-like ribcage. His imagination populated the shadows in the room with monsters that seemed to have followed him from the forest of nightmares and into the waking world. He could almost sense them, hiding behind his boxed-up toys and winter clothes. Waiting under his bed. The air was thick with the same putrid foulness as his dreams.
“Mommy!” he called into the darkness. He cried as quietly as he could while he listened for her voice, but the only thing he heard was the creaking of the house, a sound which still scared him even after Daddy had explained that new buildings need to settle under their weight.
“Mommy?” he called again, softer this time. He listened for her footsteps upstairs, but none came. She and Daddy were very tired after the move, and cranky too. They had a lot to worry about. If he woke them up, they might get mad. He was supposed to be a big kid now, but he felt like a tiny morsel that might be gobbled up by slathering jaws at any moment.
The minutes ticked by. The house creaked again. Just settling. He thought about the weight of the structure above him and imagined it collapsing like a cave-in, burying him beneath a mountain of lumber and bricks. Impaling him with nails.
As the moments dragged out in silence, Joey worked up the courage to go find Mommy. Feeling brave enough, he bit his lip and swung his little legs over the edge of his bed. Despite his fearful certainty, nothing reached out to grab him as his pajama-padded feet hit the floor.
He made his way across the unlit bedroom, searching for the door. He swung his arms about, feeling for a wall, but instead knocking over a box of plastic instruments: toy guitars, electric drumsticks, and a three-button keyboard that came to life—all of them shrieking and squealing as they spilled out onto the floor, shaking and vibrating, whistling, beeping, and belting out shrill electric-guitar solos through their tinny speakers. Joey fell down and burned his knee on the carpet as dozens of LED lights strobed a seizure-inducing psychedelic display.
When the music and lights finally came to an end, the room went dark again, but a palinopsia of flashing lights continued to bounce around inside Joey’s skull. Blinding greens, smoldering yellows, and bleeding reds that didn’t go away when he shut his eyes.
It was too much for such a small child. He screamed for Mommy with loud sobs burping out of him, hitching in his throat and giving him hiccups, but she was too far away. She couldn’t hear him calling. He curled into a ball on the floor and cried until he was dry, deflating into an exhausted heap.
Time passed and the spots faded from his pupils. Soon he could see the outline of his bedroom window and into the yard outside. The sky was black and moonless. Above the treeline, constellations of stars danced in the air in circles and spirals.
A face appeared at the window.
Joey froze in fear and nearly wet himself before he realized the face belonged to Mommy. Stars were spinning around her head like a ghostly crown.
“Don’t cry, Joey,” she said. “Open the window and come outside. I want to show you something wonderful.”
Her voice was soothing and calm, so he went to the window and unlocked it. Mommy was standing amidst the bushes in their new backyard, her willowy silhouette borderless against a background of space and stars. He opened the windowpane and allowed himself to be gathered into her delicate embrace.
“Why are you outside?” he asked her, blinking away his tears.
“I’m chasing faerie lanterns,” she said. “Tonight is their big night!”
Joey saw that the circling stars were actually fireflies. Thousands of them. The sky itself was overcast with a thin mist, a drab off-black backdrop against which the luminous insects projected their pyrotechnic displays. He’d seen fireflies before, but never so many at once. They filled his vision, dancing through the air in chaotic swirls that made him dizzy.
Mommy set him down in a patch of dew-drenched clover and chickweed: early groundcover, already returning full and lush now that the construction was finished. Fireflies fluttered past his eyes. One landed on his cheek and crawled around for a few seconds before taking to the air again, lighting up bright green as it lifted off.
Joey watched the lightning bugs dance, following their friendly glow as they looped and dived. Mommy’s presence, combined with the cool Appalachian mountain air helped dispel the lingering remnants of his nightmare. His body relaxed and his eyelids drooped.
“Don’t fall asleep!” Mommy grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him so hard his teeth clacked together. “You haven’t seen a faerie lantern yet! Look for the little blue ghosts.”
The thought of ghosts terrified Joey, and he almost started crying again, but then one flitted past him. It lit up whitish-blue and flew low to the ground. It didn’t blink off-and-on like other fireflies; its tiny light burned steadily as it zig-zagged around his legs before zipping off across the yard and into the laurel bushes at the edge of the woods.
“I saw one!” His exhaustion and fear disappeared at the sight of it.
Mommy’s smile showed off too many teeth as she grabbed his hand. Her eyes glittered with the reflection of dancing lights. “Follow me,” she said. “I can take you to the secret place where they are born.”
Joey looked around in wondrous awe as Mommy led him further out into the backyard. The mountain air was pungent with the smells of a million flowers budding and fruiting—growing in the darkness. Frogs, crickets, and cicadas filled the night with their ribbets, chirps, and whirring. The sky and the earth seemed to teem with creatures. Ten thousand fireflies hovered above like distant city lights.
Mommy took him to the massive stump by the overlook—one of several trees Daddy removed to improve their view of the surrounding mountains. It resembled the neck of a decapitated giant. She caressed the still-fresh wound with a gnarled hand. A faerie lantern landed on the tip of her finger as she traced the rings of the fallen tree. Joey spotted a few more of the glimmering drifters, flying in lazy swoops around the roots of the stump. He reached out and tried to catch one, but Mommy yanked him by the arm, taking him further down the hill, through the laurel bushes and into the woods beyond.
“Just a little farther,” she said. “The night is awake and her creatures are singing.”
She pulled him down a path he’d never noticed before. He tried to keep up, but her long legs moved too fast. Several times he lost his footing. Thorny branches grabbed at his pajamas and ripped at his flesh as he was half-dragged, half-carried down the overgrown trail that twisted through the dense thicket of trees.
The faerie lanterns were so thick in the air that Joey could hear them buzzing. They illuminated the path with an ambient blue aura. He felt something crawling into his ear and he slapped at it, drawing back his hand to find six crushed bug legs amidst a gooey glowing smear. More of them landed on him, tickling him and making him itch. He looked up at Mommy, but she wasn’t looking at him as she led him deeper into the woods. He tried to pull away, but she wouldn’t let go of his hand.
“I want to go home,” he said. Not the house, he thought. Home. Back to the city where the stars don’t shine and the bugs don’t either. But if Mommy heard him, she paid him no mind. He hung his head and started crying again. Tears dripped from his eyes, and each droplet turned blue in mid-air as they caught the light of the faerie lanterns before hitting the ground.
Mommy dragged him through the fulgurating cloud of insects, into a rocky creek bed, through little trickles of water that met with bigger trickles of water and finally ended at a large, circular pool that shimmered with eerie bioluminescence—a sickly light shining from the depths of a well. Joey saw his reflection in the vitreous water. He was soaked and muddy, bleeding from hundreds of tiny cuts. Faerie lanterns were crawling in his hair, on his face, and in and out of his pajamas. The tiny blue fireflies covered the surface of the pond like moths drawn to a porchlight. Thousands of blue ghosts drowning, sinking down; their faint little lamps joining the incandescent luster that emanated from the bottom of the pond.
Mommy stepped into the water with Joey wrapped in her arms. Her toes created a multitude of ethereal halos as they broke the surface. He tried to pull away, but she held him tight. She squeezed his hand until his bones cracked from the pressure. He tried to scream, but his mouth was full of faerie lanterns. They were flying up his nose, crawling down his throat, and burrowing into his ears. Mommy’s fingers became knobby roots, growing into the flesh of his wrist and entangling his tendons. Her head bloomed like an exotic flower, and something like love budded in her eyes as she took another step into the pool and held him out over the now-radiant water. Her vine-like arms wrapped around him, twisting him up in a leafy cocoon. Fireflies crawled all over his body—clogging his nostrils, blinding his tear-filled eyes.
As she pushed him below the surface of the pond, Joey was surprised at how pleasant the water felt. For a moment, he was back in his old house in the city, and Mommy was giving him a bath. His fears faded as she held him down. Soon, he would be clean. Soon, he would sparkle.
A buzzing iridescence of faerie lanterns and water rushed into his lungs, filling him with warmth and acceptance. Inside his head, hundreds of little flashes were going off with a soft popping sound. He lit up like a fluorescent bulb as Mommy rooted him into the mud at the bottom. A bright blue beam shot up from the water, illuminating the woods with a flash.
Then the light scattered, and a million newborn faeries spread out across the sky in a phosphorescent swarm.