The boys stopped calling after their mother died. It was only Hope that kept up the tradition, sitting down with a cup of coffee and dialing her childhood phone number as she watched steam curl above her mug. If her father was back from church and if it was a good day, he answered. Otherwise, she would listen to it ring and ring, picturing the pale, yellow handset in the kitchen. After the funeral he’d unplugged the answering machine. It remained on the counter until the visit when Hope tucked it into her suitcase. She hadn’t listened to the tape, yet, it was enough to know that it was there, the long-ago recording of her mother’s voice, the cheerful instructions to leave a message that ended with a door slam and her mother’s surprised “oh!” before it clicked over to the beep.
It was Michael, the dutiful eldest, who finally texted her. He hadn’t come to one of the kid’s birthdays, even though they had mailed an invitation, as usual. Hope was in Cincinnati for work and she didn’t respond right away, because when was the last time her father had picked up to tell her about the weather and wonder aloud about the science curriculum he no longer needed to plan?
There was an envelope waiting for her when she returned. Her name and address clearly there, if written by a shaking hand. Inside there was an article torn out of Smithsonian Magazine on the patterns of fireflies. Her father had underlined a sentence mid-way through. “Some researchers are trying to control the patterns.” Hope put the article on her fridge with a magnet and texted Michael, Heard from Dad. She didn’t mention he had neglected to include his usual note. Michael sent her back a thumbs-up emoji and she imagined that would be the last communication until the email about Thanksgiving.
Still, she called, first from New York City and then from London. Berlin, London again, and then from Los Angeles. Sometimes, with the time differences, she couldn’t be sure he was awake and she only let it ring a few times before she clicked off and returned to her laptop. At Christmas they tried to Skype her in but the connection was spotty. Sitting on a hotel bed she’d watched her father shuffle by once and though she called out his name he hadn’t heard, or hadn’t known to answer, and he’d returned to the chair in the corner as he absent-mindedly tapped his fingers against his knee and watched the kids tear through wrapping paper and boxes.
Her childhood house had once butted up against a wooded area with a creek, and her brothers liked to reminisce about their outdoor boyhoods, and the Scout badges their father helped them meet right out the back door. By the time she came along, a surprise and her mother’s last chance for delicate lace dresses and neatly pulled braids, the trees had been ripped up for a golf course and a condo development called Bubbling Brook. Hope could hear a group calling to each other and the thwack of clubs as she unlocked the door and went inside. Michael had been the one to drive their father to the memory-care facility, and he’d let him pack on his own. The suitcase had contained every worn sock from the top dresser drawer, one book on the solar system, and an empty glass jar. Hope would gather the rest.
It was late evening by the time she was done. She took the boxes out to the car and stood for a second considering the garage. The wooden door had expanded in the heat and stuck a bit, but she pushed it open with her shoulder. She searched for the light switch but when she found it nothing happened. Hope stood, letting her eyes adjust to the dark. Then, in the corner, a flash. It was brief, but it was quickly followed by more. The lights clustered together. Hope carefully moved forward towards the bits of lightening. Bursts of yellow and small darts of blue illuminated the darkness. She reached out and closed her fingers around a jar. The bugs bumped against the glass, blinking together in a pattern of dots and dashes. She picked up another. Another synchronous dance, a separate universe of light in her hand.
Out in the grass she sat down. It was still wet from the afternoon’s brief rain shower and it soaked into her jeans. The fireflies were moving against a nearly moonless night, the lingering clouds covering most of the sky. She watched the flashes blink and dart. It was slow, the realization of what she was seeing. Her phone created the only constant source of light as she copied the pattern into the text box. Blink blink. Dart dart blink blink… She watched the fireflies over and over until she was sure and then hit search.
.. — .. … … -.– — ..-
Even though Hope knew it was just an echo, that it wasn’t really him, she stayed on the ground until each firefly had flown off or found rest and stopped flashing, until each yellow blink and dart of blue faded into the summer air, just to stay a bit longer with him.
Margaret LaFleur lives, teaches, and writes in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her recent flash fiction has appeared in Montana Mouthful, Bright Flash Literary Review and elsewhere. See more at margaretlafleur.com or in 280 characters @margosita.