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First Place Short Story - "Fireworks," by T.M. Spooner

by T.M. Spooner

With dusk settling, the day nearly extinguished beyond the horizon, the boy hustled to the barn. He breathed deeply through the violet haze, through the slim tail of day fading into night. Gazing off to the North, across the cornfield, he was concerned they had waited too long and would miss the fireworks. He threw the latch on the barn door and inside, stacked beside a compost bin, were the aluminum lawn chairs. When his grandparents emerged from the farmhouse, they all started along the two-track at the edge of the prairie. A rusty barbed wire fence guided them on the far side of the trail. On the path, lined with skinny trees, purple thistle, and the sour scent of black walnuts, the boy’s grandparents walked ahead. The boy trudged behind them, dragging the lawn chairs, leaving peculiar scribbles in the dirt. 

The destination was a little clearing at the edge of the cornfield where they could see the fireworks launched from a nearby town. About two miles as the crow flies, the boy’s grandfather always said. In the open, the boy assembled the chairs while his grandmother retrieved mosquito repellent from her apron. 

“Over here,” she called to the boy. “You need to get sprayed.” 

After a brief protest, he stood stiffly before her, shutting his eyes tightly. One hand at his side and the other pinching his nose snuggly between thumb and forefinger. She sprayed generously. The coolness of the mist on his arms and bare legs made him shiver. He felt damp and slick like he had the afternoon before while darting through the spray of the garden hose. He had sprinted through the mist and then circled back, wheeling with outstretched arms within the mysterious lawn rainbows.

His grandfather eased back in the nylon webbing while his grandmother smoothed her well-worn apron before taking her seat. She had brought a Ball canning jar. With a jackknife his grandfather punctured small holes into the tin top. From each hole a puff of air escaped with a foosh. As it grew dark, the lightning bugs began to light. The boy chased, snatching them as they lit. Like jewels they illumined against the trees and darkening sky. 

“If you get enough, we’ll have a lantern for the walk home,” his grandmother said, encouraging him. 

The boy worked hard for several more minutes, snatching tens of lightning bugs from the warm summer night. Before long the surrounding trees began to fuse with the darkness, like they had been stitched to the night canvas. Everything nearby grew murky, and the boy strained to see the grandparents that he thought he knew. He could no longer make out the purple lilac print on his grandmother’s apron. The unruly gray and white hairs poking out from the top of his grandfather’s white V-neck T-shirt were no longer visible. Through the darkness neither of them looked the same and he wondered if he looked different too. He began to contemplate the sky and the growing darkness. The moon was high and distant and beyond that he knew was our solar system, and further still an endless universe. His world was shrinking. He had more questions than he could think of coherently, so much darkness and unknowing and all the familiar things growing foreign and strange. Eventually he settled on one concrete question. 

“Does the dark come from the ground or from the sky?” 

“What makes you wonder, boy?” his grandfather asked. 

“It seems darker down here than up there in the sky. Maybe the dark comes from the ground and works its way up.” 

“Well, it comes from both. At the same time,” his grandmother said. 

“Then how come it’s darker down here than way up in the sky?” 

“It’s all about trajectory, boy. As the earth rotates the sun can’t reach us anymore. Over in China someplace it’s just starting to get light. They’re over there waking, rubbing their eyes, and scratching their butts and all the other things people do when they wake up.” 

The boy giggled. 

“I don’t scratch my butt.” 

“Well, I do,” his grandfather said. “And those people on the other side of the world do too.” 

“They’re a bunch of butt scratchers over there,” the boy added, still giggling. 

“Yep, but we’re no different.”   

For a moment, the boy was quiet, inspecting the jar and his lightning bug harvest. 

“So, it gets light, and they all start scratching?” the boy asked. 

“Like homeless gophers in the dirt.” 

All three gazed the skies for any sign of the fireworks. They continued to peer north, over the trees, just rocky shadows low in the sky. 

“How big is the moon, Papa?” 

“It’s bigger than a breadbasket. Now eyes on the skies, boy.” 

With that, the first scattering of green and pink hung in the sky like long-stemmed daisies. The sky magically smeared with color. They were too far away to hear any of the whistles and crackles or smell the sulfuric smoke drifting through the summer air, or any other consequences of human doings. Those things had to be imagined. 

Walking home the boy led the way, the deficient lightning bug lantern held out before him. Its contents stirred by his dutiful shaking. The moon cast just enough light to ensure a safe return to the farmhouse. When they reached the front porch, his grandmother asked the boy to release the fireflies. He unscrewed the lid and set the opened jar on the porch steps. Nearby, a moth batted itself senseless against the porch light. His grandparents went inside, and eventually the boy did too, but for a little while he sat beside the jar counting the insects as they set off for freedom. His eyes followed the last firefly until it beamed like a star one last time before disappearing into the night sky. He imagined its journey, higher than a crow flies, higher than the moon, off to another world he could only begin to imagine.    

T. M. Spooner is the author of the novels The Salvation of La Purisima and Notes from Exile. His short fiction has appeared in Brilliant Flash Fiction, The Almagre Review, and The Vignette Review. Critical essays have appeared in Studies in American Naturalism and Hispanic Journal. Spooner earned an M.A. in English Literature from Northern Arizona University and a B.S. in economics from Northern Illinois University.