Winter Firefly · Cross Country Trail

That Time I Found a Star in My Backyard

by Isaiah Hunt

          I was sitting outside on the porch while Mama and her man bickered in the living room about God-knows-what. My hands were still greasy from her baked chicken, with half a bottle of Thunder Punch glowing bright at my side, its lemony aftertaste on my tongue. It was below freezing, but the heated argument seemed enough to keep me warm. I distracted myself counting what little snowfall I could.

          On the hundredth snowflake, a yellow-ish green hue similar to my Thunder Punch twinkled in the dark. I squinted at what looked like a chocolate chip chilling on a big snow cone, but instead was a black bug looking lost in all the white, using a beacon to phone home. I edged closer, hovering my smallest and least greasy finger over its shell, and its legs latched right onto the tip of my nail. I nearly freaked out, expecting its light as a weapon to burn through my skin, or use its alien-like glow to teleport me a thousand miles away into its spaceship. Still hearing Mama’s voice thrash about inside, I wouldn’t have minded the latter. But it wiggled its antennae in an attempt to communicate with me. I come in peace.
Although I couldn’t understand its words, leaving it alone in the cold didn’t sit right with me, so I brought it inside, the bug's butt still aglow. I wondered about the flavor of its light. Lemon? Sour Apple? Maybe banana. I ushered it into an empty hairspray bottle while I unlocked my tablet and asked Alexa about this strange creature.

          I’d come in contact with one of the few firefly species left on Earth: A winter firefly, one of the many victims of what people call the light wars, because our phones, streets, houses and cars pollute the planet with their light, as if in competition to burn brighter than the Sun. Discovering one in my backyard had to be a miracle.
I swiped through my tablet to learn more, my eight-year-old brain a predator for new information. Destroyed forests meant little to no homes for these delicate critters, and the fireflies who survived were now being abducted, their light harvested for glow-in-the-dark food and drinks to sell in stores.

          My heart sank at one of these drinks’ names.
Thunder Punch! Awaken the lightning inside.
I stared at their website. Strawberry-flavor pulsed in a bubblegum pink. Blueberry-flavor radiated in sky blue. Lemon in neon yellow. A tremendous amount of guilt washed over me. So that’s where they had gone. In my belly.

          Yet, there were countless forums dedicated to reverting to the days where backyards would be full of fireflies.

          Rekindle with the fireflies!                     Remember fireflies?
                                Shut off your lights, make room for the fireflies!
          A Comprehensive Guide to Bringing Back the Fireflies.
                                                            I miss the fireflies.

          This was the side I wanted to join.

          No more Thunder Punch from the corner store, I promised myself as I rummaged through the kitchen for an empty and clear sugar jar. I stole a rose from Mama’s bouquet that her man would offer as an apology, since I thought the firefly needed a reminder of home. I watched it land on the rose’s cane within the jar and blink its light with delight. I was learning its love language. Mama had found out, but she didn’t mind. Fireflies are a sign to slow down and cherish the small things, she said. And that, I did. I felt like I made friends with a tiny star.

          It felt refreshing to have someone who didn’t spend their time arguing or poke fun at my dreams, even if we were from two different worlds. Amidst other second graders who bounced in their seats, hands raised, shouting to be influencers, professional gamers, and streamers, I was the kid in the back who thought being an astronaut would be cool. Faces scrunched in and chuckled; an astronaut didn’t sound fun, but it was fitting for the kid who usually sat alone in their own space, smacking on leftover baked chicken and unknowingly sipping on firefly juice. When I eventually told Mama about my astronaut ambitions, and she only whispered, “that’s nice,” with a slight twitch in her smile, that dream flickered out. It didn’t matter; my purpose in life was reignited. A protector of the fireflies.

          That was until one day I had done the unforgivable.
Earlier that morning, I overslept after another late-night dispute between Mama and her man and missed the bus. I wanted to tell her I’d rather stay home, because I really didn’t feel like feeling lonely at school that day, but Mama’s Chevy was already honking outside. She was late for work, but I was desperate to find my tablet. I switched on my ceiling light and found it from underneath a pile of unhung clothes. Mama’s horn blasted again, and I fled out the house.
Hours later when I returned home to my starry friend, my ceiling was still bursting with light. My friend's light, completely extinguished.

          Imagine entering the world as an adult, prepared to share your rare talent only to realize everyone— even their food— performs your talent so much better. You’ve been outshined, so you hide what you believed was your unique gift from this universe, hoping one day it’s needed again. I think that’s the real reason winter fireflies lose their light. My friend’s beady eyes gazed up at my brightened room and probably thought, what’s the point?

          But Alexa assured me that winter fireflies lose their ethereal glow slowly after reaching adulthood. That didn’t make me feel any better. I trapped the majority of my friend’s life inside a jar as something to talk about my day, to cuddle with when Mama and her man got to yelling again, or use it as a simple night light to keep me from complete darkness.

          At the exact spot we met, I opened the jar. It fluttered from its slightly withered rose before blasting off and blending in with the night, never to be seen again. I felt heartbroken at how quickly it chose to leave with no time to say goodbye, but in hindsight, I understand.

          Sometimes, when I’m relaxing on my own porch with a cup of hot chocolate, I wonder about what became of that winter firefly. I hope no other silly kid tried to catch it. I hope it didn’t find itself in someone’s drink. I hope with the remainder of its life, it found a family to love.

          If I could speak with you again, my little star, I’d say we need you. Forget about the streetlights, tablets, our luminescent drinks. You're the most authentic kind of light we’ll witness in our lifetime. I know a thousand roses won’t make up for the destruction of your kin, but please rest knowing the dozens of winter fireflies who’ve now taken refuge in the groves of my backyard are not alone.





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