Present Day, July
Brandon Foxworth watched his two kids chase lightning bugs in the back yard, fearing one of them might not be alive this time next year. His seven-year-old daughter, Claire, had been forced into a mostly sedentary lifestyle since being diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. Now all Brandon and his wife wanted was for their daughter to enjoy whatever remained of her young life.
Claire squealed with glee while running after one of the yellow flashing insects with a small, homemade butterfly net.
“Not too fast, sweetie,” her mother said. “Remember what the doctor said.”
The heart specialist had advised it was okay for her to play, but that she should be careful not to overexert herself.
“Okay, Momma.” Claire continued to pursue her quarry, her light auburn ponytail bouncing off a printed peach t-shirt as she ran.
Two years younger, her brother Thomas followed close behind in 4T blue jean overalls and carrying an empty spaghetti sauce jar to deposit the bugs. Of course, Dad had punched holes in the top with a nail to allow their captives to breathe. “Don’t let him get away, Claire,” Thomas said.
Brandon and his wife, Carol, lived with their children in the small rural town of Lovingston, Virginia, about thirty-five miles south of Charlottesville. He was an ecology professor at the University, she a nurse at the college medical center.
“You have to be quicker, munchkin,” Brandon said from atop a second story deck overlooking their sloping back yard. “You need to catch them while they’re still flashing. If you wait until they stop, they’ll have moved on by the time you swing your net.”
Carol, wearing a lavender pullover and blue jean shorts, touched his hand. “I’ll go down and help her.”
“Do you want Mom to come help?”
“No, Daddy. Thomas and I can do it.”
“We can do it.” Her brother parroted in the same tone.
Brandon couldn’t believe all the lightning bugs. Most people nowadays called them fireflies, but he preferred the term his father had used. Hundreds filled the line of trees and bushes thirty yards from the house marking the end of the landscaped portion of their five-acre farm. Many more flew through the air, lighting their back yard with more flashing lights than Rockefeller Center during the holidays. This has to be how they came up with the saying Christmas in July.
Claire tried jumping for a bug just out of reach while running and lost her balance, tumbling hard to the ground. She lay motionless for several seconds.
Carol screamed. “Claire!” She and Brandon rushed down from the deck.
When they arrived, Claire had pushed herself to a sitting position. Carol lifted her to her feet and hugged her. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, Momma. I just fell.”
“You’re not out of breath or feeling dizzy?”
“No, Momma. I’m fine.”
Thomas held out the jar. “Come on, Claire. We don’t have half the bottom covered yet.”
“I think that’s enough for tonight, son,” Brandon said. “Your sister is getting tired.”
“No, I’m not.”
Brandon picked up the net. “Well, then, how about we let Dad have a go at it?” He ran toward a flashing bug just above his head ten yards away but swung too late to catch the insect before it went dark.
Claire giggled. “You have to catch them while they’re still flashing, Daddy.”
Brandon froze, startled by an unexpected change in his surroundings. Behind, lamps from inside the house continued to illuminate the back yard, while across the valley the lights of a dozen homes shone like candles scattered along the hillside.
But the flashing of the lightning bugs, all of them, had ceased . . . simultaneously.
Brandon scanned the area again before locking eyes with Carol, her mouth agape. “Did you see that?” she said.
Claire reached for her father’s hand. “What happened to the lightning bugs, Daddy?”
“I don’t know, munchkin. Let me see that jar, Tom.” He took the jar from his son, examining its contents against the backlighting from the house. Twenty-or-so bugs crawled along the bottom, but their light-emitting abdomens remained darkened. He shook the jar, hoping to stimulate them. Nothing. “Since the lightning bugs don’t seem to want to cooperate, we might as well head inside.”
A frown appeared on Thomas’ shadowed face. “Ah, Daddy, do we have to? There’s still time for a game of tag or hide and seek.”
“I’m afraid so. Besides, you two need baths tonight.”
Together, the four of them mounted the stairs of the deck. At the top, Carol turned once more to the back yard. “I’ve never seen them stop flashing all at the same time.”
“Me neither,” Brandon said.
“It was as if—”
“Yeah. As if someone turned off a light switch.”