Song of the Fireflies


J.A. Redmerski

For Michael N. and Alexander D.

Chapter One


They say you never forget your first love, and I have to say that they are right. I met the girl of my dreams when we were both still fans of tree houses and dirt cakes—she made the best dirt cakes in Georgia—and today, seventeen years later, I still see her smile in everything good.

But Bray’s life has always been… complicated. Mine, well, I guess the same can be said for me, but as much as she and I are alike, there are just as many things that make us so very different.

I never thought that a relationship with her, other than being the best of friends, sometimes with benefits, could ever work. Neither did she. I guess in the beginning, we were both right. But by the end—and damn, the end sure as hell blindsided us—we were proven wrong. I admit a few dozen mistakes along the way are what led us here to this moment, holed up in the back of a convenience store with cops surrounding the building.

But wait. Let me start from the beginning.

Fourth of July—Seventeen Years Ago…

The kind of crush a nine-year-old boy has on an eight-year-old girl is almost always innocent. And cruel. The first time I saw Brayelle Bates flitting toward me through the wide-open field by Mr. Parson’s pond, she was marked my victim. She wore a white sundress and a pair of flip-flops with little purple flowers made of fabric sewn to the tops. Her long, dark hair had been pulled neatly into ponytails on each side of her head and tied with purple ribbons. I loved her. OK, so I didn’t really “love” her, but she sure was pretty.

So, naturally I gave her a hard time.

“What’s that on your face?” I asked, as she started to walk by.

She stopped and crossed her arms and looked down at me sitting on my blanket beside my mother, pursing her lips at me disapprovingly.

“There’s nothing on my face,” she said with a smirk.

“Yes there is.” I pointed up at her. “Right there. It’s really gross.”

Instinctively, she reached up and began touching her face all over with her fingertips. “Well, what is it? What does it look like?”

“It’s everywhere. And I told you it’s gross, that’s what it looks like.”

She propped both hands on her hips and chewed on the inside of her mouth. “You’re lying.”

“No, I’m not. Your whole face, it’s really ugly. You should go to the doctor and get that checked out.”

The tip of her flip-flop and her big toe jabbed me in the back of my hip.

Owww! What was that for?” I reached around and rubbed the spot with my fingertips.

I noticed my mother shake her head at us, but she went back to her conversation with my aunt Janice.

Bray crossed her arms and snarled down at me. “If anyone out here is gross, it’s you. Your face looks just like my dog’s ass.”

Upon hearing that, my mom snapped her head around, and she glared at me as if I was the one who had just cursed.

I just shrugged.

Bray turned on her heel, sauntered away with her chin held high, and caught up with her parents, who were already many feet out ahead of her. I watched her go, the throbbing in my hip a reminder that if I was going to mess with that girl again, there would be more pain and abuse where that came from.

Of course, it only made me want to do it again.

As the pasture filled up with Athens’s residents, come to see the yearly fireworks display, I watched Bray do cartwheels in the grass with her friend. Every now and then I saw her look over at me, showing off and taunting me. She did get the best of me, after all, and it was only natural for her to gloat about it. I got bored fast sitting with my mom, especially since Bray seemed to be having so much fun over there.

“Where are you going, Elias?” my mom asked, as I got up from the blanket.

“Just right over there,” I said, pointing in Bray’s direction.

“OK, but please stay in my sight.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes; Mom was always worried I would get kidnapped or lost or hurt or wet or dirty or any number of things.

“I will,” I said and walked away.

I weaved my way through the few families sitting in the space between us in lawn chairs and on blankets, ice chests filled with beer and soda next to them, until I was standing in front of that abusive girl I couldn’t get enough of.

“You really shouldn’t do cartwheels in a dress, you know that, right?” I asked.

Bray’s mouth fell open. Her pale-skinned friend, Lissa, who had long, curly, white-blonde hair, and who I knew from school, smiled up at me. I think she liked me.

“I have shorts on under my dress thank-you-very-much,” Bray snapped. “Why were you looking, anyway?”

“I wasn’t looking, I just…”

Bray and Lissa burst into laughter.

My face flushed hot.

Bray had only just moved here from Atlanta a week ago, and it hadn’t taken long for her to fit in. Or rather to pretty much own the place as far as the kids went. She was the kind of girl so damn mean and intimidating and pretty that the other girls knew they had better befriend her or else end up her enemy. She wasn’t a bully; she just had this way about her that demanded respect.

“Want to go sit by the pond?” I asked. “The fireworks look cool reflected off the water.”

Bray shrugged. “I guess so.” Then she got to her feet; Lissa was already standing up, ready to go, before Bray had even made up her mind.

Lissa was a nice girl but clingy at times, and I admit I was the one who started a rumor about her being albino because of her white hair and sheet-white skin. I felt bad afterward. I hadn’t expected the whole school to call her that every single day. When Bray moved to town, she told a group of girls off on her first day for making fun of Lissa. Afterward, Lissa naturally clung to Bray like Velcro.

And just like that, as if I’d never called Bray ugly and she had never kicked me, we walked side by side toward the pond and sat together for the next two hours. My friend Mitchell joined us eventually, and the four of us lay on our backs on the grass and watched the fireworks explode in an array of colors in the clear black sky. And although Lissa and Mitchell were there with us, Bray and I carried on with each other as if we were alone. We laughed at stupid jokes and made fun of people walking by. It was the best night of my life, and it was only just beginning.

Shortly after the fireworks ended and the darkness settled across the pasture again, most of the town had already packed up and gone home.

My mom found me with Bray, Lissa, and Mitchell.

“Time to go,” she said, standing over me.

Bray was lying next to me, her head pressed against the side of my shoulder. I hadn’t really noticed it much, but my mom sure did. I saw a look in her eye—upside down, since she was standing behind us, which made that look all the more scary—that I’d never seen before. I raised myself up from the grass and turned around to face her.

“Can’t I stay and hang out a while longer?”

“No, Elias, I have to work in the morning. It’s already late.” She gestured with her free hand for me to get up and follow.

Reluctantly, I did as I was told.

“Oh come on, please, Ms. Kline?” Mitchell said on the other side of me, looking goofy with a front tooth missing and a light brown mullet lying against the back of his T-shirt. “I’ll walk home with him.”

Mitchell was a year older than me, but I did not need him to walk me home. This made me mad, probably because it embarrassed me in front of Bray.

I glared at Mitchell, and he looked back at me with apologetic eyes.

“I’ll see you guys later,” I said.

I took the ice chest from my mom to relieve her of some of the load she was carrying, and I followed her through the pasture toward our truck parked along the dirt road. Aunt Janice waved good-bye and sputtered away in her old beat-up Corsica.

My mom went to bed right after we got home. She was the manager at a hotel and rarely got any time off. My dad lived in Savannah. They had divorced three years ago. But I had a great relationship with them both. I often stayed at my dad’s in the summer, except this year he had to go to Michigan for his job, so I was staying with my mom all summer for the first time since their divorce.

I think it was fate. Bray never would’ve ended up outside my bedroom window that night, tapping on the glass with the tip of her finger, if my dad hadn’t gone to Michigan. I wondered how she knew where I lived but I never asked, figuring Mitchell or Lissa must’ve told her.

“You’re already in bed?” Bray asked with mock disbelief as she looked up at me.

I raised the window the rest of the way, and the humid summer air rushed in past me.

“No. I’m just in my room. What are you doin’ out here?”

A sly little grin crept up on the edges of Bray’s lips. “Want to go swimming?” she asked.


“Yeah. Swimming.” She crossed her arms and cocked her head to one side. “Or are you too chicken to sneak out?”

“I’m not afraid to sneak out.”

Actually, I kind of am. If my mom catches me she’ll whip me with the fly swatter.

“Then come on,” she said, waving at me. “Prove it.”

A challenge. Fly swatter or not, I couldn’t back down from a challenge or she’d never let me live it down. She’d go to school and turn my friends against me. The whole town would think I was a chicken afraid of his mommy, and I’d grow up an outcast and never have a girlfriend. I’d end up homeless and die an old man living underneath a bridge—these are the things my mom told me would happen to me if I ever dropped out of school.