She paced the stall anxiously, resisting the urge to bite her nails. She hadn’t seen him in months, not since the keepers had left. Back then, she had been confident that time apart was all she needed to forget those warm, laughing eyes, that slightly crooked smile, and that unruly mop masquerading as hair. Time was supposed to make you forget. Clearly, the rules of normalcy didn’t apply to him.
A loud banging on the door broke her out of her reverie.
“Just a minute!” she yelled as she sat back down on the covered toilet, groaning internally at her ridiculous predicament. She thought she was cooler than this. Cooler than hiding in the bathroom of some random cafe. Her opinion of herself tanked further as she stood up on the toilet to sneak a look at the source of her dilemma through the grimy, overhead window. Standing across the street, he looked exactly the way she remembered, and yet, different. He had grown, not just in height but also as a keeper. He looked so at ease as he held the fireflies in his hand and whispered to them. Words of comfort, she guessed, reassurances that they could do it. Or maybe she was projecting. The voice in her head sounded a lot like his after all.
“Lady, are you okay?”
She turned sharply, nearly slipping in the process. With horror, she realized that the stalls were open at the top, and her peering head, was clearly visible to the high school girl doing the funny jig outside her stall door.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m totally okay.”
“Raaight… then, can you get out and watch the show from somewhere else? I really have to pee.”
Face flushed, she mumbled an apology and exited the stall. Once again, she had to remind herself that this was unlike her. Feeling nauseous, she pushed through the crowd in the cafe to ask the barista for a paper bag – just in case she threw up. The shop, like every other shop in a two-mile radius, was packed with people who had come to watch the show. Nothing could unite a city quite like firefly season. As she reached the counter, a large stack of cupcakes caught her eye. She marveled at how the icing colors captured the various shades of the keepers’ fires. No two keeper flames were alike, and neither were the fire-cakes. She scanned the pile, looking for a familiar shade of scarlet.
“Wow, you’re really going all out,” she joked, picking two that came closest to his flame.
The barista shrugged. “The Irish have their leprechauns. We have our keepers.” She thanked him and headed out to the street, nausea replaced by a growing sense of excitement.
The keepers were already in position and the sun had long set. She made her way up to the corner of the street and sat down at the foot of a signal. From there, she had a clear view of the only keeper that mattered. She found her eyes following his every movement as he knelt to pick up the flies preparing to breathe his fire into them. His arms bore more scars than before – souvenirs of the fires he’d lit along the way. She looked at her own unblemished hands, wishing the flames had chosen her so she could have been by his side instead of watching from afar as the singing began. The bugs in his hands glowed scarlet with his fire as they slowly drifted up and into sight. They danced past neon signs as the lights of the city turned off one by one, and the fires of the keepers took to the sky. The crowd cheered as the keepers’ song ended and the festivities began.
“The Irish have their leprechauns. We have our keepers.” She muttered, reaching up to touch a passing firefly.
“What did you say?”
She turned to find him standing behind her. His warm, laughing eyes – just as she remembered – were fixed on her and suddenly her ears felt as red as the bugs. Embarrassed, she shook her head as he sat down beside her and helped himself to a fire-cake.
“Will you be staying long?”
He shrugged. “Only as long as the bugs do.”
“Wherever the bugs go.” As he spoke, she watched the lingering glow on his hands fade. She didn’t notice that the matching tint in his cheeks persisted. Above, the fireflies danced in the sky. Their season had officially begun.