Katie Flack

blood’s toll

The shadow of a firefly flickered in the light of the dying fire. Mara watched absentmindedly as it edged nearer and nearer to the flames, pathetic thing defective, incapable of even serving its one purpose: illuminating.

The sun had long ago drowned beneath the horizon, and Mara took solace in that. She was used to darkness holding her hand through life. Through each and every moment. A companion. A guide. Motherly almost, unlike her blood’s mother, who was lurking in the brightly-lit house, undoubtedly consumed by that glaring screen full of tragedies—reality’s tragedies, fiction’s tragedies, that mythical nowhere’s tragedies. It must have made it easier to forget her own.

Mara heard footsteps. She knew better than to look, but her neck craned to see without her permission. Brennan, her brother, approached cautiously, but assuredly. Descending from the crumbling back porch into the under-watered lawn, he was slow-moving, the burdens of the world weighing down his sweatshirt-clad shoulders. He looked older than he had a few months ago. His height had not changed, and he had only seemed to get skinnier, but there was a certain hollowness to his eyes. No longer were they filled with that easygoing light. That thing had been plundered. No, they carried new knowledge now. A heavy knowledge. The sort of knowledge that the soul yearns to lose and yet, the eyes can never forget. Not until they are to close one final time, the mouth accompanying them with screams, pleas for the sweet release of losing such a burdensome knowledge with that life. Brennan’s watery eyes were so heavy and hollow that they made his face sag now. Skin hanging loosely from aching bones that had been aching too tremendously as of late to ache any longer. His frown was permanently etched onto his face and Mara saw for the first time that he was far too old for his eighteen years.

They carried new knowledge now. A heavy knowledge.

It did nothing to stop her from turning her eye back to that poor thing whirring by the flames, spiraling toward them and away from them in a frenzied gliding pattern, plunging heavy to the ground before having the audacity to take off in another doomed flight. Blazing bits of ash spun around the relentless insect, burning out into white puffs of nothingness wherever they fell. Mara didn’t say a word.

“You ought to head back inside,” Brennan told her, taking a heavy breath at the end of his sentence. That was another development; he was always weary now, as though each action he took required more energy than an entire star could hold. Mara often wondered when he would be depleted enough to supernova. “The fire’s dying.”

“What’s it matter?” She didn’t shift her gaze. She wouldn’t shift her gaze. “It’s not the only thing that’s died lately, now is it?”

Brennan breathed, struggled to breathe, barely managed to breathe, sucked in a shaky, futile breath. It was loud and it was undisguised. It made Mara wince. Yet, she still refused to look. She couldn’t. “I’m upset, too.”

Mara shook her head, biting her lip until it evoked a starburst of pain. “I’m not ‘upset.’ It’s not about being ‘upset.’ It’s a crushing, deafening blow. It’s an empty, million-pound weight on my chest. It’s a python strangling the breath out of me no matter how many times I try to tear it from my neck.” Her eyes flashed to him now, ferocious and sorrowful and defiant. “You’re not upset either, you know. You’re dying every day. I can see it in the way you look at me, in the way you talk, in the way you walk so slowly like an eighty-year-old man with a cane. You’re barely holding yourself together. You’re barely mustering the courage to stand before me right now because that is how much you hurt, dammit!”

Somehow, he remained calm, slowly taking a seat before the ailing fire. He was clenching and unclenching his fingers, eyes empty and downcast and aged—too aged. He was not looking at the flailing, pitiful firefly as Mara was. He was far stiller than she. Closer to Death, the one silently, comfortingly, relentlessly awaiting him. Mara often wondered if he enjoyed it, if he was looking forward to that day when it would escort him away and leave her abandoned. “Yes,” Brennan finally agreed with a great sadness, “You’re right.”

Mara shook her head, pressing her lips together hard to suffocate the urge for tears to fall. Tears were in vain. Tears were no longer a comfort. Once released, they simply became lost soldiers, ones who would never find their way home. Brennan understood this. Mara had not seen him lose tears in weeks. “He should have said something,” Mara said of their tragic loss, “He should have said something like he would say things about homework or clubs or work or… or…” She couldn’t continue. She wouldn’t. Brennan knew.

He nodded once, slowly and with much trouble. The firefly was dragging its failing body over the blades of grass, close to and forever away from the fire it so craved. The fire its mutilated self could not possess. “Yeah,” was all he replied with. And Mara understood. Mara knew she couldn’t blame. Mara knew that to attack was to deepen the wound, but she had that red hot urge to unsheathe her claws, and she could never deny them.

“‘Yeah?’” she questioned coldly, eyes afire and chest hollowed out in a sick, burning kind of a way, “‘Yeah’ like Clay would say when we asked if he was okay?” She scoffed at the thought, blood boiling at Brennan’s insensitivity, his tendency to overlook, his calm sadness that didn’t rip through him like it did her. “‘Yeah’ like the paramedics said when we asked if he would live?” Her eyes were stone, her breath was fire, her tongue was a whip. Brennan sat before her emptily as she rampaged mercilessly. “‘Yeah’ like Clay said when we asked if he was staying after school? Because if you’ll remember, that was right before we found him with a bloody razor blade sticking out of his dead wrist!” The tears still didn’t fall, but they blurred Mara’s vision, made the firefly look like a blot of black blood in the grass. “Are you saying ‘yeah’ like that, Brennan? Because I don’t want that kind of ‘yeah.’”

Brennan didn’t speak for a moment. Once, he might have argued with her. Yelled at her, screamed even. Perhaps he would have stood up, knocked over his heavy, wooden chair like it was a paper cup and stormed into the house loudly enough for the neighborhood to hear. For it to peek over at. For it to guess upon. But not now. Maybe never again. Finally, he shrugged, slowly and without much conviction. “No. Not that kind of ‘yeah.’”

Mara pinched the bridge of her nose and shook her head, thinking about her mother gasping at the television’s revelations all while ignoring her children’s tribulations. She might rant about some character’s overdose or one night stand or outrageous obstacle tomorrow. But she wouldn’t ask about Mara or Brennan. She would refuse to acknowledge Clay.

The firefly had taken off once more, and Mara eyed it with indifference, knowing not what to say. She had no more divulgences to make or unknown feelings to express. They still existed, but they were in the open. They had been for months. The world didn’t halt its rotation for them and Mara was left behind. “I loved him,” she finally whispered: three words that hung still in the dark veil of the night. There was no reason for this utterance. It was not new. It was not surprising. It was not healing—quite the opposite, in fact. But it was burning a hole inside of her heart. It was digging through the cavities of her chest and lacerating whatever it came into contact with. It was murdering her and she needed to call it out, make its presence known so that she might be saved.

“I did, too,” Brennan murmured back with drooping eyes, as he had months before.

No more words were spoken. The firefly continued its ill-fated flight, edging nearer and nearer to the flames until, alas, it caught fire. Mara watched the thing crumple to the ground, consumed alive by the orange wisps of heat until it was nothing more than a blackened lump of ashes.

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