Otieno (oh-tee-en-oh) feels lost, again. Lying on his bed, the Sixers game plays on the flat screen while the A/C forces the dust on the bookshelf to resettle. The bookshelf, really his wife’s bookshelf, encompasses both sides of the wall around the flat screen TV. A year’s worth of dust mars the spines. That must be her skin still existing in the world. On one of the shelves sit pictures of his parents, two of his best friends, and his beloved cat, Oliver. They’re all gone. Part of living as long as he has, he’s seventy-seven, has entailed outliving everyone he’s ever loved. Maybe he should have pushed his wife harder to have a kid. Then, at least he’d have someone, and he probably wouldn’t be contemplating how high to fill his rocks glass with brandy to wash down too many of the painkillers meant to manage his recent back pain.
Warm August air tiptoes through his apartment window – the apartment where he and his wife moved a few years ago when the house started feeling too big – while his eyes search the starless, moonless night. His shadow doesn’t reach up the wall as far as most men’s would, yet the shadow is enough for him to believe that the darkness isn’t just pressing in from the outside, but emanating from inside, too. He runs a hand through his gray, fading hair that sprouts unkempt above a receding hairline, as if present only to delay the inevitable. In the angled glass of the open window, the Sixers game reflects next to his face, which is so much older than the players’ faces on the screen. It didn’t use to be that way. Now his dark skin is worn down and sags away from his bones, away from him, as if it’s getting ready to leave him. He’s never used so many notches on a belt before.
Otieno doesn’t think about the TV being the only light in the room before turning it off. He lingers in his newfound darkness. Does it matter to have lights on when you live alone? The darkness speaks to his existence. He’s invisible. A retired insurance salesman living in Allentown, quiet Pennsylvania suburbia, with no reason to leave the house other than to buy groceries. Soon after his wife passed, he tried going to synagogue, hoping to meet people. The more he went to services, the more people talked to him about the importance of having God in his life, and the more it seemed God wasn’t going to save him. God appeared to have retired from burning bushes and parting seas. It seems modern day people don’t need miracles. They just need to believe in them.
When he’s about to flick the switch, a light appears. A tiny orange dot. He’s lightheaded, seeing spots. The little light swoops in front of the open window. It’s a firefly. He crosses over to the window and reaches out his hand. The lightning bug lands on his nose. The little bug tickles him, just the slightest bit. What is it trying to do? Does it want to play with him? Is this little bug the companionship he’s been missing?
The bug flies away, out the window, and hovers. ‘Come back,’ Otieno says, ‘I won’t hurt you,’ and the bug returns, onto his nose. It tickles him again, more pronounced this time. Does the little bug actually mean to tickle him? The little living light flies outside. ‘What do you want me to do, little bug? I wish I could fly with you.’
Again and again, the lightning bug lands on Otieno’s nose, tickles him, and flies outside. Otieno sticks his head out the window, calling to the little light. The world is the same parking lot, bushes, and far off lights that have always been there.
‘Why do you want me to go outside?’ Otieno says, holding out his palm to the little bug. The living light climbs on. It tickles him. It flies back out in front of his face and hovers.
To Otieno’s right, a man sticks his head out of an identical window. He’s young and wide-eyed. A lightning bug hovers in front of him.
‘You have one too?’ Otieno says.
‘Have what too?’ the man says, noticing Otieno’s firefly. ‘Oh, I didn’t realize there were two of them. I’ve never seen fireflies behave like this before.’
‘Does yours tickle you?’ Otieno says.
‘Yeah,’ the man says. ‘I think it wants me to go outside, but whenever I go to my front door it flies in front of me and leads me back to the window. Does yours do that?’
‘I don’t know,’ Otieno says. ‘I haven’t tried to go outside.’
‘I think it wants me to jump,’ the man says. ‘Ha! What a crazy thought. I would never do that. And fireflies aren’t that smart.’
Otieno pulls his head back into the room. The firefly maintains its hover. Slowly, feeling his way through the darkness, he makes for the front door. When he’s only as far as the bedroom door, the firefly zips in front of him. It lands on his cheek and pushes him. The push is so light that at first Otieno ignores it, but the fact that this firefly is sending him any kind of tangible message makes him turn around. The instant he’s facing the inside of the room again, the little living light flies outside.
Otieno sticks his head out the window. He tells the man that he tried to leave but his firefly wouldn’t let him. The man smiles knowingly and points to Otieno’s left. An elderly couple is sticking their heads out of their window. One window over from them, a young woman and a little boy gaze out into the night. Above and below, left and right, every window above the seventh floor of the twelve story apartment building – some twenty windows on his side of the building – is filled with curious faces. In front of every enamored face, a firefly.
This can’t be real. This can’t be happening. Fireflies don’t do this. But this is happening. This is real. There are fireflies outside of all these windows and people staring out at them, mesmerized with wonder. This feels magical and intoxicating in the same way that his wife used to make him feel, how she made him believe that divine forces did control his world. But could God possibly be so small? Might this be how God is everywhere at all times? Can see all? God is a billion little fireflies: Let there be light.
Otieno and the other people talk. No one can figure it out. The consensus is that the fireflies must want them to go outside, but everyone who has tried to go outside has been deterred. A few people think the fireflies want them to jump, but most of the people think that’s ridiculous. It must be some strange natural phenomenon, perhaps something that scientists have never seen before. Was it absurd to think Allentown could be so special?
Like a synchronized swim team, the fireflies leave their respective windows and conglomerate in front of Otieno in the shape of an arrow. A directional arrow pointing down. ‘Do you want me to jump?’ Otieno whispers, a hollow, hungry fear twitching its way through his skin. The arrow blinks bright, just once, and then goes dark. ‘Is that a yes? Blink once for yes. Do you want me to jump?’
The arrow blinks once and goes dark.
‘Do you want me to not jump?’
The arrow doesn’t blink.
‘Do you want me to think hard about jumping?’
The arrow doesn’t blink.
‘Do you want me to jump?’
The arrow blinks.
‘Don’t jump!’ shouts someone two stories down and to the right. ‘This is crazy! Don’t jump!’
The others chime in. Everyone thinks he should stay put. Don’t listen to the little bugs. Jumping would be insane. It’s suicide.
‘Do you think I should jump?’ Otieno asks the young man to his right.
The man smiles while averting his gaze, shrugs, and says, ‘I don’t know. I don’t know you. I’ve never seen this before. I don’t think I know what’s worth risking your life for.’
‘Would you jump?’ Otieno says.
‘What?’ the man says.
‘If this arrow was floating in front of you, would you jump?’
‘I don’t know,’ the man says, ‘but I guess I hope I’d have the courage to jump. This feels like the kind of ridiculous magic you spend your whole life waiting for.’
Otieno stares down the steady orange arrow. One of the bugs – his original one? – flies in, tickles his nose, and flies back out. Then another bug tickles him. And another. And another firefly tickles him, endears him. While jumping is not rational, while jumping is not sane, while jumping will be the end of him, these little bugs want him to jump and this is not some random, freak occurrence. These bugs are propelled by something. Perhaps not God, but something that can cause tiny bugs to perform meaningful acts that are miraculous, unheard of, and worth believing in. If the fireflies can defy expectations, then might jumping, too?
Get it together, man. What kind of desperate do you have to be to believe in these tiny fireflies? Previously minutes from swallowing his life away, perhaps. Wife, parents, and friends all waiting for him on the other side. One of many heads sticking out of windows, willing to believe that finally they see something as magical as they had always hoped the world might be.
On the outside, he’s shaking, nervous, while, on the inside, an empty feeling in his gut reminds him that this is probably the dumbest thing that he’ll ever do. He shouldn’t do it. But he should. Or not. For a moment, he sits on the edge of the window, feet dangling above the concrete below. He fights off the uneasy feeling that this is wrong, so wrong, he shouldn’t even be considering this jump. With each passing moment, he ignores more pleas for him to climb back inside. He really would have filled that glass and swallowed those pills. Jumping toward where the light wants him to go is the superior means to that same end.
He falls, face to the sky. He should have left a note. Even if only a short one. To explain why he had to believe. In mere moments, he will be permanently misunderstood. Then he feels it. Under him. Like a cloud, but uneven in its softness. Below him, holding him up, pushing him back up, is a swarm of orange light so massive and brilliant that for a moment he’s blinded. For a moment, he believes that the scripture got the color of heaven all wrong. He cannot see the earth below. A moment later, he is shoved back through the window. He collapses on the floor, breathing heavily, smiling with a happiness he hasn’t felt in over a year.
Shouts from outside. Everyone wants to know if Otieno is okay. He sticks his head out the window and gives everyone a big thumbs up. The man to his right cries with joy. A few of the people show off the videos they captured on their phones. The world will soon marvel at these videos, wondering how this could happen when it has never happened before and might never happen again. If God only shows up once, if God only burns one bush, is that enough to believe? Or is that how false legends get born? A freak act of providence makes fools of us all, at least until later, when we can explain history away as a myth, a fairy tale, religion, or else prove it could or could not have been real with the indisputable truth of science: Oh, how silly we are to assume that we’ve figured out how to figure it out.
Otieno looks high and low, but the pretty lights in the sky are gone. Just like that. All of them. Leaving everyone to stare out at the starless, moonless night. The lamp posts in the parking lot take on an eerie new meaning.
A few minutes later, there’s a knock on his door. It’s his young neighbor. Otieno invites him in. They talk a while. Then there’s another knock. It’s someone from downstairs. She has brought half a chocolate cake and asks if he’d like some. Over the course of the next hour, almost everyone who lives on the seventh floor and above on Otieno’s side of the building stops by. They ask about his life, his family, what he used to do for a living. They sit as a huddled mass on the floor, Otieno elevated by his seat on the sofa. The people listen to the stories of his life with the same wonder he remembers seeing on young peoples’ faces at temple when they heard the tale of the prophet Moses for the first time. That wasn’t God who saved Otieno, but rather something far more miraculous. Whatever compelled those fireflies, it was real.
Before leaving, many of the people ask him over for dinner in the coming nights. He accepts their invitations. They see themselves out. He falls asleep smiling with the lights on.
Alex Rosenfeld is a writer currently living in Camden, NJ where he is pursuing his MFA at Rutgers University-Camden. If you enjoyed this story you can follow him on Twitter and check out more of his work on his website.