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General

William pushed the contract towards the man sitting opposite him.

“Time to sign your life away,” he thought.

The clock loudly announced each second of silence.

The young man’s eyebrows knitted together as he examined the words in front of him.

“Oh we’ve got a live one,” thought William, as he watched the young man with amusement. 

The ticking got louder.

William cleared his throat.

“Is there a problem, Mr. Charlton?”

The young man’s eyes lifted from the paper to meet his own.

They were a fresh shade of blue that reminded William of stained glass windows with the early morning sunlight shining through.

“I will be required to work 50 hours a week?”

The words were timid and laced with uncertainty. 

William had to fight the urge to roll his eyes.

He was tired of these young people and their lazy attitude. 

“Yes, but I’m sure the salary will more than make up for that, Mr Charlton. Did you see it?”

The young man glanced back at the paper in front of him and nodded.

“I did, sir. It’s very generous indeed.”

“Then you’ll sign it.”

Charlton’s mouth turned down at the corners and his cheek muscles moved strangely in and out like the gills of a fish as he contemplated the offer.

The clock continued to obnoxiously count the amount of time that had passed since William was supposed to be on his way home.

His wife would be furious that he was late again.

Her insecurities would make her say harsh things.

He’d listen and apologise like he always did and remind her that the only affair he’d ever had was with the temptress called money which kept them afloat.

The hairs on the knuckles of his left hand stood to attention and he suddenly became aware that the window was still open.

He noticed that the shadows from outside had already begun to extend their reach across the wooden floorboards, painting them in a darker hue.

The cooler air was creeping in with it too, signalling the shift into night.

William sighed.

“Look, Mr Charlton, if you don’t want the job I’ve got every Tom, Dick, and Harry lined up to take it.”

The man nodded, stammered an apology, and picked up his pen. 

Finally!” William thought.

He watched as the man positioned it above the dotted line.

His thumb clicked the pen in unison with the final tick of the clock that signalled it was now 7:00pm.

William sucked a breath of cool air into his tired lungs as the pen nearly touched the paper.

And then it happened.

The darkness was suddenly lit by a dull golden light.

William turned towards the window where it was coming from and noticed a tiny firefly perched on the windowsill. 

His heart skipped a beat.

The young man noticed it too and his voice filtered through William’s ear as if from a far distance. 

“Wow, a firefly! You don’t see too many of those anymore.”

William continued to stare at the creature as its bulging yellow abdomen blinked like a lighthouse beacon. 

It was as if the pulsing light was piercing through his skin and electrifying his muscles. His body stiffened, his heart increased its rhythm, and his skin tingled. 

A warmth like candle wax ran down his spine.

He remembered.

And then the light faded completely and only the skeletal silhouette of its creator was visible against the pale moonlight.

William slowly turned back to the man sitting opposite him.

The pen was still poised but William could sense the invisible war going on beneath the trenches of his brow. He half-expected a bead of sweat to emerge and trickle down the man’s temple. 

“Don’t sign it,” he murmured.

The young man looked upwards, the pen now hovering like a hummingbird above a flower.

William couldn’t see the pleasant blue window eyes anymore, instead they’d become dark pits of desperation.

“Sir?” The word was cracked and barely audible.

The firefly’s light continued to dance behind his eyelids as William leant forward and placed his hand on top of the young man’s.

“You are young. Don’t sign your time away if you know it’s not want you want.”

A silver line appeared at the edge of the young man’s left eye as water brimmed there.

“Listen, Mr. Charlton. What can you hear?”

The young man looked momentarily perplexed but responded after a moment or two.

“To be honest, Mr Godfrey, all I’ve been able to hear since I entered this room is the incessant ticking of that clock.”

William smiled and leant back in his chair, folding his arms.

“Then you already know what you should do, Mr Charlton.”

“I do?”

“Yes.”

“Go home.”

The young man’s face transformed from a mask of confusion to relief. He’d been given permission. His decision was made for him.

He put down the pen and extended his hand to the man who could have been his boss but was now simply a stranger he’d once met in a darkened office.

William shook his hand and said, “Never chase money, Mr Charlton. It will not get you where you think it will. Chase time. It is the only thing worth pursuing.”

The man nodded and a smile spread across his face.

“Thank you, Mr. Godfrey.”

William nodded and watched as the young man left his office, merging into the hallway shadows like an apparition. 

The contract shone pearly white under the moonlight from the window, unsigned.

William turned his attention back to the window.

The firefly was gone.

***

The car purred quietly beneath him as his hands gripped the steering wheel.

As the houses, trees, and power lines whirred past the window, all he could think about was that tiny bug. 

The brilliant light behind his eyelids had faded but the dark corners of his mind remained illuminated.

Without a conscious thought, he felt his hand flick the turn signal as he rounded a familiar corner.

The tick, tick, tick sound reminded him he was on borrowed time.

The car slowed onto the gravel at the side of the road.

He pulled the handbrake upwards, closed his eyes and lay his head against the headrest.

He just needed a moment to think.

A tiny clicking noise on the passenger window alerted his conscious mind.

Snapping his eyes open, he saw the little bug buzzing against his car window, the yellow light glowing even brighter out in the open air.

It pulsed and William felt the electricity building again inside his body.

In one swift motion, he opened the car door and walked around to the passenger side. 

The little bug continued to click away at the window as if it wanted to hitch a ride.

“I remember you,” William said aloud. 

He watched the bug cease its pursuit of its own reflection and dizzily whirr past his ear.

It twinkled as its body grew smaller with distance.

The cold air tickled the hairs at the back of William’s neck as he realised where he was.

He’d been here before, many years ago, when he was just 10 years old and had dreams and friends and time. So much time.

It looked slightly different now. The field had a large billboard sign on the right corner nearest to the road. There were neon lights along its edges, a burst of rainbow against a black canvas sky. 

There were fewer trees lining the left edge where space had been cleared for housing.

But the grass was the same.

The moonlight was the same.

The feeling was the same.

Possibility.

William watched the silver-tipped blades of grass sway against the crisp breeze and listened to the soothing whisper.

Then he took a step forward, the long grass reaching for his kneecaps.

And then another step.

And another.

Suddenly the field lit up in a glorious display of dazzling lights. 

Fireflies dipped and danced everywhere he looked.

And like his younger self had once done, he laughed aloud into the silent night and ran until his lungs felt like they would burst and his bones begged for mercy.

As he flew through the grass more fireflies burst around him like firecracker sparks.

He collapsed at the far end of the field with his chest heaving and his heart hammering.

The grass poked uncomfortably at his exposed skin but he didn’t care.

He was mesmerised by the scene above him. 

The tiny insects glimmered against the night sky above like city lights reflected on the surface of a river at midnight.

He’d once told them that he would become something great one day.

Someone the world would remember.

Their little lights had sparked a desire in him so strong that he believed every word he’d uttered that night.

But then life happened.

That spark fizzled out.

He became just another soulless bodies of the corporate machine that kept the world churning.

He became the person his father and mother told him to be.

The music that was inside his heart had played a final melancholic note. He became an ordinary man. An obedient man.

William began to hum a song he’d written when he was 12 years old and the firefly lights had still been illuminating his core.

Now looking upwards, they appeared to dance in time with the lonely lullaby.

***

Jeremy Charlton slowly lowered the coffee cup from his lips.

The cursor on his computer screen blinked at him, waiting for the next brilliant feature article to miraculously materialise.

The New York Times had loved his last piece. But he couldn’t seem to write with the same natural rhythm today. 

Jeremy sighed and glanced at the clock hanging on the far wall of the small cafe.

He’d been working on it for an hour already. 

Where had that time gone?

A newspaper folded on the table in front of him caught his eye.

Perhaps one of his articles would be in it.

He reached over and unfolded it across his lap.

A man’s face in the left corner immediately captured his interest.

Jeremy pushed his glasses further up his nose and looked at the man closer.

The man in the photograph was in his early 50s. He was smiling at the photographer as his elbow rested on the curved body of an acoustic guitar. 

The headline read: Local musician sets national record with debut album.

At the bottom of the text was a small square photograph of the album in question.

“Firefly.”

Then he remembered.

He saw his quivering pen hovering over the dotted line.

The yellow glow of the tiny insect at the window.

The businessman sitting in front of him.

“Mr. Godfrey,” he whispered.

He snapped the paper closed and his fingers flew effortlessly over the keys.

A new story was born.

July 19, 2020 08:12

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6 comments

Derrick Kakooza
07:50 Aug 19, 2020

I loved the story, Lauren. Well written and quite original.

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Lauren Ford
22:09 Aug 21, 2020

Thank you for so much Derrick for the lovely feedback.

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Sweta Sheth
12:30 Jul 30, 2020

I really liked the story. Its strength lies in its simplicity and directness. I liked the use of fireflies as a metapahor for hope and change, and there's also a touch of magical realism, with William's belief in their transformative power. The theme of the struggles of adulthood crushing childhood dreams was subtly brought out. My two cents : The prose could have been better. Longer paragraphs would have helped. The inner conflicts of both the characters could have been explored more.

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Lauren Ford
06:32 Aug 01, 2020

Thank you for taking the time to read it and provide such valuable feedback. I’ll definitely take on board your suggestions - very valid points indeed.

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13:26 Jul 28, 2020

I enjoyed this. It has a kind of classic short-story feel to the prose. If you don't mind a bit of advice, I was craving some paragraphs. Almost every sentence is its own paragraph, and it begins to feel kind of breathless after a while, if you know what I mean. It tends to make every sentence feel like an announcement, which wears the reader down a little bit. Don't be afraid of longer paragraphs. :)

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Lauren Ford
20:02 Jul 28, 2020

Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Very solid advice about the paragraphs too. I’ll definitely keep that in mind for my next one. :)

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