“Balloon!” Janie shouted, pointing out the window.
Angie and I ignored her. We were arguing with Adrián, the hotel owner.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t see your reservation here,” he repeated.
“Typical,” I muttered. “God damn typical.”
I’d spent a year getting this vacation planned out. Angie’s wanted to go to Costa Rica since she was a little girl and saw a documentary about the rainforest. It was our third anniversary. I was hoping it would be a special trip. The start was inauspicious.
“Balloon!” Janie yelled again, giggling and tugging my pant leg. I glanced over my shoulder through the picture windows overlooking the forest below.
“There’s no balloons, sweetheart,” I informed her, and turned back to the hotel owner.
“Look, I have the online confirmation right here. That’s the name of the hotel, yes? And that’s the address? And there, where it says ‘confirmed?’ Can that possibly mean anything else?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but you’re just not in our system. If you and your family would like to go out on the patio and rest for a little while, I will see what I can do. I’ll send over a couple glasses of wine and some fruit juice for your beautiful little girl, okay? Just give me a little time.” Continue reading “The Black Balloons”
When I was in college, I dated a biologist named Maria. Well, a biology undergraduate. She was a lot of fun, albeit slightly odd. Being a bit odd myself, we hit it off right away. Our first date lasted almost 12 hours – the entirety of which was spent talking as we sipped terrible coffee in a 24-hour diner.
Maria told me she wanted to focus on entomology after undergrad, then started to regale me with passionate stories about the local banana slug.
I was familiar with the banana slug. Everyone on campus was. They have an unfortunate habit of falling out of trees and landing on the heads of unsuspecting students and faculty. Being around 8” long and remarkably disgusting, having one plop on one’s head is pretty close to a living nightmare. My first month on campus, one missed me by inches and splattered on the concrete. I was picking slug out from between my shoelaces for a week.
I can’t remember the last time we’d had such a hot summer. All the beaches were packed. You couldn’t find a shoreline that wasn’t teeming with people. Most summers, we would’ve been right there with them. This last school year, though, had been rough. We’d had an inordinate number of encounters with bullies, and the last thing we wanted to do was put ourselves in a place where they’d almost certainly be.
That caution came with a price, of course. We were sweltering. Fans did nothing. Every time we opened the freezer to grab a chunk of ice, we’d get yelled at for letting all the cold air out. It seemed like everything we did, it only served to make us hotter and more miserable.
My brother had an idea that sounded pretty great to me. There’d been construction going on near the old quarry that was on hold for some reason. Donny said he’d been snooping around there the week before and he noticed there was still a lot of water from the spring floods that’d gotten trapped and hadn’t dried up yet. Plus, the quarry was deep enough to be in its own shadow; the walls went up at least 30 feet. It’d be a climb to get down and back up, but it was worth the risk if it meant getting a break from the heat.
We hopped the fence and stared down at the water. It looked pretty damn refreshing. The way down was steep and rocky, but Donny and I were both pretty agile at the time. We went slowly, despite dripping with sweat and coating ourselves with dust and bits of gravel. When we got to the bottom, it was already a relief. The air was ten degrees cooler and the shade provided a welcome reprieve from the mid-day sun.
There was a long branch near the edge of the pool. Since the water was murky, we didn’t want to take a chance and dive in. Both of us remembered how Leon Hollis broke his neck back in 3rd grade. Neither of us were going to make that same mistake. I reached in with the stick and pushed down and around. It felt about two or three feet deep. I let out more and more of the branch into the water and felt the soft, muddy ground underneath. We couldn’t do a proper dive, but we sure as hell could jump in. That was all Donny needed to hear.
In the blink of an eye, Donny had stripped out of his clothes. I hadn’t even finished saying, “Jesus Christ, Don, don’t take your f*****g underpants off too!” before he was stark naked and mid-air in a bellyflop position. He crashed into the still water, sending out a massive wave to soak the muddy shore. I was untying my shoes when Donny spluttered to the surface. He looked different.
Donny’s pale body was covered in a mosaic of black and brown shapes. I mean covered. He was more brown and black than he was white, and as he staggered toward me with his arms out so they wouldn’t touch his sides and his legs bowed so they wouldn’t rub together, I realized what they were. Leeches. Hundreds – maybe even a thousand – leeches.
He began to scream. It was a shrill, high-pitched shriek that I’d only heard from girls on the playground at school, but with them, it was only while they were playing. The sound coming from my brother was one of abject terror. As he screamed, he formed the words, “help me” and moved closer and closer to the shore, away from the water. By the time I’d gotten over to him, he fell on his back into the soft mud, his head inches from the shore.
I stood over him, unsure of what I should do. He began rubbing his hands over his trunk, trying to unlatch the things from his belly and chest. Blood smeared as their bodies burst under his touch. My horror stunned me for a moment, and as I stared with shock at my brother’s body, I noticed details for the first time.
There was a leech stuck to his left eyeball. It hung down about 3 inches, its body fat with blood. The eye was red and angry looking and Donny was blinking furiously, and probably unconsciously, to get the thing off. One leech was attached to the head of his p***s and there were seven on his s*****m and perineum. Under his arms were the remains of at least six that had been smashed as Donny rubbed and pulled at the ones on his torso.
Finally, I snapped out of it and began raking my nails across the creatures that covered my brother. He was a red mess. I tried to pick up my pace, noticing how, even under the shroud of blood, I could tell Donny was getting increasingly pale and weak. His arms didn’t move much anymore and his screams had devolved into wheezes.
I ran back to where we’d left our clothes and returned with a large beach towel. I wadded it up and scrubbed Donny up and down, not caring if I crushed the things instead of just removing them. They needed to die, and quickly, or else I was certain my brother would be exsanguinated. I rubbed his face and chest and legs and feet until there was nothing left pulp from their devastated bodies and the smeared blood they’d stolen from Donny.
I knelt next to Donny and tried to get him to focus. I told him I was going to run for help and he was going to be okay. His good eye moved to meet my face. “Back,” he muttered.
“Yes, I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I assured him, and got up to run home.
Donny grabbed my ankle in his weak fist. I stopped and looked at him impatiently, not understanding how he didn’t see how time was a factor here.
“Back,” he said again. “My back.” He exhaled a long, low breath. He didn’t move or say anything after that.
A column of frost coalesced along my spinal cord. With great care, not wanting Donny’s face to sink into the mud, I turned my brother over and screamed. On his back were two leeches, each the size of a watermelon. No longer trapped between the mud and Donny, they detached their proboscises, each of which were as long as my middle finger. Then, with their bodies full and their appetites sated, they began the slow crawl back into the water.
The theory went like this: when confused by nighttime fog, fireflies can congregate into masses of hundreds, or sometimes even thousands. The fog reduces their ability to signal properly; the distance is shortened and the light becomes too diffuse. To survive and attract mates, individual fireflies started banding together. Once a small group is formed, they signal to one another with pheromones, and that triggers simultaneous illumination. It’s brighter, so even through the fog, solitary fireflies can find the group. So if you see a glowing beachball hovering over the lake on a foggy night, don’t freak out. It’s just fireflies trying to f**k.
I moved to the woodsy town in Vermont a couple years ago. During my first summer there, when the pea-soup fog rolled off the lake every evening, I saw those glowing orbs for the first time. That was before I’d learned they were fireflies, so I didn’t know what I was seeing. I watched from my porch as the ball floated across the yard at the edge of the forest. It was beautiful, but haunting.
The following morning, at the local diner, I brought up what I’d seen. The waitress laughed and said they were just the local fireflies. Apparently they’re considered a minor celebrity in the area. My buddy from college, Phil, was an entomologist. Bugs were his thing. So when I got home after breakfast, I called him up. I figured he’d be interested in the phenomenon.
Apparently, “interested” was an understatement. I guess fireflies had never been observed doing something like that anywhere else in the world. I told him he’d be welcome if he wanted to make the drive up from Connecticut and stay for a few days to see them for himself. He did.
The next day, Phil arrived at dusk. Great timing. I gave him a quick tour of the place, then we brought a six pack out to the porch and waited for the fog to move in.
In a steady, slow creep, the fog poured across the lake, into the forest, and swallowed my yard. The moonlight was a dull haze above our heads, and right away we saw individual fireflies trying to locate one another with their bioluminescent shouts.
We waited and drank beer after beer as we caught up on the goings on in our respective lives over the last ten years. After a couple hours, I caught a glimpse of something glowing on the other side of the trees, right by the lake. I pointed and Phil stood up and went to the edge of the porch.
“Wow,” he breathed, and I could sense his genuine excitement. It was contagious. I got up and stood with him as we gazed at the orb of softly undulating light, our beers forgotten.
The mass of fireflies approached the edge of the yard, every one of its members flying in a tight, spherical pattern. “I don’t believe my eyes,” Phil said. “That behavior’s never been documented in that species.”
The sphere’s light waxed and waned, and solitary fireflies all over the yard, disoriented in the morass of fog, began to move toward the group. They incorporated themselves into the luminous mass.
The group turned back toward the forest and eventually went out of sight.
“Pretty cool, right?,” I asked.
“One of the coolest things I’ve seen in my career,” he agreed. “I’m going to write up a report tomorrow morning, then tomorrow night I’m going to see if I can record it with my phone. Might not come out too great in the low light, though.”
“Worth a shot,” I said. He nodded.
The next morning, I made coffee while Phil typed up his report. I could tell he was impatiently waiting for the evening, so I made a list of local stuff we could do to help the time pass more quickly for him. He finished up and we went out and had a fun, eventful day.
The sun drowned itself in the lake while we ate dinner. Individual fireflies right outside the window were already signalling, as if they wanted to do as much talking as possible before the fog made their job harder. I told Phil to go outside and leave the dishes to me. He didn’t argue.
I watched from the kitchen window as Phil dragged a lawn chair out to the line where the yard met the forest. He sat with his phone and his tablet and waited while fog drifted in around him.
He didn’t need to wait long.
An orb of fireflies coalesced no more than 20 feet from my friend. I stopped washing up and stepped out onto the porch to watch Phil get his footage. He held his phone out like he was Spielberg filming his next award-winning movie.
“I don’t know if this is gonna work,” he called to me. “Too damn dark.” He put the phone on the chair and tried to record with the camera in his tablet. “That’s a little better,” he said. “I think the camera in this thing is better in low light.”
He recorded for a minute, then I saw two more orbs coming in off the lake. Perfect. The waitress told me the smaller masses would sometimes join bigger ones, so I hoped that was the case. Phil noticed them too and called out, “that’s so cool!”
The new masses of fireflies converged on the one in the yard. The fog was dense and I was having trouble seeing Phil, but the glow of the bugs had produced a peaceful, pale-yellow haze.
I heard Phil swearing to himself. The filming wasn’t going very well.
“How about a picture?,” I asked. “That might help with the light problem. Try to take a lot of shots in a row and maybe you can animate them in the computer afterward.”
Phil didn’t say anything, but I saw him move the tablet down as if he were changing some settings. He held it back up, and flashes exploded through the fog as he took picture after picture.
“This is gonna screw up the way their illumination looks,” he shouted, “but at least I can show how they’re clustered together.”
Flash after flash after flash bloomed through the thick fog. Above us, the sky lit up as distant lightning announced a coming storm. Indeed, a storm had been forecasted for the early morning hours, but apparently it was ahead of schedule. “You see that?”
“Yeah,” Phil replied. “I’ll get inside before the rain.”
He kept snapping pictures. On the outskirts of the yard, I noticed more light. There were new orbs. Lots of them, ranging from ones the size of a lemon to others the size of watermelon. “Phil!,” I shouted, “check those out!”
More orbs coalesced and moved in the direction of Phil, apparently attracted by the strobing camera. The lightning flashed again. Brighter this time. Closer. There was no accompanying thunder.
Now there were tens of the firefly clusters, and the yard was a blur of pale yellow that threatened to compete with the camera flashes. “This is f*****g awesome!,” Phil hollered, and almost as if in response, more lightning lit up the fog. It was almost blinding now, and I said to Phil we should probably go in. “Hang on,” he replied. “I’m almost done.”
All the firefly masses formed one colossal ball the size of mid-sized car, which hovered directly above Phil. There was another burst of lightning, this time accompanied by a gust of wind so powerful it knocked me down. The mass of fireflies scattered. And Phil screamed.
I jumped back to my feet just in time to be nearly blinded by an explosion of intense light coming from where my buddy was standing. I squinted and tried to acclimate my vision. Phil kept hollering. “What’s going on?!,” I shouted to him. There was no reply other than hysterical gibberish.
My eyes slowly acclimated to the light and I when I realized why Phil was screaming, I gasped and backed up to the house. A glowing firefly the size of a school bus was pinning him to the ground. He struggled and thrashed, but the insect must have weighed tons. Its wings fluttered and a hurricane-force wind pushed me against the house and flung leaves and branches from the nearby trees.
“Help!,” Phil shouted, over and over. I was too terrified to move. I could only watch as the hideously luminescent creature held my friend under its bulk.
A small drop of pure, white light fell from the mandible of the monstrous bug. Phil’s scream grew high pitched and inhuman. More of the liquid light drooled from the firefly’s mouth. I smelled burning. Burning clothes. Burning grass. Burning meat. A pool of radiance formed where Phil was pinned. His screaming stopped.
The firefly lurched up and took to the air, the wind from its wings shattering windows in the house and tossing me to the ground. It was gone. The light was gone. The orbs were gone. All that remained was a puddle of horrible luminescence.
I ran in the house and dialed 911, spoke to them for a minute, then stepped warily toward the liquid light. The stench was overwhelming. I gagged and got closer. The fog was making it difficult to see anything with proper resolution. But soon, I was only a couple feet away. It all came into focus.
The acidic light, which was now starting to dim, had destroyed everything it had touched. Tattered, singed clothing still smoked. The skeletal remains of my friend still steamed. And gripped in his bony hand, the melting tablet still sat, its flash strobing with dying pulses as the acid ate it away.