I had to tap the table pretty hard to get Joel’s attention; Hard enough the buns on the back of my head bobbled. He deliberately took a while to look up at me from his magazine.
I signed his special “J” to emphasize what I was going to say. Most people were called by their first initial… it was easier than fingerspelling their whole name. But there were lots of pinky-J’s, so I made Joel a pinky-and-ring-finger-J. Joel was a special J.
I smiled and pushed my hands outward in the shape of a roof. “Vacation?” He looked at me blankly. I signed it again, this time with a more questioning face. His eyes had bags under them, like they always did these days.
I grabbed a piece of paper from the notepad I carried around. “Vacation!! You know that sign!” I gave him a nervous smile to show I wasn’t mad at him as I pushed it in his direction.
He sighed and spoke quietly. “I did know that sign.” A heavy silence hung over us. The quiet these days was different than it used to be. I grabbed the paper back. “Well…?”
Joel pushed his cap up and rubbed between his eyes. “I dunno, Star, could we afford to go anywhere worth goin’?” He obviously saw my heartbreak when he looked up at me.
"I want do…" I paused as I thought before pulling out my thumb, only to slice it downward and skip my hand along like it was a stone on a lake. "Anything."
He smiled, but only with his mouth. It made me mad. He grabbed my hand and led me away from the table, out of the kitchen, and outside. It was pitch dark out, except for…
Flash, flash. Another, flash, flash. Lightning bugs! Joel smiled, let go of my hand, and dashed back inside, coming out with two big mason jars. This time he smiled with his eyes.
We were swift and silent as we caught them. Joel hardly ever laughed, but he had the biggest smile when he was truly happy. This distraction let him be the happiest I had seen him in weeks.
We used to catch fireflies all the time as kids. He was one of the only kids in the neighborhood who really hung out with me. Sure, a lot of kids were begrudgingly dragged over by their parents so I’d never feel “left out”, but that was hardly a substitute for real friends. Joel kept coming over though. He liked the silence between us, even when we were running around and having fun. Silence never had to mean calm with us.
When I ran past him, I couldn’t help but tackle him. He fell to the ground with a soft thud, since the grass and earth were already covered with dew. I smiled so wide tears were coming from my eyes. Joel did his soft wheezing laugh, and snorted a bit. We laid in the grass and caught our breath.
I tapped his arm and placed the bright jar under my hands so he could see my signs.
A finger on my chin, turned sharply. Then, placed in the palm of my opposite hand.
"I miss this."
His smile faded a bit, but he wasn’t sad. He was listening.
My eyes avoided his gaze as I signed again. A finger on my chin, turned sharply. Then, pointed at him.
In a sudden and sharp movement, he grabbed me and hugged me tight. We sat out there, in the wet dark, our jars of trapped glowing bugs strewn somewhere. I was numb more than anything.
But above the soft chirp of crickets and the distant owls, I heard it. Silent as ever, Joel cried. He held me close and for the first time since we were children, he cried. I was dumbfounded, but I hugged him back. Joel was crying.
Crickets chirped. His hat fell off. One of my legs fell asleep, so I moved it, and accidentally kicked one of the jars. A million thoughts raced through my head. A lot and hardly anything happened while we were out there; Time stopped.
Suddenly, he cleared his throat. We both sort of straightened up and shrugged out of each other’s arms. I sat up and looked away. Joel didn’t want me to look at him. His eyes were probably puffy and his nose was probably wet. I stared at the black on dark blue horizon in front of me instead.
"Your aunt will probably start wonderin’ where we’ve been."
I nodded. We stood up. I stared at his chin instead of his eyes.
We picked up our jars and went back inside. I had no idea if it’d been 20 minutes or all night, but the lights were still on. Didn’t mean much, though; Aunt Pattie was a night-owl. And sure enough, she was in the kitchen talking obnoxiously loud as we got close to the screen door.
Joel was slightly ahead of me, but… I grabbed his hand. He looked back at me and we locked eyes. In that moment, more information was transfered between us than words could ever begin to explain. He was going to be okay.
We held hands until the door, and even then, he only let go to hold it open as I went inside.
"Hold on, June! Starlin’s back!" She placed the phone on her saggy bosom as she smiled at us with the beginning of crow’s feet. Aunt Pattie was so delightfully middle-aged. "And where have you kids been?"
I held up my jar of lightning bugs enthusiastically to distract her from Joel’s tear-streaked face. “Well ain’t that cute! Don’t forget to poke some holes in that, dear.”
She turned away and went back to talking on the phone with her friend. They sort of reminded me of sea lions, large and wrinkled, always barking loudly, but happily, at each other.
I held my palm limp as I signed to Joel, waving it back towards me once. “Late.” I smiled sheepishly. I didn’t want him to leave, but his parents were probably worried about him.
He nodded and gave me a smile, with his eyes. “Late,” he signed. We walked to the front door, still open from to the daytime heat. We stopped and hugged again.
"Starling, I…" He shook his head to himself. He looked back up, thinking. After a while, he smiled devilishly.
He snapped his pointer, middle, and thumb together. A swirl of his pointer fingers. Then, one placed in the palm of his opposite hand. “No sign this.” There is no sign… for this.
I grinned, tears in my eyes. I swirled my own pointer fingers, pointed to him, then clasped my thumb and yanked it out of my other hand. “Your signing is shit.” Joel had to giggle a little bit.
We hugged again and he headed down the dark road to his place. I knew he’d like the quiet walk back. I sat down on Aunt Pattie’s porch swing and enjoyed the cool air. I could still hear her from the kitchen.
"Yes, it’s that Masters kids, of course it was! Who else do you ever see her with these days? Did you hear about him, though? …No? …Oh, dear, it’s the saddest thing. His brother, the big tall one? Died. Poor kid found the body, too, out in the woods, after he’d gone a few days. Everybody’s wonderin’ how the kid died, but… honestly, I’m just worried. The father yells enough as it is. And rumor is, they found the body with his daddy’s gun. I’m not saying it’s true, I’m just saying it’s what I heard is true… Oh, I know. I always let him come over, that’s why he’s here so late. Comes to the comfort of Aunt Pattie."
I stepped on a board of the porch that I knew creaked and groaned like a devil. “Oh, June, I’ve got to go.” I heard her click the phone down into the reciever. “Starlin’!”
I braced myself and came inside, making sure each step took as long as possible. “Starlin’, is Joel doin’ okay?” I rolled my eyes. “I’m just always thinkin’, y’know… You two kids spend so much time together… If you need to tell your Auntie Pattie ANYTHING, you know you can, right? …Like if you’d need protection?”
I gave her a sign that’s universally understood, but smirked at her. “Oh, fine, just go to bed. Write it all down in the morning. I’ve got to call up Nancy!”
That night, I fell asleep staring at fireflies in a jar, listening to nothing.