Fire Flies

byBaalatErotas©

Sometimes summer is more than just a season. Sometimes it's an entire world; it's lifetimes; it's emotions. In this world, these lives and these hearts, summer burns from within.

*** *** ***



I knew I had a problem on my hands when the sight of her painted toenails captivated me. There was plenty to catch a man's eye, no lie. But her pink nails were the flashing warning lights for me.

***



On the first sunset of summer -- weeks before -- the only pink in my life had been the sunflowers Linda Hani brought to my house. Long stems, intense petals, deeply sweet fragrance.

"Can you believe this colour??" She was a woman as neat and precise as the cornrows she favoured; her excitement evident only in the slight lift in her tone. "I planted dozens when we first moved in -- and struggled with them every year until our daughter was finally born. I'd specifically ordered purple because I was curious to see purple sunflowers. The ones I planted for my son were meant to be red. Every single bloom turned out pink. Umhlolo wodwa, I tell you."

"They're beautiful, Lin. Thank you."

She was arranging them in a tall vase I didn't even know had been in one of my cupboards -- but her gaze kept flitting around up high. "You have a tiny guest."

"Yeah, I know." I didn't bother looking up. "I don't know how it got in."

"Bees in the home mean you will have a visitor."

"I've had a month from hell constructing contracts for a huge sponsorship initiative -- the manpower on the original concept has quadrupled and I keep getting called in for duties outside my own." I rubbed my eyes to ease the ache behind them. "So, it's a good thing that's a firefly and not a bee. I'm in no mood for visitors for a while."

"You never are." Subtle admonishment. "It's not natural spending so much time alone in this huge, quiet house."

"I've only been alone for seven years -- so far. And, if I'd known it would be this nice, I would've done it sooner."

My feeble joke was ignored as the enormous bouquet took shape. I decided to distract myself by opening a beer, hoping it would wash down the aftertaste of my words.

Linda went to place the arrangement in the formal lounge then returned. She patted my back sympathetically.

But it was with a smile that she tracked my tiny airborne intruder.

"Fireflies are even better," she stated. "They bring you your soulmate."

***



The car company wanted a summer promotional campaign to debut along with the sponsorship programme. Numerous site visits and meetings have done little to clarify how many inhouse members versus how many external experts, freelancers and temps would be combined to form their team. They'd pitched the tip of the concept to me and were now incrementally dropping the rest of the iceberg.

It pissed me off when clients expected to wheedle free consultancy advice out of the man strictly contracted for... contracts.

I spent the next few days home revising my agreement with them to include a working fee, analysis and consultancy agreement for what they were now hoping I'd slip in gratis. I spent that Sunday in my study after sending it through.

Zama Hani called just before sunset to check if I was home. At my confirmation, he announced he'd be over in five minutes -- with a surprise.

I barely registered his presence when he finally did step through my door.

My eyes were glued to her. "Olivia..."

She walked straight into my arms.

Her afro was much larger than it had been five years ago. Her face lit up as she responded to my compliment with an explanation about her new natural hair treatments; teeth brightly white as she laughed at my blatant confusion. I made a point of not taking in the opulence of her breasts and the tempting lusciousness of the tummy roll that engendered nothing but disdain when I held her on that first day back and said she'd grown.

It occurred to me that I'd never had to make myself not look before.

Her reply was, "If nothing else, I've proven indisputably that I'm better at growing fat than I am at growing up."

The self-deprecating humour still there after all these years as she pursed her lips. I shook my head as her remark could not have been further from the truth -- but scepticism met my opinion.

"Mama tells me all the fireflies had disappeared for a while."

She still had me wrapped in her warmth.

"Every day you were gone," I told her.

"It's a good thing I'm home then." Her lips curled and her light brown eyes did that thing where they filled the whole house with the warmth of her joy. "And... I knew you'd say the perfect thing to make me feel better about being back here, you know."

Her father, my best friend in the world, was laughing. "Isn't this just beautiful, old friend? I would not have wished unemployment on my daughter per se -- but, after years of begging her to visit home instead of making her poor parents chase after her, I am just the happiest man alive to have my sunshine home."

Olivia smiled up at me.

Yes. Just beautiful.

***



Her first week home flew by.

Her parents threw a lavish dinner that Saturday and announced to all guests that Olivia was down but most definitely not out. She would rise again and slay her dragons. I felt stupid for being the only one with a gift; more so for having brought something so childish.

"I haven't made or worn these in years." Her words, spoken in a tone low and smooth, jerked me into the realisation that she wasn't a little girl anymore.

"I'm sorry. I haven't seen you in five years... I forgot that you aren't eighteen anymore."

She turned the little wristband loom kit over then met my gaze with a raised eyebrow. "Yeah, but I haven't made these since I was thirteen..."

"Shit." I wondered how rude it would be to leave before dinner was even served. "Sorry."

"Ten years ago."

"My apology can never express how moronic I feel right now."

She laughed. Her makeup had a shimmer to it that made even her musical laugh seem to glow around us.

At the beginning of her second week, I went down to my kitchen to find her sipping coffee and reading a book. Dostoevsky. Of course. She told me she'd come over at four-thirty, right before her parents woke up. I scratched my beard and tried to make sense of the lit candles all around the breakfast nook.

She pulled out a chair for me. "Not everything has to come with practical reasons, you know. Come enjoy my early indoor sunrise with me."

The warm flicker of lights all around me did make it feel like I was standing at the center of the rising sun.

Olivia wore loose layers of clothing that I couldn't identify as individual items. I sat down, and she poured two coffees then served me the biggest plate of breakfast I'd ever seen. We talked about the five years we'd spent apart, gradually stitching our separate experiences together to close the time-apart gap while she stole bites from my plate.

She didn't even notice how often she stopped her food pilfering to tap and trace my bare arm with the tips of her fingers. Like a thousand times before. No one but the two of us knew that she found my freckles somewhat mesmerising, and would often get lost "counting" them or "connnecting the dots".

I realised how much I'd missed her as I was forced to eat with my left hand so she could have her way with my right arm.

When the actual sun finally rose, we barely noticed it.

"You're greying."

I chewed on.

"Your hair," she clarified unnecessarily. "I mean, there were already a few grey hairs before I left -- but now... they're kind of everywhere, aren't they?"

I glared at her. "Thanks."

"I like it."

I shook my head.

"No, really," she insisted. "Who knew red hair --

"Brown."

"Red."

"Brown."

"That reddish hair would look this nice with grey through it? If it makes you feel any better your beard is still red. Well. Mostly."

I leaned back in my seat, pinning her with the full magnitude of my glare. "Are you punishing me by calling me old?"

"Who said anything about 'old', Ian? And what possible reason on earth could I have for wanting to punish you... you, the man who bought me a child's gift? Hm?" She was giggling softly as she worked her way through the cluster of button mushrooms on my plate. "No, seriously now. I really do like the grey; it goes with your eyes."

My coffee was finished, so I took her mug.

"And I like your hair short like that -- and the obsessively neat beard," she continued, "even if you only tidied up to hide all the grey."

"I tidied up because I've outgrown the unkempt rockstar look."

"The shaggy puppy look, you mean."

"I am a highly esteemed entrepreneur, a master of business law, who has locked down some of the biggest contracts this country will never know about -- and does not need to put up with name-calling."

"You should be getting to your study to get some more work done. I'm sure there are huge corporations dying for more magic from the master rainmaker, not old news about old deals."

She got to her feet and began tidying up.

She insisted on this -- helping, working -- even when a guest in another's home or around people employed to do the work. I finished her coffee while watching her.

I rose to my full height but, where this might have caused another to do a double-take, she barely blinked. I was tall, but not vastly so -- there was just something about the fullness of my presence that gave others pause. My full height, the deepest tones of my voice, the full intensity of my attention. People seemed to prefer me in small measures -- so, I liked that I didn't need to hold back with Olivia. Never have.

She told me a bit about the tiny flat she'd lived in before coming back home; how she was almost certain it could fit in my enormous kitchen -- but mostly she worked in silence. At one point, she propped her fist on her hip to express impatience. I stepped out of her way with a smile, a little baffled by how often my eyes returned to those hips.

I could not work out when -- or how -- they had come to curve quite like that.

All evidence of her surprise breakfast disappeared in a matter of minutes.

"Walk me home, will you?" The flowing layers of light material swished in delayed response as she turned to me. "You could do with a little leg stretch, old man."

We lived at the top of what was technically a cul-de-sac though it didn't look anything like the generic sets in popular series and sitcoms. No music skipped along, depicting characters' moods; no gleaming cars or fake-looking housewives...

No other people at all, in fact.

Our houses, half a kilometre apart, were significantly removed from our neighbours who were nestled way back from the elevated plateau we shared. The streets down that way were far busier and a little too brightly lit. We liked the fact that our corner of paradise was so quiet and often overlooked as most people didn't know there were two more properties past the sharp road curve up the slope from our neighbours.

That walk from my house to theirs and back was such a familiar part of our families' routines that I felt a thankful burst of appreciation for suddenly feeling like Olivia was truly home. We were talking and walking again. Together again.

*** *** ***



She snapped in her third week.

Her parents were driving her up the wall -- inundating her with information and contacts, pushing her to get back out there. Network; get another job; excel. Climb that ladder -- never look down, just climb and climb and climb.

She spent even more time at my house; and, eventually, pieces of her previous job entered our chats until I could put together a picture that showed how overwhelmed she'd been right from the beginning.

It was a miracle she'd lasted a year and a half.

"I shouldn't have ventured anywhere near accounting." She was sorting my books out -- apparently I'd shelved my entire library "wrong".

"You can't know that after one job."

"I know it after one job and one hundred future potentials my parents are shoving down my throat, Ian."

"Most people don't have a hundred options, Liv."

She stopped abruptly. "You think I'm being ungrateful? That I don't know how fortunate I am to have what I have? Acknowledging wrong choices is not the same as ingratitude."

The sun was setting and I was still wearing the suit I'd returned in an hour ago. Whisky in hand. The waning light reached out to her, seeking contact with her brown skin.

"I'm saying you need to live a little more before making sweeping judgements."

Her eyes were darkening. All I was thinking was that I liked that there were still things from the eighteen years of her I knew that lived on in the woman now in her twenties. Anger and sadness always made her eyes look darker.

"I know how hard my folks worked to earn what we have -- and I am thankful for that, for having options at all." She sat down on the top step of the small ladder she'd been standing on. "And you're right: I can't judge things I haven't experienced. I guess the more accurate statement is that I should never have let my parents lead me by the nose as much as I have. Chasing the chartered accountant dream was their idea, not mine."

The sky was red as I walked her home.

The ferociousness of the heat in the fourth week knocked all sense from me.

Winter was my preferred season. People stayed indoors and the summer brightness dimmed right down to something I could tolerate. Soft colours everywhere soothed me -- greys, cloudy blues, the dark browns of stark bark standing vigil around my house.

In winter I could breathe. In a measured and relaxed way that fueled peak performance.

In summer I panted.

I switched to taking my runs before dawn, so that I could cool down in the pool by the time the sun was rising. I did my work with the study blinds closed and planned meals around cold ingredients.

Olivia opened my kitchen door on the hottest afternoon of the month and my first thought at seeing her was that I wanted no one else sharing that sight. The thought that she had come up the road in nothing but a bikini and a sarong, bright bag hooked on her arm, a small cooler bag in the other hand, hair back in an enormous soft puff... well, that thought didn't sit well with me. Her feet were bare as she'd left her white flipflops by the door.

Her toenails were a vibrant pink; one of those shades that looked both cute and sexy. A foreign inner voice warned me to look away, to stop staring at her toenails and the bare parts of the rest of her.

Bare for just anyone to see.

I rolled my shoulders to make the strange protectiveness slide down my back and off me.

"Can I have a quick swim?" She pulled a red tub from the cooler bag. "I'll trade you some ice cream for one afternoon of peace."

"Your parents love you." I hoped she wouldn't misread the roughness in my tone.

"Too much sometimes, yes."

I was wondering if the last five years showed as harshly on me as they did shine beautifully through her newfound adulthood. Olivia -- now so suddenly a woman with unexpected insights and a disconcerting directness that matched my own.

Where had the years gone?

And when had this queen risen from a young girl's dreams?

"There's no such thing as too much parental love." I smiled to curb her mild irritation.

Zama and Linda, her parents, were aggressively energetic go-getters.

I'd met Zama in high school -- an angry Black boy who was raised by a single mom who could barely afford anything beyond covering the loan payments for their little two-bedroom home and his school fees. He'd spat out any words to do with how much they struggled. He'd snarled the rest. I was the only kid in school willing to fight with him long enough to become his friend.

He'd married Linda straight out of university and the two have never looked back since. Transformation, security and success had been non-negotiable for Zama.

The Hani family now lived in the biggest house in the area with a pantry the size of a mini-mart and eight people in their personal employ on the property. Eighty more in Zama's company.

"So, what drove you out today?" My fingers brushed Olivia's as I took the cold tub from her. "A new list of job ads?"

"Motivational speech."

"That's not too bad."

"This one came with mantras."

I chuckled as I stepped aside to let her in. I liked the new womanly sway to her walk.

She'd always been comfortable in her skin -- and that confidence was now enhanced by the maturity of being twenty-three and the survivor of her first big challenge. Women dance their evolution in the way they walk, make coffee, shop, garden, embrace another... everything they do.

Olivia's steps into my house were already showing sketches of her fierce femininity.

"Tell me the worst ones," I prompted.

She shook her head. "I'm here to forget them, not rehearse them."

"Come on, humour your ol' Uncle Ian." I managed to annoy myself with my lame attempt at a joke. So stupid to call myself that when she never ever had.

Her skin was a rich chocolate hue, a tone she acquired each summer with all the swimming she did. Her skin normally matched the creamy cappuccino tones of her mother's lighter skin throughout the year -- then deepened by mid-spring. She was a child of the sun, a flame herself -- and an dedicated devotee to passing hours outdoors worshipping nature.

And, oh, what a paradise her parents have created for her.

We lived at the tip of a very long, very quiet street. Quiet because Zama had purchased about twenty acres of land stretching along our plateaued paradise. He'd built his own haven on three acres, sold me and Helen three acres for a song -- and the rest was left untouched.

Trees, bushes and wild flowers grew freely along the gentle slopes; and our respective houses nestled in the green and gold of flora and sunlight. Serenely overlooking the city. The rest of the suburb's houses were a couple kilometres away, beyond the sharp road curve, where "civilisation" began. Too far back to share our view.

This was the secluded yet luxuriant world in which Liv grew up, dancing about barefoot and now visiting my home half-dressed.

She fetched a towel from the closet outside the downstairs guest bathroom then returned. Her expression was speculative though amusement was twinkling in her light brown eyes now.

"I am proud to be positive, inspired, empowered and pumped." Her full lips compressed, making her cheeks dimple.

I laughed a little louder than before.

She grinned and gave me another of her mantras. "YES and no less. YES and no stress. My YES is my bless."

After raiding the fridge, I led the way to the pool area out back. "My 'bless'...?"

"I think that one only works if it rhymes."

It was a blindingly beautiful blue-sky day.

I had joined her outside without thinking. It was only as I set the lemonade, beer and fruit platter on the poolside table then opened the large umbrella, that I wondered if she wanted no company at all. We all have keys, codes and access to each others' properties, have for over two decades now, often visiting unannounced and using what we need. She'd specifically come here to escape her parents and her stress. Did that mean she wouldn't want me around for the day either?

"You have always made the best lemonade." Her praise came after chugging a full glass.

"I had to make something of my life." I relaxed into a seat at her inviting demeanour and put my feet up. "Mastering lemonade seemed a respectable accomplishment."

"Now you're just fishing for compliments -- you know you rule in the kitchen," she scoffed. "In fact, if you had left instead of Helen, I'd stand a better chance of shaking off these damn fat rolls..."

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