“This is a bad idea,” whispered Joey, hardly daring to breathe.

“Don’t be a chicken,” hissed Daniel. “Is the coast clear? Is there anybody on the road?

With a little huff, Joey’s head popped up out of the bush like a gopher and surveyed the area warily. There was nothing up the street and nothing down it, either; no cars, no people, not even a passing flock of geese overhead. So far as the boy could see, the world outside their secret hiding place in the shrubbery by Chestnut Hill Road was deserted and quiet. Giving the street one last sweep with his eyes, he hunkered silently back down into the bush to give his report. “Nothing. It’s dead quiet.”

“Then let’s go already. My legs are starting to cramp!” Daniel rubbed his smarting calves and grimaced.

“Danny, I’m not sure about all of this,” said Joey, beginning to bite his lip worriedly. “Can you imagine how much trouble we’d get in if our folks found out we went near that spot? Where, y’know, it happened to Roland and all? And what if it happens to us? He was always careful! If it happened to Roland, it could happen to us, too! What then, Danny?”

“Would you stop worrying so much?” Daniel whispered angrily. “It’s not nearly as dark as it was when Roland was out here. Besides, you just said yourself, there’s nobody on the road! What could happen if there’s nobody on the road?” He fidgeted in the bush. “I can’t stay in this stupid shrub any longer. I think there’s poison ivy in here!”

“I know. I know. I’m hurting, too,” Joey assured him. “But please! Can’t we just go home? I don’t think I even want to be near that spot! What if there are still bloodstains or something? I don’t want to see his blood, Danny, I really don’t. I’m not sure what I’d do!”

“Idiot,” hissed Daniel.  “There aren’t any bloodstains. Don’t you think the cops have people to clean all that stuff up? They wouldn’t just take the body and leave the blood. It’s not proper police work—my dad said so.” Suddenly, Daniel, who could bear the cramped hiding spot no longer, sprang up out of the bush like a firework and stretched his arms. Down the road to the west was an orange inferno, which engulfed the sky with its flames and burned the horizon. Reluctantly, Joey stood and joined his friend. The last, fading rays of sunlight shot out across the landscape and played patterns across the boys’ faces, illuminating them with a haunting, yellowy glow.

“It’s about to get dark,” said Joey, nervously.

“Then let’s go before it does. There’s no point in dawdling here.” With that, the two boys stole silently as shadows across the road, their silhouettes etched like purple ghosts against the blaze of the setting sun. Coming to the other side of the street, opposite to where they had been camouflaged in the bushes, they were faced with looming cattails that stood at least three heads taller than either of them: the edge of the marsh.

“Look,” Joey pointed off to their left. There, in front of the reeds, was a little wooden cross with several bouquets of fresh flowers heaped beneath it. At the center of the cross, where one line met the other, was a picture frame with a photo portrait inside: a young boy with twinkling eyes and curly, unkempt hair. The picture in that frame was all too familiar to the boys, and even bold Daniel dared not look its subject, their old friend, in the eyes. “Is that where Roland… I mean where the car—” Joey could not bring himself to finish the question.

“Yes, of course it is,” Daniel said. “Why else do you think they’d put a cross there? It’s like, well, it’s sort of like a grave.”  He still kept his eyes averted and far away from the spot.

“But I thought they buried him up in Madison.”

“Not an actual grave, dummy. Sort of like a tribute where people can come and pay their respects. It’s got a picture and everything. Graves don’t have pictures. I don’t know why his mom insisted they bury him so far away in Madison.” Daniel sighed. “I guess because that’s where she lives now. It’s too bad his dad didn’t make them bury him here, in this town. The grave’d be so much closer and we could visit it, but I guess everyone figures this’ll have to do for now. It’s not so bad.”

“I guess not,” said Joey.

“Come on.” Daniel beckoned his friend. “If that’s where his body was, that means that’s where he came out of the marsh, so the path must be there. The path to the stars he was always talking about.” Without another word, the two companions slipped past the roadside memorial, neither of them daring to venture even the smallest breath in its presence. There was indeed a path behind it, if one could call it a path at all; it was only a spot where the cattails parted slightly. If they hadn’t been looking for it, they were sure they never would have discerned it at all.

Eager to escape the quiet and get off the roadside where they might be spotted, Daniel and Joey stepped down into the reeds and onto a long path of soft marsh mud. It was a springy sort of mud and they plodded along it quietly, the cattails above parting suddenly like the Red Sea and then closing behind them. Slowly, they were swallowed whole by the marsh and consumed into its symphony of cicadas and far-off loon calls.

“Are you sure this is the right path, Danny?” asked Joey. “It doesn’t look like much of a path to me.”

“Yes,” shot Daniel over his shoulder. “Look, you can still see where his footprints are. They’re all dry in the mud. See?” He gestured wildly to some shallow prints in the dirt.

“I wonder if those are the prints from that night,” mused Joey. “I wonder if these are the last steps he ever took. They’re like fossils in the dirt.” The thought was a sobering one and the boys resumed their journey with renewed cautiousness, taking care not to disturb the dusty footprints, the last earthy memories of their fallen friend.

“Only a little further, I think,” exclaimed Daniel suddenly over the incessant drone of cicadas.

“Why are you so intent on doing this anyway, Danny?” said Joey, stepping over some driftwood. “You’ve got to know Roland was lying. I loved him as much as the next kid, but there’s no way that there’s a secret portal to outer space in the middle of this marsh. That’s just nonsense, wormholes and all of that.  He never saw any stars or planets or anything like that. He was just making it up. Just for fun.”

“Of course he was making it up. I know that!” snapped Daniel indignantly. “Roland was always trying to get us to come down here to see all the stars and galaxies. But I always had Little League practice and you were always too scared of the dark, so he just went alone. I figure he made up all those silly things because he had nothing better to do wandering around in a smelly old marsh like this. But he talked about them so much, I figure it’s better we just go and see it for ourselves, just to put his stupid old fairy stories to rest. Just to be sure.”

The two meandered on deeper into the marsh as the sun sunk lower into the horizon, smothering the world in hues of hazy pink and gold. Soon, the buzz of cicadas gave way to the faint croaking of bullfrogs, and the sun disappeared completely over the hills. The reeds above them shimmered blue in the dusk and cast long, fading shadows as the light all but disappeared. Darkness and quiet swept over the salt marsh like a tidal wave and their breath caught in their throats.

“It’s dark,” murmured Joey, his voice trembling

“I know, I know. We’ll be home soon. It can’t be far. Just keep going.” As if on cue, the two companions stumbled into a clearing. The marsh grass they had emerged from closed behind them and stood somberly like a wall, forbidding their return. This clearing was black, black as the blackest patch of midnight, and quiet, too; even the bullfrogs were silent here.

“Is this it?” asked Joey. “I can hardly see anything.”

“It must be.” Daniel spread out his hands and gestured at the arena of cattails before them. “Come on.” They made their way into the center of the clearing and stood silently. “He always said you had to stand real still, just like this. Probably just more of his nonsense. Always making up fairytales, he always had his head in the clouds.” Daniel’s voice had begun to quiver. “Come on, let’s just go home.” He spun on his heels and began to head back to the path from which they had come, but Joey arrested his movement, drawing his friend close.

“We came this far, Daniel. We might as well stay a little longer. Here, stay close; it’s hard to see you in the dark and I don’t want to get separated.” Joey smiled at Daniel, who sighed and relented. “Don’t you want to see Roland’s Milky Way?”

“There is no Milky Way out here,” reminded Daniel. “Remember? It’s impossible.” The two boys stood silently, hardly daring to breathe. The night drew on and the dark only became darker. When they both felt like they had waited long enough, they sighed and began to turn. But something caught Daniel’s eye.

“Look,” he whispered. “Look over there.” He pointed to the reeds before them. There, glowing faintly between the reeds was a pinprick of light. Suddenly, more sprung up in sporadic patterns across the wall of cattails, like stars plastered against the canvas of a night sky. As Joey and Daniel watched, entranced, even more began to shimmer through the darkness, twinkling like stars just as Roland had described them so many times. Soon, thousands of them speckled the gloomy marsh and wheeled before the boys like spinning galaxies and planets, whirling in some great, cosmic collage. Here was Neptune, and there, Orion’s belt; dozens of constellations danced before their eyes and swirled into a wondrous Milky Way. In only moments, an entire universe overflowing with light had exploded into being all around them.

“Fireflies,” whispered Joey, though he could not tear his eyes away from the spectacle. “Do you think this is what Roland was talking about?” Daniel said nothing, for his throat was choked with a hidden sob. Soon, the galaxies and stars dimmed and made their way to some other corner of the universe, probably to buzz around salt pools nearby. The two boys did likewise and tramped silently back through the marsh, still taking care not to disturb Roland’s footprints, although they were indistinguishable from their own in the darkness. Upon exiting the reeds and crossing the road to go home, they paid the little memorial no heed. Though it was a pleasant tribute, and certainly had its place, they were certain it was not where the spirit of their friend saw fit to rest. No, they were quite sure he was buzzing happily about the cosmos, telling his stories to all the other fireflies— stories of the good times he had spent in fellowship with Daniel and Joey, stories of long summer days when the sun refused to set.

The boys would never speak of this encounter with the stars again. As they melted back into the night, their regrets at never having visited Roland’s secret spot in his living days faded away. They were simply content to remember, and remember they did.

They remembered the fireflies.

Evan DeCarlo’s short story won first prize in 2013 in the First Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. He is a sophomore in the Screenwriting Program at the School of Visual Arts. He is the author of the ongoing young adult trilogy of fantasy novels, Children of The Noah (available on Amazon), and the forthcoming young adult novel, Roland’s Milky Way.