That summer, a few weeks after we buried Dad, Ross trapped a cardinal in the Mason jar. He messed with me about that bird until I almost wept like a little sister was supposed to. Standing at the top of the sun-beaten steel slide, he raised the jar to the burning light. Shook it. The cardinal fluttered inside the glass.
“Don’t!” I yelled up at Ross.
“I’m older than you.”
“That’s bullshit,” I argued. Everyone had started cussing after sixth grade but with little Danny around, I tried not to. It was hard, though, because of Ross. Stood as a broad freshman. Behaved like a deranged first grader. “Just cause you’re older, you don’t get to—” The cardinal cocked his head and cried in the jar. “You’re hurting him!”
Danny squatted on the bottom edge of the slide, glued to my old yellow Nintendo Game Boy. I gave the video game to him since Mom couldn’t afford the new one. She worked overnight at a convenient store. Slept through the summer days. Almost invisible. Left me to look after Danny and protect him from Ross.
Danny needed big dorky glasses right after the funeral. Said he saw Dad in the cornfield with them on. A boy’s weird way of dealing with death, I figured. Or maybe he was losing it like Ross. Maybe we all were.
“Knock-knock,” Ross teased, rapping his knuckle against the jar.
Dad limped on fresh cut grass. Carrying the jar, he struggled into the reeds, vanishing. Frogs croaked from the flatland of soggy woods. A cool evening in late May. Purple sky over the darkened trees. Some red from the sunset remained above the cornfield on the other side of the road. Fireflies glowed in the high grasses and reeds at the edge of our backyard. Ross roasted marshmallows and hot dogs over the bonfire. Danny tapped his video game, squinting.
“You need glasses,” Mom said to him, tousling his hair.
“Mallow or dog, Jess?” Ross asked.
“Atta girl,” Mom said.
We braided our dark hair. Mine a thick rope of knots, hers a tight sleek fishtail. Ross and Danny helped Dad gather the sticks and logs for the fire while we braided. Mom had to start over on mine because I got up when Dad built the pyramid. I handed him the kindling, then told him sit down and tell us where to place things. He fell off a roof one day at work and never recovered, arms and legs like the twigs Danny handed me. Dad was the only one with glasses then.
“Where is he?” Mom said, looking back.
She called his name. Fireflies flashed near the reeds. Yellow-green specks floated and faded, floated and faded, slower than the ones Dad cupped in his hands to show me when I was Danny’s age, the bright bug in his palms, then in mine. No answer.
“Jess,” Mom said, “go see if he’s okay back there.”
“Why can’t Danny go?” I said.
“Danny’s helping with the food,” Ross said. He blew out a fiery marshmallow. “Check on him, Jess.”
I remembered his dark eyes in the firelight. Soft and warm. Bright with dancing flames. Fixed on a charred marshmallow.
“You’re killing him, Ross!”
July was suffocation. Trees wavered in the warped thickness of heat and humidity. My moist skin felt coated. Smothered by a sticky layer of invisible mud. Ross wrapped his red shirt around his head to make a bandana. The pasty skin of his torso glimmered in the harsh sunlight. I was reminded of Dad’s pale face in the coffin. His dead expression. Tired and hurt. In pain. Danny wiped drops of sweat off his video game with his Pokémon shirt.
“Danny, do girls know how knock-knock jokes work?” Ross asked.
Danny let out a nervous laugh before lowering his head. The cardinal flapped and flapped against the jar. Wanting to fly. Cicadas trilled and buzzed. Long branches reached over the mossy roof of our narrow house. Birds rose into a V and soared in the direction of the cornfield. The cardinal banged against the glass wall of the jar, singing for sky and trees and air. His red wings fluttered and folded, fluttered and folded, in failure of flight.
“Goddammit, Ross.” Danny squinted when he heard me, more afraid of my voice than the word. I sounded like Ross. “Just let him go. All he wants to do is fly.”
“I don’t give a flying fuck.” Danny looked up again. “What difference does it make anyway? The bird’s gonna die at some point.”
Ross knocked his knuckles against the jar. The cardinal shuddered and cried.
In those months after Dad’s death, I watched Ross spiral into a strange distortion of grief. Stole money from Mom. Stole the jar from my room. Stole disgusting shit from the movie store in town. Watched hours of sex in his room. I could hear all of it in mine. I barged in once to throw a book at him. Instead I found Danny by himself. Frozen in confused terror. Naked people on the screen. Maybe Dad saw what became of Ross, of all of us. I thought of him limping behind the reeds somewhere.
“Alright, alright,” Ross laughed. “All you have to do is answer the joke and I’ll let this little bitch go.”
I glanced at the jar. Then at Danny, who waited for my answer.
I pushed through the wall of reeds. Their feathered tops shed onto my shoulders as I pressed between thorny bushes. Fireflies illuminated the deep expanse of tangled thickets of shrubs and ivy. Discovery of a second world. Darkness flashing with stars of green light.
“Dad,” I called through the forest.
Far back in the woods, I spotted him in a small glade near the creek beneath the blinking lights. Slumped against a large rock on the ground, he bowed his face over his lap. A strong light was in his hands as if he had plucked a green star from the sky.
“Dad,” I called again.
Earlier that day, I had my first one. I rushed to the upstairs bathroom and bled into the clear toilet water. I knew what was happening. Still freaked me out. Dad stopped me in the hallway with his hand on my shoulder when I came out.
“You look like you just saw a ghost,” he said. His hand trembled. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” I replied.
“Dad,” I said in the woods. He didn’t move. I picked up my pace, splashing in the creek and over the damp floor of the dark green world I had discovered behind the reeds.
I could never tell with Ross’s eyes. Dark blue marbles. Same as Mom’s. I prayed those eyes might fall out and roll down the slide and land in the dirt. I’d wash them under the faucet. Study them with a magnifying glass.
“Who’s there?” I asked again.
“Norway you’re getting this fucking jar!”
Ross stomped down the slide, shoved Danny, and sprinted around the house with the jar.
“My game!” Danny cried. He picked up the yellow console and showed me the screen. “It’s cracked!”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Look. See? You can still play it.” I picked up his glasses and cleaned the oblong lenses with my shirt. “Here. It’ll be okay. Come on.”
Danny and I hurried around the juniper bushes to find Ross on the other side of the street. He stood before the green cornfield. Heat rolled off the pavement. I hoped his marble eyes might pop out. He’d feel for them on the hot road until an Amish buggy crushed him. He pounded his chest with his fist a few times before disappearing into the cornfield.
“Just tell on him, Jessica,” Danny whined. “Don’t leave. You won’t find him. Ross knows everything about the cornfield.”
“No, he doesn’t.” The cornfield never belonged to us. We sometimes snuck in and played there even though we weren’t supposed to. “Don’t listen to all those things he says about ghosts and murderers and giant snakes. It’s just a cornfield.”
“Please just tell on him first.”
Above us, a high droning rose and drowned out the cicadas. Far in the sky, a plane circled past the trees surrounding the farmland.
“Oh shit.” I grabbed Danny’s hand and rushed inside to wake up Mom. “Come on!”
“Dad! Dad! Dad!”
I sprinted across the shallow creek and shook his shoulders. His head fell back on the rock. Mouth agape. Eyes shut. I screamed for Mom. A chorus of frogs sang. The creek flowed over stones and twigs.
In his dead hands beamed the jar, full of fireflies and gathered light. I looked at him and waited for his eyes to open.
A crane fly landed on his forehead.
“Go stand with your brother!” Mom said after she turned around in the road. Her hair was frizzy and wild, like she tossed and turned in a haunted sleep. I wanted to wash her head and braid a fishtail.
“You shut your mouth and do what I say, Jessica!”
“Fuck you,” I said, low enough she couldn’t hear it.
She disappeared into the cornfield. I hustled back to Danny. He was looking through the binoculars he had taken from Dad’s desk when we went inside. Dad got into bird watching after his fall. He said it eased him. Finding birds took his mind off the pain.
After completing its circle, the plane flew over the distant silos again, heading our way. The cornfield rose high like a great green wave with the farmhouse and silos upon the faraway crest.
“You see them?” I asked.
Danny shook his head. “Can you melt to death if that spray gets on you?”
“No. It’s bad for you, but you won’t melt.”
“But Ross said that—”
“Ross is full of crap, Danny.” He glanced up at me, confused. “He’s a liar. Don’t listen to him.” He peered through the binoculars again. “Give me those for a sec.”
“Wait,” he whispered. “I see him.”
“Does Ross have the jar?”
“No, no. It’s Dad. I see him. He has a smile.” Danny gasped, then smiled beneath the binoculars. “Now he’s waving.” He waved his hand at the cornfield. “He sees me.”
“Danny, please, not now,” I said.
With a loud roar, the plane descended. White spray in the sky. A ghost over the cornfield. Mom ran out with the empty jar in her hands. The spray spread into a mist behind her.
“It’s okay,” she coughed. She held the jar like a football player. Her other arm wrapped over Danny’s shoulders. “It’s okay.”
“Is Ross alive?” Danny asked.
“I know where he is,” Mom said.
Back inside the house, Ross waited in Dad’s chair at the kitchen table. He wore his red shirt now. Sweat dripped down his forehead. His hair tangled into black flames.
“She saved him!” I yelled. “Mom saved the cardinal!” I took the empty jar and held it above my head.
“So what if she did.” Ross stared out the window. His eyes followed the plane in the sky. He spoke softly, his voice weak and choked up, faltering. “You think I give a fuck about a bird? It’s gonna die anyway. Like the rest of us.”
“Enough!” Mom ordered. “Waking me up for this nonsense. You,” she said to Ross. “In my room now. Who do you think you are?”
I walked away, pissed off, carrying the Mason jar. I stopped Danny in the hallway upstairs. The binoculars were still on his neck.
“Did you see the cardinal fly out of the cornfield?”
“I don’t know. I saw Mom running out with the jar.” Danny sat down at the top of the stairs. Before I went into my room, he said, “But I really did see him, Jess. I saw Dad in the cornfield. He waved at me.”
“Danny, stop it.”
“It was him.”
“I said stop.”
The jar fell out of my hands and rolled on the carpet. I walked into my room and collapsed on my bed and thought about praying. My sweat dampened the sheets. I didn’t know what to pray for. I just kept saying God, please. Please, God. Please. Please.
I grabbed the scissors on my nightstand. I held my breath for a long time. I dragged the closed blades beneath my shirt. I opened them and pressed the cold edge into the skin of my collar bone and breathed on the pillow. I pressed harder. I stopped praying to God and spoke to the cardinal instead. I know she saved you. I know you’re alive. I know you’re flying.
My heart jumped. I slid the scissors under the pillow.
I wiped the tears from my cheeks and rolled over. It was Danny. He stood in the doorway, iridescent, gazing down the hall, his finger pointed at the flashing floor and his glasses glowing with a soft reflection of emerald light.