The Very Beginning
The fireflies were mocking him.
Tom was sure of it, as illogical as the thought was. He was a smart kid, and he paid attention in class, and he was five-and-a-half years old – far old enough to understand that fireflies were insects, and were too small to have thoughts of their own. None of that stopped him from yelling at them anyway.
"I'm gonna do that too!" he shouted, from where he stood in the middle of the twilit clearing. The fireflies – predictably – ignored him, and continued buzzing around his head in their unabashed mockery. It was absolutely insulting.
Tom stuck his tongue out at them, because he was five-and-a-half years old, and couldn't think up a better comeback. He jumped off the ground and flapped harder, trying, trying so hard that his muscles almost ached. He fell back to the ground with a hard thud, not even getting an inch off the Earth.
The fireflies continued to mock him.
"Why is it so hard?" Tom complained, to no one in particular, crossing his arms in frustration. The fireflies didn't respond, because they were insects, and insects couldn't talk. At least, they couldn't talk until you made them – Tom's sister had learned the spell for that last week.
Tom reached a hand behind himself to rub his sore back, reaching underneath his Star Wars t-shirt to get at his sweat-soaked skin. Maybe his mum was right, and his muscles weren't fully developed yet. She'd told him that he wasn't a late bloomer, even though it definitely felt like he was. She'd told him that she herself hadn't learned how to fly until age five, but here Tom was, age five-and-a-half, and he couldn't even get an inch off the ground.
Tom wanted to fly more than anything else in the world – even more than he wanted that Luke Skywalker action figure he saw advertised on the television, which he wanted a great deal. Tom knew how the other kids at his school felt about flying; it was a fantasy for them, a distant, impossible dream – only ever found in comic books and superheroes. It was a fantasy for Tom, too, but at least he was closer to achieving it than they'd ever be.
He tried again, and failed.
He'd already accumulated a few bruises, and some grass stains on his cargo shorts – his mum wasn't going to be very happy about that. He'd apologize later, when he went back home for dinner – after he'd learned how to fly, of course.
Tom thought about all the kids at his school, who would never be able to fly. It wasn't really a problem for them, because flying wasn't even a remote possibility in their lives. Tom, on the other hand, watched his mum fly around the house every day, whether she was zipping down the stairs or hovering a bit higher than she could reach, in order to get at the top shelf in the cupboard. Flying wasn't anything special to him, but he still couldn't do it, and that was infuriating.
It was only on the eighth try that his wings finally caught the air in just the right way, and he jerked off the ground with a yelp. He was only suspended in the air for a second before he wobbled and crashed back down to earth.
He sat, stunned, in the grass in the clearing with the fireflies around his head still buzzing, until he finally blinked away his shock enough to stand. His whole body was shaking slightly with excitement.
Tom held his body the way he had been before his short flight (straight, but slight tipped forward, and a bit relaxed). His dragonfly wings spread out behind him and started buzzing clumsily – it did the trick, and he was back in the air.
This time, however, Tom was ready for it.
He kept himself steady. He tried to swallow his mounting fear as he rose higher and higher, eventually passing the highest branches of the trees and stopping where the clearing opened up to the sky. It didn't help when he realized that the only things keeping him from plummeting several stories to his death were the three feet long sheets of chitin behind him, buzzing back and forth in a blur; just like the fireflies from before.
Tom took a deep breath and tilted himself forward.
He started to move.
It was a long time before he finally came back down to Earth. The moon was out and the little blue numbers on his digital wristwatch told him that he's missed supper, and his dad was probably out looking for him. His mum would be angrily putting the dishes away and his sister would be gulping down the leftovers, just so he'd have nothing to eat when he got back. Typical.
The world seemed different when Tom's feet hit the ground. He felt changed, older, more mature. Tom wasn't a child anymore – or at least, that's what he told himself – and he was just about ready for anything the world could throw at him. Because he knew how to fly now, just like his mum did everyday, just like hundreds of generations of fairies had done before him, just like all the odd, wingless human kids at school wished they could do. In all his five years, he had never been so proud of himself.
Tom walked home, and the fireflies buzzed around him, but they weren't mocking him anymore. They were congratulating him.
"When are you leaving, Tom?"
"This Saturday," Tom answers.
His mum lets her breath out, slowly. Tom can see the pain underneath the surface of her face, underneath the smile that he knows she's only keeping there for his sake. She wants him to think she's happy for him, but they both know that he knows that she's not.
"So soon?" she asks. It comes out with a bit of a squeak.
Tom doesn't say anything. He just nods.
"Well." His mum looks down at her feet. His dad is sitting across the room, in his old armchair. Staring at his lap. Tom tries not to look at him, because he doesn't want to cry in front of his parents. He's a bit too old for that now.
"Do they have an estimate?" His mum looks back up at him. "Of… how long you'll be gone?"
Tom swallows. "On average, this type of deployment lasts… well, around six years." He hears his mum's sharp intake of breath. "Could last longer, though."
"Oh, Tom." She puts a hand over her mouth.
Tom coughs awkwardly.
His big sister is sitting in the corner, arms crossed, staring at the floor. She's back in town just for the week, just to wave Tom off when he gets deployed. She's been silent this whole time, until now.
"Six years in Iraq?" she mutters. She seems disbelieving. Tom feels the same way.
"Maybe," he says. "I… I want to do this, you know. I really do."
"I know, sweetie," his mum says. "That doesn't mean any of us have to like it."
Tom hangs his head. "Yeah."
His dad clears his throat, from over in the corner. "I guess you've grown up, then," he says. His voice sounds rough, raw.
"Guess I have," Tom agrees.
There's a long, pregnant silence. Tom breaks it by coughing.
"Ah, I'm… I'm going to go outside," he says. "I want to take a walk."
"Alone?" his mum asks. She sounds afraid of his answer.
Tom knows it's selfish, but he says it anyway. "Yes. Sorry. If that's okay."
"Oh, of course, sure. Just come back soon, all right?"
Tom stands in the clearing at looks up at the sky.
It's a special place for him. He remembers finding it when he was three, or four, or maybe five, and deciding that it was absolutely the most magical place in the world. It had become his secret hiding spot, where he never brought anyone – not even his best friend, Marcus, even though it would have been the perfect place for their Star-Wars themed make-believe games. Tom doesn't like to think about Marcus anymore. Far too much pain and betrayal in that line of memories.
Tom hasn't seen Marcus in ten years, since he was forced to stop going to public school and instead sent to a boarding school a couple towns away. Even now, it still makes him slightly sick to think about the horror of primary school, after Marcus had followed him to the clearing one day when Tom was eight and witnessed one of his flying practices, and then outed him as a fairy to the entire town. They'd been utterly relentless – Tom had just been a kid.
Tom stands in the clearing, and looks back down from the sky.
He's twenty-one years old. He feels much older. Maybe it's the year he just spent in camp, training for the army – maybe it's the sadness he still can't quite get rid of. It doesn't really matter, in the end.
Tom takes off his jacket. He's wearing one of the few shirts he has with holes in the back, because he'd planned on coming here, to this clearing. He wanted to fly one last time. He probably wasn't going to get much of a chance to in the army.
He's up in the air, nearly silently. He's come a long way since that first time, years ago, in this very spot, when he first jerked off the ground like a broken toy helicopter. Tom's much more practiced nowadays. He knows what he's doing.
He doesn't realize that he's crying until he feels the tear fall from his cheek, and watches it going down, down, unbelievably far, to the grassy ground several stories beneath him. It seems like a little bomb he's just dropped, one he knows is going to blow up in his face any minute now – but he lets them fall. There's no harm in a good cry; at least for the time being, anyway. He'll suffer the repercussions later.
Tom hangs in the air like a statue. He doesn't care if anyone sees him, because as far as he's concerned, no one in the world can hurt him anymore. He's a freak, but at least that means he can be alone for the rest of his life.
The air gets dark around him. The fireflies come out, just like they did on summer nights in his childhood, when they flew around him in circles and he chased them through the air. He doesn't bother anymore.
Tom Willoughby, he thinks to himself, is a freak. Tom Willoughby is a fairy, and fairies don't exist, so why in hell should there be a Tom Willoughby? Why should there be me?
Tom Willoughby isn't a child. He hasn't been a child in years. He's a man off to war, and he's probably not coming back.