'What the Fireflies Knew' Is Our February Book Club Pick

Read an excerpt from Kai Harris's debut novel, here, then dive in with us throughout the month.

what the fireflies knew by kai harris
(Image credit: Fran Dwight / Design by Tova Diamond)

Welcome to #ReadWithMCMarie Claire's virtual book club. It's nice to have you! In February, we're reading Kai Harris's What the Fireflies Knew (out February 1), a moving coming-of-age story told from the perspective of a young Black girl named KB. Read an excerpt from the novel below, then find out how to participate in our virtual book club here. (You really don't have to leave your couch!)

Part 1: June 1995

“We there yet?” My big sister, Nia, unbuckles her seat belt and lays cross the back seat beside me. Her skin shimmers in the sun from a half-cracked window, which lets a tiny breeze slide in that carries her cottony hair back and forth, up and down. People say Nia’s the one who looks like Momma. They have the same oval eyes and mahogany skin . My eyes are rounder and my skin pale yellow, like the color of french fries that ain’t quite cooked.

Momma ignores Nia’s question. Probably cause it’s bout the tenth time she’s asked. My nose finds the smell of rotten banana and that’s got me thinking back to that night, almost six months ago now. The smell fills the car, just like the stench in our old basement that stuck around even after Daddy was buried. I dig my hands into the seat cushions and touch something sticky, but it’s more peppermint sticky than banana sticky. Days ago, laying with a book in the back seat, one of my favorite places now, I got interrupted by Momma and Nia, right outside the car door and yelling, like always. They ain’t see me, so I crept out before they could, hiding the banana I was just bout to bite. I hid it in a perfect place to come back for later, once all the fighting finally stopped. But it never did, and now I can’t remember where I put it. I rub my eyes as I look around. I wanna fall asleep, but now I’m awake and smelling that stink.

Nia don’t look my way, just stares out the window, so I stare out the window. Ain’t nothin’ but flat green spaces. Cars speed by on both sides. I like that Momma drives slower than the other cars, cause then I don’t get carsick. I count signs bigger than me as they blur cross my reflection in the car window. There’s one for Toys“R”Us with a big picture of the new Easy-Bake Oven and Snack Center right in the middle. A now open sign for a new restaurant called Ponderosa. And one with a picture of a bunch of kids playing with dirt, and and words at the bottom that say: NEW NAME, SAME FUN. VISIT IMPRESSION 5 SCIENCE CENTER, AHEAD IN 28 MILES. I wanna ask Momma to stop—for the restaurant or the science center, mostly, but even a toy would do—but I know we ain’t gon’ stop. So I count and count and get to twenty-two, then I’m bored.

I find my book between the seat cushions and open to the first page. This gon' be my third time reading this book bout Anne, the Green Gables girl. I wonder what a gable is, and why it's s'posed to be green. I can’t always understand the kind of words she’s using cause nobody I know talks all proper like that, but in some ways, Anne is just like me, so it’s my best book. Besides, even if I don’t always get her way of talking, I like the sound of her words, all big and eloquent. Ever since I picked it from my school’s Lost and Found, I been reading bout Anne and even learning how to talk like her. I ain’t ever had too many books of my own, so when nobody at my school came for it, I did.

The sun was coming in at the window warm and bright; the orchard on the slope below the house was in a bridal flush of pinky-white bloom, hummed over by a myriad of bees. I roll the new words over my tongue slow like dripping honey. Myriad, myriad, myriad. Orchard, what is an orchard? Bridal flush of pinky-white bloom. Sometimes I try to use words like in my book, but when I do Nia teases me, saying I don’t even know what I’m talking bout. But even if me and Anne don’t look the same, we can still talk the same and be alike in other ways.

I read six more pages bout Anne showing up in Avonlea and tryna fit in where she don’t belong; then there’s a loud clanking sound and the car slows down. Momma mutters a bad word under her breath, the one that starts with D. I said that word once, just to test it out when nobody could hear me. It felt good. I repeat it now in my head like a silent chant, once for each time our car has stopped working—maybe twelve since we got it bout a year ago—but at some point, I stopped counting. Seems like our old Dodge Caravan—nicknamed Carol Anne like the girl in that scary Poltergeist movie—breaks more than it works.

“Nia, KB. Get out and push.” We know what Momma is gon’ say before she says it, so my seat belt is already undone, and Nia is halfway out the car by the time she finishes the sentence. We step out into the sun, at the top of a stubby hill where the smoking car is stalled. Back when Daddy used to push the car, his muscles would grow big as he pushed, sometimes even up a hill. I am happy we get to go down the hill, at least.

“This is stupid,” Nia mutters, but I pretend not to hear. Instead, I keep quiet, we keep pushing, and Momma keeps steering and smiling.

Momma always smiles, even in the bad times. Her smile is like a gigantic, dripping ice cream cone, after I stuff my belly full with dinner. Even with a stomachache, I want that smile.

Momma always smiles, even in the bad times. Her smile is like a gigantic, dripping ice cream cone, after I stuff my belly full with dinner. Even with a stomachache, I want that smile. I need that smile more than bout anything in the world, I think. Momma has different smiles for different things. This smile, when the car hisses and puffs and then stops, is squeezed tight cross her face like the drawn-on smile of a plastic doll.

“Ugh!” Nia groans from the other side of the car. I still pretend not to hear, wiping sweat from my forehead and squinting up at the hot sun as I take off my favorite rainbow jacket with holes where there should be pockets, then tie it around my waist. Carol Anne don’t take too much muscle to push, probably cause we going down a hill, and also cause we ain’t got much stuff with us. We drove straight from the Knights Inn that’s been home ever since we lost our real house, before we even had a chance to finish crying for Daddy. Before this, we never stayed at a motel. It smelled like cigarettes mixed with fried chicken grease and sometimes we found bugs in the mattress, but it had good stuff, too. Our first day there, Nia showed me how to trick the vending machine while Momma talked to the man at the front desk.

“We got money?” I asked, eyes scanning back and forth. There was all kinds of good stuff behind the glass, like chocolate bars and potato chips, and even a toothbrush.

"We don't need none," replied Nia matter-of-factly. 

“It’s gon’ give us stuff for free?” My mouth got real dry thinking bout all the chocolate I could eat—one of them things we don’t get a lot, but still one of my favorites.

“Nah.” Nia put both hands up on the glass. “Unless you know the secret trick.” She pushed her hands against the window, banging against it til down fell a bag of chips and two packs of gum. “Ta-da!” Nia stuck her hands down in the bottom and pulled out her stolen treasure, stuffing everything in her pockets before Momma could see.

“How you know that? You been to a motel before?” I tried to reach into Nia’s pocket, but she swatted my hand away.

“No, KB, motels ain’t the only places with vending machines.” Nia dug in her pocket and snuck out two sticks of gum, passing one to me and popping the other in her mouth. “You ain’t ever seen nobody do that before?” I shook my head, but Nia was already walking away.

Momma’s watching us through the rearview mirror before she pulls off, and I wonder how we look to her, two daughters, one who smiles just like her, one who frowns just like Daddy.

Turns out, tricking that vending machine wasn’t the only new thing I learned at the motel. They also had hair dryers that stayed stuck to the wall, and people in uniforms that would come clean your room every day. After the first time I let them in, Momma came home from work at the Chrysler plant yelling and said we can't ever let housekeeping do chores in our apartment. She likes calling it that better than the motel—we learned that the hard way—and even though I thought chores were over when we lost our house, still I did as I was told.

“Almost there, girls,” Momma yells from the front seat. As we push the car, I dig my worn shoes in the dirt. Cept it’s more like mud now, even though there ain’t been no rain today. I look back to see my own small footprints beside Nia's bigger ones. The ground looks like it’s decorated with big and small polka dots as my shoulder shoves into hot metal. It’s a good feeling to help Momma, but every time I look over at Nia, she frowns.

“That’s it, girls!” Momma sings as we finally reach the bottom of the hill. The car makes a loud pop! And then it’s working again. Momma pulls on her braids as she waits for us to climb back inside. Nia’s first, quick. I take my time, so I can catch Momma’s eye in the side mirror. And there she is, just like I knew. First, one wink. Then, she blows two kisses. I catch the first and kiss it, catch the second and blow it back into the wind. Our special thing, just me and Momma. I buckle my seat belt beside Nia and try Momma’s smile on her, but all it gets back is another frown.

Momma’s watching us through the rearview mirror before she pulls off, and I wonder how we look to her, two daughters, one who smiles just like her, one who frowns just like Daddy. Either way, she smiles at us both the same before driving again, even slower now.

From What the Fireflies Knew by Kai Harris, published by Tiny Reparations Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright (c) 2022 by Kai Harris.