Sarah is currently earning her MFA in Fiction at George Mason University, where she also serves as Social Media Manager for Phoebe Literary Journal. She tweets @Sarahhh1251.
In the beginning, I loved hearing the cicadas sing. High in the trees, reverberating, their melodic laughter buzzed. It was like they were all in on something.
I imagined them shaking the maple leaves as they balanced on the petioles and cackled, high-fiving and dancing jigs with each inside joke. Instead of soda spraying through a nostril, a paper-thin casing would slip off, exposing a shiny, raw body surprised in its new nakedness. A pause, then an eruption of more laughter from all around. It warmed me to think of how happy they must be together.
It was the year that special swarm of Magicicada paraded the East Coast, rising from the cold ground after seventeen years. I was in the fifth grade, and enjoyed swatting their abandoned exoskeletons off of the maple trunks. The tree where I first learned to climb usually harbored the most shells, which I imagined the fat insects were doing for me. Once, in the early days of the swarm, I stole a small Tupperware container from the Lazy Susan, and filled it with seven whole shells. When I brought it inside, my mother gasped, and in trying to snatch it from my small hand, let it fall to the ground. I hadn’t closed it tight, so the top fell off, unleashing the remains onto the carpet. My dog Falcon gobbled them up before my mom could return with the dustpan and brush. When she came from the kitchen to see him munching she laughed so hard I thought her casing would slip off too.
Then, the D.C. Sniper began terrorizing the DMV, and they locked all the children indoors. I’d wondered, now and then, if the cicadas had driven him so mad with their incessant humming and shedding and dive-bombing that he just lost it. But when I offered this explanation to my father, he waved me away from where he sat in front of the computer screen, and shut the basement door behind me as I climbed back upstairs. I meandered through the house, my mother opening her mouth to say something to me but deciding against it, and landed in my bedroom at the top level.
My tulip-print curtains hung lifelessly, with no crack in the window to let in a persuasive breeze. An alien song emanated from the other side of the glass. I peeled back one curtain and spotted the ribbed belly of a cicada. The bug was stamped to my window, its lacy wings collecting the sunset. I put my forefinger to the glass where it sat, careful not to make too much noise. Finally, I pulled up my desk chair, and remained there with my new friend until I nodded off.
I’d only just gotten used to the Dogwoods reaching out to tap on my shoulders, and the scent of fresh-cut grass dancing in my nose, when the heat settled in, and with it the masses of tree roaches soaring in from the horizon. And with them, the ammo. For three weeks I hadn’t played kickball, or Capture the Flag, or anything rapid and daring in the smiling-down sun at all. My knees ached each time I peered out of my classroom window. I couldn’t un-see the Windex streaks between me and the golden outdoors. Zombie Hunters became an indoor game, for fear that if children played outside, we’d be the hunted. I recalled the echo of rustling pines that lined the blacktop at school, and the tingle of the sun.
I’d grown so used to shuffling in and out of my mom’s Honda Civic, and in and out of the Huntsman Elementary foyer, and in and out of my cream-sided townhouse, that I had never paused to listen. I’d been sitting in our front windowsill while talking on the phone with Kendra, who stared back at me from her own front windowsill up the street, when our next-door neighbor knocked on the door to borrow a Phillip’s head. During the few moments that my mom left the door open, and Mr. Douglas grinned his dorky grin and waved his dorky wave, Kendra’s voice was drowned out by the choir of sucking and vibrating torsos in the trees. It was a harmony of lust and flight and freedom so unlike the lonely cicada on my window. While his banter warmed me, the sound of the swarm was captivating.
“Lody? Lody? Are you listening?” snapped Kendra, who had been reporting news of her boyfriend Deonte passing an adulterous note to Vanessa Greeneridge during Social Studies. But I wasn’t listening to her, or Mr. Douglas’s inquiries of my subjects, or my mother insisting I answer Mr. Douglas. I was mesmerized by the cicadas’ tribal song.
“Please, mom,” I begged for days after. “I just want to sit on the porch and listen to them.”
“Not with that sicko out there, Melody.”
“He won’t come here, he could never make it all the way through the neighborhood without someone seeing the van and calling the cops, right?”
“He hasn’t shot anyone in days. He’s probably scared of all the cicadas flying into him.”
“Mom I just –”
“Mel, I haven’t slept at all. Let’s talk about it later.” She ran an index finger absently through a tangled strand of my hair.
My father entered the room then. “Tell you what, Melody, soon as he’s caught, we’re all taking a trip to Boom Lake. Good riddance.”
My mother forged a weak smile.
We compromised on leaving my bedroom window cracked. He was a shooter, not a climber, after all. I hadn’t seen my buzzing friend, so I also left the curtains parted slightly, just so he could see that I was still here. I scribbled away at my homework each day to the sound of his kin’s chanting.
On the news the next day, we learned that a boy my age had been killed in the next school district while he was turning around to say goodbye to his mom as she dropped him off late. No one saw him go down but her. No one saw the van.
I kept my window shut that night. Before crawling into my twin-sized bed, I left a note taped to it that read, “I’m here if you feel like talking,” and left the curtains parted an inch. Later, I woke to the familiar crash of glass on hardwood, and tiptoed to my bedroom door. The lock turned itself between my thumb and forefinger. The adjacent room, the one my mother adopted after my brother went off to college, uttered the same click from its doorknob. Downstairs, the television blazed before my father’s bloodshot eyes. Tomorrow, she would polish away rings burnt into the table by the caravan of his Heineken bottles.
That morning my window dweller woke me. In school that day, I fought against dozing off to the droning of the School Resource Officer presenting safety tips to our class. He sent pamphlets home with us.
After that, each day when my dad picked me up from school, he’d stop every block or so to peer around the corner of an end unit, or past the brick grocery store. We’d stop so often that sky beetles would blaze past my cheeks, or ricochet off of my backpack. Once, one with orbs for eyes landed right on my butt, and he brushed it away. Later, when he made me wait at the corner by the swimming pool behind a parked car to inspect the intersection, I called to him, “Do you think if I stood in the street with my arms out like Jesus, a cicada would hit me first, or a bullet?”
“Why would you ask me that?” he said.
“Do you know the answer?”
“No one thinks like that.”
I remained still behind the car.
“But I wouldn’t let him get you, anyway,” he added.
I couldn’t sleep anymore. The cicadas’ siren blared on, interrupting my dreams. I opened the window back up, and each strum and pluck of the song suddenly rattled throughout the trees. But even with a song so clear, their pearly bodies were hidden in the shadowy maple leaves.
I tailored statistics in my head: since my mother and father slept in different rooms, then one would be less likely to wake if the other one did upon heading my footsteps, so I’d have less of a chance of being caught, and if the sniper had already attacked nearby, then my chances of getting shot were practically impossible. I slipped pajamas over my cotton panties.
The rush of their buzz mimicked my own ears’ when the cool air jumped my skin. Kendra’s window was dark. I traveled up the hard sidewalk to the maple tree, and performed the same acrobatics that got me up the very first time: A pull-up onto the lowest branch and a swing of my right leg over it, sitting upright. Then I’d use the exact same method to lift myself in between the next two highest branches, which were conjoined like a narrow wishbone, then nestle into them (pretty basic, but effective when escaping a loose black lab). Surrounded by bark and leaves, I could spot five or six cicadas resting like I was. My head fit perfectly in the cupped hands of the branches.
I originally imagined the cicadas would dance and celebrate like fireflies when they saw me, but I now saw them in their true form. They were still and sure as statues. The radiance they gave the world came all the way from within, no frills, no glitz. I massaged my shoulders deeper into the tree’s prongs. The sound of a thousand güiros pushed and pulled my breath like a tide. Plateaus in the bark pressed into my palms. Moonlight softened behind my eyelids. A hum boiled in my chest, spilling down my spine and into my knees. I thought of a movement I learned in Modern Dance class, in which the dancer is flat on their back, and lifts their torso from the ground from the center of their chest. “Like a meat hook,” my instructor would say. I thought if I did this now, I would leave my skin behind. The humming continued as I lifted my solar plexus, but I almost slipped through the branches when my shoulder blades squeezed inward. My eyes tore open when I caught myself on one branch, then I sat upright.
I caught my breath and looked down. I was barely off the ground. Other kids in the neighborhood would call me a baby for only ever going that high. Another rationalization occurred: if cicadas can do it, so can I. But before I could begin to plan a higher excursion, I spotted a white van parallel parked at the end of my court. My body grew rigid. Black tinted windows grimaced against the dirty white paint, just like the images on the news. My limbs kicked like a spider’s, dragging me back against the tree trunk. I wondered if he would shoot me just so I couldn’t tell anyone.
My ears played back the panicked breath of a little girl. Two scabby knees were tied tight to my chest by stringy arms. I was sure he’d seen me and was only waiting. If I made a run for it now, he’d shoot as soon as my thin body flailed past the parked cars toward my doorstep. A vision of my mother finding my leaking abdomen in the morning made me nauseous. So I stayed in the tree until the black sky blushed indigo, and the stars opened the curtains for the luscious morning clouds. By the time a man in khaki overalls whom I’d never seen before exited Ms. Frish’s end unit, unlocked the van with a snappy beep, and climbed in, my eyes were red as chicken blood.
It was still early enough that none of my neighbors witnessed my climb back down. Shreds of bark and leaves clung to my frizzy hair. Tears gathered in my eyelids as I pitied myself and imagined the way my parents would pity me when I entered the house. On my way up our concrete doorsteps, I picked up the day’s paper in its dewy, plastic bag. I knocked on the door and was welcomed to the sight of my father’s bewildered gaze. He looked at me like I’d brought a dead squirrel home. Then he looked past me, once to the right and once to the left, curled his grip around my small elbow, and dragged me inside.
“How long have you been out there?” he snapped, causing my mother’s footsteps above to quiet.
“I’m sorry, I was scared.”
“When did you leave the house?”
“I was in the tree all night.”
My mother’s pitter-patter retreated back into my brother’s room.
“I thought I saw the Sniper. I didn’t want him to see me.”
“The Sniper? When did you leave the house?” His hot breath hissed.
“I don’t know…”
“You don’t know?”
My voice wavered, “It was last night. I only meant to go out for a second –”
“You snuck outside last night? With that bastard out there?”
I looked up at him, shaky in all my smallness.
“For what? To look at those bugs, Mel? Jesus. Go upstairs.”
I dropped the paper. When I passed my brother’s room in the upstairs hallway I could feel the weight of her body on the other side of the door. I tried to imagine her crying, but didn’t want to give her the benefit of the doubt. I entered my room, where an intruding buzz penetrated the walls. I grabbed a history textbook from my desk, pushed the window open, and smashed the bug.