by Amelia Beckerman
A week in, it feels like the bugs have always been here. Dad, always quick on the uptake, wastes no time outfitting the house and cars in cicada-resistant armor. The windows and screens are all checked, locked, taped down. He finds a mosquito net, from a mission trip Charlie took during his Jesus-phase, and builds a fort around the front door. When you want to go outside, which I do not, you first have to get goggles and an old auction paddle from the mudroom and follow a carefully choreographed routine that involves opening the door a sliver, sticking your arm through the hole, and waving the paddle around like the only remaining painting of your great-great-grandfather has just been placed on the auction block.
Twitter tells me that New Jersey has never seen a cicada-season like this one and that we should all cover our young trees and wear hats to avoid cicada urine. I look towards my taped-up bedroom window like maybe there are young trees I should cover up but then I would have to put on a hat and goggles and find the auction paddle and then even if I did there is a chance I would go outside and there would be no young trees anyway. I don’t know how to tell how old a tree is without chopping it down and counting the rings like we did in elementary school Earth Science.
In the morning, I wake and listen carefully to the familiar sounds of the old house, checking to make sure no one has stayed home sick. There is only buzzing, so I slide out of bed and shuffle to the kitchen.
Though I’ve been home for two weeks, I’ve yet to add anything to Mom’s running grocery list on the front of the fridge. Instead, I fashion a quesadilla-like meal out of some sort of protein wrap and string cheese I peel apart, and then eat it from a paper towel. I sit on the couch with the intention of watching T.V., but instead stare at the remote feet away from me on the coffee table until I look at my phone instead.
A video of a local news reporter pops up on my timeline over and over again—in it she is holding a large umbrella with one hand and her branded microphone with the other, talking about the unprecedented number of cicadas when suddenly one flies into her mouth and she starts gagging. The captions say things like “when she says she has no gag reflex” and “my cat after he licks himself.”
I find myself on the verge of productivity over and over again. I pick up three glasses from my bedside table, with the intention of carrying them to the sink, but don’t make it past my bedroom door. I spend several minutes considering a book Charlie gave me last Christmas about leadership, even going so far as to open it and stare at the first page. My phone begins to vibrate and I can see messages from a group-chat pouring in. They are discussing their grades from this semester, which have been posted to a site I no longer remember my password to. Kristie announces the continuation of her 4.0 and everyone heart-reacts to the message. I look at the words in their neat, colored bubbles and think how easy it would be for me to rest my finger on one and react, but I don’t and instead I mute the group chat. I wonder if the cicadas have reached their hometowns. I decide to take a nap.
I wake up to the sound of my parents getting home from Red Lobster and I burrow farther into the comforter. Mom knocks and leaves a biscuit, carefully wrapped in napkins, on my nightstand.
Outside the world is buzzing and inside the world is buzzing. Leaning against my bed are all my bags from school, still packed from their journey home. Mom tells me everything will be more manageable if I unpack them, even if it’s only one bag at a time.
“Clean room, clean mind,” she tells me, lingering in my doorway with a mug of peppermint tea the next morning. Some days this is her only mission, other days it is to get me to email Audrey, the manager of the Stop & Shop where I worked my senior year of high school. The bugs are making people panic, she says, they need employees to help wrangle the lines. I cannot think of a job I am less equipped to do.
“You know,” she says, “I get sad sometimes too. In the winter.” She looks towards the taped-up window as if reminiscing. “Maybe a bike ride would help.”
I tell her I’m okay and also that I think I’ve forgotten how to move the wheels forward.
“Tomorrow then,” she says, “you could learn again.”
Some days I wake up and find that all my fingers and toes feel numb and I have to wait a few minutes, sometimes more, before the feeling comes back. A cursory Internet search tells me I have diabetes and I add it to the Notes App list of things I would ask a doctor about if I were to actually go and see one.
Mom has a habit of making loud phone calls and walking through the house. I catch snippets of conversation. She’s telling Charlie he should visit sometime before Thanksgiving, the bugs really aren’t as bad as they’re saying. She’s telling Aunt Marianne that people are right, raising boys is easier. She’s telling Dad to remember to stop at the farm stand on his way home and get corn for dinner. She’s telling Grandpa Mike she’ll visit him tomorrow, maybe she can convince his granddaughter to come with her. She’s telling Aunt Marianne that Cecilia barely leaves her room, she’s asking was Alice like that at her age? She’s telling Dad to remember to stop at Stop & Shop and get oatmeal for breakfast. She’s telling Grandpa Mike she’ll try and visit tomorrow, it’s just difficult because of the bugs. She’s telling Aunt Marianne she doesn’t know what else she can do.
It’s six weeks before Dad finally breaks and comes into my room. Usually, this is a task saved for Mom with her soft edges and mugs of tea. I am watching a video about the victims of a Texas shooting when he knocks on my half-open door.
“Your mother is worried about you,” he says.
“What do you do all day?” he asks and I shrug. “Did something happen?”
I shake my head. I don’t know how to tell him that something is always happening.
“Well, can you help me rake the shells off the lawn tomorrow?”
“Okay.” I think of what I will tell him tomorrow. Maybe that I have gotten my period and cannot possibly get out of bed.
He closes the door and I get under the covers, which smell like the lavender dryer sheets Mom likes to use, and open my phone. On Twitter, people are talking about the cicadas and a popular actor who has been accused of rape and also how the local news reporter is so embarrassed about the viral video she can’t bring herself to go on air. I scroll for a while until I’m rereading things I saw earlier. I get a text from Kristie, who wants to know what I’m up to and also if I’ve filled out the housing application for next semester. I close my phone and lay on my back, staring at the popcorn ceiling Mom hates but is too expensive to remove. I fall asleep to the sound of my parents watching 60 Minutes in the living room.
In my dream, there so are many bugs that I can’t see in front of me. Everyone is wearing big protective goggles and using large, handheld fans to keep their paths clear. My fan is made of heavy gray metal, but the bugs keep hitting the thick spokes and clogging it. My second-grade Spanish teacher, Señora Kramer, who has suddenly appeared beside me, reaches over to scoop a handful of bug mush out of my fan. “Hazlo asi,” she says and shows me her fistful of yellow and brown and red. No one around us is phased by this and, when I look again, I see that it’s not summer anymore. There’s a thin layer of snow, and though the bugs should have died or else gone back underground, they somehow did not. Everyone around me has adapted to this new big-fan, cicada-scooping life and I am alone in remembering it has not always been this way.
I wake up and I’m sweating and my brain is throbbing inside my skull. I check the date on my phone and, when I find that it’s still June, I blow all the air out of my body and relax back into the mattress. Outside, the buzzing is low and constant.
When I wake again, Dad is yelling from the kitchen, promising bagels and coffee. I can’t shake the feeling from my dream, and so I rise, slowly, and pull on sweatpants and a red t-shirt that says “You’re Looking at a Proud 2014 Henderson Middle School Graduate” in big, rainbow letters. In the bathroom, I run my hands under the water and then use them to pat down my hair.
Dad has left scuba goggles for me by the front door and I put them on and pull my hat down over them. I wave the auction paddle to battle any cicadas that attempt to make it past me into Mom’s pristine foyer and slip outside into the safety of the mosquito net. I think about Señora Kramer and her fan.
It’s Monday I think and there are kids outside with umbrellas and snow coveralls, and my neighbor is walking a fat labradoodle wearing a green sweater. When I leave the safety of the mosquito net, the cicada wings tickle my arms and cheeks. I struggle to breathe through my mouth while keeping my teeth clenched.
Dad hands me a metal rake. “Was the bagel alright? I wasn’t sure if you still liked poppy.”
“It was great.”
Next to us, the woman with the labradoodle yells “Pickle, no!” and we both turn to see the dog biting the air. She looks at us apologetically and Dad gives a little wave before turning away.
“You haven’t told me how last semester went,” he says.
“It was good.”
He rakes the flesh-colored shells in silence for a moment and then he goes still and clears his throat. “You would tell us, right?”
I stop raking too and reach up to swat a cicada away from my mouth. “Tell you what?”
Dad, already pink from the heat, turns a deep shade of red. “You know, Cecilia. We see all these things on the news and you’re not talking to us. That girl at Fordham . . .” He is choking out words now as if each one is physically painful and I look down at the rake and and remember how he used to sing to me when I was little— “Cecilia, you’re breaking my heart.”
“No, Dad, there’s nothing like that.” I try to say it calmly, but I can feel tears swelling in my eyes and there isn’t anywhere to go but out into the cicada-infested world or else back into the home he pays for and surely can find me in.
He coughs a little and nods. “Okay, okay. Just, if something did happen, you could tell us. Your mom and I, we’re people too. We would understand.”
“Nothing happened.” How do I explain that one day I woke up and this is who I was?
“You seem so different.”
I wonder what would happen if I laid down now, if the bugs would just keep dying and I would be buried in their shells and then, maybe, this conversation could end.
“Nothing happened to me,” I say and then spend a moment raking. “I’m just . . . exhausted. Everything is exhausting.”
“What do you mean?”
“Everything is just . . . a lot.” I look at him and it’s clear he doesn’t understand.
We rake in silence and eventually we split up and I rake the left side of the lawn and he rakes the right. I get used to the constant tickle on my bare skin and the loud buzzing in my ears and, when I escape inside, I feel alone without it.
In the bathroom, I peel off my clothes and stand under the cold water. I can’t stop thinking about Dad and all the things he thinks might have happened to me, and all the things that are happening to other people who are not me. I want to cry, but I don’t because they’re not my things to cry about.
When I’m done, I wrap myself in a blue towel that smells like lavender and pull on jeans and a tank top so that Dad can see that I’m okay. When Mom gets home from work, I greet her at the front door to help her with the auction paddle and her bags of groceries and I pretend not to see her surprise. I want to yell at them, “see, this is how okay I am!” but I don’t and instead I put away the eggs and soymilk and boxes of whole-wheat rigatoni. Then I excuse myself to sit in the living room. On Twitter, people are still talking about the cicadas, but not as much because there has also been a hurricane in Miami and a small explosion in Nevada.
We eat dinner in front of the T.V. It’s 6:30 and Lester Holt is ready to tell us about the day’s tragedies and I try not to look too sad and pick at my pasta methodically. During the commercials, Mom tells us about her day. One of the other nurses has purchased a cicada cookbook and baked the insects into a quiche for her family.
“Not my taste,” she laughs. “Imagine your dad’s face if I served him a dinner full of bugs!”
Dad wrinkles his nose in disgust and they both look at me expectantly and I laugh a little to show that I am listening and that this is funny and also that I’m perfectly normal and happy.
At the end of the broadcast, Lester tells us the story of a little boy who’s raising money for other little kids with cancer by selling bracelets he weaves himself and Lester says “isn’t that great?” and Mom appears to nod in agreement and he says he’ll see us tomorrow, when there will be more news for us.
They seem so encouraged by my involvement in this family bonding session. During Jeopardy, I answer a $200 question and Mom beams at me. Dad doesn’t even jump in to remind me to say “what is.” This was enough, I think. This I can do. But still, by the end of Wheel of Fortune, I can barely breathe and finally I slink back to my room and climb into bed. Under the covers, I scroll through Twitter and then Instagram and then Tumblr.
The buzzing seems louder and closer and, when I pull back my comforter, I see a fat bug perched on the top of my desk lamp. Its eyes are red and beady and appear to be looking directly at me as it flutters its stained-glass wings. I wonder how it made it past Dad’s mosquito-net fortress or else one of the taped-up windows or if it came somehow through the ground, digging through the layers of foundation and wood and carpet. The experts have told us not to panic, that these cicadas come out once every 17 years just to mate and die. But this one looks strangely determined to live and I have no more right to the earth this house sits on than it does so I just go back to scrolling. In the hallway, I can hear Mom telling Aunt Marianne that maybe she has been overreacting, things aren’t as bad as she made them seem.
I listen to the chorus of buzzing outside my window and the softer buzzing inside my room and, even though I try, I cannot seem to remember what it all sounded like before.
Amelia Beckerman is an emerging writer based in Brooklyn, whose fiction has previously appeared in Plain China. She really likes coleslaw. You can find her on Twitter @AmeliaIsntFunny.
Image: Bill Nino/Unsplash