Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash
In the Trees
by Britnee Meiser
It was the summer of the cicadas. Usually I liked to walk around barefoot, to lie in the grass beneath the great oaks to evade the reach of the July sun’s sweltering rays. I’d close my eyes and listen for the blue jays, or the hum of the pool filter, or, depending on the time, the even pat-pat-pat of size eleven sneakers connecting with our long, paved drive. When I close my eyes now, those are the things I remember.
But that summer, those things were lost. The cicadas took them from me, and time never cared about giving them back. Of course, I didn’t know that then; I only knew the inconvenience of wearing flip-flops when I walked around the yard. I knew the familiar crunch of an exoskeleton being crushed under my shoe. I knew I wouldn’t hear the blue jays’ songs because the screeching chirps of thousands of cicadas in the trees overpowered them. Most of all, I knew that listening for the boy I loved was pointless, though that was not because of the cicadas. Georgie stopped speaking to me the winter before.
On the second Monday in July, I sprawled out on a blanket under the largest of the oaks to read. I had taken to wearing earplugs when I read to quiet the chirping, and I had to tie my long hair back to reduce the risk of catching any cicadas mid-flight. Still, outside, there was no way to avoid them completely. They’d land on my book or fly an inch away from my face as if to remind me that they were home, that I was the intruder. I could do nothing but tolerate it.
Writhing screams from my sister Jordyn broke through my earplugs, made me look up. A cicada grazed her stomach as she tanned on a pool floatie. In a panic, she nearly flipped herself over. I took out my earplugs and watched her struggle to steady herself.
“Fucking disgusting,” she said through gritted teeth. There was a red mark over her belly button, where she slapped it. A coating of sweat made it glisten.
I put my earplugs back in.
A minute later, a splash of pool water soaked my book. I watched the water seep into the page for a long moment, stunned into immobility. Then I snapped my head up at Jordyn, who’d managed to paddle the floatie toward the edge of the pool closest to me. Her manicured fingers gripped the concrete edge, and she looked at me with a raised brow. I took one earplug out.
“I asked if you wanted to have people over tonight.”
“No,” I said, but it was a beat too late, and I could already see Jordyn taking my hesitation for compliance. The truth was a cicada had landed between my arms on the blanket, just at the edge of my book. Its beady eyes faced page 263, now little more than a splotch of ink on stack of damp paper. I was fascinated, just then, by how human its gaze seemed. Was it disappointed?
“I’ll call Maddie in a bit,” she said, pushing off the wall and drifting, once again, toward the center of the pool. “See what the boys are up to tonight.”
* * *
I thrust open my bedroom window. A cicada flew into the screen. We had a central air system, but I preferred it fresh. Especially at dusk. The sky was the color of Wolf’s bane, shrouded in smoke from Mr. Mann’s grill next door. I breathed in deep through my nose, smelling charcoal and copper.
I rested my arms on the windowsill and looked out toward Clearview, the street behind ours. His house was barely visible through the thick brush of the oaks, but I could see his front door clearly, the rich mahogany stain his mother applied last year still a blemish on the tree-framed image I’ve had my whole life. I glanced toward the horizon, toward the place where the sun used to be, but it was gone. In a moment, I knew Georgie would appear in the doorway, do his stretches, and then disappear on his nightly run. He used to run past my house—used to run to it. Not anymore.
My bedroom door burst open. “Shut your window.” Jordyn said, her voice cutting through the chirps like a machete. “I can hear them all the way from my room.”
She was dressed casually, in a tight tank top and shorts, but she wore mascara, which was how I knew the boys were coming over. I turned back to the screen. The brown-ish cicada was still there, clinging to it, his big red eyes searching for a path to light.
Jordyn whacked the screen with her fist. The cicada moved with it as it quivered, but stayed put.
“Get out,” I said, still watching its little body.
I could feel her eyes on me. When the chirping of the cicadas became too much for her, she sighed. She sounded exactly like Mom when she found the stolen Xanax in the bathroom cabinet. Neither of us would confess whom it belonged to.
“You’re such a downer.” She said. “Mom and Dad are out of the country. It’s okay to leave your room.”
Through my open window, we heard the sounds of tires shifting stones and muffled rap music coming up the drive. My sister smiled.
“Put on some decent clothes,” she said, and then she was gone.
Downstairs, I heard Maddie and Jordyn squeal greetings to one another. They were best friends, but I knew Jordyn envied Maddie her beauty so much that there was no room left for any sincerity in their relationship. I knew because of the glib comments she always made—God, those jeans look great on you—and because she started puking up her dinners the night after Maddie beat her for Homecoming Queen.
There were other voices, too—deeper ones booming. After a minute the music started, the clink-clank of someone’s clumsy hands rummaging through Dad’s liquor cabinet, a remix on the same old song. I suspected they’d go for the Johnnie Walker Black, or maybe the Dalmore—Jordyn said knowing your single malt whiskys made you more personable—but then I heard the explosive pop of a champagne cork, and my chest tightened.
“Where’s Katie?” The voice said after the cheering died down.
My door didn’t have a lock. My parents said it would be a violation of trust, should we choose keep them shut out of our spaces, which never made much sense to me.
“Kate!” Jordyn said, her pitch matching that of the chirps outside.
Two more cicadas joined the first on my window’s screen. One of them was bright green with wings that shone. I looked past them again, toward Georgie’s house. The porch light was on now. I reached for it without thinking, my hand grazing the screen. I felt the tickle of a tiny appendage on the tip my ring finger.
“Katie.” The voice was softer, followed by a quiet knock.
The green cicada started to walk upward with small, jerky steps, breaking free from my touch. I followed it up, off the screen, onto the cream-colored paneling my mom picked out of a book so many years ago. I followed it into the sky, away from here.
My bedroom door opened with a slow creak, as I knew it would. As it always did. Dad said he’d grease the hinge, but he hadn’t gotten around to it yet.
“Are you avoiding me? Why is it so dark in here?”
He turned on the light, which meant I had to close my blinds. I took one last look at Georgie’s strange front door, and in that moment I felt rage. I blamed him for everything.
“Hey,” he said. I listened to his footsteps as they approached. His feet were big, clunky size thirteens. He was the opposite of graceful. He wrapped his arms around me from behind and grabbed my breasts. I closed the blinds, but I didn’t shut the window. The cicadas were shouting out, protecting me from hearing whatever it was he whispered into my ear. I was glad for that. When I shut my eyes I was out there with them, in the trees or in the sky, on another planet, maybe, one slightly more lonely than here. That sound filling the atmosphere, for all time.
* * *
The ice queen cometh,” Jordyn said when I walked into the kitchen. She handed me a glass of champagne. “Your boyfriend brought Dom.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I said with a forced a smile that cracked my lower lip. I finished the glass in one swig.
“I told you to change,” she said with a frown. “You look awful. Have you showered today?”
At the table sat Maddie and two boys whose names don’t matter. “We’re playing cards,” one of them said. “Come play with us, Katie.”
“Another drink, please,” I said to Jordyn, who held the champagne bottle.
“Woah, Kitty. Don’t you think you should take it easy?” Tim said. He really wasn’t my boyfriend. He was tall and he ran cross-country with Georgie. We slept together sometimes, but I hated him.
I had four glasses of champagne in an hour and a half. After the fifth, I laid down on the floor. The cool kitchen tiles felt good against my cheek, but the room spun. I faced the dining room, so I tried to focus on a painting in there—this big, ornate picture of a brown cow. The cow was in a field, probably chewing some grass, but he was looking right at me, which was unsettling. The painting had always been hideous and frightening. I knew it wasn’t the cow’s fault, though. Nobody asks to be conceived, especially if you’re just headed for a meat freezer before your second birthday.
I started to cry. I felt bad for the cow, for all the cows, in fact. And pigs for that matter, and chickens—but in truth, I felt bad for myself. I was no better off.
A boy with large shoulders leaned over me and touched his clammy hand to my face.
“Georgie?” I whimpered. But it wasn’t Georgie. It was Tim. He yanked his hand away, then grabbed me under my shoulders and hoisted me up.
He took me to my room and shut us both in there. When he held me close to him, I could see the veins bulging in his neck.
“I want you,” he said. He smelled like scotch and it made me retch. I tried to push out of his grasp, but my arms were about as useful as that dead cow.
When I leaned back a moment later I listened for the cicadas, searching for passage onto to that lonely planet once again. There, bathed in cacophony, I could be free. I blinked to clear my vision, to look past Tim and his lazy gaze, toward hope, but I couldn’t see anything. The cicadas weren’t there.
“You shut my window,” I said.
“I didn’t.” He said as he pulled his shirt over his head.
“Then who did?”
“It needs to be open.” I crawled toward the head of the bed and lifted the blinds. My grip was clumsy, and I struggled to hoist up the window with one hand as I balanced against the wall with the other. When it was up, I touched the tip of my nose to the screen and instinctively searched for Georgie’s door, but the world was a sea of checkered wire and oak leaves. The cicadas were there, swimming in it, strengthening the current. Their wail was loud, whirring, nearly a tempest. I found it hard to breathe.
I gave up looking after that. I thought I might drown. I stripped down, then pressed my back into my sunflower duvet and closed my eyes, squeezing them a little tighter with each thrust. There weren’t many.
When it was over, we laid side-by-side, not speaking for a while. Then he said, “About earlier. What you said. I thought maybe you’d want to be my girlfriend.”
My bedroom ceiling still had those glow-in-the-dark stars on it. My dad and I put them there when I was in second grade, after I went to an astronomy camp in the summer. I took to counting them to get through moments like these. I always got to 49 and then started over.
“I thought you might’ve forgotten about that queer.”
“Don’t call him that,” I said to the stars.
“That’s what he is, Katie. He likes dudes. He’ll never like you the way I do.”
With the roar of thunder and vigor of lightening, a cicada struck the screen. It chirped loudly, as if in exclamation.
I told Georgie I loved him in the middle of an ice skating rink. When I tried to kiss him, he told me he was gay.
I told Georgie I hated him in the middle of an ice skating rink. I told him I never wanted to see him again. Then I took off my skates and walked out barefoot. My boots were lacy, complicated things I didn’t bother to put on in the car. At home, I put my feet in Jordyn’s lap and she warmed them with a blow dryer while I cried.
“He’s your first love,” she’d said. “It’s supposed to feel like this.”
“You can’t tell anyone,” I said. She promised she wouldn’t, though I found out later that most of the school already knew.
Tim got dressed. Another cicada smashed the screen, the force of another tidal wave beneath its wings.
“What the fuck is up with these bugs?” He said.
* * *
Everyone stopped drinking when Maddie vomited into the carpet. She and the two nameless ones slept downstairs. Tim passed out on my bed. Jordyn and I sat outside on the patio. Only the pool lights were on, so the yard glowed blue.
“It smells like booze in there.” She said.
“Tonight was your idea,” I said. It was past midnight, and I was mostly sober.
“But you’ll miss me when I’m gone.”
Jordyn was heading to Vassar in a month, and I was going to be a senior at our Catholic school. Without her, I’d have no one.
“Of course I will.”
She stood, pushing her chair back with such force that it shot back a foot. She walked with quick steps on the balls of her feet toward the pool’s edge and, fully clothed, dove in headfirst. Dozens of cicada corpses floated on the surface, their little bodies shining in the rippling blue light. Under the water, Jordyn glowed too, looking more alive than I’d ever seen her.
When she came up for air she said, “Remember when we’d have contests to see who could hold their breath the longest?”
A cicada fell out of the sky and landed with a harsh smack in the shallow end. I watched it struggle for a moment, legs pumping rapidly to flip itself over in the water. The blue light glinted off its body and pierced my eye like a shard of glass. It was the only thing moving in there. Even Jordyn, suspended in the deep end, was still. When I watched it squirm, I saw fear.
I jumped in after it.
“Why did you do that?” Jordyn asked after I scooped it up. It was still and quiet in my hands.
I shrugged and placed it over the edge, on the concrete. “It was suffering.”
“I hate those things,” she said. “They’re taking over the world. Just listen.”
So I did. But I had been. All summer I searched for a way out, a place to be free. They gave me that, in their time. Their screams washed over everything—the pointless noises of sex and goodbyes and the sound sneakers made when they tried to say they’d never love you. Cicadas drowned out cries like waves smoothed sand. My planet was lonely but at least it was mine.
“One,” Jordyn said.
I gasped for air and we dropped below the surface, the cicada howl nulled out by the hum of the pool filter as the two of us sank to the bottom.
About the author:
Britnee Meiser is an emerging writer and a 2017 graduate of The University of Pittsburgh, where her story was a finalist for the Monty Culver Prize in Fiction. Her work has appeared in The Original Magazine. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.