Twilight was encroaching on what remained of the longest day of the year. My sister Margie and I were competing fiercely on the swing set, trying to see who would be the first to go completely vertical.
“There!” I shouted. “Did you see that?”
“You were crooked!” she huffed, with four-year-old impudence. “I saw your knees bend! Watch this!”
Margie swung high, her bottom level with the top bar of the swing set frame, her feet pointed skyward, her dress slipping down to her hips.
At that moment we heard the most ungodly sound—a hoarse, guttural scream coming from the woods behind the tool shed. I hit the ground on my downward arc and skidded to a stop. Margie did a back flip off the swing, landing on the ground, badly skinning her knees, but she was too horrified to cry. Turning, we saw our older brother Byron come staggering out of the woods, covered from head to toe with what appeared to be about a hundred thumb-sized insects.
He screamed again and then gasped, in a broken voice, “They’re eating me alive!” He dropped into a crouch on the ground and broke into a low-pitched wail.
Margie and I were frozen stiff for a very long second, and then, obeying the same instinct, ran as fast as we could—away from Byron. Our first impulse, based on every horror movie we had ever seen, was to escape with our own lives. Quickly we veered down the street to the Philpotts’ house, where our parents were playing penny-ante poker. We arrived out of breath at the Philpotts’ picture window and saw the four grownups at the card table. We pounded at the window to get their attention. They all looked up, angry and annoyed, but when they saw the looks on our faces, Mom and Dad ran to the front door and threw it open.
“What on earth—?”
Along the way to the Philpotts’ house, a very grownup kind of speech had been composing itself in my mind, something like, “I believe that Byron is in urgent need of help,” and so on. But when I got my chance to say something, I was mute.
It was Margie who screamed, “Bugs! Bugs! They’re eating him! They’re eating him!” She pointed toward our house, and my parents flew.
When we got back to our yard, Byron was stretched out on the ground. He first appeared to be writhing in pain, but we soon found that he was rolling back and forth, completely overcome with laughter.
As we all approached, he just kept laughing, oblivious to the red and furious faces around him. Looking down at him, we could see that he had carefully covered his pants, his T-shirt, his hair with the abandoned bug husks we had been finding on the trees in the neighborhood for the past couple of weeks. I picked one off his shirt and studied it. An ugly little thing, with bulging eyes and a fat, cone-shaped butt, skimpy wings, and short legs that were hooked as if in prayer. I crushed it and scattered it over Byron, who was still convulsed with laughter.
Margie was sitting on the grass now, rubbing her knees, sniffling. “They’re June bugs,” she sobbed. That was what all the kids in the neighborhood had been calling them.
“No,” Mom corrected. “They’re too big to be June bugs. These are locusts. They’re the things that make that maddening racket all day long.”
Mr. Philpott cleared his throat, announcing that everyone within earshot was about to be educated. “Actually,” he said, “these are cicadas. Or their nymphal cases, to be exact.” He turned one over gently in his hand and then, after fiddling with his glasses for a moment, continued the entomology lecture. “They have a fascinating gestational pattern. The females insert eggs in tree twigs. When the little ones hatch, they fall to the ground and bury themselves in the soil, where they stay for thirteen or seventeen years, depending on the brood. After all that time, they climb up the tree trunk and then fasten themselves to the bark until they leave their old skin behind. See this slit along the back? That’s where the mature bug slips out. They fly away, mate, and die in about a month. They spend an awful long time growing up, just so they can make a little noise and then die. Nature is funny in some ways.”
“Byron, where on earth did you find all of these?” asked Dad, temporarily holding back his anger.
Byron led us down into the woods, along the narrow, tortuous path that led past our property line toward Bitter Creek. He halted before a tall maple tree that was literally covered with the left-behind skins of those same fat, grotesque bugs. “June bugs,” Margie mouthed at me, deliberately defying Mr. Philpott. Byron turned to the rest of us with the look of someone who had just discovered the world’s largest cache of Spanish doubloons in his own attic.
That night he was as full of himself as ever. He buried his head under the blanket and was firing steady rounds of muffled laughter into his pillow.
“I hope you enjoyed that whipping you got,” I said.
He poked his head out of the covers. “It was worth it. You should have seen the look on your face.” He started laughing before he got to the end of that last sentence and burrowed under the sheets again.
The look on his face stuck with me for the rest of the summer vacation—and for a long, long time afterward because of something that happened only a week after school began.
A bus from the local middle school stalled on the railroad tracks as a train was approaching. Instead of evacuating the bus, the driver made a desperate attempt to crank the engine. He got it started but couldn’t get the bus completely over the tracks in time. The train crashed into the rear of the bus, killing two children instantly. One of them was Byron.
Most of the next month is now a blank space in my memory, a fissure in time, like the hours you lose when you travel great distances by jet. I know that our suffering received front-page coverage in the newspaper and was featured in the back pages for several days after that. I know that a local TV crew even rolled down our street and interviewed us in our living room. We have the pictures and clippings to prove it. I know that food arrived in dozens and dozens of covered dishes, that we were bombarded with sympathy from family, from the church, from the whole community. Personally, though, I can’t recall a single thing that happened.
Perhaps the reason that nothing from that time ever lodged in my memory is that while we went through it all, we ceased to be ourselves, ceased for the time to live our own lives. Instead, we seemed to be dutifully playing the part of People Struck by Tragedy for the benefit of our large, admiring audience of reporters and sympathizers.
Only when the audience began to drift away did we realize that we were now expected to return to our lives as the people we had always been. And we honestly tried to. We fell back into the routines of sleeping and waking, working and going to school, eating and watching TV, and on the surface it was all like it had been before, except for the huge absence that shadowed everything we did. We never spoke of it, but it loomed over each of us in a legion of different shapes, keeping us silent company in any number of different places. There were scuffs on the bottom of the front door, where Byron had kicked it shut every day when he came in from school. There were bare spots in the back yard, where Byron had practiced sliding. On one of the bookshelves there was a deck of playing cards with strategically-placed creases, so Byron could always find the ace of spades and the queen of hearts.
For me the absence was most fully present in the bedroom that Byron and I had shared for eight years; the shape it took was the taunting, impish, rapturous gleam in Byron’s eyes when he peered out from under the sheets and said, “You should have seen the look on your face!”
A few months went by before we finally realized that we couldn’t live with that gaping emptiness that haunted our home. So my father took a job in another state, and we began a new life without Byron, and without any tangible reminders of Byron’s disappearance. We rented out the old house for seven years, and when we moved back we found that, in that newly repainted, recarpeted, refurnished house, the old absence had mysteriously disappeared, that our memories of Byron had now vanished from the walls and the floorboards, and were locked away safely in the deepest cellars of our minds.
In fact, the phantom under the sheets completely took leave of me—until just the other day. My sister Margie and I had both come home to keep Dad company while Mom was away on a beach trip with a couple of her friends. It was a hot, soggy day in July, and the three of us were sitting on the back porch sipping warm Pepsi. Margie, with her bleached, cropped hair, and her bare shoulders draped in tattoos, was on the verge of another argument with Dad—about hip-hop, or God, or body piercing—when she suddenly got up, muttering something about wanting to find some shade, and then wandered down past the tool shed, into the woods.
Dad and I were trying to think of something to talk about, when Margie came back up into the yard, her eyes full of terror and wonder. She started to say something, but didn’t. Instead she gestured to us to come into the woods with her. We followed her along the Bitter Creek trail and then stopped where she stopped, in front of a tall maple tree covered from ground up with the discarded skins of cicadas.
“It’s the June bug tree,” she whispered.
Dad and I looked around and consulted our memories, both of us trying to prove to her that this was really a completely different tree, but our minds simply confirmed what Margie was telling us. This was it. The very same tree, thirteen years later.
That night, sleeping in my old bed, I had a dream. I was walking down the Bitter Creek trail in the moonlight, trying to remember which direction would take me back to the house. I followed a bend in the trail past an enormous rock and found Byron in front of me, perfectly clear in the almost day-like moonlight. He was clinging to the June bug tree, his head facing straight into the bark, his feet in a crouch, his hands locked in an attitude of prayer. As I got closer I could see that he was shaking with laughter.
“Byron!” I called out, my heart racing with joy. “Byron!”
He turned toward me, still laughing, and said, “You should have seen the look on your face!”
Suddenly enraged, I swung my fist at him as hard as I could. He shattered on impact, and I found myself covered with a thousand shards of bug skin.
Paul Colby is a fiction writer and playwright currently moonlighting as a Professor of English at North Carolina State University. His stories have recently appeared in SN Review, Pilcrow & Dagger, and Prick of the Spindle. Paul lives in northern Wake County with his wife Robin, his son Evan, and various members of the wild kingdom. He is at work on his fifth novel.