They appeared in the night. Milo heard them first, from outside of his bedroom window — a low buzz, deep buzz, a buzz that sank down into his skin. He held Bobo, his stuffed tabby cat, up tight to his chest. He could not fall asleep. The noise sounded like a robot, probably an evil robot. What nice robot would come at night? He sunk the faded fur into his nose and breathed in a deep musty breath, the smell of sourness and home. He waited for the noise to stop.
The noise grew louder. Moved up and down, into a steady hum. Definitely a robot, Milo thought, and he wondered whether to go get Mom. He stared at the window, waiting for it to burst open, until it all got too loud, loud enough to hurt his ears, and he whisked out of bed, down onto the sticky wooden floor. Pulling Bobo by one frayed paw, Milo scampered into the hall, past Jordan’s room, straight to Mom and Dad’s. They were still awake, propped up on the bed with glossy magazines.
“Do you hear? Do you hear?” Milo pulled himself onto the bed, into his mom’s arms.
Dad crunched down on a potato chip. “OK, Milo, very nice.” Crunch.
“Do you hear the robot, though?” His voice dipped. He pressed his face into his mother’s chest, and she pulled her arms around him. “What’s wrong, baby? What are you talking about?”
He twisted his head to peek up at the bottom of her chin. “Can’t you hear the sound, all that sound?”
Mom closed her eyes, settled into the bed. Dad popped in another potato chip, then slowed his crunching. Mom turned her head away from him, and the buzz rose up around them. “Well goddamn, well goddamn.” Crunch. “That is some goddamn sound. Martha, why don’t you check on that?” He raised another chip, up into his mouth, looked back down at his magazine.
Mom lowered Milo down onto the mattress and brushed aside the threading curtain. She jumped back with a shriek. A few creamy ovals pressed against the glass, little legs spindling out from the sides. “Bugs!” she shrieked. “Jordan, Jordan, come here!” She turned back to Milo and pressed him into her body.
Before Dad could crunch another chip, Jordan rushed in, swinging a baseball bat with his arms. It pulled his thin arms down towards the ground, towards his flannel Spiderman pajama pants. “Let me kill the fuckers, I’ll kill those fuckers” — the bat just missed the window. Mom pulled Milo and Bobo out, away from Jordan’s yelling. As they walked down the hallway, the shouts faded into a rising buzz.
When the sun finally rose, mom refused to go outside. “They’re everywhere — they’re everywhere!” she said. Jordan offered to crush them all with his bat, but she wouldn’t calm down. She bustled around the house, locking every window and sliding the curtains closed; in the rays of filtered light, Milo could see little dust pieces floating in the air. Finally, when they could no longer hear the sweep of passing cars above the buzz, Jordan grabbed Milo’s hand, and they walked to summer school. On the way, they counted the long, sheer-winged bugs. Ten plastered on the yellow car, fifty waiting on the sidewalk. Two latched to the mailman’s wrinkled back.
At school, Mrs. Wilkes told Milo’s class that the bugs were called cicadas. She pointed to a blown-up picture with her knobby fingers. “These insects — that’s another word for bugs, my dears — they sleep for many years underground. Sometimes, dears, they sleep there for thirteen years before they come out, and sometimes they sleep for seventeen years. And sometimes, they all come out at once. This year, that’s what’s happening! And you are very, very lucky kids, to get to see one of those years.” She smiled, pulled her scaly lips back over yellowy teeth.
“Why do they buzz so much?” Milo asked.
“No, not buzzing,” Mrs. Wilkes said. She smiled again and shook her head softly. “Not buzzing — singing! Most bugs buzz, but cicadas sing! How about that, Milo?”
Singing? Milo was confused. As Mrs. Wilkes turned back to the diagram and pointed out different body parts, Milo turned back to the window. He shut his eyes and listened carefully for the words, for any words; maybe he knew the song. But all he heard was buzzing;, not like any singing he had ever heard. Mrs. Wilkes must be wrong, then.
On the way home, he asked Jordan about it. “Singing?!” Jordan spat on the sidewalk. “Milo, that is the dumbest shit I have ever heard. You can’t believe everything teachers tell you, especially that old bitch Wilkes. Gotta grow up sometime, baby bro.” He crushed a cicada under his thick-soled shoes, and, for a second, the crunch penetrated the buzzing.
The buzzing drove the town a bit mad. Traffic wouldn’t move, Mrs. Wilkes forgot about the field trip to the museum, and the neighborhood kids started daring each other to eat cicadas. The mailman confused addresses: one afternoon, the family received a college admissions letter. Even though Jordan was only fourteen, he filed it in his room for later. “They just know how genius I am, Milo,” he said. “That’s why they want me already, ’cause they can just smell the smarts.” Dad, meanwhile, stocked up on chips and started sleeping on the downstairs couch. “Summer spot, Milo,” he explained. He crunched down on a chip, but Milo heard only the buzz.
Mom never left the house anymore. In the dimmed light, she found a crack in the kitchen wall paint. One day, Milo and Jordan found buckets of paint dotting the kitchen floor. They all looked white to Milo, but Jordan pointed out the different numbers and names on the lids. “Don’t be stupid, Milo,” Jordan said. “Those numbers explain how long the paint takes to dry, so they’re all different.”
After that, Mom spent every afternoon and evening in the kitchen, painting the crack over and over. “I can’t get the color right,” she sighed. She started skipping dinner to brush the spot up and down, so Jordan faked a low voice and ordered pizza on the phone. Some mornings, the entire kitchen dripped with wet paint. Again: “I can’t get it,” she sighed. The wall always looked white to Milo, though, and he wondered if grown-ups saw more colors than kids.
The whole house started smelling sour, so Jordan and Milo spent most of their time outside. Jordan led killing raids on cicadas, pulled out matches and drew them closer and closer to the shiny wings. After a week or two, he found a pair of rusty tweezers and straight ripped the wings out. “These little fuckers, that’ll make them shut up.” He stored wings in a dirt-smeared ziplock bag. He explained that he would sell them later to buy a video game player.
Jordan made Milo rip out their wings, too. “If you want to play the games with me,” Jordan said, “you gotta put in some work now.” Milo looked down at the cicada cupped in his hand. “Jesus, Milo, I can’t deal with your lazy ass. Are you gonna help me or not?” He grabbed Milo’s other hand and pressed the tweezers in. Jordan then sat there, staring.
Milo looked back at Jordan and gulped. The tweezers shook in his hand, and he lowered them towards the shining wings. Slowly, he pulled the wings out, one at a time. Jordan held out the Ziploc bag, wordlessly, and then moved on to catch more. Milo remained, staring down at the wingless, silent cicada. It squirmed a bit, flailed its legs around — all without buzzing. Eventually, it stopped moving. Milo knelt down and grabbed a handful of dirt. He glanced to make sure that Jordan wasn’t looking, and lowered the cicada into the ground. Softly, he pressed the dirt back over the cold, firm body. The buzz rose around them.
“Milo, you lazy-ass. Get over here and help.”
The end of summer school, for Milo, brought empty days at home, all words replaced with buzz. With the freedom of real summer, Jordan started disappearing to hang out with his crew — his “bros.” He left Milo at home, nose pressed against the window. “We do big boy stuff, Milo,” he said. “You’ll get there eventually, don’t worry.” So Jordan, then, was gone. Milo couldn’t go to Mom, unless he wanted to help with painting, and Dad wasn’t around very much, anymore. “A guy’s gotta work, Milo,” he said. “Grown-ups can’t stay at home painting walls all day.”
And so Milo found friends in the cicadas. He let them crawl up and down his arms, gave them names like Georgie and Vanessa and Buggerbug. In the hot afternoons, he grabbed sticks from front lawns and built a cicada castle in the shade; every night, he picked up a few chirping cicadas and tucked them inside the front gates. Before breakfast, he rushed out to see how many remained. Counted them, asked them if they had sweet dreams, stroked their sleek, scaly backs. He introduced them to Bobo, who liked to visit for discussions and dinner parties.
Once, he brought his favorite cicada, Geo, into the house for a field trip. He thought Geo might be afraid, so he talked it through with him beforehand and brought him some water in a bottle cap. Then, Milo tucked Geo into his pocket and edged into the house, pushed the screen door open. Inside, Mom had stopped painting, sat slumped sleeping on a wooden chair; one of her arms curled around an empty glass bottle. Milo softly walked towards her, weaving through paint buckets. He reached out with one hand and touched her face — she drew in a long, noisy breath, but she did not wake up.
Milo left her in the kitchen — after all, Geo needed to see the whole house. He brought him upstairs to his room; let him out to walk a round a bit on the rug. Milo pulled out Superman and Batman from a bin of toys, and he helped them fly over to Geo. “Geo, these are superheroes,” Milo said. “They’re super strong, and they always get the bad guys. If you want, you can be a superhero too! Because you can buzz, and that’s kinda like a superpower.” And so, all afternoon, Milo and the heroes saved the day.
After beating the Joker and a bed-monster and a pirate, Milo curled up on the floor next to his cicada. “Hey, Geo,” Milo said, “maybe you should move in and join our family. I bet you could live in my room, if you wanted.” Geo rubbed his wings together, let out a short chirp. In the end, though, Milo brought him back outside. He belonged there, after all.
It was already dark by dinner. Mom had finally taken a break from painting to cook, and she called Jordan five times to make sure he would be back to eat. When she finally caught him, she spit the words out fast, before he could hang up: “It’s going to be a family dinner. It’s going to be really nice, the family together, and you have to come back.” She pulled out stacks of recipes, and Milo helped make the sauces, gravy and tomato. When the sauces were just bubbling, the pasta soaking out in the sink, Jordan strolled in with a fish-netted girl (just a friend, he winked). They pulled around the table, chipped plates, while mom poured out ice water. Dad’s usual chair, the one with the embroidered seat back, was empty. From across the table, Milo could count the lumpy stitches.
“Well,” Mom breathed, “are you guys all excited for school this year?” The girlfriend spooned gravy into her mouth, letting out a low slurp and clack.
“Mom, we’re not babies,” Jordan said. “Not me or Milo, so stop pretending.”
Mom lowered her eyes and stared down at the table, at the empty bowl. “Well, looks like the potatoes were a hit! Those were always a favorite.” She smiled tightly, and silverware clinked.
Milo noticed an ache, a pressure building on the insides of his ears. It crushed the inside of his head, like on an airplane when you’re falling fast, too fast, and Mom gives you a gummy bear to suck out the pain, pull out flavor to balance the air pushing in. The voices — that was the problem. Mom’s voice tore into his ears, shrieked a bit at the ends of sentences. Jordan yelled when he wanted the salt, leaned forward to throw words across the table. “PASS THE TURKEY, MOM — PASS THE TURKEY!”
“OK JORDAN, NO NEED TO SHOUT,” she threw back.
“IS THE MEAT COOKED OK?” She pressed the plate over. “I TRIED A NEW RECIPE THIS YEAR, SO I HOPE —”
“Mom, it’s FINE.”
“— I HOPE YOU ALL ENJOY IT AND —”
“MOM, IT’S FINE!” Jordan dug his fork down, sharp, into a chunk of turkey.
The words echoed wide in Milo’s ears. Jordan leaned over the table. Mom looked down at her plate. The girl’s knife drew a long scratch across the porcelain. Milo felt the pain in his ears relax, dull down — he looked at Jordan’s mouth, hanging open with that bottom heavy lip, and he listened to the air flow in and out.
Jordan rasped in and out; Mom stood up to fill the potatoes. Milo stared at the embroidery on the empty chair — and then, in the moment between breaths, between footsteps, between words, he understood.
“Do you hear that?”
“Hear what, Milo?” Mom said, leaning over the white heaps.
“Do you hear, do you hear?” Milo pressed himself up from the table.
Jordan shook his head: “What the hell are you talking about? What do you hear?”
Milo looked around the room. “Nothing,” he said. “I hear nothing.”
Jordan stared at him, stared with flat, black eyes.
“They’re gone,” Milo said. “They’re gone! Don’t you understand? They must all be gone.”
At the countertop, Mom stopped spooning potatoes, looked down at the white lumps of potato and butter, all congealed together. Jordan squeezed his eyes shut.
Milo dropped his silverware on the table and propelled himself into the screen door. He rushed outside, across the faded grass to the elm tree that sheltered his cicada palace. He called the names of his friends, called to Vanessa and Elvis and Buggerbug and Lewis and Maria, called to them all, called to Geo, Geo, Geo, but he heard only silence. He began to pull apart the palace, spraying twigs everywhere, still calling out the names over and over and over.
Inside, he found only shells. Crusty, yellowy shells — gone the sparkling wings, the green bodies. Gone, the strange buzzing sound. The shells still clung to the twig floor, and, as Milo slowed his breathing and looked around the backyard, he could see shells everywhere. Lying on the grass, on the tree trunks, on the old, rusting bicycle that no one cared to move. Gently, he lifted a shell up, close to his face, so he could inspect the skin. It felt dry and brittle, a little sticky too.
“Geo, is that you?”
No response — it was empty. He dropped the shell to the ground and put his hands on his cheeks. Mom and Jordan and the fishnet girl were still inside, and the sun had started to set. Milo sat down flat on the ground and looked at the landscape of empty shells. His headache returned.
And then, alone on the cooling ground, Milo began to sing. He started with “Row, row, row your boat,” but he forgot the words after “stream.” Wordless, he let his voice wander up and down. Mom called, at some point; he didn’t notice, just brushed her voice aside. He simply sat there, singing without words or melody, brushing his fingers against the brown, sticky shells. If the cicada sound counted as singing, he figured, this must be too.