I stood on the only vacant spot for as far as I could see. Standing in front of my mother’s pet shop, All Things Creatures, trying not to smell the man close by whose scent of body odor and alcohol floated toward me each time the wind shifted, I adjusted my stance facing slightly North to reduce my exposure to him. Take a bath, asshole, I thought, staring at an oncoming parade float decorated in too many green and red lights.
On a normal day, I would be walking down Fleoge street in virtual silence. On a typical day, the street is quiet, even deserted giving me the opportunity to consider the day’s events. Today was not a normal day. My thoughts about my day were intermittent but were still managing to irritate me. All of the scientists who could make it to the yearly meeting spent most of the day bickering over whether or not the situation was as dire as some believed.
“What was I thinking?” I mumbled to myself, lowering my head partly out of misplaced shame and partly to avoid the stench of the man who seemed to be gradually moving closer to me. I hadn’t been the most experienced one at the meeting nor had I been one of the most respected as far as the hierarchy of my field goes. Some of us are valued over others, me being one of the lowest on the totem pole. Totem pole or not, I had openly warned the Supreme Consul of the Environmental Sect and was sternly shushed by my coworker.
A shining long red fire truck rounded the corner. White lights jingled from the sides and smiling faces shown from the windows as the truck inched along in the parade. The people lined up on the street waved and laughed clearly enjoying the parade more than I was. I resisted the urge to walk down the street shaking each citizen out of his or her personal proverbial bubble of existence while simultaneously sharing all that I knew of what was to come. There are times when knowing a thing is a heavy burden to bear.
“You seem distant,” my mother’s voice said from behind me. “I expected you to come inside the store for a few minutes.”
“I needed some space, but you’re a welcomed sight,” I responded over the crowd. My mother was dressed in her full uniform. She seemed small in the black slacks and plaid shirt with her store’s emblem on it. The red circle around her store name glowed seeming to jump off her shirt. I was partially listening to her excitement over selling two full breed dogs today; they were worth a thousand a piece. She ended on the count of how many fish and reptiles she’d sold. Animal and animal-related products had been inordinately high because of the holidays, and she was basking in the extra cash flow.
The next float had smiling princesses dancing on it. The elaborate decorations must have taken considerable time and effort spent on creating a float that would be used one day out of entire the year. I knew from spending time with my grandmother that the dresses the princesses wore were most likely hand-made. Intricate details such as those on the dresses were rarely a manufactured style. If only that energy could have been redirected to help save us. I was lost in thought again, and my mother had noticed.
“Back to earth, Midge.” My mother was waving her hand in front of my face, smiling her worried smile. She knew that I couldn’t talk about some parts of my work and was respectful of that, but the worry still lay thick on her cocoa brown face.
Sprinkles began falling, and the crowd quickly fell into the shadows of awnings that hung on nearly all buildings. Some people held big black umbrellas that seemed to connect in some intricate pattern down the street interrupted by an occasional flowery or cartoon decoration. At the urging of my mother, I turned toward the shop door in no particular hurry. The rain felt pleasantly warm against my face. My mother was obviously not enjoying the rain. She had already made it to the shop door and was standing to one side of the tinted glass urging me forward.
The reflection in the other door caught my eye, and I found myself comparing myself to my mother’s slender, darker image. While she stood around 5’4, I was almost a foot taller. I had been very short during my childhood hence the name Midge, but I outgrew my mother’s height around age 14. Since that time, I’d been told that I was tall for a woman, but I’d seen many who stood very near my height, a height that I’d worn proudly since it was a part of me. Her long, black straight hair flowed down her shoulders nearly to her waist while mine was curly and light brown, hanging to the top of my bra on my back. Hair had never really been something I’d cared to concentrate on, so most of the time, I had it up in a tight bun or ponytail to keep from having to do anything major in the way of preparing for work. My mother’s brown eyes seemed to have tiny green flecks of color that were the exact match to the green of my own eyes. Our skin was as different as two strangers might be. I recall wishing my skin wasn’t so pale, an almost albino shade against my mother’s beautiful brown color. As I’d grown, I’d learned to appreciate our differences and embrace those attributes to which I was born. It had been difficult as she was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.
Another float inched by as drops of rain wet the paper mache that had been carefully crafted and attached to the float in the shape of snow and snowballs. Santa managed to laugh loudly and joyfully as he licked the rain off his upper lip. The elves were feigning work on toys made of painted cardboard boxes. Mrs. Clause was doing her best to tape wrapping paper over small props, but the rain seemed to be wreaking havoc on the tape. With Mrs. Clause’s next grab at the tape, her arm relaxed as the rain appeared to stop abruptly.
Parade attendees seemed to notice nothing strange about the smell in the air, or the fact that the weather was unseasonably warm. My regular exposure the lab’s filtered air made me acutely aware of the smells of the rain, exhaust, and the man’s body odor. As the people emerged from the protection of the buildings to line the streets again, they smiled and chattered just as before. The scientist in me felt a little defeated by the tendency of people to deny what was around them if it fed into their beliefs that all was well. Fortunately, or perhaps, unfortunately, my mother had raised me to be grounded in the truth which made me well suited to the sciences.
I was forced out of my head by my mother’s throat clearing loudly and a floating balloon the size of a small building. It was black and white which didn’t fit the green and red theme of the parade. While the float had a Christmas tree, it seemed more like a black mass of floating mache. I could feel my eyebrows bunching up, a look that most in my inner circle recognized as analytical. Something was wrong. Suddenly, the air didn’t feel right. I looked over at my mother as she smiled up at the floating balloon, and I felt my face relax a little.
My focus went back to the balloon as it moved slowly in front of us. I noticed a shimmering brown around it as it floated at the height or slightly above several of the town’s buildings. As the next float approached, capturing the onlookers’ attention, my eyes stayed fixed on the balloon. As it moved toward the finish line, a brown mass came into focus partially hidden by the floating balloon’s legs and low hanging clouds. A look around me told me that nobody near noticed anything out of the ordinary.
“Mom, there’s something wrong.” The alarm in my tone caught her attention. Before I could go further, I saw the mass diving toward the street. “Run.” That’s all I could say before a hellish nightmare descended on the crowd. Onlookers became runners headed toward the shelter of cars, buildings, and corners of the street. Like a black and brown painted layer of sheetrock, cicadas swarmed in all directions.
As cicadas smacked and fluttered, my arms protected most of my face from the onslaught. “Mom, Mom!” No response. It was useless to expect my voice to carry in the noise. I heard what sounded like car horns. Was that a scream? Don’t panic – think. I dropped down on all fours in an attempt to see something, anything. Cicadas squished and wiggled under my hands, the crunching sound making my stomach lurch. I felt the familiar sidewalk crack and knew I was about ten feet away from the store’s door.
Sweat beaded and dripped from my forehead, and my chest felt tight as I inched closer to the store. I closed my eyes and moved forward faster shaking my head from side to side when necessary to get a landing cicada off my face. I felt the door handles to the store. I fumbled for the key in my pocket and was able to grab it firmly. As I inserted and turned the lock, I prayed that my mom had already made it into the store. Unlikely. I stood poised to quickly enter hoping to limit the number of cicadas that would enter with me.
The swift motion of the door sent a slight wind across my body encouraging some of the cicadas to abandon their perches. I shut the door and stared out the door in wonder. Worry tore at the back of my mind while the scientist in me observed what was happening.
The cicada songs of my childhood had turned into shrill screams and loud clicks that I could still hear through the door. The cicadas that had come into the building with me were flying in different directions as I picked them off my jacket.
The scene outside the double doors was astounding. The parade and people had disappeared in the sea of brown and black cicadas. In a crouched position, I could see a bit further into the mass of cicadas. I saw part of a shirt, mom’s shirt. She looked sprawled partly on the sidewalk, partly on the street. Draping the raincoat that mom always kept by the front door around my shoulders, I unbolted the door and scooted along the sidewalk trying to see clearly through the mass of insects. I felt her boot and scooted closer.
“Mom?” No answer. I grabbed her under her armpits and pulled her toward the door and inside the building. Several cicadas came in with us and flew toward the back of the store giving me a glimpse of her for the first time since the swarm began. She wasn’t breathing.
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