by TJ Beitelman
When the first cicada shell appeared in our driveway, our son, Sebastian, was riveted. He invented an elaborate story:
“It’s a space monster. No, a baby space monster.”
“Bassy, let’s go. Get in the car, we’re late for school.”
“The space monster’s mommy was sad when he got in the ship to travel alone to our planet. But she got over it.”
“I’m not going to get over it if you don’t get in the car in two seconds.”
“You don’t understand, mom. The space monster grows and grows and eats and eats. I bet by now his little pinky couldn’t even fit in this shell.”
“I don’t think cicadas have pinkies.”
He ignored me. He had (has) a special talent for this.
“I wonder where he’s hiding,” he said, as he climbed into the backseat. “I bet he’s afraid.”
The next morning, there were two more “space monster shells” in the driveway and another on the front stoop. Sebastian was breathless and red-faced with delight, though he purported to be alarmed. My husband Brad and I could not tell whether he was alarmed for us or for the baby space monsters, alone and shell-less and expanding in size exponentially on a strange planet far away from their now-indifferent mothers.
“This changes everything,” he told my husband. “I wonder what they want?”
Later that week, his teacher called. Sebastian had been “disciplined.” When I asked her what for.
She said, “Lying,” and after a pause, “And disrespect.”
Sebastian had been sharing this story of baby space monsters with the other kids in his class. Ephraim, a periodic nemesis for Sebastian (not least because they were the two smartest boys in the class), disputed his version of the story and instead explained that his own father had told him these were a special kind of bug, that his driveway, too, was replete with these shells—he called them by their proper name, exoskeletons—even more than two or three.
Sebastian came unraveled (plausible, I had to admit) and told the other children that Ephraim’s father was an evil scientist who was trying to harness the power of the space monsters and was, thus, an unreliable narrator (not his words, though, again, he surely said something like it). When the teacher stepped in to calm the resulting tumult, Sebastian rolled his eyes at her and said, “What could you possibly know about any of this?”
I sighed. I apologized. I promised we would address the matter at home that evening.
When Sebastian and Brad arrived home an hour or so later, I had a raft of information printed out regarding the fascinating lives of cicadas—these very special bugs. How they bury themselves deep in the ground for years—as few as two years or as long as seventeen. They do not sleep under there, as is commonly thought. They build whole worlds: burrowing, tunneling, sleeping, eating. They are the longest-lived insects. They are exquisitely attuned to the rhythms of their surroundings—time and temperature, the consistency of the sap they feed on. Constantly calculating, keeping time, until they are ready to emerge, mate, and die.
“Isn’t that so cool, man?” asked Brad. “Almost cooler than space monsters. And it’s real life. On planet Earth.”
Our son ignored him, except for a slight tsking sound he made with his tongue. He left us to dwell in our ignorance as he retired to his room and shut the door.
Brad discovered the ribcage the next morning, as he went to water and weed the perennially doomed vegetable garden in our backyard. He called me out in a whisper, to not draw Sebastian’s attention. Most of the viscera had been gnawed off cleanly, though some drying red strips of it remained. It lay atop the remnants of a spine. There was nothing else except the slight stench of raw death. Other, not-so-special bugs crawled or flitted in the vicinity.
“Do you know what it is?” I asked him.
Before he could answer, Sebastian’s voice floated in behind us.
“It’s too big to be Ephraim. Maybe it’s his dad.”
“That’s not funny,” I said.
“I know,” Sebastian said. “I wasn’t kidding.”
Brad buried the bones, and we went on about our lives.
The shells kept appearing for several more weeks, eventually in great numbers. Too many to even count. And then, of course, they stopped. Sebastian collected them, as many as he could, first in a shoe box and then in a large lawn and leaf bag. He kept it in his room for a long time. We didn’t have the gumption to question him about it.
Then, one day, the bag was gone.
The years passed.
The rhythms of our surroundings, constantly calculating.
Now that Sebastian is gone, a young man muddling through a young man’s life in mostly predictable ways, ways mostly hidden to us, Brad and I have settled into this latter, lonely cycle of our lives.
I sometimes forget the sheer dread I felt back then, not knowing if there was something strange—or simply very special—about my little boy. The seeds of something buried, maybe even monstrous, waiting to emerge. Grow. Metastasize. Now there is the numbness of relief. It turned out like this. Real life. All the things we can and can’t possibly know.