My son sits next to me in my bed, his lanky, fifth-grade legs inching dangerously close to the edge. His back is to me, his light blue eyes absentmindedly scanning the gray wall in front of him. I tickle his bony back with my fingertips and he turns toward me, moving his body in one quick motion. We lock eyes and he asks if I remember falling asleep to the sound of those bugs in Missouri. My head responds, but I say nothing. Just pull him into me, until the tips of his hair tickle my chin. I push his hair the way of his part with my hand, while he folds into me. The scent of sweat and watermelon shampoo drift upward. My shoulders loosen. We hear his daddy downstairs, clicking off lights, checking locks, setting the alarm.
It’s late evening, after sundown. This is when my son likes to talk. I’ve learned that patience is key. I say very little. Just sit next to him, the small lamp on my bedside table turned on low, under the hum of the ceiling fan swirling above us. The dog settles in at our feet.
My son likes to tell me about his day in these quiet moments. He tells me about school, about his friends, about drum lessons. He tells me his secrets and his worries in small, coded sentences that I have to stretch out of him, like pulling salt-water taffy, the kind he likes to load into his suitcase just before we leave the beach every summer.
I tell him the bugs he remembers from Missouri are cicadas. The sounds they make are from their wings humming. Different sounds mean different things to the cicada family. They make courting calls and distress calls. The sound they make has a name, I tell him, it’s called crepitation. I think about telling him more, but I hesitate when he curls his feet around mine. His toes were small when we lived in Missouri. His toes were small, his voice didn’t crack, and his baby sister was safely inside of me.
I feel my body stiffen. I hesitate to talk about the summer the cicadas came, because those memories are hazy, like I’m stuck in a fog I haven’t been able to lift myself from in near a decade. I can’t pull the memory into focus, the one he wants to hear. The warm, relaxed days when my daughter was safe, and my son still liked to cuddle. Still, he tries.
They sing, don’t they?
They do, I assure him, taking in a long breath.
They sing a song and they make nests in trees? His eyes are wide, but dull.
I tell him he’s confusing cicadas for webworms, as I feel his body loosen against mine.
I’m eager to hear about a particular part of his school day, but I don’t press. He snuggles deeper into me and I slowly cover us with a blanket. I catch a glimpse of my cellphone on the nightstand and remember the text I received from his school that morning. I know what happened, but I don’t know the particulars. I want to know the particulars. We sit like this, snuggled together under a blanket, for a few quiet moments, watching the dog, listening to the ticking of the clock.
The classroom has to be very quiet; he says suddenly, never moving his eyes from the dog at the end of the bed.
During the drill? I venture cautiously.
He nods his head. He tells me that the door to the utility closet can act as a barricade. He says the word barricade, as casual as I’d just said crepitation.
Someone is responsible for closing the windows, he says, his eyes glazing over.
Someone else, he tells me, pulling the day’s events from his memory, is responsible for holding a finger above their head, to remind the class to stay quiet.
He burrows his feet under mine. A wayward toenail digs into my ankle and I squint toward the ceiling. I can’t stop myself from asking what he does during the drills, then immediately I regret asking, when he moves his foot out from under mine and asks me to tell him about webworms.
They’re caterpillars, I say quickly. They hatch in the branches of hardwood trees.
Do they live for a long time? He wanders aloud.
I suppose. I wish I could give him a definitive yes, but I cannot. I’ve reached the limits of my webworm knowledge.
The dog stirs. We look toward our feet, at his brown, fluffy paws and thick plume of hair. He stands up, glances at the two of us, stretches, then walks in a circle on the bed three times before he lays back down in the same spot. My son and I look at each other, smiles spreading. We can’t help but laugh. It’s not all terrible.
We nestle closer again. When we can hear the clock ticking, he tells me that the teachers have been asked to keep their doors locked at all times, not just during the drills. I pull in a breath, release it quickly.
It’s probably best, I say, searching for a but that never comes.
He asks if I remember a telephone on his teacher’s desk. I close my eyes trying to envision his classroom. A paper mâché solar system emerges in my mind. The Southern sun steaming through old, airy windows. The scent of number two pencils mixed with the familiar smell of paint drying on canvas. I tell him yes; I remember the phone on his teacher’s desk.
It sits next to the picture of his family.
My son nods in agreement. Tells me the teachers have telephones so they can communicate with the office. And also for emergencies.
I move quickly to wrap my arms around him. It’s involuntary, instinctual. I smell the watermelon and the sweat. I wonder if he’s brushed his teeth. I hug him tight and remember my daughter. The images of all the ultrasound photos unfold inside of me. Holding her for the one and only time. I hug my son. I wonder if he’ll have nightmares tonight. Wonder if I should tell him the cicadas last came the year his baby sister died. It was a mass emergence. A different brood than the years before. But he’s right, they were there, for a short period of time, I remember them. I wonder if he remembers his baby sister. My son squirms in my arms. I let go, and he’s gone.
Melissa Goodnight earned her M.A. in Creative Writing from University of North Carolina at Charlotte and is currently an MFA student at Mississippi University for Women. She lives in Atlanta and writes on her blog.