We Were Cicadas

“Sometimes, it comes back,” the old man outside Leeland’s General store kept saying, swaying back and forth in an ancient rocking chair, a steady crik-crik sound emanating with each motion as the rocker crushed dirt into the wooden porch of the store. 

Aaron came out of the store holding a case of beer, glanced to his right at the old man, then down at his friends, piled into a tiny, rust-flecked Ford Escort. The sun had baked the color out of the little vehicle, leaving it a faded pea color rather than the green it had originally been. He grinned at them and soon they were on the road, Jordan and Aaron in the backseat, shaking ice into a cooler between them, dumping the cans of beer into it, Dan and Eric in front. Dan driving and fiddling with the aux cord; Eric muttering GPS directions, his long hair draped over his phone. 

“Alright, it says it’s in a town called Chaal, we’re ten minutes from it,” he said.

“What was the name?” Aaron asked.



“Like the word “shall” but with a “ch” sound.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure it’s not Chaw.”

Dan turned the radio down really low as the car hostled over a particularly nasty set of railroad tracks. “Guys, hey listen, I have something really important to tell you.”

The car quieted, and somehow, Jordan, who rarely spoke, got even quieter. 

“Sometimes,” Dan said, “it comes back.”

“What does?” Aaron asked.

“I don’t know, but whatever it is, it comes back.”

The conversation dissolved into a litany of variations on “sometimes it comes back”, until by the time the car passed a rotting barn with the word “Chaal” scrawled across it in giant, white letters, they were mimicking the old man and crowing “don’t call it a comeback” at each other.

They were 24 and had gotten a taste of adulthood in each of their respective lives, and collectively decided it was awful, no way, fuck that, let’s go back to being idiots. And the annual “find a fireworks display, get drunk at it together” event seemed the perfect time to be idiots. So yeah, they were forcing jokes and yeah, there was a desperate hilarity to everything and yeah, they were being obnoxious but no one said anything, no one tried to be the “adult” of the group like they had when they were younger. 

When they were teenagers, Jordan had confessed to them over a bonfire that he’d never been to a fireworks show. That the various foster homes and places he’d lived had simply never taken him, and he didn’t know how to ask his adoptive parents that he, as a teenage boy, wanted to see some fireworks. 

  “But you feel comfortable with us?” Dan had asked.

And yeah they made fun of him a little, and Eric called it “Baby’s First Fireworks” but that summer they’d driven to the New Charleton show. And the next year they went to another. And so on. Once alcohol got added, it became even more fun. Everyone worked jobs they hated and were living lives they weren’t sure they wanted, but for one brief weekend in mid-July, they were together again. 

The road to Chaal curved into a thick patch of forest, the road twisting and cresting low hills, a myriad of green pines and leafy oak pressing on all sides. Yellow signs warning of deer began dotting the shoulder. The green swallowed their little car, dimming the sunlight and lowering the temperature a few degrees. They marveled at it; where they’d grown up, the trees had long been replaced by rusted out factories and strip malls, a kind of mechanical desert that Eric called “bad for your brain” but he was always saying stuff like that.

Chaal proper erupted in front of them as the green corridor suddenly cut off, leaving them in a wide open plain, heading toward a distant crop of small buildings on the edge of a large, dark lake.

“I have never heard of this place,” Aaron said. 

“The Facebook post said it was like, the biggest firework display in the state,” Eric replied. “I guess it’s their annual festival?”

“Like a summer solstice thing? Oh no, you didn’t bring us to a pagan thing, did you?”

“How the fuck would I know?” Eric snapped. “You guys said “Eric, find fireworks” so I found fireworks.” 

There was no welcoming sign, no “home of the Chili festival” like the other small towns they’d passed through. They were greeted with sun-bleached brick buildings and a pervasive silence. Dan steered the car down Main Street, past multiple antique stores with grandfather clocks and sewing machines in the windows, and a small diner called “Pete’s Eats”. The only people they saw were a group of men smoking outside of a bar, who tracked the car with their eyes, glaring at them.

“Getting a real Children of the Corn vibe here,” Dan said.

Aaron laughed. “How many kids can you beat up, Danny? I think I could beat up an entire elementary school.”

They joked around, but a feeling of nervousness persisted. There was a distinct lack of noise, of motion, of human mirth that bothered everyone in the car. It was a Saturday in July; where were the kids skateboarding down the road? Where were the old men drinking beer in outside patio seating? Why wasn’t Bob Seger blaring too-loudly from a pickup truck? It reminded Eric of a desert town, long-abandoned to the sun. He kept expecting a tumbleweed to float by.

The sun was an angry, low orb in the sky as they got to the lake. The sandy coast was littered with cars and lawn chairs, and they were relieved to see children running around, waving sparklers, slurping snow cones. The air smelled like barbeque and bug spray, and there was a hum of conversation as what seemed like the entire population of Chaal crowded around the lake. 

They climbed out of Dan’s car and grabbed the cooler and chairs, Aaron spotting a beer tent in the distance, along with a small stage where someone was playing an acoustic guitar for a loose crowd of drunk people. “Ten beers,” he said to Jordan, “ten beers and I’ll get up there and sing.”

They ambled through the crowd to find a spot on the grass just before it turned to sand. They were pretty far back from the water, but had a bit more space to stretch out. Jordan set a blanket down, the chairs were quickly unfolded, and before long, beer cans started cracking open. 

They watched as a sputtering, black-smoke spewing tugboat pushed a barge into the center of the lake. Around them, the townsfolk turned their attention to it, and quickly began pointing it out to each other. 

Eric was on his third beer and feeling great, but caught an odd scrap of a conversation, from somewhere behind him.

“Do you think we have enough this year?” a woman asked.

“O’course,” a man replied, “you saw the mortars and all the rockets, the town has been stockpiling since last summer.” 

“I know, I just worry.”

“The guys from the auto shop built something even bigger out of an old oil drum. Heard them talking at Pete’s. Its gonna shoot a 20-inch shell.”

“I know I know, I just worry. There’s little ones here,” she said.

“Well if it doesn’t work, it won’t matter where the little ones are.”

Eric struggled to sit up in the sagging chair. He turned around to see who was speaking, but there was a sea of sweaty, sun-burned people staring out at the lake. The darker it got, the more the mood grew somber. 

Aaron and Dan were tossing a football back and forth. The ball tipped off Aaron’s fingers and tumbled into an older couple’s blanket. They were holding hands over a bottle of wine. The man stopped the ball before it could hit the bottle, and flipped it back to Dan.

“You boys aren’t from here,” he stated, looking at them from beneath the brim of a camouflage baseball cap.

Dan shook his head. “Just here for the fireworks. Heard you guys put on a good show.” 

Eric and Jordan glanced at each other and grinned; Dan’s “talking to adults” voice always cracked them up. He used it when talking to cops, parents or anyone older than 35. 

The man frowned at them. “We like it quiet for this event. Maybe ain’t the time to be playing football.

Dan frowned back. “We’re playing catch on a beach. I don’t see what the big deal is.”

The man opened his mouth to say something else, but his wife put a hand on his arm, quieting him. Dan shrugged, but sat back down next to Jordan.

“This town sucks,” he said.

Jordan shrugged.

The sun dropped another notch, until it was kissing the surface of the lake. The water turned a dark pink, and Aaron remarked that there were no boats out there other than the barge.

“So?” Eric said.

“Kinda weird. When someone gets a boat, that’s like their entire personality. I don’t even see a fishing boat.”

On the shore, a platform was wheeled into view. They watched with interest as it was assembled by a crew of teenagers in green shirts. A microphone was set up. 

Behind them, the same voices Eric had heard before spoke again.

“Oh, the high priest is about to speak,” she said.

“Good, good. He kicks the show off real well.”

Eric leaned over and muttered to Jordan: “Does it feel like something is off here?”

Jordan shrugged.

Dan nudged Aaron. “I think this might be a religious festival.”

Aaron grinned. “Pagans! But I don’t see any cool symbols or anything? All I see is the usual collection of small town white people.”

The crowd oohed and ahhed as a long procession of dark-robed figures wove its way through the chairs and blankets, past the coolers and people eating hot dogs, marching up to the platform. They assembled there, lining up on it, until one stepped to the microphone and threw back his hood. Eric squinted at him, a little fuzzy from the alcohol, but thought that the man had something painted on his forehead. A circle? An eye? 

“I really hope that’s not a swastika on his head,” Aaron said.

“Shhhh!” someone behind them hissed.

Dan, Jordan and Eric all glared at Aaron, who raised his hands and rolled his eyes in a mock “I’m so sorry” gesture.

The sun was almost entirely set. The lake was red. The crowd was silent as the high priest spoke.

“Brave citizens of Chaal,” the priest muttered into the microphone, “brave, brave Chaal. I love you all.”

“We love you!” the crowd chanted back. Unified, unanimous. The boys froze, looking at each other, half-smiling, half-scared.

“Chaal has endured for over two hundred years. In the fifth year of our inception, Chaal was struck by a great and terrible drought. No crops grew! No water fell! This lake–,” the priest gestured behind him, “was dry. Our founders began praying to a god we dare not speak the name of. A powerful god. A vengeful god.”

The crowd murmured in agreement. Aaron whispered: “Pagans!”

“That god took favor on Chaal, and blessed us with rains and crops and bountiful harvest. But!” the priest’s voice dropped an octave, like he was telling a campfire tale. “Our founders knew that it came with a cost. That sometimes, that god might come back. But it was a confused god. An idiot god. It did not understand us fully. We were like chattering insects to it. We were cicadas.” 

A great human shuffling roared around the boys. Their heads turned around as the citizenry of Chaal rose to its collective feet. Children froze in place by their parents. Dogs stopped sniffing the grass. Any whispered conversation ceased.

The high priest nodded, finding his rhythm. “Yes, cicadas. And while this idiot god wanted a taste of us, our founders discovered a way! A way to frighten it off!”

Behind him, a single, golden rocket launched from the barge, spiraling into the sky, leaving a comet trail of gold light behind it. It exploded with a singular bang, and dissolved.

The priest raised his fists to the sky. Around them, Chaal did the same. “Our founders fired cannons and muskets at the sky! We fire something brighter! The blind, idiot god will hear our brilliant roar! It will hear us sing!”

The crowd broke into wild cheering, stamping its feet in the sand. Small firecrackers went off, and a woman screamed “Yes!”

Aaron was laughing. “This is awesome, I could run through a fucking wall right now.”

The priest ripped the microphone off the stand and sank to his knees, held tiled to the sky as the sun completely dropped from view. “IT WILL FEAR US!” he screamed.

The fireworks cut loose. One after another. Reds. Greens. Oranges. Purples. Boom, boom, boom. Volley after volley of brilliant artillery, the biggest, loudest fireworks they’d ever seen, the crowd roaring with approval at each new assault. Aaron, Dan, Jordan and Eric all covered their ears. Giant mortars launched shell after shell of sizzling, sparkling rockets that hesitated as if collecting themselves, then exploded into glimmering torrents of fire. The display lasted an entire ten minutes, the smell of gunpowder becoming thick and nauseating. The tempo picked up for a brief moment, the booming gunfire sound of the fireworks blurring into a rapid, thunderous machine gun, before falling silent.

Ears ringing, the boys clapped with the rest of the crowd, despite how bewildered they felt.

“Oh no,” said the priest, “we have more.”

The crowd laughed, and the same woman who screamed earlier yelled: “That’s fuckin’ right!”

Behind them, the man from earlier said to his wife: “Here come the big shells.”

Three separate columns of red, white and blue thudded upwards, twisting around each other like dragons. They went so high that Eric lost them for a moment. The crowd tilted their heads up as far as they would go, some falling over as they tried to track it.

Then the sky exploded into a thousand stars, each separate explosion sending a separate branch of firework that exploded again, a chain reaction filling the night with synthetic daylight.

The afterimage burned everyone’s eyes. More people fell over.

“Thank you, brave Chaal, for attending this year’s festival,” the high priest called to them. The cheering and clapping did not end for a long time.


They were still blinking the afterimage out of their eyes on the drive home. Everyone was chattering about how insane the fireworks had been, how wild the crowd was. Aaron wanted to go back next year, Eric was joking about joining the Chaal religion. Dan kept asking if they thought the fireworks were homemade. “That big one had to be.”

Jordan didn’t say anything, but that wasn’t weird.

It was weird, though, when they were almost home, he finally spoke for what might have been the first time the entire trip.

“I don’t want to go back,” he said.

The group fell silent, because if Jordan was speaking then it was going to be serious, or hilarious.

“Why’s that, buddy?” Dan asked.

Jordan scratched his head, his mouth a thin line.”For a minute there, after that last firework, I saw something in the sky. It was only there for a second.”

There was another long pause as they waited for their friend to finish his thought.

“It looked like teeth. The sky had teeth.” 

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