A Symphony of Cicadas
Author:Crissi Langwell


With a steady hand, I drew a thin line of black above my upper lash. I did this on both sides before enhancing the widened look of my eyes with a layer of mascara. My golden hair was already curled, and I pinned it back from my face and neck in an elaborate series of flowers and sparkling clips. After I touched my lips with a bit of rose stain, I stepped back from the mirror over my bathroom sink and inspected my work. I couldn’t help but smile with pride, seeing a vision in front of me that had never looked lovelier. My skin was radiant, the lines I used to hide nowhere to be found in the face that smiled back at me. My hair shone like never before. Even my teeth appeared whiter against the dusty rose color of my mouth.

On the bed was a large white garment bag, one that had been cinched up tight in my closet for months. Beside it lay a white bodice and slip. I stepped into the slip, pulling it up over my narrow hips and placing the slit in the front. I slipped the bodice over my head and leaned forward so I could pull the ribbons tight in the back. The motion was so awkward I wished my sister were there to help me. My fingers didn’t reach as far as I would have liked, but somehow I was able to get it closed without any assistance. Another glance in the mirror revealed an image out of a boudoir photo, my close fitting undergarments tightening my physique, revealing a voluptuous version of what lay underneath.

I unzipped the garment bag with care, placing my hand inside to save the dress from catching on the zipper. Pulling the bag aside, the dress I had been waiting for so long to wear shone back at me. I ran my hand over the soft fabric, admiring the creamy white material layered with small roses and lace. Lifting it off the bed, I stepped into the top of the gown and gathered it up to my breast. I pulled the ribbon tight in the back, taking the time to tighten each strand one by one until there was no more give.

Stepping into a pair of delicate white shoes that rested beside the bed, I took one last glimpse of my reflection in the mirror, and was taken aback by the vision of perfection that stared back at me. In all my months of detailing every aspect of our celebration, I had been sure I’d never achieve the classic look of a young bride often associated with weddings. And here she was, her innocence staring at me from the full-length mirror of my closet door, ready to be given away.

“Is this really helping?” a voice asked behind me.

“Does it matter?” I answered, not even flinching at the unexpected presence that had joined me. I turned around to see Jane, a girl I once knew in my college years, sitting on the bed next to the empty garment bag.

I met Jane in our freshman year of college. She lived a few doors down from my dorm room. Her roommate was best friends with my roommate, Lisa, which meant Jane would sometimes hang around with us. I didn’t mind the girl, except that she had a little bit of a wild streak to her. This both captivated me and scared the shit out of me. Having grown up in a small town, I had been raised to keep a low profile and never do anything that would end up in the community’s gossip mill. Jane seemed to have grown up in a much different environment, as she sought attention from anyone willing to be her audience. And when it came to seeking thrills, she had no fear whatsoever. She was not only a willing participant in a lifestyle of hard partying and risk taking, she was also known to push limits beyond the comfort zone of those around her.

* * * *

“Try this shit, it’s fucking amazing,” Jane said, shoving a pipe with some unknown substance in my face. The smell of burning plastic was so strong I had to push her hand away. “Come on Rachel, don’t be such a prude,” she laughed before bringing it to her lips and lighting a flame to it. I watched with both disgust and intrigue as the pipe took hold of the flame with her breath, burning into an orange ember before going out into a string of smoke. She leaned back, holding her breath before letting it out in front of her in a cloud of yellowed white. With a dazed look, she grinned over at me.

“I have no issues with being a prude,” I told her. “I’m actually quite comfortable with it. That shit will kill you.”

It was the night after our freshman finals and we were all blowing off some steam at a party a few seniors were throwing. Lisa was in the corner with a guy she had been trying to talk to for weeks and Jane’s roommate had already disappeared into one of the bedrooms upstairs. Never being one to drink much, I nursed my red cup of beer, marveling at how I might be the only sober one in the room. The majority of the party was made up of freshmen, many of whom were taking advantage of the freedom they’d discovered this year by overindulging in anything illegal they could get their hands on. Next to us, a few girls giggled as they took turns snorting lines of cocaine off the glass coffee table. Marijuana joints glowed around the room, as casual as if they were regular cigarettes. Music played low on the sound system in the corner, allowing for a din of chatter to hum around the room while keeping a low profile from the cops. The party was a bit too wild for my taste, but I wasn’t about to abandon Lisa by going back to the safety of my dorm. I figured if I just nursed the one beer, I could handle a bit of stupidity from my classmates.

Bored with me, Jane leapt up from the couch and made a beeline for the sound system in the corner of the room. She turned up the volume, eliciting cheers from those around her. The energy of the room transformed from the laid back atmosphere, filling with animated bodies who began to dance to a steady beat of music.

“Come on and dance!” a guy from my English class yelled at me over the music while holding out his hand. I grinned, taking his hand while still clutching my drink. I couldn’t quite remember his name, but I had a feeling it didn’t matter. Turns out I was right. Within moments of joining the crowd I lost him. More and more people migrated into the dancing room, coming together to create a shapeless entity that fed off the energy within. In the center of it all I could catch glimpses of Jane, her eyes closed as she danced to a beat all her own. She swirled in different directions as the high-energy dance moves around her clashed with her flowing movements. I could tell something wasn’t quite right when she opened her eyes, and didn’t seem to register all that was going on around her.

I did my best to maneuver through the crowd to her, a feat that proved difficult. As the song shifted to a trance beat, glistening bodies moved in suggestive motions against anyone who was close to them. Groping hands were everywhere, trying to caress whatever was within reach. The smell of sweat was pungent in the air, and my own clothes clung to me like a second skin. I sipped at my beer to cool off as I continued to make my way through the crowd, trying not to stare too long at the dancers around me. A girl with closed eyes continued to move while several of the guys around her took turns fondling her breasts. Another couple was entwined in a tangled embrace, their mouths exploring each other’s lips as if no one were around them. All around me, the mood had shifted from a casual dance party to something much more risqué. And in the center of it all was Jane who had fallen to the floor and now lay there with her eyes wide open.

“Jane!” I screamed, leaping past the few people who stood between us and kneeling at her side. She turned towards me with a blank stare, her skin glistening with beads of sweat and reflecting the colors that flashed from lights around the room. I touched my hand to her cheek and it was burning up. “Turn off the music!” I yelled to those around me. “Someone get help!” No one heard me as the deafening beat continued to pound through the room. Jane lay there flat on her back, her arms and head exposed to the shuffling feet around her. I shielded her body with mine to help protect her from getting trampled, hitting at the legs closest to us. “Call for help!” I yelled again as I tried to get someone to notice what was going on.

“Right on sister,” a guy yelled with approval, giving me a provocative look as I straddled Jane’s body.

“No!” I shouted. “She’s hurt! Get help!” His face took on a look of recognition when he saw the vacant stare in Jane’s eyes. He tapped the guy next to him and pointed towards Jane.

“Someone’s hurt, we need to make a path.” The sea of people around us began to part as the guy helped me to hoist Jane up and move her toward the edge of the room.

“The cops!” someone shouted, and the crowd began to scatter in a chaotic frenzy. The guy helping to hold Jane up looked at me with an apology in his eyes.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t get in trouble. My parents will kill me.”

“Wait!” I said as he lowered his side of Jane’s body to the floor. But in a moment he was gone with the rest of the crowd. I kneeled to the floor, resting Jane’s head on my lap and running my hand over her damp forehead. I could tell she was trying to fall asleep to escape whatever it was that was haunting her, but every now and then her eyes would jerk open in terror. “It’s going to be okay,” I told her, even though I knew she couldn’t hear me above the music still pounding around us in the darkened room.

The cops swarmed the room, pouncing on us without warning since we were the only two people left in the house. “She needs help!” I screamed as they pried us apart. A large officer had his arms around me, hugging me from behind as I struggled against him with my kicking legs. I could see the officers pulling Jane to her feet, catching her as she fell over and carrying her from the room. I had no choice but to stop fighting, my strength no match against the determination of the officer who was restraining me, knowing that soon I would have my own troubles to deal with when they called my parents. I never saw Jane again, as she didn’t come back the next fall.

* * * *

“So what’d you die from? Overdose?” I asked Jane as she sat on the bed drinking in the image of me in my wedding gown with amusement.

“Naw, that shit was nothing compared to the cancer,” she said with a casual wave of her hand.

“Wait, what? You had cancer? When?” I had heard rumors that Jane had passed away a few years after I’d last seen her, but no one knew anything for certain. I’d always assumed she had died as a result of her reckless lifestyle, so to hear that it was from something like cancer caught me off guard.

“I had it as a kid and beat it. But it came back in my twenties, and this time it was a bitch. Apparently if it attaches itself to enough organs it becomes inoperable.” For a moment her body transformed to reveal the gaunt image of her former self, her bones pushing against skin that held no fat, her eyes hidden within the dark circles that surrounded them, her stark scalp shining white underneath a few patches of wispy brown hair. But it only lasted a few seconds. Within the blink of an eye, her emaciated appearance transformed back into the Jane I remembered. She wore her dark hair short, cut close to her head in a pixie haircut that would have looked masculine on anyone but Jane. But for her, the cropped style only enhanced her petite features, revealing the wideness of her coffee eyes and the dramatic bone structure of her flush cheeks. The heavy makeup she wore in our college days was now replaced by a more natural look. As in life, she had chosen a more punk style – a sharp contrast to the wedding gown I was wearing. Her tight jeans were ripped at the thighs, and she wore a cropped tank top underneath a black leather jacket that was adorned with small chains and buckles. Despite her rock-and-roll fashion, she had a captivating radiance I’d never seen on her before – a warm appearance that had once been hidden under a mask of constant intoxication and hard knocks.

“So what’s the big occasion? Getting ready for prom?” she joked.

“Funny. Actually, it’s my wedding day. At least I think it is. I just kind of appeared here when I was thinking about my wedding day, so I’m guessing this is the day. And since I couldn’t wear my dress in actual life, I might as well get to wear it now, right?” I studied my image in the mirror, trying to ignore the look of disdain she was giving me.

“Are you for real?” Jane asked. “Okay, first of all you need to get a handle on your traveling technique,” she sighed in exasperation. “You own the power to move where you want to go, not the other way around. You shouldn’t just be showing up places and not knowing where you’re at. Second, this is not your wedding day. You’re dead. Third, the sooner you move on from your former life, the better. Trust me on this.”

The memory of Aunt Rose in the forest burned through me, her warning ringing in my ears like a bell. I shook my head to rid myself of her image.

“I will,” I promised. “Soon. But give me a little time. All this is still so fresh, and I just need to stick around a bit more for closure.”

“Your closure, or theirs?” Jane asked. “Because last I checked, they’ve already lost you and are fully capable of coming to terms with your death without some ghost haunting them. And sticking around people you love who ignore your presence isn’t exactly the recipe for getting over longing. I mean, isn’t that what bad relationships are made of? Stalking someone who doesn’t want you around?” It was hard to ignore her dripping sarcasm.

“That’s not fair,” I told her. “They don’t know I’m here. But if they did, I think they’d want me to stay. I’m not haunting them, I’m just...” I paused, trying to come up with what I was doing. In all honesty, I didn’t know. Was I doing this to provide them comfort? Was I being selfish by hanging around? Was I just being codependent on people I loved who had no idea I was even there? What was I trying to accomplish by dressing in my wedding gown on the day that was supposed to be the happiest of my life, a day that would never happen because I was dead?

“You’re just being pathetic,” Jane said, finishing my sentence. I whipped around and glared at her.

“Maybe I am. But don’t I get that right? Everything in my life was finally perfect, and now it’s all over before it even began. Can’t I be pathetic about it for at least a little while? I just died, for Christ’s sake. I think I should get at least a little bit of empathy from you. After all, you weren’t exactly the most brilliant being in your former life.” She smirked at my attempt to shoot her down, her eyes twinkling as the insult left her ego unscathed and sailed right past her.

“Fine. Wear the dumb dress. Let’s go see what your family is up to. If it gets too dreary, maybe I can cause a few things to fly around the air and liven things up,” she said laughing.

“You wouldn’t, would you? Promise me you won’t?” I pleaded. This made her laugh even more, and I realized she was only joking.

“Rachel, they wouldn’t see anything even if I turned the room upside down. We’re in a whole different kind of world.”

I still didn’t understand this, knowing she was referring to the same truth Aunt Rose had lit upon when we were in the forest. But I didn’t want to distract her from accepting my need to hang on to my former life for just a bit longer. So I gathered up my skirt and started for the door.

“Let’s go to the church,” I said as I walked out.

“Whatever you say, corpse bride,” she joked. I was ready to walk the whole way there, but she grabbed my elbow to stop me. “Honestly Rachel, you need to stop acting like you’re human. Walking? Really?”

It was going to take a while for me to get used to my new reality. Feeling sheepish, I smiled at her, and then closed my eyes in deep concentration. In my mind, I visualized the tall ceilings of the church, picturing the dark wood support beams that were in contrast with the white of the walls. I could see the sunlight streaming through the colorful glass windows that showed the scenes leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. In my mind the communion was all laid out on silver trays sitting on white sheets draped over the altar. I could almost smell the incense from the bronze thurible, the smoke wafting through the intricate design of the round metal censer.

And soon, I could.

I opened my eyes and we were there. The room was empty as Jane took a seat in the last pew and I made my way with thoughtful steps toward the front of the church. I couldn’t help but pretend that today was real, that there was someone waiting for me at the end of the aisle. When I reached the front, I paused and then turned. No one stood between me and a large statue of the Virgin Mary at the side of the apse, holding up her hand as if to comfort those who looked upon her.

An audible snort could be heard from the back pew, and I turned and glared at Jane.

“If you are this amused by something that is so not funny, maybe you should just go,” I spat out.

“No, no. Go on. I don’t want to miss the part where no one says you may kiss the bride.” She snorted again, not even covering her mouth as she burst into a fit of giggles. The look on my face must have shot daggers through her, because when she looked at me again she did her best to control her laughter. “I’m sorry. I’m being cruel. I’ll try to be better.”

Standing there at the front of an empty church with a dead addict judging my every move opened my eyes at the absurdity of the whole scene. Why was I here? To play one big game of pretend? Was I hoping that my death would turn out to be just a dream? Was I actually so deluded to think if I wished hard enough, John would appear and we could live happily ever after? I realized I was avoiding reality with silly lies.

I sat on the front pew in both embarrassment and a feeling of confusion. I didn’t know where to go from here. The idea of moving on and letting my life go was terrifying to me. What would it say about my life if I just walked away from it? Did it mean I loved John less than I thought I did? Would it mean my life and Joey’s life meant nothing?

With a start, I became aware that someone was making their way up the aisle. I turned to see who it was, holding my breath as John reached the front of the church and paused. In an awkward motion, he genuflected while facing the altar, and then sat on one of the pews opposite me.

“He’s a looker,” Jane called from the back of the church. I ignored her as she gave a low whistle.

John leaned forward and rested his head over his closed fists, and I could hear the murmur of his whispers while his eyes were closed. I realized with a start that he was praying, something I had never seen him do when I was alive. I leaned in to listen, afraid to get too close despite the reality that he wouldn’t even know I was there. While anyone else in the room might have heard the shuffling of his lips without any words taking shape, I could hear his prayer as clear as if he were whispering it into my ear.

“Please, Lord, give me strength to make it through every day, especially today. I know I haven’t been the man you created me to be, and I haven’t really done that much for you or for others. I don’t attend church anymore, and I can’t remember the last time I donated anything to those less fortunate than me. Lord, I know I don’t deserve your kindness, and maybe you’re paying me back for not doing enough. But I can’t do this without your help.”

John sighed, whispering “Please Lord” over and over as his prayer. He stayed like that until the audible sound of the doors in the back opened, signaling that he was no longer alone. He ended his prayer with a flurry of hand movements from his head to his heart before touching each of his shoulders. Whispering “Amen,” he turned to see who was coming in the room. My parents held hands as they walked down the aisle, followed by Sara and Kevin. I peered around them to see if Megan and Lily were following, but they weren’t anywhere around. The four of them joined John where he sat, my mother resting her hand for a moment on his shoulder. By the way she pursed her lips, I could tell she wanted to say something. But instead, she squeezed his shoulder before sitting right next to him.

A few more people filed in, and took a seat. Looking around I could see that these were all people we had invited to our wedding, although they were not dressed for a celebration. Wearing different shades of navy, gray, and black were my cousins, a few aunts and uncles, some friends of my parents, and a few acquaintances, many of whom slid into a pew close to the back. The turnout seemed to be fewer than the affirmative RSVPs I had received in prior weeks. I sat in solitude on my pew in the front row, as did John and my family steps away from across the aisle.

The priest came from a doorway next to the front of the church wearing a long white cassock crested with a purple stole that wrapped around the back of his neck and hung long on the front of his robe. He walked to the altar and lifted the thurible. Swinging it to the right a few times, and then the left, he sang a low prayer in Latin before placing it back on its hook with care.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” he said, lifting his hands in the sign of the cross towards those now standing in front of the pews. “Please be seated.” The pews creaked in complaint as everyone took their seat and waited for what would happen next.

“Hallelujah!” the priest exclaimed. The room jumped at his sudden proclamation, not expecting his voice to be so explosive. The priest held his hands out in a V. “It is said in the Book of Revelation nineteen, verses six through nine, ‘Our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.’” I held my breath at these words, afraid of how they might affect John as he sat next to my mother on what was supposed to be our wedding day. “‘Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb,’” the priest continued, adding, “These are the true words of God.” I peered over at John, but he held no emotion on his face as he listened with intent to what the priest had to say.

“Friends, today was expected to be a different kind of celebration, one with much joy and laughter over the beginning of a new life of unity for John and Rachel. But the Lord works in ways we cannot understand, sometimes changing the course we have set for ourselves and closing off the paths we expected to travel.” He paused, letting these words echo off the stark walls, puncturing the silence among my friends and family. “I do not pretend to know why the Lord called Rachel home early, or the plans He has for you, John, in the wake of her death. But as a servant of the Lord, I can only determine that He has a purpose in all of this.

“The verse I just read is of the feast that awaits us in the second coming, when the world is no longer and we are reunited with the Son and our Creator. The bride is the church, the people who have spent every day of their earthly lives preparing for the moment they come face to face with our Lord and Savior to serve Him in all eternity.” The priest took another dramatic pause against the quiet before continuing. “Rachel may not be here today for a wedding celebration. But friends, she is attending a wedding celebration of another kind. She is with our Father, our God in Heaven, reunited with our Lord for all eternity in a feast unmatched by what can be created on earth. Today, Rachel attends a wedding celebration more beautiful than anything we can imagine.”

The priest continued to speak of life after death to the small crowd of mourners, but his voice became lost in the background as I tuned out. This afterlife he described seemed like the stuff of fairytales. My upbringing had included Sunday visits to church, and stories out of the Bible; I had been fed lines of hope, just like these people who gathered in memorial just weeks after my death, that there was something wonderful waiting for me on the other side of life. But I stopped attending church in my adult years and lived life with little thought of religion. Even so, I was at peace believing that those who passed before me were headed for Heaven. It seemed much easier to believe that there was life after death than to believe that our life on earth was all there was.

But now, here I was, continuing to exist despite the absence of my human body, and I had yet to see any pearly gates, angels singing in exaltation, or a God in Heaven who was welcoming me “home.”

Anger overwhelmed me all at once. At a time when I needed help most of all, I felt abandoned and deceived by the stories fed to me in my youth. I wanted to create a scene, shake the room, do anything to get the attention of everyone who was there and reveal that all this religious talk was nothing but a lie to give them comfort – that in fact I was stuck on the other side of life with nothing but my overwhelming emotions and a loneliness like nothing I’d ever felt before.

I could see by John’s face that he was finding peace in the priest’s words, and my anger intensified. How dare this priest drag John into believing this bullshit!

“It’s all a fucking lie!” I screamed, jumping from my seat and facing my family and friends who sat watching the priest from their pews. “Don’t listen to him,” I shouted at them. “There is no Heaven or Hell, there is no God welcoming us home or devil trying to snare our souls! When you die, you just exist forever in this nothing of a hellhole. There is no reason, no purpose, nothing!” The small crowd looked in my direction, their expressions peaceful as they peered right through me towards the priest as he spoke.

I marched over to John, pushing my billowing white skirts to the side and kneeling in front of him so that my eyes were at his level. “John, there is no magical reason for all this,” I whispered inches from his face. “There is no higher purpose as to why I died. I was killed for no other reason than to serve a selfish need of someone on the other side of life. It wasn’t to open your life up to better things or because God was calling me home. Our destiny was shaped by the whim of a lonely woman. That’s all.”

I was pained by the vacant look in John’s eyes, even as I tried to catch his attention with my intense gaze. I missed the recognition that had lit up his expression whenever he saw me, how his eyes had smiled down upon me even when his mouth wasn’t doing the same. Being near him now after death, I knew there would always be this invisible barrier between the two of us as long as he was alive and I was not. For a brief second I was able to understand the intensity Aunt Rose must have felt in my final moments of life, but I shook the feeling away as fast as it came. There was no way I would ever feel any kind of compassion for a woman who upended the lives of so many in favor of her own longing.

The energy in the room shifted as the priest gave his final thoughts on life after death. When he finished speaking, those in the pews filed out one by one. The last to leave were John and my family. They stayed just long enough to thank the priest before making their exit through the large wooden doors that led out of the church. Even though it had been my intention all along to follow them, I stayed behind in the almost vacant church. I watched as the priest bowed his head over the altar and moved his lips in a silent prayer. He then gathered up the tray of Communion and the thurible, and disappeared through the same door he came in at the beginning of the service. The church was now empty except for my spirit, as well as the spirit of Jane who still sat almost forgotten in the back of the room.